Jianshi and Jianjin made their way up the footpath the woodcutter said he often took. As they neared the abandoned temple, the stone path leading up the gentle slope looked well maintained.
Jianjin took a few steps back and up again, using his scabbard to carefully poke at a white stone on the side of the path.
“I’ve been concerned ever since I stubbed my toe on one of these stones on the way up,” said Jianjin. He pulled the grass back to expose another one a few steps away.
“You don’t really spot them as they seem to be hidden by the grass and dirt, but these are definitely guiding stones,” said Jianshi.
“You mean the stones that glow in the dark? Are they to guide the townsfolk to the temple?” asked Jianjin.
“Most likely the other way around,” said Jianshi. “Maybe they use them to find their way back to town when it gets too dark to see clearly.”
“If we trace the stones away from the temple, it doesn’t lead back to town, though,” said Jianjin, tracing back their steps and pointing out the direction the inconspicuous stones seem to diverge from their footpath. “Where do you think it leads?”
“Since we’re near the temple, shall we check it out first?” asked Jianshi.
“I think we should follow these stones first,” said Jianjin.
“All right,” said Jianshi.
They veered off the path into a thin forest, tracking down the white stones, mostly buried and hidden, until they reached a large thicket.
“Hey, there’s something else here,” said Jianjin, squatting down and pulling away at the brambles, revealing piles of loose soil and torn up trees and bushes.
“Looks like the work of a big animal,” said Jianshi.
“I bet it’s a wild bear,” said Jianjin, pulling out a black tuft of matted fur from the undergrowth and waving it. “The dug up plants are still green, so this should be recent.”
“I don’t think we should assume it’s a bear just yet,” said Jianshi.
“Bet you ten honey cakes that it’s a bear,” grinned Jianjin.
“Why are you like this,” sighed Jianshi.
“Those honey cakes are mine,” grinned Jianjin.
“Fine,” humphed the older Jianshi. “Since the odds are against me, I get twenty if it’s not a bear.”
“Giant bear,” said Jianjin. “I’m including all genus of bears, including demon ones.”
They clap their hands together to seal the bet.
Both of them started digging with their sword scabbards, but an hour later with a knee-deep hole, there was still nothing else in the ground other than the bit of fur they found on the surface.
“The soil is loose here,” said Jianjin. “There must be something underneath. I guess we’ll need to borrow some shovels.”
He stood up and stretched, looking at the sun’s position to check the time and wondering if it was time for a meal. “Bro, wanna head back to town—” he turned to look for Jianshi—“Where did you go?”
He took one step, and the ground beneath him gave way and he fell.
Brambles and roots slowed his fall but he still landed on his bum.
He flinched by instinct and looked around, relieved that no one was around.
He could almost hear the voices of his senior sisters scolding him for his fumble. He untangled himself and hopped to his feet, rubbing his sore bum and looked around.
“If no one saw me slip up, no one can scold me!” said Jianjin.
He poured spirit aura into his sword, using it like a torch to light up his surroundings.
There were bodies of humans and beasts alike, some in deep slumber, the rest covered in rats and insects. The rats and insects were a familiar sight to him—he was trained to fight these vermin that often crawled through the cracks of dead spirit gates—also called the ‘Abyss gates’.
His brother was lying not far amidst a pile of dirt and stones.
He rushed over to pull Jianshi out of the dirt and and found that his brother hadn’t been so lucky in his fall.
“Bro, wake up!” said Jianjin, slapping Jianshi’s face.
“Mm,” Jianshi stirred. His head was bleeding.
Jianjin poured what aura he could muster into his sword and created a gust of energy to push and scatter the undead creatures away from them.
“Ah-Jin,” muttered Jianshi, his head clearing as he assessed the situation.
“You’re awake? Use your big brain of yours and think of something fast, bro,” said Jianjin, bringing his sword up again, syncing his own aura with the small spirit stones embedded in his bracers.
“Report the situation,” ordered Jianshi.
“Rats and insects swarming in. There are some people here, both unconscious and dead. Report your health status.”
“Shallow cut on my head and a sprained leg, but I can still walk,” said Jianshi.
Jianjin generated another roaring pulse to clear the vicinity as his brother drew his sword and looked around the cave. They came across bodies covered in a pile of debris and vines.
“Bro, are all those people on the ground dead or…?”
Jianshi casted a sensing spell.
“Most are alive,” he said. “We’ll have to find a way to save them.”
“We can’t carry them all out with us. Can you wake them?”
The chamber rumbled.
“Wait, something’s happening at that end…”
Something emerged from the endless dark of the cave; an ominous shadow encroaching the light.
“Big demon bear,” said Jianjin, filled with dread.
“Hide!” whispered Jianshi, pulling Jianjin behind a pile of rocks and debris. They suppressed their aura and kept as quiet as they could.
Peeking carefully, they watched as a large bear-sized demon ambled in, squealing in a damaged, raspy way.
A wave of demonic energy swept into the cave, heralding the arrival of a second beast who bounded in and snarled at the first one.
They watched as the two tusked beasts fought, the smaller one bearing countless injuries and the larger one resembling a half-rotten corpse.
“Why are they fighting each other?” whispered Jianjin. “The bigger one looks kind of odd, like it’s already dead…”
They watched as the smaller beast bit into the larger one and then howled in pain, blood dripping from its mouth. It swayed, poisoned, but carried on attacking until the larger beast finally collapsed.
The smaller one vomited and then also collapsed, grunting and wheezing.
Tendrils of a dark, oil-like substance leaked out of the larger beast.
As it spread on the ground, the dead were reanimated. The rats and insects still alive scattered, squeaking and chittering as they ran or were engulfed to join their dead brethren.
“Fuck,” said Jianshi quietly.
Things were bad if even his usually conservative brother cursed. Jianjin kept quiet and steeled himself for battle.
“Looks like you’re both still alive and kicking,” came a voice from above.
“Di Shibo!” said the two juniors, feeling relieved. They had been holding the line for the past hour, keeping the swarms of undead creatures away from the unconscious survivors.
“Guess I can leave you both to clean up down there.”
“Nooo!” cried Jianjin. “Help us, Di Shibo! My brother hurt his leg, at least get him out first!”
“I’m fine,” insisted Jianshi. “Since Di Shibo is here, you should climb out first with the townsfolk.”
“Why are you two so dramatic,” chuckled Di Mie. “It’s just some insects and rodents. You both are trained for this. Just go put a seal over where they’re coming in from.”
“I know that! We can’t clear a path because they keep coming,” whined Jianjin.
To show his point, he slashed at the wave of insects with another roaring pulse, but half the bugs got back up and advanced again.
“That’s because your strikes are sloppy,” said Di Mie.
He looked at Xie Li and grinned.
“Why don’t you give them a hand?” said Di Mie.
“Eh?” said Xie Li, pointing at himself.
“Catch him, you brats,” Di Mie called out. He aimed a precise kick to the back of Xie Li’s legs and the waiter fell into the cave.
“Hold the line, Jianjin!” yelled Jianshi. Despite his injured leg, he boosted his steps with aura and caught Xie Li, tumbling over and knocking into the wall.
“Mister Xie, are you all right?” asked Jianshi.
“Mn,” said Xie Li, shaking off the dust as he started looking around.
“Di Shibo! What did you do that for?” yelled Jianjin. He was in no mood to entertain the crazy ‘demon king’.
“Waiter, catch!” said Di Mie, throwing down a sword.
Xie Li reached out and caught it. He unsheathed a slender sword from its bamboo-like scabbard and gave it a test swing. The sword thrummed with spirit energy stored within.
“Mister Xie,” insisted Jianshi. “It’s unsafe here, you—”
Xie Li stepped in front of them and swung his sword, and although it wasn’t a powerful wide slash like what Jianjin was doing, it was extremely precise, killing eight out of ten bugs that flew towards them.
Jianshi stared. Even without using any spirit aura, Xie Li was killing more bugs in one strike than they could.
“Hmm,” said Xie Li. “It’s not good enough.”
“If that’s called ‘not good enough’, then what am I? Trash?” said Jianjin.
Xie Li focused and took a stance. With each consecutive strike, his movement began to flow. His sword rose and ebbed, fluid and graceful. The aura covering the sword sputtered, sparking when he moved it a certain way. With enough speed, it seemed that the aura imbued within the sword could be utilised.
“Oh,” realised Xie Li. “I’ll just have to generate some torque, then.”
“What? Torque?” blinked Jianjin.
Before he realised it, Xie Li had already carved a path in front of them.
They watched Xie Li, every precise move connecting seamlessly to the next; a continuous torrent that came from his entire being. The sword began to emit aura from his swings and his attack range grew, pushing the bugs back into where they emerged.
The bugs that bounced off the wall from the first attack would be caught in the second. The debris that was kicked up began to pile, limiting the bugs’ movements.
He wasn’t just attacking the swarm; he was predicting the movement of everything in this cave.
Under his veil, Di Mie smirked as he watched.
Jianshi and Jianjin watched on, mouth agape as the waiter did their job all by himself.
“Stop slacking off, you two,” Di Mie reminded.
“Oops,” said Jianjin. He quickly ran over to seal the tunnel the undead creatures were coming from.
“Phew,” said Xie Li, lowering his sword once the two were done sealing up.
Di Mie finally jumped into the cave himself.
“Your sword,” said Xie Li, holding out the borrowed sword.
“Keep it,” said Di Mie. “It seems like these two can learn a thing or two from a waiter.”
“What the hell was that?” said Jianjin, staring at Xie Li, who still seemed calm after all that. “I mean, uh, Mister Xie, who are you, really?”
“I’m me?” said Xie Li, tilting his head, confused.
Di Mie chuckled and shook his head, and said, “A waiter can do better than the both of you. You should be ashamed.”
“Ah-Jin, let’s leave the questions for later,” said Jianshi, pointing at the missing townsfolk. “We should bring these people back to town first.”
Xie Li turned away and walked to the fallen beasts. He knelt before the smaller one, which was heavily wounded and barely breathing.
“Can it be saved?” said Xie Li in a soft voice.
Di Mie checked on the wounded beast and after a while, shook his head. He placed a hand over the beast’s eyes and muttered a spell, putting the dying beast quietly to sleep.
Xie Li pressed his hand to the beast’s head and observed a moment of silence.
“By the way,” said Jianjin as he carried the unconscious people over to the entrance of the cave. “That beast was fighting the bigger one earlier on. Why was it doing that?”
“This spirit-devouring beast was trying to stop the other one as it was corrupted with dead aura,” explained Di Mie.
“Oh, so this what a spirit-devouring beast looks like!” realised Jianjin. “Hey bro, what do these demonic beasts do again? Devour people’s spirits?”
Jianshi rolled his eyes, limping as he worked and explained. “It’s a type of demon beast that feeds off the lingering desires left behind by spirits.”
“Then they don’t actually eat spirits, do they?” said Jianjin.
“No, they don’t. They’re harmless and usually appear in haunted places. Pay attention to your lectures next time,” said Jianshi. “Peak Lord Du will get angry hearing you ask all these questions he’s covered in his lectures.”
“Eheh,” said Jianjin, sheepishly. Then as if he recalled something, he spoke up. “Oh, so the white stones we saw on the way up were probably for lost spirits!”
“Probably,” said Jianshi. “They must have attracted the lost spirits towards the temple, and in turn, attracted the spirit-devouring beasts.”
“Sounds about right,” said Jianjin.
They both froze when they heard a ‘tsk’ of annoyance coming from Di Mie, who was looking at the casted seal.
“Don’t scold me! I swear I made the seal properly!” yelled Jianjin.
“You two get the people out of here quickly,” he said. Then he beckoned Xie Li to come over.
“Waiter, what do you make of this?” he asked.
Xie Li took the sword he was given and use it like a dousing rod, trying to sense beyond Jianjin’s seal.
“There’s no sign of a dead spirit gate nearby. It’s likely that the spirit-devouring beast somehow became a host to a mass of dead spirit aura and made its way here.”
“This brat’s seal will hold for a while, but I should prepare a stronger seal just in case,” said Di Mie.
“Hmm,” said Xie Li. And then he started drawing a seal on the ground in front of the tunnel. The jade carvings on the sword responded accordingly to the drawn seal and began to pour aura into the drawn circuitry.
“I forget that you’re a walking seal library sometimes,” chuckled Di Mie. He placed his hand over Xie Li’s to activate the seal with his powerful aura.
“This is a very good sword,” said Xie Li. He sheathed the sword, the slender scabbard making it look more like a harmless bamboo stick than a sword. “Does it have a name?”
“No,” said Di Mie. “You can call it whatever you like.”
“Hmm,” said Xie Li. He thought carefully for a minute, then spoke up.
“‘Twig*’ it is, then. It’s skinny just like my arms.”
”Pfft,” Di Mie huffed, amused.
*he calls it ‘Bamboo Twig’ but it also implies skinny ‘Twig’, hence the translation here
The next morning, Jianshi and Jianjin left their room with bags under their eyes. They spent the night bringing the townsfolk to the clinics, reported to the mayor, and filled in paperwork for their seniors.
“Of course Di Shibo wasn’t going to help,” groaned Jianjin. “He wouldn’t lift a finger to help us back at the cave, so what makes you think he’ll lift a finger for the paperwork?”
“As unorthodox as he seems,” said Jianshi. “You can’t deny that he’s teaching us something.”
“Oh yeah! That Xie Li’s sword skill was amazing!” said Jianjin. “Maybe he’s a retired disciple. Let’s ask him later.”
“But first,” said Jianshi, his hand gripping his younger brother’s shoulder tightly so he could not escape. “You owe me twenty honey cakes.”
“Spirit-devouring demons are not bears.”
“They must be a type of bear, aren’t they? Big, furry; their tusks are a bit big and their noses are a bit strange but they’re about the same size…”
“No matter how you look at it, they’re pigs,” chuckled Jianshi. “Pay up!”
“Fine, fine,” groaned Jianjin.
“Good morning, customers,” said Auntie Ma.
“Good morning, Auntie Ma,” said Jianshi. “We’ll come settle the bill after breakfast.”
Auntie Ma looked around, and then beckoned them over, speaking in hushed tones. “Young masters, last night our Ah-Li came back with a sword. He said Valley Lord Di gave it to him…”
“Ah, that,” said Jianshi. “He did.”
“Heavens,” exclaimed Auntie Ma. “They get along that well?”
“I don’t know if they get along, since I swear I saw Di Shibo kick him…” muttered Jianjin.
“Auntie Ma,” said Xie Li as he emerged from his room at the back of the inn. “I’ll help with the breakfast shift.”
As if caught gossiping behind his back, the trio froze.
“Ah-Li, you had a long day yesterday, why don’t you take the day off and rest? The part-timers can take over.”
“Ah, good morning, Mister Xie,” said Jianjin. “Why don’t you come eat breakfast with us?”
“Hm?” said Xie Li.
“Go, go,” encouraged Auntie Ma, her eyes hovering and waiting to spot someone else…
“Our Di Shibo has already returned to the mountains,” said Jianshi.
Auntie Ma looked visibly disappointed as she went back to the kitchen to prepare the food.
If there was one word to describe how the conversation went between the three of them, it would be ‘awkward’.
They ate in an awkward silence. Xie Li ate slowly, chewing his food properly like a good kid. He was glaring at his food and did not smile. It seems like eating wasn’t fun for him at all.
“Is the food too bland? Shall I order some meat to go with the buns?” asked Jianjin, trying to lighten the mood.
“I don’t eat meat,” said Xie Li.
“So…who taught you those cool sword moves, huh?” tried Jianjin again.
“No one,” shrugged Xie Li.
Jianshi stood up, left the table and came back in a jiffy with a small jar of wine and some cups. He poured out some cups and smiled.
“I would like to give you a toast to thank you for your help with our investigation, Mister Xie.”
“Good save, bro,” whispered Jianjin.
“Oh,” said Xie Li, looking unused to the greeting. He put down his chopsticks clumsily and picked up the cup with a hand, and then corrected himself by using two hands.
“To you,” said Jianshi, holding up the cup and drinking it. Jianjin followed suit, and Xie Li watched and copied them.
“Sweet,” said Xie Li, wrinkling his nose slightly.
“Let’s talk casually and not worry about etiquette,” said Jianshi.
Xie Li nodded.
“Bro, this fruity wine is really sweet,” said Jianjin, pouring himself another cup. “Can we buy a jar back later?”
“Better not,” said Jianshi. “If our senior sisters find out, those alcoholics will drink it all…”
“But bro, this is the popular Dream Wandering Immortal of our town,” said Jianjin. “You can’t not buy some back…”
“Hmm,” said Xie Li. “It’s too sweet.”
“Huh?” blinked Jianjin. “What do you mean?”
This time, it was Xie Li’s turn to stand up and walk away from the table.
“Um, did I say something wrong?” gulped Jianjin.
“I don’t think so,” said Jianshi. “Let’s just wait and see.”
After a while, Xie Li returned with a pot of tea. He took the jar of sweet wine and poured a bit of it into the teapot.
“Try this,” he said, pouring them a cup of what smelled like fragrant osmanthus tea.
They obediently tried it, not wanting to be rude.
“Mm, this tastes pretty refreshing,” said Jianjin.
“It’s not as strong or sweet, but I do like this better,” said Jianshi.
“This is how it’s meant to be drunk,” said Xie Li.
“Wow, how did you know about this?” said Jianjin.
“Ingredients, hm, recipe,” he uttered, then frowned, as if not knowing how to explain. He shook his head and shrugged. “Nevermind.”
“Mister Xie,” said Jianshi. “It would be our honour if you could visit us at the Fallen Leaves Valley some time.”
“Not Mad Tiger Peak?”
“Ah, we’re male disciples, so while we are official disciples of the Mad Tiger Peak, we’re staying at the Fallen Leaves Valley with our Di Shibo.”
“I see,” said Xie Li. He took another sip from his cup and set it down, his gaze elsewhere. “I’m afraid I have to turn down your offer.”
“Not a problem,” said Jianshi. “Then allow us to visit you here some time soon then.”
“Mn,” Xie Li nodded.
Auntie Ma took over soon, and Xie Li went to clean the tables.
“We’ll be holding a feast tonight at the inn to celebrate the returned townsfolk,” said Auntie Ma. “It would be an honour if you could join us.”
“Ohhh, a feast!” grinned Jianjin.
“There will be roast duck and wine for everyone who attends. It’s free for you both, of course,” grinned Auntie Ma, “and your Shibo is very welcome to join us if he is free…”
“I doubt he’ll come, but we’ll ask him anyway,” said Jianshi.
“Thank you!” chuckled Auntie Ma.
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