The First Arc: Blood Rain Reaching Towards a Flower
Chapter 21 (II): A Thousand Miles in a Step, Lost Within a Sandstorm
Xie Lian lifted his head and said, “I said, what’s written at the very top of this slate is the word ‘General’.” He paused before continuing, “There’s another character written after ‘General’. However, I’m not too certain as to what this last character means.”
Nan Feng seemed to have let out a breath before he said, “Continue to examine them then.”
The moment Xie Lian nodded his head, Nan Feng held up that ball of Palm Flame. Once again, his hand slightly shifted forward. But with this adjustment, Xie Lian suddenly felt that there was something off. In his peripheral vision, there seemed to be something that hadn’t been there before.
Xie Lian pressed both of his hands on the slate full of engraved characters, before he slowly raised his head.
Only to see, amidst the darkness and suprajacent to the slate, a rigid human face illuminated by the faint light of the flame. This face, with both eyeballs looking downwards, was currently staring straight at him.
The one who screamed wasn’t them, but the rigid human face.
Another Palm Flame became lit in Nan Feng’s other hand. Then, the flames upon both of his palms abruptly leapt upwards, reaching great heights. This finally illuminated the interior of the cave in its entirety.
Just now, what the light of the flame had revealed was someone who had always been hidden away in the dark. At this moment, they frantically crawled away to one side in retreat, withdrawing to the very edges of the depths in the cave. Unexpectedly, there was already a group of seven or eight people there, all huddled together in a group, trembling.
Nan Feng shouted loudly, “Who are you people?!”
The shout reverberated throughout the cave, making the entire place vibrate. Both of Xie Lian’s ears were already faintly pained from the ringing caused by the scream earlier. At this point, he had no choice but to cover his ears.
The sandstorm from before had been too strong, and the noise pollution had smothered their ears. Now, they struggled to hear each other even when they spoke at a volume just slightly lower than usual. In addition, after entering the cave, they had begun their heated discussion on the topic of the Ban Yue Grand Tutor. Later, they became very focused on deciphering the text on the stone slate. As a result, they did not sense there were other people hiding in the cave the entire time, people who hadn’t made a single noise.
The seven or eight people were all shivering. After quite a while, an old man around fifty years or so in age spoke up, “We are a group of ordinary merchants passing through this area. The sandstorm was too strong and we couldn’t keep going, so we ended up taking shelter here.”
Within the group of people, he appeared to be the most composed and seemed to be their leader. Nan Feng then said, “As ordinary merchants just passing by, why were you all acting so furtive and hid yourselves here?”
That old man was just about to say something when the young man, who looked about seventeen or eighteen years old, standing beside him loudly exclaimed, “We originally weren’t acting in a furtive manner, until you guys suddenly burst inside. Who knew if you guys were good or bad? Afterwards, we faintly heard you mention something about a Ban Yue Grand Tutor and something about a Ghost Realm. Your palm was also able to light fire from thin air! We all thought you guys were those Ban Yue soldiers who had come out to patrol and to catch people to eat. How could we have dared to make a sound?”
The old man appeared to be afraid that this young man’s words came off as too provoking and would anger the other party. He said, ”TianSheng, stop speaking nonsense.”
That young man had thick eyebrows and large eyes, and was born with a strong and dignified appearance. When he got told off by his elder, he immediately stopped talking. Xie Lian’s ears had finally stopped hurting, so he put down his hands. In an amicable manner, he said, “A misunderstanding, this is a misunderstanding. Everyone, there’s no need to be nervous. You can all relax a bit.”
After pausing for a moment, he continued, “We’re naturally not some Ban Yue soldiers. My humble self is the master of a monastery, and my companions are.…..people from my monastery. They study the arts of divination. You are all ordinary merchants, but we’re just ordinary Taoists. We mean no harm. Similarly, we wanted shelter from the wind, and just happened to enter the same cave. That’s all.”
His tone was warm and gentle, while his way of speech was slow. Hence, he was able to reassure everyone’s emotions. After repeatedly explaining and making guarantees, the expressions of the group of merchants finally eased.
But who would have thought that San Lang would suddenly laugh before saying, “How? From what I see, these merchants can’t be ordinary people. They’re just being modest.”
Puzzled, everyone glanced in his direction. San Lang continued, “When it comes to Ban Yue Pass, was it not ‘With every passing, half the party goes missing’? Despite being fully aware of this rumour, you still dared to pass through here. This can be considered as being rather courageous. How can you depict them as ordinary?”
Having heard this, that old man replied, “Young man, that is not always the case. In reality, rumours tend to be exaggerated, and there have been many merchants who passed through here in peace.”
San Lang said, “Oh?”
The old man said, “It’s fine as long as you find the right person to lead the way, and don’t end up accidentally straying into the former Ban Yue Kingdom’s territory. Thus, this time, to pass through here, we specifically found a local to lead the way.”
The young man named TianSheng said, “That’s right! It all depends on the leader. Us getting to this point is all thanks to A1-Zhao ge2. He helped us avoid so many quicksands. In addition, he had seen the wind pick up earlier and immediately took us to find a shelter. Otherwise, we might have been buried alive by all the sand by now.”
Xie Lian took a look. The one named A-Zhao, who had led their group, looked extremely young. He looked to be in his twenties, and was born with a sincere, honest and handsome face.
Appearing to be someone who was quiet and slow to speak, he didn’t react much when everyone praised him and only spoke in a stuffy tone, “This is nothing, it’s all part of my responsibilities. I hope that when the wind dies down, everyone’s camels and goods will also remain unscathed.”
“They’ll definitely be alright!”
These merchants’ attitudes seemed very optimistic. Yet, Xie Lian couldn’t help but feel that things weren’t as simple as what they had thought.
‘If one doesn’t stray into the territory of Ban Yue Kingdom, then there would be no problems.’ If that was the case, did the ‘half the party goes missing’ caravans in the past all refer to the people who didn’t believe this demonic ruse and were determined to send themselves off to die?
He thought for a bit, before he whispered to Nan Feng and Fu Yao, “This situation occurred quite suddenly. However, when the sandstorm passes, let’s first ensure that these people leave safely before we head on over to the former territories of Ban Yue to investigate.”
Then, Xie Lian once again lowered his head and continued examining the engraved words on the stone slate. He had previously recognized the characters for ‘General’, but that was only because this word could be considered as one commonly used. However, his stay in Ban Yue Kingdom was an event that happened two hundred years ago. Even if he had been fluent in the language back then, after two hundred years, everything would have been completely forgotten. Now, having to suddenly pick it up again, he truly required some time and patience. At this moment, San Lang, who was standing beside him, said, “General’s mound.”
As soon as he said this, Xie Lian remembered. This last character, did it not have the meaning of mound, grave or tomb?
Turning his head, Xie Lian asked in surprise, “San Lang, could it be that you also understand the ancient text of Ban Yue?”
San Lang chuckled and said, “Not much. It was just a hobby, so I only know a few words.”
Xie Lian was already used to him replying this way. Ban Yue texts were quite limited, and those who understood it were hard to come by. The word ‘mound’ wasn’t a commonly used word either. If it was truly as San Lang claimed and he only ‘knew a few words’, then how could it coincidentally be precisely this word? He said, ‘not much’, but Xie Lian was afraid that the meaning of his words was more equivalent to ‘ask as much as you like, it won’t intimidate me’.
Immediately, Xie Lian replied with a smile. “This is very good. Maybe the few words you know are the ones I don’t know. Come here, let’s look at this together.”
He gently beckoned him, so San Lang went over. Nan Feng and Fu Yao stood to the side while holding up their Palm Flames to illuminate the area for them. Xie Lian’s finger slowly brushed over each character on the tombstone. Together with San Lang, they discussed in hushed voices as they quietly continued reading. As they read along, their gazes grew more and more peculiar by the second, until they finally turned solemn.
The young man named TianSheng from the group of merchants was relatively young, and young people were always full of curiosity. Moreover, having previously exchanged a few lines with the other party, he had henceforth considered them to be familiar with each other. Thus, TianSheng asked, “Fellow big brothers, what exactly is written on this tombstone?”
Xie Lian came back to his senses and replied, “This slate is a monument, and what’s written on this monument is a General’s life story.”
TianSheng said, “Is he a General from the Ban Yue Kingdom?”
San Lang replied, “No, he’s a General from the Central Plains.”
Suspicious, Nan Feng responded, “A General from the Central Plains? Then, why would the people of the Ban Yue Kingdom give him a proper mound? Aren’t the two kingdoms constantly at war with one another?”
San Lang said, “This particular General was very peculiar. Although the slate called him a General, in reality, he was merely a famous little military officer.”
“Then, was he promoted to a General afterwards?”
“Not at all. In fact, he began commanding a hundred people. Afterwards, he led seventy people, and then after that, he only led fifty people.”
“In short, he kept getting demoted.”
To be demoted again and again, to the point one couldn’t be demoted any further…… this kind of experience honestly felt too familiar. Xie Lian felt two gazes collectively fall on his body, but he pretended not to notice and continued reading the text on the stone slate. At this moment, he heard TianSheng ask with incomprehension, “How can there be an official who becomes lower and lower ranked? As long as you don’t make any big blunders, even if you don’t get promoted, you also wouldn’t get demoted. How much do you have to fail to get to this point?”
Tightening his right hand into a fist, Xie Lian lifted it to the front of his mouth and gently coughed. Then, he seriously said, “Young friend, an officer who continues to get demoted isn’t something uncommon.”
San Lang laughed and said, “That’s right, it’s quite common.”
After a pause, he continued, “The reason why this particular military official kept getting demoted wasn’t because he was incompetent and unsuited for his duties, but because the relationship between the two kingdoms was very bad. Yet, when he was on the battlefield, not only did he not bring back any achievements, he also repeatedly became a hindrance.”
Nan Feng said, “What do you mean by a hindrance?”
San Lang replied, “Not only did he try to stop the Ban Yue soldiers from killing the innocent people from his own country, he also stopped his own soldiers from killing the innocents of Ban Yue Kingdom. Every time he acts to stop innocents from being slaughtered, he gets demoted once.”
His laid-back manner made the seven or eight merchants slowly huddle together, as if they were listening to him tell a story. They seemed fairly invested, and they also expressed their opinions as they listened on. TianSheng said, “I feel like this military official isn’t wrong. It’s what it is when soldiers fight each other in battle. But for not letting them randomly kill innocents, isn’t this okay?”
“Although this is something foolishly kind for a soldier of his kingdom and not exactly suitable, in general, there’s nothing wrong.”
“Yeah. After all, he’s saving people, not harming them.”
Xie Lian heard this and faintly smiled.
The group of merchants in front of him were neither the people living at the border, nor were they the people from two hundred years ago. Nowadays, since Ban Yue kingdom had already been annihilated, people would naturally play down the matter when they mentioned it. They would be compassionate, and even give a few words of praise. And even if one didn’t agree with something that had happened, they would probably understand why it had been done.
But when it had been a hundred years ago, with both sides up in the flames of war and when hatred took no breaks, the consequences of the aforementioned behaviour would definitely not be lightly evaluated as being ‘foolishly kind’.
Within the group, only A-Zhao was a local. It was probably because of this that he was able to understand it better. He said, “Nowadays is nowadays, two hundred years ago was two hundred years ago. The fact that this military official merely got demoted already meant he was very lucky.”
Fu Yao only sneered before saying, “How ridiculous.”
Xie Lian could pretty much guess what he was about to say. Thus, he gently massaged the space between his eyebrows.
Sure enough, under the flame that illuminated Fu Yao’s gloomy appearance, he said, “Someone in his position should seek to do his duty. Since this person became a soldier, he should always remember to defend his own kingdom. When dauntlessly fighting enemies on the front line and with two kingdoms at war, it’s inevitable to kill. Being this soft-hearted would only cause his comrades to loathe him. Moreover, enemy soldiers would find him comical and ridiculous. There wouldn’t be anyone who would feel grateful.”
His words were also very reasonable, and so the cave fell silent. Then, Fu Yao said in a faint tone, “In the very end, there’s only one ending for people like that——death. And most likely, it would be at the hands of his own people.”
Having remained quiet for some time, Xie Lian broke the silence and said, “Yes, you’re quite right. He died.”