"In the still night, there was no sound at all, and everything seemed extremely strange."
mild mentions of morning wood
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In the early morning, the dark clouds were dense and thick, but the snow had lessened somewhat.
Within the way-station, Hongjun’s entire body was wrapped around Li Jinglong, and he was soundly asleep, while Li Jinglong laid on his side, sleeping deeply, letting Hongjun rest his head on his arm, hugging his shoulders. Hongjun was snuggled in front of his chest, as if the lamp in Li Jinglong’s heart meridian held a strange, innate attraction for him.
The wind still sobbed as it gusted. Hongjun woke and yawned, and in the instant that he opened his eyes, he stopped breathing. He lifted his eyes to look at the sleeping Li Jinglong, and he couldn’t help the quickening of his breath. His entire body was coiled around Li Jinglong’s, one arm hugging his waist, one leg even pressed up between his legs. His head was buried in his shoulder, listening to his heartbeat.
What was even more of a problem was that Hongjun, upon just waking up this early in the morning, was even hard. That thing was pressing against the crotch of his underwear, and some fluid had seeped out. On his leg, he felt that Li Jinglong had grown hard as well in his sleep. The warm nest of blankets, Li Jinglong’s body temperature, the rise and fall of his chest, the nice scent wafting off him, all of this combined together to give Hongjun a feeling of safety that he was no longer alone.
This kind of feeling of safety caused his heart to stir, and suddenly he felt an emotion that seemed to be akin to affectionate attachment.
Anyways, he’s not yet awake… I’ll hug him a little longer. Hongjun really liked this kind of feeling; it was just like when he ate good food and a flower would blossom in his heart, or when he laid on a rock to bathe in the sunlight, and a warm wind blew by, and it was like the entire world was wrapping him in a warm embrace, that feeling of accompaniment that was everywhere around him.
But Li Jinglong moved a little, waking up.
Hongjun could only loosen his grasp and carefully lie down on his back. Li Jinglong’s face was set in an expression of annoyance upon waking, but when the first thing that he saw upon opening his eyes and turning his head was Hongjun, he began to smile.
“How long have you been awake?” Li Jinglong’s arm was numb from pillowing Hongjun’s head, and he put a hand on his shoulder as he moved his shoulder.
“You seem to really like smiling lately,” Hongjun said.
Li Jinglong seemed to come to a realization, and he put his smile away. He had Hongjun get up a little faster, telling him to not always laze around and not get up.
Today the wind and snow were as usual, except that the snowfall was a little lighter. After breakfast, none of the traveling merchants set off; seeing how the storm was, if they kept heading towards the northwest, it would probably only grow heavier, and the road would be even harder to travel. Li Jinglong stood outside of the door to the way-station, his brows furrowed deeply as he observed the color of the sky.
Hongjun knew that he was anxious to set out, and he said, “The snow’s a little less now, let’s go ba.”
“Will we be alright?” Li Jinglong asked Hongjun. “The wind’s too strong in this kind of weather.”
Hongjun reassured him that there was no issue, and after Li Jinglong hesitated for a moment, he finally decided that they would keep pushing forward.
“If you two want to get to Wuwei,” the waiter of the way-station came out to say, “then keep your guards up, and don’t wander off the path. The snow’s piled pretty deep, and it’s covered up the military road. If you do wander off the path, it’s nothing but desolate wilderness out there, so you’ll be in a bad situation then.”
Li Jinglong thought about it, and that seemed right. When they left Chang’an this time, they had brought along maps from two years ago. In that time, quite a few places had changed the course of their roads, and they had already taken the wrong path a few times along this journey, but thankfully they had always managed to find the correct destination in the end. However, with the snowstorm before them covering up the military path and the nearby fields, and without any traveling merchant caravans, it was very likely that they would wander into the wilderness and not be able to find the next location
“You guys should head north,” the waiter continued. “Over there, there’s a part of the Han Great Wall, which can block some of the wind, and you can follow the Great Wall to the gates outside of Wuwei, before heading south sixty li, and you’ll be there.”
Li Jinglong gave his thanks, and he and Hongjun mounted their horses, heading forth to find the Han Great Wall. The snowstorm had covered the path, making it difficult for their horses to travel. When they saw the Great Wall, Hongjun couldn’t resist letting out a noise of surprise.
The snow blew thickly around a tall wall that towered towards the heavens above, obscuring the view of the wild winds and the flying snow, as if it stood on the edge of the world protecting the prosperous Divine Land. This long, worm-like dragon crossed the desolate plains, clambering across the mountain peaks, stretching across the land from its starting point, reaching towards the heavens, then pressing itself against the earth. In these thousands of years, it had not changed one bit.
“Let’s go,” Li Jinglong said, turning his horse’s head around.
“What is there outside?” Hongjun asked.
Li Jinglong said, “Outside is an even vaster world.”
Hongjun then said, “I’ve read Wang Changling before, ‘The same bright moon hangs over the same fortresses of the Qin and Han times…’”
“Those who have left on many a long march -- have yet to return,” Li Jinglong smiled as he sang. Within the strong winds and flying snow, the two steeds followed the Great Wall towards the end of the world.
“If General Fei and the Conqueror of Longcheng were still here, they would not allow the Hu riders to pass the Yin Mountains…”
“This poem we’re singing refers to my ancestors,” Li Jinglong said to Hongjun.
Though Hongjun didn’t know of the illustrious name of Li Jinglong’s ancestor, General Fei, Li Guang, he imagined he must have been a very formidable character.
“Are you cold?” Li Jinglong turned his head to ask, slowing his horse.
After last night, whenever Hongjun faced Li Jinglong, he kept feeling a little embarrassed, which was why he chose to ride his own horse of his own accord today.
Hongjun waved his hand, but Li Jinglong continued, “If you’re cold then come over, gege will carry you along.”
Hongjun replied, “My body’s not that weak!”
The carp yao woke, piping up from behind Hongjun’s back, “We’re not cold at all. How are you, Li-zhangshi? Still hanging in there?”
The snowstorm had started up again, even more fiercely than it had been last night. When he breathed in that icy air, Hongjun couldn’t speak for a while; Li Jinglong hurriedly gestured for him to cover up his nose and mouth, moving ahead to open up a path for him.
The Great Wall stretched unbroken for thousands of li, as if there was no end to it at all. Li Jinglong, his mouth and nose covered, turned his head back from time to time, making sure that Hongjun was still following. Now that he thought of it, it was indeed strange - when Hongjun looked around at the snowstorm surrounding them, it looked as if the sky had collapsed, with millions of shining stars falling down from the sky, and the wild winds blew so hard, it was as if they were trying to rip chunks of the ground from its foundations, shaking them to the edge of the horizon, but he wasn’t even shivering at all.
In front, Li Jinglong reined his horse to a stop, and Hongjun asked, “What’s wrong?!”
“Aren’t you cold!” Li Jinglong insisted, “How about we head back ba! Don’t catch a cold!”
Hongjun said, “I’m really not cold, how about you?”
Li Jinglong was wearing a pair of gloves that were nimble enough to allow him to control the reins, wrapped in a furred black cloak. He had always been strong and sturdy, but now even he couldn’t help a slight shiver as he said, “I’m fine, then… let’s hold out for a little more! We’ll reach the closest military outpost at twilight!”
The two of them kept going forward. One shichen later, Hongjun suddenly felt that something was a little off: Li Jinglong’s speed had clearly slowed down somewhat.
“Zhangshi, you’re alright ba?” Hongjun turned his head back and asked.
Li Jinglong, riding on his horse, let out a sneeze.
I hope he hasn’t caught a chill. Hongjun hurried to turn the horse’s head back. The wind had grown even stronger, and every step was a fight. Li Jinglong said, “Let’s find a place and take shelter for a bit ba!”
At this time, along the Han Great Wall, there was an empty barracks every ten li, which remained from ancient times when patrolling soldiers would use them to spend the night in. In the dim, rapidly darkening day, the two of them stumbled their way into those barracks. Hongjun turned back and closed the door, blocking the icy wind outside. Li Jinglong kept rubbing his hands together and breathing into them. His lips were a little blue.
The carp yao dug around in the barracks and found a few porcelain containers used to boil water. Li Jinglong shivered again, and Hongjun said, “I hope you’re not getting sick.”
Li Jinglong hurried to assure him that he was alright, saying, “As long as I rest a while, I’ll get warm again. I didn’t expect it to be this cold…” Saying this, he shivered again. An indeterminate amount of time passed in this near-darkness before Hongjun snapped his fingers, lit some of the firewood, boiled some water to drink, and ate some dry rations.
Li Jinglong leaned up against a wooden trunk in the barracks, asleep. The carp yao said, “Why don’t you check on the unlucky bastard, something’s not quite right.”
Hongjun reached a hand out to feel Li Jinglong’s forehead. It was burning hot.
“Damn,” Hongjun said. “Zhangshi?”
Li Jinglong opened his eyes, saying, “What time is it? Let’s go ba, we still need to hurry on our journey.”
Li Jinglong tried to rise, but he had no strength. Hongjun said, “You were chilled, make sure that you don’t damage your lungs with the cold. Rest a little more, and we’ll go after the snow stops. Let me make some medicine for you.”
Li Jinglong was extremely down. In the end, it was actually he who had gotten sick, but in front of Hongjun, he had already embarrassed himself more than enough times, so he wasn’t lacking in this one aspect. He could only say, “I also don’t know why I’m sick now. Last year when the Longwu Army went to the Guanzhong Plains to practice drills, I didn’t sleep for three days and three nights, and the weather alternated between torrential rain and blazing sunlight, but I still didn’t get sick then…”
While looking for the medicine, Hongjun replied, “Perhaps it really is too cold outside.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the carp yao said. “Your constitution can’t be compared with Hongjun. Don’t take it personally, my family’s Hongjun was originally…”
Hongjun hurried to indicate that the carp yao not poke at Li Jinglong anymore; if it kept poking, it would poke a hole clear through. He found the cold-prevention packet that he kept on him at all times, and inside was dried ginger, chaihu, and similar medicines. He also pulled out a phoenix feather, and upon seeing that, he let out a yi. He said, “I know why, it’s probably because of this.”
The phoenix feather glowed with a faint light in this snowy, frozen-over land. Previously, Hongjun had been carrying it on him, so no wonder he didn’t feel cold!
Hongjun placed the phoenix feather in Li Jinglong’s embrace, before he went out to get some more firewood so that he could stew the medicine. Just as he took a step out, he shouted wildly, “Oh heavens! It’s so cold ah--!”
“I said it was cold ba.” Li Jinglong’s melancholy mood dissipated a little. He continued, “Don’t go outside, if I sweat it out for a bit then I’ll be alright.”
Hongjun indicated that he was alright. When he walked out into the snow, in the distance he saw a frozen-over small creek; across the way was also a number of trees, but when the icy, piercing wind started blowing, Hongjun immediately began to shout loudly. In an instant, his three hun and seven po left his body, and even his opened mouth was so chilled that he couldn’t close it.
“So cold… so cold… I’m going to die…” Hongjun almost keeled over in the snow. He felt that the wind came from all directions, blowing directly at him, and he kept repeating to himself, I can’t die, I can’t die, I need to go back to save Zhangshi...
Hongjun spread open the Pentacolor Sacred Light, but though the sacred light could block the snowstorm, it could not block the icy air. As soon as he used magic, he grew even colder, and Hongjun hurried to stow away the sacred light, instead taking out a throwing knife to cut down a tree. Stumbling and shuffling along, he dragged an entire pine the height of a person back.
Hongjun pushed the door open with his body weight, chilled to the point where he couldn’t stop shivering. Li Jinglong was extremely startled by his appearance, and he hurried to say, “Don’t you get sick!”
Hongjun said, “Alright, alright.”
He used his throwing knife to cut a few sections of wood off, before closing the door tightly and starting a fire. It wasn’t until a good while later that he grew warm. He then put the porcelain on the fire, first brewing a large bowl of strong soup to drive out the chill, forcing it down Li Jinglong’s throat and also drinking some himself, before wrapping Li Jinglong up, letting him sweat it out.
The sky outside was dark, and the cry of the wind was the same as before; they could only make do here for the night. After Li Jinglong drank the medicine, he began to sweat, and with the phoenix feather in his lap, wrapped in both his and Hongjun’s fur cloaks, he would probably be okay.
The carp yao laid on its side on Li Jinglong’s knee, sleeping with its eyes open. When it was winter, the carp yao grew listless, and it spoke a lot less as well.
Hongjun, his legs spread, sat just beyond the fire, using one branch to poke at it, still mulling over the words Li Jinglong had spoken last night.
What do I want? How will I spend this life of mine? Hongjun seemed to remember that very long ago, Chong Ming had said that throughout a bird’s life, no matter how high it flew, passing over lofty peaks and steep mountainsides, passing through the stars in the night sky and the white clouds of the bright day, it would always have a place to land.
That would be the home he returned to throughout his life, and what was more important was that that home would be a place that he searched for, diligently and endlessly, no matter if it was in the dazzling mortal world or on a perilous, lofty peak, whether it was a mud nest built under the eaves of a human residence or a solitary sandbank in the midst of the river’s waters.
What place will be my home to return to? Hongjun gradually understood Chong Ming’s words. He also missed home; that was his home, but that was not the place that he needed to settle himself in after traveling through the experiences of his life. Perhaps, in the future, there would be a day when he found that Yaojin Palace was his final home to return to, but as of right now, it was not.
That place once belonged to his father Kong Xuan, Chong Ming, and Qing Xiong, and it was perhaps exactly because of this that his father had left Yaojin Palace and come to the Divine Land to be with his mother. Had he found his own home to return to?
Outside the gates of Yulin City.
When they left Yulin, Mo Rigen, with Lu Xu in tow, handed the letter to the city guards.
“Please send this letter to the Judiciary Department of Chang’an, for receipt by the Exorcism Department Zhangshi Li Jinglong,” Mo Rigen said.
Along the way, he heard a lot of news that came from the northwest; the traveling merchants of the north had all come to the Central Plains to rest their feet and spend the winter, which meant that the legend of the rising corpses in the border territories had spread far and wide. Some people said that it was a group of Uyghurs passing off as corpses, slaughtering citizens and pillaging cities; some people said that it was under the Yumen Pass that the corpses were rising, and for a time the rumors flew about wildly, growing arms and legs of their own.
Originally, he should have sent the report that Lu Xu brought to the headquarters of General Geshu Han of the Liangzhou government office, but the contents of the letter were already too blurry to be deciphered. With that, Mo Rigen decided to personally venture up north to take a look, and to hand the missing military report to Li Jinglong for him to analyze. With that, he smuggled in another letter, which described all of the things that had happened in the north.
“See,” Mo Rigen said to Lu Xu, “I’ve already helped you settle matters appropriately.”
When Lu Xu saw the soldiers, he kept nodding. Even after he had gone mad, he still worried about his own duty, but now he was finally a little better. He then lifted his eyes to look at Mo Rigen.
Mo Rigen said, “Since you’re taking me to go find the deer, do you still remember where you last saw it?”
Lu Xu hesitated, looking at Mo Rigen as though he was sizing him up. Mo Rigen patted his own chest, saying, “I can beat up some ghosts, I’ll help you get your revenge.”
With that, Lu Xu finally didn’t try to escape anymore. He began to point out the road for Mo Rigen so that he could go north.
Mo Rigen, still wearing that leather mask, rode on one horse with Lu Xu. He turned his head back and asked, “How old are you? How many people are in your family?”
Lu Xu didn’t make a sound, instead choosing to stare at his surroundings as he rode on that horse. Mo Rigen felt that this youth was pretty pitiful; according to the report, his comrades must have all died, and his city must have been destroyed as well, which meant that his family was also gone. On this journey, he might have to pay a little more attention to taking care of him.
In a world of snow and ice, under the Han Great Wall.
Hongjun lightly sucked in a breath. At some point that he wasn’t aware of, the snow outside had stopped falling.
He peeked out from a small hole in the barracks. The outside was a patch of darkness, where nothing could be seen. He felt Li Jinglong’s forehead again; Li Jinglong was still running a fever, but his face was no longer sheet white.
Just like this, Hongjun kept watch over him, until he began to feel a little tired. When he was preparing to lie down and make do for a night, he suddenly heard rustling from outside, accompanied by an uneasy whicker from the horses.
Was there some animal that was too cold? Hongjun was afraid that it was foxes or wolves, which would scare off the horses, but as long as it wasn’t a ferocious beast, then letting it in for the night to draw some warmth was not a problem.
He pushed the door open and went out. Outside, dense clouds covered the sky, and it was so dark that if he stretched his hands out, he wouldn’t be able to see his fingers. Hongjun used a torch to illuminate the area, seeing that the two uneasy horses were currently hiding in an area sheltered from the wind, resting.
Hongjun turned, pointing his torch towards the depths of the darkness. Ten paces away, he saw a flurry of footprints.
There was someone there?
There was someone there!
Hongjun hurried to ask, “Is anyone there?”
Across the snowy ground, from the bank of the creek came the sound of a twig snapping. Hongjun took a few steps forward, waving his torch in front of him, which whooshed as it displaced the air. Behind him, the rustling sounds never ceased, and his steed once again let out a sound of unease. In the still night, there was no sound at all, and everything seemed extremely strange.
There was nowhere the cold was absent from, and it curled into every crevice like mercury. Hongjun went a little more forward, crossing over that little creek, when he began to sense that things weren’t right. Under the light of the torch, his expression was wary. Just behind him, multiple black shadows appeared in the trees.
Hongjun turned, but just as he was about to go back, someone sprang violently towards him, slamming straight into his back!
Instantly, Hongjun pulled out his throwing knives, dropping to the ground in a roll. When he was rolling over the ground, he lifted a hand and loosed a throwing knife, sending it shooting straight into the armor on that black shadow, directly stabbing into the body!
But that black shadow was not afraid of the throwing knife at all, and with a strange cry, it once again rushed at him!
What was this?! Hongjun had yet to recollect himself when another strange being wearing armor pounced. Right after, from the tree above his head, another strange being wielding a weapon leapt down! Hongjun used his torch to block, and the torch fell to the ground, where it instantly extinguished itself in the snow.
With a weng, the Pentacolor Sacred Light sprang open, blocking the oncoming weapons all around. Borrowing that glazed light that looked as if it was an illusion, Hongjun suddenly saw the enemy clearly.
Those were soldiers wearing sets of strange, unique armor. The soldiers’ eyes were murky, and within their eyes, their pupils couldn’t be seen as the weapons in their hands swung downwards towards Hongjun!
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.