Jing Lin did not get better.
He was imprisoned in a narrow stone chamber. Li Rong could no longer visit him at will. Lord Jiutian separated him from the sea of people and concealed him in the darkness, as if he wanted to shelf Yan Quan Sword aside and forget all about it. Four or five more chains had been added, and the stone walls were fortified with layers upon layers of talisman spells and spiritual patterns. The cumulation of barriers completely cut off all sound from the outside world.
Jing Lin could no longer tell the difference between day and night. He was buried deep in the darkness. There were no doors and windows on all sides of the stone chamber, and only the stone slab above could be slid open and closed. Calling it a “stone chamber” was actually not appropriate, because it should be called a sarcophagus instead. Jing Lin could not get up nor get down to the ground. The width and breadth of the stone bed was all the free space he had now. He would even hit the wall when he straightened his back.
No one cared to ask after him; the dead silence stretched on infinitely.
The gleam of the reverse scale was Jing Lin’s only light. He could still smell Cang Ji’s scent on the prayer bead, even if it was only the scent of his blood.
Jing Lin must not think of Cang Ji. For each time he walked down memory lane, the curse would act up one time. When it did so, the patterns would strangle him until it made him dizzy. The remnants of the evil spirits would also seize the opportunity to gnaw and bite his limbs and bones. Jing Lin kept banging his head into the wall, struggling on at death’s door amidst this never-ending pain. He dug his fingers into the cracks in the wall, sometimes counting the scars on his body with calm and composure, sometimes clawing at the stone wall in a frantic frenzy.
He thought he was going mad.
There was only the sound of chains when he woke up—the sound of chains replaying over and over in a loop.
Jing Lin’s hair seemed to have grown longer. He measured it with his fingers, again and again, and counted it repeatedly in a whisper. But it was no good. He gradually sensed that many matters in the past had begun to cloud over.
“I’m Jing Lin.”
Jing Lin said in a hoarse voice.
“I’m Jing Lin.”
He struggled against the chains, murmuring repeatedly and ceaselessly into the empty darkness.
Who is he?
Jing Lin irritably grabbed his hair with his forehead pressing against the wall. “I want to form a marriage alliance3 with him… In Qixing Town… Ming Jin Stage… Come for me, for me…”
The pattern of the curse instantly materialized on his cheeks, and the motif of thistles and thorns wound around his neck and tightened its grip around it. Jing Lin slammed his head hard repeatedly like a trapped beast. Blood trickled over his eyes, wetting them. He shouted in a hoarse voice, “At Ming Jin Stage! I’ll wait for you at Ming Jin Stage! Wait for you… to take me home… Who, who? I have a beloved, over the mountains and across the seas… I have…”
Jing Lin’s throat tightened even more until it was even hard for him to gasp for breath. He clawed at his throat, and the chain swayed along with his gasps. Jing Lin’s eyes widened in despair as if he was watching a heavy fog pervade the air before him to separate him from that man. He sobbed in a hoarse voice. All of a sudden, he turned over and crawled by sheer force to scratch hastily on the wall with his fingernail. His fingernail broke. Leaving a long, long trail of blood on the wall as he dug and dragged his finger across.
Jing Lin placed his palm and cheek on the blood trail. Amidst the stabbing, penetrating pain, he suddenly laughed out loud. His cheeks were already drenched in tears. He clung close to this trail of blood, as if he was clinging close to a dragon.
Jing Lin cried out in grief and aggrievement.
“Take me home.”
◈ ◈ ◈
For an unspecified period afterwards, Jing Lin would etch a mark each time the curse acted up. He could not see clearly, so he did not know that the surface of this wall was already covered in intersecting trails of blood from his scratches. The times he was actually sober gradually lessened.
Jing Lin curled up against the wall, grasping the prayer bead and reverse scale. With his head slightly tilted, he silently mouthed words that even he himself could not understand.
A smash suddenly rang out from above.
Jing Lin gripped the prayer bead and reverse scale, and turned only his eyes for a look.
The stone slab moved heavily as someone pushed it open a crack. The person who came was not Li Rong or anyone Jing Lin was familiar with, but a snow incarnate.4
Xue Mei slid in, holding a bowl of water. He was as light as the wind, with a chill trailing in his wake. A bell tinkled as he floated and drifted. He did not pass the water to Jing Lin. Instead, he slowly leaned over the edge of the stone bed and peered somberly at Jing Lin’s face.
“My Lord.” Xue Mei said faintly, “Have you gone mad?”
Jing Lin was unable to react for quite a while even after hearing voices again. He frowned and sluggishly turned his head in the direction of Xue Mei’s voice.
“Mad.” Jing Lin’s voice was languid and hoarse. He pushed aside the chains and bent over from the stone bed. “I’ve gone mad.”
“How admirable.” Xue Mei squeezed out a laugh. “Lord Linsong… You are truly worthy of the title Lord Linsong!” He abruptly curbed his smile and said in a frosty voice, “Why don’t you go die?”
Water suddenly splashed onto Jing Lin’s face. With a lightning move of his hand, Xue Mei flung the bowl down, shattering it. Like a wandering ghost, he pressed in towards Jing Lin.
“I chased after you for dozens of li.5 As long as you were willing to turn your head back, you would have seen the raging fire. Qing Yao clung to the door frame. She cried out for you in the fire.” Xue Mei’s voice was feminine. “Jiu-ge… Jiu-ge… She truly thought you would turn around! But you ran in such a hurry. You even paid no heed to her unusual condition the day before. How are you even worthy to be her elder brother? You hard-hearted man!”
Water droplets dripped off the tips of Jing Lin’s hair. He gazed expressionlessly at Xue Mei and said coldly, “Lies.”
Xue Mei could not help but ridicule him. “Lies? I asked someone to send you a message the night before the incident. But what did you do? You didn’t care about her at all! You are selfish and self-centered! Even now, you still want to escape from reality.”
Jing Lin did not answer. He could not remember if anyone had passed him a message.
Xue Mei flashed over to Jing Lin’s side and said, “You are birds of a feather to restrain her in the sect. Vile, sanctimonious beasts who act in the names of her elder brothers…” He hissed and laughed,” You joined forces with Cangdi to kill her. You are her executioner! Jing Lin, hurry up and go mad… Hurry up and die… You are finished!”
Jing Lin was stung by his words. He buried his head in his arms and pulled at his hair haphazardly.
“You killed her. Damn you, you killed her! She was already ill to that extent. She was just a little girl! But you had to use her to make a name for yourself…” He gritted his teeth and said, “How ruthless of you. You are born deficient—without a heart!”
Jing Lin’s back was bony, and his fingers were trembling. Evil spirits emerged again to create havoc in Jing Lin’s body, They corroded Jing Lin’s internal organs and stirred up his spiritual sea, causing it to churn all at once. Pain wandered erratically along his back. Jing Lin refused to answer. The pain tormented him and dazed him so much that he even had to rely on the impact of physical force to alleviate and stabilize his pain.
He did not manage to save the dragon, nor had he managed to save Qing Yao. He was already in a precarious situation, as if he were walking on a tightrope. What was he now that the moral and righteous principles he had once been so sure of had all collapsed and disintegrated into nothingness? He was an accomplice sword who helped the villain commit evil. He was also a wicked man full of lies!
He was in a muddle. He was no longer recognizable as the man he once was.
Xue Mei whispered, “This is just great. You can waste away here for your whole life. Stay in this sewer to repent. You’ve let Qing Yao down, and failed to live up to your name. You are a son of a bitch who deceived the public to win credit for yourself. You lied to everyone in the world. You aren’t an upholder of justice and righteousness at all.”
“You drag out an ignoble existence in this world, but Qing Yao died in the Fire of Heaven.6 You should get a taste of being set ablaze in a raging inferno. Will you feel pain? Lord Linsong! Will you?”
“You and the Supreme Father are two of a kind. He already dared to call himself the Father of all under the Heavens! You have made great contributions, so you ought to kneel in the lead! What is Qing Yao? You all raised and groomed the Blood Sea into the greatest calamity in the world, and you pushed all the blame to her alone! She was just a little child!”
“I’m waiting for you to be completely obliterated too. Lord Linsong, Lord Linsong!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin could not differentiate between the voices. By the time he was dragged up, it was already hard for him to distinguish between people. Sometimes, the one before him was Xue Mei going hysterical, sometimes it was Li Rong calling out to him in a stern voice. Jing Lin’s ears buzzed as he struggled with his body in an attempt to escape out of this place. But the chain hauled him back several times. More and more people came. A drink suddenly cleared up his mind.
Lord Jiutian looked down at him from above and asked, “Has my son recovered yet?”
Jing Li’s vision was blurred. He jerked the chains. His neck was strangled to the point he could not answer. He stared at Lord Jiutian and gasped for breath heavily.
Lord Jiutian sighed heavily. “Still unrepentant as ever. It truly pains my heart. ”
Once again, Jing Lin sank into the darkness.
He became extremely irritable. He braced himself against the wall as the binding of the curse made his life worse than death. He thought he was no longer a man; he was losing everything he had. When he pressed against the wall, he could not even remember who he was longing for. He pounded on the wall with his fists in a rage and burst out howling in this narrow, cramped sarcophagus.
He wanted to go out.
He wanted to go and find a dragon.
But in those occasional moments when Jing Lin was calm, the reverse scale would be pressing painfully into his palm, making clear to him the pain of being sliced out of one’s scales. As he trembled and touched his own chest, he would suddenly go blank and thought that he was already dead.
Lord Jiutian became harder to deal with. He changed his former attitude and developed an obsession with visiting Jing Lin. He would stand above him and ask Jing Lin with a benevolent and kind countenance.
“Has my son recovered today?”
Jing Lin would not answer.
Once again, Lord Jiutian would sigh, and Jing Lin would return to the darkness.
Every single moment, Jing Lin had to draw lines in places his hands could reach, as if doing so could stop his pain. When no one came, he would cling to the wall and use his fingernail to engrave marks on it. These densely packed lines with differing depths were his “dragon”.
◈ ◈ ◈
There’s a man I love.
Jing Lin strained to say to himself.
In the clouds. In the sea. In my heart.7
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin’s hair could already trail down below the bed. Disheveled and unkempt, he had already drawn on the wall until there was no space left on it. The curse no longer faded away; it now formed a ring around Jing Lin’s neck. Jing Lin’s spiritual sea was still abundant. Even though the evil spirits and the curse tore at him and assaulted him in a pincer attack, that dragon aura protected the roots of his foundation from start to end without retreating even a single step.
The slashed lotus motif on Jing Lin’s palm would gradually begin to heal until it reverted to the way it once was. He would not die. Even if he was already scarred all over, even if he was on the verge of insanity, he would not die.
Because the dragon aura was in his body, defending it.
He belonged to a dragon. And a dragon also belonged to him.
During the times Jing Lin found it unbearable, he would mutter to himself and read out the names of places, from Ninth Heaven Sect to Qixing town, then from Qixing town to the high walls in the north. He kept it constantly on his mind, never once loosening his grip on the reverse scale and prayer bead.
But, one day, or perhaps it was one night, Jing Lin woke up and sank into a long, long silence. It took him an even longer time to recollect before he finally remembered a dragon amidst his bewilderment.
Jing Lin leaned back and looked up for a very long time. He had even forgotten to sob.
◈ ◈ ◈
“Jing Lin.” Li Rong moved close to the gap. “… Shixiong has brought you some pastries.”
He placed the still warm oil paper before Jing Lin and peeled it open with his fingers to reveal the pastries inside. His sleeves were no longer white, but black. All traces of Ninth Heaven Sect were diminishing as the sect turned into a different one of grandeur beyond anyone’s reach.
“… Let me tell you a little about what’s happening outside.” Li Rong leaned over. “Zhongdu is now stabilized. Father has demarcated a boundary for an upper realm to emulate a Zhongdu in Heaven and named it Ninth Heaven Realm. We established a Demarcation Division to govern the Three Realms… The high walls in the north have become a mountain range.” He paused, then continued, “Father left you a position. No one can take away your title of Lord Linsong. Everyone thinks that you have been in seclusion for years.”
He chattered on and on in a hushed tone. At first, he thought that he would return without accomplishing anything this time too. He did not expect Jing Lin to reach his fingers out to pick up a pastry and put it into his mouth.
The saccharine sweetness melted in his mouth. Jing Lin’s stomach churned. Yet, he suddenly stuffed all the pastries into his mouth and wolfed them down.
Li Rong was surprised and delighted at the same time. Jing Lin stuffed his mouth so full that he choked and bowed over to cough. Li Rong thus climbed up to go and get some water. During this interval, Jing Lin wiped his lips. A little stone dug its way out under his tattered old robe. Jing Lin gulped down the pastries and patted the stone on its head.
The stone exchanged glances with Jing Lin for a moment, then turned around and stepped on Jing Lin’s hands and feet to crawl towards the gap. It spared no efforts to make its way to the edge where it clumsily hung its legs up and climbed out.
When Li Rong returned, Jing Lin had already finished eating the pastries. He drank up the water too, then crawled his way beneath the gap and pressed his eyes against the opening.
“Go tell Father.” Jing Lin said, “I want to go into seclusion.”
“You are in seclusion at present.”
“I want to slay devils.” Jing Lin pointed his finger at his chest and said coldly, “Sever all feelings and desires—I want to go out already.”
Li Rong stared at him for a long while, then said, “Alright.”
- (我有)所爱隔山海 from a line in a poem by Littlesen 《山木诗词全集》
Roughly translated as:
The mountains and the seas lie between me and my beloved,
But alas, the mountains and the seas cannot be leveled.
- 逆鳞 reverse scale; a piece of scale that is reversed on a dragon’s throat or neck that’s considered to be precious and important to them. It’s said that the dragon will kill anyone in fury if they touch that scale. It is now used to refer to someone’s weakness, sore spot, or most cherished and important thing. For example, touching one’s reverse scale is an idiom that could be said to be touching someone’s sore spot, attacking their weakness, or rubbing someone the wrong way, etc.
- 秦晋之好 During the Spring and Autumn Period, more than one generation between the States of Qin and Jin married each other. It thus came to refer to an alliance formed between the two families by marriage. Here, it hints at Jing Lin’s wish to clear the animosity between his father and brothers in Ninth Heaven Sect and Cangdi through marriage.
- 雪魅 xue mei, a snow incarnate or a snow demon. I’ll use “snow incarnate” if referring to snow demons in general, while “Xue Mei” will be used to refer to this particular snow incarnate.
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, 1 li= approx. 500m
- 天火 literally Heaven Fire; a fire caused by natural phenomena, e.g. by lightning, or a fire whose cause can not be ascertained.
- More specifically, (high) in the clouds, in the (northern*) sea, in my heart. I shortened it to fit into the same number of words as the original to keep the rhythm (or whatever you called it).
There’s a man I love. (5)
In the clouds. In the sea. In my heart. (3,3,3)
*瀚+海 can be read as the vast, boundless sea. But “瀚海” as a word in itself originally refers to one of the four seas in China’s history, aka the “northern sea” (北海), aka Lake Baikal (this lake was known as 瀚海 and 北海 during ancient times). Or you can interpret it as the “vast, northern sea”.