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eight hundred years under

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Exactly one century after Jun Wu defeated the old gods and established a new order in Heaven, Death walks into his pristine palace in a fog of silver and crimson.

Music stills, wine stops flowing and mouths drop as all the gods, gathered in the Great Martial Hall to celebrate the anniversary of the victory of the Emperor over tyranny, shiver in unease. They are scared. Pathetic. Gods have grown complacent; it's been so long since they saw Death in person. Back when they were at war, Death lurked by their side constantly—ever present, ever silent, ever powerful, the last and only certainty.

But that was the former Death. New Death does not slide silently, doesn't slither, doesn't hide in the depth of the Underground so the sensitive Gods tucked safely all the way up in the Sky don't have to endure his existence. He doesn't use shadows like a cloak but wears the blood of the living instead, and shimmering dead souls flutter by his side. Perhaps one of those butterflies is the soul of the old Death he murdered and took the place of. It's just how it works in the Underground. Death hoards souls until one grows strong enough to devour their keeper and steal their throne.

No, indeed, this new Death is not quiet and discreet. He speaks in bangs, not whimpers, and he won't be ignored.

"What a nice party." Death smiles like a wound as he strolls through the banquet, his mouth bleeding bitterness and his eyes shining darkness. "Thanks for the invitation."

He was not invited. No one ever invites Death to dine with them, and everyone knows it. They avoid his steel gaze like the cowards they are. Not Shi WuDu, however. He has never been scared of Death, and he's not going to start now. He meets Death's cold eyes, tilts his chin up and raises a condescending eyebrow in a silent dare.

Shi WuDu is the ocean, and the ocean does not kneel for anyone.

"Well, that's awkward," Pei Ming mumbles from Shi Wudu's right.

"Shut up, old Pei," Ling Wen hisses from his other side.

All three of them are sitting the closest to the Emperor, as befitting of their higher status in Heaven's hierarchy. Ocean, War, and Order, or as people not so secretly nickname them, Tyranny, Slaughter, and Paperwork. The Three Tumors of Heaven, the evil to Jun Wu's benevolence.

What a joke. How nice it must be to honestly believe the Sun shining over them is anything but a calamity in disguise.

"Death," Jun Wu says warmly without a hint of surprise. "Welcome to my palace. Have a seat."

Whispers slither across the tables. Without bothering to answer the Emperor, Death leisurely walks over the gilded floor, his pet souls flying above the banquet. Shi WuDu swaps away a silver butterfly when it flutters near his cheek.

It stings. The fucker dared to bite him.

"Ge," QingXuan calls out to him from a few seats away, his green eyes darkened with concern. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Shi WuDu waves his hand dismissively.

"Hey, Death, don't be like that," Pei Ming tries in his usual and incredibly grating buoyant voice. "Sit down with us, have a drink! We're all friends here."

Friends? They weren't all friends before an outsider like Death showed up. Heaven is a snake pit where meek fools crawl over the dead bones of their predecessors. Only cold-blooded hearts and traitorous sycophants can thrive here. The only notable exception would be QingXuan, who remains stupidly kind-hearted. That's alright, he can afford to, since his older brother is merciless enough for two.

Death seems as unconvinced as Shi WuDu by Pei Ming's suggestion. His expression of fake politeness wilts to coldness. "Where is Lord Mercy?"

The gods stare at each other, visibly confused by the question. It's been decades since the Flower Crowned God last partied with them. No one has seen him, let alone sat down at the same table and exchanged words with the pariah of Heaven. It had been so long, most forgot what he even looked like. They could cross his path and not recognize a god in the smiling trash collector humbly roaming human roads.

How far the Emperor's beloved favorite has fallen. It was predictable, though. As Shi WuDu previously pointed it out, mercy has no business existing in Heaven, and therefore neither does its god.

"Xie Lian won't be joining us tonight," Jun Wu calmly explains.

"Why not?" Death retorts. His face is placid, but the shining souls hovering nearby betray his anger.

"He's not welcome in Heaven at the present moment."

An euphemism to say the god got kicked out in front of everyone and has no chance to ever come back until he apologizes for his ridiculous conduct and grovels for a few decades more. People who don't know how to keep their opinions to themselves can only expect that kind of treatment, and Mercy was never very good at shutting the fuck up for his own good.

"Y-Yeah," an even more stupid than usual god dares to speak up. "The laughing stock of Heaven? Not gonna happen anytime soon!"

"He's completely mad, not fit to be in polite society," another adds.

"I bet he smells too, haha! How could we eat next to his stench?"

Ling Wen facepalms and sighs in despair while ShiDu smirks. Some people just can't read the mood. They don't realize in their haste to earn Death's favor, they garnered his loathing instead. Clearly, they deserve to die.

"Don't let Xie Lian's absence turn our good relations sour, Death." Jun Wu smiles benevolently.

"What good relations?" Death's grin cuts like the sharp edge of eternity. "You can all rot for all I'm concerned."

Coming from the god who knows all about decomposition, this is not a reassuring statement. What a bunch of idiots Heaven is composed of.

Shi Wudu grins behind his fan as he talks back to Death with no fear. His entire domain is filled with water-ruined cadavers and the desperate gasps of the drowned. He, too, knows all about decomposition and the ugliness of the afterlife. "Don't bother looking for Mercy in Heaven, Death. You won't find him here."

You won't find any mercy in Heaven.

Hua Cheng glares up at Shi Wudu, the edge of a world of resentment cutting by the line of his teeth. He doesn't bother to spare any more words to the gods staring at him and disappears in a flutter of silver wings.

"What the fuck just happened?" Pei Ming crystallizes the tense confusion in the room in one elegant sentence. "Oi, Noble Jie, what's the deal between His Highness and this new Death?"

Shi Wudu rolls his eyes at his instinctive reaction to ask Ling Wen when there is anything he doesn't know about, as if it's obvious the Goddess knows everything about everyone.

"I don't know." Ling Wen frowns. "But this can't be good for us."

.

Pei Ming has always hated dealing with criers. May it be children or women, he never knows how to handle distress expressed so plainly and loudly, so he usually… politely ignores it and waits for the storm to pass. It's even worse when the crier in question is a grown man. Then, Pei Ming will lose any and all ability he has to react rationally and won't hesitate to run the other way.

It's unfortunate he cannot afford to answer his natural instinct of removing himself from the picture for his and the crier's safety. Shixiong would murder Pei Ming if he abandoned his precious little brother in the middle of a crisis.

"Ah, QingXuan, please calm down. I have no idea what you're trying to say!" Pei Ming waves his hands desperately.

The Wind Master glares at him and sniffs behind his fan. It must be physically painful to ask for Old Pei's help. The two of them could never get along. "I'm saying that His Highness just got kidnapped by Death, and we need to do something before he gets trapped forever in the Underworld! Is that clear enough for you, old man?"

"No need to be rude," Pei Ming grumbles. He ain't old. "Kidnapped by Death? Really?"

"I was there!" Shi QingXuan gets agitated again at the questioning. "I was visiting His Highness, we were picking flowers for some villagers who got sick or something, you know how kind His Highness is, and this brute showed up on his scary carriage and stole His Highness! Just like that, right in front of my eyes!"

That sounds like the kind of kinky roleplays Pei Ming would be into, to be honest. But consensual and planned out, mind you! "How did His Highness react? Did he fight Hua Cheng?"

"Well, no," Shi QingXuan admits, before he quickly adds, "He didn't have the time to, it all happened so fast! And you know how His Highness is, kind and unassuming."

That may be how he is now, but Pei Ming has different memories of a time the Wind Master is too young a god to have known. A time where Mercy expressed his nature in a quick death for his enemies instead of a flower for the diseased. His Highness is not nearly as harmless as Shi QingXuan thinks he is.

Still. Whether Death kidnapped Mercy or Mercy went willingly, it's an issue for Pei Ming, or Heaven in general. Jun Wu is always weird when it comes to his former heir. It's the kind of fucked-up situation Pei Ming has no wish to touch with a ten-foot pole. What a time for Jun Wu, Shi Wudu and Ling Wen to be busy doing who knows what while Pei Ming keeps the castle.

"Right, right." Pei Ming pinches his nose tiredly. "I'm going to the Underworld to see what's up. Or what's down, haha...get it? Because-"

"I get it, and you suck." Shi QingXuan scowls, and never has he looked more like his brother before that moment. "Let's go, Old Pei. And yes, I'm coming, too." He adds the declaration without leaving any room for negotiation. That's a typical Shi Wudu power move, too.

Pei Ming sighs and prays nothing happens to Shui-xiong's brother, or he might as well spare himself the travel time and never come back from the Underworld. The Wind Master is bright-eyed with curiosity as they walk down the way to the kingdom of the dead. It's obvious he has never set foot in such dreary places before, unlike Pei Ming who knows every crook of the road and every bridge to cross by heart.

The path of War inevitably leads to Death, after all. Hua Cheng and Pei Ming basically operate in the same branch of work, so it's logical Pei Ming would have its ways carved under his eyelids.

"Two return tickets, my good friend," he cheerfully declares as the Styx and the soul carrying boat waiting on the shore appear in the view.

Pei Ming shoves a large number of merits in the little payment box at the entrance of the boat and doesn't bother to wait for approval to hop on the ferry. The most important part in a winning man's attitude is to pretend he knows what he's doing, and most people won't question his legitimacy. Pei Ming is very good at doing exactly that. Bullshit it until you make it, that's his motto.

Unfortunately, the ferryman is not most people. "Lord War," he says in his usual bland tone.

"Mister Ferryman." He smirks at the masked god playing errand boy for Death itself. "C'mon, you don't want to get in a fight with me, you know you don't. Be kind to yourself and let your boss deal with my annoying ass in person, huh?"

The ferryman sighs but doesn't argue any further. Pei Ming ignores the many dead souls staring at him as he sits by the edge and waits for Shi QingXuan to be a good boy and follow along. Which is what happens, almost.

"It's three tickets," the Wind Master slams his own extravagant contribution to the funding of this impromptu trip before he twirls angrily in the boat. "Unless your memory is so bad you forgot why we're here, Old Pei."

Pei Ming laughs loudly, his head thrown back. "Right, right, sorry little QingXuan."

"Little?"

"I don't know what Lord Wind Master and Lord War are looking for, and I want to keep not knowing, but a friendly reminder that what is already dead cannot leave the Underworld," the ferryman dryly points out.

"Yeah, yeah, I know the rules, don't get your knickers in a twist." Pei Ming flicks his wrist in dismissal. Though he would argue Hua Cheng is very dead and he leaves the Underworld all the time, doesn't he? Talk about unfair double standards. "I hope you're sure of yourself, QingXuan."

"Of course, I know what I saw!" The Wind Master smacks his fan over Pei Ming's armor. He's about as respectful of War as his brother is. "It's not like I could confuse the Infernal Ghost Carriage and Lord Death for anything else!"

The boat starts moving above the falsely calm waters of the Styx. Pei Ming, aware of the perils of this traitorous river, forces himself to stare onward, and he drags Shi QingXuan from the railing. "Don't look at the Styx if you don't want the Styx to look at you. And you don't want the Styx to look at you, believe me."

For once, Shi QingXuan doesn't argue. He turns his head up, in the same direction Pei Ming is staring at. "On the other side, I see lights. Are those… lanterns?"

Pei Ming chuckles at his innocent wonder. The atmosphere within the Underworld is tenebrous and gloomy, thick with sorrow, and gravely silent like a sleeping night. It calls for reflection and quietness, luring lost souls through whispers in the dark. But that was the regime of the former Death.

Hua Cheng has a radically different idea of how the afterlife should be. And the city he crafted with his own claws out of ghostfires, resentful bones and dead things that refuse to move on shines through the cocoon of dullness that is the Underworld like a sinful star.

"That's Ghost City," he says simply. "I gotta say, they set up a shitton more lanterns than usual. Must be celebrating something…"

"Really?" Shi QingXuan muses. "The dead have festivals, too?"

They do, but not today. Shit. Maybe Hua Cheng really did kidnap His Highness. Shit. "Hey, Ferryman, what are you guys celebrating?"

Pei Ming can't see it, but he can feel the sardonic smile under the ghost's mask. "Our Lord's betrothal."

"B-Betrothal?" Shi QingXuan repeats, mouth gaping with stark realization. "With who?"

"You already know the answer to that question, Wind Master," the ferryman says. "The God of Mercy, of course."

There is an inevitability in the way he explains those impromptu nuptials. Death and Mercy, walking hand and hand, linked together by their very nature. A memory pops from the back of Pei Ming's head: the still vivid picture of Xie Lian covered in grime, roaming over the battlefield like a crazed dog, eyes filled with nothing but despair. Mercy and Death, indeed.

"We have to stop it." Shi QingXuan urgently squeezes Pei Ming's arm. "General Pei, we have to-"

"Stop what?"

A teenager sits by the barrier, a tunic red like blood clinging to his lanky but powerful form, boots decorated with silver bells singing through the breeze, and a mischievous smirk promising suffering on his lips. A paper umbrella is opened wide behind him, painting an aura of crimson around his head.

Well shit.

Pei Ming glares meaningfully at Shi QingXuan, silently urging him not to say anything impulsive that could get them thrown out and into the Styx. Shi QingXuan, predictably, either doesn't get the message or chooses to ignore it.

"Red tunic, crooked ponytail," he mumbles to himself as he inspects Hua Cheng's outfit. "A 'handsome young man'... I get it, you are His Highness' San Lang!"

"Oh, Gege spoke of me? And he thinks I'm handsome?" Death smiles with all his white teeth. "This makes me very happy."

"Yes, yes, all the time! It's always San Lang this and San Lang that when I visited those last months! About the other thing…" Shi QingXuan grins slyly behind his fan and winks with the subtlety of a charging bull. And he keeps on claiming Pei Ming has no class. The sheer hypocrisy. "Well, most of the time he doesn't say it, but friends know those things, en?"

Hua Cheng looks very cat-got-creamed pleased when he repeats, "En. You. You're okay. You can visit Ghost City if you wish. I promise no harm will come to His Highness' good friend."

Okay. So apparently Hua Cheng has been 'courting' Xie Lian under the disguise of San Lang for at least several months, and he decided he was done waiting and stole his prey under Heaven's nose. "Kinky," he whistles.

"Don't compare His Highness to your own conquest, old pervert," Hua Cheng growls at Pei Ming, his good mood a faraway memory.

Pei Ming waves his hands sheepishly. "Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean like that! No need to be so defensive."

"Visit the Ghost City...So His Highness' dear San Lang was Lord Death all along," Shi QingXuan muses out loud, sounding more excited than horrified by the discovery. "It's not a kidnapping, it's a-"

"Spicy sexcapade."

"Romantic holiday! Old Pei! His Highness is very pure of mind and body, shut your filthy mouth!"

Pei Ming cackles at the sheer indignation on Shi QingXuan's face. His hilarity turns sour when a boot hits his belly at full speed and sends him overboard.

FuuuuuuckNot again!

.

Ling Wen remembers a time when the Underworld was a heaven of order. The old Death and she were alike in mind; they both understood the importance of thoughtfully planned structure and a clear hierarchy. Everything and everyone had a place, and they stayed there. It was beautiful, if not very warm.

But it was all gone now. The new Death tore apart the ancient order to establish his own form of order instead, and he was the only one to understand the rules. To Ling Wen, Ghost City is a chaotic swarm, disconnected to the laws of gods and men. It's ugly and beautiful at once, in its own special way.

And so Order walks through the Ghost City then Paradise Manor, unknown and unnoticeable if not for the ferryman escorting her. Ironically, an exiled god is a more respected figure than she is. No matter. Ling Wen is perfectly used to not getting any consideration, and it never stopped her before.

"This way, Lady Ling Wen." The ferryman gestures at the giant door leading to the Throne Room. "The Lords are waiting for you."

So it's already the Lords. Not the Lord and his captive pet. Not the Lord and his lover. The Lords, a clear statement that Xie Lian is integrated into the chain of command and he's here to stay.

She schools her expression into polite indifference and marches inside the Throne Room. The place is as tacky as ever, set in marbles and golds, full of vanity and no modesty. To be fair, Heaven is no better in that regard.

There is a notable addition from the last time she came to the Underworld: a second throne tucked next to the throne of the Ghost King, as big and heavily ornate as its twin. It's unfortunately empty for the moment, as its intended occupant is using the lap of the Ghost King in person as his chair instead of the perfectly serviceable seat nearby.

To think Mercy was still the biggest prude of Heaven not even a few months ago. Now he's shamelessly cradling the chin of his 'kidnapper' between his hands with a besotted smile on his face and the arm of a demon firmly holds his waist. The typically annoying couple who looks like they fucked today already, will fuck later and would be fucking right now if it weren't for inconvenient social calls.

"San Lang, let me go," Xie Lian giggles, not having noticed Ling Wen yet, his attention focused entirely on his lover. Betrothed, actually, as Hua Cheng's missive to Jun Wu explicitly said. "Ling Wen-Zun will be here soon."

"And?" Hua Cheng outright purrs.

Disgusting. Ling Wen clears her throat meaningfully, and Xie Lian jumps at the sudden noise. Hua Cheng reluctantly lets his lapful of god escapes from his embrace, obviously displeased by the interruption. Well, he can suck it. Ling Wen isn't delighted to be here either, but she has a message to deliver, sadly, and she's not leaving until she does.

"Ling Wen-Zun, welcome." Xie Lian rushes down to greet her.

She bows back, inspecting the god critically. He's still wearing modest white robes, though the quality is a far cry for his usual rags, and his cheeks are rosy with healthiness. Objectively, His Highness doesn't look to be secretly begging for help or under an enchantment as many claimed. He just seems honestly, genuinely happier than he has been in centuries.

"I hope your trip wasn't too trying," he adds, trying his best to fill the conversation in his own socially awkward way.

"It was adequate," Ling Wen replies tonelessly. "Your Highness, Lord Death, I have come to deliver a message of Heaven."

Xie Lian stills, his old eyes weary with wariness. Without saying a word, Hua Cheng raises up from his throne and slides down the stairs to stand by his side. His eye, just as old, is heavy with daring more than weariness. This is the eye of a man who clawed his way to Death and tore it apart to make it his bitch. This is the eye of a man who stood in front of all the gods in Heaven and told them to fuck off.

This is the eye of a man who stole a god from misery and won't ever return him, no matter what Jun Wu demands.

"Go on then," he slowly says. "Deliver."

He thinks he can scare her, the way he scares those meek gods haunting shrines and fearing the darkness of the after-life. Ling Wen has no time to be frightened by a petty detail like Death. She has a kingdom to run.

"By order of the Emperor of Heaven, you have three days to release from the Underworld Lord Xie Lian, god of Mercy, safe and sound."

"This is ridiculous," Xie Lian sighs. "I don't need to be 'released'. I'm perfectly fine where I am."

Obviously. The decision is not up to Ling Wen, sadly, and Jun Wu has always been unreasonable when it comes to Xie Lian, for reasons Ling Wen has no wish to ponder. "Lord Jun Wu is very concerned for your well being."

Xie Lian bites his bottom lip, visibly conflicted. Ling Wen personally thinks that Jun Wu should be more worried about the centuries his 'dear Mercy' spent his misery and loneliness rather than his romantic getaway.

"What if I refuse?" Hua Cheng asks, the very picture of nonchalance.

Ling Wen blinks. "Then there will be war."

Hua Cheng laughs. It's not a pretty sound. It's the sound mortals hear on their deathbed, it's the sound that echoes on battlefield and hospices, it's the sound that lures light into the void to kill it where no words dare to speak.

And Mercy stands by it, resolution tucked in his friendly smile and his fingers reaching out for the familiar handle of his sword. Not so long ago, he made empires and gods bleed alike, and he won't hesite to do so again. 

"Then there will be war."