Arc Three: Wangquan Road
Two of the cowardly bystanders in the shop had already fainted from fear. Once the rest discovered that they couldn’t escape no matter what they did, they stopped screaming and wailing too.
They remained huddled in the corner, not daring to move. But after they heard what the woman had to say, their frightened, out of control expressions relaxed slightly and turned into a blank emptiness instead.
Four of Zhang Biling’s talismans were stuck solidly to the shutter door. Although they were supposed to signify “throwing the city gates wide open,” nothing seemed to happen even after everyone waited uneasily for a while.
Xia Qiao asked furtively, “What kind of opening does ‘throwing the city gates wide open’ refer to?”
This entire time, Zhou Xu was glaring menacingly at the woman, but he spared a glance at the talisman now. “How should I know, it’s not like I’ve ever used it before! In any case, the description of this talisman is a bit scary in the text.”
Xia Qiao weighed his courage briefly before he asked, “What was the description?”
Zhou Xu: “A ten thousand ghost massacre.”
Xia Qiao: “…that’s ‘a – bit – scary’???”
Zhou Xu: “Are you illiterate? Don’t you know that there’s a figure of speech called a hyperbole.”
Xia Qiao felt like there was some truth to that. The text was describing a city, but they were merely in a little rundown room. What’s more, everything was calm and still right now, and they didn’t even know if Zhang Biling’s talismans were effective yet.
“Then move a little, my feet are freaking numb.” Xia Qiao gave Zhou Xu a push.
Zhou Xu, this bratty thing, didn’t want to sit on the floor as they hid in the corner. So relying on the bad behavior expected from those his age, he treated Xia Qiao’s shoes like a cushion and had zero qualms about sitting on them.
Xia Qiao finally managed to liberate his legs, and he carefully stretched them out. He was about to rotate his tingling ankles when he suddenly spotted the talismans on the shutter door shift on their own without a breeze. The bottom part of the paper floated lightly up before falling back down.
He froze, legs tensed, and stopped moving.
Immediately after, a few shadows appeared noiselessly underneath the door. They looked just like the one that he had seen earlier in the corner, except there were more of them this time.
It was as if something was standing bolt upright outside the door, staring sinisterly at the people inside the room.
Xia Qiao’s scalp prickled, and cold sweat started pouring down. He swept a look around, shifting only his eyes as he counted the number of shadows in his head: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…
“Ge,” he called. Because he was too terrified, his voice didn’t even come out.
“Boss Xie,” he tried calling out again, on the verge of a breakdown. He switched to someone standing closer to him. “Boss Xie?”
Xie Wen bent to the side. “Mn?”
Xia Qiao pointed at the crack under the door and said fearfully, “There’s something outside. I think those five shop owners are all here.”
Xie Wen said, “Five? Such wishful thinking.”
Xia Qiao was confused for a moment, but before he could digest what Xie Wen meant, he heard a huge bang come from the shutter door!
Instantly, a large indent appeared in the metal!
There was another crash, causing the shutter door behind him to change shape too. With a shock, he realized he could make out the outline of a hand!
The originally listless crowd shot to their feet at once and grabbed onto their companions’ arms or shoulders, shrinking back towards the middle as much as they could.
Everyone watched helplessly as an opening was pierced through the shutter door; it was as if the door wasn’t made of metal at all, but rather folded paper.
Zhou Xu was the closest to that spot.
Blood drained from his face as he stared at the rupture. He heard the sound of breathing travel indistinctly in from outside, faint like a sigh.
He silently took a step back with his left foot and leaned backwards, wanting to stealthily retreat—
There was a crashing noise!
A hand suddenly stretched through the opening! Ice-cold fingertips clawed against Zhou Xu’s face.
Zhou Xu’s soul flew out of his body, and he shrieked as he backed up step by step.
A second later, the shutter door toppled over with a loud rumble, revealing the dense horde of faces outside…
Xia Qiao finally understood what Xie Wen was implying: this was far more than just five people, this had to be a hundred ghost siege.
For a brief instant, he almost fell under the illusion that Wangquan Ruins wasn’t some shopping mall at all—instead, it was a bona fide graveyard for the underworld.
Zhou Xu tripped and fell trying to avoid the hand. After he scrambled to his feet, he was met head on with Ms. Xu’s old, ghastly pale face.
It would’ve been one thing if she wasn’t wearing any expression whatsoever, but she just had to be smiling. The corners of her mouth were pulled extremely far up, but no teeth were visible, giving her smile the appearance of a curved fissure.
Zhou Xu let out a bloodcurdling scream and turned to his right, only to see another Ms. Xu. Her mouth was drawn back in an identical smile as she looked at him motionlessly.
He then attempted to turn to his left, but it was the same thing!
Apart from Ms. Xu, he also spotted a few of the other shop owners that he had vague impressions of. They seemed to be omnipresent too.
This sea of faces was like a different sort of ‘ghost encirclement1.’ Each person was the cage master’s eyes, ears, and limbs, and they stared unwaveringly at these strangers who had entered the cage.
A gust of wind blew by desolately.
Those things let out shrill cries as their wan faces swiftly elongated, turning their mouths into gaping holes. In enormous numbers, they surged straight towards them!
Everyone was immediately frightened out of their wits!
Zhou Xu was knocked backwards onto the floor, and he watched with wide eyes as a face shot towards him with a screech—
I’m going to die.
His hands and feet were frigid, and he squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for that final moment. But the anticipated pain and horror didn’t actually arrive. Instead, something brushed past the top of his head.
In that instant, he heard the sonorous thrum of an instrument’s string.
Then he quickly realized something: that wasn’t the string of an instrument, that was thread.
Zhou Xu’s eyes shot open, and he tilted his head back to see Wen Shi’s defined jawline and slender, pale hands. A familiar thread was wrapped around his fingers, each and every one stretched taut.
He’s going to bind them together again?
Zhou Xu subconsciously thought.
He understood more than Xia Qiao, and he knew that many novice puppet masters could only create an assortment of small creatures; they couldn’t even produce a decent puppet that was capable of saving someone’s life. In a pinch, all they could do was thrash out their empty string and wield their puppet-controlling white cotton thread like a long, unconventional whip.
Either to tie something up, or to strangle it.
In his eyes, Wen Shi was one of those people.
But with so many monsters in front of them, how could he possibly strangle them all? Even if he could hold back this one, he wouldn’t be able to stop that one. He was stretched way too thin.
I’m still going to die.
Zhou Xu thought.
Wen Shi threw out something else. It seemed to be a ball of paper, but Zhou Xu couldn’t really see it clearly. He woodenly shifted his gaze, watching as that little ball landed among the rampaging monsters… and ignited harshly in flames.
Immediately, a strong gale burst into existence! It whistled through the entire corridor, the sound akin to a beast’s howl.
A wave of heat blasted Zhou Xu in the face, and he had no choice but to lift up his arm to obstruct and avoid it.
When he opened his eyes again, he was greeted by the sight of an enormous all-black python. Fierce flames trembled along its edges as it snaked its way over the monsters’ heads. It coiled in a circle before it swept through the horde of monsters and exited.
The black python was shockingly huge, to the point that it could loop through the entire hallway. Metal chains were wrapped around its whole body, and the chains clinked against each other resonantly as it moved about. A dark gold circulating mark was imprinted on every link in the chain, emitting sparks as it flashed and dimmed intermittently.
Those marks indicated the python’s origin—
It was a puppet.
Zhou Xu’s mouth slowly fell open, and he lifted his head again.
He stared at Wen Shi’s dancing fingers. The intertwined thread was pulled straight and unyielding between them, tightening and loosening in the wake of his movements. Amidst a spray of sparks, that enchained giant black python thrashed out its long tail and bundled its body around all the white-faced “people.”
If Wen Shi so much as twitched, he could strangle all of those things to death, until almost nothing remained.
It finally dawned on Zhou Xu at that moment: this really was a puppet! The kind of puppet that could easily slaughter a hundred monsters without it becoming a problem.
Wen Shi’s puppet.
Zhou Xu went crazy.
At a time like this, who gave a damn about some human or ghost. He couldn’t be bothered with feeling afraid, and he seized Xia Qiao to ask, “Your ge’s like this, yet he can’t actually get on the fucking name register mural?”
Xia Qiao looked dumbfounded upon being grabbed. A beat later, he said, “Uh-huh.”
“Uh-huh your daddy.” Zhou Xu glared vehemently at Wen Shi and muttered, “Liar!”
He spoke without thinking too hard about it. As soon as he was done cursing Wen Shi out, he felt something buzz through his mind as a chilly sensation enveloped him from the top of his head downwards, making him shiver from the cold. Both his mouth and tongue went numb.
That sort of sensation was very difficult to describe. It almost felt like an elder had knocked him on the head and reprimanded him.
What just happened?
Zhou Xu subconsciously covered his head and peered behind him, but the space was empty. At the very least, there was nobody within reach who would be able to hit him.
A little farther away were the ordinary people that Wen Shi was standing in front of and protecting.
Oh, there was also that dabbler, Xie Wen, mixed among them, pretending to be an ordinary person. He didn’t seem to be ashamed about it at all.
Xie Wen was apparently very sensitive to gazes.
Right as Zhou Xu was thinking that, Xie Wen swept a glance in his direction.
For some unknown reason, Zhou Xu unconsciously averted his eyes and sat up properly.
He maintained that posture for quite a few seconds before he realized what he was doing. He thought, What’s wrong with me, why would I be afraid of him?!
The black python tightened its lengthy body, imprisoning all the monsters within its domain, causing those “people” to struggle and let out shrill, piercing screams.
Wen Shi raised his left hand and wrapped it around the lines of thread, tugging them straight.
Then, he turned his head and said to the woman possessing Zhang Biling, “Go find him.”
The woman remained stunned for a long while before she suddenly exhaled softly, as if she was making difficult mental preparations. Another moment passed, and she nodded at last. “Okay.”
The woman started walking towards the giant python.
Her pace was slow, filled with all the things that she couldn’t bear to part with, let go of, or have the heart to do.
With every step she took, those trapped “people” grew a little more panicked. They were extremely defiant, and they abruptly went wild. Their writhing was too unexpected; even the black python had to make another loop around them with its body, confining them ever more tightly.
As it was moving, the giant python pressed against a shop behind it.
The metal shutter door rattled. Under the heavy weight, it bent and fell to the ground, kicking up a fog-like dust.
Wen Shi looked towards the shop. It was only when he saw the faint mannequin shapes emerge from the cloud of dust that he remembered—that was where he and Xie Wen had initially entered the cage.
Those human faces were struggling and gathering in the direction of the store right next to the athletic apparel one.
He recalled that the neighboring store’s owner was a middle-aged man who was perpetually holding a container of food and mumbling, “Can’t be caught, I haven’t eaten yet.”
The woman was still walking closer and closer to the giant python.
At that moment, the “people” imprisoned by the giant python gave one last desperate struggle. They collided against each other, scratched, bit, shrieked…
In the end, they started crying.
Howling and wailing.
It was very uncomfortable to listen to. Many voices were mixed into it, making it sound hoarse and raspy.
Then all the other voices gradually disappeared, leaving behind a single rough voice, which continued to weep unceasingly.
Those people that the giant python was wrapped around had already vanished. In front of that dusty, crowded store, only a middle-aged man was left sitting, hunched over, on a short folding stool. He had his head buried between his knees.
The “people” who were there to act as lookouts for him, to clear obstructions for him, to conceal him—they were all gone. He alone was exposed in his solitary entirety in front of everyone else.
The woman stopped next to him. She looked at him for a long time before she also crouched down.
She tried to reach out and pat him.
The man gave a sudden shudder and buried his head even lower, tenaciously refusing to lift it.
She seemed to finally understand everything at that instant. She let out a light sigh and patted him again as she called his name. “Lao Song ah, lift your head.
“Are you going to stay buried here for a lifetime?” The woman said, “Look at me.”
She said slowly, “If you look at me, you’ll be able to wake up. Isn’t it so uncomfortable here? The sky is dark, the lights are dim. The store is filled with dust, and nobody ever comes.
“The time has passed already. You should tidy things up, close the shop, and go home. Let me take a look at you, so I can also be on my way.” The woman said quietly, “I’ve been roaming around here for many days now. I’m too tired, I can’t do this anymore. I want to go.”
Her final few words prompted a reaction from the man at last.
He rigidly and sluggishly raised his head, both eyes extremely red. He only glanced at the woman once before he closed his eyes, as if he were restraining something.
Quite a while later, he couldn’t endure it any longer. He said in a heavily choked up voice, “I was waiting to eat with you.”
He pulled out the container of food from his jacket and wanted to hand it over, but at the same time, he didn’t know who to give it to. In the end, he could only place it on his knees. “I kept heating it up whenever it cooled, but you never arrived.
“Why didn’t you come.” The man pressed his lips together. He sobbed noiselessly for a long time before he slowly opened his eyes again and looked at the woman. “Why did you become like this?”
The woman’s eyes were red too. She furiously blinked a few times and said, “I just—wasn’t careful.”
A prolonged moment later, she added, “There’s nothing else to blame. Blame the rain for being too heavy, blame me for not being careful.”
With that one simple sentence, the man thoroughly collapsed, and he started crying again as he gripped her hand.
Ever since he was informed of her death, he had started wandering around in this cage.
He repeated all the same tasks that he had done that day: counting inventory, sealing packages, bookkeeping, heating up food at the right time. Then, he waited for Yue Qin to come over to return her car.
He kept waiting and waiting…
He waited until it was dark outside, until half of the shops on the second and third floors were all closed, until the other shop owners were done eating. Even Ms. Xu, who was usually the slowest of the bunch, had started eating, and Yue Qin still wasn’t here.
Instead, there was another person, an unfamiliar woman, who came every day at this hour to look for someone on the third floor.
He didn’t know her, nor did he dare to look at her face. He especially didn’t want to meet her.
Because he was well aware: if he saw her, he would never be able to eat this dinner again.
Nobody knew just how long Lao Song ended up crying for.
Time was always like this in a cage. A second could be extremely drawn-out, and a day could also be over in the blink of an eye.
The entire time he was crying, the woman kept him company.
Finally, she stood up and left Zhang Biling’s body. She bowed and thanked the other dazed woman before she picked up the food container that had been heated up over and over again. She said to Lao Song, “Heat it up one more time, I’ll finish eating this dinner with you.”
From beginning to end, Wen Shi waited nearby without rushing them, until they were done eating and had properly bidded each other farewell.
At that moment, they actually seemed quite like a married couple—they apologized to everyone trapped in the cage before they began calmly dispelling all of their malevolent energy.
Because Zhang Biling had been possessed, she wasn’t feeling very well, and it wasn’t suitable for her to undo the cage. As a result, the task of dissolving and dispersing the black mist fell again to Wen Shi.
As the cage was being undone, those ordinary people who had innocently entered the cage were already starting to grow sleepy.
They sat against the railing, heads lowered, eyelids heavy and drooping. The instant they closed their eyes, everything that took place in the cage became blurry, as if it was all just a startling dream.
Zhou Xu’s face was filled with discontent, but he was very active on his feet, and he poured a cup of hot water for the resting Zhang Biling.
Xia Qiao was giving out perfunctory answers to Zhou Xu’s questions.
Xie Wen stood at a distance that wasn’t too close or too far and watched as Wen Shi cast his eyes down, absorbing the married couple’s black mist entirely into his own body. Then, he started to slowly dissolve it.
Before that woman disappeared, he heard Wen Shi say to her in his cool-toned voice, “The rain was very heavy that day, thank you for your umbrella.”
Xie Wen withdrew his gaze. Staring at the outdated pattern decorating the shopping mall floor, he let out a silent laugh.
- 鬼打墙 – refers to a supernatural phenomenon where you’re trapped (usually by a ghost) and forced to walk the same path again and again, unable to escape. In this case, I think it’s meant to be taken literally (a wall made of ghosts). ^
Yan: The Panguan audio drama theme song is out~ you can listen to it here!