His white sleeves fluttered like the wings of birds as he descended, and his facial features were obscured with the ribbon masking his eyes. With his hands on his back, Hui’an rebuked him, “He has not even run yet and you are already in such a hurry to strike. Let me question him and clear things up before you make a move.”
“Question my ass!” Zui Shan Seng stomped his feet. “Demons are cunning. They will make a mockery out of your benevolence. Just throw him right into Zhui Hun Prison. He won’t be able to hide his schemes!”
“Indiscriminately imprisoning others without distinguishing between right and wrong.” Cang Ji said, “Zhui Hun Prison must have plenty of wronged souls.”
“Ever since its independence, Zhui Hun Prison has been taking its investigations seriously. There has never been a miscarriage of justice!” Zui Shan Seng stood as he shook his staff. “Your original form was a fish, but you have an insatiable greed for human souls. It’s not an injustice to capture you! Do you know that ever since the Supreme Father separated the Ninth Heaven Realm as an individual entity, there have been no dragon and phoenix in Heaven or on Earth? Creatures that consume souls breeds evil spirits. Not only do you consume spirits, you have a wild and evil disposition. How can we not be on guard against you?!”
“Such is my talent.” Cang Ji lazily pulled back. “Are you jealous?”
“I’m afraid not.” Hui’an faced Cang Ji as the ribbon slipped off. His gaze was penetrating. It was as if he could see through Cang Ji. He said, “I notice that your spiritual sea is newly formed. My guess is that it has not been long since you evolved. As they said, you cannot be faulted for being ignorant. This man is called Zui Shan Seng. Although he looks fierce and burly, he is a well-reputed heavyweight in the Ninth Heaven Realms. The time he used to complete his tribulation and ascend to the realm was even shorter than Lord Linsong. In terms of talents, none of the deities today are probably his equal. It’s a pity he is now old and ugly, and puts all his mind to catching demons. Little friend, stop messing around with us and go with him. If he has wronged you, we will release you.”
“I want to go too. But unfortunately, someone doesn’t agree. Jing…” Cang Ji mischievously corrected himself. “Jing gege, someone is kidnapping me.”
Jing Lin said, “One moment it’s father, the next moment it’s brother. Exactly who am I to you?”
Cang Ji dodged and brushed past Xiang Mo staff. He replied, “Family!”
Hui’an flew over. Just as Cang Ji was right before him, a fan blocked his path and cut off his view. Jing Lin snapped his fan shut and swept it around his fingers. Feeling a chill around his neck, Hui’an decisively leaned back. The wind from the fan sliced off his sideburns.
With a frown, Hui’an caught his hair and asked in a deep voice, “Manipulating and using the wind as a blade. Who are you?”
Jing Lin tapped the fan on his lips and replied with a distant expression and a light tone. “This fat fish’s family.”
Hui’an used his sight on Jing Lin but saw nothing. It was empty underneath that skin. Even Jing Lin’s spiritual energy was so obscure and isolated that he could not see or distinguish it clearly. How strange! Could there really be such a non-human, non-demon, and non-deity existence in this world?!
“There’s something strange about these two!” Zui Shan Seng treaded on air and threw a blow at Cang Ji with his staff. “I fear they are not to be taken lightly!”
“I could still spare you earlier.” Hui-an followed up with a strike. “But now, you’ve caught my interest!”
The city below was greeted with a clamor. The sky was obviously clear for miles around, but for some reason, there was a sudden gale so violent that it sent the crowd staggering. Unstable on their feet, the commoners used their sleeve to cover their faces and stooped over as they searched for shelter. The demons were keenly aware of the powers above them, so they all dove into crevices to hide, not even daring to watch. The Ghost Guards dragged Dong Lin’s soul, staggering as they attempted to leave.
Jing Lin covered his mouth to cough several times. Hui’an noticed that Jing Lin was lacking in attack power, but he was skilled in dodging. That was how he knew that Jing Lin’s internal spiritual sea had dried up and his spiritual energy was inadequate. Hui’an made a sudden move to seize him with his white sleeves swishing. Jing Lin avoided him and teetered a few steps.
On seeing that the Ghost Guards were about to leave, Jing Lin drew a talisman in the air with his fan. The green light surged and the land under their feet sank. Caught unaware, the Ghost Guards stumbled. The light was so glaring that Hui’an had to cover his face with his sleeves. Cang Ji felt a tightening on his waist as Jing Lin hauled him back by his sash. Zui Shan Seng’s staff struck the empty air. He turned his head, only to see the green light hitting him right in the face. Unable to take a clear look around him, he hissed and retreated.
When he raised his head again, the two figures had disappeared.
Instead of flying into a rage, Zui Shan Seng changed his bearing, folded his arms, and asked, “What do you make of them?”
Hui’an covered his eyes and said, “I can’t see the spiritual sea of the one with a void beneath his skin. Most likely, he is severely injured and has yet to make a full recovery, so he is unable to gather spiritual energy by normal means. This kind of injury is not something an ordinary person can inflict. He must have received a critical blow to destroy his soul and almost died from it.” Hui’an revealed his eyes. Unlike his earlier zeal, he was methodical as he continued, “He received a hit from your staff that night. So he should be aware of your prowess. Yet when he heard your name again today, there was no sign of panic on his face. He’s either too shrewd or truly not afraid. The amount of demons in Zhongdu who are not afraid of you are few and far in between, but there are plenty in the Ninth Heaven Realm who doesn’t fear you. It’s hard to tell with that fish, but it’s probable that this man came from the Ninth Heaven Realm.”
“He has great skills. There’s another thing fishy.” Zui Shan Seng stroked his chin. “I always find this person familiar.”
“In the past hundred years, none of the deities has been banished to the mortal realm, nor has any demons escaped from Zhui Hun prison. As for who can give you a sense of familiarity.” Hui’an turned his head. “You should have a guess.”
“You’re right. I have someone in mind.” Zui Shan Seng said, “Five hundred years ago, Lord Linsong was eliminated before Buddha. The Four Lords of Ninth Heaven were all watching. Even if he didn’t die, he wouldn’t have escaped the eyes of the various Lords. If it’s not him, then there’s only one left. That is…”
“My Lord.”1 Hui’an picked up on it and shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it. You know the temperament of that lord of mine. Even if he forgot the past and descended to the mortal world to undergo trials and tribulations, his personality shouldn’t be like this.”
“Since he has forgotten the past, it is not impossible for him to somehow model himself on what’s on his mind.” Zui Shan Seng said, “Lord Shage has been asleep for a hundred years. I know he can’t get over Lord Linsong’s death tribulation. I just hope it’s not him this time.”
Hui’an fell silent, then said, “They were as close as brothers. Lord Linsong has committed such a sin, how can my Lord not feel grieved by it? Back then, the Supreme Father took in a few children, but now the situation has deteriorated to the point where only Lord Chengtian is the only one left unscathed. It’s still not known if my Lord will ever wake up from his sleep.”
“No matter what, I must get to the bottom of this.” Zui Shan Seng kicked his staff and hoisted it over his shoulders. “Precisely who that person under that skin is.”
Jing Lin was so tired that he sprawled over Cang Ji’s back and started to doze off. Cang Ji jolted him and said, “The soul is still here. After you are done questioning him, send him off to be reincarnated.”
Supporting his forehead and neck, Jing Lin rested on the back on Cang Ji’s shoulder and asked, “Dong Lin?”
There was no answer from the sleeve; Only the little stone figure poked its head out.
After walking for a while but hearing nothing else, Cang Ji jolted Jing Lin again. He asked, “You’re done asking?”
In a daze, Jing Lin embraced Cang Ji’s neck, propped his head against his back, and uttered an “uh-huh. Feeling something wrong, Cang Ji felt his way along Jing Lin’s wrist into his sleeve. But there was only the small stone figure.
“We lost him?”
“Most likely, he left.” Jing Lin closed his eyes and said.
“He is now a wandering ghost. Where can he go?”
“I don’t know.” Jing Lin replied. “Maybe he went home.”
Cang Ji stopped in his tracks and said, “Humans and ghosts have different paths. Even Huadi can’t see him, let alone that little girl. He was determined to die, and he wanted to be set free. He should cross into the Underworld and drink from Meng Po.2 Thereupon he would forget all these mortal affairs and seek a new life. If he runs away like this, he will be alone forever.”
“He will go if he wants to.” Jing Lin’s voice grew heavier. “Now that he’s free…”
“Then what about your question?” Cang Ji looked back and saw Jing Lin asleep on his shoulder.
This time, Jing Lin slept for a long time, waking up only during early spring when there was still a chill in the air. He became so sluggish and easily tired that he would not sit if he could lie down. Cang Ji used the gold pearls to find a good place to stay; not only did it come with a veranda and a courtyard, but there were also people to wait on them.
Although Jing Lin had never mentioned it, Cang Ji felt that Dong Lin’s case had left a knot in Jing Lin’s heart. There seemed to be something different about him. In the past, he used to sit idly in the mountains all day long. But now, his expression was often wan and drowsy when he sat and listened to the rain.
“Where have you been?”
With a scroll in his hand, Jing Lin leaned on the veranda as he watched Cang Ji hold up the umbrella and change his shoes.
Cang Ji took his cloak off and raised his hand to dismiss the servants. He took Jing Lin’s warm tea and drank it to warm himself up, then sent someone to heat the wine and send it over.
“Money makes the mare go.” Cang Ji closed the lid. “Now that I have money, it’s natural for me to enjoy myself.”
“Tell me about it to relieve my boredom.” Jing Lin put the scroll aside and wrapped himself in the cloak. The fatigue on his face remained unchanged; he was about to snooze again.
The smooth and clean chin hidden in the fur, coupled with the smooth contours of his cheeks, made Jing Lin’s half-closed eyes even more captivating. Cang Ji squatted down and raised his hand to pinch Jing Lin’s chin.
“There is not the slightest trace of the copper bell. You should fatten yourself up. I’ll find a good day and gobble you down.”
“Then hurry up and do it.” Jing Lin yawned.
Cang Ji’s fingertips were still wet, so Jing Lin’s skin felt even smoother to the touch than usual. Cang Ji felt as if he had fallen into Jing Lin’s trap. There would be certain times Jing Lin would leave him at a loss. But Jing Lin always appeared normal, as if he had not done or thought about that before.
This man is even harder to deal with than anyone else.
Cang Ji opened his mouth. “There is plenty to eat and play outside. Isn’t there anything you like when you were a human?”
“No.” Jing Lin nudged Cang Ji’s fingers away with his folding fan.
“Indeed.” Jing Lin concurred. “That’s why I kept a fish.”
“I don’t even remember.” Cang Ji sat down beside Jing Lin, draped his hands over the railing, and watched the rain. “It seems like the first person I saw when I opened my eyes was you.”
“Time remains unchanged in the mountains.” Jing Lin propped his fan at his temples and racked his brain. “I can’t remember how long it has been either.”
Cang Ji poured wine for Jing Lin. Jing Lin scrutinized it for a moment, prompting Cang Ji to say, “Now that you’re old, you’ve even forgotten about wine?”
Jing Lin took the wine and said, “I often feel that the human world is lacking in one dish.”
Jing Lin sipped the wine and said slowly, “Steamed fish tongue.”
“There’s indeed no steamed fish tongue. But we can try human tongue.” Cang Ji looked at him. “Your tongue isn’t that likable either.”
“Remember to pluck it out when you eat me.” Jing Lin poured himself another cup.
“I’ll have to taste it first.” Cang Ji scrutinized Jing Lin and said, “Dong Lin has been reincarnated.”
Jing Lin’s expression remained unchanged.
Cang Ji continued, “I chased after his soul and saw him drifting around for a few days. After Huadi redeemed herself, he surrendered himself to the Ghost Guards. He wouldn’t answer my questions. The weird thing is that he did not even take a single look at Chen Caoyu.”
“Chen Caoyu has her biological father with her now. His destiny has come to an end, so he seeks ‘death’.” Jing Lin tilted his cup. Over the pitter-patter of the rain, he said as if in a trance, “Death is a kind of relief.”
“He’s gone.” Cang Ji asked, “What are you still feeling blue about?”
Jing Lin swallowed the wine. He was slow to respond. It was a while before he raised his head, still looking blankly at Cang Ji. Under his gaze, Cang Ji felt as if he was a prey caught under a cat’s paws. He watched as the corners of Jing Lin’s eyes reddened, his usual frosty face looking as if he wanted to cry.
“You don’t understand.” Jing Lin’s fingers glided across the wine cup and pushed it away as if in a fit of pique. He threw the folding fan at Cang Ji and murmured, “You don’t understand.”
Cang Ji’s heart stirred. He sat up straight and caught the folding fan. With gentleness, he hooked Jing Lin’s fingers into his own and drew closer. His provocative eyes smiled as he coaxed Jing Lin. “That’s right. I don’t understand. Why don’t you tell me? My good Jing Lin, tell me.”
Jing Lin let him hold his hand and drew him closer. Both of them sat face-to-face, within reach of each other. Beyond the veranda, the rain droplets were pelting the branches of the trees, but Jing Lin felt hot all over. His cheeks were flushed from the wine. He held back the hiccups and said, “… She’s about the same age as my little sister…”
“Your sister?” Cang Ji’s arm half-encircled Jing Lin’s lower back as he silently lured Jing Lin into an embrace. He was still speaking patiently and gently. “So Jing Lin has a sister, huh?”
“I have brothers too.” Jing Lin looked at him expectantly and pointed it out to him with his fingers. “Yun Sheng, Li Rong, Lan Hai…”
Cang Ji did not know any of them.
Jing Lin leaned in closer and looked right into Cang Ji’s eyes. His eyes were teary and misty at the moment. He did not look like Jing Lin at all. He said, “So many of them.”
“Are you on good terms with them?” Cang Ji whispered.
Jing Lin replied honestly, “Some, yes. Some, no.”
“Who are you on good terms with?” Cang Ji asked, “Li Rong?”
Jing Lin nodded. “Li Rong, yes.”
Cang Ji teased him. “Is Cang Ji good?”
Jing Lin hesitated for a moment, then shook his head hard. “He’s always biting me. No.”
Cang Ji laughed aloud and said, “Then what should we do? He will definitely bite you again in the future.”
“Then.” Jing Lin replied in all seriousness. “Bite me gently.”
Cang Ji held Jing Lin with the other hand and leaned back against the railing. He looked at Jing Lin and asked, “Don’t you want to kill or abandon him?”
Jing Lin shook his head. Cang Ji took his hand and pinched his cheek. His gaze was complicated, and his words, teasing.
“But the way you look makes my mouth water, how can you ask me to stop now?”
- 君上Junshang; a term a subject or official used to address his own master or lord. Said person has to hold the title of a Lord. E.g. Jing Lin, as Lord Linsong, would be addressed as “Junshang” by Fu Li. I’ll translate this term as “Supreme Lord” for the highest ruler of Ninth Heaven Realm (Jing Lin’s ‘father’), and “My Lord” when it’s used to address the other lords (e.g. Lord Linsong, Lord Shage, etc).
- 孟婆 Meng Po. Meng Po is a character in Chinese mythology. Her task in the Realm of the Dead is to erase the memories of souls who are about to be reincarnated, and she does this by serving a decoction (typically as a bowl of soup or tea) to induce amnesia so they can be reincarnated and start afresh.