Thank you to Yun ru for the Ko-fi!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Even though the phone was a new purchase, Wen Shi learned how to use it quickly enough. Apart from making calls and sending messages, the first thing he mastered was the navigation app.
Sitting in the back of the car, he entered three locations into the app and discovered that the peach blossom river valley—the place where Xie Wen had some business to take care of—just happened to be wedged between Xiao Li Village and Banpu.
He thought that Lao Mao would logically make a stop at the river valley. But when he looked up after the car started to slow down, all he saw was a town sign for Banpu.
“Hm? Uncle Lao Mao, did you… miss your stop?” Xia Qiao asked.
Obviously, Wen Shi wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on the maps. Wen Shi just hadn’t spoken up about it, whereas Xiao Qiao was an idiot.
It was as if there were feathers stuck in Lao Mao’s throat. He cleared it quite a few times before he said vaguely, “No I didn’t, how could I have missed it? Didn’t we just enter Banpu?”
Xiao Qiao said, bewildered, “What about the river valley? Doesn’t Boss Xie have to take care of something there?”
Like hell he has to take care of something there. He was just saying that to deceive a fool.
Lao Mao thought to himself.
Then Xie Wen glanced at him.
Unfortunately, since Lao Mao was a deeply connected puppet, it was very likely that Xie Wen could overhear him even if he was just thinking to himself. As a result, Lao Mao sat bolt upright and abruptly became extremely invested in the condition of the road, giving it his full attention.
Nobody said anything for a while. Once again, Xia Qiao sensed something ambiguous permeate the atmosphere, and he suddenly began to regret asking those questions a little, despite not really understanding why.
Through the rearview mirror, Xie Wen swept a look over Xia Qiao before he locked eyes with Wen Shi briefly. Only then did he break the silence. “It doesn’t matter if we come here first. I’m in no rush.”
If Wen Shi thought about it carefully, what Xie Wen just said was truly a bit of a stretch, because Wen Shi himself wasn’t in any immediate rush either. He was simply curious as to why a fragment of his soul was in the Shen family’s cage, so he came to check it out.
Actually, even if he hadn’t come here, he still had a few faint suspicions…
“Oh, I see, I see.” Now that Xia Qiao had received an answer, he didn’t want to delve any deeper, and he hastily latched onto the provided excuse. But halfway through his escape, something else distracted him.
“Uncle Lao Mao…” Xia Qiao called out in a trembling voice as he leaned forward to plaster himself against the driver’s seat.
“What is it?” Lao Mao continued to stare at the road with extreme focus—in any case, he just wasn’t going to look at his boss.
“When you drive… do you not adjust the rearview mirror?” Xia Qiao pointed at the mirror that was capable of reflecting Xie Wen’s eyes and said, “It’s pointed at the passenger seat, is that really okay???”
“Oh, I forgot.” As if he had just remembered its existence, Lao Mao reached out to maneuver the rearview mirror towards himself.
Lao Mao was very calm, but half of Xia Qiao’s soul left him.
Pressed against the back of the driver’s seat, he felt like it was truly a miracle that all of them had survived up until this point. But he soon discovered something else: except for him, not a single person in the car seemed to be afraid.
Of course they weren’t afraid. Not even hands or feet were needed for a car that the Golden-Winged Dapeng was controlling, let alone a rearview mirror. If an accident occurred while Lao Mao was doing something as simple as controlling a car, he probably didn’t need to be alive anymore.
Alas, Xia Qiao was the only one in the car who didn’t know any of that.
As a result, he ended up getting carsick due to excessive stress right as they were about to reach their destination. Upon getting out of the car, his complexion was ashen, his legs were weak, and his spirit was floating outside of his body.
Wen Shi steadied him as Xie Wen suggested, “Are you still able to walk? Maybe you should just stay in the car.”
Xia Qiao waved his hands in a rush and thought, I’m actually going to throw up if I stay in there any longer.
Only Lao Mao was comparatively lacking in empathy. He tried to hold himself back for a long moment, but in the end, he couldn’t help it. “This is my first time seeing a puppet who can get carsick.”
Xia Qiao asked Wen Shi feebly, “Does this really not happen to other puppets?”
After Wen Shi hesitated for merely a second, Xia Qiao was already mumbling, “Alright ge you don’t need to come up with an excuse, I get it.”
Wen Shi: “…”
There was a trace of gloom and bewilderment in his indifferent expression, and Xie Wen laughed when he saw it. Then Xie Wen explained to the little puppet quite cheerfully, “There are usually two reasons why an ordinary person might have a reaction like yours. One possibility is that they really are carsick, but another possibility is that, for whatever reason, their soul has suddenly become a bit unstable.
“It’s true that puppets don’t actually get carsick.” Xie Wen added, “You most likely aren’t either.”
“Am I the second type then—my soul is unstable???” Xia Qiao thought to himself, It’d be better if I could get carsick, at least my life wouldn’t be at stake.
Xie Wen spoke again. “A human will feel uncomfortable if their soul is unstable, and they’ll be more susceptible to illness, temptation, and possession. But if a puppet’s soul is unstable, it will manifest as intermittent life and death.”
A so-called “unstable soul” meant the following: in the body, the soul was in a turbulent state, and it wasn’t attuned to its shell very well. Since the soul was too light and untethered, it would occasionally drift in and out of the body.
A puppet was more similar to a wooden doll when its soul left its body, and it was more similar to a human when its soul returned. If a puppet vacillated between these two states within a short period of time, it would appear to fluctuate between living and dying.
Xia Qiao was even more lost. He didn’t seem to fit either description.
Wen Shi wasn’t very reassured, so he decided to close his eyes and gather his spiritual energy to observe Xia Qiao. With that, he found the source of the problem at last—Xia Qiao’s soul was indeed in an unstable condition at the moment. However, it wasn’t oscillating in and out of his body; instead, the instability was occurring internally.
After all, Shen Qiao had once transferred his spirit to Xia Qiao. This indicated that Xia Qiao was essentially housing two different kinds of souls within him—the one that Shen Qiao had forcefully transferred to him, and his original one. If Xia Qiao wasn’t in a good state, it was true that the two souls would occasionally clash with one another, resulting in a bit of volatility.
Actually, this shouldn’t have produced a particularly intense reaction, but little Xia Qiao was probably too delicate, which was why it was manifesting so obviously.
After Wen Shi gave him a simple explanation, Xia Qiao’s mind was finally set at ease. Even his dizziness and nausea seemed to improve ever so slightly…
Except he was also increasingly ashamed of himself. Head drooping in dismay, he felt like he was very much a good-for-nothing.
In the past, Mr. Li gave them the old address to the house, which they now compared against the terrain to narrow down its approximate location.
But just as Mr. Li had experienced, the world was always changing ceaselessly with the passage of time. This region had already undergone numerous transformations, and the Shen family’s rectangular Western-style manor had also disappeared ages ago. In its place was a middle school.
They arrived right after class had been dismissed, and the school was filled with the sound of chatter. Lining the street outside of the school gates were food stalls that bustled with activity. People traversed through the space on electric scooters; everything was extremely lively. It was impossible to tell who used to exist here or what events took place here a century ago.
Well, that was understandable. The Shen manor was consumed by a fire, after all, and it was truly unlikely that many things would’ve survived that.
But considering that the escape room, Shop Sanmi, managed to obtain a remnant of the Shen residence, traces of it must still exist somewhere.
Fortunately, people in the area were cordial and talkative, and they had also picked up on quite an assortment of random rumors. Noticing Xia Qiao’s persistent listlessness, Wen Shi pushed him forward to be their intelligence gatherer.
Xia Qiao probably had a natural gift for swiftly gaining someone’s trust. Not long after, the little scout returned with information. “They said that even though the Shen family is gone now, they were pretty well-regarded back in the day. The family had an ancestral mountain tomb, and they even specially hired grave-tenders for it.”
Wen Shi: “Grave-tenders?”
Xia Qia nodded. “Yeah, apparently they still live near the mountain today. I think they opened a farmer’s restaurant or something.”
Since all the shop owners seemed to run in the same circles, they quickly got the name of the restaurant and located it using a navigation app.
The store was owned by an honest-looking married couple in their early thirties. It happened to be empty when Wen Shi and the rest arrived, so the couple struck up a conversation with them.
When the Shen family was mentioned, one of the owners asked, “You all are here to…?”
As the person standing closest to them, Wen Shi bore the full brunt of the question, yet he just so happened to be incapable of fabricating anything. Because it also wasn’t convenient to tell the owners the real reason why they were there, he had no choice but to stiffly squeeze out an excuse. “Take care of business.”
It was truly… a very perfunctory excuse.
Rather than speaking up, Xie Wen waited for Wen Shi to scrape together an explanation first before he added in a leisurely manner, “We’re setting up a memorial hall, and we decided to simultaneously update the entire family tree. We heard that there was another branch family over here, so we came to check it out.”
Wen Shi: “…”
He shot a look at Xie Wen. His thoughts were clearly conveyed through his gaze: You couldn’t have spoken up earlier if you already came up with something?
Xie Wen didn’t even turn his head. He pretended not to notice, but a smile still flitted across his face.
The owner made a noise of understanding and said, “Got it, got it. We had some people visit us a few years ago—they were also trying to set up a memorial hall. So you must be from up north then?”
The group nodded, even though they didn’t know why he was guessing that. It didn’t really matter; they just had to agree first and figure it out later.
However, they learned why soon enough—
The owner told them that the Shen family wasn’t actually from Banpu. In its early days, Banpu was considered to be one of the region’s strategic locations. It had some connections to maritime trade, but it wasn’t too conspicuous. Because of those factors, the Shen family ended up settling in Banpu for several generations, but they were originally from the North.
“My great-grandpa tended the mountain for the Shen family.” The owner counted on his fingers. “The last three generations of my family all did. Basically, my family’s been living at the foot of the mountain ever since the Shen family arrived and took it over. Although the concept of ‘mountain tending’ might not exist anymore, and we also have our own store now, we still climb up there and tidy things up for them every Tomb-Sweeping Day, Ghost Festival, and New Year.”
As he spoke, he couldn’t help but sigh with regret. “The poor Shen family, what a tragic fate. Their bloodline almost ended then and there. After the manor burned down, my great-grandpa was the one who gathered their remains and made funeral arrangements for them. Speaking of which, it’s a little horrifying, but some of the remains were fused together from the fire. You couldn’t even tell who was who anymore.”
The owner recounted the tale that his great-grandfather had passed down to him, yet he quickly discovered that Wen Shi and the others were focused on something other than the horrifying part.
“You said ‘almost’?” Wen Shi asked.
“That’s right.” A little startled, the owner said, “Didn’t the young master manage to avoid the fire? There was allegedly a charity event or something in the area at the time, and they originally wanted to invite the head of the Shen household and his wife. However, since the couple wasn’t in town, the young master attended the event instead. When he returned, the first thing he saw was his burned-down home. Not a single person had survived. Rumor has it that he fainted on the spot and fell sick shortly after, but because he was having a hard time recovering, he went back to Tianjin.”
Wen Shi: “You’re sure that it was Tianjin?”
The owner nodded. “Yes, that’s where everyone said his parents were. In light of how sick he was, he couldn’t just stay here all by himself, so he went back.”
Then the owner struck the back of his hand against his palm. “Though I’ve heard my great-grandpa mention that it was quite chaotic in the North during that time. Something happened to his parents just before the fire, and both of them ended up passing away.”
“And after that?” Wen Shi asked.
“Nothing,” the owner said. “There was no news of the young master after that. Considering his family situation, it’s entirely possible that he either went mad or died.”
He heaved another deep sigh.
“Do you have any photographs from back then?” Xie Wen pulled out the memorial hall card again.
The owner nodded. “I do, but not many. By the way, I actually have a version of the family tree as well, but it’s probably not as complete as yours. It mainly shows their branch of the family.”
“Could we take a look?”
“Sure, of course.” The owner directly suggested, “You’ll definitely need information for your memorial hall and family tree, so I can just make a copy of it for you.”
He swiftly brought down an old-fashioned portfolio envelope from the upstairs living quarters. From that, he dumped out a photo album and a genealogy book bound in string.
Upon flipping open the album, Wen Shi spotted a group photo on the second page that was both familiar and unfamiliar—it was precisely the old photograph from Shop Sanmi. However, in the cage, a large chunk of the photo was missing, and it had been pieced back together after being ripped apart.
In reality, this photo was still fully intact, and it could even be considered sharp and clear. As a result, Wen Shi saw what Shen Mansheng looked like for the very first time.
He wore a little Western-style vest and trousers. For accessories, a pocket watch with a chain embellished his vest pocket, giving him quite the air of a young master. The only exception to that was his face, which was the delicate and pretty type; when he smiled, his gentle aura was suffused with a trace of shyness.
Although he would come to look somewhat different in the future, his core features had remained unchanged. There was something about his eyes and brows in particular that Wen Shi knew very well.
It really was Shen Qiao.
Wen Shi wasn’t the only one who recognized him—Xia Qiao had as well. But Xia Qiao had never seen Shen Qiao around this age in person, just in pictures, so he was a bit hesitant and unsure. “Ge, is this… this Shen Mansheng… he looks so similar to Grandpa when he was young.”
The owner was also astonished. “What do you mean? Your grandpa?”
Luckily, Xia Qiao reacted quickly and remembered that his grandfather’s lifespan had been much longer than the average person’s. Since it was a rather shocking number if spoken aloud, he amended his previous statement. “No, no, that’s just how I refer to him.”
Wen Shi glanced at Xia Qiao before he nodded and said, “He’s not merely ‘similar.’ That is him.”
The owner was even more stunned. “What’s going on? Are you two familiar with this person?”
Wen Shi flipped through a few more pages of the album. He grew increasingly certain when he saw Shen Mansheng’s face in some of the other photos. “Mn, we are.”
“How do you know about him?”
He understood their “familiarity” with Shen Mansheng to be knowledge of him. After all, these young men weren’t even thirty yet. There was no way they could actually be acquainted with Shen Mansheng, who was from the early 1900s.
“We heard about him from our family.” Xia Qiao offered an excuse first this time, in lieu of making his ge come up with a lie on the spot.
“Oh. So that means—this Shen Mansheng guy, he didn’t end up dying?” the owner asked.
Wen Shi: “No, he didn’t.”
The owner then asked, “Did he go mad?”
Wen Shi: “Also, no.”
He paused for a moment before he decided to add some rare elaboration to his answer. “He changed his name and never brought up his past. It’s likely that he no longer remembered it.”
The owner said, “It’s good if he forgot, it would’ve been much too difficult for him otherwise. How was life for him after that?”
Wen Shi answered, “Quite good. He had a very long life.”
He got by fairly well and lived to a ripe old age. That was probably the best ending an ordinary person could hope for.
“Very nice, very nice.” As the owner nodded, he seemed to think of something that caused him to look deeply moved.
He wasn’t like his great-grandfather, who used to work for the Shen family and had personally met the long since buried people from these old black-and-white photographs. He was born too late for that; to him, the people in the photos were merely familiar but foreign faces.
He didn’t actually hold much sentiment towards these people, but he still felt somewhat gratified upon suddenly hearing such a continuation of their story.
The owner was in a pretty good mood, so he enthusiastically urged them to stay and ran to the kitchen to whip up a few dishes. After dragging Wen Shi and the others into sharing a meal with him, he copied the photos and family tree for them before finally sending them on their way.
Wen Shi furrowed his brows as soon as he got back into the car.
Before this, he had always believed that entering and undoing cages was rather arbitrary and relied heavily on fate. However, thinking about it now, there was something a bit strange about it all.
Just as Wen Shi was attempting to draw a connection between each strange point, his phone abruptly buzzed three times. When he fished it out and glanced at it, he saw that it was Zhou Xu.
After being silent for a good long while, that brat finally sent Wen Shi three messages.
The first message read: The envelope really is busted, I can’t see the address.
The second message: Luckily I’m smart, so I pieced together a location from the letter.
The third message was a picture. Zhou Xu had drawn a circle on a cropped section of a map, and he said: It should be over here.
Wen Shi tapped on the image and discovered that Zhou Xu had circled an area next to the intersection of an expressway and a provincial highway. If everything was correct, this should be Zhang Wan’s so-called “blessed place.”
That meant that Zhang Wan’s “blessed place” was in Tianjin; Shen Qiao changed his name and became a panguan in Tianjin; and Wen Shi came out of the Gate of Oblivion last time in Tianjin as well.
It didn’t matter if it was all a coincidence or not—a trip to Tianjin was a must.
He locked his phone and let the screen go dark before he leaned forward and bumped his fingers against Xie Wen.
The other person inclined his head towards him and asked, “What is it?”
“Are you going back to Ningzhou?” Wen Shi asked.
Xie Wen: “Do you need to go back now?”
“No, I still have to take care of something.” Wen Shi said, “So you can just drop us off somewhere in a bit.”
Except then Xie Wen said, “I also can’t go back yet. Where else do you have to go? We can send you there first.”
“No need, it’s too far.” Wen Shi frowned and asked, “Why can’t you go back?”
Xie Wen: “Unfinished business.”
That was very much a Wen Shi-style answer, and he was rendered fully speechless by it for a long moment before he finally asked, “At the peach blossom river valley?”
“No.” Xie Wen pinched the corner of his phone and waved it in the air, hinting that he had changed his mind because of a message he had just received. “In Tianjin.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Wen Shi: “???”
Perhaps his expression was too blank. Out of reflex, Lao Mao said defensively, “It’s true this time.”
At that exact moment, there were also two people with blank expressions in Ningzhou, the place Wen Shi and the others had no intention of returning to for the time being.
Zhang Lan’s high heels were on, and she was about to pick out an extremely eye-catching purse from her closet when she heard her little brother, Zhang Yalin, walk into the room with his phone in hand. He then proceeded to gesture at her in the middle of his call.
“What are you trying to say? Just spit it out.” After her complaint, Zhang Lan urged him along. “Hurry up and put on your shoes once you’re off the phone. The Shen villa is still a fair distance away from here.”
Zhang Yalin said, “We’re not going to the Shen villa anymore.”
Zhang Lan: “Why not? Didn’t we agree to coax that Chen Shi guy into entering a cage?”
Zhang Yalin pointed at his phone. “I just received news that he isn’t even home right now.”
Zhang Lan: “Where is he then?”
Someone said something from the other end of the call. Zhang Yalin was fleetingly baffled before he turned and told Zhang Lan, “Changshen Expressway. He just left Lianyungang.”
Zhang Lan: “Just left where???”
“Lianyungang,” Zhang Yalin repeated with a roll of his eyes, controlling his temper.
Zhang Lan: “Is he coming back to Ningzhou?”
Zhang Yalin: “No, he’s headed in the direction of Shandong.”
Zhang Lan: “Why’s he suddenly going so far away?”
Zhang Yalin: “Who knows. They’re his legs, not mine.”
Thus, Zhang Lan immediately kicked off her heels, threw aside the little purse that she had selected, and whipped around to pull out a suitcase.
Zhang Yalin: “…”
Women were truly terrifyingly efficient.