Thank you to Tan and ThankyouTinySalt for the Ko-fis!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Perhaps his memories were beginning to shake free, since a fragment of his soul had reentered his body. Or perhaps because the agony was hard to endure, and Wen Shi—as usual—refused to show weakness and give voice to the pain, he tried his best to think about some other people and things instead. It was his only alternative, one that he found himself relying on to get through the long night.
And so, he remembered the very beginning.
The first time Wen Shi ever saw Chen Budao, he was truly very young, to the point that he wasn’t even old enough to remember anything yet. He was so young that he didn’t know what year and month it was, or where he was sitting, or why his surroundings looked the way they did.
On that day, the setting sun was half-submerged on the horizon. Everything was coated in red-gold, and dead people were everywhere.
Corpses were piled into hills on top of each other, and the breeze was filled with an unpleasant stench. Blood snaked in rivulets along the ground and converged in sunken hollows. Some of the blood had already dried into a rust-brown color, while other parts of it were turning thick and sticky.
Wen Shi crawled out from underneath a heavy corpse. A rock had ripped open the skin of his palm.
He didn’t know why everyone was lying down, nor did he know why they weren’t talking anymore. He also didn’t know why his surroundings were so quiet, as if he was the only one left in this world.
He attempted to tug at the grown-up lying next to him, but he couldn’t even stand steadily on his own.
No matter what he did, the grown-up wouldn’t wake up. His tugging proved to be fruitless, and he collapsed onto the ground; the only thing to show for his efforts was the viscous coppery blood coating his hands. After the grown-up’s arm fell back down with a thud, completely lifeless, he stubbornly clambered to his feet again and grabbed ahold of it once more, but to no avail.
As a result, he spread his bloodstained fingers and stood there, all alone, lost and dazed…
Until he heard someone approach him.
Chen Budao had elected not to wear his outer robe or mask that day. He was clad only in a snow-white inner robe, which was pristine and immaculate, giving him the appearance of an immortal who had just descended from the heavens. When he cast his gaze downwards at the child on the ground, a gentle and compassionate aura seemed to surround him.
That one look became the beginning of all of Wen Shi’s memories in this mortal realm.
Chen Budao lifted the hem of his robe and crouched down halfway so that he could pick Wen Shi up from the mountain of corpses and sea of blood. Just like an artificial doll, Wen Shi slumped against Chen Budao’s shoulder. His dark eyes were wide open as he stared at the ground without blinking, and he kept staring until it was hard to endure the aching of his eyes, which were starting to feel hot and painful.
The person holding him patted his back and said in a deep voice, “Close your eyes.”
He did as he was told: he closed his eyes and buried his face against the other person’s shoulder. A while later, the fabric under his eyes was completely soaked.
He was too young, so he shouldn’t have been able to remember that day. But for a long period of time after that, he would always recall the smell of blood on the wind and the sensation of a dead person’s shockingly frigid hand sliding out of his grasp.
On the day that became the beginning of all his memories, he came to understand life and death, grief and joy, without anyone having to teach it to him.
He didn’t have a name. The only identifying item on his person was a longevity locket that was hung around his neck when he was born. Since it already had the character “Wen” on it, which was most likely his family name, Chen Budao added the character “Shi” for him.
The one named “Shi,” so as to remember the passage of time1. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter; the circling of the sun and moon—all of it was encompassed within this singular character.
Wen Shi was always in poor health during his youth. He had cried for too long on that day, and he had also received a fright. As a result, he fell severely ill after Chen Budao brought him back.
There was an abundance of cold qi on the summit of the mountain, and it wasn’t a suitable place for a child to reside. However, there was a village at the foot of the mountain with housing structures laid out neatly within it, bustling with the vibrant energy of mundane life. At first, Wen Shi recuperated at the foot of Mount Songyun.
But he didn’t have a particularly deep impression of that place, because he kept drifting in and out of sleep, over and over, while he was recovering. By the time he was completely healed, the four seasons had already cycled by once.
As was the norm, he then moved to the cradle of Mount Songyun to live with the other direct disciples: Bu Ning, Zhuang Ye, and Zhong Si. By nature, children should be fond of playing and messing around. They should’ve quickly grown close, especially since they were living in close quarters with other children who were of a similar age.
But Wen Shi was an exception.
He didn’t know when he was born, he had no idea what age he was supposed to be, and he couldn’t describe where he came from. Like an uninvited guest who had nowhere else to go, he didn’t seem to fit in with the other children.
During that period of time, Chen Budao wasn’t at Mount Songyun all too often. Whenever he left, he didn’t return for long stretches at a time, so he wasn’t aware of any of this. But even if he had been there, he most likely wouldn’t have found out right away regardless, because Wen Shi certainly wouldn’t have told him.
Ever since he was young, he was taciturn and stubborn, and he wasn’t very good at expressing or venting his feelings.
Perhaps, precisely because of that, those things that didn’t belong to him were able to hide inside his body for so long…
The malevolent energy flooded out of Wen Shi for the first time on a certain late night, when Chen Budao had yet to return.
Being a poor sleeper, Zhuang Ye had dragged Wen Shi’s blanket away from him. As a result, Wen Shi slept for some time while pressed up against the corner of the wall and started to catch a chill. Possibly due to his weak constitution, those things were able to slip through the gaps, causing him to have many dreams that night.
He dreamed that he was standing in that city overflowing with blood once more. He bent over to shake the bodies of the dead lying next to him in an obstinate attempt to wake them up, but no matter how hard he pulled or tugged at them, it was useless.
The entire city was filled with an eerie weeping that coiled around him and told him things that he couldn’t understand. There were tearful accusations and anguished wails, piercing screams and soft sighs.
He listened to them for a while before he realized that those voices weren’t actually external—they were all coming from within him.
Then, with a shudder, he abruptly startled awake.
Upon opening his eyes, he discovered that he wasn’t in the residence nestled in the saddle of the mountain. Instead, he stood on the stone path that led to the bottom of the mountain, surrounded by a patch of withered, dead flowers.
Someone gasped next to him.
He turned his head and spotted several eight- or nine-year-old boys nearby. They stared at him with wide eyes and panic written across their faces, as if they had just witnessed a ghost come to life. With a cry of fear, they frantically scattered and descended down the mountain path.
This was the practice terrace located near the foot of the mountain. The boys that he had scared were outer disciples from below the mountain who had risen early that day.
At that moment, dawn was just beginning to glimmer on the horizon. The mountain was extremely chilly, and the ground was prickly and cold.
Wen Shi stood all alone amidst that patch of withered flowers for quite a while before he finally realized that he was barefoot. On his way down, he must’ve torn the skin on his feet in numerous places, as it was very painful.
His head drooped, and he looked down at his hands again, only to find that his fingers were wrapped in something dark, dirty, and hazy. He clutched a corner of his clothing and rubbed at his hands forcefully, but it had no effect, even when he almost ripped open his palms from scrubbing too hard.
After that day, a rumor started spreading both on and below the mountain. They said that he was the reincarnation of an evil spirit draped in the skin of a child. They said that he would go down the mountain in the middle of the night to capture humans, and that all the flowers withered wherever he walked.
In the blink of an eye, everyone became afraid of him and didn’t dare to go near him, as if he was capable of discarding his human skin at any moment, revealing a menacing ghoulish appearance underneath it.
He was already often by himself most of the time, something that became even more obvious over the next few days. Regardless of whether they were eating, sleeping, or practicing fundamental skills, the other children all stayed far, far away from him.
He was very stubborn, so he didn’t try to defend himself in the slightest.
He simply stayed in the corner by himself and fought with the black mist tangled around his fingers.
Zhuang Ye and the rest couldn’t see the black mist on his hands. Otherwise, they probably would’ve been even more frightened, to the point that they wouldn’t even have been able to stay in the same room as him.
In reality, he was the one who was the most afraid.
He was scared that he would dream yet again about the eerie weeping that followed him relentlessly. He was scared that he would open his eyes and find himself standing in an unfamiliar place once more, terrifying another group of complete strangers. He was so scared that he didn’t dare to shut his eyes at all the entire night.
That was when Chen Budao returned to Mount Songyun.
He seemed to have accomplished many things and visited many places during that span of time. Upon walking through the door, he carried with him the scent of the wind and snow that drifted throughout the mundane world. It swept through the room and against the little disciples, rendering them meekly silent.
But they still respectfully called out “shifu.” Only Wen Shi mulishly refused to speak.
One reason was because Chen Budao had just returned to the mountain that day, so he was wearing his mask, which made him feel a bit like an unapproachable stranger.
Another reason… He was probably worried that he was going to be sent away.
After all, his hands were covered in black mist, making them dirty and sullied, and he was also capable of unconsciously turning into an evil spirit. Rather than being sent off the mountain as soon as he acknowledged his shifu, it was better to just not acknowledge him at all.
Even though he was led to the top of the mountain, even though Chen Budao handed the tiny Golden-Winged Dapeng to him and told him that he could raise it, the uneasiness from feeling that he would be abandoned never fully disappeared.
Because he didn’t have a date of birth or an origin. He didn’t even know whether he was considered a monster or not.
He remembered that the snow didn’t stop until it was very late at night on that day. With the Golden-Winged Dapeng gathered in his arms, he sat silently on the daybed and waited for Chen Budao to send him away.
He waited for a long time, but the only thing that came out of it was a basin of medicine.
The medicine was brewed by Chen Budao. He had boiled it inside his residence for half a day before letting it cool outside in the snow for a while. By the time he carried it back in, it was still seething with white steam, but it was no longer quite so scalding hot.
Chen Budao set the basin of medicine down on a small square table before he extended his open hand towards Wen Shi. “Give me your hands.”
Wen Shi was in the middle of a silent fit. When he heard Chen Budao speak, he remained stubbornly defiant for a short moment before he finally stretched out his hands. As Chen Budao grasped Wen Shi’s fingers and looked down at the black mist surrounding his hands, his eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly.
Wen Shi pressed his lips together and subconsciously tried to pull back his hands, but he wasn’t successful.
Chen Budao loosened his muscles for him before he held Wen Shi’s hands by the wrists and submerged them in the medicine.
“What are you pulling back for? Afraid of the heat?” Chen Budao said.
“No.” Wen Shi’s two paws were being pressed into the liquid, and he struggled briefly, unwilling to give up.
But he soon settled down after that, because the liquid medicine was just the right temperature, allowing the cozy warmth to permeate into his body through his hands. A large portion of the chill that he had received several days earlier was immediately expelled.
Feeling Wen Shi relax, Chen Budao smiled and glanced up, teasing him, “Cooked through yet?”
Wen Shi shook his head.
He watched the black mist scatter and drift through the water. It seemed to have lightened somewhat, but it also seemed to be the exact same as before. He couldn’t help but ask, “Why do I have dirty things on my hands.”
Chen Budao went quiet for a moment. “These aren’t ‘dirty things.’”
Wen Shi: “What are they?”
Chen Budao: “They’re the thoughts and wishes left behind in a haste by people who departed too swiftly, except they left them all with you.”
That was a relatively tactful way of describing it, to avoid frightening a child. Wen Shi only learned later that life and death was a common occurrence in this world. Some people were ill, injured, or old; it was this family one day and that family the next. Perhaps they would be able to narrowly evade death, but sometimes it was inevitable—for instance, during wars, natural disasters, or epidemics.
What Wen Shi encountered back then was the massacre of a city during a war.
The resentful and malevolent energy that seeped out from tens of thousands—no, hundreds of thousands of people was incredibly alarming to think about. It was hard to imagine what kind of cage would be formed from that energy.
Chen Budao had rushed over to undo a cage, but he didn’t find any upon arrival. Instead, all he found was a child who had been protected underneath the bodies of numerous adults. That child was the only living being to avoid that man-made disaster.
As that child stood there alone with tears dripping silently down his face, he was no different from any other child in this world. He was even clean to the point of being completely unsullied.
But in reality, the malevolent energy from hundreds upon thousands of people had all funneled into that child’s body instead of forming a cage, like giant waves revolving around the center of a whirlpool.
And since there was such a massive amount of energy that was extremely difficult to keep track of, it didn’t make an appearance immediately—perhaps because some things reacted in an opposing manner upon reaching a certain extreme. A long time passed before it slowly started to expose hints of its existence.
It was true that the black mist wasn’t something “dirty.” It was the manifestation of too much sorrow and joy experienced by people on this earth; it was their love and their hate, their reluctance to bid goodbye and their unwillingness to part ways. Those were worldly bonds.
However, as Wen Shi was soaking in the medicine, the only things that came to mind were the dead flowers, the bird that shriveled in a heartbeat, and Chen Budao’s withered, skeleton-like hand. He lowered his head and stared at the other person’s fingers, which had already returned to normal. “Will it hurt other people?”
Chen Budao was faintly surprised. He added some more things into the basin of medicine before he looked down at this little disciple of his and said, “Such a tiny speck of a person—shouldn’t you be thinking about yourself first?”
When Wen Shi didn’t say anything, Chen Budao spoke again. “If you behave well, it won’t.”
After mulling it over for a moment, Wen Shi decided that there was still a possibility he could harm other people. As a result, he let his head droop down, sulky and despondent.
He stared at the tea-green medicinal liquid and spaced out for a while. All of a sudden, he heard Chen Budao say, “There’s a way to remove it, but it’ll have to wait until you’re a little older.”
Stunned, Wen Shi raised his head just in time to see Chen Budao stand and pull out a clean silk handkerchief. As he wiped his fingers with it, the flame in the lantern flickered gently, casting the profile of his shadow against the wall.
“How much older is ‘a little older’?” Wen Shi said.
Chen Budao swept a look around the room before he pointed at the round, plump Golden-Winged Dapeng and said, “Once you raise it into a human.”
Wen Shi was dumbstruck. “How does a bird turn into a human?”
Chen Budao smiled and said, “It simply has to lose all its feathers.”
Wen Shi: “?”
The Golden-Winged Dapeng: “???”
Now that his little disciple had finally stopped looking so unhappy, Chen Budao reached out and picked up his outer robe with the intention of leaving the room to Wen Shi. Before departing, Chen Budao patted Wen Shi’s head and said, “You can just stay here. Even your name was chosen by me, who would dare not want you?”
From that day forth, Wen Shi had an origin: Chen Budao.
- 时者，所以记岁也。Musuli really loves this format of introducing names, and for good reason – it’s so poetically beautiful. For more context: the “Shi” in Wen Shi means time. ^