Arc One: An Old Friend in the World of Mortals
Put up for rent???
What a rotten idea, of course you’re the one who came up with that. Wen Shi clearly didn’t approve.
If he was unhappy, it was obvious on his face, as it became ice-cold. The shortie was a little dumbfounded by the chilliness, and he said, embarrassed, “Is that not a good idea?”
“What’s good about it?” Wen Shi said.
A question mark slowly appeared above the shortie’s head.
Wen Shi stood there facing him for quite a long time before he finally fully realized that that clever Shen Qiao was already no longer there.
In the past, the thought only had to enter his mind for Shen Qiao to have already understood what he meant. It had spoiled Wen Shi to the point that he only had to say one word and could stubbornly refuse to say two; but that wasn’t the case anymore. He had to vocalize everything that he was thinking.
So he said, “Do you know what it is that we do? If you find two normal tenants, and they happen to see some things later and scream so loud that the entire neighborhood can hear it, are you trying to scare the tenants or someone else?”
The shortie: “I’m sorry.”
This person’s brain wasn’t up to speed, but he was very quick to apologize. Wen Shi’s expression thawed a bit, and he was just going to leave it at that when the other person added, crestfallen, “The main thing is that the appraised rent money is really pretty good. With two rooms, we can get over 7,000 yuan1.”
Wen Shi: “…”
His concept of prices was still stuck in 1995. When he heard that number, he was rendered momentarily silent before he turned around and started walking away.
The shortie timidly followed after him. When he saw that Wen Shi was about to enter the villa’s front door, he couldn’t help but ask, “Um… so this means?”
Wen Shi didn’t bother looking back. “Pretend like I didn’t say anything.”
Might as well just find tenants. If they got scared, oh well, not like it was his problem.
He was tall and his legs were long, so he walked quickly. But once he actually arrived at the front of the villa, he came to an abrupt stop.
When the shortie saw that Wen Shi wasn’t entering, he was about to ask what was wrong when he suddenly remembered something Grandpa Shen Qiao had said—
He said that at their core, panguan were human. While humans were alive, it was very difficult to remain completely unsullied. Even the slightest bit of carelessness would stain them with some filth. In ancient times, panguan actually had an unusual amount of rules to abide by, and there was even etiquette to follow when entering someone’s residence. In essence, when entering a place that had an owner, they needed an invitation to enter in order to display their respect and to also differentiate themselves from those monsters and demons.
When a dead person invited a panguan in, the dead had to burn silver leaf with the panguan’s name written on it. The living didn’t have to go through so much trouble; a spoken invitation would do.
However, nowadays almost no one cared about that anymore, and the rules had long since been abandoned.
Just a moment ago, the shortie was thinking that Wen Shi had a bad temper and wasn’t very easy to get along with. Now, seeing Wen Shi grip the silvery white umbrella handle and wait quietly and coolly at the bottom of the stairs, he felt like this person that his grandpa had served really was somewhat different.
“Let’s go inside,” the shortie tried. “Will saying it like that work?”
Wen Shi was in the middle of coming up with a mental outline for teaching the teenager what to do, so he was startled when he heard that. Afterwards, he lowered his eyes and put away the umbrella before ascending the stairs.
“Have you never been here before?”
“No.” Wen Shi walked into the living room and looked around.
Every time he returned from death and came out from the Gate of Oblivion once more, he would grow from a child into a young man in a very short span of time. After that, he wouldn’t change any further, wearing the same appearance all the way until he died. As a result, he had wandered to quite a few places with Shen Qiao, switching it up every ten or twenty years. In 1995, they were still in Xi’an and had just finished making plans to move to Ningzhou the next year, but he hadn’t been able to hang on until they left.
There were very few visitors who came to offer their condolences in the villa.
Shen Qiao’s memorial portrait was placed in the middle of the living room, and tall yellow-white talismans hung on either side of it. As long as someone bowed and bent their head to the portrait, the two people sitting in the chairs to the east and west would chant the visitor’s name once before playing the suona, gongs, and drums for a while.
Besides that, there weren’t many things in the living room; what’s more, those spiritual items had all dispersed. Anyone who was an insider would know upon entering the villa that this family was particularly…. poor.
A long drawing covered the south-facing wall, nearly occupying the entire surface. It was a word mural—or a mural that had words embedded in it. People who couldn’t understand would only be able to see the mural’s art, but people who understood knew that this was a name register for everyone in the panguan profession in the human world.
From the honorable founder, to which people the line had been passed down to, to which branches and sects those lines had split into; it was all on the mural. Every single person who was in this profession had such a mural in their home.
Wen Shi spotted his own name, followed by his disciple’s, and then his disciple’s disciple’s… all the way to Shen Qiao. The entire line was written in red, meaning that the person in question had already passed away.
“It took me six years before I could read this mural,” the shortie said, aggrieved.
Wen Shi thought, You’re dumb enough, no wonder this branch of mine wasn’t passed on and ended up dying out.
His gaze landed on the space behind Shen Qiao’s name, and he frowned as he tapped that place. “How come there’s a blotch of ink here?”
The shortie’s face instantly reddened, and he mumbled, “I didn’t know better before. When I saw that my name wasn’t on here, I filled it in myself.”
Only later did he realize that this painting was alive, so there was no point even if he filled it in on his own. It would just become a stain and nothing more.
Wen Shi stared at that spot and tried to distinguish the characters for quite some time before he finally recognized that scrawled name—Xia Qiao.
He suspected that the only reason Shen Qiao took in this precious disciple of his was because their names were similar, and he had been blinded by the clutches of destiny.
There was an incense altar next to the name register mural, worshipping a ferocious, colorful portrait. The person in the portrait was holding a white plum branch, which truly didn’t fit with his vexed yaksha-like appearance2 and made the branch seem extremely out of place.
Three slender but powerful characters were written at the edge of the portrait—Chen Budao.
“The honorable founder’s name is quite unique,” said the shortie, Xia Qiao.
“This is his official name.” Wen Shi said, “Only those who are half-immortal have such a thing.”
“Then what’s his real name?”
Wen Shi looked at the mural before he cast his eyes downwards a moment later and drew out three incense sticks. He ignited them and bowed three times. “Who knows.”
“Why are they worshipping that thing?” a hoarse voice suddenly interjected.
Wen Shi inserted the incense sticks before he turned to see a fourteen or fifteen-year-old teenager standing not too far away. The teenager pointed at the founder’s portrait and asked the middle-aged woman next to him, “Didn’t they say that you can’t worship him? If you do, you’ll meet a miserable end—”
Before he could finish his sentence, the middle-aged woman clamped the unlucky child’s mouth shut. She hushed him and chided quietly, “What have I told you before? Watch your words!”
She glared at him and squeezed out the last few words from between her teeth; it was quite threatening.
After that, she raised her head and smiled apologetically. It wasn’t clear whether she was talking to Xia Qiao or the portrait, but she said, “I’m sorry, children don’t know better, don’t take his words seriously.”
“Oh, it’s fine, it’s fine.” Xia Qiao quickly waved his hands.
Like hell it was fine.
Wen Shi wanted to say something, but when he saw Xia Qiao’s cowardly appearance, he somehow got the feeling that doing so would just be a waste of breath, and he didn’t feel like speaking anymore.
Once the woman was done restraining her son, she went over to Shen Qiao’s memorial portrait and bowed hastily. The funeral musicians at the side sang, “Of the Zhang clan and Xu sect’s branch, Zhang Biling.”
“This name sounds familiar,” Xia Qiao murmured softly. He turned and swept a glance over the name register mural; sure enough, he found that Zhang Biling. Her line was a bit above Wen Shi’s.
“Wen… um.” Xia Qiao wanted to call out to Wen Shi, but he didn’t know how to address him. If he called him ge, then his hierarchy with Shen Qiao would get messed up. If he didn’t call him ge… should he call him grandpa instead???
“I don’t have a name?” Wen Shi looked at him coldly.
“I don’t dare to call it.” Xia Qiao put on an obedient appearance and quietly asked him a question that he had been wondering about for an extremely long time. “Since this name register mural is alive, it changes sometimes, and the names below will rise up. But our family’s line has always steadily stayed at the very bottom. Is it because of a lengthy seniority?”
Wen Shi: “…”
He shot a look at Xia Qiao like he was looking at a moron and said, “It doesn’t depend on seniority, it depends on the living descendants of each line.”
Xia Qiao: “And then?”
Wen Shi: “The more powerful they are, the higher their position.”
Xia Qiao: “Then the ones at the very bottom…”
He saw the awful expression in Wen Shi’s eyes and silently shut up. He understood now—this name register mural was just like a ranking list. Ever since Shen Qiao took Xia Qiao in, Wen Shi’s line was destined to stay sunken at the very bottom, and it had already been that way for many years.
No wonder there had been less and less people in recent years coming by to have dealings with the Shen family. Those who visited to offer their condolences were even fewer, and they consisted more of ordinary neighbors than anyone else. As for those on the name register mural, this Zhang Biling was actually the first one to stop by.
Xia Qiao peeked furtively at Wen Shi, feeling a little guilty, as well as somewhat dejected.
Who knew where Wen Shi’s name used to be on the mural in the past, and who knew whether the other person would want to beat him to death after seeing its current placement?
Wen Shi did want to beat this useless piece of crap to death. But compared to that, he wanted to take a nice shower even more, and also eat something.
“Where’s the bathing room?” He patted Xia Qiao and said, “Lend me some clean clothes.”
“Oh, there’s some in the room, I’ll go get it for you.”
Wen Shi followed behind Xia Qiao. When he reached the hallway leading to the bedroom, he suddenly felt a little uncomfortable. It had already been a long time since he last experienced something like this, as if there was something staring straight at him.
He glanced behind him.
The field of view in the corridor was very narrow. He was only able to see the wide open door leading to another bedroom, as well as the slanting shadows of the people in the living room, cast on the ground.
“Wen…” Xia Qiao’s voice traveled out from inside the master bedroom. He struggled for a moment before he gave up and said, “Forget it, I should just call you Wen-ge. My apologies, my apologies, I’m not intentionally trying to mess up the hierarchy.”
He shook his clasped hands timidly several times towards the sky before he handed over a set of clean clothes.
Only then did Wen Shi retract his gaze from the shadows. He took the clothes and walked into the bathroom before he leaned against the door frame and started waiting.
Originally, Xia Qiao was going to return to the living room, but when he saw Wen Shi’s stance, his footsteps abruptly hesitated. “Aren’t you… going to wash up?”
“Then why… are you looking at me?”
“Waiting for water, a basin, and a towel.”
An eighteen-year-old Xia Qiao stared blankly at Wen Shi. A beat later, he suddenly became aware of the fact that there was a generation gap named ‘1995’ separating the two of them.
“Wait a moment, I’ll adjust the water for you.” Xia Qiao swiftly rolled into the bathroom and helped that old master adjust the hot water.
Wen Shi continued to lean against the door, his gaze falling on the floor tiles diagonally in front of him. That area was still murky and dim, reflecting the scene inside the living room. He couldn’t really make out anything wrong, but that feeling of being watched didn’t disappear from start to finish.
He looked at that spot for a while before he abruptly closed his eyes.
When ordinary people closed their eyes, all they ever saw was darkness. He was different; he saw even more things when his eyes were closed than when they were open.
“Wen-ge?” Xia Qiao unexpectedly patted him from behind. “Are you sleepy?”
Wen Shi opened his eyes and glanced behind him at the somewhat complex shower cubicle. The water had been running for a while, so the steam was already roiling densely.
“No. I’m going to shower, you can go now.”
Xia Qiao explained to him what everything laid out on the shelf was before he picked up his phone and started to walk out of the room.
Wen Shi stared at that brilliantly lit screen and, hearing it vibrate numerous times in a row, he asked, “What happened?”
“Oh.” As Xia Qiao typed at the speed of light, he said, “Didn’t I say that I listed the two free rooms online? Just then, a tenant contacted me asking to see the room. I’m describing the situation to him right now.”
Wen Shi’s eyes revealed his doubt. “You can contact someone using that?”
Xia Qiao lifted his head, his expression filled with even more doubt than Wen Shi’s. “…yeah. Is – is that not okay?”
“It’s fine.” Wen Shi regained his calmness and added nonchalantly, “I seem to remember using something different to contact others.”
Xia Qiao: “Then what did you use?”
Wen Shi thought a bit before he said, “A pager.”
Xia Qiao: “…”
He had once vowed to Shen Qiao that the generation gap wouldn’t be an issue, that he would be able to surpass it and make Wen-ge feel at home. But at that moment, he suddenly realized that this gap was a little freaking big, and his legs ached trying to cross it.
He contemplated briefly before he held out the screen in front of Wen Shi, so that this lordly master who died in 1995 could directly see the result.
In that span of time, the leasing agent just happened to send a voice message over: Mr. Xie said that he has time tomorrow night. Would that be convenient for you, sir?
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