No one knows how he does it. He drives occult enthusiasts mad, while young adults breathe his every word with the passion only lost souls who are desperate for escapism are capable of. His shadow and name have been a passing figure in mystery, horror and cheap literature for years already, and grandparents speak of him in low voices when the power goes out and the children are scared of the dark but paradoxically hungry for fear.
“Good evening, citizens of Yiling.”
The voice reaches the earbuds of the willing, no proper channel, no hyperlink to follow. But he’s there, he’s always there when the moon is bright, maybe not even full, and the air is crisp with the smell of rust. Everyone knows it comes from the Burial Mounds up north, where nothing lives but leafless trees and the decrepit building of an old radio station.
“This is the Yiling Patriarch with news from the Cultivation World.”
The skeptic are firm believers that he’s just a teenager with moderate to decent hacking abilities and too much time on his hands, yet they can’t help but listen in, waiting deep into the cloudless nights.
“At this month’s grand conference, the great five sects discussed the recent disappearances in Yunping city. Heavy was the burden on Yunmeng Jiang, whose brash Sect Leader has yet to succeed in defeating ghosts with the power of his temper.”
The listeners chuckle at the fictional antihero, a constant pariah in the Yiling Patriarch’s episodes. It never fails to disturb them, however, that the man is willing to dwell into recent occurrences without respect for the living. The authorities have no lead to follow on the case in Yunping but there he is, spinning tales about immortals who exorcise evil and save the world. How convenient it would be. How wonderful.
“The young Lanling Jin sect leader, ever eager, suggested flaunting his fortune in spiritual traps, which almost earned him a whipping from the legendary Zidian and ended the conference right there, as in previous occasions. But even though he means to solve the case on his own and recover some face before the Cultivation World, sect leader Jiang still brings no new clues to the table, which begs the question: how capable are the great sects in this age anyway?”
The Yiling Patriarch laughs away from the microphone, and his voice appears to echo, which is irrational, for how could he be in a place that echoes and still broadcast such a clear stream? His listeners lean forward, as if they’re his confidantes, listening in to a secret.
“Do they not wonder why the lotuses of Yunmeng look so pink this time of the year?”
His voice is closer, much closer, as if his lips are about to touch the microphone, their ears. The message makes them shiver, something crawling up their skin, not the sultry voice of the urban legend, but something else, unpleasant, sticky.
“Masters of Gusu Lan, play your songs to the lake closest to Yunping and rise them, rise them up, so Qishan Wen can shoot their arrows and immobilize these lost souls, and finally Qinghe Nie shall pluck the biggest lotus of the lake and carve their saber through her broken, resentful heart.”
They can practically see his smile, wide and feral, when he says, “Now, was that so hard?”
Oh, if they were real, they’d hate him. How easily he always cut through their conundrums, how he always spoke the solution like a detective who could so easily see the culprit through his myopia, with his hands taped to his back. Of course he can, he’s the puppeteer of the show, and there are no sects, no resentful ghosts.
But if there are also no wizards and no fights for glory in our present either, just the cold, harsh reality of days following one another and the crushing weight of responsibility upon our shoulders, how hurtful it is to imagine the honorable sects and their immaculate robes with a black-clad jester who mocks them for an audience?
There’s a tap against their ears, the Yiling Patriarch demanding attention.
“But dear citizens of Yiling, who can blame the sects for their confusion in this modern world? Thousands of years ago, times were simpler, resentment was simpler, death was simpler. Now there are so many small deaths, the death of character, the death of trust, the death of connection, each building resentment into a kind of core. Can you feel it? Did you feel it recently?”
His listeners nod, you nod, thinking of that colleague who spoke behind your back, your partner who complained about one of your habits, that relative you can’t stand but that you’re forced to smile at during family reunions. The Yiling Patriarch hums and the listeners close their eyes, readying themselves.
“The elders of Gusu Lan believe in purifying their bodies and mind, they believe in cleansing and rest, and they have tomes upon tomes of songs to deal with the illnesses of the soul. I believe they’re just as full of shit as the other sects and that there’s not one of us who’s free from resentment. But the songs... After millennia fighting blood with blood, they help me remember different times.”
The Yiling Patriarch inhales next to the microphone, and the next second, the notes of his flute flow through the stream, soft like a breeze, calming like a mother’s touch. The legend says that his flute Chenqing could raise the dead to fight against the corrupted, and even now, in our modern world, when we listen to his lullaby with our smartphones, the moon shines a little red, inviting, so inviting to the beasts inside us. His tune pierces through resentment and pulls us forward, as though physically, with his very hands. It’s an elegant melody. Romantic, even.
Ah. Is that where his heart is today?
“It’s been a year since the young master has been hot on my trail, Yiling.” His laugh is young, joyful. “He almost caught me in Yunping during the conference when I was distracted. Our tirade has been going for how many years now? I admit I’ve grown tired of it already. Tell me, second young master Lan, don’t you get tired of following me? Have we not chased each other across the globe enough, yet you still want me to pay for my crimes? It’s a new era, and I’m still way ahead of you all. Shall we not see eye to eye and go on night hunts together? Do you hear me, Lan Zhan?”
The Yiling Patriarch breathes against the microphone, close, so close, voice low against one’s ear, seductive like a kiss. And after beating resentment, what could take its place, if not romance?
“Beautiful, honorable Light-Bearer. The moon looks auspicious for us tonight. Don’t you want to come with me?”
A series of knocks sound in the background, instantly followed by the Yiling Patriarch’s intake of breath. His listeners hold still, having never heard an interruption to the broadcast before. It was always a piece about a conference, then a piece about the human condition, followed by a song and a personal anecdote. The young master Lan was mentioned plenty of times as an example of excellence where the other cultivators fail, although, by the old tales, he’s his very nemesis, the light to his shadow, the bringer of his destruction.
But there are knocks, and the Yiling Patriarch’s gleeful surprise.
“He’s here? Though I’ve secured myself behind a wall of charms and spells, he’s reached me?”
He sounds exhilarated, as though he finds happiness at the prospect of dying.
The listeners know. We can hear the longing at the edge of his sentences, read between the lines of his faux poetry. If the Yiling Patriarch has lived for thousands of years, then the Light-Bearer has lived just as long, for the sole purpose of him.
Of course it’s impossible, as there are no such a thing as immortals. They must be lovers role-playing to a wide audience, capturing us like a cheap romance book, ready to fall into the saucy bits.
“Yiling, remember to let spirits rest and to cultivate a kind heart. And if we never speak again, be patient with the cultivators of today, who have their hands full of young minds who have lost themselves. To all the sect leaders, stop relying on my broadcasts to solve your problems and cooperate with one another instead of measuring your egos in your conferences. And sect leader Jiang, stop frowning so much or your face is getting stuck that way.
I don’t know what awaits me on the other side of that door, but the moon is high and the spirits are abound, and my hands tremble with the wish to play a duet.
Above all, Yiling, remember...”
You can hear his smile.
“No dogs are allowed at the Burial Mounds.
He doesn’t cut off the broadcast. You can hear his steps fading away, and the sound of a door creaking open. There’s a new voice, the calling of a name, long known and long treasured, and echoes of movement, of breathing. You think it’s a struggle, that the Yiling Patriarch has finally met his demise, until he lets out a drawn-out moan.
Some listeners cringe, others hold their headphones tighter against their ears. Either way, you think you’re listening in to something personal, something you’re not supposed to. But the Yiling Patriarch is an exhibitionist, and the broadcast marches on.
There’s no such things as cultivators or immortals or ghosts.
But the crimson moon is high in the sky, and it’s the kind of night where the spirits are out and eager to play.