Chapter 145: Traces (1)
"Come up," Chen Ping'an said from the top of the well.
"No," Cui Chan replied with a shake of his head from the bottom of the well.
Chen Ping'an's voice was calm as he said, "Let's have a good chat and speak some?reason first. We won't throw hands straight away. In any case, I have nothing but a bit of brute strength, so could I defeat you, Cui Dongshan, in a fight?"
"I refuse!" the young Cui Chan insisted as he shook his head in earnest.
"Why?" Chen Ping'an asked with a frown.
"I'm afraid of the heat, and it's cooler down at the bottom of the well," Cui Chan replied loudly.
Chen Ping'an took a deep breath before standing up. He started to slowly pace around the old well.
Cui Chan's voice quickly traveled over from the bottom of the well again, saying, "Chen Ping'an, stop pretending already. Even though you don't acknowledge me as your disciple, I acknowledge?you as my master! So I can neither attack you nor do I dare to kill you. If you insist on throwing hands, then I'll definitely be the one who suffers the most. Also, your killing intent has almost filled up the entire well already! If I still go up to face a beating, then am I stupid or what?"
The young imperial preceptor chuckled as he spoke. As he stood in the gently rippling water, he reached over and ran his fingers along the wall of the old well. It was filled with dark green moss that was smooth and cold to the touch.
Even though his tone was calm, his mind was feeling nowhere near as relaxed. In fact, this was even more draining on his mind and taxing on his body than pretending to be a supremely powerful cultivator in the Great Water Palace.
This was because traveling through the groundwater?to the well, Cui Chan had finally realized for the very first time that the young boy Chen Ping'an could genuinely threaten his life. Even though Cui Chan was unsure of what kind of frightening technique Chen Ping'an was concealing, his intuition had always been very accurate.
Chen Ping'an was walking in circles, yet he was unwilling to beat around the bush and go around in circles with the person at the bottom of the well. "Did you and County Magistrate Wu Yuan secretly tamper with those maps from the county magistrate's?office?" he asked directly.
"Sorry? What? I can't hear you! Chen Ping'an, what did you say just then? I can't hear you properly from down here!" Cui Chan shouted.
Chen Ping'an nodded and said, "Then that's a yes."
"Huh? What kind of logic is this?" Cui Chan instantly shouted in panic.
"I'm going to ask you a single question," Chen Ping'an said. "Are you going to harm Li Baoping and the others?"
Cui Chan didn't directly answer this question. Instead, he countered, "Will you believe my answer?"
"No," Chen Ping'an replied without any hesitation.
Cui Chan stomped his feet in anger and spat, "Then why the hell are you asking?!"
Chen Ping'an didn't say anything else.
Cui Chan pricked his ears up and listened carefully, yet he still didn't hear anything after a long while. He instantly became panicked. An aggrieved feeling welled up in his mind, and a solemn and tragic expression appeared on his face.
Fucking hell, this is truly a case of a tiger being bullied when out of its habitat. If we were both at the Great Water Palace, would you, Chen Ping'an, dare to act so arrogantly toward anyone there? Would you dare to act so arrogantly toward even the weakest ant in that place?
However, it was a pity that Cui Chan was in a hugely disadvantageous position where he had no option but to yield. He hurriedly craned his neck and yelled, "Chen Ping'an, Young Master Chen, Brother Chen, Lord Chen, Ancestor Chen! You stubbornly refuse to become my master, and so be it if you refuse. But there's no animosity between us, nor are there any grievances, so can you stop acting in such an unreasonable manner? Even if there's no master-disciple bond between us, we can at least show some mutual respect as fellow cultivators, right?!"
He finally managed to elicit a response from Chen Ping'an, who said, "I promised Mr. Qi that I would keep them safe and bring them to the academy in Great Sui Nation."
The young boy in white at the bottom of the well fell completely silent.
The young boy in straw sandals standing beside the well also fell silent.
Chen Ping'an had never trusted Cui Chan, and he had remained extremely guarded against him the entire time.
Cui Chan had been harboring ulterior motives since the very beginning, and there was absolutely no doubt about this. Even a blind fool would have been able to realize this.
Take, for example, their choice to stay in the Autumn Reed Inn. Cui Chan had used the city god temple as an excuse to mention the Autumn Reed Inn. His words had appeared sincere and well-intentioned, yet he had actually been using Lin Shouyi's cultivation as bait the entire time. Indeed, he had manipulated the situation such that Chen Ping'an would actively ask to search for the old address of the city god temple.
After exiting Yefu Pass, their journey to this inn had been far too smooth compared to their bumpy journey from before. Lin Shouyi had calmly cultivated the entire time, while Li Huai was nothing more than a little child who was always up to no good. Even though Li Baoping didn't say anything, the little girl had definitely been hurt by Zhu He and Zhu Lu's actions.
Moreover, Li Baoping was the one who most lived up to their purpose of 'journeying and seeking knowledge with books on their back'. She would often ponder some strange and peculiar questions. Compared to Lin Shouyi who was already a Qi refiner and Li Huai who possessed immense talent, Li Baoping was also the one who was most willing to face hardships on this journey to seek knowledge.
As for Xie Xie and Yu Lu, these were people who Cui Chan had introduced into the group. Thus, they had to be considered separately.
Even though Chen Ping'an was always busier than everyone else — he was responsible for their food and shelter —he would still continue to practice walking meditation while on the road. When he had spare time, he would also practice standing meditation to nurture his body and patch up any shortcomings.
However, there was one thing that Chen Ping'an would never forget. That was, his?duty to protect Li Baoping and the others and bring them to the academy in Great Sui Nation. Regardless of whether it was during the battle against pythons in Go Table Mountain, the perilous threat of assassination in Red Candle Town's Pillow Relay Station, falling into the deadly trap of Lady Chu, or their journey through mountains and rivers in Yellow Court Nation, this was a duty that he had never forgotten.
Standing under the pavilion, Lin Shouyi had given Chen Ping'an a warning before leaving. He had warned Chen Ping'an that Cui Dongshan was seeking to obtain a matter from him, one that wasn't necessarily a physical object. Perhaps Cui Dongshan was seeking a large and abstract matter that pertained to the Great Dao of cultivators.
Li Baoping had also once mentioned in passing that Cui Dongshan was extremely skilled at Go. She and Lin Shouyi could plan a few steps ahead, yet Cui Dongshan's calculations were far more profound and far-sighted. In fact, it was so far-sighted that she, Lin Shouyi, Xie Xie, and Yu Lu were completely unable to fathom it. When Cui Dongshan played against them, it was very likely that he was already pondering the middle of the game while only placing the first piece. In fact, it was possible that he was already pondering the end game.
After Lin Shouyi left, Chen Ping'an had stared at the old well and felt like the knot in his heart had become even tighter and harder to undo.
As Chen Ping'an mulled over this, not only did his thoughts not become clearer, but they instead became even more muddled and convoluted. In the end, he had no option but to abandon his thoughts about these complex matters first. He would start his analysis from the very beginning.
For example, from his time in the small town, his home town.
Or from the time of their first encounter.
As he pondered this, Chen Ping'an suddenly thought of an outsider, County Magistrate Wu Yuan.
Where there was a county magistrate, there would naturally be a county magistrate's?office. Indeed, the true origin of the stack of large and small maps that he carried with him was this county magistrate's?office and not Ruan Xiu’s.
Chen Ping'an returned to his room and started to lay the maps out. He studied them for two entire hours.
Even so, he was still unable to uncover the truth. However, he could vaguely make out a trace.
Combining the traces on the different maps, it would add up to a length of approximately three meters.
It was only three meters on the map, yet Chen Ping'an and the others had spent a huge amount of time and faced many hardships to cover this seemingly short distance.
Cui Chan raised his hands and said, "Okay, I'm scared of you, I give in, alright? Can I swear to the heavens? I promise that I, Cui Dongshan, won't hurt the three bratty kids, Li Baoping, Li Huai, and Lin Shouyi!"
Chen Ping'an hesitated for a moment before continuing, "Are you being genuine?"
Cui Chan patted his chest so hard that even Chen Ping'an could hear it from the top of the well. "Believe me this one time!"
Right at this moment, a crisp and delighted voice traveled over from the distance. "Junior Uncle! Sure enough, you're over here!"
A little girl wearing a red jacket rapidly charged over from the distance and sprinted toward the pavilion with a whoosh. With a leap, she soared through the air where she furiously swung her arms. She then landed in front of the pavilion with a thud, with her body swaying back and forth. After she regained her balance, she continued to sprint toward the old well which was still a short distance away.
Chen Ping'an was slightly dumbfounded, and he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. However, he felt like this was something that he would eventually become accustomed to. He hurriedly walked over and asked, "What's wrong? Can't fall asleep?"
Li Baoping immediately feigned a demeanor of maturity and sighed, "That Xie Xie snores way too loudly when she sleeps."
Chen Ping'an smiled and remained silent.
Li Baoping immediately became honest and said, "Alright, I admit that she doesn't snore when she sleeps. I was woken up by my own nightmare."
Chen Ping'an turned around and shot a glance at the well before retracting his gaze and asking with a smile, "What nightmare?"
Li Baoping shook her head and replied, "Ever since I was little, I would dream almost every single day. However, I can never remember the contents of my dreams. I can only vaguely remember whether it's a good dream or a bad dream."
Chen Ping'an pulled her over to the pavilion to sit down.
Li Baoping continued to speak non-stop, saying, "Junior Uncle, we've already traveled for almost half a year after leaving the small town. According to the maps, we're already more than halfway to our destination. Time truly flies! It flies even quicker than I can run, right?
"Sigh, it would have been great if Great Sui Nation were located at the southernmost region of our Eastern Treasured Vial Continent. That way, I could have witnessed the sea with Junior Uncle.
"Junior Uncle, the Iron Talisman River and the Embroidered Flower River are already so large and so full of water, so just how large and how full of water is the sea? I heard Big Brother say that there's an Old Dragon City there, and if we look south from its city walls, we'll be able to see waves that soar dozens of meters high. Doesn't that sound terrifying?"
Chen Ping'an smiled and replied, "We'll definitely go through many pairs of straw sandals if we want to travel somewhere so far away. However, our current destination is the academy in Great Sui Nation. I've heard that there will be far fewer mountains once we enter the territory of Great Sui Nation. At that time, you guys won't need to wear these straw sandals anymore. You can buy some more comfortable boots."
Li Baoping glanced down at her thick and sturdy straw sandals before looking up and saying with a grin, "Then I'll buy the same boots as Junior Uncle. I'll simply choose a smaller size. Let's make a promise."
"What, you're afraid that I'll embarrass?you guys if I don't wear boots and continue to wear these straw sandals?" Chen Ping'an teased.
Li Baoping's eyes widened in astonishment, and she exclaimed, "Wow! Junior Uncle, you know how to crack jokes now?"
Chen Ping'an faltered upon hearing this.
Li Baoping swung her feet as she sat on the bench. Looking up, she suddenly discovered a string of small wind chimes hanging from the eaves.
"Junior Uncle, I always feel like our teacher is thinking of us," she said from out of nowhere.
Chen Ping'an nodded in response.
The little girl shut her eyes and rested her head on the red pillar of the pavilion. She listened to the crisp tinkling of the wind chimes.
It was as if the last wisp of spring wind in the world were gently pushing the wind chimes hanging from the eaves.
Ding ding, ding dong, ding ding dong.
Li Baoping waited for a long time, yet the wind chimes didn't tinkle again. She leaped up from the bench and sprinted away from the pavilion. As she did so, she didn't forget to turn around and wave her hand, shouting, "Junior Uncle, I'm going back to sleep now!"
Chen Ping'an smiled and waved goodbye. He then returned to the old well.
Cui Chan stayed put the entire time, neither leaving the well from the bottom nor climbing up to the top.
There was an undulating mountain range in the west of Dragon Spring County, and one of the mountains in this range was Downtrodden Mountain. Right now, it was County Magistrate Wu Yuan's most trusted subordinate, Fu Yu, who was overseeing the construction of the mountain god temple on Downtrodden Mountain. In fact, Wu Yuan had sent him here because Fu Yu had gotten into an argument with outsiders in the county city not long ago. Wu Yuan wanted to avoid extra trouble during this important time, so he had sent Fu Yu over to lay low for a while.
Late one night, when the moon was bright and the stars were few, the young man from the capital who had been born into a powerful clan but ended up as a petty official walked alone by himself through the mountain paths. He came to a stop when he saw the strange person who was erecting bamboo buildings on?Downtrodden Mountain.
When that person saw Fu Yu, he smiled and asked, "Shouldn't Imperial Preceptor Cui's disciple, the esteemed County Magistrate Wu Yuan, be the one looking for me?"
Fu Yu's expression was calm and indifferent as he frankly explained, "Wu Yuan is a chess piece that Her Majesty planted beside the imperial preceptor. Meanwhile, I'm the chess piece that the imperial preceptor planted next to the county magistrate."
A handsome appearance, a noble demeanor, a cold expression, and an aloof manner of speech — this was in stark contrast to Fu Yu's gentle and graceful demeanor in the county magistrate's?office.
Fu Yu extended?a hand and held his palm outstretched after revealing this huge secret.
The other person retrieved the black Go piece from Fu Yu's palm and gestured for him to take a seat on a nearby bamboo chair. There was a beaming smile on his face as he said, "I understand. So one of us is asking for an exorbitant price, while one of us is attempting to get a ripping bargain. Standing in the gentle breeze under the bright moon, the two of us are going to shamelessly pursue selfish benefits?"
Fu Yu nodded as he looked at the man who was once the formal god of the Divine Water Nation's Northern Mountain. He wasn't angered by Wei Bo's words of ridicule, and his expression remained calm as he sat down on the small bamboo chair. He turned around to glance at the bamboo building that was yet to reach completion. The bamboo building wasn't big, yet it?was still less than half built even after such a long time.
This was because Wei Bo hadn't hired any of the strong young men from the small town. He wasn't willing to contact the county magistrate office of Dragon Spring County to borrow the prisoners from the Lu Clan either. Instead, he had chosen to do everything by himself.
Right now, only Downtrodden Mountain and a few other mountains were still open to the public. Woodsmen and residents from the small town could still enter Downtrodden Mountain to cut firewood. Meanwhile, the other mountains were all busy building large residences under the guidance of all kinds of gods and immortals. Plumes of dust would rise from these mountains every day.
It was rumored that there existed an incredibly deep cliff cave in Downtrodden Mountain. Near this cave, one would be able to see huge ditches that had been created by a humongous and heavy body. According to the subordinate officials and residents of the small town responsible for building the mountain god temple in Downtrodden Mountain, many of them had seen a black python whose body was as thick as a well before. This black python would often slither over to the creek for a drink, and it would neither retreat in fright nor attack in a frenzy when it saw them. Instead, it would calmly slither away after drinking its fill.
Wei Bo had crafted an exquisite and elegant bamboo fan for himself, and he was lightly fanning it back and forth as he sat cross-legged on a bamboo chair.
There had almost been no scorching hot days this summer, and autumn was already right around the corner. This was something that surprised many people.
Just like how the little girl in red from Fortune Street liked to play hopscotch using the squares she had drawn on the floor with charcoal, it was as if the seasons had directly hopped from spring to autumn.
Fu Yu hesitated for a moment before changing the topic and saying, "Even though we belong to different camps, I have to say that Lord Wu is a good person who will also make a good official in the future."
Wei Bo had a dismissive expression as he smiled and remarked, "Then he'll need to stay alive first."
Fu Yu's expression became grim.
Wei Bo purposely ignored this, and he lightly waved his bamboo fan. The mountain wind softly brushed over him, causing his sideburns to gently flutter in the air. He truly appeared even more divine than a god.
Wei Bo's voice was lazy as he continued, "There's not much else that I can offer you at this moment. Why don't you tell me what I can expect in return first?"
Fu Yu took a deep breath before replying, "You can become the formal god of the Great Li Empire's Northern Mountain!"
Wei Bo's expression remained relaxed as he smiled faintly and said, "If I remember correctly, the formal god of the Northern Mountain was uninjured after that huge battle. The emperor of the Great Li Empire isn't going to strip such an important person of their godly status in such a casual manner, is he?"
Fu Yu lowered his voice and replied, "The emperor suggested promoting Cloud Drape Mountain to the Northern Mountain of the Great Li Empire before, but this was put on hold after a while. However, there have been some new developments recently, and the emperor has decided to make bold moves in this area."
"For real?" Wei Bo asked.
"For real," Fu Yu replied with a nod.
"Is this not a bit rushed?" Wei Bo asked with an amused smile. "To say nothing of Great Sui Nation, the Great Li Empire hasn't even managed to conquer Yellow Court Nation yet. Yet, you're already planning to place the Northern Mountain in the southernmost region of the empire?"
Fu Yu chose to stay silent, keeping his mouth tightly shut and resolutely refusing to recklessly comment on the emperor's decisions.
Wei Bo put his bamboo fan away and contemplated this for a long time. In the end, he said with emotion, "The Great Li Empire has truly put an irresistible?offer before me..."
He stood up and used his bamboo folding fan to tap his palm. He then turned around to glance at the bamboo building.
"Haha, your emperor truly has a good eye. I, Wei Bo, am someone who survived A'Liang's attack and am still able to jump around in full health. As such, I'm naturally more than qualified to become the formal god of the Northern Mountain."
In the end, he looked at Fu Yu with squinted eyes and said, "Alright, you can spit it out now. Tell me what you want me to do."
At this moment...
Wei Bo was no longer the white-haired mountain lord who had appeared before Chen Ping'an and the others on the stone plateau in Go Table Mountain.
Nor was he the handsome young man who had carried the delicate yellow ebony box in his hands.
He wasn't the pitiful person who had brushed past that young girl on the mountain path either.
Fu Yu was feeling slightly nervous at this moment.
This was because the man before him would very likely become the most powerful formal god in Eastern Treasured Vial Continent in the future — the formal god of the Northern Mountain. Not one of the most powerful, but the most powerful.