Thank you so much to Siljuakn and LunaPie for the Ko-fis!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Wen Shi was actually very clingy back then.
But he would never admit it verbally, nor would he pester Chen Budao and demand things from him. He didn’t need to be carried, and his hand didn’t have to be held; he was just clingy in the sense that he silently followed Chen Budao everywhere he went.
As if he could only feel at ease staying somewhere if Chen Budao was also present.
Even though Chen Budao was the one who gave Wen Shi his name, he never called him properly by it. Instead, he was always coming up with nicknames for Wen Shi.
If Wen Shi was acting sulky and withdrawn, Chen Budao would call him “little silent boy.” If Wen Shi was blindly following him around to numerous places like a ball of snow, Chen Budao would call him “little tail.”
Children were easily forgetful. As long as they weren’t reminded of the things that made them unhappy, they would quickly cast it to the back of their minds. At the very beginning, Wen Shi was also like this—
After Chen Budao made him soak in the medicine for several days, the black mist on his hands faded away again, and he was able to sleep soundly through the night. Soon enough, it didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.
In actuality, it was only because the chill he caught earlier had taken a turn for the better, putting his mind at ease. But he didn’t know that—he thought that his constitution had changed, that the things hidden inside of him had lessened.
That year was probably the year in which Wen Shi felt the least burdened. At times, he would even bring the Golden-Winged Dapeng down the mountain to play.
However, he was very restrained in his playing, and also very quiet.
The people at the bottom of the mountain still called him an evil spirit. When the younger children saw him, they would either throw rocks at him from afar or turn tail and run, as if he was going to skin them and eat them alive if they stayed there for even a moment longer.
That was why Wen Shi never went to places that were bustling with activity. He specifically chose to frequent places without people, such as valleys, forests, and streams. Eventually, this became his disposition.
Perhaps because he wasn’t a particularly vivacious person by nature, he was fond of lively, spirited things. The peak of Mount Songyun was too cold, and it wasn’t inhabited by many living creatures. If he ventured further down the mountain and spotted a nest of rabbits, several turtles, or a few fish, he could watch them for a long time.
Whenever he nestled himself away in that stretch of forest, he would frequently encounter a granny who was there to gather herbs. There was a bit of kinship between him and this granny. Back when Chen Budao first brought him back to recuperate at the foot of the mountain, this was the granny that Wen Shi had stayed with.
She didn’t take care of him for that long, so their relationship wasn’t very deep, especially since children didn’t remember things too well. But out of all the people who lived at the bottom of the mountain, this granny was the only one to treat him kindly without reservation.
Every time she saw him in the woods, she would always stuff some food into his hands—it was either fruit that she had already washed or little cakes that she had steamed at home.
The fruit was often too mushy, and the cake was rather dry. Neither was particularly appetizing to a child, but Wen Shi would always sit cross-legged on the ground and polish off the food right in front of the granny. Not long after, he also learned to give her gifts in return.
As winter began to transition to spring the next year, the people at the bottom of the mountain started giving offerings to their ancestors and ringing in the new year, driving out bad luck and praying for blessings. It was noisy and rowdy for quite a few days. Wen Shi made sure to stay away during that period of time; apart from the trips that Chen Budao brought him out on, he never went down the mountain by himself.
Once all the excitement calmed down, he returned to the grove further down the mountain, but he didn’t run into that herb-picking granny for several days in a row.
He was a little restless, so he gathered his Golden-Winged Dapeng in his arms and snuck over to the edge of the village, pinching its beak shut so that it wouldn’t make any noise. Then, next to the house, he saw a white spirit banner hanging from a bamboo pole, as well as paper money strewn all over the floor.
Her friends and relatives in the village were dressed in mourning clothes, and Wen Shi faintly heard them say that the granny had departed. After celebrating the new year and eating a good meal, she left in her sleep without illness or pain and passed peacefully away from old age in her bed.
Since many of the village children were young, they didn’t yet understand the meaning of death. They only thought that it was fun to be around a lot of other people. After their elders brought them to the doorway and made them kowtow and bow, they began chasing and messing around with each other.
But Wen Shi understood. He knew that from this day onwards, if he went to that grove again—no matter what season it was—nobody would be there anymore to stuff fruit or sweet cakes into his hands, with a basket slung over their arm and a wide smile on their face.
That night, Wen Shi had the same dream again.
Except this time, the dream didn’t consist only of a city of ghosts, a mountain of corpses, and a sea of blood. The herb-picking granny was also there. She stumbled unsteadily along that long, gloomy path and didn’t look back no matter what Wen Shi yelled at her.
Like the tip of a needle or the blade of a knife, the eerie wailing bored into his skull, piercing and drilling deep inside. Even though his head felt like it was going split open, he couldn’t struggle free.
Wen Shi wrestled for a long time with those things in his dream.
Upon opening his eyes at last, he discovered that he wasn’t in bed anymore. Instead, he was standing in front of the door to Chen Budao’s room. The knife-like black mist coating his hands had expanded in a frenzy and was about to slip into the room.
He froze in a panic-stricken daze for quite a while before he shivered in fright. Then, he turned around and dashed away; after this happened, he didn’t dare to close his eyes again.
The Golden-Winged Dapeng wasn’t afraid of the black mist—Wen Shi knew that. Rather than returning to his room, he went to the stone cliff bordering the practice terrace and sat down there, stroking the Golden-Winged Dapeng’s fluffy head. When he saw that it was still just as animated and lively as usual, even shrouded by black mist, he was finally able to feel a tiny bit more at ease.
After sitting for an indeterminate amount of time, he heard a rustling noise come from behind him: it was the sound of a robe sweeping lightly over pine tree branches and snow.
He knew that it was Chen Budao, but he stayed silent and didn’t turn around.
Because as soon as he remembered how he was standing in front of Chen Budao’s door last night like some sort of demon, he was filled with an indescribable discomfort. Back then, he didn’t understand what he was feeling; he only realized much later that it was a retrospective kind of fear.
It was the fear that he would one day lose control and hurt the person that he was the most afraid of hurting, despite knowing that it was impossible for him to harm Chen Budao, so long as Chen Budao’s guard was even slightly raised.
“How did my tail fall off here?” Chen Budao bent down behind him and cupped Wen Shi’s chin in his palm, forcing him to raise his head.
Most likely because Wen Shi’s eyes were too red, Chen Budao was briefly caught off guard. He wiped away the tears hanging from Wen Shi’s chin before turning him around.
Wen Shi extended one of his hands and said, “Those things appeared again.”
Chen Budao nodded. “I can tell.”
Wen Shi thought that Chen Budao was going to ask him what happened, but he only said, “Does it hurt?”
It did hurt. In fact, it really, really hurt—it was the kind of pain that drilled into his head, heart, and body, the kind that was affixed to his soul, the kind that he couldn’t break free from no matter what he did.
But perhaps since he had been awake for some time now, the pain didn’t seem to be too bad when Chen Budao asked that question. As a result, he shook his head and said in a muted voice, “It doesn’t.”
Still leaning forward, Chen Budao looked down at the top of his head. A moment later, he said, “So young, yet you’re already learning how to deceive people.”
Wen Shi wrinkled his brows and tilted his head back. “How do you know I’m deceiving you.”
Chen Budao: “Because I’m your shifu.”
As Chen Budao sat down on the stone platform, Wen Shi glanced at the black mist surrounding his hands and shifted furtively to the side a little. He thought that it wouldn’t be noticed since he had moved very carefully, but it was likely that none of it had escaped Chen Budao’s attention.
The other person was silent for quite a while before he said, “Let me show you something.”
Still maintaining a distance between them, Wen Shi peered at him with wide, curious eyes.
Chen Budao spread his hand towards him. That hand was very clean and warm, and it was the most beautiful hand that Wen Shi had ever seen. After staring at it for a moment, he couldn’t help but hide his own stained hands behind his back.
However, right as he hid them, he saw something slowly begin to seep out from Chen Budao’s pristine palm. It was black mist, just like Wen Shi’s, and it flowed out without end…
Wen Shi was so shocked that he forgot to speak.
Chen Budao explained that that year was filled with constant war and natural disasters. He had traveled through many places, and almost every single one had contained cages amalgamated by tens upon thousands of people.
It was nearly impossible to dissolve all of that resentment and malevolence. He had to suppress it first before taking care of it gradually.
Chen Budao drew in his fingers, causing the black mist to vanish obediently; it wasn’t menacing or threatening in the slightest. He said, “So you see, I’m the same as you.”
That was the day Wen Shi learned that he wasn’t the only one like this in the world. There was also Chen Budao.
What should’ve been a weight on his mind suddenly transformed into a secret connection, one that nobody but the two of them knew about.
“Why doesn’t yours roam all over the place?” Wen Shi asked.
“I have peace of mind,” Chen Budao said.
There was a reason why ordinary people possessed that dense black mist that they couldn’t remove or shake off. It was because of the collision of resentment and envy; it was because of a colorful mix of emotions and desires, love and hate, joy and sorrow; it was because they had too many attachments and worries.
Chen Budao had witnessed too many situations similar to the one Wen Shi had experienced, filled with mounds of corpses and tides of blood. He had sent off a countless number of people, allowing them to depart cleanly from this mortal life, so there were far more worldly bonds left to him compared to Wen Shi.
The ones that he couldn’t dissipate right away were stored inside him.
When he had peace of mind, they stayed there quietly, as if they had merely found a place to rest. They were stowed away calmly, noiseless and still, not even revealing a trace of their existence. But as long as there was the slightest waver, exposing the thinnest crack, they would become crazed and unbridled.
Those were the world’s most intense emotions and desires, strong enough to turn into obsessions. They would easily be able to influence a person’s state of mind. The sadness was keen anguish, the happiness was fierce ecstasy; even someone who wasn’t particularly emotional would feel ill at ease and deeply unsettled.
If one wasn’t careful, they might transform into someone else entirely under the effect of those inner demon-like emotions.
That was also why Chen Budao had no choice but to cultivate the most austere path. He harbored and carried too many worldly bonds, so if he was even a little inattentive, all of it would come surging out at once.
However, Chen Budao didn’t tell Wen Shi that at the time. To put it more precisely, he never actually told Wen Shi any of that.
He simply extended his hand towards Wen Shi and said, “Come, let me take you somewhere.”
That was Wen Shi’s first time being brought into a cage—the herb-picking granny’s.
Back then, he only knew some fundamental skills. He didn’t know anything about puppetry, spellcasting, or arrays, so he couldn’t do anything in the cage. All he could do was follow Chen Budao.
In the first place, an ordinary person’s attachments weren’t exceptionally earth-shattering. The cage was very small, and it didn’t take a lot of trouble to undo. Chen Budao brought him along just so that he could see the granny again.
At that time, Wen Shi felt as though Chen Budao could somehow read his mind. Even if he didn’t say anything, Chen Budao knew exactly what he was thinking.
Chen Budao led him back to the mountain peak after they came out of the cage. There, he extracted a strand of a worldly bond from between his fingers and said, “That granny left something for you. What would you like it to be—a rabbit? A fish, or a bird?”
Wen Shi asked him, “What can live forever?”
Chen Budao said, “Every living creature will meet its end one day.”
Wen Shi offered up the bird he was holding in his arms. “But you said that the Golden-Winged Dapeng could live forever.”
Chen Budao lifted an eyebrow and said, “How very clever of you.”
Of course he wasn’t going to transform something left behind by an old lady into a puppet controlled by someone else. Nor did he intend to pull the same trick as before, when he pointed at the Golden-Winged Dapeng and said that the little bird had come back to life.
After all, the little disciple was a bit older now, and he wasn’t so easily deceived anymore.
He guided the herb-picking granny’s worldly bond into the spring-fed pool at the summit of the mountain, where it turned into a red-gold koi fish.
For the first time, Wen Shi truly and earnestly understood the meaning of a panguan’s existence—they were to send those departed people on their way; then, they were to help them leave a little something behind in this mortal realm that was once their home.
Wen Shi crouched next to the pool and asked, “How long can a fish live?”
Chen Budao said, “That depends on how you raise it. If you take care of this fish well, it can live for seventy or eighty years, enough to last a lifetime for an ordinary person. If you don’t, it also might just go belly-up tomorrow. Be careful with it.”
Wen Shi stared at him. He didn’t understand why Chen Budao had to make it so dangerous.
There was a white plum tree next to the pool. It was in full bloom, and the entire tree was snow-white. Wen Shi pointed at it and said, “How old is this?”
Chen Budao thought a little. “Likely around the same age as me. It’s fairly old.”
In Wen Shi’s eyes back then, Chen Budao was an immortal, one that wouldn’t age or die. As a result, while Wen Shi crouched by the pool and watched the fish, he mumbled quietly to himself: once he could undo cages in the future, he was going to turn all these worldly bonds into trees.
Chen Budao teased him. “If you create that many trees, where are you going to plant them all? A tree can’t open its mouth and speak either.”
Wen Shi: “Can a fish speak?”
Chen Budao leaned against the tree and looked at him for a moment before he let out a low chuckle and said, “Despite being rather untalkative, you still put on quite the convincing show when you decide to get fierce.”
Wen Shi ignored him and began wordlessly stacking stones into the pool. After continuing like that for a while, he started to think that the pool really was too empty. It only contained a single fish, all by its lonesome.
“Even though you’ll willingly go for quite a while without saying a single word, you’re afraid that a fish might die from boredom?” Chen Budao raised an eyebrow, somewhat surprised. A beat later, he nodded before he straightened upright and left.
Not long after, he returned with something in his hand. As he stooped down and placed it into the pool, he said, “I found something to accompany the fish on your behalf.”
Wen Shi peered closer and discovered that it was a little turtle.
He lifted his head and had a staredown with Chen Budao for a long moment before he also turned on his heel and walked away. Some time later, he came back with another turtle cupped in his palms, which he then tossed into the pool.
Chen Budao glanced at it. “And who is this a substitute for?”
Wen Shi didn’t bother looking up. “You.”
Chen Budao huffed out a laugh and chided lowly, “How utterly defiant.”
When Wen Shi thought back on those times, he realized that although he had spoken a fair amount as a child, Bu Ning and the rest still viewed him as someone who tended to ignore other people. Perhaps it was because all his words had been spoken solely for Chen Budao’s ears.
From that day forward, Wen Shi began earnestly learning the skills of a panguan. It was no longer just for the purpose of seeking a long-term place to stay.
Chen Budao himself was proficient in many areas. Whether it was puppetry, spellcasting, or arrays, he was the ancestor of them all. If he had to pick a weak point, it would probably be divination, because divination was something that relied heavily on innate talent.
Bu Ning was the type who was naturally suited for divination. Even if other people sat there for an entire day, holding all sorts of tools to aid them, they still wouldn’t be able to see as many things as Bu Ning did when he accidentally entered a meditative state.
But there was also a disadvantage to that. His constitution was situated between that of a human and that of a spiritual creature, so his soul was unstable by nature. It was like a shallow dish that was filled with a thin film of water. With a light push, half of the water could spill out. If he entered a cage, it was especially easy for him to be led astray, possessed, or infected by some things.
Since Bu Ning couldn’t even stabilize himself, puppetry was essentially out of the question for him. Thus, he specialized in array-casting, with divination as his support. As long as he was able to make the first move and lay down his array, there were rarely any issues.
Zhong Si specialized in spellcasting, because he was clever and dexterous. There were times when he could use talismans to make arrays or transform objects, so it was equivalent to him learning some measure of array-casting and some measure of puppetry. If he had nothing better to do, he could even protect a residence, steady a soul, or ward off evil creatures and disasters. If he was playing around with someone, he could catch them unprepared and ambush them with a slap of a talisman.
He had an outgoing personality. On top of being a bit reckless, he was also fond of teasing people. Array-casting and divination were too calm for him, whereas puppetry required the user to be both unyielding and meticulous. Comparatively speaking, spellcasting suited him the best.
Zhuang Ye made friends easily, and his temper was virtually nonexistent. From a young age, he had already started to embody the adage “all rivers flow into the sea.” There was nothing he couldn’t do, but at the same time, he never dabbled deeply enough in anything to become proficient at it. As a result, he specialized in the mixed arts.
Meanwhile, Wen Shi had never once wavered in his decision. From the moment he was given the Golden-Winged Dapeng, he had his heart set on learning puppetry.
Puppetry was a branch of cultivation that had a very low threshold for entry but extraordinarily high upper limits. As long as the basics were grasped, anyone could craft one or two little puppets. But there were many more requirements if you wanted to become skilled at it—you had to be sufficiently calm, steadfast, and tenacious; your spiritual consciousness had to be powerful but not too inflexible.
Every time a puppet master released a puppet, it was tantamount to carving and sending out a portion of their own body. Not only did the puppet master have to suppress the puppet, they also had to make it conform to their spiritual consciousness.
It was actually a very awkward feeling that took some getting used to, all of which depended solely on diligent training.
That was why Wen Shi was always the one practicing the most assiduously out of all his fellow disciples, even as he noticeably grew more and more powerful.
He was always the first to rise and the last to sleep. There was one time in the past where Bu Ning and the rest refused to believe it and attempted to battle it out with him. However, no matter what time they crawled out of bed, they would always see Wen Shi’s bird perched on the practice terrace, preening its feathers.
Oh wait—that wasn’t really Wen Shi’s bird. Accurately speaking, that was Chen Budao’s Golden-Winged Dapeng, which he was allowing Wen Shi to take care of.
Whenever the Golden-Winged Dapeng turned its head towards them, the other disciples would always feel envious and ashamed. Then they would slink over to their shidi and join in on the training.
After the same scenario repeated numerous times, they asked Wen Shi very seriously, “Do you even sleep at all?”
Wen Shi shot them a doubtful look. The following words were written bright and clear across his face: What kind of nonsense are you spouting?
“Does it take that much effort to learn puppetry?” Zhong Si sat on a branch in a pine tree, one leg hiked over the other, as he flicked out talismans with a rustling noise. “Thankfully I didn’t specialize in that.”
Actually, Wen Shi wasn’t rising so early and sleeping so late just to practice puppetry. He had pilfered a book from Chen Budao’s room, and he was trying to use it to cleanse his soul.
To tell the truth, Chen Budao didn’t advise these disciples to cultivate the same path as him. After all, as long as they were living in this world, it was much too difficult to be completely unfettered and without attachments. Spirit cleansing was merely a supplement for that path; it was the same as scraping a blade several times against one’s soul. It lasted for a long time, and it wasn’t easy to endure.
Chen Budao had long since planned it out: once Wen Shi came of age, was mostly proficient in puppetry, and could withstand the cleansing, Chen Budao would strip the malevolent and resentful energy left behind by hundreds upon thousands of people from Wen Shi’s soul. Then, he would take it all upon himself.
He had never told Wen Shi about it before. Every time Wen Shi asked, Chen Budao would always explain a different method to him, one that seemed gentle and harmless.
But in reality, Wen Shi knew everything, and he also understood everything.
He didn’t want to transfer it all to Chen Budao, since it was his own burden to bear. As a result, he began to secretly cleanse his soul very early on. He knew that the Golden-Winged Dapeng would tell on him, so at the beginning, Wen Shi always bound it with puppet string.
Eventually, he ended up using the “torment by staring” and “arguing (intimidating) with reason (threats)” methods to make the bird take his side. He wasn’t good at lying, so he relied entirely on Lao Mao for support.
Chen Budao didn’t expect Wen Shi to coerce his own puppet into defecting. By the time he discovered what was going on, Wen Shi had already been cleansing his soul for many years. He was no longer that little snowman who used to huddle into a ball at the drop of a hat; instead, he had transformed into a slender and poised young man who stood tall and upright.
Wen Shi was seventeen that year.
Because of his frequent soul cleanses, he had cultivated a path without attachments or fetters. Appearance-wise, Wen Shi was even colder and harder to approach than he had been in his youth. Over the course of his adolescent development, he had gained edges and angles—there was no longer a little indent left behind if someone poked him, as was the case when he was a child, and a hint of sharpness gradually surrounded him.
Even though his three shixiong wanted to tease him, they were also a bit afraid of him. Based purely on aura alone, Wen Shi seemed like the oldest one in the group.
During those years, the secular world was always in a state of disorder. Chen Budao wasn’t on Mount Songyun all too often, and Wen Shi frequently went for long periods of time without seeing him.
Young men in late adolescence tended to be sensitive and fickle, and their moods were always changing rapidly. Despite having cultivated a path without attachments, Wen Shi still lacked a bit of maturity, and he couldn’t remove himself completely from the mundane world.
He only appeared to be ice-cold on the surface. That didn’t mean that he was devoid of every emotion belonging to the mortal realm, especially when it came to Chen Budao.
Chen Budao’s appearance from when Wen Shi was a child had remained the exact same even as Wen Shi unwittingly grew up. Although Wen Shi himself had changed notably and swiftly, Chen Budao was still that person who leaned lazily against a white plum tree with a smile on his face as he reprimanded Wen Shi for becoming defiant and willful after being spoiled too much.
This made Wen Shi feel both conflicted and detached.
It was as if he was growing up on the mountain by himself, whereas Chen Budao was just a silhouette that occasionally flickered his way through the gaps in time. He didn’t resemble an elder; he seemed more like a visitor.
One time, several months passed before Chen Budao finally returned. He was walking along the mountain path, wearing the mask that he often donned when he was meeting strangers. The bottom of his snow-white robe swept across the limestone path like a cloud, followed by the gentle glide of his red outer robe.
Wen Shi just happened to be coming up from the saddle of the mountain, which was on the other side. Upon spotting Chen Budao from afar, he came to a sudden stop. At that moment, he abruptly thought that the person in the distance felt a bit unfamiliar.
The two of them should’ve been very close to each other, closer than anyone else in the world. They still had a shared secret, after all: the worldly bonds from the mortal realm were hidden in their souls.
But excluding that, there was also a little unfamiliarity present.
It wasn’t apathy or estrangement. Instead, in the blink of an eye, a rather subtle distance had formed between them.
This feeling was born from a nearly imperceptible shift that had occurred without rhyme or reason. For a long time, Wen Shi couldn’t figure out what it was.
That lasted until it was the middle of spring yet again two years later. Wen Shi and the others had just returned to Mount Songyun after undoing a cage, where they rested for a short while before making their way to the practice terrace halfway up the mountain.
Bu Ning was the frail and refined type who looked like he could be toppled over by a puff of wind. He was also a worrier who could prattle on for ages once he got started on something. As he set up an array along the ridge, he said, “I heard shifu say the other day that after shidi comes of age, we can leave the mountain to travel around, accept disciples, and enter society. But I’ve gotten used to living with you all, and I feel like I’ll be lonely by myself. Shall we partner up with each other instead?”
By flicking out talismans, Zhong Si was creating chaotic breezes to mess with the formation that Bu Ning had established. He answered, “Sure. Looking at your small build, I fear that you won’t be able to survive for many days if you go down the mountain by yourself.”
Bu Ning pointed at him from afar and warned him rather unimpressively, “Keep flicking those out, why don’t you? If there’s a huge catastrophe six days from now, are you going to be scared then?”
“No, if worst comes to worst, I just won’t leave the mountain.” Although Zhong Si said that, he stilled his trouble-stirring hand and turned to seek the opinions of the other two disciples.
Zhuang Ye had a nickname: “Zhuang Haohao1.” This was because he was extremely mild-tempered and would always reply “okay okay okay” to everything. Thus, Zhong Si’s question was mainly directed at Wen Shi; after all, the disciples’ biggest gamble each day was betting on whether their icicle-like shidi was happy or unhappy.
Unfortunately, Wen Shi just happened to be unhappy at that moment.
There was still a year until he came of age, and he had also heard Chen Budao say something similar several times in the past. But every time he thought about “leaving the mountain” and potentially not returning for a long period of time, he would be filled with an indescribable heaviness and irritation.
Zhuang Ye was in the middle of idly practicing his accuracy with his puppet string. He used a thin strand of silk to strike birds, fish, falling petals, and flying insects.
The string generated sharp whistling noises that were quite frightening to hear, but Wen Shi didn’t even attempt to get out of the way. Lips pressed together, he lowered his thin eyelids and leaned against a tree as he tidied the puppet string wrapped around his fingers.
“What are your thoughts?” Zhong Si asked in Wen Shi’s direction.
Without looking up, Wen Shi said listlessly, “We’ll see next year.”
“Shidi, when you throw out your puppet string, how do you time the strength appropriately?” Zhuang Ye followed up with another question.
Wen Shi was still mostly disinterested, but he happened to hear a sound come from the mountain path, so he decided to give Zhuang Ye a demonstration while the opportunity was there. Except right as his puppet string flew out, he froze briefly in shock.
Because the person making his way over from the mountain path was Chen Budao.
At that time, Wen Shi was already nearing the peak of puppetry. The string swept its way across at an extremely tricky angle, swift and powerful, and there was no way to avoid it.
As a result, Chen Budao raised his hand and caught the strands of string, folding them into his palm. The snow-white cotton thread coiled around the slender curve of his index finger before it looped around his ring finger and dangled downwards.
This was Wen Shi’s first time realizing just how deeply connected a puppet master was to their string.
In that instant, his half-lowered eyes trembled. Those slim, clean fingers seemed to be holding onto more than just a few strands of cotton thread—they seemed to reach into his very soul.
His fingers curled for a moment, with the puppet string still stretched taut around them. Then, he looked up at the person standing next to the mountain path.
“Since we haven’t seen each other in some time, you decided to ambush me with your puppet string?” Chen Budao asked jokingly. He wasn’t truly angry, and he relaxed his grip.
The string slid off of his fingers as all the other disciples promptly greeted him with a respectful “shifu.” Only Wen Shi remained silent, gaze lowered while he reeled in his puppet string.
That night, Wen Shi had a long-lost dream.
The empty city was still there, filled with corpses and blood, along with that omnipresent eerie weeping. But all the demons and monsters had become blurry and indistinct, as if they were distorted paper-cut figures of evil creatures. The eerie wailing was almost indiscernible; it was sometimes near and sometimes far, like a sigh or a murmur.
He stood in an empty hall that was surrounded by ghostly shadows, and strands of puppet string were tangled around all of his fingers. The string was drenched—either blood or sweat slipped slowly down the thread and dripped off its ends, forming a puddle next to his feet.
Suddenly, he heard a noise come from behind him. Wen Shi whipped around and drew his puppet string tight, only to be met with the sight of Chen Budao, who was standing there barefoot with his white inner robe draped loosely around him.
There was something meaningful about his gaze, cast as it was from half-closed eyes. He looked at Wen Shi briefly before he lifted his hand and stroked his thumb across Wen Shi’s taut puppet string, strand by strand, wiping away the wetness clinging to it.
Staring at the string underneath Chen Budao’s fingers, Wen Shi licked his dry lips.
“Greet me,” the other person said softly, with one of Wen Shi’s puppet strings in his grasp.
Wen Shi shut his eyes before he parted his lips and said, “Chen Budao.”
As those two words left his mouth, he woke with a start.
He lashed out instinctively with the puppet string that he hadn’t removed from his fingers, overturning the bird stand that Lao Mao was perched on. It toppled onto the ground with a crash.
He sat up in bed, brows furrowed. His body was extremely tense, and his white robe—the same one he had on in his dream—was loose and slightly disheveled, damp with sweat that he didn’t remember producing.
At some point, it had started raining outside, creating a steady babble of sound. Whenever the rain dripped off the edges of the roof, it emitted a noise that was both sticky and ambiguous. Wen Shi tightened his lips as he steadied his breathing, pale profile illuminated under the light.
All of a sudden, there were two light raps against his door, after which someone lightly pushed it open.
Wen Shi looked up and saw Chen Budao standing in the doorway, a lantern in his hand. Chen Budao’s eyes glistened with the candle’s luminescent glow, his voice slightly husky from a sleepiness that had yet to vanish entirely. “What’s the matter?”
Wen Shi stared at him without responding.
There was an unexpected rumble of muffled thunder outside, startling the mountain’s countless insects into abrupt movement2.
Chen Budao’s gaze shifted down and landed on Wen Shi’s hands. Upon lowering his head, Wen Shi saw coiling black mist and worldly bonds twisted around himself. That was the mortal realm’s strongest embodiment of love and hate, of happiness and sorrow, of emotion and desire.
- Haohao (好好) means like “okay/alright/sounds good” ^
- This is tied to the chapter’s title: 惊蛰 (awakening of the insects). It’s the time in mid-March when insects/living creatures are awakened from winter dormancy by the first spring thunder. Here, it’s a parallel to the awakening of Wen Shi’s feelings for Chen Budao. ^
Yan: Happy new year everyone and happy birthday to Wen Shi! Hope everyone enjoys this chapter of their past, these are always some of my favorite parts. (Also, in case you don’t remember the turtles, see chapter 15)
Quick update regarding January – I’m going to be super busy at work this entire month, and because I am physically incapable of translating PG any faster, I have no chapters stocked up 😦 in short, I have no idea if any chapters will be coming out in January. But we will be back in February if not sooner! Stay safe out there~