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Thank you to Kikusui and a bowl of overcooked noodles for the ko-fis!
I disabled payments on ko-fi, but it turns out that even if you do that, it leaves a button on the page… that lets you make a payment anyway. A’ight. I turned payments back on because it apparently doesn’t matter l o l]
The Prince of Qi crawled up, disoriented. “W-What’s going on…”
Yan Xiaohan looked at the man behind them in utter bewilderment.
Ren Miao held the fire iron in his left hand, frowning when he moved his right one about – apparently, he’d sprained his wrist from the sudden force. Sensing Yan Xiaohan’s gaze, he raised his head and smiled at him with eyes filled with apology. “Sorry, I was hasty just then. Didn’t hurt you, did I?”
His fire iron had been next to Yan Xiaohan the entire time previous. When they were both at the doorway right before, Yan Xiaohan went to rescue the Prince, while Ren Miao went to get the iron. The distance between the two spots was roughly the same, yet he was still able to rush over and use the rod to haul both Yan Xiaohan and Prince away before the beam fell. Leaving aside that astonishing arm strength, the speed at which he came and went alone could not be achieved by an ordinary man.
That skill and reaction time was even swifter than Yan Xiaohan’s, but if that was the case, why was he easily able to snatch the bundle right off of him when he had walked in the door?
Either he was suddenly energized at a critical moment, or… he was pretending to be weaker than he actually was.
The idol had been shattered to pieces, of which Ren Miao used his fire iron to poke at. “It’s not safe in the temple. Who knows, in a bit…” He remembered that he had literally just made a jinx and choked on his words halfway through them. “Nevermind. Let’s get out of here first.”
Yan Xiaohan silently helped the Prince up.
It was baffling to say, but after they came out, the thunder gradually waned and the dense clouds dispersed; following that huge strike of lightning, even the rain eventually came to a stop. Every single person raised their head to peer up at the sky, musing and mystified with an indescribable awe. There were even a few that knelt in the front yard, quietly reciting Buddhist mantra.
The Prince wasn’t confused about the fact that he had been on the brink of death. After straightening his clothes out, he bowed deeply towards Ren Miao. “Many thanks for your rescue, savior.”
Ren Miao leaned on the fire iron with one hand, donned his conical hat with the other, and smiled without a care. “What is this? Were it not for you taking me in, this parting wouldn’t be taking place after… maybe this was a fated coincidence, who can say.”
“You’re going to go?” Yan Xiaohan asked.
Ren Miao led his horse over. “The rain stopped and the temple’s destroyed. If I don’t leave now, am I going to just wait around for the next wave of lightning strikes?” He nimbly mounted his horse and cupped his hands towards them all, his tone candid. “I’m sure we’ll meet again, everyone. I’ll see you at Jing Prefecture later!”
After that, he spurred his horse onward, taking his abrupt leave and never once looking back.
The Prince sighed. “What a lucky meeting.”
Yan Xiaohan’s eyes imperceptibly narrowed, watching the man’s lanky back out of his peripheral as he sped off. He got the feeling that this wasn’t over.
At daybreak the same day, they all bore with their tiredness and rushed to the neighboring village to request lodging with the locals. It was named Brook Hill, a guileless folk area that fell under the jurisdiction of Jing Prefecture’s Kuangfeng County. The village head and clan elders welcomed the arrival of foreign visitors warmly, not only arranging a place for them to stay, but even having people bring all sorts of food to them.
The Prince was unable to keep asleep. Yan Xiaohan took a little nap, still holding what happened last night in mind, and then went to ask the locals about the fox immortal’s temple in the outskirts.
There were a few older seniors that remembered it, saying that the fox had once manifested and warned the villagers to take shelter before a flood came. Because they had divulged Heaven’s machinations and thus drew its wrath, they were struck dead by lightning, and the people established a shrine to consecrate them. However, the fox immortal seemed to have never manifested again, and the temple gradually came to be abandoned.
The strike yesterday evening hadn’t gone for any person; it unerringly hit precisely upon the idol. That was rather too coincidental. Could it really have been some kind of signal from the Heavens?
Legend stated that the fox suffered Heaven’s wrath for revealing its divine secrets. So, what was the so-called ‘divine secret’ in that temple?
Right as his mind was on-course, there was the sudden tok-tok of knocking on the door, and someone’s voice came from the courtyard. “Is anyone there? I’m passing by your land, can I stay here for a night—“
The door of the house opened with a creak, revealing Mister Yan’s cold, expressionless face from behind it.
“Yo, it’s you again!” Ren Miao lifted his conical hat, pleasantly surprised. “Good to see you, good to see you!”
Not a trace of any of this being ‘good’ could be observed from Yan Xiaohan’s expression. “Good to see you,” he said indifferently.
“Fate’s brought us together! This is really too wonderful for words.” Ren Miao phewed as he tied up his horse in the courtyard, heading to go inside with familiarity. “Rushing down the road for a half a night has me beat. This makes things easy, big brother, I’ll lend this house of yours to take a nap.”
Yan Xiaohan didn’t move from his spot at all. “No can do.”
“I’m a man with a family. It’s inappropriate for me to mix with outsiders. You’ll have to choose a different place.”
“…Can’t be, I’m a seven chi tall man. What could I do to you? Are you that afraid of… your old woman?”
“My spouse is also a man. Do forgive me.”
Ren Miao: “……”
“Alright, alright,” the man gestured with exasperation. “I’ll look elsewhere… sheesh…”
Ren Miao left tongue-tied. Yan Xiaohan went out the door to check on the Prince of Qi’s place before anything else. Seeing that he wasn’t yet awake, he told his accompanying subordinates to be a bit on the alert and ensure the Prince’s safety. He himself then made one round through every place in the village; upon catching sight of Ren Miao staying in a firewood hut at a neighboring courtyard, he wound back around to go behind the village. There were farmers working on distant paddy fields, children frolicking about, and women massed together at the water’s edge to do laundry and rinse rice. None of it could have possibly been any more peaceful and ordinary.
Maybe he was too anxious, but that lightning strike that had almost split open his skull was like a shadow twisting around his thoughts from start to finish. He wandered about aimlessly; when he became of aware of the diversion in his path, he was already standing in front of the village’s ancestral shrine.
The shrine was an important site, and it would be taboo for a foreigner to encroach upon it. He turned around with the intention to leave, but his excessively sharp hearing caught some slightly abnormal sounds of movement. It seemed someone was having a private conversation inside, and he happened to overhear right as they were divulging a few things.
“…those strangers that came, tonight’s ceremony…”
The voice was getting closer and closer. Yan Xiaohan’s heart skipped a beat. He lithely jumped up, his entire body floating like a sheet of paper, and he soundlessly climbed up to the roof, vanishing into the shadows under the eaves.
The village chief and a lean young man he had seen earlier in the day came out from behind the building, talking as they went. “…Guang Ping and the rest are less than fifteen. Set it up for tonight. Make the women mix some drugs in the food to put them down, and tow them outside tomorrow. It’ll be fine so long as no one comes to get in the way. I saw those folk all had clothes made of top-notch silk, there’s probably a lot of good stuff if you go through their luggage…”
He understood that these people planned on drugging them, but he didn’t understand what the ‘ceremony’ was. It seemed to be a ritual that only villagers were eligible to participate in, but even if they were making an offering to an entity, why were they trying to keep it out of other’s eyes?
What did the phrase ‘less than fifteen’ mean?
When the two men went away, Yan Xiaohan leapt down from the roof, landing lightly on the ground like a cat. He stood up straight, intending to slip away in complete secret, but he paused at his first step and suddenly swiveled his head around just in time to meet with a pair of dark eyes at the other end of the long hallway.
The shrine was sinister enough already. The person still hid behind a pillar, only unveiling their ink-black eyes and not saying a word as they stared at him with an unfaltering gaze.
In a wink, a burst of cold air crept along his back, a cold sweat forming immediately after.
He stood firm, watching them right back with all the calmness he could muster. The first idea that flashed through his head was to simply kill them to keep their silence, so as to avoid giving rise to too much of a disturbance.
He placed a hand behind his back, a knife stowed away in his sleeve then sliding to his palm. At that moment, the person suddenly dashed out from behind the pillar, gave him a final glance, and turned around to flee with loud footsteps – it was nothing more than a boy, at the early age of not having to pin his loose hair up yet.
With Yan Xiaohan’s ability, so long as he had the inclination to, it wouldn’t be hard for him to dispatch the boy on the spot. Only, when it came time to do so, the barely-existent compassion in his heart set into motion, and the knife ultimately never left his hand to take the shot.
It’d always been said that after settling down, someone who committed a multitude of misdeeds would get a layer of apprehension added to them, and their behavior will be curbed. He hadn’t experienced this before, but he now distinctly felt there was another sort of force outside his killing intent that was obstructing it. He couldn’t help but think of Fu Shen – what choice would he be making if he were here right now?
He always held Fu Shen’s thoughts too up on high, and that misconception caused both his heart and hands to soften, bringing him a series of consequences that would be difficult to predict.
If Fu Shen really was here, he would definitely knock the kid out with the knife first, then slap him to snap him out of it. Someone discovered him doing something bad; even if he didn’t strike them dead, their mouth still needed to be sealed up tight. How could he let them go just like that?
Yan Xiaohan nonchalantly returned to the house they were staying in, woke up the Prince, and warned them all not to touch any food or drink given by the villagers. Come noon, they were to promptly set off for Kuangfeng County.
With that, a crowd of people hurriedly worked to harness their horses and pack their stuff for quite a long time. When everything was finished being put into order, Yan Xiaohan claimed that they were eager to get on with their journey and bid farewell to the village chief, leaving behind a portion of silver coins. Money could make even a demon turn a grinding stone – the formerly somewhat suspicious village chief forgot it all upon seeing the coins, and readily responded in kind.
Yan Xiaohan left along with the convoy. Once they were completely out of Brook Hill, he told them all to keep going on ahead, then turned his own steed around and quietly went back into the woods on the outside of the village.
He recalled that when they left, Ren Miao was still staying at the adjacent courtyard. That man could wake up at even the sound of his footsteps, so it didn’t make sense for them to have packed up all their things with great fanfare just for him to not hear it, to the extent that he didn’t even show his face.
Ren Miao had saved his life, after all, and Yan Xiaohan was embarrassed to have received such a favor. Whether he should drag him away or would need to, he mentally told himself that after he fully understood what that ‘ceremony’ was, he would then bring the other out of there along the way.
Half a day later, at the descent of twilight around the time of dusk, sporadic lantern light lit up the village. Yan Xiaohan used the cover of evening to sneak along the strip of road he had taken in the morning to get to the ancestral shrine.
The village chief and every older man of the clan was gathered outside of it. There were an additional three flatbed carts on the veranda, each decorated with fresh flowers and bright silks and a person in plain white clothing lying on top of them. Yan Xiaohan wasn’t able to make out their appearances in the dim night light, nor could he tell whether they were dead or alive. All he could hear was an elder in the yard say, “All preparations are made. We should be on our way.”
Several young men in the prime of their lives came forward to push the carts, others lighting up white paper lanterns, and they slowly made their way out. The scene looked like a funeral procession, and it seemed unbelievably somber and bizarre in the nigh-ended dusk.
He had the mind to follow after them to investigate. Unexpectedly, as soon as he bowed his head, he noticed that the kid from that morning had appeared out of nowhere. He was speaking directly towards the section of the eaves he had hidden in during the day, opening and closing his mouth, yet accompanied by no sound whatsoever.
He was a mute, it turns out.
With no one showing up, a lost expression emerged on the boy’s face, and he repeated himself a few times. Now Yan Xiaohan finally got a clear look at what words his movements were making: “are you there?”
Maybe the compassion from the morn hadn’t yet fully waned, as when he looked at the child, he got the sense that he didn’t have evil intentions, and a little kid couldn’t pose a threat to a grown man like him anyways. He mumbled to himself a little, feeling that he couldn’t give up this clue that had been sent straight to him, then strolled out from his hiding place, a knife kept behind his hand. “Were you looking for me?” he asked calmly.
The boy briskly turned his head around, resembling a pale ghost. When he saw him, he urgently used his hands to gesture to him a few times, hinting for him to follow. Yan Xiaohan didn’t know what he wanted to tell him, so he let him lead the way, the two winding through all sorts of twists and bends until they came to a courtyard behind the shrine.
The kid led him in front of a building and pointed at the door for him to go in.
“You’re not going in?” Yan Xiaohan questioned in a whisper.
The boy shook his head with gusto. He showed him a purple bruise on his arm and made a hitting gesture.
Yan Xiaohan gleaned that this was probably some kind of private area in the village that ordinary people didn’t have the authority to enter, otherwise they’d get thrashed like this child did.
He nodded. “Thanks.”
The boy retreated a step as Yan Xiaohan gently pushed the wooden door open and took his own step inside.
The author says: The next chapter has a particularly lousy trope, but I’m pretty happy to write it, hahahahaha.
The translator says: *side-eyes the author*
Also, creepy rural villages are the stuff horror movies are made of. No thanks.