“Has anyone seen Senior Yun Zhi?” Liu Bai stood outside the fence and shouted, “The sect leader is asking where he went. It’s already past midnight, why hasn’t he come back yet?”
Fu Lan shook his head and, together with Qi Yin, collected the sheets hanging on the clothesline. Sang Ruo held a large wooden basin and splashed water on the muddy road in front of her house. “I haven’t seen him either.”
“Is he spending the night outside?” Qi Yin took out a toothpick and squatted under the eaves to rinse his mouth, “Isn’t our sect’s rules just for show? The elders don’t care if he comes back or not.”
“Senior Yun Zhi is different from us. The rules are just for show for us because the sect leader said that we are lucky if we can learn a few sword moves. But Senior Yun Zhi can’t do that,” Liu Bai said with a furrowed brow.
“Senior Yun Zhi is the future sect leader,” Sang Qing said crisply from across the way. “The sect leader is always strict with him. If he doesn’t learn his swordsmanship well, he will have to kneel before the ancestors to be punished. Look at his You Hui Sword (1). Our swords are just rusty scrap metal, but his is a real immortal sword that the sect leader personally forged after selling the family’s pots and pans to buy spiritual ore.”
“It’s too miserable to have to sell pots and pans to forge a sword,” Qi Yin said, spitting out the mouthwash and wiping his face with a towel. “Have you seen him during the day? I saw him this morning when he was taking Lan Xian’er down the mountain. I don’t know if he came back.”
Everyone said they hadn’t seen him. Liu Bai became anxious and said, “Senior Yun Zhi is really something. The sect leader is still asking about him over there. If he knows that he spent the night outside, I don’t know how he will punish him.”
Qi Yin thought that it was good for Yun Zhi to kneel in front of the ancestors for a while and stretch his muscles, so as not to always harass the girls. But he scratched his head and said, “Forget it. I probably know where he is. I’ll go get him back. You guys help me stall the sect leader.”
Fu Lan was already squatting on a nail rake, waiting for Qi Yin. The fat cat jumped into Qi Yin’s arms and climbed up the nail rake with him. The trees flew by as if they were racing, and the wind blew Qi Yin and the cat’s faces. Qi Yin held Fu Lan’s waist tightly, asking him to slow down. Before he could finish speaking, they had already reached the foot of the mountain. The nail rake suddenly stopped, and Qi Yin bumped into Fu Lan’s back.
Dizzy and disoriented, he held onto his forehead and walked towards Lan Xian’er’s house with a rake in his hand. A row of red lanterns hung under the eaves on both sides of the street, and a round, yellow moon sat above the walls. Some diamond-shaped windows were lit up with light, with the shadows of people from other houses moving behind them. After walking for a while, he suddenly realized something was wrong. Upon closer inspection, the street didn’t look like Chang Le Lane at all, but more like Wu Tang Town.
Qi Yin stood there, stunned and speechless. “This is Wu Tang, isn’t it? Dai Ge, you’ve flown us to Wu Tang with a rake.”
The street was quiet, and there was no response from anyone. Qi Yin turned around in confusion and found that Fu Lan and the black cat were gone. He was left standing alone on an empty street.
After a while of confusion, Qi Yin started to walk back. The street was silent except for the sound of his footsteps. He walked for a long time but couldn’t find the bitter melon tree at the entrance of Chang Le Lane. He felt lost and didn’t know what to do. Unknowingly, he walked to the Yao family’s house. He stood under the dark eaves for a while, but didn’t go in. There was only an old lady left in the Yao family, and he didn’t know what to say. Just as he was turning around, he heard someone call out from behind him, “Xiao Yin, why didn’t you come in?”
The voice was familiar. Qi Yin turned around and saw his aunt standing under the lantern.
“… ” He was almost scared out of his wits and stammered, “A-auntie!”
What the hell? His aunt had risen from the dead!
“Child, the whole family was waiting for you to come back for dinner.” His aunt walked over and pulled him by the wrist, dragging him into the house. Qi Yin’s hair stood on end, and he didn’t dare to let go of her hand. He followed her into the main room. His uncle and the old lady were sitting at the table, and Xiao Yuan was standing by the side. His aunt pressed him onto the drum stool, and his uncle smiled kindly at him. Qi Yin stared at his uncle’s mouth and remembered the nine shriveled skulls that had popped out of his mouth several months ago.
The drum stool was cold, and Qi Yin sat there with chills running down his spine. His aunt picked up the chopsticks and carefully picked out dishes for him one by one. “Are you confused again? You’re a smart kid, but you became all muddle-headed after being hit by a carriage.”
“Hit by a carriage?”
“You even forgot about that?” Auntie’s face was full of worry as she patted the back of his head. Qi Yin trembled in pain and only then realized that there was a wound on the back of his head.
The old lady frowned. “Find a doctor for Xiao Yin again. Xiao Yin, have you forgotten? Three months ago, you went to get medicine for your aunt, didn’t look where you were going, and got hit by a carriage before you even reached the medicine shop. You had a big wound on your head and had to lie down for three months.”
Uncle also sighed with his hands in his sleeves.
Qi Yin stared blankly at the group of people sitting around the table – Auntie, Uncle, the old lady, and Xiao Yuan standing next to them. They were all sitting together neatly under the candlelight, and the fragrance of food lingered in the air. The hustle and bustle of the street outside could be heard clearly, and the moon hung peacefully in the sky, as if the man-eating bird he remembered was just a nightmare. Qi Yin felt that he must be under a spell. He slapped himself hard, and everyone was startled.
Auntie widened her eyes and murmured, “It’s over, it’s over. This child really hurt his head. Yuan Dao, why don’t you go and get the doctor?”
“Okay, okay, I’ll go.” Uncle hurriedly got up from the table.
Qi Yin’s face burned with pain, but the scene in front of him did not change at all. When the doctor arrived and examined Qi Yin, he felt very confused. Had all the experiences of the past few months been a dream? He remembered that Feng Xian got married, but did not remember being hit by a carriage. Looking up at everyone, their faces were covered in the warm light of the lamp, all wearing worried expressions as if they were concerned about his illness. Qi Yin stuttered, “Um, it seems like I had a very long dream.”
“You dreamed that our family had a strange bird that ate a lot of people, right?” Auntie said.
“Auntie, you know?” Qi Yin was surprised.
“Sometimes you talk in your sleep, saying all sorts of nonsense. Your uncle and I would listen to you by your bedside, and it was always about strange birds, strange birds.” Auntie pushed him to bed. “Okay, okay, don’t think too much. The more you think, the more foolish you become. Go to bed now, and you’ll be completely better tomorrow morning!”
Auntie pushed him to the upper room, and Qi Yin felt a little apprehensive. “But I usually sleep in the attic, right?”
“Who let you sleep in the attic?” Auntie complained, giving him a glance. “Your brother went to do business and will be back tomorrow. He sent a message yesterday saying he found some excellent ginseng for you. He guarantees that the medicine will cure your illness.”
“My brother? Isn’t he at Wu Fang Mountain practicing Daoism?”
Auntie covered her mouth and smiled. “We’re not that lucky. How come you dreamed that your brother went to practice Daoism? Okay, okay, I’ll borrow your good fortune. When the time comes, the two of you will go together, and our family will have two sword immortals, and even the emperor will come to our house to share our luck.”
Having seen Auntie’s fierce demeanor, Qi Yin didn’t feel comfortable being treated so kindly. He felt his bones shivering. Auntie walked to the door, about to close it. Qi Yin sat on the bed and suddenly said, “Auntie, I feel like you’re different.”
“What’s different?” Auntie turned her head, her smile warm and gentle. Qi Yin looked at her and suddenly couldn’t speak. Auntie leaned against the door sill, looking at him in confusion.
Finally, Qi Yin smiled and said, “You look more beautiful.”
“Get out of here, sweet talker. Save it for your future wife!” Auntie closed the door, walking away.
Qi Yin closed the door, sat at the desk, and looked at himself in the mirror, but he couldn’t see the wound on the back of his head. After struggling for a while, he gave up. He sat for a while, listened to the silence outside, and climbed out of the window cautiously. He made his way to the kitchen, where there was a rustling sound. The sound of breathing alternated between a man and a woman. Uncle hadn’t changed his habit of cheating. Qi Yin climbed up to the attic again, opened the door quietly, and found that it was filled with boxes and crates, not like a place where people lived.
He went downstairs and sat in the living room for a while. He picked up a tea bowl under the altar of worship, and saw that it was broken at one corner. It was accidentally broken when he was serving tea when he was young.
He climbed over the courtyard wall and strolled along the road. The shops had closed their doors, and it was pitch black under the street lamps. Moonlight shone on his face. Auntie’s hand was warm, so she was a living person, ruling out the possibility of her being a zombie. Wu Tang hadn’t changed. The furnishings in the house remained the same. This was really Wu Tang, the small town where he had lived for fifteen years, and the Yao family he had lived with for fifteen years.
Qi Yin squatted down against the wall, his mind a mess.
No matter how fast Fu Lan rode his rake, it was impossible to reach Wu Tang, which was a thousand miles away, in an instant. What kind of demon magic could turn Chang Le Lane into Wu Tang Town and bring dead people back to life? And these people… he felt that something was strange and not right.
Qi Yin stood up and continued walking. The town was small, and he finished walking it in an hour without seeing any trace of Fu Lan and the black cat. He was so tired that he was panting heavily. He climbed back over the wall into his house, where he rested quietly.
The next day, Qi Yin’s aunt rushed out in a flurry, saying that his older brother had come back. Qi Yin had a sleepless night and lazily stumbled out the door. Yao Xiao Shan had returned, and he would have to sleep in the same room with him again. Qi Yin would rather sleep in the attic.
As he crossed the threshold, a black-clad youth stood on the steps, leading a horse.
Qi Yin rubbed his eyes, doubting what he saw.
His aunt slapped him and said, “Xiao Yin, you haven’t forgotten about your brother, have you?”
The youth climbed the steps, and his big, black eyes reflected Qi Yin’s stunned expression. Qi Yin exclaimed, “Fu Lan!?”
1. You Hui Sword – Yun Zhi’s sword. The literal translation for its name is “Regretful.”