"I don't like these kinds of temporary flings."
"So, we must return to that room to take a look… Hongjun?"
Li Jinglong furrowed his brow. Everyone looked towards Hongjun, only to see him subconsciously stand up, walking out of the hall and stopping in the hallway.
This was a familiar place, but in his memories, everything was different. Hongjun looked around at his surroundings and felt that he had recalled a set of memories he never had before ---- What was going on?
Was it due to the Lihun Pollen? But didn’t the Lihun Pollen only have the ability to make someone forget past events? How then did it let him recall the past?
In his memories, the voice of little Hongjun shouted loudly and hoarsely as a black shadow flew by, landing in the courtyard.
It was Qing Xiong! Hongjun suddenly turned his head, only to see Qing Xiong of the past.
He was wearing a long one-piece robe, and he stepped forward, saying heavily, “You’ve killed enough, haven’t you.”
Inside the hall itself, under the bright golden lights, a husband and wife embraced each other in death. Their faces were already blurred beyond recognition, and little Hongjun leapt towards those corpses, hysterically crying and screaming, but Qing Xiong lifted him by the collar and pulled him back.
"Dad--!" little Hongjun shouted piteously, but Qing Xiong’s voice issued from somewhere near his ear.
"Shh. Look at me, look at me." Qing Xiong took a knee and turned Hongjun towards himself, both of his eyes watching Hongjun. His mouth trembled faintly as he spoke a sentence to Hongjun.
Little Hongjun stood dumbly in the yard, gazing at his surroundings, before Qing Xiong forced him to only look at him instead, pressing down gently on his head, speaking to him - but those words had already been blurred beyond recognition.
What had Qing Xiong said? Hongjun’s forehead was firmly set in a frown. That sentence was one that Qing Xiong seemed to say a lot, except he had forgotten it. But the Exorcism Department, and that deceased couple, what was going on there?!
"Hongjun!" everyone called.
Li Jinglong walked out into the courtyard, raising his hand and waving it in front of Hongjun’s face, asking, "Are you alright?"
Hongjun had a nagging feeling that he had forgotten something that Qing Xiong told him, something important, but instead he had remembered even more strange things. He closed his eyes and shook his head in an attempt to clean these messy memories out of his own thoughts.
Li Jinglong asked surprisedly, "What’s wrong?"
Hongjun breathed in deeply before gesturing that it was nothing to worry about. They returned to the main hall and sat down, and he raised his eyebrows, asking wordlessly about what conclusions they had drawn.
"Tonight we move out," Li Jinglong said. "I think I have a sense of what we were doing. We must have found a clue of some sort at Yishi Lan, but we needed to check again to be sure of what the clue was. Now, everyone should go rest for a bit, we’ll gather again at night."
Mo Rigen, A-Tai, and Qiu Yongsi nodded, but none of them moved, all watching Hongjun. Hongjun hurried to reassure everyone that he was fine, and they finally dispersed.
In the afternoon, just as Hongjun was lying down, Li Jinglong came by to check on him. He sat on the edge of the bed and asked, “Kong Hongjun, what happened with you today?”
And saying that, Li Jinglong lifted his hand and put it atop Hongjun’s.
Hongjun’s heartbeat sped up, and from the depths of his heart came the strange urge to reach out and grasp Li Jinglong’s hand in his own as he told him all about those memories just now - but he himself hadn’t figured out what was going on with them, so he merely responded, “Not much.”
“If you have worries on your mind, you can tell me whenever you want,” Li Jinglong said as he retracted his hand. “If you feel discomfort after smelling the Lihun Pollen, we’ll need to figure out a workaround quickly.”
Hongjun hurried to reassure him that it had nothing to do with the Lihun Pollen, and Li Jinglong nodded before turning to leave. Hongjun rolled over, yawned, and went to sleep.
The sun set in the east, and the mountains cast their shadow over Daming Palace.
A woman wearing an elaborate outfit strode in the shadow under the outer wall of the palace, moving like a soundless ghost.
“I felt it, it’s in the city of Chang’an.”
A black-clothed man with a scar on his forehead stood there silently.
“Fei Ao, you go check it out,” that woman pressured him.
“Give me something to eat,” that black-garbed man who had just been called Fei Ao answered impatiently.
“There will be food,” the woman said heavily. “We must find that fellow. Mara is not yet stable…”
“Give me food!” Fei Ao peeled back his lips to reveal sharp teeth.
“That’s not your food!” the woman said as she took a threatening step forward. “Bring him back, then there will naturally be something for you to eat.”
Her eyes suddenly flashed red. Fei Ao retreated half a step, quieting down for a bit, before he turned and vaulted over the wall, vanishing into the twilight.
“Madame.” A maid hurried over, but she didn’t see anyone. She softly asked, “Was there anyone else here? You...”
In that instant, that woman turned her head, and the maid let out an ear-piercing shriek.
“Help--” the maid tried to shout, but her cry was muffled by a strand of black mist. Her eyes opened wide, staring at the fur-covered face before her attached to the elaborately dressed monster. A giggle rose from its throat as all the skin on the maid’s body dried out with a speed faster than what the human eye could follow, and in an instant she became nothing more than a skeletal, shriveled piece of human jerky. With a quiet sound, she plummeted headfirst to the floor.
That guifei, still wearing that set of elaborate clothing, walked towards the light of the sunset as she whistled once to the mountains. A few wild foxes leapt over the wall and picked up the maid’s corpse, dragging her out of Daming Palace and tossing her into a mountain valley.
“Hongjun, wake up.” Mo Rigen patted Hongjun’s shoulder. Hongjun felt that his head was in great pain, but he rolled over and got up.
Mo Rigen felt Hongjun’s forehead; he didn’t have a fever, so he asked, “Not comfortable? Do you want to sleep a little longer?”
Hongjun had a very long and strange dream but forgot everything when he woke up, so he made a gesture to indicate that it was nothing. By the time they exited the Exorcism Department, everyone had already made their preparations. Li Jinglong had a bow slung across his back and his sword at his hip, and was currently debriefing everyone.
Hongjun remembered that moment in the afternoon where Li Jinglong had put his hand on Hongjun’s own, and Hongjun had suddenly felt that he was very dependable, so he shuffled a step closer. Li Jinglong paused for a moment, but when there were other people around he had nothing to say, so he just nodded his head once.
The carp yao was perched on the back of a horse. Both of its legs dangled in the air and its head leaning on Li Jinglong’s back as it dozed, its hands drooping down over his shoulders.
“En… let’s go.” Hongjun decided to forget the strange events of the afternoon, even though it gave him a vague sense of unease.
The drums began to beat again, and the five of them flipped onto their horses. They galloped quickly, and upon arriving just outside of Pingkang Li, A-Tai and Qiu Yongsi turned onto the main street while Li Jinglong, Hongjun, and Mo Rigen made their way into the back alleys. Mo Rigen nodded at the other two before flipping up onto the wall, entering the backyard of Yishi Lan.
“Hammurabi and Qiu Yongsi are going to go draw the attention of the people in the building,” Li Jinglong explained as he put the carp yao down and saw Hongjun looking around. “Mo Rigen is in charge of passing messages between our groups, and the two of us will return to that room to investigate again.”
“Wow, it’s so lively,” Hongjun said.
This was the first time that Hongjun had come out after the drums had sounded, and he felt that Chang’an had instantly transformed. Every building in Pingkang Li was filled with light and dancing, and the red lanterns were all lit, casting a red glow over their surroundings as the music resounded through the streets.
To his left, the sound of the pipa floated out into the street from Nightingale of the Spring Dawn, like thousands of pearls falling gently onto a large drum; to the right, Yishi Lan was filled with the sounds of over ten konghou that bubbled ceaselessly like a mountain spring just freed from the confines of the snow. On the two towers above, lengths of red gauze tumbled about, accompanying the occasional shouts of praise from the businessmen and scholars as the proprietresses smiled non-stop. Gazing up to the top of Yishi Lan, every tower was lit with bright lanterns, and behind their curtains was a wealth of gold and Qianfeng emerald decor, while human shadows passed by like silhouettes in a revolving scenic lantern. The phrase “singing and dancing all night long, in these ten miles of Pingkang” was perfect for describing this scenery.
“What exactly is this area for?” Hongjun finally felt doubt stirring in his heart.
Li Jinglong couldn’t believe it; Hongjun didn’t even know what an entertainment house was. He couldn’t tell if Hongjun was really as naive as he was pretending to be, so he looked consideringly at Hongjun in front of him for a moment, and seeing that his face was completely innocent, asked, “You’re serious?”
“It’s a…” Li Jinglong had a moment of difficulty, before saying, “well, it’s not a good place.”
Hongjun asked again, “Last time when I took you to Nightingale of the Spring Dawn, why did they mock you afterwards?”
Li Jinglong put his hand on his forehead, indicating that he shouldn’t keep asking. The reality was that amongst all the Chang’an officials, who wouldn’t come here? It was only an excuse to use him as an example, that’s all.
But Hongjun had a curiosity that would smash through clay pots to get to the bottom of things, so he continued, “Have you come here before?”
“No,” Li Jinglong answered. Just in that moment, a scholar hugging a beautiful woman staggered out from a small alley nearby. He was clearly drunk as he tottered towards the back entrance, and Li Jinglong pulled Hongjun aside, the two of them hiding in a darker area.
Hongjun couldn’t help peek out, as the suspicion in his heart had almost pierced the heavens. Li Jinglong saw that he didn’t seem to be acting, and responded straightforwardly, “I don’t like…”
“Don’t like what?” Hongjun turned his head back around. The two of them were standing extremely close, and Li Jinglong stiffly moved back a little to put some space between them.
“I don’t like these kinds of temporary flings,” Li Jinglong replied.
Hongjun read between the lines and could guess at the meaning hidden in those words. Li Jinglong asked, astonished, “Why don’t you understand anything? Aside from your parents, didn’t that carp yao ever teach you?”
“Then you tell me?” Hongjun put one hand behind his ear. The more secretive and mysterious something was, the more interesting it became.
Li Jinglong: “...”
At the same time, at the main entrance to Yishi Lan.
“Hai mie hou bi--!” A-Tai smiled exaggeratedly as he spread his arms wide.
“Wa -- he’s here again!”
“It’s that Hu person! That lute-playing Hu person is here again!”
“Sweetheart -- babe --”
A-Tai lifted the chin of the old proprietress and gently made a kissing motion. The proprietress’ face grew very red, and she smiled and said, “Gongzi-ge’s here again! You haven’t come for several days now, the girls were all waiting.”
A-Tai smiled, “I didn’t have a choice, ay, after I first came, I had to properly make amends with my superior officer. Now that I have some free time, haven’t I come by to see you all?”
As soon as A-Tai walked into the hall proper, the women made their way downstairs and swarmed him with their shrill cries. That scene made all the guests behind the screens irresistibly curious, so they stuck their heads out to look.
“Qiu-gongzi has also come!” a woman said. “How about you compose a poem for us?”
“Tell us about your biaoge!”
Qiu Yongsi smiled and replied, “Tonight, let’s listen to A-Tai’s lute first.”
A-Tai walked into the hall, and the dancing women all stopped in their movements, parting to let him through. A-Tai hugged one of them, planting a gentle kiss on her soft face, before walking alone to the innermost seat in the hall.
“Won’t you give us some wine?” Qiu Yongsi smiled.
One of the waiters immediately brought some wine. Tonight in Yishi Lan, there were many scholars who had come from afar to visit the capital, and seeing that their female companions were all sticking their heads out and peeking, unhappily asked, “What’s up with that Hu person?”
“Shh.” The women indicated that they shouldn’t ask too much, before they once again peeked their heads out beyond the screen to look.
Above A-Tai’s head hung many bright lanterns, and the second and third floors were packed with girls. Behind them, their many confused customers had followed them out to take a look - only to see, under the lamplight, A-Tai’s head of dark brown curly hair, his eyes as deep and lustrous as the ocean, his high nose bridge and deep set brows, and his milk-colored skin. He smiled at everyone in the audience.
The entire hall hushed as A-Tai sat down, criss-crossing his legs. Holding the barbat lute in his arms, without plucking the strings, he cleared his throat and began to sing.
“How many wild fields used to be gardens filled with blossoming flowers…”
“How many palaces have become desolate ruins…”
In the pause after the sound of his voice, his five fingers strummed the strings of the barbat lute, and the strings resounded one after another; it was like there was a wave of strange energy that flowed out from his fingers, filling the hall and the yard like moonlight. The silver strings let out short, staccato notes, and out of the messy weeds outside a glowing stag made of white light grew. It bounded into the courtyard, filling the entire hall with white flower petals.
“I am drunk in the depths of your eyes, and I have long forgotten the passage of time…”
A-Tai tilted his head very slightly and closed his eyes. That handsome, well-formed profile stole the breath of everyone watching, and all of the doors on the second and third levels were wide open as everyone fell under the spell of the music, lightly traipsing down the stairs to listen.
In that moment, the entire building seemed to have fallen into a dreamlike state, and everyone lost themselves in the music.
Qiu Yongsi’s face had a gentle smile on it. With two cotton balls stuffed in his ears, he swayed his head gently in time with the music.
In the back alley, after Hongjun heard Li Jinglong’s explanation, his entire face turned red, and with mixed excitement and curiosity, he asked, “Really?”
Li Jinglong never wanted to repeat what he just said to Hongjun ever again in his life.
“You’re not allowed to tell anyone!” Li Jinglong commanded.
Technically Hongjun was already sixteen, and the Great Tang was very open-minded about these matters, so thirteen and fourteen year old youths were already considered grown in Chang’an. Seeing them wandering around Pingkang Li was nothing strange. During his time in the Longwu Army, Li Jinglong would also let his men discuss such matters with impunity. However, when it came to Hongjun, he suddenly felt a strange sense of wrongdoing in his heart.
“This great of a place, why didn’t you come?” Hongjun asked.
“I obviously wouldn’t come!” Li Jinglong was so enraged by these words that he almost exploded. “Do I seem like that kind of person?”
Mo Rigen stuck his head out from the backyard and whistled towards the two of them, gesturing for them to come inside. Li Jinglong’s expression was stern, and he indicated that Hongjun should zip his lips, but (there wasn’t really the need to do so).
“Time to get to work!” Li Jinglong nudged the carp yao, saying, “Go stand guard in front of the tower.”
The two people turned and, with rapid steps, ran towards the backyard.
The second and third floors were really completely empty! Hongjun threw out his grappling hook, and with Li Jinglong in tow they flew up to the second floor. Mo Rigen leaned up against the outer wall on the second floor, and he handed Li Jinglong and Hongjun two wads of cotton. Li Jinglong stuffed his pair into his ears, but Hongjun held his at a complete loss.
Li Jinglong walked in front, and Hongjun took the chance to sneak up next to the railings and peek down at the scene below. The mesmerizing lute sounds traveled up to them as the transfixed occupants of Yishi Lan remained so captivated they seemed drunk on the music, like wooden puppets fixed in place.
A-Tai’s voice held traces of moonlight that moved like flowing water, and it curled around the courtyard… but before he could finish his thought, Mo Rigen grabbed Hongjun’s hands, stuffing the cotton balls into his ears. In an instant, the lute melody and the singing faded to a distant hum, and Hongjun returned to his senses.
Li Jinglong was waiting for him in front, and he pulled him into a room, saying quietly, “Don’t listen anymore, hurry up and get to work.”
Mo Rigen guarded the door outside to prevent any more unexpected occurrences. Hongjun couldn’t resist glancing at the doorway again, asking, “That was A-Tai playing the lute?!”
Hongjun could venture a guess that this was probably one of A-Tai’s spells; when they were making music at the Exorcism Department as usual, he just hadn’t used his power against them. Hongjun sprawled on the floor, looking under the bed, and since Li Jinglong hadn’t seen anything strange, he put his sword back and came over to lift up the bed. Gritting his teeth, he asked, “Haven’t you heard it before?”
“Not like what it was today… found it!” Hongjun found that there was a long cloth bag under the bed, and he hurriedly pulled it out, only to be greeted once again by the head of that dried up corpse.
“Wa ah--!” Hongjun was so frightened he began to shout, “It’s this again!”
Mo Rigen knocked on the door outside, and Li Jinglong responded, indicating that he was inside so there would be no trouble.
"Yi? Why did I say ‘again’?” Hongjun muttered to himself.
“Pull it out,” Li Jinglong said.
After Hongjun dragged out that dried corpse, Li Jinglong set the bed down again. This time, Li Jinglong had come prepared, and he pulled on a pair of black silk gloves and began to examine the body. Hongjun stared at it from the corner of his eye as his entire face grew numb from fear. In the end, he hid behind Li Jinglong.
“A male between the ages of thirty and forty,” Li Jinglong said. “Look at these clothes, they’re not those of a merchant or a bureaucrat, so he might be a scholar who came to the capital to take the imperial examination… Hongjun?”
“I don’t dare to look!” Hongjun watched Li Jinglong peel the clothes off that dried, blackened corpse, its mouth wide open as it showed the gums. Exposed as it was under the lamp light, it looked unspeakably disgusting, and all his hairs stood up.
Li Jinglong said, “Don’t be afraid, it’s not like it can eat you. Look here, what kind of yao sucked him dry? This could not have resulted from the natural processes of decay.”
“Is the yaoguai the owner of the room?” Hongjun came to a sudden realization, and he began to paw frantically through the cabinets and drawers.
Li Jinglong said, “Don’t randomly touch stuff, we’ll be discovered that way.”
Hongjun ducked his head into another drawer and answered, “If it’s a yaoguai, then there’s definitely some sort of artifact or evil object it keeps around it, but there’s nothing like that here.”
Li Jinglong thought deeply for a second as the sounds of the music from downstairs continued. From the outside, Mo Rigen asked, “Still not done?”
After searching thoroughly, Hongjun answered, “There’s no yaoguai in this room.”
“I have a question. Have you felt any yao energy?” Li Jinglong asked.
Hongjun shook his head, and Li Jinglong thought deeply before continuing, “The yao must be in this building… For today’s plan to succeed, we can only be a little more daring. Hongjun, let me borrow your grappling hook. In a bit, you and Mo Rigen should go to the two sides of the building and carefully watch the people gathered in the hall. Have your throwing knives at the ready…”
“I only have three throwing knives left.”
“Count on me, I’ll definitely bring them back.”
In the main hall of Yishi Lan, A-Tai strummed his lute, and with the speed of moving clouds and flowing water, it was already time for the usual drunken revelry. The melody rose like the wind and clouds covering up the full moon, and like tens of thousands of leaves in motion, it blanketed the heavens and the earth.
“... I search for you bitterly in this tempest…”
A-Tai’s voice resounded throughout the whole building, and just then, there was a hong sound as a dried corpse with a rope tied around its neck fell from an upper floor. Qiu Yongsi and A-Tai were caught off guard, and both of them startled. Not knowing what had happened, A-Tai subconsciously swiveled his head to look towards the second floor.
The singing suddenly stopped, and everyone in that hall stared mutely at that dried corpse. A few breaths later, a series of shrill shrieks erupted--!
Within Yishi Lan, the old proprietress was so horrified she started screeching wildly, and the customers were temporarily stunned into a stupor. Chaos broke out all throughout the building, and the shrieks rang out here and there as many of the women fainted.
And just at this moment, Li Jinglong, Hongjun, and Mo Rigen watched the customers below from their vantage points on the second floor, only to see one of the women in the corner take a step back as her facial expression changed.
In another two corners of the hall, two other women who were accompanying customers were greatly shocked, both of them shooting glances towards the first woman. Without exchanging any signs, the three of them all lifted their eyes and looked up towards the door to Jin Yun’s room on the second floor!
Just as they moved, three throwing knives flew through the air, darting right for them! The women had not yet realized that they had revealed themselves, but they could sense their imminent demise, so with a wave of their hands they shook open the sleeves of their robes, letting out a faint purple light. They didn’t expect, however, for the knives to pass right through the purple light, and with fire sprouting off them, bite deep into their shoulders!
“Follow the knives!” Li Jinglong shouted. “Don’t let them escape!”
Li Jinglong flipped over the railings, falling towards the hall on the first floor. At this time, the hall was filled with chaos; A-Tai packed up his lute, and with Qiu Yongsi, they both rushed out. Mo Rigen pushed back against the railings, using his shoulders to open up a door on the second floor.
The women near the doors of the hall shouted in agony. The three women each reached out a hand to pull out the throwing knives embedded in their shoulders, but when their hands met the metal they were burned until they shouted in agony. They knew that a master had come, and afraid of engaging him in battle, they instead turned to flee.
One of the women, the one with seemingly the highest level of cultivation, turned around as she was climbing out of the window. A ray of fire shot out from her finger, flying out towards the space above everyone’s heads in the middle of the hall.
Hongjun was just jumping off the second floor when Li Jinglong suddenly shouted, “Hongjun, watch out!”
Hongjun whipped his head around and saw the flames flying by. However, its target wasn’t him, but rather the dried corpse that dangled in the air. The flames came into contact with the corpse and in that instant turned into a roaring blaze, charring it into ashes!
The three women rushed out of the door, and Mo Rigen leapt through a window on the second floor. In midair, he nocked an arrow to his bow, and "'shua shua shua" loosed three arrows.
One of the women couldn’t resist turning her head around to look for their pursuers when she rushed out, feeling nervous otherwise, but with this head-turn her neck squarely met the arrow as it shot straight through. With a “weng” sound, her body was briefly enveloped in a white light, and when the glow faded, in her place was a blue-eyed brown-furred fox with fresh blood spouting out of its wide-open mouth. In close pursuit, the other two arrows flew over as well, hitting the abdomen and the leg, ensuring its death!
Li Jinglong angrily roared, “You were too harsh! This is your first warning! Where are the other two?!”
Mo Rigen landed, and with a wave of his hand, the three arrows pulled themselves out and returned to their owner as the blood from the fox sprayed in all directions.
“I didn’t mean to hit its neck!” Mo Rigen protested rather helplessly.
At this time Hongjun had rushed up as well. Inside Yishi Lan, everyone pushed and shoved at each other wildly; everything there had already become an entire mess.
Hongjun waved and the throwing knives returned to his hands. He asked, surprised, “Foxes?”
“Fox yao,” Li Jinglong said. “Go track down your throwing knife, quickly!”
“It’s…” Hongjun turned in all four directions before saying, “In the alley!"
"Where’s Zhao Zilong?!" Li Jinglong said. "Quick, quick! Why do none of you have any teamwork?"
The carp yao pulled out a cloth bag as it waggled its tail and ran over, saying, "I’m coming, I’m coming!"
With one foot, Li Jinglong punted the carp yao into the building, and he, Hongjun, and Mo Rigen turned to chase the other two fox yao.
moon: and that’s it for this chapter! stay tuned for more next week, and thank you for reading! we are going to be moving from CG in the future (unknown timeline yet but within the year), but we will keep all our readers updated as best we can
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), opal.