“I’m not. You have the Pillar of Nature, and so be it; you will bring it to me eventually. But I must have the Ink Brush of Virtue. If half of the four pillars holding up the sky collapse, no-one will be able to stop me then.” Ghost face finally speaks. Then, his dark gaze scans through the crowd, “I see you brought company… are they afraid that you might switch sides?”
His words come out like a slap across the face for almost everyone present.
Ghost face looks around, and sees Zhao; his smile growing ever more eerie, “Oh, the Guardian is here as well, no wonder.”
Da Qing is about to take a step forward, wearing a stern face, but Zhao grabs his long hair and pulls him back.
With an ersatz smile, he clenches Da Qing’s hair and locks him in place, the other hand searching for a cigarette from his pocket.
Now in human form, Da Qing is still instinctively feline; he turns around and claws at Zhao, but without cat claws it is not very effective. Zhao’s hand is freezing cold, which has Da Qing flinched.
“Don’t give me trouble, fat fuq.” Calling this ethereal “person” by that nickname doesn’t seem out of place at all coming from Zhao.
Da Qing says, “What’s wrong with you?”
Spewing a ring of smoke out of his pale and bloodless lips, his eyes sparkle with shocking light. He whispers while fidgeting with the cigarette, “I’m a little nervous.”
Da Qing’s eyes widen.
Zhao glances towards the sides, “The Ravens are with Hell, the other fairies in their own tribe, and the Arhats of the West, what about those people, Taoists?”
After ghost face’s earth-shattering axe crumbles down, the crowd naturally divides into their own groups.
“Some are saints, some have transcended and are working for Heaven.” Da Qing says, “But none of them have what it takes to meddle with these two; without you, they can’t even get up here. Besides these two, the only one who dares start a fight up here would be the one with the snake body.”
The face of a person, the body of a snake: that would be the ancient goddess and almighty empress, Nuwa.
Snowflakes fly in the murky sky. Hideous spirit beasts and the angels and demons from all places stand on opposing sides; a battle erupts.
Da Qing avoids contact with the holy tree, attempting to keep himself calm, and says to Zhao, “You better stand back.”
Snow falls on Zhao’s cigarette. He takes out some tissue, wraps up the cigarette and stuffs it in his pocket, and leaves the battlefield as Da Qing suggests. He walks under the holy tree, and puts his hand on the freezing and withering trunk.
It is hard to tell how tall the holy tree is, but its roots protrude from the earth all the way up to Zhao’s chest level; the tree itself is like a deity.
“Even though I don’t know anything,” Zhao says in his mind, “but you recognise me, right?”
All of a sudden, a verdant sprout springs out of the tree trunk, slowly curling like a strand of hair, and gently wraps around his finger.
Zhao grabs hold of his small backpack, and smiles, “Then I will give this a try.”
At this moment, the gargantuan Soul Cauldron is lifted into ghost face’s sky-covering grasp. Upon his pale fingers, a dark substance boils within the cauldron.
“The primeval tree of virtue… a body not yet lived but dead.” Zhao hears ghost face mumbling, “Does the Guardian know what really is the Ink Brush of Virtue?”
Zhao turns around, back against the holy tree, and looks up to ghost face from afar, “Let’s hear it.”
“Before the Yan and Yellow Emperors battled Chiyou, numerous conflicts among deities were common. Fuxi and Nuwa wanted to establish order, so they went up to Mount Kunlun, and obtained a branch from the holy tree. Nuwa regretted the three eternal evils from the soil when she created humans, and so she took it upon herself to plant the branch in the land of great blasphemy…”
The Ghost Slayer roars, “Shut up!”
A depthless void of darkness surrounds him, as the blade in his hand mounts up indefinitely, like Sun Wukong’s Ruyi Jingu Bang; only the handle remains in size, supporting the colossal weight of the mountainous blade.
The Ghost Slayer’s blade almost reaches the bounds of the horizon, whipping up a violent thunderstorm, which seems to puncture an opening in the sky, causing thunder and lightning crashing down… the divine lightning comes striking towards ghost face’s head.
With bellowing laughter, ghost face looks up, opens his mouth and swallows the lightning. The Ghost Slayer’s blade comes crashing down immediately, aiming for the Soul Cauldron in his hand, and all the way towards his chest. The blade attacks with strong gusts to follow, whipping up pellets of ice the size of fists. A mass of spirit beasts comes pouncing forward; amidst the dark chaos on the peak of Mount Kunlun, the battle with the many deities and ghosts persists.
Zhao struggles to keep his balance, and takes a seat on the roots of the holy tree. There is nothing to do amidst the chaos, so he lights another cigarette; he finally understands the Ghost Slayer’s dilemma… ghost face doesn’t treat him as an enemy, others do not treat him as an ally… here they are finally showing their true powers; last time under the Pillar of Nature, if it weren’t for ghost face holding back, it would not have ended that easily.
Ghost face doesn’t seem to want a real fight with the Ghost Slayer.
“The land of great blasphemy?” Zhao repeats; ghost face very succinctly uncovers all the questions he has… legend says that humans are born with three evils, that being “greed”, “hatred” and “ignorance”; in that book, it is said that the three eternal evils come from the soil, so the land of great blasphemy is probably the root of “greed, hatred and ignorance”.
Ghost face springs up, dodging the Ghost Slayer’s blade, which crashes on to the ground, causing a tremor throughout Mount Kunlun. He continues, “The holy tree showed
clemency, it withered and died, and then sprouted again and became the legendary primeval tree of virtue. Then, after the battle between Chiyou and the two emperors…”
“Shut up! Shut up!” The Ghost Slayer’s blade slashes towards him horizontally. Zhao cannot see where Shen is standing, and cannot imagine how he is wielding a hundred- metre-long blade with ease.
With a slash in the middle, ghost face is stopped; his body shrinks and as his height is halved the Ghost Slayer’s blade barely miss his head. With a large thump, the Soul Cauldron crashes on to the ground, and countless voices come from all directions instantly, calling out its name.
An infinite horde of spirit beasts spawn from the Soul Cauldron.
Zhao stares at the Soul Cauldron, neither with indignation nor with agitation. He doesn’t even realise it as someone is approaching from behind.
Da Qing is a lot less calm. He pounces down from the tree with a dagger in his palm, like hiding cat claws in his paws, dashing towards that someone like a phantom.
Ghost face blocks the dagger with his bare hand of steel, and with a light clang, Da Qing’s dagger is sent flying away. Ghost face reaches out to grapple Da Qing by the neck, but even after transforming, he is still agile as a cat; he bounces back with two back flips and on to the holy tree, glaring at ghost face.
“Think about who’s the owner before you try to hit a cat.” Zhao finally speaks; he pauses, turns towards ghost face slowly and stops smiling. Staring at him blankly, he laughs, “You only made it up here because of the flame on my shoulder, do you really think this is your territory?”
With these words, the conceited ghost face stops at his feet, standing three metres behind Zhao, and dares not approach.
Shen hears the same, and is frozen in shock.
“After the battle between the Yan and Yellow Emperors and Chiyou, the Three Sovereigns could not bear to see the world in its state, so they crafted the Ink Brush of Virtue from the primeval tree of virtue; all things in the world have spirits, so the Ink Brush of Virtue records all good deeds and bad.” Zhao leers at ghost face’s mask, spouts out a ring of smoke and continues without haste, “Then the Ink Brush of Virtue, as one of the Four Mystical Artifacts, was sealed away as Nuwa repaired the Heavens and turned the four legs of the Ao into the four sky pillars. The Sundial of Reincarnation was left on earth, the Pillar of Nature was buried underground, the Ink Brush of Virtue…”
Zhao’s lips curl up slightly, as he glances towards the other side, “The Ink Brush of Virtue shattered into countless pieces, and landed on to every living soul on earth… is that right, honourable judge?”
A figure hiding behind the holy tree trails forward and kneels on the ground, head against the soil, trembling, “Please forgive my dishonesty, Lord Kunlun.”
Zhao doesn’t look at the judge ant longer, and only sighs, “Perhaps the judge is a kind soul and not very good at lying… let me tell you, the key to lying is to get the details right. What you said to me last night was nothing but a load of nonsense, anyone could see right through it… human souls came with Nuwa’s creation, how can the shattered pieces of the Ink Brush of Virtue be human souls? A soul from every living person to form the Ink Brush of Virtue. I wouldn’t be able to do that, none of us here would be able to do that, wouldn’t you say? I’m afraid many who came here today were tricked by your little story?”
The judge shivers like sifting.
At this moment, the colossal Soul Cauldron suddenly tremors, along with the entire Mount Kunlun. The holy tree behind Zhao suddenly overgrows with countless sprouts, and a few flowers blossom where the branches have already withered.
The man sluggardly leans against the tree trunk, seemingly unmoved by this commotion, and even adds after the quake, “The Ink Brush of Virtue belongs to me, so why don’t you return it to its rightful owner?”
The mask on ghost face twists and deforms; Zhao squints, catches something with a tissue, wet from the snow, squats away some ashes, and tosses away a bomb, “Don’t play tricks with me, I know what you look like.”
Zhao lowers his voice, “Looks are but an illusion, do you really think I can’t tell the difference?”
Before the Ghost Slayer can say anything, a giant storm whips up on Mount Kunlun. Da Qing is almost blown off from the tree, he transforms into a cat and hangs on to the branch with his claws. Besides ghost face and the Ghost Slayer, and Zhao who has the holy tree for cover, everyone else is swept off their feet.
The judge rolls on the floor with a face full of dirt, those who were fighting mid-air are sent crashing down, those who were going under are sent back up; numerous spirit beasts are whipped into the cyclone which threatens to suck everyone in.
In the centre of the cyclone, a gigantic ink brush sparkles with wavering light: it’s the Ink Brush of Virtue!
The Soul Cauldron shatters instantly, and the Ink Brush of Virtue is whole again.
And yet Zhao, Shen and ghost face are not moving at all, as if that giant ink brush they have all been after suddenly doesn’t matter anymore.
Ghost face suddenly asks, “If the Guard… Mountain God must have it, why don’t you go get it?”
Zhao successfully keeps his cool in the crushing gusts, and says with connotation, “I’m afraid someone might try to take advantage.”
The judge’s head stays low, and does not dare utter a word.
Ghost face sighs, “We owe you one for the fire, I really don’t want to do this.”
He whistles, and a horde of spirit beasts rise up from the ground, surrounding them in the centre. The Ghost Slayer stands beside Zhao, hand on his blade.
“Oh.” Zhao says coldly, “So my tree has worms in it.”
Suddenly, something comes out from his hand, like some kind of acidic spray. The spirit beasts wail with inhuman screams; the judge is scared bloodless, and sprints away while saying, “Five black soup, it’s… it’s five black soup…”
Five black soup, made from the blood of a black dog, black cat, black mule, black pig and black chicken, they must be born at a dark hour of a dark month, has black innards and completely black fur. Not anything particularly precious, but particular, and is used against those from below the earth.
It’s needless to say who this was prepared for originally.
Before anyone can make a move, the Ink Brush of Virtue shrinks and flies into the holy tree in a split second, sinking into the tree trunk.
Nobody could foresee this turn of events. Ghost face swats the judge, sending him flying away, and heads for the holy tree. Zhao blocks his hand.
Ghost face’s arm is hard as steel, Zhao’s wrist must be bruised.
But he doesn’t show the pain, and ghost face doesn’t seem to want to deal with him head- on; he slips through to the other side and tries to enter the holy tree.
With a piercing screech, ghost face’s hand is bounced back by the tree; with such sheer force, two of his finger nails broke, dripping with black blood.
Zhao puts his hand into his pocket, looking like he was that coming, and says with a smile, “Didn’t want you to hurt your hand, but you don’t like a favour, do you?”
Ghost face grits his teeth, and then quickly vanishes into a cloud of black smoke. Yet, he did not bring his minions away, though the horde is quickly beheaded by Ghost Slayer’s blade.
Zhao lets out a sigh of relief, and wears a sly grin. Then, he touches the tree trunk of the holy tree, and feels a force pulling him in.
What a great tree, Zhao thinks to himself.
“You…” Shen’s hood was blown away when the Ink Brush of Virtue appeared, and even the dark mist that usually shrouds his figure has dissipated. The face that Zhao is familiar with wears complex emotions: hope, angst, nerves… “You remember everything?”
“Of course it was all bull crap, these idiots, so gullible.” Zhao winks, and flicks his wrist, “Oh fuck me, hurts like Hell, that ghost face kid is like a steel statue.”
Shen feels like his heart has ascended all the way to the tip of his throat, and then sent crashing down into his stomach; his chest hurts.
“Help me stall them; the holy tree is calling, I have to go take a look. Even better if I can get the Ink Brush of Virtue.” Zhao says, and jumps into the holy tree. With half his body already submerged, he thinks of something, and turns around towards Shen, “Whoever gets back home first leave the lights on and the door unlocked. Love you.”
Then, he disappears into the holy tree.