They went to Puju Town. It was hidden among the rolling valleys and the people there were rather calm in demeanor. The economy was strained and resources were a bit more scarce than usual; business did not boom with lively fervor.
But that didn't stop them from stringing up festive fliers and filling the streets with song.
They could hear the merry mood even as they approached the town and Liu Sumeng was getting concerned at Yuan Xuelan's unusual silence.
"Xuelan?" His voice raised just slightly above the clanking hooves but Yuan Xuelan was looking on ahead and did not respond to him.
Yuan Xuelan had been weird since the nightmare, a bit distant and haunted. More than ever Liu Sumeng wished that he would be more open to him, but this time it felt particularly hard to breach the subject.
"Xuelan!" he called louder, and finally summoned the man from his daze.
"Yes?" Yuan Xuelan blinked at him, his smile radiant.
Their horses slowed to trot as they approached the town. While normal horses would have had to be brought into a stable these beasts could be let out into the wilderness to take care of themselves and also return at a call. The two cultivators dismounted before entering the town.
"You seem..." the Ivory Sword Saint fiddled with words in his mind. In the end he couldn't decide on which were more tactful than others. "You seem upset. Do you not wish to go after all?"
Yuan Xuelan jolted, eyes widening with alarm, unhinged.
"No! I mean I wish to go! Why would Sumeng think otherwise? I…" He reached up and ran his fingers through his hair, face pulling into a scowl.
Yuan Xuelan couldn't quite shake off the horror this time. A strange fear was gnawing at him, an uncertainty.
It'd been a while since he had one of those weird nightmares. But this one left lingering effects that would not leave him. Even Huo Tang was quiet in his mind, unable to soothe his nerves and the weirdness that bubbled up from within.
The horses galloped away and the town was only a few steps away. But they stopped there in the valley for a moment.
Liu Sumeng observed the way Yuan Xuelan's eyes were veered away from him and toward the ground. Brows were furrowed and he was reminded of the young adult Yuan Xuelan from a previous life.
The man before him at one point forced the world to his feet was a troubled person who hinted at his ensuing insanity to Liu Sumeng for years on end. But Liu Sumeng had been cold in that life, ignoring the signs and even encouraging the violence and evil when he himself stopped caring.
Liu Sumeng vowed not to let that happen again. He reached out and grabbed a hold of Yuan Xuelan's hands, capturing the younger's attention. The eyes that snapped up at him were wide and innocent.
The Ivory Sword Saint did not know which words were right. So he decided a smile might work better. Sumeng leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss upon his cute beloved���s lips and pulled away. He let go of one hand but kept a hold of the other.
"Ready?" he asked with a quiet voice, patient.
Yuan Xuelan gulped, his face going a little pink from Liu Sumeng's loving care. This person was everything to him. Which was why it only hurt more to doubt him, to question him. Yuan Xuelan buried the image of Xianlong from his dreams and tightened his grasps around Liu Sumeng's hand.
With a small nod he responded, "I'm ready. Let's go and make that wish. Sumeng said he didn't want to stay too long so let's not dally."
Liu Sumeng cocked his head and frowned a little. While it was true that it was better not to take their time in a place like this he felt almost disappointed at the words that came out of Yuan Xuelan's mouth. He wondered why that was but couldn't come up with an answer.
Xuelan was already looking ahead and pulling Liu Sumeng toward the little town.
When they strolled through its streets, eyes curiously trailed toward the two young masters that bore such magnificent auras. There was a time when Puju Town received a lot of traffic from the roads but it was a bit scarcer now. Who could blame them for taking a peak at the two refined cultivators who graced their tiny little hometown that was barely a dot on the map?
"Master Cultivators," a young girl strode up to them with brightness in her eyes that only became even more lively at the sight of them holding hands, "what brings you here to our humble Puju Town?"
She shrank a little when the white-robed master gave a cold look, but didn't back away right away. The other Young Master, the younger, more unruly one, looked at her with an unreadable expression. But his voice was casual enough that it soothed her initial nerves, "We're here for the enchanted well."
The girl's eyes brightened. Her hands came together, a squeal escaping her lips, "Oh! Our Tragic Blessings Well is super popular! Though…I suppose it used to be more popular. Still, we love our well. Do you see the festivities about town? That's our special local celebration for the spirit that dwells within the well. Oh! Could it be, you're here to ask for blessings?"
She pointedly eyed the way they held hands.
"..." wasn't it weird that a well that was supposed to bless lovers with good fortune was called the Tragic Blessings Well? Yuan Xuelan did not remember this particular detail when he first first heard about Puju town, but perhaps that was because he was yet young at the time and it was his mother that brought him to such a place during one of her trysts.
"Tragic?" He tilted his head with a frown, heart feeling bitter at the thought of a tragedy. "I thought the well was supposed to grant blessings."
The girl giggled a little, "It does. But you need to be careful what you're asking for or else the blessing might become a curse, just like how it did to the spirit trapped in the well."
The myth behind the Tragic Blessing Well was indeed a strange one.
It began about a fox that lived nearby, one that would skin and eat children that came too close to her abode. But one day an injured man came upon her home and she took him in on a whim. She nursed him back to health and he revealed to her that he was no simple beggar but a god in disguise. For her generosity, he could grant her a single wish of her choosing.
And her wish was a simple one, to gain the ability to fall in love.
The god warned her that he could only grant her wish and not guarantee her happiness.
The fox did not care. The god nodded and tied a red string on her pinky.
And it was thus how she ended at the bottom of Puju town's well.
The story of her romance was one with passion, tragedy and death. But the fox never regretted anything at all. Even now, her spirit shows the way to others, bringing their red string to life, igniting their passion for their destined ones.
"...and that's how our Tragic Lovers Festival began!" The girl singsonged as she led them to an inn, telling them that they should wait until nightfall to ask for a blessing, for the hour of the fox's death would be when her power was the strongest.
Yuan Xuelan still found the whole story strange, like a weird scam. No one but his mother had bought into it, and he also felt a bit ashamed for bringing Liu Sumeng to this weird place. The legend of the fox's tragic love story was sending chills down his spine.
They sat at a table in the corner of the diner and Liu Sumeng was about to order some alcohol to go with the snacks. But the girl shook her head and declined to join them for longer.
"I really enjoyed spending time with Master Cultivators. Though I'd love to sit around and ask how you two met, unfortunately I have to go meet my husband now, lest he start worrying about me." With a playful wave she set off on her way.
Yuan Xuelan frowned, "Isn't she a bit young to have a husband."
Liu Sumeng raised a brow, privately wondering if the pot was calling the kettle black.
Xuelan flinched and blushed a little at Sumeng's judgemental stare, "I mean, she looks younger than me!"
The sky outside was already a medium blue with speckles of orange. Perhaps they would really end up spending the night in this little town. "The people in this town marry young," Liu Sumeng reminded. It was an effect of the well's power.
A sour face pulled out Xuelan's expression, "I…I know I'm the one that suggested it in the first place, but do you really think it'd be a good idea to receive a blessing from that child-eating fox spirit?"
"Hmm," Liu Sumeng thought about it a bit and saw a chance at flagging down the waiter to order sweet, sweet indulgence. He turned back to Yuan Xuelan once that was done. "I don't see the harm."
Yuan Xuelan paled and slammed his palms against the table, "The well is literally called Tragic Blessings Well! The fox spirit ended up being killed because of her love affair! Do you really think it's a good idea…? I know I'm the one who wanted to come but I didn't think it would be something so strange and morbid…"
But Liu Sumeng was unlike Yuan Xuelan and couldn't see the problem with receiving a blessing from the well. He wanted to believe that the tragic ending was somehow worth it. After all, even though the fox died, she did not have any regrets. Wouldn't that be nice…? To die without regrets.
"The blessing received by the well does not guarantee a bad ending," Liu Sumeng reminded him, "It's only one that is said to strengthen the bond. The townsmen don't meet tragedy that often despite the blessings they've received."
The frown did not completely disappear from Yuan Xuelan's expression, but he did settle down a little bit. Liu Sumeng did have a point. And plus, a big part of the fox's tragic ending had been due to the evil that she committed before helping out the god.
An awful sinking feeling was born in Yuan Xuelan's chest, wondering if somehow he might curse them both to a tragic ending, as some sort of karmic fate for the evil monster that he kept sealed in his heart. The awful thing that laughed at spilling blood, mad and full of despair. The monster that beat his most beloved and enjoyed berating him like he was no better than dirt.
It was an irrational feeling, but one that did not leave him easily.
He drew in a breath, right on time for Sumeng's ordered alcohol to arrive at the table. "Please pour me a glass too."
Liu Sumeng raised a brow. It wasn't often that Xuelan drank with him from the very beginning, but he wasn't going to pass up on the chance.
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