That day, young master Yan didn’t even come out of his room to take his meals—if those meals could even be called human food.
He sullenly grabbed some desserts, and struggled to fall asleep in the evening.
Though the Taoist children had cleaned his room many times, Yan Zhengming still thought that the quilt stank and that the hard bed was uncomfortable. The room was muggy and suffocating, and no matter which incense Yan Zhengming burnt it couldn’t drive away his sullenness.
In short, this damnably shabby place made young master Yan question his entire life. No longer able to contain himself, he rose up from the bed, preparing to bother his master on the principle that if he was unhappy, he’d make other people unhappy too.
Leaving the Taoist children behind, Yan Zhengming stormed around the inn like a headless chicken.
Because the inn was too shabby and the shopkeeper looked like a bandit, nobody other than them had put up in this inn. As he passed by the empty yard and the many vacant thatched cottages which looked like haunted houses, Yan Zhengming found his poor master in the innermost one.
But after spotting Muchun Zhenren sitting with the shopkeeper, Wen Ya, he didn’t rush forward.
It was one thing to trouble master when he was alone, but Yan Zhengming didn’t want to humiliate him in other people’s presence.
However, as Yan Zhengming had gone through the trouble of finding him, he was unwilling to just go back. Young Master Yan dithered for a while before he reached into his pocket and took out a cicada’s wing.
Needless to say, this thing was made by Li Yun. There were five holes on the cicada’s wing so that after threading a line through the holes it could be worn on the neck. To a certain degree, this wing could impede other people’s senses so as to conceal the user’s existence.
Yet surely just what sophisticated toys was Li Yun capable of making? There was a limit to the wing’s function. It would have an assured effect if the wearer were standing far enough and was sufficiently careful, but functions like vanishing the wearer or making the wearer completely invisible were impracticable.
After rebuking Han Yuan for using it to steal a bird’s eggs,Yan Zhengming had taken this convenient tool for his own.
Yan Zhengming rounded to the other side of the cottage and climbed over the fence of the broken yard. He hid behind the cottage, waiting to jump in and argue with his master as soon as Wen Ya left.
Yan Zhengming had maintained his swordplay practice all year round, so he was more dextrous than a normal person despite not working all that hard. And under the cover of the cicada’s wing, he successfully managed to not disturb the two Taoists.
Yan Zhengming found a place to sit down so that he could wait for his master to send the guest away, and so that Yan Zhengming could finally complain to him.
Right at this moment, their conversation travelled into Yan Zhengming’s ears.
Wen Ya said, “I had a vision last year. I was wondering what it was about, and now you tell me it’s the Heavenly Monster. The birth of the Heavenly Monster, the rage of the Monster King, and the rebellion of those monsters—they must have resulted in a bloodbath in the Demon Valley. If HE had failed to put down the revolt and take the egg out… A Heavenly Monster born in blood… Tsk, it would have been more than a disaster for only Fuyao Mountain—speaking of which, where’s the Heavenly Monster? Did it hatch?”
Muchun Zhenren calmly answered, “It hatched and it’s right here in your inn. I’ll have to see her in a moment, lest she piss on your bed.”
Wen Ya: “…”
Presently Muchun Zhenren
spoke again in a sterner voice when Wen Ya was distracted. Yan Zhengming could even hear that his volume lowered. “Do you know who that demonic cultivator with the title of Beiming was? And what connection did he have with our sect? Why was he willing to save our sect at the cost of one of his spiritual souls?”
Wen Ya: “Didn’t he tell you?”
Muchun Zhenren sighed. “Even though he is a strong demonic cultivator, sacrificing one’s soul would inflict serious damage on anyone. I haven’t seen him since that day.”
Hearing that, Wen Ya pondered before he said, “He asked me to hand THAT over to you and claimed to be a deserted disciple of Fuyao Sect. I thought you knew him.”
Muchun Zhenren said, “There have been many betrayers since the establishment of our sect. I even know the backgrounds of two lord Beimings, and there are yet many others who have kept their identities hidden… After all these years, how could I know who he is?”
“He hasn’t shown ill intentions, at least,” said Wenya. “It’d be better for you to think about how to deal with your old friend rather than worrying about a fragmented soul.”
Wen Ya deliberately lowered his voice on “old friend”, which sounded gloomy and deep with a strong foreboding, the sound conveying this big man’s fear.
Yan Zhengming was shocked.
When Muchun Zhenren remained silent for what seemed like ages, Yan Zhengming unconsciously straightened and craned his neck closer.
Finally, Master spoke.
“Brother Wen Ya,” said Muchun Zhenren calmly. “If I… please take care of these kids for me.”
Wait, what did that mean?
Yan Zhengming had spent all the intelligence he’d gained from the last sixteen years on this moment. He even forgot he was eavesdropping. His mind was racing with bated breath.
Wen Ya laughed mockingly. But Yan Zhengming didn’t know who exactly he was mocking.
“Come on. I’m just a nobody; how can I shoulder such a responsibility?” said Wen Ya. “What a place your Fuyao Mountain is! There’s always an evil cultivator in every generation. How could a nonentity like me take control of it? And also, haven’t you got a blockhead who was willing to carve charms onto his own soul to defuse the disaster for you? You may as well ask him for help,” said Wen Ya.
Muchun Zhenren knew what he meant, so he switched the subject tactfully.
They started chit-chatting faux-sprightly. The two middle-aged men spouted off like a gushing river about all the trifling stories in the cultivation world from the past 500 years.
When numbness struck Yan Zhengming’s legs, he was sure that he couldn’t obtain any more useful information. He only then cautiously stood up and slipped away.
In the hot June which seemed like a heated stove, his palms were all cold and sweaty.
Yan Zhengming left his master’s cottage and went straight to Cheng Qian’s place. It was already late in the night and Cheng Qian had already gone to bed. But now he was forcibly pulled out of his quilt by Yan Zhengming.
Being woken up from sleep for no reason, Cheng Qian glowered at Yan Zhengming, thinking of picking a fight with him.
Yan Zhengming, however, didn’t look at him at all. He picked up the clothes at the side of the bed and threw them at Cheng Qian’s face, solemnly ordering him, “Put on your clothes and come with me.”
His forehead knotting with a frown, Yan Zhengming paced around Cheng Qian’s room anxiously. He was so distracted that he neither noticed that the clothes at Cheng Qian’s bedside had already been worn by him today, nor found fault with the pickle-like wrinkles on Cheng Qian’s belt. He just kept urging Cheng Qian with a heavy heart.
From this detail, Cheng Qian determined that Yan Zhengming had something to say—something that, in Yan Zhengming’s eyes at least, was serious. He hastily put on an outer robe but before he could comb his hair, Yan Zhengming dragged him away towards Li Yun’s and Han Yuan’s places with his hair still in disarray.
However, they didn’t find Han Yuan. Ever since they gone down the mountain, that boy had been running around like a wild horse. At this moment, he was probably strolling somewhere around town.
Li Yun was still awake and working hard under the light of an oil lamp. Seeing the two coming together, he was quite surprised. But when his eyes fell upon the cicada’s wing on Yan Zhengming’s neck, he asked with a little doubt, “First Senior Brother… have you just eavesdropped?”
Yan Zhengming gave up looking for Han Yuan. He sat down in Li Yun’s room and absentmindedly told his junior brothers what he had just heard from Master while repeatedly wiping a porcelain teacup from the inside to the outside.
Cheng Qian exchanged a glance with Li Yun, took the porcelain teacup whose glaze was almost wiped out by Yan Zhengming, and poured a cup of cold tea which seemed to have been in the teapot for days. Yan Zhengming unconsciously picked it up and drank from it.
Frowning, Li Yun asked, “First Senior Brother, is it that… you know the ‘old friend’?”
Li Yun actually had a subtle mind; he was just too fond of heretical tricks, and lacked concentration. After contemplating the tea in the cup for a while, Yan Zhengming nodded. “Yes.”
“As I thought, it must be a demonic cultivator,” said Cheng Qian confirmed.
Yan Zhengming: “How do you know that?”
In fact, Cheng Qian had already thought it was strange—after listening to Master several more times while reading scriptures, he noticed that even though Master often talked nonsense, and even though contradictions existed in the different schools’ scriptures, one concept that ran through every theory was that “the great Tao is shapeless and conforms to the course of nature.”
Since it is shapeless, there is no right or wrong to it. All creatures reach the same goal by different routes. After his initiation, Cheng Qian had never heard any bad words about demonic or monster cultivators from his master.
Instead, it was the good-for-nothing first senior brother who bitterly abhorred them.
Cheng Qian: “When second senior brother talked about demonic cultivators last year in the Demon Valley, you shouted him down. That’s when I started to I feel that… first senior brother seemed to particularly ostracize Diabolism.”
Yan Zhengming waved his hand. “I was just afraid that he would misguide you.”
“Oh. Seems like you’re not afraid you’ll misguide us by sleeping in every morning class,” said Cheng Qian without blinking an eye.
Yan Zhengming: “…”
This bastard did have a sharp tongue!
Yan Zhengming rolled his eyes at Cheng Qian. After a period of silence, he said slowly, “I probably didn’t tell you how I met master. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I had thrown a tantrum because of some matter which I don’t remember now. I was very angry back then so I ran away, and after leaving my retainers’ sight, I was abducted.”
As the saying goes, as the boy is, so is the man. That was definitely something first senior brother would have done.
“It was a man that abducted me, a pretty handsome man. But he looked like he was desperately sick with a dead atmosphere,” said Yan Zhengming as he recalled. “He took us to a deserted Taoist temple.”
Cheng Qian blinked his eyes. “Us?”
“Us,” Yan Zhengming said. “There were 4 or 5 kids that were nearly the same age as me, but only one girl, the rest were all boys. That man was a demonic cultivator. I saw him seize the girl by her neck and pull out her three spiritual souls and seven corporal souls from her forehead instead of killing her directly. What was surprising was, after all that, the girl was still breathing and her heart was jumping even though her body was just an empty container. She struggled at death’s door for seven or eight days before she finally died. That was… my first time seeing someone die.”
That Yan Zhengming could still look back on every detail of that memory after nearly ten years proved how deeply it had been imprinted in his mind.
Li Yun was flabbergasted. “Why would that demonic cultivator kill kids?”
“He tossed the girl’s souls into a lamp with stinky kerosene. The flame flared up and never died out. Next it came to our turn. But he didn’t kill us directly either. He took blood from us every day and poured it into the kerosene. Except for the feeling of wanting to throw up, we didn’t feel anything terrible at first. But young children don’t have a lot of blood. Just a few days later, some kids couldn’t hold out and died.”
As Yan Zhengming retold the account, Cheng Qian found it more and more familiar to the ear. He blurted out, “Is that a Soul-Consuming Lamp…”
Li Yun: “What?”
Yan Zhengming suddenly changed into a serious look. “How do you know that?”
Cheng Qian: “I’ve read about it in the Library. Soul-Consuming Lamp could refine souls. The lowest class uses girl’s souls as a wick and uses refined corpse oil with boy’s blood as kerosene. After being burnt for 49 days, the girl’s souls would be refined into a ghost shadow. This is a certain type of diabolism called ghostism.”
Yan Zhengming shot his hand out and gripped Cheng Qian’s wrist. Stern in both voice and countenance, he said, “Cheng Qian, I opened the gate just for you to see how to bleed others and refine their souls!?”
That didn’t terrify Cheng Qian. He said with perfect assurance, “It’s not forbidden by master anyway. There are numerous different kinds of diabolism, I just browsed over a few.”
“Enough.” Li Yun was very clever. Seeing that they had strayed off topic, he immediately pulled the conversation back to its path. “First Senior Brother, please continue. What happened to the homicidal demonic cultivator later? Did master save you, and so you became his apprentice?”
Yan Zhengming shot a fierce stare at Cheng Qian. “Master did save me, but that’s not the point…”
On that point, Yan Zhengming involuntarily paused. “Master is acquainted with that demonic cultivator. I heard Master address him as ‘Senior Brother’.”