Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Wen Shi had never revealed such an expression before.
Clearly—the dragons formed from the black mist were shockingly huge, big enough to blot out the sky. The winds stirred up in their wake seemed to carry blades of ice and frost, and it felt almost as if everyone’s flesh was going to be flayed off their bones. The screaming of the wind was loud enough to reach the heavens, and it was also accompanied by the wailing of countless ghosts. The howling was so sharp and shrill that it seemed to drill into their skulls, like someone was hammering a steel nail into their foreheads.
It was unbearable to almost everyone present. Hugging their heads tightly, they fell to their knees.
Even Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin, who were among the top ranks of the modern-day panguan, couldn’t handle it and hunched over. Eyes squeezed shut, they let out a yell into the gale that was tearing them apart, like a form of release driven by pure agony. But as soon as they opened their mouths, their voices were lost amidst the ghostly wailing.
Clearly—this should’ve been something extremely difficult to endure, yet Wen Shi didn’t seem to see or hear any of it…
The entire world went blank around him, as if he had abruptly lost all of his senses. And in that emptiness, only Xie Wen remained.
He looked at Xie Wen, and he could only see Xie Wen…
His eyes were stained red.
So: it was never a coincidence that he had come across that book in the other person’s room. So: the other person was actually fully aware of the furtive act of deception he thought he had pulled off successfully.
So: every time he stood in the array all by himself, scouring away—bit by bit—the worldly bonds that he was unable to bear, listening to those harrowing wails that followed him relentlessly… Each and every time, there was someone else standing guard at the other end of the array, undertaking it all in his stead.
Everything that he couldn’t have, couldn’t voice, couldn’t dissolve, couldn’t dispel—that person had undertaken it all for him.
For a thousand years…
He had remained utterly oblivious.
For a thousand years, he had wandered around the mortal realm, living and dying, coming and going. He had painted countless portraits with ambiguous appearances; he had heard countless stories related to “the sealing” and “being forbidden from reincarnation.” But he had never once thought to wonder how the other person ended up in those circumstances.
How he ended up in those circumstances…
The moment the black mist engulfed Xie Wen, Wen Shi whipped his head around. “Stop the array!”
His voice was incredibly hoarse, and his tone was one that Bu Ning had never heard before.
Immediately after, Wen Shi rushed into the mist.
Right before he turned around, Bu Ning saw that his lips were pressed tightly together, his eyes completely red.
“Ge!” Xia Qiao cried out in alarm. On instinct, he wanted to follow Wen Shi in, but Bu Ning managed to grab him in the nick of time.
“Do not imitate his madness!” Bu Ning rarely spoke so harshly.
Before Xia Qiao could even get close to the black mist, the pain was already starting to verge on intolerable. It felt like he was being ground to pieces or devoured alive.
That sudden burst of pain forced him to kneel on the spot and curl in on himself.
Bu Ning wasn’t in a much better state either. He was still borrowing Zhou Xu’s body, and because that body had never really cultivated anything in this lifetime, it couldn’t bear being in such close proximity to the black mist. In the span of a mere second, his damaged soul was nearly gouged right out of his vessel, and he had no choice but to stop in his tracks.
He couldn’t even imagine what it must feel like for the two people in the black mist…
Wen Shi raised his hand as soon as he entered the mist.
The black mist was truly too dense when it congregated on one person, to the extent that Wen Shi couldn’t see anything at all.
As he closed his eyes, all of the puppet string wrapped around his fingers whipped forward with the force of ten thousand arrows—but the moment the threads touched Xie Wen, they softened.
The puppet string was linked closely to his spiritual consciousness; it was a nearly subconscious reaction.
The threads froze briefly before they proceeded to twine themselves meticulously around Xie Wen’s body. Like an instantaneously woven net, the string enveloped him fully.
Wen Shi had infused the puppet string with almost all of his spiritual energy. As a result, when the black mist surged towards Xie Wen, it was forcefully blocked by the tightly tangled threads.
Upon collision, a sharp clang rang out from the string.
Xie Wen’s voice sounded, a mere breath away.
It was pitched very low, and it was tinged with a bit of roughness. Although it seemed to carry a few notes of exhaustion—the type born from illness—his tone was still decisive and unyielding. “Leave.”
Rather than loosening, the puppet string curled even closer around him instead, stubbornly warding off the endless flow of malevolent energy.
Wen Shi’s eyes were closed, and his mouth was tightened into a thin line. After a long pause, he finally answered raspily, “No.”
It was merely a single word, yet it contained within it emotions that had been smothered for a thousand years.
And no matter how hard he tried to stifle those feelings, the person in front of him could always see through him immediately, leaving him with nowhere to hide.
Xie Wen seemed to decipher something from his voice, and he went silent for quite a while.
A moment later, Wen Shi felt a hand reach towards him and touch his face gently. Then, Xie Wen brushed his thumb against the corner of one of Wen Shi’s tightly closed eyes.
He heard Xie Wen let out a very soft sigh. The unyielding edge disappeared from his voice as he said quietly, “Don’t cry.”
Wen Shi’s brows were knitted firmly together, his lips pinched tight.
He worked his jaw a few times before he replied hoarsely, “I’m not.”
Once he grew older, he had never shed another tear. What’s more, he had drifted through the world for over a thousand years—he was hardly one to cry.
“Open your eyes, then.” Xie Wen’s thumb lingered in place. After he finished speaking, he lightly tapped the outer corner of Wen Shi’s eye a few times, a manner of coaxing flavored with deception.
During those countless days of the past, Xie Wen would often coax him in such a way. But this time, his voice lacked the teasing smile it usually contained; instead, it was filled with something rough-edged and sickly, turning it gentle and deep. Perhaps that was why his coaxing this time felt completely different from before.
Wen Shi’s jaw tightened, forming a line that was pulled sharp and taut.
He held out for a long time, but in the end, he finally opened his eyes…
They were lined in red.
Due to the puppet string’s temporary barricade, the black mist was no longer quite as concentrated as before, especially after undergoing repeated collisions against the string. They were no longer surrounded by an impenetrable and endless darkness, and they could make out the other person’s blurry silhouette, as if this was simply an extremely gloomy night.
“Why did you trick me with the Soul Cleansing Array?” Wen Shi’s voice was hoarse and heavy.
“Why didn’t you tell me that those things can’t be scoured clean?
“I should’ve been the one to bear everything that was inside of me. It didn’t have anything to do with you, so why did you undertake them for me?!”
Many years ago, this person in front of him had once teased him jokingly by saying that there was already enough snow on Mount Songyun; why did he seek out more trouble for himself by finding a snowman to safeguard their home? He also said: “If there ever comes a day when you can start a conversation on your own and speak more than two or three sentences at a time, each one containing no less than five words… I will permit you to remove the chains from your puppets.”
It all eventually ended up being permitted, whether it was supposed to be or not. Even so, Wen Shi never became the type of person who had a lot to say.
Yet the first time he finally did have something more to say, those were the words that came out of his mouth.
Xie Wen went quiet for a moment. Perhaps he was also remembering what he had said all those years ago. Then he spoke slowly: “How did it not have anything to do with me? It mattered. I was the one who raised you, after all.”
Wen Shi closed his eyes lightly.
The black mist rammed into his puppet string again and again. Because the string was connected extremely deeply to his soul, even the bones underneath his skin seemed to fester with pain.
But he couldn’t feel it at all. Instead, he was in the middle of tearing apart some other things to show to the person he cared most about…
“You knew why I was always using the Soul Cleansing Array.”
He was both expressionless and colorless, as if he was talking about someone and something else completely unrelated. But that was belied by his tense shoulders, curled fists, and reddened eyes, all of which revealed his hidden anguish.
He was tall and slim, and he stood perfectly straight, like a sword of ice. The blade, however, was directed only at himself. “You were at the other end of the array, so you must have known. If you knew everything, why didn’t you just force me to leave the mountain?”
If it weren’t for him—if he hadn’t scoured away his burdens and given them to the person in front of him time and time again…
Could the other person have avoided getting to the point where he had to be sealed away? Could he have avoided being ensnared in the judgment of the later generations—the judgment that lasted a millennium, the judgment that proclaimed he “met a miserable end” and was “forbidden from reincarnation”?
Could he have remained just as noble and benevolent as before; unsullied and clean, like an immortal visitor passing through the mountain in the gaps of time?
Just like the very first time they met, in front of a mountain of corpses and a sea of blood.
“You should’ve driven me out, and paid no heed to my fate.”
The joints of Wen Shi’s thread-bound fingers were bleached white with the amount of force he was pouring into them. He went silent for a few seconds before he spoke again. “Or you just shouldn’t have brought me to the mountain to begin with.”
Xie Wen suddenly averted his head and started coughing. As he turned back, his fingers were curled loosely into a fist that rested against the tip of his nose.
The black mist was accumulating more and more, amassing in greater and greater quantities. It had already far surpassed its original scale, and it continued to slam against Wen Shi’s puppet string. He could block the first or second collision, and he could even hold off the third or fourth.
But as the collisions increased in number, some things inevitably slipped by.
Like a boundless tide, everything that slipped through was siphoned by Xie Wen into his vessel.
Wen Shi’s expression changed abruptly, and he rushed to add more puppet string, wrapping it nonstop around Xie Wen.
But for some reason, the black mist wasn’t hindered by the puppet string this time. Instead, it passed right through the net woven from the string and cascaded endlessly towards Xie Wen.
Wen Shi had never used his puppetry techniques in such a state before.
He was practically the strongest puppet master in existence, and he possessed a pair of incredibly steady hands. But when he cast out his puppet string now, even his fingertips were trembling.
Several attempts at creating a successful obstruction failed. Blocking the black mist, which was in a normal state not too long ago, now felt like a hopeless endeavor, as if it was nothing more than a shadow.
“What’s going on?!” Wen Shi asked.
Where was Bu Ning?
Before he went in, he clearly told Bu Ning to stop the Soul Cleansing Array at once, so why was the array still running—and growing ever stranger at that?
At that exact moment, Bu Ning’s voice traveled through the black mist towards Wen Shi. It wasn’t clear how the other person accomplished it, but his voice wasn’t drowned out by the ghostly wailing, and Wen Shi could hear him crisply.
He said, “I cannot stop this array. All the array stones I throw are crushed into powder on the way there!”
If Bu Ning couldn’t even control an array that he himself had created, then there was only one explanation why.
Wen Shi’s head shot up, and he stared unwaveringly at Xie Wen’s face in the darkness. The smudge of red lining the edges of his eyes deepened in intensity. “You tampered with the array?!”
You planned this.
You planned to come here; you planned to draw this entire lake of black mist into yourself.
He suddenly remembered the round stones and dried branches that Xie Wen had been fiddling with before they entered the array…
As all the disciples once knew, this person only needed a single flower or stone to alter an array that had cost a teenage Bu Ning several days of hard work to create.
But because it had been too many years since Wen Shi last saw such a scene—he had grown careless.
Just as the realization dawned on him, countless silk-like objects enveloped his body.
Lowering his head blankly, he discovered that it was actually his own puppet string, except it was being wrapped around himself under the control of someone else.
He watched as Xie Wen spoke softly, fingers hooked around his puppet string. “I let you in here because I knew your imagination would be running wild. I had to let you ask your questions, and I also had to make something clear to you. The sealing had nothing to do with you. Even if I had undertaken everything from you, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have been able to control it. In the future…”
Xie Wen paused abruptly there.
The pause caused Wen Shi’s heart to plummet. Then, he heard the other person murmur, “In the future, don’t say those things anymore—those things that will only make you sad.”
Wen Shi saw Xie Wen lift his hand. He seemed like he was about to caress the outer corner of Wen Shi’s eye again.
But halfway there, his hand dropped slightly, and he brushed the corner of Wen Shi’s lips gently with his thumb instead.
By the time Wen Shi heard those last two words, he had been pushed out of the black mist completely.