Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Wen Shi hadn’t responded at the time. Luckily, Zhou Xu didn’t seem to care much about that.
Perhaps he truly was fond of listening to and telling stories, or perhaps he had already tacitly accepted the fact that Wen Shi was lagging or typing slowly. Completely unprompted, Zhou Xu proceeded to recount Xie Wen’s entire background—and he might as well have described Xie Wen’s whole family tree in the process.
Judging from the way Zhou Xu started off and the length of his subsequent messages, Wen Shi felt like he must’ve been bored at the time. Either that, or he had been dying to talk about this for a while now.
Zhou Xu said: Have you heard of Xie Wen’s mother before? She’s also from the Zhang family, and she was allegedly quite famous in her youth. She was already very strong by the time she was ten, probably enough to be considered gifted in the present day. Her name was Zhang Wanling, and she was from the same generation as my mom, the one with the generation name of “ling1.” Actually, my uncle Zhang Yalin is part of that generation too, but he thought Yaling sounded too delicate, so he changed it. My aunt is even cooler, she directly removed the “ling” character from her name.
Zhou Xu: But if you start from Xie Wen’s name and trace backwards on the name register mural, you’ll only find someone called Zhang Wan on his line. That’s his mom, except the “ling” character was excluded. Her situation is a bit different from my aunt’s. Though my aunt and uncle have a lot of seniority, they’re still young and tend to do whatever they want. They only changed their names because they didn’t want to be too similar to everyone else. But that wasn’t what happened to Xie Wen’s mom. She was driven out of the main family years ago, and the “ling” character was taken away from her.
Zhou Xu: If you think about it like that, she could still be considered extremely talented, even though later on, many people said that…
Even though later on, many people said that Xie Wen was from an utterly unremarkable side branch of the Zhang family, those who had stayed in the main residence before had picked up on some things, and they all knew that this wasn’t actually the case.
There were almost always two people like the sibling duo, Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin, in every generation of the main Zhang family. The name of the current family head was Zhang Zhengchu—Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin’s grandfather.
According to the Zhang family tradition, the family head position would be handed over once the successor reached thirty-five years of age. This custom was strictly adhered to all the way from the past to the present, only to be broken at Zhang Zhengchu’s line.
Zhang Zhengchu had two sons. The older son was called Zhang Yinshan, and he was brought up according to the standards expected of the next successor—in order to remember their ancestor’s roots, every family head specialized in the mixed arts.
Unfortunately, Zhang Yinshan wasn’t able to live up to such heavy expectations. His study of the mixed arts truly was mixed; he dabbled in a little bit of everything, but none of it ended up being presentable. He didn’t have a lot of innate talent, not even as much as a member of a branch house.
On the contrary, it was the second son, Zhang Yanshan, who became an outstanding cultivator of the mixed arts. Ever since he was young, he had the freedom to do as he pleased, so he learned a little bit here and there. He became an expert in array- and spell-casting, and he even stood out well above everyone else when it came to divination, which relied heavily on natural talent, and puppetry, which was extremely taxing on one’s spiritual consciousness.
Zhang Zhengchu didn’t seem to mind too much. Not long after Zhang Yanshan came of age, he was established as the choice candidate for the next family head position.
This would’ve been something to rejoice over, if only an unexpected accident hadn’t taken place several years later.
When Zhang Yanshan was thirty-two years old, he accidentally entered a dead zone while he was undoing an enormous cage vortex. Even though that cage vortex was eventually resolved by another group of people, his soul still ended up being scattered and completely destroyed. He was thoroughly and undeniably dead, and he left behind two little children who were just learning how to babble. That was Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin.
There was already the agony of losing a son, but on top of that, a perfectly good successor was also gone. Because of this, Zhang Zhengchu suffered a severe blow and aged significantly over the span of one night. From that point on, he stopped appearing much in public, and he entered a state of half-isolation.
Even though he was living in partial isolation, he still had to take care of the matters that he was in charge of. For instance—the new successor.
Zhang Yanshan had passed away, and his children were still too young. Reasonably speaking, the family head position should’ve naturally tilted in favor of the older brother, Zhang Yinshan.
But Zhang Zhengchu didn’t do that.
Rather than his eldest son, he favored that son’s daughter more. The girl wasn’t similar to her father in the slightest. She was already performing extraordinarily well at a very young age, and she had surpassed the majority of her peers by the time she was a teenager. At the age of twenty, it seemed even more so like she was going to climb to the top of her generation.
That girl was Zhang Wanling.
Many people actually considered the Zhang family to be somewhat old-fashioned. Maybe it was just a problem of the big clans—there would be a female head every so often in other families, but the Zhang family never once had a single female leader despite having been around for a thousand years.
Zhang Wanling was in her prime when Zhang Yanshan passed away, and a lot of people said that perhaps the Zhang family was finally going to break precedent.
But in the end, the precedent still couldn’t be broken.
A year after Zhang Yanshan died, Zhang Wanling had a falling-out with the old head of the family. Nobody knew what had happened, but after that, Zhang Wanling was chased out of the main house, and the “ling” character that she shared with her peers was taken away from her. Essentially, all ties were completely severed between her and the main family.
Zhou Xu: Oh right, speaking of which. Do you know why almost every panguan has a name register mural hanging in their home? My aunt said that many members of the younger generation don’t know the reason, they think it’s there just for the aesthetic or to keep track of the rankings. In reality, when something important happens, the mural can gather the other panguan. Anyway, I’ve never seen what exactly it looks like in that scenario, that’s just supposedly what happens.
Zhou Xu: My aunt once told me secretly that the old man summoned the other families over back then, like the Qi and Li houses, along with the long-established Zhong and Zhuang houses. Everyone who was close to or had interacted with the main family before all came. As the mural was modified, the families were also informed that Zhang Wanling had been bewitched. She kept raving about some unfilial nonsense, and she would no longer have anything to do with the Zhang family from that point on. Her name couldn’t even be mentioned.
Zhang Zhengchu first experienced the pain of losing a son, which was then followed by a falling-out with a blood relative. His vital energy was said to have suffered greatly because of that, and he completely stopped making any public appearances whatsoever. If something came up, he would always instruct other people to take care of it. After Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin became adults, they didn’t dare to disturb Zhang Zhengchu unless it was about something extremely important.
However, it didn’t matter who was making the public appearances—everyone still had to give face to the Zhang family. If the family head said that Zhang Wanling didn’t exist anymore, all the other families treated her in the same manner. Perhaps they would mention her briefly every so often in private, but they never talked about her openly.
With that, Zhang Wanling… No, Zhang Wan was cut off from the vast majority of the existing panguan. Like someone without any attachments at all, she entered and left cages on her own in places where the others couldn’t see her.
But there were also a few marginalized members of their profession who covertly kept in contact with her. One such example was Zhou Xu’s mother, Zhang Biling.
Zhou Xu: My mom said that she ran quite far away, and she didn’t seem to be too sad about it. In any case, I can’t really understand it. She cut off ties with her own grandpa, yet she was still fairly happy and content. Although… if you think about it sometimes, that’s also pretty cool.
This chuunibyou was extremely contradictory.
He had grown up hearing about how Zhang Wan was disloyal and unfilial. On one hand, he followed the crowd and believed that she was in the wrong; on the other hand, he instinctively admired the carefree, unaffected attitude she maintained even though she had severed her relationship with her family.
He was probably struggling internally with it for a while, as there was a short span of time between the two messages. A moment later, he finally continued: Apparently she had a kid the second year after she left—that sickly guy, Xie Wen. My mom was exchanging letters with her back then. Since I had nothing better to do this morning after my fever went down, I had a sudden impulse to flip through a book at home, and I actually ended up finding those letters.
Then, that chuunibyou said as if he was trying to show off: Oh right! Have you ever seen what that sickly guy looked like as a child? I saw it today, there were two photos with the letters.
When Wen Shi scrolled to these messages, he was immediately displeased.
He knew that Xie Wen must’ve crafted his past very thoroughly, since he was able to “transform” into a blacklisted panguan from the Zhang family without raising any suspicion over all these years. Perhaps he had tossed out a puppet molded in the shape of his childhood appearance, one that would grow up slowly, just like the Golden-Winged Dapeng.
The person in the photo most likely wasn’t Xie Wen himself, but Wen Shi was still very unhappy.
So much so that he instantly pushed himself up from where he was originally leaning against the headboard, moving to sit on the edge of the bed instead.
The desk lamp emitted a dim yellow glow. He hunched forward underneath the circle of light, holding the phone that he had seized from Xia Qiao as he pulled up the keyboard with his thumb. He wrote: The letters?
After he sent the message, the screen jumped to the very bottom of the chat. The time that the message was sent hovered above those two words—it was 3:12 AM.
Wen Shi was briefly taken aback. Only then did he realize that it was already extremely late at night. Zhou Xu had probably gone to sleep ages ago, and he wouldn’t be replying anytime soon. Even if he did answer, he wouldn’t understand what Wen Shi wanted to see based purely off of those two words alone.
He let his wrist dangle down as he held the phone loosely in his grip. He went silent for a while before he flipped the screen towards him again and scrolled back up to read what Zhou Xu sent after that.
Zhou Xu said: The sickly guy’s dad was probably just an ordinary citizen. He’s not on the mural, and he wasn’t some powerful person. Nobody knows his name or what he did for a living. The most well-known thing about him is that the sickly guy caused his death, but my aunt did tell me that the earliest rumors said something different.
The earliest rumors said that Zhang Wan and her son caused that unlucky man’s death. Back then, Xie Wen wasn’t yet the focal point of this rumor.
The year that Xie Wen was ten, Zhang Wan went into a cage with him. That man was also there at the time, but he wasn’t swept into the cage with them.
Actually, maybe everything would’ve been fine if they had all just gone in together. At least Zhang Wan and Xie Wen would’ve been able to keep an eye on him in the cage. Unfortunately, he didn’t go in.
A little mishap occurred as Zhang Wan was undoing the cage. Because of that, some of the scattered black mist happened to seep out at that moment.
There was already a cage vortex in the area. Like a bubbling swamp, it was weighing the nearby residents down with worldly bonds, which made it very easy for new cages to be created. So the instant Zhang Wan undid the first cage, her husband was dragged into another one, where he stepped into a sealed dead zone.
To a certain degree, this experience was very similar to what had befallen Zhang Yanshan, who was originally supposed to become the family head but ended up dying an untimely death. As a result, someone linked those two incidents together and said that Zhang Wan was a person with a rotten destiny, whose blood ties were severed, whose romantic relationships rarely lasted long.
Since the Zhang family’s leader, Zhang Zhengchu, had ordered them all to act as if Zhang Wan didn’t exist anymore, the rumors were disjointed and fragmented. Nobody brought the rumors up in public, so they never developed significantly.
But a few years after that, right as Xie Wen came of age, Zhang Wan entered a cage and ended up following in her uncle and husband’s footsteps: she also stepped into a dead zone.
From that point on, Xie Wen became someone without any ties to this world. Meanwhile, the rumors circulated by the families in private officially changed from “Zhang Wan has a rotten destiny” to “all of Xie Wen’s blood ties have been severed—he has a blighted fate.”
Naturally, if there were people who believed that rumor at the very beginning, there were also those who didn’t. After all, fate was an extremely abstract concept. Only some panguan who specialized in divination liked to bring it up endlessly.
But after a few incidents took place later on, they all had no choice but to believe it.
For instance, another vermillion gash appeared on the name register mural one day. It cut through the name “Xie Wen” like a bloody stamp, indicating that this person shouldn’t exist on the mural.
In other words, he was struck off the register.
Eventually, someone who specialized in spellcasting used a talisman to see Xie Wen’s soul. They discovered that he was filled with karmic debt, that his fate was indeed a blighted one, and that it was also far more intense than everyone else’s. If someone didn’t know better, they would think that they were seeing an evil spirit from hell.
It was true that they shouldn’t get close to such a person, and that he also deserved to have his name struck off.
Consequently, from then on, Xie Wen was widely acknowledged by everyone as a person to be avoided, and he was excluded from the living panguan circle.
Zhou Xu said: Actually, Xie Wen wasn’t in Ningzhou at all before this. A lot of people grew up listening to those rumors about him, just like me, but they’d never seen him before. But that’s pretty understandable, since his mom was chased out of the family. He’s not very welcomed either, so there’s no point in him coming to Ningzhou. Yet he unexpectedly moved here last year and opened up Xiping Gallery.
Zhou Xu: Speaking of which, it’s a little funny. I didn’t hear anyone discuss it openly when he first came to Ningzhou, but probably over the course of a few days, everyone knew that Xie Wen had opened a shop named Xiping Gallery.
Zhou Xu: But he slacks off way too much with that shop of his. I bet it doesn’t make any money at all, and he also disappears every few days. My mom said that if she tries to find him, eight times out of ten he’s not there. He’s always elsewhere, but nobody knows what he’s off doing. Every time he comes back, though, he has this sickly aura about him.
Wen Shi’s thumb swept up subconsciously, only to discover that he had already reached the end of the messages. Since Zhou Xu randomly changed the subject quite often, his narrative actually jumped around a lot, but Wen Shi was more or less able to figure out the general sequence of events.
He was about to lock the phone when it unexpectedly vibrated.
A row of words popped up at the very bottom of the chat: What letters?
Wen Shi was briefly caught off guard. He silently shot a look at the time—it was 3:45 AM…
Did people not sleep these days?
In the midst of his astonishment, Zhou Xu sent another text: Oh, are you talking about the letters my mom exchanged with Zhang Wan?
Wen Shi wrote: Mn
Zhou Xu: At the time, nothing had happened to their family yet, so the letters were pretty normal. At least I didn’t notice anything special about them, I just felt like Zhang Wan was being a little weird.
Wen Shi: ?
Zhou Xu: She just kept saying some really mysterious things, stuff like “this is my blessed place, I was meant to come here” or “there should be a resolution for the generations of accumulated worldly bonds.”
Zhou Xu: Everyone who specializes in divination has this problem when they talk, and the Zhang family has quite a few members who specialize in that. In my opinion, not many of them are reliable. They’re not even as accurate as my sixth sense.
His words basically conveyed his expression; it was almost as if he was lifting his chin and regarding those people with disdain.
After he was done looking down on them, he seized the chance to brag about his uncle: In the end, my uncle’s puppet is the most reliable. It even looks super dependable.
Wen Shi completely ignored his bragging and asked: Where is the blessed place she was referring to?
Based on Zhou Xu’s information, Zhang Wan exchanged those letters with Zhang Biling around the time she had a child. That was to say, around the time Xie Wen appeared.
Because of Bu Ning, Wen Shi didn’t actually think of divination as a useless art. On the contrary, it was useful most of the time—it just depended on the person.
The way Zhang Wan phrased her words made it seem as if she had already foreseen or predicted something, so Wen Shi wanted to know why she would say such a thing.
Zhou Xu replied: How would I know where the blessed place is?
Wen Shi: Address on the envelope
Zhou Xu: The envelope seemed to be stuck to something else, I couldn’t see it. Looked like Tianjin maybe.
Zhou Xu: Man, now that you said that, I’m getting curious too. It’s just like when I can’t figure out how to solve a homework problem, there’s no way I can fall asleep anymore. I’ll go home tomorrow and check.
Wen Shi: ?
Ever since he realized that he couldn’t write as fast as the other person could type, he decided to just simplify what he wanted to say down to the keywords… or the key punctuation marks. Luckily, Zhou Xu actually understood what he meant by that, and he responded: I’m being detained at the main residence right now.
In reality, Wen Shi didn’t really care where Zhou Xu was staying, but when he saw the word “detained,” he still asked for humanitarian purposes: ?
Zhou Xu: That’s a long story…
Wen Shi: ?
Zhou Xu: Did you set up auto-reply?
Zhou Xu: As for why I’m being detained at the main residence, let me ask you something. Have you seen the name register mural today?
Wen Shi: No.
Zhou Xu: Goodbye.
Wen Shi was a little taken aback. He felt like this was a rather hastily bid goodbye, but he didn’t have the patience to bicker back and forth with someone, nor was he in the habit of doing so. So after he accepted the goodbye, he let the phone screen go dark.
He tossed the phone to the side, but he really couldn’t fall asleep. All of Xie Wen’s past experiences kept spinning around in his mind. The house wasn’t entirely quiet either; he could faintly make out Xia Qiao’s steady snoring, probably due to exhaustion from the past few days.
Wen Shi went to rummage in the fridge for a canned drink. After he popped the tab and took a gulp from the can, he twisted open the glass door and walked into the backyard, holding the ice-cold drink in his hand.
The white plum tree that Shen Qiao left behind had quite a lot of spiritual energy, or perhaps Xia Qiao was just taking care of it very well. New buds were already sprouting from it.
He stood at the edge of the courtyard for a while. Then, he suddenly heard someone rap lightly against the second-story window above him.
When Wen Shi turned to glance upwards, he saw that Xie Wen had pulled open the window. Head lowered, Xie Wen asked him, “Why aren’t you sleeping?”
- A generation name is a character that is shared by every member of that generation. In this case, it’s ling (灵), the character for spirit/clever/quick. ^
Yan: Remember the pics of babie Xie Wen in this chapter~ it will come back for one of the physical book extras haha