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Family Circle

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Shen Yuan wakes to a cacophony of noise.

It’s a wall of screaming and chaos, sometimes low and thunderous, sometimes high and screeching like a thousand voices in pain. A door slams open and shuts repeatedly, the walls creak. Somewhere in the background something topples over and breaks.

Shen Yuan feels each impact. His entire body is sprawled across the floor -- a floor, he’s not sure where he is -- so every rumble throughout the building feels like it’s moving through his body, a body that feels suspiciously tiny---

Where am I?

The noise stops.

Shen Yuan opens his eyes.

It’s deathly silent. In his delirium, Shen Yuan doesn’t take much notice.

It’s dark, but he can make out that he’s on an unfinished wooden floor. The boards are distorted from water damage and covered in small, irregular pieces of paper, some torn and some intact, each covered in spidery ink. He doesn’t recognise the letters.

Wherever he is, it stinks.

He closes his eyes. Each eyelid feels like lead. Shen Yuan feels like absolute shit.

For some reason, his back is burning and his head is fogged over with a deep-set tiredness that Shen Yuan is somewhat used to, having a chronic illness (or two, or three). But it’s different now. There’s something inside him, sapping his energy away. It feels…. cold?

Am I dead?

Shen Yuan, with great effort, sits up. The papers rustle underneath his hands. In places, they’re actually quite damp. When he touches his finger together, they’re sticky. There are a few pots dotted around him where the liquid seems to mostly originate from. In the dark it’s hard to tell what it is, but given the metallic smell it could be blood. If he had the energy, he would shudder in disgust.

The room is small and cramped. A squat, old-fashioned desk sits lopsided a metre and a half away, covered in papers and scrolls just as disheveled as the pile he’s lying on. It looks like the impact of whatever happened earlier ruined a perfect circle, or an attempt at one, messily painted on the papers around him.

With no windows, the only light source comes from the single entrance into the room where a door barely hangs off its frame. Past it, a staircase leads upwards into somewhere else that seems light and airy, at least compared to this stinky little basement.

“Where the fuck am I,” Shen Yuan croaks in a voice that is much too high.

He blinks.

“Um,” he tries again.

What! It’s so high?! He sounds like a little boy!

Panicked, he pats his sticky hands all over his face. Is his head suddenly larger, or are his hands suddenly smaller?!?

A mechanical voice rings in his ears.

[Activation code: “Stupid author, stupid novel!”]

What.

He sits there, frozen in confusion until a blue screen pops in front of him. He flinches violently. The voice pipes up again and cheerfully explains to Shen Yuan that, yes, he is dead, and yes, he is in another world. The explanation is printed out neatly in a generic font in mid-air. It does not reply to him when he rasps out a few key questions:

Where is he? Why is he a kid again? What the hell happened to him before he woke up?!

[User Shen Yuan is bound to esteemed wife #152 Wu Qian's twin brother, Wu Yuxian! On the rest, Host-dada need not worry! Contact with power-source has not been made, so no key actions are required. Entering hibernation mode until power-source has been located. Sleep mode will be entered in three… two… one…!]

A pleasant series of notes plays as the voice fades away into nothingness.

Wu Yu-what? Wife? Twin brother? What?

Shen Yuan blinks. Okay then. Let’s pretend that didn’t happen.

He’s probably dead in his original world. He’s not sure how to feel about that, so he’ll compartmentalise it and deal with it later. For now, Shen Yuan will deal with the most pressing problem: he has no idea where he is, he is injured and probably ill, and he’s a kid… For some reason. Much to his chagrin.

In his seated position, he wavers slightly. Shen Yuan almost falls backwards, but he catches himself just in time. His hands stick on the paper. He’s exhausted, but Shen Yuan doesn’t want to stay in this room when he doesn’t know what these symbols are for or if magic is even real in this world.

He scrambles up, hissing at the sting in his back.

Let’s get this over with.

 


 

The house is completely empty.

He was scared at first, thinking that maybe he was a slave that had been locked in the basement as punishment or for experimentation, but after peeking around the corner of each room in the reasonably-sized estate, there isn’t a single soul to punish him for leaving.

The house is in a strange mix of ancient Chinese styles, the kinds that Shen Yuan has seen in TV dramas or on the occasional school field trip. Whatever had been so noisy when he woke up completely wrecked the place. Each window has been torn to shreds, decorative pots lie in shards strewn across modestly ornate rugs, and splintered chairs and tables are on their sides in odd places around each room.

He tries to find a mirror, but they’ve all been smashed. The pieces are small enough that it’s hard to get a good picture of his face, other than the fact that he is absolutely filthy, which is something he already knows. His hair, loose and unusually long for a child, is matted with blood. Each step he takes leaves a little smudge of red. He’s sure that almost his entire body is covered in smudges of blood, and Shen Yuan doesn’t think that it’s all his. Whatever had been in those pots had surely spilled on him when he was unconscious.

Now that he’s in daylight, Shen Yuan notices that his hands and arms are covered in the same messy scrawl on the papers he’d woken up on. His robe is torn at the shoulder and there’s more there as well. For a moment, they seem to twist and writhe together over his skin. When Shen Yuan blinks a few times at them, they settle back in place. He wonders if he’s just delirious.

Shen Yuan shudders at the implication of why he was down there and lights a silent candle in his heart for whichever poor soul was shoved down there by his guardians.

He stops at one of the bedrooms.

It’s decently sized, with two beds and a large window that looks out onto a courtyard. The furniture and bedding is tossed around and mostly broken or torn, but Shen Yuan can imagine that it would have been a cozy place to spend his evenings. Well-used toys spill out of an overturned chest, and scrolls and books sit in a pile of wood near what probably was a small writing desk.

Shen Yuan shivers at the draft that a tear in the rice paper window lets in.

The beds are small. A bedroom for two children.

For some reason, Shen Yuan wants to cry.

 


 

There are voices coming from the front courtyard of the estate.

Shen Yuan is examining a torn wall scroll in the entrance hall when he hears them. He’s been trying to learn any details about the family that had lived here before he takes off on his own, but he’s not too familiar with ancient Chinese.

The moment he hears the voices, Shen Yuan sprints into a nearby tea room with doors that are miraculously still intact, save for a tear in the paper that’s conveniently at eye level.

A door creaks open but he doesn’t hear any footsteps. It’s rather unsettling. He can’t see anything from where he is.

“Disgusting.”

A man’s voice.

“The level of demonic energy here is extremely high,” another says mildly. His tone is even and calm, not betraying any of the disdain that the first did. “I’m not surprised the townsfolk didn’t dare visit and see what the cause of the blast was.”

“I’ve heard of this woman before. I thought she’d killed herself decades ago,” the first voice sneers. “That mayor is lucky we were passing through. This level of energy could have attracted an entire army of those beasts we encountered earlier if they’d left it for even a day.”

They fall silent. Shen Yuan’s heart thuds in his chest.

So there’s at least two people here. That’s not good. Especially when Shen Yuan in his weakened state doesn’t stand a chance if they decide to kidnap him.

“Let’s get this over with,” the first voice drawls.

There is no sound or warning when they step into Shen Yuan’s line of sight. Two tall figures, a vision of ancient scholarly elegance, stride silently through the hallway in long voluminous robes. Long, pin straight hair flows down their backs.

Shen Yuan gawks. They’re…. beautiful? Normal people don’t look like this. They walk past Shen Yuan’s hiding spot and stop a few metres down the hall.

The taller one, dressed in dark blue and grey robes, frowns. It looks wrong on him, as if he is someone used to smiling. His eyes, framed by strong black brows, are dark and concerned as they examine the ruined tapestry that Shen Yuan had been staring at earlier. The man’s face is open, not hidden by strands of hair like his companion. It’s easy to read, at least from Shen Yuan’s position.

“The Wu family,” the man reads from the tapestry slowly and carefully, as if memorising the name. “I know Shidi wishes to return home swiftly, but we will have to inform the mayor of what has happened here.”

This man believes he has stumbled upon a tragedy. No one should have survived what happened here. They’re probably both cultivators hired by a nearby village to exterminate whatever force did this. It probably says something about this family’s reputation too - no one came to check on little Shen Yuan at all?!

Alright then, Shen Yuan concedes, I guess I’m just alone in this world.

But cultivation sounds fun! Having a dead family is useful, probably. Maybe he’ll masquerade as a sad, weepy orphan and go join a sect or something.

The shorter man, in green and white robes, sighs.

“Shidi, do you sense anything?” the taller man murmurs, turning to his companion. “It’s getting thicker the further we move inside. It’ll be difficult to investigate just on aura alone. We may have to examine each room.”

The green-robed man turns his nose up, looking unimpressed. “Zhangmen-shixiong doesn't sense anything? There’s at least one of those beasts nearby. You’ve spent too long shut away in your office, I’m sure your Shizun didn’t neglect your training that much.”

The taller man blinks a few times. His frown relaxes until only his brow is lightly creased in concentration. After a moment, he directs a fond smile to his companion.

“As always, Shen-shidi is right. Xiao-Jiu’s sense for demonic energy has always been unmatched by anyone.”

“Xiao-Jiu’s” sneer deepens, transforming his otherwise delicate and pretty face into something ugly and reproachful.

The taller man’s smile disappears in an instant. He opens his mouth to say something but seems to decide against it, putting his hand on the hilt of his sword and turning away.

“I will take care of the beast,” the taller man says. His tone is as even and calm as when they first entered.

From his hiding place, Shen Yuan feels like he is watching a soap opera. He’s a little too relaxed watching this display, because when the taller man begins to take long, confident steps in Shen Yuan’s direction, he freaks out.

Why are you coming here?! Stupid cultivator, I’m not a demon!

Shen Yuan whips around, looking for a window or maybe a secret tunnel behind a painting that he can jump through.

He stares.

Nestled in the remains of an expensive looking table and chairs is an enormous slug.

Shen Yuan stares harder.

The slug shifts around, looking a little awkward. It is as long as Shen Yuan is tall. It also has a mouth. And teeth. Long, spikey, hideous teeth.

Shen Yuan, against his better judgement, shrieks in terror.

The monster shrieks back.

WHOOSH!

A wave of icy blue spiritual energy slaps into Shen Yuan from behind. The first impact he registers is the energy burning into the wound on his back. The second is his body slamming into the wall, dragging down the last remnants of a scenic painting that Shen Yuan had not stopped to admire. The third, he crashes into a pile of splinters that were once a side table and a vase.

Shen Yuan lays there, stunned.

It takes a while for the pain to register. His back is on fire. It hurts so much he’s almost paralysed.

The last image Shen Yuan sees before he passes out are two tall figures hovering over him, one of them with a sword poised to strike.

 


 

Shen Yuan wakes up.

It’s a much better experience than his last time waking up. He’s in a bed, for one. He’s only in a little bit of pain too, and it doesn’t smell like pools of old, congealed blood.

Shen Yuan blinks awake in a small bed in a small room that smells like warm tea. Dim morning or evening sunlight filters in through a high paper window. He’s been changed into a soft thin robe. He doesn’t get much of a chance to examine further, because a man sweeps inside and does a double take.

He recovers his composure immediately.

“Hello there,” the man says. “How are you feeling?”

His voice is steady and warm. It matches his appearance entirely, and Shen Yuan knows immediately that he’s a healer. He holds back a snicker, because he looks like every single cliché of a video game support character - from the gentle smile, to the practical bun, and of course the sleeves tied all the way up so he doesn’t get any fluids on them when he’s elbow deep in his comrades’ intestinal cavities.

Shen Yuan isn’t sure how he’s feeling. He’s woken up somewhere different from where he’d started, again. And in terms of his body, he’s certainly felt a lot better. Besides the fatigue and dizziness, it’s mostly the cold swirling sensation in his chest that’s bothering him. He’s unsure what to make of it.

The man is holding a small bundle of cloth that he places on a side table before settling into a chair besides the bed.

When Shen Yuan somehow manages to sit up, despite being unable to hide a flinch at the painful stretch of skin over his back, the smile that the man gives him is positively radiant.

It’s surprising. The nurses in the hospital were never this nice, but Shen Yuan realises immediately that this is probably because he is a child. In fact, how old is he supposed to be?

“May I take your wrist?” The man is gesturing towards Shen Yuan’s arm. He offers it wordlessly.

The man grips his wrist lightly, and Shen Yuan shivers as spiritual energy cycles through his body.

So that’s what that feels like. Interesting.

The man’s mouth twitches. He lays his arm back lightly onto the bed sheets before giving it a comforting pat.

“Let’s make some introductions,” he says gently. “You are in the medical ward of Qian Cao Peak of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. My name is Mu Qingfang. I am the lord of this peak and it’s my job to get you as healthy as possible. Could you tell me your name?”

Shen Yuan stares at him.

Cang Qiong?

“Cang Qiong Mountain?” Shen Yuan rasps.

Mu Qingfang smiles patiently. This man is good with children. “We are in Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Have you heard of us before?”

Shen Yuan is silent for a little too long, because Mu Qingfang looks concerned and one of his hands darts forward to take his wrist once more.

“Perhaps you… some water…”

The words fade away.

Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. The sect that terrorised the protagonist of that shitty web novel he’d died reading. The one that was razed to the ground by a womanizing homicidal maniac.

“Oh dear! Are you alright?”

Shen Yuan curses his fate.

His eyes roll into the back of his head.