Finally, before there is time to catch the “broken bowl god”, Zhao leaves under his father’s menacing aura… his father just seems displeased seeing Shen, and when he is displeased for long, he will begin to make others around him displeased as well.
Zhao feels very ashamed of this. He continues mumbling as they get in the car, “Most people only get possessed by beautiful fox fairies. Only someone as shitty as he is would attract a broken bowl, of all things… in his past life he must have been a beggar, or a crappy monk bringing his crappy bowl everywhere.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry. Shennong’s followers are known for their kindness, they wouldn’t harm humans for no reason. Besides, didn’t you put a marker on him already? I’ll keep an eye on him for you.”
Zhao cackles drily, “Hehe, thanks babe. We aren’t even married yet, but you’re already troubled by that jerk father-in-law.”
He really is the forgetful kind. He has already forgotten about Shen’s outrage just earlier, and is teasing him callously again.
Zhao’s plan was to watch a movie together; it’s Valentine’s Day after all. But perhaps the car is too warm with the heater, he soon falls asleep. Just before drifting away into slumber, Zhao wonders, why does he tire so easily lately?
Perhaps it’s the common cold.
And while he is asleep, he is bothered by waves and waves of clustered dreams. There always seems to be someone amidst the white mist, incessantly repeating, “You fail to
look beyond forever. You fail to tell right from wrong, good from evil, life from death…”
The words wheel through his mind back and forth, and soon Zhao can’t help but wonder: what really are life and death?
The endless interrogation bombards him with increasing dissonance. Zhao knows he is dreaming, but for the life of him, he just cannot wake up. These chaotic dreams draw him deep into a depthless swamp, sucking away his breath as he struggle to break free.
Then, someone pushes a bowl against his mouth, which reeks of a foul odour. Forcing his mouth open, the medicine is stuffed down his throat. Zhao naturally resists, and tries to push the thick liquid away with his tongue. His head is then held in place, and then, there is a familiar scent; soft lips adhere, as the medicine flows downwards.
Zhao finally breaks free from his dream, and finds himself home, in bed. Shen puts down the bowl, and brings a cup of tea. Foreheads touching, Shen says tenderly, “Come on, drink some to clear the taste.”
Zhao stares at him quietly, taking the cup. Long and lush eyelashes point downwards, as his forehead is still wet with sweat after the nightmare.
He downs the whole cup, and says coarsely, “Don’t know why, I am always so tired lately.”
Shen hesitates and answers, “Must have been exhausted after going inside the holy tree.”
“Oh.” Zhao suddenly looks up, and stares at him suggestively. He speaks in elongated sounds, “And I thought maybe…”
That sends shivers down Shen’s spine.
That idiot moans with fake tears and an unnecessary intonation in his voice, “I am pregnant with your child.”
Shen shudders, and almost drops the bowl and the cup to the floor. He quickly scrambles off.
Zhao takes out his phone to see what time it is. There is a brief message from Wang Zheng: in an urban area around 300 km away from Dragon City there is a cluster of villas, one resident found a corpse, green-faced with a horrified expression, and a black dog’s neck in his grasp. Both man and dog were cold.
Then, Wang professionally reminds him, “It’s almost 7th of January.”
Legend says that the 7th day of the first month is everyone’s birthday, and there are tricks for borrowing people’s lifespans.
Folklore teaches that the blood of a black dog can communicate between the living and the dead. The blood is used to write the horoscope readings of two people on a piece of paper, and on it the number of years borrowed is specified. Four incense candles are placed at the corners of the paper, if they stand upright, that means a Hell Guard has taken the bribe. Then, burn the paper, and have the borrower swallow the ashes, and the ritual is done.
In olden times, usually when old people got ill, their children or grandchildren might willingly lend their lifespans. But nowadays, these rituals are lost; only selfish cowards try to find defective ways to steal other people’s lives.
In the past, if the rituals failed and the ill passed away nonetheless, the child or grandchild would perform another ritual to get back the lifespan. But stealing is very
different. If successful, the Taoist priest who helped with the ritual would have made money in the expense of his virtue. If unsuccessful, it could backfire and cost the life of whoever performed the ritual.
A human corpse next to that of a black dog is not a rare sight near the 7th of January. SIU has several of these cases every year. Zhao forwards the message to everyone, and asks that whoever is free go and take a look.
Before he finishes typing, his eyelids begin to droop. He pulls through and barely hits send. Like a black-out, he drops on the bed and falls asleep before he could even count one sheep.
When Zhu Hong receives the message, she is meditating on the roof. Her long snake tail bathes in the moonlight… Northern cities are quite the trouble, as sunny weather is rarely seen in winter; even moonlit nights are rare and precious opportunities for meditation.
Zhu opens her eyes, but not to look at her phone, as she immediately sees the man sitting opposite her, and is shocked, “Uncle?”
Her uncle four looks at her and says, “Years ago, you failed in your cultivation, and was maimed by Heavenly Thunder. I left you under the care of the Guardian, in the hopes that his most Yang energy could protect you. It seems he has taken good care of you.”
With a wave of the hand, a small pavilion emerges on the windy rooftop. Inside there is a big tea tray, with a small burning stove and water pot, and a tea pot beside with tea leaves readily stored inside. Uncle four invites Zhu in, “Come on.”
Her snake tail turns into legs, as she quickly skims through Zhao’s message. She hesitates, and says, “The Guardian says there is a case…”
“A life stealer got what he deserved, these cases happen every year.” Uncle four glances at the message, and then continues, “There’s something I need to discuss with you now.”
Her uncle four is already the leader of the Snake Tribe. He is always benevolent, but never easy to read. He would never “discuss” anything with anyone, as he would have made up his mind already; the “discussing” is merely a formality.
Zhu adjusts her posture.
Uncle four pours hot water into the tea pot, and begins calmly amidst the rising vapour, “Dragon City is not the right place for cultivation. Most of the fairies at the market live near the urban areas. In the past 20 years, you haven’t achieved much, I’m sure you are aware.”
Zhu takes a cup of tea, and tests the water, “So, uncle wants me to move to the urban areas?”
Seeing that she is playing dumb, uncle four doesn’t beat around the bush. He smiles, and says, “I want you to leave Dragon City.”
“But the Guardian Order…”
“I left you under the care of the Guardian, and in return you would work for him, but you are not bound by the Order, so you can leave anytime.”
Zhu bites her lips.
“What now, you don’t want you leave him?” Uncle four is always amiable when he speaks, with a warm smile like a Buddha statue at a temple. Yet, his eyes glare into
another’s with menace, “If you still see me as your uncle, listen to me and just leave. If there is a place for you in his heart, I’d hate to be a killjoy. But don’t you know what he really thinks about you?”
Zhu stays in silence.
Uncle four knocks on the table lightly, “You have always been a smart kid growing up. I don’t need to spell it out for you. You know what to do.”
Zhu tightens her grasp around her phone as her fingers contort, and veins bulge out at the back of her hand. The poor electronic device is not designed to withstand this, and its screen shatters into a spider web with a pop, and withers away.
Uncle four calmly sips tea, and is in no hurry to urge her.
After a long while, Zhu says quietly, “I will… I will help him wrap this final cause, and then I will quit… is that okay?”
Uncle four very considerably agrees, “Never do things by halves, that’s the way it ought to be.”
Then, he takes out a small box. There is a pearl gleaming with brilliance inside, “This is a water dragon pearl. It brings good fortune, defends against fire and water. Give this to the Guardian when you leave. He took such good care of you all these years, the entire tribe owes it to him. This is just a small gift.”
Zhu takes the box and is about to say thanks, but uncle four vanishes in the blink of an eye.
The moon is radiant, but her heart is in chaos. She is in no mood to meditate any longer. She cleans up the mess that is left of her phone, retrieves the SIM card, and disappears into the night.
At midnight, Zhao receives Zhu’s message: “I’m going with Lin Jing. Don’t forget to pay us for OT.”
Shen never falls too deep asleep. Sometimes Zhao suspects he does not sleep at all. He is always afraid of disturbing him, so he would turn his phone to vibrate mode and put it on a nightstand on his side. But tonight he fell asleep holding his phone.
His phone vibrates in his palm, and he is awaken without a sound.
Zhao doesn’t check the message. He holds his breath and turns around to see if Shen is awake. But he finds the other side of the bed cold and empty.
Zhao sits up, and rubs his eyes. He sees that the kitchen is lit. Bare-footed, he heads towards the light.
In the kitchen, Shen has his back turned, and a small clay pot seems to be cooking something on the stove. There is a faint medicinal aroma. Could it be some kind of medicine that has to be stewed overnight? Zhao blinks, and rolls up his sleeves, half- awake, “What are you making? I’ll help…”
Shen is startled, and a knife falls to the floor, dripping with fresh blood. Blood spatters across the snow-white cupboard. Zhao’s irises refocus, and is instantly fully awake: that knife… was inside Shen’s chest just a moment ago.
Shen’s face is pale as paper. For a few seconds, a pin drop could have been heard in the kitchen.
A moment later, Zhao stomps forward, and rips apart Shen’s clothes. The stabbing on Shen’s chest heals instantaneously, but the blood stain remains on his clothes. Zhao feels as though the knife had been stabbed on his chest. He runs his fingers across Shen’s seemingly unharmed chest with utmost care, and asks after a while, almost failing to make a sound, “What is going on?”
Shen stands in silence.
Zhao pulls him in by the collar, and raises his voice, “I asked you what’s happening, answer me!”
Shen is shoved on to the kitchen cupboard with a loud thud. Zhao is short-tempered around others, but never towards Shen. Yet this time, his anger is genuine.
At this moment, Zhao seems to understand how Shen felt when he used the Shadow Blitz at the hospital, and how Shen almost slapped him across the face. He can barely catch a breath as anger overwhelms him and his mind goes blank. After a while, Zhao fires away again, “What have you been feeding me? Shen Wei! Look at me! You fucking answer me right now!”
“All those years ago… you lost your left shoulder soul flame, and you poured out blood from your heart to make the Lantern.” After a good while, Shen replies, “Your soul is unstable. You made me a god, but I was born from filth nonetheless. If you spend too much time with me, at first you will begin to lose strength, and then gradually it will become much worse until one day you will die because of me.”
Shen closes his eyes, and says almost inaudibly, “A few thousand years ago Shennong said that I am destined to a miserable end just as my miserable beginning. I was born Ghost King, and will always be, and if you won’t leave me, one day, you will meet the same fate.”
Like a needle, these words suck away all strength from Zhao’s body. He lets go of Shen, and stumbles backwards, almost knocking over the small pot on the stove.
“The ‘medicine’ I drank… had blood from your heart.” Zhao’s lips shiver tremendously, “And this is supposed to be my ‘life support’?”
Shen looks at him, and smiles extremely subtly, “Even my soul is black. There is only one place in my heart I have left for you, where the blood is still red. I am willing to use it to protect you.”
Zhao stares at the floor. After a while, he looks up and covers his eyes with his hand.
If Shen doesn’t like him, he could keep going after him, or he could choose to leave.
If Shen wronged him, he could choose to forgive him, or he could choose to leave.
But Shen is like a spider that has trapped him in a most ambivalent place, where he cannot hate, but cannot accept either.
Long after, Zhao has yet to say a word. He grabs a jacket, and heads out the door.
As it turns out, there is a kind of love that is a knife in the heart.