Drinking from the sweet waters of the Mijing river was the village of Heiyezhen. Stone-and-straw homes dotted its grassy terraces like spilled sesame seeds, sloping down from the cliff until buildings came to hug the splitting streams in the valley. The god of autumn – an old man now, tired but dutiful – strolled through the realm, touching his red-gold fingertips to every leaf and remaking it in his image. He would huff every so often, sending chilly winds through the grasses. Like this, the season changed a little bit, day by day. Autumn never rushed; it always arrived in good time.
But alas, trouble stirred. At the very centre of Heiyezhen, an evil most foul was lurking: borne of greed, it had stalked between the houses at night for many weeks, making the alchemical lamp lights flicker with eldritch colours.
The women of the village would look into the canals and meet the gaze of a yaoguai — a tiger with no bottom jaw; a decomposed woman; red flowers that burst like blisters in the streams, turning into pools of blood. Any protective talisman stuck up on a door would become folded into a paper crow come next morning, and no vandal was ever spotted; as if the talismans were deformed by invisible hands in the night.
The men would report sightings of wraithlike shapes on the cliffs, with arms far too long and smiles far too wide. The figures watched silently until crows would alight upon them in a frenzy, tearing and screeching.
For over a month, Heiyezhen was thoroughly haunted; at least until the exorcists came.
Finally, on this night, the demonic presence could be felt, clear as thunder. In the pouring rain, the visiting exorcist and his assistant stood steadfast before the communal well, with a gaggle of horrified villagers encircling the scene. There, before everyone’s eyes, the well began to bleed. From the grey stone bricks came a slow seep of visceral crimson, beading out from the grout before running in rivulets down the sides.
The exorcist’s assistant turned to the exorcist proper, voice tight. "Shifu, this is most dire."
The exorcist nodded, stoic amidst the panicked chattering and astonished gasps. "We must act without delay."
But first — let’s go back a few days, and find ourselves on the outskirts of our bedeviled village, at a bend in the river where two childhood friends were toiling.
The first man – one with eyebrows too striking for his furtive line of work – sighed dramatically, quite sick of the arduous tasks before him.
"This is more labour than I expected," he complained. "We should’ve haggled with that alchemist more."
"We haggled him down plenty, Dejun," the second man answered, not looking up from his own task. He had a boyish grin full of perfect teeth, through which he regularly lied. "We’re also paying for his discretion. "
Dejun rolled his eyes. "Well, excuse me, Guanheng laoshi, for wanting easy money to be easy. This makes me wish I were a real exorcist."
"My ears must deceive me!" said Guanheng, aghast. "Are you saying you'd rather make money the honest way?"
"Doesn’t it sound fun, though? Having so much Yang energy that you could harness it? There’s that “Great Qian Shifu of the Melodic Winds”, whose enchanted flute can flash-freeze an entire lake. I also heard of an exorcist in the Chosen City who could call down fierce hailstorms with just a flick of his talisman." For narrative flair, Dejun made a grand flicking motion, coupled with an intense stare towards the heavens.
"I can do that, too," Guanheng replied, and flicked a pebble at him.
They squabbled and giggled for a time, but eventually returned to their labour: sewing and painting and rehearsing their accents and lines.
After a lull, Guanheng spoke again. "I suppose Yang powers would be nice. But honestly, being a real thaumaturge or a cultivator or what-have-you sounds like a hassle.”
"And the robes are silly," Dejun muttered in agreement, finishing one last hem on the exorcist knickers.
As the sun dropped behind the mountain peak, Guanheng shivered and made a show of it. "It’s freezing out here."
Dejun pouted in questioning. "You’re cold? I’m feeling really warm, actually."
He expected Guanheng to respond, but instead he simply stared out at the distant village. There was an uncharacteristic nervousness about him, and Dejun guessed his shivers weren’t entirely from the cold wind.
"We’ve spent six weeks preparing, Ah-Heng," Dejun reassured him. "We’re ready."
"Sure, but does the weather know its part in the plan?" asked Guanheng, eyes flicking up to cloudless skies.
Dejun smacked his fist into one palm to punctuate his certainty. "Yes. There will be a thunderstorm on that night. Everything will go to plan."
Guanheng smiled, seemingly assured. "Checklist time?"
Dejun nodded excitedly and shuffled up to sit on his knees. The two of them laid out their props and maps and tools, touching each one as they went over their plan from beginning to end. Dejun always insisted on this particular routine before every job, especially as they grew more complex over time.
—"Check. Painted with exorcist mumbo-jumbo and ready for action."
"Colour powders for the lamps?"
—"Check. Tiger and dead lady."
—"Check. The dissolving time is ten seconds from contact with water."
—"If I never fold a fucking paper crow ever again, it’ll be too soon."
"Very good! What about the real crows and scarecrows?"
—"Living in perfect harmony. You trained those birds well."
"Thank you! Finally, how’re my incantations?"
—"They feel like the real deal, Xiao Shifu."
"Ah, it’s Liao Shifu from now on. Let’s get into character."
"Alright, then," Guanheng said, standing and patting his hands clean on his robe. "There is money to be made in these scenic hills, ‘Liao Shifu.’"
"Verily, ‘assistant Wu.'"
Guanheng held out his hand in a thumbs up. Dejun did the same, and they brought their thumbs together for their special handshake, performed without fail before every job. To conclude the gesture of fortune, they each pressed a kiss to the back of their own hands, heads close as they dipped down.
As he’d done a thousand times before, Dejun said, "May you lie to everyone, but never to me."
Naturally, Guanheng responded, "Two against the world, with a coin purse for three."
With their vow fresh in their minds, and a spring in their steps, the two charlatans made for the village.
Everything went according to plan. The translucent, soluble fabrics stuffed into the grouting of the communal well worked beautifully — though still in character, both Dejun and Guanheng secretly marveled at how well it worked out. As the rain fell more heavily, it dissolved the fabric pouches holding coin-sized amounts of red dye, allowing red liquid to “bleed” all over the well. The villagers fell for it more easily than a child would, which meant that the two con artists could proceed with the next step of their plan. It was arguably the most fragile one.
While Liao Shifu, with his false wispy beard and potbelly (courtesy of a cushion under his robes), paced around the courtyard in front of the small temple sticking talismans onto things, Guanheng discussed business with the village chief. The two of them sat opposite each other at a low table, with a sturdy square of fabric between them. With fastenings on each corner, this fabric would serve as an integral part of the exorcism process.
"And in this ceremonial bag you shall place items of value," explained Guanheng, playing the part of gap-toothed assistant Wu. "Items crafted from gold or fine jade, perhaps. Anything that will appeal to the demon’s greed, and draw it out from hiding. Once the exorcism is complete, all items will be returned."
The chief hesitated now. He furrowed his brow, looking from assistant Wu to the bag and back again. "Items of value? How many?"
"As many as can fit. Perhaps a trinket or two from each villager."
"That’s…that’s too much! I cannot ask the villagers to part with their valuables so casually!"
"Casually?" echoed Guanheng. He let his tone fall flat with stoic, scholarly disappointment. "I see."
He made a small fold in the corner of the fabric, as if about to pack everything up, but did it slowly. Very slowly, with the delicacy of a master handling his precious tools. As expected, the chief watched this furtively.
Guanheng’s conman intuition was rarely wrong, and now it was telling him to strike.
"Cun zhang," he began soberly. "We exorcists do not hunger for coin. We merely honour our duty to purge evil. As such, we shall not press you to accept our services. However – and you will forgive my candor in this matter – we fear for your village. Negative energy chokes the life from this place with each passing day; no, with each passing hour. Liao Shifu has determined that it was concentrated greed that drew the spirit here. Would stopping the temporary seizure of your riches have been worth it, if evil sucks this village dry until it becomes a pile of dust in the valley?"
Just as Guanheng finished, a flash of lightning bleached the skies, followed instantly by its companionate crash of thunder. It startled the chief, and Guanheng had to stifle his glee at the lucky timing.
"I…I must…" the chief stammered. Then, another flash of lightning lit a fire under his posterior. "Fine. If it’s what must be done, then it will be done. Please, purge this village once and for all. We trust your abilities."
"Good," concluded Guanheng. "Then we shall start right away."
With the temple having been identified as the best place to draw the demon out and trap it, the “exorcists” were escorted in. In Guanheng’s hands was the bag of the entire village’s most precious belongings, which he would swap out with an identical bag of worthless junk at the soonest opportunity. After that, he and Dejun would sneak out of a pre-prepared roof exit in the temple, and then disappear into the countryside for good.
"You may hear terrifying things beyond these doors," Dejun-as-Liao-Shifu warned the villagers. "Wailing, banging, scraping, shouts...but please, do not enter until the ritual is complete. We shall emerge victorious, or we shall be thrown out like ragdolls."
The villagers escorting them nodded fervently and backed away. With the doors shut and barred behind them, the two shared triumphant grins.
Guanheng scurried up to the loose wooden panel in the corner of the main chamber, prepping it for their escape. In the meantime, Dejun secured their bag of treasures and began stripping off his disguise. Suddenly, he heard a loud, echoing shriek behind him. Without turning around, Dejun scolded his noisy companion. "You don’t need to go that far."
"Huh?" came Guanheng’s confused voice. "I thought that was you."
As both of them made to turn and face each other, a freezing gust of wind swept through the chamber with considerable violence. Another thunderclap went off at the same time.
"Ah-Jun, did you pack some kind of mechanical windmaker thingamajig?"
"No. Did you?"
"Most assuredly, I did not."
As if struck by a hammer of the gods, the temple shook . The floor lurched under them, knocking Guanheng off of his perch high on the wall, and sending Dejun flat on his back on the floor. It was suddenly very, very cold inside this temple.
Then, an otherworldly darkness snuffed out the single meager alchemical light. It was Dejun who saw it first: the thing in the darkness.
In the midst of gale winds that came from nowhere, an enormous mass of distended limbs writhed around a demonic face; it loomed above a prone Dejun with a leering, hungry grin.
"Oh, fuck!" came Guanheng’s stricken voice from somewhere in the dark. "Dejun, get away! Get away!"
Dejun could not, in fact, get away.
The demon’s spectral form bore down on him with a horrific roar, fast and violent. What could a mere human do against a bona fide demon? This is not what they bargained for; not even a little bit. They’d be lucky to be thrown out like ragdolls — the demon would spit their clean bones out at the chief’s feet!
With an embarrassing cry, Dejun threw his arms up to cover his face, and braced himself for possession, maiming or death.
None of the above seemed to happen. Cracking one eye open, Dejun was not met with the sight of his oncoming slaughter — instead he was very warm all over, and the whirling winds in the room were also warm, and the hideous demon was…was…?
Dejun salt bolt upright, thoroughly perplexed. The demonic spirit was wailing and whimpering and scuttling all about the ceiling in distress, trying its level best to run away from something. It was being repelled, ostensibly by Dejun.
"Your eyes are glowing blue, my friend!" shouted Guanheng. He had managed to revive an alchemical lantern, though it flickered wildly still. "Tell me: what the fuck?"
"I don’t know!" answered Dejun honestly. "I didn’t do anything!"
The demon continued to flail, uncertain where to go except away from a very heated up Dejun. Literally — Dejun could feel his own body was hot as a furnace.
Ever the enterprising one, Guanheng trudged across the chamber with great effort, barely keeping his footing as the ghostly indoor winds raged on. He reached his goal: the inscribed gourd that had been flung from his hands in the chaos. He held it aloft while bracing himself against a pillar with his other hand.
He shouted over the howling and shrieking, hair blowing wildly around his face. "Dejun! You memorised all those incantations, didn’t you? Say them!"
"Yes, for the scam!" cried Dejun. "I’m not a real exorcist!"
Guanheng deftly dodged a piece of flying debris. "You are a real something, that’s for damned sure! Just say the incantations!"
When it dawned on Dejun that his companion was being serious, he gulped. Yes, he’d memorised actual incantations used by actual exorcists — for believability’s sake — but how would chanting them here and now help anything? The gourd they made was obviously fake as well; it couldn’t possibly trap a whole entire demon.
But until about a minute ago, Dejun hadn’t ever even seen a demon, nevermind cast it back in a violent burst of pure Yang energy.
If Guanheng had deemed it worth a try, then Dejun would as well. He sucked in a deep breath, and began to recite.
Every syllable out of his mouth seemed to be a blade driven through the demon. The explosion of positive energy from Dejun, while baffling, was actually being honed by his words. Clumsily executed, perhaps, but — the demon shrieked and became smaller, more transparent, more of nothing — effectively exorcised. As if sucked up by its own winds and spiraled into a tight tornado, it was vacuumed right into the opening of the gourd. Guanheng was winded as the vessel jerked back into his stomach, but he valiantly twisted the lid back on.
The winds stopped, and Dejun fell to his knees.
In just a few earnest leaps, Guanheng landed in front of Dejun, hands gripping the latter’s shoulders. "Ah-Jun! Are you alright?"
Dejun looked back at him with wide, shining eyes and a look of honest, childlike confusion. In an instant, their scam haunting had become a real one; the quack exorcist had become a real one.
Guanheng stared at his lifelong friend and partner in crime, and realised suddenly that neither esteemed title was adequate. He was seized by the need to…to…well, to have him somehow, much more than he already did — and it brought upon him an irresistible urge: he put Dejun’s confused face between both of his hands and kissed him.
It was very quick — just a peck, but right on the lips, which were mercilessly soft. A confirmation, really, of what Guanheng had secretly suspected for many years.
And warm, as well; we cannot forget warm. Dejun was warmth as a concept, really, and he would always be warm inside Guanheng’s heart — lifelong friend, partner in crime, and from now on…
Muffled (for his cheeks were still firmly squished, and actually more scorching than just warm), Dejun mumbled, "What’s that about?"
And then, flushed, he passed out.
Dejun came to in time to see tearful villagers pressing their gratitude into his and Guanheng’s hands; gratitude in the form of coin and small trinkets and food. They didn’t seem to notice or care that their saviours had shed their disguises.
Guanheng held Dejun up as they walked somewhere more secluded, politely batting away the attentions of the folk. They sat on a bench in the drizzle for some time, gathering themselves.
As thunder rolled further away, Dejun came to a conclusion.
"I think…" he started, on the cusp of conviction, but not fully tipping over the edge. "I think I should learn how to be an exorcist. A real one this time."
A pang of fear shot through Guanheng. "Can I still be your assistant?"
Dejun smiled at him. "I’m counting on it."
Intuitively, they put out their hands. They each made a fist, pressed the pad of their thumbs together, and—
They paused at the same time, just before making the ritual kiss to the back of their hands. Their faces were close. They looked at each other with questioning eyes: should we kiss again?
They did not kiss just then. They pressed their lips to their own respective hands and finished the gesture in good spirits.
Intuitively, they both knew: it didn’t have to be now. Some new season of their lives was about to start, and it needed their full attention — just until they found a new rhythm in between the ebb and flow of Dejun’s newfound power.
After all, autumn never rushed; it always arrived in good time.