Zhao says coldly, “Legend says that villains with opening lines that are too long usually get one-shot-killed, do you think that’s true?”
Hustling noises come from near and far in the woods, like countless fluttering footsteps. Zhao presses on to his lighter, the small flame is lifted high-up, shedding light in a small halo.
Suddenly, he turns around, and a stubby figure flashes across from behind, floating mid-air, and instantaneously vanishing; leaving behind a long, web- like trail of a gown, dashing away faster than the eye can see.
Laughter sounds, like the night squeals of obituary birds.
Zhao stands silently in place for a while, and that thing seems to be wary of him; it only floats around cautiously, emerging and vanishing, but never getting too close to him.
Suddenly, a long whip extends with a whirling vortex, and traps the creature by the waist at a strangely precise angle. Zhao thrusts his wrist, and the end of the whip falls heavily. A muffled screech comes from the creature, and as he takes a closer look, a “person” just above one metre tall falls to the ground.
It isn’t clear if that “person” is male or female: an entire face laden with wrinkles, an exceptionally outstanding nose, which takes up over half of the face with the eyes and mouth almost having nowhere to be placed. On a glance, the creature looks like an ominous bird; the tiny eyes are pitch black, with no white to be seen, exuding a sinister vibe. With a sudden smirk, sawtooth and contorted yellow teeth are seen.
Zhao gets down on one knee, arm on his knee, and stares at that person; he says, “Hey, what the hell are you?”
That person glares at him eerily, and says with a sawing voice, “Puny kid, you do not know the highness of the sky and the depth of the earth.”
“Ow,” Zhao eyes him up and down, “so tell me, just how high and how deep?”
He takes out a pack of cigarettes, jerks his wrist and a cigarette is in his mouth. The lighter somersaults in his hand flexibly, sparkles fly, and lights up with a crackle. The mint-flavoured smoke smoulders the person, who leans back and coughs incessantly.
Zhao holds the other end of the whip, and without untying it, he asks, “Just now you were peddling?”
The person humphs, “Right, you got anything to offer?”
Zhao ignores that, and asks, squinting his eyes, “And so the Ink Brush of Virtue is with you?”
The person says nothing; cunning, small eyes glare at Zhao like a viper.
Zhao flicks off ashes from his cigarette, and picks the shorty up by the collar, lifting him up to eye-level, “I don’t believe that the Four Artifacts have all been unearthed like carrots, who sent you? And who told you to lure me here with a fake Ink Brush of Virtue?”
A sinister smile emerges on that person’s face, looking more and more like a gigantic bird; he says with hoarseness, “Someone you can’t afford to mess with.”
Zhao isn’t angered by that, but rather, he laughs. With his cigarette dangling on the side, he says sluggishly, “There are only two people I can’t afford to mess with: my mum, and my wife; look at your face, do you think you meet the aesthetic standards of either of them?”
He doesn’t wait for a response and throws the person in his hand on to the ground, stomping fiercely on to the stumpy figure. The smile on his face wears away, and he says coldly, “I’m growing impatient, don’t make me kill you. Speak!”
The person under his foot glares up at him with a strange gaze, and asks with a rugged voice, “In the southwestern lands of the West Sea, the northwestern lands of the North Sea, thirteen million miles onshore. With the Ruoshui River swirling and encircling… Abreast of the portal to the skies, beneath the doorway to Heaven. Such sublimity, resplendence and marvel, do you remember still?”
Zhao replies with no expression, “You should say that to my wife, I have always failed language when I was a kid.”
That person cackles coldly, and moves his deformed shoulders with great difficulty; he reaches for a small golden bell and takes it out, “Then what about this, do you not remember either?”
Goosebumps crawl up his skin as he sees the bell. Bells can reach the spirit world, and are usually used to summon souls and gather spirits. He is missing a soul fire on his left shoulder, so his soul is naturally unstable compared to the regular human. Without hesitation, he breaks the other’s shoulder with a stomping leg and reaches for the small golden bell, bending down.
And yet as his hand touches it, he finds it impossible to lift up. The tiny bell, only the size of a fingernail, seems to weigh more than a dozen tonnes. His wrist is in agony as the bell weighs down on his hand, not moving even a millimetre.
The shorty laughs heartily, “Oh the almighty and great… can’t even lift a bell. Muahahahaha, is there anything in this world that’s more absurd?”
This instant, a sweeping rush of mystical wind abruptly assaults. The bell hanging on the shorty’s broken arm rings lightly. Zhao’s nerves tense up instantly, the whip in his hand flies outwards as a humongous sphere of ghost fire is swirled away, landing on to a tree. In the blink of an eye, the thick tree is swiftly scorched and charred, withering as it is drained of life.
Afterwards, huge lumps of ghost fire come swivelling with the wind; Zhao’s whip whirls thrice and he is soon forced to retreat twenty metres away.
He can’t help but feel that as the end of the year approaches, apart from his love life, all other areas of his life have been victims of bad luck. Not only is he penilless, the kinds of criminals he has to deal with all seem to be increasingly devious and cunning.
Claws of white bones crawl out from underneath the tombstones of the mountain on to the ground. The shorty who was just crushed under his foot now agilely floats mid-air, with three hundred sixty degrees of surrounding ghost fire roaring behind him. The small golden bell hanging on a broken finger begins to wobble lightly in the wind, emitting a subtle and vaguely audible ring. Dark energy gathers among the mountains and huge swarms of
white mist emerge from hibernating in the canopy layer. The trees soon wither and die; a crow residing in the trees shrieks a long screech, and soars into the dark and endless night sky. At some point in time, the moon has already started glowing with a blood-red hue.
Zhao knows that tonight will probably not end well.
He puts off the cigarette, sprints towards the edge of the woods, and says, “Hey, don’t start attacking for no reason, you haven’t told me why you lured me here.”
Zhao is suddenly the world peace ambassador, and who knows which guy just broke someone else’s arm.
“You wouldn’t just want to fight, would you?” Zhao says, “I’m always at the office, and I rarely workout, I’m no good at fighting. Perhaps we could resolve this in a more civil way, what do you think?”
The shorty only gives him a mirthless grin.
With ghost fire tailing him, Zhao climbs up a big tree with bare hands, swiftly hanging on to it, and then somersaulting back down to face the other side. Getting down on one knee to buffer the impact, he asks the shorty, “Reviving dead corpses, manipulating ghost fire… are you a spectral mage or an earth angel? From what I know spectral mages avoid all contact with the living so as not to damage their pure darkness, or cause them to remember incidents from before their deaths. Perhaps you’re in fact someone from Hell? But from what department?”
This time the shorty hesitates for a moment, then denies, “Hell is nothing, I wouldn’t bother getting involved with them!”
“Ah,” Zhao nods, “I understand what that means. So you must be from one of the fairy tribes, but which one?”
The shorty knows he has said too much, and shuts up.
Zhao’s eyeballs twitch, and dimples emerge on his face, “You don’t have to say it, just from your look, you’re probably ‘those who can hear the dead’, from the Black Raven Tribe, no? Well after this I’m gonna have to talk to the elders of the fairies, I have always been quite close to the fairy tribes, though not to
the point that we’re brothers, but we’re always friendly with each other. What do you think you are doing now?”
The shorty cannot let him keep guessing, and begins abruptly jiggling the bell in his hand. At this time, Zhao laughs, and takes out both his hands from behind his back.
He has already made a cutting in his finger, and used blood to draw a complicated symbol between two paper talismans. Each makes one half, and together they merge into one.
And the two pieces have already quietly burnt up, one towards the sky and the other towards the earth.
Zhao lets go of the talismans, and lightning strikes from the sky, as a flaming dragon emerges from the earth. Heaven lightning and Hell fire instantly sear and char the entire mountain of tombstones till everything turns black. Countless ghost fires are sucked into the vortex, devoured without a sound. Massive flames set the raven shorty’s clothes ablaze, and yet the vile-looking fairy stands in place without nudging.
His stature is little, but in that moment, the look on that hideous face is one of stoicism.
Zhao locks eyes with the creature, and is stunned.
And though he can summon lightning and fire, keeping them under control or stopping them are out of his capabilities. Zhao extends a hand, as if he wants to pull the other out, or say something.
Suddenly, the shorty engulfed in flames, with a half-human and half-bird face, grows black raven feathers, and spreads out a pair of shrivelled and deformed wings. The feathers are instantly lit up, and behind his body is a pair of grilled New Orleans chicken wings, pathetically grotesque.
The shorty screeches towards the sky, transforms into a cloud of black smoke, and enters into the golden bell.
The flare surrounding the golden bell instantaneously changes colour, like millions streaks of blinding light fusing and condensing in one place. Zhao hastily closes his eyes, but it is too late: extreme pain comes from his eyeballs,
as he rapidly stumbles backwards, arms out, and in a sightless state. Rings of the bell come raiding on his soul, like a drill piercing into his ears.
Momentarily, he seems to hear the sound of mountains crumbling, the pillars holding up the sky rupturing and crashing down with incessant thundering roars, as if the sky is falling down altogether.
Zhao feels someone behind him. Someone who must have watched in the shadows for long, watching two dogs fight for a bone, and now the third one comes in, reaching out to grab his shoulder.
Zhao struggles to hold himself up in a state of dizziness. He steps aside and his whip comes swirling towards the one behind him. And yet he cannot see or hear anything, and knows not where the whip goes. After a small noise, a great force comes from the other end of the whip, pulling him forward.
Zhao isn’t afraid of losing the whip; he instantly lets go with rapid reflex.
Then, a ghastly hand reaches his nape, fully demonstrating mastery of fishing in troubled waters. Zhao passes out in that someone’s arms.
Ghost face’s giant cloak covers the burning fire, putting it out instantly, and the thunder and lightning wear away as well.
Seemingly without much effort, he grabs Zhao, and picks up the heavy-as- anvil bell with just two fingers. Examining it closely, he sniggers, hides it in his sleeve, and leaves.
Shen leaves the empty apartment, and rushes to No. 4 Bright Avenue. But he finds that all lights are out, and only the ghosts are here still working meticulously. Shen is like ants in a hot pan, he heads to the backyard and takes several deep breaths to calm down, barely. Forcing himself to stay focused, he begins sensing for Zhao’s whereabouts.
In astonishment, he finds that Zhao is coming towards him.
Where was he all night, and why is he heading back to the SIU?
Shen turns around abruptly, and finds a familiar figure floating mid-air.
The expression on the usually gentle and polite Professor Shen drastically changes.
Ghost face calmly faces the Ghost Slayer’s blade pointing at his chin, not at all frightened. Rather, he patiently tidies up Zhao’s messy clothes, and softly laughs, “When he sees you he is all smiles, following you around, pleasing you, virtually inseparable; when he sees me, he gives me a whipping, do you see just how biased he is.”
Shen bellows between his teeth, “Let go, don’t touch him with your filthy hands.”
“Filthy hands?” Ghost face chuckles, “So you must be very clean?”
Shen’s face freezes.
With a soft titter, he throws Zhao forward. Shen hastily puts the blade away to avoid hurting him, and holds him steadily in his arms.
“The other side never treated you like one of their own, but I’m different.” Ghost face says with patience, “I want you to think carefully, who treats you better. Harming yourself for people who don’t matter, whether it’s really worth it.” He pauses, and looks at Zhao, “Who are you? Is there anyone you can’t have? Even if… why make yourslef so anxious, on edge all the time, craving, and yet never having? Even I pity you.”
Shen says coldly, “No need for you to worry.”
The mask on ghost face wears an eerie smile, “Fine, don’t regret it.”
Ghost face turns around, the huge cloak swirls up and vanishes into the night sky.
Shen immediately takes Zhao back to his apartment. Zhao’s injuries do not look to be serious, just small scratches and bruises. His nape has a red mark, probably left by a striking palm that knocked him unconscious. Other than that, Shen can’t see anything wrong with him, and so he impatiently sits beside the bed, waiting for him to wake up.
Zhao sleeps till afternoon the next day. His phone rang several times but he still laid in bed without any movements.
As the sun is in the south, his fingers begin moving. The anxious Shen instantly grabs his hand, shaking it gently, and says nervously, “Yunlan?”
Zhao has yet to open his eyes, and he covers his neck, “Fuck, which son of a bitch…”
Shen is half-relieved seeing that Zhao is swearing, but afterwards Zhao calls him with a deep, nasal voice.
Shen hastily asks, “Uh, what?”
Zhao seems to be only half-conscious still, and he asks, puzzled, “What time is it, why are you still up? Why didn’t you turn on the lights?”