Diao Xiyu floated on the cold lake and stared at the ceiling. It was blessedly quiet when the water covered her ears. The light in the cave was dim and spirit energy thrummed through the meridians beneath the cave. She closed her eyes and stretched out her arms, enjoying the weightlessness.
“Xiyu Jiejie*,” came a voice.
*jiejie = older sister
Seeing the familiar face, she quickly swam to shore.
“Jiejie swims like a fish in the water,” said Xilian, smiling as she set down a basket and lay a mat on the cold stone floor to sit on.
Xiyu crawled up to her and sat near her, flapping and clapping her hands.
“Ah, I brought some fruit,” said Xilian, taking some peaches out.
“Ah…ahh,” uttered Xiyu, trying to take a peach from Xilian.
“Wait patiently, I’ll cut them up for you,” said Xilian, chuckling.
Xilian had never once heard her older sister speak a single intelligible word. She behaved like she didn’t really understand anything. Her parents told her that their first-born daughter was a dull-witted mute and had her sent away as a child.
When she found out they had imprisoned Xiyu in this cave as a sacrifice, she had been furious but powerless. So she schemed her way into a marriage with the son of the Di family—nobles of equal standing in the demon world.
She smiled to herself thinking about how her parents were flabbergasted when the marriage they thought they had planned turned out to be the opposite—the man their precious daughter married was actually the ‘black sheep’ of the family, so to say. He came to Night Vigil City to be its guardian, which required him to give up his family connections. Without the prospect of climbing up the social ladder with this marriage, Xilian’s parents gave up on her as well.
She too, following her husband’s example, preferred the simpler tradition of most common folk here and ditched her surname, becoming just ‘Lady Xilian’.
Now that her parents couldn’t control her anymore, she had the freedom to visit and take care of Xiyu.
Initially, Xiyu didn’t respond and would stare blankly or wander off, but as Xilian persisted with her regular visits, she began to see Xiyu brighten up when she came by.
Petite from her stunted growth, Xiyu looked like a young girl no older than twelve. She chomped on the peach and stare longingly at the lake, as if ready to plunge back in any moment.
“You should’ve been born a fish, free to swim in the sea than be born to our family. What good is being worshipped as an immortal god if you’re trapped in a cave?” sighed Xilian.
She took out a book from the basket and opened it to a bookmarked page. Xiyu never got the education that Xilian had, so she would read to her older sister whenever she visited. She didn’t think that Xiyu would be able to speak, but she would not deny Xiyu the chance to listen to the poets of old.
Years have passed. Today seemed like any other visit. Xiyu would flap her hands or clap when she was excited and give her a silly smile as she crawled over and lay down by Xilian to listen.
“The guests filled the seats of the palace in two neat rows—” began Xilian.
“Ah, ahh,” uttered Xiyu, clapping and poking at Xilian’s book.
“Careful,” said Xilian. “We wouldn’t want to get the book wet.”
“Mmm,” said Xiyu, pointing at the page Xilian was reading.
“Does Jiejie like this poem?” smiled Xilian. “Shall I’ll read it again?”
“Ah,” said Xiyu, snatching the book out of her hands.
“Jiejie!” said Xilian, alarmed. Xiyu had never done something like this before.
Xiyu flipped the book and poked at it until Xilian took the book away.
“Oh dear, you got the pages wet,” said Xilian, taking out a handkerchief to dab the moisture away. She blinked when she saw on the page where the spots of water had landed.
Con. Gratulate. You.
“Huh?” said Xilian as she put the words together. They weren’t the right words, but if she read it out aloud, it was clearly congratulating her.
“Jiejie, looks like you pointed out something interesting.”
“Ahh,” said Xiyu, clapping her hands.
“Here, you can point at whichever word you want and I’ll read it aloud for you,” said Xilian, setting the book down and carefully wiping Xiyu’s hands dry.
Xiyu took the book from her eagerly and flipped through the pages, painstakingly finding and pointing out each word.
“Me. Going. To. Have. Nephew,” said Xilian, reading them out.
“Eh?” blinked Xilian.
Xiyu smiled, stood up, and went back to the water to play.
Xiyu watched the light of the crystal stars embedded in the ceiling of the cave fade over the years, eventually turning dark. She went into the water, sealing the northern domain away from the corruption coming from the south.
As she slept, she had a long dream of her own.
When she woke, it was too late.
She left the lake and took the road to Night Vigil City. The place was covered in a fog. The spirit meridians beneath her were sealed shut. The city was lifeless and silent. Wisps of darkness swirled about. Voices of the dead whispered in her ear.
With a wave of her hand, she sent every bit of lingering dead aura back to oblivion.
The guardian of Night Vigil City must have fulfilled his duty in stopping the dead aura from invading the northern domain. She recalled vestiges of her dream as she made her way through the streets and into the castle. She took out a book and cast a spell on it, using it to dowse for a familiar aura.
She followed it into a room filled with the same fragrance of the incense that used to linger on Xilian’s cape.
Seeing the room for the first time with her own eyes, she stumbled around, running her hands over the items left behind and feeling for familiar memories—the dresses Xilian wore, the basket, books and toys she would bring. There were also many other things in the room she hadn’t seen before. Hand-sewn children’s garments. Tea leaves from the southern lands.
Memories of others.
Memories to others.
There were things dear to Xilian out there in the world.
To her parents, she was a dimwitted child. To Xilian, she was an inept older sister. To everything else, she was Hei Xuan, Keeper of the Black Lake. Xiyu had been given to the gods as a child and became Hei Xuan, God of the northern domain. Awakened after a long sleep, she was curious to see what the world had become.
She was going to see what Xilian left behind.
Hei Xuan strolled down the empty street as the sun rose upon Night Vigil City. She raised a hand to her brow to shade her sensitive crimson eyes from the first rays. As she left the city behind, the book vanished from her hand. A crow flew to perch upon her shoulder and began to recite aloud the poems as her sister did all those years ago.
It took a few years but Hei Xuan found herself looking at her nephew. He wore a disguise but she could recognise him from his distinct aura signature.
“Long. Time. No. See,” said the crow on her shoulder.
“…you,” hissed Di Mie. “Why are you here, Auntie?”
Di Mie stormed into Juxian Inn and kicked the door to Qing Lingfeng’s room open. He threw a large heavy sack onto the floor. The sack split open and an assortment of spirit swords and weapons fell out.
Gouzi followed close behind, carrying an equally heavy sack. He closed the door behind them quietly and greeted his Shizun.
“Valley Lord Di. Did something happen? You seem to be in a bad mood,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“My Big Auntie* is here,” said Di Mie.
*also slang for ‘period’
“…pardon?” blinked Qing Lingfeng.
Gouzi looked completely confused and started muttering to himself.
“Do something about your disciple,” said Di Mie, rolling his eyes.
“He’ll be fine. That aside, I don’t remember you mentioning you having a big auntie,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“She’s Hei Xuan of the Black Lake. You know, Keeper of the Northern Spirit Domain.”
“…” went Qing Lingfeng, closing his eyes to think and pinching his brow. “Why was I hoping to expect anything less? Weren’t the domain spirit-gods all dead or sealed away?”
“Beats me. All I know is she’s somehow working with the fox-faced gigolo who amassed spirit weapons.”
“Hong Lian, owner of the popular gambling den in the west quarter of the city. They’re known for selling ‘pawned’ cultivator tools and weapons on the side.”
“I’ve heard about this character from the Cloudrest disciples that he’s a freelance cultivator who enjoys dressing up as a fox demon. So, was he a real demon?”
“Hah, no way he’s a real demon,” said Di Mie. “The way he wielded spirit aura would put most cultivators to shame. I’m also pretty sure he’s actually Zhu Yinghe in disguise.”
“Didn’t the steward of the Rong Clan die in a fire during the dead aura outbreak?” said Qing Lingfeng.
“It doesn’t matter if he’s a steward or a gambling den owner,” said Di Mie. “The only thing we need to find out is what he’s planning. It seemed he’s been collecting stolen spirit weapons.”
“That explains the sacks,” said Qing Lingfeng, looking at the mess on the floor.
“I spent two gold coins on these,” said Di Mie. “I’ll return them back to their owners for a ‘fee’ to get my money back.”
“And you need a location and paperwork to approve this,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“Thanks in advance, big bro Lingfeng,” said Di Mie.
“Gouzi, you’re in charge of assisting Valley Lord Di for as long as you are here,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“Yes, Shizun,” said Gouzi, pursing his lips.
“This is a good learning experience for you,” chuckled Qing Lingfeng. “Didn’t you always say you want to learn how to do business?”
“You’ll be paid double wages as long as you’re working for me,” dangled Di Mie.
“Yes, sir,” said Gouzi, perking up at the mention of money.
“Ah, yes, Uncle Niu and Auntie Ma want your permission to visit Brother Xie,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“If people keep going there, I may as well put a big banner over Zhuiyue Cave as a tourist destination,” said Di Mie.
“Tell that to them yourself,” said Qing Lingfeng. “I’d rather they all go back to Mountainside Town where it’s safer. Also, I want to go home to see my wife and son.”
“Ah, that’s right,” said Gouzi. “Shiniang* always comes back to spend winter at Crystal Peak.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” said Di Mie. “Shizun suggested sending Jianjin to Lady Nitya to have her open his third eye.”
“Oh? Just Jianjin? Did he mention Jianshi too?”
“No, he didn’t say anything else,” said Di Mie.
“All right. I’ll let my wife and head disciple Diao know,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“Third eye…?” said Gouzi, closely following Di Mie as he got to work. “Does head disciple Diao’s disciple want to learn our Crystal Peak’s spirit techniques?”
“Who knows what my Shizun’s thinking?” laughed Di Mie. “I put those two brats with him for a few days and he’s already teaching them advanced techniques. I bet after this they’ll appreciate what a sheltered life Suiyu has given them.”
“Ah…rest in peace, my fellow disciples,” said Gouzi, sending a silent prayer for them and also for himself now that he was tethered to their Shibo.
“Come on, we’ve got letters to deliver, a stall to set up, and elite clans to rip off,” said Di Mie.
Rong Zhong shakily filled two cups to the brim with wine. His whole body hurt and he was missing an arm, but this pain was nothing compared to what he felt when he saw the spirit bow on the table.
He looked out the window but there was no sky to be seen in here. Instead, there was the reflection of the moon in the pond below.
The wine was the Dream-Wandering Immortal, sweet and tangy. He hadn’t expected such wine to be available. Zhuiyue Cave didn’t seem that different from a human town. In fact, he’d venture to say this was a far better place than most human towns, given how the people, ah, no, demons here showed curiosity rather than hostility to a stranger like him.
“It’s all so interesting that I wish you were here with me to see this, Yinghe,” said Rong Zhong, raising a cup as he gazed upon the spirit bow.
“We should be patrolling—” came a voice outside his door.
“Captain Heigou said today’s not our turn, and Senior Xie—”
“Mie’er said you two have to be with me or I cannot enter this room.”
“Oh yeah, that’s what Di Shibo said, didn’t he?”
Rong Zhong raised a brow at the commotion outside and opened his door to take a look.
Three men stared at him.
“…yes?” said Rong Zhong.
“Hu Xun, give me the Jiutian sword,” said Xie Li.
“Um, Senior Xie,” said Jianshi. “Perhaps this might be too direct—”
“Please give me the Jiutian sword, Mister Hu,” said Xie Li, correcting himself.
Jianjin facepalmed. Even he could tell this was terribly awkward.
After a while, Rong Zhong opened the door wider and invited them in.
“Mister Xie, it’s good to see you again,” said Rong Zhong. “Who may these two gentlemen be?”
“Chen Jianshi,” said Jianshi, standing straight and holding out his hands in greeting as if they were soldiers.
“Chen Jianjin,” Jianjin followed up.
“We’re disciples of the Mad Tiger Peak,” said Jianshi.
Rong Zhong noticed how these Mad Tiger Peak disciples’ style in greeting alone differed from the more chivalric style of the Crystal Peak disciples he’d met.
It was definitely more intimidating as well…
“I’m Hu Xun of Bainiao Lake City,” said Rong Zhong, his reflexes of decorum kicking in. “I would offer you tea, but as you can see…”
“Do not trouble yourself, um, Mister Hu,” said Jianshi.
Xie Li looked around the room.
“The sword is in the chest over there,” volunteered Rong Zhong.
Xie Li made a beeline to the chest and took out the sword.
“It’s dangerous,” said Rong Zhong, alarmed at how Xie Li was handling it casually.
“Yes. Take a few steps away from me,” said Xie Li, checking the seals on the sword case.
Rong Zhong watched as the two disciples obeyed Xie Li without question and gave him a wide berth.
Xie Li carefully carried the sword in his arms and walked over to Rong Zhong, staring at the bandaged stump of his right arm.
“Ah, I apologise for my state of undress, Mister Xie,” said Rong Zhong, feeling conscious about missing a tunic and an arm.
“Hu Xun,” said Xie Li. “Are you Di Mie’s friend?”
“Do you promise to be good to him?”
“I swear it.”
“Okay,” said Xie Li.
“You shouldn’t trust me so easily, seeing it’s only the second time we’ve met,” said Rong Zhong.
“Mie’er wouldn’t bring you here to Zhuiyue Cave if he thought he couldn’t trust you,” said Xie Li.
“I never knew Brother Di had such an interesting nickname.”
Xie Li shrugged. It was easy to slip up.
“Wow, he calls our Shibo ‘Brother Di’,” whispered Jianjin. The room was small, so everyone heard him.
“Ah, you two must be the ‘troublesome junior nephews’ that Brother Di mentioned,” said Rong Zhong.
“I’ll, uh, go fetch some snacks!” said Jianjin, scooting out of the room before he blurted something else out.
Taking the cue, Rong Zhong gestured at the other chair at the small tea table. There were only two chairs.
“It’s fine, I’ll stand,” said Jianshi, assuming a guard’s stance behind Xie Li.
Xie Li sat down, putting the Jiutian sword across his lap. He looked at the setup on the table and then at Rong Zhong’s arm.
“Apologies,” said Rong Zhong, as he grabbed a robe and draped it over his bandaged chest.
“Don’t cover it up,” said Xie Li, his fingers twitching as if measuring something.
Rong Zhong blinked and froze. He’d met his fair share of eccentrics but this Xie Li was one of the harder ones to keep up with.
“Might Senior Xie be thinking about a prosthetic arm?” said Jianshi. He had seen once how Xie Li stared at Old Niu’s leg, muttered calculations and then offered to improve the design.
“Mn,” said Xie Li. “So many people have lost their limbs to dead aura and yet there aren’t any good prosthetics on the market. The twenty broken wooden guards at Huahu Island alone can provide eighty functional limbs with the right adjustments.”
“Ah? You’ve been to Huahu Island?” said Rong Zhong, surprised.
Xie Li nodded.
“Broken wooden guards… Might I assume you broke them?”
“Are you the one rebuilding the temple?” said Xie Li.
“Yes,” admitted Rong Zhong.
“The Rong Clan destroyed the island, so why are you trying to restore it?” said Xie Li, looking away, as if disinterested.
Rong Zhong took a sip of tea and sighed.
Jianjin quietly took his place next to his brother after serving the seniors a pot of fresh tea and some snacks.
“As you already know, I’m Rong Zhong, the second son of the Rong Clan. Huahu Island is the Rong Clan’s territory,” said Rong Zhong. “My good friend told me how beautiful Huahu Island used to be so I took over the island, hoping to restore it, but I don’t think I can continue with the project.”
“He’s not here with me anymore,” said Rong Zhong. “I don’t know if there’s still a point to my efforts.”
“Probably not,” said Xie Li.
Rong Zhong winced at his frank reply.
“It’s very difficult to restore a major domain of that size, more so if its Keeper is missing,” continued Xie Li.
Rong Zhong raised a brow, surprised at Xie Li’s explanation.
“Only a handful of people in the top clans know the fact that Huahu Island was a major spirit domain,” said Rong Zhong. “Did the Spirit Emperor, your sect leader Qing, tell you this?”
“It’s taught in our classes, though I think we don’t call the masters of those domains ‘gods’, not ‘keepers’,” said Jianjin. Realised he might’ve spoken out of turn, he quickly apologised. “Ah, sorry for interrupting!”
“Please, join us, Second Mister Chen. I would like to hear your opinion as well,” said Rong Zhong, smiling.
“No need for formalities! Just call me Jianjin,” said Jianjin, looking more relaxed. “I think it’s said there used to be spirit gods who resided and watched over the four major spirit domains. There’s, um, ‘Southern Fox’ and ‘Northern Mystic’?”
“Eastern Prisoner, Southern Fox, Western Aegis, Northern Mystic,” prompted Jianshi. “Those were the gods of the major domains discovered.”
“Anyway, that’s why we could probably guess that Huahu Island was once a major spirit domain,” explained Jianshi.
“There aren’t other islands with ‘hu (fox)’ in its name in the south,” added Jianjin.
“Not only is the Border Mountain Sect’s information network impressive, but the way they give away such secrets as common knowledge to their disciples is something no other clan will match. The previous and current sect leaders have such foresight indeed,” said Rong Zhong, deeply impressed.
“Hu Xun, ask me a question. You should ask a difficult one,” said Xie Li.
“Why the sudden offer?” said Rong Zhong.
“Ah,” realised Jianjin. “Could it be that Senior Xie wants a favour from Mister Hu?”
“I owe him two-thousand silvers. Mie’er says I can buy a whole tea store with that,” said Xie Li.
“Why do you speak of debt?” said Rong Zhong.
“Twenty wooden guards.”
“…ah. I see,” said Rong Zhong, amused. Brother Di always seemed to be surrounded by the most intriguing friends. “So. I need to ask you a question worth two-thousand silvers.”
“I’d thought to offset the debt by a little, but do you have a question worth that much?” said Xie Li.
To Rong Zhong, it sounded like a challenge.
“Given the current exchange rate, that would be around twenty-five gold bits, meaning around twelve gold coins,” said Rong Zhong, stroking his chin in thought. “Indeed, you could buy over a decent tea shop in the suburbs or have an intermediate-level spirit sword smithed and customised.”
“You seem knowledgeable about prices. Can you appraise this?” said Xie Li, putting Twig on the table.
Rong Zhong took one look at it and smiled.
“This is Brother Di’s Jade Flute sword, isn’t it?”
Jianshi and Jianjin nodded.
“Brother Di once showed me this sword. It is a sword that specialises in aura retaining and channelling. It is worth a fortune, but it is also worth nothing,” said Rong Zhong.
“How can it be worth a fortune and nothing at the same time?” asked Jianjin.
“Is it because few people are capable of using this sword?” said Xie Li.
“‘Few’ is a generous estimate. Perhaps only Brother Di was able to bring out its full power because he possessed both power and precision,” said Rong Zhong.
“But we saw Senior Xie use Twig without any problem,” said Jianjin.
“It’s imbued with a strong enchantment to store spirit aura,” said Xie Li. “I don’t need spirit aura to use it.”
“Ah, that changes the game,” said Rong Zhong. “The value of this sword will depend on how easy or difficult it is to utilise the spirit aura within. It might be easier to use Brother Di’s name to market this as a collector’s item if you want a better price for it.”
“So you’re saying the value of this sword depends on its user,” said Xie Li. “I suppose it’s hard to know how much money I owe Mie’er.”
“However, Brother Di’s Ashfire sword is the complete opposite,” said Rong Zhong. “It’s a sword that amplifies one’s power with an added fire element. Anyone with a spirit core can use it so that sword can start its bid at a hundred gold coins at an auction and probably get five times the amount.”
“Di Shibo really lucked out, inheriting a sword worth a fortune,” whispered Jianjin to his brother.
“Now then, I think I have a question for you,” said Rong Zhong.
“Is there a way to summon a spirit from the dead?”
There was silence in the room for a while.
Xie Li seemed unfazed, tapping the table as he thought about the answer.
“It depends on which part of the dead person’s spirit you wish to summon and whether it still lingers.”
“Is it possible to summon a spirit, whole and intact?”
“There are too many variables that make this feat very hard.”
“What about dead aura? It killed my brother Rong Jing, and then brought his spirit back into his dead body, didn’t it?”
“What dead aura does is give manifestation to the lingering desires the spirit leaves behind,” said Xie Li.
“I see,” said Rong Zhong, going uncharacteristically quiet for a moment.
Jianjin took the opportunity to coax Xie Li to eat more of the snacks he brought in. Jianshi chuckled at how his brother was getting along well with their senior.
“Do you have more questions?” asked Xie Li, absently chewing on some lotus seeds. “It doesn’t feel like I completely answered your previous question. You can ask about the technicalities.”
Rong Zhong, scratching his chin, wondering if he really wanted to go into that. He shook his head and decided to change the topic instead.
“Enough about that,” smiled Rong Zhong, looking weary but glad for the company. “Why don’t I ask you about your relationship with brother Di? I overheard him calling Mister Xie ‘Shizun’. Please, tell me more.”
“Why is everyone so interested in this?” said Xie Li. He looked at Jianshi, who averted his gaze, and Jianjin, who gave him a sheepish grin.
Eastern Prisoner, Southern Fox, Western Aegis, Northern Mystic are written as Dongqiu, Nanhu, Xijia, Beixuan 东囚，南狐，西甲，北玄.
The cardinal directions in Chinese are usually referred to in an anti-clockwise manner starting from East.