Thank you to JWo for the Ko-fi!
Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
His fingers moved almost subconsciously. Numerous puppet strings shot out like snakes and drilled into the surface of every door on the first floor.
The ear-piercing sound of more than ten doors opening at the same time layered over one another. Then, with a bang, the doors slammed heavily against the walls.
No one was prepared for that, and they all jumped with fright!
The cowards, like Sun Siqi and Xia Qiao, visibly trembled when they heard the doors open.
Every single room on the first floor was forcefully opened up.
The dark doorways were like eyes staring eerily at everyone, and a dusty odor wafted out. The three teenagers simultaneously shrank closer to Wen Shi and peered uneasily behind themselves. They kept feeling as if something was going to dart out from one of the doors.
Except the thing that darted out ended up coming from Wen Shi himself.
Accompanied by the resounding clatter of metal chains, that black python—the one that could wrap itself around the entire house—appeared once more.
This time, it was extremely close to them. As it passed by the group, the sparks that sprayed out from the links in the chain flew narrowly past their scalps. Although it wasn’t actually real fire, everyone still shielded their faces.
The black python slithered past with a flick of its tail. Before anyone could react, it had already finished inspecting every single room.
Since its movements were so quick, it kicked up a fierce wind when it returned, causing them to stumble. If a puppet was a reflection of its master’s mood, everyone present could sense that Wen Shi’s mood was currently awful… except for Wen Shi himself.
All of his reactions were born from habit.
The black python coiled and reared up as it flicked its tongue, exuding a chilly, austere aura. Da Dong’s bird had to flutter in the distance for quite a while before it finally dared to get a little closer.
Xia Qiao called tentatively, “Ge?”
Tugging on his puppet strings, Wen Shi lifted his head and saw the uncertain, bewildered, and cautious gazes belonging to Zhou Xu and the others. Then, from the mirror in the hallway, he noticed his own tightly knitted brows.
Only at that moment did he belatedly realize something: he truly was very unhappy.
It wasn’t the kind of pure displeasure that came from being provoked. Rather, it was a sort of indescribable discomfort…
Almost as if a step had vanished from underneath you as you were walking on the stairs, or you had lost something.
All because Xie Wen was nowhere to be found.
To tell the truth, this feeling was quite strange. Wen Shi had entered too many cages before, and it wasn’t rare for someone to disappear; on top of that, he and Xie Wen really hadn’t been acquainted for very long.
Perhaps it was due to that long and deep corridor from earlier—when Wen Shi suddenly looked behind him, Xie Wen just happened to be standing in the right place.
Perhaps it was because they had gone into three cages together. The days and nights passed ceaselessly in a cage, and there were often life and death partings. It gave rise to a certain illusion, as if they had already known each other for a long time, as if they had already witnessed numerous cycles of reincarnation.
Or maybe… there were some other reasons.
Wen Shi shifted his gaze and spotted Lao Mao, who looked like he had something he wanted to say.
“Were you in such a rush just now—” When Wen Shi’s eyes swept past him, Da Dong choked briefly. “No, I mean, did you open all these doors at the same time to try and find someone?”
Wen Shi: “Mn.”
Da Dong: “Did you find them then?”
Wen Shi: “…”
That was a fucking bullshit question.
“No.” Wen Shi’s displeasure was written clear across his face once more. “Not on the surface.”
Puppets could track down living people by following an already known scent. “Not on the surface” meant that Xie Wen and Haozi currently didn’t exist in the places that were directly searchable in the cage.
Xia Qiao’s expression was filled with worry. “What do we do now?”
Da Dong and the rest were also a bit disappointed. However, Da Dong was still a little more experienced compared to the others. He shot an embarrassed look at Wen Shi before he said consolingly, “There’s no need to be this pessimistic so early on. Actually, as long as the cage is eventually undone, they’ll all be able to come out.”
Wen Shi couldn’t understand that any more clearly.
Whenever he encountered this kind of situation in the past, he was always the calmest one. Who would’ve thought that one day, he would end up being given a reminder of this by someone as sloppy and careless as Da Dong…
Wen Shi didn’t know whether to respond or not. Instead, he just stared silently at him.
Da Dong wilted under his stare, and he took a step back without adding anything else.
Only Sun Siqi was completely confused by the situation. “W-what if the cage can’t be undone?”
He didn’t dare to say too much, and he mumbled his question quietly.
Since Sun Siqi was his good friend, Zhou Xu replied to him ominously, “Then we’ll all be trapped here together until we die.”
Sun Siqi was scared witless. From that point on, he didn’t exhale again.
At that moment, the most unruffled person in the group was Lao Mao. In the first place, puppets lacked the range of emotions that humans had. On top of that, he grew up being stroked by a snowman, so he was already a millennium-old veteran puppet. It was normal for him to be relatively calmer.
He let out a timely cough and interjected, “Actually, that voice said something earlier, I’m not sure if you all heard it or not.”
“What did it say?”
“It said that as long as everyone falls asleep, Mr. Li will return. Since Boss is a counterpart for Mr. Li, then… maybe this line can be applied to him as well.”
“No way.” Da Dong said, “Haozi was a counterpart for Shen Manyi, but you didn’t see him being stuffed into—”
“It’s true that he was doing the same thing as Shen Manyi.” Wen Shi interrupted him. “He played the Real Bride, Fake Bride game.”
What’s more, he was the first to play it in synchrony with Shen Manyi.
“Ohhh!” Zhou Xu dragged out the syllable as understanding dawned on him. “So after all that chaos, it turns out that he wasn’t the chosen victim of the game back then—he was actually the accompanying player? Ss—”
He thought of something, and he uneasily fell silent again.
Nobody else noticed, as they were still stuck in the abrupt realization and retrospective fear stages.
Only Wen Shi furrowed his brows slightly.
A problem had occurred to him as well—looking back at it now, Haozi was the second “Miss Shen,” which was why he had to play Real Bride, Fake Bride when Shen Manyi wanted to. Except just by chance, Haozi also happened to be the target selected in the first round.
Essentially, he was acting as “Shen Manyi” to imitate himself.
That would explain why something felt so off about the Haozi speaking through the walkie-talkie, even though he was clearly the person in question.
If this logic held true, that meant that the second round was very strange.
In the second round, Shen Manyi chose Xie Wen. Reasonably speaking, Haozi should’ve followed in her footsteps to select Xie Wen as well. As for whether or not he could emulate Xie Wen well—that was another topic of conversation, but in any case, there should’ve been three Xie Wens back then.
However, there were actually only two. Haozi had disappeared.
Was it because Haozi, as Shen Manyi’s counterpart, could only briefly synchronize with her one time? Or was it because… the person that Shen Manyi chose was someone that Haozi couldn’t touch?
Wen Shi suddenly remembered the person hanging from the coat rack on the second floor.
In actuality, when he saw that skin for the first time, he was a little puzzled because he had a feeling that that Haozi was fake. Later on, Da Dong also confirmed that the birthmark was on the wrong side. But why did the fake Haozi have the real Haozi’s walkie-talkie?
Moreover, Shen Manyi was being very obedient and well-behaved at the time. Why would she produce a skin out of nowhere to scare them right before they left? Wasn’t that just unnecessary?
Thinking back on it now, there were probably different circumstances at play.
What if Haozi wanted to borrow the mirrors in the cage to mimic a certain person, but something ended up going wrong, causing him to fail?
Wen Shi once witnessed a similar situation take place in another cage, except it happened much too long ago, so he couldn’t really recall a lot of it anymore. The only thing he vaguely remembered was that someone else had also attempted to disguise themselves as a certain person, but that person was too powerful and oppressive, and the disguiser’s own skill level was too unsteady. In the end, they overreached past their abilities, and they couldn’t even maintain a human appearance afterwards.
If the same kind of thing also happened to Haozi, then… why couldn’t he imitate Xie Wen?
“So we have to try to fall asleep and see if we can sleep Mr. Li and Boss Xie out?” Xia Qiao asked, “Is that right, ge?”
Wen Shi snapped out of his contemplation and said with a frown, “Sleep with who?”
Xia Qiao: “…Uh.”
What kind of earth-shattering question was this?
“Oh.” Wen Shi finally realized what Xia Qiao just said, and he also realized what he had said in response. Relaxing out of his frown, he started walking towards the closest room while expressionlessly kneading his Adam’s apple. He said ambiguously, “More or less. Let’s first see which rooms are correct.”
Although the Shen home was structured oddly, it truly was quite large, and there really were a lot of rooms. There were already so many bedrooms, study rooms, cloakrooms, and storage closets upstairs, yet there was still no shortage of them downstairs. The only difference was the addition of a kitchen.
“Mama Cai lives here,” Shen Manyi suddenly said, pointing to the bedroom next to the kitchen.
“I can see the benefits of bringing this young lady with us now.” Da Dong said, “It saves us from having to rummage through the rooms to determine their owners.”
Nevertheless, they still walked over to the wardrobe to confirm her statement.
“Hey, this nanny was treated pretty well. Her room is even bigger than mine.” Out of habit, Da Dong continued to walk at the head of the group. As he spoke, he pulled open the wardrobe door—immediately after, his hands trembled.
There was only one set of clothes in Mama Cai’s entire wardrobe. It was bright red and made of silk, with festive circular bat motifs1 embroidered on the surface.
A blanket was placed underneath the clothing. It was very thin, and it was folded neatly into a square so that the pattern displayed on top was complementary to the one on the clothes. It was also a vibrant red color and crafted from silk.
Sun Siqi rubbed his arms. “Is this a qipao? Its color is so frightening, is it wedding attire?”
“Are you a dumbass?” Zhou Xu refuted him mercilessly. “Why would a nanny store wedding attire here.”
Xia Qiao murmured, “These are burial clothes.”
Sun Siqi was given a scare. “What clothes?”
“Burial clothes.” Xia Qiao explained softly, “The clothes that the dead wear. When my grandpa passed away, I was the one who dressed him. I saw it in the store, this is the female version.”
He then pointed at the blanket and said, “This is a shroud. It’s also wrapped around the—”
Before the word “corpse” could leave his mouth, Sun Siqi’s face had already gone deathly pale.
Wen Shi pushed aside the scarlet burial outfit hanging in the closet, revealing the hat, pillow, and cotton socks arranged behind it.
“One thing is still missing.” Xia Qiao, who used to always be timid, was taking this unexpectedly well. It was probably because he had helped to dress his grandpa in the complete burial set before. His current attitude actually bore some resemblance to his eerie behavior as a child.
Xia Qiao poked his head into the wardrobe and searched for a while, mumbling, “Hm? Where is it?”
“What are you looking for?” Da Dong asked.
“Where are the shoes? There aren’t any burial shoes.” Xia Qiao said.
“The shoes are over there.” Wen Shi pointed to something behind them.
Startled, everyone followed his line of sight and turned around to see a pair of similarly crimson embroidered silk shoes placed next to the bed. The tips of the shoes were facing them, almost as if someone was sitting there quietly, watching them, with those shoes on their feet—and they had been watching for a long time now.
After Xia Qiao just barely calmed down, it took a moment for that sight to sink in. Then, his soul fled from terror.
He huddled and squeezed together with Zhou Xu and Sun Siqi, like three quails sharing the same nest, and they collectively moved as close as possible to Wen Shi. Only then did they feel a little more safe.
“This is just hanging here to scare people, right?” Da Dong forced himself to seem calm.
Wen Shi glanced at Shen Manyi and asked, “That Mama Cai you were talking about, what did she usually wear?”
Shen Manyi slowly lifted her eyes. She pointed at the burial clothing in the wardrobe and said quietly, “This.”
The room fell utterly silent.
Wen Shi pondered a bit before he opened the other armoire, which actually contained many dresses, shirts, and pants for little girls, all neatly hung up. It was a sharp contrast to Mama Cai’s wardrobe.
He made his way towards the door, and Shen Manyi followed blindly behind him. The three quails and Da Dong were hot on their heels, with Lao Mao unexpectedly bringing up the rear.
“Where did your little brother and the nanny’s son stay?” Wen Shi asked Shen Manyi.
Shen Manyi quivered once, as if she didn’t feel too good upon hearing the words “little brother.” She hesitated for quite a while before she pointed at the ceiling.
“I’m talking about downstairs,” Wen Shi said.
Shen Manyi shook her head and pointed at two other rooms. “Probably somewhere over there.”
All of a sudden, Wen Shi remembered that the Shen family’s young master originally slept upstairs and only moved down to the first floor because of Shen Manyi’s disappearance. At least that’s how the story went.
At that time, Shen Manyi was already dead, so of course she wouldn’t know which room they stayed in.
Wen Shi paused in the middle of walking towards those two rooms. Shen Manyi was next to him, and he said to her lowly, “I’m sorry.”
The little girl was caught off guard, and a long moment passed before she realized that he was speaking to her. She tilted her head back and stared at him blankly while still keeping pace with him. Then she replied sweetly, “It’s alright.”
Shen Manyi had correctly singled those two rooms out: both of them were previously occupied.
Just like in the other room, they also opened the wardrobes. In one of the rooms, they found refined and elegant long cloth garments, two suits with a hint of Western fashion, as well as several short Chinese-style silk jackets.
There were also a few books arranged on the bedside table. Barring anything unexpected, this should be the room that the butler and Mr. Li had stayed in.
The other room contained clothes suited for a young boy, mostly Western-style suits and vests of varying sizes. It was most likely the room for the young master and the nanny’s son.
“So…” Zhou Xu said faintly, “Everyone else has normal clothing, but only the nanny has burial clothes? What’s that supposed to mean? She’s been dead for ages?”
Wen Shi: “Pretty much.”
“But that can’t be right. Shen Manyi kept going on and on about Mama Cai and made it sound like she was alive. The young master also mentioned Mama Cai in his diary, changing the rugs or whatever…”
As Xia Qiao spoke, his voice eventually petered out.
“…Even if those were all lies, there’s still the introduction from the story background. The first voiceover said that the nanny was one of the people living in this house, and the voiceover from just now said that the two young Shen daughters moved downstairs to stay with the nanny.”
Wen Shi: “Is there a problem with this introduction?”
It seemed like… there was indeed nothing wrong with it.
Xia Qiao couldn’t think about that too deeply; the more he did, the more terrified he felt.
“Could the cage master be Mama Cai?” Da Dong’s voice was weak. “Unwilling to accept her early death, she pretended that she was still living alongside them?”
Wen Shi furrowed his eyebrows and contemplated briefly, but it didn’t feel right to him.
He shook his head. “Distribute the rooms first, we can talk about this later.”
“Do we have to split up? We can’t stay together as a group?” Xia Qiao said.
Sun Siqi’s train of thought was still stuck on the “normal person” track. “If we’re talking about an escape room, since they already said which rooms we’re supposed to sleep in, we definitely have to proceed according to their suggestion. Or else we won’t be able to start a new plotline.”
He immediately wanted to slap himself afterwards, because Wen Shi nodded in agreement.
As a result, they hesitantly and nervously split themselves up among the three rooms.
Da Dong held open the door to Mama Cai’s room and said brokenly, “Why the hell am I in this room?”
Wen Shi said bluntly, “Because you’re the nanny’s counterpart.”
Da Dong: “She’s already dead!”
Wen Shi: “But she’s still here.”
That was even more disturbing, and Da Dong nearly lost it. “In that case, where are the two Shen daughters who’re supposed to be sleeping with me? Hurry up and get over here.”
Zhou Xu, Xia Qiao, and Sun Siqi took a step back in unison.
Sun Siqi said, “There’s a real Shen daughter here, do you want her?”
Da Dong started to go blue in the face as he looked at Shen Manyi. But then Shen Manyi also took a step back.
“It’s over, even the real one is shunning you.” Zhou Xu said.
Wen Shi lost his patience, and he said decisively, “Safety first. You know puppetry, so you should pick two people who don’t know anything at all. Xia Qiao can stay elsewhere.”
After all, Xiao Qiao wasn’t human.
Lao Mao felt like this was a reasonable idea. Right as he was about to suggest taking Xia Qiao to stay in the room previously used by the Shen young master and the nanny’s son, Da Dong pointed at him and said, “Don’t know anything at all? I’ll take Xiao Sun and Lao Mao then. Xiao Sun’s just a student, and Lao Mao is a shop assistant.”
Lao Mao: “…”
He couldn’t retort either. Despite being the majestic Golden-Winged Dapeng, he still had to pretend to be weak in front of a counterfeit.
The three of them ended up sharing a room together, with Zhou Xu and Xia Qiao in another one.
Meanwhile, Wen Shi led Shen Manyi—the one that nobody dared to take along with them—into the bedroom used by the butler and Mr. Li.
There were two beds in the room. The one near the window with books on it was Mr. Li’s, whereas the one on the inside was the butler’s. Wen Shi initially sat down on the butler’s bed first, but after he thought about it some more, he switched to the other one.
He let Shen Manyi take the butler’s bed, while he laid down fully clothed on Mr. Li’s bed.
After all, the story said that Mr. Li—and perhaps Xie Wen too—would return once everyone fell asleep. Who knew what appearance Mr. Li would come back with; it was too much of a burden to make a little girl sleep all alone on this bed.
The moment Wen Shi laid down, he suddenly heard that grandfather clock in the living room ring to life. It chimed twelve times in a row.
By the time the tolling ceased, everyone in the three rooms had fallen asleep.
- Bat (fu) has a similar pronunciation to good luck/fortune in Chinese. Hence, there are a lot of bat motifs used in Chinese culture – on porcelain, jewelry, clothing, etc. In this case, it probably looks similar to this. ^