Chapter 1: purple lilacs; first love
“Have ya heard about that Sapphire Flames Engulfing the Crimson Garden?” a voice whispered conspiratorially, not quite low enough to completely avoid others from eavesdropping.
“Idiot!” the second voice whispered back, “Who hasn’t?! Ever since he came outta seclusion, Sapphire Flames Engulfing the Crimson Garden hasn’t let any of us rest easy!”
“Bah!” came the third voice, louder this time, “What are you so afraid of? That shrine of his is nowhere near here anyways!”
Hua Cheng’s eyebrow twitched.
“What’s it to ya!” One of the other two (Hua Cheng had already lost track of who’s who) spat, “I ain’t riskin’ it! That Sapphire Flames is so creepy, who knows what he’s up to!”
“Yeah!” came yet another voice. At this rate, the entire tea house would be involved in this stupid argument over who knows what, “They say he moves quicker than lightnin’, you know! You don’t ever know when or where he’s gonna show up!” The person shuddered as if the thought alone terrified them.
At that moment, a small blue flower petal fluttered gently through the open window, traveling along the light breeze. This petal was glittering in the light, turning and twisting gracefully in the breeze, harboring an air of magic and innocence. The petal landed rather innocuously in Hua Cheng’s now cold tea, and his fingers gently plucked the petal from his drink.
The rest of the tea house had fallen suspiciously silent, and when Hua Cheng lifted his gaze from the flower petal, the rest of the house’s patrons had their eyes intent on Hua Cheng.
“Young master,” one patron spoke cautiously, approaching Hua Cheng like an easily spooked horse, “I am very sorry for your loss,” the stranger gravely placed a hand on Hua Cheng’s shoulder, as if to comfort him.
Was he going mad? Or perhaps it was simply the rest of the tea house that was going insane.
“.....What?” Hua Cheng asked, rather deliriously.
“Does young master not know of the fearsome Sapphire Flames Engulfing the Crimson Garden’s flower petals?” the stranger asked.
“What.” he repeated, sternly. Who the hell was this Sapphire Flames bastard, anyways?
“They say,” another patron joined the conversation, “That blue flower petals follow Sapphire Flames Engulfing the Crimson Garden wherever he goes. If one encounters such petals, whether you be poor tailor or auspicious king, you are sure to face extreme misfortune for the next eight hundred years!”
“Oh, well,” Hua Cheng said, “Then I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” he was, after all, the martial god of luck and fortune, so surely a mere flower petal would do him no harm. Hua Cheng carefully tucked the petal into his red robes, making his way towards the door.
“Young master!” they cried, “Please be careful! The curse of the wretched Sapphire Flames is nothing to sneeze at!”
Hua Cheng turned on his heel to face the two patrons, “Sapphire Flames this, Sapphire Flames that, who the hell is this guy, anyways?”
The tea house, which patrons had readily been breaking off into their own conversations, fell deathly silent once again.
One brave customer spoke up, “Young master is unaware of the dishonorable Sapphire Flames Engulfing the Crimson Garden?” Hua Cheng decidedly did not grace the question with an answer.
“Sapphire Flames Engulfing the Crimson Garden is what,” the person’s voice dropped to a whisper, “what we call the terrifying Supreme ghost, Xie Lian,” he spoke as if Hua Cheng should have, at the very least, heard of this Xie Lian before. He hadn’t.
“Supreme ghost Xie Lian was allegedly in seclusion for a century after elevating to Supreme status, young master. Surely you’ve heard of this?”
Frankly, Hua Cheng hadn’t, not really. A century ago, Hua Cheng himself was in seclusion, looking to further his cultivation. The emergence and immediate seclusion of a Supreme demon was evidently something that nobody in the Heavenly Court deemed important enough to report to him once he left seclusion.
Without another word, Hua Cheng turned and left the tea house.
Outside, two familiar figures were waiting with their backs turned to him, facing and watching a wedding procession.
“Feng Xin, Mu Qing,” Hua Cheng said in lieu of a greeting. The two nodded in response.
“Your majesty,” Feng Xin said.
“Hua Cheng,” Mu Qing said. Hua Cheng, after eight centuries of experience, wisely ignored the glare Fang Xin sent to Mu Qing.
Way back when, all those centuries ago, when Hua Cheng was still the new king of Xian Le, Mu Qing and Feng Xin served as his fierce but loyal personal guards. Vaguely, he remembered a third guard, one who’s name and face has long since been forgotten. The third guard, a handsome and plucky youth, and a recent addition to the royal guard, often served as a mediator between Feng Xin and Mu Qing. Eventually, instead of bickering with one another, Mu Qing and Feng Xin teamed up to bully the poor third guard. However, those days were long into the past, Mu Qing and Feng Xin both martial guards in their own rights nowadays, and that guard was sure to be long dead by now. He never did learn the fate of that poor third guard who had disappeared by the time Hua Cheng ascended.
Wordlessly, the three watched the wedding procession fall apart. With the glimpses Hua Cheng caught of the woman inside the sedan, he could tell the bride was little more than a poorly crafted paper doll. Rather ominously, the doll’s head fell clean off, and rolled to Hua Cheng’s feet.
After kicking away the paper head, Hua Cheng spoke, “Report.”
“For the last hundred years,” Feng Xin began, “a total of seventeen brides have gone missing within the proximity of Mount Yu Jun during their wedding procession. Even after the first sixteen brides, the situation did not necessarily call for the attention of Heavenly Officials. However, the seventeenth bride happened to be a young daughter of a certain official or noble or such. The noble, knowledgeable of the disappearances of the sixteen other brides, hired forty-some strong military officials to protect the marriage sedan. However, the seventeenth bride still went missing. The father felt deeply wronged by the gods and did not stop shouting until he startled another Heavenly Official.”
Hua Cheng nodded, bringing a hand to his chin in thought. He gestured towards the pseudo-procession that was falling apart as they spoke, “What is this, then?”
“I believe they are trying to lure out the ghost bridegroom, your majesty.”
“Lure him out?”
“Yes, the men carrying the sedan are, according to the locals, the strongest and bravest from the Mount Yu Jun region. I believe they plan to lure out the ghost with a fake bride, and attack whenever he appears,” Feng Xin eyed the sedan who’s resident was now headless, “I’m unsure of how successful they will be.”
“Thank you, Feng Xin,” Hua Cheng said. Though extremely subtle, Feng Xin’s chest swelled minutely with pride. Some things never changed.
“Perhaps,” Hua Cheng uttered, not without a sense of foreboding , “They have the right idea.”
Several hours and a lot of convincing and favors later, Hua Cheng gazed at his own reflection, dressed and made up to look every part the young bride he was pretending to be. The view was rather shocking, as somebody who had never in his life expected to be married.
One might say a king (or, ex-king, as it now stands) might have any pick of fair maidens he might like for his lovers. Some, way back when, even claimed that Hua Cheng himself was so handsome, so favored, that young women would have begged for his gaze to land on them just once, let alone their hand in marriage. Unfortunately for the many women of his country, Hua Cheng was never particularly interested in catching the eye of a woman. Catching the eye of a man, however…
Hua Cheng, at over eight hundred years old, has never once fallen in love. Many times, he has fallen into another’s bed, usually for a night, never for longer than a month, but never once in love. There was once where Hua Cheng had almost gotten close, he thought, but he has long since missed his chance.
Really, that third guard ...Hua Cheng should ask what happened to him.
Regardless, the sight of himself in red wedding robes, even dressed as a bride instead of a groom, struck a certain familiar longing in Hua Cheng. To love and be loved in turn….he wanted to know what it was like to experience such a thing.
Hua Cheng sighed a bone-deep, long suffering sigh before brushing nonexistent dust off the ill fitting robes and heading out the doors.
Outside, Mu Qing and Feng Xin were, as most days, arguing between themselves. Also as most days, Hua Cheng entirely tuned out anything either of them were saying until they realized he was waiting on the pair. Really, they should just fuck already. It’s been an entire eight centuries, for goodness’s sake.
When they both laid their eyes on Hua Cheng they, with a synchronization that he could have believed was practiced, flushed from ear to ear. Perhaps a threesome, then. He wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea.
“What the fuck!” Mu Qing exclaimed, rather eloquently. Feng Xin seemed to agree with this sentiment. Hua Cheng quickly waved off their flustered remarks, since he didn’t have anything to say in response.
Clearing his throat, he said, “Right. Let’s get to it, then.”
The sedan was patiently waiting for the trio at the edge of the village, flanked on either side by twenty or so men who had graciously volunteered to assist the three gods in this mission.
Out of a sense of diplomacy lectured into him since he was old enough to understand spoken word, Hua Cheng approached the men and thanked each of them their bravery or complimented their strength or something along those lines. For the most part, the men had a similar reaction to Mu Qing and Feng Xin, minus the cursing. Briefly, Hua Cheng wondered if he should dress in drag more often. Maybe that Shi Qing Xuan was onto something, after all.
With the assistance of a guiding hand from one of the over eager men, who was young, cherry-faced, and well built, though not quite Hua Cheng’s type, he stepped into the sedan and sat down with little difficulty.
Mu Qing, also notably youthful, cherry-faced and well built, and still not quite his type, assisted Hua Cheng in placing the veil, red and sheer, over his head. After a few moments of muffled shuffling from outside the marriage sedan, they were off.
Up until a few minutes before the sedan came to a stop, the entire ordeal was entirely uneventful and rather boring. Currently the entire area was overrun with low level monsters, so things were getting mildly more interesting. Hua Cheng had foolishly believed he wouldn’t need E-Ming to capture such a low level ghost, and the damn thing was a fickle nuisance anyways, so he opted instead to leave the saber in the Heavenly Court. As a result, he was now left to sitting quietly in the marriage sedan, rather uselessly, while Mu Qing, Feng Xin, and the rest of the men outside were left to fend off the monsters on their own.
After several minutes of this, the sounds of fighting grew more and more distant, until they went altogether silent. The damn idiots let the monsters lead them away from the sedan.
He guessed it didn’t really matter either way. He could take a fucking ghost bridegroom with his own two hands anyways.
Hua Cheng expected to wait several minutes for the bridegroom to show, but within thirty seconds of the sounds of other life forms completely disappearing, he could hear the familiar crunch below somebody’s boot. A pale hand, long and elegant with nails painted black, gracefully extended its fingers through the silks obscuring the sedan and towards Hua Cheng in an open invitation.
Without warning, an old and deeply buried wish reared its ugly and unforgiving head. As a naïve child, Hua Cheng always dreamed of a wedding with a handsome man, and though he usually imagined himself as the groom, playing the role of the bride held little difference to him. He idealized the fantasy of marriage, of a happily ever after. So perhaps this is what leads him to reach for the offered hand and grasp it firmly, rather than charging out of the sedan with the intention of fighting the ghost bridegroom in a raggedy round of fisticuffs like he probably should have.
For the hand of a ghost, the grasp was uncharacteristically warm, not at all like the typical touch of somebody who’s blood who has long since stopped coursing through their veins. The skin was pleasantly soft except where there was noticeable callouses on the ghost’s fingertips and the meat of his palm that tickled where they met Hua Cheng’s skin-probably a result of years of wielding a sword or saber.
The ghost gently tugged at Hua Cheng’s hand and led him out of the sedan. Under the veil, his vision was restricted to the ground and their feet. The ghost bridegroom, he realized, was not wearing any red at all. His boots were blue with white detailing, golden bells and blue baubles hanging from them and jingling softly as they walked. From what he could see of the robes, they were entirely white and blue, completely without even a spot of red. How strange.
This ghost was possibly not really a bridegroom. Maybe this ghost and the ghost bridegroom were two completely different people. Thinking back on the warmth enveloping his own hand, he thought that it was conceivable this hand in his belonged to somebody who wasn’t a ghost at all. Considering the sheer unlikeliness of a ghost whose hands felt so entirely like a living human, the last theory was most likely. In that case-what the fuck was going on?
Was the ghost bridegroom possibly not a ghost, but a living person? Considering how long the disappearances had been happening, that was very, very unlikely. In that case, just to reiterate, what the fuck was going on? This person had, to Hua Cheng’s knowledge, absolutely no business waltzing around mountain forests at sunset-especially not haunted ones.
Unconsciously, Hua Cheng had been clutching the hand in his tight, and he only realized when the hand squeezed back. If this man (ghost?) really, truly was the one abducting happy brides on their wedding nights, why was he so gentle with Hua Cheng. The squeeze was affectionate and, dare he say, tender, even comforting, not at all with any sort of malice, ill intent, or bloodlust behind it.
During his internal monologue, the air around the two rapidly started growing heavier and heavier, a dark miasma of negative energy enveloping them. True to what Hua Cheng knew about the strange so far, the negativity didn’t seem to originate from the person beside him, but instead seeped from the trees and foliage around them. It seemed to be caused by a particularly powerful array, hanging in the air and even growing in the plant life.
Within his line of vision he saw a row of skulls, all of which were had varying states of cracks and grime, some even completely caked in dirt. They were very obviously the source of the array, creating a powerful barrier to what lay within. Hua Cheng considered speaking to warn his kind stranger, but before he could even open his mouth, the man crushed the skull under his heel, completely dissolving the array as if it were nothing. However, Hua Cheng knew, dispersing something as powerful as that was no easy feat for those skilled in cultivation, and nigh impossible for any normal person.
They continued in silence, towards an unknown destination. Considering how the man had quite literally crushed what was most likely an array set by the bridegroom himself to a pulp, it was highly unlikely that the man who was holding his hand was actually the ghost bridegroom. It seemed, unlikely as it was, that he was helping Hua Cheng. How he knew that Hua Cheng was here to take out the ghost bridegroom and was not actually a bride himself, he had no idea. All this while, the stranger had been leading Hua Cheng along when he couldn’t really see, and helping him to his destination.
With this thought, Hua Cheng came to a complete halt. The stranger stopped in front of him and turned to face him. The man encased Hua Cheng’s single hand in both of his, rubbing his thumb across the back of Hua Cheng’s hand. He was soothing Hua Cheng, as if he thought Hua Cheng was scared or possibly nervous. The touch was gentle and reassuring, something Hua Cheng had craved desperately. It was sweet and touching, and he was struck suddenly with a startling intense desire to know exactly who thought he deserved such kindness and care. Nobody had been so kind to him in, well, eight hundred years.
With shaking fingers and a quick beating heart, Hua Cheng, with a touch akin to the gentle attentions the stranger was so kind to offer him in these past few minutes, lifted his free hand to gently pat the stranger’s before moving to lift his own veil. He did so slowly, both to delay and hopefully soothe his poor heart, as well as to give the stranger an opportunity to stop him. He thought that if this man stopped Hua Cheng from seeing his face, he might wallow in disappointment for some time.
It must be the god of fortune’s lucky day, because the man was still standing there when Hua Cheng removed the veil fully.
And oh, what a sight. The man was definitely the most beautiful person he had ever had the pleasure of laying his eyes on. He was dressed immaculately, his robes silken, expensive, and ornate. He wore a weimao with translucent and shimmering white chiffon that fell from the rim of the hat, but didn’t entirely obscure his face. He wore several layers of robes, and had a lantern with a glowing fire, blue and blazing, that was attached to a holding stick and tucked safely into his belt. His face was a thing that writers would construct poems about, that artists would sculpt for years into a breathtaking masterpiece. His honey brown eyes were wide and adorable, taking in the sight of Hua Cheng, much like Hua Cheng was him.
Hua Cheng’s face broke into a smirk, one he knew made people swoon, and he spoke, “I thought this one might thank you for leading me to where I wish to go.”
He reached towards the other, his hand meeting the stranger’s face in a gentle caress. For a wonderful, glorious moment that Hua Cheng knew he would dream about for months and even years to come, the stranger leaned into his hand.
As soon as the stranger seemed to realize exactly what he’d done, a flush rushed to his cheeks and he, like a spooked fawn, burst into hundreds of blue flower petals that glistened in the orange glow of the setting sun.
“Ah,” He said, with only the trees and crushed skulls as his audience, “You really are a ghost then.”
With nobody around to see, Hua Cheng smiled to himself, thinking of the shimmering blue petals still settling on to the ground around him and the one that fell into his tea earlier that day, “I hope to see you again soon, Xie Lian.”
Chapter 2: red camellias; you're a flame in my heart
hua cheng searches for a certain shrine
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The communication array was particularly eventful today, leaving Hua Cheng with a twitching brow and a scowl that was sharp enough to cut even the toughest of trees. The was an uproar regarding... something. Hua Cheng couldn’t care less and didn’t particularly tune into the conversation and try to pick out just why everyone was all up in a frenzy. Something about a ghost, something or another about a calamity-things that Hua Cheng has the brain to piece together without fully listening, but the particular points of their yelling is what is especially disinteresting to him.
Instead, right now he was trying to locate a certain shrine that belonged to a certain rumored supreme that had resurfaced. Not only had he resurfaced, but he even dared to show himself to Hua Cheng back when he was dealing with the ghost bride situation.
The only hint anybody could offer to Hua Cheng, no matter who he asked, was the shrine was called Puji Shrine, and said to be surrounded by beautiful crimson flowers. This Xie Lian seemed to really love flowers.
Huffing in discontent at the map he held in his hands as if it offended him, Hua Cheng messily folded the paper and stuffed in back in his robes. That Ling Wen would only tell him she once heard of a very small town, incidentally in the area under Hua Cheng’s jurisdiction, called Puji. It was, honestly, his best bet.
Every person Hua Cheng asked for assistance always offered a stern warning, claiming that this Sapphire Flames was nobody to scoff at, definitely a very powerful ghost who would surely trample anybody who trespassed into his shrine to ash. Hua Cheng had the funny feeling he was an exception to this particular rule.
According to the residents in the small town of Puji, they didn’t have a local shrine. Hua Cheng got the distinct feeling that they were lying through their teeth, but he soldiered on regardless. After hours of searching in and around the village, it seemed like, for once, luck may not be on Hua Cheng’s side. He had yet to find the shrine, and the only option left was to brave and scour the forest towards the other edge of town.
Straightening his shoulders and inhaling a deep breath, Hua Cheng headed down the path towards the forest.
“I wouldn’t go that way if I were you, didi,” a voice called out from somewhere above Hua Cheng, and it took him a moment of looking around in a confused manner before he finally looked up, spotting a young man in a tree. “A rather vicious ghost lives beyond the forest in this direction, and he’s not someone many want to cross paths with.”
The other looked young, but if he addressed Hua Cheng as such then he must have been older, though Hua Cheng was doubtful-eight hundred was hard to beat. His eyes were a light color, a vibrant amber, and his skin was pale with the slightest hint of pink on his cheeks, something healthy. His hair, dark in color, was tied back, though the ponytail was lopsided, strands having fallen loose. He wore a simple white tunic with white pants and black boots, and sash around his waist a light blue, and slightly out of place. His sleeves were rolled up, one higher on his arm than the other. There was a simple straw hat tied around his neck.
The stranger warned Hua Cheng, though there was an almost innocent smile on his face, practically telling of the fact he fully expected the god to venture forth anyway. Hua Cheng crossed his arms, hip jutting out as he addressed the youth. “Most of the rumors I’ve heard are rather vague. Is it correct to assume you know more than most?”
Rather than immediately responding, the youth flashed him with another smile, something soft and warm. Turning his back to Hua Cheng, he swung his feet over the side of the branch and made his way down. In a fit of bad luck, however, one of the branches broke as he stepped on it, and he lost his footing-though it seemed as if he was expecting it, still managing to land on his feet when he hit the ground, despite being slightly unsteady. He simply dusted off his clothes—which appear to have been kept in rather nice condition despite the fact the wearer climbs in trees—and walked up to Hua Cheng, offering a polite bow in greeting. “I’ve lived in this area for a long time, so it would make sense I know more about it than others.”
Hua Cheng quirked a brow. “How convenient. Maybe you’ll be able to help me, then. I’m looking for a shrine.”
The other man looked up at him, and his fingers came up to grab his chin, humming in a thoughtful manner. “Well, there’s a shrine three miles back the way you came. There’s another to the West, about ten miles out. There’s one to the East, just along this road, about seven miles out… but something tells me those aren’t the shrines you are looking for?”
“You’re correct,” Hua Cheng replied. “The particular shrine I’m looking for has a bit of a bad reputation.”
The stranger hummed again, closing his eyes a moment in thought. His lashes were long, brushing over the rise of his cheeks almost delicately, and Hua Cheng wound up staring. So much so that, when he opened his eyes and his fist smacked against his open palm, Hua Cheng nearly jumped.
“You’re here for the elusive ghost’s shrine, is that it?” He said in conclusion.
Hua Cheng nodded. “I am. I heard about it from rumors and am quite curious.”
The other hummed, yet again, putting his hands on his hips. “Sorry, didi, but I don’t think I can be too much help with that. I don’t know the forest beyond here too well” he says, completely contradicting what he’d said earlier with his warning, “but I might be able to help lead you in the right direction. I have a vague idea as to where you should go.”
Hua Cheng, not at all oblivious to the contradiction, went along with him anyway. “I would appreciate the help. I’m not familiar with this area.”
The man smiled something so perfectly shaped-not at all fitting for someone with an appearance filled with small imperfections-but it caught Hua Cheng’s gaze regardless. “This respectable didi can call this humble traveler Xiao Si.”
“Alright, Xiao-gege,” Hua Cheng teased, catching the blatant way Xiao Si’s cheeks flushed at the nickname, “this didi’s name is Hua Cheng. I am in your care.”
Xiao Si’s hand waved, frantically, as his head turned sideways away from Hua Cheng. “Ah, just gege or Xiao Si is fine… it’s getting rather late, so we can start tomorrow, if that is alright with you. There’s an inn a short walk from here, so it won’t be too much of a setback for didi.”
Though Hua Cheng didn’t need to rest, mortals did, so he agreed and followed Xiao Si to the inn. It was rather small and run down, but that didn’t stop people from staying here, apparently. When the two had requested rooms, it was with an uncanny stroke of bad luck that there was only one empty room left in the inn. Xiao Si only waved the predicament off, smiling and accepting the room for the two of them. “Believe it or not, this sort of thing happens a lot. Either I don’t get a room, or I have to share a room with whoever I’m traveling with.”
They headed up to the shared room, and Hua Cheng was less than pleased with how small it was; the bed would not be able to fit the two of them comfortably unless they were plastered right against one another. As he turned to Xiao Si to address the issue, he found the other in the middle of setting up some spare blankets on the ground, taking one of the extra pillows on the bed and tossing it into the messed up lump of a makeshift nest of sorts. Xiao Si sat on it with a sigh, stretching his arms above his head. He noticed Hua Cheng’s eye on him as he removed his straw hat to place it on the ground beside his “bed”, and Hua Cheng definitely noticed the flush that takes over his cheeks once again.
Xiao Si cleared his throat. “Didi can take the bed, of course! I’m used to sleeping on the ground, anyway.”
Hua Cheng stared over at him, and Xiao Si raised his hands and waved them frantically in front of his face. “There’s no way I’m going to make you sleep on the floor!”
Hua Cheng’s brow raised. “I never said I would sleep on the floor if you took the bed?”
Xiao Si freezed.
The two awkwardly stared at one another for a few moments before Xiao Si abruptly stood, staggering towards the door. “I’m going to go! For a walk! I’ll be back sometime later! I’ll be sure to enter quietly so I don’t disturb you if you’re asleep!”
Hua Cheng watched as he stumbled about the room. “I’ll be sure to keep open space on the bed for you when you return.”
Xiao Si tripped as he went through the doorway.
The moon had long since settled in the sky, and Xiao Si still hadn’t returned. Not that Hua Cheng was entirely too worried—the other looked more than capable of taking care of himself. The small makeshift pile of blankets and pillows were long since cleaned up, Hua Cheng really not giving Xiao Si the option of sleeping on the floor, and had decided to spend some time laying in the bed—it really was going to be a tight squeeze fitting the two of them on it—and meditating.
When Hua Cheng told himself he was going to meditate, he apparently meant he was going to lay down and think and not actually meditate or focus on cultivation at all. There was suddenly a cool breeze drafting through the room, and Hua Cheng’s eye looked to the window.
He didn’t remember opening it, and Xiao Si certainly didn’t, either.
Kicking his feet over the side of the bed, Hua Cheng walked over to it with the intent of closing it. He reached a hand out, but his movements came to a halt as a small, blue flower petal flitted into the room, landing on his hand. It quivered a moment, the breeze rustling it, carrying along another. Petals continued to be carried into the room along on a breeze, gently brushing against Hua Cheng’s hands and cheeks.
Then he heard singing.
The voice was soft, something like that of a lullaby, melodic and calming. There was no music, but there was the sound of the wind rustling the trees, and it was alluring to Hua Cheng all the same. Something like a siren’s call; dangerously tempting, but warm and promising. His hands were braced on the windowsill as he listened, a finger idly playing with one of the blue petals. The voice, as soft as it was, carried a hint of sorrow. Something like mourning, longing, and weeping. It would waver, start shattering on some notes, and completely break on others.
The voice pulled at Hua Cheng’s heart… it was almost nostalgic.
Of course, lullabies were short, and the moment was over before Hua Cheng realized, leaving him in an almost daze. The only thing that broke him out of it was the sound of the floor behind him creaking, the door pressing closed quietly behind him. He turned, almost lazily, and saw Xiao Si removing his shoes.
“Ah,” Xiao Si started, “I didn’t think didi would still be awake. I didn’t wake you, did I?”
Hua Cheng turned back to the window, closing it. “No, you didn’t. I was actually just about to head to bed.” He turned to Xiao Si, gesturing to the bed with one of his hands. “Shall we?”
Hua Cheng was the first to “wake”, not that he slept at all, but he decided he was bored of lying around and needed to get out of bed the moment the sun peeked over the horizon. Xiao Si was currently pressed up snuggly against his back, curled up in a small ball as to not take up much space. His hair, let loose before slipping into bed last night, was fanning out behind him, appearing soft and tempting to touch. It was kind of cute.
Making sure the blanket was still securely tucked around the other after he had slipped out of bed, he slipped his boots back on and slipped out the door, leaving the other to rest.
No one was in the main lobby of the inn save for the woman standing behind the counter. She greeted him, and Hua Cheng greeted her in kind with a polite nod and a smile.
“I do hope you slept well, young master.” She spoke politely, her voice kept low and sweet. “That Sapphire Flames Engulfing the Crimson Garden… ever since he’s come out of seclusion, he’s scared away all my business with his nightly serenades.”
“Weren’t your rooms all full save for one yesterday?” Hua Cheng looked at her, confused. “And what of these nightly serenades?”
She nodded, grim. “Everyone got scared off last night when Sapphire Flames began his song. They’re called “nightly” but, truth be told, they’re rather rare. Or, they used to be. Something must be happening for him to have begun acting up all of a sudden…”
“There you are, didi!” A familiar voice called out from the stairway, Xiao Si emerging, his hair tied up once again, though this time more towards the opposite side. Honestly, does he not know how to tie his hair up? “Sorry for sleeping in so late. We can head out whenever you’re ready.”
Xiao Si gave a respectful bow to the innkeeper, who wished the two the best of luck in their travels as they left.
It was a silent walk, and for that Hua Cheng was grateful. It’s not that Xiao Si was bad company, because he wasn’t, but Hua Cheng just had a lot to think about. There was, actually, something he would like to know, and maybe Xiao Si could help. So, after hours of walking in the forest, enveloped in silence, Hua Cheng speaks up.
“Why does this Sapphire Flames ghost sing? The innkeeper called it a “nightly serenade”?” Hua Cheng asked. “I heard him last night.”
His companion took a moment to think, humming. “You’re out here looking for one of the most formidable ghosts there are, and yet you know nothing about his legend?” His voice contained laughter, yet his eyes seemed to sparkle when he looks up at Hua Cheng, eager to share in the tale. “No one really knows why he does it, if I’m being honest. There are a lot of different rumors you can find. Some say it’s a way he steals your soul, others say he uses his voice to lure cultivators into the forest so they can get devoured by beasts and ghosts alike. I heard a woman talk about how he just wants to show off, once. It very well could be as simple as that. No one would dare tell a supreme to stop, after all.”
Hua Cheng doubted that was the reason. “You seem to know a lot about him, so I’m curious. What do you think is the reason behind his songs?”
Xiao Si removed his gaze from Hua Cheng, looking forward as they walked once more. He hummed. “His song sounded sad, didn’t it? Maybe he’s alone and is just trying to get someone’s attention. Maybe, in his own way, he sings songs to curse his fate.”
Amber eyes looked back up at Hua Cheng again, curved in a smile, before Xiao Si’s gaze roamed to the surrounding scenery. “Have you ever stopped to wonder if a supreme really wanted all that power, and the bad reputation that comes with it? Do you think the soul wanted to be a ghost in the first place?”
Silence engulfed them again. Suddenly it felt like they were being a bit too honest with one another.
“I think, maybe,” Xiao Si spoke again after a moment, “that Sapphire Flames is lonely. Maybe he sings because he wants an audience. Or, maybe, he’s looking for someone.”
Hua Cheng hummed. “Well, he’s certain to get their attention. His voice is beautiful, don’t you think?”
“Mhm.” Xiao Si hummed his agreement, turning his face out of view from Hua Cheng’s gaze. Hua Cheng didn’t fail to notice the slightest hint of pink that covered the shell of his ear.
The walk was longer than Hua Cheng expected it to be, Xiao Si pointing out landmarks and important monuments within the forest as they walk, though none of them were the shrine. Whenever Hua Cheng asked when they would arrive, Xiao Si simply said it “wasn’t much further,” but it felt like the minutes dragged along into hours.
They finally came to a stop in front of some low-hanging trees, the leaves making a curtain concealing the way forward. A natural blockade that was rather easy to get through, so long as one managed to correctly step off the path at a certain point and navigate the winding forest on their own. It seemed almost like second nature to Xiao Si as he moved along. He reached a hand out, pressing it past the curtain of leaves, and looked back over towards Hua Cheng, a soft smile appearing on his face, his eyes curving. “We’re here.”
The curtain was pulled back, and Hua Cheng was greeted by a sea of red flowers.
It was like something right out of a painting—it was hard to believe that a supreme ghost with a reputation as bad as this Sapphire Flames Engulfing the Crimson Garden… as bad as Xie Lian’s. All the flowers were a vibrant red, healthy and bright. Now that Hua Cheng thought on it, he at least understood the “crimson garden” part of his title. However, looking around, he still didn’t spot the shrine Xie Lian is said to reside in.
He turned to ask Xiao Si where it is, but finds the other is missing. He opened his mouth, about to call out for him—
“Your majesty!” Feng Xin’s voice cut through his private communication array. “You need to come back to the heavens—there’s an emergency!”
this chapter was written by keinine!!
also, just for future reference, we'll be posting all the chapters through my (nemean) account so if you only want to sub to one of the authors, i'm ur person!
also if u dont know,
didi: little brother
xiao-gege: hc was calling xiao si "short older brother"
Chapter 3: red peonies; good luck and prosperity
hua cheng has an unexpected visitor
this chapter written by nemean (that's me!)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There are exactly three things every devoted follower must know of his majesty Hua Cheng:
Firstly, Hua Cheng may be the god of good fortune, but before becoming an esteemed immortal, his life was anything but fortunate. People who only pray to his majesty once in a blue moon for a stroke of good luck surely assume he was the most fortunate man to ever set foot on this earth. They assume him a rich and prosperous ancient king who was born into his position and fed with a silver spoon his entire life. However, many devout believers know this to be false. They know he has faced more tragedy than any mere mortal could comprehend, and perhaps more catastrophe than any other god. His past spins one of the greatest tragic dramas known to humankind-tales of loss, war, famine, grief, and betrayal. His highness was only just fortunate enough to narrowly escape death and ascend in his last dying moments. Ever since, he has been met with great fortune and luck.
Secondly, many refer to him as “the red peony turns misfortune.” The story behind this title seems to be obscured and lost through time, but many claim it is simply a title for a benevolent god who grants fortune to those who ask kindly and he believes are deserving. However, some claim the eyepatch he wears obscures an eye the red of maple leaves and claim it a symbol of his good fortune. One fable in particular claims Hua Cheng once traded all of his good fortune for the bad luck of the most misfortunate man in the world. Another claims he has set his longing gaze on a long lost lover, wishing for the one thing his good luck has never granted him. Some say it is simply a metaphor for the god focusing his gaze on the misfortunate people of the world.
Regardless of the true meaning behind this story, followers of Hua Cheng plant red peonies outside of their homes as a harbinger of good luck and in hopes of attracting the attention of the god.
Lastly, and this is perhaps the most widely known of the three things, Hua Cheng constructed the prosperous Ren De City from the ground up. Shortly after his ascension to godhood, Hua Cheng disappeared entirely, only reappearing mysteriously after nearly a century at the very foundations of Ren De City.
Very few people haven’t heard of the famous Ren De City. What made this particular city so popular was the owner: beloved martial god of luck and fortune, King of Xian Le Hua Cheng. People from the North, South, East, and West all flocked to Ren De City in search of their life’s fortune. Right in the center of the city square, rather than the usual temple or palace, Hua Cheng built a huge casino that stood proud above the rest of the buildings. Rumors claimed the casino’s roof reached the heavens themselves, with Hua Cheng’s residence resting on the very top floor.
Currently, in a certain level of the Ren De Casino, hundreds of people crowded around a table, pushing and shoving at one another.
“You see,” voices whispered throughout the floor, “His Majesty Hua Cheng just got an assignment from the literature god Ling Wen in the heavens. He’s leaving tomorrow, and decided to celebrate today before departing. He seems to be particularly friendly today.”
True to the rumors, Hua Cheng sat at a long table made of dark red wood in the center of the room. His majesty’s kneeling position was completely improper, he leaned to the side with one leg propped up, casually tossing a vibrant red die in his hand. At the opposite end sat a man who appeared to be an elderly beggar off the streets. Though the crowd around them was not at all quiet, the discussion between the two was still the center of attention.
The beggar held a bright red cup, one hand cradled the base of the cup and the other covered the opening, keeping the contents inside. He shook the cup rather frantically. Hua Cheng languidly plucked a cup of his own from a servant’s hands and held it in a similar fashion, but he instead lazily rolled the cup from side to side.
“Stakes?” the god asked, one eyebrow shooting up over his pitch black eye.
“This humble follower wishes for a house! With a roof and everything!”
Hua Cheng smiled at the elderly man, as if this request pleased him, “And? What will you grant me if I win?”
The man seemed to deliberate for a moment, after all, what can you give a god that has everything? The man spoke, his tone completely serious, “A very important secret.”
Hua Cheng barked a short laugh, amused by the man’s proposition, “Very well, then,” he spoke, before releasing the contents of the cup. Two dice fell onto the wooden table, clacking loudly until tumbling to a stop. A pair of sixes stared back at the rest of the room.
The man seemed to expect as much, completely unsurprised by the results of Hua Cheng’s roll. The entire audience also seemed to agree with this sentiment.
Two more dice clattered from the beggar’s cup, presenting a three and a six.
Hua Cheng smiled, and said, “I guess you owe me that secret. I’ll make certain there is a house waiting for you at the edge of Ren De City by the end of the day regardless,” The god waved his hand, and a slew of servants that were waiting along the walls disappeared, presumably to source a vacant house for the man before the day ended.
The god smiled expectantly, and the older man shuffled over next to him, quickly murmuring in Hua Cheng’s ear, “Your enemies are closer than they seem.”
Troubled by this information, and how this man knew such a thing, Hua Cheng furrowed his brows and looked towards the elderly man.
A familiar flash of white robes caught Hua Cheng’s eye, and he was promptly distracted from the elderly man.
“Xiao Si,” Hua Cheng called, and the entire floor fell to a completely silent stand-still.
“Your Majesty Hua Cheng,” The young cultivator demurred, seeming nervous at the sudden attention of every single person in the room. Hua Cheng smiled, a mischievous glint in his eye.
“Xiao-gege, would you like to play a game with me?”
Audible gasps littered throughout the room, and Xiao Si’s face seemed to twitch, as if he couldn’t decide if he should laugh or cry. Hua Cheng could sympathize with poor Xiao Si, considering the god was the one who called him short in front of several people.
“Really, it’s fine if you just call me Xiao Si, your majesty.”
They both know Hua Cheng would not, in fact, just call him Xiao Si.
“Anyways, what would Xiao-gege like to play? A card game? Dice?” Hua Cheng, from his place at the head of the long table, extended his arm in a sweeping gesture before beckoning Xiao Si to come take the vacancy closest next to him.
Xiao Si approached hesitantly, the crowd parting for him and forming a clear path to the table. As he approached, he admitted, “Your majesty, this one is particularly bad at gambling-I do not know how to play a single game.”
“Oh?” Hua Cheng replied, his eyebrow arching, “Does Xiao-gege find himself with bad luck?”
Xiao Si huffed a short laugh, finally sitting down at the table, “You might say that, your majesty.”
Hua Cheng clapped the young man on the back, “Then it is fortunate for you that we are friends!”
Xiao Si shuffled uncomfortably, and Hua Cheng patted him on the back once again for good measure. The god spoke once again, “Might I suggest a simple dice game? We each roll three dice, and if somebody manages to roll a one, he wins.”
This game in particular Hua Cheng was the worst at-nearly every luck based game he would win. He had a known reputation of always rolling sixes, however. In fact, Hua Cheng cannot recall a single time in his entire life where he rolled a die and received anything less than a six in turn. This game actually required the players to roll a specific number, rather than the highest number, making it nearly impossible for Hua Cheng to actually win.
Xiao Si seemed momentarily puzzled by the rules Hua Cheng set; perhaps he also knew of the martial god’s penchant for high rolling.
“I would like to suggest an amendment to your game,” Xiao Si spoke at a tone that would normally be barely audible in such a large and occupied room, but the audience’s rapt attention allowed him to be heard by all.
“You may,” Hua Cheng was feeling particularly indulgent of his new friend.
“Many are aware that his majesty only ever rolls a six,” he spoke haltingly, “so playing a game to not roll a six seems unfair. May I suggest allowing me to roll three dice and betting I will roll at least a single six? This way, the game is fair for his majesty.”
Hua Cheng huffed. To think his friend wouldn’t even allow Hua Cheng to guarantee him a win!
“This lord accepts your stakes.” He smiled endearingly at the other, gently cupping Xiao Si’s hand in his. Dipping his voice down low, he said, “What are your stakes?”
“My stakes?” Xiao Si asked, rather innocently.
“Yes! Your stakes!” One of Hua Cheng’s nearby servants piped in. Hua Cheng smiled at her indulgently, “Whenever you bet against his majesty Hua Cheng, you must ask him to grant you a favor! It can be anything, from a promise of wealth in the year to come to even a miracle cure to a deadly illness that has overcome one of your family members!”
“Oh,” Xiao Si said, and continued to speak without hesitation, “In that case, this one would humbly request to accompany your majesty on his upcoming mission.”
Hua Cheng grinned, “Xiao-gege wishes to accompany me?”
Now, Xiao Si faltered before speaking again, “...Yes. This one is a self-taught rogue cultivator, and desires to study by observing his highness in action.”
Hua Cheng’s grin widened, “In that case, what would you give me if I win?”
Xiao Si’s brows furrowed, and he quickly shuffled through the sleeves of his cotton robes, “Um...I only have a half eaten steamed bun….” Xiao Si’s brows furrowed even more as he looked to the ground in, most likely, resignation.
Hua Cheng chuckled lightly-it seemed he was laughing quite a bit today.
“I accept your stakes.”
Immediately, Xiao Si’s head whipped back up to meet Hua Cheng’s eye, his own eyes full of hope. Hua Cheng, whose hand was still cupping Xiao Si’s, tenderly ran his thumb across the meat of Xiao Si’s palm.
You see, Hua Cheng had certain suspicions about Xiao Si. It seemed as if this young cultivator’s timing was nearly too impeccable, appearing to “guide” Hua Cheng to the fabled shrine of the Calamity known as Xie Lian, only to not find the shrine at all. And now, appearing before this god right as he was preparing to leave on a mission granted by the heavens, only to ask if he could accompany Hua Cheng, alone, was rightly suspicious.
On top of all this, Xiao Si seemed to know too much about Xie Lian. That, or he was simply too wise for appearing to be in his early twenties. Because of this, Hua Cheng suspected him to be a ghost wearing a human’s skin. This was not entirely uncommon, but the majority of ghosts could not actually create a decent human disguise for themselves. Usually, their insides were wrong and they forgot details like fingerprints or individual strands of hair. The most telling feature that ghosts overlooked was body warmth. Most often, their disguises ran cold for a human being, and gave them away on contact.
However, Xiao Si’s hands were even warmer than Hua Cheng’s! He even had fingerprints! Either he really was human, or he was an extremely powerful ghost. He had to be, at the very least, a calamity level ghost, to make a replication this accurate. Fortunately, he knew of one particular ghost that was ranked Supreme and who knew a lot about Sapphire Flames Engulf the Crimson Garden and seemed to have an interest in Hua Cheng.
Ah, well. Hua Cheng was feeling rather indulgent today, and decided to let Xie Lian have his fun. The calamity seemed particularly shy and skittish today anyways, and Hua Cheng didn’t want him running off like last time.
Instead of exposing this poor ghost in front of the mass of his followers, Hua Cheng instead dropped three dice into Xiao Si’s palm and delicately folded his slender fingers to hold the dice. Now holding Xiao Si’s hand with both of his own, Hua Cheng leaned over their joined hands, lips only centimeters away.
“Please allow this humble god to grant you some luck,” Hua Cheng murmured, looking up at Xiao Si through his eyelashes, before tenderly kissing the knuckles of Xiao Si’s closed fist.
Xiao Si’s fingers trembled around Hua Cheng’s grasp, and Hua Cheng let go of the other’s hand, fingers trailing reluctantly, and sat straight once again.
“Roll,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. Xiao Si nodded in response, cheeks sufficiently pinked, and shook his hand with fingers trembling in either nervousness or anticipation.
The dice spilled from Xiao Si’s hand and tumbled onto the table. They clicked along their trail while, with bated breath, Hua Cheng leaned in to see the results for himself. Alongside him, it seemed the rest of the room did so as well, all waiting in anticipation for the outcome. One by one, the dice teetered to a stop.
The first die to land presented a one to the room. The second, another one, as a pair of snake eyes now glared back at Hua Cheng. The final one took longer to finish rolling, and finally stumbled into its finish. A set of six dots stared back at him.
The room, for a brief moment, was completely silent. Hua Cheng felt yet another smile break out onto his face, before he declared, “It seems that Xiao-gege has won the bet.”
The room roared in cheers in response, centered around a silent and stunned Xiao Si.
Hua Cheng later learned, over a shared meal later that day, Xiao Si had only ever rolled ones on dice before today.
At this, the god smiled and asked, “So Xiao-gege has never rolled above one, ever, and decided he should change the bet from rolling a one to rolling a six? Nevermind cultivation and martial arts, gege has much to learn about gambling.”
Xiao Si’s cheeks pinked adorably, and he murmured, “Well, I just did not wish to play a game his majesty was guaranteed to lose. That hardly seemed fair.” So Xiao Si instead decided to play a game Hua Cheng was guaranteed to win! How was that fair? Ah, really…...this only endeared Hua Cheng further, but the smile suddenly fell from his face.
“I did not say it earlier, but I really prefer if Xiao-gege doesn’t call me by my titles. San Lang is really fine.”
“Ah, I’m sorry,” Xiao Si said, “This one was simply...surprised to find out San Lang’s identity.” Hua Cheng heavily doubted that was the truth, but accepted Xiao Si’s hesitance nonetheless.
Hua Cheng settled for giving Xiao Si’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze and offering him a smile, “That is alright, gege. This one understands.”
“I do have one question, before we head off on our journey,” Xiao Si murmured, a shy quirk of his lips gracing his face.
Hua Cheng raised his brows, the subject change was sudden, but he found he didn’t mind, “You may ask.”
“What was San Lang’s mission the heavenly officials assigned him?”
hey!! it's nemean again!! super sorry for the delay on this one! finals hit hard and fast and then i hit a major block on this chapter i just couldnt get around (i even started rewriting it at one point ;;;
keinine and i just decided to cut it short where it is!! it's nearly the length of a full chapter anyways (abt 300-500 words short) and it writing was like fighting tooth and nail so , i got to a stopping point and , here we are,