“I have many brothers, but there aren’t many moments where I get to have a heart-to-heart talk with them like this.” Jing Lin looked at Cang Ji like a child looking at honey.
“I have many brothers too, but the only one I’m this close to is this one.” Cang Ji saw Jing Lin’s fair fingers touching and holding his own hand. Those fingers were long, slender, and beautiful, looking rather much like porcelain and jade. They constantly enticed him to hold them in his palms and savor them meticulously. Whatever bit of tenderness he had spiraled out of control. Looking at Jing Lin again made him cherish him even more; it also made him realize how young he was.
He’s indeed young.
Cang Ji thought.
He’s younger than me by many years, and smaller than me many times over. I can hold him in the palms of my hands and embrace him in my arms. I can even leave all the vulnerable parts of my chest and abdomen to him, and offer him the protection of my tough armor of solid scales so that he let all his childishness and naivety out in the open without fear.
Jing Lin found Cang Ji unusually hot. He could not help but rein in his expression and said, “It’s now the chilly autumn rain season. Gege is just recovering from a minor illness. It wouldn’t do for you to catch a cold.”
Cang Ji was sturdy and muscular. As he turned his back to put on his clothes, the scars on the back of his shoulders were revealed. Jing Lin shifted his gaze over and noted that the scars were not from a blade; instead, they seemed to be scratches made by a person. Suspecting that he had made a mistake, Jing Lin leaned over a little. Under the light from the flickering flames, he saw that they were really scratch marks of varying depths on the back of Cang Ji’s shoulders that extended in a slanted direction all the way to his shoulders.
“Did you have a dispute with anyone lately?” Jing Lin asked.
Cang Ji pulled up his upper garment to cover up the scars. He secured his waist sash and looked back at Jing Lin. A laugh suddenly escaped from his lips.
“These are from way earlier. I kept them as mementos.”
Jing Lin turned around. It was not appropriate for him to probe further.
Cang Ji asked, “Curious?”
Jing Lin grasped the inner layers of his sleeves and nodded almost imperceptibly.
Cang Ji quickly dressed himself and crouched down to beckon to Jing Lin. Jing Lin leaned over, and Cang Ji moved closer. He said into Jing Lin’s ear, “This is…” He suddenly changed the topic. “Forget it. I’ll tell you when you are older.”
With that, he ignored Jing Lin’s gaze as he lay down with his arms behind his head and closed his eyes to rest. Jing Lin blanked out for a moment. When he looked at Cang Ji again, the latter already looked to be sound asleep. The stone crawled out from Cang Ji’s bosom and sat cross-legged on his chest. With one hand propping up its head, it gazed at him dejectedly with its black, beady eyes.
◈ ◈ ◈
Against the sound of the rain, Jing Lin meditated. The fire had already been extinguished. The only thing remaining was the sound of Cang Ji’s breathing. Jing Lin gradually sank deeper into a state of concentration. In his chest, Yan Quan whirled around in the illusory realm. Further down, the vastness of his spiritual sea was silent. He had already cultivated his way to the entrance of the Perfection Stage. Just one step more, and he could cross over into the Perfection Stage. From then on, he would be able to abstain from food and control the wind. Even summoning the rain with a brandish of his sleeve would be a cinch. But this door just would not open; he had already been trapped here for a long time.
Just as he was meditating, an unfamiliar aura suddenly rose beneath his spiritual sea and dispersed within it. Even Jing Lin himself could not track it down. This aura had a faint, commanding presence. He could hear what seemed to be the roar of a dragon as it roved around and closely circled his lower abdomen. Jing Lin probed further and discovered that, unbeknownst to him, his own spiritual sea had been damaged. But the defect had already been smoothed out after this aura nursed it back to health and strengthened his foundation. And to think he was oblivious to it all.
Jing Lin immediately opened his eyes and placed his palm on his abdomen. His spiritual sea was smooth and stable without even the trace of a ripple; it was as if nothing had ever happened. The more Jing Lin thought about it, the less he found it reassuring. When had he ever received this kind of aid from another person? He remembered nothing. That aura dispersed and converged, converged and dispersed, having already merged into his body. It was not only dignified and powerful, but also so scorching hot that it made Yan Quan vibrate with a “buzzing” sound. In that instant, Jing Lin had a sudden premonition that it was nearing the time for him to advance to the next stage. Yet, at the same time, he could not break through that turning point no matter what he did.
Jing Lin sat for the entire night until the rain stopped and the sky cleared up outside the cave. It was only when the inside of the cave was slightly illuminated that he breathed out a sigh of relief and broke out of his meditation to stand up. Cang Ji had woken up much earlier, and he was just returning from the outside with the still-asleep stone with him. He took some persimmons that had been wrapped up in a piece of cloth and gave them to Jing Lin to consume. Without lingering further, they followed the mountain path and galloped straight for the City of Xuanyang.
◈ ◈ ◈
The City of Xuanyang was backed by a mountain range and fronted by the Xijiang River. Ninth Heaven Gate had built three heavy sluice gates in this place with spiritual talismans engraved on all four sides of the city wall to make this city impregnable. Not once had this city ever been invaded and harassed by the Blood Sea and the evil spirits. Before the seven towns and twin cities were destroyed, it was called the hinterland of the south. When Jing Lin rode his horse over this day, he saw that commoners in the city had already taken their families along to migrate north. The once thriving estuaries had all been abandoned, with rows of boats dumped on the river surface. The waterways had already been cut off by the Blood Sea, so under no circumstances could these boats be used.
There was also a Lingtian Pagoda constructed in this city, where the major demon named Shuran was suppressed. Shuran used to be a beast of Buddha in the south who dwelled in the sludge of the lotus pond all year round. Its voice could mobilize all the bodies of water in the world. Later, when Dong Jun strode into the Realm of Fan Tan, his malicious aura shocked Shuran into appearing in the world. When he looked at Dong Jun in the eyes, the latter’s red eyes enthralled and destroyed his conscience. From then on, he forsook the voice of Buddha, perpetuated evil, and even caused the south to be flooded. The first thing Dong Jun did when he returned to the righteous path was to kick Shuran into the City of Xuanyang and suppressed him with a towering pagoda to restrict his movements for hundreds of years.
On entering the city, Jing Lin galloped right for Lingtian Pagoda. It was only when he saw the pagoda still standing firm with its seal intact and undamaged that he heaved a sigh of relief.
Cang Ji rode around Lingtian Pagoda on horseback for a look and said, “The pattern of this seal is uncommon. Did Dong Jun draw it too?”
“Dong Jun has no patience when it comes to brush and ink. Father drew this.” Noting that the color of the cinnabar still looked as good as new, he said, “The iron hooks to hold down the pagoda were forged by Lan Hai. They can’t be easily broken.”
“What exactly is Lord Jiu Tian’s origin?” Cang Ji touched the cinnabar. “There are differing opinions about him. It’s hard to tell the truth from the lies.”
“Father was born in the Nanjing Sea. Too much time has elapsed since his youth, so there is no way to trace it back. After Father’s cultivation reached the Perfection’s Stage, he wielded his sword in Zhongdu and resolved to focus on cultivating the Way of Heaven after seeing so much suffering and misery. When the Blood Sea came bearing down on the world, he founded Ninth Heaven Gate and accepted disciples from far and wide. It wasn’t easy for him to establish it to its present magnificence.” Jing Lin paused and continued, “Father may be stern, but he is strict with himself and lenient with others. There have been many occasions where he made an example out of himself. When Tao-di formally joined the sect, there was a famine in the east. Father sent us to deliver grains through the night, while he prohibited banquets and feasts in his compound. He has been a vegetarian ever since.”
“How admirable of him.” Cang Ji asked again, “I hardly see Lord Jiu Tian venturing out in recent years. How is his health?”
“He falls ill sometimes, mostly out of melancholy.” Jing Lin dismounted and led the horse down the street. He said, “But Father has been painstakingly cultivating for so many years, so it is now hard to know which stage his cultivation is at. He’s becoming more and more formidable in recent years. In the past, I could somewhat tell by looking at him, but now, I can’t even get a glimpse.”
Cang Ji’s heart sank a little. He smiled again and said, “With his cultivation, Lord Jiu Tian still can’t do anything about the Blood Sea. It can be seen that the situation is getting desperate.”
“The situation isn’t that bad yet.” Jing Lin said. “Canglong will be key.”
“But what if Lord Jiu Tian doesn’t allow it and even wants to murder canglong?” Cang Ji said, “The friction in the north is deepening. Seems to me that both sides have been putting up with each other for a long time.”
Jing Lin took a few steps and said, “Even if canglong does not form an alliance with us, he has done no evil. It was for the common people that he built ditches to divert the Blood Sea. If Father takes a different path from him, then so be it. Why would he kill him?”
Cang Ji responded leisurely, “It’s hard to say.”
Jing Lin said, “If such a day comes, then I will not let him die. His fate is tied to that of the world. He is the only one who can eliminate the Blood Sea. No matter what, he cannot die.”
“If you protect him to such an extent, it will surely rouse your brothers’ suspicions and incur your father’s reproach. You aren’t acquainted with him, and you have never met him. Even if you have the intent to help, you have to be prudent.” Cang Ji spoke in a solemn tone. “Jing Lin, good and bad people abound everywhere around you, and kindred spirits are few and far between. Risking your life for this isn’t worth it. Besides, this Emperor Cang… he is, by nature, paranoid, cunning, and wicked. He’s extremely wary of others. If you were to meet him one day, you might even come to hate him to bits. Even if you risk your life for him, he might not necessarily be grateful to you. So why put yourself through the trouble?”
Cang Ji took over Jing Lin’s reins and tethered the horses to a pillar. Seeing this, Jing Lin ambled along behind Cang Ji and said hesitantly, “… He’s not that bad…”
“Uh.” Cang Ji washed his hands in the water jar placed before the inn. Without looking up, he said, “Weren’t you the one who said he was a savage man who has a harem and was loathsome?”
Jing Lin followed suit and said, “… You can’t treat rumors as the gospel truth.”
“Yet you still dislike him?” Water dripped between Cang Ji’s fingers as he got the stone to extract the handkerchief from his sleeve to help him wipe his hands. He said, “Come to think of it. I don’t like this man either.”
“Because I heard that he’s quite handsome.” Cang Ji said.
Jing Lin parroted, “Quite handsome?”
Cang Ji touched his face and said to Jing Lin, “He’s more handsome than I am. I can’t tolerate that.”
Jing Lin said, “Appearances are but mere illusions. His original form is a dragon. Both of you aren’t the same.”
“Once in human form, he will be judged according to the beauty standards of the mortals. Everyone loves themselves a beauty. It’s like when I look at you.” Cang Ji turned his head slightly and scrutinized Jing Lin a little more closely. A slight frown materialized on his face.
Jing Lin said, “Hmm?”
“When I look at you,” Cang Ji abruptly lifted Jing Lin’s chin and said intently, “Uh huh… Our Jing Lin…”
Jing Lin looked at him quietly.
Cang Ji’s throat throbbed slightly. He continued, “… is very devastating.”
“I’m that hideous? Although I could somehow sense it in the past, no one has ever told me the truth.” Jing Lin rubbed his cheeks with the back of his hands and said, “There was a time I caught a demon, and my shadow fell upon the water, exposing my face. The other party started crying incessantly and said that she would not flee anymore. I suspected that she was just feigning a surrender. But who would expect her to really follow me away? Now that I think about it, she was probably afraid.”
Cang Ji asked, “Have you never ever looked in the mirror?”
Jing Lin said, “All the mortal flesh in this world are the same. The one in the mirror might not be me either.”
Cang Ji asked again, “Then, who do you think is good-looking? Dong Jun?”
“When Dong Jun is in his human form, he’s good-looking.” After a beat, Jing Lin added. “You’re very good-looking too.”
With that, he broke free from Cang Ji’s hand and turned around to enter through the hanging screen. Cang Ji stood blankly where he was, still touching his own face. He felt that this face could be called “regular” at most. How could it be compared to his original looks? Then, he thought that Jing Lin must have been consoling him. Jing Lin did not even find himself beautiful, so what would he know about what’s pretty or ugly?
Cang Ji stood like a pole at the entrance for a long time, feeling disturbed by that one line of his. Before he turned around, he even looked into the water jar to check his reflection. Only then did he strode through the door and squeezed his way behind Jing Lin to follow him up the stairs.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin had to make his rounds around the city at night to reinforce the spiritual talismans on all four sides of the city wall. There were only fifty people in the Xuanyang City Garrison. But all of them were masters whose spiritual seas had already formed. Long before Jing Lin stepped out of the door, they were already waiting for him in a welcome outside. When Jing Lin left, he saw that the candle in the room next door had already been extinguished. Presuming that Cang Ji had gone to bed, he headed down the stairs and went out on his own.
The Ninth Heaven Gate disciples had been waiting respectfully for a long time. The moment they saw a flash of that white robe, they all beamed with delight and felt greatly reassured. They were well-acquainted with the reputation of Lord Lin Song and had long been fascinated with Yan Quan Sword. It had not been easy to meet Jing Lin once. So they came up all at once to greet him and compete among themselves to lead the way for Jing Lin.
One of them looked to be an old hand. He respectfully paid his obeisances to Jing Lin and followed alongside him. He said, “For the Little Lord to come here, have there been any instructions from the sect?”
Jing Lin said, “I haven’t yet to be conferred a title. The address of ‘Lord’ clashes with Father’s, so it isn’t appropriate. You may call me by name. There is no instruction from the sect. I came over by myself for a look.”
The disciples beside him all did not dare to respond. They merely said, “We wouldn’t dare to be impetuous before Yan Quan Sword. Seventh Young Master, this way.”
It was a cold and windy autumn night. The wind sloughed through the grass and trees in the city, while leaves rustled and fell, blanketing the ground with a layer of withered yellow that produced slight noises as they trod over it. Some dwellings they passed by were already empty, with the doors making “creaking” sounds as they swung left and right in the wind.
Jing Lin asked, “How many people in the city have left?”
The disciple replied, “More than half of them have gone. Everyone in the city has been on tenterhooks ever since we received news of the seven towns and twin cities’ destruction. There were some who left on that day itself with their families. A good number of them did not want the girls, so they abandoned them en route. The little maidens secretly made their way back. But the Yangle Hall in the city is now fully occupied, and our food supply is diminishing. We can’t afford to raise them. Fortunately, we received a directive yesterday. All these unwanted children will be sent to the sect a few days later to be raised and educated at the private school in the Lord’s compound.”
Jing Lin had never heard Li Rong mention the private school when he left. Furthermore, this was not the right place and time to discuss it further. Thus, he merely nodded to indicate his acknowledgement of it.
The Xuanyang city walls were solid. As Jing Lin put his palm to the wall, he could feel the integrity of the talisman. The spiritual talisman gradually emerged, glowing faintly in the night. A web of interwoven spiritual threads instantly materialized over the City of Xuanyang, with all four sides converging together to seal Lingtian Pagoda.
On this silent night, if a person with an acute sense of hearing were to hold his breath and focus, then he would be able to hear the slow, drawn-out sound of something asleep under the pagoda—Shuran.
Jing Lin walked along the wall. A luminous azure light floated around him and paved out a path that circled along the wall in tandem with his footsteps. Jing Lin made a seal with a hand and saw the azure light sinking into the soil. Immediately right after, there was a loud rumble as the wall rose and grew taller by several inches.
Jing Lin retreated a few steps and looked up. He asked, “Is there no one guarding the city tonight at the top of the wall?”
“With the situation being so critical, we do not dare to rest.” After answering, the disciple looked up too. He frowned in puzzlement and said, “Why aren’t they saying a word though…”
Jing Lin had already risen into the air to ascend the city wall. He saw the men on garrison duty with their backs to him as they faced another direction, so he took a few steps closer to them. But in these few steps, there was a drastic shift in the atmosphere atop the wall. Without waiting for each of the men to look back, Jing Lin drew out his sword.
The penetratingly cold aura of the sword swept right ahead, and that human head tumbled onto the ground. Yet, there was not a drop of blood on the sliced neck. Instead, a pocket-sized little face climbed out and stretched out its arms as though they were wisps of mist— it was an evil spirit in its greed form.
Jing Lin tapped his foot, and the weapons placed against the wall suddenly turned over and rose into the air. The night wind beside him propelled forward without restraint, and the sharp blade broke through the air and hurtled all over with a “swoosh, swoosh, swoosh”. Amidst the sounds of chewing emitting from the greed form, the garrison all pounced on Jing Lin with their decapitated bodies.
Yan Quan swept out in a circle of light as it encircled Jing Lin. Jing Lin turned his palm over to grasp the sword. His black hair swayed along with his movements. With frenetic cries, the black fog around him dispersed, leaving behind no other sounds except for the howls of the wind in the night.
In this dead silence, Jing Lin looked back and heard the loud “thud” of a collision under Lingtian Pagoda. Holding his sword, he stepped into the air and saw Lingtian Pagoda shaking violently. Dwellings all around them collapsed.
“This is bad!” The disciple at the foot of the wall said in alarm, “Seventh Young Master! Shuran is about to break through the seal!”
His voice had yet to fade away when the wind tore it asunder. Right afterward, Lingtian Pagoda tilted over with a loud rumble. There was a ripping sound as the suppression talisman snapped. A terrifying claw reached its way out.
With one foot stepping on the roof of the pagoda, Jing Lin turned over his palm and slapped down a large talisman created out of azure light. The talisman went smashing down, and Shuran retracted his claw in pain. Then, flying into a rage, he arched his back to ram the spikes on his back against the pagoda and howled.
The bright moon of the night had already made its way into the clouds. Before they knew it, the sky was already covered in the ethereal color of blood. The sound of the Blood Sea’s tidal waves grew clearer, surging and slapping against the sides of Jing Lin’s ears. The earth beneath his feet was no longer stable as the entire Lingtian Pagoda collapsed.
Holding his sword, Jing Lin somersaulted down, instantly sending up a splash and spatter of blood fog. As if sensing a murderous intent, Shuran pushed up against the pagoda with his head and stretched it out. An imposing, giant jaw roared at Jing Lin and pounced. Jing Lin dodged him and gave him a kick so hard that Shuran went tumbling before he sprang up again.
The wind in his ears shrieked and howled, and a sudden, stabbing pain sprang upon his back. Before he could move, he felt his chest stir as his spiritual sea churned and roiled with immense waves. A gush of heat charged up, turning the world before his eyes black as his five senses were suddenly cut off.
That “door” he had been unable to access had opened at this crucial moment.
Jing Lin remained in place. Shuran malevolently stuck his neck out as he dashed and crashed his way over to bite down on him—
The blood fog abruptly changed direction with a violent gust of wind. There was a “crack” as Shuran’s massive teeth were jammed in place by an arm reaching into his jaws. The next moment, Shuran’s body soared into the air as this arm turned and smashed him into the towering wall. There was a loud “bang” as spider-web cracks broke out on the surface of the wall from the impact. Shuran was unable to roll over in time when a blow struck him hard in the abdomen. He instantly choked out white foam and transformed into his human form. He had not even opened his eyes when someone lifted him up by his hair. Even before he could spit out the white foam in his mouth, the person slammed him into the ground!
The ground cracked. The crash had badly battered Shuran. Both his arms trembled as his face was pressed down against the rubble, scraping against it until there was blood everywhere.
“My, my Lord…” Shuran’s voice was as small as a mosquito as he trembled and said, “… Spare… Spare my life!”
Cang Ji said nothing as he lifted Shuran’s head and slammed it down yet again!
Only then did he pause and say, “Bitch, I’ll spare you only if you join my baby, Lianyin, on her twitter.”
In case you haven’t realized, the above paragraph was an April Fools’ Day extra! (◐ω◐) The twitter it linked to was a friend’s account @saedee_! Much thanks to saed for being such a sporting gaylord.