Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
Zhou Xu was already dazed. “What was that?”
Da Dong was even more dazed than him. “The Golden-Winged Dapeng, probably.”
As soon as he said that, his knees went weak, and he wanted to kneel.
He wasn’t trying to be dramatic—Da Dong truly was hit by a dizzy spell, as if he had run an entire marathon and his soul was now floating outside of his body. He slung an arm around Zhou Xu’s shoulders in an attempt to catch his breath.
Zhou Xu was completely oblivious, and he whipped his head around to look at Da Dong in shock. “You’re that badass?”
What’s this have to do with me???
Da Dong was about to retort when he noticed that he had flung out the puppet string wound around his fingers at some point in time; it stretched all the way into the receding flames. As a result, Da Dong was also dumbstruck.
However, his dizziness hindered his thought process. Right as his eyes widened, he dry heaved a few times and sank onto the ground.
“What’s the matter with you?!” Zhou Xu hastily went to support him. He wanted to call Lao Mao over to help as well, except he quickly discovered that Lao Mao was also stunned.
“He’s frightened too,” Zhou Xu told Da Dong. On behalf of the drop-dead gorgeous Golden-Winged Dapeng from earlier, he sank into a half-crouch and rubbed Da Dong’s back for him.
Of course Lao Mao wasn’t frightened. He was the one who released that wingstroke, so why would he be frightened by it? Moreover, that was merely a shadow of his wing that he had cast out with a flick of his hand behind his back. It was still far from what the Golden-Winged Dapeng’s wings truly looked like, since in the end, it was only an incorporeal image.
Unfortunately, these little fools didn’t understand the difference because they didn’t know any better. “The Golden-Winged Dapeng” was the first thing that came out of their mouths; what a waste of Lao Mao’s diligence and thoughtfulness.
He was stunned only because there was something else he couldn’t figure out—one beat of his wings was enough to loosen the entire cage core to a certain extent, and those who were standing too close would even experience their souls becoming unstable. Whereas this was just a trifling fire, nothing more, so why did his boss suddenly feel the need to intervene?
To undo the cage? Xie Wen couldn’t undo any cages right now.
To save the people? That wasn’t necessary either, since Wen Shi was more than capable of handling this sort of situation. Even if Xie Wen hadn’t done anything, those people would’ve been perfectly fine.
But Lao Mao figured it out soon enough, because among the places the inferno had ravaged, he caught the whiff of a scent.
That was the scent of a soul. It contained the faint, cool fragrance of white plum, and it spilled out almost imperceptibly from some unknown corner. Lao Mao couldn’t be any more familiar with this smell…
It was precisely what Wen Shi was looking for.
Spiritual creatures were, by nature, exceptionally sensitive to this kind of scent. For instance, this applied to puppets, or Shen Manyi and Mr. Li in this cage… as well as Wen Shi himself, who was neither alive nor dead.
However, at that moment, Wen Shi didn’t even notice the scent—because all of his attention was focused on the wingstroke from earlier.
He stared unwaveringly at the end of the hallway, even though the afterimage of the huge gilded gold wing had already vanished. Only an expanse of darkness remained, along with the empty sound of people talking.
Zhou Xu and Da Dong’s conversation traveled down the corridor like white noise that was both indistinct and fabricated.
Xia Qiao’s voice wasn’t particularly clear either, as if he was speaking through a layer of frosted glass. “Ge, was that really the Golden-Winged Dapeng?”
Wen Shi’s lips parted as his voice came out low and dryly hoarse. “No.”
The wind created by the Golden-Winged Dapeng was a violent squall, a roaring tempest. Anyone who witnessed it would lose their sight.
Xia Qiao nodded, and his voice grew even smaller and fuzzier. “Then why do you keep looking over there?”
Because he had remembered something…
The moment the enormous golden wing had unfurled, he suddenly remembered that there was a person who had once stood tall behind him. As a fierce gale cascaded down the ridge of a mountain, that person had reached out to cover Wen Shi’s eyes with his hand.
The person said, “You mustn’t look at this.”
Under the shelter of a hand, Wen Shi said, “I want to know the true form of the Golden-Winged Dapeng.”
The person said, “Listen, then.”
Hence, he heard the rushing of the wind as it sifted through boundless pine trees; he heard the cry of ten thousand birds singing in unison.
All the later generations knew that the Golden-Winged Dapeng was the puppet who had stayed by Chen Budao’s side the longest, but they never knew what the real Golden-Winged Dapeng looked like. They could only imagine it.
Imagine the shape it might’ve taken, the color of its wings—imagine how majestic and awe-inspiring it would’ve been, soaring through the sky. Then, based on the rumors that had been passed down throughout the years, they could portray its approximate appearance.
Apart from Chen Budao and the Golden-Winged Dapeng itself, nobody in this world had ever witnessed the true appearance of the Golden-Winged Dapeng before, including Wen Shi.
Yet when he saw that gilded gold wing sweep across the hallway, it felt as if he was meeting an old friend anew.
He heard Xia Qiao speak again, something about smelling a scent that was similar to the white plum fragrance that had once appeared on Wen Shi. After that, Xia Qiao tugged him deeper into the corridor, and they saw Da Dong sitting on the floor with a lengthy puppet string extending outwards from his hands. Lao Mao and Zhou Xu were trying to lift him up from the ground.
Zhou Xu’s mouth opened and closed as he went on and on about what it was like to see the wing from up close, the fierceness of the wind, the gleam of the golden feathers. He said that Da Dong’s spiritual state couldn’t withstand his burst of power, which was why it was taking him such a long time to recover.
He also said it was a pity that only a single wingstroke had materialized. If they could’ve witnessed the Golden-Winged Dapeng’s full appearance, it surely would’ve been stunning beyond words.
Meanwhile, Da Dong just sat there with wide eyes, nodding vacantly as he slowly reeled in his puppet string.
Everything made sense. It was rational and coherent, and there were no holes in the logic.
Xia Qiao and the others had already accepted it as the truth.
If this was the Wen Shi who had just come out of the Gate of Oblivion and didn’t remember anything at all, perhaps he would’ve also believed it. Or rather, it wouldn’t have mattered if he believed it or not, since these people were irrelevant to begin with. The incident that took place a moment ago would’ve also flitted past amidst the other people’s excitement and wonder without stirring up a single ripple.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t that Wen Shi.
He had remembered parts of his past, so he could no longer act indifferent and unconcerned.
Coincidentally, he had also used Da Dong as a means to an end earlier. As a result, when he saw the puppet string that had been flung out, his first instinct wasn’t that someone had suddenly experienced a burst of their potential power. No matter how much hidden potential Da Dong possessed, there was no way he could release something that felt so familiar to Wen Shi.
This was merely a pretense.
Apart from Wen Shi, there was another person in this cage who was capable of doing such a thing—
By means of puppet manipulation, that person could control Da Dong from a distance and make him throw out his string without realizing it at all. That person’s puppet contained the shadow of the Golden-Winged Dapeng—not one that was portrayed according to rumors, but the real Golden-Winged Dapeng, one that even Wen Shi found familiar.
That person probably knew and understood more than anyone else present, which was why he was never uneasy or flustered and rarely felt surprised or caught off guard.
He wasn’t fond of being stuck in the middle of a crowd, so he always stood distantly at the outskirts of the group, listening and watching. He would only mention something or lend a bit of a helping hand during critical moments, but he wouldn’t leave behind any concrete evidence of doing so. Not even Wen Shi could pinpoint anything.
From the past to the present, Wen Shi was only aware of one person who was capable of accomplishing all that, and he was also only personally acquainted with one such individual—
This person was someone he should be calling shifu. But as seen in both his fragmented memories and his limited dreams, he never seemed to call the other person by that title.
It was always Chen Budao.
And so when he remembered that name, a sort of unexplainable and indescribable emotion suddenly burgeoned inside him with a force that was far more torrential than expected.
Just like the first time he had ever touched the karmic debt filling Xie Wen, his surroundings abruptly emptied out in the blink of an eye, akin to the long-lasting quiet that used to drape over the peak of Mount Songyun late at night.
Amidst the silence, an unprovoked sense of sorrow welled into existence.
He finally understood why Xie Wen occasionally spoke in a somewhat misleading manner: it was a tone of voice that Wen Shi frequently found odd and a little enigmatic.
Thinking back on it now, those were all most likely inadvertent oversights, an unintentional force of habit.
Two old souls who knew each other once before in this mortal realm; a reunion that remained yet unknown.
Because one had already forgotten the past, while the other didn’t intend to reveal the truth.
But, why didn’t he reveal it?
Xia Qiao was in the middle of a debate with Zhou Xu about the nearly undetectable scent. Even though Xia Qiao had sniffed his way across the entire floor and in every corner, he still couldn’t find the origin. On the other hand, Zhou Xu couldn’t smell anything for the life of him.
It wasn’t just Zhou Xu. Da Dong and Sun Siqi also kept shaking their heads, which made Xia Qiao a bit anxious. He was extremely afraid that the scent was related to his ge’s soul, and that they had just missed an important clue due to negligence.
Since this wasn’t a matter that he could easily discuss with other people, he had no choice but to seek out Wen Shi. After his thorough search bore no fruit, Xia Qiao hurried back—only to find Wen Shi standing there silently, seemingly lost in thought.
He was very tall, and even with his head lowered, there was an aloof, poised aura around him.
Xia Qiao was inexplicably struck by the thought that he shouldn’t disturb Wen Shi, and he hesitated for a second before he tentatively approached him. As he drew closer, he saw his ge turn to cast a glance behind himself.
There was a candle lamp in Xia Qiao’s hand. When Wen Shi turned his head, the light streaked across his eyes, and in that moment, the depths of his eyes were unexpectedly tinged with red.
Startled, Xia Qiao came to a stop, breath caught in his throat. The only thing he could do was follow the direction of Wen Shi’s gaze.
At the other end of the corridor, Xie Wen stood in the far distance. The already awakened Shen Manyi and Mr. Li were both next to him, and black mist filled the air around them, intermingling and omnipresent.
Separated by the long hallway and the mist, nobody could see each other’s face clearly.
Xia Qiao withdrew his gaze uncertainly. Under the glow of the candle lamp, his ge’s eyes were half-hidden in shadow, while the other half was illuminated by the light. It was like that flash of red earlier was only an illusion caused by the angle, or maybe it was merely a misperception on Xia Qiao’s part.
The dim light highlighted one side of Wen Shi’s profile. Although it made the color of his lips seem quite pale, the outline of his silhouette was extremely dark, and the lines of his throat and neck stood out prominently. It was the kind of beauty that was cold but sharp, untouchable but austere; the kind that people didn’t dare to get close to.
Xia Qiao gave a quiver and stood there blankly. He waited for a long time before Wen Shi finally turned back around.
Eyebrows slightly furrowed, Wen Shi stared with a half-lowered gaze at a patch of empty space as he kneaded his knuckles. Then, he tightened the puppet string wrapped around the base of his fingers.
“Ge, are… are you okay?” Xia Qiao asked softly.
Wen Shi’s eyelids fluttered briefly, as if he had just snapped out of a daze. He let out an indistinct hum and continued to tidy his puppet string. His voice was low and deep, as well as—for whatever reason—a little hoarse.
Xia Qiao: “Did you hear all that stuff I was saying earlier?”
Wen Shi’s admission was too blunt, and Xia Qiao choked for a moment before he immediately repeated, “It’s that scent, can you smell it right now? I keep getting the feeling that the scent is somewhere over here, since I can smell it everywhere I go. I just can’t find the source.”
“It’s coming from the cage master.” Wen Shi still didn’t look up.
“The cage master?” A cold sweat broke out across Xia Qiao’s skin from fright. If the scent was coming from the cage master, and it was also lingering around them without dissipating, didn’t that mean… the cage master was right next to them?
But this place had the same layout as upstairs. The long corridor depended solely on the mirrors lining both walls to widen the field of view, but it wasn’t actually all that spacious.
They were the only people in here. Xia Qiao had already opened the two decorative cabinets as well, and there weren’t any other places that could hide a person. In that case, where was the cage master?
He wanted to ask Wen Shi, but something seemed to be off about his ge right now.
As a result, he didn’t dare to speak out of turn. Instead, he asked Zhou Xu quietly, “Did you see anything when you guys were being chased by the fire?”
“Nope.” Zhou Xu thought back on it. “After I was scared awake by the nanny, I discovered that you weren’t there anymore, and I was the only one on the bed. Then Da Dong and the others rushed over and told me to get out of there quickly. As soon as I left the room, I saw the fire surge over from the staircase, and we started sprinting after that. I do remember that when I was turning the corner, I almost tripped over a lump of something black. Maybe those were dried branches or—”
Halfway through his sentence, Zhou Xu suddenly choked on his words.
He shared a look with Xia Qiao as the color drained from their faces simultaneously—why would dried branches appear in the middle of a perfectly good hallway???
“How big were the dried branches? And where were they?” Xia Qiao’s voice was shaking.
“R-right over there, near the bathroom.” Zhou Xu pointed off into the distance.
They were in too much of a panic earlier when they were running, so nobody was able to pay attention to anything else. Lao Mao didn’t even know that Zhou Xu had tripped over something, and he made an unpleasant connection upon hearing Zhou Xu mention it now.
Zhou Xu was referring to the area right behind the corner. Everyone turned around and raised their candle lamps high in the air, illuminating the lumps on the ground.
They did indeed resemble dried branches, but they were shaped rather grotesquely, as if several warped dead trees had adhered together before toppling over in the bathroom. A portion of it extended out the door—the section that had tripped Zhou Xu.
The group had passed by this place many times previously, but they had never seen this object before, so they were sure that it had been brought by the fire.
And everyone knew that no matter how burnt normal branches were, they wouldn’t stick together like this. Instead, there was another possibility…
Right as that terrifying thought flashed across their minds, Lao Mao—who had bent over to take a closer look—just happened to spot a human face at one end of the “branches.”
Those weren’t branches at all. They were humans that had been burned to death as they held onto each other and huddled together.
Xia Qiao and the rest hastily backpedaled out of fear, staggering and stumbling as they fell onto the ground. Only Lao Mao frowned and stayed in place, counting. A beat later, he turned his head and said to the others, “Four people.”
The distorted lump of “dried branches” was actually four people.
Sun Siqi made a retching noise and nearly fainted on the spot, eyes rolling back into his head, before Zhou Xu swatted him awake again. “Wait a second!”
Although Zhou Xu’s personality wasn’t particularly pleasant, nor was he very brave, his brain worked quite swiftly. “You said you dreamed about the cook, right?”
Sun Siqi gagged a few more times. With an ashen complexion, he corrected, “I dreamed that I was the cook. The fire spread from the second floor, and I was running for my life down the stairs. I also tripped and fell.”
“And then?” Zhou Xu asked.
“And then the butler pulled me up.” Sun Siqi did his best to recall the dream. “In any case, there was fire everywhere and nowhere to escape to, so we said that we had to go to a place with water. But halfway there, the second floor started collapsing because of the flames, and there was no way out on either side. After that, Mr. Lao Mao slapped me awake.”
At this point, he was actually struck with a bit of retrospective fear, because that dream was just too realistic. He couldn’t help but think: if someone hadn’t woken him up, what would’ve happened to him? Would he really have burned to death?
“Okay, so that means you’re the cook.” After Zhou Xu pointed at Sun Siqi, he then pointed at Da Dong. “You’re the deceased nanny, and Lao Mao corresponds to one of the two younger Shen daughters. As for me, I first dreamed that someone was screaming about a fire. Next, I dreamed that the nanny was standing right beside me in burial clothes, and she said: ‘Wake up, you’re sleeping in the wrong place.’”
He reflected on his dreams briefly. Though he still felt like that last scene was extremely terrifying, he also knew that if the nanny hadn’t scared him, he probably would’ve been trapped in the dream for real, unable to wake up.
Zhou Xu swallowed and continued, “Back when we were upstairs, I was locked in a girl’s room. That, in addition to what the nanny said, shows that I’m also most likely one of the younger Shen daughters. Haozi is Shen Manyi’s counterpart, the weakling is Mr. Li’s counterpart, your ge is the butler’s counterpart—”
As he spoke, he turned to look at Xia Qiao. “—And here’s where the problem lies. Who exactly is your counterpart?”
“Shen Mansheng?” Xia Qiao answered subconsciously. “I was locked in the young master’s room earlier.”
However, he realized that something was wrong the moment he said that.
There were two people who shared Shen Mansheng’s room—the young master himself, as well as Jun-ge.
The Shen manor housed nine people altogether, while their group contained eight members. This entire time, Xia Qiao thought that he was the counterpart to the young master, Shen Mansheng, and that the missing person was the cage master, Ah Jun.
But now, he had suddenly become aware of another issue.
He was a puppet, so it wasn’t easy for him to be led astray or pulled into dreams. However, this identity was merely an unexpected coincidence. What if he was an ordinary human? Just like the others, he would’ve fallen into a deep slumber in the bedroom. Then, he would’ve dreamed about his counterpart and lived their life in his dream.
If his counterpart was the Shen family’s little young master, what would he have dreamed about? If he had dreamed about the young master’s life, wouldn’t there have been even more holes in Ah Jun’s imitation of the young master?
If he thought about it carefully, there were actually very few things related to Shen Mansheng in this cage.
Shen Mansheng wasn’t like Shen Manyi, who would laugh and make people play Real Bride, Fake Bride with her; he wasn’t like Mr. Li, who would always hear the sound of the hemp rope tightening above him; nor was he like the nanny, who had a pair of embroidered shoes parked next to the bed. Even now, after the cage core had already loosened, after the fire had blazed its way through the manor, after the other members of the house had emerged, there was still no sign of Shen Mansheng.
His presence was truly quite faint. Everything slightly related to him had only appeared because of Ah Jun. The handwriting homework, the group photograph, the diary…
This in itself was a reflection of the cage master’s subconsciousness—placing himself above all else while simultaneously trivializing the person he was trying to disguise himself as.
In other words, the Shen family’s young master simply wasn’t in this cage at all. He wouldn’t resist or defend himself, which was why Ah Jun was able to imitate him in such an unbridled manner.
So even though the backstory described nine people living in the Shen residence, there were actually only eight people in the manor right now, a counterpart for each person in Xia Qiao’s group.
“I get it now. I’m not Shen Mansheng, I’m Ah Jun,” Xia Qiao said as understanding dawned on him.
Everyone instantly went dead silent.
“If you’re Ah Jun, then where is… your counterpart?” Zhou Xu said quietly.
Xia Qiao shook his head. “I don’t know, but he’s most likely been following us for a long time. At the very least, he’s definitely here right now.”
Because Wen Shi had told him that the scent was coming from the cage master. Meanwhile, at that moment, Xia Qiao could still smell the fragrance of white plum, and it made him tremble in fear.
Right as they were all staring at each other with panic-filled eyes, Xia Qiao noticed—from the corner of his vision—that his ge had finally finished tidying the puppet string wrapped around his hands. Then, he abruptly curled his fingers inward.
The lines of his muscles and bones stood out starkly on the back of his hands, which were slender but powerful, as he gathered the strings between his slightly bent fingers. After that, with a twist of his wrists, he let the strings whip out directly to his left and right.
A whistling wind and the explosive sound of sharp blades scraping against each other rang out at the same time!
When everyone turned their heads, they saw that Wen Shi had nailed each string in his grasp into the mirror walls on either side of the hallway.
Xia Qiao’s figure was reflected in the mirrors, and the other ends of the puppet strings were pinned densely on his two reflections.
The environment inside and outside the mirrors overlapped, multiplying the image of those puppet strings tenfold. They seemed to flood the entire space, as if Wen Shi had laid down an inescapable net.
Stunned, Xia Qiao didn’t dare to move. Yet the “him” in the mirror only stood still for a while amidst the net before he slowly turned to look at everyone else. He was about the same height as Xia Qiao, but his face was completely different.
Yan: So sorry about how long this chapter took! Life got unexpectedly busy 😦 but!! Wen Shi finally realized who Xie Wen is!!!! hhhh (also the next chapter is like. Twice as long as this one – which is already very long – so I will do my best……. but I can’t promise anything,,,)