Faraway Wanderers Chapter 21-30

Chapter 21. Poisonous Scorpion

Out from the corner walked a gaunt man with an easily forgettable face that served no indication of his age. No one had any idea of how long he had been there, having unable to detect his presence at all.

The man in red frowned. He had no idea why, but when he looked at this plain man with nothing striking about him, there was a shuddering feeling that crawled up his spine and raised the hair at the back of his neck. He couldn’t help but change his posture the closer the other man got, unblinking eyes never leaving him.

He asked again, cautiously. “Who are you?”

On instinct, Zhou Zishu was about to told him “Just a nobody” like he did to Gu Xiang; but when he looked down and saw the bruise on Zhang Chengling’s neck, he thought, I’ve played pretend in the palace for over half of my life, why do I have to be polite to these amateurs?

The vagabond’s uncouth behaviors in him had been repressed for way too long. He cast a cursory glance at the men, including the man in red – who had all became tenser – and laughed. “What makes you think I have to answer you?”

The man’s eyes twitched, hands retracted under his sleeves. Apart from his birthmark whose color seemed to have become a darker shade of red, were anyone to see his hands at that moment, they would discover a layer of black smoke appearing over the skin.

The men standing beside him involuntarily spread out. After signaling each other with their eyes, they formed a circle around Zhou Zishu and Zhang Chengling.

Zhou Zishu paid no attention to them, bending down to pull at Zhang Chengling’s collar and picking him up from the ground. “Stand up, kid, don’t lower your head like that.”

Zhang Chengling stared at him blankly, still confused since Zhou Zishu was wearing an additional layer of disguise.

The man in red was patient still. “We just want to ask the child something, my friend, don’t-”

Stick your nose in other people’s business was what he was about to continue with but was unable to, because Zhou Zishu had already set about with electric speed. He gripped the neck of the one who lured Zhang Chengling here in the exact same way the man in red did to the young boy.

The man spluttered, frightened; his martial art skills were not at all incompetent, but this malnourished-looking man moved in a way that was almost ghostlike, and his most vulnerable body part was at the man’s mercy before he even had a chance to evade.

Even a new martial art practitioner would know that the neck and chest were the most vulnerable parts on the body and had to be looked out for with utmost vigilance; those are the places that one would protect unconsciously. A person who dared aim for another’s neck was either very unseasoned or very confident in their ability.

Zhou Zishu’s lips curled without a single hint of real mirth. “Am I your grandpa?”

The man in his grip was initially startled, then enraged; he started to yell without taking his current situation into account. “You…”

But that was all he could utter as Zhou Zishu strengthened his hold and turned his vulgar words into hoarse cries. During the panic, he lifted his arm to hit Zhou Zishu’s chest, but it was dislocated before he could see the man made a move. There was only a wretched distorting scream heard between them.

Zhou Zishu drawled. “Answer me. Am. I. Your. Grandpa?”

The man in red asked angrily. “What do you want?”

Zhou Zishu turned his attention to him and smiled cruelly. “Just some trivial matters that need this bastard’s cooperation. Don’t poke your nose in other people’s business.”

Veins throbbed on the back of his palm, and the man convulsed a little before turning still with his eyes rolled back, not even a scream being let out. It was unclear whether he was dead or not.

Zhou Zishu loosened his grip, and the man slid to the ground almost boneless.

At the same time, two more charged towards them – one targeting the barely-managing-to-stand-firmly Zhang Chengling, one targeting Zhou Zishu with a hook in his hand that smelled of rotten meat. He didn’t bother to dodge and instead kicked at the attacker square in the chest at a mind-boggling angle. The strength from that kick made the man spat out blood while he flew backwards to conveniently hit Zhang Chengling’s sneak attacker, causing both of them to fall like bottle gourds.

Zhou Zishu frowned, picking Zhang Chengling up by the neck with distaste. He threw the boy aside like a small kitten and said impatiently, “Wait here, little nuisance, and don’t move.”

Zhang Chengling felt like his body was as light as a feather when he was picked up and thrown. His eyes widened for a brief second as he mouthed silently, “Shifu…”

Other men continued attacking Zhou Zishu while the man in red remained still.

Zhang Chengling didn’t even dare to blink at the sight in front of him. He remembered his father’s words back when he was little, that martial arts had many different paths and styles to pursue – some steady and unflinching, some incredibly sharp and impenetrable, some fast and rushed like a storm. But all of those above involved visible techniques, and the most magnificent one would have to be when one couldn’t see, sense or hear it, completely indescribable and featureless like the rain in spring at first glance – he summed it up as “quick like startled birds, making light work of the most burdensome.”

At that moment, he finally understood what it was like to be “making light work of the most burdensome.”

Each of those men carried an identical hook that looked like a scorpion’s tail when one examined closely. The hooks were glowing faint blue and carried a demonic aura. Zhang Chengling had yet to know that these people were the infamous “Poisonous Scorpion”, a band specializing in murder and thievery. They would do any disgusting and despicable things imaginable for money.

However, right now they were a complete mess. Zhou Zishu seemed to be barely moving around, his gait almost too lazy. He was empty-handed and his body moved in such a flexible way that made him look completely devoid of bones, but none of the attackers could land a finger on his clothes. Only when one touched him did they realize how truly dangerous he was.

After a while, Zhang Chengling’s head spun with dizziness.

Just under an hour, thirteen Scorpions were knocked out.

Zhang Chengling was incredibly invigorated at this sight, his fist clenched tightly. Zhou Zishu gently dusted off his robes, standing opposite the man in red and examining him for a good while. He tilted his head, his eyes narrowed. “With that birthmark on your face and that famous “demon hand”, surely you must be the messenger of bad luck, Sun Ding the Delighted Mourning Ghost?”

The man’s expression shifted.

Zhou Zishu smiled coldly. “The Ghost Valley had its rules and regulations, once you’ve become a Ghost you cannot leave except for certain times. What nerves you have to come to Dong Ting to attack someone in plain sight.”

The man in red spoke through clenched teeth. “You talk too much.” He became a flurry of red that exuded a smell that was a combination of the smell of fish and rotten corpses, his charge attack barely visible to the eye.

Zhou Zishu immediately flew back a few feet.

The man didn’t land a hit, but Zhang Chengling could see very clearly – on the ground where Zhou Zishu was standing moments ago was a deep mark in the shape of a hand, and the fluttering blades of grass around it all withered at an incredible speed. The boy looked up in astonishment; so this man really was Sun Ding the delighted Mourning Ghost!

Mu Yunge and Fang Buzhi’s murderer!

Zhou Zishu broke a branch in passing, and with a shout, he pierced it into the space between the Ghost’s hands. The branch quickly shriveled up; but Zhou Zishu, still expressionless, pressed further. There seemed to be an influx of vitality poured into the branch, making it more flexible. The Delighted Mourning Ghost felt like it was almost a living being and carried an adherent force.

Alarmed, he took a few steps backwards but Zhou Zishu’s pressure had almost reached his abdomen. He struggled to tumble away and regain his footing, face ghastly pale. Zhou Zishu threw the tree branch aside when the deadly energy was about to spread to his hand. He fixed his sleeves and stood there grimly.

The Ghost, in a show of exceptional pragmatism, immediately disappeared without hesitation once he touched the ground.

Zhang Chengling shouted, “He’s trying to run!”

Zhou Zishu looked at him, then turned and walked away uncaringly. Zhang Chengling rushed to him and cried, “Shifu!”

Zhou Zishu halted, brows knitted, “Who’s your shifu?”

Zhang Chengling followed him regardless, tugging at his arms and looking up at him. “I just know that it’s you, my Uncle Zhou who saved me, my shifu.”

Who else would speak with this mildly irritated voice while talking to him? Who else would have these bony but warm hands? Who else would have this strange, ghostlike style of fighting? Who else in that crowd would follow him here and rescue him?

Zhang Chengling was unflinching in his judgement. Zhou Zishu wasn’t expecting to trick people for long anyway, but he was still disappointed that the brat saw through him. “You…” He tried to get rid of this tail in the most tactful way possible.

His eyes suddenly turned cold before he could finish the sentence, one hand tugging Zhang Chengling closer to his chest and body quickly moving aside. Zhang Chengling had no time to react, he could only feel a rush of wind brushing them and the arms holding him stiffening. Zhou Zishu’s voice was icy. “Death-seeking bastard!”

The attacker’s neck was broken in one movement before he had the chance to jump at them.

When Zhang Chengling took a closer look, he saw that this man was the first one Zhou Zishu knocked out; who could have imagined that he was only faking his death earlier.

The boy was thrown aside once more. Zhou Zishu walked away without a word, but there was no way Zhang Chengling was going to let him leave again, so he followed the man unabashedly.

However, he quickly grew dizzy as the man was nowhere to be seen. Zhang Chengling knew that it would take decades for him to catch up with the elder’s qinggong skills; he was on the verge of tearing up, miserably calling after him, “Shifu…”

At that moment, he heard a faint laugh, and a man dressed in gray appeared from thin air, stopping Zhou Zishu in his track and wrapping his arms around Zhou Zishu’s waist in a clearly calculated fashion.

Zhou Zishu had no idea why his body was stopped in midair and before he could realize, he was already in the other man’s embrace.

Then he heard the familiar, most annoying voice on Earth, “Why the rush, my Saint Master Zhou?”

When they touched the ground, Zhou Zishu cried out and clutched at his right arm. Wen Kexing removed his sleeve without a second thought, intentionally tearing it at a certain angle[1]. Then he immediately frowned – there were two tiny wounds on Zhou Zishu’s arm, like he was bitten by insects.

“No wonder why you ran so quickly, turns out the Scorpion did bite you.”

Zhang Chengling had a sudden revelation. He looked back at their now dead attacker, face turning white.

Wen Kexing stopped Zhou Zishu from talking and made quick work blocking the flow between his meridians. “Shut up.”

He took out a magnet and carefully removed the two hair-thin needles buried in the other’s skin. Then he bent down, putting his mouth to the wound to extract the poison from Zhou Zishu’s blood without a care.

As soon as that happened, Zhou Zishu became stiff as a board.

Footnotes:
[1] Cut-sleeve is a historical slang for gay men, and Wen Kexing was trying to insinuate that he’s sure Zhou Zishu was also one.

Chapter 22. The Divine

Wen Kexing methodically sucked out all the poisoned blood in Zhou Zishu’s arm and treated his wounds skillfully. He removed the other man’s meridian blocking and took out a small medicine bottle. He swallowed one pill and put one more in his palm, holding it near Zhou Zishu’s mouth while snickering, voice drawn out obscenely. “Come one, Ah-Xu, open your mouth.”

Zhou Zishu stared back with a sullen face. Wen Kexing, wholly energized as he was, kept on his blinding smile; other man’s stare could be a drill and it would not be enough to pierce through his thick face. He took a meaningful look at Zhang Chengling and deliberately lowered his voice. “We’ve already kissed and seen everything there is of each other, why are you still so shy?”

Zhou Zishu took the pill and left without looking back.

Wen Kexing then signaled Zhang Chengling, who was still standing there dumbly. He said, evidently in good spirits, “Seeing that your shifu isn’t running, this sure is a once-in-a-life-time chance for you to follow him. What are you waiting for?”

The sky had turned dark. The Scorpions had lured Zhang Chengling from Dong Ting’s gathering to way over here, and now he had no idea how far away he was, causing him to become extremely disoriented.

After a while, Zhou Zishu returned carrying a few big hares, and he went on to make food for the other two quietly. Wen Kexing said to Zhang Chengling smilingly, “Do you know what the second most adorable type of people is?”

Zhang Chengling stared up at him. It made sense since shifu was injured; but still, this man could easily rein him in without breaking a sweat, that really said enough about his ability. Furthermore, he didn’t seem to be right in the head, so the boy was even more intimidated. He shook his head.

Wen Kexing continued. “It’s the type who’s hard on the outside but soft on the inside—then, do you know what the most adorable type is?”

Zhou Zishu—currently disemboweling the hares with great skill—glanced at Wen Kexing coldly. “Stop spouting nonsense and go find some wood.”

Wen Kexing happily complied, but when he turned away, he still saw Zhang Chengling staring perplexedly out of the corner of his eyes. Thinking the boy was being curious, he explained in a haughty fashion, “That type would be those who in addition have an incredible body[1] to match.”

Zhou Zishu spoke up casually. “Don’t listen to him boasting rubbish, kid.”

Zhang Chengling’s uncertain gaze turned to Zhou Zishu. Did he understand this wrong? But clearly this man said…

Zhou Zishu continued, “Distance yourself from him, lest he take an interest in you.”

Wen Kexing tripped on withered leaves and turned his head around, speaking as if he was hurt. “You’ve wronged me, Ah-Xu.”

Zhou Zishu pointed at the dead hares. “If you don’t go get some wood right now, I’m gonna open you up like I did with these little friends.”

Wen Kexing startled, running away while protecting his stomach like a skittish rabbit.

Zhou Zishu found a creek to wash his hands, awkwardly wrapping the torn part of his sleeves back around his arm. The sensation of Wen Kexing’s lips still lingered; and he was acutely aware that the man went as far as slightly licking the wound after he was done, causing his temple to throb – that move was clearly intentional.

Zhou Zishu tore away the mask on his face spitefully and threw it into the water. This was the first time in his entire life did he come to know of such a bizarre man, who was so ravenous for another man’s touch that he would gladly accept anyone within the vicinity, who let no chance of publicly flaunting his sexual appetite slide.

When he turned his face sideways, Zhang Chengling recognized the familiar visage and happily shouted, “Shifu!”, as if he had only just now known that it was him. He fussed around the elder like a puppy, but still kept a certain distance out of caution.

Zhou Zishu saw it out of the corner of his eyes and caved in, flicking his hand. “Come here.”

Zhang Chengling went to him animatedly and spoke in a sweet voice, “Shifu.”

After contemplation, Zhou Zishu said, “At your speed we won’t be able to make it back tonight, so let’s sleep out here and I’ll return you to Sir Zhao in the early morning.”

Zhang Chengling’s eyes instantly dimmed. He said nothing, only staring at his shoes instead in dejected silence. Zhou Zishu’s easily-persuaded soul couldn’t stand this look from the boy, so he coughed and frowned. “What are you doing?”

Zhang Chengling, head still down, answered quietly. “Okay.”

The boy went silent once more, sneaking glances at Zhou Zishu. He turned away once caught, mouth quivering, eyes blinking with a single tear clinging on to his eyelashes.

Zhou Zishu leaned onto a tree and sat down. He had no idea how to treat this kid right; did he end up like this because Zhang Yusen raised him like how he would a daughter, since maybe he was fated to be unable to have one? As a result, he grimaced and faked irritation. “Stand up straight and raise your head!”

Zhang Chengling started, his back straightened immediately. The moment he raised his head, tears rolled down his face like a dam had burst open. Zhou Zishu got even more worried, his voice unknowingly softened. “Wipe your face and man up, why does this make you cry anyway?”

Zhang Chengling wiped his face with much effort and got even more sullen because he couldn’t get his face entirely cleaned. That seemed to be the last straw and he spoke between broken sobs, “Shifu… shi… I don’t, don’t cry all the time, I, I… It’s just that I saw you, I saw you and felt really sad… I, I… I…”

Zhou Zishu felt a terrible headache coming up, so he averted his gaze with an indifferent expression, no longer keen on facing the kid.

Wen Kexing returned with wood to this exact moment and was slightly stunned.

The sky had turned completely dark. The sunlight was gradually disappearing from the horizon, leaving the western sky a gloomy ash-gray shade. The evening star was hung up on a tree branch and the wind began to pick up, spreading the feeling of coolness.

Wen Kexing silently sharpened the wood and made a fire, putting up the hares that were carefully prepared by Zhou Zishu and roasting it patiently. Then he started to hum an unfamiliar tune that somewhat resembled “The Eighteen Touches[2]” and completely suited his manners. Zhou Zishu sat beside him wordlessly, one leg bent and hands on his knees. Zhang Chengling sat next to them, trying his best to stop his sobbings.

After a good while, the smell of meat started floating in the air, and Zhang Chengling’s stomach rumbled loudly, causing him to blush. Wen Kexing looked at him and smiled, “Gotta wait a bit more, it’s not fully cooked yet.”

Zhang Chengling nodded endearingly. Wen Kexing felt like he was even more well-behaved than a little rabbit, so he turned to Zhou Zishu, “Oh dear, hear me out. If he wants to accompany you so bad, why don’t you let him? Why repeatedly come to his rescue if you want him out of your sight?”

Zhou Zishu slowly stood up and put his hands near the fire as the acupuncture points on his chest were starting to hurt, making him dread the chilliness.

Wen Kexing kicked him with the tip of his shoes. “I’m asking you here.”

“I rescue him because I like to.” Zhou Zishu answered, still sluggish.

Zhang Chengling suddenly spoke up, his voice hoarse and trembling a little. “Actually, you don’t have to, shifu, I only bring troubles. There are so many people who want to kill me, I… I’m not skillful at anything, and even led them to hurt you…”

Wen Kexing comforted him. “Don’t worry, his skin is the thickest out there—don’t you look at me like that. Normal people only have a single layer of skin, unlike you who’s like a whole rice cake[3], as if one isn’t enough.”

At Zhang Chengling’s astonished face, Wen Kexing continued his explanation patiently. “Look at his arms, do you see how the color of the skin from his wrist down is completely different from his wrist up? You shifu can’t lie to save his life, but he’s still not willing to reveal himself to me even now.”

Zhou Zishu ignored him and tore a part of the hare’s legs to savor leisurely.

When he was about to tear another, Wen Kexing flinched with distaste. “It’s not done roasting yet, are you a hungry ghost?”

Only when Zhou Zishu had swallowed the meat did he turn to Wen Kexing. “Were you a woman in your past life, why do you smell of beauty products all the time? And regardless of all those handkerchiefs you have, stop with that motor mouth that’s full of gibberish.”

Wen Kexing shut up instantly.

A few minutes later, the hares were roasted beautifully with glistening golden skin, crispy outside and tender inside. Zhou Zishu called Zhang Chengling to join them; and two men plus one kid dove in completely unceremoniously since they were all ravenous after a whole day. Soon enough, there were only clean bones left.

Now full, the three sat around the fire for warmth. Zhou Zishu leaned back and closed his eyes to rest, while Wen Kexing said to Zhang Chengling, “Why is your kungfu so bad? Didn’t your father teach you anything?”

Zhang Chengling mumbled. “He did. I’m just too stupid and lazy, so I already forgot most of them.”

Wen Kexing replied after some thoughts, head shaking. “When I was little and my father taught me things, I was lazy too, but I’m not really stupid…”

Zhou Zishu couldn’t help but scoff, eyes still closed.

Wen Kexing ignored him, judging Zhang Chengling head to toe then said casually. “Do you want to learn something?”

Zhang Chengling’s head snapped up, looking at the man with shining eyes.

The passion in his gaze turned Wen Kexing daze with surprise; it had been a while since he saw that much honesty, perseverance and reckless desire in someone. “You… kid, why did you suddenly turn into a wolf now?”

Zhang Chengling abruptly knelt. “Sir! Please teach me, I will do anything for you!”

Wen Kexing rubbed his nose and cleared his throat. “Look at you, I’m not interested in the younglings-” A cough.

The fire cast shades of red on the young boy’s face, coating his still slightly childish features with determination, then vulnerability and imploration.

Being stared at intensely like that, Wen Kexing reacted the same way as Zhou Zishu which was turning his gaze away uneasily. After some hesitation, he sighed and stood up, dusting himself off and picking up a moderate wooden stick. “Alright, I’m gonna teach you some moves. Watch carefully, I won’t do them twice.”

To his promise, he demonstrated very thoroughly. Zhang Chengling didn’t miss one thing, and started practicing on his own afterwards. He really wasn’t a bright kid; and while Wen Kexing said he wouldn’t repeat, he found himself correcting the boy and explaining to him in details. Zhang Chengling looked at him with his eyes bright, the excitement making his voice tremble. “Thank you sir, thank you sir!” He repeated.

Wen Kexing, evidently having never received that much gratitude, started revealing a rare cautious side of himself.

They continued past midnight but Zhang Chengling seemed to show no sign of fatigue, still practicing vigorously. Wen Kexing sat to one side in silence, his smiling expression vanished. He appeared to be deep in thoughts.

Suddenly, he heard the gentle voice of the seemingly-asleep Zhou Zishu. “Your last name is Wen… Who was “The Divine” Wen Ruyu to you?”

Wen Kexing’s whole body seemed to jolt. After a while, he lowered his head. “He was my father.”

Zhou Zishu, eyes now wide open, stared at his side profile. He spoke again with a much more serious tone. “I have always heard of and respected The Divine Senior Wen Ruyu with his sword “Dazzling Fall”, who travelled with his wife and genius physician Gu[4] Miaomiao to help those in need and later retired to a reclusive life. My apologies for having never realized that you’re his progeny.”

Footnotes.
[1] Wen Kexing’s literal words were “long-legged and slender-waisted.”
[2] A Chinese folk song.
[3] 粽子(zòngzi) is a dish made of rice, stuffed with different fillings and has layers of bamboo leaves as wrappings.
[4] 谷 (gǔ), not to be confused with 顾 (gù) in Gu Xiang.

Chapter 23. Old Tales

Wen Kexing’s smile seemed to be hiding unspeakable sadness. “I’m surprised there’s still someone who can recognize his swordsmanship.”

Zhou Zishu fell silent. Not even Tian Chuang was entirely infallible; had it been the case then he wouldn’t be able to escape in the first place. Though, it was twenty years ago when the Swordsman of the Dazzing Fall secluded himself from the world, so no one really knew what happened with him and his wife since then.

He quietly studied Wen Kexing – the other man was sitting by the fire, back curved. He was supervising Zhang Chengling’s clumsy execution of what he was taught by his father long ago with a still, distant gaze. His aura exuded indifference and detachment, somewhat similar to how Wen Ruyu’s manners would be in Zhou Zishu’s imagination.

Then Wen Kexing began to sing. “There was the millet with drooping heads; then there was the new sacrificial millet sprouting. I moved about idly, heart in turmoil. Those who knew me spoke of my sorrows, and those who did not said I was seeking something. O distant and azure Heaven! By whom was this caused?  There was the millet with drooping heads; then there was the new sacrificial millet sprouting…”[1]

His voice was pitched incredibly low and was a little hoarse, a little morose. It carried a sense of disarray with the mixed-up words, each phrase and sentence sounding like it was rumbling deep in his chest and stuck in his throat, refusing to come out.

The fire crackled. Zhang Chengling turned to them to ask for instructions as he was confused about this one move, but his steps halted at the nearby singing.

Back when King Ping of Zhou ruled over the country and having to move residence, legends had it that when the physician Chu passed by Zongzhou[2], the crumbling shrines and palace brought sadness to his face. Seeing the ground overran with weeds and millet, he thought up this sad melody.

He mourned the buried halcyon days, for the past that was no longer reachable.

Zhang Chengling, moved by the song, had numerous thoughts blooming inside of him. As young as he was, he didn’t think he had the courage to return to the Zhang residence in Jiangnan, the place that held his precious childhood memories. It must have been in a great state of ruin by now, a burden that he had to carry to the end of his life.

Zhou Zishu’s eyes narrowed as he fumbled for the wine pot tied around his hip. He took a big gulp with his head tilted backwards, the spiciness rushing straight up to his head and gagging him, making him shed a few tears.

Those who knew me spoke of my sorrows, and those who did not said I was seeking something…

This line was sung by Wen Kexing over and over with a hint of self-deprecation. His eyes curved, as if he found it entertaining.

What was he seeking, really?

After a good while, no one spoke. Wen Kexing’s humming died down; Zhang Chengling was already asleep, body tilted to one side, the tree branch he took passing now enveloped in his arms like a treasured sword. Something in his dream made his lips curve up and his brows furrow profoundly.

Zhou Zishu stood up, shedding his outer robes and using it to gently cover the child. His head hung low as he sighed, “Your father’s Dazzling Fall’s Eighteen Patterns was said to have taken jianghu by storm. Out of the three moves you have taught the boy, none of them seemed to belong to the Patterns; but when I thought about it, the Eighteen patterns and its ever-changing nature all originated from those three moves. What excellent… successor you are, Brother Wen, to have surpassed your father.”

Wen Kexing’s voice also lowered when he replied calmly. “His swordsmanship is definitely not as good as mine, but he was good at medicine while I completely suck at it. The most I can do is bandaging wounds or battling a cold.”

Then he turned to face Zhou Zishu. “Since you possess such keen apprehension of the old man’s sword skills, what else do you know?”

Zhou Zishu joined him by the fire. He pulled up his collar and hid half of his hands under the sleeves while warming himself up. He spoke slowly. “In jianghu there is the elusive Shaman Medicine Valley whose medication is almost indistinguishable from poison and vice versa; and there is also the Divine Medicine Valley whose practice is solely to help people. It’s said that though the latter is not well-versed in martial arts, no one dare cross them. Your mother Madame Gu was the closed-door disciple of the Valley Master and rumored to be the most beautiful woman when she was a maiden. Some times after there was news about her marriage, causing many hearts to break.”

Wen Kexing laughed softly at that, teasing, “How does a grown man like you know so much gossip? Do you have nothing better to do with your life?”

Zhou Zishu smiled back, “Not really, that’s why you’re hearing all this.”

The two went quiet for a brief moment. Wen Kexing then muttered, “Those are all stories from so long ago…”

Perhaps they did share similarities, as when Zhou Zishu heard the other’s singing and sighing, he seemed to have understood something. He couldn’t help but give a gentle reply, trying to be a little comforting, “Your parents were some of the rare good people in this world. They were a true match made in heaven, traveling across jianghu together then retreating to seclusion together. Were I to have such a life, I wouldn’t have any regrets even if I have to die tomorrow.”

Wen Kexing’s smile was terribly faint. “Good people?”

He looked almost dazed in the dead silence of the night. “Can’t believe after that many years there’s still someone who remembers them and calls them good. Say, what makes a good person? Why do human have to be good?”

Zhou Zishu was about to answer when he detected signs of movement from Zhang Chengling. The boy seemed to be having trouble breathing before the pattern changed. Zhou Zishu didn’t have to look at him to know that he was startled awake by yet another nightmare.

Zhang Chengling said nothing and merely curled in place, clutching at Zhou Zishu’s robes and the tree branch while listening to them.

At that, Zhou Zishu swallowed the words he was about to say. He thought over it carefully for a while, then replied in a neutral tone. “Not everyone in the world is a good person, but a majority of them tries to be so, to the point that they’re willing to fake it.”

He paused for a bit before continuing. “As for why they do… I think it’s because only when you are good to others will they treat you well in return. When you’re good you will have friends, acquaintances, family, people who want to be near you, to be nice to you. Think about it, isn’t it too miserable of a life if all you have is yourself and you treat everyone else with wariness? It’s too painful, being a bad person.”

Wen Kexing was stunned listening to that. After a good while, he smiled and shook his head.

Zhou Zishu said no more about it and added more wood to the fire. Wen Kexing’s head lowered, eyes gazing at the sparkling flame. He shook his head again but more slowly.

Finally, his arms crossed behind his head as he lay down facing the bright starry night. A long sigh was followed by words that were almost impossible to hear. “Fair enough… Ah-Xu, you’re quite a reasonable man.”

Zhou Zishu only smiled at that.

Wen Kexing’s next question sounded like he was talking to himself. “Can a despicable man… also be piteous?”

“Of course.” Zhou Zishu answered.

Wen Kexing nodded to himself, uncaring about Zhou Zishu’s possible scrutiny. He then gave a solemn comment. “Ah-Xu, I just realize even though you may not be beautiful, you still suit my taste just fine.”

Zhou Zishu’s mouth twitched; he knew that this man could never stay serious for long before reverting back to his lecherous ways. He chose to ignore him.

Wen Kexing propped himself up on one elbow, looking up to Zhou Zishu all smiling, “Seeing that you adore my late parents that much, you should just follow me from now on. We can travel across jianghu together and then retreat to somewhere just like them, no need to be thinking about dying tomorrow. I don’t mind being with you at all, so what do you say?”

Zhou Zishu’s expression remained unchanged. “Apologies, but I don’t really deserve such appreciation from Brother Wen.”

Wen Kexing cackled, and in a degenerate fashion enjoyed very much that Zhou Zishu seemed terribly annoyed with him – to the point of breaking the wooden fire stick in his hand – but had to resorted to the silent treatment as there was no outlet to vent the frustration. He felt incredibly good about himself, having shamelessly delighted in other people’s misery.

The next morning, Zhang Chengling returned the robe to Zhou Zishu with a tiny voice. “Thank you, shifu.”

Zhou Zishu took it and spared him a look. “Come on, we’re going back to the Gao’s.”

Zhang Chengling stopped walking, then continued to follow him like a scorned young bride.

Wen Kexing ignored that and consoled him. “Your shifu seems pretty determined to mingle with those heroes and be in cahoots with them. He’s still staying with the Gaos at the moment, so for now you should just follow Sir Zhao, you can still look for him whenever you want.”

He quickly added, “Of course, you can always seek me out too.”

Zhou Zishu spoke up while staying ahead of them. “When did I ever say that I want to mingle with those people?”

Wen Kexing rubbed his chin, simpering. “So you’re not staying?”

Zhou Zishu frowned. “Not staying.”

Wen Kexing threw Zhang Chengling a glance. “For real?”

“For real…”

Unprompted, Zhou Zishu looked at Zhang Chengling. The boy was staring at him unblinkingly, his eyes similar to that of a skittish rabbit, face showing restrained hope. The moment their eyes met, his lips thinned as he feigned seriousness. At a loss for words, Zhou Zishu merely grunted and kept walking.

Wen Kexing, eager to add fuel to the fire, patted the boy’s head and exclaimed, “Hey Ah-Xu, do you think we look like a family of three?”

Zhou Zishu’s steps quickened.

With a serious father-like charade, Wen Kexing’s said to Zhang Chengling gently, “Since journey is long and there’s nothing to do anyway, how about I tell you a story?”

Zhang Chengling nodded like the well-behaved child he was. Wen Kexing began smugly, “Once upon a time, there was a demon child living at the foot of Mount Wu Xing with other demons and ghosts. Of course, the child despised his kind, since all they did was causing troubles…”

He seemed to have a talent with storytelling. Ahead of them, Zhou Zishu heard Wen Kexing’s melodic voice rendering the foolish young boy absolutely awed. He became conscious of the fact that Despicable Wen could very well be a travelling tale teller.

“…the Red Child knew that he was an individual with exceptional heritage: His mother was a white snake spirit who was called the White Maiden. She had a love affair with a human, and when a monk named Fahai found out, he sealed her under Mount Hua…”[3]

Zhou Zishu suddenly tripped over a stone and almost fell head first to the ground.

“…the Red Child wanted to break the mountain apart to save his mother, but the monk asked for the immortals’ help to stop him. The child had the upper hand, but what he didn’t anticipate was that the ghosts he lived with also betrayed him and wanted him dead.”

Zhou Zishu had nothing to comment at this point. Zhang Chengling was still rapt with attention. “Why is that?”

Wen Kexing answered. “Because there was a big big secret: The snake spirit was actually not a spirit at all; she was a mere mortal with some cultivation in her. But somehow rumors got out, and she was treated like a demon and was sealed under the mountain. Say, if she was ever released, then wouldn’t their family be all normal people? Wouldn’t the child be just an ordinary mortal then?”

Zhang Chengling listened to him dumbly. “Ah, mortal… I still don’t understand…”

Wen Kexing laughed, “Silly child. If you’re of a different race, your heart will be different from us.”

Zhou Zishu startled, an idea vaguely forming in his head and went away before he had the chance to delve further into it. He heard Zhang Chengling ask, “Then did the Red Child die? Was the mountain destroyed?”

After thinking it over, Wen Kexing asked him back, “I haven’t thought that part up yet, what’s your idea?”

Zhang Chengling’s answer was absolute. “Of course he defeated the demons, saved his mother and became an invincible hero!”

“Hm…” Wen Kexing added, “Maybe. But that’s boring, most versions ended that way… What if the Red Child became an ordinary man from then on, no longer possessing his magical powers?”

Zhang Chengling “Ah”-ed, feeling like this ending was somewhat pitiful but couldn’t explain why. He glanced at Wen Kexing, deciding that this senior was not that bad and having the urge to befriend him. He probed, “Will you… tell me another story, then?”

Wen Kexing, finally found a loyal listener, appreciated the boy’s admiration. Consequentially, he continued to ramble on, from the tales of the owl with the red water bowl, to Jiang Ziya fighting the White Bone Spirit, to Cui Yingying throwing her beauty trunk into the water out of rage, and so on. His strange and interesting tales lasted all the way to Dong Ting.

Once the three have arrived at the Gao’s Manor, they ran into Cao Weining. Zhang Chengling’s appearance surprised him, and he called out, “Oh dear, young master, to where did you follow these two? Sir Zhao was driven half mad trying to find you!”

Zhou Zishu said, “We coincidentally found him running outside on his own so we chased after him. We didn’t have time to warn anyone beforehand, and…”

Cao Weining tugged him inside before he could finish, “You missed the big news, quick, come inside! Everyone is a mess fighting each other right now!”

Footnotes.
[1] From the poem 黍離/Drooping Millet, from the Book of Odes collection compiled by Confucius.
[2] Also called Haojing (the original text calls it both Zongzhou Haojing), it’s one of the two settlements that comprise the capital of the Western Zhou dynasty. King Ping moved the capital from Zongzhou to Luoyang, beginning the Eastern Zhou dynasty.
[3] Wen Kexing was purposefully mixing up the legends to mess with Zhang Chengling; the tale of the Red Boy is separate from the tale of the white snake. See this and this for synopsis of the stories.

Chapter 24. Ghost Face

Zhou Zishu had absolutely no interest in all of this; it wouldn’t bother him in the slightest even if they beat each other to death. The only thing he wanted to do at the moment was to find a tavern to resupply his empty wine pot, then look for a place to sleep away the “Red Boy broke the mountain to save White Snake” tale he just heard.

He gracefully slipped out of Cao Weining’s hold and explained. “How about we bring the kid back to Sir Zhao first.”

Cao Weining smacked his head. “Right, I almost forgot.”

The young man turned to Zhang Chengling, his perpetually transparent expression showing a strange sort of pity. He sighed and patted Zhang Chengling’s shoulder, “You have suffered too much for someone so young. Be careful next time, alright?”

Since he and the boy were not that acquainted, the younger just stood there ignorantly. Wen Kexing were quick to react as he cut in, “What is it, are these people still quarrelling over the Lapis Armor? Are they being suspicious of the Zhang family…”

He glanced at Zhang Chengling and stopped there.

Cao Weining explained everything, since the trio wasn’t considered outsiders in his eyes. “This is the worst time for you all to be messing around out there; there was a big commotion yesterday. Everything exploded the moment Feng Xiaofeng mentioned the Armor, so much that Sir Gao and Abbot Ci Mu could barely contain the uproar. There were many who started to harbor other intentions towards it; like Yu Jiufeng the Patriarch of Hua Shan Sect, who was the first to question Sir Zhao Jing about whether the latter had taken the Zhang’s piece of lapis for himself and caused his son’s death.”

After some thoughts, Cao Weining continued in a dull tone, like he was repeating the words from someone else. “Yu Jiufeng was crying and sniveling as if this was a funeral or something. E Mei, Kong Tong and Cang Shan Sects were all on good terms with Hua Shan, so they sided with Yu Jiufeng. Not only did they question about the murders that happened outside the Zhao’s Holdings, the lot of Feng Xiaofeng also further fueled the fire; so a brawl started as a result. Some wanted Sir Gao to give an explanation for the Ghosts’ sudden appearance in jianghu, as well as what the Lapis Armor actually was.”

Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu looked at Cao Weining with amusement. How did this slow-witted kid suddenly get so eloquent after just a day?

Cao Weining coughed. “Those were the words of my Uncle Master. As for the details of the quarrels, I don’t really understand either.”

No wonder he said it that way…

Zhou Zishu suddenly said to Zhang Chengling, “Do you happen to know anything, kid? Otherwise your room wouldn’t have been set aflame and the Scorpions wouldn’t be out for your life.”

Zhang Chengling stared at him dumbly and shook his head.

Zhou Zishu looked disdainful, having enough of this foolishness. He ignored the boy and turned to Cao Weining. “It would do us a great service if Brother Cao brings him back to Sir Zhao.”

Then he immediately turned and walked away, showing no interest in the current chaos.

Zhang Chengling’s eyes followed his figure, mouth pursed.

All of a sudden he felt a hand rubbing his hair. He looked up, and once he saw Wen Kexing smiling, he said awkwardly, “Sir.”

Wen Kexing said, “Do you know why he fakes all of his composure and elegance with other people and only shows his impatient side to you?”

Zhang Chengling’s head lowered as he mumbled, “Because I’m too dumb…”

Wen Kexing laughed. “Nah, you’re only moderately stupid, not that stupid. He doesn’t wear a façade around you because he wants to befriend you; he just won’t say it out loud because he’s shy.”

Zhang Chengling was taken aback. “Really?”

With his eyes narrowed in mirth, Wen Kexing stared at Zhou Zishu’s back. He said unconcernedly, “His parents might be the ones who gave birth to him, but the one who knows him best is himself. Other than that, his only soulmate is me, so of course I’m not lying.”

—the man’s severe internal injuries, his disguise, his habit of disappearing out of the blue, his kungfu, his vast knowledge of jianghu’s matters inside out; except for Tian Chuang, he had no other explanations.

But if he really was from Tian Chuang, how did he escape the punishment of those monstrous Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns?

After a few days stuck with this puzzling question, Wen Kexing came to a revelation. The important thing here was not how he escaped them, but that he knew how to escape—

Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m tagging along with a big shot, he thought.

Before Zhang Chengling could fully take in what he meant, they heard a clueless Cao Weining lamented beside them. “I always feel like you two being together is a little strange, considering that you are both men; but after today I have finally understood: Being men or women has nothing to do with someone who is able to understand you with a mere few words, someone who can complete you like a pair of immortal soulmates.”

He continued smugly. “There is a poem that goes as such: “What is love, O world? That makes those birds swear a bond ‘till their death?[1] The cherry blossom pond was thousands of miles deep, but can’t be compared[2]…” He couldn’t remember what it was that it couldn’t compare to, and turned incredibly embarrassed. Since he tried his hardest but couldn’t recall anything else, he said the rest under his breath and commented, “This poem by Sir Du Fu, though somewhat hard to understand, is still a very moving piece.”

Zhang Chengling and Wen Kexing looked at him with odd expressions.

Wen kexing only replied after a good while. “Qing Feng Sect educates such well-rounded disciples, how admirable.”

Cao Weining, modest as he was, smiled sheepishly at the praise. “It’s nothing. My Master says that reading to people in jianghu is pointless anyway, and there’s no hope that anyone will ever pass the court official examination with flying colors; it’s enough to know a few words here and there and one should focus on honing their kungfu instead. I only read a book or two, that’s just my shallow understanding.”

Wen Kexing felt like this “shallow understanding” was actually quite fascinating.

The two brought Zhang Chengling back to a Zhao Jing who had almost gone mad out of worry. The elder asked him anything and everything while Wen Kexing turned a blind eye; this old man might be a sly fox but he did have concern for his late friend’s son. He silently left, but the moment his back was facing them, he saw someone staring right at him.

Wen Kexing stopped walking, and in that man’s eyes there was an insidious light glinting, like that of a mad dog that was about to pounce. Wen Kexing saw Cao Weining greeting him respectfully, and knew that was his Uncle Master – the infamous ill-tempered Mo Huaikong of Qing Feng Sect.

Mo Huaikong was listening to Cao Weining rambling and looked to the direction the young man was pointing at to face Wen Kexing. At first glance he felt a sense of familiarity; then those deep, dark eyes caused him a pinch of alarm, but he couldn’t pinpoint why.

In his astonishment, he saw Wen Kexing smile back at him. He grunted when Cao Weining started to describe how well-acquainted he was with another man, sensing that this Wen Kexing was no good at all.

He turned to shout at Cao Weining, “Will you stop it already?”

Cao Weining swallowed the rest of his words, wishing he could sew his mouth shut.


Only at night fall did Zhou Zishu finish with his meals. He was leaning on the tavern’s balcony rails, taking small sips of wine when someone walked in and said something to the person sitting in the table next to him; both then paid for their food and left. Zhou Zishu opened his eyes wider as he realized half of the tavern was gone already. He pulled a random young man to his side and asked, “What happened?”

“We just got news that the Gao’s Manor has successfully captured a Ghost, and they are going to do a public execution!”

Zhou Zishu’s brows creased. Gao Chong had captured a Ghost? At this moment he no longer had doubts about the Ghosts’ appearance, but what was the Ghost Valley’s intention for doing all of this?

Those were the ones who had caused despicable crimes when they were still living among others and had to enter the Valley to seek refuge; wouldn’t they be afraid of acting in broad daylight again?

Was the Lapis Armor really hiding some kind of big secret, so terrible that it could lure even the Ghosts out of the Valley and make the well-spoken Sir Gao clam up and use such a stupid trick to divert people’s attention?

Still deep in thoughts, Zhou Zishu knocked into someone on his way downstairs. He muttered an apology, but once looking up, he was stunned: It was the disciple of Monk Gu with his otherworldly aura.

There was a sudden thought popping up in his head: Even he has to consume rice after all?

Monk Gu’s disciple said, “It’s nothing,” and smoothed down his clothes. He took the initiative, “I heard the young man from Qing Feng said that you were the one who escorted the Zhang’s descendant to Tai Hu? A pleasure to meet you, my name is Ye Baiyi[3].”

He was not at all similar to Gao Chong, who was a much more sociable individual. Around him was an air of detachment from every mortal matter – almost made him feel like he didn’t exist. Not to mention, there was also a strange feeling of dissonant about him.

Zhou Zishu was surprised and puzzled that such a person would speak to him first, so he habitually resorted to empty pleasantries as replies.

Ye Baiyi paid no mind to those, looking at him with indifference. His next sentence was, “I see that your breathing is stagnant and your movements are heavy; whatever you’re burdened with is now beyond cure. But how strange is it that someone like you can possess such a vital spirit?”

Zhou Zishu fell silent. He felt like this man must have cultivated his immortal aura in Mount Chang Ming for so long that he no longer spoke the human way, just like his master.

After some thoughts, Ye Baiyi inquired further, “How much time do you have left, three years? Two years?”

At this topic, Zhou Zishu felt like neither refusal nor acquiescence was the right answer. He smiled stiffly, “How keen-eyed you are, Brother Ye, no wonder…”

It was as if Ye Baiyi was wearing filtering nets on his ears as he shot down all of that nonsense. He didn’t wait for Zhou Zishu to finish before replying, “Everyone who are near death will at least show some signs[4] and have to endure suffering beyond words, but you’re still here indulging in luxuries. This shows that you definitely have some serious experience under your belt – since when did such individuals emerge in our pugilist scene…” Then he turned and walked away, completely ignoring Zhou Zishu.

After having left a great distance between them, he seemed to remember something and turned his head back towards the man behind him, “If you don’t mind, treat me to wine some day.”

As if doing that would be my one of my greatest life achievements or something, Zhou Zishu thought silently.

He followed the majority of people to the Gao’s Manor to see what this legendary “Ghost” was all about, and saw nothing but an middle-age fierce-looking man being tied up in front of them—so this was what it felt like to watch a public execution. The Ghost’s upper body was naked intentionally to show the feral ghost face on his back, indicating that this one must be the real deal.

While Zhou Zishu was spacing out, a hand quietly landed on his shoulder. Wen Kexing appeared out of nowhere, smiling at him sweetly, “I’ve looked for you all day, where did you go?”

Ignoring the question, Zhou Zishu pointed to the man, “Do you think he’s a real Ghost or not?”

“Hm?” Wen Kexing looked at that direction he was pointing to, disagreeing, “The ghost face indicates that one is no longer able to show his face in broad daylight, who would casually tattoo it on their back without reasons? Though, this unfortunate pal could also have caused offence to someone and that person could have framed him and thrown him out here to execute publicly.”

His words were casual, but many things were revealed to Zhou Zishu: Tattooing the ghost face required a special pigment from a plant called the “Nether plant”, which only existed in the Ghost Valley.

Furthermore, not everyone who entered the Ghost Valley survived – just like not all spirits of the dead could reincarnate or turn into ghosts, they might very well suffer being eradicated completely from the world. That place was an exclusively dog-eat-dog world, and you had to be vigilant of your surroundings to remain alive and earn yourself such a tattoo.

Zhou Zishu stared at the tattooed man pensively. At that moment, the tension was palpable among the crowd, and someone of Hua Shan Sect had suggested burning this person alive.

He suddenly turned away, making his way through the crowd and left briskly.

Footnotes:
[1] From the poem 摸魚兒-雁丘/Birds’ Grave, by Yuan Haowen.
[2] From the poem 贈汪倫/For Wang Lun, by Li Bai.
[3] 白衣 (báiyī) means “white clothes”.
[4] 天人将死 refers to the dying symptoms called 五衰.

Chapter 25. Baiyi

Wen Kexing was way more interested in the other man than this currently-being-hanged Ghost, so when the former left, he immediately followed. But his steps halted, as the man who was just standing here a few minutes ago had vanished without a trace. Wen Kexing scanned through the big crowd.

Zhou Zishu was like a drop of water in a big ocean; the moment one lost sight of him, his existence would be impossible to be detected. Wen Kexing felt a sense of bewilderment, his eyes narrowed. He scanned the crowd again in concentration, unable to accept defeat; but the other man had really just up and disappeared in front of him like that.

In his heart blossomed an unspeakable feeling that was somewhat akin to how people felt when something slipped away from their grasp, and for some unknown reasons mixed with a little anger.

Even if Wen Kexing successfully cracked the mystery that was his identity and inner thoughts, that man could just disappear anytime he wanted.

He — the one who managed to escape the labyrinth that was Tian Chuang’s — was the most slippery eel one could find on Earth.

Leaving Wen Kexing behind, Zhou Zishu visited a counting house.

In the Dong Ting area, or perhaps the entirety of Jiangnan, there was a famously modest counting house called the “Ping An House”. It was a fairly successful business but never draw too much attention to itself or planned on expanding to other regions. It seemed like the owner had no big ambitions and was contented to operate in this prosperous land.

After looking up at the house’s signboard, Zhou Zishu went inside. A voice rang out, “Welcome! Do you want to exchange banknotes or…”

Zhou Zishu went past the assistant to reach the shopkeeper himself. He spoke softly with a faint smile. “I want to ask Sir Song for a favor, could you contact your supervisor for me?”

The shopkeeper startled, lifting his head to examine Zhou Zishu. After a good while, he spoke cautiously. “And you are?”

Zhou Zishu lowered his voice even further. “I’m an old acquaintance of your “Lord Seventh”, last name Zhou.”

The man’s expressions changed immediately upon hearing “Lord Seventh” from him and became more serious. He took a few steps forward and guided him to sit down himself. He stood beside him and said in a respectful tone while telling the assistant to serve him tea. “Of course, of course, I shall contact Sir Song immediately. Although I’m not sure if he is still in Dong Ting right now… Is it alright for you to wait for a few days?”

Zhou Zishu nodded. “No need to hurry, and you should sit down too.”

He asked the shopkeeper in a very gracious way, but the man kept frantically waving his hands as denial. He asked, “Sir Zhou, about your business with my superior, do you want to speak to him directly or do you want me to do something for you beforehand?”

After some thoughts, Zhou Zishu replied, “There’s nothing else that I can think of, but have you ever heard about a thing called the Lapis Armor?”

That took the man by surprise. “This… I did know a bit. Are you talking about the Lapis Armor that is made of the five broken pieces of lapis lazuli?”

Zhou Zishu nodded. “Yes.”

The shopkeeper fell into deep thought. After a while, he  took out a piece of paper and wrote “Lapis Armor” on it. “I’m afraid my knowledge of it will not be sufficient. I hope you don’t mind waiting for another few days, as I think I do have some ways to dig up more information.”

Zhou Zishu examined the man. He looked like he could be anything from thirty to forty, clever face, spoke slowly and carefully with definite consideration in each word; that fox clearly taught his folks well. Once he had no idea how much power and influence his old friend had after he left the capital, but after seeing this, he was certain it would not merely be contained in these simple counting houses.

A cup of tea later, he left. Who could have ever thought that the former leader of Tian Chuang now had to rely on others for intel, or to ask for that person’s help just to protect the life of that Zhang Chengling brat — though, it was also worth noting that Zhou Zishu had no idea why he was helping him when they were just strangers. How did the kid’s life concern him anyway?

A fool’s errand, that was what.

But throughout a person’s life there was bound to be incidents like this, where you couldn’t help but insert yourself in other people’s business. Is this ultimately my fate? Zhou Zishu thought. How else could he have come across the kid in this vast land of Jiangnan?

He walked leisurely along the main road, sunbathing since there was nothing else for him to do. He only visited a tavern after having feasted his eyes on the scenic view of Dong Ting with satisfaction and when the sun was starting to go down. He ordered a pot of wine and some dishes, thinking about how today was really good to him. It was as if he never had such a good day like this in his entire life – before today he was either miserable himself or spent time planning on how to make others’ life miserable.

There was a young lady playing a zither nearby; the beauty complimented the music all too well. Everyone cheered for her after the song ended, and Zhou Zishu—enjoying both beauty and song very much—put a silver ingot on the plate. The girl was initially dumbstruck, then she smiled, bowed at him and said her gratitude in a soft voice. That lifted Zhou Zishu’s mood incredibly.

All of a sudden, there was someone sitting in the seat opposite him. They said matter-of-factly, “I’m here so that you can treat me wine.”

Zhou Zishu tensed up—his debt collector was finally here.

Ye Baiyi was not at all gracious about this. To him, he was already lowering his standards to stand these vulgar indulgence like food and wine, so it was natural for the other person to greet him with trepidation. Ignoring Zhou Zishu, he began ordering hoards after hoards of food himself, then spoke calmly, “Please have anything you like, don’t be reserved.”

Zhou Zishu gave him an odd look, How are you seeing any ounce of reservation in me?

He was starting to suspect that this person was here to deliberately trick him. The amount of food he just ordered could very well feed two pigs and not two humans.

Seeing that he wanted to order no more, Ye Baiyi suddenly realized, “Oh, right, you’re injured so you don’t have an appetite for all this. But my advice is that you should eat as much as you can, seeing that you don’t have much time left.”

The odd look in Zhou Zishu’s eyes intensified. If this man wasn’t Monk Gu’s disciple, he could have made a great career out of being other people’s punching bag.

At that moment, another figure walked up to the table ostentatiously and pulled a chair next to them, completely uninvited. He examined Ye Baiyi without showing any emotions. “Ah-Xu, I was just wondering why you disappeared without a goodbye, but it seems like you’re… occupied with another man?”

Just like that, Zhou Zishu’s good mood caused by the young lady’s smile died out; internally he began to debate whether he should stand up and leave with a “Please help yourself, it’s time for me to go”. Wen Kexing turned his head, seemingly gritting the words through his teeth. “Who is he?”

“He’s…” He was about to say that the man was an acquaintance he met by chance, but mysteriously, words failed him and he felt strange. Unsure why an explanation was necessary, his strange expressions faded.

Ye Baiyi, in contrast, nodded at Wen Kexing’s direction as he replied in an easygoing manner. “My name is Ye Baiyi.”

Wen Kexing gave him a false smile and turned away, about to say something but was cut off by Ye Baiyi. “I know you, you were the one who set fire to the Zhang child’s room that day.” He said without a care.

Zhou Zishu’s hand with his cup of wine froze in mid-air, and Wen Kexing’s smiling expressions vanished. He stared at Ye Baiyi as if staring at a dead thing, with bone-chilling murderous intent circling around him.

Zhou Zishu shivered and furrowed his brows.

The waiter who brought them food right at that moment was scared shitless by his vicious aura and almost dropped the plates. In split seconds he saw a blur, and the dishes that he almost dropped were now completely safe in the hands of the gentleman in white.

Even Zhou Zishu’s vision could not make out his movements clearly.

Was Ye Baiyi really that strong? If he was Monk Gu’s disciple, then what would this say about his infamous Master…

Cold sweat broke out on Zhou Zishu’s back as he found out that whatever information Tian Chuang had gathered about the incredibly mysterious Monk Gu might not be correct after all.

Wen Kexing’s pupils contracted; even though he showed no fear on his face, he also withdrew his bloodlust. He examined the white-clothed young man—this person was only… twenty-six? No, it was possible that this youthful skin was only a disguise of his true age, he could be around thirty perhaps? No, doesn’t sound plausible, either…

He carried on himself the same feeling that his name gave: Emptiness. When he sat there unmoved, he looked like a fake human, preventing others from both reading the change in his emotions and using their own sentiments to influence him. He was sitting right next to them, but seemed like he was existing in another world.

Ye Baiyi paid no mind to how strong of a reaction he had drawn from both of them and buried himself under all the food. With each new plate, Zhou Zishu and Wen kexing’s expressions continue to twist—

This disciple of Monk Gu had an endless stomach!

He stuffed food into his mouth at lightning’s speed, and even though his movements weren’t boorish, the sight could be described as “a hurricane just went past the table”. He devoured food like he hadn’t had anything in his belly for eight lifetimes, his chopsticks flying around incessantly, leaving nothing for others. Zhou Zishu who didn’t have an appetite in the first place, and Wen Kexing who didn’t even come here for food, were entranced by this enthusiasm and motivated to taste some themselves, to see what kind of delicacy this tavern was serving.

Only when there was an awful mess of plates left on the table like the aftermath of a war did Ye Baiyi put down his chopsticks and wiped his mouth in satisfaction. His lips curved and there seemed to be a proper smile on his face. He said to Zhou Zishu, “Thank you for treating me.”

With nothing else to be said, he stood up and left.

Zhou Zishu had a sudden thought about how incredible Monk Gu was for being able to raise such an individual.

Wen Kexing abruptly spoke up. “What he just said… I didn’t want to…”

He stopped, a little spaced out. He was unsure why he was saying this, and his chest seemed to tighten. After quickly glancing at Zhou Zishu, looking down and smiling in self-mockery, he returned to his usual self. “That’s Monk Gu’s disciple? I see that he’s more like a locust dressed in white.”

Zhou Zishu lifted his wine pot and poured himself the last drops. He didn’t mention the fire.

He knew without doubt that if Wen Kexing ever wanted to kill Zhang Chengling, that would be as easy to him as crushing an ant; there was no need to create a whole commotion with the fire and choose the moment one was absent to execute it. It was not a case of malice, but rather a warning.

The problem was: How did Ye Baiyi know about this?

Although, there was a whole other matter he was reminded of… Zhou Zishu searched his chest pocket, expressions changing comically. He looked up. “About this… do you bring enough silver?”

Wen Kexing stared back at him.

Chapter 26. Lord Seventh

The lush green of trees that stayed flourishing year-round, the bright prosperity, the birds that passed by, the ranges of mountains extended up and down uninterrupted, like the curve of a beauty’s back.

This place was South Xinjiang.

Under an old tree that had to be at least a hundred years old sat a South Xinjiang boy with perfect posture; he was around ten and was doing assignments. He might be young but his determination was bursting, as he had been focused for two hours now, looking like nothing could disrupt his work.

Next to the table was a deck chair arranged horizontally, and on it was a man resting with his eyes closed. He was dressed in robes like someone from the central land, and between his thighs was an old open book.

At the man’s feet was a small sable. Being ignored by everyone, it chased its own tail in boredom.

At that moment, a warrior walked to them, letter in hand. Seeing the sight before him, his steps got quieter and he waited by the side in silence.

The man on the deck chair opened his eyes. He looked halfway over twenties, his long narrow eyes¹ carrying a hint of amusement. When he looked around, he was truly an exceptional beauty. The small sable nimbly jumped into his embrace and climbed up his shoulders, its tail stroking his chin.

The warrior presented the letter with politeness. “My Lord, it is a letter from Head Butler Song.”

“Lord Seventh” uttered a word in assent and opened the letter with only mild interest, but halfway through reading, he abruptly sat up, the look in his eyes sobering, “Is it really him?”

The small sable upon seeing the mysterious paper in front of it reached out its claws, but was held back by its owner by the neck and gently thrown onto the table by which the boy was sitting.

Only then did he raised his head, “Who is it, father?”

The man didn’t answer right away. He stood up and took two steps forward, leisurely folding the letter while talking about something completely off-topic, “Lu Ta, did you remember what I told you last time about the principle of this world, about how division precedes unity and vice versa like a circle?”

The young man seemed to be used to his father’s habit of speaking nonsense before reaching the focal point, so he played along. “You say that it is simply like how after sitting for a long time, one has to stand up, and when they can’t stand anymore they sit down again. There is no philosophy to it, just that us humans are born to suffer.”

A satisfied smile appear on the man’s face, and he said to the dazed South Xinjiang warrior, “Axinlai, go find your Great Shaman for me and ask him if he thinks what I said is reasonable.”

Axinlai’s face was of pure confusion. “Huh?”

The man was about to say something when they heard a small laugh and a gentle voice, “Are you so unoccupied to the point of wanting to stir up troubles?”

The man who just came in was dressed in black from head to toe, carrying a scepter that was also solid black. Upon seeing him, Axinlai bowed, “Great Shaman.”

The shaman muttered a word of acknowledgement and gestured at him. “Go do your work—Beiyuan, don’t always make fun of good-natured people.”

The man named Beiyuan gave him the folded letter while still smiling, “Guess who has graced our shop with their holy presence?”

The shaman didn’t feel particularly intrigued, but he received it anyway with a grunt, “As long as it’s not the Emperor of Da Qing… Hm? Lord Zhou?”

On the other man’s face was a smile that carried no good intentions at all, “My little venom, how about we pay Zhongyuan a visit? Since our old friend has asked for help, isn’t it natural that we should put our lives on the line for him if possible?”

The shaman looked at the other man’s mischievous face without saying anything, but internally he knew the other clearly just wanted to watch chaos happen while “helping” his friend.

Zhou Zishu, not knowing he had signed his fate for having such an acquaintance, was currently distressed about a very materialistic matter—“Giant’s Stomach” Ye Baiyi’s presence had left him with a money problem.

After the short staring contest with Wen Kexing, Zhou Zishu came to a realization: If Wen Kexing was reliable then sows could climb trees. He must have possessed terrible luck to be running into both a bigeater and a freeloader, how great.

Wen Kexing, seeing that Zhou Zishu’s gaze had turned sour, couldn’t help but tighten his clothes around him. He said in a small voice, “I only sell my entertainment value and not my body, you must not leave me here.”

Zhou Zishu asked, “So what are you going to do now?”

Wen Kexing said, “Since you’re the one who treated us, you should sell yourself instead.”

Zhou Zishu gritted out, “I’m not a fucking maiden, will you buy me if I do sell myself then?”

Wen Kexing’s eyes immediately brightened, “Of course, I will buy you even if I have to sell away all of my fortunes!”

Zhou Zishu lowered his voice, “Can you sell all of your fortunes to pay for this meal first then?”

After a stretch of silence, Wen Kexing finally replied, “Ah-Xu, how about we just run?”

Zhou Zishu turned his face away without a word. He might have done some rogue-like activities to earn some cash, but there was still some conscience left in him; leaving without paying for a meal was very much against his code of conduct, and… He looked at Wen Kexing’s openly brazen face, and there’s this despicable man.

The moment his face turned, he saw someone walking in. Zhou Zishu’s spirit was revived as he called out, “How coincidental, Young Miss Gu!”

The moment Gu Xiang heard it and saw the two of them, her face turned green with fear. She was going to leave immediately, but she was not as fast as Wen Kexing. The man was already standing in front of her and asked serenely, “Ah-Xiang, why are you running?”

A pale Gu Xiang managed to reply, “Mas… Master, I just… went… the wrong way.”

Wen Kexing patted her shoulder and tugged her back inside, “Don’t be shy, if you’re here then stay.”

Gu Xiang felt goose bumps breaking out on her skin, feeling like there was no way her master could harbor good intentions. But now that she couldn’t escape, she had to stay close to his every step with skittishness, her posture not unlike someone who was going to be executed. Wen Kexing led her to their table and asked, “Do you have money with you?”

Immediately Gu Xiang pulled out all she had, from silver crumbles to paper cash and gold ingots. Only now did Wen Kexing nod in contentment and shout with the confidence of a loaded man, “Show us the bill!”

Gu Xiang thought, No wonder that fortune teller told me to use my wealth to avoid bad luck, o’ merciful Buddha!

Now that she had helped them, Wen Kexing was reasonable enough to let her tag along again, no longer chasing her away. Walking ahead of them was Zhou Zishu who was deliberating something; after a while, he suddenly looked back and asked directly. “Brother Wen, why did you burn the room of the Zhang brat that night?”

Gu Xiang was alarmed, “Master, you committed arsonry?”

Wen Kexing said entirely seriously, “I saw an astronomical phenomenon indicating that the kid would face a great calamity and it needed fire to be quelled, so I did it right away.”

In the middle of his talk, he saw Zhou Zishu and Gu Xiang’s disdainful faces, so he added, “Acts done out of goodwill don’t need to be said out loud, don’t look at me with such adoration.”

Gu Xiang said, “Master, can you see my fate in the stars too?”

Wen Kexing replied, “There will be a great disaster happening to you if you don’t shut up for a day.”

As expected, Gu Xiang didn’t open her mouth again.

They returned to the place where the execution happened during the day. Most of the crowd had dispersed and the Ghost was nowhere to be found; it was said that his martial art skills were crippled completely, and a chain was pierced through his shoulder blades to keep him in place. They arrived when Cao Weining, accompanied by Zhang Chengling, was looking for them. “Brother Zhou, Young Brother Zhang told me that you are his master…” He suddenly stopped talking to gape at Gu Xiang who was standing behind Wen Kexing, his mouth wide open.

Gu Xiang blinked a few times for no reasons, while Cao Weining kept staring at her stupidly.

Next to him, Zhou Zishu cleared his voice. Cao Weining was pulled out of the daze and blushed deeply, stuttering, “M- Miss… Apologies, I didn’t mean to be rude, really, just…”

Gu Xiang, unsure about what to make of that, felt like this young man was not quite right in the head. She saw Cao Weining abruptly took a few steps back while speaking with the smallest voice possible, “My last- last name is Cao, first name Weining, from Tai- Tai Hang, belonging to the “Wei” line of Qing Feng Sword Sect, my master is- is Qing Feng’s P-Patriarch Mo Huaiyang…”

After judging him once, Gu Xiang asked Wen Kexing, “Master, what’s wrong with him?”

Shattered on the ground before he could announce his entire family tree were Cao Weining’s pure, juvenile feelings that had just blossomed.

Zhou Zishu glanced at Zhang Chengling and said after some thoughts, “Over here, brat.” Seeing that the elder didn’t shun him away anymore, Zhang Chengling was overjoyed and cheerily followed him. Wen Kexing patted Cao Weining’s shoulder and went back to his room with Gu Xiang.

The moment Gu Xiang walked past him, Cao Weining could sense a waft of fragrance that muddled his brain completely. Only when they were long gone was he snapped out of the trance, and he started whispering in amazement. “Guan-guan crooned the osprey, from where amidst the water, the North was famed for having beauty… who with a gentleman would make a fated pair…² How can such a beautiful young maiden exist, how does…”

He walked away while still lamenting, again drowned in his infatuation.

Gu Xiang whispered to Wen Kexing once they were far away, “Master, Old Meng is also here, he wants to tell you about below…”

Wen Kexing was completely undisturbed. The corner of his lips lifted but there was no hint of a smile in his eyes. He said gently, “Even Old Meng wants to tell me what to do?”

“…Yes.”

Zhou Zishu silently brought Zhang Chengling to his own room. Nodding once, he said. “Sit down, I want to ask you something.”

Zhang Chengling sat, perfectly well-behaved. “What do you want to know, shifu?”

Zhou Zishu mused before asking, “Did the man with the mark of a hand on his face whom you met that day ask you about whether you had come across a man with a finger missing?”

Zhang Chengling nodded. Zhou Zishu asked again. “So have you met him?”

Zhang Chengling shook his head. “Shifu, who is that man?”

Not giving the younger an answer, Zhou Zishu crossed his legs, index finger lightly tapping his one of his knees. Xue Fang the Hanged Ghost was rumored to have lost a finger, that was why he knew the man in black who Gu Xiang killed in the abandoned shrine was not him.

But what was the intention of the red-clothed Delighted Mourning Ghost?

After a while, he spoke slowly with unusual seriousness. “Try to remember it more clearly, kiddo, did you see anything out of the ordinary that night?”

By “that night”, he meant the night the entire Zhang family was murdered. Zhang Chengling’s breath quickened, and Zhou Zishu softened his voice even further. “Don’t rush things, just think it over carefully. I’m afraid that memory might be very important.”

Zhang Chengling paled. After a good while, he shook his head while replying in a choked voice, “Shifu, you ask me whether there was something unusual, but wasn’t that entire night an unusual event?”

Zhou Zishu’s brows furrow and he no longer pushed him further. After a bout of grave silence, he said. “I’m going to teach you a mnemonic rhyme; you have to try to comprehend it yourself and utilize it to further your cultivation. You can come to me if there is any confusion.”

Zhang Chengling was dumbfounded.

Zhou Zishu added. “You shouldn’t leave Sir Zhao’s side during the coming days, and must not act on your own or leave the Gao’s manor, do you understand?”

Zhang Chengling’s eyes widened. “Shifu… Thank you, shifu!”

Zhou Zishu awkwardly coughed and scolded him, “Stop speaking nonsense and remember what I’m going to say, I will not repeat it for a second time.”

Footnotes:
The volume title is from a line in the poem 好了歌注/Notes On the Song “Hao Liao”, by Cao Xueqin.
[1] The original phrase literally translates to “peach blossom eyes.” In physiognomy, this eye shape indicates that a person is often more alluring but also more scandalous.
[2] He has mixed up several poems. The first and last line are from The Song of Osprey, and the second line is from Reeds; both poems are from Confucius’s Book of Odes. The third line is from Ode to A Beauty, by Li Yannian.

Chapter 27. Slaughter

[Warning for graphic description of violence (more so than the usual)]

He knew he was in a dream, but the sight before him was too real to be so. The Northern wind grazed his mask, but he didn’t feel the cold. He had been waiting there for so, so long with utmost calmness, his pulse even slower than usual. The sun was done traversing the sky, and the night was falling.

Zhou Zishu watched all of it, detached from everything as a habit. He didn’t know how to view himself as a human—someone with emotions, with a sense of right and wrong. It was for his own self-preservation; as long as he acted without thinking, he wouldn’t be driven to insanity.

He was merely a pair of bloody hands on which the kingdom of Da Qing rested. Prosperity was like beautifully decorated sleeves, and his hands were forever hidden inside of them, making it difficult for people to really see him. Until the rotten age of war was over and peace reigned over the people, another chapter in history would begin…

Zhou Zishu lowered his head. The face of the person in his dream was hazy, but he thought he could still see the features that belonged to a little girl—she was held in the nanny’s arms like an innocent, helpless lamb while her protector never strayed from her task with a desperate expression on her face.

The young girl looked up and said in a tiny voice. “My father is a good person, my big brother is also a good person, I’m also a good person, we’re all good people, you shouldn’t kill us.”

He remembered. During the reign of the late Emperor, to deal a killing blow to the Second Prince, Tian Chuang was ordered to assassinate the entire family of court official Sir Jiang Zheng, who was recently fired from his position and was planning to leave the capital. Sir Jiang’s daughter Jiang Xue was only four years old, an incredibly smart girl. How would she have turned out to be if she ever got a chance to grow up?

Zhou Zishu felt his hands raised, then a shrill feminine scream pierced the night sky. The sword went through her chest, then through the little girl’s body. There was no disgust or grief, for he had been used to it ever since he came into his position.

Did it matter whether people were kind-hearted or loyal? There was never a law that forbade good people to have their lives taken away.

But he heard a drawn-out sigh in the air; someone was saying, An eye for an eye—

Sharp pain spiked in his chest as he startled awake and sat up.

With excruciating motions, he bent forward and clutched at his chest, teeth gritted to reign in the pained noises. His fingers gripped a corner of the blanket tightly, knuckles white; his hair wild, entire appearance miserable. Amidst the organ-crushing agony, he dazedly thought, Look, Zhou Zishu you damning bastard, you’re going to die as well.

Tonight, sleep denied Zhou Zishu, Wen Kexing and Ye Baiyi.

Wen Kexing, instead of going outside, sat facing the window in silence. Gu Xiang stood beside him, solemnity graced her usually ingenuous countenance. She looked out to see a gloomy night sky that had never been any different from the past, the stillness making her look like an obscure lantern.

The open window let the chilly wind in, and Gu Xiang’s clothes and hair fluttered. The erotic book on the table was also turned a few pages under the wind, creating rustling sounds. Wen Kexing allowed a slow smile to spread over his face and spoke softly, “I have waited for this for twenty years.”

Gu Xiang only looked at him in silence. The smile on his face showed inconceivable relief that bordered on maniacal glee. With no source of light around, he almost didn’t look human, prompting reverence in her.

Wen Kexing’s hand reached out and made a grabbing motion, seemingly wanting to catch the wind. “My wish is that there won’t be any forces standing in my way, whether they are humans or ghosts, or immortals, or demons… I want the world to be rid of them and they will be thrown back to Hell where they belong.”

In his other hand was a piece of paper. Gu Xiang’s gaze stopped at that yellowed slip, on which a face of a ghost was scrawled messily – it looked like the work of a child. Wen Kexing stood up and lit a candle, hovering the paper above it until it was burned into ashes.

His expression was of pure worship.

Ye Baiyi slept until he was jerked out of his dream for an unknown reason. There was a distinct lack of disorientation in his eyes that should be typical of someone who had just woken up. He remained in bed facing up, hands slowly lifting the strange pendant on his neck to view it. Taking a closer look, one could see that the jewelry was expertly crafted, and was an exact miniature of the Realm’s Command.

Ye Baiyi closed his eyes, muttering, “Changqing, I always have a bad feeling about this, why aren’t you here anymore…”

Would the world be so much more peaceful if the Command, the Ghost Valley, the Lapis Armor and Tian Chuang ceased to exist?

The next morning, beside the sunlight, everyone was greeted with dead bodies.

There were nine in total, arranged in a circle in a location not far away from the Gao’s Manor; in the middle there was the word “Ghost” written in blood. The whole scene spread nearly ten meters wide, blocking an entire street and seemed to be right at the place a Ghost was executed just yesterday’s morning.

When Zhou Zishu got there, most corpses had been identified. The Ghosts were fair enough to make sure every sect received equal “blessing”: There was one body for each of the eight sects plus the Gao family, ranging in different gender, age and status.

One of them was Gao Chong’s disciple. Zhou Zishu didn’t have a distinct impression of this person beside that he was not as outstanding as Deng Kuan and of the silent type; he helped out the guests occasionally and didn’t say much. Gao Xiaolian cried to the point of almost passing out, but in favor of inspecting the bodies with Abbot Ci Mu, Gao Chong ignored his treasured daughter and left Deng Kuan with her.

One had a silk thread across their neck, one was struck by the Bloody Palms, one was drained of blood, one was cut up into parts… Each death seemed to have a different cause.

Zhou Zishu heard someone sighing next to him. “The Ghosts of Qingzhu Ridge are all crawling out of the nest.”

His head turned and he saw Ye Baiyi. Zhou Zishu was surprised to see a faint layer of sorrow on his face, making him look like a porcelain Guanyin¹ statue.

On instinct, Zhou Zishu asked, “What?”

Ye Baiyi cast him a glance, his face expressionless still, “Are you deaf?”

Immediately, Zhou Zishu turned away before he could embarrass himself further. Ye Baiyi’s hand landed on his shoulder, and he spoke like how one would speak to a close acquaintance, “Come outside tonight, I want to show you this place.” The tone of his voice was not unlike that of Zhou Zishu when he talked to Zhang Chengling last night.

Zhou Zishu decided that he would ignore this man until he learned how to speak like a normal human again, but unbridledly, he nodded.

He immediately regretted it afterwards and wished he could remove his annoying head from his body. He started to evaluate whether it was worth appeasing his soul to kill a disciple of Monk Gu right now to cover his tracks.

Suddenly, there was a voice from the crowd. “Why are these individuals murdered? Every one of us publicly condemn the Ghost Valley, and the Ghosts had blended in with us without anyone knowing, so why did they target those nine only? Are they really that stupid to wage war against the entire pugilist scene? Or are some of you hiding something from us?”

Gao Chong stood up upon hearing that, wan and haggard at first glance. He seemed to stumble a little, but as Deng Kuan rushed to his side, he pushed away the assistance. His eyes scanned the currently enraged sects, then darted to those who were whispering with doubts.

His gaze seemed to carry a weight and cause everyone to quiet down completely.

Then they saw him, a legend among martial artists for over twenty-five years now with his graying hair and solemn face, murmuring slowly. “This is a debt of blood.”

Gao Chong lowered his head to stare at the nine corpses. He raised his voice. “This is a debt of blood… A debt that they owe the Gao family, a debt that they owe all the sects, the world… A bloody debt that they owe anyone with conscience!”

He seemed to have trouble breathing for a second. Abbot Ci Mu turned the prayer beads in his hands and said “Amitabha Budhha” before closing his eyes and muttering prayers for the dead. Deng Kuan looked at his old Master with worry; he still wanted to help him but repressed the urge as he considered the act to be disrespectful.

When Gao Chong looked up, tears welled in his eyes. He pointed to the dead body who belonged to his family. “This disciple of mine was orphaned when he was little, and when the joined the family he took my last name, he was called Gao Hui. He didn’t talk much and was teased by other kids, they called him Old Shut-in…”

He looked like he wanted to laugh but couldn’t. The female disciples of the Gao’s Manor were already bawling their eyes out.

After pausing for a bit, he continued. “This little shut-in was a good kid, you must have seen him in the past few days, he was so innocent and honest… but a good kid nonetheless, always worked hard, never threw a fit. He had a grandmother who adopted him from the streets, she’s over eighty now. She is blind and hard-of-hearing, can’t really recognize anyone but her grandson, and that is only sometimes… You see, how am I gonna tell her the news? Everyone, you’re all chivalrous heroes, please have mercy on me and tell me how I can tell her about this!”

The autumn wind in Dong Ting rustled loudly, and dead silence spread over the scene. Gao Chong, an old and respected figure, was bowing to them with his hands in front, pleading with them—how can I tell her about this?

Even a rude mouth like Feng Xiaofeng clammed up. At this point, if anyone dared utter an unnecessary syllable, they should be considered to be below an animal.

Hua Qingsong, the newly appointed Patriarch of Tai Shan Sect, was the first to speak up. “Until the Ghosts are exterminated, this world will not know peace. From now on, our Tai Shan Sect is under Sir Gao’s command, this is our promise! We will lay our lives on the line to avenge our former Patriarch, to avenge the deaths of our innocent fellow disciples!”

After the Patriarch of Tai Shan’s sudden death, the sect was left without a leader, and Hua Qingsong was only an overeager man in his twenties. He had no idea that once he had spoken, other big sects had no choice but to follow suit and show their stance.

In the afternoon of the same day, under Gao Chong’s direction, a grand funeral was held for the dead. The sky of Dong Ting was permeated with sobriety like there was a plague happening; all activities in town were slowed down.

Gao Chong was a capable man, who had united everyone who was previously only acting on their own impulses.

At night, after Zhou Zishu had sent Zhang Chengling off—the boy snuck out again to see him—he was greeted with an uninvited guest that was Ye Baiyi. The man was so indifferent that he didn’t bother to wear clothes that would help him blend in the night; he shamelessly knocked on the window and called, “You, follow me.”

It was too late to execute his murder plan, so Zhou Zishu followed him outside.

In the room next to his, Wen Kexing already heard everything happening. His arms crossed and he frowned, face sour.

Gu Xiang, who was closing her eyes and hanging upside down from a beam on the roof, was woken by him. She yawned and asked, “Master, you said from the beginning that this Zhou Xu had a mysterious background and was more than he seemed, and you were worried that he would ruin your plan. It’s only been a few days since you started following him, how are you already changing to keeping tabs on him all the time?”

Footnotes.

[1]In Chinese mythology, Guanyin was adopted from Buddhism (originally a bodhisattva known as Avalokiteśvara), and is generally regarded as a figure of compassion.

Chapter 28. Monk Gu

Wen Kexing gave her a cold look, voice venomous, “What makes you think you can interfere with my business?”

His tone was so unusually cruel that it took Gu Xiang by surprise; her eyes widened and she jumped down from the ceiling. She started following Wen Kexing since she was little, and she knew that while he took important matters very seriously, it didn’t mean that he wouldn’t allow some joking around. Gu Xiang bantering with him was a frequent practice and he never showed any disapproval, so she didn’t understand what this was about.

Gu Xiang examined him warily, voice soft, “Master, this…”

Wen Kexing fell silent, then inhaled after a good while, still feeling incredibly irritated. He casually leaned on the window to enjoy the chilly wind and said to Gu Xiang in a bland voice, “Say, according to you apparently I’m not at all interested in women, can only bed handsome men and harm those who don’t look that good? Can’t I have a friend or two just to talk to?”

He didn’t intend to scare Gu Xiang, but the girl had no idea what he wanted from her so she only became terrified. She stammered, “Yes, Master, I was wrong.”

Whatever Wen Kexing was about to say was swallowed once he saw Gu Xiang’s lost look. Talking to her was such a chore since they weren’t on the same wavelength. In some ways, he felt an accumulating amount of sadness at himself; these days, the lot he was surrounded with was either scared of him or thought that he was a stubborn madman. Not many would have sat with him by the fire like that, listened to him singing off-key like that, talked about old stories that only he could understand like that.

He suddenly asked, “Ah-Xiang, do you think I’m crazy?”

Gu Xiang was stunned, and looked at him hesitantly. Seeing the dull calmness on his face without any trace of anger, she nervously nodded. Wen Kexing turned away and scoffed.

After some thinking, Gu Xiang added, “I’m following you even if you are.”

“And why do you want to follow a madman?”

Gu Xiang tried her hardest to formulate her thoughts. Even when she was a child, she refused to study, which was even a greater joy when no one forced her into it; so now what she knew was very little. At this moment she realized having some kind of education was useful after all, since she had so much she wanted to say but didn’t know where to start.

In the end, she blurted out, “Who cares if you’re mad, I still think you’re a thousand times better than others.”

Wen Kexing looked at her. After a while, a smile spread across his face.

Upon that smile which seemed to carry loneliness, Gu Xiang felt a prickling sensation inside, so she continued without restraint, “Master, I think… you’re actually a great person.”

Wen Kexing laughed out loud and nodded, “Good, after all of your bullshit tonight you’ve finally speak the human tongue again.” Then he pushed open the window and jumped outside.

Gu Xiang asked, “Master, where are you going?”

Wen Kexing waved his arms, “Ye Baiyi isn’t the trustworthy type, that pale face of his can only spell trouble. I’m gonna go see how the silly little Zhou is doing against that man, I’m worried about him.”

He disappeared before Gu Xiang could answer him. After coming back to her senses, she finally realized who “silly little Zhou” was and brightened as she murmured, “Now I finally know how it is to lie without even blinking, silly little Zhou… silly little… if he’s really that then I’m the stupidest girl on Earth.”

It was perhaps unfortunate that no one had heard her, otherwise she would have received a comment on that – she might see it only as a self-deprecating joke, but there was definitely some truth in it.

Ye Baiyi didn’t told Zhou Zishu the purpose of getting both of them out here at midnight. With his lightning-fast qinggong, it was as if he was flying past the shadow. Zhou Zishu realized with astonishment that if the other man wasn’t intentionally waiting for him then he would have been left in the dust long ago.

They chased after each other like that for a long period of time before Ye Baiyi stopped, hands behind his back, his profile facing Zhou Zishu. The latter had no idea why he was brought to this empty intersection, but there was one guess. He stood a few steps away, examining the man in silence.

Ye Baiyi didn’t elaborate, leaving him to his scrutinization. This man had a sturdy stature, and usually when someone wore white, they would carry either an unmatched ethereal, elegant aura or a frivolous, pretentious predisposition. It would look like some of the physical weight in their body had been lifted somewhat from an outsider’s look, but this was not the case with Ye Baiyi.

In the night, he looked like an ancient Buddha statue, and for some reason, Zhou Zishu had a feeling that the man’s weapon had to be a very heavy sword to compliment his unwavering stance.

After a long while, Ye Baiyi asked, “What have you discovered?”

Zhou Zishu startled, finally able to pinpoint why there was a distant feeling emanating. He lowered his head, “Please forgive this junior’s terrible eyes, for I have severely disrespected you in the past few days.”

Ye Baiyi, after a bout of silence, suddenly swatted his hands at Zhou Zishu’s left shoulder in a sharp and brutal move; there was really no chance to reason with him.

Zhou Zishu, alarmed, flew several feet away from the ground to dodge. Ye Baiyi went after him immediately, his sleeves flared, intending to block all the important acupuncture points on his body.

Zhou Zishu had said the other’s martial arts style leaned toward the “hard” way, and since he himself had lost half of his core strength, he couldn’t risk a direct confrontation. He initially wanted to utilize his advanced qinggong to evade, but then he found out that it was a mistake. His opponent’s attack was everywhere at the same time, and he had no leverage staying mid-air like this. As a dire solution, he kicked at Ye Baiyi’s wrists.

Ye Baiyi wasn’t fazed and grabbed his calf. Zhou Zishu twisted his body and used that force to slide away and fall to the ground gently. When his feet touched the earth, his expression changed and he spoke in a slow, deep voice. “What do you want, Sir?”

Ye Baiyi withdrew his attack. After judging him over, he said, “The “Enchanted Song” Qin Song was once a disciple of that damned old man, being driven out of the sect for his uselessness. He actually still retained some capability of playing instruments from his master, but all of his cultivation was destroyed with your song just like that. I first thought about how this world had already given birth to such a dangerous offspring, but turns out… Hey, rascal, you use a whip sword, correct?”

Zhou Zishu’s eyes widened as he took half a step to the side, hands instinctively retracting into his sleeves. Murderous intent that was long buried now resurfaced – this was the first time he was in the kind of situation where he couldn’t accurately gauge his opponent’s capability, but the other man knew him all too well.

Seeing that, Ye Baiyi’s lips curved up, his smile stiff and mocking, “If I wanted to do something to you, do you really think you could still stand there and talk to me? The qinggong skills you just demonstrated belong to the one-and-only “No Boundaries, No Traces” branch. Your shifu is the former lord of Si Ji Holdings, Qin Huaizhang, isn’t he? Hmph, when it comes to being small-minded you two really are birds of the same feather.”

Zhou Zishu replied coldly. “You are a highly respected figure in this pugilist scene, Monk Gu, but my Master had passed away long ago. This junior will not let you tarnish his reputation even if it means treating you with discourtesy.”

Ye Baiyi was taken aback, crying out, “What? Qin Huaizhang is dead?”

Zhou Zishu didn’t have the chance to answer him. Ye Baiyi’s gaze dimmed, his expression a little lost. He looked down. “Of course, so many years have passed… It’s been so long, I don’t… I don’t know anything anymore… Things have changed, even Qin Huaizhang has ceased to exist.”

Zhou Zishu examined him with a frown. Upon finding out that the other man harbored no ill will and was merely speaking cryptically, he relaxed.

He was sure that the person before him was the Monk Gu of Mount Chang Ming in legends, but had no idea how he had managed to retain his youthful look throughout the years. Maybe the rumors that he had reached immortality were true after all?

Ye Baiyi held out his hand. “Let me see your sword.”

When it was met with no movement from Zhou Zishu, his tone became impatient. “You think I haven’t seen that thing? It was a gift from me to your shifu way back then, and no one will bother to steal it from you, so why can’t I have a look? What an incompetent disciple Qin Huaizhang has!”

That was when Zhou Zishu was reminded that there were the words “Baiyi” carved on his sword. He once thought it was some kind of mysterious motto, but turned out it was this man’s name. His face turned sullen and he felt incredibly uncomfortable; involuntarily, he reached down his waist and felt around a bit before pulling out an impressive whip sword. He gave it to Ye Baiyi.

Ye Baiyi cast a quick glance at the sallow, malnourished skin of his hand. He scowled, scrutinizing him while receiving the weapon, “Always prancing around in such disgusting get-up – I hate this the most about you and your shifu.”

Zhou Zishu didn’t bother firing back. Damn old geezer, he thought.

Ye Baiyi held the whip sword in his hands. The weapon, full of his core energy, began to stiffen and vibrate somewhat, making buzzing sounds. Sorrowful reminiscence flashed under Ye Baiyi’s long, thin eyelashes. He looked at the “Baiyi” sword and thought, All old acquaintances were gone now; on the contrary, these objects still persevere and are now in the hands of your successors.

He gave it back to Zhou Zishu after a long while.

Zhou Zishu spoke with no indication of his true feelings, “Why do you call me out here at this hour, other than to test my background? Is there…”

He was cut off by Ye Baiyi’s palm landing on his chest, so fast that he didn’t have any time to react. If the other man had intended to kill him, he would have been utterly powerless to retaliate. He stopped talking, body stiffened.

However, Ye Baiyi didn’t do anything else but frown. Zhou Zishu felt a gentle stream of core power transmitting from the other’s hand into him, as if it was investigating inside his body. Triggered from the inside, the Nails started to act up again, causing him to break out in a cold sweat. He tried to reign it in.

Suddenly, the power multiplied; the small stream became a river, filling up his half-withered meridians. Zhou Zishu felt like the Nails were further stirred by the foreign incentive; everything went dark before his eyes as he staggered back.

There was a shadow of someone appearing behind his back, that person shouted, “What are you doing?” while catching Zhou Zishu in their hold. They raised a sleeve to bat away Ye Baiyi’s hand; and with an “Oh”, the man unabashedly clashed with them. Ye Baiyi came into contact with a strong demonic energy; it startled him and gave his chest a suffocated feeling.

Wen Kexing was even more taken aback. He just utilized a majority of his core strength in that attack, but it was met with a seemingly untraceable wall. His grip on Zhou Zishu’s waist tightened as he leaned forward a little to both cover for the man in his arms and stabilize his footing.

He then inspected Ye Baiyi, narrowed eyes entirely devoid of cheerfulness. His gaze reminded Ye Baiyi of a viper—dreadfully chilling and firmly glued to you like a maggot gnawing away one’s bones.

Chapter 29. Belated Regrets

Ye Baiyi frowned slightly. His face looked even more fake than that of Zhou Zishu, in that it seemed like it had been staying stiff for so long and every minuscule movement looked strange. He asked. “It’s you? Who are you?”

Wen Kexing smiled cruelly and asked him back. “Why don’t you introduce yourself first before inquiring me? Is this how Monk Gu teaches his disciple to behave?”

Zhou Zishu, still leaning on Wen Kexing for support, was having a hard time to stand upright. He coughed drily a few times, feeling like his throat was burning. He turned his face to one side and threw up a mouthful of blood.

Seeing that, Wen Kexing’s face darkened as he scolded him, “Are you stupid as well, Zhou Xu, why did you let him feel you up like that when you don’t even know who he is?”

I haven’t even got the chance to touch you yet! was what he didn’t say out loud as he glanced at Ye Baiyi.

Zhou Zishu, busy trying to stabilise his breathing after his body being thrown into disarray by Ye Baiyi, heard nothing of Wen Kexing’s nonsense. During the process, he glared at the man miserably.

Ye Baiyi asked further. “Your kungfu is not bad, whose disciple are you? And what is your relationship with this child?”

Wen Kexing finally saw the strangeness in the way the other man talked. He enunciated words very slowly like an old man, and completed with his facial expressions, he gave both an irritable and uncanny feeling.

Wen Kexing was not the thoughtless type. Now that the initial emotional impulse had worn off, doubt started to bloom in his chest.

Before he could answer, Zhou Zishu raised his sleeves to wipe the blood at the corner of his mouth, voice gentle, “What is your intention, Monk Gu?”

Ye Baiyi replied, undisturbed, “I want to see if your injuries are still salvageable.” After pausing a little, he continued. “And I have never said that I’m Monk Gu, don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Wen Kexing was not surprised as he already knew Zhou Zishu suffered from internal injuries, but the second sentence did catch him off guard. Zhou Zishu assumed him to be Monk Gu, and while Ye Baiyi denied this, the way he referred to that name did not at all carry a sense of respect; he talked was as if Monk Gu was his peer.

Wen Kexing couldn’t help but look over Ye Baiyi’s completely-not-wrinkled face once again and thought, What kind of abomination is this old man?

Ye Baiyi spoke to Zhou Zishu, “The juniors will always follow their seniors’ footsteps; I know Qin Huaizhang did a totally botched job of teaching his disciples, but I advise you to stay away from this man who you don’t even know well. He was even more bad news than you.”

Wen Kexing felt like this man with an endless stomach was born to be his archnemesis. His chest was tight as he blurted out, “Don’t even know well? Old man, have you ever heard about the concept of soulmate? You have stick your ancient nose into every single problem there is, and now you even want to dictate what we do?”

Ye Baiyi, already not an agreeable person to begin with, snarled “Are you trying to die, brat?” under his breath and charged at him.

Zhou Zishu with his unstable breathing was not at all suitable to be in the middle of this fight between these two all-around insolent men, so he cleverly retreated and sat on the top of a wall nearby to spectate and recuperate.

During this time when people were currently too worried about the Lapis Armor and the Ghost Valley to be able to sleep well, no one had any idea that in this small alley, a rarely seen clash between two martial arts masters was happening. Ye Baiyi had denied to be Monk Gu and Zhou Zishu was now unsure who he actually was; but upon seeing this unprecedented level of martial arts skills, him being Monk Gu didn’t seem like a stretch at all.

On the other hand, Wen Kexing showed no sign that he was in the disadvantage. When Zhou Zishu took a closer look, his martial arts approach was entirely different to his father, the “Divine” Wen Ruyu—no, even the legendary Wen Ruyu couldn’t hold a candle to his son’s level.

The few moves Wen Kexing taught Zhang Chengling back then was pulled from his father’s method, and they gave a very neutral, balanced feel.

As of right now, Zhou Zishu saw that every single move from him showed an incredible level of ruthlessness, and he was unable to discern which sect he could be from with this kind of style; this to him was entirely uncharted territory. It looked similar to how Gu Xiang engaged in battle, but he seemed even more experienced than the girl. All in all, it wasn’t what he inherited from his parents… Zhou Zishu narrowed his eyes, his theory slowly taking form.

At the same time, he didn’t know how to feel about this: All the figures in the martial arts world that he couldn’t identify were gathering here in front of him tonight.

Suddenly, he felt droplets of rainwater fell from the sky as the wind seemed to turn colder. After a few drops, a drizzle quietly arrived.

Zhou Zishu tightened his outer robes around himself, stretching his legs and swinging them. He raised his voice to talk to the currently fighting men, “Hey, Sir Ye, Brother Wen, it’s raining right now and I feel very cold, so how about we call this off?”

His voice sounded like that of a circus audience, and not someone watching two martial arts masters go at it.

Ye Baiyi made a noise of contempt and retreated several feet. When he landed on the ground, he fixed his disheveled clothes, those ethereally fluttering sleeves torn by Wen Kexing. Zhou Zishu felt like this was Wen Kexing’s bad habit; since his orientation was not something often discussed out loud, he couldn’t help but imposing it onto everyone else.

Wen Kexing was struggling a little. He held his chest and took steps backwards, feeling like his organs were turned upside down. He coughed up blood, his ribs aching after the other man’s attack; he had no idea if they were still intact or not.

Ye Baiyi stared at Wen Kexing silently. “You’ve gone past your limit. If we hadn’t stop, I could have taken your life in the next ten moves.”

Wen Kexing’s shoulders curved forward as he stood there, glaring at Ye Baiyi coldly.

Zhou Zishu sighed. “Senior Ye, as our predecessor, why must death be the only treatment you have for us?” Please go back to your mountain and live your old man life, why dwell on your worries and run to Dong Ting to mess with others’ business?

Unexpectedly, those words seemed to act as a reminder for Wen Kexing. With no fear in his bones, he spoke up, “You’re past your prime. If you are still alive ten years later, I will be the one to take your life.”

Ye Baiyi looked stunned, like he just heard the biggest joke in the world. He immediately laughed, his Buddha stone face shifted disturbingly. Zhou Zishu was worried that those stiff lines on his face might crack if he kept going.

Ye Baiyi replied, “Take my life? Good, good—no one has dared say that to me in the past fifty years, I’ll surely be waiting for you.”

He was about to leave, but seemed to remember something. He turned to look at Zhou Zishu contemplatively, and spoke after the silence, “I don’t know of a way to treat your injuries.”

Zhou Zishu’s expression remained unchanged while amusement sparked inside him; Ye Baiyi sounded like he held him in high regards or something. He replied, “You are not all-knowing, sir, no one expects you to have a solution in the first place.”

Ye Baiyi shook his head. “Your meridians have almost withered completely, like an ancient tree without roots. Even removing the poison inside you won’t help; in fact, channeling more energy into you will break your dying meridians, and you can only perish.”

Wen Kexing staggered in shock as he turned and gave Zhou Zishu a look of disbelief. The other man was still perching on the top of the wall, completely leisurely and uncaring; rain fell on him and left his hair soaking wet. He looked like a dim ray of light, and had Wen Kexing not witnessed what he did in the cave that one time, he would never have realized he was someone carrying injuries.

Zhou Zishu’s laughed resounded in the air, “So my fate is sealed, then?”

Ye Baiyi nodded bluntly.

Looking at him, Zhou Zishu came to the realization that since Ye Baiyi had holed up in the mountain for too long, aside from his endless appetite he had lost all tactfulness. He sighed, “Sir, why must you indirectly mock me like that? I have never wronged you before, so please don’t repeat that matter, it’s not a nice thing to talk about.”

Ye Baiyi stared at him silently before leaving without saying another word.

Zhou Zishu had a suspicion that the man called him out here for a different matter but he had forgotten it after the fight. He didn’t remind him about it however, and jumped down from the wall.

Wen Kexing was still looking at him with an unreadable expression, so he called out. “Why are you still standing there? Are you injured or…”

He couldn’t continue, as Wen Kexing suddenly came closer and held his face between his cold hands.

Water ran down Wen Kexing’s face, and the world surrounding them was filled with the sound of rain. He was expressionless, wild hair sticking to his pale face, eyes dark. Those eyes reminded Zhou Zishu of the unconcerned look he received from Wen Kexing from the tavern the first time they met.

Wen Kexing started to talk. “When I was little, mother forced me to read and father forced me to learn how to fight. In our village, other children were allowed to play around and only I wasn’t, I had to stay inside to read and practice with my sword and could only go outside when the sky was dark. When I was excited to join others, those kids were already called home by their parents to have dinner.”

Zhou Zishu felt like the current position was a bit weird, so he tilted his head in an attempt to break out of the grip. But then he saw Wen Kexing’s dazed look; the rain clung to his eyelashes and as he blinked, it ran down his cheeks, giving the illusion that he was crying.

“I really hated my parents back then, so I always sulked. Father told me that if I waited until I grew up to practice my skills, it would be too late. I thought, if I waited until I grew up to be able to play like a child, it would be too late too.”

He paused, the word “late” held inside his mouth and repeated, as if he was tasting its bitterness carefully. Then he wound his arms around Zhou Zishu’s neck, hugging him like an aggrieved manchild.

Zhou Zishu sighed. Wen Kexing wasn’t the only one to have tasted the bitterness of that word.

Then Wen Kexing let go and asked, “Your injuries can’t be treated?”

Zhou Zishu shook his head and smiled self-mockingly.

Wen Kexing, after falling into silence, asked again. “How many… how many years do you have left?”

Zhou Zishu calculated. “Around two to three years.”

Wen Kexing suddenly burst out laughing. Zhou Zishu felt like something was amiss with his attitude, “Are you alright?”

Wen Kexing shook his head, retreating step by step. “Throughout my entire life, I can’t ever have fun when I want to; when I grew up a little, I wanted to study under my parents but they were no longer there. Say, do you think… I was born in the wrong time? How fortunate…”

He stopped smiling, turned away and left, leaving a confused Zhou Zishu behind.

How fortunate, that I haven’t truly fallen for you.

One only knew autumn when the cold rain came; parasol trees dying of old age; the suffering of the cold under a thin blanket; wasting your lifetimes away… all belated regrets in the end, regrets that we hadn’t met sooner.

Chapter 30. Rainy Night

Gu Xiang opened an umbrella and held another one close to her chest while wading through the rain. Her embroidered shoes stepped on the stones underneath, causing the water to splash on her pant legs. A gust of cold wind caused her to shiver; she felt like no one could be more of a dedicated and loyal individual than her right now.

When the girl looked up, she saw a man walking alone in the rain with his head down.

Wen Kexing was soaked to the bone, messy clothes sticking to his body. He paid no mind to his slightly tumultuous state.

Gu Xiang caught up to him and called out, “Master!”

Wen Kexing didn’t turn to look back at her, but he evidently heard her voice as he stopped to wait. Gu Xiang ran up to him and gave him the other umbrella, internally feeling like suffering outdoors in this miserable weather was such a waste of her effort—seeing how her Master usually behaved, Gu Xiang was pretty sure that he had just been doing some indecent activities at some indecent places.

So she pursed her lips and asked somewhat disapprovingly. “Did you go fool around somewhere, Master?”

Wen Kexing opened the umbrella, taking a few steps before replying quietly, “Went fighting.”

Gu Xiang asked, out of instinct, “In the bedroom?”

As Wen Kexing turned to stare at her, she was smart enough to slapp herself lightly, her tone serious, “Stupid, stupid mouth, what kind of trash are you spouting? You can’t just say such things!”

“Ah-Xiang.” Wen Kexing cut in, not humoring her.

Gu Xiang blinked. It only rained harder, the water creating a thick fog-like layer that prevented her from seeing Wen Kexing’s expressions clearly. After the solemn silence, he looked down and said softly. “He said… He’d die soon.”

Gu Xiang made a questioning noise, unable to react to that, “Who’s going to die?”

“Zhou Xu.”

There was a pause from Wen Kexing that might be either for him to compose himself or for Gu Xiang to take it in. As he continued walking forward, he molded his voice into the usual nonchalance it possessed, “He suffers from internal injuries, but from the way I see him go about, I assume that they are non-threatening. But today I learned that they were incurable, and he would only last two or three more years. The moment I heard that, I knew who he was… Hah! Had I known that from the beginning, I would have never followed him!”

Gu Xiang’s eyes were wide open as she seemed to have difficulty processing the truth. After a good while, she asked cautiously. “Zhou Xu?”

“Yeah.” Wen Kexing’s voice was low. “At first I thought he couldn’t be from Tian Chuang. There’s no escaping that place, and the ones who try will have to suffer the Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns, resulting in the loss of their martial art skills and all senses; they will be turned into invalids who can keep secrets better than the dead. At first, I thought that there was no way he was carrying the Nails on him, seeing how capable he was… But just now someone let me know that he had a particular method to slow down the damage, but nonetheless he wouldn’t survive for more than three years.”

This was the first time Gu Xiang ever heard about this; she barely breathed while listening to him. At that, she asked, “Master… how do you know all this?”

“Me?” Wen Kexing let out a strange laugh, “Do you think I can survive until now if I don’t know more than I should?”

After a short silence, Gu Xiang continued. “Then… that Zhou Xu, he…”

“I met someone who escaped from Tian Chuang once.” A pause. “There has never been someone who can evade the fate of turning catatonic, but he can. From it I can guess that his rank was Great Butler at the very least; he… he might have been the former leader even.”

Gu Xiang was surprised. “If he was the leader, then why would he run…” Then she stopped, seemingly having realized something.

Wen Kexing was walking very quickly now, as if he wanted to leave something behind him as far as possible. With Gu Xiang’s short legs, she had to jog lightly to catch up to him. Seeing that he only got quicker and quicker, Gu Xiang disrupted the silence between them. “Master, are you heartbroken?”

Wen Kexing asked gently without looking back. “What would I be heartbroken about?”

After mulling it over, Gu Xiang had to admit that she wasn’t sure. She heard him laugh softly, his feet almost gliding over the ground rather than moving. “With his disguise, I can’t even know for sure if he’s a beauty or not… Besides, I prefer the soft type, so he won’t be of my taste even if he is beautiful.”

Even with her qinggong Gu Xiang was unable to catch up, and she blurted out, “But didn’t you say once that you liked the tall ones with tiny waist and pretty butterfly bones…”

“You remember it wrong,” he interrupted. Then he added, justifying to no one in particular. “I just felt like… I’d finally found someone I can relate to⁠—Gu Xiang, stop following me.”

“Huh?” In a blink, Wen Kexing was already meters away from her. Gu Xiang called out sulkily, “Why, Master? Did I anger you again?”

Wen Kexing had already disappeared in the rain with only his distant voice reaching her ears. “You talk too much.”

Gu Xiang, left all alone, stomped petulantly and cursed him under her breath, “I was nice to you and this is what I get!”

Then she raised her head to stare after the direction Wen Kexing had vanished to, suddenly being reminded of the image of his soaked back, his broad shoulders, his unwavering steps under the rain that didn’t wait for her one bit. There was no one beside him but he never looked sideways, like he had been travelling alone for a while now.

She pitied him a little.

Finding someone you could connect with or whatever was fine… But that person was a flickering lamp that would die out in a few years, so what was the point?

Under the cold wind and rain, one thought they could have attained something but couldn’t. Who in this world could really live how they wanted to?

Could you?

No one knew where Wen Kexing went that night.

In the early morning, someone consistently banged hard on Zhou Zishu’s door. When he opened the door, Cao Weining almost crashed into him, but then the younger dragged him outside, telling him while running, “How can you be so calm in your room, your disciple is about to lose his life!”

“Who?” After that chaotic night, Zhou Zishu’s thoughts had yet to untangle themselves. It took him a few seconds to react, and he frowned. “You mean Zhang Chengling? What happened now, why is it always him?”

Cao Weining sighed. “Feels like this year is his unlucky year, I have no idea how he keeps getting into these kind of situations—yesterday someone tried to assassinate him, but fortunately Sir Zhao next door was alerted and they managed to capture the person responsible. Unfortunately though, that man was on a suicide mission and he poisoned himself the moment he was caught. Say—”

Cao Weining paused, suspicions creeping in. He thought back to what his Senior Uncle Mo Huaikong told him earlier this morning: Among all of the big names that gathered here in Dong Ting, who was so determined to mess up the life of a kid who was not all that bright? Rather than to try to finish the job, it would be more likely that the motive was to cover up something.

Even with his simple minds, Cao Weining could sense that something was amiss. There was something wrong in the atmosphere—it was repressed by Gao Chong’s side for the time being, but doubts and theories spread like a plague.

What exactly was the Lapis Armor?

By the time Zhou Zishu arrived, Zhang Chengling and Zhao Jing’s rooms were already surrounded by a huge crowd. Zhao Jing was naked from the waist up, shoulders seemingly bleeding, currently sitting on a long bench with someone bandaging his wounds. He wore an unpleasant expression, a sword carried on his back with blood still on it.

There were two corpses on the ground, face all purple; it looked like they had been poisoned. Zhou Zishu saw a hook beside one body and instantly knew that it was from the Scorpions.

There were actually several factions amongst the Scorpions, depending on the hiring price. For instance, those who were with the Delighted Mourning Ghost and helped him lure out Zhang Chengling were not those who would lay down their lives; to acquire those, one would need to pay a higher price.

It was more troublesome with these lot. There’s no telling how many they were; once a group failed another group would advance, and they were all the fearless type. If they succeeded, they got paid handsomely; if they didn’t, they would have to leave their own body right there.

That’s why it was not at all cheap.

Who would spend this much to kill Zhang Chengling? Did they feel like the snot-nosed brat possessed some kind of intelligence that would create troubles in the future?

A strange idea popped up inside Zhou Zishu’s head. He thought, I’ve made plenty enemies back in my day, but not this excessive.

His gaze thrown at Zhang Chengling carried some indescribable feelings.

Zhou Zishu, however, didn’t expect the young boy currently standing at a corner to be unsurprised and unafraid. He only lowered his head as if looking at the two bodies, showing the top of his head. Silence fell over him completely; whenever people asked him something he would only nod or shake his head.

Gao Chong bent down a little and asked Zhang Chengling with a kind face. “Chengling, do you know these people?”

Zhang Chengling glanced at him, then shook his lowered head.

Gao Chong, in turns, spoke even more gently, hand reaching out to pat his head. “Don’t be afraid, my child, we will avenge you. Tell me, what did these two vile individuals say to you last night?”

Zhang Chengling didn’t look him in the eye and shook his head again. Gao Chong was starting to become perplexed when someone cut in enigmatically, “What good would come out of asking that question, Sir Gao? We elders all know that these two are Scorpion martyrs; they are merely blades and blades don’t talk, do they? What a joke! You should ask the boy if he knows something we don’t instead.”

That was Feng Xiaofeng, currently standing on the ground instead of perching on Gao Shannu’s shoulder. Because of his height, he had to crane his neck with his nose facing the sky; completed with his mocking tone, he made it hard for people to not want to beat him up.

Gao Shannu stood behind him quietly. With his scary face, he was like a demon in folk tales.

Gao Chong frowned at that. Zhao Jing, on the other hand, discarded all manners as he stood up, pointed at Feng Xiaofeng and shouted, “You despicable dwarf, how can your conscience let you say those words?”

Feng Xiaofeng scoffed, “Sir Zhao, why is it that ever since you took in the Zhang orphan, you didn’t let him leave your side for one second? You and I know the reason all too well, don’t think I’m an idiot!”

With shining eyes, he looked at Zhang Chengling, his voice sharp as knife, “Tell us the truth, boy, do you know where your family’s Lapis Armor piece went? Is it still with you? Or is it stolen by this Zhao– no, Sir Zhao?”

Zhao Jing was enraged. “You dwarf, curse your family all to Hell!”

Gao Shannu suddenly looked up to pin Zhao Jing down with his stare. Feng Xiaofeng stopped him with a wave of an arm, and Gao Shannu obediently stepped back to his place behind him. Feng Xiaofeng continued. “Did I hit a nerve, Sir Zhao? Don’t be so discourteous.”

Zhao Jing wanted nothing more than to charge forward and teach him a lesson.

Gao Chong quickly stepped in, his voice serious, “Brother Feng, unfounded accusations should not be thrown around to disturb our solidarity—someone come take these bodies away first, then we will discuss something long-term…”

But then someone spoke up, “Sir Gao, why are you being so secretive? Shouldn’t you ask the boy now that everyone is present? This is for his own good at the end of the day.”

Zhang Chengling looked up at that, his face pale, eyes unfocused. He felt like everyone was staring at him, gossiping about him, forcing him to give them an explanation, but he truly knew nothing.

Zhou Zishu, who was used to blending in with the crowd without anyone noticing, felt a surge of anger when he saw Zhang Chengling’s empty expressions.

He wanted to push at everyone, then dragged the young boy far away from all this filth. But that was not something Zhou Zishu would do, wasn’t it? To think carefully before he acted, to keep himself hidden away from the scene: These had always been his principles.

Back then, even His Majesty would praise him for being increasingly calculating and cautious as the years went on… but old man Ye Baiyi had told him that he would show his tail eventually.

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