Notes: updated and given a better name!
Somewhere tucked away in China is the Difei Valley. Bordered on all sides by impassive mountains, it is cut off from the rest of the land. Few outsiders happen upon it, and even fewer denizens ever leave its borders. Its people rely on themselves and their land, sweating day and night to harvest their crops. It is a simple life, free from the worldly concerns of those outside.
Surrounding Difei, blocking access to the mountains, is a fearfully dark forest. The ruler of this forest is the Langshi. No one has ever perceived this monster in full, for it strikes the village only in the night, devouring livestock and anyone outside. It attacks haphazardly, roaring through fields and streets at random. The tales are many–the Langshi has eyes bright as anger, claws sharp as contempt, jaws wider than all the stupidity in the universe. Any attempts to capture it, fail. Perhaps Wang Zhi Hao, the ancient founder of the valley, could have done it–but as “ancient founder” implies, he’s long dead.
Wang Zhi Hao was once a simple Drill Instructor, who fell foul of the government. Other Drill Instructors in his position took up crime, but Zhi Hao sought a new place to live, far from the emperor’s corrupt reach. He journeyed many days and many nights, and his following grew and grew. On the day before discovering Difei Valley, his band was attacked by bandits. Zhi Hao mustered the commoners following him into a militia, lacking skill but making up for it in pluck. They daunted the bandits back into their stronghold, and then into the wilds. While raiding the stronghold for supplies, they came across a strange door, bolted and locked with chains and locks. Zhi Hao inched it open, to find a young girl, barely past a toddler, starved and thirsty, crying all alone in the empty room. Despite the others’ suspicion that something about the girl wasn’t quite right, Zhi Hao plucked the girl up and named her Lang Xun. Lang Xun, whose nickname was “Xun”, lived healthily and happily in the valley they discovered the next day. Then, one night, 15 years after the original founding of the valley, there was an explosion at Zhi Hao’s home. The villagers came running. Bits of rubble and glass scattered the premise. Xun was sitting amidst the wreckage.
“What happened, Xun?” A man rushed towards her. “What’s going–“ Then they saw it: Wang Zhi Hao lay beside Xun. Huge scratch marks gouged his body. Xun turned to look at them, and saw the body.
“Oh. Who’s that?”
“You–you killed him…”
“Sure, I did.” Xun grinned up at them. When you were credited for something, it was best to accept it, even if you had no idea what was going on.
“You–I knew it, the day we found you–“
“Argh!” Xun bent low, as a sharp pain lanced through her. It felt like her soul was splitting in two, straining to break free from its moorings. Then the pain faded. I need to be alone. She walked away, ignoring the villagers’ tears and cries. Later that night, the Langshi first appeared. It devoured 4 people and untold numbers of unsecured livestock.
“That witch must have summoned it.” They whispered amongst themselves, but there was nothing they could do.
And the centuries flew by. The villagers lived, loved, hated Xun, and died, leaving their descendants to repeat it all over. Xun passed through hundreds of generations. All through them, she never changed–the same cunning eyes, the same haughty cheekbones, the same cautious hands.
“She–she’s immortal!” the villagers whispered. But there was nothing they could do. Xun had been there when their grandfathers had been alive, and she would be there when their grandsons would be alive. She had killed their leader and summoned the Langshi. If she decided to cause any further destruction, they had no defence. These thoughts sent fear into their hearts. Most just looked away and rubbed their good luck charms as they walked by her. No one stood up to her–they were too afraid of her and the Langshi’s power. Xun never noticed her immortality–fear looked the same to her, no matter whose face presented it. Anyway, she hardly cared what the villagers did or thought. In their fear, the villagers Xun denied Xun nothing that they owned, and she exercised that privilege profusely. She picked from the best of their produce, took home their finest furniture, and chose their most potent medicine. But nothing could stop the strange pain from flaring every now and then. She called it “Splitting”. Centuries have passed, but every generation has instilled their fear of Xun to the next, and there’s not a person in the Valley who doesn’t know of Xun’s crimes. The centuries flew by, and in Difei, many things changed, but two things never changed–the Langshi, and Xun.
Wang Tian Ning
Wang Tian Ning was the direct descendant of Wang Zhi Hao, and was equally afraid of Xun as any of the other villagers. One day, Xun was walking home, when she heard sobbing. She poked her head through Tian Ning’s door. She was beginning funeral rituals. Xun’s eyes flicked to the title card: Wang Duan Tu. Tian Ning looked up. To her, Xun’s curious smile was a sneer of triumph. Rage filled Tian Ning’s soul.
“What are you looking at, you filthy murderer? Come to gloat over my son’s death?” Xun shrugged. She helped herself to a slice of green onion pancake.
“Well–“ But Xun split again, and different words sprang from her mouth.
“How did he die?”
“The Langshi. Your magnum opus. It sprung and dragged Duan Tu away. He’s as good as dead now.”
“I-I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. If there’s anything I can do to–” What? I’m not sorry for her! I don’t care about anyone! What’s wrong with me? For Xun really was sorry. Tears trickling from her eyes, Xun made her way over to Tian Ning and hugged her back, immersing herself in Tian Ning’s sorrow. Tian Ning stared at her, disbelieving, and then angry.
“How dare you defile my son’s death with your false tears? Get away from me!” Xun was splitting again. She felt immeasurably sad for Tian Ning and aloof to Tian Ning’s pain at the same time. Xun couldn’t take it anymore. She ran back to her hut at the edge of the village. She waded through the countless junk the villagers had given her and looked at the ornate Jian (Chinese sword) strapped to the wall. Even now, Xun couldn’t remember anything about her life before that point, when the villagers found her. Seeing the sword in the wreckage, she’d taken it along unthinkingly, never planning to use it. A new feeling–determination–trembled within her. She would take the sword and find the Langshi. Xun felt sad, sad for Tian Ning and Duan Tu, her son. She’d never before felt sad, not for herself and especially not for anyone else. But now, for some reason, she was. Xun strapped the Jian to her back. She would find the Langshi and save Duan Tu, if he was still alive. If he wasn’t, she would kill the Langshi, and the village would never fear from it again.
Xun wandered through the branches and thorns. I should have brought a lantern. But it was too late to go back now. Is the Langshi even home? Isn’t it terrorizing the village? Maybe I should have confronted it there. The more she thought about it, the worse her plan seemed. Because of your stupid sadness, you’re gonna get yourself eaten by some animal! But Xun kept right on feeling sad. Shut up, heart! I don’t have time for your stupid emotions! Then she spotted a cave up ahead. Xun crept inside. In the centre of the room was Tian Ning’s son, bound and gagged. Xun made for him.
“Hello.” Xun whirled around. It was the Langshi.
Xun drew her Jian. Unlike sadness, fear was something she knew very well.
“That’s an excellent sword, but in feeble hands such as yours, they’re about as effective as a spring roll.” Xun gasped.
“Yes. I talk.” Xun looked closer at the Langshi. It was as big as a doorframe, with a dog’s nose, cat’s claws, and a bear’s hide. Then she noticed–its fur was matted with sweat. Its eyes were dull. A light drool dripped down the side of its mouth. “So you’ve noticed my wretched state. This strange sickness has plagued me all my life. But never mind that–I know you. You’re the girl who lives away from everyone else, no?”
“N–no.” When in doubt, lie.
“Ah, I–argh!” The Langshi bent low, limbs kicking and flailing about. At the same time, Xun split. She howled and hugged herself, trying to keep herself together. When it ended, Xun asked the Langshi,
“Is–is the feeling like you’re being torn apart?”
“Why–yeah, that’s a good way to describe it. Perhaps we suffer from the same disease, whatever it is. Another reason for us to join forces.”
“Indeed. We’re very similar. We’re feared by the villagers. We both have the same disease. There’s also something else, something the villagers have, but we lack. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah. I do.” Xun knew what the Langshi meant very well. One day, a villager might feel happy, then sad, then angry, then glad again. Xun would only feel indifference, towards everything around her. The villagers’ feelings and thoughts were balanced, like a calm lake that rippled slightly, then settled down. Xun could only feel a few emotions, and never stop feeling them. Her fear would burn and burn and burn, with no reprieve. She didn’t long for what the villagers had, but she knew that something was missing all the same. The Langshi continued. “I am many things, but I lack the presence of any finer feelings, like the villagers have. If we work together. Considering our similarities, it makes even more sense for us to unite.” The Langshi’s eyes were triumphant. “Difei Valley will burn to the ground, as is fitting after what they’ve done to us.” Xun thought about it. Thinking was what she was best at. But for all her thinking, she missed the Langshi’s hidden agenda. The Langshi could hardly care about punishing the villagers–such petty acts of revenge were beneath it. Xun was what it wanted. Whenever the Langshi passed by her hut, the sickness had always acted up. If Xun joined it, its sickness would be cured–the Langshi was sure of that. Xun came close to accepting–then saw Duan Tu, eyes wide with fear. Tian Ning must be worried sick. I don’t want her son to die–I don’t want anyone to die. Xun knew it then–she didn’t want the valley’s destruction. Xun had already forgiven them, and now she cared too much about Tian Ning and the others-cared enough to put aside her apathy and fear of the Langshi.
“No, I won’t join–aughh!” Xun was struck with a different kind of pain–instead of her soul tearing in two, it was growing larger. Courage and love were joining the mix, from–from the Langshi. It was in pain too. Its soul was breaking into fragments, the pieces flowing away into Xun. The Langshi got an idea.
“I will make you obey me!” The Langshi widened the connection, sending more fragments of its soul spiralling into Xun’s. Xun screamed. She felt things she had never felt before–happiness, disgust, passion, frustration, jealousy, joy. Her soul was growing, and growing fast. Xun could feel pain lancing across her body and mind. Come on, Xun, come on. But what could she do?
Wang Tian Ning finished the funeral preparations. She sat down in her chair. Though her tears had run out, she still longed for Duan Tu with all her soul. She thought back to Xun's visit. How dare she drop in, just to gloat about Duan Tu? Some of her sadness turned into rage. Overcoming her fear, She stormed out of the village to Xun's hut. Perhaps she couldn't punish the Langshi, but there was always Xun, its master. Tian Ning tore open the door.
"You-" the house was empty. Tian Ning frowned. It was almost night, and even Xun stayed inside to hide from the Langshi. Unless–she spotted the sword's usual resting place. It was gone. Xun was horrible at sword-fighting. She turned around and saw a clear trail Xun had left–she had never been the most stealthy–into the forest. I–I was wrong about her. She went to the Langshi to save my son. The tears came back again, tears of not only sadness, but of guilt. All those years I scorned her-I was wrong the whole time. Now she had to make it right. She ran back to her home and grabbed the sword that had been in her family for ages-the one wielded by Wang Zhi Hao. Strapping it to her back, she followed Xun into the forest.
Xun gasped. She gasped in anger, in hope, in despair, in love. She gasped in new emotions and feelings, and that was killing her. All this is amazing-but I'm not gonna make it if this keeps up. I have to give some back to the Langshi. She staggered closer, grabbing the Langshi's bulky arm. It raged and tried to oust her off, but Xun clutched tightly. With all her might, she forced some of her new emotions-and some of the ones she had had from the start-back into the Langshi. Their dual mental bond pulled them physically closer together. The Langshi slashed her across the face. Yelping, Xun staggered away, but the bond dragged the Langshi after her. The Langshi sliced again, across her chest. Blood stained her garment. Xun drew her jian, but the Langshi scorned it out of her hands. The Langshi continued attacking. Then Duan Tu tricked himself free.
"Here!" He grabbed Xun’s sword and tossed it to her. She caught it and thrust it deep into the Langshi's heart.
"Argh!" Head bowed low, it retreated, dragging Xun along. Xun thrust upwards again and again. Then Wang Tian Ning burst from the forest. Tian Ning drew her own sword and forced it into the Langshi's backside.
Wang Zhi Hao was famous for dual wielding two jian, and both his blades stabbed into the Langshi. Drawing its last breath, it thrust its claws into Xun. Both fell to the forest floor, unmoving. Mother and son rushed to Xun.
"Are you okay–" they stopped. The Langshi and Xun were moving closer together. As they touched, both bodies began to glow. Xun and the Langshi merged, until they became one girl. She opened her eyes.
"W–who are you?" Zhi Hao spoke. The girl paused, as if she needed to think about her answer.
“My name–my name is Lang Xun."
Tian Ning took her son and Lang Xun back to her house. There, Lang Xun spent a few days recuperating. Then she decided to set off, out of the valley, into the open world.
"You and your son may have forgiven me, and I'm grateful for that. But my soul split into both Xun and the Langshi. I'm responsible for all that the Langshi's done, and the villagers won't take kindly to that. The bandits trapped me because my soul could break at any moment. It broke all those centuries ago, and the village paid dearly for that. Even now, it could break at any moment and destroy everything. That's why I'm leaving–somewhere in the world, there must be another like me, who has the same problem as I do, yet managed to overcome it. I'm gonna learn their secrets and heal my soul."
"If that's what you want to do, then by all means go. But here’s what I think: it wasn’t just a stroke of luck that you became whole again. Xun felt compassion for me, while Duan Tu was missing. The Langshi, though a wild beast, was canny enough to almost trick Xun into helping it. Neither of you had those from the first place. As far as I can draw from what you told me, whenever you split, you opened a different facet of yourselves. So all of this was more than happenstance–even though your soul was divided, that didn’t stop either forms of you from reaching out to humanity.” Lang Xun mulled that over for a moment.
“Hmm. I don’t know. That’s one of the questions I’ll be trying to answer. But thanks for the sentiment.” She strapped on her backpacks. "Take this." Tian Ning held out Wang Zhi Hao's dual blades. "It's not good just sitting around cluttering the house." Lang Xun stared at her.
"But–they’re your family treasures."
"You're part of this family too, and you need them more than I do." Lang Xun accepted them and bowed low.
"T–thank you. I'll treat them with the respect they deserve."
"Okay. You do that." Tian Ning studied Lang Xun. She was similar to Xun, no doubt. But there were many differences. Her limbs were longer and hairier, like the Langshi, and her voice was deeper. And while Xun and the Langshi's eyes were raw, pained, and monochromatic as fresh blood, Lang Xun's eyes reflected all the dignity, calm, and variety of the rainbow.
"You've lived for centuries, yet you've never grown any older. But now you’re growing, changing by the day as normal teens do. How does that make you feel?"
"Hmm, I am happy to be finally growing up. Even if I'm no longer immortal, I'd rather have an expiry date than be Xun or the Langshi again, stale and unchanging. And if you're asking whether I learned anything special in all those years, no, I didn't, not as Xun nor the Langshi. Back then, every day was the same to me, while now, every second is a new surprise. Well, bye for now." She hugged Duan Tu and, after a moment's pause, hugged Tian Ning too.
“Know that as long as I live, you'll always be welcome here in Difei Valley." She nodded gratefully. Then, Lang Xun left the village, into the forest, then through the mountains, out of Difei Valley into the open world.