"The Grey Wolf twitched its nose as it smelled a powerful odor on the wind."
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
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“Your audacity knows no bounds!” Geshu Han roared angrily.
This was the first time that the sixty-three year old Geshu Han had seen such a sight -- it was the first time that someone had made up such an absurd story, and it was the first time that someone had put their neck on the line to vouch for it, and then when he had lost in the end, he even didn’t want to admit his loss!
“Capture him!” Geshu Han roared. “Send him to the execution grounds!”
Li Jinglong and Hongjun had already rushed out of the front hall of the government office, and without orienting themselves, they ran towards the backyard. The carp yao was currently hibernating on Hongjun’s back, but at that, it was startled awake, shouting, “Hey! What are you guys doing?! How come you’ve started fighting all of a sudden?! Where is this?”
“The Lihun Pollen!” Hongjun said, an idea coming to him in his desperation.
“You’re hugging me too tightly!” The carp yao was afraid of the cold, so Hongjun had wrapped it up like he was swaddling it. Now, the carp yao was like an infant, unable to even pull its hands out.
Li Jinglong roared, “I don’t have any spare hands for that!”
Geshu Han was protected in the very middle, completely unable to get closer. A large number of soldiers carrying strong crossbows rushed out of the government office, and the scene fell into chaos. Li Jinglong, dizzy, disoriented, and still sniffling, knew that their arrows were specially made for cavalry, and those bolts could even pierce through horses. If they were hit by one of those, that would be no joke.
“Let’s leave quickly!” Li Jinglong shouted.
Hongjun flicked open the Pentacolor Sacred Light, which blocked the arrows in front of them. The soldiers, upon seeing one of their own, took mercy on them and only aimed for their legs and feet. Li Jinglong rushed to the wall, and then he crouched down, shouting, “Jump!”
With one step, Hongjun stepped on Li Jinglong’s back, leaping up onto the tall wall surrounding the government office, before turning around and revolving his hands around each other. The Pentacolor Sacred Light twisted, and the arrow bolts diverged in all directions. The soldiers let out surprised shouts. Zhang Hao ran out swiftly, shouting, “Li Jinglong! Don’t run! If you have anything to say, we can talk it over in a civilized manner!”
But Li Jinglong took advantage of this opportunity to jump onto the wall, and he and Hongjun leapt away from the government office.
Hongjun said, “What if we catch the general and use him as a hostage…”
Li Jinglong: “You think you can?!”
Hongjun: “Why’d you say that you would put your neck on the line as a guarantee…”
“How was I supposed to know!” Li Jinglong bewailed. “Normally, don’t we all say that casually? Who knew that he would take it seriously?!”
Just as the two of them had a chance to catch their breath, their pursuers rushed over. Li Jinglong shouted, “Run towards an area with a lot of people --!”
Lidong had just fallen over Liangzhou City, and the markets clamored with human voices. The two of them rushed out of the little alley, but just as Hongjun was about to duck into the midst of the market, Li Jingong grabbed him and said, “Wait!” He turned his head back, only to see the pursuing guards slowing, each putting away their bows, afraid of harming the citizens. Only then did Li Jinglong say, “Let’s go!”
“What splitting up!” Li Jinglong pushed Hongjun forward as they ducked into the crowd. The soldiers all dismounted from their horses to search. With the increasing number of people, Li Jinglong wove through the crowd, and he and Hongjun were able to throw off their pursuers. After a while, the two of them ducked into an alleyway to catch their breath. Li Jinglong was still sneezing.
“What should we do now?” Standing guard near the entrance of the alleyway, Hongjun peeked his head out.
One of the carp yao’s hands was wrapped in the bundle, and its other hand flapped around outside as it said, “I can’t get to the Lihun Pollen, Hongjun, loosen me up a little.”
“Use it sparingly,” Li Jinglong said. “After it’s gone, we have nowhere to get any more.”
The sounds of hoofbeats passed by. Outside, they heard Zhang Hao’s voice saying, “You guys search all of the alleyways.”
Hongjun jolted. The patrolling soldiers were heading towards them, and the alleyway behind them was a dead end. They would have to flip over a wall to escape, but suddenly, a door opened in the alley.
“You two, please come with me,” a girl’s voice said.
Li Jinglong swiftly turned his head, only to see a mixed-blood Hu girl with a high nose-bridge and deep-set eyes. As Hongjun wavered, Li Jinglong already made his decision, and they ducked into the gateway.
That Hu girl brought them through the backyard of a family’s residence, before circling around and exiting through the front. At this time, Hus and Hans lived together in Liangzhou Prefecture. The Semu people and the Uyghurs had built their own residences many years ago, but the Hu and Han people’s houses were scattered all around, which was very unique. The Han people primarily lived in houses built of wood, bricks, and tile, while the Hu people lived in houses built of white stone, rammed earth, and poplar. The criss-crossing small paths that ran between the houses were extremely complicated, and after taking a few turns, they had completely thrown off the guards pursuing them.
The Hu girl brought them through an alley of the market. That alley was the slum of Liangzhou Prefecture. Though the weather was bitingly cold, quite a few people were still doing business here.
“Hey! Are you selling that fish!” an Uyghur person patted Hongjun’s shoulder, asking him in the Han language.
“I’m not!” the carp yao rejected him indignantly.
The Uyghur person saw a fish suddenly open its mouth to speak and, in great fright, he fell to the ground. The Hu girl said impatiently, “Don’t cause trouble!”
The Hu girl acted very tough, and for a while, no one dared to raise a fuss in the small alley. As they were walking along, she also squatted down to buy some vegetables. Li Jinglong and Hongjun bore expressions of doubt, but they didn’t dare to voice their questions. They passed through numerous other streets before finally coming to a stop in front of a civilian residence.
The Hu girl said, “Come in and have some tea ba.” And with that, she pushed the door open and went in.
This was a calm and quiet residence. There was a stone mill in the front yard, and this family kept a mule. When they entered the front hall, they saw that the decorations were simple and old-fashioned; there was a black set of ancient armor from the Han times on either side of the hall. When the Hu girl went in, she shouted, “Dad! Mom, I’ve brought them back!”
Hongjun looked around the courtyard. There were two government official’s robes that had been washed until they were faded white hanging under the sun to dry, and an Uyghur woman was currently patching up a long dress. When she heard the call, she hurriedly raised her head and welcomed Li Jinglong and Hongjun in, and then another person came out of the hall. He had changed out of his official’s robe and was wrapped in a cotton-padded jacket - it was Qin Liang!
“Today, Li-zhangshi,” Qin Liang chuckled, “you’ve caused quite a commotion.”
While Hongjun was still caught up in his surprise, Li Jinglong thought it through and understood. He hurried to greet him and thank Qin Liang for lending them a helping hand, but Qin Liang waved his hand and hurried to assure him that it was no issue, before showing the two of them into the hall.
“This matter is a complicated one,” Qin Liang said, his worries weighing heavily on him. “With the general having such first impressions, the brothers of Liangzhou City are to blame. Zhangshi, please don’t take it to heart.”
“You believe me?” Upon hearing his words, Li Jinglong was very taken aback.
Qin Liang’s expression darkened, and he nodded slightly, responding, “Twelve years ago, I saw the yaoguai that you guys spoke of in Shazhou. They’re called ‘corpse ghosts’.”
The snow had passed, and the sky cleared as Mo Rigen spurred his horse onwards, racing over the desolate plains, with Lu Xu hanging on behind. The Shiwei people were well-versed in traversing through Saiwai, and along the way, Mo Rigen had traveled along the mountains and valleys away from the wind, moving and stopping. As soon as the sky changed, he would seek shelter either in a small town or a mountain cave to ward off the chill. Once in a while, he would hunt some prey and roast it over the fire, and at night, he could even find hot springs to go wash off the weariness of the day with Lu Xu. Traveling like this, it seemed more like they were going on a sightseeing vacation.
“Where should we go now?” Mo Rigen reined his horse to a stop on high ground as he asked Lu Xu.
Lu Xu stood on the edge of a cliff, looking into the distance. A thread of confusion appeared in his gaze, and Mo Rigen continued, “How about that way?” Lu Xu then looked towards the white, snow-capped peaks of the south-eastern edge of the Qilian Mountains in the distance, narrowing his eyes, thinking it through and hesitating.
Lu Xu spoke very rarely, but Mo Rigen could already figure out what the correct direction was from his gaze alone. Along the journey, Lu Xu seemed to have a constant air of unease about him, as if he was willing to take Mo Rigen to the place, but was also afraid that they would run into what terrified him. But, with Mo Rigen incessantly leading them deeper into the Hexi region, this terror was steadily retreating, turning into faith in Mo Rigen instead. After all, Mo Rigen was very powerful and strong. With well-practiced ease, he ventured into places so desolate that there was no sign of human habitation at all, easily finding his way again. No matter what wild beasts there were, they never dared to attack them either.
In the beginning, Lu Xu still wavered a little, but after seeing Mo Rigen shoot a bear to death and send a tiger flying with an over-the-shoulder throw, he began to view him in an admiring light.
From Lu Xu’s expression, Mo Rigen figured that their destination was already close. He circled down the mountain path and shook the reins, indicating that Lu Xu get on, but Lu Xu didn’t move at all, staring straight at him.
“Let’s go, don’t be afraid,” Mo Rigen said, taking off his mask and earnestly looking at Lu Xu. “I’m here.”
Lu Xu hesitated for a split second before flipping onto the horse. With a wave of the whip, Mo Rigen shouted, “Jia --!” and with Lu Xu in tow, they galloped towards the foot of the Qilian Mountains. At twilight, the clear sky stretched vast above them, and the white clouds floated by. In the distance appeared a ruined village.
Mo Rigen was very surprised. He tied the horse up in front of the village, but Lu Xu scrambled off, letting out a heart-rending loud cry as he charged right in.
Mo Rigen: “...”
With this, Mo Rigen finally understood. After Lu Xu delivered the letter, his only goal was to get home. The village was filled with bodies, as if it had been pillaged, and there were no more living humans left here. That house that Lu Xu had forced his way into had a Shiwei cow head hanging at the door, and outside the door hung a peacock-green long dress of a Tibetan woman, still fluttering in the breeze.
In these snowy mountains, the bloodstains in the village had already been buried under the endless white snow. The village was very silent, and outside, sutra streamers fluttered in the wind as a smear of a dim moon hung on the horizon, accompanying Lu Xu’s wild sobs.
Mo Rigen pushed the door open and entered, only to see Lu Xu hugging a dead woman, crying loudly, while flies buzzed through the house. Lu Xu’s face was streaked with tears and snot as he cried. As Mo Rigen pulled him up, pulling him into his arms with one easy motion, Lu Xu couldn’t stop shivering.
“You guessed it a long time ago, right,” Mo Rigen said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
He finally understood that fearful expression Lu Xu wore, yet his inability to not come here -- he was afraid for his village and his parents, but all of this was within his expectations.
What exactly had happened here?
Mo Rigen covered Lu Xu’s eyes, bringing him out of the house, before picking up a shovel and stuffing it in his hand. He had him dig a pit as Mo Rigen said, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.”
As he cried, Lu Xu dug that pit. Mo Rigen knew that if a person was grieving, as long as he let him do some work, that pain would slowly lessen. He himself went back inside to inspect Lu Xu’s mother’s corpse.
Only to see that Lu Xu’s mother’s left hand clutched a dagger, while her right hand was clenched tightly.
He gently pried open Lu Xu’s mother’s hand to see a shard of metal armor.
Mo Rigen held that metal piece, bringing it to his nose to sniff it. A look of suspicion crossed his face as he quickly strode out, inspecting the corpses of the other villagers that had died unnaturally. Most of the deceased had eyes that were wide open, and their chests bore wounds that had killed them with one blow. The deceased were all elderly, women, or children, but there were no adult men amongst them.
“Your dad might still be alive!” With quick steps, Mo Rigen walked out of the house, saying to Lu Xu, “There are no corpses of adult men here!”
Lu Xu’s face shifted into an expression of doubt as he put down the shovel he was using to dig that pit. Mo Rigen pondered for a moment before striding onto a vantage point on high ground, and he lifted his head to sniff in the oncoming wind.
Right after, under the light of this sun, hairs sprouted rapidly out of Mo Rigen’s face, and his entire body shone with a bright light. He bent over, one hand pressed against the ground, as his body expanded into a huge, grey-colored wolf that let out a roar!
Lu Xu was instantly frightened out of his wits. He took a half step back, but the Grey Wolf leapt down from its spot, lowering its head to sniff at something in the snow.
“I will return shortly.” The Grey Wolf spoke with Mo Rigen’s voice, though it had grown deeper and huskier. It turned its head back to glance at Lu Xu, saying, “You stay here, be careful.”
The Grey Wolf ran a few steps forward, but Lu Xu let out an “ay” and followed.
The Grey Wolf had just exited the village when Lu Xu came chasing after, and the Grey Wolf turned its head back and said, “Go back!”
But Lu Xu continued to stubbornly race after him over that snowy ground. His running speed was extremely fast. He was as fast as the wind, even able to catch up to the Grey Wolf. In no time at all, the Grey Wolf could only stop and say, at a loss, “I’m going to chase down the killers!”
In his left hand, Lu Xu held a dagger that he had obtained from who knows where, and in his right, he held that shovel. Looking directly at the Grey Wolf, he said, “Li Mingxing, Li Mingxing!”
The Grey Wolf curled its lip back, revealing its sharp canines as it said quietly, “Go back to the village, I will return.”
Lu Xu stubbornly approached the Grey Wolf, and in the end the Grey Wolf had no other choice. It said, “Oh well, climb on ba.” And with that, it bent its body slightly to let Lu Xu clamber on top.
“You are the second person to have ridden me.” The Grey Wolf lifted its head, distinguishing between the scents floating in the air before beginning to speed forward.
Lu Xu didn’t dare to hold onto the Grey Wolf’s ears, so he could only lie down, tightly hugging its neck, pressed flat against its back. For a while, the wind gusted in his ears as the Grey Wolf sped along under the twilight, before they came to a barren plain. The snow had already almost all melted, and a golden yellow setting sun hung on the horizon, lighting the vast land.
It raised its head, sniffing to the left and the right, as if it had lost its way. It then took a deep breath, before suddenly letting out an earth-shaking howl. That wolf howl resounded amongst the mountain range, creating an echo. It sounded as if packs of wolves in the mountains were answering, one after the other.
Not long after, on the desolate plains, the wolfpacks raced towards the Grey Wolf, condensing into a group of thousands that were packed on the ground. When they came in front of the Grey Wolf, all of them lowered their heads and pressed their bodies close to the ground.
The Grey Wolf straightened up a little. Lu Xu hurried to grab its neck tightly to prevent himself from slipping, his eyes flicking anxiously around as he appraised the wolfpack gathering around them.
The Grey Wolf tossed its head, spitting out a metal shard of armor it was holding between its canines with a pu, which clattered onto a rock with a light sound. The alpha of the region first went up front to sniff at it, before turning its head and sprinting away. With that, the rest of the wolfpack rushed up like the tides, six to a wave as they came forward to sniff at the metal armor shard, before running away in every direction. Their surroundings returned to how they had been before as, in an instant, the wolfpack retreated completely, dispersing across the plains at the foot of the Qilian Mountains.
“Pick it up,” the Grey Wolf said. “You hold onto it.”
Lu Xu stowed away that metal armor piece. The Grey Wolf then, with Lu Xu still riding on it, rushed towards the skyline in the west, where a fiery red sphere was sinking below the horizon. After a while, the wolfpack once again gathered together, and almost two hundred wolves chased after the Grey Wolf, racing across the desolate plains in great numbers.
In the distance, the wolves howled one after another. The Grey Wolf crossed a creek, rushed up to a precipice, and slid down a steep, snowy slope as the sun set and the moon rose. The moonlight grew brighter and brighter, lighting up the land with its silver glow. The wolf packs scattered along the ridges of the mountains as they howled again and again. The Grey Wolf twitched its nose as it smelled a powerful odor on the wind --
-- The stink of corpses.
In Liangzhou City, a fierce wind began to blow as the sky darkened. Qin Liang’s wife entered the room and lit the lamps.
“... That year I held a position as registrar of the Shazhou field officials. My superior was Master Jia’s youngest son, Jia Songwen. He held the position of the field commander in charge of patrols, and I was his right hand. We trained our men, then headed north amidst a sandstorm…”
Twelve years ago, Qin Liang was no more than twenty three, and he and his commander had trained their troops for more than three months. The almost two hundred people were originally slated to pass through Yadan, heading towards Minsha County, but a sandstorm sprung up that very night, enveloping six cities in the border territories. There was still one more day’s journey to Minsha County, and the group lost their way in Yadan, heading further and further away from their destination.
Dust billowed across the Gobi Desert. The group, still trapped in the sandstorm, had no access to drinking water, and their horses fell one by one. Even when they killed the horses, they didn’t let out that much blood. Jia Songwen and Qin Liang dragged their tired bodies along, and the soldiers carried stretchers as they trekked across the Gobi on foot.
After three days and three nights, the group had no way to continue onwards, and they collapsed under the shadow of a dune. Just as Qin Liang was on the verge of losing consciousness, a tall, sturdy man wearing a set of Han armor, leading hundreds of soldiers, appeared in front of him.
Li Jinglong: “...”
Hongjun asked, shaken, “Those were the people that we met by the Great Wall?”
Qin Liang nodded and replied, “I’m not certain, but among his subordinates, some of them wore Han armor, some wore Wei armor, some of them even wore the armor of the Northern Dynasty. What’s more, there were some wearing the armor of the Semu people. At first glance, they seemed like a ragged troop.”
At that time, Qin Liang was already on his last breaths as the leader lifted him up, walking with him for a whole shichen amongst the yadans. Finally, he tossed him into a creek.
“I originally thought they were Uyghurs who had entered the pass to pillage, but they didn’t seem like that,” Qin Liang said absent-mindedly. “Back then, my brothers were already unconscious from the intense sun. Just as I was afraid that they would take me captive and force Yumen Pass to surrender, their leader took off his helmet and untied the cloth covering his face.”
Li Jinglong and Hongjun both pondered deeply, not saying anything. Qin Liang was still sunk in his own memories as he continued absently, “His visage… I still remember it, after twelve years. Those eyes were white, and his skin… was a mottled grey. He was a corpse -- a corpse from Han times.”
Hongjun let out an “ah”, while Li Jinglong asked, “An ancient corpse from Han times? With eight or nine hundred years of time since then, how was he able to survive until now?”
Qin Liang shook his head and said, “I don’t know, but that commander told me that they are called the ‘Corpse ghosts that fell in battle’. He’s surnamed Liu; he’s of the Han royal line, and he is also the king of the ghosts.”
Cold wind gusted into the room, and the lamps flickered between light and dark. Hongjun suddenly felt a chill down his back.
Qin Liang continued, “They moved to Saiwai, and now and then they appear on the Silk Road. Other times, they pass through Yadan and venture into the Hexi Corridor.”
“Why?” Li Jinglong asked.
Qin Liang replied, “Every year, they’ll enter Yumen Pass at least once to find soldiers who clung firmly to their duties and died gloriously in battle, turning them into corpse ghosts to strengthen the group of ghost soldiers under their command. In the end, they complete their pilgrimage in Dunhuang, before leaving the way they came.”
Hongjun pointed out curiously, “Since he was willing to lend a hand and save you, he must not be some evil yaoguai.”
“It can be said like that,” Qin Liang replied. “My guess is that this Ghost King must have some legends surrounding him. Though he did save me off-handedly, he really is the savior of my life.”
Li Jinglong and Hongjun exchanged a glance, the doubt in their hearts growing even stronger.
moon: lu xu ;w;
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.