While his dads put up protection wards and neutralize the traces of resentful energy in their new flat, A-Yuan goes exploring.
The old tenants had left some of their things and A-Yuan makes a little game out of hunting for these treasures. So far, he's found two wooden canes (living room), a standing mirror with a black frame (parents' bedroom), and a raggedy doll (his own bedroom).
The raggedy doll is all crude stitches and black button eyes—very suspicious, but A-Yuan can't sense anything from it. He's only recently formed a nascent core, after all, but his dads had promised they'll be upping his cultivation training this year.
He dutifully brings the doll to A-Die, who examines it, pronounces the doll free of resentful energy and that A-Yuan may keep it.
There aren't any other kids in their building, which is old, has exactly five floors, and one creaky elevator.
He misses his friend Lan Jingyi, but he's back in the Lan compound and the landline hasn't been set up yet. He talks to the doll instead, names it Yang-er because the doll seems to like it.
He tells Yang-er about his Baba, who has a beautiful glowing sword, who teaches him how to play songs on the guqin and had promised to teach him musical cultivation once his core is strong enough. He tells Yang-er about his A-Die, who has no sword and no golden core but has a brilliant mind and excellent skills with the dizi.
Together, A-Yuan and Yang-er explore the flat in more detail. The walls are dull green, and the kitchen melds into the dining and lounging spaces. They count six doors in total—the entrance, the laundry room, two bedrooms, one bathroom, and one locked door at the end of the hall.
When he asks, Baba unlocks it with a big black key. A-Yuan grips Yang-er very tightly when Baba swings the door open. The air feels alive with something, but A-Yuan can’t quite put a finger on it.
But there’s nothing behind the door, just dry red bricks. "They must have closed it off when they turned this place into a flat," says Baba, pushing the door shut. How boring then, thinks A-Yuan. Perhaps he'll find other ways to entertain himself.
They forget to lock the door.
That evening, Baba gets takeout for dinner. On their new dining table: a spread of rice, steamed bok choy, pickled radish, and fried tofu tossed with salty black beans.
"We'll have to ask Nie-xiong to help with the feng shui," A-Die is saying. With relish, he spoons garlic chili oil over his bowl of rice. Baba chews his food quietly, but he hums in all the right places.
This house is different, thinks A-Yuan, but he's home all the same.
A-Yuan insists that they don't need to tuck him into bed anymore, but he's still quite pleased when they press kisses to his forehead before they turn off the light.
He doesn't quite know when he falls asleep, but it's these skittering sounds—little clack-clack-clack-ing noises against the hardwood floor—that rouse A-Yuan into sitting up. Outside, the dark blue sky is tinged orange by the streetlamps.
And then—a long, yawning creak, too loud in the silence of his new bedroom.
A-Yuan bites his lip. He's about to become a proper cultivator! He can't be scared of these kinds of things! It doesn't stop him from curling into a ball, feeling around for Yang-er on his bed.
Strange. Yang-er is not here. He might have pushed it off while he was sleeping, but he doesn't want to check if Yang-er has fallen under the bed.
When all the lights are off, the hallway seems like a different place. It's not the dark he's afraid of; it's all the things that can hide where he can't see.
He knocks on his dads' bedroom door, as they've told him to do. "Baba," he says quietly, pressing his cheek to the door. "A-Die, can I sleep with you guys tonight?"
He knocks again, a little louder this time. And then—skittering. Clack-clack-clack-ing. His ear tingles. Goose chills creep down his limbs. Heartbeat loud in his ears, he turns towards the sound.
The closet at end of the hall—its door is ever so slightly ajar.
Instead of the red brick wall, there's a tunnel.
The draft is cold and musty-smelling, but A-Yuan's feet carry him though, curiosity burning over his fear. The walls glow a little, pulsing like heartbeats. It feels like it's alive, the air sizzling with energy.
When he comes to, he's back in the hallway again, as if he's never left. It's the same sets of doors, the same hardwood floor, the same ink paintings Baba had hung up just earlier this morning.
The walls are very bright green and the moving boxes are no longer there. He's pretty sure it's the middle of the night, but the house seems brightly lit.
"Is that you, A-Yuan?"
A-Yuan goes into the kitchen where the voice had come from. There's a man by the stove, his back turned to A-Yuan. "Welcome back," the man says merrily. "I've got snacks ready for you."
The man turns to face him and it's—strange. He looks a little A-Die, but his face is gaunt, his skin paperwhite. On his neck, a pendant hangs from a thin cord.
Most arresting are his—where his eyes should be are—
"You're not my A-Die," A-Yuan blurts. "A-Die doesn't—he doesn't have b-b-b.."
"B-b-buttons?" the man taps one button eye. His fingers are thin and long and curved. They never seem to stop twitching.
The man's laughter sounds like A-Die's, but it's all wrong. "Of course I'm not your A-Die, silly. I’m your Other A-Die," says Other A-Die. "You should go fetch your Other Baba. He's tuning your qins in your bedroom."
When A-Yuan doesn't move immediately, Other A-Die raises a brow at him. Other A-Die grins. His teeth are very white. "Well, go on!"
A-Yuan finds Other Baba hunched over a black guqin, fingers stiff atop the strings. Like Other A-Die, Other Baba looks a little like Baba, but something isn't quite right about him.
"Um, Other A-Die's told me to come and get you," says A-Yuan. A pause. A-Yuan can't make anything of the way Other Baba's black button eyes regard him. "We're having snacks," continues A-Yuan, uselessly.
Baba wouldn't have liked snacking in the middle of the night, but Other Baba grunts heavily and gets up. Other Baba looks like a corpse, all clunky joints and unkempt hair and grey skin fraying at the edges.
They greet Other A-Die together. Or, A-Yuan greets Other A-Die. Other Baba only makes a hollow sound in his throat, like he doesn't quite know where to place his tongue.
On the dining table is a small banquet, and A-Yuan can't quite help the watering of his mouth when he sees it.
The centerpiece is a tall chocolate fountain, flanked by bowls of marshmallows and wafer sticks and sprinkles. There's an assortment of flaky pastries, fried sesame balls, and shortbreads shaped like ingots of gold. Other Baba takes a seat by the chocolate cake that says 'Welcome home A-Yuan :)' in bright red icing.
A-Yuan should leave.
"Would you like some bubble tea?" asks Other A-Die. "Or hot chocolate? Maybe iced chocolate? We've got ice cream too if you'd like!"
A-Yuan, who has never had midnight snacks before, dares to push his luck. "Bubble tea," he says cautiously. He's surprised by how hungry he is all of a sudden. "Uh, I like wintermelon the best."
"Of course!" says Other A-Die, procuring a jug of milk tea from what seemed to be thin air. He pours into A-Yuan's cup, fingers twitching and shaking. A-Yuan counts four fingers on the hand holding onto the pitcher handle. The tapioca pearls plop in with the liquid, tinkling against the ice.
They eat together.
Other A-Die is all smiles, talks about how long he's waited for A-Yuan to come home, so that he can become a proper family with him and Other Baba.
A-Yuan, deeply uncomfortable with this, tells Other A-Die that he'd like to go back home now.
Their conversation is interrupted by the doorbell.
A-Yuan meets Other Jingyi, who has black button eyes and a stitched-on smiling mouth. Along the sides of his face (going down his neck, disappearing underneath his jacket) are the seams of his skin stitched together.
Other Jingyi waves at him. A-Yuan doesn't wave back.
"You boys go play," says Other A-Die, shooing both of them out the front door. Other A-Die tells him to show Other Jingyi around—he's come a long way just to visit, after all. It will be the least A-Yuan could do.
They make a game of exploring the building. It has exactly five floors still, but the walls are freshly painted and there are new tiles on the floor. The elevator doesn't creak.
There are children around A-Yuan's age, but they all look like Other Jingyi—black button eyes and stitched-on smiling mouths.
Needing a little air, A-Yuan flees out of the building.
The sky is the same dark blue, tinged orange by the streetlamps. The road, normally bustling in the daytime, is very quiet. He keeps walking, walking, walking—until the buildings don't look like buildings and the streetlamps don't look like streetlamps.
They look—abstract, like half-formed ideas, almost like an afterthought. It's like walking into a mist where everything is faded and empty, except this mist is neither damp nor cold.
A-Yuan keeps on walking, what else can he do? He lets his feet carry him through until—streetlamps again, and buildings again, and he's back to where he's started.
"I may have just walked around the world," says A-Yuan to himself.
When he gets back to the flat, A-Yuan makes a beeline for the door at the end of the hall. He tells Other A-Die that he's grateful for the meal and the adventure, but he'd like to go home now. His real parents might worry.
"Alright," says Other A-Die mournfully, but he's smiling. His teeth are a little longer than they're supposed to be. "I'll see you soon, then."
A-Yuan has no plans of ever coming back, but he nods politely anyway.
He steps into the tunnel. The draft is still cold and musty-smelling, and the walls pulse like a heartbeat. But when he comes to, it's to a dark hall where can make out the shape of ink paintings on the wall and moving boxes on the floor
Instead of his parents, he finds Yang-er in their bedroom, plopped over a big black key. When he glimpses at the tall mirror, A-Die and Baba are on the other side, looking at him in horror.
A scuttling noise.
When A-Yuan jerks his head, he sees Yang-er is on its back, but Yang-er lot closer to the bedroom door.
"You little monster," he hisses, hauling up Yang-er by the neck. "You're a spy, aren't you?"
Yang-er doesn't move—A-Yuan doesn't think it can, not when someone is looking—but its button eyes look soulfully at him.
Once, when he'd been a lot smaller, A-Yuan had gotten separated from Baba and A-Die in a busy marketplace.
It had been A-Die who found A-Yuan in the end. A-Yuan himself doesn't remember much from that time other than the flashes of noise and people towering over him. Later, Baba had told him that A-Die saved A-Yuan from getting bitten by a dog.
"Your A-Die had been very brave," Baba had said.
"A-Die always beats up monsters on nighthunts," A-Yuan had said. "A-Die is always brave!"
A considering hum from Baba, and then, "when we go on nighthunts, your A-Die is rarely ever frightened." He'd rubbed A-Yuan's cheek with the pad of his thumb. "But when he saved you from that dog, he'd been very, very brave."
A-Yuan puts the black key in his trouser pocket.
He takes the talismans A-Die's left haphazardly on the kitchen counter—for binding, for luring resentful spirits, for finding lost things—and tucks them into his jacket. After a moment, he tacks the binding talisman onto Yang-er instead, just to be safe.
He’s no cultivator yet, but he must get his parents back. This will have to do.
He will have to do.
He stands before the doorway at the end of the hall and takes a final look behind him.
Three wooden doors, tucked neatly against faded green walls. The hardwood floor, still littered with moving boxes. A-Die's ink paintings—a dock amidst a lake of lotuses and a mountainscape dotted with flowering trees—that Baba had hung up just this morning.
He doesn't want to think about how this may very well be the last time he sees this hallway, but he does.
Dread twists his belly, cold and sudden.
His parents are powerful people. They'd been together, but Other A-Die had still managed to capture them. What good will A-Yuan do?
"I will be brave," A-Yuan tells himself fiercely. He thinks of A-Die, who had loved—still loves—A-Yuan more than he had feared that dog. He turns Baba's words in his head, over and over, and tries to believe in them.
"When you're scared, but still do it anyway," Baba had said, "that's brave."
The hand holding Yang-er is shaking, and the key feels as though it might burn a hole in his trouser pocket. But A-Yuan takes a steadying breath, opens the door, and steps—
"Is that you, A-Yuan?"
A-Die's voice. The shape of A-Die holding his arms out, silhouetted by the white light at the end of the tunnel.
"A-Die!" calls A-Yuan, all eagerness and relief. He's running, running, running, crashes into—a thin chest, black robes, the smell of burnt sugar.
Cold, skeletal arms wrap around him.
"Oh A-Yuan," says Other A-Die. Jittering fingers comb lightly through A-Yuan's hair. "I knew you'd come around."
A-Yuan takes a hasty step back. A fingernail scratches his cheek and blood wells just underneath the surface of his skin
"Where are my parents?" A-Yuan can't quite keep the tremor from his voice.
"They're gone," says Other A-Die. "They left you here, with me and Other Baba."
"Do not lie," says A-Yuan sharply. They would not leave him, not like this.
"Stop making this harder than it should be, silly boy," says Other A-Die, clutching at his chest. His smiling face turns carefully blank. "You're breaking my poor heart."
"I’m not afraid of you." If A-Yuan believes this hard enough, it won't be lying at all. "I want my real parents back."
Other A-Die clicks his tongue between his teeth. "Lock the door, won't you?" he bites, jerking his chin towards the door. Other Baba emerges from behind him and makes towards A-Yuan.
Stiff with fear, A-Yuan can hardly stop Other Baba from pulling Yang-er from his grip and the key out of his trouser pocket. Behind him, he hears the crinkle of talisman paper crumpling, and the snick of the tunnel door locking shut.
A cold jittering hand wraps around A-Yuan's wrist. "We don't tolerate naughty boys around here," says Other A-Die, button eyes gleaming.
He pulls A-Yuan into his parents' bedroom—their other bedroom. A-Yuan sees his own fearful face reflected in the tall, black-framed mirror before Other A-Die is pushing him—through it, into a dark, cramped space behind it.
"This is for your own good." Other A-Die's voice is muffled from the other side of the mirror. "You may come out when you've learned not to talk back to your elders so rudely."
The quiet rings loudly in his ears.
It's too dark to see anything. A-Yuan is running his hand over every surface he can touch, hoping for a latch, a knob, some sort of way out, anything—when his hand brushes something cold, icy even, but for all the world feels like someone's nose and mouth.
He bites back a scream.
"Shh," says a voice, whispery and small. "He might hear."
A-Yuan learns that he isn't the first to be lured into Other A-Die's web.
The spirit had been a girl, once, but she doesn't remember her name. Names are the first to go when you've been turned into a husk, nothing more than a memory tethered to this world—unloved and abandoned and forgotten, left to rot in dark corners.
But she does remember a doll. She remembers how Other A-Die is good at changing faces, at pretending to be someone he's not. She remembers how Other A-Die had loved games, and how she had played, and how she had lost—her eyes and her soul, and perhaps a little more—all for Other A-Die's keeping.
"There's someone else, I think," she continues. "This gege, I don't know where he is anymore, or if he still has his eyes."
"How can I help?" asks A-Yuan.
"You must not," she says stoutly. "While you're still alive, while you still have your eyes, you must flee and never return."
"I can't," says A-Yuan. "He's got my parents. I can't just leave them."
It stretches for so long that A-Yuan thinks he may have made it up all in his head—the ghost girl, Other A-Die, this other world behind the door at the end of the hallway.
Perhaps he'll wake up from this nightmare, and he and Baba and A-Die will have breakfast on their new dining table.
But then, a whisper. "He likes playing games."
A-Yuan considers this.
"If I win my escape," he promises, "I'll find your eyes, and your gege's, and—everyone who's trapped in here. I'll bring you all with me to the real world."
A whimpering sound, so quiet it could have been nothing at all.
A-Yuan says no more, and waits.
Someone is humming, scratching lightly at his hair.
A-Yuan sighs, rolls onto his belly, burrows deeper into the sheets—and wakes with a jolt.
He sits up, scrambling closer to the wall, away from Other A-Die who is sitting by his bedside.
"You must've been very tired," says Other A-Die. "You were all conked out when I went to get you out. Has A-Yuan learned his lesson?"
A-Yuan can't find his voice. Other A-Die looks—hungry, knife-sharp around the edges. When Other A-Die stands up, he's taller than A-Yuan remembered.
"I," A-Yuan starts, and stops. He swallows, thinks, 'I will be brave.'
"Why don’t we play a game?" says A-Yuan.
"Oh?" Other A-Die's eyes seem to shine. "What kind of game?"
"An exploring game," says A-Yuan. "A finding things game."
It will go like this: A-Yuan will explore the other flat, find the souls of his parents, of the girl trapped behind the mirror, of the gege she had told him about. If he does, Other A-Die will let them all go. A-Yuan will have until dawn breaks, and during this time, Other A-Die cannot interfere.
"And if you don't find them?" asks Other A-Die.
"Then you'll have all our souls, and you'll have my eyes, and we'll be a family, just like you wanted," says A-Yuan, calmer than he feels.
"This sounds like an excellent game," says Other A-Die silkily. He swears an unbreakable vow on his good right hand that He Will Not Cheat, and his smile grows even hungrier. "You will never find all of them, but I'd love to see you try."
A-Die's talisman for finding lost things leads him to a kitchen drawer, where he digs out a black marble. It pulses in his palm, just once, as if in greeting. A-Yuan tucks the marble into his trouser pocket.
The talisman for luring resentful spirits leads him back into his bedroom where the toy chest is wriggling violently. He opens the lid and discovers Yang-er at the very bottom, unmoving, its body is curled around a jade-green marble.
Yang-er can't move or fight back, not when someone is looking. Very carefully, A-Yuan removes his jacket and tucks Yang-er inside it, hoping that the protection spells sewn into the fabric are enough to keep Yang-er from causing more trouble.
Just before he seals the jacket shut, A-Yuan pries the marble from Yang-er's grip, and it glows gently, relieved at being found. He puts that in his trouser pocket too.
A-Yuan supposes that the bottoms of kitchen drawers and toy chests are very good at hiding lost things, those tiny bits and bobs that are meant to be abandoned and forgotten.
But he's out of talismans now.
He pads out of his bedroom, checks the door at the end of the hallway—it's still locked.
It's when he looks over his shoulder that he notices—there are three ink paintings on the wall.
One is a dock amidst a lake of shriveled lotuses, the other is a mountainscape dotted with dying trees, but the third—the third is two men, their backs turned to A-Yuan, facing an army of corpses. One bears a flute, and the other a glowing sword.
Understanding dawns on him. Other A-Die can copy and twist and turn, he can make dolls obey his bidding like a master puppeteer, but Other A-Die cannot truly create things. Not really.
Hope flutters in A-Yuan's chest.
Now that he knows where everyone is, he doesn't trust Other A-Die will keep his end of the bargain. He'll have to find Other Baba for the key.
So he goes to the one place in the flat that he hasn't yet explored—the laundry room.
Or what was the laundry room, in the real world.
This place is dim and small. It doesn't have a washer or a dryer, but there is a bed in the corner where a man lies on his back. A white cloth is draped over his eyes, and there are hundreds of talismans tacked onto the length of his body.
Other Baba sits by the man's bedside, unmoving.
Is Other Baba asleep? Does Other Baba sleep? If he isn't asleep, he doesn't appear to take notice of A-Yuan creeping into the room.
Slowly, A-Yuan reaches for the key, now hanging from a cord around Other Baba's neck.
When his fingers are tight over the key, Other Baba jerks to face him, as if waking from a trance.
He moves to attack A-Yuan, but A-Yuan is small and fast and manages to pull off the black key before Other Baba can touch him.
A-Yuan is running past the laundry room door. Just as he rounds into the hallway, he's tackled to the floor.
Other A-Die is laughing from somewhere in the kitchen. "I'm not breaking any rules," Other A-Die sing-songs, high and manic. "It's not me interfering, technically."
Heart beating hard in his chest, A-Yuan struggles to push Other Baba off of him. He yells and kicks, but Other Baba is bigger and stronger, taking very little strength to pin A-Yuan to the floor.
He pounds on Other Baba’s head with his fists, and his hands catch on something sharp at the base of Other Baba’s head. Other Baba snarls, baring rotting teeth and—a black stump, where his tongue should be.
A-Yuan holds onto the protrusions in Other Baba's head and tugs—as hard as he knows how. Other Baba’s head jerks back a little, and A-Yuan feels something give and unlodge with thick, squelching sounds—they are nails, long and sharp and oozing with black blood.
Other Baba wheezes, looks up at A-Yuan with startling clarity—and horror—in his button eyes.
A-Yuan’s heartbeats ring loud in his ears, but Other Baba gets up on his clunky joints, turns behind him, attacks Other A-Die instead.
Other A-Die is screeching, yelling, digging his jittering claws into Other Baba's head. Other Baba remains steadfast, pinning Other A-Die to the closest wall. Other Baba pulls at the pendant around Other A-Die's neck and throws it in A-Yuan’s direction.
"GO," yells Other Baba, or that's what A-Yuan think he yells, because really—A-Yuan isn't thinking at all. He just picks up the pendant and the key and dashes towards the door at the end of the hall. He only slows down to carefully pluck the third ink painting from the wall.
He runs through the door, keeps running through the darkness—the tunnel is no longer pulsing. It feels brittle somehow, like it's dried up and is falling apart with every step he takes. Then those skittering, clack-clack-clack-ing sounds, faint at first, and then getting louder, coming after A-Yuan, closer and closer—
Other A-Die is wailing, hoarse and shrill—"Don't leave me here, I'll die without you!"—just as A-Yuan shuts the door behind him and locks it with shaking fingers.
Then—and only then—does he feel the breath knocked out of him, sweat dripping down his face in bullets. He slides down the wall, lets his eyes close—he’ll just catch his breath for a moment.
He doesn't know how he fell asleep, or for how long, only that his body feels heavy and that his fists hurt something fierce.
Someone is humming, scratching lightly at his hair.
When A-Yuan opens his eyes, he's in his bed—his real bed, in their new flat. He looks up, finds A-Die grinning at him. Beside him, Baba’s eyes are fond.
They’re both dressed in last night’s sleeping clothes, looking a little worse for the wear, but they’re here, and they’re smiling at him.
Night has passed. Soft morning light filters through the windows.
"We're home," says Baba.