Chapter: 40

Zhao heartlessly interrupts her tragic reminiscence, and rubs his palms, “don’t talk about the past, let’s talk about what we do now?”

The Ghost Slayer is silent. Wang moves her lips and is about to speak, but Zhao points at her and says, “I didn’t ask you, shut your mouth.”

“The Pillar of Nature suppresses souls and spirits. Not only the souls of those who died of unjust, but any soul that becomes imprisoned within will eventually become resentful.” The Ghost Slayer ponders, and says with composure, “in my view, there aren’t many options available: either destroy the artifact, or forcefully suppress the souls within.”

Wang doesn’t understand, and asks with bewildered eyes, “Your Honour, what you meant by that…”

Zhao says, “he meant that if we can’t blow up the pillar, he’ll just slay all the souls inside and shatter all of them into pieces.”

Wang covers her mouth with her hand.

The Ghost Slayer shakes his head, “executing for no reason is unjust.”

Then the only option left is to blow up the pillar.

Zhao sits on the ground and plays with the lighter. Suddenly, he stares at the flickering flame and says to the Ghost Slayer, “now I remember, on our way up the mountain, we met a Hell Guard with a paper lantern, on the road right outside River Village. How could he not know what happened here, and just passed by the Pillar of Nature like nothing.”

The Ghost Slayer says, “he was leading hundreds to the afterlife, probably too busy.”

Zhao looks at him with suspicion, but he hides his doubts and continues, “the Four Mystical Artifacts have been missing for a very long time, scattered on Earth. Your Honour, why are you collecting them now? Last time, we came across the sundial by chance, but this time, you probably came for the pillar, didn’t you?”

The Ghost Slayer instantly realises his carelessness, and remains silent… this man is too smart. No matter how silly and unreliable he seems on the outside, he is merely hiding his overly sharp mind. Whatever the incident, it seems he can always puncture a hole in a story.

Zhao doesn’t let him get out of this easily, and looks at his wide sleeves, and points out, “your sleeves still have blood stains, Your Honour.”

“I have never heard of spirit beasts, and they appeared together with the sundial. Hell wouldn’t say anything about them, what are they really? They could not have appeared out of thin air, so where did they come from? And the Mystical Artifacts, people must have fought for them till death, haven’t they? Why would you let the Artifacts stay on Earth for so long?”

The Ghost Slayer has always been the interrogator, never the interrogated. He stays silent for a long time, and struggles to find a suitable explanation. Finally, he says very gentlemanly, “forgive me, I can’t tell you.”

Lying to someone like Zhao is basically bringing shame on yourself. You’re better off being frank: “I know why, but I just don’t wanna tell you”, save yourself the trouble of making up a story.

Zhao lights another cigarette, and sucks in deeply. Nobody knows what he’s thinking. After a while, he really stops asking about this.

Zhao stands up, and takes out his empty cigarette box. He takes out the peeled layer of mud with an octagon on it, and asks Wang, “what does this mean? Does it mean the Pillar of Nature in Hanga symbols?”

Wang ponders, “when I was little, my father taught me that means mountain, and a circle around it means water.”

“Your dad didn’t lie to you, did he?” Zhao asks, “didn’t your illiterate tribe have another symbol for mountain?”

Luckily Wang is well-tempered, she remains calm and doesn’t want to punch the Chief at all. She explains, “the octagon represents the godly mountain, which is where the Pillar of Nature is located. This place used to be a forbidden site, and only the leader of the tribe could enter.”

Zhao frowns, “but there are no rivers around this mountain.”

Wang hesitates, “it’s been so many years, perhaps the landforms have all changed.”

Zhao disagrees, “that’s impossible; if a circle around the octagon represents rivers around a mountain, that’s understandable. But it can’t just mean water, in Hanga script, there is no precedent of such ambivalence.”

Wang stares at Zhao dumbly: she always thought that although the Chief is a nice guy, he is probably not the hardworking type. But in only a few days, he already knows the Hanga tribe so well.

Zhao raises his head, and looks towards the pillar, “the spirits and souls of the mountains and rivers… the Hanga people used the Pillar of Nature to perform Luobula restriction magic for god knows how many generations. They must have known something deeper: if water burial can prevent a soul from being trapped by the pillar, then it’s very peculiar that the circle around the octagon represents water.”

The Ghost Slayer follows his thought, “the Guardian is suggesting that water might be the pillar’s weakness?”

Zhao laughs, “why not give it a try?”

The Ghost Slayer stands up, and Zhao waves at Wang as if calling a dog. He impatiently knocks on his watch.

Wang flashes, and vanishes.

The Ghost Slayer retracts the smokescreen, and points at the snow. The layer of snow around the pillar melts rapidly, and a stream of water soon surrounds the pillar.

As expected, the quivering pillar miraculously calms down, like a temporarily appeased maniac in menacing silence.

This time, the Ghost Slayer doesn’t force his way in, and stands cautiously outside the stream, watching the pillar.

Under his movements, more and more snow begins to melt, and the streams grow bigger in the freezing mountains. Gradually, they emerge through the thick layer of snow and swivel towards the pillar like snakes.

Zhao hears an echo. He heard it as soon as the smokescreen was lifted up. At first he thought the pillar was still having an effect on him, but now he seems to hear a stuttering voice.

“Not yet old… not yet old but ravaged…”

He has a familiar feeling, like the sudden rush he felt after the earthquake on that day.

Zhao listens to the voice closely, and shortly, he becomes mesmerised, and inadvertently follows the voice, murmuring, “rock, not yet old but ravaged; water, not yet cold but frozen; body, not yet lived but dead; soul, not yet burnt but dispersed…”

The Ghost Slayer abruptly turns his head towards Zhao, his face is not seen, but his gaze seems to pierce through.

Zhao quickly retains consciousness, and forcefully rubs his forehead. He suspects that he must be over-sensitive and having illusions… he feels like the Pillar of Nature is trying to connect with him, and attract him in.

As he lowers his head, he sees a flash of white light on the snow, and a person emerges out of thin air behind the Ghost Slayer. A gigantic axe slams towards the back of his head.

Ever since he entered the valley, Zhao’s hand never left his gun in the pocket. At the speed of light, he pulls out the gun and lands his hand on the Ghost Slayer’s shoulder, and pulls the trigger without blinking.

Under the silencer, the bullet goes right through that person’s head. At the same time, the Ghost Slayer turns around in a pitch black cyclone, and his blade crashes with the giant axe with a screeching noise.

The two both stumble backwards, and Zhao sees that the person with an axe is wearing a pale ghost mask. A bullet hole in the forehead exudes a dark liquid.

Zhao looks at the Ghost Slayer, then looks at the person, and is confused… he has never heard of anyone like that before.

The ghost face raises its hand and wipes off the black blood on its forehead. The pale ghost mask turns towards Zhao and the painted face distorts into an eerie smile.

“Guardian,” a voice comes from beneath the mask, “it’s been a thousand years, and you haven’t changed a bit.”

Zhao isn’t quite used to this way of meeting an old acquaintance.

The eyebrows on the mask droop down, and the face becomes half smile and half cry, and the ghost face continues, “but the Guardian didn’t use to be so ruthless. But it doesn’t matter, no matter how you treat me, I will never forget borrowing the fire…”

The Ghost Slayer doesn’t let it go on, and his blade slashes down with a blinding ray, hacking the air with a screeching howl. Although Zhao has no clue who is who here, he quickly dodges aside so that he doesn’t become collateral damage of two gods duelling.

He has never seen the Ghost Slayer so furious.

Wang’s voice comes from his wristwatch, “Chief Zhao, who’s that?”

With a cigarette in his mouth, Zhao kneels aside in an unnatural position, and says with a dull voice, “How would I know, it’s not like I know everyone… do I look like I make friends with everyone?”

If Wang were a little more unrestrained, she would probably have replied with a “can you be more shameless than that”. Unfortunately, she is naturally subtle and indirect, so she replies with silence.

Zhao is in the mood of watching an action movie in 3D, and leisurely stays aside while putting off the cigarette in the snow. He warms his hands with his breath and rubs his freezing palms together.

“Rock, not yet old but ravaged; water, not yet cold but frozen.” He says, and knocks on the watch, “I suddenly thought of something, I’ll give it a try.”

Wang is afraid of what crazy idea he has, and shouts, “Chief Zhao, Chief Zhao!”

Zhao ignores her, and takes out a string of keys. There is an old key in the shape of a book, the patterns on it are all weathered, and the back of it has a scribbled “G” engraved on it. G for Guardian. The key is hollow.

He holds the key and walks towards the pillar. Suddenly, a few spirit beasts emerge from the ground and surrounds him menacingly.

The beasts aren’t attacking him, they only block his way to the pillar.

Zhao yawns and stretches, and says sheepishly, “Oh, I understand now, he must be that ‘master’. You guys took the sundial, but what do you wanna do with the Four Artifacts?”

The spirit beasts do not reply, and move in one step closer to scare him away.

Zhao laughs coldly, and takes out a cigarette. He opens the little book, but inside isn’t a family photo, it’s a kindle of fire. It’s like a miniature lighter, lighting the cigarette.

Zhao closes the pendant, but he doesn’t start smoking. He holds the cigarette with two fingers, and sighs, “there are two things I hate the most in my life: ugly thugs and disobedient dogs. You guys are quite the full package, and you’re really getting on my nerves…”

The cigarette in his hand flies out like a small firecracker, and as it leaves his hand, it burns into a giant ball of flames. With a long tail, it pounces towards the spirit beasts like an unstoppable meteor.

One of the beasts exclaims “Samadhi true fire”, and they are sucked into the inferno. The fire of the Bifang bird is one-of-a-kind; it burns them into ashes in a matter of seconds.

Zhao smiles in the light of the blaze, “what true fire fake fire, haven’t you morons heard of the king of secret weapons, what people like to call the ‘firecracker monkey’?”

The fire ball that’s called a monkey rushes towards the base of the pillar.

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