The sunset glow stretched on into the distance. Within a few miles of this place, there was only one inn in sight.
Carrying a book with a yellowish cover in his arms, Song Ci stood in front of the inn for a moment. Figuring that he had not found the wrong place, he then raised his foot to enter the inn.
There were three people chatting in a circle in front of the counter as they cracked melon seeds between their teeth. They cast a glance at the handsome gentleman with rosy lips and white teeth who had just walked in; his ash grey Daoist robe was embroidered with cloud patterns, his long hair was tied up, and his sleeves swayed as he walked.
One of them, an old fellow who was as skinny as a monkey, reacted quickly. He immediately put the melon seed aside and bent his waist in a welcome, “Is this little Daozhang staying for the night?”
Song Ci did not answer but raised his head to give the inn a look-over. The hall was painted dark vermilion. Now that it was dusk, the unlit hall gave off an eerie vibe.
The old fellow was very discerning. He turned his head back to the two young ones and signaled to them with his hand; the two of them hurriedly took down a lantern and lit the candle in it. The entire hall was then washed in light.
This put Song Ci more at ease. He cleared his throat and asked, “Is there any room available?”
“Yes, yes, yes, there are still many!” The old fellow smiled and said. He turned around to move behind the counter and opened a thick book, “Little Daozhang must have been tired after traveling for the whole day. I will find a quiet room for you so that your rest will not be disturbed by others.”
After hearing that, Song Ci hurriedly replied, “That’s not necessary. I like to be around people.”
The old fellow was distracted for a moment, “Then, little Daozhang, you have come at the right time. A group of young masters and scholars who are taking the imperial examination has just arrived today and they are all staying at the Southern Courtyard. There is only one vacant room left.”
Delighted, he opened his mouth and said, “I’ll take this room.”
“How many days will Daozhang stay?”
Song Ci calculated mentally and said, “Three days.”
The young waiter beside him took out an abacus and counted, “Forty coins for one day, twenty coins for one night, from tonight until the afternoon three days later……”
“One tael and sixty coins”
Upon hearing this, Song Ci touched the tael of silver in his sleeve and thought with a stricken heart, Why is it so expensive? I’d be totally penniless.
“Our inn includes three meals a day.” The old fellow seemed to notice that Song Ci was in a tight spot and so he added on with a smile.
Welp, at least he would not starve to death.
He thought about his purpose here, then gritted his teeth and placed the remaining money he had left on the counter, “I’ll have to trouble you then.”
“Little Daozhang is too kind.” The old fellow did not even count the silver and just swiped it all into a wooden box. He then informed the waiter, “Hurry up and lead Daozhang to his room.”
“Daozhang, please follow me.” The waiter called out to him, lifted the fabric screen and led Song Ci to the backyard of the inn.
The backyard was extremely wide and planted with unidentified trees. At the beginning of spring, the buds had sprouted with bright yellow color and grass tips had also appeared on the unpaved stone path, giving the sense that spring was in the air.
After walking for a while, the stone path split into two directions – North and South. The waiter in front of him said, “Daozhang, this way.”
Song Ci thought for a moment and asked, “Are those in the Southern Courtyard scholars who came for the imperial exam?”
“Not really.” The waiter answered, “People come and go all the time. There are all kinds of people. Today, we have four guests who are here for the imperial exam. There is another one with broad shoulders and thick waist who looks like a wandering swordsman.”
“Hey!” Just then, a loud shout came from in front of them.
Song Ci raised his head to take a look and saw a man striding towards them in a casual manner. His face was full of beard and he had a pair of bushy eyebrows to match. He looked extremely ferocious. It must be the swordsman mentioned by the waiter earlier.
“I was just going to look for you. Give me something to eat. I’m starving.” The man bellowed as he walked, his voice rough and boorish, just like his appearance.
“Good gracious me, chivalrous hero, you just ate an hour ago, why are you hungry again?” The waiter asked with a worried look.
“How would I know?” He frowned impatiently, “If I’m hungry, I’m hungry. Do you still expect me to bear with it? Go and get me something to eat! “
With that, he swept his gaze to the side and noticed Song Ci. His face changed instantly. At first, he was stunned, then his mouth widened into a smile. “Have we ever met before?”
He walked to Song Ci’s side and extended his hand in an attempt to put it around his neck, “Where is this little buddy from?” “
Song Ci deftly stepped back and dodged his hand. He smiled and answered, “From Xi (Western) Liang.”
“Oh—— Xi Liang.” Big beard thought about it for a while, “Should be somewhere far away.”
“We are in Dong (Eastern) Wang, obviously, we are ten thousands of miles apart.” The waiter mumbled.
“What has it to do with you? Go and bring me some rice!” Big Beard told him with a fierce glare, but yet he was all smiles as he spoke to Song Ci, “You are putting up at the Southern Courtyard, right? I’ll take you there.”
Song Ci was perplexed but he continued to keep his guard up. He thanked Big Beard and followed him through an arch into the Southern Courtyard.
There were six rooms in the Southern Courtyard roughly arranged in a spacious circle. Each room had green tiles and red walls, creating a sense of disorder at first glance.
A scholar in simple attire was standing in the courtyard, holding a book in his hand and reciting as he swayed his head. Upon seeing them, he faintly nodded his head at them in place of a greeting and then carried on reciting.
The other rooms were all tightly shut; there were windows opened in some of them, but there was no one around.
Song Ci’s greatest fear was this; nothing seemed out of place at first sight.
If he could tell what was odd in a single glance, then he could concentrate on guarding against it. But since he could not tell what was wrong, he could only guard against everyone and be on the alert all the time.
Speaking of which, he was not a normal human being himself.
If he were to explain the reason he ended up here, it would be a long story indeed.
A year ago, he crossed the borders into Dong Wang and went around making inquiries trying to find out where the entrance to the Demon Realm was, but he found out nothing. The demons he came across all wanted to his life, and thus Song Ci had to lay low as he went about his search. It took him a lot of effort before he finally found some clues.
Rumors had it that there were twelve demon capitals in the demon realm. On the fifteen of every month, one of the demon capitals would open their gate wide open to connect to the human world. Humans could enter, and demons could exit. However, it was said that the demon gate was strictly guarded.
The rule set down by the Demon King was that the humans and demons who entered and exited could only do business with one another; they could not revolt.
Even so, it was still extremely risky for a human to step into the demon capital, thus there were not many humans who would enter the demon capital to do business.
Song Ci passed through many places before he heard that there was a person from the Hu clan in a city called Le Yu who had been to the demon capital to carry out trade when he was young.
He wept tears of joy, rushed all the way there and finally found him in a corner. But before he could ask about anything, that other person kneel down and hugged Song Ci’s leg and wailed like a banshee.
It was only after some careful questioning that he found out that this city had been recently plagued by demons.
Le Yu was located in a remote area and was not really a prosperous or thriving city. For decades, it had been relatively calm and uneventful; it was the first time that it had been plagued by demons.
To be frank, Song Ci was afraid of demons himself, so he never even thought about wanting to do any charity for this man. But who knew that this Hu dude actually used the demon gate to blackmail Song Ci into making this trip.
There was a nameless inn a few miles eastward of Le Yu. In the past two months, five maidens from the city were carried into the inn on bridal sedan chairs. They mysteriously went missing thereafter. The second missy of the Hu clan was the sixth.
The second missy said it herself, that the jade around her neck suddenly broke and the sound of it smashing onto the ground in the bridal sedan startled her awake. She escaped from the bridal sedan, and that was how she managed to save her own life.
She also said that the bridal sedan bearers were several faceless and skinless demons. They did not chase after her and simply vanished after seeing that she had fled.
After the disappearances occurred, the Yamen1 sent out three batches of people to enter and search the inn, but no one came out after going in.
Some people advocated setting fire to the inn, but it never caught fire even when they splashed oil or stacked firewood. Furthermore, everyone from Le Yu who entered the inn all went missing. When everyone realized that a demon had made its way to their city, they all packed up to flee, but somehow, they could only circle around and around the city even after walking for a day and a night. It was like a spell had been cast on them.
According to what Song Ci had heard, there were three Daoist priests before him who took over this case. All of them vanished inside the inn; he was the fourth to come to Le Yu.
Ever since he had left home and spent all his dime, Song Ci had been pretending to be a Daoist monk who went around duping people in order to make a meager living, but he never thought that this pretense would put him in such a big mess now.
He could turn around and leave, but if he gave up this easily, then there would be no knowing when he would be able to obtain further news of the demon gate. He did not dare to take this risk and thus, he braced himself and came here.
Three inn waiters, four scholars taking the imperial exam. Other than Big Beard who was a little odd, the others all seemed normal.
But the more normal it seemed, the more abnormal it obviously was. The lesser flaws they exposed, the higher the demon’s cultivation would be.
Deep in his heart, Song Ci had never stopped wanting to beat a retreat, and now, that desire was even more striking.
“Come, come, come. Your room is here.” Big Beard pointed to a small room nearest to the door and said excitedly, “I’m just beside you. We are so close to each other, so if anything happens, just shout for me.”
“What is going to happen?” Song Ci asked subconsciously.
Big Beard gave a start and scratched his head, “I can’t say for sure…… My goodness, why is this waiter taking so long to bring my food, I’m going to take a look……”
It was as if he had a guilty conscience as he muttered and turned around to leave. Song Ci carefully looked at his retreating back, then held the book in his arms and entered the room while still absorbed in his thoughts.
The sunset glow gradually receded from the sky, the gorgeous colors vanishing into the night. The moon rose into the sky, and night fell.
Song Ci lit a candle lamp and sat beside the window, carefully wiping his black iron scimitar. The polished hilt glistened under the candlelight.
After mistakenly consuming demon blood, Song Ci had left his hometown and traveled far and wide under a new name to Dong Wang, all to search for the entrance to the demon realm. These four years, after encountering countless hardships on the road, he had learned how to control the power in his body, enough to get by in his daily life.
Even if he could not command the wind nor summon rain, he could at the very least suppress the obvious demonic characteristics, thus making him seem no different from a common man.
But over these one thousand days and nights, he had never given up on his determination to turn back into a human. He firmly believed that one day, he would be able to return to his original life.
After zoning out for a while, he flipped open the book that he always carried with him — ‘The Theory of No Demon’.
Reading was the best way to kill time.
The old Song Ci used to read a lot of books, all of which were classics written by men of virtues and scholars. It was only after he came into contact with such folklore did he realize that he had missed more than twenty years of fun.
He read late into the middle of the night, and just when he finished reading the last sentence of a story, loud gongs sounded in distance with a buzzing sound and resounded into the night.
The sound of trumpets and suona2 closely followed behind, the jubilant piece of music abruptly breaking the silence of the night.
At almost the same time, Song Ci blew out the candle beside him and moved his hand behind his back to feel for his scimitar.
Note: The author made some revision to the chapter after this translation was posted, which has since been updated here.
Credits: Many thanks to saed (@saedee_) for the correction! ♥
- 衙门, Yamen. The headquarters or residence of a Chinese government official or department in feudal China.
唢呐, Suona. Also called laba, it is a Chinese double-reed woodwind instrument and one of the most commonly used.