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Luckily for Chu Ran, they were left mercifully alone by the Blue Orchid Sect for the next two days. This was apparently a worldly paradise scenario for him, allowing him to catch up on his much-needed diva rest that he so claimed was desperately needed.
However, right after those two days came something the man himself had plotted for in advance: the trek to the ruined carriage, as headed by Han Xingyu.
Zhu Li, Chu Ran, and Xin Junyan were watching the horses be readied. The destination was only a four-shichen round trip out, meaning that heavy luggage was unnecessary. The troupe they were bringing was sizable on account of Chu Ran ordering all of the Xin Sect members to come along. According to him, they were great ‘scent hounds’, and their developed qi sense — essentially a constant and advanced version of qi dowsing, as Zhu Li had come to understand — might be able to find something that Han Xingyu hadn’t been able to.
Those very members were doing all of the hard labor, naturally. Chu Ran would not suffer himself, his guest-slash-charge-slash-friend, or his favorite sectmate doing anything of the sort when he could make people he didn’t like do it instead.
It was easy to believe that Chu Ran was a lazy, spoiled, good-for-nothing spendthrift with all of the money he wasted and work he foisted off on others, were one an outsider. Zhu Li knew very well that this was only half-true; the behavior was not fueled by any typical hedonistic desires that the nauseatingly privileged and poorly-bred would have, like greed or lust or some sort of impulse control deficiency, but rather a pure desire to screw with people he didn’t like, no matter how petty the act was.
A furnace of hate, fueled by free-flowing spite in lieu of traditional kindling, heating up a frigid winter with its ill portent. Chu Ran’s anger was not of the explosive sort. It was cold, precise, disdainful, and palpable whenever it manifested around him, polluting his aura.
Right now, for example, Zhu Li didn’t need any fancy emotion-sensing nonsense to tell that Chu Ran was in a poor mood. He was not wearing his habitual smile, sitting with one leg crossed over the other atop a bench, and doing his equivalent of staring off into space: turning off his ears and not paying attention to anything.
All of them were in borrowed and matching pale blue clothes from the Blue Orchid Sect. Nearly every sect in existence had an obsession with color-matching uniforms, so they had been given these form-fitting working clothes to portray that they were all the same group. No frippery, no long sleeves, no long robes, no fancy headpieces or pins. If they were going hiking down to a mountain valley lake, that was no place for anything nice.
To be painfully honest, Zhu Li wasn’t even sure why he was coming along. If it really was Xin Yinhui’s carriage, then that had very little to do with him.
And yet, here he was, on request of Chu Ran, to act as his emotional support doctor. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
Speaking of which…
He nudged Chu Ran slightly with an elbow, startling the man out of his reverie. “You feeling okay?” he questioned, watching his expression.
“Oh. Yes. Relatively,” Chu Ran answered absently, then went right back to actually being absent. Hm.
Well, if he wanted to talk about what was clearly bothering him, he would on his own initiative.
“Don’t mind him,” Xin Junyan suddenly said, eyes still trained ahead. “This could be a huge day for the Xin sect, or could be nothing at all.”
Right. That made sense.
When all the horses were geared up, supplies were packed, and the miscellaneous things were in order, everyone mounted their steeds and headed out.
They didn’t take the same road out as Zhu Li’s group had taken coming in, the mountainous, forested terrain unfamiliar. On the highest peaks above, white frost was gathered, a portent of the encroaching winter.
A constant downward slope was bringing them lower and lower. Not long into their journey, Han Xingyu sidled up to Zhu Li’s left. “Oi, Jasmine, I heard the mystery of Ru Yeying was solved. Your mother was quite a firecracker, you know? Want to hear about the shenanigans she got up to?”
“Not really,” he answered flatly.
“Well, there was this one time with a known thief gang that also happened to be cultivators. You see, they exclusively stole from the very rich and would give some of their winnings to the poor, which is why the Dao didn’t backlash against them—“
“I didn’t know that you didn’t know what ‘not really’ means.”
“‘Not really’ isn’t a ‘no’, Doctor Jasmine. Now, the Three Spirits were hired by some nobles to stop these thieves, because no one else in jianghu was interested, and they were really noisy. Some even tried to use blackmail on some jianghu folk, which didn’t exactly endear them to anyone, hm.”
“How do you know this, if you weren’t there?”
“Wenkang told me about it later, how else? So, the Three Spirits agreed to take up the task, but you know your mother; she can’t stand people telling her what to do or threatening her. Instead of doing anything about the thieves, she decided to dig up dirt on all the rich people threatening her — rich people always have dirt on them, kid, not a single one of them doesn’t — the results of which got their money, influence, power, and sometimes lives stripped away. No mercy from her. Not that her ‘victims’ didn’t deserve that, really, since her exposing them made them stop doing terrible things.”
“You make her sound like a hero.”
“She was, in the view of the general populace. My brother-in-law doesn’t like her, and I never knew her personally. I was fourteen, they were eight or so years older than me, no one wants to babysit when they’re off playing saviors of the people. Still, I would always hear of the Three Spirits’ good and less-good deeds, since my sister was involved, and I can tell you that they never did anything bad. If they were described as vicious, it was because people didn’t understand them, something that’s pretty obvious to me after so many years.
“Wenkang was the least censured, since she represented the most common jianghu values there are; harm not the innocent, destroy the evil. ‘Ru Yeying’ was more censured due to the poison stuff, but people appreciated her medicines. The most feared of them was Xin Yinhui, I would say.”
Zhu Li caught Chu Ran turning to face them out of his peripheral. “Why so?” he prodded.
“The Xin Sect is old, if small. I don’t remember exactly, but she joined it after something really bad happened to her eyes when she was little, and that red blindfold was representative of the blood they shed when they lost her sight. I think.”
“That’s correct,” Chu Ran supplied. “They were gouged out by her older husband when she refused to sleep with him, because she was twelve and he was twenty-eight. My predecessors found her, gouged her husband’s eyes out, and threw his body into a ditch somewhere.”
Uncomfortable silence fell squarely between everyone that had heard that.
“I never met Ru Yeying personally, but I did meet Xin Yinhui once,” Han Xingyu said, rubbing her forehead. “Now that I think about it, that gave me deja vu. I swear she said something similar to, ‘My husband gouged my eyes out, so I had his gouged out, too.’ And then she said something about how she once literally scared someone to death. No filter on that one.”
Yeah, no kidding.
“Anyways… she slunk around in the shadows, dealing with people that way. She didn’t have the commonality of Wenkang or the obvious usefulness of Ru Yeying, and people tend to be ignorant of how the blind live. They didn’t call her the Dread Spirit because she wasn’t feared in some capacity.
“I’m telling you all of this because the Three Spirits were never bad people. Ruthless, sure. Liable to cut people into blood chunks, sure. But never bad. Then again, I didn’t know her in person… Zhuizhun can be harsh, I know that much. What he said isn’t known to me exactly, just an overview of what he told me, which included something about accidentally insulting your mother for an hour straight.”
“…It was an honest mistake. He didn’t know.”
“Look at you, what a saint. You don’t mind if people trash-talk your mother?”
“I do mind. There’s just no point in getting angry about it.”
They went silent once more.
“You know…” Han Xingyu started again, “when she was the Drug Spirit, your mom was technically a traveling doctor, just like you.”
Zhu Li side-eyed her, but she was looking ahead, not at him.
“They traveled all over Jin, having every kind of adventure. I think, if circumstances had never changed on her end, she would have been proud of your chosen path in life. It’s hard to imagine why she would give it all up to run back home and cut off all contact. Something had to have scared her off… but Masked Wasp didn’t show up in jianghu until around twenty-nine years ago, and didn’t get any power until a decade later, so I’m not sure who it could be… even though he might have been strong before showing up, I know he wasn’t of age yet…”
She proceeded to mumble to herself, the implications of which sunk into Zhu Li’s mind. Perhaps Han Xingyu had done that on purpose.
If Masked Wasp hadn’t been of age yet thirty-ish years ago, then he had been sub-twenty. His mother had sodded off a decade before that, so Masked Wasp would have been nine — even though he was responsible for Han Wenkang’s death, he couldn’t have been what scared off Zhu Longmai all that time ago. Was he acting on someone else’s whims?
He mentally handwaved the thought away. Answers would come, eventually,
Gradually, the road they were taking turned into less of a wide path imprinted by feet and hooves over decades, and more of an overgrown, narrow one lined thick with trees. Only one carriage at a time could have passed precariously through this place, with even their train of horses going single-file, just in case.
When the tree line broke, a steep slope down into the valley below was exposed up ahead, the sight of which made a chill creep across Zhu Li’s skin.
A lake was at the bottom of the valley, half-dried up, its previous shore a zhang or so above the surface. Rings of silt marked where the water had receded or dried away before, the remaining water a green and uninviting murkiness. A rivulet on one end trickled the water very slowly away, while another on the other end had dried clean up, leaving only cracked earth and parched rocks behind.
There, in the near-middle of the lake, was the unmistakable form of a carriage, its wheels lodged into some rocks that elevated it enough off of the bottom.
Something was inherently wrong with seeing an object where it really didn’t belong, or in a state of disrepair that it shouldn’t be. This wasn’t the first time he had felt this, this sense of foreboding crawling on his back — similar had happened when he had traveled in winter, and seen another carriage parked by the roadside, covered in more snow than it should have been, similar in state to the silhouettes of human bodies covered fully by the falling flakes.
As they approached, the state of the carriage became apparent. Its wood was water-logged and darkened, grown thick with algae and other detritus. While its walls had held up well, its two axes had snapped in half at some point, causing it to sag away from its lodged wheels, the non-sagged wheels propping it up at an off angle. It had clearly been submerged for quite some time.
Everyone got off their horses once they were at the driest edge of the ‘new’ shore; past this was mud, which was no good for the horses. Rather than wade through the water like a bunch of schmucks, a select few of the disciples Han Xingyu had brought along leapt from rock to rock until they arrived at the carriage’s side, then began to poke around. Meanwhile, Chu Ran ordered the Xin sect members to scout the surrounding area.
Zhu Li scanned the water warily. He didn’t see anything other than rocks sticking out. “Miss Han, what happened to this lake?”
“A landslide, couple years back. It diverted the river flow and blocked this road, which used to be an alternate for the main one into Beishan,” she answered, gearing herself up. “Xin Yinhui took it regularly. I searched all along it before, myself, when Wenkang first asked me. Several times, even. The lake never really crossed my mind, and I can’t breathe underwater, anyways. No one comes down here anymore after the landslide, there’s nothing of value, so I never heard anything about the carriage until I went down here on a whim.”
He nodded, observing the people poking at the carriage’s remains. One suddenly dove into the carriage’s interior; they must have noticed something going on.
“A splash? Did something happen over there?”
Chu Ran’s voice drew Zhu Li’s notice. Blindfoldless, the other’s blank and unfocused eyes were prominently displayed in the sunlight. Where the heck was Xin Junyan? Wasn’t she supposed to narrate things for him, like he said?
“Junyan is off with the other Xin members. We are far from children that need our hands held, but color and bits of paper with writing on them are still elusive, hm,” the other answered. “I think I’ll be going over there. Just to examine it for myself.”
“Do you need help?” Zhu Li asked.
Chu Ran shook his head, then jumped off to the first rock. He leapt across them without any sort of trouble.
“How does that guy get around? Is he actually blind?” Han Xingyu commented. It earned her a glare from him.
“He can sense surfaces around him. It’s some form of qi dowsing. Don’t be rude,” he chided.
She eyed him back warily. “Why do you sound so much like my dad?”
He was going to ignore that.
Chu Ran was seen to stand there silently at the disciples’ sides for a moment, after which he pointed at something in the water. One of them jumped in at his direction.
Eventually, the disciple came back up and passed something to Chu Ran, after which they all quickly jumped back over the rocks, bearing a small trunk of some sort. Chu Ran returned, repeatedly rubbing his thumb over something he held before himself.
While the disciples worked on cracking the trunk open, Zhu Li came over to Chu Ran’s side. “What did you find?”
The other didn’t answer for a few moments, only continuing to feel at the unknown object, until he appeared to gather his thoughts. “My teacher had these two horses that she loved. They would always be the ones to pull her carriage or go with her on expeditions.”
He paused there.
“They were hard for her to tell apart. Same breed, similar personalities. So, she made these large clay beads of unique shape, one ridged and one grooved, and put them around their necks in the form of a necklace,” he explained, thusly reaching out his hand to reveal what he held.
A large, beige, glazed clay bead, with grooves.
“There were no bones. Who knows what happened to the horses. Nothing good at all, likely,” Chu Ran spoke in muted tones, slowly taking his hand back to hold the bead against his chest. His head bowed, hiding his expression away. “What they will find in that trunk may very well be useless. The tactile paper and unfired clay tablets we use would have long been rendered mush.
“Besides, I… feel as though I already have confirmation. How many beads like this are in use out there, really?”
Unsure of what to say to that, Zhu Li placed his hand upon Chu Ran’s shoulder.
It was hours later that news came from the Xin Sect’s side. They had found something, buried beneath the dirt.
Shovels had been brought for exactly this purpose.
“Miss Han,” Zhu Li suddenly said, while they were all heading to the location. “Is this the area you marked on that map?”
Han Xingyu smiled. “I marked it as suspicious. The vegetation in this area is sparse, except for one inexplicable spot, and we all know what makes the best fertilizer. My problem was that my qi dowsing isn’t great, I would have no way to identify anything, and I didn’t want to ruin any evidence.”
“So, you wanted Yingliu to come here from the start.”
“Why didn’t you just say that, instead of slipping me a map and hoping I’d understand?”
She peered at Chu Ran out of the corner of her eye, all for a fleeting moment. “Your friend scares me.”
“…” My ‘friend’ is walking right next to you, and he’s half your age. Have some self-respect.
They arrived at a mini-precipice, a dip in the rocks, where a conspicuous mound of dirt was at the bottom. People were already digging away at the loose soil, dirt marring their light uniforms. The Xin Sect was standing a good few zhang away, spectating with their ears.
Chu Ran’s voice floated over, causing Zhu Li’s brow to automatically rise. No ‘Doctor’ nonsense this time?
“I turned my qi sense off. Could you inform me of when they’re done digging?”
Zhu Li nodded, somewhat confused. He wasn’t going to push.
Time passed by slowly, the atmosphere too heavy for anyone to make smalltalk in — even Han Xingyu had quieted down, electing to sit in silent supervision. The sun passed across the sky, bringing and taking heat along with it. Disciples busily dug away with Xin Sect supervision, careful not to damage their target, and gradually exchanged their shovels and spades for brushes, and gradually began to dwindle in number as less and less were required for the remaining work.
From this angle, Zhu Li saw no body — no corpse, no flesh, no bones. What he did see was an unremarkable, black, yet unmistakably human-sized wooden box.
At long last, the final disciple stepped away from the hole. Zhu Li gently grabbed Chu Ran’s elbow to let him know.
“Thank you, Doctor. Please stay up here for now,” the other told him. He sounded unnervingly hollow and emotionless, like he had voided himself of all feelings in preparation.
Obeying him, he watched as Chu Ran jumped down, walked up to the hole in the ground, and crouched beside it; with his back to Zhu Li, the latter could no longer tell much of what he was doing, though he did see the opening of the box’s lid. As it was propped against the side of the fairly deep hole, it only served to further block his view of the inside.
Chu Ran’s arms were seen to very slowly, very meticulously feel around inside of the box. Then, he abruptly shot up into a stand, back impossibly ramrod straight as he faced dead ahead, not a sound coming from him.
Before Zhu Li had the time to call out and ask what was wrong, he heard something.
It started off low, deep, and quiet, more like a hum than anything else, but it grew in pitch and volume, stopping and starting at odd, haphazard intervals. A few seconds passed, and only then did Zhu Li realize that the noise was supposed to be a laugh.
The troubling noise lacked proper cadence, lacked mirth, lacked anything other than a madness echoing in vacant air. It was ugly to hear, and grating to witness Chu Ran’s form convulsing horribly with the effort of his rattling howls.
From mad laughter, to eerie titters, to loud chortling, and back to faint twittering — the laughter bounced in intensity and tone faster than should be physically possible. Gradually, it died down into trifling giggles, and then stopped completely.
No one attempted to say anything, quite glaringly put off by the bizarre performance. The Blue Orchid Sect disciples were hanging back out of terror, spiting the truth that there was no actual danger here.
He raised one of his hanging arms up, angling it so that one finger pointed at the unknown interior of the box.
“Junyan,” he uttered, the notes drawn-out and sing-song. “Come here.”
She hesitated for a second, but approached the box, coming to stand beside it. With her fingers laced over her abdomen, she bowed her head to peer inside, expression blank and unreadable.
“Doctor Zhu,” came the voice again, from the man that had not relaxed his pose any. Chu Ran slowly turned his head so that his profile was visible to Zhu Li, that unassuming face marred with a cold yet manic grin. “You have surely never met before. Come, come here. Come and meet my teacher, Xin Yinhui.”
The author says: Pitiful, the blind bird is, for all of his mother figures have come to be murdered, through no fault of his own.
4 thoughts on “SnCr 28”
I have my suspicions about who the Masked Wasp is, or is it too soon to speculate. I probably shouldn’t speculate.
That laugh. Chu Ran is certainly in need of some happiness. He strikes me as a lonely fellow.
Thank you for the added chapter. So sad. I too hope Chu Ran is going to be okay. Thankfully Zhu Li is there.
Oh Chu Ran…
An unmarked grave and whatever is necessary to keep the soul from rising.
And this the very least of the answers being sought.
(Thank you for the update, I always enjoy reading this story)
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Thank you for this update – I liked reading it, even though it was a somber one.
I hope Chu Ran is going to be ok…
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