One day, the world stopped.
When it did, A-Qing did not.
It took her a few steps to realize, but when Jin Ling suddenly wasn’t walking beside her anymore, she paused. “Rulan?”
She turned, only to be greeted by the sight of him frozen. She frowned, thinking it was some kind of joke, and marched back over to him to wave a hand in front of his face. “Hey, Rulan! Earth to Rulan! What kind of joke is this?”
Still, he didn’t respond. She took a step back, glancing up and down. He was… suspended, almost. He’s stopped mid-step, somehow, and now… it should have been impossible for him to stay like that for this long without his leg shaking, without him stumbling and losing his balance. He wasn’t blinking, either, his gaze fixed towards where A-Qing had been as they’d walked with one another.
She glanced behind him, to where Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi had been walking. They were both in much the same state—not moving, not blinking, not... well. Not anything. It was like they’d just- stopped existing.
She wouldn’t put it past Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi to come up with a prank like this, but Lan Sizhui had always been the voice of reason between them. He would’ve tempered the idea, turned it into some more intelligent and light-hearted. Less panic inducing. Less random.
So… this probably wasn’t a joke.
Growing desperate, she tried shaking Jin Ling. Oddly enough, his body moved under her touch, but only to it. When she shook him, it was what she imagined shaking a rag doll in zero gravity might be like. When she stopped, he was no longer suspended mid-step, but simply suspended like invisible strings were holding him aloft.
Carefully, she adjusted him so that he was sitting on the ground. She didn’t know what was going on, but in case it wore off, she didn’t want him falling and getting hurt.
Forcing herself to remain calm, she marched off to find help.
Of course, the first thing she did when she started walking was to pull out her cellphone, but the screen glitched and filled with static every time she tried to touch it, which was odd. Her phone may be old, but it’d never once stopped working on her, even when she dropped it or when Lan Jingyi accidentally chucked it across the room one time. She tried to look for a newspaper stand that might have a public phone, but she didn’t see any and couldn’t remember where the closest one might be.
The next person she found, a woman in business dress who was probably on her way home from work, was frozen in exactly the same way as her three friends.
Sighing, she moved on, but every person she found after was the same.
Was she… the only person who hadn’t been frozen? But why? And how?
And… what was she supposed to do now?
“I hate this,” she groaned, leaning against a streetlamp. She hadn’t been walking all that long, but she still wanted a quick break. She was tired of running into frozen people. Is she ran into one more in the next five minutes, she was going to full-on freak.
But then, at the end of the street, a flash of dark blue—flowing hair and fluttering cloth.
A person running past.
A lifeline, someone else who hadn’t stopped.
Like a fire had been lit under her, A-Qing took off, determined to catch up with that person. At least then, she wouldn’t be alone in this. That wasn’t nothing.
Her chase took her to the end of the side street, where she dashed out onto the main road and turned to follow the direction of the person she’d seen earlier. This street was wider, with more lanes and more traffic, but all the cars were just as unmoving as the people, making it easy for A-Qing to dart through them all.
She could see the back of the person ahead, long hair and robes flowing out behind them as they ran. Were they… in a costume of some sort?
The world shook.
It startled A-Qing, the low rumbling that seemed to cause the very earth beneath the soles of her sneakers to tremble in fear, so much so that she almost stumbled. It was followed by inhuman wailing coming from behind and striking to her core, the noise so foreign sounding that she had no idea what it might be. She stopped running, the blood in her veins freezing, as she looked over her shoulder.
It was like something from a horror movie. A snake-like humanoid creature with six arms, but the limbs were… wrong. Boney and rotten. Some of the flesh of its torso was missing, but it didn’t bleed. The skin was waxen and gray, dried out and peppered with small holes that A-Qing didn’t want to think about. Its snake’s tail flailed out behind it, knocking cars and bending street lamps with its swipes, but it seemed to be mainly moving by dragging itself forward with its six decrepit arms. Long, clumped hair hung over its face and back, obscuring everything but a too large mouth with too many teeth.
A-Qing had once sworn to herself that if she was ever trapped in a horror movie scenario, she would absolutely never be like one of those stupid characters who stood and gaped as their death came barreling towards them. And yet, facing it in reality, that off-handed bravado was much harder to muster. She stood, gaping, as the thing came crashing towards her, its mouth hanging open in a terrifying grin.
A shout snapped her out of it, and last minute, she dashed between two cars to her side just before the thing was able to snatch her with a bony hand. She didn’t stop running, which was good considering it knocked the two cars she’d run through together, crushing them together as it pulled itself across them to follow her.
“Go away!” she screamed back at it. “What the hell did I ever do to you?! What the fuck is this?!”
A-Qing beelined down the sidewalk, trying to dart between cars to put absolutely anything between it and herself, but with the way it was simply dragging itself over them to get to her, it wasn’t proving too effective. Even with adrenaline pounding in her ears and spurring her forward, she wasn’t fast enough. It was with growing terror that A-Qing realized it was going to catch up at some point.
That was when an arm circled her waist, and suddenly, her feet were no longer on solid ground, the sidewalk fast soaring farther, farther, until it was far beneath her. Thinking she’d been caught, a scream tore itself from her throat, and she trashed in the grip while clawing at whatever was trapping her.
Then, her sneakers met solid ground, and the grip abruptly loosened and pulled away. Breathing heavily, A-Qing scrambled forward and spun on her heels.
What was behind her was not the monster, but rather another girl who looked to be her own age. That was where their similarities ended, however. Her hair was long, loose, and laced with silver ornaments. She wore a traditional midnight blue robe with sheer ribbons pinned to the flowing sleeves, but instead of the similarly breezy skirts A-Qing remembered from the museums, it was cut off and replaced with light colored pants, assumingly so the girl could run around and fight without tripping herself. At least, A-Qing assumed she’d be fighting, since she held an ornate but wicked looking gun or staff, which she recognized from martial arts videos she’d seen on iQiyi.
She was… really pretty, actually.
If it was some sort of costume, it was made really well.
“Have you calmed down a bit?” the girl asked, and belatedly, A-Qing realized she’d been gaping. Whoops. Well, if she didn’t want to be gaped at, she probably shouldn’t run around looking like she’d just popped out of a TV show.
A-Qing shook her head, her brain slowly catching up to her. They were on the roof of one of the buildings lining the street, she noticed. Huh. “Did you… grab me? And jump all the way up here?”
“Yes? How else would you not have been eaten by now?”
“Okay… but um, how the hell.”
The girl sighed. “You… like swearing, don’t you? How about we start simple. My name is Ban Yue. That thing down there is a ghost. My job is to fight it.”
“A… a ghost,” A-Qing repeated hollowly. That’s it, her life was a joke. She’d walked in on the filming of some sort of movie or show, she had to have.
Of course, a part of her still wanted to think this was some kind of prank or the set of a TV show, something that made more sense, but with her impossibly frozen friends fresh in her mind, she knew it she probably had to accept this as some twisted version of reality.
“Can you explain what’s going on to me?” A-Qing finally asked.
Ban Yue tilted her head at her, watching her for a moment as though weighing her options. Then, without a word, she walked to the edge of the roof and peered over its edge. Curious, A-Qing followed her lead and looked down as well.
The thing was at the base of the building, clawing at it desperately and sending shivers down A-Qing’s spine. Its fingers were turning ragged and frayed from raking them over the brick of the building, but it didn’t seem to be able to find enough purchase to actually hoist itself up the wall to them. It seemed that while those arms were good for dragging itself across the ground, they weren’t as good for climbing.
“It can’t fit through the door, either. We have some time,” the girl said, breathing a sigh of relief at almost the same time A-Qing did. Surprised, A-Qing glanced her way and grinned. So she wasn’t quite as unfazeable as she’d seemed earlier.
Not wanting to look at that thing anymore, A-Qing stepped back away from the edge of the roof. “You said your name was Ban Yue?”
“Yes. And you are…?”
“You can just call me A-Qing.”
Ban Yue blinked. “Alright… so, do you know how you were pulled in?”
“Pulled in. How you got here?”
A-Qing frowned. If she knew that, she wouldn’t have been nearly as confused as she was. “No idea, honestly. What do you mean by ‘pulled in?’”
“Ah… Well, I suppose I should start from the beginning before getting to that,” Ban Yue said. “You see, there are two… planes of existence, let’s call them. One is Heaven. One is Earth, or the mortal realm, where we live. However, this is neither of those places. It’s a borderland, a much, much smaller version of heaven or earth that lies between the two planes. They’re created by ghosts, and there are… a lot of them. You could also call them hell, but…”
“So, like, lots of a little hells, basically?” A-Qing guessed.
Ban Yue nodded, a small smile tugging at her features. Huh. Despite the somewhat gaudy outfit, she didn’t appear to be wearing any makeup. Go figure. “That’s right. So, Heaven normally keeps these borderlands close to them, so that they’re not close enough to pull humans in. But sometimes, a borderland can draw too close. That’s where people like me come in. The gods can’t come to Earth without losing most of their power, so when a borderland escapes them, it is the duty of their selected humans to kill the ghost in their stead and destroy its borderland before it’s able to draw close enough to pull in humans.”
“So… is that how I got here?” A-Qing wondered. Then, a spine chilling thought. “What do ghosts do with the humans they pull in?”
Slowly, she shook her head. “No. This borderland isn’t close enough. It would take at least another month for it to be able to draw in humans, and even if it could, it wouldn’t pull in only one at a time.” A-Qing didn’t miss the fact that Ban Yue was avoiding her second question, even as she continued, “Most likely, you have some connection with the gods. If so, your connection with Heaven would allow the borderlands to pull you in much sooner than humans without that connection. You just drew too close to the borderland with that connection, and it was able to draw you in.”
“Wait… a connection with Heaven? What?” A-Qing frowned. What the hell? She wasn’t anyone special. She was barely processing anything Ban Yue said, the words sounding too much like the shows she made fun of with the three dorks.
“It could be anything. A blessed artifact, a memento of a god—anything that holds a portion of their spiritual power within it. It’s how they’re able to impart their powers to humans. You probably picked it up by accident somewhere.”
A-Qing started wildly patting her person, trying to run through everything she had on her. Really, nothing came to mind. Most of her stuff was just cheap or worn junk, but if she just chucked everything she had out of her pockets, then maybe…
“Ah, no…” Ban Yue laughed awkwardly, apparently having guessed what A-Qing was doing. “We’ll worry about what it is later. You’re already here, so you won’t be able to leave until I defeat that thing.”
“Oh.” A-Qing let her hands drop by her side. Well. So much for that.
Ban Yue gave her a soft smile, which, that did help a little bit. “Don’t worry, my patron god is Shi Wudu, the master of water. I’m strong. For sure, I’ll defeat that thing, the two of us will leave here, and then I’ll help you figure out how to keep yourself from getting pulled in again.”
And at that, A-Qing’s chest clenched. The declaration that she’d be protected, the offer of help without any hint of the taint of self-interest… only one person had extended a helping hand to her in such a way. A-Qing was so used to scraping and clawing for everything herself that a warm smile was all it took to melt her.
But even more so, that name… Shi Wudu…
She knew that name.
It could just be a coincidence, but...
Before she was able to fully parse it, Ban Yue adjusted her grip on her staff before taking a step towards the edge of the roof. In a move that nearly stopped A-Qing’s heart, she stepped off, flowing ribbons and dark hair following after her over the edge.
A-Qing darted to it and dropped to her knees. She heaved a sigh of relief as she watched Ban Yue land effortlessly on the creature’s head, away from its gaping and drooling maw, before jamming her staff into one of its eyes.
The creature howled, thrashing. Ban Yue was tossed off in an instant, but she caught herself around a street lamp and spun to the ground. It only took a second for it to be on her again, lashing out and screaming as though it knew nothing else.
Ban Yue danced between its arm, remaining just barely out of its way.
But she couldn’t keep that up for long. One hand connected, smacking Ban Yue away and sending rolling down the street. To her credit, she recovered quickly, ducking into a somersault and landed on her feet, but it still made A-Qing’s heart stutter.
She’s going to get hurt, she thought. She’s probably already hurt.
And suddenly, the thought of watching from the sidelines made A-Qing feel sick. Just shuffling her feet while someone was hurt on her behalf... She was taught better than this, even if it was only briefly.
Shi Wudu… the water master, if A-Qing remembered correctly. Going by Ban Yue’s earlier explanation, she should be able to use water to help her fight, she guessed, and yet… she wasn’t. Instead, she was using only her staff, and she didn’t seem quite able to keep up with the monster.
A-Qing’s eyes flicked up and down the road, and as she’d suspected, there wasn’t a drop of water in sight. Ban Yue was inconveniently far from the nearest fire hydrant, and it hadn’t rained for days. She had no water readily available to her for use, and A-Qing guessed she couldn’t summon it out of nothing since she had yet to do so.
She was leading the battle down the street towards the glinting red paint of the nearest hydrant, but who knew how many more times she might be knocked and thrashed by that thing before she was able to reach it?
A-Qing knew that name, or at least part of it. It was a hard encounter to forget, and…
“Take this, and keep it on you always. It will be scary, but when the time comes…”
There was only one thing on her that anyone had ever treated with any semblance of importance, and until now, she’d never figured out why. She had an inkling now, but only just.
Digging around in her pocket, A-Qing pulled a small red stone from it. Its surface was polished smooth, but otherwise, it seemed to be a completely average rock one could’ve pulled from anywhere. If not for that person’s words from all those years ago, A-Qing would’ve treated it no differently than any of the other junk she owned.
“Something got me pulled in here,” A-Qing muttered to herself. “It was you, wasn’t it? Shi Qingxuan?”
She frowned at the stone. Of course, it didn’t answer her, and her grip on it tightened as she shifted her focus back to the battle below. Ban Yue was still holding her own, but she was sporting more cuts and bruises than before. Her breathing was coming in labored pants now, too. She was wearing down, and the ghost had only a few gashes in its unbleeding flesh to show for it.
Ban Yue had made it seem like she’d done this a thousand times before. Was this thing simply more powerful than normal, or did she go through this every time she fought a ghost?
...do you want to help her?
A voice, tiny and soundless as a breeze, tickled at A-Qing’s ear. She almost missed it with how intently she was watching the battle below, almost forgetting to breathe as well, but her eyes widened when she registered the words.
“Yes,” she replied, without hesitating.
A soft, chiming laughter. Good, good… I knew I picked a good one. You remember what I said all those years ago? Just call my name, and I will be there for you.
The words Shi Qingxuan referred to were fuzzy at best. She’d been too young to fully process and believe everything she’d claimed without proof, but the words were too strange to forget entirely.
She clasped the stone between her hands and brought them to her chest, as though offering a prayer. “Shi Qingxuan... I want to fight. I want to help her. I want to leave. In exchange, I’ll do… I’ll figure out whatever the hell it was that you wanted me to do.”
“...do we have a deal?” A-Qing asked hesitantly after nothing had happened.
Oh, of course! Sorry, sorry. I was surprised, is all….
Thank you, A-Qing.
Light poured from between her fingers. She screwed her eyes shut, feeling water prick at their corners. She felt something warm—a wind, she realized—envelope her, and the stone in her hand shifted and elongated, parting her fingers.
When everything seemed to settle, she hesitantly cracked open one eye.
Instead of the stone, she was now clasping a bow. It was light, surprisingly, but not made of wood and too light to be metal. It was golden in color, with a thin body that only widened into pointed designs at the ends and grip. Her hair, on the other hand, remained pinned back into the loose buns she normally kept it in, but when she shook turned her head, long ribbons with ornaments at the end clunked against her thighs. A quick feel of the back of her head told her they were definitely attached to some kind of hair ornament in her buns. She was wearing shorts, thank god, with thigh highs of all things, but the back hem of her shirt draped around both of them like a video game character. Thankfully, at least, her sleeves were tucked into bracers on both her arms, preventing them from flopping around and getting in her way.
“Well… at least this is kind of practical,” she said, giving the bowstring a quick tug.
Odd. She’d never touched a bow in her life, and yet, grasping it felt like second nature.
Pretty outfit, right? I thought so!
A-Qing snorted. “Where are my arrows?”
Take aim and find out.
Okay, thanks, Shi Qingxuan. That was a very helpful explanation. She knew that she was a god, but really, was there a need to be so cryptic?
A cry of pain startled her, halting the next retort before she was able to voice it. Her eyes snapped back to the battle, where Ban Yue was slung against the wall, painfully pulling herself back up.
Rage boiled in A-Qing, and without a second thought, she drew the empty bow. Her fingers knew where to go, how to grip the string, how to position themselves on the bow’s grip to serve as her aim, as though there was an unseen force gently guiding them.
Don’t worry too much about aiming, came Shi Qingxuan’s soft voice. The wind is your ally. Never forget that.
A-Qing took a breath to steady herself.
Then, she shot.
The air around her exploded. Down below, the ghost was literally thrown onto its side, the force of the wind’s blast having also taken a chunk of flesh from its shoulder.
It hissed and screamed, and A-Qing grinned in satisfaction.
“Take that!” she spat. Then, she glanced downwards, where her feet toed the edge of the roof. It was a long way down, but… Ban Yue had jumped it earlier without a problem.
She took in a deep breath, screwed her eyes shut, and took a leap of faith forward. She had to bite her lip to keep from screaming as she felt herself drop, the broiling fear of—mistake, mistake, I’m dead, I’m so dead—shooting through her. But quickly enough, the felt the air burst up to meet, coiling around her and tugging the length of her shirt and the ribbons hanging from her buns.
The wind settled around her, dissipating once her feet brushed the sidewalk. She blinked, a part of her rejoicing at actually being alive after that stunt.
“The wind is my ally,” she reminded herself. Then, she repeated it a few times, for good measure.
Her gaze snapped to Ban Yue, where she was standing across the street. Unmoving cars stretched out between them, but even with the distance, A-Qing didn’t miss the elated smile that had overtaken Ban Yue’s features.
“Shoot it again!”
A-Qing nodded and snapped her bow up. “Right! Leave it to me!”
She drew the bow again and took aim. The ghost had recovered from her last attack, but with its shoulder torn to shreds, it dragged itself down the road slower than before. Out of the corner of her eye, she made out the form of Ban Yue, turning her back to the ghost to sprint down the road.
Right, A-Qing remembered, if she finds water, this fight is over.
Even with Shi Qingxuan’s wind guiding her, A-Qing had no doubt that Ban Yue would still be twice as effective as her once she was in her element. Experience, she knew, could trump natural ability and raw power any day. If A-Qing could even be said to have either of those two things.
Her role cemented in her mind, A-Qing let the bowstring fly.
Another blast of air shot forward, jostling the ghost, but it didn’t knock it onto its side as it did before.
“Hey, Shi Qingxuan! Why is it weaker now?!”
Huh? You just used it. Don’t blame me if you can’t do what you did before all the time. Your powers have to rely on your own spiritual energy some, you know. If I let you draw from me endlessly, I’d disappear! And then you’d never have powers again, so you gotta deal on your own, too!
“It sounds like you’re just making excuses to be lazy,” A-Qing huffed.
I am not! This is your fight, really. Most gods don’t even do this much. You should be grateful!
She just rolled her eyes, taking aim and firing again with much the same result. She fired again and again, each time only managing to stutter the ghost in its pursuit of Ban Yue for a second or two.
Thankfully, it seemed much more wasn’t needed from her. A-Qing had been paying so much attention to the ghost that she’d forgotten to keep track of Ban Yue’s position. That is, until she heard a large clanging and whipped her head around in time to watch as Ban Yue jammed her staff into the fire hydrant, the metal actually warping and bending beneath the strike.
Water shot into the air.
The moment it did, the fight was over.
It bent to Ban Yue’s will, redirecting itself towards the ghost. As it flew, it solidified into razor sharp chunks of ice. Each one blasted into the ghost like a freight train. The onslaught skewered it again and again until there wasn’t much recognizable left.
However, before A-Qing was able to get a good enough look at the sight for it to haunt her nightmares, the ghost crumbled into dust, leaving the ice shards to fall and shatter against the asphalt.
A-Qing sprinted out into the road and jogged over to Ban Yue just as she was finished sealing the hydrant with a thick layer of ice.
“That was awesome!” A-Qing exclaimed, jubilation unhidden.
Ban Yue blinked. “Uh… thank you. You were pretty awesome yourself. Wind, right? That makes your patron god the Lord Wind Master.”
“Right.” Then, A-Qing glanced around at the many squished cars, the brick building with claw marks scratched into it, and the busted hydrant. “Should we… you know… call someone about this?”
“You forget, this isn’t the world of humans. It’s its own world, it’s just pretending right now. Just wait a moment, and we should return.” Ban Yue tapped the ground lightly with her staff, directly A-Qing’s attention towards the hydrant. “All this damage will won’t affect our world.”
A-Qing wasn’t sure what that meant, right up until the world cracked.
It was like looking at an image on a cracked mirror, except there was no mirror to be found. The brokenness simply… was.
And it spread, and spread, the cracks violently spidering to more and more of the scenery around them, creating a horrible cracking sound as it did. It was so grating on her eyes and ears that A-Qing grimaced and covered her ears, the shrill noise of it threatening to give her a migraine. She was tempted to shut her eyes as well, but the sight was so foreign and mystifying that she simply kept watching.
That was when her vision began to darken at the edges. She vaguely heard Ban Yue called her name, vaguely saw even the concrete at their feet crack and shattered, but she couldn’t be sure. Because in the next moment, she pitched forward, her awareness having completely fled her.