And here they were, in a meeting of three parties. What a coincidence that all three of them were sick of each other. It was a case of mutual dislike for both Yining and Dong Jun, and so they both had fake smiles plastered on when they came face to face with one another at the base of the City of Xitu, where Yining welcomed them.
“Look at who we have here. So it’s the renowned Sage Yining from the east. How did you get transferred here by Father in just the blink of an eye?” Dong Jun tapped his folding fan on his palm and thought aloud in understanding. “I remember now—incompetency, right? How are you doing in the west now? I wouldn’t have come next time if I knew it was you.”
“Although my strength is limited, I’m willing to give my all and contribute whatever little I can to help achieve our great cause sooner, unlike a certain loafer and troublemaker.” Without even looking at him, Yining said, “Famished refugees abound everywhere, while Dong Jun indulges in wine. Such a maverick. How very free-spirited.”
“That’s for sure.” Dong Jun said coolly, “The thinking of those who aren’t of the same race as me will surely differ from mine. I was originally a devil. Of course, I have to be happy and drink up when I see humans die.”
Both men originally had no common ground between them. But Dong Jun had always been a controversial figure. He was given to sensual pleasures and often drank wine and made merry while paying no heed to human affairs. So Yining had come to regard him as the number one candidate for idleness and indolence, and had previously lambasted him and traded barbs with him on many occasions.
Yining did not want to contend with him, but when he turned his head, he realized that Jing Lin, who had still been there earlier, had already vanished.
“Don’t bother looking. “Dong Jun said. “It’s his duty to count bodies.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin walked side by side with Cang Ji. The red sun was rising over the eastern horizon right at this time. The dark, gloomy city from last night now lay exposed under the sunlight.
Jing Lin said, “It was all thanks to gege’s suggestion last night that we could save the entire city of people.”
“I was merely making use of the opportunity presented. You were still the driving force behind it.” Cang Ji strode across the corpse and said, “How are we going to dispose of the corpses in this city?”
Jing Lin surveyed the place; the dead lay everywhere. Some were heaped into piles of waterlogged corpses that had rotted until they stank. He said, “Cremate them. The diabolical aura of the evil spirits still lingers. If left to build up, it will give rise to plagues.”
“The majority of them are already maggot-infested and discolored. It’s not going to be easy to do a count of them.” Cang Ji looked slightly pale as if he was not used to such a scene.
Jing Lin handed him a handkerchief, and Cang Ji covered his nose and mouth with it. Actually, he was not afraid. It was just that his sense of smell was too keen and sensitive to be used as usual here. This cotton handkerchief was of ordinary quality, but since it had been with Jing Lin for so long, it had a refreshing scent on it—Jing Lin’s scent. Bending his little finger slightly, Cang Ji pressed the handkerchief down and let out a light cough.
Jing Lin sensed nothing off. He said, “It’s indeed not easy. It’s both time and energy-consuming.”
Cang Ji’s fingers pressed against something hard in the handkerchief. He kept still and said, “Then, let’s start from here. There are a lot of children.”
Both men crouched down as they spoke. Jing Lin turned over a child who was sprawled face-down on the ground. The young child had submerged in the water for so long that he was already beyond recognition. Only his skinny hands and feet, which looked as though they were made of dead wood, were exposed. Jing Lin initially thought that the evil spirits had bitten him to death, but there were no bite marks on him.
“Why isn’t there any sign of blood?” As Cang Ji spoke, he pushed the child’s head aside to reveal his neck. “So someone has drained it clean.”
There was a round opening in the corpse’s neck. The wound was red and wrinkled, looking as if a fire had scorched it before.
“He wasn’t bitten to death.” Jing Lin exchanged glances with Cang Ji. His heart suddenly sank as an inexplicable uneasiness took hold of him. He rolled up all the clothing on the child’s hands and feet and saw that the inner side of the corpse’s wrists and ankles had all been sliced open. All the blood in his body had been drained until there was not even a drop left.
“There are no demons in the south that feed on human blood.” Cang Ji sized up the wound and said, “See this scar? It seemed to be caused by an extremely thin blade. You have traveled over Zhongdu. Do you recognize anyone who would use such a blade?”
“I’ve never heard of one before.” Jing Lin said, “A thin blade is no match for a sharp blade. It’s hard for it to win in a confrontation with the other. Not unless the person holding the thin blade has cultivation exceptional enough to combine strength with gentleness and wield it freely.”
“I do know of one.” Cang Ji said, “There is a bird in the north called a five-colored bird. Its feathers, when turned into blades, are as thin as cicadas’ wings and yet still incomparably sharp. It’s just that this kind of bird causes extensive damage over an area1 when it flaps its wings. There has never been a situation where it made a single cut like this.”
Jing Lin took a step back and found several more bodies along the sides of the road. Weirdly enough, all the corpses of the adults bore traces of having been torn apart with teeth and fangs. Only the children were missing those bite marks.
“Even evil spirits don’t eat them.” A wind that rose out of nowhere sent the hem of Jing Lin’s clothes fluttering. He wondered, “Could a human have done this?”
“Even if an ordinary person has such good skills, they wouldn’t have this kind of intimidating effect.” Cang Ji released the handkerchief and said, “Besides, there is one thing I still can’t understand since last night.”
“I heard that the disciples Ninth Heaven Gate deploys outside have stable cultivation and are all experts who have reached the Minor Accomplishment Stage.” Cang Ji squatted before Jing Lin. His eyes were dark and deep. “Five hundred people split up to defend seven towns and three cities. Even if the situation was critical, they should still be able to hang in there for a few days. How could the entire army get wiped out?”
Jing Lin exchanged glances with him for a moment and said, “You seem to be pretty well-acquainted with Ninth Heaven Gate.”
“Of course.” Cang Ji said a little regretfully, “I once wanted to join Ninth Heaven Gate. A pity I wasn’t talented enough and was rejected. What’s more, Ninth Heaven Gate is now the leader of the various parties, and all eyes are bound to be on its every move and action. Would anyone who wants to understand the sect still fear a lack of sources to ask around?”
Yet, when Jing Lin heard this, he had another thought. He felt as if there was a veiled reminder in Cang Ji’s words, one that gave him a sudden flash of insight. But at the same time, it seemed to be unintentional. Because Cang Ji’s expression was so frank and open, it made Jing Lin ashamed to probe further.
Jing Lin averted his gaze. “There are too many doubts regarding this matter. I’ll have to ask Hui An in detail.”
◈ ◈ ◈
With both eyes bandaged with gauze, Hui An sat cautiously and upright at the edge of the bed. Not hearing Jing Lin’s voice for quite a while, he could not help but feel apprehensive and called out, “My Lord.”
Jing Lin sat leaning against the window. Cang Ji did not come along because he was merely a “common merchant”. It was not appropriate for him to get too involved in the affairs of Ninth Heaven Gate, so he had found an excuse early on to stay out of it.
The gears were turning in Jing Lin’s mind, yet he spoke indifferently and simply said, “Tell me everything you have seen and heard these few days.”
“It was dark and windy that night. To evade the evil spirits, no lanterns and lamps were allowed to be lit in the city after nightfall, and so it was pitch-dark all around to the point that we couldn’t even see our fingers before us. The scouts went to do a reconnaissance of the Blood Sea’s situation in the daytime, and there were no signs of their return even by night. The garrison commander predicted that the Blood Sea was about to reach us, and so he sent a group of us to set up a spell under cover of the night to strengthen our security. It was in the middle of the night when I was guarding the city walls that I observed and saw the Blood Sea flowing horizontally to the left. By some coincidence, it avoided the city, and we escaped a calamity, but the garrison commander was on the alert and did not dare to relax. So we crouched all night to guard the city walls. No evil spirit ever approached us, and this went on for three consecutive days. One morning, I suddenly heard that the North Gate had been breached. The Blood Sea churned and surged in, and evil spirits swarmed in succession amidst the fog and mist. The spell for protecting the city lost its effectiveness. In the twinkling of an eye, there were countless dead and wounded.”
“Ninth Heaven Gate lived by the motto ‘courage’. From the garrison commander to all the disciples under him, not one of them fled before the battle. All of them used their bodies to form a wall to obstruct the waves of blood.” Hui An’s voice grew hoarse. “More than half of them died. When the garrison commander saw that the city was about to be flooded, he lit the beacon towers. But the line heading north was all submerged, and he could not even break through the fog. He knew that the connected Qixing towns and twin cities a hundred li away would also meet with the same catastrophe as we did, so he sent me to pass the information to them posthaste. Not to deceive My Lord, before my eyes were blinded, it was a piece of cake for me to hit a target with precision even from a distance away, and it was all thanks to this pair of eagle eyes to distinguish down to the smallest details. In that thick fog, I was the only one who could endeavor to discern the way.”
“So I sped away on the horse all alone and bore through the fog towards Qixing town. But, My Lord, ever since time immemorial, although the evil spirits are deceitful and tough to subdue, they are used to working solo. Even if they have companions, there would be only three or four. And yet when I raced my horse en route this time, I saw them converging together and mingling into groups amidst the fog of Blood Sea. I encountered its greed form, which chased after me. My arrows were depleted, and my bow broke. My eyes also ended up wounded by the corrosive fog. Fortunately, the garrison of Qixing town saved me. However, they were being attacked by the Blood Sea too and were just preparing to ride their horses south to deliver the news to us!”
Both sides were attacked at the same time. No wonder support was lacking. It was because there were no reinforcements at all. What’s more, they were caught in between the Blood Sea. There was nowhere the beacon fire could pass on, and even the fastest horses would not make it in time.
“When you arrived at Qixing Town.” Jing Lin asked, “Were there already fatal casualties?”
“I’ve lost my sight in both eyes, so I couldn’t see. But from what the Qixing Garrison guards said, this sudden assault was likely not a coincidence.” Hui An lowered his head. After a moment of silence, he said, “My Lord is not like the other young masters. You have always been on the go to slay demons and subdue devils. And thus, you should know even better than the others that the ambush this time is remarkably strange. In the past, it was always the evil spirits who invade first before the Blood Sea engulfs. When had there ever been a time where the Blood Sea made its move first? I suspect there must be a reason for this. If the resentment of the accumulated corpses in the city were to amass, then it wouldn’t be unusual for the Blood Sea to follow the scent and gush over. But how would a perfectly fine town with us to guard it see a surge of sudden deaths and a pile-up of corpses for no reason?”
After a long time, Jing Lin said, “Take a rest. I’ll investigate this.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin stepped out of Hui An’s room just in time to see Cang Ji standing at a distance chatting to Yining. There was something on Jing Lin’s mind, and he had always been at odds with Yining, so he simply nodded at him. Both men did not even offer him any cursory pleasantries.
Cang Ji bid farewell to Yining and fell into step with Jing Lin. He asked, “Did you ask what you wanted to know?”
Jing Lin replied, “Still a mystery.”
“I took a stroll around that city a while ago. When I stepped out, I encountered the Sage and learned something new.”
Jing Lin turned his head to the side. “What?”
Instead, Cang Ji asked, “Do you have a younger sister?”
“I have one.” Jing Lin replied. “She has been sickly since young and lived in the mountains all year round. She has never set foot in this secular world.”
“So that means Lord Jiu Tian treasures and loves her.”
“Of course.” Jing Lin thought about it and said, “Even among the brothers, there is no one who doesn’t dote on her.”
“No wonder.” Cang Ji said.
“No wonder?” Jing Lin looked at him.
“I heard that Lord Jiu Tian is enlisting children of suitable age from all over to set up a Ninth Heaven private school. By doing so, he can get them to keep your younger sister company, and at the same time, take in more prospective successors for Ninth Heaven Gate.” Cang Ji continued calmly, “The homeless orphans take precedence.”
Jing Lin seemed to latch on to something from his words as the links connected with a “click” in his mind.
◈ ◈ ◈
At night, Cang Ji stayed next door to Jing Lin. He spread open Jing Lin’s handkerchief under the light and saw a prayer bead hidden inside. It was none other than the prayer bead from the other day he discussed the Way at Nan Chan. He never expected Jing Lin to keep it; the latter had even placed it in his handkerchief to carry along with him.
Cang Ji rotated the prayer bead to look at it. The scent of incense had long dissipated, and all that remained was Jing Lin’s scent. This scent had lingered in Cang Ji’s nose ever since half a month ago, keeping him hooked.
The window ledge pushed open, and a fox’s head popped out. Huachang squeezed in half a head and yelled in a whisper, “Master, give me a hand!”
Cang Ji stayed put and said, “You may leave right after saying your piece. There’s no need to come in.”
So Huachang could only sprawl over the window with her front paws and leave her tail wagging outside. She said, “Jiejie is asking when are you going to return?!”
“That depends on the Will of Heaven.” Cang Ji kept the prayer bead and said, “Has Ninth Heaven Gate dispatched someone over recently?”
“A brat.” Huachang said, “He perpetrates crimes and is arrogant and overbearing! He wants us to make unreasonable concessions and build a city for him!”
“Ask him first.” Cang Ji’s eyes were penetrating. “Has he paid off his debt?”
Huachang added, “Oh, there’s more. Jiejie recently accepted a disciple with unique talents and unparalleled aptitude. A pity he’s a mortal. What’s more, he’s a dorky, silly lad. Can we keep him? If you are fine with it, we’ll let him stay.”
“Looks like you like him too.” Cang Ji said.
“I don’t like mortals!” Huachang propped her head against the window and swung her ears. She struggled to squeeze her way in, but then she suddenly let out a shrill “shriek”.
“Someone grabbed my tail!” Huachang turned pale with fright and looked back in panic. Then she shouted, “It’s a stone spirit!”
Cang Ji instantly knocked over the candle and rolled onto the ground, where he remained motionless as if he had fainted.