As most everyone else, He Xuan was born with a soul mark. It was a small, unremarkable black blemish on his ankle, a seed that had yet to take root and blossom. As a child, he didn’t think about it much, not until he introduced two of his friends, and the moment their fingers brushed, matching black marks twisted to life on their necks. A painting, he’d thought, one that was inked by fate as proof of their love.
Since that day, he’d glance down to his ankle, wondering when or for whom it would blossom. Ran to his mother, asked to see hers. She would smile sadly and show him a little seed, a possibility left to die.
“Soul mates are a tricky thing,” she said. “You see, it could be anyone, anywhere. Fate doesn’t always bring soulmates together. Sometimes, you just have to be happy with what is instead of dreaming for what could be, my little one.”
Those words plucked at something in him and made the world sparkle a little bit less. A child’s wonder was an easy thing to crush, but his mother’s warm coos and his sibling’s laughter drove thoughts of soulmates back to the recesses of his mind.
Still, his mother’s words stuck with him, however faintly. When he kissed his fiancee for the first time, he knew it wouldn’t make the seed on his ankle grow. They’d played together, grown together, and arrived at the altar together. It was a love born of a lifetime of history and understanding, free of such falsities as ‘love at first sight’ and fate.
Love can be found without fate’s help.
And love, he did. He loved her, with every fiber of his being, even as he clutched her cooling hand in his, a garish hole in her neck bisecting a blossoming bramblewood, a sick love that wasn’t. He loved her, even as he pried the knife from her stiff fingers, even as they dragged him away without so much as letting him bury her.
He loved, even as he came clawing back for his sister, only for her broken body—abused and used and beaten as though she wasn’t human, wasn’t his sister—to be dumped at his feet.
He loved, even as his howls filled the empty cells, creating a chorus of suffering with the voices of scum the world had pushed He Xuan down into. The news of his mother’s death, the death of that warm smile, made his cell all the colder.
He loved, even as he returned home a shunned convict, even when his father, the last of his family, withered away, his bones and body picked clean to fatten the bodies of his employers.
He loved, even as fate took the last of his love, even as he threw caution and chivalry to the wind for vengeance, even as he slaughtered.
He loved, even as he died.
After he died, he knew love no more.
All that was left was a hollowness in his gut, one that begged to be filled. He’d once filled it with love, so much love, but once his loves died, he filled it with righteous retribution. But now, he was dead, and his heart refused to beat in his chest while the air froze in his lungs no matter how strongly the sun shone. So he ate and ate, all those creatures that haunted him and all those that might, their damned souls fueling his power but doing nothing to fill the hollow ache in him, and his newfound taste for revenge spurred his every action.
He didn’t know whether to be skeptical or joyous when he found an ally, a business partner. Of course, to the Crimson Rain, anyone was fair game, and He Xuan was so empty and cold as to accept any reprieve offered to him. They laid together in moments of boredom, Hua Cheng just as likely to kiss as to bite, always gone the next day without a word of when he’d return. The mark on his ankle remained unchanged, and He Xuan was almost relieved. As much as Hua Cheng was open to carnal pleasure, he only had eyes for one person. That person was not He Xuan.
When he donned the mask of Ming Yi, he met a person as tempestuous as the winds and bright as the sun. Shi Qingxuan offered him their unfettered love and companionship, in a way that no one since his fiancee had. It dulled the ache of hollowness in his gut, but it was also ice in his veins. Their love was for a lie.
After their fingers brushed his own, he didn’t know whether to laugh or sob when his mark remained unchanged.
It was only that moment, so inconsequential to him at first, deep in the dungeons of Hua Cheng’s own Paradise Manor that tilted He Xuan’s world. It was supposed to be simple. Kill the real Ming Yi after he’d escaped, then pretend to have been captured by Hua Cheng for spying to alleviate suspicion, and that was all there really should have been to it. Neither of them expected Xie Lian to be sent.
He Xuan could see why Hua Cheng loved him. He had a kind soul and sorrowful eyes, and He Xuan tried not react when he patted him over for injuries, letting himself be carried.
After that ordeal, sneaking away from Shi Qingxuan’s worried attention—
“Ming-xiong, let me help! You’re injured!”
Too close, too dangerous, you’re the reason, why are you smiling at me, I’m going to—
—was somewhat difficult, but necessary. He needed a moment to breath stale air into his dead lungs. Only, when he glanced down to his ankle, his world titled.
The seed was gone, a possibility having finally clawed its way from the womb. Branches and flowers danced up his ankle, painting it in the proof of love that his mother, his father, his sister and (not Shi Qingxuan stop thinking of them) never got.
The only one who had touched him since he last checked, the only one it could be… Xie Lian, the crown prince of Xian Le.
Hua Cheng was going to murder him.
Ever one to prove he was far more blessed by fate than anyone else, Xie Lian was born with two soulmarks. One rested on his ankle, while the other painted his wrist.
On the day of his birth, he’d been told that the news had spread like wildfire through the kingdom. No one had heard of someone being born with two marks, but it must be a sign of good fortune, a blessing. A happy baby born to the king and queen, the new crown prince of the nation, of course the heavens would bless this dazzling child twice the love afforded to everyone else.
When he reached the tender age of ten, his parents threw a massive feast, encouraging him to brush fingers with every guest he could. Neither the mark on his wrist nor his ankle bloomed, even after days and days of meeting more and more people.
So Xie Lian grew without knowing either of his two fated. It dismayed his parents, even more so when he stated, “I want to train at the Royal Holy Pavilion.”
Everyone knew that the sect required celibacy of its disciples. The king and queen exchanged glances, before, after some years of back and forth, they agreed. Xie Lian may be a prince unlike any other, but he was also a teenage boy. There were hundreds of young cultivators, and a cultivator was not a bad prospect for a prince’s spouse. Surely, fate would let the fortuitous prince meet at least one of his soulmates, and perhaps, the Royal Holy Pavilion would be their destined meeting place. Once the prince found one, his parents were sure that he would return home and marry before focusing on his princely duties, thoughts of cultivation left to rot in the same forgotten shelf as imaginary friends.
As fate would have it, one his soulmates was at the Royal Holy Pavilion. He was not a cultivator, but a servant by the name of Mu Qing. When he accidentally stumbled into Xie Lian, their hands brushed, and the inky marks on both their wrists twisted to life to form a small, weak rose.
Xie Lian vouched for Mu Qing to study, kept him at his side, but never once did he look his way.
“I want to cultivate and become a god,” he’d once said. “If I fall in love with you, how could I do that?”
He offered Mu Qing nothing but the chance to serve him, but to Xie Lian, what better gift was there? There was nothing he valued more than talent, and his interest in Mu Qing began and ended with his potential.
He followed Xie Lian, with hope in his eyes for something more, until Xie Lian fell from grace and lost his luster. Then, he left, and Xie Lian couldn’t blame him.
Eight hundred years passed. The possibility on his wrist had been born only to die, and the possibility on his ankle was left almost forgotten under the cursed shackle binding it. When Xie Lian returned to heaven, he glanced to Mu Qing with curiosity and guilt, but there was nothing in his eyes for the former prince anymore.
Ah, well, Xie Lian thought, this is for the better.
He still held nothing in his heart for Mu Qing. To try now would only feel like a desperate and hollow bid to advance his own station, and maybe, that’s why he’d never developed feeling for Mu Qing in their formative years. Perhaps, if they’d ever met as equals, things might be different.
However, it was a dead possibility.
Xie Lian did, in fact, find love, in the most unexpected of places. He found it in a person as chaotic as a storm, and like the rain, this person could wash away hundreds of years of loneliness with his words and smile alone.
No matter how often they held hands, kissed, or laid with one another, the mark on Xie Lian’s ankle remained an unborn possibility, but he could hardly bring himself to care. Fate had made too much of a mockery of Xie Lian. He could hardly bring himself to trust it over San Lang.
Then, something strange happened.
“Ge ge, your leg,” San Lang said, staring down at it with curiosity.
Their clothes were absent, crumpled haphazardly on the floor somewhere, leaving their skin exposed to their air. Xie Lian looked down to where the cursed shackle was still affixed to his ankle, and he almost balked at the sight.
From underneath it, a thin mark of a flowering branch had unfurled out, marking Xie Lian’s skin in with its dark hue. San Lang stooped and traced the pattern, humming thoughtfully as his touch sent pleasant shivers tingling up Xie Lian’s spine.
“...who was it?” Xie Lian wondered aloud. “I almost forgot it was there.”
Then, a pause.
“Ge ge, did you happen to touch Black Water during the debacle with the Wind and Water masters?” he asked.
Xie Lian thought for a moment, then frowned and nodded. “I… I think so. Why?”
“Because I know he has a mark in the same spot, and I know it was unrealized before.”
Xie Lian didn’t, wouldn’t ask how he knew that. San Lang was many things, but he trusted him, trusted his love. Even if it wasn’t blessed by fate, it was blessed by them.
Slowly, Xie Lian shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“But isn’t Ge ge curious?” San Lang asked, a smile resting on his features. Xie Lian watched him searchingly, looking for something, anything, that might bely if San Lang was lying, if San Lang was being lenient for his sake, if San Lang was scared of losing him. But there was nothing, only the posed question.
San Lang knew him too well. The curiosity of a soulmate, the potential, the possibility—it intrigued him in a way he knew he wouldn’t be able to leave alone for long.
Still, he said, “San Lang is most important.”
“Thank you, Ge ge,” San Lang replied, softly, his voice muffled as he nuzzled into Xie Lian’s hair. “Thank you, but you know, there are more ways to love than just one.”
Xie Lian blinked, unsure of the implications of San Lang’s words. But he trusted San Lang more than he trusted fate itself. “What would you suggest?”
“Ge ge, how would you feel about taking a trip to the ocean?”
Hua Cheng was born without a soulmark, without a possibility.
He was also born with an inhuman, blood red eye.
“Of course such a monster wouldn’t have a soulmate,” they would say, regardless of his ability to hear it. “Who could love such a thing?”
His luck, his fate, was bad no matter which angle he tried to approach it from. There wasn’t a day when his skin wasn’t marred with bruises, where he didn’t sneak out through the loose paneling of his locked room, preferring to chance it on the streets and in temples rather than what should’ve been his home.
He felt, even if nothing had actually changed for him, that there was a definite shift the day he gave up, when he decided to exact revenge on the world, on fate itself, the only way a ten year old boy with no money, power, or status might be able to.
Except fate, it seemed, was a funny thing. Or maybe, as the boy liked to believe, fate had nothing to do with it, but whatever cosmic force willed it, he didn’t die that day. Instead, he was saved by a charming prince whose smile could hang the stars in his sky.
There was no black seed on his skin to bloom when the prince handled him, fingers brushing over the bare, purpling skin of his arms, but a seed of a different kind entirely was sowed in the boy’s mind.
They met, again and again, sometimes drawn together by happenstance, sometimes drawn together by careful deliberation. Each time, the boy grew older and older (until he died), and each time, the seed within him grew and grew until it was a blossoming flower, untouchable even by death.
A debt. Loyalty. Devotion. Love.
Call it what you wanted, but it burned in Hua Cheng, spurring on his actions and driving his will to exist even after death. To tear down the heavens, to tear down fate—or, rather, to think them so beneath him that they hardly warranted his attention at all. The scourge of heaven they called him, and the name brought a smirk to his lips.
But, for all that Hua Cheng loved his prince, never once did he expect Xie Lian to so much as look his way. Hua Cheng was happy to be the poison on his blade, the barb to his words, the bones that Xie Lian would climb to happiness, salvation, revenge—whatever he chose, whether to burn the world or save it, Hua Cheng wanted to be the shadow that ensured his victory.
So when Xie Lian fell for the ghost of a boy who was supposed to and had died alone and without love, for the first time, Hua Cheng found himself less abhorrent. How could his prince, his lovely and kind prince, love a monster, after all?
Hua Cheng marked every day they spent together, counting them and treasuring them. He’d never been one to take anything for granted even if he would tear apart anyone who tried to deprive Xie Lian of those that he loved, himself included.
After years of watching him from afar, months of severing him, centuries of searching for him, and seasons of traveling and adventuring with him, Hua Cheng felt he knew Xie Lian well. He had no regard for his own health or wants. He had two soulmate marks, once of which had bloomed only to whither while the other remained an unborn possibility, not until recently. He wouldn’t ask Hua Cheng for anything, would try to depend on him as little as possible. And he would never consider doing anything he knew would upset him.
So that was why Hua Cheng had no qualms when he said, “There are more ways to love than just one.”
Taking Xie Lian’s hand, he led him to the ocean, where the famed Black Water had erected his new residence. The walls were as black and dingy as the last one, and Hua Cheng had to keep himself from asking if he could carry Xie Lian over the damp floor.
They were met with little to no resistance or security. It seems they were expected.
They arrived at the throne room, He Xuan sitting at the end in a throne that seemed too large for him, crowned by the death and decay around him. He might be a king of ghosts, just as Hua Cheng, but his dominion was silent and empty. Not even the ravings of those humans whose minds had been shredded by misfortune could be heard anymore, He Xuan having long abandoned them to their fates once they’d served their purpose.
He Xuan himself was tense, despite the relaxed posture he had tried to take while sitting on his throne.
“Hua Chengzhu,” he started, the title causing Hua Cheng to raise an eyebrow. Then, to Xie Lian, “Your highness. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I think you know,” Hua Cheng replied, never one for formalities.
At his words, He Xuan stiffened. His eyes flitting between Hua Cheng and Xie Lian, the only thing betraying his fear.
“I didn’t know. If I had, I wouldn’t… my fiancee wasn’t my soulmate, but I loved her. She…” At that his lip quivered, and Hua Cheng couldn’t help but wonder where he’d moved those four black urns he treasured so much. “She loved me, as well. The marks aren’t everything. You two should still be happy with one another.”
“We know,” Xie Lian interjected, before Hua Cheng could think of anything or roll his eyes. He Xuan always was dramatic. “Nothing between San Lang and I has changed. You don’t need to worry about that.”
He watched as the tension faded from He Xuan, but only just. Xie Lian’s words were too vague to fully assuage him, not when their intentions for coming were still unclear. Hua Cheng had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from chuckling.
“But,” Xie Lian continued when no one else spoke, “someone recently told me… there’s more than one way to love a person. So…” And here, he glanced to Hua Cheng, his gaze asking the same question he’d been asking all this time, since Hua Cheng had first proposed it.
Is this okay?
Hua Cheng smiled and nodded.
As Xie Lian approached the throne, He Xuan made no move to stop him. His gaze continued to waver between the two, unsure if they were friend or foe even still. When Xie Lian placed a knee on the throne to lean over him, almost in the demon king’s lap, He Xuan’s slitted eyes widened.
Still, Xie Lian hesitated a moment, brushing a stray lock of hair behind one ear. “May I?”
“I…” He Xuan closed his mouth. His golden eyes burned, his face tinting red, and Hua Cheng almost laughed. He Xuan’s reactions always had been surprisingly cute for a centuries old calamity, and it was equally endearing to see his prince playing the more aggressive, forward party.
Another beat, and He Xuan nodded.
From this angle, Hua Cheng couldn’t see Xie Lian’s reaction, but he must have been pleased with the answer. He leaned forward to press his slips against He Xuan’s, and Hua Cheng knew from experience that it was a soft, slow thing, sometimes with a momentary graze of teeth.
He Xuan sighed and relaxed into the kiss, his vibrant eyes sliding shut until Xie Lian pulled back. He didn’t withdraw entirely, still positioned above He Xuan.
Two pairs of eyes, one a soft brown and the other a cold, nervous gold, found their way to Hua Cheng.
Well, that was his cue. He strode forward without a second thought, and when he arrived at the throne, he wrapped his arm around Xie Lian’s waist to keep the god from loosing his balance when Hua Cheng leaned into his back. The position was a bit awkward, but it left his other hand free to grab He Xuan’s chin, tilt his head back, and then press his own lips to the demon king’s.
He Xuan tasted just as he remembered, like fish and ashes. It was hardly a pleasant taste, but the slide of warm tongue against tongue more than made up for that. While Xie Lian’s kiss had almost certainly been soft and chaste, Hua Cheng only moved slowly for his prince. His kiss with He Xuan was quick and insistent, teeth knocking against one another. Surprisingly, He Xuan seemed a bit more practiced than he recalled their last fling being.
Hua Cheng pulled back, dropping He Xuan’s chin but keeping an arm around Xie Lian’s waist. His licked his lips before running a thumb over his lower lip. “Your breath still stinks.”
“...I see you haven’t changed,” He Xuan managed, looking somewhat out of sorts.
Xie Lian laughed lightly, which brought the two’s attention to him. His cheeks were dusted red, either from kissing He Xuan, their rather intimate position, or from watching He Xuan and Hua Cheng. Whatever it was, Hua Cheng felt a smirk tug at his lips.
Finally, he said, “Black Water, we were wondering if you wouldn’t mind entertaining us as guests for a few weeks?”
“...alright,” He Xuan breathed, so quietly Hua Cheng almost missed it. “You two… can stay as long as you’d like.”
Hua Cheng and Xie Lian glanced to one another. It was, at least, a start. Where they went from here was up to only them.