Frost blanketed the ground as leaves fell amid the autumn wind. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, Ninth Heaven Gate sat concealed under swirling mist. Men dressed in white robes stood together as the bleak, lingering sounds of the bells reverberated. Autumn rain was pouring, but no one was holding up an umbrella under it.
Li Rong hurried back and dismounted the horse at the same time Jing Lin did. Both men hurried up the stairs and passed through a crowd of men in white robes. They strode into the courtyard, only to see an assault of withered leaves upon their robes. The coffin displayed in the hall had disappeared without a trace.
“Where is he?” Li Rong bellowed in a deep voice.
Yun Sheng, who was inside, lifted the hanging screen to step out. On seeing them both, he immediately said, “Why are you back only now? You’re too late! It’s inadvisable for bodies of the Spiritual Amassment Stage to be kept for long, so Father has already given the order for him to be buried. The night before, a golden chain of Sanskrit script was bound around the coffin before it was lowered into the Bajiao Xuanmu Tomb!”1
Jing Lin stepped forward and said, “The righteous aura in the sect is imposing. Even if you leave the body around for a few more days, it won’t breed evil spirits. So what’s the reason for being so hasty?”
“Lan Hai was afflicted with a nasty disease. Many men in the sect are already down with sudden illness. If we keep it any longer, something unforeseen might happen.” Yun Sheng looked gaunt, having gone without rest for many days. He accepted the tea a disciple at the side handed him. Instead of drinking it, he said, “Qing Yao has fallen ill too with a persistent fever. All the pills aren’t working. Father and Dong Jun have already been watching over her before her bed for several days.”
“Qing Yao has fallen ill too?” Li Rong was shocked. “Who else?”
“Most of the mortal disciples accepted into the sect have fallen ill.” It was then Yun Sheng drank the tea to moisten his throat. Immediately after gulping it down, he continued, “All of them have a fever. The resident physician can’t tell what’s wrong either. Right now, we are at our wit’s end. Our poor Father had only just seen his child die before him, and now he has his plate full with this disease. The way I see it, it doesn’t seem to be the common cold, but more like a plague.”
“We are in a spot where Heaven and Earth take in spiritual energy. The outbreak of pestilence here is no less crucial than the crisis posed by the Blood Sea.” Li Rong’s voice trailed off. “We absolutely cannot let it break out!”
“The urgency of this matter requires desperate measures at desperate times.” Yun Sheng looked at Jing Lin, “I know you are sad. We are all brothers, so how could anyone not feel sad? It’s just that the most pressing matter at the moment is the plague. Father has not gotten any shut-eye for days in a row. At the very least, you should go and persuade him.”
“If there’s nothing the elixir master at home can do, then I’m afraid it’s no ordinary plague.” Jing Lin said.
“It’s not just him.” Yun Sheng smiled bitterly. “Even Father is at the end of his tether. We don’t know when this disease sneaked into our sect. But it came bearing down on us so fiercely that one couldn’t help but suspect.”
As Yun Sheng spoke, he stepped out and led them in the rain to Lord Jiu Tian’s courtyard. Along the way, Jing Lin cast sidelong glances and saw many people shifting over to Mount Dongshan.2
“What are they doing?”
“Those are people who have already begun displaying symptoms.” Yun Sheng said, “There are still mortals in the sect. So we can’t let them mingle together in one place. Otherwise, the consequences will be unimaginable.”
Under the curtain of heavy rain, Jing Lin noticed that the people moving over with their heads lowered were all adults. He asked, “Where are the children who attend classes together with Qing Yao?”
Yun Sheng looked back at him and replied, “Young children are vulnerable. Father naturally has his own arrangement for them.”
“And what arrangement is that?” “Jing Lin’s eyes suddenly frost over. “Where are they?”
“Why don’t you ask Father yourself?” With that, Yun Sheng stood still in the corridor and raised a hand to stop the disciple from announcing their arrivals. He said to Jing Lin, “I’ll let you in on something. Before Lan Hai met his end, he struggled to hang on for a very long time. At that time, he could no longer take in any more medicine. He left no last words behind, but he wrote your name in everyone’s palms. He was waiting for you. This, by itself, was no big deal. But now that a plague is about to descend upon us, you will need to explain yourself to the family.”
“Explain?” Li Rong straightened his back. “He has been away from home for such a long time. What explanation does he have to give?”
“It’s precisely because he has been away for a long time!” Yun Sheng whispered urgently. “He hasn’t returned home for so long. Where has he been this half month? There’s no news or messages from him at all! Of all people, Lan Hai just had to write his and his name alone. And now that he had returned, a plague happened. What if this were to land in the mouths of others? Shouldn’t he give an explanation? But look at him. He’s showing absolutely no signs of grief at all. Even at this juncture, he is still being so overbearing. In a moment when he comes before Father, is he not even going to act like it?”
Jing Lin brushed past Yun Sheng and entered the room. Yun Sheng was so infuriated that he stamped his foot. But there was nothing he could do about Jing Lin. He could only hurry with Li Rong to catch up with Jing Lin and kneeled together.
Lord Jiu Tian looked acutely weary. He looked back from the side of the window and said, “What are you quarreling about in the corridor? This is precisely the time where you brothers should be of one mind, and yet you still want to start a dispute?!” As he spoke, his voice visibly choked with emotion. After a moment’s pause, he regained his composure and continued, “Lan Hai has only just left, and all of you still want to continue trampling on your father’s well-meaning intentions like this.”
The three brothers lowered their heads. Yun Sheng said, “This son realizes the error of his ways. I will exercise strict self-discipline in the future and not lose my temper with my brothers. Father has toiled hard for so many days. Please do not upset yourself further over this.”
Lord Jiu Tian seemed to be somewhat pacified. But he ignored Yun Sheng and looked at Jing Lin instead to say, “It’s time you came back.”
Tao Zhi, who had been standing at one side for a long time, said, “Jiu-ge, where have you gone? We couldn’t find you no matter how hard we tried!”
“Jing Lin was about to transcend just before he left. This tribulation is unlike the others; it’s of utmost importance. Naturally, he has to find a secluded place.” Li Rong said.
“I find it strange.” Tao Zhi put his hands behind his back. “Jiu-ge doesn’t like to take pills, nor is he willing to dual cultivate with others. So how does he progresses this fast? Could it be that he has some way of doing so which he has never mentioned to the other brothers before?”
Jing Lin propped himself up on his knees and said, “There’s a way.”
Jing Lin replied in an indifferent voice, “Sever all feelings and desires, and devote yourself to your Way.”
Tao Zhi thought otherwise. “Then you’d have to extract your heart. Not everyone can be like gege with extraordinary talents and the ability to transform their hearts into swords.”
“In that case.” Jing Lin said, “This elder brother can give you a hand.”
Something stirred in Tao Zhi’s eye, and his expression underwent a few rounds of changes in Jing Lin’s eyes. He smiled and said, “Jiu-ge is really different once he has transcended into the Perfection Stage. The way he speaks is so fierce.”
“Shut your mouth.” Lord Jiu Tian’s voice boomed like the peals of a large bell. It was so deafening that the ears of those present rang. “Jing Lin has always been down-to-earth, and his Way of the Sword is one with his heart. He differs from the others, and he has no distracting thoughts. Naturally, his cultivation cannot be lumped together with yours.”
Tao Zhi did not dare to retort, so he held his tongue for the time being. He looked at Jing Lin, but he was disparaging the latter in his mind. He was certain that Jing Lin had taken that drug of his, and yet Jing Lin was not in the least harmed. At first, he was puzzled. It was only when he went to the north that he finally realized what had been strange about it. He had not known what screw was loose in that mind of canglong, but the latter had sent minor demons to poison him consecutively for half a month! His spiritual sea was now empty, so he had not dared to show himself before his various brothers. In his heart, he regarded Jing Lin and Emperor Cang as a dog couple.3 He hated them to the core, and yet he had no outlet to vent his anger.
“You came back in a hurry, so you haven’t seen Lan Hai yet.” Lord Jiu Tian said to Jing Lin, “There’s an abundance of Yin energy4 in the Bajiao Xuanmu Tomb. You cultivate the Way of the Sword, and it’s not convenient to head deep into the tomb during rainy days. It would bode ill if you were to wreck his spiritual pulse.5 Go tomorrow when the weather clears up. He won’t blame you in the Underworld. Qing Yao has missed you for many days. She’s lying in the back with Dong Jun at her side. You should go and see her.”
Lord Jiu Tian never said a single word about Lan Hai’s death. He did not blame Jing Lin, but he did not let Jing Lin remain either. Why would Dong Jun remain at the back and not show himself? Because he could not interfere in many of the sect’s affairs. All along, Jing Lin was on the go outside, and now that he returned, it was still the same. Although the brothers seemed to be of one mind, they were actually different in every aspect. Li Rong was the one who was highly valued. He could bring others out of the mountain, take charge of domestic affairs, and had the right to participate in strategic planning. Although Yun Sheng could not leave the mountain at will, he was the brains under Lord Jiu Tian’s command. Even Tao Zhi was assigned an official post on the outside.
Jing Lin was the only exception. He could venture out freely, yet he had never been assigned a city to defend. He was well-reputed out there, yet it was only limited to the outside. Otherwise, if he had returned home with the five words “Lord Lin Song, Jing Lin” backing him, there would have been no reason for him to be lacking in food.
There was a clear distinction between insiders and outsiders in Ninth Heaven Gate, but all of them followed Lord Jiu Tian’s lead. His strategists on the inside, the valiant men appointed posts on the outside… These men, who held top offices, or who were reputable, were all his sons. They addressed him as Father, and that was how his title of Supreme Father came about.
At this moment, Jing Lin suddenly recalled Cao Cang’s words. How would Heaven and Earth change once the Blood Sea was eliminated in the future? He had never given it much thought in the past, but now that he looked at it, he could sense something more to it.
“There’s something I’d like to ask Father.” Jing Lin remained fixed in place.
Lord Jiu Tian approached the table and uttered a “Yes?”.
Jing Lin said, “While in the south, I’ve heard that we have set up a private school here at home and selected many children to bring them over. Why is it that I didn’t see any of them while on the way here earlier?”
Lord Jiu Tian had lifted his brush to write something on the table. On hearing him, he let out a long “hmm” and said, “Children are prone to the invasion of evil aura. At this juncture, how could I let them run all over the place? They are all detained in a courtyard. If you are concerned, take a look some other day. However.” Lord Jiu Tian looked back at him. “You didn’t care about these things in the past. So what makes you remember it now?”
“Perhaps he has been enlightened.” Tao Zhi said. “Or perhaps he has heard too much from the others. We can’t guess what Jiu-ge is thinking. None of us can tell who are the friends he usually makes either. It would be interesting if he has that one or two special friends. Jiu-ge, if you really have one, you must introduce him to the family.”
Jing Lin ignored him and merely bowed to Lord Jiu Tian before he turned around to retreat. As the hanging screen fell, he heard Tao Zhi complaining, “Father! Look at that bad temper of his! I wholeheartedly want to make up with him, but he gives me the cold shoulder every time! See, gege has just passed away, but he didn’t even ask…”
The hanging screen swung a few times. Jing Lin had already left.
◈ ◈ ◈
When Jing Lin stepped through the moon gate6 at the back, all the flowers along the road had withered. The disciples further were still standing in the heavy rain. This was called a sending off. They were seeing Lan Hai away on the last leg of his journey. Jing Lin stood sideways in the rain for a long time. The sky gradually darkened. It was only then he stepped into the backyard.
He entered the courtyard. The doors and windows along the veranda were all opened. Dong Jun tapped his fan on the wooden floor, and a Chinese rose climbed out of empty air to spiral around Qing Yao, who was dressed in velvet clothes. A cluster of snow-like flowers bloomed.
Sitting cross-legged, Dong Jun waved his folding fan and said, “Gege can conjure out anything under the sun! If there’s something you wish to play with, or to see, just tell me.”
Qing Yao was lying on her back. Her face was so small it was shocking. She was actually already seventeen or eighteen of age, but her body did not grow, and her intelligence did not develop, so she always looked like a child. At present, her face was pallid and tinged with distress. She said to Dong Jun in a small voice, “I want Lan-ge.”
Dong Jun paused for a moment. He was about to speak again when he saw Jing Lin standing in the rain. He snorted and said, “I can’t conjure out Lan Hai, but your Jiu-ge is here.”
Qing Yao immediately propped herself up and looked helplessly at him. She sobbed and called out, “Jiu-ge.”
Jing Li stepped into the veranda. Qing Yao leaned over the side of the handrail and pulled his sleeve. She cried until she was short of breath and weak, “Jiu-ge!”
Jing Lin leaned over and stroked her head. She was still grieving over Lan Hai, and both her eyes were already swollen. Jing Lin felt her forehead. Sure enough, it was alarmingly scalding.
“When did the fever start?” Jing Lin squatted down.
Dong Jun folded his arms. “When Lan Hai was about to… When his illness worsened.”
“What did the elixir master say?”
“No idea.” Dong Jun opened his folding fan and fanned himself until his hair fluttered all over. He said with a shadow of a smile, “How can I know such a thing? The plague has now thrown everyone into a panic. Someday when I wake up, I might probably even need to move into a cage to prove my innocence.”
Before he could finish his words, Yan Quan suddenly brushed past his cheek and stabbed into the pillar beside his temple. Dead silence descended upon the veranda. Neither of them looked at the other. A wisp of Dong Jun’s black hair fluttered in the wind and descended into the rain. A copper bell that was hanging under the eaves suddenly jingled.
A line of blood trickled down the side of Dong Jun’s cheek. He turned his head and stretched out his tongue to lick along his lips. His eyes frost over by eighty percent. Savoring the taste of blood in his mouth, he said, “So you think you are omnipotent in Heaven and Earth after transcending into the Perfection Stage? Just because you have pent-up anger in you, you can vent it on me? Have you gone blind, Jing Lin? Have you forgotten who I am?”
A cool breeze rose suddenly on the veranda. The sleeves on a white robe flipped, and Dong Jun leaned back and slid back. Yan Quan spun into Jing Lin’s palm, and Jing Lin backhandedly returned it to its sheath. Amidst the sound of blows being exchanged, he kicked Dong Jun’s waist, straightening it. There was a flash of Dong Jun’s fan as he swung it. He was slippery and elusive, moving as though he was intoxicated. With a “smack”, he slapped away one of Jing Lin’s arms. But it caught him off guard when Jing Lin bent forward and grabbed him by his neck with a palm and slammed him hard against the pillar!
“What did the elixir master say?” Jing Lin grasped him. His eyes were penetrating, and his voice fluctuated. “What did he say?!”
A frenzy of raindrops pelted onto the copper bell, and the unhinged sound of its urgent ringing unsettled minds. Qing Yao was so frightened that she did not dare to make a sound. Covering her lips, she began to cry softly. A snowflake wandered down the veranda. Jing Lin looked askance at it with severe eyes and saw that it was a snow incarnate. Dong Jun forcefully grabbed hold of his sleeve.
“This creature can keep confidences. There’s no need to silence it!” Dong Jun shoved him away. “The elixir master presented a note to Father. Father is the only one who has read it before—What Lan Hai had was not an acute disease. That’s all it said! Who are you suspecting? Now that he has already been buried, everything else doesn’t count for anything!”
Jing Lin instantly turned around and stepped into the rain. Dong Jun pulled his collar to adjust it and took a few steps to catch up to Jing Lin. He said, “What are you going to do? Don’t tell me you want to dig up his grave!”
Jing Lin’s hair was already drenched, and his eyes were so dazzlingly bright that they forced Dong Jun back a few steps. Jing Lin said: “He can’t die a dubious death. I want to see him with my own eyes.”
- Literally, Octagonal Black Tomb
- Literally, Eastern Mountain
- 狗男男, or 狗男女 Literally “dog couple”, or a pair of cheating dogs, is a couple engaged in an illicit love affair. 狗男女 refers to a couple of a man and woman, while 狗男男, a play on the former, is a couple that comprises two men.
- 阴气 Yin energy, based on the principles of Yin (and) Yang (阴阳), which represents opposing forces such as life (yang) and death (yin), male (yang) and female (yin), light (yang) and darkness (yin), etc. Here, “Yin energy” refers to an aura of death and darkness.
- 气脉. Spiritual energy that runs among the mountains and rivers. In Feng Shui, its direction and abundance (or lack of) at the site of burial would supposedly affect the deceased’s afterlife and determine the future fortunes of his family.
洞门 An opening in a wall separating different courtyards within a residence or palace. It’s also known as a moon gate (月亮门).