Huachang’s hind paws could not scramble its way up the window ledge, so she fell to the ground with her forepaws flailing. Knowing that there were formidable cultivators in this place, she leaped away with her tail trailing behind her, wanting to throw off the stone and dig her way through the grass to escape. But this stone figure was way faster than her; it had already cut off her escape route. Huachang pounced left and rolled right with it as if she was frolicking with it. But no matter what she did, she could not run from it.
Humiliated, Huachang flew into a rage. Her snow-white fur had gone all gray and dusty from rolling around the ground. She lowered the front of her body and swung her tail right at the stone, sending it tumbling and knocking its head with a grass crown on it down against the ground. It hurriedly held its crown steady, and Huachang slapped a paw down on its back and stepped down on it.
Seeing her opportunity, Huachang took to her heels and fled with a “swoosh”. The stone patted the dust off its body and rose to its feet to place the dirt-stained grass crown back on its head. It crawled its way in along the window seam and saw an unconscious Cang Ji lying on the ground. It slipped down the window, jumped over Cang Ji’s hand, and pushed the candlestick back into position.
Cang Ji’s face was pale, and his lips were faintly green. He looked as if a demon had cast a spell on him. The stone touched the center of his forehead. Sure enough, it sensed a wisp of demonic aura circulating within. No wonder it seemed to have heard someone talking in the room earlier on.
The stone thought for a moment, then put its grass crown onto Cang Ji’s head.
Cang Ji had sealed off his five senses, yet in that instant, a gush of cool, refreshing spiritual energy forcibly shoved its way in. The spiritual sea in his abdomen very nearly roared in response, and he almost revealed his original form. He hurriedly coughed a few times and pretended that he could not bear the power of it. That spiritual energy stalled for a moment, then transformed into a drizzle to blend into his vital organs.
If Cang Ji had been a real mortal, and if there had been a great disparity between his and Jing Lin’s cultivation, then there would have been nothing inappropriate about this action. Instead, it could have protected Cang Ji’s internal organs from the invasion of evil spirits. Yet, Cang Ji just had to be the greatest demon in this world. The sudden entrance of Jing Lin’s spiritual energy stirred up his dragon aura and mobilized his spiritual sea. He nearly could not maintain this “ordinary” appearance. The dragon scales on his chest had already materialized on their own in a show of resistance. Jing Lin was not anyone else. He was steadfast in his cultivation of the Way of the Sword, and demons and devils all fear his spiritual energy. So when his spiritual energy merged into Cang Ji’s body, Cang Ji’s limbs not only went icy cold; his horns nearly popped out too.
When the stone saw that the evil aura in him had been eliminated, it left with a peace of mind and sat cross-legged on the other side of the door. Catching a cricket to cage in its palms, it kept vigil for him through the night.
The instant the door closed, Cang Ji opened his eyes. He still could not move, so he could only hold down his discomfort and slowly extracted Jing Lin’s spiritual energy out of his internal organs. He sent it to his chest and turned it into a sparkling, crystal-clear spiritual pearl.
What a close call!
Cang Ji lightly breathed out a mouthful of cold air. He could not tell if Jing Lin’s move was intended to test him.
He stroked his chest with his hand. He could sense the spiritual pearl of Jing Lin within. Canglong’s original form circled the spiritual pearl. It batted the side of the pearl with its long tail and began frolicking with it in the illusory realm in Cang Ji’s chest. Jing Lin and Cang Ji were once intimate with each other, and so their aura gradually merged into one during the pursuit. The piercing pain from the biting cold earlier gradually dissolved into a gentle warmth. Holding the pearl in its mouth, canglong soared into the spiritual sea, stirring up waves of spiritual energy. Right at once, Cang Ji felt the nourishment of that pure divine spirit. Inexplicably enough, he had the notion of them being mutually dependent on each other.
The turbulence in Cang Ji’s chest subsided. He raised his arm, with that prayer bead still grasped between his fingers.
“… So, is this the tribulation?”
Cang Ji mouthed in silence, not quite sure of his feelings about it.
◈ ◈ ◈
The next day, it took Jing Lin a lot of effort to get Cang Ji onto the bed. Seeing as he had yet to regain consciousness, he feared that the evil spirit had ensnared his mind.
Dong Jun knocked on the door. Jing Lin stepped out, and both men stood a short distance away to converse. Yawning incessantly, Dong Jun pointed to the sun and said, “It’s getting late. If you have anything important to say, say it quick. I’m leaving in a while.”
“What’s Father’s instructions?”
“You already know the answer, so why ask?” Dong Jun waved his fan and used his chin to point at Yining from a distance away. “You know the reason he was transferred to Xitu. It’s a state of emergency all over at present, and there is a shortage of manpower everywhere. We can no longer defend the south.”
“There are still tens of thousands of refugees here with no other place to relocate them. If we abandon the remaining lands in the south, then the lands of Zhongdu will comprise just the east and west. In the future, even if Ninth Heaven Gate regains enough manpower, we will be too powerless to turn the tables around and save the situation.” Jing Lin could not help but take a step closer. He said, “Famine refugees abound in the east. There are far more people starving to death than those who end up buried under the Blood Sea.”
Dong Jun pressed his fan against Jing Lin’s chest. He looked up darkly and said, “Exactly. So Emperor Cang should hand over the Northern Lands to allow these refugees to take shelter there. We run around all over the lands to eliminate devils and resist the sea. To protect the commoners, countless disciples from our sect have died at the hands of the Blood Sea! Why is Emperor Cang still unwilling to join the alliance and assist us? I’ve seen the letter you gave to Father. You said Emperor Cang intends to lure over the Blood Sea from all over to swallow it all with his own power—Do you know him? Are you aware that if he really lures the Blood Sea over, then the day the wall in the north collapses will be the day Zhongdu perishes with him!”
“Make a trip yourself to the Northern Lands!” Jing Lin’s voice grew cold. “Why won’t all of you take a look at the north with your own eyes? Emperor Cang has been managing the north for several years. If you look down from a height, you can see that the setup of those myriads of walls is methodical. It’s built for precisely the purpose of alienating and absorbing the Blood Sea in order to protect all the lands!”
“He is merely presumptuous and ignorant enough to use the lives of all the commoners in the world to take a gamble.” Dong Jun forced a smile instead of losing his temper at Jing Lin. “Besides, let me ask you, Ninth Heaven Gate can’t make the tides of the Blood Sea retreat even though we join forces and go all out, so on what grounds can he swallow and absorb it? If he can’t do it, then it means he’s plotting something else with ulterior motives in mind.”
“There is only one dragon in Heaven and Earth. Swallowing the sky and absorbing the sea is what’s formidable about him. If we are willing to put aside our prejudices and lend him a hand,” Jing Lin’s voice gradually quietened down. “Then, we will be able to eradicate the Blood Sea sooner.”
“My dear didi.” Dong Jun put his hands behind his back in a frivolous manner and said, “Even if we lend him a hand, even if he can devour the Blood Sea on the basis of his own capability, then what’s going to happen after this is over? Does the world obey the command of Emperor Cang? Or Lord Jiu Tian? If they bow to Emperor Cang, then what about the sacrifices of all the Ninth Heaven Gate disciples who have perished in the Blood Sea these hundred years? How are we going to split Zhongdu up in the future? It’s not that I’m trying to judge the heart of a gentleman with my own petty yardstick. But all this while, we have never gotten along with those groups of demons in the north, much like fire and water. Furthermore, your Yan Quan Sword has slain many a number of them. Emperor Cang is untamed by nature, and he won’t tolerate a thorn in his side. Do you truly think that he will let Ninth Heaven Gate off and spare us all?”
Without answering, Jing Lin turned around and left. Dong Jun looked at him from behind with a complicated expression and let out a sigh.
Midway through, Jing Lin suddenly turned his head back. His chest was heaving, and the hand that was holding on to his sword was tightly clenched. His expression was frightfully frosty. He said to Dong Jun, “Once the Blood Sea buries the lands, the world will meet its end. It won’t be long before the Blood Sea engulfs us all. But all my brothers are still thinking about what’s to come a hundred years later. Emperor Cang alone devours the sea, and yet no one far and near responds. Fine. When the day comes for him to devour the Blood Sea, I will draw my sword to protect him.”
“What kind of childish talk is that?” After a moment of silence, Dong Jun said, “If you draw your sword for him, then you are making an enemy out of Father. Jing Lin, tens of thousands of people prostrate themselves before the sect, but Father loves only you. And yet, you want to turn against Father just to stand by a dragon?”
“I stand by the Way of Heaven.” Jing Lin enunciated each word.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin stepped through the door with an air of frostiness surrounding him. Cang Ji was sprawling half-dead on the pillow. When he saw Jing Lin, he could not help but start coughing. Jing Lin grabbed the cup to pour some water and handed it to Cang Ji.
“Did you quarrel with someone?” Cang Ji said, “You don’t look too good.”
“It’s nothing.” Jing Lin said with his usual expression, “Where does gege plan to go now?”
Cang Ji let out a few stifled coughs and said, “Nowhere in mind yet.”
Jing Lin was going to say something when he suddenly raised his hand to touch Cang Ji’s forehead. The spot he touched was scalding hot. When he saw Cang Ji’s coughing incessantly, he presumed it to be the result of the fox demon enthralling him last night. So he said, “It’s easy to encounter demons in the desolate wilderness. They always like to appear before humans as beautiful women. Gege, you’re still young. It’s better not to indulge too much. It’d be bad if your health suffers because of it. Besides, it’s hard to break free from lust as time goes on. You will inevitably end up frail and sickly.”
Cang Ji spewed out the tea he was drinking. His retorts were already in his mouth, but he gulped them all back down. Oh, how he wanted to tear apart his clothes to let Jing Lin touch him. What “frail and sickly”? He was clearly strong and muscular, imposing and majestic!
Cang Ji set aside his cup and said “weakly”, “… People who cultivate do not dare to act impetuously. Last night, I felt tired and somehow ended up sleeping on the ground all night. Then this morning, I felt a little feverish.” With even more sincerity, he persuaded Jing Lin. “Now that I’ve caught a cold, I’m afraid it will be a few days before I recover. If you have something on, it’s alright for you to leave. It’s just that you and I are kindred spirits. For us to encounter each other in the martial fraternity is indeed proof of the affinity between us. Once we bid each other farewell, who knows when we will meet again.”
As Jing Lin looked into those eyes of Cang Ji, his gaze started wandering for no reason. He was the one who had hung Cang Ji out to dry on the floor last night, because his stone double could not lift or move him, and it was not appropriate for his own self to come visiting in the middle of the night. So he had let Cang Ji lay on the cold ground the whole night. He thought that there wouldn’t be a problem with his own spiritual energy protecting Cang Ji’s body. Who would have known that the latter would still fall sick?
Jing Lin pinched the fingertips on the hand at his back as he thought about it. He said, “It’s not urgent. I just need to patrol the Blood Sea along the southern border. Why not… gege you come along with me?”
Cang Ji added fuel to the flames and said, “With my illness, I’ll only be a burden to you. How could I put you through that?”
Jing Lin felt even more ashamed. And so he said, “… you’re no burden…”
“Then, I’ll have to impose on you.” Cang Ji grasped Jing Lin’s hand and pressed it hard as if he was entrusting him the weight of his entire life. “Gege will definitely take good care of you.”
Jing Lin was in a daze as he gave a vague nod of his head.
Cang Ji took him by the hand and lay back on the bed. As he wrapped the quilt around himself, he asked, “But there is one thing I can’t fathom. I need your help.”
Jing Lin had no choice but to sit at the edge of the bed. Hearing this, he said, “Hmm?”
Cang Ji narrowed his eyes to nod off and asked, “Is there a stone spirit around here?”
All at once, Jing Lin’s fingertips curled back. It was as if he was tickling Cang Ji in his palm. In a rare moment, he blurted out, “Never seen one before!”
“Sigh.” Cang Ji raised a hand to cover his forehead and murmured, “To tell you the truth, I saw a fox climbing the window and calling out to me last night. Then I felt a heaviness in my head. I can’t remember if I answered. My mind was in a muddle after I tumbled to the ground, and I seemed to see a stone walking freely. It circled me, with a grass crown on its head. Even though I’ve traveled over Zhongdu, I’ve never seen such a stone spirit.”
Jing Lin said, “Before the lotus ponds in the south were submerged, there were many such stones in Fan Tan. All of them had grass crowns on their heads. It’s nothing rare.”
Cang Ji stared at him. “Didn’t you say you have never seen one before?”
Jing Lin replied calmly. “I swept a few glances at them before. I almost forgot about it. Stones aren’t in the least bit fun to play with. They aren’t valuable either. I never pay them any attention.”
The moment Jing Lin told a lie, his little finger would involuntarily curl back and tickle Cang Ji’s palm without knowing it. He looked all stern and indifferent on the surface, yet he tickled Cang Ji until Cang Ji felt as if a cat was nuzzling against his heart.
“Is that so?” Cang Ji tightened his grip slightly. “Actually, I quite like it. I find it quick-witted and adorable. It’s poles apart from you, Jing Lin.”
All that was bouncing in Jing Lin’s heart were stones. There was even another stone hidden in his sleeve. Where in the world would he care if Cang Ji was holding his hand? All he wanted was to stuff all the stones in his mind and heart back into place. He said, “You will tire of it when you’ve seen more of it. Gege, you won’t find it a rarity once you’ve seen enough of it.”
Not allowing Cang Ji to continue with the conversation, he tucked the quilt up to the end of Cang Ji’s neck and said, “Take a rest. I’ll go catch it!”
Cang Ji tugged at him and said, “I like it very much. If you catch it, give it to gege, alright?”
The moment Jing Lin went blank, Cang Ji had already released his hand. He closed his eyes, looking comforted.
“Then I’ll wait for it.”