Chapter 1. Tian Chuang
[Warning: mild gore.]
Plum blossoms flourished in the courtyard, falling everywhere on the ground, on the snow that was yet to melt, blending together at first glance. The petals were blown around the yard leisurely by the wind.
Dusk fell like a curtain, and on the eaves the moon was as cold as water.
At the far back of the small courtyard, half hidden by the plum blossom tree was a corner gate, looking like it had been there for a long time. Guarded by two well-built men steeled in armors and weapons, inside the door was a distinctly large space. The veranda was narrow and cramped, towering over a stone-paved path which led into a pitch-black prison. The atmosphere was somber and heavy with the stench of death.
The faint smell of the blossoms was seemingly cut off by the door, unable to reach this place at all.
More guards inside with various weapons stood stock still; the bars of the cells they were protecting as thick as a grown man’s arm.
Following the dark, narrow path further inside the prison would be met with three large stone doors with mechanisms inside, each carefully guarded. Behind those doors was completely devoid of mortal life, as if the long path leading here had been the road to the underworld full of wronged souls, lit up by flickering lights that looked like will-o’-wisps.
In the cell at the end of the prison, there was a low male voice saying something, followed by a short silence and ostensibly a tired sigh.
Suddenly, a piercing scream cut through the pitch darkness in the prison, dimming the light for a split second. The scream was terribly ear-splitting, like that of a dying animal, giving any human soul the chills.
One of the two guards outside with their back towards the cell seemed to be fresh blood with his young, inexperienced expressions. He could not help but shiver after hearing the scream, but a glance at his companion showed the other playing deaf, standing as straight as a mountain; so he too recomposed and looked down.
But that scream just got shriller and went on longer, the person kept screaming until their voice gave out and their breath became short, and eventually the scream became moans and sobs, further evidence of their misery.
The newcomer felt continuous goosebumps on his body.
After about an hour, the sound finally died down. A short time passed by until a middle-aged man was dragged out by two people, looking half dead. His arms were bare, head lolled to one side, hair sweat-soaked, lips bitten raw, blood foaming at the corner of his mouth, no visible injuries save for the seven major acupuncture points on his stomach and chest, which were stabbed into by deep crimson nails. It looked like a horrifying map.
The young guard couldn’t help but follow the man with his eyes until he disappeared behind a stone door.
At that moment, someone behind him said, “Do you have regrets now, having seen that?”
He visibly shook with fear, turning back to see a man in turquoise robes silently appearing behind him for heavens knew how long. The other guard had already knelt, so he quickly followed suit, “My lord.”
The man in robes seemed to be in his late twenties, carrying himself with a scholarly grace, but there were traces of sickness on his complexion. His face was sharp, eyes bright, thick eyelashes seemingly hiding half of his face when he looked down, which was a common habit. The rare times the man looked up, a chilling cold in his eyes could be seen. The addition of an elegance slope of nose and a contemptuous curl of lips was a treacherous touch to his handsome look.
The man looked at the younger after noticing the honorifics, smiling gently, “You must be new?”
The young man nodded. “Yes, my lord.”
He was then patted twice on the shoulder, “Then you must remember never to call me that from now on, the title is no longer mine. Simply call me Sir Zhou next time.”
The young man looked up quickly then down again with respect. “Yes, Sir Zhou.”
He nodded, waving his arms, “You two can leave, I want some space for myself.”
The two guards obeyed and walked out side by side. The younger one sill could not help but look back for a second to see the robed man leaning on the doorframe, his eyes gazing at something in the air but also nothing at the same time. Somehow he thought the man looked like he wanted to leave for somewhere really far away.
After the first iron door was let down, the old guard beside him suddenly spoke in a low voice, “Having seen Sir all amiable and gracious and scholarly, will you believe that he’s the one who put the ‘Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns’ into Old Bi?”
The younger looked at him in shock, and the white-haired old man sighed: “There’re still a lot you don’t understand. If you enter ‘Tian Chuang’ there’s no way out, escape will only result in either death or being completely disabled.”
By Year 4 under the Rong Jia reign of Da Qing, just by hearing the name ‘Tian Chuang’ could make the whole court quiver in fear.
An organization of intelligence gatherers and assassins loyal only to the Emperor, there was no information of their numbers or whereabouts – no doubt their power could extend to the end of the earth. Tian Chuang was formed by Emperor He Lianyi of House Rong back when he was the Crown Prince, and by now it was already fully structured and strictly regulated.
And the first ever leader of Tian Chuang was the man in the turquoise robes, former Lord of Si Ji Holdings: “Sir Zhou” Zhou Zishu.
There were no secrets in Tian Chuang whether it was about court business or peasant problems; therefore one of its rules was that if a person could still talk, they could not leave the organization unless they were dead or asked for the Nails themselves.
The “Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns” punishment meant that the person would be stabbed by poisonous nails into the seven most important acupuncture points on their upper body by internal force, blocking their Eight Meridians, crippling their martial art skills and their ability to speak or move; after three years, the poison would fully spread into their viscera and they would kick the bucket.
They would live their lives without purpose in those three years, and the experience made it worse than death itself.
But even then, there were still some voluntarily wanting to be put in near coma just to leave Tian Chuang.
Those three years for them were the greatest favor.
After dismissing everyone, Zhou Zishu returned to the small cell, closing the door, hands behind his back, pacing around in deep thoughts for a while. Then he stopped at a corner of the room, taking out a small box with the Nails inside. Those terrifying tiny things carried a grim aroma not unlike plum blossoms. Zhou Zishu inhaled deeply, then undid his robes.
He looked relatively well-built, but once the robes were removed, a shriveled body came into view, like something had drained life completely out of it. On his haggard frame were six Nails already being put in for apparently a long time ago, having almost become one with the flesh.
He looked down at his body, smiling at himself mockingly and picking up a knife nearby. Slightly gritting his teeth, he made quick work of cutting away the flesh that clung to the nails as if it’s not flesh of his own. His chest was quickly soaked in blood, but the nails looked new again.
Like something was let loose, he cried out in pain, weakly leaning onto the wall in the corner and slowly sliding down, body trembling uncontrollably. His lips were deathly pale, teeth still gritted; then he suddenly convulsed, eyes wide open then slowly closed right after, head twisted to one side.
Blanched and covered in blood, he looked like a corpse.
Only until dawn broke did the man coiled in the corner of the cell twitch. His eyes then opened slowly and he tried to get up, but his weak legs gave out and he fell. He somewhat managed to stand after the second attempt, pulling out a cloth and dipping it in water to wipe away most of the blood on his chest with care. He redressed, picking up a nail to hide in his robes.
Breathing in deeply, he opened the cell door and walked outside.
Leaving the prison to go towards the courtyard with the blossoms and snow, Zhou Zishu felt a relaxing aroma soaking deep into him, cleansing the stench of blood. He stood under the plum blossom tree for a good while, smelling the flowers, unconsciously smiling.
Then he went back to sighing, and spoke lowly, “Anyone here?”
A person clad in black emerged from nowhere, body bent down in waiting for their orders. Zhou Zishu handed them a dull-colored command token and said, “Tell Head Butler Duan to accompany me in meeting His Majesty.”
They took the token, then vanished the way they appeared, as if they never existed.
Head Butler Duan Pengju was promoted by Zhou Zishu himself after the latter took over Tian Chuang and operated under his orders only; he was both capable and unabashedly ambitious.
Sometimes, Zhou Zishu saw the younger version of himself in this man.
Quickly enough, he was greeted by Duan Pengju with the token. The latter was confused; since people in the organization rarely revealed themselves, with the exception of their leader they didn’t get many chances to see His Majesty.
Zhou Zishu didn’t say much, but let him stay for breakfast. “Let’s go,” he said afterwards, reckoning that the Emperor would hold an early court meeting.
On the way to the palace, though Duan Pengju didn’t know exactly what his master’s intention was, he followed silently.
The two finally reached the Emperor’s study, and as His Majesty He Lianyi was already waiting, he sent them in immediately. After the greetings, Zhou Zishu took out a bamboo tube from his sleeve and presented it to He Lianyi. “Your Majesty, here is the result of the last mission.”
He Lianyi tooked it but was in no hurry to look through, instead he sized up Zhou Zishu, frowning, “You are looking increasingly unwell lately; it is important that you call for the royal physician after this. Do not just rely on your youthful strength and overlook any internal injuries.”
Zhou Zishu smiled but didn’t nod, only replying, “I am undeserved of Your Majesty’s worry.”
He Lianyi glanced at Duan Pengju and asked after minutes of surprise, “Why is Pengju here too? It has been a while since I last saw you, still in high spirit I see.”
Duan Pengju smiled, eyes narrowed, “It is my great honor that I am still in Your Majesty’s thoughts.”
He Lianyi sensed that Zhou Zishu had something else to report to him, so he entertained the business with the bamboo tube first, extracting a small note from inside. Skimming through quickly with a smile on his face, he raised his head at Zhou Zishu. “It was perfectly executed. With what do you want to be rewarded this time, Zishu?”
——This was it.
Zhou Zishu suddenly knelt, Duan Pengju in tow since the latter didn’t know what else to do.
He Lianyi frowned, “What are you doing?”
Zhou Zishu was almost out of breath, replying softly, “I only dare ask one favor from Your Majesty.”
He Lianyi laughed, “No need to kneel. After having risked your life and limb for me; with the exception of this nation, do you really think I wouldn’t give you anything of your desire? Just stand up and speak.”
Zhou Zishu straightened his back, still kneeling. Then he quietly removed the front layers of thick robes, and the smell of blood was instantly in everyone’s face. His recently scabbed wounds were bleeding again, possibly from the rocky horse ride.
“Zishu!” He Lianyi sprung up from his seat.
Duan Pengju was terrified into silence.
Zhou Zishu opened his slender palm, on which a single nail rested. “Your Majesty, I have put in six of them myself. The seventh one will render me unable to take care of royal matters; I hereby come to say farewell, and only ask that Your Majesty lets Pengju carry out my request.”
He Lianyi was dumbfounded, words unable to come out. After a long while, he sat back dejectedly, craning up to stare at the beams on the study’s ceiling, muttering, “Yun Xing was faraway at the northwest, Beiyuan… Beiyuan is here no more, now even you are leaving me?”
Zhou Zishu stayed silent.
After moments of contemplation, He Lianyi sighed, seemingly said, “I am really alone, aren’t I.”
Zhou Zishu continued: “Your Majesty needs not to worry about Tian Chuang. Pengju has been assisting me for years, I believe in his capability…”
Duan Pengju interrupted: “My lord! You must not say that, never have I had such intentions… You… You cannot…”
Zhou Zishu whispered, “They are the Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns, I will eventually die after three years. The bow has already been drawn, it won’t be stopped——”
He bowed to He Lianyi, refusing to look up even after he’s done, “Please take all the years I have been in Your Majesty’s servitude into consideration, and have my wish fulfilled.”
He Lianyi rigidly stared at the blood-soaked man, and in that moment no one knew what this fair emperor was thinking — the cautiousness, the crafted calculations, the old flames of war, the bitter struggles, all those years… He eventually claimed the throne, but everyone had all passed away, leaving him alone.
No one could escape all the inevitability of this world, or the abandonment of time.
After a long while, he closed his eyes, waving his arm.
The corner of Zhou Zishu’s lips raised into a smile, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
He looked like he had come across the funniest tale, sickly pale complexion flushing faintly. With great delight, he turned to Duan Pengju, putting the nails into the latter’s palms, “Do it.”
Duan Pengju hesitated for a while, then bit his lips, raising the vaguely crimson object and nailing it into his lord’s body. After years of witnessing, he knew this process would bring great pain, to the point that even the strongest man would cower and scream; but Zhou Zishu only trembled a little, his body still stiff straight. There was no screaming, only occasional inaudible groans.
And even those groans seemed to contain joy.
Duan Pengju thought his lord must have gone mad.
Zhou Zishu stayed still for a long time, then turned to He Lianyi with his head down, his face as white as paper.
The strength in his body was slowly diminishing, the numbness creeping in. His last words were, “Your Majesty must take care.”
Without waiting for an answer from He Lianyi, he walked out of the study, all the baggage over the years now light as feather. His silhouette seemed to flash for a moment, and he vanished without a trace.
 The original text is a burned out incense, a common time measurement in ancient China.
 内力 (nèilì) The cultivated energy inside a martial artist’s body.
 Eight Extraordinary Meridians
Chapter 2. Chance Encounter
There was a secret about the Nails that no one knew but Zhou Zishu, and from then on this secret might as well be buried with him and a rare few — if all seven had been nailed in at the same time while the person was unwell, even someone with profound strength like Zhou Zishu would only have had one mere breath left to depart from the palace; worse, he would probably become a lifeless lump of flesh before he could even cross the gate.
But if you did one every three months, letting the body adapt to the nails until you couldn’t tell them apart on your body — even though death would still be inevitable in three years and there would be an excruciating eighteen months of pain — you would retain at least half of your core strength and could still behave like a completely normal person.
The method was said to drive people crazy with agony; but Zhou Zishu merrily found out that the rumor was unfounded after all. Not only was he still sane, he also felt like there was no other time in his life that he was this happy and at peace.
Those who have left Tian Chuang actually still had their every move monitored; information about who they were, when they left or where they died all recorded in details. The organization was like a giant spider web, from which escape was futile until you drew the last breath.
Fortunately for him, after a life of sacrifice he had gathered quite a few loyal ones.
Zhou Zishu, trained by the Emperor to be a master of all trades for the position of Tian Chuang’s leader, was highly skilled in martial arts and disguise; it was impossible to recognize him the moment he joined a crowd.
And so the once most frightening individual in the palace vanished; in his place a free-spirited, miserable-looking wanderer riding a thin horse, gnawing a straw in his mouth while humming folk songs.
He became the first to actually get away from the network just like that.
On his face was a not quite refined mask painted with sickly-colored blotches, so that at first glance he looked like someone on the brink of death. After checking himself out while drinking water from the river bank, he felt this appearance suited his situation all too well, and the more he looked at the disguise the more satisfied he was with it. He conveniently stole a plain set of clothes from a farmer’s house by the road, his robes removed and burned, an old flask tied around his waist, half-full with unfiltered rice wine.
Zhou Zishu — after realizing that his name was never once used during all those years perpetually hidden in the dark corners of the palace — gleefully discarded any plans of using an alias and marched on his journey right away.
He also didn’t mind what his destination would be. Jiangnan seemed like a good place, so he decided to travel there, maybe do some robbery along the way to help the poor and to simply scrape by. He passed by Kaifeng and Penglai, and after a leisurely three months, finally seeing the colorful scenery of Jiangnan for himself.
He snuck in the most famous tavern’s wine cellar right way, trying all the sweet cassia wine and drowning himself in a drunken stupor. He felt elated and floaty, like there was no greater joy in life than this.
Ten days later, after almost getting caught, he came to the conclusion that while the wine was good, its taste had become stale and a bit uninteresting; so he left the place with some silver crumbs behind.
After those ten days he looked even worse, his appearance wretched and face evidently ill. The emaciation, the wine-reeking clothes and the untamed bird’s nest hair completed his beggar look.
Which was why when he was sitting by the roadside sunbathing, a young chubby girl skipped her way around him, holding a copper coin in her palm but not knowing where to drop it in. After brief inspection, she asked, “Hey uncle, where’s your bowl?”
She was immediately taken away by an adult relative, leaving him unsure whether to laugh or cry.
Years have passed, most of his acquaintance gone, some in worry, some dead, some exiled from home. Zhou Zishu leaned onto a wall, stretching his arms and legs, contently bathing under the warm sunlight, humor curled at the corner of his lips. He started to think about what his desire really was after all this time.
Back when he was still green, he always regarded himself as someone superior, welcoming any praises possible for himself: how smart he was, how cunning he was, how good he was at martial arts, how knowledgeable; as if not trying to achieve something in his lifetime would be the biggest waste for humanity. But now that he thought of it, what exactly did he want?
And what had he lost?
He had thrown away his freedom to serve royalty in the dark; his life in a never-ending circle, anything he ever owned had to become compensations for the acts he had committed. Now he was just a loner with empty hands, having racked his brain for a triumphant escape plan that put his life at risk. He even thought it was so smart of him to have succeeded.
He suddenly pitied himself, feeling like the most foolish man even in the most foolish world.
How long had it been since he let himself simply bask in the sun by the road like this? It was terribly amusing that the pedestrians walking by in haste seemed to be in an even greater hurry than him – a half dead person.
In a nearby tavern, a bright female voice rung out, “Master, would you look at that man! If he’s a beggar, why doesn’t he own a mere broken bowl? If he isn’t, then why does he keep sitting there the whole morning doing nothing and smiling foolishly? He must be an idiot, don’t you think?”
Even though Zhou Zishu only retained half of his martial art skills, his hearing was as excellent as ever. The girl was a noisy road away and her voice at a medium volume, but he didn’t miss a single word nonetheless.
Before he could get a chance to silently mock himself, he heard a male voice replying, “He’s just sunbathing.”
The voice was deep, very pleasant to the ears, with every word enunciated slowly and clearly.
Zhou Zishu couldn’t help but raise his head. On the second floor of the tavern facing him were a pretty young lady in purple leaning over the balcony and a man sitting next to her dressed in gray. The latter had a wan complexion, dark eyes seeming like they could swallow all brightness, features very distinct; he actually did not look too human. Zhou Zishu met his eyes the moment he looked up.
The man in gray returned the look before turning his head away with no expressions on his face, his focus back on the food.
Zhou Zishu burst out laughing, thinking about how in this vast sea of strangers, he somehow still found someone who understood.
The girl in purple was still staring at him up and down with her bright eyes. After a good while, she could no longer suppress her curiosity, informing the accompanying man about something then jumping downstairs excitedly, strolling to Zhou Zishu, “Hey mister beggar, how about I treat you to a meal?”
Zhou Zishu regarded her lazily, shaking his head, “I’d rather you bought me wine, charitable young miss.”
The girl laughed gracefully, turning back to her master to shout, “Master, this fool called me a charitable person!”
Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to listen, paying her no attention. The sky could collapse right then and he would still be more concerned about his meal.
She asked again, “Everyone else would have asked for food, what’s so good about wine that makes you crave it this much? Will drinking make you full?”
Seeing that she was very pretty, he couldn’t stop himself from joking around, “Wine can attract beautiful ladies, don’t you know?”
The answer surprised the girl. She then giggled uncontrollably, body shaking with laughter. Zhou Zishu felt like lady luck had smiled on him, as Jiangnan was truly full of beauty. He admired her, sighing, “Dear utmost beautiful one, have pity on this poor old man. It’s not nice to laugh at people’s misery, young miss.”
Once more she was surprised. “Yah, you’re acting scholarly now too?” She squatted down, untying the wine flask around his waist at lightning speed, running back to the tavern and coming out in just minutes.
Zhou Zishu wanted to take it back but she quickly retracted, smiling, “I’m gonna ask you something. If you get it right, I’ll give this back to you and even invite you for more; if you get it wrong, I’m gonna poison this and leave your belly to rot.”
Zhou Zishu laughed helplessly; what a troublesome soul behind a pretty face. He replied, “I won that flask from another old beggar, who knows how many lice are in there. You can take it if you want, I’ll be happier if you do actually.”
She rolled her eyes, giggling, “So all this wine I brought you is for nothing? You make me very angry now, I gotta kill you.”
This little devil, he thought, what a waste of beauty. He complied, “Go on, ask me then.”
“Why are you out here begging if you don’t even have a bowl?”
Zhou Zishu stared at her. “Who said I’m begging for anything? I’m simply sunbathing in this corner.”
The girl startled, unconsciously looking back at the man on the tavern’s second floor. It’s clear that he had exceptional hearing too, but his movements only stilled for a split second after the conversation. With a straight face, he dove back into his food without a care.
“I don’t see why it’s worth it?” She looked up to stare at the sun, a little confused.
Zhou Zishu shook his head, swiftly snatching the flask back when the girl was letting her guard down, making her exclaim and stare at him in bewilderment. This beggar-lookalike man told her, “You’re still young, miss. You have lots of things you want to do, it’s only natural that you will make use of the time to stuff your belly full, to live your life to the best. Me? I’m already one foot in the grave, what else can I do but drinking and sunbathing in await of my doom?”
He downed the flask in one shot, smacking his lips, “Such good wine! Many thanks, young miss!”
On instinct, the girl tried to snatch at Zhou Zishu when he was walking away. She considered her kungfu to be quite competent; but unexpectedly, she didn’t manage to even touch him despite the man looking like he was only an arm’s length away. In no time, the beggar disappeared into the crowd, unable to be seen again.
She was about to chase after him when the man upstairs spoke quietly, “Ah-Xiang, even if you’re not capable enough, I didn’t know your eyesight’s also that bad. Stop embarrassing yourself further.”
His tone was just above a whisper, no strength to it, and yet it traveled from the second floor, across the crowded street to reach the girl’s ears directly. She seemed crestfallen, no longer daring to make any rash decisions in front of her master. She looked back at the pedestrians for a moment before returning to the tavern.
Meanwhile, Zhou Zishu was swaying with his flask on his way toward wherever. Jiangnan was praised to be full of waterways, but while wandering across a small bridge and looking down from there, he found the truth to be a bit of a letdown. Reckoning that no inns would welcome him, he followed along the river bank outside of the city. On the river were small fishing boats which also acted as ferries for passersby.
It was springtime, so the boats were all stuffed full of sightseers. After great difficulty, he finally found a fisherman with his boat docked.
This boat with black sails was right beside other busy ones; it was quite a mystery how unoccupied this one was. On the shore, the fisherman was sprawled out on his back napping, face covered by a straw hat, with only a head of gray hair sticking out. Zhou Zishu went to sit beside him, waiting for the old man to wake up.
But after just minutes, the fisherman was unable to sleep anymore. He yanked the straw hat away from his face, huffing angrily, staring at the younger with great animosity. “Damn it! Don’t you see I’m fucking sleeping?” He cursed.
Zhou Zishu wasn’t at all offended, “Hey old man, wanna do some business?”
The fisherman cursed again, “You little shit, is your mouth for speaking or farting? Speak the fuck up if you want to use the boat!”
He stood up, stretching and swatting at his ass. But when he noticed that Zhou Zishu was still sitting, his anger exploded again. “Are you glued to the ground now?”
Zhou Zishu blinked, suddenly understanding why this one boat was idle compared to others.
He stood up and followed the old man morosely. “Do you have anything to eat? I don’t mind leftover rice,” he asked without shame in between the fisherman’s passionate swearing session.
“A damn reincarnated hungry ghost too, huh,” the other one spat.
He fished out a pie with evident teeth marks on it, throwing at the younger. Zhou Zishu giggled, biting into it without a care while walking onto the boat.
The fisherman started rowing away. “Fuck this,” he stole glances at Zhou Zishu, still fuming.
The name of the arc is the first part of a line in the poem 遣懷/My Lament, by Du Mu.
 銀子 (yínzi) A type of currency in ancient China, the standard size for a silver ingot.
 大叔 (dàshū), a general non-relative term to address older men.
 心有九窍, literally translated as heart with nine holes, used to describe people with high emotional intelligence.
 公子 (gōngzǐ), a term used to address young noble men.
 Two lines from the poem 代悲白頭翁/The Old Man’s Great Sadness, by Liu Xiyi.
 阿 (ā) is a prefix of endearment used between people who have a close relationship; the character’s first name is only Xiang.
 Ghosts of people who have done evil deeds in their life before death; they’re condemned to hell and perpetually starving.
Chapter 3. Abandoned Shrine
At this point in life Zhou Zishu was not in the least concerned about anything — he was familiar with courting death, after all; so the fisherman’s vulgarity all fell on deaf ears.
The boat calmly sailed across the water. On the other side of the river, a young woman called out melodiously, “Selling water chestnuts! Do you want some?” It was as if time had slowed down with the river flow to a sluggish speed. Even if I die right here, it’ll be worth it, Zhou Zishu mused.
The idea had crossed him before — back when he was in the middle of climbing the Mountain of Immortals in Penglai. But then he remembered that he hadn’t visited Jiangnan and all of its natural beauty; so down south he had gone and again had the thought resurfaced at this place. An unknown emotion surged up inside him. He bit into the dry and hard pie, trying his hardest to chew and swallow. Then he tilted his head side to side in contemplation; he was done travelling through Jiangnan, but there were still the three famous and five sacred mountains to see, stopping here would be a great pity.
Because of that, all thoughts about dying here were dropped.
All of a sudden, as if choked on his own saliva, the fisherman stopped swearing. He bent down, head inclined to a vague direction, unblinking.
Zhou Zishu was intrigued, so he stuck his head out from inside the boat’s deck to follow the old man’s gaze.
He saw him scrutinizing two people walking by the river bank — they were the good-looking man in gray and the pretty young lady in purple he met back at the tavern. The fisherman might be old but he was exceptionally perceptive, and when taking a closer look at him, one could see protruding temples under unruly hair; thick, strong hands and corded muscles. It was very clear there was more to him than met the eye.
The pair whom old man was watching was definitely not ordinary either, seeing that they made him this on guard.
The pretty girl was vivacious, but she would walk a few meters behind the man without fail, never once overstepping her boundary.
A glance was enough for Zhou Zishu to know that this girl was either a maid or a concubine; she might have a bit of a wicked streak with a beauty he greatly appreciated, but at the end she already belonged to someone else, so he stopped thinking too much about it and withdrew his gaze, turning his attention back to tackling the dry hard pie.
It was jianghu after all; ambiguity was one of its staples. If the royal court was a battleground for fame and power, jianghu was a battleground between white and black. Though some were unable to understand this, and took the title of a wandering hero too seriously even until they died.
But how would all this concern an incessantly ravenous homeless man like him anyway?
Zhou Zishu felt somewhat bored after the fisherman had stopped cursing, so he goaded, “Hey old man, this pie lacks a bit of flavor. I don’t mind whether it’s bad or fine salt, so you should’ve at least put some in.”
The other got furious again, “How are you still talking shit with that much food stuffed in your mouth? You greedy little shit, gonna starve you for three days, see how you will complain then…”
The moment he opened his mouth, his words were a never-ending stream. Zhou Zishu smiled, eating his pie with more vigor, feeling a little shameless.
Crossing the river only cost a few coins, but Zhou Zishu threw a silver crumble at the fisherman anyway. The latter didn’t feel grateful or undeserved at all, he took it and walked away, face like that of an unsatisfied debt collector. He couldn’t wait to kick the younger out of the boat the moment they reached the other side, “Get lost, get lost! Don’t waste my time, I have important business to do.”
Zhou Zishu leisurely finished the pie, stretching and leaving the deck. He replied while still chewing, “Do you have to go reincarnate or something, why the rush?”
The fisherman’s eyes were as big as saucers, looking like he want to curse the brat’s entire family and ancestors; but he swallowed his fury once he reminded himself of something, grumblingly sailing away instead.
It was a good thing that this fisherman act was just a disguise for his whatever business, if he was truly one then he would be piss poor.
Staring at the boat sailing further away from sight, Zhou Zishu deliberately muttered a regard of absolute literary excellence, “Fuck you.”
For most of his life he had mingled with the cultured but degenerate side of society; all they did was spouting Confucious this and Confucious that, never did a rude word escape their mouth. He felt incredibly delighted after blurting out that curse, as if years of pent-up frustrations have vanished completely with it.
And to his surprised revelation, cursing turned out to be such an enjoyable thing to do. He was all smiles, whispering once more, “Eat shit bastard, got my money and couldn’t even do his job right.”
After mulling over the words, he felt like they tasted even sweeter, and that lifted his mood greatly. With content, he walked along the river bank.
Zhou Zishu travelled here and there for the entire day and reached the city’s outskirt at nightfall. He found a pond and had a thorough washing, because even he himself couldn’t stand the smell anymore, at least he should look like a proper human. He thought about finding a place to stay overnight; and after another few hundred meters on the road, found a dilapidated and abandoned shrine. He made a bed out of hay and fell asleep at the Buddha statue’s feet.
In the dead of night, he was devoid of worry and could have slept dreamless till morning, had it not been for the footsteps and human noises nearby.
Three silhouettes appeared at the shrine’s door with the apparent smell of blood, prompting Zhou Zishu to open his eyes and frown.
The injured one was wearing a hat, supported by a boy in his teens who had some basic kungfu in him, but the energy of which was still unstable. Like a sick bull, he was in a shortage of breath, helping the injured with strenuous effort. The last person was an old woman dressed like a servant, staggering behind them with a bag in her hold.
The young man walked through the door, scanning the shrine cautiously like a wounded animal. He didn’t notice Zhou Zishu as the latter was hidden in the statue’s casting shadow, his breath feather light. Turning to the man with the hat, he said quietly, “Uncle Li, let’s hide in here for a bit, your wound…”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence as the one he was talking to struggled out of his assistance, trying his best to stand and made a salutation at the direction of Zhou Zishu, “Ah… This friend…”
He trailed off after raising his head. Zhou Zishu could see clearly too: this person was the fisherman he met before. On his back was a sword wound, soaking his entire body in crimson. The younger sat up straight, “It’s you!”
The fisherman laughed bitterly, “Damn it, of course it’s the beggar brat…”
He stumbled forward before he could finish, and the young boy hurriedly went to support him with his arms; but since the latter himself was out of strength, both tumbled to the ground with the boy sobbing, “Uncle Li…”
The fisherman spasmed suddenly. Zhou Zishu couldn’t help but walk over to examine the injury, noticing a strange purple color mixed in with the normal redness of blood, the effect of which being his deathly pale lips. He frowned.
The old man tried his hardest to smile and spoke in a low voice, “It’s not like you were shitting on your ancestors, boy, would you stop with the tears already? I’m not even dead yet…”
The woman was also wiping her tears, “Old Li, what would our young master do if something happened to you?”
He stared at her, inhaling with great difficulty and told the boy, shaking, “I… am just someone with no future… But I owed your father a long time ago, apart from my own life I have nothing else to pay this debt with…” He coughed and spasmed again right after, “Young man, remember this carefully…”
He didn’t get to tell the boy what to remember as more urgent footsteps could be heard outside the shrine. A man clad in black walked in; he didn’t even bother to cover his face, on which was a scar from a knife cut. Seeing the three cornered like rats, his mouth twisted. “You did well, being able to escape this far.”
The boy bit his lips. He pulled out the sword tied around his hip, throwing himself at the man in black, “I’m gonna kill you!”
It was terribly unfortunate that his astonishing momentum was not backed up with enough skills; no matter how promising he looked, his execution was clumsy and showed his inexperience. He was disarmed with a flick of the hand before he could land a hit, and was knocked back a few meters after a blow to the stomach.
The boy stood up after that, faced covered in grime. Without fear, he shouted and charged again empty-handed.
The fisherman also wanted to stand, but he was so heavily injured that he fell back right away.
The enemy smiled coldly, “Look at this rabbit trying to bite.” He dodged the attack, fingers crooked with the intention of clawing at the middle of the boy’s back. Under the moonlight those fingers didn’t seem to be made out of human flesh and blood, they glowed a faint blue, ready to deliver the killing blow.
Initially Zhou Zishu refrained from sticking his nose into this, but he had somewhat of a fate with this fisherman, having been ‘on the same boat’ with him; and the boy was too young to be met with death at his age. He took a small rock in his palm, but before he could shoot it, there was suddenly a whistle. The man in black flinched and threw himself to the flat ground, making the boy trip in midair since he caught nothing.
At the place where the man in black had stood moments before was a hidden weapon in the shape of a lotus.
They heard a delicate female voice, “What kind of person bullies elders and children this late at night in the middle of nowhere? How audacious.”
Zhou Zishu startled as this voice was quite familiar. He withdrew the small rock, returning to his makeshift bed to watch things unfold silently.
The man in black’s expression twitched, gaze throbbing — Zhou Zishu thought it was because of the scar acting up. His face froze, looking a little funny despite the viciousness. He spoke angrily, “Show yourself, you whore!”
The young lady appeared at the door, smiling. Zhou Zishu recognized her as the one in purple who had threatened to poison him earlier. What a roll he was on today, seeing that half of the people gathered here was someone he had run into beforehand.
The girl’s master was nowhere to be found; she tilted her head, leaning on the door with an innocent expression, a finger lightly scraping her face. “Old shameless bastard, how dare you come here to attack elders and children, not sparing even one who’s at death’s door?”
At being called ‘one who’s at death’s door’, the fisherman, having been swearing up and down vigorously just hours before, collapsed in silence.
 Refers to the Three Famous Mountains: Huangshan, Lushan and Yandangshan; and the Five Sacred Mountains: East Great Mountain Taishan, West Great Mountain Huashan, South Great Mountain Hengshan (in Hunan), North Great Hengshan (in Shanxi), and Center Great Mountain Songshan.
 It was once believed that men with protruding temples were more careful, perceptive and capable in finance.
 Original text was one zhang, a measurement of length. A zhang is about 3.3m.
 暗器 (ànqì), weapons that are concealed in some way (often hidden in the owner’s clothing). Their effectiveness relies heavily on the element of surprise.
Chapter 4. The Chivalrous
The man in black and the girl quickly engaged in a fight. As an outsider, Zhou Zishu had a good look at their capability; the movements were not quite the same but the ruthlessness from both was definitely on the same level. They didn’t appear to be from righteous orthodox sects.
After about fourteen to fifteen moves, the man suddenly staggered back to dodge, kicking at her Shanzhong point. She leaned away and made a soft noise, concentrating on her next attack which apparently was cracking down on the enemy’s knees. But she didn’t expect a noise from something hidden above the man’s pants; and from it a spring ejected, shooting an arrow forward, aiming at the girl’s chin.
She was not half bad, currently having an upper hand in this fight even, but never could she have predicted this vile move; panic piled up but dodging at this point was futile. The rock in Zhou Zishu’s hand was finally useful as he flicked it straight toward the incoming arrow, deflecting its course. It ended up narrowly grazing the girl’s temple.
After experiencing danger, a normal person would feel terrified; but apparently she was the opposite, her embarrassment turning into anger. She surged forward and made a clawing attack without hesitation, gripping at the enemy’s leg bone and twisting it. The man screamed as his leg was broken, but his attacker didn’t stop there. In her hand was a glowing blue light, and she ruthlessly pounded it into the man’s chest, knocking him backwards, both legs bent and crushed. His face immediately turned gray and purple as he stared at the girl with wide eyes, pointing at her, “You’re Pur… Purple…”
He died before he could finish.
The old woman was frightened to death by this beautiful but cruel young lady.
Contrastingly, the simple-minded looking boy had a faster reaction, he threw himself at the fisherman, asking hurriedly, “Uncle Li, how are you? You…”
He still had a breath left in him. With all his strength, he caught the boy’s sleeves; the latter tried to embrace him and help him stand. The girl in purple walked over, lifting the old man’s eyelids, frowning, “It’s the Three Geng Until Death poison, he’s beyond saving now. My condolences.”
The boy threw her hands off, glowering. He shouted at her, “Stop saying nonsense!”
Her brows raised, murderous intent resurfacing on her smiling expression. But she suppressed it after remembering something, arms crossed in front of her chest with a sneer, “You little puppy can’t even see between good and bad.”
The fisherman only looked at her for brief moment. He scanned over everyone, finally stopping at Zhou Zishu — who was standing at the statue’s feet, two straws sticking out of his head, making a laughable sight of himself. The old man turned to him, about to say something.
Everyone’s gaze followed his. The girl laughed, “Ah! I was just wondering who my benevolent savior was, can’t believe it’s you! I bought you wine, you helped me fight; so we’re even!”
She spoke as if those two things could ever be equal, but Zhou Zishu wouldn’t stoop as low as to argue with a pretty girl. He smiled, walking over to the old man, squatting down, “You calling me, old chap?”
The fisherman said, “I… I’ll return your silver, your boat ride was free, you must help… help me…”
Zhou Zishu didn’t wait for him to continue, shaking his head and reluctantly stood up, but the old man’s grip on his wrist was unwavering, “Help me… bring this child to Tai Hu Holdings of the Zhao family…”
He was nowhere near a beautiful lady, so Zhou Zishu sighed, “Listen, old man…”
He was interrupted. “Small… favor, should… should be repaid with big gratitude…”
Zhou Zishu raised his head, sullenly looking at this shrine in ruins in the middle of nowhere. He thought about the possibility of changing his face again, as this one still didn’t look sickly enough. How else people are thinking he’s that benevolent to agree to these favors?
The fisherman seemed to be in his final moment, his grip ever stronger but his breath faint and weak in his throat. He faltered, “Consider this a way to accumulate your own merits, please! For your descendants… even if you die and have no offspring…. There’s still… your next life…”
Those words hit him like a lightning strike, and the nails on his chest acted up again, as if wanting to sink even further into the flesh. There’s still your next life. Your sins this lifetime will be paid in full with your death in three years, but… but there’s still the next life to look forward to, right?
After a long while, Zhou Zishu sighed, turning over the silver crumble a few times in his palm and putting it back in his breast pocket.
The fisherman’s hazy eyes brightened, his lips trembled. Then the light in his eyes slowly dimmed, hand loosening its grip on Zhou Zishu’s and hanging down limply. He still seemed to rattle on about something, though.
Zhou Zishu put his ears closer to the elder’s mouth, hearing him mutter brokenly, “You must… have to… If you don’t… I’ll… I’ll haunt, haunt eighteen generations… your… ancestors…”
Zhou Zishu sat back, truly at a loss for words as the fisherman drew his last breath, head lolled to one side. Gut-wrenching sobs tore through the young boy’s chest.
The old woman in servant clothes also drew a blank as she stood next to him, crying in panic. Zhou Zishu and the girl in purple stood to one side. The girl’s big eyes wandered, and her voice was quiet, “Master said you’re more than you appear to be, but I didn’t really see it before. Which sect are you from? What’s your name?”
Zhou Zishu graciously replied, “This incompetent one is Zhou… Zhou Xu, just a lonely vagrant travelling everywhere. Actually, I haven’t had the honor of knowing your name, young miss.”
She looked him up and down, shaking her head. “If you didn’t look like a sick ghost and walk and talk like that, you would sound more like how Master’s described. I’m Gu Xiang.”
She had never heard of a Zhou Xu before; besides, they only met by chance, there were no reasons to be entirely truthful with each other. But she didn’t mind it much, patting the young boy on the shoulder, “Say, he’s passed away already, you should get him a proper burial. Are there more people chasing after you?”
Still annoyed by her bluntness earlier, he only glared. The grief and anger brimmed inside him had no way to be relieved, so he directed it all at her as if she was the one who caused the murder.
Gu Xiang raised a brow. This girl had the skills but still not quite the age in addition to the feel of an unorthodox martial artist she exuded. Having enough with the boy taking his anger out on her, she raised her hand with the intention of attack, but catching her off guard was Zhou Zishu’s interception.
Gu Xiang felt an ice-cold hand gently wrapped around her wrist. The grip was completely painless and its culprit didn’t even seem to have put any strength into it; but she was unable to either move or yank herself away. She couldn’t help but give this ill-looking man an astounded look, thinking, Master highly respected this one, but he’s even more mysterious than I thought. Not sure I would succeed were I ever to attack him.
Changing her mind as she was a smart one who knew her own limits, she retracted her hands, smirking at Zhou Zishu, “Just doing it out of respect for you.”
Then she turned to the young boy and began scolding, “See, little brat, this sister is only passing by, and she helps you out of pity for your situation; so don’t even look at her like she murdered you entire family or something. Try and avenge him if you want relief that much. How nice of you to only know how to cry over a dead body and bully this good, patient sister!”
This girl might be clever, but she certainly wasn’t kind.
Zhou Zishu, for lack of better options, was about to console him briefly; but to his surprise, the boy after being stupefied by her words suddenly wipe away the tears with all his might and knelt down. He audibly banged his head into the ground twice, voice tiny, “You were right to educate me, miss, I have greatly wronged you.”
He looked a little more sharp-edged with his teeth gritted way too tight, stretching out his face muscles. In contrast, Gu Xiang was dumbfounded, retreating half a step, blinking her large almond eyes, “I- I didn’t say that to make you kneel to me, stand- just stand up, quickly.”
Zhou Zishu bent down a little to help him stand without the boy even noticing. He suggested, “First we should have a burial for… for Old Brother Li. He trusted me to take care of things, so I’m gonna escort you on your journey. But if you two are not in a hurry, you can rest here for a bit and tell me what happened.”
The boy muttered his assent, so Zhou Zishu helped him find a place behind the shrine to bury the old man. Gu Xiang, after observing and finally feeling her heart stirred, brought them a piece of wood, pulling out a dagger around her waist to carve it into a simple headstone. “What’s his name?” she asked.
The boy thought about it for a bit before shaking his head. “He only told us his last name’s Li, and that he owed my father something, so he risked his life to help us escape. I just call him Uncle Li… I don’t really know what his real name was.”
Zhou Zishu exhaled; people in jianghu repay debts and exact vengeance as they see fit; is there ever a need to leave a name?
Gu Xiang had hear head down, engraving “For Uncle Li the Chivalrous” on the wooden headstone. She looked it over, giving to Zhou Zishu once satisfied. “What do you think?”
Zhou Zishu saw the word “Uncle” missing a stroke the moment he glanced at it, feeling both amused and sorrowful. He added the missing stroke with his finger before putting it in front of the simple grave.
The young boy knelt down, kowtowing three times while trying to quell down the tears. Then he stood up, his back straight.
 The acupuncture point in the center of the chest.
 A measurement of time, one geng equals two hours.
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 table 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 thief with a body count of twenty six young people — both males and females — including the closed disciple 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.”
 Usually the altar.
 A slang used to call sex offenders.
 The only disciple of a senior in a sect.
Chapter 6. The Beauty
No one made a sound. The group quickly exchanged looks, disregarding Zhang Chengling to slowly circle around Gu Xiang and Zhou Zishu.
Gu Xiang sighed. “What an unfortunate situation. I haven’t done good deeds in forever, and of course the moment I did it troubles came to me. Brother Zhou, I’m just a frail maiden who has never been attacked by this many before, I’m very afraid, please protect me.”
That last sentence could really scare people to death. Zhou Zishu almost had to struggle to breathe properly, giving Gu Xiang a bothered look while the girl put on her best poker face.
She then stared back at him witheringly.
The group of assassins felt somewhat out of place during this lovingly tender staring contest. It wasn’t clear who issued the order for others to move forward, but in no time, a web-like formation was created, caging the two inside.
Only now did Gu Xiang uttered a soft “Ah,” face stern, interest piqued. The delicate charade was dropped; she ignored Zhou Zishu, pulling out a small dagger, ready to face the oncoming assault.
She had faith in her own capability, but quickly realized the formation was quite a tough one the moment the fight started. There were fourteen enemies, and while it was possible that not all of them would be a match for her, as a whole they had created continuous pressure on all sides, making the situation increasingly perilous. She ended up forced to retreat while fighting, with the formation simultaneously closing in on her, blocking all escapes.
Doubt festered in Gu Xiang as she withdrew next to Zhou Zishu. They stood with their back toward each other; Zhou Zishu’s gaze darkened. He watched their enemies without blinking, telling Gu Xiang, “I’ve underestimated them.”
Gu Xiang couldn’t take it in at first. Her forehead sweated faintly. “What… is this formation?”
Zhou Zishu replied, “I’ve never encountered it before, but it’s said that there exists one called the Formation of Far and Wide, its structure is ever-changing and well-coordinated. Every person’s gap can be filled in by others almost immediately and immaculately, creating a barrier through which nothing can pierce…”
Gu Xiang cried out as Zhou Zishu used his bare hand to stop an incoming blade and knocked it away.
“Then what do we do now?”
Zhou Zishu gave her no answer, eyes entirely focused. All of a sudden, he flew up, using the altar as a platform to launch himself further into the air; the dusty table didn’t even budge during the whole process. Three masked men followed him immediately, swords blocking every way out, but Zhou Zishu unexpectedly moved backwards, wriggling through their defense like a fish to reach the Buddha statue.
He made a noise, and with an unknown strength, using his hands to propel the statue forward, mumbling, “Buddha, have mercy and help me this time.”
The stone statue came at the masked men at full force; Gu Xiang immediately stooped down to get out of its way, feeling the wind grazing her hair. The three after Zhou Zishu in midair were not that fast, they didn’t expect this retaliation at all. Facing it head-on was the only option since there was no way to dodge or seek assistance, and naturally they were knocked back, creating a gaping hole in the formation.
Gu Xiang snickered, “Interesting.”
She didn’t let this momentum go to waste, and with a wave of the arm, an arrow shot out from inside her sleeve. The one directly facing her had to bear the brunt of the attack with their face, and they fell back without a sound.
The remained lost all their courage. Gu Xiang’s murderous streak made its appearance again, and she started charging at them without a care.
Zhou Zishu had exhausted all his strength with that move, his yet-to-recover limbs now temporarily numb. He sat calmly on the incense table with no further desire to boast his might.
Gu Xiang only noticed after a good while. She turned to him, tone accusing, “Zhou Xu, what are you doing?”
Zhou Zishu replied unhurriedly, “Little Sister Gu, I’m just a frail beggar who has never been attacked by this many before, I’m very afraid, please protect me.”
Gu Xiang’s hands shook in anger. Her knife plunged into one’s chest, to the point that it was deeply lodged in their ribcage and unable to be removed.
Gu Xiang was flexible, but not enduring enough in a long fight. She became frantic after having lost her weapon, moving three steps back, trying her best to defend herself. Zhou Zishu, after a fair time to rest, didn’t rejoin the fight right away. He watched them all with a chuckle, picking up a few small rocks. He played with them before abruptly shot one at the forehead of one intending to perform a sneak attack on the girl.
“That’s no good, no good at all; your moves don’t have a structure to it,” he gave her some directions at the same time.
He was as quick as lightning, flicking another stone at one’s Huantiao point to make them lose balance and stumble forward, conveniently right under Gu Xiang’s feet. She instinctively lifted her leg, a reflecting light flashing under her shoe to reveal a tiny blade, which was used to stab the person in the throat. Zhou Zishu continued leisurely, “The foundation is of utmost importance, if your phases are without roots and you move without a basis, how can you fully control yourself in a situation?”
Gu Xiang was a smart one. She bent her back to dodge a sword, kicking at the enemy’s leg. Taking advantage of them falling forward to restrain the pulse, she snatched their weapon away afterwards, cracking down on their Baihui point to kill them for good.
Another stone was shot at one’s Jianjing point while they were in the middle of attacking, making their upper body freeze and fall. Gu Xiang heard the beggar complain equivocally, “No good, still no good, the formation has been broken but that’s not an excuse to take risks, stop underestimating things.”
At those words, the lotus shape created from her feet movements became more lively and flexible. She dodged another one, who by instinct changed their strategy by holding the sword horizontally, exposing a weak spot that Gu Xiang could exploit. She easily took down two more thanks to that.
In no times, bodies littered the ground. The rest of the masked people glanced at each other and retreated, knowing this would not go well if they continued. Zhou Zishu frowned; these people were way too troublesome. He did agree to take the boy to this Tai Hu Holdings or wherever, but he wouldn’t tolerate the possible hoards of attackers along the way. If he let them go this time, they would just come back later during the journey.
These murderers with ambiguous identity, who tried to eradicate every single person in the boy’s family were the true scums of the earth.
A fleeting motion made Gu Xiang dizzy — the person who was just sitting at the table was now at the shrine’s door. The masked person nearest to him only had time to slightly lean away before their shoulder was dislodged with a cracking sound. Zhou Zishu had his hand around their throat, twisting it with the gentlest movement; the tip of his toe lifted the victim’s fallen weapon at the same time.
On his pallid face was a smile that carried all of the world’s demonic energy…
Gu Xiang couldn’t keep up with what was happening, and before she knew it, all the remained of the assassin group had become corpses. She blinked in astonishment — this ragged man’s ramblings worth diddlysquat, but his execution in battle was one of the cleanest and cruelest she had ever seen. It really made one wonder who he was.
Zhou Zishu was actually not holding on as impressively as she thought, his legs like jelly, body not having enough time to recover ever since he touched the ground again. There was a slight sway to him after he had finished all of them, but he had no intention for Gu Xiang to find out, retreating a few steps as his strength allowed. His walk seemed light as feather, but in reality he was in a miserable state trying his hardest to find something that could support him.
A pair of arms suddenly appeared behind out of nowhere, propping him up firmly. Zhou Zishu startled; he couldn’t sense this person coming near at all, feeling his hair stand on end. Fortunately, the person purely wanted to help with no further motives.
Gu Xiang’s eyes shone as she exclaimed, “Master!”
Zhou Zishu heaved a sigh of relief at that, straightening. The person behind him was the man in gray he saw back at the tavern, looking around thirty, face undeniably handsome — though his stare would unnerve most people.
Those intense eyes were fixed on Zhou Zishu right now, full of impudence, looking as if they wanted nothing else than to uncover what was beneath the layer of mask on his face.
Zhou Zishu coughed, “Thank you…”
“Wen, Wen Kexing.” The man replied, his expressions riddled with vague doubt. He dragged his eyes down to Zhou Zishu’s neck and hands, suspicion only piling up further.
Even though Zhou Zishu couldn’t detect the man’s intention, he had confidence in his craft. He knew his skills better than anyone; if he failed this simple disguise then he would have perished during a mission years ago. “Ah, thank you, Brother1 Wen.” He said calmly.
The man tore his gaze away after a good while, nodding, “It’s nothing.”
He strolled into the shrine after that. Gu Xiang was flittering around kicking away the bodies, making a seat for her master from the hay. Wen Kexing glanced at Zhou Zishu once more. “I didn’t mean to do it,” he added, in case the latter misunderstood what happened.
Zhou Zishu instantly recognized where Gu Xiang got her peculiar attitude from. He sat down and began to meditate.
After about two hours, he opened his eyes to Wen Kexing leaning on a wall, legs crossed, still watching him intently. He couldn’t help but ask, “Is there something on my face? Why does Brother Wen keep studying me?”
Wen Kexing asked with a straight face, “Are you wearing a disguise?”
Zhou Zishu tensed, his face betraying nothing, “What do you mean?”
The other paid it no mind, muttering under his breath, “How strange… Really, really strange. I can’t see if you’re wearing a mask or not, can’t be sure that you aren’t, hm…”
He rubbed his chin, sounding uncertain, “I’ve never been wrong before; the moment I saw your butterfly bone, I knew you had to be a great beauty.”
Nothing could have prepared Zhou Zishu for that answer.
Wen Kexing nodded, confirming to himself. “I’m definitely not wrong this time, of course you’re wearing a disguise.”
Nothing could have prepared Zhou Zishu for this answer, either.
Wen Kexing didn’t stop staring at him, only giving up after a long period, “Though I can’t see anything on you that would indicate such,” he inclined his head backwards, “how good must you be for me to not see through your tricks? Can someone like you really exist? This is really, really, impossible…”
Gu Xiang spoke coldly, “Master, remember last time when you told me a butcher was pretty just by looking at his back?”
Wen Kexing’s voice softened. “He might be a butcher, but those watery, shining eyes of his were enough were enough proof of his charms. People never care about a hero’s background, why can’t that be applied to a butcher too? But what does an uncultured brat like you know anyway.”
Gu Xiang sighed, “Watery, shining eyes? He was just teary from yawning! And apart from that his nose was big, his mouth was big, his head was big, his ears…”
Wen Kexing’s voice left no room for arguments, “Gu Xiang, you are very blind.”
Zhou Zishu had nothing to do but to go check out Zhang Chengling’s well-being.
 兄 (xiōng) in this situation is used to address a man with various degrees of familiarity.
 Originally Bahuang Liuhe / The Eight Wastelands and Six Constituents (八荒六合), 八荒 refers to extremely remote areas beyond China; 六合 means the six directions (north, south, east, west, up, down), basically everything in the universe.
 The acupuncture point near the hip joint.
 Zhou Zishu referred to the five hang – five phases in Chinese philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal, water; and five gen – five senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body.
 The acupuncture point at the top middle of the head.
 The acupuncture point at the highest point of the shoulders.
 Used to describe the shoulder blades
Chapter 7. Setting Off
When Zhou Zishu made Zhang Chengling pass out, he did it out of fear that the boy would harbor too many bad thoughts; calming him down was a necessity. There was barely any force to it, so the boy woke up not long after the strange Wen Kexing arrived.
He opened his eyes, dazedly staring at the ceiling as if his soul had left the body. Until yesterday he was still the Zhang’s young master, pampered by many — even when his tutor told him that he was utterly stupid and useless, even when his martial art teacher was secretly disappointed that he was just bad mud, unable to plaster walls — his life was happy and content.
He got people dressing and feeding him, everywhere he went servants would follow, serving him diligently even with his mediocre studying until late night. They would flatter him all day long, and even when Zhang Chengling knew his worth, it didn’t stop him from basking in the false praises sometimes. His life went by with such privilege for fourteen years.
Then he lost everything in a single night.
His home was gone, his parents killed along with all relatives and friends, his world turning upside down. He was terrified, but he didn’t know what to do.
Zhou Zishu was the type who knew how to fart better than to console people, so he stayed at his place silently. There was only a blank stare on Zhang Chengling’s face, tears streaming down from his eyes.
He heard Wen Kexing asking Gu Xiang, “Who’s this little thing?”
“He’s said to be Zhang Yusen’s son.”
Wen Kexing nodded with a dull face, like Zhang Yusen’s name to him was no more than a fleck of dust. He spoke again a while after, “I heard that the Zhang family was so poor that they had nothing but money, how did a son of Zhang Yusen end up like this? Did he run off without bringing enough silvers or was he lost?”
Gu Xiang lowered her voice, “From what he told us, someone murdered all the Zhangs. The news must have shaken up the whole city by now, but I guess you didn’t hear about it while fooling around somewhere.”
Wen Kexing thought for a bit, nodding, “No wonder there were so many corpses.”
He turned to assess Zhou Zishu. “Then what’s he doing here?” He asked Gu Xiang.
The girl scoffed. “That beggar called himself Zhou Xu. He sold himself to a dead man for two silvers, so now he had to escort the boy to Tai Hu.”
Wen Kexing’s eyes widened, internally evaluating something with a completely serious face. He told Gu Xiang afterwards, “Now I’m even more certain that he’s a beauty, only beautiful people can be that dumb.”
Gu Xiang resorted to ignorance, too used to her master’s antics; Zhou Zishu followed suit since he had yet to fully gauge this man’s ability.
He turned to look at a teary Zhang Chengling, feeling somewhat annoyed and wishing that the younger would stop already. He poked him with the tip of his toes, coughing, “Young Master Zhang, get yourself together if you’ve done resting. We shouldn’t stay at this place for long, there must be more people after you to finish off their job. This Uncle Zhou is entrusted, so the least he will do is taking you to Tai Hu safe and sound.”
Zhang Chengling’s eyes shifted to look around. The moment they stopped, he covered his face with his hands and curled up into a ball, wailing. Zhou Zishu felt a headache coming with the boy’s cries; he told himself that a scolding was necessary but didn’t have the heart to do it. Comforting children was not his forte either, so silence was the best option. Then suddenly he sat up, walking toward the door.
He was just intending to check out the state of the Buddha statue and maybe restore it to the original place, reasoning that his previous action seemed quite offensive and wouldn’t help if he wanted to gather more merits. Zhou Zishu didn’t expect Zhang Chengling — who at that moment assumed the elder wanted to abandon him — to scramble forward, rushing to grip at his ankles, shouting, “Uncle Zhou, Uncle Zhou, please don’t… please don’t leave me, I… I…”
He looked extremely pitiful sobbing like that. Even though they ran into each other by pure chance, the younger had no one else to rely on but Zhou Zishu; the latter was his savior, a living Buddha.
Zhou Zishu looked down at him impassively, voice insipid, “Has your father never told you that a true man has gold under his knees?”
After moments of being starstruck, thanks to those words Zhang Chengling finally reached some kind of comprehension. He used the sleeves to wipe away the tears and snots with all his might. “Paying respect to the sky, the earth, the king, family and teacher is a matter of course. You have saved me Uncle Zhou, will you let me be your disciple?”
Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang observed the scene in amusement, the latter whispering, “Last night he was still a foolish child; he got smart real fast, huh?”
Zhou Zishu could only reply, “Stand up first.”
Zhang Chengling stubbornly refused. “I won’t stand until you accept! If I can’t avenge my family, am I even worth existing? Shifu…”
Zhou Zishu cared none about his arguments, dragging the younger up by the shoulder. “I’m an invalid who’s gonna die soon. It’s enough of a blessing for me to be able to get by another day, and you think I can teach you anything? I heard that Sir Zhao Jing of Tai Hu is your father’s old friend, go see him and there will be better people to help you with your vengeance.”
He concentrated his internal force into the palms, picking up the statue and putting it back on the altar, muttering “sinful, sinful”. He saluted not quite seriously before turning to speak to a still dumbfounded Zhang Chengling, “We should leave now that you’re fully awake. If you want to avenge your family, we need to get you to Sir Zhao as fast as possible; but now we should get some food first.”
He stretched without a care, smiling at Gu Xiang and ignoring Wen Kexing. He then left the shrine in a blink of an eye, not bothering to check if Zhang Chengling could catch up.
The boy stood in dejection, but hurriedly followed after realizing the man had already gone.
Wen Kexing rubbed his chin, watching the two silhouettes with obvious interest. “Let’s follow them, we’re going to Tai Hu.” He stood up and told Gu Xiang.
The mischievous look on her face vanished. She replied in a low voice after some thoughts, “Master, Zhang Chengling said the Zhang family massacre was done by the Ghosts of Qingzhu, Xue Fang the Hanged Ghost was there.”
Wen Kexing glanced at her with no expressions. “Hm, so?”
Gu Xiang startled a little, chasing after the already-leaving Wen Kexing, asking him with a serious voice, “The Hanged Ghost was clearly fake since I beat them yesterday. Master… did you know something already?”
“Ah-Xiang.” Wen Kexing stared at her again, his eyes seemingly black holes that could suck people in.
Gu Xiang quieted down immediately, mumbling, “I know, I talked too much.”
At that moment, her face looked pale, as if this ever fearless girl was dreading something. Wen Kexing’s fixed gaze only turned away in approval after the reply as he continued forward. Gu Xiang followed him, keeping a small distance.
She heard Wen Kexing, “We’re gonna follow that Zhou person. My instincts were never wrong, he can’t be anything else but beautiful. We will catch him red-handed eventually; Ah-Xiang, let’s make a bet since you don’t believe me.”
Because of this, Zhou Zishu definitely didn’t have a peaceful journey.
Escorting Zhang Chengling was no different than carrying the biggest fart as there were endless “flies” along the way. He just knocked out another one tonight, regretting his decisions while looking at the two silvers.
He still had half of his strength and his skills didn’t go anywhere, so those people should know better than to touch him. But the Nails made things unpredictable, resulting in his annoyance at the endless torture from both the pain and the flock of scums attacking at every minute — not to mention the pair of master and maid who kept trailing behind them for no reasons.
He could threw them off the track with ease had he not been accompanied a small burden. In addition, the mysterious Wen Kexing had some talent to him; there were many times Zhou Zishu managed to leave him behind only to end up seeing the terribly punch-inviting face just half a day later.
Zhou Zishu quietly dragged another assassin’s body outside before returning to their room to meditate. Zhang Chengling noticed nothing, still deeply asleep with his nonsensical dreams. During the past days they were travelling together, he found out that this boy didn’t display any stuck-up behaviors; the wailing child of before seemed to have disappeared completely, like he was forced into maturity.
He didn’t complain even when they going at a very slow pace, obeying Zhou Zishu’s every word, being generally very honest and sincere; his only shortcoming was the inability to stop calling the elder shifu, no matter how much he had been corrected.
Zhou Zishu eventually gave up, believing that after dropping the boy off in Tai Hu for the Zhaos, he would leave immediately to travel to anywhere he wanted. He had it all planned out already: after seeing the famous mountains and lakes, he would go south rather than north as there was a friend in Nan Jiang to whom he hadn’t paid a visit. He had to at least see them and have a drink together before descending to the underworld…
Suddenly, the young man on the bed tossed and turned violently, drenched in sweat. He was like that almost every night; during the day he was calm on the outside with thoughts of vengeance and regaining mental stability, but memories of that fated night had become nightmares, not letting him go. Zhou Zishu sighed, shaking him awake.
Zhang Chengling let out a cry and sat up, eyes blank. He only reacted after a good time had passed, murmuring at Zhou Zishu, “Uncle Zhou… I didn’t mean to do that.”
He was so young and inexperienced that even his bloodshot eyes retained an innocence that was way too familiar. Zhou Zishu was instantly reminded of someone he knew in the past.
The one who… whose only wish was to wander everywhere in jianghu with him.
He couldn’t help but sit there in a daze.
Zhang Chengling spoke cautiously. “Uncle Zhou, I didn’t mean to wake you up, I just dreamt of my father…” His lips quivered, pale. “I can… I can stop sleeping if it’s a problem?”
Zhou Zishu patted his shoulder, voice unintentionally tender, “It’s alright, sleep all you want. I’ll wake you if there’s a nightmare.”
Zhang Chengling made a noise in reply, crawling back under his blanket, fingers still unconsciously holding onto Zhou Zishu’s sleeve.
The man stared down at it meaningfully. There was awkwardness in Zhang Chengling’s smile when he retracted his hand.
At that moment, from a place seemingly not far away there was someone making a “twang” sound with the strings of their zither. Zhang Chengling felt that sound as if feeling a lightning snapped right next to his ears; even his organs seemed to tremble. Pain started afterwards, and he cried out loud, clutching at his chest desperately—
 Bad mud that is unable to plaster walls is used to refer to useless people or pointless actions.
 Literally translated as red-sleeved maiden replenishing incense, referring to the act of scholars being assisted by maids with the incense when they are studying at late night.
 A man has gold under his knees means that men must retain their dignity in any situations.
 The original phrase used is Good fortune makes one wiser.
 One of the most important principles for a Confucianist.
 Originally 天经地义, literally translated as heaven’s law and earth’s principle.
 An honorific used by disciples for their masters.
Chapter 8. Moonshade
The sound made by the zither was incredibly thin, like a binding spider web coming from every direction, carrying deadly treacherous intentions.
Gu Xiang also felt the insides of her body churning at the sound, but she was quick to assess the situation, immediately forcing herself to calm down.
Wen Kexing who was just sleeping on the bed moments before had already woken, standing by the window silently. Moonlight veiled over his face, softening his features. His eyes didn’t blink, staring pointedly at somewhere in the dark.
His shadow stretched long behind him. He remained unmoved, expressions flitting between blankness and mirth, creating the image of a detached but mystifying stone statue. Under the cover of the night, his dangerous aura was set free without restraint.
He looked like a ghost empty of human emotions.
Gu Xiang was smart enough to cover her ears the moment she sensed something abnormal, trying her best to block the sound coming from outside. She sat up straight, finally getting rid of the nausea after minutes of meditation.
Wen Kexing’s slender fingers brushed over the window bars, letting out a low laugh, “They even recruited “Enchanted Song” Qin Song… this would definitely cost a fortune. Makes one question who they want to deal with.”
In a flash, he heard something dashing through the air — the sound was thick, barely recognizable, like it came from the strings of an old and unused instrument. There was also another person flinging tiny rocks into the endless night sky.
There was almost no sound to the flying objects, but those elusive rocks managed to cut off the never-ending zither’s song in such a subtle way; not unlike how one threw a stone into the water, instantly creating ripples that spread to places no one could see or catch.
As expected, the song halted.
Wen Kexing leaned on the window to listen attentively, his eyes closed. The corner of his lips lifted into a smile.
The zither resounded again all of a sudden, the strength carried in the song rivaling floods and giant beasts. Its user seemed to have resorted to the killing move. Practically at the same time, an ear-piercing noise was unleashed from the room next door. It seemed to come from a flute, but normally flutes would never make sounds that sharp, so sharp to the point it felt like they could tear something apart.
A battle broke out between the intense flute and the demonic zither with implausible reflex from both sides.
The zither strings split in a blink of an eye.
The world was plunged into silence afterwards.
Wen Kexing still stood where he was, shaking his head and mumbling, “Our predecessors have never been wrong; it’s inevitable for a swordsman to die by a sword.”
Gu Xiang let out an exhale after everything had passed, wiping the cold sweat on her forehead. “Say, Master, is that Qin… Qin something dead?”
Wen Kexing’s voice was gentle, “Even if he’s still alive, all of his meridians have been broken; he’s useless now. Death would be a happier fate for him.”
He suddenly pushed open the window, speaking to Gu Xiang with an even lower voice than before, as if not wanting to disturb something, “Listen, Ah-Xiang, life will always be fascinating. If you want something, be prepared to pay for its price. Using a zither to kill people is surely fun, but you have to watch out for the ones that can bite back.”
Gu Xiang tilted her head. “When will they bite back?”
Wen Kexing was patient. “When they’re stronger than you.”
The girl nodded, asking again after mulling the thought over, “Why do you have to compete with someone stronger when you can just pick on weaker ones instead?”
He turned his head to look at her. Being backlit by the moon, the man’s whole body seemed to bathe in silver light, his expressions getting harder and harder to read. After a good while, he replied, “Or you can pick on no one and be a good person like me.”
Wen “Good Person” Kexing then left through the window, leaving a speechless Gu Xiang behind staring after him.
Zhou Zishu’s situation was not exactly ideal either. He made this flute during the journey out of boredom with very poor craftsmanship; the notes were not right, the tuning all over the place, so he never got around to using it. He didn’t expect it to be useful tonight. A big crack appeared after a single use; it was fortunate for him to have been able to manipulate the opponent into giving it their all, because only then did he succeed in delivering the killing blow. The results would have been very different otherwise.
Zhang Chengling looked like he had just been fished out of the water. Since the boy wasn’t competent enough, even though Zhou Zishu had helped cover his ears, the zither’s sounds still left him with internal injuries. His face was as blanched as paper after throwing up.
Zhou Zishu was worried that he was too young and weak to meditate on his own, so he put his palms on the younger’s back, lowering his voice, “Concentrate.”
Then he used his inner force to assist the boy, only retracted after his complexion looked a little better. His own body was drenched in sweat.
It was a blessing that they were very close to Tai Hu now, he mused, or else he would feel incredibly humiliated for almost not carrying out the mission that he had promised to do. Having never done any good deeds for a large portion of his life, he couldn’t fail the very first one; that would probably cause bad luck.
In jianghu, there was next to no one who possessed as much information as him — Tian Chuang’s former leader. He knew exactly who the person he fought was the moment they went head to head.
Legends had it that “Enchanted Song” Qin Song was a eunuch who loved to dress as a woman, the colorful clothes he wore forewarned people of his poisonous nature. Thanks to the fact that he could murder people without a trace, he was very valued. His principle was that the more he was paid, the more loyal he would be to that person.
Since silence had fallen, Zhou Zishu surmised that he was either dead or very close to it. Had he been as powerful as before, he would have finished the other off; but now only half his life was left so there was no certainty of success. Besides, that might be too cruel.
He then heard the sound of clapping outside and someone praising, “How emotionally provoking this nighttime melody has been, how would anyone not miss their hometown after listening to it — Brother Zhou has blended the sound of flute and zither beautifully under the moon and stars tonight; this talent, this elegance must belong to a beauty only.”
He had never seen anyone talking this much rubbish.
Zhou Zishu thought about how he didn’t notice the other standing outside the window at all; someone this unpredictable would be hard to deal with even when he was at his best. He could only think of three people and a half who possessed such power; it would be foolish to ever offend any of them.
He inhaled, opening the window, pointing at his sickly face with the deadly pale skin and dull eyes. “This beauty?” He asked.
Wen Kexing choked, glancing at the visage which was not too unpleasant but not something people would want to look at twice, either. He turned to watch the moon after that.
Zhou Zishu lifted his legs to sit on the window sill, following the other’s gaze. The full moon was especially bright tonight; the moonlight was cold like water and the ground looked like it’s covered in mist.
Zhou Zishu wondered who Wen Kexing was among those dangerous three people and a half; on the other hand, he was also unsure about the man’s motives for following him. The confusion only grew the more he thought about it.
He felt a particular aura from this man that suggested they might be birds of a feather, the other would definitely not do something if it didn’t benefit him. He was following another man… or, he actually was following Zhang Chengling to Tai Hu; there must be some kind of plan behind this. After lots of thoughts without any solid conclusions, he scoffed at himself — old habits died hard.
He looked down to Wen Kexing studying him enthusiastically, smiling, “If Brother Wen is really curious, how about making me shed my skin to see the flesh inside?”
Wen Kexing raised his brows. “Fine by me.”
His hands were at Zhou Zishu’s face barely after the word “fine” was uttered. But the latter was prepared, leaning backwards, one leg raised to kick at Wen Kexing’s wrists.
In just seconds, there were so many moves traded back and forth they would make any onlookers dizzy.
Zhou Zishu felt like he was at a disadvantage since his position on the window sill limited lots of movements; he ducked down to dodge another move, jumping down. However, the night was not a good time for him, and in addition to the previous torment, a nail caused intense pain at that moment, making him slow down.
Wen Kexing’s palm was close to his torso out of nowhere, but the man suddenly stopped before he was hit with his strength.
Zhou Zishu looked down to glimpse at the palm that was almost touching his chest, his expression calm as ever. He smiled, “Thank you Brother Wen for having mercy on me.”
He was interrupted by that very palm reaching up to touch his face. Wen Kexing didn’t stop there as he slowly caressed with his fingers, seemingly wanting to determine if it was really human skin.
Zhou Zishu didn’t get to step back before Gu Xiang — having heard the noises — looked down from the window and pulled her head back inside almost immediately, exclaiming, “Oh my, how rude of me!”
—Correct, exactly what he was also thinking.
Wen Kexing stood very close to him with a serious face — the seriousness turned ambiguous under the moonlight, giving one the impression that he was actually being rude.
Gu Xiang didn’t bother to be quiet, “Oh man I’m going blind I’m going blind…”
Zhou Zishu quickly coughed, stepped a long step away, calming himself down. He found this situation both hilarious and embarrassing. “Did Brother Wen see what my face is made of yet?”
“Human skin.” Wen Kexing replied after moments of pensiveness.
Zhou Zishu seemed to agree without thinking.
Wen Kexing stared at his hands. “Strange… How strange, it feels like it’s become one with your body.”
Zhou Zishu replied unperturbedly, “It’s a shame to admit this, but I’m actually born with it.”
Were there another person observing — excluding Gu Xiang, of course — they would definitely came to the conclusion that one of these two men was a lunatic.
Wen Kexing felt a bit out of his depth, looking at Zhou Zishu one last time before leaving, not to his room but somewhere outside. Gu Xiang stuck her head out again, rolling her eyes while beaming, “Huh, Master must be unable to accept reality at the moment, bet he’s gonna visit his pretty friend at Gou Lan Bordello. It’s good that he’s gone, everyone can prepare for sleep now.”
There was a considerable distance between them and Wen Kexing, but without looking back, his voice was still delivered to Gu Xiang directly and clearly through the air.
He said, “What did you just say, Ah-Xiang?”
Gu Xiang gave in, “Just breaking wind!”
Then she quickly went back inside — as if wanting to keep the reply to herself.
Only then did Zhou Zishu exhale, releasing the tension from his body. Gritting his teeth, he leaned onto the wall without making any sounds.
It was fortunate that his pain came in phases and bursts. He waited until feeling a little better to pull himself together before getting back inside.
Tonight seemed to be longer than usual.
Three days later, Zhou Zishu — and a Zhang Chengling who became surprisingly thinner after just a few days — reached Tai Hu.
He knocked on the door, but before he got to explain anything, the butler stared at Zhang Chengling, crying out, “Are you… are you Chengling? Are you really Chengling?”
Then he turned his head to yell at the servants, “Go inform Sir, quickly, Young Master Chengling is here! Young Master Chengling is still alive!”
A short time passed by until Sir Zhao Jing of Tai Hu was at the door to greet them himself. Zhang Chengling fell onto his knees; it seemed like the news had spread everywhere. They stood there crying together before making a fanfare out of escorting them inside.
Finally his ancestors would no longer be haunted, Zhou Zishu mused — being a good person was really exhausting.
Wen Kexing’s words were taken from a line of the poem 塞下曲其一/First Song by the Border, by Li Bai. The line has an imagery of breaking a willow branch, which is often used to describe emotional events such as separation.
Chapter 9. In the Woods
Zhao Jing of Tai Hu, also referred to as the Swordsman of Qiu Shan, was once a renowned figure.
Before they got to Tai Hu, Zhou Zishu had been looking forward to meeting this elusive hero whose name preceded his appearance. The anticipation grew when he caught wind of the news that Yu Tianjie — the only son of Hua Shan Sect’s patriarch, along with Mu Yunge — lord of Duan Jian Mountain Manor and Sir “One-Eyed” Jiang Che would also be at the same place.
Zhou Zishu knew their status and background like the back of his hand — to avoid offense, Tian Chuang had a separate archive of every single event and figure in jianghu in the last fifty years.
For example, Zhou Zishu knew that Zhao Jing the heroic Qiu Shan Swordsman was once exiled from his family and spent his days in sufferings. For money, he had committed crimes not unlike what “Enchanted Song” Qin Song had done. He only started using his real name Zhao Jing again at twenty seven, marrying the only daughter of the Feng family that owned Tai Hu, using nepotism to build wealth. He also secretly killed off the ones who knew of his past, and was reaccepted into the Zhao family after the marriage.
Another example would be the famous young Sir Yu Tianjie: it was said that he once had a tryst with a maiden from E Mei Sect but betrayed her afterwards, resulting in the girl committing suicide with their unborn child of three months old — of course, she was honorable enough to never reveal the wretched lover’s name.
Zhou Zishu was deeply interested in them since he knew all too well the kind of people they all were; besides, he was weak to Zhang Chengling’s pleadings, so he agreed to stay at the Zhaos’ for one more night.
Despite his past, Zhao Jing did have a gallant aura to him; he didn’t look down on the ragged Zhou Zishu who couldn’t even walk properly. But he was also experienced, and through Zhang Chengling’s stories of the dangers he had to face on the journey, he became suspicious of this beggar-looking man’s background.
That day, after helping the two settle down, have a proper shower and food, Zhao Jing called Zhang Chengling to the study to tell him what had happened in the past days.
Zhang Chengling after all was still a child — it was hard enough for him to find someone he could call family; so he told the elder everything, even stuffs that he had yet to understand. Zhao Jing listened to him in terror; and after contemplation he couldn’t help but ask, “This… Zhou gentleman, do you know who he really is?”
Zhang Chengling told him what happened at the abandoned shrine without hesitation.
Zhao Jing narrowed his eyes and stroked his beard. He comforted the younger briefly before sending him to bed.
From the ten days of travelling together, Zhou Zishu had come to know this Zhang Chengling child. Despite lacking a lot due to being pampered from a young age, he was a good kid with a good heart, never complaining when facing hardship, to the point of being a little simple-minded. Since Zhao Jing wanted to talk to him, Zhou Zishu was sure that the sly old fox must have succeeded in tricking Zhang Chengling into revealing information about him without meaning to.
He laughed internally — it didn’t really matter whether he was Zhou Xu or Zhou Zishu, as both names were shrouded in mystery anyway. Even someone with vast knowledge and ample resources would know no further about Tian Chuang other than the general information about the organization itself, much less its leader.
Even if one investigated into “Lord Zhou”, they would only dig up a nominal general whose responsibility was managing the inner court’s royal guards, who was worth currying favor with but not important enough to be looked at twice.
Sure enough, from the early morning of the next day, Zhou Zishu became the newest hot topic among residents in Tai Hu Holdings. It was impossible to leave the guest’s room thanks to the never-ending stream of visitors.
He had no choice but to greet and see them off one by one—
Ah, Sir Zhao, truly an honor to finally meet you, seeing is truly believing, your appearance brought such a prosperous aura… You’re asking who taught this lowly one? Oh, we’re just nobodies, not worth being mentioned at all.
Ah, Sir Qian, truly an honor to finally meet you, seeing is truly believing, your appearance brought such a prosperous aura… Where I’m from? This one is just a lowly beggar, it’s not worth mentioning- no no no, I’m not from the Beggar Sect, how can I ever be deserving of joining them? I’m just a nobody, really…
Ah, Sir Sun, truly an honor to finally meet you, seeing is truly believing, your appearance brought such a prosperous aura… I’m just a nobody, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary at all that you’ve never heard of me.
Ah, Sir Li, truly an honor to finally meet you, seeing is truly believing, your appearance brought such a prosperous aura… No no, I’ve never known that other Sir Li that well, what we had was just a convenient assistance during hard times. Which sect? I’m from none, just a nobody, not worth mentioning, not worth mentioning at all.
As the night drew near, Zhou Zishu had been smiling so much his entire face was stiffened; it took a lot of massaging for it to return to the natural state. He knew deeply in his soul that complete paralysis wouldn’t be far away if he had to suffer one more day of this, so he immediately planned to leave.
Considering the insistence in the inquiries about other people’s business, these jianghu heroes were no better than nosy gossipers at markets; it was as if they wished they could have just stick their head into other’s house and use their eagle eyes to scan over anything and everything, seeing under the skin to determine if this was a human or a ghost.
If one said they were from one of the Eight Big Sects and was a disciple of this blah blah blah person, the other one could reply that Oh, truly an honor to finally meet you, my shishu and your Master knew each other way back.
Otherwise, they would be considered an outsider, and their character needed more time to be judged.
It was night time. Under the waning moon, Zhou Zishu opened his eyes. He had been sleeping early since now was the time for the Nails to cause troubles. But the pain was nothing too serious, he just needed rest.
He stood up, hesitating a little; it was admittedly rude to leave without saying goodbye. He left behind two letters: one for Zhang Chengling, saying “Mountains are still green, waters will still flow long and far”. An incredible satisfaction washed over him after writing the note, as he felt like he had finally embodied being a jianghu wanderer now. The other letter was for Zhao Jing with one mere sentence: Ever grateful for the welcoming stay.
He placed them under the teapot before gracefully jumping onto the roof.
On the roof was a small dragon li cat strolling. It felt a fleeting shadow and halted in alert, eyes wide, but didn’t see anything else. Tilting its head in confusion, the cat ran towards the kitchen.
Zhou Zishu left the Zhaos without a sound. He was sure that no one had noticed, so never would he have imagined that there was someone seemingly having predicted his moves and was already waiting for him in a small forest only a mile away from the Holdings.
Zhou Zishu felt annoyance creeping up the moment he glanced at that person. He saw Wen Kexing saluting him smilingly, “Ah, how coincidental, Brother Zhou. Seems like we are fated after all; only soulmates would keep crossing paths under the moonlight like this.”
Zhou Zishu smiled back, “Truly coincidental isn’t it, Brother Wen?”
Coincidental my ass, you pestilence, he thought.
He tilted his head, asking after not seeing Gu Xiang, “Young Miss Gu’s not here?”
Wen Kexing gave a straightforward answer, “That little girl is an inconvenience, she walks too slow; she’ll only be in the way while I’m looking for this important, elusive figure that is… you.”
The smile freezed on Zhou Zishu’s face. He stared at Wen Kexing, then spoke after a good while, “If this useless one was an important figure, then what would become of Monk Gu of Mount Chang Ming, the Poison King of the Southern Sea’s Guanyin Palace, or the Ghost Lord of Qingzhu Ridge?”
Wen Kexing stared back meaningfully. “Monk Gu cares none for the mortals, all he seeks is the path of cultivation; the Poison King is said to have blended into the vast world of jianghu, it’d be a hard feat to find him; and the Ghost Lord is no less ambiguous, never have I got the chance to meet this one… as for whether he’s human or not, it’s a story for another day.”
They looked at each other after that, smiles carrying malicious intentions.
Zhou Zishu was the first to turn his eyes away. “Zhou-mou is merely a passerby, why is it that everyone have their eyes on me?”
Wen Kexing replied with a manner not unlike when one reunited with an old friend during a spring hiking. “Then why doesn’t Brother Zhou stay with the Zhaos for a while longer? Tai Hu is popular for its pretty scenery, why must you leave this soon without looking around a bit?”
“This useless one has already experienced Tai Hu’s incredible view, staying will only create unnecessary inconveniences for Sir Zhao. Not to mention we don’t know each other that well; I did the favor for two silvers, it’s not worth risking my life for them.”
Zhou Zishu paused before adding, “Escorting the young master Zhang is purely for gathering merits, so that I won’t have to endure any tortures in the Underworld after death. That’s all to it.”
“Gathering merits.” Wen Kexing repeated in agreement somewhat, head nodding, “Correct, Brother Zhou truly shares the same mind with me; and as only beautiful people can do that, it is clear-”
Zhou Zishu’s temples throbbed at “it is clear”; he was about to interrupt when suddenly, a piercing scream was heard deep inside the forest behind Wen Kexing.
They both temporarily stopped.
Wen Kexing pointed to the direction of the scream, “See, my dear soulmate, another chance for merit gathering has appeared.”
Zhou Zishu showed hesitation, but eventually decided to go towards the direction of the sound, grudgingly replying to the other at the same time, “Eye problems are very serious, Brother Wen, you should look for a physician soon.”
Wen Kexing followed close behind. Zhou Zishu’s qinggong had reached the stage where he could travel without leaving any traces, but the other man was able to keep up with him without fail, always keeping a small distance. Normally, one would stay silent during the travelling, so as not to lose their vital energy, but Wen Kexing didn’t seem to mind it. “Brother Zhou is very correct; I do have to see some famous physicians whenever I have the chance to get treated properly. Up until now I’m still unable to find any mistakes in Brother Zhou’s disguise; what awful eyesight I have and I’m not even that old yet, how shameful, shameful.”
Zhou Zishu really wanted to get rid of those eyes that were supposedly “getting worse every day”.
But on second thought, he didn’t know enough about this man, and with the intellect and self-restraint of a former Tian Chuang’s leader, he would not do something foolish like that.
With an incredible speed, soon enough they reached the deeper part of the forest. There they saw a corpse.
The person died a ghastly death: dressed in black clothes, their mask fallen to both sides, revealing wide-open eyes. Zhou Zishu felt a sense of familiarity before he even got to see the body clearly, so he bent down to inspect further. He couldn’t help but frown afterwards, “Isn’t this… Sir Mu, lord of Duan Jian Mountain Manor?”
Just this morning he was rambling to no ends for an hour; no one could have thought that he also became a “night owl” like Zhou Zishu, then a dead owl, unfortunately.
Wen Kexing approached as well, rubbing his chin with interest, “Moonlit night, black clothes, it’s possible that…”
Zhou Zishu turned to the other, ready to hear his deductions.
Only for Wen Kexing to continue his brilliant train of thought: “…that Lord Mu is out here picking flowers?”
Zhou Zishu turned away, face expressionless, internally praising himself for keeping his composure.
There was no trace of blood on Mu Yunge’s body or beside him, but his lips had gotten bluer. Zhou Zishu, after some thought, opened the front of his shirt. On his chest was only a black mark in the shape of a hand.
 Also called the Beggar Clan, it’s one of the most common sect appearing in a wuxia setting. It’s made up of beggar and is famous for intelligence gathering.
 师叔 (shīshū) – Uncle-Master is the apprentice-brother (both senior and junior) of one’s Master in a sect.
 Means that there is still lots of time for Zhou Zishu and Zhang Chengling to meet again.
 A Chinese breed of domestic cat.
 某 (mǒu) is an old-fashioned honorific used to refer to oneself in a formal manner.
 Qinggong is a Chinese martial art technique, often portrayed in wuxia fiction as the ability to move lightly and inhumanly fast, such as gliding on the water surface or travelling through the air without any external help.
 Slang for sexual harassment.
Chapter 10. Netherworld
Zhou Zishu stared at the handprint for a while, then turned the corpse front-down, undressing the body’s upper half—another handprint was on his back at the same position.
Wen Kexing sighed, “Was he branded, or the attack went through his body?”
Zhou Zishu replied nonchalantly. “No one would waste their time to play with the dead, the attack went through from one side of his body to the other. I can only think of one person in the recent fifty years who is able to do this…”
“It’s the Raksha Palms from Sun Ding the Delighted Mourning Ghost,” Wen Kexing continued.
Zhou Zishu glanced at him without replying, kneeling down to search Mu Yunge’s body carefully. What he found were some banknotes and silvers. “Oh, stealthily left the Zhao’s Holdings at late night while carrying travel expenses…” Zhou Zishu touched his own chest—so did he.
“Brother Wen, this night owl isn’t out here to pick flowers, a sex offender doesn’t need this much cash with him.”
“Probably doesn’t need extra clothes for bathing, either.” Wen Kexing kicked a small bag hidden in a bush into the open. The bag was also made of black cloth, and inside was some clothes for changing when one was away from home.
The forest earth was damp and soft with a chaotic map of footprints on it, but there didn’t seem to be evidence of a fight. Beside the mark of the hand which caused instant death, there weren’t any other wounds or scars on Mu Yunge’s body. His famous sword was by his hip, still sheathed.
Mu Yunge’s kungfu was definitely above average, at least he would not fight back like a suckling. Zhou Zishu fell into silence, thinking perhaps the dignified and righteous swordsman of Duan Jian Manor and the Delighted Mourning Ghost of the Valley had arranged a date?
A bloody one at that, which likely started out as a passionate but the passion turned into anger afterwards.
There seemed to be three people present before they arrived; and while Mu Yunge’s footprints stopped here, the other two’s went in different directions, suggesting they might not be on the same side. One was no doubt chasing after Mu Yunge to this place, then sat down to examine the body just like what Zhou Zishu was doing right now.
Zhou Zishu squatted on the ground, the old habit of questioning everything rearing its head again, making his insides itch. He felt an urge to follow the footprints, but rationality warned him that it would only lead to troubles. He was no longer the all-knowing mighty leader of Tian Chuang, there was no point in burdening himself with inconveniences.
Wen Kexing watched his companion sit in a terribly indecent fashion and look like it would take him forever to stand up. After a long while he couldn’t help but ask, “You won’t pursue them?”
Zhou Zishu stared at him, still waging an internal war.
Wen Kexing, after some thought, strode after the second one’s footprints, saying, “Then I will.”
Zhou Zishu followed him unconsciously, speaking in surprise, “You really want to be involved in something that’s not your business?”
Wen Kexing’s face was serious. “Someone killed the Lord of Duan Jian Manor, and I’m a charitable person who wants to gather merits, so why not. And I’m bored anyway.”
Zhou Zishu felt like the last sentence was incredibly reasonable, so he nodded, inquiring again, “Then why don’t you follow the first person? Their footprints are very light, so they seem to be the strongest among the three. Hypothetically speaking, if the third one was the last to come here and was from the Zhao’s Holding, then the first person is definitely Sun Ding the Delighted Mourning Ghost.”
Wen Kexing completely deadpanned, “You can chase after him if you want, I might be a nosy charitable person, but I also value my life.”
Zhou Zishu was made speechless by the other’s honesty. He followed Wen Kexing closely, looking at the ground under them at a random point and noticing—Wen Kexing didn’t even leave any footprints.
Someone who could travel without leaving a trace really just said that he was afraid of a ghost, afraid of death.
Zhou Zishu, who used to manage and investigate all kinds of matter in the palace, decided to follow his desire to see this case through—since he was already near death, he would do whatever he wanted, there was nothing in this world of which he should be afraid anymore.
The two skilled and fearless men sprinted across the forest like shuttles. They found who they were looking for by the river bank—Yu Tianjie of Hua Shan.
He was strung up on a tree with silver threads that looked like a spider web; head almost fallen off his shoulder, only barely intact in the gentle blowing wind.
A drop of blood fell on the ground, which prompted Wen Kexing to step back to avoid being stained. Then he nudged Yu Tianjie’s head, completely severing it from the body—the former part was still hung up by the threads, the latter part dropped to the ground with a thud. Wen Kexing touched the body all over, mouth pursed, “Still warm, he died not long ago.”
“Spider Silk.” Zhou Zishu looked up to Yu Tianjie’s head, pausing shortly “It’s the Hanged Ghost’s Spider Silk.”
Tai Hu was truly destined for an exciting time to come.
Suddenly, Zhou Zishu’s ears caught on to something. He shouted, “Who’s there?”
Behind the tree, a shadow appeared and flew away, looking like a giant bat and disappearing almost instantly. Without hesitation, Zhou Zishu went after it.
Wen Kexing still stood there, mumbling, “I’m scared of dying, scared of dying… Hmm… that’s why I can’t stay here alone.” Then he followed suit.
Zhou Zishu took a pine cone, fingers crooked and aiming at the person in black’s middle back; but since he always lacked strength after midnight, and coupled with the fact that he had been running for a long time, even though he hit the target, it only made them stumble forward a little and not falling as expected. They didn’t even look back, only running faster.
Zhou Zishu had doubts about whether this was the real Xue Fang the Hanged Ghost. Evidently he would not be able to stand against this man, but if he was really one of Qingzhu Ridge’s Ten Great Ghosts, would he run after seeing a nobody like him?
Zhou Zishu thought in astonishment, “I’m not a magic mirror either…”
They got out of the forest in a relatively short time. Behind the forest was a cemetery that spread wide and far, with will-o’-wisps flickering all over the place. Seemed like the Hanged Ghost had reached his territory, as his silhouette became more mystical. Zhou Zishu was not sure if his mind was playing tricks on him, but he felt like he heard someone cackling. The laugh was right next to his ears for a sec, then far away the other, making his hair stand on end.
Then the Hanged Ghost disappeared into thin air among the will-o’-wisps.
Zhou Zishu abruptly stopped walking.
Wen Kexing stood beside him, the greenish light casted onto his handsome face, giving him a slightly more demonic look. Some kind of animal let out a howl from far away; and a rat crawled out from underground, staring at the two without fear. It might have devoured the flesh of the dead, since its tiny eyes were pure red.
The Hanged Ghost disappeared under an old locust tree with an owl perched on its branch. The animal tilted its head at the two uninvited guests.
Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing checked around the tree but found no more clues. Zhou Zishu frowned, “We’ve really met a ghost…”
The he heard a creepy laugh, turning to Wen Kexing with gooseflesh prickling his skin. His companion pointed at the owl; turned out the sound was from this ghostly animal.
The owl and Zhou Zishu had a decently long staring contest before the former spread its wings and flew away without warning.
Wen Kexing said, “There’s this thing I heard when I was little, that owls are only scary when they laugh because there will be death whenever they do. Are you afraid?”
Zhou Zishu was examining the tombstone under the tree, which didn’t have any writings on it. He replied with indifference, “There’re already two bodies.”
It was likely that Wen Kexing felt particularly in the mood, so he ignored the answer, continuing with enthusiasm. “I also heard that one day at this small village there was a person carrying a bowl with red water inside. An owl knocked the bowl over, and that year twenty people lost their lives.”
Zhou Zishu raised his head to look at him.
Wen Kexing lowered his voice on purpose, “It’s true.”
“Why did that villager carry a bowl with red water?” Zhou Zishu asked in confusion.
Wen Kexing choked on his words, turning away to cough.
A faint smile appeared on Zhou Zishu’s face. All of a sudden, he put his hands on the tombstone, and with just a bit of strength applied, it moved. He tried harder to push it to one side, and with a squashing sound, an entrance was revealed, leading into a dark space with unknown depth.
Wen Kexing hurried to take a closer look, going round and round in front of the cave’s entrance, tongue clicking, “It’s rumored that the point of connection between yin and yang carries a lot of yin energy, so there must be a dead locust tree next to it—do you know that it’s called the yin tree, or the ghost tree?”
Zhou Zishu had his arms crossed, face expressionless at the other’s ghost stories.
Wen Kexin’s descriptions were vivid. “Under the old locust there will be an unknown tombstone, and under them is the path to the Underworld in legends. During the full moon of the seventh month, wandering souls will crawl out from the nether to return to the mortal realm. The path to the Yellow Spring is incredibly cold, and at the end you’ll see the gates of hell. Once going past that, you’ll no longer see the living, there are equinox flowers growing along the way, and then you’ll reach the Bridge of Helplessness… Hey!”
Zhou Zishu already jumped down.
Wen Kexing stared dumbfoundedly at the other’s silhouette disappearing behind the entrance before jumping himself. He landed steadily, finding out that the earth was very firm. He looked up to see Zhou Zishu’s fleeting smile and the other asking, “Is Brother Wen also interested in seeing the path to the Underworld?”
Wen Kexing nodded, entirely serious. “So that the next time I tell my tales, I can officially add that they’re true stories.”
Zhou Zishu shook his head, still smiling. All of a sudden, Wen Kexing silenced them with a gesture, listening attentively with a frown. “Can you… hear it? What’s that sound?” His voice lowered.
Zhou Zishu tried to distinguish it carefully, his answer indecisive. “…Is it water?”
In split seconds, Wen Kexing lit up, taking the lead without forgetting to keep his voice down, “So the legends are true indeed!”
In front of them was a long narrow path; so cramped that two men couldn’t walk side by side, only when they had to shrink their shoulders and crouch down was it somewhat manageable. Zhou Zishu did not enjoy this posture at all, thinking that maybe this path was not the official, but one reserved only to women and children.
It was unclear how far in they had gone. Dirt fell on both of them, but the end was bright and vast—it led to a large cave, with a small river flowing across with unknown origin and destination.
There seemed to be wind inside this cave, but it was also unclear where it came from, the dreary chill came at them from every directions.
Even Wen Kexing shut his mouth at that moment, no longer rambling about how “the path to the Yellow Spring is incredibly cold”.
 Rakshasa is a demon existing in Hindu mythology and Buddhism.
 照妖镜 (zhàoyāojìng) is used figuratively to describe things/people that can see the true nature of things and differentiate good and evil.
 The fifteenth day of the seventh month of the Chinese calendar is also called the Ghost Day. The seventh month is regarded as when spirits and ghosts come out of the Underworld.
 Chinese term for the Underworld.
 The flowers associated with death. They are also believed to grow in Hell and guide the souls into their next reincarnation.
 The bridge that every soul has to cross before being reincarnated.