The taste of that bit of blood at the tip of Cang Ji’s tongue turned into a surge of spiritual energy, and the sweetness irrigating his throat swelled until Cang Ji could not help but reveal his ivory teeth.
The Luocha Bird swooped down on them, but before it could land, Cang Ji grasped its silver claws and swung its massive body around. The Ghost Guards could not retreat in time and were sent flying as the Luocha Bird crashed into them.
“Surrender!” The Ghost Guards snapped and spun around to throw out their long chains.
The chains shook off the heavy snow, revealing themselves like hissing pythons dealing a crushing blow. Cang Ji dodged it, his form robust as he somersaulted to stand atop the network of chains as they intersected with one another. The tip of his foot pressed down on the intersection point of the chains before he yanked them up. The Ghost Guards holding on to the chains were simultaneously hauled towards him, crashing into one another in a ball of bodies.
On seeing this, the Luocha Bird sprang up and attempted to flee. Jing Lin took a step forward, and it tumbled onto the ground with begrudging cries as if it had collided into a wall of wind. It twitched on the ground, its wings and claws convulsing, shaking so much that the ringing of the bell grew louder. Sensing imminent danger, a demonic visage shrieked as it revealed itself beside its bird face, cramming in together with the other face on one head. It looked grotesque. Before long, the stench of rotting corpses permeated the surrounding air. It was actually attempting to digest the copper bell in its belly to break through the stalemate and flee.
“Where is the copper bell?” Cang Ji brushed past Jing Lin and took him by the arm as he kicked the Luocha Bird up to thwart the Ghost Guards’ surprise attack.
Jing Lin replied, “In its stomach.”
The Luocha Bird tumbled onto the ground, then suddenly flapped its wings and sprang up with a shrill cry. All its senses had taken leave of it as it tugged and tore away at the Ghost Guards’ iron chains. The head with a human face ripped one of the Ghost Guard into two with its mouth as if shredding paper. Then it raised its head to gulp him down.
“So, it’s a glutton.” Cang Ji cracked his knuckles, facing the Luocha Bird as it pounced on him. Amidst the cracking sounds, he smiled and said leisurely, “Coincidentally, I’m your granddaddy.”
Cang Ji burst into action right after saying so. His body was like a swan goose as he stepped on the snow and soared into the air. He weighed the chains in his hands. Before the Ghost Guards who were busy fleeing for their lives could notice him, a strong force dragged them back. The Luocha Bird had already gone berserk with anger, tearing away at anyone it encountered. Wails of anguish rang out as Cang Ji fed the Ghost Guards to the Luocha Bird.
“How was it?” Cang Ji stepped on the back of the Luocha Bird’s head with one foot and shook the iron chain, making it rustled in the falling snow. “Acknowledge me as your daddy, and you will never need to worry about food again.”
The Luocha Bird thrashed its head but failed to shake Cang Ji off. In a moment of folly, the Luocha Bird turned its sight to Jing Lin. Before it could spread its wings, the iron chains tightened around it to restrain it. There was a heaviness on the back of its neck as its head was slammed onto the ground. The iron chains stretched taut, strangling it until its neck was almost deformed. The Luocha Bird let out a blood-curdling scream, its various faces falling over one another to beg for mercy.
“Where are you going?” Cang Ji kicked its two heads.
Both faces of the Luosha Bird said in unison, with one face wailing and the other currying favor. “Spare me… spare me!”
“Spare you?” Cang Ji crouched before it and smiled. “Sure I can, but you have to answer a few questions.”
One pair of the Luocha Bird eyes swiveled around while the other pair looked miserable. Their voices overlapped as they said, “Ask away.”
Without waiting for Cang Ji to beckon him over, Jing Lin moved over to his side.
Jing Lin asked, “Who gave you the copper bell?”
The Luocha Bird covered its faces as its gaze wandered all over. It let out a hoarse cackle as it replied evasively, “At random. I ate it at random!”
Jing Lin nodded slightly without disputing its claim. He continued to ask, “You live in graves and was born out of heaps of corpses. Why have you come here to look for food?”
The Luocha Bird replied, “The taste here is delicious.”
Jing Lin stopped questioning it. When the Luosha Bird saw Cang Ji standing up, it said with a malicious look on one face and a pleading look on the other. “Let me go. Hurry.”
The chains in Cang Ji’s palm dropped to the ground. He raised his chin to Jing Lin and said, “Turn your back or close your eyes. Take your pick.”
The side of Jing Lin’s face was coated white with snow. He pulled out his cotton handkerchief, wiped his fingers carefully, and said, “Don’t dirty your clothes.”
“It doesn’t matter if it gets dirty, just put a new one on for me.” Cang Ji used his feet to prop the Luocha Bird’s face up and smiled down condescendingly on it. “Don’t worry. Daddy is just cutting open your belly to extract something.”
All four of the Luocha Bird’s eyes widened in a stare as it started to struggle violently. The iron chain tightened around its neck, and the head under the sole of Cang Ji’s shoe went even tauter. Both of the Luocha Bird’s faces swelled as the vague bobbing in its throat gradually gave way to a spluttering sound until its body stopped convulsing. It was as if a small blade had scraped off its entire spiritual energy, not even sparing those in the crevices of its bones. Four of its eyes rolled upwards in unison as it breathed its last.
Cang Ji squatted in the pool to wash his hands and held them up to his nose to take a sniff. It felt as if there was a lingering stench. He splashed the water irritably and stormed ashore. “It stinks to hell.”
Jing Lin was so sleepy at the moment that he only gave a perfunctory grunt from where he was atop the tree. He was too lazy to even open his eyes. Before the night was over, the tip of his nose had already turned red from the freezing cold outside.
Cang Ji stood naked in the water. In a split second, the heavy snow cloaking his shoulders and arms turned into water droplets. He did not seem to know what the cold was and found nothing wrong with being half-buried up to his waist in the water.
“Hey.” Cang Ji shook the water droplets away. “That bell really doesn’t belong to you?”
Jing Lin dragged himself back to consciousness and uttered an “uh-huh” in reply. Cang Ji had taken a few drops of his blood tonight, and it was hard for him to maintain his consciousness. He had to sleep. Water splashed as Cang Ji waded ashore. Bracing himself with his arms, he flipped into a standing position before Jing Lin and stared down at him.
“We wasted our efforts only to find out it was a fake. Even if I did not earn any merit, I still toiled hard. You have no idea how much of a stink its belly is.” Cang Ji lifted his arm and sniffed it while giving Jing Lin’s waist a light kick. “Do I still smell?”
Jing Lin opened his eyes wearily and instantly saw this fat fish’s brazen stomach, sturdy legs, and that naked, uninhibited secret part.
Jing Lin averted his gaze and said, “Not anymore.”
Cang Ji crouched down and moved closer to Jing Lin. His face was exquisite and his eyes, charming. He was so close to Jing Lin that Jing Lin subconsciously and hurriedly diverted his eyes.
“Or perhaps you had already noticed that it was a fake and intentionally deceived me into fishing for it?”
A mild look of surprise sprang up on Jing Lin’s face, looking almost ‘innocent’. He asked, “Why would I deceive you?”
Cang Ji cast him a suspicious look and said, “It sure is full of puzzles tonight. It does not seem to be a coincidence. It was as if we were being drawn into someone’s scheme. Why did the Ghost Guards turn back to chase us?”
“Their chains were empty, so they did not get their hands on the soul. Someone else must have gotten to it first.” Jing Lin leaned back slightly. “Get dressed.”
Instead of retreating, Cang Ji advanced and asked, “Then, what does that have to do with us?”
Jing Lin explained, “All four members of a household lost their lives. This case is already strange, and it even attracted the Luocha Bird. Yet, the Ghost Guards could not find the soul. It’s reasonable for them to suspect us when we showed up by coincidence.”
The copper bell had lured them here. And yet, the bell from the Luocha Bird’s stomach was not the one that Jing Lin lost.
“Who would set you up?” Cang Ji asked. “We left the mountain in secret, and the deity-in-charge of this place can’t see you. Who else knows?”
Jing Lin’s identity was sketchy at best. To date, it was still hard to determine whether his body was that of a human, a demon, a ghost, or a deity. But from the narratives that Cang Ji knew, everyone thought Jing Lin was dead. So, who would know the significance of the copper bell and Jing Lin’s temperament?
“Perhaps not.” Jing Lin covered his mouth with his stiff, frozen hands and blew them. “It would be hard for a copper bell overflowing with spiritual energy to remain undetected when it falls into the hands of a mortal. Those who have some cultivation would know the value of this bell. Since this person had substituted a raccoon for the crown prince1, he must have already gotten hands on the real one. Worried that we would chase after him, he intentionally sent out a fake one to obstruct us.”
But the timing was so perfect that it raised Jing Lin’s suspicions. But if he had someone in mind, he said nothing of it.
“Then, the real copper bell is no longer traceable?” Cang Ji wondered.
“That’s right.” Jing Lin looked at him quietly. “It’s a good time to devour me now.”
“That’s my affair.” Cang Ji almost said, “it’s none of your business”, but he held himself back and said, “Do you want to die that much?”
Jing Lin questioned, “Is it that strange?”
His eyes were surprisingly pure at this moment as if he were genuinely curious but had never received an answer before.
Cang Ji was speechless for a moment. He wanted to refute him, but yet he had nothing to say.
It’s none of my business whether Jing Lin lives or dies. As long as I devoured him, he would be with me forever, never to leave, and never to abandon me. It was fine this way. Even if their friendship ended, what did Jing Lin’s desire to live or not had to do with Cang Ji, who just wanted to eat him?
Yet, the other side of Cang Ji’s heart piped up.
I’m just not happy about it.
So he gruffly pulled out new clothes from the air and replied as he put them on. “Strange. It’s too strange!”
After putting it on for a while, he saw Jing Lin’s subtle gaze, looking as if he wanted to say something. Cang Ji said smugly, “Where are you eyeing me? You are allowed to praise me. If you’re not complimenting me, then don’t even open your mouth.”
Jing Lin held his peace. When both of them got off the tree and headed back, Cang Ji felt troubled and inconvenienced by his clothes. They returned to the inn in silence, and Jing Lin had just closed his eyes when someone pounced on him from the back.
Cang Ji said ferociously, “Why didn’t you warn me I’ve worn my trousers inside out?!”
He flipped Jing Lin over, only to see Jing Lin with his eyes closed as if he were already deep in sleep. Annoyed and resentful, Cang Ji said in a low voice, “Go on pretending!”
The little stone figure popped out from under the pillow and rolled with laughter. Cang Ji released Jing Lin and plopped down at one side, punching the bedding with stifled hatred. He glared fiercely at Jing Lin’s calm and indifferent profile, itching so much to bite him a few more times.
The next day, when Cang Ji sat up and saw that Jing Lin was not awake yet, he grabbed the small stone figure and placed it on his shoulder, yawning as he went downstairs to have some fun. He imitated Jing Lin and threw a few silver pearls to the innkeeper. After listening to the innkeeper praised the chef to the sky, Cang Ji casually placed his order.
“Do you want to eat?” Cang Ji propped his arm on the chair and said to the small stone figure, “Come to think of it, it’s odd. You don’t have a mouth, and you don’t consume spiritual energy. What do you live on all day?”
The little stone figure sat on his knee and held on to the chopsticks as if waiting for food. Finding it both ridiculous and adorable, Cang Ji could not help but shake his leg. His mood brightened on seeing it totter before giving him a few kicks indignantly.
As he was teasing it, he suddenly heard someone whispering in the hall.
“Something big happened today! You know Old Man Chen, who sells sugar figures2 on the west side? This morning, his neighbor made a report to the authorities. When those from the prefectural yamen went over and smashed the door open. Whoa! A family of five, all gone!”
A family of five?
Cang Ji’s heart skipped a beat.
Wasn’t it four?
- 狸猫换太子 literally substituting a raccoon for the crown prince. A folklore where a scheming imperial consort swapped another imperial consort’s baby son with a skinned raccoon (or civet cat, or leopard cat) out of jealousy, causing the latter to be driven out. The boy, supposed to be killed, was saved and later taken in by a prince and eventually ended up being the crown prince and subsequently, the Emperor. This idiom is now used to describe swapping something authentic for a fake.
糖人; sugar figure is a traditional Chinese form of folk art using hot, liquid sugar, or sugar syrup, to create three-dimensional figures that come in a variety of shapes from animals to objects. A dragon sugar figure is shown in the picture above.