The night was dark and quiet as the two young men veered their small wagon off the main road onto a small, hidden dirt path. They had to go slow, as it was hard to see ahead of them even with the light spells they’d cast.
The deeper into the forest they went, the more demonic aura they could sense. A little boar sitting on the coffin would squeak to let them know if they were on the right track.
“This baby boar is so cute,” said Jianjin. “Our senior sisters would love it if I brought it back.”
“You know it’s a demon beast, right?” said Jianshi.
“You said it yourself that spirit-devouring beasts are harmless to humans,” said Jianjin. “Besides, it’s just a baby—ow! It bit me!”
“Then stop disturbing it,” said Jianshi.
“How’s your new hairstyle working out for you, bro?” said Jianjin, blowing on his bitten hand. “Can you even see with your hair covering half your face?”
“It feels pretty good,” said Jianshi, absently adjusting his gauntlets and belts that had extra buckles added to them.
“Ah, so you’re going for the dark, broody image, huh,” said Jianjin. “I wonder what style I should go for.”
“How about a fist-fighting style like Qiulan Shijie*?” said Jianshi. “Hmm, if you like big flashy moves, Xiaomei Shijie’s ‘Meteorite Sword Technique’ might suit you.”
*Shijie = senior sister
“I don’t possess Qiulan Shijie’s thick biceps or Xiaomei Shijie’s gorgeous beard,” said Jianjin. “Besides, I think I’d prefer a darker style like Shizun. Riding into battle on a black mare wielding the ‘Heaven-Defying Sword’—how cool is that? I also want one…”
“It starts from a hundred silver coins to get your sword customised,” said Jianshi, dashing his brother’s dreams. “And even with that, it’ll take at least five years of infusing your aura into it.”
“Shizun’s already got us the best starting spirit swords. I’m sure I can name my sword in no time,” said Jianjin, patting the sword at his waist.
“Seeing how inconsistent you are in your practising, it’ll take you ten years for the sword to fully develop.”
“It won’t take that long! I did my calculations—Shizun named her sword in her early twenties. I won’t be that far behind!”
“Shizun was already fighting alongside General Ye at our age while we’re still making rookie mistakes in our investigations.”
“I formed a spirit core at ten,” said Jianjin. “Even if it’s due to sheer dumb luck, it’s got to count for something.”
“If you worked half as hard as Shizun does, then maybe you’ve got a chance.”
“Hm, there’s also the easy way of inheriting a spirit sword from someone else,” said Jianjin. “Di Shibo got Ashfire that way, isn’t it?”
“Well, if you looked at who he inherited it from, I’d say we’re way luckier,” said Jianshi.
“True, that,” said Jianjin.
“Bwee!” squeaked the little boar behind them.
“Hm? There’s something up ahead,” said Jianshi, following the eerily glowing spirit stones along the path and pulling the wagon to a stop.
They hopped off and examined the small hut that stood at the end of the dirt road.
When they looked a little closer, they saw the walls were smudged in soot and black strips of cloth hung from the rafters. An altar nestled within, filled with lit incense and oil lamps. Offerings of fruit and wine were piled atop and the ground was covered in half-burnt joss paper. There was a kneel cushion and a set of moon blocks.
“Ohh, you can even get your fortune told?” said Jianjin, reaching for the moon blocks on the altar, but stopped himself just before he picked them up. “Ah, right, don’t touch random stuff without examining it first!”
“You’re finally learning,” sighed Jianshi. He looked around and found that this place was arranged like a shrine with the aesthetics of a tomb.
A light breeze stirred the joss papers on the floor and amidst the glow of the lamps, it looked pretty inviting…to otherworld guests.
“Whoever’s being worshipped this far out is really lucky to get so many offerings,” said Jianjin, looking at the bottles of fine wine. “Let’s see who this lucky fella is…”
He read off the tablet on the altar:
“Guyue Peak Lord, Tianzhu-Jun*.
The war is fought; the prophecies be done.
The gates are closed; spirits dispersed.
Souls be at rest.”
*Hermit Moon Peak Lord, Lord Divine Retribution
“Uh, seems like this shrine’s to keep ‘him’ well-fed below so he wouldn’t come back to the living…souls be at rest, be at rest,” Jianjin said a quick prayer in case.
“This should be the landmark Di Shibo mentioned,” said Jianshi, waving at his brother to go back to the wagon. “The entrance to Zhuiyue Cave should be just ahead.”
They drove the wagon around the shrine and went a little further until they reached a clearing in front of a rocky cave.
They could hear voices and chatter surrounding them.
“Why aren’t they turning around?”, “Didn’t they see the shrine? Aren’t they scared of ghosts?”, “Call the administrator!” were among some of the chatter they heard.
“Ah-Jin, watch over senior Xie,” said Jianshi as he disembarked the wagon and saw a dozen pairs of eyes gleaming in the darkness.
“Yes, sir,” said Jianjin staying close to the coffin with the squealing boar safely in his arms.
“Administrator Lan is here!” came a wave of whispers, as a young woman walked out of the shadows.
“Oh shut up, you lot. Cangshi is with them so they must be here for a reason,” she said, hushing the voices behind her.
The little boar squeaked excitedly and hopped out of Jianjin’s arms to nip at her ankles. The young lady wore white robes and had an erhu strapped to her back. She looked and sounded completely human.
“We are disciples of the Border Mountains Sect, here on the orders of the Fallen Leaves Valley Lord,” said Jianshi, clasping his hands in greeting.
“Valley Lord Di sent you?” asked the young lady as the little boar ran circles around her legs.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Jianshi. “Di Shibo has ordered us to escort our senior Xie to the Zhuiyue Cave and keep him safe until further instructions.”
“Where is this senior Xie?”
Jianshi and Jianjin turned to the coffin on the wagon.
“…” went everyone.
“Um, Di Shibo has a letter for administrator Lan,” said Jianshi, handing her a letter.
“That’d be me,” said the young lady, taking the letter to read.
“Come with me,” she said, beckoning them to follow her into a dark cave. They could hear footsteps and chattering following close behind them—probably the demons who were watching them earlier. The little boar was squeaking and oinking as if chatting with the demons behind them.
“Don’t mind them, they’re just a bunch of busybodies,” said the young lady as she led them to what seemed like the end of the cave.
“Open up,” she yelled to whoever was on the other side. The rock wall moved away. Lights and sounds greeted them at the end of a short tunnel. This wasn’t some dank cave—it was a lively little town filled with shops and people, no, demons.
“Welcome to Zhuiyue Cave,” said the young lady, bringing them to the guardhouse to register their details.
“Human cultivators? Are they your friends?” said the two cow-headed guards. They handed out entry forms for Jianshi and Jianjin to fill out.
“I didn’t know that demons are bureaucratic,” whispered Jianjin to his brother.
“They’re senior Diao—young miss’s disciples,” said the young lady to the guards.
“Oh my, young mistress Suiyu’s disciples?” said the guards, suddenly warming up to them. “Welcome, welcome!”
“Miss, did you know our Shizun?” asked Jianshi.
“You’re Jianshi and Jianjin, disciples of the Mad Tiger Peak, aren’t you?” said the young lady.
“And you are…?” asked Jianshi.
“Ah right, I forgot to introduce myself,” said the young lady. “I’m Lan Yinqiao, administrator of the Zhuiyue Cave and out-of-town disciple of Cloudrest Peak.”
“Ehhh? Cloudrest Peak’s disciple?” said Jianjin.
“Hahaha, you must be the noisy younger brother, Jianjin. You’re both exactly as senior Diao says in her letters,” said Lan Yinqiao.
“Should we open the coffin to check?” asked one of the guards.
“The instructions are to only open the coffin after delivering it to the young master’s quarters,” said Lan Yinqiao. “Go tell the captain to meet us there.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said one of the guards, rushing off to find the guard captain.
Lan Yinqiao called a few more guards over to escort the wagon to a manor at the end of the street. The street was filled with shops and hawkers, surrounded by houses and some strange constructs.
The air was strangely fresh for a cave; there was even a little underground waterfall where the inhabitants drew their water.
“This is a pretty cool place,” said Jianjin as he gawked at the bright lanterns and lively hawkers.
“It’s one of the few places we set up for the demon-kind refugees. Most of them came from the north,” said Lan Yinqiao, leading them into a manor.
“Administrator Lan,” greeted some of the servants working at the manor. “We’ve prepared the rooms for the guests.”
“Captain Heigou will be here shortly,” informed Lan Yinqiao.
“I have so many questions I don’t know where to start,” said Jianjin to his brother.
“Don’t run your mouth off,” warned Jianshi. “Let’s just wait for senior Xie to wake up so we can ask him.”
“Oh, good idea!” whispered Jianjin.
A large hulking dog-headed man walked into the room, nodding at Lan Yinqiao.
“I’ll leave them in your hands now, captain,” said Lan Yinqiao, leaving the room to three men, a baby boar, and a coffin.
“Eh? She’s leaving us?” said Jianjin.
“So you’re young miss’s disciples?” said Heigou*, who looked every bit like his name.
Jianshi slapped Jianjin’s arm to remind him of his manners.
“Chen Jianshi of the Border Mountain Sect’s Mad Tiger Peak,” said Jianshi, introducing himself.
“Chen Jianjin, likewise,” said Jianjin, dipping his head in greeting.
Heigou gave a hearty laugh and wrapped their hands in his and shook them.
“Wow, his hands are so big and warm,” whispered Jianjin.
“I’d never thought I get to see little mistress Suiyu have her own disciples with my own eyes. Make yourselves at home. I’ll keep you safe while you’re here.”
“Um, I think we should get Senior Xie out of the coffin,” said Jianshi.
Heigou raised a brow at the coffin and everyone went ‘…’ again.
They took a good hour to untie the cables and unfasten the seals. Di Mie did a very thorough job of wrapping the coffin in layers of protection and hiding spells. When they opened the coffin, revealing a sleeping Xie Li within, Heigou raised a brow.
“Oh. So this is your ‘Senior Xie’,” said Heigou.
“Should we wait for him to wake up first or…?” wondered Jianjin.
“Allow me,” said Heigou with a big fond smile on his face. He carefully carried Xie Li and placed him onto a large, soft bed.
After a while, Xie Li stirred and woke to the sight of a big black dog staring at him.
“Hm? Heigou, you’re here?” mumbled Xie Li, pushing himself to sit up. He rubbed his eyes and looked around the room.
The little boar hopped onto the bed, squeaking at Xie Li.
“Oh, you are here too,” said Xie Li.
“Cangshi seems to like you quite a bit,” said Heigou.
“So your name is Cangshi?” said Xie Li, stroking the boar’s head.
“Shall I fetch physician Hong?” asked Heigou.
“Physician Hong is here too?” said Xie Li.
“Yep. The young master asked us to come here once he received his mission to Bainiao Lake City.”
“I see,” said Xie Li. “It’s fine, you don’t have to.”
“Young master Mie’er has requested for me to be your personal guard,” said Heigou, kneeling by the bed to be at Xie Li’s height. “How would you like to be addressed?”
“You can just call me Xie Li.”
“As you wish, mister Xie Li.”
“Looks like Mie’er has been pretty thorough.”
“Being thorough is something the young master learned from you,” smiled Heigou.
“Ehh? You know each other?” blurted out Jianjin. “Does everyone know everything here except us?”
“Young mistress Suiyu—your Shizun didn’t tell you?” said Heigou.
“Tell us what?” said Jianjin.
Heigou turned to Xie Li and said, “Since the young master sent them here, he must know that the busybodies outside can’t keep secrets. Do we need to keep quiet about young master’s identity?”
“Let me handle it,” said Xie Li.
“Certainly,” said Heigou. “I shall be standing guard outside if you need me.”
“I really want to know what’s going on, why everyone here calls Di Shibo ‘young master’, and why our sect is working with demons,” said Jianjin.
“Do you have your Shizun’s permission?” said Xie Li.
“We’re disciples of Mad Tiger Peak,” grinned Jianjin. “Permission is just a guideline.”
“Stop causing trouble, Ah-Jin,” scolded Jianshi. He dragged Jianjin over and knelt by Xie Li’s bed. “Senior Xie, my useless brother couldn’t use his spirit aura since we left the bandit cave. Please help him if you can.”
“Hm?” said Xie Li, tilting his head. “The side effects shouldn’t have lasted more than a few days.”
“But…I still can’t muster any spirit aura…” said Jianjin.
“Show me your leg,” said Xie Li.
Jianjin quickly stood up and rolled up his trouser leg, showing an unblemished calf.
“Looks clear,” said Xie Li, after a quick examination. “Did Suiyu or Mie’er say anything about this?”
“They both said that I’ll figure it out by myself,” said Jianjin.
“They’re right,” said Xie Li. “This isn’t something we can help you with.”
“Why? If it’s sealed, isn’t there a way to unseal my spirit aura?”
“It’s a seal you created yourself,” said Xie Li.
“How? Why would I do that to myself?”
“Hmm,” said Xie Li, searching for a way to explain. “Say you fell and broke your leg. Normally, you should be able to walk once your leg recovers, but somehow due to the shock of breaking your leg, your body forgot how to.”
“I see,” said Jianshi. “So Ah-Jin really has to get over it by himself…”
“Can you please give me a hint at least?” said Jianjin.
“You could try starting from the beginning,” said Xie Li.
“Like, start by practising my fundamentals?” said Jianjin, feeling a spark of hope.
Xie Li shrugged, noncommittally.
“Thank you, Senior Xie!” said Jianjin, grateful for the advice.
“I want to ask…” hesitated Xie Li.
“Please ask us anything,” said Jianjin.
“Your spirit cores,” said Xie Li. “How did you cultivate them?”
Jianjin turned to his brother and said, “Shizun advised us not to tell this to anyone. “But I want Senior Xie’s opinion on this. You all right with that, bro?”
“Go ahead,” said Jianshi, giving him a nod. “I want to hear his opinion too.”
“It’s an accident how we became cultivators,” said Jianjin. “When we were young, we got sick from the plague. Our neighbour had stolen some medicine for his parents but it was too late for them, so he gave it to us. Since we were going to die anyway, we took the gamble and ate it. We managed to recover but there were some side effects…”
Jianshi took over and continued.
“We developed spirit cores but we couldn’t control it. Di Shibo happened to pass by and saved us from aura deviation. After that, he brought us to the Border Mountains Sect.”
“Can you describe the medicine?”
“It was a single pill in a medicine bottle—here, I kept the bottle with me,” said Jianshi, taking it out from his pouch.
“Hmm,” said Xie Li, taking the bottle from him and turning it in his hand.
“Does Senior Xie recognise this?” asked Jianshi.
“Your Shizun is right. You two should not talk to anyone else about this,” said Xie Li.
“Is it because our neighbour might have stolen the medicine from someone powerful?” said Jianjin.
“Yeah,” said Jianshi. “We’ve thought about that before. Maybe the owner of this bottle is still looking for it.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” said Xie Li.
“Why not? Was the medicine not worth much after all?” said Jianjin.
“That was an elixir,” said Xie Li.
“…” went the two boys.
“What?!” said Jianjin.
“That’s the spirit-core elixir rumoured to be sold in the black markets?” said Jianshi.
“The one they say is rumoured to be made with the gallbladders of cultivators?” said Jianjin, paling at the thought.
The two boys shuddered.
“It must’ve been worth a fortune,” said Jianjin.
“Whoever’s lost it must want it back. I think we’re doomed,” said Jianshi.
“Bro, can’t you be optimistic for once?” said Jianjin. “It’s been years. Whoever lost this shouldn’t be able to find us!”
“Your Shizun knows about it. Stay with her and she’ll keep you safe,” said Xie Li, humming.
“It seems like more and more people want our lives,” whispered Jianjin. “Bro, do we need to go into hiding?”
Jianshi ignored Jianjin.
“Senior Xie, how did you know it’s an elixir?” asked Jianshi. “Was it the symptoms we described?”
“That, and the bottle confirms it,” said Xie Li.
“It doesn’t seem that special,” said Jianjin, leaning over to peer at the bottle that was now in Xie Li’s hand. “I’ve seen many bottles similar to this one in our medicine room back at the Fallen Leaves Valley.”
“What would happen if someone else found out we took an elixir? Would we be expelled from the Border Mountains Sect?” asked Jianshi.
“I”m sure your Shizun and Lingfeng both already know about this when they brought you to the Border Mountains,” said Xie Li.
“That’s a relief to hear,” said Jianshi.
“Anyway, whoever the poor soul was, I’m sorry for eating your spirit core. If it’s any consolation, I don’t remember the taste of it at all,” said Jianjin, offering up a prayer.
“It was spicy,” whispered Jianshi, joining him in the prayer.
Xie Li huffed and reached out, patting both their heads.
“It’s all in the past, what’s done is done. No one will blame you.”
Jianjin’s eyes lit up as Xie Li gave him a head pat.
“I’m keeping this bottle,” said Xie Li.
“If Senior Xie wants the bottle, please take it,” said Jianshi.
“Thank you so much, Senior Xie! I feel refreshed now that I have some answers,” said Jianjin, eager to go to his room to work on getting his spirit aura back. “We shall leave you to your rest!”
Jianshi looked back before he left, and at that moment, he saw Xie Li holding the bottle with a very cold expression.
As they left, Heigou invited himself back into the room.
“Mister Xie Li,” said Heigou. “I couldn’t help but overhear a little. Show me the bottle, please.”
Xie Li showed Heigou the bottle, who sighed as he recognised it.
“So these two children took the elixir you made?” said Heigou.
“I’m pretty sure after seeing this,” said Xie Li, looking at the bottle.
“No wonder young mistress Suiyu took them in as her disciples,” said Heigou. “She must’ve known from the moment she met them.”
“Mie’er must suspect it as well.”
Heigou brewed a fresh pot of tea and poured Xie Li a cup.
“You haven’t told him what happened that day?”
Xie Li shook his head.
“Maybe that’s for the better,” said Heigou. “Let’s not think about such matters anymore. Here, a toast to you.”
“What’s the occasion?” said Xie Li, tilting his head.
“Nothing much,” grinned Heigou. “It’s just good to see you again.”
“Ah, sure,” said Xie Li, picking up his cup and accepting Heigou’s toast.
“I’ll bring physician Hong to visit you tomorrow. He’ll be glad to see you too after such a long time.”
Xie Li put down the cup.
“Can I not see him?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell him not to scold you this time,” chuckled Heigou.
Xie Li walked to the window and opened it, studying his surroundings.
“Mister Xie Li, please stop planning your escape…”
“Hm?” said Xie Li, noticing the pond outside his second-floor window.
“Oh?” said Heigou, looking at the window with him and realising what he was talking about. “Seems like the young master brought the moon in here for you.”
Xie Li looked up and saw the moonlight coming in from a series of small sky holes in the rock of the cave. He sat on the chair by the window and gazed at the pond, entranced by the shimmering moon on the water. Cangshi hopped onto his lap and nuzzled his hand.
Heigou sneaked out of the room and came back with a hand mirror a while later.
He quietly placed the tea set on the small table in front of Xie Li and refilled the cups with hot tea.
“Hmm,” said Heigou, and shifted the things around a little.
And added a small bowl of dried fruit.
For his final touch, he added a sprig of plum blossoms next to the teapot.
Satisfied with the image he was seeing, he stepped back and took out a hand mirror, pointing it at Xie Li and whispering a code to activate the enchantment.
Di Mie was sleeping when he felt an amulet being activated. He rubbed his eyes and went to the dressing table in his room, taking the amulet from his sash and hanging it over the mirror.
“What is it, administrator Lan—huh?”
He saw Heigou’s big face in the mirror, mouthing the words: “No need to thank me.”
Heigou’s face left the mirror and Di Mie saw the wistful image of Xie Li gazing out the window, absently stroking a baby boar in his lap.
“That sprig of plum blossom’s a bit too much,” said Di Mie.
The fond smile on his face said otherwise.
(pronounced like ‘Chahng She) which means ‘Azure Boar’. The cute little boar’s name is pretty straightforward!
(pronounced ‘hey go’) It directly translates to ‘black dog’.
Lan Yinqiao 蓝音巧
(pronounced ‘Lahn Yeen Chi-ow’) Lan is a surname meaning ‘Blue’, Yin means sound/tone and qiao means ‘good/skilful’. Probably a musician’s name because she’s from Cloudrest Peak (the Peak of the Bards) She’s called an out-of-town disciple because she stays outside the Border Mountains HQ.