Under the bright sunlight and the shadows of the parasol tree leaves, he felt that this entire scene seemed strangely unreal, as if everything was only a dream caused by the sunbeams streaming down at the right angle.
At noon, Hongjun arrived at the restaurant that the four of them had agreed to meet at, a place called 'Carp Leaping over the Dragon Gate'. Hongjun’s emotions had yet to calm down, and he said, “Today… a really big thing happened!”
Qiu Yongsi, Mo Rigen, and A-Tai had just sat down, and they all wore baffled expressions as they hurriedly beckoned him over. “Come come come, hurry up and tell us. Zhangshi hasn’t arrived yet?”
“He took the cat back with him,” Hongjun said. “He told us to eat first, he’ll come by in a bit to explain in detail.”
“He really found it?” Mo Rigen exclaimed in surprise.
The three of them looked at each other before they hurried to continue their questioning. Hongjun could only tell them about the events that he had been a part of, from Li Jinglong returning to the Exorcism Department to settle the cat in, then to them tracking down the corpse that they had discovered by going to the Judiciary Department to check on missing persons cases, skimming through case after case. The connections ran deep, so they had to first fully understand the situation.
“Let’s eat, I’m starving.”
The waiter told them the menu, but everyone didn’t know what was what. A-Tai had come from afar and had no experience with Chang’an’s many delicious foods. Mo Rigen was born in the grasslands, so he hadn’t had any Tang-style feasts, and Hongjun obviously hadn’t tried any of this before.
Qiu Yongsi meekly said, “You guys pick, I’ll eat whatever you guys choose.”
Everyone was confused after hearing the names of all the dishes. Finally the carp yao couldn’t stand it any longer, and he started to order some, opening and closing his mouth behind Hongjun’s back as he spoke, “Six bowls of Black Pheasant Soup, a plate of Qunxun Stir fry, Vinegar and Scallion Chicken, Okra and Cabbage Rolls, and for the main dishes, six bowls of Yuhuang Wangmu Rice, one plate of sweet ice for after dinner, and a jin of Lishan Shaochun. For the dishes with fish, don’t use carp.”
“Who?!” The waiter’s face turned sheet white. “Who’s speaking?!”
“Ventriloquism!” Hongjun immediately supplied.
“You have four people, but you’re ordering for six?” the waiter asked as he unconsciously shot a glance at the empty seat by A-Tai, his face still tinged with traces of horror.
“We’re still waiting on someone,” Hongjun said. “He might not come until after the dishes are here.”
“Carp has a lot of bones, who would eat that,” the waiter said to himself.
“What did you say?!” the carp yao behind Hongjun’s back grew so angry his eyes were round, as if he was personally offended.
The waiter: “???”
“Nothing, you should carry on,” Hongjun said, hurriedly getting rid of that waiter.
The waiter still had some lingering fear as he laid out the dishes they had ordered, and in a flash the table was covered in a tasty and lavish spread. Immediately, Hongjun became aware of the fact that the meals he had those days on the road couldn’t really be considered food compared with the feast before him. The soup was stored in ceramic bowls that were meant to mimic bamboo, the stir fry was a delectable platter of fish and lamb stir-fried together, the chicken was steamed to the point of the white meat showing a little bit of yellow, and the light fragrance pervaded their nostrils. The Yuhuang Wangmu Rice was a bowl of half-cooked egg on top of rice, and the four people and one fish began to clean the table as if they were inhaling the food.
“Zhao Zilong stayed at a Chang’an restaurant before,” Hongjun said as he ate. “Thankfully it’s soaked up a lot of knowledge there.”
“Oh?” Mo Rigen smiled and said. “As a chef? You really can’t judge from its appearance.”
“As an ingredient,” the carp yao answered.
Hongjun then added, “It was first sold on the market, then taken back to the store and raised in a tank. Later, there was a kind monk who bought it and let it go, so it’s managed to survive to this day.”
The carp yao was full; he stuck his head into the cup and took a few sips of wine, before taking a few wobbly steps on the table, and finally, with a “peng”, it fell down in a drunken stupor.
“Cheers,” A-Tai said. “I’ll foot the bill today, let’s toast to our newly found friendship and our currently absent zhangshi--”
The four of them raised their cups. This was the first time that they had officially sat down for a celebratory meal after entering the Exorcism Department. Most of the time Hongjun wasn’t with them, but since the other three often lazed about, they were pretty close. Once again, their conversation returned to the topic of Li Jinglong, and Hongjun vaguely answered a few questions, but lately he had not been working with Mo Rigen and the rest, so he was now very curious about his companions.
“My dad had me come to Chang’an.” Hongjun thought about it. Originally he’d been told, before he set off on his journey, that there were many things he couldn’t tell anyone, and now Zhao Zilong was as drunk as a fish. Hongjun was afraid that giving away too much detail would reveal the truth of his heritage, so he merely said, “He sent me here to exorcise all the yaoguai in Chang’an… en.”
A-Tai smiled and said, “Where are the yaoguai in Chang’an?”
Mo Rigen also smiled and spoke, “But if there aren’t any yaoguai, then what did we come here for?”
Hongjun said, “But zhangshi said that there are yaoguai in Chang’an, they just don’t come out very often.”
Hongjun had never drunk wine before, and this was the first time he was doing so; he didn’t know any better, so he drank it just like he would water. Mo Rigen and A-Tai thought that Hongjun’s tolerance was good so they let him drink, and of the one jin of Lishan Shaochun, Hongjun managed to down half of it. His brain was fuzzy and he felt a little bit woozy, so he tilted his head to one side and fell asleep.
Hongjun hadn’t been in a drunken stupor for long before Li Jinglong arrived. Upon seeing the drunk Hongjun, he flew into a fierce rage.
“It’s work hours, but you all are here drinking wine?” Li Jinglong said. “You even managed to get him drunk, this…”
A-Tai hurried to speak. “Zhangshi, come, come, sit here! Today it’s my treat!”
Li Jinglong’s face was set in a deep frown as he sat down; he didn’t mind that the table was full of leftovers as he began to eat the now-cold dishes. The other three busied themselves with asking about what had happened. Li Jinglong responded, and they gradually stilled; the one drinking tea, the one drinking wine, and the one eating sweets all stopped in their movements, watching Li Jinglong.
“Below the bed, there was a dead body?” Mo Rigen asked.
Li Jinglong puffed out a breath through his nose with an "en", and said, “Finally interested? Just now I went to the Judiciary Department and inquired, but nobody’s reported any missing persons cases in recent days.”
“That’s not right.” A-Tai’s brows furrowed. “Hiding the corpse under the bed, what could that mean?”
Li Jinglong calmly answered, “I’m not sure if it’s within my jurisdiction, I was just about to find you all and discuss…”
“It’s definitely a yaoguai!” Mo Rigen immediately supplied.
“The yaoguai hasn’t run off yet.” Qiu Yongsi smiled, and that smile held a trace of something deeply hidden.
“Why? Can you explain?” Li Jinglong asked as he carelessly picked at his food, his forehead wrinkled.
A-Tai gave Li Jinglong a long glance, before speaking a moment later, “I think these brothers could tell you.”
“No, no, you first…”
“You first, you first…”
The three people began to squabble as they pushed the duty to each other, and Li Jinglong finally raised his voice. “Enough!”
A moment later, Mo Rigen said, “The corpse under the bed would rot in a few days’ time, and its stench would naturally arouse the notice of those around it. However, if the corpse was specially air dried before it’s hidden under the bed... it’s a complicated process, and not something you would normally do. It’s much more work than if you just buried it.”
“So Jin Yun is hiding a corpse to cast some yao magic?” Li Jinglong furrowed his brows.
Everyone had a strange expression as they watched Li Jinglong. They wanted to laugh, but they didn’t dare to. Li Jinglong felt this was baffling and asked, “Did I say something wrong?”
Qiu Yongsi responded, “Uh… this, zhangshi, I believe that this person must have been instantly turned into a dried corpse to produce this kind of effect.”
Li Jinglong immediately understood and muttered, “So that’s how it is.”
“It must have been sucked dry by the yaoguai,” Mo Rigen responded. “At that moment, it didn’t know where to put the corpse, so it was randomly stuffed underneath the bed. That’s the most likely scenario.”
Li Jinglong thought deeply for a moment. A-Tai looked at the other two and said, “Let’s patrol tonight? I always felt that there was something wrong with Pingkang Li, and clearly we’ve exposed some sort of a plot.”
Qiu Yongsi immediately flashed A-Tai a look, warning him to not give too much away.
Li Jinglong finally understood: that night that A-Tai and Qiu Yongsi had gone to the brothel, it had been to investigate the yaoguai.
“Pingkang Li has yao?” Li Jinglong asked.
“It’s completely filled with yao energy.” Qiu Yongsi began to chuckle as he spoke. “The areas with the heaviest yao energy are Pingkang Li, Daming Palace, and Xingqing Palace.”
For a long while, Li Jinglong sat there without uttering a sound.
Li Jinglong had spent a long time thinking things through. Should he tell the Shenwu and Longwu Armies to fence off Yishi Lan and find the body, or should he first secretly, without rousing any suspicion, catch the yao? Given his own terrible luck, if he was going to catch that one named Jin Yun, nobody would believe him, and that would in turn bring him a lot of trouble. Well, he hadn’t expected these few subordinates, one after the other, to be so well-versed in these aspects.
“Then tonight I’ll have to properly see your skills,” Li Jinglong said.
“When brother Hongjun goes forth, he can catch a small yao with no problem,” Mo Rigen said as he smiled. “The rest of us will just serve as his support.”
In the afternoon, there was a clap of thunder as it began to drizzle again in Chang’an. With rapid steps, Li Jinglong took the lead as Mo Rigen carried the drunken Hongjun, and in the light rain they hurried back to the Exorcism Department, A-Tai and Qiu Yongsi following along behind. There were quite a few young women in the streets seeking shelter from the rain that pointed and whispered at the three as they passed, calling their female companions over for a look.
Li Jinglong was tall and handsome, Mo Rigen was lithe and his facial features were good-looking, A-Tai was as beautiful as a pearl, Qiu Yongsi was slim, and Hongjun, on Mo Rigen’s back, had a face that was as beautiful beyond compare as white jade. Hongjun also carried a salted fish on his back… no, a carp.
The young women hurried along behind as they followed the three of them, and Mo Rigen turned his head back to look as A-Tai said, “Ay, it’s really distressing. Everywhere we go there’s always this many people following us… Everyone, let’s go quickly.”
Later, they gathered in the main hall to listen to the rain. In the hall, Li Jinglong had tied that cat to a pillar with a rope, and it meowed a few times, doing its best to tug its head towards the outside, trying to escape from the rope. An urgent event happened today, and Li Jinglong decided to put off sending the cat back until tomorrow.
The carp yao was still unmoving on its side, lying in the yard as it got rained on.
Hongjun was slumped on his side on the table in the hall, and while Li Jinglong pulled out all the case files from Di Renjie’s time, the other three seemed to have come to an unspoken agreement. They each took a few and began to investigate the yaoguai hiding in Pingkang Li.
However, as they were looking through Di Renjie’s records, they realized that even though there were a lot of records on yao, most of them were about yao in the divine capital of Luoyang. After the emperor moved the capital to Chang’an, there were very few records left.
“What yao can suck away a person’s energy for cultivation?” Li Jinglong asked.
“Many of them can,” Mo Rigen lowered his head to study the scroll and carelessly said, “Foxes, snakes, flowers, paintings…”
A-Tai interjected, “That may not be the case. What if this body is just Jin Yun’s lover?”
Everyone immediately bristled, and Qiu Yongsi said, “No way! A-Tai, do you like this kind of stuff?!”
“I would rather it be a yao,” A-Tai laughed.
Li Jinglong suddenly spoke, “Everyone, did you all come at the same time to report to the Exorcism Department?”
“We came at approximately the same time,” A-Tai responded with a smile.
“Why do I feel like you all have known each other for a long time,” Li Jinglong said.
Everyone stopped speaking again. Moments later, as he watched their reactions, Li Jinglong added casually, “I must ask for these brothers’ continued guidance, especially tonight.”
The three of them nodded, and Li Jinglong looked towards Hongjun, who was still drunk. Mo Rigen reached a hand out and gently shook him, saying, “Hongjun?”
Everyone was afraid that Hongjun would stay drunk until night time, but just as they were about to wake him up, the carp yao outside woke up first. He stood up shakily, obviously still a little drink, and he blinked a few times as he said, “We’re back? En…”
The carp yao wobbled back and forth as it walked down the hallway. That cat grew excited upon seeing the carp yao, and with a mighty pull, it dislodged its head from the loop around its neck, leaping towards the carp yao. The carp yao was temporarily stunned; it looked at the chausie, and as the terror hit, it loudly shouted, “Save me! The cat’s escaped!”
This little scare was different from before, and even Hongjun woke up with that racket. Everyone looked at the cat that they had gone to such lengths to catch as it tried to escape, hurrying over to catch it. Li Jinglong angrily shouted, “Come into the hall!”
Before, Li Jinglong was afraid that the cat would be strangled, so he didn’t tie the leash that tightly - but he never imagined that it would escape like this. The carp yao rushed in, and the cat followed as Hongjun shouted, “Quick, close the doors!”
The rest of them immediately slammed the doors shut. The carp yao was so frightened it almost peed itself as it hid everywhere from its predator. Hongjun had it stand properly, but the terror of its natural enemy had already won over what logic it had to obey Hongjun’s commands. It ran around wildly, first jumping on a few case files, then hopping onto the desk, and with a flying leap and a burst of terror-fueled strength, with a “xiu” sound like an arrow flying through the air, it leapt onto the top of the cabinet.
Right after that, A-Tai and Mo Rigen leapt towards the middle, but the chausie was very agile, and whoosh, whoosh. With two moves it managed to follow the carp yao up to the top of the cabinet.
Li Jinglong suddenly realized a serious issue, and he put one foot on the wall. Just as he was about to leap over to help --
-- but it was already too late.
The carp yao loudly shouted “oh my god” as it bounced right back down, flying into Li Jinglong’s arms. Just as the chausie turned to follow, it knocked over the box filled with Lihun Pollen.
As everyone watched, the Lihun Pollen box made its way in a straight line from the top of the cabinet right onto Hongjun’s head, and with a light sound, the box sprung open, filling the room with pollen.
The doors and windows were closed, and as soon as the pollen dispersed in the air, all of them simultaneously let out earth-shaking sneezes, and they continued to sneeze consecutively.
“Achoo! Achoo! Achoo! Achoo! A--choo!”
A-Tai, Mo Rigen, Qiu Yongsi, Hongjun, and Li Jinglong were all wildly sneezing, and sneezes came one after the other. The five of them were first surprised, then confused. They stood in the room, their minds confused as they turned around, disoriented.
“What happened?” Hongjun asked, dazed. “Achoo!”
A-Tai: “Who am I? Achoo!”
Mo Rigen: “This… you all... where is this? Achoo!”
Qiu Yongsi: “Achoo! Wait, this brother over here? Achoo!”
Even that chausie was constantly sneezing - it saw the carp yao and its eyes would light up with expectation, but then it would sneeze and its face would return to one filled with confusion. Everyone had a fleeting thought that things were strange, before they returned to a state of blissful ignorance, and the sneezes continued.
“We should get out… achoo!” Li Jinglong let out a concussive sneeze as the carp yao leapt down and ran to open the door.
The carp yao’s nose was only useful in the water, and its nostrils were too small, so normally it kept them plugged up. Thus, it hadn’t been affected, and seeing that the cat wasn’t chasing it at the moment, hurried to push open the doors with all its might.
“Quick, come out!” the carp yao shouted.
As Hongjun wavered between confusion and clarity, he felt that there was something shouting at him, so he staggered out and joined in on the shouting. Everyone else slowly made their way out one by one.
Hongjun’s head spun. He looked at the carp yao, then again at Li Jinglong and them, trying his best to remember something, but his brain was filled with chaos. Just then, that cat jumped out, not knowing where to go, and the carp yao directed, “Hongjun! Quickly catch it!”
Hongjun subconsciously reached out and grabbed the cat, and the carp yao picked up a small brush and dustpan to clean up the Lihun Pollen scattered inside.
“What happened just now?” Li Jinglong asked.
The other four looked at each other, all of them wearing blank expressions. Not long after, with a "ding", A-Tai remembered and said, “You’re Li-zhangshi!”
“Ah!” Li Jinglong said, “Yes, yes, I’m Li Jinglong, and this is the Exorcism Department.”
“Yes, yes!” Everyone acted like they had just woken up from a dream as they all hurried to nod. Hongjun hugged the cat and asked in confusion, “But why am I holding a cat?”
“Meow?” The chausie looked furtively to the left and right.
“What… were we doing?” Li Jinglong asked.
The space above everyone’s heads was filled with question marks. Mo Rigen slowly turned, taking in the scenery of the courtyard, before saying, “I seem to remember that we all came to the Exorcism Department to report in for duty.”
“We've already reported in, right?” Qiu Yongsi said. “Why do I feel like we all know each other. It’s not our first meeting?”
Li Jinglong supplied, “We need to all stay calm; something must have happened just now…”
Inside, the carp yao had swept all the pollen up into one pile, and as it piled that all into a palm-sized bag, it said, “You all breathed in the Lihun Pollen.”
“Yes, yes!” Everyone remembered again and nodded. Now they could almost connect up the causes and the effects.
Half a shichen later, everyone had gradually recalled a few things, but the most important thing was that they had forgotten what they were doing before they smelled the Lihun Pollen. Li Jinglong and his subordinates, each with a hand on his chin, were currently sitting in the main hall racking their brains.
The carp yao haltingly narrated the general series of events around the capture of the cat, but as for everything else, it was wholly unaware of what happened. So then, the difficult question that they had to face became “we can’t remember what we forgot”.
The cat was cooped up in its cage, staring hungrily at that carp yao, but it couldn’t get out.
“What exactly happened?” Li Jinglong asked as he furrowed his brows.
“Maybe we were only drinking tea?” Qiu Yongsi said.
“No, that’s not right,” Li Jinglong said to himself. “If we were only drinking tea, why would we have so many scrolls out on the table? That’s something strange, we must have been working on some important case just now.”
“First, when we were catching the cat, Hongjun and I hid under the bed…”
“After I finished drinking the foot-washing water…”
Everyone racked their brains as they thought, and Li Jinglong tried to analyze the series of events from the piecemeal memories he had. Hongjun muttered to himself, still trying to remember who he was and where he was from. Gradually, he started to remember that he was from Yaojin Palace, and a lot of details from his childhood came rushing in at once. After a short period of forgetting, he remembered Chong Ming, and he even recalled the first time he met Chong Ming.
Hongjun let loose a sigh. Just as he was about to speak, he recalled a strange set of memories. Li Jinglong’s voice started to become quieter and quieter as it faded into the background.
Under the bright sunlight and the shadows of the parasol tree leaves, he felt that this entire scene seemed strangely unreal, as if everything was only a dream caused by the sunbeams streaming down at the right angle. In this dream, his consciousness became more and more distant, and in a swirl time flowed backwards as he was brought back to that evening in Yaojin Palace.
Countless shadows shot by backwards in a flash, and he grew transfixed on a day in the past.
“Hongjun said that you guys found a dead person under the bed…”
“A dead person?”
In a second everyone startled, staring fixedly at the carp yao. The carp yao narrated the series of events, describing everything that happened in the room that it managed to see.
Yet Hongjun’s pupils kept contracting. After smelling the Lihun Pollen, he was suddenly reminded of that night in the Yaojin Palace, where the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was the tear that fell from the corner of Chong Ming’s eye.
In that moment, that memory receded as fast as it came, returning into the darkness. He stood in the ruins, staring blindly at the surroundings.
“...I only have this one child…”
A strange man’s voice resounded from next to his ear.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), opal.