Jing Lin said, “He is still unable to regain consciousness yet since the evil spirits have not been fully eradicated, so why do you want him at this point of time?”
“My last sentence is the one of utmost importance. Why didn’t you pick it to ask about?” Cang Ji squatted and placed Jing Lin back on the ground. He scrutinized Shuran’s bloodied eyes. “The Blood Sea at the City of Xuanyang has already receded. In the course of just one night, he turned into this state. I thought it over and found the way he broke through the seal odd. I want to ask him a few more questions.”
“You suspect he’s also a pawn.” Jing Lin said.
“That’s a good term to use.” Cang Ji said, “You must have someone in mind.”
“When I heard the little ghost elaborate about his throat being sliced, I thought of only one person.” With a shake of his fingers, Jing Lin conjured out a folding fan. He brandished the fan to whisk away the filthy remnants of the greed form between Shuran’s wounds and said, “Those who use a folding fan in the world are few and far in between.”
“On the contrary, a distinctive feature that is too obvious will also make it easier for someone to imitate.” Cang Ji spread his palm out to Jing Lin.
Jing Lin could not help but be stunned to see that there were still the marks of a brocade carp on his palm. He asked, “Hm?”
Cang Ji waved his fingers and said, “Gege is not as omnipotent as you. I can’t conjure objects out of thin air. Give me a dagger. I’ll help Shuran to cut open his wounds and scrape out the devil.”
Jing Lin placed his hands behind his back and said, “I’m afraid it’s not that you can’t, but don’t wish to. It’s easy to expose your form if you conjure objects. If I see your original form, then I’ll know what demon you are.”
“How did you become smarter after sleeping for a night?” Cang Ji bared his teeth at him. “My original form is that of the most ferocious creature in Zhongdu. I will definitely not show you until the wedding night.”
Jing Lin was curious. “Why the wedding night?”
Cang Ji said, “What am I going to do if I reveal my appearance to you in advance and frighten you away? Once we consummate our union on the wedding night, then you can scream and cry out to Heaven and Earth all you want, but it will be to no avail, because you’ll be thoroughly mine.”
Jing Lin recalled those nonsense he had spouted at night. And now, here he was, listening to him jesting. He took a sudden step back and thrust a dagger at him.
“Since Dong Jun is an evil spirit, he should avoid arousing suspicion to himself. Everyone is going to suspect him when it comes to matters involving the losses of lives.” Cang Ji’s dagger sank into Shuran’s wound and opened up a gap along the edges. Filthy blood mixed with black fog instantly surged forth. He blew at it, and the black fog immediately dissolved away. He said, “Either someone within Ninth Heaven Gate is pinning the blame on another, or someone outside Ninth Heaven Gate is framing the sect on purpose. What are your thoughts on this?”
Jing Lin said, “Father is already sitting at the head with the world at his feet. Other than canglong, no one in the world would dare to disobey his commands. At this juncture, it would be hard for any deliberate attempts to frame the sect to go anywhere. The only possibility left is that someone within the sect is making someone else take the fall for him.”
“The Blood Sea is also at Ninth Heaven Gate. And now there is this matter of throats being sliced.” Cang Ji turned a deaf ear to Shuran’s wails of pain. He said, “Ninth Heaven Gate could be said to be in a moment of crisis at present.”
“Ninth Heaven Gate…” Jing Lin paused slightly.
“A sneak attack is hard to guard against. If it isn’t handled properly, then you will be beset by internal and external troubles and get attacked by the enemies from both front and back.” Cang Ji stepped on Shuran’s body, which was about to roll over. He sliced the wounds open mercilessly and said, “The best thing for you to do is to go home with me. If they want to start an internal strife, then let them do it. You have gone to the north bearing your sword, and you have a reputation out there. It’s not impossible for you to gather help to defend a city. Once you have the men in hand, you can go and alert canglong and conspire with him to subdue the devils. It’s better than remaining at home under the control of others.”
“Without an assignment of duty, guarding a city by myself would be to break away from Ninth Heaven Gate.” Jing Lin said, “Besides, I’ve been forged and tempered many times over as a sword to the point that I won’t be able to keep a low profile. If I get too close to canglong, I’m afraid it will only hinder his grand plan to eradicate evil.”
This was an understatement. In fact, he was insinuating that he was already Ninth Heaven Gate’s sword. Leaving aside his slaying of demons and subduing of evil, the highlight of his part in the show had yet to come. Canglong had been intimidating the Ninth Heaven Gate in the north. Lord Jiu Tian had been enduring it in silence all because he was waiting for Jing Lin’s Way of the Sword to transcend. Once he crossed into the Perfection Stage, he would have the ability to fight it out with canglong. He and Emperor Cang were forced by circumstances, and there were no benefits to them to be too close to each other. Furthermore, Jing Lin had keenly expressed his approval about Emperor Cang’s strategy to eliminate the devils, and yet no one from the sect had responded. Most likely, they were waiting for him to be involved so that it would be easier for them to play along with it and mess up Emperor Cang’s plan.
“As much as you are being considerate of Emperor Cang, he doesn’t know.” Cang Ji scraped the flesh with the dagger in his palm. He shook off the droplets of blood and continued, “Lord Jiu Tian is the benefactor who had raised and nurtured you, so you will definitely not leave easily, and you will most certainly not sit by and do nothing. But Jing Lin, the Blood Sea is now hiding in Ninth Heaven Gate. The pills you and your brothers are consuming are lethal, and you have a curse placed on you. Then, there’s also the matter of children with slit throats being covered up and going unreported. Don’t tell me Lord Jiu Tian never once noticed it? If he had already realized it, then why didn’t he say a word? Everyone is a suspect in the sect. But if you ask me, he is the one who is the most dubious. If one day.”
Cang Ji did not look at Jing Lin as he wiped the dagger.
“If one day, the Blood Sea is Lord Jiu Tian. Then what are you going to do?”
“… That’s unbelievable.” Jing Lin clenched his sword. “If Father is the Blood Sea, then all his implementations over the years would have only served to make things difficult for himself. Leaving aside what I would do, just Li Rong, Yun Sheng, and Lan Hai alone will be the thorns in his flesh. We are all disciples of the same sect. Although there may be some small friction among us, we studied the Way of Righteousness together. We will definitely not be on the move toiling so hard for an evil spirit.”
Cang Ji turned his head to the side and said, “Over the years, I have seen the gradual rise of the Ninth Heaven Gate, but I have never been able to figure out Lord Jiu Tian’s intention. Does he want to fight against the devils to save the humans, or does he want to reign supreme over the entire world? Jing Lin, ask yourself honestly. Are his strategic decisions and commands becoming more and more erratic?”
“As soon as the Blood Sea overturns, Zhongdu will be engulfed. The Underworld will fall apart as ghosts, humans, and demons mingle as one. Law and order will no longer exist on Heaven and Earth. Father wants to save the humans, and at the same time, he wants to segregate the three realms to uphold the cardinal principles of righteousness.” Jing Lin said, “If it weren’t for that, then how is Heaven and Earth going to be sectioned by the time the chaos has been fully eliminated?”
“Establish a realm above and confer all the heavyweight and greatly skilled cultivators in the world with the titles of deities. Set up surveillance on Zhongdu in the middle and expel the demons so that the mortals may live in peace. Then, rebuild the Underworld at the bottommost, re-channel the River of Wangchuan, and construct a labyrinth. With these, the so-called Three Realms will be just one realm under the control of Ninth Heaven Gate. From top to bottom, there will only be disciples of Ninth Heaven Gate to obey his orders. From then on, Lord Jiu Tian will no longer be Lord Jiu Tian, but the common Ruler of the Three Realms.” Cang Ji’s eyes blazed. “Despite not proclaiming himself Emperor, he will become the Supreme Father of Heaven and Earth. Do you dare to imagine such a scenario? With this kind of wild ambition, the calamity that is the Blood Sea is merely just a stepping stone. When the time comes, canglong and the phoenix will both fall under the command of his sect. Once this situation is a given, there will be no turning back. By the time he authors a book with a stroke of his divine brush and becomes a legend, all the tens of millions of lives lost to the Blood Sea today will become his and his merit alone.”
Jing Lin took a sudden step closer and nearly bumped into Cang Ji’s chest. With a pale expression, he asked, “Where did you learn of that?”
“Do you know what Li Rong mentioned when he headed north to meet Emperor Cang?” Cang Ji did not dodge the topic as he said in a heavy voice, “He spoke about the splitting of the Three Realms—Who would believe that? The Blood Sea is closing in on us now, but Ninth Heaven Gate isn’t in a hurry. There are countless casualties in the east and south, yet Lord Jiu Tian is still able to sit and watch without doing anything. It’s only by forcing Emperor Cang to bow down to his command that all will be well with the world.”
“I don’t believe it.” Jing Lin spoke at a rapid speed. “When Li Rong headed north, Father personally instructed him. I heard him very clearly…”
“You have been to the east too.” Cang Ji lowered his head to look at him. “How many men from Ninth Heaven Gate are still in the east? Even Yining has been transferred away. Of those remaining behind, who is able to defend the east?”
“The phoenix traveled east through the night.” Jing Lin asserted, “And the roots of Can Li Tree extend along with it, all to secure the earth and defend the land in the east.”
“Is the phoenix a member of Ninth Heaven Gate?” Cang Ji took a step closer and pressed against Jing Lin. “Who else is still left behind? Answer me.”
Jing Lin looked shocked. How would he dare to give it deeper thought? Cang Ji grabbed hold of his wrist on the hand that was holding the sword and pulled him hard towards himself.
“Answer me.” Cang Ji grasped his hand. “You are well aware of the answer. Why don’t you dare to say it out?”
Jing Lin’s breathing quickened slightly. He gritted his teeth, “Ninth Heaven Gate disciples… and tens of thousands of commoners.”
“These tens of thousands of lives are delivered right to the mouth of the Blood Sea.” Cang Ji pressed in, step by step. “What is your father‘s plan?”
Jing Lin said, “I can hurry over to the east myself!”
“Even if you head to the east, can the problem in the south be that easily resolved?” Cang Ji grasped his icy hand. “Lord Lin Song is merely a man and a sword. How long can you hang in there for?”
Jing Lin laughed scornfully. The Cang Ji before him felt so unfamiliar. Cang Ji rubbed Jing Lin’s cheeks and said to him, “You won’t leave with me. You will surely return. I don’t know who put the curse on you. Perhaps it’s your father. Perhaps it’s your brothers. Either way, it is most certainly someone you know very well. They are restraining you, Jing Lin. They fear you.”
Jing Lin’s breathing hitched. He said, “I know the sect suspects me. I know my brothers are on guard against me. I know it all… but I don’t know who can be so utterly devoid of conscience to such an extent!”
“Who am I?” Cang Ji suddenly asked him.
Jing Lin’s face had gone pale. He shook his head vigorously. Cang Ji held his cheeks to hold his head in place and asked again, “Who am I?”
“Cao, Cao Cang…” Jing Lin clenched his teeth. “This name is fake. I don’t know who you are!”
“Wrong answer.” Cang Ji stared at him. “Who am I?”
Jing Lin suddenly struggled. Cang Ji held him tightly. Jing Lin’s mind was in a whirl. From Ninth Heaven Gate to Cang Ji, all of them were imposters. Each was like an evil ghost disguised under a coat of human skin. Cang Ji tightened his grip on Jing Lin, holding him so tightly that Jing Lin hurt.
“I don’t know!” Jing Lin shouted in a hoarse voice.
Cang Ji did not release him, and Jing Lin’s breathing grew more tense. He could not kick him away. Held and pinned in Cang Ji’s arms, he could only bury his head in Cang Ji’s chest to gasp heavily for air.
“Who am I?”
Jing Lin almost sank into the crooks of Cang Ji’s arms when he heard the question and his chin was suddenly pinched and raised to meet Cang Ji’s gaze. He choked up and answered, “Ge, gege!”
“I’m the only one you can believe.” Cang Ji pressed in closer to him and said, “There are devils everywhere. The only one you can trust is me. Have you remembered it?”
Jing Lin’s lips went white. He wanted to shake his head, but Cang Ji was grasping him tightly in place.
“Don’t believe anyone but me.” Cang Ji whispered in his ear like a nightmare. “Your father. Your brothers. Li Rong, Yun Sheng, Lan Hai, Yining, Dong Jun! They will all lie to you. But I won’t.”
Jing Lin shivered as though he was cold. Cang Ji seized the opportunity presented by his vulnerability and repeated it over and over again.
“You will…” Jing Lin closed his eyes. “All of you will!”
“I won’t.” Cang Ji rained endless kisses above Jing Lin’s eyes and between his forehead. “I won’t.”
Jing Lin felt a coldness that chilled him to the marrow. All those involved around him seemed to be gradually cut off from him. Every face that had been severed off felt unfamiliar to him. Cang Ji held him and kissed him, using an unforgettable, penetrating chill to tear him apart from the others. He could only hold Cang Ji’s hand, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Cang Ji. It was as if he had been shoved out of the cage that was Ninth Heaven Gate into another invisible cage. There was no one else in this cage. Just Cang Ji. Cang Ji cradled his heart as he took him into the crooks of his arms.
This was the greed of a demon. And also a demon’s cunningness.
◈ ◈ ◈
“The wind is strong in late autumn. Put on more clothes and eat more. Half a month later, I will look for you at Ninth Heaven Gate’s Ming Jin Stage. Jing Lin.” Cang Ji’s features gradually transformed. The wickedness in his expression became more and more pronounced. He clung to Jing Lin’s ear and said, “How I wish so much to bite you.”
With that, Jing Lin’s earlobe was bitten until it was damp, hot and slightly painful. A sound escaped his lips. Cang Ji slid down his ear along the side of his neck and sucked hard on the snow-white skin until red marks appeared. Soon after, a sudden strong wind came assaulting. In a lightning move of his hands, Jing Lin tried to throw him off but only managed to touch a portion of Cang Ji’s fingertips. He heard a burst of laughter. Cang Ji had already disappeared. Even Shuran had vanished without a trace.
As if jolted awake from a dream, Jing Lin strode a sudden step forward and hissed resentfully, “You…”
The fog of frost dispersed. There was no one around. Only the heat continued to linger on his ear. For no reason, Jing Lin’s heart felt empty. As he lifted his arm to swipe away the strong wind, he heard the swift, galloping sound of a horse’s hooves. A man appeared on the horizon. Po Zheng Spear sliced through the gale as Li Rong came before him and reined in his horse.
“When I learned that Shuran’s seal had been broken, I knew that you had transcended. I hurried to the City of Xuanyang, but there was no sight of you there. If it weren’t because of the exposure of your sword aura, I’d still be going around in circles looking for you.” Li Rong had traveled through the night to hurry over. There was still dew on his shoulders. He said, “Where have you been this half month? There has been no news of you at all!”
“Half a month?” Jing Lin’s expression turned cold. “I’ve held up for so long in the Blood Sea!”
“You entered the Blood Sea?!” Li Rong was astonished. “How reckless! Were you injured?”
Jing Lin covered his abdomen and said, “… No.”
“Transcending is dangerous. The amount of time you will lose consciousness is long. Did you encounter some kind of eminent master?” Li Rong asked.
“The will of Heaven is unpredictable. It’s just fated to be. There’s no one else.” Jing Lin raised his eyes. “Are there still no reinforcements sent to the east? How has it been this half month? Can the phoenix still hang on? I left a Wrath of Heaven talisman in the City of Xuanyang. The Blood Sea will not be able to cross over it. But there are several cities in the frontline. Are the other places still fine?”
Grief washed over Li Rong’s face. He said, “Let’s not talk about these first…”
“What’s the matter?” Jing Lin composed himself.
Li Rong looked at Jing Lin as his eyes gradually reddened. He whispered.
“Lan Hai is gone.”
The tips of Jing Lin’s fingers trembled. Somewhere in his heart, a rock came crashing down, collapsing what was once years of reliance. His ears thundered, and his throat went dry. All of a sudden, he found himself at a loss for words.