1 It was winter

It was winter.

The snow descended in large fat flakes. Without wind chill, it wasn't that cold even outside in the snow-coated courtyard. Still, it didn't warrant for people to be running around on the frosty ground in bare feet. The emperor was looking up at the sky, watching the snow tumble with vacant eyes. He didn't have shoes on and Liu Sumeng could no longer bear the sight of him.

The crazed emperor had changed out of his golden robes and put on something resembling what he wore back in the Ascending Dawn sect. His hair was done up with a simple ponytail, free from the ruby and gold hairpin. Crimson dripped from his sword. The ground at his feet dyed red, bodies of servants lay around him, old, young, men, women. None he came by could escape his madness.

And now that they all lied dead, the palace turned quiet.

There was only the emperor and Liu Sumeng.

"Where did everyone go?" The emperor asked, his voice soft, sounding almost lost. His gaze was still fixed on the gray sky above. Liu Sumeng, who approached from behind, could not see his countenance. "Are they hiding from me?"

The emperor had long changed his name when he ascended the throne, but still Liu Sumeng called him by his old one, "Xuelan…"

He was ignored. Xuelan's expression turned ugly as he laughed, "Are they hiding from me? They think they can hide from me? Imbeciles! I'll teach them if they choose to hide from me!"

"Stop this…Yuan Xuelan," his voice was soft, almost pleading. His fingers tightened around Xianlong, his God Slaying Sword. Liu Sumeng already knew how this would play out, but it didn't mean his heart was at ease. It didn't make things any easier. "Yuan Zhang," he tried, louder this time.

Finally, the emperor turned around. A mad grin decorated his handsome features. "Sumeng? Oh. There you are. I was wondering where you ran off to." He scanned Liu Sumeng from head to toe, eyes falling on the sword in his hand. "What in the world are you doing with that crazy thing?" he chuckled, eyes going soft as if laughing at an endearing joke.

Xianlong was a God Slaying Sword, so Liu Sumeng thought it was pretty obvious, "To kill a god."

Yuan Xuelan laughed, head tossing backward, "You're so silly! People think my Sumeng is very serious but you're actually a really funny person, aren't you?"

No, Liu Sumeng did not think any of this was funny. In fact, all he could think of was how his heart ached and how he wished things had been different, that it didn't have to be this way. "…"

"Everyone left but you. You're all I need, Sumeng. You're the only person in the world that matters." Yuan Xuelan opened his arms, welcoming Liu Sumeng to embrace him. Liu Sumeng didn't move.

That's not true… The words were stuck in his throat. Because if that were true, none of this would have happened. After all, Liu Sumeng had been by his side this entire time, watching his sanity crumble bit by bit, day by day. At first, he didn't even try to prevent his sworn brother from going insane, and when he did, it had already been too late.

It was too late.

Seeing that Liu Sumeng wasn't coming to him, Yuan Xuelan had no choice but to lower his arms. He shook his head and sighed, "Do you know where everyone else went off to? I don't really care about their pathetic lives but their disrespect to their emperor is something I cannot stand by. Where are they? I called everyone to come see me today but so few showed. Where did they go?"

Gone. Liu Sumeng had done his best to convince as many people as possible to leave the palace before it was too late. The ones that didn't believe him now lie at Yuan Xuelan's feet, draped in the red of their blood. "I guess they went away."

The emperor's face instantly twisted, "Away!? How dare they leave without my permission! How dare they!" he roared at Liu Sumeng and roared at the Heavens, "I'll kill them! I'll kill them all!" The sword in his hand, Silei, glowed scarlet. Winds picking up and swirled around them in the thicket of chaotic spiritual energy.

Liu Sumeng held his breath. Yuan Xuelan was going to burn the entire place down.

Actually, that didn't sound too bad. With the palace gone, a small piece of Yuan Xuelan's infamous legacy will leave with it. The years of madness and cruelty cleansed away by fire…

Of course, it was only wishful thinking that those crimes could be erased with something as trivial as fire. But still, it was a nice fantasy to cling onto. Xianlong began to glow blue as Liu Sumeng raised her into a fighting stance.

For a moment, everything was silent. Yuan Xuelan looked calm, but there was madness dancing in his eyes while Liu Sumeng steeled his expression. Though, if one were to look closely, they would notice the slight furrow in his brow, and lips pulled taut. Before they could even exchange blows, Liu Sumeng thought that he was in so much pain…

Yuan Xuelan moved first, his smile twisting into a mad grin as he raised his sword, a pillar of fire dancing around it before he slashed down.

There was no way for Liu Sumeng to dodge such an absurd attack so he raised his hand and started forming seals so quickly, the eye couldn't follow the movement. A barrier that glowed blue surrounded him as the pillar of flames fell upon him. It didn't last for long, but long enough for Liu Sumeng to channel enough energy into Xianlong.

Twirling around in a circular motion and dispersing his spiritual energy through the sword, ice formed around him, swallowing up the flames. The ice was far from ordinary, formed from the magical powers of a God Slaying Sword, but Yuan Xuelan's flame was hardly ordinary either.

The two legendary cultivators fought, one that became a tyrannical ruler and the other his general. With each strike they exchanged, the palace around them crumbled. The gardens scorched into nothingness. The golden halls and the tall throne…all of it crumbling in a sea of fire and ice.

The battle lasted four days and four nights. The people of the capital fled in waves, fearful of debris that flew from the palace and down into the city. Where a beautiful majestic palace once stood, there was nothing but ash and soot.

The flames didn't last forever, because, from the beginning, Yuan Xuelan was more focused on destroying what was around him than killing Liu Sumeng. And when there was truly nothing around them but a sea of ruin and fire, Liu Sumeng was able to slide his sword straight through Yuan Xuelan's chest, piercing his heart. Blood bubbled in the emperor's mouth as he fell into Liu Sumeng's arms.

He looked up at Liu Sumeng's stoic face, whose eyes were mysteriously red and misty. "You're so good to me Sumeng…such a good wife," he croaked, "staying with me…even after everyone else left…"

"Just shut up," Liu Sumeng said softly as he stroked Yuan Xuelan's hair. The crazed emperor's eyes fluttered closed, he smiled as though he wasn't in pain at all.

"Why…are you so awkward…" he chuckled, only to hack up more blood. Compared to the Yuan Xuelan that Liu Sumeng first met, the man in his arms was so much taller. The softer, feminine parts in his features were replaced with sharper edges. One might have called him pretty in his youth, but now he could only be called handsome. "It's my…dying moment…don't you have some…nice," more coughing, red dribbling down his chin, "things to say…to me…"

"...Shhh," Liu Sumeng only shushed him.

The mighty and terrible emperor wanted to laugh but he had no more strength to do so. He inhaled one last time to utter, "Sumeng… Liu Chao…"

Something wet hit his cheeks. That was the last thing Yuan Xuelan felt as he slipped away from the world.

Liu Sumeng would follow him not long after, his body engulfed by flames.

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