1 A Length of Black Cloth

Translator: Nyoi_Bo_Studio

Fan Shen struggled to keep his eyes open. He looked at his fingers, counting off all the worthwhile things he’d done in his life, but the slender fingers on his right hand, thin as chopsticks, didn’t get past five. With a sigh, he gave up trying.

The smell of hospital medicine was always so pungent. The other day, the old fellow in the next bed had passed away, and in a few days, he’d probably be next.

He'd contracted some sort of strange disease, and there was no strength left in his muscles. It seemed like the kind of sickness some hero in a romance novel would get, one where if you didn't get to a hospital, you'd eventually end up unable to even fart or burp, only being able to produce tears.

"But I'm not a romantic hero," Fan Shen mumbled. Unfortunately, the muscles in his jaw had wasted away to such an extent that this came out as a vague string of nonsense.

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He stared at his middle finger, filled with self-pity. "I'm still a virgin."

......

......

He'd done nothing worthwhile his entire life apart from helping old ladies cross the street, giving up his seat on the bus, being a good neighbor, letting his classmates copy his test answers...

Fan Shen was the classically useless nice guy.

His parents had died a while back, and so it was just him at the hospital, waiting for his life to come to an end.

"Nice guys finish last."

One quiet and lonely night, Fan Shen felt as though his throat muscles were losing strength, as they were no longer able to tighten or loosen up, and his breathing muscles gradually lost their strength, like a rubber band losing its elasticity.

He had no idea where that neat young nurse had gone. By his side was an old lady, her eyes filled with pity as she rambled on.

"Am I going to die?"

His fear of death and thirst for life had stirred up complex feelings he’d never known before, and the fact that the last moments of his life would be spent with this old lady instead of that cute nurse he’d been waiting so long to see no doubt added to his sorrows.

Feeling miserable, his eyelids drooped, and he cast his hazy eyes toward the black curtain hung over the hospital ward window blocking out the sunshine. Life is lonely as hell, he thought.

—————————————————————

Feeling miserable, a single drop of liquid fell from the corner of his eye.

Fan Shen felt rather miserable, licking away the tear that had found its way to the corner of his mouth. To his surprise, he found that his tears were not only salty, but also slightly fishy. The hospital bathed him so rarely - could it be that even his own tears had started to stink?

In his thoughts, he couldn't help but curse. Look at you! You have tears streaming down your face! Do you really still think you're some kind of hero?

But he soon realized something wasn't quite right. How come he could still stick his tongue out to lap up the tears? The doctor said he'd lost the ability to move his tongue a while ago. Now the only use for it was letting it slide easily down his esophagus, blocking his respiratory tract; he’d become one of the few geniuses to commit suicide by swallowed tongue.

Later he found that it was becoming easier to open his eyes. His line of vision opened up, his eyesight becoming sharper than it had been even before he had contracted this disease. The view before his eyes was bright and clear, and he saw something made of bamboo right in front of him.

......

Fan Shen, dumbfounded, separated the bamboo rods, and found himself facing an astonishing sight: A dozen or so figures stood, menacing and clothed in black from head to toe. Each of them held something sharp in their hands, and raising it in the air, they hacked away at themselves!

For a moment, he couldn't be sure if this was a dream or some strange near-death experience. Instinctively, he drew his head back and threw his hands in front of his face, acting as any normal person would in such a situation, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand.

Hahahaha... the sound of endless tittering filled the air.

It was followed by a great chorus of melancholy groans, and finally, silence. After a moment, Fan Shen felt a sense of unease. He cautiously separated two of the fingers on the hand he was hiding behind, covertly looking through the gap.

A bamboo basket lay in front of him, dividing the space before his eyes into strips, and through the holes, he could clearly see a dozen or so corpses lying on the ground, blood pouring onto the floor, the stench of it filling the air. He saw it all too clearly, and the terror rendered him temporarily unable to move.

But soon after, he suddenly thought about his own hands. Could they move now? Had he really recovered? What the hell had he just seen? Was it a dream? If he awoke, would he find himself lying in his bed, unable to move, awaiting death once more? If that were the case, he might as well never wake up. At least his hands could move; at least his eyes could blink.

The thought saddened him, and he wiped his wet face with his hand.

He took his hand away and looked at it.

It was covered in blood.

The liquid that had dripped from the corner of his eye had been someone else's blood splashing onto his face.

Fan Shen stared blankly at his hands, his heart pounding.

These aren't my hands!

In front of him was a pair of delicate and beautiful hands, covered in blood. They looked like flowers blooming in a slaughterhouse. They certainly weren't the hands of an adult.

He was overwhelmed by the shock of it. His consciousness adrift in crashing waves, he could only stare blankly, filled with endless doubt as terror gripped his entire being.

......

......

It was the Qing Kingdom’s 57th year, and there was still no end to the emperor’s battle campaign against the western barbarians. Count Sinan rode alongside the army, while the empress dowager and the council of elders governed in the capital.

On this day, there had been a fire at the Taiping Courtyard, located on the outskirts of the capital, on the banks of the Liujing River. A group of killers prowled the night, taking advantage of the blaze and rushing into homes, slaughtering everyone in sight in a horrific massacre.

A young servant in the courtyard fought back while carrying his young master as he was chased by a group of killers in dark clothing. The two sides fought by the southern gate of the city walls.

The ambushing warriors had not expected this physically disadvantaged youth to possess such unfathomable strength, and after reaching a hill, they came across reinforcements - reinforcements whose identity made their blood run cold.

"The Black Knights!" the fearsome killers cried out as they fell in their own blood, pierced through by crossbow arrows.

The reinforcements rode on horseback, clad in black armor and enshrouded in moonlight, as if emitting the faint glow of soul eaters.

Each of them had only their standard military-issue crossbow, but in a volley of shots, they had taken down most of the killers.

Shielded in the midst of the cavalry was a middle-aged man sitting in a carriage. His complexion was pale, and a sparse beard grew upon his chin. He looked at the young man carrying the child upon his back, nodded, then clapped his hands gently.

That clap was the signal to attack!

A squad split off from the cavalry, and like a reaper’s scythe in the night, they charged relentlessly into the bloody fray, laying waste to the rank of killers.

Suddenly, a sorcerer emerged from amongst the killers. Lifting his staff, he began to chant an incantation. They all felt the rumbling of some unspeakable force gathering on the hills.

The man in the carriage frowned slightly, but he did not move. From his side, a shadow leapt out into the night sky, soaring upward like an eagle.

With a crunching sound, the sorcerer's chanting stopped, and his head was wrenched violently upward from off his shoulders, his blood spilling like a shower of rain.

The man in the carriage shook his head. "These sorcerers from the west just don't understand," he said. "In the face of true strength, magic is about as useful as a minister's writing brush."

Dozens of cold-as-steel riders made sure the perimeter was clear, clenching their right fists in a gesture to signal to the others that the killers had been completely vanquished.

The ranks of the cavalry split, and the carriage slowly rolled forward, coming face to face with the young servant. With the aid of his subordinates, the man moved from the carriage into a wheelchair, his legs too damaged to walk. He pushed himself along, unhurriedly approaching the epicenter of the battleground, while the young servant remained straight as a ramrod.

Looking at the bamboo basket on the young man's back, the wheelchair-bound man's pale face turned red, finally betraying some hint of color. "At last, you've made it," he said.

The face of the young man, carrying the basket on his back, was covered by a strip of black cloth. In his hand he held a black iron, dagger-like chisel, the blood dripping slowly from its point. He was surrounded by the corpses of his ambushers, their throats covered in blood in what seemed to have been the deadly blow.

"I need you to give me an explanation for this. "His eyes covered with black cloth, he spoke coldly, his voice untrembling and without a trace of emotion.

The wheelchair-bound man's pitying look at once turned conspiratorial. "Naturally, I'll give you an explanation," he said, "but I also need to give one to your master."

The young servant nodded, and got ready to leave.

"Where are you taking this child?" the middle-aged man said coldly, sitting on the wheelchair. "You’re blind, mind you; don’t tell me you’re making Young Master wander the world with you?"

"This is the young lady’s flesh and blood."

"That’s the master’s flesh and blood too!" the middle-aged man in the wheelchair continued coldly. "I guarantee that I’ll find a very safe place for Young Master here in the capital."

The other man shook his head and stretched the black strip of cloth on his face. The middle-aged man in the wheelchair knew this boy would listen to no one but that young lady; he couldn’t be given orders, not even by his own master. Sighing, the man reasoned, "Everything going on in the capital will be taken care of once the master comes back, so why must you take him away?"

"I do not trust your master."

The middle-aged man furrowed his eyebrows slightly, as if disgusted by what he just heard. He paused for a brief moment, then said, "A young child has to nurse, to learn words; can you provide those things?" He laughed mockingly. "You, blind man? What can you do other than murder?"

The other man didn’t get angry, merely nudging the bamboo basket on his back. "You too seem only capable of slaughter, cripple."

The middle-aged man let out a chilling laugh. "This time it was only those high-class noblemen in the capital. After the master comes back, I will naturally start cleaning them up."

The blind youth shook his head.

The middle-aged man lightly massaged his wheelchair with his hand, as if guessing what it was the other feared. A moment later, he frowned. "I know what you’re afraid of, but in this earthly world, only the child’s father can protect him. Is there anyone else with the power to help him escape such a nameless danger?"

The blind youth suddenly spoke, his voice still emotionless. "A new identity, a new life left in peace."

The middle-aged man thought for a moment, then nodded with a smile.

"Where’s the place?"

"Danzhou Port. The master’s mother is currently living there."

After some silence, the blind youth finally accepted this arrangement.

The middle-aged man, smiling, rolled his wheelchair around and behind the blind youth. He then reached out and picked up the child in the bamboo basket. Looking at the child’s cute face, which was delicate and snow-white, he sighed.

"He really does take after his mother. So beautiful." He suddenly laughed out loud. "This little thing is sure to grow up and make a name for himself."

His subordinates, who had been standing far away in silence, suddenly heard their superior let out such joyous laughter. While their expression remained unchanged, deep down, it shook them to their core; they had no idea how important this child was.

"Huh?" the blind youth tilted his head and took the child back. Although he was more innocent than regular humans, he still didn’t want the baby’s face getting too close to the hands of this venomous serpent, while at the same time using one syllable to express his question out of polite courtesy.

The middle-aged man smiled, looking at the child’s face. There was something indescribable and terrifying in that smile.

"He is only two months old, and yet he wiped away the blood on his face. Having experienced tonight’s scary events, he is sound asleep. Just goes to show..."

Suddenly he lowered his voice, making sure not even his subordinates could hear what he said next, "... he is the child of the Tianmai."

That middle-aged man held tremendous power in the capital, his methods cruel and without equal. Any law-breaking official who ended up in his hands would spit out the truth in no more than two days. His gaze was even more sinister, but as extraordinary as he was, not even he realized that the child wasn’t soundly asleep, but had instead fainted from fright.

......

......

Tianmai: "Tian" refers to the heavens, whereas "Mai" refers to the bloodline.

"Tianmai," then, describes the heavenly bloodline left in the human world, a bloodline which, according to the legends of this world, awakened in the human world every few hundred years.

This bloodline could manifest through unyielding and overpowering combative strength, such as that belonging to The General from the distant ancient country of Nas. During a historically critical moment, one in which his country was on the verge of perishing at the hands of barbarians, he assassinated much of the original barbarian congress using his courage and vigorous combat capabilities.

Then there were those Tianmai who showed exceptional talent in areas like art or wisdom, such as a couple from west, Boer the Scholar and his playwright wife, Fubo, both of whom died 300 years ago.

Of course, nobody could prove that the reason the bloodline remained in the human world was because of Heaven’s concern for the suffering and pain of humans, though in truth, these beings brought much more than peace to the human world.

Furthermore, all Tianmai vanished without a trace; neither a person nor country could find a clue as to their whereabouts. They disappeared as suddenly as they came, leaving only obscure records, though nothing that could prove their existence.

Coincidently, the middle-aged man in the wheelchair was one of the very few people who knew that this rare phenomenon truly existed.

For some unknown reason, after Fan Shen died, his soul came to this world … and remarkably into the body of a baby, whose father or mother turned out to be Tianmai who surfaced on the mainland.

By dawn, the battlefield had been cleared, and the carriage slowly moved along the stone road towards the east. Behind the carriage was the bizarre scene of a team of cavalry clad in black and a sickly pale middle-aged man in a wheelchair.

The carriage went over a rock, the sudden motion awakening the sleeping baby, who had been lying on the silk cushion. The baby’s eyes soullessly looked away from his savior’s face and towards the front of the carriage, his line of vision unlike that of any other baby; it was crystal clear but unable to focus, and there was a strange and indescribable to it feeling as well.

Not one person knew that the soft and fragile body of the baby accommodated a soul from a different world.

Eyes were on the scenery when the curtains of the carriage lifted, a breeze passing by and revealing a corner view of green mountains and the retreating stone path in the distance, like an endless display that kept on rewinding.

In front of the carriage, a blind boy held tightly to his iron rod, his eyes covered by a black cloth thank blanketed both his eyes and the day.

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