Chapter 71. Infighting
Zhao Jing and his crew had already come to stand below Fengya Mountain at this pivotal moment. Gu Xiang’s group stole into another road like thieves, hiding behind a big rock. She, having grown up on the Mountain, was infinitely familiar with this route; she had picked out an excellent spot where they wouldn’t easily be found, yet could easily see everyone else’s positions.
Zhang Chengling and the rest had never been in a place like this before. They had no idea that, under Gu Xiang’s leadership, they had detoured around the sign that said ‘those with souls, do not pass’, and were already treading upon the territory of Ghost Valley, one foot inside this awfully wicked, ominous land.
Thankfully, Gu Xiang had hid them well, and those major figures plus minor Ghosts didn’t have the spare time to notice them.
Right then, Ye Baiyi arrived. He traveled by himself on a lone horse, still in his eye-grabbing, strangely thick white clothes. There was a tiny jar held in his arms, and a sword borne on his back.
Zhang Chengling exclaimed, quickly getting his mouth covered by Gu Xiang. It was little wonder that he was shocked — it had only been less than half a year since he had seen him, yet Ye Baiyi’s head of dark hair had since turned half white. Looking at him from a distance, he had the same visage carved from stone that was immune to time, but with the gray hair crowning him, a scant, dead aura faintly permeated him.
It was like… the time that had stagnated upon him had suddenly gone into motion. There was nothing seen on his face, only a slight indication visible from his hair, preparing one for when this stone statue was eroded by the wind, and blown away in dust.
Cao Weining stretched out his neck to see, but his line of sight landed upon the sword on Ye Baiyi’s back. It was unclear where the man had gotten it from; if it was not carefully examined, one would almost think that he was carrying a giant anti-cavalry sabre, as it was extremely wide and long. From his broad shoulders, a slanted head and a tail were revealed, as a life-like dragon had been engraved into the hilt and scabbard, its back arching like it was about to fly off into the rolling cloud cover at any moment. Merely by looking at it, one could feel its ferocious air of wanting to move, which seemed to stretch over all the way from the end of the sky.
“That’s… that’s the Ancient Edge of the Dragon’s Back… it…” he mumbled to himself.
Gu Xiang narrowed her eyes, looking over. “What is it?” she asked, not too proud to ask a subordinate for knowledge.
Cao Weining was shaking a little. He gently tugged on her sleeve, barely managing to suppress his voice, but unable to suppress his excitement. “Legends say that there’s three legendary swords. The Spiritual Sword of No Name, despite having no sword inscription, is a celebrity amongst swords, extraordinarily bright and unmatched in the world. The Heavy Sword of Great Famine is a general amongst swords, solid and unsullied, unequaled in bravery and ferocity. Neither of them can compare to the Ancient Blade of the Dragon’s Back, though. It’s a soldier of great viciousness, said to be cast from divine iron, where not even divinities can withstand it… it’s hard to imagine that it’d actually be in the hands of the Ancient Monk’s descendant. All three of these famous weapons have been missing, so I didn’t expect to be able to witness the return of the king of all swords today.”
Hearing his muttering, Zhang Chengling untied Great Famine, which hung from his waist. He knew that what Lord Seventh had given him had not been a falsehood. Recalling his elders’ saying of ‘wealth is not to be revealed’, he had smartly wrapped a layer of tattered, inconspicuous cloth around the outside of the scabbard. “G-Great Famine… is here with me,” he said to Cao Weining.
The latter’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. He accepted the sword with both hands, trembling, reverently using the tip of his finger to push aside Zhang Chengling’s masterpi… old rag, thus revealing the treasured sword, its jewels coated in dust. Eyes practically brimming with tears of emotion, he shakily pointed at Zhang Chengling and babbled incoherently. “This is Great Famine! The General, Great Famine! You abuser of heavenly artifacts! You… peony-chewing cow! You qin-burner! Crane-cooker! You… y-you’ve… practically done the reprehensible sin of burning books and burying scholars alive!”
Gu Xiang quickly shushed him. The four looked over to see that the crowd on the other side appeared to be pressured by Ye Baiyi’s momentum, automatically making way for him so that he had a path straight to the front of Zhao Jing. There was no expression at all on Ye Baiyi’s face, and he appeared ever arrogant, never dismounting, being up at a high vantage point the whole time he pierced through the crowd.
Zhao Jing was astonished by his graying hair at the onset, immediately after which he could no longer keep his expression on… speaking of which, his skills of restrained self-conduct were far inferior to Gao Chong’s, but one had been protecting secrets, while the other had held the desire for murder. That was how the gap in superiority had been established.
He forced himself to clasp his fist, smiling. “It’s you, Young Hero Ye. You’ve really come just in time! Join us in our crusade—“
“The Lapis Armor. Do you have it, or not?” Ye Baiyi harshly cut him off, still not getting off his horse as he looked at him indifferently.
The crowd went into an uproar. Zhao Jing’s face went stiff.
Zhang Chengling and the others listened, hearts jumping in fear. Gu Xiang’s brows furrowed. “What’s going on?” she asked those around her. “Is he not with them?”
“No, Miss Gu,” Gao Xiaolian whispered in reply. “Hero Ye is one of the owners of the ‘Writ of the World’. The Writ’s three pieces, when collected together, can summon the heroes of the realm. Only one of those pieces was in the hands of the Ancient Monk, and he’s ignored worldly affairs for a long time. For Dongting, my dad had personally gone to the foot of Changming Mountain to ask for him, but he just sent a disciple of his down the mountain. Hero Ye only defends the Writ; he doesn’t associate with others at all, acting by himself always.”
After thinking for a bit, she added something on. “Truthfully, dad was surprised to get Hero Ye. Af… after all, there’s rumors saying that the Monk has already passed on.”
Those of jianghu only knew that the Monk existed, and nothing of his name, surname, age, or background. However, calculating the age of the Writ, at least a hundred years had elapsed. That the ‘Ancient Monk’ had long passed during such a long interim was not a very surprising rumor.
Zhao Jing looked annoyed, and needing to raise his head to see Ye Baiyi made him even more unhappy. “What do you mean, Hero Ye?” he asked with a cold smile.
Ye Baiyi squandered not much of an expression, paying him no mind. He merely swept his gaze over his surroundings, then slightly raised the volume of his voice. “It does not matter whether you all fight, or cause a ruckus. Anyone that wants to crusade can do so. However, there is one clause: as long as I am alive, no one should even think of opening the arsenal.”
This man still cared about no one, his tone like he wouldn’t care about the Heavenly Emperor, either. Even Zhou Zishu, one who had self-restraint skills, had repeatedly ground his teeth and wanted to beat him up, to say nothing of these folks that didn’t know of him in detail. Someone huffed coldly on the spot. “Hah, the successor of the Ancient Monk really does follow his name. He’s got a big mouth and a big ego!”
Ye Baiyi’s eyes swept on over. He nearly didn’t see who it was that had spoken — it turned out to be Feng Xiaofeng, who had never sat upon Gao Shannu’s shoulders ever since the latter went blind, instead acting as his eyes and constantly looking out for him. He still had the look of a thorntip that could explode with one bump, and gave no one any face. If ranking with the top in terms of mean words, he could be called a tyrant of jianghu, but he still held some affection for his Gao Shannu.
“I’m not joking around,” Ye Baiyi answered.
“He’s the one that stirred up this situation, right?” Gu Xiang asked Cao Weining, voice hushed.
Zhang Chengling had followed the others to the Puppet Manor in Shuzhong. He knew something of the sequence of events, and whispered to them. “That… Senior Ye… is not a ‘Young’ Hero. He’s really old, and said to be the master of Rong Xuan that had died thirty years ago.”
After that, he explained to them what he knew.
The other three stared back at him for a long time, after which Gu Xiang sighed. “By my own grandma… how long has he been alive? He’s like a tortoise!”
Witnessing her no longer speaking human language, Cao Weining quickly cut her off. “So, that’s to say that the most crucial object in the arsenal is actually… Elder Ye? He came down the mountain, heard about the Lapis Armor, and then went to inquire after the old truth?”
Gu Xiang tugged at him, pointing at the people below. “Hey, look. They’re starting to fight.”
The four moved their heads out from behind the boulder at the same time, carefully observing.
This squad of righteous martial artists all individually harbored their own ulterior motives to begin with; so, of course, there was also a subset incorporated within them that was particularly stupid. They had legitimately been duped by Zhao Jing, resolving to behead evil Ghosts for the sake of the common folk. Ye Baiyi’s words had been a rock smashing down, sending off a thousand waves.
Some people whispered in suspicion, while even more were instigated by those who wanted them to be. Ye Baiyi’s search for a beating roused the mob into rebuking him in a rage. “From how I see it, that guy’s a problem,” one said. “He had been sought out by Gao Chong, and was always following him in Dongting. He has to be his crony!”
Ye Baiyi had always been a gentleman that acted, not spoke. Hearing this, he pulled out a horse whip, and the one in question got a clear view of it coming towards his face, yet still wasn’t able to dodge. He got roughly whipped flying, which left a blood-red mark on his face —a symmetrical one.
Zhao Jing issued a signal with his eyes. Several people pounced at Ye Baiyi at once, and the crowd could barely see how he was moving; the several flew out to encircle him, but in the blink of an eye, each of them were sent rolling back out with missing arms or shortened legs. Meanwhile, the horse-riding Ye Baiyi seemed to have not moved a bit, still steadily holding the tiny jar in one hand and the horse whip in the other.
The man’s martial arts were horrifically high-tier. Zhao Jing’s eye twitched. “Let’s all calm down, first,” someone else was heard to say. “The Ancient Monk has been someone of virtue for a long time, so his descendant certainly can’t be worse. Regardless of whatever happened with Gao Chong, the Writ is infallible.”
Cao Weining’s eyes widened when he heard that voice — the speaker was his shifu, Mo Huaiyang. He couldn’t help but get nervous, one hand clenching into a fist as he sweat. He simply listened to the man use an amiable tone towards Ye Baiyi.
“Hero Ye, what you say must have foundation. You cannot blurt words out at random. We’d be happy to believe you, so I ask that you be blunt and let everyone to know: is the Armor actually in someone’s hands, and are we being used?”
Gu Xiang surveyed with a cool eye, noticing that at this moment, the group had already vaguely split into two factions. Mo Huaiyang had kept silent the whole journey, very subdued, yet had been able get power equal to Zhao Jing’s at some unknown point in time.
This bunch of heroes had gathered up, turned into a rowdy mob, and, before they had even reached the Mountain, began to fight amongst themselves.
She snuck a peek at Cao Weining, even more certain in her heart… that the shifu of this dumb bloke had high ambitions for this trip.
Zhao Jing hadn’t expected that Mo Huaiyang would turn traitor, pretty much itching to tear the man’s skin off. Still, he couldn’t stop Ye Baiyi from talking. Wouldn’t that be a guilty conscience?
Ye Baiyi wasn’t buying Mo Huaiyang’s stuff, though, only speaking coldly. “Opening the arsenal requires two items: the Armor and the key. I’ve investigated for a long time, and can guess that the key is probably in the hands of someone from Ghost Valley. If they also have the Armor, would they have bode their time in wait to fight with you all now? If they vainly attempt to open the arsenal… hah. I’ll have to take on the role of an exorcist, then.”
“The Armor had been in Gao Chong’s hands,” Zhao Jing defended. “Prior to his death, he wanted to join forces with the Hanged Ghost to kill me, failed to achieve that, then died himself. Xue Fang’s whereabouts are unknown, so the Armor is presumably with him…”
Ye Baiyi sneered. “I’ve actually heard that Ghost Valley has constantly been sending people to hunt down Xue Fang, but the Delighted Mourning Ghost, one of his hunters, died a few days ago. If Xue Fang has that kind of remarkable skill, why hasn’t he opened the arsenal yet, instead of hiding away?”
“What the Delighted Mourning Ghost did was the evil of murdering someone for their property. Why would I know anything about these evil Ghosts? More likely than not, the spoils were split unevenly, and both sides are suffering for it. In any case, Gao Chong was sly, and had lots of henchmen; how would I know who he gave the Armor to?”
“Oh. The Armor that the five major families once watched over together has been lost, yet you’re not investigating that like everybody else, instead bringing people to attack Fengya Mountain. Where’s the logic in that, Hero Zhao?” Ye Baiyi countered.
His speech was getting increasingly menacing. Zhao Jing was dumbstruck for a moment, then bit back. “In light of your implication, those nefarious, evil demons that everyone needs to catch and behead… shouldn’t be killed?”
Mo Huaiyang frowned, then meandered behind Ye Baiyi, immediately after which almost half of the crowd followed him away from Zhao Jing’s side.
“Sect Leader Mo, what is the meaning of this?” the latter questioned.
“Don’t speak of other things, Hero Zhao. Let’s just get a clear explanation, then judge things from that.”
Zhao Jing had long been aware that Mo Huaiyang was disloyal. This old devil that’s taking advantage of a fire to loot will be a liability from now on, if I don’t get rid of him here and establish my might, he thought, a fire in his heart.
While he thought, he made a small gesture with his fingers. The people on-scene were in disorder, so none of them noticed, but Gu Xiang’s group caught the abnormality via their vantage point, after which they saw a very plain person behind Zhao Jing slip out of the crowd after seeing his gesture. They kept staring the entire time, then witnessed the person retreat to the outside of the group, and make another gesture in one direction. Inside the dense forest, a black shadow flitted past, holding a tiny crossbow in their hand.
At once, Cao Weining no longer had time to think. He jumped out from behind the rock, his moves of transport reaching their pinnacle. “Shifu!” he shouted, “Look out!”
Gu Xiang wasn’t able to hold him back, feeling a chill in her heart.
Chapter 72. Exposed
Cao Weining flew over, then brushed aside the weapon the Scorpion had shot at Mo Huaiyang. Watching him step forward, Zhang Chengling subconsciously motioned to get up, only to be pushed back down by Gu Xiang.
She sucked in a deep breath, though it felt like it couldn’t sink down into her chest, getting stuck there alongside the scent of the forest vegetation. Her fingers trembled slightly, their tips unconsciously squeezing the clothes on Zhang Chengling’s shoulder. “Don’t move,” she whispered. “None of you move.”
Cao Weining’s sudden appearance had everyone startled in his wake, except for Zhao Jing, who reacted immediately. “Where’s the rat that’s hiding its head and sneak attacking?!”
Someone beside him quickly understood, flashing his weapon as if facing a massive foe. “Careful, everyone!” he shouted. “Watch out for ambush from the evil Ghosts!”
The recent hostile, arguing atmosphere in the crowd changed once again. The Scorpion hiding in the darkness had swiftly evacuated after their strike, not caring whether they had succeeded or not, to the point that the mob couldn’t even catch the assassin.
Gu Xiang watched clearly, the inside of her head a mess. Cao Weining going out right now had been a huge mistake. With the situation like so, there was someone like Zhao Jing, who would most likely use the issue to advance his own goals, and like Mo Huaiyang, who had deep schemes and unfathomable secrets, and like Ye Baiyi, who had rushed over to conceitedly look for trouble…
Mo Huaikong, who had just been thinking to snatch power using Ye Baiyi’s appearance, promptly realized that now was not a good time, since they were all currently still standing on the border of Ghost Valley and everything had turned into trouble. Upon seeing Cao Weining right now, he didn’t think much more on it, merely frowning.
He knew what was going on with Cao Weining, Gu Xiang, and the rest, so he hurriedly called out, “Why did you only now catch up, you brat? Were you using your feet to embroider this whole time? Get over here!”
This made it seem like he had simply been sent by his shishu to go do something.
Even though Cao Weining really wasn’t the brightest, he wasn’t stupid. He verbally agreed, then quietly walked behind Mo Huaikong.
However, if things were so simple, Gu Xiang wouldn’t have instantly been out of ideas; others didn’t care, but Feng Xiaofeng was still around. He remembered that she had blinded Gao Shannu with poison, and considered Cao Weining to be a jackal of the same pack. Seeing him was akin to seeing his father-killing nemesis. “You still have the face to show up in front of everyone, Cao Weining?!” he shrieked. “You’ve taught up a really good disciple, Mo! He’s buddied up with a demon, been seduced by beauty, and aids evil-doers!”
Cao Weining stopped in his tracks, thinking, It’s all over.
Hearing that, Mo Huaiyang’s gaze fell upon Cao Weining, face slightly dark. “What’s going on? Where have you gone to?”
“Shifu, I ran into a few friends from Nanjiang, and helped them to handle some dregs of the Black Shamans,” the other answered respectfully. “I had accidentally cut off contact with shishu. I didn’t know that everyone was here, nor did I expect to have the fortune to meet with you, since I came to find Yo… H… Hero Ye.”
None of that was false, actually. He hadn’t told the total truth, but his body language wasn’t flustered, and his road of thought was clear and reasonable. After this, he clasped his fist towards Ye Baiyi. “Hero Ye, this humble one was entrusted by another to request something of you.”
Ye Baiyi gave him a rather surprised look. “Who did? What is it?”
“There’s a friend that’s been heavily injured, and needs to heal somewhere extremely cold. They’re wondering if Changming Mountain’s sacred site could be borrowed for it…”
The man had no reaction at first, dazed for a short moment, then gave a perfunctory answer. “Tell that friend to do as they will. At the foot of the mountain is Changming Village, and past it is a road that leads all the way to the waist. The area I live in is near the summit, though. Whether you can get there depends on your skills.”
Cao Weining knew that Gu Xiang could hear him, and this could thus be seen as completing one task. “Many thanks.”
Ye Baiyi nodded. As if suddenly getting bored, he turned his horse’s head around without a sound, about to leave this place of right and wrong. Mo Huaiyang shot a glance at Zhao Jing’s group still looking like this matter wasn’t finished, mind racing, then blocked Ye Baiyi. “Hero Ye. Your words have been unclear. Can you really just leave like so?”
The other looked at him. “What else do you want? I’ve already given a clear explanation,” he answered, indifferent. “Zhao isn’t anything good. As for you…”
His stiff mouth revealed a stiff smile, and he spoke coldly, like a corpse come to life. “I don’t think you’re anything at all.”
The corner of Mo Huaiyang’s eye twitched. Zhao Jing had just nearly been forced into dire straits, only able to sigh in relief due to Cao Weining’s interruption. “This Zhao is a rough man,” he said upon seeing this scene, “and I don’t conduct myself with the caution and order that those of you who read do, always acting upon whatever I think up… Gao Chong used to be my brother. What a shit-fated friendship. I don’t know what he was plotting. At this point, I hate him, but I hate Fengya Mountain’s sons of bitches even more!”
His tigeresque eyes opened wide, bulging in a desire to split open, and his hackles instantly raised. “This thing with the Lapis Armor was caused by Ghost Valley thirty years ago,” he shouted. “Thirty years later, this disaster’s arisen because of them yet again! Our power hadn’t been enough before, so we couldn’t wipe out these demons, leading to us being troubled by them instead. There’s so many calamities happening in the martial forest now — is that still not enough?”
The rowdy crowd went quiet once more. Zhao Jing appeared to calm a bit, looking at Ye Baiyi. “Hero Ye, you’ve been in seclusion on Changming Mountain the year round, so you wouldn’t know,” he said, cordial. “There are some things in this world that are not what they appear to be on the surface. I don’t know who’s deceived you, for you to have such a misunderstanding towards me…”
His voice subtly paused there, and he swept a look at Mo Huaiyang.
That implication did not need to be stated. Why had Ye Baiyi suddenly shown up as a lone rider, and Mo Huaiyang taken the lead of others right now? Was that not pre-planned?
After that, his gaze fell upon Cao Weining. “Hero Cao, I’ve always seen you as a young talent with a boundless future, and an honest person that comprehends what courtesy, justice, honor, and shame are, as well as understands what loyalty and filial piety are—”
Feng Xiaofeng stepped forth. Zhao Jing reached out to stop him. “I heard you say that you have conflict with them because of a lady, Brother Feng. There was even a huge fight with many unknown people mixed within, and they abducted Zhang Chengling…“
Cao Weining’s back went stiff.
The name ‘Zheng Chengling’ was eternally linked to the Lapis Armor, a very sensitive subject at the moment. As soon as that came out, even Mo Huaiyang’s expression was off, and he grit his teeth. “What’s going on, you little bastard?”
Mo Huaikong knew the situation; once the elder noticed that things were getting bad, he quickly spoke up. “Cough, that was just a little wild girl that came from who-knows-where. She didn’t know how to speak, and wasn’t civilized at all…”
Feng Xiaofeng laughed coldly, pulling Gao Shannu out of the crowd. “A little wild girl? Is that right?” he asked, shrill. “What you’re implying, Hero Mo, is that our master-servant pair is really useless, where even a random wild girl could go ape on our heads and blind Ah-Shan, hm? Moreover… on that day, did you not meet a little demoness on the road, then deliberately let them go? Is it because you thought she was attractive that you did that?”
Mo Huaikong’s face swelled up like an eggplant. He restrained himself for a long time, but eventually said, “You fucking bullshitter!”
Feng Xiaofeng went mad, tugging at Gao Shannu as he howled. “You old bastard! Don’t even think about shielding that younger bastard, you’re all in the same pack! If you don’t give Ah-Shan an explanation today, your eyes will be compensating for his!”
Thus, all the heroes that had barely been able to stop for a minute got riled up again.
Mo Huaiyang grit his teeth, asking his question word by word. “Tell me, you little bastard… who is that woman?”
Cao Weining lowered his head, taking a step back. At the very same time, the not-far-away Zhang Chengling had to let out a hiss — Gu Xiang’s nails were pinching his skin.
“I heard that there were two men with the woman,” Zhao Jing sneered, “with weird appearances and bizarre martial arts. They took Zhang Chengling away, too. This Zhao is an ignorant one, and I’m not sure where those two came from.”
Experts unknown to the martial world of the Central Plains… was that not directly referring to Ghost Valley?
Mo Huaiyang slapped a hand onto the center of Cao Weining’s chest, striking him over ten steps back so that he could no longer stand, and making him sit on the ground and cough up a mouthful of blood. He covered his chest with a pale face, yet firmly grit his teeth, not saying a word.
Mo Huaiyang stepped up, looking down on him. “Are you still not going to talk?” he continued to pressure.
He lifted his palm and pressed it down upon Cao Weining’s crown, as if he was going to beat him to death. Mo Huaikong opened his mouth, mumbling, “Shixiong…”
“Shut it,” Mo Huaiyang said coldly. “Cao Weining, are you talking?”
Cao Weining closed his eyes.
Gu Xiang sighed. “No matter what happens, you two absolutely must not come out,” she said to Zhang Chengling and Gao Xiaolian, voice hushed. “Keep this in mind: if you two come out as well, all four of us will die here. You hear me?”
“Sister Gu Xiang…” Zhang Chengling started.
Gao Xiaolian suddenly grabbed him. “Don’t worry,” she told Gu Xiang, looking determined.
The other looked at her, nodded, and then her body suddenly soared, appearing before everyone. “Bah, you all suck! What do you want with me?”
Below Fengya Mountain, the weather was suddenly shifting, but it wasn’t too tranquil on Green Bamboo Ridge, either. A scouting Ghost in gray clothes walked up behind Lao Meng, then said something quietly into his ear. The latter paused, an expression that was quite a bit grotesque upon his face. “What did you say? They’re… fighting down the mountain?”
The Ghost nodded.
Lao Meng’s brow was furrowed in shock for a long while. Then, he suddenly began to laugh, the sound getting louder and louder until he was practically rocking back and forth with mirth. “You said… you said that Zhao Jing and them have started fighting down there… hahahaha! Zhao Jing, ah, Zhao Jing! I took him to be an alpha wolf, like a great enemy, but he’s actually just a sheep, getting betrayed by… by a bunch of ‘righteous sects’! That’s just too funny!”
He laughed abruptly, then stopped just as abruptly. In an instant, no image of a smile was on him, and he was now no longer that kind, sincere old servant. The muscles on his cheeks still slightly trembling, a malevolent tinge slowly showed upon them. “Good. Since that’s the case, we won’t worry about them. Let’s start to settle this debt from the inside. Xiao Ke, go get all of our people in the defenses, and move them to… the agreed place.”
The Ghost was taken aback. Immediately understanding what he was wanting to do, his voice was somewhat unconsciously shaky. “Yes!”
Lao Meng tidied up his clothes, forcefully shut his eyes, then concealed his ferocity. Looking like the same good old man as always, he strode for Yama Hall.
Wen Kexing was carefreely idle, in the middle of painting a picture. When someone was sent by Lao Meng to announce him, he only gave an indifferent answer without lifting his head, hunched over like his entire self was stuck onto the paper.
Lao Meng came in, saw that the other was in a good mood with a smile on his lips, and believed that the Heavens really were aiding him. “Valley Master, the dowry that you ordered me to prepare is ready. May I invite you to take a look at it?”
Wen Kexing affirmed absent-mindedly, not looking up. He made a couple strokes on the paper with the tip of his brush for a long while, then said, “Mn. Wait a second.”
Lao Meng obediently bowed his head, lowered his eyes, and waited nearby. The incense stick on the table shortened cun by cun. It was unknown how long had passed before Wen Kexing straightened out his back and contentedly finished up his painting, bobbing his head as he admired it. Lao Meng gave it a brief glance, then saw that the paper scene was extremely simple; it was one tree, several boulders, and a man standing there with no profile, only a view of him from behind.
The man was a bit thin, hints of the bones on his back showing through his loose robes. Lao Meng marveled to himself, Don’t tell me that because this lunatic went out on a trip, he’s actually started to believe himself to be a human, learning how to be hurt by lovesickness?
Wen Kexing set down the painting, carefully weighted it with paperweights, set it aside to dry, then turned to Lao Meng. Upon seeing him, the tender, warm smile he had immediately turned frigid. “Lead the way,” he ordered, terse.
Lao Meng lowered his head, agreed, then turned to go, concealing the fleeting, irrepressible smile at the corner of his mouth.
Chapter 73. The Rules
As soon as he saw Gu Xiang, Feng Xiaofeng went nuts, screeching and throwing himself forward. “Rotten girl! I’ll slaughter you!”
Gu Xiang went ouch, patting her chest with a fake smile. “You’ll scare me to death, Feng. No one’s teamed up with you today. To bully me, a lady — you have absolutely no lenience!”
“Brother Feng, calm down a bit!” Zhao Jing quickly shouted at Feng Xiaofeng. “So many of us are watching. If she really is a bad person, would she still be able to escape?”
Hearing their scrupulousness, Cao Weining knew that they were going to put on a show about her. With a strength he wasn’t sure where came from, he falteringly got up, then put out an arm to block Gu Xiang’s front, ignoring his dull chest pain and coughing. “Everyone, Ah-Xiang has always been naive, never able to hide the words of her mind, but she is still a junior. Even if she has misspoken in any way, I request that you seniors acknowledge that she’s still young and ignorant, and not stoop to her level.”
He turned to Feng Xiaofeng once more, enunciating his words. “As for you, Hero Feng, this Cao has something to say. That day, Hero Shen met with misfortune, the Lapis Armor was stolen, and the hearts of those in Dongting were panicked. Zhang Chengling had indeed been with us, but the one that brought him away was Brother Zhou, and he did so in Hero Zhao’s presence, who didn’t obstruct it at all. We had to take care of it for him. This Feng fellow cannot distinguish between right and wrong, as he had joined forces with a group of Poisonous Scorpions to hunt us down. Were we wrong to defend ourselves?”
Gu Xiang nimbly stuck out her head from behind him, pointing at Feng Xiaofeng. “It’s true! See how he conducts himself? He looks exactly like everyone else owes him eight hundred strings of coins, wanting to fight when nothing’s even been said! Who knows if he’s with that bunch of black-clothed villains?”
Feng Xiaofeng was extraordinarily furious, but when it came to loquaciousness, he couldn’t contend with her; right as the word ‘you’ had bounced out of his mouth, a pile of words had bounced out of hers like jumping beans. The girl put both hands on her hips, her face full of slyness, and then pointed at him. “What about me? My Master gave me that brat to look after, and bringing him along was way too much trouble! He was thinking that everyone else is just like you lot, with your shamelessness being something the whole world knows about! You and that… surname ‘Yu’ for fish or ‘Gui’ for turtle or whatever, who knows what temple you two came out of? People don’t have signs on their faces for whether they’re good or bad, but looking at you, you don’t seem like anything good! What are you trying to find Zhang Chengling so badly for? You’re the same kind of trash as Yu! Hmph!”
She rolled her eyes, the spitting image of a child throwing a temper. In just a few words, she had also dragged Yu Qiufeng into this; the man had currently turned into an old rat crossing the street that everyone was shouting and kicking at, so, regardless of whether something was true or false or a frame or a set up, there would be no issue with pushing it onto his head.
Feng Xiaofeng was taken aback, anger dizzying his head. He hadn’t expected this to go here.
As expected, as soon as she said that, many people started giving him poor looks. Ye Baiyi huffed coldly. “Your type is born not being the stuff for physical arts. You couldn’t even grasp six-harmony spiritual cultivation, so what fight could you put up?”
How could anything nice to hear ever come out of Ye Baiyi’s mouth? Someone laughed at this scene. Gao Shannu roared, then smashed a rock onto the ground, but he was blind — what use would a bit of brute strength have? Looking at the master-servant pair, Cao Weining thought them to be pitiful.
Perhaps due to his injury, he felt especially fatigued, looking at each individual before him not like they were people, but base-growing plants listening to the rain on the wind, praising those above and stomping on those below… because, no matter what, their own heads weren’t getting stomped, so they were happy to watch the excitement.
He tugged at Gu Xiang. “Ah-Xiang, let’s go. I’ll take over.”
She didn’t say much, obediently getting towed away by him. He turned to Mo Huaiyang. “Shifu, this disciple is unfilial, and cannot obey you. In my lifetime, I have no sort of great prospects. Working myself hard won’t get me fame. so I’m simply taking advantage of my youth to change course. Maybe I’ll be an old farmer, relying on some hard swings of tools to grow a lot of little somethings, more than others could. When the time comes, I’ll be sure to have you taste that freshness firsthand every year.”
Mo Huaiyang looked somewhat less stormy, but he still frowned as he looked at Gu Xiang, feeling that despite the girl’s looks being good, there was constantly an unspeakable evil about her. She didn’t look like a woman from a decent family. Yet, when he went to talk, Mo Huaikong started making loud noises out of his windpipe. “Hahaha, I knew you were a hopeless brat! When you have a fat son with your little wife, I’ll be his grand-shishu! You’ll have to treat me to wine on his one-month!”
Cao Weining laughed dryly a few times, thinking, Shishu, your imagination is really getting too far ahead. Gu Xiang’s face was a bit heated, but she let out a sigh of relief, knowing that this blockade of theirs was over with.
Right as they made to leave, someone out of the crowd began to speak — it was the man that had always been at Zhao Jing’s side, who had flashed his weapon when the Poisonous Scorpion struck. There was a blade scar on his face that slanted down diagonally, dragging down dangerously to his neck.
“Please stay a minute, young lady,” he said. “This humble one has a question.”
Gu Xiang turned her head, listening to him slowly continue on. “Didn’t you all notice that the spot she just came out of is somewhere on Fengya Mountain? She trespassed on Ghost Valley, so why haven’t the Ghosts done anything yet?”
The blood left her face in an instant. “I’m thinking that there’s two possibilities,” he kept going. “One is that she has… an interesting status. Two is that when she went in, no one discovered her, but why would a lone girl going in such a place not be found?”
His words could not be any clearer. Even Cao Weining understood them. He looked over in astonishment, staring at her in a daze and unable to speak.
She released his hand, then took a step back. And another.
Zhao Jing narrowed his eyes, purposefully clapping the scarred man on the shoulder. “Hey, what are you saying?” he said, loud. “She’s only so old. What kind of person could she possibly be?”
The man smiled. “Knowing a form and face isn’t knowing the heart.”
Zhao Jing pat his head, thinking. “Well, isn’t this convenient? People of the Valley have a prominent mark on their lower backs. Were there nothing but us menfolk around, nothing could be done, but heroines of Emei happen to be present. You women won’t need to observe propriety, so you can go to a place where no one else is to check. We’ll be able to trust the heroines’ statement.”
Hearing this, the nearby Sect Leader of Emei nodded, giving no refute.
Cao Weining heard nothing, only staring at her. Once he saw her expression, he understood everything. In his impression, she had forever been a careless, happy-go-lucky young lady that knew no schemes; never before had he seen such a wan, dismal, dark look on her face.
Her smile was gone. Her big, limpid eyes looked to be missing the vigor within them, having only a cold maliciousness. She looked not at him, but at the scarred man, genuinely resembling a ghost.
He recalled what Wen Kexing had once said to him that night: Even if she might not be like what you’re imagining, even if… you will find out that you don’t actually recognize her?
How had he answered? In that instant, he was a bit distracted. He had… vowed to Wen Kexing, “Don’t worry. I know her, of course.”
Then, she moved. Her figure was extremely agile, and with but a wink, she overcame Cao Weining to come before the crowd, the scarred man bearing the brunt of it. No one had thought that she would have the guts to attack right in front of everyone.
The man saw that the arrival had no good intentions, subconsciously drawing back. She laughed coldly, abruptly raising her hand — two iron chains shot straight out of her sleeves, going for his face. He bent backwards to dodge, but the chains seemed to have souls, directly winding around his neck. “Hell has no entrance for you to charge into,” she called, sinister. “If you want to blame me, go ahead…”
Following that, she yanked the chains backwards with force, attempting to take off his head at once.
Zhao Jing bellowed angrily, unsheathing his sword to stab her. She couldn’t dodge, posturing like her life depended on it, waiting for the wide-open opportunity of his thrust to throw out a hidden weapon.
“Ah-Xiang!” Cao Weining shouted.
Caring for nothing, he flew out in front, obstructing Zhao Jing’s sword with a clang. He grabbed her hand that was tugging the chains. “Let go! Let’s go back home! Ah-Xiang, let go of him, now!”
She startled, involuntarily loosening her hand. The chains fell to the ground. Unawares, she was bodily hauled several paces away by him, after which she mumbled, “Back home?”
He sucked in a deep breath. “Back home.”
Zhao Jing sneered. “Very good! Since you’re a little Valley demoness, there’s no need to quibble! We’re not letting you come and go as you please!”
Before he was quite finished, a strong gale attacked him from behind. He dodged, flustered, and turned to look. It was Ye Baiyi — he was holding Dragon’s Back, which wasn’t unsheathed, yet had still forced him back from that swing.
The man didn’t look at him, only speaking to Cao Weining. “The friend you just talked about is a brat with the surname Zhou, right? Take me to find him, and I’ll send you both elsewhere.”
Everyone was shocked by his act, watching blanking as he was about to bring Gu Xiang and Cao Weining away without ever getting off his horse.
“You dare to leave, Cao Weining?” Mo Huaiyang finally spoke up.
Cao Weining’s back stiffened. He stood, turned, and opened his mouth. “Shifu…”
“You go with them,” the other said coldly, “and from now on, you will not be a part of my Qingfeng Sword Sect. Fall into the way of evil, and in the future… I will send myself down the same path of principle that all martial artists do, and we will be irreconcilable!”
Cao Weining’s form seemed to way, and Gu Xiang quickly reached out to support him.
“Think this over well,” Mo Huaiyang said. “Don’t allow one mistake to lead to infinite sorrow.”
Cao Weining stood there, blank, for a very, very long time. Gu Xiang felt him grasp her hand for a split second, release it, then hold it even tighter. “Shifu, I pledged to a friend that for my entire life, from that moment until my death, counting every single second, there would never be any time when I would let Ah-Xiang down… you’ve taught me since childhood to do what I say I will, and do it to completion. I can’t eat my words in regards to her family.”
Mo Huaiyang looked ashen. He clenched his jaw for a long while, then coldly laughed, giving off three successive ‘good’s. He abruptly turned, as if he didn’t want to look at him anymore.
Cao Weining knelt; Gu Xiang frowned, hesitating a bit, then knelt alongside him. The former kowtowed three times in Mo Huaiyang’s direction, and there was an audible sound every time his forehead landed on the ground, blood promptly showing up on it. “This disciple is unfilial!” he cried out, eyes shot red.
After that, he turned to Mo Huaikong and kowtowed thrice again, gritting his teeth, yet unable to say a word. Mo Huaikong peered at him, antsy and wanting to say something, but also feeling like everything he could say would be wrong. All he could do was curse furiously. “Shit! What is this?!”
Gu Xiang then helped him up, Ye Baiyi in wait at the side. Mo Huaiyang turned back around, eyes flashing. “Weining,” he called, voice softened, seeming somewhat fragile.
Cao Weining’s heart skipped a beat. “Shifu…”
The other took a deep breath. He hesitated for a while, then beckoned for him. “Come over here. I have a few things to say to you.”
Ye Baiyi creased his brow, disdaining this bothersome master-disciple pair. He watched as Cao Weining was already going over, then turned his head away; this eternal parting had nothing to do with him, really.
Cao Weining took a few steps forwards, then knelt, using his knees to crawl up before him. Mo Huaiyang looked at him with complicated emotions, shut his eyes, then put his hand on his head with a sigh, as if he was still a little child. “In your generation… I’ve cherished you the most.”
The other choked up. “Shifu, I…”
He couldn’t speak further, as this scene of tender emotions suddenly changed its tune. No one had expected that after Mo Huaiyang finished saying that sentence, his hand that was caressing the top of Cao Weining’s head would suddenly exert its strength without warning, pressing down upon his crown with the force of ten thousand catties.
Cao Weining immediately spurted blood from all seven orifices. Gu Xiang screamed, and blood splashed onto Mo Huaikong. The latter couldn’t react, staring wide-eyed at the one that was still kneeling… and after Mo Huaiyang let go, Cao Weining collapsed to the side without a sound.
Mo Huaiyang hooded his eyes. “My Qingfeng Sword Sect, ever since its initiation by its founding master, has always assumed the duty of rectifying righteousness, and upholding the four virtues. Never before has a traitorous disciple come out of it. This Mo is ashamed that my instruction had not been to standard, to have produced such an unorthodox, unfilial one. I had no choice but to… tidy up the sect. In order to apologize to the world, I ask you all…”
Mo Huaikong looked at him incredulously. “I’ll fuck you up!” he roared in rage.
The other paused for a short moment, then finished the rest of his words, no change in expression. “…to mock me.”
Gu Xiang abruptly threw herself at him, looking to have gone insane. In that moment, her mind was a blank expanse, and she had only one thought left — kill.
“I’ll kill you all!” she shrieked. “I’ll kill every single one of you!”
Quick to react, Ye Baiyi darted over, then hand-chopped her gently on the back of her neck. Her body fell limply, and he caught her. Coldly sweeping his eyes across everyone in front of him, he ultimately settled onto Mo Huaiyang. “You all heard what she said.”
No one responded to him.
He nodded on his own, holding her atop the horse. “This humble one has gained insight,” he threw out, then left, kicking up no dust.
Gu Xiang was unconscious, but a tear still fell from the corner of her eye.
As it was… with the way this world worked, the righteous and the demonic could not coexist, nor have a nice chat. He was righteous, while she was demonic — they were destined to never be together. Those were the rules. Rules were set by majorities of the world’s people, and those who complied, yet wanted to rebel, had to have patience, throw caution to the wind, and bravely go against that overwhelming majority.
Succeed, and one could jump out. Fail, and…
Lao Meng had no idea that the things he had gotten ready were no longer needed. Surprisingly, he genuinely had prepped the ‘dowry’ Wen Kexing had asked for, filling up the ground of a courtyard with it in a way that had something of a ‘ten li worth of red adornments’ feel. Precious braziers for posterity, twin bowl sets for posterity, mahogany trunks, wardrobes, plus all sorts of makeup cases and jewelry boxes, implements of gold and silver in full gamut, and even a few sets of phoenix crowns and red dresses were all there.
Wen Kexing had gotten to his age without ever witnessing any sort of wedding, nor ever drinking a drop of wedding wine. He was learning for the first time that new brides were really so painstakingly cared for, browsing over it all with a lot of enthusiasm. He also purposefully held the ‘dowry art’ aloft, standing there and carefully studying it for a time, after which he came to a conclusion. “This artist is good, but not as good as the unique style of a friend of mine.”
Lao Meng was following ingratiatingly behind him. “Do you mean to have it switched out, Valley Master?” he quickly questioned.
Wen Kexing inclined his head to look at him, smiling falsely as he put the ‘art’ back, then randomly sat down upon a mahogany trunk nearby. “Do you know what phrase I just remembered?”
The other’s heart jumped, feeling that it wasn’t going to be a good one.
However, he heard Wen Kexing say: “Taking off your pants to let out a fart is doing too much.”
Lao Meng raised his head, gaze crossing with Wen Kexing’s. A short moment later, he lowered it again. “This subordinate… does not understand what you mean, Valley Master.”
Chapter 74. War
Wen Kexing watched him silently, gaze like an awl, as if he was about to pierce into his core. Lao Meng suddenly felt a little panicked, automatically going over all his own mental calculations from start to finish.
Rebellion. He hadn’t started planning for that only just recently, but for a long time beforehand. Back when Sun Ding and Xue Fang began to overtly and covertly fight, he had already started to scheme and prep. The Hanged Ghost pilfering the key, betraying the Valley, and leaving had practically been an opportunity given to him by the Heavens.
He still remembered how the man before him had gotten the position of Valley Master eight years back. He had merely been a young, unknown man that Lao Meng had never taken notice of, only thinking that the delicate-featured fellow being able to bring his little girl to live in a place like this was something rather amazing.
The former Valley Master of the time was dissimilar to the present one, and had honed in on flashiness. Yama Hall hadn’t even been as desolate as it now was, frequently full of song and dance.
The old Master seemed to have appreciated him. In what way had he appreciated him, though? Lao Meng wasn’t certain, as back in those years, no one had dared to say anything. Regardless, he had been transferred over to be a close attendant of Yama Hall, occasionally giving him pointers in martial arts when in a good mood. Wen Kexing would show up behind the Master from time to time, standing in a set spot, never speaking too much, and always following the rules, like a wooden man that didn’t talk or move.
Yet, it was this wooden man that had, one night, set the insides of Yama Hall into a sky-soaring blaze, those organ-tearing, miserable screeches seeming to linger around its roofbeams for three days afterwards.
Silently bearing with it for three years, one half of the former Master’s attendants went with him. Anybody that opposed would get rended apart, thrown into a fire, and roasted well the day of. Like so, killing a few would make the rest have no rebuke, no matter how stupid they were.
Xue Fang ate a maiden’s heart every month, and Sun Ding liked to drink wine paired with human blood, but even they both thought that that night had been a nightmare. The blood within the Hall had looked to be smeared all over. The former Valley Master had howled for over two shichens. Some said that Wen Kexing had sliced him into pieces, staunching the bleeding all while he cut, then forced him to eat those pieces. Others said that he had skinned him, peeling him whole while he still lived.
When this man came out from inside, he had been wearing a bright red robe. At that moment, no one could tell whether it had been red to begin with, or had been dyed with fresh blood. His face, forever wooden and placid, had shown a smile for the first time before all.
“He’s dead. I got rid of him,” they had heard him say. “Anyone unconvinced can come fight me, but otherwise, be good and obey from here on out.”
After that came a war, a royale, a massacre… and then the dust finally settled.
There was no sort of conspiracy. This was exactly how to survive in the Valley — the strong were respected, and that was it. Wen Kexing trusted no one, except for the girl he had raised, so on his second day of being the Valley Master, he had immediately ordered for the extra people of Yama Hall to be cleared away. In the Valley, no living thing apart from Gu Xiang was allowed to come within three chi of him without permission.
He was temperamental, unreadable, and of ever-mysterious whereabouts.
Over those eight years, secrets got all the deeper. At times, Lao Meng would even get the illusion that the man, from the strands of his hair down to his fingernails, did not have a single area about him that wasn’t permeated with the horrific stench of blood; he was a through and through madman, born to slaughter. For that reason, Xue Fang and the rest preferred to fight amongst themselves before anything else, refusing to enrage the lunatic when their wings were not yet developed, and they still could not kill him in one blow.
Coming to this day… Lao Meng believed that he had since made proper preparations.
Everything was ready, except for one little thing.
Inside the Valley’s unrest, while the Ghost Master had wandered outside without return, Lao Meng had not remained idle. Now, he grasped control over seventy-percent of the Valley’s personnel. Even if this man truly did have three heads and six arms, even if he truly did have divine, peerless arts…
Zhao Jing was nothing to be worried about, as once he caught Xue Fang and got the key in his hand, he would have his goal. Thus, Lao Meng settled himself, then raised his head to meet Wen Kexing’s gaze. “Please give enlightenment, Valley Master,” he said, unworried.
The news of Zhao Jing’s group fighting beneath Fengya Mountain had not only reached Green Bamboo ridge, but had quickly been delivered to the Scorpion’s ears in that small town. In the middle of listening to a sixteen-year-old girl singing in a teahouse, he frowned upon hearing this, feeling that this was an unexpectedly thorny issue.
The praying mantis hunted the cricket, only for a siskin to be behind it. But if the mantis shrank back at the approach of battle, quitting and putting down its claws, that would be a bother, too.
He pondered for a short moment, then spoke into the arrival’s ear for a spell, who withdrew with their order.
Grabbing a handful of melon seeds, he ate them quite merrily while he kicked a nearby Poisonous Scorpion with his toes. “She sang well, so reward her… hm, the old guy playing the qin wasn’t bad, either. Reward them both.”
The girl thanked him for the money, helped up her grandpa that was shakily holding a huqin, and slowly left.
They went all the way to the outside of the door, after which the elder took out the majority of the money he had just been given and passed it to her. Once he opened his mouth, the voice that came out was extremely slow, hoarse, and aged. “Good child, take this and buy some snacks. Rest your throat well.”
She refused it. “That won’t do, mister. You’ve constantly been giving money to me these days, but what are you going to do, yourself?”
As it turned out, these two were not an actual grandparent-grandchild pair. “Cough, just take it, take it,” the old man said, waving his hand. “I am an old one that has a today, but no tomorrow. Why should I demand payment? I can just scrape by with what I need. Your father is still sick, and can only come out to perform with you if he’s cured quickly, yes? Furthermore, if it wasn’t for your good singing, who would watch a decrepit elder like me play?”
Her face went red, as she really was pressed for cash. She stood there at a loss, not sure what she ought to do.
The elder didn’t give her an opportunity to refuse it, turning to slowly leave with his huqin. As soon as he was somewhere that no one else was, the old man that looked to have a foot in the grave suddenly became invigorated. His muddied, slack gaze focused, brightening unusually, and his back straightened out — where was even a bit of that hobbling look at?
He was the Scorpion-tailing Zhou Zishu. When the Scorpion had lowered his voice to speak, bystanders couldn’t have heard, but Zhou Zishu’s strong hearing had caught it clearly. He was a tiny bit surprised; he hadn’t expected that Zhao Jing’s group would fight amongst themselves before even getting on the Mountain, which made the situation even more complicated. It signified that the minds of those inside that formation weren’t uniform, and that there might be many that each harbored their own motives, getting ready to do something rotten.
For the sake of compelling them to be on the same page, the Scorpion was sending his Scorpions to sneak-attack while pretending to be Ghost Valley’s people. Zhou Zishu lightly furrowed his brow. He thought about Wen Kexing’s circumstances in the Ridge right now, as recently, there had seemed to be an atypical calm in the Valley. That Wen trash hadn’t… had anything happen to him, right?
He suddenly wanted to throw the Scorpion away and head straight for Fengya Mountain, but he was still Zhou Zishu, after all. That notion merely flashed past his brain, then was suppressed — the present gameboard was in chaos, and all the factions were already on it, aside from the Scorpion. Hastily mixing in with it would instead make him liable to be unclear on its shape, so it would be better to just follow said Scorpion.
That guy… since he had been the Ghost Valley Master for so many years yet still had all his limbs, he should generally have some capability.
Zhou Zishu unconsciously streaked his fingers across the strings of his huqin, making a faint sound, and then his figure disappeared into the alley.
The Scorpion had come prepared, getting more than thirty Scorpions to ambush Zhao Jing’s group. Clearly, he had long been planning to fish in besieged waters, having no sort of good intentions… because those thirty had ghost-face tattoos patterned on them, the ink for which had been separately obtained from Lao Meng and Sun Ding. That was some real forward-thinking.
Zhao Jing’s group had just endured many misfortunes. Mo Huaikong had nearly come to blows with Mo Huaiyang, only barely able to be held back. Everyone was unsettled, and then, all of a sudden, a group of uninvited guests arrived, catching them badly off-guard. The people in black, who had come out of who-knew-where, were extremely cunning, both battling and retreating, not getting rashly tangled up. If someone couldn’t be beaten, they ran, but it wouldn’t take them long to take advantage of someone’s inattention to pop out again.
The scarred man took the clothes off one’s corpse, exposing the ghost face that the Scorpion had deliberately made up beneath the crowd’s staring eyes. Zhao Jing frowned, then looked at Mo Huaiyang. “Sect Leader Mo, the time is now. The problems between us should be discussed a bit later. We’re all very sad over you losing your beloved disciple, but this is a period of life and death for the martial world. I hope that you’ll weigh the situation at large!”
Mo Huaiyang thought about it. Feeling that he could not put on a rival stageplay to ‘life and death of the martial world’ for right now, he silently acquiesced to Zhao Jing’s collaboration. The group of heroes that had dawdled for so long at the mountain’s base finally remembered what they were supposed to be doing, and with an order from Zhao Jing, they fought their way up the mountain.
In order to handle Wen Kexing, Lao Meng happened to have transferred the majority of his manpower to the vicinity of Yama Hall, practically allowing those warriors to enter a no-man’s-land. The war, given a push by the Scorpion, had finally begun.
Behind Yama Hall, Wen Kexing was heavily surrounded. He grinned, thinking that Lao Meng really had a high evaluation of him, to confront his foe like so. Those beside him, once cowed by the Valley Master’s might, had noticed the strife and changed sides — that was how Wen Kexing himself had killed the former Master.
In Ghost Valley, if there was no even match-up, and one side looked to be slightly weaker when viewing the scene, there would be a huge quantity of people immediately going turncoat. That was because ‘loyalty’ had never existed here, only the weak having no choice but to attach themselves to the strong, and once an even stronger person emerged, the one from before would no longer have use.
Wen Kexing swept a look at the bow and arrow in the hands of the person nearest, raising a brow at Lao Meng. “Xue Fang hasn’t yet been found, and Zhao Jing is still at the mountain’s base. With such troubles inside and out, you’re still itching to take care of me first?”
He remained having no look of surprise or panic at all. Lao Meng’s heart was getting increasingly bottomless, and he suddenly felt that the downmountain Zhao Jing and missing Xue Fang were both nothing compared to the man in front of him.
Right at that moment, a gray-clothed Ghost hurriedly barged in. “Zhao has brought people in for an attack!”
Lao Meng hadn’t anticipated that Zhao Jing would settle his dilemma so quickly, instinctively sensing that something was off, yet having no time to think deeply on it. It was instead Wen Kexing who dragged out his voice, rueful, and with a lot of schadenfreude. “Oh, how awful. Is this not a fire burning the brows?”
Lao Meng scowled viciously, took in a deep breath, and waved his hand. The archers of the innermost surrounding layer looked at each other, then slowly lowered their arrows that had been aimed for Wen Kexing. Lao Meng cupped his hands at him, using the same deferential tone as ever. “Valley Master, now that the Valley has reached this plight, I believe that we should both take a step back and resolve the newcomers. We’ll discuss this later, yes?”
Deal with the outsiders first, continue wrangling later; Lao Meng was worthy of being a bad egg, as once he had torn off his face, he would do away with sham politeness and just be forthcoming.
Wen Kexing crossed his arms over his chest, looking as gentle as a spring breeze. “I’m a general that’s fallen in rank to a prisoner of war. What else can I possibly say?”
The corner of the other’s eye twitched. With a motion of his hand, he made a path. “If you please, Valley Master.”
Ye Baiyi hadn’t senselessly gone to get mixed up with them, as he wasn’t interested. All he did was place Gu Xiang on his horse’s back, steering the horse, bearing Dragon’s Back, and holding the small jar while he slowly went in the opposite direction. After a non-great amount of time, she woke up. Without shifting, she got up on her own, dazed for a minute, then turned to lay her back on the horse. Gazing at the sky, the horse’s bumpy steps seemed to make the Heavens jolt as well.
She stared and stared. Tears dampened the hair at her temples, but she seemed to not feel them.
He looked back at her, reining his horse as he found it hard to keep quiet. “Dry your tears.”
She bit her lip. “I’m not crying,” she whispered.
Even though she had said that, her tears seemed to be deliberately acting against her. They fell, track after track. She raised her hand and wiped them off, then wiped them once more, but no matter what, she couldn’t wipe them clean away, only able to unconsciously rub at them again and again.
Ye Baiyi hadn’t anything to say to such a young girl to begin with, so he had no idea what to do upon seeing her like this. After a half day of thought, he said stiffly, “How about we go back and fetch your lover’s corpse.”
He had been trying to console her, but her tears only fell all the harder.
Since that didn’t work, he frowned. “Don’t cry. Everyone dies, or… what are you thinking of doing?”
Gu Xiang abruptly sat up, jumped off the horse, then buried her face in her sleeves, as if she was about to suffocate herself to death on them. A while later, she looked back up. “Zhou Xu and them are at an inn in the outskirts of Luoyang. Go find him.”
With that, she turned and left.
He got off to stop her. “Where are you going? You can’t defeat that guy. I’d advise you to—“
Not looking back, she stubbornly straightened out her back, then bounded for Fengya Mountain, vanishing without a trace.
Ye Baiyi subconsciously lifted his hand, placing it upon the tiny Writ pendant on his chest. Being speechless for a short time, his horse simultaneously got a bit impatient and rubbed against his graying hair, which seemed to only then bring him back to his senses. He sighed, lowered his head to look at the jar, then mounted the horse again. “Ah, Changqing. I’ll find that unfilial son of yours for you,” he said to himself. “Don’t worry. I’ll have someone bring him home for you, too.”
Chapter 75. Finale (I)
Zhao Jing’s horse was in the lead as he brought them up Fengya Mountain. “No need to worry, everyone,” he shouted. “The evil Ghosts are no better than…”
His voice suddenly trailed off, and he appeared apprehensive as he raised his head to look in Yama Hall’s direction. He saw a group of Ghosts in gray file out; they made no noise when they walked, as if their feet never hit the ground, partitioned by air. Both sides stood solemnly. A ghost-faced banner silently rose, billowing viciously in the wind, the hazy, setting sun dying it a blood-like color.
A tall, jade-like man donning long, dark red robes stood on the other side. Hands encased inside his spacious sleeves, his head was down, and he had some inattentiveness, as though he was in a daze whilst he viewed something unknown.
With a raise of his hand, everyone stopped in their tracks along with Zhao Jing, hemming in on observing the man. Looking at the environs, Lao Meng was standing a little further in, nearly overlooked by others while the man in red drew in all gazes. Like he had been disturbed, the latter slowly turned around, allowing them to get a vivid view.
“It’s you?!” Zhao Jing cried out.
Wen Kexing raised his brow. “Ah, Hero Zhao. It’s been a while,” he answered softly.
He had seen Wen Kexing not just once before this, but on this meeting, he felt like the soul inside the other’s shell had been switched out. No matter how he viewed him, he looked grotesque, making him slightly aghast. Wen Kexing slowly descended the stone stairs, and it seemed like every step forward he took had a compelling pressure. Zhao Jing involuntarily took a step back, thereafter forcing himself to bear with it. “You… you’re the…”
Wen Kexing gave a mn. “My trifling, untalented self is indeed that evil-filled boss of the Ghosts that everyone’s been talking about,” he explained, very understanding of the other’s emotions. “I hope everybody can forgive me for all that disrespect from before.”
Zhao Jing had witnessed his moves a few times and knew that his martial arts were decent, yet still wasn’t taking such a young man seriously in any way, merely feeling that something was off about this situation. Before he could think deeply on that, however, someone leapt into the air behind him. “You’re a bastard just pretending to be powerful!” he shouted.
With no time to stop him, Zhao Jing only caught sight of that elder being one of Qingfeng Sword Sect’s ‘Huai’ generation, Mo Huaifeng. Zhao Jing’s thoughts turned around; he knew that because of what had happened with Cao Weining, Mo Huaikong had turned back before the fight. This was Mo Huaiyang scouting for dignity by putting a half-hand out, then quietly shrinking back with the intention to observe from a safe spot.
Mo Huaifeng didn’t care that he was possibly being taken advantage of for being lower in rank. Not being polite with anybody, he drew out his longsword, then went for Wen Kexing like a storm. In front of everyone’s eyes, the red-clothed man went down the steps as casually as ever, not dodging, looking as if even the width between each of his steps was invariable. Then, all of a sudden, Mo Huaifeng let out a heart-splitting scream, and his entire body collapsed to one side.
Wen Kexing’s hands were still hung parallel to him, the smile he had completely unchanged. Zhao Jing hadn’t even seen how he had moved.
Mo Huaifeng fell to the ground, twitching all over non-stop. A couple of gray Ghosts standing nearby shifted to encircle him, eager excitement showing on their faces, yet they dared not to move, only peering at Wen Kexing impatiently.
The latter inclined his head towards them. “It’s already gotten to this hour,” he said, softly. “Why are you still being polite?”
Zhao Jing and the rest didn’t understand his implication, at first. In the wake of his command, the Ghosts surrounding Mo Huaifeng suddenly shrieked inhumanly, then pounced on the man that was unable to resist like a bunch of children massing together to play with a bug. In no more than a blink of the eye, Mo Huaifeng was torn apart, his entire body cut into pieces — he could not possibly be more dead.
Blood sprayed out beautifully, one zhang high. Zhao Jing’s pupils shrank.
These were actual evil Ghosts!
At that moment, Wen Kexing was already standing three stone steps away from him. Zhao Jing could finally no longer put on a brave front, recoiling one huge step back as he held his weapon horizontal to his chest. “You… you actually dared to…”
“I don’t think you understand yet, Hero Zhao,” the other began, sounding like a soft breeze and fine rain. “Exit Green Bamboo Ridge, and it’s the human world. Upon coming to said world, you must properly act like a human. For instance, if a child suffers bullying by others, you save them. If a beauty is unhappy, you console them. If someone gives food, you give them coin. If you see someone in trouble, you lend a hand. What is all that? …It’s being human. But, when we’re all here, there are no humans. And the act of conducting oneself like one…”
He stopped, then turned to glance back at the Ghosts that had just been stained with blood, yet were still eager to move. Laughing, he stretched out a finger, then wagged it twice before Zhao Jing’s eyes. “Contend with us, and you’re bound to die, because we don’t have elders, children, men, or women. Here, there are only malevolent ghosts that want lives.”
He coolly raised his hand, lightly stirring his sleeve, and looked at their group condescendingly. “Oh, would you look at that. There hasn’t been any visitors to the Valley in many years, so I got excited and talked a lot. In what way are you hallowed, Hero Zhao? That one hadn’t conducted himself like a human would at all; do you need me to bring up the reason for that? Tell me: yes, or no?”
Mo Huaiyang stepped forth, standing abreast of Zhao Jing with an unsightly expression. “Alone, we won’t be the opponents of this monster,” he whispered into his ear. “We’ll act together.”
Zhao Jing was having trouble getting off the tiger he was riding. His gaze jumped over Wen Kexing to see Lao Meng standing a bit behind the main gate of Yama Hall, along with the cryptic look he had, and inwardly understood the other’s likely plan; this was killing two eagles with one arrow. Right now, he no longer had any means of retreat, so he had no choice but to toughen up, let out a roar of fury, and lunge.
That was akin to a signal, which the two parties standing opposite received simultaneously. The brawl began.
Meanwhile, the Scorpion had already detoured around to the other end of Fengya. He looked up to gaze at the rolling, verdant mountains. “Beautiful,” he mumbled, “really beautiful. Fengya Mountain is one of the most stunning views in the human world. What a pity… that this is a prickly beauty that can only be observed from a distance, not played around with. Do you think it looks good?”
The one he asked was a masked Poisonous Scorpion beside him, who followed his line of sight, then looked like he had just received some kind of assignment. “Yes!”
The smile on the Scorpion’s face curbed by half. “You’re really no fun.”
“Yes!” the other said again.
It was like the guy could only say one word. The Scorpion’s interest in sightseeing vanished, face cooling down. “They should have already set to task. We’ll go up now, and be right in time to reap the benefits — my client, Lao Meng, spent a lot of money, so he’s waiting to coordinate with me from the inside.”
“Yes!” the other said yet again.
The Scorpion ignored him, beginning to walk forward on his own. The well-trained Scorpions immediately followed after; whether they were a group of real people, or a big bunch of puppets, was practically unknowable.
After a period of walking, a gray blur flashed over in front of them. The black-clothed Scorpions revealed their hooks, only to be stopped by the Scorpion. The Ghost craftily swept his eyes around in a circle at the dark crowd, and, likely not having swept to any conclusion, turned to the Scorpion. “Mister Impermanence asked me to receive you, Scorpion Master. If you please.”
The Scorpion smiled with a half-bow. “Thanks for your trouble.”
…To be blunt, this was what it was to let a wolf into your own house.
The sky gradually darkened. Before Yama Hall, reality resembled the unending netherworld; corpses were piling up, shouts and screams rose and fell, and, regardless of whether they were a ghost or a human, no one could wield their personal sense of integrity. As soon as the fracas had started, none were able to keep a hold on the situation, and even the hiding Lao Meng had quickly gotten dragged into it.
Wen Kexing’s dark red robes had now changed to the utmost of bright, his face that could be described as handsome splattered entirely with bloodstains. It wasn’t clear whether those were from himself or someone else, but he didn’t appear to know what exhaustion and pain were, not looking the tiniest bit tense. Using his fingers, he gently wiped off his browbone, uncovering a pair of eyes whose blacks and whites were in stark contrast. As if he was in some sort of majestic ceremony, he faintly held a crazed, yet at-ease smile.
It was unknown how long this battle had been fought. Zhao Jing could feel his heart hammering like thunder, wave after wave of blackness coming before his eyes, but he firmly grit his teeth and bore with it. Then, he caught sight of Wen Kexing’s smiling visage, and got a chill, sensing that the man wasn’t wanting to kill him immediately. Like a vicious beast catching its tiny prey, he wanted to have fun playing with him before he’d be willing to take a vicious bite.
Zhao Jing hollered and threw himself over once again, sabre hacking towards Wen Kexing’s chest — a wide open, and a wide close, such as how a river would flow into the sea. This was one of his signature moves. The veins in his hands swelled with true qi, looking like they were about to burst.
A life-saving gambit, and also a life-toying gambit.
It was a strike as exacting as lightning, made with all-out strength and an immense momentum that could cleave mountains and oceans. Wen Kexing gave a small gasp, seemingly a bit surprised; even with his skill, he couldn’t dodge it entirely. Frowning slightly, he could only turn his body to the side to keep his vitals away, then brace himself as he doggedly resisted the blade with the flesh of his shoulder. Its edge cut horizontally into it, and Zhao Jing spat out a mouthful of blood, both in extreme pain and wild joy.
However, he could not take a step further to follow it up. Wen Kexing grasped his sabre’s blade with both hands, after which a massive force shook Zhao Jing off of it. He stumbled a step back, retreating desperately, but with no real support, he collapsed onto the ground.
Before his eyes was darkness. The mountains turned upside down, and there was an incessant rumbling in his ears — a single hand then gripped his throat, and his entire body was lifted upwards. He fought to open his eyes wide, meeting with the other’s gaze.
“Take a good look at me,” he heard Wen Kexing say. “Everyone always says that I look just like my father. Has my appearance gone awry over these years? Or is your conscience so burdened with guilt, you’re too afraid to acknowledge it?”
Zhao Jing stared at him vacantly for a long time. All of a sudden, he violently began to struggle.
Wen Kexing slowly sucked in a breath, then sighed. “You went so long without recognizing me, that I was under the impression that I might have thought wrong, haha… Hero Zhao, thirty years ago, Long Que and one other bore their sins and fled after witnessing Rong Xuan kill his own wife. Madam Rong had passed the key off to that someone. There were only three people on scene, then; Madam Rong died, and Long Que never said who the other one was all the way until his death. Yet, the location of the key was leaked, and it got to the point that a married couple withdrew from jianghu to live incognito in a small mountain village, terrified, for over ten years, hiding away from the world, yet unable to hide from the evil Ghosts. What went on with that?”
Zhao Jing only felt bursts of acute pain in his insides. With his throat blocked, it couldn’t take in a single breath, and he vainly tried to use his hands to break away Wen Kexing’s iron-like fingers, eyes starting to roll up into the back of his head.
“After he came back from the dead, Rong Xuan’s personality had greatly changed,” Wen Kexing soliloquized. “But could that have gotten to the extent that he wouldn’t be able to distinguish friend from foe, and ruthlessly kill his own wife — and so easily? Even a rabid dog would still recognize its owner… so who did all that, then? Who was it that had interrogated Madam Rong about the arsenal key, then killed her when he had no need of her? Who had escaped in a panic because someone else was coming, and who hid away somewhere secret, knowing everything that had happened? Who was so talentless, that he sold out the whereabouts of Wen Ruyu and his wife…?”
The other was no longer moving. Wen Kexing’s eyes were blank. Seemingly unaware of what night it was, he released his hand, allowed the man’s body to fall noisily to the ground, then stood there absently for a time.
Right then, Mo Huaiyang decisively snatched this opportunity to launch a sneak-attack from behind. Hearing the sound of wind, Wen Kexing startled, forcing himself to set his qi into motion — but Zhao Jing’s sabre was still stuck in his shoulder, and he couldn’t dredge any up!
At the same time, a light swish was heard, and a high-flying knife swept over, its strike slanting Mo Huaiyang’s sword away. A monstrous-looking maiden coldly stood before him. “I told you before,” she said, dragging her words out, “that I’m going to kill you.”
Wen Kexing was stunned for a good while. “Ah-Xiang?”
Due to that nickname, her ice-cold expression could no longer be maintained, tears falling down it. She slowly turned to him, squeezing out a smile. “You can keep the dowry, Master,” she whispered. “Brother… Brother Cao, he…”
After that, her voice choked off, and she flung her head away in order to not look at him, like if she couldn’t see him, she wouldn’t seem weak, or aggrieved.
A scream thereafter sounded through the air. Lao Meng shut his eyes, giving off a relaxed smile — that was the Scorpion arriving. He knew that his victory was secure. Upon opening his eyes once more, the chilling light in them sharply rose, because right now, Wen Kexing had his back to him.
With a light raise of his hand, a cluster of cold glints shot out of his sleeve.
Gu Xiang noticed that her eyes were getting stung by something before her tears were yet dry. She suddenly leapt forth and tackled Wen Kexing, the two of them getting thrown down to the ground together.
Wen Kexing’s eyes went wide. This moment might have been only a single second’s time, but to him, it felt as long as a passing eternity.
He lifted the hand that he had subconsciously placed on her back when they fell. It was dripping with fresh blood — the girl’s entire back looked like something had exploded it open. He nearly believed that he had just been touching bone and viscera.
Her head was on his chest. Forcefully lifting it up, she gave him a smile, breath like gossamer. “Master, I said I was going to kill him, but that was a bluff. I don’t… have the skill… kill him for me, I’m begging you… kill him… for me.”
He nodded woodenly. Gu Xiang looked pained, and she felt aching, cold all over. It was like all of her warmth was pouring out of her back. She had to hold tightly onto his lapels, like a little girl. “It’s f-fine if I die… Brother Cao definitely would have wanted me to live well… but I… I’m not going to… be able to… Master…”
Wen Kexing covered her head with his bloodied hand. “Don’t call me Master,” he said, gentle. “Call me gege.”
She attempted to force a smile, but failed. No longer obeying her, her limbs began to spasm, and her eyes gradually unfocused. “Gege, you have to… kill him… for me…”
Lao Meng, still fearful of Wen Kexing, had immediately retreated when his attack had missed.
Wen Kexing slowly got up, laying Gu Xiang’s body out flat, then reached up and firmly pulled Zhao Jing’s sabre out of his shoulder. Half of his body was numb, no strength able to be put into it, but the malevolent qi about him grew even heavier.
“Alright. I’ll kill him for you,” he said, as if talking to himself.
Mo Huaiyang had noticed that things were inauspicious, and, more slippery than a loach, had since fled. Wen Kexing’s gaze swept across the crowd. With his still-usable hand, he snatched a Ghost in gray. “You saw the man with the sword that had just been standing next to Zhao, yes?”
A gurgling noise came from the Ghost’s throat as he shakily pointed at a direction.
Wen Kexing smiled. “Thanks much.”
His fingers then pressed in hard, and the Ghost’s head instantly broke apart into a pile of messy flesh.
Chapter 76. Finale (II)
Lord Seventh was in a restaurant, cup of tea in hand as he messed with a heap of sticks on the table. He looked serious, as if his divinings were actually reliable.
Smiling slightly, the Great Shaman sat quietly across from him, feeling extraordinarily calm and delighted as he watched him amuse himself.
However, he heard the other gasp a bit. “This divining… looks a bit interesting.”
Lord Seventh side-eyed him. “Don’t you think me to be inaccurate?”
The other smiled. “When did I ever say that?”
“I gave you a palm reading in the capital ten years ago, but you, as a little brat, said that I was full of nonsense and didn’t even come close,” Lord Seventh answered, counting on his fingers.
The Great Shaman’s eyes curved, showing a bit of a nostalgic expression. “Right, I remember. You said that my bond-signifying heaven-line is long and deep, I’m an infatuated person, and my journey of love will be anything-goes, with great luck and benefits,” he continued, gentle. “You also said that the one I admired was a staunchly loyal woman. I didn’t believe you then, but looking back on it, you actually got it pretty much right. Except for the ‘woman’ part.”
Lord Seventh was taken aback, eyebrows twitching, then seemed to somewhat bashfully lower his head to drink his tea and vainly avoid the other’s gaze. “You remember that pretty clearly, punk,” he mumbled.
Wu Xi laughed. “You divined for Manor Lord Zhou and the rest? What did it say?”
The other paused, his lowered eyes gliding over the sticks again. “One placed within a land of death will fight for their survival. The shape of the divination says…”
He appeared to want to go on and on about this, but upon getting up to there, he unexpectedly trailed off, smile falling. He tilted his head to see down the stairs. The Great Shaman followed his line of sight, only to see a man come in through the door.
He furrowed his brow, as well. The man… had something indescribable about him. He had a head of white hair, a heavy sword on his back, and a small jar in his hand. The instant he entered, the scarce amount of people inside the restaurant all seemed to pause, gazes drawn to him.
As if sensing something, the man looked up to cross gazes with the Great Shaman.
The latter’s eyes focused in, and he let out a small exclamation. “That’s the Ancient Blade of the Dragon’s Back,” he muttered. “This man…”
The arrival was Ye Baiyi. After a stop in his tracks, he suddenly went straight for the two. “Is a guy named Zhou Xu staying here?” he asked.
Lord Seventh sized him up, thoughts turning around and around. “You are… Ye Baiyi?”
Ye Baiyi nodded, sitting next to them without any bit of politeness. “I’m looking for him.”
“He’s tailing the Poisonous Scorpions to Fengya Mountain. You can wait here for him, or I can relay anything you have to say to him.”
The other looked him up and down, thinking about it. “Are you the one the Cao kid said could treat that brat, Zhou Xu?”
Lord Seventh pointed at the Great Shaman. “That’d be him.”
Ye Baiyi’s eyes landed on the latter, slightly inquiring. The Great Shaman was only looking at his white hair. “This is the result of the real ‘six harmonies mental cultivation’, right?”
Turning his head, he saw Lord Seventh looking intrigued, and patiently explained it to him. “One that practices the six harmonies has only two paths; they either qi deviate, or reach the pinnacle, having the alleged arts of being one with the Heavens, unable to construct without destruction.”
Ye Baiyi sneered. “There are no ‘arts of being one with the Heavens’ in this world. If humanity and the Heavens weren’t separate from each other, living would be of no interest.”
The Great Shaman gave him a look. “This cultivation method has reached the top tier, and can be stated to be divine arts that are unparalleled in the world, to the extent that one won’t age or die. However, it has a flaw in that one can never eat warm things from that point on, needing to drink snow water and cold food when passing their days.”
As he said that, Lord Seventh’s eyes went to Ye Baiyi. The latter was in the middle of very casually rinsing out a cup and then pouring himself some hot tea, which he delivered to his mouth. “With your strength, you shouldn’t have a head full of white hair, nor an aura of death,” the Great Shaman said, also watching him. “That’s been caused by you leaving the extreme cold of Changming Mountain and eating the food of ordinary humans, isn’t it?”
Ye Baiyi stiffly pulled up the corners of his mouth into a smile. “You’ll understand once you live to my age, kid — dying after a year of being a living human is much better than continuing to be the living dead for centuries in that place.”
The Great Shaman shook his head. “I’m perfectly alive. I also don’t practice martial arts for turning into the living dead.”
Ye Baiyi paid no mind to his lack of courtesy, merely gazing at the liquid in the cup like he was viewing someplace far away through it, eyes twinkling. It was a long time before he spoke. “Many years ago, a friend of mine had a setback in his martial practice. I wanted to save him, but didn’t have the skills you do, so there was only one road to take. Afterwards, he felt sorry, and brought his wife with him to accompany me in seclusion on Changming. There’s a ruined temple there that people off the mountain have no clue about, and believe that an immortalized monk lives inside.”
As he spoke, it seemed like he had been hiding these words for too long, unable to keep himself from grabbing everything and pouring it out before two strangers he had met by coincidence. He thought about how if he didn’t say more now, there would likely be no other chance for him to say it in his lifetime.
“That friend was a hard-hearted one, but actually had no sense. Their family of three frolicked in front of me all day long, and I hated those eyesores… I taught his kid martial arts, but at some point, the brat started having thoughts about the six harmonies. His mother wasn’t a stupid woman, but… she was a mother, after all.”
Saying as much, he shook his head despondently. “I wasn’t thinking, either. If something was good, why couldn’t I give it to him? I treated him like my own…”
He couldn’t continue, only sighing.
“The Writ of the World once appeared thirty years ago,” the Great Shaman took over. “You are Rong Xuan’s shifu?”
“That’s me.” Ye Baiyi nodded. “Not long after I had come down the mountain, I sought out Qin Huaizhang, the former Lord of Four Seasons Manor, to follow the kid’s trail. Back then, though, the Manor’s wings weren’t filled out yet, so its power was limited; all he found was Rong Xuan’s corpse, and the thing about the five families’ descendants and the Lapis Armor was vaguely touched upon. The investigation later got cut short, owing to my friend, Changqing… he felt that he had let me down, and was suddenly suffering the pain of mourning his own son. Sicknesses of the heart are difficult to treat… he was near death.”
The Great Shaman nodded. “So, that was Senior Rong Changqing.” He thereafter turned his head to fill Lord Seventh in. “Senior Rong used to be called ‘Ghost Hand’, and was a famed craftsman of his generation. Great Famine, which you gave to the child, and the flexible sword, which you gave to Manor Lord Zhou, were both made by him.”
Ye Baiyi’s face was as stiff as ever, but his mouth raised into a smile. He grazed the rim of his teacup with his fingers. “That’s him. That flexible sword is actually the ‘Sword of No Name’. Since it had no name, it changed to ‘Baiyi’ after it got to my hands, but that Zhou guy didn’t recognize the goods the had. He likely still hasn’t learned, either.”
“In the years since… Elder Rong’s death, have you had to face Madam Rong day and night?” Lord Seventh suddenly asked.
The other’s smile suddenly turned somewhat bitter. “Yeah. Changqing is dead, so I don’t know why she still keeps me company in immortality, in that place that’s a coffin for the living. I don’t have anything to say to her, either. Typically, I just practice my arts while she lives her own life. At the start, she could nod or exchange empty pleasantries with me, but later on… later on, we came to be mutually silent. Thinking about it, I haven’t said a word to her in over a decade.”
Lord Seventh took a divination stick and lightly struck it against his teacup, not saying a word.
Ye Baiyi drank down the rest of his tea in one gulp, stood up, and placed the small jar he held onto the tabletop. “I’m not going back. Since you lot are going to go to Changming with that Zhou guy, help me out by bringing Rong Xuan and his wife with. Their family of four can go on by themselves.”
Now done speaking, he turned to leave. Lord Seventh suddenly called out to stop him. “Have you still not let him go after all these years, Brother Ye?”
The man turned back to look at him. “I never held him to begin with. How could I let him go?”
With that, he departed in strides, sword on his back.
I’ve finally returned your son to you, Changqing. Your family can reunite, and Dragon’s Back will accompany me. In our next lives… we won’t be seeing each other in the world.
If not home, where shall I go today?
Meanwhile, on Fengya Mountain, a group suddenly showed up right when everybody was equally exhausted. It was as if they had dropped down from the sky. Their leader was a young man dressed in silks, and behind him was a trailing black mass of Poisonous Scorpions.
Right then, the scarred man that had been by Zhao Jing’s side suddenly came out and knelt down on one knee. “Master,” he called out to the Scorpion.
What a shame that Zhao Jing was already dead, else he would have no idea what to do in this situation. The Scorpion nodded, gaze sweeping across the area; with full satisfaction, he discovered that out of his three customers — Zhao Jing, Sun Ding, and Lao Meng — two-and-a-half out of three were now dead. All that remained was Lao Meng’s bloodied half-self, who was looking at him ecstatically with a face of relief.
The Scorpion laughed coldly. “I trust every hero here has been well since our last meeting,” he stated in a peculiar tone.
The smile on Lao Meng’s face stagnated. He looked on as the Scorpion waved his hand, and then as the black-clothed Scorpions filed up to encircle the entire scene. “What is the meaning of this, Scorpion Master?” he raged.
The other grinned. “I’m collecting my interest.”
Following that, he laughed crisply and loudly, feeling that on this earth, no one was superior to he. Regardless of whether one was of the righteous or demonic faction, they would die while he would live, and none of them could get out of the scope of his manipulations.
He was so overly self-confident, that he didn’t realize that one of the Scorpions he had brought with him wasn’t conforming.
The day before the Scorpions had moved out, Zhou Zishu had snatched an opportunity to become one by substituting for another. He was taking a risk, but luckily, the Scorpion’s desire for control was so strong, his people normally said nothing other than ‘yes’. He had been intending to be close to the Scorpion so that he could easily deal with him when the time came, yet, upon coming to the scene and surveying it, he didn’t see Wen Kexing’s figure at all!
Noiselessly, like an invisible man, he had mixed in with the Scorpions without batting an eye, gaze searching about all over the place. All of a sudden, his eyes widened as he caught sight of a familiar figure behind a huge boulder. It was… Gu Xiang?
His heart jumped rapidly. In the span of a second, all sorts of scenarios streaked across his mind; why was Gu Xiang here? She got injured? Where was Wen Kexing?
He took a deep breath, forcefully controlled himself, and carefully withdrew from the crowd. After slipping behind the boulder, he slowly leaned over, stood there rigidly for a minute, then stooped over to gently search for breath beneath the girl’s nose using his hand. He knew that there was no logic behind such an action — her body was already cold, that ever-smiling face no longer having any life to it.
A long while later, he straightened back up, then let out a breath that had been stuffed up tight in his chest. Savagely tearing both the mask and disguise off of his face, he thought to himself, Damn it all, where did Wen Kexing go?
At this same exact time, the Scorpion had finished gloating, and then couldn’t help but be startled. He had also realized that the Ghost Valley Master wasn’t present.
The Hanged Ghost still hadn’t shown up at this point, and the Ghost Master was nowhere to be seen. A dark cloud seemed to be covering the Scorpion’s head.
The more he thought, the more disquieted he was. Increasingly feeling that the remainder of those left here were nothing to be worried about, he thus called a Scorpion over, ordered such and such from him, and then went to search Fengya Mountain himself with the rest.
If he did not watch the one he was fearful of die in front of him, it would forever be hard for him to be at ease.
Mo Huaiyang believed himself to have escaped. He had fled more than half a shichen away from Fengya before he sighed in relief, yet, all of a sudden, a burst of rustling noises came to his ears. He quickly lifted his head up, then immediately took a huge step backwards in fright.
Wen Kexing was like the King of Hell come to life. His pace was slow as he exited the other end of the forest. In one of his hands was a sword he had picked up from some unknown dead person, and its tip dragged as he walked over, step by step.
“Sect Leader Mo,” he said. “This humble one was entrusted with seeing you off on your journey, if you please.”
With every step he took, his tattered sleeves trailed on the ground, leaving thin traces of blood behind them. His walking posture was a bit off, as if he was stubbornly hauling along half of his immobile body. While he was speaking, a minute wound on his face had split open to seep once more, and he lightly lapped up the blood that fell from it, still approaching.
Mo Huaiyang gritted his teeth. He knew that Wen Kexing was an arrow nearing the end of its trajectory — was the Ghost Valley Master a god? The other had been besieged by several experts, solo, for several shichens, then had been stabbed by Zhao Jing prior to his death. Anyone else would have fainted long ago, so he didn’t believe that the man was capable of doing much.
Even with those thoughts, though, his calves still slightly shook.
Wen Kexing tilted his head to the side, chuckling. Mo Huaiyang suddenly roared madly, and the Qingfeng Sword once held by Sect Leaders past was unsheathed. Exerting everything he had learned in his entire life, he made a maneuver that was air-tight.
The other also made a move. One of his hands was useless, which made the action very sluggish, and his worn-out sword was turned into several pieces by Qingfeng. Mo Huaiyang was delighted, turning his hand around to pare off the arm with the ruined sword, but there was only an afterimage left of the one in front of him, and then, he was gone.
Mo Huaiyang mentally exclaimed that this wasn’t good, and in the next second, there was a chill on his neck. His entire body froze.
Wen Kexing’s broken chunk of sword was stuck in his throat, ice-cold fingers seeming to bump up against his skin. The man sighed. “I’m out of strength,” he whispered.
Immediately after that, he pushed his hand forward, and blood spurted far out of Mo Huaiyang’s neck. The latter convulsed all over as he collapsed, making gurgling noises from his throat. Soon, his blood all drained away, and he stopped moving.
Wen Kexing appeared to be unable to keep on standing. He stumbled, then miserably fell into a sit on the ground. I’m sorry, Ah-Xiang, he vacantly thought, for allowing him to die so quickly.
Ah-Xiang. What an aggravating little girl… for more than ten years, he had lived in darkness, no daylight. The sole living thing that had accompanied him was now gone.
Footsteps sounded out from not too far away, and then a familiar voice was heard to speak. “No wonder I hadn’t seen you, Valley Master. Turns out you’re just here, cooling off in the shade.”
Wen Kexing felt that he ought to stand up, kill this man, and then keep on living, but he didn’t have one bit of power to muster up. All he could sense was weariness. Mutely turning his head, he looked at the Scorpion and his ill-intentioned grin.
After twenty years of bearing with humiliation for the sake of his goals, and everything he had been wanting to do now being accomplished… was he going to die here?
Chapter 77. Finale (III)
In spite of Wen Kexing’s tragic, powerless appearance, the Scorpion still stood two zhang apart from him, beaming and clucking his tongue. “How unexpected, how unexpected.”
Wen Kexing was still able to force out a smile. “What’s unexpected?” he asked lightly.
The Scorpion shook his head. “Ghost Master, no matter how impressive and capable one is, when they fall into such a plight… who can say how the ways of the world go for certain?”
The other sucked in a breath that only seemed to reach his chest, making his answer very feeble. “How wrong you are, Brother Scorpion. I’ve been the Ghost Master for eight years, yet have never had one day of peaceful sleep. What’s so ‘impressive’ there?”
The Scorpion pondered this, then nodded. “You’re right. People like us don’t get the happy, worry-free lives that commonfolk do.”
Looking at this extraordinary, uncommon man, Wen Kexing smiled. “I dare not compare myself to your world-encompassing ability, Brother Scorpion. Me being unable to sleep well was only because I was afraid that someone else would kill me. Now… there’s finally no need for me to be scared anymore.”
“That’s true,” the Scorpion said with a nod. “You’re about to die, so there’s naturally no need for you to fear death.”
“Lao Meng… you killed him?” Wen Kexing suddenly asked.
The man laughed mockingly. “If I didn’t kill him, wouldn’t I just be waiting around for him to kill me first, then? That was your devoted old servant, Ghost Master, but he still wholeheartedly wanted you to die. Why trouble yourself with keeping him on your mind?”
Wen Kexing nodded at that. “How many… are left alive in the Valley?”
The Scorpion felt that this guy had way too many hang-ups, but replied anyways. “Do you need to ask? Zhao got rid of half, and the remaining half of the injured ranks inevitably fell into my hands. How unthinkable of you to be so magnanimous. You have no time to look after yourself, yet are still worried over the lives and deaths of the Valley’s people. Out of successive generations of Ghost Masters… you really are the most affectionate and loyal one.”
Wen Kexing silently laughed. His expression was somewhat bizarre, but he still sounded calm. “Evil Ghosts on the verge of death are still Ghosts. They likely weren’t easy to deal with.”
“There are those amongst my men that are suicide warriors,” the Scorpion answered, not concerned in the least. “A couple hundred of them dying isn’t much. Nor do I care.”
“Okay,” Wen Kexing said, shutting his eyes. “You’re very driven and bold in style, Brother Scorpion. You deserve to be the formidable figure of a generation… ah, Lao Meng. The most tragic thing about him is none other than the fact that despite clearly being on the board, he still believed himself to be the one holding the pawns. Laughable, isn’t it?”
His lips could barely be seen to move on those last few words, which were almost difficult to hear. Seeing this, the Scorpion looked to be reassured, and he stepped forward a bit. “Of course. You’re someone that’s open-minded, Ghost Master… hand me your hook.”
As soon as he put his hand out, someone placed a weapon onto it. He restrained his grin as he looked at Wen Kexing, who was leaning against a tree and already finding it challenging to move. “Someone like you should be done in by my own hands. Using another for this would be rather rude.”
While he spoke, he raised the hook horizontally across his chest, then slowly came forwards. “Please go on ahead to Yellow Spring Road, Ghost Master.”
He then raised the hook up high. Wen Kexing opened his pitch-black eyes, gazing at him calmly; there looked to be pools of stagnant water inside them. It was like the one that was going to die was not him.
All of sudden, the Scorpion felt a strong gale attacking him from the side. Its intent to kill was much too prominent, and all of his hairs were made to stand on end from that murderous aura. With a loud shout, he hefted the hook even higher to obstruct it. The new arrival was a black-clothed man dressed as a Poisonous Scorpion, yet with no mask, and the flexible sword he held dodged past the hook to unshakably wind around the Scorpion’s arm — the man screamed as said arm was swept up, after which it fell clean away from him.
The few Poisonous Scorpions behind him promptly and obediently came forth in reaction. All that was heard was a spell of clanging noises, and seen was an eye-dazzling display. In a wink’s time, the dust settled; one stood alone while several laid, and every one of the latter was missing their weapon-wielding arm, whether they were even alive or not.
Wen Kexing got a clear view of the newcomer, only to sigh. “Idiot,” he whispered. “Why did you come here?”
Zhou Zishu shot him a glance out of the corner of his eye, smiling coldly. “I came to collect your corpse, you loon.”
The Great Shaman’s medicine had suppressed the Seven Acupunctures nails, and Zhou Zishu’s skill was now reinstated to about ninety-percent of its peak period. Even if he fought alone and out in the open, there was no way the Scorpion would be his match, to say nothing of what he had just done being classified as a sneak attack.
Zhou Zishu turned to him, the tip of his Baiyi sword slightly hanging, voice slightly harsh. “You dare act against who’s mine?”
Wen Kexing stared blankly at the back that was blocking his sight. His fingers that were dangling down to the ground faintly began to tremble.
The Scorpion’s complexion was paling from the pain, but he squeezed out a smile anyways. “Ah… it’s you, Brother Zhou,” he managed. “I didn’t know that you would be gracing us with your presence. My mistake.”
He looked eerily at the two, then waved his hand. “An expert has arrived, so we won’t be inviting ridicule for ourselves. For us, the green hills never change, and the clear water runs forever — retreat!”
The few still-living Scorpions scrambled up and swiftly followed after him as he drew back. Zhou Zishu didn’t give chase, merely turning around to look at Wen Kexing.
The latter’s eyes flashed, but he smiled. “You should still be careful about…”
Before he could finish, Zhou Zishu’s pupils shrank. His body whirled around, and Baiyi turned into a pretty pattern of afterimages. It struck something with a ding, following which a muffled grunt came from the forest in back; he shook his head with a sigh. “Using the same trick twice on the same person… do these Scorpions do anything other than the same old stuff? From that alone, how are they on par with Four Seasons Manor at all?”
Wen Kexing stared at him for a minute, entranced, then began to smile, reaching a hand up high to grab the air.
Zhou Zishu frowned. “What are you doing?”
“There’s… light around you,” Wen Kexing whispered. “I’m catching it so I can see.”
Zhou Zishu raised a brow slightly. Crossing his arms in front of his chest, he leaned against the trunk of a big tree. “Actually… Xue Fang isn’t even around, is he?”
Wen Kexing kept grinning. He looked at his own fingers obsessively, then loosened them a little, as if something might leak out of his completely empty palm. His voice was still extremely quiet, and his breaths were like fine silk, as if they could be cut off at any time. “You could tell.”
“What about the real key?”
“Lost, since I threw it off the top of the mountain,” Wen Kexing answered slowly, narrowing his eyes.
Zhou Zishu nodded, suddenly not knowing how to react. With no key, there was no point in having the Lapis Armor, and everyone that had fought to the death on Fengya, ultimately fighting themselves into corpses, had not known unto death that what they were fighting over was actually just a pile of junk.
“It took me three years to secretly foster Sun Ding,” Wen Kexing softly went on. “How else could such a braindead moron be a rival to the Hanged Ghost and Ghost of Impermanence?”
“After that, you lured the Hanged Ghost into stealing the key when their fight was getting white-hot.”
Wen Kexing laughed. “I didn’t have it, yet they all wanted it… thirty years ago, evil Ghosts of all sizes began to long for the arsenal. The Lapis Armor belonged to the five major clans while the Ghosts weren’t yet established, so they didn’t dare to act too rashly, only able to get things going with the key,” he explained in a whisper.
Then, he turned his head away and coughed twice, which brought some traces of blood out with them. He gently wiped them off of his face before continuing. “Back in the day, Madam Rong gave the key to my dad. They all thought that only three had been present, then. Madam Rong died, and Long Que safeguarded the secret to his grave… if things actually had been like that, the world would have been very peaceful, wouldn’t it?”
“There was a fourth?” Zhou Zishu creased his brow, following which he had a quick realization. “Was it Zhao Jing? He… didn’t have any real power back then, so since he was unable to talk about this with people from righteous sects, he secretly joined up with Ghost Valley?”
“Eh, probably… they’re all dead now, in any case.” Wen Kexing let out a cold laugh, remaining silent for a long time before he took a deep breath. “It’s ridiculous that Madam Rong and the rest never ended up telling my dad what exactly the key they gave him was, all for the sake of keeping their secret. He only saw it as something important that could never be thrown out, which was why he took my mom to hide out in a small mountain village for a full ten years… alas, on the year that I was nine, something unfortunate happened in that village. An owl—“
“Enough,” Zhou Zishu interrupted. After a minute of quiet, he softened his tone. “That’s enough. It’s already been so many years, you don’t need to…”
“My parents believed that they were implicating the villagers,” the other went on regardless. “They wanted to fight until the bitter end, and simply sent me away the night of. I wasn’t worried and didn’t know my own weight, so I snuck back. I saw…”
He sighed, slowly raising his head to gaze at the vague, dim sky. “I saw… my dad’s body, cut into two pieces. My mom was collapsed to the side. Her hair was in disarray, her clothes weren’t their original color anymore, her face had been mutilated, her nose had been cut off, the outline of her features was unseeable, and a staff had pierced her through her chest and out her back, passing right under her shoulder blades. Do you know how I recognized her?”
Zhou Zishu watched him without a word.
“I liked pretty people when I was young, and thought that my mom was the most beautiful person in the world. I liked to cling to her and tell her to carry me, so I got used to seeing her shoulder blades. Even when I die, I won’t forget that.”
“That’s how the key landed in Ghost Valley’s hands, but… how did you…?”
“Me?” Wen Kexing raised his brows, then suddenly started to laugh. The more he laughed, the louder he got, until a whimper-like noise finally came out of his throat. It was unclear whether he was actually laughing, or sobbing. “Me? I stumbled several times on my journey there, and came to look like a filthy mud monkey long before that. The second those evil Ghosts noticed me, I believed that I was going to die, and stood there stupefied. One came over and grabbed me, but then I subconsciously bit him, making him yell and say, ‘It’s a little lunatic.’ The people surrounding me laughed. One woman said that she wanted to peel my skin off to turn it into a human-leather coat when she got back. I was horribly scared… so I thought up a solution.”
Zhou Zishu’s throat bobbed slightly, brow slightly creased, yet he still said nothing.
It had already gotten late in the day. There was utter silence all around. Wen Kexing coughed a few more times, then continued. “I… right under all their watching eyes, I walked over, laid on my stomach, and bit mouthful after mouthful off of my dad’s corpse. He wasn’t easy to chew through, and it took a long time to tear pieces off, then swallow his flesh down into my stomach… and I put a little thought into my head; was I not made of his blood to begin with? As they watched, they slowly quit laughing. Ultimately, the man I had bitten was in charge, and he said that I had been born a Ghost, so I shouldn’t remain in the human world. After that, he brought me back with him to Ghost Valley.”
Zhou Zishu leaned down, then placed a hand on the side of Wen Kexing’s face. Perhaps due to blood loss, the man’s eyes were slightly unfocused, and his skin was freezing; upon feeling warmth, he unconsciously tilted his head to nuzzle into his palm. “I’ve been here for a full twenty years,” he said, breathless. “For the first twelve, I desperately survived, desperately climbed upwards, desperately… for the next eight, I had finally climbed to the top, and prepared for my main event.”
“You secretly aided Sun Ding, forced the Hanged Ghost into dire straits, baited him into stealing the key, tailed him, killed him, and then disposed of both his corpse and the key,” Zhou Zishu picked up. “This created the veneer that he had fled, thus making Ghost Valley come out in full force to hunt him down. You watched Sun Ding and Lao Meng each harbor their own motives, watched them—“
“In this world,” Wen Kexing cut him off, “there is only one thing that can destroy evil spirits… and it’s the human heart.”
He abruptly turned his head to the side and coughed like his lungs were splitting open, inner breath turbid, the sensation of suffocation accordingly inundating him. Suddenly, a hand was pressed against the center of his back, and a soft current of internal force spread throughout his meridians and channels instantaneously, faintly clearing up his consciousness.
Seeing him slowly pass this breath, Zhou Zishu instantly curbed his efforts. “You’re out of strength, but your wound is more serious in comparison. It needs to be wrapped up to staunch the bleeding, else I’ll be too afraid to help you set your internal force into motion.”
Then, he looked into Wen Kexing’s eyes. “I’ll ask you this; do you want to live?”
The other watched him in silence for a very, very long time. “Will you… leave me?”
Smiling lightly, Zhou Zishu shook his head.
Like his life depended on it, Wen Kexing clenched his jaw, grabbed his hand, and forcibly propped himself up. “Live… why wouldn’t I want to live? Why couldn’t I live?! All those shameless, vile people of the world get to live, so why… why can’t I…? I have to…”
He could no longer easily get his breath back, body swaying as he panted nonstop. Zhou Zishu sighed, sealed up his main acupoints, then picked him up in his arms, going off the mountain.
He brought the blood-covered man to that small town. It took no less than two days for Wen Kexing to awaken, where he could barely manage take in some food and drink. After a few more days, Zhou Zishu hired a carriage to bring them to Luoyang, but, right before they set out, they happened to run into Gao Xiaolian and Zhang Chengling.
The latter was still in shock. As soon as he saw him, he immediately threw himself at him and cried painfully, sobbing and hiccuping. “Shifu… Brother Cao, he…”
Gao Xiaolian’s eyes were red, as well. Zhou Zishu sighed. “I know,” he gently said, and placed his palm on top of the other’s head to soothe him.
Immediately after that, Zhang Chengling bust out another sentence: “Shifu… I-I killed someone, too… I killed someone…”
Zhou Zishu’s hand froze. Wen Kexing, who was reclined inside the carriage, also shifted his gaze over, looking at the little devil in astonishment.
Gao Xiaolian clenched her fists. “I had my part in that, too. Don’t cry — that guy was a villain! He deserved to be killed! We got lost on Fengya Mountain, then came across a man dressed in gaudy clothes. After following him for a bit, we learned that he was actually the boss of the Poisonous Scorpions. For some reason, though, his arm had been cut off, and he looked to have been hit with poisoned needles…”
Zhou Zishu looked pleased, while Wen Kexing couldn’t resist letting out hushed laughter. “After that, the guy seemed like he couldn’t keep his Scorpions under control,” Zhang Chengling supplemented, “and they f-fought each other…”
“You two used the confusion to eliminate the Scorpion?” Wen Kexing quietly asked.
Zhang Chengling made a stalling noise, feeling that even if the other party had been a bad guy, his own act of using another’s crisis was also very despicable.
The man laughed out loud — this was what it was to have a guardian deity watching over you.
Afterwards, Gao Xiaolian dried her tears and said farewell to them, heading back for Gao Manor. After enduring all sorts of trials, the girl had grown up over the span of a night. Zhang Chengling went with Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing to Luoyang, and after joining up with Lord Seventh and the Great Shaman, the ashes of Rong Xuan and Madam Rong were brought up Changming.
Following a month of recuperation, the Great Shaman began to remove the nails from Zhou Zishu, re-connecting his meridians.
Heavy snow fell from the Heavens on Changming that day. Wen Kexing stood outside the room, seeming to be mentally calm even as he heard cries coming from inside. Lord Seventh pat him on the shoulder all of a sudden. “Don’t worry, okay? If it was anyone else, there would be only a thirty-percent certainty, but it’s Zishu. Nothing will go wrong.”
Wen Kexing turned his head to look at him.
Lord Seventh smiled. “Since he was able to bear with putting the nails in himself way back when, why would he be scared when they’re pulled out? He’s…”
His succeeding words disintegrated, but a small smile was on his face, as if he was reminiscing about something.
Lord Seventh appeared to have an odd charisma that made one stand by his side, then calm down in his wake. Even so, Wen Kexing’s calm lasted only a short moment, after which he turned away and left. This prettyboy really does look like a huli jing, he thought to himself. I need to be on guard.
This action completely mystified Lord Seventh himself.
After being in a total coma for three months, Zhou Zishu woke up at last. He felt like an entire set of heavy shackles had been unburdened from him, his entire body becoming lighter, sans his right hand — that was being gripped tightly by someone who was apparently exhausted, as he was leaning to the side for a doze.
Zhou Zishu was momentarily distracted, thinking of the events that had led to this point just as if they were from a lifetime ago.
In the end, however, he simply stared at their entwined hands for a while, smiling gently. Yesterday, he had died when he had gone to bed, then awoken as someone new the next. The years that had passed were for nothing other than awaiting someone like this, who could stay with him both morning and night, holding his hand.