The room’s inhabitants panicked when they heard a sharp knock on the door.
“Senior Xie, Physician Hong is here,” whispered Jianjin, hastily taking the books out of Xie Li’s hands and ushering him to bed. “Quick, get in!”
Xie Li quickly lay down and pulled a blanket up to his neck.
The door opened and a white-whiskered otter physician walked in and grumbled, “That’s right. Sick patients should obediently stay in bed.”
Jianshi and Jianjin pulled up a chair for the physician and served him some tea as he got to work.
Physician Hong sat down and took Xie Li’s pulse.
“I’ve felt stones with livelier pulses than yours,” said Physician Hong, wryly.
“Was it a Bian-stone or volcanic basalt—”
“Ahem,” coughed the physician.
“Oh…” realised Xie Li, sounding disappointed.
“You know your condition better than I do,” said Physician Hong. “This old physician can only give you symptomatic treatment.”
“It’s fine, I don’t need it.”
“Your bruised nerves say otherwise,” said Physician Hong. “You’ve got an injury that’s bone-deep. I bet it hurts like being thrown into hell.”
“Hell hurt more,” said Xie Li.
Physician Hong’s eyelid twitched in annoyance at his response.
“I’ll prescribe painkillers.”
“Do you know where to get the cheaper herbs?” said Xie Li. “Mie’er insists on getting the expensive stuff.”
“Don’t be a cheapskate and accept what you’re given,” said Physician Hong.
“Here, Physician Hong,” said Jianshi, pushing over a writing set prepared on the table for the elderly otter.
“You’ll need some herbs for your anaemia as well. It’s a pity you can’t just eat some cooked liver,” said Physician Hong, his whiskers twitching in annoyance as he wrote down a list of ingredients and instructions.
“Oh, right, Senior Xie’s vegetarian,” chirped Jianjin.
“I’m not vegetarian,” corrected Xie Li. “I just don’t eat meat.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” blurted out Jianjin.
“Hah, he’s not some pious monk. He’d eat meat if he could,” said Physician Hong, turning back to Xie Li with instructions. “Brew and drink this three times a day. If you stay in bed for the rest of winter, you should improve.”
“I can’t stay in bed. I have to go to work in the afternoon,” said Xie Li, sitting up.
“What work?” glared physician Hong. “Lie back down!”
“Your job is to rest,” said Physician Hong. His otter face was cute but the extra thick and long needles he took out from his medicine box were not.
Xie Li glanced at the door.
“Stop thinking about escaping.”
“You’re not the only patient today. The young master has asked me to treat some guy next door as well. I sure hope he’s better behaved than you,” grumbled Physician Hong. “Lie down so I can do my job.”
Xie Li lay back down.
“Can I apply these on your back?”
“No, it might disrupt the flow.”
“So it’s not an injury but some kind of enchantment or seal,” inferred Physician Hong. “All right, I’ll just make do.”
Jianshi and Jianjin winced as they watched the physician stick the extra-long needles into Xie Li’s acupoints.
Xie Li mumbled.
“Kid, just sleep if it’s comfortable,” said Physician Hong, flicking at the needles to induce vibrations to the acupoints.
“That’s….comfortable?” whispered Jianjin to his brother.
After the treatment, the otter-like physician gave Jianshi and Jianjin instructions and left. The room fell into an awkward silence.
Then they heard a groan and watched Xie Li struggle to get up.
“It’s really hard to not fall asleep once he put those needles in,” muttered Xie Li, rubbing his eyes.
“Senior Xie, didn’t those needles hurt? They looked so big…” said Jianjin.
“Physician Hong is very gentle with his treatments,” said Xie Li.
“Then why are you so scared of him?” said Jianjin. “Ah, is it because he scolds you?”
“Mn,” nodded Xie Li. “He’s scary when he raises his voice.”
“Hm,” said Jianshi. “So are Auntie Ma and Uncle Niu scary too? They do get pretty loud sometimes.”
“…sometimes,” nodded Xie Li.
They chatted for a while and suddenly there was a scream coming from next door.
Xie Li covered his ears and pulled his knees to his chest, eyes darting around.
Jianjin clung onto Jianshi’s arm as the ragged screaming continued to ring throughout the entire manor.
And then it stopped completely.
Jianjin and Jianshi blinked at each other, their hearts pounding hard.
“Oh my heavens, what was that? Did someone die?” said Jianjin.
“I think that be the patient that Physician Hong mentioned he was going to be treating next door…” said Jianshi.
The door opened and a black-haired young-looking Di Mie swiftly walked in.
“Damn, I forgot,” Di Mie cursed under his breath as he made a beeline straight to Xie Li who was sitting in the corner of the bed, all curled up with his hands over his ear, his eyes narrowed at the wall.
He climbed right into the bed and waved a hand in front of Xie Li’s face. “I forgot to put up a barrier. Are you all right?”
Xie Li did not respond.
“Can I touch you?”
A slight nod.
Di Mie carefully pulled Xie Li into his arms and rocked him in a steady rhythm.
“You’re warmer today,” he observed. “Physician Hong’s treatment is effective.”
After a while of rocking, Xie Li slowly stretched out his stiff arms.
“Next door. What?” he asked, pushing his words out.
“It’s just Rong Zhong screaming bloody murder over a little pain,” chuckled Di Mie. “Seems like he’s sensitive to demon aura.”
“Yeah. He got poisoned by the Jiutian sword and it nearly got to his heart,” said Di Mie. “I’m moving it away from his chest with demon aura and it’s taking quite a while. I don’t think his arm can be saved, though.”
Xie Li looked at Di Mie and asked quietly.
“Don’t worry about him or his arm. He’ll live and that’s enough.”
“All right,” said Xie Li, his speech beginning to unblock. “Want him silenced?”
“It’s fine. He’s got a lot of pent-up frustration. Let him scream his heart out,” said Di Mie, wrapping his arms a little tighter around Xie Li and rocking playfully.
“Mn,” hummed Xie Li. “I should move out.”
“Hm? Why do you say that?” said Di Mie.
“You told me to stay away from Rong Zhong.”
“Ah,” Di Mie paused and recalled. “I did say that.”
“He’s next door, so I should leave.”
“Then you can be near him as long as these two brats or Heigou are with you.”
“Hm,” said Xie Li, thinking of his options, then nodded. “Okay.”
Di Mie grinned and placed his chin on Xie Li’s shoulder.
“I’m happy Shizun listens to me.”
“I’m fine now. You can let go,” said Xie Li, butting Di Mie’s head with his.
“Don’t want~” pouted Di Mie. He squeezed Xie Li tight and continued to rock for another minute before reluctantly letting go.
“I’ll go back to work now. Don’t go anywhere until I come back, okay?” said Di Mie.
Xie Li hesitated.
After a long while, he nodded.
Everyone blinked as they thought in unison: that was one long hesitation!
Jianshi and Jianjin stood and watched as their Di Shibo left as swiftly as he came.
“It’s scary hearing someone scream like that, and scarier seeing Di Shibo come in and suddenly be all lovey-dovey toward Senior Xie,” said Jianjin, shuddering.
“Lovey-dovey?” said Xie Li.
“Uh…wasn’t he hugging and rocking you just now?”
“Ah, that?” said Xie Li. “He was helping me. Loud noises affect me badly sometimes.”
“Do you need us to help you with that if it happens again?” asked Jianshi.
Xie Li shook his head. “I don’t like being touched.”
“Uh…but Di Shibo clearly touched you,” said Jianjin.
“He’s an exception. Hm, Heigou is okay too.”
“Ah, that I understand. Captain Heigou is so furry and warm,” said Jianjin, nodding sagely.
Jianshi nodded as well. The black luxurious fur felt almost—dare he admit it—addictive…
“Man, I’m so curious to know more about Senior Xie,” said Jianjin.
“Me too,” admitted Jianshi.
“How about we play a game where we take turns asking questions to get to know you?” suggested Jianjin.
“Game?” said Xie Li.
“Yeah! We’ll ask you a question and you ask us one in return.”
“But I don’t have any questions now…”
“Then maybe you can ask us to do a small favour for every question answered,” suggested Jianshi.
“We helped you out at the restaurant yesterday. That’s gotta be worth at least two questions!” bargained Jianjin.
Jianshi gave Jianjin a look of approval.
“Since I do have a favour to ask of you, I’ll answer three questions,” said Xie Li.
“Great!” said Jianjin. “Okay, my first question is—mphh!”
Jianshi clapped a hand over Jianjin’s mouth.
“Did you think this through?”
“Mmmph—pah! Yes, yes I did,” said Jianjin. “Just leave it to me.”
“The first question I have for Senior Xie is: ‘What is your real relationship with Di Shibo?’ Answer truthfully!”
“Shizun and disciple,” Xie Li easily answered.
“Wait, you mean it’s not a game and your relationship is actually, like, formally acknowledged?” said Jianjin.
“Yes,” said Xie Li.
“Ah-Jin, stop talking,” said Jianshi.
“Last question,” said Xie Li, giving them a well-practised service smile.
“Oh shi—” Jianjin clapped his hands over his mouth. He nodded to his brother, leaving the last question for him.
Jianshi pursed his lips and thought for a long while.
“What is the name of the person you, hm, hate the most?”
Without batting an eyelid, Xie Li answered, “That’s easy. Qing Wangyue.”
“…” went both the boys.
“I’ve answered your three questions,” said Xie Li, no longer in the mood for more questions. “Now can you teach me some fun children’s games?”
“Hahah, Di Shibo’s face just now was pretty scary,” said Jianjin, laughing nervously as he walked down the street.
“Uh, he did walk in on you both on the floor,” pointed out Jianshi. “It must’ve looked awkward.”
“We were just teaching Senior Xie hopscotch! It’s not my fault that we tripped and fell…”
“My apologies for being clumsy,” said Xie Li.
“That’s what I don’t understand—how can senior be so skilled with a sword but can’t tell left from right?”
Xie Li shrugged.
“And then there was the staring contest between Di Shibo and Senior Xie,” said Jianjin, shuddering. “I’m getting goosebumps just remembering it. Di Shibo was intimidating, but Senior Xie’s eyes turned so cold I felt like someone was gonna die…”
“I’m probably causing him trouble again by asking to join the patrols,” said Xie Li. “I guess I should let him kick me a few more times if he’s angry.”
“I’ll save you if he kicks you down a pit again!” chirped Jianjin.
“Maybe he received worrying news that put him in a bad mood,” said Jianshi. “Let’s ask Captain Heigou later when we go patrol.”
They reached the Cat’s Paw restaurant and stood for a while at the doorway.
“Senior Xie, where will you go after your shift?” asked Jianshi.
Xie Li shook his head. “Di Mie told me not to leave Zhuiyue Cave. I’ll wait here for you here.”
“We’ll be really late,” said Jianjin. “Senior Xie should go back to the manor to rest first!”
Xie Li tilted his head and blinked.
“As you wish, sir,” said Jianshi, leaving and dragging his brother in tow.
“Will he be all right?” said Jianjin, peering back at Xie Li who was cheerfully welcomed to work by Jinbei, the cat-like owner of the restaurant.
“He’s the amazing Senior Xie who saved your life, isn’t he?” said Jianshi, slapping Jianjin’s arm.
“Yes, but why do you keep hitting me?” whined Jianjin.
“I’m helping you grow thicker skin,” said Jianshi.
“Hey, bro,” said Jianjin as they headed over to the guardhouse. “That last question you asked Senior Xie back at the manor—that was weird. Both your question and his answer made no sense…”
“Why don’t you slowly think about it?” said Jianshi, giving his brother a smile.
“Ugh, that’s a creepy smile,” said Jianjin. “You’re getting darker day by day, bro!”
During the patrol, Heigou showed them around and handed them a copy of the area’s map.
“Burn the map after you memorise it,” said Heigou.
“My brain doesn’t do too well with memory work,” groaned Jianjin. “Let’s do the usual, bro.”
“Mn,” said Jianshi, taking a quick look at the entire map before tearing the map into half, giving what seemed like the easier half for his younger brother to memorise.
Jianjin made up little jokes as he committed his half of the map to memory while the other two huffed in amusement listening to him.
When they were a little way down a trail in the forest, Heigou sniffed the air and growled.
“The smell of human blood is not far from here,” said Heigou, beckoning them to follow as he led the way.
The forest’s usual noises were replaced by a stillness in the air. As they approached the corpses that lay on the forest floor, a crow that was pecking at a dead man’s eye flew off.
“Human cultivators,” said Heigou.
“The yellow ones are from the Rong Clan,” said Jianjin. “This one in red and those in other colours…I don’t really recognise them. Probably the clans from the west?”
“Probably mercenaries,” said Heigou. “It’s common for large clans to hire them.”
“Why are they here?” said Jianshi. “The Rong Clan should be busy rebuilding.”
Heigou’s ears perked up and he drew his spear.
They heard rustling, followed by the sound of trickling water. The air turned colder and felt almost wet on their faces.
A hooded figure emerged from the trees, lashing out at them with whips.
“Get back!” hissed Jianshi, drawing his sword and casting a wall of spirit aura to block the attacks from reaching him and Jianjin.
Heigou lunged forward, cutting through the watery whips and bringing his spear down on the hooded figure, who turned to water. A few more such figures surrounded him.
Heigou blasted through the watery illusions with a powerful sweep of his spear. There was no trace of their attacker among them.
“Tsk, they got away,” said Heigou.
“Was that a demon?” asked Jianjin.
“I don’t know,” said Heigou. “I couldn’t detect aura in their attacks. They hid it well.”
They continued their examination of the corpses and found what looked like a deep, black cut in each of their chests. It was as if they were stabbed and the weapon scorched the wound. Some were missing an eye.
“The person who attacked us used a whip-like attack,” said Jianjin. “It doesn’t tally with the scorch marks. Why are they missing eyes, though?”
“Their eyes were probably pecked out by crows after they died,” said Jianshi.
“Oh yeah, we saw a crow pecking at his face just now,” said Jianjin. “The holes in these bodies look like the work of a thin blade…wait.”
Jianjin carefully turned one of the bodies over and saw the same hole on the other side as well.
“Or arrows,” said the both of them in unison.
“Spirit arrows or darts could probably do this,” said Jianshi. “But it’s strange we don’t see any arrows left behind—wait.”
Jianjin came to the same realisation: “It’s strange we don’t see any weapons left behind at all! Where are these cultivators’ spirit swords?”
Back at the Cat’s Paw, Xie Li was nodding off. Physician Hong’s treatment was too effective. Without his back pain bothering him much, he felt relaxed and sleepy.
“My heavens, that Dream-Wandering Immortal Jinbei hired looks just like the real deal,” giggled a female customer watching him make tea.
Even though he was drowsy, he managed to get the tea to the tables and give a sleep-tinged service smile.
“Heavens, let him sleep already,” whispered another customer.
Near the end of his shift, Xie Li couldn’t hang on anymore, and with his head on his hands at the counter, he fell asleep where he sat.
“…and we buried the bodies just in case,” said Heigou, explaining what happened to administrator Lan.
“I think that’s a good call,” said Lan Yinqiao, a young woman with a spirit sword at her waist and an erhu strapped to her back.
“Have you heard anything from the young master?”
“Not yet. He’s back at Bainiao Lake City to keep an eye on things,” said Lan Yinqiao. “My senior brothers have told me that there’s internal fighting going on at the Rong Manor.”
“But their clan head is here with us,” wondered Jianjin out aloud. “Is there another Rong clan family son still alive?”
“Is it the Rong Clan’s young mistress, Rong Ci?” said Heigou. “Isn’t she unconscious?”
“Was,” said Lan Yinqiao. “Rong Ci woke up recently and offered generous bounties for killing demons, especially demon beasts.”
“So the dead cultivators we found were looking for demons to hunt?” said Heigou.
“Maybe,” said Lan Yinqiao. “She could be using demons as an excuse to amass her forces. She’s even using her status as the highest-ranking survivor of the Yang Clan to gather more men.”
“Tsk, this is tricky,” said Heigou. “Rong Zhong appointed his cousin Jiang Tianhong to be in charge while he was gone. Did Jiang Tianhong not speak up?”
“Rong Ci argues that he is too young to carry out clan head duties,” said Lan Yinqiao. “Jiang Tianhong men have betrayed him and put him under house arrest. Lord Du said he cannot intervene as it happened within the Phoenix Manor.”
Heigou mulled over it for a moment and then said, “Should we evacuate our people?”
“If they are cultivators snooping around here, it’s better to lay low and wait until it blows over,” said Lan Yinqiao.
“All right. The guards will make sure no one leaves the cave for their own safety.”
Lan Yinqiao nodded, “I’ll inform the townsfolk.”
“Why are these big clans so complicated,” said Jianjin, scratching his head as he only understood half of the conversation. “I think I really…need to study more.”
“Yes, you do,” said Jianshi, patting Jianjin on the shoulder.
“Come, let’s all go have a drink,” chuckled Heigou, jerking his thumb in the direction of the bustling night street.
“Is this really the time for it?” said Lan Yinqiao. “There’s paperwork to be done—”
“Taking a break is even more important in times like these,” said Heigou. “We’ll just drink tea.”
“Tea? Sure, I guess,” said Lan Yinqiao, giving in.
“Oh, Senior Xie is probably waiting at the Cat’s Paw,” said Jianshi.
“Then let’s go to Jinbei’s shop,” said Heigou. “They’re opened late.”
Even if no one reads this, I’ll keep working on this project until I finish it.
If you’re reading this though, drop me a comment to let me know to make my day!