Jing Lin put on his clothes. The ambiguity lingered like a dense mist swirling around him until he felt a little breathless. The hot water in the room turned the air damp and warm. It was only after Cang Ji pushed open the window that the heat and dampness dispersed a little.
Cang Ji rubbed his fingertips together as if he wanted to wipe away all the earlier warmth and sensation. However, the thumping in his chest was hard to suppress, and his rubbing gradually took on an undertone of reminiscence. He looked out of the window, but the wall of the derelict courtyard blocked his line of sight. He was about to say something when he saw Ah Yi lying with his legs crossed1 on the rattan chair below the bed.
Ah Yi shook his leg and said, “I can’t understand a word of what you guys were saying in there about coming in and going out.”
Cang Ji leaned over the window and said in annoyance, “You deserve another beating for eavesdropping.”
“Ha.” Ah Yi snorted. He sat up and said, “But there’s one sentence I understand! You ate Jing Lin’s and even Zui Shan Seng’s spiritual energy, am I right?”
“Eating spiritual energy fills the stomach.” Cang Ji said. “I thought you knew?”
“But I didn’t know you could even eat Zui Shan Seng’s!” Ah Yi said hastily. “This is great. Follow me in future. Don’t follow Jing Lin. I’ll take you all over Heaven and Earth to eat your fill!”
“Just scram the sooner you can. You aren’t even enough to fill the gaps between my teeth!” Cang Ji looked back at Jing Lin and said, “Have you and your Ah Jie ever had a mutual exchange of each other’s spiritual energy?”
“We are from the same bloodline. Of course, we can.” Ah Yi followed his gaze. “But I doubt you and Jing Lin can. One of you is human, and the other is a demon. You have nothing in common, not unless you are related by flesh and blood.”
“It’s hard to say.” Cang Ji said, “Perhaps Jing Lin and I are really brothers.”
“I might probably believe it if you said father and son.” Ah Yi said, “Even if you were to say you are brothers, Jing Lin’s brothers are all not related by blood. They are only the adopted sons of the Supreme Father. As for father and son, huh…” He said wickedly, “I haven’t heard anything of Lord Lin Song’s romantic exploits. But if you ask me, a man like him will keep it tightly under wraps even if he has a lover. You lived with him in the mountains for so long. Of all things to raise, he just had to raise you. So, it’s indeed hard to say!”
Cang Ji immediately smacked Ah Yi on the back of his head and asked, “Does he look like my father?!”
“Then, how do you want me to answer?!” Smacked for no reason, Ah Yi bared his teeth as he covered his head and fumed, “It’d be too much of a coincidence if you are father and son! Looking at how indecent your relationship with each other is, that’d really be an illicit…”
Jing Lin cast a sidelong glance at him, and Ah Yi immediately shut his mouth. He did not dare to shoot his mouth off even as he bad-mouthed and cussed them in his heart. Thus, he begrudgingly asked, “So how was it? Has it healed?”
“The fragmented parts have been filled in.” Jing Lin placed his hand on his lower abdomen and looked at Cang Ji. Then, recalling what had happened earlier, he let his hand down without batting an eyelid. He said, “The spiritual sea is integrated into the abdomen, while the original form is constructed in the heart. Although the defective parts in my spiritual sea have healed, my original form has yet to manifest. Have you ever heard Fu Li mention a word about it?”
“My Ah Jie has no idea either.” Ah Yi replied. “The amount of people who have achieved the Great Accomplishment Stage in this world are as rare as the feather of a phoenix and the horn of a qilin.2 Even if my Ah Jie wants to probe around on your behalf, she won’t be able to find out anything. It’s just that while you were still in the mountain, you had to sleep in order to meditate. Do you still need to do so now? “
Jing Lin replied, “Not anymore after the summer started.”
When he and Cang Ji had just left the mountain, he had to sleep for several days after just a bite from Cang Ji. Then, during Dong Lin’s case, he also needed several days of sleep to recover after entering the copper bell’s illusory realm. However, this kind of situation had become few and far between after they set foot into the capital.
“It can be seen that this is a gradual process.” Ah Yi said, “Imperceptibly, huh.”
“And one more thing.” Jing Lin stood by the window and said to them both, “I have yet to attain the Great Accomplishment Stage.”
Cang Ji remained as usual. But Ah Yi sprang to his feet as if he had been pricked with a needle and asked in astonishment. “You haven’t? Then how did you survive?!”
Jing Lin looked at the horizon where dawn was breaking and replied, “I don’t know either.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Le Yan woke up as the first rays of the morning sun shone upon the interior of the derelict courtyard. Hugging a wooden basin, he saw Ah Yi sitting on his little stool and eating his handful of melon seeds until there was none left. He could not help but frown. His eyes reddened.
“You, you…” He rubbed his eyes and pointed at Ah Yi.
Ah Yi was waiting to bask his feathers in the sun. On hearing him, he imitated Jing Lin and cast a sidelong glance at Le Yan before saying, “Why? Can’t I sit? Go stand in some other corner.”
“I, I…” Le Yan was indignant.
“I, I…” Ah Yi parroted him and said, “What the hell are you crying for? Yining has earned that reputation of his in vain. Why hasn’t he fixed you yet?! Cry, cry, cry. Cry again, and I’ll catch you to feed the demons!”
Le Yan stomped his foot. He was so infuriated his face turned red. Ah Yi ignored his display of anger and tossed a fruit to play with even as he spoke – unreservedly and bluntly – with barbed words so stinging that it drew blood.
“This is truly amazing.” Ah Yi said, “How can there be such detestable people like you and Yining in this world?! One nitpicks on everyone he meets. The other one harbors selfish desires that go against conscience! You hook up with an invalid, and you still have to screw up others until they are separated by death. You must be feeling really good now, but look at how pitiful that fox demon is now? Why hasn’t he come to capture you? He should just bite you into two, you little scourge!”
Le Yan wept. “I didn’t harm anyone!”
“Bullshit.” Ah Yi raised his head and stretched his body. “You are the scourge of humanity, and Yining is the bane of the deities! Master and slave are both nothing good. I have plenty of time in the future to settle accounts with you both!”
Le Yan was so incensed that he stood under the eaves and burst out crying. The basin dropped as he covered his face and sobbed incessantly. He had been feeling guilty these days until he almost fell sick. And now, Ah Yi’s rebuke made him feel worse. But it would not do for him to regret it. If he regretted it, then Chu Lun would have to die. He could endure such cutting and devastating words, but he could not bear to let Chu Lun die. Yet, thinking of the dead Zuo Qingzhou only made him more acutely aware of how pitiful Qianyu was.
But he had no choice! Where on earth would there be such a perfectly sound strategy? He could only think of Chu Lun, and do it all for Chu Lun. How could he scrimp on Chu Lun’s fate just so someone else could live? This Life Registry stipulated that someone must die. He rather turned into a despicable vermin himself than to let Chu Lun die.
Ah Yi was so irritated he was about to fly into a rage again. But he swallowed back his words when he saw Jing Lin leaning beside the window looking at Le Yan. He muttered to himself and gave Le Yan a light kick. Then he frowned and said, “Shut up!”
He was really vexed, okay?! He had initially meant to capture this brush demon to amend the decree to transfer his Ah Jie. But that was not possible now, and Jing Lin had dropped such a bombshell on him that it disconcerted him.
If Jing Lin had not attained the Great Accomplishment Stage, then he would not be able to save himself. If he couldn’t even save himself, then who else would be able to save him? If this person was someone from the Ninth Heaven Realm, did it mean that there was some other conspiracy? If that was the case, wouldn’t it implicate his Ah Jie?! His Ah Jie was already getting the cold shoulder from Lord Cheng Tian. If she committed any further wrongdoing, then she would really end up with a punishment for real.
Unlike these two with a myriad of thoughts flashing through their minds, Cang Ji was a lot calmer. He had been leaning for a long time. When he opened his eyes, he saw Jing Lin near the window looking over at Le Yan.
Jing Lin could sense his gaze without looking back. He said, “Come to think of it, Le Yan is also sick beyond cure.”
“He is suffering from an affliction of the heart that’s tough to cure. He will have to owe this debt for the whole of his life.” Cang Ji said as he propped his head up. “Has there been any sign of activity from the copper bell these days?”
“No.” Jing Lin answered, “I haven’t heard any sound from it.”
“Looks like these three sufferings are still unresolved.” Cang Ji said, “Everything is in such a mess that it strains the mind to think about it in depth.”
“Yeah.” Jing Lin responded in a soft voice.
Cang Ji paused for a moment before he asked, “You once said that this copper bell isn’t yours. Then, is it Li Rong’s?”
“Although it was cast out of the fragments of Po Zheng Spear, it’s not Li Rong’s.” Jing Lin looked back. “It was assembled and forged by Lan Hai.”
Cang Ji suspected that he had forgotten it all. How could he not have a single memory about this “Lan Hai”? He had never even heard anyone mention this name before.
Jing Lin knew what he was thinking and explained, “He died early and had yet to be anointed a deity. Even in the Doctrine of Gods, there’s only just his name. But Li Rong’s Po Zheng Spear and Lord Dong’s Shan He Fan were all created by his hands.”
“Didn’t he mention anything when he made that copper bell and gifted it to you?”
Jing Lin was silent for a moment before he said, “He gave it to Qing Yao. Qing Yao was very young at that time, and children love tinkling objects. So he created the copper bell to coax her to play.”
Cang Ji waited for Jing Lin to continue. But all he saw was Jing Lin’s facial features bathed under the sunlight, looking penetratingly cold. He seemed to be immersed in a certain past that Cang Ji did not know of. It was as if they were separated by a fog of frost. Although Cang Ji did not understand what had happened later, he could guess that it did not have a happy ending.
“The copper bell was the only thing that survived the fire after Qing Yao’s death. So I took it and kept it by my side.” Jing Lin said, “Not long after, I died too.”
A sudden glare of sunlight illuminated the entire ground in white. It was so blinding that Cang Ji raised his fingers to shield his eyes. He leaned back into the chair and pondered over it a little.
“The copper bell is crucial.” Cang Ji’s gaze was resolute. “We have to get our hands on it to find out more.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The old emperor prostrated himself on the ground and mumbled under his breath before the incense.3
“Oh, omnipotent Divine Lord… please manifest yourself quickly..” His tears flowed freely. “There are still sacrifices in my prison… You mustn’t leave! I’ll present them to you all clean and fresh… Please hurry back…”
The interior of the crudely propped up palace hall was so dark that one could not even see the shadows. Like a ghost, the old emperor huddled into a ball and clung to the ground piously in worship. He mumbled to himself as his hands trembled uncontrollably. He had been like a tightly wound bird startled by the mere twang of a bow4 ever since that rainy night. Without the protection of the evil spirit, he did not dare to eat the humans wastefully. In just a few days, he felt his old ailment ravaging his body. His spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak.
Outside, the eunuchs stood like wooden pillars. The old emperor’s terror intensified until he began to sob and cry. He had been living half of his life in dread, and old age was his greatest fear. A deity had come to help him, and longevity was within his reach, but who would expect someone to mess it up to the point of no return? He could not take it lying down, nor did he want to give up hope.
The old emperor was exhausted after kneeling for half a night. The incense sticks on the incense table had burned out. His kowtowing movements shook the incenses’ ashes off onto his hair. He was about to rise to his feet when he was hit with a sudden wave of dizziness. He trembled and slumped back into a kneeling position on the ground, unable to get up.
The candles in the hall suddenly went out, and a cold miasma crawled up from the ground onto the old emperor’s calves. The old emperor shivered, then cried out in delight, “You’re here!”
Tao Zhi transformed into a dense fog and wrapped himself around the old emperor. Thin ice crept up the incense table inch by inch. The old emperor’s joy gradually turned into fear. He climbed to his feet and stumbled over himself as he scampered around the hall, mumbling, “It’s so cold! So cold… Please spare me…”
The parts of his body enveloped by the thick fog felt as if an icy tongue had licked them. The old emperor’s breathing was ragged as he was knocked down onto the ground. He clutched his chest, feeling the life in him ebb away into the pitch-black abyss. He wanted to cry for help, but he was being strangled by the throat. At the same time his eyes widened, he felt as if his body had plunged into an icy pool.
A mass of flesh and blood turned into a mist of blood amidst the sounds of gurgling as it was devoured clean by the creeping black fog. Once the fog receded, Tao Zhi sized up his entire body worth of old skin.
“How filthy and stinky.”
He righted his crown and lifted the curtain to step out. The eunuchs simultaneously kneeled to pay their obeisances, but all of them eerily said nothing.
Tao Zhi gazed out into the morning light in the distance. With a sweep of his robe, he hopped onto the dragon carriage.5
Credits: Many thanks to Cheshire (@ivory_and_horn) for pointing out the inconsistency in the naming of stages!
- 麒麟, or Qilin (Kirin), a mythical Chinese creature said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler.
Incense sticks or joss sticks are typically burned as offerings to a deity while praying.
- 惊弓之鸟 someone who is easily frightened due to past experiences. i.e., someone afraid of his own shadow
- 龙辇 literally Dragon Carriage, it’s the imperial carriage used by the emperor