"The spiritual records of Ziwei are announced by the imperial supervisor, rendering it a sworn truth like the mountains and seas, abided by gods and ghosts and the likes. The warrior messenger will descend rapidly to the sacred altar. Once the great deeds are achieved and the virtue earned, the Supreme Pure One will be notified. Obey my order instantly!"
Inside a ward, Zhang Ziliang had just finished chanting a spell. As a yellow talisman burst into flame, white cloud rose up from the floor and a fog began to curl up, soon filling the entire room. Out of all the cloud and smoke, a blue hand suddenly reached out and pressed onto the top of the patient's head.
The hand and the head were so disproportionate that it reminded one of an adult's hand holding a raw egg—one light squeeze and the contents of the brain would be all over the floor.
One of the doctors who had been given the permission to witness the procedure could not help but let out a surprised cry, but instantly covered his mouth. Zhang Ziliang, on the other hand, was fully confident of what he was doing. Flipping his whisk, he shouted, "Go!"
The giant hand clenched as if it had caught something, then gave a sudden tug. With it, a wandering soul in the form of a streak of rolling smoke was dragged out.
The patient gave a shudder, then went rigid and motionless, as if all the soul had left the body, leaving behind an empty shell only.
Zhang Ziliang ordered again. The blue hand then gripped around the struggling and hissing ghost and squeezed tighter. "Pop!" The black smoke dissipated right away and faded into nothing.
He retrieved the warrior and flipped his whisk, throwing its hair casually over his left arm. His face was calm as a deep pool, looking exactly what a profound master should look like.
The dumbstruck doctor moved closer and stammered, "Is, is that patient all right? It's not life-threatening, is it?"
"He'll be fine. He is only exhausted of his vital energy and needs several months to recover."
"Oh, that's great!"
The doctor wiped away his sweat and was about to ask some more when a hubbub erupted in the corridor and was growing louder.
Frowning, Zhang Ziliang strode out of the ward right away. A priest from Qingyang Palace was probably not familiar with the ghost-catching procedure and had miss-operated in the process. Instead of successfully dispelling the ghost, it had grown more savage at the provocation and broke free.
"Aaaah! I'm gonna eat you! Eat you!"
Good god! An elderly woman with bloodshot eyes was chasing a priest, who was running in a great flurry and cut quite a sorry figure.
"How pathetic Qingyang Palace had become! Such a disgrace!"
Sneering, Zhang Ziliang took out an ancient bronze seal from his sleeve and chanted, "The primordial heaven and earth and the first ancestral Qi will fix the fate of all dead and living. No gods or ghosts shall withstand the power. Stop!"
At the last word, he tossed the ancient seal high into the air.
It was the size of a palm and the bottom was a square densely carved with Taoist patterns. The handle of the seal was in the shape of an imposing lion.
The seal rose into mid-air and slowly rotated so that the bottom of the seal was facing downwards. With that turn, the light ancient seal seemed to have grown heavier by a thousand tons, and smashed down in a whoosh as if being violently pulled down by gravity.
It knocked the elderly woman right on her crown. As if some button had been switched off, she stopped abruptly with vacant eyes and froze on the spot. A semi-visible energy was now rising out of her crown and dissipated.
It was several seconds later when she swayed and collapsed to the floor.
"She's fine as well. Take her to bed!"
Before the doctor could ask, Zhang Ziliang waved him off impatiently with those words.
That doctor and many other medical staff in the corridor were now eyeing him with utter admiration. This guy might be new around here, but he was spectacular. He visited the wards one by one and could annihilate a ghost in seconds, something which took a group of priests half a day to deal with.
If that was not awesome, what else was?!
That was the effect Zhang Ziliang had hoped for. Overawing the audience with his strength, he had opened this game at his own advantage. Fighting back his rampaging inner energy, he put the ancient seal back into his sleeve and did not let the internal turmoil show.
"Clap, clap, clap!"
"That was quite an eye-opener, I'll give you that!"
While Zhang Ziliang was not looking, Chao Kongtu had moved closer and was now standing behind him. He gave a few claps and chuckled. "You're kind of a snob, but I still have to thank you for all the help you gave us."
"Humph! These petty ghosts will probably cost your useless team a century to clear away!"
Despite his mockery, Zhang Ziliang had secretly raised his guard, for of all these priests in the hospital, this guy behind him was the only that he might have to think twice to provoke. However, should it really come to a fight, he was confident of defeating this guy.
While all of that was going through his head, Chao Kongtu was pondering something himself.
All sects specializing in talismans had some sort of method to dispel evil and catch ghosts. However, a thousand years were quite long a period and most of such sects had lost much of their inheritance.
Being the leading sect of Zhengyi, the Way of the Celestial Masters of course had its own methods as well. Unfortunately, there was a great gap in the inheritance of Longhu Mountain and they couldn't come up with anything worth showing off with.
As soon as Zhang Ziliang began his work, Chao Kongtu realized right away that the exiled branch had taken a fortune of treasures with them back then, especially that bronze seal.
If he guessed it right, that was an antique piece of the Ming Dynasty and a well-known piece recorded in the classics—the Mountain-dominating and Evil-killing Seal!
Tsk, tsk. He couldn't help but compare the man to Zhang Shouyang, whose advantage lay in his profound accumulation of skills and rigorous tradition of his sect. Zhang Ziliang, on the other hand, might not be as skillful, but would have a lot of help from all his little gadgets.
If it came down to an outright confrontation, the chance of his good friend Zhang Shouyang winning out did not seem promising.
Tangshan Hospital, the conference room.
Over a dozen people sat in the room, including Chao Kongtu, priests of various temples, Zhang Ziliang, and a few disciples of the Way of Celestial Masters from abroad. The group had obviously divided into two sides, who would not talk to the other one. It was very quiet.
A couple of minutes later, footsteps came from outside.
Three government officials entered the room and walked directly to the front table. After everyone took their seats, the apparent leader of the three said, "Sorry to keep you waiting, but something came up at the last minute and we were delayed. Please accept our apology."
If he were talking to a roomful of government personnel, claps would follow his first sentences. However, it was a group of Taoist priest he was talking to, who had no such habit. The official himself was aware of that and continued.
"What we have here is not a meeting, nor is it going to be a briefing from you. Instead, I will be the one making the report to you. Before we begin, on behalf of he government and the general public, we'd like to express our gratitude for your devoted hard work during this period. Thank you!"
With that, the three rose to their feet and bowed in unison.
All those present were visibly surprised and pleased by such honor.
It was true that cultivators should discard notions of fame and vanity, but the culture of valuing official rank and the ideology of the past decades were so overpowering that no one could stay unaffected. Some governments official as high-ranking as that had just bowed to them like they meant it and the priests could not help but feel satisfied!
"Now, let me tell you a bit more about the latest data." The leader sat back down and went on without a script, "Up until yesterday, a total of 1126 patients have been admitted to hospitals in all 36 provinces, over which 578 have died an accidental death, 469 were cured, and 79 remained hospitalized. Because of the unexpected nature of the event, we were short in our domestic force. After some discussion, we were given the permission to invite 42 masters from abroad to help with the issue.
Among those invited are the priests from the HK Islands, the masters from Myan, Laos, and Malaya, as well as Priest Zhang Ziliang, whose sect shares a long history with the Celestial Master Temple. Had it not been for your help without reservation in various provinces, we would have been in a much bigger trouble. I hereby thank you again…"
"Patients? Excuse me?"
Zhang Ziliang sneered at the term in silence. This country would never admit the existence of ghosts, for it would undermine the basic ideology of the ruling party. As clearly as they might know the truth, officially, they were still addressing these people as "patients".
The leader went on and on, basically thanking everyone for their work, promising rewards on the government's behalf, and wishing for a long-lasting friendship, blah, blah, blah.
Chao Kongtu was dozing off. He would rather be leathering up that soap for a day than slouching in a chair here listening to the official's crap for a minute.
Fortunately, it was not long before the man announced the end of the meeting.
Chao Kongtu took the lead to rush out of the room. Halfway towards the door, he happened to look back and saw that Zhang Ziliang and his disciples remained where they were and did not seem to want to leave at all.
Intuition told him that there had to be some covert deal behind this! Hence, when he was passing the threshold and no one was looking, he dropped a tiny object resembling a seed, then left the room.
After those priests left, there were only the officials and Zhang Ziliang's men in the room.
The two groups exchanged some looks and the atmosphere turned strange. Zhang Ziliang sat there in a relaxed posture and asked, "I have almost fulfilled my promise. How about the thing you promised me?"
"Haha, what's the rush? We will give you what you want when all the ghosts are cleared." The leader smiled.
"Humph! I trust that a government as grand as yours won't play tricks on us."
Zhang Ziliang looked the man in his eyes and named his demand one word at a time. "After this is done, I will challenge the Celestial Master Temple. I win, Longhu Mountain is mine!"
"Naturally. We will not interfere with your competition!"
That was all Zhang Ziliang was willing to say. He rose to his feet and began to leave the room.
At the door, he paused a little and flipped his long sleeve, wrapping something inside, then left.
A dozen of steps later, he raised the cuff to his lips and whispered, "Chao Kongtu, I don't care if you heard any of that. Like I said, sooner all later, I will get Longhu Mountain back and become the leader of Zhengyi!"
In another room, Chao Kongtu crushed a bowl in his palm. A half-burnt talisman was in the bowl, which was now a sticky black puddle on the floor.
"Ha! Zhang Ziliang and that authoritative tone! Very clever!"
He was so angry that he burst into a laughter and could not stop talking to himself.
He had found it very bizarre from the beginning: the foreign Way of the Celestial Masters used to stay as far as possible from the mainland one, why did they all of a sudden agree to help with catching ghosts? How high a reward were they offered?
He finally got the answer today. The reward was that in order to get rid of the ghosts as soon as possible and maintain the stability of the regime, the government was using the entire Way of Celestial Masters as a bargaining chip to lead a wolf into its own house!
It was probably the similar case with those masters from Siam and Myan, who were promised with permission to preach and set up religious facilities—those men were very well-off financially and were worshipped as gods back in their own countries. If not for that, why would they come all this way to help you?
Chao Kongtu exhaled a long breath and walked around in his room, the expression on his face hard to describe.
The Taoist community and the Maoshan Sect had been waiting for hundreds of years when this great opportunity finally arrived. And what happened after that? The entire elite force of the Taoist community were reared in Qiyun Monastery like pigs raised in captivity.
Who would willingly give in to that?
Lu Yuanqing was able to live with it because he had his own plan; Zhang Shouyang had lived with it for the status of the Longhu Mountain; Chao Kongtu himself was living with it for his Maoshan Sect.
However, his disposition differed greatly from the rest of his fellow Taoists and this incident had taken root in his mind like a seed, which began to sprout, tickling at a certain secret wish of his.
People often said that fate worked in the most strange way and a single thought could make all the difference.
It was just what happened to Chao Kongtu, who had heard the conversation between the two parties and the flag Zhang Ziliang triggered himself, but he had no idea of what happened after that.
When everyone else had left, one of the officials suddenly asked, "Sir, are we doing the right thing?"
"Oh? Why do you think we're not?" asked the leader rhetorically.
"Um, I just, don't quite understand the whole thing. Why did we have to invite a bunch of outsiders and promise them all the rewards? Wasn't that leading wolves into our own house?"
"Haha, I actually answered your questions just then." Seeing that no one else was around, the leader explained briefly, "The ghosts have shown up too unexpectedly and we are indeed short of staff. As many as over a thousand people were hospitalized in a few days. If we did not stabilize the situation soon enough, there was likely to be a massive panic among the general population. Have you forgotten SARS?"
"Of course not. How could I?"
The man shuddered at the the mentioning of that name. That epic epidemic over a decade ago still felt fresh in his memory.
"Therefore, we had to bring in the outsiders for help. That was the reality and we couldn't do anything about it. Those men are very prestigious people back in their own countries and would not be persuaded by usual financial incentives. Our country has vast land and ample resources, making it a treasured land for cultivators. With the promise of the permission to preach, they simply could not resist."
The leader paused a little before going on, "You really need not worry. All the promises we gave them was that they would have to find their own means. The government will not participate."
"Oh, I see!" The man was no fool and his tone became excited at the explanation. "Our own Taoist community is prominent enough that those from the tiny countries will never be able to match them. They will probably fail at the first round of challenge if they want to build a new base here. Plus, we can use the opportunity to give publicity to our own prestige…"
His voice trailed off on that topic as he said doubtfully, "Sir, that Zhang Ziliang seemed very capable to me. If there really is going to be a fight, the Celestial Master Temple may not be his match!"
"The Celestial Master Temple and Phoenix Mountain are friends," said the leader indifferently.
Ok, that concluded everything. The man had nothing else to say.
"Sigh, these are actually only the superficial reasons. The most important one still lies externally. The international conference this December will the be first time all countries face one another publicly. The western countries are the real colossus. Before we begin to deal with them, we need to settle our own backyard." The leader leaned back into his seat and said slowly, "As the ancient sage once said, be it an internal or external enemy, anyone tries to provoke us, we will welcome them with a blade!"
Goat City, a hospital.
A young woman slowly walked out of the building of "Unnatural Disease Control Center", accompanied by some doctors.
"Thank you so much! You're like my second parents that have given me a new life. I'd have died there if it weren't for you!"
The girl was of a rather vivacious character and talked in an exaggerated manner.
"Don't mention it. It was our duty."
They chatted for a bit more and the atmosphere was turning awkward, so they decided they should simply quicken their paces. When they were almost at the exit, the girl finally blurted out, "Doc, don't you have anything to tell me?"
"About what?" asked the doctor with a blank face.
"About that, that priest!" She instantly grew excited and began to gesticulate. "I was conscious then and saw him doing that magic. That ball of fire whooshed to me! I couldn't move, or I would have been running for my life! Damn! Could you at least tell me, was that a dream or some twisted fantasy of mine?"
The doctors broke into a laughter. "You have seen it, so it must be real. We won't tell you not to speak of it, don't worry."
"Are you saying I can post it on Facebook or instagram or wherever I want to?"
The girl was sent out of the hospital gate by the friendly yet affirmative goodbyes, still half dazed and with "what the hell" written all over her face. Before she could cross the road, something long and hard reached her mouth.
"Hello, my name is Cui Zhanbo. I'm a blogger. Do you have a minute? I'm very interested in this sudden breakout or a disease that has sent many people into the hospital."
"Sure! I've got all the time in the world!"
The girl's blinking eyes were flickering with excitement. It would be such a relief! It almost felt like after a week-long constipation, a sensation suddenly rose from the other end—there came a diarrhoea!