The Ghost Fortress is not a place where humans and Gods go willingly. It is the dominion of the dead, a place where demons and ghouls run rampant. Even among the officials in the heavens it is spoken of in hushed whispers and watched with fearful eyes. Don’t go to the Ghost Fortress, for you will surely die.
Its ruler, they say, is a man who leaped for the heavens and missed. When he came crashing back down to Earth, he vowed to shatter the world itself, and so he conquered Mount Tonglu, and threw himself into its heart to be forged into a Supreme. When he emerged, he set to tearing down the foundations of the kingdoms and of heaven itself.
The story goes that it took the combined forces of all of Heaven to force him back into his solemn Fortress, almost eight hundred years ago. It is only a tenuous accord with the ruler of heaven that keeps him in there. If he were ever to emerge from that Fortress, destruction would surely be rained down on the land and the skies above without compunction.
Any god who comes face to face with that calamity Black Sword Beheads Flower will die. In all of the rumors, this is an indisputable fact.
Hua Cheng does not put much stock in rumors, and so he walks right up to the front gate.
To call it just a fortress is a bit misleading. The place is carved into the heart of a mountain like the Xian Le tombs of old. Even the front gate is formidable, a door of solid steel twelve feet tall. If he were to hit it with all of his strength as a god, he might not even dent it. To enter the mountain one must first reach the summit, breaching seventeen such gates, then scale the mountain itself. There are surely more defenses at the peak and within the heart of the fort, but Hua Cheng has never been able to find a reliable source on what those might be.
It would be impossible to take this place by force without the unified power of all the martial gods in heaven, and even with their power combined, victory could not be certain.
If he were to set about conquering this place, Hua Cheng thinks he would turn his attention to more underhanded methods. Sieges and infiltration won’t work on a place like this, but Hua Cheng has had good successes in the past making brash wagers and seeming impudent. It’s easy to do, when even his fellow heavenly officials underestimate him at first. After all, what kind of luck god can stand up to a martial god? ( The kind who’s also a martial god. But using that tactic against Black Sword Beheads Flower… who’s to say it will succeed?)
Luckily, he’s not here to conquer.
Standing in front of the gate as he is, Hua Cheng is dwarfed. He’s wearing the guise of a handsome young man, and carries no weapons, gives off no particular aura of spiritual power. In this form, any ghost who saw him would think him easy prey. Even the lowest base slave would find him unintimidating. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could get within twenty li of the Ghost Fortress.
Hua Cheng knocks on the gate. Then he steps back, crosses his arms, and waits.
Sure enough, the feeling of ghostly entities begins to build and build behind the gates. More of the people of the Ghost Fortress must be arriving to gawk at this little human and wondering what he’s doing, so brazenly stepping up to the gate. Hua Cheng keeps his pose idle, gives no sign of nerves or awareness of the attention being paid to him. He hides the smirk tugging at his mouth by ducking his head and scuffing at the ground with a toe. His plan is working.
A God or a talented cultivator showing up at the foot of this mountain and making demands, that’s only to be expected, and it’s easy enough to turn them away. But a little weakling like this walking brazenly up to the front gate and knocking… of course it’s suspicious! But isn’t it also curious? Word spreads quickly in heaven or on earth, and so more and more ghosts must be gathering behind the first gate to see what this impudent little human thinks he’s doing.
He gives it an hour or so, but eventually things settle into a kind of stalemate. Perhaps they think to wait him out, or they don’t consider him worth bothering the city’s more powerful ghosts for. In any case, it’s clear that Hua Cheng will have to be the one to make another move.
So he steps forward, and kicks at the door.
“I’m here to see your king,” he says, raising his voice so he can be sure that he’ll be heard over the wall. “I didn’t take the Ghost Fortress for an inhospitable place. Is this how you treat all of your guests? Leaving them outside the front door without even an acknowledgement?”
It could be said that the Ghost Fortress is indeed an inhospitable place, and is in fact meant to be that way, but to say it so bluntly, to demand entrance and welcome--it’s just a little too bold, isn’t it? Surely this is nothing more than outright impudence? But to leave him waiting, maybe that’s a bit much? Hua Cheng can just imagine the whispering going on behind those walls. Will they leave him to wait for longer, or will they let him in? This time, Hua Cheng doesn’t bother to hide his smirk.
He’s contemplating knocking for a third time when the gate slowly creaks open with a sound like wailing. Hua Cheng takes a few steps back as a person-sized gap is created, and a figure emerges.
The young woman is surprisingly slight for the heavy aura that surrounds her. Her hair is loose around her shoulders, and the tattered remains of a noose drape around her neck. It’s only when she steps closer that Hua Cheng sees the scorpion snake that curls around her throat as well.
“Please come this way, young master,” she says, gesturing. “The king will see you.”
Hua Cheng smiles, bows his head, and steps forward into the dark.
It’s a long trek up flights of narrow stone stairs to reach the crest of the mountain. Hua Cheng can’t see any of the ghosts that must be watching him, but he feels their eyes on his back even more intently here. He whistles a tune as they climb higher and higher, and ignores the glance this earns him from the woman.
Surprisingly, the top is nothing special, though the view all around is breathtaking. The young woman doesn’t linger, she just leads him to a well, rather than the few secure-looking buildings set up around the perimeter, and jumps down it.
Hua Cheng follows without hesitation.
The place is just as severe in appearance on the inside as it is on the outside. The walls are all smooth rock, lit here and there with dim white ghostlights. If he cared for rumors, Hua Cheng might describe this as the home of a man who cared for nothing but causing suffering, but although it is grim and austere, it does not seem uncomfortable. It’s so free of worldly desires it’s more like the home of an immortal than some of the palaces up in Heaven, in fact. Hua Cheng lets his smile widen with that.
They walk through the twisting walls of the fortress in silence, the girl leading, Hua Cheng following. He can feel the demonic aura that fills the place and lines the walls. He suspects that no path in this place is the same twice. If Black Sword Beheads Flower doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be. And if he does…
The room they walk into isn’t a throne room, because there is no throne. Ghosts line the walls in motley assortment, all craning their heads toward him, but Hua Cheng can’t spare much attention beside a quick survey of them. He is here to see Black Sword Beheads Flower.
And there, on the dias, he stands. Taizi Dianxia, the Crown Prince of Xian Le.
He is beautiful.
This is a fact that Hua Cheng has known, in the abstract, for a very long time. The stories are not flattering to Black Sword Beheads Flower in most respects, but even the most scathing of rumors can’t deny his beauty.
His robes are stark black, and his namesake sword gleams at his side. It accentuates the ghostly paleness of his skin and the simple pin that sweeps his hair back from his face in an understated bun.
He is even more ethereal than Hua Cheng remembers. It has been eight hundred years, and a single look is still enough to render him breathless.
Without prompting, Hua Cheng kneels and bows. He can hear the surprised murmurs of the ghosts gathered, but he calms the urge to take them to task for it. It’s only right that he should bow his head to this man. He can feel eyes heavy on him from the front of the room.
“Raise your head.”
Hua Cheng does.
The man standing over him has eyes like knives, sharp and cold and black.
“There are no masks allowed in the Ghost Fortress, Heavenly Official,” he says. His voice is polite, but it too contains knives.
Hua Cheng can appreciate that. A blade is a blade is a blade. Sheathed or pressed to one’s neck, it is still just as sharp. There is no use pretending it is anything otherwise.
The man in front of him is a blade held up to Hua Cheng’s heart, though perhaps he does not know it yet.
“If the heavenly official would please remove his masks, this demon would be happy to discuss his presence further.”
It is not an unreasonable request, even without this ghost king’s hand lingering on his black blade. Hua Cheng keeps his head high, and lets the human disguise he’d been wearing melt away.
It has been a long time since Hua Cheng has worn his true form. Why shouldn’t he? After all, his power is the same no matter what form he takes. The God of Luck is worshipped in any form, from a suckling babe to an old crone, and he finds amusement in never appearing the same way twice to his worshippers and his fellow Heavenly Officials. A shrine to the God of Luck can be as simple as a bowl and some dice with a white flower set before it.
It would be enough to simply take this form, but Hua Cheng has never done anything in half-measures when his heart is set on something, and he doesn’t intend to change now. With a steady hand, he pulls away the patch covering his right eye. He tilts his head, lets the ugly ruin of it show for just a moment. Before his hair falls forward to cover it he is gratified to see the momentary widening of Black Sword’s eyes. Just as you ask, I will not hide from you.
He can see something else flicker in the depths of those eyes for just a moment. Something warm, and sympathetic, and tired. Something that understands the pain that his eye represents. Then in a moment it’s gone again.
“Black Sword Beheads Flower,” he says. Dianxia, his heart says. “This official is named Hua Cheng.” I am your servant. “I apologize for the intrusion, but I have a request to make of you, if you will hear it.”
“Brave of a flower to come all this way,” Black Sword says. Hua Cheng only smiles, his own knife blade. “Very well. Ask.”
The demon steps down from the dias to extend a hand toward him, and Hua Cheng takes the assistance in pulling himself to his feet. The hand in his is rough and calloused, that of a swordsman. Hua Cheng does not let his touch linger against the cool palm.
Standing, he’s slightly taller than Black Sword.
“Tell me, has the ghost king heard of the Head-eating Ghost?”
Black Sword gives no answer, only gestures for him to continue.
Hua Cheng bows briefly, and continues. “The name is misleading. Rather than a ghost, this item is a cursed sword. When held by a human this sword will eventually overcome the person carrying it with its resentful energy, until they are driven mad. In their madness, they will kill anyone who comes into their path until they are killed. If they are not, they will continue without rest until their body is destroyed by the demonic energy.”
“Ah,” the Ghost king says. “Then it is the Head-eating Ghost because it cuts off the heads of everyone who it fights, I presume.”
Hua Cheng inclines his head. “Just so.”
Black Sword is watching him, now. There’s something thoughtful in those black eyes of his. “This is the sort of item that gives heavenly officials a great deal of trouble when set loose. But why come to this ghost about it? If I was the one to set it loose, surely I would not assist in its capture by the heavens. If I did not, then I still benefit from your preoccupation with a minor threat.”
“This official did not intend to accuse,” Hua Cheng says, “but to propose an agreement.”
“It has been said that Black Sword Beheads Flower has a collection of weapons unsurpassed even in the heavens,” Hua Cheng says. He catches a twitch at the corner of Black Sword’s mouth, as though hiding a smile. “This official’s proposal is simple. If Black Sword Beheads Flower assists with hunting down this weapon, then he might take it for himself to add to his collection.”
“Ah.” This time, the smile is fuller, though it does not reach his eyes. “It seems that Heavenly Official Hua Cheng has done his research well. I’ll consider it. What about this sword makes it worthy of my collection, aside from its curse?”
“The blade was forged in the Qinghe kingdom, by a master smith. It’s said that the saber was the sort used by a family of cultivators descended from butchers.”
“Ah, you are speaking of the revered Huoshe?”
It is amazing, the change a true smile makes to Black Sword’s face. It is total and fundamental, the softness it brings to his eyes, the way it rounds his cheeks. For the first time, Hua Cheng notices how full his lips are, how pink. Like the sun rising over the horizon in stinging slivers of brightness, its beauty might burn the eyes if not watched with care.
Hua Cheng is once more rendered momentarily breathless. He has to swallow before he can open his mouth again.
“So you’ve heard of him?” Hua Cheng nods again. He fixes his eyes on Black Sword’s hairpiece so that he doesn’t fixate on his mouth, instead. “That very smith.”
Black Sword Beheads Flower laughs, and the sound rings through the stone hall like a bell. “Very well, Heavenly Official Hua Cheng. You’ve captured my interest.” He steps forward, brushing past Hua Cheng’s shoulder just close enough to send sparks down his spine. “You can explain more on the way.”
It’s as simple as that. There’s some shocked clamor from the ghost entourage, of course, but Black Sword silences that with a single look. Then he leads Hua Cheng through a series of stone corridors, and in much less time than it took the young ghost woman to bring him down, they emerge into the chill air of the mountaintop.
Black Sword looks a little more alive up here, Hua Cheng notices. In the light of the sun, his face seems to have more color to it, and the wind tugging at his hair and clothes gives the illusion of breath. His eyes are still dark as obsidian when he turns them on Hua Cheng.
“If this is an ambush, I shall be very displeased,” he says. The false smile is back.
Hua Cheng shakes his head. “If it were an ambush, Black Sword would surely emerge victorious. Though, truth be told, the heavens might prefer it if he were to stay in his fortress.”
“For a Heavenly Official, Hua Cheng does not seem to care much for the opinions of heaven.”
More than you know , Hua Cheng thinks, and smiles. “If they were right more often, this official would give them more care. But as we are here, in the Ghost Fortress, and I am not yet dead, I will treat their counsel with the respect it deserves.”
Black Sword’s mouth twitches again. “Not yet,” he says, and Hua Cheng cannot help but laugh.
The trek down the mountain again cannot be shortened, not as they wait for the gates to open. They spend it in silence, walking down thin cobbled paths and through chokepoints. Here and there, Hua Cheng can glimpse demonic wards, probably intended to ward off flying cultivators or martial gods. Hua Cheng does not comment on them, and Black Sword does not point them out.
The moment they step out of the ghost fortress, Black Sword’s clothing shifts, the severe robes being replaced by something more simple. The plain robes look like they were once black, but now seem faded into a soft gray. The hairpiece disappears, replaced with a single tie. A bandage circles his neck, and white cloths wrap his wrists and shins. His face remains the same, but aside from those striking eyes, he might be any down on their luck cultivator.
Hua Cheng follows his example, letting the rich red and silver bracers of his clothing be replaced by a simpler red tunic, but leaving his face as that of his true form. The only concession he makes is to put his eyepatch back on, and to summon E-ming to his belt.
“This will do for traveling,” he says. Black Sword gives the saber an appraising glance, and Hua Cheng unhooks the blade to hold it out. “Would the Ghost King like to see?”
E-ming’s eye opens and rolls lazily between the two of them.
“You’re not afraid that I’ll steal it?” Black Sword asks, though his hands are gentle as he takes the blade and begins to look it over.
“I have it on good authority that Black Sword only takes the weapons of those foolish enough to duel him.”
“Hm.” Black Sword’s eyes flick up, then back down to the blade. “It’s a good saber. Well-suited to you.”
E-ming rattles in its sheath, and Black Sword’s fingers trace gently along the hilt before returning it.
“This official appreciates Black Sword’s expertise,” Hua Cheng says, returning E-ming to its place. The sword seems to be bursting with praise, and Hua Cheng pinches the hilt to keep it from rattling too loudly in its place. “Now, to set about finding the Head-eating Ghost, we’ll need to travel south...”
It’s a simple story to tell. There have been more prayers coming from the south asking for safe travels, and more deaths among travelers than is usual. Based on the deaths--all beheadings-- the literature gods of the Heavens were able to conclude it was the Head-eating Ghost from that. Lone traveler or huge group, it didn’t seem to matter. The Head-eating Ghost would attack, leaving only bodies in its wake. Even knowing what it was and what region it was in, however, they couldn’t seem to track it down to a specific place.
“Then we’ve set ourselves up well for becoming its targets.” Black Sword notes, surveying the two of them. “Though have you not asked the literature gods to find more? I was under the impression that it was their job.”
Hua Cheng scoffs. “I prefer my own information to theirs,” he says blandly.
“Is that so?” Black Sword asks. “Are your networks superior to theirs?”
“I have my methods.” Those methods involve gambling halls and other places that his fellow heavenly officials consider entirely below them, but what his fellows can’t see won’t bother them. And his fellows are very good at not seeing when they so choose. “Still,” he concedes, “It may take some time.”
Black Sword only shrugs, and they lapse into silence once more.
It is easy, companionable even. Black Sword keeps pace with Hua Cheng’s longer legs easily. His hand is resting casually on the hilt of his sword, but it has the loose, relaxed air of an unthinking gesture, not a wary precaution. Black Sword’s face is serene as he watches the landscape pass them by at their easy pace. It’s the same face that has haunted Hua Cheng since a long-ago parade, when a Crown Prince abandoned tradition to save a life. There’s no makeup now, no adornments on ears or eyes or hair, and those eyes are cold and sharp now. Black Sword , Hua Cheng thinks, is truly a title well given.
Hua Cheng is reaching for this blade of a man with both hands, though he knows he risks injury. He will happily bear the wounds for a chance to see those eyes light up with warmth again. Even if it is not directed at them.
Warm arms around him, words of hope for his ears alone, a smile like a secret between them…
He may not have those things ever again, but Hua Cheng knows about debts. He knows that those simple gestures he can never hope to repay. But he can do nothing less than try.
“Heavenly Official Hua Cheng seems lost in thought.”
Those dark eyes are looking at him again.
Hua Cheng gives a thin smile. “Only caught in the past.”
“Is that so?”
Hua Cheng hums. He can’t look away from those eyes. “I was remembering the first person who showed me kindness.” Luckily, he has a thick enough face to say this to Black Sword’s face without blushing, because the piercing stare turned on him is intense enough to fluster.
“Hua Cheng’s past sounds… complicated.”
“Mm. But there are a few moments that make remembering the rest worth it.”
A glance flickers toward his covered eye, than away again. Hua Cheng bites down on the urge to mask it with a glamor or his hair. It has been a very long time since he walked around in his true form like this.Usually he takes pride in his many shapes and the ways he can confound mortals and deities both. His highness has asked for honesty, though, and Hua Cheng will not hide from him, even if it leaves all the broken pieces of him vulnerable.
Then Black Sword’s eyes slide away, and suddenly the distance between heaven and hell is once again between them. “I would not dare to argue with Hua Cheng’s memories.”
Silence reigns again after that. What more is there to say between strangers? They walk until the sun is high, then find a tree off the road to take shelter under as they rest for a while.
“Black Sword,” Hua Cheng says, settling his back against the tree and stretching out to his full height, “how might this one address you, around others?”
“The name Xie Lian will do,” Black Sword Beheads Flower says, and Hua Cheng masks his surprise behind a single raised eyebrow. “And yours?”
“I suppose San Lang,” he shrugs. “Or Hua Cheng. It’s all the same to me.”
“San Lang,” Xie Lian repeats, testing each syllable on his tongue in a way that has Hua Cheng hiding a shiver. “Interesting choice. All right.”
“Xie Lian,” he says back in retaliation, and is pleased to see that it makes him twitch in just the same way. Then he stares, because Black Sword Beheads Flower is going pink in a way he didn’t know ghosts or demons could do. He wants to draw attention to it, but he clenches his jaw until it aches because surely pointing it out is the fastest way to end up with that legendary blade carving out his guts.
Xie Lian stands up and dusts off his robes with decisive movements. “That’s enough resting,” he says, and Hua Cheng doesn’t complain, even with the sun beating down.
They stop at an inn that night to rest and to try and find other travelers. It’s full up with a rowdy band of travelers drinking and chattering about the places they’ve traveled and those still down the road, celebrating their accomplishments and teasing one another. Hua Cheng doesn’t bother to hunt for a room at first, just turns toward the dining hall and the sound of voices.
(“You’re sure you’d not rather spend the night in one of your temples?” Xie Lian had asked, as they stood in front of the inn.
Hua Cheng had laughed. “My temples aren’t like that,” he’d said. “There’s hardly enough room for one person to lay flat in most of them, let alone two. And in this region, the martial gods don’t like me. They don’t destroy temples, but they… discourage them.” )
Xie Lian has his hands tucked into his sleeves, every inch the noble otherworldly cultivator he is pretending to be. He seems like the kind of person who’d retreat from a rowdy situation like this as quickly as possible, but when Hua Cheng pulls him along and presses a cup of wine into his hand, he takes it, though he doesn’t raise it to his mouth.
Hua Cheng wanders the room with affected disinterest as Xie Lian follows behind it. He’s searching for a particular familiar sound, and as soon as he catches it, he ambles over. The dice rattle and clink in their bowl as Hua Cheng steps up.
“Can I join you?” he asks, smiling at the gathered men.
“Aaah, what’s a young man like this doing joining a bunch of old gamblers like us?”
“If he can pay, why not? Hey, young man, pull up a chair! What are you going to gamble?”
“And you, revered cultivator? Not going to loosen up a little and join us?”
Xie Lian’s smile is thin and dangerous. None of the men seem to notice in the line of his lips or the slow way he swirls his cup of wine. “No, I won’t join. My luck’s no good. You enjoy yourself, San Lang.”
“I will, Xie Lian,” Hua Cheng says, in the sunniest tone he can muster. Then he rolls up his sleeves at sets to it.
There’s a trick to gambling, as the God of Luck. He can roll perfectly if he wants to, of course, but a one-sided game doesn’t make for chatty companions. He wants the information and the wine to flow in between good-natured laughter and groans. So Hua Cheng entertains himself by giving his luck away in little parcels.
Toppling a winning streak here, giving a player just enough chance to stay in the game there, granting a little favor to a player who prays to him before casting the dice. He rolls his spiritual power into the dice, picking and choosing, playing his game on the muttered curses and brilliant grins, tuning the mood until the chatter was flowing freely with drinks and good spirits.
“I’m going back to Tangwu after this trip. Time for a break! My poor feet will wear themselves out if I walk much further.”
“Back to Tangwu or to Baihe-guniang?”
“Ha! You’ll be lucky if she remembers your face. You couldn’t pay me to go back along the Tangwu Road, anyway.”
“Oh?” Hua Cheng asks, as he rattles the dice in his hand, and tosses. Two threes. “Why is that?”
“You haven’t heard, young man? That road’s practically cursed.”
“Just so, just so. Surely if you walk down that road, you’ll die. There’s five parties now that have gone down that way and they’ve all ended in tragedy. Only one survivor from each of them.”
“They all say it’s bandits, but what kind of bandits only let one person live every time? I’m telling you, that road is cursed.”
“Sounds eerie,” Hua Cheng says. The men gathered at the table all nod.
“Aah, well, it’s the fastest road between the cities,” one says. “They’ll send some cultivator down that way to clear it out eventually. Until then, it’s just a pain.”
“Didn’t they already send someone? And they met the same fate?”
“Ridiculous! That Daming Sect is a bunch of charlatans, even non-cultivators like us know that much!”
The conversation begins to drift from there, but Hua Cheng and Xie Lian catch eyes, and Hua Cheng finally disentangles himself from the table of gamblers, to their good-natured protests.
“San Lang is rather good at gambling,” Xie Lian observes, when he finally manages to leave the game, only a little richer than before. It’s enough to pay for a room, which Hua Cheng does. They don’t need to sleep, but the other travelers will be, so they might as well wait for the dawn in comfort. A smile and a few coins get them directed toward a room.
“Being a God of Luck has its benefits,” Hua Cheng says, rolling his own pair of dice in his fingers. The gentle clicking is a familiar, soothing sound. “They pray to Hua Cheng to win, and a god they pray to for victory must be lucky, mustn’t he?”
All it took was a lifetime of starving, of beatings, of wanting desperately to die, just as desperately wanting to be loved, and achieving neither. But what is one lifetime, when he has lived through the space of dozens? He has enough luck that he will never have to starve again even if he’s a god who doesn’t need to eat. He has enough merits that he might live for eternity in the heavens without a thought for the world below, if he cared to.
He doesn’t care to.
He shrugs away the bitter smile he knows he’s wearing. He tosses them a final time,and opens his hand onto two sixes. With a smirk, he shows them to Xie Lian, then makes his way into the inn room.
“Here,” he holds the dice out toward Xie Lian. “Black Sword said that his luck is bad. Shall we change that for a little while?”
Xie Lian eyes him narrowly. “What would that entail?”
Hua Cheng grins. “Oh, nothing much.” He presses the dice into Xie Lian’s hands, cupping them together with his own. It’s presumptuous to the point of foolhardiness, but though Xie Lian tenses, he doesn’t pull away or run Hua Cheng through with his sword. Hua Cheng takes that as a sign to continue. “All it requires is a little lesson on how to properly hold the dice.”
The sharp look he’s given must mean that Xie Lian is onto his game, but he’s not knocked away as he guides Xie Lian through the motion of rattling the dice and then tossing them. They hit the floorboards, and both he and Xie Lian lean down to check.
“A five and a three,” Hua Cheng announces, scooping them up again. They’re not his usual numbers, but from the way Xie Lian’s eyes widen incrementally they’re not his either. “Shall we try it again?”
It takes four repeats, with Hua Cheng’s hands wrapped gently around Xie Lian’s, but by the time they’re done, Xie Lian is rolling sixes.
Hua Cheng awakens in the early hours of the morning and stills, his senses prickling.
He can feel the chilly breeze before he even opens his eye. When he does, he’s immediately met by the sight of a figure lounging in the window with lambent yellow-green eyes fixed on him.
Slowly, Hua Cheng pushes himself upright. He can’t do much about the tousled state of his hair and clothing, but he raises an eyebrow at the intruder with all the same, giving them his most unimpressed stare.
He’s met with a mischievous smile and an impudent wave.
“Breath-stealing Spring Gale,” he drawls. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
The Devastation sprawling in the inn window laughs. “I came to see what brought Black Sword out of his seclusion, but I could hardly have expected this! Your highness, are you picking up stray gods now, instead of defeating them?”
A demonic aura unfurls at Hua Cheng’s back with choking intensity. “Spring Gale Shi Qing Xuan,” Xie Lian says, his polite tone at odds with the silent menace that sends shivers of warning down Hua Cheng’s spine. “Did you have some business here?”
Shi Qing Xuan’s smile takes on a reckless edge, and the demon rolls out of the window to land gracefully in their room. “I thought I’d accompany you on this excursion of yours.”
Hua Cheng knows thanks to his extensive research into the realm of ghosts: Xie Lian and Shi Qing Xuan aren’t nearly at odds as contrasting natures would suggest. Breath-stealing Spring Gale is found everywhere and nowhere, in any number of forms, bringing down calamities and causing mischief wherever they go. Meanwhile, Black Sword Beheads Flower is solemn and vengeful. According to rumor they would have very little in common. But Hua Cheng knows that they meet regularly.
The details of whatever truce they have are unknown to anyone but the two of them, but it’s undeniable to Hua Cheng’s mind that it exists. The other Heavenly Officials might occasionally wonder hopefully about the two tearing each other apart, but despite the heavy auras filling this room, Hua Cheng does not imagine this will come true any time soon.
Sure enough, after a silent moment, the bloodthirsty atmosphere dissipates entirely. “If Hua Cheng does not object to the new addition,” Xie Lian says. “He’s the one who arranged this, after all.”
“Lovely,” Shi Qing Xuan says, clapping their hands together and turning on Hua Cheng with a smile that shows a few too many teeth. “So, what is it that we’re doing?”
The road the Head-eating Ghost is rumored to be on goes from the southwest to the southeast. Politeness would require Hua Cheng to return to the Heavens and seek assistance, or permission, from the martial gods of this region in order to meddle in their territory, or contact them in the Celestial Array to let them know what he’s doing.
What Hua Cheng does is this: he plucks a white flower from a nearby bush and lays it down at the next Xuan Zhen Temple they pass.
Both Supremes watch him do this with casual interest. Shi Qing Xuan has adopted a disguise of their own, if it can be called that. It’s their face, but partnered with a woman’s form which she wears with aplomb.
“Just leaving a note,” he says to them as he steps back out of the temple again.
“Hahaha! Hua Cheng really is an unusual one, isn’t he?” Shi Qing Xuan laughs, leaning forward to look at the offering. “What a calling card! Your fellow officials must love you.”
He can see tension in Xie Lian’s dark eyes as he takes in the sweeping sign of the temple, the statue inside. There’s hurt, maybe, or anger. But mostly he looks so, so tired.
Hua Cheng shrugs, and beckons them on. “I don’t care what they think of me. Let’s not delay further, we have a long way to travel.”
The road isn’t empty-- it is the fastest way to travel between regions, after all. But the travelers on it are quiet and wary, sticking to their own groups and speaking in low tense voices, eying every party they pass with suspicion.
They earn plenty of suspicious glances themselves, and those they try to approach often move on quickly. Despite Xie Lian’s righteous and upright countenance, it seems the rest of the party is simply too strange to avoid attention. ‘Weird and untrustworthy!’ scream the looks of the people they pass along the road.
Hua Cheng doesn’t pay these any mind, and neither do the two demons who make up his company. What is there to be bothered by? There’s not a thing on this road that could trouble any of them.
“Hua Cheng, while we’re walking,” Xie Lian says. “Why don’t you tell us more of the Head-eating Ghost? What you told me when we left the Ghost Fortress can’t be all.”
“It’s not.” Hua Cheng shrugs. “According to the records kept by heavenly officials, there is some history to the man who owned the weapon before it died. He belonged to a family of disgraced cultivators. He caused the officials a great deal of trouble, going from one house to another and demanding that they clear his sect’s name. They would not hear his arguments. In the end, he turned to his blade, instead of words. During a meeting of the city officials, he came upon them and killed them all before he was apprehended. The next day, he was executed with his own sword.”
“What a gruesome tale,” Shi Qing Xuan laughs. “Ahaha! Fate delivers the cruelest turns, doesn’t it.”
“So it does,” Xie Lian says, and does not speak further. He remains quiet for the rest of the day, despite all of Spring Gale’s attempts at coaxing him back into conversation.
Hua Cheng applies some charm and some luck as needed to get information from the travelers willing to talk, both on the road and at the inns. But the rumors are flying rampant by now. The number of attacks is anywhere from the five they first heard to twenty. To hear some of these people speak, there’s a body to be found every li along the road.
“We’ll be searching by hearsay and hints of evil energy for weeks if we continue at this pace,” Xie Lian observes after two days of this. He’s rubbing at his forehead as they depart from this latest group, and the skin between his brows is pinched with his irritation. “If we want to be accepted into traveling with these groups, we’ll have to look much more vulnerable. Spring Gale, your current guise is fine, but two young men with swords… it’s really too suspicious, isn’t it.”
Shi Qing Xuan laughs. “As long you you realize it’s you who looks dangerous too, your highness!” she says, nudging at him. “Here, a family traveling together is much less suspicious, isn’t it? Xie Lian can be the oldest, I’ll be the middle, and Hua Cheng will be our didi.”
Hua Cheng fixes her with his frostiest glare, which only makes her laugh more, swooping upwards into a cackle of delight the colder his eyes get. He sighs through his nose and turns to find Xie Lian considering him with a calculating gaze.
Well, if he’s going to do it…
“What do you think of the plan, Gege?”
Hua Cheng is gratified to see Xie Lian bite his lip and duck his head. With his hair in the way, Hua Cheng can’t tell if Xie Lian is blushing again. “It… will do.”
E-ming whines to be dismissed, but Hua Cheng waves the sword away without qualms. He fights well with the saber, but his spiritual power will be enough for any trouble they meet on this road. Xie Lian seems to hesitate more about dismissing his signature black sword, but in the end, with a hand to the bandages on his throat, he tucks the sword away properly.
It takes a few more adjustments-- Hua Cheng has to hide his eyepatch behind an illusion, Shi Qing Xuan has to part with her fancier decorations, and Xie Lian has to trade his cultivator’s robes for something a little more common.
It works beautifully, though. The first group they find after this takes one look at them and beckons them in, clucking about youths travelling alone.
“Haven’t you heard that this road is dangerous?” The leader of this particular group pats Xie Lian heavily on the shoulder, boisterous and frowning. Xie Lian seems unflinching even despite the heaviness of the man’s hand, but Hua Cheng sidles closer anyway.
“Ah, it couldn’t be helped,” Xie Lian says. “We needed to come this way, as quickly as possible.”
“Then it’s good you joined us,” the man says, patting hard enough that someone less hardy would probably be knocked breathless. Xie Lian’s polite smile frays at the edges, but he bows forward under the slaps before stepping away.
“Do you think the sword is here?” Xie Lian asks, as soon as he’s free of the man’s attention.
“They’re carrying plenty of weapons, but none have especially resentful energy,” Hua Cheng notes. “We’ll stay with this group for a few days, to be sure.”
Xie Lian’s look is long-suffering.
Despite the rough start, the journey is relatively easy for the first day.
“So where are you kids from?”
Shi Qing Xuan has taken over the chatter about their backgrounds, mostly. “We’re coming from the southwest. Ah, you know how it is, a young lady traveling alone. I’m fortunate enough to have my brothers traveling with me!”
“A young woman traveling to another city, with only her two brothers to escort her… could it be that…”
“Eeeh? What a fiance you must have, to not escort you!”
“And no procession? No dowry? Not even a scrap of red! Even in a dangerous time like this! For shame.”
“Ah, but the young master’s clothing… isn’t it a little…”
“Don’t say shabby! But it’s true, compared to the two of them, their sister truly is dressed well!”
“What dedicated brothers! Truly, they’re an example to us all, doing so much for their dear sister without parents to provide for her.”
Shi Qing Xuan laughs behind their fan, while Hua Cheng swallows a grimace down behind a calm smile. In the end, they don’t even have to come up with anything-- their travelling companions can do it for them, it seems.
Still, a boisterous group like this attracts people more readily than their ragtag threesome. After a quick consultation, they resolve to stay with this group until they reach the next city.
They travel on like this for half a day without any sign of trouble. It’s toward sunset that they see something odd up ahead-- a single figure, staggering as though drunk. Their group draws together, murmuring worriedly, but it’s too late by then. The man has already seen them.
“Please!” he cries, staggering toward them, nearly stumbling. “You have to help me! They killed-- everyone is--”
A cry of horror goes up from the group as the man collapses at their feet.
Hua Cheng kneels down to prod at him. “He’s not dead, just fainted.”
Xie Lian joins him, turning the man over. “He’s been cut a few times,” he notes. Sure enough, two heavy wounds stand out under the man’s bloodstained shirt.
“Did he get attacked by bandits?”
“He couldn’t have traveled far in that state,” Xie Lian notes. “We should bandage him up, at least. When he wakes up we can ask him more.”
After some chatter, the people of their party start to gather around. Hua Cheng watches Xie Lian watch the proceedings, that crease between his brows again. “Gege looks suspicious,” he observes. “But this man doesn’t have a sword.”
“Maybe he’s a victim of circumstance,” Xie Lian hums, biting at his thumb in thought. “But it’s unlikely. He has no traveling gear at all, and he’s alone. If his supplies stolen, that would make sense. But he has a jade token hanging from his belt. If it was bandits, they would have taken that as well.”
Shi Qing Xuan steps away from the dust and blood marking the spot where the man collapsed. “Well, isn’t that obvious? He’s been stabbed on this road, after all. Of course it would be the sword.”
Xie Lian’s nod is slow. Clearly there’s something else on his mind, but Hua Cheng doesn’t push. “What is our plan of action, then?” Xie Lian asks. At Hua Cheng’s raised eyebrow, Xie Lian frowns. “This is the heavenly official’s mission.”
“So it is,” Hua Cheng acknowledges. “Does Black Sword have any suggestions? His insight is still appreciated.”
“Then we’ll wait for the man to wake before taking any further action.”
It takes some time for the man to be revived, even after he is bandaged and their group of travelers finds a shady spot along the side of the road where they can set up a temporary camp. The man is bleary and pale when he wakes up again, but he jerks upright as soon as he recognizes that there are faces around him. “Th-th-thank goodness!” he stammers, trying to bow forward only to wince at his injuries. “Please, you must help me. It’s terrible, Li Hui went mad…”
“What is your name? Tell us what happened,” Hua Cheng says, leaning over the man.
“I… I’m Tai Zheng. Li Hui, he… he was acting strange all day. We thought he was sick, but somehow he snapped when we reached the inn. He pulled his sword, and…” The man shudders and covers his face with his hand. “How terrible! I only barely escaped with my life!”
“His sword... Do you happen to know if he got it recently?” Xie Lian asks. His voice is gentle, but there is a dark look in his expression that has Tai Zheng fidgeting. Shi Qing Xuan sits nearby, playing idly with her fan and barely hiding her amusement.
“I think so, but I couldn’t say where. He didn’t show it off any until someone commented, but it was a fine sword, so how could we not?”
“This was on the road?”
Tai Zheng hesitates, as his hands twist together again and again in his lap. “As we left the city,” he says.
Xie Lian’s smile twitches a little, almost unnoticeable, before it smooths back out into something concerned and bland. “Then we’re actually traveling in the same direction,” he notes.
“Please!” Tai Zheng says, bowing his head desperately. “I don’t have much to give you, but I can pay you with this jade token of mine. It is not much, but maybe it can at least bring me along with you to the closest city.”
Xie Lian smiles, and folds Tai Zheng’s hands back over it. “There’s no need,” he says gently. “You’ll need something to barter with once we get to the city.”
Hua Cheng, watching Tai Zheng carefully, sees the way he pales and licks his lips. “Ah, but I’ve brought trouble to your doorstep,” he mumbles.
“You’ve brought warning,” Xie Lian says, still pushing the hands away. “No need to worry, we’ll send someone to investigate.”
Tai Zheng gulps, but nods slowly.
Xie Lian gets to his feet and turns to the rest of the group. “It may still be dangerous up ahead,” he says. “Even if this man was working alone, in a state like that may mean the inn for the night is also attacked. It would be safer for some of us to go ahead and check, while the rest stay here.”
“Young master…” the headman murmurs. Behind him, the group is shifting and muttering uneasily.
“Gege, why don’t you and I go?” Hua Cheng says, stepping forward. Honestly, having any of the villagers along will only make things more difficult, so it’s a relief when they all agree to hang back without much further urging.
“Come back safe!” Shi Qing Xuan says to them as they gather together. “I won’t bother to search for you.”
“We appreciate meimei’s concern,” Hua Cheng says sardonically, and bows over her hand. Shi Qing Xuan bursts into peals of laughter. Hua Cheng smiles unrepentantly at Xie Lian’s unimpressed look.
They set off without further fanfare. The sun is setting now, rendering the world in greys and purples. Xie Lian is rendered even more ghostly by it, blurring at the edges as though he might simply cease to exist if Hua Cheng looks away for too long. His dark eyes are like deep wells.
When Xie Lian turns those dark eyes on him, he doesn’t look away from that piercing stare. He meets it with his own measure of calm. Yes, he was looking. What does Xie Lian think of that?
Evidently not enough to call him out on it. Instead those eyes slide away from him, focusing on the road some distance ahead of them. “There is something that makes me curious,” Xie Lian says.
“Oh? What is it, gege?”
“In your story about the man who died to create the Head-eating Ghost,” Xie Lian says. “His clan was disgraced. What brought that about?”
“Corruption,” Hua Cheng says with a shrug. “Behavior unfitting of cultivators. Plotting sedition against the local government. The accusations are numerous and vehement, as they were a rather influential clan before that. Their lands and wealth were in the process of being seized when that man turned on the officials.”
“Of course it was,” Xie Lian mutters. “Yet he took to petitioning the officials first?”
“Just so,” Hua Cheng observes. “Not bribery, not threats, but petitions, until he took up his saber against them. In the wake of it, they thought everything had driven him mad.”
“Madness,” Xie Lian says, “Is not enough to create a cursed sword.”
“Resentment, built up over so long, is not easily dispersed.” Hua Cheng says, waving a hand. “Especially with a weapon already soaked in blood. Of course, these things often happen when the cause of the resentment has gone unsatisfied.”
“There is something more to it,” Xie Lian says, then shakes his head. “San Lang knows a great deal about ghosts and demons.”
“I know a great deal about many things,” Hua Cheng shrugs. “I have made it my business to. I could tell you about the heavens instead, if you like.”
Xie Lian is quiet for so long that Hua Cheng begins to think he won’t take him up on it. “Have you heard,” Xie Lian asks finally, “of the Crown Prince of Xian Le?”
“Yes,” he says, and watches the way that makes Xie Lian blink. Reevaluate. Turn toward him as though wary. It’s reasonable, after eight hundred years. There are not many gods who have been around long enough to know the story of that prince, let alone know who he is now. But whatever Xie Lian sees in his face, it leaves him standing still, his eyes resting heavily on Hua Cheng. “I’ve heard tales of the Crown Prince.”
“And what do you think of him?” Xie Lian asks, in the end. Brave of a flower to come all this way , Hua Cheng remembers him saying. He’s holding Xie Lian’s blade to his neck, and the thrill of it leaves him dizzy.
“Xie Lian,” he says, still smiling. “Do you know what the other gods call me?” He waits a moment, sees how the non-sequitor makes Xie Lian’s eyes narrow, then waves his hand in the air. “It’s not a difficult term of address. I’m not the crown prince of such and such a kingdom, or a general who conquered such and such a place. I’m simply Heavenly Official Hua Cheng.”
Xie Lian blinks again, and looks to him. His highness is exactly the kind of person to pick up the implications of that immediately, but he doesn’t ask outright.
“I was not born lucky,” Hua Cheng says, letting his smile twist with the familiar memory of bitterness. “Just the opposite. Someone like me could never have hoped to ascend to the heavens. To hope to live was almost too much.”
Xie Lian’s voice is quiet, in the stillness of the evening. “What changed?”
“Someone told me that I could live for something,” he says.
He cannot look away from Xie Lian, in this moment. The gold mask and the red coral jewelry are gone, now, replaced with shabby robes and eyes like death, but the face is the same. The heart is the same. He thinks of a single white flower, held long after it withered and died, in a child’s shabby shrine.
“If it weren’t for that person, I would not be here. And so, even though one might call what the Crown Prince of Xian Le did foolish, I would take one man like him, who tried to change the world and failed, over a hundred thousand gods.”
He wonders what Xie Lian really thinks of flowers, now.
“You know, when someone like that rises to fortune, it’s called luck or a blessing, no matter what work went into it. It’s funny. Luck never hard a part in it.” Hua Cheng taps his eyepatch. “It must be luck, they said. And so they prayed to me for it, and now I have it.”
Xie Lian’s mouth twists. “Yes,” he says. “The world is fickle that way.”
“I made a promise, you know,” Hua Cheng says. “And I still have not forgotten it. My life is theirs. My godhood is theirs.”
Xie Lian remains silent for a long time. His eyes are old and tired again, and his voice is so very, very soft. “Then they are very lucky to have you.”
They don’t make it to the inn before they come upon something.
“There,” Xie Lian says abruptly, putting out a hand to stop Hua Cheng. In the middle of the road is a staggering figure. His shirt is tattered and stained dark. In his hand, a sword that drips blood.
“He won’t last long like that,” Hua Cheng observes, watching as the man staggers and nearly falls. His skin is ashen, and though there are no marks on him, he looks ready to collapse. Even from this distance they can hear the man’s harsh breathing and the guttural groans that slide from his lips.
“The Head-eating Ghost’s work,” Xie Lian observes, stepping forward. He does not at all seem to mind that he is without his blade. “This must be Li Hui.”
He must break some invisible perimeter around Li Hui, for the man’s movements change, going from slow and pained to swift and strong in a moment. Xie Lian doesn’t even blink. He dances away from the first slash.
The bandage around his throat uncoils, snakelike. With a gesture, Xie Lian sends it shooting forward to tangle around Li Hui’s legs. The man gives a guttural shout and stumbles back, his head lolling and limbs twitching like a puppet’s.
“You’re not going to kill him?” Hua Cheng asks, raising an eyebrow.
Xie Lian shrugs. “Isn’t that the sort of thing that gives you heavenly officials trouble?” he responds. “You’re not going to ask me not to?”
“I’ve already troubled Gege so much on this account, I don’t dare make unreasonable requests.”
This must not be the answer Xie Lian is expecting, because he pauses. It’s an instant, but with this type of angry spirit, an instant is apparently enough. Li Hui leaps forward, his arm moving in a blurr. Xie Lian is already darting backward, but the sword manages to make contact, a tiny nick to the line of Xie Lian’s jaw.
Blood spills out from the injury in black ribbons, but they don’t fall to the ground. They float in the air, changing shape, until Hua Cheng sees the glint on the edge and realizes that Xie Lian’s blood has become a halo of swords arrayed around his body.
The swords dart down too fast for the eye to see. There is a spray of blood, and Li Hui collapses to the ground, motionless.
Xie Lian steps forward, watching without concern as the body sprawls limp across the ground. The bandage re-coils around Xie Lian’s neck. Neatly, Xie Lian steps forward and plucks up the sword, turning it over in his hands. The cut on his cheek still bleeds sluggishly, dripping ink-black blood down his cheek.
Xie Lian makes a sound of disapproval. “Aside from the resentful energy of the ghost, it hasn’t been used well,” he notes.
“Is it salvagable?” Hua Cheng asks. Xie Lian examines it a while longer, then nods.
“For now, though, we ought to see what’s in that inn.”
“Oh?” Hua Cheng asked. “The bargain has been completed. I would not trouble Black Sword further with something like this.”
“It’s hardly trouble,” Xie Lian says. He traces a hand down the length of the blade. “There is more to this, and I will see it done.”
Hua Cheng bows his head. “Then I will gladly accept Xie Lian’s help as long as he offers it.”
He remembers this, but he is grateful to know that eight hundred years have not burned this desire to see things through to their end, no matter the result. The crown prince of his memories and the man standing before him… He has been broken and reforged, broken and reforged, again and again, but he is not made out of entirely different material, at the core of him.
Xie Lian’s face is smudged with black blood, and his eyes are like dark glass in the last glimmers of twilight. At his own core, Hua Cheng’s heart gives a traitorous shiver.
Hua Cheng reaches out, rubs his thumb along one cheekbone to wipe away the lingering blood. Those eyes snap into focus, coming to rest squarely on his face. Xie Lian watches, silent and still, until the smudge is gone and Hua Cheng has to drop his hand. Slowly, Xie Lian’s eyes drift down, catch on something on his outer robe, and brush away dust in return. His hands are cool and gentle.
And then he’s out of reach again.
“Let’s go,” he says, quietly. “To see this done.”
The moon is up and the stars overhead when they finally make it back to the rest of the party. When they step into the circle of firelight, everyone startles and looks up to them, eyes wide.
“Young masters!” the headman says, rising to his feet. “What did you find…?”
“We didn’t mean to startle,” Hua Cheng says. It’s not really true, but Xie Lian doesn’t contradict him on that front, either. Xie Lian is watching the group with hard, cold eyes, though his expression is troubled. Hua Cheng endeavors to look concerned as well. “The inn really must have been attacked. We found no one left alive.”
The group murmurs in horror.
Tai Zheng’s lips are pressed thin as he looks between them. “Everyone? And everything there, was it taken?”
Xie Lian nods solemnly. “They must have gone through it quite thoroughly. Even the animals were gone.”
The group lets out shocked exclamations. Even Shi Qing Xuan, bundled into their midst, manages to look appropriately horrified, as she brings up her fan to cover her face. Hua Cheng can catch the twitch of her mouth, though.
Next to her, Tai Zheng’s is staring at Xie Lian, his face pale. “Then where did you get that sword?” he demands.
Shi Qing Xuan’s eyes immediately go to the sword that Xie Lian now carries, and crinkle at the edges with her amusement.
“We found it in the hands of one of the people at the inn,” Hua Cheng says. “Gege took it for safety. With bandits who killed everyone, it seemed too dangerous to travel back without it.”
Shi Qing Xuan has a new jade token hanging at her belt. She catches Hua Cheng looking and smiles, too widely. With a subtle motion, she inclines her head toward Tai Zheng.
Hua Cheng gives the man a cool smile, lest he think his reaction will be forgotten.
“The bandits may still be nearby,” Xie Lian says. “We should take shifts to guard.”
There’s a fearful murmur of agreement from the rest of the group, and a relieved acquiescence when Xie Lian and Hua Cheng volunteer themselves for the first watch. The group remains clumped close to the fire, but most settle down quickly, breaking off into small groups to sleep or murmur to one another. Hua Cheng watches Tai Zheng join one such group on the farthest side of the makeshift camp. Only Shi Qing Xuan joins them.
“So,” Shi Qing Xuan says, amused. “Do you want the token?”
Hua Cheng holds out his hand wordlessly. Shi Qing Xuan exchanges a glance with Xie Lian, but when he gestures her on, she drops it into Hua Cheng’s palm.
Hua Cheng hefts it in one hand and hums. “Ah. It’s just as you suspected, Gege,” he says. “It’s full of resentful energy. And the design of it is from Qishan.”
Xie Lian nods. “Right,” he says. “Then we’ll have to wait and see what he does. I expect he’ll try to sneak away tonight, if nothing happens now.”
“Gege’s intuition has proven perfect so far,” Hua Cheng says, “so I expect it will be the same here.”
Shi Qing Xuan groans. “If the two of you are going to act like this, I’m going to find more entertaining things to do,” she says, dusting off her skirts. “I don’t suppose you’ll let me kill him?”
“Don’t kill anyone,” Hua Cheng says. Shi Qing Xuan only scoffs.
“He’s beginning to move.”
Xie Lian’s whisper comes sooner than Hua Cheng expects. Things have only just settled down. There are still quiet murmurs here and there, though some seem to have fallen asleep. Hua Cheng doesn’t turn his head, but angles his head so that he can catch movement from the far side of camp.
Sure enough, Tai Zheng has risen from his spot some distance from the fire. He darts a glance around at the group, and spots Hua Cheng and Xie Lian apparently engrossed in conversation on the far side of camp. Then he nods to them, adopts a casual air, and starts to casually amble away from the group toward their makeshift latrine.
Hua Cheng gives him a few minutes to get further away. Eventually, though Xie Lian nods to him and rises. “We shouldn’t let him get too far away. We’ll only have to drag him back.”
Hua Cheng shrugs and follows. In his opinion, the man could do with a little dragging through the dirt, though as a heavenly official he is of course obligated not to cause harm to a human.
They find him scrambling away and looping back around toward the road. Hua Cheng settles his shoulders, and his smile, and strolls out from the trees in front of him. He shouldn’t, but he finds the startled sound and the way the man stumbles to a halt amusing. “Ah, there you are, Tai Xiansheng,” he says, keeping his smile a touch too wide. “We were beginning to worry about you.”
He can feel the pressure of Xie Lian’s presence behind him, too menacing to be contained by his human guise.
Tai Zheng seems to sense it, too. He pales, even as he manages a quavering smile. “My thanks to the young masters. I got lost on my way back, it seems.”
Hua Cheng nods. “Just so. You got so lost you went in the opposite direction. We’ll walk you back.”
Tai Zheng’s eyes dart between him and Xie Lian. “That is… the young men shouldn’t leave the camp unguarded. You’ve pointed out the way back. I’ll follow you in a moment.”
“You’re so eager to escape the safety you begged for earlier,” Hua Cheng notes, widening his smile just a little bit to watch the man squirm.
“Well… That is, I...”
“Enough.” Xie Lian steps forward. His aura, so tightly leashed before, unfurls around him in an oppressive wave of demonic energy. Hua Cheng watches in satisfaction as Tai Zheng pales, and begins to shake.
“You know about the jade token.”
Tai Zheng falls to his knees, his face pressed down into the dirt. “Please, young masters! I only thought to give her something of value. As long as the sword never came close…”
“The direction we were traveling, we could not have avoided it,” Xie Lian says in a chilled voice. “Not only that, but you saw us with the sword. And you still left it in her hand.”
Tai Zheng trembles more. Hua Cheng hears him panting, watches as he swallows convulsively. “I…”
“You tried to run,” Xie Lian says, stepping closer. “Were you going to come back to loot, I wonder? Or just run away and save your own life?”
Xie Lian’s foot comes down hard next to the man’s head. He lowers the sword until its tip just touches the ground. Tai Zheng makes a terrified sound and presses his face further into the dirt.
“Hua Cheng,” Xie Lian says, his voice gentle and pleasant. “If you could turn away, please. I’d rather you not feel obligated to stop me.”
The man quavers in his place, though he doesn’t dare to get up as that sword slowly glides closer to him. “Please… young masters…”
“As you say, Black Sword Beheads Flower,” Hua Cheng says, and turns away.
When they get back to camp, they find everyone awake and clustered around the fire, looking worried. Shi Qing Xuan stands in the center of the group, gesturing wildly. Hua Cheng gets the distinct impression that she’s been working up the crowd with a few wild stories of her own.
“We should continue on to the inn,” Xie Lian says, as they step into the circle of light.
The head of the group stares at him. “What? But, young master… What is happening? Where have you been?”
Xie Lian’s head bows, the very image of a deferential young man. “Sir, please forgive this cultivator the deception,” he says.
“There were certainly some injuries taken by the people at the inn,” Hua Cheng says, coming shoulder to shoulder with Xie Lian. “But they were not wiped out the way Tai Zheng implied. Rather, when he fled, the swordsman chased after him.”
He doesn’t bother to play at deferential himself. Why bother? This incident will clearly mark them as more than the simple travelers they’d pretended to be. While there’s no way their temporary travelling companions will guess the truth, neither is there any point in keeping up the charade. They’ll come to their own conclusions anyway.
And they’re already doing that, considering the startled muttering he hears. “You’re certain of this?” The headman asks.
“We spoke to everyone at the inn, and they all described it thus,” Xie Lian explains. “Tai Zheng showed up the night before, begging safety because his party had been attacked by bandits, and he had become separated from them. He offered to trade the jade pendant, the only thing he carried with him, to them as payment until he could find the rest of his party and pay with them.
“Only another man appeared,” Hua Cheng interjects. “This one too, was tired and weary, on the verge of collapse, though he could not seem to stop walking. When he set his sights on Tai Zheng and the pendant in his hand, he flew into a fierce rage as though possessed. None could stand between him and Tai Zheng, so they sent him away.”
Shi Qing Xuan lets out an entirely over dramatic cry of horror. “Then, the jade token…!”
Everyone turns toward her, and there is a collective gasp as they look between her and the jade token Hua Cheng is now holding up. Angry muttering breaks out among the crowd. Shi Qing Xuan covers her face, her shoulders shaking in what the people here seem to believe is horror, though Hua Cheng suspects is barely suppressed howls of laughter.
“That man!” The headman says, his face reddening with rage. “Where is he?”
“He ran off,” Xie Lian says, face bland. Hua Cheng hides his snort of derision. “But without the token, there isn’t much he can do. Furthermore, the man who carried the sword has been stopped. They won’t be able to do this again.”
“You should all head to the inn,” Hua Cheng suggests. “It will be safer there.”
“And what of you, Young masters?” the headman says.
Xie Lian bows his head with a thin smile. “Ah, this concludes our business on the road,” he says enigmatically. “Your journey should be safe, from here on out.”
There’s a quiet murmuring from the group of people, but then they all turn to them and bow. “Then, young masters, young mistress,” the headman says, and bows, “We are greatly in your debt! A thousand thanks would not suffice.”
“So!” Spring Gale says. “No doubt they’ll have a truly outrageous tale about us by morning.”
“Nothing less believable than the truth, surely,” Hua Cheng says, and Shi Qing Xuan cackles in her agreement.
“Now, since you two weren’t going to explain before dealing with our dear friend Tai Zheng, how did you find him out?” Shi Qing Quan asks, turning toward them.
“The sword is undoubtedly cursed with a compulsion,” Xie Lian observes, “but so too is the token.”
“Of course it is,” Shi Qing Xuan agrees. “But how did you figure it out? The aura is masked until it’s touched, as I discovered while you two were away.”
“Would Gege like to explain now?” Hua Cheng asks.
Xie Lian nods. “He wanted to hand it off to someone so dearly, despite having nothing to his name. I caught a spark of a spirit of greed and corruption on him when I first touched him, but in itself that might only be a possessing ghost. But when we came across Li Hui on the road, following us despite being near death, and then discovered the story of the inn, I began to suspect. Why would the Head-eating Ghost not execute them all? Why instead follow the path of one man?”
“Ah. So when Hua Cheng said that the pendant was from Qinghe…”
“I believe it belonged to one of those officials, yes.”
Hua Cheng smiles. “Gege is truly a dedicated investigator,” he says. “To suspect that the pendant was also a cursed item connected to the Head-eating Ghost.”
Xie Lian ducks his head, and shrugs. “It was only obvious, once the pieces were there to be lined up.”
Hua Cheng wonders if he’s blushing again. In the darkness, it’s impossible to tell.
“Well! Then that’s that.” Shi Qing Xuan pulls out her fan. “Truly, Black Sword, it’s been delightful, but I think I’ve wasted enough time here. I’ll stop by again soon, shall I?”
“Please do,” Xie Lian says, smiling.
“Hm.” Shi Qing Xuan snaps her fan closed. Then she turns to Hua Cheng. “You really are odd for a heavenly official,” she says. “No wonder you were able to draw Black Sword out of his fortress. Do it more, won’t you? It’s good for him.”
“I will take that as a compliment,” Hua Cheng says, and Shi Qing Xuan laughs and doesn’t disagree as they walk off into the night. A breeze springs up, hard enough to whip up the hems of their robes and send their hair flying. Shi Qing Xuan’s laughter echoes through it, then fades, leaving only Hua Cheng and Xie Lian still lingering.
“Ah,” Xie Lian says, shaking his head. “San Lang needn’t mind her. She’s capricious.”
“Hmm,” Hua Cheng smiles. “But I hope Gege won’t mind if I take her advice anyway?”
Xie Lian raises an eyebrow at him. Hua Cheng will never stop delighting in finding new expressions for his prince to turn on him. “I can’t imagine that San Lang will find another cursed sword.”
“If I do, Gege will be the first to know. Or, perhaps...” Hua Cheng says, stepping forward. He pulls his pair of dice out of his sleeve and deposits them gently in Xie Lian’s hand.
The demon turns them over in his hand, letting them rattle gently. “What are these?”
“If you ever want to do this again,” Hua Cheng says, as casually as he can, “just toss these, and I’ll come.”
“A generous offer, from a busy Heavenly Official,” Xie Lian says. He turns the dice gently in his hand again. It’s not a refusal.
Hua Cheng shrugs, smiles. He watches the dice roll in Xie Lian’s palms, imagines cupping his hands around those sword-calloused ones. “The world is wider than heaven or hell, Gege. Who knows? There may be a time we need to work together again.”
“Who knows.” Xie Lian tucks his hands, the dice in them, into his sleeve. “Until next time, San Lang.”