Cang Ji found this lad to be a lot more pleasing to the eye right after the words left A-Yi’s mouth. He lifted the rope to haul A-Yi up and asked, “Why do you need to catch this brush demon?”
A-Yi wiped the dust off his fair face and spat out a few mouthfuls of the soil before saying, “He was originally the Sage Yining’s brush. He has the ability to alter the Doctrine of Deities and the Life Registry. My Ah-Jie has been accused by Yining of misconduct back at the Ninth Heaven Realm. Of course, I’m going to use him to make changes to the charges.”
“Fu Li has guarded the Can Li Tree for so long, and she has always been meticulous in her duties. What is Yining impeaching her for?” Jing Lin stepped out from the shadows, his residual heat having faded away.
A-Yi said, “Yining said that my Ah Jie has been guarding Can Li Tree for a hundred years, and yet there is no sign of her evolving into a phoenix. Apparently, this is because she has been consumed by her own personal grudges and, therefore, harbors ill intent.”
A seed of doubt was planted in Jing Lin’s heart, but he only asked, “Were those his precise words?”
A-Yi sat up straight on the ground and said, “Exactly! How pointless can he be? There has been no sign of my Ah Jie evolving into a phoenix only because it isn’t her time yet. Isn’t that Zong Yin of the Eastern Sea still the same after hundreds of years? He’s still a Hai Jiao!1”
Jing Lin asked, “Did he censure only Fu Li this time round?”
A-Yi answered, “Not really. He also denounced Dong Jun and Zhuihun Prison. Even the sleeping Li Rong was not spared.”
Cang Ji asked, “If that’s the case, then what are you worried about?”
A-Yi fumed, “The thing is that Lord Chengtian took no notice of the others and only reproached my Ah Jie! He not only wants to withdraw my Ah Jie from her Can Li post, but also wants to transfer her back to Heaven to stand guard beside the Brahma Altar’s Lotus Pond. What’s the fun in that? They are all just a bunch of bald donkeys2 who chant scriptures all day long! Furthermore, my Ah Jie is still unmarried. If she is reassigned back to Heaven, she would be lonely for hundreds of years to come, wouldn’t she?
“So you came here wanting to capture the brush demon to help your Ah Jie amend the Ninth Heaven’s special edict?” Cang Ji mocked. “Brat! Who is Lord Chengtian? He’s the current Lord of the Three Realms; he’s not a man to be trifled with. If he commands Fu Li to be reassigned and you tamper with his orders without explicit approval, both you and that brush demon will not be able to escape culpability. You would have implicated your Ah Jie for no reason too. Who knows what other blame might fall upon her shoulders?”
A-Yi retorted in a fit of pique. “Even so, I still want to capture him! Yining harmed my Ah Jie for no rhyme or reason. So I’ll clutch this brush in my hands and humiliate him every way I can!”
Cang Ji flicked A-Yi’s forehead with his finger so hard it turned red. His bullying of A-Yi made the latter recall the feathers he had once lost. A-Yi could not help but hate him even more. Although this lad was willful, he knew how to size up the situation. Perhaps it was because Cang Ji had taught him a brutal lesson in the city of Xitu the last time that he no longer spoke irresponsibly now even though he was so full of hatred he was gnashing his teeth.
Jing Lin asked, “How did you know that the brush demon was here?”
A-Yi glared smugly at that grass spirit out of the corner of his eyes. “I have eyes all over the lands of Zhongdu. If I so much beckon to them, which of the demons from all over would dare to ignore my call? Even the Underworld has to give me face. This brush demon openly went to the Underworld a few days back to change the Registry of Human Lives. It’s a piece of cake for me to hunt him down.”
A sudden brainwave struck Cang Ji. If even A-Yi knew about this, then how could the Sage Yining and the Demarcation Division in the various lands not know? So which was it? Did they have knowledge of it but could not be bothered to interfere, or was someone covering it up?
“However, I heard a few days back that there was an evil spirit creating havoc in the capital. After a thorough investigation, ha!” A-Yi said. “Jing Lin, do you still remember that short-lived younger brother of yours? There is an abundance of heroes in the Ninth Heaven Sect, but there is plenty of scum too. After you died, he emerged from the Blood Sea again. If one can make his escape today, then there will be two, three, four, or five of them who can make their escape some other day. Every one of them was evil that you, Lord Linsong, eliminated. If they know that you were still alive, they would never be appeased until they get their revenge on you.”
“Rather than worry about Jing Lin, you should worry about yourself.” Cang Ji undid A-Yi’s rope. “This is not a place you should be. At such a critical juncture, your Ah Jie still has to be on tenterhooks worrying her little heart out about you.”
“In my Ah Jie’s heart, Jing Lin comes first.” A-Yi moved his wrists. “How is it that you guys have been wandering around for so long in Zhongdu?”
“Little kids should stay out of adults’ affairs.” Cang Ji said, “Now, scram.”
“That won’t do. It’s too cowardly to walk away like this.” A-Yi patted the grass and said, “That demon has been with Yining for so long. He surely knows something. Let me question him so that I can get something on him!”
Jing Lin tilted his head and remained silent as both of them conversed with one another. He gazed out into the long night. A piece of thread extending into an unpredictable direction unfurled in his mind. It tied all those that they had experienced together on the same thread, letting him get a feel of what was odd.
The copper bell had first sought out Dong Lin and led them to arrive at their conjecture of the “eight sufferings” before this shocking case followed right after hard on its heels. Then Gu Shen led them into the city among the mountains to catch sight of the suffering of parting. Now that they were in the capital, the intertwining of “illness”, “old age” and “the inability to let go” dragged what was initially a clear thread into something even more unexpected and convoluted. He could no longer tell if the “eight sufferings” themselves were all part of these cases, or if the cases had merely touched on the “eight sufferings”. However, the increasing number of acquaintances Jing Lin had encountered convinced him that this was no coincidence.
Zui Shan Seng, Dong Jun, Hui An, the Sage Yining.
Of all the people in the Ninth Heaven Realm, he had to come across these four. And these four more or less had something to do with Jing Lin. Was the copper bell reminding Jing Lin something? Or was there someone who wanted the copper bell to remind Jing Lin something? Or perhaps these four were already aware of Jing Lin’s identity and had come as intermediaries to drop him hints of the messages that were not convenient for Lord Chengtian to voice.
Dong Lin’s death was what started the chain of incidents that happened after. But why Dong Lin? Even if he had to suffer from the trial of these eight sufferings, why did it have to begin with “death”?
Surviving the kiss of death.
Jing Lin narrowed his eyes.
Was it referring to him?
“As they said, a catastrophe survived is a blessing in store.”3 A-Yi picked up a fruit from the tray Le Yan had left under the eaves and said, “But why is it that when it comes to you two, it’s just keep getting worse. First, you incurred the wrath of Zong Yin, then you placed yourselves right under Hui An’s nose. Rather than a coincidence, it’s more like you have been going around in circles in the same spot.”
Cang Ji’s mind took an abrupt turn as if he had been enlightened.
He had once heard Jing Lin mentioned in the city that this case was so familiar it was as if he was going through it all over again—That’s right, going through it all over again! How did Jing Lin die? He was investigating a case. But who was he investigating?
Cang Ji looked towards Jing Lin.
He killed the Supreme Father. That’s to say, he was investigating the Supreme Father, Lord Jiutian.
Exactly what case was Jing Lin investigating?
“Going around in circles.” Cang Ji mouthed to himself. He seized the fruit A-Yi was gnawing on and took advantage of his height to keep it out of A-Yi’s reach. He asked, “There is one thing I find strange. Jing Lin can’t remember how he got on the mountain. I don’t remember how I came to live in the jar either. Then how did your Ah Jie know that he’s still alive? From the way she spoke, it was clear that she only found out much later.”
“Of course Jing Lin said so himself. It’s such a secretive matter after all.” Unable to reach the fruit, Ah Ji hopped and said, “Return it to me! Ask away if you want. Why take my food? I rushed all the way here from the North and have yet to drink a single drop of water. I’m hungry!”
“I have never set foot out of the mountain ever since I woke up.” Jing Lin’s heart thumped. “When Fu Li came, I merely treated it as she had done something to piece back my divine consciousness.”
“Impossible.” A-Yi spoke without hesitation. “You died on Ninth Heaven Terrace five hundred years ago. The Three Thousand Heavenly Warriors have long kept an eye on my Ah Jie. Under those circumstances, my Ah Jie won’t be unable to lend you a hand, let alone piece you back! Shouldn’t surviving the siege of the True Buddha and the Four Lords be the result of your indestructibility after attaining the Great Accomplishment Stage? Otherwise, who would dare to save you? Wouldn’t that be making an enemy out of Ninth Heaven Realm?! The one you killed was none other than the Supreme Father—the man who divided the Three Realms and established Ninth Heaven Realm!”
A-Yi had just finished speaking when he saw Jing Lin with tightly knitted eyebrows, looking particularly grave as he stood among the shadows cast by the lanterns. A-Yi subconsciously touched his bum, wondering if he had said something that would make both of them pluck his feathers again.
“… Hey.” A-Yi shuffled back. “Didn’t we come to a tacit understanding regarding this matter? My Ah Jie knew that Jing Lin was still alive when she received his copper bell at the Can Li Tree. After that, all of us met with each other frequently… There’s nothing strange about this, right?”
“Copper bell.” Cang Ji felt as if a massive wave had crashed into his chest, turning it topsy-turvy. “Didn’t you say that the copper bell has no consciousness and could not evolve into a demon?”
Jing Lin was stunned as well. He said, “It’s cast out of the fragments of Li Rong’s Po Zheng Spear. It cannot turn into a demon.”
“That’s right.” A-Yi could not make heads or tails of it. “That’s why my Ah Jie was sure that you are still alive.”
Jing Lin’s knuckles turned white.
He had taken one step after another to make his way here. He couldn’t have been reduced to being another man’s pawn again, could he? Who saved him? Who had the ability to save him? Was it Li Rong? But Li Rong was clearly locked in a fierce battle with him that day. He had sworn to defend the Supreme Father’s head with all his life, refusing to let Jing Lin get close by even half a fraction.
Cang Ji was a step ahead as he grabbed hold of Jing Lin’s wrist. He gripped Jing Lin tightly, as if Jing Lin would disappear the next moment. This feeling of being maneuvered and plotted against every step he took was comparable to being made a fool of! He was already certain that no matter who the mastermind was, their target was Jing Lin.
A-Yi looked at their odd expressions and said, “What? That copper bell couldn’t have the ability to overturn Heaven, could it? Even if it did, what’s there to be afraid of? I can see that the damage in your spiritual sea has already healed. Presumably, it won’t be long before you fully recover. You don’t look like an invalid anymore, either. With Yan Quan Sword in your hands, there’s no longer a need to sneak around anymore. Jing Lin is notorious. Which ghost or demon would dare to provoke him? You can do as you please in the days to come!”
Jing Lin wanted to touch his abdomen, but Cang Ji was a step faster. He saw the darkness in Cang Ji’s eyes as the latter looked back at him.
“Already healed?” Cang Ji enunciated each word coldly. “You didn’t even mention a word to me.” But when he saw Jing Lin in a rare daze, he softened his tone and asked hesitantly, “… You didn’t know either?”
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin shed off his clothes. The inner chamber was steaming with heat. He stood before the mirror with his hair still dripping water. Cang Ji’s figure had been standing for a long time behind the screen where the obscured, yellowish light in the room had cast smudges of shadows at the top.
“Are you done?” Cang Ji asked.
Jing Lin uttered a sound of affirmation, and Cang Ji stepped out from behind the screen. Jing Lin’s hair was blocking his own back, but that only made the contours of his narrow waist all the more conspicuous. Cang Ji stared at Jing Lin’s back, barely caring where he felt hot. He raised his hands and parted Jing Lin’s damp hair. The spots that had once been covered with cracks were now barely discernible.
“They have faded.” Cang Ji stroked his fingertip along the fine lines. “… There’s none left on the waist.”
“And yet I still couldn’t sense it.” Jing Lin looked at the man in the mirror. “I don’t see an abundant spiritual sea either.”
“When we first arrived in the capital, Huashang said that your spiritual sea was damaged.” The skin under Cang Ji’s finger was as smooth as grease. He leaned in a fraction. “It has only been half a month.”
“In the palace, I encountered Tao-di,4 who has fallen so low to walk the path of an evil spirit.” Jing Lin inclined his head slightly and said to him, “He also said that my spiritual sea was defective and my cultivation, destroyed.”
“But in the rain that night, you summoned the remnant of Yan Quan.”
Jing Lin could only see Cang Ji’s chest from the corner of his eye. He said, “I thought that was because of your help.”
“It was already there before I helped you.” Cang Ji said, “Furthermore, your spiritual energy and mine aren’t of the same Way.5 How could my spiritual energy help you to rebuild your original form?”
At this point, Jing Lin turned his head around.
“That’s not right.” Jing Lin said, “When you came in, I didn’t feel any resistance.”
Cang Ji was slightly dumbfounded. “Went in?”
Jing Lin backhandedly grabbed Cang Ji’s wrist and placed it over the front of his abdomen. He said in all seriousness, “Here.”
Drops of water from the tips of Jing Lin’s hair splashed onto Cang Ji’s hand. That particular spot Cang Ji’s palm was pressing against felt smooth and exquisite to the touch. He knew deep down what Jing Lin was saying. But his mind had gone blank all of a sudden.
“You came in here.” Jing Lin continued, “And it wasn’t unbearable or torturous for me. The meeting of two streams of spiritual energies in the spiritual sea felt just like the spiritual energy of a single person. There was hardly time for me to give it further thought back then, but how could there be such harmonious spiritual energies in this world?”
“I did not find it torturous either when you entered mine too. I knew it was sweet long before I had a taste of it, and once I tasted it, I found it tough to quit. On the contrary, Zui Shan Seng’s made me very uncomfortable.” Cang Ji’s throat felt hoarse as his Adam’s apple throbbed. It was only after he paused for two full blinks that he continued, “… but you are going to put me in an even more of a torture if you still don’t release my hand.”
Credits: Many thanks to Cheshire (@ivory_and_horn) for pointing out the inconsistency in the naming of stages!
- 海蛟 literally Sea Jiao (Dragon). A Jiao, or Jiaolong (蛟龙) is a mythical, aquatic creature capable of invoking storms and floods; sometimes also known as a flood dragon.
- 秃驴 literally bald donkey; it’s also a mocking term for a Buddhist monk.
- 大难不死, 必有后福。i.e. blessing awaits those who survived a catastrophe.
- 陶弟 Tao-di, or younger brother Tao.
- 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).