Ah Yi was perched on a tree when he suddenly saw the night sky awash in brilliant lights. That was how he knew that it was his sister. He did not see Jiaolong and thought his sister had come to find him and take him home. Thus, he jumped off the branch and dug into the snow to hide. The sight of him sticking his tail up as he burrowed into the ground was both funny and awkward because his tail had already been stripped bare by Cang Ji.
Ah Yi was running when he woke the birds up. He could hear the mountain woods spirits snickering, so he put up a tough front and scolded them severely. “Who was that? Whoever laughs again, I’ll gouge out his eyes and cut off his tongue!”
But the spirits were everywhere around him, hiding in the trees and in the snow. Their laughter grew, and Ah Yi hopped in a fury, feeling as if he had been stripped bare and placed on display for all to see. He was both furious and resentful, and said in irritation, “Don’t laugh! You’re not allowed to laugh!”
Ah Yi was so humiliated and full of hatred towards Cang Ji that he wanted to skin him alive. The fury consumed him, and he turned around, intending to make a trip to Jing Lin’s garden to drag Cang Ji out to give him a severe beating. But he had only taken a couple of steps when the ground shook below him and the mountain tilted. The mountain was full of birds taking flight into the air. Concerned that his sister was still at the top of the mountain, he raced there.
A wild boar came crashing out. Unable to avoid Ah Yi in time, it bowled him over and sent him tumbling onto its back as it continued running. Sprawled on the back of the wild boar, Ah Yi was tossed around so much that he was all a mess.
“Are you blind?! Do you want to die?!” Ah Yi cranked his neck and cursed.
“We’re going to die!” The wild boar panted heavily as it lowered its head in a mad rush. “Hai Jiao is overturning the mountain! If we don’t flee now, we will die!”
“It’s just a Jiao, not even a dragon. What are you afraid of?” Ah Yi felt relieved. “That’s the Jiao in charge of the Eastern Sea. He will not hurt the innocent. Most likely, he’s just patrolling this mountain. Hey, have you seen my Ah Jie?”
“I saw her. I saw her! The flapping wings of the Deity of Can Li hurt my eyes so much!” The wild boar dashed maniacally towards the foot of the mountain.
Ah Yi looked up and smiled. Spreading both his wings, he said smugly, “That’s natural. My Ah Jie is…”
Before Ah Yi could finish his words, a burst of snowstorm swept by him and grazed his wings. Ah Yi heard a tinkling sound as a copper bell dropped out.
Ah Yi stared at it and asked, “What are you doing stealing someone else’s bell?”
Xue Mei1 assembled into form; half of his face had already been destroyed. He hid his face, revealing only an eye. He looked fearfully at Ah Yi and forced a smile. “It was blown away by the wind. No one wanted it. So I picked it up to play with it.”
“Is it that fun?” Ah Yi sneered. “Then gift it to me. I’ll play with it too. Now, scram.”
Xue Mei suddenly exposed the savage-looking half of his face and met Ah Yi’s eyes before settling on pleading with him, “I’ve remained here for hundreds of years without venturing out. It wasn’t easy for me to find a toy. Please let me keep it.”
Ah Yi shook the copper bell and said, “What’s so interesting about a broken bell? Do you think I’ll believe you?”
There was a chill in the depths of Xue Mei’s eyes, and his voice sounded as if he were sobbing with aggrievement. “What treasure is there that you can’t get your hands on? I just want a bell to relieve my boredom. You even want to snatch it from me?”
Ah Yi’s voice turned shrill. “Snatch? Bah! Who gives a damn about the broken bell of an invalid? I don’t want it even if you pay me! What the hell, you actually said I snatched it from you! Then, all the more I won’t give you, what can you do?! Scram!”
The malevolent aura of Xue Mei was apparent as he moved to seize it. “Return it to me!”
There was a seal cast by Fu Li on Ah Yi’s body, keeping ghosts and demons away from him. When Ah Yi saw the audacity of Xue Mei to strike out at him, he dumped all his hatred for Cang Ji onto Xue Mei and kicked him over. Xue Mei had only lunged a little nearer to him when he was scalded by Ah Yi’s five-colored feathers, causing him to shriek in pain.
“Are you blind?! You even dare to fight with me over it?!”
Xue Mei whimpered like a woman weeping. In a demonstration of his might, Ah Yi jumped off the back of the wild boar and paced around Xue Mei as he haughtily flaunted his feathers.
“Do you acknowledge your mistake?! Are you scared of me now?! I won’t hit you if you kowtow and beg for mercy.” Ah Yi stepped on Xue Mei with his claws. “Hurry up! Otherwise, you’ll die here tonight with not even a soul left.”
Xue Mei wept even more mournfully. Even Ah Yi could not go on listening. He hugged his head and yelled, “Stop crying!”
“Give it back…” Even if it was wishful thinking, Xue Mei persisted. “Return it to me.”
“Why are you so obsessed about a broken bell?” Ah Yi was perplexed. “Could it be that you have a past with it?”
For a moment, Xue Mei simply cried without saying a word. Ah Yi was alarmed. “But this obviously belongs to Jing Lin. Don’t tell me you bear him some grudges. If that’s the case, why do you still want it? If it isn’t a grudge, oh—” Ah Yi continued opinionatedly. “Is it because you have a past love affair with him? You know, I was wondering why he had to imprison you here but not others. So, I see! I get it now! Then you need not kowtow to me. Tell me, is Jing Lin…”
Ah Yi had yet to leap in excitement when the surrounding beasts dispersed in an uproar. The wild boar was the first to flee, bellowing as he ran, “Run! Run!”
“Run for?” Ah Yi was still stepping on Xue Mei and asked blankly, “What are you running for?!”
Ah Yi realized something was wrong when everyone was gone. Xue Mei had also stopped crying as he lay motionless on the ground. This gave Ah Yi the creeps, and he retreated a few steps. When he saw that there was no one looking at him, he turned around to flee. Who would expect that he had only just taken a few steps when someone picked him up by the wings?
Ah Yi was caught off guard. At the same time, understanding dawned on him, and he said resentfully to Xue Mei, “You dare to summon a human to catch me?!”
He had been wondering why Xue Mei had cried like a woman; so it had all been an act to lure a human over. They had already arrived at the foot of the mountain, and within a few miles, there were signs of human habitation. The strange disturbances in the mountains had probably startled them, and this was likely someone who was taking advantage of the chaos to hunt for treasures. Ah Yi could not flap his wings as someone wrenched him up by the wings and stuffed him into a sack. Right now, Ah Yi was filled with resentment, but he did not know who to hate! His Ah Jie had confined him in his original form, and he was no different from an ordinary bird if he encountered human beings. If he could not escape, then the only thing left was to make a last-ditch struggle.
“You want this bell? Fine!” Ah Yi held on to the copper bell tightly as he tumbled in the sack. He was so infuriated he burst out laughing and said contemptuously, “Don’t even think about it! If I were taken away, there would be no escape for it too. Without Jing Lin’s orders, you can never leave this mountain in this life! How’s this for you? You will never see it again!”
He heard Xue Mei throwing itself at him, and there was a rustling sound of snow sliding off. “Return it to me!”
The man dragging the sack could only feel the chilly wind pouncing at him, and he shivered from the cold. He did not want to linger, so he turned and left, taking Ah Yi with him.
“Humph! Serves you right!” Ah Yi shook the bell. “You will never see it.”
Xue Mei burst out bawling as if he was genuinely sad.
Jing Lin looked to the West. The night was black, and the view was obstructed with snow. He could see nothing. Fu Li remained at one side, a strange feeling nagging at her. This was because when she was under Jing Lin’s command, she had never seen him so intimate with anyone. Even Lord Sha Ge, Li Rong, who could be considered a close friend of Jing Lin, was only served a cup of tea from Jing Lin at the very most. She felt that Cang Ji was evil by nature, but she did not dare to speak rashly when she was still uncertain about Jing Lin’s likes and dislikes. Now that she has lost Jing Lin’s favor and trust, she dared not intervene more than she should.
This apprehension was exactly what Cang Ji had hoped for.
“You may leave.” The frown on Jing Lin’s face deepened as he sensed the copper bell moving further away. He had no wish to stick around any longer.
Fu Li prostrated herself in response and retreated after receiving the command, not even daring to question him. With a wave of her hand, she turned the garden into a dot of fluorescent light and took it with her as she soared into the sky.
“There’s only you and me left now. There’s no one to disturb us.” Cang Ji said. “I would save a lot of energy if you are this obedient every day.”
“Remove your hand.” Jing Lin said.
Cang Ji’s palm had been caressing Jing Lin’s back all the way to his tailbone, occasionally kneading his back with varying amount of force as he probed it carefully. He said, “So this is how touching the back of a human feels like. You actually have soft spots too.”
Jing Lin naturally had soft spots; his skin was soft everywhere. Cang Ji was well aware of this, but he wanted to appraise Jing Lin himself with his palm. It was not a loss to him if Jing Lin flew into a rage from shame. It was a pity Jing Lin remained expressionless even as Cang Ji placed his arm around the softness of Jing Lin’s waist to support him.
“All you have to do is lie on the ground.” Jing Lin said, “And I’ll help you find a softer spot on your body.”
“All I did was to hug you, Jing Lin. Why are you so fierce towards me? I’m still in a panic now. I’m so scared.” Cang Ji looked back and watched as the figure of Jiaolong receded among the clouds. “Where’s the copper bell?”
“It’s heading west.” Jing Lin answered.
Cang Ji remained where he was. He knew that the West was a prosperous and bustling area in Zhongdu, where all kinds of spirits mingled. His momentary hesitation was not because of fear, but because he was weighing the pros and cons.
If he devoured Jing Lin here, he would have Jing Lin all to himself. But once at the West, he would not know if anyone else would also be eyeing Jing Lin’s flesh and blood. He did not intend to share Jing Lin with others; this was born out of an instinct to protect his food.
Jing Lin clearly saw through him and said sarcastically, “Since it scares you, why not devour me now? Consuming lesser cultivation is still better than nothing.”
“You are truly considerate.” Cang Ji’s brows relaxed, and the gloom disappeared, and yet he said, “Before we hit the road, I need to make it clear that no matter what we come across, don’t let them touch you. Although I’m magnanimous and generous by nature, I’m very particular about food. I won’t tolerate even a strand of hair missing on those I want to swallow into my belly.”
“Today, I’m fish meat.”2 Jing Lin said. “It’s pointless to tell me what the knife would do.”
“Let’s put it another way.” Cang Ji pinched Jing Lin’s cheeks and said slowly. “I’m amassing cultivation now, and I’m now at the point when I’m ravenous for food. Whoever dares to snatch my fish, I’ll make them pay back with interest. If they touch you once, feel you once or bite you once, I’ll chew them all up and gobble them down, regardless of whether they are demons or mortals. But if you touch someone, wanting to make use of the chance to escape. Jing Lin.” Cang Ji lowered his head, his eyes vicious. “Then I’ll drag you back, tear you up inch by inch without spilling a drop of your blood for others to taste. We will become one, never to part again.”
“We have been companions for so many days.” Jing Lin stared at him as if looking at a child. “And I actually never discovered how naïve and adorable you are.”
He did not seem to be a human or a fish; he was clearly like a beast. Avaricious and insatiable. Stubborn and opinionated. Great at pretense, yet silly and thickheaded. It was as if Jing Lin was looking into a mirror and seeing himself in it.
“Why be modest? You are well-aware of it. You are only just indulging me on purpose.” Cang Ji released his grip and asked. “So, how was it? You were the one who fed me until I turned out this way. Is this what you wanted? Are you satisfied?”
Jing Lin did not answer, and Cang Ji leaped down to the foot of the mountain. The sleeves of Jing Lin’s robe fluttered in the wind, and its color of azure was like spring water, soaking Cang Ji in it. They both seemed interdependent on each other as they rose and fell, and yet they were both silent.
Cang Ji went west in pursuit. There was a weight at the back of his neck, and the small stone figure popped out. Cang Ji burst out laughing, more affectionate than when he had seen Jing Lin. “I thought you were dead, never to wake up again.”
For some reason, the little stone figure punched him several times. Unaffected by the punches, Cang Ji shook himself lightly, and the little stone figure tumbled and fell into Jing Lin’s arm. Cang Ji glanced at Jing Lin, only to find that he had closed his eyes again. He huffily snorted to himself and thought:
He’s always like this. Sometimes I really want to bite him to death.
With this thought, he said to the small stone figure, “Although you are just a piece of stone, you are much warmer than a living man.”
Jing Lin did not seem to hear him. The small stone figure sat on Jing Lin’s chest and looked down. Cang Ji said, “You are not happy even though I praised you. Are stones this stupid? You are the same as your master; you’re just like a…”
The small stone figure head-butted Cang Ji. Cang Ji coughed and almost face-planted into the snow, swallowing back the words he had yet to say.
- 雪魅 (pinyin: xuě mèi). A snow incarnate or a snow demon. I’ll be using “Xue Mei” from now on because it’s easier to type than “the snow incarnate” ._. I’ll continue to use “snow incarnate” if referring to snow demons in general, while “Xue Mei” will be used to refer to this particular snow incarnate.
- Jing Lin’s quote is based on the idiom 人为刀俎，我为鱼肉, which literally translated as “he’s the knife and chopping board; I’m the fish meat”. It means to be the meat on someone’s chopping block, i.e., to be at someone’s mercy.