Arc Three: Wangquan Road
Wen Shi was briefly taken aback before he flatly denied, “I’m not hungry.”
Xie Wen didn’t believe him. “Are you really not, or are you just pretending?”
Wen Shi didn’t say anything.
Actually, this truly wasn’t what he wanted to talk about, but he was no match for Xie Wen asking him that.
Perhaps it was because the stairwell was dark and quiet, or perhaps it was because Xie Wen was standing too close, his voice too low. Right now, he really couldn’t bear to hear Xie Wen talk.
But the other person ended up speaking again. “Alright, I’ll stop teasing you. As long as you’re not hungry, it’s fine. I—”
Wen Shi cut him off. “Stop talking.”
Xie Wen was caught off guard. “Why?”
Wen Shi rubbed the base of his ear, his face averted a little to the side. After a long stretch of silence, he finally turned his head back, brows furrowed. There was a faint trace of irritation in his voice. “Because the more you talk, the hungrier I get.”
The stairwell abruptly went quiet.
The sound of people conversing traveled vaguely down from the third floor, indistinct and indefinite, like a sort of whisper.
Xie Wen glanced above them for a second before he brought his gaze back down.
He looked down at Wen Shi for a while. “Then why do you have to hold yourself back?”
In an instant, the malevolent energy belonging to Xie Wen spilled out. It contained an extremely strong oppressive feeling, as if all the evil spirits were tangling together, but at the same time, it was light and soft, like a fog that had descended deep into the night. Wen Shi was completely enveloped within the black mist.
A misperception would often arise in this moment: it was as if he was being hugged very gently by someone.
But the only thing touching Wen Shi was the mist.
Those things seemed to be used to him already, and they rapidly surged into his body through his fingertips, alleviating that maddening hunger bit by bit.
Meanwhile, from beginning to end, Xie Wen stood there without moving, one step apart from Wen Shi. He neither approached him nor backed away.
For some reason, there was even more malevolent energy within Xie Wen than before, to the point that Wen Shi couldn’t see him clearly even with his eyes closed. He could only make out the golden Sanskrit-like markings circulating noiselessly, anchored amidst the karmic debt.
Wen Shi lifted his hand, wanting to brush aside the dense darkness, but instead, he accidentally bumped against something mildly cool in temperature.
He was fleetingly startled. Then, he suddenly realized that was Xie Wen’s hand, lowered at his side.
The hand seemed to hesitate briefly before it was lightly withdrawn.
The malevolent energy was abruptly sucked away. Wen Shi snapped out of it as well, and he swiftly drew back his own hand.
It was still completely dark in the stairwell, and people were still talking on the third floor, as if everything that had just taken place was merely an illusion.
Wen Shi didn’t speak. The hand he had pulled back was still wrapped in white cotton thread.
Xie Wen wasn’t wearing gloves in the cage, and his fingertips had felt very real to the touch. Their slight chill seemed to linger on Wen Shi’s fingers.
He frowned a little and stroked the area a few times with his thumb. The thin, crisscrossing strings were drawn taut between the joints of his fingers, tangled together a bit messily.
“Full now?” Xie Wen ended up opening his mouth first.
“Mn.” Wen Shi replied lowly.
In reality, he couldn’t be considered truly full either time, because both times had been hastily interrupted. But there was something very ambiguous about each interruption, and he couldn’t really explain it, so naturally he didn’t want to bring it up either.
Wen Shi cast his eyes down as he used his teeth to tear apart the thread around his fingers. While rebinding the string, he started walking down the stairs. “Going down?”
Xie Wen nodded and followed after him, lagging a few steps behind.
Wen Shi walked a short distance before he remembered that he had forgotten to thank Xie Wen this time.
But if he mentioned it now, it seemed to be a little out of the blue, so he had no choice but to drop it.
They quickly went downstairs without stopping once. In the blink of an eye, they exited through the emergency exit door on the first floor.
The light at the mall’s information desk was the sole source of light, and it could only illuminate half of the space. The old lady was hunched over there, shoulders hiked up as she fumbled around for something.
Because she was too skinny, her body always seemed to be empty, as if someone had draped burial clothes over a clothing rack. It was truly enough to make a more timid person feel frightened out of their wits.
But Wen Shi’s courage was bigger than the sky.
He stared at her figure for a few seconds and finally recalled the question that he had wanted to ask earlier.
“Did you clearly see that ring from her food container?” he said to Xie Wen.
Xie Wen said, “More or less, I saw it. My eyesight isn’t too bad.”
Wen Shi: “Don’t you think that there’s an issue with the ring?”
Xie Wen: “What issue?”
Wen Shi scrutinized his expression suspiciously. A beat later, he said, “The ring is fake.”
Xie Wen was very earnestly astonished. “Fake? What do you mean?”
Wen Shi looked at him woodenly.
After holding his gaze for quite a few seconds, Xie Wen laughed and surrendered. “Never mind, I definitely can’t beat you in a staring contest. I might as well just honestly confess it, the ring was my doing.”
“I knew it” was written all over Wen Shi’s face.
He was a puppet master, and an extremely skilled one to boot. In his eyes, that fake ring couldn’t be hidden at all.
That was actually also a puppet technique, the very simplest kind, superficial knowledge that any slightly intelligent person could flip through an ancient text and learn—creating an inanimate object.
The ring that the old lady had almost eaten was precisely an inanimate object.
Among the people present at the time, Zhang Biling had clearly taken the talisman route, and there was no need to consider the useless good-for-nothing and Xia Qiao. The only person who might have possibly made mischief and was also willing to make mischief was Xie Wen.
Wen Shi asked, “Why’d you make a fake ring? To scare a ghost?”
To tell the truth, it really had been remarkably effective.
Thus far, he had only ever seen the things in cages scare people into vomiting; he had never seen a person scare them into vomiting.
Xie Wen was the first to do so.
“Look at how old she is, why would I scare her.” Xie Wen didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. With his refined and elegant appearance, it was true that he didn’t look like someone who would scare old women, but…
In any case, Wen Shi didn’t think he was a particularly well-behaved person.
“I was just trying to test something out.” Xie Wen explained.
“Test what out?”
Xie Wen asked instead of answering, “When we were being chased, do you remember seeing what that driver’s ring looked like?”
Wen Shi: “No.”
Xie Wen: “?”
He was surprised for a moment before he let out a soft “ah” as he recalled something. “Oh, that’s right, you didn’t really turn your head since you were carrying me. Well, while she was still close to us, I took a few looks.”
Wen Shi said testily, “And so?”
Xie Wen: “Her ring is also a gold band, but there’s a pattern on this side.”
“A pattern? It’s not a plain ring?”
That was worth mulling over then.
Wen Shi glanced at the information desk before he suddenly strode over and patted the old lady’s shoulder.
She jolted and looked behind her, staring unblinkingly at Wen Shi with cloudy eyes. A second later, she slowly turned her head back around and continued rummaging in and around the information desk.
There was a narrow crack underneath the information desk. She squatted down and shoved her face into the crack.
Her movements were abnormally distorted, and she nearly turned her head 180 degrees, pressed against the ground. Soon, her flattened face stretched out from the other side of the information desk, only to meet Wen Shi’s head-on.
The old lady: “…”
“What are you doing?”
The old lady’s mouth opened and closed before she said breathily, “Searching for a ring, a gold ring.”
Wen Shi glanced at the top of the desk. The old lady’s handkerchief was spread out on the surface, completely empty. Xie Wen’s skill was limited, so his fake ring couldn’t last for very long and had already disappeared by now.
But the old lady was still looking for it. “She probably lost it over here, I’m trying to find it for her. Nothing else, just lost it, lost it.
“Careless, careless.” She pulled her head back and crawled up again, covered in dust, as she continued her faltering search. “How can you be so careless with your wedding ring, I have to look for it.”
Wen Shi glanced at Xie Wen.
Xie Wen said lightly, “Did you discover what’s wrong yet?”
Wen Shi knitted his brows together and came back. “If the woman who chased us is the cage master and the ring isn’t on her finger, she would know that better than anyone else. Whereas the old woman is also an extension of the cage master’s consciousness…”
She wasn’t the actual cage master, so perhaps her reaction would be a little belated. However, it shouldn’t be to the point that even now, she still thought the fake ring was real and felt the need to search for it everywhere in a panic.
That meant there was only one possibility left—
Wen Shi said quietly, “Someone else is the cage master.”
One of those seemingly mild-looking shop owners.
On the third floor, in the pants store.
Checkered Shirt and the rest were currently sitting cross-legged on the floor like a flock of quails, squeezed next to each other, unwilling to be left out on their own.
“There’s an opening at the bottom of the shutter door,” someone said fearfully, drawing in their feet.
Zhou Xu said impatiently, “I see it, it’s there on purpose. I left it open before too, why didn’t you guys say something then?”
“I didn’t notice earlier,” the person said awkwardly.
Xia Qiao was short, so his legs weren’t very long. When he sat on the counter, his feet didn’t touch the ground.
He saw how bratty Zhou Xu was acting, and he couldn’t help but say, “You actually know quite a lot, what path are you cultivating? Do you use talismans, like your mother?”
“What’s it got to do with you?!” Who knows what nerve was struck in Zhou Xu, but he said angrily, “Mind your own business.”
Xia Qiao was a little dumbfounded. “I’m just asking you a question, why are you like this? Are you a firecracker spirit?”
“Oh yeah, just asking a question,” Zhou Xu said mockingly, his voice pinched high. “Deliberately picking a landmine topic, what bullshit.”
Once he was done swearing, he started ignoring Xia Qiao, sitting with his back to everyone else as he sulked.
After being cursed out for no good reason, Xia Qiao shut up, feeling wronged. However, he really had hit a landmine.
When Zhou Xu was born, he had quite the aptitude for this line of work. During his childhood, he had stayed at the main Zhang residence for several years, roaming around every day with the two strongest Zhang family members. He was constantly listening to his aunt, Zhang Lan, talk about rumors and gossip related to the panguan, as well as his uncle, Zhang Yalin, flaunt his knowledge about what kind of behavior was and wasn’t allowed for the panguan.
He was very familiar with all things concerning the panguan. Logically speaking, he should’ve been a good successor to the family’s line of work, but his mother had cut that path off for him.
Zhang Biling didn’t allow him to learn anything that could be used in practice. She never brought him into cages, nor did she permit anyone else to, no matter how much he fussed or protested.
That was why his rebellious stage was a little more severe than other people’s. He didn’t look favorably upon anyone, especially Zhang Biling.
Nobody spoke. They all sat silently in the store, with a tense and awful atmosphere.
Suddenly, Xia Qiao spotted a shadow outside of the shutter door opening, in the corner. It was a little warped by the ridge of the shutter door, but it stayed utterly motionless, as if there was something standing right outside the shop, watching them noiselessly.
His hair instantly stood on end, and he curled his swaying legs up into himself before he dug his elbow into the person behind him.
“What’re you poking me for?!” Zhou Xu said.
Xia Qiao: “Shh—”
He patted Zhou Xu’s shoulder and pointed at the shadow, whispering, “Is that your mom?”
Zhou Xu: “It’s your mom.”
Originally, Xia Qiao was trembling, but after Zhou Xu gave that retort, he was so annoyed that some of his fear dissipated.
Zhou Xu spoke again. “There’s a trash can over there, it’s not weird for there to be a shadow. Look at how scared you are.”
Xia Qiao was about to reply when a noise abruptly came from the other side of the shutter door!
His head whipped around, and he watched as two pale hands reached underneath the door with slightly swollen fingers. There was a ring wrapped around the fourth finger, so tight that it left a red mark behind.
“What the fuck!”
He cried out in alarm, causing Zhou Xu to jump in fright too.
Immediately after, those two ghastly pale hands latched onto the shutter door and pulled—
The door rose with a clatter, revealing Zhang Biling’s face.
Zhou Xu rolled his eyes and let out a long exhale. He said to Xia Qiao, “It’s my mom this time.”
“What your mom, my mom?” Zhang Biling probably thought that he was throwing a fit again, so she entered the store with a frown.
There was a cloth bag hanging around her elbow that she had unearthed from somewhere, and she was also holding an electric water boiler used to heat up water. Though it was old, it looked relatively clean.
She set the cloth bag down on the sales counter and pulled out some disposable paper cups, along with a bottle of iodine disinfectant, a box of band-aids, and a small stack of yellow talisman paper.
“It’s best if you take care of your nose injury.” Zhang Biling handed the disinfectant to the man in the checkered shirt.
The elevator had sliced off a bit of flesh from the tip of his nose, and it kept dripping blood, leaving a trail behind him. His shirt was also completely covered with splotches, and he truly looked a bit terrifying from afar.
“It seems like the bleeding won’t stop,” Checkered Shirt said anxiously, his face very ashen.
“That’s normal, that’s just how it is in here.” Zhang Biling said, “Which is why you mustn’t get injured again.”
As she spoke, she sat down behind the counter, picked up the stack of yellow paper and a pen, and started to draw talismans. Xia Qiao peered at her work briefly but didn’t understand any of it.
Zhang Biling smiled at him and said, “Grandfather Shen didn’t use talismans, so you’re probably not used to them. On my way here, I didn’t bring enough talisman paper because I didn’t think this cage would be troublesome. I’m going to draw some now and protect this shop. That way, no more accidents will happen.”
She drew the talismans very quickly, one stroke per sheet. It was clear that she had been practicing this since she was young.
Soon after, she picked up four talismans and stuck one on every wall in the shop.
“What’s their purpose?” Xia Qiao asked.
Zhou Xu scrambled to answer first. “In the past, this was called a City Sealing Talisman. Of course, only powerful ones can seal a city, but weaker ones can still be used to seal a room. As long as you stick it up, nothing can come in from outside.”
Upon hearing that, the people cowering on the floor felt much more reassured, and their complexions improved somewhat.
The electric water boiler that Zhang Biling brought back was filled with water, and she plugged it into an outlet to heat the water up. A few minutes later, it started boiling and emitting a faint whistling noise.
After Xia Qiao listened to it for a while, he began to feel the urge to pee.
He endured it for a little. Right as he was about to speak, he heard Zhou Xu say, “I wanna go to the bathroom, what about you?”
Xia Qiao was very eager. “Let’s go, let’s go.”
Zhang Biling was a bit worried, but she couldn’t really follow two boys into the restroom either. As a result, she stuffed a talisman into each of their hands and instructed them to go and return quickly.
But then, the moment Zhou Xu left the store, he crumpled the talisman into a ball and threw it away. Xia Qiao was scared witless, but he couldn’t stop Zhou Xu either, so he had no choice but to keep a firm grip on his own talisman.
The shopping mall’s bathroom was in the same corridor as the emergency exit. When they turned the corner, the entire hallway was dark, lit up only by a rich green glow. Because of how long and narrow the corridor was, there were echoes to their footsteps.
Xia Qiao continuously glanced behind them as they walked. He kept feeling as if there was something following them.
“Fuck, can you stop looking behind us?” Zhou Xu said, “Haven’t you ever watched a horror movie? Don’t you know how many ghosts you see only when you look behind yourself?”
“If I don’t turn my head, does that mean a ghost won’t be there?” Xia Qiao grumbled in reply before he abruptly thought of something. “Oh right, I’ve heard my Wen… cough!”
He almost had a slip of the tongue, and he hastily coughed a few times to cover up his mistake.
Zhou Xu was so frightened by him that he quivered and almost knelt onto the ground, exposing the fact that he was also afraid.
“Why are you suddenly coughing!” he said reproachfully, using anger to mask his embarrassment.
“My throat was itchy.” Xia Qiao explained.
“It won’t be itchy anymore if you drink some poison!” Zhou Xu said, furious. “What were you just saying you heard?”
Xia Qiao said slowly, “I’ve heard my ge say before that living people enter cages as incorporeal forms of themselves. So how come we can still feel hunger and the need to use the bathroom?”
The two of them finally managed to make it into the men’s restroom. They didn’t dare to be too far from each other, so they stood in front of two adjacent urinals.
Zhou Xu said, “Do you ever feel hungry in your dreams? Or the urge to pee?”
Xia Qiao was in the middle of undoing his pants button, but he froze when he heard that. “I do. Is this the same as dreaming?”
Zhou Xu: “Yeah.”
Xia Qiao silently took a step back. “In that case, I should just hold it in.”
Zhou Xu: “?”
Xia Qiao said faintly, “Have you ever found a bathroom before when you need to pee in your dreams?”
Zhou Xu contemplated for a moment. “I don’t think I have, actually.”
Xia Qiao spoke weakly again. “I have.”
Zhou Xu: “And then what?”
Xia Qiao: “I washed my sheets and pants the next day.”
Zhou Xu: “…”
Xia Qiao left it at that and didn’t elaborate any further. He retreated quietly outside the bathroom to wait for Zhou Xu.
Zhou Xu wanted to curse him out.
There was a long mirror in front of the sink in the men’s restroom. At the edge of the mirror, a circular yellow light jutted out from the wall.
Xia Qiao waited for a while. All of a sudden, that light seemed to flash, as if it was loose or defective. But he had also just blinked, so it was a little hard to tell what had happened.
“Are you done yet? Hurry up.” Xia Qiao’s imagination provided him with a whole bunch of nonsense, and his scalp went cold as he started to sweat.
Zhou Xu didn’t say anything.
Xia Qiao was a little nervous now, and he asked again, “Hey, are you done yet?”
Zhou Xu still didn’t say anything.
He felt like a basin of ice water had been splashed onto his face, freezing him completely.
Don’t panic, I’m not a human either, don’t panic.
Xia Qiao repeated to himself in his mind as he did his best to overcome the instinct to turn on his heels and sprint away. He forced himself to take two steps forward.
Nobody was next to the sink. Zhou Xu was long gone from his original spot.
Unexpectedly, a creaking noise came from the window. A cool breeze blew into the bathroom, light and gentle, brushing past his neck.
Goosebumps erupted across Xia Qiao’s skin, and he turned his head to see a person wearing a red T-shirt lying across the windowsill in a strange position. His neck was stretched straight out the window, and he had one leg hiked up on the edge of the window like a big, twisted spider.
“F**K” was printed across the back of the T-shirt. Xia Qiao recognized it: it was the one that Zhou Xu was wearing.
As a result, he swallowed and shouted, “Hey! Are you crazy?!”
Zhou Xu’s neck appeared to spasm for a second. Then, he slowly turned his head around, until his entire face was slanted against his shoulder. Both of his eyes were opened extremely wide, and he looked at Xia Qiao without blinking.
Xia Qiao almost died on the spot.
He was scared senseless. He randomly grabbed something and instantly threw it over, causing the object to smash next to the window with a crash.
It was only after he hurled it that he realized the object was a glass thermos that someone had placed next to the sink.
The sound of glass shattering reverberated through the empty bathroom, and some of the flying fragments sprayed onto Zhou Xu’s face. He sucked in a breath of air between his teeth and snapped out of it a little.
A second later, footsteps came from behind Xia Qiao.
Xia Qiao felt a gust of wind sweep past his face, accompanied by a very faint scent somewhat reminiscent of the white plum trees in their garden.
After that, Wen Shi’s voice rang out. “What trouble seekers you are.”
It was the same frosty, indifferent tone as usual, but hearing it made Xia Qiao’s eyes brim with hot tears.
He watched as Wen Shi grabbed the back of Zhou Xu’s collar and plucked him off the windowsill. He was about to give a sigh of relief when he felt hands land on his shoulders.
Xia Qiao shrieked, only to hear Xie Wen let out a “shh” from behind him and say mildly, “What’s with all the noise? Your ge told me to hold you down.”
What’s the point of holding me down?!
He thought, on the verge of crumbling.
Following that, Xie Wen tapped once on his back and released him.
Amidst Xia Qiao’s confusion, he saw something float down onto the ground. He looked down: it was a lock of hair, tied in a knot.
It was clear from first glance that this wasn’t his hair, because he had dyed his hair ash gray before, so it wasn’t this dark or coarse. What’s more, there was a strand of white mixed into this ball of hair too.
“Where did this hair come from?” Xia Qiao’s voice shook.
“It grew from your neck.” Xie Wen said.
Xia Qiao’s mental strength immediately collapsed, and his fingers quivered as he touched the back of his neck. Fortunately, Xie Wen added, “There’s no need to tremble this much, it’s already gone now.”
“What happened?” Xia Qiao asked.
“Nothing happened, it’s just that the wrong person was guarded against.” Wen Shi hauled Zhou Xu over, not particularly gently either. He slapped up the faucet handle and splashed two handfuls of water onto Zhou Xu’s face.
The useless good-for-nothing jolted and woke up completely. He seemed to still remember what just took place, and it frightened him so much that he forgot how to speak properly; the only words coming out of his mouth were numerous “what the fucks.”
After a long moment, he pointed at Xia Qiao in alarm and said, “You didn’t even look like yourself earlier, you looked like a man.”
Xia Qiao: “I—”
He was originally about to cry, but when he heard that, his tears dried up again. “How do I not look like a man?”
“That’s not it.” Zhou Xu rambled incoherently, “I meant, you looked like a man I didn’t recognize. Just… your face was a little swollen, I can’t explain it. Anyway, it scared me to death.”
“Ge, you said the wrong person was guarded against, what do you mean by that?” Xia Qiao asked Wen Shi.
Wen Shi flicked off the water on his hands and said coldly, “Before this, we kept hiding from that woman because we thought she was the cage master, but that was actually incorrect.”
“Ah?! We were wrong? Then who is it?” Zhou Xu exclaimed.
“At first, I didn’t know.” Wen Shi said, “But judging from what you just said, it’s a little clearer now. Among the shop owners, there should be a man with stringy hair and a slightly swollen face.”
“Among the shop owners? Doesn’t that mean we were being watched by him that entire time we were walking back and forth along the hallway?” Xia Qiao felt more and more afraid thinking about it in retrospect.
Wen Shi didn’t waste time explaining it to them. He jerked his chin towards the door, indicating that they should quickly get back to the store and stop dawdling around in this kind of place. Then he picked up the metal lid belonging to the thermos from beside the window.
When the four of them returned to the store, Zhang Biling had just finished drawing the last talisman, and she stuffed the completed talismans into her pocket.
The shattered glass had sliced a few tears onto Zhou Xu’s face, and blood trickled down from the wounds, leaving behind long streaks of red. It made him look exceptionally horrifying.
As a result, after he stepped inside, the crowd of people huddled on the floor all shot to their feet.
“Oh my, what a grand reception,” Xie Wen murmured, amused.
Wen Shi was rendered speechless by that mouth of his.
Face flushed red, Zhou Xu said vehemently, “Have you all never seen a disfigured face before? It’s not like I’m a ghost, what’s the point of being so jumpy.”
Zhang Biling hurried over with disinfectant and band-aids. She asked, “What happened? What did you run into? Didn’t I give you a talisman?”
Zhou Xu snatched the bottle of iodine from her and avoided her hands before he went broodingly into the corner by himself and started treating his wounds with the help of the mirror.
“What’d you encounter? Where’s Ms. Xu?” Zhang Biling asked.
“Ms. Xu?” Wen Shi was momentarily confused.
“Oh, that old woman who went to the first floor.” Zhang Biling explained, “‘Ms. Xu’s Tailor’ is written over her shop, it’s easier to call her that.”
“She lost the ring, so she went back to her store,” Wen Shi said.
As they were coming back upstairs, they had specially taken the time to look around. With the photo frame shop closed, there were originally five stores left on the third floor. But now, for some reason, not a single one was still open.
Although that woman clearly hadn’t come searching around yet, the shop owners had already locked themselves into their stores.
Even Ms. Xu had hastily locked up and gone utterly quiet after returning to her store, as if she was hiding from something.
It was too strange.
Wen Shi didn’t like to explain the same issue over and over again to different people, as he found it troublesome. Luckily, Zhou Xu and Xia Qiao weren’t put off by the idea of talking. With the addition of Xie Wen’s occasional interjection, they gave the people in the shop scare after scare.
Zhang Biling closed the shutter door securely and inspected the talisman on the door while listening to them speak.
At the end, understanding finally dawned on her. “So that’s why. No wonder this cage felt so contradictory in various ways. No wonder that female driver could never find anyone each time she came upstairs. She missed those shop owners because they were always able to lock their doors in time.”
“Exactly.” For once, Zhou Xu agreed with his mom. “If she were the cage master and wanted to find someone, her target should’ve gladly walked right up to her. If she isn’t, then it all makes sense now!”
After summing everything up, they thought that they had found the solution. Unexpectedly, Xie Wen suddenly spoke in a measured tone of voice. “Does it all make sense? How come I feel like it doesn’t.”
Zhou Xu’s face was full of question marks. “Weren’t you two the ones who said that we got it wrong?! What about it doesn’t make sense now.”
“We said that there’s a cage master among the shop owners, one who’s most likely male, has quite messy hair, and a slightly swollen face.” Xie Wen said.
That seemed to remind Zhang Biling of something, and she wore a pensive expression. Then, she nodded and said, “If it’s that person, I remember him. He sells wholesale stationery products, but I couldn’t find his store. It hasn’t been open recently.”
Xie Wen looked at her before he nodded once. “That should be the one, then.”
“In that case, doesn’t everything check out? Is there still a problem?” Zhang Biling asked, puzzled.
“Of course there is.” Xie Wen said, “I said that he’s the cage master, but I never said that the woman definitively isn’t.”
Zhang Biling frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I can’t undo cages, which is why I rarely enter them and don’t understand too much.” He turned his head and said to Wen Shi, “So I want to ask a dumb question: is it possible for one cage to have two masters?”
Wen Shi was still standing, leaning next to the shutter door with his arms crossed.
Upon hearing that, he narrowed his eyes and rubbed the side of his neck. He didn’t immediately answer; instead, he glanced at Zhang Biling.
Zhang Biling looked stunned.
Zhou Xu ended up energetically piping up first, like a student fighting to answer a question. “I know! I’ve heard my aunt say before that it’s possible. It’s just like when two yolks come out of the same egg, some cages really do have more than one master.”
“This kind of thing can happen? For what reason?” Xia Qiao was very lost.
Zhou Xu’s vanity was extremely satisfied. “Usually, when two cage masters have a particularly close relationship with one another, and the incident or scene that they can’t let go of happens to overlap as well, it’s very easy for this kind of situation to occur.”
He wasn’t content with that simple description, so he actively added his own lesson. “But my aunt said that this kind of cage is uncommon, because the different cage master consciousnesses will fight. Once they start fighting, one will undoubtedly gain the upper hand, so it’s only to be expected that the other one will vanish afterwards.”
Xia Qiao connected his words to their current circumstances and mumbled, “It does seem to be a little similar… th-then, how does the disadvantaged cage master not disappear?”
“Possession.” Zhou Xu said logically, “If they can’t beat the other cage master, then they’ll avoid them by attaching to something else. Like you guys, they’ll attach to mannequins, mirrors, or living people… ah…”
After he said those last two words, he abruptly quieted down.
A horrible sort of deathly silence emerged in the store—because all the living people in this cage were gathered here, in this room.
If they were correct, and that male shop owner was the cage master who currently had the upper hand, then. Then, that woman with the two cavity-like eyes…
Wasn’t it very likely that she was right here in this store???
Zhou Xu was at a loss for a second before he seemed to recall something and said faintly, “Speaking of which, that woman used to always make a trip up here every so often. Now – now, how long has it been… since she last appeared?”
“I don’t know, but it’s been quite a while.” Checkered Shirt was also very dazed, and there was unconcealable fear in his voice.
The people who were originally crowded chaotically together fell silent for several seconds. Then, they rushed to scatter apart, nobody daring to get too close to someone else.
In this kind of atmosphere, everyone felt somewhat off to them.
“M-maybe not,” someone said consolingly.
At first, Zhou Xu reassured himself the same way. But all of a sudden, he remembered the pitch-black corridor on their way to the bathroom, those shop owners that hid themselves some time ago, and how someone had just said “that male cage master’s store hasn’t even been open.” It was almost as if those shop owners long since had a premonition that the woman was concealing herself among the living people, which was why they had all hidden away.
Who was it that just said “that male shop owner’s store hasn’t been open” again?
And it seemed like they also said they “couldn’t find his store”?
Regular people, like him, could only see a rough approximation in a moment of panic. It was actually very hard to pay attention to everything, including the shop owner’s appearance, what goods were being sold in the store, and whether it was open or not.
If they were able to notice all of that, then it surely must’ve left a deep impression on them.
However… if they were left with such a deep impression, how was it possible that they “couldn’t find the store”???
He was briefly stupefied before he abruptly thought of something: the person who just said all that was precisely his mom, Zhang Biling.
Instantly, Zhou Xu went rigid, and he didn’t dare to move at all as a cold sweat seeped out from his scalp.
Coincidentally, someone broke the silence and said, “Stop scaring yourselves, didn’t that big sister stick a talisman on the door? A City Sealing Talisman or something like that. In any case, it can guard against those things so they can’t get inside. That woman is definitely stuck outside, she can’t get in!”
That seemed to make sense too, and quite a few people echoed their agreement.
But as soon as they said that, they discovered that Wen Shi, who used to be leaning against the wall in the corner, had straightened up and walked over to the talismans at some unknown point in time. Then, he directly tugged one of them off.
“What are you doing?!” Everyone was greatly alarmed. “Why are you pulling it off? Are you crazy?!”
“Who told you all that this is a City Sealing Talisman?” Wen Shi asked expressionlessly.
Zhou Xu blinked, distracted. He said mechanically, “Me.”
Xia Qiao’s eyes widened. “Don’t – don’t tell me that it isn’t?”
“It’s a bit similar to one.” Wen Shi said, “But it was drawn reversed.”
“Reversed? What happens if it’s reversed?”
“Stupid question.” Wen Shi said coldly, “The opposite of sealing a city.”
If sealing a city was the equivalent of protecting this space and not allowing other things to get inside. Then the opposite result was… throwing the city gates wide open.
In that moment, from his head to his feet, Zhou Xu’s blood ran cold.
Xia Qiao shot him a frightened look before he looked at Zhang Biling with even more terror.
Everyone reacted soon after as they leaped away from her and scrambled frantically to hide behind Wen Shi and Xie Wen.
Zhang Biling remained frozen in place, staring at them with unblinking dark eyes.
She opened her mouth, seemingly wanting to try and explain something. A second later, those black eyes pooled outwards like puddles of ink, growing larger and larger, as if there were two dark holes occupying half of her face.
Her skin was ashen pale. She twisted her neck and convulsed a few times before she took on someone else’s appearance completely.
For a short while, the store was filled with screams.
Someone attempted to lift up the shutter door, but their fingers felt weak, and they couldn’t lift it whatsoever. Amidst the chaos, all sorts of objects were knocked over onto the ground, and everything turned into a total mess.
The woman stared straight at Wen Shi with black cavities for eyes. She took a step forward and said in a hoarse, wispy voice, “Could you stick that back on?”
Wen Shi glanced at the talisman he was holding. “Why?”
“I’m looking for someone.” The woman let out a light sigh. “I have to find someone. I’ve been searching for so long now, but he won’t meet me.”
“Why won’t he meet you?” Wen Shi said.
The woman stroked her face and smiled bitterly. But because she was too stiff, it looked a little warped. “Well, he’s afraid of me.”
She murmured, “He’s afraid of me.”
“Afraid of what part?”
“He’s afraid of my current appearance. Afraid that I’m dead,” the woman said.
“Then why do you insist on coming to find him?”
“I promised him.” The woman said softly, “Every day, I pass by here on my way to return the taxi, and it just so happens that I can eat dinner with him. Then I’ll go to return the car, and he’ll look after the store. At nine, he’ll close up and go home. It’s like this every day, how could I not come?”
Except, just by chance, that day hadn’t gone as planned.
A torrential rainstorm had suddenly descended over Ningzhou. The ground underneath the overpass leading to Wangquan Road had caved in a little, submerging that stretch of street in water. She came in a rush, and she had answered a phone call. By accident, she sped straight into the water.
That water was so deep…
After that day, like always, she would walk into Wangquan Ruins at dusk.
The main lobby was cold and empty, but there were some wholesale-type stores that weren’t doing too poorly.
The Wangquan Ruins in her memory was perpetually stuck at six or seven in the evening. Shards and fragments of light came from buildings outside of the glass windows, but they were all very far away, making this shopping mall seem isolated and desolate.
Most of the lights were never turned on in the mall either, and the sporadically open stores were distributed among the second and third floors. All the rest were either long closed, or there were signs on them for leases and transfers of ownership, covered in thick layers of dust.
Her Lao Song’s store was on the third floor.
Every day at dusk, every single day at dusk, she would walk into this mall and slowly ride the escalators up to the third floor. But right in front of her, all the shops would hastily close up and pull their shutter doors down to the floor.
Even though it was evidently that same old corridor, it was filled with unfamiliarity. For some reason, the rice noodle shop at the corner had moved to the other side, and Ms. Xu’s tailor store changed locations daily.
She couldn’t find Lao Song anymore.
Lao Song was hiding from her.
Her original intention was very simple: she would come take a look, and then leave.
But every night she came, and every night she couldn’t see him.
“Were you the one who dragged all of them in?” Wen Shi asked.
She was startled for a second before she replied quietly, “Mn.”
“Why did you pull so many people inside?”
The woman stood there, all alone. A long time later, she said, “Because I wanted someone to help me. To help free him, and also to help free me.”
It was truly so cold on days with torrential rainstorms.
“Can you help me?” she asked.
As Wen Shi looked at her, he slapped that torn off talisman back onto the shutter door.
Many, many years ago, someone seemed to have told him something before.
He said: This is destined to be an arduous line of work, in which you must bear witness to much misery and hardship. With time, you’ll come to learn that most of it stems from a reluctance to bid farewell. Once you understand this, you’ll have entered the world of mortals.
Yan: Because then, you understand what it means to not want to let someone go, to have an attachment, to be tied to this life like everyone else 🙂 :knife:
Sorry for the delayed chapter, it really was super long! But good news is that the Panguan audio drama teaser has been released~ someone (not me) has subbed it here. Warning for spoilers though!! My recommendation: Stop at 2:10 for absolutely no spoilers beyond the TL; 3:37 if you don’t mind mild spoilers for next cage and want to hear some of XW’s voice lines from these past two chapters; and 5:00 if you don’t want some semi-huge spoilers but are okay with the rest.