The rain stopped the next day. The sky was cloudy with cumulus clouds.
Water droplets dripped off the eaves into the water puddles below, setting off ripples. Frost spread along the wall in a wet and cold greeting towards the doors. Li Rong climbed the stairs and knocked open the doors to Jing Lin’s courtyard.
Jing Lin’s clothes and crown were neat and tidy as he opened the door and looked at Li Rong. Li Rong looked around and said, “There was a mudslide at the northern trails last night, which crushed the woods underneath. Although no traces were left behind, I had a hunch that someone had come visiting. Have you heard of anything on your end?”
“Been self-reflecting.” Jing Lin said. “Didn’t pay attention to what’s happening outside.”
Li Rong hesitated for a moment and said, “Father’s anger has subsided. In the next few days, he will allow you out. I’m here to see you today. Let’s go in to talk.”
Jing Lin made way for him and Li Rong strode in. He was rather surprised to see a cup placed on the stone table under the tree. “It’s such a cold day, and you’re still drinking tea outside. Mind you don’t get frozen.”
As he said this, he stepped past and was about to enter the room when his keen-as-a-dog nose caught a whiff of wine from that cup. He swiftly swept his gaze towards Jing Lin, and Jing Lin took the wine jar from the table and tossed it towards Li Rong.
“It’s diluted with half a jar of plain water. Take it out with you and throw it away while you are at it.”
Li Rong said, “Since when have you started drinking?”
Jing Lin said, “One can learn anything if they have been shut away in their compound for half a month”
On hearing this, Li Rong smiled. He held a chair to take his seat and said to Jing Lin, “Are you still blaming Father for locking you up for so long? It’s all for your own good. It’s such a big mess at home at present that we can’t even distinguish between the evil forces. Detaining you could be said to be protecting you. I have been running at the fore for half a month, and things are finally getting somewhere.”
“It didn’t break out.” Li Rong took a little breather and continued, “The credit for this belongs to Dong Jun! All the infected people were transferred to Dongshan, and none of the common disciples were allowed access. He’s the only one who didn’t have to stay away given his original form, so he crossed over through the night and made his way to Fan Tan to seek the True Buddha’s help.”
“How’s Qing Yao?”
“She’s fine now.” Li Rong said, “It’s just that her body is already weak to begin with, and she has been devastated after Lan Hai left, so she doesn’t dare to move around too rashly now.”
“The pills from home are too potent. Make use of this opportunity to swap it into decoction. Jing Lin said, “There’s no need to eat the pills again.”
“Yun Sheng has that intent too. He has specially put in a request to Father, and Father has approved it. From now on, there will be someone specially in charge of boiling the medicine for her. No matter what, we have to nourish her back to health. You were in such a hurry the last time that you scared her. Afterwards, she had a fever for a few days and spoke nonsense in her dreams. When she woke up, she even told me that she dreamed of you when you have yet to return.” Saying this, Li Rong averted his gaze and looked at the dim light at the edge of the door. He said, “We still haven’t found Lan Hai’s body.”
Jing Lin draped his wide-sleeved robe over himself and said, “You and I weren’t in the compound. Who was the one keeping watch over Lan Hai?”
“The brothers took turns to keep vigil.” Li Rong said, “Other than you and me, everyone else was there.”
Jing Lin stood by the window and asked, “Whose turn was it the day he left?”
“Dong Jun.” Li Rong sank into the chair. “Dong Jun is the one at home with practically no obligations, so he’s the one who has watched over Lan Hai for the longest time. It wasn’t just that one day. He has been taking care of Lan Hai even for a few months prior.”
“So, other than the time I went looking for him, Dong Jun has always been at home?”
“Of course.” Li Rong joined his fingers together. “His identity is special. How would he dare to wander around?”
Jing Lin frowned slightly. Li Rong did not know it, but Jing Lin was turning it over in his mind. Dong Jun had always been at home. Then, who was the one who went in and out of the cities in the south to kill humans a few months ago?
“What has Yun Sheng been doing recently?”
“You even suspect him?” Li Rong looked up. “All along, he has been following me to deal with issues. He likes cleanliness by nature, loves decorating, and isn’t willing to venture outside. A few months ago when Lan Hai fell ill, he handled all the affairs of the sect while presiding over the Winter Alliance Assembly. The vast inundated lands in the north have been messed up badly by Emperor Cang. All the major-league demons follow Emperor Cang’s lead, and they wouldn’t defer to us. The sect disciples in the north were impeded from carrying out their tasks. Yun Sheng was in a terrible fix regarding this matter, and he has been running to and forth on both ends with Tao-di.”
“There are a lot of matters festering in my heart, but there’s this one thing I must make known to Father again.” Jing Lin turned back, “The ditches in the north are already completed. Emperor Cang has worked hard for several years to achieve these results. I understand his intention, and I am willing to provide my assistance. The views of the sect contradict mine, but I still hope Father will permit me to head to the north to lend him a hand.”
“You are being so persistent regarding this matter that you have aroused suspicion all over.” Li Rong sat up straight and said at his wit’s end, “Jing Lin, why care about what he’s doing? You have never seen Emperor Cang before, and so you see him through rose-colored glasses. You don’t know it, but this dragon is savage by nature and simply too arrogant!”
“His temperament has nothing to do with me.” Jing Lin said, “But everything he has done can indeed resolve the current crisis.”
Li Rong rose in slight irritation and said, “He can resolve the crisis? Then what have we been doing all these years? You saw with your own eyes batch after batch of disciples being deployed, but in the end, how many returned alive? Ninth Heaven Gate lay down our lives to fight the Blood Sea, and for this, we have suffered countless casualties. He not only scoffed at us but even decided to challenge us until the world now seems split into two! Starving commoners are all crowding in the middle lands, and yet he wouldn’t let anyone enter the north! Never mind if he didn’t want us to set foot inside; Ninth Heaven Gate doesn’t care for it either. But so many people have starved to death. Why can’t he cede some lands? How can you count on this kind of heartless and unrighteous man to have the heart to save the world?!”
“He’s building ditches in the north.” Jing Lin’s anger was stoked too. “If he doesn’t cover the lands with vast expanses of water and simply let the starving masses pour in, then how can he build? How would he have the lands to build? All of you are eyeing his territory now. Just because of this matter alone, you determine that he’s a despicable scum! But if he doesn’t do it this way, then when will the ditches be completed? The Blood Sea has already besieged all three sides, and we keep retreating battle after battle. What other way does Ninth Heaven Gate still have now? Yining has been transferred away from the east. All that’s left in the east are the old, weak, sick, and disabled. You shove the phoenix before the populace to hold the Blood Sea back with his death! I don’t even want to probe further into what exactly it is that Father is planning.”
Li Rong abruptly turned his head and said, “You are mad! You even suspect Father?!”
Jing Lin stalled for a moment, then said, “I don’t.”
“Don’t speak of such treacherous matters again.” Li Rong took a few steps forward. “Father is already at the Great Accomplishment Stage. There will definitely be a battle between Ninth Heaven Gate and the Blood Sea.”
Jing Lin went blank for a moment, then asked hesitantly, “Father has already achieved the Great Accomplishment Stage?”
“If not for that, then how could we have been able to sit still when the south is at such a critical juncture?! It hasn’t been easy for Father to transcend. And then there’s Lan Hai’s matter. He had to rely mostly on the pills to keep going, but he did indeed succeed.” Li Rong could not help jumping a little for joy when he spoke to this point. “So why are you still fixated on Emperor Cang? After this, Father is the Supreme Father, the leader of deities the people want. Jing Lin, please be obedient and behave yourself, alright?”
Jing Lin, however, seemed not to have heard it. He merely said, “But that wasn’t the case when I saw Father…”
“You’ve only just reached the Perfection Stage. It’s only reasonable for you to be lacking a little in cultivation.” As Li Rong spoke, he looked at Jing Lin’s hand and said, “Did you use the medicine? Fortunately, it didn’t leave any scar.”
Jing Lin raised his hand and saw that the scar on the back of his hand had completely disappeared. He remembered Cang Ji’s caress last night and simply gave a slight nod of his head in response.
◈ ◈ ◈
Thousands of li1 away.
Cang Ji stood at the top of the tower, overlooking the vast expanse of water waves in the north. There were countless high walls under his feet. His robe fluttered in the wind as he held a fruit in his mouth and swallowed it all along with the seeds.
“After Master has spent so many years managing its operation, the ditches are now completed. Seeing as winter snow is approaching, are we going to drain the water to clear the ditches?” Dressed in white velvet, Linlang stood behind Cang Ji.
“There was originally no hurry.” “Cang Ji faced the wind in a welcome. “The mortals will be affected by the cold in winter, and it won’t be convenient to relocate them. Once the Blood Sea is drawn over, it’s easy for complications to arise. ”
“But what changed Master’s mind?” Huachang poked her head out around the corner and said, “Jiejie, I don’t want to play with that lad. He’s so boring!”
“Don’t you care a lot about him?” Cang Ji looked at her out of the corner of his eyes. The appearance revealed in the north wind was handsome with a demonic, murderous aura so sharp and penetrating that one dared not look right at him. Yet it was a face that could also turn bright and brilliant in the twinkling of an eye.
“Bah!” Huachang said, “Who gives a damn about him? Not me! Jiejie does! She said he is a wonderful potential that comes once every thousand years!”
“Is that so?” Cang Ji showed a little interest and asked Linlang, “How is he compared to Lord Lin Song?”
Linlang was worldly-wise and could get a grasp of what Cang Ji was thinking, so she replied tactfully, “Master, don’t listen to her flattery of him. Ah Shuo had a late start. All he learned in the past were from wandering diviners2 in the martial fraternity. How could he be compared to Lord Lin Song?”
“His name is Ah Shuo?” Cang Ji did not mind it. “Jing Lin’s original form is bestowed by Heaven, with a pure heart that is hard to come by. The progress he made in his cultivation is swift too. To date, I have not seen anyone who can even compare to him. So feel free to speak your mind. What is this lad’s original form?”
Linlang hesitated for a little, then said, “I wouldn’t dare to deceive Master. Ah Shuo is indeed a rare talent. He is naturally gifted and intelligent. He can absorb everything he hears into his heart. Although he is young, he’s sensible. But oddly enough, he still has yet to develop an original form.”
“Everyone who amasses spiritual energy will beget a form.” Cang Ji said, “Perhaps it’s not his time yet. Those who can achieve the Great Accomplishment Stage have always been different from the others. For you to get such a disciple means there’s an affinity between you and him, so guide him well.”
“Every time he looks at jiejie, he’s either bumping into wood or falling into ditches. What’s on his mind?” Huachang snorted, “I can tell at just a glance! Earlier, Master said to drain the water immediately. For what reason? I’m sick and tired of seeing that newcomer, Tao Zhi. I want him to leave earlier too.”
“It shouldn’t have happened so soon.” Cang Ji looked out into the south. “But Lord Jiu Tian has already come out of seclusion. If we don’t act now, he will definitely stand in our way.”
“He hasn’t been out for so many years. For him to emerge now, there must have been progress in his cultivation.” Linlang said, “That wily old fox is particularly hard to deal with. Besides, late autumn is drawing to a close, and snow is coming. I’m afraid withdrawing the water in such a hurry will only be beset with difficulties.”
“It’s naturally difficult if you are the one sent to withdraw the water.” Cang Ji smiled, yet it could not be said to be a very happy one. “Has Shuran come to? This ought to be his turn to earn some merits.”
Huachang said, “With Master here, he naturally can’t die. But I heard he had been suppressed in the City of Xuanyang. How did Master catch him back here?”
Cang Ji raised his eyebrows slightly and said, “I coaxed him back. Feed him well. He’s valuable. “
As the three of them were speaking, they heard a report from below saying that Si Yuejian had arrived. Cang Ji lifted his legs and headed down. As soon as he left, Huachang asked curiously, “This Si Yuejian usually ignores matters regarding cultivation of the Way. Why is Master looking for him?”
Linlang sighed and said, “… What is Si Yuejian in charge of?”
“Marriages.” Huachang paced a few steps, then impishly turned her head and said, “I get it now! Master has taken a fancy to someone, and that person is most likely unwilling. So he wants to ask Si Yuejian to tie a red thread3 between them. That way, they will be inseparable.”
Linlang let out a wry smile, thinking if Emperor Cang were to take a fancy to someone, then he would have used every means possible to make that person his. Sooner or later, he would pester said person until the love was mutual. Where on earth would he still need Si Yuejian’s help? It could only be because he had truly fallen in love and wanted to set up a red thread to bind them together for all lifetimes.
As she thought about it, she could not help but sigh. She watched the rise of ten thousand li of stormy waves, and watched the water mist gradually shroud the mountain ravines. She said, “Our great undertaking is about to be completed, but the outcome is an unknown. Seeing how Master’s heart has been moved and his mind, swayed, he has clearly already fallen deep and hard. It’s fine if no one else knows about it, but he’s doomed the moment someone uses it against him. Although touching the reverse scale of the dragon will incur his fury…”
Linlang stopped abruptly.
Destroying it will send him to his death.
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m
- 江湖术士 more specifically wanderers of the martial fraternity who engaged in divination, astrology, sorcery, geomancy, and the likes. Most are quacks and charlatans out to earn money from these crafts.
- The red thread is a Thread of Fate or Marriage, which is used by the Deity of Marriages to connect and bring two destined lovers together. In Chinese mythology, this deity is typically known as Yuelao (月老), or literally, the old man under the moon (月下老人), a deity who matchmakes lovers and unite them in marriage.