Zhao frowns and looks at her, “you’re not sick are you?”
Wang doesn’t answer, she stares straight at the ground. She always seems to be dazed when her eyes fixate on a spot. After a while, she says softly, “I was young, around seventeen. I didn’t know anything. I was naive and foolish. I only saw what was happening right in front of me, and I only considered one path in my mind. I… Sang and I had been close ever since we were kids. Though he was a slave, I treated him as family. Dad wanted to kill him, and I… of course I didn’t want that.”
“You hid him, like a form two girl hiding a love letter from her parents.” Zhao says impolitely.
A faint smile emerges but quickly vanishes from Wang’s face, “perhaps. At the time I blamed my father, he brought shame on me, he… he was our great leader, how could he be so shameless?”
Zhao stays silent, still wearing an unpleasant face, but his gaze subtly softens. Wang sighs after a long while, “is there a place in this world where everyone is free, where everyone is equal?”
Nobody answers. After a long time, Zhao suddenly says, “yes.”
Wang and the Ghost Slayer both turn towards him. Zhao’s lips are still stained with bright red blood marks; his face is particularly pale. Along with his dark grey shirt, his figure is weathered, only his eyes are shining astonishingly… his eyes are always sparkling, like nothing in this world can wipe away the glimmer.
Zhao pauses, and says slowly, “in death.”
The Ghost Slayer’s face remains out of sight underneath a thick layer of swivelling mist. As he hears this, he can’t help but disagree, “wouldn’t that mean there is no hope? What is the purpose of living then? The Guardian is too pessimistic.”
“Only if one dwells on the surface, Your Honour.” Zhao calmly looks up, “what’s fairness and what’s equality? If someone considers himself equally treated, others must feel that they are not. If people are starving, equality would mean everyone is adequately fed. When no-one is concerned with survival, equality will then entail dignity for all. Even if everyone lives with dignity, there must be something each person desires to make one appear superior over others, and they would never quit till death, wouldn’t they? Equal or not, isn’t that all up to each person to decide?”
The Ghost Slayer is lost for words for a moment, and lightly laughs, “nonsense.”
Zhao laughs too, and changes the subject, “Sang won the war, killed your dad, and abolished slavery, then what?”
“Afterwards, the eldest in each family would represent the whole family to raise concerns and vote for solutions, the majority view would be adopted.” Wang says, “Sang suggested this system. He wasn’t educated, but he knew what the people wanted. It’s like what people call democracy now. I guess humans have always wanted the same things.”
Zhao bends one leg, putting both his hands on to his knee, and sits in a rather laid-back and unappealing position. But his words are still sharp like knives, piercing at Wang’s heart. He suddenly says, “that was when you died, wasn’t it?” Wang is taken by surprise, and is stunned silent. Her gaze saddens.
And when everyone thinks she will not speak, suddenly, she says, “I was… at that time I had nowhere else to stay but at Sang’s. But I couldn’t do any work: when I was little, my mother only ever taught me how to dress up and order the servants to do everything else. I couldn’t hunt, and I couldn’t even take care of house work… Then, a girl in the tribe wanted to marry Sang, her father came for matchmaking, but Sang turned him down. The girl was devastated and ran up to the mountains on her own. When they found her she was dead; she fell down the hillside and banged her head on a rock. Her father despised me, he convinced a lot of people that since I was the leader’s daughter, I must have used magic to put a curse on the girl. So… so they decided to behead me.”
Wang’s shoulders suddenly begin to tremble… she used to believe wholeheartedly that her father was wrong: the people should not have been enslaved, they were humans too, they didn’t deserve to live with shame and be controlled by others. She used to be like Sang, wishing that the people could all live equally, freely and happily.
But despite her sympathy and compassion, the tribe loathed her.
“The girl’s father led the tribe to vote raising their hands: those who didn’t meant they abstained or didn’t want me to be killed, and those who did meant they agreed to beheading me…”
When she says “beheading”, her voice cracks and she starts crying.
That day, a huge crowd gathered together, all looking rather pleased. Rows after rows of raised hands packed tightly in a cluster. When looked at from above, they appeared as claws of evil spirits in the deepest river in Hell. Almost everyone raised their hands. They glared at the tied-up girl, coldly, blandly, foolishly, and sadistically.
Shockingly, they reached a consensus: kill her, chop off her head.
Even if there were thousands of lights in your heart, they would be extinguished till not even ashes remain.
Nobody remembered what she did… or perhaps, she did it with an ulterior motive anyway.
Tears fall in large droplets from Wang’s eyes on to the ground, turning to smoke as they hit the ground, and disappearing into thin air. Her figure grows weaker… she died over three hundred years ago, so she shouldn’t have tears; but now her heart is broken beyond repair, and her soul is burning up.
“Don’t cry.” Zhao feebly extends his hand and holds her chin. He wipes off the tears on her face, and puts a soul-stabilising talisman against her forehead. The crying stops, and she stares at Zhao with her innocent eyes. Zhao’s gaze is gentle and subtle, and Wang seems to be stunned for a while.
Zhao holds out his watch, and lowers his voice, “go inside first.”
Wang suddenly feels that Zhao already knows the entire truth about her.
Wang is still silent, and feels a gentle but irresistible force pulling her into the revealing mirror. Zhao says, “I’ll let you out when it’s night.”
Wang disappears. Zhao and the Ghost Slayer are left in silence.
Zhao closes his eyes; he is exhausted.
The Ghost Slayer stays silent for a moment, then pats his shoulder, “don’t sleep just yet, if you did, your soul that was just stabilised might disperse again. You can rest later… is your chest still painful?”
Zhao forcefully rubs between his eyebrows, and says with a coarse voice, “I’m fine, it’s just that stupid girl’s drugs, my head is still dizzy.”
“How about I escort you back first, then I will return for the Pillar of Nature.”
Zhao waves his hand, and forces a pretence of being energetic. Finally, he can’t help it but says painfully, “can I have a cigarette?”
Zhao treats his silence as acquiescence, and swiftly lights up a cigarette. He smokes deeply like an addict, and not even secondhand smoke comes out; every last bit of smoke is sucked into his lungs. He seems refreshed, “I’m fine, really, I treat vomiting blood as detoxing. I just didn’t know what that thing was and I panicked. You don’t have to walk me back, You Honour, taking the pillar is the priority. Last time someone else got to the sundial first, so don’t waste time on me.”
The Ghost Slayer freezes, “you saw everything last time?”
Zhao strangely looks at him, “I’m not blind… but the Hell Guards are putting an arrest order for spirit beasts, I wonder who’s behind all this, who would dare challenge you like that?”
The Ghost Slayer is silent for a moment, and Zhao instantly feels his embarrassment, and says, “oh, you don’t have to answer me. It’s just that I’m in charge of the living world, so if it ever affects us here, it would be nice if you could warn me in advance, Your Honour.”
The Ghost Slayer agrees. Zhao stands up, puts off the cigarette in the snow, and seems to be alive again. He pulls out a scruffy paper talisman, and eats it, “damn, so hard to chew. Let’s go, shall we, Your Honour?”
The Ghost Slayer nods, and retracts the smoke barrier; the Pillar of Nature reappears in front of the two.
Zhao swallows the soul-stabilising talisman, but he still feels the incredibly brutal and menacing force emanating from the Pillar of Nature. He puts a hand into his pocket, and stands upright facing the colossal monument. He realises that the cross-section of the pillar is an octagon. It sharply penetrates the ground all the way down to the centre of the Earth.
The Ghost Slayer walks forward, stands still, palms pressed together, and after a moment, from the ground whips up a fearsome storm. His hoodie and dark cloak look as though they may be pulled away by the gale, but he remains poised.
The Ghost Slayer bellows, “the Spirits of the Mountains!”
The Pillar of Nature quivers. Then the ground. Afterwards, the snowy mountains tremble together as well. In the depths of the valleys and hills comes a thundering blow, like a deity trapped under the icy rocks being awakened, letting out a terrifying cry that darkens the skies.
Zhao struggles to keep his eyes open in the gusts, as he barely sees a mirage flashing across in the air; it seems like a few figures have emerge.
He sees Wang in her teens, innocent and naive. He sees a handsome young man in shabby clothing, standing atop, looking back at her with a bloodied face and a genuine and pure smile.
Then he roars, and swings a giant iron shovel on to the stone tablet. Underneath his feet is a blood-red hillside, laden with corpses.
Those who are alive look up intently at his every movement.
The man clears the stone tablet, stays silent, and suddenly howls in a coarse voice. Zhao doesn’t understand the language, but he knows what it means.
Bloodied and full of mud and dirt, though he emerges victorious, he doesn’t seem content, but only indignant… a tribe that has been repressed for a thousand years. The first breath of fresh air in forever, it almost brings him to tears.
The silent crowd eventually joins in; the howling and weeping of men echo in the valley.
The mirage disappears abruptly, and the Pillar of Nature gradually rises up from the ground. The Ghost Slayer points a finger, “the Souls of the Rivers!”
Zhao stands motionless, and the black shadow of the pillar reflects on to his irises. His eyes redden from the howling wind, and he presses on to the watch, comforting the the soul of the girl trapped within: a soul of never-ending solitude and melancholy.
At this instant, a screeching shriek pierces through the air and attacks the ears. Zhao lowers his head inadvertently: his brain gets dizzy again. The screaming gets denser and louder and the rigorous cries echo like fingernails scratching at your internal organs.
The screeching continues to strengthen and soon explodes out of control; Zhao feels like vomiting.
The Ghost Slayer stands not far away, and summons a wall of smoke again, blocking out all noises. The Pillar of Nature reverts to normal and falls back into the ground. Zhao tastes blood: he realises he bit his tongue.
“What was that?”
The calm and poised Ghost Slayer finally shows a sign of worry, he says, “I was reckless, this must be handled with caution. That was the wails of ten thousand ghosts.”