Zhao reads the note silently, and his cold and stern expression loosens up. Carefully, as he rarely is, he folds up the note and stores it safely inside his wallet, as if having received a love letter.
Chu glances at him, and gets up to leave. But before he can, three Guardian Orders fly from Zhao’s hand with a tail of ember, soaring up and burning into a shackle, crashing down and locking on to Chu.
A tremendous force crushes Chu back on to the chair; he cannot move an inch now.
Chu’s contract with the Guardian Order has yet to be discharged. No matter how powerful he is, he is still bound by this pact.
Zhao glances at him, and takes out a sound recorder. He hits playback: “Kids better watch out for me, my bone whistle will dissolve their souls and turn them into small ghosts.”
Sounding from the machine, the man’s voice is horrifyingly cold and excruciatingly coarse.
“Do you hear yourself? Is this something a sane person would say?” Zhao asks without an expression.
Chu’s eyes sparkle. But the next moment, he obstinately turns away, and says defiantly, “I am not a person.”
Guo mutters, “Chu… Brother Chu, don’t be mad.”
Chu peeks at him coldly, not saying a word.
Guo hesitates for a long while before cautiously walking walking and nudging at his clothes. He whispers with the voice of a mosquito, “I… I think you… you don’t believe that at all, I didn’t understand, but I know Brother Chu is a good person, you won’t do bad things for no reason…”
Zhao humphs, and leans back on the chair. He flickers the lighter, lights a cigarette, and turns towards Chu angrily, “Put the saddle on the right horse, Chu. Even a little kid like Guo understands that, but all you do when you’re pissed off is fuck everyone. I really feel ashamed for you.”
Chu glares at him with pitch black eyes.
“What are you looking at? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? I don’t have time to deal with you right now… Little Guo, push him into my office, lock the door and keep an eye on him. There is a single bed in there, if you’re tired you can lay down and have a rest.”
Guo immeditely asks, “Then what about Brother Chu?”
“Him?” Zhao glances at Chu, “He can sit, give him time to think things through and wake up.”
He picks up a tea cup, and stirs the cold tea. He continues, “I really wanna splash you a face full of tea.”
Guo pushes Chu on the office chair. When he gets to the door of the office, he looks back towards Zhao, who waves, and so he pushes Chu all the way into the office, and closes the door lightly.
Zhao rests his legs on the desk, puts a book on his knees and starts reading.
The legends related to Nuwa are scattered to different sources. The book he has is the Book of Primeval Secrets, in which there is a chapter on Nuwa. It was probably written by a saint from the Song dynasty. The author is anonymous, and the original version cannot be found; this is an audio-video version from modern times.
The beginning quotes from the Imperial Reader, the passage about Nuwa creating humans: “Legend has it that at the dawn of time, humans did not yet exist. Nuwa crafted men out of clay, yet the quest of creation proved onerous and toilsome, thus the goddess led a rope through the soil, and from the earth haled up innumerous people.”
Then the author makes a small note to supplement: “Humans, blessed with five sensory organs, all take the form of empress Nuwa herself. They are born with the power of speech from the soil of the earth. The winds from Heaven feed three eternal fires on each and every one, the soil from the earth befalls three eternal evils on each and every one. They are gifted with intellect but are unclean. From infancy to senescence, they are born at dawn and perish at dusk. Nuwa pitied them, and took the role of matchmaker. The goddess married them in pairs and thus the species flourished for centuries.”
Zhao takes a pen from the desk and underlines “the winds from Heaven feed three eternal fires on each and every one, the soil from the earth befalls three eternal evils on each and every one”. Then, he flips over, and begins reading the part on “repairing the Heavens”.
“Huainanzi reads: In primeval times, four pillars collapsed, nine continents fissured. The sky ceased to shelter, the earth ceased to bear. The world was devoured by inextinguishable flames and irrepressible torrents. Beasts preyed on humans, raptors snatched the decrepit. So Nuwa repaired the Heavens with five multicoloured stones, cleaved the four legs of the Ao to replace the four pillars, killed the black dragon to free
the people, and burnt reed to halt the flood. Hereinafter, the Heavens were complete, the pillars were intact; the flood was dried out, the land was at peace; the monster had been slayed, and the people had been saved.”
There is another footnote which reads: “The longevous Ao bestowed its legs, and empress Nuwa was eternally grateful. She granted it extravagant garbs as fins. The four pillars held up the universe. In the northwest of the skies, Kunlun declaimed: Rock, not yet old but ravaged; water, not yet cold but frozen; body, not yet lived but dead; soul, not yet burnt but dispersed. Such are the impossible, thus sealed where unreachable, and named the Four Mystics. The sky shall not collapse, the earth shall not crumble, and the Four Mystics shall not come forth. Henceforward, the world shall be at peace.”
Zhao strokes Da Qing’s fur, and says queitly, “It says here that human’s evil come from the soil, and then Nuwa used the Ao’s legs to hold up the sky. Kunlun spoke of the four pillars… mountains don’t speak, so here ‘Kunlun’ must be referring to Lord Kunlun… also, I have heard of these few lines before.”
“Under the Pillar of Nature.” Zhao says, “If ‘the impossible’ is referring to the Four Mystical Artifacts, then does that mean when all four are gathered, ‘the impossible’ will be completed, and the four sky pillars will be reachable?”
Da Qing goes around in circles round his hand, and mumbles, “What kind of mess is all this, I’m getting a headache just listening to it.”
Zhao ignores it, and continues along his train of thought, “Five multicoloured stones to repair the sky, then if I’m right, perhaps the four pillars are in fact meant to ground the earth… I think it all makes sense now; ghost face wants to use the Four Mystical Artifacts to destroy the four pillars.”
Zhao touched the dried fish snacks, and an aroma lingers on his fingers. Although Da Qing doesn’t want to appear too desperate, it really can’t resist the temptation. It sniffs incessantly among Zhao’s fingers, and asks, “Who is this ghost face that y’all talk about?”
Zhao briefly summarises what happened at the Pillar of Nature, then, with a stern expression, he says, “Ghost face wears a mask, but I think I know what he looks like.”
“It can’t be…” Da Qing wonders.
“Probably looks almost identical to Shen.” Zhao sighs softly, “This guy, he keeps way too much to himself. He is kind to everyone, but not to himself; who knows why he is an enemy of himself, I really worry about him…”
Da Qing looks up, “What?”
Zhao looks down at the black cat. Then all of a sudden, he takes down his legs from the desk, sits upright, and whispers, “Someone’s here.”
The sound of wooden clappers come from far away and approach nearer and nearer. A cold and murky aura begin to manifest, and the northwesterlies attack the windows with a crakling noise. Zhao calmly takes out some incense from the drawer, lights them up, and fixes them in the soil in a flower pot. Then, he takes out an ashtray and burns some paper money inside. Smoke rises; he puts away the book, and pours himself a hot cup of tea.
Having learnt their lesson last time, the intruder stands at a distance outside the door, and says, “My apologies for intruding, Guardian, may I come in?”
Zhao adjusts his tensed up expression, and clears his throat, “Please come in.”
The door to the SIU office opens, and the visitor smells the aroma of incense and burning paper money… even ghosts care about money; the visitor smiles, and greets politely, “The Guardian is too kind.”
Zhao sees who the visitor is, and is stunned. After a while, he stands up, and says with surprise, “What brought you here, Your Honour?”
The judge remains his friendly composure, not like someone sent by Hell, but perhaps like a kind matchmaker.
The two chitchat about unimportant things back and forth, and then they both take their seats; amiable on the outside, sly on the inside. Da Qing bounces on to Zhao’s lap, and its tail wraps around his wrist. It glares at the judge with emerald eyes, as if in a guarding posture.
The judge finally gets serious, “Sorry for disturbing late at night. I have a request, hope that the Guardian can help for the sake of the people.”
“Oh please,” Zhao waves his hand, “don’t flatter me. I’m just an ordinary human; I know a little magic, and it’s an honour that you see me as the icing, but I’m really no cake. I don’t know what to do if you flatter me like that. Go on, if it’s something that I can do, I will try my best.”
The judge sits still and sighs. He wants to wait for Zhao to start asking questions, but Zhao seems to be utterly oblivious, and keeps drinking tea. After a while, the judge can’t help it, and asks, “Did the Guardian notice the crows in the evening?”
Zhao puts on a surprised face, “No. I was watching television with my mum, I really didn’t pay attention.”
The judge is speechless.
Zhao asks with utmost innocence, “What about the crows?”
The judge knows that he is playing dumb. He really didn’t want to come talk to the Guardian. For starters, the judge is one of the few who knows about Zhao Yunlan, and he would really prefer not to anger this mighty god. Not only that, but the mighty god has the thickest skin possible, and is as sly as a fox. He has three godly skills: being shameless, stalling, and going off-topic… in short, the stuff of the judge’s nightmares.
“Crows are always bad omen. Black clouds are forming in the northwest. Someone is not afraid of divine punishment, and has set up an altar at the peak of Mount Kunlun, attempting to steal one soul from every living person.”
Zhao is stunned, and asks, “Every single person? There are billions of people on earth, is he strong enough to lift them all?”
Met with silence, Zhao smiles, and says, “I’m confused, do explain. Who is on that snowy Tibetan mountain, what did they build, and what for?”
The judge takes out a wanted poster, Zhao glances forward to a familiar face… ghost face.
“He is the king of the foulest creatures from the filthiest place in the world. Long story short, Nuwa sealed him in the depths of Hell in primordial times. Gradually, the seal has loosened, and he managed to escape. The Guardian understands, I won’t beat around the bush with you… I’d say eight tenths of his power is still under the seal of goddess Nuwa, if we go up against him together we still have a chance, but if he breaks away from the seal completely…”
Zhao pretends not to understand, and asks, “Ow, that’s terrible. A filthy creature sealed by Nuwa, so it must be different from other evil creatures? Which one is more powerful?”
The judge has nothing to say.
Zhao continues with enthusiasm, “Then what does he need so many souls for?”
The judge catches a breath, and says, “He is going after the Ink Brush of Virtue. Every person carries a soul and on it good and bad virtue is recorded, from past lives and the present, red as good and black as evil. If he collects the souls and gathers them at the peak of Mount Kunlun, he will get the Ink Brush of Virtue. We cannot let that happen, otherwise…”
Zhao suddenly interrupts, “Some time ago, a small raven fairy lured me with a fake Ink Brush of Virtue, and hurt my eyes. Now my vision is still not perfect, I see shadows all the time, and when I look at you you seem to have gained weight. Now that I think about it, ‘someone’ tricked me intentionally, didn’t they?”
The judge’s heart pounds faster, but no words come out of his mouth. He looks at Zhao who stares back with a mocking look. The raven tribe feeds on decayed corpses, and has always been oppressed by Hell. That the ravens are sent by Hell is a no-brainer; the judge can’t help but wonder which idiot came up with that idea.
Sweat dribbles as the judge tries to think on his feet.
“The Four Mystical Artifacts has been scattered across the universe for so long, but Hell never thought about them, never thought to search for them or to keep them safe. Now that something has happened, then you tell me it’s serious, and leave me with this last- minute mess… that’s not very reasonable, is it?”
The judge squeezes out a smile, “Well… this is negligence on our part…”
“Negligence?” Zhao raises his eyebrows, “Why do I feel like it’s an abuse of power?”
The judge really is on tenterhooks.
Zhao knocks on the desk, and his face turns dark, “Let’s get to the point, what do you want me to do?”
The judge says, “Will the Guardian please lead me up to Mount Kunlun to put an end to his plans.”
Zhao says calmly, “Why me? I stay indoors all day, I’m no backpacker, I don’t even know which side to enter Mount Kunlun, you’re asking me to lead the way?”
Finally a response that the judge foresaw. He has an answer prepared, and speaks with much better fluency, “The Guardian might not know, but the Guardian Order is in fact a piece of wood from the holy tree on top of Mount Kunlun. That holy tree was planted by Pangu the creator, and has lived for as long as the universe has. The peak of Mount Kunlun is a forbidden place, and only this can serve as a pass.”
Zhao points towards the photo on the wanted poster, “Then this… ‘king of evil’, how did he get up there? Through the backdoor? Don’t tell me he is Pangu’s brother-in-law.”
“I would not disrespect the divinity,” the judge says cautiously, “but this evil creature was born beneath Hell, next to the primeval tree of virtue, which was conjoined with the holy tree of Mount Kunlun. Indeed, he is somewhat related to Kunlun, so…”
Zhao continues with half a smile, “Then summoning the Ink Brush of Virtue on top of Mount Kunlun is also related to that tree?”
The judge is not sure what he means, and doesn’t dare answer lightly.
Zhao says, “Beneath Hell… hey, isn’t that quite near where the Ghost Slayer lives?”
The judge hesitates, and answers ambivalently, “You could say that.”
“Oh,” Zhao’s face brightens up with a smile, but his eyes gaze coldly, “so the judge is implying that the Ghost Slayer is related to the evil creature.”
The judge can’t be sure whether he is really dumb or playing dumb now. He hesitantly scrutinises Zhao, but can’t find any clues whatsoever.
They already gave him the black book, does he not know that Shen Wei is the Ghost Slayer?
The last time the Hell Guard came back, and said that being blind didn’t stop him from fooling around with his lover; then… perhaps he doesn’t know? Otherwise, how can the Ghost Slayer tolerate…
The judge calms himself down, nudges his beard, and wears a concealing smile, “I wouldn’t dare speak of the great saints behind their backs, would I? The Guardian must be kidding.”
Zhao looks at him, and starts searching in his pockets, “You want the Guardian Order? Hold on, let me find it for you.”
The judge hastily waves, “No, no, we cannot touch the holy Guardian Order. The Guardian will have to come with us to Kunlun.”
Zhao hesitates, and stares at the judge with an unclear purpose. His irises are black and bright, and his gaze pierces right through. The judge finds himself stuck with an arduous and fruitless task.