It was hard for Jing Lin to sleep through the night. Sleep always brought with it dreams, and dreams always came bearing his past. He did not want dreams, nor did he want his past, so he always lay down to take a nap instead. The place where he woke up had been stripped bare; there was nothing left.
At first, the days he was awake were short. The pain in his body was not even worth a mention. It was his fragmented spiritual sea that was the source of his agony. His spiritual sea had been shattered into pieces and those sharp fragments stuck all over his mind, piercing him so badly that even his soul hurt.
When Jing Lin could move, he would often sit with his clothes draped around him. He could not seem to find a reason to continue, and yet he could not find a reason to end it all either. Awakened from a dream, his past gone with the wind. Spring and Autumn came and went, year after year. His pain gradually receded, and his body seemed to have recovered too.
The only thing was that he had lost his sword. Not only were his hands empty, there was also a void in his heart. His spiritual sea had been damaged, and his original form was nowhere in sight. Yan Quan had roamed with him for half his life, but in the end, he could not even find a piece of a broken blade. Jing Lin had a thought once, to die among the mountain forest and be buried beside Yan Quan. A pity he was standing in the wind now, unable to hold on to anything except the shirt on his shoulder. Until water splashed out of the white porcelain jar as a frolicking brocade carp sprang out.
Jing Lin touched its scales with his fingertip, and the lively creature swam against his fingers. They seemed to coexist, interdependent on each other.
As Jing Lin was in a daze, he saw the brocade carp turning into a child. Fair, plump fist tugged at his sleeves. The child rapidly turned into a youth, with the same arrogance and willfulness in his facial features. Then, he became a man in black who was now taller than himself, gripping his wrist.
“Where are you going to escape to?” Frost blanketed Cang Ji’s eyes. He was resolute. “You can’t run. You’ll remain in my hands!”
Jing Lin patted him on the cheek with his other hand and stroked it. His fingertip traced Cang Ji’s side temple, as if he could not figure out where this man came from. And yet he seemed to have met him before. He needed to get to the bottom of this. Every time he traced an inch, Cang Ji pulled him closer to him. Jing Lin could barely breathe. He clutched a wisp of Cang Ji’s hair and motioned for him to loosen his grip.
But Cang Ji merely stared at him and took his finger to his lips, kissing it, wetly and hotly.
“Let me eat you.” Cang Ji cunningly put on a look of aggrievement. “Alright?”
Jing Lin had never been this hot before. He looked on blankly as Cang Ji kissed his fingertips. He actually felt ambiguous and strange. He pursed his lips and shook his head in fear.
Cang Ji’s palm caressed the back of Jing Lin’s head. It was as if he treated him like a child, but yet he kept closing in on him until their lips nearly touched. In this enchanting, clingy moment, Jing Lin’s breath quickened, and the world turned hazy before his eyes.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin abruptly opened his eyes. His breath was still hot. He turned his head, and sure enough, he saw Cang Ji propping up his head to watch him. The night was not yet over, and it was dark inside the boat. Cang Ji nonchalantly turned his eyes away.
Jing Lin’s mouth felt parched. He felt a lingering warmth on his lips as if they had touched something warm. He could barely tell dream from reality, so he subconsciously lifted his arm to block his face and turned over to face the wall to cool his head for a moment.
Cang Ji turned a blind eye and said, “Throughout the night, Chu Lun headed west to the capital to report on his mission. I can’t sense any human aura on the cup he left behind. He should be a minor demon.”
Jing Lin’s hair scattered over the pillow mat. Even when he wanted to open his mouth, he could still feel Cang Ji’s breath in the dream lingering in his mouth. He shut his eyes and remained quiet for a moment. When he opened them again, he could be described as calm.
“It’s a brush1 demon.” Jing Lin said, “He recognized me.”
“Demon Slayer Lord Lin Song.” Cang Ji lay down. “No wonder he wants to run. But it’s interesting what others have said. They all made the same comment about this Chu Lun.”
“It’s like he’s a different person.” Cang Ji replied.
A different person?
“‘Chu Lun’ is indeed a mortal. He was born in a small village in Dongxiang. His family was poor and his parents passed away one after another. It was only because of the financial assistance of his close relatives that he could continue to study. This child was born weak, and he seemed to have an ailment of the legs. But he was good at studying. By the age of twelve, his name had spread among the countryside for his poetry. The prefectural magistrate of Dongxiang recommended him repeatedly, so he was able to enter the capital at nineteen of age, but he failed the imperial examination twice. He was even more diligent in his studies after returning home. His wish is fulfilled now that he has won the top scholar title this time. But some people said that his temperament has undergone a great change ever since he entered the capital for the third time to take the imperial examination.”
Jing Lin asked, “In what way?”
“No idea.” Cang Ji said, closing his eyes. “It’s not convenient to question them in detail en route, but there must be someone in the capital who knows.”
Then, he seemed to fall into a deep sleep and spoke no further.
Jing Lin stared at the wall in silence until daybreak.
The capital city was located in the southwest. Heading up along the river merely took them half a month to arrive at the capital city. The more they headed west in Zhongdu, the more concentrated the Demarcation Division was, with the bases of all kinds of deities-in-charge nearby. It was hard for the minor demons to penetrate through the barrier.
Jing Lin was still locked in a stalemate with Cang Ji, but it did not stop him from giving Cang Ji pointers on how to utilize his spiritual energy. Half a month was too brief a period. Cang Ji had yet to fully grasp the crux of it when the boat reached the shore.
The weather was blazing hot when Jing Lin disembarked. The capital city was filled with travelers from all over. Its streets were well-organized and bustling. The passenger boats in the port were small, with huge dragon boats towering over them. The waterways were orderly and noisy with the din of human voices. He looked into the distance. For a moment, he could not see the end. All he could see were the buildings and pavilions around him, and a magnificent, towering palace.
Cang Ji let out a laugh. He looked around his surroundings, thinking that the so-called Ninth Heaven Shrine was nothing special. How could it be compared to the hustle and bustle of the mortal world? Dancers shuttled among them, with gold bracelets on their hands and silver bells on their feet. Crisp ringing sounds rang out as they walked. A traveler played the flute as he walked along the street, drawing the passing dancers into a dance. Sheer fabric of various colors twirled in the air.
Guangtun Wansui Mountain boasted of thousands of dynasties of happiness.2 For this reason, the Ninth Heaven Goddess, Shengyue, was placed in control of this place. She lived as long as the Heaven, and her mind was one with the earth. She was omnipresent and ethereal. The day the Supreme Father, Lord Jiu Tian, initiated the start of the new year among the Three Realms, the Goddess Shengyue was nowhere in sight. But the Supreme Father still honored her as an esteemed guest. Even Jing Lin had never seen her before.
Both of them found an inn to stay, but unfortunately, it was also run by a demon. The only difference was that the demons in the capital were all big-league demons.
◈ ◈ ◈
When Cang Ji stepped across the door and entered the inn, he saw a feather fan flicking the abacus beads. Those abacus beads were made of gold, and the abacus itself was inlaid with precious gems along the border, giving it an air of nobility. The proprietress sat, haughtily and arrogantly. Her jade white fingers were overburdened with rings, each of them as large as pigeon eggs. Splendidly dressed, she cut a poised figure. Nine furry tails swayed leisurely beside her legs.
Cang Ji had seen a fox demon before, but this was the first time he saw a nine-tailed fox demon.
The proprietress placed her slender fingers over the fan and revealed a pair of alluring eyes as she looked them over. She said lazily, “Fifty gold for a room. Don’t grumble if you find it expensive. If you can pay up, you can choose a room as you please. If you can’t pay up, then go elsewhere. We don’t take in paupers here.”
Cang Ji slid two fingers across the countertop. Gold beads and precious stones clattered as they piled up into a long, resplendent line on the countertop.
The proprietress did not even look at them as she half-lifted the feather fan and sized Cang Ji up. She said. “Your facial features are pleasing to the eyes, and your gaze is penetrating. Good skin. This kind of appearance is the most popular among the demons. There’s no hurry to settle the bill just yet. Just for your face alone, jiejie will provide for your entertainment in the capital. All those fair and refined looks are no longer rare. What we want is precisely your kind of…” She half-pondered it over, then leaned over suddenly. “You bear a remarkable resemblance to Emperor Cang of the North.”
Cang Ji did not know who this “Emperor Cang of the North” was, but Jing Lin raised his eyebrows and looked towards the proprietress.
The proprietress snorted. “You are in good luck. Of all things, I have a fondness for Emperor Cang’s type. Your food and drinks are all on the house. Go up and choose a room for yourselves.”
After saying this, she ignored them and went inside with her fan, then lowered the curtains to play with silk cards.
The little fox holding a plate and serving at the side flapped its ears and wagged its tail as its shoeless paws trod lightly on the red rug. It had a pink face with rosy cheeks and bright almond eyes.3 It lifted the curtain, curtsied to them, and said, “Please come with me, gentlemen.”
Cang Ji followed it in. The stairs were broad, and the furnishings were luxurious all around. He slowed down his pace and walked alongside Jing Lin.
Jing Lin said softly, “Before Ninth Heaven Realm was established, both the dragon and phoenix occupied the northern regions. Later, the phoenix headed south and joined forces with Ninth Heaven Gate to fight against the devils. Only canglong remained in the north and did not comply. There were countless major-league demons under his command, and his honorific title was “Emperor Cang”. After canglong, the title of “Emperor Cang” repeatedly passed through the hands of minor demons, and so they added the word ‘North’ to his posthumous title to honor him.”
“He’s already dead.” Cang Ji said, “Why not just give his title to others to have fun with?”
Jing Lin said, “That won’t do.”
Cang Ji looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “The deities are also poking their noses into this?”
Jing Lin stepped up the stairs. After a slight pause, he said, “They aren’t.”
Cang Ji asked, “Then what does this dragon have to do with you? Is he a friend of Li Rong?”
Jing Lin had already walked to the door. The little fox pushed the door open and welcomed them in. But Jing Lin zoned out for a moment. Cang Ji shoved him in from behind with his chest. The little fox closed the door and retreated.
Jing Lin replied, “He has nothing to do with me. He’s not a friend of Li Rong either.”
Cang Ji uttered an “oh”. He did not probe further or continue the conversation. He ducked out from behind Jing Lin and poured a cup of tea for himself. A short while later, he heard several little foxes standing outside the door saying cheerfully, “The wine in the hot springs of the Northern Courtyard has been prepared. If both gentlemen are interested, you may head there any time to relieve the summer heat.”
There was silence in the room. A moment later, Cang Ji opened the door, stepped out, and descended the stairs to have some fun. Just before he left, he threw a gold pearl to one of them and said, “You lead the way for me. The rest will remain here to attend to him. He will go later.”
A fox caught the gold pearl and followed Cang Ji. The remaining waited. Sure enough, Jing Lin emerged a while later with a new change of clothes and headed for the bath.
◈ ◈ ◈
The little fox was called Xiyan. He was in his early hundreds this year. The proprietress had raised him by her side all his time, and thus he knew all about the entertainment spots in the capital. Cang Ji was generous with his money, handsome, and forthright with others. Gradually, Xiyan had dropped his guard around him, even addressing him as “dage” as they journeyed together.
Cang Ji asked with nonchalance, “I heard the Lady Boss mentioned ‘Emperor Cang of the North’ earlier. Who is he?”
“Dage doesn’t know?” Xiyan was much shorter than Cang Ji. Carrying the goods as he followed behind Cang Ji, he shook his head and said, “I guess it’s to be expected. Dage must have remained in the east to concentrate on cultivating, so you weren’t aware of the other matters. This Emperor Cang of the North is renowned among the demons. Even our Lady Boss has admired him for many years. Every time she spoke about his deeds, she would hide her face behind the fan and weep.”
“What deeds?” Cang Ji prompted, “Let’s hear it.”
“Emperor Cang resided in the north, where he was proclaimed emperor. He turned down Lord Jiu Tian thrice, refusing to have any contact with him. This was because, for a very long time, he had gathered the demons all on the basis of his own strength to fight against the Blood Sea. Thus, he was unwilling to bow down to others. As such, the alliance with Ninth Heaven fell through six times. Oh man, it’s strange to say, but Ninth Heaven Gate had become the number one powerhouse in Heaven and Earth back then. Lord Jiu Tian’s eight sons were all well-reputed, distinguished men. Although there were a great number of capable demons under Emperor Cang’s command, they were at odds with Ninth Heaven Gate. It would only end up with heavy losses on both sides.”
“Then let them both suffer losses.” Cang Ji tossed his pearls and leaned against the railings. Squinting his eyes against the sun, he said, “That what-you-called-him, Lord Jiu Tian, used the excuse of joining forces to resist evil in order to seize over power from all around. No matter how you put it, he doesn’t seem to be a virtuous sage with the common folks in mind. Since this man could take up post as the common ruler of heaven and earth, then why can’t Emperor Cang? Rather than to be a minion of another, one might as well be free and unfettered to the very end. “
Xiyan poked his ears out from the bundles of goods and said in surprise, “Dage, how do you know that Emperor Cang thought this way?! Lady Boss said that although he never yielded to Ninth Heaven Gate, he had always stood firm in the dangerous zones of the north, never letting the evil spirits advance for even half a step. Later on, the Blood Sea calmed down. Ninth Heaven Gate changed its name to Ninth Heaven Realm, and Lord Jiu Tian became the common ruler of Heaven and Earth, the Supreme Father. All parties were rewarded according to their meritorious deeds, but Emperor Cang remained in the north and paid them no attention. Lord Jiu Tian could not do nothing about him, so he sent Lord Sha Ge, Li Rong, down to persuade and soothe him. At first, both sides did not harbor resentment towards each other; instead, they were cordial. But for some reason, Lord Sha Ge, Li Rong, suddenly turned against him and started a great battle with Emperor Cang in the northern lands…” His ears drooped as he continued. “Lady Boss said, this Li Rong must have resorted to subterfuge. Otherwise, how would he have been able to fight against Emperor Cang given that his cultivation had yet to reach the Great Accomplishment Stage?”
“So.” Cang Ji said, “Emperor Cang must have lost to Li Rong.”
“Li Rong was also ordered to hack off his scales and scrape away his flesh.” Xiyan said, “Ninth Heaven Realm severed the dragon bloodline. From then on, for so many years, there has been no sight of a dragon in this world.”
Unexpectedly, Cang Ji laughed and said, “I’m afraid it’s only by rooting out the source of trouble that they can set their mind at ease.”
“But something odd happened because of this incident.” Xiyan leaned over the railing and tilted his head as he nibbled at the sugar figure.4
“According to the current Doctrine of Gods, if we were to talk about meritorious military service, Lord Sha Ge should take the first place. But if we were to talk about unrivaled merits, then Lord Lin Song tops all. Because he roamed the various lands of Zhongdu even before the Blood Sea. They all said, ‘One ought to see Yan Quan when it comes to slaying demons and subduing evil.’ Those that had perished under Yan Quan Sword included ghosts and deities. Although his title did not sound lethal, the way he wielded his sword was clean and efficient. But he still discerned between good and evil, and had never hurt the innocent nor harm the good demons.” Xiyan said. “The strange thing was that, Emperor Cang was killed by Li Rong. Lord Lin Song was Li Rong’s brother, and he had nothing to do with Emperor Cang. Yet I heard that both of them parted ways with each other because of that incident, giving rise to the Ninth Heaven’s rumor that ‘Lord shuns Lord.’ What’s even stranger is that, after the demons in Zhongdu lost their chief, they all declared themselves kings and proclaimed themselves emperor. But anyone who took the name ‘Emperor Cang’ for themselves all met their ends under Yan Quan Sword. After a long time, no one dared to call themselves Emperor Cang any more. Lord Lin Song preserved Emperor Cang’s honorific title for him. Lady Boss said, we could be considered to owe a debt of gratitude to him. It’s just that we never expect him to slay the Supreme Father later. Somehow, it could be regarded as having taken revenge for Emperor Cang.”
Cang Ji could not fathom it. “Do they know each other?”
Unexpectedly, Xiyan shook his head and said in bafflement. “They don’t. I heard that Lord Lin Song had never even seen Emperor Cang’s face before. They did fight side by side once during the Blood Sea Battle. But Lady Boss said that the army was out in full force that day, with thousands upon thousands of troops and horses. Lord Lin Song and Emperor Cang were not acquainted with each other. It’s just that they seemed to have brushed past each other during the deployment of troops. Other than that, they had no further interaction.”
Credits: Many thanks to Cheshire (@ivory_and_horn) for pointing out the inconsistency in the naming of stages!
- 乐 used here could mean happiness/joy (le) or music (yue) depending on the pinyin used. The JJWXC audio used le, so I’m going with happiness in the translation, although it could be both based on the description above.
杏眼 almond eyes; a kind of eye shape said to give off a younger, adorable or pure vibe.
糖人; sugar figure is a traditional Chinese form of folk art using hot, liquid sugar, or sugar syrup, to create three-dimensional figures that come in a variety of shapes from animals to objects. A dragon sugar figure is shown in the picture above.