Thank you to Kitty for the Ko-fi!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Wen Shi immediately came to a stop.
It must’ve been because this place was too similar to the Gate of Oblivion.
Every time after he traveled through that unending darkness, walking from death back to life before crawling out of the ground to return to the world of the living, he would always subconsciously lift his head and look above him.
Sometimes he would see a wild forest, with its treetop branches intertwined either densely or sparsely. Sometimes he would see an unknown mudflat, plants mingling with the silt to leave behind a smell of dampness. And sometimes it was a stretch of overgrown land, with only the sky sprawled loftily above him.
Those who came to fetch him would ask, “What are you looking at?”
He would never answer, because he also didn’t know what he was hoping to see.
He didn’t know, but nevertheless—upon seeing those fields and forests, a feeling of immense loneliness would always wash over him.
That out-of-the-blue loneliness must’ve furtively crept back the moment he walked into this portal, creating a tiny fissure of an opening…
Which was why the heart demon had appeared again.
He knew that it had to be a heart demon, but it felt too real; so much so that he froze in place, so much so that he… didn’t want to pull his hand away.
Hesitant, weak. You’re just deluding yourself.
Wen Shi thought self-mockingly.
Eyes lowered, he began to extract his hand. Right as he was about to pull away, the other person suddenly tightened his grip ever so slightly.
It was extremely brief, like an act of subconsciousness, almost too light and quick to notice. But it was enough to startle Wen Shi into looking back, stunned.
His heart was beating very fast.
Behind him was an expanse of concentrated darkness, and he couldn’t see anything else.
But because of that hand, he could sense another person’s presence standing extremely close by.
Wen Shi opened his mouth. “Xie Wen?”
The other person didn’t ask anything in return. Instead, he merely responded lowly, “Mn.”
It was too dark, to the extent that Wen Shi couldn’t actually differentiate between reality and illusion very well.
Since he had attempted to pull away earlier, only half of his hand still remained in the other person’s grasp, their fingers linked loosely together. If he withdrew a bit more, their hands would separate completely, but at the same time, he couldn’t think of a reason to tighten his grip again.
Wen Shi froze for a moment in the darkness that neither of them could see through. Then, he suddenly felt the other person’s fingers hook a little tighter around his own, as a mild and deep voice said, “Don’t move, lead the way for me.”
Wen Shi: “What do you mean?”
There was a beat of silence before the other person answered, “I can’t really see very well.”
Sight wasn’t meant to be relied upon when walking through this sort of passageway in the first place. As long as there wasn’t too much interference, anyone could make their way out in the right direction. Even Xia Qiao, who didn’t know anything at all, could do it.
That was truly a strange reason to give, and quite implausible too. It was something that Wen Shi could refute instantly, but he didn’t.
Even though he was still conflicted and unable to fully distinguish between reality and illusion, he simply turned around and began walking through the seemingly endless darkness, gripping the other person’s hand in his own. It was almost as if this person had been by his side every time he made such a journey in the past.
After an indeterminable amount of time, he emerged from the darkness and saw light.
But that wasn’t the light of the sun; rather, it was lightning.
An extremely long bolt of lightning, piercing down from the horizon at a slant. Imposing and spectacular, it turned the sky blindingly bright, forcing Wen Shi to narrow his eyes.
“Ge, Boss Xie, you two finally—er…” Xia Qiao hastily jogged over from the side. Halfway through his sentence, he suddenly cut himself off.
Startled, Wen Shi turned his head to see Xie Wen appear from the swirling portal. As he emerged, he gently let go of Wen Shi’s hand.
So nothing that took place in the darkness was the work of a heart demon. All of it was real…
Thunder crashed abruptly through the sky and rolled towards them from the place on the horizon where the lightning had swept across.
Wen Shi’s heart skipped a beat.
But soon after, he quickly discovered that something was amiss: when Xie Wen heard Xia Qiao’s voice, his gaze shifted in the corresponding direction and scanned around briefly before eventually settling on Xia Qiao.
Almost as if… he truly couldn’t see very well.
“What’s going on with you?” Wen Shi asked.
Xie Wen tilted his head to the side and coughed a few times. As he turned back, his gaze wavered much less. “It’s not a big deal.”
Xia Qiao: “Does Boss Xie also feel ill?”
Xie Wen: “Also?”
“Auntie Zhang Lan—”
“Who’s an auntie?!” Zhang Lan’s voice rang out from the side. Despite being pitched quite high, it was obviously a bit breathy and weak. “Call me jie!”
Xia Qiao said hesitantly, “If I call you jie, then how should I address Zhou Xu later?”
“I don’t care about that. Call him whatever you want, like nephew or something—” In the middle of her sentence, Zhang Lan sucked in a breath of air through her teeth.
Only then did Wen Shi shift his gaze away from Xie Wen so that he could glance at her.
It seemed like that “gate” had transported them from one desolate village to another. The only thing in sight was a tall wooden stake fence encircling countless buildings. The entirety of the village wasn’t even visible at first glance; there had to be at least a hundred households.
Compared to the previous village, which was composed of small two-story structures, all the buildings here were very short. The roofs were thatched, and the walls were rough. They looked like dwellings from the mountain villages that used to exist a long, long time ago.
Zhang Lan was leaning against one of the thatched structures that was outside the fence. From the palm to the elbow, her right arm was coated in blood.
Her little brother, Zhang Yalin, stood next to her with several talismans in his grasp. Under Her Great Ladyship’s guidance, he stuck the talismans to her arm.
“When I exited with Uncle Lao Mao, Zhang Lan…jie was about to push open the gate to that wooden fence, but then she ended up like this,” Xia Qiao said. “Cuts slashed open her arm, all the way from here to here.”
“Boss.” Lao Mao had already arrived next to Xie Wen.
His first instinct wasn’t to check Xie Wen’s eyes. Instead, he looked at Xie Wen’s hands, after which he seemed to let out a sigh of relief and didn’t say anything else.
Meanwhile, Zhang Lan was saying to them, “Something felt wrong as soon as Yalin and I left the portal. When the thunder rumbled past, our souls trembled in its wake, and we lost all our senses for quite a few seconds. We couldn’t see or hear anything. By the time my sight returned, I was already in front of that fence and pushing open the gate, almost as if I was sleepwalking.”
“Lost all your senses?” Wen Shi shot another look at Xie Wen.
Zhang Lan was describing a situation that was somewhat similar to Xie Wen’s, but also a little different. Wen Shi couldn’t really tell at the moment, so he could only keep a close eye on Xie Wen to observe his condition. “Can you see now?”
Xie Wen: “Don’t worry.”
Of course Wen Shi wasn’t going to stop worrying. He decided to look at Xie Wen’s soul instead by concentrating and closing his eyes, but he didn’t notice any changes. What’s more, Xie Wen was currently acting in a manner that was extremely normal for him, and it seemed like there really wasn’t anything wrong.
As they walked over to the thatched shack, they saw Zhang Yalin stick the last talisman onto Zhang Lan’s arm.
There almost wasn’t a single patch of unharmed skin on Zhang Lan’s arm. It was covered in wounds, causing Xia Qiao to grimace upon seeing it.
“Don’t make that face, it’ll be fine soon.” Zhang Lan pointed at her talismans and said, “These take effect really fast.”
Her injuries were indeed beginning to heal swiftly and visibly. Except a few seconds later, the already healed cuts ruptured open once again.
Her Great Ladyship’s expression changed immediately. “How is that possible?”
Zhang Yalin also frowned. There were several rips in his sleeve, with the fabric dangling down in strips. He had most likely encountered a situation similar to his sister’s, but his luck was slightly better than hers, so he didn’t end up touching the fence gate.
“This worked in the past?” Wen Shi asked.
Zhang Lan: “Of course it did!”
With a dark look on her face, she rotated her arm around and examined it thoroughly before she asked Zhang Yalin, “Are you sure you stuck them on in the order I told you to?”
Zhang Yalin said, “Yes, didn’t you watch me do it?”
As they spoke, her injuries closed up and split open two more times; even more blood began to ooze out.
“My gorgeous arm isn’t going to be ruined here, is it?” Zhang Lan’s complexion was mostly colorless.
Right as she was about to tell her brother to try a different method, Xie Wen reached out and plucked off one of her talismans. He handed it to Zhang Yalin and said, “This one in the back was about to fall off.”
“Why did you just decide to touch it?” The average person definitely wouldn’t dare to touch Zhang Lan’s talismans. Zhang Yalin looked at Xie Wen with equal parts admiration and speechlessness before he stuck the removed talisman back in place.
This time, perhaps because he had stuck it firmly back on, the cuts on Zhang Lan’s arm healed slowly and didn’t completely burst open again. Some of the wounds even formed scabs that then fell off.
In the blink of an eye, half of the lacerations disappeared, and the situation improved significantly. Zhang Lan let out a long sigh before she rolled her eyes at Zhang Yalin and said, “I told you that you must’ve stuck it on wrong somehow.”
Zhang Yalin pinched the bridge of his nose. After a long pause, he said, “Probably, if you say so.”
Zhang Lan turned her head to look at Wen Shi suspiciously. “So you didn’t experience anything when you emerged?”
Wen Shi wasn’t good at pretending, so he said bluntly, “I didn’t.”
Zhang Lan’s gaze instantly transformed from suspicion to a stare. “That’s impossible. Everyone here was affected except for you? Is your soul that stable? You didn’t even feel dizzy, nauseous, or queasy?”
Wen Shi: “No.”
She wore an expression of dumbfounded disbelief.
Naturally, she didn’t know that there was a reason Wen Shi was unaffected. His soul wasn’t even whole, so how could something shake it? Of course, Wen Shi wasn’t about to explain any of that to her.
His current thoughts were preoccupied by Xie Wen rather than himself. He was quite puzzled by Xie Wen’s condition—if souls were being rattled, it was highly likely that a complex and powerful giant array was established here. Perhaps it encompassed the entire village, or an area of even larger scope.
The specific use and purpose of the array were still unclear, but would such an array really be able to affect Xie Wen’s soul?
After all, that was Chen Budao…
The Zhang siblings were also clearly aware that their unexpected accidents were due to the presence of a giant array. Zhang Yalin asked Xiao Hei, “Can you make out the array that’s here?”
Xiao Hei surveyed their surroundings before he grabbed a handful of stones and half-knelt on the ground to arrange them.
Wen Shi was very familiar with this position. In the past, Bu Ning—the ancestor who specialized in divination and arrays—would often do this, and he would carry a few copper coins and a bag of round stones with him at all times.
He would come to an abrupt stop as he was walking and end up in a daze. Of course, he would often defend himself by saying he wasn’t dazed; he simply had a fleeting dream.
And then Zhong Si would respond in a drawl, “Right right right, dreaming in the middle of the day.”
After which he would run away.
Those round stones were usually what was chasing him, but he was lithe and agile, so he was capable of dodging swiftly. Sometimes the stones would strike other people, and Bu Ning would have to go up and apologize, hands tucked into his sleeves.
However, more often than not, Bu Ning would half-kneel on the spot and place several round stones down on a patch of flat ground with a sweep of his long sleeves. Then he would sink into contemplation and compare the stones against the mountain vegetation.
A few days later, Zhong Si would find himself unexpectedly entering an array, one that he wouldn’t be able to escape from unless he wandered around for a good couple thousand kilometers. He would have to throw out a talisman to ask either Wen Shi or Zhuang Ye to save him.
For Wen Shi, it depended on his mood. Meanwhile, Zhuang Haohao was often caught in a dilemma, pinned under Bu Ning’s stare, and he would eventually have to make a hurried escape using the excuse that the outer disciples urgently needed him for something.
Once Zhong Si finally managed to make his way out, he would give Bu Ning a deep bow with cupped hands. Covered in grime and hair half-unbound, he would say, “I was wrong, I was wrong. This shidi expresses his apologies to you and vows to never do it again.”
Then he’d immediately treat his word like nothing and repeat it all over again the next time.
Xiao Hei truly was created from one of Bu Ning’s spiritual possessions: there was some resemblance to be found in his movements, but Bu Ning was slim and slight, whereas he was much taller and broader.
After shifting the round stones around for a long time, he frowned and said, “Strange.”
“What’s strange?” Wen Shi asked.
Perhaps because of the thoughts that had flashed across his mind a moment ago, he subconsciously responded to Zhang Yalin’s puppet. Xiao Hei glanced up at him and said, “There is an array here, but it’s very strange. I can’t puzzle it out—I can only sense that this array is full of contradictions.”
He tapped two of the stones and said, “One side is meant to draw people in.”
Then he pointed at the rest of the stones. “And one side is meant to drive people away.”
A beat later, he shook his head and said, “I can’t understand it. In any case, it’s extremely powerful. We’re still walking around the periphery right now, but I don’t know what will happen once we’re inside.”
“What counts as ‘inside’?” Zhang Lan was still struggling with her bloody arm, and she pointed at the wooden fence upon hearing that. “Inside the fence?”
“No.” Xiao Hei stood up and began making his way around the vicinity in search of something. As he searched, he said, “There should be a mountain after bypassing this village, very close by. The array core is in the mountain, but it’s been hidden, so it’s not visible right now.”
“What are you looking for?” Zhang Yalin asked, perplexed.
“An array marking.” Xiao Hei rambled on with much of the same charm that Bu Ning did back then; it just didn’t sound quite as smooth and natural.
“Doesn’t something like an array marking only show up if it’s a careless oversight or the work of an amateur?” Although Zhang Yalin wasn’t an expert on arrays, he still knew some of the fundamentals.
Xiao Hei was concentrating fully on the array as he said seriously, “I’m not sure. I can sense that this array has been around for a very long time, but someone altered it later on and added something to the outskirts. Under such circumstances, it would reveal…”
His voice suddenly cut off in the middle of his sentence.
Wen Shi looked in his direction. Bent at the waist, Xiao Hei studied an unassuming patch of withered grass for quite a while before he reached out to sweep some of it aside.
The rough edge of a stone could be seen faintly under the blades of dry grass. As his fingers brushed across it, another blinding bolt of lightning pierced straight down from the horizon, followed by the roar of a thunderclap. It contained a tremendous aura that pressed down heavily from the domed sky.
Everyone watched as Xiao Hei stared blankly at the stone for a few seconds. Then, he fell to his knees.
“Why are you kneeling?!” As a puppet master, Zhang Yalin had never seen a puppet kneel in front of anything else—especially not one of his puppets. Consequently, a displeased expression immediately took over his face.
But then Xiao Hei bowed forward completely. In a low voice, he said, “This is Bu Ning-laozu’s1 array.”
Zhang Lan: “Who?????”
- As mentioned previously, I’ll most likely leave laozu (ancestor) in pinyin when it’s used as an honorific. ^