Jing Lin’s horse stamped its hooves on the narrow bridge as the sealed city gates obstructed its passage forward. Both city walls showed signs of having been struck down. The new wall that had been built as an emergency measure clearly could not withstand a single blow. Jing Lin recognized the blood-colored spell on the stone.
The man on the wall stretched out his neck to look at Jing Lin. Right away, there was a commotion. A tired-looking man raised his voice to ask, “Are you Lord Lin Song?”
Jing Lin was long renowned as ‘spring water over precipitous rocks; azure clothes among cold pines’,1 and now, there were already people addressing him as “Lord Lin Song”. Remaining on horseback, he nodded his head and said, “I’m Jing Lin.”
The man still refused to believe him, because evil spirits were masters at deluding humans, so it was not entirely impossible for one to transform into Jing Lin. Thus, he asked, “Do you have proof?”
Jing Lin did not answer, but a sudden burst of brilliance from Yan Quan broke through the darkness. The fog of the Blood Sea around them instantly beat a swift retreat in response to the light.
“I’m Jing Lin.” Jing Lin said again in a steady voice. “I have come bearing Yan Quan, for the purpose of slaying devils.”
The man above promptly decided. “Open the gates to welcome Lord Lin Song!”
The bluish-white horse galloped through the city gates. The city was shrouded in darkness, with only the flames from a few torches roaming around like will-o’-the-wisps. All the remaining commoners of the seven towns and twin cities were assembled here in hiding. When they saw Jing Lin riding his horse over, they silently parted to make a narrow path for him. The sea of people looked on as Jing Lin’s horse made its way through them. All of a sudden, he reined in the horse, because a barefoot orphan was lying on the ground before it.
Cang Ji did not have to look further to know that the orphan had already been dead for several days. How many people were there in seven towns and two cities? And how many of those could remain standing here today? If it had been daytime now, then all they had to do for understanding to dawn on them was to look at the corpses that lay trodden under everyone’s feet.
The few people atop the city wall earlier rushed down. With a “thud”, one of them collapsed to his knees before Jing Lin. Jing Lin noted his tattered white robe; he was a sorry sight to behold. The moment he kneeled on the ground, he let out a stifled, bitter cry.
“Huaishu, Huaishu lies on the boundary of the southern border, with one hundred and thirty disciples of Ninth Heaven Gate guarding the city. Other than me, they have all perished under the waves of the Blood Sea!”
Jing Lin dismounted and asked calmly, “Why aren’t the beacon towers lit?”
“The front line of beacon towers have all sunk into the Blood Sea, and the evil spirits have cut off the key traffic hub to the north. I sped my way on horseback to deliver the news. By the time I reached the connected town of Qixing, the Blood Sea had already overtaken and engulfed the city of Yangcheng!” It was only when he looked up that the crowd realized, to their shock, that both his eyes had been destroyed and his face was caked with blood. “The connected city of Qixing is a vital link between the two cities. Yangcheng is gone, and not one of the tens of thousands of commoners made it out alive. My Lord! Out of the one thousand defense regiment we deployed to the south, five hundred and twenty-nine of them have been killed prior to this night.”
There were only one thousand and two hundred people in the south, which was already the maximum number of people Ninth Heaven Gate could afford to deploy to provide assistance to this land. This was all because of a scarcity of cultivators. Ninth Heaven Gate was setting up a city to the north to guard against canglong. At the same time, they were assisting the phoenix in the east to sort out the various fields. Then there were the multiple cities in the west that needed garrisons too. They were already overwhelmed and stretched to their capacity.
The situation at present was crucial; there was no room for hesitation!
Jing Lin asked, “What’s your name?”
The man replied in a hoarse voice, “Hui An!”
“If you head northwest for a thousand li2 straight from this place, you’ll find the City of Xitu. The name of the city’s garrison general is Yining, and there are a hundred and forty highly skilled cultivators under him. Tell him that there is no need to transfer all of them over. Just take fifty of them to clear the way along the sides of the road to aid the commoners of this place as we do an emergency transfer of them west. When you reached Xitu, lit up the beacon tower quickly and send someone to deliver a message back to Ninth Heaven Gate. Tell Father that I want to borrow a person among my various brothers—Dong Jun. Tell him specifically that he must arrive at this place within one day.” Jing Lin instructed him methodically. Then he asked, “Hui An, do you dare to make the trip?”
It was already the middle of the night at this point, and the Blood Sea was spreading right beyond this city. A momentary lapse of attention, and he would surely fall into the Blood Sea and end up utterly obliterated. Hui An’s eyes were blinded, and the mission Jing Lin spoke of was simply putting him on the spot. However, the Ninth Heaven Gate had always gone by the motto “courage” ever since its inception. Even if there was only one of them standing, the one at the forefront of the battle must never be a mere mortal.
Hui An kowtowed, “I shall heed your special command to the letter. I will not let you down!”
“Take Yan Quan along.” Jing Lin threw him his sword. “Seeing Yan Quan is the same as seeing me. The evil spirits and devils along the way will not dare to be rash and lay a hand on you. This horse knows the way and will lead you there. You just need to deliver the message to them.”
Hui An received the sword and put it onto his back, where a chill promptly seized him. He lifted himself up the horse and turned around to leave.
Cang Ji suddenly gave Hui An a light pat on the back and said, “Brother, there are many demons in the west. But with Yan Quan here, you can gallop away with a peace of mind.”
Hui An acknowledged his words and charged out. The moment he rode out of the gate, he heard four thunderous thumps behind him as an azure light drew out four talismans. The towering, massive talismans on all sides cast an impenetrable shield around the lone city on the fringe of the approaching Blood Sea.
Time and tide wait for no man. Every single second this night was precious.
Hui An gritted his teeth as he went all out to spur the horse forward in the darkness. The north wind blew across his cheeks, and the devils’ howls rang out on both his sides. He could not see, so he could only leave everything to the bluish-white horse. Other than going wild galloping and galloping, he had no other choice!
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin was truly a cleanliness freak. After traveling with him for several days, Cang Ji already had a clear handle on this part of his personality. What’s more, he was a cold person, and so he did not like anyone to go near him or touch him. But now, he was sitting on the ground, and those smooth and clean fingertips of his passed around the badly gnawed arm of the other person to make a quick and delicate knot.
Cang Ji cleaned his hands at the side and said, “Half of those in the city are injured. Evacuation won’t be easy.”
Jing Lin uttered an uh-huh. Once the person left, he cleaned his hands with water together with Cang Ji. He washed his knuckles and said, “Can you draw…” He paused in a rare moment of hesitation, “Can you draw dragons?”
Cang Ji immediately said, “There is no one in the world who can draw better than me.”
“There is this spell called the Art of Drawing Deities. Yining from the City of Xitu excels in painting and is the most skilled in this art. Although my relationship with him is only so-so, I have received some pointers from him, so I’m considerably acquainted with this art.” Jing Lin paused for a moment before he continued, “It’s not easy to evacuate the wounded. So I must trouble gege to draw a dragon, and I’ll naturally be able to make it transport them by air.”
Cang Ji asked, “In this case, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for you to draw it yourself?”
Jing Lin rubbed his knuckles until they reddened. He did not answer.
“It’s not hard to paint dragons.” Cang Ji thought for a moment. “It’s just that once the message has been delivered, the Blood Sea would have already inundated this city. Evil spirits and devils in their evil forms would be everywhere. Blatantly parading a painted dragon around would instead produce adverse results.”
Jing Lin said, “There are too many people in the city. It’d be tough for a smaller beast to take them.”
“Draw a giant bull.” Cang Ji sized up that erected talisman barrier and said, “A bull the size of a devil. Use your spiritual energy as the reins and stuff the talisman spell under it. We might as well simply pull the whole city away. From what you said that day, there is an emergency shortage of grains in Zhongdu. There is still an undamaged, fully intact granary at the north corner of this city. Wouldn’t it be a pity to leave it behind?”
Even Jing Lin was stunned. “The whole city?”
“By saving people from the Blood Sea, you are already asking for the moon. So why not aim higher?” After saying this, Cang Ji stroked the tip of his nose, and continued, “The evil spirits will open their mouth to spew out a gale in a display of might when they are hot in pursuit. As long as the walls remain intact, the bull will be able to run.”
With that, Cang Ji groped in his sleeve and pulled out the small porcelain bottle that Jing Lin had gifted him. He asked,” Can a pseudo-beast that materialized out of a painting eat?”
Jing Lin said, “If I give it my all and infuse spiritual energy into it, then it’d be just like the real thing.”
“Then feed it one.” Cang Ji said, “The spiritual pill will strengthen its foundation so that it can amass spiritual energy without dispersing. Even if it was ambushed midway and ended up getting bitten by the evil spirits, it will still be able to dash to the end without a moment’s delay.”
Jing Lin took the porcelain bottle, and Cang Ji suddenly grabbed him by the wrist. He bent his head down and said with gleaming eyes, “You mustn’t eat them on the sly.”
Jing Lin said truthfully, “I won’t eat them on the sly.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The moon retreated from its cage of fog. The sounds of whispers, coughs, sighs, and snores in the city mingled into one. No one lit the lamp, and eventually, the last torch went out. The stench of the Blood Sea had already permeated the inside of the city. A great number of people covered their mouths and noses as they lay on their sides to listen to the stampede of the evil spirits and devils crowding around them on the other side of the massive talismans. The blood-colored tidal waves pounded against the exterior of the massive talismans. Evil spirits in their greed forms followed the scents of humans and transformed into fog and wind to surround them on the outside. Since they could turn into their original looks, they could also take on the appearances of the dead.
One of the evil spirits even went so far as to imitate the wails of an infant. It moved in closer with the wind and clung to Jing Lin’s azure light talismans as it wailed incessantly. Sharp fingernails scraped across the talismans, producing a jarring screech.
“Mother, open the door.” A barefoot girl with a stiff, wooden face sprawled through the crack between the city gates and spoke to those inside. “Nan-nan3 is scared. There are demons everywhere. They are going to catch Nan-nan and tear off her hands, tear off her legs.”
The young married woman within was so frightened she sobbed. She hugged her child close, not daring to answer.
The girl stared at her with solid black eyes that had no sclera. She said, “They stuffed Nan-nan into their mouth and chewed until Nan-nan’s blood flow. Look at me, crushed into minced meat…”
As she spoke, she transformed into crumbs and trickled to the ground along the gap in an attempt to flow in. The instant it reached inside the azure light, it “hissed” loudly – as if scalding water had been poured over it – and burst out into an earth-shattering bawl. In the twinkling of an eye, it turned into a man. He covered his face and shrieked resentfully. “You burned me!”
The black clouds in the sky strained down on them as evil spirits began to gather thunder and lightning. Flashes of lightning illuminated the faces of those in the city, making them appear ghastly pale. Raindrops the color of blood gradually fell and intensified as it poured over everyone’s face and body, tainting them all red.
Jing Lin ascended to the top of the wall and flung out a piece of thin paper. The drawing paper fluttered in the wind, and the rain pelted it into the mud pit, where a layer of ink blossomed out of the soaked paper.
Cang Ji fished out an umbrella from nowhere and bent over the wall to observe. He wondered, “Why isn’t it working?”
Before he could finish speaking, he saw the ink suddenly inflated like a mass of inked flesh and blood puffing up from the mud pit. The tidal waves of the Blood Sea had already come assaulting, but this ink did not even budge an inch as the silhouette of a bull unraveled and grew. In just the blink of an eye, it had already become a gargantuan behemoth far surpassing even those of the devils’ original forms. This bull, with a pair of red eyes and sharp horns on its head, spewed red hot air when it panted. Its entire body was furless; instead, it was covered with imposing scales similar to those of a dragon. Nailed under all four of its hooves were blades that dug into the earth. Lightning crackled as its python-like tail thrashed about.
How was this drawing of Cang Ji a bull? It was clearly a monster.
Just then, a sudden flash of light shot through the horizon and swept away the fog of the Blood Sea. After it circled Jing Lin three times, it concealed itself within his body.
“Yan Quan has returned.” Jing Lin waited no further. “Hui An has reached his destination.”
An azure thread formed out of spiritual energy materialized on the back shoulders of the giant bull. It did not need Jing Lin to spur it on; it merely snorted out a puff of air and took to its hooves. The first step was always the hardest. The bull’s hooves dug into the ground as it huffed heavily. The whole city suddenly shook, digging up the earth as the bull actually managed to haul it along. It advanced forward slowly as though it was sliding along the ground.
Evil spirits in their greed forms took on the appearances of human beings and clung on to the bull’s hooves to wail out loud. “How could you abandon me?!”
The Blood Sea surged amid the calls of countless human faces and resentful fetuses. Hissing evil spirits in their evil forms dashed out along with the Blood Sea to catch them. That violent gale rose once more, and deafening thunder crashed through the sky. With a turn of his hand, Jing Lin drew his sword and stepped off the city into the air amidst the assault of thunderbolts.
Tempestuous waves instantly rose from the Blood Sea, and howls tore through the sky. A flash of light slashed through the bloodiness of Heaven and Earth, silencing and stilling even the rain. Then the waves reversed, and azure light lit up the sky!
Jing Lin kept away his sword after it had done its job; he never drew a sword he was not using. He turned around to descend, and for a fleeting moment, there was a still void behind him.
The massive bull bumped its way through the evil spirit’s body, and its greed form transformed into the fog to encircle it and murmur words of temptation into the massive bull’s ear. But this bull was merely a bull in a painting. In a body that glowed gold all over, it chewed the crushed pill between its teeth, itching to charge its way to the end of Heaven in one breath.
The path ahead had opened up. The giant bull dashed forward, bumping and jolting around so much that the city walls almost collapsed. An hour later, they could see the faint glimmer of dawn. The cultivators who had come forward to receive them rose and rushed towards them. It seemed like they were about to tide over the crisis. Who would expect a massive wave to rise in the sky and splashed down onto the land between them, splattering sprays of blood all over and obstructing the last leg of their journey?
The pill in the bull’s mouth was now depleted. Its panting was deafening, and its scaly body could not hold up to the biting and tearing from all around. One of its hooves dissolved and plummeted into the Blood Sea with a thunderous splash. The surrounding evil spirits swarmed in. Then the ink lightened, and the city stopped where it was.
The Blood Sea spilled over in a surge forward, and the clammy fog ate away at the massive talisman on all four sides until they crumpled. On seeing this, Cang Ji tilted the red umbrella in his palm and prepared to strike.
Just at that moment, the heavenly thunder split apart, and dark clouds billowed. A man descended from the sky and, with one foot, stepped into the Blood Sea. That dark blue wide-sleeved outfit fluttered along with the waves as a folding fan spread open with a “thwack”. The waves and fog of the Blood Sea suddenly pulled back, and the greed forms dissipated with a nasty sound as he pointed at them with that folding fan.
The blood rain came to an immediate halt, and the day broke.
Dong Jun hid his face behind the fan and let out a light hiccup from the after-effect of drinking. He said, “Come again? ‘Within a day’? Just give me two hours, and I can reach even the most obscure corners in the world!”
- 泉咽危石, 松冷青衫 a variant of the line Le Yan once recited: “Spring, spring water weeps over precipitous rocks; morning light shrouds green pines in frost.” (泉声咽危石，日色冷青松), which is a line from the poem 《過香積寺》 Passing By Xiang Ji Temple by 王維 Wang Wei.
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, 1 li is approx. 500m
- 囡囡 Nan-nan. An address of endearment for a young girl. The words itself actually meant “little darling” or “baby”.