Thanks to L and mango for the Ko-fis!
Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
An expanse of white appeared in front of Shen Manyi’s eyes. It was a beautifully shaped hand with clean white cotton thread wrapped around the fingers. The string dangled down and brushed lightly against the tip of her nose.
The hand didn’t cover her eyes directly, nor did it touch her skin. Instead, it maintained a scant distance from her as it obstructed her gaze, suspended stably in the air without the slightest tremor.
She remembered that Mr. Li, the tutor, once said that this was called decorum and courtesy.
In the past, they never understood what he meant by that. The sisters would always chase each other around and play fight, pulling on braids and tugging on skirts, like a bunch of little maniacs. Every time this happened, Mr. Li would unearth those two words and prattle on about them for quite a while. But in the end, he would just shake his head and say, “Oh well, forget it, you girls will understand once you’re a little older.”
Unfortunately, she remained the same age and never grew any older.
Shen Manyi blinked and suddenly said, “Your string has a scent, it’s very nice.”
The person behind her had no intention of indulging a child. His tone of voice wasn’t particularly warm either as he responded, “What is it.”
Even his question sounded remarkably similar to a statement, as if he didn’t really care whether or not he received an answer.
The little girl pondered seriously for a moment. “It smells like my home.”
The person behind her was silent for a few seconds. “I got it from your home.”
The little girl: “…”
That wasn’t actually what she was trying to say, but she was young and couldn’t convey it properly. She wasn’t even sure if that scent was coming from the string or his hand.
Although she wrinkled her nose and sniffed a few more times, she couldn’t smell it anymore. Thinking back on it, the scent reminded her of a cold winter breeze sifting through the back garden.
She used to like to play there quite a bit. Uncle Qi set up a hanging swing in the garden, and it was surrounded on both sides by a type of light yellow flower, which looked similar to butterflies and also rabbit ears. That was where Mama Cai drew her inspiration from for tying her bows.
But it had been a very long time since Shen Manyi last saw that back garden.
She wandered around these corridors night after night, and all she ever saw was blackness. The pitch-black doors, the pitch-black shelves, the pitch-black shadows… Everyone who saw her screamed and stayed far away from her, as if she was something dirty.
“I wasn’t dirty before this,” Shen Manyi mumbled in a small voice.
When she lowered her head, her forehead bumped against Wen Shi’s palm. Children’s foreheads were always somewhat round, like a kind of small animal. However, Shen Manyi’s was a little strange, because the skin and flesh on her face had collapsed.
Wen Shi didn’t draw back his hand, and he allowed her to rest against it.
He watched as Xie Wen walked over to them, bent down, and handed the bow to Shen Manyi. Xie Wen spoke: “Nobody said that you’re dirty.”
Then he glanced up and said in a volume that only Wen Shi could hear, “Don’t move yet.”
After that, he turned around and shot a look at the corner where the rest of the group was gathered before he pointed to that worn-down sofa.
Lao Mao immediately understood what his boss meant. He walked over to the bed, dragged off the clean blanket, and wrapped it around the body that had rolled out of the sofa.
The others were still trapped in the throes of shock.
They stared mechanically at Wen Shi and Shen Manyi, then at Xie Wen and Lao Mao. After they mechanically realized what Lao Mao was going to do, they mechanically walked over to lend a helping hand.
Da Dong’s mouth was ajar, and his facial expression was paralyzed. He squatted down and helped Lao Mao ensure that the decaying body was wrapped securely before they moved it onto the large bed.
It was almost as if that little girl named Shen Manyi had dashed into her parents’ room on a certain afternoon in 1913 and played around for a while until she felt tired, after which she crawled onto the big bed and fell asleep, rolled up in the blankets.
Wen Shi only drew back his hand once they finished their task completely. Xie Wen also straightened up.
Clutching her bow, Shen Manyi felt like she could see that back garden on the cusp of spring and summer again.
There was a rusty old-fashioned clip on the back of the bow. She rubbed her rust-stained fingers against the back of her dress before she earnestly pinned the bow onto it. As if she was toying with a rabbit’s ears, she fiddled with the half-drooping edges of the bow.
The flowing rivulets of blood slowly faded and soaked into the wall like water stains that left no traces behind after drying. The black mist filling the room started circulating once more, turning sparse and faint. It spiraled around her in thin wisps, no longer as sharp and cutting as before.
As the black mist was sucked back, it swept past Da Dong’s face.
He had just finished letting down the bedside curtains, concealing the rolled-up blanket on the bed. After the black mist skimmed by him, he touched his face and suddenly froze in place.
What in the world happened just now???
He rapidly backpedaled in his mind—starting from when Shen Manyi got the bow, causing the fierce ghost to turn into a kitten, he traced his memories all the way back to the moment the black mist began to scatter furiously.
The scene of the white cotton thread nailed in a crisscross pattern across the entire room was truly shocking. Even though he was merely recalling the sight of it, he still found himself subconsciously holding his breath.
After holding his breath for a while, something finally dawned on him.
To overturn the room like that with a single tug of the string—did that take a lot of power?
Yes, it did.
To direct that many strings at once, going in so many different directions—did that require immense control?
Yes, it did.
Every string was clearly defined and sprayed dust into the air as they were nailed into the walls; it seemed like slicing through metal wouldn’t be a problem for them either. Could such a spiritual energy make it on the puppet master rankings?
It could, and it was his shifu’s level at that.
Who was the person who accomplished all this?
The Shen family’s eldest disciple.
That was the first thing that popped up in Da Dong’s mind.
He turned his head too sharply, and a crack came from his neck, catching Lao Mao slightly off guard.
“What are you doing? Are you possessed?” Lao Mao saw that Da Dong’s eyes were blank as he stared fixedly at Wen Shi. He looked even more frightening than a ghost.
Da Dong was already numb, either from the excessive bombshell or from disbelief. In any case, his voice was very soft and also very weak. “Let me ask you something.”
Lao Mao didn’t have a particularly enthusiastic personality, completely different from Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao. He glanced at Da Dong and replied half-heartedly, “What is it?”
Da Dong said faintly, “That eldest disciple from the Shen family. You know him, right?”
Lao Mao: “Who?”
It took him a second to realize that the “eldest disciple from the Shen family” was referring to Wen Shi.
Lao Mao silently shot a look at Da Dong and thought: People really are brave these days, pointing at an ancestor and calling him a disciple. You might dare to point at him, but does the Shen family dare to recognize him as such?
Lao Mao scratched his face and let out a complicated “uh-huh.” “Yeah, I do.”
Still feeble, Da Dong said, “Have you guys ever seen him use his puppet techniques before this?”
Lao Mao: “We have.”
All the way from his childhood to adulthood at that.
In a relatively dazed tone of voice, Da Dong said, “This was my first time seeing it just now. It’s getting to my head a little.”
Lao Mao: “?”
Da Dong: “There’s a saying about how the player views a game less clearly than the bystander does. I’m afraid that my judgment will be clouded.”
Lao Mao: “??”
Lao Mao couldn’t hold it back any longer. “If you have something to say, just spit it out.”
Da Dong: “Okay, then let me ask you. From your point of view as a bystander, what’s my puppetry like compared to his?”
Lao Mao: “…”
Anyone who heard that would feel a little incredulous.
Lao Mao’s eyes were round and dark, and when he blinked, they gave off a deeply bemused feeling. He narrowed his eyes and stared at Da Dong. “Are you that oblivious?”
Da Dong: “No, which is why I’m a bit fucking blindsided right now.”
Never mind being blindsided—upon remembering how cocky he had acted back when they first entered the cage, he almost lost his mind.
In front of someone who was skilled enough to be his shifu, Da Dong had actually bulldozed his way forward to say imperiously: “Move over a little, I’ll do it.”
He had criticized the other person for his messy string-wrapping, and he had also attempted to teach him the most fundamental puppet techniques and rules. On top of that, Da Dong had pointed at his own bird, which was lacking in firepower, and called it a Golden-Winged Dapeng.
So long as he was given a rope at that moment, he could hang himself on the spot. In any case, he didn’t have any face left to speak of. But before he could perish, he thought of something else—
He pointed at Wen Shi. As if he was doubting his entire existence, he said, “No matter how you look at it, his puppetry is stronger than mine, right? He has that kind of skill level and he still can’t get on the name register mural? Who is this trying to mock?!”
Da Dong poured out his confusion at last, but he accidentally got a little too stirred up, and his voice was a bit loud.
As a result, the entire room went quiet for a second. Only his “who is this trying to mock” continued to echo through the room.
Zhou Xu, Xia Qiao, and the clueless Sun Siqi all looked at him. Xie Wen and Wen Shi also glanced up, and even Shen Manyi shifted her attention away from her bow, blinking as she peered towards him.
Several seconds later, Zhou Xu was the first to speak. He said, “Fuck, someone finally has the same question as me. I was pondering over this after I got out of the last cage, I couldn’t fall asleep for an entire night!”
He pointed at Wen Shi and said to Da Dong like he was tattling, “When he undid the freaking cage last time, he let out a puppet. It was super—”
Zhou Xu stalled briefly, and he turned his head to glance at Wen Shi. Then he amended, “It was a little… It wasn’t too bad, I suppose.”
It would be better to kill this chuunibyou than to expect him to praise someone else to their face.
“Anyway, I just couldn’t figure it out. Why can’t he get on the name register mural with this kind of skill level?” Zhou Xu said.
He recalled the final conclusion Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin had reached regarding Wen Shi. They said that the Shen family’s eldest disciple most likely wasn’t stable in terms of strength; he would occasionally have bursts of power, but his overall skill level wasn’t up to par yet.
If unleashing one burst of power per cage could still be considered “unstable in terms of strength”—then he also wanted to have a strength level that was this unsteady.
When Da Dong noticed that Zhou Xu was on the same side as him, his enthusiasm immediately surged, and he asked Wen Shi point-blank, “So why aren’t you on the mural???”
It would be one thing if he was the only one acting so foolish, yet it just so happened that Xie Wen, this bastard, also decided to fan the flames on top of observing the show. He unexpectedly raised an eyebrow and looked in Wen Shi’s direction as well. Copying Da Dong’s tone of voice, he asked, “That’s right, why aren’t you on the mural?”
Wen Shi: “…”
You’re fucking toxic.
Wen Shi wasn’t the type of person who was good at telling lies, and it was basically up to fate whether or not he could make it all consistent. The process essentially went like this—he would search for an excuse with a taut expression on his face; the more he searched, the more holes that would appear; and then he would give up the struggle. They could believe him or they could get lost, he didn’t care.
If someone understood him, it was actually quite amusing to watch him go through this process. However, almost none of the people who understood him dared to tease him.
Following Da Dong’s example, the bastard Xie Wen deliberately stirred up trouble for a while. He seemed to remember something, and he let out a chuckle before he switched sides and turned to ask Da Dong, “Speaking of which, who came up with the name register mural?”
Da Dong was completely dumbfounded by that question.
In the end, Zhou Xu—who was well-versed in theory—answered for him. “My family.”
“Who?” Da Dong was still stupefied.
Zhou Xu rolled his eyes and answered somewhat unhappily, “Zhang.”
Da Dong gave an “oh oh” as realization dawned on him.
What Zhou Xu said wasn’t entirely correct.
Actually, if you traced the name register mural back in time, it could be traced all the way to the generation of Chen Budao’s disciples. The earliest diagram was the result of a collective decision, and one person drew it: Bu Ning, who specialized in divination and arrays.
The name register mural wasn’t originally intended to be used for ranking purposes, nor was it meant to display how huge and illustrious a certain family was. It was created purely because Bu Ning and the others were going to start accepting disciples of their own soon, and they were afraid that there would be too many branches and offshoots in the future. It would probably become quite messy in a few generations, and thus this diagram came into existence as a way of visualizing succession.
There were also rankings back then, but they weren’t as precise and sensitive as they were today; there was only a general concept of what they were. Bu Ning didn’t create this diagram for the sake of inciting competition either. He was only thinking that in the later generations of disciples and grand-disciples, if someone wasn’t careful and encountered a big cage that they couldn’t undo, they could consult the name register mural and find a person to aid them among their panguan peers who were still alive.
Later on, after the Zhang family gained power, they took into consideration the fact that more and more people were getting on the name register mural, and the branches were also becoming increasingly complex. In order to differentiate it more clearly, they made some renovations to the foundation of Bu Ning’s diagram.
In reality, they couldn’t add anything to it, nor could they take anything away. They could only refine the rankings a bit. To put it bluntly, all they did was make the mural a little more responsive, a little more sensitive.
As this incident spread around, a portion of the people started calling it “the diagram that the Zhang family made.”
Zhang Yalin had actually explained the ins and outs of it all before to Zhou Xu, but for the sake of simplification, Zhou Xu always skipped over the old ancestor part and went straight to the Zhang family.
“Oh yeah, I almost forgot. It’s the Zhang family.” Da Dong didn’t want to seem ignorant, so he hastily chimed in.
Except then Xie Wen nodded and said, “In that case, you should be asking the Zhang family why he can’t get on the name register mural. What’s the point of asking him? It’s not like he’s the one who drew it.”
Da Dong was rendered completely speechless, and he actually couldn’t come up with a reason to retort.
That was also true. As everyone knew, nobody could forcefully add their own name to that mural, unless you were Bu Ning reborn.
Da Dong felt like he had asked a stupid question. When he saw how silent the Shen family’s eldest disciple was, he guessed that the disciple himself didn’t even know what else to do.
“Then—” Da Dong waved his hand weakly, “Then pretend like I didn’t say anything.”
However, this sort of situation truly was rare. He decided that he was going to ask his shifu and the Great Lady Zhang about it once he got back. Was no one going to do anything about such a huge bug concerning the name register mural? How scary.
This interlude was both spearheaded and concluded by an awkward Da Dong.
With the assistance of Xie Wen saying something rational for once, Wen Shi was victorious without having to lift a single finger. He didn’t even need to think of any shoddy excuses before the topic of the name register mural was swept under the rug.
He retracted his gaze and asked Shen Manyi about something relevant to the cage. “Is this all there is to your house?”
Shen Manyi shook her head. “My house is very big. It has two stories, a front yard, and a back garden.”
Wen Shi: “This is the second story?”
Shen Manyi: “Mn.”
Wen Shi: “If you want to go somewhere else, how do you get there?”
Shen Manyi said subconsciously, “Use the stairs.”
Then she paused for a moment and shook her head again. “Oh, you can’t use the stairs anymore.”
She wasn’t wrong. Back when they first entered the cage, Wen Shi had noticed that the Shen family’s second floor was in structured a “回” shape, with the rooms on the outside and the stairs on the inside. However, even though they had circled around the hallways numerous times, they were still never able to find the entrance to the staircase.
No matter what side of the corridor they were at, they always saw the same staircase shape, and the entrance was eternally just around the left corner.
Meanwhile, the other end of the staircase was perpetually shrouded in darkness. It was impossible to discern anything about the situation downstairs.
Under normal circumstances, this kind of scenario was only indicative of one thing—this was the entirety of the cage. It consisted purely of the second floor, which was why there was no entrance leading to the first floor.
But it was clearly an unusual situation this time. After all, they had combed through all of the second floor, yet they still hadn’t met the real cage master. That meant that there were still other areas in the cage; they just hadn’t found a way to access them.
“Are there any other paths?” Wen Shi asked.
Shen Manyi’s head drooped as she said, “I don’t know.”
“Let’s keep looking then,” Xie Wen said.
Shen Manyi gripped her bow and stood there silently for quite a while before she suddenly said in a small voice, “Can I go with you guys?”
Zhou Xu and the others turned to stare at her abruptly.
The little girl hesitated for a moment. Then, she tilted her face upward to look at Wen Shi and Xie Wen, most likely because she considered them to be dependable. She explained earnestly, “There were a lot of people in the house before, and it was very lively. When they disappeared later, I had to search for other people to play with, but those people never brought me along with them. They ran away the second they saw me.”
The only way she could intermingle with more people, the only way someone was willing to talk to her, was if she pretended to be somebody else.
“I don’t want to be all by myself, I’m scared.” Shen Manyi said woefully.
Xia Qiao and the others felt like they were intoxicated listening to her words. They thought, We’re even more scared than you, little sister.
Wen Shi had never brought along a little ghost before in his life. This was also his first time hearing a little ghost make this kind of request, and he was a bit mystified.
Entertained by Wen Shi’s expression, Xie Wen lowered his gaze and asked Shen Manyi, “That’s fine, but are you still going to play Real Bride, Fake Bride?”
Shen Manyi pouted before she shook her head and said, “No, I’ll stop.”
Now she was acting well-behaved and cute, and she even looked a little pitiful with the way her head hung forward. She seemed just like an obedient child, entirely different from her earlier appearance when resentful energy was spilling everywhere.
Da Dong was rendered speechless.
Wen Shi didn’t object to Xie Wen’s response. Instead, he asked Shen Manyi, “You haven’t done anything else to the people on the second floor, right?”
Shen Manyi bobbed her head obediently again. “I haven’t.”
“Okay.” Wen Shi nodded and said to Da Dong, “Ask your companion where he is.”
Da Dong: “Companion?”
It took him a second to finally recall Haozi. The last time they talked to him was back when Shen Manyi was mixing things up among the group. Since it was hard to distinguish which one was real and which one was fake, he hadn’t dared to get in touch with the other person this entire time. Something always felt a little weird.
Now that Shen Manyi wasn’t stirring up trouble anymore, they could at least be sure that there wasn’t anything wrong with the Haozi on the other end of the walkie-talkie, and it wasn’t much of a burden to contact him either.
Moreover, there had indeed been no sign of activity from the other person for some time now. Perhaps he wasn’t on this floor?
Da Dong felt a bit guilty, and he slunk over to grab Sun Siqi’s walkie-talkie. He pressed the button and said into the walkie-talkie, “Haozi Haozi, this is Da Dong. Where are you at? You’ve been quiet for a while.”
He spoke very fast, and he released the button as soon as he was done.
A second later, a crackling static noise suddenly sounded in the room. The noise was somewhat ear-piercing, and it seemed exceptionally clear since nobody else was talking.
After that, Da Dong’s voice echoed through the bedroom, accompanied by the static. “Haozi Haozi, this is Da Dong. Where are you at? You’ve been quiet for a while.”
In that instant, the bedroom was dead silent.
Da Dong was baffled for a second before goosebumps shot up his back and made a beeline straight to the top of his head. He turned to look in the direction that the noise had come from, and he saw a coat rack covered in white cloth.
It was then that he remembered something: back when they first entered this room, Zhou Xu was given a scare by that coat rack, because he thought that it was a person.
For a moment, everyone stared in that direction, but nobody moved.
Xia Qiao and the others also probably remembered what Zhou Xu said earlier, and their complexions were ashen.
With wide eyes, Da Dong swallowed and raised the walkie-talkie again. He pressed down on the button and said, “Haozi, where are you…”
His voice came from the coat rack again. It repeated, “Haozi, where are you.”
“Let’s remove the white cloth,” Xie Wen said mildly.
Wen Shi had already walked over to it, and he yanked off the white dust cover in one pull.
They were greeted with the sight of a man standing on the base of the coat rack. Judging from the clothing, it was most likely Haozi, except his head dangled forward lowly, and he was soft and flabby as if he didn’t have any bones.
But Wen Shi quickly realized that there was no “as if.” He truly didn’t have any bones—the person in front of Wen Shi wasn’t standing on the coat rack. Looking closely, it turned out that he was actually hanging from it; there was a clothes hanger in his shoulders, and the tips of his toes barely pressed against the base.
When Da Dong frantically dashed over, he arrived just in time to see Wen Shi lift up the hanging person’s face. It was merely a layer of empty skin.
Da Dong instantly sank onto the ground.
“It’s fake,” Wen Shi said.
Da Dong didn’t recover immediately. He didn’t know if Wen Shi was saying that to comfort him, or if he was telling the truth.
He sat on the floor for quite a few seconds before he finally snapped out of his empty-minded state and noticed the birthmark on the left ear of the person’s skin.
Da Dong collapsed and said softly, “Fuck, that scared me to death.”
Haozi’s birthmark was on his right ear.
Regardless, it was truly frightening to see a person hanging here like this. Everyone bolstered their courage and hastily removed the object. While they were doing so, they accidentally brushed aside the curtain in the corner.
Xie Wen’s eyes were sharp, and he spotted a small wad of paper stuffed in a crack next to the wall. The color was a bit similar to the hue of the diary pages, so he picked it up and swept off the dust. He unfolded the paper and glanced at it before he handed it to Wen Shi.
On it was written:
「May 26, 1913: Rain
It keeps raining as of late. It’s too humid in the house, so things decay easily. Shen Manyi can’t be hidden any longer, Mr. Li found out.
Ai, he has such rotten luck.」
What was “he has such rotten luck” supposed to mean?
Wen Shi frowned. All of a sudden, he sensed that there was someone watching him from in front of him.
But he was currently facing the room’s window. There couldn’t be something hanging outside the second floor window, watching him, right?
His head shot up. The window pane, dark from the night, was covered by a layer of blurry fog. It reflected the inside of the room, along with an indistinct figure.
Wen Shi stared at that spot for a while before he raised his hand and pulled open the window.
There was still an expanse of thick, dense darkness outside. He could faintly make out the sound of insects, like that of a remote and abandoned village. As if remembering something, he stretched forward out of the window.
Xia Qiao was in the middle of enduring his fear and toiling away when someone unexpectedly patted him on the back.
He jolted in fright and cried out, “Who is it?”
Zhou Xu pointed towards something and asked, “What is your ge doing?”
Xia Qiao looked at where he was pointing—and saw his ge jump out of the window.
He jumped out…
Yan: Ahhhh I am so sorry for the long break in posting!!! Moving and unpacking really took a lot more out of me than I expected, but things are pretty settled now, so hopefully I can get back on a roll with translating!