At night, they slept with their backs to each other. The stone figure slept on Cang Ji’s chest, rising and falling with each heave of his chest. It was asleep, but Jing Lin was awake. Rain had started to pour again outside. Thunder boomed.
Jing Lin listened to the rain as he meditated. He was about to rest when he heard the faintly discernible sound of the bell ringing in the rain. The bell led his mind drifting out of the chamber where he saw another scene.
The rain was still pouring.
A bare-footed child emerged from the bamboo fence and hopped towards the thatched hut with a fat leaf on his head. It was dark inside the house, and it reeked of foul medicine. The youngster ran to the inner room, leaving muddy footprints behind. A sickly and scrawny man was asleep on the old couch.
The young child kneeled down at the edge of the couch. Awash by the rain, his eyes shone even brighter. He took out an oil paper package from under his thin cloth and pulled it apart layer by layer. Lying inside was a sugar cake the size of his palm. Looking at the sugar cake, he could not help swallowing his saliva. He gave the man a push.
The man’s eyes were closed.
The child whispered. “Father, have some cake.”
The man turned a deaf ear.
The child pushed the cake beside the man’s pillow and rose to run outside. He had only just stepped over the threshold when he turned back. He dabbed his fingers on the sugar cake residue and put it in his mouth to taste. Before he could savor the sweetness, he heard footsteps outside the door.
“Chuanzi.” The woman took off her wet headscarf, exposing her plain face. She was sturdier than others, which was how she had been able to carry firewood and wield a hoe to raise a husband and a child. Wiping away the rain from her face, she sat down at the door to rest her feet and beckoned to her young child. “Why aren’t you wearing shoes again?”
The young child giggled and stretched out his muddy legs to show her. The woman’s face was hidden in the shadows. Jing Lin could not get a clear look at her. He could only sense the child taking a few steps forward. The child then threw himself into the woman’s arms and called her “mother” affectionately. The woman embraced and spoke to him with her head against his. The sounds of the rain muffled those words, so Jing Lin could not make out what she was saying. The child raised his arms to hug the woman’s neck, acting like a pampered child.
Jing Lin looked on coldly. He had no mother, so he did not know where the fun in having one was. He saw the child jumped for joy, then fell asleep in the woman’s arms. The woman held the child in her arms, with one hand on his back. As she gazed at the rain outside, she hummed a tune to lull him to sleep.
The sound of the rain quickened.
There was a heaviness on Jing Lin’s back, which almost pressed him into the bedding. He woke up in an instant. With some difficulty, he rolled over. Cang Ji’s face was right before him; He was sound asleep.
Jing Lin extracted his hand and kneaded his eyebrows. Cang Ji suddenly sniffed and said with his eyes still closed, “Let me take a bite while it’s dark and rainy.”
“Now that you can swallow all things, you can take grains too.” Jing Lin groped beside his pillow but did not find his fan.
Cang Ji raised his hand to open the folding fan and waved it a few times, saying, “Mortal grains can only fill the tummy. I don’t give a damn about it. You just had a dream, didn’t you?” He opened an eye slightly. “You called out for ‘mother’ earlier.”
Jing Lin said, “That wasn’t me.”
“The word came from that mouth of yours.” Cang Ji sat up and waved the fan forcefully. “Whimpering like a little kitten.”
As he said that, the little stone figure that had fallen off his chest bumped its head. Cang Ji watched it hold up its head as it sprawled back. It was only after it rolled around a few times that he heard Jing Lin’s reply.
“Where on earth would I have a mother?” He answered in a lazy tone. The little stone figure stretched its limbs and lazed around in the bedding. Jing Lin did not even want to move. He said, “This bell is cunning. Every time it takes me to see the scenery, it uses my energy.”
“You mean.” Cang Ji tilted his head. “That was Gu Shen’s dream? But what does it want us to do by calling us here?”
“I don’t know.” Jing Lin looked slightly weary. He said, “It isn’t cheap to take a look.”
He only took a few looks, and he was already sleepy. The dried-up feeling of having exhausted his spiritual expanse made him weak. It was a huge strain on him to follow the copper bell now. The last time when he took Cang Ji along had been much better. This bell even knew how to play favorites.
The next day, it was still dark and the rain was heavy. Gu Shen put on his straw rain cape and hat1 to mount the horse again. He wandered aimlessly among the mountains, trying to get a grasp of that sense of familiarity. He had been too young the year he left home. Except for the bamboo fence in front of the thatched house, he could only remember the strong smell of medicine during rainy days.
Cang Ji watched by the windowsill as the sight of Gu Shen’s back disappeared into the curtain of rain. He asked, “How long is it going to take if he keeps on searching like this?”
“There is no end to it.” Jing Lin watched as that figured vanished.
“Why does he have to be so persistent?” Cang Ji asked. “He can set up a family anywhere. Why insist on the one in the past?”
“It’s different after all.” Bits of rain splashed onto Jing Lin’s fingers. He said, “He’s almost past his prime, but he’s still all alone. Even if he’s accustomed to loneliness, he would not necessarily want to be alone forever. There are people in his family whom he has been missing for so many years, as well as the part of himself he had discarded.”
“I don’t understand.” Cang Ji turned around and sat on the window. “This is too tough to understand. So what if he finds them? The lifespan of a human is so short. Even if he finds them, his family might not remember him. Besides, the world is vast. It is only by oneself that one can truly be free. A family is a burden. It’s fine without one.”
“That’s why you aren’t human.” Jing Lin wiped away the water. “Neither am I.”
“This is the best for you and me.” Cang Ji lifted and hooked his finger in the air. Shaking his fingertip, he said without a care. “Since he took a special trip here, he must have some other purpose All we have to do is to just follow him, is that right?”
“I don’t know the bell’s intention.” Jing Lin said. “Just follow him.”
“Then, before we set off, I have to fill my stomach.” Cang Ji patted his knee and gestured for Jing Lin to come over.
The sound of the rain outside the window was urgent and intermingled with grunts of pain. The grip of Jing Lin’s four fingers on the wooden windowsill loosened and tightened. Rainwater soaked the trimmed and rounded fingertips, making them wet and cool.
In the end, Cang Ji was only half-full. Jing Lin was lacking in blood and vital energy. He had broken out in a cold sweat after being bitten by Cang Ji. Cang Ji was afraid he would die with one hard bite, so he licked reluctantly around the bleeding spot. Ever since he had consumed Zui Shan Seng’s spiritual energy, his cultivation had not only improved by leaps and bounds, but even his appetite had grown. His greed was becoming more like an arrow on a bowstring, ready to spring anytime.
Both of them had yet to notice the two bumps that had silently formed on the scaly forehead of the brocade carp – Cang Ji’s original form – sleeping in a curled up position in his spiritual sea.
The hoof prints of Gu Shen’s horse extended from the winding mountain road towards the deeper part of the mountain. After passing through the desolate precipice, he could see a wide-open flatland. This was a mountain city in the North. Looking down from a high spot, he could see rows of various buildings lined up in an orderly way.
Cang Ji and Jing Lin entered the city. The stone figure sat on Cang Ji’s shoulder and sneezed. Cang Ji rubbed the tip of his nose as well and said, “The demonic aura is overwhelming.”
They had just stepped through the gate when prying eyes all around gathered on them. They did not just drool over Jing Lin, but even Cang Ji. Looking around, it turned out that this place was overrun with demons in human skin.
“I was wondering how there could be a city in the mountains.” Cang Ji slid his fingertips across his lips and revealed an innocent smile to all those around him. Yet, the words that came out of his mouth were, “There’s enough of them to fill my stomach.”
Holding an umbrella, Jing Lin said, “There is also a deity-in-charge here.”
“The Demarcation Division even manages a demon city?”
“It’s their duty. However, “Jing Lin sized up the street market. “For the demonic aura to leak out like this, the deity-in-charge of this place is most likely still in hibernation.”
“Other than that Lord Dong, can’t anyone else wake them up?”
“It depends on luck.” Jing Lin said, “Lord Dong… If you get the chance to see him, you will understand why it has to be him to carry out such an undertaking.”
“Is it because he has three heads and six arms that even demons are afraid of him?”
“On the contrary.” Jing Lin said, “He’s good-looking.”
While both of them stood shoulder to shoulder under the umbrella whispering, Gu Shen had already dismounted and entered a shop. Just as he was having his meal in the hall, he saw a barefooted boy looking at him pitifully. Gu Shen broke apart the steamed bun and handed it to him.
The child took the steamed bun and took a small nibble at it. Gu Shen pointed to the empty seat before him and said, “Let’s eat together.”
The child climbed up the table. Instead of taking the chopsticks, he leaned on the table and stared at Gu Shen with his drool almost spilling over. On seeing how ravenous he was, Gu Shen gave him more steamed bun.
The lady from the shop held on to the wine on the tray and bent over to give Gu Shen a warm and enchanting smile as she pushed the child aside. Then, she slid into the seat beside Gu Shen as if she were rubber. With her face in her hands, she gazed at him and said affectionately, “Warrior, where are you from?”
Gu Shen ate his food. “South.”
The lady blinked her almond eyes2 as she moved closer. “The south is prosperous…” Her expression stalled for a moment before she laughed.
With a swing of her embroidered shoe, she kicked the child who had made his way under the table. The child staggered onto the ground and bared his fangs at that dainty foot.
The lady continued. “Having lived in the mountains all these while, I’ve never even seen a boat.”
Gu Shen cleaned his plate in a few mouthfuls and wiped his mouth to drink the wine. The lady’s soft hands squeezed Gu Shen’s arm and inched her way down. The feel of those buff muscles made her even more eager and attentive.
“There is hardly anyone who comes to this city. I’ve never seen such a valiant man like you.” She placed her hands over her heart and said bashfully. “My heart is still pounding now.”
Gu Shen clutched her hand and scrutinized her for a moment. He smiled. “Such a well-made face. Did your parents teach you?”
The woman turned pale. Gu Shen took out a talisman from his and swallowed it with the wine. The hand Gu Shen had gripped transformed into a furry claw in an instant. She hurriedly covered her face and wailed.
“How rude! Don’t peek at my real face!”
The surrounding diners were horrified.
Gu Shen released his hand. “I have no wish to disrupt your cultivation. Don’t hold me up either.”
The lady hid her face and retreated as she wept. When Gu Shen saw that the people around him were all looking at him, he ignored them. Instead, he pulled the small child out from under the table and stuffed some silver pearls into his hands.
“This shop is run by demons. Go elsewhere to beg for food.”
The child was speechless and stammered, “De, De, Demons!”
Gu Shen patted him on the head. “Just a common monkey spirit. It won’t harm humans. Don’t be afraid. Go.”
The teeth of the small boy chattered in fear as Gu Shen patted him on the head. He hugged the silver pearls tightly and turned around to run away. Gu Shen put his money aside and left to lead the horse in search of another inn. As he passed through a busy street, he noticed that the rain had stopped. What he did not know was that everyone had raised their heads to look at each other and at him as he passed them.
The small child tumbled and his head went rolling on the ground. He quickly picked it up again, lifted it in his hand and said to the others, “I met an immortal! He not only saw through Hou-niang’s3 original form, but even gave me money!”
“Money!” Several radish heads with sky braids4 surrounded him, “Gege! Gege! We want money too!”
The child took out the silver pearls and handed them to his younger brothers for a look. He pushed his head back on, and furry ears popped up between his hair. He twitched his ears and said, “The immortal even touched my head.”
The radish heads widened their eyes in unison. They jumped on him and scrambled over themselves to touch his head.
“Gege!” They spoke at once, trying to get a word in. “We want to touch your head too!”
The child let his younger brothers climb onto his body and put up with it with delight and affection as they touched his head. He said, “I’m now basking in immortal aura after the immortal has touched my head! It’s different now. If mother comes back, she will definitely find us.”
“Then we should follow the immortal.” One of them piped up with eloquence. “Mother said she went to find the immortal. The immortal must surely know where she is!”
“Gege!” They danced with excitement.“Let’s follow him to find mother!”
Cang Ji was about to ask what’s so good-looking about Lord Dong when he saw a bunch of radish heads giggling and tittering as they rushed towards them. Then, they breezed past beneath their umbrella like the wind and ran barefoot to the other side, sending their sleeves and robes fluttering.
Cang Ji stared after them for a very long time, prompting Jing Lin to ask in suspicion. “You like children?”
Cang Ji rubbed his stomach. “They look fresh and tender. It’s just that I can’t tell what demons they are.”
Jing Lin said, “Other than the leader being a mouse, the rest are all wild ghosts.”