Cheng Qian was transfixed by his master’s form of address. He wasn’t sure at first if he should call the other side “martial grandfather”.
Just a year ago, when Cheng Qian first walked into Fuyao Mountain, he had blindly thought that this was an illegitimate yet somewhat decent sect.
It was completely understandable of him to think that way; after all, apart from the knight-errants, which folk stories didn’t describe sects deserving to be called such as having great bunch of people fighting and scheming against each other?
Whereas Fuyao Sect only had a sect leader with a handful of callow kids—even gangs of youths in rural areas were perhaps much larger than this.
But in the last couple of days, Cheng Qian had found out one after the other that he had not only a martial uncle, but also a martial grandfather. Though that wasn’t something he’d be proud of at all.
Just taking a look at his martial uncle who had the power to perform astounding feats, and his martial grandfather, the top demonic cultivator in this land, and then taking another look at his pitiful master, Cheng Qian couldn’t help but wonder if Fuyao Sect existed just to elucidate to the world the meaning of “While the priest climbs a post, the devil climbs ten.”
And moreover, between “a poultry sect”1 and “the headquarters of demonic cultivators”, Cheng Qian dithered over which suited Fuyao Sect better.
After being recognized, Lord Beiming sighed a bit. Then the black mist around his body cleared up to reveal his true face.
He had neither the demeanour of a transcendent being nor the fierce features of an ogre. He was, on the whole, an ordinary person.
His sunken eyes added a touch of handsomeness to his visage. But beyond that, this legendary grandmaster of all devil magic was actually an unimposing middle-aged man—a haggard man with a sallow face and fine shades of grey at his temples.
Tucking his hands into sleeves, Lord Beiming stood near his lonely corpse. Then he waved his hand and said, “Rise, Xiao-Chun—you never knelt to me when I was alive, so why bother doing it now?”
Muchun Zhenren readily stood up as he was told and laid Puddle down, letting her go to Cheng Qian. Then he said in a rather casual manner, “I’m visiting a grave, anyway; of course, I’m supposed to kneel to my ancestor.”
Cheng Qian: “…”
He found it was a tradition of Fuyao Sect to show very little respect to one’s elders and masters.
“I thought you were dead and that your primordial spirit had reincarnated. That was why I had even mistaken Xiao-Qian as your reincarnation, since his bazi2 was the same as yours, and that mulish disposition of his was so like you. But I’d never thought… that your souls lingered in this world by attaching to three copper coins.” Muchun Zhenren briefly paused before he carried on with a sense of grievance, “Master, since you had to attach to something, why did you choose copper coins? Even if you couldn’t find gold, silver ingots also work great!”
When Lord Beiming was shrouded in black mist, his aura as the grandmaster of all devil magics oozed from every pore, making people readily prostrate themselves in worship. Whereas when he unveiled himself, it wasn’t like that at all.
“If I did so, would I ever have had the chance to see you again? You’d have squandered them to meet your urgent needs.” Lord Beiming chuckled as he regarded Muchun Zhenren with the same gloom Muchun had while talking to Yan Zhengming.
“Master, times have changed. Our sect is no longer as poor as it once was.”
“I know. You’ve accepted a God of Wealth as your apprentice,” said Lord Beiming ironically, without any change of expression.
After this brief conversation, the master and the apprentice stared at each other for a moment before breaking into a sudden laughter which baffled Cheng Qian.
Holding Puddle, Cheng Qian gazed at the hollow-eyed corpse, utterly unclear about what the two seniors were laughing about.
Moments later, Muchun Zhenren stopped laughing and asked, “One of your souls dispersed in the Demon Valley, and one burnt up in the Soul-Consuming Lamp, so this is your last one? Having lingered in the world for so long with nothing to rely on, even Lord Beiming will end up being eradicated, right?”
“It’s just death, nothing serious.” Lord Beiming smiled again.
“How about senior brother; is he dead now?”
When in front of dozens of ships and under countless gazes, Muchun had to call him “Jiang Peng” directly. But now facing Lord Beiming, there was nothing to conceal, so he used “senior brother”.
Lord Beiming paused and answered with eyes half closed, “He didn’t die in seriousness. I splintered the spirit flame with all the strength of my remaining soul, and I’ve given him a heavy blow. But your senior brother has refined his body and the Soul-Consuming Lamp together; his souls have become the spirit of that lamp and can never enter the cycle of reincarnation again. He won’t be counted as a human being anymore, so arguably he’s dead.”
Muchun Zhenren went silent for a while before asking again, “Did he recognize you?”
Lord Beiming just kept smiling without replying. His smiling silence was as though saying, “Now that things have reached this point, does it make any difference whether he recognized me or not?”
Then he turned to Cheng Qian, benevolently saying, “Kid, it’s my third time to see you. Come here.”
Cheng Qian advanced, but he didn’t go near Lord Beiming as he was told. Rather, he silently went up to Muchun Zhenren’s side and tepidly gave a wordless salute to Lord Beiming, as Cheng Qian didn’t know how to address him.
Even though Master and Lord Beiming seemed to be very close when they chatted, Cheng Qian’s intuition told him that it might not necessarily be the case.
Suppose that they had been so intimate as they appeared now, Cheng Qian couldn’t fathom why Master had never mentioned martial grandfather at least once in the past few years, and why he didn’t come to bury him.
Lord Beiming lowered his head and asked patiently, “You’re such a daring little blighter as to enter meditation in that situation. Did you have an insight?”
Cheng Qian dithered before he replied politely, “Enlightened by senior, you, and Tang Zhenren, I learned the bearing of being fearless of the Heaven, the Earth, the people, and anything.”
His answer aroused many feelings in Lord Beiming’s heart. He scrutinized Cheng Qian for a minute before saying in a mild tone, “Good boy. Eventually, the broken ‘bloodline’ of our Fuyao Sect is linked up again.”
Cheng Qian was terrified at what he said.
In a split second, Master’s changed appearance, the seemingly dead weasel, and Jiang Peng’s words about Master being half-dead… all those ins and outs flashed across Cheng Qian’s mind and pieced together a fact, a brutal fact. Cheng Qian understood the overtones of Lord Beiming’s meaningful words almost in a twinkling of an eye.
He jerked his head around, staring in disbelief at his master who suddenly became such a handsome man.
Muchun Zhenren put his hand upon Cheng Qian’s head, sighing, “If only you can share some of your cleverness with your fourth junior brother—yes, Xiao-Qian, your guess is right. The ‘bloodline’ of Fuyao Sect has broken off since many years ago. And I’m a dead person.”
Cheng Qian clenched his teeth so hard that he released grinding sounds but failed to say any word.
Muchun Zhenren paid no attention to that. He resumed with composure, “The sect leader at that time—namely, my master—was at the critical moment of his closed-door cultivation and had no time to handle other affairs. During that period, his first apprentice, Jiang Peng, degenerated into the devil way of ghostism and fled. I went trailing after him, but I overestimated my abilities and became the first victim of his Soul-Consuming Lamp. Fortunately, however, his ghost cultivation was still immature back then, and a fragment of my primordial spirit wasn’t completely refined. So, I escaped and fell into the body of a weasel spirit who was dying because it had failed to overcome the Heavenly Tribulations of lightning. And thus, I’ve had the opportunity to inherit and pass on the Sect Leader’s Seal.”
Lord Beiming’s look held some sorrow. “You…”
Muchun Zhenren laughed. “I was coping fine with the weasel spirit’s body. The only problem was that he was too greedy.”
“Aren’t you afraid that your primordial spirit might disperse from exhaustion, and that you will never enter the cycle of reincarnation if you possess a corpse as your body?” said Lord Beiming softly.
Muchun Zhenren gently shook his sleeves and took a sweeping look at his feet. Then, smiling, he said in an indifferent air in imitation of Lord Beiming, “Nothing serious.”
“Master, who split the portrait in the Library?” asked Cheng Qian quietly.
Muchun Zhenren was taken aback. “Didn’t I clean it up? Oof… it was probably me. My primordial spirit had undergone the tortures of the bites of ghosts in the Soul-Consuming Lamp, so I couldn’t help breeding grudges after I escaped. In addition, the weasel spirit was a dead corpse; I hadn’t gotten used to its body in the beginning. So there was a time when I was in a state of delirium.”
He narrated those events which, if one studied them closely, were obviously massively understated. But Cheng Qian just felt something choking his chest. He threw his arms around Muchun Zhenren’s waist and buried his head deep in Muchun’s bosom.
So warm… how come it was only a fragment of his primordial spirit?
Muchun continued, “I couldn’t even walk on legs when I first possessed the weasel’s body. So I rolled and crawled, trying to get back and find Master. However…”
Lord Beiming stood rooted to the ground, forming into a lonely shadow against the light.
“I saw the Four Saints besieging Fuyao Mountain,” Muchun Zhenren said to Cheng Qian. “Only then did I know that my master was in fact a once-in-a-blue-moon devil. The Four Saints were the mightiest men at that time. The battlefield stretched all the way from the Fuyao Mountain to the Worriless Valley two hundred Li away—that’s where we are standing right now—and their battle incurred the Heavenly Tribulation, which turned the valley into a sea of fire. For the following three years, the earth was naked of grass and empty of life. One of the Four Saints died and the others sustained severe injuries. I guess if they didn’t pick the time when Master was still in his seclusion, someone else might have died under that ancient tree.”
Then he turned to Lord Beiming. “I didn’t know that you were already a Beiming. Please forgive me for my ignorance, Master.”
Muchun Zhenren was deliberately careful with his narration. For some reason, he didn’t mention any of the key points—like how did Jiang Peng turn to an evil way? Why would he kill Muchun? How had Lord Beiming embarked on this path? Who were these Four Saints? And what caused their murder of Lord Beiming?
From start to finish, Muchun only said the course without any mention of the causes.
In normal times, Cheng Qian would definitely interrogate his master on his doubts. But now, he just couldn’t be bothered with that at all. He even failed to breathe smoothly as though his chest was clogged up with cotton, making him want to heave a big sob.
But Muchun Zhenren disengaged himself from Cheng Qian’s embrace, gently but firmly as well. He bent and picked up a branch which transformed into a wooden sword in his hand. Then he advanced to a clearing, saying to Cheng Qian, “You’ve finished learning the second form; now I’m going to show you the remaining three forms. Watch carefully.”
Cheng Qian had always nagged Muchun Zhenren to teach him swordplay, yet invariably ended up being sent away with a pouch of candies. But now, when Master finally offered to teach him, he didn’t feel excited about that in the slightest.
He knew that Master was going to leave.
Cheng Qian stood dazed for a while. Out of the blue, tears burst out of his eyes like floods rushing out of a dam. He held his breath and bit his lip hard, trying in vain to stop the tears. Never had Cheng Qian cried like this. Even when he was sold by his parents, he didn’t shed a single tear. However, now he was crying as if there was no tomorrow.
For the first time in his life, Cheng Qian experienced this penetrating and incurable pain which he was incapable of sustaining and enduring. It smouldered in his heart, as well as over the dignity he’d tried to keep all the time.
Puddle pulled Cheng Qian’s hem cautiously but was snubbed. So she started blubbering as well.
Lord Beiming seemed to be amused. He asked, “Boy, weren’t you fearless of the Heaven, the Earth, and the people? Why are you snivelling now?”
Cheng Qian endeavored desperately to hold back his cry. But he found that though he could hold back his happiness and sadness, he couldn’t hold back his tears. He cried and wiped his eyes, his vision keeping alternating between being blurry and clear.
“Master, I’m not learning and you don’t teach me that, okay? You… you don’t want us anymore?” Cheng Qian said in a voice strangled with sobs.
Muchun hung down his wooden sword a bit. He wanted to placate Cheng Qian, but then he remembered that Cheng Qian wasn’t Han Yuan; he wouldn’t be easily coaxed. After a long pause, he said, “It’s all the karma; it’s my fate. Even if the today’s accident didn’t happen, I didn’t have many years left. I can’t take care of you for a lifetime anyway.”
Muchun Zhenren stopped at this point. He knew this kid would split hairs whatever he said, so he locked himself up in silence.
He swung the wooden sword horizontally in front of his chest and made a neat opening move. This time, he didn’t read the absurd mnemonic rhyme, nor did he intentionally slow his moves down.
The first form, the roc’s long flight3. The mettled youths, their ideals held high, would reach the moon in the sky.
The second form, seek and pursue. Endless progress and pain lay in the firm, masculine sword moves.
The third form, backfire. Though one gets everything he pursues, he remains an ant on this vast land; whatever seems solid will eventually be destroyed like the sand castle being destroyed by waves.
The fourth form, decline from prosperity. After ups and downs, still, no one could run away from this fate.
The fifth form, return to trueness…
Cheng Qian couldn’t help thinking back on the words master had told him—“ ‘death’ and ‘ascending to the Heaven’, is there any difference between them?”
They were both people coming and going, nothing different at all.
Tears hadn’t dried on Cheng Qian’s face when Muchun Zhenren finished practicing the full set of Fuyao Wooden Swordplay.
“Are you quite sure of that?” asked Muchun Zhenren in a tender tone.
Cheng Qian compressed his lips and exclaimed obstinately, “No!”
“Liar! I won’t show you again anyway.” Muchun Zhenren reached out his hand and flicked Cheng Qian’s forehead. Presently his smile faded. Regarding Cheng Qian, he said, “Xiao-Qian, do you remember the sect rules? What does it say about dealing with sect members who brought shame to our sect?”
Cheng Qian glanced at Lord Beiming with his bloodshot eyes, making no response.
Muchun Zhenren said softly, “Those who committed unforgivable sins shall be disposed of by their fellow disciples—that’s the reason why, even though we have many betrayers since the foundation of our sect, we still have a proper standing among other sects.”
Cheng Qian rubbed away his tears.
“Taoism tells us to let nature take its course, and that a cultivator should stay true to his mission. Now that he has brought disaster, there is sure punishment for him, as the Heaven always repays a crime,” said Muchun Zhenren tranquilly.
Suddenly, the sleeves of his robe floated without wind. His face went ghastly pale and there seemed to be a sparkle flashing across his eyebrows.
“I was in the helm of Fuyao Sect for eighty years, but I am truly guilty for our ancestors and for you and your senior brother. Thus, I vowed to use my three spiritual souls to protect our sect from three catastrophes. After that, I will simply be flying ashes. So Xiao-Chun, you needn’t do that yourself,” said Lord Beiming with equanimity on his face.
Hearing that, Muchun Zhenren didn’t telegraph gratitude. In effect, he didn’t generate any particular feeling. He only answered stoically, “Master, if I let you die a natural death, how would that do justice to those grieving souls killed by you?”
His voice was smooth and overflowed with mildness as always. In Cheng Qian’s mind, however, these were the iciest words that ever met his ears.
It was as though Muchun Zhenren had immersed all his emotions in cold water, with not a hint of joy or pain emitting on the surface.
A line of very complicated charms swiftly flashed through the air, glistening. That was what Li Yun had lauded to the skies: the miraculous invisible charm.
Lord Beiming didn’t dodge or try to escape. He stood still in place, looking with crinkled eyes at the transitory charm which soon integrated into the natural world, saying, “To seal a soul with a soul.”
“My life is well worth it if I could seal one soul of Lord Beiming,” said Muchun Zhenren smilingly.
Cheng Qian opened his eyes wide, and in the next second, he was shoved off by a strong force. He reeled, and over he went, slipping into a coma for a sliver of time.
By the time he opened his eyes again, Lord Beiming had gone. Cheng Qian saw a thin wisp of black mist being twined by a watery golden light. In the end, they disappeared into the rusty copper coin in Muchun Zhenren’s hand.
Only, the hand that was holding the copper coin—Muchun Zhenren’s entire body was becoming transparent. He knelt and buried the coin by the skeleton under the ancient tree before he beckoned Cheng Qian with a smile.
Muchun Zhenren: “There was a seal on that weasel’s body. Go take it off.”
Cheng Qian seemed to be firmly resolved to act against Muchun, as he remained motionless.
Muchun Zhenren’s smile gradually faded. He raised his hand, wanting to stroke Cheng Qian’s head, only to find that it went directly through.
He said, “That is the seal of the sect leader of Fuyao Sect. Remember to give it to your first senior brother when you get back and ask him to take care of you guys in future. As for the swordplay, you really should work harder on the second form.”
Finishing that, he gave Cheng Qian a look with deep emotion before moving his lips. He said almost inaudibly, “I’m leaving. Farewell.”
No sooner had he finished speaking than his figure completely vanished like a handful of broken light running into the dirt and disappearing.
The legend has it that “in former days there was a large tree called Chun which had a spring and autumn each of eight hundred years.” So people use “live as long as the Chun” to wish their parents a long life. However, human beings, after all, were neither grass nor trees.
Muchun Zhenren buried that copper coin in the dirt, by which it seemed that he’d sent Cheng Qian to a new start—every generation begins their seeking and pursuing from the moment when they buried the last generation into earth with their own hands.
- a poultry sect: an unauthorized sect.
- bazi: a Chinese astrological system to tell an individual’s fortune. See more here.
- used to describe someone who has a bright future.