Chu Lun was gifted, having had a photographic memory ever since childhood. He was certain that he had never seen these two men before, so he was on alert after saying his greetings.
Jing Lin returned his greetings, promptly turning from the dandy young master into a modest gentleman. He said, “I’m Lin Jing of Donghai. I have had a chance encounter with Your Honor Chu on the boat on the river half a month ago. Does Your Honor still remember me? “
It was worthwhile to ruminate over Chu Lun’s reactions. He was neither dismayed nor flustered and hid his emotions perfectly as he said with all sincerity, “I beg your pardon, but I don’t remember you. May I know the purpose of your visit today?”
Jing Lin smiled meaningfully in response.
Chu Lun said, “I had too much to drink and was dead drunk that night, hence, the memory lapses. Please, just speak your mind.”
Jing Lin replied spontaneously, “That night, Your Honor seemed to have some pressing matters to attend to. Before you left in a hurry, you borrowed fifty gold pearls from me. I’m ashamed to say this. But when I first came to the capital, I squandered away all the money my family had given me in a moment of impulsiveness. That’s why I’ve come to pay Your Honor a visit tonight.”
Chu Lun asked, “Do you have any evidence of debt?”1
Jing Lin said, abashed, “The situation was urgent back then. We did not put it into writing.”
Since there was no written evidence, Chu Lun could simply deny it. But he tacitly acknowledged it as if this was a common occurrence for him.
“As luck would have it.” Chu Lun finally looked somewhat embarrassed. “I’d be hard-pressed to gather fifty gold for quite a while. Why don’t we put it down in writing tonight? I’ll repay you the next time you call on me.”
Jing Lin presented a gentle front as he assented to it. “Alright.”
Chu Lun led both of them into the residence. Although he was the new top scholar, he was only assigned to Hanlin,2 and his rank and official post were still unknown. He still had to wait for the ministry to discuss and finalize it these days, that was why he was still putting up here for the time being. The furnishings in his residence were simple. It was obvious that Chu Lun was rather short of money. He was about to be an official of the ruling dynasty, and yet there was not even a servant around him.
Cang Ji glanced around to search for the scent, but he did not see any “brush”. It did not take long for the written agreement to be established. Jing Lin and Chu Lun engaged in civilities for a moment before those who should take their leave left and those who should send off the guests saw them out.
Cang Ji discovered that once Jing Lin had put on a disguise, he would often become a different kind of person. That is, the kind of person who was smooth and natural when conning and deceiving others. As they were about to leave the house, another “Chu Lun” happened to step through the door. A pair of them on each side, coming face to face with each other.
How would this “Chu Lun” know that he would bump right into this carnage deity? His expression changed as he retreated in horror. Without even saying a greeting, he flipped over and jumped off the railings and took to his heels.
Jing Lin slowly shoved the document into his sleeve and said to the other Chu Lun behind him, “Why haven’t I heard that Your Honor still has a twin brother?”
The gears in Chu Lun’s mind turned. He spread out his arms to block them and said, “Please hold on! That’s indeed my brother. It’s just that…”
“It’s just that he’s a demon.” Cang Ji leaned against the door and smiled as he watched. “He runs pretty fast too.”
“Since we’ve met the real debtor tonight.” Jing Lin said, “We will not bother Your Honor Chu any further.”
Chu Lun wanted to obstruct them, but they disappeared right before his eyes. He lifted his robe and descended the stairs in a hurry, wanting to give chase. But his legs were uncooperative and he tumbled down the stairs. His fall was a truly sorry sight to behold. Someone on the side of the street recognized him as the top scholar. Chu Lun rose to his feet and staggered a few steps, but he could no longer find any traces of the other three.
The brush demon ran like he was running for his life. He leaped across the roofs along the street, like a frightened, panicked rabbit fleeing amid the rising and falling eaves. Jing Lin strolled along, while Cang Ji charged ahead. The brush demon sensed a gust of chilly wind at the back of his neck. No matter how hard he tried, he could not shake it off.
The brush demon sobbed aloud as he galloped ahead. He turned his head and shouted at Cang Ji without a trace of dignity, “The Lord isn’t even chasing me. Why do you keep pursuing me?”
Cang Ji leaped and came to a stop, and the brush demon crashed into Cang Ji’s chest. He fell to the ground and reverted back to his original appearance; he was still a young man with red lips and white teeth. Shocked, the brush demon cried and looked back at the path he had come from, only to see Jing Lin standing behind him. Covering his face, the brush demon rolled over and wailed, “I don’t want to die! I’ve done nothing wrong in my life! Even if I’ve ever, ever scolded you, it wasn’t out of my own volition!”
Jing Lin asked, “Whose brush are you?”
The brush demon wailed without answering. Jing Lin was about to ask again when he noticed a change in the night sky overhead. A claw suddenly dug out of the clouds, and the massive head of a wolf demon popped out.
“How fragrant!” The wolf demon swept his eyes below him. It stared at Cang Ji and snorted. “It’s the rule of the capital that demons may not hunt for food privately without permission. Where is a small demon like you from? How dare you break the rules!”
The wolf demon gave a mighty jerk. Numerous demons in the capital whispered among themselves, and responses rang out everywhere. Huachang was drying her fingers just before the window. When she heard it, she said, “Why bring up the rules? You are the one who wants a share of the food after smelling the aroma.”
“Even so.” The old tortoise holding the fishing rod under the bridge said in a drawl, “You shouldn’t fight on the eaves. Your private grudge is trivial. But if you attract the attention of the Demarcation Division, everyone will get into trouble.”
“Old man, continue to be a coward hiding in your shell.” Huachang’s pearl hairpin swayed lightly as she rose and swung her tails. “Who does the Demarcation Division think they are? When we were still under Emperor Cang’s command with Zhongdu under our thumb, they were still beggars in the streets. Now that the tables have turned, we have to be at their mercy even when we eat?”
The aroma of the brush demon intensified, and the wolf demon salivated even more. He tore apart the clouds to reveal himself and leaned over to study Cang Ji and Jing Lin with his eyes.
“Rules are dead, but humans are alive. It is not impossible for me to sit by idly and do nothing. As long as one of you follows me obediently, you may deal with this brush demon as you please.”
However, Cang Ji said, “How would one of us be enough to fill your stomach? Why don’t you take both of us? This man and I can even be a pair of mandarin ducks3 in the afterlife.”
“Then wouldn’t this pitiful brush be left all alone?” Jing Lin said, “Just eat all three of us together.”
The brush demon burst into tears. “I don’t want to die!”
“The way I see it, you have a death wish.” Jing Lin retorted frostily.
The brush demon trembled and stuttered. “Lord, Lord…”
The roof under Cang Ji’s feet rumbled and collapsed, and the brush demon’s words were cut off as he fell into the hole. Cang Ji’s robe fluttered. The wolf demon pounced at them, its swooping shadow so huge and shocking that the eaves shook violently. The “jingles” of bells under the various eaves rang out as they collided with one another.
The wolf demon was not only massive, but it was also fast. Cang Ji saw a flash of shadow, and the steely wolf’s claw swiped across his brows. Cang Ji dodged it and stepped onto the ridge of the roof, not allowing the wolf demon to even touch the corner of his robe. This scene was by no means unfamiliar, because it had happened the first time Jing Lin dueled with Zui Shan Seng.
Lord Dong was correct in his guess. Even if Cang Ji had the ability to devour the masses, he would not necessarily turn out to be a catastrophe. This was because he had no shifu, so even if he was brimming with spiritual energy, he would not be able to release his potential to its fullest. But what Lord Dong had never considered was that the most suitable person in this world to be Cang Ji’s shifu had always been right under his nose.
Cang Ji’s taunting attitude and moves made the wolf demon’s fury hit through the roof. He was a mere brocade carp. His cultivation might be unusual, but the disparity between them was still wide, and yet he still led the wolf demon around like a dog. The wolf demon gave it its all. A violent wind scraped its face as black clouds enveloped its fist. Then, it struck out towards Cang Ji’s abdomen.
. . .
“There are but two kinds of formidable foes. The tough and unyielding ones are unstoppable, like floodwaters triggering an avalanche and tidal waves striking land. Do not fear when you’re faced with such foes. Fear leads to confusion, confusion leads to distraction, and distraction leads to exposure of your vulnerabilities that the enemy can exploit.”
Cang Ji asked. “I’m not afraid at all. To have no fear is to face it head-on. And that means an assured victory?”
Jing Lin did not look up from the scroll he was holding. He said, “No hurry. Wear him down first. Play him like a puppet on a string.”
. . .
Cang Ji blocked the fist, but the force of the black clouds sent his robe flapping. The spiritual energy instantly congregated, and a faint light resisted the force like the surface of a mirror. Cang Ji’s spiritual aura lugged the wolf demon’s arm, and for a moment, the wolf demon could not extract himself. The wolf demon gave a sudden roar, expecting to go along with it and catch hold of Cang Ji in this manner. He did not expect Cang Ji to move like an ungraspable, intoxicated wave. The wolf demon lost his chance. The next moment, he felt an intense, piercing pain in his arm as Cang Ji flung his body with terrifying brute force and sent him tumbling in the air.
All at once, the eaves along the long street exploded into pieces, and lanterns broke apart and fell. An entire roof collapsed as the wolf demon was flung into a house.
The wolf demon painfully grabbed hold of Cang Ji’s arm, but Cang Ji merely let him be. A loud “bang” rang out as the door and windows broke apart, not by Cang Ji’s hands, but by the crushing force of his power.
This stance was none other than a move used by Zui Shan Seng and Lord Dong to awe and cow their opponents. His spiritual expanse was like the raging sea. It was as if that invisible but intimidating power was pushing against his throat, far more dangerous than a mere punch and kick could be.
The wolf demon felt grossly humiliated to be flung and pinned to the ground by a fish! How could he put up with this shame? Thus, he tensed his four limbs and swept his giant tail across as he revealed his true form.
. . .
“Once you wear him down, his fury will rise.” Cang Ji said. “If this was Zui Shan Seng, it’d be time to utilize the original form. But my true form is not up to par. What should I do?”
Jing Lin picked up a page and raised his head slightly. “… Well.”
Cang Ji asked, “Well?”
“Anger clouds the mind.” Jing Lin tapped his finger against the edge of the cup. “Just fight him to the death.”
. . .
A mere moment after the wolf demon revealed his true form, scales enveloped Cang Ji’s arms. Those scales were like tough armor, impregnable and indestructible. The howl had yet to leave the wolf demon’s mouth when it pounced on Cang Ji. Massive fangs crushed Cang Ji’s shoulder, but they could not tear through the scales. Cang Ji turned his hand to grab the wolf’s head. Before the wolf demon could react, Cang Ji shoved it against the wall. The giant wolf whined. Even if it let go of Cang Ji’s shoulder now, there was no way for it to run. There was a loud “boom” as the wall broke. The wolf’s hind paws kicked against the floor as its head was smothered by a scaly claw. The claw slammed it into the wall.
The force of the power pressed on towards the brush demon. Realizing that the situation was against him, the lad tried to break into a run. Jing Lin floated to the ground and grabbed him by the back of his collar.
“I’m not done with my questions. Where are you going?”
The words had only just left Jing Lin’s mouth when the wolf demon choked and crawled out between the smashed walls before him. There was a claw wound on his back, and his hind paws were limp against the floor. The brocade carp had pummeled him until he had turned into a dog on his last breath, trying to escape with his tail between his legs. He had yet to take a step when Cang Ji hauled him back by the tail.
The wolf demon no longer cared about his dignity as he sprawled on the ground and wailed for mercy. He had initially thought that Cang Ji was merely a fish. Greed had gotten the better of him when he had seen Cang Ji’s brimming spiritual sea. Although he was not as mighty and awe-inspiring like Nine-Tailed Huachang, he had never expected to be defeated and reduced to this state in just a blink of an eye!
“Consider me blind for not recognizing a hero!” The wolf demon said, “Grandpa, please spare me!”
Although it had not been long since Cang Ji came into being, it was Zui Shan Seng who had been exchanging blows with him all this while. When it came to being tough, how could the wolf demon be compared to Zui Shan Seng’s swift and mighty Xiang Mo staff?
Cang Ji turned his claw into a hand and grabbed hold of the wolf demon by his nape. His nose twitched. He smiled and asked, “Spare you what?”
The wolf demon replied, “Spare my life.”
Cang Ji smoothed the wolf demon’s fur with his fingertips and said wickedly. “But I’m starving too.”
The brush demon started trembling, and his breathing grew short. He hurriedly retreated and cowered. He blocked his eyes, not daring to watch. Jing Lin waited in silence until he heard the brush demon sobbing and asking him a question amidst the wails and howls of the wolf demon.
“My Lord, Lord once, slew demons and subdued evil… But why is that today…” The youth covered his face and wept. “… you could bear to see such a scene playing out, and even let demons devour others as they desire?”
The brush demon blocked his ears with his arms, closed his eyes, and burst out wailing. Cang Ji had frightened the hell out of him. But he could not understand it. Lord Lin Song slew demons to defend the Way.4 How could he indulge such behavior?
Jing Lin seemed to smile as his icy fingers brushed aside the brush demon’s stray hairs. He lowered his frosty eyes to look at the young man and said, “My Way has disintegrated.”
The night wind brushed against his sleeves. A chill ran down the brush demon’s spine. His sobs were soft. He did not dare to exhale under Jing Lin’s gaze.
Lord Lin Song is dead.
The thought flashed through the brush demon’s mind out of the blue.
Credits: Many thanks to Cheshire (@ivory_and_horn) for pointing out the inconsistency in wordings!
- Basically an IOU
- 翰林 Hanlin, refers to academics employed as imperial secretaries, forming the Hanlin Imperial Academy 翰林院.
鸳鸯 Yuanyang, or (a pair of) Mandarin Ducks. Mandarin ducks are regarded as mates for life and are a symbol of love and conjugal bliss in Chinese culture.
- 道 Dao, or the Way, is an important concept in Daoism where one archives spiritual enlightenment by cultivating the Way, or ‘walking the (right) path’. It’s a bit hard to explain all the nuances in Daoism succinctly but for this novel, you can understand it as cultivating one’s moral principles to defend what one believes in (one’s Way or Path to enlightenment). There are typically several paths that one can choose to cultivate. A common one that appears in wuxia and xianxia novels, especially among sword users, is the Heartless or Merciless Way (无情道).