The First Arc: Blood Rain Reaching Towards a Flower
Chapter 15: Clothes Redder Than Maple, Skin as White as Snow
The crowd of white-clothed people had no heads atop their necks, wearing only prison garments as each one of them carried a single skull. They seemed to be a group of beheaded convicts, slowly making their way towards the ox cart while the heads within the crooks of their arms chattered ceaselessly.
Xie Lian lowered his voice and said to the other two, “In a moment, when they come close, do not make any noise.”
San Lang tilted his head to the side and asked, “It would seem that gege1, you are a person of extraordinary talent and a master of strange things.”
With him sounding so intrigued, Xie Lian replied, “I wouldn’t say a person of extraordinary talent and master of strange things. I only know a bit. They can’t see us right now, but in a moment when they get closer, it’ll be harder to say.”
Upon seeing the white silk shoot through the air on its own, the old cart driver was dumbstruck. In addition with how he was seeing headless people on top of that, he was about to keel over with fright. He shook his head with great alarm, “No, no, no, I can’t! I won’t be able to keep silent! Dao Zhang2, what do I do?!”
“……..” Xie Lian replied, “Well, there is another way. Forgive me.” Having said that, he swiftly tapped3 the man on the back. The old man immediately collapsed on the cart, knocked out. Xie Lian gently caught and arranged him into a sleeping position, then sat down onto the driver’s seat himself.
Suddenly, he felt movement behind him. Turning his head around to look, Xie Lian saw that the young man had followed suit and had sat down behind him as well, so he asked, “Are you alright?”
San Lang propped up his chin with a hand. “Of course not. I’m scared.”
Even though there wasn’t even half an ounce of fear in his voice, Xie Lian still comforted him, “There’s no need to be scared. If you stay behind me, there will be nothing that can hurt you.”
The teen smiled, and kept silent. Xie Lian suddenly noticed that he was staring at him. More specifically, he was staring at the cursed collar on his neck.
This cursed collar appeared as a black necklace around his neck. It was almost impossible to hide and would easily induce others into making bad assumptions regarding it. Xie Lian gently tugged at his collar even though it wouldn’t hide anything.
With the darkening sky, he couldn’t see the young man’s expression anymore. Xie Lian took up the reins and tried to quietly urge the ox forward. The crowd of ghosts dressed in prisoner’s clothes approached, wanting to pass, before they realized that there was something in the middle of the road blocking their way.
“That’s strange! Why can’t we pass?”
“For real?! It’s blocked? What the hell! Is this the work of some ghost?!”
“F*ck, aren’t we the ghosts ourselves? So how does that work?”
Xie Lian finally got the ox to move, and had just pushed passed these headless ghost convicts. He found it all rather funny as he listened to them bickering while holding their heads. The crowd of ghosts still had much to complain about.
“Hey, aren’t you mistaken? Why does it feel like the one holding your head is my body?”
“Must be your body that grabbed the wrong head!”
“Guys, hurry up and switch back….”
“Why is the cut wound for your head so ragged?”
Sighing, the ghost said, “Hah~ My executioner was a newbie. It took them five or six attempts to chop off my head. I was even starting to suspect they were doing it on purpose.”
“Your family didn’t offer them money, right? Next time, remember to bribe them beforehand for a quick and clean chop!”
“Next time my ass!”
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month4, the Ghost Festival, was the ghost realm’s largest and most celebrated holiday. On this day, the gates of the ghost realm would open, allowing the ghosts who usually lurked in the shadows to freely surge forth and celebrate unrestrained. The living should retreat, especially on this night, and the best course of action would be to firmly shut one’s door and stay put at home. If one did come out, the chances of encountering something unpleasant would be much higher than usual.
Xie Lian, a person dogged by misfortune, was someone who would even run head on into ghosts while wearing his Taoist robes5; in fact, this had just happened. Their surroundings were full of floating green ghost fire, along with a host of deceased spirits chasing after the wavering flames. Some dressed in their burial clothes were expressionlessly murmuring to themselves, all kneeling in front of a circle as they reached out to receive the paper money, silver and gold ingots their descendants had burned for them.
This scene could be described as a riotous revelry of the dead. Xie Lian weaved through the middle, thinking that from today onwards, he must remember to check the calendar before traveling, when a shrill sound similar to that of a dying chicken cried out.
“This is bad! This is bad! Ghosts are getting murdered!”
The warning sent the crowd of ghosts into a frenzy. “Where? Where? Where’s the murder?”
The ghost who had first cried out said, “It scared me to death! I was over there when I discovered many scattered ghost fires; they were all brutally shredded! It’s so cruel!”
“All shredded? This is dismemberment! Absolutely atrocious!”
“Who did it? It can’t be that….there are enchantment masters6 or monks hidden amongst us?!”
The headless convicts from before also shouted, “Ah! Now that you mention it, earlier on the road, there was also something blocking us so that we couldn’t pass. It couldn’t have been…..”
“Right over there!”
Xie Lian internally yelled ‘this isn’t good’. In a flash, a swarm of ghosts and ghouls encircled the ox cart, each one revealing their fierce faces, full of malicious intent. “I smell the heated scents of yang7 energy……”
They couldn’t hide anymore!
During the ghost festival, it would be considered unreasonable on the mortal’s front for a living mortal to bump into the dead8. Xie Lian had no intention of starting a fight with all of these ghosts, so he could only hurry the cart along. “Go!”
The ox was already incredibly spooked. It shifted uneasily in its place while pawing at the ground with its hoof, so upon hearing his command, it impatiently bolted off. Xie Lian didn’t forget to grab ahold of the teen behind him. “Hold on!”
Recovering Ruoye while conveniently beating open an escape path, they charged out of the encirclement, illuminated by the ring of ghost fire. The ghost missing an arm and a leg was enraged and shrieked, “There really was a Dao Shi9!!! This damned Dao Shi must be too impatient to die!!!”
“Since the living dare come disturb our Ghost Festival, then they can’t blame us if anything happens!”
Xie Lian grabbed the reins with one hand and used the other to pull out a handful of talismans. Throwing them towards the ground, he shouted, “Hinder!”
What aided in their escape was the ‘Hinder Talisman’. A series of consecutive booming noises sounded, where each one would send an obstacle towards the ghosts, hindering their movements but only for a short while. However, although it was only for a short period of time, with the use of this many talismans, it would take about half an incense stick worth of time before the ghosts could catch up. Like he had fire burning up his ass, Xie Lian drove the cart and escaped for a stretch of the mountain road, before suddenly saying, “Stop——-!”
As it turns out, the old ox had pulled the cart to a fork in the road, and upon seeing that there were two dark mountain routes ahead, Xie Lian immediately pulled on the reins.
This was where they needed to be exceedingly cautious!
On the day of the ghost festival, sometimes mortals would find themselves walking along a road only to suddenly encounter another path that hadn’t existed before. This kind of path was not meant to be walked by mortals. Once one took the wrong path and entered the ghost’s realm, it would prove to be rather difficult and unlikely should they wish to return!
Xie Lian was a newcomer, and was unsure of which mountain path to take. He then remembered what he’d bought in town. Besides the large bag of collected scraps, amongst the miscellaneous items that he had bought, there was a cylinder container of fortune telling sticks. He decided to draw sticks to pick a path, so he dug out the container, held it in his hand and shook it while praying, “Heavenly Officials bestow your blessings on me! Lead me onto the right path! The first stick for left, the second for right! Whichever path has a better fortune is the one I’ll take!” After saying this, two sticks clattered into his hand, but, looking at the results, Xie Lian had no words.
Ill-fated tokens; great misfortune10!
Both sticks were ill-fated, both roads were unlucky. Didn’t that mean that whichever road they took would lead to death?
Feeling helpless, Xie Lian gripped the container with two hands, and shook it vigorously. “Container oh container, we’ve only just met today, so don’t be so heartless! I’m going to try again so won’t you save me some face?” As he finished saying this, the clacking sounds of two more sticks fell out. Again, they were both bad luck!
At this time, the San Lang who was next to him, suddenly said, “Let me give it a try?”
It wasn’t like he could get anything worse than him, so Xie Lian passed it over. San Lang took it with one hand and casually shook it. Out dropped two sticks. He picked them up and handed them over without even glancing at the results. Xie Lian took them and saw that they were both good fortune sticks, he couldn’t help but be amazed. Due to his immense bad luck, it tended to also negatively affect the luck of the people around him. He wasn’t sure if this was actually true, but often enough, the complaints he’d receive would always say so. Nevertheless, this young man wasn’t affected at all, and he even got two rounds of good fortune!
Since both tokens were fortunate, he carelessly selected one. As the cart bumped and swayed along, Xie Lian exclaimed in admiration, “My friend, your luck is not too shabby.”
San Lang tossed the fortune telling container back, and said with a smile, “Really? I also think my luck is not too shabby. It has always been so.”
Hearing him say “it has always been so”, Xie Lian thought that the difference between two people couldn’t be more different than heaven and earth.
Out of nowhere, they again heard the wails of the ghosts, “We’ve found them! They’re here!”
“Everyone over here! That damned Dao Shi is here!!!”
As ghost heads appeared one by one, Xie Lian remarked, “Ah, it seems we still picked the wrong path.”
The effects of the ‘Hinder Talisman’ long expired, so they were once again surrounded!
The mob of ghosts and ghouls had to be at least a hundred or so in members. They barricaded them in and this barrier was several layers thick, with their numbers continuously increasing. He wasn’t sure why there would be so many inhumane creatures gathered here, but there was no time to be thinking about that now. Xie Lian gently said, “Those that I’ve offended through my actions, I humbly ask for your generosity and forgiveness.”
A headless ghost spat, “Ha! Rotten Dao Shi, you should have been generous first! Back over there, weren’t you people the ones who dispersed the ghost fires?”
Xie Lian innocently said, “Truth be told, it wasn’t us. I am but a mere scrap collector.”
“Stop lying already! How can you be a scrap collector? You’re clearly a Dao Shi! And besides you, is there another Dao Shi around who would do such a thing?!”
“Dao Shi aren’t the only ones who can disperse ghost fires,” Xie Lian said in reply.
“Then what else could it have been? A ghost?”
Xie Lian quietly slipped his hand into his sleeve. “It’s not impossible.”
“Hahahahahahaha, damned Dao Shi! You……you…..you…”
The ghost who had emitted laughter loud enough to shake the heavens suddenly stammered, unable to continue. Xie Lian prompted, “What about me….?”
Just as he asked, the ghosts seemed to have lost all ability for speech, and even the stammering stopped. They gawked at Xie Lian, either with dropped jaws or tightly sealed lips, as if they had seen something profoundly terrifying. Many of the headless prisoner ghosts had been scared to the point of dropping their heads.
Xie Lian asked in a probing manner, “You guys……?”
Unexpectedly, before he’d even finished asking, the crowd of ghosts dispersed like flustered birds fleeing in all directions, as though a whirlwind had hurtled through scattered clouds.
“No way???” Xie Lian said, stunned.
He hadn’t even pulled out the handful of talismans he was holding, hidden in his sleeve. Could they have discovered the talismans? Were they that astute? Besides, the talismans weren’t even that powerful. Xie Lian was thoroughly perplexed. What were they frightened by? Was it really him?
Or was it something behind him?
With that in mind, he turned around to see what was behind him.
There was only the passed-out cart owner behind him, as well as that teen in red, still sitting leisurely with his chin propped by his hand.
Seeing him looking back, San Lang faintly smiled again. He set down his hand and said, “Dao Zhang is so valiant and formidable, those ghosts were all scared away by you.”
Xie Lian also smiled back. “Is that so? I have never realized I could be this formidable.”
After that, he tugged on the reins a few times and the cart’s wheels began to roll once more. The rest of the journey was smooth sailing. In less than an hour, the ox cart slowly crawled out of the forest, onto a wide and even path in the hills. Pu Ji Village rested at the base of the slope, warm and glowing.
It was indeed a ‘good fortune’ path, equipped with surprises, but no danger.
The night wind blew past as Xie Lian looked back again. San Lang seemed to be in a particularly good mood. He laid down and adjusted his arms to cushion his head within his hands as he observed the turn of the moon. Under the soft moonlight, that young man’s appearance looked almost surreal.
After a moment of hesitation, Xie Lian burst into a smile and called out, “My friend.”
“What?” San Lang asked.
“Have you had your fortune told before?”
San Lang turned his head. “No, I haven’t.”
“Then,” Xie Lian asked, “do you want me to tell yours?”
While looking at him, San Lang smiled and said, “You want to tell my fortune?”
“Yeah……a little,” he admitted.
San Lan lightly nodded, “Alright.”
He sat up, slightly inclining his body towards Xie Lian. “How are you going to do it?”
Xie Lian replied, “Palm reading. Is that alright?”
Hearing his answer, San Lang’s lips curved upwards in a smile, the meaning behind it indiscernible. “Sure,” he agreed, reaching out his left hand.
The fingers on his left hand were long and slender with defined knuckles, quite beautiful to look at. It wasn’t beautiful in a fragile sense, but attractive in the way of hidden strength. No one would wish to have these pair of hands choking them to death. Xie Lian remembered the way San Lang had reacted to his touch from before, and made a mental note not to make any direct contact with his person. Thus, he did not directly touch his hand but only looked downwards in observation.
The white moonlight was neither dim nor bright. Xie Lian examined the hand for some time, the ox cart slowly making its way through the mountain road with the wheels and the wooden shafts creaking. San Lang asked, “How is it?”
After a short pause, Xie Lian slowly replied, “You have a very good life.”
San Lang said, “Oh? In which way is it good?”
Xie Lian raised his head, softly saying, “You are tenacious, extremely dedicated, and despite many bitter encounters with frustrations and dashed hopes, you’ve stayed true to your heart. More often than not, your misfortunes will turn into blessings, calamity to prosperity. You will continue to have good fortune, my friend, your future is radiant and will blossom spectacularly.”
All the things he said were made up on the spot, so they were complete nonsense. Xie Lian didn’t know how to read palms. Previously, when he had fallen, there was a period of time when he’d frequently regretted not learning palmistry and physiognomy from the Ministers in the palace. If he had, then he wouldn’t have had to compete with the other street entertainers like those who smashed rocks onto their bare chests during the times where he was fighting to survive in the mortal realm.
The only reason why he had asked to see San Lang’s palm, wasn’t to tell his fate, rather, it was to confirm if he had palm lines and fingerprints.
Common ghosts could create a flesh body to pose as a human, but the finer details on the human body, like palm lines, fingerprints, and hair ends, couldn’t be replicated to that extent of detail. And yet, the young man’s body not only had no signs of enchantment, there were no further clues that could be detected. In addition, his palm lines were also very distinct.
If he was a ghost or ghoul in disguise, then he would have to be at least ‘Wrath’ ranked to have been able to create such a flawless disguise. But if they were a ghost king of that caliber, why would they choose to come ride an ox cart with him on a little mountain village to kill time? Just like how the Heavenly Officials in heaven were occupied with so many important matters and were slammed with work day after day without rest to the point it could be said their feet never touched the ground with how much they ran about; the Ghost Kings would be just as busy!
Xie Lian pretended to be very confident and sure with his lies, forcing himself to continue with more, until he finally couldn’t bullsh*t anymore. For the entire duration, San Lang steadily watched him, listening to all his rubbish while quietly laughing. His laughter was enough to make one wonder.
“Anything else? Hm?” San Lang asked.
Xie Lian dreaded the thought of having to continue his bullsh*t. “Is there anything else you want me to read?”
San Lang replied, “Since it’s fortune telling, shouldn’t you tell me about my predestined soulmate?”
Xie Lian coughed lightly, and solemnly said, “My knowledge is limited, I don’t know how to read about fated soulmates. But in my opinion, you have no need for worry.”
San Lang raised an eyebrow. “Why do you think I have no need to worry about this?”
Xie Lian smiled. “Surely there must be many girls who like you.”
San Lan replied, “Then, why do you think there must be many girls who would like me?”
Xie Lian was about to go with the flow of the conversation and answer, when he suddenly realized. This kiddo was scheming to get Xie Lian to willingly compliment him. Xie Lian felt rather helpless, yet found it pretty funny. Unsure of what to say, he pinched his brow, before he uttered in a defeated tone, “San Lang–ah.”
This was the first time Xie Lian had called him by the name San Lang. When the young man heard it, he laughed aloud and finally stopped teasing him. At this moment, the ox, panting for breath, pulled into the village. Turning around, Xie Lian supported himself and quickly got off the cart. San Lang also jumped off as well. As Xie Lian lifted his head, he realized that earlier, San Lang had been lazily reclining on the cart the entire ride. But now, standing next to him, he noticed that the young man was actually much taller than him, and their line of sight wasn’t even close to being even. San Lang stood in front of the cart and stretched.
Xie Lian asked, “San Lang, which way will you be heading?”
San Lang sighed, “I don’t know. I’ll probably sleep on the streets, or I’ll find some mountain cave and make do.”
Xie Lian replied. “That won’t do.”
San Lang stretched his arms. “There’s nothing else I can do, and I have nowhere to go.” He glanced over and laughed again. “Thanks for telling my fortune. I humbly receive the blessings you’ve told me and hope it may come true. May we meet again.”
Hearing him bring up his fortune-telling, Xie Lian’s face reddened with shame. When San Lang turned to leave, Xie Lian hurriedly said, “Wait, if you don’t mind, would you like to come stay at my monastery?”
San Lang’s footsteps halted as he half-turned his body. “May I?”
Xie Lian said, “That house wasn’t originally mine to begin with. I’ve also heard that previously, passerbys would use it as shelter for the night. It’s just that, the state of it might be worse than you could imagine, so you might not be able to stand it.”
If this teen was really a rich young master who had ran away from home, he couldn’t just leave him be, unsupervised. Xie Lian felt rather skeptical on how he only ate half a bun for the duration of the entire day. If young people took advantage on their good health like this, sooner or later they would surely end up passed out on the streets. Listening to him talk, San Lang turned around without answering and walked up in front of him before leaning forward. Xie Lian still hadn’t figured out what he wanted and only felt that the distance between the two of them had shrunk. He was a little overwhelmed, unable to do anything to ward him off.
Then, that young man took a few steps back, revealing that he had only taken the large bag of scraps that Xie Lian had been carrying on his back.
“Well then, let’s go,” he said.
- 哥哥 (gēge): means big brother, in Chinese, this term isn’t only for people actually related to each other, and a younger boy or girl can use it as an endearment or nickname to address an older boy.
- 道长 (
- This isn’t a karate chop move, Xie Lian casted a spell on the man with that tap to knock him out!
- This is according to the Lunar calendar so it’s not actually the equivalent of July 15th, its more like August or September in real time.
- The point here is that it’s highly unlikely for a Dao Zhang in Taoist robes to run into ghosts, but with Xie Lian’s luck, it still happened.
- 法师 (fǎ shī): Can be roughly translated as enchantment masters, its like a blanket term for the Water Master mentioned in the previous chapters.
- 阳 (yáng): The yang from yin and yang, represents ‘positive’/male/sun.
- During the ghost festival, the ghosts gets “the right of way” because it’s their day. So if a mortal were to bump into them and cause a scene, it would be the mortal at fault….
- 道士 (dào shì): Informal way of saying Dao Zhang.
- These sticks signify great misfortune in this instance and under this context. Under different contexts though, the ill-fated tokens could mean other things not aren’t related to misfortune.