Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
Sun Siqi and Xia Qiao, the two poor things, happened to be right next to Da Dong. It was probably just a psychological effect, but as Shen Manyi’s swaying skirt swept past their legs, a rotten stench seemed to assault their senses.
Sun Siqi: “Blech—”
This was his first time encountering such a scene, and it was also his first time smelling such an odor. He couldn’t have suppressed his physiological reaction if he tried. He reacted even more strongly than Da Dong, and Shen Manyi’s eyes rolled slowly towards him, her gaze filled with a bit of hidden resentment.
Although Xia Qiao was scared out of his wits, his mind continued to work in a refreshingly unusual way. While he dragged Sun Siqi backwards, terror-stricken, he didn’t forget to apologize to the “ghost.” “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, he didn’t mean anything by that—”
Sun Siqi let out another heart-rending retching noise.
Xia Qiao: “…”
“Stop fucking vomiting, hold it in!” Zhou Xu covered Sun Siqi’s mouth with his hand and helped Xia Qiao haul him over to Wen Shi’s side. But because their movements were too chaotic, the three of them ended up staggering and tripping onto the sofa covered in white cloth.
The white cloth was buffeted into the air by a breeze before it settled back down and covered them up.
“Fuck, this rotten sofa, it’s poking me in the ribs!” Zhou Xu howled.
“Hey hey hey don’t sit down, that’s my face, wait for me to get up first,” Xia Qiao also lamented.
“It’s not like I want to throw up either, I can’t control it.” Sun Siqi was on the verge of tears.
Shen Manyi stared at them and made to walk forward. Upon seeing that, Da Dong scrambled to tug on his other puppet strings. Accompanied by a clear cry, that large dark gold bird abruptly inserted itself in front of everyone else, flapping its wings.
It created quite a powerful wind that forced Shen Manyi to rigidly backtrack a few steps. Only then did Da Dong allow himself to relax and exhale shakily.
Actually, they really couldn’t be blamed for reacting so intensely.
Miss Shen Manyi’s appearance was indeed frightening. Wen Shi recalled how she was folded into a lump earlier, and he kept getting the feeling that her real body was most likely stuffed in a small and narrow space somewhere, incapable of unfolding itself.
She had probably been smothered in that space for a long time now, as there were already signs of rot on her body. Because of her loose skin and flesh, all of her features drooped downward, making her eyes seem tiny. The corners of her mouth were downturned, and her original appearance wasn’t visible at all.
Her bones were exposed on half of her palms. The decomposition was especially bad near her wrists and the joints of her arms, possibly due to them being bent and twisted for a long period of time.
One of her dress straps had disintegrated away, causing the dress to hang crooked along her body, exposing one of her shoulders. The fabric was in bad shape, and if someone tugged on her dress a few times, it would probably come right off.
Shen Manyi lowered her head.
Since there were too many horrified people, she was assessing herself.
“So ugly,” she murmured thinly.
A second later, thick black smoke poured out of her body in an unending river.
The three candle lamps flickered several times. Everyone could sense that the temperature in the room was dropping more and more.
The three teenagers under the white sofa dust cover keenly noticed the sudden surge of sinister resentful energy. They froze in place, still tangled together, and didn’t have the guts to move.
Da Dong swallowed and tensed his fingers firmly, which were controlling the “Golden-Winged Dapeng.” As he defended against Shen Manyi, he shot a meaningful glance at the person behind her.
This little resentful spirit was about to explode, but the eldest disciple from the Shen family seemed to be completely unaware of that fact and didn’t know to get out of the way.
Da Dong didn’t dare to make any noise, so while Shen Manyi’s head was still lowered, he had no choice but to mouth exaggeratedly at the eldest Shen family disciple, “Come over here! To this side!”
The eldest disciple had likely gone blind, since he didn’t budge at all.
Shen Manyi was short, so anyone who stood behind her could look down at the top of her head.
Her hair was pitch-black but utterly sheenless. It was done in two braids, though the part in the middle was crooked, and there was a scabbed bald spot that exposed the flesh under her scalp. The hair there had probably been yanked out during a struggle.
Sometimes, that spot felt a little cold; other times, it ached faintly. But most of the time, she didn’t notice it at all, as if she was already used to its existence.
She clutched the hem of her dress and tried hard to recall its original color. Suddenly, a hand reached over and tugged up the dress that was sliding down her shoulders.
After that, a long and slender cotton thread pierced through the fabric. It moved around nimbly, like it had a life of its own, and tied a knot on the front and back of the dress, saving the frock that was on the verge of collapse.
Then the string lost its vitality and turned into ordinary cotton thread, a passable substitute for her decomposed shoulder strap.
Shen Manyi stared blankly at the cotton thread for quite a while before she raised her head.
Her neck had most likely been snapped and twisted in the past as well, so when she looked up, her entire head nearly flopped backwards. She giggled, perhaps in an attempt to purposefully scare him, except she soon discovered that her victim was completely indifferent.
She saw the line of Wen Shi’s sharp, good-looking chin, and she spotted his thread-wrapped fingers, which he had just withdrawn. Because he was very tall, she couldn’t make out his face.
As a result, Shen Manyi let her head hang brokenly backwards for some time before she slowly straightened it upright again. As she moved, her bones cracked quietly, emitting a bone-chilling sound.
She switched to a position where she could swivel her head around and glance behind her. She was met with Wen Shi’s expressionless face, the furthest thing from “gentle”—yet he was also indeed the person who had fixed her dress for her.
“Your knots aren’t as pretty as Mama Cai’s,” Shen Manyi said abruptly.
Wen Shi didn’t have an answer to that. He had no interest whatsoever in comparing his sewing skills to Mama Cai. After all, over the past millennium, he had only ever wielded his string for extremely vicious reasons, such as controlling puppets or killing; never for anything like this.
He might not have anything to say to her, but someone else did—Xie Wen strolled over and stooped down to ask Shen Manyi, “Why don’t you tell me, what part isn’t as pretty as Mama Cai’s?”
Shen Manyi pouted unhappily as she pointed to her decayed dress strap. “This dress is light yellow, and there should be a bow here, a super big bow. Mama Cai tied it for me.”
Xie Wen nodded before he straightened up and said to Wen Shi, “She’s still missing a bow, you should make one for her.”
Without bothering to look up, Wen Shi said in a low and flat voice, “Get lost.”
Shen Manyi said sullenly, “I don’t need him to make one. My bow just fell off, that’s all.”
Xie Wen: “Fell off where?”
Shen Manyi went silent for a long time. Then she said, “I dunno, I’ve been looking for it, but nobody will help me find it. Mama Cai disappeared, along with Mr. Li and the others. No one will play with me, and no one will help me search for my bow. I can only play with you guys.”
Xie Wen: “When did it fall off?”
Shen Manyi lowered her head and thought about it for a while before she slowly raised her head again.
She said, “When I got folded up.”
The room went quiet for a moment.
A beat later, Wen Shi suddenly asked, “Who folded you up?”
Shen Manyi’s dark eyes shot towards him in an unwavering stare.
Wen Shi repeated his question. “Who folded you up?”
Shen Manyi opened her mouth. For a split second, the round shape of her mouth seemed to foretell either an “I” or “my,” but she pressed her lips tightly back together before any syllables could slip past her lips. After a long while, she shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”
Wen Shi furrowed his brows.
Was she about to say: “I” did? Or was it: “my” little brother did?
His intuition kept telling him that there was something odd about the diary, so he wanted to confirm its contents with Shen Manyi. But judging from the shape her mouth had made, she would’ve probably pointed them in the same direction as the diary.
Initially, he thought that this was perhaps Shen Manyi’s cage. However, that most likely wasn’t the case, considering her evasive, restricted speech.
At least, it wasn’t entirely her cage.
Could it be another double yolk cage? But if that was true, it was obvious that Shen Manyi had the disadvantage, so how could she possibly be standing here safely?
All questions aside—since Shen Manyi decided to show up first, she would also have to be dealt with first.
“I want my bow, I want a beautiful bow,” Shen Manyi repeated earnestly. Her sharp, piercing voice reverberated through the entire room. “Why aren’t Mama Cai and the others coming to help me? I’ve been searching for so long, why aren’t they coming?”
“Don’t, if – if they aren’t here, we’ll help you.” Da Dong noticed that the black mist around her body was starting to surge more and more violently, and her tone of voice was also becoming more and more strange. He tightened his grip on his Golden-Winged Dapeng and said quickly, “We’ll look for it, we’ll look for it. Don’t panic.”
He hastily began roaming around the room, only to hear Lao Mao say: “We went through every single room on our way over here. There definitely wasn’t a bow anywhere.”
Da Dong grimaced and pointed at him, warning him to watch his words at all costs. “What if we just missed it by mistake! Don’t be alarmed, there’s no way we can’t find it with this many people searching together.”
Lao Mao spoke again. “She said that she’s been trying to find it for a long time now, yet she also hasn’t found it.”
Da Dong: “You—”
Just whose side are you on!
He glared at Lao Mao and mouthed those words to him, afraid that Shen Manyi would see.
Then he turned to look at Xie Wen. At first, he also wanted to shoot him a glare, but once he was actually facing Xie Wen, he inexplicably lost the nerve to do so.
“Aren’t you gonna do anything about your employee?” Da Dong said, “I’m undoing a cage here, there shouldn’t be any messing around like this.”
Except Xie Wen responded, “I could do something, yes, but in my opinion, what Lao Mao said is correct.”
Even though he was looking at Da Dong, he tilted his head slightly when he spoke; he was evidently saying it for Wen Shi’s sake.
“I know,” Wen Shi said quietly.
It was true. He didn’t see anything wrong with Lao Mao’s statement either.
If the bow was in an ordinary location—such as underneath a bed or behind a dresser—why would Shen Manyi be trapped here for so long, unable to find it no matter what she did?
“You’re sure that it’s still here?” Wen Shi attempted to ask Shen Manyi.
The little girl nodded. “Yes.”
She gave her answer too confidently, as if deep down inside she knew exactly where that bow was all along. She just didn’t want to go retrieve it, or rather, she didn’t dare to.
She was similar to a cage master, and she could come and go as she pleased, stringing along and toying with a group of people. So where was someplace that even she didn’t have the guts to go near?
As someone with ample experience in this area, the answer was quite clear to Wen Shi at this point—almost all dead people were afraid of one place: the location of their corpse.
Because nobody wanted to see a deceased version of themselves.
This aligned with their ultimate goal. That was why he and Xie Wen had found this bedroom—the rugs showed signs of being swapped out here. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Shen Manyi’s real body should be in this exact room.
But what could be considered a narrow, cramped space that required Shen Manyi to be folded up in such a manner?
The dresser? Behind the mirror? Inside the wall?
As Wen Shi followed the marks on the rugs, trying to find their origin, a cry of alarm suddenly came from the direction of the couch.
“Fuck!!!” Zhou Xu’s brassy voice even attracted Shen Manyi’s attention.
That expanse of white cloth shook wildly before the three teenagers struggled free from underneath it. Xia Qiao and Sun Siqi slid directly onto the floor, faces filled with fright.
“Ge, look at this!” Xia Qiao called.
Zhou Xu raised his hand high into the air, pinching something long and silky between his fingers.
With wide eyes, he said, “It’s hair!”
At that, Wen Shi managed to discern what it was using the candlelight. That wasn’t a few strands of hair, nor was it a tangled ball. It was a whole chunk of hair, with a piece of scalp attached, as if it had been yanked off someone’s head when they were being forcefully stuffed into something.
“Where did you find that?” Wen Shi asked.
Zhou Xu pointed next to his feet. “It was stuck between the floorboards!”
Shen Manyi stared attentively at the chunk of hair for quite a few seconds. Then, she touched the bloody scab on the back of her head and abruptly began screaming.
Constant and unending, exceedingly shrill and mournful.
The black mist surrounding her frantically expanded, and the entire building started to shudder.
Sun Siqi scrambled backwards and plastered himself against the wall, only to feel something wet flowing down it.
An aged, coppery scent entered his nose, and he turned his head to see that the entire wall was bleeding.
As Shen Manyi’s shrieks turned into sobs, the entire room wept with her.
The spreading black mist caught people in its path. Zhou Xu sucked in a breath of air and touched his face. Several cuts appeared where the black mist had swept past his skin, and those wounds also began seeping blood.
Da Dong’s Golden-Winged Dapeng glided over and placed itself in front of everyone else. Unfurling its long wings, it swept up a strong gale in an attempt to block that black mist.
However, the shelter it could provide was ultimately limited. Moreover, injuries quickly began materializing on its wings and body as well.
“Search faster, search faster. I have to hurry up, this little girl is losing her mind,” Da Dong muttered to himself. He looped the puppet string around his other hand and tried to tear down every place that could possibly hide a person in the room.
But no matter what he did, searching like this was way too slow.
Due to being heavily injured, his Golden-Winged Dapeng started trembling and gradually stopped obeying him.
Right as Da Dong was about to crack from the pressure, densely intersecting white thread suddenly appeared in his peripheral vision. The string whipped out, crisscrossing over one another like an enormous complicated net.
Even though it was undoubtedly the most generic white cotton thread, a metallic light seemed to glint off of it.
For an instant, Da Dong abruptly recalled how his shifu had once sliced through a copper lock with a single puppet string. At the time, that string had also looked just like this—the thinnest edge of a blade.
Who was this?!
Da Dong was dumbstruck for a moment.
Until he heard Wen Shi’s voice ring out from behind him: “Make your Dapeng protect the group.”
Da Dong subconsciously complied. With a flip of his wrist, the Golden-Winged Dapeng swiftly retreated and extended its gigantic wings horizontally outward, shielding Zhou Xu, Xia Qiao, and everyone else underneath it.
Da Dong peeked through a gap in the wing. When he saw the person enshrouded by black mist, he finally realized something—
Those coldly glimmering puppet strings were actually coming from Wen Shi.
His fingers were stretched taut, and the bones on the back of his hands stood out starkly. On one end, the puppet strings were coiled around his fingers; on the other end, they were nailed firmly into all four walls and the floorboards, as well as the dressers and mirrors.
Then, with a twist of his wrists, he gathered the string and gave a sharp tug.
Countless rupturing noises immediately tore through the room.
Da Dong finally understood why he was told to protect the group with the Dapeng—under the Golden-Winged Dapeng’s wings, everyone watched blankly as the force from the puppet string caused all the potential hiding places in the room to explode open at the same time.
Instantly, glass shards, wood shavings, metal scraps, and brick chips ricocheted everywhere. Luckily the Dapeng’s wings were there to act as a shield; otherwise, not a single piece of flesh would have remained intact on anyone’s body.
This move of Wen Shi’s was truly too conspicuous. Even Shen Manyi was stunned.
The screaming and wailing cut off abruptly, and the tumultuous black mist nearly froze in place then and there, floating around Wen Shi like flowing clouds.
The entire room was a mess. The bed, couch, piano… almost all the heavy items had been jolted out of their original positions, except for a few clothing racks in the corner that were still precariously standing since they had something to support them. The lighter objects had all been upended and overturned.
With the back of his hand, Wen Shi wiped away a streak of blood left behind on the side of his face by a black mist-induced slash. His gaze swept around the room, searching for Shen Manyi’s body.
“Over there.” Xie Wen patted his shoulder lightly and pointed towards one of the corners.
Wen Shi was startled. His first reaction was astonishment over the fact that Xie Wen was unexpectedly still standing here and not hiding underneath the Dapeng’s wings.
However, a second later, his attention was diverted by the scene that greeted him.
Xie Wen was pointing at the sofa that Zhou Xu, Xia Qiao, and Sun Siqi were crammed on earlier. The sofa was positioned hazardously over a stretch of wooden floor that bulged unevenly.
Amidst the silence, that stretch of floor creaked a few times before it finally couldn’t bear the heavy weight anymore and collapsed downwards. Consequently, the sofa also fell with a loud thud.
Because of the abrupt impact, a swath of yellow suddenly filled the small crack on the underbelly of the sofa, as if someone’s clothing had slipped down.
Wen Shi recognized it at once: that was Shen Manyi’s dress.
The room descended into another deathly hush. The tiny Shen Manyi stood right in front of Wen Shi and stared motionlessly at the sofa. Frowning, Wen Shi was about to send out another puppet string to pull at the sofa when he heard Xie Wen say gently, “Don’t pull at it anymore, I’ll do it.”
The room was covered by fractured floorboards and shattered pieces of glass. Although Xie Wen was walking over such debris, his pace was very steady.
He lifted up that white sheet of fabric, which smelled strongly of dust that had accumulated over many, many years. Half-stooping, he reached out and removed the heavy couch cushion, revealing the little girl’s round, wide-open eyes underneath it.
She had been folded up and stuffed into the square-shaped wooden frame making up the bottom part of the sofa. Her arms were wrapped around her knees, and she was curled up in a position that suggested she felt extremely unsafe.
She was even more decayed than the Shen Manyi that they saw initially—she was almost unrecognizable.
That light yellow bow was clenched tightly in her hand. It was indeed quite beautiful, as it was the type of the bow that little girls adored, except it was also speckled by blood and emitted an unpleasant odor.
But Xie Wen didn’t make a face, nor did he press his hand against the tip of his nose, the way he usually did when he was coughing.
He merely looked down at the bow before he tugged it free from her grasp. The moment his fingers swept past it, the splotches of blood vanished, turning the bow nice and clean in the blink of an eye. The only thing left on it was a light layer of dust.
Xie Wen straightened up and started walking back towards Shen Manyi and Wen Shi.
The sofa behind him was created many decades ago, and it had also harbored a little girl inside of it for too long. Its frame fell apart at last, accompanied by cracking noises, and the balled-up body tumbled out, bundled in an old and tattered dress.
Right as the body landed with a muffled thump on the ground, Xie Wen saw Wen Shi extend his hand and cover the eyes of the little girl standing in front of him.
All of a sudden, he remembered a certain cage that took place an unknown number of years ago. It was also a scene of utter carnage, except it was far more remote and quiet than this place.
It must’ve been close to evening in the cage, as everything was coated in a dusky red-gold hue, like blood that couldn’t be washed completely away.
Locally sourced snow-white silk ribbons were wrapped snugly around the base of Wen Shi’s fingers. He had tugged the ends of the ribbons free, and they dangled down loosely. Wen Shi was very tall, and his long hair was tied back meticulously; even though his robes and silk ribbons were stained with a mess of flesh and blood, he still gave off the impression of being neat and tidy.
When Xie Wen approached him, he saw Wen Shi covering an elderly person’s eyes. Wen Shi’s gaze was downcast, his lips pressed together; calm and reliable, he prevented the elderly person from seeing the winding streams of blood around them.
At that moment, Xie Wen finally became aware of something: the child that he used to cover the eyes of, the one that he sought to protect—that child had already grown up to become the frost and snow on a high mountain.
Yan: The ending sentence there refers to Wen Shi being cold, pure, almost untouchable, just like the snow on the peak of a mountain, which sees few visitors. 🙂 Also I should’ve said this last time, but I’m also about to do a Big Move halfway across the country, so chapters might be a bit delayed as I deal with that over the next two weeks!