Shen Qiao grabbed Bona’s shoulders . The action seemed to calm her down a little .
“He’s awake? Did you go in and check?”
Bona nodded . “I heard some noise in that room today and went in to take a look . I was quite glad at first, seeing that he had opened his eyes, and was going to offer him something to eat . But he suddenly clutched my throat! I didn’t dare to call for help . I was afraid it would draw others over . Later…later he let go of me and fell down all of a sudden…”
Seeing that Shen Qiao was still heading in, she quickly stopped him . “You must be careful,” she said . “He’s crazy and doesn’t seem to recognize people . He almost choked me earlier . Look! The marks are still here!”
Shen Qiao hadn’t noticed them before she mentioned it . His eyes had long been completely damaged by the poison and he could no longer see clearly . Now as he looked closely under the moonlight, there were indeed five dark fingermarks on one side of her neck, a ghastly sight to behold .
Bona then rolled up her sleeves, and there were similar marks on her wrist too .
Shen Qiao felt terribly apologetic . He and Yan Wushi had already caused her enough trouble by staying here, yet now she was even injured . He said to Bona, “I am very sorry . There’s an ointment for bruising in that room . Let me get some for you . ”
Bona said cheerfully, “There’s no need . This kind of injury is nothing . I’ve had worse when travelling with Grandpa!”
Bona had locked Yan Wushi’s room from the outside earlier . She took out the key and handed it to Shen Qiao . “If he’s still crazy, you can just run out and lock him in!”
“Don’t worry . I know what I’m doing,” Shen Qiao comforted with a smile . While they were talking, he had already opened the door and walked in .
The houses beyond the northern borders weren’t as detailed as those in the Central Plains; they didn’t have screens in the center either . One could take in the entire room with one glance .
Bona couldn’t help but scream under her breath ——
That living corpse was sitting right there on the bed, staring at them .
“Sect Master Yan?” Shen Qiao asked .
The other person didn’t respond . Not only did he not speak, but he also didn’t blink . In fact, he looked utterly weird, almost like a puppet doll .
Bona whispered, “He wasn’t like this before…”
Shen Qiao nodded and approached step by step . Bona, scared but curious at the same time, followed after him, occasionally poking her head out for a glance .
“Sect Master Yan, can you hear me?”
Yan Wushi just stared at him, his eyes filled with nothing but Shen Qiao’s reflection .
“I’ll take your pulse . ” Shen Qiao picked up Yan Wushi’s wrist . The man still made no reaction . He let Shen Qiao handle him freely, although he was still staring at Shen Qiao . Whether Shen Qiao was bending over or straightening his back, Yan Wushi’s eyes never left him .
His pulse was so weak that it felt almost intermittent; the damaged organs hadn’t fully recovered yet, and there was another strand of chaotic qi running all over his body —— the situation really didn’t seem very promising .
Shen Qiao remembered that Yan Wushi once told him that there was a flaw in the Demonic Core in the Fundamentals of Phoenix-Qilin . The more skilled one became, the more evident its impact was on the body . In the end, it would completely stagnate the practitioner’s martial power and even affect their lifespan .
Since Guang Lingsan was also a member and leader of a demonic sect, he must have discovered the flaw too . During their last siege against Yan Wushi, he first used music to divert Yan Wushi’s attention, then tore the weak point apart while the others attacked, thus aggravating the damage it dealt .
It could be said that without Guang Lingsan’s help, even if Yan Wushi could not defeat the other four, he would at least have no problem escaping . However, the existence of such an enemy who knew him too well became the root cause of Yan Wushi’s crushing defeat .
Yan Wushi was now awake, but the flaw did not disappear or heal because of it . On the contrary, it had gradually expanded to his viscera and major meridians . In other words, whether he woke up or not made no real difference .
Just as Shen Qiao wrinkled his brows in concentration, Yan Wushi suddenly smiled at him .
The smile was different from those vague, ambiguous half-smiles he had before, nor did it carry any taunt, sneer, or that unparalleled arrogance —— it was just a smile, like he was looking at not Shen Qiao but a beautiful flower .
Shen Qiao: “…”
The smile did not bring Shen Qiao joy . Rather, it looked indescribably creepy and horrifying .
Bona was also scared . She stuttered, “He…what…what happened to him? He wasn’t like this during the day!”
Shen Qiao looked back and asked her, “What was he like during the day? Did he do anything other than clutch your neck? Did he speak?”
Bona shook her head . “No . He was very ferocious at that time . But now…now…”
Her Chinese wasn’t fluent . After a long period of mulling, she finally found the word: “But now he’s very meek . ”
Everyone would agree that “meek” was such a comical term to be used on Yan Wushi . Even Shen Qiao found it a bit funny, or even slightly ridiculous, but he couldn’t say anything to refute .
Because Yan Wushi was indeed very meek at the moment .
Except for smiling at Shen Qiao, he did nothing .
Shen Qiao took out the ointment and gave it to Bona . “It’s late already . You should go rest . You’ve really done a lot of work today and must be tired . Apply this ointment on your bruises, and they should disappear tomorrow . ”
Bona suggested, “How about you sleep in my grandpa’s room? What if he goes crazy again at night?”
Shen Qiao shook his head and assured her, “It’s fine . ”
He refused to say anything more, so Bona had no choice but to leave reluctantly, looking back three times after each step .
After Shen Qiao sent Bona away, it finally occurred to him that they hadn’t lit up the candle for the room yet . It was all because of the bright moonlight tonight: as the silver beams poured in through the window, Shen Qiao didn’t even realize that they were missing something .
He walked over to light the lamp . As soon as he turned around, someone suddenly threw their arms around his waist .
Shen Qiao was slightly startled . Before he could push the hands away, he heard a muffled, intermittent voice behind him, “Don’t…go…”
Every syllable and word was squeezed out with great effort, as if the person’s tongue was stiff . In fact, Shen Qiao wouldn’t even have understood him if the two weren’t so close .
Shen Qiao believed that Bona wasn’t lying, which meant Yan Wushi’s current situation was somewhat unusual .
But, whether the other person was truly insane or just pretending it, what did it have to do with him?
Shen Qiao flicked a finger, and the other person uncontrollably let go of their hands . He walked over to the window, lit the candle, then turned around .
Shen Qiao wasn’t able to finish the name, because he saw the other person’s flustered, frightened eyes . As if he was afraid that Shen Qiao would leave like this, he struggled desperately to get up and walk over, but because his limbs were still weak, he almost tumbled to the ground .
Shen Qiao watched him fall down . His hand, which was reaching halfway out, paused in the air and never made it through .
“Are you alright?” Shen Qiao asked .
“Don’t…go…” Yan Wushi only repeated the sentence over and over .
Shen Qiao stood there and watched for a long time . Then, with a soft sigh, he went over and raised the man .
“Do you still remember your name and who you are?” he asked .
Yan Wushi looked confused . He didn’t answer, but smiled gently at Shen Qiao once again .
Shen Qiao felt the top of Yan Wushi’s head with his hand . The fissure was still there, so presumably the inside of Yan Wushi’s head was still injured . It was not clear how deep the crack ran . He couldn’t just open the other person’s skull to see what was going on in there, so he couldn’t tell how bad the wound was, nor whether Yan Wushi had indeed become an idiot .
“I am Shen Qiao . You should have some impression of me, I assume?”
Yan Wushi repeated, “Shen…Qiao…”
“Your name is Yan Wushi . ”
Yan Wushi didn’t say anything, as if he was still digesting what Shen Qiao just said . After a long time, he finally answered, “Um…Shen…Qiao…”
Shen Qiao smiled, “If I was the one who fell to the ground, you certainly would not come over to help me . Instead, you would stand there and see how long it would take me to struggle to my feet . Do you not agree?”
That perplexed expression once again clambered up Yan Wushi’s face, as if he couldn’t understand what Shen Qiao was talking about .
Shen Qiao heaved a soft sigh and gently unclenched Yan Wushi’s hand .
“Your injury is too serious to recover in just a couple of days . I’ll bring you back to Chang’an once things out there quiet down a little . Rest for now, and everything else can wait till tomorrow . ”
Before Yan Wushi said anything, Shen Qiao walked over and sat down cross-legged on the felt blanket on the side . Then, closing his eyes, he started meditating .
Considering Yan Wushi’s current state, even when Shen Qiao was training his martial power through meditation, he didn’t dare to bring all of his senses and heart with him into that state in which he would become one with nature . He left a part of his consciousness outside to watch for what happened around him .
The night soon passed . A bright glow emerged on the east horizon .
Shen Qiao’s inner qi, guided by himself, circulated through the meridians in his body . At the completion of every round, the qi would accumulate in his Dantian, then multiply, giving birth to even more qi . The process repeated itself in endless cycles, until the three energies —— the essence, the qi, and the spirit —— finally gathered in his head, making him glow with radiating liveliness, as if he had entered a higher realm too wonderful for words .
He could see each of the meridians in his body slowly unfold . Those previously clogged vessels were now clear and open . The warm inner qi cleansed all the residual stains in them . His foundation, after all the mending and rebuilding, was even more stable than before . Even when he burned out himself and rushed into a fight with others in spite of the gaps between their strength, he only felt a short period of discomfort afterwards . His qi and blood churned, boiled inside him, but he didn’t spit out blood easily like before .
With every loss there came something good . Maybe his eyes would never recover completely, and he might never see things clearly like before, but Shen Qiao never regretted what happened . The past was the past, and people should always look forward . If he hadn’t been poisoned with Quietus and fallen off Half-Step Peak, perhaps he would’ve never discovered the real secret behind The Strategy of the Vermilion Yang . Then the progress of his martial arts would have stopped there for the rest of his life .
At this moment, Shen Qiao seemed to have broken free from the shell of his physical body, and his mind was now travelling in the boundless expanse of the primeval chaos . The countless stars in the sky, every manifestation of nature in the world below, the land which now looked like a chessboard, all the mountains, the rivers, the plants, the trees, the wind, the moon —— each and every one of them looked so distinguishable, so fine and complete .
It was as if he was the only one who ever existed since the birth of time .
There was something formless and perfect,
born before Heaven and Earth .
It is serene . Empty .
Solitary . Unchanging .
Infinite . And eternally present . 1
It is formless . It is natural . It is found in the subtlest . It starts from the spaceless . It is in everything .
This was Dao!
At that instant, everything became crystal clear before Shen Qiao’s eyes . He seemed to see a sparkling, translucent Daoist Heart, the representation of nature’s finest work, rotating, shifting not far from him . But before he could walk over and touch it, he heard a voice from an unknown space in the far distance .
“Shen Qiao . ”
He slightly jolted, and darkness suddenly closed in . All those splendors turned into nothingness like a tall platform collapsing down, shattering into pieces .
Shen Qiao suddenly spouted a mouthful of blood!
He slowly opened his eyes .
Yan Wushi was sitting on the bed with his back against the wall, his disheveled hair hanging loosely . He was still staring at Shen Qiao, but his expression was different from the one last night .
That was too careless of me, Shen Qiao thought to himself with a bitter smile . He wiped the blood next to his lips .
He had spared a part of his consciousness to take care of the outside, but because of the sudden enlightenment, he had completely lost himself in that realm without realizing it .
“Sect Master Yan, how do you feel?”
“You…really surprised me,” Yan Wushi said . He looked exhausted, but he was no longer perplexed like last night . The one who smiled gently at Shen Qiao, who held tightly onto Shen Qiao and refused to let him go, flashed like a night-blooming cactus and disappeared together with the night .
But Shen Qiao, who had been on tenterhooks all this time, actually felt relieved . Cold, heartless, looking down on everyone else —— this was the Yan Wushi that he knew .
“I thought Sang Jingxing would destroy you…” Yan Wushi spoke very slowly, and his voice sounded pale probably due to his injury . After he woke up, he didn’t ask about his own situation but rather slowly started talking about Shen Qiao .
Shen Qiao replied flatly, “I’m sorry . It must be such a disappointment for Sect Master Yan to see that I’m still alive and kicking . ”
Yan Wushi pulled the corner of his mouth . “No . I wasn’t…disappointed… I was…pleasantly surprised . You…destroyed…the Demonic Heart…I planted in you, didn’t you?”
Shen Qiao looked back at him, “You should know that I had no way to fight against Sang Jingxing back then . The only option I had was to destroy my own foundation and martial arts in order to take him down with me . ”
Yan Wushi nodded, “Yes . It was your…only choice . ”
“Yan Wushi, I know you want to destroy me . You believe that there is no kindness in this world, that a softhearted person like me has no reason to exist . You want to open my eyes and show me the cruelty of human hearts, to make me sink and struggle in hell until I finally become a part of it . ”
A trace of a smile appeared at the corner of Yan Wushi’s mouth . Slowly, he continued, pausing after each word, “But, I didn’t expect…that you could rise up once again…even in that kind of extreme desperation . ”
Shen Qiao closed his eyes, then opened them again . Those little waves that were in his eyes a moment ago had completely disappeared, leaving nothing but tranquility behind . “I would be dead if it were not for the sake of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang . Your hypothesis is correct . The book can indeed rebuild a person’s foundation . In order words, it has the ability to bring one back to life, and is deserved to be called the most wondrous book ever . However, the precondition is that you are willing to destroy everything you have learned in the past dozens of years . You’re deeply wounded, but your Demonic Core did not break . In order to learn The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang, you have to break the core just like what I experienced . ”
But Yan Wushi only gazed at him and made no comments to his words . Instead, he asked, “Were you in a lot of pain at that time?”
It was like someone was tempering his bones and smelting his tendons, like someone was skinning him alive and slicing off his flesh, and like he had trudged through all eighteen layers of hell .
However, Shen Qiao didn’t want to think about that experience anymore . Instead of the physical pain, it reminded him more of the abbot and Chuyi from the White Dragon Monastery, of their tragic deaths, along with those presumptuous and wishful thinkings he once held . Little did he know that a heart of stone could never be warmed, and the person he regarded as a friend only saw him as an object for an experiment .
Shen Qiao suppressed all those emotions and said steadily, “When I went to the royal capital yesterday, Dou Yanshan and the others were still there . We need to wait a few more days until those pugilists are gone before I can take you back to Chang’an . ”
Yan Wushi only shook his head . Even this simple action appeared to be extremely taxing for him . “It is too late…”
What was too late? Shen Qiao wanted to ask, but he saw Yan Wushi had already closed his eyes and stopped moving .
His heart tightened . He quickly stepped forwards to feel Yan Wushi’s breath .
The person was still breathing— — he had just fallen into a deep slumber .
But his pulse appeared to be even more chaotic than before: if one were to make an analogy between inner qi and a human, it would be like having dozens of people fighting inside his body .
Shen Qiao tried to transfuse a small amount of inner qi to the other person, but it soon refluxed . Even those tumultuous streams inside Yan Wushi flooded truculently towards him . Shen Qiao had no choice but to withdraw at once .
Yan Wushi slept all the way past noon .
The old man still hadn’t returned . According to Bona, some traveling merchants hired him as their guide yesterday, and he wouldn’t be back for several days . This wasn’t the first time . To the west of this village was the endless Gobi Desert, and the path through it was long and difficult to discern . It was not uncommon for people to stray deep into the sands and never return again . But the locals were familiar with the roads and knew how to get out of the desert .
The bruises on Bona’s neck and wrist had almost healed . Shen Qiao talked to her for a while, then she went off to take the sheep out for a graze while Shen Qiao returned to his yard with the lamb soup Bona just made .
When he came back, Yan Wushi’s eyelashes trembled . He was about to wake up .
Shen Qiao divided the soup into two bowls . He was waiting for Yan Wushi to wake up before asking the other person about those words he said prior to passing out .
Yan Wushi opened his eyes . He stared into the muslin canopy above him with a misty gaze .
Shen Qiao asked, “Do you feel any discomfort? I just took your pulse, and there are several strands of inner qi in your body…”
Yan Wushi said, “Pretty . Brother . ”
Shen Qiao: “…”
An awkward silence spread inside the room . Even the continuous stream of the savoury smell from the lamb soup seemed to mock Shen Qiao’s loss of speech .
Yan Wushi said, “Me . Hurt . ”
It sounded nothing like the Yan Wushi that Shen Qiao knew, but more like someone else had occupied and was speaking through Yan Wushi’s body . Shen Qiao stared hard at him, almost suspecting that the sect leader of the Cleansing Moon Sect had been possessed .
Shen Qiao tried to compose himself . “What happened to you?”
“Hurt…” Yan Wushi said, staring at him . There was a slightly hurt expression in his eyes, as if he was accusing Shen Qiao for standing over there and not coming over .
In his thirty years of life, Shen Qiao had experienced all sorts of difficulties and setbacks, but not once did he feel as lost at what to do as he was now .
Was Yan Wushi playing the victim?
No, that was impossible . The reaction he had before falling asleep would be more in line with his character .
Shen Qiao suddenly remembered that gentle, harmless smile Yan Wushi had last night .
But this was somewhat different .
“Do you still remember your name?”
Yan Wushi blinked . The expression made Shen Qiao’s mouth twitch .
“I am…Xie Ling…”
Suddenly, Shen Qiao remembered Kunye once told him that Yan Wushi was a descendant of a clan from the previous dynasty . His original family name was Xie . The reason he had come to the Coiling Dragon Fair was to retrieve one of his mother’s belongings .
Even as he thought of it, Shen Qiao still found it quite hard to believe .
He frowned and fell into silent contemplation .
The lamb soup was getting cold, its surface now glazed with a layer of oil .
Yan Wushi’s eyes wandered back and forth between the soup and Shen Qiao . He said hesitantly, “I’m hungry…”
Prior to this moment, Shen Qiao could never imagine Yan Wushi —— even in the latter’s most stranded, disgraceful state —— looking at him with puppy eyes and a face full of bewilderment, saying, “I’m hungry . ”
Even when the other person was all unrepentant and sarcastic like before, Shen Qiao only thought it was normal, because that was what Yan Wushi was like .
But why did he, out of everything, become like this?
He couldn’t help rubbing his temples, finding the situation an absolute headache to deal with .
“Except for the name Xie Ling, what else do you remember?”
Yan Wushi’s hands were still too weak to hold the bowl steadily, so Shen Qiao had to feed him spoon by spoon .
“Do you remember the name Yan Wushi?”
Yan Wushi shook his head with a genuinely puzzled face .
Shen Qiao couldn’t help wanting to sigh again . “Nothing at all?”
Combining Bona’s testimonies together with Yan Wushi’s behaviors before and after his several wakings, Shen Qiao somehow grasped some clues .
In a nutshell, the reasons for the huge changes in Yan Wushi’s disposition might lie in the qi disorder and the head injury .
He was asleep longer than he was awake, but almost every time he woke up, he would assume a different kind of behavior . Sometimes, it was a temperament forged by fragmented memories; sometimes he was normal like before; sometimes he was like what Bona had described, frantic and cruel and completely out of control .
But Shen Qiao was not a doctor . That was all he could think of . As for how to make Yan Wushi return to normal, he had not even the slightest idea .
Neither did he know if Yan Wushi would show more dispositions besides the ones he had already displayed .
“I remember…” Yan Wushi licked his lips after finishing an entire bowl of lamb soup .
“What?” Shen Qiao was planning to get up . He looked back at Yan Wushi after hearing him speak .
“When I was sleeping . You kissed me…It tasted like lamb soup, too . ”
Shen Qiao: “…”
Shen Qiao, who was always extremely good-tempered, suddenly felt the urge to dump the other bowl of soup in his hand on Yan Wushi’s head .
Yan Wushi seemed to have sensed Shen Qiao’s mood . He couldn’t help but shrink back, staring back at Shen Qiao with that puppy dog face again .
Pressing his forehead in despair, Shen Qiao silently looked to the Mighty Heavens .
1 . Edited based on Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Tao Te Ching .