PG Chapter 76: Mountainscape

Thank you to Katie, Iggy, and Somebody for the Ko-fis!

Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk

Fortunately, his gamble paid off.

But the outcome was still beyond his expectations.

“I thought that I would be meeting someone’s descendants.” Bu Ning swept a look over himself. “Akin to how I am now, with a different appearance and identity. The sliver of soul lingering in their body would likely be the only source of familiarity, but it would allow the array spirits to open the gate.”

He stared blankly at his modern clothing for a long moment, as it differed quite a bit from the clothing of the past. Then he laughed wryly and said, “Perhaps that is still an exaggeration. To tell the truth, even descendants were something I did not dare to dream of back then.”

“Why not?” Wen Shi questioned.

Upon hearing that, Bu Ning’s head shot up in surprise, and he looked at Wen Shi with astonishment. “Because…”

Because despite divining it countless times, he truly couldn’t pinpoint another person who had the potential to leave behind descendants in the cycles of reincarnation, apart from himself with a half-missing soul.

That was almost clear as day—otherwise, this array of his couldn’t have been considered a huge gamble that he had staked everything on.

Yet Wen Shi was actually questioning it. That made Bu Ning extremely perplexed.

He scanned Wen Shi up and down before he cast an imploring look at Xie Wen. In the end, he asked Wen Shi tentatively, “Shidi, you…”

“He lost his soul,” Xie Wen answered. “He recently recovered a piece of it.”

“Lost his soul?” Gazing at Wen Shi with worry, Bu Ning murmured, “No wonder it took the array spirits so long to identify anyone.”

In circumstances like Wen Shi’s, where there was only a fragment of the soul left in the body, the soul’s scent wouldn’t be very obvious to the array spirits that had guarded the place for a long time. They would most likely only be able to identify the soul after it started to waver.

“But… how could you have lost your soul?” Bu Ning asked.

Wen Shi: “I don’t know.”

Bu Ning: “When did you realize?”

Wen Shi shook his head. “It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure.”

Bu Ning’s brows furrowed even tighter. “Very few people are capable of remaining in the world without a soul, let alone for a thousand years. Shidi, you…”

He hesitated a little.

On the surface, lingering in the world for a thousand years might seem like a wonderful stroke of luck, but upon deeper contemplation, it also meant that you were “bound to the world” and couldn’t achieve liberation.

Perhaps because of his specialization in arrays, Bu Ning couldn’t help but connect it to something a bit more foreboding.

“You might not remember this anymore, but I once told you about several extremely wicked arrays. By establishing a connection with certain spiritual entities, it is possible to achieve goals that ordinary people would otherwise consider unattainable.”

Bu Ning explained, “Naturally, everyone is unique, and different people have different goals. But in the end, it always comes back to the same things: fame, fortune, cultivation, or longevity.”

Wen Shi almost thought that Bu Ning had gotten the wrong idea and was suspecting him of using a demonic array to remain in the world longer.

But then Bu Ning said with a worried frown, “Those exploited spiritual entities will often exhibit characteristics of being bound to the mortal realm, unable to achieve liberation. It bears some resemblance to your current situation.”

He glanced at Xie Wen. Just like in his youth, his gaze didn’t dare to linger long on the other person, and he swiftly looked back at Wen Shi as he said with earnest concern, “After what happened to shifu, the sealing array vanished from this world, and you disappeared too. Zhong Si and Zhuang Ye could spare no energy, but I did attempt to find you, though it was ultimately fruitless. My thought is… Could someone have taken advantage of that vulnerability and made use of your soul for their own agenda, leading to the circumstances that have befallen you to date?”

Bu Ning phrased it tactfully, but Wen Shi understood immediately—

Typically, if someone learned of his situation, they would only worry that he had turned to some sort of demonic array out of an unwillingness to leave the world.

Yet Bu Ning was the exact opposite. He was worried that someone had maliciously taken advantage of Wen Shi’s weakness to forge him into their spiritual entity, thus resulting in Wen Shi wandering the world for so many years, neither alive nor dead.

Even though it had been a thousand years since they last met, never once did that melancholic worrier of a shixiong suspect his shidi in the slightest.

Wen Shi shook his head to dispel Bu Ning’s misgivings. “That shouldn’t be the case.”

Bu Ning: “How do you know?”

Wen Shi: “A spiritual entity that’s been forged would have an existence that’s much worse off than mine. I simply go to sleep after every lifetime, and I wake up again once a few decades have passed.”

Bu Ning: “In what manner do you slumber and awaken?”

Wen Shi said, “I sleep when I reach my limit, free of illness or pain. As for waking up… I traverse through a gate.”

He downplayed his experience and omitted many of the details, such as the discomfort he felt when his spiritual consciousness waned fully, or the blood that was shed when he crossed through the Gate of Oblivion and crawled out of the ground.

Compared to sitting frozen for a millennium, waiting for a reunion that might never arrive, Wen Shi felt like he had it much easier. At least… the mortal realm was rather lively.

He was just a little lost and unmoored at times without those who were dear to him.

Bu Ning relaxed upon hearing Wen Shi describe it as “free of illness or pain.” Since he had never heard of such a situation before, he asked, “What is it like, this gate that you speak of?”

Wen Shi said, “It resembles the ‘gate’ that many arrays produce, but it’s a bit longer to cross, a bit further to walk. I didn’t know what the other end was connected to, so I took a random name from a book and called it Oblivion.”

As a youth, whenever Bu Ning encountered something new, he was capable of fiddling tirelessly with it for days on end. Likewise, whenever he discovered something that he didn’t understand, he was capable of musing over it for a very long time.

In the past, Zhong Si would often use that to his advantage and mess with Bu Ning by conjuring up some novelties that would keep his shixiong circling around him for days. Of course, Zhong Si could never escape the beating that ensued afterwards.

After all this time, even life and death were no longer what they once were, yet Bu Ning’s inherent nature remained unchanged.

“What could this array be…” Nothing was coming to mind, so he subconsciously asked Wen Shi, “Is there truly nothing inside the gate?”

Wen Shi mulled over it carefully. “Sometimes there are sounds, but not a lot. They’re very soft, almost inaudible. And sometimes…”

Sometimes, he felt as if there was a person standing somewhere far, far behind him, watching him quietly.

But because he was surrounded by pitch darkness, he couldn’t see anything at all. To tell the truth, it felt more like a figment of his imagination…

Every time Wen Shi recalled that feeling, he was convinced that he had fabricated it himself, perhaps from hoping too much. It was an act of self-deception, that was all.

That was why he paused in the middle of his sentence before he shook his head and said, “There’s nothing else. That’s about it.”

Still perplexed, Bu Ning instinctively appealed to Xie Wen for help. “Has shifu heard of such a gate before?”

Xie Wen’s gaze was focused elsewhere. For some reason, he seemed to be a little lost in thought. It wasn’t clear if he had been listening to Wen Shi and Bu Ning’s earlier conversation; he had stayed quiet the entire time without interjecting once.

Wen Shi subconsciously followed Xie Wen’s line of sight, but all he saw was a patch of empty space.

By the time he looked back, Xie Wen had already redirected his gaze. He glanced at Wen Shi briefly before he replied to Bu Ning mildly, “I have not.”

He changed the subject after that. “You said… he disappeared on that day?”

Xie Wen pointed at Wen Shi. Then he asked Bu Ning lowly, “And you said that Zhong Si and Zhuang Ye are also here?”

Bu Ning lowered his eyes and nodded. “Yes, they are both here.”

It seemed as if he had something else he wanted to say, but because he didn’t know where to start, he decided to gesture respectfully to the side instead. “How long has it been since shifu and shidi last saw Mount Songyun? Allow me to lead the way.”

As he said that, he pushed aside a few of the round stones in the array and switched their positions.

An even fiercer wind swept into the cave, carrying with it the scent of mountain vegetation. It seemed a little more animated than before, as if it had suddenly gained a life of its own.

Bu Ning headed towards the edge of the cavern. When he passed by Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin, he paused and dipped his head at them courteously. “No need to kneel. Are you…”

He pointed at himself. “Relatives of this latter-day me? Or neighbors?”

Zhang Lan straightened upright and braced her hand against a nearby rock. “It’s not that I want to kneel. I just can’t really get up right now because my legs are weak.”

In this array, Bu Ning was accustomed to being the one in charge. With a flick of his sleeve, a gust of wind slipped past and forcefully hauled the Zhang siblings, the puppets… and Xia Qiao, who was kneeling to keep them company, to their feet.

“We’re his…” Zhang Lan was originally going to explain her and her brother’s hierarchical relationship to Zhou Xu, but she soon found herself unable to utter the words “aunt” or “uncle” in front of Bu Ning-laozu without feeling as if she was taking advantage of Zhou Xu somehow.

As a result, she backtracked completely and said, “Anyway, we just know him.”

Bu Ning nodded. Out of nowhere, he asked, “The latter-day me—what is he like? Is he fond of stirring up trouble?”

“He can really—”  Zhang Lan responded subconsciously before she cleared her throat harshly and amended, “He’s a pretty good kid.”

As Wen Shi walked over with Xie Wen, he ended up being the one to add, “He likes to brag, and he’s quite talkative. However, it’s seldom about anything particularly pleasant, which is why he easily incurs other people’s wrath. He doesn’t resemble you in the slightest.”

That seemed to remind Bu Ning of something, and he let out an unexpected laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” Wen Shi asked.

Bu Ning said, “It’s quite nice.”

Back when he was sixteen or seventeen years old, he used to mess with Zhong Si constantly. Although he could no longer recall what prompted the conversation, he still remembered Zhong Si asking him, “Great Immortal-shixiong, you have nothing better to do anyway—how about you help me divine what I will accomplish in my next life?”

Bu Ning was sifting through go stones at the time, and he asked in reply, “Is that not the type of divination you dislike the most? Knowing the good and bad ahead of time is worthless. In the end, that is the next life.”

Zhong Si nodded and said, “True. What about you, then? Is that not the type of divination you enjoy the most?”

Bu Ning said, “But I do not enjoy divining my own fate.”

Zhong Si: “In that case, what do you hope you will be like in your next life?”

After a brief contemplation, Bu Ning said, “Perhaps a little more unpleasant—just like you.”

Zhong Si huffed out a laugh of anger and promptly disarranged his go board.

The second half of Bu Ning’s comment was meant to be a joke, but the first half was the truth.

Once upon a time, he had sincerely hoped for such a thing. He hoped that his future self would be able to say whatever he wished to, that he wouldn’t need to hide his worries or be burdened with concerns, that he would pay no heed to the past or the future. He hoped that he would be able to display his unhappiness on his face, as well as his joy, and he hoped that he would be able to praise what he liked and curse what he disliked. He would be surrounded by capable people, so he wouldn’t have to bear the burden of any significant events, nor would he have to endure any melancholiness or fretting.

Thinking of it that way, the heavens were not too unkind towards him after all. It could even be considered a dream come true.

Bu Ning turned around and brushed aside the long vines covering the entrance to the cavern. Pointing at a familiar mountain path, he said to Wen Shi and Xie Wen, “Come with me.”

The current landscape wasn’t there previously when they arrived. As soon as Wen Shi stepped outside and caught the scent of the misty mountain wind, he felt as if he had been transported back in time.

Perhaps because of the array, the spaces inside and outside the cavern seemed like two different worlds that were a thousand years apart. The moment he stepped onto the path, only his reflection from the past remained cloaked over him: long hair and long robes, tall and slender, poised and upright, like the cold pine trees on Mount Songyun that reached for the sky even after a snowstorm.

After taking a few steps forward, he suddenly realized that no one was next to him, and he turned to look behind himself.

Xie Wen’s gaze was fixed on him. For whatever reason, he remained halted at the edge of the cavern, and he didn’t move from there for a long time.

“What’s wrong?” Wen Shi asked.

Abruptly, Xie Wen averted his eyes, which he seemed to press briefly shut. A beat later, he lifted his gaze again and finally walked onto the path.

At that moment, Wen Shi was somewhat stunned.

He suddenly recalled something from the year he was nineteen. After many days apart, he used to spot Chen Budao returning to Mount Songyun with an appearance that was very similar to his current one—red robes, long hair, and a snow-white collar. Although the hems of his robes swept gently across turquoise stones, the fabric was always utterly spotless.

It felt as if time had passed them by in a hurry, while scarcely leaving behind any trace of its existence.

Even now, upon seeing this person, he would still forget to look away.

He had spent a thousand years undergoing the cycle of life and death in the human world. He had witnessed the manifold existences the mortal realm had to offer, as well as all the joys and sorrows of mundane life. He had witnessed countless people’s reluctance to bid farewell, their inability to let go, their dissatisfaction and resentment, and their pain of parting with what they loved. 

He thought that he had long since stopped being that person from Mount Songyun who used to grow uneasy and shear away all of his worldly bonds just because of a few dreams.

He had forgotten everything, but he was remembering again; he had separated from Chen Budao, but they had reunited again.

He thought that he could already bring himself to stand calmly at that person’s side—calmly analyzing this and that, calmly conversing and going about his business. Perhaps he would latch onto a bit of deceptively charged ambiguity every now and then, born from small gestures or fleeting looks. Ultimately, however, he would maintain a distance between them that was closer than that of strangers but still different from that of master and disciple. He even thought that it wouldn’t be so bad to continue interacting in a manner that was neither intimate nor distant.

Only at that moment did he abruptly realize that he had been mistaken all along.

He missed the days spent on Mount Songyun. He missed the lively atmosphere of the training terrace nestled halfway up the mountain; he missed Lake Qingxin and the place it occupied in the mountain’s hollow; he missed the blanket of stars and mounds of snow that could be found at the peak. He missed this person, who was unique beyond compare.

This was all once part of what he considered home, part of his deepest bond to the mortal realm. How could he possibly toss everything away just like that?

He was still full of foolish desires. He was still greedy.

But if he had to choose, he would much rather walk behind this person, one stair step apart.

There was no need to get any closer. Even if the other person didn’t turn around, he would still be able to follow him for a long, long time.

As Xie Wen approached, Wen Shi subconsciously angled himself to the side to make room on the path. His fingers pressed a transient touch against Xie Wen’s back. “You go in front.”

“Why?” Xie Wen cast a downwards look at him.

Wen Shi didn’t respond.

This time, Xie Wen didn’t actually insist upon an answer. Instead, he simply gazed at Wen Shi for a while before he nodded and continued up the path.

Wen Shi trailed behind him at a distance of a single step. All he had to do was look up to catch a glimpse of that familiar figure.

The mountain path was rather narrow, and it was engulfed by fog, turning the stone steps quite slippery.

After walking for some time, Wen Shi suddenly asked, “At what point did you realize I didn’t have a soul?”

Xie Wen’s drifted over to him, gentle and deep. “I noticed the very first time I saw you.”

Wen Shi went silent for a moment before he asked, “Then, why didn’t you say anything?”

That was a question he had been wanting to ask since the moment he found out who Xie Wen was.

At first, the question kept dancing on the tip of his tongue, over and over again, but he didn’t know how to broach it. Later, because of those selfish feelings that grew increasingly obvious the more he tried to hide them, he decided to just smother the question deep inside his heart instead.

But in the end, he still couldn’t resist asking it.

Xie Wen let out a soft laugh, perhaps reminded of their first encounter with each other. Since he didn’t turn around, Wen Shi couldn’t see his expression; he could only hear the sound of his voice. “During our first meeting, if I had told you right away that I was your… shifu.”

For whatever reason, he paused slightly. Although the lull was very brief, Wen Shi still noticed it, and he came to a sudden stop.

However, a second later, Xie Wen continued speaking in the same tone as usual. It was as if his earlier pause was just a figment of Wen Shi’s imagination, like a breeze slipping by in a moment of inattention.

With a smile in his voice, Xie Wen said, “I most likely would’ve been subject to a fit of your ridicule and scorn, before being chased out the door.”

When he didn’t hear the sound of Wen Shi’s footsteps, he glanced behind him.

Wen Shi pressed his lips together and started walking again.

A beat passed before he asked, “What about after that?”

Xie Wen didn’t reply immediately this time.

The silence persisted for a while, during which the mountain path took a turn. Loose rock covered the ground, making it somewhat difficult to navigate. Upon stepping onto the next platform, Xie Wen halted and suddenly turned around to grasp Wen Shi’s hand.

He directed his gaze towards Wen Shi’s feet, as if he was simply lending his disciple a hand out of habit because he felt reminded of the past under the influence of Mount Songyun’s landscape.

Once Wen Shi had also stepped onto the platform, he focused his gaze back on the path ahead of them. In a low voice, he said, “There was always some reason or another.”

“Such as?”

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