Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
“What the fuck!” Da Dong leaped over and peered down, clinging to the windowsill. Xia Qiao, who also ran over, was squeezed out of the way by him.
In Da Dong’s eyes, someone with a similar skill level as his shifu was considered a formidable existence. This eldest disciple from the Shen family was evidently one of those people. With a person like this overseeing the situation, Da Dong more or less gained a sense of security. He had finally managed to find a golden thigh, and he didn’t want to experience the taste of loss so quickly.
But that didn’t stop the thigh from seeking out trouble all on its own; there was no place it didn’t dare to jump.
“It’s over, it’s over.” Da Dong’s face went pale.
Xia Qiao was scared out of his wits by Da Dong’s reaction. “Don’t jinx my ge, why is it over?”
“There are too many dangerous areas in a cage, especially those that are sealed away or unknown. You really can’t act recklessly if you don’t have a good grasp on the situation. It’s highly likely that you’ll fall into a dead end or get caught in an infinite loop and be trapped there forever, unable to escape.” Da Dong’s expression was extremely grave. “Did your shifu never tell you guys that before? That’s something that every shifu will tell their disciples.”
Xia Qiao knew that his ge was very powerful, probably more powerful than any shifu alive. But he still felt a bit anxious when he heard Da Dong say that.
If you extended your hand outside the window, your fingers weren’t visible; it was so dark that it seemed to be dyed with thick ink. Even the light from inside the room couldn’t make its way outside. Rather than the duskiness of night, it was more like a void—nothing existed out there, which was why it was an expanse of blackness.
Xia Qiao stretched the entire upper half of his body out of the window before Da Dong yanked him back and scolded, “Did you already forget what I just told you?! Do you have the memory of a goldfish?”
“You can’t even see the bottom from here.” Uneasiness was written all over Xia Qiao’s face.
“No kidding, why else would I be shouting ‘it’s over,’” Da Dong muttered.
Xia Qiao faced the window and called out “ge” a few times, only to discover that his voice disappeared before it could travel anywhere. It was muffled and smothered, and it didn’t even sound like his own voice anymore.
His blood ran even colder in his veins.
This sensation reminded him of something: every time he entered a cage, he would be walking along, and the people next to him would just unwittingly vanish. Everything was extremely sinister and eerie.
They slumped against the windowsill and listened for a while, but they didn’t hear any response.
Xia Qiao grew a little restless. He swiveled in a circle, face crumpled, as he said, “This won’t do. Maybe I should jump down too, I can’t let my ge perish by himself.”
Da Dong: “…Listen to yourself, are you making any sense right now? Do the two of you have to perish together instead?”
He tugged on his hair, plagued by worry. He couldn’t prevent a bit of resentment from seeping into his voice. “He seems like a fairly stable person, so why is he the type to explode silently? He didn’t even leave a lifeline before he jumped!”
Right as he said that, someone else spoke. “He did leave one. You all passed that lifeline five or six times, pacing back and forth, yet nobody spotted it. Why don’t you tell me who’s the more unstable one here?”
Da Dong turned his head and saw that it was Xie Wen speaking.
He was leaning next to the window, arms crossed over his chest. The gloomy and damp energy outside was probably too strong, causing people to feel cold all over. As soon as he was done talking, he propped his hand against his nose and started coughing in a stifled manner. In the blink of an eye, his sickly complexion seemed to grow even worse.
This person always sounded unhurried and courteous when he spoke, but anyone with ears could hear the disapproval tinging his words.
Except this kind of disapproval was very strange. For some reason, it was the tone of voice that an elder would have—and an extremely distant elder at that.
Caught off guard, Da Dong almost reflexively lowered his head to acknowledge his mistake. Fortunately, his willpower was tenacious enough, and he managed to stop himself before he actually bowed his head.
He sucked in a breath of air through his teeth and wanted to retort back at Xie Wen. At the same time, he didn’t think that it was a good idea to argue about this right at that moment.
In the end, Xia Qiao was the one to shove everyone else out of the way as he rushed over to ask, “Boss Xie, my ge left something behind? Where?”
Xie Wen pointed to the corner of the window frame.
Everyone peered over and discovered that there was a white cotton thread there.
That thread was too thin, and it just so happened to be wedged into a small crack in the window frame. The remaining length of it hung suspended next to the wall, blending into its whiteness.
If a breeze hadn’t coincidentally swept by, causing the dangling segment to sway in the wind alongside its shadow, they would’ve probably had to search for a while longer.
“It’s a puppet string!” Xia Qiao let out a sigh of relief.
Once again, Da Dong’s dark-skinned face felt a bit hot. As a puppet master, he should be the most sensitive to puppet string. Even though that thing was crammed right in front of him, he hadn’t noticed it at all, and that amateur Xie Wen had to bring it to his attention instead.
He rubbed his face and said weakly, “Man, what a scare. As long as he left himself a way out, that’s fine.”
Then he furtively shot a glance at Xie Wen, only to realize that the other person wasn’t even looking their way.
Xie Wen wasn’t close to the Zhang family. To put it more precisely, he wasn’t close to anyone. That was something that Da Dong had heard about before, but he didn’t have much contact with Xie Wen previously. This was his first time being in the same space as the other person for so long.
Based on Da Dong’s cursory observation of him, Xie Wen “wasn’t even looking their way” 80% of the time, also commonly known as “slacking off.” The most noticeable part about him was his cough.
Right now was a prime example of that. He clearly hadn’t done any running, jumping, or lifting of heavy objects; he merely leaned next to the window, eyes lowered as he gazed outside… No, accurately speaking, he was looking at the expanse of darkness below the window. Just like that, his muffled coughing abruptly intensified, and quite a while passed before it stopped.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think that he secretly accomplished some troublesome task.
Da Dong criticized internally.
However, he only dared to voice his criticisms in his mind—he didn’t dare to say it out loud. Because there was an aura surrounding Xie Wen, whose eyes were downcast as he looked out the window, that rendered him inexplicably untouchable and undisturbable.
Xie Wen gazed outside the window for a long time before he suddenly let out an indistinct laugh amidst the smothered coughs. He redirected his eyes away from the window towards the inside of the room, as if he had witnessed something interesting take place.
Da Dong was startled out of his daze. Only then did he realize that he had actually been staring at a sickly amateur for a while now with the attitude of someone who didn’t dare to speak loudly.
What the hell is wrong with you?
As he cursed at himself in his head, he followed Xie Wen’s line of sight. Then, he was greeted by a baffling scene—
The puppet string that the Shen family’s eldest disciple had left fastened against the window frame abruptly shifted, like someone had tugged on it from the other end, causing it to grow taut.
Da Dong thought that the Shen family’s eldest disciple was going to crawl back up here in a few seconds, guided by this lifeline, but that didn’t happen.
That puppet string, which looked like silver-colored silk, suddenly started to move deftly, and the dangling portion coiled to form an outline of a shape.
Most likely due to the extremely odd expression on Da Dong’s face, he ended up attracting Xia Qiao’s attention, as well as everyone else’s.
“What… is this an outline of?” Sun Siqi asked cautiously.
“A maple leaf?” Da Dong’s face was twisted bizarrely.
“That can’t be right, it’s longer than a maple leaf.”
“A hand!” Zhou Xu said.
“It really does seem to be a hand.”
Understanding dawned on them, after which the atmosphere grew even stranger.
Because the length of the thread wasn’t actually all that long, the outline of the hand was also a bit small. How to put this… it was rather adorable.
Then, that not-very-big hand beckoned at them.
Da Dong: “…What do you guys think the meaning of this thing is?”
Zhou Xu: “I think it’s telling us to go over there.”
Da Dong: “Over where?”
Zhou Xu: “Isn’t that obvious? Down there.”
Sun Siqi was dumbstruck. “How do we do that?”
Zhou Xu: “Jump, of course.”
Everyone went quiet for a moment. Eyes trained on that hand, Da Dong suddenly said, “Why does this feel so frightening? Your ge… seems to be a pretty cold person, yet he’s the type to do something like this?”
Xia Qiao was briefly silent before he promptly shook his head and said, “No no no no, there’s definitely something wrong here, my ge isn’t like this.”
Except as soon as he said that, Xie Wen’s voice sounded. “It is him.”
“Who???” Xia Qiao swiveled his head around blankly.
Xie Wen glanced at the hand before he averted his face and coughed several times. When he turned his head back, there was a lingering smile glimmering in his eyes, but it had faded somewhat by the time he lifted his gaze and spoke. “Who else, your ge.”
“Are you sure???” Xia Qiao was still looking at that hand in vague disbelief.
Xie Wen: “I’m sure.”
Lao Mao was someone who always complied with his boss. With a nod of Xie Wen’s head, Lao Mao had already made his way over to the window. Judging from his stance, he was about to jump down.
Da Dong hauled him back and said to Xie Wen doubtfully, “How do you know?”
How does he know?
He taught him that.
Lao Mao pulled his hand free and responded to Da Dong in his mind, a wooden expression on his face.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t “teaching.” It was a deceptive coax.
Wen Shi was quite sullenly silent in his childhood, because for a very long time, there were always people calling him an “evil spirit.”
The direct disciples who lived on the mountain had amended their ways. After Chen Budao reprimanded them, they never mentioned anything like that ever again. But there were many people at the foot of the mountain, and the absurd rumors couldn’t be stopped. Inevitably, there were always some people who didn’t know the truth; one person spread a lie to ten others, and those ten turned into a hundred, all whispering about the same unpleasant things. And there were always some rumors that would end up making their way into Wen Shi’s ears.
As a child, he was very clever, and also very stubborn. He always hid everything he overheard deep inside him and never voiced it aloud. But after he finished his puppetry assignments, he would sit and sulk for a while on the highest rock in the pine-soughing terrace, stroking the Golden-Winged Dapeng’s feathers.
In the past, there was no limit to the amount of puppets that Chen Budao could release. When he needed one, he would casually bring it into existence with a flick of his fingers; he could control and direct anything and everything. A leaf, a withered branch, a flower, even a snowflake—a twirl of his fingers behind his back was enough to create puppets that could move mountains and slice through objects. He didn’t even use any string, but under most circumstances, he didn’t need to.
Lao Mao was the first puppet to stay by his side more permanently, all for the sake of coaxing a little crying disciple. As a result, the very first appearance of the majestic Golden-Winged Dapeng—which could carve away half a mountain with a flap of its wings, possessing blade-like talons and an awe-inspiring presence—was that of a tiny chirping bird, one that wasn’t even the size of half a palm.
Actually, the concept of “growing up” didn’t really exist for something like a puppet. The form they were given upon creation was the form they were meant to have. Yet he, this Golden-Winged Dapeng, unexpectedly got to experience what it felt like to grow up gradually.
Lao Mao remembered it very clearly: back then, he was forced to disguise himself as a mini fuzzy ball. Wen Shi was quite young as well, so he was also a small ball sitting on the stone at the peak of the mountain.
Because of his pale skin, he looked like a little person made of snow.
Just like that, Lao Mao stood on the snowman’s shoulder and dozed off with his head tucked under his wing. Except before he could nap for too long, the snowman would always snatch him down to stroke his head.
As a child, Wen Shi didn’t like to talk, but he had a lot of small habitual gestures. They appeared when he was moping, when he was happy, when he was craving some kind of food but wouldn’t admit it, when he was embarrassed.
It was all subconscious. He himself wasn’t aware of it, but Chen Budao saw it bright and clear.
Never mind Chen Budao; as time went on, even Lao Mao understood.
Although Lao Mao knew about it, he never said anything. He continued to diligently and conscientiously play the role of a little bird that was capable of growing bigger. Before it was time, he resolutely refused to speak the human language.
But Chen Budao was different. He took delight in teasing his little disciple.
Every so often, Chen Budao would inadvertently expose one of Wen Shi’s little habits using an “I’ve caught you again” tone of voice.
The snowman’s skin was thin and reddened easily whenever that happened. Since he couldn’t outdo the other person, he could only tilt his head back and silently face off against his shifu. Then, a few days later, he would silently cease that little habit.
After several more days, a new little habit would appear.
That was how his habit of stroking the Golden-Winged Dapeng’s head was born, and it was one that persisted for quite a while. During that period of time, Lao Mao was always thankful that at least puppets couldn’t go bald.
Nevertheless, Wen Shi’s sulking never lasted for more than half a day before Chen Budao ended up diverting his attention through a variety of methods.
Sometimes, he would teach him something new; sometimes, he would procure a delicious treat to trigger his cravings; and sometimes, he would simply lower the hem of his sleeve and let a few kittens and puppies roll out. They would tackle each other playfully before noisily jostling their way over to nose at Wen Shi.
In the past, Lao Mao had personally witnessed five kittens cling to Wen Shi’s robes and climb him like a tree. Meanwhile, Wen Shi didn’t dare to move a single muscle as he stared fixedly at Chen Budao. “Evil spirit,” “dirty thing,” all that was tossed to the back of his mind.
On the other hand, Chen Budao was always either brewing tea or resinated pine wine, head propped up by his hand as he watched the show while leaning back against a wooden bench.
In any case, he was essentially teasing and spoiling Wen Shi at the same time.
Ever since Wen Shi was a child, Chen Budao had started taking him into cages. Of course, Lao Mao was also present.
Oftentimes, Chen Budao would be strolling along in the front, and Wen Shi would follow closely behind him with Lao Mao still perched on his shoulder.
In his youth, Wen Shi was already fond of maintaining a sullen expression on his face, whether he was practicing puppetry or walking. Wen Shi was always afraid of stepping on Chen Budao’s long, light robes as they swept past, so he remained quiet and exceptionally focused even when he was walking.
However, they never made it too far before Chen Budao would hold out his hand for Wen Shi to take, so as to avoid Wen Shi taking a tumble or disappearing in a moment of carelessness.
That incident probably occurred the third time Chen Budao took Wen Shi into a cage. Lao Mao couldn’t really remember the details of the cage anymore; he only remembered that there was a dead zone in it.
Dead zones were areas that could trap and kill a panguan if they weren’t being mindful. It was sometimes an abyss or a narrow crack, while at other times, it was merely a cupboard or a dried-up well. Because of some special reasons, those places turned into areas that were extremely hostile and malevolent in a cage.
At the time, Wen Shi didn’t know any of that, and he almost stepped into a dead zone before Chen Budao scooped him back.
Afterwards, for several months or so, Chen Budao didn’t bring Wen Shi into another cage with him.
In the end, Wen Shi couldn’t stand it anymore. A lonesome, fierce independence still permeated his bones, and he didn’t like to trouble other people, so whenever there was something he desired or wanted to do, he usually wouldn’t be able to voice it out loud. He could only stare unwaveringly at Chen Budao with his crow-black eyes.
He stared at Chen Budao like that for three days straight. Finally, Chen Budao patted him gently on the head and said, “Speak.”
Wen Shi held himself back for quite a while before he squeezed out, “Aren’t you going to leave?”
Chen Budao gazed down at the top of Wen Shi’s head and felt a vague urge to laugh. A beat later, he cupped the back of Wen Shi’s head with his palm and said, “At such a young age, when you’re not even the height of my leg yet—are you going to be in charge of everything, including whether or not your shifu leaves the mountain?”
Again, Wen Shi didn’t utter a single word for a long time. “No.”
It was already progress for Wen Shi to speak of his own accord. Ultimately, Chen Budao didn’t make things difficult for him, and he hit the nail on the head regarding Wen Shi’s thoughts. “You want to go into a cage?”
Wen Shi nodded.
Chen Budao said, “You’ll have to learn something first then.”
Wen Shi raised his head. “What is it?”
“The next time you enter a cage, no matter what path you’re taking or what room you enter, you must leave a puppet string behind you.” Chen Budao wanted to make his words a bit more serious, a bit more frightening, but he ended up just leaving it at that.
Instead, Wen Shi was the one to ask in more detail. “What’s the point of leaving behind a string.”
Chen Budao said, “If you get lost, I can follow the string to catch you.”
Wen Shi agreed to this request very readily, and he also complied with his shifu’s request to try it out then and there. He released a strand of his string before he walked out of the room and closed the door.
His voice, which still sounded somewhat childish, was a bit muffled behind the door. “Like this?”
Chen Budao looked at the clean puppet string on the ground and teased him, “Your string is completely stagnant. If someone isn’t paying attention, they’ll step right over it.”
Lao Mao stood on the bird perch and watched silently as pure nonsense came out of this patriarch’s mouth. That thread clearly had ample spiritual energy; anyone who was even a little spiritually sensitive would spot it right away, much less Chen Budao.
The little disciple outside went quiet for a second before he let out an “oh.”
After that, the puppet string on the ground reared back its head like a tiny snake and bobbed up and down.
Head propped up, Chen Budao enjoyed the sight for a while before he spoke again. “It’s still not conspicuous enough.”
Lao Mao was already on the verge of rolling his eyes.
The little disciple fell silent again outside the door.
Some time later, the puppet string started moving once more. It formed the shape of a hand that was more or less the same size as Wen Shi’s own palm. Then, it started waving wildly at Chen Budao.
It beckoned very frequently, which made it seem extremely lively. Even Chen Budao was slightly startled.
With a crook of his finger, the door opened with a creak.
Behind the vivaciously waving hand was Wen Shi’s expressionless face.
Chen Budao laughed lowly for quite a while before he got up and walked towards the doorway. As he passed through it, he lowered his hand and patted the little disciple’s head. “I’m taking you down the mountain.”
Wen Shi said, “To enter a cage?”
Chen Budao said, “To eat something.”
From that point on, every time Wen Shi went into a cage, he would always leave behind a puppet string for someone else so long as he was going anywhere by himself. Even after he grew from a tiny ball into a teenager and then a young man; even after he learned that it was all just Chen Budao teasing him—although he became a bit more reserved and half-hearted with his beckoning, this habit never changed again.
Even after… he no longer remembered anything at all.