Arc Three: Wangquan Road
This was called retribution.
Though Wen Shi thought that in his mind, he explained aloud very calmly, “I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Little—” Xie Wen choked on something, most likely a laugh born from exasperation. “Does your conscience trouble you when you say that?”
“No.” Wen Shi might not have a lot to say, but he was quite capable of rendering someone speechless. “It’s up to you whether you believe it or not.”
The featureless face of the half-mannequin angled itself straight at him, just like that.
Who doesn’t have an oval-shaped face right now.
Wen Shi remained stubborn, standing off against him silently.
Even though it was evidently an extremely strange scene, it struck some unknown nerve in Boss Xie, and he gave a vague huff of laughter in his throat. He turned his head away and said lowly, “Rule-breaker.”
Wen Shi didn’t hear him clearly.
Xie Wen faced him again and pointed at the locked glass door. He said leisurely, “Fine, I have a good temper, so I’ll consider this an accident on your part. Then come up with some ideas, how do I exit this door when I look like this?”
Wen Shi said expressionlessly, “Crawl.”
Xie Wen: “…”
This time, he laughed for real. After he was done, the store sunk into a deathly quiet.
After quite a prolonged period of silence, Wen Shi finally extended a hand towards him reluctantly. Because he felt like holding hands was a bit girly, he said, “Forget it, I’ll pull you along.”
‘Pulling’ was putting it nicely; in reality, he meant he was going to drag him.
Inevitably, Xie Wen didn’t move.
Wen Shi stopped trying to please him. He wheeled around and started walking towards the door.
The mannequin’s fingers were too stiff, and it wasn’t much different from being in a fingerless doll. He expended a fair amount of effort before he finally gained control over the cotton thread and stretched it through the seam of the glass door to open the lock outside.
The lock rattled and clinked for a while. At last, it abruptly fell apart in two halves with a clang and dropped onto the ground in front of the store. The next second, an anti-theft alarm began blaring as muted lights alternating between red and blue flashed through the shop.
The noise was both unexpected and ear-piercing, echoing through the empty shopping mall.
There was a store open across from them, with its shutter door rolled halfway down. An elderly woman sat on a wooden stool outside. She wore a fake old-fashioned coiled bun, along with a black shirt and pants, though her face was shockingly pale.
Upon hearing the alarm, she first cast a faint look in their direction before standing up.
Wen Shi let out a soft curse. Instantly, he slanted himself sideways and lifted his hands, remaining utterly motionless, pretending to be a display for clothes at the store entrance.
He thought that the old woman was going to come over, but instead, she merely turned off the incandescent light and entered her shop with shambling footsteps. She walked in a very strange manner: rather than shuffling, it looked more like she was dragging her feet, both of them together…
Just as if she was suspended from some invisible string that was tugging her forward, creating scraping footstep sounds.
After going into the store, she turned around and pulled out an iron hook, attaching it directly to the shutter door and hauling it down. In a few short seconds, she had sealed herself off in the shop.
What was the meaning of this?
Wen Shi stayed frozen in the doorway, somewhat puzzled.
Soon enough, movement came from the store next door as well. The owner was a middle-aged man with a bloated face and blue-gray dark circles, which gave his complexion a ghastly, eerie aura in contrast.
He walked over to the railing and glanced towards the lower level of the mall before he slowly swiveled back around. His eyes were glued to the lunchbox in his hand as he mumbled, “Coming to find someone again, she’s coming to find someone again. Can’t be caught, can’t… I haven’t eaten yet, haven’t eaten yet…”
From Wen Shi’s point of view, he couldn’t discern the contents of the man’s lunchbox.
The man tucked the lunchbox into his jacket and wordlessly went into the neighboring store.
A moment later, the sound of the shutter door rolling down echoed again as the bloated man also closed his shop.
The few scattered store owners all shut their doors one after another, causing the shopping mall to grow darker and darker.
Although Wen Shi still hadn’t figured out the specifics of the situation, he could make a guess that they were hiding from a certain person.
Was it the cage master?
If it really was the cage master, then it wasn’t a good thing to clash with them this early.
The anti-theft alarm was still ringing in the store.
Wen Shi decided to simply kick open the glass door in preparation to depart.
He had already taken a step out of the store when he silently detoured back inside and picked up the half-mannequin that was Xie Wen.
Xie Wen seemed to have fully expected him to come back, and he let out an extremely infuriating chuckle.
The hell are you laughing at.
Wen Shi thought.
“So you do have a conscience.” Xie Wen said.
Wen Shi had only taken a few steps before he heard Xie Wen’s voice come from a distance so close that it was nearly pressed against his face. If this was a living person, his breath would most likely be sweeping against the outer corner of Wen Shi’s eye.
At that moment, he realized that this position where he was holding them face-to-face was a bit weird… even if they weren’t real, it was still strange.
Wen Shi pondered a little and came to a halt. On the spot, he flipped Xie Wen around so that he was facing forward with the back of his head to Wen Shi.
After taking several steps like this, he screeched to a stop again. He still felt like this wouldn’t work.
This position made it seem like there was something wrong with his IQ, and it also blocked his line of sight.
As a result, he switched it up again, enduring his temper. This time, he moved the half-mannequin onto his back.
In fact, there was an intent to mess with Xie Wen behind his actions; anyone would be able to tell. But Xie Wen didn’t say a single thing. Throughout the entire process, he stayed unusually quiet, and it wasn’t clear if he was just watching the show or if he was thinking about something else and had spaced out.
This kind of feeling was a bit bizarre, and Wen Shi almost thought that Xie Wen was gone. As he walked out of the store, he couldn’t help but ask, “Are you there?”
The person on his back finally shifted.
He gave a few muffled coughs before he replied somewhat hoarsely, “Mn. What are you trying to do now?”
His voice was truly very deep, and it was also right next to Wen Shi’s ear.
Wen Shi’s footsteps paused briefly as he tilted his head slightly to the side.
It took him a beat before he instructed evenly, “It’s best if you make some noise from time to time.”
Xie Wen: “Why? With your temper, if I say too much, won’t you just tell me to shut up again?”
Wen Shi: “…”
Xie Wen: “I can tell that you really want to say that right now.”
Wen Shi: “…”
“You should just crawl.” Wen Shi said.
“That won’t do.” Xie Wen smiled. “I’ll hardly get down that easily now that I’m up here. Don’t you think that being a doll wasn’t too bad after all?”
Wen Shi didn’t feel like bothering with him anymore, and he walked forward following the empty corridor.
The lights in the hallway were very sparse and were sandwiched by a few “exit” signs, their washed-out glows suffused with green.
The exit doors were wide open. There weren’t any lights in the staircase, making them look like pitch-black eyes, one on either side.
Wen Shi leaned across the railing and glanced down.
They were on the third floor, and the stores on the lower two levels were also closed. It was deserted and empty; even if there was any trace of a ghost, he wouldn’t be able to see it, let alone that of a human.
Then who were all those shop owners trying to hide from?
Suddenly, a buzzing hum came from somewhere downstairs, as if something had quietly activated.
Wen Shi scoured the area and discovered that the escalator leading from the first floor to the second floor had slowly started moving.
Xie Wen said softly near his ear, “Something’s coming up.”
Wen Shi stared at the escalator and finally saw a person gradually ascend along with it.
It seemed to be a woman of medium height with shoulder-length hair. She wore a thin, deep red sweater and black pants. Perhaps due to the lighting, the skin of her neck and arms appeared ashen-green.
Wen Shi’s eyesight was good, so he could see that she had one hand propped on the escalator handrail. Most likely because she was wearing rings, her knuckles looked a little swollen from their tight binding. Though it made the base of her fingers seem thick, her fingertips were extremely sharp and tapered.
The escalator steadily rolled its way to the top. She stepped off of it before she turned and got onto the escalator heading to the third floor.
With that rotation, instead of facing this direction, her back was now to them.
Gazing at the back of her head and shoulders, Wen Shi let out a low “oh.”
“What’s the matter?” Xie Wen said quietly.
“I’ve seen her before.” Wen Shi said.
“On the way to your shop.”
She was probably that round-faced female driver, or at least she looked like her from the back, Wen Shi thought.
The same moment he recognized her, the woman in dark red seemed to sense that someone was watching her, and she abruptly looked their way.
Wen Shi was already prepared for her not to have a face. Unexpectedly, she actually did have one.
The only thing was—it was an extremely weird face, like someone had drawn it on with a marker somewhat roughly and clumsily. The eyebrows were very dark, and the eyes set below them were merely two big black circles without any white. Her lips were also an astonishing red.
It seemed that those eyes couldn’t really move from side to side, and they stared straight ahead just like that—
Directly at Wen Shi.
All of a sudden, the woman started moving. She lifted her foot and began walking up the escalator at a pace that grew faster and faster.
Wen Shi didn’t waste any time. He promptly turned around and left!
The mannequin’s legs were rigid, so he couldn’t run.
Behind him, the woman should’ve reached the third floor. Her footsteps were nearly synchronized with Wen Shi’s, as if they were an echo closely pursuing him.
“Go downstairs using the escalator.” Xie Wen said.
Wen Shi glanced at the escalator closest to him and said tightly, “It’s not turned on over here!”
Xie Wen: “…”
He was silent for two seconds before he said, “If you get onto it, it’ll turn on.”
Wen Shi: “???”
Though he was thinking, “If it doesn’t, you’re finished,” he still stepped onto the escalator descending towards the second floor.
Sure enough, as soon as he got onto it, the elevator slowly rumbled to life. As it was starting up, the woman drew a bit closer to them.
“Help me check if she also can’t run.” Wen Shi said.
Xie Wen shifted on his back. A second later, he lowered his head again and said, “Her legs look pretty normal, not like our artificial limbs. But indeed, she isn’t running.”
However, right as he said that, the woman’s footsteps sped up.
Wen Shi swore in his head.
There were some temporary pop-up stores and booths set up near the second floor elevator. Taking advantage of those objects, Wen Shi circled around several of them and glanced behind him.
The woman who was still over a dozen meters away just a second ago was currently less than three steps away from him!
Seeing those two ink splotch-like eyes from up close was even more bloodcurdling.
The thread that Wen Shi had used to open the door was still wrapped around his fingers. Actually, it wasn’t very ideal to attack the cage master right after entering the cage, but he still ended up flinging his hand out behind himself.
There was a trash can around the corner, and he wanted to throw it over to act as an obstruction. Except when it landed, he heard quite a few banging and crashing noises.
He couldn’t resist turning his head, only to see the trash can topple over onto the ground along with a simple sales counter belonging to the popup store. The woman tripped over the mess and stumbled a little.
“How did the counter fall?” Wen Shi muttered.
“Wasn’t paying attention, seems like the trash can knocked it over.” Xie Wen patted his shoulder gently and said, “Don’t be distracted, run for it.”
Wen Shi: “…”
If it weren’t for Wen Shi’s kind heart, this sort of armchair expert bastard deserved to be sent off to fight ghosts.
Due to Xie Wen’s prompting, Wen Shi didn’t take note of where he was going and actually ended back up on the elevator leading to the third floor. It was just as if they had made a giant circle while being chased by that woman and had now returned to the starting point…
Who knew if she had done it on purpose or by accident.
Wen Shi surveyed his surroundings, trying to come up with a way to shake her off their tail. Abruptly, he heard someone call out softly from up ahead, “Come over here!”
Wen Shi subconsciously took it to be Xia Qiao.
Following the voice, he realized that one of the shutter doors for a store on the left was half-open. In a moment of desperation, he stooped over and slipped inside without hesitation.
The woman’s footsteps echoed closely behind him.
The next second, the shutter door was dragged all the way down to the floor with a clatter, closing it.
That appeared to make the woman unhappy, and she slammed her hand heavily against the door several times.
After a few minutes, the sound of her sluggish footsteps finally departed, and she seemed to have moved on to the store next door.
Only then did Wen Shi straighten up and cast a look around him.
Originally, he thought that he would see the mannequin that Xia Qiao was possessing. Instead, he discovered seven or eight unfamiliar men and women, either squatting or standing as they huddled in the very back of the shop. They stared at him without blinking with eyes that were both frightened and innocent.
Exactly as if they had just seen a ghost.
“What’s going on?” Wen Shi unconsciously uttered his thoughts out loud.
“This cage is a bit troublesome. It roped in a lot of people, and they’ve been trapped here for quite a few days now,” someone explained.
This voice sounded somewhat familiar.
Wen Shi glanced over and recognized that the person speaking was Zhang Biling.
There was also a teenager crouched at her side, and he shot Wen Shi a nasty look.
It was that bratty son of hers who had once said Chen Budao “met a miserable end.”
“Why are you in here?” Wen Shi asked, but then he thought of something a beat later. “You’re the one who took the umbrella?”
Zhang Biling looked faintly embarrassed. She forced a smile and patted her bratty son’s head. “My son mistakenly barged his way in here a few days ago, so…”
No wonder she said something had come up at the last minute, which was why she couldn’t go to send off Shen Qiao.
Wen Shi nodded and asked another question. “Did I hear Xia Qiao’s voice just now?”
“Ah, right.” Zhang Biling said, “He was the one calling out to you. I was afraid that if someone else did it, you would grow wary instead and wouldn’t come in.”
“Where is he?” Wen Shi peered around the room.
“Over here, ge.” Xia Qiao’s voice was completely lifeless, and it was clear from the sound of it that he had suffered.
Wen Shi turned his head in the direction of the voice…
And saw the row of objects lining the wall.
How to put it—there wasn’t a huge difference per se, as this was also a type of human mannequin. Except it was the sort used specially in stores that sold jeans, so it only had legs, and it was the kind that couldn’t move at that.
After all, if it could move, it would immediately end up in the splits.
Xia Qiao was frozen there, just like that, his legs spread wide apart. He asked resentfully, “Wen-ge, where’s Boss Xie?”
Wen Shi: “…on my back.”
Xia Qiao was stunned.
Xie Wen was shaking on Wen Shi’s back, his voice smothered in his chest. He had been laughing for a while now.
Lowering his head, he said at a volume that only Wen Shi could hear, “Great technique, it’s a pity not to pass it on. When you have time, teach it to me too.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Do you want to die?