Cang Ji did not understand the pain of the word “separation”, and so he was unmoved by the cries of the child. But the last sound made by the woman made his hair stood on end. He was just about to push aside the branches to investigate further when he felt the illusion sinking like water and shattering at his feet in the blink of an eye. The bell tinkled madly. It created such a din that Cang Ji opened his eyes instantly.
He did not expect the bell to be still ringing rapidly when he opened his eyes.
Cang Ji’s six senses were sharp. He took a sudden look back and saw Gu Shen sitting in the room shaking a bell.
Gu Shen stopped the bell when he saw that Cang Ji had woken up. He was wary and fearful of Cang Ji, so he held a talisman between his fingers as he said to Cang Ji, “Both of you have followed me for several days. What exactly do you want?”
Cang Ji replied, “We saw how firm your flesh is; it’s just right for making dishes.”
“You’ve had many chances on the way, but both of you didn’t make any moves. I’m afraid it wasn’t because of gluttony.” Gu Shen propped himself up as he sat cross-legged and said with a serious expression, “I’m so poor that I’m stranded here. Why don’t you tell me exactly what is it you want?”
“Since you know that I have been following you for several days, why are you asking about it only today? ” Cang Ji poured himself a cup of cold tea from the table, took a sniff at it, and then splashed it away.
“I couldn’t be sure until last night when I saw both of you again.” Gu Shen said, “If there’s something you would like to ask me to do, feel free to spit it out.”
“There’s nothing we want to ask of you.” Jing Lin suddenly opened his eyes. “But there’s something we can be of help to you. Haven’t you come to the realization that you are being manipulated by others all the time you’ve been searching for your family and wandering around the mountains?”
“Manipulate?” A look of doubt emerged on Gu Shen’s face. “Was I led into the city just to end up as a dish for the demons?”
“The key is in your search for your family.” Jing Lin said, “If Dong Lin’s death can be attributed to the word ‘death’, then the reason the copper bell looks for you is because of the word ‘parting’.1 The dream last night reminded me. Since the bell is here, it won’t be without a reason.”
“I don’t even know where my family is, how can bystanders help me? Don’t tell me…” Gu Shen’s voice stalled.
“You don’t know.” Jing Lin was finally able to massage his nape. Closing his eyes, he said, “But someone here knows.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Innkeeper Zhu was firmly bound. He wanted to cry, but no tears came, so he could only beg. “Gentlemen, please spare me! I was just being greedy; I didn’t want to kill anyone.”
“The knife was even sharpened and held against my neck.” Gu Shen folded his arms. “And you still want to bullshit us.”
“You, you didn’t die.” Innkeeper Zhu blinked his beady eyes and squeezed out tears. His body shook as he wept. “We are just insignificant mountain demons. It took us several hundred years just to see a living mortal. How can you blame us?!”
“Your skin is thin, and your meat, tender. It must be pretty delicious if we roll it in oil and fry it until it is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.” Cang Ji stepped on his back and pressed the pig spirit down.
“No! No!” Innkeeper Zhu wailed. “There are many demons in this mountain that are much more delicious than me! Please have mercy on me and go fry someone else!”
“Do all the demons here live in the city?” Jing Lin parted the branches that had already started sprouting leaves and walked out.
“They’re all, all living here.” Innkeeper Zhu’s mouth trembled. He felt extremely aggrieved. “There are so many of them who bared their claws last night. You can’t be so biased! Eat us all if you want to eat me. At least I’ll be able to accept it…”
“Aren’t you satisfied enough to remain in the mountains? Instead of coming to a human’s settlement and put on an act.” Showing some mercy, Cang Ji did not stomp Innkeeper Zhu into the mud.
“They do live in the mountains.” Innkeeper Zhu wiped his face with a meaty hand and licked his lips before he continued, “This was originally a mortal city. Later, the humans died out. Mountain Deity Grandpa was lonely living alone, so he asked us to move in. It’s only when winter and spring intersect each year that we can leave the city to meet up with friends. Usually, no one can enter the city.”
“Why did the people in the city die?”
Innkeeper Zhu averted his eyes, touched his stubby nose, and resentfully kept his silence.
“Pluck off his pig ears and enjoy it with wine.” Gu Shen pulled out his dagger from his waist. “All day long I’ve heard of demons eating humans. Today, I must try how a demon tastes like.”
Innkeeper Zhu hurriedly buried his head into the mud and held his breath as he said in a panic. “No hurry, no hurry! I’ll tell you! There was originally no mountain deity in this place, so the people in the city did not worship deities. That’s why demons crowded around them. Even the Demarcation Division did not want to take over control. This city was odd. The women were mostly reticent and hardly venture out on the streets. They stayed cooped up in their houses all day. On the occasions I went in for a look, I would even assume there were only men in this city. However, although they did not worship the Ninth Heaven deities, they were blessed with offspring and had an abundance of descendants; they reproduced even faster than those mouse spirits and rabbit spirits! At that time, when I came out of the mountains to take a look, I found this city so listless it scared me. The weirdness at this point did not seem to be the actions of a demon, but an evil spirit. After that, a few years later, the Demarcation Division probably couldn’t bear to watch any longer so they sent Mountain Deity Grandpa over and stationed him here. Within three days, everyone in the city was wiped out.”
Gu Shen gasped in astonishment. “All of them died?”
Innkeeper Zhu continued, “The mob of demons rejoiced, thinking that they could feast on the corpses to their hearts’ content. No one expected Mountain Deity Grandpa to prohibit us from doing so. Instead, he buried an entire city of ten thousand humans underground. I, I don’t know if he’s keeping them for himself or simply just leaving them like this…”
Cang Ji was about to open his mouth when a folding fan tapped him gently on the lips. Jing Lin looked pensive, but he did not voice his question.
Innkeeper Zhu hugged his head and burst into tears. “I have told you everything I know! Gentlemen, please spare me! It took me a hundred years of cultivation before I could take on a human form. I’m not only old, but my skin is rough and my flesh is tough. If you eat me, it’ll be like chewing wax!”
“The Mountain Deity…” Gu Shen also seemed to find something fishy about this. “Where is the Mountain Deity now?”
“When the afterglow of the setting sun sweeps across the foot of the mountains, he will sleep at whichever mountain the light falls on.” Innkeeper Zhu said, “Gentlemen, please do not mention that I’m the one who told you! The Mountain Deity often roams the mountains when he wakes up. He did not seem to be on night patrol, but more like on the search for someone. He has been searching year after year, but no one passes by this place at all.”
When Innkeeper Zhu finished replying, Cang Ji kicked him back into his original form. The wild boar rolled around once in the muddy water and bolted, its body filthy all over.
“How could an immortal kill indiscriminately?” Gu Shen said. “I don’t believe it.”
“Perhaps it’s not an immortal.” Jing Lin’s eyes followed the sun. He said, “It’s rare for the minor demons in the mountains to come across an immortal. The Ninth Heaven’s official documents are not something anyone could set their eyes on either. If someone intentionally forged one, no one here would be able to tell.”
“Such courage.” Cang Ji said, “Demons with low cultivations wouldn’t have that big of a gall for that.”
“You have to see it with your own eyes before you can understand it.” Jing Lin said.
The sun was setting now. The hour of You2 was approaching.
◈ ◈ ◈
Zui Shan Seng was slapped awake.
Lying on his side on the ground, he whined begrudgingly. “Don’t disrupt my dreams! Scram, scram, scram! Spring is drawing near. The seedlings have been planted in the various lands of the South. You haven’t even made a damn trip to all the freaking mountain ranges near the North! If you delayed the Northerners’ farming season, then don’t blame them from cursing you!”
“My, my.” The lowered sleeve of a bluish-black daily outfit swept across Zui Shan Seng’s face. The arrival untied Zui Shan Seng’s wine gourd, shook it for a moment, and said with a glum expression. “Why didn’t you leave a drop behind? I walked all the way from the South and I’m thirsty.”
“You’re the one who doesn’t your job well. Who are you blaming?!” Zui Shan Seng turned over.
“We haven’t met for a few days, you’re in an even worse state than before. There are countless marvels in the Ninth Heaven, and you are the most outstanding one. At the very worst, others would sleep on tree branches and they could still intimidate others. But you just lie across this shabby street, living as if you have been beaten up by humans.” Lord Dong flung aside his wine gourd and sat down on Zui Shan Seng’s back. “Let me rest my feet.”
“Scram.” Zui Shan Seng said in irritation. “I’ll sleep wherever I like. It’s none of your business.”
“Am I not here to make it my business?” Lord Dong looked around and said, “I was right. You were really trounced by someone. Interesting. There are still such heroes among the lands of Zhongdu. Dare I ask the other party’s name? I’m going to write him a compliment myself and praise him well. This is truly gratifying.”
Zui Shan Seng abruptly got up. He could not pick up Xiang Mo staff in time and simply took off his shoe to throw it right onto Lord Dong’s face. Lord Dong nimbly dodged it and grabbed hold of the shoe. Then, with a look of awkwardness and disdain, he lifted his fingers to cast it away.
“Look at you flying into a rage out of humiliation.” Lord Dong clapped his hands in satisfaction. “Well fought, well fought!”
“One of these days, I’ll tear your mouth to pieces.” Zui Shan Seng spat. “What an unbearable stink! So despicable you need a spanking!”
There was a folding fan inserted into the back of Lord Dong’s collar. If he stood still and silent, just his face alone would give him a reputation in Ninth Heaven. But this man loved to open his mouth and turned his good name into one of ill repute loathed by tens of thousands of people. Which of the deities in Ninth Heaven was not afraid of him? Even Lord Cheng Tian would beat a retreat and pretend to be asleep on learning of Lord Dong’s arrival at the palace hall.
Lord Dong hummed a merry tune intermittently. He was not in the least angry and simply laughed. “Why speak out of pique? You and I are as close as brothers. How could you bear to? Moreover, this skin might not captivate the crowd, but it is still possible to get a pardon out of it. Zui Shan Seng, I’m sorry~!”
Zui Shan Seng took off his other shoe. “Will you scram or not?”
“Scram!” Without saying a word more, Lord Dong promptly rolled over on the ground,3 then he stood up and continued, “And there’s that. How was it? It’s not just one of them who exchanged blows with you last night.”
Zui Shan Seng put his shoes back on. “I’m here in the official capacity of Zhuihun Prison. You…”
“I saw the cracks on the ground originating from a collapsed spot. Presumably, you were the one who made the first move by flinging the staff onto the ground. This place is hidden in the mountains. It is by no means the place where Zhuihun Prison would go for official purposes. Obviously, you’ve traced and followed someone here for your own personal grudge. You would not put the common man’s grudge on your mind, while the common demons aren’t even worth a mention. Looks like this “someone” is related to the Ninth Heaven Realms. I haven’t heard of anyone else descending into the Mortal Realm, so I’m afraid this “someone” is an old acquaintance.” Lord Dong bent over to pick up a stone fragment and marveled. “You fought with him, not expecting him to be something else. Haha, you must have had suffered in silence, so you slept on the ground in a fit of pique, thinking that you can pursue them for another battle after you’ve recuperated and built up your strength. This makes me rather curious though. Those two…”
He came to a sudden stop and turned the stone around between his fingers. The sun had sunk into the West now and the city gradually fell dark. He caressed the stone and said softly.
“This resembles an impression from a sword. What object did he use? You don’t have to say it. My guess is that it’s a fan. Interesting. Interesting. His blows with the fan are so swift and forceful that it reminds me of someone.”
Zui Shan Seng immediately asked anxiously, “Who?”
Lord Dong threw the stone away and pulled out the folding fan from his back. He snapped it open and said, “Wouldn’t that be me?”
Zui Shan Seng kicked Xiang Mo Staff up and grabbed hold of it. Without further ado, he moved to strike Lord Dong on the head with it. Lord Dong evaded it unhurriedly and stopped the staff with his fan. It sank slightly, and Lord Dong let out a laugh.
“Don’t be so violent.” He said, “How could you not realize whose strokes he was imitating when you exchanged blows with him?”
Zui Shan Seng was taken aback. He watched as Lord Dong swayed his body drunkenly and twirled his sword.4 The wind followed after his fan, like a startled dragon encircling it. Although Lord Dong had yet to drink wine, his gait was sufficiently drunk! Zui Shan Seng was greatly stunned; he almost suspected he had turned into someone else to deceive his own self.
Who exactly were those two?
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin suddenly coughed a few times. Cang Ji was carrying him on his back and turned his head to ask him. “Are you cold?”
Jing Lin said, “… A chill just ran down my back.”
- 八苦, the eight sufferings in life (which the bell is leading Jing Lin through)–so far, we have encountered death (Dong Lin) and parting, or separation from loved ones (Gu Shen). The others are birth, old age, sickness, encounter (with hated ones), unfulfillment (of wishes and desires), and ill arising from the 5 fundamentals of life that make up our self-existence (form, sensations, perceptions, volition, and consciousness).
- 酉时 hour of You, 5-7 pm (time in those days was divided into 12 two-hour blocks)
- 滚 not only means to get lost or scram but also “to roll”.
- 挽剑花 Literally ‘draw a sword flower’. It’s a technique in swordplay, although the exact stance may differ from sect to sect. Something like this video.