They fled out of the mountains.
Hua Yi did a head count, and the once relatively intact tribe had now shrunk close to a half.
Chang An was sitting on a tall boulder. His feet dangled in the air, and across his knees lied his blade, still murderous, still fierce1煞气 and 锐不可当 – The first group of characters refer to one’s “killing intent,” and the second group of characters mean “to be so full of fighting spirit, it can’t be held back..
He looked at the blade without uttering a word. It had been so long since the two-headed snake of Yufeng Mountain would withdraw and tremble in its path. At this time, Chang An felt that he could no longer trust it.
When he was a young child, he had watched helplessly as Zhe Yan closed his eyes before him. Now, he was different from before, yet A’Lan was still swept away by the waters right in front of him.
He looked up in a bit of a daze. Around him was a vast wilderness and a crowd with tired and lifeless faces.
Sounds of untimely laughter falling flat made him uncomfortable. It was like sand brushed on with a paintbrush. Just a single bowl of water could wash it all away.
Chang An had grown to eighteen years of age, but it was the first time he had so much in his mind.
Suo Laimu had lost his joss sticks and candles, so he could only insert three, small wooden sticks as substitute. He knelt on the ground, and facing the north, he bowed down in reverence, mumbling words of worship. His face was covered with small scars, but only at this moment did he look serene, like a traveler who had returned home after a long journey.
Luda finally found Chang An. He slowly walked over, looked up at him and asked gingerly, “Are you hurt?”
Chang An shook his head with little spirit.
Luda said “oh,” then stared at Chang An’s blade like how a glutinous cat would stare at fish. He lowered his head and scuffed his toes against the ground for a long moment before the boy finally made up his mind. He looked up at Chang An again, and said, “You said you’d teach me how to use the blade.”
Chang An’s gaze, which had drifted to some unknown place, was pulled back at these words of his. He sized up Luda from above, and as if demons and gods were at work2鬼使神差 (idiom) – a curious coincidence; an unexpected happening, he suddenly asked the same question that Bei Shi had asked him: “Learn the blade? What’s the point in learning the blade?”
Luda was stunned. He clearly hadn’t thought over such a profound question. He anxiously pondered for a long time then said, “I am a beastman. You don’t give me shackles, nor order me around like a slave. Naturally, I’d want to learn the blade and become powerful… Oh, and if I don’t become strong, I won’t be able to deal with those who bully me. I also won’t be able to repay you.”
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Chang An was in a daze. Those words sounded familiar. Apart from a few points, it was pretty much the same as those bullshit words he had said to Bei Shi back then.
All young children wanted to become powerful, and one day, they really would become powerful. Then they’d found out that there were even more powerful beings—They’d kill the giant boned-wing bird, but then came the two-headed snake. They’d kill the two-headed snake, yet there were still large boulders and mountain floods that couldn’t be killed.
After a moment of silence, Chang An suddenly jumped down from the boulder and said, “Follow me.”
Luda was overjoyed, his eyes lighting up. This child was usually a bit silent and not very good-tempered, but this time he was like a child who had gotten candy. He chased after Chang An and asked incessantly, “What are you going to teach me? Is it a saber? Would it be like yours…”
Chang An stopped in his steps and turned around, one hand bringing over the saber to Luda. “Do you want to try it?”
Luda was a newborn calf who knew no fear of the tiger. Overestimating himself, he stretched out both hands to grab it. But then Chang An suddenly loosened his hand, and how could the wrist of a child bear the weight of a hundred jins? Luda staggered two steps back, and the large blade crashed right to the ground.
Chang An said nothing. He picked up his own blade, then drew out a scimitar from his waist and gave it to him—No matter how many dead people there were, and whether one could find the body or not, it was already too late for their companions to bury them. One would always want to keep a little something from them in order to commemorate the people who once lived. Each person had a few more weapons on them that were originally not theirs.
Luda was surprised to see Chang An chop a stake3The “stake” here is not necessarily pointy. It can simply be an upright log.. The base was wide and the height was just enough for him to split. It was neither too tall nor too short.
Then Chang An raised his hand and pared the top of the stake two inches thick. The cut was neat, and when the pared wood was put back, it made the gash seem almost invisible.
Then Chang An went over, positioned Luda’s arm from behind, held down his hand holding the handle, and said, “Look carefully.”
All Luda could think of was how deadly white Chang An’s hand was. His skin looked as thin as a sheet of paper. He could clearly see those distinct tendons and veins on the back of his hand. This made Luda look at his little black hand, and he suddenly felt ashamed of himself.
But he wasn’t distracted for long, and soon, he felt his hand brought up by some irresistible force. The back of Chang An’s hand was fair, but his palm was full of light callouses, and it felt rough on a person’s skin.
Luda unconsciously raised his hand along, then all of a sudden, Chang An pressed his blade down to slice.
The power and speed with which the blade condensed into a slash almost gave Luda the illusion that his arm was no longer on his own body. The scimitar cut through the wood without any resistance, but the closing force was even greater than the downward chop. Luda’s wrist felt numb. If it weren’t for Chang An holding his hand tightly, the scimitar would’ve slipped out of his hand.
The little slave’s eyes stared straight ahead, and he couldn’t help but hold his breath. His heart was pounding, and blood rushed to his head, hitting him so hard that even his pupils dilated a little. He didn’t even know when Chang An had released him.
Chang An took down that chopped block of wood from the stake, and this broke Luda out of his stupor. He shook his head in a flurry, then craned his head to look at it—only to see that the wooden block was squarely cut in half from top to bottom. What’s more, Chang An’s blade was so precise that the top piece of wood cracked cleanly without leaving any splinters on the stake below.
No more, no less, just the two inches.
Luda was stunned once again, and he looked at Chang An with astonishment. He could hardly speak. “You… You…”
Chang An, however, just boorishly patted his head and said absent-mindedly, “A small trick. Did you remember that move just now? If you want to learn, get started with this.”
When Bei Shi was teaching him, he had also told him that it was just a trick to teach him how to control his arms and wrists. At that time, Chang An had thought that this indolent man was actually showing off shamelessly. But now it seemed that Bei Shi was right. It really was a small trick—having no use at all, except for fooling children.
Chang An suddenly wanted to take a sip of wine. He felt he was having that kind of… blood coldness that Hua Yi had spoken of.
When Hua Yi finished counting the number of people and told them to set up their pots and rest on the spot, he saw Chang An suddenly appear from behind him unnoticed.
Hua Yi sighed. He stretched out a hand and held Chang An’s face. He caressed it for a while before squeezing him hard on the chin. He said in a low voice, “Come now, it wasn’t your fault. Anyone there wouldn’t have been able to pull her ashore.”
Chang An gave him a deep look, and after a moment of silence he asked softly, “Is it because I haven’t learned my craft well?”
When his anger and hatred receded, his heart was bagged full of bitter water. It was sour and astringent, indescribably unbearable. Chang An wanted to find something that could fill it, but even after racking his brains, he couldn’t find any. He didn’t have someone whom he could direct his hatred to, nor an enemy to truly defeat. In the end, as he thought about it, he felt it was simply because he was useless.
Hua Yi said firmly, “I don’t think so.”
Chang An lowered his head, realizing he couldn’t possibly find an answer. No longer dwelling on it, he pointed to Hua Yi’s flask. “Give me a sip.”
Hua Yi glanced at him, quirked an eyebrow, then opened the wine flask for him.
Hua Yi’s wine was so strong that when Chang An took a sniff of it, he frowned as if he were about to drink medicine. After drinking a big mouthful, heat rose from his head to his stomach. He coughed low in discomfort, but as the intense spiciness passed, it was like a fire in his belly, slowly burning its way down his veins and into his limbs.
The wetness on Chang An’s body had completely dried up, but he still felt a little cold, as if the water had seeped into his bones, infecting him from inside4跗骨之蛆 – Literally, “gangrene [growing] on the bones.” It’s a metaphor for a hostile force invading inside and is difficult to get rid of. and wouldn’t let go.
The strong wine rushed to his head, and a light tinge of blood even fluttered over Chang An’s face. Those things that entangled his heart and weighed him down, and the confusion in finding no answer even with all his looking around, all seemed to be a little farther away from him.
Bei Shi was right. One cup to forget your worries. Two cups to cheer you up. Three cups, five cups, and more… Maybe one could really get drunk for thousands of years and be happier in a way that the gods couldn’t.
Chang An clutched the flask, his eyes downcast, and no one knew what he was thinking at that moment.
Then he capped the flask, after taking only that one sip, and gave it back to Hua Yi.
Hua Yi wondered, “Is my wine not good?”
Chang An: “It’s good.”
Hua Yi said, “Then why don’t you have another sip? I have only this one flask left, and who knows how long we’ll have to flee. From now on, there won’t be enough food to eat and wine to drink.”
Chang An stuffed the flask to him and waved his hand. “No, I’ll be muddled if I drink too much. We are short of hands. I still have to keep watch tonight.”
After saying so, he left, dressed in rags and his pants rolled up, having forgotten to roll them down. However, his back was straight. Chang An was carrying his terrifying saber in one hand, but all of a sudden, it no longer looked out of sorts.
Merely after a day and a night, this delicate and beautiful teenager suddenly took on the bearings of a man.
A man was a mountain, let alone one with a blade on his shoulder. For as long as he lived, he would have to carry on. It was how it should be, so nobody would pity him or sympathize with him because of this.
Hua Yi looked down at the flask in his hand, brought it up to his nose and sniffed it. Then he took a sip at the place where Chang An had drunk. He drank very slowly, as if he had tasted something different from it, and just this small sip seemed to have made him tipsy.
It was a month later that they found a place to settle down in again.
At last, the shadow of the Ground Fire was far away from them. They had walked through the moors and the wilderness, and countless men had fallen and never rose again. There were also several scattered tribes fleeing from the calamity who joined in.
They walked on and on. After Suo Laimu went south, he then brought them all the way to the east. People had the feeling that they were going to the ends of the earth.
Finally, before the snow fell, Suo Laimu led them to a cave where they could take shelter. They took out the dried meat and fur they had accumulated along the way to escape the first severe winter.
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End of Volume 2