Chapter 32: Reunion
Shen Qingqiu sat upright.
A corpse, f*** f*** f***!
I’d just thought “the water’s so clear” and you give me a floating corpse? Don’t slap my face so heavily, okay!
Liu Qingge used a pole to hook the corpse closer and turn it over. It was actually a complete skeleton. Because it had been wrapped in black cloth from head to toe with the face sunk underwater, it had escaped his notice earlier.
Shen Qingqiu asked, “Junior apprentice brother Mu, do you know what kind of plague will instantly turn an entire body into a skeleton?”
Mu Qingfang slowly shook his head. “I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
A boat rowing upstream would fall back if it stopped moving forward. Since they’d stopped for a while, the small boat had retreated a short distance. Liu Qingge lifted his pole again and said to those behind him, “There’s more ahead.”
Sure enough, five or six corpses floated over. Just like the first one, all of them were skeletons clothed in black.
While Shen Qingqiu was lost in his thoughts, Liu Qingge suddenly stabbed the pole into the rock wall beside them. The thin, brittle bamboo pole was thus inserted into the smooth, seamless stone. Once fixed in place, the boat stopped where it was.
Shen Qingqiu also noticed there was something different and stood up. “Who is it?”
In the depths of the darkness ahead came a rush of rapid breathing. The light at the hull of the boat dimly illuminated a person’s figure. They heard a boy’s voice: “Who are you people? Why are you entering the city through the hidden river?”
Shen Qingqiu said, “That’s what I’d like to ask you.”
Even though he was standing on a small and shabby boat, he appeared elegant and refined. With his green clothes, black hair, and long sword hanging from his waist, every movement was like that of an immortal. Additionally, Shen Qingqiu was now very experienced at acting cool and was able to incorporate some of his own style to bluff. As expected, the young man was stunned by his airs and blanked out for a moment, before he shouted, “Leave! Right now entry into the city is not allowed!”
Liu Qingge snorted. “Who are you to stop anyone?”
The boy said, “There’s a plague in the city. If you don’t want to die, then scram!”
Mu Qingfang warmly said, “Little brother, we’re precisely here for that reason……”
Seeing that they weren’t leaving, the boy said angrily, “Do you not understand human speech? Leave quickly! Scram, scram, scram! If you don’t, don’t blame me for being impolite!” He had barely finished talking when a spear gun came piercing over, vigorous enough to be frightening. Liu Qingge laughed coldly and pulled out the bamboo pole from the wall. With a single rising stroke, the opponent was sent flying into the water. Hearing the teenager’s curses while splashing in the river, Shen Qingqiu asked, “Shall we fish him up or not?”
Liu Qingge said, “He’s got plenty of breath and energy, why should we bother fishing him out? Let’s just enter the city.” Pulling out the bamboo pole, he continued rowing the boat.
The three of them emerged from the dark river, and the illegal boat floated on the currents back into the darkness. The exit was in the most barren area of the city, in the middle of a shallow swamp. Not a single person was around. They walked towards the center of the city for a while when the tap, tap, tap of someone’s footsteps came chasing behind them.
Drenched like a chicken prepared for soup, the young man from earlier rushed towards them and exclaimed, “Why did you enter the city? There’s no use in coming in! Before, there were a lot of people who came and said they’d fix the plague. Some monks, some Taoists, some Hua Palace.1 Each and every one of them came in and couldn’t leave! You’re all looking for an early death!”
So it turned out that the young man hid and waited to ambush them for their own good. Shen Qingqiu tolerantly smiled. “What do you think we should do since we’ve already entered?”
The boy said, “What else can you do? Follow me and don’t run around! I’ll take you to the senior monk.”
Shen Qingqiu saw the other two didn’t object. They were all unfamiliar with Jinlan City so it would be best if someone from the city guided them. He gave a small nod and asked, “Little brother, what is your name?”
The young man puffed up his chest. “I’m called Yang Yixuan. I’m the son of the boss of the Finely-Crafted Weapons shop.”
So he was the son of the weapons shop owner who had braved death to ask for help from Zhao Hua Temple?
Liu Qingge saw Shen Qingqiu continuously sizing up the young man and asked, “What is it?”
Shen Qingqiu whispered, “This child can stand up after one of your attacks and has a good heart. Both of these things are hard to come by—he’s a moldable talent.”
Liu Qingge said, “Moldable talents are still useless. I don’t accept disciples. Too troublesome.”
As they walked into the main city, the number of pedestrians gradually increased. But this “increase” was only in comparison to the emptiness from before. A single street had at most three to four pedestrians, buried head to foot in black cloth. They walked hastily, acting like birds frightened by the hissing of a bowstring or fish that narrowly escaped the net. Yang Yixuan led them to his house. The weapons-shop was quite large, situated on the widest main road and occupying four lots in a row. Connected together for a single family to use, it had an inner garden, an inner hall, and a basement.
Great Master Wu Chen was in the basement, lying in bed with a blanket covering his lower half. Upon seeing the group from Cangqiong Mountain sect, he greeted them with an “A-mi-to-fo” (Merciful Buddha).
Shen Qingqiu said, “Great Master, the situation is desperate so we won’t dwell on the rest. What kind of plague has emerged in Jinlan City? Why did the Great Master stay in town and not send a single message out? Also, why does everyone need to be covered in black cloth?”
Great Master Wu Chen smiled bitterly. “What immortal Shen asks is really all the same question.”
With that said, he pulled back the blanket covering his lower half. Shen Qingqiu stiffened.
Underneath the blanket was only a pair of thighs. There was nothing below the knee. The calves had completely vanished.
Liu Qingge said coldly, “Who did this?”
Wu Chen shook his head. “Nobody did this.”
Shen Qingqiu was puzzled. “If nobody did this, then did your legs vanish by themselves?”
Unexpectedly, Wu Chen nodded. “It truly is so. My legs vanished by themselves.”
Above his knees, his legs were wrapped in black cloth. Wu Chen reached out a hand and exerted great effort to pull off the cloth. Mu Qingfang hurriedly assisted him. Wu Chen said, “This might make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable.”
The black cloth was unwrapped layer by layer, revealing what was left of his legs. Shen Qingqiu’s breathing hitched.
Great Master, you call this “slightly uncomfortable”?!
His thighs were rotting and festering, gangrenous flesh spreading from his stumps. When the black cloth loosened, a putrid stench wafted out in waves.
Shen Qingqiu asked, “This is the plague of Jinlan City?”
Wu Chen said, “That’s right. In the beginning stages of this sickness, only a small area is affected by a red rash. This stage lasts from 3 to 5 days, up to half a month. After this, the rash will spread and start rotting. After another month, it will rot to the bone. Only by wrapping the body with black cloth to reduce exposure to the open air can you delay its progression.”
No wonder every person in the city wrapped themselves like a black mummy.
Shen Qingqiu said, “If it takes one month, why did Mister Yang, who informed Zhao Hua Temple, rot to mere bones in an instant?”
Wu Chen’s face showed grief. “I’m ashamed to admit this, but it was only later that I realized that if the infected person stays inside Jinlan City, they can live up to a month or so. But if they travel a certain distance from Jinlan City, it will rapidly progress. My two junior disciple brothers rashly left the town to go back to the monastery, and the disease killed them on the spot.”
So that’s why people could not enter or leave!
Liu Qingge asked, “What’s the origin of this disease? How does it spread?”
Wu Chen only sighed. “This old monk is ashamed. We have spent many days in this town, but have made no progress towards finding anything about the disease. We don’t know where the plague started and we don’t know how it spreads. We don’t even know whether it is infectious or not.”
Mu Qingfang stared blankly, “What do you mean?”
Shen Qingqiu had a slight suspicion. “We’ve all seen the weapon-shop family’s son. He has personally looked after Master Wu Chen for so long, but no part of his body is covered by black fabric. You can clearly see his skin is unblemished—it’s healthy. If it really is a plague, isn’t it strange that Wu Chen didn’t infect him?”
Wu Chen said, “Exactly that meaning. The old monk is truly apologetic to have bothered everyone by being trapped here.”
Shen Qingqiu said, “You mustn’t say that. You intended to save people.” He saw Mu Qingfang examining the rotten part Wu Chen’s leg with rapt attention as if he couldn’t smell a whiff of the putrid stench. He asked, “Has junior apprentice brother Mu discovered anything? Do you know a cure?”
Mu Qingfang shook his head. “This doesn’t look like a plague; it actually looks like…” He looked at the others. “I must see some more infected people before I dare make a judgment.”
Shen Qingqiu left the basement and saw the weapon seller’s son walking back, furiously gripping a long knife. Smiling, he asked, “Young master, what’s wrong?”
Yang Yixuan angrily said, “Another person entered the town. Those something-something Hua people are the most useless of them all—they’re all racing to their deaths!”
Huan Hua Palace probably sent more helping hands (cannon fodder). Shen Qingqiu saw that his face was swollen like a meat bun and had the heart to tease him. “Little brother, I see your skills are quite remarkable. Did someone teach you?”
Yang Yixuan ignored him. Shen Qingqiu said again, “Find that big brother who sent you flying into the water earlier today. He’s incredibly strong, so fighting with him a few more times will be more useful than if you learnt with anyone else.”
Upon hearing these words, Yang Yixuan immediately abandoned him and ran off. Shen Qingqiu had found a way to annoy Liu Qingge by siccing a clingy person on him—he was delighted by this discovery.
He had just walked around a corner but, upon seeing the scene ahead, stopped in his tracks.
A heavy atmosphere hung over the whole town, and the doors of every household were closed tight. Quite a few homeless people couldn’t find anywhere to go and gathered at the corner of the street. In the past, when the street was filled with people coming and going in an endless stream of carriages and horses, they didn’t dare stick their head out and show their faces. But now, the street was completely empty. Having no more scruples, they had set up a large iron pot with a pile of firewood beneath it. They boiled water and plucked a few stolen chickens procured from who knows where. Each of them was swaddled so tight in black cloth that not a breeze could whisper through. They were not at all surprised by the presence of Shen Qingqiu, who looked out of place. Instead, they looked at him as if he was a dead person. After all, these past days, they’d seen far too many impressive-looking cultivators enter the town saying they’d save them. Were they any good? Those newcomers died even faster than the residents!
The cook struck the iron pot. “Soup’s ready! Come fill up, come fill up!”
Many tramps lying nearby who had been picking at lice scrambled to their feet and went forward, carrying bowls in their hands.
The plague had disturbed the lifestyle of the entire city. This spontaneously organized communal kitchen could save lives.
He had to quickly find the root of the plague. Shen Qingqiu secretly affirmed his resolve. As he turned to leave, someone walked directly towards him. That person looked like an old woman; she leaned on a walking stick, her body stooped, and her hands shook so much it looked like they were about to fall off her wrists.
Seeing the situation, he was about to move out of the way. But because she was perhaps too old and frail or hungry to the point of fainting, she stumbled into Shen Qingqiu.
Shen Qingqiu supported her with a hand. The old woman mumbled, “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… my old age has made me confused…” Saying this, she hurriedly passed him, probably concerned there would be no more food left.
Shen Qingqiu took two steps forward, then suddenly stopped.
Something wasn’t right.
The old lady looked as frail as a candle in the wind, appearing as if she would fall over at a mere breeze. But at that moment when she collided with him, why did she feel even heavier than a man in his prime?!
He abruptly turned back. Amongst the crowd fighting over the soup pot, he couldn’t see a trace of that “old woman.”
To his left was the entrance to the red-light district.2 Shen Qingqiu chased behind and fortuitously saw a bent-over shadow flash past the end of the alley.
F***, isn’t this speed similar to a 100-meter hurdle sprint? What “old woman”?! He must have been blind back then!
Shen Qingqiu broke into a run, chasing that figure. Though this old woman looked suspicious, he couldn’t be blamed for not immediately realizing something was off because everyone was this type of “swaddled in black cloth, walking shrunk into themselves, suspicious-looking” figure in Jinlan Town!
In the middle of the chase, he suddenly felt an itch on the back of his hand and raised it to take a look.
This hand really was plagued with misfortune: the same one that was pierced full of holes by the Sky Hammer Elder and had now been contaminated with a growing red rash!
Come to think of it, it was also this misbehaving hand that opened [Proud Immortal Demon Way] back then! I really want to cut off this hand aahhhhh!!!
With his attention divided, Shen Qingqiu’s footsteps slowed. Sensing an oncoming sword attack from above his head, he spread open his folding fan, prepared to counter with a wind blade. He shouted, “Who is it?!”
The assailant swiftly descended to the ground from the nearby roof eaves. The two of them came face-to-face with each other and Shen Qingqiu blurted out, “Gongyi Xiao?”
The youth immediately withdrew his sword, his surprise greater than his joy. “Elder Shen?”
Shen Qingqiu said, “It is I. How come you’ve come too?” He remembered that Yang Yixuan had mentioned that Huan Hua Palace disciples had entered the town from the secret river. Presumably, those were the same people who came with Gongyi Xiao. He asked, “Huan Hua Palace asked you to lead a group inside the city to investigate?”
Gongyi Xiao said, “This junior indeed received the command to investigate the town, but … the leader of the group isn’t me.”
Shen Qingqiu was surprised. Gongyi Xiao was the most favored disciple of Huan Hua Palace’s old Palace Master. Before Luo Binghe’s appearance, it was universally acknowledged that Gongyi Xiao would be the leader of the next generation. The old Palace Master’s only daughter was in love with him, and whenever the disciples of his generation formed a team, he had to be the one to lead them. Apart from Luo Binghe using the protagonist’s halo to defeat him, who could steal his place?
But there wasn’t enough time to think in more detail right now. Shen Qingqiu said, “Let’s chase it together!”
Gongyi Xiao affirmed loud and clear, and both of them leaped out together.
The hunched over silhouette ran into a three-story building. Just standing outside this building would assail your senses with the scent of face powder and the sight of gorgeously dressed women on stage.3 It seemed that in the past this was a place of pleasure, but now the laughter and flirtatious banter were long gone. Prosperity had fled this place.4 The front door was open to reveal the main hall on the first floor shrouded in a heavy and dense air.
The two of them held their breath, attentive, then stepped over the doorsill.
In the main hall, tables and chairs were toppled over messily. Shen Qingqiu looked at Gongyi Xiao. “Let’s separate and take a look. You look in the private rooms on the left; I’ll take care of the right side.”
He used the folding fan to push open the closest door. He could indistinctly make out a person lying on a bed. He first felt his heart lift in hope, but then it immediately fell.
It was only a skeleton wearing an intricate and elaborately designed garment, head adorned with beads and jade. It lay there in a serene posture. It was probably one of the women of the house who, knowing her end was upon her, had groomed and dressed herself in her best clothes and passed away in her sleep. Even in death, she assumed only the most beautiful posture; it was probably in a woman’s nature. Shen Qingqiu let out a forlorn sigh. He exited the room and closed the door again.
The next several rooms in a row were all the skeletons of women in decorative clothing. It seemed the entire brothel had completely succumbed. Shen Qingqiu was just about to push open the sixth room when the sounds of people and movement came from the second floor.
The two of them flew up towards the second floor, Shen Qingqiu seizing the position in front as they ascended the stairs. Suddenly, they heard a young and gentle voice. “It’s no trouble.”
It was only three words, but upon hearing this voice, Shen Qingqiu felt as though he had been struck by lightning. His hand squeezed the folding fan until it emitted a ka cha snapping sound.
In an instant, it was as if all breathing stopped.
Frozen stiff, he was stuck in the staircase, but he could already see the elegant women’s chamber at the end of the corridor on the second floor. A crowd of disciples wearing the colors of Huan Hua Palace were surrounding a person in their midst.
There was a youth wearing black clothing, carrying an unadorned long sword on his back. His face was like jade, and his eyes like cold stars glittering in two deep pools as he strolled closer.
He had grown a lot and his temperament was also substantially different compared to before, but… this face that could grace the cover of a romance novel from any angle… even if he was beaten to death, Shen Qingqiu would never mistake it!
At the same time, a familiar, mechanical voice that sounded a lot like a Google Translate that gathered dust exploded in his mind in rapid-fire succession into a series of notifications:
[Hello. System has successfully activated.]
[Activation password: Luo Binghe]
[Self-check: Energy source operating as usual, status is normal.]
[Hibernation mode discontinued. Standard mode launched.]
[Updates downloaded and installation complete.]
****! Wait a moment, you really updated?!
[Thank you once again for using the System.]
Customer service, can I send this item back and get a refund?5
- Translated by Scriptor and Wenq.
- I’ve got enough editors now, thanks.
- LOL the troll System is back! LBH appeared…
- 牛鼻子 is literally an ox/bull nose but in literary works it refers (facetiously) to a Taoist monk since their hair or hat supposedly looks like a bull nose.
- 花巷 – literally a “flower alley” meaning simply a nice place with a lot of flowers. Figuratively, the “flowers” are women of easy virtue.
- 花枝招展 literally “a lovely scene of blossoming plants swaying in the breeze” but it means “gorgeously dressed women.”
- 莺歌燕舞 “the warbler sings and the swallow dances” – an idiom for prosperity
- Non-literally translated. I know the System is more of a software or a service than an item but I couldn’t think of how else to translate it. 退货 – to return merchandise; to withdraw a product