Arc Three: Wangquan Road
There were actually two floors to Xiping Gallery, but the structure was very strange.
Typically, in a shop with two floors like this one, the first level would be the actual store, while the second level would either be a living space or a warehouse. If someone was extremely meticulous, they might turn it into a particularly elegant reception room for guests.
But that wasn’t the case for Xiping Gallery.
Its second floor… was mainly used for dining.
Why ‘mainly’? Because it also appeared to be a small-scale arboretum—
A tree grew along the wall in the northwest corner of the room. Its species was unknown, and it was also very hard to discern if it was alive or dead. The tree was completely bare, and it was just tall enough to reach the roof of the room. The branches snaked and crisscrossed across the walls and the line where the walls met.
An empty birdcage hung indulgently from the branches as well.
Artificial scenery was set up underneath the tree. Two small turtles paddled around a shallow pool; apart from that, rocks were scattered everywhere, along with fresh flowers and plants. There were also a few nests, though it wasn’t clear what lived in them.
The rectangular dining table was placed in the midst of all the plants. It seemed extremely… incongruous.
Lao Mao placed a large copper hot pot on the table and stuffed coal into it. Just like that, a pot of thick, milky white soup started gurgling and boiling, causing a fragrant steam to diffuse through the room.
Thin but tender slices of lamb meat bobbed in the pot, so fresh that juice could spill out from its marbled lines.
Wine was being heated on a mini stove nearby. Who knew what its alcohol percentage was, but it seemed pretty strong.
In any case, without even drinking a single drop, Wen Shi already felt drunk—
It was about to be summer and here he was wearing short sleeves, sitting in a room with the heating on, facing a table of food meant for providing nourishment and warmth as his stomach growled.
What was the point of this?
Perhaps his expression was a bit too wooden, because Xia Qiao, who knew the entire story, felt quite sorry for him.
Actually, as far as Xia Qiao knew, panguan ate normal meals too. Such as Shen Qiao, or the various people he had met or heard of before.
An abnormality who didn’t eat human food like Wen Shi was still unique. Maybe it had something to do with how Wen Shi was neither really dead or alive.
Xia Qiao watched him for a while before he couldn’t help but whisper, “Wen-ge, you okay?”
“What do you think.” Wen Shi didn’t look at him, hand gripped around his chopsticks. Two seconds later, he shut his eyes briefly, like he was reflecting upon himself, as he said self-mockingly, “There’s really something wrong with my head.”
When Xie Wen invited him to stay for a meal, why did he take it seriously and agree?
Good going, now he had to rely solely on his self-control.
He stared at Xia Qiao’s bowl, filled with meat, and asked faintly, “Is it delicious?”
Xia Qiao didn’t dare to speak.
To him, this meal really was pretty good. The meat and vegetables that Xie Wen’s employees had procured from some unknown source were fresh and tender, and the sauce was extremely fragrant as well. There truly wasn’t anything to complain about in regards to the culinary skill.
What’s more, there was a downpour outside today, and the temperature had also dropped. He was just feeling cold, so eating something warm was perfect. It really was impossible for Xia Qiao to sympathize with this ancestor surnamed Wen, so he could only console him.
“Wen-ge, how about you try to take a few bites, just for the sake of it?” Xia Qiao took advantage of Lao Mao and the others gorging away to say quietly, “It’s good to pad your stomach too, better than nothing. Have you ever eaten this kind of meat dipped in a copper hot pot before? It—”
“I have.” Wen Shi interrupted, “I’ve had it quite a few times.”
To an ordinary person, there wasn’t anything wrong with what he just said. After all, Wen Shi looked like a twenty-five-year-old young man, so it would be odder if he hadn’t eaten it before.
Yet Xie Wen cast him an astonished glance, almost as if he knew that Wen Shi had only arrived in this world recently.
“Why are you looking at me?” By the time Wen Shi noticed, the surprise in Xie Wen’s eyes had already faded.
“That’s a good question. You would have to be looking at me first in order to know that I’m looking at you.” Xie Wen calmly poured himself a cup of scalding wine, but he didn’t drink from it, choosing to merely hold the cup instead, like he was relishing the warmth inside. “Perhaps you should first explain why you were looking at me?”
Wen Shi: “…”
Xie Wen smiled as he skipped past the topic. He spoke again, “Where did you eat this?”
Originally, Wen Shi wanted to ignore him, but after some time passed, he ended up saying stiffly, “Before in Beijing.”
Back then, its name was still Beiping.
“Oh.” Xie Wen looked pensive. A beat later, he nodded and pointed at Wen Shi’s empty porcelain dish. “Then, do you not like it anymore? Or does the soup they mixed together taste so terrible that you can’t bring yourself to eat from it?”
Lao Mao and the twin girls immediately lifted their heads and innocently peered over.
Maybe all subordinates feared their boss; in any case, those three appeared to be very alarmed.
Wen Shi felt baffled. He went silent for a few seconds under the uniform stares before he reached out with his chopsticks and picked up a piece of lamb.
Lao Mao relaxed again and continued to devour his food. When he ate, he basically didn’t chew and swallowed the food whole, making it seem especially delicious and appetizing for anyone watching.
Instantly, Xia Qiao followed his example and ate two more pieces of meat.
Wen Shi was going to go crazy.
But he didn’t show it on his face at all. Instead, he seemed extremely indifferent. He tastelessly swallowed the piece of meat before he asked Xie Wen in an attempt to divert his attention, “You didn’t really eat anything either.”
“It’s alright.” Xie Wen said, “I prefer food that’s a little hotter, but I don’t have much interest in this sort of thing.”
“They set this up even though you don’t like it?” Wen Shi wore a strange expression.
“Probably out of habit.” Xie Wen said.
He spotted the bemused look on Wen Shi’s face and contemplated for a bit before he added, “Before, I took in a—”
He paused, as if he was deliberating his wording.
He only continued after Wen Shi shot him a look. “I took in a child, and he tended to crave this.”
“Where is he then?” Wen Shi asked.
“He’s not here anymore.” Xie Wen didn’t lift his eyes. Holding his cup, he said, “It was a very long time ago.”
Wen Shi still felt like something was weird. Since it had happened a very long time ago, how could it be called a habit now? Did time not pass for you guys during all those years in between?
He was about to speak when Lao Mao picked up the strainer spoon again and ladled himself another big bowl of food, consuming it heartily. It was impossible to ignore his slurping noises.
Wen Shi: “…”
His stomach quietly made a sound in response, and he finally couldn’t sit there any longer.
“Where’s the sink?” Wen Shi asked, pulling a long face and calming himself down before he set down his chopsticks.
“Over there.” Xie Wen pointed to a short corridor on the east side of the room and said, “What’s the matter?”
“I got some sauce on me.” Wen Shi randomly made up an excuse before he got up and walked towards the hallway.
There was a solitary sink at the end of the short hallway, and he bent over and braced himself against it. After he splashed some cold water on his face, the feeling of being utterly famished finally subsided a bit.
Right as he straightened up, he felt a breeze slip in from the side. Wen Shi looked over and discovered that the second floor corridor was connected to a back door, which wasn’t fully shut. The wind had crept in from there, wrapped in the humidity of the rain and a different sort of… strange odor, which was hard to describe.
The smell was very faint, and it wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a little familiar.
Somewhat puzzled, Wen Shi walked over and opened the door.
Outside of the door was a staircase made of metal, connected to the back side of this street of shops.
The space behind Xiping Gallery was very clean and desolate, directly facing a long perimeter wall, which was fenced around Wangquan Estates’ man-made lake and little bamboo forest.
It was still pouring outside. The scent was hidden amidst the rain, flickering in and out intermittently. Wen Shi gripped the staircase railing and scented the air for a while before he recognized it at last—
That was the smell of a huigu.
The night before Shen Qiao was buried, he had killed one of the three huigu that had transformed from the funeral musicians, while two had escaped. He had left trackers on the huigu that ran away, the results of which had pointed to Xiping Gallery.
Actually, this was also one of the reasons why he had taken the initiative to come to Xiping Gallery today.
The moment he entered the store, he had furtively examined everything, but he hadn’t found any traces of the huigu. He hadn’t expected for something to turn up behind the shop.
Wen Shi forcefully summoned up his energy, concentrated his qi, and closed his eyes. The scenery in front of him dimmed, and a trail as thin as a trace of water coiled its way to the edge of the wall before sliding over it and into Wangquan Estates. After that, the trail faded to the point that it was nearly undetectable.
So in reality, it had nothing to do with Xie Wen and was related to Wangquan Estates instead?
Wen Shi only maintained that state for a few seconds before he opened his eyes and frowned as he began contemplating.
Until the door creaked behind him.
“What are you standing foolishly outside for?” Xie Wen’s voice sounded.
Wen Shi: “…”
Why did his food end up chasing after him.
“I was checking if the rain had stopped.” Wen Shi turned around and went back inside.
The rust from the railing had rubbed off on his hands, so he had no choice but to wash them again in the sink.
It seemed like Xie Wen had also just washed his hands. He wasn’t in any rush to return to the dining table, as he simply closed the door before he reached past Wen Shi to grab a paper towel.
The movement stirred up a very gentle breeze. Clearly, nothing was there, but Wen Shi felt himself being encircled by that thick and heavy malevolent energy.
He froze for a moment in the middle of washing his hands, and he briefly shut his downcast eyes.
Compared to the dining table, it was narrow and quiet here. Perhaps because it was too quiet, the presence of those shapeless and invisible things seemed especially conspicuous.
Wen Shi looked up and glanced at Xie Wen through the mirror. He saw Xie Wen leaning against the wall behind him, attentively putting on his gloves, seemingly waiting for Wen Shi.
“Have you ever seen your own soul before?” Wen Shi suddenly said.
“Mn?” Xie Wen tugged at the edge of his glove before he raised his eyes and said, “What do you mean?”
Not all panguan could easily see someone’s soul; it was more likely for them to receive a sort of feeling instead. For example, sensing that Xia Qiao was very clean immediately upon meeting him, or feeling like Xie Wen had too much karmic debt upon seeing him. As the state of the soul grew more extreme, the easier it was to sense it.
If they wanted to see what the soul really looked like, they would have to expend some effort and get help through other methods.
Those like Wen Shi were few and far between.
“Never mind.” As the momentary impulse passed, Wen Shi lowered his gaze and pulled out a paper towel. He was about to say “pretend like I didn’t say anything” when he heard Xie Wen let out a soft “oh.”
“Are you talking about the karmic debt and malevolent energy on my soul? I’ve seen it before.
“Why are you suddenly asking about that?”
He looked at Wen Shi through the mirror, his voice deep and low, containing a hoarse note caused by coughing.
Most likely since their surroundings were still too quiet, to Wen Shi’s ears, there was something inexplicably tempting about that question.
He continued to stand in front of the sink, his back to Xie Wen. He threw away the paper towel after he was done using it and went silent for another second, eyes lowered, before he suddenly asked, “What if I said—I could help you dissolve a bit of it?”
This time, Xie Wen really was taken aback.
He looked at Wen Shi for a long time before he said, “Do you know what it takes to alter those things belonging to an ordinary person?”
Everyone who was ever a panguan knew that the overflowing black mist was a kind of release and liberation for the people who had already become cages. As long as the person undoing the cage was strong enough, they would be able to dissolve all of the mist.
But it was hardly that simple when it came to altering the things attached to a perfectly fine, ordinary person’s body. Very few people had researched this matter before.
First of all, other people could get full by eating food, and they wouldn’t treat this sort of thing as being edible.
That requirement alone filtered out the other 99% of people, excluding Wen Shi.
Second, Wen Shi had stored up a lot of that stuff before, so he never had to worry about food prior to this.
As a result, even he didn’t know.
Wen Shi was stumped by Xie Wen’s question, but he couldn’t think of a response under the strengthening feeling of starvation. The only thing left was a subtle irritation.
His hands kneaded his knuckles at his side as he stayed silent, about to say, “Let’s just leave it at that, then.”
But Xie Wen said, “Oh well, you can try it.”
Wen Shi looked up. “Are you being serious?”
Xie Wen straightened up and spread his hands, his smile a little helpless. “How to do it? Explain to me the process, should I close my eyes?”
Wen Shi finally turned around to face him properly. “No need.
“You don’t need to do anything.” Wen Shi shut his eyes and said, “Leave it to me.”
Instantly, Xie Wen’s monstrous, demonic soul appeared in his “vision,” the black fog surging like a pack of intertwined, writhing pythons.
Even though it was undoubtedly an utterly fiendish soul, it stood quietly in front of him, a scant distance away, so close that Wen Shi himself was wrapped amidst the mist.
Wen Shi tentatively reached out, and his slightly transparent fingers hooked around one of the curling strands of black smoke.
Time seemed to come to an abrupt stop. A second later, the black fog suddenly turned unbridled and unrestrained, pouring into Wen Shi’s body through his fingertips.
It was a sensation that was very difficult to describe…
The burning hunger was slowly suppressed, but another strange emotion floated to the forefront instead.
He didn’t know why, but all of a sudden, he felt a little sad.
Wen Shi’s fingers curled inwards slightly before he yanked them back.
He opened his eyes and lifted his head, brows knitted together, only to discover that Xie Wen had been watching him the entire time, his gaze cast a little downward.
“Boss—” Lao Mao’s voice traveled over from the other end of the short hallway. “Someone’s looking for you!”
Wen Shi snapped out of his daze and took a step back, moving sideways to clear the path for him. “Your employee is calling for you.”
“Are you okay?” Xie Wen said to Wen Shi, sweeping a glance towards the end of the corridor.
“I’m fine.” Wen Shi said.
The sorrow from before seemed to have only lasted for a split second, fleeting and ephemeral, before it disappeared in the blink of an eye.
It was to the point that even he himself couldn’t remember what had just happened. There was only one feeling remaining in his body, and he accidentally voiced it aloud.
He said, “I’m full now, thank you.”
Xie Wen: “…”
Xie Wen: “?”
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