Ascension - a feat mortals could only dream of. May it be through cultivation or the repetitive cycles of reincarnations, the catch would always be the same. One had to reach the almost unattainable enlightenment with a will and strengths no ordinary mind could comprehend. But, for those who were destined, the universe would pave the way.
One in a million chance to reach the heavens.
For creatures with impure hearts, the rumored alternatives was certainly enticing. But these would only lead to unnecessary and incessant suffering. The stories were all the same. Tales of countless rulers - from land to sea, of past and present - had sought for the alleged elixirs of longevity. The most ruthless and powerful men had resorted to performing animal and human sacrifices, or consuming deadly potions such as metal poisons.
Nothing could stop the greed of mortal men.
The most willful creatures of all heavens’ creations.
A mortal’s life - a fleeting moment within the timeless universe. Their existence might be short but the wheels would remain and the turns would uncease. One lived to die and died to live again.
Unbeknownst to those who coveted immortality, it came with its own burden… its own suffering.
The wheel had stopped turning --- the horizon was forever out of reach.
To appease his thirst for the ordinary against the extraordinary, Guo Zhu roamed the mortal worlds, across countless fertile and often barren lands. He sought hardship after hardships and met countless beauties among the sparkling gems of every colors for score of lovers had come to the doorstep of his chamber.
The allure was always there. He was a man after all.
But to have captured his interest and truly captivated his soul… there had only been one such beauty.
It was one of the many versions of mortal realms which forever changed his destiny. During the celebration of the Arch Prince of Zhao, Guo Zhu was one of the countless generals, a recent favorite among his chosen disguises in mortal land. He would never forget the first time, under the blood moon, when he gazed upon the woman who held his undivided attention. Gone were the thoughts of stars glittering against bluish-midnight skies. On this instance, at this random mortal world, Guo Zhu’s destiny was sealed.
The exquisite creature was dressed in black and red silk. Against her fair skin which shone like pearls, waves of midnight black hair flowed past the curve of her hips. Her scarlet lips also matched the blossom design between her elegant brows. A Goddess had descended from the sky, he had thought. At the center of the circular stage, surrounded by royals and generals, the courtesan’s body gracefully arched to the side. Her arms were soft as silk as they glided forward, her lean legs lifted to the sky like birds soaring in the night.
With the slightest movement, the paired silver bells tied to her ankles rang.
Each beat produced sounds in triple succession - a mortal’s call for abundance in the harvest that was to come. Her steps. Her movements... far more graceful, hypnotising than any princesses and consorts known to men.
The red silk flowed against the breeze of the summer’s night.
His breath stopped at her steady pose.
Smokey eyes held his, captured for eternity-- he knows.
So luscious her hair was, it made his heartbeat cease.
Lost, for under this binding spell, his being was now seized.
He was mesmerized from the sway of her body and the glides of the fluttering silk robes. With each drumbeat of the rhythmic dance, the world around him disappeared. Guo Zhu...the top warrior of of his clan, in the lands of mortals and immortals alike, had watched in awe just like the rest of the crowd under her spell.
It took them a blink or two - a few beats of one’s heart - to realize a strike had been made. The Duke of Zhou had fallen against his seat, his forehead dripped with blood from the deathly blow. The consorts’ screams pierced through the night. All eyes then momentarily turned to the assassination of the most powerful and prestigious man..
Their leader, their tyrant was no more.
Except for Guo Zhu, his eyes had never left the stage as the pandemonium began. Though her dance had ceased, the act remained. A slight satisfactory glow crossed her delicate features. As the courtesan turned away from the commotion, she caught his gaze. Guo Zhu smiled brightly at the the courtesan who finally took note of his presence. Frozen in place, her deathly glare threatened to retaliate. A bright flash of metal appeared on the palm of her hand. Yet, he did not attack or defend. Instead, The General lifted his wine cup with a nod of admiration and took a sip without breaking their eye contact.
Clearly flustered by his action and her own inaction, her brows furrowed. Time stood still. Within the short time span, she missed her chance. With her lashes lowered, the beauty retreated from the stage and disappeared from the night.
Present Day, Valley of the Moths
His Goddess, though more powerful than him, had always been powerless when it came to those under her care. It was both her strength and weakness. When Li Hua set her mind to something, no matter how unreasonable or dangerous, she’d seek to accomplish her task without reservation. It was her decision to break their unspoken oath to remain impartial. After millenia of hiding from the outside world, she was the reason why their existence was now known throughout the Realms.
Guo Zhu had always admired that side of her personality - fierce, unhindered, stubborn. Nonetheless, there were times when fear overcame him like at this moment.
“Li Hua, that’s enough!” Guo Zhu ordered, blocking her path just beyond the edge of The Valley of the Moths. “You’ll damage your soul essence if you go any further.”
“It matters not!” her head shook. Then, her eyes glowered. “Move. ”
His hot tempered Goddess gathered her powers. Yards of white silks sprouted from the ground, rising higher than the tallest trees in the Valley. He refused to budge. After surrounding him, the silks from above dived down. Like a cocoon, they spun, encapsulating the High God. As his eyes closed, Guo Zhu conjured some daggers with silver bells hanging on their ends. Brringgg… The chime rang. Their vibrations sent series of shockwaves through the silk wall, targeting the weak spots of the silk cage. Chanting a spell, the blades glowed white. Within a split second, the daggers shot through the silk cocoon, sending the torn white fabric falling to the ground.
He cloud jumped to her side, gathered Li Hua in his arms and held her tight.
“Guo Zhu, let me go,” Li Hua said as she tried to break free. But her strength had started to wane from overusing her powers in her attempt to seal him. In an achingly vulnerable voice, a trait she rarely showed, she quietly but firmly added, “I couldn’t stay here. Let me see her.”
The sorrow of helplessness weighed his heart. “She’ll be fine,” Guo Zhu whispered in her ear.
“She hasn’t recovered from her previous injuries,” her voice broke and her composure fell. Instead of pushing him away, she relaxed against his hold. “Worse, she allowed herself to be accosted by Nian Beasts! If he hadn’t been there...”
“He was there. He protected her as he promised.”
“How can he protect her from herself?!” Li Hua stared up at him. Unblinking, their gazes locked.
His hand cupped the side of her face. His black eyes were piercing, pleading. “We’ve done all we could. Their fate cannot be changed, nor can we interfere with their destiny. Lou Jun is back to treat her wound,” Guo Zhu reassured. “Ruo Tzu will return in a few days. There is no need to worry---”
“Don’t you think it’s time she ought to know the truth?!” She cut him off as her small hands gripped him tightly
“Hua'er…The truth won’t do her much good now. The more she knows, the more pain she’ll have to endure when the time comes.”
“But, Guo Zhu--”
Guo Zhu lifted her in his arms, ignoring her protest.
“It’s his secret to keep,” he answered gruffly as they headed back to the valley, with Li Hua in his arms, their home. “Not ours.”
Ziming Palace, Ghost Realm
Yan Zhi was dreaming, dreaming within the haze of rhythmic a tune. This familiar music that she had heard many times over the years engulfed her senses, calming her restlessness. The notes rose and fell - tranquil melodies that brushed against the breeze of the summer night. The meditative sound of rushing water was so comforting that it took Yan Zhi awhile to realize the resonance had entered her body as well. Much like a zither string, her cells began to pulsate. Their energy awakened. With each note, each beat, the damaged nerves and broken veins glowed as the cells began their process of transformation. Healing. Repair.
He’s back… Her eyes snapped open.
“Stay still. We’re almost done,” the Master of Musical Weapons instructed before her instinct made her rise. With full awareness, Yan Zhi closed her eyes, welcoming the easing effect of the harmonic resonance traveling through her body.
Magical Weapons could be used in many forms - to attack, paralyze or create an illusion; but those techniques alone would not make the wielder truly powerful. In fact, based on what she had gathered over the years, what lied behind the true masters was their ability to use resonance vibration to heal. It took longer, even a lifetime, to achieve the skill to heal injured nerves.
Construction was easy. Destruction was hard.
But reconstructions - the form to induce the healing powers of individual cells - called for practice and understanding far beyond any ordinary soul could fathom.
Finally, the music ceased. A distant familiar voice broke the silence of the night.
“I’ve only been gone for a few years. How did you managed to damage the old nerves again?” Lou Jun, the once 8th Disciple of Kunlun, chastised her from the other side of the chamber wall.
Quickly she sat up, leaving the comfort of her bed. Dressed in her purple silk robe, she cloud jumped to her chamber entrance. Yan Zhi remained unruffled as she found her guards had fallen asleep. No doubt that it was his doing. Her head turned to see Lou Jun who was almost invisible from the dark blue garb against the backdrop of the Willow trees. He sat over at the edge of the purple lotus pond which was not far from her quarters.
Delighted albeit cautious, she strolled toward him. “My old friend was not here. That’s why my nerves took longer to recover,” Yan Zhi countered as she settled herself beside her Midnight Healer.
Like Qiao Xin and Bai Qian, Lou Jun was one of a few acquaintances in her life whom she did not have to put up her shield against. As the Ghost Queen, Yan Zhi could never relax even among her own people. Her current role had made her days of carefree existence a distant memory. A past which she was grateful to have and could never get back.
Some 30,000 years ago, when the dust had settled after the Second Demon War, an unexpected visitor arrived in Ghost Realm. It was no other than Lou Jun who came to deliver her Whispering Night Raven, commissioned by Zi Lan himself, so she could pass her trials that were set up by the Elders.
At first, they had been mere acquaintances. But at some point, she did not know when, they had become confidants. Together, they’d survived a few rough episodes of what could be called calamities.
Thus, their unlikely friendship was sealed.
At least, that was what she thought... Until the day Lou Jun suddenly left. Over a hundred years to be more precise. Yan Zhi never knew why.
“I’m surprised you’re back. You left with very few words. Why are you here?” Yan Zhi asked bluntly. She wanted a clear answer.
“It’s hard to stay away when even mortal realms experience unbalance energy,” Lou Jun informed her reasonably. “In my so-called absence, I came across a few lost beasts in these worlds. Luckily for me, they were not hostile.”
“They must be in hiding then. Mortal realms are numerous. Poachers have a harder time to track them among the different worlds. Lou Jun, where--”
“Have you got any news?” he tactically cut her off. “Of the stranger who got away?” Lou Jun asked with interest. His expression was unusually darker, his fingers still on the zither strings.
How did he know? How long has he been back?
Her body tensed at the knowledge of what he’d said. Suddenly, a warm feeling rose to her cheeks. Unclenching her fist, Yan Zhi consciously rearranged her silk robe before she continued, “Like a phantom, he did not leave his aura behind. But true to his words, he waited for my reinforcements to arrive before he departed, which only means he was definitely not part of the poachers’ crew.”
“I can tell you don't trust him despite his actions,” Lou Jun smiled as his fingers finally left the zither strings.
“He saved me twice. But on both occasions, the Beasts were involved. He’s related to the case, no matter what angle he tried to play. However, it’s been three days. And there are no signs...,” Yan Zhi paused. Her head shook, “No, that’s not true. General Han told me his resident was broken into while he was away.”
Setting his zither aside, Lou Jun turned to face her with an expression she had almost forgotten. The familiarity between them had returned, but the wall remained. “What went missing?” his question snapped her back to reality.
“That’s the mystery. Not even a piece of bamboo scroll was stolen,” she answered, her irritation rising from the banter. They’d had similar conversations many times before while working together to solve cases such at this. Why is he doing this now?
She could see his mind analyzing the facts, making a conclusion even before speaking. “That would make it harder to assert--”
“Why are you back?” Yan Zhi finally snapped.
“You already asked me...”
Standing up, she stared down at the friend she had once known. “And you didn’t answer the first time,” she said curtly. She did not want to continued this charade.
“Yan Zhi ---”