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As interesting as it was to say, the time spent waiting for the Dong-Yin conference was passing in swift peace.
This break in drama should have been comforting to him, but it wasn’t. He felt like something was happening behind the scenes that none of them could possibly know of or do anything about, which spoke similarly to what all he could do concerning the feeling.
He continued to train Chu Mei in predominantly reaction time and nerves, while also training himself in qi sense under Chu Ran’s dictation. It wasn’t exactly going smoothly, unfortunately; some of the things the Void Records spoke of were unrelatable to him, or just made no sense at all. Chu Ran’s explanations only vaguely helped him comprehend what it was to ‘reach into the fabric of existence’, ‘feel the sound of the Dao’, and ‘hear life’s breath’.
Sometimes, he got the feeling that everyone’s ancestors had collectively decided to play a joke on their descendants by making things as difficult to understand as possible.
Eventually, there came a day where he managed to grasp just enough of it to start getting what the skill was. His attempts at blindfolding himself and navigating the world with it were still unsuccessful, resulting in many inelegant running-intos of anything and everything around him, but he at least understood the foundation of the skill.
Qi sense had a very grotesque and jarring feeling to it. To utilize it, qi had to be forcefully sent out from every area on the body in a constant flow, yet had to remain connected, creating ‘tendrils’ that passed through objects. Qi, by its very nature, was used to going with natural flow and breaking free; it could be controlled or called back to oneself about as effectively as a spear that had already left one’s hand could be.
In layman’s terms, making it do anything in an orderly manner once it was out of one’s body — like stay put for a length of time, or form a specific shape — was exceptionally difficult, a talent primarily reserved for the extinct gods and exceedingly rare zhenren, neither of which Zhu Li was.
That wasn’t even getting into the giant headsplitter that was the ‘sense’ itself. Nothing about the process was easily explainable, but if Zhu Li really had to describe it in a way that a ten-year-old could understand, it would be: Qi goes out on a trip, then comes back and tells you all that it had seen while it was out.
And it wouldn’t shut up.
The sensation of qi coming back into him from the ‘tendrils’ was unpleasant by itself. While he wasn’t quite sure how he had expected qi sense to work, it certainly hadn’t been feeling wood grain grind against the inside of his flesh when it shouldn’t be. Yuck.
Even though it was his own qi acting on his own instructions, he felt violated on a physical, spiritual, and psychological level.
“This is the most disorienting thing I’ve ever done,” he told Chu Ran flatly, sweat dripping from his brow. The two of them were in Chu Ran’s room, with Zhu Li seated on the floor; he had never before imagined that sensing the veins of all these flowers would be so gross to feel.
“It is indeed something that needs getting used to,” Chu Ran said, idly fanning himself nearby. “Eventually, you will be able to tune it out, much like how one tunes out background noise.”
“And how long would that take to do?”
Chu Ran grinned. “Years.”
This caused Zhu Li to shoot him a look. “We don’t have years, here.”
“Yes, yes, I know. But you do grasp the basics, yes? Do you believe that Chu Mei could learn it? Are there any side effects from learning it with working vision?”
“My vision is kind of blurry, but I’m not sure if it’s because of the technique, or the sensory overload making me sick.”
Chu Ran made a hum of displeasure. “Well, that isn’t too conclusive, is it? I suppose we shall just have to keep at it. If it’s bad for you, it would be worse for a little girl, I can assure you. Though I did learn it in chunks as opposed to all at once, like you.”
Zhu Li paused for a second, then turned bodily around to glare at him harshly. “And you didn’t think to tell me that before this?”
With an innocent blink, Chu Ran gave the matter-of-fact answer of, “You’re not a tiny-bodied child, and it’s better to learn more quickly than slowly, isn’t it?”
Was that his excuse? What a jerk.
Regardless, he did continue to work at it through the following days, eventually managing to keep it from covering little more than small sections of his body at the time. It still wasn’t fun, but at least the not-fun-ness was localized to just his hands.
Beyond that, once the sensation had become more manageable, he noticed that his qi was quite literally ‘telling’ him where things were in some sort of psychical way he couldn’t understand very well. Much like how eyes just worked without anyone questioning why or how they did, the qi sense seemed to just work like this without him explicitly instructing it to do so.
There was probably some science behind it. Unfortunately, this was far from Zhu Li’s area of expertise, Chu Ran would only give him shrugs, and the Void Records were about as useful as a pile of seed shells when it came to explaining why qi sense just did this.
Therefore, to sum things up: Zhu Li had learned qi dowsing’s more troublesome cousin. Nothing about it made any sense. Feeling textures crawling under the surface of his skin was terrible. How the fresh hell Chu Ran endured this every second of every day, he had no idea.
In any case, the results of him learning qi sense were conclusive. Sight didn’t get in the way of qi sense, it was merely that qi sense was more or less redundant if one had sight; Chu Mei was all set to learn from the Void Records.
Zhu Li was also almost set to check out what Chu Ran had told him to. With just a few more weeks of practice, he would be confident enough for them.
But first, a letter.
One that came from Zhu Wuji, his eldest sister, actually.
In her typical fashion, her letter was short and to the point: their mother had officially been ousted from her position and relegated to that of an advising elder of no saying power. Zhu Wuji and Zhu Junhe had ended up agreeing to take the Sect Head position jointly, and one of their first acts was to open up the sect’s prohibition.
There was also a slightly urgent-sounding piece requesting that he come home as soon as possible. Zhu Wuji took careful note to mention that while the entire family wanted him back, the person who especially requested his return was their mother.
His brows had furrowed at that part. Letters never could contain too much detailed information out of fear that they could be intercepted by eyes they were not meant for, so he couldn’t exactly fathom why she would ask for him now, of all times.
Uncertainty clenched at his gut.
To say that he didn’t miss his family terribly would be a lie, but… what was the meaning of this? Did he even want to go back right now? Was it a good time?
His complicated feelings caused him to express his doubts verbally to Chu Ran.
The man hummed after hearing the letter dictated to him, seated across from him in his usual spot at his diagnosing desk. “You are free to feel how you feel, Doctor, and I cannot comment on that. However… well, I would just like to point out that your mother is the only surviving member of the Three Spirits. She very likely has more information that we will not be able to find out otherwise.”
Zhu Li frowned, putting a hand to his head. “You’re… right. I forgot.”
He’d been so caught up in the ramifications of being summoned by his mother, that he had forgotten that she might actually be of use in the case.
Chu Ran waved the statement off flippantly. “Shall we schedule this trip to the Miasma Caves, then? Any time after the Dong-Yin meeting will be just fine. Oh, and I must come with you, of course. So must a convoy, but we can leave them at the base of a mountain if need be. Junyan may even want to go, though Mei’r will be sorely displeased with being left behind yet again… she has been rather grumpy lately, so perhaps I will leave her here, too…”
Allowing him to grumble what he may, Zhu Li looked down at the letter paper again.
What was Zhu Longmai thinking? Five and a third years later, and now she was wanting to see him all of a sudden?
Why the lack of contact before? Why the negative reactions towards wanting to go outside? Why was she so isolationist, when even her predecessors hadn’t been so?
What was she so afraid of?
Zhu Li’s eyes widened suddenly at the train of thought.
Afraid? His mother, afraid of something? The thought was almost absurd.
He thought back to how she had shut down, blown up at, and/or punished anyone and everyone that had suggested going outside. It hadn’t just been him, his sisters, or his family, either; he recalled horror stories of people attempting to sneak out, only to be dragged back and punished for trying.
He also thought back to the story Ren Zhuizhun had told him, about how she had just up and left without explanation one night, confusing those she had left behind. However… if she had been fleeing from something or someone, that would make more sense.
“I’ll send a letter back,” he told Chu Ran, getting out his writing supplies.
His own letter was short and to-the-point, confirming that they would be coming around two months from then, perhaps earlier.
In the blink of an eye, the end of the fourth month came, and so did its usual events: The Lotus’s flare-up, followed by Du Lin’s appearance.
For whatever reason, his pain tolerance was exceptionally low today, and his fatigue from a busy day of work was especially bad. He had even refused Chu Ran’s company tonight; he wanted to see if any of the typically painkillers he had would work against it.
The lack of distraction from his pain coupled with the lack of success in his tests put him in a foul mood. Was he really going to have to endure this eight more times? Maybe he should ask Chu Ran to just knock him out cold so that he could sleep through it at night.
When he heard the telltale sound of the side door opening, he disengaged from his thoughts, went outside, and saw Du Lin limp through it, lantern in hand, then kneel in her usual spot.
Pushing aside the phantom pains shooting across his skin, he chose to look at the side door surreptitiously.
On the same subject as unknown dangers, Chu Ran had warned him to never go into the Chu Estate at night. If that was the case… why was Du Lin doing it? In multiple instances, even?
He cautiously stepped over to her, taking a seat beside her on the grass. “Madam Du?” he asked quietly.
She slowly lifted her head and turned it towards him, the actions reminding him of those belonging to someone that was reluctant to move.
“Hello, young man,” she uttered back. Her voice was whispery, almost fragile tonight.
Those dark eyes of hers were illuminated by her lantern, yet they did not shine, absorbing all light. He could almost describe them as looking straight through him, even.
It would be best not to mince words.
“Yingliu told me to never pass through the Chu Estate at night,” he started, studying her aged face for any changes. “Why do you?”
Her lips curved up into a cold smile that did not reach her eyes. “He’s trying to protect you, while there is nothing left about me that needs protection.”
He furrowed his brows. “Protect me from what?”
She looked him in the eyes for an uncomfortably long moment. Then, her smile faded, and she turned frontways to bow her head politely again.
Many more moments stretched on. Right when he had just about given up on getting an answer, she whispered under her breath, almost inaudibly.
The sounds? The sounds of what?
He received no time or need to prompt her, as she went ahead on her own.
“He is protecting you from the sounds… and that smell. And those fingers tracing up and down your limbs, your skin, every bit of you.”
Du Lin looked back up, her expression much sharper. “Listen to Ah-Ran. Night weakens the arrays that keep the Estate pleasant. Its true colors are not ones that you want to see.”
“But what sounds? What smell? What do you mean by fingers?” he pressed. He had to know something more than just another ‘stay away’ message, this time.
All of a sudden, she moved quickly to grab onto his wrist, her gnarled digits snapping closed in a loop around it. She didn’t pull him, but her eyes were wide and wild as she looked into his, a madness having crawled into them in a mere instant.
“Those sounds are not screams of murdered souls, they are muffled moans of agony from the near-dead. That stench defies description, every noxious fume concentrated into one! The fingers belong to them as they grasp for solace they will never receive, unaware of what they’re doing — have you not heard the grinding, young man? It must be done in intervals! Your eyes will perceive nothing while the rest of you perceives everything, never to forget it!”
Her mad shouting had caught him off guard. He stared back at her, frowning in thought while she prattled on, up until a third person’s arms reached between him and pulled Du Lin’s hand off of him.
“Madam Du, we mustn’t antagonize our guest,” Chu Ran’s breezy voice cut in. Du Lin’s offending arm was held back firmly, though not roughly, in his grasp. He stood while they both sat, barely discernible in the darkness.
He released her soon enough, then crouched to offer her the usual bundles. She accepted it without another word, stood to bow, and left to whence she came.
Zhu Li stood up and stared at her back. Her outburst had not enlightened him to much of anything, making this mission a failure.
“Are you quite alright, Doctor? A bit shaken, perhaps?” Chu Ran asked, voice even. “Was she telling you about what goes on the Estate at night?”
Zhu Li looked up at the other man’s shadow in the darkness. “Something like that. The Chu Estate’s arrays are weaker at night?”
Chu Ran was quiet for just a few seconds. “Yes, it is. Yang qi hides away at night. The arrays keep sounds in, until they lose qi and no longer do their job. You must have heard something off coming from the Estate at night, yes?”
That low, metallic sound he couldn’t quite identify? Yes. It freaked him out every time to hear, so he nodded.
“You will only hear that in the Pavilion and other guest courtyards. They are a part of the Estate’s sphere on a technicality; outside its bounds, it is total silence. The outermost arrays set up around it prevent all noise from getting through. After all, if they were to be heard by the right ears, the walls around here would all come down in prompt order.”
“So what makes the noise?”
In lieu of an answer, Chu Ran shook his head. “I’m afraid that you will regret knowing, Doctor.”
Zhu Li stared at his silhouette for a few seconds. Irritation that had budded from the Lotus’s pain slowly bubbled up within him, then boiled over all at once, causing him to snap out, “What is your problem?”
With Du Lin’s lantern having been taken away, there was too little light in the courtyard to illuminate Chu Ran much. They were both immersed in just a dim light. Even so, he didn’t need sight to hear the shocked tone in Chu Ran’s voice when he answered. “What… do you mean, Doctor? Where did this come from? Why are you upset?”
Zhu Li narrowed his eyes at the question, an uglier part of him wanting to say that he shouldn’t have to explain why all of this secrecy annoyed him.
He was also tired from being awoken, then subsequently having to endure the Lotus’s nonsense. Those two factors were definitely not helping his low mood.
“You’re inconsistent,” he said, tone as blunt as a club, his scowl harsh on his face. “You tell me not to worry about the Chu Estate, so I don’t. You tell me that knowing certain things won’t ‘make me happy’, so I don’t ask. But then you say cryptic things, and want me to see hints of things related to what you’re trying to keep from me? How does that make any sense, Chu Yingliu?”
He allowed a slight pause. When no answer came from the blackness, his aggravation grew until it almost hurt. “What’s your goal, here? I’ll regret knowing, so you’ll just give me hints about the truth until it drives me mad? You said the truth was going to come to light someday anyways, so are you just trying to make me paranoid in the meantime? Is there some kind of curse on you that keeps you from communicating like a normal goddamn person? Do you think this it’s funny to watch me guess? Are you just an asshole?!”
His voice reverberated throughout the courtyard. It wouldn’t have been loud any other day
At his final exclamation, he drew in a deep breath, then another, then another.
He needed to calm down. Anger was bad for the psyche, as his father used to tell him.
A temporary hush descended upon them. The night’s cold wind brushed against the skin, helping to cool his temper.
“I was… not aware that you felt that way,” Chu Ran eventually said, his voice floating out from the void. There was an odd inflection to it that Zhu Li couldn’t quite identify.
Following some more hesitation, Chu Ran headed back over to the apothecary’s entrance. Once he stepped into the halo of light emitted from the lantern that hung at the door, then turned, Zhu Li finally saw the uncertain look he had. It was unfamiliar, and very out of place on that typically-smiling visage.
“None of this is funny to me, Doctor. Not at all,” Chu Ran continued, his tone quiet enough to almost be a whisper. “My hinting was because… because the truth is hard to fathom.”
“And is being vague supposed to make it easier to fathom?” Zhu Li had to snap at him.
Unexpectedly, he saw Chu Ran’s shoulders jump at his raised volume. They were quickly squared back down. “I suppose you are correct that it wouldn’t help.”
A pause commenced. During it, Zhu Li could see the other’s brows knotting together inextricably. He clearly wasn’t having an easy time thinking of what to say next, his mouth opening and closing a few times without making a sound.
“I will leave you be, then,” he said at last, quickly disappearing into the home.
Zhu Li was left staring at where he had gone into the darkness. An even more intense irritation tainted his mood.
Instead of answering me properly or solving this, he ran away? he mocked in his head. He brought this up in the first place, and doesn’t even want to elaborate? I’m still taking his suggestion, anyways.
In a fit of planned semi-impulsiveness, he took the side door, coming to stand within the veranda connection the two separate households.
He hadn’t been here since the first day of his arrival at the Pavilion of Quiet. There’d been no incentive for him to, and he wasn’t the sort to go looking for trouble.
Back then, the Estate and this door had been ominous enough in the daytime. In the nighttime, it was nearly invisible, curtained from view with a black veil, and all the more daunting to enter.
It was with the Dao’s blessing that he didn’t need to actually go in it. What he did need to do was reach out the newly-acquired tendrils of his mind to try and penetrate these walls, just as previously suggested to him by Chu Ran.
After coming in close to the wall, he shut his eyes, focused on blanking out his mind, then began to braid threads of qi together.
The process started slow, the strands of qi being small in their fledgling stage. They steadily grew in length until they began to pass through objects, thus relaying all that they found back to their originator.
That was how it was supposed to go, in any case. What actually ended up happening was the strands fraying at the barest touch against the bricks, dissipating, then exploding into bursts of untamed qi.
The sensation this gave felt roughly like someone had snapped off a very tiny, thin arm of his, albeit painlessly. Surprise took him more than anything else, until…
A wave of something foreign crashed over him in a flash… No. It would be more accurate to say two different waves: one tactile, one audible.
High-pitched ringing notes of varying intensity did not sound off in his ears, but bounced around in his skull, having no locatable source, and they were paired with the feeling of fingers caressing the inside of his skin, thousands of them, none of them missing a single cun—
He reeled back from the violating and alien feeling, taking three panicked steps in reverse until a few zhang were between him and the offending wall. His eyes were as wide as they could go as he stared, dazed, into nothingness.
Fathoming what he had just sensed was beyond his capabilities. There was no ordinary anti-snooping array or talismans defending the Chu Estate — the odd wooden structure in the Pavilion would merely null it.
What sort of defenses were the Chu family using that could have such an effect? Was it to ward people off from snooping? Wouldn’t that just make them more suspicious if others were already investigating?
He slid back into the Pavilion, feeling for all intents and purposes like a criminal returning to his lair in defeat.
Once he was seated back on his bed, his angered thoughts returned.
He was now aware of another layer of the Chu’s strangeness. So what? The information didn’t improve his life any or change his already-formed opinion on the neighbors being freaks. What was the point of telling him to find this out?
Narrowing his eyes, he turned to get the bed ready in a huff.
Fine, then. He would just have to wrench the truth out of Chu Ran’s sealed lips somehow, whether the man was willing to share or not.
The author says: turns out that refusing to explain things makes even reasonable people fairly unhappy
(also, let me know if the way I’ve described qi sense doesn’t compute. I’ve rewritten it once already and might do it again in the non-rough version)
3 thoughts on “SnCr 37”
Oooh, an update! And I missed it because somehow this blog had disappeared from my followed ones Anyway, I’m really happy to be able to read more chapters of SnCr! 😀
The qi sense makes… sense 😀 the description is fine to me, and it’s a cool concept ^^
A meeting with Zhu Longmei sounds like an interesting idea, I hope Zhu Li’s mental state doesn’t suffer very much from it…
So, even Zhu Li has his limits when it comes to Chu Ran’s cryptic hints! I also want to learn what is it that the Chu family does at nights… ^^
Well Doctor Zhu did make it four months before being overset with frustration vis the Very oblique hints.
The incoming Zhu family dysfunction should be … interesting.
I am much enjoying the gothic vibes of the Chu. (Local doctor does not know he is the gothic heroine in this)
Oh, the production of qi stones definitely includes people doesn’t it (human and otherwise).
The qi description made sense to me! Thank you so much, I absolutely love this story