The fog dissipated. Blood dripped down from Yan Quan’s slanting blade and soaked Jing Lin’s sleeve red. Without even blinking his eyes, he pulled his blade out. Cang Ji staggered. Blood gushed out and dampened his entire back. His body toppled over to the ground. Jing Lin quietly swung his blade as the blood spattered at his feet. His robe remained untainted as he stepped over Cang Ji and walked towards Tao Zhi.
Crying and laughing, Tao Zhi said, “I’ve seen with my own eyes today how heartless you are. Jing Lin, the path of the Way1 is bumpy. No wonder Father gives you special treatment. Because you are the only one who can be ruthless to such an extent.”
“A life for a life.” Jing Lin was expressionless. “I can give my life all to him. But if I miss this moment, I’ll never find another good opportunity to kill you.”
“And so you stab him in the back!” Tao Zhi covered his face to hide his appearance. Having been disfigured because of the earlier attack, he immediately moved to dodge and said, “Everyone in this world can be the sword in your hands, the road under your feet. You defended the Way until you have lost your mind. You have gone off the deep end!”
“That’s right.” Jing Lin stood under the darkness of the night and said, “Anyone who obstructs me from defending the Way, be it kin or friend, I’ll kill them all.”
“You are insane.” Tao Zhi stooped over as he stepped back and circled around Jing Lin with his unrecognizable face. He said in a hoarse voice, “You lunatic. You are the one who’s the evil spirit. You are the greatest devil in the world! Your conscience is all but gone… No, you are no longer a person. You are naturally lacking in feelings and desires. You are the perfect killing machine.”
Jing Lin turned his blade over, and cold light penetrated through the thickness of the night. His eyes were unfeeling, and his strikes, merciless. All at once, his sleeves went flapping in the wind. Between the glints of his sword, his strokes were as smooth as drifting clouds. Tao Zhi instantly drew his sword and crossed swords with Jing Lin. The sound of blades colliding reverberated through the air.
“Back then, my skills were not up to par, and I deserved what was coming! But you and Li Rong kept pushing the blame for the massacre of the city to me. Is this the ‘Way’ you speak of?” Tao Zhi forced Jing Lin back a few steps. With their blades between them, he vented his hatred. “The land in the north is so vast that Ninth Heaven Gate couldn’t interfere. You know jolly well who carried out a massacre of the entire city! To protect his reputation, you made me out to be unpardonably wicked. Is this the Way? How is this also the Way?! It’s just the most shameless deception of all!”
Jing Lin’s one-handed attack almost sent Tao Zhi’s long sword flying out of his hand. His expression was as still as water as he remained unmoved.
“You tricked him into treating you as his confidant by virtue of such deceit. But he never expected that you and Li Rong would join forces to slay him in just a blink of an eye!” A blossom of blood burst forth from Tao Zhi’s palm. He swiftly retreated a few steps and said, “So I see, so I see! What’s your reason for being this ruthless? The position of the Lord of the Three Realms?! Oh, Jing Lin, how ludicrous. How laughable that you never expected Li Rong to turn against you eventually because of this! What a waste of all your machinations. In the end, you helped another man accomplish his aim and got yourself reduced to such a state!” He kicked Cang Ji and said coldly, “He no longer remembers his past. That’s why he let you play him for the fool yet again. How marvelous. Jing Lin, look at how shrewd you are. You said I regard others as animals, but so do you!”
“Look at you taking up the cudgel for him.” Jing Lin closed in on him. “Why not just kill me now to pay with my life for his? Who would have thought that you would still think of Emperor Cang this much even after a journey through the Blood Sea?”
Tao Zhi kept retreating. His breathing was unstable. Spiritual energy kept leaking out of the gash Cang Ji had torn apart, making it inadvisable for him to engage in a long battle. Yet he kept on spouting nonsense, clearly trying to drag the battle on.
Jing Lin looked coldly at the sky and said, “The reinforcements are in Heaven? Who guided you through the Blood Sea? Who gifted you the paper talisman of a drawn deity? Why don’t you call him down tonight to meet me?”
“I’m afraid you don’t even dare to meet him!”
Tao Zhi suddenly drew the heavenly thunder forth and flung the electric python towards Jing Lin with a fling of his sword. Gravel whirled around them, with Heaven and Earth sandwiching Jing Lin in between. A thunderstorm came bearing down on them, dumping the roaring and distorting streaks of lightning all onto Jing Lin. Jing Lin’s sleeves went flapping in the air. Azure light beneath his soles intertwined to trace out the patterns of a massive talisman which floated in the air to receive the blow from the earth-shattering thunderbolt.
During the interval Jing Lin caught the strike, Ah Yi transformed into a five-colored bird2 and took to the air with a cry. His long feathers appeared in the sky, gorgeous and dazzling. He bore his way through the thunder and lightning and coiled the golden chain of Buddhist scripts in his mouth around Tao Zhi, preventing the latter from rising into the air.
Tao Zhi’s face was drained of all colors. He stepped on the ground, wanting to flee. He did not expect his ankle to be grasped in a tight hold. Cang Ji, who had been lying motionless for a long time, instantly opened his eyes and struck the ground with one arm. Cracks immediately appeared on the ground, sending exploding earth and dust all over. The whole ground suddenly caved in. Even the stone slabs were crushed into powder. Tao Zhi could not react in time and was dragged into the collapsing ruins. Repeating the same trick, he transformed into a fog and fled.
Yan Quan Sword stirred up a violent wind in a sudden sweep of attack!
Tao Zhi rolled across the ground in pain and turned back into human form. With a tap of his foot, Cang Ji sprang. Seeing Tao Zhi turning over to get to his feet, he grabbed hold of the back of Tao Zhi’s head with his claw and slammed him back down onto the ground. Right at once, Tao Zhi coughed out filthy blood. The back of his head felt as if Mount Tai3 was pressing down on it, immobilizing him.
Tao Zhi spat, “To think I even cursed him for you. You actually joined hands with him to deceive me!”
“There is a difference between kin and stranger. One needs to distinguish between insiders and outsiders.” Cang Ji leaned over. “I don’t believe a single word of everything you have said.”
Blood oozed out of Tao Zhi’s mouth. He knew he could not escape this time, so he whispered in a hoarse voice. “You don’t believe me? The man who killed you five hundred years ago is Jing Lin! You’ve been hoodwinked by him! And you are still willing to believe him!”
“There are millions upon millions of people coming and going in this world. The only one I trust is him.” Cang Ji tightened his grip. “Who do you think you are? Who are you to dream of driving a wedge between us with just your words?”
Tao Zhi coughed violently. All he swallowed was blood. He said, “How do you know he won’t lie to you? Haha! You fool! How would you know he won’t deceive you?! You wait. Just you wait. One day, you will come to regret today!” He summoned up an iota of strength to lift his head a little and exerted all his force to shout, “It’s true that I, Tao Zhi, have killed humans! But I have never massacred a city! There is no spot in this world that doesn’t abide and abet evildoers and evildoings. And yet there is no room for me? Jing Lin, I’m waiting for you—I’m waiting for you to pay with your life…”
Tao Zhi’s voice ceased abruptly. Yan Qian Sword moved in to stab him, and the golden chain above came smashing down at the sound of the impact. Fire broke out everywhere. Cang Ji released his hand among the fire and tilted his head to lick away the bloodstains on his fingertips.
If he deceives me one day.
Cang Ji stared at Jing Lin as the latter walked towards him with an obscure gaze amidst the flickers of flames.
I’ll kill him, eat him, chew him into pieces. I’ll permit him to become one with me, so that he can never lie to me again.
As if sensing this, Jing Lin leaned over to reach a hand out. Cang Ji did not want his hand. Instead, he fell into his arms.
“You stabbed me.” Cang Ji kept his head down and said, “My back is hurting all over. I’m too frightened to walk.”
He crashed into Jing Lin so hard that the latter coughed. Jing Lin dragged him under his arms and touched his back. He said, “You agreed not to eat him. Why did you still devour him?”
“I’m hungry.” Cang Ji simply lifted the hem of his clothes and pulled Jing Lin’s hand over to stroke his muscles. “I’ve lost this much blood. Oh, Jing Lin, I’m going to die.”
Jing Lin’s fingers touched the blood; it was wet and warm. He uttered his acknowledgment repeatedly, wanting to retract his hand. But Cang Ji would not let him go and instead led Jing Lin’s hand to feel him all over his body. He said, “It hurts so much here!” He sensed Jing Lin still trying to extract his hand and could not help but fumed. “Don’t you even feel a little heartache?!”
Jing Lin could bear it no longer. He propped his leg against Cang Ji’s abdomen and half-dragged and half-hugged him up. He said, “It’s easy for an evil spirit to invade the spiritual sea. If you don’t exorcise it fully, you will descend into the Way of Evil too.”
Cang Ji moved in closer to Jing Lin’s neck. His hair brushed against a spot. He said, “Then, give me a piggyback.”
All at once, Jing Lin, who had been lying on his sickbed for many years, started coughing incessantly. It was as if he would collapse to the ground the next moment. Even his footsteps grew feeble and unstable.
Cang Ji, “…”
◈ ◈ ◈
The lone candle flame burned in silence, and the damp and warm handkerchief wiped away all the filth. Cang Ji sprawled over the couch, while Jing Lin bent over to pick open his wound. He saw a black thread-like aura tightly clasped in between.
Cang Ji was dozing when there was searing heat on the back of his waist. He instantly propped himself up and hissed in exclamation. He said, “You are going to cook me first even before you scald that evil spirit to death.”
Jing Lin said, “Eat!”
Cang Ji collapsed back. The quilt only covered him below his waist. The contours from his shoulders to his waists were no doubt conspicuous with every one of his moves. He said, “He was a glutton for living humans, and he had also devoured Sheng Le. It isn’t possible to burn him to death just with Buddhist scripts alone. But if he’s in my stomach, we can still do something in the future.”
Jing Lin held a knife between his fingers and picked at the black thread. The residual aroma of the wine was faintly discernible. Cang Ji turned his head to the side and said, “Come on up and sit.”
Jing Lin said, “There’s no space.”
Cang Ji said, “Such a big couch. Sit anywhere you like.”
This couch was not big at all. It was crammed with a small table crowded with small bottles and jars on it.4 If Jing Lin wanted to take a seat, then he could only sit on Cang Ji’s thighs. Otherwise, he could only stand. Thus, Jing Lin ignored him and crushed the azure talisman into the wine to heat the blade in. When he picked at the black thread again, he could hear the sound of it dissolving.
Cang Ji stretched out his arms and said, “Whoever stands is a fool.”
There was silence behind him for a moment, and then there was a sudden heaviness on his thighs as Jing Lin straddled him. When Jing Lin lowered his body again, his hair assailed the back of Cang Ji’s waist, tickling him so much that Cang Ji’s heart itched.
“You are as light as a bird.” Cang Ji said, “I haven’t been biting you lately. Why are you still so thin?”
“Too many worries.” Jing Lin’s hands were extremely steady. He must have done this to himself many times before.
“Worrying about who?” Cang Ji asked, despite knowing the answer. “Ah Yi?”
Jing Lin gently patted his nape to indicate for him to behave himself and lie on his stomach. On the contrary, Cang Ji could not stop laughing. He asked, “Emperor Cang can do this too? Devour everything and anything?”
“Yeah.” Jing Lin thought of something and added, “… I’ve never seen him before.”
“Then why did you treat him that way?” Cang Ji glanced at him out of the corners of his eyes. “This person carries a lot of weight in your heart.”
Jing Lin did not answer and merely poured the wine nimbly to burn the evil aura. Cang Ji had been scalded until his forehead broke out in a sweat. He stared at the space before him and said, “Since he’s dead, then don’t remember him. What’s so good about a dead man? He can’t…”
Jing Lin suddenly leaned in close to him. Cang Ji sensed an icy softness landed near the stinging wound. He nearly propped himself up and turned his head back, but he froze mid-action, not daring to startle Jing Lin. The breath of chilly air Jing Lin gently blew out assaulted Cang Ji’s wound and made that painful scalding sensation vanish into thin air. Not only did it not hurt anymore, it almost made him sigh aloud.
“I stabbed you today.” Jing Lin whispered, “You can strike back.”
Cang Ji did not wipe away the droplets of sweat. He remained motionless.
Jing Lin lifted himself and said, “I have picked them all out. You’ll be fine after a night’s rest…”
The candlestick suddenly overturned and went out before it could burn out. The small table crashed over to the ground, knocking over the wine bottle. All at once, the aroma of wine permeated the entire room. Jing Lin had been flipped over and was now lying below with his wrist pulled apart. Five fingers forcefully inserted themselves between his fingers. Cang Ji pressed down on him with his bare arms and lowered his head to breathe close to him. The sweat that had yet to be wiped away dripped onto Jing Lin’s neck and trickled down his collarbone.
“You stabbed me once. This enmity is enough to make us sworn enemies.” Cang Ji said in a frosty voice. “You think it will make us square if I retaliate?”
With his hair splayed out over the couch, Jing Lin closed his eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m tired of hearing that.” Cang Ji pulled Jing Lin’s arms apart and said, “What’s the use of being sorry?!”
“Then tell me what you want.” Jing Lin’s half-opened eyes looked particularly perplexed in the darkness. “I’ll do it.”
“I’m in so much pain.” Cang Ji said into his ear. As his breath intertwined with Jing Lin’s, he led Jing Lin’s hand down to his abdomen.
Jing Lin said, “Is the evil spirit creating havoc? Don’t be afraid. I’ll…”
Cang Ji yanked his hand and tugged it further down. Jing Lin froze and Cang Ji pounced on him. Lips entwined as the tips of their noses rubbed against each other. Jing Lin’s breathing quickened as the only softness he had was coaxed and sucked. The blood rushed to his head, causing him to choke on saliva.
Cang Ji tightened his fingers around Jing Lin’s. His breathing was unstable. He snuggled up to him again and said vaguely, “A real man never goes back on his words. I’m leaving it in your hands.”
- 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).
- 五色鸟 – technically, the words would translate to a barbet bird. But here, it refers to a mythical creature in Chinese mythology (to be revealed in later chapters, but the hint was already dropped). For now, I’ll stick to the original text and label it a ‘five-colored bird’).
- 泰山 Taishan, or Mount Tai, is a mountain of historical and cultural significance located north of the city of Tai’an, in Shandong province, China. It’s one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China.
榻, a long and narrow wooden couch that also functions as a bed. It’s possible to put a small table on it so it could seat two people on it with the table for tea, chessboard, and stuff.