Chang Bowen’s hands were shaking as he lit the candle on his desk. He was sure…He was sure he’d seen it out of the corner of his eye. It was there! It was!
“It’s just your eyes going you old coot!” His wife had said every time he mentioned it. He should have known better than to look to a woman, but it wasn’t like he had anyone else to ask! AH!
A flash of purple just out of sight made him whirl around.
“What do you want?! Who are you?”
The ghost was gone, had it ever been there at all? The women in the silk scrolls behind his desk were giggling at him, he swung his head around, daring to them to laugh further, and they did. They laughed and laughed, sharp inhales turning into cackles so loud be didn’t hear himself knock over one of his chests of drawers. The little figurines Chang Bowen’s wife liked to collect were jumping off the wall-mounted shelf, shattering themselves on the wooden floor, gleeful the whole way down. Laughter, there was so much laughter clawing into his ears. He pointedly ignored the white tiger-shaped incense burner that was tearing at its own metal flesh and coughing up smoke.
“You killed her,” a low voice whispered in his ear.
He spun around, but no one was there. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in a small bronze mirror on the shelf behind his desk, his face was bright gold, flaking like a pastry, eyes sinking into his skull; he looked away. “No! No, it was owed to me!”
“You killed her.”
“I didn’t!” he shouted at the disembodied voice.
“I know you did. You killed that woman.”
“Sh-She couldn’t pay! I had to kick her out!”
“She died because of you.”
“I had to!” Chang Bowen nearly jumped out of his own skin when something trailed down the back of his neck. Was the floor moving? The grain of the wooden floor was moving! Shifting like snakes under his feet! “Stop it! I didn’t do anything wrong! Take it back!” He stumbled over to one of the shelves, accidently knocking it askew, causing all the coins and jewelry and silk scrolls to clatter, rattle to the floor. “Take it all back! Leave me alone!” He himself wound up in a heap on the floor, head pressed to his old knees.
There was a rustle of fabric, and a careful hand pressed his chin upwards. A young man in a mask crouched before him. His robes were made of a fine purple fabric that shimmered in the soft light, but he wore no jewelry or fancy ornaments; in fact he was dressed as though he wanted to stand out, but wasn’t quite sure how to do so. The mask staring him down was laughing so hard it looked painful, but otherwise was just as plain as the rest of him.
“You have no compassion. You are thoughtless, so I spare you no thought now.”
Perhaps it was the low candle light or the creeping madness of his fear, but for a split second, the painful smile almost looked like pity.
And then it was over.
“Your Highness Qi Ying!”
What did His Heavenly Highness want now? Quan Yizhen kept fiddling with his compass. According to that one literature god, it was supposed to be a treasure from several dynasties ago that could lead to lost items. It still hadn’t led him to the jug holding his Shixiong’s remains though.
“Were you listening to anything I was saying?” Xie Lian asked, a smile on his face.
Quan Yizhen shrugged. “There’s a new calamity.”
Xie Lian sighed. “Yes. It doesn’t seem outwardly aggressive, but I’d like you to go on a mission to meet with it. That’s why I’ve been explaining how it terrorizes villages and where it’s headed.”
Quan Yizhen shrugged again. Really, Xie Lian ought to know better than to ask Quan Yizhen for anything. How could Quan Yizhen focus on some new ghost when he was so worried about his shixiong?
“I know you’re still upset about Yin Yu’s spirit jar disappearing, but I think this mission might help.”
“Why? You think the ghost has Shixiong’s spirit jar?”
“Huh? W-Well…” Xie Lian scratched his cheek. “Sort of? Why don’t you take the compass with you.”
Well, if the ghost had his shixiong’s spirit jar, why hadn’t His Heavenly Highness said so earlier? It made Quan Yizhen a little put off, well, that and the fact that he had to go visit the literature god again to get the official paperwork for his descent. Technically, Quan Yizhen was powerful enough to descend without the paperwork, but his shixiong had always scolded him for losing those kinds of things when he was a part of the middle court and ignoring them when he was part of the upper court. But not anymore! He’d thought…just, maybe if he did things right, did as his shixiong had asked of him, maybe…maybe Shixiong would…
He stood in front of Ling Wen’s desk. “I need the papers to descend so I can fight the new calamity for Shixiong’s spirit jar.”
Ling Wen looked up from her massive pile of scrolls and blinked at him. “Are you talking about the mission from the last conference? His Highness the Crown Prince never said anything about fighting the calamity.”
“It has Shixiong’s spirit jar, so I’m going to fight for it.”
“…Right. Your Highness, I cannot stress this enough, you must not fight this calamity. Someone like you…I can’t understand why His Highness the Crown Prince is even sending you down to deal with it in the first place.”
“It has Shixiong’s spirit jar.”
Ling Wen sighed, but riffled around in her drawers until she found the right scroll, stamped it, then rolled it back up and handed it to him. “Here. Remember, you cannot fight this calamity. It will kill you if you do, do you understand?”
Quan Yizhen nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll get Shixiong’s remains back.”
As he left, Ling Wen let out a deep breath and mumbled, “Idiots never die. Maybe he’s too dense for this calamity to kill.”
Ling Wen had told him that this was the town where the calamity was most likely to appear. Upon arriving, Quan Yizhen met someone he decided he didn’t like. The man was dressed well, with several layers of fine robes and too much jewelry, but he was mumbling to himself, uncaring of who he pushed into as he forced his way through the crowd.
He shoved Quan Yizhen in the shoulder and yelled, “Watch it! Out of the way!”
So Quan Yizhen shoved him back. Usually that led to fights, and Quan Yizhen scolded himself for reacting as he always had, not listening to his shixiong, because…if Shixiong had been there…then surely…
But it didn’t lead to a fight. Instead, the man just shoved his way through some more people and disappeared into the crowd. Every once in a while Quan Yizhen would hear him scream again, telling people to make way, but eventually that faded into the crowd as well.
Quan Yizhen shook his compass. In heaven, it only pointed to his left, no matter which direction Quan Yizhen faced; but here on earth, it spun around aimlessly. What a useless piece of junk! He shook it again.
He spent three whole days looking for that dumb calamity and found nothing, so on the fourth day, he decided to take some time to look for his shixiong’s spirit jar. If he found the jar, he’d find the ghost anyway, so he was technically still working the mission, and His Highness couldn’t get mad. Quan Yizhen was a genius.
He stopped at a tea house to see if he could pick up any gossip, as Shixiong had taught him back when they were still disciples, but the moment he stepped through the door, he saw that man, the one with the jewelry, making a huge fuss.
“Can’t you see it?! It’s there! No, there! AH! Useless, all of you!” He pulled off his belt and the rings on his fingers, tossing it all on the ground. Then, with his robes slipping off his shoulders, he raced towards the door right into Quan Yixhen’s chest. Quan Yizhen shoved him again. Couldn’t this man see a solid object in front of him?! Rather than fight back, the man stumbled to the ground and began weeping as he crawled out the door.
That dealt with, Quan Yizhen sat himself down at one of the low tables. He wasn’t nearly as good at this part as his shixiong had been, but he was still passable. Unfortunately, after that strange man’s outburst, the whole teahouse had gone silent, and each customer was very interested in the particular grain and color of their wooden tables. Quan Yizhen huffed to himself. How was he supposed to eavesdrop if no one would speak!
He called over to the two women at the table next to him. “Hey, has anything weird been going on in town?”
The younger woman cast him a sidelong glance, then did a double take. “Was that…was that not strange to you?”
“Ran er-ge has always been shy. This isn’t…He says there’s a man following him, but no one else can see him.”
“Well that’s not a calamity,” Quan Yizhen huffed. It wasn’t a spirit jar either. He didn’t have time to deal with some minor haunting. So he got up and left.
He was walking the streets, intending to head to whatever town or city lie to the east of this one when he heard some stray chatter. A man and a pregnant woman were walking a few paces behind him, speaking quietly. “Do you think our temple is next? I heard a bunch of offerings have been going missing recently.”
“No, no, surely the Thunder Master will protect his own temple and this city in turn. Besides, it’s probably just the priest skimming a little off the top.”
The Thunder Master? That’s right, it was good manners to pay respects! He should go to the temple and leave an offering, even if he thought leaving offerings was kind of stupid. Yin Yu had left gifts of good will at each city temple they’d visited when Quan Yizhen was still a middle heavens’ official. He should do it because that’s what his Shixiong would do! When he finally got to the temple, he looked around at the simple decorations and ugly stone statue.
“That’s not what he looks like,” Quan Yizhen said to himself. To be honest, he didn’t know if that was what the Thunder Master looked like, considering he wouldn’t be able to pick most gods out of a lineup, but he figured someone that ugly couldn’t be a god. He was searching the temple for some priest or monk to tell them it wasn’t good to disrespect their god like that when he heard someone enter the temple. The newcomer must not have seen him, since they were whipping their head from side to side and Quan Yizhen was standing near the back; they didn’t greet Quan Yizhen, so Quan Yizhen didn’t greet them. He went back to looking for someone to re-carve the statue.
“It wasn’t me!” the other person in the temple muttered. “I would never do something as shameless as stealing temple offerings! Haha, no! No! NO!” His voice rose in volume with each successive no; it startled Quan Yizhen, and he watched as this other man began swiping items off the offering table and hiding them in his sleeves.
“I didn’t do it! I didn’t! Leave me alone!” He took an incense holder and smashed it on the ground. “I would never!” He sunk to his knees. “Stop! Stop it! It hurts!! It hurts!!” He yanked at his hair until he extracted a fancy hair pin, his crown and hair cascading over his shoulders, then he took the pin and stabbed it into his other hand, pinning himself to the floor. Quan Yizhen didn’t know what to do, so he just watched.
“Stop stealing, stop stealing,” the man whined into the ground. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Several shadows stretched out from where his knees met the temple floor, the darkest of which began to coalesce into a shimmering twitching being. The hairs on the back of Quan Yizhen’s neck stood up the same way they had when White No Face had first appeared, the same way they did whenever Crimson Rain chuckled condescendingly.
From the shadows emerged a familiar white mask. Its wide smile bored into Quan Yizhen’s heart. The man still pinned to the floor began kicking and screaming, “Make it stop! Make it stop! I’ll stop, I will!” In his struggle, he tore his hand from the hair pin still stuck in the floor.
“You refuse to change. You spare no thought for others, so I will spare none for you now.”
Quan Yizhen could never forget that voice. He rushed forward, trying to get a better look at this awe-inspiring spirit.
The ghost stopped, the hand reaching towards the sobbing man on the floor paused, then ignoring Quan Yizhen, the ghost lifted the man’s chin so he looked directly into the ghost’s mask. Slowly, so very slowly, the man began drooling an unnatural amount. His spit collected in ghost’s hand and began to glow a bright golden light. The ghost huffed as the man’s soul grew out of the drool into a shining gold ball. With a single breath, he blew the gilt right off, revealing the gray lying just beneath. When the ghost dropped this man’s soul, it shattered on the floor like ceramic. The man’s eyes rolled back and he fell to the floor in a heap. The items he’d stolen from the Thunder Master’s altar tumbled out of his robes and clattered as they hit the ground.
“Shixiong…Is that you?”
The ghost stood, looked at Quan Yizhen, then dissolved into nothing, leaving Quan Yizhen alone in the temple.
It was dusk just then, and the light was fading quickly, but Quan Yizhen pulled out the scroll he’d gotten from the literature god and began mouthing the syllables of each word in the dying light.
“Violet Out of Sight, a Devastation Level Spirit, the most recent of those born from Mount Tonglu.
“Appearance: A young person of indeterminate gender with black hair and white skin. Wears well-made purple robes. Covers his face with a Ghost City Officer’s mask.
“Crimes against the common folk: psychological torture, murder, consistent interference with human social order, inciting political unrest
“Crimes against the heavens: theft of temples, tempting common folk away from the dao, disrupting faith in the heavenly system
“Territory: Unknown, appears to wander from city to city to terrorize the common folk
“Common behaviors: causes paranoia and extreme fear in target to the point of creating hallucinations; victims often engage in self-mutilation or violence before committing suicide or disappearing. Common victims include political leaders, landlords, priests, and the wealthy. Steals temples, tearing them from their foundations. The Palace of Ling Wen believes this spirit is taking the treasures of each temple for himself, but is not sure to what end.”
By the time Quan Yizhen had finished reading the scroll, the sun had set completely and he was practically vibrating with excitement. Shixiong was alive! No, well, he wasn’t alive, but he wasn’t truly dead either, and in Quan Yizhen’s mind, that counted as a win. Surely, now that his shixiong knew he was in town, they’d meet up again! And then he could explain everything to him, and apologize and never be apart again!
He left the temple with a wide grin.
Yin Yu did not appear before Quan Yizhen. Life in the town carried on as it had before, with hawkers calling to potential customers, children darting between their parents’ legs, painted ladies gathering and twittering like sparrows. Quan Yizhen waited for his shixiong for a whole week, just sitting in different teahouses and inns, taking out his compass and shaking it so it would point anywhere else but left, and hoping Yin Yu would appear. But he never did. A week, and it might have been longer if the temple in the closest major city hadn’t suddenly disappeared.
Well, if that’s where Shixiong was, that’s where Quan Yizhen would go.
It was pretty much the same as any other city, Quan Yizhen decided. Same vendors, same kids, same ladies, but everyone here was much more animated, and they all laughed a lot. Every time Quan Yizhen visited a teahouse the patrons were pouring each other wine and embracing each other like they were all good friends.
“Did you owe him too? Hah! Thank goodness, huh?”
“I heard he was snatching girls off the street too. Thank goodness he went mad!”
“What was he yelling about at the end there? A masked man? I didn’t see any masked man.”
“Ah, crazy is crazy! Probably trying to blame others for his crimes again. Come, come, waiter! A round of drinks for everyone!”
“You can’t afford that!” a lady at another table laughed.
“What do you mean I can’t afford it! Since that old loan shark went and made a public spectacle of killing himself, I have more money than I know what to do with! A round, waiter, come on!”
The waiter bowed a few times, then hurried off to the back of the shop. When he got to Quan Yizhen he bowed again and said, “You’re from out of town. Apologies for the commotion. We recently lost our main temple and things are a little chaotic at the moment.”
Quan Yizhen didn’t say anything but took a sip of liquor. It was earthly stuff, not nearly as easy on the tongue as the baiju he enjoyed in the heavens, so he spat it back into the cup, not seeing the waiter’s astonished expression.
“The masked man he was yelling about is my shixiong.”
“The masked man he was yelling about is my shixiong.”
“His name is Yin Yu, but he goes by Violet out of Sight now. The heavens named him so and everything. Ling Wen even sealed it, see?” He pulled out the scroll and showed the man Ling Wen’s seal.
The waiter reached out for the scroll, but Quan Yizhen snatched it away. The people at the nearest table had been listening in, and the woman at the table leaned over to catch Quan Yizhen’s eye.
“This shixiong of yours, is he dangerous? The way Xiao Wai was making a fuss, it sounded like your shixiong was the one telling him to die.”
“Shixiong isn’t dangerous! He’d never tell anyone to die!” Quan Yizhen rapped his knuckles on his table for emphasis. “He’s the kindest person in the world!”
“Here, here!” Another patron from across the hall agreed, “Xiao Wai’s death has lifted a fog off this city! No longer are people cowering in their homes worried his hired men will harass them in the streets! Our daughters are safe from his wandering hands!”
“A toast to Violet Out of Sight!”
A soft warmth buzzed through Quan Yizhen as he watched these people drink to his shixiong. A feeling of “yes, this is how it should be” made his lips twitch into a lop-sided smile. Ah, he felt drunk! When was the last time he’d been able to get drunk? He left enough gold bars at his table for everyone in the tea house to get at least one, then left to see the old temple site.
He didn’t really have any expectations, so when he arrived to the place the temple had once stood, he wasn’t sure what he felt. The tingles he’d felt at the tea house mostly subsided as he looked at the barren earth plot, three times larger than what he’d expected. Just like the scroll said, the whole thing had been lifted out at its foundation and moved somewhere else. Ling Wen’s scroll hadn’t said anything about where Shixiong had been taking the temples, but to be quite honest, Quan Yizhen wasn’t all that interested. He kicked a left over brick. He wondered if his shixiong was still around town or if he took the temple on his way out. He couldn’t very well predict where Yin Yu would go next, so his best bet was probably sticking around. So he did.
Each day he went back to the empty plot where the temple had stood, watching as more and more workers began gathering donations and stacking bricks, wood planks, and paper. There was one worker in particular, apparently the priest of the old temple, who’d go to the street and beg for alms. He often spoke to Quan Yizhen in a very strange tone, like he was trying to guide him without letting on that he was guiding. Quan Yizhen didn’t care for it.
“This used to be a Ming Guang temple, you know,” he said one day, stroking his beard.
“But it’s been a long while since the general has appeared to us, let alone helped us in a time of need.”
“Ah,” the priest said, dropping his basket of alms on the ground next to Quan Yizhen. “It’s a pity there are no strong young men to help this elder carry things about while the architects lay the foundation.”
“Hmm.” Quan Yizhen didn’t care, really. He was only sticking around until his compass pointed him in the right direction or he heard of another temple disappearing. The priest huffed and picked the basket back up.
“The people keep asking me if we can change the temple’s god to Violet Out of Sight,” he grumbled to himself, “and this young boy keeps hanging around, not lifting an incense stick’s worth of weight!”
“Violet Out of Sight?” Quan Yizhen stood so quickly he almost knocked the priest over. “You’re dedicating the new temple to Shixiong?”
“Whose shixiong? No, this temple will remain a General Ming Guang temple.”
A few of the workers nearby overheard the conversation and groaned. “The old general is fine, but he’s done so little recently! Why can’t it be a Violet Out of Sight Temple?”
“Who ever heard of a temple to a ghost?!” the priest shook with indignation.
“Doesn’t Crimson Rain have temples?” Quan Yizhen asked. He thought Crimson Rain had temples…maybe he’d heard wrong?”
“He does!” one of the workers agreed. “My sister lives in Ezhou, and she asked Crimson Rain and the Flower Crowned Martial God for a good marriage! Two months later, she married a rich lord!”
“See!” the other workers agreed. “Ghosts are just as good as gods, as far as I’m concerned. And Violet Out of Sight is benevolent. He hasn’t hurt anyone else but Xiao Wai, and he deserved it!”
A chorus of agreements came from the architects a few feet away.
“It should definitely be a Violet out of Sight temple,” Quan Yizhen insisted. “He has the protection of the Western Marital God, too. Just make it a joint temple.”
“The Western Martial God? His Highness Qi Ying?” the priest sputtered. “Why on earth would those two ever even meet?!”
“We’re disciple brothers.”
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
“I mean it could be true. Gods confront evil ghosts more often than they confront evil humans.”
“He’s not evil,” Quan Yizhen insisted.
“Yeah, Violet Out of Sight is a liberator!”
“Fine!” the priest yelled over them. “Fine! Fine! Fine! We’ll dedicate the temple to Violet Out of Sight!”
Quan Yizhen was kind of hungry, so he snatched a meat bun out of the priest’s alms basket and stuffed it into his mouth.
“…Those are offerings.”
Quan Yizhen snatched another one before the priest could pull the basket away from him. From around the second bun he mumbled, “Can’t be an offering if it’s not on an altar. Can I have another?”
“You’ve had enough. If you keep this up, Violet Out of Sight won’t have any offerings, will he?”
Quan Yizhen scarfed down the bun in his mouth, but dropped the second one back into the basket. It wouldn’t do to leave Yin Yu’s first new temple offering-less. In fact, now that Quan Yizhen knew that the temple was for his shixiong, he decided to help, placing brick and mortar at three times the pace of a normal human. Although, the other workers had to go back and fix some spots. He finished a whole wall before dinner, and the next day he finished two. His compass still wouldn’t work, so he kept on building. He built the altar all by himself too, even if it took him a few tries and still stood a little wobbly. He described his shixiong’s appearance to the priest so they could work out a suitable icon to display.
“If he appears to his victims—“
“…worshippers…in a mask, his statue should also be masked. Besides, no one alive has ever seen him. How are we supposed to know what his face looks like?”
Quan Yizhen curled his lip. “I know what he looks like.”
“Alright, I’m listening.”
“To you! Tell me what this ghost king looks like, huh?!”
“It’s…It’s…” How was Quan Yizhen to describe it? “He has a mole. Here.” He pointed to his left eye. “He’s got…a nose. And eyes.”
“Most people do.”
“Um. He’s pretty, and always smiling.”
“Like his mask?”
“No, not like that. That’s too big. He makes little smiles. He never shows his teeth.”
“Must be smiling so he doesn’t cry then, huh?” the priest grumbled. “Why a white mask?”
“It’s the same color as the one from when he worked for Crimson Rain.”
“He worked for Crimson Rain?! When?! Ugh!” The priest threw down his brush, snatched one of the meat buns off the rickety altar, and stuffed it in his mouth. “Have you ever seen an opera?”
“No.” He didn’t think the plays from the Mid-Autumn Festival counted.
“Actors in white masks can’t be trusted. They’re evil.”
“Shixiong isn’t evil.”
“I never said he was. But he is playing.”
“…what’s he playing?”
“Are you dense?”
Quan Yizhen shrugged.
“If he’s wearing a mask, he’s hiding something! I don’t trust him!”
“Why would he pretend to be a bad guy?”
“You seem to know him pretty well. Why don’t you tell me?”
Eventually, the priest shooed his out of the temple. “I’ll draw the plans however I like, since you’re no help!” he grumbled as he flapped his hands at Quan Yizhen. “Stay out of trouble!”
Quan Yizhen never got to see what the finished icon looked like because the very next day he heard that another temple had gone missing.
It was a Lang Qianqiu Temple this time. Quan Yizhen would be lying if he said he knew who that was, but the man still had a temple, so he must have been a god of notoriety, right? Regardless, he no longer had a temple. So.
“Has anyone seen a man in purple robes and a mask?” Quan Yizhen asked some people eating on benches at the market. They looked among themselves and shrugged. Quan Yizhen shook his compass a lot in that city, but it never stopped pointing left.
He asked again in a few teahouses, but no one had seen his shixiong. Well, nothing left to do but fix the temple, he supposed.
He started work the next day, gathering donations and supplies and maybe adding a few of his own gold bars to the collection basket.
“Who’s the temple for?” a young girl asked as she passed by. She was holding a young boy’s hand, and he was holding a stick.
“Violet Out of Sight.”
“I’ve never heard of him before.”
“Is he as powerful as Tai Hua?” the little boy said, waving his stick around like a sword.
“Your feet are too close together for that move. Spread them out,” Quan Yizhen corrected. “He’s more powerful. He’s a ghost king.”
“A ghost?!” the little boy threw off the girl’s hand and made another stabbing motion with his stick-sword. “That’s way cooler than a god!”
“Hush, you!” the little girl pushed the boy along, casting a wary look over her shoulder at Quan Yizhen.
“Sister, wait! I wanna give my sword to the curly haired priest! For the ghost king!”
“What use would a demon have for a holy sword?”
“It was a holy sword, but then…then I used it to hurt my shidi during battle and now it’s a demon sword! I’m gonna give it to him!” Before she could stop him, the little boy ran up to Quan Yizhen and presented his stick. “An offering for the ghost king!”
“…” Quan Yizhen took the stick and inspected it. He didn’t feel any resentful or demonic energy coming off of it. “It’s a stick.”
“Noooo!” the boy whined. “It’s a terrifying demon sword! You have to pretend!”
“Oh.” Quan Yizhen hadn’t realized they were pretending. “If this is really a terrifying demon sword, then I have to accept it. Shixiong will need a new sword, after all.”
The little boy’s eyes lit up, and he was about to start talking again, but his sister pulled him farther down the street. “Good luck, curly haired priest!” he waved over his shoulder.
Quan Yizhen didn’t know what to do with the stick, so he tossed it into the donation basket. He’d send a prayer to his Shixiong explaining it; surely Yin Yu would accept the donation with grace.
But the…pretending. It made Quan Yizhen think about when he was a kid. He remembered being five or six and getting in trouble for not taking turns. He remembered learning to take turns and then getting in trouble when he insisted that everyone had to take turns. He remembered being seven or eight or ten and still not quite understanding what the other disciples meant when they told him he could be the dog while they played house. It took him a few years to understand that they were pretending, and another few to realize they didn’t want him to play with them. He remembered being thirteen or fourteen and the other disciples stopped playing altogether. Instead, they wanted to talk about things like girls and who was the tallest and where to buy the liquor and dual cultivating.
It felt like every time Quan Yizhen learned the rules, they changed; it was like someone had given him the wrong cultivation manual. That was why he liked fighting so much. The rules were simple and rarely changed. No biting, no eye-gouging, no hits to the groin. Unless your opponent did one of those things first.
It was also the reason Quan Yizhen liked Yin Yu so much. Not only did Yin Yu think he had “incredible natural-born talent,” he would actually explain things to Quan Yizhen.
“If you don’t look at people when they’re speaking, they think you’re not listening. If you can’t look another person in the eyes, look at their forehead.”
“This game is different than the one we played yesterday, so the rules are different. You don’t have to take turns.”
“People don’t like being pushed around outside the sparring ring.”
He missed his shixiong. He dropped a few more gold bars into the donation basket.
A town a hundred li away lost its temple and its richest cultivator on the same night, so Quan Yizhen went to check it out. This was the seventeenth village he’d visited since descending, and he still hadn’t caught sight of his shixiong. Sometimes he’d get to a town and his compass would go crazy, flipping one way then the other, but it would usually go still on the second day. The same thing happened in this town.
A temple in the closest city went missing. The compass went still. No sign of Yin Yu.
A wealthy scholar tore out his own eyes in a nearby town, then disappeared into the forest. The compass went still. No sign of Yin Yu.
The Flower Crown Martial God and Crimson Rain temple a few cities away did not disappear, but its head priest did. He’d apparently run out in front of a carriage, terrified of a being in purple following after him. The compass went still. No sign of Yin Yu.
In most cities, the people were thankful for the death Yin Yu seemed to usher in, but some towns were angry. “I’m glad that old tyrant is gone, but what the hell are we supposed to do without a council head?! Now all the little officials are squabbling for his position and nothing’s getting done!”
“So what if she was extorting her clients? She was still my sister! Someone must be held accountable for her death!”
“Who the fuck steals a whole temple?!?!”
Quan Yizhen left those towns without building new temples. If the people weren’t grateful to Shixiong, they didn’t deserve his grace. In the towns that were grateful, he stuck around long enough to help build or start building a temple. His skills had improved! His offering tables weren’t as rickety as they were before, and even if he sometimes accidently brought this hammer down a little too hard, he was starting to get the hang of nailing boards together. Some of the other workers would bemoan his mortar work, but improvement was improvement, and he was very proud of himself!
But as much as Quan Yizhen kind of enjoyed using the free land to build Violet Out of Sight temples, he would have liked it a lot more if Yin Yu would show himself.
He took out his compass and shook it; it still hadn’t calmed down from earlier. He shook it again.
“Too bad Violet Out of Sight won’t take care of Mother Wan, huh?” one of the workers next to Quan Yizhen said to another.
“Fitting, even a ghost won’t touch her.”
“Who’s Mother Wan?” Quan Yizhen asked.
The workers looked up from where they were laying their bricks to stare at him. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Quan Yizhen shook his head.
“Mother Wan owns the brothel on the other side of town. She’s known to steal from her employees and pluck girls off the street whether they have families or not.”
“I heard she snatched Shen-xiong’s little girl last year, and when Shen-xiong tried to go buy her back, Mother Wan had already sold her two cities over.”
“That’s not right,” was all Quan Yizhen could say.
“No shit, it’s not right! I’m grateful that your Violet Out of Sight is willing to send corrupt tax collectors to their fate, but aren’t the women the most vulnerable?”
“A little money might be missed, but not as much as a woman’s dignity,” the other worker agreed, but as soon as he said it, one of the candles on Quan Yizhen’s just-finished altar flared unnaturally and then went out completely.
The other workers looked around nervously. When no one answered, the worker who’d spoken last stuttered out, “Your Shixiong only goes after evil people, right?”
Quan Yizhen shrugged. To be completely honest, he wasn’t sure how his shixiong chose his targets, just that they often were people in power. “I don’t think you’re important enough for him to target.”
The workers blinked at him, then grumbled to themselves about out-of-towners and kids having no respect for their elders.
Quan Yizhen slipped his compass back into his belt and took up his mallet. Unfortunately, he was still thinking about Yin Yu, so when he brought the mallet down, he split the boards he was working on.
When it got too dark for him to work anymore, he slipped across town, back to his inn. He didn’t bother using the front door, because there were a lot of loud drunk people crowding the first floor. Instead he hopped up to his room’s window and swung in that way. He was getting undressed so he could wash his face and rinse his mouth out with tea when there was a tentative knock at the door.
When Quan Yizhen didn’t bother putting on his outer robe again, and his inner robe hung open, but that didn’t keep him from opening the door. A young girl stood on the other side, eyes wide as she took in his state of undress.
“Getting ready early, I see,” she said, her face melting into something suggestive. Quan Yizhen had no idea what she was talking about.
“It’s night time. What else would I be doing?”
“Oh! Eager then?”
Quan Yizhen loved sleeping. “Always.”
The girl giggled and slipped under his arm.
“What are you doing?”
“My Lady said you paid quite a lot for your stay here, so she wanted to give you the best experience. That would be me! Clothes on or off?” She held a delicate hand to her belt. Quan Yizhen blinked, then squinted at her.
“On?” He glanced out into the hallway one last time to make sure there wasn’t anyone else there to invite themselves in. “Don’t you have your own room?”
“Ah, well, we don’t take clients in our own rooms. They’re not nearly as nice.”
She stood in the center of his room, watching him as he shimmied out of his inner robe, swished his mouth with tea, and climbed into bed.
“How…What can I do for you?”
“Blow out the candle.”
The girl did so, then pulled at Quan Yizhen’s covers. He was starting to get a little mad. “Didn’t you bring a futon?”
“I’m just trying to—” He shoved her out of the bed and she squeaked when she hit the floor. “Excuse me?! I have never been so mistreat—”
“Someone stop her!”
Quan Yizhen jumped up, stepping on the girl in his haste. The name “Mother Wan” was familiar, and the screaming downstairs suggested that something was wrong.
“You won’t even help me up?!” the girl screamed after him.
When he got downstairs, there were several barely dressed women screaming, trying to get upstairs, out of windows, away, while many of the male patrons seemed shocked still as Mother Wan tore off her clothes and vomited all over her customers.
“Why…Why...? Leave me alone…” she coughed. She might have been pretty if her face wasn’t so gaunt and she hadn’t scratched bright red lines down her cheeks. “Hair…Why am I full of hair?”
“Sh-She’s been muttering to herself for a few days, but I didn’t think—” whimpered a patron close to Quan Yizhen. “She seemed fine! She seemed—”
“Shut your mouth!” she shrieked. “I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m—” She heaved again, and this time, Quan Yizhen saw what she was seeing. The tapestries and wall paintings were alive, laughing, and monstrous; the brothel patrons turned unsightly with black teeth and horns; the girls fluttering around melted into shrill-voiced birds lunging forward to peck at her; a figure in heavy purple robes stood just on the periphery of their sight. Like a chim bucket, she shook, then vomited up long, silky hair. She began to laugh, a few strands still dripping out of her mouth. “I’m beautiful, I am! I am! I’m so full of hair!” Ignoring the demonic, stretched out features of her customers, she coughed up more thready shadow.
The figure in purple approached her, finally stepping into focus. Yin Yu spoke evenly. “You have no thought for others, so I will not spare a thought for you.” He raised a pale hand. Quan Yizhen watched Mother Wan vomit up more and more hair until she dry heaved, eventually she spat out a disgusting tangle, wet with spit and acid, and Yin Yu reached down to pick it up.
Yin Yu paused, knotted soul in his hand. Quan Yizhen took a step forward.
Quan Yizhen took another step.
He squeezed the soul until it made a nauseating squelch, then a strange cracking sound. It disintegrated and floated up into the air. “Do not pursue me.”
Before Quan Yizhen could take a third step, Yin Yu faded into the shadow, and the vision was over. The brothel customers all turned back into lecherous men rather than laughing creatures with bat noses and gaping round mouths. The mural on the back wall returned to its tranquil scene of a woman on a swing. A few of the girls rushed over to where Mother Wan’s body was sprawled. She had torn large clumps of her own hair out at some point, and it lay in her vomit, just like it had in her vision.
“Run, run as far as you can, while she’s still unconsioius.”
“She’s dead,” Quan Yizhen corrected, but the girl who’d said it had already jumped out the window and made a run for it, a few other girls hot on her heels.
“Your Highness, Qi Ying,” Ling Wen’s voice came through the communication array. “You must return to the heavens immediately.”
“His Highness Xie Lian has just informed us that Violet Out of Sight is—”
“Shixiong. I know.”
“…Of course you know. Return immediately.”
“Now, Your Highness.”
Quan Yizhen pressed his lips together into a pout, but complied.
“And you didn’t think to tell anyone?!” Ling Wen was shouting at His Highness Xie Lian.
“Well, I thought they’d work it out for themselves. I didn’t realize Yin Yu was so—”
“Why did you have me come back?” Quan Yizhen demanded. All the gods were gathered in the new Great Hall of the Palace of Xie Lian. Quan Yizhen had been waiting patiently as Ling Wen and several other gods berated their Heavenly Highness, but Quan Yizhen’s patience was wearing thin. Crimson Rain, who stood just behind his husband, was frowning and tapping his fingers on his forearm where they crossed in front of him. Every time a god got a little too aggressive with Xie Lian, Crimson Rain’s hand would dip down to E-Ming’s hilt. Sometimes the threat even worked.
“Ah, Qi Ying. Thank you for being so patient. How are things in the mortal realm?”
He shrugged. “Shixiong is down there. So it’s better than up here.”
Xie Lian laughed lightly. “Did you speak to him? His…acts have been getting more and more brazen. We’re beginning to grow concerned.”
“He told me to stop following him.”
“That was it.”
“You were down there for four years,” one god pointed out with no small amount of venom, “and the only thing you were able to get out of him was that he wanted to be left alone?”
Quan Yizhen nodded. “He was too busy to talk to me.”
“Busy killing mortals!” another god shouted then spat. “Disgraceful!”
“Not enough that he tried to kill his shidi, going so far as to steal his spiritual powers! He has to go wreaking havoc in the mortal realm too, huh?”
“Now, now!” Xie Lian raised a hand to quiet the others down. “Yin Yu played an integral part in removing Jun Wu from power. You don’t have to like him, but do not disrespect him in front of my husband and me. We happen to think very highly of him.”
There were several grumbles and a few gods even stormed out, but eventually they quieted down enough for Xie Lian to address Quan Yizhen once more.
“Did he say anything else? To anyone?”
Quan Yizhen responded, “You spare no thought for others, so I shall spare none for you.”
“Address His Highness with respect!”
“Ah, no, that’s what Violet Out of Sight said, isn’t it?”
Quan Yizhen nodded.
“When and where did you see him?”
“At a temple and in an inn.”
“Thunder Master Temple.”
“The one with the thief?!” an old man with a beard, supposedly the Thunder Master, said slapping his horsehair whisk on the table. Maybe his statue had been accurate.
“Qi Ying, did Yin Yu say that to the people he killed?”
“Ah.” Xie Lian and Crimson Rain exchanged a meaningful glance.
Crimson Rain made a very strange face, frowning and looking anywhere but at Xie Lian.
“This wouldn’t be such a big issue if he wasn’t stealing temples,” said Xie Lian, rubbing his forehead. “Can’t you talk to him?”
“He’s been ignoring the communication array. I think he changed his password.”
“He didn’t want to talk to me either,” Quan Yizhen said. “Who is he haunting? Do you know where he’ll be next?”
“San Lang?” Xie Lian motioned for Crimson Rain to speak.
“…Yin Yu came to see me immediately after he got through the kiln—”
“What did he say?!” Quan Yizhen slapped the table several times in his excitement.
“How’d he get to the kiln in the first place?” the Thunder Master demanded.
“I tossed him in.”
“How!” said Quan Yizhen.
“You were passed out asleep, so I took his spirit jar and tossed it in.” Crimson Rain shrugged. “That’s the only way I know of reinvigorating a spirit that badly damaged. You asked for help, so I helped.”
“And you didn’t think we should know about this beforehand?” Ling Wen interjected. “You didn’t think His Highness deserved to know?”
“I already knew,” Xie Lian admitted. “San Lang told me about the kiln and that Yin Yu was Violet Out of Sight. But it seems he’s left out some details.”
Crimson Rain fidgeted with his vambraces. “His cultivation was torn out of him before his death, so his powers only allow him to take physical form for short periods of time, but he doesn’t need to physically be somewhere to haunt someone if he only exists in their mind.”
“Where’s his territory? We should destroy it!” said a god.
“No!” Quan Yizhen shouted just as Crimson Rain said, “He doesn’t have one, to my knowledge. Again, I only saw him for a few moments right after he emerged. He just wanted his old mask back.”
“Where are his ashes?!”
“We ought to suppress him first.”
“What’s he doing with all these temples? Where’s he keeping them?”
“Your husband is trying to disrupt the heavens again, Your Highness!”
“Ahh,” Xie Lian said with a flat smile. “Calm down, calm down. San Lang, is there anything else you can tell us that might help?”
“It seems he’s haunting people who abuse their power,” Crimson Rain said staring Quan Yizhen down, “specifically callous people who do not think about the feelings of those around them.”
“Okay.” Quan Yizhen stood and left the hall as several other gods called after him. He descended again, right in the middle of a town square, which made several people jump and a few chickens to flap at him. If all Quan Yizhen had to do to attract his shixiong was abuse his power, he would have done that from the start!
The lord had blocked up the river again. Xue Ning was getting pretty sick and tired of it, really! Every week their lord would have his servants dam up the river to send more water into his palace gardens, and the village’s crops…well, they weren’t doing well. Xue Ning gathered up his son, Xue Rongbin, and the rest of the able-bodied men and led them up the river to dismantle the dam again. It would take them a couple days to break down all the wood and saw through the bamboo support poles…Ah, why did their lord keep doing this?! What good were gardens if your people didn’t have rice to eat? What good were fiefs if there was nothing to tax?
Each time the villagers broke down the dam, Lord Li would demand more tax. What else could they do? Ax in hand, Xue Ning worked tirelessly alongside the rest of the villagers. They all took a break around noon when a few of the girls showed up with lunches and gourds full of water.
“Where’s A-Qin?” Xue Ning asked one of the girls.
“Over there with that newcomer. All the girls have been hounding him since he showed up earlier this morning.” She pointed out his daughter hanging off a tall young man with a frankly shocking amount of curly hair.
“Who’s that? A-Qin, what are you doing with strange men?!”
“Father, this is Young Master Qi! He’s from the west!”
Young Master Qi was staring at the ax in Xue Ning’s hands, not bothering to introduce himself further or ask for Xue Ning’s name.
“He’s very strong! Chopped all the wood in the village in an hour and pulled the plow for two!”
“That dam looks pretty sturdy,” Young Master Qi finally said.
Xue Ning sighed with a shake of his head. The rest of the girls twittering around this “Young Master Qi” exploded into giggles. Young Master Qi didn’t notice. He just snatched the ax out of Xue Ning’s hands and went right to work.
A few of the men working paused to watch Young Master Qi, mouths gaping as he smashed through the central point of the dam. Water poured down over him, but the current didn’t carry him off. Somehow he stayed rooted right where he was, destroying as much of the dam as he could reach. When he’d created a sizable hole in the middle, he simply stepped out of the downpour and began tearing apart the left side of the dam. At that point, the river was mostly flowing normally again, and most of the villagers had retreated to the banks, cheering for this…young man? Cultivator? Who was wading through the rising water like it was nothing.
“Thanks,” he said as he passed Xue Ning and tossed the ax back to him.
Xue Qin pulled on his sleeve. “Qi-gege, you’re so impressive! W-Wait, where are you going!”
“Won’t you stay for dinner?” she pleaded with him, even though her father and brother were giving her the stink eye.
Young Master Qi pulled out a compass, of all things, shook it, then shook his head. “No time.” He yanked his sleeve out of her hand and walked quickly downstream, toward the city.
“What an odd boy!” a few villagers said.
“He was so tall,” one girl sighed. Several others sighed in agreement. “So handsome.”
“He left a bar of gold with mother,” Xue Qin said.
“…A what?” Xue Rongbin stuttered.
“She fed him so he handed her a bar of gold.”
“Is that why you were falling all over him?!”
“Duh,” Xue Qin said blowing a strand of hair out of her face.
“And it’s real?” asked Xue Ning. “The bar of gold?”
“As far as we can tell.”
Xue Ning scratched nose. “What a strange young man.”
“Someone broke into the lord’s palace last night!” Xue Qin burst into the house, gossip flying out of her mouth like water rushing out of a dam. “All the lord’s servants are going nuts trying to figure out who did it, but no one can find them!”
“Huh?” her mother, said over a boiling pot of soup.
“Someone broke into the lord’s palace! Are you deaf? They set fire to the place!”
“Arson?!” Xue Ning sat a little taller. His thoughts drifted back to the strange curly-haired young man from the dam. Surely he wouldn’t have…
“But you know what this means?” Xue Qin said with a sparkle in her eye. “The garden’s gone! And any supplies they had stockpiled to make the next dam are gone!”
Xue Rongbin added, “And who has time to build a dam when there’s a palace to replace?”
“Huh,” Xue Ning considered. “Huh.”
Binghe didn’t know what to do. His mother was definitely dying. Definitely. And he was…he just wanted to bring her a bowl of good food before she passed. She’d given him every kindness she could, and Luo Binghe couldn’t even give her this one favor in return? Wasn’t that too cruel? Wasn’t that just evil?
He made it all the way to the kitchen only for the cook to chase him out, refusing to fill the bowl in his hands, calling him ungrateful and mangy.
“Who’s to say you don’t have lice! Like a dog, you are! P’too!” She slapped his behind with her spoon and slammed the door behind him.
Luo Binghe tried not to cry. His snot and tears would freeze to his face, and then what would he do? His dying mother would see and have to comfort him in her final moments, and he couldn’t do that to her! He rubbed at his face with the edge of his sleeves, coarse fabric scraping over his cheeks. He was already walking back home to his mother’s little hut at the edge of the property. He had to get back to her before…before she…
He heard screaming behind him. He looked over his shoulder and…that was certainly strange! He couldn’t stop a soft chuckle from warming the air. A young man in nice robes was holding the pot of congee, which was still steaming, and running towards Luo Binghe at full speed. He could hear the cook’s shrill cries in the distance.
Ah! This was Luo Binghe’s chance!
“Sir! Young Master!” Luo Binghe ran towards the man, not realizing how fast they’d meet. They both stopped short, the congee sloshing and splattering onto Binghe’s worn boots.
“Move,” the man said, but it didn’t seem angry, just urgent. “Move.”
“I need some congee!” Luo Binghe lifted the bowl up to him.
“I have to go.”
“Give me some congee, and I’ll let you!”
The young man looked between the bowl, the congee, and then over his shoulder. As if that was enough to make up his mind, he dumped way too much congee into the bowl, then rushed around Luo Binghe. The overflow spilled over Binghe’s hands, scalding him, but he refused to drop the bowl. He too raced away from the main property, just in time to feed his mother a few mouthfuls of congee before she passed.
“Did you hear about the Ping estate?”
“Huh? No! What happened?”
“Apparently someone broke in and destroyed the place! The cook said the intruder even stole a day’s worth of food. Tossed all the meat out the window and made off with a whole pot of congee!”
“I always thought they ought to have better security. How can you tout that many carriages and jewels and not expect someone to steal from you!”
“Honestly. Apparently he ruined the laundry area, overturned all the chicken coups, and set fire to the latrines too!”
“So they don’t even have a place to shit anymore? Ha! Hahah!”
Song Ting was sick and tired of living with her parents, so she was moving out. So what if she was seven? She was old enough! She was! She had to be.
So she packed her meager belongings—a straw doll, a hand drum, a book of poetry she’d stolen, and a single tin hair pin—into a cloth and tied the corners. She winced as she pulled the loop of fabric over her shoulders. Her ribs still hurt from the beating two days ago. Honestly, the purple and green stains along her side were the final straw.
She had to leave. Otherwise, she was sure she’d die.
She shot straight up, a sudden yell from downstairs making her gasp.
“Get the hell out!”
“Who are you?!”
“This is the wrong house.”
“Out! Out with you!” There was the sound of her mother hitting something with the broom.
“Do you have anything valuable?” the unfamiliar voice said way too calmly.
“RAHH!” Song Ting’s father bellowed. There was a crash and then another shriek. Song Ting lost track of whose voice was whose in the chaos. Besides, how was she supposed to listen carefully when she was frozen solid? She always froze when her father raised his voice like that! It didn’t mean she was weak or stupid or ungrateful!
When she finally managed to calm down enough to move, the commotion downstairs had stopped. Someone was climbing the stairs. She hid under her bed. The door opened and unfamiliar boots paced the length of her room before a young man crouched down to look her in the eyes. Her scream caught in her throat.
“You’ll work.” The man pulled her out from under the bed and tossed her over his shoulder.
“What! What are you doing?”
“Let me go!” She shouted. “I’ll scream!”
“You’re already screaming. Don’t struggle too much.”
She immediately began wiggling and kicking to no avail.
“Let! Me! Go!” she said punching his back. “Let me go!”
They descended the stairs and exited through the kitchen. Song Ting’s parents were nowhere to be found.
“What did you do to my parents?”
“They ran away.” When they were in the street, the man asked, “If I put you down, will you run?”
“Huh.” He readjusted his arm around her skinny waist pressing against the bruising and making her yelp in pain. He stopped and squinted at her, then did it again.
“Stop! That hurts!”
He did it again.
“Stop!” She wasn’t crying, she wasn’t! She slapped at his back again.
“Why does that hurt?”
“Put me down!”
He put her down, then put a hand to her side. She hissed at the contact.
“Do you have an injury?” He looked her up and down, then began pulling her dress open. After a moment of shock she slapped his hands away.
“No! I’m fine!”
“Your fingers are purple.”
She hid her hands in her sleeves.
“I’ll splint them for you.”
“What so I’ll fetch you a higher price at the brothel you dump me at?”
She turned to run but he caught her by the hair.
“You need to take care of your injuries or they’ll get worse. You could die, you know.”
Song Ting stamped her foot. Of course she knew she could die! That’s what she was trying to avoid!
“Look,” the strange man said as he tore some fabric from the hem of his robe. “You got any sticks?” He didn’t bother waiting for an answer, just snatched some twigs off the road. He grabbed her hand and splinted her fingers in no time at all. She furrowed her brows, speechless.
“I have some ointment for bruises too. My shixiong taught me how to make it because I was always getting into fights. You must be pretty strong to go so long without treating your injuries. When you’re older we should spar.” He stuffed a jar into her hands.
“Where should I take you where your parents won’t find you?”
“Where should I take you where your parents won’t find you?”
Song Ting blinked up at him. “You don’t make any sense.”
He huffed. “It won’t be a kidnapping if your parents can find you. Where should I take you where they can’t?”
Song Ting shoved the jar of ointment into her cloth satchel and took the strange man’s hand. “This way. To the Rain Master Temple.”
Song Ting’s parents weren’t farmers, and the Rain Master Temple was on the other side of the city, so they rarely went there. It was Song Ting’s favorite place to hide because sometimes the nuns there gave her candy.
“Have you seen Ting-er recently?”
“No…that’s strange. Isn’t she usually sulking around the alley behind the markets?”
“Hm. Her parents have been pretty quiet recently. There was a break in a few days ago. Must have scared them all stiff.”
“You didn’t hear? A-Ting’s living with the sisters at the Rain Master Temple. Apparently some kind-hearted stranger saw how A-Ting’s parents abused her and gave them a good beating. It’s all the nuns have been talking about!”
“It’s not like I live to gossip! How could I have known?”
“Good for Ting-er. She was a smart kid. Maybe she’ll even become a cultivator! Ha!”
Quan Yizhen had already set a bunch of animals free when he got to the bears. He watched them limp out of their cage, and then amble faster and faster until they were out of sight. Weasels! Wolves! Colorful birds and lizards! Surely letting out a whole host of hungry, angry meat-eaters was an evil deed! Surely letting them terrorize the nearby town would be an abuse of power!
Really Quan Yizhen didn’t get it at all. In the past years, he’d set multiple fires, destroyed all kinds of infrastructure, kidnapped a more children than he could count, and stolen everything he could get his hands on! By his count, he’d committed at least fourteen petty crimes just that morning. What was he doing right?! Why wouldn’t his Shixiong haunt him?!
Next was the cage of tigers. He watched them pace the length of their cage, excited at the prospect of freedom. One of them had a cub. Quan Yizhen crouched down to stick his fingers through the bamboo bars, and the cub sniffed at him. A few of the older tigers bent over to sniff him too, but lost interest quickly. As Quan Yizhen was about to stand, the cub nipped at him. It drew blood, but Quan Yizhen was a martial god; that kind of thing barely hurt, and besides, it was good that the beast was hungry.
He easily tore the metal lock off the cage and threw the door open. The tigers all tumbled out like they being poured out of a basket. Quan Yizhen had to step to the side to avoid getting trampled! The mother and her cub were the last ones out, racing after the rest of their friends. Except the cub paused, looked over his shoulder and gave a soft chirp. Then he trotted after his mother and they disappeared into the nearby woods. It was almost like a thank you.
Suddenly there was a hand wrapped around his throat and he felt the bamboo poles digging lines on either side of his spine. Familiar dark eyes bored into his from behind a white mask.
“Stop stealing my targets.”
Yin Yu shoved him once more into the poles, then stepped out of the cage. Quan Yizhen blinked. When had they even entered the cage? With a spin of Yin Yu’s hands, he produced a lock from his robes and shut the cage. Quan Yizhen ran up to the door and reached through the bars but his shixiong stepped back, then faded into the air.
“Shixiong! Shixiong, come back!” He slapped about in the air, hoping he’d be able to hold on to the last wisp of his shixiong’s ghost, but felt noting but the wind. In his frustration, he grabbed the bamboo poles and shook them until they splintered in his hands. He wiped at his face, refusing to let anyone see his tears. Not that they would. He’d beaten all the beast tamers unconscious earlier.
How was Quan Yizhen stealing targets? He was supposed to be the target! He threw the remains of the bamboo onto the ground and pushed through the hole he’d made.
He went back to his inn and threw himself into bed for a fitful night’s sleep. He didn’t technically need sleep, so when he woke up he wasn’t tired, but he was still pretty upset. He’d somehow made Yin Yu angry, and he wasn’t sure what his shixiong had meant by “stealing targets.”
“You look pretty down in the dumps,” the innkeeper’s daughter said when he sat down to breakfast.
Poking at his bowl of noodles, he grumbled, “I made my shixiong mad.”
“What did you do?”
“I’ve been trying to get his attention, but he won’t notice me.”
“But you said he was mad at you?”
“How can he not notice you and be mad at you at the same time? That doesn’t make much sense.”
Quan Yizhen’s face lit up. She was right! Yin Yu had been avoiding him, but he’d stopped to tell Quan Yizhen off! Yin Yu had noticed him!
He slurped down his noodles in one gulp. “I have to go get some stuff from home!”
Maybe the key was being mean to animals. That had to be it, Quan Yizhen reasoned. He’d be as mean as possible to animals!
Part of him felt a little bad about it. It wasn’t like the animals understood or had even done anything wrong, but he wanted to see Shixiong again, so it was a sacrifice he’d willingly make. He shook his compass and it spun out of control. Good. That meant Yin Yu was in this town. Probably.
He walked down the streets looking for animal sellers, beast tamers, or wayward pets. For a long while, the only animals he could find were sparrows and mice, both too quick for him to catch and too small to torment.
He was getting bored. Maybe he should go back to the inn and just bother the people there instead.
Just as he thought it, a child raced past him followed by a several very loud dogs.
Dogs! Perfect for him to beat! He ran after them.
The kid was yelling, egging the dogs on, and leading them into alley after alley. Quan Yizhen realized the kid had a meat bun in his hand. He was taunting them! ‘Great,’ Quan Yizhen thought, ‘I’ll kick them while they’re down.’
The child began to scream when he ran into a dead ended alley. “It’s mine! It’s mine! He said I could have it!”
Quan Yizhen didn’t pay much attention to the kid, just started kicking the dogs left and right. Two hit the sides of the alley and whimpered, a third landed on its back and raced out of the alley when it got its bearings again. He was grabbing the fourth dog by the scruff to toss it onto a roof when a man shouted at him.
“What are you doing to my dogs, huh?!”
“Gege don’t listen to him, he said I could have it!” the child sobbed, clutching the meat bun to his chest. “He only sent the dogs after me after he handed it to me!”
Quan Yizhen had no idea what they were arguing about, so he threw the dog in his hand at the man. There was no way to really catch such a large animal, so they both dropped to the ground in an awkward pile of arms and paws and teeth. Maybe Quan Yizhen could fit in another kidnapping? He snatched the boy up off the ground and held him to his hip, then exited the alley. He made sure to step on the man and dog on his way out.
Quan Yizhen ran through the streets until they were far on the other side of the city. “Will your dad find you here?”
“My dad?” the boy said. Quan Yizhen set him down on his feet. With his arms free, the young boy took a big, hungry bite out of his meet bun and barely chewed before he swallowed. “My dad’s dead. So’s my mom. Thank you for saving me!”
Quan Yizhen blinked. “Saving you?”
“Yeah! I hate dogs! They’re always biting me and stealing my food.” He took another bite of his bun.
“I’m not saving you, I’m kidnapping you. Wasn’t that your dad?”
“Master? Why would A-Xian have a master? A-Xian doesn’t have anyone.” With one last bite, the bun was gone. “Anyway, thank you for saving me! Do you have any more food?”
“Okay. I’m gonna go see if the fruit-selling gege has any.”
Quan Yizhen watched the boy cautiously walked down the street. Once he had peaked around a few buildings and found no dogs, he began skipping.
A clawed hand dug into Quan Yizhen’s hair. “I told you to stop.” Yin Yu said behind him. “Why won’t you ever listen?”
“Shixiong!” It had worked! Quan Yizhen spun around, ignoring the way Yin Yu’s hand tore at his hair, and slapped a talisman that would keep Yin Yu from fading onto the front of Yin Yu’s robes, then he pulled a hinged bracelet out of his belts.
It was just like sparring again. Yin Yu waved his arm to block Quan Yizhen, but Quan Yizhen knew his Shixiong too well. With a quickly aimed grab, Quan Yizhen twisted Yin Yu’s arm around behind his back, then shoved the bracelet onto Yin Yu’s wrist. Yin Yu pulled out of the hold and struck Quan Yizhen on the face.
“Let go! Let me go!” lunged at him again, only to hit the barrier Quan Yizhen had forced around them with the bracelet. Quan Yizhen stumbled backwards from the blow and clutched his cheek. His shixiong had never hit him like that before. It wasn’t like they held back during spars, but…never had a hit felt so intentional.
“You’re really mad at me?”
“I hate you!” Yin Yu’s robes billowed as he said it, as if his anger had given them life. “I’ve always hated you! Let me go!”
Quan Yizhen reached forward, and Ying Yu backed up only to run into the barrier behind him. He slapped at Quan Yizhen’s hand.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Why are you still wearing a mask?”
“Don’t touch me!”
Quan Yizhen grabbed Yin Yu’s chin to stop his thrashing. Yin Yu clawed at his arm, his chest, his eyes, anywhere his long-taloned hands could reach. It didn’t phase Quan Yizhen one bit.
Quan Yizhen lifted the mask, revealing the mouth and nose he knew so well, and felt a bubbly warmth rise up in him. It really was Shixiong!
His tearing hands had stopped scratching and instead focused on pulling Quan Yizhen’s hands away from his face to little success. “Yizhen!” Yin Yu’s voice broke. “Stop, please!”
Quan Yizhen couldn’t stop! He absolutely couldn’t! He pulled the mask up further, tossing it to the side when it came completely off.
Ah. His shixiong looked different.
Yin Yu had always had pale skin, but death turned him shroud-white. His eyes were still a cool brown color, but why did he look like he’d been crying? Under his eyebrows was bright red, fading to light pink as it reached his cheek bones.
“Yizhen,” Yin Yu choked out, “Why don’t you ever listen?”
“You look like…” Quan Yizhen finally said, but he couldn’t find a way to finish. Yin Yu clutched at his arm where Quan Yizhen still held his chin.
“Why can’t you leave me alone?”
“Because you’re my shixiong.”
“I haven’t been your shixiong in centuries.” He really was crying now.
“Then because you’re my favorite person. Isn’t that enough?”
Yin Yu grimaced and tried to pull his face out of Quan Yizhen’s hand. Quan Yizhen let him, but neither stepped back.
“I just want to play my part until my ashes scatter,” Yin Yu mumbled. “I just want to…I just…Where’s my mask?” The mask was just outside the barrier. Yin Yu sobbed again when he failed to pick it up, then wiped his tears in his sleeve. His makeup didn’t run or smear.
“Oh, I get it.”
Yin Yu glared up at him from where he was crouched on the ground.
“You’re playing pretend.”
“I’ll kill you!”
Quan Yizhen thought about it a little deeper. He wasn’t the smartest god in heaven, but he knew how pretend worked, and he’d seen enough plays to know that some people were really good at pretending. He realized now that his shixiong was really, really good.
“You’re pretending to be bad. I didn’t get it at first. I’m sorry.”
“I’m a demon!” Yin Yu hissed. “I don’t have to pretend to be bad.”
“But you are.”
“Ugh! Then what about you?! Pretending to be good?”
“No, I’m pretending to be bad too. That way Shixiong will haunt me.”
Yin Yu tore at his hair again. “Even if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, you’re still going good! Are you telling me that the only time you’re not thoughtless is when you’re trying to be? Ha! Haha! I cannot believe you!”
Quan Yizhen felt uncomfortable, but he wasn’t sure why. He had a passing acquaintance with discomfort, but this was the first time he’d ever felt it emotionally. He rolled his shoulders, hoping that would lift the feeling.
“I wasn’t being thoughtful,” he said softly. “I wasn’t thoughtful because if anyone had caught me I would have been punished.” With confidence, he said, “Stealing is wrong! So is vandalism! You taught me that! And if that’s true then what about you?”
“What about me?”
“You’re doing the wrong things for the right reason, right? But if what you’d done was truly evil, then why do you have so many temples? Why do people celebrate you? Your good counts too.”
“No it doesn’t! I’m killing people!”
“But they’re bad people.”
“They’re not bad, they’re just thoughtless! That’s not—”
“Then isn’t it okay to be thoughtless back? Shixiong was the one who taught me that.” Quan Yizhen thought a little more and finally said, “The Brocade Immortal wasn’t your fault. Even if it was, I—” The look on Yin Yu’s face made Quan Yizhen feel guilty. His shixiong should never look like that, like he was in unbearable pain. “Why can’t you be thoughtless?”
“Because it’s me, Yizhen!” Yin Yu finally sobbed. “Because it’s me! I have to…I have to be better.”
“…” Yizhen was uncomfortable again. He crouched down next to Yin Yu. “I don’t know what to do.” When Yin Yu didn’t answer, Quan Yizhen awkwardly patted a hand on his back. Yin Yu shivered. “Shixiong always knows what to say, but all I do is make Shixiong upset. Back then, it was my fault too.”
“Everything. It was all your fault. Because you never think.”
Think. Quan Yizhen needed to think. So he thought and thought, and the more he thought, the more he realized he was a tiger cub. “Thank you.”
Yin Yu’s breath stuttered. “Why are you thanking me?”
“Because Shixiong has been good to me. And I should be good back. Or maybe Shixiong will really start to hate me.”
Yin Yu finally looked up, red eyes and red eyelids making Quan Yizhen’s heart flutter.
“You look pretty,” he blurted out.
Yin Yu slapped a hand over his face. “No! Where’s my mask…Ah.” It was still lying on the ground, just outside of the barrier.
Quan Yizhen pulled Yin Yu’s hand away. “It looks nice. I like it.”
“I can’t take it off. I kept trying, but I think it’s just what my skin looks like now.”
Quan Yizhen licked his thumb and scrubbed at the corner of Yin Yu’s eye like Yin Yu used to do for him when they were both human. “What have you been doing with the temples?” The redness around Yin Yu’s eyes neither brightened nor wiped away.
“Dumping them in the sea.”
“…It’s childish. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“’Kay.” He hadn’t let go of Yin Yu’s face. He had to stare because he hadn’t seen his Shixiong’s face in years and he really liked it.
“Take the talisman off. It hurts to be physical like this for too long.” He leaned into Quan Yizhen’s hand.
“I won’t run, but I might fade. Please Yizhen?”
Quan Yizhen still hesitated. “You can’t maintain a physical form for too long?”
“It’s complicated. I’m tired Yizhen. Please.”
Quan Yizhen pulled the talisman off Yin Yu’s chest, and it disintegrated. Yin Yu let out a soft sigh, and immediately began fading into a shadow, but it wasn’t as quick as he’d disappeared before.
“Wait, come back!”
“I’m sure you’ll find me again.”
“But my compass is broken, it only points left! You have to stay!”
With a sigh, Yin Yu said, “The compass has never been broken. You’ve never been able to anything right. So go left, Yizhen.”
Quan Yizhen clutched at Yin Yu’s sleeves but there was nothing to grab. Yin Yu gave him a smile and a shake of the head before he faded into nothing. The bracelet Quan Yizhen had slapped around his wrist dropped to the ground with a clang, and the barrier dissolved with no evil left to contain.
Quan Yizhen stared at his hands where they twitched in the air. He felt like crying, but he absolutely could not cry. He shook his compass and it pointed left again. West.
He had to go West.
Quan Yizhen had visited their old sect, only to find it abandoned and falling apart. No sign of Yin Yu. He visited the few villages that surrounded the old sect, but no one had died. In fact, all the surrounding villages seemed to be doing well. There was very little strife and no malicious rumors about extortion, theft, trafficking, or anything really. The only rumor Quan Yizhen picked up was that a young woman was pregnant and the fortune teller had assured her it would be a beautiful girl.
He asked about temples going missing, but the villagers all pointed towards well-kept Qi Ying temples. On his trip to one of the inns, there was an old man with a bamboo walking stick at one of the corners. He was slumped over, almost as if the pole was the only thing holding him up. He beckoned to Quan Yizhen.
“You there, Your Highness.”
“I recognize you. Are you still looking for your shixiong?”
“Yes.” Quan Yizhen didn’t ask how he knew, because frankly he didn’t care, but he eyed the old man cautiously.
“I kept an eye out for him, after you built that temple in my town. And I think I found him.”
“You found him?” Quan Yizhen’s hands clenched at his sides, then unclenched, clenched again. “Where is he?”
“There’s an old temple a few li from here. It’s abandoned and the name plaque is gone, but the statue inside looks just like the one you had put into the temple where I lived as a child. That way.” He pointed west. “Did you ever give him that stick?”
He chuckled. “My old demon sword?”
“…I put it in the temple, but I don’t know if he ever got it.”
“In that case, here.” The old man shuffled himself around so he was leaning on a bench a few feet beside them. He handed his bamboo pole over to Quan Yizhen. “Give him my thanks.”
With the pole in hand, Quan Yizhen was about to bolt off when he remembered himself. He turned back to the old man and bowed. Then he ran through the village and into the forest, heading west. It took him a few hours to actually find the temple, small and beaten down as it was. There was a thin staircase completely canopied by green branches winding its way up the hillside. Quan Yizhen walked four of those steps before looking up towards the temple. Standing at the top step was a young man in thick purple robes with a mask in his hand.
Yin Yu looked down where Quan Yizhen was standing below him, made a beckoning motion, and then turned to enter his temple.