In Zu Long Gu (烛龙谷, Valley of the Torched Dragon), within the city of Wu Ming Shi (无名市, No Name City), was a place where immortals of all realms -- be it Celestial, Ghost, Fox, or even Demon -- could mingle without a care for status or background. Or at least, that was how it appeared. When it came to high energy concentrations of immortal energy, the valley ranked low, all due to the old god, Zhu Long’s wine infused torching of the land during his month-long drunken nap. Rather, Wu Ming Shi had become a place where immortals could gather intel, engage in shady deals, or just mingle with those they normally would not in polite company; all within the red lantern district, filled with taverns, brothels, shops and artisans’ magical creations.
Duels among rivals were not unheard of, while unsavory transactions were common here. Nothing was a surprise anymore, because Zhu Long Gu was under the jurisdiction of neither Ghost nor the Celestial tribe, even though it was located between those two realms.
Zheng You, the 5th Disciple of Kunlun, was no stranger to this place. It was a world he enjoyed visiting on occasion when he wanted to relax away from the austere lifestyle of Kunlun Mountain. But today was different. It was a night with no moon, the cold desert air making it necessary to warm the rice wine in a boiling pot over the clay stove. He was mingling with the other fellows from the borders over several bottles of wine, and tasty roasted lamb dinner, when a body flew through the screen windows of the tavern and crash landed on their table. Everyone in the room became highly alert as they stood up, scanning for the source of the new threat. Events like this happened on occasion, but the hostile aura this time was unlike others. “Zheng You, I need your help,” came an unperturbed voice as a man flew up from the first level to the third with ease, as though he was entering his own home rather than enemy territory. Zheng You could have sworn he heard the wrong voice. He cautiously turned his head, giving himself a short moment to prepare before he looked upon the unexpected guest. It was more than he would have bargained for. If he had made a bet for such an occasion, he would have lost. The Valley of the Torched Dragon was the last place Zheng You had expected his First Senior, Die Feng, the highly respected Crown Prince of the West Sea, to turn up and start a brawl no less. But looking at his Senior now, beneath the calm facade, Zheng You saw the turmoil in Die Feng’s eyes, eyes with the glint of despair of a man who had reached his final days on the road. “Greetings, First Senior. How may I be of assistance?” smiling, and with mischief in his eyes, ignoring the threatening aura around them as more immortals -- Ghost, Demon, and Celestial rushed up the stairs, Zheng You stood up and bowed to his Senior whom he had not seen in years. With the scene it created, Zheng You couldn’t have been prouder of his Senior’s entrance. In this land, if one did not show their worth, they wouldn’t be able move in the city without being taken advantage of. “Junior, I need you to go to the Demon Realm,” Senior Die Feng materialized his sword to block multiple blades, then backflipped to slash the opponents behind him, “to retrieve something for me.” “Why me?” Zheng You teased. Not many knew, but Zheng You could easily travel to the Demon Realm without it affecting his powers. Being of mixed blood, this ability was handy for occasions such as this. But there was another disciple among them who could perform the same feat.
“I’d rather place my bet on you,” Senior Die Feng growled as he threw his sword in the air, chanting under his breath. The white blade cloned into two rather than his usual four. Senior frowned at the result, but still sent the weapon spinning towards his opponents, cutting them off with the propelling blades.
“I didn’t know you were a gambling man. A favor from me will cost you, my dear Senior,” Zheng You laughed as his Midnight Blue Flame Lance appeared in his hand. “Don’t you know my reputation by now?” he asked as purple flame ignited on the lance tip. Pointing the weapon at the opponents who were rushing up the stairs, he blasted them with bolts of magic, sending them flying over the railings.
Zu Long Gu’s energy fluctuated on occasion due to the instability caused by the millennia of underground fire, a fact still unknown to many. Rumor had it that the flame from the old god Zu Long had never ceased burning under the earth, creating a volatile landscape that could never bring back its once lush green forest.
“Of course, that’s why I know you will get the job done. Whatever you want, you’ll get it!” Senior agreed without hesitation, his sword now back in his hand. Die Feng kicked the red clothed opponent in front of him, while cutting the dark Demon on his side. He then grabbed the blue clothed man’s sword arm and kneed him in the stomach, causing the man to grunt in pain before dropping to the floor and transforming into a racoon dog.
“You do flatter me, dear Senior,” Zheng You chuckled, as he rushed to his Senior’s side chanting spells under his breath. The purple flame grew, glistering with magic. He swung the lance in an arch, blasting the five men in front of his Senior, who propelled himself up to the ceiling before the magical blast could hit him.
“I do not flatter, Zheng You,” Die Feng said grimly as he landed on the tavern floor.
“I need to talk to 3rd Senior about your lack of bargaining skills. Or you’ll easily be taken advantage of here,” Zheng You told Die Feng as he reached his side. Back to back, they faced their surroundings. Half the men were already on the floor, the rest were now hesitant to make another move. “Or worse, make more trouble.”
“Trouble?!” Die Feng responded in shock, blocking two men with his sword. His was the voice of a man who had never “made trouble” in his life.
“Pray tell, how did you get into this predicament?” Zheng You asked as he swung the Flame Lance behind him to blast those same men with purple flame, sending them across the room, knocking over the wooden screen dividers. “You have turned this place upside down on your first day!”
“I was told to look for you here,” Die Feng argued, turning to the side before a blade crossed his chest. Grabbing the wrist, he bent his opponent’s arm and turned the blade to his opponent’s neck, then slammed his head against the man’s, knocking him out.
“By 14th?” Zheng You took a quick guess. Using his lance, he blocked left, right, then left again; the blades coming from all directions. With swift, calculated moves, his lance attacked their wrists, knocking the swords from their hands. Pressing the lance on the floor, he levered himself up, and circled, kicking three men across their heads. Their bodies flipped backward and they landed on their backs, grunting in pain.
“How did you know?” Senior’s voice rose in astonishment after he dropped another opponent to the floor.
“Never trust Yan Wei to give you instructions, haven’t you learned by now?!” Zheng You turned to laugh.
“He said the spotted panther, Teng Fei, would know where you’ll be,” Die Feng explained, cutting down another opponent, and back kicking the brown clothed man behind him.
“Teng Fei?! He told you to look for Teng Fei?”
“Yes! What’s the problem? Teng Fei wasn’t hostile when I met him at his shop.” Die Feng sent his sword up in the air again. With his thumb over his bent ring finger, he started his chant.
“14th, our dear Junior, apparently forgot to inform you that Teng Fei found me in a compromising position with his mistress about ten years ago. You, as my Senior, will tempt him to send his men after you for sheer revenge. To this day, he hasn’t beaten me but that doesn’t stop him from trying.”
“You seduced his mistress?!” Die Feng paused mid-chant, leaving the sword still hanging in midair. Then quickly collected himself, to split it in two again, propelling them against the last two opponents who were about to take advantage of his momentary distraction.
“She seduced me! I thought their arrangement had ended but turned out she wanted to use me to make him jealous. Never trust Spiders, they’re a devious lot,” Zheng You answered nonchalantly, and with a quick kick, he sent the last Demon over the balcony rail who landed three floors below while the crowd moved out of the way.
Die Feng and Zheng You looked down the balcony as the crowd began to disperse after a few minutes, the rustling streets turning back to their usual self as though the brawl never happened. Well, the calm was short lived, because Zhǔ Rén, owner of the Tavern, came running, face livid. But with Zheng You’s quick thinking and sly words, and Die Feng’s good name, the damages were handled swiftly, much to the delight of the owner, who no doubt was looking for a reason to remodel his run down tavern.
After the dust settled, they rested against the balcony rails catching their breath. Fighting within Wu Ming Shi often drained an immortal’s energy quickly, a major disadvantage to those with lower powers. Thanks to their High Immortal status, they could recuperate within a few incenses. The brothers in arms could finally talk civilly without blocking endless attacks. When Senior Die Feng explained what he needed, Zheng You was surprised yet fascinated by the job. Die Feng never hid his earnestness, yet neither did he hold back on his demands.
Zheng You’s mother had always told him that love made the strongest man among men. No matter the obstacle, the hardship, the battle... Zheng You had always dismissed the notion. Not because he didn’t believe in the trying emotion. A beautiful notion it was…wishful thinking from a woman who had achieved the impossible, against all odds, though a heavy price was paid. His father, Zheng Wei, was the 3rd Prince of the Black Panther clan from the Demon tribe. The most powerful among his brothers, he allowed leadership to be taken over by those with lesser powers -- all because he decided to choose the woman he loved: Zheng You’s mother. Attacked by friends and foe alike, who considered his actions betrayal to their kind, it brought him to his early grave. It wasn’t because of a mere flight of fancy that his parents caused the greatest of scandals between realms. His parents had known each other since they were young, meeting accidently during a hunting trip in the Celestial realm. Shortly after, they became unlikely friends and rivals, often bickering till the break of dawn, without realizing the attachment they had for one another. His mother, Mu Lan, from the Celestial tribe of the Red Panda clan, was well known for her beauty, though she was not of royal birth. The tribe’s leader had arranged for her to become his 2nd son’s consort when she reached the age for marriage.
It was not until her engagement was announced that his father understood his dormant emotions. As the original heir to the Blue Panther tribe, he never did anything by half, and though his timing could have been better, Zheng You’s mother, when she reminisced, talked of her delighted surprise when the man who lifted her red silk veil on their wedding day was her bickering partner instead of her intended groom. They had argued, they had clashed, but in the end, despite the timing not being in their favor, they had realized the inevitable. They ran off together that night, ignoring the repercussions of their actions. With the mixed blood in his veins, Zheng You knew he was created from love. An emotion so strong, his parents had defied their realms, families, and society to be together. However, Zheng You had never felt it, never experienced the intensity of the utmost emotional turmoil. Generation after generation he had observed others among his peers, including his own Master, go through their love trials. Those who were lucky enough to survive the greatest immortal trial lived their lives in peace with their partners. Si Yin, 17th disciple of Kunlun was married to the Celestial Crown Prince with their happy family of five. Zi Lan was less fortunate. Just like Zheng You’s father, he had lost his life protecting the one he could not live without: the Queen of the Ghost Tribe. A love trial was a gamble. Zheng You himself had always been a gambling man but he prefered the odds to be on his side. 50-50 were not great odds; better to be the house than the player, he always told his peers. Though the unforgiving odds did not stop others from trying to play the game of fate.
“What is your price?” Die Feng asked after he finished his explanation.
“That’s the thing…” Zheng You arched his brow, his expression contemplative. “I don’t know yet.” He grinned. “But I’ll start a tab for you.”
A love trial was indeed a costly gamble, in more ways than one.
Author's Note: Please Read Die Feng & Li Ying: The Dragon and the Wolf Vol.1 for reference