3:2 – Guilao
Xinxin woke up to the sound of crackling flames and the savory scent of cooking fish. She opened her eyes and blearily looked around.
It seemed that she had been sleeping beneath the bamboo shelter she made. It was dark now and the only source of light came from the fire burning nearby.
Xinxin slowly sat up.
“So you’re finally awake.” A cold voice called out. It was the nameless man she thought to save the other day. His dark eyes stared at her, as if peering into her soul.
Xinxin froze and then the memories of what happened to her returned. She quickly scrambled back away from the man and knocked down the pile of bamboo sticks that formed the makeshift shelter. Xinxin yelped and covered her head. Luckily, the bamboo fell around her instead of on top of her.
The nameless man snorted and turned his gaze back to the fire, tending to a rack of fish roasting on a stick.
Was he not going to attack her? Xinxin stared at the nameless man and tilted her head, examining him. At the same time, she grabbed one of the fallen bamboo, keeping it close by but hidden.
The nameless man glanced at her and his gaze shifted towards her side.
Xinxin felt her stomach drop. But then the nameless man turned his gaze back to the fire and the cooking fish.
With that, the tension in the air seemed to lighten up. At least, Xinxin felt that the nameless man’s temper wasn’t going to flare anytime soon.
After a moment of silence, the nameless man said, “I’m surprised. I thought a girl like you would be more naïve, but you seem to have at least a modicum of self-preservation, unlike another girl I knew.”
“Hmph.” Hearing Xinxin’s curt answer caused a brief smile to form on the nameless man’s face, but it was quickly erased.
Xinxin pulled her legs close to her chest and stared at the nameless man. He looked like a vagrant, one of the wandering rogue practitioners that roamed the Xia Dynasty. Messy black hair that spread in every direction, dark eyes that held a hint of madness, and clothes tattered into rags.
Her father had warned her of people like that. Cultivators that belonged to neither sect nor family, living by their own code, whether good or bad. At the same time, they were those that would repay a debt incurred no matter what… or so Xinxin had believed. But somehow, she felt that the man before her was different.
Curious, she said, “Senior. Who are you?”
The nameless man raised his head. His dark eyes reflected the flickering flames, for a moment seeming miles away. That moment quickly passed and then they narrowed. “Me? I’m nothing more than a nameless ghost that managed to cheat life and death.”
As if the world acknowledged his declaration, a cold draft emerged and caused the fire to dim.
Xinxin shivered and stared at the nameless man with wide eyes. “T-That is… S-Senior…” She didn’t dare say her guess, unless it was true.
The nameless man grinned. “I’m someone that would kill a girl like you in a heartbeat for the sake of power.” He stood up and slowly approached Xinxin. “Someone that would cut apart that perfect body of yours to find out how it ticked, someone that would take that knowledge and use it to make myself stronger.” He stopped in front of Xinxin and then knelt down, staring her in the eyes. “That’s the person you tried to help out. Scared?”
Madness flickered in those dark eyes, as well as a bottomless hunger. His gaze was ravenous, as if he would tear into her then and there if Xinxin said the wrong words.
A hungry ghost 1 . Preta. . That was what Xinxin faced.
Yet. If that was the case…
Xinxin shook her head. “No, Senior. I am not scared.” She stared back at the nameless man with her violet eyes.
His expression flickered. “Oh? Your body seems to say otherwise.”
Xinxin’s heart raced and she felt sweat forming on the back of her neck. Her hands trembled, and she felt the urge to run away at the ghost’s cold gaze. Even so, she nodded and said, “It is true, Senior. My body seems to reject your very presence… but I don’t think that Senior is someone I need to fear. If you were… I wouldn’t still be alive, would I?”
That was the source of her confidence.
Hungry ghosts would be mindless and tainted with sin. If the man before her truly was one, Xinxin would not have awoken so peacefully. She wouldn’t have woken at all.
The nameless man’s expression flickered, but quickly returned to a cold gaze. “Hmph. You’re smart, girl. But what makes you think I didn’t keep you alive just to see you suffer as I devour your soul?”
“If that was what Senior wanted, wouldn’t the best time have been when I was suffering after consuming that pill? Instead, Senior saved me. Isn’t that telling enough of your intentions?”
The nameless man glared at Xinxin, an expression filled with killing intent and malice.
Xinxin stood her ground and stared back.
After what seemed like an eternity, the nameless man shook his head and returned to his place by the fire. “You’re reckless, girl. Reckless and too smart for your own good. But ‘saved’, huh?” The man muttered. “If you look at it like that, you’re not wrong. But you’re not entirely right either…”
Xinxin let out a sigh and then relaxed. Somehow she had made it through the ordeal.
And then her stomach rumbled.
The nameless man looked at her, his eyebrow raised and a smile on his face. “Hungry?”
The nameless man took a fish off the fire, turning it over to examine it, and then handed it to Xinxin.
She reached out to grab it, but before she could the man paused and stared at her.
“Aren’t you afraid that it’s poisoned? Or that I might be filling you up to devour you when you’re relaxed?”
His dark eyes stared at her, a strange expression contained within.
Xinxin shrugged and said, “Even if that might be true, Senior, I wouldn’t have a say in the manner anyway. And if so… I would at least like to have a full stomach before I depart from this world.” With that, she took the fish from the man’s hand.
He stared at her for a while and then said, “Strange. You are a strange one, girl.”
“Is that so? I like to think that I am just myself.” Saying that, Xinxin began nibbling on the fish. Despite the plain way it was cooked, somehow the fish tasted delicious. Whether that was due to the man’s cooking skills or her hunger, however, she couldn’t tell.
The nameless man shook his head and went back to cooking the rest of the fish.
Xinxin kept taking bites from her fish. At the same time, she stared at the man tending to the fish and the fire. He called himself a nameless ghost… but Xinxin believed that it was just an expression after talking to him.
It was strange, however. Xinxin knew that the man was dangerous, vicious, and violent. The events that occurred after she went to check up on him with the Blood Coagulating Pill showed that. Yet, sitting there tending to the fire, Xinxin couldn’t help but feel like the man was a gruff older brother or cousin. A bit scary, but reliable.
The nameless man caught her staring and said, “What? You not hungry?”
“I am. But I’m just curious.”
The man narrowed his eyes. “Curiosity killed the cat. And it will kill you as well if you keep asking questions.”
The words were sharp but lacked sincerity.
Even so, Xinxin saw that the man was irritated so she went back to eating her fish. At the same time, she pondered over what the clan would be thinking at the moment. She would have been gone a whole day now, the longest she had ever been before. The thought of it should have filled her with dread, but… for some reason she felt free. Relaxed.
Did she have to go back? Her father and clan were depending on her for the betrothal, but she never asked for it. And did she care, truly? Since her mother had disappeared, the only attention she had gained had been for her status, and then for her beauty. But with the man before her, although dangerous, she could at least be herself instead of the Zhan Clan’s darling princess.
“So, girl. Tell me why someone like you thought it was a good idea to get involved with a nobody like me. Run away from home? An engagement?”
Xinxin stopped eating for a bit and said, “Both.”
The man muttered, “Well that explains why there were so many people running around the forest.”
Xinxin raised her head. “People running around?”
“Heh. You don’t have to worry about that girl.” The man grinned, a cold and cruel expression. “I took care of them for you.”
“…Did you kill them?”
“What do you think?”
Xinxin stared at the man and the man stared back. After a while, Xinxin shook her head. “…You didn’t. It would have drawn more attention to you. And I think that Senior has his own circumstances. Trouble is something you don’t want at the moment.”
“Oh you think you’ve got me all figured out now, don’t you girl?”
A cold breeze began to gather, and a malevolent intent filled the air. “Just because you’re alive, just because I gave you food, you think that I care whether or not you live. Whether or not killing you is more trouble than it’s worth.” He narrowed his eyes. “Let’s get this straight. You are worthless. No matter how beautiful you are, no matter the fact that you’re still a child, if you piss me off you will die. Understand?”
Xinxin shuddered and gave a meek nod.
“Good. Now eat your damned fish.”
Xinxin did as she was told. She had already pushed her luck enough.
The nameless man watched her for a moment before turning his attention back to the fire. “Still,” he muttered. “An engagement at that age, huh? What a crapsack world this is…”
Xinxin agreed, but she didn’t speak. Instead, she kept eating her fish. Before she realized it, she had finished and the man was handing her another.
“Here,” he said.
“Aren’t you hungry, Senior?”
“Unless you want to drop dead, shut up and take it.”
Xinxin didn’t want to, but her stomach rumbled before she could refuse. She blushed and then took the fish.
By that point, the other fish were finished cooking so the man placed them on top of a rock to the side. When he did, he turned his attention to Xinxin.
Xinxin noticed, but she ignored him and kept eating her fish. She’d realized by now that if the man wanted to say something, he would. If not, he wouldn’t.
Soon enough, the man spoke. “You… really aren’t afraid of me, are you?”
Xinxin paused her eating and lowered her fish. “Should I be?”
“Yes. You should absolutely be afraid of me. Even if you don’t remember it, your soul should. And yet, you aren’t. For some strange reason, you aren’t afraid of me, even after I-“ The man cut himself off and shook his head. “You are strange. Even those ‘experts’ searching for you fled in terror when they saw me, but you… are you not afraid of death?”
Xinxin thought about it. Death. She had wondered the same thing before she took the pill. If she had to suffer through something like that again, she might reconsider. But if it wasn’t like that, then…
Xinxin shook her head. “No. If anything, death would be a release.”
Maybe her next life would be better. A life without her accursed beauty. A life without her lofty status. An ordinary life with an ordinary loving family. One where she could find a faithful companion to be with and not have to worry if the one talking to her was doing so to win her favor. One where she could act like she wished without being reprimanded for breaking her graceful image.
The air suddenly became heavy. The nameless man stood up and glared at Xinxin, his dark eyes narrowed in rage.
Xinxin blinked. “Senior?”
“Take those words back.”
“I… don’t understand?” Did she say something wrong?
“I thought it was strange. I wondered why you kept dying over and over again. Why it was so hard to keep you alive.”
Xinxin shook her head. “I don’t-“
The nameless man stood there for a moment and then said, “Why? Why do you not want to live? Is your fiance that bad? Are you treated poorly?”
“…No. But I-“
“Did your father abandon you? Are you an orphan?”
“No, Senior. But-“
“Then WHY DO YOU WANT TO DIE?! You foolish, selfish, arrogant girl!”
Xinxin tossed her fish to the side and glared at the man. “And what would you know?! I never asked to be born into this life! To have this status, to have this appearance! My whole life… my very fate has already been set in stone! And I…! I…!” Xinxin’s vision blurred and she lowered her gaze. “I… can’t do anything about it.”
Zhan Xinxin, the jade fairy. Zhan Xinxin, the clan’s darling princess. Zhan Xinxin, the fiancee of the heavenly prince Wang Tian.
A life laid out in stone before her. The karma that heaven gave her. The fate that she couldn’t avoid, even though she prayed with all her might otherwise.
“Look up, girl.”
Xinxin shook her head, scattering her glistening tears.
“I said, LOOK UP, GIRL!”
The harsh words caused Xinxin to raise her head.
A complicated expression was on the man’s face, but soon it settled into determination. “Answer me. Do you want to change it?”
“Yes or no! Do you want to change your fate?”
Xinxin’s heart raced. Could it be that the man…?
Xinxin didn’t respond. Instead, she quickly knelt to the ground and did three kowtows. At the last, she said, “Xinxin offers formal greetings, Master!”
The man let out an exasperated sigh before pulling Xinxin up. “You stupid girl. I asked for your answer, not your obeisance. No… I suppose that is your answer.”
Xinxin stood up and stared at the man- no, at her Master. Her Sifu.
He shook his head and gently brushed the dirt off her clothes and then the dirt on her forehead. That done, he stared at her, a complicated expression on his face.
Xinxin simply waited.
“I am not a good person,” the nameless man said. “If it comes down to it, I will kill you if it might advance my goals. I will let you die. I will watch you die. And I will let let your death be, not bothering to seek vengeance or compensation.”
“Your family, your clan, your home. On a whim, I will erase it down to its root, slaughtering even women and children.”
The nameless man narrowed his eyes. “Following me will mean becoming the enemy of the world itself. At the end of this path there will be no heaven, only hell. I can promise you power, yes, but happiness… I cannot.” The nameless man paused and said, “I can still pretend this never happened. There are other things I can do to free you from your situation. Killing your fiance, forcing your family to break off the engagement with force… Consider it the repayment for building me a shelter.”
Xinxin shook her head. “Even so… I want you as my Master, my Sifu.”
The nameless man was silent.
Xinxin’s heart pounded. This… was her only chance. If even he rejected her then she truly would have no other path to turn to. They always said that heaven left a way, but if the man refused then-
“Foolish girl… but very well. From this day forth, you will be my one and only disciple… for whatever worth that may be.”
Xinxin smiled and hugged the man- no, her Sifu. “Thank you! Thank you, Sifu! Xinxin won’t let you down! I promise!”
“Gah, you- Girl, let go!”
Xinxin held onto her Sifu for a little longer before stepping back. She couldn’t stop the happiness she felt, however, and a radiant smile remained on her face.
“Hmph. You said your name was Xinxin?”
Xinxin nodded. “Yes, Sifu. Zhan Xinxin. That is my name.” She frowned. “Um… what should I call you, Sifu?”
“…Call me what you wish. Like I said, I no longer have a name.”
Xinxin thought about it for a moment. Since her Sifu called himself a ghost…
“ Sifu Guilao 2 .”
“…Do you not like it, Sifu?”
“Tch. Whatever, girl.”
Seeing that, the nameless man, now Sifu Guilao, poked Xinxin’s forehead. “Don’t be too happy you reckless girl. The first thing we’re going to do is to head back to your home.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Sifu Guilao grinned, a predatory expression revealing his white teeth. “A Sifu should introduce himself to his disciple’s family, shouldn’t he?”