“You’ve finally come.”
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
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Hongjun’s head hurt greatly, as if it had been smacked several times by a heavy hammer. When he came back to consciousness, he found that he was currently completely naked, lying in a dark forest. He reached out to feel for his throwing knives and his Pentacolor Sacred Light, only to find that they had all disappeared!
“What is this place?!” Hongjun asked. “Zhangshi! Ghost King! Mo…”
“Shh,” a gentle, warm male voice said quietly. “Don’t speak. Be careful or they’ll find us.”
“Who are you?” Hongjun turned his head, but he could not find the source of that voice.
“Walk towards the light, come find me,” that man’s voice said. “I will find a way to send you out of here.”
Hongjun turned, only to see that in the deepest part of the grove, a point of light appeared. He had no way to determine, however, if this voice was friend or foe.
“Trust me,” that voice said.
When Hongjun heard these words, he was already feeling an instinctual fear, and he stood there, unmoving. That voice continued, “I can sense your fear, but you do not need to be worried; humans will always be deceived by dreams. Of the countless living things in this world, even if they perceive something with their own eyes, how can they be sure it is real, let alone part of a dream?”
Those words touched something in Hongjun, and he slowly started to walk towards that light.
The light in the woods slowly grew a little brighter, before it once again dimmed after a moment. Hongjun’s entire body didn’t even have a single thread on it, and without any clothes on, he walked through the forest. When his bare feet trod over the fallen leaves on the ground, his heart thumped, and he constantly wanted to find some leaves to cover himself up.
The light slowly brightened, before once again returning to darkness. In the deepest part of the woods appeared a bathing pool, its sides constructed of rocks piled together, and in the middle of the pool was a spring brimming with glowing light.
In front of the pool stood a young man. He was also completely bare and of about the same height as Hongjun. His build was slim, but his muscles were well-defined, and under the light of the moon and the waters of the pool, his skin seemed to take on a silver sheen. When he saw Hongjun, he raised his eyebrows gently and began to smile - he was Lu Xu!
When Hongjun unexpectedly saw Lu Xu’s almost perfect body, he almost had a nosebleed, but he hadn’t expected that Lu Xu also felt a little abashed. Lu Xu turned his head away and said, “We meet again, Gege.”
Lu Xu lifted his hand, and with a shua, light gathered up, enveloping both their bodies. The light turned into a pair of long white pants on both Hongjun and himself, leaving their upper bodies bare. Hongjun said awkwardly, “This is finally a little better.”
“Do you want a shirt as well?” Lu Xu asked. “I know that in Yaojin Palace, it is not the custom to wear shirts, and wearing clothes that cover the back always makes them feel uncomfortable.”
At that, Hongjun waved his hands. Usually, the birds heavily treasured their wings, and they indeed were not accustomed to wearing shirts, no matter if their shirts would disappear once they took yao form.
“What is this place?” Hongjun asked, furrowing his brows. “You’re better now?”
Hongjun watched Lu Xu, who let out a long breath and replied, “This is the ‘Deer King Jātaka’, within one of the murals.”
Before, Hongjun had felt as if he was in a trance, but now his emotions were complicated. Lu Xu gave him a glance, before picking up a small wooden cup by the side of the pool, scooping up some of the water and handing it to him. Hongjun was very thirsty, so he drank a cup, then he scooped up another. Like that, he drank quite a few cups. Lu Xu then said, “The heart devil is not far from where this grove is. When I returned to the mural, my hunpo and the heart devil were separated.”
Hongjun asked, “Can you leave with me?”
Lu Xu shook his head, replying, “As long as either I or the heart devil want to leave this mural, then we will once again become one. Before this, I have never had a physical form, and could only move using my souls, but now that I have found my form in the physical world, as well as my remaining one hun and one po, as soon as the heart devil is released from its shackles, it will cause me to be unable to control my self. Thankfully, you Gege, and the Grey Wolf managed to hack off my antlers.”
“You’re older than me.” Without understanding why, Hongjun's thoughts suddenly drifted, and he chuckled. “Stop calling me Gege all the time, that’s too weird.”
With one foot on the banks of the pool, Lu Xu raised his chin, gesturing for Hongjun to look into the pool.
As Hongjun glanced into the pool, he instantly stilled.
A starry night sky appeared within the pool, and a small child rode on Kong Xuan’s shoulders as he knocked at the doors to a family’s residence, and that family… was within that same Shiwei village that Mo Rigen had once visited, at the foot of the Qilian Mountains!
A new infant had been born in that family, so Kong Xuan put the child down and picked up the newly-born infant in his arms, stroking his chest and back.
Hongjun: “This is…”
Lu Xu: “The big one is you, the small one is me.”
Lu Xu had a gentle smile on his face as he watched Hongjun.
After the infant was bathed, he was wrapped in swaddling cloths. Lu Xu’s father held the newly-born him, while Kong Xuan held little Hongjun’s hand, the two adults sitting on a low seat, chatting.
The image disappeared.
“Hongjun,” Lu Xu smiled. “You’ve finally come.”
With that, Lu Xu stepped up onto the side of the pool, before leaping down at Hongjun. Hongjun let out a flustered shout as he was pressed to the ground under Lu Xu’s embrace.
“I was wondering!” Hongjun said, “How come you couldn’t remember anyone else, but you could still remember my name?”
Hongjun pulled Lu Xu up, and the two of them sat down, backs pressed up against the pool. Lu Xu was a little dejected at that question, and he said, “At that time, I only had one hun and one po, and all I thought was that you looked like him.”
“Like my dad,” Hongjun said.
“En,” Lu Xu said, nodding.
Hongjun said, “A few days earlier, I dreamed about him and my mom.”
Lu Xu turned his head, watching Hongjun. He said, “Those dreams aren’t real, or it’d be better to say, they’re not completely real.”
Hongjun immediately grabbed Lu Xu’s arm, saying, “Can you let me dream clearly of them again? I dreamed of Zhangshi, and also of Di Renjie…”
Lu Xu shrugged, replying earnestly, “My antlers were chopped off by you.”
Hongjun slapped a hand to his forehead, completely resigning himself to the situation.
Lu Xu said, “But when you were small, someone left a seal in your memories, did you know that?”
“What?!” Hongjun asked.
Just as Lu Xu was about to explain, the sky above the grove turned dark, and from afar came rumbles akin to thunder. Lu Xu immediately pressed his hand to the platform in front of the pool, indicating that Hongjun stay quiet.
Hongjun warily watched the horizon. That sky seemed to be the same pale yellow of the mural, but black fog was currently billowing across it, heading towards the north-eastern corner.
“It’s currently searching for you,” Lu Xu whispered. “After my hunpo returned, the heart devil carried the both of us into the mural. I took the chance to cast some magic to bring your hunpo into the grove, but is there also devil qi in your body? Otherwise, how could it have brought you into the mural as well?”
“There is,” Hongjun responded.
“But after entering the mural, your devil qi was not able to separate from your hunpo,” Lu Xu said, frowning. “Let me see?”
He turned around and stroked Hongjun’s chest, before reaching out a hand, his fingers glowing with white light. They sank into Hongjun’s chest.
In that instant, Hongjun felt Lu Xu’s fingers directly brush against his heart, and his entire body trembled. But after that single touch, Lu Xu pulled back, drawing back as soon as he came into contact with it.
“It’s a… a…” Lu Xu stuttered.
“A devil seed,” Hongjun said quietly.
The two of them exchanged a glance, and Hongjun replied, “I also only just learned of it.”
“You are the vessel for Mara?” Lu Xu asked, observing Hongjun. “But how come you’ve only taken in this little…”
Hongjun replied, also at a loss, “Stop asking, I also don’t know.”
Lu Xu looked at him, as if he had understood something, and finally he nodded, saying, “Don’t worry, I will protect you.”
Hongjun smiled bitterly, but as he smiled, his heart began to ache, unwarranted.
“Right now, they must be searching for you in the Mogao Caves,” Lu Xu said. “The heart devil will treat you as a hostage trapped within the mural and want to make an exchange with them. As soon as the heart devil leaves again, I can take the chance to send you out. Come with me.”
Hongjun still had many questions that he wanted to ask, but Lu Xu patted him, telling him to get up as he said, “There’s a small path here, let’s go!”
The shadows of the trees danced, and the sunlight was bright. Hongjun had stayed too long in lands covered with ice and snow, and when he got here, he began to reminisce about the summer days he had spent in Chang’an.
“Your home is so beautiful, how long have you lived here?” Hongjun suddenly felt that it was pretty good to live in a mural; life was simple and easy, the landscape was beautiful, and the outside world could not reach him here.
“I don’t know,” Lu Xu responded, a thread of confusion in his gaze. “Ever since I was very young, by the time I understood things I was already living in the mural.”
Ever since Lu Xu’s process of reincarnation had been interrupted, he had lost all of his memories from his time as the White Deer. Thankfully, his spiritual energy had been plentiful when he was being reborn, and in that single glance, what gave him the strongest impression was Kong Xuan and his son. As for the rest, he could not remember very clearly. He only knew that he lived within this mural, sometimes unconscious, sometimes awake. When he was awake, he was within the mural, and when he was unconscious, he seemed to see everything going on in the world through Lu Xu’s eyes.
Hongjun exclaimed, “So that’s to say, at that time…”
“Yes,” Lu Xu said, nodding. “I saw you, and I saw the Grey Wolf. I wanted to bring you all to the Mogao Caves.”
Hongjun breathed in deeply. Lu Xu grew a little dejected again, and he said, “The Plague God and Xuannü have all entered the mural before, as well as a black dragon. They called him the ‘yao king’.”
The two of them walked out of the forest, only to see that a palace had appeared in the distance.
“That was where I lived when I was young,” Lu Xu continued. “After they took it over, I was chased out.”
Hongjun hadn’t thought that Lu Xu would actually be even more pitiful than him. He had grown up, just like this, living alone in this mural. He slung an arm around Lu Xu’s shoulders, squeezed it a little, and asked, “You’ve lived right here for eighteen years?”
Lu Xu nodded and said, “Sometimes, I would also see the me outside being taken care of by my parents, but sadly, they’ve died.”
Hongjun’s eyes reddened. When he lifted his gaze to watch Lu Xu, the two of them held each other’s gazes for a moment.
Lu Xu then said, “When I was trapped here, I often wondered, would you guys come to find me? I had no way to continuously control that body living outside, and they kept searching for it everywhere constantly. I wanted to go find you guys, but I didn’t dare to be too flamboyant, not to mention I had to return to the mural at any time, otherwise they would find out…”
Hongjun was shocked, and he said, “So that day, at the very end…”
At the very end, Lu Xu had burned all his bridges and taken control over his body in the human realm to bring Hongjun all the way to the Mogao Caves. But it was that very night that the Plague God and Xuannü had rushed over to forcefully drag Lu Xu from the mural, but they had accidentally, by following the clues left to them, found his body in the human realm.
Lu Xu said, dejected, “... As soon as I left the mural, I was taken over by the heart devil, and sank into your dreamscape…”
The two of them came to a stop in front of a palace, and Hongjun asked, “How exactly did the heart devil appear?”
At this time, the group of people outside the mural had devolved into chaos. The carp yao hugged unconscious Hongjun, loudly shouting, “Hongjun, Hongjun!” Mo Rigen was taking Lu Xu’s pulse, while Li Jinglong tilted his head so that he could hear Hongjun’s breathing. While doing so, the two of them couldn’t resist arguing loudly.
“Silence!” the ghost king roared angrily.
“What’s their condition?” A-Tai asked.
“They’re still breathing, and their pulses are strong,” Mo Rigen said, extremely anxious. “Are they dreaming?”
“Their hunpo are out of alignment,” the ghost king replied. “What did you all last see?”
Li Jinglong then described the black qi entering the drawing, and the group raised their heads to look towards the Deer King Jātaka. The ghost king replied, “They’ve entered the mural.”
“His artifacts are all still here,” Ashina Qiong said. “With only his hunpo, that little brother will be in trouble.”
Li Jinglong observed the mural, only to see that there was a faint layer of black qi beginning to cover it. The ghost king intoned, “Do not be alarmed. I can send your hunpo out of alignment so that you can go in to save him.”
Mo Rigen suddenly thought of something, and he said, “Then that’s to say, since their hunpo are residing within the mural, the devil qi can also be…”
“It is worth a try,” the ghost king responded. “But do not celebrate too soon.”
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.