Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
But in the past, every “trivial matter” that he brushed off lightly ended up being something significant.
“Actually, I’ve always wondered something…” Xie Wen was still looking down at Wen Shi, so his voice was low and unhurried when he spoke, almost a gentle consolation.
A beat later, he flicked his gaze up at Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin. “What exactly is the source of these shocking, fantastical rumors?”
Zhang Lan was caught off guard by his question, and she couldn’t process it immediately. “What do you mean?”
Xie Wen: “Did your family’s ancestors pass it down generation by generation?”
Zhang Yalin was at a loss for words. “You…”
Baffled, Zhang Lan asked in return, “What are you saying? Aren’t you being a bit too unfilial? Aren’t my ancestors also your ancestors?”
Xie Wen chuckled. “You should go and ask your ancestors if they’ll acknowledge that.”
Zhang Lan furrowed her good-looking eyebrows and subconsciously glanced at the people around her, only to discover Lao Mao staring at her with an odd look in his eyes. This made her a bit perplexed and irritated at the same time. After all, every time Xie Wen was brought up, his mother Zhang Wan ended up being implicated as well, so it felt a little as if they were digging up the Zhang family’s personal affairs for others to see.
“There’s no point in saying that, weakling,” Zhang Lan said. “One generation’s grudges and grievances don’t need to be carried over to another’s. At the crux of it—it’s not like you can change who your ancestor is.”
The look in Lao Mao’s eyes became even stranger.
Zhang Lan: “?”
She subconsciously wanted to ask why he was staring at her like that, but her intuition told her that she wouldn’t appreciate the answer. She was also in favor of quickly moving past the current topic, so she posed a new question to Xie Wen. “Why’d you bring up those rumors out of nowhere?”
But Xie Wen had already walked away.
Rather than answering Zhang Lan, he broke off a half-dead branch from a nearby tree and asked Xiao Hei, “You said that you were looking for the array marking earlier. Now that you’ve found it, where do you believe the array core is?”
His voice was always very level, to the point where questions didn’t even sound like questions anymore—instead, it seemed more like he was testing you.
Most people wouldn’t randomly order around someone else’s puppet. First of all, they wouldn’t be able to do so for anything important, and second, there was no need to do so for trifling matters. After a while, this became a kind of convention.
However, Zhang Yalin wasn’t the petty type. He allowed his older sister to order around Xiao Hei all the time, so he didn’t really have a problem with letting Xie Wen borrow the puppet either. He just wasn’t very used to it.
Before he could nod, Xiao Hei was already pointing off into the distance.
After responding with an “okay,” Xie Wen began walking in that direction.
Wen Shi didn’t know what Xie Wen was going to do, and his gaze followed him unwaveringly. Then he heard him say, “You all might not specialize in array-casting, but you must’ve read this in the books before, or it should also make sense to you if you think about it a little. If sealing is the purpose of a giant array, it will become increasingly likely that something will happen as you approach the array core.”
As he spoke, he cast a look at Wen Shi.
When it came to array-casting, the only person who could make even Bu Ning feel apprehensive was their shifu, Chen Budao. Back then, when Chen Budao was helping Bu Ning perfect his arrays, he would often use something insignificant—like a stone, a flower, a bird, or so on—to quietly modify the result produced by several days of Bu Ning’s effort.
Bu Ning trained from his youth all the way to adulthood. That, coupled with his divination, just barely managed to give him some protection.
Fortunately, a second Chen Budao didn’t exist in this world, so it was fine for Bu Ning to be called the ancestor of arrays.
Even though Wen Shi didn’t excel at arrays, he still more or less knew how to undo them, thanks to those two. Naturally, he understood the fundamental principles of it—
If it was a sealing array: the closer you drew to the array core, the more likely you were to see signs of annihilation.
After all, the very purpose of such an array was to completely obliterate someone or something’s soul and spirit, to eliminate their chances of ever being free again. A ruthless enough array was capable of wiping out all vegetation and life within a hundred li.
Everything was deathly still around them; their surroundings did indeed fit that description.
But if this truly was the array that had sealed away Chen Budao, like Zhang Lan had guessed, that easily broken branch would immediately scatter into ashes the moment it began to approach the array core.
However, as Xie Wen walked forward, the branch in his hand didn’t dissolve. On the contrary, a slender verdant bud even emerged from it.
That really was an unexpected outcome. Even Xie Wen was a little startled.
The Zhang siblings were extremely stunned.
“How is this possible…” Zhang Yalin murmured softly.
Xie Wen’s gaze swept across the freshly budded branch in his hand before he turned and said, “So it’s not good to put too much faith into rumors either. Who said Bu Ning only left behind that one giant array.”
As he walked back towards them, he twirled the green branch—burgeoning with tender shoots—gently between his lowered fingers. Then he came to a stop in front of Wen Shi.
He leaned forward and brushed the rejuvenated branch lightly against the corner of Wen Shi’s pursed, colorless lips. It wasn’t clear if he was addressing everyone or solely Wen Shi when he said, “It’s not a sealing array of some sort. Don’t look so upset, nothing’s going to happen.”
His words carried different meanings for different people.
When he said it wasn’t a sealing array, Zhang Lan and the others thought that he meant it wasn’t quite as vicious or dangerous as one; the overall atmosphere was just a little strange.
But to Wen Shi, it seemed as if Xie Wen was saying that nothing would happen to him—after all, despite the rumors of the sealing array that forbade reincarnation, Xie Wen was still standing right here in front of him, well and whole.
Wen Shi took the branch from him. As he stood up, Xie Wen reached out and lent him a hand.
The warmth of his palm seeped into Wen Shi’s skin. It truly was somewhat reassuring, and Wen Shi’s pale lips finally regained a bit of their color.
Only then did Xie Wen let go.
Wen Shi rubbed at the lingering heat between his fingers before he suddenly turned and approached a nearby tree. There, he also snapped off a branch of his own.
As Xie Wen watched Wen Shi walk past him towards the array core, branch in hand, he couldn’t help but ask, “Why are you testing it again?”
Wen Shi paused in place briefly before he started walking again. In a low voice, he answered, “In case you’re tricking me.”
From childhood to adulthood, he had been tricked countless times by this person: sometimes teasingly, sometimes indulgently; to make him laugh after crying, to ease his worries and anxieties.
He could accept most of those tricks, but some of them, he could not.
Only once buds bloomed from Wen Shi’s own branch near the array core did he fully believe Xie Wen.
“Ge, buds sprouting from the branch means that this is a good array, right?” Xia Qiao couldn’t resist asking.
“That’s hard to say. This sort of situation also occurs with some vicious arrays in an attempt to misguide people,” Wen Shi replied.
They could really only be sure of one thing: this array wasn’t meant to seal.
Right as he was about to slip the two branches into his pocket, Xie Wen reached out and stopped him before stealing the branches away.
“What are you doing.” Wen Shi looked over with a frown and watched as Xie Wen bent down to stick the two branches into the mud nearby.
“Since they’ve already sprouted, might as well let them live a little longer,” Xie Wen said.
Perhaps because of their proximity to the array core, the branches shot up and grew in height the moment they touched the ground. The newly-grown leaves stretched to the side and bumped against one another, casting behind two closely entangled shadows.
Xie Wen’s gaze swept over the two shadows. For a second, he seemed to think that the branches were too close to each other, and he raised his hand to move one of them a little farther away.
But for some unknown reason, he changed his mind and ended up lowering his hand again.
The rest of the group also made their way over. Upon seeing the two branches, Zhang Yalin couldn’t help but question, “What is the purpose of this?”
He was rather prudent by nature, and he was always under the impression that there was a meaning and objective behind every action. After all, he himself wasn’t really the type to do unnecessary or pointless things.
However, Zhang Lan was different—she was always linking everything to gossip and rumors. She rummaged through the random assortment of knowledge in her mind and said, “I think there’s a rumor that…”
Halfway through her sentence, Xie Wen lifted his eyes and shot a glance at her.
Great Lady Zhang remembered the mockery that this weakling had treated her rumors with earlier, and she silently shut her mouth again. Instead, she said, “So, our current situation is a little unexpected. And this place is making me a bit confused.”
“It’s not too bad. It starts to take shape once you think about it,” Zhang Yalin interjected.
“Right now, it looks like this array isn’t a vicious or malevolent one used to seal someone away, at least not in the way that we thought. Xiao Hei mentioned earlier that it’s driving people away and luring people in at the same time.”
Xiao Hei nodded in agreement. “That truly is an extremely strange aspect of this array.”
A certain possibility suddenly occurred to Wen Shi.
Earlier, Zhang Lan said that after losing their senses, they unwittingly made their way over to the wooden fence encircling the old village; that was most likely the part about “luring people in.” But when they were about to push open the door and enter the village, they were attacked; that was most likely the part about “driving people away.”
At first glance, it was quite contradictory, but if this was Bu Ning…
Wen Shi attempted to guess the purpose of the array by substituting himself for the person in his memories, the same way he used to help Zhong Si undo Bu Ning’s arrays back then—whenever he was in a decent mood, that was.
If this was Bu Ning’s array and there was danger inside the formation, he would most likely encircle and conceal the entire area, so as to avoid any innocents barging in by mistake.
But likewise, he also specialized in divination, and he often left behind a few backup plans for the sake of some faint possibilities that came to mind. If someone really did accidentally make their way inside, he should’ve come up with a way to protect their life.
Wen Shi looked at the outdated village, surrounded by the wooden fence. At this point, he felt like it was very obvious—perhaps that was precisely the safe area left behind by Bu Ning. When people intruded by mistake, they would be lured into the village.
However, that old fenced village seemed to have lost its security a long time ago. It was silent and dilapidated, stark and empty; there wasn’t even a shadow of a ghost to be found.
“So where did all the people inside go?” Zhang Lan furrowed her brows.
Even though neither she nor Zhang Yalin knew anything about Bu Ning’s behavior pattern or personality, they could still come up with a fair conjecture based on everything that they had just experienced. At the very least, they were able to guess the purpose of the village.
Xie Wen pointed at the dark passageway that they had traversed through to get here and said, “That’s most likely what this gate is used for.”
When this place was no longer safe, it would transfer everyone to a different location. In other words, the land where Lu Wenjuan and the others lived.
“Then… who established the gate that connects these two places? According to Xiao Hei, it probably wasn’t Bu Ning himself. Did someone else come in here before?” Zhang Lan murmured. “And what is in this array that needs to be hidden so securely?”
Zhang Yalin suddenly piped up with a reminder. “Don’t forget that this is also a cage.”
Zhang Lan: “Right, this is also a cage. What kind of person’s cage would contain Bu Ning-laozu’s array? Unless…”
She lifted her head in astonishment. “The cage master is Bu Ning-laozu???”
Upon hearing that, Wen Shi and Xie Wen’s expressions both changed.
Prior to this, Wen Shi had imagined a multitude of ways that this cage could be linked to Bu Ning, but the only possibility he had overlooked was that of the other person being the cage master.
Because in the scope of Wen Shi’s limited memories, Bu Ning was that youthful shixiong who would always carry around copper coins and round stones with him at all times. When he encountered something lucky, he would laugh and say the heavens were looking out for him; when he encountered something troublesome, he would simply sigh and say he foresaw this coming a long time ago, but it was unavoidable, so he decided to just leave it to fate.
Never once did Wen Shi imagine that such a person could leave behind a cage that would linger for over a thousand years.
“Let’s go check out the array core,” Zhang Yalin said. “Everything should make sense once we’re inside.”
Zhang Lan immediately threw out three talismans. “Let me confirm Xiao Xu’s location first. The array core is dangerous, so if he’s outside of it, he shouldn’t come in with us.”
Zhang Yalin nodded before he instructed Xiao Hei to follow the array stones and search for the path in.
But then he heard Wen Shi say, “Don’t bother. There is no path.”
Simultaneously taken aback, Zhang Yalin and Xiao Hei looked over to see Wen Shi wrapping puppet string around his fingers.
“What do you mean?” Zhang Yalin asked.
For once, Wen Shi was wrapping the puppet string tightly around his fingers according to the rules. He said evenly, “There’s never a path to be found when it comes to Bu Ning’s array cores.”
Zhang Yalin: “How could there not be a path? How do you get in if there isn’t one?”
Wen Shi: “By using force.”
Bu Ning was a master at leading people astray. Even when he was just joking around with Zhong Si, he could make him wander aimlessly for several thousand li. If he was earnestly hiding something, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for them to wander around for several years trying to find it. In the past, there was only way Wen Shi could ever find Bu Ning’s array cores, and it was the only way he knew how to: through the use of force.
If there was no path in, then they had no choice but to drag the array core to them.
Wen Shi’s voice was very calm, causing Zhang Yalin to subconsciously nod in return. He also fished out his puppet string and began to loop it around his fingers. “All right. Let’s open it together then, so we can save a bit of energy.”
“That won’t happen,” Wen Shi replied lowly. “This is Bu Ning.”
A moment later, a violent gale whipped up around them with an all-encompassing roar.
The Tengshe emerged in a burst of flames, and brilliant sparks sprayed forth from its chains as the metal links chafed against one another. As it coiled past, the wind in its wake was strong enough to overturn the entire village.
Zhang Yalin narrowed his eyes in the fierce wind and prepared to release his own giant beasts.
He had already flung out his puppet string when a thought suddenly occurred to him, and he sucked in a breath through his teeth. Amidst the whistle of the wind, he called loudly, “You’ve never undone Bu Ning’s arrays before—so how do you know how to get to his array core—?”