Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
If the person on the other end of the walkie-talkie was Haozi, then who was the Haozi in the room?
Wen Shi looked at the square-faced man standing next to Da Dong and asked, “Who are you?”
His question was straightforward and abrupt. Never mind the person being interrogated, even the other people in the room were caught off guard.
It took Da Dong several seconds to react before he suddenly leaped back, putting a great deal of distance between him and that square face. He said tensely, “Yeah, who are you?!”
This Haozi began panicking. His face was pale, and he didn’t seem to be playing pretend. “I – I really am Haozi, don’t look at me like that, I’m also fucking scared!
“Da Dong! Da Dong, if you don’t believe me, you can come inspect me.” Haozi started to walk towards Da Dong.
As soon as he shifted, Zhou Xu, Xia Qiao, and Sun Siqi scattered with a whoosh like a flock of birds and all went to huddle in the corner behind Wen Shi.
“Just stand there and talk, don’t move! You don’t need to come over here.” Rejection was written clear across Da Dong’s face.
Haozi wore a helpless expression. “Da Dong, the two of us are always together. If you’re also going to avoid me like the others, then there’s really nothing I can do.”
When he heard that, Da Dong felt a little hesitant again.
Wen Shi suddenly asked, “Why are your hands so dirty?”
Everyone turned to look at Haozi’s fingers, but the rest of them were quite far away, so they couldn’t see it very clearly. Only Wen Shi was relatively close, and he could tell that Haozi’s fingertips were covered in filth and abrasions. There were also traces of blood underneath his nails.
That kind of filth didn’t come from dust that typically accumulated over time. Rather, it was the sort that would only leave a mark if someone forcefully clawed at a wall or a small crack in something made of cement.
Taken aback, Haozi peered at his fingers. “Are you talking about this? It happened when I was trying to escape. I had to at least test out those cracks, right?”
His response incited Sun Siqi’s sympathy. Sun Siqi subconsciously nodded as he also glanced down silently at his own hands.
“Did you also claw at it?” Xia Qiao asked.
Sun Siqi showed his scratched up fingers to Xia Qiao and Zhou Xu. “I wanted to try and see if the door would open.”
By this point, Da Dong and the rest were already starting to believe Haozi a little.
But then Wen Shi asked something else. “You specialize in array-casting, why would you scrape at the door with your hands to open it?”
This time, Da Dong spoke before Haozi could. “I have to speak up for him on this one. You probably don’t know too much about array-casting, and you most likely aren’t familiar with anyone who specializes in it.
“Array-casting isn’t suited for fighting alone. It isn’t an issue when you’re just laying down an array to conceal yourself or to trip up someone else, but it becomes difficult when you encounter a situation that requires control. The smaller and more precise the problem is, the harder it is to resolve with an array. In that aspect, it can’t compare to puppetry.”
Wen Shi pondered over that before he ultimately decided to shut up and stop talking.
It was true that he only knew a limited number of people. Out of those who specialized in array-casting, Bu Ning was one such person from the same era as Wen Shi. If he kept counting beyond Bu Ning, then it was Chen Budao.
But he couldn’t really remember much about Bu Ning or Chen Budao anymore, so naturally he didn’t have much to say on that topic.
He simply had a subconscious feeling that array-casting didn’t have this many disadvantages or limitations. The people who were truly skilled at it could accomplish incredible things.
However, he couldn’t provide any proof of that, nor did he intend to discuss this further with someone who had nothing to do with it, so he let it go.
Perhaps because Haozi was acting relatively normal, Da Dong and the others lowered their guard slightly. But several seconds later, the walkie-talkie started crackling again.
It was still Haozi’s voice. “Hello? Can you hear me? Xiao Sun? Why aren’t you answering?”
The sound of static was mixed in with his voice, making it seem subtly different from usual. His reaction would’ve been typical any other time, but with the current atmosphere, it seemed incomparably strange.
“Should I reply…” Sun Siqi asked fearfully.
“Don’t!” Da Dong said.
At that, the complexion of the Haozi standing next to the table grew a little better. But when he glanced to the side and discovered that Wen Shi was still looking at him, a distressed expression took over his face again.
Amidst the silence, the walkie-talkie sounded once more. “Hello? Xiao Sun, are you okay over there?”
When no response came besides the crackling noise, the voice said, “Forget it, I’ll go find you.”
I’ll go find you…
That sentence instantly created the effect of a looming shadow, causing Sun Siqi and the rest to quiver in terror.
The room fell into another strained silence. Da Dong couldn’t hold it in, and he let out a low curse before he stared at Haozi from afar and said, “So why is it you? Why are there two of you?”
Face ashen, Haozi shook his head slowly. “I don’t know either.”
Xia Qiao abruptly raised his hand.
“If you wanna say something, just spit it out. Why are you raising your hand? Are you in class right now?” Zhou Xu instantly tore into him.
“I’m afraid that I’ll scare you if I suddenly start talking,” Xia Qiao told him earnestly.
“You!” Zhou Xu choked.
Wen Shi looked over, and Xia Qiao said, “Ge, I think I was locked in the Shen young master’s room earlier. I was rummaging around and I found a diary.”
“A diary?” Wen Shi asked.
“Yeah.” Xia Qiao nodded.
“With your itty-bitty courage, you still had the guts to rummage through your room?” There was an incredulous expression on Zhou Xu’s face.
Xia Qiao blushed and said awkwardly, “I didn’t do it on purpose. I was huddled in the space between the wall and the bedside table, so I could guarantee that there was something behind my back and on either side of me. The journal fell behind the nightstand, and I pulled it out to look at it.”
Wen Shi: “What was written in the journal?”
Xia Qiao: “One of the entries talked about how Shen Manyi was fond of some game involving a real bride and a fake bride, and she frequently pestered people to play it with her.”
As soon as he said that, he was the first to shudder.
Sun Siqi trembled as his voice cracked. “Didn’t that Shen Manyi go missing? So… is she trying to get us to play with her???”
Wen Shi frowned. “Was there anything else?”
Xia Qiao’s voice grew smaller and smaller. “There was, but since I was scared to death, I don’t remember anymore.”
Wen Shi: “Where’s the diary?”
Xia Qiao: “Behind the nightstand.”
Wen Shi: “…You put it back?”
Xia Qiao looked stricken. “Ever since I was young, I’ve had this habit of putting books back in their original spots after I’m done reading them.”
Wen Shi was rendered speechless.
Xia Qiao saw the wooden expression on his ge’s face and said, “M-maybe I can go get it?”
Wen Shi waved his hand. “Just stay here, I’ll go.”
He truly was brave, and he started walking towards the door alone. For once, Zhou Xu was somewhat considerate. He tossed his electric candle at Wen Shi and said, “You should take a lantern with you.”
Wen Shi caught it.
As he approached the door, Xie Wen angled himself out of the way. The moment Wen Shi brushed past him, Xie Wen suddenly asked, “Are you going by yourself?”
Startled, Wen Shi wanted to say: If not, then what?
But for some reason, when the words reached his mouth, they transformed into a monotonous and muted: “Mn.”
The hallway was long and deep. Because it was too dark, the end of the corridor couldn’t be seen.
After Wen Shi walked a short distance with the candle lamp in hand, the sounds behind him grew distant, as if they were separated in a different world. A few steps later, the noises vanished entirely, and only his footsteps continued to echo through the corridor.
This tended to give rise to a certain illusion: as if no matter what happened to him here, the other people wouldn’t be able to see or hear anything take place.
If it were someone else walking down this hallway, perhaps they would feel frightened or even lonely. But Wen Shi was used to it.
Every time he woke up, left the Gate of Oblivion, and entered into a mundane world that was completely unfamiliar to him, it was always this type of feeling—an endless expanse of darkness stretched eternally behind him; there was no origin, and there was no destination.
He had walked like that for many years.
On very rare occasions, a thought would pop up out of nowhere in his head: someone must’ve once stood behind him on that long path and watched him as they sent him off.
In that instant, he would often whip his head around, but he only ever saw emptiness.
The room that Xia Qiao had been locked in wasn’t too far away. The forcefully opened door was still lying on the floor, and iron wedges and metal hinges were scattered everywhere.
When that thought popped up again, Wen Shi was in the middle of detouring around the pile of debris.
His fingers toyed with the candle lamp. Before he went inside the room, he lifted his eyes and glanced in the direction that he had come from.
Initially, he thought that he would be greeted with emptiness again—but then he saw a tall figure leaning next to the door, facing away from the eternal flame candles that had all blurred together. From the other end of the dim, narrow hallway, that person looked towards him.
Wen Shi stopped in place.
For a split second, his heart abruptly skipped a beat.
He narrowed his eyes in the darkness. He wanted to continue walking forward, but his feet didn’t move; it was as if he was waiting for someone, but also not quite.
A moment later, footsteps sounded through the corridor, traveling closer and closer.
It was Xie Wen.
He didn’t say a single word as he made his way over, not even when he circled around the door and iron wedges on the ground. A type of subtle ambiguity filled this quiet silence, but it only lasted for several short seconds.
“Why aren’t you going in?” Eventually, Xie Wen ended up speaking, and he peered into the room.
Wen Shi didn’t answer. He merely stepped into the room, still holding the candle lamp.
He tried turning the light switch on and off, but as expected, the lights in the room didn’t respond at all. He had no choice but to look around using the feeble glow from the candle lamp.
Xie Wen entered behind him and also surveyed their surroundings.
Wen Shi illuminated the path in front of Xie Wen for him before he suddenly asked, “Why did you come over here?”
There was a pause in Xie Wen’s movements. Then he walked over to the bed, brushed aside the gauze curtain, and tugged the bedside table out a little. He bent over and picked up the diary Xia Qiao was talking about before he finally said, “I was worried, so I came over to take a look.”
He casually flipped through a few pages of the journal. After that, he patted off the dust and handed the diary over.
“Worried?” Wen Shi shot a look at Xie Wen as he took the journal. “Worried about what?”
He flicked through the pages with his unoccupied fingers. Just a few flicks in, another hand took the candle lamp from him.
Holding the candle lamp, Xie Wen came to a stop next to Wen Shi. As he shed light on the diary for Wen Shi, he lowered his head and read over the content of the journal. “Well, there’s quite a lot that I’m worried about. For example…”
Without looking up, he huffed out a laugh. “Considering how timid your younger brother is, what if your calmness is all just a facade, and in reality you start crying soundlessly the moment you get scared.”
Wen Shi: “…”
He was in the middle of flipping through the pages in search of details related to “Shen Manyi.” When he heard that, his fingers twitched, and he nearly tore out half a sheet of paper. He silently raised his head and stared at Xie Wen with an expression that was half numb and half cold, “What nonsense are you talking about?”
They were truly very close to each other. Xie Wen’s lowered gaze swept across his face before it landed back on the diary pages. He didn’t look at Wen Shi again, but there was a smile tucked away in the corner of his mouth. “Mn, nonsense. Rein in your temper a little, don’t rip the journal. This is an important clue, and there’s no second copy if you destroy it. Are you going to compensate for the loss?”
Wen Shi expressionlessly averted his eyes. He flicked through a few more pages and finally found the part that Xia Qiao had mentioned.
May 19, 1913: Rain
Shen Manyi really is a tiresome older sister. I’ve never seen her read the books that Mr. Li tells us to memorize, nor have I ever seen her study the domestic arts that Mama Cai teaches her. She only knows how to laugh.
She laughs all day long. Her voice is everywhere, and it doesn’t sound pleasant, since it’s extremely noisy. She’s always either foolishly fantasizing about things that are very boring or she’s playing some boring games.
For instance, she’s become utterly obsessed with the Real Bride, Fake Bride game in recent years. She’ll tear off a section of a red bed sheet and force other people to cooperate with her. Sitting cross-legged within the gauze curtain, she’ll then tell the remaining people to guess who’s real and who’s fake by lifting her bridal veil and calling her name.
If they guess correctly, she’ll laugh. If they’re wrong, she’ll throw a chaotic fit and act insensibly.
It’s one thing if she forces the girls to play dress-up with her, but she also frequently drags in Jun-ge. Jun-ge is a good person so he doesn’t get angry, but he’s actually just enduring it all, because it’s very embarrassing.
I’ve genuinely had enough of her. I can’t take another day of this, I want to muffle her for a while. Don’t laugh and don’t make a fuss, give me some peace and quiet.
The two pages right after that entry were both blank. Since there was nothing written on them, Xia Qiao had probably stopped reading at that point.
Wen Shi flipped another page, and he spotted a line of characters printed on the back of it—
I clearly hid her away, so why is her laughter still everywhere in the house. So noisy.
Yan: The mini knives in this chapter… wuwuwu… Mu Dao Li…