Arc One: An Old Friend in the World of Mortals
“Forget it, forget it, I should just give that Xie guy a call back.” One moment Xia Qiao was referring to the other person as his lifesaver, the next moment he forgot what the person’s name was.
He muttered to Wen Shi, “Viewing a house at the crack of dawn, what a dreamlike maneuver. Also, we still have to send Grandpa’s urn up the mountain at 6:45. If the tenant ends up coming then, am I supposed to put down the urn and show him around the house, or am I supposed to drag him with us to the graveyard and explain it there. Isn’t that right, ge—”
“Ge?” Halfway through his spiel, he realized that ancestor hadn’t been listening to a word he was saying. Wen Shi was currently frowning, lost in thought.
Wen Shi was finally dragged back by the ‘dad.’ “What?”
Xia Qiao: “…”
This cursed mouth of mine.
“Nothing much, I was just very curious as to what you were thinking about.” Xia Qiao enunciated clearly, “The tenant?”
Wen Shi: “No.”
That tenant’s brain was quite odd, but Wen Shi’s focus was on something else—just then, at the same moment the flashlight had swept over those three monsters, he had vaguely caught a hint of a certain smell.
People remembered smells longer than anything else. It was very hard for him to describe in detail, but he just felt like the scent was very familiar. Familiar to the point that… it felt like a part of himself.
Wen Shi suddenly stood up and plucked a few pieces of yellow joss paper from the table before he casually tugged two long strings free from the edge of the white hemp mourning fabric. He said, “I’m going out for a bit.”
Then he strode out the door.
Xia Qiao: “???”
He laid sprawled out on the couch for two seconds before he abruptly jumped up and frantically chased after Wen Shi, shouting, “Wen-ge wait for me!”
“Don’t you not go outside at night?” Wen Shi didn’t slow down at all. He swept a look around him before he made a beeline straight for the east side.
Xia Qiao had a small build with short legs, and they churned extremely fast in order for him to follow Wen Shi. “After that haunting just now, I’d have to be nuts to stay at home alone. I have to follow you, I’m scared.”
Not many households lived in this neighborhood, but there were quite a few trees. Shadows flickered all around them, and it felt like everything was hiding something. While passing by a half-dead tree, Wen Shi broke off a dried branch the length of his palm.
His fingers swiftly danced a few times and folded those pieces of yellow joss paper into different shapes, which he then skewered onto the branch. At first glance, it appeared to be a simple paper beast.
The two white hemp strings were threaded several times around the ends of the branch and the place where it forked. The other ends of the strings were wrapped around Wen Shi’s fingers.
“Oh shit, what is this?!”
Xia Qiao’s eyes hadn’t returned to normal yet, and using his current vision, he saw that paper beast come to life after landing on the ground! Rusted chains were coiled around its body, and there was a trace of blood smeared on the center of its forehead. Its eyes were entirely white.
Wen Shi lifted his fingers, intertwined with hemp string, and the paper beast stamped its front hoof and snorted. He said, “Folded paper.”
Xia Qiao: “…am I blind?”
“Are you not?” After he said that, Wen Shi remembered that he had temporarily broadened Xia Qiao’s vision. “Oh. In that case, this is puppetry. Shen Qiao could do this too.”
All of his disciples and grand-disciples were able to use puppetry. Of course, he also had a master whom he had learned from—the person who was the most proficient in puppetry was naturally still the honorable founder, Chen Budao.
Holding the hemp string, Wen Shi tightened and then loosened it. The paper beast rushed away, causing sparks to fly as the twisting chains struck each other!
In an instant, a fierce wind swept across!
Sparks burst forth, and Xia Qiao felt his eyes burn with pain. He grunted and covered them tightly with his hands, doubling over as tears streamed down his face. He thought, With such a huge commotion, are the neighborhood security guards still not coming over yet?!
But when that moment of agony faded and he lifted his head, bracing himself against the scalding wind, he discovered that the shadows of the trees in the neighborhood hadn’t moved a single bit amidst the whistling gale.
The faint howl of a beast traveled over distantly, contrasting vividly with the pitch-black, deathly quiet neighborhood.
Wen Shi jerked his left hand, and the crisscrossed white hemp thread abruptly stretched taut. The beast howl grew from distant to near, as if someone had tugged it back; in a flash, it landed right in front of them.
The beast snorted and flung the thing in its mouth onto the ground.
The heavy scent of blood diffused outwards, and the dark lump twitched once before it completely stopped moving.
Xia Qiao focused his gaze and discovered, to his astonishment, that it was one of the three monsters.
Its human face looked like a plant that had instantaneously withered, drooping weakly on the floor, and its skin was an expanse of waxy white, resembling utterly lifeless cotton padding. Inexplicably, it made people feel frightened.
Xia Qiao had to retreat back a few steps before he could catch his breath. “I-it’s dead?”
Wen Shi gave an “en.”
“Wen-ge you’re pretty good!” Xia Qiao suddenly found confidence. “Then how come you didn’t immediately kill them earlier in the house? And you even had to chase after them?”
Wen Shi didn’t pay any attention to his flattery. He said bluntly, “With the three of them together, the one lying here would probably be you.”
Xia Qiao deflated again.
“Also…” Wen Shi pulled off the thread wrapped around his fingers. “I’m hungry, I can’t maintain it for too long.”
The moment he tossed aside the thread, a fire abruptly ignited at the feet of the paper beast. In the blink of an eye, the only thing remaining was ash and a scorched black branch.
Wen Shi crouched down in front of the dead monster and sniffed carefully.
Xia Qiao didn’t understand what was going on and also scooted over. The black mist on the monster’s body was still swirling around, and he didn’t dare to touch it, so he just stayed at that intermediate distance and crinkled his nose.
“What are you smelling?” he asked doubtfully.
“The soul’s scent.” Wen Shi said.
Xia Qiao looked shocked. “Isn’t your soul gone?”
After he said that, it dawned on him: no wonder Wen Shi had suddenly chased after them. It turned out that there was a trace of Wen Shi’s soul on this monster’s body.
“Just what exactly is this? Why would it have the scent of your soul on it?”
Xia Qiao: “Are they crazy? What’s the point of raising this?”
Wen Shi: “To steal things.”
If it wasn’t personally convenient, someone could dispatch these filthy creatures to search in their stead. The natural disposition of the huigu was evil-spirited, and they loved consuming souls and spiritual items the most, including ordinary people’s good fortune, longevity, and happiness.
Wen Shi sniffed around again, but he didn’t manage to catch another whiff of that familiar scent, as if it had only been a short-lived night-blooming cactus, vanishing once more.
Even though it was to be expected, he still kicked the thing on the floor out of irritation. Then he asked Xia Qiao, “Is there a bottle in the house?”
“What kind of bottle?”
“Anything works, as long as it can hold something inside.”
Xia Qiao wanted to say that he didn’t dare go by himself. But when he saw Wen Shi’s displeased face, he still ended up obediently returning home on his own.
He sprinted to the house as fast as he could, plucked a thermos bottle, and then sprinted back out as fast as he could, only to see Wen Shi press his fingers against the huigu’s neck. The spiraling black mist immediately began to churn.
Wen Shi took the thermos bottle and tapped the edge of the bottle twice with the pads of his fingers. The black mist flowed inside like water, filling it right away.
“What’s this for?” Xia Qiao held the filled bottle like he was holding a ticking time bomb.
Wen Shi’s thin lips parted, and one word jumped out: “Eating.”
Xia Qiao nearly went mad then and there.
What the hell was this, was it even edible?
But then, Wen Shi really did end up making him bring that bomb back home.
“You’re really going to eat that?” Xia Qiao couldn’t help but ask as he watched Wen Shi sit down on the sofa and unscrew the thermos bottle.
“Mn.” On the contrary, Wen Shi seemed to be used to it. He pinched a bit of incense ash from the incense burner before he stretched his fingers into the black fog. Soon afterwards, the bottle full of black mist was slowly sucked into his body, bit by bit.
Xia Qiao suddenly caught the fragrance of something that was very pleasant but also very difficult to describe.
He thought about it for a long time before he abruptly recalled the old house that he had lived in when he was young. Shen Qiao had planted many white plum trees nearby; it wasn’t clear where he got the seeds from, but the trees seemed to have sprouted up overnight.
Sometimes, Xia Qiao would slip into the grove and run around. When the rain fell against the white plum trees, it seemed to produce this exact smell.
Immediately after, he realized that the fragrance was seeping out from Wen Shi’s body.
However, by the time Wen Shi finished absorbing all the black mist, that scent had vanished once again. Wen Shi’s complexion was much better than before. Although his skin was still extremely pale and his eyes extremely black, he felt a bit more like someone who was alive.
That process was actually a little terrifying, like a demon that had donned its painted skin.
For a few seconds, Xia Qiao didn’t dare to talk to or look at Wen Shi, all the way until a gust of wind suddenly swept through the room, making him shiver and finally snap out of it.
“Speak.” Wen Shi drew a napkin and wiped his completely unstained fingers before he dropped the empty thermos bottle onto the coffee table.
Trying to find a topic of conversation, Xia Qiao asked, “You said that somebody raised those huigu to go and steal things, so why did they come to our house?”
They were already completely broke…
“Probably took a fancy to something, who knows.” Wen Shi said.
“Then the other two… you’re just gonna let them go like that?”
Wen Shi said, “I have something following them.”
Traces of his soul were on those three huigu, how could he not chase after them? At the very least, he had to find out who raised them and where they came from.
After all the chaos, they felt somewhat exhausted, so not long after they both fell asleep on the couch.
In the current season, the sun rose a bit earlier than it did in midwinter.
Back when he was “alive,” Wen Shi had always slept very lightly, and he opened his eyes now when he heard the faint sound of a bird chirping.
It didn’t feel too great sleeping on the sofa. He stood up and stretched his neck before he turned and glanced at the clock hanging on the wall of the living room. The hour hand was about to hit five.
The sound of wings flapping came abruptly from the window. He walked over, and a bird folded from yellow joss paper landed on his hand.
The scent of incense ash from the Shen home clung to the paper; it was the bird that he had released last night to follow the huigu.
He closed his hand around the bird and found a lighter to ignite the red candle with. He then pinched the paper bird and moved it back and forth over the tip of the flame.
When Xia Qiao sat up, scratching the bird’s nest on his head, that was the scene that he saw.
One night later, his eyes had already fully returned to normal. Everything he looked at seemed to be full of life and no longer gave off that deathly aura from the evening before. Immediately, his mood improved quite a bit.
He turned on the overhead light and yawned while he asked Wen Shi what he was burning.
Wen Shi didn’t reply, because a location name had appeared on the paper bird that he had delicately infused with the smoke of a joss candle.
Where was this?
Wen Shi was frowning when Xia Qiao unexpectedly said, astonished, “Xiping Gallery?”
“What? You know it?”
“Er… not really.” Xia Qiao said, “I’ve just heard Grandpa mention it before, it’s an old-fashioned doll shop. The main thing is that this shop’s background is a bit complicated.”
“You know how there’s a Zhang family on that panguan name mural? They say that it’s a very large clan with quite a few branch families too.”
Wen Shi said, “I’m aware.”
The Zhang family’s earliest ancestor was merely one of the honorable founder’s indirect disciples, and he wasn’t very capable. But after developing to modern day, the Zhang family had become the most prestigious clan of all. Due to their widespread acceptance of disciples, the number of people in their clan had flourished.
“There’s a lot of gossip surrounding this family, I frequently heard Grandpa talk about it before. He said that a fairly vexing person appeared this generation from a Zhang branch family. The person has a blighted fate and brought harm to his father and mother, as well as quite a few others. Whether it’s actually true or not, I have no idea, but it’s pretty mysterious.” Xia Qiao recalled bits and pieces from his memory. “In any case, nobody in the Zhang clan dared to take him in, and all the other families stayed far away from him too.”
“And then what?”
“And then… this Xiping Gallery is his store.” Xia Qiao asked, “Why is Xiping Gallery written on this paper?”
Wen Shi said, “The outcome of last night’s pursuit.”
Xia Qiao’s eyes widened. “So those three disgusting things came from his place?”
Wen Shi didn’t give a definitive answer. He only said, “It’s possible.”
He fell into a brief silence before he walked over to the name register mural. Nearly all the people that he knew on this mural had already passed away, and he was only very distantly acquainted with those that were still alive.
“Who were you referring to?” He started searching through the mural.
Xia Qiao came over, mumbling, “Dunno, this mural is too dizzying, I usually don’t look at it. I just remember Grandpa saying that he’s still alive, but his name was struck off.”
Wen Shi followed the various Zhang branch families all the way from beginning to end and finally saw a name that had been crossed out on one of the branches. The instant he found the name, he and Xia Qiao both were somewhat stunned.
Because that name was: Xie Wen.
In a split second, the atmosphere in the living room grew very frozen. A long while later, Xia Qiao let out an “oh shit” and said, “There’s no way it’s that much of a coincidence! Which Xie and which Wen?”
As he was speaking, his phone vibrated twice.
Xia Qiao swallowed and pulled it out to see that he had received a new message.
Sender: Xie Wen.
Content: Building 5, correct? I’m outside the door.
“He’s here…” Xia Qiao said softly, “Right outside.”
Wen Shi turned his head almost instantaneously.
Through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, he saw a person standing on the narrow path in the garden outside.
That person was very tall, and he was wearing a dress shirt and suit pants, making his figure seem elongated and handsome. It should’ve given him a neat and proper appearance, but the harmony of it was disrupted by the seven or eight strands of beads wrapped around his wrist, made of an unknown material.
He was standing next to a half-withered tree, bent over as he peered at something.
A beat later, he seemed to sense the gaze from inside the house, and he straightened up before turning to look in their direction.
In that moment, there was still a trace of a smile on his lips, but in the next second, he tilted his head to the side and started coughing. His lips were so pale that they were nearly colorless, adding to his sickly demeanour.
Wen Shi didn’t know what was so funny about that dried up tree. He only knew that he had subconsciously closed his eyes when he saw that person; consequently, he saw the man’s spiritual form.
Two lines of golden, Sanskrit-like markings extended all the way down his left cheek, from his earlobe to the side of his neck, then to his collarbones, and finally, to his heart.
The beads on his wrist turned into deep jade-green bird feathers with a red string coiled around them twice, and they hung there loosely, just like that, next to his hand.
His skin was as pale as paper, but churning black mist surrounded his entire body, like countless chains tangled both loosely and tightly together, or like evil spirits stretching out from within his soul.
Wen Shi had never seen a soul so densely intertwined with black mist before. That was all… karmic debt.
(press the “^” to go back to your spot in the chapter!)
- 惠姑. This also appears to be a creature the author made up, though it is a homonym for cicada. It also might be a type of plant? In any case, it’s a chimera-like minion monster in this world ^