There were odd sightings in a forest to the south. People would claim lights and screaming could be heard from there. People would claim they were from ghosts burned to death in some great temple fire from long ago, and if you got too close they would burn you with them.
It had been a problem known to the Heavenly Court for some time now, the rumours starting around the fall of Jun Wu, but given how much there was to sort out after said event nobody had really taken the time to deal with it.
It wasn't particularly pressing after all. If one looked closely at reports they'd realise that whatever the problem was, it actually hadn't caused any deaths (or even disappearances) and it was mostly just speculation born of wariness of the unknown. The fear surrounding it was enough to keep people away but enough to cause a panic, leaving them with a situation that was known to the generals of the south but unconcerning enough to place on the backburner while they got their affairs in order.
It was only so long that they could put it off however. As life returned to normal they had less to occupy them and prayers regarding the matter were really starting to pile up. It's not that they were particularly averse to investigating it at all. It seemed like an easy enough task, low stakes, just some lights and spooky sounds.
It was just that since they were both getting prayers on the same matter, it would require cooperation.
Maybe their relationship was better these days, but that didn't mean they enjoyed working together.
Feng Xin was reminded of this in bitter force as he walked in tense silence with Mu Qing through the forest in question, barely remembering to keep an eye out for their original goal. Mu Qing was grumbling under his breath about being dragged out for something so unimportant, and the accompanying eyerolls, while not aimed at him, were irritating all the same.
"Will you just shut up?" Feng Xin finally snapped. "If you're so mad about it then quiet down and concentrate so we can be gone sooner." That just caused Mu Qing's own annoyance to turn on him.
"I am paying attention! Maybe the real problem is you sticking your nose in my business instead of focusing on what's going on!"
"'What's going on', there's nothing going on, that's the point! The only thing I hear is your stupid muttering and it's driving me insane!"
There really was absolutely nothing to occupy them here. No ghosts, no fire, no screaming. There was only this dumb forest that looked exactly like every other woodland ever.
Albeit it was only evening and the sightings were only supposed to occur at night, but they had figured coming a little earlier might help them figure out how they emerged. Not that that was going particularly well, but still, the night was young.
"Whatever, that's your problem. Just keep up." Mu Qing grumbled before speeding up, clearly just wanting this over with. Feng Xin jogged to keep up with him, cursing under his breath.
"Don't just run away just because you don't want to take this seriously. This seems like a small problem, but it could be symptomatic of a bigger one. It's better to just do it properly." He said in a way that might be sagely if he wasn't so angry.
"Don't lecture me, I don't need advice from you." Mu Qing fired back irritably.
"Right, of course, because you're notorious for your good decisions and ability to handle things with grace."
"What and you are?"
"Better than you I'd bet!"
"Then bet!" Mu Qing wheeled on him, finger jabbing into his chest pointedly. "I bet I can clean up this mission just fine on my own!"
Feng Xin's brow crooked irritably, but he couldn't help grinning smugly at the same time. This was in the bag after all.
"Fine then! And what do I get when I win?" He stretched and cracked his neck in what he hoped was as taunting as a warm up gesture could be. It must have worked because Mu Qing's scowl deepened, but he was always easy to set off.
"When I win," he corrected with a grumble, "I'll have you kowtow to me 100 times and proclaim my superiority. You can come up with whatever little reward helps you get through the day though. It won't happen."
He actually had the audacity to smirk at the last bit, as he crossed his arms and rolled his eyes in that special smug way that made Feng Xin really want to punch him.
"Fine then! I'll make sure to come up with something that'll have you begging for mercy! And you won't get any!" He retaliated, the last sentence tacked on as an afterthought as his words came out by way of anger rather than constructive thought.
He knew he was riled up easily by the other, and rather than subject himself to his presence any longer, he turned to walk away, fists clenched. Mu Qing did the same, pointing back emphatically as he stalked off in the opposite direction with stomps that could have left dents in the ground.
"You better live up to that big talk when I next see you! Else I'll make you regret it!"
The evening was going slowly for Feng Xin, even more so once he had parted with Mu Qing. Annoying as he may be, he at least occupied the time. (And that was it, he didn't enjoy his company at all.) Everything looked the same, as all forests do, and he wondered more than once if he was walking in circles. It's not like there were any signposts in the shrubland.
It also didn't help that the details of the actual mission were vague too. 'Lights and screams' wasn't exactly a lot to go off. It would have been nice if someone could have mustered up the courage to get just a little bit closer and give him some proper details. It's like they wanted Mu Qing to win!
The only other information to go off was that tidbit about the temple fire, but that seemed like a rumour more than anything. It was something at least though, and with nothing better to latch onto he might as well just look for any signs of ruins right? Glaring daggers at the scenery wasn't exactly too productive.
The treeline was too thick to look at the horizon for structures, and so instead he kept his eyes to the ground for any rubble or debris that might point to a building being there in the past. Even some sort of path would be nice.
There was nothing though, because of course nothing could ever be easy.
By that point the sky had darkened, the surroundings becoming dark as he strained his eyes to see where he was going. He was debating lighting up a palm torch when the area abruptly lit up on it's own, a blinding flash and ghastly shriek almost scaring the soul from his body.
Feng Xin jumped back in horror at the visage he was faced with.
Though he couldn't get a clear image of what was in front of him initially, the light being so blindingly strong that he was forced to throw his arm up to protect his eyes, he knew it was bad.
The heat being radiated from whatever was in front of him was enough to make him recoil a safe distance, even without the horrendous screaming. He could feel the hair on his arms start to sizzle at the proximity, his skin immediately breaking out into a sheen of sweat. It was a wonder it hadn't set the dense foliage on fire, though ghostly magic was probably at play there.
Peering over his raised arm the best he could, he squinted at the form in front of him as much as his eyes would allow. It was humanoid, which wasn't a particular surprise, but that was the best he could make out. It was engulfed in flames so strong he couldn't even make out any defined form beneath them but a gaping, scorched maw where it's mouth was, flesh almost dripping from its body, seemingly eternally screaming in intense agony.
And what screams. It's vocal cords must have been damaged beyond repair, the wails broken and crackling, and yet propelled by the sheer force of the owner's misery. More animalistic than human, it was clear this person had not died quickly. It would be the kind thing to dissipate it. Drawing his bow he took aim at the head. It was not a hard target for someone as skilled as Feng Xin, the ghost standing still enough that he could hit the mark with his eyes closed against the bright light.
He released the arrow. He heard the thud as it met its target. The screams continued as if nothing happened.
Feng Xin opened his eyes to squint again, confused. He could make out his arrow, which had indeed struck its head and stuck out haphazardly, but it hadn't dissipated. He fired another.
A bullseye, right between the eyes if they were visible. It didn't even flinch. It only continued to stand in it's spot, wailing horribly. The screams appeared to be louder now, reverberating across the skies somewhat.
For a brief moment Feng Xin wondered if it was the result of actually achieving some difference, but upon stepping back he realised the ghost in front of him had not changed. The area around them had, the shrieks of many echoing through the air in some sick symphony of anguish.
Locating the tallest tree in his proximity he scaled it hastily with the speed of an experienced warrior. Once he broke the tree line, he could look down across the ocean of foliage to see it interspersed with flickering glows every now and again, some stationary and some moving. It'd actually be rather beautiful if the sounds of misery did not drip from the air. Instead he could only wonder dumbly how this came to be.
Whatever happened here was a bloodbath.
"Hey." He wasn't even annoyed to hear Mu Qing's voice cut through his thoughts over the communication array. "Are you seeing the same shit I am?"
"Uhuh." He replied dumbly. "I think we might need to put our bet on hold for a bit. Let's regroup."
They had already mutually concluded that this was likely going to be a little harder than initially expected, but after some experimentation it was beginning to seem increasingly hopeless.
Dissipating the spirits did not work for some reason. They had tried multiple ways, from magical attacks, to attempting to put out the fires, even to adding more fire. Still, no change whatsoever.
They did make some discoveries however, being that the ghosts seemed to reset overnight.
At one point Mu Qing had decapitated one in a fit of frustration only for it to keep screaming even while void of its body. When the ghost disappeared in the morning and reappeared come the evening, head perfectly attached, they concluded that they were likely either regenerating overnight, or replaying a particular moment.
Regretfully, that was the extent of their progress however, and the torment of such a taxing case with such taxing company was draining the two.
"I just don't get why they won't leave! Shouldn't they be glad to be dissipated? They're clearly miserable so they should be grateful to be freed!" Mu Qing bemoaned, slamming a frustrated fist on the low table he was seated at. The legs were uneven, clearly bought second hand, and so the impact rattled it making the tea slosh in their cups and buns roll from the plate in the middle.
"Hey watch it!" Feng Xin bit as he snatched his cup up to hold safely in the air while Xie Lian steadied the table with one hand and attempted to save the wayward buns with the other.
He was able to block two with his arm while a third bounced over the edge and onto the floor with a slight plop. Sighing, he put the two clean ones back in the middle and picked the dirtied one up for himself.
"If they're not going away after all that then they clearly just don't want to go." He said as he took a bite. "You might want to try figuring out what their unfinished business is instead. Patience goes a long way." He added, chewing thoughtfully and pointedly ignoring his companions disgusted looks. At least it ended any bickering before it escalated.
"Why are you still eating garbage? You live in a mansion half the time, just get something new. And a better table while you're at it. How is Crimson Rain letting you live like this?" Feng Xin asked, nose scrunching a little in disgust.
"I swept the floors this morning so it's clean, no need to waste good food. San Lang understands that and supports my choices." Xie Lian explained through a mouthful chidingly, as if it were simple logic. It probably was to him, but Feng Xin had given up trying to figure out whatever was going on in His Highness's head ages ago.
"In any case how are we even supposed to take your actually relevant advice?" Mu Qing waved the diversion away with an expression of both disgust and annoyance. "It's not like we can ask what their problem is. Those things just scream, they don't react to anything at all."
The table fell into thoughtful silence as they pondered that question. How could one interact with something that couldn't truly be interacted with?
"Is there really no other information to go off of? Has it happened before in another place maybe? If there were a precedent then there might already be a solution."
"We already asked at the palace of Ling Wen. Nothing." Feng Xin sighed. The situation was just looking increasingly impossible.
"Hm." Xie Lian said, hand on chin and eyebrows furrowed as if debating how to proceed. "Maybe a fresh set of eyes would help? I could take a look and bring San Lang along, he knows pretty much everything about ghosts."
That made Feng Xin's spirits wilt a little. True they needed a hand, but if it meant having to go through the ordeal of existing in Hua Cheng's presence for an extended period of time, let alone having to rely on him, then the cost was truly too great.
"Why does he have to come? Can't you just tell him what we know and get his opinion?" Mu Qing complained, obviously wanting no part in that plan either. Xie Lian only sighed like he was expecting such a response.
"I know you don't like him, but is it really so bad to accept some help? It'll probably help to see it in person, and it'll get solved faster."
Neither of them really wanted to be the one to say 'yes, your husband is horrendous company' to his face, but their expressions gave it away quite clearly, so Xie Lian could only frown dejectedly as he realised he was getting nowhere.
"Fine, fine." He conceded, defeated. "I'll get his opinion first. But if he wants to come he can come, alright?"
They probably weren't going to get a better result than that. They really did need the help after all. And anyway, it's not likely Hua Cheng would willingly choose to hang out with them too, right?
The aura within the group of four could only be described as that of a volatile compound that had yet to actually explode, but in all likelihood would at any moment. As they walked along the path towards the forest, Feng Xin and Mu Qing had taken the lead ahead of the other two since they were the ones familiar with the area. Though they could not see Hua Cheng without turning around, Hua Cheng could definitely see them, and the daggers he was glaring at the back of their heads could almost be felt physically.
Apparently Xie Lian had to reschedule a dinner date to come out and help them, so while Hua Cheng definitely did not want or need to be there, he came anyway to make them regret it.
Feng Xin bravely attempted to walk off his sore ankle from where he had been 'accidentally' tripped up earlier and concluded that he certainly did regret it. He felt confident in assuming that Mu Qing, still pulling twigs out of his hair from his surprise acquaintance with a bramble, felt the same.
Xie Lian, who likely knew exactly what was going on but was blatantly not stepping in, seemed to be valiantly attempting to keep the air between the group lighthearted by gossiping about this and that from around the village in order to prompt a conversation. Quite unsuccessfully.
"-So by the time we got there the chickens had already escaped all over the yard, and the run was missing an entire panel, we still have no idea where it went, but the chickens were pecking up the entire garden and the new neighbours were losing their minds over it, but to be fair have you ever tried to catch a chicken that doesn't want to be caught? Even if you manage to grab them they'll make sure you know they're not happy about it."
"Oh no, did Gege trouble himself terribly? Next time just call me and I'll have it sorted. What happened next?"
"Oh, well we were trying to round them all up and we thought we were doing well but then we noticed the gate was unlocked and we were missing about half of them-"
It'd been going on like this for the past half an hour because they had stupidly decided to arrive early to let the newcomers witness how the ghosts had been emerging in case it was important. As much as Feng Xin appreciated His Highness distracting his husband enough to prevent further bodily violence, there was only so much small town drama interspersed with loverlorn commentary he could handle before he lost it.
The sun had nearly completely set though, so he may be free soon. The last light of the day was peaking through the skyline, the shadows of the trees elongated against the ground, the branches appearing like fingers coiling up to them along the grass. Feng Xin felt a slight shiver run down his spine as he felt the distinct sensation of walking into their grasp.
Then he heard the familiar sounds of Mu Qing's ever present whining as the lovely couple behind them upped their god given right to simper, and the eerie atmosphere was ruined.
(Perhaps he should have dwelled on it a little more. Perhaps he should have considered how strong the resentment of so many ghosts must be to persist for so long. Perhaps he shouldn't have written them off as harmless just because they weren't hostile to him and his cohort. Perhaps that's why he should have expected that upon bringing two more, something may be different.)
Once evening set that night, the usual lights and screams they had come to be used to (and resent) were nowhere to be seen. If he were a modicum less jaded he might have thought it a blessing and that their problems had resolved themselves. Unfortunately he had lived long enough to realise that it was never that simple, and something was dreadfully wrong.
"I thought you said they appeared every sundown? What's happening?" Hua Cheng growled in confused annoyance.
"They do! Something's different, don't jab at us!" Mu Qing seemed equally confused and looking a little on edge. He never did like the unpredictable.
"Maybe they've been scared off by San Lang?" Xie Lian supplied reasonably. "He's a strong presence and most ghosts know better than to cause trouble around him."
That might have been a sensible conclusion if there wasn't a glaringly powerful and vile energy shifting in the air around them, and they all knew it. It had risen suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, not just one small entity, but the entire atmosphere surrounding them. It swirled in viscous resentment that only seemed to become thicker with every moment, as if a great many were converging on their small group.
They probably were.
"Gege, stay close." Hua Cheng whispered a warning as he scanned the area, hand on E-Ming, ready to react.
It was not that Xie Lian couldn't protect himself, but more a comfort against the rapidly approaching unknown. The two had actually already moved closer together without need of prompting, and Feng Xin belatedly wished for a similar sense of security in another as he watched from the corner of his eye. This didn't factor into his decision to shift closer to Mu Qing of course. That would be silly.
"Do you think it's the ghosts from before?" He asked. "But they're not screaming. Why would they stop screaming?"
"What else could it be? Just keep your guard up!" Mu Qing snapped back, high on alert and probably not appreciating the distraction right now.
It was probably right to pay attention. Whatever was surrounding them was deadly close now, and they could see it tangibly form into a dark wall of wailing souls climbing high above them and blotting out the scant light the moon afforded them as they turned to face it. Shadows gleaned over their faces as in one fell swoop it crashed down on them like a tidal wave, and Feng Xin's arms raised to block his face, bracing for impact.
It didn't come.
Looking up tentatively, he saw the last remnants of silver fall away as a shield of butterflies took the force of the hit and all fell away.
Huh. He definitely didn't expect Hua Cheng to protect them too. Glancing his way, Hua Cheng was adamantly ignoring them and instead fussing over Xie Lian, somewhat predictably. Catching Mu Qing's gaze, he only shrugged, receiving an eye roll in turn. It was never possible to tell what was going on in Hua Cheng's head, and trying to guess would be mind numbing. Asking to his face might only invite worse fortune too, so best leave it. He was probably just doing it for Xie Lian anyway.
Speaking of, he was fussing over Xie Lian probably a tad more fervently than usual, and Xie Lian looked to be doing the same for Hua Cheng.
"Hey, what's up with you two? What's going on?" Feng Xin asked with audible concern. It's not like he didn't care.
"The wave idiot, we're trying to figure out what it did." Hua Cheng seemed disconcerted, not looking away from where he was checking Xie Lian over.
"Do you two feel any different? You should check yourselves." Xie Lian added. He frowned a little when he only received puzzled looks in response.
"What do you mean? Didn't you block the wave from hitting us? It should be fine."
"What do you mean? The barrier didn't work, it phased right through. Were you too dense to feel it or something?" Hua Cheng's eye narrowed in suspicion as he stared down the other two, almost certainly watching for anything amiss. It couldn't be helped. The situation was just getting stranger after all.
Feng Xin tried running through the odds that he somehow didn't notice something when the wave hit and came back empty. He couldn't think of anything that felt odd or any sort of impact. Even the sinister aura from earlier was gone.
"No, I don't feel anything." He finally admitted, and Mu Qing affirmed the same. Nothing out of the ordinary.
"Are you sure?" Xie Lian pressed. "It was a hot sensation. Like warm water spreading over you, but dry. You didn't even feel a temperature change?"
"No, nothing. Also what do you mean you didn't shield us asshole, you were just gonna leave us to that thing?"
"Shut up, you're fine aren't you?" Hua Cheng's tone was one that clearly wasn't in the mood to argue, seeming increasingly concerned. Given how smug he was usually, the shift made the desire to argue back wilt in Feng Xin. "Instead let's question why you were fine and we weren't. If it could attack anyone here why did it go for us? Why did the ghosts change their behaviour once we arrived? What's different about us?"
"Didn't we already say it's because of you earlier? Maybe they thought you were a threat."
"Then why attack Gege too?"
Hua Cheng was getting increasingly riled up, and his body language was becoming more erratic, bristled and wary. Obviously something about all this was setting him off, and it was making Feng Xin nervous. It wasn't easy to rile up the Ghost King after all, and he had a suspicion that Xie Lian being endangered was only part of it. Feng Xin could feel something wrong about the situation too after all. It crawled up his back like a bad omen. They weren't getting out of this without trouble.
Xie Lian seemed to take the initiative to settle everyone down.
"I'm fine, and San Lang doesn't seem to be hurt either." He rubbed a hand up and down Hua Cheng's arm comfortingly to try and calm him down. He untensed a little, but remained on guard. "We won't accomplish anything by just standing around. Let's search around and Mu Qing and Feng Xin can let us know how much is different since they were here. Then we might be able to figure out what's caused this."
It was a sensible suggestion and there wasn't much else to do. The option to simply retreat and try again another time sat in the back of Feng Xin's mind, and something screamed at him to take it, but he shook it off. Hua Cheng seemed to have the same feelings, but less reserved about them however.
"Are you sure that's the best idea?" He said quietly. "The butterflies didn't work. What if something else happens?"
Ah. That explains his upset. Hua Cheng was always a stickler for making sure he was the most powerful person in the room, and having something circumvent his defences to possibly harm His Highness probably stung.
Xie Lian smiled softly, and spoke reassurances equally low, of affirmations and comforts. They stood close together, Xie Lian still with his hand on Hua Cheng's arm that was now creeping up to turn more into a hug. Feng Xin had to turn away from their display feeling like he was intruding on something private.
"How do they always manage to do this at the worst times?" Mu Qing had appeared beside him at some point, arms crossed in disapproval but also looking away respectfully. "Does he really need this much coddling? Nothing even happened."
Feng Xin didn't think that was fair. He may not understand much about the Ghost King's inner machinations, but he did understand that he had his insecurities, and that they were particularly volatile. Of course he'd be upset about the ambiguity of what just happened.
"Stop complaining, it keeps him out of our hair for a bit. He'd be insufferable if we let him get too paranoid."
"It's delaying the mission. He can get it together."
"The night's barely even started and everything's already off, what does it matter? We could do with him being in good shape in case we need him!"
"It doesn't matter what shape he's in, he clearly can't help with what's going on! He couldn't even block that wave!"
That caused Hua Cheng to look up with almost audible speed and a furious glare. The sharp movement of his head swivelling in their direction caught Feng Xin's attention enough to cause him to look back and step a little away from Mu Qing in an effort to distance himself from the source of anger. It was probably a futile effort but it was all instinct at this point.
"Excuse me? Were you saying something about me? You'll have to speak up, I fear I may have misheard you."
His voice was low in warning, but for some reason Mu Qing didn't take the option to back off this time. Perhaps he was as on edge as the rest of them. He always could only ever respond to things by lashing out after all.
"I said you're ruining this whole mission! First you tag along specifically to antagonise us, then you scare off our ghosts and provoke them into attacking us, then you sit here and whine because you're upset about it? Cry me a river, if you're gonna hang around then do something useful, I'm sick of having to put up with you!"
That definitely set him off to do 'something' alright.
"You. How dare you."
A dangerous glint came over his eyes as he carefully retracted from Xie Lian's slightly frazzled grasp to stalk over to Mu Qing in a slow walk, as if giving him a chance to flee. It was probably enough to scare most people, probably a warning he used often in his domain, but Mu Qing stood his ground. He knew him too well for that to work. He wouldn't do anything drastic in front of His Highness.
"Well? What are you gonna do about it?"
Their eyes were locked in a silent battle of glowers as he approached, but unexpectedly it was broken as Hua Cheng came to a halt before he could even reach an arms distance to Mu Qing. He jerked his legs a little awkwardly as if caught on something, and looked down wide eyed.
Clutched at his leg were black branch-like objects protruding from the ground, spindly twig-like structures digging into his calves. Their target having gone stationary, they seemed to rise in greater quantities, bursting out of the ground to clutch at his robes as if attempting to drag him down with them. Using his body to pull themselves up revealed disfigured faces and torsos of dried and rotted corpses that moaned sounds of hatred and agony at him from the dirt.
They weren't branches. They were charred hands attached to charred bodies.
"How dare you! Get your hands off me!" Hua Cheng was oddly perturbed, unable to shake them off, and instead attempted to kick them away with his other boot.
He kicked one with enough force to send it’s torso flying a few feet away, disattaching from the bottom half of its body in the ground, but not destroying it. Instead it began crawling back almost instantaneously to paw at him as if nothing happened.
"Hey, what's happening?" Feng Xin asked with increasing concern. Hua Cheng was seeming to become ever more pale and panicked. Someone like him should never look that afraid. "I thought they were scared of you? What are they doing?"
The whispers were becoming louder, and an increasing amount were crowding around Hua Cheng to the point that he couldn't even draw E-Ming for them dragging themselves up his torso. Everytime he swatted one away another seemed to take its place, making breaking free almost impossible as a solo task. Mu Qing had gotten his act together enough to realise he needed to help and was hacking at some of them with his sabre, but it was hardly making a dent. Feng Xin might have aided him if he hadn't realised His Highness had been very quiet.
Below the acrid smell of ash and age old decay he could smell the fresher scent of blood.
Turning his head to look over at where Xie Lian had been standing, he saw that he stood no more. Instead he knelt, the same charred ghosts clambering over him, nearly enveloping him as they tore at anything they could reach. His hands were clamped over his mouth as if muffling a scream, and his eyes poured with tears as they fixated on the scrambling corpses. They tore at his clothes with sharpened nails, leaving gashes in the skin beneath as if it were paper. They grasped at his neck as if trying to choke him. They grabbed at his arms as if trying to yank them roughly away from his mouth.
In that time, His Highness never once looked like he was responding to the pain. He simply looked deeply fearful of the ghosts, as if he had gone into complete shock.
One of them placed a hand on his chest, palm flat and fingers splayed, much more calmly and calculated that the others acted. It was almost unnerving to watch the difference. After a few moments Xie Lian's eyes widened in horror and he finally let out a strained whimper.
The ghost dissipated. Beneath where it's hand had been a red stain began to spread, and Xie Lian's eyes fell to it, shell shocked. His hands fell away from his mouth, agape in what could only be described as abject terror, and the ghosts took the opportunity to drag his arms behind him in restraint. Others replaced them at his mouth to muffle him themselves. The roughness with which they yanked his head back caused him to yelp tearfully, finally drawing the others attention.
A second hand moved to splay itself on his chest, repeating the actions of the first. The sound he made beneath the fingers pinning his mouth shut was positively wretched.
"No! Don’t you dare, not again, please! Let go of him! Please you have to let him go right now! "
Hua Cheng shouted babbled pleas in the most panicked sound Feng Xin had ever heard from him, tripling his efforts to free himself of the hindrances at his feet. He only succeeded at stumbling pathetically as he stayed in place, struggling to right himself. The second hand dissipated and a third made it's move as the red stain on His Highness's chest grew.
“Please! Please stop, you have to let him go! Let him go! ”
That was the first time Feng Xin had ever heard Hua Cheng beg. In another situation he might be smug, but instead he only felt the most viscerally raw agony in his screech. As if Hua Cheng knew what was coming next. As if he knew he had no power here. The word ‘ again ’ rattled around his head.
"What... What's happening?" Mu Qing mumbled, wide eyed from shock. "What are they doing to him? Why are they dissipating now?"
"Just shut up and do something!" Feng Xin yelled, finally scraping enough of himself together to step up.
His bow would be inefficient for such a task, but he luckily had the forethought to bring HongJing with him, and attempted to cut the ghosts away with the speed only panic fuelled adrenaline could provide.
As with Mu Qing and Hua Cheng's attempts, it wasn't enough, and anything they cut away simply reformed, a relentless tidal wave working against them. The crowd was too dense to actually reach any of the ones grabbing at His Highness anyway. The only way they were leaving was once they finished doing whatever it was they were doing to Xie Lian, who seemed to be in a blind panic at this point, hyperventilating under their grasp.
Hua Cheng didn't look much better. He was struggling against his captors pitifully, eye like a saucer and wet with his own tears, distraught howls tearing from his throat as he resorted to frantically attempting to claw his way out of the mass. With all his strength as a Ghost King he should have been able to break away easily, and yet he seemed helpless. E-Ming was silent at his side, and he called none of his powers to his aid. Thinking back to the failure of the butterfly shield, Feng Xin wondered if the ghosts had somehow sealed his powers with that wave.
It didn't matter. If Hua Cheng couldn't help then it was up to them. Mu Qing had given up attempting to help Hua Cheng and instead came to frantically help with Xie Lian, who had gone nearly silent at that point, only making odd squeaks and whimpers. He seemed almost catatonic, and drenched in his own blood. The front of his robes hung forward unnaturally and his throat appeared slit, though Feng Xin wasn't sure when that had happened.
He wasn't sure of many things, like why this was happening, or how effective they even were at even helping, but in any case the crowd was definitely considerably thinner. Watching the ghost he had just decapitated carry on like nothing happened, he figured it probably wasn’t due to his own efforts.
He could reach the ones directly restraining Xie Lian now however, and with a desperate sort of triumph raised HongJing to knock away another arm reaching to His Highness's now gutted chest.
Then he caught sight of something in the reflection and stopped.
On one side of the blade he saw a crying woman clutching a familiar black sword in shaking hands, seemingly stealing herself to use it. After swallowing thickly, she scrunched her eyes shut and lunged forward. On the other side of the blade, he saw the reflection of Xie Lian as he was now, catatonic, but dead unseeing eyes streaming with tears as he laid on an altar. His chest was completely gored, and the black blade of Fang Xin only milled the unidentifiable mess of organs around more.
He realised that in watching this scene play out another ghost had finished with His Highness and the woman in the reflection was gone. A new hand reached out as an older man appeared in the reflection instead.
"What the hell are you gawping at, do something!" Mu Qing yelled at him from a state of complete and furious disarray.
His eyes were wild, seeming as infinitely frustrated at his inability to stop this as Feng Xin did, still uselessly hacking at the swarms. There were so few left and Xie Lian was not making any sound or movement anymore. The only thing they could hear was their own heavy breathing and the sound of Hua Cheng's now incomprehensible babbling of apologies and begging from behind them.
He looked an absolute wreck, bowed on his knees, face ugly with tears but obscured by his unkempt hair. He wasn't looking at Xie Lian anymore, as if he couldn't bear it, and barely seemed to be fighting back anymore, only weakly bellowing out sobs.
There were so few ghosts left waiting their turn with Xie Lian now. He was so pale and quiet. Feng Xin could identify at last, somewhat clinically in a detached sense of horror, that the bulge in the front of his robes were his organs spilling out of his chest, held in only by a few flimsy rows of fabric that was absolutely drenched in his life blood.
HongJing fell limply from Feng Xins grip as he dropped to his knees.
Why? Why did this happen?
(How much left was there to save?)
The last ghost finished and Xie Lian slumped lifelessly to the ground on his side, eyes staring forward at nothing, mouth dripping with blood as he breathed thinly in wheezes. Feng Xin would not forget the sound the sack of organs in his robes made as he fell. As Mu Qing, pale and sickly looking, turned away with a hand covering his mouth he figured he wasn't alone in the matter.
The arms holding Hua Cheng back melted away, their purpose apparently filled, and Hua Cheng immediately broke into a frenzied stumble over to his husband's wounded form. He knelt at his side, holding back his sobs as best as he could as his hands hovered over him in anguish as if unsure whether he should touch him lest he fall apart more.
Eventually he settled on closing the others eyes as if he were sleeping, before weakly brushing some of the hair from out of his husband's face and tucking it behind his ear with shaky fingers. It smeared splattered blood over his cheek a little morbidly, and he instead shifted to cradle his head in his arms, leaning in as if to shield him from the rest of the world with his body.
He took a hard, shaking breath, and he sobbed the most broken sound Feng Xin has ever heard.
As he did earlier, he turned away to give the couple their privacy in an intimate moment, and Mu Qing did the same. This time it was in silence, for if they spoke, it would surely give away the fact that they were weeping themselves.