Thank you to Iris and Chuw for the generous Ko-fis!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
The eight people in charge of lighting the fire knelt heavily on the ground and stretched their arms in front of them so that they were lying prone around the bonfire. Heads buried, they chanted away as if they were presenting an offering or reciting some kind of scripture.
The other residents of the village also lowered their heads and pressed their palms together as they began walking slowly in a circle along the outer edges of the clearing. Although Lu Wenjuan was within their ranks, she didn’t seem to be taking it very seriously. Every couple steps, she couldn’t help but glance at Wen Shi and Xie Wen’s group.
There was a well-respected elderly woman among the villagers who was nearly a hundred years old. She had a special role—leading the crying. After completing a lap, she opened her toothless mouth and let out a loud wail, prompting everyone else to immediately join in.
Voices belonging to people of all ages mixed together in high- and low-pitched sobs. Against the backdrop set by the rural, barren village and pale gray smoke, it felt a bit like the simultaneous weeping of countless ghosts.
A sense of disorientation swept over Wen Shi. It was as if he had returned to his teenage years, back when he used to be plagued by nightmares. Every time the worldly bonds poured out of him, every time he underwent the forceful cleansing of his soul, he heard something similar.
So his head began to hurt the instant the wailing started.
Because of that, his mood thoroughly soured upon entering the clearing. He naturally wasn’t interested in the sudden appearance of the Zhang siblings, nor did he notice the looks that the two of them—especially Zhang Yalin—were casting in his direction.
In other people’s eyes, the current Wen Shi was essentially as cold as frost.
The villagers completed three circles and wailed for quite a while as they waited for the divinely connected leader to raise his long, white linen banner. But when they turned to see what was going on…
The leader and the village chief Lao Wu were locked in a scuffle with each other.
Lao Wu gripped Zhou Xu’s wrist in an attempt to make him start the ceremony. However, Zhou Xu still had a fair amount of strength in his hands, despite being built on the frailer side.
He extended his foot to trip Lao Wu before he wrapped his arms around him—and contorted the village chief like a twist of fried dough.
“You really can’t burn them! Why are you being so stubborn, you idiot?!” Zhou Xu’s mask covered his face tightly, and he lowered his voice as he earnestly tried to convince Lao Wu out of it.
Even though Lao Wu’s eyes bulged from Zhou Xu’s chokehold, his face remained deathly pale without a single trace of color. “That’s no good, something terrible will happen to the people that stay here who aren’t clean! The ceremony must commence for their sake, and also our sake. I’m the village chief, so I have to take responsibility for them. This rule has been passed down for generations, it can’t be broken now!”
“Is the rule more important, or is your life more important?” Zhou Xu asked.
Lao Wu: “The ancestral rule must be protected with one’s life.”
Zhou Xu: “Screw you, I’m only fifteen!”
Their voices weren’t particularly loud; they were the only ones who could hear their exchange.
As a result, the villagers had no idea what was going on with the two of them, and neither did the visitors who were on the verge of being burned. Especially the visitors…
Lao Mao sucked in a breath through his teeth. “What kind of sinister dance is that?”
Xia Qiao was considerably distressed. “Are we going to be burned?”
Zhang Lan jerked her chin in Wen Shi’s direction and muttered tightly, “Don’t just stare at him, what can you possibly observe from that? I think he’s quite handsome, that’s all. There’s nothing more to it.”
Zhang Yalin scanned Wen Shi up and down numerous times before his gaze finally landed on Wen Shi’s lowered fingers. He said lowly, “Everyone who studies puppetry knows that you have to look at the hands. See the bone structure of his fingers—”
Zhang Lan listened to Zhang Yalin and peered out of the corners of her eyes, which were lined in long, dramatic black eyeliner, to try and closely examine Wen Shi’s fingers.
But right as she did that, Xie Wen averted his head and coughed a few times, hand pressed against his nose as he just happened to step between them and Wen Shi.
She couldn’t see a damn thing.
Zhang Lan: “I think that the weakling has pretty good bone structure.”
Zhang Yalin: “…”
After Xie Wen finished coughing, he looked up and swept his gaze lightly over them, eyelids lowering and lifting in what appeared to be the barest hint of a greeting.
Now that was a little too deliberate…
Zhang Lan instantly recalled the truck of pigs, and her face darkened significantly.
Meanwhile, the true culprit behind their pig-chasing adventure wasn’t even looking at them. Wen Shi was too preoccupied with enduring his headache, and he said in a cold, impatient voice, “When is this ceremony going to be over.”
In short, the situation was extremely fragmented for a while, and it didn’t have any of the solemn dignity that the Great Cleanse was supposed to possess.
…Until muffled thunder suddenly rumbled on the horizon.
That was the most commonplace summer thunder, heard almost every day during the rainy season. However, all the villagers abruptly froze in place and peered up at the sky, one after another.
Even the men and women lying on the ground couldn’t help but lift their heads. Fear was written extremely clearly across their faces.
The village chief, Lao Wu, immediately began to panic. With one flailing kick-up, he basically ended up reverse restraining Zhou Xu as he muttered out loud, “They’re urging us, they’re urging us, the mountain god is growing unhappy. We have to hurry, or else it’s going to rain.”
He kept repeating that it was going to rain, as if rain was some sort of incredibly frightening prospect.
Zhou Xu’s face was extremely red due to Lao Wu’s chokehold, and he nearly passed out underneath his smothering mask.
Then Lao Wu dragged his arm into the air, forcing him to raise the linen banner.
“The ceremony has commenced—” Lao Wu shouted for him.
This was probably bending the rules a little, and all the villagers hesitated for a split second.
But another rumble of muffled thunder converged on them shortly after. Like a drop of water falling into hot oil, the villagers who were wavering just a moment ago surged into motion.
Wave upon wave, they rushed headlong towards the visitors. Countless waxen hands reached forward, extended long and straight, in an attempt to push Wen Shi and the others into the bonfire.
There were people of all ages and genders among the villagers, yet each one was stronger than the last.
Tears were still streaming from their eyes as they shoved their way over. They looked just like ordinary people, and there were even a few old men and women spearheading the crowd.
Perhaps reminded of the bloodsoaked empty city that used to appear in his dreams, Wen Shi flung out his puppet string. But before the villagers could be struck, he jerked the string back with a twist of his wrists.
As a result, the puppet string snapped in the air like a whip, producing a harsh cracking noise.
The villagers thought that it was thundering again, and they all trembled the moment they heard the sound.
This time, their terror was completely exposed.
“They’re afraid of rain and thunder!” While Lao Wu was still frozen in fear from the sound, Zhou Xu seized the chance to struggle free. He took off his mask and yelled at Wen Shi’s group.
“Did you hear me? They’re afraid of rain! The rain!!!” Zhou Xu shouted himself hoarse over the crowded mass of people.
“I think that’s Zhou Xu?” Xia Qiao recognized the voice, and he was about to repeat himself for his ge’s sake when several villagers clamped down on his limbs and made as if to throw him into the sea of flames.
Luckily, Wen Shi heard him. Not only that, he had already started moving in advance—since an entire village was inexplicably scared of rain and thunder, then he might as well take advantage of it.
With a curl and tug of his long fingers, the intertwined puppet string shot straight towards the edge of the sky.
The Tengshe could cleave through waves and weave through clouds. Wen Shi’s original intent was to make his puppet loop around the horizon and draw over some rain clouds. It didn’t have to be too grand of a scene; he just wanted to generate a few rumbles of thunder so the villagers would scatter for the time being.
Unfortunately and coincidentally, he wasn’t the only one who came up with such an idea—
Zhang Lan reflexively tossed out eight talismans, one in each cardinal and intermediate direction. She was also trying to summon some lightning and thunder to frighten the crowd a bit. She didn’t want to attack anything; it just had to be somewhat intimidating.
Zhang Yalin wrapped puppet string around his fingers as well before he casually released a giant tiger-like beast that had white patterns on its forehead and fierce, upturned eyes.
Consequently, numerous storm clouds accumulated on the horizon in the span of a second!
A long, enormous shadow pierced straight down through the clouds with astounding force. After making a few circles in the air, it gathered the vast rain clouds into something that resembled a colossal vortex, which then surged straight towards the clearing.
Violent gales hurtled past in all directions. As far as the eye could see, trees curved sharply amidst the roar of the wind as a good portion of their gnarled roots were ripped from the dirt.
Meanwhile, that massive white-patterned and fierce-eyed beast jumped down from the horizon and landed like a mountain next to the forest. Out of its open mouth came an immeasurably powerful suction force that felt as if it could swallow everything on the ground.
The storm clouds racing towards them also spiraled and roiled under the combination of these immense forces.
In the blink of an eye, everything around them had darkened.
As the layers of clouds collided, brilliant streaks of lightning pierced downward from the heavens like giant trees plummeting!
The black python weaved through the lightning and funneled its way through the clouds in twisting coils.
Immediately after, thunder erupted between the sky and the earth.
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that it felt like the world was about to collapse around them.
Zhou Xu, who was frantically shouting earlier, had already stopped yelling. He silently tilted his head back and stared at the excessively imposing storm as he thought to himself: Well, this wasn’t really necessary…
The point was to scare some villagers, but nobody said you had to create such a spectacular natural disaster while doing so…
The villagers had fallen to their knees ages ago, frightened out of their minds. Overtaken by fear, they now fled in all directions like insects from a hornet nest that had been stabbed clean through.
Forget those villagers—Xia Qiao was equally stunned.
The wind had scattered pieces of the bonfire across the ground, but even as the flames began to lick at his sleeve, he didn’t notice the blaze immediately.
It was only when an unknown force tugged him firmly away from the fire that he realized that part of his arm was red and throbbing from the scorching heat.
He peered around himself, wanting to see who dragged him aside, but there was nobody in his vicinity who could’ve reached him. He subconsciously believed that his ge must’ve used puppet string on him, though he couldn’t find any trace of it.
Xia Qiao did, however, see Xie Wen glance in his direction before lifting his head and gazing towards the sky.
Xia Qiao followed Xie Wen’s line of sight and spotted Wen Shi’s Tengshe soaring through the clouds of the highest heavens. The Tengshe glowed with a light sheen of red, as if raging flames were about to erupt from it at any moment.
Xie Wen narrowed his eyes against the wind, after which he lowered his head again and scanned the ground around him. It wasn’t clear what was on his mind, but his fingers twitched briefly at his sides.
Wen Shi turned to look at him at that exact moment.
“What are you looking at?” Tracking Xie Wen’s gaze, Wen Shi also glanced at the ground.
This place had hosted countless Great Cleanses and burned countless bonfires before. It was already a wasteland, and what little vegetation remained had flown off into the distance, completely uprooted by the fierce wind.
Where Xie Wen was looking, there was nothing to be found except for loose dirt and crushed gravel. Even Wen Shi didn’t notice anything amiss.
His confusion was extremely obvious. Xie Wen’s eyes flicked up at him before he scanned the ground once more. Only then did he finally withdraw his gaze as his curled fingers also relaxed and straightened.
For a moment, Xie Wen closed his eyes.
Wen Shi felt like something was a little off, but Xie Wen’s expression had already returned to normal by the time he opened his eyes again. He flashed a smile at Wen Shi and said, “It was a misidentification.”
“What did you misidentify?” Wen Shi shot another look at the ground—there was clearly nothing that could even be misidentified in a desolate place like this.
“It’s nothing.” Everything was dim and gloomy because of the dark clouds bearing down from above, and it was hard to see the expression on Xie Wen’s face. He then turned towards Wen Shi and curved his eyes, which seemed to contain a faint smile. “Don’t be such a thorough investigator, let me save some face.”
Staring into Xie Wen’s eyes, Wen Shi was about to say something when another explosive clap of thunder came from the clouds, followed closely by a downpour of heavy rain.
The village was filled with fearful, panicked screams, as if it was raining butcher knives instead of water.
Lu Wenjuan hastily ran over and tugged at both Xia Qiao and Zhou Xu before she shouted at the others, “Don’t just stand there! It’s raining, so we can’t stay outside. Come back with me quickly!”
“What do you mean? Why can’t we be outside?” Xia Qiao nearly fell over from the force behind her tug.
Like a water ghost, Lu Wenjuan’s head swiveled towards him as she asked distantly, “Did you know that things grow extremely fast during mountain storms?”
“Want to guess?”