Arc Three: Wangquan Road
Wen Shi referred to it as “that day” to conform with the concept of time experienced by the people in the cage. However, in reality, not much time had passed at all.
When they emerged from the cage, the downpour had just stopped, and rain dripped down from the edges of their umbrellas. They were still on the street outside of Xiping Gallery, and the shops on both sides of the road were closed. Reasonably speaking, the area around them should’ve been especially empty.
But the instant Wen Shi opened his eyes—
He was surrounded by a dense circle of people.
They were all women with long, thick black hair and pale faces. Yellow paper talismans were stuck to their foreheads.
Their eyes were almost entirely white, except for a tiny black dot in the very center that didn’t waver in the slightest. Their bright red lips curved upwards, and tongues even longer than the length of their hair lolled out of their mouths.
One moment, Xia Qiao was in the middle of quarreling with Zhou Xu; the next moment, he came face to face with these things. He let out a “fuck,” instantly on the verge of collapse.
Those women didn’t move, so Xia Qiao also didn’t dare to move.
He silently latched onto Wen Shi’s left arm, nearly at death’s door. “Ge, did we leave the cage?”
Before Wen Shi could speak, Xie Wen took matters into his own hands. “We did.”
Xia Qiao grew even more faint. “Then what are these?”
Wen Shi opened his mouth.
Xie Wen: “Ghosts.”
Xia Qiao only managed to hang in there for one second before he soundlessly slid down onto the floor, still gripping Wen Shi’s arm.
Wen Shi: “…”
Although Xia Qiao was the one who had stopped breathing, he felt like he was the one Xie Wen had screwed over instead.
“Do you have some grudge against me?” Wen Shi couldn’t extract his left arm. In order to free his right hand to deal with the circle of female ghosts, he had no choice but to tilt his head to the side and wedge the umbrella between his neck and shoulder.
“Certainly not,” Xie Wen denied leisurely as he reached out to hold the umbrella for Wen Shi.
Xie Wen was still wearing his black gloves, and he wrapped his hand around the bottommost part of the umbrella handle, maintaining a polite distance from Wen Shi’s face.
But for some reason, upon glimpsing that pale wrist, Wen Shi suddenly recalled the sensation of touching Xie Wen’s slightly cool fingers. He paused in the middle of extending his hand towards the female ghosts.
“Lift your head a little.” Xie Wen reminded Wen Shi to release the umbrella. “It stopped raining, so I’ll take back the umbrella now.”
When a second passed and he didn’t receive a response, he asked softly, “What are you daydreaming about?”
Wen Shi abruptly snapped out of it.
He pressed his lips together and straightened his head, wordlessly allowing Xie Wen to take the umbrella. Then he chose one of the female ghosts and tugged off the talisman on her face.
The instant the talisman was plucked off, the circle of female ghosts started twitching and trembling, as if they were about to struggle free from the seal and rush straight towards him.
Wen Shi didn’t care at all, and he reached for the next talisman.
Except then, he heard someone murmur from behind him, “They’re out already?”
Immediately after, the female ghosts dissolved into smoke and vanished on their own before he could do anything, leaving behind seven talismans that were caught by someone as they floated down lightly through the air.
The person who caught the slips of paper was a very tall man with wheat-colored skin, a muscular build, and a close-shaven head. It was clear from one glance that he practiced martial arts; however, the expression on his face was a bit wooden.
Wen Shi stared at his eyes for a while before he shifted his gaze to the area over the man’s heart.
Clothing was in the way, so Wen Shi couldn’t see the mark on the other person’s chest. But he could tell that this was a puppet, a puppet that was very close to being a living person.
Holding the talismans, the puppet turned his head and asked, “I caught them. What should I do now?”
A woman stood behind him. Her shoulder-length hair was tucked behind one ear, revealing a row of glittering earrings lining the outer cartilage. She had on heavy, exaggerated makeup that looked like a layer of painted skin, and it masked her original appearance, along with her age. But judging from her bone structure, she was most likely a beauty.
“Burn them for me.” After she answered the puppet’s question, her glass-like eyes swiveled towards them. Her gaze swept past Xia Qiao and lingered briefly on Wen Shi before it slid over to Xie Wen. Then she said, “Who just tore off this Great Lady’s1 talisman, step forward.”
Wen Shi: “…”
This type of girl was better off not opening her mouth.
“Weakling2, was it you?” she asked, honing in on Xie Wen.
Wen Shi parted his lips and muttered under his breath, “You know this ‘Great Lady’?”
Xie Wen laughed at that.
He averted his face and let out a few muffled coughs before he responded with a hand pressed against his nose, “I suppose you could say that. She’s from the Zhang family.”
There were too many people in the Zhang family, and the name register mural was packed with their members. Even after Xie Wen said that, Wen Shi couldn’t match a name to her face, so he only gave an “oh” in reply.
Xie Wen saw that Wen Shi was still puzzled, and he added, “Zhang Biling’s son mentioned her in passing in the cage earlier, I don’t know if you remember or not. Her name is Zhang Lan.”
The ‘Great Lady’ standing across from them: “…”
Zhang Lan had experienced all sorts of situations and met all kinds of people before. She had also been introduced in a variety of ways. For the most part… no, it could be said that every single time, as long as her name was announced, a look of sudden realization would dawn on the people hearing it. It was a given that they would then follow up with: “The Zhang Lan at the very top of the name mural?!”
Frankly, it felt great.
However, after hearing the same thing again and again, the novelty of it eventually wore off.
Zhang Lan thought that she had already passed the age where she used to feel proud and arrogant over this. But today, upon hearing Xie Wen’s introduction, she discovered that perhaps she was still young after all.
What did he mean by “mentioned in passing”?
What did he mean by “I don’t know if you remember or not”?
Zhang Lan stormed over in her high heels.
Except as she approached, she heard the extremely cool and handsome guy standing next to Xie Wen say, “I have a vague impression of her.”
Zhang Lan stepped onto a manhole cover, and her heel got stuck.
“Before we came out here, what kind of fortune did you divine for me again?” she asked, turning to face that bodyguard-like puppet.
He answered rhythmically, “Six-five: yellow robes, greatly propitious.”
There was a beat of silence. Then, most likely afraid that Zhang Lan didn’t understand, he diligently and dutifully added, “Exceptionally auspicious.”
Zhang Lan: “Pure bullshit.”
The puppet was loyal and devoted. “Yes, you are correct.”
Zhang Lan: “…”
Wen Shi watched them for a while before he asked Xie Wen, “You’re sure she’s that Zhang Lan, not someone with the exact same name?”
Zhang Lan’s ears were sharp, and she whipped her head around. “Are you mocking me?”
Wen Shi said indifferently, “No, I’m being serious.”
Xie Wen laughed until he started coughing again. Quite some time passed before he finally turned back towards Wen Shi and said, “If I have a strong cough tonight, you’re taking total responsibility.”
Wen Shi didn’t particularly want to take responsibility for it, so he callously stopped talking.
Xia Qiao finally pulled himself together from where he was slumped on the ground and mumbled, “That scared me to death.”
He peered around them and asked with some lingering fear, “Ge, where are those female ghosts?”
Zhang Lan rubbed her face and put on her haughty persona once more. “What female ghost, I was using those to find the cage gate.”
The so-called dragon gate that the carp jumped through was the only gate3 Xia Qiao was really familiar with. He stared at her blankly. “That was your doing? Why did you make them surround us then?”
“You guys were in the cage. If I didn’t make them surround you, where would I go to find the gate? Whatever, you probably don’t understand what I’m talking about.”
Actually, Zhang Lan had seen Xia Qiao once before because of his relationship to Shen Qiao, but she didn’t recognize him now.
Zhang Lan had grown up coddled. Apart from her family members, she only remembered people who were either especially good-looking or especially strong. That inevitably meant she couldn’t remember many people.
Xia Qiao evidently wasn’t the kind of person who stuck out in her memory.
She subconsciously thought that Xia Qiao and Wen Shi were Xie Wen’s customers; in other words, she thought they were completely ordinary people who had accidentally entered the cage with Xie Wen.
That was why she didn’t bother explaining further. She only said to Xie Wen, “I’m on patrol duty tonight in Ningzhou, and I heard that Zhou Xu was dragged into a cage, so I came over to check it out. By chance, I happened to see you guys suddenly stop here.”
She was highly experienced, and she could tell from one glance that they had entered a cage.
“I was just preparing to enter the cage to find you all, but then you came out.” Zhang Lan sounded very surprised. “How did you guys get out? Was there someone else in the cage too?”
Everyone knew that Xie Wen was an amateur who couldn’t undo a cage. As a result, Zhang Lan didn’t even consider the three of them as a possibility. Instead, she naturally assumed that there was someone else helping them out.
Before Xie Wen could speak, Wen Shi said, “Zhang Biling.”
His response could be interpreted in quite a few ways: it subconsciously made people think that the person who undid the cage was also Zhang Biling.
Sure enough, Zhang Lan let out an “oh.” “Ling-jie went into the cage too? No wonder. That makes sense, since her son was caught in it.
“Great, that makes things more convenient for me then.”
As she wheeled around to leave, she abruptly realized something—if these two strangers knew both Xie Wen and Zhang Biling, then they most likely weren’t mere ordinary people.
Zhang Lan took a few steps and stopped again. She turned her head and looked Wen Shi up and down before she said, puzzled, “Hang on, are you guys also in this line of work?”
But that couldn’t be right. She had met nearly everyone on the name register mural before, and with looks like Wen Shi’s, there was no way she could’ve seen him and forgotten about it.
Zhang Lan: “What family do you belong to?”
Xia Qiao said awkwardly, “The Shen family.”
He was actually fairly afraid of telling others what family he was from, since he always felt like he was bringing shame to Shen Qiao. Perhaps because of Zhang Lan’s somewhat intense expression and manner of speaking, this feeling of his grew particularly prominent, to the point where it almost felt like panic.
Fanning his panic even more, Zhang Lan said after a brief pause, “Which Shen family?”
With that, Xia Qiao was completely unable to answer anymore.
In that instant, an idea popped up in his head: he wanted to continue trying to learn things from Wen Shi. That way, what if… he could get his name on the mural?
Wen Shi noticed Xia Qiao’s extremely ashamed expression and responded to Zhang Lan, “Shen Qiao.”
Zhang Lan reacted quickly this time. “Got it.”
She knew who Shen Qiao was. Moreover, she was very familiar with the name, but it wasn’t because of Shen Qiao himself. Rather, it was because of the branch that he belonged to.
That branch had a legendary figure whose significance was probably second only to the honorable founder Chen Budao’s. Every puppetry-specializing member of the later generations liked to worship this person.
Her younger brother, Zhang Yalin, was obsessed with puppetry. That fool worshipped a small wooden box extremely devoutly, and the legendary figure’s name was carved on the door of the box—Wen Shi. The treasures that the fool had found and bought from spiritual item shops were placed inside the box.
Zhang Lan had secretly opened it to peek inside before. The box contained two jade-like finger bones, two short faintly fragrant pine branches, and a ball of string made of indeterminable material.
The fool firmly believed that those were Wen Shi’s remains and relics.
He could be considered quite a weirdo.
Disregarding Zhang Yalin, Zhang Lan was also very interested in Wen Shi, despite her specialization being spellcasting.
First of all, he was allegedly extremely good-looking. Second, she was fascinated with gossip related to unofficial history; it didn’t matter if it was genuine or fake. As long as it was interesting and could fool other people, it was fine. She had read up a lot on everyone else’s rumors, but Wen Shi was the only one who didn’t have many at all.
According to the rumors, Chen Budao had a considerable number of disciples back then, but the majority of them were the sort who lived outside the mountain. The number of disciples who had actually seen him before could be counted on one hand, and they were referred to as his direct disciples by the later generations.
Among the direct disciples, Wen Shi specialized in puppetry; Zhong Si specialized in spellcasting; Bu Ning specialized in divination and arrays; whereas Zhuang Ye focused on mixed arts and learned a bit of everything. Zhuang Ye made friends easily, so he was on good terms with most of Chen Budao’s outer disciples, including the Zhang family’s head ancestor.
Later on, when Chen Budao was filled with malicious, malevolent energy that caused living things to wither wherever he walked, those disciples were the ones who suppressed and sealed him away. The Zhang head ancestor had contributed the most, which was also one of the reasons why the Zhang family eventually grew more and more prosperous.
Those were some relatively commonplace rumors.
But Zhang Lan had also read some uncommon ones before—
Supposedly, out of those direct disciples, only one of them genuinely followed Chen Budao around. That disciple was born with the spiritual form of an evil ghost, so Chen Budao always kept him by his side. He single-handedly raised that disciple and taught him many things to slowly transform him into an ordinary human.
This version of events was truly seldom seen, and it never mentioned the name of the disciple in question.
But if it were true, Zhang Lan suspected that the disciple was most likely Wen Shi, because Wen Shi was the sole disciple she didn’t know a lot about.
“Someone is looking for you,” the puppet suddenly said.
Zhang Lan snapped out of it and turned to ask, “What?”
The puppet pulled out a vibrating phone from his pocket and handed it to Zhang Lan.
Zhang Lan tapped a few times on the screen, and a scholarly voice rang through the night. “Where did you trick my puppet into going now?”
Zhang Lan glanced at the puppet and cut off the interrogation. She replied, “How can you say I tricked him? I openly and fairly brought him out. Also, Xiao Hei is willing to follow me, if you don’t believe me, you can ask him later yourself.”
The puppet stood respectfully to the side, looking extremely innocent.
She stopped paying attention to Xia Qiao and the rest; after all, she had heard of Shen Qiao before. Although she wasn’t aware that Shen Qiao had taken a few disciples under his wing, she did know that none of them were on the name register mural, which meant they were all noobs.
“Alright, the cage is undone, and we’ve had our discussion. If there’s nothing else, I’m going to continue patrolling. See you all later.” Zhang Lan waved at Xie Wen and the rest before she turned the street corner with Xiao Hei.
She received a text from Zhang Biling, and she started heading towards Wangquan Ruins to see how the other woman was doing.
On the way over, she stayed in contact with Zhang Biling while bickering back and forth with her little brother, Zhang Yalin. Halfway there, Zhang Yalin’s video call abruptly popped up.
“What are you doing? Are the voice messages not enough for you? You’re gonna make a speech too?” Zhang Lan said, “I’m not listening to it.”
“That’s not it.” Zhang Yalin’s voice came from the other end of the video call, but his face didn’t appear. His camera was directed at a mural, and there was a hint of a breakdown in his voice, which had always sounded consistently rational.
“I just discovered this. You should also check it out.” Zhang Yalin said.
Zhang Lan looked at the object displayed in the video and said in confusion, “The name register mural? Is there something wrong with you? Why are you showing me the name register mural, have I never seen it before or what?”
Zhang Yalin restrained his temper and said, “I’m not telling you to look at the entire mural. Look at the bottom of it, the very bottom.”
As he said that, he shifted the camera downwards, afraid that Zhang Lan wouldn’t examine it closely.
Numerous names slid past his camera. Zhang Lan rolled her eyes and scanned down the mural… when she reached the lines at the end, she almost sprained her ankle with a crack.
Because she saw that the line originally lying flat at the very bottom of the mural—the line that had remained sunken at the bottom for over ten years, ever since Shen Qiao grew old and stopped entering cages—was now sitting unexpectedly and inexplicably right above Zhang Biling’s.
Zhang Lan: “???”
“What’s going on?!” she said, stunned.
“It’s exactly what it looks like.” Zhang Yalin said, “The Shen family suddenly jumped above Zhang Biling.”
“Impossible.” Zhang Lan was stupefied. “Isn’t this branch completely dead?”
Zhang Yalin: “Yes, it’s dead. There are no living people.”
Zhang Lan: “How could it abruptly move up???”
Zhang Yalin said, “How would I know, I saw it climb up just now. With my own eyes—I saw it—climb up.”
Zhang Lan: “…Has this mural gone mad?”
Zhang Yalin pondered a bit and said, “I’m not sure if this mural has gone mad or not, but I sure feel like I’m about to go mad.”
To personally witness a dead line jump upwards—what an experience.
- This is meant to be an ironic form of address – she refers to herself as “Great Lady” to establish her own superiority, not because of any official title. The associated Chinese phrase also means someone who is arrogant (haughty) and tends to put on airs around other people. ^
- I really couldn’t come up with a good translation for this – she calls him 病秧子, which is someone who’s frequently ill. The closest translation is ‘chronic invalid’ but it doesn’t sound very natural and has ableist connotations, so I’m just going with weakling instead. ^
- A pun lost in translation here: “cage” in Chinese has the same pronunciation as “dragon” (long). Xia Qiao mistakes the cage gate Zhang Lan is talking about to be the dragon gate referred to in the saying “the carp jumping through the dragon gate”. ^