The Ghost Guard’s gait was hurried as he dragged the heavy chain past the window. It was as if he suspected nothing, or perhaps he had something to attend to and did not want to complicate matters. When they left, Jing Lin withdrew his hand.
Jing Lin dusted the front of his clothes with his fingers, and his garment fell opened to reveal his shoulder. He absent-mindedly secured his waistbelt, looking as if he was deep in thought.
Cang Ji followed closely after him and asked, “What was that just now?”
“A bird.” Jing Lin was about to take a step forward after tidying himself up when someone blocked his way.
Cang Ji leaned against the door, obstructing Jing Lin’s path. He pushed on adamantly. “Why are the Ghost Guards of the Underworld chasing a bird? It stinks all over and does not seem to be a demon but a malicious spirit.”
“That’s a Luocha Bird1. It’s created out of the accumulation of corpses’ energy and is a master at shape-shifting. It’s…” Jing Lin paused, then continued solemnly. “It’s fond of eating fish.”
Cang Ji swiftly crossed his arms and leaned over. “Fond of eating fish? Then why didn’t it come here to find me?”
“The fish elsewhere is fatter.” Jing Lin replied with a straight face.
Cang Ji sized Jing Lin up with dubious eyes. He thought something was off, but he was used to Jing Lin’s solemnity and have never seen him lied to anyone before. So he asked again, “Why are the Ghost Guards chasing after a bird that eats fish?”
“Maybe they aren’t chasing after it.” Jing Lin said, “But taking a soul into custody.”
One had to be ferried across the banks of Li Jin on the way to the underworld. The Ghost Guards escorting the souls had to cross the river before they could reach the Hall of the King of Hell. There were countless spirits and souls of the dead in Zhongdu, so this was not an easy job to undertake. It was common to miss a soul that was due to be detained just because they were a little late. Therefore, once someone’s life ended in the Registry of Humans’ Life Expectancy, the Ghost Guard would lie in wait nearby until that person breathed his or her last. Then they would fetter the soul with chains before leading them away. But the Registry of Humans’ Life Expectancy could only identify those who died of natural causes. As for those who have died unjustly or abruptly, they had to rely on the various deities-in-charge to notify their respective divisions who would in turn hand it over to the Hall of the King of Hell. The Ghost Guards would then be dispatched. If there were even a moment’s delay during the entire process, they would lose the soul slated for capture. Trying to hunt down and recover a soul in the vast lands of Zhongdu was as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. And yet this Soul Custody Record was often tied in with the Ghost Guards’s promotion to a higher rank. As such, the moment a human life ends, the Ghost Guards would all yearn to split their legs into four to rush over.
But it was slightly different tonight; the Luocha Bird was actually ahead of the rest. Clearly, someone with deep resentment had died in the town. This matter was so unusual that the copper bell was likely behind it.
Cang Ji threaded his way through Jing Lin’s sleeve to grab his thumb, then looked outside. Shrinking smaller than even the little stone figure, he hid in Jing Lin’s sleeves. All because Jing Lin had said that the Luocha Bird was fond of eating fish and he was still not strong enough to devour a bird if it came for him now.
The night was still silent. The wind had stopped, but the snow had started to fall.
Dressed in navy, Jing Lin soundlessly stepped on the thin layer of soft snow, cutting a desolate figure as he carried a lantern with him. He left no footprints behind as he walked and searched along the street for a long time.
“You are becoming more and more like a mortal.” Cang Ji looked up for a moment and said, “Or are you originally a mortal?”
Jing Lin did not answer, but said, “Hide in the sleeve later. Don’t show your face.”
“There must be a reason you always avoid answering me.” Cang Ji lazily wrapped the material of Jing Lin’s sleeve around himself, revealing only his head. “Are you hiding your precious away because you are afraid that I’ll devour it someday and gain knowledge of worldly desires?”
“You’re contradicting yourself.” Jing Lin said.
Cang Ji knew that Jing Lin was talking about the words he had said before he bit Jing Lin’s neck. He could not help but push the tip of his tongue against his teeth. He said, “Words spoken in a fit of pique are not to be believed. Didn’t anyone tell you that before?”
Jing Lin looked at him without answering. Cang Ji knew that justice was not on his side, but he did not think that he was wrong. He was only brooding over the question of whether Jing Lin was a mortal, a deity or a ghost, but Jing Lin always maintained his silence on this issue. This unsettled him so much that he just had to get to the bottom of the truth.
As he was thinking about it, Jing Lin came to a stop. Before Cang Ji could look around, Jing Lin gently pushed him into his sleeve. Cang Ji tumbled in Jing Lin’s sleeve, then did a carp kip-up2 and sat cross-legged as he craned his neck to listen to the movements outside.
Jing Lin’s lantern suddenly went out as he stood before a closed door. The eaves of the door were covered with grass, and the wooden planks3 were old. The snow on the earthen steps had iced over, seemingly for a long time, but no one cleared it.
Under the darkness of the night, the metallic smell of blood permeated the air, its stench making one’s throat tighten and scalp tingle. Cang Ji heard the sound of a demon in the midst of having its meal, as crunching sounds of bones being chomped into pieces rang out.
“It was only in the daytime that I mentioned this place wasn’t suitable for hunting.” Cang Ji let out a laugh as he placed his hands behind his head. “But now it seems this is clearly a good place for feeding.”
As soon as he spoke, the chewing noises stopped.
The door creaked open at the touch of Jing Lin’s toe. The Ghost Guards were long gone. There was a pool of congealed blood on the floor, with a trail of blood leading from the low, narrow door. Jing Lin crossed the threshold. This courtyard was narrow and had only two buildings: a chamber for sleeping and a woodshed. The door did not have a hanging screen, and one window was badly damaged. Blood had splattered through the hole onto the windowsill. Not long ago, there was a face stuck to it, but now the paper of the window had been soaked red.
There was no corpse in the courtyard. It looked as if someone had been dragged from the house to the front of the woodshed, where the person had been smashed beyond recognition with the bolt of the door when it was realized that he or she was still alive. They were then finally dragged back the same way. There were still signs of a struggle in the snow, but the size of the footprints in the snow were those of a child.
Jing Lin stood still and looked around. Cang Ji suddenly said, “I smell the scent of a human. It’s the one who stole the copper bell.”
But this place was already deserted. What was a bandit doing here? He knew very well that he was being chased by a demon, so he should have gone into hiding upon fleeing back to the town.
Jing Lin entered the inner building again. The darkness swallowed him. The flame of his lantern leaped into life as his lantern glowed. However, the instant it lit up, a battered and malevolent face confronted Jing Lin and stared at him with bitter resentment.
Jing Lin abruptly took a step back, not out of fear, but revulsion. The mouth of this man could barely close, and the flesh and blood that he had gobbled up seemed stuck in his throat, causing him to retch with effort.
“Mine…” He stuffed his hands into his mouth and staggered towards Jing Lin. “M… Mine…”
Cang Ji’s nose twitched. “It stinks to high heavens. This is it. It’s that bird.”
The Luocha Bird stooped over, swallowing as spittle and pieces of flesh trickled down its mouth. It stretched forward towards Jing Lin.
Right at once, Cang Ji said harshly. “Don’t let it touch you, or I’ll rip its skin apart!”
Jing Lin flicked his sleeve to silence Cang Ji. But it was too late. The Luocha Bird had heard the sound, and an evil thought came to its mind. Cackles escaped from its throat as it pounced on Jing Lin’s sleeve, trying to grab Cang Ji. Cang Ji was tossed around inside the sleeve until he saw stars. He clasped Jing Lin’s finger tightly and took a bite without even thinking about it.
Cang Ji’s lanky body immediately appeared, with one hand full of scales as he imitated Hai Jiao Zong Yin’s appearance the day he transformed into a human form. Pressing the back of the Luocha Bird’s head, he slammed it down and smashed its face into the ground.
“I don’t care who you are.” Cang Ji said menacingly. “But you dare to snatch my food?!”
Before Cang Ji could finish speaking, Jing Lin dragged him back by his collar, causing him to bend over backward. Another body nosediving heavily from above barely brushed by him.
Jing Lin’s keen sense of hearing caught the sound of the copper bell. He lifted his foot in a kick, and a sudden surge of strong wind in the cramped room forced the Luocha Bird back. He lifted a combative Cang Ji in one hand and cast a spell with the other. There was a glow of green light, and the hologram of a talisman instantly grew in size before them, shielding them. However, Jing Lin had been bitten twice by Cang Ji in a single night. Where in the world would he have the spiritual energy to maintain the spell? The next moment, the green light of the charm flickered under the shrill cries of the Luocha Bird and shattered into fragments.
Jing Lin’s chest felt heavy as he covered his mouth and choked on his blood.
Both Luocha Birds fused and simultaneously launched an attack together, aiming right for Jing Lin’s eyes. Cang Ji blocked it with his arms. Scales swiftly emerged on his arms, but even so, the Luocha Bird managed to draw blood with its claws.
“It has been only a moment.” Cang Ji said, “How did it become so strong?!”
Jing Lin’s breathing was uneven as both of them retreated at the same time. He waved his sleeves to summon the wind, and snowflakes rained down in clusters. The Luocha Bird finally revealed its real appearance, shifting from its imitation of two corpses into an aged person with facial deformities. The snowflakes whirled around it like cutting knives. The Luocha Bird screeched, yet there were no wounds on it.
“It ate the copper bell.”
Before Jing Lin could finish his words, the Luocha Bird’s back split open and sprouted gray wings. The Luocha Bird tore through the wind and swept through the snow to rush towards them.
Cang Ji’s cultivation had only been established, and his expanse of spiritual energy was still unstable. It was only because of his insatiable desire for Jing Lin’s spiritual energy that he could build up his original form. Even if he fought with his life now, there was no guarantee that he could defeat the Luocha Bird. Unless he took a few more mouthfuls of Jing Lin and devoured him a few more times. It went without saying that Jing Lin has already emptied his expanse of spiritual energy because of his injuries. He was merely hanging to his life by a thread. He could still get by back in the garden because there was the copper bell to hold the fort and keep his souls together. If the copper bell was still around, they would not be in such a mess. But now Jing Lin had lost the bell, he was already at a disadvantage.
Cang Ji promptly raised his foot and stepped on a door plank to pin down the Luosha Bird trying to race outdoors. He trampled down on it heavily, and the Luosha Bird struggled wildly, its wings thumping behind the door.
“Spit it out!” Cang Ji’s voice deepened as he looked down. The door plank could no longer withstand the heavy battering and pounding of the Luosha Bird.
The head of the Luocha bird suddenly broke through the door plank and shrieked, “Mine… Mine!”
Jing Lin said, “It’s just like you.”
Right away, Cang Ji grabbed Jing Lin’s arm and said resentfully, “Bullshit! Do I look like this? Is this how I look like to you?”
Jing Lin saw that he had misunderstood, but there was no time to correct him. He turned around and threw himself at Cang Ji, causing Cang Ji to take a few steps back and slide to the ground. Cang Ji’s back collided with something, and scattered firewoods came crashing down on him. He let out a curse and waved away the debris. Cang Ji picked up Jing Lin by his waist and hoisted him over his shoulder and rose nimbly.
The gray wings of the Luocha Bird shrouded the sky. Even its face was transforming into its original bird form. Carrying Jing Lin, Cang Ji grabbed the top of the wall and swiftly vaulted atop it to make his escape.
“You deceived me. It doesn’t eat fish at all. It eats humans, eyes, and demons!” Cang Ji leaped onto the roof and made a mad dash for it in the night snow.
It was the first time Jing Lin was carried this way over a person’s shoulder. He was jerked around so much until his stomach turned and he nearly regurgitated its contents. A sigh escaped his mouth as he pressed down on the back of Cang Ji’s neck to lift himself up. Unexpectedly, there was a crackle as the Luocha Bird brushed past the crown of his head and swooped down. Its strange and ugly face leaned towards Jing Lin’s face as if doggedly zeroing in on them.
Jing Lin stared back at it icily. The night wind rose again, ruffling its feathers. It was right at this moment that the Luocha Bird lost its nerve and cowered. Cang Ji seized the opening to leap across several houses before he dropped down and continued to gallop through the streets.
The night scene was all a blur to Jing Lin. At the moment of impact upon landing, vague memories of the past came back to him. He grasped tightly onto Cang Ji’s clothes as his head felt as if it was splitting open. Cang Ji realized something was wrong with him and pulled him into his arms.
“Jing Lin?” Cang Ji sprang up again, trudging through the heavy snow as he pinched Jing Lin’s face. “Don’t sleep!”
Jing Lin closed his eyes and tightened his grip on Cang Ji’s lapels. He said, “There is something wrong with this place.”
Cang Ji was fleeing with the Luocha Bird in such hot pursuit that even his breathing grew irregular. He could not tell the direction in this heavy snow, but no matter how much he ran, the rooftops around them seemed to stretch on forever! A gush of chilly wind pounced on Cang Ji from behind, and he dropped down to evade it. But he did not expect an iron lock to come flying at him right in the face from the left. He could not dodge it; it seemed as if he would get hit. In that split second, a white wrist materialized on Cang Ji’s left and grabbed ahold of the chain as frosty ice speedily enveloped the back of the hand. Droplets of blood dripped from Jing Lin’s hand, although there were no clear signs of wounds on it. Jing Lin wiped the drops of blood with his other hand and rubbed his fingers between Cang Ji’s lips.
“Eat your fill.” Jing Lin shook his hand lightly, and the ice shattered. He enunciated, “We aren’t running away anymore.”
The paper-like Ghost Guards stood around them in solemn silence as the chains clattered and encircled the two men.
They were clearly one step slower than the Ghost Guards and should not have encountered the Ghost Guards at all. But yet, here they were, with the Ghost Guards before them. There was obviously something odd with this place. It almost seemed like someone was trying to trap them.
Cang Ji had long lost his patience while they were fleeing. The tip of his tongue flicked across that smudge of red and licked Jing Lin’s generous gift clean.
- 罗刹 Luocha, or rakshasa in Sanskrit, is a man-eating demon in Buddhism. In this arc, the Luocha mentioned specifically refers to the Luocha Bird (罗刹鸟), an evil bird-like creature that looks like a gray crane with a white beak and claws; it’s fond of eating human eyes.
鲤鱼打挺 carp kip-up, a martial arts move where one leaps from a supine position into a standing position.
- Doors in the old days were mostly made of wood. The ‘doors’ of some houses, especially of the commoners, were either a set of two door planks that could be opened from the center (picture 1) or simply several wooden planks to cover up the opening of the entrance (picture 2).