Arc Three: Wangquan Road
There was a mountain by the name of Songyun1.
Its name arose from the verdant pine trees covering the entire mountain, an expanse of deep jade-green that stretched long and unbroken from a bird’s-eye view. Whenever a gust of wind swept its way through the slopes, the swaying movement of the trees was akin to the surging billow of flowing clouds.
Nobody knew what that mountain used to be called, nor what it came to be known as later. After all, those days had passed by a very, very long time ago. Even the name “Songyun” was casually bestowed by Chen Budao when he cast a fleeting glance down the mountain as he was brewing a pot of resinated pine wine.
Wen Shi no longer remembered any of this, but when he saw that mountain landscape in his dream, he seemed to smell the fragrance of tea leaves infused in snow water mixed with the aroma of resinated wine.
There was a naturally occurring depression on one side of Mount Songyun. The ground there was flat, and it was hidden in a space with ample yang energy. A pure, bright, and elegant residence was located here, and several half-grown children lived in it.
It should be midwinter in the dream, a very cold time of the year.
Something was boiling on the stove in the corner of the room. Upon hearing the noise, Wen Shi subconsciously wanted to look over, but he wasn’t able to turn his head in the dream. Instead, his gaze remained downcast as he stared stubbornly at two little pebbles on the ground, along with a withered branch and a dead bird.
That bird was sucked dry and shriveled up. Its feathers had already collapsed, and its legs stuck out stiffly, making it look both frightening and pitiful.
Wen Shi seemed to be quite small, to the point where even the edge of the nearby table was taller than him.
In his peripheral vision, he saw that there were a few other children in the room who were all taller than him. They were huddled together in another corner far away from him, clearly separating themselves.
Incense had been lit in the room, and it emitted spirals of smoke. Since he wasn’t willing to look up, he naturally wasn’t able to see the expressions on those children’s faces. But he could sense that one of them was trembling, because his silk pants were quivering lightly.
They were very afraid of him.
Wen Shi thought.
Suddenly, the door creaked as someone pushed it open.
Those children were momentarily caught off guard. Then, they promptly lined up in a row reverently, pressed shoulder to shoulder while still maintaining their distance from Wen Shi. They laced their fingers together and brought their cupped hands up to their foreheads as they bowed deeply and respectfully. In their young, immature voices, they uniformly called out “shifu.”
Only Wen Shi remained unmoved. He continued to stare unwaveringly at that bird without lifting his head or uttering a single word. He merely pressed his lips firmly together, and the hands he had tucked behind his back curled even tighter, fingernails digging into his palms painfully.
He heard the sound of rustling footsteps; they were very light, like a breeze passing through a forest. Then, someone came to a stop in front of him.
That person was very tall. Wen Shi could only see the hem of the other person’s robe.
The inner robe was snow white, whereas the outer garment was a shade of rich red. It was clearly an extremely vivid color, but it inexplicably gave off a sort of cold and austere feeling, as if blood was flowing down from the peak of a snow-capped mountain.
The rest of the children hushed and retreated a few steps to the side.
Wen Shi alone didn’t move a single bit. He stood there, silent and frozen, like he was noiselessly facing off against someone.
“What happened here?” The person in front of him spoke.
It sounded as if something was muffling his voice, which was very pleasant, though a little smothered. Perhaps because this was a dream, his voice also seemed to be somewhat indistinct, but it was clear that his tone wasn’t fierce. In fact, it could even be considered gentle.
But those children continued to behave in a deferential manner, mixed with a touch of fear.
“You boys, why are you huddled in the corner of the room?” that person asked again.
A child sporting a little ponytail said timidly, “We’re… we’re scared.”
“Scared of what?” That person still spoke slowly and leisurely.
The child dithered and faltered without answering. Instead, another slightly younger child said boldly, “He’s a ghost.”
His finger pointed over from afar, and it was clear that he was referring to Wen Shi.
Wen Shi remained silent and expressionless as his lips pressed together even tighter. Maybe since he was young in the dream, those words made him feel a bit uncomfortable.
“Who told you that?” that person asked. His tone of voice was as mild and unhurried as ever, but it had cooled a little.
The bold child suddenly lost his courage, but he still braced himself and said, “At the foot of the mountain, they all say that—that he’s an evil spirit. He was the one who killed that little bird.”
Wen Shi’s eyes were opened extremely wide as he continued to stare at that already stiffened bird.
He wanted to crouch down and nudge it; he wanted it to move a bit. But the only thing he did was forcefully knead his fingers together.
“When that bird flew in here, it was still alive, and it was resting on the table.” The child emphasized, “He killed it.”
Wen Shi waited for a long time before the person in front of him finally spoke again. “Then what about these two stones? Did he also throw them?”
The child stopped talking.
That person asked, “You’re scared of him?”
The child hesitated briefly. “Yes…”
The person in front of Wen Shi seemed to nod. After a while, Wen Shi heard that mild and deep voice sound from above his head. “If the rumors from the foot of the mountain are so entertaining, and your courage is so miniscule, why stay here? What a hardship this must be.”
It sounded like he was joking, since his tone of voice wasn’t all that cold or severe, but that child was already terrified out of his wits.
The other children also spoke up one after another, as if they were trying to plead for leniency. However, because they were young and relatively unskilled with words, they all stammered and mumbled. In comparison, Wen Shi seemed even more isolated from his solitary spot to the side.
Wen Shi’s eyes widened even more, and he didn’t blink.
Something was brewing on the stove nearby. The steam kept drifting towards him, causing his vision to become a little blurry, his eyes a little hot. It was very annoying.
A moment later, the person in front of him said, “Your punishment is to practice spell-aiming on the stone platform. Knock down three pieces of limestone before you come to find me.
“Next time, speak only once you fully understand all aspects of a situation.” After that person finished his sentence, he lowered one of his hands.
With a sweep of his clean, wide sleeve, the shriveled and rigid little bird on the floor vanished.
Wen Shi finally reacted.
His eyelashes trembled. It seemed like he wanted to look up, as well as ask for the little bird back, though a large hand landed on his head before he could do anything. “How come you’re not greeting me?”
Wen Shi’s lips shifted, but he wasn’t willing to speak.
That person didn’t get irritated either. He merely patted the back of Wen Shi’s head, his voice as pleasant as the mountain wind rushing through the pines. “Let’s go, come with me up the mountain.”
Obstinately, Wen Shi didn’t want to be so well-behaved.
But perhaps it was because that person’s tone of voice was as warm and heavy as water, or perhaps it was because his hand was very large and could nearly cover the entire back of Wen Shi’s head. For whatever reason, Wen Shi unconsciously took a step forward.
It was only when the snowstorm blurred his vision that he realized he had actually obediently followed that person out of the house and onto the mountain path.
The snow had likely started falling not too long ago, as the ground was covered in a shallow layer of white.
Due to his short height, Wen Shi was quite unstable, which caused him to stumble as he walked.
After a few steps, he heard that person ask, “Cold?”
Wen Shi was still suffocatingly silent.
“Did I bring back a little mute disciple?” That person spoke again.
At last, Wen Shi looked up.
That person was much too tall, and he needed to tilt his head back in order to see the person’s entire figure from behind.
That person seemed to be wearing an antiquated, complex mask. From Wen Shi’s perspective, he could only see that the person had pale skin and a well-defined jawline; the curve of his bone structure on the side of his face was clear-cut and beautiful.
He extended a hand towards Wen Shi. His unfolded hand was thin but clean, and his slender fingers were slightly curled.
“Discard the rock, and give me your hand,” he said.
Wen Shi lowered his head. Only then did he see that he was gripping a sharp, pointy stone in his hand.
“You’ve been holding onto that as a threat for quite some time, but I’ve yet to see you throw it at someone.” The person’s voice was filled with a bit of helplessness and amusement.
With a glower, Wen Shi debated whether he should keep up the menacing act. A beat later, his hand started to hurt, and he finally tossed the sharp stone to the side of the path.
With that movement, he clearly saw his hand.
Since he was young in the dream, his hands were also very small. They were stained with a bit of dirt from the rock, so they weren’t particularly clean, but the main issue was the winding black mist coiled around his hands.
He looked down at his hands and forcefully rubbed at them for a while, all the way until the pale skin began turning red. Even when he was about to break the skin, he wasn’t able to get rid of that black mist.
That hand was still extended in the snowstorm, waiting for him to grasp onto it.
But he felt like he was a little filthy from the darkness. After a moment of hesitation, he started to fold his hands behind his back again. However, before he could move, that person grabbed onto his fingers and firmly tightened his grip.
“What are you shrinking back for?” That person’s hand was quite large, and also quite warm.
Wen Shi struggled briefly, but in the end, he was no match for his instincts, and he obediently let himself be led forward by the hand.
They walked for a long while before Wen Shi finally opened his mouth and spoke for the first time. His voice was extremely quiet, and it contained a sullen, youthful air to it distinctive of children.
He said, “My hands are very dirty.”
Many people said that he was exactly like an evil spirit.
That person was silent for some time before he answered, “They’re not.”
Wen Shi stared at the snow on the ground as his muffled voice grew a bit nasally. “That bird—I just wanted to touch it.”
As if an evil spirit had sucked out all of its vitality, the bird had dropped motionlessly onto the ground, eyes blank… and died. Those children had scrambled far away from him out of fear, treating him like he was some evil ghost or demonic monster.
In reality, he was more scared than anyone else.
“I know,” that person spoke again.
Wen Shi was very wary and didn’t really believe him.
He remembered that Mount Songyun was extremely tall. In the past, he usually stayed in the residence halfway up the mountain, and he needed to crane his neck greatly in order to see the mountain peak. It took even more effort to actually climb up there.
But on that particular day, for some reason the mountain path felt significantly shorter and less cold than before, and they quickly arrived at its end. It was possible that it was because he kept thinking about that stiff little bird, which made him feel uncomfortable and absent-minded the entire journey.
There was a stretch of sacred land at the peak, as well as a residence similar to the one halfway up the mountain.
That person led Wen Shi into the house and set him on the wooden bed.
When he let go of him, Wen Shi looked up and saw that the other person’s hand was covered in veins, emaciated like it was only skin and bones. Dark red blood trickled down his fingers.
…just like that bird from earlier.
Wen Shi was given an unexpected scare. He sat there, stunned, as he stared fixedly at that hand with wide, unblinking eyes.
He had just killed a bird, and now he was going to kill a human.
He thought in a panic.
“When you cry, why do you do it so silently?” That person huffed out a laugh and lowered his hand. The broad hem of his sleeve cascaded down from his wrist, blocking the withered fingers and bloodstains.
“I’m just teasing you.” He walked over to Wen Shi and bent over slightly. Right in front of Wen Shi’s eyes, he whirled his sleeve back up to his wrist. His withered and ashen right hand had already returned to normal; it was completely clean, if somewhat pale, as if those shocking changes were merely an illusion.
Wen Shi blinked and felt something wet drip down his cheeks.
“Why are you looking at me like that? If you don’t believe me, smell it for yourself. Is there any scent of blood?” He reached over with his slim fingers and brushed his knuckles against Wen Shi’s chin, wiping away those two rare, sparse tears.
Sure enough, Wen Shi didn’t smell any blood. There was only the very faint fragrance of pine resin.
“Let me show you something else,” that person said.
Tucking his spotless hand behind his back, he seemed to rub his fingers together lightly. When he brought his hand back out and unfurled it, the bird that Wen Shi had killed with his touch was nestled in the hollow of his palm. Its head was tucked away, and the down on its chest was fluffy and full, making it look like a ball of feathers.
He scratched the ball of feathers with the tip of his finger. Then, the bird chirruped and opened its eyes before it flew down to the ground with a flutter of its wings.
“Is it alive?” Wen Shi’s voice was still a bit sullen, and it sounded sticky and nasally.
That person laughed and said, “It is.”
“Can it be raised?” Wen Shi still wasn’t reassured.
That person said, “Will you be in charge of its food and water? If so, then you can raise it.”
Wen Shi: “How big can it get?”
“Very big.” That person surveyed their surroundings and said, “A Golden-Winged Dapeng2. In any case, it definitely won’t fit in this room.”
Wen Shi went silent again. After a long pause, he said, “Then how do I raise it.”
That person stooped over and looked at him. With a trace of a smile in his voice, he said, “Did you greet me today? If you greet me properly, I’ll set aside a place where it can grow gradually without being squeezed in.”
The little child on the wooden bed met his gaze defiantly for quite a while before he called out ‘properly,’ “Chen Budao!”
“How rude,” Chen Budao said.
It was then that Wen Shi woke up.
The second before he opened his eyes, caught in the space between consciousness and slumber, he thought… the puppet that the most unapproachable, unreachable puppet master of them all kept by his side for the longest amount of time—the Golden-Winged Dapeng that could tear off half a mountain with a flap of its wings—was initially only used as a way to trick a child. If someone said that, who would believe them?
Even he didn’t dare to believe it.
When Wen Shi sat up in bed, everything in the dream turned blurry and indistinct. It left a vague impression behind, though it wasn’t very clear.
A small crack seemed to have opened up in those bygone days, causing a bit of it to leak out. He did his best to remember as much of it as he could, but he also felt dazed and dizzy, to the point that his temples were throbbing in pain.
He had forgotten to close the curtains last night, and the sunlight slanted into his room now, forcing him to narrow his eyes. He lifted his hand and blocked out the light briefly before he raked a hand through his hair and got out of bed. Right as he opened the door, he saw Xie Wen walking leisurely down the stairs in neat and tidy clothing.
For some unknown reason, he was momentarily taken aback. Then, he slammed the door shut again.
A few seconds later, there was a knock on his door. Xie Wen’s voice sounded outside as he said, “If you’re awake, then don’t keep lazing around. Someone is looking for you.”
- Song (松) as in pine, Yun (云) as in cloud. ^
- Golden-Winged Dapeng (or Great Peng) is based off of this. ^
Yan: First taste of their past!!!!! Also in case it isn’t obvious, Wen Shi never calls Chen Budao shifu (master), he only calls him by his name HAHA (hence Chen Budao’s ‘how rude’ comment)