Wang Zheng’s complaint echoes through the corridor, “Chu Shuzhi, I told you, if you aren’t gonna use these talismans take them off, what should the janitor do when she comes tomorrow?”
Chu frowns with great contempt and suffering, Guo knows what that look means, and with the alertness of a newcomer, he diligently runs forward and starts cleaning.
Without a word, Da Qing passes by them and heads straight into the “wall” of the criminal investigations office.
What a wonder it is behind the wall: rows of bookshelves made of hard wood, reaching almost up to the ceiling, with an old ladder. There is barely enough space for one cat to pass through between the shelves and the ceiling. On the wall a big Sea Dragon Pearl is inlaid, brightening the entire room like it’s daytime, but ghosts and spirits that cannot withstand sunlight will not be affected.
Among the bookshelves oozes out the smell of antique books; it’s the long- sedimented aroma of ink, mixed with the subtle scent of mould from between the pages that have not seen the sun for long. The resulting mixture is the ripe, misty and freshening aroma of books.
Sang is working on organising the books. With most of them written in either traditional or simplified Chinese, he simply doesn’t recognise any of the words, and so he has to do a lot of symbol-matching between the spines of the books and the markings on the shelves. He is very slow, but he checks everything thoroughly, and he has never made a mistake.
After Zhao got him out of the Pillar of Nature, he opened the restricted library to him, and left him in charge of this job. His salary is the same as that of Guo: the regular pay check for all junior staff members, but the benefits are pretty good. Except that Guo is getting bright red banknotes, whereas Sang gets a lot of paper money and high-quality incense for the dead.
This is the first dignifying job he ever got in his life: no longer a slave ordered around like an animal, no longer a leader looked up to by foolish people that he simply wanted to destroy… though this job comes a bit too late, now that he has already died a few hundred years, he still treasures it a lot.
Living a peaceful and unfettered life with the person he loves: it’s a kind of life that he couldn’t get no matter how extensive his schemes were.
As he sees Da Qing walking in, he greets it with seriousness, “Hellu, cat.”
Da Qing replies, “Hellu, stutterer.”
Sang is confused… Wang is a polite and quiet girl, so naturally she would not have taught him to insult people. He doesn’t understand, and asks properly, “Studd… studdera, is… is what?”
Da Qing treads atop the wooden shelves with a bustling mind, and says carelessly, “Studdera means good brothers.”
Sang nods in understanding, and says passionately, “Oh, hellu, cat studdera!”
Da Qing is silent.
Sang continues, “Cat studdera, waat… what do you want to read?”
Da Qing is not really in the mood to tease him anymore, it lays on top of the shelf above him and asks, “Zhao Yunlan… Chief Zhao took a book from here the other day, did he put it back? Let me see it.”
Like doing a listening exam, Sang listens to the “recording” devotedly and asks Da Qing to patiently repeat it three times, after which he finally understands most of it. He wears a big smile of accomplishment, and takes a book that has yet to make it on to the shelves from a small cart, “Eats… it’s this wan.”
The book cover is ruined, and a corner of it is stained with coffee… there is no need to say which clumsy dude did that. The words “Book of Souls” are written eerily on its cover, but a part of it is torn off, looking particularly dilapidated.
Da Qing leaps off from the top of the shelf and lands on to Sang’s small cart. It paws through the pages, but they are all blank; nothing is written.
Its heart sinks; it has yet to reach the level of cultivation to read this book.
For some reason, its power has shrunken down to less than ten per cent compared to when its power was at its peak. It can’t even transform anymore.
Nevertheless, it’s still a few-thousand-year-old cat fairy, it could not have been surpassed by a mere human who is not even thirty, could it?
That is utterly impossible.
Unless… that somone’s soul is gradually awakening, little by little…
“I have never seen this book before,” Da Qing pats its paw on the book, and then inadvertently spins around in place, chasing its own tail, “where did it come from?”
If it doesn’t know, Sang obviously doesn’t either. A cat and a ghost stare at each other for a while, and the black cat slowly droops its head. WIth repressed emotions it bounces from the cart on to the ground, and walks out; not even in the mood to have milk-dipped cat food, its usual favourite.
It really can’t tell whether Zhao “awakening” is a good thing or a bad thing, but it just feels uneasy.
Zhao is living quite well now: on one hand intelligent and on the other moronic, he eats well and when he’s free his dirty mind starts fantasising, he has a comfortable and pleasant life on the whole.
The black cat is a kind of animal that only wants to find a nice, warm spot to sleep all day when it’s winter, and only wake up to eat, and then go back to sleep. By its very nature, it cannot comprehend the so-called “ideals” humans pursue. Now that its owner is silly and happy, looking just like a jolly and naive youngster all day, Da Qing feels rather pleased, and it really doesn’t want any… complications to crop up.
And yet complications have indeed cropped up.
The biggest complication Shen Wei closes his eyes, passing through Hell. Even the emotionless spirits and ghosts that have been soaking in Hell for eternity inadvertently float away to the sides like duckweed washed away by big waves.
He keeps sinking for an unkown amount of time, into the depths of Hell.
The water gets deeper and darker, and it is utterly pitch black down there. A black aura seems to be drawn to him, swivelling around him and sucking him
As he gets further down, there is no water anymore, but only dead darkness. If a human visited this place, their sense of time and space would be quickly lost, and replaced by the solitude of being the only man in the universe.
The road behind and the road ahead, neither can be seen. Frighteningly cold, and frighteningly empty.
Here is the land of nothingness: nothing can be seen, nothing can be heard, nothing can be smelled, nothing can be tasted, nothing can be felt.
And as a deep roar breaks through the silence, Shen’s blade almost silmutaneously touches the other’s neck.
In the sheer darkness several sounds of footsteps approach him. A handful of spirit beasts and one Ghost Slayer: all born in here, grew up in here. They were all born out of the light, and they are all equally familiar with darkness. No-one has the upper hand here: it’s a fair match of whether the Ghost Slayer’s blade is faster, or the spirit beasts’ fangs are sharper.
Shen cannot shake away the thought of Zhao. He doesn’t want to waste time here: he dodges three times in the dark, and the cautious beasts quickly turn from testing to attaking, pouncing towards him. Shen shouts, and the blade in his hand slashes out horizontally, chopping off a row of beast brains with sheer destruction; the heads roll all over the ground.
Shen does not hesitate; without looking at the corpses, he kicks away a brain, and walks ahead.
After a long time, he stops, and from beside him comes a vague sound like that of a human’s heartbeat.
The “troops” summoned by Shadow Blitz are not soldiers from Hell in the usual sense. After all, how could the small ghosts working for Hell answer to the feral and supercilious command of “men and gods, none shall survive”?
Indeed, they come from a lightless place even darker and deeper than Hell.
The white skeletons in iron armour riding on warhorses are only a result of the unrealistic imagination of the guy who did the magic. In fact, these things are
not corporeal, and perhaps… if it weren’t for Zhao using blood and iron as catalysts, most people would only see them as a horde of “spirit beasts”.
In that kind of situation, Zhao summoned the Shadow Troops, and even managed to keep them under control. On one hand that could be because of his natural talents, on the other hand, it was perhaps good luck: after all, Shen was just downstairs, those things didn’t dare cause any trouble.
“In the lightless land lies a blasphemous prison.” When Pangu the Creator first stretched out Heaven and Hell, there was an apparent boundary between the clean and the filthy. The Earth was filth, and the order of the world was set in stone. As chaos subsided, and filth accumulated for millenia after millenia; outside of Heaven and Hell, there came a place where foul matter would reside.
Afterwards, when Nüwa created humans out of clay, she did not have the patience to wait for the filth to sediment, and so humans were born naturally and intrinsically from sin, and the root of that lays here… from which originates the inherent desire of malice and destruction in human beings.
Once the saints were enlightened, they were greatly remorseful for the creation of the lightless land, and named it the “great blasphemy”, and sealed it away by force. Till now, the primeval godly prison has broken, and a huge opening is ripped apart from its roots. Afterwards, someone added a layer of protection with some formation, and yet this newer seal is about to crumble down as well. The ghost face is freed and runs rampant, and more and more spirit beasts follow suit.
The opening cannot be bigger.
Shen kneels down on one knee, chanting an imprisoning spell, temporarily sustaining the seal. The commotion gradually quiets down, and the opening seems to be covered with an added layer.
With a sombre expression, he leaves. No-one knows how much longer this quiescence can last.
Shen returns to the living, and the sky is turning bright. He arrives at Zhao’s small apartment, and plans to put off his black cloak quietly, without waking Zhao. Suddenly, he is in great shock; as he turns on the lights, there is no-one
in the apartment. The bed he had made in the morning is still perfectly untouched.
Having been out all night, Zhao tightens his coat in face of the mountain of tombs, stops the engine and gets off the car.
When Shen mentioned the puppet that Guo saw in the reflection, Zhao realised the hidden truth Shen left untold… when he met Zhao as Shen, it was not his intention, and he was probably set up.
Zhao believes, if he had not been so persistent, Shen would have avoided him the best he could. If at that time he knew Zhao was there, no matter what Guo saw, even if he saw Ghost Slayer himself, Shen would never have appeared… wiping away Guo’s memory is just a piece of cake.
And then Zhao thinks of the incident of the sundial, when the Ghost Slayer went to Li Qian’s place, he heard something on the rooftop: “and so he is sent here to you”. Who? What does that mean?
If the master of the spirit beast is the ghost face, why is he so determined on making the Ghost Slayer meet Zhao?
At the Pillar of Nature, Zhao felt that ghost face had been using something to blackmail the Ghost Slayer, and yet he had no intention of letting Zhao in on the truth. In comparison, the black book the Hell Guard gave him was a much more apparent move.
Zhao stands on earth, among the living, and yet he feels as if there were a gigantic whirlpool beneath him, with thousands of entangled hands grabbing and pulling him; everyone is plotting, everyone’s face is shrouded in mist.
Zhao lifts up his head, and sees a sparkle of ghostly fire in the mid-ranges. Chilling lights pierce through like menacing eyes in the darkness of the night, staring at Zhao not far yet not too close away. He stops, and the fire stops as well, as though it were leading the way. Zhao follows it, heading steadily towards the graveyard in Plum Village.
Fog engulfs the place, growing thicker and thicker. With only a visibility of one metre, amidst the beguiling whiteness, still a flickering flame leads the way.
The air dampens, and the ocassional droplet wets his face; eerily cold.
A moment soft and then heavy, ebbing and surging sighs pass by the ears, like countless spirits wandering in the depths of the woods. Zhao looks straight ahead, and walks straight ahead… they do not commit evil, nor do they do good, they wander among the living, and never enter reincarnation, all weeping and wailing, all mourning for themselves.
How many people ever die without regret?
Zhao treads through the thickening fog, and his long dark grey coat sweeps along his path: white mists and groping hands extending from tombstones all can’t help but make way. No ghost dares come near him.
Afterwards, in the barren graveyard of the wilderness at nighttime, weeps and wails sound from far and near. Zhao cannot stand it any longer, he stops at his feet, violently opens his palm and some talisman papers light up in intense flames. The wails swiftly turn into screeches, and countless silhouettes scurry away in chaos. The white mist seems to be inflammable, and flares up easily like a fire dragon, spouting out from his palm and instantaneously sweeping clean the misty graveyard.
“If you have complaints, go to the Court of Hell and hit the drum for your grievances. What good does it do you crying in front of me?” He looks up with a stern face, and the ghostly fire has disappeared.
The night cold as water, and the starlit sky pristine as cleansed.
A half moon hangs in the sky. Droughty and frigid gale whips like sharp knives, slashing on to his skin. Zhao pulls up his scarf, almost covering half his face.
This moment, a voice sounds from beside him, sometimes nearby and sometimes from afar, and with a piercing coarseness, it chants:
Shadow moon, barren tombs, will-o’-wisp ignites the path of doom;
Grove zephyr, bone piper, man skin on spectral fox impostor.
This grey wight shall count for thy, will you please attend to I,
One human head for silver sold, one beauty’s skin for pot of gold;
In hundred days fifty ounces carcasses oil,
For riches and grandeur in half a lifetime thou shall roister;
If three of souls seven spirits one can bestow,
Then dust unto dust shall from dirt to dirt your life return to quietus;
Thy time on earth a butcher must enlighten evermore.
That voice penetrates like nails scratching on glass, inexplicably agonising on ones head.