Faraway Wanderers Chapter 11-20

Chapter 11. The Cave

Zhou Zishu stood before the “Yellow Spring” in contemplation before turning back to the way he came. The devil made work for idle hands; all the time lazying around at the Zhao’s had apparently made him jump down here without a thought—Hua Shan Sect’s patriarch was no honorable type but his son was even worse, having indulged in debauchery at such a young age.

Besides, they were all pugilist wanderers, being attacked was all in a day’s work. No matter where Yu Tianjie was severed—his head or his family jewels—it didn’t concern Zhou Zishu in the slightest.

It might have been for Wen Kexing’s ghostly tales, but he suddenly had a bad feeling. The underground cave carried a sinister atmosphere. Zhou Zishu calculated; since he only had two and a half years left, it was better to help the dying and injured, making the best of his time to do good.

Not crawling into a grave with a man who was not always right in the head.

But when he was tracing the way back, there was an abrupt “thud”, like a mechanism being switched. Around the entrance, hundreds of steel knives extended from the wall, blocking the path.

Zhou Zishu was fortunate to have retreated in time, or else he would have been skewered.

He frowned, staring at those knives then looked at Wen Kexing, “Who did you offend?”

The surprise question left Wen Kexing’s eyes wide open, he looked like he was greatly wounded by the words. “Why is it that I had to offend someone for this to happen?”

Zhou Zishu scoffed and shook his head. He had no choice but to move forward along the “Yellow Spring”; it was possible that he could find another exit somewhere. “Are you saying it’s because of me and not you? I’m virtually unknown and have just entered jianghu recently, I have never commit thievery, the only thing I have been doing is travelling in peace. Who could ever hold a grudge against me?”

Wen Kexing fell into silence, having enough of his companion’s bold-faced lies. After a while, he spoke with a gentle voice, “You escorted Zhang Chengling; you have killed thirty two in total along the way, including four of the extremely dangerous type like Qin Song…”

“My ass, there’re only eleven at most.” Zhou Zishu replied, “Those in the shrine died under your little maid’s hands.”

“So it’s still definitely you.” Wen Kexing held out his hands, “These hands of mine; ever since I left home to join jianghu they have not been stained with any blood, even that of a chicken, much less a human. How can it be possible that I have offended anyone?”

Zhou Zishu didn’t spare him a glance.

That prompted Wen Kexing to walked faster, standing in front of the other with an exaggerated expression of seriousness. “It might be hard to believe because of how I look, but I swear I’m a good person.”

Zhou Zishu nodded, “Of course, Mister “Good Person” Wen. Now that it’s clear I’m just a murderous demon, it’s better for you to get out of my way.”

Wen Kexing seemed to ignore the half-hearted nature of the response as he still wore a blinding smile, “I will leave you alone once you admit that you’re wearing a disguise.”

Zhou Zishu smiled back, “How generous of you.”

“Please, don’t mention it.”

Zhou Zishu side-stepped him to go forward.

Wen Kexing followed two steps behind, still smiling.

The water of the spring flowed quite rapidly. Zhou Zishu kicked a rock down there, but it was unable to see the true depth. It twisted and turned in a complicated pattern, and there also seemed to be fish but they swam too fast to be visible. Zhou Zishu was not good at swimming, the best he could do was holding his breath for a long time underwater so he would not die instantly upon jumping down. After examining, he decided it was better to stay away from it.

The cave seemed to connect to many paths at all directions, since the sound of their footsteps and conversations could travel real far. Suddenly, Zhou Zishu stopped walking. “Brother Wen, look.”

Wen Kexing followed his gaze to a pile of bones not too far away.

He mumbled, “Shouldn’t the path to the Yellow Spring be lined with equinox flowers? And the dead should only have their souls left, why are there bones here?”

Zhou Zishu flicked at the bones, holding up a half-destroyed skull on one hand and the matchbook on another, sizing it up carefully. “This skull was crushed, the part where it connects to the spine seems to be slashed… Hm? No, the wound is uneven, there are teeth marks here. Did an animal bite them?”

“Can an animal bite someone’s head off?” Wen Kexing asked.

Zhou Zishu picked up a thigh bone. “Teeth marks… More teeth marks, they’re quite small…”

He was hit with a sense of familiarity, as if he had seen them before somewhere. But he had never been a coroner[1], so the memory slipped his mind at the time.

Wen Kexing felt his stomach churning a little, taking the thigh bone from Zhou Zishu with only two fingers. “This is… quite a clean work we’ve got here; even cleaner than me gnawing on chicken bones.” He said after examining.

Zhou Zishu decided to stop having chicken drumsticks from now on.

“Who could’ve left such bites, can it be a wild beast?” Wen Kexing thought about it for a bit, “I heard that in the underworld there is this giant beast called Di Ting[2], do you know if it likes meat or not?”

—it was clear that he still hadn’t given up on his ghost stories.

Zhou Zishu put on a fake smile, “You just have to wait until you’re a hundred years old and leave this world to go down to hell…”

He didn’t get to finish as there were sounds of water sloshing behind them. In the dark cave, the sounds made their hair stand on end. Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing turned to that direction and took one step back, facing the small river with their guard raised.

Wen Kexing spoke slowly, “I also heard that Di Ting doesn’t live in the Yellow Spring, and there aren’t that many, either.”

Out from the river crawled many… human-looking creatures, but not really. Their limbs were extra long and their stature was short. They were completely naked, their flesh pale from being underwater, and they had very long hair. Their body width was unnaturally large, twice or thrice that of a normal human. Their eyes shone a distant light while they gradually drew closer.

Zhou Zishu looked down and bit his wrist, then spoke to Wen Kexing while staring at the faint teeth marks. “I remember it now, those small marks are…”

“Are what?” Wen Kexing asked while retreating.

“Human teeth.”

Wen Kexing halted after that, coughing, fixing his hair and clothes. He made a salutation at the approaching monsters. “My… good brothers, we barged into this place completely by accident, we didn’t at all mean to offend, so please…”

Zhou Zishu snorted in an uncharming way. The humanoid monsters let out a ghastly howl before coming at Wen Kexing.

Wen Kexing yelled indignantly, “I haven’t finished!”

In contrast, he dodged the attackers like a flying leaf, moving to the side without any effort. The monster’s reflexes and movements were fast as they immediately changed direction to chase after him, claws extracted and glinting, leaving marks on the ground that were about two inches[3] deep.

Zhou Zishu smiled. “How is it, Brother Wen, are you speechless?”

The monsters’ attack officially began. Zhou Zishu wouldn’t treat those like humans as they were definitely far from it; their durability was unfathomable and their destructive power was immense. They were also fast and didn’t seem to experience pain.

Zhou Zishu’s hand was on one’s chest, attacking it with all of his might. A rock would have exploded after that move, but as the monster was knocked flying back against the wall, they only screeched before standing back up.

Zhou Zishu was internally unsettled, he couldn’t think of what it actually was.

He heard a “crack!” beside him. It turned out to be a sneak attacker being caught and having its neck snapped by Wen Kexing.

Wen Kexing smiled, “Now I’ve saved you once.”

Zhou Zishu also realized in contrast to their firm body mass, the monster’s neck was incredibly fragile, unable to support its head at times.

He was surprised that Wen Kexing found out so quickly. Despite that, he replied with politeness, “Thank you.”

Another one barged at them, which Zhou Zishu evaded. His elbow curved to strike at the monster’s back, and his fingers made a clawing movement to twist the neck.

They made light work of taking down a few more. At least those creatures still had a bit of intellect in them, as they grew fearful after not being able to subdue their preys. Their leader howled, and they slowly returned to the water. Randomly, one would have its head above the water, staring at their abnormally powerful intruders.

Zhou Zishu whispered, “With their size, they can clearly bite our heads off. We shouldn’t stay here any longer, let’s go.”

Wen Kexing replied after a bout of contemplative silence, “I’ve figured it out.”

Zhou Zishu presumed he had found out what the monster was. “Figured out what?” He asked without thinking.

“Real human skin will redden if you pinch it, since I can’t make out your disguise, can you let me pinch your face a little?”

Zhou Zishu walked away, not bothering with an answer. He must have been mad for having taken this person seriously.

Wen Kexing followed him close behind. “Did I finally get you, and because of that you don’t want me to touch your face? I knew it, I knew you used some kind of tricks! Are you so beautiful that you’re afraid some sleazy deviants will be after you? No worries, Brother Zhou, I am a completely righteous and honorable individual, I’ll never do any harm. So, can you let me see your true visage…”

Zhou Zishu turned a deaf ear with incredible restraint.

But then Wen Kexing changed his tone. “Although, your skills are truly no joke, I can’t think of anyone who can be that good. Are you… from the fabled ‘Tian Chuang’?

Zhou Zishu stopped walking. In the darkness of the cave, Wen Kexing’s smile seemed to carry another meaning to it. But Zhou Zishu only held up his index finger to stop the other, voice lowered, “Can you hear it?”

They went quiet. In the deeper part of the cave echoed the roars of a beast. “It’s the one that can bite off a human’s head.”

Wen Kexing had no interest in those beasts, his eyes were fixed on Zhou Zishu alone. The man didn’t react to his earlier words at all, only listening to his surroundings intently; his eyes and expressions never wavered.

Another roar can be heard, significantly louder now, as if the beast had moved closer. Zhou Zishu saw the underwater monsters all cowering in supposed fear. He tugged at Wen Kexing, and they took a turn into another trail. Zhou Zishu took out a small bottle, sprinkling something along the way.

Then they hid in a corner and held their breath.

Footnotes:
[1] 仵作 (wǔzuò) is an old term to call coroners.
[2] 谛听 (dìtīng) is a mythical beast in Buddism under the control of Kṣitigarbha. It is said to be able to see through everything and can detect people’s truest desires in their heart.
[3] 寸 (cùn) is a traditional unit of length, also called Chinese inch. 1 cun is about 1.312 in.

Chapter 12. Illusions

Wen Kexing had no idea what the dust that Zhou Zishu had sprinkled was but he didn’t ask, as if he already knew what the other was capable of. He stood beside Zhou Zishu silently. Seconds later, the heavy breathing of the slowly approaching beast could be heard. The creature seemed to have noticed something, maintaining a slow tread. It went by a spot that was about ten feet away from them.

The creature was dog-like but as big as a pony, black all over. It panted through the nose, and in the air was a faint fishy smell. It slowed down even more, sniffing the air like it was suspicious of something.

Zhou Zishu crossed his arms in front of his chest, leaning on the wall, eyes narrowed, watching the scene intently.

There was a fleeting hint of a smile on Wen Kexing’s face; it was chilling and only there for a split second.

The beast was not far away but it had yet to notice the two’s presence. It stood still for a while then moved forward, being watched by two pair of human eyes. It followed the smell of blood to the corpses of the underwater monsters. After sniffing, it bellowed, head lowered and mouth chewing happily—it truly was able to decapitate the humanoid monsters.

Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu glanced at each other. Zhou Zishu was quietly terrified; while he wasn’t a coroner, he had been through a lot in life and his knowledge was vast, it was impossible that he couldn’t recognize a human head. Is that creature really human? He mused.

If it was, how did it come to this?

Wen Kexing poked at him, pointing at a small road. Zhou Zishu nodded, leaving carefully.

The road widened and narrowed in an unpredictable fashion. After an unknown amount of turns far away from their starting point, Wen Kexing asked, “There are other teeth marks on the bones of those dead monsters, do you think they cannibalize?”

When he wasn’t talking nonsense, his voice was low, almost like sighing with no strength to it, as if he didn’t want to waste energy; completed with a hint of indifference. He paused, then continued, “Are they human?”

Zhou Zishu looked at him, voice also low, “Forgive me, I’m just a fool with shallow knowledge.”

“Wen Kexing laughed softly, “You, shallow knowledge? Hah.”

He didn’t ask further and kept walking.

After an indefinite time, at another turn, when the rapidly flowing “Yellow Spring” appeared again in front of their eyes, Zhou Zishu called out, “Wait.”

Wen Kexing looked back at him, the irritating demeanor making a return, “What’s wrong, beautiful Brother Zhou?”

Zhou Zishu knew all too well that reacting would only goad the other on, so he ignored the gibberish. “Those underwater creatures are incredibly strong and fast, and they can move in the water naturally. The beast we saw walks on land and is aware that it has to stay away from the river; if it doesn’t hunt near the water, how can it catch the monsters?”

Wen Kexing stopped walking, examining the ground under them. It was unclear whether he was monologuing or speaking to Zhou Zishu, “How big is this place?”

Why did it feel like the road was never-ending?

Zhou Zishu suddenly spoke after falling into pensiveness. “This river flows from east to west. I remember the direction very clearly; even though we took a few turns, we’re still going in the north-south direction…”

“You mean we’re running in circles?” Sudden enthusiasm took over Wen Kexing, he blinked, “I also heard about this one story where a person…”

Zhou Zishu turned his back to him, making a mark on the wall with his fingertip; then wordlessly left to walk along the mysterious river.

Wen Kexing didn’t mind his ghost stories being ignored. He rubbed his nose, following the other with a smile.

Suddenly, they heard a roar that seemed to shake the whole cave. In the middle of it was a piercing scream that possibly belonged to a child.

Zhou Zishu stopped walking.

The child’s miserable crying began to get louder.

Zhou Zishu swiftly dashed to that direction, he was ten feet away in just a blink of an eye. Wen Kexing didn’t get to say what he wanted to, his extending arm hanging in midair. He swallowed back the words, shaking his head and following the other.

They saw under the claws of the half-dog-half-horse creature was a little girl. The big fangs were right next to the girl’s pale neck, seemingly about to bite down. Zhou Zishu propelled himself higher in the air and struck down at the monster. Ranged attack was one of his fortes, and the creature was hit right in the head, its whole body knocked and rolled to one side.

He picked up the child who was only weakly breathing.

The beast shook its head with all its might, as if it was disoriented after being hit. After a moment, it realized that Zhou Zishu had stolen its food and roared, charging toward him.

At first Zhou Zishu was going to throw her to Wen Kexing by instinct but then paused. His feet started to move around in a strange pattern, his body mysteriously able to retreat several feet away. He put the girl down and kept moving.

The beast followed, the stench from its bloody mouth was headache-inducing. Zhou Zishu jumped to a high place before landing himself on top of the beast in just seconds.

Wen Kexing stood there, completely disregarding the crying girl with an expressionless face.

Zhou Zishu used ‘The Fall of A Thousand Weight’[1] to keep the beast down, but it was a smart creature, its body toppling over to roll—if someone were to roll with it, they would be crushed to dust even if they were made of metal.

Zhou Zishu immediately took advantage of that to jump down with a shout, kicking at its belly.

The creature’s back was full of tough muscles but the stomach area was really soft, and the kick nearly turned over every organ inside. It roared in pain, but could still stand up thanks to the thick skin’s protection. Its mouth widened to bite at Zhou Zishu. Its back legs were incredibly strong and despite being in agony, it was still very fast. Zhou Zishu was about to dodge when his internal strength suddenly hit a wall.

The beast’s sharp teeth were right in front of him at that moment. He pressed down at his chest with one palm and bent the elbow of the other arm, risking his life facing the attack to hit his elbow at the creature’s nose. There was a sound of its nose being broken, its claw tearing Zhou Zishu’s left shoulder, making him bleed instantly.

Zhou Zishu realized the nose was the creature’s weakness. He ignored his wound, using his hand to strike at the beast’s nose again with enough momentum to completely shatter the bones on its forehead too. It staggered a few steps and went down with a loud rumble.

Zhou Zishu frowned, blocking the acupuncture points on his shoulder to stop the bleeding. He was about to use the water from the “Yellow Spring” to clean the wound, but then remembered the half-human-half-demon creatures down there and gave up the idea. He heard Wen Kexing let out an “Oh”, then, “Do you have internal injuries?”

Zhou Zishu turned his head to glance at the other and replied calmly, “Just haven’t had enough food tonight.”

Then he bent down to pick up the young girl, patting her back and speaking to her with a gentle voice, “Where are you from, how did you get here?”

Wen kexing laughed mockingly at that. “You should rather ask her what kind of demon she is. Why did you save her anyway?”

The girl didn’t say anything, only burrowing herself deeper into Zhou Zishu’s embrace.

Zhou Zishu stopped asking, saying to Wen Kexing, “For gathering merits.”

Wen Kexing stared at his bloody shoulder in deep thoughts, then suddenly smiled, “I’ve caught you, Brother Zhou forgot to disguise the skin on your shoulder, that area looks really different from your face and neck.”

Zhou Zishu only paused for a few seconds before answering curtly, “It’s because of sunbathing.”

Wen kexing was still smiling, “Is it really? This is the first time I’ve heard that a pale beauty can have that haggard shade of skin after sunbathing.”

“Pale Beauty” Zhou Zishu was given the heebies-jeebies after those words. Still carrying the girl, he was about to say something when his eyes caught something and saw a strange scene: on the body of the dead beast, a plant sprung up, glowing then blooming… it’s a cherry blossom tree!

Wen Kexing followed his gaze, his face quickly paling.

Zhou Zishu had no time to care about that, he stood stock still, gawking at the still-growing blossom tree. In the air was an unknown fragrance. The body of the doglike beast was nowhere to be seen, and the flowers kept blooming as though absorbing magical energy; soon, it spread out wide—seemed like he could even touch it if he had reached out.

Then there was a person standing under the tree.

He was a young man with thick brows and big eyes, full lips seemingly always smiling. Blossom petals fell on his shoulders but he cared none about it, only extending his hand, lips moving. Zhou Zishu could make out what he was speaking—senior brother.

It was Jiuxiao…

At that moment, it was possible that his heart had stopped beating.

There was sudden sharp pain on his shoulder. Zhou Zishu cried out, having lowered his guard. He looked down to see the little girl in his arms opening her mouth to sink her teeth into his wound.

He acted on instinct and used internal strength to throw her off. When he pulled himself together, the cherry blossom tree and the person disappeared—in front of him now was only the dark cave with the beast’s corpse on the ground and the pile of bones that they had examined moments ago.

The girl that he threw off let out an inhuman scream. When he looked clearly, she was not at all a human girl, but actually the underwater monster!

The little monster screamed with its mouth open, staring at his bleeding wound hungrily. It was eager to pounce again, but suddenly a hand stuck out and grabbed its neck. The creature didn’t even get to struggle before its neck was snapped and it died immediately.

Wen Kexing lips curled in amusement, discarding the body without a thought. He spoke as if nothing happened, “Those underwater things still dare go on land even when they’re afraid of the beast. Seems like there aren’t just us two down here.”

All strength seemed to have left Zhou Zishu, he forced out a laugh, “Did we just go in circles and back to the original spot then?”

Wen Kexing sized him up. “Can you walk? I can carry you… bridal style is completely alright too, as long as you let me see your real face.”

Zhou Zishu smiled drily, “Thank you, but there’s no need.”

He covered the shoulder wound, lifted his spirits and continued walking along the “Yellow Spring”. Then he asked like he just remembered something, “Back then I saw a tree with flowers growing from the beast’s corpse, with prince’s feathers[2] jumping and singing. What did you see?”

Wen Kexing replied from behind him, “I saw an owl—I told you before that owls laughing will only bring bad luck, and I was right wasn’t I—then I also a person carrying a bowl with red water, and the owl knocked it over…”

Zhou Zishu kept his mouth shut. He told a lie, it was fair that his companion told a lie in return.

He took the lead and didn’t look back, so he didn’t see Wen Kexing’s expression at that moment—the smile on the man’s face seemed to freeze there for a long time and his eyes were blank. It was unclear that he was looking down at the ground or at something very far away. Seeing that Zhou Zishu had no patience for his owl story, he swallowed it down and followed the other.

Footnotes:
[1] A martial art move from the Cherry Blossom Pole (梅花樁) kungfu style.
[2] A plant of the Polygonaceae family, also called the “dog’s tail” plant in China due to the shape of the flowers.

Chapter 13. Exposed

Zhou Zishu abruptly stopped walking and sized up the four cave entrances with a frown. “There’s water and wind in here, the chances for someone to poison us are low,” He said.

He wouldn’t call himself an expert in medicine-related matters, but the current Emperor during his years as Crown Prince used to be acquainted with a young shaman from South Xinjiang[1] who was held hostage at the capital. The shaman was following orders from the Shaman Valley to use the pugilist scene in Zhong Yuan[2] as test subject for their medicine, and most of the South Xinjiang-originated remedies and poisons which were unheard of at that time were brought here by him.

Zhou Zishu might not possess an intensive knowledge, but he had seen enough to know that there had yet to exist a poison that could cause hallucination for this long.

Wen Kexing nodded, “So someone has used divination to find ways to trap us here—do you know anything about it?”

Zhou Zishu replied calmly, “The stuffs about three directions, eight trigrams and six jias[3]?”

“You must’ve studied a lot of things, even this…” Wen Kexing said in surprise.

Zhou Zishu was nonplussed. “Of course I don’t, that’s all I know about it.” He decided to sit down as walking further was an impossible feat. While leaning back onto the wall, he carelessly let the wound graze the surface. He shivered and slightly grimaced, unable to process the fact that a mere wild beast could agonize him to this state; but such was the life of being seen as a nuisance everywhere he went.

Wen Kexing thought about how he at least knew what “three directions and eight trigrams” actually was and felt a sense of intellectual superiority; but after he remembered that Zhou Zishu sold himself for two silvers, the superiority fell flat. So he sat down beside the injured man, tilting his head to look at the wound, somewhat delighted at the other’s misfortune, “Serves you right for treating a monster like a little girl.”

Zhou Zishu closed his eyes to recuperate, paying no attention to him.

Wen Kexing silently stood up, walked away and returned after a while. Zhou Zishu felt a spike of coldness on his shoulder, and he opened his eyes to Wen Kexing using a soaked piece of cloth to wash the wound.

On instinct, Zhou Zishu avoided the touch, but Wen Kexing held back his shoulder, “Don’t move.”

Zhou Zishu asked with a pained face, “Where did you get the water from?”

“The river.” Wen Kexing replied. After some thinking, he added, “It’s running water, really clean.”

Zhou Zishu felt his hair stand on end. He knew it was running water, so drinking from it was no problem, much less using it to treat injuries; but he couldn’t stop thinking about those underwater creatures roaming around under there.

Sharp-eyed Wen Kexing happily teased the other after noticing the goosebumps, “Can you really be disgusted when you look like a ragged beggar yourself? Come on, stop acting like a maiden.”

Zhou Zishu knew the other had a point; nevertheless, he glanced at the other’s handkerchief witheringly. The fragrance from it—a gentle and elegant smell of beauty products—attacked his nostrils, and at the corner was a small but exquisitely embroidered orchid. The size was a bit too big and it looked too plain for a maiden to use, but if this was a man’s… what kind of person would carry this on them?

He couldn’t help but give Wen Kexing a weird look and teased the man back since no one was around, “My good friend, why are you carrying a maiden’s belongings, is there a story behind this?”

Wen Kexing, who was carefully removing the bloodstained fabric from the open wound, immediately tore the clothes with more force after hearing that, face blank. Zhou Zishu let out an “Ow!”, grimacing. Only then did Wen Kexing answered in good spirits, “This is a personal gift from the famous courtesan and gentleman Su Yue from Yang Zhou City, you shouldn’t have asked if you don’t want to make an ignorant fool of yourself.”

Then he continued to tear Su Yue’s gift into pieces and used them to cover Zhou Zishu’s wound.

Zhou Zishu had no idea people from Jiangnan were that open-minded. He asked without thinking, because even back when the capital was thirty miles from the Wang Yue river and was ruled by that degenerate Emperor, the concept of a male courtesan was not heard of anywhere.

Wen Kexing looked at him with pity, “Were you born in utopia? Is everyone from Tian Chuang a country bumpkin? Or was my guess wrong?”

Zhou Zishu scoffed, “Never have I said that I…”

Before he could finish, Wen Kexing moved at lightning speed to dig at a major acupuncture point on his chest. If the target was at another place on his body and was covered by clothes, Zhou Zishu would not feel anything; but he was exhausted and the unruly Nails were acting up, so that very light attack was the last straw. He cried out, body bent over in pain, “You…”

Wen Kexing rubbed his chin, his tone knowing, “Your internal injuries are very serious, and seeing how capable you are, there’s no way Tian Chuang will let you go easily. But from what I heard, the deadly reputation of the Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns is no jokes; yet I see that you can still behave normally and run around in great spirits. Even if you act a little silly, that silliness definitely isn’t caused by the Nails. Did I really guess wrong after all?”

Zhou Zishu gritted out while sweating buckets, “Wen… Kexing, screw… screw your entire ancestors…”

Seeing that the man stopped putting on an act with all of his “blah blah blah Brother Wen whatever” nonsense, Wen Kexing felt accomplished even though he just got cursed at. He replied nonchalantly, “My ancestors are just dust now, I don’t even know their names, so that might be an impossible feat. Though, if you can remove your disguise, and under that is a stunning face, I’m perfectly willing to be a replacement for my forebears.”

Zhou Zishu was still gritting his teeth tightly, body wound up like a shrimp and trying his best to keep the Nails under control. At the other’s ramblings, he interrupted in irritation, “Would you shut the fuck up?”

Wen Kexing shut up immediately, crossing his arms and watching by the side with not a single ounce of guilt.

After an undecipherable amount of time, Zhou Zishu opened his bloodshot eyes. Even though outsiders could not see what his real expression was, it was clearly not pleasant, “It’s morning now.”

The Nails had calmed down, which signified dawn—they had been trapped in this strange cave for an entire night.

Wen Kexing was not anxious either. He nodded at that, “Seems like whoever lured you here—possibly on purpose—really wants you dead.”

“Whoever lured you.” Zhou Zishu replied.

“It’s obviously you, I’m a good person.” Wen Kexing wouldn’t admit defeat.

Zhou Zishu ignored him, grasping at the wall to stand up. He leaned on it and started calculating the way to escape. Wen Kexing asked by his side, “Aren’t you afraid, Zhou Xu?”

“I am,” Zhou Zishu replied.

Wen Kexing stared at him, slightly surprised. Zhou Zishu continued very seriously, “I haven’t gathered enough merits yet, if I enter Hell now, who knows what I’ll reincarnate into.”

Wen Kexing firmly said after some thought, “You definitely weren’t a good person before, then.”

He didn’t wait for Zhou Zishu’s reply, “If that’s the case, isn’t it too late to start merit gathering now?”

Zhou Zishu straightened his back and walked toward a direction, “Why? Haven’t you heard of the saying ‘the second you drop the knife is when you become Buddha’?”

Wen Kexing chased after him, “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to eat dog meat,” Zhou Zishu said, “That person only traps us here…”

“Traps you.” Wen Kexing corrected.

Zhou Zishu glanced at him with contempt, continuing, “That beast’s head is quite hefty, feasting on that is enough for us to last a few days. Without it there’re still the underwater creatures, so we definitely won’t starve. Doesn’t matter who that person dressed in black is, they’ll show themself eventually.”

Wen Kexing said in horror, “You were afraid of the dirty river water just yesterday, and now you want to eat those things that live in it?”

“And are you going to starve yourself to death and let those things eat you instead?” Zhou Zishu replied and concluded, “How saintly of you, Brother Wen.”

The light couldn’t reach the cave, but fortunately Zhou Zishu brought with him some lighters since he planned on escaping in the night. There was also a luminous pearl that he stole from the riches; the pearl was small but it was enough for them to move around. The faint light cast over half of his face; and Wen Kexing saw not the unpleasant features, but very bright eyes that were directed at him, carrying an indescribable hint of playfulness.

That look was somewhat familiar.

Wen Kexing thought long and hard about it, but he couldn’t remember which beauty those eyes belonged to, so he stayed silent.

In the moment when both of them said nothing, Zhou Zishu’s ears caught the sound of a breath that was neither his nor Wen Kexing’s. He smiled—as expected, someone was not feeling very patient right now.

He then stood by the river and bent down to wash his hands, killing another monster that was sneakily attacking in the process. He lifted it up and threw it on the ground; the creature’s neck broke and it drew its last breath without even making a sound. Zhou Zishu scooped up the water and drank leisurely.

Wen Kexing—a carefree hoodlum himself—stared at his companion thoughtfully before using the tip of his toe to kick the corpse away and drank the river water like the other.

At that moment, a blade of wind came at them from behind. Wen Kexing dodged it by stepping aside, seemingly predicted it as he looked calm. A blade grazed his robes and fell into the water with a “Splash!”. Zhou Zishu laughed, his arms crossed as he stood to one side to enjoy the fun, “See, Brother Wen, didn’t I say that they’re after you? And you’re definitely not the good type either, seeing that they devote this much effort to deal with you.”

There were blades coming at him from every direction of the cave; those blades completely went past Zhou Zishu to charge at Wen Kexing, creating a maze of weapons—but Wen Kexing didn’t struggle at all, his qinggong so much more skillful than Zhou Zishu had estimated.

Internally, though, he was cursing—this Zhou person was such a vengeful and petty one; not only was he not good, he was utterly contemptible.

Wen Kexing lifted his arm to bat away another blade, which brushed Zhou Zishu’s pants and planted itself on the ground. “Is leaving one to sink or swim your way of gathering merits, my beautiful Zhou?”

Footnotes.

[1] Xinjiang is one of China’s administrative subdivision, located in the northwest of the country.
[2] The central plains of China.
[3] 奇门遁甲 (qímén dùnjiǎ) is an ancient form of divination in China. The elements mentioned by Zhou Zishu are some of the aspects of Chinese metaphysics that this technique is based on.

Chapter 14. Escape

Zhou Zishu looked him over before replying unhurriedly, “I don’t see how you’re near death.”

He hadn’t finished when Wen Kexing, as if responding, cried out in pain with his back bent. One of the blades pierced through his body to the hilt; and his face went pale as he could only utter, “You…”

Zhou Zishu was initially shocked, but soon enough he rushed toward the opposite direction. In the corner was a fleeting shadow which caught Zhou Zishu’s eyes thanks to the incredibly narrow path. The shadow was unable to dodge his attack in time, and they coughed up blood which stained their whole mask. They staggered back a few steps, but still had it in them to get back on their feet and run.

There was an “Oh” from Zhou Zishu as he realized the pine cone last time didn’t stop them not because he didn’t put enough strength into it; but rather because this one was good at being a punching bag.

All of a sudden, a ghostly figure appeared from nowhere to grab at the person’s neck, propping them against the wall.

The man in black said in horror, “You…”

Wen Kexing tilted his head and smiled, his other arm raised. The blade, which was held under his arm pit, fell to the ground. His clothes didn’t suffer a single scratch.

Zhou Zishu spoke in a lethargic manner, “Did you really believe his hoax? This is the first time I’ve seen a killer this dumb.”

At that, Wen Kexing looked at him thoughtfully. “It’s not that he’s awful, your eyes are just way too sharp, my friend. If you aren’t injured, he might…”

He cut himself off right there and shook his head, strengthening his grip on the black-clothed man’s neck. There was a gurgling sound from his throat while his eyes shone with unspeakable fear. Wen Kexing felt his upper body with his other hand and hummed, “Gold-threaded armor… This is some good stuff, a shame that it’s wasted on you.”

The man forced out broken words with great difficulty, “Mas… ‘s… m…”

Wen Kexing’s lips curled, and with a “Crack!”, the man convulsed and went still.

Zhou Zishu watched his companion killing off this person without any interrogating, his eyes darkened a little. He took one step back and leaned onto the wall, arms crossed while thinking about something.

Wen Kexing removed the man’s mask to completely reveal his identity.  He looked around forty with a small physique and high, cruel cheekbones; on his right cheek was a big red birthmark. His eyes were small, his nose was big, and he had buck teeth.

Wen Kexing commented after examining, “Seeing how he looks, he deserves to die after all.”

Then he raised his head to smile at Zhou Zishu, “Do you agree, Brother Zhou?”

Zhou Zishu replied, “You’re so full of nonsense.”

Wen Kexing held up his arms in a gesture of appreciation, “I’m very incredibly honored that you thought of me so.”

Zhou Zishu laughed mockingly and went past him to look at the body. There were many burning questions inside him, such as: How did the famous Golden Armor, which disappeared from jianghu many years ago, end up in this person’s hand? Was this one the true Xue Fang the Hanged Ghost? How were those underwater creatures made? Were they human?

He undressed the corpse in a blink of an eye and found a daunting tattoo of a ghost face on his back. Zhou Zishu paused; he could be no one else but one of the Ghosts.

The Hanged? Hanged Ghost Xue Fang apparently had buck teeth?

Ugh… This isn’t right, and Zhou Zishu immediately abandoned this very Wen Kexing-like train of thought. Were those the actual Ghosts that chased after him and Zhang Chengling along the way? Impossible—the Ghosts of Qingzhu Ridge couldn’t possibly make a name for themselves if that was all they could do.

Why did the Hanged Ghost want to kill Yu Tianjie? And was the person who went the other way the Delighted Mourning Ghost?

The act of killing renowned figures on the outskirt of the Zhao’s Holdings was a direct confirmation that they were the ones responsible for the Zhang family massacre, what good would it bring the Ghost Valley?

And… He looked up at an amiable Wen Kexing, questioning him suddenly, “Didn’t Brother Wen proclaim that you’d never murdered anyone ever since you left home? Why went against that just now?”

Wen Kexing glared. “He wanted to end me first; if I hadn’t been smart and clever enough, I would’ve died under those blades.”

Zhou Zishu smiled, “Were you also adamant that this disaster would never befall you, Mister Good-hearted Wen?”

Wen Kexing replied with sense, “Look at this one and the ghost face on his back; then look at the young man we found—he lost his head before he could even get hitched! Don’t you see? It proves the fact that this man was of the extremely vile sort, did he need a reason to take the life of a good-hearted one?”

Zhou Zishu looked at him, not saying anything.

Wen Kexing shook his head, voice full of conviction, “How sad for an adult like you to be completely ignorant of such principles; I can’t even imagine how you grew up.”

Zhou Zishu was silent for a good while. Then he spat out, “Grateful for the education.”

Wen Kexing was quick to reply, “It’s nothing at all, don’t be so formal.”

Zhou Zishu looked down, back to searching the body. While he was removing the armor, a small pouch fell out from the area near the chest. He carefully took it off, and found a sparkling piece of lapis lazuli inside. It was as big as the palm of his hand and meticulously crafted, seemingly engraved with patterns.

He held up a broken piece to examine it under the light, “Lapis?”

There was an “Ah” from Wen Kexing as he took a closer look and received it from the other with both hands, as if he was afraid of breaking it. “No wonder he wore the Golden Armor, I would have done the same if this was in my possession.”

Zhou Zishu was curious at the other man’s serious attitude. “What is it?” He couldn’t help but ask.

Wen Kexing replied, “This looks like one of the five pieces that make up the legendary Lapis Armor… I thought them to be rumors, but seems like they’re real after all. It’s said that once you gather all five pieces, you will rule over the entire pugilist scene in Zhong Yuan no matter who you are. Some say those pieces have the guide to the greatest martial art style hidden within them; some say they hide a map instead, and when you follow the directions it will lead you to the object of your dreams and desires.”

He put it back in Zhou Zishu’s palm somewhat reluctantly, curling the other’s fingers around it. “It’s the good stuff.” He said softly.

Zhou Zishu nodded in understanding, then immediately batting Wen Kexing’s hand away. He put the piece of lapis back into the pouch and carelessly threw it aside to continue searching the Hanged Ghost’s body. After turning the corpse over and over and finding nothing else, he stood up with a frown, “Well, this is troublesome. How do we get out now?”

He stared down upon the still-sitting Wen Kexing, continuing in annoyance, “I’m asking you, Mister “Good Person” Wen! You killed this man way too quickly, do you want us to dig our way out like mice?”

Wen Kexing pointed to the lapis, “You… don’t you want that?”

Zhou Zishu replied with a solemn face, “If the completed piece is made of real lapis then it does worth a fortune, but there is only one part of it here so it’s entirely useless. Not even the pawn shop would take this thing.”

At that, Wen Kexing laughed softly and stood up. He followed Zhou Zishu while asking, “Seeing how cautious Brother Zhou is, why won’t you believe in the rumors? Don’t you have any wishes or desires?”

Zhou Zishu didn’t bother to look back. “There is no such thing as a free lunch; and even you don’t want it yourself, so why must I? Don’t you have desires too, charitable Brother Wen?”

Wen Kexing turned his head away at that, carefully putting the pouch in his chest pocket. “What if I want it?” He asked.

Zhou Zishu glanced at him, then replied, “Ah.”

And nothing else.

They walked back and forth in the cave, revisiting both the spot from where they jumped down and the entrance with blades sticking out. Zhou Zishu felt the wall surrounding them with his hands, “This gate closed when we tried to get out, so at that time the Hanged Ghost was definitely near. The controlling mechanism might be around this spot too.”

But they were both completely clueless about divination, so the search was fruitless. The seven nails started to stir slightly, informing Zhou Zishu that it was nearing midnight again. Another full day had passed with them trapped under here, and considering that he was in a worse condition than before, eating that dog-like beast might be inevitable.

While they were thinking hard, all of a sudden, a faint voice could be heard from somewhere far away from the cave entrance, “Hurry up, I found this place, let me call out to them— Master! Master! Can you listen to me… Master, are you still breathing? If you are, I’m gonna dig you out of this grave; but if you want to go see the King of Hell, I won’t bother you!”

It was Gu Xiang!

For some unknown reasons, after being chased by a big dog, bitten by a monster, terrified by the Hanged Ghost’s appearance; Zhou Zishu felt incredibly grateful for her voice.

Gu Xiang continued to whisper, “Did you not hear me or are you dead already? Master, I’m gonna leave for real if you don’t speak up!”

Only then did Wen Kexing speak up leisurely. “Ah-Xiang, do you know what happens to girls who talk too much and do nothing?”

This seems to be a special kungfu of delivering sounds. Zhou Zishu had seen it from the other man several times; no matter where he was or how quiet he talked, he could make his target hear what he said very clearly.

Gu Xiang made a whining sound, urging someone, “Hurry up, didn’t you hear Master telling me to do more and talk less? Let’s get him out of there.”

The sound of grave digging started afterward.

Zhou Zishu suddenly realized: Rather than not doing much, Gu Xiang just didn’t do anything at all.

It took nearly four hours to dig them out, like digging out two big turnips.

Beside Gu Xiang was a crowd of men who looked like regular workers. She shouted, “Look! They’re crawling out!”

Zhou Zishu didn’t want to get out anymore at her words.

Wen Kexing remained calm, making his way out with his face full of dirt and grime. He glanced at Gu Xiang, ordering her, “You can shut up now.”

Gu Xiang stuck out her tongue, making an ugly face at Zhou Zishu’s direction.

A “worker” walked towards them and formally greeted Wen Kexing, “Master, we’re late.”

Gu Xiang cut in, “We actually saw the marks you left behind long ago, but the Zhaos made quite a ruckus since there were two mysterious deaths going on, and all those cowards who came here after that stalled our progress—how did you two end up like this, anyway?”

Wen Kexing replied, “We saw a laughing owl.”

Zhou Zishu glanced at every other direction at once, like being dragged into this was the last thing he wanted.

“Huh?” Gu Xiang asked confusedly.

Wen Kexing explained, “A laughing owl signifies incoming misfortune, including death. That’s why we had to hide underground, that way the ghosts will think that we’re already dead and they will leave us be.”

“Oh!” Gu Xiang exclaimed in enlightenment.

Wen Kexing patted her head, continuing shamelessly, “Mm-hm, bear it in mind, it may save your life one day.”

Then he looked over to the worker-dressed man. “Old Meng, these clothes don’t suit you at all. Dress like a butcher next time.”

Old Meng replied dutifully, “Yes, Master.”

Wen Kexing waved his hand, “Go, we don’t need everyone gathering here and making people think that we’re a gang of criminals.”

Old Meng whistled, and the rest disappeared into thin air in a very organized fashion, their traces completely vanishing.

Zhou Zishu also said goodbye, but Wen Kexing told him, “Brother Zhou, how about I follow you?”

Zhou Zishu used silence to proclaim his objection, only for Wen Kexing to continue, “I’m a good man, so I can teach you the art of merit gathering on the way.”

Zhou Zishu remained silent.

Gu Xiang, currently watching this staring contest, felt like the atmosphere had gone very strange. Eventually, Wen Kexing delivered the killing blow, “And I’m gonna follow you whether you want me to or not.”

There was a stiff smile on Zhou Zishu’s face as he replied, “Then be my guest, Brother Wen.”

Looking at Zhou Zishu, Gu Xiang finally understood what the saying “a mule is only obedient when it received a beating”[1] was all about. As for when she looked at Wen Kexing, she finally knew how a person could be so unabashed they would put the rest of the world to shame. She followed the two men, feeling extremely proud of herself for learning so much in just one night.

Footnotes:

[1] The idiom is used for people who are stupidly stubborn and only harsh treatment will make them conform to something.

Chapter 15. Tavern

“Master, how are you so sure that once a person wears a disguise, it has to be uglier than how they normally are?” Gu Xiang asked.

Wen Kexing drawled, “No matter how ugly or beautiful people look, the features they were born with have a harmonious quality to them. Once tweakings are made, it’s impossible to not slip and make a mistake; and if you make yourself to be more beautiful, there will be more eyes on you, thus exposing those mistakes even more easily, understand?”

The three of them were walking on the main road that was full of people in the middle of noon. Zhou Zishu maintained his energy well by staying mute during the other two’s conversation and ignoring Wen Kexing’s occasional secret looks thrown his way; but at those words, he couldn’t help his surprise. This man sure knows a lot, he glanced at Wen Kexing and thought.

Being the center of attention gave a boost to Wen Kexing’ ego as he continued to ramble on. “The art of disguise is vast with varying methods. Some paint over their face – this method requires fastidiousness as the smallest inconsistency will out them. Some craft a human skin-like mask; this one is way more effective and harder to detect if the disguiser is good at his job.” He spared a quick look at Zhou Zishu at that.

Gu Xiang immediately applied what she had been taught by feeling Zhou Zishu’s face with her fingers. Her hands were soft, and around her sleeves was a refreshing fragrant that could only belong to a young maiden. Zhou Zishu made no attempt to dodge; instead he only laughed and let her do what she wanted. No one knew who was taking advantage of who at this point.

He asked softly and patiently after a while, “Have you found anything?”

Gu Xiang’s expression was full of doubt, she looked back to Wen Kexing skeptically, “Master, I still feel like it’s real…”

Wen Kexing replied, “Of course he won’t wear a human skin mask, that thing leaves no room for the skin under to breathe. He would have to remove it after a certain amount of time, which is why I’m sticking to him, to see if he will do it.”

There was idolization on Gu Xiang’s face. “So you wasted this much time fooling around just because you want an answer to that.”

Wen Kexing pointed at Zhou Zishu, “If he is a beauty, I’m definitely not wasting anything.”

After mulling things over, Zhou Zishu decided he could stay silent no longer. “Since when was I fooling around with you?”

Wen Kexing answered unhurriedly, “Not now, but you definitely will in the future.”

Then he also reached out to touch Zhou Zishu’s face. “That time when I touched the skin on your shoulder, the feeling was different…”

Zhou Zishu batted his hand away as he stepped back. Wen Kexing raised his brows in discontent, pointing at Gu Xiang, “How can she touch you but I can’t?”

Zhou Zishu casually fixed his torn sleeves. “If you can look like her, I’m willing to strip off everything so you can touch however much you like.”

Gu Xiang once thought Zhou Zishu was a poor beggar who was too unfortunate to have run into her Master and even sympathized with him; but after that reply she realized they were just birds of a same damn feather, no wonder they flocked together.

She could only hope now that they had each other to mess around and fight their energy away with, they would cause less disaster for the world.

Wen Kexing turned to judge Gu Xiang with an unreadable face. Then his voice dropped, “Ah-Xiang, you can get lost now.”

There was a “Huh?” from Gu Xiang as she blinked innocently. “You want me to be off to where?”

Wen Kexing crossed his arms, really wishing to see her no more. “This world is endless; except for Dong Ting, you can scram to wherever.”

Gu Xiang, after a good while of standing there foolishly, blurted out, “Are you jealous with me, Master?”

Wen Kexing glanced at her. Gu Xiang immediately understood and slapped herself, “Damn you, you stupid mouth, you stupid running mouth, how about…”

“Ah-Xiang.”

Gu Xiang walked away immediately with an “Aish”, continuing to ramble along the way. “Alright, alright, I’ll scram. Don’t worry Master, I’ll leave to the farthest place I can; a three-legged frog[1] may be hard to find but not a two-legged man! Never in my life would I dare to steal your men, Master, please, you two just be my guest, carry on with what you’re doing…”

She quickly disappeared from view, still prattling on.

Zhou Zishu watched this squabble between master and maid with interest, thinking back to the “except for Dong Ting” part, which seemed to carry a deeper meaning.

Once Gu Xiang left, Wen Kexing’s entire demeanor changed. He coughed pretentiously, extending his hand. “Can this one have the honor of having a meal with you, Brother Zhou?”

Even if I refuse, this person will tail me around anyway, Zhou Zishu thought, and if I agree he will pay for my food. He accepted the request quite cheerfully.

Wen Kexing led the way with the brightest face. Zhou Zishu did an internal introspection; back when he was a half-ghost flitting about the palace, wearing robes and doing murderous business in a mysterious place full of apricot blossoms, he might be brutal, but at least there was a grace to him as a cover.

Since when had he become unabashedly shameless?

He looked at Wen Kexing’s back and thought, a man is known by the company he keeps indeed.

They were starving when they reached the tavern, so all the dishes were consumed with silent efficiency; as if they were afraid they would miss a bite.  Their chopsticks bumped occasionally and small fights ensued over chicken and pork.

One food admirer and one free meal enthusiast turned the table into a full-blown battle with heavy murderous atmosphere.

After winning one plate to himself, Wen Kexing smiled at Zhou Zishu while waiting for the next dish, “I’ve met my match, no wonder why this meal has become so much more delicious.”

Zhou Zishu looked at him scornfully. What are you, a chicken? Why all this fighting?

At that moment, there was a commotion on the lower floor. A waiter taunted loudly, “Hey, Young Master, you sure dress and behave well, why do you want to dine and dash? And the prepayment letter nonsense too, you must have heard too many stories. Which court scholar are you then? Are you a Principle Graduate[2] and if so, which examination did you ace in? And the calligraphy…”

The crowd around them laughed. Wen Kexing stuck his head out to look at the scene under them, rubbing his chin while whispering, “A beauty…”

Zhou Zishu followed his gaze. Downstairs was a flustered young man wearing dark blue clothes, a xiao[3] by his hip. His clothes didn’t stand out at first glance, but when one took a closer look, the materials were incredibly exquisite. The jade xiao was also finely crafted; even if he wasn’t an expert, he knew it must have cost a fortune. Zhou Zishu felt a sense of familiarity in the way he dressed and laughed quietly.

Wen Kexing asked, “What are you laughing at?”

“He tries to dress inconspicuously but ends up doing a terrible job of it. He reminds me of someone I knew.”

While they were talking, the ignorant young man surrounded by the crowd looked up, his eyes glossing over them. Zhou Zishu shook his head; he surely must be of the most distinguished nobility. Someone well-versed in dissipated behaviors would never have that doe-eyed look to him. “Brother Wen, your chance for merit gathering has come.”

Wen Kexing—initially watching his companion’s expression—was startled at that, hand rummaging in his chest pocket. “Yeah, you have a point, it’s a must to aid a beauty in need… Hm?”

He stopped dead in his track, face strange, “Brother Wen.”

“Huh?”

“I was thinking, how about you do it instead?” Wen Kexing smiled awkwardly, “I myself have done a lot in my lifetime, there’s no need to steal your moment…”

Zhou Zishu beamed at him.

After a few seconds, Wen Kexing sighed, shoulders sagging. “Back when we were on the street, I helped a dashing man when he tripped and fell, he even smiled at me too… Hah, how could I ever know that a person with such charm turned out to be a thief?”

Zhou Zishu raised his brows, deciding that he should be even more shameless; he would not be beaten by this person. His mind made up, he conveniently tugged at Wen Kexing’s sleeves to wipe his hand on them, then took out a silver ingot from his chest and threw it downstairs without any strength. It hit the increasingly offensive waiter on the head; the man was going to yell at whoever did that but his anger vanished once he picked up the object and realized it was shiny silver.

He heard Zhou Zishu’s lazy drawl, “Put him on my tab.”

Naturally, the waiter shut up, his head lowered with words of affirmation. The young man in blue clothes immediately looked at Zhou Zishu gratefully and went upstairs to thank the other in person.

Zhou Zishu pointed at the table that was now empty of food and said to Wen Kexing, “Saving him is on me, this meal is on you. Write that down, you owe me three silver liangs[4] now.”

Wen Kexing spoke in a small voice, “Can I use my body to pay back the debt?”

Zhou Zishu smiled, unruffled. “Sorry, my taste is not that refined yet.”

The young man had reached where they were sitting. Both hid away their sneaky smiles and displayed the most heroic demeanor possible. The young man bowed deeply, “My name is Cao Weining, please receive this gesture as my token of deepest gratitude for your help.”

Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu both spoke at the same time, “It’s nothing, Young Master Cao, there’s no need to be so formal.”

They glanced at each other meaningfully afterwards, basking in the peculiarity of the situation.

Zhou Zishu coughed and looked away first. “Please sit, Young Master Cao. My name is Zhou Xu, and this one is…”

“Wen Kexing.” The other smiled and nodded. He sat quietly and a bit distantly from them, his behaviors the perfect image of a gentleman.

After thanking them, Cao Weining sat down without a doubt. He was a closed-door disciple[5] from Qing Feng Sword Sect and this was his first time experiencing life in jianghu. He got separated from his Uncle-Master and unknowingly ran into a thief, which was why he was in this embarrassing situation. He was well and truly clueless about what to do until Zhou Zishu’s rescue; consequently, he deemed this person to be such a righteous individual, even his sickly face didn’t seem that grotesque at all to him.

Taking advantage of situations was Zhou Zishu’s strongest point; his skills worked on everyone except for Wen Kexing. Only a few sentences into the conversation and Cao Weining already felt like they were the closest of comrades as he started telling the other everything possible. “My Uncle-Master and I are attending the gathering in Dong Ting, but a few days ago something awful happened back at the Zhao’s Holdings. My Uncle and Sir Zhao knew each other way back, so he told me to go to Dong Ting first to apologize to Sir Gao Chong for being late…”

“Dong Ting’s gathering?” Zhou Zishu was surprised.

“Yes.” Cao Weining explained, “Has Brother Zhou heard about the Zhang family tragedy? Not only that, I heard a few days ago the Patriarch of Tai Shan died mysteriously in his own room along with all of his disciples in one single night, in a fashion not unlike the Zhangs. The lucky Zhang Young Master who survived is now with the Zhaos and under Sir Zhao’s protection; he confirmed that the Ghosts of Qingzhu Ridge were behind this. This gathering at Dong Ting is summoned by Sir Gao using his Realm’s Command, aiming to gather all the heroes in the world to extinguish the Ghost Valley.”

On instinct, Zhou Zishu glanced at Wen Kexing—only to find the man deeply invested in the conversation. He even asked, “Is this real?”

“Absolutely.” Cao Weining replied. “Uncle and I are under my Master’s order to attend.”

Sure enough, this youngling was someone experiencing real life for the first time; he answered questions he wasn’t even asked.

Wen Kexing said, “Isn’t gathering merits your goal, Brother Zhou? How about accompanying this young friend; battling evils is surely one of the biggest virtues out there.”

Zhou Zishu took a sip of wine with his eyes downcast, unsure about Wen Kexing’s motives. Cao Weining clapped his hands, “Indeed it is, that was very well-said of you, Brother Wen. I think you two are very righteous and honorable and that we can be great friends, so why don’t you come with me to Dong Ting?”

Hah, this foolish kid.

Wen Kexing smiled, “That’d be our honor.”

[1] A popular symbol for prosperity and wealth.
[2] 状元 (zhuàngyuan) is the title for the person who scored first place during the examination to become court officials.
[3] An end-blown flute.
[4] An unit of currency, one liang equals 50 grams.
[5] The most highly-regarded disciple under a Master.

Chapter 16. Spirit Fox

Henceforth, the duo turned into a trio. Dong Ting was one of Zhou Zishu’s destinations regardless, so he had no objections.

There was a type of people who lived their life in such normality, it would only cause headaches for them to be forced to think outside of the box – an example of this would be Cao Weining. Additionally, there was another type who couldn’t help but look deeper into everything and anything, confusing themselves with many possibilities before they could even realize it – an example of this would be Zhou Zishu.

Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing went back to their usual routine of trading quips and insults back and forth with unending enthusiasm, trying to probe the other incessantly.

Cao Weining, after listening to them confusedly, gave the final conclusion: “You two have such an admirable camaderie.”

Zhou Zishu shut up, glancing at Cao Weining in complete silence. He knew the Patriarch of Qing Feng Sword Sect was an old sly fox, how on earth did that man manage to raise an innocent rabbit like this one?

Wen Kexing unabashedly took advantage of that to wrap his arms around Zhou Zishu’s shoulders, smiling at Cao Weining, “Thank you, Young Master Cao. In fact, I have made up my mind that in this lifetime I will marry no one else but Brother Zhou.”

Cao Weining’s mouth was as wide open as his eyes.

Zhou Zishu shot back, being used to it already, “I’m afraid I have to let Brother Wen down. With my incurable illness, I won’t live on for much longer; what good will it do to bind yourself to this slowly dying soul?”

Wen Kexing replied seriously, “If you’re gone, I will remain solitary ‘till the end of my life.”

Zhou Zishu’s words carried daggers. “For a great mind to suffer loneliness is often destiny, who am I to tamper with it?”

Wen Kexing was undaunted, “Come on, don’t be too humble Ah-Xu, that’s way too polite of you.”

Zhou Zishu quickly waved his hands, “Not at all, why would I be.”

Cao Weining’s gaze went back and forth between the two of them. When he came back to his senses, he blurted out a question. “…Is it Brother Zhou’s illness that is obstructing your feelings for each other?”

After a short moment of silence, Wen Kexing burst out laughing, feeling very fond of Cao Weining.

Zhou Zishu coughed after a good while, removing Wen Kexing’s arms that were around his neck and replying with a solemn face. “Brother Cao need not think too much into it, the closest that I and Brother Wen can become is an estranged pair.”

Cao Weining frowned, thinking the other was trying to delude himself. “A person like Brother Zhou should not suffer like this,” he said in sorrow.

Zhou Zishu smiled back bitterly, “Thank you Brother Cao, but I don’t feel the slightest…”

“My master is acquainted with some peculiar figures in jianghu, fortunately a few of them are from Shaman Medicine Valley. It’d be wonderful if Brother Zhou can come with me back home after dealing with matters concerning the unorthodox sects, my master definitely possesses means that can help you.”

Zhou Zishu was “moved to tears”, so he kept his mouth shut.

Unexpectedly, Cao Weining was a true man of action, so he immediately made a fist-palm salute, “Wait for me at the inn, I will go send a message to my Uncle.”

He turned around and left right after. Wen Kexing praised, “How enthusiastic, truly a man who can be my match.”

He turned his head to Zhou Zishu studying him somewhat pensively. Wen Kexing paused, then asked, “What is it? Did my passionate words earlier manage to reach Ah-Xu’s heart after all? Are you planning to reciprocate with your body?”

Zhou Zishu smiled coldly, “Forgive me, but I feel like… Brother Wen’s motives behind going to Dong Ting are quite puzzling.”

Wen Kexing turned serious, “Helping people in need and being generous are only small virtues, do you what bigger virtues are?”

Zhou Zishu narrowed his eyes, staring at the other man without a word.

Wen Kexing replied slowly. “A day with an empty Hell is a day further from ascending; good and evil has always been impossible to coexist ever since ancient time, don’t you think?” When he said this, his calm gaze was directed at somewhere far away, revealing his handsome side profile. His usual playful demeanor was gone without a trace, and he looked like an expressionless Buddha stone statue.

“This is the mortal world,” he continued, “and in the mortal world, monsters shouldn’t exist. That… respectable and virtuous Sir Gao Chong wants to extinguish evils for the sake of everyone, if I don’t lend him a hand, all the years of reading holy books will go to waste. It’s said that only after years and years of cultivation is one able to land in this realm, it will be for nothing if they don’t make a mark for themselves.”

Zhou Zishu still stayed silent. Wen Kexing looked back at him. “What do you think, Ah-Xu?”

After a long while, Zhou Zishu laughed softly. “Brother Wen speaks as if you are a true gentleman.”

Wen Kexing didn’t answer straight to the point. “There are three types of people in this world: The ones who can eat meat, ones who don’t mind it, and ones who can’t stand it; this is how they are born to be, but isn’t it hilarious if the first type is born into poverty and the third type is born into luxury?”

Zhou Zishu, after a bout of stillness, spoke leisurely and carefully, “Brother Wen talks about such mysteries that I’m unable to understand; however, I do know one thing.”

“And what is it?”

“One won’t stay unchanged once thrust into a different situation.”

Wen Kexing was startled at that for a few seconds. Then he laughed out loud, unconstrained, to the point of tearing up. Zhou Zishu watched him, expressions remaining the same, his sickly skin not betraying any emotions. His eyelids lowered, and he looked like he wanted to search deep inside Wen Kexing’s soul.

After an unknown amount of time, Wen Kexing stood upright again, breathing hard, hands wiping the tears at the corner of his eyes. “Ah-Xu, I’ve found out that you are the first person in my entire lifetime that suits my taste the most… You know, I am actually a little knowledgeable in the art of disguise too.”

He looked at Zhou Zishu without blinking, to the point that even the fake layer of skin on his face felt uncomfortable. He answered without thinking, “Are you really?”

Wen Kexing said with absolute sincerity, “Therefore maybe I will transform myself into Gu Xiang.”

Zhou Zishu stood there in a daze. When he saw that Wen Kexing was looking at him up and down crudely, he immediately recomposed himself, turning to head towards the inn without a word.

Wen Kexing stared after his back, his gaze drawn to the shoulder blades hidden under clothes. To him, even when the other man was dressing in rags and looked dejected in his own misery, there was always an indescribable aura that he exuded. It took him back to that afternoon with the brilliant sun, when Zhou Zishu closed his eyes and leaned onto the wall by the main street, his beggar-like demeanor looking more relaxed than anyone else in this world.

But Wen Kexing knew that he was only sunbathing.

How can such a man not be a stunning beauty? Wen Kexing thought smugly. During the near thirty years he had lived, he had never been wrong about that.

Seeing that Zhou Zishu was now far away, Wen Kexing hurried after him, mumbling under his breath, “How can one ever know if they will change? And whether one is averse to meat or not, won’t it be miserable anyway if they’re thrown into a desolate place with nothing else to devour?”

At night fall, Cao Weining caught up to them. He felt the atmosphere between the other two had become strange, so he asked cautiously, “Did Brother Zhou and Brother Wen… have a quarrel?”

“Don’t think too much into it, Brother Cao.” They replied at the same time—again.

Wen Kexing narrowed his eyes at Zhou Zishu, his gaze sharp and full of tease. Zhou Zishu feigned ignorance.

Cao Weining scratched his head. “Actually… I don’t know how to word this, but yes, I have heard of such a thing before, but never in my life have I seen it with real men…”

Wen Kexing looked at him silently, so he continued hurriedly, “Please don’t be mistaken, Brother Wen, I don’t mean anything else, although it is a little difficult to take in, but you are both very chivalrous individuals… It’s a little strange, but…” he coughed, “please don’t take my words seriously, we always have to act and speak proper…”

Zhou Zishu poured a cup of wine for himself leisurely and took a few sips. Silly boy is getting his words tangled up, he thought.

Cao Weining then lowered his head and only looked up after a good while, his face red and his voice small, “So… do you two want separate rooms or just one room?”

Zhou Zishu choked on his wine.

Even Wen Kexing had to stare at Cao Weining and thought, We’ve found a treasure of a boy, haven’t we.

The atmosphere among the three turned weird; no one spoke, only Zhou Zishu was making coughing sounds. But suddenly, there was a piercing scream from the upper floor, making the few guests downstairs raise their heads. They saw the waiter stumbled down like he had just seen a ghost, his voice quivering, “A mur… mur… murder!”

Cao Weining’s face was all serious as he grabbed his sword and head upstairs. There was a pair of man and woman who did this at the same time; they dressed neatly and looked like brother and sister. There were always people who couldn’t stop themselves from worrying about others’ business. Wen Kexing kicked at Zhou Zishu with his foot. “Ah-Xu, won’t you go check it out?”

Zhou Zishu stood up and lowered his upper body, “You first.”

Wen Kexing rushed upstairs. When he was passing by Zhou Zishu, he suddenly slowed down and got closer, his voice low, “If you spend the night with me, I will turn into Gu Xiang as you wish.”

“I’m really honored, but I’d rather sleep in the stable.”

Wen Kexing clicked his tongue, glancing at the other, “You’re no fun.” Zhou Zishu followed close behind him.

The moment they reached the second floor, the smell of blood was right in their face. The door to the room was wide open. Cao Weining stood there with a grave expression, turning to beckon the two forward once he saw them. “You should come look at this person.”

Zhou Zishu walked toward him and saw a man propped up by the bedpost, his clothes in a state of sloppiness, revealing his chest—on it was a black mark in the shape of a hand. His arms were cut off and thrown into a corner, blood splattering everywhere. The corpse’s head lolled to one side, eyes unfocused, face pale. It was evident that he had been dead for a while.

Wen Kexing was ooh-ing and aah-ing. “This one looks like… the thief who crashed into me the other day.”

Cao Weining also let out an “Ah!” and looked closer at the dead body, his expression complicated, “He… he also looks like the one who crashed into me!”

The two men who shared the same fate and had to rely on Zhou Zishu for help stared at each other, feeling a deep sense of solidarity.

Then they heard the girl beside them spoke, “I know this person, he’s Fang Buzhi, the Nine-Claw Spirit Fox!”

Chapter 17. Lapis

Cao Weining asked in a stupor. “He… He’s that deplorable thief Fang Buzhi?”

The young maiden nodded, pointing at the corpse’s left hand. “It is said that Fang Buzhi is a man in his thirties and has a deformed left hand. There is also an unconfirmed rumor that…”

Her face went pink as she stopped there.

Zhou Zishu studied the body’s face and clean-shaven chin. He continued in her stead, “Also, there is a rumor that Fang Buzhi has another deformity on his body. Should our young lady feel uncomfortable, it is better that you go outside first or turn your back to us. Removing his pants will confirm whether he is the legendary thief or not.”

The girl glanced at her male companion in embarrassment. He coughed lightly, “Xiaolian, you should go.”

She went outside and waited by the door, her back facing the room.

The moment she turned away, Wen Kexing expertly stripped down the dead’s trousers to reveal that a particular part of the body had been cut off. He rubbed his chin in thought. “So it is him, no wonder I couldn’t feel anything out of the ordinary when he touched before.”

Unwavering and completely unbothered, he continued to remove Fang Buzhi’s clothes entirely and searched around. He found his money pouch among a big pile of assorted items and opened it, overjoyed when he found out nothing had been lost. With perfect contentment, he put in back in his chest pocket, not forgetting to tell Cao Weining politely, “Brother Cao, come over here and see if your stuffs are still here.”

Cao Weining and the other young man stared at him, dumbstruck.

Zhou Zishu reminded him with a cold tone. “The dead is more important right now, Mister Charitable Wen.” He ignored the stranger’s approving look, adding, “Can you pay me back now?”

Wen Kexing’s face was full of grief. “We already belong to each other, why are you still haggling over that?”

As the young man’s expression became even more entertaining, Zhou Zishu gripped Wen Kexing’s collar and threw the nuisance of a man aside. He squatted down to examine the body from head to toe, then frowned afterwards and concluded, “He died after a single blow. The attack went through his body from chest to back; clearly the result of the Raksha Palm.”

The stranger exclaimed, “You’re talking about the Delighted Mourning Ghost’s Raksha Palm?”

“I’m afraid so.” Zhou Zishu nodded, covering the body. He turned to the girl outside the door. “You can come in now, young miss.”

The man sized them up, then made a salute, “My name is Deng Kuan, disciple of Gao Chong, and this is my junior-apprentice sister Gao Xiaolian. We were travelling to accumulate experience, but a few days ago a message was received from my Master, so we had to rush back before Dong Ting’s gathering. How may I address you?”

Cao Weining hurried to answer. “Ah, many apologies for our tactlessness, it is an honor to meet you, Young Sir Deng. And surely this young miss must be Sir Gao’s daughter? My name is Cao Weining from Qing Feng Sword Sect, currently following my Patriarch’s order to attend Dong Ting. My Uncle will also be there soon enough, and on the way I ran into this… this thief master. It was fortunate of me to have been assisted by Brother Zhou and Brother Wen here.”

Deng Kuan said, “Then from where do you two brave…”

Zhou Zishu, still squatting, turned to him at that and smiled. “You overestimated our bravery. I’m called Zhou Xu, a mere spontaneous wanderer who belongs to no sects. As for that one…”

He pointed at Wen Kexing, pausing a little for dramatic effect. “He is Wen Kexing. He might look gentlemanly, but in truth he is a deeply experienced dirty hoodlum…”

Wen Kexing replied calmly, “I’ve only ever been teasing to you, Ah-Xu.”

Zhou Zishu’s voice was light. “And I’m glad I’m a priority.”

Gao Xiaolian’s attention was evidently no longer on the body. In contrast, Deng Kuan didn’t seem perturbed, only smiling back kindly with an attitude that was neither cowering nor arrogant – the manners of a true hero from the orthodox sects and someone who belonged to the leading force in Dong Ting. “How humorous of you two. If you come with Brother Cao to Dong Ting, then you are one of us—didn’t Brother Zhou say that this thief also died under the Raksha Palm of the Delighted Mourning Ghsot?”

He and Gao Xiaolian glanced at each other while Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing played dumb with their expression of ignorance. Cao Weining ended up asking, “Also? I heard that the outskirts of the Zhao’s Holdings was disturbed by the Ghosts, did they…”

Gao Xiaolian replied. “So Young Sir Cao did not know. A while before, a message was sent from Tai Hu, saying that Sir Mu Yunge of Duan Jian Manor – who was a guest of the Zhaos at that time – had been murdered by the Raksha Palm. The Ghosts of the Valley have caused numerous atrocities, how dare they be this arrogant.”

This place was not far from Dong Ting as it would take at most a day to get there – it wasn’t wrong to consider them already in Great Sir Gao’s domain. It was not clear whether this young lady was so worked up over justice or merely over the fact that there was someone intruding on her father’s territory.

Nonetheless, Deng Kuan and Cao Weining nodded on instinct, “Correct.” “Absolutely.”

Back when the pugilist scene formed the greatest alliance, there were three pieces of the Realm’s Command, each in the possession of a respectable figure. They could only be used in a time of great urgency; when the pieces were put together, a hero gathering could be held with the participants being anyone with talent and gallantry. One piece was in “Iron Judge” Gao Chong’s hands, one in the Shaolin Monastery’s[1], and the last piece was rumored to belong to the reclusive hermit Monk Gu of Mount Ming.

It was quite unexpected for the unrest about the Ghost Valley to reach even the infamous Monk Gu – who was too engrossed in his cultivation endeavor to pay any attention to the outside world.

After Deng Kuan discussed with Cao Weining, they consulted the rest and decided to hire a carriage to deliver Fang Buzhi’s corpse to Gao Chong immediately in the night, preventing further complications.

Cao Weining and Deng Kuan seemed to have seen their match in each other; their first meeting seemed like that of old friends. Zhou Zishu stayed detached; he had no idea how Gao Chong was like as a person, but at least he had taught his disciples and daughter to be decent people. Gao Xiaolian walked beside them and chiming in at times, her tactfulness and manners a complete contrast to her youth. She was around the same age as Gu Xiang, but was in no way prone to being loud or conceited – an exemplary lady.

Wen Kexing suddenly sighed and lamented, “If only my Gu Xiang can learn something or two from Young Miss Gao.”

Gao Xiaolian smiled at him graciously, “Please don’t flatter me, Big Brother Wen.”

Zhou Zishu scoffed, voice lowered, “Young lady Gao is Sir Gao’s daughter after all, and Gu Xiang… she’s a good kid, but it’s inevitable for her to not follow her superior’s footsteps.”

Wen Kexing’s face was entirely serious. “Ah-Xu, I’m only praising Miss Gao truthfully, you don’t have to get jealous…”

Gao Xiaolian immediately glanced at them in utter embarrassment and hurried ahead to catch up to Deng Kuan and Cao Weining, leaving Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing behind.

Zhou Zishu laughed softly. “Brother Wen, there is one matter that has been plaguing my mind – why was Fang Buzhi’s clothes in a disheveled state when we walked in? From what I know, good old Fang wasn’t the type to have a normal routine.”

Wen Kexing, using his hand to support his chin, turned things over in his mind for a few minutes then asked, “You mean the Delighted Mourning Ghost had taken a liking to Fang Buzhi and the latter struggled to fight off the former’s advances, so he killed his unattainable object of fancy in a fit of rage?”

He shook his head and sighed after that, “After all, it has always been inevitable for beauties to suffer.”

Zhou Zishu replied, his expression betraying nothing. “What an excellent explanation from Brother Wen, why did I ever think that the murderer must have killed Fang Buzhi for something on his body.”

Wen kexing choked on his words briefly, pretending to agree. “Sounds reasonable enough.”

He turned his head to see Zhou Zishu looking at him meaningfully. The other man asked, “Did Brother Wen lose anything else that day beside from the pouch?”

Wen Kexing faced his eyes directly and confessed. “Yes. The money was intact, but the piece of Lapis Armor was nowhere to be found.”

The smile on Zhou Zishu’s face slowly receded, his eyes dark and cold as if submerged in ice. Wen Kexing looked innocent and smiley as usual.

After a good while, Zhou Zishu lowered his voice. “What are we to do about this, Mister Charitable Wen? You didn’t kill him, but he died because of you.”

Wen Kexing fell silent. At that moment ahead of them, Cao Wining and Deng Kuan were discussing Zhou Zishu’s illness. Deng Kuan turned around, about to ask if he could manage traveling through the night and if they should hire another carriage for him, but he sensed a change of atmosphere between the two men.

Wen Kexing was no longer smiling, and there was an unreadable flash in Zhou Zishu’s eyes. Deng Kuan felt puzzled and was going to inquire the two further when Wen Kexing suddenly laughed, his hand as quick as lightning gripping Zhou Zishu’s chin as he leaned down and kissed him.

Deng Kuan stood there stunned, but educated as he was, he turned away awkwardly after a few minutes, feigning calmness at the dazed Gao Xiaolian and Cao Weining. “If… Then, us four should take steps in advance, let’s do that…”

Too bad he miscounted the moment he phased out.

When the three of them ditched without looking back, Zhou Zishu broke away from Wen Kexing’s grip, ruthlessly delivering a punch to the other’s abdomen, his expression cold. “The joke is not funny, Brother Wen.”

Wen Kexing bent forward to clutch at his stomach, an unnerving hint of a smile still evident on his face. “I didn’t kill him, but he died because of me? Have you considered that you’re wrong, Ah-Xu?”

Zhou Zishu watched him icily.

Wen Kexing slowly straightened up. In the middle of the empty road at nighttime, his voice was low, almost like a sigh. “Inside the Lapis Armor is either the greatest martial art guide or a treasure from a rival country, who wouldn’t want it?”

His mouth curled, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Fang Buzhi didn’t give a damn about what he stole – even if it’s charity money – as long as it satisfied his greed, why wouldn’t he want it? The Delighted Mourning Ghost was forced to enter the Valley for his crimes and lives a life that is half hell, so why wouldn’t he want it? Why wouldn’t you? You say you have to gather merits only because you don’t want your past sins to come up once you’re judged in the Underworld, and if there exists an object that can make you unbeatable and untouched by ghosts, why wouldn’t you want it?”

Zhou Zishu shook his head slowly, scoffing. “I’ve never been afraid of ghosts knocking on my door.”

He walked away briskly without looking back.

Wen Kexing watched his back, his expressions dark and indecipherable. Suddenly he laughed out loud, “You’ve got good taste in cassia wine, my dear Saint Zhou.”

While Zhou Zishu tried to ignore it, he couldn’t help but wiping his mouth ferociously with his sleeves, cursing, “Damn you, Wen Kexing!”

Footnotes:
[1] A Buddhist temple teaching the Shaolin Martial Art. In wuxia fiction, Shaolin is often considered a separate sect.

Chapter 18. Dong Ting

Dong Ting was bustling with noise and people. In just one night, figures from all trades across jianghu were gathered here; and after having proclaimed their titles among themselves, each started pursuing their own ulterior motives.

Zhou Zishu’s group, during their meal at two taverns, had already witnessed at least three fights breaking out before the day could end.

Zhou Zishu felt like this place was no better than a dog market, with people incessantly barking at each other and competing over some of the most trivial matters ever. He wondered how this “gathering of heroes” would turn out.

Deng Kuan and Gao Xiaolian took them to see Gao Chong first and foremost. There were only three factions who possessed the Realm’s Command: Shaolin was highly respected in the pugilist scene, with their strength being their raw power; and Monk Gu of Mount Chang Ming was elusive but greatly admired[1], known for his martial art skills. The most socialized out of all of them was Sir Gao, as he had a wide circle of acquaintances spreading across many big sects, and therefore was the one with the biggest influence among the three.

He was actually not at all the type of hero with a pleasant appearance and graceful manners; at first glance he looked neither handsome nor wicked, but an old, short and stout man[2] with gray temple hair. When he talked, there was an evident healthy spirit to him, and his laugh was especially loud and hearty.

One look at him and Zhou Zishu understood how he got his current status.

Each person had their own unique aura, and people would flock together, separating into groups based on this invisible element.

An example would be the type of people like Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu: One looked like a sickly, staggering beggar and the other a silver-tongued, male-beauty-loving troublemaker. They weren’t that special at first glance, but someone with a sharp mind could easily sense the subtle distinctions to them once acquainted.

It was possible that both Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing could blend in a crowd without anyone noticing, but after all they weren’t that type, so naturally there was no reason for them to do such a thing. Furthermore, blending in would only turn them into unremarkable props.

But Zhou Zishu would raise his guards every time Wen Kexing got near; and during their first meeting Wen Kexing had warned Gu Xiang against provoking the other man.

It was a kind of instinct that helped one identify their peers.

This wasn’t a thing in Gao Chong’s case, however.

He could be on friendly terms with anyone, and people would overlook everything from his age to his status the moment they stood before him. Whether one was young or old, from righteous sects or was simply a knight-errant, he could always evoke a sense of familiarity in them, one which made them feel like they were of the same age and had actually experienced a part of life together.

Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing involuntarily stopped their nonsensical blabbering to observe this infamous Sir Gao silently; only exchanging necessary small talks at random and with politeness.

Zhou Zishu couldn’t help but think, If only Tian Chuang had such a talent…

But there was only one Gao Chong in this whole world.

They arrived relatively early. A few days later, one by one came the big sects’ representatives and Dong Ting Lake had very likely turned into a place for family reunion. Every day one would hear something along the line of: “Ah, You must be someone someone someone, I have heard a lot about you… Please don’t flatter me, of course, the Ghost Valley has been on their evil rampage for way too long, we will not stop before they are eradicated, it is natural that I will lend my strength, so that we can finally make a move in the name of justice and righteousness…”

During the past days, Zhou Zishu had to listen to them until his ears couldn’t bear it anymore. But when he was bored out of his mind, Wen Kexing was nowhere to be seen. It was a bit quiet without the other man’s rowdiness.

He was strolling along the street, wearing new robes provided by the Gao family. It was obvious this was a benefit from mingling with Cao Weining’s crowd, as he got to enjoy a pleasant stay at the Gao’s residence with delicious food and nice clothes to replace his ragged ensemble. It actually took a while for him to get used to the new clothes. He had worn rough materials for so long that the smooth fabric felt slippery and cold to the touch, just like a layer of mucus.

He shook his head in self-mockery at his sallow, skinny hands and sallow, skinny face. This Nail-ravaged body seemed incapable of handling the clothes currently hanging on its frame, not unlike a shaky skeleton struggling to prop up the fabrics. He himself could see the wretchedness in his appearance, and a random glance at the mirror was enough to warrant no further inspection. It was clear that even a dragon robe would not make one a Crown Prince.

Internally, he thought Wen Kexing was only mindlessly chasing after him. With the lack of those courtesans with their pretty handkerchiefs, beggars couldn’t be choosers; that was obviously why the man glued himself to him to ramble his ears off.

Wasn’t there a saying that “After three years in the army, even a sow will look like a goddess”? Zhou Zishu felt like Wen Kexing’s situation was no different, only he was interested in boars rather than sows.

Today he visited a tavern on his own. He chose a seat by the window and asked for some side dishes and a pot of yellow wine[3], drinking it leisurely while sunbathing.

Wen Kexing saw the other man’s back the moment he walked in. It was unclear why he always got a very distinct feeling from looking at Zhou Zishu’s back, to the point that he could recognize it immediately in a crowd.

His back wasn’t always straightened; oftentimes it would lazily curve in a way that didn’t at all affect his elegance and gave the impression of an incredibly comfortable person. Wen Kexing found out there seemed to be not a single matter that could plague his mind, and one would feel unusually peaceful and comforted the moment they landed their eyes on him.

He couldn’t help but stop walking to stare blankly at Zhou Zishu’s relaxed figure. An emotion surged up within him—the emotion of nothingness.

It was as if the man’s attitude was presented to mock all of those out there with worries heavy on their mind but had to pretend that they were the opposite.

Zhou Xu – soul like water lenses, body like willow[4], he thought.

The world was boundless with so many paths and sceneries to behold and experience, so how could one completely disregard all of those and keep himself in complete desolation, with no worries on his mind?

He was definitely not indifferent—he had a variety of emotions, but they came and went in a blink of an eye, seemingly never existing in the first place.

Wen Kexing inhaled deeply and cast his eyes downwards. Soon enough, back on his face was an irritatingly cheerful expression as he walked over and sat down opposite Zhou Zishu. He took a cup without asking and snatched the wine pot from Zhou Zishu’s hand, pouring one for himself and commented after a small sip: “Not too bad, this wine.”

Zhou Zishu glanced at him languidly and spoke up, “Excuse me, can I have another pot? Put it on his tabs.”

Wen Kexing stared back silently. Zhou Zishu gave him a soft smile, and to prove that he wasn’t a stingy person, he explained, “You still owed me three silver liangs, I’m just providing a chance for you to pay me back early without additional interest. That totally works in your favor, right?”

After a long while, Wen Kexing could only let out a “…Thanks.”

“You’re welcome, Brother Wen.” Zhou Zishu smiled back.

Wen Kexing had an unusually strong urge to tease him back, but at that moment, the tavern door behind Zhou Zishu opened and there were voices: “We will stay here for a meal for the time being. Then we can go see Brother Gao in the evening.”

A somewhat familiar voice replied, “Of course, anything you say, uncle[5].”

As soon as that happened, Wen Kexing got to witness a highly entertaining scene: his former creditor—who minutes ago was completely sober while being helpful with his debt—suddenly swayed side to side and fell onto the table “drunkenly” with a crashing noise. His fingers were still gripping the wine cup and his face was glued to the table; he looked as if he wanted to stand up but couldn’t figure how to, all the while grumbling, “Not drunk… Can drink more…”

Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang followed Zhou Zishu and Zhang Chengling back when they were travelling together, but only Zhou Zishu noticed. Zhang Chengling at that time wasn’t in a positive state of mind, therefore he didn’t notice. He did meet Wen Kexing once at the shrine, but the man left no impression on him.

Zhou Zishu crashed on the table right when Zhang Chengling and Zhao Jing walked past, and they were completely clueless on their way to the upper floow.

The waiter brought them food and wine after the other two had disappeared upstairs. One glance and he asked worriedly, “Wasn’t this one really sober just a moment ago, how did he get drunk that quickly…”

Zhou Zishu sat up again with no problem before he could exclaim further and took the wine pot without even looking at the food.

The waiter was dumbstruck as Zhou Zishu waved his arm. “Didn’t I say that I wasn’t drunk and could drink more? I’m not the type to joke about that, you know.”

The waiter was experienced enough to turned and walked away, albeit stiffly.

Wen Kexing laughed and asked with a low voice. “You scared of that kid?”

Zhou Zishu didn’t spare him a look. “Why would I be scared of him?”

“Then why did you hide?”

Zhou Zishu toyed with the peanuts and drank his wine in an unhurried manner, then answered vaguely, “Troubles. The moment he sees me he’ll go shifu this and shifu that; he’s clingy like a little girl.”

Wen Kexing’s brows were raised. “Why did you save him back then? You even sold yourself for two qians5.”

Zhou Zishu munched on the peanuts, then spoke after a good while, “He looked pitiful.”

Wen Kexing fell silent after that. Suddenly, he took out a money pouch from his chest and counted the silvers carefully before pushing them forward. “Here are three liangs and two qians. The three liangs are for my debt, and I want to buy you with two qians. I promise I will care for you and let no one come after you.”

Zhou Zishu looked down at the gleaming silver and took a sip of wine, seemingly enjoying himself. He pushed two liangs back. “This is enough for the wine today.”

After mulling it over, he pushed the two qians back to its owner too. “I’m not selling myself to you.”

Wen Kexing had a mysterious smile on his face. “Why is that?”

“You look annoying,” Zhou Zishu answered bluntly.

Wen Kexing laughed as if it was an encouragement.

Everyone fully arrived at Dong Ting half a month later. Gao Chong requested that a large temple courtyard nearby was used as the gathering location. After another half a day, Abbot Ci Mu from Shaolin Temple came with some of his disciples to present the second Realm’s Command piece.

As expected, Monk Gu didn’t appear in person. He ordered an around twenty-year-old, respectable-looking disciple to come in his stead to present the last Command piece.

The night the three Command pieces were reunited, the Gao’s Manor was set on fire.

Footnotes.
[1] The original idiom literally translates to “Divine dragon, the head of whom could be seen but never the tail”.
[2] The term for “old man” used here is 老人家, which is a more polite version.
[3] A type of rice wine.
[4] Water lenses (or duckweed) is an aquatic plant that floats, often used in poetry and literature as a metaphor for a carefree person. Willow tree has leaves that are thin, elongated and flexible; it is often used as a metaphor for resilience and adaptability.
[5] The pronoun 伯父 is specifically used for the father’s older brother (叔父 is for younger brother)
[6] A liang equals ten qians.

Chapter 19. Night of Fire

It was impossible for Zhou Zishu to stay asleep past midnight, and while he was meditating in his room, suddenly there were piercing, terror-laden screams from outside. His brows knitted as he stood up and pushed open the window. He saw people running past with their clothes rumpled before receiving an assault of smoke and flame directly to his face.

“Fire! Fire!”

The frosty night was gradually clogged up with thick smoke; it seemed like the fire was not far from where he was staying. Zhou Zishu thought, Quite a big fire, judging from the smoke. But this is the Gao’s Manor; with the amount of people currently staying here, it can’t be that hard to control it. He wanted no part of this, and closed the window since he was somewhat choked up from the smoke.

An arm suddenly reached out, stopping him from closing the window. It even crudely copped a feel of the back his hand before its owner quickly jumped inside, smiling at Zhou Zishu while slipping the window shut.

Zhou Zishu judged the uninvited Wen Kexing from head to toe. He was about to say something when his nose itched, so he turned away to sneeze and firmly took two steps back, remaining a certain distance from this piece of “scented pastry” who must have strolled out of a place full of beauty products just now.

Mister “Good Person” Wen’s hair was unkempt, tied up temporarily with a plain hairband. His clothes were not exactly disheveled, but the collar was wide open, a dark red mark evident on the snow white fabric. The nauseating scent of beauty products exuded from his sleeves, and on his wrist was a faint mark created from the scratching of nails… Completed with his lecherous expressions, it was as if he couldn’t wait to show people what kind of activities he had been doing.

On instinct, Zhou Zishu fixed his own clothes and sat up straight, the feeling of moral superiority arising involuntarily. In that moment, compared to Wen Kexing, he felt like such a conscientious and upright gentleman.

Wen Kexing plopped himself down on Zhou Zishu’s bed. The bed sheets had gone cold, which meant the owner of the room had been up for a while. He asked, “Stop trying to be dignified, tell me, are you sleepless because you feel lonesome in this deep dark night? You should’ve told me so that I can drag you along… Hah, Dong Ting, what a glorious place to be.”

Zhou Zishu laughed quietly and dropped his charade. He knew all too well himself that righteousness would only look proper on a righteous person, and he was the epitome of “nothing was what it seemed”.

He looked at Wen Kexing meaningfully while replying. “Your timing is impeccable, Brother Wen. The moment you left, the fire started…”

He didn’t get to finish the sentence as Wen Kexing’s face paled and he retorted indignantly, “Rubbish! I’ve been gone for hours now!”

Zhou Zishu was taken aback, at a loss as to why he would be so angry. Then he saw Wen Kexing looked him over, the anger receding to make way for his usual leering smile. “Are you changing tactics, Ah-Xu? If you remove your disguise, I can show you… how long it actually was.”

He specifically wiped his mouth after that, licking at the corner of his lips as if remembering something.

Zhou Zishu stared at him in a daze, mindlessly holding a cup to his mouth to pretend drinking, but after a good while of no liquid flowing out, he finally noticed that the cup was actually empty. Wen Kexing looked at him with interest and thought that the other man was definitely blushing under his mask, even though he couldn’t see it. He got more amused the more he thought about it and ended up bursting out a giggle.

“Forgive my useless self.” Zhou Zishu gritted through his teeth.

Wen Kexing was now fully laughing out loud.

Had everyone’s focus not been on the fire, this bastard would have received a beating already—who could laugh while people’s houses were burning down? Zhou Zishu felt like “immoral” was a word made specifically for Wen Kexing.

Consequently, he stood up, tying his hair together and headed outside. He would rather face the fire than share a space with this person.

While the fire—whose main source was from a guest room—had been largely put out, it had shaken the entirety of the Manor. Gao Chong, pale-faced and frowning, was conversing with Deng Kuan.

Gao Xiaolian was beside them. Upon seeing him, she nodded at his direction with a sorrowful face, speaking apologetically, “My apologies, Big Brother Zhou, for your disturbed rest.”

She already left a good impression on him, so he smiled, replying gently. “Whose room was burning?”

They were interrupted by Wen Kexing now carrying an outer robe, prancing out from Zhou Zishu’s room. He draped the robe over Zhou Zishu’s frame, then rested his chin on his shoulder, yawning lazily while smiling at Gao Xiaolian as a greeting with pretended drowsiness.

Gao Xiaolian’s face went red immediately as she averted her gaze. Her words came out with quickness. “We heard that it was that of the Zhang young master, but there was no harm done to him. He was talking with my father and his uncle until late night, so he stayed at a side room…”

The poor girl was looking at every direction at once. She saw Wen Kexing’s arms around Zhou Zishu’s waist with the scratch marks on one wrist and turned impossibly redder, mumbling, “I have to join my father now, to take a look at Zhang Chengling.”

Then she ran with her head lowered.

Only then did Zhou Zishu seize Wen Kexing’s wrists and remove it from his body, the sound of his bones cracking perfectly matching his current fuming expression.

Wen Kexing smiled innocently, “Why the sour face, Ah-Xu? Don’t you have a young disciple to care about?”

Zhou Zishu didn’t let go of the other man’s wrist, even holding it in front of his face for a better look. He smiled afterwards, eyes narrowing coldly at Wen Kexing. “What kind of beauty who could have left such a… pretty mark on you, Brother Wen?”

Wen Kexing’s eyes brightened instantly. “Are you jealous, Ah-Xu?”

“I want to devour you.”

After staring at him with eyes wide open, Wen Kexing became overjoyed and smiled. “Good, let’s go back to the bedroom, I’m gonna let you devour me as you wish. Preferably more than once.”

It was truly unimaginable for someone to be constantly shameless like this. With a noise of contempt, Zhou Zishu threw Wen Kexing’s own wrist back at his chest. He turned to see Zhang Chengling being surrounded with lots people, his expression showing contemplation. Then he turned away with the intention of going back to his room. Zhang Chengling’s room wouldn’t catch fire for no reasons, and where did Wen Kexing go in the middle of the night? Why did he use him to pull a clumsy act in front of Gao Xiaolian?

At that moment, Wen Kexing’s soft voice asked behind him. “Ah-Xu, in all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you sleep after midnight, so are you…”

Zhou Zishu’s pupils contracted. While his face didn’t change, his couldn’t help but stop walking.

Only to hear the other man continuing, “Are you so lonely that you can’t rest for the whole night…”

Zhou Zishu quickened his steps towards the room, as if Wen Kexing’s words were farts that he had to run away from before he choked.

Wen Kexing smiled and stopped talking. He stood there, looking at Zhang Chengling—who had become terribly thin in just a few months. The young boy seemed to have gotten a little taller, his face ashen like that of a corpse, mouth thinned, eyes black and bright, showing bits of stubbornness and restraint. His whole body was seemingly carved from fire, burning away the old crybaby and leaving a young wolf in its stead.

Only now was Wen Kexing starting to believe that this scamp was truly a child of the Zhangs. He laughed softly, speaking at Zhang Chengling’s direction without making a sound, “You better stay alert, brat.”

The next day, good old Wen found out that “Saint Zhou”—who immediately holed up in his room once Zhang Chengling came near—had vanished without a trace since the early morning, his room so tidy it gave almost no indication of someone having lived in it before.

Even Zhou Zishu himself wasn’t sure why he started following Zhang Chengling since morning. Always anticipating the worse, he found another layer of skin-like mask to put over his already carefully crafted one.

He hid in the crowd like an apparition and went past people completely unnoticed; no one paid attention to a forgettable stranger in a plain set of clothes.

Zhou Zishu remained a calculated distance away from Zhang Chengling. Everyone and their mother in this grand pugilist scene proclaimed their furious indignation, and then there was that kid who stayed silent and looked over all of them despite being the person worthy of a proclamation the most.

His eyes were wide open, his face bare and honest. Zhou Zishu was suddenly reminded of someone—the person with thick brows and big eyes under the tree whom he saw in that dark, horrible cave.

Liang Jiuxiao.

He remembered their childhood vaguely. That brat Liang Jiuxiao called him Senior Brother, constantly clinging to him and making his life as inconvenient as possible while rambling to no end. Worse, he was a fool, always slow on the uptake.

Back then Zhou Zishu was still young and impatient, so imagined his discontent and unpleasant expression when his Master threw the rascal at him.

He shouldn’t get angry as a Big Senior Brother, so at times he would took some jabs at the kid. But he seemed to be completely oblivious, and wouldn’t go away no matter what. Zhou Zishu ended up having to accept his situation as was.

It took Liang Jiuxiao so much more effort than the normal person for things to get through to him, and he would ask questions the moment he hit a roadblock. When his Big Senior Brother became infuriated with his inquiries, he put up with all of the harsh words and waited until Brother’s anger subsided to continue asking.

Just like that Zhang brat—they were like sticking plasters, refusing to let go once applied on the skin.

But… who knew the plaster would eventually wear off one day? Who knew, that the once magnificent Lord of Si Ji Holdings, leader of Tian Chuang would one day become a ghost in the middle of the crowd, staring at a kid while agonizingly mourning the past?

Chapter 20. Man in Red

The weather had no regards for the heroes gathered at Dong Ting, seeing how gloomy the sky was. It was as if something heavily suspended the rain in midair and it could fall down any time. The damp air was chilly and there were less and less fallen leaves.

There was a man standing in the middle of this with sadness, thinking about his hometown. Thirty years seemed like such a long dream.

Cao Chong stepped down to let Abbot Ci Mu take the reins. Zhou Zishu, while hidden in the crowd, heard the young man next to him sighed, “One day I should become someone like him.”

Xiang Yu the Overlord of Western Chu, upon seeing Emperor Shi Huang’s procession, had said, “I am fit to replace him.”[1] Liu Xiu the Emperor Guangwu during his younger years also dazedly lamented, “Palace guard leader is a worthy official title to strive for, just as Yin Lihua is a worthy maiden to wed.”[2] In this vast and obscure world, who wouldn’t want to give it their all and become a legendary hero fit for the history books?

The adolescence years were always full of vitality, so it wasn’t uncommon for someone to look up at a figure, gritting his teeth and clenching his fist while exclaiming “One day, I should become someone like him.”

Someone who had the world in his power.

But what came after the glory?

Zhou Zishu’s Master passed away too soon, leaving the Si Ji Holdings in chaos with a lack of a leader. Just like that, the responsibility fell on his shoulders as he is the Big Senior Brother – but how much could a Big Senior Brother really do? He was barely over fifteen that year.

The current Emperor when he was fifteen was still biding his time however he could; Nan Ning Wang[3] when he was fifteen was indulging in wine and pleasure and letting them cloud his senses; even the Great Shaman of South Xinjiang back when he was fifteen was a kid stranded in a foreign land as hostage, full of resentfulness but had no way out.

That’s why Liang Jiuxiao in some ways had become his only solace as they depended on each other to live on.

But since when did the cracks in their relationship appear?

Maybe it was when Liang Jiuxiao visited the capital for the first time and saw the corrupted struggles, saw the increasingly horrible conflicts between families, saw brothers murdering each other in cold blood, saw all the crimes, framings, even deaths of loyal officials—behind all of which was the Big Senior Brother whom he always looked up to–

Gao Chong was already standing up, fiercely condemning the Ghost Valley in front of all the heroes.

Zhou Zishu’s eyes were downcast, as if he was sleeping. Not a single syllable of Liang Jiuxiao’s interrogating words had once left his mind all these years.

“What are you all after, really? Power? The throne? Glory and wealth?”

“Your fate will not end well if you continue down this road, please snap out of it!”

“An eye for an eye is how it is, big brother…”

An eye for an eye? Why should blood be paid back with blood while in this world there were other ways to make people suffer without dying—Zhou Zishu smiled mockingly and thought, Ah, Jiuxiao, we’re both wrong after all.

At that moment, there was a grunt interrupting Gao Chong’s words and Zhou Zishu’s train of thought. The noise sounded like it belonged to a child, but was also strangely raspy. There was internal force underlying Gao Chong’s voice, so it was evident that this person was not your run-of-the-mill type, seeing how they were able to cut him off.

They spoke louder. “Sir Gao, how can you come to the conclusion that the Ghost Valley’s behind all this just with mere words? Isn’t this a little far-fetched?”

Everyone’s gaze was drawn to one spot, not excluding Zhou Zishu. The one who spoke up was a dwarf-like man who was only around a meter tall, currently sitting on the shoulder of another man whose build was the complete opposite. Zhou Zishu could be considered tall compared to the average man, but even he had to crane his neck to look at this giant. His hair was wild and his beard was untamed, only leaving his dark eyes visible. He carried the dwarf with care, using his huge hands to grip the smaller man’s legs to prevent him from falling.

Weren’t these “Earth Lord”[4] Feng Xiaofeng and his wishy-washy friend Gao Shannu?

Their physical attributes were too distinctive, to the point that everyone knew who they were the moment they opened their mouths. There was a glint in Zhou Zishu’s eyes; in fact, he harbored no bad feelings towards this Feng Xiaofeng at all. If the rumors were correct, he was someone with a gray morality and acted on his own emotions rather than following the rules. His physique might also be the one that contributed to his stubborn and unpredictable behaviors.

Except for Gao Shannu to whom he was attached at the hip, he didn’t listen to anyone else. In short, he was difficult.

Feng Xiaofeng’s voice was grating to the ears. “You’re being unreasonable, Sir Gao, with your talk about those “evil-doers” in the Ghost Valley. Of course the Ghosts of Qingzhu Ridge have done a lot of despicable things—they would be decent human beings otherwise. But forgive me for being rude, because with the Valley’s strict rules forbidding people to leave once they enter and preventing the Ghosts from causing mayhem for years, I don’t see why they have to act up right at this moment.”

Gao Chong pursed his lips, his Buddha-like face no longer smiling. His eyes were unnaturally serious, carrying indescribable intimidation. He looked at Feng Xiaofeng for a good while, then asked slowly. “Is that you, Brother Feng? What is your opinion then?”

Feng Xiaofeng sneered, “Spare me all of your niceties. You think I don’t know how you’re calling me “Brother” on the outside but “Dwarf” on the inside? Well this dwarf has heard something through the grapevine and would like to give all you jobless heroes a warning, so that you don’t go and do something embarrassing.”

Zhou Zishu had heard enough to confirm the rumors about this man for himself. Feng Xiaofeng was definitely not the malicious type, he was neutral at worst; but people-pleasing seemed to be non-existent in his vocabulary. Not only was he unpleasant, others would label him a mad dog without a doubt.

There were whispers about how he cut off someone’s tongue after they called him a dwarf. He would even cut the tongue of someone who address him impolitely, and when they did show him politeness he would deem it a lie—a real tough nut to crack.

Gao Chong frowned, but as a renowned hero he had to be courteous and not try to argue with a mad dog. So he asked in a civil manner, “What rumors have you heard, Sir Feng?”

Feng Xiaofeng let out a cruel laugh, sounding not unlike a mystical bird. “Why are you playing dumb, Gao Chong? I may know nothing about Mu Yunge and Yu Tianjie’s case, but do you dare say that the deaths of Zhang Yusen and the Patriarch of Tai Shan have no correlations to the Lapis Armor?”

At this, the expressions of those who were in the know changed immediately as whispers broke out. Zhou Zishu took note of Gao Chong seemingly turn to glance Abbot Ci Mu with a grave expression. In contrast, Monk Gu’s young disciple who was sitting near Gao Chong paid no attention, his posture and attitude resembling a detached immortal.

Zhang Chengling, sitting beside Zhao Jing, sneaked a look at the elder. He saw Zhao Jing’s face turned into a mix of rage, contemplation and something else rather scary after “Lapis Armor” was uttered.

The boy’s impending question was stuck in his throat.

In this relatively short amount of time, he had come to understand a lot of things. Zhang Chengling could see the contempt and pity in people’s eyes and read it in their words – that’s right, how could the famous Sir Zhang Yusen have such a coward for a son? He once heard the Zhao’s servants gossiping in secret about whether it was worth it for hundreds of people to lay down their lives just for a kid.

With him being incompetent in every aspect, how could they expect him to avenge Sir Zhang and rebuild the Zhang family?

They only saw him as a mascot to express their hatred for the Ghost Valley; then they would turn to him and said “Ah, the Zhang orphan. Don’t worry, kid, we will seek justice for your father and family.”

A helpless, pitiful mascot.

Zhang Chengling’s thought strayed to the sickly and quiet man he met in the abandoned shrine that day. Ever since that horrific night, he could never sleep without encountering nightmares, but who would care if he told them? Even uncle Zhao would tell him to straighten his spine and stop it from getting to him; that everyone would stand beside him to avenge the Zhangs. There was no one else who would embrace his shoulders and talked to him softly, that “It’s alright, sleep all you want. I’ll wake you if there’s a nightmare.”

Seeing that chaos had broken out, Feng Xiaofeng’s smirked remained as he requested that Gao Chong gave everyone an explanation about the Lapis Armor. Zhang Chengling lowered his head and was kneading his temples when there was a stealthy rush of wind flew at him, carrying a tiny ball of paper to hit his palm directly. Zhang Chengling startled, and after seeing that no one was noticing him, he bent down and picked up the paper ball.

Written on it was simply: Follow me if you want to know the truth.

When Zhang Chengling looked up, in the crowd there was a man in dark clothes who was staring at him without blinking. A cruel sneer seemed to be hung at the corner of his lips, his gaze dark and disdainful as if he was sure that the boy wouldn’t follow him.

In a blink of an eye, not sure if it was out of being over-emotional or impulsive, Zhang Chengling gripped the note tightly. Taking advantage of the current commotion, he quietly left Zhao Jing’s side and followed the strange man through the crowd.

No one noticed him except for Zhou Zishu.

Zhou Zishu always had half of his attention on Zhang Chengling, and his keen eyes immediately noticed and alarming him of the man shooting the note at the boy. Seeing that Zhang Chengling discarded all notions of danger and went after the man alone, he frowned and immediately abandoned the heroes’ quarrel to chase after the boy in secret.

The man seemed to be toying with him, disappearing as soon as Zhang Chengling followed him; but not long after that, there would be small rocks shooting at him from different directions, apparently mocking his extremely terrible qinggong, like a cat playing with a mouse.

Zhang Chengling gritted his teeth, unconsciously able to pursue further and further. He didn’t have an aptitude for these physical activities, and after he arrived at the Zhao’s Holdings, everyone was too busy about doing heroic deeds to remember to teach him more kungfu. Soon enough, his angry chase left him out of breath and dizzy. He could almost hear the sound of his pulse by the temples.

Never before had the spoiled boy been so angry with himself. He heard someone snort, “This is Zhang Yusen’s brat? What a waste.”

He thought, That’s right, you’re a waste, Zhang Chengling; why did uncle Li risk his life to save you?

Why did it have to be you?

The man then appeared in front of him, hands like claws twisting his neck. His gaze at Zhang Chengling was sinister. When the boy’s body warmth slowly started to disintegrate, he realized they were standing on deserted land.

Shadows appeared seemingly from nowhere behind the man with the same fashion, circling around Zhang Chengling.

The one who led him here laughed quietly and released him. He raised his voice, “My poorly hidden friend, why must you be so worked up over a boy like this?”

A man dressed in deep red stepped forward at that. On his face was a red birthmark, making his features incredibly formidable at first glance.

Zhang Chengling’s legs started to tremble, but he tried his best to keep his chin up and feigned courage at the man in red.

The man suddenly laughed, the dry sound not unlike that from a rusty fan, causing goosebumps to erupt across the skin. In just a blink, he materialized in front of Zhang Chengling and held the boy’s neck. His fingers were cold like a corpse’s, and for a brief moment Zhang Chengling mistook him for an undead.

Then the man asked softly. “Let me ask you: That night at the Zhang’s Holdings, did you see a man with a missing finger?”

Zhang Chengling’s eyes were as wide as saucers as he tried to shake his head.

The man narrowed his eyes, softening his voice even more. “No? Think again, my good boy, did you see him? Or did you not?”

The softer his voice was, the stronger his grip became. Zhang Chengling tried to breathe and struggle out of the grip with all his might, his face reddening; but all of his retaliating punches were futile. He rasped, “Fuck you!”

The man in red seemed not to notice, a demonic smile appearing on his face. “Yes… or no?”

Zhang Chengling felt like his chest was going to burst. He knew this man wanted him to say yes, but right at this life-and-death moment, his stubbornness awoke with a vengeance as he spit on the man’s face. The grip quickly turned crueler, and Zhang Chengling had no more strength to struggle.

The man’s voice was still gentle. “I’m asking you once again: Yes, or no?”

Zhang Chengling was slipping out of consciousness. He thought, This is it…

Suddenly, the man let out a sound of pain and let go of the boy. Air rushed into his lungs and he stumbled backwards, eventually falling on the ground with a “Thud!”, coughing painfully.

The man in red took a few steps back, eyes glancing at the rock that almost broke his wrist with hostility. “Who’s there?”

Footnotes:
Both references 1 & 2 are from real historical figures.
[1] Xiang Yu was a ruthless warlord famous for his conquests in the late Qin dynasty, and Qin Shi Huang was the most prominent Emperor of the Qin dynasty and is one of the most influential figures in Chinese history.
[2] Emperor Guangwu was and emperor during the Han Dynasty, and Yin Lihua was his second empress. They knew each other when they were young and he had always been impressed with her beauty way back then.
[3] 王 (wàng) here, while literally translates to “King”, is a title used for the current/former Emperor’s/King’s siblings.
[4] Likely refers to 土地公, a deity in Chinese myth.

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