Arc Two: Wooden Boy
However, Wen Shi quickly realized that wasn’t actually the case…
Because in reality, the puppet on the bed was already dead.
The old man drew back the blanket. The little boy’s limbs had already transformed into dried branches, with ashy-brown tree bark replacing most of his skin. He only barely managed to retain a human-like appearance from the waist up.
This process was called “withering,” and it signified the death of a puppet.
Just like that, he had died?
Wen Shi was a bit surprised.
He clearly remembered that he hadn’t pierced completely through the little boy’s chest. It wasn’t enough to kill the boy, so how did he suddenly wither?
But in the blink of an eye, he realized: this scene wasn’t actually a depiction of what happened after he injured the child. Instead, it was a bygone incident that had occurred in reality.
From beginning to end, it had remained in the old man’s memory, leaving behind an extremely deep impression at that. The events that played out in the cage somewhat resembled things that had happened in the past; as a result, this scene jumped out.
This wasn’t an illusion. Rather, it was the past.
The little boy on the bed was nestled in the blanket, eyes closed, utterly lifeless. The rough tree bark was still slowly diffusing like blooming ink, causing the area with skin to decrease more and more.
A moment later, the marks of withering spread to his chest.
The symbol over his heart glowed white, like a rotten patch on a branch, still as unidentifiable as ever.
Wen Shi stared at that symbol and furrowed his brows slightly.
Suddenly, he heard someone ask him in a lowered voice, “What are you spacing out for?”
Wen Shi abruptly snapped out of it and turned his head to see Xie Wen walking towards him.
The space in the mirror was very peculiar. It matched what was outside the mirror, and it also contained a desk and a window, but everything was quite indistinct, as if it was shrouded by a vast expanse of white mist.
Xie Wen stood amidst the fog, leaning against the desk.
He was still holding the branch that he had broken off before entering the cage, as he couldn’t toss it away for the time being. He kept twirling it idly between his fingers, like a wealthy nobleman slacking off while rowing.
“Why’d you come over here?” Wen Shi said. Sounds inside the mirror were also rendered very soft and distant, so unless he raised his voice, it wouldn’t carry outside at all.
“Am I not allowed here?” Even Xie Wen’s astonishment seemed extremely faint, and within a second, he had resumed his usual expression. “Everything is always first come, first served. Shall we compare who first occupied the territory belonging to this mirror?”
How old are you? Who wants to fight over territory with you?
Wen Shi ignored him, averting his gaze after sweeping one glance at him.
A beat later, he suddenly said, “Do you know what withering is?”
“Mn?” Xie Wen straightened up and walked closer. After casting a look at the little boy lying on the bed, he instantly understood. “Oh, of course I do.”
Wen Shi looked at him suspiciously.
“What’s with that expression of yours? Should I not know?” Xie Wen said.
“That’s not it.”
He should know, but he shouldn’t be wearing such an expression on his face.
Normal puppets “withered” in a split second. One moment, they were full of life, and the next, they would drop to the ground, turning into dried branches, shriveled leaves, and white cotton string.
A gradual withering like this one indicated that the person who created this puppet was extremely skilled, skilled to the degree that very, very few were in this world.
Never mind ordinary people, not even many panguan had seen such a puppet before, especially those panguan of the later generations. At first glance, someone typically wouldn’t realize this puppet was in the middle of “withering” at all. Instead, they were more likely to believe that something else was wrong with the little boy.
Therefore, Xie Wen’s tone of voice, which was as calm as still water, combined with his swift response—it was actually very strange.
But Xie Wen understood the reason behind Wen Shi’s confusion quickly enough, and he explained, “The Zhang family has a considerable library collection. With my sort of half-baked skill level, I won’t be able to gain experience in reality, so I have to study up a little more. That way, I won’t seem ignorant and make a fool out of myself—”
Xie Wen chuckled and said, “I’m quite keen on saving face, especially in front of people who are a bit younger than me.”
Wen Shi: “…”
If those words had come out of an elder’s mouth, then it would still be somewhat tolerable.
Xie Wen didn’t look any older than twenty-eight or twenty-nine. Going purely off of appearances alone, he would only be two or three years older than Wen Shi, so it was a little far-fetched for him to say such a thing.
Do you know how old I am?
With a wooden expression, Wen Shi thought, If you knew, you’d cry.
The old man couldn’t hear the conversation in the mirror. He was focused wholeheartedly on that puppet.
He reached out and stroked the little boy’s hair before he sat there in silence for a while longer. Then, he picked up that bowl of incense ash, pinched some up between his fingers, and smeared it on the little boy’s already withered arms and legs.
He daubed a thick layer on the boy’s palms, the bottoms of his feet, and his navel, before he scooped up a bit more ash using his index finger. With a dragonfly-light touch, he tapped it against the outer corner of the boy’s right eye, the tip of his nose, and finally, over the left side of his chest. The three dots formed a perfectly straight line.
Upon seeing that, Wen Shi was already completely astounded.
Because he understood what the old man was doing—this wasn’t some simple, traditional method of saving a person; this was a spirit transfer.
It was the forceful stripping of a slice of one’s soul, followed by guiding it into the puppet’s body so as to extend the puppet’s life. This was a type of puppetry technique, but almost nobody used it.
Firstly, the puppets whose lives could be extended were all those in the middle of gradual “withering.” On that basis alone, the majority of people inevitably wouldn’t ever need to use this technique.
Secondly, even if someone really did encounter such a puppet, nobody would choose to do this either. After all, if a puppet disappeared, a new one could be created, but the same couldn’t be said for humans.
In reality, this kind of widely deemed to be “utterly useless” technique had long since been abandoned. Wen Shi only had a slight smattering of knowledge about it and had mentioned it in passing to his later disciples.
Where did this old man learn of this technique from then? Did he also happen to come across it in a book like Xie Wen?
The more Wen Shi thought about it, the more he felt like something wasn’t quite right…
The old man continued to bustle around in a world of his own. He took out a little black box from the bedside table, which contained a row of wood carving knives of varying sizes.
He selected one of the knives before he lowered his head and sliced open a line on his index finger.
The hushed sound of someone sucking in a breath of air came abruptly from the crack in the wardrobe. Most likely, it was because Xia Qiao saw the old man cut open his hand and couldn’t really bear to watch.
The fresh blood congealed instantaneously into droplets that slid down his finger. The old man hastily moved over to the little boy. Like before, he dripped a single drop over the outer corner of the boy’s right eye, the tip of his nose, and the left side of his chest.
After that… his index finger hovered next to the little boy’s lips.
This was the last step of a spirit transfer: the blood of the person transferring their spirit had to enter the puppet’s mouth.
If the puppet swallowed the blood, it would open its eyes once more. If it couldn’t, then all the previous efforts would have gone to waste, and the consumed slice of soul wouldn’t return either.
But the old man didn’t hesitate. He squeezed his finger, and the first drop of blood fell into the little boy’s mouth.
That dash of dark red seeped swiftly through the seam of the boy’s lips. A second later, the little boy suddenly twitched.
The old man’s body tensed a bit in both anticipation and nervousness.
But from the mirror, Wen Shi knew that this maneuver wouldn’t succeed.
Because the person who originally made this puppet was too powerful. In comparison, this old man was merely an average puppet master who could be considered, at best, outstanding among his fellow average puppet masters.
The disparity between the two of them was too great, and they also lacked an attachment that could link them together. Regardless of how strong the old man’s soul and blood were, they would have next to no effect on this puppet. It couldn’t be revived.
As expected, the little boy didn’t swallow that mouthful of blood, nor did he open his eyes. Instead, he started to thrash about wildly, like an insuppressible evil spirit.
The old man sighed.
With just one drop of blood, he had aged a little more than before, his fingers becoming even more haggard and thin.
“Does it hurt? Endure it, endure it a bit, ah.” The old man’s voice was drawn-out and gentle. He gripped the little boy’s hand and comforted him at the same time.
After a long time, the little boy finally settled down, still with no trace of life.
The old man sat there for a while. It was as if he had walked a tremendous distance and needed to catch his breath slightly.
A moment later, he extended his hand again and dripped the second drop of blood onto the boy’s lips.
The little boy still didn’t swallow it. He began to spasm violently once more, his withered fingers just barely scraping by the old man’s scalp on numerous occasions. If the old man was any slower, the little boy’s fingers would have dug their way into his head. Yet the old man continued to console, “Endure it, endure it a bit, and everything will be okay, ah.”
Soon after, the little boy sunk back into the blanket, as devoid of life as before.
Meanwhile, the old man grew even older.
Again, he sat there for some time, tucking in the corners of the blanket for the little boy, before he dripped the third drop of blood.
Followed by the fourth drop.
The fifth drop.
Wen Shi never expected to stand quietly in a cage and do nothing at all for so long. Actually, this was the best time to undo a cage, but for some inexplicable reason, he didn’t want to interrupt this elderly man.
He watched as the man grew older and older, thinner and thinner, more and more stooped. Abruptly, he unearthed a familiar feeling.
As always, the days and nights in the cage circled by extremely quickly; it wasn’t the normal passage of time.
After the old man squeezed out an unbeknownst number of blood droplets, the marking over the left side of the little boy’s chest suddenly gained a flush of red, like spring arriving upon a withered tree.
He was still struggling about. When the old man was briefly distracted, the boy’s dried twig-like fingers scratched his own eye.
Fortunately, the old man promptly caught his hand and didn’t allow him to injure himself anywhere else.
A long while passed again. The little boy’s throat bobbed, and he swallowed that drop of blood.
The dusty brown color, akin to wizened bark, gradually receded from his body. At last, his hands and feet felt like flesh, and his skin was no longer ashen pale.
The old man’s temperament was likely a calm one. He continued to sit next to the bed, silently watching as his previous unceasing efforts slowly bore fruit.
He didn’t move; only his hands trembled, either from excessive happiness or excessive shock. It was also possible… that he was a little sad. This was often the case with those up in their years: once they became extremely happy, they would grow somewhat sad for no reason whatsoever.
When the little boy opened his eyes, his gaze was still a bit empty. But perhaps because he had died once and swallowed the old man’s blood, there seemed to be a tiny hint of something else in those eyes…
In short, he gained the faintest aura of a human.
He blinked. Like before, there wasn’t too much inflection in his voice, but the first thing he said was: “Grandpa.”
“Ai.” The old man straightened the blanket and said unhurriedly, “Grandpa is here.”
“How come I’m lying here and I can’t move?” he asked helplessly. He seemed to have forgotten many things, as if he were a newly born child.
The old man said, “You got sick.”
“I think my dolls came to life.”
“That was just a bad dream.” The old man explained patiently.
“I’m scared,” the little boy said. His hands, which were resting at his sides, curled up like they were going to convulse again and he was about to do something dangerous in the next second.
But the old man smoothed out his fingers and said, “If you’re scared, you can cry, you can tell Grandpa. I’m here with you.”
“My eye hurts a bit.” The little boy blinked his right eye.
He had scratched a gash next to it when he was thrashing about.
“Grandpa’s getting old. When I carried you onto the bed, I accidentally bumped you against something.”
As the old man spoke, he fished up a towel from a basin filled with hot water and twisted it dry before he slowly began wiping the little boy’s face.
Wen Shi looked at the old man for a very long time, and when the old man rolled up his sleeves, Wen Shi spotted a familiar burn scar on his elbow.
He shifted his gaze back to the little boy.
He watched as the symbol on the child’s chest grew even fainter, almost vanishing entirely; he watched as the daub of incense ash and blood on the tip of the child’s nose faded, turning into a miniscule mole; he watched as the injury from the scratch swiftly formed a scar at the outer corner of the child’s eye.
He looked just like Xia Qiao.
The door to the wardrobe was blown a bit more open by the wind, revealing the doll’s wide eyes. The white light of the lamp reflected against the glass beads, making it appear as if he had cried.
“If I get sick, will you not want me anymore?” the little boy asked.
“No.” The old man said, “You and I have been brought together by fate. I want to watch you grow up.”
Yan: And it’s revealed that the puppet is Xia Qiao~ did anyone else see that coming? The first time I read it, I was so surprised lol (no thoughts head empty) but it’s been very pleasant reading about this cage again, I picked up on quite a bit of foreshadowing!