The water clouds in the horizon extended into the distance. The lofty tower rose from the ground and stood erect among a cluster of surrounding walls, just like the Sea-Anchoring Divine Needle1 in the north. Jing Lin stood in the wind and surveyed the place for a moment, then turned sideways to make way for the famine refugees.
The city was already congested with starving commoners, and sallow and emaciated corpses lay on both sides of the road. It was not easy to walk through it. Many corpses had distended bellies; these people had already reached a point where they scavenged for dirt to eat. The old, weak, sick, and disabled hobbled along as they supported themselves against the wall. Each one of them was hunched over. Even the lice in their hair had been caught and eaten clean. They were so starved that they even looked at others covetously.
Jing Lin released the little ghost from his Qiankun’s2 sleeve. The latter held on to Jing Lin’s clothes and followed closely after him. Jing Lin felt into his sleeves, but removed nothing from them.
“So this is what purgatory on earth in those opera scripts is like. Hungry ghosts running all over the streets. Zhongdu is already the realm of the underworld.” The little ghost wiped his tears. “Everyone is going to die.”
Jing Lin said nothing. His eyes could see all the sufferings in the world, and his sword could slay all the demons in the world. But even he himself was helpless in the face of this. The waves of the Blood Sea had invaded and engulfed tens of thousands of li3 of lands, enveloping the provisions of all living creatures in Zhongdu and forcing every one of them to crowd together into increasingly cramped space. And now, there was no more path for them to retreat; they were already at the edge of the precipice.
If Ninth Heaven Sect could not save them, then its motto “courage” was just presumptuous talk.
Jing Lin looked around him, and this crowd of walking corpses stared at him with chilling gazes. The dead and the living stared at his white robe and silver crown so intensely that the little ghost hid himself behind Jing Lin. Jing Lin stepped on a sticky liquid, and he lowered his eyes for a look. It was blood.
Filthy and stinky blood trickled along the crevices in the stone slabs. The people sprawled on the ground along the street vomited incessantly, their bile gushing out. Their abdomens had swelled until it was swollen, and their limbs seemed to have blistered open with the exposed skin showing up in purple and red. Corpses were piling up under this high wall, yet there was no sight of stray dogs and flies. Jing Lin took a few steps forward to reconfirm that there were no children here. It was as if they had been deliberately cleared away; there was not even a corpse of them.
Where are the children?
An old woman suddenly knocked into Jing Lin and pounded at him frantically. She was unkempt and disheveled, and one of her legs was lame. She caught Jing Lin by an arm and shrieked, “Where is my son? Where is my son? Where did you take him? Return him to me!”
Jing Lin did not budge. The old woman looked savage as she tore at Jing Lin’s sleeves in anger and cried, “This white attire! This white attire of yours… Ninth Heaven Sect! You…” She slipped to her knees and cried,” Return him to me!”
“Your son.” Jing Lin’s throat felt hoarse. “Is your son in Ninth Heaven Sect?”
“You took him away.” The old woman’s voice was wild as she grabbed Jing Lin’s sleeve and clutched it tightly. “You took him away! You said you will give him food, but I didn’t believe it! So you snatched him in broad daylight!” Dirt had accumulated on her fingertips, and her scuffed fingernails were filthy red. She grasped on to the cuff of Jing Lin’s sleeve, leaving behind streaks of lacquer-like marks. “Where is he?! Return him to me!”
Her frantic voice and anguished wails broke through the overcast sky. It was particularly jarring on the ears when coupled with the sight of this purgatory on earth. Dark clouds rolled in the sky and thundered in their ears along with her cries. The waxy, expressionless faces all around looked like statues molded in clay and carved in wood.
But Jing Lin looked as though he had found an opening. He asked in a tense voice, “Who took him away? The garrison of this place?”
The old woman was muddled-headed as she pointed at Jing Lin with a trembling finger. “You! You are the one!”
Pushed and shoved by the old woman, Jing Lin held her firmly and suddenly turned back.
◈ ◈ ◈
Having just sent Li Rong away, the disciple sat at the foot of the steps to have a sumptuous meal. A small group of them surrounded a chicken, salivating over it. They had yet to reach the point where they could abstain from food, and they were also a little hard up with the rations all sent out as aid relief. This chicken was something an attendant had taken along when he caught up to Li Rong after the latter had left Ninth Heaven Sect.
As soon as Jing Lin strode through the door, the disciples immediately rose to their feet noisily. The chicken roasting on the fire was getting charred, and the dripping oil caused their Adam’s apple to throb along with the sound. Yet, no one dared to move.
“My, My Lord.” The sharp, head disciple hurried over to him. “You…”
“Where have all the children from the northern frontline gone?” Jing Lin went straight to the point.
“Children?” The disciples looked at one another. “The sect handed down an order last month, saying that Cangdi was getting restless with winter approaching, so we gathered the young children together and sent them over to the sect!”
“Who gave the order?” Jing Lin asked.
“Eighth Young Master.” The disciple felt uneasy and said with apprehension, “This order really came out of the blue! Although I heard earlier of the arrangements being done in the south, there are only so many places the sect has. Even if we gather plenty of children, we have nowhere to put them! We have always thought the matter was long settled. But then Eighth Young Master received the order, and it was clearly indicated on the report that they wanted people. This couldn’t be faked. The sect sent letters time and again, urging us to hurry. Telling us not to intervene, Eighth Young Master chose a batch from the starving commoners and gave them the grains we have on hand. This assignment was done in less than a month. Is there anything wrong with it?”
“Where is this batch of people?”
“We sent them to the temple in the north. The city is so crowded at present that there isn’t any space left to set foot on. Furthermore, the existing grains in the storehouse aren’t enough to feed them all. Eighth Young Master did not give them the correct amount of grains, and they came to create a ruckus a few times before our doors.” The disciple broke out in cold sweat under Jing Lin’s stare. He wiped his sweat away with his sleeve and answered more cautiously, “My Lord, please don’t blame us for this. We really had no other choice! When you have your meal later, look at the rations of our brothers. It’s all weeds and roots we pulled out from the ground. Our rice has been reduced to soup and water. All the surplus has been given away as aid relief! Even if we want to give the people grains when they come to us for it, there’s also nothing left for us to give…”
“Lead the way ahead.” Jing Lin suddenly piped up.
The disciple did not dare to tarry and hurriedly lifted his robes and strode through the door to lead him. Jing Lin followed closely behind him. Along the way, the disciple kept wiping away his sweat, not daring to cast another look at Jing Lin. He had already sensed a storm brewing. Jing Lin was almost brimming over with a frosty aura which pressed against the back of the disciple’s own neck like the cutting edge of a blade. Not daring to stop, the disciple quickened his pace.
The place was a little far, and the former shops had already fallen into ruins with the doors and windows all wide open. Everything that could be eaten inside had been ransacked until nothing was left. Even the rat’s nest in the crack had been emptied out. The closer they headed to the northern side, the more bleak and desolate it became. The place was overgrown with weeds. There was no sign of life at all.
The disciple trampled down on the luxuriant grass that was half the height of a man. He knocked along the door of that dilapidated temple for quite a while, but it was quiet inside without any signs of movement. With his back drenched in sweat, he called out a couple of times. Behind him, Jing Lin kicked the door open. The door panel collapsed with a “thud”, sending up a cloud of dust that rained down on them.
The disciple choked and waved his sleeve. Jing Lin had already bent over to enter. The disciple followed him closely down the stairs and coughed as he said, “This is the place… Why is there no one here?”
Jing Lin looked around. There were still ashes leftover from a fire inside this run-down temple. The Buddha statue was mottled with paint peeling off it. Half of its body had collapsed, and half of its benevolent face had disintegrated, leaving behind a dreary smile that conveyed a bizarre sense of malice among the tattered hanging drapes under the darkness.
The Buddha statue and Jing Lin looked at each other. A few drops of cold rain plopped down outside. In a twinkling of an eye, raindrops started pattering down. It was abnormally quiet inside the temple. Jing Lin stared at the Buddha statue as though he was appreciating some kind of plaything.
The disciple was so cold that he rubbed his arms as he looked around. “Perhaps they have left. There are people everywhere at present looking for food. Those with some strength left would surely not sit around and wait for death…”
Before he could finish his words, Jing Lin abruptly unsheathed Yan Quan!
The air vibrated with a buzz, and a massive phantom jerked out of the Buddha statue in response. The ghostly face bellowed and opened its mouth wide to swallow Jing Lin. Yan Quan moved fluidly like clear water. The disciple felt a flash of white light before his eyes, and the next moment, he heard the “crack” of something shattering. A layer of spiritual realm shaped like water ripples before him shattered in that very instant. The ghostly face went hideously taut and disintegrated, while the Buddha statue collapsed with a thunderous crash. The scene of the entire run-down temple changed. The disciple took another look and found dead bodies at his feet! Their throats had been torn and their eyes were fixed in a furious stare. They looked tragic in death.
The color drained from the disciple’s face. He took a few steps back and exclaimed in shock, “They are all dead!”
Jing Lin bent over and lifted the dirty curtain blocking the corpse’s face to reveal a face gaping in consternation. He saw that the tongues of all the dead had been pulled out. Each of them was tearing at their throats, their fingernails gouging out several trails of blood on their necks. The side of their necks had been slit open. The dagger was so sharp that it took only one quick and easy cut to cut this area open.
This kind of cut.
Jing Lin’s breathing grew heavier. He turned over several corpses one after another, the guess in his heart crystallizing.
From the way the cut was made, the perpetrator was Tao Zhi! Tao Zhi was by nature prone to choose the easy way out. The Way of the Sword was too hard, while the Way of Asura was too heavy; both did not suit him. So Lan Hai forged a lightweight and handy dagger for him. Tao Zhi cultivated the art of cunning jabs and stabs. In order to seek and learn moves, he had once asked Jing Lin to simplify the complicated strokes of swordplay and teach him a move from it. This venomous and fatal strike was something Jing Lin could not be any more familiar with.
To carry out his task, Tao Zhi had specifically chosen this group of starving commoners. But Jing Lin had been in the sect for half a month, and he had never heard of any new recruits. Then, where had the children from this group gone? And there was also the batch that had mysteriously disappeared in the south. Where had all the children in Zhongdu gone?!
Killing and silencing others like this to avoid future trouble was Tao Zhi’s attempt to cover up traces of his evildoings. But what did he need the children for?
◈ ◈ ◈
Tao Zhi was dragged out by Li Rong. Shackles had been placed on him, and he had been whipped so badly that his body was bloodied all over. His eyes were swollen and red. Whatever Li Rong said, he meekly did as he said. He cowered as he followed behind Li Rong, not even daring to breathe heavily.
Li Rong could not just take him away, so he asked to see Linlang. Tao Zhi was free for the time being as he was detained in an empty courtyard to wait to be dealt with. Although he had committed many evil deeds in this place in the past, he had plenty of money, and dishing out handfuls of gold pearls each time bought him some henchmen he could trust.
Seizing the opportunity in Li Rong’s absence, a toady rushed over to loosen Tao Zhi’s shackles for him. The tea he served and the massage he gave coaxed Tao Zhi so much that the latter‘s mood cleared up.
“There is a bottle of top-grade medicine for injuries hidden in my room. Send someone to hurry over and bring it to me.” Tao Zhi sprawled over the couch to sun his bare back. He sucked in a breath and said, “Li Rong, that bastard! He really wants to beat me to death! When I return home later, I must tell Father about this!”
“Eighth Young Master will surely be blessed after surviving this calamity!” The attendant wiped away the blood for him. His heart ached so much he stamped his feet. “At the very least, you are brothers. Did he have to go so far as to humiliate you like this over a fox?!”
Tao Zhi sneered. “He has always favored Jing Lin. Now that I’ve dealt him a stab, I’ll see what he’ll do! If he has the audacity to cover up for Jing Lin upon returning, I’ll find a way to deal him a blow right before Father. In any case, I won’t let them rest easy! Cangdi may have hidden himself far away, but that vicious whore Linlang is right before my eyes. Have you done what I’ve asked you to do?”
“How could I not have done it? I’ve to vent your anger on your behalf, no?!” The attendant said into Tao Zhi’s ear, “No one will notice if you spill a little of this thing on her. But it’s very potent once it acts up. It will definitely stir her spiritual sea upside down and send it gushing in the reverse direction through her spiritual pulse! By then, she will be half incapacitated, and you can do whatever you want to do.”
Tao Zhi smiled and accidentally pulled the wound at the corner of the mouth. He hissed and fell completely limp. He said, “What kind of fucking shit is this? I merely had fun with a few people. I didn’t force them to die. They are the ones who did it themselves out of humiliation! But the blame all fell on me, and they still expect me to pay with my life. Bah! How dare these lowly bastards even dare to think of it!”
The attendant went along with him in repeated agreement. Both men cussed for a moment until they heard someone hurrying in from outside. Tao Zhi thought it was Li Rong returning and was so frightened that he scrambled up to put on his clothes and get back into the shackles. He was midway through when the door banged open. He took another look. How was this Li Rong? It was just a common disciple.
“I’ll break your fricking legs! Why the hell are you in such a tizzy?” Tao Zhi heaved a sigh of relief and pulled his arm through his sleeve.
Having been caught in the rain, the disciple wiped his face and cried, “Emergency report from the beacon tower eight hundred li away! The east has completely fallen. The waves of the Blood Sea have traversed the beacon tower. The evil spirits have already arrived right outside our city walls!”
The attendant was immediately scared witless. He knocked into the table and chairs, sending them swaying, and said in a panic, “They are all now at, at the city walls?!”
Tao Zhi was shocked too, but he was not anxious. He spread his arms out to drape his upper, outer garment over himself and said, “What are you afraid of? The city wall was just built before the new year. Although it’s not comparable to Cangdi’s impenetrable walls, it can still hold up for two hours or so. What’s more, Li Rong is still here!”
But the attendant started to wail as he beat his chest and cried out regretfully, “My dear Young Master! How could you have forgotten?! When we built that city wall, you insisted on leaving the inside hollow to save that bit of money! All that remains is an empty shell of a wall! Forget about holding the Blood Sea back for two hours. As soon as the waves hit, the entire city will be engulfed!”
Tao Zhi was stupefied for a moment, then he sprang up as though he had been pricked by a needle. He did not even fasten his waist sash as he slipped on his shoes and dashed out.
“Why are you still in a daze? Flee quickly!”
The disciple grabbed hold of Tao Zhi and said, “This won’t do! The disciples of Ninth Heaven Sect have to stand up to the Blood Sea. We mustn’t leave the commoners behind. Run if you must, but evacuate the common folks first before you do so!”
Without even thinking about it, Tao Zhi kicked the disciple to the ground. He adjusted the front of his shirt and jumped down the stairs in a fluster, cursing. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Can we even evacuate them in time? Those people have been starving for a few months, and their legs are as soft as noodles! The moment the Blood Sea attacks, their souls will be released from suffering. Let them hold up the Blood Sea for as long they can! Erecting a longevity tablet4 to offer them offerings later is the best I can do for them!”
He had only just said that when he saw the blood fog gushing forth above the house. Evil spirits and devils in their greed and evil forms arrived with their bodies stretching forward. The wall did not even have to wait for the surge of the Blood Sea to break it down; it had completely collapsed with even just a gentle huff of air from the evil spirits. The bloody waves rose several zhang5 high, then suddenly came crashing down. In that very instant, the streets were awash in the color of blood. Evil spirits swam out amid the roiling waves. The humans were already starving to the point they were on the verge of death. Before they could even utter a sound, the evil spirits tore them into pieces.
Tao Zhi swallowed hard and cursed, then dashed out of the courtyard and headed right for Li Rong and Jing Lin’s horses.
At this critical juncture of life and death, who the fuck would still give a damn about the others?!
◈ ◈ ◈
The Blood Sea devoured the city walls. The dwellings fell like paper cards as they became a part of the bloody waves in just a blink of an eye. The mortals were reduced to being living livestock. Countless lives were all buried under the blood fog. The attendant ran after Tao Zhi and encountered a greed form that tore at him and dragged him towards the blood fog. Seeing that Tao Zhi had already mounted the horse, he could not help but stretch out his fingers to dig deep into the ground and howled himself hoarse, “Eighth Young Master, save…”
The greed form opened its mouth wide and chomped down. Blood spattered out from between its teeth. It transformed out two arms and chewed the attendant down into its belly. With an apathetic face, it turned towards Tao Zhi and imitated the attendant’s wail, “Eighth Young Master, save me!”
Tao Zhi’s hair immediately stood on end. He whipped the horse brutally, and the bluish-white horse raised its hooves in pain. It broke free of its leash and charged right towards the other end.
All at once, the greed form transformed into fog and pursued Tao Zhi relentlessly. Tao Zhi spurred the galloping horse on, yearning so much to grow wings on his back. At the end of his tether, he could only pant heavily as he hit the horse forward, not daring to take a second look back.
“Eighth Young Master.” Like a cat playing with a mouse, the greed form conjured out hundreds of human faces amid the fog and whimpered, “Eighth Young Master, please hold on…”
Tao Zhi broke out in cold sweat. He hissed into the wind with white lips, “Shut up! Shut up now!”
The greed form cackled. A fair, slender hand, so soft it seemed boneless, reached out towards Tao Zhi’s temple. It was terrifyingly icy. The greed form said, “If you want me to shut up, just press me down into the bedding. Eighth Young Master, you strangled me so hard my face turned blue and only the whites of my eyes showed. You pinched me so much my entire body was red and swollen. Didn’t you like it…”
Following the voice, this fair, slender hand turned into one with bulging veins that struggled to claw at the back of Tao Zhi’s shoulder. A bellow exploded in Tao Zhi’s ears.
The color drained from Tao Zhi’s face as he was hauled backward by this hand. He tugged at the reins tightly, and the bluish white horse whined in fright as it trod where it stood. Tao Zhi’s defenses had fallen apart. He whipped the horse in a fury and rebuked, “Run!”
However, the bluish white horse refused to move forward. The evil spirit had already torn Tao Zhi’s outfit to pieces, and Tao Zhi’s back had been clawed until it was covered in countless streaks of blood. With one hand pulling the reins, Tao Zhi twirled out his dagger in the other to hack and slash at that blood fog. The greed form reached several arms out from the blood fog. They dragged and pulled at Tao Zhi’s body, squirming and wiggling as though they were consuming their meal. Tao Zhi’s throat tightened. He could not breathe. His legs kicked out at the back of the horse as half of his body was lifted and dragged into the Blood Sea.
Tao Zhi desperately dug at these arms. With some difficulty, he squeezed out a voice through clenched teeth, “I, I don’t want to die!”
The blood fog swarmed towards him, and Tao Zhi cried out in pain.
At this very instant, a blur of white robe materialized, wielding a long sword. Azure light sliced through the air in a horizontal sweep, splitting the primal chaos of heaven and earth into two. White sleeves billowed amid the overwhelming sword aura. Jing Lin stepped on the horse to spring himself up, and the vast expanse of the Blood Sea immediately surged back!
The evil spirits reacted instantly and fled. Jing Lin leaped over the waves, and azure light fought over one another to come killing out of his sword like the breaking of dawn in the east. The fog rolled as Jing Lin pierced through its numerous shadows. Yan Quan drew blood as it passed through with the wind following in its trail. In just the blink of an eye, the incessant sound of “thud, thud, thud” could be heard. The decapitated, convulsing bodies of the evil spirits fell everywhere that white robe passed through.
Jing Lin took a step forward, and the Blood Sea retreated a foot6 back.
He stood alone before tens of thousands of people, with a sword slashing and sealing away monstrous waves thousands of zhang tall. He stepped upon endless corpses under his feet, yet his white robe fluttered in the wind, pure and untainted. As if they had found their pillar of strength, hundreds of Ninth Heaven Sect disciples kneeled in unison to kowtow to him. A thunderous shout reverberated through the air.
“Live courageously, and give our lives to fight the sea! We shall all heed Lord Lin Song’s commands!”
Jing Lin drew his sword and turned back to stare at Tao Zhi.
“Jiu, Jiu-ge …” Tao Zhi slumped to the ground. He wanted to hide his face, but he did not dare to move under Jing Lin’s gaze. His delight at his narrow escape earlier dissipated into nothingness. He could not help but tremble and sob as he called out, “Jiu-ge!”
Jing Lin asked, “How should those who desert their morals and righteousness be dealt with?”
Tao Zhi knew this did not bode well. Using his hands and legs, he desperately scrambled backwards. “Jiu… Jiu-ge…”
Jing Lin asked, “How should those who commit all kinds of evildoings be dealt with?”
Breaking down under this cold detachment, Tao Zhi held his head and said with his back against the wall, “I’m in the wrong! I admit the errors of my way! I did wrong. Jiu-ge, Jiu-ge! Don’t kill me!”
Jing Lin’s sword glinted as he walked towards Tao Zhi.
Tao Zhi sat paralyzed on the ground. He hugged Jing Lin’s leg, clinging on to it, and looked up with tears streaming down his face as he said in terror, “Jiu-ge! I beg of you! Jiu-ge! I will not do it again!”
Jing Lin lowered his eyes to look at Tao Zhi. He had never scrutinized Tao Zhi this carefully before. He looked at Tao Zhi’s eyes that had gone swollen from the crying, but all he could hear in his ears were the endless curses and condemnation. He looked at Tao Zhi’s filthy and tainted white robe, and all that materialized in his mind were the sect rules he was told when he joined the sect.
Ninth Heaven Sect, in establishing itself in the world, did not ask for fame among the martial fraternity, but for its disciples to exercise “courage” to their utmost. Jing Lin could turn a deaf ear to Tao Zhi wails and pleas, but he could not condone Tao Zhi saying “I will not do it again”.
Because he was not deserving of a second chance.
Trails of blood from Tao Zhi’s clawing fingers stained Jing Lin’s shoes. Blood spattered onto his robe, dirtying it. Tao Zhi’s words stalled in his throat, and the domineering hints in his youthful face vanished without a trace. All that remained was a bitter resentment in his eyes that tore at Jing Lin like sharpened teeth until it turned into deeply entrenched hatred.
“You this…” Tao Zhi said in a hoarse voice and curled up with both hands clenching his chest. His neck stiffened, and he toppled over to the ground with eyes wide open in a glare. In the end, he did not finish his words.
Yan Quan returned to its sheath. Tao Zhi’s body remained curled up in place before it slid and plunged towards the Blood Sea along with the gradually collapsing ground. He died with a grudge, glaring fixedly at Jing Lin’s back as the blood fog engulfed him.
- 定海神针 Ding Hai Shen Zhen, literally “The Sea-Anchoring Divine Needle”. According to the novel Journey to the West 《西游记》, this was a divine ‘needle’ (or pole) that could shrink and grow according to its owner’s wish. At first, it was a treasure of the Eastern Sea Dragon King’s Dragon Palace, but Sun Wukong (孙悟空) later took it away to use as his weapon and changed the needle’s name to the Ruyi Golden Cudgel (如意金箍棒)
- 乾坤 Qian Kun means Heaven and Earth, or a universe. Literally, it’s saying there’s another interspatial ‘universe’ in Jing Lin’s sleeve. It would be like a different world in there or he could even use it as an interspatial inventory.
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m
- 长生牌 Longevity tablet, a tablet used to pray for the blessings of one’s benefactors. (As opposed to ancestral tablets to pray to one’s dead ancestors.)
- 丈 zhang; measure of length, 1 zhang = ten Chinese feet (3.3m)
- 尺 chi, a Chinese foot, 1 chi = one-third of a meter