Chapter 17 – Passer-by
As the ray of white light neared, despair flashed in Liu Meng’s eyes and she stopped struggling. The flame receded as she shut her eyes. However, the next moment, she opened them wide again and a pillar of fire pierced the clouds above her.
“Nine-phoenix soaring through the skies!” A sonorous, bird-like shriek was heard and everything around Liu Meng was set ablaze; the village, the forest, the mountains and even the water in the rivers. The land and half of the sky were now painted in only one color: red. Red, just like the blood of the villagers who were slaughtered.
The black ribbon around Liu Meng snapped open, and with it, half of Zhi Wu’s body was reduced to ashes. The destructive attack that Xiao Hei had prepared for so long simply vanished when it came into contact with the pillar of light. Fang Shui’er knelt on the ground on one knee, unable to hold her bow up anymore. Her armor had broken into pieces and, after brushing her disordered hair aside, she looked at the scene with mingled emotions; fear, guilt, and even fascination at the beauty of the carnage. The broken belt of insects gathered and the smoke within billowed until Zeng Qian appeared with a vacant look. Her repulsive, mummy-like body shuddered from fear, or perhaps anger as she awaited her fate.
The cannon that Xiao Hei had transformed into disappeared. What remained of it was Xiao Hei, lying languidly against the ground. Instead of looking at the fire, he stared at Zeng Qian with despair. Only half of Zhi Wu’s body still remained, and white smoke came out of his carcass as it was slowly consumed by the flames. This was a grim reminder of the kind of demise that they were soon to share.
Li Yiming had jumped into a small pond nearby to alleviate the unbearable heat from the giant conflagration. However, he could feel that even the water was slowly warming up. Li Yiming stared at the sky as the red light faded away and a clump of flaming cloud gathered above it, too bewildered to even be able to formulate a coherent thought.
“Phoenix…” Xiao Hei sighed in frustration. This was the real phoenix. He had been far too naive in thinking that with guardian powers, he would be able to achieve anything. What little strength or knowledge he possessed mattered little when facing a real mythical beast.
Lines and shapes slowly emerged out of the clump of clouds, and slowly, the shape of a giant phoenix became distinguishable. The upper body of a Qilin, but the lower body of a deer, the head of a snake but the tail of a fish, the mouth of a sparrow but the beak of a chicken, and three long, colorful feathers that burned behind is tail. Its bright eyes cast down a cold look. “Not bad, you’ve forced me to this point…” They heard a voice ring directly inside their heads; it was not Liu Meng’s voice anymore, but one that did not belong to a human. 1
The phoenix, in her boundless anger, shrieked and flapped its wings. As she flew upward, the curtains of fire were pulled up behind her, and the flames slowly gathered. “It’s over.” Fang Shui’er dropped her bow and sat down on the ground. Her broken armor, as if it was mourning its fate, emitted a high-pitched screech as it scratched against the pebbles.
“So this is a mythical beast.” Xiao Hei looked at Zeng Qian, who seemed drained of all her strength and vitality. ‘Well, we tried our hardest, and to die with Qianqian… At least I have the comfort of that.’ He struggled to get up and limped as fast as he could toward his lover.
Zeng Qian had also given up all hope. She smiled when she saw Xiao Hei coming at her. ‘At least he’s by my side.’ She huddled against him as she could and they awaited their punishment together. Xiao Hei looked around, at Fang Shui’er, who was barely able to stand, at the remains of Zhi Wu and Zhi Wen’s corpses, and finally at Li Yiming, who stood in the little pond.
‘Li Yiming? What about Bai Ze…’ A thought suddenly occurred to Xiao Hei.
“Li Yiming, if you stand there and do nothing, we’re all going to die. “ Xiao Hei lifted Zeng Qian and pulled her toward Li Yiming. ‘It doesn’t matter that I die, but for Qianqian’s sake, if there’s a chance at life, I’m not going to give up. The phoenix may be a mythical beast, but so is Bai Ze, and that Li Yiming hasn’t done a single thing until now, and his master…’
‘Li Yiming?’ Hope suddenly gushed back into Fang Shui’er vacant stare. She had also forgotten about him. She picked up her bow and moved as fast as she could toward Li Yiming: a guardian would not give up even if there was only a sliver of hope.
The phoenix suddenly dove toward them, leaving a blazing trail behind her.
Li Yiming was staring at the pond water absent-mindedly when he noticed the three people approaching him. He instinctively brought out a weapon from his storage bracelet. A very mundane decorative sword, about three feet long, and two inches wide, a Yinyang symbol was carved onto the hilt, and a little red thread knot hung from its tip. Xiao Hei was joyously surprised by Li Yiming’s initiative and accelerated his pace. He arrived behind Li Yiming at the same time as Fang Shui’er, and the two looked at his sword very eagerly.
Li Yiming was baffled by their looks. ‘Why are you looking at me? Do I look like someone who can handle that thing?’
The phoenix accelerated her descent. With another strident shriek that resounded through the mountains, she brought down imminent destruction. Li Yiming could feel that if the phoenix was ever to land, not only himself, but Ning Village and even the entire Prefecture would be destroyed.
Fang Shui’er looked at Li Yiming rather nervously. ‘What is he waiting for?’
The phoenix was enraged; she used to soar the nine heavens, and now she was reduced to such a pitiful state first by a severe wound, then by some humans that were as feeble as insects had she been at her prime. Not only were several years of recovery lost, but the humans were here for the Fruit of Nirvana, the one thing that she needed to save herself. The phoenix’s boundless anger and rage compelled her to destroy everything, to burn everything until only ashes remain. She aimed for Li Yiming, who was at the head of her foes.
Li Yiming who had been, until now, only a spectator, was frozen in terror by the mightiness and the furor of the mythical beast. As it flew closer and closer, Li Yiming found himself unable to move. The only thing he could do was to stare at the oncoming flash of red light as it became bigger and brighter. The pond water sizzled as it heated up, and even his clothes were beginning to burn…
Suddenly, a figure appeared in front of Li Yiming. He stood on the surface of the pond water: it seemed like his plastic slippers somehow allowed him to stay on top of the liquid instead of sinking down. His rolled-up square pajamas exposed a pair of hairy legs. He carried a knit-bag with his left hand, and slowly extended his right hand in the direction of the phoenix.
The phoenix’s course came to a sudden stop when the red halo around her body collided with the palm of the man. Although the vegetation and the mountains were devastated, the strange man and the four people behind him were completely unaffected.
“Calm down, birdy,” said the man calmly, in slightly a displeased voice. The fire was suddenly extinguished and the giant phoenix shrunk until a girl fell into the man’s arms.
‘That’s it? It’s over, just like that?’ Fang Shui’er was astonished. ‘So this is the guy behind Li Yiming? The end of the world a second ago and now, nothing?’
“Sorry, the birdie has a bad temper. She’s pretty angry, so I’ll let her sleep for a bit. Are you okay?” The man turned around with a smile and asked. Although he was dressed poorly and spoke in a lazy voice, something about him conveyed a sense of refinement.
“Mis… mister…” Fang Shui’er was the fastest to salute him. Xiao Hei and Zeng Qian quickly followed.
“Big bro?” Li Yiming had the biggest reaction. ‘Isn’t this the guy who gave me the invitation and dragged me into all of this. He’s… that strong?’
‘Big bro…?’ Fang Shui’er and her friends were shocked. ‘Just as we thought, this Li Yiming is a big shot.’
The man’s smile broadened, and he nodded.
“Liu Meng…” Li Yiming looked at Liu Meng, who seemed asleep, in the man’s arms. Her hair and her clothes were just as they were before she was possessed, and her cheeks were of a healthy rose.
“Who are you?” Li Yiming suddenly snapped out of his shock and asked. ‘I don’t know how to describe the opportunity that he gave to me… Good? Bad?’
‘They don’t know each other?’ Li Yiming’s question surprised Fang Shui’er and her friends.
“I’ve told you, I’m just a passer-by.” The man waved his arm and walked toward the edge of the pond.
“Why me?” Li Yiming followed him. He had a thousand questions for the man but didn’t know where to start. He glanced at the three people behind him and started with the one he was most curious about.
The man sat down on a rock by the shore. Although his seat was still red from the burning a moment before, by the time he lowered himself, the heat was gone. The man set Liu Meng down and pulled out a cigarette from his bag. He held one between his lips and gave another to Li Yiming. Li Yiming received the object without thinking, and the smile on the man’s face broadened. He waved with a cigarette in his hand at the three who followed, and all of them shook their heads promptly; Xiao Hei was a smoker, but he did not dare to accept the offer.
Li Yiming did not notice the reactions of those behind him. He brought a lighter out of his bracelet and offered to light up the man’s cigarette. The latter answered with a loud laugh. Li Yiming did not understand this response, but still stared at the man seriously, waiting for an answer. This question was very important to him. ‘I wouldn’t think that I’m special in any way, so why me?’
‘Buddhists care about karma, and Taoists speak of inheritance. What do you believe in?” The man took a deep whiff and looked at Li Yiming calmly. 2
‘Karma, inheritance? Can you not give an answer like this every single time?’ Li Yiming was puzzled. “Could you give a more… concrete answer?” Li Yiming was a little embarrassed, so he lit up his own cigarette and knelt down beside the man: he did not dare to try to sit on the still-burning rocks. “Maybe you don’t know, big bro, but I studied dance, so I’m not very well-versed on things like that,” he squeezed out a euphemism.
Fang Shui’er and her friends waited cautiously on the side, looking at the two as they spoke casually, careful to not even risk an interruption. ‘Don’t know each other? Who are you kidding?’
“It’s just like this cigarette,” said the man as he flicked away the ash on its tip, smiling gently as always.
“Yes.” Li Yiming nodded.
“The first time I offered one, you refused.”
“The second time I tried, you accepted.”
“And you even lit up one for me.”
“And then you lit the one I gave to you.”
One more chapter until the end of Book 2, Defense of Ning Village. Are you ready for the next adventure?
1. The Qilin, or Kirin, is a famous mythical beast in Eastern Mythology, usually a sign of auspices. Also the Chinese phoenix might be a little different from the Western one.
2. Inheritance, 承负, is essentially the same as karma. You’ll eventually get rewarded for your good deeds and punished for your bad ones.