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Phantoms’ Mountain Manor Chapter 3

CSI

Chapter 3 – In the same boat

Being on the run hadn’t ended, but darkness had already arrived.

In the dark there were only sounds of panting, two people panting. The sounds had stopped and they had collapsed.

It didn’t matter whether it was dry earth or wet mud, they were in no position to choose.

– They had to lie down; even if Ximen Chuixue’s sword was at their throats, they had to lie down.

Even if they channeled all the strength there was in the world, they couldn’t have taken another step forward.

In the darkness, there seemed to be shards of phosphorescence peeking out from between trees. The phosphorescence was very weak, and one had to concentrate real hard in the darkness to be able to make it out.

So long as there was a bit of light, the phosphorescence would disappear.

“If we follow this phosphorescence, we can get out of here?”

“Mm.”

“You’re confident?”

“Mm.” Dugu Mei was so exhausted that he couldn’t even speak, but he had to reply, because he knew Lu Xiaofeng would persist in his questions. “I am very confident.” He continued, panting: “So long as you have a contract with them, they won’t sell you out.”

“Who are they?” Lu Xiaofeng asked again. “Are they from the Mansion?”

“Mm.”

“What Mansion is this? Where is it?” Lu Xiaofeng persisted. “What sort of contract do you have with them?”

Dugu Mei didn’t answer; from his breathing, he seemed to have fallen asleep.

Regardless of whether he was asleep, he seemed determined not to answer any more such questions.

Lu Xiaofeng too felt that he’d asked one too many questions, so he closed his mouth and wanted to get some shuteye.

But he just couldn’t fall asleep.

In the distance, the phosphorescence flickered, so near yet so far.

His pupils were so tired that they couldn’t even differentiate far and near, so why couldn’t he sleep?

– Only in absolute darkness could one differentiate these guiding signals; had firelight been used, it would not have been seen, much less in daytime.

– Perhaps even Ximen Chuixue would not be able to figure this out, so he would not be travelling in this sort of absolute darkness.

– It looked as if the Mansion people were very clever, they had planned everything to the last detail.

– Will Dugu Mei really lead me to the Mansion?

– He has a contract, but I don’t. Would the Mansion accept me if I went there?

– Is that place really safe and isolated? So secluded that even Ximen Chuixue wouldn’t be able to find me?

– Why can only dead people go there?

Lu Xiaofeng couldn’t sleep, he had so many unanswered questions in his mind.

Absolute darkness meant absolute peace.

Dugu Mei’s breathing had evened out gradually, and it even sounded a little like music in the darkness.

“Little girl carrying a clay doll,
Came to the garden to admire the flowers,
The doll cried for mama,
And the birds in the trees burst out laughing…”[1]

Lu Xiaofeng didn’t know why, but the old man’s breathing had stirred his memory of a childhood song.

He found it pretty funny too, but he didn’t laugh out loud, because suddenly a ghastly shriek pierced the darkness.

Then he heard a body bounce up and flop down heavily on the muddy ground.

“Is that you?” Lu Xiaofeng asked hoarsely.

No answer.

After a long while, there came the sounds of Dugu Mei’s moaning, as though he was hurt.

Who had attacked him in the night?

Lu Xiaofeng could feel his heartbeat quicken, his throat dry, and his palms perspire; in this darkness where he couldn’t even see his fingers if he stretched them out, he could make out nothing.

Again after a long while, he heard Dugu Mei’s faint voice: “Snake… poisonous snake.”

Lu Xiaofeng let out a relieved sigh, asked: “How did you know it was a poisonous snake?”

Dugu Mei replied: “The area where it bit me doesn’t hurt, only numb.”

“Where’s the wound?”

“On my left shoulder.”

Lu Xiaofeng fumbled about and found his left shoulder, then ripped apart his clothes. His fingers found a swollen lump of flesh, and he bent his head, opened his mouth and began to suck until Dugu Mei yelped.

“You’re feeling the pain?”

“Yes.”

Since he could feel pain, that meant the poison in the wound was all sucked out.

Lu Xiaofeng spat out a breath and said: “If you can sleep, rest for a while. If not, just endure for a little more, it will be daylight soon.”

Dugu Mei lay there whimpering. After another long while, he suddenly said: “You didn’t have to do this.”

“Oh?”

“You know the way out, why didn’t you abandon me and go off?”

Lu Xiaofeng was quiet for a long moment before he replied: “That’s because you can still laugh.”

Dugu Mei didn’t understand.

“I feel,” Lu Xiaofeng continued slowly, “that if a person can still laugh, he cannot be considered to have no regard for others.”

Once daylight came, the guiding phosphorescence would disappear.

Now it was almost light, and Lu Xiaofeng had finally gotten some rest.

Certain people possessed strength that was like the wildfire of the grasslands, it could be reignited at any time.

Lu Xiaofeng was such a person.

He had not yet exhausted the strength he had built up again when they found that they were finally out of that man-eating forest!

In front of them was a lovely spring day, the sun had just risen from the verdant mountains and a light breeze blew along the fragrance of new blooms and shoots. Dew drops sparkled like a lover’s eyes under the sun’s rays.

Lu Xiaofeng rubbed his eyes, unable to believe all this was real. This was a miracle, a dream.

Had he just woken up from a nightmare and gone into another dreamscape?

Dugu Mei, whom he was carrying on his back, suddenly asked, his breathing quickening: “Is there a large pine tree in front?”

There was.

An old pine tree, standing proudly erect and all alone in front of the rocks, far away from this dense forest, as though it did not care to be associated with other ordinary trees.

“Is there a big piece of stone underneath the tree?”

There was.

It was a slab of green stone as large as a table, the quality of it pure and beautiful, tender and smooth as jade.

Lu Xiaofeng crossed over and sat down on the stone, then sat down the man on his back and expelled a long breath. “We’ve finally made it out.”

“This place isn’t really considered safe yet,” Dugu Mei replied, panting.

“At least I wasn’t eaten alive in that man-eating forest,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

“But you could still die by Ximen Chuixue’s sword anytime!”

Lu Xiaofeng sighed. “Can’t you say something nicer for once?”

Dugu Mei smiled, said: “I only want to tell you one thing.”

Lu Xiaofeng was listening.

“There was no one in the world who could have saved you, but you saved yourself instead.”

“Oh?”

“When you saved me just now,” Dugu Mei said, “you saved yourself at the same time.”

“You didn’t really want to take me to that Mansion, did you?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

Dugu Mei nodded. “But I’ve changed my mind,” he said, “because even though I don’t care a hoot for anyone, I’m still human.”

He gazed at Lu Xiaofeng, and the cunning look in his eyes suddenly turned tender. “You didn’t desert me even in those circumstances, so now I won’t abandon you either.”

Lu Xiaofeng smiled.

There is always a kind side to human nature, of that he was always confident.

There was a smaller slab of green stone beneath the branches, and Dugu Mei said: “Go move that stone and see if there’s a chest under that.”

There was.

Made of rattan, the chest contained a piece of cured meat, chicken, a flask of wine, a packet of medicine for knife wounds, a whistle and a letter.

The whistle was oddly-shaped, the color of the letter and its envelope were also strange, like a dead man’s skin.

There were only ten words on the letter: “Blow the whistle, listen for the echoes, follow the sounds.”

Lu Xiaofeng took a swallow of wine. “Good wine.”

He gave a satisfied sigh and said: “These people are really thoughtful.”

Dugu Mei said: “They do things down to the finest detail and their reputation is stellar. Once you have a contract with them, they will ensure you get to the Mansion.”

“What contract?” Lu Xiaofeng couldn’t resist asking.

“Contract to save your life,” Dugu Mei replied.

He didn’t evade Lu Xiaofeng’s question this time, so Lu Xiaofeng immediately asked: “What Mansion?”

“Mansion of Spirits.”

Mansion of Spirits!

– Only dead people could go there!

Lu Xiaofeng could feel his palms turning cold, but couldn’t resist asking: “Don’t tell me that place is full of dead people’s spirits?”

Dugu Mei smiled mysteriously and replied slowly: “Precisely because all the dead people’s spirits are there, no living person can find it, and no living person dares to go in!”

“What about you?” Lu Xiaofeng queried.

Dugu Mei’s smile grew even more mysterious. “I am at a dead end, of course I’m bound to die.”

“Since you had to die, of course you’re already a dead person!”

“Now you finally understand,” Dugu Mei said.

“I don’t,” Lu Xiaofeng gave a forced smile. “I don’t understand at all.”

The whistle was in his hand. He couldn’t resist blowing it gently, and a strange, keen sound pierced the air, startling even him.

Just at this moment, the same whistling sound floated over the distance, as though from the west!

It was not difficult to distinguish whistle sounds in the vast loneliness of the mountains. They followed the sounds, forwards and upwards; all around them mist swirled and eventually they found themselves amongst clouds.

After a good amount of wine and half a chicken, Lu Xiaofeng was full of energy and felt he could go on and on.

Dugu Mei’s condition, however, worsened and Lu Xiaofeng could smell the stench emitting from his wound. But Lu Xiaofeng didn’t mind at all.

“Ximen Chuixue isn’t deaf.”

“Of course not.”

“He would have heard the whistle sounds.”

“Mm.”

“So he could be upon us anytime.”

“Probably.”

“Since you know the way into the mountain, you’d best put me down.” Dugu Mei’s face was twisted with pain. “You’d make better progress alone. I can’t make it; even if I reach there, I probably wouldn’t live much longer.”

His were sincere words, but Lu Xiaofeng didn’t seem to have heard a single word.

He moved even faster; the clouds were suddenly at his feet, and the clouds in his mind dissipated.

Ahead, the sky was clear and the mountains stretched on as though in a beautiful painting.

But Lu Xiaofeng’s heart plummeted.

In front of him was a bottomless abyss; he was looking at those picturesque mountains, but there was no way to bridge the gap between them.

He picked up a stone and tossed it into the abyss, but couldn’t hear the slightest hint of an echo.

Below, clouds swirled around and nothing could be seen, not even souls of dead people.

Could it be that the Mansion of Spirits was located down in that deep gully?

Lu Xiaofeng gave a forced smile and said: “It doesn’t seem that difficult to get to the Mansion of Spirits. You only have to jump off from here and you’d instantly be a dead person.”

Dugu Mei panted and said: “Try blowing the whistle again?”

The keen sound of the whistle sliced through the loneliness and the clouds.

Suddenly, someone appeared among the clouds.

There were white clouds both in the sky and in the abyss, and this person was just there among the clouds, as though suspended in mid-air.

Who had the ability to stand on the clouds like that?

A dead person? The soul of a dead person?

Lu Xiaofeng expelled a breath, then realised this person was moving very quickly, as though riding with the wind. In the blink of an eye, one could tell the colour of his clothes and should be able to discern his features.

But he had no features or facial outline, it was as though someone had pared off his face with a knife.

If one had not seen him in person, one could not have imagined what kind of face that was.

Lu Xiaofeng was no coward, but when he saw that face, he could feel his legs turning into jelly and nearly fell into the bottomless abyss below.

He could feel Dugu Mei, who was on his back, trembling as well; at this moment, the person had arrived in front of them all too quickly.

Although this person had leapt up the mountain, when he moved his body still seemed to be floating and his feet were at least half a foot off the ground.

Lu Xiaofeng had always thought that the three most skilled martial artists in qinggong were Sikong Zhaixing, Ximen Chuixue and himself.

Now he knew he was wrong.

This person’s qinggong skills were strange, just like his face; unless you saw it for yourself, you could not have imagined it.

Now he was gazing at Lu Xiaofeng, his eyes resembling volcanic vents that had just recently spouted lava, scorching hot and dangerous.

Lu Xiaofeng had no idea what he was going to say to such a person.

Dugu Mei suddenly asked: “Are you the Soul Collector of the Mansion?” He saw this man nod and immediately continued: “I’m Dugu Mei, my soul is already here.”

This person finally opened his mouth: “I know, I knew you would come.”

His voice was slow, strange and constricted, because he had no lips.

People who had not seen him could not have imagined what it was like to speak for someone with no lips.

Dugu Mei didn’t even dare to look at him, for fear that he would vomit.

The Soul Collector suddenly laughed coldly: “You don’t dare to look at me? Is it because I’m too ugly?”

“Of course not…” Dugu Mei immediately denied with a forced smile.

“If that’s not the case, then look at my face when you talk to me,” the Soul Collector said.

Dugu Mei had no choice but to look at his face, but he didn’t open his mouth because his throat and stomach had constricted out of fear, and no sound came out.

The Soul Collector was laughing instead, it seemed he enjoyed seeing people frightened and in pain, enjoyed having people be afraid of him.

But his laughter ended soon enough as he said coldly: “You should have come alone, why are there two of you now?”

Dugu Mei still couldn’t open his mouth, so he was unable to answer the question.

“You stay, he goes!” said the Soul Collector.

Dugu Mei suddenly gathered up his courage and replied: “He can’t go either.”

“If he doesn’t go, you go.”

“I have a contract,” Dugu Mei protested loudly. “It’s a contract that you guys made.”

“You have a contract, he doesn’t,” the Soul Collector said.

Dugu Mei said: “He’s my friend, I can pay the contract price for him.”

“Pay now.”

“I can pay it anytime,” Dugu Mei said. “I have…”

The Soul Collector interrupted him coldly: “Even if you pay now, it’s too late.”

“Why?” Dugu Mei asked.

“Because I say so.”

“But since he’s here, he surely can’t go back alive,” Dugu Mei argued.

“If you want to save him, you go and leave him here,” the Soul Collector replied coldly.

He had no lips and his voice sounded as though it’d come from hell, where it’d been refined by demonic fire.

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly spoke up loudly: “I go.”

He set Dugu Mei down gently, patted his clothes and, true to his word, walked off.

Dugu Mei was still panting, and suddenly grabbed the edge of his clothes, said: “You stay, I go.”

Lu Xiaofeng chuckled. “You don’t have to worry. I made it here in one piece, so I can get back out alive too.”

Dugu Mei laughed too and said loudly: “I know you aren’t concerned about life and death, but I’m really afraid of dying…”

“But you aren’t any longer,” Lu Xiaofeng finished for him.

Dug Mei nodded. “Because I…”

“Because you won’t live long anyway, so you want to let me have the opportunity instead,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

“This is the only chance,” Dugu Mei said.

“I’ve heard all these already, and I understand your intention, but…”

“You still won’t?”

Lu Xiaofeng smiled and said: “I’m very satisfied to have made friends with someone who doesn’t give a damn about kinship. Unfortunately, I don’t have a habit of wanting my friends to die on my behalf.”

“You are bent on leaving?” Dugu Mei asked.

“I definitely can leave quicker than you,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

The Soul Collector gazed coldly at them, his eyes filled with indescribable hatred.

He abhorred friendship, hated all things good and beautiful, just like the bats that detested sunlight.

Suddenly, a voice called out in the distance: “Bring them in, both of them.”

The clear, crisp sound came from somewhere in the white clouds, and there suddenly appeared among the clouds a pale red shadow, also seemingly suspended in mid-air and waving them over.

“Who said to bring them inside?”

“Old Sabre Honcho[2].”

These words were like an incantation, and Lu Xiaofeng was suddenly transported into another world.

No one could hang suspended in mid-air, and no one could really travel with the wind.

The Soul Collector was also human, not a ghost or spirit, so how had he come?

After Lu Xiaofeng crossed over, he realized that hidden among the clouds was a very thick steel cable that served as a link between the cliffs.

This was their bridge.

The bridge from the mundane world to the ‘Spiritual’ entrance.

On this side of the cliff was a big bamboo basket, attached to a pulley that was hooked on the steel cable.

The cliff on this side was higher, and once one of the ropes was released, the bamboo basket would slide over to the other side of the mountain.

Dugu Mei was already in the bamboo basket.

The Soul Collector gazed coldly at Lu Xiaofeng and said: “Are you thinking of getting in there too?”

“I have legs,” Lu Xiaofeng replied.

“If you slip and fall down there, you won’t have any more legs,” the Soul Collector said.

“I can see that.”

“You won’t have either soul or corpse; once you fall in there, you’ll be turned into minced meat.”

“I can imagine,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

“This cable is very slippery,” the Soul Collector said. “The wind up here is very strong, and no matter how good one’s qinggong skills are, there’s always the possibility of falling down.”

Lu Xiaofeng chuckled. “You’ve fallen down there before?”

“No.”

“You like me?”

The Soul Collector laughed coldly.

Lu Xiaofeng said lightly: “Since you haven’t fallen in, how would you know that I would? Since you don’t like me, why would you care whether I lived or died?”

“Fine,” the Soul Collector said frostily, “you go first.”

“You want to walk behind me and watch me fall?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“There are plenty of chances like that, and I don’t like to miss them,” the Soul Collector said.

Lu Xiaofeng chuckled again. “But this time, I promise you will be disappointed.”

The steel cable was indeed very slippery and the mountain wind was very strong. One was like a hapless candle flame walking on the cable in such circumstances.

There were misty clouds drifting around them, and the world seemed to be floating, so it was difficult to get a firm footing on the cable.

But the more difficult the task, the more enjoyable it was to Lu Xiaofeng.

He wasn’t walking very quickly, because it was easier to be fast rather than slow; he walked slowly, as though treading on a flat, broad road.

The Soul Collector could only follow behind.

So Lu Xiaofeng was in great spirits.

Wind breezed past beneath his trousers, clouds flew by in front of his eyes, and he suddenly felt that there was nothing in the world worth troubling over. Even if he slipped and fell, he didn’t care.

His voice was normally very rough and he couldn’t carry a tune, so he’d stopped singing after he turned nine.

However, he suddenly felt like bursting into song and actually began singing a children’s song, because he only knew children’s songs:

“Little girl carrying a clay doll,
Came to the garden to admire the flowers…”

A sudden whoosh of wind over his head, and a man was standing in front of him.

A man without a face.

Lu Xiaofeng grinned. “Is my singing nice?”

The Soul Collector said coldly: “That’s not singing. That’s a donkey braying.”

Lu Xiaofeng roared with laughter. “So there are times when you get fed up too. Great. Fantastic.”

He began singing again, his voice even louder.

“The doll cried for mama,
And the birds in the trees burst out laughing…”

The Soul Collector stared at him frostily. When the singing was over, he asked: “Are you Lu Xiaofeng?”

“You mean you can recognise me from my singing?” Lu Xiaofeng asked. “Don’t tell me my voice is more famous than my own self?”

“You’re really Lu Xiaofeng?” the Soul Collector persisted.

“Other than Lu Xiaofeng, who else could sing like that?”

“Know who I am?”

“No.” He smiled again. “There are many people in this world who don’t want face, but none who have done it as completely as you.”

The Soul Collector’s eyes seemed to blaze up again; suddenly he removed a black wooden hairpin from his hair and threw it at Lu Xiaofeng.

There was nothing extraordinary about his strike, but it was too fast, so fast that it was beyond imagination.

Lu Xiaofeng had no time to retreat or dodge; he could only stretch out his hand and catch it with two fingers!

This was originally an infallible strike, but this time it had failed.

An ordinary black wooden hairpin seemed to have split into two, quick as lightning they were about to pierce his eyes.

Had he been on flat ground, he could of course have dodged, but he was standing on a slippery cable right now and not on stable ground.

His body tilted and he lost his footing. He dropped down, right into that bottomless pit below.

– One fall and he’d become minced meat.

He did not become minced meat.

The Soul Collector inclined his head downwards and saw a foot hanging on the steel cable. Lu Xiaofeng was just like a fish being strung up on the fishing rod, swaying with the wind.

He seemed as don’t-carish as ever, even amused, and started singing again:

“Rock-a-bye baby,
Rocking to grandma’s bridge,
Grandma called me a good baby…”

He didn’t carry on, because he’d forgotten the rest of the lyrics.

“Looks like you’re really Lu Xiaofeng,” the Soul Collector said.

“I still am now,” Lu Xiaofeng replied. “But maybe I’d become a pile of minced meat later on.”

“You’re really not afraid of death?” the Soul Collector asked.

A “whooshing” sound and like the turning of a pinwheel, he was suddenly upright again on the steel cable, smiling as he said: “Looks like you don’t really want me to die either.”

The Soul Collector said coldly: “I just want you to know one thing.”

“What thing?”

The fire was back in the Soul Collector’s eyes as he bit out: “I want you to know, Ximen Chuixue is not the fastest sword in the world. I am quicker than he.”

This time, Lu Xiaofeng did not laugh and an odd expression entered his eyes as he gazed at the other and asked: “Who exactly are you?”

“Someone who doesn’t want face,” the Soul Collector said.

He didn’t want face and had no face either. He was devoid of expression, but there seemed to be indescribable grief in his voice.

Lu Xiaofeng was about to press further, but he’d already darted off like a bird and in a flash, disappeared among the white clouds.

The misty clouds swirled about and Lu Xiaofeng stood stupidly among them, his thoughts uncertain.

After a long while, he began walking forward again and finally reached the other side. He saw in front of him two bamboo poles and a red string tied between them. In the distance, a cold voice said: “Once you cross this life-death line, you are a dead man.” The voice was as chilly as the tip of a knife: “So you’d better think again: should you cross over or go back?”

Lu Xiaofeng was also asking himself that: “Should I cross over or go back?”

Once he was over the line he’d be a dead man, but if he turned back it’d be a dead end too.

This line would probably break when touched, but how many could actually cross over?

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly laughed. “There were times when I felt like dying every day but I couldn’t; I didn’t expect that today it’d be so easy to die.”

He smiled and easily crossed over, walked into a world he’d never expected.

Into a dead person’s world.

It was hazy all around and nothing could be seen, not even the Soul Collector, who’d disappeared to god knows where.

Dugu Mei was gone too.

– What sort of a place was this?
– Am I really a dead person now?

Lu Xiaofeng heaved his chest and strode ahead, bursting into song again:

“Little girl carrying a clay doll,
Came to the garden to admire the flowers…”

He hadn’t yet finished the line when he heard a voice moaning: “Please, spare me.”

[1] This is a very common children’s song, here are the Chinese lyrics (complete with pinyin):
“妹妹背着泥娃娃,(mei1 mei1 bei4 zhe ni2 wa2 wa)
走到花园来看花,(zou3 dao4 hua1 yuan2 lai2 kan4 hua1)
娃娃哭了叫妈妈,(wa2 wa ku1 le jiao4 ma1 ma1)
树上的小鸟笑哈哈……” (shu4 shang4 de xiao3 niao3 xiao4 ha1 ha1)

[2] Old Sabre Honcho was named in the spirit of “Ancient Pine Hermit” Obviously it’s a pseudonym. The Chinese title is 老刀把子 (lao3 dao1 ba3 zi).

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