Arc Three: Wangquan Road
Because of this dead line’s abrupt jump, Zhang Lan wasn’t in any mood to stay on duty.
She scattered a bunch of patrol spells and found some juniors to replace her. Then, she hastily rushed back home with Zhang Biling and Zhou Xu in tow.
The Zhang residence was located in one of Ningzhou’s western districts. It was a large, centralized, Chinese-style complex. Though it was refined and dignified, the younger generations weren’t actually particularly fond of it.
Zhang Lan felt like the decoration style was old and outdated; when Zhou Xu stayed there in the past, he often had nightmares; and every time Zhang Biling visited, she behaved extremely cautiously… Comparatively speaking, only Zhang Yalin thought that the residence wasn’t too bad, because it fit very well with his precious little unadorned, elegant wooden box.
For quite a while now, Zhang Lan had wanted to move out and live on her own, but she was never successful in doing so.
Although she was currently at the peak of her generation, the older folk were still the ones ultimately in charge. As long as her grandfather, Zhang Zhengchu, didn’t approve, it was useless no matter how much of a fuss she made.
Zhang Lan’s courtyard residence was connected to Zhang Yalin’s.
By the time three humans and one puppet returned, Zhang Yalin had just finished piously lighting incense for his wooden box.
When he heard noise coming from next door, he washed his hands and made his way over. His voice arrived before he did. “How is it? Did you get the general gist of what’s going on?”
Zhang Lan instructed someone to lay the unconscious Zhou Xu down on the sofa bed. Then she told someone else to pour some calming tea for Zhang Biling. “Ling-jie said that she didn’t undo the cage. It was the handsome—the young man from the Shen family.”
Instantly, Zhang Yalin knew that Her Great Ladyship’s chronic problem had recurred again. “You’ve seen him before?”
“He was right next to me when you were sending me your lengthy opinions over voice message. He was with the weakling.”
“Yes. They went into the cage together.”
The Zhang family had a somewhat complicated relationship with Xie Wen, but this was mostly Xie Wen’s own fault.
He was from a branch family, and though he had a different surname and was adopted, on the surface he was still part of the Zhang clan. Allegedly, he had brought disaster on his parents and was filled with karmic debt, and he had also been struck off the name register mural. To many people, he was a marginalized, abandoned member of the family.
Typically, someone in his position would feel at least a little awkward, resentful, or envious.
But not him.
He greeted everyone in the same lighthearted manner. He didn’t place additional importance on the Zhang family, nor did he target them. It was like… he was a stranger that had nothing to do with them whatsoever.
As if, the Zhang family didn’t mean anything to him at all.
This attitude, combined with his gravely ill demeanour, truly made him very unusual.
As a result, the entire Zhang family—and even those belonging to other families—seemed to pay no heed to him, but at the same time, everyone knew him. Whenever he was mentioned, they couldn’t help but discuss him a little.
Except each time they talked about him, they would always reach the same conclusion—never mind, there’s nothing really to discuss; after all, he can’t even undo a cage.
Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin were probably the only two people who had never said that before. Zhang Lan hadn’t done so out of respect for his face, whereas it just wasn’t in Zhang Yalin’s nature to say such a thing.
“So you mean, despite the fact that the Shen family’s disciple can’t even make it on the name register mural, he stepped up and undid the cage, which allowed their branch to jump up?” Zhang Yalin asked.
Zhang Lan: “…”
That seemed even more far-fetched.
“Also, logically speaking, if he’s capable of undoing a cage, his name should appear on the mural. Since his name still isn’t on the mural, that can only mean—” Zhang Yalin paused.
He wanted to say “it was an accident,” but after a moment of contemplation, he ended up phrasing it more tactfully. “His strength is fluctuating and hasn’t stabilized to the point where he can get on the mural yet.”
Putting it like that, Zhang Lan felt that it was quite reasonable.
They had all gone through that phase before in their youth as they studied puppetry or spellcasting. The instant they gained a bit of superficial knowledge or picked up some flashy tricks, they clamored to enter a cage. With seniors accompanying them, they were oftentimes just there to be a mascot or act cute. Occasionally, they would perform exceptionally well and could undo a cage on their own.
Back then, their names weren’t on the name register mural either.
Zhang Yalin showed up on the mural when he was eleven years old; Zhang Lan, when she was nine. They were already widely accepted to be geniuses, as most people didn’t get on the mural until they were fourteen or fifteen.
For confirmation, Zhang Lan turned to ask Zhang Biling, “The handsome guy, er… I mean, the Shen family’s disciple. How was his performance in the cage?”
Zhang Biling was a bit embarrassed. “I was possessed, so I can’t really recall what happened in the cage right now. I only remember that he saved some people with his string.”
Zhang Lan looked at Zhang Yalin. “A puppet master.”
Zhang Yalin: “That’s not too strange. Everyone in that branch practices the art of puppetry.”
There was nothing worthwhile to be gained from Zhang Biling. Meanwhile, Zhou Xu gradually woke up.
Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin didn’t have many expectations for this brat. Since Zhou Xu had never truly entered a cage before, nor had he ever undergone proper training, he would forget the things that happened in the cage upon leaving it, like many other ordinary people. He would feel as if he had suddenly emerged from a dream.
Unexpectedly, Zhou Xu went to examine the crotch of his pants immediately upon waking up.
Zhang Yalin: “?”
Zhang Lan: “What’s wrong with you?”
When Zhou Xu saw that his pants were dry, he let out a long sigh of relief. “It’s fine, I’m just taking a look. I went to the bathroom quite a few times in the cage, so I was afraid that I peed my pants.”
Zhang Lan was rendered speechless for a moment. Then, she suddenly realized something. “You remember what happened in the cage?”
Zhou Xu: “Yeah. With such a good brain, why wouldn’t I remember?”
Zhang Lan perked up. “Then do you have any impression of those two Shen family members?”
Zhou Xu: “I do. The younger one is a coward, and the older one…”
He suddenly stalled.
Zhang Lan: “What’s up with the older one?”
Zhou Xu thought a bit and said, “He’s very confusing.”
Zhang Lan: “…how so?”
Zhou Xu: “Sometimes he’s like a noob, but sometimes he seems super impressive.”
His mind really was clear, and he remembered everything that had happened from beginning to end. As a result, Zhou Xu chose to recount two primary examples. “He brought them into the cage by attaching them to mannequins. He put Xie Wen—”
Zhang Biling reprimanded him, “Call him ge.”
Zhou Xu completely ignored her. “Xie Wen only had an upper body, while his younger brother only had a lower body. Aunt, just imagine it.”
Zhang Lan couldn’t visualize what he meant by Xie Wen “only” having an upper body. She was a little fascinated.
Zhou Xu spoke again. “But he’s capable of creating a puppet, a snake.”
He wanted to say that it looked extremely cool, but the person in front of him was Zhang Yalin, so he felt like there wasn’t really anything to get excited about.
Since he didn’t elaborate, Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin subconsciously thought of the puppet as “a little snake” that was no different from producing a little bird or rabbit.
At this point, they were basically certain that the Shen family disciple had a strength level that was too unstable for him to make it onto the mural yet. As for why that fully dead line would leap upwards…
It had most likely been a little influenced, and there probably wouldn’t be a next time.
However, just to be safe, Zhang Yalin said, “Isn’t Ningzhou in need of people for patrol duty? Maybe you could test him out?”
“Sure.” Zhang Lan asked Zhou Xu and Zhang Biling, “By the way, what’s his name again?”
Zhou Xu was briefly startled. “Fuck, I forgot to ask.”
Zhang Lan: “…”
Zhang Lan left in a rush, and she just happened to perfectly miss Wen Shi.
Xie Wen escorted them to the end of the street and watched them get in a car before he returned to Xiping Gallery. Unexpectedly, soon after the car took off, Wen Shi said to the driver, “Go to Wangquan Ruins.”
Xia Qiao was dumbfounded.
When the car stopped in front of the plaza, it was very dark outside. Wen Shi got out and saw that the last batch of shops were still lit up inside the mall. Their shutter doors were pulled halfway down, as if they were about to close for the night at any moment.
This scene was truly too similar to the cage, and trepidation lingered in Xia Qiao. “Ge, why are we here again? Are we not going home?”
“I’m looking for something.” Wen Shi said.
There were two reasons why he had initially accepted that umbrella. First of all, stemming from a panguan’s instincts, he had wanted to undo the cage the moment he learned of its existence. Second, as the female driver had handed over the umbrella, he had caught a whiff of that familiar scent again—his own scent.
Though he described it as “catching a whiff,” in reality, he hadn’t really smelled anything. Rather, he had sensed it.
Xia Qiao was still relatively intelligent, and he knew that Wen Shi had definitely detected traces of his soul. He circled around Wangquan Ruins with Wen Shi before they entered the shopping mall and went upstairs using the escalators.
“Ge, is it very hard to find a soul?” Xia Qiao couldn’t help but ask, “Since there are traces of it left behind, how come you couldn’t find it for so many years?”
Wen Shi: “There weren’t any traces before.”
Xia Qiao was taken aback. “Ah?”
It took him a while to digest and understand what Wen Shi meant. “You’re saying that during all those years in the past, there wasn’t any trace of it whatsoever?”
Wen Shi: “Mn.”
For a very long period of time, he had doubted whether exactly he had lost his soul, or if it had disappeared completely because of a reason he no longer remembered.
It was only when he came out of the Gate of Oblivion this time that he finally caught traces of it twice.
This was already progress.
However, perhaps because he had been separated from his soul for too long, his awareness of it would always flash and then fade away, so quick that he couldn’t react in time. He made his way through the mall and only caught a tiny hint of it as he was passing by one of the stores. But when he walked past it again, the scent vanished.
As expected, it was Lao Song’s wholesale stationery store, except the shutter door was tightly closed and locked. It seemed like it hadn’t been open for many days now.
There were still two shops open in the corner of the third floor. One was Chu Ji’s Rice Noodles, and one was Ms. Xu’s Tailor. Wen Shi thought a bit and decided to ask about Lao Song’s whereabouts.
A few customers were inside the rice noodle restaurant, chatting with the owner as they ate. Judging by how familiar they seemed with each other, it was highly likely that they were also shop owners in this mall who chose to take care of dinner here before leaving.
When the boss placed the clay pots down on the customers’ table using metal tongs, the broth in the pots were still boiling. The bubbling noise was audible even to those passing by outside, and a rich aroma diffused outwards along with huge puffs of steam.
As Wen Shi was making his way towards the tailor shop, eyes half-lowered, he spotted the boiling clay pots in his peripheral vision and halted briefly.
Out of nowhere, he suddenly remembered the crowded second floor of Xie Wen’s Xiping Gallery and that pot of hot soup placed on top of the traditional-style wooden table. If this was the last winter month of the lunar calendar, a thick white mist would surely be hovering over the surface of the soup, hot enough to assail the eyes.
“Ge?” Xia Qiao asked a little hesitantly upon seeing him abruptly stop in place.
Wen Shi blinked and swiftly snapped out of it. “Hm?”
Xia Qiao followed his line of sight and saw the steaming pots filled with rice noodles. Somewhat uncertain, he asked, “Are you hungry?”
“No.” Wen Shi kneaded the knuckles on his lowered hands before he started walking again. “I’ve been bewitched.”
Xia Qiao: “?”
Ms. Xu sat next to a sewing machine with a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose, in the middle of threading the machine. She really was wearing a fake old-fashioned bun, but she didn’t appear as old as she had in the cage.
“Do you need to have something tailored?” The old lady peered at Wen Shi over her glasses and smiled quite warmly.
Wen Shi said, “No, I’m looking for someone.”
The old lady didn’t take offense. “Who is it?”
Wen Shi pointed at the locked store across from hers and said, “Lao Song.”
Xia Qiao glanced at him silently. For some reason, it felt very mystical hearing a friendly nickname like “Lao Song”1 pop out of Wen Shi’s mouth.
The old lady let out an “oh.” “He hasn’t been coming here for a while now, since he’s sick and in the hospital. After his wife got in an accident, he fell ill from worrying so much. He’s staying in the hospital diagonally opposite from this mall.”
The rice noodle restaurant’s owner was also a sociable person. Upon hearing the conversation at Ms. Xu’s, he wiped his hands and came over. “Are you guys trying to stock up on inventory? Is it urgent? If you don’t need it in the next two days, I can help take down your contact information for him. Once he’s a bit better, I’ll call you.”
Xia Qiao said hastily, “We’re not stocking up on inventory, we just wanted to see how he’s doing.”
“Ohh, then you should go visit him in the hospital.” The restaurant owner pointed in a certain direction and said, “I just went last week. He’s on the second floor, bed 12.”
Ten minutes later, Wen Shi and Xia Qiao found themselves in the second floor hallway of the hospital’s inpatient department.
According to the rules, this department rarely admitted visitors at night. But Lao Song was reportedly doing pretty well today, as his continuous fever had gone down and his inflammation had eased. He had also eaten a little bit, but he still wasn’t very talkative.
The nurse said, “You can keep him company and chat with him, but don’t stay too long.”
Wen Shi evidently wasn’t the type of person who was good at keeping other people company, so he didn’t enter the room right away.
He stood in a corner of the hallway and pulled out a slip of yellow joss paper from his pocket before he rapidly folded it into the shape of a bird. Xia Qiao had seen this object before: the first time Wen Shi had picked up on a trace of his soul, he had also folded a paper bird to follow its trail.
“Who are you tracking this time?” Xia Qiao whispered, “Lao Song?”
“Let’s see where he’s been.” Wen Shi said.
Lao Song was an ordinary person who wouldn’t have the scent of Wen Shi’s soul on him for no good reason. He must have previously gone somewhere or met somebody.
Wen Shi opened his hand. The paper bird flapped its wings and slipped into the room through the crack at the bottom of the door. It silently circled around the edge of Lao Song’s bed before it stealthily departed.
Lao Song didn’t notice that little thing at all. His complexion seemed alright, but his expression was a bit wooden. He sat propped up against the headboard, in a daze, eyes cast downward.
Wen Shi stood next to the door and looked at Lao Song for a while through the glass window. Then, he lowered his head and pulled out a remaining chunk of incense and a lighter.
Xia Qiao watched Wen Shi proficiently light the incense and rub the tips of his fingers gently together. A wisp of black smoke flowed out from the bottom of the incense stick, and he slowly spun it into a rope.
Xia Qiao thought, He must be leaving something behind for Lao Song, just like how Shen Qiao left something behind for me. It was most likely another white plum branch.
Right as that thought emerged in his mind, the phone in his pocket started vibrating.
Wen Shi was in the middle of shaping the female driver’s residual smoke. When he heard the vibrations, he glanced up and saw Xia Qiao fish out his phone. Two big characters were written on the screen—Xie Wen.
Wen Shi’s fingers jolted.
The second before the smoke solidified, it twisted into a ball. The perfectly good spray of white plum blossoms disappeared and turned into something fluffy that was the size of a palm, huddled on the floor.
Wen Shi: “…”
This was just very unexpected.
Last time, it was Xia Qiao; this time, it was Xie Wen. He felt like both of them were out to get him.
Expressionless, he crouched down, pinched the scruff of that thing’s neck, and held it up before his eyes.
At the same time, Xia Qiao pressed his phone against Wen Shi’s ear and mouthed, “Boss Xie is looking for you.”
A beat later, Xie Wen’s voice sounded right next to him. He asked, “Did you get home yet?”
Wen Shi: “…no.”
Xie Wen: “Still outside?”
Wen Shi: “At the hospital.”
Xie Wen: “Why are you at the hospital?”
Before Wen Shi could say anything, the round thing he was holding let out a cry.
Over the call, Xie Wen paused. “I think I heard the sound of a cat. Where’d the cat come from?”
Wen Shi’s face was unreadable. “You did this.”
Xie Wen: “?”
- The Lao in Lao Song means “old”. It’s used in a nickname the same way Xiao (little) is used. ^
Yan: First episode of audio drama is out!! You can listen to it here. I think they go through like … the first five chapters in one episode lol. But it’s definitely nice to hear the story come to life! I probably won’t be posting any more updates on the AD, but new episodes come out every Friday – would definitely recommend getting the app to listen to it.
Also, the update schedule for Panguan will be changing to Sundays (it probably already is Sunday for some of you haha) because I always end up being pretty busy on Saturdays. The change will start next week!