Cheng Qian and Li Yun scurried to the deck. As soon as Cheng Qian exited the cabin, his nostrils were assaulted by a terrible stench and, as he raised his head, he saw an unusual scene above him—the originally clear sky had been blotted out by dark clouds. They stretched across as far as his eyes could discern, engulfing his vision and shutting out the last ray of sunlight.
All ships on the sea had come to a halt, and all of those seniors who were flying flamboyantly now landed on the ship’s deck, their countenance signifying that they had encountered a formidable foe. Some young people may have been oblivious to what was happening, but they were stupefied the moment they all looked up at the sky.
Li Yun fidgeted, pacing back and forth as he quietly asked Cheng Qian, “Is that him? What does he want?”
Cheng Qian suddenly thought of Tang Zhen as he answered, “Probably to collect cultivators’ souls; the Celestial Market gathers many cultivators from all around the continent.”
Li Yun turned around, looking at him in horror.
“If he really wanted to capture people, his targets would be those flying seniors and not you. Stop worrying,” Cheng Qian said, looking around. “Where is Master?”
Suddenly, an eagle’s cry resounded from afar, followed by weird laughs reverberating in the air. Men and women, old and young: their laughs blended into a creepy harmony, starting off low and quiet before gradually becoming louder and sharper—eventually to the point of resembling hoarse and exhausted cries. It was the epitome of “wailing like ghosts and howling like wolves”.
Li Yun staggered backwards, covering his ears with his hands, “What is this?”
They were surrounded by scenes of chaos. At that moment, Yan Zhengming appeared out of nowhere and seized Cheng Qian by the shoulder, suffocating him with his familiar fragrance of orchids.
“What are you two doing here? Get inside the cabin!” snapped Yan Zhengming.
Cheng Qian looked around for Muchun Zhenren, but he was nowhere to be seen. Panicking, he pulled on Yan Zhengming’s sleeve and asked, “First Senior Brother, where’s Master?”
“I don’t know. I’m searching for him too.” Yan Zhengming’s face looked sullen like deep water. “Don’t be a hindrance here, get inside…”
His voice was soon drowned out by the bloodcurdling laughs. Yan Zhengming closed his mouth and his brows knitted together tightly.
Li Yun was good at avoiding danger and entered the cabin as he was told, but Cheng Qian wasn’t someone who listened to others. Yan Zhengming didn’t have time to argue, so he just violently shoved Cheng Qian into the cabin.
The windproof and shockproof lanterns lit up and Han Yuan was hiding there, anxious and frightened.
Cheng Qian’s heart sank upon seeing Puddle in Han Yuan’s arms.
The tracking charm they made had been tied with a coloured silk around Puddle’s waist by Li Yun. Unfortunately, they had never thought that their master would leave Puddle behind.
Yan Zhengming arrived at last. His face was exhausted and deathly pale. He panted and puffed, leaning against the door with one hand covering his mouth as though trying hard to hold back the vomit.
After a while, he said, “I’ve identified this stench: it’s exactly what a Soul-Consuming Lamp would emit when burning.”
Li Yun, who was sat by the window, muttered under his breath, “Shh! Look at the sky.”
Looking up, Cheng Qian saw a dense cluster of shadows in the dark sky.
There were tens of thousands of them, all shabbily dressed with blurred faces. They floated about in the air, causing the East Sea to look like the entrance to the Bridge of Helplessness1.
These ghost shadows… why were there so many?
How powerful was this demonic cultivator, Jiang Peng, exactly?
The dark clouds roiled as the currents surged and fell. Witnessing this scene, those overbearing cultivators suddenly became like gazelles confronted with lions. Cheng Qian could see their cowardice and fright, despite all of them standing in full combat readiness.
A bolt of lightning, accompanied by a peal of thunder, divided the world in two, followed by a billow of black air that streaked across the sky like a dragon diving into the sea. After careful observation, people noticed a man reclining in the dark clouds.
He was wearing a grey robe, with his eyelids hanging low on his ashen and sallow face as though he had an incurable disease. His appearance made him look exactly like a malevolent ghost as he cast his disdainful gaze over all living beings beneath the clouds.
Cheng Qian peeped at Yan Zhengming’s hand on the window frame and saw blue veins bulging out.
At first sight of the demonic cultivator, disbelief rushed through Cheng Qian’s mind, thinking that there may have been something wrong with first senior brother’s ears. Did Master really call such a person “Senior Brother”?
Cheng Qian’s imagination failed him; he could hardly believe that such a person was once a member of the Fuyao Sect.
What kind of master could have produced these two apprentices?
Those immortal seniors seemed to cherish their lives more than Cheng Qian could have imagined; nobody even volunteered to stand out against the devil, who emitted a deadly aura. After passing the buck2to each other, there was finally someone who took up the responsibility to break the impasse.
An old man with a white beard stood out from the crowd. He knocked the deck with his cane, and after contemplating his words, he said very courteously, “We’re heading to the Azure Dragon Island for the decennial Celestial Market. What’s your intention of stopping us here, fellow Taoist Jiang?”
His politeness was verging on flattery, but the devil didn’t seem to buy it.
“The decennial Celestial Market has brought so many talented juniors together. How brilliant…” the phthisic-like Jiang Peng spoke from upon the clouds with a light and gentle voice. Every first and last syllable was connected, causing people to be worried that he would show his fangs in the next second.
Jiang Peng smiled like a gentleman, “I just came along for the ride and to see if there were any emerging talented youngsters whilst I was here. But considering your aptitude, there’s no need to be nervous.”
This was Cheng Qian’s first time seeing a ghost cultivator, and it gave him a completely different impression from what the records in the Library had said. Shock engulfed his heart.
For such a man who was somewhere between a human being and a ghost, even if he had superhuman skills, who would have respect for him?
Who’d care about him? Who’d get along with him? Who’d take him seriously?
Being verbally stabbed, the old man with a white beard felt his face twitch, but he couldn’t gather up the courage to talk back.
Both sides came to a deadlock—as the other party was alone, it would be fairly awkward even to just keep silent on this occasion.
Cheng Qian couldn’t help but put his hand on the hilt of his sword, thinking, “If I had their swords and abilities, I’d have him fuck off right away.”
Although Cheng Qian had this impulse, he was also clear that he didn’t even have the strength to get first senior brother’s hand off his shoulder right now, let alone have a fight with that devil.
Eventually, someone dared to stand up and speak out. A thundering bellow broke the silence, “Get lost, you evil heretic!”
This sentence drew everyone’s attention. Cheng Qian took advantage of this moment as he lurched and threw Yan Zhengming’s grip off his shoulder. Then he stuck his entire upper body out of the window to find out who the speaker was.
It was a young woman in her twenties or thirties, but her ostensible youth didn’t mean anything in a cultivator’s case.
She was standing on a small boat which cost five coins per person. Probably being short of money, she was wearing a unisex robe which was, though not shabby, far from new, with many patches around the cuffs. There were a tattered bag and a sword on her back; even the sheath was badly rusted.
She seemed to be careless about her appearance, as she looked dirty and couldn’t really count as a beautiful Taoist nun.
Cheng Qian had sharp ears which caught the whispers of those sword cultivator disciples in the distance.
“Who’s that? Is she courting death?”
“Sh—that is Tang Wanqiu Zhenren from Mulan Mountain.”
“What? She is Tang Wanqiu? The one who practices ‘lunatic’ swordplay…”
“How come she’s also here?”
“Well… a mere… she really overestimates her abilities.”
Cheng Qian accurately caught the words “Mulan Mountain” in the noise.
Her surname was Tang too… what was the relationship between her and the male ghost Tang Zhen?
But before he could think it carefully, those expressionless ghosts in the air had all turned to Tang Wanqiu. Dark clouds ran riot with vicious currents. The boatman of Tang Wanqiu’s boat was so scared that he huddled himself up, wishing that he could throw himself into the sea.
Jiang Peng glanced at Tang Wanqiu, thinking nothing of her. He suddenly pursed his lips and a shrill whistle sound pierced into everyone’s ears. Cheng Qian felt his ears booming, and there was a moment when he thought he was deafened.
Immediately after that, all ghost shadows gathered into a black dragon, swooping down at the Taoist nun on that broken boat. The boatman gave a miserable shriek and hastily jumped into the water. However, before he reached the sea, a ghost shadow had caught him by the ankle and gave it a deep bite.
When the boatman’s leg was almost broken, a shiny sword light swooshed over, chopping the ghost shadow’s head off its body.
Despite the rusty sheath of Tang Wanqiu’s sword, the sword itself was exceedingly clean and dazzlingly bright. The dusty woman stood alone on the prow of the boat, encircled by thousands of ghost shadows.
However shiny her sword was, it was only intermittently visible in the thick black clouds. Cries and smirks of ghosts mingled with roars of tides. Tang Wanqiu was nearly devoured by the black ghosts, revealing her sorry figure only once in a while.
She was a lonely fighter. Though awkward, she was awe-inspiringly awkward.
It seemed that she didn’t give a shit about those who chose to be onlookers for self-preservation. All you could see was steadfastness on her angular face. She herself was the most satirical satire on those cowards.
Cheng Qian was so obsessed that he did not so much as blink. But he soon found something wrong; though Tang Wanqiu’s shining sword flashed above and around and appeared to have gained the upper hand, she was nearly on her last legs.
While the demonic cultivator himself was leisurely sitting cross-legged on the clouds throughout as if watching a show. The ghost shadows came in waves and continually assembled in the air, diving toward Tang Wanqiu in a steady stream.
Cheng Qian winced. He had this feeling that Tang Zhenren wasn’t a match for that demonic cultivator.
“The evil will not triumph over the virtuous” was just bullshit. There was no denying that the devil had a stronger force. However dauntless the woman was, she ultimately had a body made of flesh and blood.
With a sudden bang, the boat Tang Wanqiu was standing on split in two. Tang Wanqiu held her exclamation back in her throat and managed to jump onto her flying sword, but was pressed down again by another pack of ghost shadows when she tried to fly up. Crises occurred one after another.
Someone exclaimed, but no one helped.
Right at this moment, an arrow abruptly streaked across the blue sky, leaving a trace of an afterimage. The arrow unmercifully shot through the black mist enveloping Tang Zhenren, the tail feather making a piercing sound. Those ghost shadows were cleared immediately before they could dodge, while the arrow swished directly towards the demonic cultivator by virtue of its remaining force. It was so swift and fierce like the first ray of sun that shone through the dark at dawn.
Cheng Qian jerked his head around and saw his master, astounded.
Muchun Zhenren had left the big ship when nobody noticed and was standing on a small broken boat whose boatman and original passengers had fled. He was dripping wet. Clothes clung tightly to his body, leaving his slightly hunched back and skinniness nowhere to hide. He was like an old molting poultry that had curled up, shivering.
Compared to him, even the wretched Tang Wanqiu seemed much more decent.
At once, Cheng Qian knocked Li Yun out of the way and exited the cabin, leaning over the ship’s railing. He saw Master holding a bow which was probably left on the boat by a passenger, and there were wood shavings in his thumbnail. It seemed that he had carved some charm on the arrow provisionally.
That striking shot seemed to have burned Muchun up as he looked sort of dispirited. He could barely stand on the rocky boat by propping himself up on the bow, like a wilted leaf shivering in the autumn wind.
That demonic cultivator was reduced to a passive position by Muchun’s arrow. He rolled off the cloud and floated in the air, staring stonily at Muchun Zhenren.
Muchun Zhenren opened and shut his mouth, unspeaking. He chuckled after a minute and said, “Jiang Peng.”
“Han Muchun,” the demonic cultivator cracked an indescribable smile. “Nice to see you again. It’s really brave of you to stand out for someone else when you’re already half-dead yourself.”
Muchun Zhenren gradually straightened his back, which seemed to have been crooked for a million years, and directly met the devil’s eyes. With his goatee bristling, he broke into a somewhat uncouth smile with a trace of derision, saying, “You flatter me.”
Jiang Peng’s face suddenly changed. With a flick of his sleeve, all ghost shadows evaporated in a rush, leaving himself solitary in the sky. Jiang Peng said in a horrifying voice, “An ant trying to shake a giant tree and a waste who already has one foot in the grave. Today I’ll take both of you into my lamp and you’ll be the stepping-stones on my way of claiming the title of Beiming…”
As he spoke, a mountain of freak waves piled up and the deep water abruptly billowed up as if boiling, following which a water dragon cut through the surface. With a sweep of its tyrannical tail, a lot of people were thrown off their feet.
Muchun Zhenren darted a quick glance backward at Cheng Qian, who was looking at him eagerly, and drew out his wooden sword hanging from his hip. However, just as he decided to launch a death battle against Jiang Peng, his arm was suddenly fettered by some invisible force.
Muchun Zhenren’s face finally fell. But just then a comforting voice rang in his ears, “Don’t move. I’ll take him on.”
Before Muchun Zhenren could react, an antiquated copper coin dropped out of his sleeve.
Upon the coin touching the ground, a white smoke rose from it and in a trice, blended into the plentiful water vapor stirred by the water dragon, rising quietly.
The sea was in utter shambles. Looking at the giant water dragon in a stupor, Muchun Zhenren’s face changed several times before it stopped at an extremely grave expression.
That water dragon opened its mouth wide, planning to swallow a big ship wholly, when it suddenly felt something and froze in the air. After a second, it unexpectedly broke down into a mixture of waterdrops and steam and plunged into the sea, whipping up powerful waves.
This event was quite unforeseen. Even Jiang Peng backed and muttered in a frightful tone, “Who?”
When the steam cleared, countless black shadows gathered from all directions, taking a human shape where the water dragon disappeared. But its face was still blurred.
That person grinned in a deep voice and said in a leisure and unhurried manner, “Who’s blustering before me, that he wants to win the title of Beiming?”