At the end of a beaten path on the outskirts of a village near the foot of Mt. Taicing, a small shrine sits off the side of the unkept, grassy road. It’s nothing extravagant, but if you kneel and peer closely, you’ll see a tiny statue of a ghost and a curious empty spot next to it. The story goes that it’s been empty since years before, when a battle between a ghost king and his beloved against a masked scourge of the heavens took place.
Sometimes, travellers will stop by and give the modest sized stone monument a meaningful dust off, or leave a small offering at its foot, praying for a pleasant journey ahead.
Today, on an overcast spring afternoon, the rain is coming down in a gentle pitter patter and encouraging wandering travellers and villagers to hurry along. Except for one white-clad cultivator kneeling before the shrine.
With a curious gaze, he peers into the shrine, tipping his bamboo hat forwards and protecting the small structure from the rain while he takes in the wilting wild flowers left at its base. As he gently brushes them aside and reaches into his sleeve to pull out a peach, his curious gaze lingers on the little ghost figure carved into the stone; it has what appears to be a sabre carved into its hip and small butterflies adorning its figure. The cultivator places the peach before it and with a final bow, ties his bamboo hat under his chin before setting off towards the village as the rain begins to pour harder.
He passes a small dilapidated hut, wondering who would live so far out from the village houses but keeps on his way. With his long white sleeves billowing in the wind, the cultivator sees how the villagers in the market square run around in a frenzy, trying to cover their wares from the worsening downpour. Upon asking one especially frazzled paper lantern merchant who is scrambling to push the last of his wares into a bag, the cultivator learns that the local inn has closed temporarily due to maintenance issues.
“The last rainstorm blew in half the roof,” says the old man as he stuffs his goods onto a wooden cart.
The cultivator rolls up his sleeves and helps to heap a large bag of the merchant’s paper goods onto the cart.
“We haven’t had many travellers staying for too long in the village because of it,” says the merchant.
When the cultivator inquires about the small abandoned hut on the outskirts of the village, the merchant’s face can only pale for a moment before he shakes his head furiously and leans in to warn him.
“Daozhang, you best not spend the night anywhere near that shrine. I’ve heard all sorts of stories of travellers staying the night in the hut, being unable to sleep and waking in fright from strange dreams.”
The cultivator listens to the merchant’s story with intrigue, but when he hears of a red-clad ghost, he can’t help but smile. He’s not afraid of ghosts, he tells the merchant. But still the old man insists that he could stay the night with him (although it might be a bit cramped with his wife, in-laws and four children sharing the small abode).
The cultivator thanks him kindly and assures him he will be just fine. Before he leaves, however, he notices a red lantern has fallen out of the cart and he bends to pick it up and hand it to the merchant. The red paper is decorated with sprawling silver butterflies and bits of dangling silver foil. The cultivator has all but given it back to the merchant when he is asked if the piece has caught his eye.
“It’s just lovely, is all,” he admits.
The merchant happily pushes the lantern back into his hand, telling him to take it. He, like so many of the other villagers, is superstitious and tells the white-clad cultivator that silver butterflies are a symbol of the ghost who wanders the outskirts of the village and insists that because it fell before the cultivator, he should take it.
The cultivator has had his own share of bad luck and is unbothered by the sentiment. Giving only a round of warm thanks, he bids the merchant a good evening before he pats down the bamboo hat over his head and takes off towards the village outskirts. As he pushes the lovely red lantern under his robes to save from the rain, he can’t help but smile to himself.
While the cultivator sleeps in the dilapidated hut, he dreams sweet dreams of walking through an autumn-touched forest of red and orange maple leaves, his nose filling with the brisk air as his boots crunch through the leaf-laden path. He sees something sparkle faintly against the overhead maple forest ceiling. When he looks up to find a silver butterfly flittering between the branches, the cultivator can only follow its fleeting light through the trees before he feels that someone is beside him.
In robes of deep red, their hand fits perfectly through his own. When he looks down, he sees the pale fingers grasping his have a thin red string bound around one knuckle. At the sight, he feels his skin temper with warmth, blinking the feeling away in wonder when he looks up to see a playful smile lingering on the man’s face. Like this, they walk for some time, the sound of bells chiming with each step. At some point the cultivator hears the red-clad man talking to him. He looks up and before his eyes can adjust and take in the warm gaze holding his attention so gently, the cultivator is awakened to the sound of birds chirping in the early hour.
The little hut stayed in one piece through the storm the night before, save for a few holes in the ceiling that continue to drip rainwater into the already mouldy-smelling space. Although he’s thankful the space stayed more or less in one piece through the night, he can’t help but feel a sense of emptiness when he closes his hands around nothing, his fingers feeling empty.
What a strange dream, he wonders as he fastens the belt of his outer robe.
Before the cultivator takes off for the village market, he stops by the shrine on the side of the road. The peach from yesterday has disappeared, much to his surprise. He reaches back into his sleeves and fishes out a small handful of nuts, leaving them in a neat pile before the foot of the ghost statue.
In the village market, the cultivator spends his afternoon making friendly conversation with the villagers and learning more about the red-clad ghost who apparently haunts the backroads of the village. After helping to rid the inauspicious aura hanging around a seamstress’ shed, hauling over piles of building materials for the inn (which only had more of its roof blown in after the storm the night before) and sharing his steamed bun with a young child wandering the market lonesome, the cultivator is spotted by the old lantern merchant across the market and treated to a warm meal amongst friends and more stories of the wandering, love-sick ghost. Although he listens intently and ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ at all the right parts, the cultivator is not frightened. If anything, he’s a bit charmed.
“My old apprentice once spent the night near the shrine and he told me he woke more than once to sound of bells chiming outside the door,” the round-nosed villager says with a little shiver, “makes the blood run cold.”
“I’ve heard stories of travellers resting there for the night who hear the sound of rain pattering on an umbrella, but when they go to look outside, the sky is clear! Nothing to see but a red-clad ghost walking down the path,” says another man around the rim of his soup bowl.
Like this, they exchange stories until the sun sets. The cultivator hears more about the elusive, wandering ghost and his mind is drawn back to his dream from the night before. The image of a man in red robes holding his hand preciously as he’s lead through a forest of maple trees floods his mind. He tries to conjure up the scene again in his mind; to fill in the details his dreams tried to show him before he woke up. He sees a handsome smile and the lips are moving, telling him -
The cultivator is broken out of his reverie when he feels soup spilling onto his boot from the bowl he’s held too loose. He turns to the young child who looks up at him curiously.
“Ah - Yes?” He says after coughing lightly into his fist.
“What did gege come to the village for?”
“Hmm. I suppose I’m not sure. I was simply meaning to travel through, but something seemed to have caught my attention here,” he says as his mind seems to wander off again. He means to give a better answer to that but somehow, he can’t quite seem to recall what he came to the village for himself. His mind is in a daze again but before he can spill anymore soup, he empties the bowl and stays to listen to the old seamstress share a story of her own; one in which the red-clad ghost who summons rain stands through it under a red umbrella, waiting eternally for his beloved to return to him.
After seeing the cultivator in action all day, the villagers don’t feel as bad when he insists that he doesn’t mind sleeping in the abandoned hut at all. With promises to attend the lantern festival celebrations the next day, the cultivator finds himself back in the small, damp hut, pulling his white robes close and curling up on himself from the chilliness the night brings. He makes a mental note to buy a blanket or a set of thicker robes the next time he decides to spend the night there. For the time being, he can only put his hands deep into his sleeves and let the sound of the breeze shaking the rickety structure around him send him off to sleep.
That night, the cultivator dreams of walking through a market of ghosts. He is surrounded by the sounds and smells of gathered ghouls and monsters coming together to eat and yell and buy strange wares. Distantly, he feels that he is led by hand through the bustling crowd. The cultivator doesn’t think to look right away this time, he only feels the fingers between his keep him close and at one point, pull him aside by the shoulders to stop and point at the line of multicolored lanterns and streamers hanging overhead.
He is happy, he decides, walking through the market, holding hands with this warm someone. When he feels the hands on his shoulder come down to envelope his waist and a curtain of black hair falls over his shoulders, the cultivator wants to turn to look but he’s doesn’t want to break the illusion just yet.
He slides his hands down to cover those interlocked at his waist and admires the red string wrapped around the stranger’s third finger. He feels the red-clad man laugh behind him, his chest rumbling pleasantly at his back. It heats the cultivator's face.
“Do you like it, Gege?” He asks by his ear.
He doesn’t dislike it.
In fact, he doesn’t find it strange either.
It feels right.
It feels natural.
Before he can say anything though, one of the slender hands at his waist pull out of his grip to take one of his own between the pale fingers. He holds them out gently where he taps one of his knuckles. The cultivator blinks and sees a red string on his own finger too.
“You have one too, Gege. Forever and always,”.
The cultivator can only watch as the fingers intertwine into his. He is drawn tighter into the embrace when he feels his chest fill with warmth anew. His eyes water as he stands content and enveloped. He wants to turn to look at the face of this stranger who is holding him so gently but when he does, the image before him dissolves into nothingness and the cultivator wakes before the birds are out and chirping this time.
He sits up and sighs to no one but himself in the empty hut. In somewhat of a daze, he looks down to his bare fingers and feels an unexplainable sense of sadness and has no mind to notice the red robe splayed out over him. He blinks once before he pulls the fabric into his hands and studies it for a moment. It’s a bit too big for him but it’s warm.
He figures he’ll have to thank which ever villager was kind enough to stop by last night to lend it to him. After folding it and setting it to the side, the cultivator busies himself with checking in on the small shrine outside the hut. Giving a small bow and a word of thanks for the safe-keeping last night, he brushes off the dewy head of the stone before peering in to see the nuts from yesterday have vanished.
The cultivator taps his chin in thought for a moment before reaching into his sleeve. But all he can pull out this time is a cold and hard, half-eaten steamed bun. With an apologetic look, he places the sad bun at the foot of the ghost statue inside the shrine and gives a quick prayer, hoping whichever god or ghost receiving his humble offerings would not be (too) offended.
The villagers are in full swing with their preparations for the lantern festival. The cultivator is quickly swept up in the festivities of lantern painting and the bustling market. Delicious, sweet smells waft through the stalls and happy people dressed in beautiful robes fill the tiny village streets. Throughout the day, the cultivator is stopped and called after by a number of villagers.
“Daozhang! We have you to thank for this lovely weather.”
The cultivator blinks in surprise and offers a polite smile, suggesting it must be good luck - which sounds strange coming from his mouth.
“Daozhang, your stay here has been prosperous. It must be the evil aura you cleansed from old gran’s shed!”
The cultivator can only scratch his cheek in embarrassment and mutter a humble “Not me, not me…”.
“Daozhang, since you’ve come, even the lovely white flowers have blossomed early!”
With a bit of embarrassment and curiosity alike, the cultivator later slips away to peek at a small garden of sprouted white flowers, glistening in dewy magnificence against the grass. It brings a smile to his face and he can’t help but think that it is somewhat nostalgic, though what exact part of his memory it is drawing from, he can’t recall. But he’s never been one to have a bout of good luck, so he supposes he can bask in this brief moment of humble fortune, wherever it was sprouting from.
By nightfall, the cultivator is ushered into the market square where villagers begin to light their painted lanterns in happy excitement. The cultivator joins in the festivities with a happy smile on his face. He had always felt that it was best to spend such on occasion with others and this time, it seems he would be able to.
As he busies himself with helping the small child he shared his steamed bun with days ago paint a last-minute pattern on her lantern, he sees the lantern merchant some ways away in the crowd and seeks him out.
“Many thanks for lending the red robe the night before. It made the cold night more bearable,” he says with a small bow but he is soon met with a face of confusion.
The merchant had apparently done no such thing and is about to inquire further when someone calls from across the crowd and the first few lanterns are released. With happy faces, the villagers watch the lanterns dip and fly off into the night sky.
The cultivator looks on with wonder in his eyes, the lights twinkling back in his irises. His past travels didn’t have him taking part in many lantern festivals, but the warm image of a sea of lanterns seems to flicker in his mind’s eye. Like the growing light of a sunrise, he seems to recall the wonder of seeing such a sight. Another streak of nostalgia floods his heart for a moment, and again, his mind traces it back to a vague emptiness that leaves him with a sense of yearning when his reverie is broken by the sound of someone biting into a juicy peach next to him.
The cultivator watches from the corner of his eye as a tall, red-clad man watches the lanterns above with a thoughtful expression. The cultivator should have been thinking of the obvious thing first – where did he get a peach in this village? But instead he is distracted by his handsome profile.
The urge to keep looking is strong but he tares his eyes away and busies himself with watching the last of the lanterns straggle behind. Though he can’t stop his heart as it starts to beat loudly in his chest.
Next to him, he hears the sound of something like nuts cracking between teeth. He whips his head to the red-clad cultivator once again and this time, blinks carefully as he considers if the offerings he had made to the small shrine had not in fact gone to its ghost.
Or perhaps, they had gone exactly where they were supposed to. The thought doesn’t frighten him as much as it probably should.
He can’t help but recall his dreams, the memories of which send a twinge of heat through his face and don’t help the pounding in his chest. He wants to turn and look but he remembers that it’s impolite to stare; even when it comes to ghosts.
The cultivator convinces himself that it doesn’t matter; he’s simply happy someone has found use for the food. When he resolves to push the images of his dreams down and admire the fleeting light overhead, he sees the red-clad man take out a half-eaten steamed bun.
A mischievous smile plays on his lips after taking a small bite of he cold, hard bun that he only pauses to chew when he sees the dead stare of the cultivator next to him. He smiles wider, this time, gentler than before, and holds the bun out to him with slender fingers. The cultivator doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Would Gege like a bite?”
Upon listening to his deep voice, the cultivator’s words are almost half-way out of his mouth before he freezes. He watches as the ghost tilts his head into the light a bit, his smile beaming as his hand stays steady in his offering.
The cultivator feels his throat constrict a bit at his smile, the words at the tip of his tongue dissolving before he can open his mouth. He barely takes in the eyepatch on one of his eyes and his wild raven locks framing his face before he feels a hand on his shoulder shake him back to attention.
“Daozhang, come, join us for a drink!” Says the lantern merchant with a warm smile.
When the cultivator turns back to take a look at the ghost, he has already vanished. He sweeps a look across the crowd and gets up on his toes to see that there really are no red robes in sight.
After a dazed drink with the lantern merchant and his friends and family, they fail to convince the cultivator to stay a bit longer. He politely excuses himself from their company to retire early for the night.
On his walk back to the dilapidated hut, he pauses at the stone shrine. He kneels before it at the tiny ghost figure inside and reaches out to brush a finger over the empty spot beside it. He wonders if anything had ever been there before.
After a moment of pleasant quiet, a fresh breeze blows by and the cultivator reaches into his sleeves and brings out a small, snow white flower and places it beside the ghost. He gives another small prayer of thanks and pats the shrine before heading off. But before he gets very far, he pauses in his step to pull a red lantern out from under his robes.
He kneels once more before the shrine with a little smile and lights the sparkling lantern, posting it beside the stone structure and giving a short bow before returning to the hut for another night of strange sleep.
As the momentous buzz of happy celebrations settle down late into the night, the little village finally retires from a day of excitement, though the space is seemingly enveloped by the lingering warmth of lanterns sent far away. A gentle breeze pulls past the houses and trees as if to calm it. The red lantern swings gently, bumping against the stone. Inside, the white flower seems to glow in the faint starlight overhead. The wind begins to whistle loudly, making way for a dense fog roiling its way through the trees. Its heavy presence settling over the edges of the village, overtaking the tiny dilapidated shrine. Inside, the cultivator tosses restlessly in his sleep, muttering some quiet nonsense under his breath.
He dreams again of the red-clad man, this time in a land glazed over with magma and black volcanic rock. This dream is stranger, clearer, somehow. Somewhere off to the side of his blurry field of vision, the body of a ghost lies in crumples against the stones, his half-crying half-smiling mask broken to bits.
He feels the red-clad man holding him close in his arms, his hands securely pressing his face into his chest, gentling it away from everything else. His own hands have fallen limply to his sides as he is only drawn tighter into the embrace. He hears the man say something, but it sounds distant and strained. He blinks once and realizes how exhausted he feels before pushing his head up to peer at the pale face looking down at him. The red-clad man has tears streaming down his cheeks and the cultivator realizes that he does too.
“This isn’t the end. I’ll find you again, Dianxia. In the next life. In every life.”
His voice is rough and the cultivator blinks again slowly, feels his chest constrict at the face the red-clad man is making. He tries to open his mouth but nothing comes out, and he realizes, with slight dismay, that his own throat is broken. The pain crawls from his neck to his chest where he can barely rattle out a deep breath. The red-clad man presses his forehead to his, cards shaky fingers through the hair of the person in his arms. He comforts him in his death the way he wished he could have been hundreds of years ago on a Xian Le battlefield, holding him close and stroking the pads of his thumbs over his blood-crusted cheeks.
“It’ll take some time. But then. We’ll be together again.” The red-clad man presses gentle kisses to the crown of his head.
And the white-clad cultivator feels fresh tears drip down his face not because of the pain of his broken bones, he realizes, but because these words were what had sustained the ghost for centuries in his loneliness. He swallows now and presses another kiss to his lips.
“Trust me,” he says.
The cultivator feels his body trying to move and grasp the man in return, to say something to him as he feels his consciousness drifting away. But he can only let the feeling drag him awake before his eyes snap open and he sits up in one motion.
The cultivator blinks once before he presses a hand to his forehead, freezing when he finds tears all over his face. Absent mindedly, he clutches at the red robes he draped over himself before he went to sleep. The dream leaves him with a pit in his stomach and he finds that he has no heart to chide himself on how he must have really angered the ghost with his sad steamed bun offering from the night before.
With a sigh, he decides to step out for some fresh air.
Outside, a thick fog has casted itself over the lonely path. The slight chill has the cultivator pulling the red robe over his shoulders and clutching it tightly. There is an air of quiet and something about the sudden change in weather that should perhaps feel ominous to the cultivator, but he doesn’t feel afraid.
As he passes the shrine, he notices something silver twinkling by the stone structure. He double-takes and with a moment of delight realizes – it’s a silver butterfly. He almost didn’t see it with its white light sitting over the flower shimmering just the same inside. With a smile, the cultivator crouches down before it, gathering the too-large red robe around him tighter before putting out a finger. The small creature flaps its wings a few times before landing on it.
Before he can admire it for too long, however, the butterfly takes off. He should go back to sleep, he knows, but the sound of something akin to chimes tinkling in the distance draws his attention down the foggy path. The butterfly makes it way down deeper into the fog and seemingly disappears somewhere beyond it. The cultivator has half a mind to follow before his feet are moving on their own. Before long, he feels a gentle breeze bring a few cold drops of rain on his face. The cultivator touches his forehead and when he realizes the weather might turn for the worse, he stops in his step and turns to find that the fog has all but obscured the path behind him. He scratches his cheek, feeling at a bit of a loss before he realizes the path before him is just fine and in fact, the silver butterfly flits in and out of sight up ahead. The cultivator pulls his arms through the too-large red robe and follows wearily, brushing his face of the water droplets that begin to come down heavier.
When it really begins to rain, the cultivator runs off the side of the path to find some shelter under the trees but the branches are bare. He seems to have caught up with the butterfly that now settles before him on a dewy branch before it flits around the tree trunk. Wishing he hadn’t left his bamboo hat back in the hut, the cultivator pulls the red robe over his head to save himself from the incoming rain.
He follows the butterfly around and finds it perched on a branch from which a red veil seems to be hanging. The cultivator blinks and looks around, as if he could find the owner of the veil right around the corner. When he slips it off the branch and examines it closely, his fingers trace over the silver beads threaded through the red fabric. His trance is short-lived though because the rain begins to come down heavier than before. The cultivator pulls the veil over his head and tries to make a run down the path that seems to stretch further into the thickening fog.
The silver butterfly seems to happily accompany him, affectionately flitting near his face. He should be troubled, perhaps, by the strange situation he’s found himself in and something in the back of his head tells him to be more sensible about it, but he can only laugh in wonder as he runs through the rain. In the distance, the sounds of chiming footsteps draw closer. The cultivator is preoccupied with finding better shelter over his head but stops in his steps to squint up into the sky when he doesn’t feel any more rain. He stops breathing for a moment when a red umbrella tips over his head.
The sound of rain pitter-pattering over the umbrella is gentle, and the cultivator lets his breathing steady out to its rhythm. His instincts tell him he’s not in danger, though his heart continues to hammer hard in his chest. His fingers twitch at the hem of the veil, pulling it down to cover more of his face before he summons the courage to turn around.
With his gaze cast down, he sees boots adorned with chains and bells. His eyes flit up only to take in the hem of a blood-red robe. The cultivator wants to look up and meet the eye of the red-clad ghost who’s been sweetly haunting his dreams the last few days, but he fears that this is a dream too and he’ll wake up again. So he hesitates for a long moment as the rain rolls off the umbrella overhead. Before he can do anything more, however, the ghost extends a hand out to him; a gentle offering. The cultivator sees the red butterfly knot threaded around a finger. He doesn’t realize when he takes the hand and he’s being pulled along.
The cultivator’s hand is held gingerly but securely; as if the ghost has every intention of handling him with care but with the promise of never letting go. After walking for some time in silence with nothing but the sound of the rain on the umbrella and the chiming of boots, the cultivator allows himself a shy look to the smiling ghost beside him and this time, the image never fades.
The ghost’s raven black hair cascades behind him, picking up in the damp breeze. A thin lock of braided hair sways by his ear, a lustrous red pearl fastened to its end. His single, uncovered eye is crinkled and the corners of his lips are turned slightly upwards in a serene smile.
The cultivator is enchanted by his gaze, so much so that he barely notices the red veil slipping slightly off his face. The ghost turns to him and gazes at him properly, his eyes patient as if he’s known something all along; as if he’d been waiting for him in the rain all day with his red umbrella. And maybe he had.
The cultivator wonders if perhaps, he had been waiting even longer than that.
Images of his dreams flutter through his mind like red maple leaves cascading past his vision. The light from thousands of lanterns flooding the evening sky, all for him. Walking through a bustling city of ghosts. Sitting on the back of an ox cart passing through a forest of red.
As if he was just waking up now, the cultivator feels awashed by memories that had been seeping into his dreams, waiting at the edge of his consciousness, awakened when he took the hand of a red ghost. He forgoes the gentle grip on his hand and twines their fingers together, wanting his warmth to envelop the cold of the slender fingers around his.
He came to this village looking for something. What it was originally, he can’t recall and yet it doesn’t seem all the important anymore. He has always been looking for something, always been dreaming of being somewhere else. Always needing to say someone’s name that felt like it was on the tip of his tongue but he could never quite recall. And now it comes as naturally as the rain pattering over the umbrella. He says it out loud then. And says it again just to hear it once more. The ghost is smiling deeply now, his eye twinkling like he’s found his long-lost treasure once again.
Then the cultivator learns his own name again too.
And so on that night, the previously white-clad cultivator is donned in red beside the ghost king as they walk hand-in hand into the fog. The cultivator had come to the village for something, he can’t quite recall and it doesn’t seem to matter because he knows only one thing; he’s finally home.
* * *
At the end of the beaten path on the far end of a village, a small shrine sits off the side of the unkept, grassy road. It’s nothing extravagant, but if you kneel and peer closely, you’ll see a tiny statue of a ghost standing inside. Beside it stands a statue of a god with a sword in one hand and a flower in another. Sometimes, travelers will stop by and give the modest sized stone monument a meaningful dust off or leave a small offering at its foot, praying for a pleasant journey ahead. The story goes that if you offer a white flower, you will be blessed by the ghost and god who watch over the village. The white flowers are not hard to find - not like they used to be. They bloom just about everywhere in the village, and how could they not?
They are said to be a blessing of the ghost who, after hundreds of years, was finally, finally, reunited with his beloved.