Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
Da Dong was still in his early twenties. He wasn’t very old, but he could put on quite a show. Most likely because someone was watching him from the side, he even posed a little before he made his move.
The white string shot out like it was alive and eagerly jostled its way around the lock on the study door.
The lock was part of a round, old-fashioned door knob made of brass. There was a tiny keyhole underneath it, and it didn’t have as many ridges as locks nowadays did.
“This is the best way to go about things like opening a door, tying someone up, or controlling a few objects with your string.” Da Dong liked to look good and perform well in front of other people, but he wasn’t actually a bad person.
When he thought about it, he realized that this Shen family disciple was fairly pitiful too. His shifu was gone, so he had to figure out everything all by himself, and no one could correct him if he was wrong. He couldn’t get on the name register mural before, and it would probably become even more difficult for him to do so in the future. As a result, Da Dong started explaining as he went along and generously imparted some words of advice to this “Chen Shi.”
“The index finger conducts the spirit, the middle finger conducts shape, and the ring finger conducts power. The thumb and pinky signify the connection between the puppet master and their puppet.”
As Da Dong stretched his string into the keyhole, he turned his head and said to the person observing nearby, “There’s no need to release a puppet for a trivial matter like this. So the middle finger, thumb, and pinky aren’t necessary—”
His string bumped into a copper bolt inside of the keyhole, producing a faint clattering noise…
All of a sudden, a little girl began giggling near the door.
Her voice was melodious and clear, though it contained an empty echo. She seemed to simultaneously be standing outside of the door and right next to the person opening the lock.
Da Dong let out an “ah~~”. With a quiver, he swiftly pulled back his hand as if he had just been burned.
All that spirit and power and whatnot vanished entirely. The white cotton thread abruptly lost its vitality and dangled lightly from his fingers as its other end dropped onto the ground.
Frozen, he stared at Wen Shi with round eyes.
Wen Shi: “?”
Da Dong squeezed out from his throat, “Did you hear that laughter?”
Wen Shi: “No.”
He was very calm, which made other people seem a little timid in contrast.
Da Dong hesitated briefly and suspected that he was possibly hearing things. In order to save face, he cleared his throat, concentrated, and posed again. He jabbed the string into the keyhole and plucked delicately…
The little girl’s laughter came again, like a silver bell.
Da Dong recoiled back as if electrocuted. He whipped his head around to look at Wen Shi once more, his voice cracking a bit. “You really didn’t hear that???”
Wen Shi: “…”
He was silent for a few seconds before he said, “Maybe you should just step aside and listen to the laughter. I’ll do it.”
That was more effective than anything else he could’ve said. A second later, Da Dong stabbed the string back into the keyhole.
The little girl’s gurgling laughter pressed up against his ear, so close that it seemed as if she was slumped over his back, arms wrapped around his neck. Da Dong even felt like he could sense a very slight breeze on the side of his neck.
Da Dong held his breath and did his best to remain steady.
But then that little girl started whispering to him. “Mama Cai, I want to buy a flower head.”
Da Dong’s breath dissipated instantly.
Buy what flower head, I’ll give my head to you.
His fingers trembled again, causing the white cotton thread to slump down, on the verge of sliding out of the keyhole…
Suddenly! His index finger lifted twice, so fast that it almost seemed like a spasm. Even he couldn’t react in time.
The index finger conducted the spirit. With a hook of his finger, that softening white thread regained its vigor and abruptly stretched taut before it directly attacked the lock cylinder. Meanwhile, a few other strands of string radiated outward and extended into the cracks at the edge of the door, one in every major direction. Like a simplistic net, it gripped the entire door tightly.
The bolt in the lock cylinder rattled and jiggled, as if caught in a back-and-forth struggle between two opposing sides.
Simultaneously, Da Dong’s ring finger convulsed a few times, and the string clinging onto the door suddenly contracted.
There was an enormous bang, like the door had exploded.
Da Dong jumped in alarm and lifted his head, mouth agape.
A second later, the sound of metal and wood rupturing rang out together.
He felt the thread wrapped around his hand swiftly loosen as he forcefully hauled down the entire study door.
Subconsciously, he backed up a few steps and watched as the thick, old-fashioned wooden door toppled over onto the ground with a loud thud, sending up a burst of hazy, cloudy dust.
The metal door hinges clattered onto the ground, and the screws rolled across the wooden floorboards, out into the hidden depths of the corridor.
The room fell silent again. Da Dong was utterly dumbstruck.
He stared at his fingers as he sunk into a deep confusion.
The first thought that flashed across his mind was that he had been briefly controlled by someone else, just like a puppet master and their puppet.
However, was that possible???
In ancient times, there were indeed legends regarding puppet masters who could control living people… but those were fucking legends.
Of course, legends were based off of theories—
In theory, under circumstances where one person naturally suppressed the other, this kind of control over someone else wasn’t entirely infeasible.
But he wasn’t an ordinary person. He himself was a puppet master, so if someone could naturally suppress him, at the very least… at the very least, they had to be at his shifu’s level, right?
His own innate talent was limited, and he was by no means an expert, but his shifu was very powerful.
In what context? Disregarding the main family, his shifu could rank among the top three puppet masters from the branch families. In the slightly smaller clans, such as the Cheng or Wang family, his shifu could be their leader.
Da Dong abruptly turned his head and looked at the only other person in the room.
Wen Shi’s hands were lowered, and there was a faint trace of impatience on his face, likely from having to wait for a long time. He hadn’t tidied up the white cotton thread that was coiled and crisscrossed around his long fingers yet. Some of the string was stretched very taut and straight, while other pieces dangled down, making it seem more like some sort of disheveled accessory.
This guy was probably studying puppetry to attract girls, wasn’t he?!
That thought suddenly darted into Da Dong’s head.
He cleared away the thought that had emerged out of nowhere and slowly calmed down. He said to himself: Maybe the explosive burst from a second ago was a reflexive reaction from being scared witless.
After all, even rabbits bit people when they were put in a tight spot.
Wen Shi endured his impatience and waited for a while nearby. Noticing that the dark-skinned nanny had actually started spacing out, he couldn’t stand there any longer, and he immediately began walking away.
The moment he left the room, the lights in the study suddenly went out on their own, and a series of footsteps passed by him.
It was as if a child wearing leather shoes had dashed deep into the corridor. This time, he heard the laughter that Da Dong was talking about earlier; it reverberated lightly through the hallway once before vanishing.
This early 1900s Western-style mansion was designed in an extremely oppressive manner. The hallways connected to form a square shape that was most likely similar to the character “回” from an aerial view. The outer layer was composed of rooms, while the stairs were on the inside.
The study was wedged in one of the corners. There was a long and murky path to both the left and the right of the room.
Wen Shi had seen houses similar to this in the past. At the time, he had received the impression that the architect must’ve had some grudge against the owner of the house, since this layout was way too suitable for hauntings.
He couldn’t find a lamp in the corridor, so he had no choice but to walk forward with the help of the little light that was emanating from the staircase.
After only a few steps, he noticed that there was a figure standing at the very end of the hallway, watching them.
“Fuck!” Da Dong abruptly yelped behind him before he instantly suppressed his voice.
“Why are you yelling?” Wen Shi asked quietly.
“The right! Look to the right.” Da Dong lowered his voice significantly, trying hard to conceal his terror.
Wen Shi turned his head—at some unknown point in time, two people had moved to stand next to them. Just as noiseless and taciturn, they stared back at the two of them motionlessly.
Wen Shi’s pupils contracted.
He had already lifted his hand wrapped in thread, but then he quickly lowered it again—because he saw that the person next to him had also raised their hand.
That wasn’t some ghost that had appeared out of thin air. It was a mirror.
Da Dong also discovered that, and his panic immediately transformed into contempt. “Shit, what a dumbass! Choosing to embed a mirror here.”
Actually, there wasn’t just one mirror. The entire wall was covered in a mirrored panel that had been cut up like wardrobes into long, narrow vertical strips by carved wooden frames, turning them into complex, resplendent decor.
When you walked through this hallway, the mirror was filled with shadowy outlines.
Wen Shi looked at the end of the corridor again and realized that there was a mirror on the wall there as well. The figure standing upright over there was most likely himself.
“If I had known it would be like this, I would’ve kept one of those candle lanterns.” Da Dong grumbled for a while before he said in annoyance, “The walkie-talkie would’ve been fine too.”
“Look for the others first.” Wen Shi stopped paying attention to those reflections and walked down the hallway on his own.
“Oh.” Da Dong asked, “Have you ever experienced this kind of thing before?”
“An escape room.”
How could someone who died in 1995 experience this sort of thing? However, many of the cages that he had entered in the past were similar to this one, so he didn’t feel like it was hard to adapt to.
Da Dong couldn’t keep his mouth shut, but in the company of someone like Wen Shi who wasn’t fond of talking, he could only fill the space with his own words. “I suppose it doesn’t make much sense for a cage to be linked to an escape room. Didn’t the broadcast say earlier that the butler and nan… that the two of us have to go find the others? That means it’s very likely that the other people can’t open their rooms from inside. Maybe they don’t even have a doorknob or keyhole.”
Sure enough, his conjectures were swiftly confirmed.
After Wen Shi walked past a segment of the mirror wall, he finally found a door. He touched it, but he couldn’t find a doorknob or lock. The entire door was like a slab of wood inlaid seamlessly into the wall.
“See, I told you.” Once Da Dong was done gloating, he said, “Though this design is way too disgusting. Why would anyone make this type of door?”
Wen Shi said, “It was popular for a while.”
Hiding a bathroom in a closet, pushing open a wall to reveal that it was actually a door, things like that.
“When?” Da Dong subconsciously asked.
Wen Shi didn’t answer. Instead, he knocked on the door.
Da Dong realized retrospectively that the other person was probably referring to the early 1900s. After all, that was the time period the escape room was set in. However… how did he know anything about that time period?
Did he learn it from a book?
In the midst of his puzzlement, Da Dong heard a clatter come from the other side of the door. Someone had probably knocked over an object after being startled.
A beat later, a hoarse voice sounded from behind the door. “Who’s there?!”
The moment Da Dong heard that, he promptly called out, “Zhou Xu? Is that you, Zhou Xu?”
“Da Dong?” Zhou Xu immediately revived and yelled from inside, “You got out? How’d you get out?! My door doesn’t even have a doorknob, fuck! I searched so damn long for an iron wire, but I don’t even have a place I can stab it into.”
“Just wait, I’ll open the door for you.” Da Dong shifted his fingers and instinctively aimed for the keyhole. He had already flung out his puppet string before he registered that this door didn’t have a lock at all.
He changed his plan at the last second and squeezed the white thread into the cracks on all four edges of the door, gripping the entire surface, just like the study door earlier.
He hooked his ring finger to add power and tugged fiercely—
The door… didn’t budge a single bit.
Da Dong: “…”
“I see your thread,” Zhou Xu shouted from inside the room. “But this door has metal wedges in it on all four sides. I counted just now, there’s at least seventeen or eighteen of them. Can you really pull it open???”
This chuunibyou might not be able to do anything else, but he was truly great at drawing aggro with his words.
Da Dong clenched his teeth. “…I can.”
“You’ll have to use some force then. The wall will probably collapse,” Zhou Xu spoke again.
Da Dong gritted his teeth again. “Okay.”
His ring finger was about to snap in half, and he still couldn’t open the door relying on his string alone. As a result, in a moment of frustration, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of yellow joss paper. While he was doing that, he shot quite a few glances at Wen Shi.
Earlier, he had told this elder disciple from the Shen family: “There’s no need to release a puppet for a trivial matter like this.”
A mere several minutes later, he kneeled and swallowed those words back down.
His shifu always told him that he had an abundance of qi and insufficient power, that his hands weren’t steady enough and his state of mind wasn’t stable enough. That was why string would forever just be string in his hands; he could only tug, drag, or tie things up, but he couldn’t accomplish anything else with it.
Back then, he had been perplexed: how much more could string vary? He had thought that all the way up until he saw his shifu’s puppet string cut blades and slice through metal.
If he could also achieve that, forget seventeen or eighteen iron wedges—even if it was an entire hunk of metal, he would still be able to remove it.
Da Dong folded the yellow paper and tossed it out.
A second later, a gale swirled through the entire hallway and gathered in an eddy in front of Da Dong. It spun around intensely and emitted a buzzing noise!
Amidst the buzzing, two sonorous, powerful bird cries suddenly sounded and echoed for a long time through the hallway. The talisman shot out, accompanied by sparks, and extended with a boom in the wake of the bird cries. The head and neck were the first to emerge, followed by two dark gold wings.
Covered in chains, the puppet circled a few times in the air like an afterimage and forcefully slammed into the door. Its sharp claws dug into the edge of the door and scraped all the way around the border.
In an instant, sparks exploded everywhere, and the metal wedges produced consecutive fracturing sounds that were ear-numbingly loud.
The bird cried out again before it drew back, flapping its wings, and became a phantasm once more. It hovered between the walls without obstructing anything.
Da Dong yelled, “Zhou Xu, get out of the way!”
Hasty footsteps came from within the room.
He listened for a while before he lifted his foot and kicked the door. With a bang, the door filled with nailed-in iron wedges toppled onto the ground, revealing the situation inside the room.
This was a bedroom, most likely a little girl’s. Everything was lotus-pink, and a gauze curtain was strung around the bed, making it seem extremely ethereal.
Zhou Xu stood in the middle of this ethereal illusion.
He stared at the fallen door. It took him a long moment to recover, and he looked at Da Dong in astonishment. “Holy shit?”
Da Dong felt great because of those two words. He shook off the dust on him and said, “What do you think, ge isn’t too bad, hm?”
Zhou Xu nodded.
Da Dong was even more satisfied. He tugged at the string in his hand, causing the semi-transparent bird drifting in the hallway to glide over. Even though it didn’t have a physical form right now, the wind that it stirred up was still genuine and real.
This was Zhou Xu’s first time seeing Da Dong’s puppet. He lifted his hand to block the wind and asked, “What kind of bird is this?”
Da Dong said, “Do you see that bit of gold on the wingtips?”
Although the color was very faint, it was still somewhat visible. Zhou Xu nodded and said, “Uh-huh, I see it.”
Da Dong said proudly, “This is a Golden-Winged Dapeng.”
Wen Shi: “…”
He felt like this dark-skinned guy was trying to crack a joke.
Zhou Xu was stupefied.
He restrained himself for quite a while before he finally squeezed out, “Your puppet is actually a Golden-Winged Dapeng?”
Da Dong: “What? Is that not allowed?”
Zhou Xu: “Do you know who the last person to make a Golden-Winged Dapeng puppet was?”
Da Dong: “Of course I do, it’s not like I’m illiterate. Isn’t it that…”
He stumbled for a moment. “That… honorable founder.”
Everyone from the later panguan generations knew what had befallen Chen Budao in the end. It was an unspoken agreement to never mention this founder of theirs, and if someone occasionally brought him up, it was always done so in a vague, ambiguous manner, as if they were referring to some monster or demon.
Taboo, repugnant, and a little afraid.
But beyond that, they still couldn’t help but think of him as a benchmark. If someone in the modern age could replicate something Chen Budao was able to achieve in the past, that meant they had to be outstandingly talented.
Even the puppets that Chen Budao had once used seemed to be more impressive than other alternatives.
Zhou Xu looked at that bird with 30% shock, 60% envy, and 10% doubt. “Is this really a Golden-Winged Dapeng? I feel like it’s a bit different from what I imagined it to be.”
“There’s not enough space to display it fully, or else it’d be a little bigger than this.” With the bird present, Da Dong spoke with significantly more confidence. He beckoned and said, “Come on! Let’s go free everyone else first.”
Right as they were about to leave, the lights in the room also suddenly went out.
Once again, the hallway turned pitch-black. Fortunately, Zhou Xu had one of the little candle-shaped lanterns. On top of that, the Golden-Winged Dapeng cleared the way for them with the shimmering gold lining the fringes of its wings, so the situation didn’t seem that scary.
There were two more rooms next to Zhou Xu’s. One was in the middle of the wall, while the other one was in the corner.
Wen Shi and Da Dong each went to knock on a door. They waited for a response from the person inside the room, but several seconds passed without anything happening.
“Maybe they’re afraid?” Zhou Xu said, embarrassed. There was no need to elaborate on how terrifying it had been to abruptly hear a knocking sound on his door earlier. He only replied because his sixth sense was fairly sharp, allowing him to sense that the people outside were familiar. If it was another coward, they really might not answer.
For example, that Xia Qiao.
“Anyone there? Whoever’s in the room, say something, or else we aren’t gonna open your door for you.” Zhou Xu called out in his brassy voice, trying to warn the person in the room.
But they were still met with utter silence.
“Is it possible that no one’s in here?” Zhou Xu asked, “If every corridor has a similar layout, that means there are quite a few rooms. There’s more than enough places to lock someone up inside.”
As soon as he said that, Wen Shi got a feeling that something wasn’t right. He reached out and pushed the door.
There was a loud rumble as the large door stiffly and solidly fell over onto the ground. It was very obvious that someone had already opened it.
This time, it was Da Dong’s turn to be dumbfounded. He followed Wen Shi’s example and also gave the door in front of him a push.
Sure enough, it toppled over as well.
Zhou Xu let out a “what the fuck” and rubbed the goosebumps that sprang up on his arms.
“Lend me the lantern,” Wen Shi said. He was about to take the little lantern from Zhou Xu and examine the edges of the metal wedges when he heard someone speak from the corridor to the side.
“Da Dong? I was just looking for you guys.”
The Golden-Winged Dapeng swept in the direction of the voice, casting its dark gold light over the person’s figure. With some difficulty, Wen Shi was able to make out his appearance: it was Haozi.
“Why’d you bring out the Golden-Winged Dapeng?” Haozi jogged over from the far side, causing his footsteps to echo through the hallway.
When Da Dong heard him say that, he let down his guard. “It really is you? Did you open these doors?”
Haozi glanced at those two doors and nodded. “Yeah.”
“I knew it.” Da Dong let out a long exhale.
Even though he was clearly afraid, he always insisted on assuming an unperturbed aura and comforting other people. He turned to tell Wen Shi and Zhou Xu, “He specializes in array-casting, and he’s more or less the same skill level as me.”
Wen Shi looked at Haozi. His fingers were dirty, and he was also holding one of the walkie-talkies, as if he had just escaped from a trapped room and was in the middle of searching for other people.
“Who else did you free?” Da Dong pointed at the two doors.
Just as Da Dong was about to speak again, Wen Shi heard the sound of footsteps come from around the corner.
He had a lot of courage, so he promptly swiveled around and started to walk around the corner to check it out. But then, he almost ran straight into the person coming from the other hallway.
Both of them barely managed to stop in time.
“Watch out.” Someone gently braced a hand on Wen Shi’s shoulder, and he was greeted by a familiar scent that abruptly backed away again.
It was Xie Wen.
Wen Shi steadied himself and glanced up. Sure enough, he was met in close proximity with Xie Wen’s slightly downcast gaze.
Wen Shi was briefly startled.
“Who is it?” Zhou Xu’s voice floated over from behind him.
Da Dong also peered over. “Who came over?”
Wen Shi retreated half a step, allowing them to see the newcomer.
“Did I scare you all?” Xie Wen released Wen Shi’s shoulder and said to the others, “I even made sure to tread heavily. My footsteps should’ve been fairly noticeable.”
As he was speaking, another person came up behind him—it was the employee who was always with him, Lao Mao.
Da Dong asked Haozi, “You must’ve opened both of their doors too, right? Was there anyone else besides them?”
Haozi shook his head and said, “That’s it.”
Wen Shi looked at the toppled door before he looked at the hallway behind Xie Wen and Lao Mao. “How did you two come from that side?”
That was the direction of the study, the place he and Da Dong were locked inside previously.
“I wanted to see the hallway layout, so we made a detour,” Xie Wen said.
Rather than where he came from, he appeared to be more intrigued by the bird circling around in the hallway.
“Did you release that?” he asked Wen Shi.
“No.” Wen Shi denied.
Xie Wen didn’t seem to be surprised, and he nodded.
Da Dong, who was standing nearby, couldn’t help himself. He bragged, “Are you talking about this Golden-Winged Dapeng? I released it, it’s my puppet.”
Xie Wen lifted an eyebrow.
Before he could even say anything, Lao Mao spoke first. Perhaps he had impaired hearing, because he pointed at the bird and asked Da Dong in a booming voice, “What’s that bird???”
Da Dong: “The Golden-Winged Dapeng.”
Lao Mao: “…”
He tilted his head back and stared at the Golden-Winged Dapeng. Maybe he was stunned, or maybe his horizons had been broadened. In any case, his complexion looked somewhat green under the lights.
Haozi’s walkie-talkie suddenly crackled. He glanced down at it and reminded the others, “Should we continue our search?”
“Yes, it’s important that we find everyone first.” Da Dong led the way with his bird.
Even though Haozi could also open the doors, Da Dong simply never gave him a chance to do so. Instead, he showed off his awe-inspiring puppet to the fullest extent.
In total, there were twelve rooms of varying sizes on this floor of the building. Their luck was pretty good, and they only had to knock on four doors before they found Xia Qiao and Sun Siqi.
Those two were already cowardly, and they had also been locked up for a somewhat lengthy amount of time, so they were quite scared.
Xia Qiao’s face was extremely pale, but Sun Siqi was even worse off. He was already starting to babble nonsense.
However, that wasn’t his fault. Rather, the room he was locked in was a little terrifying.
It could be called a room, but it was more like a tiny storage space—except instead of being filled with piles of junk, there was an altar inside of it.
There were nine memorial tablets on the altar, each with a different name written on it.
Wen Shi instantly spotted Shen Manyi’s tablet. The remaining Shen children, the nanny, the cook, and the others were probably all there as well.
Two of the names on the memorial tablets had been scratched out, rendering the characters unrecognizable.
There was an eternal flame candle placed in front of every memorial tablet, and they flickered faintly.
“Judging from this, the entire household must have been wiped out,” Da Dong said.
Haozi made a noise of agreement and sighed.
Zhou Xu said, “This seems to be adapted from a true story?”
Xia Qiao finally recovered a little. Probably hoping that what Zhou Xu said wasn’t actually the case, he retorted, “A lot of horror-themed escape rooms all say that, it’s a gimmick.”
He shrank towards Wen Shi and murmured like he was reciting a chant, “Hopefully it isn’t true, or else that would be so tragic. This was an entire family.”
Wen Shi surveyed his surroundings. Originally, he was going to say that they should search for some clues related to Shen Manyi, but then he saw Xie Wen leaning next to the door, staring at the table covered in eternal flame candles. Xie Wen’s eyes were lowered ever so slightly, and he seemed to be lost in thought.
Wen Shi suddenly forgot what he was about to say.
In the end, Da Dong displayed his leadership skills and suggested, “Didn’t the eldest Shen daughter go missing? Let’s think about how to find her. Also, we still have to examine how exactly this mansion is constructed. Should we split up or go together? If we split up, Haozi and I can each lead a team, which will be a little more—”
Before he could say “reassuring,” Haozi and Sun Siqi’s walkie-talkies both started crackling again.
The room instantaneously quieted down, and everyone’s gazes landed on those two devices.
The two walkie-talkies were right here, so why would they make noise???
Holding the walkie-talkie, Sun Siqi looked exactly like he had a bomb in his hands. After about a century passed, a man’s voice abruptly floated out from the walkie-talkies.
He said: “Hello? Who has the other walkie-talkie? Is it Xiao Sun? I just opened my door, where are you? I’ll go look for you.”
The staticky noise crackled for a while before stopping. Once again, the room sunk into a dead silence.
For several seconds, not a single person moved or spoke.
Because everyone could tell—the person speaking in the walkie-talkie… was Haozi.
Yan: Tiny Salt is hosting a two-winner giveaway for a book of choice from MXTX’s three English novel releases! See the announcement channel in our discord to learn more + enter 🙂 Giveaway ends August 12 at 10 PM GMT-5!