Thank you to joodle, Thanks for the translation of ICDI, Becky TyGrammarsaurus Rex, Elli, Someone, and KRit for the Ko-fis!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
“Bu Ning-laozu,” Xiao Hei replied again.
He was created from one of the spiritual items left behind by Bu Ning, so his tone of voice was especially solemn and respectful whenever he mentioned that particular ancestor, and he didn’t budge from his bowed, prone position.
But the group behind him was completely stunned.
Zhang Lan stood there in incredulous shock for a good while, mouth agape, before she finally squeezed out, “Don’t joke around. How is that possible?”
Xiao Hei stood up only to kneel and prostrate himself once more, conducting his second full bow. “It’s true.”
After opening and closing his mouth several times, Zhang Yalin emphasized, “Bu Ning-laozu’s array stones have markings on them, but they’re not related to his name. You better not think it’s him just because you saw some ‘bu’ or ‘ning’ character.”
“That’s right.” Zhang Lan immediately chimed in. “Don’t be mistaken.”
Their reminder was actually rather unnecessary.
They should know better than anyone else just how special Bu Ning was to Xiao Hei. He wouldn’t recklessly identify any random person as the ancestor.
Sure enough, Xiao Hei answered, “I know.”
By the time he finished speaking, Wen Shi was already standing in front of that patch of withered grass.
The exposed stone was originally rather unremarkable, but once someone brushed their fingers against it, it would glow with a layer of dazzling light, akin to the surface of a polished mirror.
On the bottom right corner of the stone, a symbol was faintly discernible.
Wen Shi instantly recognized that symbol…
It really was Bu Ning.
Everyone was fond of leaving their mark on their possessions in some manner—just like how artists would hide their name within their artwork, or how authors would include an afterword in their stories. Those who drew talismans would write “so-and-so seeks to summon”; those who cast arrays also did something similar.
Most of them left their true names on the array stones. Only two people were exceptions to that unspoken rule, as far as Wen Shi was aware—Chen Budao and Bu Ning.
The former left nothing behind at all, whereas the latter didn’t leave a name of any sort.
Footsteps rushed toward him as everyone else made their way over.
Zhang Lan stressed to Xiao Hei, “Legend has it that Bu Ning-laozu was fond of leaving behind the character for ‘north.’ Are you sure you didn’t misidentify it?”
As she spoke, she crouched down skeptically to check for herself. Then, eyes growing wide, she tilted her head back and said to the group, “What the hell, it’s true… but this ‘north’ character is written a little oddly. Yalin, come take a look?”
Her Great Ladyship was currently stuck in a state of doubtful disbelief, and she attempted to find anyone she could to help cross-check.
Her gaze picked through the crowd and paused briefly on Xie Wen. “Weakling, don’t you read a lot of books? Have you ever seen Bu Ning’s symbol before?”
Wen Shi looked up at Xie Wen, who was standing next to him. Xie Wen’s eyes were lowered and directed straight down at the array stone, where they lingered quietly for a moment before he answered, “I have.”
Zhang Lan: “Does it look like this?”
Xie Wen: “Mn, more or less.”
Zhang Yalin had also wrapped up his own investigation. “It should be correct, but this ‘north’ character really is a bit strange.”
Xia Qiao interjected tentatively, “Why is it the character for ‘north’? Is there a reason for that?”
“It’s said to symbolize the preeminence of north among the four cardinal directions. It’s also supposed to represent his background, since he hailed from the North,” Zhang Lan explained. She primarily specialized in spellcasting, but her true specialty was in gossip and rumors. She got easily carried away whenever something like this was mentioned.
But as soon as she said that, Wen Shi and Xie Wen both shot her a look at the same time.
Zhang Lan was perplexed. “Why are you looking at me? That’s what the rumors say.”
Although she was very matter-of-fact about it, Wen Shi suddenly felt rather complicated.
Throughout all these years, he rarely sought out rumors and hearsay, but he still inevitably ended up overhearing some of it. It was fine when he didn’t have his memories; the subjects of the rumors seemed to be separated from him by a layer of indistinct fog, as if those were all someone else’s affairs that had nothing to do with him.
But that wasn’t the case anymore.
As Zhang Lan confidently described the rumors, the corresponding scenes appeared in his mind.
The person was the same, but the course of events was completely different.
In Wen Shi’s memory, they were all fairly young at the time and sported youthful temperaments characteristic of mid-adolescence. During the gaps in training, they were fond of discussing anything and everything.
Zhong Si was a chatterbox, and his mouth was never idle for long. He could transform any topic, no matter what it was about, into something that he could converse about for an extended period of time. This made up for Wen Shi’s own reticence.
So even though very few people lived in the cradle of Mount Songyun, it was still a lively place.
Wen Shi could no longer recall the topic of conversation that gave rise to the events of that day.
He could only remember Zhong Si spilling a large pouch filled with fragmented rocks onto a stone table next to the training terrace. As Zhong Si brushed off the dust on his clothes, he said to Bu Ning and Zhuang Ye, “Look, I’ve found all of the more unique-looking rocks on this mountain. It was extremely arduous—”
Wen Shi angled himself to the side and slipped past Zhong Si from behind before he flipped onto an old tree and settled down on its overgrown branches as if it were a seat. One long leg dangled down as he leaned against the trunk and tidied his puppet string.
The hawk-like Golden-Winged Dapeng wheeled through the sky in Wen Shi’s direction. Before landing on his shoulder, it gave a peck to the back of Zhong Si’s head.
Zhong Si covered his head and amended in a careless tone, “Ah, I misspoke. The one who found the stones for you two was primarily me… and also the puppets that shidi released. The Dapeng wanted to help too, but I didn’t dare allow that. I was afraid that it would level the mountain or blind us all.”
The Golden-Winged Dapeng had just steadied itself on Wen Shi’s shoulder. Upon hearing that, it immediately flapped its wings in preparation to fly over and peck him again.
Zhong Si knew it was time to give up, and he instantly hugged his head. “Most of all, I was afraid that shifu would find out and be given the impression that we’re fooling around, not tending to our training.”
Resting against the tree trunk, Wen Shi stated coolly, “He already knows.”
Zhong Si noticeably cowered.
To tell the truth, Chen Budao was only somewhat strict with them when they were young. Once they grew up and became fully-fledged, he never really interfered again. His attitude could even be considered tolerant to the point of extremity, and his temper was very good.
But an unapproachable aura surrounded him by nature, one that prevented the average person from daring to draw near. Even now, whenever the disciples encountered him, they would still end up keeping silent out of a little fear. Regardless of what they were doing, they always acted as if they would be done for if their shifu found out about it.
In reality, Chen Budao was well aware of everything, and none of them had been “done for” yet.
Zhong Si remained wilted for several seconds before his playful nature took over once more. He braced his hands lazily against the table and jerked his chin at the fragmented rocks. “Come on, shixiong who demands too much—pick the ones that you like, and I’ll put the rest of them back.”
Zhuang Ye said, “I don’t demand much at all. I can set up an array with any random stones I find on the ground.”
Zhong Si pursed his lips in Bu Ning’s direction. “I’m referring to him, not you. Copper coins or stones, he insists on being picky about both. I’d quite like to see what kind of special stones he’ll find here.”
Bu Ning let out a “heh” and shot him a look before he pulled out a small, clean cloth bag from his sleeve. Then he began sifting through the pile of rocks to select a few round ones.
Wen Shi also glanced over. Apart from being rather plump and bearing some patterns, there was nothing special about those stones.
Zhong Si was very puzzled.
He picked one up and weighed it in his hand. When Bu Ning swatted him aside, he asked, “Why these? You didn’t seem to evaluate them all that closely, so how are you deciding?”
Bu Ning: “Whatever catches my eye.”
Zhong Si rolled his eyes exaggeratedly and collected the rest of the fragmented rocks.
Ignoring him, Bu Ning picked up a little wooden stick and drew a few strokes onto the round stones that he had chosen.
Zhong Si craned his neck to see what he was doing. “What are you writing?”
Zhuang Ye explained from the side, “A marking. Although all things have spirits, stones that have been marked are still a bit easier to use.”
“Oh, I understand. It’ll be considered yours once you carve your name onto it, correct?” Zhong Si turned his head to read Bu Ning’s symbol. “…What is this supposed to be?”
Bu Ning looked astonished. “Are you illiterate?”
Zhong Si said irritably, “Get lost, why didn’t you say your handwriting was ugly instead? This seems to be the character for ‘north,’ but it also looks a little strange. Is it the same character?”
Bu Ning: “It isn’t.”
Zhong Si: “Then…?”
Bu Ning: “I made it up.”
Zhong Si: “Yet you think I’m illiterate???”
As they bickered away, Zhuang Ye attempted to mediate by chiming in with “okay okay” while Wen Shi watched from the side with crossed arms. Later that evening, when Wen Shi had extinguished the lights and was about to go to bed, he heard someone knock on his door.
He flung out his puppet string and pulled open the door to see Chen Budao standing outside, a lantern in his hand.
“Didn’t you leave the mountain?” Wen Shi looked at him in surprise.
“Not going to greet me?” Chen Budao lifted an eyebrow as he glanced at him.
Wen Shi stared at him in silence for a moment. Just as his lips parted and he was about to speak, he heard the other person say, “Never mind, I know what you’re going to say. You can swallow it back down.”
Chen Budao shook his head half-jokingly before he walked into the room and set a bag down on the table.
Whenever he returned to the mountain, he would often bring back some rare items for Wen Shi. But he was extremely good at keeping people in suspense, and he would never hand it all over at once.
It was only ever if Wen Shi was acting withdrawn because of something that happened, or if he had witnessed something painful in a cage, that Chen Budao would pull out one or two of the items to cheer him up.
This practically became a form of unspoken communication between master and disciple.
It was truly rare to see an entire bag’s worth of items being given in one go, and it almost seemed as if the other person was being a little absent-minded.
Wen Shi’s gaze settled on Chen Budao briefly before he asked, “Did something happen down there?”
Chen Budao was about to leave when he heard that. Slightly startled, he said, “It’s nothing, you should sleep.”
Wen Shi stubbornly refused to move as he continued to watch him.
Chen Budao was already all the way at the door when he glanced back at him and laughed in spite of himself. “Why are you staring at me?”
Still next to the door, he decided to engage in some idle chatter with Wen Shi. Only once his disciple relaxed and no longer looked like he was about to conduct an interrogation did Chen Budao finally straighten upright.
As if he had suddenly remembered something, he asked before departing, “I heard Bu Ning left a rather unusual marking on his array stones?”
Wen Shi was caught off guard.
Chen Budao extended his hand and pointed at the bird perch. “Here, stare at it. It was the one who told me.”
The Golden-Winged Dapeng silently shrank its head back into its feathers and played dead.
Wen Shi thought a bit and said, “It resembled the character ‘north,’ but he said it wasn’t that.”
Chen Budao: “Did he mention his reasoning.”
Wen Shi: “He said that it was a made-up character, and that it will have some affinity with him in the future.”
Chen Budao nodded.
The light illuminated the profile of his face. Because his eyes were downcast, it made him seem as if he was lost in thought.
Bu Ning was innately sensitive to all things spiritual, and he possessed a unique constitution. Whenever he occasionally did things like this, everyone would question him somewhat. That was a common occurrence, but Chen Budao rarely did so.
As Wen Shi gazed at him, he couldn’t help but ask, “Is there something going on with that character?”
Chen Budao snapped out of it and let out a laugh. “Perhaps it will have some affinity with me as well.”
Zhang Yalin stood up after he was done identifying the marking. “It should be correct—this is indeed Bu Ning-laozu’s array.”
As Wen Shi sluggishly pulled himself out of his memories, he saw Zhang Lan’s expression immediately turn grave. “That’ll be troublesome if this really is Bu Ning’s array. It’s common knowledge that exceedingly few of Bu Ning’s arrays remain in this world, and such a deeply engraved marking means that this must’ve been an earth-shattering array back in the day. Doesn’t that only leave…”
Zhang Lan fell quiet for a beat before her gaze shifted towards the group. “The array that sealed away that person, the array that will never allow for reincarnation again?”
The moment she said that, Wen Shi’s eyes shot up, and he looked at the person standing next to him.
At the same time, thunder cracked through the air as a brilliant bolt of lightning illuminated Xie Wen, who continued to stare at the array stone on the ground, gaze lowered. His complexion was a sickly pale, but he was completely expressionless.
After Wen Shi regained a portion of his memories, this was his first time hearing someone bring up this subject. It was no longer an unfamiliar tale told in folk stories and rumors, distant in both time and space; instead, it suddenly became something with weight.
He suddenly realized that as far as these later generations of panguan were concerned, Chen Budao had long since been entirely obliterated. There wasn’t any trace of him to be found, not even in the reincarnation cycle. And on the pages where those rumors were recorded, the name of every single direct disciple was written in the part that spoke of sealing Chen Budao away…
Including Wen Shi himself.
At that moment, he was suddenly overcome with a desperate urge to unearth the memories from that time. He wanted to know what truly happened back then—what befell Chen Budao, and what Wen Shi did in response.
But regardless of his efforts, he couldn’t recall anything. It felt as if everything was covered by an impenetrable cloth, one that didn’t let any light in at all.
As he stared at that person, he discovered that he only knew what his origin was. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember his home.
After a long silence, all Xie Wen did was avert his gaze away from the stone and turn to look at Wen Shi. Then, he curved his eyes into a smile.
Just like countless instances from a millennium ago, when he often used to smile at Wen Shi and say, “A trivial matter, nothing more.”
Yan: Sorry for all the slow updates lately;;; work + life have both been pretty busy this summer. But I’m going to do my best to speed it up!!! Because we’re getting to the best part!!