Extra 1: On Changming
Changming Mountain was coated in snow the year round. Upon looking all around, everything would be a vast white, like misty clouds beneath the feet. In the environs was a couple of tiny thatched huts and one small courtyard, resembling a place that an immortal would live apart from the world.
Lord Seventh was currently warming up wine.
A rich aroma faintly wafted out, then far away via the window, the spitting image of ‘unfiltered wine with green foam, and a little red clay stove.’ The man seemed to be able to live life in elegance and comfort, even if he had been reduced to living in a forest deep in the mountains.
With a book in his hands, the Great Shaman sat beside him, and would occasionally be puzzled, then raise his head to ask some questions. Lord Seventh’s lowered eyes were staring at the tiny stove; he didn’t even need to think about any of what was being asked, as the answers came naturally to him. Had he not been born into the Prince Estate, he would have been full of enough literature to exam his way to fame.
Whilst the Great Shaman idly chatted with him, he went to clasp his hand. “Are you cold?” he whispered.
Lord Seventh shook his head at that, drawing the stove closer. Gazing out the window, he suddenly smiled. “Take a look at this place. It could be described as having a thousand mountains with no flying birds, and ten thousand paths with no human tracks. It’s only been a few days, yet I can’t even tell what night it is.”
The Great Shaman’s heart jumped. “You like it here?”
Lord Seventh side-eyed him with a grin. “If I said that I did, would you be able to accompany me in living here?”
The other considered this for a while, looking serious. “Lu Ta is still young… but if you really do like it here, I’ll go back and instruct him properly, then after a few years pass, I’ll hand Nanjiang over to him so that I can come live with you. How does that sound?”
Taken aback for a second, Lord Seventh then pfft out a laugh and lightly smacked him on the forehead. “You really are a dull club that takes everything seriously,” he mumbled. “Who’d want to live in this hellscape? The air’s cold and the ground’s frozen. Nanjiang’s still fun, at least.” Then lowering his head, he smiled. “It’s ready to drink.”
He brought out wine cups, carefully poured two of them, handed one to the Great Shaman, and took one for himself. Putting it under his nose, he inhaled deeply, then narrowed his eyes. “As it goes, one boon covers for a hundred uglinesses. Only those that still smell of alcohol after being boiled belong to the top grade. There is a saying; ‘three cups, and I enter the great Dao, one dou, and I’m one with nature.’ There are a hundred kinds of anxieties in the human world, and only this can solve them, as—“
His speech was suddenly interrupted by a bunch of crashing and crunching noises. He sighed, his refined mood of drinking as he recited poetry immediately getting swept away, and took a sullen sip. “Those two fleas never give it a rest all day long,” he rebuked in a whisper. “I can tell that Zhou Zishu’s just fine, so let’s say our goodbyes in two days’ time. My ears need to be at peace.”
Zhang Chengling’s exercise didn’t normally make so much noise, so, generally speaking, this overabundant, building-demolishing ruckus had to be from his two shifus exchanging blows.
The Great Shaman had said that as long as Zhou Zishu was able to wake up, the most dangerous phase would have since passed. It was obvious how the man had endured a lot of toughening up; he had awoken feebly for a few days, but after no more than a third to half a month, he was already able to get up. A few more days after that, he became a little more energetic, running and jumping, starting without stopping.
It was mystery as to who was provoking who in the pair, but, in Lord Seventh’s words, ‘You can’t clap with just one hand.’ They squabbled from morning ’til evening, then sat down nicely for dinner, which could also result in a quarrel that began with arguing, then went to pinching each other with chopsticks. Lord Seventh had found it interesting to watch at the beginning, but later got annoyed, refusing to eat with those two mandrills lest he got caught in the crossfire.
Rather bewildered, Lord Seventh had to lament. “Zishu used to be a very collected person. Why is… sheesh. Getting close to cinnabar really does make you red, and getting close to ink really does make you black.”
The Great Shaman smiled a little. “This is good, actually. The process of reconstructing one’s meridians is acutely painful, and straightening them back out afterwards is also very difficult. It’s extremely cold here, too. It wouldn’t be easy for an ordinary person to return to free motion, but Manor Lord Zhou is not only active, he’s forcing his meridians to come apart. He will be a bit pained during this period, but it’ll be good for him in the future.”
Wen Kexing changed the direction of Zhou Zishu’s shoulder with a palm, as if wanting to encircle his entire body in his arms. The other used that momentum to flip over one of his arms, and before he landed, he used a foot to lift up Wen Kexing’s chin, forcing him to draw a step back. After that, he flicked his fingers out like a gale, sneak-attacking him. Wen Kexing inadvertently got hit, and his knees went soft, nearly putting him into a one-knee kneel — however, the second he was falling, he rolled to the side and grabbed Zhou Zishu’s calf, making them both tumble into a ball.
Apart from ice, there was snow, and Lord Seventh, the Great Shaman, and Zhang Chengling were all staying far away from them, so the ground was clear, and not that filthy. After rolling a few full turns, Wen Kexing pinned Zhou Zishu underneath him with a wily grin, his hands placed on either side of the other’s head. “Give up yet?”
Zhou Zishu was in preliminary recovery from his serious injury, so he wasn’t as strong as he had been before, panting slightly. “…That was a cheap trick.”
Wen Kexing cozied up to him, lowering his voice with a smile. “You were clearly the one to be underhanded first.”
“Hey, Ol’ Wen.”
Wen Kexing hummed as he licked his neck. “What?”
Zhou Zishu said a few words with seeming carelessness, but Wen Kexing didn’t quite catch them, somewhat puzzled. “Hm?”
In that split second of thought, he got elbowed in the chest, letting out a grunt, and was instantly lifted off. The sky whirled around as both his arms got pinned behind his back, following which he was pressed onto the ground. Zhou Zishu imitated the hoodlum look the other had just had, blowing into his ear with a chuckle. “How about this? Do you give up yet?”
It took Wen Kexing a good deal of effort to turn his head and see him. “Are you trying to tie me up, Ah-Xu?”
Zhou Zishu raised his brows. “That’s a good idea.”
He went and tapped on the other’s acupoints. Seeing that he was motionless for the time being, he relaxed slightly, sat to the side, then wiped off his face. “My little wife, your husband got a head full of sweat just from restraining you,” he said ruefully.
A hand suddenly reached out and pressed against his forehead; all he saw was the should-have-been-frozen Wen Kexing slowly getting up. “Oh? Let me see… you really are sweating? Don’t catch a cold.”
“You actually altered your acupoints!”
Under his shock, Zhou Zishu had already escaped over a zhang away from him, on-guard as he watched him. Wen Kexing threw him a flirty look. “I can do even more than that.”
Afterwards, the two pounced yet again, continuing their earth-shaking brawl.
As such, the Great Shaman had actually misinterpreted them a little. The reason why they fought all day was for that meridian stuff, but another cause stemmed from an issue that needed to be settled urgently — the outcome was not yet determined, the top and the bottom not for certain, and both of them had fires in their hearts that could only be vented as they quibbled.
At first, Zhang Chengling had been earnest in running over to spectate them, thinking about what he could learn. Later on, he had discovered that their fights were too bitter, and he could only learn moves such as ‘Black Tiger Digs Out the Heart’, ‘Monkey Steals the Peach’, and ‘Universe Goes Topsy-Turvy’, which really had no reference value. Lamenting the fact that both of these experts had returned to their primal states, he henceforth practiced his own martial arts, style by move.
The youth was confused, though; his shifu forever thought that his style was hard to look at, but wasn’t his own rolling about the ground with Senior Wen absolutely graceless?
Two masters had been thoroughly reduced to two ruffians, and, beyond their intentions, accidentally ended up impeding their student’s progress with their conduct.
Only after Zhou Zishu took his daily dose of medicine each evening would they call a truce. The Great Shaman bestowed medicine based on the person; for someone that was frail-bodied and wouldn’t be able to take it, his prescription would be light and easy, but for Zhou Zishu, who would be fine no matter what torment came at him, he gave nothing but powerful medicine. After taking it, the latter would feel terrible all over for a short while, clenching his teeth as he withstood it, and then after the effect had passed, he would always be soaked in sweat.
Following a wash, then a rest, he would recuperate enough energy to continue hopping all over the place the very next day.
Once Zhou Zishu had taken this medicine for the final time, the Great Shaman and Lord Seventh said farewell and left the day after. Even though Nanjiang had always been honest in folk, and the Shamanet Lu Ta was overseeing it, they had been abroad for too long. Seeing them off, it was then the first day that Zhou Zishu didn’t have to bear with drinking that medicine that was akin to death by a thousand cuts, causing that night to be bizarrely peaceful.
Wen Kexing carried a jug of wine into the room, then shook it in front of Zhou Zishu’s face. The other took it with no formality in the least. He meandered over to stick himself to Zhou Zishu’s side, eyes shining brightly as he stared at his profile.
Getting stared at so blatantly, Zhou Zishu drank down a mouthful of wine. “What are you looking at?”
Wen Kexing grinned. “Aren’t you afraid that I’ve drugged that?”
“With what kind of drug?”
“What kind do you think?”
Zhou Zishu shot him a look, sneering in mockery. “You wouldn’t dare to slip me an aphrodisiac. Aren’t you afraid that my wild nature would break out and put a handle on you?”
Wen Kexing frowned, feigning upset. “Right. That really is a bit of a worry.” Propping up his chin, he looked Zhou Zishu up and down, then sighed and shook his head. “You should just let me make the move. Otherwise, I’m thinking that if it keeps going down like this, we’ll both be practicing monks.”
The other glanced at him. “Why wouldn’t it be you letting me make the move?”
Wen Kexing’s perverted hand slowly reached out and touched the side of his waist, ambiguously rubbing up and down. “I’d let you try out all sorts of moves, but…”
His wrist got snatched by Zhou Zishu. They contained their strength so as not to tear the roof off the room, then began wrangling again.
Zhang Chengling passed them as he was returning from his practice, finding this surprising sight unsurprising, since he knew that they were duking it out again. He thought to himself, Why can’t they just spend time together properly? Every single day, they bicker like children. Seeing how very off-beat they were, he thus sighed at the vicissitudes of his own life, then silently turned to go back to his own room.
Following three hundred rounds, neither of the two’s strength could keep holding up, so they took a break. Wen Kexing snatched the wine pot, took a couple big swigs of it, then exhaled. After sprawling out on his back atop the bed, he waved his hand. “No more. I don’t have the energy today.”
Zhou Zishu sighed in relief, like he had been waiting for those words to come out of this Great One. He then sat on the edge of the bed and gave him a little push inwards. “Scoot over.”
Wen Kexing shifted in, facing the bedcurtains above, as if suddenly distracted. “Ah-Xu, after this bout, you’ll be fully recovered,” he said, after a long time of staring blankly. “Will you go with me for a trip down the mountain?”
Zhou Zishu shut his eyes in rest, giving an mn at that. “I’m pretty much done with it right now, I can go. What are you going to do?”
Wen Kexing was silent. The other waited for a long while. Feeling this a bit strange, he opened his eyes and tilted his head — gazing straight at him, the man still looked like his mind was wandering somewhere beyond the sky. “What is it?”
Wen Kexing’s eyelids trembled, and he managed out a smile. “It’s nothing. Back then, my parent’s corpses were aired out in the wilderness, and they didn’t even get a monument. I’ve been unfilial. For over twenty years, I’ve never gone back to take a look. I should probably…”
Zhou Zishu sighed, then slowly reached his arms out to loop around his waist. Wen Kexing obediently turned on his side, putting one hand on the other’s back. His fingers were placed on Zhou Zishu’s shoulder blades, and he unconsciously traced over their outlines, burying his face into his shoulder. “Ah-Xiang, too…” he said, muffled.
“While you were recovering in town, I went back, found her and Xiao Cao… and put them to rest in the ground together.”
“Thank you,” Wen Kexing answered hazily, his next words nearly inaudible as his arms that gathered Zhou Zishu close seemed to tighten. “For half my life, I’ve been a solitary person. I had thought that I’d have Ah-Xiang… but she’s gone. That time you were in a coma, I wasn’t as confident as the Great Shaman. I thought that… if you… I…”
Zhou Zishu suddenly realized that his shoulder was apparently wet. He couldn’t resist bowing his head, but Wen Kexing waved his hand to extinguish the lights, choking up slightly. “Don’t look at me.”
Having never been one to comfort another, Zhou Zishu could only allow him to hold him tight.
Slowly, Wen Kexing’s hands began to wander on him. He was slightly uneasy, but the man didn’t have even a tiny bit of a joking overtone; all he did was constantly call his name, as if highly uncertain, bringing with it a slight terror and desperation. Zhou Zishu sighed on the inside, thinking, Screw it, he’s so pitiful. I’ll let him, just this once.
He used enormous self-restraint to relax. For the first time in his entire life, he was handing himself over to someone else without any defenses. Hair tangling, when their heads were rubbing together, the man only muttered to him with a bit of entreaty, “Ah-Xu, don’t ever leave me…”
Even in this utterly frigid land, there were threads of warmth. They set themselves free from beneath the bedcurtains, then slowly spread outwards, as if they could let a flower bloom.
At daybreak the next morning, Zhou Zishu was in a rare, late sleep. Upon opening his eyes to see the one in his arms, Wen Kexing had a faint, perfectly content smile.
As soon as he moved, Zhou Zishu came to. He felt like every single thing on his body was off, and that he was being firmly embraced by a certain someone.
He opened his mouth in want to swear at him, but Wen Kexing had long been guarded against this action of his. In that split second the other had opened his eyes, he stifled his self-satisfied grin, then gazed deeply into his eyes with a complicated expression, looking like a million emotions were within him.
When Zhou Zishu, the nagger that hadn’t yet spoken, caught sight of his red-rimmed eyes, he harshly swallowed everything back down, not knowing what he ought to say. He had no choice but to stiffly turn his back to him. “If you’re getting up, do it by yourself. Don’t bug me,” he mumbled.
Wen Kexing immediately hugged him from behind, laid down again, and put his fake pitiable expression away when the other couldn’t see. Elated, he thought of how a soft heart was way more enticing than a soft waist.
However, once his short moment of happiness was done, his worries started up again. Furtively opening his eyes to peek at the one beside him, he thought, But… every time I want to do this from now on… will I have to put on a crying act?
That seems… like a bit too much of a tragedy.
Extra 2: A Beloved, A Confidante
People in jianghu were making a terrible fuss, but who had actually seen the Lapis Armor’s key before?
Wen Kexing had.
He recalled that the ‘key’ that had initiated countless bloody tempests had actually been only a cun long, thin as a cicada’s wing, and weighed practically nothing in the hand, like some kind of oddly-shaped, beaded flower that a young lady would wear in her hair.
What a terrible flower.
Atop Fengya Mountain, fierce wind blew at Wen Kexing’s long robes. His palm was bruising. The Hanged Ghost had just died by his hand; his corpse had already fallen beneath the cliffs, gone, and from that point on, there would be even more people hiding bodies there.
Mortal humans cannot enter this land of evil spirits at will?
Very well! I, in a shell of mortality, will nudge this spirit world over for you to take a look.
He opened his hand and flung. The lightweight key had turned into bits of dust in his palm, falling into the infinite depths of the cliffs below.
“Ah-Xiang, let’s go.”
He situated himself into orientation of a watching bystander, then brought his little girl with him to hike through jianghu for over three months, waiting for various people to make their appearances. Within those months, he went from lands of luxuriant forests and growing bamboo, to passing through seas of yellow sand and desert, to drinking a sip of a sunny day’s snow, then to the fair hands of this brothel beauty, filling his lungs with the cosmetic fragrance of pear flowers.
Afterwards, in Jiangnan, he came across a vagrant that was sunbathing as he leaned against the corner of a wall.
Vagrants were nothing strange. What was strange was that he noticed a faint light hung in the eyes and condensed on the lashes of the man, then felt like something had stuck into his heart, as if he had witnessed the rise of peace and crush of defeat therein. Love and hatred acquired over generations, gratitude and vengeance gained since time immemorial — all that had been pressing heavily down upon his chest was lightened a tad, beyond his control.
“All my life of being down and out, I return to the inside of the goblet…” he suddenly recited.
Ah-Xiang was a dumb girl that didn’t understand dogcrap. She couldn’t even comprehend the words of humans clearly, to say nothing of any sorrowful past happenings or plaintive anxieties of the present year. He had no choice but to gloss over it with a smile.
Against expectations, Ah-Xiang leaned full out the window, looked down, and then crisply called out on the next beat: “Young Master, look at that guy. If you say he’s a beggar, he doesn’t have any worn bowl next to him for that. If you say he’s not, he’s been sitting there stupidly all morning without doing anything other than grin like an idiot. Is he an idiot?”
In that moment, Wen Kexing was a teeny bit angered, as if a corner of his thoughts had been pried into, as if this stupid girl had thrown a rock into nice, mirror-like waters, causing ripples to go off in all directions.
He settled himself, however, and gave a collected reply. “He’s sunbathing.”
He noticed that the beggar had listened in on them, actually raising his head to glance at him. They were on a balcony, the street was wide, and the sounds of humans were akin to a boiling pot. With that sort of hearing strength…
Wen Kexing stroked the tips of his chopsticks, his recent languidness vanquished. Those martial arts were not weak. Below the surface of Jiangnan, an undercurrent was fiercely swelling, and it was already a season of turmoil. Those that came and went from every major sect, hailed as famous, were not few — which road had this one come from?
That night, Wen Kexing brought Ah-Xiang with him to think up of every possible method for tailing the vagrant, but unexpectedly, he got to see a good show in a worn-out hall that was leaking air from all four of its sides.
In today’s martial circle, people with that insight, that skill, and that presence could be counted on both hands — which one was he? In truth, Wen Kexing himself couldn’t say for certain whether he had followed him out of caution, or simply pure curiosity.
Some people, who flaunted themselves as being lonely at the top for long, upon abruptly meeting someone who caught their eye, would typically be unable to resist chasing them down to thoroughly scrutinize them.
Yet, he had never thought that this chase would inextricably entangle him for more than half his lifespan.
From that rundown hall in the middle of nowhere, a kid that only knew how to cry was escorted all the way to Lake Tai. Zhao Jing, the Qiushan swordsman of the lake, was his number one, lifetime enemy.
Emotions running all over the place inside this illustration, he opposed the one who had been bought off for two silver coins all day long. At times, Wen Kexing would ponder: had he not stirred up this reservoir of disastrous water, would Zhang Chengling have been able to remain in obscurity, relying on his father’s protection to live his life?
Even though jianghu folk would inevitably sigh at the mention of this tiger of a father having a dog of a son, that tiger father would at least still be around. With both parents, his family would have been thriving financially. What would it matter, if he lived through life behind closed doors?
Wen Kexing’s chest held demons, shame, and a heart that was infinitely frozen. Hence, he was obliged to not betray any of his complex emotions, pestering the vagabond Ah-Xu regardless of consequences.
As for the man’s origin, Wen Kexing already had a guess, but he still couldn’t understand him in any way. Why did someone whose authority had reached such a high extent lower himself to advancing and retreating as suitable? The endless carnage he had experienced was like one big dream, where he floated through life like so; how could he still harbor the cultivated heart of a child?
At the time they were both together in the Yellow Springs, Wen Kexing couldn’t resist feeling out for a Lapis Armor piece on the imp’s body, but ended up bumping against a flexible nail.
For writers, the precious was treasured. For warriors, might — what ties did he have with that foreign, discordant object?
He knew that this sickly devil, completely sallow in complexion and nothing much to look at, had instantly and firmly been branded onto the soft flesh of his heart.
Following that, even the Poisonous Scorpions got mixed in with this. Heroes and cowards of all walks of life had come to put on their own performances, occupying the small stage to its brim. Ah-Xu and he escorted Zhang Chengling back to those upright factions that had mouths full of ‘traditional virtues’, and partway through, he watched the man give that dumb kid pointers on martial arts; for a moment, he couldn’t resist wanting to show off his skill, also striking out a move or two.
He didn’t expect that Ah-Xu, from one sword move that had been morphed beyond recognition, would be able to readily expose the history of the ‘Qiuming Sword’.
The Heavens and the Earth were manifest, and jianghu was so vast; who would remember its wanderers that were as fleeting as shooting stars?
Only he could.
For such a short period of time, the world was their hut. Wen Kexing found a tiny space that was three-chi-wide, where he could peacefully sit down with another like so, and reminisce together about an old married couple, who, as far as the majority of folks in this world were concerned, had no significance.
He listened to the man’s mild voice, amidst the wind and insects’ chirps. “If someone has only themself their whole life, on-guard against everyone aside from themself at all times and all places, never being close to anyone, never feeling anything for anyone, only loving themself… wouldn’t that be miserable? Being a bad guy… is too painful.”
Wen Kexing had a sort of impulse at that time, wanting to pour out all of the suffering he’d had in his life, dump out the grievances that filled his chest for his unstated confidante to see. However, he never had a way to do so, only able to divulge a couple phrases by means of a disharmonious, roving, Qin Hui-like tale.
Too painful! he thought. Being a bad guy is too painful.
Why couldn’t you and I have met each other ten years earlier, Ah-Xu? Why is it that when I did meet you, I was already something both human and ghost, yet not either, and you were already near death from injury? Why, in this world, do homes and happiness always get destroyed, and friends and confidantes always meet up late?
Heroes will get to the ends of their roads, beauties will lose their charms as they age… if someone wants to live according to their own hearts, how difficult should that be?
It might have started from there, where an inner demon-like obsession suddenly birthed in his heart. He thought, Why can I not follow my own desires this one time? Why can I not keep him with me?
Inside Puppet Manor, when availing himself of the man’s heavy injury, he was momentarily lost in madness, wanting to press a hand into his qihai acupoint, thinking, I just need a bit. Even if it hurts some, I just need a bit. Then I can keep Ah-Xu in the palm of my hand for a long, long time.
That path of accumulated callousness was nevertheless defeated by the strike of that slightly distressed phrase: “Other people don’t understand, but do you not understand, either?”
How can I not understand?
Of all the living things he had seen in his life, Ah-Xu alone weighed heavily on the innermost part of his heart. He conceded to the damned drifter, conceding until that gouged out his heart and eroded his bones, until he couldn’t bear to disobey him the slightest bit.
This was exactly what it felt like to be human.
The world’s villains, unparalleled in contemptibility, were like carps crossing the river. There were also uncommon folks similar in greatness to Long Que. That year at Puppet Manor had almost been the most calm and happy one he’d had in his thirty years of life.
He, Ah-Xu, and the brat Zhang Chengling would kill fowl, stew meat, boil mutton, and slaughter cows, divvying up a bowl of raw, rural wine.
He took Ah-Xu’s hand, which would easily get cold after his injury, into his arms to warm it, then felt like his own heart was melting, too. He believed himself to be a little intoxicated, somehow.
Ah-Xu’s mouth was unkind, but his heart was unbearably soft.
Ah-Xu was a grown man, yet he was still too afraid to eat walnuts.
Ah-Xu was a quaffer that drank both good and inferior wine down.
A confidante he had the luck to come across in his life, a close friend… a beloved.
Yet, he ended up having to awaken from this dream. There were still many disturbances happening in jianghu. The grisly storm he had set into motion himself had never once stopped for a break, and Green Bamboo Ridge was in dangerous turmoil. Many parties had since arrived, while a counterweight had yet to return to its position.
As he was the smooth-talking outsider, Old Wen, he was also the Ghost Master, whose red clothes had been dyed with blood. Those two people, who should have been completely irrelevant to each other, had been forcefully pinned into the same body due to deep enmity. How bizarre was that?
He finally got to cut down his foes, one by one, in this last battle, but he also lost his little girl in purple.
Ah-Xiang, gege’s taking revenge for you. If you have a next life, you have to be reborn into a good family, with parents to protect and support you, and siblings to love and cherish you. When the time comes for your ten li of dowry, you can pick your affinity with your fool of a boy, Cao Weining, back up, where you’ll be a perfect match. Don’t have anything to do with the plagues of the righteous and the demonic ever again.
When he faced the Scorpions by his lonesome, he was covered in blood and sweat. Looking towards the empty sky, he reminisced on the recompense of his own immense hatred, an indescribable exhaustion within him.
He thought, My grudge is appeased. Death would be becoming. I may as well just… give up, right?
But somebody wasn’t going to let death end his troubles.
When Ah-Xu came with Baiyi’s swordlight, like an elegant nobleman of scholardom, the emotions in Wen Kexing’s heart could not be clearly explained to outsiders.
What decades-long grudge? What silent suffering? What Lapis Armor? All of that was quickly cast to the back of his mind. Aside from the vagrant in front of him, he could no longer see anything else.
Captivated in such an instant, he thought, As long as he’s willing to give me the tiniest bit of affection, from this point on, every day he lives, I will live with him. If he passes on, I will hold a bundle of dry grass, douse myself in kerosene, and burn up together with him, turning to ash, becoming one with the earth in the same spot.
As long as you’re willing, as long as you want me…
Can I make an extravagant request for a minute, to be with you until we grow the white hairs of age?
Extra 3: Last Life, This Life
Some who had died would look back on their own lives and feel no worries. Their three hun and seven po souls would then vanish by over half, and they would follow Soulhook Envoys in a fog down Yellow Spring Road, forgetting as they walked it, not knowing what night it even was by the time they arrived at the Bridge of Helplessness. After that, they would pick up that bowl of forgetting brew, and their previous lives would be completely gone.
Those who had done good would have their virtuous merits discussed. Those who had done evil would go to the underworld. If they deserved rebirth or transmigration, they would re-enter the reincarnation cycle. After death, everything was settled, and the consciousness would be as clean as white snow, starting over anew.
Therefore, whenever someone shut their eyes, the people that still lived would always do all they could to satisfy whatever desires they left unfinished, to save them the extra hardship as they traveled Yellow Spring Road.
Some would still have unresolved obsessions from prior to death, and their souls would follow them in their walk, unwilling, all for the sake of material gains from the mortal plane. They would then be made to bathe in the Yellow Springs, and after getting over themselves, a ferryman would pull up to see them off to rebirth.
The living’s events were not for the dead to worry about.
Yellow Spring Road was very long — the length it would take one to forget was exactly how long it would be.
The only thing that couldn’t be forgotten was love. After walking four-thousand, four-hundred and forty-four zhang, they could still look back and line up in a row beneath the Bridge of Helplessness. Those waiting for someone else would sometimes wait a day or two, sometimes a decade or two, or sometimes an entire mortal lifespan.
Some would wait for another to come, but that someone would be so out of it, they couldn’t remember them any longer. Occasionally, there would be some that could, but they would be one aged person with one young one, and even though they shouldn’t recognize each other, they would end up clasping each other’s hands with tears in their eyes, all while a Ghost Messenger would prompt them from nearby: “You two, the time has come. Get going…”
In love of the mortal world, there was always a fondness for saying some oaths of eternal love, but those were only terms that would last no more than a few decades, no more than one life-and-death cycle of rebirth, and then it would be, ‘You are you, and I am me.’ How was that not laughable?
These words were what Cao Weining was hearing the Ghost Messenger say to Meng Po as he crouched beside the Bridge of Helplessness.
The Messenger had stated that his name in life had been the surname Hu, given Jia, and he was a passionate person. Cao Weining listened to him bother Meng Po with his non-stop chatter while she ignored him, ladling soup at her own pace. The Bridge never stopped metamorphosing; legend stated that how much forgetting brew was drunk down corresponded to how wide the Bridge would be. One cup forgot an age, dust returning to dust, earth to earth.
Messenger Hu Jia babbled for half the day but never saw Meng Po raise her head, so he got in close to converse with Cao Weining. “Kid, why aren’t you drinking the soup? Waiting for someone?”
Mortals were insipid in love and luck, and all of them were middling. It was rare to have one that was so clear-headed, where even an immortal ghost of the netherworld would be willing to talk more to him.
“Ah…” This was the first time Cao Weining was speaking with the Messenger, and he was more or less startled from the favor. “Haha, yes. You are—“
Hu Jia had absolutely no intention of having an exchange with him; he was probably just getting bored from having nothing to do, and wanted to find someone to dump words onto. “There was another that waited here before,” he straight-up cut him off, “and once he started, he was waiting for three hundred years.”
Cao Weining was taken aback. “Th-three hundred years… who has lived for so many years?” he trembled out. “The one he was waiting for… didn’t have the surname Ye, right?”
“Oi, why do you care about what his surname is? A surname’s just what you’re called. If someone’s surname is Huang or Di for ‘Emperor’ in one life, after jumping into that spring of rebirth, their next life might have the surname Zhu or Gou for ‘pig’ and ‘dog’. Who even knows.” Hu Jia waved his hand, then pointed at the Three-Life Rock. “He sat there, waiting for three hundred years. Then he went back to the place he started, where he first got to meet his someone. But, well, you know how that went?”
“How?” the other asked, egging him on.
“He chose another, better match.” Hu Jia sighed.
Right then, Meng Po finally lifted her head to glance at him. “Messenger Hu, mind your words,” she said expressionlessly.
Hu Jia gave a yeah. “Fine. This guy was somewhere in the ranks of Emperors, Princes, Generals, and Ministers. I have to obey the law of karma, and can’t talk about it… who are you waiting for, young fellow?”
“I’m waiting for my wife.”
Hu Jia didn’t feel that to be strange at all. “How old was she when you died?”
“Seventeen,” Cao Weining answered honestly.
“Seventeen… back when I died, I too had a seventeen-year-old wife at home. What a shame…” Hu Jia shook his head. That time was too long ago, and he could no longer clearly remember how that wife had looked. “I advise you not to wait. She’ll keep growing up through her life, and by the time she comes down, she’ll be an old lady in her seventies. She’ll have long forgotten a man from her teens. I’ve seen a lot of people before that come waiting and leave waiting, only for a scene of expectation and then heartbreak. You should quit dwelling on things as soon as possible and pour yourself a vat of Meng Po’s soup. You’ll clean forget any sort of wives or concubines you had.”
Meng Po raised her head again, still expressionless. “Messenger Hu, mind your words.”
Hu Jia shut up, dejected, but saw Cao Weining start to smile. “That’d be just fine, and I look forward to it. It would be best if she can’t remember a bit of what I look like anymore. Once she passes before me — bright-eyed, worry-free, and happy — and I see her move on, I’ll have no worries, myself.”
“You don’t feel unhappy?” Hu Jia wondered.
Cao Weining looked at him strangely. “What would I be unhappy about?” he countered. “That’s my wife, not my enemy. How would seeing her be okay make me unhappy?”
The other was mute for a short moment, smiling. “You’re taking this well.”
“Am I?” Cao Weining said with quite some embarrassment, scratching his head. “I’ve had no other advantages in my life than being able to take nothing to heart… well, there is just one thing. I was beaten to death by my own shifu. I’m afraid that she’s taken it hard, and is never going to let him go.”
“What sort of scandalous thing did you do, for him to beat you to death?”
“Cough… it’s probably because of that little thing about the righteous and the demonic being unable to coexist. He said that my wife was a villain of Ghost Valley, and I insisted on being by her. In a fit of anger that his dignity was put on the spot, he killed me.”
His tone was relaxed to the point that it was like he was talking about someone else, and it was hard to tell just from listening that he was reminiscing about his own manner of death. Hu Jia became intrigued, then crouched next to him. “You don’t hold any hatred?”
Cao Weining pointed at a Soulhook Envoy that was floating over with a ghost. “On the road, I heard that gentlemen recite ‘dust returns to dust, earth returns to earth.’ I then felt that no matter how big my grievances are, there’s nothing to hate. I’m already at rest in the ground, so what power would hatred have? Wouldn’t I just be making things difficult for myself?”
Hu Jia looked up to see Hei Wuchang floating past with his black, blank face, and whispered out a complaint. “Hey, don’t listen to them. Our underworldly Soulhook Envoys only ever say one sentence, and they’ve said it for who knows how many years, never once changing it…”
Meng Po’s gaze was a fixed glare once more. “Messenger Hu, mind your words,” she said blankly for the third time.”
Hu Jia sighed, pointing at her as he spoke quietly to Cao Weining. “See? That also goes for our Meng Po. I’ve gone back and forth the Bridge of Helplessness for centuries, and each time I do, she says that phrase, ‘Messenger Hu, mind your words.’ This netherworld is a real lonesome place.”
Cao Weining smiled. As he listened to the lonely Mister Messenger babble in his ear, he gazed out at the traveled road, thinking, If Ah-Xiang became an old woman, what would she look like? She’d definitely be one with plenty of energy, lively and bold. She…
All of a sudden, he stood up, eyes in wide-open circles. He saw that in an area not far away, a familiar girl was currently following a Soulhook Envoy over with a skip in her step. While she walked, she ceaselessly surrounded the Envoy with questions, who was concentrating with their head down as they walked, completely ignoring her. Getting pressed so urgently, they could only say, “Dust returns to dust, earth returns to earth.”
Cao Weining opened his mouth to call out: “Ah-Xiang…”
Gu Xiang stopped in her tracks, then inclined her head to look over. For a moment, she was stunned. At first, it seemed like she wanted to cry, but she ended up stifling it all, transforming it into a face that was smiling wide. She dove at him like a little bird. “Brother Cao! I knew you would be waiting for me!”
As if he hadn’t seen her for a lifetime already, he held her tight, but then got to thinking again: With how she looks, she didn’t become an old lady… doesn’t that mean she died early? After that, he became worried and upset, hundreds of feelings criss-crossing inside him. His tears started to come down, falling into the water of the Yellow Springs, making circle after circle of ripples, startling even the ferrymen.
Hu Jia shut his mouth, watching the mutually-embracing couple with a distant smile.
Only this meeting at the head of the Bridge appeared to stretch on forever, until the Heavens were withered and the Earth was aged.
Another Ghost Messenger on the Bridge called out: “You two, the time has come. Get going…”
Like a pendulum utterly devoted to its duty, that same sentence alone had come out of their mouth year after year.
Gu Xiang lifted her head out of Cao Weining’s embrace, glaring viciously at the Messenger. “What are you so impatient for? You fuckin’ soul-calling over there?!”
The one on the Bridge froze, thinking to themself, Isn’t that exactly what I’m doing?
Hu Jia just started laughing. “What a bold little lady,” he commented. “That’s a dauntless wife you have, young fellow.”
Cao Weining sounded happy and polite, despite his tears. “Forgive my shamelessness.”
Standing up, Hu Jia pointed at the Bridge. “Alright, be on your way. Don’t miss the time of your rebirth. If you’re even a tiny moment off, it’ll be hard to say whether your vast riches will turn into you being roadside beggars. If your karmic links aren’t used up, you can continue as you are in the next life.”
With that, he led them up the Bridge. Standing before Meng Po and her soup, Gu Xiang hesitated. “If we drink this, we’ll forget everything. Can we just not, grandma?”
Meng Po looked at her with a pretty, blank face, silently shaking her head.
“Little miss, if you don’t drink the soup, you’ll be a cow or a horse in your next life,” Hu Jia said. “Drink up.”
Gu Xiang’s eyes quickly went red again. Lowering her head, she was unwilling to move regardless of any persuasion. Hu Jia couldn’t take this, going to speak to Meng Po. “Look at that. It’d be fine to make things a little smoother, yeah? This isn’t easy. In this place, thousands and thousands of years pass, yet it’s not likely that we’ll ever see a pair of lovers that can find love no matter what. It really is—“
“Yes, yes, I’ll mind my words,” he hurriedly picked up.
She hesitated for a moment, then suddenly took out two lengths of red string from her sleeves, spread them out in her hand, and presented them to Gu Xiang. The latter was caught off guard. “Take them quick, young miss,” Hu Jia hurriedly piped up from the side. “Elder Meng Po is showing you mercy. This is a fateful opportunity that even several lifetimes wouldn’t be able to cultivate. Take them and tie them on your wrists, it’ll save you from wondering if you’ll even meet up in your next life.”
Gu Xiang quickly took the red strings, then clumsily tied them to Cao Weining’s and her own wrists. Following that, they held hands, drank down the forgetting brew together, then re-entered the cycle of reincarnation.
Behind them, the faraway voice of that Soulhook Envoy was heard. “Dust returns to dust, earth returns to earth…”
There was also Hu Jia’s musing. “Ask the world what exactly love is… even Meng Po’s broadened her horizons.”
“Messenger Hu, mind your words.”
Fifteen years later, in Luoyang city, the Young Lady of Landlord Li’s home conducted her coming-of-age ceremony. Landlord Li’s long-sworn brother, Hero Song, visited with his only son; one reason was to give birthday congratulations, and the other was to propose a marriage.
Back when this pair of children were in swaddling clothes, they had been brought up together, and upon playing with them, the adults had discovered that of the two little tykes, one had a red mark on their left hand, and one had a red mark on their right hand. How could that not be a karmic tie, produced in the womb? A betrothal had consequently been drawn up.
It was now the season of green plums. A lad rode on a bamboo horse…
 A bit lost in context: traditionally, when a person got gravely ill, it was sometimes believed that their soul was leaving them, so people would loudly call their name to get their soul to come back. Hence, ‘soul-calling’.
 From Yuan Haowen’s poem, Catching Fish.
 Based on verses from Li Bai’s Changgan Ballad.
Extra 4: Baiyi, Jianghu
Rumor had it that when celestials reached the end of their calculated lifespans, they would undergo Five Decays. Once accustomed to staying within the boundaries of bliss, they would be reluctant to part with it, taking in the poison of aversion. According to the ‘six harmonies mental cultivation’, once a ‘celestial’ ate and drank of the human world’s smoke and fire, they would present a waning appearance, their hairs turning white, qi gradually weakening, and body gradually declining. No longer would they prosper, nearing their own coffin.
Ye Baiyi was feeling as much right about now. His hair was getting whiter by the day, as if someone had a brush and was painting it somewhere unseen, bit by bit. When casually gathered up, it would come out in large chunks, too. Sometimes, he would suffer delirium, and forget where he had just been and where he was going. His energy was lacking; sometimes, he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep at night, and sometimes he would sleep, then find it hard to open his eyes when the sun was already high in the sky the next day.
Even so, he felt delighted, free, and without a smidgen of ‘aversion’. What the six harmonies had claimed was absolute nonsense.
The root cause of this was probably the fact that he had never taken himself as a celestial, but felt himself to be the living dead.
In his view, once he was off Changming, he was the living dead that had now opened his eyes to come alive, even if it was only for a few brief years, even if he would once again walk the path of mortality where one was born, grew old, got sick, and died.
He ate a lot of food on the daily. At times, he would traverse very long distances just to try out a purportedly-delectable snack from some area. The ancients told that wanting food and sex was human nature; he was too old to be in the mood for sex, so he threw his entire being into food. He was not a picky eater, eating everything and enjoying everything, where even a bowl of tofu, randomly grabbed by the proprietress of a roadside pub, could be finely savored by him for a good long while.
To someone who had eaten cold food and snow water for a century, the sourness, sweetness, bitterness, and spiciness of the world were all precious things.
He had paid visits to people that knew of what had happened thirty years ago. After going down every possible route, he had finally found the unremarkable graves of Rong Xuan and Yue Feng’r, took back the dust-covered Ancient Blade of the Dragon’s Back, then put their bones together, cremated them, placed them in a jar, and entrusted another with delivering them to Changming.
He had been wanting to obstruct those that were fighting over opening up the arsenal, but after seeing a farce first-hand, he felt fatigued again… what did their lives and deaths have to do with him?
Thinking himself to be just an old man on the brink of death, he had nothing to be concerned about while he lived, and nothing to do the day long. Thus, he assumed his duty to be traveling all North and South of of the great river and eating all the food of the realm. Perhaps he would go until the day he could no longer move, and where he ended up would simply be the place he would die.
By the by, he missed Rong Changqing every once in a while.
Rong Changqing, his sole friend of this world, had already been dead for thirty years.
In spite of that, Ye Baiyi could still recall, without a single detail lost, how the other used to look, how he looked when young and proud, how he looked when teenaged and whimsical, and even how he looked when a babbling toddler.
Proud and wild during his life, Ye Baiyi refused to remember people of insignificance. The lone vivid recollection he’d had since his birth pertained to that man.
Rong Changing had grown up with him since they were young. Unlike Ye Baiyi, who went looking for fights the moment he was born, he had been a very charming man whose calls to others had been akin to cleanses in a cool breeze. He had liked fine wine, famed swords, pretty people, and even literature. Anyone in the world could have been his friend, given that they gave him a cup of alcohol, but unfortunately, he’d had only one genuine friend — Ye Baiyi, who, when not practicing, would only taunt others.
‘Ghost Hand’ Rong Changqing’s fame-starting work had been the Great Famine sword. At the time, he had been merely a young nobody. Without a single care, he had casually handed the blade that others would later call ‘the General amongst swords’ off to an old, wandering beggar, who had given him a pot of monkey wine and a book of secret techniques.
The wine, he had brought back to share with Ye Baiyi, while the book had contained the surviving sections of what following generations would call the six harmonies.
Later on, Ye Baiyi would hear that by great coincidence, Great Famine, which had wandered across jianghu, had fallen into the hands of the Zhang orphan. He suddenly thought this a little absurd, as if their people and these events were vaguely connected into one circle. Death begot death, age begot age; this became a segment of misery not explained to completion, with no one left behind to do so fully.
Rong Changqing had been a young one; of those who practiced martial arts, which one could ever resist the magic of being one with the Heavens? His aptitude hadn’t been enough, though. At times, when Ye Baiyi thought back on it, he felt that the thing was actually a demonic book with all sorts of snares inside it, luring humans into walking step by step down it until they were damned without reprieve. Maybe only one person out of millions would be chosen by it, then become its new successor, making them the spitting image of something that was neither human nor ghost.
Rong Changqing, a heavensent genius, had relied on his own strength to futilely complete the six harmonies, resulting in qi deviation.
Back then, Ye Baiyi had been out touring, in the midst of looking at Changming Mountain, thinking that it was unfrequented and very suited for his occasional solitary seclusion. The villagers below the mountain had just spread worsening hearsay about an ‘Ancient Monk’.
Madam Rong had still been a not-yet-married girl, yet she had discarded her status to carry Rong Changqing up the mountain on her back, pleading with Ye Baiyi to save him.
The two had exhausted their minds for methods, with absolutely no results. In the end, out of a lack of option, Ye Baiyi had resolved to swap their fates by transferring Rong Changqing’s power to himself. Surprisingly, when it came to him, he had actually come to fully grasp the wondrous six harmonies method by some karmic fluke.
So many people had successively asked for such a thing, yet hadn’t received it. This heavenly ‘pie’, stinking of dogshit, had instead landed upon the head of someone who embraced the will to die.
Rong Changqing had been a sentimental one. He had decided to repay his two benefactors by marrying Madam Rong, and keeping Ye Baiyi company all his life on Changming.
He had been a fool. He’d had no idea that Madam Rong didn’t want to keep another ice-cold man in such an ice-cold ghostland company her whole life, nor did he have any idea that Ye Baiyi… didn’t want him to marry her.
He had been a fool. Exchanging a famed sword for a demonic book had been one foolish thing, and being engrossed in that book had been a second foolish thing, but in truth, those two previous things put together were not as foolish as his third foolish thing.
Had there ever been anything more ridiculous than that in the world?
Yes. Something even more ridiculous had been Rong Changqing’s son, Rong Xuan. He had been a child as foolish as his old man, and a martial moron just as determined as his shifu, Ye Baiyi. He had been a combination of everybody’s shortcomings, thus making his life destined for tragedy.
He hadn’t understood that the thing martial artists searched for all their lives had been in the hands of his shifu and papa. Why had the both of them been so secretive? He had heard them say it was an extremely dangerous object, but young people did not view danger the same as their elders.
In anyone’s youthful era, they would inevitably believe themselves to be different from others. What someone else couldn’t do, they could, and what killed someone else wouldn’t kill them.
Rong Xuan had run away bearing Dragon’s Back, which Ye Baiyi had passed on to him himself. Rong Changqing and Madam Rong then had a big row. The girl that had formerly been talented, gorgeous, aspirant, steadfast, and faithful had turned into an aged and despairing woman from decades inside the frosted loneliness. She had differed from them; she had been a flower that needed excitement, needed sunlight and human presence.
Carnage of thirty years. The first step had been to run away, like it was predestiny… perhaps it had started from Rong Xuan, perhaps from Rong Changqing. Perhaps it had started even earlier, from that wandering old beggar and that ‘General Great Famine’, so quietly created.
Perhaps it had simply been a circle, duplicated over and over again in people’s minds, continued down generations.
Thirty years later, Wen Kexing had come to grab onto a tiny hint, set to task, and then turn everything onto its head.
But, that was all in the past… in the afternoon of some random day, Ye Baiyi, who had just finished the last mouthful of his broth in a tiny tavern, suddenly had an apathetic thought; those alive, and those dead, were all in the past.
Those situated inside the playing field each had their respective griefs, like him, like Madam Rong, like Wen Kexing, like Zhou Zishu, like Zhao Jing, and even like Gu Xiang and Cao Weining. They all had attempted to ‘jump out’.
Ye Baiyi had wanted to jump out of that curse of being one with the Heavens. Madam Rong had wanted to jump out of the iceland that was Changming. Wen Kexing had wanted to jump out of being an evil spirit and return to the human world. Zhou Zishu had wanted to jump out of Tian Chuang and be free. Zhao Jing had wanted to jump out of the rules of all of jianghu, look down upon everyone from up on high, and grasp the universe in his hand. Gu Xiang and Cao Weining had wanted to jump out of the world’s deep-seated prejudices to be together, standing alone as they cast everything away.
They conflicted, contested, schemed to exhaustion, and risked their lives.
Just like an abyss, some jumped over and got out, while some didn’t make it, falling to their deaths.
And, that abyss had a name. It was… jianghu.