Extra 1: Danger in the Mountains
"Go to the side of the road…" Yu Lanchuan gritted out a single line. "Stop."
The rundown jeep didn't even slow down; it screeched to an immediate halt. Yu Lanchuan pushed open the front passenger door and got down from the car, shaking and trembling, and took deep breaths of the fresh air in the mountains.
The driver, Gan Qing, looked out curiously. "Why did you get down?"
This was a section of a mountain trail. On both sides were steep cliffs. Yu Lanchuan was standing right at the edge, his back profile solemn and sorrowful, like he was ready to leap down.
Hearing her question, Yu Lanchuan turned around gloomily and gave her a look. "I want to calibrate my psychological state."
"Hey, I'm a probationary driver. If my driving isn't good, you just need to give me some pointers," Gan Qing consoled him. "Be more open-minded, darling leader. It's not worth it to end your life early for something like this."
The darling leader exploded on the spot. "Given that you're a new driver who just got her license two weeks ago, I can understand if you make mistakes—mistaking the accelerator for the brake, taking up two spaces when reverse parking, mistaking the wiper switch for the turn signal… all these are fine. But I cannot understand why, when you're still in your probation period, you're already speeding! And drifting! Don't you think you're getting ahead of yourself!"
Gan Qing, "..."
"Get the hell down, give me the wheel!"
"Wait a minute."
"What else are you…"
Gan Qing suddenly pointed ahead. "Look there."
Yu Lanchuan looked in the direction of her gaze. Two teenagers were running towards their car. The boy in front was around fourteen or fifteen years old, with hair long enough to piss off a head teacher flying behind him. The girl at the back looked a little younger and was stumbling behind the boy. There were even scrapes on her face.
The two teenagers waved desperately at them, scrabbling their way to the front of the car. The girl looked obviously to be the soft and delicate type. She was panting so hard that her face was devoid of colour and she held onto the front hood of the car, unable to speak. The boy's eyes looked from Yu Lanchuan to Gan Qing, then he spoke for the two of them. "Gege, Jiejie, do you have space in your car? Can you give us a ride?"
"Wait a minute, what is this about giving you guys a ride all of a sudden?" Yu Lanchuan frowned. "Luckily the sun's up now. If it was earlier when it was still dark and two people suddenly ran out up here in the mountains, you could shock the hell out of someone. Where did you two come from? What are you doing?"
The girl shot the boy a quick look, like she was ascertaining his expression. "We are-"
"We ran away from home together." The boy quickly interrupted her. While speaking, he purposely combed his mid-length hair back, exuding the aura of a minor gangster in movies about black triads from the last century. "We don't want to go to school anymore. We hired a car and came to the mountains for fun—it's that scenic area with cliff caves right up ahead, you guys are going there too, right? In the end, halfway there, that asshole driver wanted to increase the fee. We didn't want to let him do as he wished, so we got down."
"Oh my," Gan Qing leaned against the car door and smiled widely. "Eloping at such a tender age?"
The parts of the boy's limbs that were exposed were very tanned and his skin was rough. It was immediately obvious that he was used to physical labour. The girl next to him was panting so hard it seemed like she couldn't breathe and both her legs couldn't stop shaking—this was a reaction someone who wasn't used to mountain trails would have after climbing up and down the mountains many times. The boy only had a thin layer of sweat over his hair at the front. His face was not flushed and he was not panting for breath.
"Which school are you two from?" Gan Qing asked.
The boy's gaze flickered. The girl next to him picked up the conversation. "No. 1."
"The city's No. 1 High School?" Gan Qing raised her eyebrows and turned to ask Yu Lanchuan, "We drove here from the city area, it's been about six hours, hasn't it? What kind of hired car can be hired for six hours? I'll get one next time and save ourselves the trouble of driving."
"No, it's the county's No. 1 High School," the boy immediately corrected. "Our county town has a No. 1 too."
He subconsciously avoided Gan Qing's beaming gaze. From their appearances, he rapidly discerned who among these two people was the one who was easy to talk to. He approached Yu Lanchuan and pleaded, "Dage, please give us a ride."
Yu Lanchuan didn't say anything. He patted Gan Qing and the two of them swapped seats. "We do indeed want to go to the scenic area…"
"We want to go there too," the boy said hastily. "We won't take up much space, the trunk will do too. You can just drop us off at the county town on the way back."
The girl looked tense. She waited apprehensively for the car owner to answer and at the same time, involuntarily turned her head back to look. Without her realising it, her hand that was resting by her side rubbed against the seam of her pants.
"Sure." Gan Qing spread her hands. "It's fine with us, as long as you guys aren't afraid that we're bad guys."
Only then did Yu Lanchuan nod, keeping his silence as though his words were as precious as gold.
The outside of the jeep looked dirty and old, but care had been taken with the interior. On the inside, it was clean and spacious, not the least bit cramped, and there was a barely discernible fresh mint smell in the air. The rearview mirror was hung with a garland of dried flowers and a wool blanket was draped over the back seat, covering a collection of poetry by Khalil Gibran. The girl carefully put the blanket and the book aside, then looked over the backseat at the trunk. The trunk was much more exciting; there was a tent, fishing rods, beer, equipment for campfire cooking, photography equipment… and even a guitar standing upright in a corner.
It gave out a feeling of a journey accompanied by poetry and wine and song.
To start a conversation, the boy asked, "Gege, Jiejie, where are you guys from? You don't sound like locals."
Gan Qing said the name of a small tourist town. "Have you heard of it?"
The boy stared blankly but the girl quickly nodded. "Yeah, it was very popular a few years ago. A lot of places have direct routes to it. I went there frequently when I was young."
"We opened a guest house there," Gan Qing said.
The girl relaxed slightly. "What's it called? Next time, I'll bring my family there."
"We've already closed the place and leased it out." Gan Qing turned around and smiled at her. "We've stayed here for nearly four years now, we're a little tired of it. We're planning to go somewhere else soon. We're going on a vacation before leaving, checking out all the scenery in this county that we haven't seen yet, then heading south."
The girl's eyes brightened. "You can live like that?"
"A guest house is not a money-maker, it's only enough to cover daily expenses." Gan Qing laughed and stretched out an arm to drape over Yu Lanchuan's shoulder. "I mainly rely on having a rich man who makes a profit in everything he invests."
"Go away," Yu Lanchuan said.
Before the girl's smile could unfurl, Gan Qing suddenly asked, "What's your name?"
The girl blurted out, "Jiang Ling."
"Jiang Ling." Gan Qing paused. A hint of a smile flashed across her eyes and she asked with feigned suspicion, "Ai, why do I feel like I've heard this name somewhere before…"
"No… It's not that 'ling,' it's… the 'ling' that means 'bell.'" In a fluster, the girl started to speak incoherently. "There are a lot of people in this area with the surname Jiang, perhaps the names sound similar…"
The boy gave her a forceful tug. The girl realised that the more she explained, the more suspicious she sounded and her face immediately paled.
Gan Qing reclined against the front passenger seat, poking her head out to look at her with a smile that was not quite a smile. "Oh? How did you know which 'ling' I meant?"
She had barely finished speaking when Yu Lanchuan suddenly stomped on the brakes.
Gan Qing slowly turned her body around, her fingers drumming against her knees every now and then. The smile was still on her face but her gaze was darkening.
The mountain trail was very narrow, only about the width of two cars. Vehicles going up and coming down the mountain would all have to pass through it. If they encountered another vehicle, there was just barely enough space for them to pass by each other. But all of a sudden, opposite them, two pick-up trucks were coming down side-by-side. They were coming right at them and just like that, the road ahead was blocked until not even the wind could pass through.
Right after that, the puttering sound of exhaust pipes sounded behind them. A few rundown motorcycles had emerged from somewhere, blocking their escape route.
Yu Lanchuan's eyes swept around him. He said slowly, pausing between each word, "Ran away from home?
The boy pressed his lips into a line. The girl crumbled into sobs. "Help us, please, I beg you, help us…"
The story began two days ago. The girl's father was in charge of the criminal investigation division of the prefecture-level public security bureau.
Three days ago.
The police cars kept a stern watch around the small town in the mountains, ready to surround the fish escaping from the net at a moment's notice. From not far away, there was the sudden sound of shouts, followed immediately by a pack of mad people who had wrapped themselves up like Death Eaters running out of a small courtyard and fleeing in all directions. Looking at the state of things, the police who were lying in wait nearby immediately swarmed up, anti-explosive shields, police batons and tasers all drawn. There were even a few holding actual guns for backup.
This time, the command had come from the province-level public security bureau. Throughout the entire province, the strict crackdown targeting the Paradise cult was being carried out in unison.
This Paradise cult especially loved building nests in remote and desolate places, duping those elderly left behind to watch over things in the villages to become their loyal believers. Then, with this as their foundation, they took the "villages surrounding a city" route to expand. The moment there was even a whiff of trouble, they would turn around and slip into those places where even public roads did not readily access, waiting for the spring wind next year to revive. Waging war against them was like trying to rid the city of cockroaches. Arming each household with insecticide was of no use; all the pests within the entire district, the entire city, must be completely eliminated once before there could be a few years' of peace. This time, the police had spent a long time brewing their plan. Their preparations were ample; they had obtained cross-province cooperation, mobilised their informers, put out numerous bounties on the heads of the wanted criminals, and even contacted a lot of local young people who had gone away to work as labourers to return to be "spies" before launching a concentrated attack to thoroughly dig up this immensely tangled and deeply-rooted evil cult, roots and all.
The nest in this small town was a critical mission. Captain Jiang from the city bureau had gone in person to oversee the operation to capture the cult, making every effort to take them all down in one go. After a round of intense scuffling, the cult members were all brought to justice. There were a total of eleven of them. They had been hiding in a house in the small town previously. The house owner was a believer and had taken care of their daily needs like an act of worship.
Captain Jiang took a look. The number of people was consistent with the reports from the informers. He waved his hand. "Take them away!"
He had barely finished speaking when a shriveled tiny old lady charged over with her two twig-like arms raised. "You're not allowed to go! That's the Advisor! He's here to save us, what are you people doing!"
A police officer said, "What advisor? Auntie, that's a swindler…"
The old lady spat in contempt, her spit speckling the young officer's face. "You will all face retribution!" she said viciously.
The officer was caught off guard and didn't dodge in time. He stood where he was and wiped his face, flabbergasted.
Out of the corner of his eye, Captain Jiang saw his own young subordinate being bullied and erupted in rage. "What's going on over there?"
"It's an old couple. The house belongs to them. Their children are in other parts of the country. It's been three years and their children only send them money, they haven't shown up the whole time. Their family can be considered well off. See, they built this three-storey house themselves. This old couple only has a grandson staying with them. They don't have anything as a spiritual support. Most of the time, they don't have anything to do and spend the whole day messing around with this pack. They believe in that Paradise thing and don't even care about their grandson. The kid has been skipping school for half a month already, the school's going to expel him."
Hearing that, Captain Jiang was even angrier. "In that case, aren't they guilty of harbouring criminals? Take them away!"
"Please take a look at these two, they're already seventy, nearly eighty. You'll even need to avoid them if you encounter them on the street. If anything happens, whose fault is it? Are we arresting two people guilty of harbouring criminals or are we inviting a pair of living ancestors back? Captain Jiang, if you ask me, we should just focus on reeducating them."
Captain Jiang thought a while and felt that his words made sense. Hence, he went up himself to carry out the task of reeducation.
"I'm really puzzled. The two of you don't care about your grandson and instead, spend money and effort to support this pack of bastards. For what? Can they support you in your old age and send you off on your final journey?" Captain Jiang asked.
The old lady said, "You have all been deceived by the secular world! Your eyes are blurred! Unclean things have attached themselves to your body for the sole purpose of not letting you return to Paradise. If you're a disbeliever, you will all rot in the earth!"
"That won't do. We will be cremated after we die. Even if we want to rot in the earth, national policies won't allow it."
"Stubborn and ignorant!" the old lady said furiously.
"You are the one who's stubborn and ignorant, Old Auntie. These people are spreading their cult illegally and using it to gain dishonest profit. They are a serious threat to public safety. By concealing them, you are also breaking the law, you understand? Just take that leader of theirs for example—that whatever-the-fuck advisor—he's a junior high dropout, nothing more than a gangster. His education level is not even as high as your grandson." As he spoke, Captain Jiang took out his phone from his wallet. "I even have his old photo. Let me show you, he dyed his hair blonde…"
The old lady felt that her faith was being besmirched. She threw herself on him, planning to tear into him with her teeth, and knocked Captain Jiang's wallet and phone away. A few officers rushed up to help him pick them up. Captain Jiang folded both his hands behind his back and did not touch her. He said calmly, "There is a warrant out for his arrest. Theft, robbery… just look at the terrible stuff he has done. Among the list of criminals, he's considered one of the lower grades."
The old lady was pulled away by others. She opened a pair of small triangular eyes clouded with cataracts and glowered at Captain Jiang. Her mouth mumbled something, putting a curse on him right there and then.
"Trying to curse me to death?" Captain Jiang was completely unconcerned about taboos and waved like a bachelor without family to worry over. "Same to you."
When that was done, he felt as though he had completely destroyed the idiocy of the ignorant masses, so he commanded everyone to detain the suspects and swaggered off. He did not see the overdue receipt from the dry cleaner that had fallen out of his wallet just now, on which was written his own phone number and the address of the dry cleaner at the entrance of the neighbourhood where his house was. It happened to be wedged in the cracks of the stones by the roadside.
The soil of ignorance scoured the earth for thousands of miles; grass could barely grow half an inch, while the cracks on the ground were a meter deep. This "reeducation" swept past like a round of pleasant breeze and fine drizzle, leaving not a single mark.
Three days later, Captain Jiang's thirteen-year old daughter, Jiang Ling, disappeared from the entrance of their home.
Jiang Ling only remembered that she had gone home in a group with her schoolmates as usual. She had just parted ways with them when she heard someone calling her name. At that time, it was only evening and the sky wasn't dark yet. There were people walking on the main road. She didn't have her guard up and thought that she was bumping into an acquaintance. She followed the voice and turned into an alley at the side, and before she could see anything clearly, someone seized her neck. And then, she had no idea what happened afterwards.
When she regained consciousness, she had already been kidnapped to a mountain ravine. Those kidnappers had tied her up and covered her with a white bag as tall as a human. On it were written the word "Paradise" in rust colour. They pointed a thirty-centimeter long sickle at her and took photos of her.
Quite a number of people had been kidnapped along with her. Outside, the kidnappers from Paradise were in conflict on how to handle their hostages—there were some who thought that they ought to imitate the terrorists in the Middle East and drag them out one by one to be executed, and intimidate the government's running dogs through bloody vengeance. On the other hand, the others thought that committing murder would make it hard to bring things to a conclusion. Furthermore, killing them was also useless. If they took a video and put it online, it would even easily expose their location. It was better to quietly contact the victims' families and threaten them in secret, and fight to infiltrate the inner workings of the public security bureau as quickly as possible.
This group of kidnappers were among the members of Paradise that had slipped the net. Right now, they were surrounded by enemies and had no plans. Even though the two sides with their different views were evenly matched when it came to letting their imaginations run free, regrettably, they could not understand each other's points. After debating for a day, they could not reach a conclusion, so Jiang Ling and the rest could still keep their heads on their necks for the time being.
The kidnappers used a cement factory as their operations base. They had believers in the villages located halfway up the mountain and there were people regularly delivering food up the mountain. Jiang Ling was set free by the food delivery boy who had taken advantage of the darkness to do so.
The food delivery boy—the one sitting right beside her now—had parents working in another part of the country. Since young, he had lived with his grandparents who had mysterious beliefs and he had long since wanted to run away. He stole 600 yuan from his grandfather and conveniently also scooped Jiang Ling out before leaving—not because he liked the girl but because it was his grandmother who had revealed the girl's address to the kidnappers.
The two teenagers fled through the night, slipping through the forest and crossing the ravines. After running for a night and climbing over a few mountaintops, they finally dared to hitch a ride on the road. They didn't even dare tell the truth when hitchhiking, for fear that the other party would not dare take them along in case of trouble.
Unexpectedly, they still did not manage to escape.
 Gan Qing calls Yu Lanchuan 萌主 méng zhǔ. 主 here means "chief" or "leader" while 萌 is from the Japanese word "moe" which roughly means "to have strong feelings of affection for something cute." It's a pun on 盟主 (alliance leader) which is pronounced the same way. I couldn't come up with any way to keep the pun so "darling leader" it is.
Typically, the way kidnappers treated their hostages was comparable to the cruel and harsh winter, and the way they treated hostages that had escaped from under their noses was even more like freezing current from Siberia. Were it not for the food delivery boy stopping them, the kidnappers that had caught up with them would nearly have beaten Jiang Ling to death right there by the road.
As for the two passerbys, Gan Qing and Yu Lanchuan, even though it was none of their business, they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Hence, the car was confiscated while the humans were tied up and taken away.
His face impassive, Yu Lanchuan said, "I want to change the interior. All the seat cushions need to be changed."
"Then you might as well buy a new car." Gan Qing leaned lazily against the rail of the pick-up truck. Perhaps because she was thin or perhaps because the kidnappers had gone easy on her, even though both her hands were twisted behind her back, she looked very relaxed and comfortable. "When we get back, I'll look for a car wash for you. We just need to disinfect it and it'll be fine. Be good, we have to live according to our means."
Yu Lanchuan shot her a look.
"Fine." Gan Qing sighed and said resolutely. "Change them."
Yu Lanchuan was finally satisfied. His eyes skipped past the terrified Jiang Ling and landed on the boy. One side of the boy's face was so swollen that the skin was almost transparent. There were a few shocking handprints on it and his eyes were squeezed until they were mere slits. He had taken the beating for Jiang Ling just now.
"Hey, are you all right?" Yu Lanchuan asked.
The boy looked at him and slowly nodded.
Jiang Ling said tearfully, "It's all because of me…"
"The one who beat me was my third maternal uncle." The boy's voice was rather unclear. "He won't beat me to death. Stop crying."
Jiang Ling was stunned. Yu Lanchuan and Gan Qing exchanged a veiled look. In actual fact, when the kidnappers made their move, Yu Lanchuan nearly couldn't hold himself back and had been stopped by Gan Qing. Any jianghu veteran could tell what kind of beating could really take a life and what kind only looked vicious.
Gan Qing asked, "Why, your family works as bandits?"
"No. They believe in that Paradise thing, you see. My grandpa, my grandma, my third uncle… Everyone who stays in the mountains are relatives. One person spreads it to ten, ten people spread it to a hundred—lots of people follow suit and believe in it." The boy explained briefly and glanced at Jiang Ling. "The one watching you guys last night was my father's cousin's husband."
Jiang Ling opened her eyes wide. "You… When you took me to escape yesterday night, you told me that you couldn't call the police, that your phone had no signal…"
"Mm, I lied," the boy said calmly. "I don't want to call the police. I just want to run away by myself. I've long gotten sick of staying here. Since I'm not going to school anymore, I plan to go out into the world and try my luck. I'll first go to the county town and take the train to look for my parents. Scooping you out was just because it was convenient. I don't plan to do anything about the others at all."
"But they're all evil cultists!" Jiang Ling said.
The boy gave her an indifferent look. "Yeah, so?"
Jiang Ling, "..."
"If they didn't believe in this, they would believe in something else. Humans are like that. They have to worship a god in their homes, regardless of whether it's a true god or a false god. If they don't believe in something, what do you expect them to do?" The boy turned his head away and looked out at the distant sky. "You cityfolk have exciting lives but we're not the same. We only have this here. There's no choice."
A boy fifteen or sixteen years of age was like a camelthorn shrub growing in the desert. He was used to the wind blowing sand into his eyes and his head being covered in grime, and had practically cultivated a state of divinity where there was nothing about him that would shock others.
Gan Qing put on an expression of astonishment and asked him, "Could it be that these kidnappers are all your relatives?"
"No." Despite his state of divinity, the teenager was after all still inexperienced in the ways of the world and was very easily baited into revealing more. "Quite a lot of people I don't know arrived in the last two days. There are a lot of 'Advisors' from other places."
Gan Qing turned towards Yu Lanchuan and blinked—it seemed like Paradise was so besieged that they had nowhere to go and those who escaped the net had all ran here and joined forces.
Just like that, the pick-up truck carried a hostage that failed to escape, a traitor who betrayed his own people for others, and a pair of unlucky "passerbys," and wound its way through increasingly narrow and twisted mountain trails to arrive at an abandoned cement factory.
The cement factory had been the main industry in this area in the past. Later on, due to environmental issues, it was closed down. The people scattered, the young and vigorous ones all fleeing to other provinces to seek their living while those who did not manage to run off could only stay back and watch over what was left behind, with nothing to do but to count the passing days, waiting for a saviour to explode into their world and bring a spark of hope into their dreary lives.
A few soot-covered smokestacks stood in a row. The perimeter wall was nearly all dismantled and carried away by the villagers. The mountain trail used by the trucks in the early years were overgrown with weeds that depended on the faeces from cows and goats to grow lushly.
This was a location with extremely good fengshui—the terrain was very elevated, the slope behind it was covered in dense forest and there was only one public road in front of it winding around the mountain. Even if the police knew that they were there, the police cars could only arrive via that single public road. Before they were halfway up the mountain, they would be noticed and there was ample time for the bandits to kill all their hostages before slipping into the forest to retreat.
Yu Lanchuan and the others were pushed into a room in the factory where the hostages were kept together under lock and key. The guards that had originally been rather relaxed were now tense. Seven or eight men surrounded them and if the men thought any of the hostages didn't look right, they would hit them. They were locked up for a day. When the sky darkened, the food delivery boy's third maternal uncle came in once and grumbled something to the boy, then slapped him out of disappointment. He took away the key that the boy had stolen.
Nestled in a corner, Gan Qing remained quiet and docile, watching them without a single sound.
"What are you looking at?" The swelling on one side of the boy's face had just gone down and the other side was now looking like he had mumps. "Only the younger ones are like that. Those like my grandpa and my grandma don't give a shit about me at all. They'll soon reach that 'Paradise' anyway. Their relatives over here are just like stones at the roadside."
Gan Qing asked in a voice that was almost inaudibly soft, "Around how many of them are there?"
The boy looked up and glanced at her. "Why, you still want to escape?"
Gan Qing pressed her lips into a smile, neither admitting nor denying.
"Stop dreaming." The boy's eyes swept past the dispirited hostages. He lowered his voice, "It's impossible. Putting aside the believers, the main thing is that there are five or six Advisors here. Those people are all very powerful, seven or eight ordinary people together aren't a match for them. If they didn't have some kind of capability, how would they make so many people believe them?"
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Where are the advisors?"
"Over there. It was originally the activity center in the cement factory. The newest building, you can see it immediately." The boy pouted very slightly. "You can't be serious about looking for-"
Before he could finish speaking, he stared in shock as Gan Qing put a finger to her lips that were beaming widely. "Shh—"
How did this woman get a hand free?
The guards had been glaring at them for a day and were now tired too. Four of them played cards at the door while out of the remaining three, one sat napping in a corner, one flipped through a Paradise brochure in boredom and one more walked around the hostages every now and then.
Right when the man who was patrolling walked over, he heard someone cough. He subconsciously looked in the direction of the sound and met Yu Lanchuan's gaze directly. Yu Lanchuan gave him a textbook example of an eye-roll. The patrolling kidnapper was initially stunned, not expecting there to be a hostage who was so bold. Rage started welling inside him and he wanted to immediately go over and show him who was the boss there. His leg lashed out at Yu Lanchuan but unexpectedly, before he could hit his target, something caught his ankle. His face was full of shock; before he could cry out, a shadow flashed behind him like a monster and a palm struck down.
The kidnapper collapsed in response.
Yu Lanchuan loosened his grip. Gan Qing skillfully held the kidnapper's body up from behind, hiding herself from view. The kidnapper looking at the brochure faintly heard some noise and lifted his head to glance in their direction. With the aid of the dim light from the lamp, he only saw his accomplice standing there and swaying. He did not take much notice of it and once again immersed himself in Paradise's rallying call.
Gan Qing signalled to Yu Lanchuan with her eyes: The four at the door are mine, you handle the two inside the factory.
Yu Lanchuan frowned and shook his head. No. Four for me, two for you.
Gan Qing flicked her gaze to where the two kidnappers in the factory were. The distance is too far. Your legs are longer.
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
He had no way to refute.
The looks the two of them exchanged all happened in an instant. Right after that, they acted in unison and shattered the two lightbulbs hanging in the factory. The already dim place instantly plunged into darkness.
At the card table, the kidnapper who was facing the factory said, "Hey, did the electricity get cut?"
"Maybe it's a short circuit. After this round, I'll go take a look…" The one with his back to the room didn't even turn around. "I'm throwing out a flush, three to queen."
"Asshole! Why don't you get two more and throw them all out together."
The other three people's attention was immediately drawn. One of them poked his head forward to check the pile of cards he had thrown out while the other two flipped their own cards over. The one who had thrown out his cards just now had a relaxed and delighted expression, like his entire body was lightened after detoxification. He took a long stretch of the body but before his waist could fully stretch out, he froze—there was a noose around his neck.
Before he could let out a warning, a cloud of cement dust fell from above. The night wind sent the dust flying and all three men at the card table closed their eyes in unison amidst the whirlwind of dust. There were a few dull thumps. The one furthest from the factory finally rubbed his eyes enough to open them and realised in shock that his accomplices were all lying down. A razor blade pressed on the pulsing artery on his neck.
Someone said in his ear, "Shhh—"
At the same time, Yu Lanchuan had already silently taken care of the two men in the factory building. He stood in the moonlight shining through the window and signaled Gan Qing with his hand.
Before Gan Qing could respond, someone suddenly shouted from afar, "What are you doing!"
"Ai, this is bad. I've been a witch for too long, my luck isn't good," Gan Qing said.
The cement factory was instantly in an uproar. In the darkness of the night, the activity room that the boy had pointed out was indeed exceptionally eye-catching. The few Xu clan people hidden there heard the noise and immediately came out to check. "What's-"
A razor blade flew towards them from far, brushing past one of their faces and stabbing into the wall.
"Wan Mu Chun!"
The moment they heard those three words, the few people who were rolling their sleeves up and preparing to get into action immediately turned pale with fright. The one in the lead shouted "Fuck!" and turned around to flee. The believers under them didn't understand why but hastily followed suit and ran. The group that had reacted the fastest had already gotten into the cars but before they could drive out of the courtyard, two terrified believers came running in from the opposite direction. "There are lots of police cars at the bottom of the mountain! They're driving up!"
When the remaining people heard them, they turned and fled for the forest through the back gate.
Who would have known that the moment they entered the forest, they seemed to startle a chain of sound-activated lights and the forest lit up here and there with flashlights. The ones who had laid in waiting there at some point scooped up Paradise and brought them back.
Both escape routes and the "easy to defend, hard to attack" cement factory were wrapped up like a dumpling. In less than half an hour, not a single one managed to escape. From the advisors to the believers, they squatted in a row.
Gan Qing found their jeep and dug out a radio transmitter from under the driver seat. "It wasn't enough that they took the humans away, they even wanted the car. Nothing good awaits those who are greedy for the little spoils."
Yu Lanchuan came over and said faintly, "We'll change the interior when we get down from the mountain."
There was nothing Gan Qing could say to that. She took out a packet of antibacterial wet wipes from the trunk and gave the inside a complete wipedown. Only then did the big boss Master Yu get into the car unwillingly, and slowly drove away.
He opened the car windows. The fragrance from the antibacterial wet wipes evaporated along with the relaxing breeze. Every now and then, someone would come over to greet them.
"Little Master Yu."
"Alliance Leader Yu."
The ones who had laid in wait on the mountain were their jianghu friends who lived in that province most of the time. Yu Lanchuan had spent four years entertaining visitors from up north all the way down to the south, and had made quite a lot of connections.
Yu Lanchuan nodded and thanked each one of them for their hard work. Someone joked, "Little Master Yu, why are you in such a hurry to leave? There's a reward for assisting with the case, aren't you going to claim it?"
"No, I won't. Just take it as after-sales service." Yu Lanchuan smiled then left, as lightly and freely as the passing breeze.
Before going down the mountain and changing the car interior, the two of them still had to go to the scenic area to take photos.
"If we rush there from here, the timing is just right. We can take photos of the sunrise." Gan Qing fiddled with the photography equipment in the backseat with familiar ease. She still owed a tourism magazine the draft for an article.
Yu Lanchuan said coolly, "Are they going to pay you extra if you can photograph the sunrise?"
Before he could finish speaking, he heard the shutter go off. Gan Qing had taken a picture of his side profile.
Yu Lanchuan, "...If I'm in the photo, the fee will have to be increased."
Gan Qing lowered her head to look at the photo she had just taken. The weak lights on the mountain trail drew a hazy outline around Yu Lanchuan. The person drifted along with the flow of time but the snapshot of his silhouette remained frozen in the picture.
Gan Qing suddenly blinked. "Hey, let me ask you, would there be a day when you no longer want to live this kind of drifting and uncertain life?"
Yu Lanchuan thought for a while, then answered very candidly, "Right now, no. In the future, maybe."
Gan Qing didn't say anything. She raised her eyes to look at him.
"When the day comes, I'll just stop drifting." Yu Lanchuan said, indifferent. "The Xu clan had their victories and will have their losses. Aren't they almost all cleared out now? When the time comes, I can go back and find a job or start my own business. I didn't cut off all ties with my former social circle anyway. If these evil cults really can't be eliminated, the two of us can still go abroad and settle down somewhere. Isn't that a way to live too? Would we be unable to find something to do? If you want to settle down now, I'll come up with a three-year household expenses plan for you."
"I'm not asking you to plan…" Gan Qing tucked her hair back, laughing then sighing. "Director Yu, what we are discussing right now is the high-level strategy on tackling life, don't drag your pretentious ways down to operative level."
Yu Lanchuan turned his head to give her a look of astonishment. "I find this very surprising. To think that the word 'strategy' would one day have something to do with you… All right, what strategic issue would you like to discuss?"
Gan Qing asked, "On what do you build your life?"
When Yu Lanchuan heard this question, he stared blankly for a few seconds, then laughed.
The moment Gan Qing saw this familiar smile, she knew that a round of taunting was coming and quickly stopped it in advance. "Speak properly."
"At your level where you snap photos for a third-rate magazine, this is indeed the quality of the questions you can come up with." As she expected, Yu Lanchuan not only taunted her but also gave her employer the same treatment. "Why would I want to build my life on something? I'm not a rice plant that can't move once I'm put into the ground."
"Then how will you live? Go wherever the waves take you?"
"Who isn't being carried away by the waves? Who can go against the times? Could Wang Jiusheng do it? Could Old Sect Leader Yang? Pursuing a sense of surety in life is a pointless thing in the first place, like notching a boat to mark where you dropped your sword into the water. It's a false premise." Yu Lanchuan shrugged and added his comment. "So, I'm the operative level, you're the hired thug level. At our levels, let's not force ourselves to explore this kind of high-level question."
Gan Qing, "..."
"If you're sleepy, go sleep for a while at the back. Why all the worries and sorrows?" Yu Lanchuan said. "When you're tired of drifting, I'll be your harbour. How many square meters do you want?"
"I want one as big as a castle."
"Sure," Yu Lanchuan agreed without even blinking. "Order one from the Lego shop. When it comes, I'll build it for you."
"Who build what for whom? I built the last one all by myself. You were only shooting your mouth off and making trouble!"
"The last one was for six to twelve year olds, it's suitable for you. You can't handle the ones for ages sixteen years and above."
"...Yu Lanchuan, aren't you being a little over-confident lately?"
Extra 2: Spring Leaving with the Misty Rain
Holding a palm-leaf fan, Mr. Chun sat on the rocking chair under the grape trellis, the chair creaking as it rocked. A light, cool breeze slipped into the courtyard and he realised that he wanted to roll up his tank top to cool down his belly. Instantly, there was a sense of crisis and he quickly corrected his bearing. He straightened his back and tried to flatten that extra bit of flesh sticking out of his belly, pretending that it did not exist.
Right then, his disciple called out to him. "Shifu, time to eat."
"Leave it there." Mr. Chun waved his palm-leaf fan indifferently. His brows slightly furrowed, he hummed an opera tune full of sorrow and anxiety. "The storm rages beyond the Spring and Autumn Pavilion, whence comes the lament that breaks the silence…."
His disciple didn't say anything. He brought out all the plates and dishes and laid them out on the little stone table in the courtyard, a riot of colours and delicious smells.
Great. There was no need to "break the silence" now. Mr. Chun—he whose magnificence was unparalleled in his generation—smacked his lips, his gluttony making him put on an affected tone. "It's too hot, I really don't have much of an appetite. Just looking at the food is enough… Is there still any of that boiled hawthorn tea from yesterday? Get me a bowl, it aids digestion."
Just like that, he first very reservedly digested his food before the meal. Then, he ate two large bowls of rice and drank a bowl of soup to fill in the gaps. Mr. Chun secretly let out a belch, then regretted eating too much. He took another look at his little disciple—lean and wiry and handsome, sleeves rolled up above his elbows, arms wrapped in a thin layer of skin with the curve of his muscles and bones clear and distinct.
'Tch, Mr. Chun thought indignantly. We eat the same things and live in the same place. Why the hell does this kid not put on weight? He's just younger, that's all.
This is really…
The little disciple worked up a great sweat preparing the food, waited on his shifu until his shifu was done eating, then cleared the table without making a sound. After washing everything, he swept the little courtyard and also splashed some cool water to alleviate the summer heat. After cleaning up the interior and the exterior, his dinner was more or less digested. Hence, he washed his hands, steeped a pot of jasmine tea for his shifu, then went to practise martial arts. Throughout the entire time, Mr. Chun's butt never left the chair. Before dinner, this venerable old man had sat there to wait for food and after eating, he continued to sit there. Every now and then, he fanned himself with the palm-leaf fan and thought of exposing his belly to cool down.
Evidently, there was a reason for the flesh.
Mr. Chun watched his little disciple practise his knife skills. The knife in his hand seemed to be alive, like sunlight reflected by the waves at sea, layer after layer folding into one another in an unbreaking chain. When he stood in the courtyard, even the moonlight and the droning of the cicadas did not command any of his attention, that pair of eyes as calm as the eye of a hurricane. Mr. Chun watched from the side for a while, his palm-leaf fan no longer moving. He sighed. This brat truly has a quiet heart.
When it came to learning and practising martial arts, the disciples' natural aptitudes could be sorted by ranks. There were those whose ability to comprehend was very high and could grasp their shifu's teaching after just one time. Those who were slower might practise for ten to twenty years and still fail to grasp the main points. The skills passed down by Wan Mu Chun's line were killing techniques. Killing techniques did not require great physical strength and did not demand the disciples to spend the whole day smashing rocks with their chests; nor did it require unparalleled finesse, the kind that made the audience gasp in amazement the moment the skill appeared. To study killing techniques, the most important natural ability was to have a quiet heart, the ability to breathe in rhythm with the grass and trees, to adhere one's five sensory organs and six senses to the target's, waiting for a chance and killing in a single strike.
No need to be showy but it had to be precise—the precision trained from pouring one's heart and blood into training.
His little disciple was a fine sapling, Mr. Chun thought regretfully. Were it not because Wan Mu Chun had washed their hands of their old ways after liberation, his little disciple's Paoding Jieniu that surpassed the master's might become the legend of his generation.
"Xiao-Xiao'er," Mr. Chun said leisurely, "It's almost time to take a rest. If you were born ten years later, I wouldn't even teach you these skills."
Mr. Chun had picked up the little disciple Wei Xiao from the streets. In the years of political upheaval, the streets were filled with unwanted children. Mr. Chun had been hanging out with a bunch of his friends from the opera scene one day and had drank too much, and picked up a disciple just like that. When he sobered up the next day and took a look, he realised that the child did not have a coarse appearance and he felt as though they had quite an affinity. He could also afford to feed one more mouth so, in that careless and muddled way, he kept the child.
At that time, Mr. Chun had yet to "wash his hands" so he had passed his martial art skills together with his legacy to his little disciple Wei Xiao… and nurtured his disciple into becoming a famous chef of his generation.
Mr. Chun said, "When I'm dead in the future, you will be the sect leader. However, our sect has been passed down the generations since the Southern Song dynasty, we've already made our money's worth. Our founder also does not desire you to expand our sect and gain glory, so just relax."
Wei Xiao had been reticent since young. After hearing that, he only smiled. The knife in his hand did not stop gleaming.
In ancient times, the sect of Wan Mu Chun had not been any sort of righteous or reputable sect. For the sake of producing a "lethal blade" in their disciples, the masters had been willing to use any method. Getting beaten and scolded were minor matters; not paying attention when practising and having their life taken by their shifu in a moment's carelessness was also not a rare occurrence. Mr. Chun reminisced about the past and said, "We were forced out into the world since we were young and after growing up, we had to depend on this nonsense to earn a living and survive, seeking both fame and profit. But why do you practise these skills?"
As usual, Wei Xiao only smiled and replied in a very soft voice, "I just like it. It feels like the knife can keep me company and chat with me."
After hearing that, there was a thunk in Mr. Chun's heart. He thought, In that case, you're better off seeking both fame and profit.
Because seeking fame and profit was human nature. Those who seeked neither fame nor profit were more often than not closer to demons.
When Mr. Chun was young, he heard a legend that said that there were some famous and treasured swords passed down since ancient times that were different from ordinary metal from the moment they came out of the forge. After many years had gone by, the swords gained a spirit and could be reborn as a human. There might be one such person every ten thousand years, and they were capable of communicating with swords. Others looked at swords as lethal weapons that harmed people but in the eyes of those people, the swords were old friends that they were meeting again. Hence, regardless of whether they practised knife skills or swordplay, one light touch and they could grasp the entirety, one example and they had thorough comprehension. They were all knife and sword wielders of frightening talent.
However… more often than not, such people did not have good endings.
From ancient times until now, how many of the big or small demons in the stories passed on among the people had good endings?
Before Mr. Chun departed the world, he held his little disciple's hand and instructed him two things.
The first was: don't make a name for yourself, don't take things too seriously, be satisfied with the minimum. Let your talent fade away and become an ordinary person.
The second was: Wan Mu Chun's knife skills should end at your generation. Don't pass it down further. Killing techniques are a bad portent.
Wei Xiao cried bitterly as he sent off his revered teacher. He remembered their eternal parting, yet did not remember his shifu's words.
People came and issued challenges; Wei Xiao never turned down an invitation. He had never suffered a defeat, how could he bring shame to his ancestors' name?
Old Mr. Yu gathered the heroes to lay siege to the Xu clan, issuing an Alliance Leader's Command; Wei Xiao answered the call. As the descendant of one of the Five Supremes, how could he shrink back?
At the Martial Arts General Assembly, he showed his face and had some tea, leaving as soon as the barest formalities were done—that was Wei Xiao's personality. Even if he was forced to stay longer, he had nothing to say to the others. He did not have the golden touch, not everything he did was a success.
Surrounded by the Beggars' Sect juniors, he neither retreated nor cowered. One against many, he fought until his eyes were reddened yet no one lost their lives. They only each had one arm broken. Wei Xiao had already done his utmost to go easy on them.
Famous blades could not hide their sharp edges. Mr. Chun's worries all became reality.
Wei Xiao made a name for himself, took things too seriously, and was unwilling to get by on just the bare minimum. But he was also not the kind of hero that would have hundreds answering to his call at the moment of crisis, so he could only be burdened by his fame and live in hiding.
When he was at the age when he was enamoured with the other sex, Wei Xiao had also once had someone he liked. It was just that society wasn't so open back then. He had a shy personality and didn't dare express his feelings, hiding them in his heart. Later on, the girl married an old friend of his and no matter how strong his feelings were, they could only be buried in his heart. A few more years passed. Due to circumstances of that era, the couple passed away, leaving behind a young son that they entrusted to Wei Xiao. The child was none other than Wei Huan.
Before the age of five, the child was called Yan Huan. Later on, when he played outside with other children, he was laughed at for not having parents and was called a bastard. Wei Xiao overheard them and changed his surname because of that. From then on, he raised him like his own child. Hence, the gossip and rumours swerved to a new target, saying that the child was his illegitimate child that he sired without getting married.
But all that wasn't important. His reputation wasn't anything good to begin with.
His ancestors had practised Paoding Jieniu for the sake of finding their footing in life. When they could no longer do so, naturally they would no longer practise it or pass it down. Wei Xiao was not the same. He passed his knife skills to his disciples because he wanted to introduce an old friend to the younger generation. He couldn't stop himself.
In his entire life, Wei Xiao made two mistakes. The first was when he saw Wei Huan take out the manual for Paoding Jieniu and move according to the instructions, he couldn't resist correcting him. The second was when little Gan Qing took his razor blade and awkwardly tried to learn from him, when she kept pestering him, he failed to stand firm.
By nature, Wei Huan was not a lively and extroverted child. Wei Xiao couldn't help but feel that the child was similar to himself and became even more shut-in after staying with him. At that time, they were poor and couldn't afford toys. Teaching him martial arts was to sharpen his mind and also to relieve boredom.
But he was wrong. Wei Huan was not at all like him. After growing up, he took one wrong step and every step thereafter was also wrong. The vagaries of life pushed him into a place where Wei Xiao could not reach.
Later on, by chance he took in Gan Qing. At that time, Wei Xiao was already old and his personality became even milder. Like he was taking care of a little flower, he took great care of this little girl whose background was complicated. At the start, he had thought of it in a simple way: the little girl was still so young, her family was dead, she had no one to look after her, and the reason she was in this plight was entirely because he hadn't taught his disciple well; hence, it was his responsibility to bring this child up.
But humans were not flowers and grass. As time went by and he brought the little girl up, he forgot why he had taken her in at the beginning.
Wei Xiao was old now. Knives and swords would rust and their blades curve, humans also would become lonely. When he was young, he had been burdened by Wei Huan and had never gotten married. In his old age, he had no descendants around him. He couldn't help following the norm and started desiring the mundane life that other elderly people had. That one active and lively little burden became the center of his life.
Gan Qing's personality was the total opposite of her shixiong. She was bright and clever, and terribly mischievous. Before the age of five, she climbed trees and roofs, stopping at nothing, and her knees were forever scraped. When she started school, the teacher would summon her guardian every other day. But her academic performance was surprisingly quite good and her teachers had been saying since she was young that she would enter university in the future.
For her sake, he started to keep a low profile, to conceal his identity and live in hiding. He stuck to her from day to night every day, forever worrying over an unending stream of petty matters. Sometimes, he would vaguely feel that she was his little daughter who had come to comfort him in his final years.
However, once an untouchable truth was submerged in the lake, the moonlight and the fragrance of the flowers on the surface would all become a transient reflection on the water. A stolen comfort would have to be returned one day.
The ancestors had passed down the rule that every generation of Wan Mu Chun could only be passed down to a single disciple. Wei Xiao broke the rule.
It was too cold that day. Gan Qing had run away from home for a week already and Wei Xiao was nearly going mad. Right when he ran out of ideas and was even willing to expose his hiding place by going to No. 110 for help, Meng Tianyi brought home a bloodsoaked Gan Qing.
Wei Xiao's heart fell with a thunk. In his heart, he knew something bad had happened.
"Was it really Wei Huan?" Meng Tianyi's forehead was covered in sweat. "T-That's impossible, right? Wei Huan's really back? And he could act so viciously? Didn't you say that he even sent money back then for this girl to go to school… Wei-xiong, what are you doing?"
"I'll go take a look. He dared raise his hand against her but dared not come to see me… You keep an eye on Gan Qing, don't let her go out again!"
"Me?" Meng Tianyi pointed at himself, then looked at Gan Qing, feeling his head already starting to ache. "Ai, Wei-xiong, this kid of yours is a living ancestor. How can I control her?"
Wei Xiao's steps paused. He walked quickly to the desk and took out an envelope. His head lowered, he wrote the words "My humble respects to all my ancestors of the sect of Wan Mu Chun."
"Hey!" Meng Tianyi turned pale with fright. "What are you doing? Can you really bear to throw her out of the sect?"
"If I don't do this, I won't be able to scare her into staying still." Wei Xiao rolled a few banknotes together with a sheaf of western fast food coupons together and stuffed them into the envelope so that it wouldn't look empty. At that time, to a household like theirs, western fast food was still a very luxurious thing that they could only eat once in a while. They couldn't bear to directly place their orders and would always carefully save up a lot of coupons like these, collecting until they had what they wanted to eat.
But Wei Xiao then glanced at Gan Qing and sighed. He took out the coupons, switching them for a twenty yuan note. "I must have owed you in my past life."
He couldn't bear to make the child be miserly and stingy like himself.
And that turned out to be the last time he saw his little creditor.
There were some people whose lives were probably just for the sake of settling debts. When the debts were settled, it was time for them to leave.
All that remained after were a few stories passed on among the people. Together with the old incidents of the jianghu, they scattered into the wind.