Extra 19: The Forest’s Cradle [Part 1]
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Situated on the outskirts of a certain flourishing city was a small brothel called Yuese Lian. It had been running for a handful of years and was a lively and cheerful place. The people working there wore bright red robes with small silver bells stitched to the hems. As they ran around and danced joyfully, the bells made clear and pleasant tinkling sounds, inviting one to smile along and share in the happiness. The prostitutes in Yuese Lian treated one another as siblings and operated as a large family, always being there to support and help each other. The proprietress of the brothel also encouraged this atmosphere of friendly openness.

One day, the most popular prostitute of the establishment, Kong Mei, fell unexpectedly pregnant. Due to her line of duty, the father was uncertain. But Kong Mei didn’t mind that at all, and with the help of her fellow sisters and brothers in the brothel, gave birth to a healthy baby boy and named him Kong Min.

Kong Min was a jolly and mischievous little brat. He loved to run around and sneak into places he shouldn’t be getting into by climbing trees near windows or hoisting himself on top of the roof. As such, the little boy came to know the secret of making babies very soon in his life. Even though he didn’t have a father, due to all the people of the brothel collectively helping his mother and raising him like a large family, Kong Min never felt curious about his other parent, content to stay here and be spoiled by the adults.

One day, when Kong Min was three years old, he came down with a terrible illness. Healers were called, but all deemed the illness incurable. When matters looked particularly hopeless, a passing by righteous cultivator kindly offered to help. He knew of a cure from an ancient scroll in his possession. However, one of the ingredients needed was the seed of a very rare herb, and it could only be found in the dangerous depths of the Spirit Bewildering Forest. The area the herb was speculated to grow in was one from where none who ventured returned alive. The cultivator stipulated that as long as they were able to provide him that seed somehow, he would be able to make the medicine to cure Kong Min. Otherwise, the child would die.

Gritting her teeth, Kong Mei decided to brave the Spirit Bewildering Forest and try her luck. If she died, then so be it. It was much better than sitting on her hands and watching her son die. Therefore, ignoring the well-meaning words of her fellow sisters and brothers in the brothel, Kong Mei snuck out at night to get those seeds. She discussed with the righteous cultivator about the best way to navigate the mystical forest, then quickly made towards the Spirit Bewildering Forest—a place that was said to be full of unimaginable wonders and unspeakable horrors.

Using various talismans that the cultivator had given her for protection, Kong Mei carefully made her way through the forest, running and hiding from the monsters and staying wary of the plant life. Keeping in mind the cautioning words of the cultivator as he warned how even the most minuscule particles of sand in the Spirit Bewildering Forest had the potential to be deadly, Kong Mei maintained her vigilance and slowly headed deeper into the forest.

But little did she know that all this while, she was being watched by an entity much older than the ancient forest itself.

A few hours after she entered the Spirit Bewildering Forest, while she was just on the verge of reaching the valley where the herb she sought grew, Kong Mei ended up being ensnared by a wily old monster and was on the verge of being ripped apart and eaten. As she was about to be devoured, she shouted out into the depths of the forest with all her strength, “If someone helps me save my son, I will be willing to trade even my life in exchange!”

Surprisingly enough, her desperate gamble paid off. A heavy power as old as the land itself shifted within the mystical forest, making the ground rumble and the skies turn darker than ink, as if the stars themselves had been snuffed out. The very air thickened with primordial magic that was ancient even back when humans hadn’t yet learnt to make fire. Soon, all the various creatures and plants that could move fled away in panicked droves. The wily monster that had just been about to kill Kong Mei was flung out into the sky by this newly-arrived power, blown away like a speck of dust in a storm.

Green vines suddenly extended up from the ground in front of a dazed and disbelieving Kong Mei before taking on a humanoid form. The vines on this strange being’s face parted and dark green eyes looked at Kong Mei with inhuman intelligence. From this creature, a deep voice calmly asked, “Mortal, do you speak true? Will you really give me your life if I cure your child?”

Kong Mei froze, then slowly nodded, her expression firming with determination. “Yes.”

The being narrowed its eyes and murmured, “How intriguing. Very well, what do you seek?”

Without any other choice, Kong Mei decided to see if this strange creature could help her. “There is an herb in the valley beyond here, and I need that herb’s seeds to make medicine that will save my child.”

The being made of vines tilted its head. “Oh? And if I do such a simple thing as letting you have those seeds, will you give away your life so easily?”

Kong Mei was not a stupid woman. Understanding that she could probably bargain for more, she spoke, “Since my life is valuable, I would like to ask for more than just a few seeds. I want to make sure my son will live a happy and worry-free life. Is there something you can do regarding that in exchange for my life?”

The being looked at her consideringly, then said, “Joys and sadness, worries and contentment, all of them are a part of human life. Taking away one side will result in your precious child being unable to obtain the other. But I can still give your child the opportunity to live the best life it can.”

Saying so, the being held out a hand, and thick tree sap seeped out from between the vines making up its palm. Gleaming streams of dark green sap floated up and gathered before flashing with bright light. When the light subsided, the sap had condensed into an oval-shaped crystalline gemstone the color of the powerful being’s eyes.

With a wave of its hand, the being sent the oval gemstone over to Kong Mei. Holding out a palm, she received the floating gem and gripped it tight. In a hopeful yet hesitant voice, she asked, “How will this help my son?”

“Press it into your child’s chest so that it will not be lost. If your child has any wish it wants fulfilled, then it may ask me using that gem as a conduit. But in return, I will demand compensation for any wishes granted. Caution your child to be very sure that its wishes are worth whatever payment I choose to ask of it.” After it was done explaining, the vines forming the body of the being untangled, drawing back into the earth. But even without a body, its deep voice reverberated in the space, “The way to the valley with the herbs you seek will stay clear for you. None will dare bar your path now. Go and get your seeds, take it to your child to cure it. Give your offspring my gift and spend three days with it, then come back to this place and fulfill your promise of giving me your life. I shall await your return.”

With that, the powerful being’s presence receded.

Kong Mei’s eyes stayed wide, her body trembling lightly with both trepidation and relief. Her son could be saved, and he would even have this being’s strange gift to help him through his life. However, in return, she would die. She would not be there to see her child grow up, to support him, to see him find happiness…

But within minutes, Kong Mei decisively pushed aside these thoughts and collected herself again. No, she couldn’t think about that now. Her son needed her. He was sick and every second wasted would only push her Xiao Min closer to death’s door. With grim determination, she set out towards the valley, her fingers clenched tightly over the being’s gift—the dark green gemstone.

As the being had promised, nothing tried to stop her or get in her way as Kong Mei went to the valley, collected the seeds, and walked back out of the Spirit Bewildering Forest. When she took the seeds to the cultivator, he was beyond shocked. But after learning of the steep price she had to pay, he could only shake his head sadly. He didn’t know which old power had chosen to help Kong Mei on a whim, but now that the deal was already made, he knew that there was nothing more to be done.

Using the seeds Kong Mei brought, the cultivator prepared the medicine and administered it to the unconscious Kong Min. Within two days, the fever and other symptoms greatly decreased. On the third day, the unconscious child finally woke up, his eyes bleary and unfocused. He could hear his mother sigh in relief and feel her kiss his face. He could feel her pulling apart the lapels of his robe and pressing something round and smooth to the middle of his chest. He grimaced and cried out at the sudden flash of pain, but then it was gone as soon as it had come, leaving behind a strange feeling as if something was stuck in his chest.

Her fingers brushing the dark green gem that was now embedded halfway into Kong Min’s chest, Kong Mei showed a conflicting expression. This past couple of days, she’d thought long and hard about whether she should tell her son about the significance of this gem. In the end, she decided it was better if he didn’t know. She did not want her son to ask silly wishes of that being only to end up owing it something great. No, it was better that her mischievous son didn’t know. But she had still embedded the gem into him just in case he ever did have a great need for that being’s favor. Sighing, Kong Mei bent to press a soft kiss brimming with motherly affection on her little child’s forehead.

That night, at the end of the third day, Kong Mei left the brothel and never came back. She had promised to give her life to that being in return for helping her son, so she dutifully went to the Spirit Bewildering Forest to pay her due and died.

Not knowing this, the people of the brothel frantically searched for her. But after learning from the cultivator about what happened, they could only mourn her death and make sure Kong Min would grow up knowing that he wasn’t abandoned by his mother, that Kong Mei had in fact given up her life for his. Together, the people of Yuese Lian raised the boy among the lively hustle and bustle of the brothel, making sure he wouldn’t want for anything.

And so, Kong Min slowly grew up, pampered by the ones around him. When he came of age, he gladly drowned himself in the pleasures of the flesh, expecting that he would one day become a prostitute as well, sampling various clients while giving and taking pleasure. He looked forward to working along with the others in the brothel when that time came.

But all this time, Kong Min remained unaware of the attention he had caught.

……

In the deepest part of the Spirit Bewildering Forest was a small clearing called the Forest’s Cradle. This clearing was where the creator of the Spirit Bewildering Forest, the Master of Land, lived.

The Forest’s Cradle was a circular clearing a few hundred meters in diameter. Its ground was completely covered with the tangled roots of trees. The clearing gradually sloped inward from the edges, forming a shallow depression. At the boundary of the clearing, tall and straight trees rose up to several kilometers in height and grew close to each other. Their branches wove together far above, forming a natural canopy that let honey-colored rays of warm sunlight filter through, dappling the ground. At the border, small white flowers grew, their pointed petals translucent. Thin black strands extended from the flowers’ middle, a single bright white point glowing at the end of each strand. As the wind blew, these luminescent specks of pollen floated away, forming streams of radiant white dots as they flew through the air lightly. The atmosphere here seemed ethereal, a place filled with deep peace and old magic.

Standing at the center of the Forest’s Cradle was a being crudely formed with green vines. Unbothered with taking a proper human form, this was how the Master of Land chose to look currently. As he stood with his uneven face tilted upward, his dark green eyes seemed to be focused somewhere else.

After he gave the gift of that dark green oval gemstone to Kong Mei and she embedded it into Kong Min’s chest, whenever the Master of Land grew bored or curious, he would take a look through that gem. He was able to see what Kong Min was doing and even feel his emotions sometimes by using that gem as a conduit. And though spying like this had only been a not-so-interesting hobby at first, the Master of Land slowly began to grow curious about the child at the other end of the connection.

Kong Min was like a ray of bright sunshine, grinning widely and bouncing around all over the place. He became curious easily and would go around poking his nose into various situations and often get into trouble. But even after getting thoroughly lectured, he seldom changed his attitude for more than a few hours. He was cheerful and kind, but also shrewd with a glib tongue. He was very outspoken and could be really infuriating when he wanted to, but he also knew how to squirrel his way out of any sticky situations he ended up in. He had an accurate assessment of danger and knew exactly how far he could push someone before they’d turn violent, using this to toy with tempers and tease people.

His bubbling and energetic personality was incomprehensible to someone like the Master of Land who was the manifestation of the earth that was so slow to move or change. He was someone who was used to staying still for millennia, letting plants grow over him as he remained in place serenely. For a being like him, Kong Min’s activeness seemed too shocking. But the child’s exuberant personality also hid interesting fragments that slowly drew him in.

Once, through the gemstone, he saw how Kong Min found an injured non-venomous snake by the roadside and brought it back to the brothel to look after. Watching him attending to the snake diligently and getting attached to the animal, the prostitutes also tried to help. But within the week, the snake died, its wounds too severe. Kong Min had been devastated—the Master of Land could feel that through the connection—but the child hadn’t cried or made a fuss. Smiling melancholically, he dug out a grave and made everyone in the brothel attend the snake’s funeral. After that, he spent several months by the snake’s grave, reading it stories or talking to it. Eventually, he declared that the snake’s spirit must have already gone to Heaven and stopped accompanying it as religiously, though he still went to visit the snake’s grave every now and then.

Seeing all this, the Master of Land had grown fascinated with this child’s strange way of coping with grief. It seemed oddly mature, yet also childish at the same time. He couldn’t help but think that this child’s mind was very strong.

After witnessing a few more incidents like that as Kong Min grew older, the Master of Land had grown hooked to spending time watching him going about his life. He had never deigned to notice all the small things humans did in their day-to-day life before, so watching it all through Kong Min felt new to him.

One day, realizing that the usually indifferent Master of Land was getting more and more occupied with observing a human boy, the Master of Oceans advised, <Brother, aren’t you getting a little too fascinated with that mortal child? Right now, you still have the choice to break the connection. But if this goes on, you’ll be in too deep. You have to make a decision now.>

<I know,> the Master of Land replied unconcernedly. <Innumerable living things are born and die every moment. Is it so bad if I get attached to one of them for a while?>

The Master of Oceans paused, then reminded solemnly, <If you grow so attached to him, will it not hurt you when he passes away? Their kind always die, Brother. You know that.>

The Master of Land tilted his head, confused. <Yes, I know. But I have also seen the children of several beasts being born, grow, wither, then die in this forest of mine. I loved them, nurtured them, and worried about their wellbeing. You could say I was attached to them as well. But I have never mourned their passing. The endless cycle of life and death is natural. I have no reason to object to it. If this boy dies, then so be it. You do not have to worry about it affecting me, Brother.>

The Master of Oceans didn’t know what to say. For all his kindness, his brother was strangely heartless and lacking in empathy. But in the end, the Master of Oceans could only sigh and give in. <…As you wish then.>

After all, for beings as old as them, wasn’t it a very rare treat to find something interesting to occupy even a little bit of their time with? Their sister, the Master of Skies, was already so bored of living that she chose to spend all her time sleeping. The Master of Oceans himself liked to go ashore and mingle with humans, making trouble and whiling away his time however he wanted. The Master of Land was the only one who seemed unbothered by the passage of time, content to stay in solitude and pass millions of millennia without doing anything. But even he must have felt bored. So now that he found some way to occupy himself for a bit, the Master of Oceans decided to leave him be.

And so, the Master of Land continued to watch Kong Min with increasing fascination, his indifference slowly giving way to interest.

In this way, years passed.

……

One day, an incident involving one of the regular customers of Yuese Lian put them under the Order of Sentinels’ scrutiny. To find out more about the victim directly from the prostitutes, the Sentinel Grandmaster himself came to the establishment. But though the people of Yuese Lian were courteous, they remained tightlipped and wary of Feng Huixin.

While the brothel’s proprietress was debating on what to do, Feng Huixin was provided with refreshments and made to wait in one of the well-furnished receiving rooms. Understanding their dilemma, Feng Huixin patiently waited.

It was then that a curious Kong Min came by. Seeing that their guest from the Order was actually someone so beautiful, Kong Min happily went and sat opposite to Feng Huixin, resting his chin on his hands and gazing at him with interest.

Meanwhile, seeing the fresh-faced slender youth peering at him with shining eyes, Feng Huixin only felt that this child was a bit cute. His inquisitive expression really reminded him of his own little son. Thinking of his adorable Qinghe, Feng Huixin’s frozen expression warmed, his eyes softening.

Seeing the strict and forbidding man showing such an expression, Kong Min’s eyes brightened as he directly asked, “Hello! Mister, you’re really very beautiful. Want to have sex with me?”

“…” Feng Huixin had to take time to wonder if he had actually heard correctly. But as a deity, his hearing had never once failed him. So with shock, he had to come to the realization that yes, this adorable young man had really just asked to…

Coughing uncomfortably, Feng Huixin replied, “I’m married.”

Kong Min tilted his head confusedly and blinked his light brown eyes like an innocent doe. But his words were anything but. “So…are you suggesting a threesome with your spouse? I’m okay with that!

“…” When had he suggested that?! Feng Huixin was rendered speechless once again.

With difficulty, Feng Huixin finally got out, “…I’m happily, monogamously married.”

“Oh…” Kong Min exhaled in disappointment, finally understanding. Then brightening again, he asked, “Then do you have a kid who’s legal to bed?”

“…” Feng Huixin could only helplessly think to himself: Was this how people this age were in this world? How come he didn’t realize this before?!

Sighing, Feng Huixin finally said, “No, I am afraid my son is still too young and…not available.”

Seeing that he couldn’t get a good romp in the bed anytime soon, Kong Min slumped down on the table listlessly. “Eh… Then why did you come here if you didn’t want to screw anyone?”

Feng Huixin’s eyebrow twitched, but he still courteously explained in detail his reason for coming here. Hearing that he was here to search for clues to find one of their clients who seemed to have gone missing, and that the prostitutes from Yuese Lian might know something that could help, Kong Min perked up again. Springing up to stand proudly, Kong Min declared, “Alright, then. Leave it to me! Auntie Wang will probably take a few hours to decide, so I’ll try to gather as much information I can in the meantime and help you find out more about that missing guy.”

Feng Huixin frowned worriedly. “I wouldn’t want to make things difficult for you.”

But giving him a grin full of youthful confidence, Kong Min said, “It’s alright, this is nothing. I’m just doing this to stave off my boredom for a bit.” Saying so, Kong Min jauntily sped away.

At first, Feng Huixin didn’t think the cheerful young man would be able to find anything. But surprisingly enough, the information Kong Min brought to him an hour later contained the statements of not only the prostitutes who’d seen and served the missing man, but also witness testimonies from several people in the city that vaguely hinted at the place in which the abducted man might be being held.

Feng Huixin quickly mobilized the Sentinels, and using the information Kong Min provided, the missing man was quickly rescued.

After things were settled, Feng Huixin returned to Yuese Lian to recruit Kong Min. With abilities like his, Feng Huixin wanted Kong Min to undergo further training and work for the order as an information gathering agent.

But hearing the proposal, Kong Min frowned doubtfully. “If you don’t mind hiring a prostitute’s son for your prestigious organization, then I don’t mind accepting the job either, but… one of the things I love to do the most is sleep with lots of people. However, as strict as the Order seems, I don’t think it’ll give me the freedom to do that.”

Feng Huixin took a sip of tea from the cup in his hands and calmly replied, “As long as you properly complete your training and the tasks assigned to you, you will be free to spend your free time as you see fit. As long as it isn’t something illegal, no one will have the right interfere.”

Kong Min was lost in thought for a while before he finally said, “Alright, I’ll agree. But if I feel stifled or too restricted, then I want to be able to get out at anytime.”

Feng Huixin raised an eyebrow at that request, but still nodded. “The Sentinel compound is not a prison. You will be free to come and go as you like. If you ever wish to permanently leave, then I only ask that you inform me before you go.”

Kong Min happily agreed to this.

And so it was decided.

After Kong Min joined the Order of Sentinels, he was instated as the Sentinel Grandmaster’s direct disciple and began his training. After several decades, Kong Min barely managed to pass the rigorous training and it was finally time for him to be put through a round of testing so that he could graduate from a junior officer to a full-fledged officer. After going through the various trials, there was only one more left. But it was also the most dangerous of the tests there was.

The final test was displaying one's mastery of using the shadow realm.

Kong Min was not too confident in this, since despite reading through all the manuals given to him by his master, he was still unable to comprehend the technique. But now he had to show proof that he was able to do it or he wouldn’t be able to become an actual officer of the Order and would remain stuck in the trainee phase. And so, Kong Min entered the testing area determined to do his best.

The testing area was a windowless room with a few high-level officers standing at the edges. Some of them were even officers who had helped found the Order beside the Sentinel Grandmaster. Apart from them, there were also a few officers here who Kong Min was familiar with. As a junior officer, he had taken part in missions along with these officers’ teams and had been looked after by them, causing him to become close to them. And so, Kong Min turned to give them a cheerful smile and waved at them carefreely. The officers waved back and grinned with gleeful anticipation as if looking forward to something. Kong Min only felt puzzled at this, but his attention was soon diverted.

“Junior Officer Kong, please enter the shadow realm through here and begin your test,” announced one of the senior officers and motioned to the center of the room.

There, in the middle of the testing room’s floor, was a meter-wide pit teeming with pitch-black shadows. Ominous curls of smoky black extended upward while threatening darkness undulated silently as if eagerly looking forward to swallowing him whole. Hearing that he had to jump into this pit of shadows to enter the shadow realm and begin his test, Kong Min gulped and immediately began wondering if he should perhaps quit thinking about becoming a Sentinel and just give up here.

Turning to the officers overseeing this test, Kong Min gave a forced laugh and said mock-cheerfully, “Y-You know what? I don’t feel up to it after all. Maybe this Sentinel business isn’t for me.”

After saying so, Kong Min was just about to turn around and flee when two of the officers he was familiar with from training suddenly took him by the arms, one holding each, and began dragging him towards the pit.

“Now, now, Junior Brother. Just think of it as taking a swim, but in shadows instead of water,” said one of the heartless bastards with a happy grin.

“But I don’t know how to swim!” Kong Min refuted as he desperately began to struggle.

As if not hearing him, they continued dragging him by his arms until they reached the edge of the pit. Smiling affectionately at him, the other Sentinel merrily said, “Then just relax your body and try not to drown. Don’t forget to hold your breath now!”

With that, the two Sentinels carefreely tossed Kong Min into the pit full of shadows as he let out a long, despairing screech.

And so Kong Min’s test began.

After several grueling days spent in the shadow realm, Kong Min finally managed to grasp the concept of dissolving his physical body into shadows and emerged from the pit again. He was completely exhausted mentally, and his need for vengeance against those bastards who tossed him in burned brighter than the sun. But the second Kong Min stepped out of the pit of shadows, he saw the officers who threw him into the pit sitting outside along with a few other Sentinels, including his master.

“Min-er, you did well,” Feng Huixin sincerely praised.

“Yes, Junior Brother. We weren’t expecting you to make it out on your own, so we were just considering coming down to rescue you. But it’s good that you made it out,” said one of the people who’d tossed him in.

“Congratulations on becoming an officer, Kong Min!” yelled another of those heartless bastards exuberantly.

Kong Min looked at their smirking faces expressionlessly, then serenely turned to Feng Huixin and bowed. “Master, now that your disciple has become an officer, I would like to ask you for a favor.”

Feng Huixin was confused, but still nodded. “What do you want, Min-er?”

Lifting his head and shooting a piercing glare at the two cheerful officers who’d thrown him in, Kong Ming said, “Master, I want you to pretend that you can’t see what I’m going to do next.”

Before Feng Huixin could understand what he meant, Kong Min threw himself onto those two officers who’d wronged him and began brawling. The other Sentinels only laughed and made way for the three people to let them beat each other up with more freedom. Feng Huixin sighed and shook his head. As disciplined as the Sentinels were on the outside, inside headquarters, they still played around like children. But maybe them not having to hold themselves back at least while here was a good thing.

On the other hand, despite Kong Min’s rage at being forcefully thrown into the pit, when the time came for his own junior brother Wei Xiang to undergo this test, he had been all too happy to do the same. As an unsuspecting Wei Xiang stood at the edge of the pit of shadows peering in with a considering look, Kong Min and a few other senior officers happily pushed him in, laughing as Wei Xiang fell with a growl promising vengeance.

But after getting out of the pit, rather than simply settling this grievance with a brawl as most other officers who received this treatment did, Wei Xiang instead only smirked with malicious intent and walked away, confounding the others. However, from then on, Wei Xiang continuously exacted his vengeance by bullying his fellow officers during their sparring sessions, beating them into the ground repeatedly and making them taste regret. And thus began his habit of bullying his fellow officers in the guise of sparring. On the other hand, Kong Min and the rest could only bemoan their bad luck at becoming the targets for Wei Xiang venting his petty ire like this.

But despite all this, Kong Min and Wei Xiang steadily grew closer as brothers, learning to take care of each other.

A few centuries later, just before Wei Xiang’s first heat period, he came across yet another hurdle that he had to pass. Unexpectedly, this would also serve as the incident that led to the first meeting between Kong Min and the Master of Land.

Similar to the dragons they were descended from, the early generation wyverns had different stages in their life where their beast qualities manifested one by one in their humanoid form. Though they could transform between their full wyvern and full human forms from birth, their half-beast forms took time to develop, the many half-beast attributes slowly manifesting step-by-step in stages that could span centuries.

For example, a newborn wyvern had the capability to form a layer of scales on top of its skin as a type of self-defense. A wyvern that had reached adolescence can bring out claws and fangs, as well as use sharpened vision in their half-beast forms. After reaching adulthood and right before experiencing their first heat period, a wyvern nearing maturation will manifest their wings for the first time.

But wyverns were after all not dragons. They also had the blood of the wingless metal serpents from the mortal world mixed in. Because of this, while manifesting wings, even though the dragon blood would keep attempting to push out the wings, the blood of the wingless serpents would suppress it. As the two opposing aspects fought for dominance like this, the wyvern would have to strive for balance and methodically push out their wings. Manifesting wings and forcing it out of one’s body under such difficult conditions could sometimes even prove fatal for the wyvern. As a result, it often turned into an unimaginably strenuous and painful process.

And such was the case for Wei Xiang currently.

With his upper body bare, Wei Xiang was covered in sweat as his muscles trembled with strain. His long hair limply stuck to the slick skin, scattered haphazardly. As his head rested on Feng Huixin’s lap, the rest of his body laid curled on the bed with his bare back facing outward.

Crouching by the bedside, Kong Min frowned worriedly. Following the instructions his master had just given him, Kong Min carefully pushed two of his fingers into the middle of his junior brother’s upper back, at the center of the thoracic spine. Right now, Wei Xiang’s shoulder blades seemed to be bulging out, the newly-formed wings underneath stretching the skin and muscle as they tried to tear their way out with force.

As Wei Xiang panted, his eyes dilated with the pain, Feng Huixin stroked his arm in comfort as he murmured soothingly, “Focus on your breaths, Xiang-er. Try to manage the pain. It’ll be alright. We’re here. We’ll help you.”

His master’s soothing voice was the only thing keeping Wei Xiang tethered to his sanity. His upper back was a huge knot of burning, stabbing agony. Pulses of pain washed over him as the wings strained to burst out from either side of his spine. He could feel his fledgling wings being formed inside him, the bony joints pushing against his muscles and skin from within his back. It felt very uncomfortable and hurt so much that Wei Xiang wanted to go on a rampage and tear at everything he could with his claws just to assuage his helplessness at having to go through this torture.

Feng Huixin’s deep and calming voice filtered through the haze in his mind, “…Think of your training. Take control of the pain and maintain your self-restraint. Xiang-er, it will be over soon. You only have to bear it until then…”

Wei Xiang dazedly closed his eyes and buried his face deeper into his master’s lap, silently taking strength from those words. Yes, just a bit more and he could be free of this misery…

Suddenly, another pulse of pain tore through him. Wei Xiang stiffened instinctively and let it wash through him with gritted teeth. His face turned white with strain as cold sweat beaded his forehead. Waves of raw agony flowed through him in ragged bursts, then slowly settled into the throbbing pain from before. As soon as the torment abated, Wei Xiang’s taut body slumped as his chest heaved with deep breaths. Feng Huixin’s eyes showed acute distress, but his voice remained calm and soothing as he continued to comfort his third disciple steadily.

As easy as it would be to just neatly cut Wei Xiang’s back open to let these wings out, they couldn’t do that. If the wings didn’t strain and make their own way out, they wouldn’t develop enough strength as a result and would remain weak. If it were not for this, Feng Huixin would have used the most painless way possible to let out Wei Xiang’s wings rather than watch his beloved disciple struggle with pain like this.

Meanwhile, behind Wei Xiang, Kong Min kept pressing between the growing lumps on his junior brother’s shoulder blades, his fingers seeming to be waiting for something. His voice light and quavering with nervousness, he spoke, “I think I’ve got it. I’m almost there… Just hold on for a bit more, Junior Brother. Your wings will pop out any second now…”

As he kept muttering tense reassurances, Kong Min suddenly felt something give way under his fingertips. Not wasting time, he quickly injected a small amount of spiritual energy to stimulate a particular point. Wei Xiang’s back snapped straight as he let out a pained groan. Before Kong Min could react, something exploded out of Wei Xiang’s back, flinging him away with of force.

Crossing his arms in front of him in time to shield himself, Kong Min flipped mid-air to land on his feet and crouched low on the ground for stability. Lowering his arms, his sleeves strangely drenched in blood, he looked up to see what happened. But the sight in front of him made Kong Min’s eyes widen in horror.

A gigantic pair of golden wings extended out of Wei Xiang’s back, having burst through skin and flesh. They left two large rips on his back, the raw and ragged edges of torn skin curling outward and glistening crimson. Bloody flesh and pale bone were visible through these gruesome injuries. But even more shocking was the sight of all the blood and gore splattered around Wei Xiang as if his back had literally exploded outward. Since his wings had burst out from within his back, strings of muscles had been torn through in the process and bits of flesh were still stuck to the fledgling wings, some gobs of meat even flung onto the floor and walls, leaving red trails behind them. Bright blood dripped off the wings, dying the shining golden appendages and the pale pearly membranes stretched in between with a frighteningly vivid crimson.

As Kong Min and Feng Huixin stared wide-eyed with shock at this gory scene, Wei Xiang felt himself getting weaker and weaker due to the large quantities of blood he’d just lost. Ragged stabs of pain drilled in from his back, making him turn pasty white from pain. Forming and manifesting his wings for the first time had drained his vital energy quite a bit, leaving him dangerously weak. His core seemed to be steadily getting colder, the fire in him dimming.

Sensing Wei Xiang’s pulse weakening as his spiritual energy ineffectually tried to repair the monumental damage to his back, Feng Huixin’s gaze grew alarmed. He quickly tried to give his disciple several pills and elixirs, but nothing worked. Using his connection with the Sentinels, Feng Huixin quickly called Hou Yu to come and transfer some of his potent fire-based energy to Wei Xiang. Appearing through the shadows, Hou Yu only had to take one look at the situation to understand the direness and hastily began doing as told. But even though he sent in every drop of fire element based spiritual energy he could muster into Wei Xiang, it did absolutely nothing. Something deep inside Wei Xiang’s spiritual self seemed to have gotten broken, rendering him unable to process energy in itself.

Still crouching on the floor at the side, his sleeves soaked in his junior brother’s blood, Kong Min dazedly watched his master getting more and more desperate as Wei Xiang’s presence seemed to turn lighter and lighter.

This couldn’t be happening, could it? Was he really going to lose his junior brother just like that? Someone as powerful and intelligent, as petty and sly, as workaholic and dependable as his junior brother…was going to die like this? No, he couldn’t accept this. He wouldn’t accept this! There had to be something, anything they could do! That was his junior brother, his responsibility! The person he’d promised his master he’d take good care of! That was his precious and precocious junior brother who’d finally started treating him as a real senior brother, learning to depend on him. He couldn’t just let him die like this!

But no matter how much he railed against the situation, Kong Min soon became aware that it was useless. There was nothing he could do. He had no power to change fate.

His eyes squeezing close and his head bowing, Kong Min raised a hand to his chest, feeling the hard bump of the gemstone under his clothes that his mother had embedded into his chest for some reason before she died. In a fit of desperation, he prayed with all his might, Mother, I wish I could find some mysterious way to save my junior brother just like how you managed to save me all those years ago. I don’t want to lose Wei Xiang. What do I do? Mother, please, tell me what to do!

Unexpectedly, he really did receive an answer.

<Though I am not your mother, I can grant your wish. But I will ask you payment in return. Are you willing to make this pact with me?>

Kong Min jerked upright, his eyes flashing open. There was no one around him, and the voice just now, brimming and sparking with potent and powerful old magics, seemed to speak directly into his mind. His hand pressing more firmly onto the gem in his chest, Kong Min tentatively asked, <Are you…speaking from inside this gem? And since this gem was given to me by my mother, are you related to her somehow?>

The voice replied, deep and calm, <The gem is a part of me and a conduit for us to communicate through. It was the gift I gave you through your mother and one of the things I provided her in exchange for her life. The other thing I gave her was the seeds used in the medicine that saved your life.>

Kong Min had suspected as much, but hearing it still shocked him.

But before Kong Min could spend too much time in his astonishment, he heard the voice of one of the resident healers who seemed to have been called over sometime saying urgently, “Grandmaster, it’s not good. The wound isn’t healing at all, and the weight of the wings is only dragging it open further. He’ll die very quickly at this rate. Is there any way to get him to put the wings away?”

“Yes, there is. But in his condition, I’m unsure if Xiang-er will be able to follow my instructions. But we will try,” Feng Huixin replied. Then seeing Wei Xiang looking sleepy and weak due to blood loss, he called to him pensively, “Xiang-er? Xiang-er! Don’t close your eyes. Focus on me. Are you able to regulate your energy? Try to feel for the pathways in your wings and use them to suffuse your wings with spiritual energy. Yes, like that, good. Now slowly dissolve the physical form of your wings, turn them into a part of your spiritual body with the rest of your wyvern form, then put them away.”

Seeming to struggle, Wei Xiang did his best to comply. Now that he had pushed out his wings once already, folding them against his back and slowly letting them dissolve into his spiritual body seemed much easier. From now on, he would be able to manifest them directly from his spiritual body, not needing to go through this process of tearing open his back ever again. But for this to be useful, he would first have to live.

Even though several more healers quickly congregated around Wei Xiang to keep him alive, his condition still kept worsening. Feng Huixin looked frantic, his face exceedingly pale with worry and fear. He’d already lost one son, he couldn’t bear to lose another!

In a leisurely yet indifferent tone, the voice on the other side of the gemstone spoke to Kong Min, <The beast has strong vitality, but he doesn’t have much time left. Make your choice quickly, for not even I can bring someone back from the Netherworld.>

Kong Min gritted his teeth. There was no choice at all. <Fine, I agree. Take whatever you want from me, but please, save my junior brother and make him healthy again. And don’t play any tricks! Just give him back to me, and I’ll do anything you want.>

For a moment, the voice said nothing. Hearing his junior brother’s breaths growing shallower with every passing moment, Kong Min was on the verge of bursting with anxiety. Then the voice said, <I swear on Heaven’s name that I will do nothing more or less this time than heal that heavenly beast Wei Xiang’s injuries and help him regain his health. Does this satisfy you?>

Kong Min blinked in surprise, then woodenly nodded. A vow made using Heaven’s name couldn’t be broken, lest the oathbreaker be struck down by heavenly punishment. Though he didn’t know why this strange being took pains to be so considerate, he wasn’t in the mood to question it either. <Can you heal him now?>

The voice calmly stated, <Yes. Since you seem to wield the wood element, you will be a suitable channel for my power. Go and touch the wounded beast’s back. Though indirectly, he was still born in the place I call home. That much of a connection should suffice to let his body accept my healing energy into it despite the foreign nature of my power.>

But uncaring of the explanations, Kong Min had already gotten up and was quickly walking forward. Pushing aside the healers crowding around his junior brother, Kong Min ignored their strange looks and directly pressed his hand to Wei Xiang’s torn-up back. His junior brother’s usually warm skin felt cool to the touch.

“Min-er?” Feng Huixin called to him concernedly, but Kong Min only shook his head. “I’ll explain later, Master.”

The gemstone embedded in the middle of Kong Min’s chest seemed to fill with sizzling energy. Raw power overflowed from the gem and suddenly shot out through his arm, leaving the impression of damp soil, fresh leaves sprinkled with dew, and the warmth of sunlight filtering through branches in its wake. The powerful yet gentle energy poured into Wei Xiang, quickly suffusing his weakened body. The jagged wounds immediately began healing at a visible rate, the ends of the torn skin slowly fusing together again. Wei Xiang’s skin gradually grew warmer while regaining its healthy pallor, his vital energy finally becoming able to recover.

But the outpouring of this rich energy meant that Kong Min’s spiritual pathways were overfilled. Within a few minutes, they began splitting and tearing, incurring horrible damage. Kong Min grimly bore through it, his entire concentration only on staying still and letting the power being channeled through him reach his junior brother.

Once Wei Xiang had fully healed, the amount of power flowing through Kong Min’s arm also decreased. As the last few wisps of the clean-tasting energy entered his arm, it suffused Kong Min with nurturing warmth and healed all the damage that had been done to his spiritual pathways as if in apology. And then the flow completely stopped, leaving Kong Min yearning to feel that tingling warmth again.

The deep voice from the other side of the gem spoke, not sounding the least bit tired even after spending that much energy, <I have held up my end of the bargain. To fulfill your promise and make your payment, come alone to the Spirit Bewildering Forest within three days. I will have the forest lead you to the Forest’s Cradle where I abide.>

With that, the connection finally went silent. But Kong Min felt too exhausted to care. His junior brother was saved, that’s all that mattered for now. The sudden rush of relief made his knees go weak, causing Kong Min to slump down onto his knees on the floor.

Things moved quickly after that. A fully conscious Wei Xiang was made to rest and recover on his bed while all the various healers with their shocked expressions and inquisitive gazes after witnessing the miracle just now were shooed out. Kong Min then recited what happened and unreservedly told Feng Huixin and Wei Xiang everything. They all agreed that whoever was on the other side of that gem must be a very old power indeed.

Understanding that they had to be cautious, Wei Xiang suggested that Kong Min take someone with him to the Spirit Bewildering Forest to make his payment. But Kong Min refused, not wanting to break his word. That powerful being had asked him to come alone, and so he would go alone and face whatever waited for him. Since this was a contract willingly agreed to by both parties, Feng Huixin didn’t think the Order could reasonably get involved either, though he himself was very willing to interfere for his second disciple’s sake.

However, in the end, Kong Min managed to convince them both to let him go to the forest alone.

They decided that Kong Min would go at the end of the third day and spend the time until then trying to figure out just what manner of creature would be awaiting him in the forest. After all, the Spirit Bewildering Forest was home to many great powers and twisted monsters. Some were ancient and peaceful beings, guiding lost travelers or providing treasures to righteous people, while others were old and crooked fiends, sowing chaos and devouring the flesh of unwary humans. The creature Kong Min had interacted with could be any of these things.

Right on the third day, Kong Min suddenly remembered a certain report he was due to submit soon and went to ask Wei Xiang’s help with it. But to his dismay, he discovered that Wei Xiang had started his first heat period. Since he had just recently manifested his wings, which usually happened just before a wyvern reached maturity, Feng Huixin had expected that this might occur, so he had already briefed Kong Min on what to do just in case.

And so, as Kong Min accompanied his junior brother and watched over him throughout the night as Wei Xiang spent his heat period in Yuese Lian, the third day was already spent and the fourth day dawned.

Kong Min had broken his promise.

But undaunted, after he had Wei Xiang settled, Kong Min still headed to the Spirit Bewildering Forest the next morning, intending to apologize and make his payment.

After reaching the border of the Spirit Bewildering Forest through the shadows, Kong Min looked around quizzically. Hadn’t that being said that the forest would show him the way?

Before Kong Min could wonder for long, the brush directly in front of him parted, the vegetation seeming to slide to either side as their roots crawled under the ground. Kong Min’s eyebrows rose. After the plants and trees shifted to make a clear path for him in the middle, tiny white mushrooms popped up simultaneously at the border of the newly-created trail. The mushroom caps lit up with a soft blue-green glow, lighting the way into the gloomy forest. Several fist-sized cottony clouds of luminous vapor, their colors shifting between warm yellow, mild pink, and mellow peach, hovered at eye-level, waving and dancing playfully in the air. They floated over to Kong Min and circled around him, then began flying over the path as if trying to lead him along it.

After recovering from his surprise, Kong Min chuckled with amusement. Why did it seem like he was a child being purposefully lured into the monster’s den? Shaking his head, he started walking forward, his feet keeping to the path laid out for him.

As he strolled along it, the lit trail and the glowing clouds accompanying him made the path look magical and welcoming. In contrast, dark mists swam outside the trail’s confines, hovering menacingly throughout the Spirit Bewildering Forest. The maniacal howls of beasts, the eerie laughter of some creature, the unsettling chittering of small animals, and the scuttling of strange insects sounded in the background. But as Kong Min kept following the path, nothing dared try to interrupt him as if knowing not to meddle with the being that had laid out this trail to welcome him.

Already trained to grasp information from his surroundings, Kong Min’s mind automatically kept trying to figure out the type of plants and animals he saw. But after barely recognizing one or two species heavily mutated by high concentrations of spiritual energy, Kong Min had to give up, instead focusing on at least memorizing the route he was being led through.

After for close to an hour of walking, the trail ended, leading to the narrow space between two tall trees. With curiosity, Kong Min strode forward and stepped through the gap.

On the other side, ensconced by trees, was a large and round clearing. The ground here was completely covered in overlapping tree roots while branches intertwined far above. The thick gloom and sense of unease permeating the rest of the forest were absent here. Instead, fresh and cool air filled the space while rays of morning sunlight slipped through the interlaced branches above and floated down gently to dapple the ground, lending a warm radiance to the glade.

But what caught Kong Min’s attention the most was the strange being at the center of the clearing.

Standing with a calm air about him, the humanoid being carefully petted the head of some huge monster, his figure partially hidden by its ragged, half-furled wings. The monster’s head was taller than two men standing on top of each other. It’s thick, black skin was wrinkled and sagging, its snout appearing squashed into its face. As its wet lips peeled back a bit, it exposed rows of sharp yellow fangs with bits of meat and blood still stuck in between. But despite all that, the monster’s slitted eyes looked strangely peaceful as the humanoid being gently stroked its head. There was an unhurried, measured cadence to his movements, as if he had all the time in the world to spend on petting the monster. And despite its ferocious appearance, the monster also looked very docile and obedient, like a small puppy reveling in its owner’s affections. The gaze with which the humanoid being looked at this creature brimmed with tranquility and fatherly love.

Hearing Kong Min enter the clearing, the being stopped his petting and slowly turned to face him. The monster whose head he had been stroking gave a short growl of dissatisfaction in Kong Min’s direction before retreating from the clearing and loping away.

As he finally got a good look at the being, Kong Min sucked in a breath.

Though having taken the form of a man, Kong Min could sense without a doubt that this was an ancient eldritch creature. Extending from either side of the being’s head were slender, translucent horns like that of a stag that shone gold, seeming to be made of condensed, crystalline sunlight. His unbound hair was long and wavy, it’s color a rich, dark brown. A few strands of his thick hair gradually segued into dark green vines in the middle, adorned with small leaves and tiny white flowers that grew out of it. His evenly toned skin was smooth and tinted with gold. His face was very well-proportioned and perfectly symmetrical, with dusky red lips turned down at the corners to give him a solemn air, a long and straight nose adding a touch of nobility to his features, and lush eyelashes framing dark green phoenix-shaped eyes that reflected the eerie magic of an ancient enchanted forest.

The being wore a long and unadorned sleeveless outer robe in dark purple, with a wide-sleeved inner robe in a lustrous black. Rather than a belt, he seemed to have extended one of the vines from among his flowing hair to casually tie around his waist, holding his robes together. His feet were bare and showed thickened joints, with tough and sharp nails curving from his toes. The same nails tipped the ends of his long fingers as well.

His posture as he stood was graceful yet without pretense. With a still and calm air about him, he seemed like a natural part of the forest, someone who could have grown out of the ground. The intermittent rays of mild light glided down from between the tightly woven canopy of branches above, gently brushing his figure and bathing him in a peaceful, solemn radiance. He looked unearthly and ageless, a being that had stood here for countless eons unmindful of the ceaseless passage of time.

The first thought Kong Min had after seeing him was: Damn, even though he wore casual clothes rather than his Sentinel uniform, he still felt overdressed for this meeting!

His second thought was: If this weren’t an old being capable of crushing him without even having to think about it, he would have definitely liked to take this delicious-looking man for a blissful week or two of continuous fucking.

However, as much as he wanted to jump him, Kong Min knew better than to put himself in that much danger. After all, for him, physical attraction was something he was sure he could feel for even a humanoid statue. But sleeping with a powerful, unknown being such as this, no matter how beautiful he was, would be a far worse idea than just drunkenly trying to bed a statue. And as someone who had experienced the latter, he could truly attest that attempting to sleep with a statue was a very bad idea.

Pushing aside these frivolous thoughts, Kong Min maintained his caution and nervously waited for the being to say something. Would he be condemned for taking more than three days to come here? Would his payment be increased?

Not knowing of his worries, the Master of Land simply looked at this new guest. His eyes drank in Kong Min’s smooth copper-hued skin, his black hair tied above in a bun with the curling ends trailing down his nape, his light brown eyes that looked almost translucent, his handsome face and masculine features, and the lazy ease with which he held himself that belied the cautiousness and vigilance he felt. The Master of Land eagerly took it all in.

This was the first time he had invited a human into the Forest’s Cradle, his home. And seeing that Kong Min had really come here, his heart began thudding faster in his chest. It was such a strange sensation. The Master of Land wondered if this was what excitement felt like. After all, this was the person he had been interestedly spying on all this while; that cheerful, energetic child who had grown up to become a mischievous and seemingly irresponsible, yet also a kind and upright adult. Thinking about how he was finally meeting him face to face, the Master of Land felt a small smile stretching his lips on its own, warming his still gaze.

On the other hand, seeing that expression that made it look as if this ethereally beautiful being was glad to see him, Kong Min grew dazed for a second. This man was really too enchanting for his own good!

Having gotten his fill of looking at Kong Min, the Master of Land finally parted his lips, exposing pointed fangs, and spoke through a proper mouth for the first time in millennia, “Kong Min, you’ve come.” Being able to call this person’s name sent a soft sweetness through his chest. How strange. He’d never felt this sensation before. It was quite novel and nice.

Hearing his name being spoken by this strange being in his deep and pleasant voice, Kong Min felt a tingle run up his spine. No, no, he couldn’t think of this man in that way. Forcing down his reaction, he gave a small bow and spoke courteously, “I didn’t get the chance to say this earlier, but thank you for saving my junior brother. I also want to apologize for coming late to make my payment. I had an emergency that I had to attend to.”

As Kong Min straightened after speaking, he saw the being nod unconcernedly. “Yes, I know.”

Kong Min blinked. “Wait, you knew that I had an emergency? How?”

The being answered simply, “I watch you often through the conduit.”

Kong Min’s lips twitched. This guy… But truthfully, he didn’t mind the thought of such a strange stalker all that much. First of all, he didn’t know this being. So no matter what this man thought or felt after peeping at him, Kong Min didn’t care. And being raised in a large and overly concerned family like his that spanned an entire brothel, the first thing Kong Min had had to get used to while growing up was the lack of privacy. Also, it wasn’t like he himself hadn’t gone around peeking through window cracks. As a child, it had been to assuage his curiosity and see what the grown-ups were doing. As an adult, it was for his job of collecting information on various dangerous organizations and finding out what they were plotting. Either way, he himself was no better, so why would he judge someone else for the same thing?

Sighing, Kong Min finally spoke, “I won’t make an issue of you invading my privacy, but I hope you know to not reveal whatever information you gleaned through watching me working for the Order. Other than that, I really don’t care if you are a shameless peeper who likes watching me bathe. After all, it isn’t like I haven’t engaged in exhibitionism every now and then.” Then blinking playfully at him, Kong Min teased, “But I’d still like you to limit that peeping tendency of yours to only when I look my best. I wouldn’t want such a handsome man to see me when I’m all frazzled and unattractive. Actually, you really should reduce how much you peep at me, because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to gush about your beauty to my brothers and friends behind your back without feeling shy.”

The ancient being simply looked at him with deep eyes, making Kong Min wonder if he even understood his flirting. Then finally, the other man nodded. “Very well, I shall limit the time I watch you from now onwards.”

Kong Min let out a breath, then flashed him a grin. “Good. Since you seem to find me that irresistible to watch, I suppose that’s all I can ask for.”

The Master of Land felt a strange itchy sensation softly sweep over his heart as he kept hearing Kong Min’s teasing voice. He felt uncertain. What was this sensation? But before he could examine it too much, it was gone.

“I’m curious about something,” Kong Min began, his lips still curved up in a carefree smile as he stood in a loose and relaxed posture. “Who are you? And what is your name?”

The being lightly lifted his chin, his lashes lowering over deep green eyes. “I am the manifestation of all earth. I believe you humans call me the Master of Land,” he replied, his voice low and smooth.

Kong Min looked at him with shock. He was the Master of Land?! So it turned out that the being that had helped him was even more old, powerful, and troublesome what he and the others had imagined. And the fact that he owed this type of being a favor made Kong Min feel that his situation was that much more uncertain and dangerous now.

“As for a name…” the Master of Land continued serenely, “I suppose you can call me Ying Xulin. It is the name I once used long ago when I ventured out of the forest.”

Kong Min resolutely pushed aside his astonishment. No, he couldn’t succumb to it now. Putting on a carefree expression, he repeated, “Ying Xulin… Hmm, yes, I guess it suits you.” Showing a roguish smile, he continued, “Do you mind if I call you Xiao Lin then? Or would you prefer something like Ah-Xu? Or do you want to be stuffy and insist I call you by your full name?”

The Master of Land, now going by the name Ying Xulin, didn’t know how to answer. After considering for a while, he finally replied, “I will give you leave to call me whatever you like.”

Kong Min’s smile turned more cheerful. “How generous! Let’s settle on Ah-Xu then.”

Ying Xulin felt that strange itchy sensation from before return, dragging across his heart like the soft strands of feathers. Not knowing how to deal with it, he simply nodded and said, “So be it, then.” Changing the topic, he went on, “We have yet to discuss your payment. Since you are late, I should ask you to provide me more compensation.”

Kong Min’s expression turned serious. “Yes, that’s fair. I was the one who failed to uphold my end of the bargain, so I won’t disagree. I already told you that I will do anything in exchange for you saving my brother, and I meant it. What do you want from me in return for your assistance?”

Ying Xulin’s eyes narrowed as he asked in return, “What are you able to give me?”

“What I can give you?” Kong Min repeated with surprise. Then with a wry smile, he joked, “Well, I have a lot of experience in sex, for one thing.”

But seeming to not understand that he was just teasing, Ying Xulin solemnly nodded. “Then I shall sample your experience in bed as payment.”

Kong Min’s eyes widened. What?! He was really going to take him up on that?! He had only meant it as a joke! But even though he felt panicked, since it was his own blasted mouth that had spouted the idea in the first place, he didn’t think it would be fair of him to refuse. Well, this was better than him being asked to be the torture toy of this old being, wasn’t it?

And so, gulping anxiously, Kong Min nodded. “A-Alright, then.” After a second of hesitation, he asked, “Do you want to do it now?”

Ying Xulin looked at him intently. “Yes, let us begin.”

Under Ying Xulin’s piercing gaze, Kong Min raised his hands and slowly undid his own belt, pulling it away and letting it drop down. His lapels fell apart, exposing a stretch of smooth copper-tinted skin. Situated a small distance below the hollow of his throat, the dark green oval gem embedded into his chest gleamed with a deep radiance.

Not waiting for the reluctant Kong Min to continue disrobing, Ying Xulin strode over quickly, his gaze as deep and lustrous as the gem. Kong Min froze. Reaching him, Ying Xulin extended a hand and slipped it into Kong Min’s half undone clothes, his arm encircling his waist and drawing the younger man closer. Kong Min stiffly allowed himself to be pulled over. His eyes fixing on Kong Min’s face, Ying Xulin raised his other hand and cradled Kong Min’s jaw ever so gently.

Kong Min felt unsettled and uncomfortable with this sudden sense of intimacy shared with someone he had just met, someone he hadn’t yet had a chance to properly assess like he usually did. He raised his hands as if to push the other man away, but ended up simply resting them on Ying Xulin’s shoulders and looked away nervously. He’d very literally asked for this, so there’d be no backing away now. He should just suck it up and obediently let himself get fucked.

Seeing that he wasn’t being pushed away, Ying Xulin felt a sense of satisfaction he himself couldn’t explain. His hand on Kong Min’s waist tightened while he tenderly stroked his cheek. His magnetic gaze still fixed intently on the younger man’s face, Ying Xulin rubbed his thumb over Kong Min’s lips, then slowly bent forward. Startled, Kong Min instinctively leaned his head back, avoiding the kiss in time, but Ying Xulin simply redirected his lips to land on Kong Min’s long neck, softly kissing it. His mouth was warm and gentle, sending pleasant currents rippling outward from that small point of contact. Kong Min sighed out a heated breath, his body beginning to soften.

As he felt his lust beginning to stir, Kong Min wanted to scold himself for being in heat all the time. He was both cautious and afraid of someone as powerful and ancient as the Master of Land. He obviously didn’t trust him, especially to be this close to him. No matter what his fellow Sentinels and his nagging junior brother thought, Kong Min really did have at least some standards about the people he slept with. His safety was definitely an important consideration for him each time. And yet…

As Ying Xulin’s hand began kneading his waist coaxingly while those warm lips tenderly explored the column of his neck, Kong Min moaned. Damn, after all these years of unrestrained debauchery, his body really was too conditioned to receive pleasure from the slightest of things.

Meanwhile, even as his hands and lips continued what they were doing, Ying Xulin moved forward and slowly led Kong Min towards a nearby tree trunk, pressing the younger man’s back against it. Before Kong Min could react, Ying Xulin opened his mouth and sucked on the smooth skin on his neck. Kong Min’s knees felt somewhat weak and his body automatically leaned back on the rough yet sturdy tree trunk. He wanted to protest and push the other man away before he lost his reason, but Kong Min controlled himself. He might indeed be very afraid of letting this ancient creature be so intimate with him while he had to lay vulnerable before him, but along with fear, there was also arousal. Perhaps he should just focus on that as he made his payment.

In the meantime, as if impatient to feel more of him, Ying Xulin’s hand slowly began to move, pressing and dragging over Kong Min’s skin that was slowly growing more sensitive. That broad palm swept up under his clothes and over Kong Min’s spine as Ying Xulin’s hot mouth carefully nibbled his throat. His warm tongue trailed up and down the side of Kong Min’s neck, sweeping over the blooming pink marks, and making him arch back with a gasp. Ah, this really felt too good…

Ying Xulin leaned back and temporarily retrieved his fingers from inside Kong Min’s clothes, then pulled away Kong Min’s hands from where it was resting on his shoulders. Before Kong Min could realize what was happening, Ying Xulin flipped him around so that his front was pressing to the tree trunk. Kong Min felt the rough bark against his cheek and the exposed skin of his chest and belly. He could feel the gem pressing deeper into his chest. The perked up buds on his chest rubbed against the rough trunk, only stimulating him more. Kong Min gave a light shudder. As the haze of arousal slowly clouded his mind, he felt Ying Xulin lift his arms up and use a hand to pin his wrists to the tree. Ying Xulin pressed his body forward and Kong Min felt an unmistakable bulge poking his butt. He squirmed restlessly, not knowing if he wanted to refuse or accept the clear intention being conveyed by that hot thing pushing against his backside. Reluctance and desire fought against each other in his mind.

At this time, Ying Xulin lowered his head to begin carefully scraping his pointed incisors over the side of Kong Min’s throat, feeling the pulse of life throbbing under his lips.

Despite himself, Kong Min froze.

Sensing the press of sharp fangs on his vulnerable artery, terror surged through him, turning his once pliant body stiff with tension. If those sharp teeth wanted, they could easily puncture his neck like a needle through thin cloth and rip out a chunk of flesh. The blood loss alone would kill him within minutes. Kong Min was distinctly made aware that in this position, he was utterly helpless and at the mercy of this powerful being. No matter how much he tried, how could he relax his vigilance in such a state? How could he just accept that his asscheeks would be splayed open and his body entered by someone he didn’t even trust?

As Kong Min’s insides twisted with anxiety, he suddenly felt Ying Xulin letting him go and stepping away. Kong Min blinked and lowered his arms. After a moment of hesitation, he turned around with a tremulous smile and asked, “What is it, Ah-Xu? Did you run out of ideas for foreplay already?”

But Ying Xulin only frowned harder, a hint of confusion in his eyes. “I can sense that you clearly do not wish to lie with me. So why did you accept?”

Kong Min first felt surprised, then sighed. Leaning back against the tree trunk and pulling his lapels closed, he said, “I am in no position to make demands. Since that is what you agreed to have as your payment, I acquiesced.”

Ying Xulin looked offended. “My forest might shelter beasts, but I am not one of them. I take no pleasure in forcing someone in this way.”

Kong Min blinked. Who knew that this Master of Land was actually this humane? And here he’d thought he’d only care about making Kong Min pay and not how he felt about said payment. Finding that he was unable to grasp this being’s personality, Kong Min asked with puzzlement, “Then…what do you want from me? What should I give you?”

Ying Xulin tilted his head in thought. Then his hypnotic green eyes suddenly gleamed with anticipation at some idea. It made Ying Xulin look especially eerie and alien. In a light voice, he spoke, “Then how about you give me your life in repayment just like your mother?”

Kong Min’s heart filled with ice. He shouldn’t have doubted himself. His initial assessment had been exactly right! This being really was very dangerous! Anger and fear bubbled inside him, but he quickly forced them down. His mother had died by her own choice, and she only chose to do so to save him. As frustrating and unfair as that had felt, he’d had centuries to get used to that fact. In the beginning, he had of course blamed the creature that took his mother’s life in return for saving his. But he slowly grew to understand that such feelings were useless. He had long chosen to let it all go. After all, his mother was already gone. But his junior brother was still alive, and it was thanks to this man in front of him. As much as he didn’t want to, he owed this being, and he needed to take responsibility for that and pay up.

Letting out a deep breath, Kong Min nodded. “Very well, then. I did say I’d do anything.” Honestly, this was not the way he expected to die, but it couldn’t be helped. A deal was a deal. And as a Sentinel trained directly by the Sentinel Grandmaster, his honor and integrity were unimpeachable.

Kong Min’s palms pressed against the tree trunk behind him, his body relaxing back. Lifting up his chin, he exposed his neck to Ying Xulin silently and closed his eyes.

Ying Xulin reached out his hands, his claw-tipped fingers wrapping around the offered throat. He saw Kong Min’s eyelashes tremble ever so slightly and smiled. He realized that he liked Kong Min, and he liked spending time with him even more than watching him. The thought of killing this intriguing person and burying him under his home to forever keep him company strangely satisfied Ying Xulin. This way, he could have this person all to himself, not needing to share him with anyone from the world outside. It was a very pleasing thought. But as to why this thought pleased him… Ying Xulin wasn’t the type to bother wondering about such trivialities.

Under his fingers, Ying Xulin could feel the throb of Kong Min’s pulse, much faster than what he’d felt under his lips before. As his fingers slowly began squeezing, restricting Kong Min’s breath and the blood supply to his brain, Ying Xulin felt the pulse grow frantic, throbbing quickly due to increasing fear and in the representation of life, as if stubbornly declaring that this person was alive. Ying Xulin squeezed tighter, his fingers pressing strongly into the muscle and flesh of his throat, and saw Kong Min struggling to keep still, to not claw at his hands or thrash in an attempt to escape. How admirable. He truly did like this person. And after he killed him, he would let his body accompany him through the eons…

…but this person called Kong Min that he liked so much would probably cease to exist by then.

The thought was sudden and shocking. But once he began contemplating down that line, it was difficult to stop.

He would no longer be able to see through the gem to Kong Min’s life. He would no longer hear him laugh and tease people, getting into trouble and barely managing to make it out. The warm skin under his hand would turn cold. This throbbing pulse would grow still. Those bright eyes would turn dull. His copper-hued skin burnished by the sun, so smooth and lustrous now, would gain the pallor of death, like a layer of dull ash covering it. An unspeakable sense of loss pinched Ying Xulin’s heart. He felt strange and desolate, as if something within him that had slowly grown full of this person’s presence was about to become empty again, and it felt…unbearable.

Ying Xulin finally realized that the thought of owning this person after death was not nearly as satisfying as seeing this person go on living, smiling, laughing…

Ying Xulin’s hands automatically let go of Kong Min’s throat as he looked at him with a dazed, uncomprehending expression.

But Kong Min was hardly in a position to care. Suddenly being let go of like this after being choked, Kong Min fell to his knees coughing, his hands cradling his bruised neck. His throat burned and the bones in his neck hurt terribly. His eyes teared up with the force of his coughs that were making his body shudder. His belly churned with the fear of impending death that was still fresh in his mind, causing Kong Min to retch onto the ground covered with knotty tree roots. Thankfully, he hadn’t eaten anything for weeks, so there was nothing except some watery bile left in his stomach. Once he was done heaving it out, Kong Min retrieved a damp cloth from his storage space and lifted it up with trembling fingers. But the cloth slipped from his weak grip and fluttered down.

However, before it could touch the ground, another, fairer hand caught it easily.

Kong Min jerked in startlement as Ying Xulin lifted the cloth and gently helped him wipe his mouth and jaw. But after the initial surprise, Kong Min remained still and let Ying Xulin attend to him silently, his heart still thrumming with primal fear and filled with uncountable grievances. Choosing to ignore the fear, Kong Min instead groused grumpily in his mind—this damned bastard had almost killed him, so the least he could do was help clean up, hmph!

Ying Xulin took a peek into Kong Min’s emotions through the gem and didn’t know what to feel after sensing that the younger man seemed strangely displeased with him. This person was so complex and puzzling, but perhaps that was what made him seem interesting to him.

Once Ying Xulin finished wiping Kong Min’s face, Kong Min put the used cloth away and leaned back. He opened his mouth to say something, but only a miserable croak emerged. Kong Min winced. It seemed his throat would take some time to be able to produce sounds properly again.

Meanwhile, Ying Xulin frowned worriedly and extended a hand. Kong Min instinctively flinched back, then forced himself to stay in place. Seeing this, Ying Xulin realized he didn’t like this person behaving with fear towards him. It strangely made his chest ache. But he also couldn’t undo what had been done, so he simply decided to make sure not to do anything that would make this person even more afraid of him.

As Kong Min held himself stiffly, he felt Ying Xulin’s fingertips touch the bruises the other man had just left on his neck. A soft warmth spread from those fingers, suffusing the injuries and gently healing him. Kong Min felt his skin tingling at the pleasant sensation, and unexpectedly, he felt his recently extinguished desire rise again. He scowled. What the fuck?! He had just been almost killed and yet he was reacting this way! It seemed that after so many days of freely indulging in pleasure, his body had turned really too responsive and lustful.

Now that his throat was healed, Kong Min coughed once to clear it, then glanced up into Ying Xulin’s eyes and spoke, “I thought you wanted my life, so why did you not kill me?”

Ying Xulin looked into those light brown eyes and felt a prickle run down his spine. These human emotions were too varied for him to understand what it meant, but he did know that he liked it. The feeling of looking directly into this person’s eyes made him feel like he was being wrapped in his presence, and the thought that Kong Min was also looking into his eyes this deeply in return made Ying Xulin feel a light joy. At this moment, they seemed to share a tenuous connection.

On the other hand, seeing how Ying Xulin’s expression seemed to turn warm, Kong Min didn’t know what to think. This man was so strange! One second he was poking him in the butt with his erection, then the next second he was squeezing the life out of him, and then he flipped to touching him ever so gently and looking at him like he was the love of his life. Speaking of which, Kong Min realized that Ying Xulin had still not retrieved his fingers from where he’d placed it on his throat to heal it before.

However, before Kong Min could remind him to take back his hand, he felt Ying Xulin’s fingertips beginning to glide upward. They swept up his throat and over his jaw, then moved up his cheek, resting below his eye and carefully tracing just under his lower eyelid.

In a soft, intimate voice, Ying Xulin breathed, “You have beautiful eyes. It would be a shame to see them grow dull.”

Kong Min felt both the thrill of pleasure at the touch and fear at what this new statement might lead to. This man wouldn’t ask him for an eyeball next, would he?

Gulping nervously, Kong Min quickly said, “Uh, thank you. You have pretty eyes too. But you still haven’t answered me. Why did you not kill me?”

Ying Xulin blinked. “I just answered you. It was because it would be a shame to see your eyes turn dull with death. I think I prefer you alive after all. And I do not want our connection to end so soon.” The fingertips caressing Kong Min’s face slid down over his skin to rub the bulging oval gem on his chest. His mellow voice flowing, Ying Xulin said, “Use this conduit and call me when you have need of something again. I will help you and await payment three days later in this place.”

Kong Min wanted to directly say that he would never risk asking for Ying Xulin’s favor again, but curbed himself. The future was uncertain, so it was better not to block off such a convenient option, though he would of course only use it if matters became too dire to handle.

Giving a jerky nod, Kong Min gingerly pushed away the hand still fondling the gem on his chest and stood up. “Well, I will depend on you in the future then, Ah-Xu. For now, I think it’s time I took my leave. My master and junior brother must be quite worried by now. Thank you for your hospitality, and goodbye.”

The color in his eyes swirling with unreadable thoughts, Ying Xulin watched Kong Min as he dusted himself off and bent to lift his belt from the ground. Tying it back properly, Kong Min was about to turn and leave the clearing when he heard Ying Xulin say leisurely, a hint of amusement in his smooth voice, “Little Squirrel, you have still not fully paid for the aid I rendered your junior brother this time.”

Kong Min halted. “…Squirrel?” Turning to Ying Xulin, he scowled and asked, “What, exactly, makes you think I resemble a tree rodent of all things?!”

Ying Xulin seriously answered, “The way you scurry up high to spy on people.”

Kong Min’s lips twitched. What could he even say to that?

But thinking that Kong Min felt insulted, Ying Xulin earnestly continued in a reassuring tone, “But squirrels have fluffy tails and big eyes, so they’re also cute like you.”

The Kong Min who was just called cute, “…”

Well, at least he didn’t say something perverted like ‘It’s because you love nuts’.

Kong Min shook his head with a wry smile. “Then what does the eminent Master of Land want as payment from a lowly squirrel such as myself? Chestnuts from my stash?”

Seeing Kong Min’s being playful again, something in Ying Xulin’s chest eased. The small smile on his face unconsciously spread wider, his eyes glowing with quiet happiness. “Keeping in mind everything that I have taken from you till now, I will not ask for much. Just a lock of your hair will suffice.”

Kong Min shot him a strange look. With anyone else, he’d suspect that his hair would be used for some strange ritual to curse him or the like. But someone like Ying Xulin hardly needed to resort to such methods to hurt him. So why did he make such a request? Was it because…that was the easiest thing he felt he could reasonably ask from him?

Shrugging, Kong Min pulled out a blade from his sleeve and reached back, cutting off a long lock of his hair at the base and pulling it out of his bun before giving it to Ying Xulin. “Here you go. What are you going to do with it?”

Ying Xulin blinked, looking strangely lost. “I…don’t know.” He truly didn’t know why he wanted a piece of Kong Min to keep with him like this. But the thought of having it made him happy, so he’d asked for it without thinking much.

Kong Min shrugged again. “I’m sure you’ll figure out some way to use it.” Then giving him a wink, he suggested playfully, “Maybe you can braid it into your hair to remember me by or something. Anyway, I’ll be going now. I hope you’ll leave a path open for me again. I do hate having to fight. It’s so physically exhausting.”

Ying Xulin nodded. As Kong Min gave him a smile of gratitude and began walking out of the clearing, Ying Xulin’s eyes never left him. Once Kong Min had exited the Spirit Bewildering Forest less than an hour later, Ying Xulin remembered his promise to not spy on him frequently and retrieved his consciousness from the gem. Unless Kong Min reached out on his own, he would try his best not to use their connection too much.

Sighing sadly, Ying Xulin looked down at the lock of black hair in his hand. Thinking about Kong Min’s suggestion to braid it into his own hair, he nodded to himself. Extending his consciousness, he ‘knocked’ on his brother’s, the Master of Oceans’, mental barriers.

<How rare for you to reach out to me. What do you need, Brother?> the Master of Oceans asked, his voice drawling and leisurely.

Ying Xulin frowned and spoke, <Can you teach me how to braid hair?>

<> Was this really his quiet and anti-social brother? Just what in the world made someone like him uncharacteristically ask to learn about such a common skill?!

And so the Master of Oceans asked, and the Master of Land answered, talking about Kong Min’s visit and all the strange emotions Ying Xulin had felt.

Meanwhile, Kong Min was doing much the same with Wei Xiang and Feng Huixin, reciting everything that happened in detail while leaving out the part where he almost got strangled to death. He didn’t want to burden them with that and risk them blaming themselves for letting him go alone.

After everything was said, Wei Xiang told his senior brother firmly, “The Master of Land seems a bit unstable, so it’s better if you never meet him again.”

Kong Min nodded and assured, “Unless I’m desperate, I don’t plan to either.”

On the other hand, after understanding that his brother had finally seen the light and that Ying Xulin was actually interested in someone romantically, the Master of Oceans sincerely advised, <This Kong Min seems to make you happy, so it’s better if you can invite him over and spend more time with him. But I suppose it might be difficult, what with you almost choking him to death. That was very mean of you, by the way.>

Ying Xulin sighed. <We are forces hovering on the edge of fate. Us interfering in the happenings of the mortal world causes an imbalance. Asking for something in return for our favors is necessary to keep the balance, and it also prevents mortals from taking for granted the aid we provide them or from considering taking advantage of it. This is why the price we ask must be steep so that only those who truly need it will ask our help.>

<What a nice way to say that you simply don’t care about empathizing with the people you make deals with, Brother,> the Master of Oceans observed with helpless amusement. <But if you want that man you like to keep coming back, then you should behave better.>

Ying Xulin said noncommittally, <I will try.>

The Master of Oceans had to sigh. He just hoped his brother wouldn’t screw it up in some major way and end up alienating the person he liked further. Ah, he really should have taken him out to learn more about how humans thought. He couldn’t help but worry that something might go wrong again.

And so, with each of them hoping for opposite things from their futures, Kong Min and Ying Xulin’s first meeting ended.

As you can see, the romance this time is going to be slow to develop, and the personalities and dynamics of the couple are also different from the usual~ I'll try to finish Kong Min's story within 3 or 4 extras, but we'll see how it goes (๐❛ ᴗ ❛๐)

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