Han Yuan was missing.
Classes were canceled the next day. Their master, together with the Taoist children, searched every nook and cranny all over the mountain, but no trace of him.
Honestly, Cheng Qian didn’t have a clear idea about what the cave was, nor did he realize the gravity of this matter initially. Therefore, when asked by his master, he just came clean and told him frankly that Han Yuan came to talk him into exploring the cave together last night.
His master turned pale on the spot.
Yan Zhengming was sitting slumped against the stone table. Hearing the background, he suddenly straightened up. “Exploring the cave in the evening of the fifteenth day? Was he asking to die?”
Ever since the Taoist child ran to report Han Yuan’s disappearance, Li Yun had remained in silence with his head down, pretending he had nothing to do with that. But hearing what Yan Zhengming said, he finally looked up. With some urgency in his tone, he asked, “First Senior Brother, what exactly is there in the evening of the fifteenth day?”
Factually, the alleged “cave” referred to a natural pond at the back of the mountain with nothing peculiar. At most, if you had to know, the water is a little deep.
The sect rules only prohibited visits in the evening of the first and fifteenth days. Li Yun had been there more than once, but he never sussed out what was special about the pond.
Yan Zhengming turned to him, his eyebrows gradually knit. “Li Yun, if my memory doesn’t fail me, I told you, didn’t I? The cave connects to the Demons Valley at the back of the mountain. There’s a strong monster guarding the gate. But the phases of the moon on the first and fifteenth evening have special power, so the gate will open itself. Some monsters with low cultivation levels that didn’t rid themselves of natural ferocity will try to come out. To avoid any potential tragedy, it is forbidden for unskilled disciples to hang around the mountain on these two nights.”
Li Yun was dumbfounded – Yan Zhengming did tell him that when he pressed about the cave. But he gave a different version which didn’t prove well-founded. His original words went like this, “What is there in the cave? Big monsters for sure. A little dainty sheep like you is not enough to fill their tooth gap. Don’t go deliver yourself as a dish to them.”
Good Heavens! Who could have believed that a remark as deceptive as the lie, “the wolves will eat you up if you don’t sleep”, was actually the truth!?
In the next moment, Li Yun’s face went deathly pale.
It was him that had egged Han Yuan on to explore the cave. Beyond gainsaying, he had ulterior motives to designedly entice Han Yuan into navigating the way for him. But he was only thinking that, if by any chance Han Yuan was caught breaking the rules, the worst that he would be facing was nothing more than being made to write the sect rules a couple of times.
The thought of wanting Han Yuan to die never, ever entered his mind!
Muchun Zhenren paced back and forth apprehensively. Suddenly, he halted and got hold of Cheng Qian by his shoulders. “Did Han Yuan tell you why he was going there?”
Cheng Qian hadn’t recovered from the astonishment – nor did he feel any better than Li Yun. He was well aware that, in a sense, he was also a person in the know, and one who stood and looked through the sidelines.
Despite his indifference and sharp tongue, he was far from venomous. If Han Yuan ended up being dragged back and beaten in the palm by master, he would, without a shadow of doubt, be perversely delighted; but if what awaited Han Yuan was death…
Cheng Qian felt ice-cold inside. Under his master’s steady gaze, he remained silent for a good while, until he, with great difficulty, found his voice. “Junior Brother said, that those who just started cultivating could acquire energy feel in the cave, on the first and fifteenth nights of every month…”
Cheng Qian didn’t expose Li Yun, because in his mind, he was equally despicable as Li Yun. It would be utterly shameless if they passed the buck to one another at this particular moment.
But things didn’t happen as Cheng Qian wished. The brainless young master Yan, who always spoke his mind, completed Cheng Qian’s sentence automatically when he had hardly finished speaking.
“That ugly brat doesn’t even know what energy feel is.” Said Yan Zhengming impersonally. “Decidedly, Li Yun told him that.”
Li Yun drew himself up instinctively with a guilty haste. In a fluster, he defended himself. “I… I only told him a speculation, and didn’t ask him to go to the cave. I didn’t anticipate that he would dare to flagrantly violate the rules even though it’s only a few days since he was initiated…”
“How could you have the cheek to talk nonsense now? Li Yun, your evil designs are no stranger to me. Don’t think you can fan the flames in the dark and no one will notice – as for that ugly beggar, I don’t think there’s a need to look for him. Supposing he has been dragged into the Demons Valley for one night, it is too late to even collect his body. Most likely, even bones are not left.” Yan Zhengming interrupted him coldly.
Li Yun didn’t feel any uncomfortableness about the first part of Yan Zhengming’s sentence, for they had been long loathing each other. But the second part genuinely painted his face paler.
Li Yun rose to his feet, nearly knocking over the ink on the desk. “Master, I… I… I…”
He stuttered three “I”, unable to complete the sentence.
Li Yun was all at sea with his mind blank. Muchun Zhenren’s heavy look fell upon him, which he evaded out of his own accord – It was too difficult for him to either acknowledge it was he who incited Han Yuan, or to confront the fact that he might have caused his little junior brother’s death.
If he had enough courage, he would have gone to the cave himself; would it be necessary for him to find a scapegoat then?
Cowardice is a trap that one might easily fall into. Nonetheless, the resultant remorse was too heavy, a young man could hardly bear it.
Li Yun had no place to rest his evasive eyes. Eventually he looked at Cheng Qian and said to him as if clutching at the last straw, “Third Junior Brother, you heard it. I… I didn’t intend to incite him to go to the cave, right? And I warned him that it was a violation of the sect rules.”
Cheng Qian bowed his head deep to the ground, silent. This topic was weighing down his mind, and he could hardly breath under the smite of his conscience.
Muchun Zhenren stood up. Panicking, Li Yun shouted, “Master…”
But a bang interrupted him – Muchun Zhenren slumped back into the stone chair as though he was pulled by some force in the air.
The sound was so loud that even Yan Zhengming, who was busy quarreling with Li Yun, turned around. Baffled, he asked, “Master, what’s wrong?”
Muchun Zhenren didn’t reply instantly, however. It looked like he didn’t feel the pain in his bottom as he calmly adjusted his sitting position and said waving his hand, “Silence! – Cheng Qian, fetch me the old sandalwood tablet hanging over there.”
Cheng Qian did not dare to delay for even a moment. He trotted to fetch the tablet, that was half a Chi1 square, in the corner of Mission Hall, and presented it to his master. Simultaneously, he gave his master a few secretive glances.
Muchun Zhenren sat erectly with his eyelids slouching. He seemed to be the same as usual. But Cheng Qian was an acute observer that could perceive one’s happiness, anger, grief and joy from a mere exhalation. He couldn’t explain why, but he had an unceasing feeling that there was something wrong with his master.
Despite Cheng Qian being acquainted with that face and sitting posture, he felt as if Muchun Zhenren was wrapped in a mantle of ineffable gloom and frost.
Was master in a temper because of Han Yuan? Or was he hit on the tailbone by the bang just now?
But Cheng Qian had no time to give it further reflection, as Muchun Zhenren suddenly reached out a hand, put his fingers together into the shape of a knife, and slashed at the tablet. His hand was pallid and wizened, as shrunken as a chicken’s feet. Whereas his fingertips were sharpened with fierce strength, like an iron sword in icy water.
It was only at this moment, that Cheng Qian developed a brand-new notion of charms – people without energy feel could also notice the formidable power of charms, depending on who created it. That strong power forced him back and made his flesh creep.
Everyone on the spot had touched the incredible power in the course of forming a talisman. The whole Fuyao Mountain seemed to be startled and trembling. In half a shake, the talisman was made. Muchun Zhenren retracted his hand, which had no sawdust on its fingers, and took a good look at the charms with some nameless apathy.
That was not the expression of someone looking at a lifeless object. But rather, it seemed like he was looking at a human being, with elements of harshness and scorn.
“Zhengming, come here.” Muchun Zhenren called over his first apprentice. His regular drawl vanished, replaced by an energetic tone. He spaced each word for emphasis, like a forceful man in exalted position, making it hard for the listener to defy him.
He handed the tablet over to Yan Zhengming, who was petrified by the genuine power of charms, and said, “Take this and go to the cave to find Zipeng2 Zhenren. Tell her the whole story, and ask her to help searching – Don’t worry, your little junior brother is still alive, he may survive from those monsters, as long as you make haste.”
A bundle of lethargy passed through Yan Zhengming, but he decided to prioritize this, as he knew what was at stake. Knowing his master had no one else to assign, he didn’t complain hearing the order, without retorting or even glancing at the cane chair which he used as means of transportation in the mountain. He simply took the talisman, turned around, picked up his sword, and popped off towards the outside.
Cheng Qian stopped brooding over what was wrong with his master at once. Because in his mind, first senior brother was the most unreliable person in the world. He doubted that Han Yuan could survive if master sent Yan Zhengming to his rescue.
So he took up a wooden sword and said without even thinking, “Master, I am going too.”
Muchun was surprised. Presently he nodded as Yan Zhengming rolled his eyes. “Well, go.”
For a moment Li Yun was stunned. Then he hastily got up and pleaded in a tentative voice, “Master – Senior Brother, take me, please.”
Yan Zhengming stared at him with a stony glance, saying nothing. He quickened his pace, letting Li Yun follow.
Young master Yan fished a white handkerchief out of his bosom and threw it to Cheng Qian with the sandalwood tablet, and ordered, “You can do nothing other than be a drag on me. Wipe the sawdust off the tablet first.”
First senior brother rarely acted so swiftly; and Cheng Qian was rarely so cooperative.
He was racked with guilt for letting Han Yuan trespass into the forbidden area, and had already taken it as his responsibility to rescue Han Yuan. For now, whatever Yan Zhengming said, he wouldn’t take it personally. Contrarily, he even buried his previous ill will and followed up. Wiping the tablet, he asked in a good-natured way, “Senior Brother, who is Zipeng Zhenren?”
Not getting his expected retort, Yan Zhengming winded down. Then it suddenly struck him that he was actually bothering with a kid that didn’t reach the height of his chest. Thinking of this, Yan Zhengming felt somewhat ashamed.
So he went silent for a while, and then answered flatly, “Zipeng Zhenren is the big monster guarding the mountain cave. She is reasonably open to talking. I’ve paid a new-year call to her.”
“What kind of monster?” Cheng Qian asked again. “Wouldn’t it be better if master himself visits her?”
“Of course not.” Yan Zhengming looked quite impatient. He walked so fast that Cheng Qian had to run in order to catch up with him. He heard first senior brother’s reply coming from the wind, “It’s not suitable for master to visit Zipeng Zhenren, because she is a hen – Hey, stay close and do not question me. Be careful to not break a taboo in the Demons Valley, if you don’t want to be detained as Han Yuan’s companion that is.”
It took a while for Cheng Qian to understand that their master wouldn’t personally visit Zipeng Zhenren, probably to avoid being offensive – after all, “the weasel goes to pay his respect to the hen”3 didn’t sound very pleasing.
Come to think of it, his eyelids twitched sharply. He suddenly realised that his master was a real, genuine, living weasel, who secluded himself in the deep mountains!
Nevertheless, at present, the recluse weasel’s situation was not so optimistic. After Cheng Qian and his senior brothers left, he ordered the Taoist children to clear out, after which he instantly collapsed onto the table, and a gust of dark smoke poured out of his chest. The thing that had possessed his body landed on the ground, taking the hazy shape of a human being.
Muchun Zhenren’s hand which had just carved the charms shivered heavily. After a long time, he said in a hoarse voice, “Are you crazy?”
The black shadow stood in silence for quite a while, and said softly, “The monster king must show respect where my marks go. As long as they hold on to my talisman, they’ll be safe and sound. Relax. This is a mere adventure for them.”
Muchun Zhenren wore a rather sullen expression, but he couldn’t stand up as though his body was fettered. He deepened his voice and said, “Although I have very limited ability and knowledge, and my sight dimmed from old age, I’m still far from being unable to notice invisible charms integrated with visible ones. For a single trip to the Demons Valley, the common lightning-summoning charm is sufficient for them to protect themselves. And considering the type of person Zipeng Zhenren is, she won’t make things difficult for several kids… What the hell are you up to? What is this carrier that you embedded in the invisible charms?”
This time, the black shadow didn’t respond though.
“Speak!” Muhun Zhenren thundered.
However, the black shadow had already vanished like a billow of smoke, leaving no trace but a faint disappearing sigh.
As if it never existed.