Chapter 5. The Evils
"My last name is Zhang, I'm Zhang Chengling." The young boy sat down, face dark; but even when his clothes were in tatters, the colors made it clear that they were made from expensive materials and not something a commoner would wear. "Zhou…"
He stopped, unsure how to address this beggar-looking man.
"Just call me uncle." Zhou Zishu replied blatantly.
Zhang Chengling tried to smile but didn't really succeed. He lowered his head, looking at the ground inside the shrine that was covered in dust and overgrown with grass, still in a state of shock. The great tragedy came in a blink of an eye without knowledge, and his mind had yet to catch up to what happened.
Gu Xiang whispered, "Zhang Chengling? Sounds kind of familiar."
Zhou Zishu asked, "Is your father Sir Zhang, lord of Nam He Holdings?"
Gu Xiang blurted out in surprise, "You're Zhang Yusen's son?"
Doubt and 'How on earth does Zhang Yusen have such a useless offspring like this one' was evidently written on her face.
Zhang Chengling must have seen it too, as his head dropped even lower, hands balled into fists by his side.
Zhou Zishu had to swiftly interrupted Gu Xiang's spirit crushing session. Having realized earlier that this girl would just say whatever people hated hearing, he coughed, "I hadn't known, my apologies."
Gu Xiang started bombarding him with questions. "Your father has quite a reputation, huh… A few days ago when we arrived here, we got to hear about his glory days back when he was younger, and that the family and business recently have been doing really well. People said after getting successful he's settled here and half detached himself from society, never engaging in any affairs. The holdings were also said to house guests who are pretty decent at martial arts, so no one dared stir up troubles. Who would hunt you down when you have a father like that?"
Her voice carried a flippant attitude since the whole problem didn't concern her in the slightest. The old woman clearly felt indignant as she stood up, "My lord is the best well-doer you can find, the most honorable, kind-hearted and generous; he will always help people even when he has no idea who they are…"
Gu Xiang only scoffed, tone enigmatic, "Alright alright auntie, we know how good of a father this little one has already. But does this honorable, generous father stop you two from being chased down at late night…"
Zhang Yusen had only reached fifty not long ago, and it was not an exaggeration to deem him someone of virtue and prestige. He had not been doing a lot of jianghu business ever since he started building a family for himself; but if there was ever a grand event, it'd still be obligatory to send him an invitation. Zhou Zishu felt the dead should at least deserve some respect; and while the girl's attitude might be unintentional, it was still ill-mannered of her to have said those things. He cut in, "Just now, who was that person trying to kill you?"
Zhang Chengling went silent for a bit, then spoke under his breath, "He's Xue Fang the Hanged Ghost."
"What did you say?"
"What did you say?"
Zhou Zishu and Gu Xiang both exclaimed. The former was frowning, and on the latter's face was quaint surprise.
Zhang Chengling repeated with emphasis on every word, "It's Xue Fang the Hanged Ghost, I heard someone calling him that with my own ears…"
He took a deep breath suddenly, as if remembering and realizing something: the blood that night, the smoke and fire, the screaming - they all came back to him at once. He stood up shakily, face pale, whole body twitching, not uttering a single word.
Gu Xiang jerked, pointing at him, "Is he having a seizure?"
Zhou Zishu's face was solemn. He got to the boy, brushing over the acupuncture point that would help him pass out. When Zhang Chengling turned soft and unconscious in his arms, he carefully laid him down. He sighed, "His mind shut down from the memory onslaught. Just let him rest for a while first."
He turned to the panicked woman, "Is someone plotting against the Zhang family, Aunt?"
Seeing Zhang Chengling in that state, she lost all will. After many tears and snot, she finally recounted the exact events — at midnight, the backyard suddenly caught fire; then came the men in black who appeared out of nowhere, looking like hoards of demons dropping from the sky.
The most terrifying thing was that all the guests, those "masters" who could detect everything from the flick of the grass were unable to fight back and left without anyone knowing.
There was only eccentric Old Li left. He arrived at Suzhou five years ago, always protecting the Zhangs from afar, refusing to enter the holdings — he reasoned that to be able to have the Zhang's food, you had to be a guest; he was simply someone who came to pay a debt.
It was that eccentricity that had helped save the Zhang bloodline, though just barely.
After a while, Zhou Zishu sighed. "Old Brother Li was a special man among us." He turned to the woman in tears again; she was only a servant, unable to understand everything. "Do you have any relatives?"
She nodded, "I have a nephew living down south."
Zhou Zishu gave her a gold ingot. "Take this and go; you've been showing your utmost loyalty by following the Zhang's young master here. Don't let yourself suffer further at your old age."
She took the money, biting it by instinct, then smiling in embarrassment once she realized what she did. The tears had stopped, and she told him softly, "Yes, this one is too old now, just gonna a burden for Young Master."
Practically, staying at a place where a dead body was buried and grass grew everywhere was not really a good idea either, so she left immediately. Zhou Zishu thought that she was just a servant, so it was unlikely that she would be chased after. She showed her gratitude and walked away while he watched her expressionlessly.
It was midnight, so Zhou Zishu knew the prickling pain in his chest right now was the Nails acting up. It was not the kind of pain that mangle your body, or the slow, simmering kind as seen with internal injuries, but one that felt like someone was cutting his meridians apart one by one.
Fortunately, after more than a year of suffering he had well adapted to the pain; nothing showed on his face. He also was still wearing a mask, making it harder for Gu Xiang to see his real expressions.
Zhou Zishu tried to divert his attention by thinking about the girl's ignorance while discussing Zhang Yusen, asking her, "Is the one with you at the tavern not here today?"
Gu Xiang startled, "How do you know he's with me?" Then nodded, "Right, you heard us talking, didn't you — that's why back when I asked you the question, you answered exactly like my master."
She pursed her lips, showing disdain at his cheating act.
Zhou Zishu smiled, "Yes, is your master here right now?"
Gu Xiang sat on the incense table1 with her legs swinging, not touching the ground. She tilted her head, eyes casting downwards, appearing completely innocent. Then she shrugged, "He went to see his old lover."
Zhou Zishu stared at her doubtfully. She was very pretty, so he had though she was one of the man's concubines.
Gu Xiang wrinkled her nose, glaring at him, "Why do you look at me like that? Do you want me to guard outside his window and hear him doing it with another man?"
Zhou Zishu coughed in faint embarrassment, rubbing his nose, "Young miss…"
Gu Xiang looked like a small animal baring its sharp teeth at him. She then turned her head away in thoughts, poking the still asleep Zhang Chengling with the tip of her toes, "Do you believe him? That the man in black was the Hanged Ghost?"
Zhou Zishu hesitated. "…he must have meant the Hanged Ghost from the Ghosts of Qingzhu Ridge…"
Brief mockery colored Gu Xiang's gaze, "You truly know a lot. How many Hanged Ghosts do you think there are in this world, really?"
Zhou Zishu shook his head. He was about to reply when the pain on his chest attacked, so he had to pretend to be pondering carefully. He said after a while, "Legend has it that in Qingzhu Ridge of Mount Fengya there is a place called the Ghost Valley. In recent years, people guilty of horrible crimes in jianghu and have nowhere else to go have been seeking protection there. But once they enter the Valley, their humanity will be lost, all mortal grudges wiped from their mind. Surviving in the Valley is no easy feat either as one will end up near dead. All in all, the stories are pretty terrifying, so their enemies never speak of them. I heard that Xue Fang the Hanged Ghost used to be an infamous flower thief2 with a body count of twenty six young people — both males and females — including the closed disciple3 of E Mei Sect's leader. He was chased after by the six main sects and had no choice but hide in the Ghost Valley of Qingzhu."
Gu Xiang blinked, "Then do you think he's that disgusting Xue Fang?"
Zhou Zishu laughed. "Xue Fang has made a name for himself for thirty years, he's the evil of evils. How can he be easily defeated by a young one like you?"
Gu Xiang's anger was about to flare, but after thinking it over, she came to agree with him, nodding, "True, if it was really the Hanged Ghost that I killed then my ancestors are gonna claw out of their graves — but I have no parents, no idea where the family graves are, so they probably won't be able to come out. Which means that man is definitely not Hanged Ghost, right?"
Zhou Zishu saw no correlations between people resurrecting and the Hanged Ghost, but seeing the girl deeply pleased with her reasoning, he didn't have the heart to break it to her. The immense pain still persisted, so he went silent, leaning on one side to rest until morning.
The Nails would always raise hell after midnight, so he made sure to sleep early to gather enough strength when the torment hit. But his schedule was broken today and he was unable to go back to sleep; all he could do now was gritting his teeth and bearing it. The agony only subsided at the peek of sunrise from the east, but by then he felt like he was almost paralyzed.
He attempted to tune his breathing, but suddenly Gu Xiang — who was leaning on the Buddha's altar dozing off — woke with a start, pretty eyes scanning around. "Someone's here," she announced urgently.
Zhou Zishu frowned, he could hear it too. He wanted to stand but only staggered back down. Under Gu Xiang's look of surprise, he slowly supported himself up by grasping at the table, lowering his voice, "Just numb legs from sitting too long."
Gu Xiang's disbelief only deepened with the flimsy excuse.
Morning was when Zhou Zishu was at his weakest, and the quick mediation earlier didn't help much. But he didn't want to fight someone right now either, "Get the boy and hide."
"Hide? Hide where?" Gu Xiang looked at him with her big eyes.
Zhou Zishu was temporarily helpless.
They didn't get to do anything else as a group of well-trained people with their faces covered barged in through the window, glancing at a sleeping Zhang Chengling and charging forwards. Zhou Zishu, still leaned on the table, saw one with their sword aiming their attack at the young boy. No one saw how what happened as there was only a fleeting shadow; but then skinny fingers, in the same state of emaciation as the mask on Zhou Zishu's face, were already around the person's throat.
There wasn't even time to cry out before they spasmed and stopped breathing.
The cruel method got the attention of the rest of the group; they had no choice but to halt and take precautions against this sickly looking man who seemed like he couldn't even stand straight.
Gu Xiang secretly stuck her tongue out, jumping down from the incense table to stand behind Zhou Zishu.
He knew at first glance that those people only dressed to intimidate, they couldn't be expendable assassins with all this cautiousness. Had it been Tian Chuang, they would have never hesitated to put the mission first even when their friend's or their own life was on the line. They were definitely not those infamous Ghosts either; the Ghosts could never be this coordinated. Seemed like the Zhang family was specifically targeted.
He leisurely fixed his sleeves as if the rags he was wearing were his old robes hemmed with silver thread. Halfway through, feeling ridiculous himself, he stopped with a smile, "It's way too early to be attacking a defenseless child, isn't it? The least you can do first is say hi."
1 Usually the altar.
2 A slang used to call sex offenders.
2 The only disciple of a senior in a sect.