Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
Xia Qiao only had a little more than a decade’s worth of experience living as a human, and he had never been in such a situation before. In any case, he was embarrassed out of his mind, and he flushed red all over.
By contrast, his ge didn’t seem to really react, apart from his lips pressing a little more tightly together and the expression on his face growing a little colder… oh, that wasn’t right, he still did react just a tiny bit—
Wen Shi stiffly met Xie Wen’s eyes for quite a few seconds before he silently averted his gaze, rubbing his throat.
“Ge, what do we do,” Xia Qiao whispered, face burning.
“What do we do about what?” Wen Shi’s thin lips parted slightly.
“The message from earlier.” Xia Qiao said.
Wen Shi calmly maintained his poker face as he said flatly, “You’re the one who sent it.”
Xia Qiao: “???”
Since it was Wen Shi, Xia Qiao couldn’t retort back either, and he had no choice but to swallow what he wanted to say back down.
Thankfully, there was an even more unruffled person present who could subdue Wen Shi.
“Just because you made someone else send the message, do you think that means I can’t tell who initially composed it.” Xie Wen’s voice sounded right next to them. Wen Shi turned his head and realized that Xie Wen and Lao Mao had walked over to them, drawing a clearly defined line between them and the two strangers who had entered the store last.
As Xie Wen was talking, his gaze landed on the two people standing in the doorway as he sized them up. He wasn’t actually looking at Wen Shi, but because he kept his voice low, it unexpectedly made their conversation seem even more private and intimate.
“So what if you can tell.” Wen Shi said.
“I didn’t say I was going to do anything about it. I’m just curious: what phones are you trying to look at here?” When Xie Wen spoke to him, he would tilt his head down and to the side slightly before straightening upright again once he was done.
As a result, Wen Shi could sense the warmth from Xie Wen’s body draw a bit closer to him, and then pull away.
This subtle aura and existence caught Wen Shi briefly off guard. Several seconds passed before he finally answered sardonically, “And what kind of supermarket is this supposed to be again.”
He felt a little irritated after he said that.
Because his pause in the middle made it seem as if he had been rendered speechless by Xie Wen. Even though he had snapped back in the end, he appeared to have conceded the argument.
Immediately, a displeased expression took over Wen Shi’s face, and he didn’t want to pay any more attention to Xie Wen.
In an instant, the atmosphere froze over somewhat.
Due to the chill emanating from Wen Shi, the two people who just entered the store grew even more rigid.
Da Dong was made vividly aware of a certain truth: the world could change a thousand times in the blink of an eye.
A second earlier, he was enthusiastically texting the Great Lady Zhang: We caught up to them! Over by Shop Sanmi. Haozi and I are both here, they won’t be able to escape this time.
A second later, he wanted to say: Maybe it would be better if the two of us ran away…
Apart from the two Shen family disciples they were tasked to follow, Da Dong didn’t want to see any of the other people who were in this room.
There was no need to elaborate on Zhou Xu.
They knew who Xie Wen was as well, though it was one-sided. This type of renowned, naturally catastrophic fate was no different from a plague god. Although Xie Wen wasn’t some particularly powerful figure, everyone still steered clear of him whenever they saw him, so as to avoid falling victim to his scourge.
Da Dong thought, Just how unlucky do we have to be to run into both of these people at the same time.
Worst of all, Zhou Xu stared blankly at them for a few seconds at first before he blurted out, “Da Dong? Haozi-ge? Why are you guys here too?”
Before Da Dong could explain, the little disciple from the Shen family called Xia Qiao acted as if he had suddenly found a topic of conversation. Very eagerly, he asked Zhou Xu, “Do you know each other?”
Da Dong wanted to wave his hands, but Zhou Xu said, “Uh-huh, we do. They’re from my family.”
Da Dong went numb.
“Your family?” That Xia Qiao reacted quite quickly. “Ah, from the Zhang family?”
“Yup, they’re on patrol duty today. I actually ran into them earlier on the street before this one.” Then Zhou Xu said in a half-disdainful, half-skeptical tone of voice, “You should at least know what patrol duty is, right?”
“I just learned about it today,” Xia Qiao said truthfully. “So their patrol duty took them here? What a coincidence.”
Da Dong forced a loud laugh. “Yeah, there’s a lot of random rumors surrounding this place, which is why it’s an important area for our family to focus on during patrols. Usually, though, someone from the main family comes over. For once, it’s our turn today, so this really is a coincidence.”
Right as he made everything line up, that guy Zhou Xu butted in. “Didn’t you say that my aunt assigned a different task to you guys? To keep an eye on someone? You’re done with that already?”
Da Dong: “…”
With that, Wen Shi, Xia Qiao, Xie Wen, and Lao Mao simultaneously turned and stared solemnly at them. Those expressions were a mix of “I finally found somewhere to look,” “what a weight off my mind,” and “don’t you feel embarrassed yet.”
Consequently, without knowing why, Da Dong and Haozi were abruptly forced to shoulder a great burden.
Haozi squeezed out from barely parted lips, “Now what. I wanna die.”
Da Dong thought, Join the club.
“Maybe… we should leave?” Da Dong forced himself to reply.
Haozi promptly swiveled around and headed straight for the doorway, as if he was just waiting for Da Dong to say that.
But when he pushed aside the plastic curtain, the originally empty and neglected underground passageway had already changed its appearance.
Every few meters along the extensive walls making up both sides of the passageway, a tiny light illuminated the posters that Shop Sanmi had put up. The feeble glow of the lamps were also very peculiarly situated.
At first glance, those cabinets, bed frames, and toilet cubicles all looked lifelike and three-dimensional.
It was as if you were huddled in one of those cramped, narrow spaces, watching the light pierce through the crack as it left behind a long and slanted line across your face, cutting you into two irregular halves.
Pedestrians suddenly appeared in the passageway, and someone chuckled to themselves as footsteps ran from one end of the hallway to the other. A moment later, those footsteps dashed vigorously back in the other direction.
There were also a few silhouettes here and there, walking vacantly and slowly through the passageway. They either wore hats or carried bags, and they didn’t say anything. When they passed by those lamps, their ghastly pale faces would become sharp and clear for a split second before they were enveloped by the darkness again.
It was like a horror movie that was constantly jumping frames.
One of the silhouettes walking by seemed to sense Haozi’s gaze, and it sluggishly turned its head in his direction.
There was something extremely strange about the movement: his body was still traveling forward, and his shoulders didn’t budge. Only his head turned a full ninety degrees. At that instant, the light projected down on him from above, casting half of his face into shadow while the other half remained illuminated, like he had been slashed horizontally across the face.
As if he was purposefully trying to act frightening, the figure stared at Haozi for several seconds before suddenly stretching his head towards him!
That entire face was abruptly revealed, and a few dark streaks of blood streamed down from his eyes.
Haozi could even hear the pattering sound of something dripping. Accompanied by a splat, an ice-cold liquid trickled down from above and landed right on the tip of his nose…
It smelled very metallic.
The pedestrian laughed noiselessly and withdrew his head, as if he had succeeded in his prank.
Haozi silently pulled back the foot that he had planted outside of the doorway. He let go of the curtain and dragged Da Dong back three steps.
“Why are you backing up?” Da Dong asked.
Haozi’s lips twitched as he suppressed his terror from a moment earlier. He made himself say calmly, “We’ve entered a cage.”
“How is that possible?” Da Dong unlocked his phone. “I was just sending Lan—”
—jie a text…
He stared at the blank space on his screen where the signal should’ve been and swallowed down the rest of his sentence.
The chat interface was still stuck on the previous message he had sent to Zhang Lan: We caught up to them! Over by Shop Sanmi. Haozi and I are both here, they won’t be able to escape this time.
At the time, he put away his phone and rushed underground after sending that text, so he didn’t notice whether the message was delivered successfully or not. Only now did he realize that there was a red exclamation mark next to the text, indicating that the delivery had failed.
“Oh, great.” Da Dong muttered softly.
“What is it?” Haozi asked.
Da Dong showed him the phone screen and said quietly, “She doesn’t even know where we are.”
Which meant that she wouldn’t be able to hurry over and check out the situation.
The Zhang family juniors who frequently patrolled this area all knew that Shop Sanmi was actually a rather troublesome place. Numerous cages had appeared here before, and each one was extremely vicious.
Perhaps too many cages had been produced here. Sometimes, as long as you approached this area, you would be able to sense a quite discomforting energy.
It was hard to describe—as if anyone who stayed here for a bit too long would become prone to developing certain impulses and would want to do some dangerous things.
This was essentially the same as being unable to dissolve a cage master’s malevolent energy while undoing a cage, and becoming corroded or contaminated by that malevolent energy instead. That was why Da Dong and the rest usually avoided this area when they were on patrol duty: they knew that they probably wouldn’t be able to undo a cage here.
They referred to relatively uncontrollable regions like this as cage vortices. The more powerful members of the Zhang family were the ones in charge of these regions, such as some of the older folk from the previous generation, along with Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin.
In reality, there were many cage vortices in this world. There were nine alone in Ningzhou, and the scope and quantity of just those Ningzhou vortices were still increasing, let alone the rest of the ones in existence. So there was no way they could constantly keep watch over all the vortices—typically, someone would clear it out every once in a while.
Recently, Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin were focused on the three cage vortices located in southwest Ningzhou. Da Dong was aware of that, which was why he also knew that it wasn’t very feasible to count on the big shots coming to help them out…
And what kind of people were in this cage again?
Da Dong silently glanced behind him. He saw Xie Wen, whose name had been struck off; the two Shen family disciples who couldn’t make it on the name register mural; Lao Mao, the shop assistant with the round stomach who clearly only knew how to eat; Zhou Xu, who went left when you told him to go right; and an ordinary high school student, whose little face was deathly pale and covered in question marks…
“I want to change my profession,” Da Dong said.
Haozi: “…keep it together.”
As they were lamenting, Da Dong’s phone suddenly vibrated.
Da Dong looked down and watched blankly as a new message popped up on his screen, even though he didn’t have a single bar of service.
The sender was “Great Lady Zhang Lan,” and it was unexpectedly a reply to his undeliverable “they won’t be able to escape” text.
“Zhang Lan” said: Haha, you guys won’t be able to escape either.
Da Dong’s scalp prickled because of that “haha.”
A second later, a chilly hand landed on his shoulder…
With a jolt, Da Dong whipped around!
The long-haired cashier girl looked at him and beamed. “Are you two going to play?”
Da Dong: “…can I not play?”
The girl continued to smile without responding.
At least he and Haozi were experienced, so they were able to remain somewhat calm. Meanwhile, Zhou Xu’s innocent classmate, Sun Siqi, and the coward Xia Qiao were already starting to slide down onto the floor.
Holding a walkie-talkie, the girl said, “Xiao Hua, Xiao Hua, is it ready yet? All the customers are here now. Hurry up a little, or else the customers are gonna leave.”
The walkie-talkie crackled for a while before the same male voice from before answered faintly, “It’s ready, the last group just finished. They can come in now.”
After he said that, the room went quiet for several seconds.
Sun Siqi stared at the dark, gloomy hallway leading to the escape room. He swallowed and said, “The last group just finished?”
The girl nodded. “That’s right.”
Sun Siqi: “Then where are they…”
The girl looked at him with another smile as her pitch-black eyes curved into two thin crescents.
“I’m not doing this anymore, Great Immortal.” Sun Siqi turned around and headed straight for the door. “I can’t do this, I’m leaving first, I – I’m going to find Lao Lu and the rest.”
“Hey—” Zhou Xu called out to him.
Sun Siqi pretended like he couldn’t hear him. Right as he was about to push aside the door curtain, a hand grabbed onto his shoulder.
He let out a scream, and his soul nearly flew out of his body.
Sun Siqi could tell that the hand was warm, firm, and strong. Just like that, it merely pressed down calmly on his shoulder, yet he wasn’t able to move at all anymore.
He held his breath and stiffly rotated his head. Clean, beautiful fingers entered his field of vision.
He heard a cool-toned voice say, “Don’t run, it’s even scarier outside.”
Because of that one line, Sun Siqi glued himself behind Wen Shi, as if he had turned on “auto-follow” mode. Xia Qiao was also glued right there with him.
Initially, Zhou Xu wanted to act a bit more reserved and maintain some moral integrity. But then he remembered what the last cage had been like, and his gaze traveled back and forth between the adults in the room briefly. In the end, he also glued himself behind Wen Shi.
As a result, Wen Shi accidentally gained three extra tails.
The cashier girl was responsibly and diligently preparing the props for the escape room. She gave the eight of them two walkie-talkies and two little lanterns in the shape of candles.
She instructed them to distribute the props among themselves before she walked over to the hallway, which they couldn’t see the end of, and pointed into it. “Everyone, if you could please come over here.”
Xie Wen was quite cooperative; he had been leaning against the wall next to the hallway for some time now.
This person clearly had a very good-looking figure, but he rarely stood up straight; he would always find somewhere to lean on or rest against. However, there were also some benefits to this, because he was extremely tall. Even though he seemed to have a sickly aura about him, he gave many people a bit of a subtle, oppressive feeling when he straightened up completely.
As Wen Shi walked over with his three tails, he saw Xie Wen looking in his direction from afar. His gaze was fixed on Wen Shi, and it was very deep and very still.
It was still to the point where it seemed like he had been watching Wen Shi for a long time—yet, it also seemed like he was simply lost in thought.
By the time Wen Shi was nearby, Xie Wen had already turned away to look at the cashier girl, waiting for her next words.
“The hallway is quite narrow, and only one person can pass through it, so you all will have to go one after another in a single-file line,” the girl said.
As soon as she said that, Wen Shi’s three tails found themselves in a predicament.
Sun Siqi said, “I don’t want to stand at the end.”
Xia Qiao immediately said, “Me neither.”
No cowardly person would want to stand at the end of the line in such a situation. After all, nobody liked the feeling of their back being left entirely open. How the hell would you know if there was something unseen following you or not? Just thinking about it was suffocating.
Only Zhou Xu, who was in the middle of his rebellious stage, didn’t want to follow the crowd. On the contrary, he said, “Then I don’t want to stand at the front.”
Da Dong was a bit speechless watching those three brats hide behind Wen Shi as they discussed where to stand. He thought, Forget everyone else, but Zhou Xu—what exactly is this kid thinking?
Da Dong and Haozi were right there, but he didn’t want to follow them. Instead, he ran over to be with that Shen family disciple who wasn’t even recognized by the name register mural?
Yet another person who went purely off of appearances.
Da Dong thought: Once something really happens in this cage, let’s see how the three of you will cry.
“One of us should take the lead, while the other one brings up the rear,” he said to Haozi. “There’s nobody else anyway.”
“Fine then. You can go first, I’ll be at the end.” Haozi sighed.
Among this group of people, Da Dong felt like he had to behave a bit like a leader, even if he didn’t really know how to be one. As a result, he walked straight to the front of the line. Sun Siqi was very self-aware, and he silently stood in front of Wen Shi.
Xia Qiao thought, This is my ge!
But then something else occurred to him: Whatever, I’m not even human, so I shouldn’t bicker with him. I’ll just let him do what he wants. Consequently, he was also very self-aware and moved to stand in front of Sun Siqi.
But right as he got into position, that bratty child Zhou Xu shouldered him forward a little and squeezed in between the two of them.
Wen Shi didn’t care where he stood. In any case, he wasn’t going to move, so the others could stand wherever they liked. Compared to all that, he was more concerned about the odd part of this cage—
It didn’t have a cage core.
Or rather, it didn’t have an obvious cage core.
There was only one building in this cage: the underground escape room. Meanwhile, they were already inside of it, and they didn’t have to utilize any techniques to get in. Either this was the cage core itself, and they had mistakenly entered it directly, or the cage core was a certain item inside of this place this time, instead of a building.
“Sir, if you could quickly get in line.” The cashier girl suddenly voiced a reminder, snapping Wen Shi out of his thoughts.
He looked up and discovered that the line had already sorted itself out ahead of him—
Lao Mao stood in front of Xia Qiao, wedging those three tails between himself and Wen Shi. But a second later, Wen Shi realized that he was also one of the ones being wedged in the middle, because Xie Wen was standing at the very end.
Only the square-faced man called “Haozi” stood woodenly outside of the line with a dumbfounded expression on his face.
“I can be at the end,” Haozi said.
“No need, I don’t like it when people stand behind me,” Xie Wen said politely. Then, he made a “this way” gesture in front of him.
Haozi held out for a while until the girl started urging him along. He walked forward along the line, trying to cut his way in, but nobody wanted to move. In the end, he was bumped into the spot behind Da Dong, second in line.
As soon as they were in position, the girl giggled and said, “Place your hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you, and then you’re all set.”
The hallway was long and narrow, causing her laughter to echo back at them, as if it was ringing right in their ears. All the lights went out, and the hallway was so dark that you couldn’t see your hand if you extended it.
The girl didn’t say anything else.
Da Dong stood there for a while, frozen. Suddenly, he felt someone lightly take his hand from the front and tug him forward.
Da Dong: “…”
Goosebumps erupted from the point of contact and crawled all the way up the top of his head, rendering him utterly numb.
He swallowed. As he walked forward, he fished out a ball of cotton thread from his pocket and began one-handedly wrapping the string around his fingers.
To those who specialized in puppetry, controlling puppet strings was equivalent to courage and life.
Once Da Dong was done winding on the thread, he felt much more stabilized, as well as a little braver. He wanted to try and find out who the person in front of him was, so he stretched his free right hand out. But the more he waved his hand around, the colder he felt inside.
Apart from the hand that was holding onto his, he didn’t come into contact with anything else. There was no head, and there was no body.