As the evening progressed, the mood at the shore became increasingly bleak. Cheng Qian pulled his clothes tighter. He glanced at Han Yuan, who shivered with cold because of only wearing an outer robe, and felt that the other boy deserved it.
The moment that thought came to Cheng Qian, Yan Zhengming had already shared the same sentiment out loud.
Yan Zhengming folded his arms in front of his chest, staring at Han Yuan with a severe expression. He had already thrown his sumptuous sword away and planned to kick it into the pond as soon as their master returned safely—that was a sword which had not only poked a toad, but had also killed mice.
Yan Zhengming said coldly, “It hasn’t even been a month since your initiation, yet you dared to go to the valley. Seems you’re going to crumble the Fuyao Mountain to dust in the future? You might as well be roasted and eaten by those mice!”
Hearing this reproach, Han Yuan, who had been beaten black and blue, slightly changed his countenance and was about to scowl. However, upon properly reflecting, his embitterment instantly died out as he remembered that his senior brothers had taken such risk to save him. He hung his head listlessly, preparing for the coming rebuke.
Unexpectedly, Li Yun cut in when first senior brother was just about to reprimand Han Yuan from head to toe. He said softly, “First Senior Brother, it’s my fault. I’m the one who made little junior brother intrude into the back mountain. I didn’t know it was connected to the Demon Valley.”
His words stunned everyone.
Although Han Yuan was kind of a stupid person who was always wheeling and dealing, he wasn’t actually senseless. He did hate Li Yun upon getting captured and nearly eaten by the mice spirits, but this hatred died away when he saw Li Yun come to his rescue bare-handed.
Now that Li Yun candidly acknowledged his mistake, the last bit of grudge in Han Yuan’s heart passed away like a breath of wind.
The little beggar bent his head shyly. “Not at all. No one forced me to go there. Besides, senior brothers saved me.”
“No… In fact, I didn’t.” Li Yun seemed to have gotten set off; those words that had once been difficult for him to bring up now poured out like water rushing out of a floodgate. “I was terribly scared when I discovered what laid in the valley, and if it weren’t for first senior brother and third junior brother I would have already attempted to retreat…”
Hearing that, Cheng Qian somehow found Li Yun sort of cute. Though they were all disorderly and exhausted, never before had they felt so calm, nor shared such a harmonious atmosphere. Cheng Qian smiled. “Who wouldn’t have? I also felt freaked out.”
“I didn’t see you freaked out at all,” Yan Zhengming humphed. “Especially when you climbed up the bear’s body and touched it eighteen times1.”
Cheng Qian was perplexed; he didn’t quite catch that last sentence, so he explained muddle-headedly, “I didn’t touch it that many times.2 I just wanted its fang for self-defense. Second Senior Brother was more courageous; he didn’t even have any weapons with him.”
Hearing junior brother respond to the wrong point, Yan Zhengming suddenly realized that he seemingly had said something improper—he gave away his vulgar recreation. A layer of light red rose in his cheeks immediately.
Li Yun froze momentarily, then quickly dropped his head as though concealing something. Obviously, he wasn’t any more refined.
Han Yuan was much franker compared to his “sanctimonious” senior brothers. He was already splitting his sides with laughter, making the little Heavenly Monster murmur in her sleep.
Only “innocent” little Cheng Qian displayed a baffled face.
Yan Zhengming was shamed into anger. He picked up a stone to throw at Han Yuan. Han Yuan covered his head and dodged, then distracted Yan Zhengming by pointing at the Heavenly Monster. “I have something serious to say! Senior Brother, mercy! Here’s a female monster, are we going to adopt her?”
“It depends on master. In any case, monsters in the Demon Valley won’t accept her,” Li Yun said.
Everyone went silent at his words.
No one wanted her.
This sentence prickled Cheng Qian’s heart. He glanced at the Heavenly Monster, who had fallen fast asleep again after a few murmurs, and involuntarily felt compassionate because of their shared suffering.
Yan Zhengming said, “It’s most likely that she’ll stay with us. Master loves to carry things back with him. However, I think we’d better come up with a name for her before master returns. Otherwise…”
He pointedly looked sidelong at Han Yuan, whose eyelids twitched at the thought of his unlucky name.
Yan Zhengming sneered, “If master names her Han Shouzhi(sucking fingers), I’m afraid she’d want to die when she grows up.”
They started discussing all of the most elegant and common names for a girl.
Eventually, Yan Zhengming made the final decision. “Since we took her out of the pond, I think ‘Tan(pond)’ is good. And combined with master’s surname, the full name will be Han Tan.”
Han Yuan added: “Not bad, and we’ve got a pet name for her, ‘Puddle’.”
Yan Zhengming: “…”
He didn’t even bother beating Han Yuan this time because it would only detract from his own elegance.
A long time passed, and because he’d been so sleepy and tired, Cheng Qian had unconsciously dozed off on top of a rock while listening to the sound of his martial brothers’ relaxed chatting. When the dew began to form and dawn was to break, he was nudged awake.
Cheng Qian gave a start. Rubbing his eyes, he saw Muchun Zhenren staring at them, his face shadowed with melancholy. The decency he had shown while fighting Zipeng was nowhere to be seen now.
Muchun was confused. How did his disciples enter the valley as four people, and after passing a day, come out as five?
After running his eyes over his early-riser first apprentice, his yawning second apprentice, his blankly-staring third apprentice, and finally the fourth apprentice who looked down to avoid eye contact, he sighed, “Do you know why I look like Zipeng Zhenren’s father when I am actually three hundred years younger than her?”
Before they replied Muchun continued, looking straight at Han Yuan. “Because she didn’t have any apprentice.”
Han Yuan’s chin almost dropped to the ground.
“Master, what did you say to that old hen?” Yan Zhengming interrupted as if he hadn’t sensed the hint of criticism in master’s words. “Did she scratch you?”
Muchun Zhenren rolled his eyes heavenward. “I naturally talked sense into her—Zhengming, cultivators should be cautious, pay attention to their words and deeds, and try to win people over through virtue. Why are you always verbally abusing your seniors?”
“She almost scratched me! Someday I’m going to pull out all of her feathers and make a duster out of them to clean the Mission Hall!”
Finishing that, Yan Zhengming felt much more comfortable, and just then thought of the business.
“By the way, Master,” he said to Muchun very casually, “We’ve picked up an apprentice for you!”
Muchun Zhenren looked at the chubby Heavenly Monster, and then looked into the boundless sky, helplessly sighing, “My little apprentices, let your master live a few years longer!”
Their master helplessly accepted the new apprentice, and Han Tan became their little junior sister.
In countless folk tales, the “little junior sister” of a sect was someone who would inspire fancy in people’s minds. They were peerless beauties with snow-white skin, or little dolls who smiled like blooming flowers… But presumably, no one would like to hear the tales of those fairies at their diaper-stage.
At the start, Muchun Zhenren intended to arrange Yan Zhengming’s maids to look after her by turns. But things didn’t turn out as he hoped. The Heavenly Monster cried so hard that three rooms crashed down in less than one day and a half.
Her cry could even make Zipeng Zhenren’s abode collapse, let alone such houses built with bricks and tiles.
Muchun Zhenren had no choice but to transfer little Puddle to a cave at the mountainside, which was said to be an ancestor’s retreat and could withstand the thunders from the highest of the heavens.
But in this way, Yan Zhengming’s pretty maids were dissatisfied.
The most work they had ever done in the Land of the Tender was just combing, burning incense, and pruning. How could they withstand the torment of such a little imp? Besides, the old senior must have been an ascetic, as there was nothing but stones in the cave. The bed was a large hard rock, and the chair was a small hard rock… Was this really a place for humans to stay?
These tearful maids ran back to the sect leader and announced that they would rather die than go there.
In a fit of rage, Muchun Zhenren ordered his apprentices to take turns to babysit their powerful junior sister —after all, who were the ones that had caused this blunder and brought her back?
The apprentices took the punishment, taking turns to bring disaster to… no, take care of little Puddle.
Han Yuan who was, needless to say, a reckless beggar, had wrapped her in diapers and changed this gifted junior sister into a dusty quasi-beggar within just one day.
And because this gluttonous fourth senior brother had eaten most of her porridge, when the master had gone over to see her in the evening, he had been shocked by the scene of the hungry girl almost about to chomp down on a big fat worm.
Even Cheng Qian, who seemed to be more reliable, had turned out to be the very opposite. When it came to his turn, he just took his homework with him to the cave, and after finishing it, found some notes left behind by the predecessor. Although he couldn’t understand most of them, he still studied them all night. When Cheng Qian was absorbed in something, even tribulation thunder couldn’t distract him. So, he had completely forgotten about the existence of his little junior sister. By the time he realized it, his little junior sister had fallen asleep with dried porridge and tear stains covering her face.
The worst was Yan Zhengming. He came to the cave with a dozen Taoist children as if he was about to take vengeance, and ordered them around while not taking a single half-step into the cave himself. Every time the hapless baby finished defecating or urinating, her first senior brother would show a look of great loathing and keep a distance of at least eight Zhang away from her, ordering the Taoist children to keep washing her several times and to perfume her so heavily that a passing-by bee had fainted from the excessive scent.
The most outrageous was Li Yun. Li Yun thought his little junior sister was pitiful because she couldn’t walk steadily with her short legs, so he dribbled a few droplets of the Toad Liquid on her body, tied a rope around her neck, and then took his toad junior sister on a walk around the mountain…
After all of this, Muchun Zhenren dared not to hand Puddle over to any of his apprentices. She also is a life, after all.
That was how he ended up getting someone to weave him a basket for carrying the Heavenly Monster on his back, and tormenting her every day with those strange scriptures.
- eighteen touches: a traditional Chinese folk song, which is flirtatious, bawdy and erotic in nature, considered vulgar and tasteless it has been banned numerous times. See more here.
- in Chinese, a number doesn’t necessarily mean the number it represents, it can also mean “many”. This always happens to multiples of 3, like 3, 6, 9; but it can also lead to misunderstanding. So when Yan Zhengming said “eighteen” to mean that Cheng Qian searched around the bear’s body, Cheng Qian just took it literally. That’s how this conversation happened.