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Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Why did Xie Wen say “in the future”?
Why would he suddenly bring up the future out of nowhere?
Amidst an all-encompassing emptiness, Wen Shi abruptly realized something…
This person was going to leave.
This was the person who brought him out of the mountain of corpses and sea of blood, who taught him all that he knew, who sent him off into the mundane world—and he was intending to leave.
Not too long ago, when they had first stepped onto the path going up Mount Songyun, he had thought to himself that he would rather walk behind this person, trailing after him at a distance of a single step; there was no need to get any closer. As long as the other person didn’t turn around, he would be able to gaze unwaveringly at his back and follow him for a long, long time…
For a lifetime.
But in the end, he wouldn’t even get the chance to do that.
Considering the other person’s current condition, if the Soul Cleansing Array wasn’t stopped, he would most likely die. He would disappear from this mortal realm, henceforth ceasing to have any connections or attachments, never to be heard from again…
And no matter how many times Wen Shi traversed the Gate of Oblivion, no matter how many reincarnation cycles he waited through, he would never find that person again.
The moment Wen Shi realized that, he had already turned to step off the stone platform.
Bu Ning’s fear-filled cry rang out behind him. “Shidi, you’ve gone mad!”
I went mad long ago.
Wen Shi thought to himself.
It began with the startling dream he had when he was nineteen years old, with all the times he stepped into the Soul Cleansing Array again and again. He had been mad for countless years now.
The Soul Cleansing Array was in Lake Qingxin, which had been changed beyond recognition, and the deluge of black mist was being extracted from that place in an unending stream. As Wen Shi jumped down, the round stones that Bu Ning was trying to modify the array with arced past him, a short distance ahead.
However, a second later, they were crushed into powder mid-air and vanished like smoke.
At that same moment, four giant puppets charged forward in unison, forging through the black mist in an attempt to carve a path through the haze for their master. But the black mist here was completely different from the black mist found in an ordinary cage. Not even those puppets could withstand it.
Almost in the blink of an eye, traces of corrosion appeared on their bodies, like yellow joss paper that had been set alight. Sparks flashed and flickered, burning from the edges into the center.
Puppets were capable of being impervious to pain, indifferent to death.
But since they were connected to the puppet master’s spiritual consciousness, everything they endured would be transmitted back to Wen Shi, without exception.
Yet Wen Shi seemed to be completely oblivious to it all.
His hand was already reaching into the mist, heading straight for the array stones forming the Soul Cleansing Array. That fiery, corrosive pain increased with every bit of distance he gained.
It felt as if someone was using a stone knife to saw away at his flesh and bones with all their might.
But so what?
At worst, he would just be turned to ashes.
The black mist had already consumed the flesh at the top part of his left hand, revealing parts of his finger bones. Even so, he had no intention of stopping.
He could only hear the wind, and he could only see the array stones.
A clear cry suddenly rang out from somewhere unknown, piercing straight through the vast sky and dense mist. Something akin to lightning cleaved through the concentrated layers of malevolent energy, like a sword gleaming with light.
Wen Shi’s stomach dropped when the golden blaze streaked past him.
That was the Golden-Winged Dapeng.
Light streamed from the Golden-Winged Dapeng’s enormous silhouette. Under the relentless grind of the black mist, sparks ignited at the edges of its wings, swiftly corroding inwards.
Covered in flowing flames, it slanted its wings as it covered Wen Shi from below.
Simultaneously, numerous strands of puppet string shot towards Wen Shi from behind and wrapped around his body in an instant.
He felt an inexorably powerful force wash over him, as unstoppable as a mountain or an ocean. Aided by the shock waves and gales created by the flaps of the Golden-Winged Dapeng’s wings, the force pulled him out of Lake Qingxin.
He was deposited safely back onto the stone platform. Strands of string were tangled in an interlaced web around him, though not particularly tightly. It seemed almost as if they would cascade to the ground with one gentle flick, yet he was rendered entirely immobile.
The other end of the puppet string was located in the seething, dragon-like black mist—it was connected to Xie Wen’s hands.
Apart from the instances in the past when Xie Wen would personally correct some of Wen Shi’s mistakes, this was Wen Shi’s first time seeing the other person use puppet string.
For puppet masters, string was actually a type of assistive tool that strengthened their ability to control puppets or other things. Puppet masters with stronger spiritual consciousnesses and calmer states of mind relied less and less on the string.
That was why Wen Shi wielded his string quite casually, without much formality.
That was why… the person at the top didn’t even use string at all.
Wen Shi had once asked him with utmost seriousness, “Under what kind of circumstances would you need to use puppet string?”
The other person pondered over his question briefly before he smiled and said, “Hard to say. However… should the day ever come when you see me wield puppet string, remember to keep your distance, or hide behind me.”
After retorting with a cold “I will not hide,” Wen Shi couldn’t help but ask, “Why would I have to hide?”
The other person said, “Because that will most likely be something very troublesome indeed.”
Now the day was actually upon them, and true to his word, he didn’t end up hiding—nor was he even able to.
When connected by puppet string, the puppet master’s spiritual consciousness was linked to the puppet’s. Thus, many puppets could sense their masters’ emotions. Everything that their master saw and felt, they could see and feel as well; they just couldn’t understand it very well by nature.
Wen Shi wasn’t a real puppet, so he could understand it.
But Xie Wen wasn’t an ordinary puppet master either. He was capable of shielding everything away, preventing other people from getting a single glimpse into his perspective.
Consequently, despite being bound by puppet string, all Wen Shi could see was the other person’s figure, shrouded in black mist. Xie Wen’s appearance had melded with that of his spiritual form: he wore white robes under a layer of red, and his complexion was so pale that it neared transparency. Lines of Sanskrit flowed down half his face, extending all the way to his heart; feathers and strands of beads dangled from his wrist.
As a result, the sickly aura surrounding him was permeated with something almost otherworldly in essence, something half-demonic and half-immortal.
Because of the puppet string, Wen Shi was completely immobilized.
He tried every method that he could think of, but he still couldn’t make the puppet string slacken in the slightest. It felt as if the other person had poured all of his spiritual energy into those scant few threads, purely for the sake of constraining him.
He stood there on the platform like a cold pine tree that still reached straight for the sky despite being on the verge of withering. Hanging at his side was his left hand, covered in blood. The dark red rivulets trickled downward and curled around his eerily white finger bones before accumulating in a puddle on the ground.
Yet he seemed to have forgotten that hand’s existence entirely.
His chapped, ashen lips parted slightly, and he swallowed once. “In the end, that troublesome thing was me.”
His throat was scorchingly dry, his voice trapped in the depths of it. He was almost unable to utter those words in full, but because of the connection from the puppet string, even if he hadn’t said a single thing, the other person would’ve still heard him.
That person’s gaze landed on Wen Shi’s lowered hand and exposed bones. Brows knitting together, he lifted his hand, as if he wanted to take Wen Shi’s hand gently into his own.
But Wen Shi only wanted to hide his hand behind his back.
It was such an exceedingly simple movement, yet he still couldn’t do it, even after exhausting all his efforts.
Then, he felt something mildly cool touch the back of his hand—a touch that was almost sorrowful in its tenderness.
Wen Shi closed his eyes, and his tightened lips trembled a little.
“Chen Budao.” He called the other person’s name hoarsely. “Release the string.”
“…I cannot.” The other person’s voice was still gentle as water, yet it brooked no argument.
Immediately after, he started coughing again.
Unlike before, when the coughing would subside shortly thereafter, the muffled coughs lasted for quite a while this time. Even though it was clearly rather quiet, every cough felt like a knife pressed against Wen Shi, stabbing bit by bit into his heart.
Wen Shi opened his eyes, gaze trained unwaveringly on that person. His eyes were so red that it seemed like blood could drip out of them at any second. His hand with the exposed bones was quivering almost imperceptibly; perhaps he had reached the height of madness, or perhaps he had simply reached the height of pain.
Then, almost obstinately, he said, “I was about to reach the array stones.
“It was just a little farther.”
Just a little farther, and he would’ve been able to reach those array stones.
Just a little farther, and he would’ve been able to halt the array.
Why did Chen Budao have to stop him?!
The other person coughed for a long time before he finally looked up. His fingers were still resting against his nose, but Wen Shi had already spotted the dark red staining his snow-white collar…
At that instant, lightning and thunder descended in unison over the summit of Mount Songyun.
Dragging the remnants of their bodies behind them, those four giant puppets seemed to enter a frenzy. Not even the wind created by the Golden-Winged Dapeng could hinder them.
Everything was shaking. As a result of the vehement act of resistance, gravel and grit filled the air, and countless trees flattened themselves in deep bows.
Unable to evade in time, Zhang Lan and the others were nearly blinded by the wind. When they turned their heads, they saw blood dripping from Wen Shi’s fingertips and the corners of his mouth.
Even Chen Budao’s puppet string almost couldn’t restrain him.
If it weren’t for the fact that he only possessed a fragment of his soul, he most likely would’ve already forcibly broken free by now.
“Let me go!” Wen Shi’s voice scattered in the wind.
Still separated by the black mist and the lengthy strands of puppet string, the other person lowered his eyes and gazed at Wen Shi for a long, long time.
The Soul Cleansing Array continued to churn away dutifully, and the turbulent black mist continued to surge into it. Wen Shi watched as that person grew paler and paler, more and more colorless, right before his eyes.
Blood slowly soaked through the white of his inner robe, causing it to fuse with the red of the outer robe. Eventually, it became impossible to tell if it was dyed in blood or if it was just the vibrant color of the outer robe.
Although he was standing in the same position as before, blood was already pooling in crimson trickles around his feet.
“Chen Budao!” Wen Shi called again.
The other person still didn’t respond.
“Xie Wen…” Wen Shi stared at him stubbornly with eyes that were red through and through, even as his voice dulled because of the raspiness permeating it.
Finally, in between violent coughs, the other person wiped away the blood smeared at the edge of his lips with the knuckle of his thumb.
It seemed like he wanted to say something, but Wen Shi spoke first.
“I’m very hungry right now,” Wen Shi said. “I can clear away all of this.”
A beat later, he added, “You’ve seen me do it.”
Xie Wen’s gaze suddenly softened. There was still some distance between them; perhaps that was why Wen Shi was almost given the illusion that Xie Wen’s eyes were filled with affection.
But it was most likely just a bit of compassionate pity—the same sort he had towards all things in the mortal realm.
Before Wen Shi could decipher the look in Xie Wen’s eyes, the other person said, “This is different from what you had in the past. What do you take yourself for.”
“Then what about you?” Wen Shi swallowed, tasting nothing but blood, and asked hoarsely, “What do you take yourself for?”
Only for Xie Wen to say, “I’m not the same.”
Wen Shi stood there stiffly. “In what way?”
The bottom of Xie Wen’s robes were drenched in blood, but he simply looked at Wen Shi. There was a long moment of silence before he finally said softly, “I’m already gone.”
Wen Shi’s mind went blank, and he couldn’t seem to understand what Xie Wen was saying. “You’re… what?”
A chill, however, was starting to seep through his body, as if someone had poured a bucket of ice shards over his head.
“I’m already gone,” Xie Wen repeated slowly.
He wasn’t originally intending to say any of this…
In fact, he had never intended to, nor did he have the heart to.
But a certain someone was being too stubborn, so much so that if he didn’t say something, the other person would most likely never be able to let go.
His tone of voice was still gentle even as those words came out of his mouth, yet Wen Shi felt as if he was being gutted by a knife upon hearing them.
It wasn’t the kind of stabbing that was direct and decisive. Instead, it was a blunted, relentless sawing that lacerated the depths of his heart with every stroke, flaying out pieces of flesh that dripped with blood.
“Impossible,” Wen Shi said lowly.
Xie Wen gazed down at the Sanskrit flowing over his heart and the beads strung around his wrist. “You couldn’t tell what these were before, but you should more or less be able to understand now—”
Wen Shi interrupted roughly. “I don’t believe it.”
“That sealing array is much larger than this one, and also much more formidable. I should’ve been gone a long time ago,” Xie Wen said.
“Then what are you right now?!” Wen Shi demanded.
“A puppet.” Xie Wen uttered.
Never once did Wen Shi think that that word would be capable of inducing so much panic and shock. It felt as if a heavy weight had slammed into him so ruthlessly that he nearly couldn’t stay standing.
“Many, many years ago…” An intensely sickly aura enveloped Xie Wen. He stood there ashen, alone, and covered in blood, like an immortal who was isolated and aloof from the world, but could also disappear into smoke at any second.
He coughed for a while again before he said huskily, “So long ago that I had yet to bring you to the mountain, back when I first started down this path… A coincidental chance encounter allowed me to see that there would be calamity in my fate a thousand years later, as well as a few troublesome situations that arose because of me. And so…”
Like a stream of water, the Sanskrit trailing down half of his face started circulating faster and faster, as if it was about to burst open and split apart at his heart.
“And so I left behind this puppet as a backup plan. That way, I could take care of a few things using this vessel,” Xie Wen said.
“What things.” Wen Shi asked, almost mechanically.
“Someone drew out some of the things contained within me, causing them to spread and become cage vortices. Too many people who weren’t supposed to become cages were affected and imprisoned, unable to be liberated…
“This place too… Zhong Si and Zhuang Ye. It was because of me that they ended up in this state. As their shifu, it’s only right that I come to wrap things up and clean up the mess.
As soon as those two words left his mouth, he started coughing again.
Afterwards, he never finished his sentence.
It was only at the very end of it all that he said, slowly and hoarsely, “Every puppet’s existence relies on a spiritual consciousness. By all rights, I shouldn’t even be here anymore. These are merely remnants, and they won’t last for much longer.”
He had spent two years traversing the mundane world and placing array stones near various cage vortices. Since he was no longer capable of undoing cages, he could only use arrays to guide those things back to where they were originally supposed to be—just as he was doing at that very instant.
The black mist appeared to be pouring into his vessel, but in reality, the vessel was being used as a means to return the mist to the location of the seal. From that point on, he could lock them there with his soul, before personally escorting them back to stillness.
To tell the truth, what Wen Shi said earlier wasn’t completely accurate. Those things could actually vanish into thin air; someone just had to pay the corresponding price for it, that was all.
He had lived long enough.
In fact, he should’ve dissipated alongside those things—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—the moment he was sealed away a thousand years ago.
Even the sealing array was nowhere to be found, yet for some unknown reason… he had lingered around to this day.
It was about time.
The Soul Cleansing Array suddenly began to whirl faster and faster, and the black mist rushed towards Xie Wen with overwhelming momentum. With a piercing cry, the Golden-Winged Dapeng also disappeared into the black mist.
The dried-up bed of Lake Qingxin was faintly visible…
It was overgrown with vegetation and intertwined branches.
Underneath a tangled net of withered branches, two deathly pale souls slumbered quietly.
Everything seemed to happen at once—
The moment Zhong Si and Zhuang Ye were revealed, the Soul Cleansing Array came to a noiseless halt amidst an immense vortex of wind.
As Xie Wen took in the last of the black mist, the vegetation around him swiftly started drying up and shriveling. In the blink of an eye, everything had wilted.
Behind him, the Golden-Winged Dapeng drew in its wings, like a devoted retainer who was there to keep him company until the very end.
He was still holding the puppet string, but that incredibly overpowering force had already dispersed. As soon as the restraints slackened, Wen Shi fell to his knees.
Even though he wasn’t heavily injured, unbearable pain radiated through him.
Everywhere that his blood flowed—every bone, every bit of skin and flesh—was submerged in immutable, relentless agony.
Once upon a time, someone had taught him the following. He said: Being a panguan is an arduous line of work, in which you must bear witness to much misery and hardship. With time, you’ll come to learn that most of it stems from a reluctance to bid farewell. Once you understand this, you’ll have entered the world of mortals.
In his lifetime, Wen Shi had sent off countless people, and he had witnessed countless farewells.
But it was only after he experienced it for himself that he came to know just how painful that reluctance could be…
However, that person was still mistaken about something.
In reality, Wen Shi had long since entered the world of mortals.
It was just that the person who sent him there had always stood outside of it, that was all…
As Wen Shi curled his fingers into tight fists, the ghastly white bones of his left hand clawed grooves of bloody mud into the ground. But when he forced himself upright, wanting to make his way over to that person, he discovered that there had been a change in his surroundings.
The mountain was still Mount Songyun, and the stone platform was also still the same as before. However, there were quite a few unexpected figures nearby.
They were all… him.
Different versions of him.
Wen Shi froze in place, stunned and dripping blood, in an environment that was both familiar and foreign—and stared blankly at those figures.
A long time passed. Then, his fingers twitched slightly because of something that was attached to them. Upon lowering his head, he saw the interlaced puppet string that was still tangled around him—the string that came from the person outside the world of mortals.
All of a sudden, he understood how those figures came to be.
When connected by puppet string, the puppet master’s spiritual consciousness was linked to the puppet’s.
That person was now extremely weak, and he could no longer shield those points of connection. As a result, Wen Shi saw the world through Xie Wen’s eyes…
Those were phantasms, plentiful enough to render someone incapable of differentiating between reality and illusion.
Those were heart demons that had never once been dispelled since the moment they first appeared…
Yan: If you remember, even Wen Shi dispelled his heart demons of Xie Wen, because it’s dangerous not to. But Xie Wen could never bring himself to dispel his own ;-;
A quick, important explanation on the themes in this chapter: I left 红尘 as “world of mortals” b/c it was easier that way for the TL, but it has a more metaphorical meaning here – think worldly love, hate, attachments. Everything that makes you “human,” everything that you’re not supposed to have if you want to reach the highest levels of cultivation (asceticism). Essentially, WS has already accepted that he has something binding him to this life, something he can’t bear to let go of, whereas XW seemingly has not (cannot).
This chapter makes me cry every time :’)) Hopefully I managed to convey the same emotions in the TL! Next chapter is one of the most pivotal chapters in PG :> (and yes… XW really was a puppet this whole time.)