Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
This was actually quite a perceptive question, but Zhang Yalin heard a cry of alarm come from his sister, Zhang Lan, before he could receive an answer to it.
The wind that Wen Shi whipped up was too fierce, and Zhang Lan’s voice was swiftly engulfed by its howl.
Even though Zhang Yalin believed that shouting in such a manner was simply a disgrace to decorum, he still pitched his voice as loud as it would go. It was so loud that even Wen Shi, who was in the middle of tugging at his puppet string, ended up glancing back at him.
“Xiao Xu—” Zhang Lan’s long hair swirled around her, making her seem like an unbridled female ghost. After saying those two words, she was forced to hunch over from the pressure of the wind. Since she couldn’t move forward at all, she resorted to throwing out a few talismans instead.
The edge of each talisman glowed with a golden light that extended outwards like spider silk, forming what appeared to be numerous transparent shields.
The shields made a circle and morphed into a single impenetrable screen that then enveloped her, Xia Qiao, and Lao Mao, both of whom were also nearby. That way, they wouldn’t be completely blown away by the wind.
She was used to being the older sister figure, and she subconsciously turned to look for Xie Wen to pull him in too. But then she discovered that the weakling was standing next to Wen Shi, and that his only reaction was narrowing his eyes briefly in the wind.
It was like the squall stirred up by the puppet couldn’t affect him. He was neither uneasy nor distressed, almost as if he had stood amidst such a wind for many years before and had long since grown accustomed to it.
Zhang Lan’s elegant eyebrows knitted together as she sucked in air through her teeth—something didn’t feel quite right.
But before she could think about it more closely, Lao Mao patted her lightly and pointed at Zhang Yalin. “Your little brother is calling for you.”
Although Zhang Lan had already regained her composure, Zhang Yalin was still shouting himself hoarse in the wind. “Don’t just stop in the middle—what’s the matter with Xiao Xu—what was the outcome of your tracing talismans—”
Thanks to his reminder, Zhang Lan temporarily forgot about her other concerns.
Protected by the transparent shields, she hastily jogged towards Wen Shi with an extremely unpleasant expression on her face. She said to her little brother, full of worry, “Xiao Xu isn’t here.”
Wen Shi was also surprised. “He isn’t?”
Zhang Yalin’s expression turned grave. “Impossible—”
“He really isn’t.” Several tracing talismans were pinched between two of Zhang Lan’s fingers. “Just like before, all the ones I released ended up being grounded.”
Wen Shi frowned.
Earlier in Lu Wenjuan’s house, the talismans tracking Zhou Xu were grounded, which meant that he had either ceased to exist or he wasn’t in the village.
Consequently, they pursued the trail all the way here.
But even in this place, the tracing talismans were still grounded. That truly didn’t bode well, unless…
Wen Shi looked at where the Tengshe had flown off to—
The enormous tail of a snake abruptly thrashed through the air! Even though the vast sky was clearly empty, a staggeringly thunderous noise rang out, as if the Tengshe had slammed its tail against an invisible glass wall with phenomenal force.
That wall was all-encompassing. It reached up to the highest heavens and pierced down deep into the ground, blocking their path forward.
Despite being mentally prepared, Zhang Lan still ended up jolting because of the deafening sound.
She faltered for a second before she pointed at the origin of the loud noise and said, “Is it possible that… somebody already brought Xiao Xu into the array core?”
Zhang Yalin’s expression grew even uglier. “Who?”
“Who the hell knows.” Zhang Lan’s face was dark.
Xia Qiao couldn’t help but pipe up. “Maybe it’s that mountain god or whatever. Didn’t Lu Wenjuan say that he had to go into the mountain since he was chosen? Didn’t they also have offerings in the past? What if the mountain they’re talking about is precisely the mountain from the array core? Maybe he just went straight in?”
As soon as he finished, he felt like he was being a little too naive by speculating so much about a mountain god of some sort. He wanted to add something else, but after hesitantly opening and closing his mouth several times, he only ended up saying, “He should be okay… I hope he’s okay.”
Evidently, everyone else was thinking something similar.
On one hand, they thought that it wasn’t very likely for Zhou Xu to have entered the array core; on the other hand, that was the only theory they dared to think about.
But soon enough, they didn’t even have the capacity to think anymore…
Because an ear-splitting boom, exactly the same as before, suddenly reverberated through the sky. They subconsciously believed that it was just Wen Shi’s puppet attacking the array core again, but upon turning their heads, they were greeted by the sight of a pitch-black snake tail lashing towards them from behind—it was actually attacking them.
The tail was colossal in size, like a skyscraper toppling down. If anyone was struck by it, they would immediately lose their life.
But by the time they saw it, the snake tail was already almost on top of them.
Forget evading it: they didn’t even have time to close their eyes.
Just as Wen Shi’s eyes were widening in shock, he heard someone speak softly next to his ear.
A second later, he felt an incorporeal puppet string wrap itself around his wrists, ankles, and waist. Then, he was yanked abruptly backwards.
By the time he came back to his senses, his back was pressed against an expanse of warmth.
That was the heat of someone else’s body.
A familiar aura enveloped him the moment he collided into the other person. Wen Shi knew that it belonged to the karmic debt and malevolent energy seeping out of Xie Wen, but it still gave rise to the illusion of being embraced from behind.
Wen Shi blinked once, an ever so slight flicker.
The illusion lingered for quite a while before the aura finally dispersed in the wind.
The snake tail missed its target and slammed heavily onto the ground.
The sound of sandstone rupturing echoed through the air as a long and deep fissure cracked through the earth. It was like the gaping maw of a demon, split open darkly in front of them.
All of these unforeseen events happened in the blink of an eye.
Dead silence blanketed the group for quite some time before someone finally exhaled shakily.
That person was Xia Qiao, but he still didn’t sound very reassured when he spoke. “Did… my soul leave my body?”
It wasn’t just him. Almost every other person was thinking the same exact thing.
Because just now, they had all instantaneously moved a large distance backwards.
Zhang Yalin stared unblinkingly at the crevice in front of his toes; the snake tail had slammed into the ground there just a few seconds earlier. They were only one breath away from ascending to heaven on the spot.
And the only reason they didn’t ascend to heaven was because someone had tugged them backwards at the most critical moment.
Zhang Lan glanced behind her, but of course nobody was there.
Her face was still colorless and ashen from the fright she had just received. She subconsciously glanced at Zhang Yalin’s hands and asked, “Was that you?”
But Zhang Yalin’s complexion was even paler than hers, and for a second, he forgot that he was supposed to respond.
A moment passed before he finally answered with a distracted “no” and turned to look at Wen Shi.
Only puppet string was capable of dragging everyone back like this. If it wasn’t him, that meant that Wen Shi was the only other person here who could do such a thing. Yet… the weakling, Xie Wen, was currently holding onto Wen Shi’s shoulder from behind.
This was a rather bewildering scene to take in. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it, but at the same time, everything seemed to be a little bit off.
However, the situation quickly shifted once more—
Accompanied by the violent screaming of the wind, the snake tail swept towards them again.
This time, they finally saw it clearly: Wen Shi’s giant python wasn’t their ambusher. Instead, it was a different snake.
The long black snake looked just like Wen Shi’s puppet, the only difference being its slightly fainter color, similar to that of a projected reflection.
But the power and force behind its attacks couldn’t be considered weak at all. When the giant tail slammed towards them, it did so with the intent of utter annihilation.
Except this time, Wen Shi promptly shifted his fingers, causing the Tengshe to dive straight down from the sky and forcefully obstruct the path of the other snake.
As the two enormous serpents crashed together, fierce, scorching flames immediately burst into existence.
Even the ground was shaking.
Xia Qiao staggered a little and hastily threw his arms around a nearby tree.
Zhang Lan’s brows were knitted tightly together. She asked, “What’s going on here?”
Right as she said that, the attacks began to cascade down like rain. Quite a few more fissures split apart the ground, and she nearly stepped into one of them.
Zhang Yalin couldn’t just stand by and watch, so he drew his puppet string tight and instantly released three huge puppets. He wanted to subdue and crush that “fake” black snake that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
“Don’t!” Wen Shi warned sharply, but he was a bit too late.
“Why not?” Without looking at him, Zhang Yalin said, “Let’s finish this as fast as possible.”
But he soon realized something: that was but a pipe dream.
Just a few seconds after being released, each huge puppet gained an identical “reflection.” Not only did the situation fail to improve, it ended up becoming even more chaotic as the fight turned into a four versus four battle.
“What the fuck”—at this point, Zhang Yalin couldn’t be bothered with etiquette anymore, and he let profanity slip loose—“is going on here?”
“It’s exactly what you’re seeing,” Wen Shi said coldly. “Whatever you send out, you’ll receive the same counterattack in return.”
Zhang Lan was utterly stupefied. “Is this the kind of array Bu Ning-laozu liked to use? I thought…”
According to the rumors, Bu Ning’s personality was generally regarded to be on the milder side. Although he didn’t agree to everything like Zhuang Ye did, he definitely couldn’t be considered fierce or aggressive.
But because of this array’s counterattacks, she began to deeply question the accuracy of those rumors.
Then Wen Shi said, “Usually not. This array is an exception.”
Zhang Yalin: “???”
The feeling that something wasn’t adding up grew stronger and stronger, but he couldn’t pay any attention to it for the time being.
The attacks of the four “fake” puppets were on the scale of mountains and oceans, and they were much more troublesome to deal with than one single enormous snake. Even though Wen Shi’s group also had puppets on their side that they could use to block and strike back with, the situation was still quite grim.
This was because everything was caving in around them, mountains and trees and all. Beneath the crevices laid a bottomless abyss, and underneath that… was the possibility of a dead zone.
It was true that Bu Ning rarely set up arrays that were this aggressive. Even Wen Shi had almost forgotten that something like this could happen.
Thanks to Zhang Yalin’s “help,” the situation was getting out of hand, and there was no way they could withdraw their puppets now. After contemplating a little, Wen Shi decided to cast out more puppet string.
“Have you gone mad?”
This time, it was the Zhang siblings’ turn to panic.
Zhang Yalin was controlling four puppets at once, and though that wasn’t his limit, it still consumed quite a lot of spiritual energy. Moreover, this was Bu Ning’s array, so the “fake” puppets’ attacks were sometimes more formidable than that of the original source.
He was starting to slip into a bit of a sorry state.
“Didn’t you say not to release any new puppets?!!!” Zhang Yalin dodged an attack and wiped away a streak of blood from a scrape on his face. At this point, he was essentially bellowing into the wind, and there was no trace of his refined aura to be found.
“Too late.” As Wen Shi spoke, a new giant beast had already appeared in the sky.
His intentions were indeed a bit mad—since there were already so many puppets present, he figured he might as well add a few more into the mix, until the domain couldn’t bear the onslaught any longer and collapsed completely.
When that happened, the array core would actually end up standing out because of its stability.
Of course, before the array core revealed itself, he would first have to ensure that their group wouldn’t perish as the space crumbled around them.
The domain grew increasingly chaotic.
Xia Qiao couldn’t even cling to a tree anymore. He felt as if he was going to plummet into the bottomless abyss at any moment, along with the disintegrating chunks of land.
“When is this going to be over?” he asked.
“It’ll be over if you have the ability to make the array’s creator open the gate for you, or… judging from the way your ge is going about it, it probably won’t end until everything collapses!!” In the end, Zhang Lan was both clever and experienced, and she wasn’t stunned for long before she understood Wen Shi’s intentions.
The shields could no longer protect them anymore. While struggling to hold onto an overturned tree root, she attempted to scatter a talisman in each of the cardinal directions to help Wen Shi out.
After all, it was already considered the peak of a typical puppet master’s abilities to control two puppets at the same time.
But before she could even secure the third talisman in place, Wen Shi summoned a third puppet of his own.
What the hell—
The Zhang siblings simultaneously turned to stare at him in shock.
It was highly likely that no one in the present day could understand the difficulty of this feat better than them.
However, what they really couldn’t help but look at was the appearances of those puppets. The puppets reminded them of several rather terrifying mythological beasts… yet there were still some differences.
Zhang Yalin kept shooting sidelong glances at the puppets. Because of his distraction, he was almost swept into a yawning fissure.
By the time Wen Shi released a fourth puppet, the expression on Zhang Yalin’s face had already started to change.
Zhang Lan forgot all about her talismans. She tilted her head back in a daze as she watched the frenzied, otherworldly battle take place in the sky above her.
Meanwhile, the domain was still stubbornly persevering…
To tell the truth, it was beginning to take a toll on Wen Shi. The four enormous beasts were rapidly consuming his spiritual energy, and his soul—of which there was only a fragment of in the first place—was starting to tremble ceaselessly.
His brows furrowed together slightly. Just as he was about to summon a fifth puppet, a hand reached over and grabbed ahold of him.
“Wait,” Xie Wen said.
Startled, Wen Shi was in the middle of turning to look at him when he suddenly heard the faint babble of running water.
It sounded very hollow, as if a stream was flowing through a deep cavern.
Both of them stilled at the same time.
Because once upon a time, that sound was very familiar to them: every day, upon waking and before slumber, their mornings and evenings were filled with the sound of such running water, accompanied by the wind as it sighed through a sea of pine trees.
It was… the sound of Mount Songyun.
Prior to hearing it, Wen Shi had no idea just how dearly he missed that sound.
A thousand years—it had been a long time.
As he directed his gaze towards the source of the noise, he saw all the “reflected” puppets immediately halt their attacks and dissipate from the domain like the mountain fog at dawn.
Countless golden cracks splintered down from the domed sky. A beat later, the invisible barrier shattered apart with a loud rumble.
“Did it… give way?” Xia Qiao said blankly, head tipped back.
Zhang Lan stood there, dazed, for a long moment before she said softly, “No, the array core opened on its own.”
Xia Qiao: “But… I thought the array core couldn’t be opened by outsiders?”
That wasn’t actually completely accurate, but nobody corrected him.
Because a second later, twelve huge, towering figures emerged from the shattered barrier and proceeded to surround them in a circular formation, like twelve tall mountains.
Clad in loose robes with wide sleeves, they resembled mountain phantoms.
“What are these?” Xia Qiao whispered.
The two Zhang siblings opened and closed their mouths, but nothing came out.
In the end, Xie Wen said evenly, “Array spirits.”
To this day, only a handful of arrays were capable of producing array spirits, once they had endured the relentless cycle of time for hundreds of years. The spirits represented the creator’s lingering wishes; acting as devoted attendants, they would continue to guard the array.
If it was not an old friend, the gate would not open.
Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin had both heard too many rumors over the course of their lifetimes, so of course they knew that.
As a result, they found themselves sinking into a lengthy, dumbfounded silence, and they suddenly didn’t know how to react anymore.
A moment later, they watched as the array spirits—symbolizing the ten Heavenly Stems and twelve Earthly Branches1—sniffed lightly in Wen Shi’s direction. Then, with a flick of their sleeves, the spirits knelt onto the ground.
- A historical method of recording time in China. Essentially, the array spirits signify the flow of time (from which they were born). Click to read more about the Stems or Branches. ^