The streets of Hubian hadn’t changed much in the five years since Yue Qingyuan had left. The smell of dirt and the sound of mule carts and vendors hawking their wares was so familiar that if he closed his eyes he could almost believe that he had never left. His eyes drifted towards the beggar children huddled in the corner of the street. A malnourished boy and girl clung to each other, a sign written in blood lying in front of them. The messy handwriting made it difficult to read, but Yue Qingyuan knew the story by heart. He and Xiao Jiu had pretended to be orphaned siblings many times. Even the scams and sob stories hadn’t changed. Yue Qi tossed a few coins their way and continued towards the wealthy part of town, anxiety rising over what he’d find there.
The Qiu mansion was one of the largest and grandest houses in Hubian. Winding footpaths and beautiful gardens isolated the wealthy from the dirt and noise and smell of the rest of the city. The sight of the large, wooden double doors and gilded dragon door knockers made his heart race and his palms sweat. Steeling himself, he rapped sharply against the door and waited. And waited. Just as he started contemplating breaking in, the door finally creaked open.
“Yes?” an elderly woman greeted. “Can I help you?”
Yue Qingyuan bowed. “This one is Yue Qingyuan, disciple of the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. I’m searching for someone who was brought here many years ago. May I speak to the head of the household?”
“A cultivator?” the elderly woman smiled. “I suppose you’re here to try and banish the ghost. Miss Qiu Haitang has left the house indefinitely. I’ve been taking care of it in her absence.” She opened the font gate further and turned to head back to the Qiu house. “Well? Come along.”
“Grandma, I’m sorry there must be a misunderstanding,” Yue Qingyuan said, striding alongside her brisk pace. “I’m looking for a slave named Shen Jiu. May I speak to Master Qiu or his son Qiu Jianluo?”
“Master Qiu and his son died years ago,” the grandma said, stopping to turn to look at Yue Qingyuan. They’d arrived at the front door of the Qiu house, though it looked worn and neglected. In fact, the property in general appeared poorly maintained. Weeds and wildflowers had taken over what was once immaculate gardens and the stones lining the walkways were covered in moss and old leaves. “I’m the only person left in this house now.”
“What? What happened?”
The old woman, or Grandma Guo as she introduced herself, promised to answer all his questions once they were inside. She led Yue Qingyuan through the house and towards the servants area. The inside of the mansion was just as decrepit and neglected as the outside. The house had been stripped of most of its furniture and belongings, making it look bare and abandoned. There was a thin layer of dust on the furnishings that remained and cracks beginning to form at the bottom of the walls. The exception was the kitchen. The half-full bag of vegetable peels and dishes drying in the corner all made the space feel warm and lived in.
“One year ago,” Grandma Guo began, placing a cup of steaming green tea in front of him and taking a seat on the other side of a small, round wooden table. “An evil spirit appeared and killed both Master Qiu and his son, along with every man in the house. It was a horrible night. Those of us that were left immediately called on cultivators to get rid of the demon that had done this, but they were useless.” Grandma Guo shook her head in disgust. “We dismissed them and called more cultivators, this time from different sects. Some even came of their own will because they’d heard about this spirit who wouldn’t be banished. They all failed.” She smiled at Yue Qingyuan. “But we welcome anyone who is willing to try.”
“Was...Was one of the victims a boy named Shen Jiu?” Yue Qingyuan asked hesitantly, unsure whether he wanted to know the answer. “Qiu Jianluo bought him as a slave four years ago. He’d be about fifteen now.” Please let Xiao Jiu be alive.
“Many people died then, and I don’t know all of their names.” Grandma Guo's face turned thoughtful. “But...Shen Jiu...that was the name of Qiu Haitang’s fiance. He ran away about a few weeks before the massacre. The poor girl was heartbroken.”
“Fiance? They were engaged?”
Grandma Guo shook her head. “We were all bewildered. Marrying the young lady of the house to a slave boy? But Qiu Jianluo insisted and his father agreed.”
“Did anyone have any idea where he might have gone?”
“Miss Haitang thought her fiance had run away to be a cultivator, and she and Qiu Jianluo visited several nearby sects to see if anyone of the boy’s description had tried to join the sect recently. But no one had seen him and they never found him. When they came back, the evil spirit appeared, and the issue was forgotten.” Grandma Guo seemed bemused. “I haven’t thought about it in a long time.”
Yue Qingyuan got up. “Thank you for your help, Grandma Guo. I’m afraid that I need to go now.”
“So soon? But what about the evil spirit?”
“I’m sorry but I have urgent matters to deal with.” He couldn’t stay here, couldn’t keep wasting hime. He promised Xiao Jiu he’d come back for him. He’d failed, but he still had to try and find him.
“But it’s already dark. Surely you could--” Yue Qingyuan left before she could finish her protests.
Over the next few days, Yue Qingyuan visited every major sect he could find within a few days' journey, and even some that were farther away. He hoped that his status as head disciple of Qiong Ding peak at Cang Qiong Mountain Sect would grant him more information than they might have otherwise divulged, but after weeks and weeks of searching and inquiring, he too found nothing. Finally, after a month of no results, Yue Qingyuan returned to Hubian to see if he could get any additional information from the old woman.
“Oh, you’re back.” Grandma Guo didn’t seem particularly happy to see him.
Yue Qingyuan bowed. “Hello grandma, it’s good to see you again. I was hoping I could ask you a few more questions.”
“About your slave friend?” the old woman asked. “I would be happy to, if you help me get rid of my ghost problem.”
“Ah, of course,” Yue Qingyuan said unenthusiastically as he tried to tamp down his irritation. Unfortunately she was his only lead. “I’ll take a look at it tonight. In the meantime, perhaps we could discuss inside?”
“We can discuss after the ghost is gone. Now it’s getting dark and it should be coming out soon, so I will let you get started.” The old woman turned to walk back to the house and Yue Qingyuan followed in irritated silence.
That night, Yue Qingyuan wandered through the dilapidated halls of the Qiu mansion, waiting for the ghost to appear. The areas that he had thought were neglected were actually the most well-maintained parts of the house. The rest of it had been left to the mercy of the elements. Mold was taking over the walls and plants were sprouting through the floorboards. Spiritual energy hummed in the air, but trying to track down the source was like trying to find out where the dust in the air had come from. As he drifted from room to room, making no progress on his promise to get rid of the ghost, his mind inevitably turned to Xiao Jiu. How would he find him?
Yue Qingyuan clenched his fists, digging his nails into his palms. He was such an idiot, getting stuck in that cave for years. Now he’d failed to keep his promise and Xiao Jiu was gone and it was all his fault. He couldn’t stay here, couldn’t keep wasting time. He had to...
Yue Qingyuan whirled around to see a monstrous figure with splotchy gray skin and lank, stringy hair standing a few paces away. The stench of rot permeated through the air. Yue Qingyuan stumbled back and prepared to draw sheathed Xuan Su. “Ghost, the people in this house have suffered enough. I can help you pass on peacefully, or I can destroy you with force.”
The ghost narrowed its eyes. “Get out,” it repeated. “You’re not welcome here.”
Yue Qingyuan lunged at the ghost’s torso. It dodged right and the sword swung at nothing but air. The ghost grabbed Yue Qingyuan’s left forearm and dug long yellow fingernails into his flesh. Gritting his teeth, Yue Qingyuan swung Xuan Su again, this time at the ghost’s throat, forcing it to retreat or risk being beheaded. It leapt backwards, but not quickly enough to avoid Xuan Su clipping it in the shoulder.
“Ah,” the ghost hissed, clutching at its shoulder as tendrils of resentful energy leaked from the wound. The stench of rot intensified until Yue Qingyuan had to cover his nose and mouth with his sleeve just to breathe. Inhuman glowing green eyes promised suffering and death. The ghost raised its arms and leaves and rocks and bits of glass and metal floated up into the air around it. Yue Qingyuan barely had time to raise his sword before the projectiles began raining down on him.
Yue Qingyuan tried his best to block the attacks, but there were too many. Soon he was panting and covered in sweat and blood from the numerous scratches all over his body. Something about the attacks seemed strangely familiar.
Before he could regain his bearings, the ghost launched itself at Yue Qingyuan, a small knife in each hand. Tired and bloody, Yue Qingyuan wasn’t fast enough to stop the blade from slicing open his forearm. He did, however, slam a qi-laden palm into the ghost’s chest, causing it to slide back several paces. The knives clattered at Yue Qingyuan’s feet as the ghost coughed up black bile. He needed to attack before it could recover! Yue Qingyuan reached for his sword again when his arm burst into a white hot inferno of pain. He cried out and clutched at his forearm, which had begun weeping black ooze similar to the bile the ghost had just coughed up. Had he been poisoned?
“If you leave now, you might be able to save your arm,” the ghost rasped. It picked up a piece of scrap metal. Resentful energy gathered in its hand, covering the metal before receding to reveal another small knife. Yue Qingyuan’s breath caught in his chest. His body moved to block the incoming swipe, grabbing the ghost’s arm and squeezing it dropped the blade. His mind on the other hand was a haze of confusion and shock and horror. The nagging feeling of recognition in the back of his mind...the realization felt like a stab to the heart.
“X-Xiao Jiu?” Yue Qingyuan choked out.
“What? How do you know that name?” The ghost tried to back away but Yue Qingyuan held fast. Wide green eyes stared up at him in suspicion and Yue Qingyuan’s heart clenched at how familiar that expression was, how often he’d seen it directed at other street children trying to encroach on their territory.
“Xiao Jiu,” He tugged Xiao Jiu closer. “It’s me, it’s Qi-ge.”
“Yes, yes, Qi-ge is here.” Tears pricked at the corner of his eyes as he held Xiao Jiu’s hand in both of his. “He is late and so, so sorry, but Qi-ge is here.”
He reached out to touch Xiao Jiu but a blast of resentful energy knocked him away. “Xiao Jiu, wait!” But his beloved Xiao Jiu had already disappeared in a whirl of dust and leaves, leaving only the stench of decay. Yue Qingyuan spent the rest of the night calling and searching, using up the rest of his spirit lures and talismans to no avail. The house remained empty and silent.
“Did you banish the ghost?” Grandma Guo asked when morning arrived. Her face fell when Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “Well, you should know that I can’t give you much information until the ghost is banished from the house.”
“I will stay until this issue is resolved, but you must answer my questions.”
“If I tell you what you want to know, you’ll run off again,” Grandma Guo said. Yue Qingyuan resisted the urge to shake her.
“I want to know,” he said in a measured voice, “how Shen Jiu was treated here. Did anyone mistreat him or wish him ill?” The old woman didn’t respond. “Did Qiu Jianluo ever hurt him?”
The old woman looked up, previous protestations forgotten. “Qiu Jianluo? Well, I--” she hesitated, averting her eyes. “I don’t want to speak ill of the dead. Master Jianluo was the one who pushed for the engagement, so he surely wanted the boy to be part of the family. But...”
“But,” Yue Qingyuan pressed. He had already suspected the answer, but her reaction confirmed his suspicions.
“Qiu Jianluo wasn’t always a kind person, and he would sometimes take out his anger on others. Unfortunately, I think the boy, Shen Jiu, often bore the brunt of it.”
“Didn’t anyone help him? What about Qiu Haitang?”
“Miss Haitang was still a young girl and her brother always behaved himself in front of her, so I’m sure she didn’t know,” Grandma Guo defended. “I’m sure some of the servants wanted to help, but no one wanted to be seen going against Qiu Jianluo. I’m sure the esteemed cultivator understands the position we were in.”
“I do,” Yue Qingyuan agreed. He saw that Shen Jiu had clearly been too lenient by only killing the male servants and family members. Now that he’d gotten all he could out of the old woman, Yue Qingyuan excused himself and headed towards town to buy incense, trinkets, and prepared food.
Since ghosts were most active after sunset, Yue Qingyuan spent the rest of the daylight hours familiarizing himself with the layout of the house. The house loomed large in his memories, but in reality it was actually quite small compared to the lavish homes that he’d visited as head disciple of Qiong Ding Peak. The house was split between rooms for the Qiu family and spaces for the servants to live and work. Outside stood an abandoned stable barn that had become for a mother cat and her kittens.
Once the sun began its descent, Yue Qingyuan got to work. He set up spirit lures around the room where Shen Jiu had appeared last night -- Qiu Haitang’s room, according to Grandma Guo. He dragged a small, low wooden stand to the middle of the room and, after clearing away the dirt and dust, placed his offerings: a plate of pork dumplings that he’d reheated and various trinkets he remembered Shen Jiu eyeing when they lived on the streets together. Finally, he lit a stick of incense and placed it in a metal bowl in the center of the offering table. With a sigh, Yue Qingyuan sat down behind the table and waited. He’d done all he could to draw Xiao Jiu out, but it was ultimately up to him whether to appear.
Yue Qingyuan waited. And waited. The room had gone completely dark except for the single candle he’d lit and the faint moonlight coming in from the window. Eventually, Yue Qingyuan became aware of the increasing amount of resentful energy in the room. They gathered at the entrance of the room and merged to form the ghoulish figure that Yue Qingyuan had fought last night. But now he was able to see beyond the colorless skin and stench of rot and recognize the vibrant soul underneath. “Xiao Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan breathed, getting to his feet.
Shen Jiu took a step back. “What are you doing here?” he hissed.
“I-I came back for you.” I wanted to keep my promise.
“I waited for you,” Shen Jiu said, his green eyes bright with emotion. “I waited until I couldn’t wait anymore.”
“Qi-ge has let you down.” Yue Qingyuan ducked his head. “He is sorry.”
Shen Jiu’s gaze fell on the offering table and he stiffened. His expression became intense and he licked his lips in the way he did whenever they walked past the food carts with empty pockets and empty stomachs. Yue Qingyuan gestured at the table. “Please eat. You must be hungry.”
Shen Jiu approached, as wary as a street cat being lured in by a plate of fish. Still eyeing the offerings with suspicion, he picked up the wooden chopsticks and began eating. The dumplings disappeared so quickly that Yue Qingyuan suspected that they were being swallowed whole. Once finished, Shen Jiu set down the chopsticks and turned away. “These had gone cold already. They should be hot. And next time I also want youtiao.”
Yue Qingyuan smiled. “Of course.”
"You brought tanghulu," Shen Jiu stated, unable to tear his eyes away from the sticks of candied fruit.
“They’re your favorite.” Yue Qingyuan had laid out a small feast on the offering table. There was a bowl of pork and preserved egg congee, braised duck, some youtiao, and of course the sticks of tanghulu. Unlike last night, Shen Jiu approached without hesitation and immediately began eating.
“So you’re a cultivator now,” Shen Jiu said in between bites of duck. “A sect really took you in?”
“Yes I’m a disciple at Cang Qiong mountain.”
“You look pretty important. Or are all disciples dressed that nice?” Shen Jiu asked, gesturing with his chopsticks at Yue Qingyuan’s attire.
Yue Qingyuan smiled. “The sect provides all disciples with decent clothing and rank matters little. But you are right in that I am the Head Disciple of Qiong Qing peak. My shizun gave me the courtesy name Yue Qingyuan.”
Shen Jiu stopped eating and stared. “Head disciple? You really are important.”
“Did Xiao Jiu doubt Qi-ge’s abilities?” Yue Qingyuan teased.
Xiao Jiu didn’t smile back. “How much longer can you afford to stay here? Your sect and shizun must want you to return soon.”
“I told my shizun that I may be gone for a few weeks, and it’s only been about five days. I can stay with Xiao Jiu for the rest of that time, and then return to visit. Or,” Yue Qingyuan tapped his chin in thought, “You can come to Cang Qiong with me.”
“A ghost in a cultivator’s sect? Ridiculous,” Shen Jiu scoffed.
“You could stay in the forest or in the nearby town and I could see you every day and bring you tanghulu,” Yue Qingyuan continued, warming to the idea. But Shen Jiu was shaking his head, a stubborn look on his face.
“I’m not going to just wait for you to come and play with me. I’m not a pet.”
“No of course not Xiao Jiu. I’ll just come here to see you whenever I can.”
He and Shen Jiu stared at the food in awkward silence until Shen Jiu set down his chopsticks with a clink. “Why did it take so long for you to come back for me?”
“I...” He was at a loss for words.
Finally, Yue Qingyuan managed to say in a low voice, “Qi-ge failed you. Words can’t express how sorry Qi-ge is.”
Shen Jiu narrowed his eyes. “Sorry? Every time I ask you, that’s all you have to say. In that case, I’ll save you your breath.” Then before Yue Qingyuan could say anything else, Shen Jiu rose and disappeared into the shadows.
Unfortunately, Shen Jiu didn’t reappear the next night. Or the next. At this point, the Hubian townspeople were beginning to give him curious looks and Grandma Guo had started asking pointed questions about his progress and competence. Still Yue Qingyuan persisted and he was rewarded the third night when Shen Jiu’s ghostly figure appeared in front of the offering table. Yue Qingyuan had switched the small, low wooden stand, with a much larger and longer table, upon which he had laid out a New Year’s feast. Yet Shen Jiu didn’t so much as glance at the offering.
“Yue Qi, I want you to help me to pass on.”
“What are you talking about Xiao Jiu?” Yue Qingyuan said, shocked and panicked.
“You’re the high-level cultivator, surely you’ve put troubled spirits to rest,” She Jiu said with a hint of impatience.
“Of course I have but...” Yue Qingyuan trailed off, unable to say the words out loud. I don’t want you to go. Obviously, Xiao Jiu didn’t enjoy being trapped as a resentful spirit, but they had just been reunited and Yue Qingyuan didn’t want to let go just yet. In an effort to buy time, he blurted out the question that had long been on his mind. “Xiao Jiu, how did you die?”
“Is this something you need to know to help me move on?” Shen Jiu asked through clenched teeth
“I--Yes. Yes I need to know.”
“...Alright,” Shen Jiu said. “What’s there to say? Qiu Jianluo enjoyed beating me, he thought it was amusing. One day, I made the mistake of asking him if I could learn how to cultivate. He got angry, really angry, and next thing I knew I woke up as a ghost.” He grimaced. “To be honest I don’t remember much. There was so much resentment, and when everything finally calmed down, most of the house had been abandoned.”
“Do--Do you know what happened to your physical body?”
Shen Jiu’s face darkened. “Qiu Jianluo, or maybe one of the servants, buried me behind the house.”
“Can you show me?”
“You really need to know?” At Yue Qingyuan’s nod, Shen Jiu sighed and got to his feet. “If you insist.”
Shen Jiu led him to the back of the house to a small fenced area near the kitchen where the servants would dump unwanted scraps to become fertilizer for the garden. The area reeked of rot and decay. "They buried you here?" Yue Qingyuan asked in disbelief.
"A couple feet below, yes.” Shen Jiu’s voice was wry and a little bitter. “I suppose they also didn’t want any stray animals digging up the grave.” He turned to Yue Qingyuan expectantly. “Well?”
Strangely, despite his cold fury at the Qiu family and everyone connected to them, he felt calm and clear-headed. He knew what he had to do. Xiao Jiu couldn’t stay here, Yue Qingyuan had to save him. He turned to the ghost. “Alright, allow me to set up the ritual.”
He took out a brush and some paper and began creating talismans for purification and stability. “I thought exorcising would be faster and less tedious. Or at the very least you’d use your fancy sword,” Shen Jiu commented.
“Don’t worry, Xiao Jiu, I’ll take care of you,” Yue Qingyuan promised as he began pressing the talismans onto Shen Jiu’s body, partially covering his torso with them.
“I’m not worried,” Shen Jiu grumbled before going silent. A few moments later, Yue Qingyuan added the last talisman and stepped back. “This is it?”
Yue Qingyuan nodded, tears pricking at the corner of his eyes. He grabbed Shen Jiu’s hand. “We’ll be together again.” Soon.
Shen Jiu rolled his eyes but didn’t pull away. “You were always so soft-hearted,” he said fondly. “Goodbye Qi-ge...Thank you for coming back for me.”
Yue Qingyuan touched the talismans with his fingers, activating them with his spiritual energy. The talisman glowed gold, and in a few seconds Xiao Jiu’s body did as well. His form shifted, the humanoid figure melting away into pure energy that gathered into a ball. The stability spells held Xiao Jiu’s spiritual energy together, preventing it from dispersing. Yue Qingyuan quickly placed Xiao Jiu’s soul in the spirit-trapping bag and carefully tucked it away in his robes. Finally, Xiao Jiu was safe with him.
He looked over to what appeared to be a gardening shed. Inside, he found a rusty old hand shovel, and he quickly got to work digging up the compost pile. No part of Xiao Jiu should remain in this wretched place.
Hubian was like any other small riverside city. It had its merchants and food stall vendors, its wealthy families and its brothels of prostitutes. Spirits and supernatural conflicts were rare, and the Qiu family massacre had been the talk of the town at the time. And now, as the old abandoned mansion burned wildly and townspeople raced around trying to make sure it didn’t spread to nearby properties, it was the talk of the town again.
“The ghost struck again,” they whispered. “It finally destroyed the Qiu family.”
“That poor old grandma. She didn’t wake up in time.”
“What will we do? Not even all those esteemed cultivators could stop it.”
Once the fire had burned itself out and the smoke had cleared, the city tried to rid themselves of the problem once and for all. Yet despite assurances that there was no more ghostly activity and multiple exorcism rituals, worries and superstitions persisted. The burned husk of the old Qiu house sat, untouched and undisturbed, until it was finally reclaimed by the surrounding forest and wildlife.
Shen Jiu opened his eyes, the world a blur of colors. Finally it was over, he thought. He’d finally passed on.
But as his vision came into focus, his brows furrowed in confusion. Why did the afterlife look like a wealthy young master’s room? A tall man in resplendent robes was standing by the desk, back turned to him. For a brief, horrifying moment, Shen Jiu thought he’d ended back in Qiu Jianluo’s bedroom.
Then the man turned around and Shen Jiu’s horror turned to shock. “You’re awake!” A relieved, delighted smile appeared on Yue Qi’s gentle face. Shen Jiu felt an overwhelming urge to hit him over the head.
“Yue Qi, what’s going on? What am I doing here?”
Yue Qi’s expression clouded with pain and hurt. “Xiao Jiu just wanted to get away from that place. He was upset and didn't think everything through." He smiled and brushed Shen Jiu's hair with his fingers. “Xiao Jiu is safe now. Qi-ge will take good care of him.”
The words came like a slap in the face. “What are you talking about? Of course I thought it through. I still don’t want to stay as a ghost. I want to move on to my next life.”
“Don’t call me that!” He wanted to last out in anger and frustration but he was trapped and unable to move. In the end he’d traded one cage for another. “Xiao Jiu is dead. He died. Yue Qi was too late. Accept it and let me go!”
Yue Qi’s face still had an infuriatingly hurt look on his face, but his eyes glinted with determination. “I’m sorry Xiao Jiu feels that way,” he said, sounding resolute. He reached out with his index and middle fingers extended and glowing with spiritual energy and tapped Shen Jiu’s forehead. “Hopefully he’ll feel differently in the morning.”
Sorry is all you can ever say, Shen Jiu thought bitterly before his world went dark.
Yue Qingyuan watched as the ghostly aura surrounding Xiao Jiu’s spirit container faded until it was once again an innocuous porcelain doll. His shoulders slumped in defeat. It wasn’t as if he had expected Xiao Jiu to thank him for what he’d done, but the anger and vitriol hadn’t been easy to face either.
But Yue Qingyuan couldn’t bring himself to regret what he’d done. Even if he had to suffer Xiao Jiu’s wrath every day, at least he was here.
Unfortunately, Xiao Jiu’s body had decomposed too much to be salvaged, but Yue Qingyuan had commissioned a human sized vessel, complete with painted features and moving parts. The new vessel wouldn’t be completed for at least a few months, so Yue Qingyuan had temporarily placed Xiao Jiu’s soul in a porcelain doll. It had long, dark hair, green and white robes, and a serene expression. Altogether, it looked nothing like the scrappy slave child it housed, and the irony brought a smile to Yue Qingyuan’s face.
The Cang Qiong sect leader brought the doll over to his nightstand, intending to place it on the stand, but paused. He sat on his bed, Xiao Jiu in his arms. Just knowing that Xiao Jiu was here, safe and under his care, brought Yue Qingyuan relief. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend they were still children huddled together for warmth and comfort.
That night, he drifted off into a peaceful sleep, his Xiao Jiu tucked against his chest, his heart finally at ease.