Thank you to Clairificus and Somebody for the Ko-fis!
Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
That was a young man with a ghastly pale complexion. Judging from his build alone, he looked quite similar to many other fifteen- or sixteen-year-old youths. Characteristic of those going through puberty, he had that lanky air about him, but he wasn’t frail or weak.
He wore a short unlined tunic that was clean and white, along with wide-legged brown pants that were just the right length. His feet were clad in shoes and socks, and everything appeared to be extremely neat and tidy. It should’ve made him seem like a fresh-faced, high-spirited teenager.
But his shoulders were hunched and his back was a bit bowed. As he stood there, his entire body curled inwards, as if he was filled with an inexplicably heavy lethargy.
When he gazed out at the group expressionlessly, his eyelids drooped down slightly, and there was a crease in the space between his eyebrows. From head to toe, he radiated an aura that was both mulish and oppressively dull.
It always felt as if he was watching you from someplace unknown, yet you had no idea what was going through his head.
He truly didn’t seem like a teenager at all.
“He was actually in the mirror!” Upon personally witnessing his reflection’s transformation, Xia Qiao retreated a few steps out of terror. “How am I ever going to look at myself in the mirror again?”
He recalled what Xie Wen had told him earlier: the cage master could show up anywhere that a person could. Because of that, Xia Qiao had thoroughly searched through every space that a person could hide in, but he had forgotten entirely about the mirrors.
That’s right—there were people in the mirrors too. If panguan could borrow mirrors to enter a cage, then naturally cage masters could also use mirrors to spy on them from the other side.
He cowered together with Zhou Xu and said fearfully, “That scared me to death, I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
Wen Shi frowned and said coldly, “What’s so unexpected about that? For a coward who relies solely on hiding to get anything done, a reflection is the only thing he can possibly be.”
That statement seemed to touch the reflection’s sore spot.
There was a howl as a gust of wind buffeted them all in the face. Under the brunt of the wind, Wen Shi closed his eyes briefly. By the time he opened them again, the teenager was already standing right in front of him.
“Who are you talking about?” the teenager asked.
Something was extremely odd about his face. When he spoke, his voice didn’t match the movement of his lips, as if he had merely draped a layer of skin over himself. Meanwhile, his voice was rough and raspy, like it had been coated in sand.
Even though Zhou Xu was also in the voice-changing stage of puberty, his voice could almost be considered pleasant and sweet compared to this teenager’s.
Wen Shi didn’t look at the teenager, as if the other person wasn’t even worthy of entering his line of sight.
“An animal who harms people without cause or reason. Is that you?” He wasn’t in a particularly good mood at the moment, so his manner of speaking was even more cutting and harsh than usual, coated in fragments of ice.
The teenager stared dead at Wen Shi. His pupils shrank into tiny dots, but he wasn’t able to say a single word. If he said no, he would become the coward; if he said yes, he would accept being called an animal.
This question made him feel embarrassed and angry. As a result, he pulled a long face…
That wasn’t just a figure of speech—his entire face really did lengthen and collapse downwards, causing Sun Siqi and the rest to shriek in terror. The teenager seemed to take great delight in scaring people, or rather, controlling people. Finally, he said, “This is my domain.”
He rearranged the skin on his face back into place and emphasized in a heavy and obstinate tone of voice, “You can only stay here because I’m allowing you to stay here. If I wanted you to leave, you would have to leave immediately. This is my domain.”
“You still hid in the mirror, even though you’re in your own territory?” Xia Qiao was genuinely surprised, but when those words came out of his mouth, they sounded remarkably similar to ridicule.
The teenager’s head whipped around, frightening Zhou Xu into slapping his hand over Xia Qiao’s mouth. He hissed, “Don’t freaking say anything!”
Although Xia Qiao shut up after that, his ge certainly didn’t.
“You don’t even have the courage to reveal who you really are.” Wen Shi’s voice was extremely derisive. “‘Your’ domain.”
The teenager’s expression contained a strange numbness, as if he were completely apathetic to those goading remarks. But in the end, he was still quite young. If he truly was this calm and collected, he wouldn’t have been able to do all that.
“This is my domain,” he repeated hoarsely, but he sounded a bit more desperate this time.
“This is the Shen residence.” Wen Shi spoke again. “Is your surname Shen?”
“My surname isn’t Shen. The Shen residence is gone.” The teenager finally lost his patience and interrupted Wen Shi. “The Shen residence is already gone! A fire burned everything down to the ground! How many times do I have to say it? This is my domain!”
As the last sentence left his mouth, a violent aura engulfed him, forming a sharp contrast to his gloominess from earlier. It was like someone had poured a basin of water into a seemingly tranquil vat of oil, abruptly transforming its appearance into something else altogether.
The word was no longer being spat out of the teenager’s mouth. Instead, it reverberated through the entire building.
In the span of a second, the floating transparent figure descended to the ground at last. His feet were rooted firmly to the floor, linking him to the entire cage. Perhaps because he wanted to prove his ownership over the space, he had finally decided to stop hiding and lurking around. For the first time ever, he stood out in the open, undisguised, inside the manor.
This was the exact moment Wen Shi had been waiting for.
He nodded, but he didn’t say a single word.
Consequently, only the lingering echoes of the teenager’s hoarse voice continued to resound through each and every room and hallway, both sinister and extremely clear.
After the final echoes faded, the long corridor was filled with silence.
Just as the teenager was beginning to feel pleased with himself, a young girl’s voice rang out crisply. “Is that Ah Jun? I heard Ah Jun’s voice.”
Her voice sounded somewhat hollow. Under such circumstances, that alone was enough to make someone’s hair stand on end, but everyone could tell that the voice belonged to Shen Manyi.
A look of apprehension suddenly flashed across Ah Jun’s face.
“Ah Jun.” Shen Manyi called again.
“Ah Jun, are you here?”
As her voice traveled down the corridor, the echoes overlapped with each other, as if she was currently running towards them and was drawing ever closer.
“Why aren’t you laughing? Let’s play a game! I wanna play a game with you.
“I’ve been searching for you for so long.
“Are you finally ready to play with me?”
The sentences merged together and revolved around the group and Ah Jun, sometimes near and sometimes far, accompanied by bubbling laughter. In the wake of the echoes, everyone instinctively glanced at the far end of the hallway—
Only to see Xie Wen standing there, enveloped by black mist, with the tiny Shen Manyi on his left and Mr. Li on his right. They were like three cutout silhouettes with indiscernible features, and their gazes were directed straight back at everyone else.
All of a sudden, it was a little hard to distinguish whether those statements were coming from Shen Manyi, or whether they were the remnants of something else buried deep in Ah Jun’s subconsciousness.
Not long after, another voice joined in—
This time, it was a man’s voice, gentle and refined. He talked rather slowly, and there was an illusory quality to his voice as it intermingled with Shen Manyi’s ringing giggles. “Ah Jun, you tend to be a bit narrow-minded.
“Ah Jun, what kind of person only sees the worst in someone upon appraising them? You’re quite sensitive, so I don’t want to be too harsh.
“Ah Jun, a gentleman should be respectable and magnanimous.
“Never mind, you can go copy characters now.
“Ah Jun, I recognize your handwriting.”
Those voices wove together and flooded the entire manor. With every utterance, the three silhouettes at the end of the hallway grew a tiny bit closer, as noiseless as phantoms.
Soon afterwards, everyone started to hear soft rustling sounds, as if something with many limbs was crawling along the ground.
When they looked over, they realized that the crawling noise was coming from none other than the entangled lump of scorched bodies that had collapsed in the bathroom.
“Is that Ah Jun?”
“Oh, Ah Jun.”
The cook’s pleasantly surprised sigh, the butler’s high-pitched exclamation, and the little girls’ shy greetings rose and fell in unison.
With a dark expression on his face, Ah Jun grew more and more agitated. Finally, he covered his ears and said harshly, “All of you are so annoying!”
The moment those words came out of his mouth, the multilayered voices suddenly dropped in tone, like the melody of a joyful song that had been distorted into a funeral dirge. The cheery shouts transformed into anguished wailing and grief-stricken weeping.
Amidst the weeping, Shen Manyi came to a stop in front of Ah Jun. She leaned forward and stared at the person in front of her—the person she once considered a younger brother even though he was much taller than her—and asked ominously, “Ah Jun, why did you fold me into the sofa?”
Ah Jun looked down at her and said, “Because you were being too noisy.
“You were really being way too noisy.
“You kept laughing and laughing, running around upstairs and downstairs. Your voice was everywhere. You were really being way too noisy.
“Do you know what day that was? That was the anniversary of my mother’s death.
“Do you understand the meaning of a death anniversary?”
Ah Jun’s gaze was focused on Shen Manyi’s face as he said roughly, “You don’t. You only know that bows are pretty, that the swing is fun, that you can be a bride as long as you wrap yourself in a tattered bed drape. You’re already sixteen, yet that’s all you know.
“Do you know that you’d be a joke if you walked out of here? No, you don’t know that either, because everyone in this house always indulged you and spoiled you. Despite your constant stream of nonsense, nobody ever corrected you. Even Mr. Li would always tell you: ‘Yes, just like that.’
“He also said that you looked so clever every time you wore glasses, but you still managed to miss words even when you were copying them straight from a book. Clever—” Ah Jun sneered. “You really had such a happy life, all because you were the eldest daughter of the Shen family. If this were anyone else, they might not have even lived to the age of twelve, never mind sixteen.”
He truly loathed Shen Manyi, and he also loathed the Shen family.
Many people told him that his mother came from a wealthy background and was once a beloved young lady herself; the quality of her life was most likely comparable to Shen Manyi’s. But then what happened? In a cruel twist of fate, Ah Jun’s father passed away, and the young lady became a nanny in the blink of an eye, after which she took him with her to leech off of someone else’s generosity.
He had never experienced a single day of that so-called “good life.” He had only ever heard about it from other people, and the more he learned, the stronger his conviction grew: the heavens were unjust. Why were some people simply born into the lap of luxury, while other people had to endure looks of condescension and disgust?
As long as those in the lap of luxury displayed even the slightest bit of kindness, he would have no choice but to act deeply grateful towards them.
Inevitably, someone was always telling him: The Shen family’s young master and misses treat you so well. Mansheng considers you to be his own brother, and he doesn’t assume the airs of a young master at all around you.
He found it ridiculous every time he heard something like that. It was charity work, nothing more. A stately young master, who had never suffered any pain or hardship, stooping down to hand out a few pieces of candy—was that some earth-shattering benevolent deed that deserved to be praised?
If so, it was only because the person stooping down was a young master. It was similar to Shen Manyi. After she turned into a fool, even fools became “innocent, cute, and worthy of pity.”
She could celebrate her eleventh birthday again and again, year after year; she could point at the current year and declare that it was 1913, that the next year was also 1913, and that the year after that was still 1913.
To Shen Manyi, she was frozen in a period of time in which she could swing freely and make up games.
But to him, it felt as if he was frozen in the year his mother took her own life, and he could never move past that.
So, he truly was extremely annoyed by Shen Manyi.
Her very existence was a perpetual reminder that his own mother had hanged herself in her room on May 19, 1913, all because of a small mistake that she had made.
The heavens were unjust.
Sometimes, the following thought would cross his mind: if someone in the Shen residence was destined to die on May 19, 1913, why couldn’t it have been Shen Manyi? She was half-witted and useless, and she wouldn’t have survived very long once she left her sheltered lifestyle. If the fire hadn’t been extinguished in time on that day, Shen Manyi would’ve already burned to death.
But later on, he realized that even if Shen Manyi had died in that accidental fire, his mother still wouldn’t have been able to live. She would’ve just felt increasingly guilty, which meant that she would’ve taken her own life even more decisively.
See? No matter what, his mother was doomed to die. That was fate.
The heavens really were unjust.
He was often filled with fury because of this, but he was very restrained, and he wouldn’t let it show on his face. However, Mr. Li would still frequently nitpick him over the most trifling matters.
Mr. Li would tell him that he lacked magnanimity, that he was incapable of tolerating others. He would tell him that he often perceived things pessimistically, that he was always thinking the worst of people, that he wasn’t a good judge of character. To put it bluntly, Mr. Li essentially assumed that he was constantly assessing morally upright members of society with a lowly, despicable mindset.
In his eyes, Mr. Li’s opinions differed fundamentally from person to person. If the overthinker was Shen Manyi or Shen Mansheng, Mr. Li surely would’ve clapped and cheered for them. He would’ve praised them for being cautious, thorough, and not easily deceived.
And so, it was still unfair.
The butler was a sly profiteer; he only ever thought about the account books and money. Although he often said things like “Ah Jun doesn’t have it easy” and “this is your home, we’re all your family,” he didn’t actually mean it.
Regarding a certain place as your home—at its core, those were just pretty words. The people who would say such a thing certainly didn’t think of him as one of them.
Even the grandma who cooked for them was extremely unlikeable. Besides cooking, all she ever did was ramble on about superstition. She said that photographs stole people’s souls, that she had to light eternal flame candles to guarantee everyone’s longevity and safety. But not long after that, his mother became a short-lived ghost.
Despite that, the grandma still refused to put out the candles. She said that she had to help recite blessings for his mother because she was born under an unlucky star; that way, his mother would get by a little easier on the other side. The grandma would also drag him into the room and force him to pray with her.
A superficial effort, that was all, since his mother was already dead.
That was why he genuinely despised the people in the Shen residence, every last one of them. While he was here, not a single day went by where he was happy; he merely felt irritated and stifled.
The string that was drawn tight inside of him at all times finally snapped on the anniversary of his mother’s death.
If someone had to be blamed, it could only be Shen Manyi for failing to behave appropriately, for picking that day of all days to make him play games with her, for pulling funny faces at him that weren’t humorous in the slightest, for running around the house and filling it with bubbling laughter.
He wanted her to shut up, to be a bit quieter, to stop laughing, but he didn’t control his strength well.
That was just how some things were. Once it was set in motion, it was impossible to stop.
He hid away Shen Manyi, who would never be noisy ever again. In any case, this young lady was the type to make decisions at the snap of a finger. In the past, she would also lock herself in her room for several days on end and demand for her meals to be placed outside her door so that she wouldn’t be disturbed.
But he was still afraid that he would have a hard time explaining himself afterwards, so he imitated Shen Mansheng’s handwriting and wrote the diary entries before he concealed the notebook.
It was incredibly easy for him to forge those diary entries, because in the first place, Shen Mansheng was just copying him and deriving amusement from it. As time went on, Shen Mansheng couldn’t even change his handwriting back if he wanted to.
This must be retribution.
Originally, it all should’ve come to an end there, yet Mr. Li just had to step out of line and back him into an inescapable corner.
What he already did once was easy enough to do again.
After that, he forged another entry in the diary.
He understood the injustice in this world all too well. It was undeniable that the same incident would have a different conclusion entirely if Shen Mansheng was the culprit, not him. A half-witted sister and an unassuming tutor were of no particular importance compared to the Shen family’s young master.
However, he quickly discovered that he had still overlooked something by accident—the year was written down as 1913, yet it had taken him a considerable amount of time to realize his mistake.
See. It turned out that Shen Manyi had trapped him in that year with her, rendering him incapable of liberation.
Incapable of liberation…
On that day, he was suddenly struck by a certain thought: life was so boring. He had to constantly curry favor and be at someone else’s beck and call; he had to lurk around and cover up his secrets. As a result, he slipped into the little room where the grandma kept the eternal flame candles lit. Then, he locked the door and sat in front of the candles for an entire night.
He didn’t know why he was sitting there. But after staring at the candles for an extended period of time, his name started to seem awkward, out of place, and completely incompatible, juxtaposed as it was against Young Master Shen Mansheng’s name, stuck between the members of the so-called Shen family.
He wanted to erase the nameplate, but he unintentionally knocked over the candle instead.
This must be fate.
Or perhaps it wasn’t fully unintentional. He simply didn’t want to continue on like this anymore, and death ended all troubles.
As his skin and flesh scorched and shriveled, he suddenly remembered Shen Manyi’s wide eyes before her death. They were filled with sadness and resentment from being wronged, and they stared at him without blinking.
Her mouth was open, yet she couldn’t make any sounds.
He knew what she was trying to say. She wanted to tell him: It hurts.
Actually, it was also quite painful when the fire raced over his skin, more painful than the snapping of a neck. Rather than being instantaneous, it was a prolonged agony that was impossible to break free from.
He thought: In the end, I still treated Shen Manyi very well.
“Look,” Ah Jun said to the young girl in front of him. “I made everyone stay and keep you company. We’re all the same as you now, frozen in that year, unable to grow any older.”
As he spoke, the layer of ghastly pale skin slithered off him and fell onto the ground like a loose piece of clothing, leaving behind a rigid, charred body.
Shen Manyi’s eyes widened. She stared at him unwaveringly, just as she had before her death, either out of sorrow, resentment, or disbelief.
After that, her eyes slowly swiveled around before halting briefly on Mr. Li and the crawling lump of scorched bodies.
She was confused and muddle-headed, and it only dawned on her now who these people were.
The dripping wet monster with moss growing on him—that was the tutor who taught her how to read, who supervised her studies, who told her not to worry and to grow up at her own pace.
The indistinguishably burnt pile of dead tree branches—that was the grandma who tied her bib for her, who cooked meals and fed them to her. That was the butler who hiked her up on his shoulders when she was young, who warned her not to run around wildly and to watch out for bad people when she got older. Those were her two little sisters who followed her in and out of rooms like tiny ducklings, who played hide-and-seek with her, who allowed her to dress them up.
That was her family.
Shen Manyi stood there dumbly for a moment. Then, as tears of blood streaked down her face, she curled her hands into fists and started screaming.
The mirrors in the hallway exploded one by one, and glass shards ricocheted everywhere, filling the air.
Her release and breakdown spurred the others into motion. Mr. Li, the butler, the cook, Shen Manshu, Shen Manshan… Thick black mist began to spill out from every person.
Like a dam that suddenly opened all its gates after being sealed for a long time, their grievances flooded out in huge waves.
There was a collective cry of alarm before everyone was completely submerged in a dense, endless darkness. Even Da Dong, who was in a stunned state this entire time, abruptly snapped out of his daze due to the sharp pain.
It already felt as if thin blades were carving through your flesh when the black mist from a single individual swept across your skin, leaving behind countless fine wounds. Now, with so many people present—!
They were essentially being buried alive under a mountain of blades.
Ah Jun didn’t seem to have any intention of stopping them, because he was the most powerful cage master. Yes, there was Shen Manyi and Mr. Li, but every existence in the cage was ultimately at his disposal.
For instance, no matter how aggrieved, furious, or resentful they were at that moment, they still couldn’t hurt him. All of the attacks were directed at the outsiders. As the Shen family members grew increasingly frenzied, it became harder and harder for the cage intruders to ward them off.
Zhou Xu cowered in the darkness, which was so absolute that he couldn’t even see his hand if he extended it. Although he wasn’t exactly capable of stretching out his hand either; he was starting to suspect that there wasn’t a single bit of flesh left intact on his body. He was going to be sliced utterly into pieces.
Enshrouded by black mist, he bellowed, “Da Dong!”
His hope was for Da Dong to unleash another burst of his hidden potential and once again release a half-decent Golden-Winged Dapeng, just like he had before.
He glimpsed a flicker of golden light somewhere in the distance, like a candle flame in the breeze, but it only lasted for less than half a second before it was swiftly extinguished.
“I can’t!” Da Dong’s voice sounded as if it was right next to him, but also as if they were currently separated by a strong wind. “There’s no—there’s no way in hell I can release the Dapeng here! We have to get rid of the black mist first!”
“Then fucking get rid of it!!!” Zhou Xu shouted, on the verge of collapse.
Da Dong’s voice grew even heavier. “This isn’t from a single person. You’d have to eliminate all of it at the same time. Do you know what that means?”
Zhou Xu didn’t particularly want to know, but Da Dong continued nonetheless. “There are eight people total in the Shen residence, including the cage master. That’s equivalent to simultaneously undoing eight cages.”
This was a situation that Da Dong had never experienced before in his life, and Zhou Xu fell into immediate despair upon hearing those words.
For some panguan, merely dissolving the grievances of one person alone was already a strenuous, difficult task, never mind that of eight people. If things went poorly and they couldn’t dissolve all of it completely, the panguan themselves would become extremely corrupted. From that point on, they would never be able to undo another cage again, and their name would ultimately end up being struck off the register.
“Can you at least make them stop targeting us?!” Zhou Xu yelled before a panic-induced flash of inspiration hit him. He thought of a different approach and suggested to Da Dong, “Aren’t you able to tie your puppet string to Shen Manyi?! Turn them all into puppets and control them! Get them on our side first!”
Da Dong was also starting to fall apart because of him. “She wasn’t going mad back then! And all I did was tie my string to her. It was symbolic, so of course I could fucking tie it. Now that she’s in this state, I’d have to exert a similar amount of energy to control her as I would my Golden-Winged Dapeng. If I could control two of them simultaneously, would I still be out here acting as someone else’s underling?!”
Neither of them could see each other. Under the pain and suffering inflicted by the black mist swathed around them, their arguing turned into cathartic venting instead, but that too only lasted for a few short seconds.
A moment later, they were swallowed up by an even more turbulent surge of resentful energy, which felt as if it was slicing through their flesh and gouging out their bones. At last, they couldn’t hold it in any longer and started howling in pain.
Right as the howls left their mouth, they suddenly heard the sound of a giant creature slithering by. Wen Shi’s Tengshe tore open a long passageway in the black mist, leaving the smoky scent of raging flames in its wake and a rusty, metallic odor generated by its enormous chains colliding together. Accompanied by the shrieking of the wind, it curled in a circle amidst the black mist.
The area it passed through transformed into a whirlwind that pierced straight towards the sky like a waterspout. Zhou Xu and the others were funneled into the middle of the cleared space, preventing them from suffering any more physical injuries.
Everyone staggered and huddled together inside the whirlwind, but they didn’t relax immediately.
Because the black mist could slip through even the slightest cracks. It continued to lurk around the edges of the Tengshe, threatening to sneak in through the spaces between the Tengshe’s coils.
As the Tengshe protected the group, Zhou Xu saw a flash of silver light streak past in the darkness outside the whirlwind. Similar to a blade sweeping through the air, it sliced open a thin crevice in the expanse of concentrated darkness.
But he swiftly realized that it wasn’t a blade at all. That was a puppet string!
The string whipped through the air with a sharp whistling noise and wrapped itself numerous times around something.
Then, it was followed by a light tinkling sound! Chains bathed in sparks extended from the end of the string and swiftly crisscrossed over each other, binding together like a vine encircling a tree.
With a click, the chains locked back onto the end of the string.
Instantly, a large opening was abruptly ripped apart in the black mist. The silhouette bound in chains finally solidified into the shape of a human: it was Shen Manyi. Meanwhile, the other end of the puppet string was being firmly gripped by Wen Shi.
“What’s going on?” Sun Siqi wailed.
Da Dong and Zhou Xu stared blankly in Wen Shi’s direction and said, “A puppet lock.”
Puppet locks referred to the chains that were wrapped around puppets. The locks were used to suppress puppets in combat mode, so as to prevent them from breaking out of the puppet master’s hold. Once the chains were locked in, the puppet master would be able to control even the most uncontrollable existence.
This was precisely what Da Dong said that he couldn’t achieve earlier.
It went without saying that Wen Shi was stronger than him, so Da Dong wasn’t too surprised that Wen Shi was capable of doing such a thing. Zhou Xu let out a sigh of relief, but Da Dong’s expression didn’t improve much.
“Even if he can control one of them, it’s useless! There’s still seven more!” Da Dong said.
The breath of air that Zhou Xu had just sucked in vanished again. He felt a bit like he was suffocating.
“Maybe it’s possible for him—”
Before Zhou Xu could finish his sentence, Da Dong interrupted him resolutely. “It’s impossible! Think about it, how many combative puppets can Yalin-ge control at the same time?”
“Six…” Zhou Xu was shocked. “Wait, we’d still freaking be short two puppets?”
He quickly realized something else. “But that’s in terms of controlling the puppets stably. Plus, those combative puppets could also transform into humans, and they were even more out of control than the ones here. It’s not the same playing field.”
“Right, so this definitely wouldn’t be a problem for Yalin-ge. But what about other people?” After Da Dong was done posing his rhetorical question, he exhaled deeply—a little disheartened, a little self-mocking. “Stop dreaming.”
Nevertheless, he didn’t want to just sit around and wait for death to find him. Taking advantage of the situation, he flung out his puppet string, and the Golden-Winged Dapeng materialized in the whirlwind created by the Tengshe.
The Dapeng unfurled its wings and helped to widen the coverage for the group.
As soon as the Dapeng took its spot, a familiar whistling sound rang out once more.
Zhou Xu spotted the silver puppet string again. This time, it shot straight off in another direction!
“Da Dong, Da Dong, look at that…” He hastily prodded the person next to him.
Both of them raised their heads and peered over in unison, dumbfounded. Glowing with flames that burned scarlet in the black mist, the chains intertwined and locked onto another person, spraying sparks everywhere.
The silhouette appeared from underneath the black mist. It was Mr. Li.
“Damn, that’s two now,” Zhou Xu muttered.
“Wrong, that was the third.” Da Dong pointed at the enormous black python and said, “He already has three puppets in his grasp…”
But Wen Shi didn’t stop there; he let another puppet string whip out. Accompanied by the resounding clatter of chains striking against each other, he successfully controlled a fourth “puppet”—the butler.
After that was the fifth, and then the sixth.
By the time he finally controlled the pair of embroidered shoes, causing a woman to slowly emerge from under the binding of the chain, Da Dong and Zhou Xu were already completely speechless.
They stared, stunned, at Wen Shi’s fingers. The crisscrossing white cotton thread was stretched extremely taut, and there was a figure wrapped in chains at the end of each string.
After quite a while, something dawned on them at last. This person genuinely managed to control every single person in the cage…
Except for Ah Jun.
“How is this possible…” Zhou Xu felt like he was losing his mind.
“Seven, fucking hell…” Da Dong was also losing his mind.
He suddenly realized that he had probably underestimated the Shen family’s eldest disciple again. At the very least, it was highly probable that even his shifu wouldn’t be able to accomplish something like simultaneously controlling seven puppets who were in the middle of violently releasing their pent-up energy.
After all, that was seven puppets.
Before he could recover from this newfound revelation, an even more astonishing scene occurred—
With a twist of his wrists, Wen Shi forcefully curled his fingers inward, causing the seven puppets under his control to all move at the same time. Shen Manyi, Mr. Li, and the others abruptly swelled in size before they whipped around and surrounded Ah Jun, the sole person that Wen Shi hadn’t brought under his control, just as real puppets would.
Immediately, the black mist poured out wildly once more like their floodgates had been thrown wide open, but this time, it was no longer harming the group. Instead, all of it smothered Ah Jun, engulfing him in an instant.
Da Dong’s shock turned into bewilderment. Originally, he thought that Wen Shi had already reached the extreme limit by simultaneously holding onto seven puppets, temporarily preventing them from doing anything else. He didn’t expect this person to take it a step further—
Wen Shi didn’t just stabilize them; he was truly controlling them. Controlling seven puppets all at once…
This time, the cage master himself was the one screaming in agony.
Ah Jun never would’ve imagined that such a stark, confounding shift in power could occur in his own territory in the blink of an eye. All the people who lived in this space, all the people who he indulgently permitted to exist in this space—every single one had unexpectedly turned into an “outsider,” redirecting their wrath at him.
They were never able to harm him before this, no matter how furious, broken-hearted, or anguished they were. If they felt sorrowful, it didn’t matter how much they longed to cry, to shout, to unburden themselves; they still couldn’t hurt him.
But in that moment, he really did experience pain.
It was a piercing sort of pain, one that was even harder to endure than the fire burning him alive. It felt as if countless corroded, blunt saws were slicing into his skin and scraping back and forth, slowly and inexorably.
The agony was inextricable, to the point that even his mind was starting to suffer from the effects as well.
There were innumerable voices ringing in his ears. Some were from when the owners were alive, others from when they were dead. Some were clear, some were indistinct. Some were laughing, some were weeping. There were too many voices, yet he never seemed to have noticed them prior to now.
Suddenly, he felt as if the pain wasn’t so bad after all. It was just like paying back a debt. Once they were done releasing their emotions, he would also be able to liberate himself cleanly and wholly from all of this.
He even began to hope that these people would be a little fiercer in their venting, a little louder in their crying, a little sharper in their shrieking. That way, he could also leave this world as soon as possible.
He himself didn’t understand what kind of mentality this was, but at this point, he was starting to believe that Mr. Li was right about one thing: he was indeed most likely a poor judge of character, because he couldn’t even comprehend himself.
As Ah Jun stood in the middle of the omnipresent black mist, pondering his own existence, an indifferent voice suddenly punctured through the black mist and landed straight in his ears.
That person said: “You regret it.”
Ah Jun’s chest tightened, and he subconsciously responded, “I don’t.”
That person didn’t reply, but Ah Jun still grew increasingly panicked. “I don’t. What’s there for me to regret? Everything happened as it should’ve!”
Shen Manyi annoyed him, pestered him, and forced him to the brink. He had no choice but to do something to make her quiet down a little.
Shen Mansheng appeared to treat him fairly well, but it was all for show. Otherwise why would he deliberately imitate his handwriting? At his core, Shen Mansheng was just making fun of him and looking down on him.
Mr. Li failed to view everyone equally. He was always criticizing Ah Jun’s shortcomings, as if he was a class lower than the others purely because he wasn’t a young master. It was foreordained by the heavens that Mr. Li would meet such an end.
The butler, the cook, and the two little girls hadn’t done much wrong, but by the time the fire blazed to life, he didn’t even have the desire to save himself anymore, much less the others. Only their bad luck could be blamed for that, for just happening to be home at that moment. Such was fate.
Even his own mother, who raised another family’s children like they were her own, was completely spineless. Simply because of some trivial matter, she took her own life. Because of that, he had to continue living off of someone else’s charity by himself, so that was also deserved.
He loathed these people. There was a reason why he hated every member of the Shen family.
But despite his hatred being justified, he acted as if someone had struck a raw nerve of his. He kept emphasizing, “I don’t regret it, I don’t!
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d make the same exact choices!”
After he said that, he paused briefly before he amended, “No, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t want to appear in the Shen family at all.”
Those words were powerful and substantial. They echoed through the utter mess of a corridor as the shrieking, wailing, and howling of the dead came to an abrupt halt. Then, the hallway descended into a long period of silence.
The acute pain battering his body suddenly disappeared. Startled, Ah Jun raised his head.
Shen Manyi and the rest were no longer crying. The black mist continued to twist devastatingly around them, but it had stopped its vicious assault on him.
They simply watched him quietly as their expressions shifted from resentment to sorrow before finally fading back to tranquility. Unexpectedly, they gazed at him with an impassive apathy, as if they were looking at a total stranger.
Ah Jun abruptly felt extremely displeased. He’d rather them continue as they had before and besiege him with an overwhelming onslaught of black mist. On the contrary, the way they were acting now made him feel as if he was stuck in a state of ambiguity, or as if there was a fish bone lodged in his throat.
It was like he had filled a bag with items that he was going to return to them. But just as he was handing over the bag, they decided that they didn’t want it anymore.
Perhaps their surroundings were too quiet at that moment. For whatever reason, Ah Jun inexplicably remembered something that Shen Mansheng had told him a long time ago. He said: “Jun-ge, if something’s bothering you, don’t keep it bottled up inside yourself. Members of a family are allowed to argue.”
Ah Jun had never argued with any of them in the past. And now, there was nobody left to argue with anymore.
He watched as Shen Manyi wiped her eyes before she suddenly turned around. The chains wrapped around her body didn’t seem to weigh her down at all; at least, walking didn’t seem to be a cumbersome task for her.
With her back to Ah Jun, she walked over to Wen Shi and tilted her head back. “Gege, I want to leave now.”
Wen Shi was briefly taken aback by her form of address for him. A beat later, he nodded once and said lowly, “Okay.”
Then, he reached out with his hand and touched the center of the young girl’s forehead.
In that instant, all her black mist transferred over to him at last. It transformed from a menacing threat to a turbulent undercurrent before finally dispersing calmly around Wen Shi, soaking bit by bit into his body.
“What will I turn into in the future?” Shen Manyi asked softly and indistinctly as her figure began to grow transparent.
Wen Shi: “I don’t know.”
“A butterfly?” Shen Manyi asked again, as if she was still that young girl who loved to fantasize, even though she didn’t understand anything. “Just like this one.”
She lowered her head and tugged at the bow on her shoulder.
The moment the black mist was completely cleared away, her body became clean, and the traces of decay vanished altogether. Her dress changed to a vivacious light yellow, the color of a flower that had just bloomed in the backyard.
Wen Shi pressed his lips together. A second passed before he said, “Perhaps.”
His answer made Shen Manyi a bit happy. Plucking up her beautiful skirt, she flashed a smile at Wen Shi before she turned to wave at Xie Wen…
She bid farewell to the two people that she had grown very fond of. All the way up until she faded entirely, she didn’t glance behind her a single time.
The second person to turn around was the butler.
After that, it was the cook—
The other two Shen daughters—
Ah Jun watched blankly as the people he used to live with removed their gazes from him and turned their backs on him, one by one, before walking over to Wen Shi. After that, they slowly disappeared without ever looking back.
Even the mother who gave birth to him didn’t have anything to say to him; she only stared at him for a long time with reddened eyes. Then, she too sighed deeply and departed.
Surprisingly, the last person to leave was Mr. Li.
Mr. Li seemed to have something he wanted to say to him, but after hesitating for quite some time, he ended up merely shaking his head. With the small copper box clasped in his arms, he turned around like all the others had before him and walked over to Wen Shi, leaving his back to Ah Jun.
The chains around his body clattered to the ground as Wen Shi gathered the black mist from him, little by little. At last, his long tunic dried into a mild sky-blue color. The moss and mottled rot dissipated gradually, revealing his original appearance of a refined, slender young man.
Finally, he could speak again.
At first, Ah Jun thought that Mr. Li was going to fade from this mortal realm without saying a single word, just like the rest had, but Mr. Li unexpectedly glanced back at him.
Mr. Li cast a distant look at Ah Jun and paused, as if there were words perched on the tip of his tongue. At the very, very end, he asked Ah Jun one question: “Do you know why Young Master Mansheng decided to imitate your handwriting?”
Ah Jun frowned. He didn’t understand why Mr. Li was bringing this up. “Because I started learning how to read and write later than the rest of them, so I was inferior to all of them. He did it to mock me.”
Mr. Li shook his head.
A moment later, he said, “He knew that you had a sensitive temperament and tended to compare yourself to other people. Every time you turned in your character practice homework to me, you’d dither reluctantly for a long time. That was why he put himself on the same level as you, so that you would have a companion and feel a bit more comfortable about it. Even if I had criticism to dole out, I’d have to criticize both of you together, and it would also make it seem as if you had improved more.
“Because of that, I eventually stopped trying to correct him.” After a brief contemplation, Mr. Li said, “I’m to blame.”
Young children often came up with ideas that were unfathomable to adults but were nonetheless saturated with clumsy kindness. Mr. Li thought that since they were the same age and had known each other for a long time, it would all work out in the end.
Ah Jun was frozen in place. After being stunned for quite a while, he furrowed his brows and said, “That’s impossible.”
Mr. Li simply looked at him. He didn’t have any intention of explaining further.
Those who were meant to understand would always understand. As for those who didn’t—that just meant they were destined to be on different paths in this lifetime, that there was no fate tying them together.
After saying his piece, Mr. Li stopped paying attention to the dazed young man. He turned and said to Wen Shi, “I have a rather presumptuous request to make, if I am permitted to ask it.”
Wen Shi: “Go ahead.”
Mr. Li lowered his gaze and said, “I still wish to see my home one last time.”
He had waited many, many years for that “one last time.”
There was a beat of silence. Then Wen Shi said, “I can help you forcibly stay for several days, but it will be very uncomfortable for you to leave this place.”
Mr. Li nodded. “I understand, but I would still like to see my home again. Consider it my final humble request.”
Wen Shi also nodded before he patted the copper box. “Come in here.”
Just like that, the enormous Shen manor emptied out in the blink of an eye. Only Ah Jun was left standing in the center of the hallway, all by himself. As he looked down at his hands and body, he fearfully discovered that he appeared to be fading away; it didn’t seem as if he would be receiving the chance to become clean.
“Why am I… different from the rest of them?” Ah Jun mumbled aloud.
Why didn’t he have any black mist, and why did he feel like he was being sucked dry as everyone else departed? Clearly this was his territory—clearly he was the sole reason why those people were able to stay here until now.
“Because the only thing you cannot let go of is yourself,” said Wen Shi.
Everyone had unfulfilled wishes; everyone had attachments that bound them to the mortal world; everyone had things they couldn’t bear to give up or part with. But Ah Jun didn’t. In other words, he continued to linger here purely for his own sake.
He wasn’t willing to leave, and so he stayed. He felt a bit of remorse, and so he dragged everyone else in with him.
Perhaps, at some point in the past, he had fantasized that those people would be able to forgive him. But he never apologized. He only thought: I’m carving out some of my territory for you all to stay in, just like how I used to live in your home back then. That should be good enough.
As a result, when those people departed without hesitation, his existence became meaningless. After a meandering circle of twists and turns, it turned out that they weren’t the ones trapping and tying him down. Rather, he was the one who couldn’t leave them.
He had destroyed them, all for the sake of freeing himself. Yet in the end, he couldn’t even obtain liberation.
This must be that so-called retribution, then.
Cracks slowly splintered across his scorched body, and the entire Shen manor also began to tremble incessantly.
Still separated by a short distance, Wen Shi extended his hand towards Ah Jun. His puppet string dangled down from his fingers in varying lengths, like the unexplainable and indescribable bonds that linked people together.
Ah Jun felt an invisible pressure cover the top of his head. Something was being extracted from his body, or to put it more precisely, it was being extracted from his soul and the cage itself.
The extracted object appeared to be a fragment of something. It was utterly pure and clean, and it carried with it the faint fragrance of white plum.
In the wake of the sharp pain, Ah Jun hugged his head and squeezed his eyes shut. As his body grew lighter and lighter, he suddenly asked, “Is Shen Mansheng still alive?”
“I don’t know.” Wen Shi’s voice entered his ears. “But that has nothing to do with you anymore.”
In any case, this was all a bygone relic of the past, old friends who would never meet again in this mortal life.
After he said that, he made a pushing motion in the air with his hand. Ah Jun’s burnt body scattered into ashes and smoke, and the entire cage began to collapse under his fingertips. The Shen manor’s antique decor, the debris strewn across the ground, the cold and distant moonlight—all of it turned into a blinding white.
The long-lost fragment of his soul entered his body through the center of his forehead. It was shockingly cold.
He ducked his head as his mind hummed and went blank. Subconsciously, he took a step back, only for a pair of hands to brace against him in support.
The moment the cage fell apart, Wen Shi half-knelt on the ground because of the agony radiating from his forehead. A sudden cold sweat broke out across his skin, and he felt someone press their hand against his forehead as a low and indistinct voice sounded in his ears: “Don’t curl your fingers so tightly. Let’s go home.”
Yan: 我们回家 wuwuwu. Again, sorry about the long wait – this monster of a chapter was 25 pages in gdocs (for context PG’s chapters avg about 8-10 pages) so it was really a struggle and a half. Hope everyone enjoys the longer chapter and the conclusion of this cage!