Song Ci passed through a forest of blooming pagoda trees and saw a crystal clear stream at the end.
There was a sturdy pagoda tree beside the stream, with its branches and leaves hung so low they nearly touched the ground. It swayed gently in the breeze.
Feeling thirsty, he walked down to the stream and squatted to scoop up a handful of water. After gulping it down, he wiped the drops of water from his chin with his sleeve. As he was thinking about sitting down to take a rest, a faint fragrance filled his nose.
He turned his head and saw a maiden in red under the pagoda tree. She remained motionless, her graceful figure hidden under the leaves of the tree.
Song Ci stood up hastily and shouted to the maiden, “Lady, do you know where this is?”
“Young Master, you should leave quickly.” The maiden’s soft voice somehow sounded familiar to Song Ci.
He took a step forward. “I can leave, but you need to tell me where the exit is.”
The moment he opened his eyes, he was already at this mysterious place.
“When dawn breaks, leave Le Yu.” The maiden said.
“That’s not possible. I haven’t even found out the location of the Demon Gate. How can I just leave?” Song Ci shook his head. “I won’t leave.”
As soon as he said it, there was a burst of chilly wind, and a sandstorm surged towards Song Ci right in the face. Song Ci raised his sleeves to block it.
As the sandstorm surged, layers of black clouds gathered in the sky, darkening it. The next moment, the initially lush pagoda trees in the woods turned into withered, dead trees, while the clear stream turned turbid and thick. In an instant, the beautiful scenery had transformed into a wasteland.
Song Ci recalled that he had drunk from the stream earlier and his stomach recoiled. He spat a few times. This was even more disgusting than eating flies.
The maiden in red turned around suddenly. Above her pale neck was a bloody, skinless face with hollow eyes. Opening her mouth and showing the sharp teeth within, she let off a shrill, ear-piercing howl. She looked extremely ferocious, and she was gliding swiftly towards him.
Song Ci was so frightened that he let out a cry and waved his sleeves. “Go away! Go away! Stay away from me!”
“Since you have a death wish, then I’ll grant you your wish!” Her hoarse voice sharpened. She spread her mouth wide open, and the corners of her mouth were ripped apart, exposing an entire maw of sharp fangs.
Song Ci grabbed a handful of soil, flung it into the woman’s maw, and took the chance to turn around and flee.
At the same time, he sighed in his heart, a woman’s face really changes with just a word!1
The maiden in red chased after him. Her big mouth was like iron; there was a loud clank every time she closed and opened her mouth. Once Song Ci heard the sound, he ran like crazy. He thought, given his delicate skin and tender meat, if he was caught in her mouth, even his bones would be crushed into dust.
He had never understood what people used to say about women having a sharp mouth, but now, he fully understood.
Seeing that alien face getting closer to him, Song Ci’s fear intensified, and a loud cry escaped his lips.
All his consciousness instantaneously returned to reality, Song Ci opened his eyes and gasped with fear before he realized that he had a nightmare.
He sat up in bed and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He thought, this female demon was really formidable; she even entered his dreams to intimidate him.
Sunshine shone through the window, which put Song Ci at ease. He exhaled, went to the window and pushed it open. He saw that the sun was burning brightly outside. Occasionally, there were sounds of birds chirping, which was worlds apart from the dead silence of the night.
He suddenly remembered that Big Beard had knocked him out last night and hurriedly stepped out to look for him. Strangely, there was not a single person in the inn.
He went back and forth, but even the three fellows who collected his money yesterday had disappeared.
Didn’t they say three meals were included?
Song Ci was so angry that he wanted to flip the table. He only had that much silver, and he was cheated out of it all.
In addition, Big Beard had also said that he would tell him about the Demon Gate tonight. Yet, he was gone when Song Ci woke up. Song Ci wondered if he had sneakily left while Song Ci was sleeping.
Having been scammed of both money and person, Song Ci shed a bitter tear as he considered draping on his Daoist robe and resuming his old career.
It was only when he was thinking about his Daoist robe that he remembered Second Missy Hu whom he had saved last night was still lying outside. Thus, he quickly went out and saw that there was only a robe left where Second Missy Hu was laid down the night before.
He changed his robe, dusted off the dust, and tied up his long hair. Assuming an enigmatic appearance, he headed for the city of Le Yu.
The news of Second Missy Hu’s safe return had already spread throughout the small city of Le Yu. People were remarking about how that Daoist priest from yesterday was not someone with just an empty embroidered skin.2
As soon as Song Ci stepped into the city, he was warmly welcomed by the crowd. The crowd surrounded him although they did not dare to get too close. They were all full of praises for him.
It was the first time Song Ci received this kind of treatment. Although he put on an air of nonchalance like a great master, he was secretly pleased.
One after another, the masses asked about the demon in the inn. Song Ci frowned, then asked in a deep voice, “Does any of you know Sun (pronounced as ‘soon’) Yunniang?”
At the mention of the name of Sun Yunniang, the commoners around him abruptly stopped speaking all at the same time. A complicated expression came over their faces.
“Is Daozhang talking about Third Missy Sun from our Le Yu city?” An old man asked.
Song Ci figured that it should be her, and thus he nodded, “That’s her.”
“What a sin. When Sun Yunniang said she would return, I never thought she would really come back……” The old man shook his head and sighed.
“This is all the fault of the Hu clan. Their evildoings brought trouble to everyone in our city!” Someone beside them fumed.
The people around him began to talk and chatter in low voices. Song Ci did not understand what they were saying, but one thing was clear.
They all knew Sun Yunniang.
Song Ci grabbed the old man and said, “Please tell me exactly who Sun Yunniang is.”
“Daozhang, please follow me. It’s a long story.” The old man replied.
Song Ci followed the old man home. The old man happened to be having his meal, and Song Ci felt rather abashed to receive a bowl of noodles from him. He listened to the old man’s narration as they ate.
The city of Le Yu had always been a small town, located in a remote area, where few outsiders came.
Thus, every news, no matter how small, would spread like wildfire throughout the entire city.
That day, the Sun household gave birth to their third girl. When she was born, half of her face looked as if ink had been spilled on it; it was frightful. In less than half a day, the entire city knew that Third Missy Sun was an ugly freak.
Over the next ten years, as Third Missy Sun grew older, the neighbors all privately referred to her as’ ugly girl’ because of her flat nose, beady eyes and the large birthmark on her face. Youngsters of her age refused to play with her, saying they were afraid that the birthmark on her face would be contagious.
Even the Sun household’s First Missy Sun and Second Missy Sun did not like this ugly sister of theirs and treated her harshly.
She was Sun Yunniang.
Sun Yunniang knew that she was inferior in appearance and rarely took the initiative to interact with others. Whenever she saw someone, she would avoid them if she could. After she had grown up, she would no longer hide to cry because of the cruel words of others. She always spoke in a soft voice, and she had never clashed with anyone.
She never dared to ask for the rouge and jade hairpins3 that were common among ladies; they would gossip about her if she took even a second glance at those items on the streets.
Sun Yunniang would always walk at a fast pace when she was out on the streets. Only when someone called out to her would she stop and respond in a gentle manner.
Later on, people would say that although Third Missy Sun was ugly, she had a kind heart. Some kind-hearted people attempted to play matchmaker for her. But when the other party saw her, they all immediately rejected the match.
When Sun Yunniang was nineteen of age, her sisters were already mothers, and yet, she was still not engaged.
Aware that no one would marry her, Sun Yunniang declined the kindness of others and made up her mind to take care of her parents all her life; she would no longer to think about marriage.
However, what fate had in mind for her was far from the smooth-sailing one she wished for. Sun Yunniang saved Old Madam Hu after her carriage overturned at the sides of the paddy fields. To repay her kindness, Old Madam Hu ordered her son to ask for her hand.
The only son of the Hu clan, Hu Qi, passed the imperial examination at the county level after ten years of study. He later failed the imperial examination at the provincial level and followed in Old Madam Hu’s footsteps to become a merchant. He was also well-known as a womanizer in the city of Le Yu.
Although Hu Qi had a lot of maidservants who were there to satisfy his sexual urges4, he had yet to marry a wife. When he heard that his mother wanted him to marry that ugly Sun Yunniang, he immediately kicked up a ruckus at home. Old Madam Hu used her own death to threaten him and went on a hunger strike. She had almost bitten the dust before Hu Qi threw in the towel and agreed to compromise.
However, no one in the city was optimistic about this marriage. Even those who used to say Sun Yunniang was a good person changed their tunes and said that she was a scheming sparrow who wanted to fly to the top of the branch.5
On the day of the wedding, Sun Yunniang stood in the empty hall without a groom and became the joke of the day. What’s more, they even said that she was aiming too high for the stars and would not come to the good end.
Afterward, the days went by without a hitch. Everyone stared and craned their necks hoping to see trouble stirred up in the Hu Clan. But Sun Yunniang was gentle, and she repeatedly put up with the bullying of Hu Qi’s ‘bedroom’ maidservants. Hu Qi himself rarely returned home.
Once the doors of the Hu Clan were closed, all those minor and petty incidents would remain tightly contained inside. As such, the situation seemed to be calm on the surface.
After Hu Qi got married, he took concubines one after the other. It was heard that Old Madam Hu was so furious with Hu Qi that she kicked the bucket. Sun Yunniang cried until she near about fainted. She insisted on keeping night vigil for the old madam to mourn for her.
Later, there was information from the Hu clan that the old madam was poisoned by Sun Yunniang. Hu Qi lost his father when he was young and was single-handedly brought up by the old madam, thus he had deep affections for his mother. When he heard that Sun Yunniang was the one who harmed the old madam, he was so outraged that he sent someone to skin her face. He even said, “Hideous in looks and wicked in heart, Sun Yunniang does not deserve to be a human being.”
Sun Yunniang was already a corpse when she was carried out of the Hu clan.
She was dumped among the wild grasses growing outside the city. Her whole face was a bloody mess. The people from the city only dared to stand at a distance and point fingers at her. No one collected her body. Until at last, an anonymous person hastily buried her remains under the cover of the night.
“On the very night when Sun Yunniang’s body disappeared, a strange fire broke out in the Hu’s mansion. Everything was burned to cinders. Only Hu Qi, who did not return home that night, escaped with his life intact. What was even more terrifying was that everyone in the city had the same dream that night. In the dream, a bloody Sun Yunniang was dripping flesh and blood.”
When the old man mentioned this, his body trembled slightly and his cloudy eyes looked at Song Ci. “She said that this was not the end. She would return.”
At the same time the old man finished his story, Song Ci sucked the last strand of noodle into his mouth. He took a sip of the broth and asked, “How long has Sun Yunniang been dead?”
“It has been twenty years.” The old man replied.
“I’m afraid she wants all of you dead when she returns.” Song Ci slowly put down his chopsticks and wiped the broth from the corner of his mouth, “She doesn’t just hate the Hu clan, but also everyone who stood by and did nothing.”
“But at that time, the Hu clan was a prominent clan in Le Yu. We were unable to intervene even if we wanted to.” The old man said, “Even when we wanted to bury her, we could only sneak out at night.”
“Forget it.” The old man sighed, “We owe Sun Yunniang this much.”
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But indiscriminately hurting innocent people is the work of an evil spirit, I’ll not simply sit and watch.” Song Ci said in all seriousness.
His eyebrows and eyes looked as if they were delicately painted. When he wore a neutral expression, there would be an amiable and easygoing air about him which made him looked like a scholar from an affluent family. But once he put on a serious look, it would somehow inexplicably set one’s mind at rest.
“Daozhang, are you married?” The old man looked at him and inadvertently asked the question in his mind.
“Huh?” Song Ci was fascinated by the question, “Why did you ask this out of the blue?”
The old man realized his gaffe and hurriedly tried to made amends. “I’m old and muddled, please do not take offense.”
“It’s fine.” Song Ci stood up, looked up at the sky, then said to the old man, “Convey my message to the people in the city. If they want to survive this, leave the city before it gets dark and find a place to hide. You must leave the Hu clan in the city. If you don’t do as I say, then whether you live or die, my hands are tied.”
The old man looked stunned. He had yet to respond when Song Ci said, “Thank you for your hospitality. I’ll take my leave.”
He left right after.
After leaving the old man’s house, Song Ci was initially thinking of making a trip to the Hu Clan, but then he did not think it to be necessary and so he returned to the inn. After searching all over and around the inn, he found a deserted grave in the corner of the Northern Courtyard.
There was a stone tablet in front of the grave. It was overrun with vegetation and looked derelict.
Song Ci approached it and pull the wild grasses apart. A line of weathered writings emerged, “Hideous in looks and wicked in heart, Sun Yunniang does not deserve to be a human being.”
He had some misgivings. Was this Sun Yunniang’s grave?
Did the person who buried Sun Yunniang do so out of kindness? Why did they have to engrave such a line on the tombstone?
Twenty years had passed since the incident. It would be impossible to find out the real story just from the words of bystanders alone. The only ones who knew the truth were Sun Yunniang and Hu Qi.
It seemed like he still had to wait for night to fall.
Song Ci had only eaten a bowl of noodles for the day. An afternoon passed as he sat in the inn and read the book he always carried with him. At last, he could not bear the hunger and decided to sleep.
Because of that nightmare earlier, he did not have a good rest. Thus, he fell asleep as soon as he laid down on the bed.
The hours passed quickly as he slept, and it was dusk before he knew it. The voices of people talking awakened him.
“Is it appropriate to put this here?”
“What are we to do if it isn’t? You want to carry it away?”
“Forget it, I don’t want to touch that!”
“Let’s just leave it alone.”
Song Ci’s consciousness gradually returned. In his daze, he suddenly recognized the voices as the three fellows who had attended to him yesterday. He was wide awake in an instant. He sat up on the bed and hurriedly put on his boots.
He rushed out of the door and as expected, saw the three fellows standing at the entrance of the Southern Courtyard. They looked his way in surprise when they heard a movement.
And saw Song Ci sprinting towards them with his hands outstretched. Before the three of them could react, Song Ci had already reached them and grabbed two of them by the neck in each hand. “Swindlers! Return me my silver!”
The remaining fellow who was not grabbed took two steps back in panic, although he did not dare to run. He could only say, “Great Immortal, please spare us!”
Song Ci scoffed, “If you want me to spare your lives, hand my money over first.”
He thought, you guys finally appeared.
The old man was choked so hard that he could scarcely breathe. After two loud cries, he frantically signaled to the remaining fellow, “What are you looking at?! Hurry and bring this Master’s silver here!”
The man dashed off at once and shortly returned with the silver tael in his hand. “Great Immortal, here’s the total of one tael and sixty coins. Please check!”
“Nonsense! I clearly gave you five taels of silver, are you trying to fool me with one tael?!” Song Ci mercilessly said.
“Ah!” The young fellow was shocked, “I’m sure I collected one tael and sixty coins from you……”
“It’s five taels if I said it’s five!” As he spoke, he put on a fierce expression and squeezed even harder.
The old man gestured wildly again, give it to him! Can’t you see my neck is in his hand?!
The young waiter scrambled to get the five taels of silver. “Please accept it, Great Immortal.”
When Song Ci saw that the three men were sincere in their apologies, he loosened his grip on their necks and took the five taels of silver. “Don’t do it again. Now scram!”
The three of them repeatedly bowed to Song Ci and bolted.
Looking at their retreating backs, he could not help but scoff, “They are even more timid than rabbits.”
As he said this, he kept the silver in his bosom under his clothes and patted his chest with satisfaction. Before he could dance with joy, a hoarse voice suddenly rang out from behind him.
“You still dare to remain here.”
The smile on Song Ci’s face disappeared in an instant. He moved his finger, and his scimitar appeared in his palm. He turned around with his entire body on full alert.
There was a black wooden coffin in the courtyard. Earlier on, Song Ci was so focused on getting back his money he did not notice the coffin. Now, there was a scholar in white standing beside the coffin.
The scholar’s face was ghastly pale, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He turned his eyes to look at Song Ci and said in an unpleasant voice, “Stinky Daoist priest. I think you’re simply tired of living.”
“Heh.” Song Ci laughed coldly. “Sun Yunniang, don’t bother to scare me. Did you think I’d be afraid? If you could kill me, you would have already done so. Why would you need to warn me?”
In all likelihood, the previous three Daoist priests had died at Sun Yunniang’s hands. Song Ci naturally would not be an exception, unless she was unable to lay hands on him.
“I can’t touch you, but someone can. If you really meddle in the affairs of those two gentlemen, you would still be dead even if I don’t raise a finger!” The scholar said severely. “Just you watch!”
It was as if the bones were extracted from the scholar’s body; his body rapidly softened until it eventually turned into a layer of wrinkled skin on the ground.
Song Ci looked at the layer of skin and swallowed his saliva. He thought, I will not be frightened by this.
After a few words of self-encouragement, he approached the black wooden coffin and thrust his blade under the coffin lid. He lifted it with force and sent the lid flying.
The thick air of evil assaulted his face. Song Ci raised his hand and waved twice. Under the moonlight, he saw a lifelike old woman lying in the coffin.
Song Ci knew who she was the moment he saw her face — Old Madam Hu.
Old Madam Hu had been dead for twenty years, yet she was now lying in the coffin as if she were asleep. Her serene face seemed at peace, but in fact, it was bizarre and eerie.
Song Ci frowned and turned his head towards Le Yu.
“Looks like she really went there.”
- 女人的脸(…)说变就变, not just referring to a woman’s looks but also their attitudes. Basically, it meant that women are really capricious, their expressions and attitudes changes like the weather.
- 空有一副绣花皮囊 basically, someone who is all show and no substance, aka. a flower vase. Here, they are saying that Song Ci is a true Daoist priest with real skills.
- 胭脂玉钗 basically, makeup and fashion/hair accessories.
- 通房 (pinyin: tōng fáng), maid in name, concubine in reality; basically a maid whose job includes ‘pleasuring’ the master. But although they perform the functions of a concubine, they remained maidservants in name.
- The full idiom is 麻雀飞上枝头变凤凰 which is literally translated as a sparrow that flew to the top of a branch and transformed into a phoenix. Basically refers to an ordinary woman who marries into money and fame.