The path to the Underworld was paved with red spider lilies.1 Slabs of stones meandered among the lush waves of red. This place was dark and gloomy and shrouded in layers of fog. They could hear the clattering of chains as the Ghost Guards rushed back from all over Zhongdu. Countless shackled souls wandered along the road, where cries and faint sobs sounded like the pitter-patter of rain lingering in their ears. There was a viewing tower constructed among the flowers. Every ten steps, a Ghost General would be designated to guard the tower. Heavy chains formed a net so that the souls of the departed that had set foot onto this path had nowhere to escape.
Jing Lin’s face was like thin paper, pale and without life. With a rod in hand and holding on to the chains in his other hand, he led a shackled Cang Ji and followed the mass of souls to slip his way in. Donning a mask, Cang Ji ambled on and glanced around in between movements to take in the surroundings.
“This place has been chosen well.” Cang Ji bent his upper body slightly and said next to Jing Lin’s ear. “After coming down here, they would be trapped deep in the ravines. Flanking both sides are all thousand-year-old sturdy rocks that brace each realm of Zhongdu. It’s only through the path of the sea of flowers that one could go back and forth smoothly. If an ordinary person were to come down here, they would not be able to return back up again.”
“Life and death come to a closure before the outpost. By the time an ordinary person makes his or her way here, he or she is already dead. Walk on for another hour, and they will be at the entrance to Li Jin.” Jing Lin jabbed Cang Ji with his elbow. “Your yang aura2 is leaking.”
Cang Ji pushed the mask and asked, “Why do all the souls need to wear masks to cover their faces? Wouldn’t that make it hard to detect if they caught the wrong person?”
“There are detailed records in the Registry of Human Lives. Before the Ghost Guards collect the soul, they have to verify the identity of the person.” Jing Lin said, “They didn’t have to wear a mask in the past, but the former King of Hell was eaten by someone else, and the new one who took over was afraid of passing out if he were to see ghosts with wretched appearances, so he told the Ghost Guards to issue masks when they lead the souls over.”
Cang Ji said, “What a joke. The King of Hell is actually afraid of ghosts. The way he is, how does he even get to become a King of Hell?”
“Because he loves to eat. He was originally in seclusion beneath the wall of the Underworld, and his hunger was unbearable when he woke up. Then, he caught a whiff of the smoke from the soulfires and, in one gulp, devoured tens of thousands of souls from the Underworld. He even ate half of the King of Hell’s Palace.” As if he had thought of something else, Jing Lin turned his head to admonish Cang Ji. “Watch what you eat.”
Cang Ji asked in curiosity, “But isn’t the dragon the one with the ability to devour all living creatures? Why can he do that too?”
“He was only devouring them to fill his belly.” Jing Lin said. “When he found something he could eat, he spat out the souls along with the King of Hell.”
The poor old King of Hell had always been conscientious in his duties. After the reform of the Underworld, he had been diligently working as a Ghost Guard, toiling hard to achieve results. After nearly a thousand years of holding the post, he was finally promoted by the Ninth Heaven Realm to assume the duties of the King of Hell. Who would have known that he would be doing this for only a few hundred years when he was swallowed, without rhyme or reason, into someone else’s stomach and then vomited out all encased in saliva? In a fit of pique, grief, and indignation, he resigned. No one in the Ninth Heaven Realm was willing to humble or lower themselves to take up the post. Eventually, they punished this demon who had devoured and spat out the former King of Hell to assume command of the Underworld, thus becoming the new King of Hell.
Cang Ji touched his Adam’s apple and considered it, “He could devour forty-three thousand souls in Li Jin in one gulp. What’s this person’s original form? He has such a big appetite.”
Jing Lin said, “His original form is ferocious. Li Jin specially built a stone statue of his original form as a warning to future generations. You’ll be afraid too if you see him.”
Cang Ji asked, “Even more ferocious than me?”
Jing Lin nodded, piquing Cang Ji’s curiosity even more. Following the long procession of souls, both of them walked on for quite a while until they heard the rapid currents of the river. Cang Ji finally got to take in the whole sight of Li Jin’s ferry crossing.
The sea of red spider lilies swayed in billows of waves, and they saw a city sitting amidst the mist of red. The river flowed through the entire city, where boats stood side by side with horse carriages. Lanterns of various colors hung in complex formation over the heads of millions upon millions of souls as if it was the boundless Milky Way suspended above them. Small curtains of pearls and jade hung in the pavilions near the river. They could hear the chords of pipa3 flowing along with the water currents, while the souls on the streets surged like tides. The small boat that could ferry the souls to the King of Hell’s Palace was extremely narrow. Two rows of Ghost Guards armed with name cards4 called out names after names, and one soul left for each one called. However, this place was already jam-packed with tens of thousands of souls. At the rate they were going, even five hundred years would not be enough to call out all the names.
Cang Ji shifted his eyes and saw a stone carving erected high up in the city. The forelimbs of the stone sculpture were hanging over its chest, and its two claws had been polished until it shone. Its hind legs were bent in a standing position as it thrust its chest forward and held its head high. It looked out into the distance in the brazen manner of a ferocious beast. This must have been the original form of the King of Hell that Jing Lin had mentioned.
With such a posture and bearing, Cang Ji could not help but feel inferior. Pressing his chest against Jing Lin, he lowered his head and gnashed his teeth.
◈ ◈ ◈
Having been tricked by Jing Lin once, Cang Ji was no longer willing to believe his offhand remarks anymore. He merely grasped the man tightly in his hand and walked shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
“There are so many people here.” Cang Ji raised his hand to push up the mask. “And we don’t have Qianyu’s scent to draw us over. How are we going to find him?”
“Qianyu wants to find Zuo Qingzhou. So he can only stand watch by the ferry crossing.” Jing Lin tugged his hand lightly and led Cang Ji forward.
There was a long queue of wandering souls at the ferry crossing. The Ghost Guard who was calling out names felt parched and stepped down to scoop a bowl of water. He had only just sat down when he smelled the rich aroma of meat. He turned his head and saw two men sitting at the stall a stone’s throw away. One of them opened the oil paper and spread the greasy braised meat on the tabletop, causing all the souls on half the street to reveal looks of hungry ghosts. But fearing the man of the two who was dressed up as a Ghost Guard, they did not dare to go up to ask for a serving.
The aroma made the stomach of the Ghost Guard growled. These days, he had been on duty at this ferry crossing and had not been to Zhongdu for a long time. So he felt around for a few copper pearls in his sleeves and stood up to walk over to those two men.
“Buddy, have you just returned from above? Judging by this smell, it should be the braised beef from the House of Wanfu in the capital!” He hesitated. “I’m willing to pay you double. Would you be willing to part with it?”
Jing Lin’s chopsticks paused. He said, “How much is a dish of beef worth? Brother, if you don’t mind, just take a seat and have a meal with us.”
The Ghost Guard said his assent repeatedly and lifted his robe to take a seat. Cang Ji handed him a pair of chopsticks. He looked at these two men in passing and said, “Thanks! Brother, you look unfamiliar to me. Are you new here?”
“That’s right.” Jing Lin answered, “It’s my first trip, and there have been so many unforeseen incidents. It’s really not easy to be able to bring him back here.”
The Ghost Guard was gorging himself with his head lowered. On hearing this, he laughed and said, “Brother, you have just only started work. Out of the hundreds of posts here in the Underworld, it’s still better to guide souls.”
“Oh?” Jing Lin humbly sought his advice. “Why do you say this? I’m so envious watching you calling out names at the ferry crossing. You don’t have to tire yourself out rushing all over.”
“Although you have to come and go all the time to guide the souls over, there are much lesser restrictions. What’s there to envy about doing roll calls? I can only ferry a few people across the entire day, and I still have to listen to tens of thousands of souls in Li Jin prattle on and on about their grievances.” The Ghost Guard sighed and continued, “The Ninth Heaven Realm neglects to send their greetings, and the King of Hell becomes even lazier. Look at this Li Jin. If this goes on for a long time, there will be a disaster.”
“What’s the King of Hell busy with?” Cang Ji fiddled with his chopsticks and said. “I died late and still want to get reborn earlier.”
“Huh?” The Ghost Guard laughed despite himself. “You’re in such a hurry to be reincarnated. You have to know that once you pass this Wangchuan River,5 you will no longer remember this life. If there’s anyone important to you, you will have to forget them too.”
“I met a heartless man in this life.” Cang Ji pinched Jing Lin’s fingertip. “It’d be best to forget him.”
Jing Lin’s expression remained unchanged. He merely asked, “The King of Hell doesn’t handle the cases?”
“Brother, you’ve just returned, so you are still unaware. It will be a happy occasion for the King of Hell in a few more days. He is about to marry a fox. He spends all day indulging in wine and lust. Where in the world would he have the time to give a damn about the cases?”
Cang Ji and Jing Lin looked at each other and spoke in unison. “A fox?”
“That’s right.” The Ghost Guard said, “It’s a white fox with a broken tail. The white fox was originally wandering around the ferry crossing looking for someone. When the King of Hell found out, he summoned the fox to the palace but ended up being enthralled by the fox’s looks. Would you believe he actually made a scene demanding to marry the fox? But that white fox is male to begin with and would rather die than yield.”
“Has the King of Hell lost his mind?” Cang Ji said, “This fox already has someone else!”
“Who cares if he does? Once he enters the King of Hell’s Palace, he won’t be able to escape out of it unless the King of Hell says so.” The Ghost Guard set down his chopsticks and rose to make a bow. He smiled and said, “Brother, thank you for your hospitality. I’m on duty here at this ferry crossing. If there’s anything you need in the future, come and look for me. My humble name is Feng Chun.”
With that, the sated Ghost Guard turned to leave. Jing Lin took a second look at him and noted that he had an extraordinary bearing. He did not look like the typical Ghost Guard.
“Where’s the King of Hell’s Palace?” An impatient Cang Ji rose to his feet, wanting to leave. “We can’t lose Qianyu.”
“The King of Hell’s Palace is separated by a heavy barricade of natural moats. We have to cross Wangchuan and pass Mishan before we can reach it.” Jin Lin motioned to him to remain calm and said, “Since he wants to marry Qianyu, he must follow the etiquettes. On the night before the wedding, the bridal sedan will stop in Li Jin for one night. The next day, the King of Hell has to ferry and guide him back for it to count. We just need to wait in Li Jin for the bridal sedan to be sent over.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Cang Ji and Jing Lin rested in Li Jin. There was no sun and moon in this place. After about two days, they finally saw the ferry crossing decorated with lanterns and banners, with red silk hanging high in the city.
Cang Ji leaned over the window to watch. He asked, “Why are all the ghosts in the city crying incessantly?”
“The sight of the scene strikes a chord in their hearts and stirs up their grief.” Jing Lin said, “They have been here for such a long time, and their pasts remain vivid in their minds. They can’t forget it, nor go back.”
“There are way too many things in a human’s entire lifetime that don’t go as desired.” Cang Ji said, “What’s there to cry about?”
“Although the vast majority runs contrary to one’s wishes, there is still that one thing that makes one’s heart sings. For that alone, they are willing to bear with it even if it’s bitter.”
Cang Ji said, “If it’s too bitter, you can’t even taste the sweetness.”
As they spoke, Cang Ji suddenly saw over ten Ghost Guards carrying a red sedan on their shoulders as they soared in the air and stepped on their chains to hurry across Wangchuan. He perked up and pulled Jing Lin along.
With a shout, the Ghost Guards set down the sedan with a thud, stirring up a storm of dust at the ferry crossing. The carriage was adorned with a ring of lanterns, and the door and windows were all nailed shut. It was so dark inside that they could not catch a clear look of Qianyu’s figure. The moment the Ghost Guards set down the sedan, they all retreated in unison. A massive and sturdy ox suddenly rose from the ground, and the chains on its back fell off heavily. It then dragged the sedan forward. A flock of birds baring their fangs rose from the surface of the river and crowded around the sedan like swirls of black clouds to deter others from taking a step nearer. There was a man sitting astride the sedan with a bamboo hat on his head and a stalk of grass in his mouth. He wielded the whip to hit the ox.
Jing Lin said, “That’s the King of Hell, Fei Luo.”
“That’s him?” Cang Ji propped himself up and saw Fei Luo’s pretty face under the bamboo hat. “He looks even younger than me.”
“He’s already one thousand and four hundred years old.” Jing Lin said, “It seems like he values Qianyu a lot. He didn’t even use any help during this entire journey.”
“A pity he’s too late.” Cang Ji said. “Qianyu has someone in his heart. There’s no place for him.”
Jing Lin turned his head sideways and asked, “You understand Qianyu that well?”
“Yeah. He’s so meek and submissive it’s adorable.” Cang Ji folded his arms. “Besides, he is already someone’s husband. There are plenty of things I have to seek his advice on.”
Jing Lin kept silent and listened as Fei Luo stepped on the beam and rose to his feet. He propped himself against the sedan with one hand and raised his bamboo hat with the other. Then he announced in a clear voice all around, “Tomorrow, I will marry! All the ghosts of Li Jin are invited to drink. There are hundreds of thousands of tables set up for the banquet. Visitors from all over are my guests! All of you must drink up! Enjoy yourselves and have a good time!”
The birds sang in unison, and the massive ox dug in its hooves. They circled three rounds around Li Jin before they were done. At the end, Fei Luo cast aside his whip and got off the sedan. He leaned against the window and said to Qianyu, “Darling, after tonight, you and I are husband and wife. What I promised you a few days ago will no longer count! It is only natural for husband and wife to share the same room. There is no reason for you to shut me out anymore, is there?”
Qianyu pounded on the window plank and said in a cold voice, “I already have a husband!”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Fei Luo spat out the stalk of grass. “It’s written very clearly in the Life Registry. He’s a short-lived ghost. Don’t worry. I can still live for thousands of years, so I can grow old with you. I have more time than a mortal.”
“Let me out!” Qianyu looked at him through the gap and repeated, “I already have a husband.”
With his hands at his back, Fei Luo kicked the sedan and said, “Am I not as good-looking as he is? Is my cultivation inferior to his? I can give you everything he can give you. I can even give you half of the Underworld, let alone a few pieces of papers and a few lines of poems. Darling, why put yourself through suffering for hundreds of years? You would be so much more happier if you shift this love over to me, no?”
“You don’t understand the love of this world at all.” Qianyu pressed his head against the window and averted his face. “… I don’t want anyone else. I only want Zuo-lang!”
But Fei Luo turned his head and said to him, “You are so beautiful compared to the Ninth Heaven Realm where only Dong Jun and Lord Linsong can surpass your looks. I cherish your appearance and truly want to be on intimate terms with you. How could you not want it?”
Qianyu knew that he did not understand it at all, so he simply asked, “If you truly treasure attractive appearances, why don’t you marry Dong Jun?”
“Although Dong Jun’s appearance is gorgeous, his original form is savage. Besides, he’s a devil born of the Blood Sea. It flusters me to be with him. However. “Fei Luo laughed. “A few hundreds of years ago, Lord Linsong once listened to mundane doctrine among the clouds, and his side profile put tens of thousands of spirits to shame. Even the Goddess Shengyue had to give way. After Lord Linsong received his rank as a Divine Lord, the once-considered ‘number one beauty’ Goddess Shengyue no longer showed her face. To tell you the truth, when Lord Linsong was still alive, I was determined to marry him.”
Cang Ji could still listen to him at first, but when he heard this sentence, the window wood under his hands snapped with a “CRACK”.
Credits: Many thanks to Catzun for pointing out typos!
彼岸花 red spider lilies, also known as higanbana. Said to be ominous flowers that grow in hell and guide a person to their reincarnation.
- 阳气 yang energy or aura. From the concept of Yin and Yang, which represents opposing forces such as life (yang) and death (yin), male (yang) and female (yin). So here, Cang Ji’s leaking yang aura would potentially give him away as someone who is still alive and not dead.
琵琶 Pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments.
名帖 (also 拜帖), a name card (or visitation card) written or paper or wood used by officials, nobles or distinguished people to notify the other party of their visit. It would usually indicate his name, position, and so on. It’s like a name card in the modern world.
- Also River of Forgetfulness