This village really isn’t that different from any of the others. It’s small and gray and damp, the clouds hanging thick in the sky and releasing a steady, depressing drizzle onto the buildings below. There’s hardly anyone in the streets, or at least that’s what Shi Qingxuan thinks at first, until he nearly runs into a tiny old woman who hisses threateningly at him as he scrambles out of her way. That’s when he realizes there are some people out and about; they’re just people who look as gray and miserable as their surroundings, which makes it hard to notice them.
Shi Qingxuan passes deeper into the village, heading for the central square to get his bearings; that’s where he’ll find the village crier, who, for a few coins, ought to have some information for him. Yet as he walks down the cobblestone street, managing to avoid anymore near collisions with residents, he can’t help but sigh. This place is more dreary than all of the other villages combined; at least they had some life in them. He’s only been to this one for ten minutes and he already feels like it’s going to be another dead end, another waste of his time. Just like all of the others.
Shi Qingxuan kicks at a loose stone with the tip of his boot. He wants to pull out his fan, hold it in front of his face in a familiar gesture that always soothes him, but there’s no way he’s going to do that in this rain. He reminds himself instead that the first village he doesn’t investigate is bound to be the one where he could’ve gotten information on his ge.
It takes so little time to reach the village square from the outer cottages that Shi Qingxuan isn’t aware he’s actually found it until he’s nearly crossed the wide, empty expanse of cobblestone. He stops and turns around, noting the dilapidated fountain settled in the center, the only water filling it coming from the drizzling rain. Not that that’s surprising; the fountain itself is so old and worn by the elements that it’s a bit difficult to tell what it was supposed to be, anymore. Shi Qingxuan tilts his head, long ponytail swaying with the motion, and squints. A maiden with a water jug, maybe?
“NEWCOMER TO TOWN! SEEMS VERY INTERESTED IN THE OLD VILLAGE FOUNTAIN!”
The boom of a voice startles Shi Qingxuan so badly he stumbles, nearly falling onto his butt in a puddle of water forming between some lopsided stones.
Well. Seems like I’ve found the town crier! Straightening his robes, Shi Qingxuan marches over to a stout, short little man in an official-looking uniform, clanging a bell and staring right at Shi Qingxuan as he approaches. Surely Shi Qingxuan hadn’t been so out of it that he would miss the sound of that bell, so he assumes the crier had started shouting as soon as he spotted Shi Qingxuan.
“Excuse me, sir!” Shi Qingxuan beams down at the man, fishing for his coin purse in the pocket of his robes. “Can I ask you some questions?”
“NEWCOMER COMES BEARING QUESTIONS! WONDER WHAT HE’LL ASK!”
The sheer volume of the crier’s voice at close-range is enough to make Shi Qingxuan flinch. “Uh, you don’t have to shout! I can hear you just fine.”
“NEWCOMER WISHES TO SILENCE THE CRIER--”
“I have coin!” Shi Qingxuan interjects. He hastily dumps a few pieces of silver onto his palm, practically shoving it under the man’s nose for him to see. “I’ll pay you! I just want to get some information, that’s all, and I know the village crier knows everything there is to know about a village!”
The crier stops at that, and now Shi Qingxuan can see that his small eyes are shrewd. They take in Shi Qingxuan, his robes and the most casual hair piece he could find and the coins in his hand. The crier drops the hand holding the bell to his side, no longer filling the village square with its ringing.
“Alright.” The crier speaks differently now, too, no longer using the polished accent of a town official. His free hand moves so quickly Shi Qingxuan almost doesn’t catch it, and when he looks down at his own palm, he sees that the coins he’d been holding are no longer there. “Think I got a minute or two to indulge a paying customer. What’s it you’re wanting to know?”
Relief floods Shi Qingxuan. The coins he’s using here, plus what he’ll need to pay for an inn for the night, will take another good chunk out of his savings, but that’s alright. It’s worth it.
He’s taken on odd jobs before, busking and even begging in the past, in order to keep going. His parents would likely be appalled to see him doing labor at all, let alone the work he’s done. He doesn’t even let himself think of how his ge would react. He can only hope they’ll understand in the end.
Pulling his hand back, Shi Qingxuan’s broad smile returns. “I’m looking for my brother,” he says. “Have you ever heard the name Shi Wudu?”
Shi Qingxuan doesn’t go into detail, when he asks. This stranger doesn’t need to know that five years ago he was a boy barely sixteen when Shi Wudu disappeared, or that Shi Qingxuan hadn’t even known Shi Wudu was missing until a man, a patrol captain, had come to their door saying there had been a battle and afterward they couldn’t find Shi Wudu anywhere. The captain couldn’t say where the battle had been, or why Shi Wudu had taken part at all, when Shi Qingxuan knew his brother wasn’t a soldier. All the man could say was that Shi Wudu was there, and then he wasn’t.
He also kept fidgeting, playing with his armor, looking away from Shi Qingxuan’s face. The poor man was probably upset, he reasoned. It couldn’t be easy to tell a family that their loved one was gone, possibly dead.
The captain did give a region where the battle took place, at least. Shi Qingxuan never forgot it, even though it took him three years before he could convince his parents to let him go and search.
He’s been at it ever since. He’s learned to survive situations he’d never even imagined when he was growing up. And through it all, he’s kept his head high, his smile bright. Any pain or discomfort the present brings is nothing compared to what he’ll feel when he sees his ge again.
“The name sounds familiar.” The crier’s voice pulls Shi Qingxuan out of his thoughts, out of the lull he’d fallen into as the short man in front of him felt the need to test every coin with his teeth before answering. “But he’s not been in this village.”
Just like that, the anticipation and hope he’d felt drains out of Shi Qingxuan’s body, leaving him numb. He still wears a smile. “Oh, I see. Well, thanks anyway--”
“Now hold up there, boy.” The silver has disappeared once again, no doubt into one of the crier’s pockets. “You paid well, and so I’ll tell you. I been in this town for years, and the biggest news we’ve had since I came was a battle up at the village beside the lake. There was a Shi Wudu there, so they say. Led the emperor’s soldiers to victory over a pack of bandits. The village is full of ghosts, now, but maybe one of ‘em will help you out.”
Ge was nearby. It’s the closest thing to real news Shi Qingxuan has ever gotten. He ignores the bit about ghosts because, well, that’s ridiculous, and grabs for the crier’s hand, shaking it vigorously as he says, “Thank you so much! I really appreciate your help!”
The crier endures this for about a second before jerking his hand back, rubbing it like it’s been strained. “You’ll wanna go northeast of here. Once you hit the lake, follow along the eastern shore. The village will be there; you can’t miss it.”
“Thank you!” Shi Qingxuan pivots on his heel, pulling out the compass he’d bought two years back, once it was impossible to continue ignoring how hopeless he was at directions. No rtheast. If there’s a lake in that direction, he’s sure to find it, and he still has enough rations to last for several days. He’s certain he’ll be back in this village before he runs out, no matter the outcome of his search.
With his back turned, hope pulsing through his system, he doesn’t see how the crier watches him leave, features unreadable, though something like pity rests in those dark eyes.
The lake is closer than Shi Qingxuan expected, only about a half day’s travel from the gray village whose name he still has yet to remember. Using his compass, he finds that the crier was correct: it’s impossible to miss when traveling in this direction. It’s very deep, from the looks, with how dark and smooth the surface is, and Shi Qingxuan skirts along its banks, following the eastern edge to the village the crier mentioned. With each step he takes, he grows more jittery, more excited, until his boots are smacking into the muddy ground as he breaks into a run. It’s the first lead he’s had in two years. Ge was here. After so long searching, he can’t help himself.
Soon enough, a few cottages emerge through the trees, and Shi Qingxuan picks up his pace. This is the village. The outskirts seem deserted but that’s fine, maybe it’s become smaller in the past five years, he’s sure he can still find someone he can talk to who can tell him where to go next---
There’s a lot of brush on the road into this village, even on the main road. The cottages remain empty, and as he gets closer to the center of the village, he realizes that many of them are in ruins. Not from age, either, but from fire damage, from purposeful destruction. Homes and shops alike are still charred, half caved in, and by the time Shi Qingxuan reaches the village square, he hasn’t seen a single soul.
No one’s here. The place is abandoned.
Shi Qingxuan stands there for a long time, listening to the wind whistling through the empty buildings surrounding the square. Eventually, he slowly sinks to the ground, uncaring at how rainwater soaks into his robes. He sits with legs crossed, elbows on his thighs, and lets his face fall into his hands.
There was a Shi Wudu there, so they say. But was there really? Was it simply someone who had the same name? Shi Qingxuan hiccups, back bent forward. Ge, where are you? Where did you go? Why didn’t you write?
The possibility that Shi Wudu is dead crosses Shi Qingxuan’s mind, not for the first time. He banishes the thought as soon as it appears. I’d know. He can’t be gone. I’d know.
By the time Shi Qingxuan finally gets the energy to move, it’s starting to get dark. He’s so wet and cold from being out in the rain all day that he’s shuddering, legs shaking as he rises to his feet and starts to pick his way out of the village. He hugs himself as he walks, but really, he doesn’t mind the cold. It numbs him to the ache in his chest, the disappointment that has been eating at him since he entered this village. Two whole years of searching, and the closest thing to a lead he’s found is a ghost town. He remembers how that crier had mentioned talking to ghosts, and now he realizes the joke in it.
“Ha, ha,” he murmurs, shoulders hunched, not feeling like laughing at all.
Time blurs around him, and before he knows it he’s back at the edge of the lake that faces the gray village. The rain petered out at some point in his walk, and threads of sunlight poke through the heavy gray clouds still hanging overhead. Shi Qingxuan stops, watching the gentle way the lake waters lap at the small slit of sand along its edge. Ge always used to love the water, though he’d never admit it. When they were young, Shi Wudu would spend hours swimming in the pond near their home. Shi Qingxuan used to sit on the dock and watch him, bare feet in the water, eyes wide with awe at how powerful his brother was when he swam from one end to the other and back.
Shi Qingxuan, no matter how many times Shi Wudu tried to teach him, was hopeless at swimming. A doggy paddle was the most he could do, slowly and laboriously swimming circles near the dock.
But he’d always loved sitting at the edge and watching his ge. Smiling, despite the tears in his eyes, Shi Qingxuan bends to unlace his boots, ties his robes up around his thighs in a way his parents would have found frightful. He wades into the shallows of the lake, pulling his fan from his belt and letting its folds spread as he hums and lets the chill of the water spread from his legs up through his body. It’s freezing , but that’s alright. He welcomes the eventual numbing sensation that follows the initial shock.
“After rain, the forest’s sleek,” he sings softly. He remembers a dance at winter festivals, one meant for recalling the spirits of the dead. He’s never believed in that, but it feels good to go through the motions anyway, to weave his fan through the air as he twirls in the icy water. He imagines creating a wind so sharp it cuts the lake in two, revealing everything that lies beneath the surface.
“Creatures in the clouds all fresh...between the pines, the moon startles my heart…” That’s not how the song goes. He’s mixing two together, but he doesn’t care. It’s not as if there’s anyone around to hear him butchering the lyrics. “One piece of beautiful land...I smile and think of home...One man on his boat is just like an immortal...A foreign guest in a foreign land.”
He continues singing as he twirls in the water, letting its icy touch travel up from his legs into the rest of his body. He probably looks ridiculous, doing this, singing nonsense, but he doesn't care. Maybe, a part of him thinks, he can summon the spirit of his brother.
And so he sings louder, twirls faster, his fan cutting through the air as he goes. "After rain, the forest's sleek! Creatures in the clouds all fresh!" Moving like this, he can envision the lake boiling around him, rolling and shifting from the sound of his voice, from the way he moves--
He glances down at one point and finds that the lake is, in fact, boiling around him. It isn't hot, but the surface is still bubbling and roiling in a way that it shouldn't be. Shi Qingxuan scrambles out of the water and onto dry ground, slowly backing away from the tumultuous motions of the water. He stops a few feet from the shore, eyes wide, mouth agape, while the lake tosses itself as if in the throes of a violent storm.
He's still standing there in shock when something... emerges. He sees a dark circle, at first, far out in the lake, and as it draws closer to the shallows it begins to rise. A head crowned with black hair, followed by a sallow face, then shoulders and a chest and arms and--and Shi Qingxuan can only numbly watch as a man rises from the water. His skin looks clammy, almost white, and pieces of him are missing; Shi Qingxuan can see his teeth through one cheek, a few ribs in his breast, a skeletal hand devoid of all flesh. And still, Shi Qingxuan doesn't move, can't move, his fan held in shaking fingers. This can't be real. This can't be real.
The spectre stops on the banks of the lake. He's wearing black robes with gray embroidery forming designs Shi Qingxuan will hopefully never be close enough to see. It's bad enough that those black eyes are on him, meeting his gaze, seemingly staring into his soul.
The creature opens its mouth, and, with a throaty voice, asks, "Why have you awoken me?"
Shi Qingxuan tries to respond, a weak, "I'm sorry," leaving his lips. He's not able to say anything else, eyes rolling back and body falling to the ground as he promptly passes the fuck out.