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Careful What You Search For

Chapter Text

This village really isn’t that different from any of the others. It’s small and gray and damp, the clouds hanging thick in the sky and releasing a steady, depressing drizzle onto the buildings below. There’s hardly anyone in the streets, or at least that’s what Shi Qingxuan thinks at first, until he nearly runs into a tiny old woman who hisses threateningly at him as he scrambles out of her way. That’s when he realizes there are some people out and about; they’re just people who look as gray and miserable as their surroundings, which makes it hard to notice them. 

Shi Qingxuan passes deeper into the village, heading for the central square to get his bearings; that’s where he’ll find the village crier, who, for a few coins, ought to have some information for him. Yet as he walks down the cobblestone street, managing to avoid anymore near collisions with residents, he can’t help but sigh. This place is more dreary than all of the other villages combined; at least they had some life in them. He’s only been to this one for ten minutes and he already feels like it’s going to be another dead end, another waste of his time. Just like all of the others.  

Shi Qingxuan kicks at a loose stone with the tip of his boot. He wants to pull out his fan, hold it in front of his face in a familiar gesture that always soothes him, but there’s no way he’s going to do that in this rain. He reminds himself instead that the first village he doesn’t investigate is bound to be the one where he could’ve gotten information on his ge. 

It takes so little time to reach the village square from the outer cottages that Shi Qingxuan isn’t aware he’s actually found it until he’s nearly crossed the wide, empty expanse of cobblestone. He stops and turns around, noting the dilapidated fountain settled in the center, the only water filling it coming from the drizzling rain. Not that that’s surprising; the fountain itself is so old and worn by the elements that it’s a bit difficult to tell what it was supposed to be, anymore. Shi Qingxuan tilts his head, long ponytail swaying with the motion, and squints. A maiden with a water jug, maybe? 

“NEWCOMER TO TOWN! SEEMS VERY INTERESTED IN THE OLD VILLAGE FOUNTAIN!”

The boom of a voice startles Shi Qingxuan so badly he stumbles, nearly falling onto his butt in a puddle of water forming between some lopsided stones. 

Well. Seems like I’ve found the town crier! Straightening his robes, Shi Qingxuan marches over to a stout, short little man in an official-looking uniform, clanging a bell and staring right at Shi Qingxuan as he approaches. Surely Shi Qingxuan hadn’t been so out of it that he would miss the sound of that bell, so he assumes the crier had started shouting as soon as he spotted Shi Qingxuan. 

“Excuse me, sir!” Shi Qingxuan beams down at the man, fishing for his coin purse in the pocket of his robes. “Can I ask you some questions?” 

“NEWCOMER COMES BEARING QUESTIONS! WONDER WHAT HE’LL ASK!”

The sheer volume of the crier’s voice at close-range is enough to make Shi Qingxuan flinch. “Uh, you don’t have to shout! I can hear you just fine.” 

“NEWCOMER WISHES TO SILENCE THE CRIER--”

“I have coin!” Shi Qingxuan interjects. He hastily dumps a few pieces of silver onto his palm, practically shoving it under the man’s nose for him to see. “I’ll pay you! I just want to get some information, that’s all, and I know the village crier knows everything there is to know about a village!” 

The crier stops at that, and now Shi Qingxuan can see that his small eyes are shrewd. They take in Shi Qingxuan, his robes and the most casual hair piece he could find and the coins in his hand. The crier drops the hand holding the bell to his side, no longer filling the village square with its ringing.

“Alright.” The crier speaks differently now, too, no longer using the polished accent of a town official. His free hand moves so quickly Shi Qingxuan almost doesn’t catch it, and when he looks down at his own palm, he sees that the coins he’d been holding are no longer there. “Think I got a minute or two to indulge a paying customer. What’s it you’re wanting to know?” 

Relief floods Shi Qingxuan. The coins he’s using here, plus what he’ll need to pay for an inn for the night, will take another good chunk out of his savings, but that’s alright. It’s worth it. 

He’s taken on odd jobs before, busking and even begging in the past, in order to keep going. His parents would likely be appalled to see him doing labor at all, let alone the work he’s done. He doesn’t even let himself think of how his ge would react. He can only hope they’ll understand in the end. 

Pulling his hand back, Shi Qingxuan’s broad smile returns. “I’m looking for my brother,” he says. “Have you ever heard the name Shi Wudu?” 

Shi Qingxuan doesn’t go into detail, when he asks. This stranger doesn’t need to know that five years ago he was a boy barely sixteen when Shi Wudu disappeared, or that Shi Qingxuan hadn’t even known Shi Wudu was missing until a man, a patrol captain, had come to their door saying there had been a battle and afterward they couldn’t find Shi Wudu anywhere. The captain couldn’t say where the battle had been, or why Shi Wudu had taken part at all, when Shi Qingxuan knew his brother wasn’t a soldier. All the man could say was that Shi Wudu was there, and then he wasn’t. 

He also kept fidgeting, playing with his armor, looking away from Shi Qingxuan’s face. The poor man was probably upset, he reasoned. It couldn’t be easy to tell a family that their loved one was gone, possibly dead. 

The captain did give a region where the battle took place, at least. Shi Qingxuan never forgot it, even though it took him three years before he could convince his parents to let him go and search. 

He’s been at it ever since. He’s learned to survive situations he’d never even imagined when he was growing up. And through it all, he’s kept his head high, his smile bright. Any pain or discomfort the present brings is nothing compared to what he’ll feel when he sees his ge again. 

“The name sounds familiar.” The crier’s voice pulls Shi Qingxuan out of his thoughts, out of the lull he’d fallen into as the short man in front of him felt the need to test every coin with his teeth before answering. “But he’s not been in this village.”

Just like that, the anticipation and hope he’d felt drains out of Shi Qingxuan’s body, leaving him numb. He still wears a smile. “Oh, I see. Well, thanks anyway--”

“Now hold up there, boy.” The silver has disappeared once again, no doubt into one of the crier’s pockets. “You paid well, and so I’ll tell you. I been in this town for years, and the biggest news we’ve had since I came was a battle up at the village beside the lake. There was a Shi Wudu there, so they say. Led the emperor’s soldiers to victory over a pack of bandits. The village is full of ghosts, now, but maybe one of ‘em will help you out.” 

Ge was nearby. It’s the closest thing to real news Shi Qingxuan has ever gotten. He ignores the bit about ghosts because, well, that’s ridiculous, and grabs for the crier’s hand, shaking it vigorously as he says, “Thank you so much! I really appreciate your help!” 

The crier endures this for about a second before jerking his hand back, rubbing it like it’s been strained. “You’ll wanna go northeast of here. Once you hit the lake, follow along the eastern shore. The village will be there; you can’t miss it.” 

“Thank you!” Shi Qingxuan pivots on his heel, pulling out the compass he’d bought two years back, once it was impossible to continue ignoring how hopeless he was at directions. No rtheast. If there’s a lake in that direction, he’s sure to find it, and he still has enough rations to last for several days. He’s certain he’ll be back in this village before he runs out, no matter the outcome of his search. 

With his back turned, hope pulsing through his system, he doesn’t see how the crier watches him leave, features unreadable, though something like pity rests in those dark eyes. 

---

The lake is closer than Shi Qingxuan expected, only about a half day’s travel from the gray village whose name he still has yet to remember. Using his compass, he finds that the crier was correct: it’s impossible to miss when traveling in this direction. It’s very deep, from the looks, with how dark and smooth the surface is, and Shi Qingxuan skirts along its banks, following the eastern edge to the village the crier mentioned. With each step he takes, he grows more jittery, more excited, until his boots are smacking into the muddy ground as he breaks into a run. It’s the first lead he’s had in two years. Ge was here. After so long searching, he can’t help himself. 

Soon enough, a few cottages emerge through the trees, and Shi Qingxuan picks up his pace. This is the village. The outskirts seem deserted but that’s fine, maybe it’s become smaller in the past five years, he’s sure he can still find someone he can talk to who can tell him where to go next---

There’s a lot of brush on the road into this village, even on the main road. The cottages remain empty, and as he gets closer to the center of the village, he realizes that many of them are in ruins. Not from age, either, but from fire damage, from purposeful destruction. Homes and shops alike are still charred, half caved in, and by the time Shi Qingxuan reaches the village square, he hasn’t seen a single soul. 

No one’s here. The place is abandoned. 

Shi Qingxuan stands there for a long time, listening to the wind whistling through the empty buildings surrounding the square. Eventually, he slowly sinks to the ground, uncaring at how rainwater soaks into his robes. He sits with legs crossed, elbows on his thighs, and lets his face fall into his hands. 

There was a Shi Wudu there, so they say. But was there really? Was it simply someone who had the same name? Shi Qingxuan hiccups, back bent forward. Ge, where are you? Where did you go? Why didn’t you write?

The possibility that Shi Wudu is dead crosses Shi Qingxuan’s mind, not for the first time. He banishes the thought as soon as it appears. I’d know. He can’t be gone. I’d know.

By the time Shi Qingxuan finally gets the energy to move, it’s starting to get dark. He’s so wet and cold from being out in the rain all day that he’s shuddering, legs shaking as he rises to his feet and starts to pick his way out of the village. He hugs himself as he walks, but really, he doesn’t mind the cold. It numbs him to the ache in his chest, the disappointment that has been eating at him since he entered this village. Two whole years of searching, and the closest thing to a lead he’s found is a ghost town. He remembers how that crier had mentioned talking to ghosts, and now he realizes the joke in it. 

“Ha, ha,” he murmurs, shoulders hunched, not feeling like laughing at all. 

Time blurs around him, and before he knows it he’s back at the edge of the lake that faces the gray village. The rain petered out at some point in his walk, and threads of sunlight poke through the heavy gray clouds still hanging overhead. Shi Qingxuan stops, watching the gentle way the lake waters lap at the small slit of sand along its edge. Ge always used to love the water, though he’d never admit it. When they were young, Shi Wudu would spend hours swimming in the pond near their home. Shi Qingxuan used to sit on the dock and watch him, bare feet in the water, eyes wide with awe at how powerful his brother was when he swam from one end to the other and back. 

Shi Qingxuan, no matter how many times Shi Wudu tried to teach him, was hopeless at swimming. A doggy paddle was the most he could do, slowly and laboriously swimming circles near the dock. 

But he’d always loved sitting at the edge and watching his ge. Smiling, despite the tears in his eyes, Shi Qingxuan bends to unlace his boots, ties his robes up around his thighs in a way his parents would have found frightful. He wades into the shallows of the lake, pulling his fan from his belt and letting its folds spread as he hums and lets the chill of the water spread from his legs up through his body. It’s freezing , but that’s alright. He welcomes the eventual numbing sensation that follows the initial shock. 

“After rain, the forest’s sleek,” he sings softly. He remembers a dance at winter festivals, one meant for recalling the spirits of the dead. He’s never believed in that, but it feels good to go through the motions anyway, to weave his fan through the air as he twirls in the icy water. He imagines creating a wind so sharp it cuts the lake in two, revealing everything that lies beneath the surface. 

“Creatures in the clouds all fresh...between the pines, the moon startles my heart…” That’s not how the song goes. He’s mixing two together, but he doesn’t care. It’s not as if there’s anyone around to hear him butchering the lyrics. “One piece of beautiful land...I smile and think of home...One man on his boat is just like an immortal...A foreign guest in a foreign land.” 

He continues singing as he twirls in the water, letting its icy touch travel up from his legs into the rest of his body. He probably looks ridiculous, doing this, singing nonsense, but he doesn't care. Maybe, a part of him thinks, he can summon the spirit of his brother. 

And so he sings louder, twirls faster, his fan cutting through the air as he goes. "After rain, the forest's sleek! Creatures in the clouds all fresh!" Moving like this, he can envision the lake boiling around him, rolling and shifting from the sound of his voice, from the way he moves--

He glances down at one point and finds that the lake is, in fact, boiling around him. It isn't hot, but the surface is still bubbling and roiling in a way that it shouldn't be. Shi Qingxuan scrambles out of the water and onto dry ground, slowly backing away from the tumultuous motions of the water. He stops a few feet from the shore, eyes wide, mouth agape, while the lake tosses itself as if in the throes of a violent storm. 

He's still standing there in shock when something... emerges. He sees a dark circle, at first, far out in the lake, and as it draws closer to the shallows it begins to rise. A head crowned with black hair, followed by a sallow face, then shoulders and a chest and arms and--and Shi Qingxuan can only numbly watch as a man rises from the water. His skin looks clammy, almost white, and pieces of him are missing; Shi Qingxuan can see his teeth through one cheek, a few ribs in his breast, a skeletal hand devoid of all flesh. And still, Shi Qingxuan doesn't move, can't move, his fan held in shaking fingers. This can't be real. This can't be real.

The spectre stops on the banks of the lake. He's wearing black robes with gray embroidery forming designs Shi Qingxuan will hopefully never be close enough to see. It's bad enough that those black eyes are on him, meeting his gaze, seemingly staring into his soul. 

The creature opens its mouth, and, with a throaty voice, asks, "Why have you awoken me?" 

Shi Qingxuan tries to respond, a weak, "I'm sorry," leaving his lips. He's not able to say anything else, eyes rolling back and body falling to the ground as he promptly passes the fuck out.

 




Chapter Text

When Shi Qingxuan wakes, it’s dark, and he’s alone. 

He groans as he sits up, touching the back of his head, which is now tender from when he fell. He can’t have been out for more than a few minutes, as the last tendrils of sunlight have yet to completely disappear. The surface of the lake is as still as ever, reflecting what remaining daylight there is before the stars come out, and there’s no sign of the spectre that had risen from the water. 

Did he imagine it? He can’t have, it looked so real...then again, if he passed out, maybe it was just a hallucination caused by his rapidly fading consciousness before he fainted. Otherwise, why would it have disappeared as soon as he came to? Ghosts weren’t exactly known for their politeness toward the living. 

Picking himself up, Shi Qingxuan wrinkles his nose at how dirty his robes are now. He’ll have to find somewhere to camp for the night so he can change into dry ones; it’s too late now to walk all the way back to the gray village. He’d probably get lost in the dark, or even worse, run into real danger, like bandits or hungry wild animals. He has a short sword to defend himself with, so he isn’t completely defenseless, yet he has never quite been the  best at fighting with...well, anything, really. When he and Shi Wudu were still small enough to get into fights, his ge always won, tackling him to the ground and sitting on him until he admitted defeat. 

Shi Qingxuan smiles at the memory as he works on putting some distance between himself and the lake. Though the creature that came out of the water must have been a trick of his mind, Shi Qingxuan doesn’t quite feel comfortable being so close to the water’s edge. He walks into the surrounding forest, keeping the road in view as he picks his way through the underbrush, until the trees mostly block the lake from his sight. Only then does he begin to relax. 

This isn’t the first time he’s had to camp outside during his journey. Finding a nice, sturdy tree with thick branches, Shi Qingxuan climbs it, only slipping once in his ascent; a new personal best. He doesn’t prefer sleeping in the forest for the same reasons he didn’t think it safe to walk back to the gray village in the dark, but he knows that his odds are much better if he’s in a tree. The most dangerous animals tended to lurk on the ground, and bandits, while posing a significant threat, were usually too stupid to look above them. Shi Qingxuan had learned that one night when he was camping outside a village where the inns were all full for some local festival, and bandits had slipped past beneath his tree while he sat as still as possible, trying not to breathe too loudly lest they heard him. Not a single one ever looked up. 

Tying his pack to a twig sticking off of the larger branch, Shi Qingxuan carefully balances himself so that he can take off his soiled outer robe and exchange it for the only other robe he carries. It’s a slow process, and by the time he’s done it’s fully dark out, the only light coming from the stars and the thin slice of moon above. 

With a soft sigh, he uses the cloth belt of his robe to anchor himself to the tree branch before settling back against the trunk. His legs dangle on either side of the branch, and while it isn’t nearly the most comfortable position he’s slept in, it’ll do. He closes his eyes, letting the disappointment of today’s dead end slide off of him. He’s run into those before. He’ll just have to try somewhere else.

A soft  breeze slips through the wood, ruffling his robes and making the leaves shift around him. It feels nice; cleansing, even. A small smile curves his lip - and then he feels the branch shift beneath him. Like there’s something else on it.

His eyes snap open, and there, at the end of the branch, balancing easily, is the spectre from the lake. 

It’s still dark and the treetops obstruct most of the starlight, which means Shi Qingxuan can only see the creature in parts. It’s standing as if on solid ground, and as Shi Qingxuan watches, his jaw working on words that just won’t come, it begins to walk toward him. It’s about five feet away, then four, then three, drawing closer and closer while Shi Qingxuan’s hands fumble with the belt, trying to free himself so he can run away. Or, more likely, fall out of the tree, but honestly he would be fine with that right now. 

“You woke me,” the spectre says. A statement, no longer a question. Shi Qingxuan gets the belt off and starts pulling at his pack, shoving himself against the trunk, trying to get as far away from this monster as he can. It’s not working. The spectre crouches right in front of Shi Qingxuan, and a part of him notices that even this far away from the lake, water still seems to drip from the ends of that black hair, from the embroidered robes it’s wearing. 

When a ghostly white hand reaches for him, Shi Qingxuan finds his voice. 

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t know!” He tries a disarming smile. “It was all a mistake, an accident! So, so there’s no need to kill me!” 

“Kill you?” The hand pauses. “No, that’s not why I’m here.” 

Shi Qingxuan stops the frantic backpedaling of his feet against the tree branch. “You’re not?” 

“No.” That hand reaches again and touches Shi Qingxuan’s cheek. His whole body stiffens, breath coming in tiny, panicked gasps, the spectre’s fingertips pinpricks of ice against his skin. They brush along his cheekbone, trace the line of his jaw, before cupping his face. “I’m here to take you with me.” 

Shi Qingxuan opens his mouth to ask, Take me where? but he doesn’t have the chance. There’s a dry rasping, the sound of bare bones rubbing together, and the two of them are enveloped by a swarm of dark shapes Shi Qingxuan can’t quite make out before, once again, his world goes dark. 

This time, Shi Qingxuan remains conscious, though he really wishes he hadn't. While he can't see anything, he can feel a sudden gale whipping around him, tearing at his clothes and hair, and beneath it all is that cold hand on his cheek. Somewhere in there, the spectre's other hand ended up on the small of his back, and he's being held close against a damp, lean body. He can feel himself trembling, terrified beyond words, but he can't move. He can't speak. He's frozen in this monster's embrace. All he can do is close his eyes and think, I'm sorry, ge.

Then, as suddenly as it arose, the wind is gone. Shi Qingxuan is still being held by his captor, but they’re no longer moving; he stays very still, eyes squeezed tightly shut. He thinks he hears movement nearby, soft whispering, but he doesn’t dare look. He doesn’t want to see where he’s been taken, though his imagination runs wild with all sorts of possible horrors. 

More silence passes, and then a high, nasally voice, jeers, “Did you bring back a human or a fucking statue?” and Shi Qingxuan’s eyes snap open. 

Immediately, he realizes that he is not, in fact, in the depths of hell. The room the spectre has brought him to looks like more of a....well. A bar, honestly. A fairly populated bar, filled with patrons who are all staring at him. It doesn’t seem too terrifying, really, even if most of the customers have deathly pale skin. More ghosts , he reasons. He’d expected worse, and so he starts to relax until he lets his gaze scan over the room and oh dear God is that a skeleton.

Letting out a yelp, he clutches at his escort, not realizing he’s started to climb his ghostly captor until cold hands are pushing him away and that throaty voice is growling, “Get off.” 

“He’s pretty skittish, huh!” That voice from a moment ago crows, and Shi Qingxuan sheepishly untangles himself from the spectre, quietly freaking out from touching the thing like that. He looks for the source of the voice as a distraction and realizes it belongs to a man behind the bar, most likely the bartender; he’s pale, with pointed ears, disheveled black hair, and burning green eyes. He almost looks normal until he gives Shi Qingxuan a wicked grin, revealing a mouth full of pointed teeth. 

“You know, He Xuan,” the bartender continues, coming out from behind the counter, “It’s awful nice of you to bring me fresh meat.” 

Shi Qingxuan feels all the blood drain from his face. Is he imagining the hungry looks in the eyes of the other ghosts? It doesn’t help that he’s beginning to notice a lot of upsetting details about the other patrons, now that he’s looking closer; things like exposed bones and missing limbs and empty eyesockets. Once again, Shi Qingxuan finds himself backing up toward the spectre - He Xuan? - as if the thing that brought him here would actually protect him. 

Except...He Xuan shifts, jerking Shi Qingxuan behind his back to create a barrier between Shi Qingxuan and the bartender. Wait. What?

“He’s not for you.” Somehow, He Xuan’s voice is even colder than before. Shi Qingxuan feels goosebumps rise along his arms. “Go find your own human, before I make you the next main course.” 

“Hey, hey, there’s no need for that!” The bartender scambles backward, picking up a small, gaunt-looking boy and holding him out in front of himself like a squishy, squirmy shield. “Hit him if you’re gonna go after anybody!” 

“Don’t hurt my A-die!” the child cries, putting up tiny fists as if to fight He Xuan. Shi Qingxuan glances between the three of them, then clears his throat. 

“Um, actually,” he says, hesitant, especially when three pairs of eyes zero in on him. “Can somebody tell me where I am and what I’m doing here?” 

The bartender looks at He Xuan, who purposefully does not look back, then uses the opportunity to scuttle back behind the bar with the small boy in tow. Shi Qingxuan watches him begin preparing a drink at the end of the counter that’s farthest from He Xuan, and finds that he honestly can’t blame him, even if the guy did want to serve him up as dinner. 

“You woke me,” He Xuan replies after a long silence, and Shi Qingxuan’s gaze snaps back to his face. Yes, Shi Qingxuan would also like to hide somewhere he won’t be under the scrutiny of those impossibly dark eyes. 

“I didn’t mean to--”

“You woke me,” He Xuan repeats, cutting him off. “You used a spell to raise me from my grave. You wanted my guidance. Why.” 

That draws Shi Qingxuan up short. Not only was that silly dance and song a spell, it brought He Xuan back to ‘life’ to...help Shi Qingxuan? To guide him?

Shi Qingxuan doesn’t realize he’s been staring, slack-jawed, until He Xuan’s expression grows positively stormy and Shi Qingxuan can feel the irritation emanating off of him. “Oh! I didn’t even know that was what I was doing. Oops!” He tries for a laugh, the sound awkwardly petering out as He Xuan continues to glower at him. “I guess I could use some guidance. I’m looking for my brother. Would you really be able to help me?” 

He Xuan doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and Shi Qingxuan starts to feel squirmy. Words claw at his throat, climbing to freedom only to fall every time he swallows. He’s never been good at being quiet. 

Thankfully, before he says anything, He Xuan breaks the silence. “I can.” 

Relief washes over him, except He Xuan doesn’t stop there. “The spell has a price,” he says. Shi Qingxuan stiffens. “To invoke me you must be willing to do something for me.” 

“Oh, um, that’s right! Of course. An equal exchange.” Shi Qingxuan’s heart thunders in his chest as he plasters a smile on his face. What will this spectre ask of him? To have his soul? His first born child? (What if he promised that and didn’t have a child? How would that work? Would he suddenly find himself pregnant, or would the child of another family member be taken. But what if his family didn’t have any other children, what then---)

“If I help you find your brother, you have to help me find the man who murdered me.” 

Shi Qingxuan’s swirling thoughts screech to a halt. Murdered…? “You were--yes, I’ll help you. Of course I’ll help you! That’s--that’s awful, I’m sorry, He-xiong.” 

The familiar term just comes out, and Shi Qingxuan swears he sees He Xuan’s eyebrow twitch. His smile widens, sheepishly apologetic, and his shoulders stop their slow creep up toward his ears when He Xuan lets out a long-suffering sigh. 

“You agree to the terms, then.” It’s not a question, though it wouldn’t matter anyway considering how Shi Qingxuan is eagerly bobbing his head. “Good. Let’s go.”

“Go? Already?” Shi Qingxuan has to stop himself from bouncing on the balls of his feet. Finally, after all those years searching, I’m getting somewhere . “You’ve got a lead? Why didn’t you say so?” He Xuan mentioned ‘guidance’, sure, but that isn’t the same thing as a genuine lead, and Shi Qingxuan could swear his heart is about to leap right out of his chest with excitement. 

At least, until He Xuan glances back at him with the same cold stare as before. “I don’t,” he says, easily quashing Shi Qingxuan’s joy with only two words. “We’re going to see the Caretaker.” 

The bouncing stops. “The who?” 

Shi Qingxuan doesn’t get an answer, as He Xuan is already weaving his way past tables and patrons, heading out of the bar. Shi Qingxuan has to jog to catch up, smiling and apologizing every time he bumps into something in his haste to follow his new guide. 

Somehow, when he pushes out of the door and enters the street outside, he’s surprised to see there’s a whole world beyond this bar. Somehow he’d gotten it in his mind that the bar was the entirety of the underworld, that all the dead were there; when he sees how large this place actually is, he realizes how stupid it was to believe that. He barely registers that He Xuan is standing several paces away, watching him as he slowly steps out onto the stone street, craning his neck to try and get a better view of his surroundings. 

It looks, for all intents and purposes, like any other city. There are shops and inns and all sorts of buildings, as well as roads, a nearby hill with a lookout spot, and even a bridge over a slowly meandering stream. What marks it as abnormal is that there’s no sky above them; instead, Shi Qingxuan catches glimpses of a cavern ceiling, stalactites hanging ominously and dripping onto the ground far below. The city also seems to stretch much farther than is physically possible, disappearing into darkness the more he tries to get a look at the edges of it. It’s as gray as the villages above, yet the people who walk the streets, though clearly dead, seem brighter in mood than their living counterparts. It makes Shi Qingxuan’s head swim, and he has to shake it a few times to get his bearings. 

“Are you done.” He Xuan’s voice is dry, impatient. Shi Qingxuan breaks out his sheepish grin again, wondering just how often he’s going to have to appease He Xuan in their journey. 

“Yeah, I’m done. Lead the way!” 

Shi Qingxuan tries to keep track of their route as He Xuan takes him through the city, but the roads are so winding and the buildings so similar in structure that he’s pretty sure he’ll never be able to find his way back to the bar on his own. He sticks close to He Xuan for this reason, earning a side glance or two while they walk; thankfully, He Xuan doesn’t berate him or try to push him away. 

They head in the opposite direction of that little hill with its fenced-off lookout area (as if any of the dead have to worry about falling) toward an even larger hilll, a dangerously spindly-looking thing that has an equally dangerously spindly-looking toward perched atop it. As they make their way up the path toward the tower, Shi Qingxuan keeps looking askance at He  Xuan, and finally drums up the courage to speak. 

“So the Caretaker is…?”

“Exactly what he sounds like.” He Xuan’s answer is, unsurprisingly, clipped and short and explains nothing. Shi Qingxuan clears his throat. 

“So he...takes care of the underworld?” he prompts. “Like a mayor? Or is he more like a janitor. Caretaker can mean a lot of things, you know.”

He can see how He Xuan’s jaw tightens, can imagine how his pulse might tick there if his heart were still beating. It’s intimidating, yet he doesn’t back down. It’s an honest question!

“Like a mayor,” He Xuan says at last, as they reach the stone steps of the tower at the top of the hill. “And a librarian. He keeps all of the knowledge that we have down here.” 

“So does he know a way to make that climb a little easier?” Shi Qingxuan quips, clutching at a stitch in his side, winded from the climb. He Xuan shoots him a sharp glare and he closes his mouth. Right. No sense of humor.

He stands there quietly wheezing as He Xuan raises his fist and gives the door three loud knocks. Shi Qingxuan’s imagination runs wild with ideas of what this mayorbrarian must look like; old, most likely, with a stooped back and a cane. Half-moon spectacles, of course, a long white beard, probably no more than a wisp of hair on his head. Shriveled and shrunken and ancient, as ancient as the tales themselves about this place, older than the very mountains--

The door opens to reveal a tall, slender young man dressed in red. Long black hair cascades over his shoulders, one eye hidden beneath the fall of his bangs. His pretty lips are curved up in an amused smile as his good eye - black as coal and as bottomless as the night - looks over the pair of them. 

“Well,” the Caretaker says. “Would you like to come in?” 

Chapter Text

There’s a beat of silence before Shi Qingxuan blurts, “You’re not old.” 

His cheeks burn as the Caretaker and He Xuan exchange a look, though honestly, can anyone blame him for being confused here? How could such a mysterious name apply to someone that looked like--like--

“No, I’m not.” The Caretaker’s smile ticks wider. “You’re Shi Qingxuan, aren’t you?”

“Uh. Yes?” 

“Thought so.” The door opens wider as the Caretaker steps out of the way and gestures for them to come inside. “I assume you’re here for business, so I won’t keep you waiting.” 

He Xuan is already stepping inside, but Shi Qingxuan doesn’t move. “Then you won’t mind answering some questions, right? Such as: how do you know my name? And why aren’t you old?” 

"Why should I be?" the Caretaker counters. "As for your name, I know lots of things. It's part of my job." 

He doesn't say another word, turning and disappearing inside the tower. He Xuan gives Shi Qingxuan a cold look over his shoulder, and Shi Qingxuan finds himself hurrying to follow, only taking a moment to close the door behind them. 

The interior looks exactly as Shi Qingxuan had expected it to; there is a small front hall with a low ceiling that opens into a slightly wider landing for a spiral staircase that reaches up toward the tower’s highest room, the steps disappearing around the curve of the central support pillar. The stone walls are lined with shelving that manages to follow the swirl of the stairs while remaining straight enough to keep their contents from sliding off into a heap at the bottom. There is another door off to the side of the landing, and Shi Qingxuan wonders where it leads. To a dungeon? A room filled with bubbling cauldrons and jars packed full of strange, creepy ingredients? 

He glances up at the back of the Caretaker, who has already started up the stairs. He again notes the man's youthful, slim, even fashionable appearance, and his imaginings deflate. No, behind that door are probably normal rooms, like a bedroom, or a kitchen. 

Wait...do the dead have kitchens? Shi Qingxuan assumes they wouldn't need one, but in that case, why have a bar?

Shi Qingxuan pushes away the urge to crack the door open and see for himself (probably not the best idea, when you’re in the Underworld) and follows the Caretaker and He Xuan up the staircase. That, at least, fit Shi Qingxuan’s ideas perfectly, as well as the fact that the shelves are packed to the brim with books. Books of all colors, sizes, thickness; there are breaks in the shelving, here and there, which house merrily burning torches to light their way and cast a warm glow over the Caretaker’s collection. Shi Qingxuan catches a few titles as they pass - mostly histories and almanacs - but he can’t stop to get a closer look, as every time he lingers he can feel He Xuan’s icy gaze on him, making goosebumps erupt along his skin and pushing him to quickly catch up. 

Somehow, despite the steep twining of the staircase around the central pillar, the climb is not as arduous as the hill to get up here in the first place. When they reach the room at the top of the tower, the books don’t stop, filling even more shelves and bookcases that line the walls and stretch to the very top of the wooden eaves above them. The room fills the breadth of the tower, larger than Shi Qingxuan would have thought when he’d seen the tower from afar. There are so many books they overflow from the shelves, creating neat piles that dot the floor and take up space on the desks pushed into the corners. Only two surfaces are clear of them: a larger desk that sits in the prime position over the room’s center, and a collapsible table off to the side. The large desk holds, instead of book piles, a tome so enormous that it takes up the entire surface all by itself. The table, in contrast, is host to what appears to be a dice game. 

Shi Qingxuan has seen plenty of similar games in his travels, mostly in the occasional city he would pass through or the lone tavern of a small village. Usually they’re meant for two players; he wonders who the Caretaker plays against. 

“So,” the Caretaker says. He steps behind the largest desk, setting his hands on the cover of that big book and peering down at where He Xuan and Shi Qingxuan stand before him. Shi Qingxuan realizes that the floor beneath the desk is raised to make the desk and its occupant seem even taller, meaning that the Caretaker stands about three feet higher than them right now. “What do you need?” 

"Information." Though He Xuan has to crane his neck to meet the Caretaker's eyes, he doesn't seem any less powerful or intimidating. Shi Qingxuan doesn't realize he's staring until He Xuan glances aside and catches him at it; he quickly looks away. 

"Shi Qingxuan needs to find his brother, and I need to find the man who killed me." 

The Caretaker's mouth curves, one brow rising. "That's a pretty tall order. It'll cost you."

"Cost?" Shi Qingxuan searches his pockets, producing what coin he has left. Obviously he won't need it for an inn now. "He-xiong, here, this is all my savings--"

"What would I use mortal money for?" the Caretaker asks, an amused lilt in his voice.  "I can't stroll off to the market, can I? No, I'd rather have your soul."

Shi Qingxuan's mouth goes dry. My soul? His heart thumps harshly against the prison of his chest, his eyes wide. This is the closest he's ever been to finding his brother, but if he doesn't have a soul…

He's thought about what might happen to him if he didn't find Shi Wudu, or if something bad befalls him during the searching. He isn't afraid of death, per se - a world without his ge would be so much worse - but that doesn't mean he's all that eager to embrace it. And to lose his soul on top of that, to never be able to reincarnate, to be lost to nothingness? He can't even imagine it. 

"I…" He tries to swallow. His tongue feels leader in his mouth, an angry child going limp so as not to do something it doesn't want to. He tries again anyway. "I...I'll do it."

"Don't be an idiot." He Xuan's voice startles him. "He isn't going to take your soul. Stop messing around."

The last bit is for the Caretaker, who, Shi Qingxuan sees, is hiding his mouth with his hand. His shoulders are shaking, visible eye shining. Is he--?

"I don't want your soul." The Caretaker drops his hand, and the broad smile only solidifies it: he was laughing! "I'll just tack it on to his debt." He jerks a thumb at He Xuan, then says to him, "Does that work for you?"

"Fine," He Xuan grunts. 

"Wait, that's. That's really it? He's not taking my soul?" She Qingxuan's pulse is still the frantic beat of a butterfly's wings in his throat. "You're just racking up debt? What do you pay him in?"

He Xuan's expression, if possible, sours further. "Underworld currency. Whatever offerings we get from the Land of the Living, we pay to him." 

"And since our friend Black Water only gets offerings every so often from scared villagers, mostly I have him run errands." The Caretaker shrugs. "It's a useful arrangement." 

"But you said--" Shi Qingxuan crosses his arms, putting on his very best glower. "You tricked me! That wasn't very nice!"

"No, but it was funny." 

Shi Qingxuan feels his lip twitch as the Caretaker begins flipping through the large, ancient pages of the book in front of him.  He refuses to find any amusement in the joke whatsoever, and instead turns to He Xuan with a, "Why didn't you tell me he was lying?"

"It was obvious," He Chan says tonelessly, as if that's a viable answer. "You shouldn't be so willing to give up your soul."

"Well, it's for my brother. Wouldn't you have done the same for your family?"

He Xuan doesn't respond; the air around him seems to drop several degrees. Shi Qingxuan swallows. He's clearly touched a nerve, and internally he berates himself for being so thoughtless. He Xuan is dead, murdered even, and so far Shi Qingxuan hasn't seen anyone here who seems close with him. His family must still be alive, moving on with their existence while He Xuan has to stay in the Underworld alone. 

Shi Qingxuan can only imagine how hard that must be. 

The chilly silence stretching between them is broken by a quiet 'aha' sound from the Caretaker. He's using a finger to read something from the book, lips moving silently, forming each word. Shi Qingxuan starts getting antsy again. 

"Well?" he blurts. "What did you find?" 

"A spell." The Caretaker smirks down at them, closing the book and descending from the desk-dias at last. As he comes closer, a brilliant, silver butterfly lands lightly on his shoulder, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. "One that will take you where you need to go."

"Go? Where are we going?" 

“Not we.” He Xuan looks almost troubled as he watches the Caretaker approach them. Shi Qingxuan wonders if it’s a trick of the light; so far, He Xuan’s moods have ranged from irritated to blank. “You’re only sending him.” 

The Caretaker stops in front of them, holding his hand out flat, palm up. The butterfly flutters from his shoulder to the new perch he’s provided. “That’s right. Caught on quickly, didn’t you?” 

“Wait, wait, you lost me. He’s not coming with me?” Shi Qingxuan’s head spins. “Where am I going?” 

The Caretaker doesn’t seem to hear him, his attention fully on He Xuan, who scowls in return. Shi Qingxuan has the feeling that a silent conversation is taking place as they stare at each other, one he will never understand nor be invited to. He doesn’t like it. He endured enough of the silent whispers and worried glances when he still lived with his parents. 

“Somewhere the dead can’t go,” the Caretaker answers at last, just in time to stop Shi Qingxuan from asking again. “So you’ll be going alone. This spell will take you to the Land of the Living, just outside of a large forest. You should find your answers there, but only if you do exactly what I tell you to do.” 

“He-xiong brought me here, why can’t he bring me back?” As distant as He Xuan acts, he’s the only connection Shi Qingxuan has down here. He finds himself shifting closer, wanting familiarity. He Xuan twitches but doesn’t move away. “Where exactly are you sending me? Why don’t you know where my brother is? You’re the Caretaker! The mayor-librarian! I thought you knew everything!” 

“I said I know things, not that I know everything .” The Caretaker sighs. He lifts his empty hand and, with a swift jerk, tears the wings off the butterfly he’s still holding. Shi Qingxuan gasps in horror, only to see two new wings immediately shimmer into view on the butterfly’s back before it lazily lifts itself into the air, disappearing in a burst of soft twinkling lights. 

“You need a spell because the living can’t travel between worlds on your own, and Black Water can’t take you because the forest I’m sending you to doesn’t accept the dead without a fight. He wouldn’t be able to approach without backlash. Trust me.” While he talks, he rolls the torn wings between his fingers, the silvery gossamer becoming a fine powder in the cup of his palm. “What you need to know is this: the forest is home to a nature god. He knows more about the Land of the Living than I do; he should have an idea of where your brother is.

“He’s guarded well, so you’ll need to be careful when you seek him. Don’t stray from the path or you’ll be killed. Don’t stop for too long or you’ll be killed. Don’t pick anything from the foliage--”

“Or I’ll be killed?” Shi Qingxuan supplies, giving a small, high-pitched giggle when the Caretaker nods at him. 

“Keep that fan with you, and when you meet the guards, show it to them. They’ll recognize its wind magic. Tell them you need an audience with His Highness. If they grant you one, you should get some answers. If they don’t, then you leave the forest as fast as you can and you come back here.” 

Shi Qingxuan pulls out the fan he’d used to unintentionally summon He Xuan. It seems ordinary enough; he can’t imagine that it not only summoned a ghost, but would also come in handy for meeting a god of the forest. When he lifts his head, he sees that He Xuan is staring at it, too. 

“How do I, uh, get back here, exactly?” With the fan already out, Shi Qingxuan automatically flicks it open, hiding his embarrassment at such a stupid question behind its folds. “Since I can’t travel to the Underworld on my own?” 

The Caretaker shifts his palm, watching the glittering powder as it follows the curves of his skin, settling into the grooves and lines of his hand. “You end the spell. All you have to do is say ‘hopscotch’.” 

“Hop--wait, really?” Shi Qingxuan’s laugh is genuine this time. “‘Hopscotch’? That’s it? What if I say it inside the forest? Will it still work?” 

“Sure it will.” The Caretaker flattens his palm again, fingers pointed toward Shi Qingxuan. “But the guards might kill you before the  spell takes hold, so better you’re outside the forest.” 

“Oh,  wonderful, something else that will get me killed. Shouldn’t nature gods be focused on keeping things alive?” 

“Good luck,” is all the Caretaker says. He pulls his hand close to his mouth and gently blows on the silvery dust in his palm. He doesn’t seem to put in much effort yet the dust billows forward in a cloud much larger than what he’d been holding would suggest, surrounding Shi Qingxuan, swirling around him in a shining storm so bright it nearly blinds him. He lifts his fan reflexively, covering his face from the onslaught, his other hand reaching toward where he knows He Xuan is standing--

“One last thing,” the Caretaker’s voice comes, calm and clear even through the cocoon of glitter. “When you see Xie Lian, tell him that San Lang sent you.”

Chapter Text

When the silvery storm finally clears, Shi Qingxuan coughs, waving his fan in front of his face to rid himself of the remaining particles. Since it was a spell, he has a feeling there aren’t any actually there , but logic doesn’t overpower the sense of gritty dust clinging to his skin. 

Once he collects himself, he sees that the Caretaker at least didn’t lie about his destination; he stands on a path that leads into a forest, the low-lying bushes and young trees that mark its edges only a few feet away. It’s later in the day, with the soft gold light of afternoon rippling through the foliage, speckling the cleared ground ahead. Leaves rustle in a light breeze, birds chirping to one another from tree limbs and the undergrowth shifting every so often as some small animal travels through it. All in all, it’s fairly peaceful, and Shi Qingxuan finds himself relaxing and tucking his fan away. 

The ominous warnings the Caretaker, or San Lang, had given him melt away as he begins following the path, dissipating in the tranquility of this forest like a nightmare in the soft rays of dawn light. Shi Qingxuan smiles to himself, humming a bit as he moves deeper into the wood, the growing proximity of the trees around him and the dimming of light as it is blocked by treetops not yet enough to dampen his mood. Just as he’d thought, a nature god wasn’t something to be scared of or worried about. 

He keeps telling himself this as the forest grows thicker, as the path dwindles to almost nothing. Noises press in on him from all sides. He’s slept in more than one forest, outrun bandits, climbed away from wild animals, yet this wood feels...heavier. The shadows seem to follow him, watching his every move. He ends up pulling the fan out, clutching it tightly in his hand. 

At some point, the path disappears entirely. Shi Qingxuan turns, retracing his steps for several feet to see if he missed something, only to find that no, the path hadn’t branched off. He comes back to its end to see that there isn’t even a hint of where he ought to go next. He taps the end of his fan against his chin, teeth worrying his lip. What am I supposed to do now?

He jumps when a voice snaps, “Who are you?” 

Shi Qingxuan whirls around, fan held out as if it could defend him at all, only to see--nothing. No one’s there. His eyes dart back and forth, searching for any signs of movement, his ears straining for any sounds despite how his heart is beating too loudly for him to hear much of anything.
“Hello?” he calls. “I’m looking for Xie Lian? I think I got lost. Is someone there? Can you tell me the way?” 

“What business do you have with His Highness?” A different voice, colder than the first. Shivers run down Shi Qingxuan’s spine. “How did you find this place?” 

“Uh…well, I was sent here to find some information.” Shi Qingxuan swallows. Suddenly, San Lang’s talk of guards seems serious, instead of another tease to put Shi Qingxuan off-balance. “About my brother? He’s missing—” 

“So what? That’s got nothing to do with His Highness. You’d best leave before we kill you.” 

That’s the first voice again, and it sounds like it means it. Shi Qingxuan swallows. He remembers what San Lang told him, when he came up against the guards, that he had to—

“This fan has wind magic!” He flicks it open, waving it wildly in the air. “I request an audience with His Highness Xie Lian! Please! San Lang sent me!” 

Silence follows. Shi Qingxuan keeps the fan open even as he draws his arm closer to his body, practically panting with fear. No matter where he looks, how he turns in circles, he can’t see anything in the thick foliage around him. He can’t find the source of those voices, and he’d chalk it all up to a trick if he hadn’t spent the last few hours surrounded by literal ghosts. 

It’s when he faces the thick shadows leading into the heart of the forest, beyond where the path abruptly ends, that he thinks he can make out two figures ahead of him. 

“San Lang? That name means nothing here,” the cold voice spits. “He’s a demon and a liar. Leave now lest you lose your life, mortal.” 

“His Highness said we should take anything sent by San Lang, including visitors,” the threatening voice retorts. “Unless you want to go back and tell him you refused his request.” 

“Have you forgotten? Our entire purpose is to keep His Highness safe, and yet you are willing to let any fool who knows San Lang’s name into our forest!” 

As they bicker, the sources of the two voices become clearer, as if their forms are solidifying; or, Shi Qingxuan realizes, as if they’re manifesting themselves. He can see, now, as his eyes adjust and the guards pull themselves together, that each seems to be forming from a nearby tree. One, belonging to the threatening voice, pulls itself from a thick, sturdy oak. The other, owner of the cold voice, is attached to a lone fir. 

Shi Qingxuan is already tuning out the argument as he realizes what exactly he’s looking at. These two...guards of a nature spirit will of course be their own kind of nature spirits! Dryads, from the looks, though Shi Qinxuan has always thought that tree nymphs were more feminine in nature. While the fir spirit seems to be slim and pretty, the oak one is broad and handsome. Both share a human-like appearance, bodies made of twisted-together roots, small shoots of leaves peppering their bark every so often. If Shi Qingxuan hadn’t sat in that Underworld bar and watched the dead pour wine down their throats only for it to cascade onto the floor out of stomach wounds, he might have been more freaked out by this. 

“How would he know about San Lang,” Oak is saying, when Shi Qingxuan tunes back in, “Unless he actually met the guy! For such a supposedly supple trunk, do you ever actually think ?” 

“Do I think? Do I think?” Fir seethes. “He could be an unholy creature who just happened upon the name! You’re as thick as your trunk. He has no proof that he’s not here to wipe out His Highness and the forest in turn! The forest you take root in, in case you forgot!”

“Of course I didn’t fucking forget! Maybe if you didn’t have your stump stuck so far up in your branches, you’d stop thinking everyone was out to burn us down—”

“Um, excuse me?” Shi Qingxuan says sheepishly, stumbling back a step when both dryads turn toward him, expressions thunderous. He sees, now, that they’ve also formed weapons; Fir has a giant wooden sword,  and Oak has an enormous bow strapped over his shoulder, with a whole quiver of wooden arrows attached to his back. While wood is not the sharpest of weapon material, Shi Qingxuan has a feeling that being hit by anything these two could use would mean a very incredibly messy end on his part. 

“I understand that it’s hard to believe, but I’m really not here to mess with your forest.” He presents the fan again, showing them both sides before making little flourishing gestures with it, as if this will make the wind magic San Lang spoke of more apparent. “I’m requesting an audience with His Highness to find more information on my brother, who went missing a few years ago. San Lang told me I could ask His Highness Xie Lian for help. That’s all, I promise!” 

A beat, where both dryads continue to glare at him, before he adds, “If I can’t see him, then that’s fine! A nature god must be very busy, I understand, I wouldn’t want to impose—” 

A gentle breeze, something Shi Qingxuan hasn’t felt since he came this far into the forest, wafts from the darkest shadows and over where he stands. It seems to curl around him, a dance along his robes and body, almost teasing in how it tugs at fabric and hair and raises goosebumps along his bared skin. It seems to slide along the fan the most, whispering in a language Shi Qingxuan almost thinks he can understand. A soft chime follows in its wake, and again, as one, the dryads turn their heads, this time back toward where the breeze originated. 

“Told you,” Oak grunts after a time. “He’ll want to see this one.” 

“Shut up,” Fir hisses. There’s a soft rustling in the grass as whatever connection they have to their trees draws them back, until neither figure is visible, bodies melting into the bark and branches and roots of the trees that bore them. 

Alone now, Shi Qingxuan makes a face. He’d never thought tree spirits would be so creepy; or so cranky

With the disappearance of the guards, the undergrowth parts and reveals the path, as if it had never ended in the first place. Shi Qingxuan doesn’t dare put his fan away as he cautiously follows it, head swiveling back and forth at the slightest hint of noise or the barest peripheral movement in the forest surrounding him. 

After another long stretch of walking through dark forest, he finally catches sight of light up ahead and quickens his pace. Even if there’s more danger waiting for him at the end of this path, he’s more than ready to be free of the oppressive ceiling of leaves above him. He’s so far into the wood now that it feels like night, and the brightness ahead of him is too tantalizing, not to mention the thought of sitting down and giving his poor legs a rest after what has felt like hours of walking.

The clearing, when he reaches it, is fairly ordinary outside of the extremely welcome light. He can tell that it’s nearing sunset; he can’t tell if it’s the sunset of the day he started trekking through these woods or another one; he tries not to think about it too much. What he does know is that the dying rays are enough to illuminate the clearing, and he doesn’t have to strain to see the small pool in its center, nor the deer drinking from said pool, the way he did with the dryads. 

The deer lifts its head when he enters, then goes back to drinking like he’s not even there. Shi Qingxuan shuffles awkwardly for a few seconds before clearing his throat. 

"Oh great nature god, Your Highness Xie Lian," he begins, bowing over his clasped hands. “Thank you for allowing me a moment of your time. I was sent by the Caretaker of the Underworld, San Lang, who told me you could help me find out some information on my missing brother. Please, Your Highness, will you give me the answers I seek?” 

Nothing happens. Shi Qingxuan peeks up from his bow to see the deer hasn’t looked back up from the water. Well, he’s only mortal, of course it would take more to catch the attention of a god. He must not be acting respectful enough. 

Carefully, he gets down on his knees and presses his forehead to the ground, ignoring how his hair spreads over his shoulders and the grass beneath him. This should do it; he can’t imagine anything more respectful than a kowtow. Unless - his body tenses, worry slamming into him. Was he supposed to bring an offering of some sort? Surely San Lang would have told him before he left. The Caretaker wouldn’t leave out such an important detail and let Shi Qingxuan embarrass himself in front of a god...right? 

For a long time, the clearing is silence. The only things to break the stillness are the light breeze shifting past him and the deer’s snuffled breaths as it continues to drink. 

Then a voice above him asks, “Why are you bowing to a deer?” 

The voice doesn’t belong to Oak or Fir; Shi Qingxuan lifts his head to see who else could be talking to him. Must be another nature spirit, unless this place is a lot more popular than he’d initially imagined; what were the odds of two mortals making their way here without those guards slashing them to ribbons? Especially since the man standing beside him seems rather ordinary, albeit pretty. He has long brown hair done up in a half bun, robes of white that do seem to glow a bit but Shi Qingxuan figures that’s just from the sun, and a bamboo hat hung loosely around his neck. He really does appear to be an ordinary human, nothing like those dryads Shi Qingxuan met. 

The stranger is still looking at him, pretty lips curved in a quizzical smile. Shi Qingxuan grins sheepishly in return. 

“He’s a nature god,” he explains. “The Highness you must be looking for too, right? I need to ask him some questions about my missing brother. He hasn’t said anything, so I was worried I wasn’t doing this right...oh, and I’m Shi Qingxuan, by the way. What’s your name, friend?”

For a moment, for some reason Shi Qingxuan can’t fathom, the man looks uncomfortable. He glances away from Shi Qingxuan, pressing the fingertips of one hand against his mouth. 

“Actually,” he says, the slightest tremor in his voice, “that’s just a deer. My name is Xie Lian. You said you were looking for me?” 

Shi Qingxuan’s jaw drops, eyes widening. No way. There’s no way they got me again. “Wait, how do I know you’re telling the truth? You look like a human to me!” 

He stands as he says it, using his free hand and some brushes of his fan to get the grass and other debris off of his robes. “Shouldn’t a nature god appear as one of the animals of his forest?”

The so-called Xie Lian coughs delicately into his fist, still not meeting Shi Qingxuan’s eyes. His lips keep twitching. “Well, I used to, until my guards told me it was too dangerous in case a hunter mistook me for any other animal…I can prove it to you? Do you want me to become a deer for you?” 

He makes a little snorting noise as he asks it, pressing his hand to his mouth again. Finally, Shi Qingxuan realizes what’s happening. 

“Stop laughing!” He points his now-closed fan at Xie Lian, hand on his hip. “It’s not that funny! What else was I supposed to think, coming into this clearing after getting past your tree guards and finding no one but a deer? San Lang said this was where you’d be!” 

“San Lang sent you?” Xie Lian’s demeanor shifts, his quiet laughter changing to an expectant smile. Now, more than before, Shi Qingxuan can see how he glows, light emanating from not only where the sun hits his robes but coming from him. A tiny sun in his own right, the grass growing greener in his vicinity. “Did he say anything else?” 

“Um, not really. Only that you could help me find my brother.” Am I missing something?

“Ah. I see.” Some of the glow fades, a tiny fraction of lost light. Xie Lian gestures for him to follow as he moves closer to the pool of water. He runs his hand lightly over the fur of the deer, which finally lifts its head in order to nuzzle into Xie Lian’s touch. Then it bounds away, leaving enough space for Xie Lian to…well, Shi Qingxuan isn’t quite sure what he does. All he knows is that where a moment ago there had been nothing but an empty patch of slightly trodden grass, there now sat a little wooden bench, upon which Xie Lian is sitting. 

He pats the empty space beside him. “Come, sit down. You must have been walking for a long time to get here from the edge.” 

The reminder makes the aches in Shi Qingxuan’s knees and ankles reawaken with a vengeance, and he gratefully plops onto the bench next to Xie Lian, stretching out his legs and sighing as he slouches against the wooden back. 

“I’m sorry San Lang didn’t give me anything else to say,” is how he starts, turning his head to look at the man - the god - beside him. “He told me that you would have the answers he doesn’t.” 

“That's alright," Xie Lian says, though Shi Qingxuan has a feeling it isn't. "Mm. I might. He knows a lot more than I do about some things.” His smile is distant, eyes on the pool. “You said you were looking for your brother?” 

“Yes. His name is Shi Wudu.” 

“Hmm. His name is familiar.” Xie Lian leans against the back of the bench too, head tilted in thought. From inside his robes he withdraws a small meat bun; Shi Qingxuan’s stomach growls at the sight of it, and he’s about to ask if there’s any way he could have one himself before he spots the tell-tale green growth around the outer curve of the bun. Before he can say something, Xie Lian bites into it, chewing and swallowing as Shi Qingxuan watches in horror. 

His appetite shrivels as quickly as it woke. 

“Yes, I think I know of him. He’s alive.” Shi Qingxuan perks up, the food horror forgotten while Xie Lian continues to speak. “Though he’s hidden himself well. He’s...someone with him is helping him keep his location a secret. They’re overdoing it a bit, overcautious, maybe. I can only vaguely feel him; there are some powerful spells obscuring his location. Mostly from the dead.” 

Xie Lian’s eyes are closed, though it doesn’t stop him from taking another bite of bun. Shi Qingxuan forces himself to keep his attention on Xie Lian’s face. “From the dead? Why?” 

“That I’m not sure of. I only hear so much through my plants, you know.” 

“Plants can hear?” Shi Qingxuan looks dubiously at the grass around them. “Do you know why he’s in hiding in the first place? Why hasn’t he come looking for me? Ge said…” He bites his lip, takes a deep breath and shakes his head. 

“I just don’t understand why he didn’t come back for me.” 

He feels a gentle touch to his shoulder, lifts his head to see that Xie Lian is looking at him with concern. “Do you…” he begins, then hesitates. “Do you really want to know?” 

It must be something bad. Shi Qingxuan has always suspected this; his brother wouldn’t disappear for no good reason, unless he was...but Xie Lian said his ge is alive, in hiding. To stay away for this long, not once trying to get a message to his family, meant something serious had happened. 

Something that Shi Qingxuan should hear from his brother, not a stranger. 

So he shakes his head again. “No, I. I think I’ll ask him. But I’m worried. If he’s masking himself from the dead, then how will He-xiong and I find him?” 

"He-xiong?" Xie Lian tilts his head. "Who is that?"

"He's this...well, he's a ghost. I accidentally summoned him from a lake while I was searching for my brother." He laughs awkwardly when he sees how Xie Lian pales. "It wasn't that bad! He's a little grumpy but I think that's just because he was...someone murdered him. But he said he's going to help me find my brother; he's the one who brought me to San Lang in the first place."

"He knows San Lang?" The color hasn't come back to Xie Lian's cheeks. "Is his name He Xuan, by chance?"

"That's right." Shi Qingxuan frowns and, despite knowing this literal god for maybe ten minutes, puts the back of his hand to Xie Lian's forehead. "Hey, are you okay? You don't feel warm, but you're pretty pale…"

Xie Lian ignores the question, instead taking his hand and holding it between both of his own. "Shi Qingxuan, there's something you should know--"

He stops, suddenly, head jerking up as he fixes his gaze on the forest surrounding them. Shi Qingxuan follows where he's looking, but he doesn't see anything out of the ordinary; just trees and bushes, same as before. Yet Xie Lian's entire body has stiffened, his lips parted and eyes wide in shock. 

"Your Highness? What's the matter?" Shi Qingxuan tugs his hand away; Xie Lian hardly seems to notice. "You said you had something to tell me?"

“That’s impossible.” It’s said so quietly Shi Qingxuan almost doesn’t hear it. “How did he get in?” 

“How did who get in? Your Highness, who are you talking about?” 

Xie Lian doesn’t answer, abruptly pushing himself to his feet, still staring at the edge of the clearing. Shi Qingxuan stands, too, squinting into the trees, seeing nothing but shadows, though they might be darker than before--

There’s a loud crash as someone shoves their way out of the foliage and into the clearing, robes torn and hair a wild mess, black strands brimming with twigs and leaves and all sorts of debris. Their back is bristling with wooden arrow shafts, their skin through the tears in their clothes showing bloodless wounds. Their eyes are black fire, fixated on where Xie Lian and Shi Qingxuan are standing. 

“He-xiong?” Shi Qingxuan asks, bewildered, moving around the pool to come closer. “I thought you couldn’t come here!” 

He Xuan doesn’t answer, still glaring at Xie Lian. Wounded as he seems to be (can the dead even feel such wounds?) he walks as steadily as ever to Shi Qingxuan’s side. Xie Lian stays in front of the bench as though pinned by that fierce gaze, mouth agape in disbelief. 

“We have to go now,” He Xuan says, never looking away from the nature god. “Come with me.” 

“But he still had something to tell me.” Shi Qingxuan brushes some of the debris from He Xuan’s robes, worrying over the tears and cuts that he can see. His hand hovers over one of the arrow shafts before deciding he’d best not risk pulling it out. “Why’d you come all the way here? Everything was fine!” 

“We have to go,” He Xuan repeats, finally turning to meet Shi Qingxuan’s gaze. As if released, Xie Lian takes a deep breath. 

“Shi Qingxuan, wait. You need to know--” 

He’s cut off by a harsh rustling, twin bulges burrowing beneath the grass from the opposite end of the clearing toward the bench where Xie Lian stands. From the ground erupt Oak and Fir, flanking Xie Lian and partially blocking him from He Xuan and Shi Qingxuan’s view, weapons drawn and aiming straight for them. Shi Qingxuan gives a startled noise when He Xuan grabs him and steps in front of him. 

“Wait, wait, this is a misunderstanding!” Shi Qingxuan peers over He Xuan’s shoulder. “He-xiong isn’t going to hurt you, he’s helping me!” 

“Shi Qingxuan!” Xie Lian calls, almost at the exact same time, their words intermingling in the air and only adding to the confusion. “Don’t leave yet!” 

“I’m sorry, Your Highness, but they have to go.” Oak holds his bow taut, arrow pointed straight at He Xuan’s heart. “We shouldn’t have let that mortal past in the first place, he brought a demon back with him!” 

“It’s not safe like this,” Fir adds. “He’s already left a path of death that will take months to regrow.” 

Shi Qingxuan can see, even from here, how pale Xie Lian still is. That must be why the dead aren’t supposed to come here; they kill Xie Lian’s plants. But then why…?

“You don’t understand,” Xie Lian insists. “This is important.” 

“If you have anything else to say, send it in a message to Hua Cheng. You know how.” He Xuan turns to face Shi Qingxuan, arms wrapping around him in a close embrace that has Shi Qingxuan flushing even as he desperately tries to pull away enough to get a glimpse of Xie Lian and the two dryads. What was it he was trying to say?

“He-xiong,” he pleads. “I only need another minute.”

He Xuan stares at him. They’re close enough now that Shi Qingxuan can see each individual eyelash, can see just how deep the voids of He Xuan’s eyes go, threatening to engulf him. He can see how they search his face, looking for...something. Shi Qingxuan doesn’t know if he finds it. 

He tries again. “He-xiong--” 

“Hopscotch,” He Xuan says, and the clearing disappears in a flurry of silver sparkles.