Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
“Do you have to go find them today?” Zhang Yalin asked.
Zhang Lan swept the various bottles and jars on her dressing table into a bag before she pointed at him with a finger tipped in a sharp and pointy acrylic nail. “Not just ‘me,’ it’s ‘you and me.’”
Once she was done stressing that point, she muttered, “Why don’t you take a look at the person who’s right next to that guy on the name register mural? In any case, it’s not me.”
As Zhang Yalin silently coughed up a mouthful of blood, he heard his sister speak again. “As for why it has to be today…”
Zhang Lan thought a bit and said, “Xiao Xu said something when he left this morning. Did you hear him?”
This was a bit of a jump in logic, and Zhang Yalin didn’t quite follow. “What’s Zhou Xu have to do with this?”
“That brat has a crow-mouth1, it’s not like you haven’t experienced it before.” Zhang Lan rolled her eyes at him.
Zhang Yalin certainly had experienced it many times before. With a grimace, he asked, “What did he say?”
“You know how it was raining earlier, and the wind was really strong? The window was open in my room, so it sounded a little scary.” Zhang Lan explained, “He was already all the way outside the courtyard gate, but then he glanced back and said, ‘How old is the main residence anyway? Why does it sound like it’s about to collapse.’”
Zhang Yalin: “…What a way with words.”
Zhou Xu was completely oblivious to the fact that he had a crow-mouth. It was one thing if he was a child who didn’t know better, but he was already fifteen, and he was still saying whatever he wanted to. If it weren’t for their close relationship, he definitely would’ve been hoisted up into the air and beaten by now.
“Anyway, I’ve been a little uneasy all day long.” Zhang Lan had a very straightforward personality, and she detested this type of uncertain emotion. “So this trip is necessary.
“By the way, where’s Xiao Hei?” She peered outside the room.
“Now what?” Even though Zhang Yalin sounded reluctant, he still jerked his fingers and summoned the bodyguard-like puppet inside.
“Make him divine their destination.” Scrolling away on her phone, Zhang Lan said without looking up, “That way I can buy the tickets.”
Since the whereabouts of the two Shen disciples were determined by tracing talismans and the puppets that were tailing them, Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin knew the general direction that the Shen disciples were headed in, but not where they were ultimately going.
Xiao Hei fished out several copper coins from his pocket and flicked through them briefly with his fingers before he began to shake them. Because Zhang Lan wanted him to divine her fortune on a regular basis, this was a movement that he had done countless times before. There was no way he could make a mistake, considering how skilled he was at it.
However, when he opened his hand, one of the copper coins clattered onto the ground and rolled along the wooden floorboards, all the way under the dresser…
Zhang Lan was startled, and her expression shifted slightly.
Although she didn’t understand a single thing about the art of divination, she knew the fundamental rules of it better than anyone else, thanks to generations of the Zhang family heads all specializing in mixed arts—it was quite an ill omen if a copper coin fell onto the ground and vanished from sight during the divination process.
There was no such thing as starting over again once a coin landed on the ground. It indicated that that particular fortune could not be divined.
“The destination can’t be foretold?” Astonishment was written across Zhang Lan’s face.
Zhang Yalin also furrowed his brows tightly.
“Isn’t that a little absurd?” Zhang Lan still harbored a bit of doubt. “Maybe Xiao Hei’s hands just trembled?”
Xiao Hei silently extended his hands towards her. “They’re very steady. You can try grabbing onto them, should you not believe me.”
Zhang Yalin also said, “That’s impossible, he’s a puppet made from one of Bu Ning’s spiritual possessions. Fortune-telling to him is like eating and drinking. Does your mouth tremble when you eat?”
Zhang Lan: “…”
Initially, Zhang Yalin was still somewhat hesitant about the trip. The Zhang family had a rule, after all, that if he and Zhang Lan were to leave Ningzhou at the same time, they had to report it to the family head—in other words, they had to inform their grandfather, Zhang Zhengchu.
That was precisely why they rarely took care of business together these days. They wanted to avoid the reporting aspect of it, since they were both quite afraid of seeing their grandfather.
They were actually fairly close to their grandfather when they were young, especially Zhang Lan, but they slowly became estranged over the years. The reason was rather simple: after Zhang Wan was chased out of the family, the responsibility of being the next successor naturally fell onto the siblings’ shoulders. Their grandfather, Zhang Zhengchu, wanted them to specialize in the mixed arts, but Zhang Lan had refused.
To tell the truth, Zhang Yalin didn’t want to either. As he grew older, he became increasingly infatuated with puppetry. He wasn’t particularly interested in much else, but his personality wasn’t as fiery as Zhang Lan’s. He was also more obedient than her, so he ended up taking the middle ground: he made his puppets specialize in divination, arrays, and spells. Because of that, he just barely met the requirements.
Even though the siblings didn’t really consider specializing in the mixed arts to be a matter of principle, their grandfather attached significant importance to it. Everyone inevitably parted on bad terms whenever the issue was brought up, so from that point on, both of the siblings grew a bit afraid of their grandfather. Perhaps it was because they didn’t want to quarrel with him, or perhaps they just didn’t want to become even more estranged. Regardless, they did their best not to disturb the old man if they didn’t have to.
But now that Xiao Hei had foretold an ill omen with his divination, Zhang Yalin actually wanted to scope out the situation.
“I’m going to get my luggage, and I’ll also… make a trip to the back.” Zhang Yalin told Zhang Lan.
By “trip to the back,” he meant that he was going to let their grandfather know. Zhang Lan waved her hand at him, indicating for him to hurry up.
However, Zhang Yalin evidently wasn’t much of a go-getter; his version of “hurrying up” took nearly an hour. Zhang Lan had finished packing her suitcase ages ago. Overcome with boredom from waiting, she could only amuse herself with Xiao Hei.
“The destination can’t be divined, but the rest should be up for grabs, right?” Zhang Lan asked.
Xiao Hei had been screwed over by this haughty woman countless times before, so he knew to fear her. “If you could let me know what it is first—I reserve my judgment until then.”
“Oho, you’ve gotten smarter, hm?” Zhang Lan didn’t have any intention of tormenting him. “Inauspicious or auspicious, shouldn’t that at least be okay?”
Xiao Hei nodded and immediately started to shake the copper coins again. None fell onto the ground this time, causing Zhang Lan to let out a sigh of relief.
But before she could exhale completely, she heard Xiao Hei say, “Six-three: bereft of a hunter-escort while in pursuit of deer, hence a solitary foray into the forest. Equipped with minimal awareness, the noble ought to surrender, for only indignity lies ahead.”
Zhang Lan: “What the hell?”
Xiao Hei enunciated crisply: “You’re hunting a deer, but lacking a guide. It’s better to just give up, as humiliation is likely.”
Zhang Lan: “?”
“Who’s going to be humiliated???” Zhang Lan asked faintly.
Xiao Hei glanced at her mouth, which was lined in red like she was about to eat someone, and he decided to be tactful for once. “You, presumably.”
“Presumably” was the tactful part.
If he had only recited the first half of the fortune, Zhang Lan might’ve still hesitated for a moment. Yet because of the line he added about being humiliated, Her Great Ladyship2 was now dead set on going. “The main point is that we’re missing a guide, right?”
Xiao Hei: “The main point is to give up.”
Zhang Lan pushed him out the door and continued to scroll through her phone by herself. They had maps for directions in the modern era, so the divination clearly didn’t mean they needed a guide in the literal sense. In her opinion, they were probably missing a middleman.
She didn’t have an established relationship with the Shen disciples. If she and Zhang Yalin just rushed over, perhaps they would end up being embarrassed again, similar to what happened the last time she went to the Shen home.
If she thought about it that way, the fortune that Xiao Hei divined truly did make sense.
In that case, she should find someone who had an “established relationship” with them.
Out of the people she knew with connections to the Shen disciples, her first choice was definitely Xie Wen. Unfortunately, Xie Wen was currently speeding north in that very same car.
So she decided to call Zhou Xu instead.
By the time Zhang Yalin was finally done notifying their grandfather about the trip, Zhou Xu had already arrived at the entrance of the main residence.
He was extremely thrilled. As if they were about to embark on a spring outing, he had his phone in hand and a round, bulging backpack slung over his shoulder that Zhang Yalin suspected was stuffed full of snacks.
It was more or less a bit improper to declare that they were going to tail someone. With the belief in mind that they shouldn’t corrupt a teenager, Zhang Lan told Zhou Xu that they were “going on a working trip to undo a cage.”
Since they didn’t know the destination, they had no choice but to drive there. Zhang Lan released a tracing talisman to follow Wen Shi’s car, which also served the purpose of showing them the way.
They weren’t actually in a rush anymore once they got in the car. After setting out, they first made a detour to a spiritual item store labeled “Paper Wreath” to purchase some paper, brushes, and cinnabar used for drawing talismans.
Zhang Lan stored them in her bag in preparation for later. Then, taking advantage of the fact that Zhou Xu was still in the car, she patted Xiao Hei and said, “We’re counting on you. Xie Wen’s employee is the one driving, and though they might have left earlier than us, they’ll definitely need a break in the middle to rest and switch drivers. Since you’re a puppet, it shouldn’t be troublesome for you to chase after them.”
Zhang Lan’s phone was propped above the driver’s seat where Xiao Hei was sitting. There was also a navigation app on the screen, except two moving dots were displayed in it. One dot was blue and represented her group; the other one was red and had already crossed over into Shandong. It represented the eldest Shen disciple, who the tracing talisman had caught up to.
Xiao Hei checked the distance between the two dots and did a quick calculation before he told Zhang Lan, “It’ll be completely dark outside in twenty minutes, which should make things much easier. We can probably catch up to them in about two hours.”
It was quite the wishful thinking on their part, but they were missing two crucial pieces of information—
One: As luck would have it, “Xie Wen’s employee” was also a puppet. If there was a ranking among puppets, Xiao Hei would be calling that “employee” ancestor.
Two: There was a “traitor” in their car.
The traitor’s name was Zhou Xu. Because he was too excited, he immediately began chatting with his newly added WeChat friend the moment he got in the car. He told the other person that he was traveling to enter a cage…
Even though his new friend was untalkative, had laggy internet, and didn’t understand what “goodbye” and “:)” meant—so what! Zhou Xu just needed to show off to someone, that was all.
So when his new friend asked him where the cage was, he swiftly hit a button that shared both of their real-time locations.
There were two dots on that shared mini map, one in front and one behind. Both were currently proceeding forward along a very similar route.
Zhou Xu: “…”
If this was someone with a slightly slower reaction time, they most likely wouldn’t have noticed anything at first, since the dots were still far apart. However, Zhou Xu was very sharp, and he understood almost immediately what the real purpose of this trip was.
But because he didn’t say anything, Zhang Lan and the others were entirely unaware of the change in situation. All they knew was that it was now fully dark outside, which meant that Xiao Hei could begin his pursuit in earnest.
The car’s speed increased noticeably, and they started to race through the night. From that point on, they didn’t slow down again. It was as if they couldn’t be noticed by the surrounding cars—as everyone else continued on their own respective journeys and drove within the speed limit, they were left far behind in the dust by Zhang Lan’s car.
On her phone, the two dots grew closer and closer. Just as Xiao Hei had predicted, they caught up to the little red dot in less than two hours.
When there was only one kilometer left, even the unshakeable Zhang Yalin couldn’t help but say, “They’re just up ahead.”
With Xiao Hei’s current speed, one kilometer was nothing. Zhang Yalin and Zhang Lan lifted their heads and focused on the road in front of them without blinking.
They had both seen Xiping Gallery’s car before. It was bright red and extremely easy to recognize.
However, upon emerging from a bend in the road, the bright red color that they were expecting to see didn’t actually appear in their line of sight. Instead, there was a blue truck in front of them. The cargo bed was covered by wire netting and a tarp that had been half-lifted by the wind, revealing the chaotic and crowded interior…
Zhang Lan was in the back seat, so she couldn’t really see too clearly. As she stretched her neck forward like a snake temptress, she asked, “What’s in there?”
Zhang Yalin said, “Pigs.”
Zhang Lan: “…”
Perhaps afraid that that wasn’t enough to piss off his older sister, Zhang Yalin added, “It’s a truck full of pigs. Your tracing talisman is probably stuck to one of them.”
While they were busy chasing pigs in Shandong, Wen Shi had already arrived at his destination.
This was the intersection of Jincang Expressway and Jinshi Expressway. After Lao Mao found an exit to get off at, he made a few turns along the road before coming to a stop next to a forest.
Xia Qiao clung to the edge of the window and peered outside, bewildered. “Where is this?”
“Tianjin.” Wen Shi was in the middle of comparing a map against the photo that Zhou Xu had sent over. He didn’t know if it was a coincidence or not, but this place just happened to be within the scope of Zhou Xu’s circled area.
“Can you get from Lianyungang to Tianjin that quickly?” Xia Qiao said, pressing himself against the back of Lao Mao’s seat.
Lao Mao said, “There aren’t many people on the expressway at night, so I drove fast.”
This felt a bit surreal to Xia Qiao, and he asked, “Then why are we stopped here?”
They appeared to be at a border between two villages; fields and forests stretched as far as the eye could see. There weren’t even any lights along the road, which was completely dark except for the very end, where a few households seemed to reside.
Fortunately the driver of their car was someone they knew, or else this would be a fantastic place to make it on the news.
Lao Mao pulled out a towel and rubbed at the suddenly foggy windshield. Then he lowered the windows on both sides to circulate the air before he scanned their surroundings. “Since it’s raining, let’s not head into the city yet.”
Xie Wen glanced into the distance through the glass and said, “It’s tiring enough being in the car all day. Should we just make do here for tonight?”
Wen Shi: “In the car?”
Xie Wen was wiping away some of the condensation on the window. Upon hearing that, he turned his head to look at Wen Shi. “What are you thinking? Am I that black-hearted?”
Wen Shi’s lips twitched as he muttered silently: Hard to say.
“What was that?” Xie Wen asked with a trace of laughter in his voice. He reached out and waved his hand where Wen Shi’s line of sight was directed. “You keep staring at your phone. Didn’t your little brother say that you weren’t fond of it? Addicted so quickly?”
Wen Shi was sitting hunched forward in his seat, and he watched as a hand sheathed in a black glove slid past his downcast eyes.
“I didn’t say anything, don’t block my view.” He shifted his right hand and nudged Xie Wen’s fingers to the side. Because it wasn’t a particularly firm push, it seemed more like he had just hooked his own fingertips around the other person’s.
Wen Shi stared at those fingers for several seconds before he looked up and said, “If not the car, then where?”
“There’s a house over there. I just happen to be acquainted with the people living in it, so we can stay with them.” Xie Wen pointed off into the distance; it was only then that the sensation of his touch receded.
“Acquainted with…?” Wen Shi was taken aback for a moment. Then, he remembered that he was here following Zhang Wan’s tracks, and that it made complete sense for Xie Wen to have acquaintances in this place.
“An old married couple.” Xie Wen gave a simple explanation. “They’re very good people.”
Lao Mao added, “Aren’t you two also here to take care of something? You can go handle it tomorrow once the rain stops.”
“Mn.” Although Wen Shi agreed out loud, he thought to himself: This is exactly where I was intending to go.
“Why’s there so much fog?” Lao Mao wiped the windshield twice before he finally started the car again.
This was a rural road, so there weren’t any street lamps.
Wen Shi had lived in Tianjin Wei with Shen Qiao for a while. The climate here was drier than it was in Ningzhou, but it still got its fair share of rain in the summer.
It was precisely that time of the year. Rain poured down nonstop, accompanied by a persistent hazy fog, turning the distant lights fuzzy and indistinct.
As the car rolled through the water on the ground and approached the lights, Wen Shi finally realized that there was more than one house present—it was actually a large stretch of buildings scattered across the area, like a village.
Every house was a small two-story structure, the sort that was built by hand, and the exterior walls were plastered with varying styles of ceramic tiles. It wasn’t all that neat, but the colors were quite rich.
Some residences had courtyards, while others didn’t.
The house that they were looking for didn’t have one. In lieu of a front yard, there was a wide patch of cement connected to the road instead. Despite that, it was fairly clean, and Lao Mao ended up parking the car there.
Perhaps because they had heard the arrival of outsiders, the dogs in the village were barking in nonstop waves. They only gradually quieted down once Xie Wen knocked on the front door of the house.
The lights were on inside, and they could faintly hear the sound of a television. A while passed before someone in the house noticed the knocking and replied with an “I’m coming.”
The voice was rather crisp. Upon getting an earful of it, Wen Shi pointed at the door and asked Xie Wen lowly, “That’s an old person?”
Xie Wen shook his head. “Indeed, it doesn’t seem like it.”
Even so, he still let out a laugh. Wen Shi shot him a look. “How long has it been since you were last here? Are you sure that we’re not at the wrong house?”
Xie Wen played along with him and also lowered his voice, but the words that came out of his mouth were quite absurd. “I’m not very sure.”
Wen Shi: “…”
To hell with you, why’d you knock so confidently if you weren’t sure???
He could already imagine the impending awkwardness, so he immediately swiveled around to leave, only for Xie Wen to latch onto him.
“Why run away? If it’s incorrect, then we’ll just ask for the right address. No need to have such thin skin,” Xie Wen said.
As Wen Shi glanced at his wrist, the door opened at the same moment; it wouldn’t be very appropriate of him to leave anymore.
A middle-aged woman stood in the doorway. There was a mole between her eyebrows, one that would’ve been considered a beauty mark in the past. It was true that she was fairly good-looking: she had eyes and lips that seemed to smile naturally, and her skin was as pale as Wen Shi’s.
“And you are…?” She smiled before she even spoke, causing her eyes to curve up in a warm and friendly manner.
“Does Mr. Lu Xiao live here?” Xie Wen didn’t have a habit of peering into someone else’s house, so he just asked whoever came to open the door.
After a brief startled pause, the woman curved her eyes again and said, “Ah, that’s my dad.”
Xie Wen: “Your dad?”
The woman: “That’s right.”
Xie Wen nodded but didn’t speak. It wasn’t clear what he was thinking, and several seconds passed before he said to the woman, “You truly do look somewhat similar to him. Your dad also has a mole in the same spot.”
The woman laughed, seemingly very happy to hear that. “Everyone says that I look really similar to his younger self, as if we were cast from the same mold.”
She stepped to the side and said amicably, “Come in and sit for a while, it’s been a long time since there’s been any guests. Are you all looking for him?”
Xie Wen gazed at the path that she had made for them and said, “Is he here as well?”
The woman said, “No, neither of my parents live here.”
Xie Wen nodded.
“Come on in! It’s raining, don’t just stand there outside,” she said again.
Only then did Xie Wen step into the house.
Wen Shi also entered, but after doing so, he shot a glance behind him at Lao Mao and Xia Qiao.
Even though Wen Shi didn’t say anything, Xia Qiao still sensed that there was something a little bit off with the atmosphere.
Lao Mao patted Xia Qiao and indicated for him to move back a little. “The doorway is narrow, so we have to enter one at a time.”
This was actually a relatively ordinary statement. However, Xia Qiao continued to have a strange feeling about all of this.
“Uncle Lao Mao, am I just being too sensitive? Do you guys really know the person who lives here?”
“We do.” Taking advantage of the fact that he still hadn’t walked through the doorway yet, Lao Mao lifted his chin towards the woman in the house. “I even know her name. It’s Lu Wenjuan.”
His voice was calm and unfazed. Slightly reassured, Xia Qiao felt like he was probably just starting to become a paranoid overthinker after entering several cages in a row.
He exhaled deeply and struck up a bit of small talk as a means of alleviating the flash of fear that had raced through him earlier. “Oh, well, as long as you know her. But it seems like she hasn’t met either of you before—did she not live with her parents in the past?”
Lao Mao said, “Correct.”
“And you still know her name?” Xia Qiao said, “Did her parents mention it?”
Lao Mao: “Actually, no.”
Xia Qiao: “Oh.”
Then Lao Mao spoke again. “It was on a grave.”
- 乌鸦嘴 – literally crow’s mouth/beak. Refers to someone who says things that might be perceived as unlucky, “don’t jinx me” type of thing. ^
- I was very unsatisfied with my previous translation of 姑奶奶 (haughty grandma) so from here on out, it will be some variation of Her Great Ladyship/Great Lady or haughty (woman). It’s meant to be an ironic form of address for someone who’s quite arrogant and enjoys acting superior. Revisions have been made to past chapters as well. ^