Chapter 64 – Ink Brush of Virtue (19)
First Published on Wattpad, Reposted on Ainushi
Zhao grapples Shen by the wrist. Though he is blind, he can still feel the malevolence materialising from the intruders, so frigid that it pierces deep into the bones.
He hears Shen’s voice, no longer gentle as always, but deep and indescribably horrifying. Shen says, “How dare the ravens harm you, those ungrateful creatures. I shall slaughter them with a thousand lacerations and obliterate their kind…”
The last few words are overflowing with bloodthirst. Zhao embraces him and Shen instinctually struggles out of his embrace.
For some reason, at that moment, something dawns on Zhao’s mind, and he says without thinking, “Little Wei!”
Shen is petrified. After a while, he asks with a quivering voice, “What… what did you just call me?”
“Shhh, listen to me, don’t move.” Zhao closes his eyes, and opens his third eye, which is a little blurry under the influence of the fairy market. He pulls Shen back and the two hide into the crowd of fairies.
Shen is utterly flustered. He did not control what he said, and Zhao instantly grasped the tiniest hint… what was meant by “ungrateful”? Shen and the Raven Tribe… no, Shen and all the fairies, what is their connection?
Zhao recalls something he heard a long, long time ago, “Crows foretell calamities.”
What did the black ravens foretell?
Uncle Four’s tone does not change at all. He nods towards the ravens with reserve, and says calmly, “And I thought the ravens were not coming this year.”
The leader of the Raven Tribe is a woman. And yet, in this tribe, apart from the half-fairies, they are all stumpy with big noses and faces infested with wrinkles. One simply cannot tell whether they are young, old, pretty or ugly.
Her eyes are slanted and she seems to be glancing aside, carelessly peeking at Zhao. The murky eyes sparkle with a subtle light. Then, she crashes the ground with a spectre, and as she lifts up her hand, the tied-up half-fairy is instantly freed from bondage. The raven elder lowers her voice, “Child, come here.”
Uncle Four hides his hands inside the sleeves, and disregards this action, with no intention of stopping it. Discussions within the fairy market spring up from all corners.
Until the half-fairy stumbles forward and almost comes down from the platform, Uncle Four says, “If the elder wants to take one of their own, I have nothing to say. But if the Raven Tribe does that, does that mean you wish to leave the fairies and be on your own?”
The raven elder says with a coarse voice, “Yes!”
That word is met with complete silence. The fairies look around with confusion; Yingchun sticks her head out from the flowers and helplessly look here and there.
Uncle Four looks at her with a bland expression, “The ravens can eat all the carrion you want, and be as close to death as you can. And yet you are still fairies, not Hell Guards, and not ghost angels. The words are out of your mouth, elder, and there is no turning back, think carefully.”
The raven elder suddenly bursts out with bellowing laughter. Her voice is rough and thick; one cannot tell whether she is contented or agitated, but all that there are seem to be ancient indignation and ridicule. She says stately, one word after another, “If Uncle Four didn’t hear me the first time, I’ll say it again… We the Black Raven Tribe shall no longer be part of the fairies. We shall form our own clan, and we will never turn back. If we go back on this oath, let Heavenly thunder punish us!”
She waves her hand, and the pitch-black ravens come and go with her.
In just a few moments, like thunder and lightning, everything has been decided. The other fairies have yet to react to what had happened.
Murmurs and whispers turn into hectic commotion. Nobody knows what’s going on.
Uncle Four signals with a wave, and the little monkey beside him gongs to berate the crowd. Amidst the chaos, Zhao pulls Shen out of the crowd and the two head for the doorway swiftly, where there is a giant cloud of fog.
Beyond the fog is the neon-lit streets of Dragon City. Night extends far and wide.
A flock of pitch-black ravens land on to the giant pagoda tree outside Antique Street. A taxi swiftly passes by, and the talkative driver says to his passenger, “Look, mister, even crows are celebrating New Year!”
The black cat silently emerges from the corner of a wall, its thick paws cling to the ground lightly, and it agilely mounts a wall. Dozens of ravens turn towards it simultaneously; a row of blood-red eyes glow like ominous lightbulbs.
Da Qing stops at a distance, and doesn’t walk forward; showing that it means good.
The raven elder steps forward into the shadows where she cannot be seen, and says impolitely with a coarse voice, “What do you want?”
The black cat holds still, its emerald eyes sparkle like two Cat’s Eye gemstones with a murky glow, tilting slightly upwards. The sloth and elegance unique to felines manifest perfectly; for a moment, one almost forgets about how it is a laughably plump ball of fur.
“I have a bold request.” Da Qing says politely, “I would like to ask the elder, how did the bell I lost a few centuries ago end up with your tribe?”
The raven elder stare at it in scrutiny, and says coldly, “What a foolish question. Our tribe tell of calamity, not of prosperity; we delve in death, not in life. How did it end up with us? From a dead person of course.”
Da Qing’s body tenses up for an instant.
A while later, the black cat asks, “When and where, and how did the person die?”
The raven elder cackles screechingly, “A dead person is a dead person. His former life is no more, once reincarnated, in the next life he could be a swine or a canine. Why do you care when and where he died?”
Da Qing’s head droops a little, and it says nothing for a long while.
The raven elder looks at it again, and after a while, she says impatiently, “A pavilion twenty miles outside Shanhai Pass. If you want to, go and see for yourself. I wouldn’t lie about this. Wearing a bell from a dead man… I see that you don’t mind bad fortune.”
She whistles, and a huge flight of ravens soar up into the sky, into the horizon of black jade.
Da Qing droops its head in the darkness. It stands in place for a while; suddenly, its figure appears to be that of a desolate stray cat.
Then the headlamps of a car shine, and it leaps off the wall silently, disappearing into the night.
A blink of the Torch Dragon’s eyes, and a night has passed. It is now New Year’s Eve.
The night before New Year, SIU is brightly lit. Humans feast on lavish meals and ghosts on incense.
Old Wu finally gets the chance to meet with his daytime colleague who likes carving bones; he merrily raises a burning incense in a toast to the other… of course, the other returns the toast with wine in a bone china cup. Old Li seems to have some kind of almost sickly obsession with bones.
Later that night, the bells have rung, announcing the New Year, and the drunken men and ghosts begin to go on insane sprees… Guo rests on the table and weeps generously, but for no reason it seems. Then, he stops crying and sits in a corner as if there are no other people but himself. He carefully takes out a piece of lens cloth and begins wiping his staff card endlessly. Wiping more, and more and more, until he rolls under the table, and falls sound asleep.
Chu, Lin, Zhu, and Da Qing have set up a Mahjong game. The gambling chips will magically turn into small dried fish when they are put on the cat’s side of
the table. Da Qing wears a stern expression… it can only keep winning, since it has almost eaten up all its chips.
Old Li takes out a giant bone out of nowhere, and starts pole dancing with it. Sang pulls Wang into an embrace and lifts her high-up by the waist. Wang giggles, and starts humming an ancient tune. They dance the choreography of the Hanga people.
Luckily, No. 4 Bright Avenue is locked behind closed doors; normal people cannot come in.
Zhao drank a lot tonight, and isn’t sitting upright. His eyes can see a little now, but still very blurry, like severe short-sightedness. Although he can’t tell six dots from nine dots, he squints his eyes with persistence, face sticking on to the table, and says behind Da Qing, arms frantically waving in the air, “Pong! Pong! Pong!!!”
Da Qing paws him away, “Pong your mother! Professor Shen, take that talkative donkey away… four bamboos!”
Zhu Hong says, “Sorry, I win.”
Zhao hits Da Qing on the head, and says, angered at its misfortune, “See, ignore what your elders say, then it’s you who’s going to pay!”
Da Qing heart-wrenchingly watches its dried fish being taken away and turned into chips, and roars furiously, “Take him away!”
Shen comes over with a smile, and bends down to get Zhao. Gently, he pulls him out. Be it a tall man or a few-hundred-kilo lacquer box, he picks up almost anything like a thin antique book.
Zhu looks down and intentionally avoids eye contact.
Shen sits on the couch, and lets Zhao rest on his legs. He tenderly massages his temples, and says with a deep voice, “Close your eyes. They haven’t recovered fully. Don’t trying to see just yet, it’ll wear you out.”
Zhao closes his eyes in incredible bliss, and mumbles, “Pour me some warm wine.”
Shen is apparently not paying attention; he doesn’t hear him.
Zhao opens his eyes, and watches Shen with his blurry eyesight. He finds that Shen is staring at a corner of the table, spacing out.
Zhao’s quick mind instantly understands, and pulls Shen’s collar gently. He whispers, “What’s up, you’re nervous about meeting my parents?”
Shen comes to, and caresses his hair. Well-tempered as usual, he only says softly, “All parents want their children to have peaceful lives, marry well and have children, and build a beautiful family. If you just bring me there so recklessly, and they can’t even enjoy New Year peacefully, isn’t it too…”
Zhao grapples his hand, and shuts his eyes… since his eyesight is coming back, his third eye is affected and he can no longer see the virtue written on someone. And yet, he still remembers the words on Shen being washed away by darkness like the never-ending tides.
Zhao asks with rare seriousness, “If I don’t bring you along, where will you spend the New Year?”
“Whether I celebrate New Year or not, it really doesn’t matter…”
“You’ll return to the other side?” Zhao interrupts him, “To Hell? Where there’s not a beam of light, and only the occassional spirits wandering by?”
No, it’s even worse down there.
Shen never thought anything about this kind of life. But for some reason, now that Zhao mentions it, he suddenly feels wronged. The lifestyle that he had gotten so used to now seems unthinkable and even impossible to endure.
But after long silence, Shen only says blandly, “It’s alright, I’m used to it.”
From the dawn of time, the chaos of the beginning and the genesis of the spirits of many and all things in the universe, all the way until now: the passage of time has written and erased many things from this world. Still, he has always abided by the vow he swore with someone who no longer remembers; it’s as if his entire life has been about those very words and nothing more.
Zhao speaks no more. He holds Shen’s hand against his heart. His heart beat is racing a bit, probably because of the alcohol. After long, till Shen almost thinks he is asleep, Zhao asks with a lowered voice, “Wei… why this name?”
“At first it was ‘Wei’ as in ‘mountain ghost’.” Shen looks down, his dark irises gaze on to the dazzling floor, visualising the distant past, “But someone said to me, although ‘mountain ghost’ is quite fitting, it is perhaps a little lacking. The seas and mountains of this world conjoin in a splendid nexus, and countless majestic hills extend across the horizon and beyond. He suggested that I add a few more strokes, and gave me a grander name.”
Zhao rubs his nose, and finds the way this person speaks oddly familiar, “Who was this egomaniac, who gave him the right to change other people’s names?”
Shen smiles, “Just someone I met by chance.”
They do not keep chatting. It’s dawn, and the entire avenue is replete with the cacophony of blasting firecrackers. The Mahjong players are making an uproar. Small ghosts hide from the morning sun, and sprint off into the shadows.
The vibrant and hectic New Year can blind one’s eyes.
A slight touch of snowfall raises the curtains for New Year in Dragon City. Peace and quiet bless the bounds of the Earth; flamboyant lanterns are put out to welcome the first sunrise.
The first breath of air, mixed with the flavour of timely snow and the scent of gunpowder, reaches the nostrils of numerous from numerous families. Another year, another multitude of joy and sorrow for the living.