It was late and the watchman passed by, knocking the drum to signal the third watch of the night. The houses were shrouded in darkness, clustered together in a dense mass that seemed impenetrable.
Auntie turned over in bed, reaching out to the side and feeling the coldness of the empty space where her husband should have been sleeping. Had he gone to pay his respects to his ancestors? She frowned and waited for a while, suddenly feeling that something was not right. The chamber pot was right next to the bed, so where had he gone to relieve himself?
Filled with suspicion, she sat up and pulled back the curtains. The room was not lit, and it was pitch black outside. Looking through the diamond-shaped panes of the lantern-patterned window, she could see nothing but the indistinct shadows of plants and flowers that resembled ghostly figures. The night was very still, occasionally broken by the cries of wild cats that sounded like the cries of newborn babies. She could faintly hear the soft moans of a woman in the distance, too far away to distinguish.
She was a little scared, her bare feet touching the ground, the stone floor chilly against her feet. She walked to the window and listened carefully for a while, and the woman’s moans became clearer and more distinct, clearly coming from her own courtyard.
Someone was dying; there must be ghosts in the house. She wanted to find her husband and resented him for not being there at this moment. Just as she was getting anxious, an embarrassing thought crossed her mind. The moans were coming from the kitchen, and Xiao Yuan was sleeping in the room next to the kitchen. She couldn’t believe it, but inexplicably pushed the door open and walked towards the kitchen. Her heart pounding, she forgot to put on her shoes and walked barefoot through the shadows, passing around the corridor and stopping at the bottom of Qi Yin’s attic. The moans were getting louder and louder, coming from inside the kitchen.
“Can we rest for today? My stomach hurts,” she heard her husband pitifully pleading.
The moans stopped, and Xiao Yuan hummed, “You’re sick of me, aren’t you? If you dare to leave me, watch me stab you to death and feed you to the demons!”
“No, it’s true. My stomach hurts. Ahh…”
Auntie’s anger rose, and she was about to step forward, but suddenly the tiles above her head moved and made a crackling sound. She was startled. From somewhere came the crying of wild cats, one after another, their cries piercing and reminiscent of wailing infants. She caressed her chest, picked up a bamboo pole leaning against the wall, took a deep breath, and kicked open the door.
The two lovers were indeed inside, both half-undressed, with only their two white legs showing. Xiao Yuan was lying on the stove, and when the door opened, the moonlight shone in, illuminating her entire body. She was stunned, her face white as a ghost in the moonlight. Uncle also stared wide-eyed, still lying on Xiao Yuan and forgetting to react.
Auntie was so angry that she shouted: “I’ll kill you, adulterous couple!” She hit Uncle with a bamboo pole, causing him to run away while holding his head and moaning. Xiao Yuan knelt on the ground and cried, “Madam, have mercy, have mercy! I was forced by the master to do it. I had no choice!”
But her crying only fueled Auntie’s rage. She turned around and hit Xiao Yuan’s face with the bamboo pole, shouting, “I’ll kill you, you slut! I’ll beat your face to a pulp. See how you seduce people then!”
Xiao Yuan rolled on the ground, crying loudly. Auntie went to pull out her hairpins and brooches, and tried to strip off her clothes. Xiao Yuan held onto her clothes and yelled, “Master, save me!”
Uncle stood at the other end of the kitchen, not reacting. Auntie sneered, “Are you still hoping he’ll save you? I’ll strip you naked and sell you to the brothel! Let’s see if he’ll save you then!”
With a sudden burst of energy, Xiao Yuan kicked Auntie away and crawled towards Uncle, holding onto his legs and crying, “Yao Lang, you said you’d protect me!”
Auntie was so furious that she picked up the bamboo pole to hit them again. Uncle, who had been standing with his back turned to them, slowly turned his head around. His movements were slow and jerky, like an elderly man with mobility issues.
Xiao Yuan was near enough to see clearly. Uncle’s head twisted around, but his body did not move. His neck made a crisp cracking sound, and his head hung down with his eyes fixed on Xiao Yuan, who was still holding onto his legs.
Xiao Yuan screamed and crawled back to Auntie. As she was about to scold her, Uncle’s mouth suddenly opened wide. It was so large that it did not look like something a human could do. His facial features were all squished together at the top of his head.
At the same time, nine snake-like necks with flat, dry heads stretched out from his gaping mouth, and all nine heads cried out like wailing babies. They were directed towards Auntie and Xiao Yuan, and the cries were filled with a desperate and heartbreaking sadness.
The two women were scared out of their wits and screamed in unison, “Ah!”
The old lady was awakened by their screams and sat up, pulling back the curtains. She knew that wherever there were women, there would be trouble. She had never liked Yu Niang’s temperament and had secretly allowed Xiao Yuan to have an affair with her son. She had been waiting for the day when Xiao Yuan would become pregnant, and Yu Niang would have to accept her into the family, whether she liked it or not.
But from the beginning of the year until now, there had been no news of Xiao Yuan’s pregnancy. Seeing the commotion tonight, it was possible that the cat was out of the bag. She sighed and put on her clothes before heading out.
As she approached the corner gate, she saw the tree swaying and a figure jumping down. It was Qi Yin. She knew something was wrong because Yu Niang’s medicine dose was not enough, and the child had woken up. Qi Yin did not immediately approach her but stood under the tree, looking at her with fear. She noticed that the child was holding an axe, and drops of blood were trickling down the cold blade.
Her mind went blank, and she trembled as she pointed at him. “You…you…did you kill someone? Yu Niang or my son or grandson?” Yes, yes, the boy must have found out that they planned to use Xiao Shan to replace him on the immortal mountain. With a grudge in his heart, he killed someone with the axe. She was furious and exclaimed, “I shouldn’t have taken in an ungrateful wretch like you!”
Qi Yin did not speak, but clenched his teeth and ran towards her with the axe. She was shocked and retreated, shouting, “You want to kill me too? Murderer! Murderer!”
The axe swung straight towards her face, and she instinctively covered her head. The axe whizzed past her, and she heard something scream in agony. Immediately, she was assaulted by the pungent smell of blood. She opened her eyes in horror and saw nine dry, brown necks lying at her feet, along with the giant body and wings of a strange bird.
“This thing has been following you all this time,” Qi Yin wiped the blood off his face.
The old lady was still in shock and asked, “What is this?”
“I don’t know.” Qi Yin shook his head. “You go back to the house, and I’ll check the front yard.”
After saying that, Qi Yin took the axe and walked towards the front yard. The old lady looked back and saw Xiao Yuan and Auntie rushing towards her with panic on their faces. Behind them, Uncle was chasing after them with nine long necks stretching out of his mouth, but the strange bird seemed to be difficult to control, and Uncle stumbled and twisted his legs.
The old lady fainted as soon as she saw him in that state. Qi Yin helped her to the doorstep. Yao Xiao Shan was also awakened by the noise. Rubbing his eyes and slipping on his shoes, he walked to the bottom of the corridor and asked, “What are you doing?”
Uncle saw that he couldn’t catch up with Auntie and Xiao Yuan. He turned a corner and walked towards Yao Xiao Shan instead. Auntie quickly shouted, “Xiao Shan, run!”
Yao Xiao Shan finally saw his father’s appearance and screamed, running away. Uncle twisted his leg and pounced on him, but Yao Xiao Shan ran too fast for him to catch up. He turned to pounce on Xiao Yuan instead. Xiao Yuan screamed and dodged, and Uncle couldn’t catch up either. He twisted around and saw the old lady lying on the ground. He limped over, step by step.
Auntie was greatly alarmed and ran over to help the old lady, but she was too heavy for her to drag. Qi Yin picked up an axe and went up. One axe hit Uncle’s head from behind, and half of his head was split open. Blood mixed with yellow and white brain pulp splattered onto Qi Yin’s face. He gritted his teeth and swung the axe down again and again, shattering Uncle’s head and the head of the strange bird.
Everyone looked at him in shock, not knowing whether they were afraid of the strange bird or of Qi Yin’s murderous look.
After hacking for a long time, both Uncle’s head and the bird’s head turned to mush, like rotten mud. Qi Yin threw away the axe and leaned against the wall to catch his breath.
As the shock subsided, Auntie belatedly realized that Uncle was already dead. She sat on the ground, crying out, “What a disaster! What’s going on? How did our family get attacked by a demon? Husband, oh husband!”
After catching his breath, Qi Yin said, “It was my cousin who bought the egg from the West Market. He thought it was a Qilin egg, but he didn’t expect it to be a demon bird’s egg (1).”
Auntie wailed and threw herself into Yao Xiao Shan’s arms, hitting him and shouting, “You animal, animal! You killed your father! Look at what you’ve done!”
“It’s not me, it’s not me! I didn’t know it was a demon egg…” Yao Xiao Shan cried, looking up and seeing Qi Yin. He yelled, “It’s not me, it’s Qi Yin! He knew it was a demon egg and intentionally gave it to my father. Mother, didn’t you give him medicine? How did he wake up? He knew about it a long time ago.”
Yao Xiao Shan took the glass beads bracelet from his mother’s wrist and examined it carefully, exclaiming, “It’s true! Mother, this bracelet is fake. He made a fake one when he was studying at school and brought it to sell at the school. He used this thing to deceive you!”
Auntie turned around, and Qi Yin was standing there looking at them. Auntie pointed at him and said, “So that’s how it is! You’re such a treacherous person. You knew that the immortal was coming to our house, and you set up this plan to kill my whole family! You treacherous person!”
“I did know that you were going to replace me.” Qi Yin’s expression was difficult to read, whether it was sadness or desolation. “But I didn’t harm you. Someone told me that the egg was a monster egg, and I thought my cousin had only one egg, which was the one hidden in my room. When I came back today, the egg had already cracked, and I filled it with arsenic to kill the monster bird. The egg is still in my room. If you don’t believe me, you can see it for yourself.”
Auntie didn’t believe him and asked Xiao Yuan to go upstairs and check. After a while, Xiao Yuan actually brought down a cracked stone egg.
The old lady woke up, hoarsely asking, “What about the box you gave to Yu Niang? What’s inside?”
Auntie took out the box, opened it in front of everyone, and there was a neatly stacked pile of silver bills and a letter inside. Auntie took out the letter, which had big characters written on the envelope: “Farewell letter.”
“Xiao Yin, are you leaving?” Auntie asked, trembling.
“Mm.” Qi Yin lowered his eyelashes, standing alone under the moonlight, a lonely black shadow. “My biological father abandoned his wife and children, and I don’t want to become like him. If my cousin wants to go, let him go. But I don’t want to stay here either. I know Auntie was going to drug me, so I coughed up what I had eaten after dinner. Grandmother gave me the silver bills and I didn’t take a single one. The roof of my house is broken, and I was planning to leave tonight. I didn’t expect that when I went up to my room, I would see a monster bird squatting in the courtyard.”
He turned his head, his eyes catching a glimpse of Uncle’s gruesome corpse on the ground. He had also harbored a vengeful heart, so he had replaced the bowl of beauty soup with an added ingredient, hoping to wake Auntie up in the middle of the night and expose Uncle’s ugly deeds, causing chaos. But he didn’t expect it to end up like this.
Everyone fell silent, and Auntie collapsed to the ground, overwhelmed.
“One in the front yard, one in the back yard, and one killed by Qi Yin’s arsenic. Xiao Shan, you hid three monster eggs in the house!” the old lady cried, covering her face. “What kind of sin have we committed?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry… it was not intentional.” Yao Xiao Shan trembled. “And, actually, I bought five of them…”
Everyone was shocked, and Qi Yin asked sharply, “Where are the other two? Where did you hide them?”
Yao Xiao Shan closed his eyes, tremblingly reached out his hand, and pointed to Qi Yin.
Auntie, Xiao Yuan, and the old lady all showed terrified expressions and stepped back. Qi Yin felt his hands and feet go cold. Did the monster bird somehow find its way into his stomach? But that wasn’t possible. The monster bird didn’t come out of his mouth, so how did Yao Xiao Shan know it was in his stomach?
“That is…” He turned his head slowly and faced a wet and withered bird face. The strange bird opened its black beak as if it was going to eat someone, and its baby-like cries roared towards Qi Yin like an avalanche, deafeningly loud.
1. Jiutou Niao – a mythological demon in Chinese folklore. It is a ferocious demon bird that preys on human beings. It is said to have nine heads and can breathe fire. Its wings are said to be so large that they can block out the sun, and its feathers are said to be so sharp that they can pierce armor.