Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
Da Dong had been patrolling for a long time now, and he had also resolved quite a few small cages before, so he wasn’t ranked too low on the name register mural. At the very least, he was a bit higher than Zhou Xu and his mother, Zhang Biling, who were becoming more and more marginalized day by day.
But he wasn’t actually all that calm, nor was he particularly courageous.
Every time he entered a cage and encountered a situation, he would still end up panicking. Only his acting skills eventually improved.
Thankfully, he had never patrolled alone before. Whenever he went into a cage, he always had Haozi or another partner with him.
As long as his partner was there, Da Dong was still a fierce man.
Da Dong silently withdrew his empty right hand and drew in a deep breath before he shrugged his shoulders. Haozi’s hand on his shoulder shifted along with the movement, and Haozi asked him quietly, “Why are you lifting your shoulder?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Upon hearing that Haozi was still there, most of Da Dong’s soul returned to him. Even if his hand was being held by another “person,” it didn’t seem that terrifying anymore. He replied in a low voice, “I was just testing to see if you’re scared or not.”
“What’s there to be scared of?” Haozi had Da Dong in front of him and Lao Mao behind him, so he truly didn’t have anything to be afraid of. He asked in return, “It can’t be that you’re the one who’s actually scared, right?”
Da Dong scoffed. “I’m just not telling you because it’d probably freak you out, but it’s a good thing I’m first. If our positions were switched, I bet you wouldn’t even be able to breathe right now.”
Haozi was used to this dark-skinned guy stubbornly pretending to be brave by now. He was speechless for a moment before he said, “Cool it a little with the boasting.”
“Oh yeah, everyone else is still here, right?” Da Dong asked, raising his voice to a volume that everyone could hear.
In fact, this was a prime example of bolstering one’s courage, but Haozi didn’t expose him out of consideration for the Zhang family’s reputation.
Zhou Xu, Xia Qiao, and Sun Siqi were all well-behaved children, and they graciously responded one after another.
Da Dong asked again, “What about the people at the back?”
As soon as he said that, he heard a few muffled coughs.
Xie Wen was sickly; everyone knew that.
Two theories circulated throughout the families as a means of explaining his weak constitution.
One theory said that his soul was unstable and indefinite, which was reflected in his poor health.
Another theory stated that because he had too much karmic debt and a catastrophic fate, his body was doomed to contain sickness all year round, afflicted with various ailments. He was the kind of person who was least suited to entering cages. Each time he went in, it would consume his energy and vitality, causing him to end up even worse when he came out.
Da Dong thought about how they were in a cage at that very moment, and he felt like Xie Wen was truly born under an unlucky star.
“Alright everyone, keep close. If you get lost, there’s no room to look for you,” Da Dong said after the coughing subsided.
They should still be in the long hallway. Since everything was pitch-black, they didn’t dare to lift their feet up too high, so they let their feet shuffle along the ground, producing a sluggish, chafing noise.
That, accompanied with the echo from Da Dong’s words, made the space seem deceptively deep and quiet. The gloomy, sinister atmosphere grew even more prominent.
Most likely because of that, nobody else spoke after Da Dong finished talking. Only the sound of slow footsteps remained in the hallway, but after a while, even those footsteps no longer seemed to be coming from them.
Wen Shi was second to last in the line, and he walked forward along with the rest of the group. However, he wasn’t focused on the footsteps—instead, his attention was on the hand resting on his shoulder.
Actually, when Xia Qiao was scared in the past, he had also grabbed onto Wen Shi and refused to let go. Wen Shi merely treated it as if there was a weight hanging off his body. Apart from Xia Qiao being a bit heavy, Wen Shi had no other feelings towards the matter.
But it was different this time.
Xie Wen’s hand obviously wasn’t heavy, and it was placed on his shoulder normally, yet its existence was extremely noticeable.
Wen Shi could sense the slightly cool body temperature of the person behind him penetrating through the thin material of his T-shirt. He could also tell that Xie Wen’s slightly curled fingers were long and thin as they pressed firmly against his shoulder bones.
There really was something quite subtle about this kind of touch. Wen Shi narrowed his eyes in the darkness.
He thought, Sure enough, I’m still not used to touching someone else for an extended period of time. It was a bit… too intimate.
For a second, he wanted to shift his shoulder so that Xie Wen would loosen his hand a bit, and that subtle feeling would lessen a little too. But in the end, he didn’t move at all.
Perhaps it was because the hallway was too dim, or their surroundings were too quiet. Regardless, he allowed that person behind him to hold onto his shoulder.
Several low coughs came from behind him again. They sounded a bit smothered, like the way Xie Wen usually suppressed them in his throat.
Wen Shi lowered his eyes and listened to the coughs as he continued walking.
After a few more steps, he suddenly came to a stop!
Because that hand on his shoulder hadn’t moved a single bit…
Xie Wen had been coughing indistinctly this entire time, but the hand resting on Wen Shi’s shoulder had never even wavered.
As if that hand was separated and completely disconnected from the body.
Or possibly, even the voice itself was fake.
Wen Shi frowned and reached for Xie Wen’s hand, but he caught ahold of nothing.
The instant he realized what was going on, the touch on his shoulder disappeared, and the coughing also cut off abruptly.
“Xie Wen?” he called out softly.
Apart from his own echo, there was no other reply.
It was empty behind him, as if this person named Xie Wen had never stood there before at all. That thought, which flashed fleetingly across his mind, made him feel a bit uneasy, and he halted for a moment, startled.
Immediately after, he became aware of something else: he had already let go of the person before him and was no longer walking, but Sun Siqi and the rest were entirely oblivious.
The footsteps had also vanished at some unknown point in time, and it was deathly silent in the hallway.
Suddenly, a creaking noise came from behind Wen Shi, as if someone had opened an old-fashioned door.
That ice-cold hand was still latched onto Da Dong’s. While he thought about how damn long the hallway was, he simultaneously reassured himself, Haozi is still holding onto me, everything’s fine.
In order to confirm the other person’s existence, every few steps he would say, “Haozi?”
Then, Haozi would answer, “I’m here.”
After an indeterminate amount of time passed, Da Dong couldn’t help but say, “My feet are starting to get sore from walking, yet we’re still not at the end, and nothing else is happening either. There’s no way we’ll just be walking like this the entire time in this cage, right? Walk for ten or fifteen days, totally consuming all of our energy? What do you think will happen if I let out a puppet right now?”
Haozi’s voice rang out faintly once more. “I’m here.”
Da Dong: “…”
It was truly very hard to describe his feelings in that moment.
Da Dong felt like someone had struck him across the top of the head, as cold sweat poured down from his numb scalp.
He wanted to call out to the others again, but it was like chicken feathers were wedged in his throat so that he couldn’t squeeze out a single word. He froze on the spot and didn’t dare to move.
A second ago, he was still thinking that the hand on his shoulder was a mental comfort. A second later, he felt like that thing probably wanted him dead!
He expended quite a bit of effort before he finally pulled himself together.
The cotton thread wrapped around his right hand was a mess. Da Dong hastily tugged at it a few times and abruptly flung out the string.
As if the other end of the string had a mind of its own, it powerfully thrashed its way through the hallway, creating a whistling wind. It cracked crisply against the walls, sounding even more vicious than a whip.
Soon after, his hand emptied out, and the thing leading him forward disappeared. The “Haozi” holding onto his shoulder also dissipated.
Da Dong lashed out chaotically with his puppet strings until his fingers were sore. Only then did he come to a stop, still on high alert.
Now, he was finally certain that nobody else was in the hallway apart from him.
The people following behind him had long since vanished.
He gripped the thread tightly in his hand and stood in place, panting. Just as he was debating if he should continue walking or bide his time and wait, he heard a creak come from the utter silence.
A door opened.
Da Dong jumped in fright and perked up his ears, wanting to determine the direction of the door.
All of a sudden, a breeze swept past the nape of his neck…
Like someone’s breath.
Da Dong swore internally. Right as he was about to turn around, a pair of hands unexpectedly pushed him!
He lost his balance and stumbled forward quite a few steps.
A moment later, there was a bang behind him! The door slammed shut—and he was pushed into a room.
If he was a coward, he would’ve burst into tears on the spot.
I’m still okay, Da Dong swallowed and consoled himself.
His true character tended to appear when he was alone, so he had to calm himself down.
Da Dong remained in the same position he ended up in after stumbling and steadying himself. Half-hunched, string wrapped tight around his fingers, he shifted backwards bit by bit, trying to reach a wall; at least that would give him a sense of security.
However, he had only backed up a few steps when he bumped into a body…
At the same time, there was a slight but abrupt crackling noise above him, the sort of sound that came from old-fashioned light bulbs when their electrical connection was loose. Then, the interior of the room lit up, on and off, a few times.
Amidst the flickering, Da Dong looked behind him and saw a figure standing there.
He shot forward like he had touched an electric switch, putting on a one-man show of someone running in all four directions.
The light finally turned on normally and illuminated the room in an expanse of cool white. A voice cut through Da Dong’s shrieks. “Shut up, stop yelling.”
There was a delay in Da Dong’s processing abilities, and he continued screaming for a while before he realized that voice didn’t sound like a ghost’s.
He hesitantly came to a stop and lowered his arms, which he was using to cover his face, to stare in the direction of the voice—
Alright, it really wasn’t a ghost. It was that ice cube-like elder disciple from the Shen family.
“What the fuck—”
Da Dong let his profanity slip out before he just barely managed to slam on the brakes. He held himself back for quite a while and finally squeezed out, “Who are you trying to scare by standing there so silently!”
That person’s skin was already pale, and it seemed even more colorless under the old-fashioned white light bulb. As if rendered speechless, he expressionlessly looked Da Dong up and down before he said derisively, “Well, I didn’t think that just standing here was enough to scare someone so badly that they had to scramble for the door.”
He pressed his lips together and contemplated briefly before adding, “And they couldn’t even find the door.”
Da Dong: “…”
He wanted to retort back, but when he lowered his head, he saw that he was currently cowering in the corner extremely inelegantly, as if the only thing he needed was a hole that he could use to crawl out of there. He truly didn’t have any grounds for retaliation.
A rare blush appeared on Da Dong’s dark skin. He straightened upright with his back pressed to the wall and adjusted his clothes. After a moment of hesitation, he still attempted to defend himself. “That’s just because you don’t know what I’ve gone through. If you were walking at the front earlier, you would be screaming even more than me.”
The other person shot him a glance and didn’t seem interested in responding at all. Instead, he started examining the room’s decor.
This was a study. There was a wide, heavy desk, as well as a mahogany bookcase that took up one entire wall. On the desk, there was a calendar, a leather notebook, a fountain pen, and a jade-colored table lamp.
A high-backed chair containing both Chinese and Western elements sat behind the desk, and patterned ash brown carpet covered the ground.
“It looks a bit like those old Western-style mansions,” Da Dong said.
He actually didn’t want to converse with that elder Shen disciple; after all, the other person didn’t seem like someone who was fond of chatting either. But Da Dong needed a topic of conversation to alleviate his embarrassment from losing control earlier.
As expected, the other person didn’t say anything.
Instead, a female voice resounded through their room—oh, that wasn’t right. It most likely resounded through the entire house. “This escape room is based on a true story—”
“This voice sounds a little familiar,” Da Dong murmured.
The Shen family disciple paid attention to him this time: he frowned and shushed Da Dong, indicating for him to listen obediently and refrain from interrupting.
Da Dong was about to stifle himself to death.
He thought, For better or worse, I’m still considered your damn senior. I might not compare to those above me, but I should be way better than you, right? Why’re you acting so disdainful with me, you’re genuinely not self-aware at all.
Being brave really makes you special, huh?
He felt like in the end, he was just too good-tempered and amiable. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have allowed this looks-only embroidered pillow to give him that kind of attitude.
Once they got out of the cage, he was definitely going to add “has an exaggerated opinion of his own abilities” to his evaluation of this person in his report to the Great Lady Zhang.
“In the early years of the Republic of China, there lived a rich merchant by the surname of Shen in this Western-style mansion, Shop Sanmi. He was involved in the trade of tea leaves, and both he and his wife were caught up in the bustle of society. They often went to Beiping1 and Tianjin Wei, where they would stay for months at a time, so they were seldom at home. The main residents of his house were his four children—a son and three daughters—along with a butler, a nanny, a tutor, a cook, and the nanny’s son.
“The children had played together ever since they were young. Upstairs and downstairs, in the front yard and backyard, there were traces of them everywhere.
“Until one day, someone disappeared.
“The rich merchant’s eldest daughter went missing. Her name was Shen Manyi, and she was eleven years old.
“The butler and nanny paced anxiously around the study, while the others were locked maliciously inside different rooms. The butler said: Let’s free the others first, and then we can come up with a solution together. The nanny indicated her approval.”
After that, the room went quiet.
Da Dong peered around him, dumbfounded. “We can’t possibly go through this like it’s a real escape room, right?”
Wen Shi walked over to the door. “Let’s free the others first.”
Da Dong nodded in agreement. Then, he felt like something wasn’t right.
Those words sounded a bit familiar—it was the exact same line that was said in the broadcast a moment ago, which meant that Da Dong had accidentally stepped into the role of the nanny.
The dark-skinned nanny was a little furious.
Wen Shi didn’t even look at Da Dong the nanny.
He twisted the doorknob, but as expected, he couldn’t open it. Consequently, he tightened the white cotton thread twisted around his fingers. Right as he was about to make a move, he heard the dark-skinned nanny say, “Don’t mess around!”
Fortunately, Da Dong had met a few amateurs before this. Despite only half-understanding puppetry, they would always try to use their skills, causing themselves to frequently overreach. Sometimes, they would even tie themselves up and almost strangle themselves to death.
He also often made mistakes when he was just beginning to study puppetry, and he had received his fair share of lessons firsthand, which was why he was politely dismissive of new rookies.
“Your string is wrapped way too casually.” Da Dong stared at Wen Shi’s fingers.
There was actually a particular way a puppet master’s string should be bound; where to intersect, where to coil around, there were rules for all of that. Just like the brushwork for drawing talismans and the chants for arranging arrays, you couldn’t approach it arbitrarily.
Of course, this was excluding top-tier puppet masters. After all, there was a phrase that went “possessing no sword prevails over those with a sword,” but that was an entirely different realm altogether. Those puppet masters could control a puppet by randomly winding a string around their fingers, or sometimes, they didn’t even need a string at all.
However, that wasn’t within the scope of consideration here.
“You should wrap this part around your index finger first, and it should loop three times around your ring finger before you wind it back over to your index finger. You’re—” Da Dong trailed off.
What the hell was the use of just making it look pretty.
He rolled his eyes and asked Wen Shi, “Be honest with me, how many months have you been studying this?”
Wen Shi remained silent.
The dark-skinned nanny was a scaredy-cat. If Wen Shi told him the truth, it would most likely terrify him.
But Da Dong clearly just wanted to say something scornful; he wasn’t actually expecting a response. He waved his hand to the side and said long-sufferingly, “Move over a little, don’t make a mess with the string. I’ll do it.”
Wen Shi still didn’t speak as he looked at Da Dong with a strange expression in his eyes.
A few seconds later, he lowered his hand, shifted to the side, and took a step back, allowing the nanny to do as he pleased.
- Name for Beijing in the early to mid 1900s ^