The scene before Jing Lin was suddenly small. Trapped in the whirling grasses revolving around him, Jing Lin saw buds sprouting on withered branches, blooming in the colors of spring. When the grasses stopped and the scene cleared up before his eyes, he was standing by a pond of flowers. Jing Lin lowered his eyes and looked at his reflection on the clear surface of the pond.
It was the face of Lord Lin Song.
“Lord Dong.” Jing Lin turned his eyes towards the pavilion in the heart of the pond and said, “A tiny lease of life creates this world.1 It’s not worth making such a big fuss to get to the bottom of the matter.”
“That depends on who you are.” Lord Dong sat under the pavilion and poured wine as he observed from the side. “If you are someone like Li Rong and Jing Lin, I’d be delighted to create millions upon millions of overlapping realms, let alone this one world.”
“Then, in your opinion.” Jing Lin asked. “Who am I?”
“This pond is the mirror to one’s heart. You know who you are best. It’s a pity I can’t gaze upon it, so I can’t see through you.” Lord Dong motioned to him. “If you don’t mind, come to the pavilion to take a break. Once Zui Shan Seng starts fighting, he won’t end the fight that fast. Let us have a chat and make each other acquaintance.”
Jing Lin knew that Lord Dong must have sealed off the realm. Since Lord Dong was taking his own time, then he would too. The hardest part of dealing with Lord Dong was not with his combat skills, but his words. This person’s greatest strength was his insight.
Lord Dong urged him to drink. “As the saying goes, we drink to drown our sorrows. I’m anxious to move on. You’re vexed over shaking off that blockhead. You and I can have a few drinks to fraternize with each other.”
Jing Lin did not turn him down. With a folding fan in his hand, Lord Dong said, “I feel a sense of kinship with you the moment I saw you. Looks like it’s affinity. If that’s the case, then all the more we should get to know each other. However, it’s really strange. Both of you have nothing to do with Zui Shan Seng, so why is he hot on your heels?”
“It’s a long story.” When Jing Lin shook the cup, he saw a few words engraved on it. Lord Jiu Tian had a penchant for doing this. It was likely the Supreme Father had influenced Lord Dong in this respect when he took the latter in as his adopted son. They were simply cut from the same cloth when it came to their preferences. However, this was even more loathsome to Jing Lin. He detested the Supreme Father to the point he would rebel whenever he saw someone similar.
“I’m not afraid of people having a long conversation.” Lord Dong said. “I’m only afraid of people living a long life. It’s a pity that my old father was also a short-lived man, even my brothers are all ill-fated. Have you ever heard of my brothers? You are so familiar with the Ninth Heaven’s deities that you even know of Zui Shan Seng’s sore point. I bet you must have heard of them.”
“Who doesn’t know,” Jing Lin brushed his fingertips across the words on the cup. “Zui Shan Seng’s sore point? The Three Realms are all aware he can’t convert2 yet; it’s not a secret.”
“I’m not referring to his conversion.” Lord Dong leaned over, slightly sweeping across the table surface. He said, “I’m talking about him going crazy for ‘love’. He’s now insane to this extent all because he is sick. He’s lovesick from yearning and infatuation. Even if this is known throughout Ninth Heaven, it has never been revealed in Zhongdu. Where did you learn of this?”
“The various deities were once human.” Jing Lin was unconcerned. “As long as he’s human, he will have weaknesses. Not everyone is as tight-lipped as you are.”
“That’s true.” Lord Dong was well aware of this. He said, “Have a few more cups of wine.”
Jing Lin covered the cup with his fingers and said, “As they said, there is no such thing as a free lunch.”3
“Your little fish consumed half of Zui Shan Seng’s spiritual energy, why hasn’t his mouth collapsed yet?” Lord Dong poured the wine leaving no room for doubt. “Speaking of which, I have a brother who doesn’t drink. Guess who it is.”
Jing Lin said, “I’m neither kith nor kin of yours. I don’t know.”
“Let me tell you then. Among my brothers, there’s a special one called Jing Lin, also known as Lord Lin Song. This man is odd. Among all the brothers, he’s the most unlikeable. Yet, he was the one the Supreme Father favored the most. A pity the benevolent father spoiled the child and raised him to be the greatest evil among Heaven and Earth.” Lord Dong’s profile was calm as he poured the wine. He raised his eyes slightly. “Do you know why he’s called Lord Lin Song?”
Jing Lin felt as if the cup in his palm was a dagger laced with poison, stabbing his empty chest through his palm. He looked at Lord Dong; he was most familiar with this gaze of his. They all looked at him this way. Long before the day he committed patricide, they were already looking at him like this.
The corners of Jing Lin’s lips spread into a relaxed smile. He said. “I’ve no idea. This person’s name is not as renowned as Lord Sha Ge, Li Rong. How would I know?”
“That’s really some history.” Lord Dong widened his eyes as if he encountered someone who had said something bizarre. He said, “It was said that the day Jing Lin came under the Supreme Father’s roof, the whistling of the wind among ten thousand qing4 of pines mingled with the sound of rain. When he kneeled down to kowtow to Father, the sea of pines rose in waves despite the lack of wind. The entire mountain reverberated with the sounds of pines and rain. He kowtowed trice. His spiritual sea had yet to be constructed, but the form of his heart was already completed. No one else in this world has begotten their true form first before their spiritual sea. Furthermore, his original form was so advantageous that it put a smile on the Supreme Father’s face and he even personally helped him up.”
It was as if the soughing of wind among the pines was right beside his ears. Jing Lin twirled his cup and asked with some interest, “What’s the true form of this person?”
“A sword. Since birth, his abilities were on full display; he was pretty unlikable. And yet, he was also a rarity. With his original form being a sword, it meant that he should be eliminating evil and defending the righteous way his entire life. It also meant that he had an unwavering heart of stone. If there was ever someone in the human realm who was born without a heart, that’d be him. No one can ever warm the heart of a man whose heart is like a sharp blade.” With that, Lord Dong looked at Jing Lin and continued. “But the Supreme Father regarded him as a blessing from Heaven and looked upon him like his own. Among the brothers, he was ranked ninth, yet he was the first to be conferred the title of a Deity Lord. This honor is something that even the current Lord of Heaven and Earth, Lord Cheng Tian, can’t match up to, let alone Lord Sha Ge, Li Rong. Yet, it was he who turned evil. Don’t you find it strange? I can’t figure it out at all.”
“Since he has turned evil, just kill him.” Jing Lin said, “There is no sword in the world that can’t be destroyed.”
“I didn’t expect you to be such a forthright person too.” Lord Dong poured more wine and smiled. “You’re right. Since he has turned evil, just kill him. But I heard your little fish saying that he admires Lord Lin Song. How terrible is that? If he becomes evil in the future too, then he will end up as nothing but dust as well.”
“Then, if he says he admires Lord Dong, wouldn’t he be a Deity Lord commanding the masses in future?” Jing Lin tilted the cup, and the wine spilled onto the ground. He said, “As expected, immortal wine tastes bad. Now that you’ve said your piece, I’ll say my farewell.”
“Come and go as you wish.” Lord Dong leaned against the table and spread out his hands, saying rather shamelessly. “If you can get out of here, go ahead. I’ve said so much, and you are still unwilling to reveal yourself?”
“I’m a stone’s throw away from you.” Jing Lin cast his cup aside and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his fingertips carefully. “If you can see through me, then look all you want.”
Sounding someone out was all because doubts existed. As long as doubts remained, there would be loopholes to exploit.
Lord Dong said, “Jing Lin, don’t fool gege.”
Jing Lin readily followed his advice. “Gege.”
This roused Lord Dong’s suspicions instead. Because Jing Lin sat upright and looked at him unflinchingly in the eyes. But how could he believe that Jing Lin would call him gege?! Even when it came to Lord Cheng Tian, Jing Lin had always addressed him by name, never gege.
“It’s the first time I entered this realm.” Jing Lin stared at Lord Dong. “And I found its construction remarkable. There is no place that doesn’t symbolize something. It’s only after listening to the story I realized you are here to acknowledge your didi. How was it? Do I look the part? I think I do—otherwise, why are you afraid?”
“I can’t wait to dote on you. Why would I be afraid?” Lord Dong said, “All my brothers are my precious darlings.”
“I’d advise gege to remove the thorn in your heart as soon as possible.” Jing Lin gave him a sarcastic smile. “If this becomes your inner demon in a few days, Zui Shan Seng will not be the only one who’s insane.”
“In order for me to remove the thorn in my heart, let me look at your true form. If you are really Jing Lin, I can’t wait to be reunited with you.” Lord Dong had only just finished speaking when he saw a waterspout rising beneath the pavilion.
“Since you want a reunion.” He pointed down. “Then, you can accompany him.”
The waves swirled into dragons and swooped in. The small pavilion shook, but Jing Lin remained still. He even folded his handkerchief without taking a single glance at the commotion. Before the water dragons arrived, the illusionary realm fell apart, scattering flowers and birds. The rift in the clear sky sent the entire realm rocking violently. The fissure widened, revealing a pair of hands before Cang Ji’s face tore through it. There were cracking sounds as it broke apart. Cang Ji impatiently leaped down from the sky and bellowed through clenched teeth.
“Return him to me!”
Blocking the light with his folding fan, Lord Dong raised his head and shouted, “Not returning, not returning! I’ll cook and eat him today! “
Cang Ji landed in the pond, sending water droplets splashing all over. Lord Dong sensed a black shadow flashing before him. He unhurriedly tapped his fan on Cang Ji’s fist, as if stopping a wayward child from messing around. The wind grazed past the side of his body towards his back. He heard it smash into the edge of the pond, sending debris flying. Cang Ji was panting.
Lord Dong looked at his slightly indented fan and said, “I heard that you are very formidable. In that case, I’ll try you for myself.”
There was a heavy weight on Cang Ji’s fist and he sank into the pond before he could recover his senses. Lord Dong had only tapped lightly with his fan, and even so, it was as if Mount Tai5 was crushing him from above.
Cang Ji rose to his feet. Lord Dong gave him a kick and asserted, “How mediocre. How about this? However much Zui Shan Seng’s spiritual energy you have consumed, spit them all out today.”
Cang Ji was pinned down so hard he was almost ready to regurgitate the acid in his stomach. He heard Lord Dong say with a smile.
“I’m the most unreasonable person ever. We’ll take as much as you can vomit out. If you can’t puke it out, then we can only beat your ass off.”
The ground caved in an inch with every word Lord Dong uttered. He did not even need to brandish a staff and glower like Zui Shan Seng. All he did was to stand in such a laid-back way for Cang Ji to have a taste of how intimidating a “Deity Lord” should be. He looked up at Lord Dong from the water. That spiritual sea under that skin was like a boundless expanse. Jing Lin’s spiritual sea was inexhaustible, but it was never a revealing, frightening sight like this. Standing erect between the surging waves of Lord Dong’s spiritual energy was Lord Dong’s true form.
Lord Dong’s original form was as savage as his physical face was beautiful. His wrathful appearance was like a malignant deity, baring its fangs and brandishing its claws as it stood silently in his spiritual sea.
Cang Ji’s heartbeat stalled as his spiritual energy spun around crazily. His true form retreated out of his own accord in fear. Before he could let out a curse, he felt a sharp pain in his ears and plunged into deep water. He had only sunk less than a moment when he felt someone clinging to his back. Lips pressed against his lips, and the taste of blood gushed into Cang Ji’s mouth. With wisps of his hair blocking his face, Cang Ji backhandedly held down the back of Jing Lin’s head and forcefully swiped away that bit of blood. He took the lead over from Jing Lin, keeping it going.
Jing Lin’s hands and feet were icy as he reached out to grab Cang Ji’s hair, but Cang Ji was oblivious to it. He had been deeply stimulated by the earlier intimidation, and now, darker thoughts kept gushing out.
Devour him now!
Jing Lin felt Cang Ji’s grip tightened around his waist, making it hard for him to breathe. Cang Ji gulped, and Jing Lin felt as if his tongue was going to be sucked away and swallowed up by him! The water slid across his cheeks, giving Jing Lin the illusion that he was about to be eaten. Trapped in Cang Ji’s arms, it almost seemed as if Cang Ji was going to crush him and gobble him up.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lord Dong dusted off his robe and saw Zui Shan Seng walking towards him as he dragged his staff behind him. He took out two fruits from his sleeve and threw one to Zui Shan Seng.
Zui Shan Seng caught hold of it and asked, “Where are they?”
“How am I going to answer that?” Lord Dong gnawed at the fruit. “They are probably alive now, and dead the next instant.”
“You know who he is already?”
“I had a guess initially, but I don’t think so now.” Lord Dong stroked his chin. “This man is both genuine and bogus. His act is so flawless he doesn’t reveal a thing. If you have a guess, he will imitate that person you think he is. This makes me uncertain. But that fish is intriguing. Who do you think that fish resembles? Forget it, you haven’t seen that person before.” He “crunched” the fruit core and chewed it between his teeth. “There’s a reverse scale6 on his throat, and he can devour all things—isn’t that the power of canglong?”
Without waiting for Zui Shan Seng to answer, he continued, “But he’s still a brocade carp at present. All I can say is that he has the aptitude to evolve into a dragon. Why fret over it? There’s no harm to let him off for a few days. Even if he turns into a scourge one day, he’s just a mere dragon and won’t be able to make any waves. Without a shifu to guide him, he’s too delusional if he thinks he can dominate the world just by devouring others.”
“We have to nip the source of trouble in the bud. You can’t even see through that man; how can I feel at ease to let him raise a creature of chaos?” Zui Shan Seng jolted Xiang Mo Staff. “I must catch them both. ”
“Who says I can’t see through him?!” Lord Dong snorted. “Just wait…”
Before he could complete his sentence, he felt the tension in the air. Water erupted before him. In a flash, Cang Ji grabbed and swung Lord Dong by his lapels. The massive “thud” of a collision rang out as Lord Dong was flung onto the ground.
Cang Ji’s eyes were covered. Jing Lin was gasping for breath as he shielded both of Cang Ji’s eyes and leaned in close to Cang Ji’s ear to say, “He’s neither human nor demon. He uses his true form to confuse others. As long as you don’t look at him, he will have weaknesses you can exploit.”
Lord Dong chuckled as he lay on the ground and blinked his eyes.
“—I understand it now, my dear didi.”
- 一点生机，成此世界。A line from “What the Master Would Not Discuss” (子不語) is a collection of supernatural stories compiled by Qing Dynasty scholar and writer Yuan Mei.
Full translation at 1.3. 清凉老人 The Old Man Qing Liang [Link]
- Essentially convert to religion, i.e. Buddhism here. To clarify, Zui Shan Seng can’t be a true monk yet because he still can’t let go of worldly desires, specifically “love”. His past will be revealed later in the novel.
- The author uses the phrase “吃人嘴短”. The full proverb is 吃人嘴软, 拿人手短 Literally, “The mouth that eats the meals of others is softened; the hand that takes the gifts of others is shortened.” When people give you something out of the blue (e.g. a gift or a meal), they usually have something to ask of you. And since you have taken their gifts, it’d be harder for you to turn them down, so you (usually) end up doing them the favor. The closest modern adage to explain this is “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, that is, there is nothing people will let you take or eat (or drink) for free.
- 顷 Qing; unit of area equal to approximately 6.67 hectares for 1 Qing
- 泰山 Taishan, or Mount Tai, is a mountain of historical and cultural significance located north of the city of Tai’an, in Shandong province, China. It’s one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China.
- 逆鳞 reverse scale; a piece of scale that is reversed on a dragon’s throat or neck that’s considered to be precious and important to them. It’s said that the dragon will kill anyone in fury if they touched that scale. It is now used to refer to someone’s weakness, sore spot, or most cherished and important thing. For example, touching one’s reverse scale is an idiom that could be said to be touching someone’s sore spot, attacking their weakness, or rubbing someone the wrong way, etc.