The group wandered around the outskirts of Huilian Mountain for a long time, watching as the sun began to set and night approached. The towering mountains were bathed in the last rays of sunlight, casting a heavy shadow over everything.
Yin Ci's Heart Demons were so abnormal that the others didn't dare to venture too far into Huilian Mountain.
Yan Qing wrapped Lord Bai in clothes and half-dragged, half-carried Su Si. Yin Ci stood still for a long time before taking the initiative to grab Shi Jingzhi's hand.
Even though the situation was abnormal, standing still was not an option. Except for Yin Ci, everyone suddenly lost their internal strength and were more vulnerable to the cold than usual. If they continued to stand there alone, they would all be frozen solid.
The four members of the Ku Mountain Sect climbed up the steps and stopped in front of the pavilion near the mountainside.
On either side of the pavilion stood strange rocks, and a thriving pine tree scattered the cold wind outside. Yan Qing tried hard to ignore the large human head lamp and skillfully started a fire.
The orange flames ignited, spreading warmth and diminishing some of the fear.
No one suggested leaving. Since they had decided to enter the mountains, they had to get used to their physical condition...and these strange Heart Demons.
"Ah Ci's Heart Demon is quite effective in blocking the wind," Shi Jingzhi broke the silence after a while.
It could more than just block the wind; they could all live in it. However, Yin Ci was still the more senior disciple, so Yan Qing obediently swallowed his thoughts.
The human head lamp was too large, and just its corner alone was a tight squeeze in the pavilion, which seemed as fragile as paper. Countless shadows moved their hands from time to time, getting stuck between the pillars and forming two "hand walls."
Luckily, Yan Qing and Su Si were both well-traveled and eventually got used to it.
"Even if the Heart Demon can transform, why can't it be an illusion? Who would have thought it would transform into a physical body?" Su Si pounded the snake tail in bitterness. The scales were icy cold and felt like metal to the touch. He nearly suspected that his legs had frozen.
But this snake tail had a sense of touch, several times more sensitive than the soles of his feet.
Shi Jingzhi chuckled dryly. He let his disciple pull him along, but couldn't think of any inspiring words for a while.
Yan Qing's martial arts were mediocre, and based on martial arts alone, even Shi Jingzhi's own weren't much to speak about. Yin Ci and Su Si were supposed to be their trump cards for this trip back to Huilian Mountain - those two had excellent martial arts and qinggong, and even if they lost their internal strength, the impact would not be significant.
As a result, not only did this plan fail terribly, but just after entering the formation for half an incense stick's worth of time, one became blind and the other became disabled.
Luckily, Yin Ci's Heart Demons had spawned countless ghostly hands that could move on their own and disperse and gather when encountering obstacles. Otherwise, not only would he be unable to help, but he would also have to leave a trail of destruction in his wake as he made his way up Huilian Mountain.
No wonder Jianchen Temple dared to use the Buddha's Heart Formation to drive people away. This formation was truly formidable.
Yin Ci appeared calm on the surface as he tightly held his master's hand, interlocking their fingers. However, his slender fingers exerted so much force that without any internal energy, Shi Jingzhi couldn't break free.
But Shi Jingzhi didn't try to break free either.
Yin Ci had to rely on him, and this feeling made his hair stand on end, giving rise to an indescribable sensation in his heart.
Ever since taking on this disciple, he had become overly reliant on him. Now that their roles had switched, Shi Jingzhi felt consumed by emotions and an unfamiliar worry. His fear of the human head lamp was like a rootless fluff, easily dispersed by the cold wind.
He didn't like this bitter and sour emotion, but it gave him a sense of control that calmed his growing desires.
It was a strange feeling.
Just as Shi Jingzhi was pondering over these emotions, Yin Ci spoke up.
"The Buddha's Heart Formation doesn't completely keep people out, which is good. When we reach the Jianchen Temple, we wouldn't seem too disrespectful."
He spoke casually, without any hint of pressure.
Su Si was unconvinced, "...This still doesn't count as keeping people out? I heard that there are three powerful mountain demons on Huilian Mountain who embody greed, anger, and ignorance. Even with the Buddha's Heart Formation active, they won't be resting. If we're in this state, even a big wild boar could knock us down, let alone demons."
Yin Ci opened his eyes slightly, his unfocused black pupils staring into the air. "Actually, Shizun is right. The Buddha's Heart Formation is a formation of the Buddhist tradition. Brother Su, why don't you think of it this way - what if the visitors were instead helpless children with nowhere else to go?"
With low martial arts skills and no strong desires or emotions clouding their judgment, the Buddha's Heart Formation would have no effect on them. Since the three demons representing "greed, anger, and ignorance" are left alone by the monks, they definitely possess intelligence and won't harm people indiscriminately.
With a clear conscience and no fear of being targeted by these demons, such people cannot be stopped by the Buddhist barrier nor will the monks mind their presence on the mountain.
Instead of being sealed, Jianchen Temple seemed more like it was avoiding the dangers of the jianghu rather than seeking true seclusion.
After hearing Yin Ci's response, Su Si seemed to have gained some understanding. He stopped talking and just silently stroked his own tail.
Shi Jingzhi squeezed out a smile and said, "Yin Ci is right. We have no ill intentions on this trip. Once we pass through the barrier, the masters will surely not turn us away... Let's rest here for the night and take a break."
He then showed some of the authority of a sect leader, "Su Si, you should familiarize yourself with your physical condition and not let Yan Qing continue to support you. It's too unsafe in case a demon attacks."
"Okay, I already had that in mind." Su Si replied.
"Yan Qing, you go help him. Ah Ci and I... I'll prepare the food." Shi Jingzhi looked at his disciple's lifeless eyes and changed his mind halfway through.
Su Si couldn't behave for more than three seconds. He put down his tail and followed Lord Bai's Heart Demon with his gaze, unable to resist asking, "Can we eat this roast goose?"
Lord Bai immediately stood up and twisted the tip of Su Si's tail with his beak.
Su Si had scales and wasn't afraid of the goose's beak. He struggled to lift himself up and grabbed the floating roast goose. But as soon as he held it, he was prepared for disappointment - it was too light.
Although the Heart Demon was warm to the touch, it was as light as cotton.
Su Si tried to pull on the roast goose's leg, and Lord Bai immediately screamed in agony, bending his leg and falling to the ground.
Yan Qing sighed and released Su Si's hand, putting down the roasted goose.
"This Heart Demon is probably linked to the physical body. I tried to break the flesh shackles just now, but it was too painful... Ah Si, forget it."
The oily roasted goose began to float freely again, and Su Si's eyes were full of regret. Even when Yan Qing carried him away, his gaze was still fixed on the goose leg.
Only two people were left in the pavilion now.
Yin Ci's huge Heart Demon was still blocking the edge of the pavilion, and pairs of shadowy hands covered his neck and waist, as if adding a black armor to him. Yin Ci sat on the stone bench, silent. The sun had already set, casting a dim light on the snowy scenery, making the whole scene look like a beautiful ghostly painting.
Shi Jingzhi slowly pried open Yin Ci's fingers. "Ah Ci, let go. I have to cook."
Yin Ci frowned and took a while to let go. "Shizun, are you sure you can cook?"
"The taste is not guaranteed, but it's definitely edible. It's so cold outside, so I'll make a stew," said Shi Jingzhi in a wavering tone.
Yin Ci: "..." He strongly suspected that this fox only knew how to make a mess in the kitchen.
Unfortunately, it's easy to go from frugality to extravagance, but difficult to go from extravagance to frugality. Shi Jingzhi held the knife, but quickly lost his confidence.
He gestured aimlessly for a while, then turned to Yin Ci and asked, "Ah Ci, if it were you making the stew, how would you cut the radish?"
Yin Ci struggled to stand up and reached out to touch Shi Jingzhi. When he touched his master, he seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
He leaned against Shi Jingzhi's side, his fingers brushing over the blade and ingredients, then touched Shi Jingzhi's hand and gestured lightly, "If it's Shizun, you usually like to eat it at this thickness."
"You remember all of this?"
As Shi Jingzhi stood there in a daze, he silently lowered his head and began to chop vegetables. Yin Ci remained by his side, never leaving even an inch of space between them.
Shi Jingzhi wanted to ask, "Are you afraid?" but he felt that with this person's tendency to sugarcoat things, he might just turn and walk away. So he swallowed all his doubts and obediently continued to chop the carrots.
After finishing the carrots, it was time for the tofu. The freezing cold weather had turned the tofu into a solid block, making it hard and slippery to cut without any internal strength to assist. Countless ghostly hands seemed to be shaking around him, but Shi Jingzhi's mind was elsewhere. Before long, he received his comeuppance - his knife slipped and he cut the tip of his left index finger.
Blood gushed out and Shi Jingzhi quickly withdrew his hand to reach for the medicine box.
"...If it were any other day, Ah Ci would have already handed me the medicine," he thought blankly.
Habits truly were a terrifying thing.
However, this time he didn't touch the medicine box, only a warm hand. The hand accurately caught the injured finger and gently lifted it up. In the next moment, the injured fingertip was enveloped in a warm sensation.
Yin Ci licked the blood from Shi Jingzhi's fingertip with a natural and graceful movement, as if everything was going according to plan.
His soft lips lightly pressed against the finger pad, and his tongue wrapped around the fresh blood from the wound, sending a shocking heat through Shi Jingzhi's body.
He jerked his hand back like he was struck by lightning, "You--"
"Shizun is too careless," Yin Ci wiped the blood from his lips, "I couldn't find the medicine box, but we can't just wait for the blood to drip onto food."
The sensation of the other's lips and tongue still lingered on his fingertip, and it took Shi Jingzhi a while to compose himself, "You're blind, just be honest. I, I can do it myself."
Yin Ci didn't move again at his words, "Mm."
As he simmered the ingredients, Shi Jingzhi's heart continued to beat erratically. He focused all his energy on organizing his thoughts and silently began cooking the rice.
Meanwhile, Yin Ci seemed to have made a decision and spoke up again: "Thank you."
Although the gratitude seemed to come out of nowhere, Shi Jingzhi felt a sense of fulfillment, guessing that it was because he hadn't forced Yin Ci to reveal his past or avoid his deliberate closeness.
...Perhaps it was because he hadn't asked that one question: "Are you afraid?"
Yan Qing and Su Si were practicing in the distance, so Shi Jingzhi greeted them from afar and started eating first. The stew was steaming hot and the taste was not terrible, but it was also extremely mediocre. The soup was slightly too salty, the tofu had a strong bean smell, and the radish was slightly overcooked, falling apart at the slightest touch of the chopsticks.
As Shi Jingzhi ate, he frowned in discomfort and looked apologetically at Yin Ci. Yin Ci held his bowl carefully and ate spoonfuls of soup without spilling a drop. He didn't show any particular expression, and his eating habits were no different from usual.
However, his movements were stiff and restrained, and he seemed to be suffocating like never before.
The meal was eaten in silence, with no one saying a word.
After putting down his chopsticks, Shi Jingzhi couldn't take it anymore. He pulled Yin Ci and immediately walked out of the pavilion.
Yin Ci's mood wasn't any good either.
He had taken a few glances at the scenery within the formation, but as the Heart Demon took shape, his vision gradually plunged into darkness. Although everyone thought he was blind, Yin Ci knew very well that blindness didn't mean seeing darkness in front of one's eyes.
He could still see, but only blackness.
Countless icy hands grabbed him from behind, binding him in a freezing embrace. Yin Ci couldn't discern the form of his Heart Demon, nor did he have the luxury to speculate - he was nearly crushed by the thick, unrelenting darkness.
Truly, the Buddha's Heart Formation was a test of the human heart, accurately pinpointing his deepest fears.
Yin Ci wasn't familiar with Yan Qing and Su Si yet, and Shi Jingzhi became his only lifeline.
Involuntarily, Yin Ci held onto him tightly, almost losing control of his strength. Feeling the warmth and pulse of the other person, he gradually calmed down and regained his clarity of mind.
As for whether Shi Jingzhi was suspicious or uncomfortable, it was not within Yin Ci's consideration at this point.
He had no other choice.
Shi Jingzhi had always been quiet, keeping to himself and never questioning the seemingly outrageous Heart Demon he had manifested. Just as everyone had settled down from the chaos, his master's first question was about how to cut a carrot.
Even in the midst of darkness that made Yin Ci dizzy and filled with irritation, he couldn't help but almost laugh at his master's question.
But Shi Jingzhi remained silent, and being unable to see his expressions, it seemed as though he was pretending that nothing was wrong. After a meal had passed, the tension between the two had finally eased, only to slowly build up again.
Yin Ci tried to calm his mind, but in the midst of the madness, he couldn't help but feel a little regretful.
After dinner, Shi Jingzhi couldn't hold back any longer. He pulled Yin Ci outside of the pavilion, into the cold winter night. The air was dry and frigid, and Shi Jingzhi had purposely chosen this atmosphere. It seemed like they were about to have a serious conversation.
Yin Ci was filled with irritation and restlessness, and if it were any other day, he would have enjoyed teasing the fox. Now, he only hoped that his master could settle down and let him catch his breath, so he could suppress the madness in his heart.
With this in mind, he immediately spoke up, "It's getting cold at night, let's go back to the pavilion."
Shi Jingzhi replied, "No."
"Shizun, I have my own troubles, please forgive me--"
"Who asked about your troubles? I just don't like seeing you half-dead like this."
Shi Jingzhi stopped in his tracks and sat down. Yin Ci felt around and found a piece of dead tree on the ground. He brushed off the snow and resignedly sat down next to his master.
"I'm showing you the scenery," Shi Jingzhi announced.
Yin Ci: "..." What's going on? Did this fox go crazy again?
"I can't see," he said.
"I'll tell you everything around here so you don't have to worry anymore. I don't know where you're thinking of, Ah Ci, but you're not there now," said Shi Jingzhi before Yin Ci could respond.
Clearing his throat, Shi Jingzhi began describing everything around them, "Five feet to your left, there's a crooked pine tree. I know you can feel it...but there's a strange pinecone hanging from one of its branches, so long and covered in snow, like the egg white pastry sold at Qizhou Restaurant..."
Shi Jingzhi never let go of Yin Ci's hand. Despite the growing chill in the air and the darkness of the night, Shi Jingzhi continued to describe every detail of their surroundings, gesturing to illustrate the intricate details of the world around them.
Even as the darkness deepened in the mountains, and the vision of a normal person would also be limited, Shi Jingzhi persisted on.
"On the mountain over there, there's a big tree with red leaves that shine so bright you can see it from here. It's a shame you can't see it, Ah Ci, you've missed out on such a beautiful sight."
He's gotten the season wrong. It's winter now, where would there be red leaves?
But he listened quietly and didn't call him out on it.
Yin Ci suspected that Shi Jingzhi was digging deep into his memories, piecing together all the beautiful things he had seen and moving them all to Huilian Mountain. He spoke in detail about the red leaves fluttering, the willow branches sprouting, the ice flowers hanging from the trees, and the mist dispersing in the forest.
Despite his young age, Shi Jingzhi seemed to have seen more beautiful sights than him.
His voice was clear and pleasant to listen to. As he listened, he slowly closed his eyes and leaned against Shi Jingzhi's shoulder.
He brought their intertwined fingers to his leg, trying to warm them up with his body heat. Without any inner strength left, Shi Jingzhi's fingers were ice-cold and his voice trembled slightly in the night wind.
Time passed by unnoticed, and the moon gradually rose, flooding the ground with its light. Shi Jingzhi had run out of things to say and finally went quiet.
He turned his head and saw Yin Ci sleeping soundly on his shoulder. Their black hair mingled together, sliding down their shoulders and emitting a faint glow like still water. Yin Ci's eyebrows were still slightly furrowed, but his expression was much more relaxed than before.
The sky above the mountains was clear and transparent, with stars scattered all over. The two of them sat alone in the world, with only each other's body heat as a source of warmth, creating a faint sense of dependence.
Suddenly, Shi Jingzhi didn't feel like going back to the pavilion.
He gave Yin Ci his outer robe and ignored the Heart Demon human head lamp behind them, slowly disappearing into the dark shadows of the mountain.
For over twenty years, his thoughts and desires had been suspended in the void. Now, they drifted down like snowflakes, landing on the ground. Perhaps his encounter with Yin Ci was not a coincidence. He had been searching for someone like him for years - someone who shared his level of pain.
"You're sitting next to me," Shi Jingzhi began to whisper.
"I'm smiling now, I'm very...happy."
The author has something to say:
After finishing the last chapter, I couldn't resist eating Lord Bai's Heart Demon for lunch. It was delicious!
Unfortunately, Lord Bai's Heart Demon in the story can't be eaten, they can only enjoy the fox's handmade stew with white rice.
Happy readers make me float like a cloud in the sky. If you enjoy my translations and want to read them more quickly, I'll translate bonus chapters as a thank you for coffee!
Give me feedback at moc.ebircssutol@eyks.