Shuran was like a fish on a chopping board ready to be slaughtered. Cang Ji lifted him by the back of his neck. The terrifying burst of strength from that arm made Shuran’s face red with blood. He could only barely manage to open one eye with some difficulty. When he saw Cang Ji, he trembled all over and cried out in a hoarse voice. “My Lord, my Lord!”
Cang Ji’s eyes were gloomy as he tilted his head slightly and said to those behind him, “Scram three zhang1 back.”
Shuran shivered, only to realize in hindsight that Cang Ji was not talking to him, but to the Ninth Heaven Gate’s disciples behind him who were rushing over. The disciples did not recognize Cang Ji, but when they saw him taking down Shuran in just one blow earlier, they thought that he was a master from the sect. So when they heard his bellow, they did not dare to take another step more.
Jing Lin remained still, totally unaware of the earth-shattering commotion before him. His five senses were sealed off, and his spiritual sea raged like a storm as it poured towards the “door” in his chest to cross over. A sharp pain exploded through his entire body. Among the tidal surge of spiritual energy, his original form, which was as cold and clear as water, gradually sank into his spiritual sea. Once immersed in it, it whirled and dissipated. Immediately right after, its spiritual aura swirled in the air. The blade suddenly started to shine again, inch by inch. Once again, it slowly came into being, grinding and pounding as though it was being reforged.
The Perfection Stage was close at hand, right within Jing Lin’s reach. No one must touch him at such a critical juncture. Besides, Yan Quan had already slipped out of his hand. It nailed itself to the ground beside Jing Lin, marking out a half-a-zhang-wide circle around Jing Lin to guard him so that no one could approach him.
The disciples trod lightly and retreated in a way that could be said to be on tiptoe. One said, “Senior, the Blood Sea has arrived. Do we guide the others to flee now?”
Cang Ji looked at those dark clouds overhead, obstructing the sky. The moon was already barely discernible. Only the red mist accompanied the sounds of the tides and gushed closer to them like an imminent nightmare. He said, “There’s no need to run. Tell them to shut their doors and windows.”
The disciples hung their hands by their sides to receive their orders, then turned around to instruct the commoners to secure their doors and windows and not to step out.
Once Shuran saw those white robes recede into the distance, he tried to call out to Cang Ji again. He used to curl up in Fan Tan’s lotus pond, and he felt intimidated every time he sensed Cang Ji’s dragon aura; his fear of canglong was deeply ingrained in him. He could only maneuver and swallow all kinds of water, but Cang Ji could devour him whole.
“I didn’t know my Lord is here.” Shuran propped himself up and gulped down his blood. He continued, “Other, otherwise I wouldn’t have dared to offend your honorable self! I, I wasn’t charging for the Lord…”
Cang Ji asked in an unconcerned manner, “Then, who was the one you wanted to bite earlier?”
Shuran’s eyes turned and slid toward Jing Lin. The tip of his tongue had been soaked by his blood until it felt astringent and metallic. It took him a while to come around. He stumbled over his words, “I wouldn’t dare…”
Before he could finish his words, his forehead was once again smashed into the rubble. The impact this time dazed his mind so much that he almost fainted.
He heard Cang Ji rising to his feet, and the arm dragging him hardened until it was like iron. He immediately went weak in the knees and hurriedly half-kneeled on the ground to hug Cang Ji’s arm. He cried, “My Lord! Please spare my life this once! With Yan Quan Sword before me, I won’t be able to escape if I don’t fight with my life! My Lord! I’ve been suppressed here for so many years that it, it scares me!” His appearance in his human form was about fifty years of age. He kneeled on the ground and sobbed, “I don’t want to die yet! My Lord! I’m willing to slave like an ox and a horse, horse for you! I beg you to be magnanimous and show mercy!”
Cang Ji looked at the collapsed Lingtian Pagoda with an unfathomable expression. “The opportunity to redeem yourself and render meritorious service is just right before you. So what are you still waiting for?”
◈ ◈ ◈
When the disciple returned, he saw only Cang Ji left at the same spot. He could not help but feel startled when he did not see Shuran around, thinking that Shuran had fled. The blood fog made it hard to see more than ten steps away, and the dwellings were all covered under a blanket of clammy, foul-smelling air. The disciple had no choice but to mask his face as he walked.
“Senior!” He said in a hurry. “It’s too dangerous to remain here with the Seventh Young Master still in a transcendence meditation! The Blood Sea is already on the verge of gushing into the city. How should we resist?”
“Amitabha.” Cang Ji suddenly smiled. He looked extremely approachable, unlike that malevolent countenance he had when he smashed the demon with his bare hands. He said, “The True Buddha is merciful. Having been immersed in the chants of the scriptures, Shuran still had a shred of conscience left even if he had lost his compassion once. Jing Lin convinced him to surrender, so he has gone on his own to obstruct the evil spirits before the city. The wall has been reinforced with Jing Lin’s spiritual talisman; the Blood Sea cannot permeate it. You may simply lead some men to guard the city gates.”
Overjoyed, the disciple hurriedly put his palms together and bowed several times to Jing Lin. He said, “Lord Lin Song is almighty! Then, I shall defend the city gates. However, it had not been easy for the Seventh Young Master to transcend this stage. Do you know when he will wake up?”
“That depends on how he reconstructs his original form.” Cang Ji replied, “May I trouble you to prepare an isolated courtyard? There’s no need for anyone to attend to us. All you need to do is to maintain a smooth flow of clear water.”
The disciple immediately complied and said, “But right now, Yan Quan wouldn’t let us go near him. What should we do?”
“Just stay away from him.”
With that, Cang Ji strode past the disciple and stepped into the circle that had been marked out by the blade. Yan Quan instantly started whining. Cang Ji flicked the hilt of the sword lightly with his finger, causing Yan Quan to swing before it went silent. Cang Ji lowered down and picked Jing Lin up. On seeing this, the disciple made a move to step forward too. Unexpectedly, Yan Quan sliced through the wind and stabbed itself right into the ground before the disciple’s foot to prevent him from approaching.
The disciple looked on, dumbstruck. Carrying Jing Lin in his arms, Cang Ji said to the disciple, “Just point the courtyard out to me. I’ll head there myself.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Cang Ji carrying Jing Lin was the second time he had held the latter in his arms. But Jing Lin now felt harder to the touch compared to the last time. Even as Jing Lin’s body lay within the crooks of Cang Ji’s arms, the inside of his body was in turmoil. If it weren’t for Cang Ji’s acute sense of hearing, he would not have even caught the sound of Jing Lin’s breathing.
Yan Quan slipped back into its sheath, showing absolutely no resistance to Cang Ji. Because the passionate dragon aura in Jing Lin’s body came from Cang Ji. By a freak combination of various factors, both of them had come to be intimate for a night. And because of the drug, both of their spiritual energies had joined in perfect harmony. So even if Cang Ji were to do something more right this moment, Yan Quan would not leave its sheath to stop him, let alone stop him from hugging Jing Lin.
Cang Ji entered and detoured to the inner chamber in a few steps. He placed Jing Lin onto the bed and touched his palm. It was icy cold. He saw Jing Lin tightly furrowing his brows again. His temples were already drenched in a cold sweat.
Cang Ji grabbed a chair and took a seat to one side. Once he settled himself, he remained still. Jing Lin was sweating copiously. Like ice melting, his sweat gradually soaked through the bedding beneath him. His breathing became shallower and shallower until it eventually seemed to cease.
Transcending into the next realm was just like crashing through the gates of hell; success or failure all depended entirely on oneself. Jing Lin had been cultivating the Way for many years. In the past, crossing over into the next stage was all merely a matter of course. This was because his mind was like still water, and his entire body was brimming with the will of the sword. As a result, he won as many wars as he fought, breaking through the stages with little resistance. However, in the so-called “Perfection Stage”, he had to remodel his original form and cast aside all distracting thoughts. Now that Jing Lin was in a haste to head south, the four words he had persevered by, “mind like still water”, could hardly be mentioned in the same breath as it had been in the past.
Jing Lin was not aware of the crisis. His divine consciousness roamed within the illusory realm in his spiritual sea. He saw that the “door” was already wide open, but it proved hard for him to enter. Was it because his moral principles were impure at the moment? Or had the will of his sword diminished?
Even though Jing Lin self-reflected for a long time, he still could not make heads or tails of it. He walked around the door. The agitation of his spiritual energy made his body throb with pain. It was as if he was straining taut against a bowstring, unable to find release. His spiritual sea was already brimming over, and yet it stayed stuck in a ditch that would have led to a boundless expanse. He remained unable to step into the realm of perfection.
Jing Lin’s body was so cold that it was freezing to the touch. The blood fog in the city had yet to retreat, and the autumn night was wet and cold. The soaked bedding under him gradually froze over with ice and frost. Even his hair was mottled white with specks of frost.
Although Jing Lin’s divine consciousness did not know what the cold was, his thinking had started to slow down, and it was becoming harder to concentrate. Sitting cross-legged amidst his spiritual sea, he spared no effort in finding that turning point.
◈ ◈ ◈
Outside the city, Shuran had initially turned into his beast form to take in the Blood Sea and damp fog into his mouth before he heaved it out elsewhere. His original body was gargantuan, and in one gulp-and-suck, he could consume evil spirits in their greed forms. But unlike Cang Ji, he still had to spew it all out once he turned around.
The city gates of Xuanyang were tightly shut. Ninth Heaven Gate’s disciples flew up to it to dispose of the earlier corpses to prevent evil beings from resurrecting. From here, the leader surveyed the Blood Sea. Because the color of the night was deep, he could only see the silhouettes of its greed and evil forms. They rose and fell among the depths of the blood fog. For some reason, they were silent.
The disciple’s eyes were sore and swollen. He could not help but rub them before he looked again. This time, he saw a shadow rose amidst the Blood Sea. It was so colossal that it surpassed even the size of Shuran. The disciple saw that monstrous shadow trudged along with the waves as it swayed and strode towards the City of Xuanyang.
“How odd.” The disciple leaned over to observe it carefully. “What’s that? It doesn’t look like any of the greed or evil forms.”
He had only just said that when he saw that massive shadow pounce. It transformed into a monstrous, foul-smelling wave that, in a split second, came smashing right before him.
“Set up the array to stop—” The disciple was turning his head to shout a command when his voice froze. His entire person toppled over as the blood waves enveloped and engulfed him. All that could be heard was the “crunch” of bones being chomp to pieces, and even the sound of that eventually merged into the Blood Sea.
Shuran instantly opened his mouth, but he could not suck in the wind. The massive wave had already come slapping down on him. It crashed into him, right in the face. The gargantuan beast howled at the sky. Greed forms crawled all over him. In the blink of an eye, they tore at him until he withdrew and collapsed. He crashed into the wall, knocking it over and causing the spiritual talismans on the entire wall to wobble.
The flesh on Shuran’s back had been ripped open. He retreated from the pain. The greed form he flung down transformed into the wind and came pestering him. He fell and tumbled on the top of the wall, having been bitten until he was on the verge of death. The fishy-smelling water surged, and he was forced to swallow a few mouthfuls of it as he was flushed down along with the bloody water. Evil spirits and devils crammed their ways through the city gates until it burst apart. Debris went flying all over as the entire surface of the wall collapsed with a “bang”.
Shuran gasped for breath and turned into his human form to avoid the devils. He clung onto the wall and yelled in a hoarse voice, “MY LORD—!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Cang Ji affixed a palm in the middle of Jing Lin’s back. The rich energy was like a tide of hot current on the move, heating Jing Lin until the tips of his hair dripped water as the frost subsided. Cang Ji’s spiritual energy probed into him and carefully circled around Jing Lin’s spiritual sea to observe. He could not intervene abruptly, as that would make it easier for accidents to happen.
Jing Lin’s spiritual sea was like the freezing days of the twelfth lunar month.2 Even the rising and swirling wisps of spiritual fog looked as if they had condensed into ice. The spiritual sea appeared to be stagnant in its surge towards the ‘door’.
Cang Ji’s dragon aura reunited under Jing Lin’s spiritual sea and stabilized it so that it would not leak. At the spot where his original form was, there was already no sign of Yan Quan’s body. Instead, the Buddha’s lotus that had been on Jing Lin’s palm was floating and spinning in its place. The lotus revived one moment and withered the next moment, resurrecting instantly once all its petals had wilted. It was like a miniature of life and death that reduced the course of his life to just mere instants. For each time it regenerated, it would contain a portion of Jing Lin’s enlightenment. It grew perpetually, symbolizing at the same time how little – and how infinite – Jing Lin’s enlightenment was.
A swaddled bundle materialized at the heart of the lotus. Cang Ji looked at it intently and saw an infant in it with a lotus in his palm; that was when he knew this was Jing Lin. Jing Lin gradually grew up. He sat in the middle of the lotus, wearing a belly undergarment3 with a stick-up braid.4 He laughed when he heard the sound of the rattle drum5 in his hand. Then, his appearance changed again as he grew a head taller and became a child of about five or six years of age. Dressed in shabby clothes, he sat amidst the lotus with a solemn expression. The grasshopper in his palm chirped. Hesitant to clench his fist, Jing Lin spread his palm open to release it. The grasshopper sprang and turned into an azure light encircling him. Amidst the azure light, Jing Lin transformed into a little monk in a brown monk garb with both his palms together. The innocence of childhood was still evident in the little monk’s expression. He chanted the scriptures with his mouth, but his gaze followed a butterfly that flitted past him. The butterfly dispersed and fused into a speck of light, and the little monk rose to his feet. The moment he turned around, he became a youth in a loose, white robe with his hair tied up and secured with a silver crown. From this moment on, he no longer smiled. He stood blankly where he was, and a little stone figure rolled out from the side of his foot. The little stone figure swung its arms and strode forward in imitation of others, then rolled on the ground guffawing as it clenched its stomach. Jing Lin merely looked at it with lowered eyes, having already hidden away much of himself.
These were all Jing Lin’s “enlightenment”. The man within the lotus had now matured into the man he was when Cang Ji met him. The lotus began to wither again.
This roused Cang Ji’s suspicions. With a frown, he took a step forward, unable to fathom how it could wither when it had only just grown to this point in time.
As soon as he stepped closer, the lotus petals swirled up in the air. Jing Lin stood among them, gazing into the unknown distance. He almost looked as if he would disintegrate with a “crack” and scatter along with the petals. All of a sudden, Cang Ji could not distinguish reality from illusion. With a lightning move of the hand, he grabbed hold of Jing Lin by the arm.
Cang Ji had only just called out to him when he heard a heart-rending cry. He instantly came to. When he opened his eyes, he was already back on the chair. On the bed, Jing Lin showed no signs of waking up. But the smell of the spattering blood outside was so pungent that Cang Ji’s murderous intent materialized.
As soon as he pulled the door open, he saw the entire City of Xiangyang painted red.
“My Lord!” Shuran crashed through the door and entered the compound. “The Blood Sea is peculiar today. I can’t stop it!”
The commoners in the city had yet to leave, and the watery blood had already trickled down the steps. Cang Ji gently closed the door and set up a barrier to separate the inside of the room from the outside.
“Guard this door.” Cang Ji licked the tip of his tooth and spat out an instruction softly to Shuran. “My darling is lying inside. I don’t like anyone else getting close to him. So keep a close watch on the door—I’m telling you to watch it closely. Do you understand?”
Battered and wounded all over, Shuran’s knees folded under those dark, dreary eyes of Cang Ji. He half-propped himself against the surface of the stairs, not even daring to look Cang Ji in the eyes as he trembled with terror and lowered his head to answer, “I, I understand… If it breaks, I die…”
- 丈, zhang; a measure of length, ten Chinese feet (1 zhang = 3.3m)
- 腊月 Layue; twelfth month in the lunar calendar.
兜肚 or 肚兜 duodu, or duduo, an undergarment covering the chest and abdomen. Might come with shorts as in the above image.
冲天辫 Something like this, with hair sticking up. (He’s also wearing the doudu (sans shorts) mentioned in the previous footnote)
拨浪鼓 Bolang Gu, also a Chinese rattle drum or a pellet drum, is a typical child toy in China. It’s shaken or rotated from left and right quickly to produce a drumming or rattling sound.