Chu Lun hurriedly touched Le Yan after getting out of their predicament. The brush demon lay motionless in his hand. Chu Lun called out to him several times, but there was no response from the brush. Chu Lun grew so anxious that the sounds of his coughs intensified.
“Divine Lord!” Chu Lun covered his lips and said at a rapid pace, “Please save his life. I’m willing to lay down my life for the Divine Lord!”
Jing Lin merely raised Cang Ji’s arms to scrutinize them. His scales were covered with scratches caused by the flying ice blades earlier. He could not help but see Hui An in a different light.
When Chu Lun saw Jing Lin turning a deaf ear to him, he knew what answer the latter wanted. All at once, he said, “The one who told me about the Life Registry isn’t a deity but a demon in a painting!”
“Tell me the details.” Jing Lin stared at Cang Ji’s scratch marks and frowned. “Le Yan will be fine for the moment.”
“These scars are common.” Cang Ji inclined his head to study Jing Lin’s expression. He asked, “Why are you frowning?”
“Zui Shan Seng exchanged blows with you thrice. This plate of armor is something that even Xiang Mo Staff can’t damage. Yet, those three arrow strikes from Hui An today have left gouges on it.” Jing Lin wiped away the scars on the scales with his fingertips. It was clear he already had a suspicion, but he was unwilling to reveal too much here. Thus, Cang Ji, who had already caught on, did not probe further.
Chu Lun was tactful enough not to listen in on their conversation. He continued, “In the ninth year of Tianjia, I went to study in Dongxiang and passed through a temple. The one being worshipped was neither a doctrine nor a statue, but a painting.” He held back his urge to cough and said, “The appearance of the figure in the painting was unrivaled. He held a folding fan in his hand, looking as if he had the remarkable ability to enlighten rocks into spirits1 and make splintered branches bloom.”
“Lord Dong.” Cang Ji frowned as well.
“I don’t know his origins. But during the time I put up at the temple, I heard him speak while I was burning the midnight oil late at night. He could actually leave the painting to strike up a conversation with me. When he saw how sickly I was, he told me that my life would come to an end in the twelfth year of Tianjia. If I wanted to escape this calamity, I would have to get acquainted with Liu Chengde. The brush would be the turning point in my life.” Chu Lun paused for a moment. “I was already acquainted with Xijing then, so I asked about it. The man in the painting said that the Emperor is involved in the cases we are pursuing, and there are many officials in the capital implicated. It would be difficult to eradicate the root of the problem just by Xijing’s efforts alone. It’s only by joining forces that we can cure the disease at its source.”
By this point, he could bear it no longer and bend over, all drenched in sweat. He continued, “I never expected that… to change a life is to pay for it with another life… A life for a life. And the one who paid for mine was Xijing.”
“Even if it weren’t Zuo Qingzhou, it would be someone else.” Cang Ji looked down at him. “So, it’s fine if it was someone else?”
Cang Ji was looking at Chu Lun, but it seemed as if it was Dong Lin’s case he was seeing. When the yamen arrested Qian Weishi, they had said the same, exact words as what Chu Lun had said today. If Qian Weishi had sunk so low to be a beast in a human’s clothing and did something to Caoyu, then that would have been a heinous crime. But would that have been fine if Caoyu was replaced with someone else? Someone like an orphaned, homeless girl? It was wrong to kill Zuo Qingzhou. But was it alright to kill another man whom he had never met before?
Cang Ji was thinking about it when he burst out laughing. He suddenly felt bored stiff as his interest waned. This was rather meaningless. He turned his eyes to Jing Lin and said, “I’ll wait for you outside.”
With that, he smacked away the curtain and stepped out to stand under the eaves, saying nothing more as he leaned against the pillar.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was an hour later when Jing Lin emerged. Cang Ji was squatting at the top of the stairs, making a similarly sized snowman for the little stone figure out of Hui An’s remaining snow. The little stone figure was holding a snowball to make an even smaller brocade carp. With their heads together, they doubled up with laughter.
Jing Lin noted that the trace of unhappiness in Cang Ji’s forehead had vanished. Cang Ji was still as playful as ever. Thus, he raised his eyebrows and gave him a light kick. Without lifting his eyes, Cang Ji flipped over his hand to grab hold of his foot.
“How should both of them be dealt with?” Cang Ji reached out a finger to trip over the little stone figure before he picked it up by the back of its collar to return it to his bosom.
“What goes around, comes around. Let karma run its course.”
Cang Ji exhaled into his hands and looked up at the sky. He said, “I think the decree of Heaven and Earth is all a load of crap. They let the chaos in Zhongdu go unchecked and even sent some idlers down to upset the applecart. What do they want? Bring trouble upon themselves?”
Jing Lin did not answer.
Cang Ji said, “I can’t take this lying down.”
His facial features grew frostier and severe amid the smattering of snow and heavy fog. The childishness that had been on his face the time he left the mountain was now all fading away. With time, it had been reduced to fragments as a different kind of contemplativeness took over.
“Who are the ones who should be held accountable for Qianyu and Zuo Qingzhou’s debt? If all the suffering can be written off just like this, then what’s the point of being born? Human lives are as cheap as grass. Even being a fish would be much happier than being a human. I have never understood what Dong Lin, Gu Shen, and even Zuo Qingzhou, had done wrong. What goes around comes around is merely just using a human’s life to fill in for another man’s life. Whether Chu Lun dies or not is no longer important. After today, there will still be tens of millions of people who will be ruined all because of a momentary slip. You and I have been in pursuit all the way here, and yet we are only midway through the eight sufferings.”
Jing Lin gave a delayed sigh. “You have already begotten a heart of compassion.”
But Cang Ji said, “I’m merely a bystander looking from the sidelines.”
“Once your heart knows compassion, you will no longer act without scant regard for life.” Jing Lin lowered his eyes. “You are already more human than I am.”
Cang Ji raised his head and met Jing Lin’s eyes. He asked, “Then, what are you thinking?”
Jing Lin stood still for a long time, then caressed the bits of snow away from Cang Ji’s forehead. He said slowly, “I’m thinking… whether Lord Dong is the demon in the painting Chu Lun mentioned, or was it a disguise created out of the art of drawing deities?”
“If we have never met door guardian deity, I would suspect that it was Lord Dong playing games with us. But at this very moment, I don’t think it’s him.” Cang Ji said, “Exactly what is so special about Lord Dong that everyone is imitating him?”
“There won’t be a better choice than him in many situations.” Jing Lin said, “Just the fact that he was born of the Blood Sea had made him the target of blame. You have seen his horrifying original form. There’s hardly anyone who could be his foe among the various deities in the Ninth Heaven Realm. He is the most dangerous person in the Ninth Heaven Realm after the Supreme Father’s death and Li Rong’s fall into slumber. Also, he is in charge of the beckoning of Spring, which makes it convenient to descent to the Mortal Realm and easier to cover up one’s tracks. The most important thing is that Lord Dong is a man who does not bother himself with trifles. He is rather proud and arrogant of his talents and doesn’t mince his words. The number of deities he has offended is even more than those he can remember.”
“Even so, going to the extent of using Lord Dong’s appearance in this case won’t be just a simple matter of bearing his grudges.” Cang Ji rose to his feet and patted away the snow on his shoulders. “And this Hui An. I keep feeling from our fight today that he isn’t here to capture me. It’s more like he’s here to muddy the waters.”
“His words aren’t convincing enough.” Jing Lin said. “There are three hundred deities in Zhuihun Prison. Even if Zui Shan Seng is unable to get away from his obligations, he shouldn’t have looked for Hui An. Hui An has been bestowed with Zhongdu, and he has also lost the assistive power of Li Rong’s Po Zheng Spear. He isn’t a suitable candidate.”
“Perhaps he wasn’t the one who was sent.” Cang Ji reflected on it. He said, “When Wu Ying blocked my way that night, he brought along some manpower. Although they weren’t outstanding, they could still be considered reinforcement. But today, Hui An was all alone. “
“If he didn’t have a special order from Ninth Heaven, he would not have been able to escape the eyes of the Demarcation Division along the boundary if he wanted to leave Xitu.” Jing Lin felt as if something was off, and yet he was vaguely about to get a handle on it.
“This is how you should be thinking.” Cang Ji stuffed the little stone figure back into his sleeve and asked, “If it was someone else the Ninth Heaven Realm had sent down, then what was Hui An’s motive for impersonating him and arriving ahead of him?”
Jing Lin asked, “What?”
Cang Ji looked sideways at him and said, “Wouldn’t that be you?”
Jing Lin froze. Then, his mood took a dip for the worse.
“It’s not advisable to remain here for long.” Cang Ji said, “Lord Lin Song is more sought-after than I expected.”
“No matter what Hui An’s motive is, he still has to deal with the mess in the capital.” Jing Lin said, “An evil spirit has devoured half of the Goddess Sheng Le’s divine body. This matter is far more pressing than catching you and me.”
“That being said, don’t tell me both of us need to stand guard here day and night to watch over them?” Cang Ji turned back. It was silent inside the room. Who knew if Chu Lun was still waiting?
“You can think of them as trees.”
Jing Lin went down the steps, surveyed the neglected side courtyard, and said, “The other party has taken so much trouble to implant Chu Lun. He must have some other uses. Now he is in our hands. This is what we call keeping watch at a tree to await a rabbit.”2
◈ ◈ ◈
For the next few days, Chu Lun remained in the house to recuperate. He had been ruthless on himself to make himself ill, and now, he had to put in some effort to nurse himself back to health. Le Yan was rarely happy ever since he woke up. Other than decocting medicine for Chu Lun and feeding him medicine, all he did was to sit under the eaves and stared blankly at the grass in the courtyard.
Cang Ji sat cross-legged on the roof, holding a fishing rod with a little grass spirit hanging at one end. He dangled it in mid-air to tease the twittering little spirits in the courtyard.
“Why aren’t you playing with the others?” Cang Ji bumped lightly into the little stone figure. It went tumbling over the roof-top until it narrowly came to a stop at the eaves. It walked back and sat down.
It sat cross-legged as well, even propping its head up as if it was deliberating over something.
Cang Ji shook the rod, and the little grass spirit cried in a squeaky voice. The crowd of strong-looking spirits darting around the courtyard with their long legs all simultaneously raised their heads and gasped.
Under the eaves, Le Yan sighed. The little stone figure followed and sighed. Cang Ji could not help but sigh as well. He said, “What’s with this man? Chu Lun is alive and well, and he did not have to pay with his life for Zuo Qingzhou. So why is he sighing all day long? This makes me feel so uncomfortable all over.”
The little stone figure spread open his arms and collapsed back on the tiles, revealing an equally uncomfortable expression.
“Once all these issues are resolved,” Cang Ji said, “I’ll take you out to play.”
The little stone figure rolled over and lay there, showing Cang Ji its butt.
“Learn from Jing Lin. Meditate quietly like an old monk. See, he’s so young, but he just has to be this boring. No one is going to laugh at him even if he comes up to play with us.” Cang Ji’s eyes drifted to the corner of the courtyard. Jing Lin was lying in a rattan chair with a book covering him, deep in sleep.
On hearing that, the little stone figure leaped up and charged over to Cang Ji’s back. It scrambled up to his shoulders and sat on it to play with Cang Ji’s hair by braiding it.
“I’m talking about him coming over to play with us. Not you.” Cang Ji shook the rod again, scaring the little grass spirit so much its soul was about to leave its body. The spirits at the bottom hurried over in the direction it went flying, wanting to get it down. Cang Ji felt like lying down too; thus, he said, “I’ll go down later and make that chair of his bigger. We might as well just sleep together.”
The little stone figure’s fingers were clumsy, and that wisp of hair it had braided looked as if it had been bound with grass. After listening to Cang Ji, it made a few cold laughs. Seeing that it had imitated Jing Lin’s expression to perfection, Cang Ji felt amused and said, “Did you learn from him after being in his sleeves all day long? Luckily, you haven’t evolved into a spirit.3 Otherwise, you would have been able to pass yourself off as the genuine article.”
But when the little stone figure heard this, it rolled off Cang Ji’s shoulder. It paced a few steps with its hands behind its back, holding a leaf as a fan and waving it a few times.
Cang Ji said with feigned seriousness. “You do look like him, but you are too smug. When have you ever seen Jing Lin smug? He always maintains his composure.”
The little stone figure threw away its leaf and climbed back onto Cang Ji’s shoulder. Cang Ji watched as the sun set in the horizon and surveyed the capital. There was no longer any sign of the flying snow, and it was now the summertime dusk. His gaze shifted to the corner of the courtyard and saw the shadows cast over that spot. Jing Lin’s fingers were covering the back of the book. He looked particularly beautiful.
“Lately, I’ve been finding it strange.” Cang Ji whispered as if he was spellbound. “No… I have always found it strange. Since I have the ability to devour others, why am I still that deeply obsessed with him? Once the belly empties, I should feel as if we are of one body. It’s as if I won’t ever lose him if I ate him. Could I have fallen under a spell? This notion keeps replaying over and over again in my head.” He stroked his nose again and continued, “Later, I’m going to sleep in that chair. I’ll pretend to be dreaming, then bite him. Do you think he will wake up?”
He had only just said then when he saw Jing Lin, who had been lying there for a whole day, slowly pulling down the book to reveal a pair of bright, clear eyes, staring at him.
- Other than cultivating oneself, which is a slow process and takes time, another way is for an immortal (or some other powerful beings) to “enlighten” it (typically plant/animal/object) instantly by bestowing it some of his or her cultivation and/or powers. That way, they can obtain intelligence and change form right away (or in a much shorter span of time) without having to spend hundreds or thousands of years cultivating.
- From 守株待兔, keeping watch at a tree to await a rabbit or a hare, is a fable about a farmer waiting every day by a tree stump in the hope that a hare would kill itself by crashing into it. It refers to someone who sits back and does nothing except to wait for good things to drop into his lap.
- 成精 literally become a spirit. For example, when animals, plants, and even objects have cultivated enough, it might gain intelligence and turn into a spirit.