The chain of Buddhist scripts caged Tao Zhi within. Like ice thawing, the black fog suddenly melted into the Cang Ji’s arm. Cang Ji’s right arm felt as if it were being irrigated with metal. He watched Tao Zhi’s countless faces swept towards him in a whirl. Jing Lin flipped Ah Yi around right at once, and the golden chain immediately twisted and tightened itself around Tao Zhi, causing those spreading faces of his to pull back and transformed into a person again.
Waves of the cold washed over Cang Ji’s scales. The facial features on Tao Zhi’s face, which he had been wrestling down in his palm, changed suddenly. He spread his arms open and waved his sleeves. A stench burst out of his sleeves—as it turned out, they were the hundreds of demons he had devoured into his belly. Cang Ji steadied the golden chain with one hand and gave it a sudden jerk that yanked Tao Zhi’s entire body up. The next moment, a massive force toppled Tao Zhi over. Countless demons swarmed against the flow as if they were being sucked into the abyss. In the blink of an eye, they were all crushed in mid-air. Following his victory, Cang Ji pressed home his advantage and stirred up a monstrous wave of spiritual energy with his arms. The howling wind sent the newly constructed palace chamber toppling like a deck of cards.
Tao Zhi could not flee, so he could only bear the brunt of this force within the restraint of the golden chain. He feared Cang Ji because he had seen how much Cang Ji resembled Emperor Cang. The mouth of that dragon could swallow the four seas, and his vital energy could accommodate hundreds of rivers. He was a character who was even better than him at devouring all living creatures. He might have just received a heavy blow to the chest, but he could sense that Cang Ji did not seem to be as terrifying as he had imagined.
Tao Zhi’s handsome face was pale, yet he laughed. “Good one there! Had it not been for our exchange of blows today, I’d still think that you had the ability to evolve into a dragon with the ability to devour all living creatures. Who would know that you are just an imposter?!”
Cang Ji cut off Tao Zhi’s retreat route and said, “It will only go according to your wishes if I become a dragon. As it happens, I like to be a fish!”
“Excellent!” Tao Zhi said, “I’m the blade, and you are the fish!1 Isn’t that wonderful?!”
As soon as he said that, both of them rose into the air together. Tao Zhi’s body moved like the flowing wind. If he could not withstand Cang Ji’s blows, he would transform into the wind to dodge his attacks. Although Cang Ji was never hurt, he could not injure Tao Zhi either. It seemed like this was going to be a bitter, never-ending battle. But just then, they heard a storm rose under the darkness of the night along with the ringing of the swaying copper bell.
When the sound of the copper bell appeared, Jing Lin sensed an immeasurable amount of spiritual energy abruptly gushing out from his spiritual sea. Immediately right after, a whirling Yan Quan materialized in the hollow of his chest. Spiritual energy congregated beside his waist into the shape of a sword scabbard. Jing Lin pushed the blade out with his thumb and saw that Yan Quan was already able to take on a solid form even though it was still mottled and rusty.
Tao Zhi’s ears twitched. He swiftly transformed into a black fog and rammed against the golden chain. It was becoming harder for Ah Yi to sustain the spell. He shouted, “He is going to break out!”
The sky clouded over as thunder and lightning flashed. Dust swirled all over the collapsed ruins, while summer insects leaped all around.
Cang Ji seized the black fog with his arm. There seemed to be something clasped in his palm. He pulled it out forcefully and saw Tao Zhi throwing him a smile.
“You want to be a fish. How can you be a fish? Jing Lin harbors ulterior motives. Did you know? Back then, he harmed…” The black fog suddenly surged forth towards Cang Ji and enveloped him. Tao Zhi whispered into Cang Ji’s ear. “He harmed you!”
There was a flash of light from a sword as Jing Lin threw himself into the fog. He grabbed hold of the back of Cang Ji’s collar and bumped into his back.
“An evil spirit messes with your mind.” Jing Lin nailed his sword into the ground at his feet, and azure light under his soles shone to disperse the darkness. With his back sticking to Cang Ji’s back, he said in a steady tone, “Don’t listen to him.”
Tao Zhi’s laughter circled around them. One moment, he took on Jing Lin’s appearance. The next moment, he reverted to his own looks. His voice was different every time as if he was swapping voices with hundreds of people.
“Listen.” Tao Zhi said to Cang Ji. “He’s flustered and frightened. How can you believe him? Perhaps he treats you tenderly… But he does that when he’s making use of others. He’ll get a hold over you and control you… How could you still believe him?!”
A fine, bloodied wound appeared on Cang Ji’s arms where he had been scratched. He thought nothing of it and did not even bother to wipe it. He merely said, “Don’t tell me I’m supposed to believe you if I don’t believe him?”
“You and I are both demons.” Tao Zhi landed on the ground and looked back. It was Jing Lin’s face. He said, “You and I are kindred spirits.”
“You and I are different.” Cang Ji said.
Tao Zhi looked heavyhearted as he said in a mild tone, “How are we different? You eat others to increase your cultivation. I eat others to increase my cultivation, too. Has Jing Lin instigated you for so long that you can’t even remember who you are anymore?”
Cang Ji was conscious of the fact that Jing Lin had gone silent behind him. That was how he knew that both of them had sunk into a formless mass of chaos amidst this evil spirit’s swirling fog. It had also cut their senses off from one another.
“So, you know who I am too?”
“Not only that.” Tao Zhu laughed suddenly. “I know even more.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“You might as well watch it.” Tao Zhi’s voice sounded far away and distant. “See for yourself.”
The bloodied wound on Cang Ji’s arm blackened slightly. He looked up and saw that his surroundings had been swallowed up by the black fog. All he could see was billowing clouds of smoke. He was about to shout for Jing Lin when he saw Jing Lin descending from the myriads of human shadows above his head.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin’s white robe fluttered as he walked unhurriedly amidst the drizzle. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he saw the door and windows in the hall wide open. His various brothers all put on different expressions as they stared coldly at him. His shoulders were already soaked from the rain. A few wisps of hair hung over them, fluttering in the wind.
The Supreme Father on the seat remained silent. Jing Lin kneeled out of his own accord at the foot of the stairs. His knees knocked against the azure slabstone, and his kneeling pose exposed his entire back and nape to the rain. As if sensing this somber atmosphere, the Heavens sent the rain pouring even harder, turning it from a drizzle as light as ox’s fur into a downpour of jade pearls that soaked Jing Lin’s robe through.
“You are so mighty now that you no longer need others’ guidance. Lord Lin Song has such an impressive reputation that it won’t be long before he may even abandon his father, brothers, and teachers.” The Supreme Father took a sip of tea, brushed the foam away, and continued unhurriedly, “No one in Heaven and Earth can manage you now.”
Jing Lin lowered his head to look at the ground. The hair on his shoulders slid down.
“Please have mercy, Father. Although he made such a big mistake this time, he has his own difficulties! Today, everyone looks upon the Ninth Heaven Gate as a role model. All eyes are on each and every one of our brothers’ actions. Even if his method is ruthless, he has the best interests of the Ninth Heaven Gate at heart. It’s just that the grace of Father is as deep as the sea. He shouldn’t have acted on his own initiative and slain first before he made a report!” Li Rong turned to kneel on the ground and braced his arm to intercede. “Jing Lin! Aren’t you going to acknowledge the error of your ways?!”
Jing Lin pursed his lips. Rainwater trickled down his cheeks, but he maintained his silence. The rain came down in heavy torrents, drenching Jing Lin all over. Yan Quan Sword clung to his back. The rain washed away the traces of the mundane world on the sword scabbard, exposing more of its frigid aura.
A man under the eaves said in a cold voice, “Acted on his own initiative? How is he acting on his own initiative? He is obviously plotting something else! As much as Tao-di may be immoral, he is still Father’s son. Father is the one who decides on all matters regarding the Ninth Heaven Gate. For hundreds of years, nobody has overstepped this authority before! If he has the audacity to act on his own initiative and kill Tao-di today, then he will be able to act on his own initiative to kill all of us in the future! A brother is gone just like that. If others were to see this, they would think that it’s only Jing Lin’s words that matter now in our Ninth Heaven Gate!”
“Don’t spout nonsense!” Li Rong bellowed to stop him. “Even if Jing Lin’s action is wrong, he would not harbor another motive! Father nurtured him all these years; he knows him best!”
“I’m spouting nonsense?” The man under the eaves gave a cold snort. He flung his sleeves and swiftly descended the stairs to stand before Jing Lin. Gritting his teeth, he said, “Spit it out! How did you kill Tao-di? Did you pierce his heart in just one stab without giving him a chance to say a word?! If you weren’t up to something, then why are you so anxious for him to die? You could have taken him back and handed him over to Father to deal with. Or did you think Father could not tell right from wrong and let him off lightly?!”
“He wouldn’t know which question to answer if you keep on bombarding him with questions like a firecracker.” Yun Sheng said gently. “Jing Lin, why didn’t you escort Tao-di back? There are too many people in the north, each with their own version of the story. And we are just at the point of time to negotiate with Emperor Cang. Everything must be handled with care.”
Jing Lin’s lips turned white. He lifted his hand to remove the dagger at the side of his waist and laid it across the ground. He said, “Father.”
Under the clamor of the rain, he raised his head and stared coldly at the man on the seat.
“Tao Zhi took along this dagger and acted under orders to guard the north. Lan Hai put in all his effort to forge this dagger before he left. I’ve brought it back in the hope of returning and presenting it before Lan Hai’s grave. Tao Zhi killed humans like flies while he resided in the north, so I executed him—Should I not have killed him?”
A chilly silence descended upon the courtyard the moment the words left his mouth. A clap of thunder boomed through the sky, sending the Supreme Father’s mood oscillating.
“How can you be so cold?!” The man before Jing Lin took a few steps back. “Even if Tao-di commits a mistake, he’s still our brother. It’s kinship forged over hundreds of years! And yet you simply just killed him at the drop of a hat without even blinking your eyes…”
Jing Lin coldly shifted his gaze. He suddenly rose to his feet, like a towering mountain ridge rising in the rain.
“Tao Zhi raped and killed human women and forcibly abducted the innocent. Anyone who attempted to advise or admonish him, or intended to report back, all met their ends under his sword. Dare I ask where my fault lies in killing him? Today, he violated the laws of Heaven and treated human lives with utter disregard. The death of someone who rebelled is not to be regretted. Any other brothers who degenerate into evil in the future – regardless of my proximity with them – I, Jing Lin, will draw my sword and face them off, never to let it rest.”
The entire courtyard of people was horrified upon hearing this. They had never expected Jing Lin to be serious in disregarding the brotherhood between them. He could even voice out such treacherous words. Li Rong knew that this did not bode well. Sure enough, he saw the Supreme Father’s face turned livid as he slammed the table and stood up.
“Then.” The Supreme Father enunciated each word. “You would even kill me too?!”
Jing Lin gazed at him as he stood in the rain. It seemed as if he was always like this—in a place far beyond the others’ reach, running counter to tens of thousands of people. He knew that he must not continue this conversation. Yet, he suddenly felt at a loss.
There were many things he did not understand. At the same time, there were many people who did not understand him.
“Father!” Li Rong kowtowed to the ground. “How can an unfilial son who has no respect for the law be compared to Father? Jing Lin’s execution of Tao-di was dictated by circumstances and in accordance with the righteous way! Tao-di resided in the north, taking on the important duty of appeasing Emperor Cang. But he ignored his teachings and indulged in carnal pleasure! Bearing his sword, Jing Lin headed north and saw how the cities and towns within thousands of li2 had all fallen into ruins. There were untold suffering everywhere Tao-di went. If we were to turn a blind eye to these acts, then how would others look upon our Ninth Heaven Gate?”
“Father had set up demarcation control in the north. If Tao-di was guilty of evil conduct, how could we have known nothing about it?! I’m afraid it’s just someone secretly colluding with Emperor Cang to take possession of the north!”
“Jing Lin and Emperor Cang do not know each other.” Li Rong said, “San-di’s3 words are too far-fetched to be believed.”
“Whether they don’t know each other or are just pretending not to be acquainted, he’s the one who knows it best.” San-di’s gaze was venomous. “Your discussion to draw him over to our side the last time fell through. But Jing Lin went for only half a month, and Emperor Cang changed his attitude and disinclination to rope us in. Wouldn’t it be precisely because someone is working hard behind the scenes that he would change tack on a whim?”
“Tao-di often resides in the north right next to Emperor Cang. Even if there is something, it wouldn’t have to do with Jing Lin!” Li Rong said, “Tao-di massacred cities and towns. This is absolutely not something the Ninth Heaven Gate has taught!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Cang Ji was observing Jing Lin’s side profile when he heard Tao Zhi speak into his ear. “Do you understand now? From this moment onwards, both of them have been working together to do you harm!”
Cang Ji asked, “What has it got to do with me?”
“You have been hoodwinked by Jing Lin’s honeyed words. You thought that he was truly willing to think of your best interests, that’s why you let your guard drop against that Li Rong. But how laughable that both of them had not been upfront with you. If it wasn’t for Jing Lin’s bewitching you, how would you have suffered such torment?!” Tao Zhi transformed into the shape of a young man as he spoke. He stared at the same scene and said in a faint voice, “Jing Lin killed me to silence me. Li Rong was the most vicious to besmirch me just because I couldn’t speak for myself! I might have toyed around with those decent families when I lived in the north, but I have never carried out a massacre! “
“Every scene we saw are but mere illusions.” Cang Ji said, “I don’t believe you.”
Tao Zhi raised his head and laughed out loud. When he stopped, he was as cold as a withered tree. He said, “That’s right. You don’t believe it. You just need to remember this scene. Remember this one time. When you recall this after evolving into a dragon, you will know who is telling the truth today. “
“Evolve into a dragon.” Cang Ji breathed out lightly. The Jing Lin in the scene glanced over blankly as if the breath of wind had brushed against him. Cang Ji ruminated over the expression on this youth’s face and said, “I’ve been hearing this recently. Why is everyone saying that I’m going to evolve into a dragon? A pity I’m convinced now that it’s happier to be a fish. Why would I want to be a dragon? Someone else had already been one several hundred years ago. All along, I have been unwilling to submit to others. There’s no way I can afford to take up the challenge with a dead man.”
Tao Zhi let out a scornful laugh upon hearing this. With a few swaying steps, he floated in the rain. He suddenly said, “You must evolve into a dragon. Ever since I saw you with him, I took a peek at the Will of Heaven. Our fates are all preordained. No one can escape from it! Both of them slandered me back then. I’ll never let it go.”
“You want to leave before you finish speaking?” Cang Ji’s fingertips transformed into claws. Under Tao Zhi’s gaze, he gouged out the contaminated and blackened flesh on his arm. Evil ran unbridled in his eyes. “Is this mass of flesh and blood a souvenir for me?”
Tao Zhi watched as he gouged out his own flesh with nary a furrow of his brows. Even as he let the blood drip, he continued talking and laughing as if nothing had happened. Tao Zhi could not help but transform into fog out of fear and pounced on him head-on.
“No matter how novel a new trick is, it will not work if you use it too many times. Others will get sick of it.”
Cang Ji scraped the fog apart with his scaly claws and listened to the thunderous sound of tearing as he devoured the black fog into his tummy, like a hundred streams of rivers returning to the sea. Tao Zhi’s main body had been evolved into Sheng Le’s divine body, so he was not afraid of getting ripped apart by Cang Ji. But Tao Zhi had barely escaped by the skin of his teeth to steal the cultivation in this body. If he lost it, getting it all back would be even harder than ascending Heaven.
Tao Zhi instantly revealed the savage, beastly appearance of the evil spirit. It tore at the bloodied flesh Cang Ji had gouged out earlier with its teeth and gulped it down. Then it pounced, intending to fight a life-and-death battle with Cang Ji until one of them was devoured.
The meat on the back of Cang Ji’s original brocade carp had been gnawed off. The sounds of the black fog chewing and sliding scales mingled into one. It gradually became harder to see where Cang Ji was.
The copper bell jerked with a “buzz”. Azure light beneath his foot blazed so brightly that the writhing of the black fog was conspicuous. Thunder rumbled in the sky. Amidst the rainstorm, Yan Quan left its sheath bearing a malicious aura along with it. The sound of its blade sliced through the wind and pierced through the night, cutting his face. Tao Zhi suddenly shrank back and laughed at Cang Ji.
“See!” Tao Zhi’s hair was disheveled as he hissed amidst the swishing sound of Jing Lin’s sword. “He doesn’t even care about you when he wants to kill someone. He’s merciless!”
Cang Ji broke one of his arms. When he looked back, the glint of the sword was already right before his eyes. He felt its impact on his back, and then the gale began to wreak havoc as the resulting wind from the sword ripped the clothes on his back to pieces. Yan Quan’s blade pressed against his skin and sliced its way in. Cang Ji was caught off guard as the sudden pain assaulted his back. In a split second, his spiritual sea surged against the flow, and he immediately choked on his blood. Tao Zhi seized the opportunity to rally himself and widened his mouth to tear at Cang Ji’s arm until it was drenched in blood!
“He harmed you once.” Tao Zhi giggled. “And he will still harm you again.”