It happened when Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei were In the mountain getting the Mountain River Awl, and Shen Wei had all but fought off Gui Mian. They had both thought that Gui Mian decided discretion was the better part of valor and was disappearing. At least, he had gone hazy around the edges, in the no-longer-solid way that ghosts typically did when they arrived and vanished. However, he had one more thing to do before disappearing.
He stuck his no-longer-solid hand into Zhao Yunlan’s body. Zhao Yunlan was still trying to figure out how that had happened, staring down at Gui Mian’s hand with an expression of concern on his face. It was too soon for any other emotions to cross his mind yet. When Gui Mian closed his fingers around Zhao Yunlan’s souls, one from his shoulder and one from his head, it was still too soon. When he pulled them out of his body, Zhao Yunlan felt that, and felt it as well when Gui Mian left a sufficient amount of his own energy in their place. That Zhao Yunlan felt, as though he was simultaneously choking on and freezing with it. But it was still automatic instinct that had Zhao Yunlan clawing after the little soul-fires. Only when Gui Mian took a look at the soul-fires, smiled at them as though they solved everything, and then disappeared entirely did his brain register “this is bad.” And it was only then that the Soul Severing Emissary began realizing what had happened and shouted, “Zhao Yunlan!”
Zhao Yunlan felt the iciness cascading outwards, and couldn’t think about what had just happened beyond Bad. He was vaguely aware he was going into shock, that his body was trying to die on him, for some reason narrated by his police academy teacher who had taught a very boring lecture on the subject of death. But at the same time, through the hazy shock that was now filling his brain, he was aware that the Ghost King energy was doing something to him, making the shock seem like less of a big deal. He watched as his hands tried to change shape, the nails and fingertips turning blacker and blacker. There was something going on with his eyes and face too. He reached up and found his face trying to split open as though trying to open from ear to ear.
Revise that earlier estimate: This was Terrible.
The Soul Severing Emissary watched the claws forming in place of nails and his face attempting to rip open and felt his heart rise into his throat: Zhao Yunlan, his Zhao Yunlan, was turning into a youchu.
And the expression in his eyes as he met the Soul Severing Emissary’s and his claws scrabbling at his cheeks trying to figure out what was happening and trying to prevent it from happening all spoke of sheer terror the likes of which was only matched by the Soul Severing Emissary’s own.
Then Zhao Yunlan glanced down at his abdomen in concern - something must have been going on inside him that the Soul Severing Emissary could not see - and then back up at the Soul Severing Emissary. His eyes started to plead with the Soul Severing Emissary for help.
The Soul Severing Emissary froze Zhao Yunlan’s body in human form to prevent him from turning further.
Then he grabbed him and flashed back to the mountain hut where the students and the rest of the SIU were. Zhao Yunlan, feeling the Soul Severing Emissary’s arms and power around him and his body being stopped from changing any more, passed out.
Still holding Zhao Yunlan, the Soul Severing Emissary ordered Chu Shuzhi, Guo Changcheng and Zhu Hong to take the students back home. He needed to take Zhao Yunlan, who was unconscious in his arms as they all got a glimpse of, back home. Now.
“And Professor Shen?” asked one of his students.
Right. He had come as their professor.
“He’ll come with me too,” he said and then opened a portal, grabbed both the black cat and the fake monk by their collars and disappeared through it with them.
The following morning, Zhu Hong got to the office after having dropped off the students and given them the day to sleep. Whatever it was that made the Soul Severing Emissary hold Zhao Yunlan like that and grab Daqing and Lin Jing too would probably keep their professor busy for at least the entire day, if not longer. She found herself hoping for his sake that Professor Shen was taking this crash course in their world well and that nothing too terrible had happened.
Zhao Yunlan was sitting on the couch covered in a blanket. She started to open her mouth to greet him but one look at his face stopped her. He was staring off into space, expressionless and motionless. Beyond expressionless. His face was so slack she wondered if he was registering anything going on around him.
The Soul Severing Emissary meanwhile was pacing around, more agitated than Zhu Hong had ever seen him. His hood was down. She knew she should recognize his face - she had absolutely seen it before - but for the life of her couldn't place him.
Daqing was there too. It too was more anxious than she had ever imagined the black cat could be. It was watching Zhao Yunlan from the far end of the office couch in worry. She imagined, given the amount of new holes that must have appeared if it had been kneaded with cat claws like that since they got there, that soon there wouldn’t be any fabric left on that end.
Lin Jing, meanwhile, had a couple piles of books open and several implements in front of him, including an incense burner that had clearly been used to burn incense recently and not for the first time and several talismans, including a few dustings of ash from a talisman being used. He was still attempting to look up stuff in the books, meaning he hadn’t found anything yet. From the circles under his eyes and the cup of coffee in front of him, Zhu Hong would guess he had been at this since the Soul Severing Emissary had brought them here the following night.
“Zhu Hong,” said a small voice from halfway down the stairs when she walked in front of the stairs to the basement. She turned to look and saw Wang Zheng and another ghost whom she had never seen before halfway downstairs, not daring to come any closer.
“What’s up?” Zhu Hong asked.
“Chief Zhao has been like that since the Soul Severing Emissary brought him here. Lin Jing and Daqing have been trying to find out how it happened and if there is any way to reverse it.”
Zhu Hong nodded and then turned towards the four beings upstairs. “Is he in there at all?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” the Soul Severing Emissary said. “I don’t know what he did. It should be impossible to do what he did.”
“What who did, Your Honor?” asked Daqing. “You still haven’t answered that.”
“The leader of the filthy things that have been kept behind Houtu’s Great Seal for five thousand years.” The Soul Severing Emissary’s face momentarily showed his fury, and both Zhu Hong and Daqing backed up several feet before their brains caught up with their fight-or-flight instinct. “He should know any reincarnation of him is firmly off limits! That his actions mean I’m going to kill him or die trying!”
Zhu Hong was instantly suspicious. “Any reincarnation? You’ve been around past reincarnations of Chief Zhao too?” She was ready to protect Zhao Yunlan, even from the Soul Severing Emissary if needed.
She wasn’t expecting Daqing to nod and agree with the Soul Severing Emissary. “All the ones I’ve known him in, right?”
The Soul Severing Emissary nodded, reaching out to scritch the cat a few times around the scruff of the collar before shaking his head as though trying to wake himself. “Gui Mian shouldn’t have even been able to do that,” he said again before starting to pace and wring his hand again.
Zhu Hong pulled out a chair to watch Zhao Yunlan like the black cat was doing, hoping one of the things Lin Jing was finding would eventually work.
Zhao Yunlan just sat there, staring off into space, the only sign he wasn’t a corpse being that he still blinked occasionally.
After a few other things were tried, to no avail, everyone needed a break. Lin Jing went to take a nap, so he would be more awake to keep looking later.
It was only a short while after that that Zhao Yunlan began moving.
“He… he’s awake!” Zhu Hong started, throwing herself off the chair and closer to Zhao Yunlan.
He moaned, closed his eyes, and winced, pulling his lip up and showing his teeth. With this first movement, a nearly tangible sense of terror seaped into everyone much like what the Soul Severing Emissary had put out every time they had seen him before. It was only then, when they realized when comparing the Soul Severing Emissary’s usual wave of terror to Zhao Yunlan’s newfound one, that they realized the Soul Severing Emissary wasn’t putting out the usual one. The wave of terror coming off Zhao Yunlan was also both less finessed and less controlled and more complete, as though they were feeling everything there was. With that, they had a second horrifying revelation that they typically were only feeling a glimpse of the Soul Severing Emissary’s full power and that he could easily control how much of it they were feeling from him. Daqing and Zhu Hong shared a glance and found themselves backing away from both of them.
The Soul Severing Emissary did the opposite, dropping to a squat in front of Zhao Yunlan and reaching for him. “Zhao Yunlan?” he said in the tenderest of voices.
Zhao Yunlan was able to focus on his face, but none of them knew if he had any idea what was being said to him. He opened and closed his mouth a few times and looked pleadingly at the Soul Severing Emissary. The Soul Severing Emissary turned, if possible, a few shades paler.
Zhao Yunlan didn’t nod at that, but did jut his chin forward and make the motion more pitifully.
“Here.” The Soul Severing Emissary gave him his hand, palm up with smoke floating around it. “If you must eat, you must get my approval first. We’ll discuss later on.”
Zhao Yunlan shot forward, grabbed his hand, and could be heard sucking noisily and greedily at whatever energy the Soul Severing Emissary was giving him, clawing at his hand as though trying to wring the life out of a tasty orange.
The others turned away. Seeing their chief like this was too painful.
The Soul Severing Emissary was horrified as well but for a different reason. “You’re so weak. I must renew the lock on your form before your body weakens it even further. If you were to turn into a thing of the Ghost Tribe at your current level of strength, you wouldn’t even be a youchu grunt but a mud creature with no form at all.”
There was no sign from Zhao Yunlan if he heard him.
The Soul Severing Emissary let him keep feeding until a few minutes had past, and then he was considering shaking him off when Zhao Yunlan fell back by himself, bowed his head at the Soul Severing Emissary and closed his eyes. His form went very still again.
“I think you should all take a break. We’ll reconvene in an hour to keep looking.”
Half an hour in, when Daqing had gone to join Lin Jing in taking a nap, Zhu Hong had gone downstairs to talk with Wang Zheng and the other ghosts cowering in the basement, and the Soul Severing Emissary had taken up Lin Jing’s post of flipping through pages of the books he had laid out, searching for something to explain how Gui Mian had done this, Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng showed up. The second they got inside, Chu Shuzhi grabbed Guo Changcheng’s electric rod and got in front of him. Then he saw the Soul Severing Emissary and eased off. “Oh, your Honor.”
“No, what you were sensing is not just me. Your chief as well.” He nodded at him.
Chu Shuzhi followed the nod, and his face blanched. “That’s Chief Zhao putting that out?”
The Soul Severing Emissary said, “Yes.”
Chu Shuzhi approached carefully, studying Zhao Yunlan as he did and growing more and more concerned. “Is he… alive?”
The Soul Severing Emissary took his eyes off of Zhao Yunlan for long enough to glance at Chu Shuzhi. “That depends. Do you consider me alive?”
“Yesterday, we met with a monster born without a soul from the deepest depths of Difu, and somehow or other he grabbed Zhao Yunlan’s souls out of him and filled where they were with enough of his energy to delay Zhao Yunlan’s body dying on the spot. I was able to lock him into his current form, but if I was to remove that lock, it’s very likely his body would shift into one of them. At his current energy, that would likely be an amorphous puddle of mud. He is very hungry though, so at the very least, his body is determined to gain back intelligence and a form. I’ve already fed him once from me and had to reinforce the lock once as well, as he is pulling energy from that passively as well. So suffice to say, he is now outside life and death.”
Chu Shuzhi nodded, taking in that information. “Is he now what I was when I first started down my path?”
The Soul Severing Emissary shook his head. “No, somehow the monster that did this changed him into what that monster is. He is the only other one of them currently not locked under Houtu’s Great Seal. But what he did to him made him the bottom of the pecking order.”
Guo Changcheng spoke up into the silence that followed. “Professor Shen? This is going to sound like a dumb question but… are you the Soul Severing Emissary too?”
Chu Shuzhi slowly turned to face the Soul Severing Emissary and actually looked at him. It was as Guo Changcheng said: he had Professor Shen’s face and was the same build and coloring. Chu Shuzhi’s face grew increasingly bemused and concerned, and he glanced at Zhao Yunlan several times.
“Did Lao Zhao know?” he finally asked.
“I have no idea,” the Soul Severing Emissary said. “And now that he’s like this, he probably doesn’t even know his own name.”
If Zhao Yunlan heard them, he didn’t show it. However he did turn his head to face Guo Changcheng and his eyes followed him around the room. If Guo Changcheng noticed, he was choosing to ignore it, which Chu Shuzhi thought showed remarkable growth on the kid’s part.
“How can we help?” Guo Changcheng said.
“See if you can find anything in the library related to souls at all.”
Guo Changcheng nodded, started to set off, but then turned to Chu Shuzhi with a sheepish expression. “How do I get to the library?” Chu Shuzhi nodded at him and decided to help him get what he needed.
They came out with several rounds of books, far more than the Soul Severing Emissary had first thought there were on the subject. So he sat down and started reading the new books, looking for anything on how to restore someone’s souls.
A while later, Zhao Yunlan looked back at the Soul Severing Emissary, and opened and closed his mouth a few more times, indicating he was hungry again.
“You two probably want to go find Zhu Hong and Daqing downstairs,” the Soul Severing Emissary advised them.
“What are you going to do?” Chu Shuzhi asked.
“Feed him again,” the Soul Severing Emissary answered, calling up energy into his hand again. Zhao Yunlan’s eyes shot back to his hand, and he leaned forward in anticipation.
Chu Shuzhi quickly shoved Guo Changcheng back into the library and therefore out of earshot.
Lin Jing woke back up and continued his search alongside Guo Changcheng and Chu Shuzhi. Zhao Yunlan was doing a bit better - he was at least looking around and had not gone back to sleep immediately after eating.
As the research continued, Daqing cautiously stepped towards Zhao Yunlan. Zhao Yunlan turned to face it and seemed fascinated by its movements.
“Do you remember me?” Daqing asked.
Zhao Yunlan tipped his head.
Daqing realized it should start with an even more basic question: “Can you understand me?”
Zhao Yunlan screwed up his face in a little concentrating expression that would be adorable if the situation wasn’t what it was. Finally, he blinked and gave a single nod.
Daqing felt as though he’d been run over by a truck. He was expecting Zhao Yunlan to just be so out of it he wasn’t aware what was going on. This, though, this struggling to understand, this was worse. “How do you feel?” he asked before he could think that through too much more.
Zhao Yunlan frowned again and appeared to be slowly parsing the sentence together. Then he put his hand on his stomach and jutted out his lower lip. The hair on the back of Daqing’s neck stood on end at the clear gesture: Zhao Yunlan was still hungry.
“Didn’t you just eat? And you’re always accusing me of being a glutton!” Daqing tried to make a joke at what was really disturbing him.
Zhao Yunlan stared, frowned, made the expression that said he was attempting to parse again, and finally shook his head.
A delicate, pale hand came down onto Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder from above. “Take your time, Zhao Yunlan. I’ll feed you more energy after the amount you just ate has digested. As you eat more, you’ll be more able to think.”
Zhao Yunlan tipped his head back and met the Soul Severing Emissary’s eyes, and his own formed a distinct expression akin to what Daqing had previously called crush-eyes.
The Soul Severing Emissary continued, to Daqing this time, “And hopefully, we should be able to get him back his souls before too much longer and before he starts to feel more at home in the body of one of the Ghost Tribe than his human body.”
“That could happen?” Daqing asked.
“This whole thing hasn’t happened before, so we’re in uncharted waters at this point. Expect anything.”
Daqing really didn’t like the implication that not even the Soul Severing Emissary had any idea what would happen. As it saw the Soul Severing Emissary had said what he wanted to say and was content to just stand there with his hand touching Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder, anxious and saddened for him, it cleared its throat. “Your Honor… Xiao Guo pointed out you look exactly like a professor at Longcheng University. Are you him or are you just using the appearance of that professor, or will we find that there is no such person as Professor Shen if we look deeply enough?”
“I became a professor there to keep an eye on certain people.”
With his eyes fixed on Zhao Yunlan like they were, there could be no question as to which person the Soul Severing Emissary was referring to.
“What is it about him? Is it just because he’s the Guardian and will likely have to work with you again and again?”
The Soul Severing Emissary turned his face to gaze at the cat. “It is not just that.” Daqing got a sense of finality from that, that if it asked anything else about what their relationship had been that day, it would be ignored. So he didn’t.
“I’ll go back to searching,” Daqing said, jumping off the couch, leaving the Soul Severing Emissary with a hand on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder and Zhao Yunlan gazing up at him with wide eyed wonder.