Chapter 11. The Cave
Zhou Zishu stood before the "Yellow Spring" in contemplation before turning back to the way he came. The devil made work for idle hands; all the time lazying around at the Zhao's had apparently made him jump down here without a thought—Hua Shan Sect's patriarch was no honorable type but his son was even worse, having indulged in debauchery at such a young age.
Besides, they were all pugilist wanderers, being attacked was all in a day's work. No matter where Yu Tianjie was severed—his head or his family jewels—it didn't concern Zhou Zishu in the slightest.
It might have been for Wen Kexing's ghostly tales, but he suddenly had a bad feeling. The underground cave carried a sinister atmosphere. Zhou Zishu calculated; since he only had two and a half years left, it was better to help the dying and injured, making the best of his time to do good.
Not crawling into a grave with a man who was not always right in the head.
But when he was tracing the way back, there was an abrupt "thud", like a mechanism being switched. Around the entrance, hundreds of steel knives extended from the wall, blocking the path.
Zhou Zishu was fortunate to have retreated in time, or else he would have been skewered.
He frowned, staring at those knives then looked at Wen Kexing, "Who did you offend?"
The surprise question left Wen Kexing's eyes wide open, he looked like he was greatly wounded by the words. "Why is it that I had to offend someone for this to happen?"
Zhou Zishu scoffed and shook his head. He had no choice but to move forward along the "Yellow Spring"; it was possible that he could find another exit somewhere. "Are you saying it's because of me and not you? I'm virtually unknown and have just entered jianghu recently, I have never commit thievery, the only thing I have been doing is travelling in peace. Who could ever hold a grudge against me?"
Wen Kexing fell into silence, having enough of his companion's bold-faced lies. After a while, he spoke with a gentle voice, "You escorted Zhang Chengling; you have killed thirty two in total along the way, including four of the extremely dangerous type like Qin Song…"
"My ass, there're only eleven at most." Zhou Zishu replied, "Those in the shrine died under your little maid's hands."
"So it's still definitely you." Wen Kexing held out his hands, "These hands of mine; ever since I left home to join jianghu they have not been stained with any blood, even that of a chicken, much less a human. How can it be possible that I have offended anyone?"
Zhou Zishu didn't spare him a glance.
That prompted Wen Kexing to walked faster, standing in front of the other with an exaggerated expression of seriousness. "It might be hard to believe because of how I look, but I swear I'm a good person."
Zhou Zishu nodded, "Of course, Mister "Good Person" Wen. Now that it's clear I'm just a murderous demon, it's better for you to get out of my way."
Wen Kexing seemed to ignore the half-hearted nature of the response as he still wore a blinding smile, "I will leave you alone once you admit that you're wearing a disguise."
Zhou Zishu smiled back, "How generous of you."
"Please, don't mention it."
Zhou Zishu side-stepped him to go forward.
Wen Kexing followed two steps behind, still smiling.
The water of the spring flowed quite rapidly. Zhou Zishu kicked a rock down there, but it was unable to see the true depth. It twisted and turned in a complicated pattern, and there also seemed to be fish but they swam too fast to be visible. Zhou Zishu was not good at swimming, the best he could do was holding his breath for a long time underwater so he would not die instantly upon jumping down. After examining, he decided it was better to stay away from it.
The cave seemed to connect to many paths at all directions, since the sound of their footsteps and conversations could travel real far. Suddenly, Zhou Zishu stopped walking. "Brother Wen, look."
Wen Kexing followed his gaze to a pile of bones not too far away.
He mumbled, "Shouldn't the path to the Yellow Spring be lined with equinox flowers? And the dead should only have their souls left, why are there bones here?"
Zhou Zishu flicked at the bones, holding up a half-destroyed skull on one hand and the matchbook on another, sizing it up carefully. "This skull was crushed, the part where it connects to the spine seems to be slashed… Hm? No, the wound is uneven, there are teeth marks here. Did an animal bite them?"
"Can an animal bite someone's head off?" Wen Kexing asked.
Zhou Zishu picked up a thigh bone. "Teeth marks… More teeth marks, they're quite small…"
He was hit with a sense of familiarity, as if he had seen them before somewhere. But he had never been a coroner1, so the memory slipped his mind at the time.
Wen Kexing felt his stomach churning a little, taking the thigh bone from Zhou Zishu with only two fingers. "This is… quite a clean work we've got here; even cleaner than me gnawing on chicken bones." He said after examining.
Zhou Zishu decided to stop having chicken drumsticks from now on.
"Who could've left such bites, can it be a wild beast?" Wen Kexing thought about it for a bit, "I heard that in the underworld there is this giant beast called Di Ting2, do you know if it likes meat or not?"
—it was clear that he still hadn't given up on his ghost stories.
Zhou Zishu put on a fake smile, "You just have to wait until you're a hundred years old and leave this world to go down to hell…"
He didn't get to finish as there were sounds of water sloshing behind them. In the dark cave, the sounds made their hair stand on end. Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing turned to that direction and took one step back, facing the small river with their guard raised.
Wen Kexing spoke slowly, "I also heard that Di Ting doesn't live in the Yellow Spring, and there aren't that many, either."
Out from the river crawled many… human-looking creatures, but not really. Their limbs were extra long and their stature was short. They were completely naked, their flesh pale from being underwater, and they had very long hair. Their body width was unnaturally large, twice or thrice that of a normal human. Their eyes shone a distant light while they gradually drew closer.
Zhou Zishu looked down and bit his wrist, then spoke to Wen Kexing while staring at the faint teeth marks. "I remember it now, those small marks are…"
"Are what?" Wen Kexing asked while retreating.
Wen Kexing halted after that, coughing, fixing his hair and clothes. He made a salutation at the approaching monsters. "My… good brothers, we barged into this place completely by accident, we didn't at all mean to offend, so please…"
Zhou Zishu snorted in an uncharming way. The humanoid monsters let out a ghastly howl before coming at Wen Kexing.
Wen Kexing yelled indignantly, "I haven't finished!"
In contrast, he dodged the attackers like a flying leaf, moving to the side without any effort. The monster's reflexes and movements were fast as they immediately changed direction to chase after him, claws extracted and glinting, leaving marks on the ground that were about two inches3 deep.
Zhou Zishu smiled. "How is it, Brother Wen, are you speechless?"
The monsters' attack officially began. Zhou Zishu wouldn't treat those like humans as they were definitely far from it; their durability was unfathomable and their destructive power was immense. They were also fast and didn't seem to experience pain.
Zhou Zishu's hand was on one's chest, attacking it with all of his might. A rock would have exploded after that move, but as the monster was knocked flying back against the wall, they only screeched before standing back up.
Zhou Zishu was internally unsettled, he couldn't think of what it actually was.
He heard a "crack!" beside him. It turned out to be a sneak attacker being caught and having its neck snapped by Wen Kexing.
Wen Kexing smiled, "Now I've saved you once."
Zhou Zishu also realized in contrast to their firm body mass, the monster's neck was incredibly fragile, unable to support its head at times.
He was surprised that Wen Kexing found out so quickly. Despite that, he replied with politeness, "Thank you."
Another one barged at them, which Zhou Zishu evaded. His elbow curved to strike at the monster's back, and his fingers made a clawing movement to twist the neck.
They made light work of taking down a few more. At least those creatures still had a bit of intellect in them, as they grew fearful after not being able to subdue their preys. Their leader howled, and they slowly returned to the water. Randomly, one would have its head above the water, staring at their abnormally powerful intruders.
Zhou Zishu whispered, "With their size, they can clearly bite our heads off. We shouldn't stay here any longer, let's go."
Wen Kexing replied after a bout of contemplative silence, "I've figured it out."
Zhou Zishu presumed he had found out what the monster was. "Figured out what?" He asked without thinking.
"Real human skin will redden if you pinch it, since I can't make out your disguise, can you let me pinch your face a little?"
Zhou Zishu walked away, not bothering with an answer. He must have been mad for having taken this person seriously.
Wen Kexing followed him close behind. "Did I finally get you, and because of that you don't want me to touch your face? I knew it, I knew you used some kind of tricks! Are you so beautiful that you're afraid some sleazy deviants will be after you? No worries, Brother Zhou, I am a completely righteous and honorable individual, I'll never do any harm. So, can you let me see your true visage…"
Zhou Zishu turned a deaf ear with incredible restraint.
But then Wen Kexing changed his tone. "Although, your skills are truly no joke, I can't think of anyone who can be that good. Are you… from the fabled 'Tian Chuang'?
Zhou Zishu stopped walking. In the darkness of the cave, Wen Kexing's smile seemed to carry another meaning to it. But Zhou Zishu only held up his index finger to stop the other, voice lowered, "Can you hear it?"
They went quiet. In the deeper part of the cave echoed the roars of a beast. "It's the one that can bite off a human's head."
Wen Kexing had no interest in those beasts, his eyes were fixed on Zhou Zishu alone. The man didn't react to his earlier words at all, only listening to his surroundings intently; his eyes and expressions never wavered.
Another roar can be heard, significantly louder now, as if the beast had moved closer. Zhou Zishu saw the underwater monsters all cowering in supposed fear. He tugged at Wen Kexing, and they took a turn into another trail. Zhou Zishu took out a small bottle, spraying something along the way.
Then they hid in a corner and held their breath.
1 仵作 (wǔzuò) is an old term to call coroners.
2 谛听 (dìtīng) is a mythical beast in Buddism under the control of Kṣitigarbha. It is said to be able to see through everything and can detect people's truest desires in their heart.
3 寸 (cùn) is a traditional unit of length, also called Chinese inch. 1 cun is about 1.312 in.