Chapter 290: This Life
Two years later, Meng Hao was thirty-five years old. It had been nine years since he left home. However, during that entire time, he had only lived in two places, the river and the forest.
This year, he ran into a gang of bandits.
Bandits are generally killers, but they didn’t kill Meng Hao. Perhaps it was because of his worn scholar’s robe, or the scholar’s pack that he wore on his back. He certainly looked down on his fortune. The bandit leader was a beautiful, seductive woman. She asked him a single question.
“Can you keep financial records?”
Meng Hao shook his head. However, they took him anyway. They led him to their mountain fort, which was really a stockaded village where more than a thousand people lived. Most of them were the family members of the bandits, including quite a few children.
It was arranged for Meng Hao to become a teacher, which mostly involved instructing the children how to read. He didn’t have to teach anything very complicated. They just needed to be able to read bank notes and understand basic messages, things that any good bandit should be able to do.
This was a requirement laid upon all the bandits by the beautiful bandit Chieftess.
Time trickled by. Meng Hao adapted himself, and quickly felt at home. He taught reading, and looked up at the sky. It was almost like life in Eastern Emergence County. Sometimes he thought of Master, or of his father, and how he hadn’t gone back to sweep his grave for a very long time.
People died every month in the mountain fort. During a three year period, the camp moved locations twice. In the fourth year, the army came. The mountain fort faced overwhelming numbers; at a critical moment of life and death, Meng Hao unhesitatingly proposed using poison.
At the moment, a north wind was blowing, and the army was located to the south.
Meng Hao wasn’t sure why exactly he had thought of using poison. It was just that, in the past few years, he seemed to have an abundance of knowledge in his head. The poison… was of course concocted by Meng Hao.
As the poison powder drifted south with the wind, Meng Hao closed his eyes. A long time later, he heard shouts of rejoicing. It had been a massacre. The mountain village had won.
Meng Hao was thirty-nine years old. That night, during the third watch, something like burning fire burrowed under the covers with him. It was the bandit Chieftess. During the day she was a conservative woman, but right now she was like a beautiful spirit.
Overnight, Meng Hao’s life changed. He was no longer a teacher, but instead, a so-called military adviser. He had never experienced such a life before. It was fresh and exciting. Soon he was forty years old. He was past the prime of life when the blood boiled. And yet all of this was… addicting.
Killing. Plundering. For three years, no blood physically stained Meng Hao’s hands. However, with his assistance, the number of lives taken by the bandits increased by tenfold.
That winter, Meng Hao finally got fed up with it all. He had not chosen this life, and he wanted to leave. But by now, the mountain fort had grown very large. When he brought up leaving, the beautiful Chieftess refused to allow it.
But Meng Hao… persisted, and left the mountain fort anyway. Therefore, they tried to chase him down and kill him.
They chased him for a year before finally giving up. In the end, Meng Hao wasn’t killed. Exhausted, he turned, and there, one hundred or so paces behind him, was the Chieftess. She sat atop a horse, staring at him, a big black bow in her hand. She was older, but still beautiful, and within her eyes was a torn expression.
The wind blew past the two of them. Meng Hao shouldered the same scholar’s pack he’d taken with him when he left his hometown, turned around, and walked off into the distance.
No arrow was loosed from the bow.
That year, Meng Hao was forty-three years of age.
Eventually, he caught sight of a Daoist temple located on top of a mountain.
It was autumn, and the leaves rustled as they drifted down onto the green limestone of the temple. The sky was overcast, and occasionally the soft rumbling of thunder could be heard. Rain was coming.
Meng Hao took up residence in the Daoist temple. He watched the Daoists practice their religious cultivation, observed them live their daily lives, and enjoyed a kind of peace he had never experienced before.
He had the unshakeable feeling that his hands were stained dark with blood that just wouldn’t wash off. Perhaps in this place he could discover a way to cleanse it.
Two years later, Meng Hao was forty-five years old. He let out a soft sigh.
“It turns out there’s no way to cleanse it. In that case, I’ll just have to live with it.” Shaking his head, he bid farewell to the Daoist temple, and strode out once again into the world.
Eventually, he reached the capital city. After he had been living there for a year, a bloody war broke out with a neighbouring nation. Despite his age, Meng Hao was forcefully conscripted into the military, and became a soldier in the army. The war between the two countries had just started at this point.
Two years into the war, Meng Hao used some poison that he had concocted to win a battle that shocked both of the countries involved. This sparked his rise to prominence. He was no longer a common soldier, but a Poison Specialist.
Five years into the war, he was a General. He led a special offensive, commanding a force of one hundred thousand soldiers, along with a special unit of one hundred personally trained Poison Specialists.
Eight years into the war, the enemy withdrew from the battlefield and turned to defense. Meng Hao was more than fifty years old, and his name was famous throughout the entire nation. He led his men into the enemy nation in a campaign to destroy them thoroughly.
By the tenth year of the war, Meng Hao was fifty-six. It had been thirty years since he left his hometown. The enemy was destroyed. He returned to his home nation, and was welcomed with grand ceremony.
He was now a legend, and as such, was conferred with the title Royal Advisor.
Everything was like a dream, and Meng Hao wasn’t used to it. Perhaps it was because of him or perhaps because of the nation’s growing power, but after becoming the Royal Advisor, the nation turned into an aggressor. A new round of wars began.
Year after year passed, and eventually, Meng Hao was sixty years old. Once again fed up with everything, he left the army and returned to the areas that had been scorched by the flames of war. Pestilence raged there. He was able to save the lives of a few people, after which, he was the Royal Adviser no longer, but a doctor, the Alchemy Doctor.
He continued to travel, pursuing the dream he’d had when he was young, climbing mountains and traveling to distant lands.
However many people he had killed in the past, that was how many he would save.
His travels lasted for twenty years.
Throughout those twenty years, Meng Hao traveled through countless nations and climbed to the top of who knew how many mountain peaks. He saved many people, and soon, word of “the miraculous hands of the Alchemy Doctor” spread throughout the land.
The year Meng Hao turned eighty, he looked thoughtfully up into the sky. His weathered face was covered with the evidence of a life full of memories.
“I’ve traveled many paths in life,” he thought to himself, “but as for my choice… just what is it…? I did not choose to be the reflection in the water of the river. Nor did I choose to live the peaceful life of a hermit in the forest. I absolutely did not want to live the romantic life of a bandit couple, nor did I choose to become a Daoist priest…. I’ve long since given up on being a Poison Specialist or a Royal Advisor, on waging war…. I thought that my final decision would be to become an Alchemy Doctor. But now that I look back… that’s not my path either. Just what am I pursuing in this life?” He looked up into the sky, but could not think of any answer to the question. The only thing he found was more frustration, and deep exhaustion.
He missed home. That autumn night, he sat beneath the stars looking up at the sky. Next to his foot was a fallen leaf. He didn’t notice as the wind whispered through the forest, picked it up, and returned it back to the tree it had fallen from. At the moment, he was somewhat like that leaf. He had been way from home for almost a full sixty year cycle. Now, he needed to return.
Meng Hao began to walk. After he had left home, it had taken him fifty four years to reach this point. The return trip only took six.
Eastern Emergence County was still there, flourishing more than ever. Meng Hao’s hair was white when he entered the city. He was just barely able to make out some of the traces of the past.
The bordello was gone. The wall had long since been knocked down, and the location was now home to a large mansion.
The house where he grew up had vanished with the passing of time. In its place was an inn. Meng Hao stood across from it for a very long time, staring at it. His face was covered not just with the ravages of time, but with a complex expression. Finally, he turned and left.
When he returned to Master’s house, the person who opened the door was a stranger. After making some enquiries, Meng Hao turned his head to look at East Mountain off in the distance.
His father had been buried there more than fifty years ago. Master had been buried there more than twenty years ago.
Meng Hao sighed. Silently holding a pot of alcohol under his arm, he climbed the mountain. First, he visited his father’s grave, which was covered in weeds. “I know this is all an illusion,” he said softly, “and that you aren’t my real father. However… you let me feel the fatherly love that I’ve been missing. It was only a simple embrace so that I could sleep….” About thirty years ago, in the Daoist temple, he had come to understand everything. This world was nothing but an illusion, a test to become an apprentice.
The real Meng Hao was still in the world of the Celestial Land in the Violet Fate Sect, atop Violet East Mountain.
He closed his eyes. A long time passed before he left his father’s grave. Finally, he arrived at Master’s grave. He looked at it for a while before speaking.
“Becoming an apprentice involves three kowtows,” he murmured. “The first is during the time of innocence. The second is in the time of roaming. The third is when gazing at the sunset…. You gave me an entire life to decide whether or not to become your apprentice. Everything in this realm of illusions was created, not by you, but me. You only provided the starting point. Every person in the trial by fire will create their own world.
“In this world, I liberated my heart. I… I experienced everything. In the end, I’ve come back here. But I still haven’t found what it is that I wish to pursue….
“The Dao of alchemy? Obviously not.” He lifted the jug of alcohol and took a long drink.
“Eternal life?” he said quietly. “I’m not qualified.” Soon, the sun began to sink in the west, and the jug of alcohol was empty. He did not begin the third kowtow. Instead, he turned and headed back toward Eastern Emergence County.
He knew that once he performed the third kowtow, he would leave this world of illusions. But he still had not found his answer. Therefore, he would not leave. He would stay.
From then on, a very old man took up residence in Eastern Emergence County.
Outside of the world of illusions, within the Violet Fate Celestial Land, atop Violet East Mountain, tears seeped out of Chu Yuyan’s eyes. She opened them, and they were filled with grief, as if being immersed in her world had caused her to forget about reality.
A long time passed, and then a tremor ran through her body. She blinked. Her eyes were filled with confusion at first, but they quickly grew clearer. Her expression was one of melancholy. Eventually, she looked up and saw that there were two others with her here high atop Violet East Mountain.
One was Fang Mu. The other was Ye Feimu. Both of them had their eyes closed. One had a face filled with thoughtfulness, the other, confusion. The former was Meng Hao, the latter was Ye Feimu.
As for her, she was still about ten paces from the very peak of the mountain. Further behind her were the other two nameless candidates in the trial by fire.
It was at this moment that Ye Feimu suddenly trembled and began to awaken.
This chapter was sponsored by Deathblade