Song Ci finally understood what it meant by everyone being a chess piece.
However, he still had doubts. Wasn’t it said that one would treat themselves as the chess piece after entering the chessboard? The woman before him who played Jiang Liang’s mother was pretty authentic, but why was it that he was still conscious of the fact that he wasn’t Jiang Liang?
In other words, his consciousness did not fully assimilate into the Xingluo Chessboard Array.
“Liang-er, what are you thinking about?” The woman on the bed coughed weakly and reached out to hold his little hand. “Are you hungry?”
Song Ci returned to his senses. He looked at the woman before him and cast all doubts aside for the time being. He thought back to the scene he had just seen. Right now, little Jiang Liang should be shaking his head and asking his mother if she was hungry instead.
That’s to say, the scene he saw earlier was the chess path he should be taking as Jiang Liang’s chess piece.
Song Ci looked at the dying woman and opened his mouth. His mind involuntarily drifted to the upcoming scene. In the end, he did not ask his question like what he had seen in the scene earlier. Instead, he extracted his hand from the woman’s hand and stood up.
Rong Bai and the old storyteller had both warned that the chess piece who did not follow the intended path would be sacrificed to the chessboard. But after some careful consideration, Song Ci decided that there should not be that much of a difference between seeking help after chatting with the woman and going for help right away.
The woman looked stunned and asked in a hoarse voice, “Liang-er, what are you doing?”
Song Ci’s gaze drifted for a moment before he said in a hurry, “You stay still. I’ll find someone to save you.”
Before the woman could respond, he turned and ran out of the shabby house. He knew that the people in the village were cruel and cold-blooded, so he did not intend to plead with them one household at a time like what Jiang Liang had done.
Instead, he groped in the dark to look for the place Jiang Liang and Physician Wu had met earlier. Then, he continued along the path Physician Wu had taken to search for him.
When he saw him earlier, Physician Wu was carrying a medicine case. Presumably, he was somewhere practicing medicine. If Song Ci could find him earlier, he might be able to save the life of the poor woman on the bed.
The only thing was that Song Ci was not familiar with the roads here. Although he had followed Jiang Liang earlier, he did not pay attention to his surroundings. What’s more when it was pitch-black all around.
More haste, less speed. Song Ci constantly persuaded himself to calm down and tried his best to distinguish his surroundings. Finally, he ran onto a rugged path with sixty percent confidence.
Weeds taller than his shoulders grew on both sides of the path. From time to time, he could hear strange noises. Song Ci wrapped his tattered clothes tightly around him. He guessed that it should be just after spring now. Although the night wind was not bitterly cold, it was still freezing enough for his small body.
Because it was too dark, Song Ci did not dare to run too fast. Yet he did not dare to slow down either, afraid that his caution would make him missed his chance.
Song Ci felt uneasy as he ran. He was afraid that he had chosen the wrong path, so he began to shout aloud, “Physician Wu! Physician Wu—”
He ran and shouted all the way. Just as Song Ci’s voice was becoming hoarse, he finally received a response. Carrying a lantern in his hand, Physician Wu answered from a distance. “Eh—who’s calling for me?”
“Physician Wu—!” Song Ci went wild with joy as he stared at the almost indiscernible glow of light. He dashed over. Physician Wu recognized him the moment Song Ci approached. “The Jiang household’s child? What are you doing here?”
Song Ci threw a quick glance at him and realized that this person was not the Physician Wu he had seen in that earlier scene. But this was not the time to dwell on it, so he grabbed his sleeve and said in a hurry, “My mother is seriously ill. Please come with me!”
On hearing this, Physician Wu quickened his pace and asked, “Didn’t I prescribed some medicine for your mother’s cold earlier? She’s still not better after taking a few doses?”
Song Ci was focused on rushing home with the physician. He just wanted him to hurry, so he casually replied to his question, “No. She is very ill at the moment.”
But Physician Wu was old after all. He had only run a short distance when he had to stop to catch his breath. Anxious, Song Ci reached out to take his medicine case. “Physician Wu, I’ll carry this medicine case for you. Please hurry. My mother can’t hold out for much longer!”
Physician Wu nodded in response. He was panting hard and could barely keep up with Song Ci. Song Ci urged him on, tugging and pulling him all the way back to the shabby house. By the end of it, the physician was exhausted and gasping for breath, and his entire face was dripping with sweat.
Song Ci pushed open the wooden plank that was the door. The moment he reached the bed, he was so tired that his legs went weak. Kneeling down, he leaned beside the bed and reached out for the woman’s hand.
The woman’s eyes were closed, as if she were sleeping. Her head drooped to one side, while her skinny hand rested on the bed board. She was motionless.
Song Ci’s heart stopped on seeing this. It was as if a massive flood of water had burst from the dam and crashed into him. That emotion felt foreign, and yet it also felt if it came from deep within his heart. For a moment, it nailed him down and rendered him motionless.
Physician Wu survived through the period he had gasped for breath like a dying fish and stumbled his way to the bed. He reached for the woman’s pulse, and his complexion went pale. Then, he extended a finger under the woman’s nose. His expression was sorrowful. “It’s too late. She’s dead.”
On hearing this, Song Ci felt as if someone had stabbed him in the heart, tearing his heart apart in pain and grief. He clutched his chest with some difficulty. He felt helpless in the face of this sudden pain. It was as if he was personally experiencing what Jiang Liang had felt back then when he was late and missed his chance to see his mother for the last time.
This kind of pain was both tangible and incorporeal.
Song Ci sucked in huge gasps of breath, trying to ease the pain. Unbeknownst to him, his face was now tear-stained. He gnashed his teeth and asked, “Why?”
He was clearly one step faster than Jiang Liang, so why did he still fail to save her? He had done his utmost to run and shout for help, but all he got in exchange was the same result as Jiang Liang, who had cried and pleaded for help back then.
Perhaps the ending would not change at all. Or perhaps, the very moment he and Jiang Liang stepped out of the door, this steadfast but delicate person who had suffered for half a lifetime had reluctantly closed her eyes, taking her attachment to the mundane world and her concern for Jiang Liang along with her.
Tears blurred Song Ci’s vision, causing him to look at his surroundings through a hazy, stifling veil. Wisps of white light oozed out of his body. The pain in his heart sharpened. He could not help but clenched his clothes and curled his body up in pain.
“It hurts…” Song Ci whimpered. He wondered, was this the consequence of not taking the intended path of the chess piece?
Then, was he going to be investigated and stripped of his role before being sacrificed to the chessboard? Would he die for real?
Song Ci could not feel the existence of his limbs. He felt as if he was kneeling, or as if he was floating in the air. The energy in his body speedily seeped away. It was as if his eyes were covered with a strip of black cloth; he could see nothing. Only the pain in his chest ate away at him.
That very moment, he seemed to hear a faint voice in front of him.
Someone was calling him. The voice sounded familiar.
Song Ci was in so much pain that he was trembling all over, but he still raised his head stubbornly, trying to see who was before him with his already blinded eyes.
The person before him reached a hand out to grasp Song Ci’s fingers, the ones that were clutching at his chest. Then, the person helped him up from the ground with gentle movements.
By this time, other emotions had welled up in Song Ci’s heart. There were reluctance, fear, and fury.
As the various emotions mingled, he opened his mouth to plead for help. “Help me…”
“Have no fear.” That person whispered.
And then, Song Ci felt a warmth in his heart. The torturous pain instantly vanished. He blinked, and a vague silhouette appeared in the darkness. It gradually cleared up as the soft, white light delineated the contours of the figure before him.
Song Ci quickly regained the strength in his body, and the oppressive sensation vanished. It did not take Song Ci long to revert back to his original state.
It was only after he recovered his sight that he realized the person standing before him was Rong Bai.
“Master Rong? How did you find me?” Song Ci asked in surprise.
Rong Bai was glowing with white light. He squatted before Song Ci and kept his eyes level with his. His beautiful eyes were warm as he smiled at Song Ci. “How hard can it be for me to find you?”
Song Ci’s heart was still throbbing with fear after going through the earlier incident. He grasped Rong Bai’s hand back and said, “Master Rong, I want to go with you. Can you take me out of the array?”
Rong Bai looked down at their holding hands and said, “If we want to go out now, then we can only break the array by force. We’ll need to slay all the people inside the array…”
“Then forget it.” Song Ci dismissed the idea immediately. “There will be another way. We can’t harm so many people unjustly.”
“There’s no need to be afraid. I’m here. I won’t let you be hurt.” Rong Bai said, “Weren’t you curious about this matter? The truth is just before you. All you need to do is to move forward.”
Song Ci hesitated. “Then what about you? Where will you be? Who are you playing as?”
Rong Bai replied, “I’ll be waiting for you ahead.”
He was like an immortal descending from Heaven. After saying his piece, he gently brushed away the tear on Song Ci’s chin. Then he turned into a white mist and dispersed.
Song Ci reached out a hand to grab at the mist, but his hand turned up empty. For a moment, he panicked, but he quickly composed himself. He wiped away the tears on his face with his sleeve and patted his chest. After confirming that the terrifying pain had disappeared, he stepped into the darkness and strode forward, just as Rong Bai had said.
Song Ci had only taken a few steps when the darkness in his line of sight began to fade. The din of traffic on the street floated into his ears as the bustling streets materialized before him.
The coming and going passers-by, the hawking peddlers, the roadside teahouses and taverns, and the various silk and pearl hairpins on the streets... Song Ci took it all in. This place was both prosperous and ancient, with an air of quaintness everywhere.
Song Ci looked around, feeling that some of the scenes still looked familiar to him. Presumably, this was the City of Qinchuan decades ago.
He took a few steps along the street and saw a worn-out carriage coming slowly towards him. The pedestrians on the street made way for it one after another. When he got to the middle of the road, a big, black dog the height of a child suddenly leaped out of nowhere. It darted away, startling the horse.
The horse raised its front hooves and neighed. It barged around the street, knocking over several stalls. Cries of alarm rang out. Eventually, it shook off one of the carriage’s rear wheels. The carriage skidded on the street before coming to a stop a distance away. Screams of fear from the people in the carriage rang out.
It did not take long for the coachman to tame the horse, but the street had already erupted into chaos. The people in the carriage stepped down in a fluster, and Song Ci realized that one of the children among them was the youth, Jiang Liang.