The old emperor had been scurrying and fleeing helter-skelter amidst the wreckage when he saw the evil spirit taking a blow from the sword. The fog receded, revealing an originally skinny youth. The thunderstorm and the anomalies in Heaven and on Earth persisted, showing no sign of abating.
“His soul has absorbed ten of thousands of people, and he has devoured Shengyue. He has now been cast into the body of a Great Devil.1 My cultivation cannot measure up to his. I’m afraid it’ll be hard to exorcise him.” Jing Lin’s fingers were pried apart. A vague warmth blanketed the spots that have been licked, making his wounds sore and ticklish.
“Look at how soft and tender he is.” Cang Ji said, “Might as well let me eat him to get this done and over with.”
Jing Lin retracted his hand and stood sideways to face the evil spirit across a distance. He said, “His original body is dead. The current body is flesh and blood reconstructed out of the Blood Sea.”
“What about it?” Cang Ji turned to look over too. “Too salty from all that steeping?”
Jing Lin was speechless. Cang Ji asked, “Guess what I just ate?”
Jing Lin said, “… What?”
Cang Ji spread out his hand and unveiled the remnants of a whip. Like a satiated lion that had stealthily gobbled up another’s provision, he looked as if he was showing off about it, showing nary a trace of shame or guilt at all.
After a moment’s pause, Jing Lin asked, “You ate Wu Ying?”
Cang Ji found nothing surprising about it. “He led a bunch of people to block my way. They all jumped into my arms one after another.”
This fat fish was truly shameless. It was evident that he had brandished Wu Ying’s whip and dragged the others towards him to devour them clean. Yet, he still looked bewildered, as if it was not his intention to consume Wu Ying, but was forced by Wu Ying to gobble them all down into his tummy.
Although Jing Lin knew that Cang Ji had the ability to consume spirits and souls, he did not expect him to devour everyone and anyone he caught. The scales that had fallen from Li Rong’s palm earlier smashed their way into his heart, piece after piece, compelling him to gaze at Cang Ji deeply.
Cang Ji asked, “Why did you run away with someone else? You even got your eyes red. Don’t tell me he dared to bully you? That fella has been staring daggers at you. What’s the relationship between you two?”
Jing Lin knitted his eyebrows and made a sudden grab at Cang Ji’s shoulder to take a closer look at his original form. Who would expect Cang Ji to make a weary half-sweep with his feet and slid along Jing Lin’s arm to make a turn and pressed his back against Jing Lin’s chest? Clasping his wrists, Cang Ji lifted Jing Lin to give him a piggyback on his back.
“You wouldn’t answer honestly, and you still want to hit out at me.” Cang Ji shook him. “How very vicious of you.”
Jing Lin nearly puked from all the jerking. He was exhausted all over as he sprawled on Cang Ji’s back like a salted fish.2 He said, “The bell has been drawing us to him. We mustn’t let him get away tonight.”
Cang Ji’s backhandedly secure a luminous thread between Jing Lin’s wrists as his body flashed away from his original spot. Thunder rolled among the clouds. The spot where he had been standing earlier was smoking. The evil spirit sinisterly turned his head back among the smoke.
“Jiu-ge, have you sold yourself to a demon just to seek a life of quietude?” A mocking smile appeared on a face so fair it looked as if it had been powdered. “Oh well, this is not the first time you’ve done it. As they say, practice makes perfect. I suppose you’ve been putting all your heart and soul into studying the Way of Seduction,3 huh?”
Jing Lin paid him no attention, but Cang Ji asked him. “Your granddaddy me is not ashamed to ask, but what Way4 is the Way of Seduction?”
The evil spirit raised his palm to strike out at him. His martial arts stance was extremely profound. Cang Ji could catch a glimpse of Jing Lin’s shadow in it. But too bad for the evil spirit, Cang Ji had been through tough times with Jing Lin these six months. He might not have eaten much, but he had learned plenty. He was making a sport out of the evil spirit at present, never allowing him to lay a hand on him as he remained out of his reach. He even threw out a few snarky comments.
“All of people, you had to learn from your Jiu-ge.” Cang Ji dodged him and caught hold of the evil spirit’s arm. He took a stride, about to take a swing at him. “Without him to whip you into shape day and night, you’d be like Dong Shi imitating Xi Shi’s frown,5 making a laughing stock of yourself!”
The evil spirit’s arm suddenly transformed into the fog and escaped from his blow. Immediately right after, it formed back into a human arm in the fog and made a sudden grab for Jing Lin. With the tip of his foot, Jing Lin kicked Cang Ji in a secret spot at the side of his waist. Cang Ji instantly bent over, short by a few inches, causing the evil spirit to pounce at the empty air.
Cang Ji caught hold of Jing Lin’s rebellious foot and turned back to rebuke him. “Kick me again, and I’ll laugh!”
The little stone figure was the only one who knew about the ticklish spots on the sides of his waist. He did not know if Jing Lin had touched it by coincidence, or if the little stone figure had told on him. In any case, this was not really an opportune moment for Cang Ji to talk about it. Thunder rumbled overhead as lightning crackled and came striking down on them without rhyme or reason. If he got hit, he would be completing his tribulation6 ahead of time.
The evil spirit gripped his sword with his palm. His flurry of attacks forced Cang Ji back in a retreat. Cang Ji swung his body to dodge the blade and turned his leg around to kick the body of the blade, almost breaking it with a “crack”. With his fingers, the evil spirit weighed down on the sword body to hold it upside down as he instantly shoved it towards Cang Ji’s abdomen. Cang Ji saw the blade slicing through the wind and swinging down on him. There was a sudden heaviness on his shoulders, and Jing Lin grabbed hold of the sword with his bare hands. The body of the sword melted away as if it had sunk into the icy water. Cang Ji seized the opportunity to throw a blow at the evil spirit in the chest, beating him into a retreat with one fist. In a split second, the surrounding mist receded. The sky above howled with thunderous fury.
Not only was the evil spirit unscathed, his complexion even grew rosier during the battle. Cang Ji wanted to continue raining blows on him, but Jing Lin abruptly yanked his back shoulders and sent Cang Ji rolling sideways on the ground. An ear-splitting thunderbolt struck the ground close by, sending the debris of shattered rocks flying into Cang Ji’s arms and shoulders. Before Cang Ji could get up, Jing Lin, who was now beneath him, bent his knees to push against Cang Ji’s abdomen. The moment Cang Ji’s body tilted, Jing Lin turned over to his feet.
Under cover of striking thunderbolts the girth of pythons, Jing Lin scrawled out a talisman spell. Azure light expanded into a shield covering their backs. Thunderbolt struck. Right at the point Cang Ji received the impact of it, he saw the color drained from Jing Lin’s face. Jing Lin turned his head and choked on his blood. Cang Ji dug his thumb between Jing Lin’s teeth out of fear that Jing Lin might bite his tongue during the onslaught of thunderbolts.
The evil spirit stood amidst the thunderbolt shower. He waved his arms leisurely. On seeing tens of thousands of houses in the capital all under his feet, he could not help but say, “Back then, we fought a bloody battle stretching tens of thousands of li7 all for the sake of taking over this Zhongdu. But now, we have to submit to the rules of humans, reduced to having to endure the tyrannical abuse of demons. On what grounds?! There’s only a fine line between demons and devils.8 Since demons can exist on this land, then evil spirits and devils shouldn’t need to retreat back to the Blood Sea. Jing Lin, have you ever opened your eyes to take a good look? There is no longer any land where you need to use force. Be it Ninth Heaven or Zhongdu, they all no longer need a Lord Linsong!” He glared at Jing Lin. “Your death is a foregone conclusion, yet you are so oblivious to it. How hilarious. Back then, you died during the course of your investigation. Tonight, you will die again while investigating! You’ve muddled along once, and yet you still have not seen the light—Tell me, do you not deserve death?!”
Before he could finish his words, he saw a burst of strong wind before his eyes. With a sudden sweep of his fog, he drew his sword forward. He did not expect Cang Ji to boot him in the back. The spectacular sound of something collapsing rang out amidst the thunderous peals of thunder as the evil spirit went crashing into the debris of collapsed tiles. He straightened his back to whisk the sword. The fog was just blocking Cang Ji’s fist when there was a deafening “bang”, and the body of the sword bent over until it broke. Cang Ji promptly struck the evil spirit in the chest, sending his arm all the way through!
However, the next moment, Cang Ji smelled a rat. His arm felt as if it had sunk into a puff of cloud. Sure enough, he saw the evil spirit turning into the mist upon landing. The clothes on Cang Ji’s back immediately burst apart as he received a slash from the sword. However, the evil spirit’s sword was thwarted, unable to penetrate through Cang Ji’s flesh. The evil spirit fixed his eyes on him and saw an impressive layer of solid, dark scales peeking out from under those ripped-open clothes.
“You!” The evil spirit hissed and retreated, terrified. “It’s you!”
Cang Ji’s muscles were athletic and sturdy. Those scales swiftly fused into his skin. When the evil spirit looked again, there were no longer any traces of them. His clothes could hardly cover his body, so Cang Ji simply ripped off his tattered upper garment, revealing his bare arms as he strode towards the evil spirit. The evil spirit no longer had the desire to engage in close combat with him, so he threw himself among the thunder and transformed into a gust of fog, looking as if he was about to flee. Cang Ji sprang into the air to chase after him, but the evil spirit spiraled upwards in the azure smoke and dispersed in all directions.
Jing Lin immediately turned over a stone with his foot and sent it flying with a kick to its side. The stone hurtled through the air in swift pursuit. The smoke hissed out a human face and shrieked, “We’ll meet again another day!”
Amidst the thunderstorm, the azure smoke vanished without a trace.
Jing Lin stood in the rain and turned over his palm. Scratches decorated the back of his hand, but thanks to Cang Ji’s licks, not a single drop of blood flowed. His mind was like the deep, unfathomable sea as the evil spirit’s “it’s you” echoed in his ears. He looked at Cang Ji again. Cang Ji was standing on the collapsed eaves, his silhouette indistinct amidst the claps of thunder and lightning flashes. Sensing Jing Lin’s eyes on him, he looked back.
Jing Lin said, “… He clearly had the upper hand, but he fled without fighting.”
“Seeing as I have such an extraordinary bearing,” Cang Ji leaped off. “It only makes sense for him to flee.”
Jing Lin was still looking at the direction where the evil spirit had fled. Cang Ji bent his waist to hoist Jing Lin over his shoulder and said, “This kid is crafty. It’ll be hard to chase him. The capital is in chaos, and the men from Ninth Heaven Realm are probably already on the way. If we come across Zui Shan Seng again, we will get embroiled in another fight with him. You aren’t even steady on your feet, so let’s just drop this tonight.”
Water trickled down Jing Lin’s temples. He was beginning to feel weary. He said quietly, “Put me down.”
Cang Ji kicked away the rubble of tiles. Ignoring him, he asked, “Where is Qianyu?”
Jing Lin ignored him too. Cang Ji propped his head against Jing Lin’s waist and rubbed against it indiscriminately, wiping an entire head of rainwater onto Jing Lin. Sniffing at him, he said, “Were you both hugging together? There’s the scent of classics9 all over you. You wouldn’t be able to wash it off even if you soak in water for two hours.”
Jing Lin patted his cold hand on the back of Cang Ji’s neck. It was so icy that Cang Ji sucked in a breath. He rather let Jing Lin curse him than to put him down. Jing Lin was jolted around by him so much that he bumped his head several times against Cang Ji’s back, making him even dizzier.
“Qianyu is trapped underneath.” With narrowed eyes, Jing Lin watched as the water droplets dripped down the side of his temples onto the back of Cang Ji’s waist and slid down. He could not help but push himself against Cang Ji’s shoulder blades to put a distance between them.
The muscles on Cang Ji’s back rippled as he squatted down, and the sensation of his well-built, strong body hit Jing Lin in the face. That waist of his looked sculpted, with the curves of his muscles clearly, and glaringly, delineated. As he squatted, Jing Lin could see the water droplets slipped into the waistband of his pants, sinking into an unknown depth.
Jing Lin did not really want to watch, but his eyes swept past several times, clearly perplexed about the whereabouts of the water droplets. Their damp and hot bodies were pressed up against each other so closely that even the puffs of air he breathed out came into contact with Cang Ji’s sleek and clean waistline.
Cang Ji pressed one hand behind Jing Lin’s leg and lifted a heavy beam with the other. The muscles on his back instantly bulged out. Jing Lin panicked and struggled to get off. And walked right into the trap.
Cang Ji’s “okay” stalled in his mouth. He said, “My back isn’t ticklish. Feel free to touch.”
The tips of Jing Lin’s fingers and palms were all intimately sticking to those bulging muscles. In such a heavy downpour, Cang Ji was still as hot as a stove, heating him up so much that Jing Lin did not know which part of him was burning up. Even his earlier train of thoughts had all melted away.
“But you are not allowed to bite.” Cang Ji quipped. “And stop breathing on me.”
The man on his back went silent for a moment, then suddenly lifted himself. Cang Ji hurriedly pressed him back down and said, “Hahaha, just breathe.”
“Breathe, my foot.” Jing Lin said. “Qianyu is right below!”
“I’ve found him.” Cang Ji dragged Qianyu out with one arm. Seeing the pearl hairpin sliding down to his temple, he asked, “Why is he dressed like this?”
“The evil… Tao-di10 fancies beauties. Even if he sees an attractive man, he has to get him to dress up like a girl before he would be willing to accept and take him in.”
“Tao-di?” Cang Ji patted Qianyu’s cheeks and asked, “Your brother?”
Jing Lin uttered an affirmation and said, “Qianyu has fallen under evil influence. Put me down. I’ll wake him up.”
“But I don’t want to put you down.” Cang Ji sneered. “The moment you grow legs, you will run away without saying so much as a word. And you still want to get back on the ground? Just grow on my body.”
Dumbfounded, Jing Lin asked, “Why don’t you ask me to bloom you a flower as well?”
“Go ahead.” Cang Ji picked Qianyu up, showing absolutely no tenderness for the fairer party.
Qianyu choked in agony and turned over to retch.
Cang Ji took out Jing Lin’s handkerchief and handed it to Qianyu. He said, “Let’s cut the chatter. I’ll get straight to the point. Do you know Chu Lun?”
Qianyu raised his head. Wisps of hair stuck his hair to his cheek. Instead of taking the handkerchief, he wiped the corners of his lips himself and said, “Of course I do. How could I forget him? He usurped someone else’s life for his own personal gain. He’s definitely involved in Zuo-lang’s11 death!”
“Chu Lun is in the dark about what happened with the Life Registry. Isn’t it a little too much to blame him?” Cang Ji paused. “Are you going to kill him too?”
Qianyu’s sneer was cold and painful. He raised his head to soak in the rain and said, “In the dark? In the dark! Do you really think he didn’t know? No! He knew it very well! He has been plotting this for a long time. He has longed to frame Zuo-lang! It isn’t his body that’s sick, but his heart! If this man doesn’t die, Zuo-lang will never rest in peace!”
Jing Lin asked, “What makes you say that?”
Qianyu pulled off the pearl hairpin, wiped his face clean, and said, “It all started three years ago.”
- 魔 devil vs. 邪魔 an evil spirit. A devil has its origin in human souls that have turned evil (Soul → Evil Spirit → Devil, progression chart according to one source; for details and clarification of the terms demons and devil, please refer to the glossary). Immortals and deities may also descend into evil and turn into a devil. In this novel, I’ll use the terms devil and evil spirit interchangeably.
咸鱼 literally salted fish. In Cantonese, a salted fish is a metaphor for a corpse. In net lingo, it refers to people who don’t want to move or do anything at all.
- 色侍(一道) From 以色侍人 or 以色事人 which refers to using one’s own beauty to win the adoration and favors of men
- 道 Dao, or the Way, is an important concept in Daoism where one archives spiritual enlightenment by cultivating the Way, or ‘walking the (right) path’. It’s a bit hard to explain all the nuances in Daoism succinctly but for this novel, you can understand it as cultivating one’s moral principles to defend what one believes in (one’s Way or Path to enlightenment). There are typically several paths that one can choose to cultivate. A common one that appears in wuxia and xianxia novels, especially among sword users, is the Heartless or Merciless Way (无情道).
- 东施效颦 Dong Shi imitates Xi Shi’s frown. It’s a fable about an ugly woman trying to imitate the famous beauty, Xi Shi, by knitting her brows but ended up getting the opposite effect. Also, an idiom which refers to someone mimicking another’s idiosyncrasies but ended up making a fool of himself.
- 渡劫 Tribulations; a Daoism term for heavenly trials that cultivators have to transcend in order to progress through certain stages of their cultivation and before they finally ascend to Heaven as an immortal. These are usually a series of lightning strikes aimed at the cultivator who needs to survive it to “pass” their tribulation and progress to the next stage and/or ascend.
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, approx. 500m.
- Demons (妖) have their origins in plants, animals, or objects.
Devils (魔) and evil spirits (邪魔) have their origins in human souls that have turned evil, demonic cultivators, or fallen deities.
For details and clarification of the terms demons and devil, please refer to the glossary).
经(香) could refer to literary classics or scriptures , i.e. books and scrolls. Books and scrolls in the old days were written in brush and ink. Thus, the scent is similar to brush (and ink), except it also has the smell of paper (or bamboo for scrolls) too. Refer to this image for an example of the inside written in ink.
- 陶弟 Younger brother Tao
- 郎 Lang, young man; a form of address. Also used as a term by a woman (or a man in this case) to address a lover or husband.