The old hotel in the mountain village wasn’t as peaceful as it should have been. Outside, the tree leaves rustled in the breeze, fine, but inside in the men’s dorm room, everyone from Lin Jing to Professor Shen’s student Xiao Quan was snoring.
Da Qing wasn’t asleep. He couldn’t stop thinking about mice.
City mice were smug, lazy, and always had a bolthole nearby; mountain mice were much better sport. And it wasn’t often he managed to pry Lao Zhao from his urban comforts and out into the wilds. Da Qing had to make the best of being here.
As soon as he thought that, his body shifted into cat form. He slipped out of his sleeping bag and leaped to the windowsill. The village grounds were empty. He paused to yawn wide enough to swallow the big fat moon hanging above the mountains, then made his way down, jumping carefully from ledge to sill to the ground. If he’d got stranded on a window ledge halfway up a building, Lao Zhao would have teased him till the end of time.
There was no grass between the humble village houses, just bare uneven dirt, and the air was disappointingly fresh. No one here had cooked meat for dinner. But maybe they were saving their choicest cuts for a feast tomorrow. If so, they’d definitely invite the SID. Da Qing licked his lips in anticipation and slipped between the struts of the fence to explore outside, a shadow among the shadows.
He’d only gone about twenty steps from the fence, down a shallow slope, when his paw touched something cold and smooth, and he heard a high-pitched voice nearby: This is a waste of time.
One step later, the area was quiet, the only sounds coming from the breeze and small creatures going about their business.
Da Qing stopped. Who had spoken? No one was here. He turned back and examined the smooth thing on the ground—one of those Hanga masks the ghost soldiers had been wearing. It was face down in the dirt, and its stale metallic scent made his nose itch. His whiskers brushed against it, and he heard the voice again. A child’s voice, real and vivid.
“Heads rolling, heads rolling, rolling in the dirt.”
“Yingying, that’s not a lullaby! And Siyu’s fading again. We need to—”
Da Qing flinched back. The night fell silent.
It was the mask doing it, making the voices. Was it a recording from the old Hanga days, or was someone there? Warily, keeping his eyes wide, he touched his paw to the metal.
… rolling in the dirt.
Witch Ge Lan will take them, and make them into cups.
Will the mountain stop her, stop by throwing rocks?
Is Lord Kunlun coming—
Da Qing twitched all over and jumped back just as a faint exasperated “Yingying, stop!” interrupted the song. His fur was puffed up, his muscles tense. Kunlun? How did Da Qing know that name? And who were these children?
Their voices had come from over by that bush, not from the mask itself, but he couldn’t hear them now he wasn’t touching it. Were they still there? Could they see him?
Da Qing was the ten-thousand-year-old king of the cats. He was not afraid of energy beings or children. And he needed to hear more about Kunlun. He tried to pick up the mask with his paw—
“—told you, we need to find Siyu something to eat.”
“There’s definitely food in that enormous shiny red cart. Come on. What if—”
The mask fell back into the dirt, and Da Qing hissed at his lack of thumbs, but he didn’t shift. He could run faster and hide more easily in cat form, especially at night. Anyway, dropping the mask had revealed its leather straps—old and cracked, with soft broken edges. He hooked a claw through one and started to drag the mask to the bush.
“—making things up again. It probably belongs to the witch.”
“The witch didn’t have a cart.” Yingying sounded very sure about that.
“Even if you’re right, it’ll be human food. You’ll make Siyu sick. We should try the headman’s house. Maybe he’s left out an offering.”
“The red cart could be a ghost-offering cart! We won’t know unless we check. Come on, Mo-ge, what if someone else gets there first?”
“I want to—want to see the red—red ghost-offering cart,” breathed a third, even younger voice. “Can—can we?”
A long unhappy sigh. “We have to be careful,” said Mo-ge. “If we see the scary purple man, we run.”
“If the village elders catch—catch us, they’ll pull—pull our heads right off.”
“No one’s going to catch us,” said Yingying. “We’re sneaky ghosts. Come—ah, what’s that?!”
The three little energy beings had come round the bush and were staring at Da Qing as if he were a giant ghost-eating spider.
They were translucent, dressed in tattered clothes with dirty faces and flowers in their hair, and they were as skinny as sticks. The boy was the oldest, and even he was probably only six or seven. He was holding hands with the smallest and faintest of the three, a little girl clutching a battered wooden toy. The middle child had tufty hair that made Da Qing’s tongue itch to groom her, and bright eyes, and she wore a torn dress with a small knife tucked in her belt.
“It’s just a rabbit,” said the boy, doubtfully.
The middle girl, Yingying, drew her knife. “It’s a demon, and it wants to make us wear that slave mask.”
“I’m a cat,” said Da Qing, offended. “Cats aren’t demons.”
Yingying swung the knife wildly, even though she was still three paces away. She was like Xiao Guo with his baton. “It talks like a person! It must be a demon!”
“Shh,” said the boy. “The purple man will hear you.”
“Pretty—pretty cat.” The youngest reached out, but her brother held her back.
“Who’s Kunlun?” asked Da Qing, ignoring Yingying’s theatrics. “In your creepy song.”
“You don’t know about Lord Kunlun?” said Yingying. “Everyone knows about Lord Kunlun!”
“I am Da Qing, the king of the cats, and I do know about Kunlun, but I’ve forgotten some of the details.”
“Um, does Your Majesty happen to know where we can find some food?” asked the boy.
He was either desperate or ignorant to be asking a cat for food. Most likely both.
“Oh, yes.” Yingying’s knife hand fell to her side. “Give us food, and we’ll tell you all about Lord Kunlun.”
Her brother smacked her on the arm. “Don’t be rude.”
“If we don’t eat, Siyu will fade away,” Yingying pointed out, “and then we’ll be too sad to tell anyone about Kunlun, won’t we?”
The boy looked at Da Qing. “Sorry, but she’s right.”
They were such kittens, it wouldn’t take much to feed them, and if a couple of packets of snacks and a bit of jerky went missing, Lao Zhao wouldn’t even notice. He’d think Zhu Hong had eaten them.
“Come on, then. There’s food in the car.” Da Qing started leading the way back to the village. The gate was around the other side, but the kids would be able to walk through the fence, wouldn’t they?
“What’s a—” Yingying’s voice cut off.
Da Qing looked back. They were gone. He’d forgotten about the mask. He put his paw back on the metal, and they popped into view.
“—sure it doesn’t belong to the witch?” Yingying was asking.
“What?” asked Da Qing.
“What what?” said the boy, as if he didn’t know he’d vanished, and was confused by Da Qing’s confusion.
Da Qing didn’t want to tell him he and his sisters were ephemeral. “Just stay here, and I’ll bring you food from the red cart.”
“I want to see—to see the cart.” Siyu’s words were faint, and she was blurring around the edges.
“We’ll wait,” said the boy.
“We’ll tell you all about Kunlun,” said Yingying, but she was patting Siyu’s shoulder. “Stay with us, meimei.”
“Please hurry,” said the boy.
“Stay right here.” Da Qing pointed to the mask and then turned and scampered for the Jeep as fast as he could run. He streaked through the village, from black shadow to black shadow, right across to the parked cars.
He had to change into a person with thumbs to open the car door and ransack the glove compartment and the back seat. He found two packets of jerky, an unopened packet of sweet-salty rice crackers, and half a bag of dried plum fruit candy. There was nicotine gum and a handful of lollipops, too, but Lao Zhao would notice if those went missing.
Da Qing stuffed his bounty into a plastic bag, pocketed Lao Zhao’s old Zorro cigarette lighter while he was at it, and closed the car door as stealthily as possible. He carried the bag on two legs until he got back to a familiar-smelling part of the fence. There, he pushed the bag through the struts and changed to four paws so he could slip through after it.
Had he found the right place? Yes, there was the bush. He took the bag-handle between his teeth and dragged it until his paw touched metal and the kids blinked into sight.
“Will the mountain stop her, stop by throwing rocks?” Yingying was singing under her breath, so dolefully that Da Qing considered rubbing his face against her hand and letting her pet him.
But Siyu was as hazy as steam after a hot shower, and the boy was sitting on the ground, cuddling her. He looked up as Da Qing arrived and said, with a catch in his voice, “You came back.”
Da Qing dropped the bag at their feet. “Of course I came back. Here’s the food. It’s all I could find.”
He stretched his jaw out. It always felt strange to drag things with his mouth, and plastic bags tasted very wrong, so he had to wash his face to get a better feel and flavour on his tongue. The stretching and washing made him yawn in earnest. Why was he so tired?
And why weren’t there any plastic rustling noises or sounds of happy contented munching?
Oh. The kids were trying to grab the plastic bag, but their ghostly energy-being hands couldn’t get purchase on it. Even Yingying with her sharp little knife couldn’t make so much as a dent in the thin bag, let alone the packaging inside.
“We can’t eat it! It’s not ghost food!” In his desperation, the boy had forgotten about staying quiet. “Even if we could pick it up, it would make Siyu sick.”
Of course. Da Qing didn’t know a lot about feeding ghosts, but he knew it worked best if the food was left near the physical body. “Where are your graves?”
“We don’t have a grave,” said the boy.
“We chased an enormous giant boar all the way to the other side of the mountain and stole his tusks. I’ve lost them since then.”
The boy patted Yingying’s arm and told Da Qing. “There was a big fight in the village. We hid.”
No grave. How was Da Qing going to feed these kittens? Then he remembered—there was a reason he’d brought the lighter, even if he hadn’t consciously thought what it was. He sat up and changed into his other form. Immediately, the night was dark and empty of hungry little ghost children. Wasn’t he—no, he was definitely touching the mask. Where had they gone?
There was no time to worry about it. No time to consider how tasty the snacks would be if he kept them for himself. No time to care about the nasty fumes the plastic would make as it burned. It didn’t even matter if the children left without telling him about Kunlun, so long as they had full bellies for once.
He fished the lighter out of his overalls pocket, pulled a packet of jerky from the bag and set it alight, waiting until it had properly caught before he dropped it onto the old metal mask, using that as a brazier. The plastic wrapping shrivelled and melted over the lovely dried pork, delicious and horrible smells mixing together, and then the pork blackened and smouldered. Such a waste! But he didn’t let himself think about it. He grabbed the next packet, then the candy and the crackers.
When everything was thoroughly ruined, he stamped out the sticky messy embers with his shoe-clad feet, then folded back into his cat form and, with some trepidation, touched the edge of the mask.
It was already cool again—creepy, but at least it didn’t burn his paw. And there—Siyu was chewing on jerky with a blissful expression. She looked better. Da Qing thought he might even be able to touch her.
Yingying was cutting into the cracker packet with her ghostly knife. The boy looked near tears, wrapping Siyu’s little hand around a candy and stroking her hair.
“It worked.” Da Qing was glad, though he wished he’d saved himself one small morsel of pork.
Yingying pointed at him and said with her mouth full, “You turned into a man. I knew it—you are a demon!”
“Pretty, pretty cat demon,” agreed Siyu, also with her mouth full, and more animated than she had been all night.
“Don’t call him a demon,” said the boy. “Thank you, Your Majesty! I promise I’ll repay you one day.”
“You can repay me now.” Da Qing yawned and lay down with his paw on the edge of mask, careful not to get burnt plastic in his fur. “Tell me about Kunlun while you eat.”
“Oh, yes,” said Yingying. “Lord Kunlun. He was a great hero, taller than a hundred-year-old tree and as strong as ten oxen. His beard fell to his knees, and stars hung in his hair. His teeth shone like moonlight, and when he laughed, the wind rippled the grass in reply. And he carried thunder and lightning in his hands—he could kill bad people just by pointing at them!”
She didn’t know anything. It was nonsense, a fairy tale. But something that had been comfortable in Da Qing’s stomach flopped sideways, leaving him unsettled—and sleepy. His eyes fell shut, and instead of Kunlun, he imagined Lao Zhao sitting on a clifftop in old-fashioned clothes, with tiny silver stars caught in his long hair.
He fell asleep while the children were still eating. He didn’t hear them leave.
The next thing he knew, he was in a sunbeam. In his slowly waking mind, dream memories glinted, elusive as goldfish in a weedy pond: long hair, a gleaming smile. Had Da Qing known Kunlun once upon a time, or had Yingying’s words flavoured his dreams?
He cracked one eye open. The sun was high. He’d slept outdoors for the first time in years. He must have been more tired than he realised. And yes, this sunbeam would last a good few hours yet.
Later on, he’d talk to the village head and ask him to burn some food here in the mask from time to time. For now, he just wanted to nap a little longer, then go and hunt some mountain mice. Lao Zhao would send Xiao Guo to find him if he was needed.