It was pitch black at night in the mountains. There were no birds and animals in sight and no sounds of insects within hearing distance. The entire mountain was silent. Fanshu held on to Gu Shen’s clothes. He was as silent as a winter cicada, just like the rest of the little wild ghosts. They did not know where the Mountain Deity was. The atmosphere was one of furtiveness. The road ahead was getting more and more unpredictable.
Cang Ji stepped on a decaying leaf and said, “There is nothing in this mountain, not even a bug.”
Gu Shen picked the leaf up and sniffed it, then crushed it between his fingers. Although he did not have any supernatural ability to fly or burrow through the earth, he had a good eye for observation. Gu Shen looked around at the towering trees and said, “This mountain has an abundance of trees and their roots are much more intricate and complicated than trees elsewhere. Could it be that the Mountain Deity has an ability to bring on decay?”
“It shouldn’t be.” Jing Lin said, “Lord Dong is the one who is able to revive all living things and induce decay to expedite rebirth. If this deity has the same ability, they would have a spot for him in the Ninth Heaven Realm.”
The assembly of the various deities in the Ninth Heaven Realm each had their own special prowess. For example, Zui Shan Seng’s Xiang Mo Staff’s suppression of evil relied not on his enviable talent, but his true form. All cultivators would beget themselves a spiritual sea, and this vast spiritual expanse would surround their true form. The true form was constructed by the heart and motivated by the spirit. Everyone was different. Zui Shan Seng’s true form was “Zui Shan”,1 due to his steadfast and unyielding nature, as well as the weight of his obsession. It was also the reason he had never been able to rid himself of his worldly desires.
Lord Dong was even more different. When Lord Jiu Tian appointed him, the three realms were in so much of an uproar that it showed how much of a controversy it was. He was a Deity Lord, and yet he still had to carry out duties such as the beckoning of Spring. It was not because the current Lord Cheng Tian wanted to hold him in check, but because there was no one other than him who could do this job.
The conversation between Jing Lin and Gu Shen had yet to finish when they saw Cang Ji encircling a tree and using his foot to push aside the thick pile of accumulated, rotting leaves. He drew nearer to take a sniff and said, “It smells strange here. There is a stench in the mud that I have never smelled before.”
Gu Shen crouched and rubbed the mud between his fingers before sniffing it. “I can’t smell it.”
Cang Ji gave Fanshu a light kick in the ass and said, “You do it.”
Fanshu clenched his collar. His ears drooped as he said in fear and terror. “There’s no, no need to sniff it. It’s the stench of corpses…” He cried. “Many people have died here.”
Gu Shen dug into the mud with his scabbard. At the depth of about two palms down, he dug out a new phalanx. He said, “I suppose the skeletons of all those ten thousand humans the pig spirit mentioned are all here.”
If they unearthed the soil at this moment, they would be able to see a mound of piled up bones on this mountain. The towering trees had their roots in them. The entire mountain of greenery all had their bases built on bones.
Gu Shen prodded the phalanx and said, “There are scars on the bone. If this person was strangled to death, the scars should be on the neck. Why would it leave a trace on the phalanx?”
“That depends on what exactly this Mountain Deity Grandpa is. He shouldn’t be a beast, and he doesn’t seem to be an insect or reptile either.” Cang Ji brushed his fingertips across the strangulation marks between the phalanges. “It’s too thin. You guys were born in the city too. Haven’t you seen him before?”
Fanshu replied with trepidation. “Never, never seen him before… If we did, we would have been able to find mother.”
All this while, Jing Lin had not uttered a word. He lifted his finger to stroke the trunk of the tree. The leaves of the forest shook. There seemed to be a rhythm as they grazed against each other.
Gu Shen said. “Even they had not been able to catch sight of him. He couldn’t possibly be able to burrow through the earth, could he?”
“Although we have never seen him,” Fanshu whispered, “Mountain Deity Grandpa would know every single movement in the city. He has never allowed anyone to go out without permission. So, no one has been able to leave.”
“There is no spiritual barrier in sight here. If you want to flee, you can just run away.” Cang Ji said, “How did he get everyone to be so submissive?”
“Fear.” The little wild ghost clutched their hems and replied in unison. “Gege, fear!
“What is rarely seen and is able to hide right before our eyes?” Gu Shen pondered.
“Instead of saying that it’s rarely seen.” Jing Lin’s robe fluttered in the wind as he raised his hand to caress the tree. “You might as well say it’s the most commonly seen.”
The ancient wood hunched over and went still.
The starlight shimmered. He closed his eyes to listen. The wind breathed softly, and the surrounding trees swayed with each breath. The waves of sound rose to a crescendo among the mountains. Then, it dispersed among the wind and faded away into the night.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lord Dong abruptly stopped in his tracks and pricked up his ears, putting a pause to Zui Shan Seng’s questioning. He said, “Listen.”
Zui Shang Seng erected his staff and listened with rapt attention. After a moment, he said, “Not even a fart.”
“Such a wonderful sound, and all you want to hear is a fart.” Lord Dong said, “It’s clear that there is a reason why you have been lonely all your life.”
“Cut the crap. What did you hear?”
There was a glint of delight in Lord Dong’s half-closed eyes. He said, “This land is surrounded by mountains that formed a natural barrier around it. If left undisturbed by external influence, it would have been a haven away from the rest of the world. Because of this, the plants and trees are of one mind, and mountains and rivers share a common source. But it was unfortunate that humans would build a city here. Not only did they messed up the spiritual energy here, but they also caused a buildup of lifelessness due to karma.”
“From what I see, the terrain here is favorable and fertile with heavenly spiritual energy. It’s because of its nourishment that living things could evolve into spirits. There are so many demons that the mountain is overrun with them. Where’s the lifelessness you speak of?” Zui Shan Seng asked in confusion.
“It’s only natural that you couldn’t detect it.” Lord Dong placed a hand behind him. “Otherwise, why would you still need me? However, you are the Grand Secretariat of Zhui Hun Prison, and yet you can’t even remember the Zhongdu jurisdictions of the various deities-in-charge. It’s no wonder they are always thwarting you in public or in secret whenever they saw you.”
“There are so many deities-in-charge in Zhongdu that I can’t remember all of them even if my hair grows out.” Zui Shan Seng asked, “Who is in charge here?”
Lord Dong replied briskly. “No one.”
Zui Shan Seng took a few steps and looked around. He said, “Since this place is teeming with heavenly spiritual energy, why wasn’t a deity-in-charge dispatched?”
“Because the karmic debt here has not been fully repaid.” Lord Dong explained. “The Demarcation Division would weigh up the various places. Where offerings are abundant, a sacrificial temple would be set up and a deity-in-charge would be stationed based on merit. The fact that the city you stayed in earlier could draw such a qualified immortal like Hui’an to be stationed there and protect it would have something to do with the endless stream of incense offerings for hundreds of years. This place does not worship Heaven, nor do its people pray to deities. Instead, they kowtowed to the devil of the Blood Sea. Even the common major demons have no desire to take over this place, let alone the Demarcation Division.”
“How ridiculous. Since they worship evil, then just eliminate them! How could this matter be simply brushed aside?”
“It has only been five hundred years, and you have forgotten.” Lord Dong shot a glance at him. “You slay demons. But when it comes to subduing devils, the only other person apart from Li Rong who can do so is Lord Lin Song, isn’t it?”
Zui Shan Seng choked for a moment before he said stubbornly, “Although I’m responsible for slaying demons, it’s still not impossible for me to subdue devils. Moreover, after Jing… Lord Lin Song, couldn’t they just choose someone else in the entire Ninth Heaven Realm for the job?!”
Lord Dong sighed softly and said in a faint voice. “How in the world would it be that easy to pick someone for the job? It is easy to slay demons, but tough to subdue devils. Between Heaven and Earth, other than those few who lost their lives in the Blood Sea, there are only Li Rong’s Po Zheng Spear and Jing Lin’s Yan Quan Sword. Today, Po Zheng is in a deep sleep, and Yan Quan is broken. Where could Lord Cheng Tian find someone else to take up the mantle? It’s easy to find someone with the right cultivation, but hard to find someone with a true form that’s a perfect fit. Subduing devils and defending against them often means the Blood Sea is involved. If not for an unwavering, steadfast will, who would dare to take up the responsibility?”
“There are various Buddhas in Fan Tan. I don’t believe there is no one else who can eliminate devils.”
Lord Dong looked up and burst out laughing. With a hand behind his back, he walked off and said, “Idiot! When will you understand the complication in this? If it was easy to invite the True Buddha, why would Li Rong sink into slumber in the Blood Sea? In this world, it’s always one thing for another. All along, it has been a balance of merits and virtues, with karma coming full circle.”
Zui Shan Seng followed closely behind him. “You said the people here worship the devil, but all I see are demons. Where are the humans?”
Lord Dong shrugged his shoulders. “Gone to repay their debts.”
“That’s not right.” Zui Shan Seng said, “Since the evil has not been eliminated, who could ask them to repay their debts?”
“Themselves. Just the resentment of a few of them could accumulate and give form to a bird, but the Luocha Bird isn’t anything formidable. However, if the blood of tens of thousands of humans had been spilled, then even I would not be able to guess what might be born out of their accrued resentment.” Lord Dong was exhilarated. “I’ve encountered it.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The sound of breathing lured Gu Shen over. He stepped forward gingerly and touched the trunk. The unmoving ancient wood suddenly dropped its branches and felt its way up from Gu Shen’s shoulder to his face. The withered branch was rough, and it scratched Gu Shen as it slid up inch by inch, hurting him.
“He…” A sob abruptly welled up in Gu Shen’s throat, but he forced it down. “Does he recognize me? I may have been to the north, but I have never set foot on this place before.”
The ancient tree pulled his roots out of the soil, subsequently raking up white bones along with it. His vines gradually increased. Weighed down by it, he bent over, turning into a colossal monster dragging its muddy roots. His roots glided as he ambled along. His branches stroked Gu Shen’s face as if identifying him, then they moved past him and reached out towards Fanshu.
Fanshu landed on all fours. The vines caressed his ears. He watched blankly as this monster moved to stand before him. Then, without rhyme or reason, he called out.
The little wild ghosts stepped on the mud and climbed up the monster’s vines. With innocent and lively smiles, they lowered their heads to sprawl out on the branches of the vines. They cried out joyfully in unison. “Mother!”
The vines lifted Fanshu and encircled the little wild ghosts. He had no face or mouth, and yet Cang Ji and Jing Lin heard the sound of humming. Among the vague and indistinct hum with tens of millions of voices, he swung the young children with gentleness. Fanshu hugged his vines and cried aloud.
“Mother.” Fanshu leaned against him. “It’s mother!”
“It’s mother!” The little wild ghosts laughed as they frolicked in the mud and among the vines. “It’s mother!”
“He” took the children and moved down the mountain. The vegetation in the mountain split into a path. White bones constantly fell from his vines onto the muddy ground. It was as if he was still on a search as he shuffled further away.
“Where is he going?” Cang Ji turned to Gu Shen, only to find Gu Shen in tears.
Gu Shen held the scabbard of his blade and wiped away the tears in bewilderment. “… I thought he recognized me.”
Jing Lin looked at the road ahead and did not answer him. He looked as if he had come to a realization, but could not spill it all to Gu Shen.
Gu Shen looked back. When he saw that “he” was moving further away on his mountain patrol, he felt a sudden, unbearable pain. He could not even tell exactly where the pain was. All he could do was to repeat, “… I thought he recognized me.”
In the dark of the night, with the vast sky of stars as a guide, the Mountain Deity patrolled the mountains. In this way, he wandered and circled the mountains over and over again. More and more little ghosts emerged from the underbrush. They played barefoot and rode on the Mountain Deity’s vines while irregularly calling him “Mother”.2
The copper bell swayed and rang at the side of Gu Shen’s waist, urging him to follow. The bell jolted Gu Shen to his senses, but not Jing Lin. Jing Lin’s eyes lingered on the copper bell as if he had seen an old friend.
The little stone figure jumped out of his sleeve and ran towards Gu Shen’s side, then sprang up to take the copper bell. The copper bell circled around Gu Shen and hid in his belt. The stone figure fell to the ground and watched as Gu Shen took the copper bell along and chased after the Mountain Deity. For some reason, his back looked lonely.
Cang Ji squatted behind it and pressed a finger between its grass crown. “We’ll get it back. There’s no need to rush it.”
The stone figure hugged Cang Ji’s fingers as the latter picked it up and placed it on his shoulder.
“Since you said nothing, you must have understood something.” Cang Ji looked ahead. “This thing is not a demon or a devil. He’s not malicious, but he carries the sin of killing. He has no spiritual sea. Everything within and outside him is a mess. What exactly is he?”
Jing Lin stepped on the bones. He lowered his head to observe for a moment, then said, “If my guess is right, then Gu Shen can never return home.”
“What has it got to do with him? Cang Ji asked.
“It has nothing and everything to do with him.” Jing Lin mercilessly kicked away the bones. “This place was originally a Feng Shui3 treasure, but humans messed up its heavenly spiritual energy. This city was built by humans, but it is located in the remote mountains. It is neither accessible by roads nor open to outsiders. There is only one way out of the city, with heavy doors and iron locks. Even demons find it impossible to escape, let alone mere mortals.”
“Like a stone jar.” Cang Ji said. “It is surrounded by mountains, and the path to it is naturally dangerous and arduous. It’s inconvenient for humans to live here. However, the city was meticulously constructed. And it also did not seem as if they were fleeing from a calamity.”
“It was indeed built for fleeing.” Jing Lin said, “but it was to flee from penal punishment. Dong Lin could attract the Luo Cha Bird just by killing all four members of the Chen household. Yet there is no sight of evil being here where ten thousand humans had died. The reason the Demarcation Department was unaware of this was because the Underworld did not report it. “
“Why?” Cang Ji asked. “There’s a relative of the King of Hell here?”
“The King of Hell probably wouldn’t dare to acknowledge him if there is.” Jing Lin paused. “Most likely, the humans’ souls were devoured right after they were killed.”
“Then, where did these many little ghosts come from?”
Jing Lin looked at Cang Ji and said, “The children died early.”
Cang Ji asked, “What exactly is this place?”
“This city is not a utopia, but a hideout. There’s a quote in Dong Lin’s case, ‘all the girls in that carriage froze to death’. The lands of Zhongdu may be vast, but isn’t the place that is able to freeze someone to death precisely the very road we are now standing on?” Jing Lin paused and did not continue.
But he still heard Cang Ji asking the key question.
“Why?” Cang Ji’s expression was frosty. “Why was it just the girls who were sent over?”
- 醉山 Zui Shan literally means “Drunken Mountain”. Thus Zui Shan Seng (醉山僧) can be literally translated as “Drunken Mountain Monk”. (For someone who loves to drink, he got pwned by Jing Lin’s Drunken Swordplay, lmaoooo.)
- I need to clarify here. So far, the pronoun used for the tree and the mountain deity is “he”. But Fanshu and the ghosts called ‘him’ “mother”. This will make sense once the truth is revealed.
- 风水 literally “wind-water”. By definition, Feng Shui is the ancient Chinese system for balancing the yin and yang energy of a space to maximize the flow of positive energy in the built environment and to protect against negative energy.