Arc Three: Wangquan Road
Zhou Xu was in the middle of a breakdown when a voice floated over from nearby that was even more on the verge of a breakdown than he was. “Blech—”
He turned his head and saw the spare rib-eating old woman holding a trash can, throwing up more exaggeratedly than anyone else.
Zhou Xu: “?”
The old woman’s plastic container fell onto the floor, spilling the food inside of it everywhere.
Each grain of rice was distinctly separated, since it had been mixed with broth. A bit of sauce was saturated in it as well, causing it to emit a strong aroma that made them twitch their fingers with hunger but feel a bit disgusted at the same time.
The minced spare rib meat had a glossy sheen to it, and the brittle bones were white as snow. The meatballs bounced a few times before they started rolling around on the floor.
A simple gold ring also rolled along with the meatballs.
Xia Qiao’s lips were pale, and he jumped back to avoid it.
He feared this kind of noise the most—the rumble of marbles or metal objects dropping onto the ground and rolling about, so crisply that it sounded like it was taking place right in his eardrums.
He would often startle awake in the middle of the night and hear this noise come from right above his head, as if there was some child who refused to sleep and was instead crouched upstairs, messing around. But there were only empty guest rooms on the second floor of his home, so there was no way anyone could be in there.
The ring rolled in a circle before winding its way back to the old woman’s feet.
Just like that, as if on purpose, it toppled over next to her black cloth shoes, and a soft metallic clatter rang out.
The old lady shuddered, still hugging the trash can, and didn’t lift her head.
The others itched to back up even further and stay as far as they possibly could from that thing, but Wen Shi crouched down and began examining it.
Seeing how calm and collected Wen Shi was, Zhou Xu didn’t want to give in either, and he also stretched his head closer.
The ring was plain and didn’t have any patterns on it, but half of it was covered with bloodstains. There was a faint coppery stink of blood that was a bit pungent.
The half of the ring that wasn’t coated in blood was very shiny. Under the glow of the lights, it vaguely reflected their figures.
Originally, it should’ve only shown Wen Shi and Zhou Xu, but behind their two blurry reflections, there was another face framed by shoulder-length hair.
The face drew closer, and its features were slowly magnified. From an indistinct pale face with long hair, two hole-like eyes vividly appeared. Blood also trickled sluggishly down from the cavities.
Zhou Xu was scared out of his mind, and with a shriek, he collapsed onto his butt.
His head whipped around—
Only to see Zhang Biling standing close behind him.
“Fucking hell, who the fuck are you?!” Zhou Xu asked, terrified.
Zhang Biling: “…”
“I’m your mom.” Normally, Zhang Biling was very gentle and polite, but it seemed like she truly couldn’t be all that kind to her bratty son. “You’re itching for a beating, huh?”
Zhou Xu was given quite a scare by her just now, and he wasn’t able to recover for some time. He kept eyeing his own mother strangely as he scrambled back in a hurry and frantically found someone to latch onto.
He trembled for a while before he finally realized he was holding onto Xia Qiao.
As Xia Qiao quivered with him, he said, “How come you seem to be even more cowardly than me?”
“Pah! That’s complete bullshit,” Zhou Xu spat and swore as he let go of Xia Qiao.
Zhang Biling pointed at him. “Try saying another curse word and see what happens?!”
Zhou Xu straightened his neck and didn’t say anything. But as stubborn as he was, his face was still deathly pale, and it was clear he had been viciously frightened by something.
As they were speaking, the old lady finally lifted her head from the trash can.
She clutched her chest and leaned against the wall, murmuring quietly, “Scared me to death, scared me to death… it’s fine, it’s fine… it must’ve been an accident, an accident… I have – I have to pick it up and send it down.”
Everyone was a bit puzzled listening to her talk.
The old lady mumbled on for a bit before she opened her eyes at last and pulled out a crumpled handkerchief from her pocket.
She glanced at the ring, so quickly that there was no way she could’ve seen it clearly. Then she averted her face, fumbled around next to her feet, and picked up the ring using the handkerchief. She wrapped it tightly in the cloth, as if she couldn’t bear to look at it for another second.
The old woman stood up and picked up the sharp hook near the door. It clattered and scraped against the ground as she started shuffling away.
Of course, Wen Shi followed her. But after only a short distance, he heard a series of footsteps come from behind him.
He turned his head and saw that all the people in the cage had followed after him, even those people who had been trapped here for many days.
“You all aren’t afraid?” he asked.
“The old lady isn’t too bad.” The man with the checkered shirt said, “It seems like she herself was scared witless, so she isn’t that frightening anymore. Also…”
Also, for some reason, he felt like he was suddenly full of curiosity and really wanted to follow this old woman.
The old lady stopped in front of a certain nook in the wall.
That was an old-fashioned elevator. She reached out, pressed the button, and the elevator rattled to life.
The elevator’s metal doors reflected everyone’s figures. They were all warped, distorted, and very elongated, making them seem completely foreign.
Fear still lingered inside of Zhou Xu. As a result, everyone seemed somewhat off to him, and he couldn’t help but repeatedly glance behind himself.
The worst situation was for cowards to gather together.
Xia Qiao was influenced by him and also became overly paranoid. He felt as if everyone else’s eyes were lifeless as they stared fixedly at the elevator.
Abruptly, the elevator let out a ding, and the metal doors slowly opened.
An aged scent of decay wafted out from inside. Xia Qiao grimaced, and his intuition told him this wasn’t a very good idea.
All of a sudden, someone knocked into his shoulder.
He swiveled his head, only to see Checkered Shirt and the rest head straight towards the elevator, on the verge of following the old woman inside.
Xia Qiao’s eyes widened. Before he could react, he heard someone sigh.
The person who sighed was Zhang Biling.
She had entered quite a few cages before, so naturally she knew what was going on here. These people didn’t actually want to enter the elevator; rather, they were being “pushed” inside, because the cage master’s subconsciousness wanted all strangers to disappear.
Anyone would be affected at that moment, but the only difference was by how much.
Even she was dazed briefly. By the time she snapped out of it, she had already taken two steps forward.
The person at the front of the group had one foot in the elevator by now. At this point, even if she were to pull out her talismans and fling them over, it was already too late.
In the blink of an eye, the elevator doors would close, and those people would be split right down the middle by them.
If only there was someone more powerful present, Zhang Biling thought.
She remembered how she had once entered a cage with Zhang Lan before and had also encountered this kind of situation. Zhang Lan had been affected for less than two seconds, so of course they had only been given a scare and nothing more.
If only she were here.
Zhang Biling still hastily reached for her talismans, despite knowing that it was too late to do anything.
Just as her fingertips grazed the talismans, she felt something whistle narrowly past her, accompanied by the violent sound of cleaving wind.
She looked up and saw that the group of people had been bound together by a few lines of slender, white thread. Then, someone forcibly dragged them all back a step.
The elevator doors closed heavily with a shockingly loud metallic screech.
Those people startled awake and stared at the elevator doors in front of them, completely speechless.
Checkered Shirt was at the very front, so the elevator doors had just barely brushed by the tip of his nose. Soon after, he felt liquid start streaming down his nose, splattering in droplets onto the ground.
He lowered his head, alarmed, and spotted the thread wrapped around them, as well as the blood dripping onto the floor.
If the person who had tied them together was the slightest bit slower, it probably wouldn’t be blood falling onto the ground right now. Instead, it would be their limbs and heads.
“Wh-what’s going on?!”
“W-why am I standing in front of the elevator?”
All of their minds went blank. By the time they came back to themselves, they were already slumped on the floor, unable to stand.
Zhang Biling gripped the talismans that she wasn’t able to use in time, and her gaze traveled back along the lines of long thread. The first thing she saw was a pair of hands.
Those hands were extremely good-looking, its fingers long and straight. Because the hands were lean and thin, the bones on the back of the hands were distinctly defined. With the fine white thread twisted around fingers like those, it seemed as if they wouldn’t tremble no matter how much weight they held in their grasp, exuding a cold, taut, and austere aura.
They looked like the hands of a top-tier puppet master.
Zhang Biling recalled the description that she had once read in one of the Zhang family’s ancient texts.
Then she lifted her eyes and saw Wen Shi’s face.
“You…” Zhang Biling asked softly, “Were you not affected just now?”
Wen Shi glanced at her and paused for a moment before he said, “Is that possible?”
“T-then, how did you have time to pull them back?”
“Fast hands.” Wen Shi said.
Zhang Biling gradually snapped out of it. For a second there, she was about to suspect that this young man was actually extraordinarily skilled. But then she thought about it again: would someone unusually talented follow Shen Qiao? And would they not even be able to get on the name register mural?
After that initial surge of confusion passed, she replayed the moment the accident had almost taken place, and she felt like Wen Shi hadn’t really reacted that fast after all.
Clanking noises came from the elevator that had nearly just sliced someone in half as it slowly headed downstairs.
The people outside of the elevator doors were either paralyzed or stunned, and they stayed still for quite a while.
Wen Shi lowered his hands and reeled the thread back in before he turned his head and saw Xie Wen standing next to the railing, peering down at the levels below.
He was about to walk over when he heard a gruff, brassy voice ask, “Are you a puppet master?”
It was Zhou Xu again, this useless good-for-nothing.
“No.” Wen Shi said flatly.
Zhou Xu was fooled by his bluff. “No? Then what path do you cultivate?”
Wen Shi said disdainfully, “The cat’s cradle path.”
Zhou Xu: “…”
With that, Zhou Xu’s smidge of curiosity was obliterated, only leaving behind an urge to argue. “Can you make any puppets? The kind that are alive.”
None of your damn business. Wen Shi didn’t feel like paying any attention to this bratty thing.
But then Xia Qiao, this fool, couldn’t bear to see other people looking down on Wen Shi, so he piped up and said, “Of course he can.”
The look in Zhou Xu’s eyes changed, revealing some admiration, but he quickly reverted back to his usual contemptuous attitude. “Are you serious?”
Xia Qiao: “Why would I lie to you?”
Zhou Xu asked again, “Then how many puppets can you control at the same time?”
Xia Qiao opened and closed his mouth before he looked at Wen Shi, because he didn’t know either. “Ge, what does that mean? The more puppets, the stronger you are?”
“No kidding!” Every time Zhou Xu said anything, he acted like he was proudly boasting. “Normal puppet masters only have one puppet each, and you can tell if they’re powerful or not based on how long those puppets exist. The puppets that strong puppet masters make can last for a decade or even several decades. There are also some abnormal ones, the super badass ones, who can create more than two human-like puppets at the same time. My uncle is one of them, he can simultaneously control six puppets.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Here we go again, bragging first about your aunt and then about your uncle. What a pity, he didn’t know either of them.
Originally, Zhou Xu was hoping that once he said that, he would be the recipient of a few envious looks. Unfortunately, the two people in front of him didn’t know a damn thing.
Xia Qiao stared blankly at him for a little before he finally responded. “You already said that normal puppet masters can only make one puppet, and that you have to be super, super badass to be able to control two at the same time. Yet you’re still asking how many my ge can control? What are you trying to say?”
Zhou Xu managed to obtain a scrap of superiority from Xia Qiao’s questioning. He sniffed and said, “I’m just asking. It’s not like I said my uncle’s the only one who can do that. As far as I know, besides him, there are a few others who are also pretty strong, but he’s currently the one who can control the most puppets right now.”
Xia Qiao: “What do you mean by currently?”
“Like, among the people who are alive.”
“Then someone could control even more in the past?”
“Yeah.” Zhou Xu probably felt like it wasn’t shameful to lose out to an old ancestor, so he didn’t bother hiding anything. “In the books, it said that the strongest puppet master could once control twelve puppets at the same time.”
“WTF” was written across Xia Qiao’s face. Actually, he didn’t really understand, but he could still sense how incredible that person must’ve been from Zhou Xu’s words.
“But that’s all stuff from long, long ago, and it’s been a lost art for ages. There’s no way someone could achieve that nowadays.” Zhou Xu covertly emphasized his uncle’s brilliance again.
Xia Qiao was still feeling deeply impressed about that ancestor, and he asked, “It can’t be that the most powerful puppet master was the honorable founder, right?”
Upon hearing the words ‘honorable founder,’ Zhou Xu had a bit of a strange reaction, stuck somewhere between fear, reverence, and not wanting to hear those words at all.
He nodded before he shook his head and said, “There’s someone else too, from the earliest group of disciples, who was also a legend. Named Wen Shi.”
Xia Qiao: “…who???”
His voice cracked, and Wen Shi smacked him on the back of his head.
Zhou Xu shot him a look. “Why’re you so jumpy? Something wrong with you?”
Xia Qiao turned his head towards Wen Shi.
Wen Shi pointed at those people who almost lost their lives and said, “If you’re really this bored, then go put them back in that room and stay there.”
After he said that, he glanced at Xie Wen.
Xie Wen seemed quite interested in their noisy debate and had been listening to their conversation for a while. He appeared to be a little lost in thought, but who knew what was going on inside his head.
He swiftly noticed Wen Shi’s gaze, but he remained silent and allowed Wen Shi to watch him for some time before he finally said, “Do you have some request that’s very difficult for you to voice, which is why you insist on looking at me like that?”
Wen Shi: “…”
He was originally already planning to speak, but with Xie Wen’s interference, he immediately shut his mouth and turned on his heel to walk away.
Only then did the elevator reach the first floor. With a ding, the doors gradually opened.
The old lady walked out, using the pole attached to the sharp hook as support, shifting forward bit by bit.
There weren’t any lights in the shopping mall’s emergency stairwell, just a green exit sign that gave off an extremely dim glow. Wen Shi pushed open the door and went inside before he started walking down the stairs by himself, wanting to go to the first floor to see what was going on.
Not long after he entered, he heard the door slam again from above him.
Xie Wen’s voice echoed in the quiet, narrow staircase, deep and low, very pleasing to the ear. “Why walk so fast.”
“Why’d you follow me?” Wen Shi gripped the staircase banister and came to a halt.
“No particular reason.” Xie Wen’s voice drew closer. “There are fewer people in here, so it should be more convenient for you to talk.”
Wen Shi watched as a tall and slender figure approached him, stopping when he was only one step above Wen Shi’s. Then, that gentle, deep voice sounded once more, and he said, “Are you hungry again?”
Yan: Just a reminder that nobody else knows Wen Shi’s name right now except Xia Qiao (and Xie Wen)~ also I don’t know if this was a point of confusion at all but Zhou Xu’s a teen, not a kid LOL he just behaves like a brat.
I’m gonna try and post next week’s chapter on time but since it’s the first VIP chapter, it’s three times as long as usual :’) we will see! I don’t like separating chapters into parts, so at worst it might come out a bit later than normal ^^