The sword tassel of the sword hung beside Jing Lin’s fingers. For a moment, both men remained where they were. The town appeared to have come to a standstill; even the sand under their feet was no longer shifting. That fleeting cry for help seemed to be but a figment of their imaginations. As the humidity in the air intensified, the corners of Cang Ji’s robe wrinkled slightly.
Jing Lin gently lifted his sword sheath and, the very next moment, backhandedly tossed it out. Yan Quan broke through the plank and stabbed into a wall. The blood fog it struck whined and transformed into smoke, where a lump of fleshy figure lying prostrate on the ground materialized. A child with hair twisted into knots1 was so stunned by Yan Quan that he rolled and yelled.
“Gege, spare me!” He was all skin and bones, and when the sheath of Yan Quan smashed an inch into his chest, he cried out loud as though his heart had been pierced and he was being seared by intense fire.
Yan Quan reversed back into Jing Lin’s palm. He took a few steps closer, and the child climbed to his feet and ran. The blood fog intensified. Jing Lin narrowed his eyes; ghosts and shadows abounded everywhere around them.
“Not an evil spirit.” The tip of Cang Ji’s nose twitched. “He’s a wandering soul.”
“Bodies are destroyed once they enter the sea. Even the minds and souls of cultivators cannot survive, so how can there be the soul of a child?” Jing Lin turned the sword in his hand and looked at the residual black fog at the sharp end of the sword sheath. “The air of resentment is overpowering. He died an untimely and unnatural death.”
“Right.” Cang Ji said, “His throat was sliced to let the blood out, and his corporeal body was fed to the sea. He’s one of those we saw in the City of Bencheng. He must know something. Catch up with him. Don’t let him get away!”
Both men leaped up into the air and chased after the child. That little ghost dashed like mad barefooted and stumbled through the heavy fog as if he did not know the way either and was merely using his gut instinct to flee.
Ghostly faces suddenly sprang up with a “ha!” before them. Jing Lin’s gaze remained fixed on the target. As the gleaming cold light of his sword pierced through the faces, his figure had already leaped his way behind the little ghost. A greed form suddenly appeared and pounced with the intention to obstruct him, but Cang Ji gave it a kick right into the face and sent it up into smoke.
“Not so fast.” Jing Lin held a talisman between his fingers and tapped the azure light on the little ghost’s back.
The little ghost instantly froze in place. He looked as if he was struggling, but he could not move his legs. Fearful of Jing Lin’s sword aura, he turned his eyes and let out a bellow to intimidate him.
“Did you follow us from the City of Bencheng?” Cang Ji landed on the ground and stepped around the little ghost to make his way before him. He considered his tone. It was not ideal to be too soft and it might bode ill to sound too tough. So he used what seemed to be like a mild tone to ask.
But when the little ghost saw him, he trembled all over. He was so frightened that he choked with sobs and cried, “Great Master Demon is omnipotent. Don’t eat me! I’m just a dead kid. I still have to find a way out here and reincarnate!”
“You can tell he’s a demon too?” Jing Lin shifted his way before him too. “He hides it so well that it’s hard for the average cultivators to detect it.”
Even Jing Lin himself got an inkling of it only when he entered the Blood Sea this time.
Tears and snot were already coursing down the little ghost’s face. He was older than the other children who had their throats slit, and he had been hanging around the marketplace and town all year round. So he was not only articulate, but exceptionally quick-witted.
“I dare not deceive gege! Please let me take my time to explain. Don’t kill me! My home was originally in the City of Huaishu. On a night a few days earlier, someone slit my throat and let my blood out. I died an inexplicable death, and the Blood Sea engulfed the city just then. The delay subsequently caused me to miss the timing to head to the Underworld, so I could only remain trapped in the city and wait for my soul to scatter.2 By coincidence, the garrison guard on duty in the city that day dashed out to notify the other cities. He had a very remarkable bow on his back, which allowed me to seek shelter in it. So I hid in the bow as he led me to Qixing town! But what the heck! Qixing town was surrounded by the Blood Sea too. The garrison guard’s eyes were blinded and could no longer see. And then you guys came! I was terrified. Evil spirits with eyes all over their bodies were everywhere. The stench stank as if I was huddled in the crotch of a filthy ghost’s trousers. I couldn’t stand it, so I was going to continue fleeing. It happened that gege you dispatched the garrison guard to Xitu, so I followed him again. Evil spirits created havoc among the whirlwind of flying sand and debris on our way there. With great difficulty, we finally arrived at the western boundary, but we encountered a few skilled, major demons who obstructed our way.” When the little ghost spoke to this point, he sniffled and turned his eyes to Cang Ji. “The demons initially wanted to eat the garrison guard, but then they shouted that the garrison guard had a dragon…”
Cang Ji looked back at him with deep, unfathomable eyes.
The little ghost faltered and stumbled over his words, “…Had, had a major-league demon’s protection… So I guessed it was this Great Master…”
“When Hui An left the city, you patted him once.” Jing Lin thought back carefully to that night and turned his eyes to look at Cang Ji. “So, you were paving the way for him.”
“It’s nothing. There’s no need to worry about it.” Cang Ji felt relieved when he saw that this little kid could take a hint. At this point of time, his identity was of no help to Jing Lin. On the contrary, it was easy to arouse the suspicions of the sect. That was why he had been reluctant to come clean about it.
“Why didn’t you head for reincarnation after reaching Xitu?” Jing Lin asked.
“The Underworld didn’t want me!” The little ghost was overwhelmed with sorrow at this point and let out intermittent cries. “That Ghost Guard said that the Registry of Human Life Expectancy was clean; there’s no record of me in it! He also said that there isn’t anyone to manage the Underworld at present. Half of it had collapsed a long time ago. He had no time or energy to investigate it in depth, so he threw me back to Xitu and left me to fend for myself.”
“Then, how did you follow us?” Cang Ji sized him up. “I can’t believe you actually managed to hide from our eyes seeing as you have nothing to rely on.”
“I saw you searching the corpses in the City of Bencheng.” With a bubble of snot in his nose, the little ghost said, “All of them had their throats sliced and had only a layer of skin left. I originally wanted to find a wild ghost as a companion, but after following both of you around, I couldn’t find any. Gege, you have a pure aura of spiritual energy on you. It’s only by following you that I can remain in one piece without dispersing.”
Jing Lin asked, “Where were you hiding before?”
The little ghost replied, “I clung to the sole of your shoe. I didn’t dare to be impetuous. When you entered the small abode last night, I was shut outside for no reason. I was alarmed and frightened, so I spent the night in this shabby shack.”
This was all thanks to Cang Ji. He suspected that the “Blood Sea” would eavesdrop and peep, and he had no wish to expose Jing Lin for others to peek, so he had kept up a secure spiritual barrier.
“Since you were outside last night, did you see anything?” Cang Ji looked back and saw that the blood fog had taken on the shape of hanging curtains.
“I didn’t dare to look for fear of encountering something unclean or getting eaten by evil spirits.” The little ghost put on a pained look. “I wasn’t pestering gege on purpose! It’s just that I died a mysterious death. If I don’t get to the bottom of it, then I’ll become a malicious ghost with grievances!”
“The various lands are now all in a state of emergency. Even the Underworld could not escape its clutches. But the Registry of Human Life Expectancy is of vital importance. If there’s life, then there’s death. Traces of life shouldn’t have just disappeared into thin air.” Jing Lin kept away the talisman and brushed away the resentful aura from the little ghost’s back, which lifted a weight off the little ghost’s body and restored some of his human features.
“Not only were the corporeal bodies fed to the sea, even their souls go missing. It’s impossible for ordinary people to do such a clean job of it.” Cang Ji slowly paced a few steps. “He doesn’t want the children’s bodies. The only thing he takes is the blood. Even demons do not have this kind of fetish. It seemed more like sacrificial offerings of a heretic gone astray.”
Jing Lin asked the little ghost, “How did you get murdered?”
The little ghost leaned against Jing Lin’s side and said, “To reply gege, I was playing with the others at night when I heard that someone was giving out gruel and alms at the old temple in the city to help some rich family to pick and select servants. I’m poor, and I have no parents. It’s all by following the head hoodlum to create a scene and collect debts that I could get a few mouthfuls of rice to eat. So when I heard of this, I was very happy and went with them.”
At this point, an anguished expression took over his face as he hemmed and hawed hesitantly.
“We went into the temple. There was a specially prepared room inside… The room was very dark and crammed with little lads and maidens… I even asked someone why they didn’t light a lamp. After a while, they lined us up and did a nose count of us… So many people… All of them were the usual beggars and street performers from the streets…”
As the little ghost spoke, he clutched his own throat and stuck out his tongue.
“They gave us food to eat. There was an empty courtyard behind the temple… It stank, just like the evil spirits in the Blood Sea… They did a head count and called us into the room… I … I seemed to have gone in… Then, then, we were crowded in a corner…”
His face gradually changed with his voice. It was suddenly hideous and terrifying as he clenched his own throat and wailed mournfully.
“My legs and hands were bound with a string… the sting slit my throat…”
His throat gurgled with sobs.
“… I saw… a folding fan… with a… scent…”
Cang Ji caught the little ghost by his nape and lifted him off the ground. The little ghost’s eyes have already rolled up, showing the whites. He tugged desperately at his throat, where a fine slit had appeared. Then, the gash split open and blood spurted out of it. His wrists and ankles rotted, as though it had been soaked in blood.
Cang Ji said, “I’m here. So what are you afraid of?”
As soon as he said that, the sand and stones under his feet shook. A gush of heat washed over the little ghost from top to bottom. It was so scalding that he shook all over. The myriad of terrifying scenes in his mind instantly flashed past. The soul seemed as if he had found a backing as his fear retreated. With his legs swinging in the air, he snapped awake from the resentful aura.
“A folding fan.” Cang Ji asked in a steady voice, “What scent did it have?”
The little ghost trembled uncontrollably. “The kind used as offerings to Bu, Buddha…”
“Sandalwood.” A man instantly appeared in Jing Lin’s mind.
Before Jing Lin could give it further thought, the blood fog, which had been as thick as the waves all along, changed in a flash. Flying sand in the town scraped against his shoes, and a faint sound came assailing them on all sides. With a sidelong glance of his glacial eyes, he saw a beast suddenly crashing its way out of the blood waves. But it turned out to be Shuran with bleeding sores all over him, and who had fallen into the hands of the Blood Sea!
Shuran’s eyes were red, and numerous eyes were growing on his back. The greed form had revived by winding around him and relying on him as its body. He could no longer tell who Jing Lin was. His forelegs stepped down on the dwelling, collapsing it, even as its hind legs were still stuck in the river mud. He pulled them out, digging up foul-smelling skeletons along with his legs. His fangs were stained with traces of filth as he opened his jaws and salivated. Roaring, he charged towards Cang Ji and Jing Lin.
Jing Lin raised his leg to lift Yan Quan. A sweep of the strong wind lifted Shuran up, causing him to howl. The instant Shuran leaned back, the dense cluster of bloody eyes on his chest blinked. The evil spirit let out an ear-piercing shriek. Jing Lin had already spun around and drawn his sword. The snowy glow of Yan Quan whistled through the air. But Cang Ji was faster than Jing Lin. Before the tip of Yan Quan arrived, Shuran was already sent flying from his strike. He crashed heavily into the river mud, stirring up a massive foul-smelling wave!
“He’s useful to have around.”
Cang Ji backhandedly pressed down on the hilt of Jing Lin’s sword, and the blade returned to its sheath. He rose into the air. Before Shuran could climb to his feet, a strike to his head sent the behemoth caving into the muddied water.
Splashes of mud and corpses splattered all over. Cang Ji’s blow was so forceful that the evil spirit jostled and struggled to climb out from those bloody eyes. Behind, Jing Lin flung out a ray of azure light and the talisman that had risen into the air suddenly transformed into countless threads of light to bind Shuran’s body and placed him on his side. The blood waves above widened its gaping, bloody mouth and turned into the gargantuan figure of a phoenix with the intention to devour Cang Ji. Steadying his feet, Cang Ji hauled Shuran’s colossal body and swung it up to smash into that enormous figure, turning it into an entire sky of bloody rain.
Cang Ji dragged Shuran out of the foul-smelling rain, while Jing Lin’s eyes followed closely after the blood waves.
“He has returned to his lair in alarm. The entrance must be in the opposite direction.”
Jing Lin took in the soul of the little ghost into his Qian Kun3 sleeve. As Cang Ji sprang over to him, Jing Lin turned his feet and trod on the side of Shuran’s rear. A gale violently tore apart the gloom shrouding the sky, and daylight suddenly appeared within a few li4 around. Without saying a word more, Cang Ji embraced Jing Lin around the waist with an arm and soared into the sky to break through the fog!
The air they breathed in finally turned crisp, clear and refreshing. Outside, frost blanketed the land for several li over. Cang Ji tossed Shuran out. He tumbled with Jing Lin and plunged into the pond of chilly autumn waters. Jing Lin was initially about to tread the air to stabilize himself. How could he have expected Cang Ji to pull him down? He toppled over, and both of them crashed into the azure waves, soaked to the skin.
◈ ◈ ◈
Clothes floated in the water, and Jing Lin’s hair covered his temples. All of a sudden, the blackness before his eyes was brushed aside as Cang Ji held him by both cheeks and lowered his head to kiss him.
Jing Lin’s hands clung on to Cang Ji’s shoulders and arms as his tongue tingled with numbness from being held in the latter’s mouth. After a moment, he broke through the water surface as Cang Ji held him in his arms and pushed him up. Propping himself on Cang Ji’s shoulders, Jing Lin gasped for breath.
Cang Ji was still standing in the water. He raised and pressed his head against Jing Lin and smiled. “So how’s this method? Even the spell can’t stop me from entering the water to save you.”
Jing Lin’s wet hair clung to his cheeks as he looked into the distance at the blood fog which had already been concealed among the boundlessness. Cang Ji lifted his fingers to wipe off the water on his cheeks and was caught unaware when Jing Lin turned his head to the side to bite down on his fingers.
What was that he had said about the Blood Sea being so bizarre and abnormal that it was hard to exit? It was clearly Cang Ji who had led him around in circles to stay a night inside!
Cang Ji hissed and said, “You dare to bite me?!”
Jing Lin’s chest heaved. He said, “You rascal! It’s so easy to leave… um!”
“Since you like to bite so much, then I’ll let you play.” Cang Ji extended two icy fingers into Jing Lin’s mouth and stirred up a storm among his warm tongue and saliva.
Jing Lin struggled to spit them out, but Cang Ji went along with his movements and reached deeper in. He turned his fingers, leading Jing Lin to swallow and spit a few times. It was when the sucking unexpectedly became a little unbearable to him that he pulled his fingers out. Jing Lin lifted his leg to stomp on him, but Cang Ji caught him by the ankle and bent over to grab both of his legs and hoist him over his shoulder.
“The place is abnormal. Not being able to make our way out is true.” Cang Ji waded ashore. “Your bite really hurts!”
On hearing this, Jing Lin let out a cold laugh and grabbed his shoulder for another bite.
Cang Ji sucked in a breath and suddenly spun a few circles with him over his shoulders. He threatened, “Bite me again and I’ll throw you out!”
Jing Lin said, “Bite you to death!”
“Who bites whom to death?” Cang Ji jerked him. “I can swallow eight of you in one mouthful.”
Jing Lin sprawled beside Cang Ji’s ear and let out a loud “bah”, causing Cang Ji to inexplicably burst out laughing. Carrying Jing Lin on his shoulders, he sprinted madly for a distance and stepped around to Shuran’s side to kick the beast.
“The time has not yet come for this fellow to die. He still has some merit to accumulate. How about giving him to me? Secretly. Don’t tell your old man and brothers. We’ll treat it as your dowry.”
- If a soul is completely scattered or dispersed, then the person would cease to exist with no chance for reincarnation.
- 乾坤 Qian Kun means Heaven and Earth, or a universe. Literally, it’s saying there’s another interspatial ‘universe’ in Jing Lin’s sleeve. It would be like a different world in there or he could even use it as an interspatial inventory.
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m