The wolf demon was in dire straits, but none of the demons who had spoken out earlier came to his aid. Cang Ji finally ate his fill. He wasted no time in devouring it, and so it was all over in a flash. When he stepped out from the debris, he saw Jing Lin stroking aside the brush demon’s hair and heard him saying, “My Way1 has disintegrated.”
The brush demon had stopped crying and was now kneeling with his head lowered. When Cang Ji stepped closer, the young lad visibly shrank back. Feeling sated, Cang Ji washed his hands with the pot of water from a stall along the street. Both of his hands were silky smooth. There was no sign of those terrifying scales earlier.
“Since we are done horsing around, let’s have a heart-to-heart chat through the night.” Cang Ji wiped his hand at random before lifting the brush demon by his back collar. Then, as if hauling a gunny sack, he threw the brush demon onto a small wooden stool.
The brush demon could hardly maintain his balance and nearly fell flat on his back. He wanted to cry again. Cang Ji gave the stool a hard kick and caused him to fall on his butt to the ground. He did not even dare to cry and could only hold back his tears as he looked at them.
Jing Lin repeated his words. “Whose brush are you?”
The brush demon said tearfully, “The, the Sage Yining’s.”
The Sage Yining was not well-known because he had not made any outstanding contributions nor did he have a talent for counsel despite spending several years under the command of the Supreme Father. He was more like a shadow of the various deities. He did not stand out of the crowd, but he was wherever they were. However, it was his one and only duty to be omnipresent. He did not have a deity post; he only took orders from the Supreme Father. From Ninth Heaven to the Underworld, even the mere rustle of leaves in the wind would not escape his ears. And that meant that it would not escape the Supreme Father’s ears either.
This person did not seem to have made any achievements, yet he had won the favor of the Supreme Father. However, he had an eccentric temper, and had only appeared a few times before the Supreme Father to censure Lord Lin Song. Therefore, although he had no personal relationship with Jing Lin, they were no strangers to each other. What was most worthy of mention was that he loathed Jing Lin to such an extent that he had once penned a scathing essay the height of a man to criticize him.
As Sage Yining’s brush, one could hardly fault the brush demon for being so afraid. This was because this brush was very likely used by the Sage Yining to pen all those articles. That was why he knew Lord Lin Song in such details.
After a slight pause, Jing Lin continued, “How is it possible that you can wander around Zhongdu alone when Yining is still around?”
It was fine if Jing Lin did not mention it. But the moment he brought it up, the brush demon, who had been holding back his tears, began to wail out loud again. He cried so bitterly he even hiccuped.
“This is all Lord Dong’s fault!” The brush demon wiped away his tears. “He had nothing to do, so he took me with, without permission to pen poems at Fan Tan. This caused the various monks to lodge a complaint against him to Lord Cheng Tian. Lord Cheng Tian took it out on the Sage and punished him to re, reflect on his mistakes in solitude. The more the Sage thought about it, the more furious he became. He said, ‘I don’t want what Lord Dong has touched before.’ And so he threw, threw me down here. I’m all alone and helpless with no family or friends in Zhongdu. How, how miserable!”
“There’s no one to bother you here.” Cang Ji teased him. “How carefree.”
“I’m scared to death!” The brush demon clutched a hollow rod to his bosom and said, “There are demons everywhere. I, I, I‘m too weak to hoist or lift a thing. I can’t defeat them at all. I can barely eat or sleep well every day. And I can’t drink ink nor write anymore. I’m scared, scared, scared, scared, scared to death!”
Speaking of which, this brush demon was a little special.
Although he was a demon, he frequently worked on divine cases. As such, he did not like demons and would rather have people for company. Furthermore, he was a little dull after having resided in the Ninth Heaven Realm all this while. He was also frequently scolded by the Sage Yining, and now his guts were even smaller than a needle. Just a scare would make him reveal his true form and cause him to cry nonstop. After descending to the mortal realm, he would even take to his heels if he came across a rabbit demon that was a little sturdier than average. What’s more getting into a fight? Yet, his fragrance lingered, never fading. This made it even more easy to attract the attention of demons salivating over him. As time passed, he had become an old hand at fleeing.
“Since you are fleeing, why are you staying with Chu Lun?” Cang Ji asked. “Don’t tell me you’re even helping him to cheat.”
Unexpectedly, the brush demon leaped to his feet, wanting to refute him. But he deflated on seeing Cang Ji’s gaze on him. He hung his head down in dejection and said, “You… you mustn’t put it that way. Shenzhi is a man of learning. He’s the top scholar; he doesn’t need me to cheat for him. Moreover, I may be a demon, but I wouldn’t tolerate such conduct either. Shenzhi is not that kind of person. If you say that again, I’ll… I’ll fight… talk, talk reason with you.”
“You got acquainted with Chu Lun.” Jing Lin picked up the copper pearls rolling out of the rubble. “… and were together with him day and night. You even spared no effort to accompany him to the capital. I’m afraid what you have with him is not just mere friendship.”
The brush demon stumbled over his words. “I, I have an appreciation for talents.”
Jing Lin handed the copper pearls to the brush demon and said, “You appreciate him so much that you even meticulously handle his accounting for him and personally managed his savings.”
The brush demon hugged his money pouch and took a big step back. Jing Lin had seen through him. He realized that he was now caught in a dead-end. Although there were major demons that had been conferred official titles and could assume the post of a deity-in-charge, it did not mean that the Ninth Heaven Realm had reached the point of magnanimity where they could condone humans and demons overstepping their boundaries.
Jing Lin cast the copper pearls back into the brush demon’s palm and said, “He was gravely sick, and should not have lived to this day. If you are just accompanying him on his last days, the Demarcation Division could still close an eye to it. However, you have already violated the decree by changing the Life Registry out of your own selfish reason. Even if the Demarcation Division doesn’t bring it up, neither of you will still be able to escape once the Underworld launches a thorough investigation.”
The brush demon suddenly fell to his knees with a “thud” and cried out timidly. “How can this be so?! The only one who broke the decree was me. If the Demarcation Division and the Underworld look into this matter, then the one to be held responsible for this is a demon like me. What does it have to do with, with a human?!”
Jing Lin said, “What does it have to do with him? Chu Lun has now snatched the title of the top scholar. Because of this, the original top scholar lost his chance. The Life Registry has now been altered because of a single action of yours. It will be hard to predict the fate of these two men in the future.”
The brush demon kowtowed and choked with sobs. “I’ve realized the errors of my way. But, but! Now that things have come to this point, surely you don’t mean to tell me Shenzhi still has to die? This is how his life should be! If he lost his life in accordance with his destiny, then everything he had worked hard for this life will be reduced to nothing. How could I have the heart to…”
Cang Ji said, “You saved Chu Lun. But another man out there will fall into obscurity. It can be seen that it’s not just humans who form relationships of varying proximity with each other. Demons are the same. All the back-and-forth affections in the world are truly nothing but trouble.”
Jing Lin stood in silence for a moment and said, “Tell me everything about you and Chu Lun.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Chu Lun might have difficulty walking, but his ambitions were lofty. When he was young, he survived on his relatives’ leftovers. It was at the age of twelve when his fame started to spread that he grew ashamed of the handouts he received and refused to accept any more alms. He was so destitute and poor he was always short of food. Any book he used, he personally copied them by hand. Even so, there was not a single speck of dust in his humble abode.
It was often the case that Chu Lun would study until he even forgot to eat and sleep. He had an ailment of the legs, and his health was not that good either. He received a recommendation at the age of nineteen and went to the capital to take the imperial examination, but he returned empty-handed. After his return, he became even more studious. During this time, he worked as a legal counsel, but he often took on cases from the poor folks. Because of this, he had to endure the hardships of being frequently exposed to the elements and hunger. That was how he came to be even more cognizant of the suffering of the people.
When he was twenty-two, he entered the capital again to retake the imperial examinations. Once again, his name did not make it to the list of those who passed. By this time, Chu Lun’s body was worn out from his old ailment. He was still young, but he was frequently steeping in medicine. Failure had not only demoralized his spirit, but had also put him in financial straits. One night, as he was midway through writing, he choked on his blood and passed out. When he came to, he was already lying on the bed. The noodles on the table were still warm, and the medicine was already simmering on the stove.
After this one time, Chu Lun would often fall asleep while he was writing. There was a time he turned over the remaining sections by chance and realized that the pages had been filled up in his handwriting. But even when Chu Lun racked his brains, he could not remember when he had resumed writing. Gradually, he came to the realization that someone had been accompanying him at his side. Although he could not see him, that person was always there.
One day, Chu Lun slept with his head propped up with his hand. He could hear the sound of the wind and the rain beating against the window at night. But he still did not wake up, as if he was in a deep sleep. A moment later, he heard light footsteps across the table as someone leaned over it to observe him up close.
Chu Lun did not move.
That person gently shifted the paper, dipped the brush in the ink, and began to chew the top of the brush as he pored over it. Chu Lun stealthily opened his eyes and saw the crown of the person’s head facing him as he wrote furiously with his sleeves rolled up. Chu Lun stretched his head forward to look. The man heard the movement and raised his head. He turned out to be a young man.
Both of them looked at each other. The young man got such a big shock that his elbow knocked into the ink and sent the ink splashing all over and splattering onto his face. He yelled. Chu Lun got a fright too. Seeing the ink come flying again, he abruptly leaned back. This sent the chair flipping over, causing him to fall hard onto the ground.
A fall would be merely a fall for any ordinary person. But the fall ended up badly for Chu Lun. The chair smashed against his chest, causing him to vomit out blood. He propped himself up and gasped for breath. It felt as if his body had broken out in a cold sweat. His heart palpitated so wildly that the more it thumped, the more flustered his heartbeat became, and the more the world darkened before his eyes. In short, it did not bode well for him. The young man rushed to help him up and held him in his arms. Strangely enough, Chu Lun felt a slight relief in his chest when the man hugged him. Even his cold sweat eased off.
The young man cried as he hugged Chu Lun. “It’ll be all my fault if you die tonight! What am I to do? I don’t harm humans!”
Teardrops came pattering down like rain. There were a few times Chu Lun wanted to open his mouth to speak, and every time, he almost drank a mouthful of those tears. The young man cried harder and harder until he simply raised his head and wailed. His cries were loud and clear. He had already forgotten about Chu Lun who was still in his arms. Chu Lun soaked in tears for quite a while. It was only when he almost drowned that the young man remembered him.
“Seeing the buildup of the pathogenic qi in your body…” The young man touched the middle of his eyebrows and said while sobbing, “I’ll help you get rid of it.”
Chu Lun finally got to speak. “May I ask…”
The young man huffed out a puff of air, and Chu Lun felt his body lightened. Even the pain in his chest faded away. He thought he had encountered a little immortal. He did not expect to hear the young man say,
“Although it’s demon aura, it has been slightly imbued with the immortal aura of a sage. I blew it all to you. Consider it as my gratitude for your kindness. I can only hope your aspirations are still strong, or…”
The young man had blown out too much aura in one breath. Chu Lun was now fine, but the young man’s head drooped down. With a “poof”, he turned back into a brush and fell onto Chu Lun’s chest. Chu Lun lay on the floor stupefied for half the night. Then, he rose to pick up the brush, noting that it looked common.
Chu Lun asked tentatively, “… May I ask your esteemed name?”
There was no response from the motionless brush between his fingers. Chu Lun clutched his chest, feeling uneasy. He almost thought he was dreaming. He took the brush onto the couch and lay down. Then, he tactfully placed the brush on the pillow and covered it partially with a quilt. After doing so, he stared blankly at it for a moment. He thought he was beyond cure; he was already starting to display abnormal behavior.
While Chu Lun was holding his head and doubting himself, he heard the brush shrink back into the quilt. Chu Lun did not dare to move. The brush remained still too. After a long period of silence, he heard the brush sob. “… Ex, excuse me. May I trouble you? I’m suffocating to death…”
Chu Lun stared at the white window, then sat up. Very gently, he lifted the corner of the quilt and respectfully invited the head of the brush out.
The brush said, “… Ex, excuse me… May I trouble you? My head is in the wrong direction…”
Chu Lun immediately turned it around and laid it down properly on the pillow. As Chu Lun stared at it without even blinking, the brush shrank back down and stammered, “It, it scares me a little… when you, you stare at me like that.”
With that, the brush hid its head under the quilt and refused to let Chu Lun watch it any further.
Chu Lun tucked in the corner of the quilt for the brush and slept with his back facing him. It was nearly dawn. Chu Lun thought blankly to himself.
Father and mother, I’m too ashamed to face you. I fear I’ve gone insane from all those studying.
Credits: Many thanks to Cheshire (@ivory_and_horn) for pointing out the inconsistency in wordings!
- 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).