“Little peacock, you have not yet prepared yourself to accept the truth.”
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
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On the third level of the Mogao Caves, small flakes of snow fell from the sky. The ghost king’s cloak fluttered in the wind. Just as Hongjun lifted his head to look, a corpse ghost bodyguard arrived behind him.
“Little highness,” the guard said, “the ghost king requests your presence.”
“You can actually speak!” Hongjun exclaimed.
“We all can,” that bodyguard replied. “It is only that if there is no need, we do not speak in front of mortals. Now, if you please.”
Hongjun: “But why do you call me ‘highness’?”
The bodyguard didn’t respond, only politely leading Hongjun up into the tower, climbing up the stone staircases of the Mogao Caves. Hongjun took this chance to look down.
Mo Rigen was staring off into space on the second level, while Ashina Qiong went in and out, studying the mural high up on the walls of the Mogao Caves.
The Mogao Caves had over a thousand caves, and many painters gathered in small groups in the hallways of each level, listening to A-Tai playing the Barbat lute, the music drifting on the wind. A large number of Yumen soldiers were gathered in front of the nine story tower of the caves, and it was only now that Hongjun realized, there were actually this many people in the Mogao Caves! When they had arrived, he hadn’t seen them, but now they had all come out.
Human voices were raised in a hubbub, and it was very lively, as splendid and bustling as if it was a small-scale city.
Hongjun was originally worried that something would happen to the ghost king and his personal bodyguards when they got here, but instead he saw Li Jinglong standing in front of the nine-story tower, speaking with a soldier. He figured that Li Jinglong would be able to take care of it, so he no longer worried.
The corpse ghost bodyguard and Hongjun passed through the second level, passing by quite a few of the painted caverns. As soon as the painters outside the caverns saw the corpse ghost coming, they all pressed their hands together as if in prayer to greet him. Clearly, they had already seen the corpse ghosts before.
Hongjun turned his head to look at the painters, also saluting them in response. That bodyguard, however, only nodded once, before heading up another level, bringing him into the middle of the Mogao Caves, into one of the caverns.
One artist was currently creating a depiction of a Buddha. His skin was snow white, and He looked extremely gentle, His eyes shining with a merciful light. Behind Him was the scenery of His colorful clothes fluttering in the wind as He attained nirvana. That painter was a young fellow about the same age as Hongjun, and because it was in the bitter winter of the twelfth month, the fires in the caves were lit very brightly, so his upper half was bare. He only wore a pair of long, loose pants, and his feet were bare as he sat cross-legged up high on the wooden frame. His expression was filled with piety as he sketched out the arm of the Buddha, one single stroke at a time.
“Do you recognize Him?” the ghost king asked.
Hongjun shook his head, still astonished at that painter’s young age. There were thousands of people in Dunhuang, with either one to a cavern, or many people to a cavern, but within the caverns, whether it be statues, wooden or clay carvings, or murals, all were created with a multitude of colors. Their stately appearances caused their viewers to feel a sense of awe.
It was a sensation that shook the very depths of the soul, leaving Hongjun almost breathless as he stood in front of the Buddha. He felt extremely insignificant and tiny, but in some realm out there that existed amongst the infinite worlds, the gods and Buddhas in the heavens were examining his heart and soul with pity.
Upon seeing that guests had arrived, the painter put down his brush and pressed his palms together in greeting at Hongjun, temporarily taking his leave of the cavern.
“Mahāsthāmaprāpta,” the ghost king said. “He liberates all living things from violent deaths. The Mogao Caves are also known as the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’. After living a life devoid of any accomplishments, mortals will spend all of their wealth to hire these children as painters, sculpting out figures of buddhas and creating depictions of buddhas in the caverns to beg for release from their suffering. Every time we make our pilgrimage to the Mogao Caves, I often wonder if the buddhas are also protecting us yao tribes.”
Hongjun: “These painters seem to be unafraid of you, do they all know you?”
“They know us,” the ghost king said. “The people here call us ‘asuras’.”
The ghost king lowered his head, studying Hongjun, before saying, “You are like someone that I have met before, but forgive me, I have seen too many people in my life. My memories have long since become blurry, and I can no longer remember who it was.”
Hongjun untied the peacock plume, putting it in his hand, holding it out for the ghost king to see.
The two of them fell silent. The ghost king reached out his fingers, picking up the Jade Peacock Plume, murmuring, “The Pentacolor Sacred Light. You are Kong Xuan’s child. That day…”
At that, Hongjun jolted, and the ghost kings’ eyes turned to watch him.
“You’ve seen my dad before?”
The ghost king’s forehead furrowed, so Hongjun knew that the ghost king and Yaojin Palace had some deep connection. He said, gasping, “Ghost King, what kind of a person was my father?”
The ghost king turned and left the cavern. Hongjun followed right after, and the ghost king ascended the stairs, coming to the outside of the main hall in the Mogao Caves. The sun was setting in the west, sinking below the long, winding length of the Great Wall outside of Yumen Pass, as well as the vast Gobi Desert.
Hongjun’s heart was filled with urgency. He hadn’t asked his uncle Jia Zhou, only because in front of him, his father would have acted just like a mortal; he hadn’t asked Chong Ming or Qing Xiong either, only because their answer was long since clear beyond any doubt: you must go find out yourself.
However, in front of the ghost king, Hongjun felt that he was more like a friend of his father’s who had been separated from him for a long time.
The ghost king sat down at the top of the Mogao Caves, gesturing for Hongjun to sit as well. Hongjun, however, didn’t understand, and he stared fixedly at the ghost king.
“When you mentioned Chong Ming in passing on the way here,” the ghost king replied, “I dimly sensed that perhaps you really were a son of a past acquaintance that had come. Are your parents still well?”
“They’ve both passed away,” Hongjun replied. He knew that the ghost king had been asleep in his coffin all this time, so he was unaware of what had happened in the world. But since the Pentacolor Sacred Light was with him now, it signified that his father had long since passed.
As expected, the ghost king was not surprised. He only nodded his head and said, absentmindedly, “That day, when he came to Hexi to find me, we were sitting in this exact spot.”
In an instant, a strange feeling rose in Hongjun’s heart. But the ghost king continued onwards, as if he had the same thought, “Without knowing, when I woke, so many years had passed.”
“Back then… what did he come here to do?” Hongjun asked in response.
The ghost king thought deeply, studying Hongjun, before he replied, “He wanted to hand you over to me, so that Liu Fei and I could raise you.”
“I only have my one lonely grave,” the ghost king said, as if to himself. “Liu Fei, however, really liked you, but living in an ancient graveyard for long periods of time would always bring about a depression in a person’s spirits. Now that I think about it, we should be grateful that chance ensured you did not end up staying here.”
“To him, I was a burden,” Hongjun said quietly.
“No,” the ghost king immediately replied, sensing Hongjun’s dejection. “Why would you say so? When you were young, your constitution was special, and there were always yao tribes eyeing you with hostility. He needed to have his hands free to defeat Xie Yu, and he was afraid that it would be difficult to protect you and your mother’s wellbeing, so…”
Hongjun understood, and nodded gratefully.
Saying this, the ghost king reached out a hand and placed it on Hongjun’s shoulder.
“Chong Ming raised you very well,” the ghost king added, upon seeing that Hongjun was still a little disappointed. “Of course, if you had stayed by my side, I imagine you would be a little paler today.”
Hongjun was sad, but upon hearing those words, he began to smile.
The ghost king then said solemnly, “That year, he hid it from your mother that he left Yumen Pass to come visit me. For the White Deer to have held onto one hun and po, I imagine, is also something that was fated to be in your life…”
“What?!” It was only with this that Hongjun learned, back then the rebirth of the White Deer actually had some connection to his father!
“You didn’t know?” the ghost king asked mildly. “That year, after he visited me, he sensed Xie Yu trying to steal away the White Deer, so he intervened and interrupted Xie Yu’s spell.”
Hongjun couldn’t help the way his breathing quickened. No wonder he felt that every time Lu Xu faced him down, something was different.
After the ghost king listened to Hongjun’s description, he replied, “That is right. When the White Deer was on the verge of being reborn, I imagine that he must have seen your father with his spirit. Your visage also looks similar to your father’s, so he remembered it from then on.”
Hongjun sucked in a deep breath and nodded.
“Why…” he asked, his heart beginning to thump violently, “did the yao tribes always… come to find me?”
In his dream, his parents had always been moving to avoid an endless stream of intrusions. When he was small, he had also said, “In my body, there lives a yaoguai.”
The ghost king thought deeply for a moment, before replying, “I imagine, this question should be one you ask your adopted father. Perhaps he is the one who understands the most about this series of events.”
Hongjun had never thought that he would actually get such a response.
“Tell me, Ghost King… Uncle.” Hongjun began to grow nervous. “You must know, you have to know!”
The ghost king once again fell silent. Hongjun’s forehead was furrowed deeply as he watched him anxiously, while the ghost king shot him an inexplicable glance.
“They had you come down the mountain to find that young fellow with the Heart Lamp?” the ghost king asked suddenly.
Hongjun’s suspicions deepened, and he grabbed the ghost king’s arm, recalling the past. He told the ghost king everything as it had happened, from how Qing Xiong had him go down the mountain that day, the three things that he was to accomplish, and how he had handed the Heart Lamp to him.
“Then… I imagine, perhaps they were not planning to hide it from you,” the ghost king said solemnly. “So that is how it was…”
“Why exactly?!” Hongjun asked anxiously.
The ghost king only watched Hongjun silently. A moment later, he said, “Little peacock, you have not yet prepared yourself to accept the truth.”
Hongjun was almost begging him. “I only want to know what exactly happened to my body.”
The ghost king suddenly said, “If time turned backwards, and you were given the opportunity to choose, would you be willing to come into this world again?”
Hongjun had already lost all patience, and he said, “I don’t want to hear this any more! You all know everything, but why aren’t any of you telling me?!”
“Answer me,” the ghost king said earnestly. In his tone was a faint severity, just like how Chong Ming sounded every time he stood in front of Hongjun as he gave him a scolding.
“I…” Hongjun’s thoughts were as tangled as a skein of thread. Without knowing why, he began to remember the joy when everyone in the Exorcism Department gathered together.
“What I have right now is very good,” Hongjun replied.
“Then even if you were to die tomorrow, you would not regret it at all?” the ghost king asked. “This is very important, little peacock.”
Hongjun said impatiently, “What would I regret? I…”
The ghost king nodded and replied, “Since you have replied as such, then there is no harm in telling you. Eighteen years ago, you were born originally to replace your father in being taken.”
With that, the ghost king put his fingers up in a sword pose, pressing them to the center of his own brows, before slowly pulling them away. A warm blue light glowed from his fingers, before he lightly touched them to the center of Hongjun’s brow.
With a weng, Hongjun’s consciousness was instantly pulled into the ghost king’s memories.
Eighteen years ago.
Kong Xuan crossed his legs, sitting at the very top of the Mogao Caves, exactly where Hongjun was sitting. The sun was setting to the west, and little Hongjun’s back was pressed against his chest, his head tilted, as he sat there sleeping.
“From the start, Xie Yu has been searching for the seed of Mara,” Kong Xuan murmured. “I have used every method available to me, but there is no way to retrieve it from within Xing’er’s three hun and seven po.”
“Only by seeking mercy will you be given it,” the ghost king said solemnly. “Is that not exactly the advice that your two older brothers bestowed upon you?”
“I didn’t know,” Kong Xuan said, confusion in his gaze, his voice growing raspy, “that becoming a father would be such a happy thing…”
The ghost king: “The one to become Mara was originally supposed to be you.”
Kong Xuan: “Correct. Two hundred years from now, the one who was to become Mara should have originally been me.”
The golden light of the setting sun beamed towards the Mogao Caves, lighting up the hundreds of thousands of buddhas in the caverns, watching all living beings with their pity and compassion.
“To solve an issue, there must be someone to resolve it,” the ghost king said solemnly. “Not asking for help from your older brothers, and instead stumbling around in the human realm, what use is that?”
Kong Xuan sighed and replied, “Chong Ming and Qing Xiong only wanted me to find a random mortal woman in the human realm, teach her the Yin-Yang Life-Giving Spell, transfer the devil seed that will one day sprout into the Devil God into her, and mold it into a devil fetus. After that, they no longer cared.
“After all, in their eyes, only my life was the most important… as of today, perhaps they were also unable to predict that I would become so emotionally attached as to not be able to part with Yuze, and to not be able to sit by and watch Xing’er become corrupted, instead searching for a cure everywhere…”
The ghost king replied, “It is not that I am not willing to help you, Kong Xuan, but rather, even if your son turns into a corpse ghost, the devil seed will still not be destroyed. The only thing that can completely get rid of the devil seed is the incarnation of Acala, when the six weapons are united as one.”
“The Heart Lamp could work,” Kong Xuan sighed. “I must go find the Heart Lamp.”
“It cannot be done,” the ghost king said heavily. “For those who have been tainted by Mara, though the devil qi in their souls can be expelled by the Heart Lamp, what is in your child’s body is the seed of Mara. He is the conduit that will gather all of the devil qi in the world, the duty that you had already shouldered after the heavens were separated from the earth. He is the body of Mara, the inexorable doom of life and death intertwined…”
There was a sudden loud hong, and a white light flashed as the ghost king’s fingers left Hongjun’s forehead.
Hongjun felt as if he was in a dream, and he murmured, “All of that was real.”
“When your father was alive, he often blamed himself,” the ghost king said. “He regretted that he shouldn’t have made such a decision in a moment of weakness…”
“Why?” Hongjun asked, voice trembling. “Why?”
The ghost king replied, “There is resentment in the world, so there are devils. Through the passing of the years, when one falls, the other rises; if there is an overabundance of devil energy, it will always end up being purified in the end. The devil seed within the body of Mahamayuri is exactly the seed that sucks in this devil qi. After he is corrupted, ancient Dipankara will use the Heart Lamp to light up the world, and Acalanatha will gather the power of the Six Weapons to rid the world of Mara. Kong Xuan would then enter the cycles of reincarnation again, be reborn, and continue on in this endless cycle.”
The ghost king said solemnly, “Now, answer my question once more, little peacock.”
“If, in your life, you were destined to die, would you still regret having come to this world and taken such a journey?”
Hongjun rose, horror appearing in his gaze.
“Everything will die eventually,” the ghost king continued. “Now, I imagine you understand your adoptive father’s words.”
Hongjun’s consciousness grew blurry. He slowly walked down the stairs, turned, and stumbled as he walked along that corridor towards the end of the Mogao Caves. His heart flashed with thunder and lightning, with wild winds and fierce blizzards, but his expression was serene beyond compare.
The light of the setting sun entered these Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, and within every cavern that he passed by, the multitude of buddhas and gods bore composed expressions, quietly watching his silhouette. And in this multitude of worlds, he was but a mere lone passing traveler, not knowing where he came from or where he was going.
At twilight, Li Jinglong hurried out of the nine-story tower. A-Tai whistled down at him, asking, “Where are you going?”
Li Jinglong didn’t reply. The sun was close to the western horizon, and in the distance, a group of riders were heading this way. When they got close, they dismounted and greeted Li Jinglong, saying, “The general said that the matter of defending Yumen Pass is very important, so he didn’t dare to leave his post. He ordered us subordinates to bring some food and wine here.”
Li Jinglong replied, “Thanks for your hard work, bring it all in ba.”
With that, the guards brought the supplies into the nine-story tower. Li Jinglong directed his reply to the area above his head. “It’s almost the new year, and we’re going to spend it here, so there’s no need for extra fuss.”
It was only then that A-Tai remembered, there were only three more days until the end of the year. Ashina Qiong remarked, “I never thought that this year, I would actually be here, celebrating you Han people’s New Year.”
Li Jinglong replied, “The most regrettable thing is that Yongsi hasn’t come, otherwise everyone would be gathered here. Mo Rigen! Come down and help out!”
Mo Rigen was still staring off into space on the third level, and upon hearing these words, he glanced down and let out a sigh.
Before night fell, Li Jinglong had already stowed the supplies away and handed some monetary rewards to the guards. Along the way, the guards asked to see their young lord nephew, but because Hongjun and the ghost king were together, Li Jinglong sent the guards back first, promising that not long after, they would return to Yumen Pass to show them that they were all well.
Li Jinglong ran up and down, searching for Hongjun everywhere, only to see that in the cavern where Lu Xu was sound asleep, Mo Rigen was standing there like a wooden pillar.
“Zhangshi,” Mo Rigen said, “let’s have a chat. Look at the situation we’re in, and yet you’re still in the mood to celebrate the new year?”
Li Jinglong replied, “There will be a way.”
“Then tell me about it!” Mo Rigen replied, anxious.
Li Jinglong fell silent, merely standing shoulder to shoulder with Mo Rigen, watching the heights of the Mogao Caves. The moon rose, and the dunes were covered with a snowy white.
“What can I do?!” Li Jinglong said quietly, glancing into that cavern, where Lu Xu was still sleeping soundly under the mural. “How about you teach me?”
Mo Rigen said, “The Grey Wolf and the White Deer are destined to be a pair.”
“That’s right,” Li Jinglong said, slapping the railing. “How about you give it a go?”
“Ay, if I could interrupt, have you two ever asked for Hongjun’s thoughts on this?” A-Tai called, sticking his head out to talk to Li Jinglong from the layer below.
The carp yao pursed its lips. “What is there to ask? No need to ask, Zhangshi, you’re acting like you’re a pair that even the heavens meant to be!”
Ashina Qiong said, “I, however, don’t understand. In your eyes, do emotions come when you ask for them to? That’s not right. The one surnamed Li, you’re this confident in yourself? How about you let me teach you a few tricks?”
“That wasn’t what I said!” Li Jinglong said, irritated.
Mo Rigen angrily added, “Hey, Tujue, you want to fight, is that right?”
Li Jinglong pointed to one side, indicating that Mo Rigen go with him into the corner to speak, pushing him over there.
Mo Rigen said, “Come, what plan do you have this time? Don’t you always come up with a plan and let the rest of us feel calm? What you’ve promised, you will always accomplish, isn’t that right?”
Li Jinglong said, “The art of changing faces, you know about that right? Or you can ask the ghost king, or the yaoguai, if there are any spells that can make you turn into my form, and I turn into you…”
Mo Rigen demanded, “But is there a difference this way?! Even if you were to change into me to go court him, wouldn’t the outcome be the same in the end?!”
When Li Jinglong thought about it, that was true, and he asked, “How about you go at the end? I’ll stand to one side…”
Mo Rigen replied, “What difference is there then if you just stood to the side for the entire time, and at the very end helped out with your Heart Lamp?”
“This is only one possibility!” Li Jinglong said earnestly. “Can’t we try it?”
Mo Rigen didn’t want to answer.
Since one of Li Jinglong’s tactics failed, he tried another. He thought for a bit, before saying, “Then how about let’s go ask around and see if we can switch our souls? If we put my hunpo into your body…”
Mo Rigen replied, “Zhangshi, is there a difference here?”
“What I mean,” Li Jinglong tried to explain the best he could, “is that you will still be you; it’s just that my hunpo will temporarily reside in your body for a little bit.”
Mo Rigen suddenly remembered that having a pair of souls live in one body seemed to be doable, but how were they to go about accomplishing this?
“Is the Heart Lamp in your hunpo, or in your meridians?” Mo Rigen asked.
Li Jinglong immediately remembered, and he took his previous suggestion back. “It’s in my meridians, no, this won’t work!”
Mo Rigen: “...”
Ashina Qiong sent them a questioning glance, before shrugging his shoulders at A-Tai and spreading his arms.
A-Tai smiled. “It must be that Zhangshi has gotten used to being able to show off, which gave him such confidence ba?”
But Ashina Qiong nudged A-Tai, indicating that he look.
Under the moonlight, Hongjun came over, dragging his feet. He sighed, as if he was extremely exhausted, and he glanced to his left and right.
Ashina Qiong smiled. “Hongjun?”
But Hongjun didn’t respond, instead heading into one of the caverns.
Lu Xu laid quietly in front of the mural. The ghost king’s personal guard had lit a total of seven lamps and placed them on the ground by his head, his shoulders, and around his abdomen.
“What magic is this?” Hongjun asked.
The bodyguard replied, “Your Highness, these are the Lamps of the Seven Stars to calm his soul.”
Hongjun nodded. He suddenly remembered that the Plague God and Xuannü had not yet been taken care of, and no one knew where they were currently hiding, or if they were planning to come back after their initial defeat. But since the ghost king was awake, and he was not afraid of the plague nor the cold, and was not trapped in dreams any longer, he imagined that these two yaoguai would not be so foolish as to offend him once more.
He leaned his back against the mural, sitting down beside Lu Xu. Reaching out, he placed his hand on Lu Xu’s forehead.
Back then, his father had originally wanted to save his own son’s life, but had never expected that due to a series of coincidences, had ended up saving Lu Xu instead. Without knowing why, Hongjun began to wish for Lu Xu to wake so that he could send Hongjun back into his dreams, so that he could see his father and mother and say a few words to them, no matter if the scenes within the dream were only his own memories.
When he made that decision, did he also regret it?
Did his mother know about all that had transpired behind the scenes?
Though it could be said that this had all long since passed, and there was not much meaning in revisiting them, Hongjun still held onto those thoughts, because he wanted to know every detail of what had happened in the past. His past was a complete fog, and his future also seemed like a dead end. When would he take his father’s place and become Mara, at the same time slaughtering the Acalanātha that wanted to kill him, and where would that take place?
The ghost king’s words caused him to sink into confusion, as if his existence on this earth had long since lost much of its meaning. His value was no more than to be a sacrificial offering for this vast world.
“Lu Xu,” Hongjun said quietly, “My dad is a good person, isn’t that right?”
Lu Xu laid there quietly, mired in his dreams as he always had been.
Hongjun smiled bitterly. “He saved your life, but he left the cruellest thing to me.”
He turned his head and looked towards Lu Xu. At this point, he didn’t know who he should tell this to, but he unconsciously knew that when Lu Xu pulled him into dreams, he must have seen everything that happened in his memories, including his past and his background.
Lu Xu’s eyelashes moved faintly. Hongjun furrowed his brows and approached him, observing him carefully.
Lu Xu opened his eyes, answering Hongjun. “Your destiny is far crueler than what lies before you.”
Suddenly, Lu Xu grabbed Hongjun’s arm and tugged fiercely. Hongjun cried out, “Let go!”
A plume of black qi suddenly rose, enveloping the two of them. Hongjun forcefully pushed Lu Xu away, shouting, “Your antlers have already broken off! You have no more magic to use!”
Just then, Lu Xu let out a cold chuckle, and he said in a hoarse voice, “I still have hunpo.” Right after, the black qi suddenly exploded out, coiling towards Hongjun incessantly from its origin in Lu Xu’s body. Hongjun immediately felt a great pain in his heart, and when he lowered his head, he saw that the black qi from Lu Xu’s body was actually connected to his own chest. Then, the black qi exploded, blanketing the entirety of the cavern!
At the same time, Li Jinglong gripped Mo Rigen’s collar, scuffling with him. Li Jinglong roared, “Mo Rigen!”
Suddenly, Mo Rigen let go, and the two of them instantly turned their heads to look towards that cavern not far in the distance.
Billowing black qi burst out of the cavern, and the ghost king, his bodyguards, A-Tai, and Ashina Qiong froze at once.
“Hongjun went inside!” Ashina Qiong shouted.
The black qi was accompanied by a terrible hoarse cry, and it rushed out from within the cavern, spewing outwards!
Li Jinglong and Mo Rigen raced forward at almost the same time, speeding towards the entrance to the cavern. However, in the blink of an eye, the endless flood of black qi spewing out of the cavern entrance suddenly drew back!
“Lu Xu!” Mo Rigen roared.
Li Jinglong: “Hongjun!”
In the cavern, Lu Xu and Hongjun laid side by side, while that black qi retreated rapidly, funneling nonstop into the mural on the wall. Instantly, it was sucked into the mural, and with a flash of light, all of it disappeared.
Li Jinglong: “...”
Mo Rigen: “...”
moon: if you thought the amount of Buddhist imagery was a lot this week, prepare yourselves for what is coming
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.