Arc Three: Wangquan Road
No one taught me that.
The words were already in Wen Shi’s mouth, but he didn’t say them out loud because he sensed that Xie Wen wasn’t very happy.
He subconsciously peered outside the door—
The shutter door was half in the way, so his field of vision was limited. Apart from the battered, dark storefront of the shop diagonally opposite from this one, he couldn’t see anything else. Naturally, he had no way of knowing what Xie Wen had encountered before coming here.
Wen Shi frowned and said, puzzled, “Did someone provoke you?”
For a brief moment, Xie Wen was startled.
He seemingly hadn’t expected for Wen Shi to have this kind of reaction, and he paused slightly as he propped up the shutter door.
The incandescent lights in the store were too pale, making his eyes appear dark black but veiled with a thin glimmer. He stood silently under the lights, and there was a long pause before he abruptly snapped out of it.
He averted his face and gave a huff of laughter. Probably because it was too light, the smile didn’t reach his eyes and disappeared in an instant.
“Perhaps.” Xie Wen lowered his hand from the door and straightened upright. “The fragrance diffuser in the store I was just at had a terrible smell. It was exactly the type that I dislike the most.”
He angled himself to the side to make room and said, “Are you done looking around? If you are, then come out, don’t hinder the old woman from closing the door.”
The white cotton thread tied to the outside of the shutter door fell loosely onto the ground. Wen Shi watched him for a moment before he withdrew the string.
As he wrapped it back around his fingers, he walked out of the store.
The old lady stared unblinkingly at him with filmy eyes. The instant Wen Shi stepped out of the shop, she picked up a rusty hook and pulled down the shutter door.
“Why close the store?” Xie Wen asked.
The old lady froze. She subconsciously swept a glance somewhere behind her and rambled, “Can’t be open, can’t be open. He doesn’t sell good things, can’t be open.”
After that, she ambled sluggishly away, still holding onto the hook.
With every step she took, the hook rattled against the ground, creating a scraping noise that was both high-pitched and crisp, as if it was boring into your brain.
Someone let out a soft cry nearby.
Wen Shi looked over to see Zhou Xu and Xia Qiao standing there, one in the front and one in the back.
It seemed like Zhou Xu really couldn’t stand the sound of metal raking against the ground, and he rubbed at his goosebumps as he hopped around, sucking in air between his teeth. Xia Qiao was right next to him, tracking him with his gaze as he would a thief.
“Why did you two come over here?” Wen Shi asked.
“Only you’re allowed to walk this way? I can’t?” Like a goose flapping its wings, Zhou Xu instantly retaliated with a peck.
Xia Qiao tattled, “Ge, he insisted on following you, so I was just trying to see what he was up to.”
Zhou Xu: “Who’s following him? I was feeling stuffy from being in there for so long and came out to get some fresh air, is there a problem with that?”
Xia Qiao was stunned. “You need to get fresh air even in a place like this? Then do you get up in the morning to run?”
Zhou Xu: “I—”
Zhou Xu: “…fuck.”
Most likely due to Zhou Xu being slightly younger than him, Xia Qiao was able to maintain a somewhat imposing aura. He might not be able to suppress Zhou Xu, but it was at least fifty-fifty.
Wen Shi watched them bristle and throw jabs at each other before he glanced off into the distance briefly.
On one side behind them, there was a straight corridor that stretched directly towards them; on the other side, there was the curved hallway. The circular area in the middle was completely dark, and no shops were open.
Staring at the dark and gloomy outline of the corridor, Wen Shi suddenly noticed something. Just now, Xie Wen had come over from that direction… where was that store with the unpleasant-smelling fragrance diffuser?
He finally realized that Xie Wen’s earlier unhappiness really might have been purely due to him sneaking into a half-sealed space all on his own.
If that was the case, that was somewhat surprising, because they weren’t actually all that close yet.
The old lady departed with her hook, and Xie Wen followed after her, not too close but not too far.
Wen Shi looked at his figure from behind, frowned, and strode quickly over to him.
“What’s the rush?” Xie Wen peered at the long, pitch-black hallway behind them. “You’re not scared of the dark, are you?”
Wen Shi thought.
He pressed his lips together and didn’t speak. Instead, he slowed down and started following the old lady with Xie Wen.
After walking for a while, he said, “When I went into that store, I already had the cotton thread tied to the outside of the door.”
His eyebrows were still furrowed, because he felt that explaining this kind of thing to someone else was a little… odd.
The sealed spaces in a cage were very dangerous. It wasn’t too bad if there were a lot of people with you, but if you were by yourself, it was quite likely that you would end up trapped inside that space for a long time. Of course he knew that, which was why he had left himself a way out well in advance. He hadn’t actually barged in rashly and recklessly.
Xie Wen let out an “oh.”
His expression was the same as usual, as if he had already tossed his previous unhappiness to the back of his mind.
Since Xie Wen didn’t say anything else, Wen Shi naturally wouldn’t add to that explanation either. They continued walking along quietly, with the subtle feeling of being at a stalemate.
Though Zhou Xu and Xia Qiao were a bit brainless, they were still sensitive. They could sense the strangely tense atmosphere and didn’t dare to get too close, shuffling along in the back five or six meters behind.
Those two people weren’t talking, so they also inexplicably didn’t have the guts to speak up.
The entire hallway was submerged in silence. Only the noise of the hook scraping against the ground continued to echo slowly and sluggishly.
It was quite some time later when Wen Shi suddenly spoke. Under the cover of the night, his voice sounded low and clear.
He said, “Did I know you in the past?”
Xie Wen’s footsteps paused, and he lifted his half-lowered eyes very slightly.
“Why do you say that?” He looked over.
“No particular reason.” Wen Shi replied, “It suddenly came to mind, so I asked.”
Xie Wen nodded.
His gaze landed on some invisible spot in the distance. A moment passed before he chuckled and said to Wen Shi, “You didn’t, or else you would at least have some impression of me, right?”
This wasn’t actually an unreasonable assumption. Apart from some things and people from the very beginning that Wen Shi couldn’t remember, he could recall everything else clearly.
As for those people he had forgotten… they were long gone now.
The sound of something heavy being dragged across the floor suddenly came from the side, and Wen Shi turned to look in that direction.
The old lady had arrived at her own store and was dragging a cumbersome leather chair out from inside.
The leather chair was a weird shape. At first glance, it seemed like an office chair, but its base was a thick lump that didn’t have any wheels, making it very difficult to move.
It left behind rusty streaks on the floor, a reddish-brown color, as an unpleasant odor slowly seeped out.
The smell wasn’t that strong and was hardly discernible, but it made people feel quite uncomfortable. Even Wen Shi’s expression tightened.
After following them over, “Young Lady Zhou” immediately made a retching noise and retreated a significant distance. He trampled over Xia Qiao’s feet with every step, to the point that Xia Qiao’s face went green and he pushed him away.
“What the hell is this,” Zhou Xu grumbled hatefully.
Without bothering to turn his head, Wen Shi said softly, “Blood.”
Blood that had been soaked and steeped for a very long time.
Zhou Xu: “Blech—”
Xie Wen, who appeared to be the most frail and aristocratic of them all, was unexpectedly the one who adjusted to it the best. His expression didn’t change in the slightest, nor did he hold his breath, as if this kind of scene was a common occurrence for him.
The old woman pushed the chair outside of her shop and into a darkened corner before she hobbled her way back. She kept mumbling the same few phrases over and over.
As she passed them, Wen Shi ducked his head and listened closely. He heard her say, “It’s almost my turn, it’s almost my turn, it’s about to be my turn…”
What did that mean?
What did ‘her turn’ refer to?
Was it… the closing down of her shop and disappearance, just like that fat store owner from before?
Wen Shi walked over to the corner, where that abandoned seat was sitting quietly.
He sniffed at the bloody smell before he gathered his concentration and closed his eyes.
At that moment, a deathly pale woman abruptly appeared on top of the empty seat. Her hair was draped over her face in a disheveled mess, and she shot forwards at an angle toward Wen Shi.
The instant her hair was parted by inertia, Wen Shi saw her twisted, ghastly white face—her dark eyes were opened extremely wide, and her mouth was gaping too, like the yawning entrance of a cave.
Her arms were extended straight in front of her, and her fingers were stretched taut, as if she was trying to scratch him.
But a black object was strapped slanted across her body, and it appeared to be restricting her movements. A second later, she was slammed fiercely back into the chair as she let out a screech.
All of a sudden, something patted Wen Shi on the shoulder.
His eyes flashed open, and he turned his head to see Zhang Biling.
“Didn’t I tell you guys not to run around?” Zhang Biling said a bit helplessly, “This cage is a little strange. You all probably can’t tell and think that it’s pretty tranquil, but many things are a bit abnormal. For example, that old lady who just opened her store—I saw that you guys seemed to be talking to her a moment ago. How would that happen in an ordinary cage? The cage master would’ve long since started attacking you guys.”
She wasn’t actually wrong. After Wen Shi had made a trip around, the feeling of something being off had grown more and more obvious.
Generally speaking, when dead people became cage masters, the majority of them weren’t willing to accept the fact that they were already dead. That was why objects related to death usually didn’t show up in cages, such as portraits of the deceased.
But the store that had just closed was full of those portraits. Then, because it had “sold bad things,” it was forcefully shut down.
In addition, most of the people in cages were extensions of the cage master’s consciousness. To put it frankly, they all acted in accordance to the cage master’s thoughts.
But the fat store owner, the man who said he “still hadn’t eaten yet,” and this old lady… all the store owners seemed to be hiding from that woman so she wouldn’t find them.
This was very odd.
The various clues were all quite contradictory, almost as if… the cage master would sometimes think one thing before switching over to the opposite side, like they were competing with themselves.
“Are you listening to me?” Zhang Biling raised her voice.
Wen Shi snapped out of it just in time to hear her advise earnestly, “The more that this is the case, the more you shouldn’t act rashly or impulsively.”
Wen Shi: “Oh.”
Zhang Biling: “…”
She massaged her forehead and sighed before she asked, “Forget it, I’ll leave it at that. Why are you standing here by yourself?”
Wen Shi: “I was examining this chair.”
Zhang Biling didn’t ask him anything else. She walked over to the chair herself and pulled out a paper talisman, which she wiped against the top of the chair.
Each family had their own way of handling things in cages, and Wen Shi didn’t interfere. He was only concerned that the woman would hurt Zhang Biling.
But when he closed his eyes again, that malevolent woman didn’t show up.
Instead, his stomach rumbled…
Not long after they entered the cage, he was already hungry.
Zhang Biling took back the talisman and returned to his side. Frowning, she said, “This looks like the driver’s seat of a car. It’s most likely the one that woman sat in when she was still alive, but I can’t make out anything beyond that.”
Startled, Wen Shi finally understood what was happening in that scene he just witnessed.
If he wasn’t mistaken, it should be depicting the round-faced driver having her car accident.
Objects related to the cage master’s death would appear bit by bit in someone’s store? And the moment it showed up, it meant that the respective store owner was about to disappear?
Wen Shi didn’t linger there any longer. He doubled back and asked Zhou Xu, “When you came into this cage, how many shops were open over here?”
Zhou Xu: “Didn’t count.”
Wen Shi thought, Sure enough, he’s a little good-for-nothing, utterly useless.
Most likely because Wen Shi’s scornful expression was too evident, Zhou Xu spoke again. “In any case, there were definitely more then than there are now.”
Wen Shi: “…”
“Don’t look at me like that.” Zhou Xu warily took a step back and bluntly pushed Xia Qiao in front of him. “Why would I count the number of shops for no reason? At the time, I was also frantically running for my life, who would have the time to do that! I only remember that there was a rice noodle shop open next to this old lady, but now it’s gone.”
“You had time to look at the rice noodle shop when you were running for your life?” Xia Qiao asked seriously.
“Would I even need to look at it?! I could smell it, it was that strong, and super fragrant too.” As Zhou Xu spoke, he felt a bit wronged. “I argued with my mom that day and left without eating dinner. That rice noodle store’s broth was especially rich, and they definitely put beef meatballs or beef tendon balls in it. I really like eating it, so I knew the moment I smelled it.”
He ended up making himself hungry from his words, and he swallowed his saliva before he pointed at something slightly further away. “There should be a store open around the corner over there as well. When I first ran past it, the light from that store blinded me.”
Wen Shi: “Why didn’t you say that sooner?”
Zhou Xu: “How would I know, you guys didn’t ask either!”
Wen Shi stopped paying attention to him. He felt like his conjecture earlier was more or less accurate; there should’ve been many stores open in this shopping mall originally before they started closing one by one.
As they were conversing, the sound of chewing abruptly came from nearby.
Everyone looked over to see the old lady sitting on a little folding stool in the store entryway. She held a plastic container and was eating quietly from it.
“What’s she eating?” Zhou Xu asked.
“Meat.” Xie Wen said. His eyesight was excellent, and even though he was clearly standing farther away than the rest, he could make out what was going on more distinctly than anyone else… the main thing was that he didn’t have any psychological burdens and really did dare to look, as well as describe what he was seeing.
“Spare ribs, and meatballs. Probably beef meatballs or beef tendon balls.” Xie Wen spoke at a leisurely pace, as if he was narrating an eating livestream for the old lady.
Wen Shi was currently starving, and listening to Xie Wen very much made him want to hit him.
Xie Wen suddenly let out a light “ah” and said, “She bit down onto a ring.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Xia Qiao instantly went limp.
Zhou Xu: “Blech—I don’t ever fucking want to eat meat again in my life.”