Chapter 24 – Pillar of Nature (4)
First Published on Wattpad, Reposted on Ainushi
Finally, after a thorough search, Shen manages to find a pack of instant egg drop soup that hasn’t expired; this is the only edible item besides water and medicine in Zhao’s disastrous apartment.
Zhao starts smoking again, and peeks at the busying Shen in the kitchen; the smile he wears is rather annoying, and who knows what’s going on in that dirty mind of his.
Shen stomps towards him, discontentedly snatches his cigarette away, and puts it off in the ashtray. He slams the soup on the nightstand, “drink it.”
Zhao blinks, silently picks up the bowl, and ponders while sipping: Professor Shen doesn’t even get mad when robbed by a bunch of gangsters, but he does with Zhao.
After a while, Zhao realises the reason behind: it’s because he is handsome, and Shen is falling for him.
Shen cannot imagine how busy this person in front of him is: even while drinking soup, he does not waste time in being narcissistic.
Shen is getting more and more irritated by Zhao’s apartment, and wonders how a human can live in this condition. Even a prisoner about to be executed can have one last meal before he goes; what sane person would starve himself like that?
He looks at Zhao, and suspects that if he dies, no-one would come collect the corpse.
Shen stays silent for a while, and suddenly says out of nowhere, “Officer Zhao is not young, and you’ve got a stable job, it’s time for you to get a girlfriend and start a family; it’s better to have someone take care of you.”
Zhao instantly chokes on the over-salty egg drop soup, his lungs almost bursting.
Shen’s hand nervously twitches, and he puts down his hand and hides it behind his back; a fist tightly clenching.
Zhao never anticipated Shen would say something like that, and is startled for a while. Shortly, he thinks of a plan, and puts the bowl on the nightstand; he decides that his best bet is to attract sympathy.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t realised I’m going after you?” Zhao intentionally pauses for a while, and says slowly and softly; he raises his head sluggishly, glances at Shen’s face and his eyes finally rest on Shen’s tensed-up body.
From Shen’s point of view, it looks like Zhao is disappointed; his worn out face is instantly marked with depression.
Shen feels like the softest spot on his heart is clenched heavily.
Zhao sees his reaction, and is proud that his plan worked; he still puts on an upset pretense, and feebly waves while concealing a smirk, “then never mind, thank you for today; I’m fine now, you can go.”
Zhao is ready to pounce forward and hold him if he walks closer, and has prepared the best lines he can think of. But Shen stays silent, and after a long time, his voice becomes coarse and muted, “then I… you have a good rest.”
Unexpectedly, he gets up and leaves without turning back.
What’s going on!? What went wrong with the plan?
Zhao is puzzled for ages; he slams his head on the pillow, his feeling right now cannot be described with words. Finally, he takes out a calendar and turns the page to today, and it reads “avoid marriage”. So he heartbrokenly blames it on fate.
It’s like a dried steam bun being stuck in his throat, choking him.
Zhao is not in the mood to do anything, and goes to sleep.
It’s almost midnight, the streets are quiet, and most of the lights in apartments are off. There are hardly any cars passing by downstairs; only the occasional glimmer which doesn’t shine through the curtains.
The moment the hour and minute hands meet, Zhao’s wristwatch softly vibrates, and Zhao instantly wakes up from his deep slumber.
Then, the sound of a wooden clapper echoes through the darkness; emerging out of thin air and disappearing into thin air.
The claps are getting closer, and a bland male voice speaks, prolonging every syllable; every word clearly sounds into Zhao’s ears.
That person chants as if at a funeral, “Hell Guard patrolling, living souls retreat…”
Afterwards is three wooden claps.
The curtains open on their own, and fractals form on the window glass. A flickering white light waits quietly outside the window.
Zhao sits up, tidies his clothes, and says, “please come in.”
The window unlocks, and opens itself; a chilling breeze rushes through, and Zhao’s skin tingles with goosebumps.
A black shadow holding a white paper lantern floats outside the sixteenth floor.
That “person” is also made of paper, as tall as a regular human, white-paper- faced with painted eyes; a giant mouth extends above the cheekbones. Reminds one of Old Wu from No. 4 Bright Avenue.
Zhao opens the lowest drawer in the nightstand, and takes out a pottery tray, some paper money and incense. He lights the money and incense and puts them into the tray, and respectfully smiles, “just a little token of respect… Hell Guard, Your Honour, what brings you here?”
The paper person twitches its mouth; thankful of the bribery.
People of high status and power among the living never care for the Hell Guards, but the Guardian of this generation never forgets a little bribery.
The paper person cups its hands in front of its chest, and says politely, “when the hungry ghost escaped, the King of Hell was furious; His Majesty ordered a thorough investigation of the three worlds, and from now on all living souls, ghosts and spirits alike must be recorded into the Book of Life and Death. I have been ordered to give the Guardian a copy of the book.”
The paper person hands a black notebook to Zhao with both hands.
It looks like a normal notebook, the cover feels like soft leather, but it’s incredibly light: as light as just a few pieces of paper.
Zhao rubs the paper lightly and sniffs the pages, “mulberry paper, written in dragon ink; it’s the Book of Life and Death, and the Record of Virtue, with a soul talisman, right?”
The paper Hell Guard calmly says, “the Guardian has keen eyes, presumably there is no need for me to explain what it can do.”
“If you get someone’s name and horoscope readings,” Zhao says, “or a strand of their hair, you can see into their past life and afterlife.”
As he is saying, he flips through the notebook, and a piece of paper falls off, “huh? An arrest order?”
It’s an empty piece of rice paper, as it touches Zhao’s hand, a cloud of black mist oozes out; amidst the mist is a face, bald and laden with tumours… it’s the monster that was executed by the Ghost Slayer.
Zhao remains calm, and asks, “what’s this?”
The Hell Guard says, “this creature is human-like, but not a human; we call it a spirit beast. It speaks human language, but is incredibly vicious; it preys on human flesh and souls. If the Guardian sees one, please be careful and kill it as soon as possible; it is afraid of fire and light.”
A spirit beast…
The Hell Guard doesn’t mention where the beast comes from, what is its nature, or why it must be killed. Zhao is rather intrigued by the “human-like, but not human” description.
He turns around, naturally puts the arrest order back into the notebook, and adds a few more paper money into the tray; he smiles and says, “sorry to have troubled you.”
The Hell Guard bows, and the tray lights up in flames; it whips out its sleeves and the ashes that remain of the incense and paper money disappear. Contentedly, the paper person says, “I shall take my leave.”
The white paper lantern flickers, and the paper Hell Guard disappears; the windows are locked and the curtains close themselves.
The Ghost Slayer, the Four Mystical Artifacts, a spirit beast… and the “mastermind” behind all this. Zhao lies in bed, and struggles to fall asleep; he forgets about being upset from the rejection, and a million thoughts flow through his mind. The night darkens, and his thoughts deepen; Zhao suddenly has an ominous feeling.
Zhao is wide awake all night; he later feels unwell again, and takes some medicine. His bad lifestyle has accumulated a lot of health problems, like chronic gastritis and gastric ulcers, and he is tortured by them once in a while.
It’s seven o’clock in the morning, and the doorbell rings. Zhao is sleepy and cranky and in the state of a mad dog.
A mad dog, as it’s name suggests, is in a state of insanity: it will bite anyone. Zhao struggles to get out of bed, and his entire body is in pain. He stumbles forward painfully, and is ready to torture whoever is bothering him at the door.
But when he opens the door, he sees Shen Wei carrying a few big bags.
Zhao is mesmerised for two seconds, and then quickly wipes off his mad dog face. He struggles to put on a smile; since his brain isn’t functioning properly, his expression is awkwardly trapped between “eating you alive” and “happy new year”, it’s difficult to describe…
But if it must be said, perhaps he looks like the new year monster.