And so the months flew by. Si Li surprisingly rose to the top. He had never been the most talented musician in the world, but he somehow managed stellar grades. Hu Lan fell almost to the bottom, not because she was a bad musician, but because she could never finish her work before the deadline.
“Jeez, not even my fourth older sister procrastinates as much as you do! You leave all the tests and assignments right before the due date! You’ve used up your year’s worth of extensions in 2 weeks!”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll do better next time.”
“I don’t see how you’re so chill about it. Your grades are the third-lowest in the class!“
“Hmmm, I’m hungry for some steamed mutton. I’ll go grab a bite!”
And so Hu Lan left her melody writing assignment on the study room desk and headed for the kitchen. Si Li just rolled his eyes.
“If this keeps up, she might flunk the course! That almost happened to my 2nd older brother.”
As for Xi Jiang, he was soundly in the middle of the grade. The only thing that kept him from slipping lower was Si Li. Si Li older siblings had given him a wealth of study hacks and tips on things as diverse as how to fill in your quarter notes to playing on your fingertips. And unlike Hu Lan, Xi Jiang cared enough about his grades to take his advice. Chuang Yi, of course, being the Yaoshi Quan, was on a whole other level. He was taking 3rd-year courses, and so they didn’t see him for much of the day. But he was always willing to help anyone during his free time.
“Can you believe it? The Bortsog clan is no more.”
Chuang Yi came running in.
Hu Lan looked up.
“The Bortsog clan. They were the Mongolians who worked with a Heiqi to take over Chang’an (ancient capital of China). They were badly weakened in that last attack, and now the last remnants were destroyed in some minor turf war a few weeks ago. It took time for the message to reach us, of course.”
“What’s an Heiqi again?”
Xi Jiang could never get his terms straight.
“It’s any sentient instrument gives the bearer great musical talent, but can subjugate the will of its bearer. Anyway, I can’t believe the news. The Bortsog were the biggest just a few years ago. Their leader was really strong–I think his name was Monkbhat or something. They say he could lift 6 cows with one finger.”
Xi Jiang gasped.
“No way. That’s just a legend. He can't be that strong.”
“Well, good riddance to both him and his tribe. Now perhaps the rest of those barbarian filth could start leaving our empire alone.”
Si Li spat. Xi Jiang frowned. Si Li was usually much more mild-mannered.
“I have class now. Bye!”
Hu Lan left. Chuang Yi soon followed. Xi Jiang turned to Si Li, pleading.
“Come on, Si Li. Why won’t you help me with my homework?”
“I have better things to do than to dirty myself with low-bloods like you.”
Si Li gave Xi Jiang an imperious look.
“Wha–oh, you’re gonna pay for saying that to my face.”
Xi Jiang aimed a punch, but Si Li moved quick, for his scrawny frame. He ducked and shoved Xi Jiang to the floor.
Xi Jiang lay there, gasping. Si Li stared contemptuously down at him, before heading off. Xi Jiang leaned into the floor, trying to regain his breath. Si Li's been acting strangely these past few days, but this takes the cake. Then Xi Jiang heard nature calling. Groaning, he stood up and headed for the bathrooms.
Xi Jiang was washing his hands when the window shattered. Thirty massive men draped in furs climbed in, twirling swords and axes. Xi Jiang knew that ethnicity: they were Mongolians. He did the appropriate thing: he screamed. They noticed him.
“Oh, I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to enter through the bathroom. You see, it’s hard to tell from the outside.”
The leader apologized to him. Xi Jiang just stared.
Then another looked closer at him. He spoke to the leader.
“Wait, Ganzorig. Isn’t that the boy the Heiqi alerted us about? The one friends with Khulan?”
Ganzorig turned to face Xi Jiang.
“I think you’re right. Men! Don’t let him get away!”
They all lunged for him. Xi Jiang almost tore the door off its hinges. He ran through the labyrinthine halls, the Mongolians inches behind him. Who are these poeple? What do they want with me?
He screamed, but the practicing students in their own room drowned out his cries. He twisted and turned, not sure where he was going. Then Ganzorig grabbed him and lifted him off the earth.
“You! Where is Khulan?”
Xi Jiang cringed. Then Hu Lan walked into the room.
Then she saw the Mongolians.
She told him, then leapt at them. They paused, surprised to be attacked by an opponent half their size. Then Hu Lan knocked one out, then threw his bulk into another, sending him tumbling. She grabbed a Go table and used it as a shield against a few others’ swords. Then she drew a sword from one of the knocked-out Mongolians and made a bad cut on one's forearm. Man. When did she get like this? But Xi Jiang didn’t spend too long pondering about how well he knew. Now that he could play the Pipa, he knew a song to summon all the staff. As he began the opening notes, they all teleported into the room. “What–“ Seeing the situation, they began their own music, joining the fight. The whole room was in chaos. Walls of ice and fire rose out of nowhere. More than one teacher was sent flying across the room by a Mongolian fist. Xi Jiang just ducked and tried to run. Suddenly, everything stopped. Hu Lan came face-to-face with Ganzorig. He blinked, then– “Khulan?”
The next events were a blur. Xi Jiang remembered the teachers quietly conversing with the Mongolians, then all of them leaving with Hu Lan. Then he remembered the next thing very sharply.
“Gone! The Yaoshi Quan is gone!”
There was a massive uproar. Investigations immediately commenced to find Chuang Yi–he was a pretty big deal given that he was the Yaoshi Quan. They’d discovered a strong aura around the room he’d last been seen, as if someone had used a very powerful song. But all the teachers were accounted for, and Chuang Yi himself hadn’t reached anywhere near the level to play that song. It was deduced that a renegade musician must have secreted him away. Wanted signs were passed around the empire, but with little results. Then Si Li, too, was discovered missing. Now everyone Xi Jiang knew well in the school was gone. He was worried about them, and worry for others was a sensation alien to him. It weighed him down like a heavy cape. But he had little time to dwell on their fates–it was almost the end of the semester, and he had a massive assignment: an essay on a historical event deeply affected by music. The choice was obvious: the Heiqi government fiasco. Everyone's gonna doing it, so I might as well hop on the bandwagon. He borrowed a few books from the library and, having made himself comfortable with a bowl of red bean soup, opened the first page. The picture struck him: The Heiqi was a beautifully lacquered Pipa with all too familiar Qilin designs. Without another word, he ran out of his room into the classroom where he had first painted his strings. He dug through the supply bucket. Sure enough, he found it: a Pipa, looking just like his, entitled “Jin Si Li.” The world stopped. The Heiqi teleported itself to this room, and I grabbed it. If the teachers can teleport, why can’t the Heiqi? I tossed Si Li’s Pipa into the supply bin and when we realized I had taken his to be painted, I gave him the Heiqi. That’s why he was acting strangely–it was possessing him Then everything else fell into place. The Heiqi had worked with the Mongolians on its last attack on the empire. Why wouldn’t it work with them again? It had sent the Mongolians to wreak havoc and distract the teachers, while it controlled Si Li to kidnap Chuang Yi. He wasn’t sure what Hu La had to do with any of this, but she was in there somewhere, somehow. Just by this one mistake, he’d sent Chuang Yi and Hu Lan to unknowable fates. But the worst part was Si Li. I was constantly slighting him, insulting him in my mind and bamboozling him out of his money. But without Si Li, I wouldn’t have lasted a day in here. And how did I repay him in the end? With a Heiqi’s possession. His innards twisted with guilt. In his greed for the nice-looking instrument, he’d hurt the one person who had helped him the most, and all his other friends along the way. Sure, maybe he’d done it indirectly, but wasn’t that how most bad things started? With a seemingly innocuous deed that had far-reaching consequences. Indirectly or directly, his friends were all in danger, and it was all his fault. Possessions were a murky thing, Si Li might never recover. Chuang Yi might right now be used in some dark, twisted ritual. Mongolians were never safe, not even for someone like Hu Lan. I might have started this mess, but I'm also going to end it. He closed his book and stood up. He strapped the Pipa to his side and slipped his knife–grimy after years of service on the streets, but still more than effective–into his pocket. Then, in the dead of night, Xi Jiang left the school’s safety and into the open world.
He travelled for five days and nights. It wasn’t hard to track the Mongolians. They left whole towns in fear of them, and all he had to do was follow the townspeople’s directions and continue from one frightened town to the next. Finally, at night, he saw their camp up ahead. They had grown in numbers. Hu Lan was sitting with the others around the campfire, laughing and talking in Mongolian with them. That’s strange. I thought she was a prisoner. Perhaps things were a little more complicated than he’d first thought. Either way, he hoped she was okay. After a few minutes, Hu Lan excused herself and returned to her tent. Xi Jiang followed. He slipped in after her, shrouded by darkness.
“Psst! Hu Lan!”
She whirled around.
“X-xi Jiang? What are you doing here?”
“I followed you. Listen: I–“
“You need to get out of here right now.”
Hu Lan looked more serious than he’d ever seen her.
“But–you need to get out of here.”
“No, I don’t. I need to stay here.”
Xi Jiang was speechless.
“My name isn’t Hu Lan. It’s Khulan Monkbhat.”
Xi Jiang stopped. Mongolians used the first name of their fathers as their last name.
“You got it already. You’re smart, Xi Jiang. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
She grinned at him. For a moment, they both remembered all the months they’d spent at Tianshang Yinfu, learning, eating, playing, all of it. Then Khulan grew serious.
“Perhaps I never liked the traditional Mongolian life. All that hard labour and dirty work wasn’t cut out for me. It was too hard to sort things out with my father and make a compromise, so I just ran away. When I ran away, I gave little thought to the consequences of of my actions. I thought I would start a new life far away, my tribe would just find a new heir and get along without me, and everyone would live happily ever after. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t work like that. Because I ran away, my clan was driven out of my home, my father died, and they wrecked Tianshang Yinfu to get to me. I learned that running away from your problems doesn’t get rid of them; they’ll come back, one way or another. You–hide!”
The tent flap was rustling. Panicked, Xi Jiang ducked under the blankets as Ganzorig came in.
“Why’d you turn in so early, Khulan?”
“I’ll be back out soon. You know me too well, Ganzorig–I love a good party!”
“I know you better than anyone!”
He ruffled her hair affectionately.
“I fed you lamb strips when you were only this tall.”
Xi Jiang watched them laugh and talk. Khulan looked happy, sure, but not as happy as when she had been back at Tianshang Yinfu.
“Come out soon, Khulan. And know that we all believe in you. The nations are crowing about our defeat, but they will soon eat their words. Your father taught you well–even with the two fingers you lost in the Chang’an battle, you’re the best fighter in this camp. They will come to fear you as much as they did Monkbhat, this all of us know. You will restore the Bortsog clan’s honour."
Then he clapped her shoulder and rejoined the other Mongolians. Khulan watched him go.
“You don’t like it here; I saw that.”
Mongolian or no Mongolian, Khulan's still my friend. I don't want her to suffer just 'cause of some dumb honour thing.
"I know you–you hate being tied down to anything, even institutions you love. Why not return back to Tianshang Yinfu? You’ll be freer and happier there.”
“Perhaps, but there are things more important than happiness and freedom. Such as taking responsibility for the mess you made. I got my people into this, and I’ll get them out of it. And maybe after that, I’ll think about it.”
She stared hard at Xi Jiang, daring him to say no. He had to admire her dedication, even if he wasn’t entire sure if he’d do the same thing in her place. If I did something wrong, I’d probably try to pin the blame on someone else.
“If that’s what you want to do, I can’t stop you.”
He told her about Si Li and Chuang Yi.
She grew pale.
“This is all my fault.”
“No, it’s mine. If I hadn’t been so greedy, maybe–“
“Anyway, we need to save them.”
“…Yeah, that’s it.”
Khulan told Ganzorig that she was going to get supplies from a nearby town. Ganzorig had sent a few men to help carry the supplies back, but a few bars of Xi Jiang’s lullaby put them out of commission. Then the two continued on their way to where the Bortsog had last seen the Heiqi–an obscure temple dedicated to Han Xiangzi. They weren’t expecting too much, maybe a few clues to the Heiqi’s true location or something. But what they found was much, much bigger.
The temple was old. Really old. There were so many vines that Xi Jiang couldn’t see the wall. Termites had devoured anything wooden, leaving only a few stone ruins.
“Well, let’s go in.”
Khulan and Xi Jiang slipped into the hall. In the centre of the darkly lit hall was Chuang Yi. He was bound and gagged. Gasping, Xi Jiang rushed forward.
“Chuang Yi! Are you–“
Khulam held him back.
“Wait. Where’s Si Li?”
“Si Li is right here.”
Si Li stood behind them, Qilin instrument in hand.
“Let Si Li go now!”
Glaring at the Heiqi, Khulan drew her sword. Xi Jiang decided to let her do the talking–he was petrified.
“I don’t take orders from Mongol vermin!”
The Heiqi sneered. Hearing those words from Si Li’s gentle voice sent chills running down Xi Jiang's spine.
“When I’m finished here, all barbarians will bow down to China. But the Mongols won’t just bow–they’ll wash my sandals, as they’re stinking filth befits them.”
“How dare you–“
Khulan grew livid, but Xi Jiang held her back.
“Calm down. We can’t beat him in a face-to-face confrontation. He’s an Heiqi.”
He didn’t blame her, but precision was needed here. Khulan took a deep breath.
She gave Xi Jiang a small smile, then turned to the Heiqi.
“When you’re finished with what? What are you planning with Si Li, my clan, and Chuang Yi?” “It’s simple–just look at my stunning iconography.”
Xi Jiang realized it.
“The Qilin–it symbolizes the coming of a Xian (AKA Immortal).”
“You got it.”
Si Li smiled.
“Unlike your rabid Mongol dog, you at least have a few brains. Like the Qilin, I seek the coming of a Xian–one that will usher in a new age of prosperity for the Middle Kingdom. Unlike the Qilin, however, I’m turning my wish into reality. Only an exceptional person can ascend to Xianhood–why not the Yaoshi Quan?” He gestured to Chuang Yi, unconscious and tied up on the floor.
“Once I finish the ritual–and I was about to start before you butted in–I shall control him and his new Xian powers. With them, I will burn all barbarians like chaff and make the Middle Kingdom as glorious as the dragon. Your precious little clan had no idea who they were working for.”
“But if you care so much about China, then why did you attack Chang’an with the Bortsog clan a few years ago?”
Xi Jiang finally drew the courage to speak up.
“There’s the thing: I love China, but I can’t say I feel the same for the Chinese. Snivelling grumblers, the whole lot of you. I mean, just look at the body I’m possessing!"
He gestured to himself contemptuously.
“The only good thing about you is your culture. That’s why I attacked Chang’an–the emperor and all his family were oafish buffoons! When I usher in my new age, only the worthy Chinese will survive. The rest will burn with the barbarians, and that includes everyone present.”
Okay, he’s crazy.
“If I don’t extinguish you now, you will plague me forever like insects, and so I must end your pathetic lives today.”
Si Li began to play. Suddenly, their legs were trapped in a black tar!
Xi Jiang began to sink.
“Quick, Khulan! The Defensive Duet!”
They took out their own instruments and played a quick countersong. Its power enhanced by their synchronous playing, the tar promptly evaporated.
“So you do have some musical skill. But it pales in comparison to my own.”
He began a new song, and the shadows of the room formed into arrows. They launched themselves at Khulan and Xi Jiang with blazing speed.
One sliced across Khulan’s shoulder. Another made a nasty cut on Xi Jiang’s leg. We won’t last long in this situation, and we can only play so many countersongs until we grow tired. And if we attack back, Si Li would get hurt. What we need is something powerful, something brilliant, something like–
“The Yaoshi Quan! Khulan, free Chuang Yi! I’ll distract the Heiqi!”
Before she could object, Xi Jiang began an illusion, mixing a subtle wake-up song that only ears as fine-tuned as the Yaoshi Quan could perceive. Xi Jiang conjured billions of barbarians were bowing to the Heiqi. Si Li grinned.
“Yes! Yes! Fall upon your knees to me, the son of the Dra–wait, this is an illusion. You think I’m so easily deceived, boy?”
“Yeah. Look behind you.”
He whirled around to find Chuang Yi, arms folded. The Yaoshi Quan spoke.
“Last time, you took me by surprise, foul object from Diyu. You won’t have that advantage tonight.”
He drew an Erhu and began to play. Xi Jiang, Khulan, even the Heiqi were transfixed. The Erhu responded to his every touch, his every tap. Chuang Yi decided to start with a winding, contemplative melody. Xi Jiang remembered all that he had done in the name of money, and his heart ached for all those he had slighted. Khulan thought back all the times she had acted without thinking, and cursed herself for all the damage she had caused. The Heiqi dug deep into its memories, which extended for centuries. It thought of all the happy times with its high-minded creator, and wondered if the times had been so happy after all. Chuang Yi slightly shifted his hand placement. Though no one noticed any difference, the song had changed, if only by a little. Mixing in a few turns and cadences to mask the melody’s change, he tweaked the song a little more, then a little more. The doleful tune seamlessly shifted into a heroic ballad. Everyone gasped, then were silent, eyes shining. Xi Jiang made his mind up to treat him like royalty forever onwards, even if Si Li never forgave him. Khulan remembered all her initial dreams of adventure and freedom, and they called to her heart and opened her wanderlust. Si Li’s battered and beaten soul gave a slight movement, as a flower greets the sun. Chuang Yi grinned. The Heiqi had been destroyed in the transition. Now he had his friends exactly where he wanted them. Now for the finishing touch. He put his heart and soul into this next verse, infusing all the power of the Yaoshi Quan into the song. He drew to mind all the legendary musicians of the past, shapers of cloud and fire, of wind and frost, of man and nature, and recalled the place near to all their hearts: Tianshang Yinfu, womb of musical mastery, bastion of the gift. All four were returned to the school cafeteria like a bolt of lightning. For a moment, all the other students stared at the four who had suddenly appeared. Then, assuming it was all part of some musical show, everyone broke into a round of wild applause.
“I-is he feeling better?”
Xi Jiang asked the nurse anxiously. Possessions were a nasty thing. For the first few days, Si Li’s condition had been shaky.
“Yes, much better. The way he healed really was a miracle.”
Or maybe it was music–the healing songs of a Yaoshi Quan.
“He wants to see all of you.”
Khulan and Chuang Yi were also with him, faces mirroring his anxiety.
“O-okay. Let’s go.”
They walked down the halls to Si Li’s room in silence. Xi Jiang stopped in front of the door, hand hovering over the doorknob. Khulan gave him a hug.
“Don’t worry. I know he’ll forgive you. Once he sees the modest fortune you spent on get-well cards, he'll know you were being earnest.”
“A-are you sure? The possession could have killed him, you know."
“Stupidity knows no limits. But that is true also for forgiveness.”
Chuang Yi patted him on the shoulder.
“Let’s go in.”
Si Li was sitting on his bed. He turned to see them.
“Hey, Xi Jiang.”
Xi Jiang froze. This was a mistake. He hates me. I shouldn’t have come.
“Let’s play a game, you and I.”
Si Li grinned from ear to ear, and Xi Jiang’s apprehension melted away as if it was never there.
“Oh, you’re on. See this jade figurine?”
They talked about the Heiqi, about assignments, about cat whiskers, about everything.
“Yeah, you were awesome back there, Chuang Yi.”
Xi Jiang told him. The Yaoshi Quan turned to him.
“I was expecting you to say ‘Ooh, looks like the Yaoshi Quan needed saving,’ or something like that.”
He did a bad imitation of Xi Jiang.
“What? I wouldn’t say that. We all need saving sometimes.”
Everyone watched him expectantly.
“Oh, fine. Yeah right, Yaoshi Quan, you’d have died without us, so don’t get too big for your britches.”
“That’s the Xi Jiang I know.”
They talked for a while, before Si Li turned to Khulan.
“What about you, Hu–I mean, Khulan? Will you stay with your clan?”
“I still don’t know. Your song reminded me, Chuang Yi, of all my dreams and plans for the future. I still want to see the world, don’t get me wrong. But I also have a responsibility to my people. I don’t know what exactly I’ll do, but I won’t hide from it. I’ll face both sides and find a solution.”
“At least you’ve started taking things seriously. I think you submitted your first on time assignment last week.”
"No way. Khulan submitted an assignment on time? I think I just witnessed a divine sign."
“Oh, come on, I wasn’t that bad.”
“As a matter of fact, you were that bad.“
“Now you’re taking Chuang Yi’s side? Want me to arm wrestle you again?”
And the four argued long into the night.