„Shi Qingxuan, how does this outfit look? Does it look good?? Or does it look too conservative, plain, boring, and completely outdated? Yeah, good point, I think so too. What do you think of this piece then? The same? Hm, then a what about this...?“
Without uttering even a single word, Shi Qingxuan was watching helplessly as Xie Lian stumbled around in his entire wardrobe, which was spilled out on the floor in a tangled mess. Since the moment Shi Qingxuan had arrived at her friend‘s apartment, she had to pay witness to the complete deterioration of Xie Lian‘s cognitive abilities. This was no doubt to the account of CALAMITY‘s show which started in no more than a few hours.
Knowing this, Xie Lian’s brain didn’t seem to function correctly. His thoughts were like a train on a perfectly round track, running in circles faster and faster, just a push away from derailing.
Over-excitement was a shameless understatement.
Seeing no end to Xie Lian‘s erratic behavior, Shi Qingxuan sighed loudly and decided to step in. Ignoring his flailing arms, she grabbed his shoulders from behind and pushed him all the way to his living room table. Once there, she pulled out a chair with one hand and pressed Xie Lian down onto its seat, leaving him dazed.
After briefly disappearing to the entrance, Shi Qingxuan returned with a large, white shopping bag in her hand. Putting it in front of Xie Lian demonstratively, Shi Qingxuan grinned and crossed her arms.
„Xie Lian, happy birthday.“
Processing her words, Xie Lian‘s eyes slowly widened. „Huh?? Wait, what date is it today?“, he asked, looking like a complete buffoon.
Shi Qingxuan‘s mouth fell open. „Don‘t tell me you don‘t even remember your own birthday?? It‘s the fucking thirteenth, the thirteenth of November!“ After her short outburst of exasperation, Shi Qingxuan cleared her throat, looking a bit embarrassed.
„Go on, open your present.“
Xie Lian wasn‘t quite up to human thought speed yet.
„No way, I‘m seeing birth on my CALAMITY day??“
Grinding her teeth in self-restraint and her eyebrows twitching, Shi Qingxuan slammed down the bag closer to Xie Lian.
„PRESENT. OPEN. NOW.“
After the clearly enunciated words, Xie Lian seemed to understand. As if on autopilot, Xie Lian moved his arms to reach inside the bag and pull out its contents. What left the bag in his hands was a pile of neatly folded black and white clothes. From inbetween the folds, layers of tull and lace portruded and already provided a taste of what Shi Qingxuan had gifted him.
Looking at the clothes, a sparkle slowly entered Xie Lian‘s eyes. Suddenly excited, he grabbed one end of the pieces and let the rest fall open in front of him.
What he saw was a beautiful pair of high-waisted black dress pants and a gothic-looking shirt, seamed with frills made of lace at the cuffs and collar. On the back area, part of the shirt featured intricate embroideries on a see-through material, which made it look like the patterns were directly stitched into Xie Lian‘s fair skin.
Before he even realized it, Xie Lian had alread changed into the outfit and watched himself turn in the mirror, holding his breath. His cheeks were flushed with adoration; it was perfect.
He turned around to face Shi Qingxuan. His eyes moist with emotion and gratitude, Xie Lian was just about to bubble out a string of thanking words and cries, when his friend raised her hand and grinned at him.
„Don‘t thank me too early, there‘s more!“, she said excitedly.
In the next moment followed shoes, acessories, make up, even a brand new purse. After half an hour and a complete make over, Xie Lian was a transformed person. In addition to lacuered plateaus, he was wearing rings, a choker, bracelets, earrings, and just a tiny bit of red tint on his lips.
Stepping back to admire her masterpiece, even Shi Qingxuan had to admit: Xie Lian looked stunning, like a doll in real life. She almost worried if she had made him too beautiful.
But then she shook her head; this performance might be Xie Lian’s only chance to see his dream singer in person; might as well use all the methods at their disposal to get his attention. If he won‘t be captivated by Xie Lian after this, he won‘t have eyes in his head, Shi Qingxuan decided with a pout.
After putting on the outfit, apparently a side-effect was Xie Lian’s common sense returning as he couldn‘t sit still anymore and nagged Shi Qingxuan to hurry up so they could leave. Shi Qingxuan had no reason to refuse; it was time.
They donned their winter coats and walked out into the deep, dark night.
As expected of CALAMITY, the venue wasn‘t just some underground livehouse with a tacky bar and dirty toilets. It also wasn‘t a fancy auditorium in a performance hall. CALAMITY did it their own way.
Which is why after a bumpy, hour long Uber-drive with lots of detours and dead-ends, Xie Lian and Shi Qingxuan finally ended up... in the middle of fucking nowhere. They had left the lights of the city behind a long time ago and had to navigate narrow country roads, which were only paved if they were lucky. Adding to their misfortune, during the ride a snowstorm had started, obscuring their vision after only a few meters.
During the ride, Shi Qingxuan kept cursing the band under her breath; but Xie Lian kept quiet. He wouldn‘t admit that secretly, his heart was beating with excitement at this predicament; it seemed like the treasure hunt wasn‘t quite over yet.
But now, the car finally came to a stop, as if exhausted from this long, fruitless search. Through the windshield, it seemed like there was only a field of nothing in front of them, slowly being covered by white snow. The driver sighed and turned around to face the two of them.
„Young‘uns, this is the last possible place... if it‘s not ‚ere, it‘s nowhere. Why don‘tcha go check it out, I‘ll wait ‚ere. ...It‘s cold.“
As if to emphasize his words, he sniffled and faced the front again.
Feeling equally sorry and grateful to their patient driver, Xie Lian and Shi Qingxuan said their thanks and exited the car. Immediately, they were whipped in their faces by cold wind and snow, making them both pull up their shoulders in defense. Hurriedly, they searched in the brightness of the car‘s headlights for any sign of human life.
Xie Lian squatted down to examine the ground more closely. And indeed, through squinted eyes he could faintly make out the shape of footsteps, although they were close to being erased by the ceaselessly falling snow.
Excited, Xie Lian cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled over the storm: „Shi Qingxuan, here, I found footsteps!!“
Apparently, Shi Qingxuan had discovered some of her own, and signaling Xie Lian to wait, she head off into the darkness, out of the light of the car. Wrapping his arms around his torso and shivering, Xie Lian kept staring at where she had left, waiting tensely. But only a few seconds later, she returned, wearing a triumphant grin on her face.
„This is it, this is the place!! There‘s a church up ahead, and there are people!!“
Xie Lian‘s eyes widened with thrill. Here they were... they had made it!!!
Trudging back over to Xie Lian, Shi Qingxuan gave the driver a thumbs up and signaled him to leave. As the engine started, Xie Lian startled and whipped around to look at Shi Qingxuan in shock. „Wait, what are you doing?? How are you going to leave??“
In the face of his confusion, Shi Qingxuan simply smirked.
„Who do you think I am, Xie Lian? This performance isn‘t over until it‘s over, and until it is, they better be prepared to deal with the world‘s most obstinate nuisance, the evil breacher of university protocol, the tormented and cursed, She Who Pours Wine, Shi Qingxuan!!“, she dramatically exclaimed, cackling like a very unthreatening villain.
But Xie Lian only looked helpless and worried. „But in this weather? Who knows how long the show‘s going to last! You‘re going to freeze!“, he cried at her.
Suddenly, Shi Qingxuan looked at him with a devious glow in her eyes.
„Xie Lian, do you think a fucking code‘s going to stop me from hearing my guitarist? It might stop others, but not me. Not this one here.“
Xie Lian gave up. He was only too well acquainted with Shi Qingxuan‘s unwavering stubbornness. He sighed, but couldn‘t help adding a condition.
„Okay, but!! Only if you promise to wear my jacket too, and here...“ he opened his brand-new purse and took out some heat pads, stuffing them all into her open hands. „take these, and use them!! Please, I want to take back home my friend, not an icicle.“ Finally, he used his strongest attack and looked at her with big puppy eyes, which could shatter all defense. Shi Qingxuan had no other choice but to accept his conditions.
With this compromise settled, looking more like snowmen than humans, they finally arrived at the church in the middle of a vast field.
Xie Lian was certain; only CALAMITY would have chosen their debut performance venue to be an abandoned church somewhere in the countryside, barely accessible by dirt roads littered with potholes and debris. Even worse, in a snowstorm, the dim lights emitting from inside the building were only visible from right outside, making it impossible to spot from a distance.
Once again, Xie Lian was astonished at the sheer effort it had taken to get here. He wondered if there were actually any other people with the willpower to go through with everything, from finding out the method to discover the necessary information, over hunting down the red cassettes, making yourself bleed, to searching through this storm and actually finding the venue; it truly was a crusade.
But Xie Lian had never felt put off or exhausted by the journey for even a second. More than anything, it had filled him with thrill and excitement, a sense of adventure and being alive. More than anything in the past few years, it gave him a sense of purpose, a goal to look forward to.
Now, that goal was right in front of his eyes, only a few short steps away. All his efforts had paid off.
Staring at the cold, stone building, hearing the soft murmur of a crowd from inside, Xie Lian felt as if he was about to be swallowed by a beast, from whose stomach he would never be able to escape again. He wasn‘t frightened or scared: he didn‘t know what he was. All he knew was that the cold of the storm was completely forgotten. His thumping heart made his blood rush through his body in a hot torrent, muffling his ears and making his skin burn.
As if in a trance, he presented the staff at the entrance his code, then got a stamp pressed onto the back of his hand. Looking down at the black symbol, it looked like a devil‘s head with CALAMITY‘s signature spiky letters beneath it. Having never gone to a concert even once in his life, Xie Lian looked up at the staff in confusion. But what met his gaze wasn‘t a human face, but a snow-white mask, being torn apart by black spikes emerging from where the eyes were supposed to be.
Startled, Xie Lian fell back a step, but noticed in the next moment that it was simply heavy makeup concealing the person‘s facial features. Xie Lian breathed out, covering his chest with his hand, before turning around to Shi Qingxuan one last time.
Being unable to enter, Shi Qingxuan smiled at him from within the storm.
„Have fun, Xie Lian.“
Inside the church, reality seemed to slip away and was replaced with an obscure fever-dream. Everything Xie Lian heard, saw and smelled escaped his concept of logic. He could only stare in wonder, trying to take it all in and submit to what he experienced.
The tall, hard walls of the church extended up the height of several floors until they finally swooped inwards and came together in the crest of the ceiling. Pillars supported the building in even intervals, adorned with intricately carved heads of ghouls and ghosts.
Entering it from one end, one‘s eyes were immediately drawn down the length of the building to where the altar would have been but was conceiled by a heavy, black curtain. On the curtain, CALAMITY‘s logo was printed in large, crimson letters. Unmistakably, behind it lied the stage, quiet, waiting in anticipation.
Over the empty space where the congregation’s benches would have been, more black fabric was hung down low, its edges torn and frilled. The entire floor was covered with a shallow layer of gray smoke, twirling around the legs that parted it.
Staring in complete awe, Xie Lian‘s sight slowly extended upwards, when his breath suddenly hitched in shock. Only now did he notice a gigantic replica of a goat‘s head hanging above the stage in chains, its massive horns spiraling downwards and eyes glowing red. Obviously achieving its purpose, it intimidated Xie Lian enough for him to retreat from the stage and make his way to the counter on his right.
As if rewarding the guests for all the torment they had to endure to get here, the bar served out free drinks. People were delighted at this service and stormed the counter incessantly, which was only managed by one poor sap, clearly struggling to fulfill the demands of his customers.
Standing to the side waiting his turn, Xie Lian watched the rowdy crowd in a daze. Having had to leave Shi Qingxuan behind, he felt a little lost.
Wherever he looked, there wasn‘t a face resembling a human to be seen; everybody had painted them in patterns similar to the entrance staff. Xie Lian felt like he was the only human in a sea of ghosts. But then, his gaze caught on to a familiar figure which was distorted by irritation, trying to fight against the tidal wave of bodies. Xie Lian‘s eyes brightened, and he called out in joy.
„Mu Qing, over here!!“
The irritated face looked up as he heard his name be called, and seeing who it was, immediately decayed into horror.
„YOU???!!“, he exclaimed, as if he was witnessing his worst nightmare come to life. „YOU—-You actually had a crimson tape??!“, Mu Qing spat in disbelief while finally digging his way out of the crowd.
Then, muttering curses at the people behind him, he approached Xie Lian begrudgingly. „I swear to god, had I known you possessed a red cassette, I wouldn‘t have... got me into so much fucking trouble... fuck, you have no fucking idea how...“
Still half muttering half cursing, Mu Qing puzzled Xie Lian with his words, but before he could ask any questions, the mind-numbing sound of a gong made the air in the church vibrate and everybody fall silent. Before Xie Lian could even blink in surprise, every light in the building went out at once, leaving the guests in complete darkness and disorientation.
Xie Lian felt a prickling sensation spread from his stomach.
It was starting.
But before anything more could happen, he suddenly felt a hand grasp his forearm, jerking him forward. Surprised, he almost stumbled, but caught his balance as he was rushing along with the person leading him. He could faintly tell where he was being lead when he spotted two red-hot glowing lights, floating inside the darkness as the only two remaining light sources.
Xie Lian and his guide came to an abrupt stop, just as with an ear-shattering scream, the lights flashed on again, this time illuminating the inside of the church with a pure, blood-red crimson. Scream continuing to penetrate everbody‘s eardrums, a flurry of drumming and reverberating, metalling guitar strums emerged from behind the curtain.
The curtain, which was now slowly, slowly lifting.
The sounds only increasing in volume and the red spotlights racing around the walls of the church, the audience broke out into deafening roars and cheers. The moment they all had been desperately waiting for, now, finally began!!!
Xie Lian only spared a brief glance at Mu Qing, who had surprisingly dragged him to the very front of the parquet just in the nick of time. Xie Lian was incredibly grateful, but right now, his eyes and focus, his entire being was fixated on what lied behind the ascending black fabric.
His eyes filled with more and more light, his breathing got faster and faster, his hands gripped at his purse harder and harder.
The first thing he saw was... spiked leather boots. They had incredibly tall soles, at least several centimeters thick. The boots extended all the way up to the singer‘s knees, where they were replaced by skintight, black leather pants. Extending up... at that moment, the singer, still screaming breathlessly, shifted his weight onto his other leg, making the part that just got revealed by the curtain move conspicuously.
Scanning the singer’s entire lower body inch by inch, and seeing the movement from only meters away, a searing bolt of heat shot through Xie Lian‘s body, setting his cheeks on fire.
The air surrounding him still vibrating and jarring his senses, Xie Lian felt a bout of dizziness and had to find support at the barricade. In disbelief, Xie Lian‘s eyes widened. No, he thought. There was no way he was gonna pass out before the curtain had even lifted halfway. He couldn‘t be... this weak??
Xie Lian gathered his wits and looked up again... but what got revealed next immediately made calming down entirely impossible.
Where the pants ended in a studded leather belt, there was no shirt, no coverage... just bare skin. Xie Lian could only stare in helpless entrancement, frozen in position, as the curtain finally unraveled the rest of the singer‘s figure.
The singer‘s entire upper body was uncovered and already coated with a thin film of sweat, glistening under the crimson stage lights. Around his shoulers and neck, straps of leather and metal rings created a harness, further accentuating his toned body and making Xie Lian‘s head spin with innuendo. Across his muscular chest, the band‘s name was written in black letters, and from his back, two boned wings portruded and made him seem demonic.
Barely hanging on to consciousness, Xie Lian‘s feverish gaze followed the singer‘s collarbone, up his neck, over his jaw... and finally, fell onto his face.
Within Xie Lian‘s head, there was only silence.
Every single thought he had just a moment ago got wiped from his brain, leaving it blank as a sheet.
There was no way for him to describe, to even begin to process what he saw... a face so haunting, so seductive, so devilish, so incredibly handsome it defied common sense.
When Xie Lian‘s eyes rested on those of his singer‘s, and for just a moment, they met, he felt the heart in his small chest stop.
It actually stopped.
Right then and there, Xie Lian‘s heart was lost forever.