The rain poured, and the metal chimes under the eaves swayed. Cang Ji watched as a dazed Jing Lin threw himself into his arms and hit his forehead on his chest. Then, without making a sound, he curled his body up and remained still. Cang Ji was still holding onto one of Jing Lin’s hands. He called out to him several times, but there was no response. Instead, it was the little stone figure who heard his calls. It pushed aside the layers of clothes sheltering it and dropped onto the ground. Dragging the corner of Cang Ji’s clothes, it picked up a branch that the wind had broken off.
“He’s as drunk as a skunk.” Cang Ji thought it wanted him to take it out to play, and so he said, “I’m not going out tonight.”
The little stone figure twirled the branch like a sword flower1 and took a stride forward to strike a martial art pose. But before it could turn back, it tripped over itself. Cang Ji burst out laughing. The stone sat on the ground rubbing its head, its black eyes looking angry and vexed.
“He’s drunk. Are you drunk too?” Cang Ji held Jing Lin in his arms and propped up his head. “What are you trying to show me?”
The stone picked itself up and picked up the branch. It righted its grass crown and made a show of bowing to Cang Ji to pay its obeisance. Cang Ji watched as it lifted the branch and started wielding it. As it drew an arch with the brittle branch, a cool breeze rose and swirled around it.
The sound of the rain faded as the sound of the wind beyond the veranda amplified.
The shadows of the stone figure overlapped as the withered branch gradually lost its sluggishness and took on the momentum of a swift, roaming dragon. Droplets of rain splashed and splattered. The stone’s pace was unhurried. A jab of the withered branch, and the raindrops wandered beside the small stone figure like pearls teasing a dragon. The withered branch manipulated the wind like a blade. Raindrops slid off when the stone figure turned and sprang into the air when the stone figure shook its wrist. With a gentle push of the wind, the raindrops flew straight towards Cang Ji. Cang Ji sat and leaned against the railings when the chilly wind brushed past his cheeks. Before he could raise his hand, the raindrops suddenly splashed to the ground. He lowered his eyes. The stone figure was already sprawled out on his knee snoring.
That indistinct whistling of the wind among the pines was still reverberating. Cang Ji almost believed himself to be drunk too. He carried Jing Lin in his arms and picked up the stone figure. On entering the inner chamber, Cang Ji threw the stone figure onto the cushion without a moment’s hesitation.
“So you taught it how to use a sword in secret. Just you watch. I’m going to throw it away.” Cang Ji put Jing Lin down, clamped the latter’s cheeks, and said bitterly, “I’ll make sure you can’t find anyone else. The only one you can teach will be me.”
Jing Lin gave a vague response and fell asleep with the cloak half-draped over him.
When Jing Lin woke up the next morning, the rain had stopped. He put on his clothes and faced the window. The soil outside was flat, and three or four green shoots had sprouted in the courtyard. Cang Ji passed by his side and brought Jing Lin a cup of hot tea on his way back after he had rinsed his mouth. With his head spinning, Jing Lin drank it.
Cang Ji leaned on the other side facing him. When Jing Lin had downed his remaining tea, Cang Ji asked in an unhurried tone. “Look at those black circles under your eyes. What did you dream of yesterday?”
Jing Lin pursed his lips and said nothing. He had just woken up with a hangover and was now feeling unwell all over.
“Haven’t you touched it before?” Cang Ji clasped the cup and stared at him, then said in a mysterious tone. “Wine is good stuff.”
Having caught a slight cold, Jing Lin held back a cough and said, “Spring is near. It is time for Dong Jun to descend to the mortal realm to rouse the spirits.”
“Who is Dong Jun?”
“The Deity of Spring.” Jing Lin said. “We can’t remain long in this place. He is not like Hui’an. I can’t hide from him.”
“So it’s an old acquaintance.” Cang Ji asked, “What do rousing spirits mean?”
“Zhongdu is vast, and there is a shortage of manpower in the Demarcation Division. Thus, Lord Chengtian designated various deities in charge to hold down the boundaries. Most of these minor deities are major demons who have never been to the Ninth Heaven Realm, even though they heed the orders of the Ninth Heaven Realm. There are many of them, so their habits vary. Every winter, there would be some who would return to their nests to hibernate. When spring approaches, Dong Jun has to pay them a visit and wake them up to ensure that they can return to their posts and continue their duties.”
“What an arduous and unrewarding task.” Cang Ji patted the wood of the window. “A pity this pleasant courtyard will go to someone else.”
“Even if Dong Jun doesn’t come, we should make a move.” Jing Lin conjured out his folding fan and swatted away the little stone figure climbing up Cang Ji’s sleeves. He said, “I know where the copper bell is.”
Cang Ji was in a good mood, so he did not curse the bell and simply said, “It followed Dong Lin and stirred up so much trouble. Where has it run to now?”
Jing Lin tapped on the window lattice and said in a heavy voice. “It went to look for Gu Shen.”
Gu Shen left town and headed north. He traveled light with a horse, braving the elements. He had returned the constable waist tablet2 to the yamen, although he kept his blade with him. Qian Weishi and Chen Caoyu sent him off. He felt complicated, but in the end, he just let out a sigh. Dong Lin’s death had become a knot in his heart. He decided that he had to find his home and see his parents again this lifetime.
Gu Shen came across an inn on his way and dismounted to take a rest. He took a few steps, but before he could lift the screen, he saw a rolled-out red woolen carpet beneath his feet. He strode in and was almost blinded by the display in the inn.
Jing Lin was wiping his hands as a line of servants waited quietly. The old table in the inn had been carried out, and a new one with all four corners in gold was set up. The tabletop was so polished it reflected light. All the cups, bowls, and chopsticks were thrown away and replaced with expensive porcelain and ivory. It was all fastidiously done, and every single item was valuable. The only thing left was to tag a word on his face.
It was precisely such an intolerably crass way of doing things that was in tune with Jing Lin’s current face. His peach blossom eyes sparkled, yet they were serious. The folding fan was placed beside his hand, and even his handkerchief had been folded neatly. It was all so meticulous that one could not help but laugh. He gave the impression that he was not only pampered but also effeminate.
Gu Shen recognized this face, but he did not expect Jing Lin to have a companion this time. An unruly young man in a brocade robe sat opposite Jing Lin. Although he did not get up, Gu Shen could already imagine his oppressive aura when he stood up.
Jing Lin looked askance at him and said, “What a coincidence, Your Honor Gu.”
Gu Shen noted that his tone seemed unenthusiastic. It did not seem to be a “coincidence”. Rather, it was more like he had been waiting for a long time. Gu Shen removed his blade and sat down, saying, “I didn’t expect to meet you here.”
“I never thought I would meet Your Honor here, too.” Jing Lin said, “Has that shocking case been solved yet? I’ve heard a lot along the way, but I can’t tell which is true or false.”
“And what I say is the absolute truth?” Gu Shen gave a self-mocking smile. “I’m no longer working in the yamen now. Young master may just call me Gu Shen.”
“I wouldn’t dare. Since Your Honor isn’t here for official duties, then why would you come to such a remote place?”
“I’ve come for a personal matter.” Gu Shen paused. “This place is indeed remote, and the journey here isn’t smooth. Young master is such a distinguished person. Why would you come here too?”
Jing Lin faltered and looked towards Cang Ji. He said, “My younger brother is still young, and has never traveled far from home. I’m here to show him around the famous spots.”
Cang Ji’s chopsticks jerked and the peanut tumbled off. The little stone figure sitting on his knee reached out to catch hold of it. Cang Ji cast Gu Shen a look, just in time to see Gu Shen watching him. Their eyes met for only a split second, but the seeds of doubt have been planted in their hearts.
Gu Shen was weary from his travel and hurried upstairs to rest after eating his meal. Cang Ji put aside his chopsticks and said, “When he looked at me just now, I actually felt as if he could see through me.”
“He has a pair of sharp eyes.” Jing Lin said, “Although this man is a mortal, we should not underestimate him.”
“If he knew that we are not human, why didn’t he flee?”
“What does he have to fear?” Jing Lin drank his tea. “He has been alone since he was a child. Having roamed all over the country for so many years, what he has heard and seen would surpass those of the average person. It is reasonable for him not to feel surprised when coming across a few demons.”
“Then why is the bell following him?” Cang Ji asked.
Jing Lin did not answer because someone came into the hall. He closed his folding fan and pointed upstairs. Cang Ji grabbed the little stone figure, threw gold pearls to the waiter who was lifting the curtain to enter, and followed Jing Lin upstairs.
“I have yet to ask.” Cang Ji asked the moment he entered the chamber. “What exactly is this copper bell?”
Jing Lin took off his coat and casually replied, “A bell.”
Cang Ji hooked the stool with his leg to block Jing Lin’s path. However, Jing Lin sidestepped it and swaggered past it. Cang Ji sat on the stool and stretched out his legs to trip him, and Jing Lin smoothly skirted around them. His interest piqued, Cang Ji hooked his legs back. Jing Lin turned back, and Cang Ji bumped into him.
Looking calm and composed, Jing Lin said, “If it isn’t a bell, then what could it be? A human?”
“That’s hard to say.” Cang Ji said, “Where did you get it?”
Jing Lin replied, “An old friend gave it to me.”
Cang Ji paused for a moment. Just as Jing Lin was about to move a step, he heard Cang Ji ask, “Did Li Rong give it to you?”
Jing Lin looked surprised.
“Ninth Heaven’s Lord Shage, Li Rong.” Cang Ji stepped on the stool. “I heard this person is such an accomplished cultivator that demons would all be terror stricken at the mention of him. With just his silver spear, he commands the Three Thousand Armored Warriors of Heaven. He’s the brother of the current Lord of the three realms, Lord Chengtian.”
And also the brother of Jing Lin.
The Supreme Father, Lord Jiutian, had eight sons under his command. Five of his sons lost their lives during the Blood Sea Battle, and only three of them went on to be bestowed with the title of a Deity Lord. One was Lord Chengtian, Yun Sheng. The second was Lord Shage, Li Rong. And, the third one was Lord Linsong, Jing Lin. Other than that, to secure world peace during the initial establishment of the Ninth Heaven Realm, he took in Dong Jun and Lord Pu Man to form the Six Lords of the Ninth Heaven, with each of them in charge of a jurisdiction. In other words, the current Lord of the Three Realms, together with this Lord Shage, Li Rong, were all Jing Lin’s kindred brothers. Other than the True Buddha to hold the fort during the time Jing Lin was besieged and annihilated after committing patricide five hundred years ago, the remaining Four Lords all had a major hand in it too.
Cang Ji had learned from the demons that most people believed that the reason Lord Linsong, Jing Lin, had lost was because of this Lord Shage, Li Rong. Because he had led the Three Thousand Armored Warriors of Heaven to battle Jing Lin heads-on until it had all ended in a bloodbath and both of them had ended up severely injured. After Lord Linsong’s obliteration, he sank into the Blood Sea as well and lapsed into a deep sleep.
Jing Lin had used a “good” word to describe such a person. Cang Ji could not fathom it, and now it had stirred up his interest.
“Since you are so interested in him.” Jing Lin said, “You might as well go to the City of Tongtian. The Registry for the Doctrine of Gods on the various Ninth Heaven Deities is on exhibit there. Li Rong is listed under Lord Chengtian. Just turn a page, and you can see it.”
“I’m not as interested in him than I’m in you.” Cang Ji said. “You’re right here. Why would I reject what’s near at hand and seek what’s far away?”
“He has nothing to do with the bell.” Jing Lin tilted his head to think about it and said, “There’s nothing unusual about the origins of this bell. It has been with me for so many years, and there had been nothing peculiar about it in the past. Who would expect it to acquire intelligence during one of my sleep?”
“Alright.” Cang Ji folded his arms in understanding, then leaned back and looked at Jing Lin.
Jing Lin said, “Hmm?”
“I’m curious.” Cang Ji gave a frank smile. “Have you fallen out with each other?”
“Brothers falling out with each other. Kin and friends turning their backs on one another.” Jing Lin’s lips spread into a cold smile. “How delightful.”
On seeing Jing Lin’s expression, Cang Ji had the subconscious desire to lick him. He shivered and smiled in excitement. Because every time Jing Lin did this, it was as if he had shed his skin and mask, leaving behind a savage and ominous beast like himself. They were cold-hearted and unfeeling kindred spirits who have cast aside all logic.
Cang Ji pressed the tip of his tongue against the tip of his teeth and said greedily. “How delightful can this be? I would only relish it if you become someone no one would believe, remember, or miss. Only this way would you truly belong to me when I devour you.” Then he slid his finger across Jing Lin’s cheek and suppressed his voice to seduce him. “Why do you even need others? In this world, I’m the only one who treats you with all my heart. This is how I’ve been wholeheartedly thinking about devouring you all day and night. Flesh and blood brothers are all untrustworthy. I’m far more reliable than them.”
“Have you ever wondered?” Jing Lin turned his head aside. His cheek brushed against Cang Ji’s fingertips. Yet his eyes were aloof and cold. “If the one to be devoured in the end would be you or me?”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m the one.” The craftiness of a demon flashed through his eyes. Cang Ji said, “As long as I’m together with you.”
His eyes were sincere as he used all of his pretenses to lay his hands on what was most important to Jing Lin. He feared nothing, and cared about nothing. He was not all that bothered about what he would seize from Jing Lin. He would only give his best, and he did not expect himself to lose.
But it was just too bad.
Jing Lin was an impregnable fortress.
- 挽剑花 Literally ‘draw a sword flower’. It’s a technique in swordplay, although the exact stance may differ from sect to sect. Something like this video.
腰牌 literally waist tablet, it’s a small tablet hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity.