Inside the palace, rows of meat hung in midair.
Zu An’s first reaction was that they were some form of preserved meat, but that didn’t seem right. When he looked more carefully, he realized that they were human corpses!
The internal organs of these human corpses had been emptied out, and their bodies were cut open down the middle and hung from the ceiling by hooks. They looked like livestock hung up on a butcher’s line.
Pei Mianman let out the breath she had been holding. “How could there be such cruelty in this world?”
Zu An also felt extremely disturbed. Even though they had seen many sacrificial pits along the way, the sacrifices within them had already turned to bones, and so the visual shock wasn’t as great.
These dried-up corpses had been air-dried, and had not turned to bone. Not only that, their bodies were displayed the way butchered livestock would be.
Even though he had always been aware of the concept of human sacrifices, it was never something he had come into personal contact with. He never expected to actually see humans treated as livestock one day!
“This wasn’t a form of punishment, but rather a sacrificial method known as mao sacrifice.” General Ya Zhang replied hurriedly, as though Pei Mianman’s question had caused him some distress.
“Mao sacrifice?” Zu An pondered on this a moment. These corpses were cut open down the middle… their remains did resemble the ‘mao’ (卯) character.
General Ya Zhang continued, “When we offered sacrifices to the heavens, the best offerings were human sacrifices. We offered their internal organs, their blood, and the head. As for the other parts of the human sacrifice, these could be roasted, boiled, stewed, or air-dried into dried meat…”
“Stop, stop, stop!” Zu An was scared witless. “Stop talking about this as though you’re making food!”
“We are preparing food, though.” General Ya Zhang had a bewildered expression on his face. “After all, they are food offered to the deities. According to our customs, as the deities enjoy the offerings, they will bestow their blessings upon them. That is why, once the ceremony ends, these blessed offerings become delicacies that only the few of high status could partake of.”
Zu An almost did not want to process what he was hearing.
He felt his stomach churning. It was all too distressing to listen to.
Pei Mianman wasn’t faring much better. She ran off to the side and began to retch.
They didn’t dare linger in this place any longer, and quickly proceeded onwards. Soon afterwards, they arrived in front of a tribute altar with all manner of bronze tools arranged on it. Mi Li had told him the names of these articles before, but the words were all so unfamiliar that he didn’t remember a single one of them.
Some of the plate-like vessels held a sort of paste. He was rather astounded. After all, after ten thousand years, even things stored in freezers would have decayed into nothingness. Why did they still seem to retain the same appearance that they had during the ceremony? It appeared that there was a mysterious power preserving all of this.
Seeing them staring at the paste-like substance, General Ya Zhang stepped in to explain. “This is the minced-meat sacrifice, which is created by mincing human flesh into a paste. Those who are of high status, usually the leaders of a faction, are used in this sort of sacrifice. Such a sacrifice is considered extremely precious. Would the two of you like to give it a taste?”
He scooped up a bit of paste from one of the plates and offered it to the two of them.
“No, no, no!” Zu An and Pei Mianman both backed away quickly, waving their hands vigorously.
This is too bloody hardcore, man! What the hell is wrong with these Shang Dynasty people!
Zu An suddenly remembered that the ‘Investiture of the Gods’ described how the Zhou King would not hesitate to have people chopped up into mincemeat. For example, both Bo Yikao, the eldest son of King Wen of Zhou, and Queen Jiang’s father were chopped up into mincemeat and later eaten.
He’d held onto the belief that this was just something made up in order to make the Zhou monarch look like a brutal freak. Now, he knew that this was actually a common sacrificial method used in the Shang Dynasty!
“What a pity.” General Ya Zhang shook his head at the two of them, as though they were ignorant of the luxuries in life. He placed his finger into his mouth and had a taste. “It’s been so long since I’ve enjoyed such a delicacy. Thank you for waking me up again.”
Zu An and Pei Mianman stared at him, speechless.
The two of them were on the verge of a breakdown. They felt extremely uncomfortable walking next to a cannibal.
Zu An pulled Pei Mianman closer to him as they continued on swiftly. The last thing he wanted to do was to stay in a place with human mincemeat.
As they walked on, they encountered a large bronze cauldron in the middle of their path. It was different from the empty cauldron outside. This one was filled up with what looked like some sort of meat jelly, or a mass of solidified grease.
Zu An had a look of helplessness on his face. “You don’t have to tell me. This is also human flesh, right?”
Ya Zhang nodded. “This cauldron can cook more than forty people at once. Only the king’s cauldron is allowed to be this massive.”
His tone was full of adoration and envy. He placed his dried-up hand along the edge of the cauldron, and waves of black smoke spread out from it. The chunks of meat jello inside began to melt, and they could see bits of recognizably-human pieces bobbing up and down inside.
Pei Mianman didn’t dare give the contents another look and hid behind Zu An. Out of sight, out of mind.
Zu An’s heart was pounding as well. Seeing General Ya Zhang’s expression of excitement, he quickly said, “Excuse me for saying this, but if you fish some of that out again and start eating, I’m going to exorcise evil here and now, and to hell with whatever trial awaits!”
General Ya Zhang looked confused. “Divine sacrifices are the most solemn and sacred things in the world. These offerings have been blessed by the deities themselves. How can any of this be evil?”
Zu An knew that the general was expressing his honest beliefs, because this was how the people of Yinshang were like. That was why he did not become enraged. “Human sacrifices have long been abolished in later generations. Can you please not do this in front of us?”
“Fine.” General Ya Zhang could sense the primordial ki swirling around his sword, so there was nothing he could do. He didn’t press the issue, and removed his hand from the cauldron. The meat jello that was starting to boil gradually stopped simmering.
A thought surfaced in Zu An’s mind, and he remembered the request that the Eastern Barbarian princess had made. “Use your spear and poke around inside for me. See if there’s a head inside,” he asked General Ya Zhang.
He didn’t want to do it himself. The pot of meat jelly was just too big, and to be honest, it really was quite horrifying to look at.
“A head?” General Ya Zhang wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he still stirred the pot with his spear.
Zu An stared at it uncomfortably. He saw several heads, but none of them seemed like they belonged to a young lady.
He gave up the search, and they continued on through the grand hall.
After they had covered some more ground, General Ya Zhang announced, “We’ve arrived at the location for the trial.”
Zu An and Pei Mianman looked at what was in front of them. There were all sorts of patterns carved on the walls, from murals to formations.
At the very center of it all was a small circular platform, and a strange bronze artifact sat on it. This bronze artifact only had three legs, and it was shaped like a bird.
“Is that the Three-legged Golden Crow?” This was Zu An’s first reaction, but he quickly shook his head and dismissed the idea. He noticed that the last leg wasn’t a leg, but the tail feathers of the bird.
The entire bronze artifact was covered in patterns. Its beak and breast were adorned with cicadas, and feather patterns covered its head. The underside was decorated with depictions of Kui, and a twin-headed Kui was drawn on each side. Long, coiling snakes wound around its wings, interspersed with rhombus patterns. The head of a beast was stamped behind its neck, and soaring wings decorated the rest of its back.
The design of the bird was quite intricate, and it was truly a sight to behold.
General Ya Zhang looked at this bronze artifact with eyes full of adoration. “This is the queen’s favorite owl statue, and marks the entrance to the trial.”
The people of Yinshang believed that this quiet bird that roamed the night was full of mystery, like an emissary sent by the deities. That was why they had made such a fine and detailed statue of the owl.
These statues were also ancient wine vessels.
Zu An immediately asked a key question. “How do we start the trial?”
General Ya Zhang pointed at the statue. “You can enter if each of you holds onto one of the wings of the owl statue. I wish you two the best of luck.”
Zu An didn’t walk over to it right away. Instead, he turned to Pei Mianman and said, “Manman, we don’t know what awaits us in this trial. Let’s take some time to rest first.”
This was exactly what she was thinking as well. The two of them took some medicine then sat down to rest. They had fought battle after battle to get here, and were both quite exhausted. It was only natural for them to want to regain their peak condition before taking on the challenge of this dangerous trial.
General Ya Zhang shook his head. The corners of his lips curved upwards, as if smiling in ridicule. Not a single pair had succeeded after all these years, and these two possessed the weakest cultivation. What difference would a little more preparation make?