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Welcome, welcome. This isn’t a translation, but an original work I’m doing on my free time. My plans are pretty much to get it all written, then go back and make a more polished final version. I’ll also be releasing intermittent EPUBs/PDFs after each arc for y’alls offline reading. No current update schedule, just whenever I have the drive.
If you saw the alpha version of this, hello again! I reused some pieces of the old version in chapter 1, but I’m rewriting the rest from the ground up, basically. If you’ve got deja vu, that’s why.
Enjoy my science fiction/cyberpunk/xuanhuan thing (I am completely unsure of what genre(s) this is)!]
[Arc 1: The Erhu Player in the Ice Mausoleum]
Zhao Yi had always been particularly in-tune with the dead and lost.
Even before she was nine, the age she would officially start down the ancestral path paved for her, she could hear the wails, whispers, and roars of souls not yet fully departed. Their spirits were always invisible, but their voices were ever-present, lulling her to sleep with their discordant swansongs.
When her studies on necromancy had begun, she had put her all into learning everything. Her sect’s brand of arts specialized in Reviving, the act of bringing a body back to pseudo-life to make it do one’s bidding. That phrase alone was an oversimplification, of course; to make a corpse come back to life, it must first have died with the possibility of having a will to ever come back, and then it had to like the caster enough to obey, which were both things easier said than done. As it stood, the majority of revenants used nowadays were those of deceased relatives who had wished to keep their loved ones company for a little while longer, making ‘armies of the undead’ an extremely implausible situation, unlike what fantasy stories liked to portray.
Revenants made of strangers, conversely, had no emotional attachment, and were often bound to the Reviver by an oath, hence being much more dangerous. Whatever grievances they had in life would certainly be requested to be righted, but dead folks frequently had eroded morals and heavy hatred, resulting in their requests being awful, immoral, and nonsensical. An oath could be broken at any time, should the Reviver refuse the conditions, but that typically caused the revenant to immediately fly into a rage and try to kill everything around it. For obvious reasons, many budding Revivers were taught that ‘stranger danger’ went for both the living and the dead.
Zhao Yi had been taught this as well, yet she continued to listen to these dead strangers all throughout the day — they, at least, had no bodies, and thus could do no physical harm. They told of their regrets, their joys, their love, and their hate. Their unnerving melodies and soothing shrieks imparted secrets to her, informing her of the ways of the world a long time before she should have been learning of them.
In the opinions of adults, she was way too precocious for her age. Was it really her fault that she absorbed information so easily, though, and that maturity came to her quicker than most? When one listened to tales of heartbreak, betrayal, and the nitty gritty filth of the world, how could they remain childishly ignorant?
She became attached to no soul, as they were all impermanent. The unwritten law of the world’s workings dictated that dead souls with no body could only stay intact for three days, after which, on the fourth, their soul would scatter, their qi returning to the soil. Getting attached to a soul was like getting attached to a cricket; no matter how much she liked their music, they’d be dead all too soon, and replaced by another musician that would play her fresher songs.
There was, however, one refrain she had heard on end, for as long as she could remember.
The cries of an erhu, its player unknown, emanated from somewhere not too far away. Its tune was soothing, never once irritating in spite of its constantly repeated refrain. When young, she had simply taken it as the ambient noise of the universe, not knowing that not everyone could hear it until she heard one of her sect brothers playing another erhu.
She had asked her parents an innocent question, then. Its exact wording was something she no longer remembered, but it had been something along the lines of, ‘How come Brother Rong’s instrument sounds like that song we hear every day?’ They had had no idea what she was talking about, and when she had elaborated on all the things she could hear, they had been quite obviously frightened.
A sect elder had started coming to see her after that, and she had taught her how to play the erhu. Excited about being so close to the near-godly existence of her life’s background music, she had thrown herself into learning it. A year later, when she was good enough, she had been asked to recreate the melody.
Confusingly, all their faces had looked off after she had played it, and they had requested that she never do so ever again.
Her erhu lessons hadn’t stopped, at least, though they were layered beneath new sessions that helped the elders assess her powers and manage them. No one else had this ability, they had told her. She was unique.
(Back then, she had noticed that their expressions were off, not pleased-looking in the least, but she had thought nothing of it. It wouldn’t be until much later, though technically yet soon, that she would understand why.)
She, being young and arrogant, had felt proud about this for a long time. The older she got and the more the spirits whispered to her, however, the less proud she felt. So many of them told her that to be talented was to be an eyesore, and would bring only endless misfortune. She was spun tales of skilled artisans, beautiful lovers, and popular people felled by jealousy.
Sometimes, she caught sight of the glares of children her age, and wondered if evil could possibly start so young.
But those other children didn’t matter, did they? None of them were her friends or siblings, they merely shared a sect. They could be jealous of how talented and special she was all they wanted, because it wouldn’t make them any more talented or special themselves.
Thus, with that attitude, she had no friends her age. She didn’t care. Adults were more interesting and respectful, and children’s games were boring. Was that snooty? Maybe, but those were her true feelings.
In any case, when she had asked her parents and the elder about the song afterwards, they had said that they had never heard it before, but it sounded like a curse, whatever that meant. Maybe their ears were broken. She had thought then, and still thought now, that it was a very pretty song.
Now, it was her thirteenth birthday, seven years after the reveal of her powers and four years after the official start of her journey as a Reviver. She told her parents that she planned to find the erhu player.
They looked at her with expressions she couldn’t identify. “Are you sure about this, Yi’r?” Zhao Mao, her mother, questioned.
“Yes,” she replied, resolute. “I need to know why it plays every day and night. There has to be a reason, mama. I can tell it’s not very far away, so I know I can find it.”
“We’ll need to approve this with the elders, first. Going outside the sect is always risky,” Ji Wei, her father, added in. He sounded very unsure. “People will definitely have to go with you. We don’t know if there’ll be some hidden danger there. Just… don’t be reckless, okay?”
Her brows quirked in puzzlement, but she nodded. When had she ever been reckless? Souls’ requests were always to be ignored, even if their stories made her more learned and less naive — she had realized as much when one had wanted her to ‘poison that bitch Lady Wei and her whore daughter’, which was extremely rude. This was the only soul in particular she had ever cared much about, and it wasn’t even giving any sort of request. Maybe he was referring to something else?
Well, if he wanted her to know specifically what he wanted her to not do, he needed to be specific.
Her request to leave was eventually – tentatively – approved. She led their mini-expedition out into the world, following the sound to a place that was all too familiar to them.
Her team of escorts then immediately brought her back home, telling the elders that she had driven them to the ominous Everice Peaks.
True to its name, that mountain was not made of rock, but ice. Its base consisted of hues of whites and blues, and its sharp, jagged tips were transparent, glinting like threats in the sunlight, every iota of them dusted with a layer of never-melting frost. It was situated off the coast of Ole-Mang’e, a city in the county of Dong-Nala, and made up its own island that connected itself to the seafloor. It served as an infinite source of enchanted ice that the city commodified and sold to the rest of the continent, which was the most expensive and highest quality ready-made ice in the land, surpassing even the kind mass-produced by cultivators of the appropriate elemental roots, due to whatever magic that made it being especially potent; one chunk could stand in direct sunlight for a full half-year before it would even begin to melt. The lifespan it had when placed into peoples’ ice-cellars was, as could therefore be imagined, extremely difficult to compete with.
Though trips made to the mountain were daily and frequent, there was an unspoken rule that one must not climb too high up the mountain, nor stay too long on its shores. The rule’s origins laid in both superstition and fact. Ancestors of the city had penned ancient accounts of the unsettling nature of the place, warning their descendants to stay far away from it; evidently, they had not listened at all, but had at least heeded enough to touch elbows with the place only in moderation. That hunch had ended up verified by the Reviver-allied Blackblood Manor, which had recently confirmed that malaised qi constantly exuded from the place. Whatever, or whoever, was keeping the ice forming, it was likely not doing it consciously or willingly.
Thus, Zhao Yi confirming that the mystical erhu she had always heard was coming from within a possibly-cursed mountain — one which no one had ever gotten inside of since before the Great Wrath more than a millennia prior — alarmed everyone who was told of it.
The Sect Leader warned her not to toy with the ancient unknown, then forbade her from returning to the area. She begged for an exception, because, please, she had to know, but her request was denied.
Sect Leader Huailu Cong gently consoled her as she hiccuped. She wasn’t trying to be cruel, she explained, but she had to think about safety before anything else. Everice, despite its sense of foreboding, was stable, and if it was sealing something inside of it, then it might very well be best left alone.
Zhao Yi cried in her bed at night, ignoring the spirits and listening to the strings of the erhu, which now seemed more melancholic, despite their unchanged song.
Now that she thought about it… she hadn’t talked to a spirit in years. She had tried to, when she was young, but they typically ignored her and just kept gabbing on. (Those that did respond would often say things that were… concerning, on top of that.) Even so, she had learned long ago that due to them partially being on another plane of existence, speaking to a spirit could be done regardless of physical distance. Maybe if she…
“Who are you?” she whispered, both aloud and in her mind, and in a way that she hoped was somehow pointed in the direction she wanted it to be. Genuinely, she wasn’t sure what she was doing. “Why are you in the ice? Why do you play?”
The erhu stopped.
Her heart skipped a beat, then pulsed faster than it had a right to.
She waited for it to say or do something, anything, but the mental silence stretched on.
“I-I want to help. You seem sad. I’ve heard you every day for as long as I can remember,” she offered.
“I can hear spirits. I’m the only one, I think. Are you a corpse? I’m a Reviver, too. Helping you will be easy.”
Nada. Her stomach sank.
Nothing happened for the rest of the night. The erhu never got back to its playing again, either. She cried, believing that her attempting to speak to it had broken something, or that something had happened to befall the mysterious instrument right when she had tried; her parents consoled her, but that had limited effect.
She sulked and moped throughout the day, until she was distracted out of doing that by a loud commotion at the sect’s gates.
Curious, she peeked her head past her courtyard’s gates, as did her parents. With the vaguely circular, crowded-together way the ramshackle sectgrounds were set up, she couldn’t see anything amiss, aside from the throngs of people rushing all in one direction. Soon after, her parents began to lead her through the paths and crowd towards the source of the sound, whereupon they all paused.
It looked like nearly everyone in the sect was crammed up against the front gate — whatever was going on, it at least wasn’t dangerous, else everyone would be running away from instead of at it. Zhao Yi noticed straightaway that, strangely, in spite of their high numbers, the crowd was mostly quietly, simply watching something attentively.
All these people were packed much too tightly for her to see past, so she asked her mother if they could jump onto the gates to see, like the more physically-inclined had already done. Zhao Mao hesitated a bit, then agreed, picking her up and leaping upwards while Ji Wei decided to ask around in the crowd about what exactly had happened.
Upon landing on top of the wall of the sect’s outermost gate, her mother set her down, and the pair peered downwards.
Several Elders were a small ways away from the sect’s entrance, and seemed to be blocking the road to it, holding what Zhao Yi recognized as anti-yang lanterns; those were used to absorb the yang-charged qi off of corpses, in order to dull their senses and make them more docile. Facing off against them was a lone individual, which she could tell at a glance was a wild revenant.
Revenants without owners tended to look bedraggled, uneven in movements, and withered, obvious results of having no one to take care of them. This one was no exception; their clothes looked like they had once been nice, but were now in tatters, their gait switched between lurching and being much too steady, and she could recognize the aura of dense yin qi surrounding them that signaled the nearing deactivation of a revenant.
Just as yang qi was associated with life and activity, yin qi was associated with death and dormancy. Living creatures produced their own yang-charged qi, and once they died, the yang qi slowly turned to stagnant yin qi, confirming the ends of their lives — which, in turn, made revenants an oxymoron of dead creatures made to move, a direct violation of yin’s principle of inactivity. Such a loophole had been discovered long ago by artificially shifting a significant amount of yang qi into a corpse, thus prompting it to ‘come alive’ again, but the yin qi these corpses held would forever drag down the yang qi, eventually using it up. To keep any revenant going, it needed to feed semi-regularly on yang qi from an outside source, which could either be from a voluntary donation from a living creature, or from them basking in an area particularly rich in ambient yang qi.
Of course, without an owner to keep tabs on and feed them, the revenants would begin to seek out their own food, making those voluntary donations quite involuntary.
This was odd, though… revenants never went for active settlements of cultivators, since their power was always a deterrent to the undead. They preferred to go for weaker settlements of non-cultivators. Why was one actively approaching them?
It couldn’t be that the revenant belonged to someone here, as that someone would have said something already. Furthermore, all of their revenants wore the bland, light gray uniforms of the sect, while this one was wearing something brown and distinctly ornate. As the stranger practically limped forwards — their strangely stiff hair and clothes twirling around them— Zhao Yi glimpsed something jolting from where it was slung on their back.
She narrowed her eyes at the strange object. It couldn’t be a sword, because it was too thin. It also appeared to have an even thinner part next to its already-thin ‘neck’. With another jolt, she caught sight of two wing-like protrusions as the angle of the object changed, as well as a dragon-like head…
Oh. That was a shape she could never mistake, since she played that instrument a lot.
Locking her eyes onto the erhu on the stranger’s back, she gently tapped her mother. “Mom, I think that’s the erhu-player.”
There was a pause, and then she heard Zhao Mao’s voice coming from behind her. “How do you know?”
“I… I don’t, but they have an erhu. And I tried talking to the erhu player last night, but they stopped playing, and now this one showed up…”
“You tried to talk to it?”
Uh-oh. She knew that tone of voice anywhere. Like her life depended on it, she did not turn around to see the look on her mother’s face. “I-I didn’t know it would work, honest! I think the revenant might be looking for me!”
Zhao Mao gently, yet firmly, turned her around by the shoulder. The look in her eyes couldn’t be said to be pleased, but it also wasn’t really angry. “What did you say to it, exactly?”
“Um… I asked it who it is and what it wanted, and that I could help it. Is that why it came? Because it wants help?”
The woman shook her head. “It could have simply been because you spoke to it at all.”
They watched as the revenant kept coming forwards, seemingly ignoring the anti-yang lanterns. The Elders down there were clearly getting nervous. Despite this revenant not appearing to be hostile, no one liked a random dead body walking around where living people were trying to live, not even necromancers like them. There were also untold amounts of variables involved whenever it came to strangers, to say nothing of undead ones.
So, understandably, the revenant was not welcome here, until they knew what it wanted.
Zhao Yi was worried; what if this really was the erhu player, and the Elders cut them down thoughtlessly? Then she would never know the truth behind that eternal song!
What was she to do, then? Be obedient and wait for her elders to handle things?
No. She had to make sure.
All at once, she shot up from her crouching position, cupped her hands around her mouth, and shouted. “I’m over here!”
The revenant slowly turned their head towards her — a good sign. If it didn’t care about her, it would have ignored her, and if it was just hungry, it would have gone for the more numerous people up ahead as opposed to her.
Then, the creature changed direction, going from heading towards the entrance to heading towards the section of wall where Zhao Yi was. The Elders with the lanterns looked over to the same spot.
“Yi’r!” Zhao Mao reproached, grabbing her by the shoulders. “Did you enter an oath with it?!”
Zhao Yi jumped at the touch from behind, feeling wronged as she looked back at her. “I don’t even know how to do that!”
Her mother narrowed her eyes. “…If you don’t know, it’s not like you would be able to guess the entire ritual,” she muttered, scowling as she looked back towards the approaching corpse. Presumably, she was gauging how much of a threat it was.
“Maybe it needs help? That’s why it came so quickly? If it’s responding to me, I can help, mom.”
The woman seemed to seriously ponder things. “I’ll go with you, of course,” she decided. “If anything goes wrong, I’ll protect you.”
Zhao Yi nodded, eyes turning back to the approaching corpse. Judging from how slow it was moving, it was probably getting low on yang qi. Hungry revenants were never good news.
In the next moment, Zhao Mao picked her up, jumped off the wall, then cautiously came near the lumbering erhu owner. She never put her daughter back down, likely ill at ease towards the prospect of letting her very young daughter get close to a potential danger, and wanting to be able to bolt at a second’s notice. Even slow revenants could get bursts of excited adrenaline at the sight of food.
When they got within a few zhang, the revenant stopped in tracks, as did they. Its head had never wilted while it stared at them — or, Zhao Yi alone, rather. Now that she was close enough, the girl noticed that the weird stiffness of the corpse’s hair and clothes was because they were frozen.
Her heart thumped. There was basically no point in asking anymore, but… “Did you come because you heard me?”
The revenant stared for a bit, then nodded with painful slowness. Actually, as it did so, Zhao Yi could swear that she could hear the faint noise of ice cracking in the wake of the movements. Up behind the revenant, the Elders were cautiously following after to keep a hold on the situation.
With that confirmation had, Zhao Mao tentatively put Zhao Yi down, but still kept a protective hand on her shoulder. “Ask it where it came from and why it’s here,” she told her.
Ah, right. Revenants had a tendency to not listen to anyone but their person of choice. “Why did you leave the mountain?” she questioned the revenant.
The revenant frowned. Its lips parted and closed several times, but no sound came out for a time. Eventually, its throat let out a sound that was akin to groaning metal, like a rusted mechanical clock being forced to move after decades of disuse. Following a good deal of incomplete attempts, it abruptly gave up, reaching up a jerky hand to feel at its own throat.
“It’s too frozen to speak,” Zhao Yi dismayed. Everice frost wasn’t easy to melt, either, considering ‘never melting’ was its main drawing point.
“There’s no one in the sect with a primary fire root, either,” Zhao Mao answered, “and no ownerless revenants are allowed to enter.”
The Elders opposite them remained quiet, offering no objection.
“What do we do, then?” Zhao Yi whispered, looking up at her mother.
Zhao Mao looked back at her for a moment, then at the revenant for a moment, then at the Elders. “There isn’t anything to do,” she answered with a shake of her head. “It’ll have to wait outside the sect.”
Zhao Yi was wholly unhappy with this, as the woods outside of their sect were filled with yao; who knew if one would come get the erhu player? Then, the mystery would forever be a mystery! “But—“
“No buts, Yi’r. These are the rules.”
Her words getting choked back into her chest, Zhao Yi fumed silently. Rules, schmules! Couldn’t they make an exception for extenuating circumstances?!
“Should I… should I make an oath with it, to get it to listen?”
“You are not to make oaths with strangers. Not until we know what it wants, at least. The Elders have ways to detain stray revenants.”
Zhao Yi glanced at said Elders; they were currently in the middle of taking out talismans and… rope? Why did they have that actively on them?
“Don’t worry, Yi’r.” Zhao Mao pat her on the head. “They won’t hurt it. We just need to wait until the ice melts, or if someone comes along that can melt it.”
“…We’re waiting for the never-melting ice to melt?”
Why did adults not ever make sense?
And then, the docile, erhu-playing revenant was bound with both enchanted rope and a haphazardly-made array, bringing Zhao Yi’s quest for answers to a temporary pause, until her savior randomly strode into town just in time.