Fu Lan remembered that it was deep autumn that year, with golden-yellow parasol trees and bright red leaves covering the mountains. He was twelve years old that year, and it was his first time traveling north from South Jiang with the black cat, searching for old temples along the way until they arrived at Wu Jiang. The mountains and rivers of Wu Jiang were different from South Jiang; the scenery was exquisite and beautiful, with a shade of green like eye shadow on a woman’s eyelids. The further north they went, the more peaceful it became as the human kingdoms were united and not as numerous and chaotic as the territories of South Jiang, where the demon clans were constantly fighting. Fu Lan found a cave on a hill to rest and stayed there for quite some time.
One day, the black cat went out hunting and brought back a little boy in a green robe. The black cat picked up a worn-out pot and placed it on the ground, saying, “I got lucky today. I came across a lost little boy, just right for me to eat. You watch him, I’ll go find some firewood.”
The little boy was fair-skinned with black, unblinking eyes, staring at Fu Lan. Fu Lan ignored him and closed his eyes to meditate. After a while, he heard the sound of rustling, and the little boy crawled towards him. Fu Lan remained still, and the little boy climbed into his arms. Fu Lan’s lap suddenly felt warm and soft. He smelled milk from the little boy’s body. Then, he felt a wet, soft kiss on his cheek.
He opened his eyes, and the little boy in his arms was smiling with his eyes curved, saying, “Immortal big brother, you’re so fragrant and pretty!”
The black cat later said that puppies were born as rascals from the start, and this was a reasonable statement.
Not long after, the black cat returned and set up the firewood, ready to put the pot on top, but when he peered inside, there was a stinky lump of dung. The black cat was so angry that steam was coming out of its seven orifices. “Who did this?”
The little boy pointed at Fu Lan and said, “It was big brother.”
“Nonsense,” said the black cat. “This fool doesn’t eat or drink. Where would the excrement come from? You did it, and you’re lying!”
The little boy looked down and pointed to himself, saying, “But I couldn’t hold it in. My mother told me not to poop on the ground.”
The black cat was clean, so he couldn’t use the pot covered in feces and had to think of other ways to cook. The boy still didn’t realize that he was in danger and was about to become a demon’s food. He poked at Fu Lan’s cheek and asked, “My mother calls me puppy. What is big brother’s name? Is big brother mute? Why aren’t you talking to me?”
“Because he hates you,” said the black cat irritably.
“Why does big brother hate me?” asked the puppy.
“Because you’re human, and we demons all hate humans.”
“Why do you hate humans?” asked the puppy.
“Don’t ask me, ask him!” The black cat was going crazy.
Sometimes even Fu Lan couldn’t understand why the puppy had so many questions. Fu Lan had heard of the puppy’s father, Qi Shen Wei, who was a rare sword genius in the immortal sect. While he was alive, the three thousand immortal sects regarded him as a beacon of humanity, the hope for the inheritance of the Dao. Puppy was his son, but in terms of intelligence, he probably took after his mother.
The puppy began to chatter in Fu Lan’s ear, “Who are you guys? Why do you have a monster cat grandpa? Why do you live on the mountain? Why don’t you live in the village with everyone else?”
“Why doesn’t big brother eat or drink? Won’t big brother get hungry if he doesn’t eat?”
“Why doesn’t the old man at the village entrance have any hair on his head? Sometimes his head even glows.”
“Why does the cat grandpa have six nipples, but we only have two?”
Fu Lan didn’t say anything and silently turned to face the wall, covering his ears with his hands.
Puppy was really too noisy.
The black cat was originally busy with something, but when he heard the puppy’s last question, he suddenly came to his senses and scolded, “You little rascal, when did you peek at this old man’s body!”
In the end, Fu Lan sent the puppy down the mountain. The black cat reluctantly agreed. After all, a child like that would be too noisy to use as food. But the biggest reason was that he had been peed on by the puppy, which was the first time in his long life. The brat even shamelessly said, “Fragrant gege has turned into stinky gege.”
But even the black cat didn’t expect that the child would come back on his own. It could be seen that the puppy really took after his mother in terms of intelligence. The next day, after noon, the puppy came up the mountain with a red string tied to a small hen, panting heavily. No one could have expected that this four-year-old child could find his way, and the hen he dragged behind him was already half dead, with only half a breath left.
The black cat was very happy, saying that the puppy was a member of the dark now. He had defected from the human world, becoming the demons’ servant.
But it was a nightmare for Fu Lan. The puppy began to pester him, “Big brother, look, I can fart with my mouth.” He then pouted his lips and made “pu” “pu” sounds.
Fu Lan: “…”
“I can also blow bubbles with my saliva.” The puppy pouted and blew out a transparent bubble with his saliva. When it burst, he smiled at Fu Lan. But even though the puppy tried hard to get Fu Lan’s attention, he was ignored due to being annoyingly loud. The puppy then frowned and asked, “Why doesn’t big brother like me? My mother said I’m cute and everyone likes me.”
Fu Lan remained silent for a while before finally speaking, “She lied to you. You are very noisy and irritating.”
The puppy cried and went away.
On the third day, the puppy brought a bowl of braised pork, which the black cat licked clean. Only after the meal did the puppy start pulling out grass stems by the wall, remaining silent for once. The black cat asked him, “What’s wrong? Why don’t you play with the fool anymore? You were so clingy with him yesterday.”
“Hmph.” The puppy turned his head and refused to speak.
The black cat hooked him with its tail before he finally spoke, “Big brother hurt my feelings.”
“Yesterday, big brother said he doesn’t like me and that I’m loud,” the puppy replied. “I waited so long for him to comfort me, but he didn’t come. I will never be friends with him again.”
“Don’t worry about him. This old man will be friends with you,” the black cat said. “The braised pork you brought today was delicious. Bring it for me again tomorrow.”
“Hmph.” The puppy poked the ground with the grass stem. “Brother and mother are both bad. I won’t talk to you anymore. Mother doesn’t care about me, and neither does big brother. I’m angry, but I’m easy to comfort.”
The puppy then sobbed and went away. Later, Fu Lan learned that A Fu had to work hard and leave early in the morning, returning late at night, so she left the puppy with Auntie Shen, who lived in the village. Auntie Shen did not take care of the puppy well. She played cards in the courtyard all day and locked the puppy in the room alone. The puppy was restless and eventually moved a stool to the windowsill, climbing out to play by himself until sunset, before climbing back in.
The black cat was the one who took the puppy away at that time.
Feeling upset, the puppy did not go straight home that day. He wandered in the mountains for a long time until he had strayed far from the path. He couldn’t recognize the way and walked aimlessly. The setting sun shone through the gaps in the leaves, casting mottled spots of light on his face. The puppy pouted, still muttering, “Stupid brother, stupid mother. Everyone smells bad except for me.”
Suddenly, a soccer ball rolled up to his feet. The puppy looked up to see a boy with a pale complexion standing in the distance. The boy didn’t say anything, just stared at him intently. The puppy picked up the ball, but when he looked up again, the boy was already standing in front of him.
The puppy was startled and fell to the ground, hurting his backside. Someone lifted him up with one hand. It was not the boy, but Fu Lan.
“Brother,” the puppy murmured. He turned his head to look for the other boy, but he was gone, leaving only a rolling soccer ball on the ground.
“You’re a brave kid. Stupidly so,” the black cat on Fu Lan’s shoulder said. “Don’t stand there foolishly next time, remember to run. Run to a bright place. Ghosts are afraid of light and won’t chase after you.”
Fu Lan sent the puppy to the edge of the field, standing under the setting sun, watching him go home. The puppy kept turning back to look at him, a slender figure in a green robe, running crookedly but showing the happiest smile.
The black cat poked Fu Lan’s face and said, “Fool, you seem very happy today. Do you like that kid? Shall we kidnap him and make him your servant?”
Fu Lan shook his head and walked towards the sunset.
On the fourth day, he sat cross-legged on a rock. The gray sky revealed a golden light at the end, and the sun slowly rose. He sat outside all day, watching the farmers in the fields below, with their muddy legs entering and leaving the fields. As the sun moved west, he looked up, and the slanting tree branches were reflected on the yellow sky, like fine cracks on porcelain.
A light blue flying fish landed on his fingertips, telling him that the puppy didn’t come today.
On the street, the shops on both sides were closed. Occasionally muffled dog barks could be heard. Someone coughed loudly and spit phlegm in the house, and shoes were flattened and rubbed on the ground. A Fu finished delivering the last basket of clothes, rubbing her shoulders and walking on the gravel road. She was tired all day, her waist and back were sore. She reached into her pocket to feel her purse, which was full of her day’s wages, making a clanging noise.
The street was dark, and the houses cast dark shadows. The fog on the street was getting thicker, and the distant sound of bells was as elusive as a gust of wind. The gravel road was enveloped in moonlight and mist, revealing a dark blue outline.
Recently, there had been many cases of missing children near the Wu River, and many people speculated that it was due to mountain ghosts. The Wu River area was surrounded by mountains, and there were often stories of mountain spirits and ghosts in the woods. Some people claimed that when they went to the mountains to chop wood, they saw a short child playing with a ball on the bridge, waving at them. However, when they went over to take a closer look, the child disappeared, and only the sound of a ball hitting the ground remained. Sometimes people also claimed to see a black cat with green eyes, giving off an eerie and ferocious look. As a result, people were now going up to the mountains in groups, afraid to venture out alone.
Rumors abound, and even the false ones were taken as truth. A Fu hastened her pace, heading to Auntie Shen’s house to find her puppy. The sound of bells grew closer, and the blue mist gradually revealed a row of people. The one at the front was tall and thin, like a dried bamboo pole. A Fu unconsciously slowed down, and the shadows became clearer. Behind the first figure, there were several short children, with their arms stretched out stiffly.
A Fu’s heart jumped, and she quickly stepped aside, hiding in an alleyway. She peeked out in suspicion, and the sound of the bells floated over her head. This time, she could see clearly that it was a Daoist with a withered face, sunken eyes, and two clusters of green ghostly fire flickering in them. He was followed by a group of children, about seven or eight of them, tall and short, walking in a row, hopping and jumping with their eyes closed.
The children passed one by one before her eyes, each with a pale face like a paper doll. A Fu’s heart was pounding, and she decided to wait for them to pass before finding someone to save them. The last child jumped over, and A Fu’s eyes suddenly narrowed. It was her puppy! She wouldn’t mistake his round face, long and curly eyelashes, and the small bun on his head.
A Fu was furious, and she couldn’t believe that someone would dare to touch her son. She pursed her lips and quietly followed them from behind. The Daoist hunched his back and shook the bell, shuffling forward unsteadily. A Fu circled around to another alleyway, and on the other side of the street there was also a small alleyway. It was very dark inside. A Fu held her breath and waited for them to pass one by one. Her puppy was struggling to keep up at the back, and the Daoist did not notice. This gave A Fu a chance.
She took a deep breath, gathered her courage, and ran out like a cat. She picked up her puppy and dashed into the opposite alleyway. She did not dare to look back, but just kept running as fast as she could, hoping that the Daoist had not noticed the missing child. After running for a long distance, she finally looked back and saw nothing but darkness and silence, without any pursuit.
She ran far away in one breath, not knowing how long she had been running. There were no footsteps chasing her from behind. A Fu turned around to look and saw a pitch-black area with no one around, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She looked down at the puppy, who had regained consciousness but was gasping weakly, calling out “mom.” A Fu touched his head and told him not to speak. The puppy rested his head on her shoulder and suddenly pointed upwards, saying, “Mom, someone’s there.”
A Fu couldn’t have imagined that the Daoist was up there. She stiffly lifted her head and saw a black silhouette hovering above her head. It was too dark to see his face clearly, but she could see that he was hanging there with his sleeves dangling, eyes staring at them coldly.
She felt a chill from head to toe and didn’t dare to move, holding her ground against him. A gust of wind blew by, and the shadow’s clothes fluttered, with sleeves flapping against her. A Fu suddenly realized that it wasn’t a person, just clothes hanging up there.
It turned out that she had frightened herself. A Fu breathed a sigh of relief and was about to find someone to save the other children when a cold breeze suddenly blew behind her neck, as if someone was standing extremely close behind her.
She heard the bell sound again, this time behind her. A sharp and thin laughter came to her ear. “Madam, where are you going? Let me give you a ride.”
“Ah!” A Fu screamed and ran away. The puppy was pulled out of her arms by a force and flew into the arms of the Daoist.
The old Daoist rubbed the top of the puppy’s head and laughed. “The love between a mother and her child is deep. Since the lady has come to my doorstep, I will gladly accept her offer.”
The puppy raised his chubby little hands to remove the old Daoist’s square hat, revealing his grayish-green scalp. It was then that A Fu got a good look at his face. It was hardly human, all bones and skull. The puppy was stunned for a moment and then patted the old Daoist’s head and said, “Grandpa is also bald. The cat said that people who are bald were drums in their past lives, and people liked to beat on them.”
At that moment, A Fu’s face grew even paler. The sound of the puppy patting the old Daoist’s head was not a normal “pop-pop” sound, but an empty “thud-thud” sound, as if there was nothing inside.
“You are a brave child, but your words are not pleasing to the ear.” The old Daoist laughed darkly, revealing a mouthful of uneven yellow teeth. “A child’s tongue is tender and perfect for cutting off and making soup for this old man to drink.”
“Give my son back to me, or I’ll break your bald head!” A Fu gritted her teeth.
Suddenly, the puppy shouted with a straight face, “Big brother!”
“You are not very bright, little child.” The old Daoist shook his head and sighed. “I could be your grandfather…”
Before he could finish his sentence, the old Daoist suddenly froze like a puppet.
A pale hand reached out from behind him and covered the puppy’s eyes. At the same time, the old Dao’s forehead began to break slowly, like the smooth surface of a ceramic vessel. Countless cracks snaked through it. A set of pale fingers pierced through the middle of his forehead, and then his head split into four or five pieces.
Afraid, A Fu stiffened all over. The figure behind the old Daoist gradually revealed itself. It was a boy about twelve years old, with fair skin and big black eyes. A black cat lay on his shoulder, and he hovered in the air. He withdrew his hand and took the puppy from the old Daoist’s arms, holding him in his own.
“It was me that my little brother called for,” Fu Lan said.
Fu Lan handed the puppy to A Fu. Her eyes widened. “You…you all…”
“It’s you, Fu Lan,” a thin, sharp voice suddenly came. Fu Lan looked up and saw the old Daoist standing in the distant mist. The upper half of his head was gone, leaving only a chin hanging on his skinny neck, which opened and closed in a strange way.
A Fu snapped out of her daze and shouted, “His head is empty. Try piercing his chest!”
Fu Lan’s ink-black figure flashed, and he suddenly appeared in front of the old Daoist. His ten fingers pierced through the old Daoist’s chest. A teeth-grinding sound was heard as the old Daoist’s chest was completely broken.
“You can’t kill me, Fu Lan.” The old Daoist’s skeleton stuck to Fu Lan’s arm, and he smiled crookedly. “You, a mixed breed of unknown origin. You call yourself a demon, but you mingle with mortals. I’ve heard that all demons are ashamed to be with you. You left Southern Territory and came to the mortal world. Even mortals won’t tolerate a mixed breed like you!”
The black cat smashed his chin with a paw. “It’s none of your business. Go die.”
The skeleton broke into pieces, and the bone fragments rolled around on the ground. They rolled into the ditch. A Fu ran over and asked, “Is he dead?”
“No, this isn’t his real body,” said the black cat.
The puppy struggled out of A Fu’s arms and ran to Fu Lan’s feet. He stood on tiptoe and held Fu Lan’s hand, which had several cuts on it from the bone spurs. The puppy breathed a few times against Fu Lan’s hand and said, “Hurts fly away.”
The healing ability of a demon was strong. Even if his hand was cut off, it could grow back. The cuts on his hand healed at this moment. The puppy smiled, his eyes curved like a crescent moon, and bright stars hid in his eyes.
Fu Lan was stunned for a moment, reached out his hand, and clumsily touched the top of his head.