Chu says his address when he gets in the car, and then he rests in silence with his eyes closed.
Guo doesn’t know the truth behind all this. He secretly peeks at him along the ride, and finds his Brother Chu’s face shrouded in a layer of dust; with his eyes closed, his face resembles sculpted and weathered mountain rocks: cold and void of emotion.
After Guo pays the taxi driver, he remembers the task he was given by Da Qing. Hastily, he picks up Chu’s bag, which he has forgotten, and runs behind him in small steps.
Chu lives deep within a small hutong. They are standing where the wind blows strong. Some northwesterlies pour into Chu’s collar, inflating his already-oversized jacket, like he is about to be carried away by the wind.
Guo can’t help but call him, “Brother Chu…”
Chu suddenly stops walking, turns around and viciously glares at Guo. He says with an incredibly soft yet incredibly vile voice, “Why are you still following me, don’t you know I’m not human?”
Guo stops at three steps away from him, and stares at him blankly, “Then… then what are you?”
Chu instantaneously flashes towards him, his agility escapes the naked eye. He snatches his bag from Guo; his fingers are icy cold, and his entire body oozes an eerie stir of moisture. His pitch-black irises sparkle with an indescribable gleam, “Have you seen zombies? Zombies feast on human flesh. Let me tell you what humans taste like. Human flesh is tender and greasy, the tendons chewy and crunchy, the organs are rank and reek of blood. You pull them out from the stomach while they are still steamy and fresh, like meat straight from a cooking pot…”
He leers at Guo with malice, and licks his lips, “I’m a zombie.”
Guo shivers intensely, but only from the frigid hands. He feels that it must be only logical to be frightened in this situation, and yet he does not feel fear boiling up inside him as it should. Perhaps he has worked with Chu for too long, and it seems no matter what his Brother Chu is, he can accept him.
Strangely, an incredibly strange thought flashes in his mind: no wonder Brother Chu doesn’t eat peas.
Chu seems to think that he must be horrified, and from his horror he gets an unspeakably vile sense of satisfaction. He turns around and leaves, but only a few steps later, hesitant footsteps sound from behind him. He turns around, and there is Guo following behind him again.
Chu raises his eyebrows, “What, you want to follow the zombie into a coffin?”
Guo stands still, “I… I…”
Chu humphs, and goes again. And there goes Guo following behind him in typical little waifu steps, again.
Chu’s patience has finally run out, and he bellows, “Before I get mad, fuck off!”
Guo stutters, “Da… Da Qing told me to make sure you get home, you haven’t…”
Before he can finish, he is suddenly crushed on to a wall with immense force. Chu’s skeletal hand of steel easily picks up Guo and squashes his throat. Guo’s feet are lifted off the ground, his back against the wall, and the weight of his entire body is sustained by that one hand grasping his neck. He begins suffocating very soon; his face reddens completely.
Chu looks up at him coldly. Only in a short distance can one see the subtle tinge of grey in Chu’s irises, which isn’t usually apparent. Under the beam of the sun, there from within comes an elusive emanation of death.
Guo’s legs struggle in the air frantically, but in vain. Instinctually, he grabs hold of Chu’s hand, but he cannot remove it no matter how hard he tries.
“I never deviated from the conscience of Heaven and Earth. I have borne this crime for three hundred years. No matter what I did, it must have been repaid by now. Who do they think they are, what gives them the right to judge whether I leave or stay?” From between the gaps of his teeth, Chu squeezes out these words with terrifyingly sunken eyes, “Maybe I should actualise this crime for them to see!”
Guo’s eyes become watery. He really is a cry baby; anything can make him cry. He is boneless and soft. One simply has to wonder how he survived growing up; it’s like he lacks any sort of strength whatsoever. As he looks at Chu, he is incredulous, he is beseeching, he is dejected, and yet, he is not angry.
Guo moves his mouth with incredible difficulty, but fails to make any sound. Vaguely, from his mouthing, he seems to be trying to say “Brother Chu”.
Chu lets go and Guo drops on to the ground. He slowly retracts his hand, and stands aside coldly, watching Guo cough with the most sky-shattering vigour.
With a perplexing expression, Chu looks at this kid who is always carrying a small notebook, following him around and jotting notes… his notes are ludicrous: child’s handwriting, scrawly and scribbly, all about pointless matters. Basically, he jots down everything anyone says, even pet phrases. Chu has seen him write down Da Qing’s “stupid human” many, many times… it doesn’t seem like he is trying to learn how to do his job, but rather, he is cautiously writing the biographies of all his seniors.
In his gaze, he can still see the immense white light of virtue emanating from Guo, who is coughing till his respiratory tract almost curls up into a ribbon knot. He suddenly finds the light somewhat irritating on his eyes.
The hand that seized Guo’s neck just now suddenly pats him on the head gently. Reflexively, Guo curls up.
Chu caresses his head, and then softly fondles his hair, like patting a child or a small animal. He says deeply, “You probably didn’t study well when you were young. Do you know an excerpt from ‘The Injustice to Dou E’? It says very clearly, ‘those who do good lead impoverished and short lives, those who do evil are blessed with fortune and thrive’; ever heard of it?”
He has heard of it, more or less. Unfortunately, studying really isn’t Guo’s strong suit. Whenever he tries to remember something from a textbook, his brain automatically erases everything like formatting a hard disk. He has yet to escape from the state of a reddened face and a bulging neck. He crouches on the ground and looks up at Chu miserably.
Chu bends down slightly, holds up Guo’s head by the chin in scrutiny, and shakes his head, “Your forehead is not wide, that means bad fortune for your parents. Your auricles are thin and soft, that means frequent hardships in your younger years. Your dorsal bridge has a slight hump, that means by middle age you would lose support from your elders, and probably die in destitution and decrepitude. Your face determines your dreadful fate. No matter how many good deeds you do, apart from making you poorer, what good does it do you? Don’t be so stupid; just enjoy being from a rich family while you can, perhaps there are still a few prosperous days ahead of you.”
Guo looks up at him with perplexity.
Chu stares at him for a while, and suddenly laughs bitterly, “You’re really just a naive child, aren’t you.”
Then, he picks up Guo like a little chick, and waves his hand, “Go back and tell that cat fairy. What’s there to worry about me? I’m just a nobody. I’m gutless and powerless. I’m just a puppet. I don’t have the means to cause trouble, and I’m not suicidal. But if there isn’t anything, I’ll take a few days off during the New Year. I’ll be back after the fifteenth.”
He finishes, and vanishes into thin air under Guo’s gaze. Like a cloud of vapour, gone in the blink of an eye.
The long and narrow hutong is empty and exuding the odour of sulphur from firecrackers. The streets on the first day of the New Year seem rather desolate; chilly breeze swirls up strands of protruding hair on Guo’s head. With tear stains on his face, he snorts and stands spacing out for a while. Finally, he turns around and heads home in heavy steps.
He doesn’t know whether what Chu said was for his good or just whining, but Guo finds what he said unreasonable.
Bad fortune is his destiny, and nothing can be done about it. But what does that have to do with what he does with his life?
Guo has always felt like an incurably useless piece of garbage, an utter waste of space and resources. As for other things, some might say it is “charity”, some say it is “kindness”, but he only does it so that he feels like he can be of some use.
Guo never wanted anything in return.
Yet… hearing someone attest to his “dreadful fate” clogs his heart a little.
When Shen leaves Zhao’s place, he feels like he is about to collapse. He was immensely cautious so as to not give away any “flaws” in front of Zhao’s mother, lest Zhao get into trouble because of it. But Zhao’s mother glared at him with X-ray vision incessantly, almost scrutinising him till holes were punctured in his body.
On the way back, Shen pinches between his eyebrows, “Why did your mother keep looking at me like that, did I give away anything?”
Before Zhao can say anything, Da Qing interrupts, holding a full box of dried fish in the backseat, “Old Zhao used to fool around a lot before, he is a notorious playboy. I think his mum must be afraid of her own shadow now.”
Shen does not want to make trouble out of nothing, but after hearing this he can’t help but frown.
“You little fat fuq if you keep saying nonsense I’ll throw you out of the car, do you hear me?” Zhao says with a bland expression.
Da Qing sits with its tail curved up, wiggling like a clock pendulum in all innocence, “Meow, meow…”
Zhao glares at it in the rear-view mirror. Then he says to Shen, “About that, don’t think too much, though I used to be… cough, I’ve never brought anyone to meet the old lady. Besides, I’m a brand new person now, I’ve changed my evil ways; even criminals are given a chance to start a new life… no, hold on, besides being dumped all the time, I never did anything bad in the past. Dat fat fuq, tryna mislead me… actually her reaction just now wasn’t because of you, it was mainly because while making dumplings I accidently came out to her…”
Shen’s expression freezes. Luckily, he is not the one driving.
“Oh,” Da Qing pauses for two seconds, and says dryly, “gladiator of the new age, Zhao Yunlan I have faith in you.”
Shen stutters, “You… you told your mum…”
“I told my mum that I love you till the sky crumbles and the earth shatters into splinters. If she agrees, she would have another son, so two sons in total, but if she doesn’t, she would lose a son, and then she won’t have any left.” Zhao says pompously, “My mum is not stupid, she can do the math, don’t you worry.”
Da Qing very ruthlessly takes the wraps off him, “Drop the act, you would never dare speak to the empress like that… Professor Shen you see flour on his body right, he must have kneeled down to his mum in the kitchen… two days ago he even made sure that his dad wasn’t coming home today, what a puny wimp.”
Zhao is speechless.
Shen doesn’t know what to say for a moment. After some time, he says softly, “You’re really…”
Really what? He doesn’t say. The sentence ends in an ever softer sigh.
Eventually, Da Qing breaks the ambiguous and embarrassing silence. It’s tired of their sluggishly irresolute relationship, and says bluntly, “Oh right, Old Zhao, let me ask you something, do you know Old Chu’s shackle of virtue expires today?”
“Ah?” Zhao hesitates, and a moment later he comes to, “Has it been three hundred years? Then what did he say? Is he leaving SIU? But either way it’s a good…”
“Thing” hasn’t come out, and Da Qing interrupts, “Good your ass, Hell doesn’t let him take it off.”
Zhao frowns, “Why not?”
“How would I know, some nonsense like ‘not enough virtue’. It’s not like they have a clear index, who knows how virtue is measured, and how much is enough; after all, they call the shots.”
Shen asks, “How come? Chu is wearing a shackle of virtue?”
“Uh.” Da Qing says, “Sometimes the Guardian Order is short-handed, and the Guardian will take in a prisoner from Hell, as some form of rehabilitation I guess.”
Shen nods, and explains with a somewhat discontent expression, “This is inevitable. Most prisoners in Hell are small ghosts and spirits, and are not particularly useful. As for those with actual power, unless they hand themselves in, it is not so easy for Hell to capture them. It has been Hell’s habit to extend the duration of the shackles of virtue; when this happens, they usually add one or two centuries more.”
Zhao doesn’t say anything. His frown deepens.
After a series of events, Zhao’s grudge against Hell is not news, it’s just that the time for turning against them has yet to come. Zhao is no longer a naive teenager, he is well aware of all the messed up plotting and scheming, but so long as everyone’s goal is generally the same, some level of underhand dueling is not a concern.
But lately the other side has been intervening in quite a lot of matters, though Zhao doesn’t say it, deep inside he is vexed.
Then, Shen asks, “Why is Chu wearing a shackle of virtue, could you tell me?”
“I only know roughly what happened, but not the details,” Zhao replies, “you should ask Da Qing.”
Da Qing sits in the back seat, cat eyes gazing towards Shen… it knows that Shen must be a powerful figure, but exactly how powerful is uncertain. Not even Zhao can explain all the unscrupulous, unwritten rules of Hell, how come Shen seems to know them inside and out?
This has Da Qing hesitating for a long while before it says laggardly, “Chu’s cultivation is the path of the undead, Professor Shen must have realised as much?”