56 Long Time No See
We saw the silhouette of a man hurrying towards us from a short distance, not long after leaving the academy. Upon closer inspection, I recognized the person as Ku Fei, the young guy we met at Southern District’s tea shop when we first arrived.
The cuffs of Ku Fei’s sleeves were rolled up high, revealing his muscular arms. His thick and sharp brows were tightly knitted together like he was perturbed.
His eyes shone when they met mine and he rushed towards me immediately. “You—I heard from the others that you’re the Western District commander, Li Shen. Do you remember me?” He waved both arms at me, his speech seemed a little slurred.
Noting his nervous disposition, I smiled and attempted to calm him down. “That’s right, I’m Li Shen. Of course, I remember you. What’s wrong? Why are you so anxious?”
Ku Fei blushed faintly, raising a hand to tousle his own hair, “Th—the last time… I heard from the neighbors that you came to look for me one of those nights, but I have no recollection of what happened then.”
Recalling the night I was torn to pieces after falling down that pit, my lips twitched slightly. Heh, it’s a good thing he doesn’t remember. A good thing indeed.
He continued hastily, his eyes seemed to reflect his apprehension once more. “Actually, I figured you and your companions must have been pranked by Ms Mi Fu that night. And I… I know you hate her but she really is a good person, she didn’t mean anything by it. I asked around about the child you were looking for—she wasn’t the new toy that Ms Mi Fu had acquired, s-so can you… can you please not hurt her…?” His last sentence was spoken with even more caution than before.
I frowned. “Hurt her? Why would we hurt her?”
Nie Zun was the first to unravel the situation at hand. Emerging from the group, he flashed Ku Fei a smile as well. “Are you worried because Ms Mi Fu hasn’t been seeking you out these days?”
Ku Fei nodded his head fervently. “She hasn’t come by in a long time, and I heard… I heard that no one has seen her or her illusionist on the streets of Southern District either. I’m a little worried that she might be in some kind of danger…” He stole a glance towards me as he trailed off.
I choked back on my boiling anger. Do I really look like someone who would hold grudges over petty matters like this, to the extent of kidnapping a little girl?! (Passerby B interjected, “You do!”) I rolled my eyes but witnessing at how ill at ease Ku Fei was, I replied patiently. “We didn’t hurt her.”
“Th, th-then…” Ku Fei grew even more anxious upon hearing that. “Then do you know where she and that illusionist went?”
We exchanged a look, at a loss for a suitable response. Eventually, it was Nie Zun who spoke up. “Ku Fei, calm down. Mi Fu shouldn’t be in much danger, you should head back and tend to your tea shop. Perhaps she will return soon.”
Disappointment filled his eyes. “Do you really not know where she is…?”
I couldn’t bear to tell him the truth but Jiao S replied before I could, “We don’t. In fact, we are returning to our respective districts now. You should head back as well.”
Jiao S’ voice had always been cold and hoarse, with her face clear of any emotions, but I knew she had Ku Fei’s best interests at heart. After all, seeing how worried he is, there was no way we could delve into the stranger things that has been happening in the split zone.
“Alright then. Do come back if you have the chance, and be sure to drop by my shop for some tea.” His smile was strained yet his words were filled with sincerity. Perhaps it was because of his overwhelming concern for Mi Fu that he looked glum even with a smile.
“Of course.” Nie Zun gave him a pat on the shoulder before gesturing for us to leave with a shift of his eyes.
As I walked by Ku Fei, I couldn’t help but glance sideways towards his young and energetic face, now filled with such a dispirited expression. I told myself to stop looking and just like that I walked right past him.
It was a short distance before Ku Fei called out to us again. He caught up to us, swiping his gaze over the group. “Uh… B-before, you… you mentioned about wanting to look for the commander? Did you manage to meet him?”
I shook my head.
Ku Fei furrowed his brows tighter. “Have you tried?”
I nodded. “We tried, but we couldn’t find him.”
If at all possible, his frown seemed to deepen even further. “If that’s the case, that means it’s really—”
Without waiting for him to finish, Jiao S waved her hand impatiently. “That’s your district’s problem; whether it’s your commander or that alleged goddess. Whatever the case, you should stop meddling with it. It’s not something that is within your power anyway.”
Once she was done, Jiao S reached for my hand and pulled, indicating that we should leave. There was nothing I could do about it. Following the others, we continued moving towards the boundary lines. From time to time, I would look back to the sight of Ku Fei standing at that same spot with his downcast eyes, and I would feel the urge to let out a long sigh. He had been such a young and energetic boy. What a pity, why did he insist on being so kind towards that stubborn and vicious Mi Fu?
At that thought, I recalled the old lady who claimed to be Ku Fei’s grandmother, and nudged Nie Zun hurriedly. “Do you all remember Ku Fei’s grandmother? She said that Mi Fu was a soul splitter. Do you reckon that’s the reason Rong Jin and the others took her?”
Nie Zun did not say a word, but the expression in his eyes told me he was considering the possibility.
Jiao S answered instead. “But didn’t Ku Fei say he didn’t have a grandmother? I wonder if she was one of Huan Qing’s illusions.”
“Why would he feel the need to show us that?”
Jiao S shrugged. “We’ll only get the answer to that question once he wakes.”
I sighed inwardly but nodded.
The group returned to the boundary forest between Southern and Western District. Walking into the forest, the betrayal of You Ji was still vivid in my mind. I took a deep breath but didn’t think the air within Southern District felt all that fresh. As we walked on, Jiao S came to an abrupt stop.
“What’s wrong?” Perplexed by her actions, I looked over at her.
Her eyes grew gradually wider. “I feel a familiar aura but I can’t put a finger on it. Somehow, I have a feeling we’ve left out something.”
My heart jolted at her words. Indeed… Something feels amiss. But… What was it exactly?
“It’s getting nearer…” All of a sudden, Jiao S’ eyes snapped open.
Meanwhile I could feel a headache coming on—must something always go wrong whenever we enter the boundary forest? Seriously, did the boundary forest exist with the sole purpose of being our battleground?!
I secretly shook my head.
Jiao S stretched an arm out and gave me a light push. “Don’t let your guard down. I really did sense an aura… a sort of familiarity I haven’t felt in a long while.”
Nie Zun piped up, “She must have a keen sense of intuition. Nevertheless, if there really is someone in close proximity, then who could it be…? Who could conceal their whereabouts when we’ve already sensed their presence?”
I observed my surroundings and did not find anything unusual, at least within the circumference of visibility I had in this boundary forest. With such dense forest all around us though, it was hard to tell.
Guan Nie yawned, bearing an air of indifference. “What’s there to be afraid of? From what you’ve mentioned, those weirdos should be gathered at Si Luo’s by now. Unless Si Luo is hiding in here, which I highly doubt. If those people aren’t here, then there’s nothing to be worried about with our numbers.”
Is this… the theory of strength in numbers?
For some reason, I couldn’t sense anyone approaching us but I did feel like we had forgotten something. This uncomfortable feeling of not knowing was akin to feeling a pea under those eighteen layers of mattress.
When Guan Nie brought up Si Luo, he looked towards Jiao S vaguely but she did not react. Her eyes was staring wide, frowning while she turned her stiff neck around to sweep the area around us.
“Perhaps you’re too sensitive? Just as Guan Nie said, there’s no reason for any of them to be here.” I tried to adopt Nie Zun’s method of comfort and moved to give her a pat on the shoulder.
However, just as I lifted my hand, my heart sank sharply. I remembered what we had forgotten. My eyes widened in gradual realization. At the same time, Jiao S seemed to have made a connection about the owner of that unnerving aura. She turned swiftly with a creak in her neck and looked at me.
When our eyes met, I knew… We were thinking of the same person.
She appeared before either of us had the chance to speak. She hadn’t been hiding. Rather, she had always approached things from afar and in an unhurried manner. She drifted in from mid-air, at a slightly higher altitude above where we stood.
She always loved floating around like this since a long time ago. I could still remember her beautiful smile when she said to me, “Ah Shen, the split zone is actually pretty nice! Look, you can float like this, just like a flower.”
She really did look like a flower.
Not the stereotypical, cheesy type of flower. More like a fusion of beauty and pureness from all the flowers in this world, like the queen of flowers. And at this moment, that was exactly what she looked like. Smiling that beautiful smile of hers, whirling around and floating like the wind, slowly drifting towards us.
Her black hair was coiled gorgeously into a bun at the top and flowing down her chest on the lower half, strands of it framing her face, lightly fluttering with the breeze. There were also those limpid eyes of hers. Where Guan Nie’s beauty was coquettish, hers was soft and gentle. Just as I’ve said before, she was someone who could make others feel good simply with her presence.
She had always taken a liking to dressing herself in ancient costumes and she suited them well, looking much like the beauties in those tales of old. If she could travel back in time, she would have looked even more beautiful than she did in modern clothes. Right now, she wore an ancient garb and a yellow yarn dress. I recognized her—of course I did—but before I could call her name, Jiao S was already ahead of me.
Her eyes were slowly flooding with a complex loathing, her raspy and heavy voice sounded. “Li Wen. So it’s true that you are still alive.”
Li Wen smiled gently, then glided to a spot not far away from us, landing light on her feet. A pair of plain, white cloth shoes softly touched the ground.
“Ah Shen, Jiao S, long time no see,” she chimed, her voice drifting towards us along with her moving gaze.