Arc Two: Wooden Boy
When Wen Shi looked behind him, the bus was deserted, an expanse of deathly quiet.
As if all along, they were the only two people who had come to attend the burial, and everyone else was merely an illusion.
The scent of aged dust filled the air around them, and the leather seats appeared as if they had been sitting there for many years, mottled and cracked. Wen Shi braced himself against the seat’s armrest and stood up, but he received a handful of rust in return.
“I couldn’t resist taking a nap earlier, but then when I opened my eyes, this happened.” Xia Qiao sobbed even harder. “Wen-ge I’m scared…”
Wen Shi’s eyes swept across Xia Qiao’s “beautifully tear-stained” face and didn’t say anything. Of his own volition, he propped a hand up on the back of the chair and walked toward the bus door.
“Don’t go! Wen-ge don’t go, wait for me, wait for me!” Xia Qiao seemed extremely afraid of being left by himself, and he quickly caught up to Wen Shi.
But Wen Shi didn’t have any intention of waiting for him. He descended the steps and exited the bus.
It was still drizzling outside, a fine pattering of rain. Wen Shi flipped up the hood on his hoodie and was about to continue walking forward when Xia Qiao hastily grabbed onto his shoulder and asked, alarmed, “Where are you going Wen-ge? I – I don’t dare to run around.”
“Oh.” Wen Shi finally responded. He stopped in place and turned his head to see that Xia Qiao’s legs were still in the bus; only the upper half of his body was leaning out. A few drops of rain fell on his face, landing on the scar next to his eye.
“What does you running around or not have to do with me?” Wen Shi stared at that extremely shallow scar and said, “It’s not like you’re human.”
The Xia Qiao leaning out from the bus abruptly froze, and he said quietly, “Wen-ge, what do you mean? I didn’t understand.”
Wen Shi pointed at the corner of his eye. “The scar’s on the wrong side.”
Dead silence descended again.
Wen Shi made eye contact with “Xia Qiao” for a moment, before he reached out and pressed the emergency open and close button outside the door. The doors to the bus flattened out with a creak, trapping the thing that was leaning out in between them.
“Xia Qiao”: “…”
By the time Wen Shi continued following the path forward, only a distant and faint scream remained behind him.
This path was very flat. The trees lining both sides were all the exact same height and distance apart, and it was impossible to tell whether he was walking uphill or downhill. There seemed to be no end at all.
But Wen Shi didn’t care about that; he focused only on walking forward.
This sort of narrow and quiet environment seemed just like a long, empty alley. He walked for some time, and even his footsteps started echoing.
However, not long after, he realized that the echoes weren’t synchronized to his own footsteps anymore.
He immediately stopped, but the “echoes” carried on. They grew faster and faster, and also closer and closer…
Right behind him!
Simultaneously, as Wen Shi turned around, someone landed a heavy pat on his shoulder.
“Who?” He fixed his gaze on yet another Xia Qiao.
There wasn’t anything wrong with this Xia Qiao’s moles or scar. Most importantly, he was very lively—he instantly started crying upon seeing Wen Shi, the grief-stricken wailing sort of crying.
Wen Shi had ample experience in this, so he could tell from one glance that this Xia Qiao was real. The only problem was… this Xia Qiao couldn’t make any noise.
Someone had drawn a line on both sides of his mouth, like an extended smile, reaching all the way up to his ears. There were two X’s placed over the line, making it appear both comical and eerie.
This could be drawn using incense ash; occasionally, some people could also accomplish it using a withered branch. When the drawing came to life, it could prohibit someone from speaking, and it was equivalent to sealing their mouth, not allowing them to make any noise whatsoever.
“Who did this?” Wen Shi frowned and found some wet mud along the side of the road before he wiped those two lines off of Xia Qiao. “It’s fine, you can speak now.”
Xia Qiao sobbed twice, and sure enough, he could produce sound again. He stood there for a moment, stupefied, before he proceeded to slump stiffly onto the ground. He slapped his legs and howled out a curse, “Bastard—”
“Who exactly sealed your mouth?” Wen Shi asked.
Before Xia Qiao could speak, someone answered in his stead. “I drew it on him.”
Wen Shi lifted his eyes, only to see that Xie Wen had approached them at some unbeknownst point in time.
He held a withered branch in his hand, and he used it to sweep aside the vines that were blocking his way so that the leaves, which were coated in muddy water, wouldn’t slide against his body. It was carefully meticulous to the point of being a little excessive.
The moment Wen Shi saw him, his expression became extremely displeased.
Xie Wen walked closer and explained calmly, “I picked him up on my way here. He was shouting too miserably and loudly, in too much of a panic to pay attention to the path as he hugged his head and ran all over the place. It’s hardly appropriate to make that much noise in an environment like this, so I just drew two lines on his face in passing. Consider it as me lending a helping hand.”
This person spoke slowly and leisurely; under normal circumstances, it could be described as “elegant and graceful.” However, in a situation like this, especially in Xia Qiao and Wen Shi’s eyes, his way of speaking only emphasized that elusive feeling of danger.
Xie Wen was still smiling, as if he had an extremely good temper. He glanced at Xia Qiao before he asked Wen Shi, “It’s fine if he doesn’t thank me for it, but he even cursed at me. He’s your little brother, aren’t you going to do anything about it?”
Xia Qiao looked at him incredulously.
Xie Wen spoke again. “What are you looking at me for? What did I say that was incorrect?”
Xia Qiao wanted to retort back. But for some reason, when Xie Wen’s gaze swept over him, he felt just like a small inferior demon that was being stared at by a greater demon and only knew how to cower in response.
Compared to Xia Qiao, Wen Shi understood much more clearly. He knew very well that what Xie Wen said was correct: in this kind of environment, one truly shouldn’t cry or scream.
Just like when he ran into the fake “Xia Qiao” earlier on the bus. If he ended up being scared senseless and reacted violently, more of those things would’ve probably showed up. In a moment of carelessness, he could’ve been trapped there forever.
Of course, understanding was one thing; he just didn’t want to agree with Xie Wen.
Xie Wen had anticipated that Wen Shi would respond like this, and he didn’t take offense.
There weren’t any of those branches or tendrils blocking the main path, so Xie Wen tossed the withered branch back into the thicket and said to Wen Shi, “If you’re not going to do anything, so be it. Do you have a wet wipe? I want to clean my hands.”
And what was a wet wipe?
Wen Shi felt perplexed, but what came out of his mouth was: “I don’t.”
Xie Wen: “Then what do you have? Napkins are fine too, as long as I can clean my hands with them.”
Wen Shi pulled a lighter out from the pocket of his pants and retorted, “Burning will make them the cleanest, want it?”
Xie Wen was startled, and he stared at the lighter without saying anything.
A moment later, he suddenly turned his head away and started laughing, except it only lasted for a few seconds before it dwindled and swiftly changed into a muffled cough. A typical person’s face would redden after coughing a few times, but Xie Wen’s didn’t. It remained as sickly pale as before.
A thought abruptly popped up out of nowhere in Wen Shi’s head. He felt like someone who was as pale and ill-looking as Xie Wen would probably appear quite otherworldly when wearing white clothing, but if he wore red clothing… perhaps he would look just like an evil spirit.
Xie Wen surveyed their surroundings and found a mountain spring up ahead that was almost dried up. He washed his hands borrowing the feeble trickle of the stream.
Xia Qiao finally managed to catch his breath again, and he followed closely behind Wen Shi, trembling with fear. They weren’t walking side by side with Xie Wen; a distance of a few steps separated them, but they were headed in the same direction.
Xia Qiao asked, “Wen-ge, where exactly are we?”
Wen Shi: “This is called a cage.”
“A cage?” Xia Qiao seemed to have heard of this before.
He mulled over it for a very long time before he finally remembered that he had heard Shen Qiao mention it.
Shen Qiao said: in this world, everyone had regrets and worries, both large and small. Some were resolved quickly, but some could not be broken free from or let go of. As more time passed, they would end up becoming imprisonments. A soul’s deepest and heaviest resentments and attachments originated from here.
Whenever someone unexpectedly fell gravely ill, encountered a catastrophe, or arrived at the end of their life, their soul would always be unstable. As a result, those resentments and attachments would surge up and take over, manifesting into something tangible. That was a cage.
In the event that an unlucky person coincidentally happened to come across such a situation, it was very easy for them to be dragged into the cage.
For an ordinary person, accidentally entering someone else’s cage was equivalent to seeing a ghost in daytime.
But for panguan, that meant it was time for them to get to work—removing filth, eliminating karmic debt, settling right and wrong, and waking the cage master before sending them cleanly on their way.
“Then – then where are we going now?” Xia Qiao asked again.
Wen Shi said, “Finding the cage core.”
“What’s a cage core? What do they look like?”
Wen Shi found his bearings and said, “They’re usually buildings.”
As he was speaking, Xie Wen, who was in front of them, suddenly lifted his hand and pointed at the short hill not too far away from them. “I saw it, there’s a house behind the hill.”
He seemed to be familiar with the situation, and it clearly wasn’t his first time doing something like this. Wen Shi was a bit surprised, but he quickly recalled that although Xie Wen’s name had been crossed off the name register mural, for better or worse he was still stronger than Xia Qiao.
…except his skill level probably wouldn’t be anything to write home about.
Wen Shi and Xia Qiao quickened their pace. Xie Wen still acted the same as before, calm and composed. Consequently, he slowly went from being a few steps in the lead to lagging some distance behind, but he didn’t seem to have any intention of catching up with them.
Wen Shi rapidly circled around the hill and arrived in front of a house.
It was a two-story self-built house from the 1990s. A bluestone wall fenced the building in, creating a small courtyard. Two shrubs stretched out from inside the courtyard wall.
“This house…” Xia Qiao examined it and murmured, “When I was young, all the houses in our old neighborhood seemed to be built in this style.”
“Mn.” Xia Qiao nodded. “We used to live over there, but houses like this don’t exist anymore. They were all torn down.”
This house, which had appeared out of thin air, sat on the saddle of the mountain, abrupt and lonely. The drizzle brought a cloud of mist with it that surrounded the house.
“This is the cage core? What happens next?” Xia Qiao was a little afraid. This kind of old house always gave off a deathly quiet aura for some reason, so he didn’t really want to get too close to it.
But he couldn’t do anything about it if his ge wanted to.
“Next?” Wen Shi said, “Of course we go in next.”
Xia Qiao gulped and thought, Perhaps you want me to die.
“W-w-will there be people inside?” Xia Qiao questioned.
Wen Shi wasn’t the one who answered him this time. Instead, it was Xie Wen. “Do you think what’s inside w-w-will be people?”
Wen Shi: “…”
There was evidently something wrong with this person. Under these circumstances, he was still in the mood to joke around.
Xia Qiao was instantly scared to tears by this joke. He asked Wen Shi, “Do we have to go in?”
Right as Wen Shi opened his mouth, Xie Wen said with a smile, “The two of us can also just go in, and you can wait outside.”
Xia Qiao started crying even harder.
Wen Shi’s head hurt.
Xia Qiao deliberated for two seconds before he decided that it would still be more terrifying to stay by himself outside. As a result, he asked Wen Shi, “Then how do we get in? Do we just push open the door?”
Xie Wen: “Good idea, why don’t you try pushing it open and see what happens.”
Wen Shi: “…”
He was at his limit, and he pointed at Xie Wen. “You shut up.” Then he forcefully restrained his temper and explained to Xia Qiao, “Pushing open the door won’t work. The smaller our movements, the better. It’s best if we don’t disturb what’s inside the house.”
“How could we possibly not disturb them?” A scene had already started playing out in Xia Qiao’s mind—they would climb into the house some way or the other, and then as soon as he turned around, he would come face to face with the ashen grimace of a ghost.
“We just can.” Wen Shi’s patience ran out, and he truly couldn’t be bothered to explain any further.
But when he saw Xia Qiao’s miserable appearance, he ended up adding curtly, “We find a way to attach ourselves to something else.”
Sometimes panguan entered cages passively, while other times they did it of their own volition. Either way, what they did after entering remained largely the same. With the help of some objects, they would do their best to silently infiltrate the cage core.
Most panguan would choose things like paintings, pictures, or mirrors, which could generate a connection between people and could be conveniently attached to. It was also easy to observe what was going on inside the building.
They would only start moving around and helping out once they figured out who the cage master was and what they could not let go of.
Xia Qiao looked alarmed. “Attach? How does a living, breathing human attach themselves to something else?”
Xie Wen tilted his head and said to him quietly, “Who told you that we’re human right now?”
Xia Qiao sucked in a breath of air that was never exhaled again.
Living people entered cages as incorporeal forms of themselves. If they received a fright, they would often become seriously ill for a while in reality. Xia Qiao probably wouldn’t be able to escape such a fate anymore.
Wen Shi patted his pockets, a little irritated.
In the past, whenever he went out, he would always make sure to bring something with him, like incense ash, wax oil, cotton thread, or yellow joss paper. This morning, he had been stirred up by Xie Wen to the point that his mind was muddled and he had actually forgotten to bring anything, so the only thing he had on him was a lighter.
How was he going to get them inside the house like this?
He unhappily stewed over it for a while before he finally remembered that Xie Wen could still be considered a panguan, even if it was just barely. Though he had been struck off, at least his name had been on the mural once. Different branches and sects always had some different techniques, so perhaps it could work.
As a result, Wen Shi asked, “Do you know a way in?”
Xie Wen let out an “oh.” “Well, it’s not like I don’t have any methods at all.”
Wen Shi didn’t feel like listening to his ambiguity. He said bluntly, “Then you do it.”
“You’re sure?” Xie Wen reached out easily and broke off three withered branches from the side before he extended his hand towards Wen Shi. His unfolded hand was thin and clean, and his fingers were both straight and long.
Wen Shi stared at that hand and suddenly blanked out for a moment. His fingers twitched briefly at his sides.
Xie Wen said, “Give me the lighter.”
Wen Shi kneaded the joint of his finger before he pulled out the lighter and handed it over.
He watched as Xie Wen ignited the withered branches and stuck them into the mud… rather than anything from the Zhang family, that technique actually looked more similar to puppetry.
“Let me first make something clear.” Xie Wen raised his eyes and looked at Wen Shi. He warned, “You should’ve heard those rumors about me, right? I only know some simple, cheap tricks. My abilities are limited, and I can’t do anything complicated. You’re the one who actively asked me to help out, so remember that. If anything happens, you’re not allowed to blame me for it.”
He was still smiling, and after he said that, he closed his fist around the three withered branches. The instant those three branches collided together, Wen Shi’s world went dark.
At that moment, Wen Shi regretted it.
But when he opened his eyes again, he found himself in someone’s room, which meant that they should’ve entered the cage core, and he felt like Xie Wen’s skill level wasn’t too bad after all.
He didn’t make any rash movements; instead, he surveyed his surroundings. This was most likely a child’s bedroom. Apart from the bed, there was a synthetic mat made out of a soft material spread out on the floor to protect against falls, and a ’90s-style cartoon figure was printed on top of it.
There was a little wooden chair in the corner, as well as some scattered toy building blocks. Clearly, the owner of the bedroom wasn’t very interested in the toy blocks, as there was a visible layer of dust coating them.
Wen Shi sensed that he was somewhere high up above on a shelf, but he didn’t know whether he was in a photograph or a painting. If only he had a mirror and could check for himself, that would be nice. He was about to search for Xia Qiao and Xie Wen’s whereabouts when he heard a patter of footsteps come from outside the bedroom door.
Those footsteps should belong to a child dragging along their slippers.
Sure enough, the door to the room was pushed open in the next second, and a little boy dressed like a doll ran in.
In many cases, the people in cages didn’t have normal appearances. One feature of their face would be especially prominent, while everything else would be very blurry, just like people’s memories.
The prominent feature of this little boy’s face was his eyes: they were extremely big and extremely black.
He ran into the room before he suddenly came to a halt. Then, as if he had discovered something, he stared straight at a certain spot in midair. Because of that, those beautiful eyes also became somewhat strange.
He stood there for a moment, before he abruptly turned his head with no warning whatsoever and looked in Wen Shi’s direction.
At once, Wen Shi heard the extremely soft sound of someone sucking in a breath of air, which confirmed that Xia Qiao was somewhere nearby; he just hadn’t dared to say anything.
Immediately afterwards, that eerie, creepy boy retracted his gaze. He pattered back to the door and suddenly called towards the first floor, “There’s a ton of people in my room.”
Wen Shi: “…”
A short while later, sluggish footsteps ascended the stairs. They sounded like the footsteps of someone older, an elderly person.
From Wen Shi’s towering point of view, he was able to make out the top of the old man’s ash gray head. Since the old man’s back was a little stooped, Wen Shi couldn’t see his face.
When the old man saw the completely empty room, he first sighed very lightly before he rubbed the child’s head and asked, “Where are all those people? Grandpa’s eyes aren’t good, it’ll take me some time to find them.”
The little boy extended his hand and pointed directly at Wen Shi. “Over there!”
The old man finally raised his head and looked over…
He didn’t have a face.
Wen Shi felt something tremble next to him, before slowly beginning to slide downwards. Unsurprisingly, Xia Qiao had probably fainted from fear.
But Wen Shi was very puzzled. How could he be sliding downwards??? Regardless of whether they were in a painting frame or a photograph, Xia Qiao shouldn’t be sliding down like that, right?
Just what the hell had Xie Wen put them into?
In the midst of Wen Shi’s confusion, Xia Qiao slid off entirely.
He heard a quiet plop, and he watched with his own eyes as a doll wearing a pink dress fell onto the floor facedown.
Wen Shi: “…”
Right away, that faceless old man bent over and picked up the pink dress-wearing Xia Qiao. He patted off the dust before he set the doll down on the bed and stroked the boy’s head. Looking in Wen Shi’s direction, he said, “When you say people, are you talking about these dolls of yours?”
Wen Shi: “…”
Wen Shi felt like he was suffocating. He just wanted to know two things:
One: Was his doll wearing a dress.
Two: Where was Xie Wen, may he please drop dead.
The author has something to say:
A cage is equivalent to an independent space. It really is a little sweet novel, and it’s not serious… don’t worry.