Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
“Come drink some soup, it’ll help with digestion.” Lu Wenjuan chattered away as she gave each of them a bowl filled with dumpling water.
She kept herself busy and went to get a cleaning rag after ladling out the soup. The sound of rushing water soon traveled over from the kitchen. Once she was done wringing out the rag, she began scrubbing forcefully at the stove.
This place still used the most old-fashioned type of earthen stove. Two massive iron woks were stacked on it, and a kettle for boiling water was placed in the little round hole in the center. She picked up a bamboo cleaning brush and used the water in the woks to scour away the flour and pieces of dumpling skin stuck to the edge of the pots.
That water was clearly boiled recently, yet she submerged her entire hand into it, totally oblivious to the heat.
There was a window in the kitchen that faced the gathering hall. Matchboxes, empty cans, and a bunch of other miscellaneous items were piled on the windowsill; the glass itself was also covered in a layer of dust.
Her head was lowered as she immersed herself in her cleaning, but her eyeballs were rolled to the very corner of their sockets. From that position, she directed her gaze through the window and continued to stare silently at the people in the gathering hall.
Almost as if she was waiting for them to drink those bowls of soup.
Xia Qiao was still slightly traumatized by the axe from the TV show, and he was extremely afraid that his head would be chopped off if he didn’t eat or drink something. Without further ado, he picked up his bowl and began guzzling down the dumpling water.
However, after just two mouthfuls, he quickly discovered that the entire table was looking at him. Wen Shi was the closest to him, and his hand was half-raised in the air, as if he was about to stop Xia Qiao but didn’t make it in time.
Xia Qiao swallowed the soup in his mouth with a gulp. “…Why are you all looking at me?”
Wen Shi pointed at the bowl in his hand. “This wasn’t in the TV show earlier.”
Meaning: nobody knew what kind of fate awaited you if you drank all of it.
Xia Qiao: “…”
He finally realized belatedly what was going on, though an ordinary person would’ve already been done for by the time he knew to panic.
Xia Qiao stared at his bowl, which only had one mouthful of soup remaining in it, and asked faintly, “Is it too late to force myself to throw up?”
“Why would you do that? You’re a little puppet.” Lao Mao’s thunder was stolen by that brat, and he picked up his own bowl irritably before he also took a big gulp from it.
Thanks to his reminder, understanding suddenly dawned on Xia Qiao. That’s right! It’s not like I’m human, so why should I be scared of that soup?
He remembered what Wen Shi had told him before: it was extremely difficult for a puppet to be affected by anything in a cage. They wouldn’t be possessed easily, nor would they be rendered unconscious. Nothing would ever happen to them unless their heart was pierced, resulting in instant withering.
After understanding that, Xia Qiao immediately grew bolder, and he drained the rest of the soup in one go. Then a thought seemed to occur to him, and he asked, “Uncle Lao Mao, I can drink it since I’m a puppet, but why are you also drinking it so brazenly?”
Lao Mao choked on the spot, causing dumpling water to spray out of his mouth.
Fortunately, he averted his head just in time, so he didn’t ruin the entire table…
Instead, he only ruined a single shirt—once he was done coughing his lungs out, he opened his eyes and was greeted promptly by the sight of a damp black T-shirt. When he looked up to see the owner of the shirt, he was met with Wen Shi’s chilly expression.
My life is so hard…
Lao Mao thought to himself.
Wen Shi glowered at the spray bottle that was Lao Mao the same way he used to torment a certain bird back in the day. As Lao Mao rubbed his head sheepishly, Wen Shi finally recalled their former camaraderie together, established by his feather-stroking tendencies.
In the end, this was the bird that he had raised, so what could he really do?
Wen Shi silently withdrew his gaze while Lao Mao explained to Xia Qiao, “If there truly was a problem with the soup, you’d react at least a little bit, yet you’re sitting here completely unaffected. What do I have to be afraid of?”
In the olden days, Lao Mao would even dare to deceive his own master with Wen Shi’s support. His slip-up earlier was merely a moment of carelessness, and he proceeded to calmly fool Xia Qiao now without batting an eye. The look on his face matched too: it said, “I can’t believe you asked something backed by such simple logic.”
Perhaps out of respect for those older than him, Xia Qiao actually nodded and believed Lao Mao.
Wen Shi couldn’t bear to keep watching. He drew the collar of his shirt away from him and flapped it briefly in an attempt to avoid having the wet fabric stick to his skin. Then, he picked up his bowl and downed the dumpling water in it.
Judging from Xia Qiao’s appearance, it was clear that there was nothing wrong with the soup. Even if there was, the substance would be at the level of a narcotic, at best.
Things like that didn’t really have a major effect on Wen Shi either. His soul was incomplete, after all, and he was neither dead nor alive, so he also didn’t count as an ordinary human. And if his soul was complete, he would be in peak condition, meaning that it would be even more unlikely for a bowl of soup to knock him out.
Sure enough, Xia Qiao yawned and said, “I actually felt a tiny bit dazed just now, but that only lasted for a second. It disappeared once I finished yawning.”
Lao Mao went so far as to put on the pretense of complaining. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
That made Xia Qiao quite embarrassed. “I’ll try to react faster next time.”
“It’s too late.” Xie Wen tapped the empty bowl in front of him and said half-jokingly, “We already drank it all.”
“Then what do we do?” Xia Qiao was very alarmed.
“If we really do end up passing out eventually—” Xie Wen tilted his head towards Wen Shi and said, “Don’t run away, thinking only about yourself.”
Wen Shi looked up at him. “Would you pass out?”
Xie Wen let out a laugh. “It’s hard to say.”
The meaning of that was ambiguous. Maybe he was just putting on an act like Lao Mao, purely for the sake of teasing Wen Shi. Or maybe he was trying to say that he was in so-so condition, and he wasn’t sure if he would be affected or not.
Lu Wenjuan bustled around the kitchen until the four of them had all finished their dumpling soup. Finally, she picked up her cleaning rag and returned to the gathering hall.
“Leave the dishes there, I’ll clean them up.” As she spoke, she stacked the bowls and plates on top of each other before she began scrubbing the table in circular motions with the wet rag. “Just lean back and rest a bit. Nobody wants to move after eating.”
After wiping for quite a while, she felt like enough time had passed, so she looked up and scanned the people sitting around the table with her pitch-black eyes. In a soft voice, she asked, “Are you all… getting sleepy?”
Wen Shi answered bluntly, “No.”
Lu Wenjuan: “…”
She seemed to be a bit perplexed. Letting out an “oh,” she continued to scrub at the table using the same circular motions as before. Forget about drinking the soup—just watching her movements for a long time was enough to make the eyelids grow heavy.
She wiped until her hand started to feel sore. Then she raised her head and asked again, “Sleepy yet?”
Xie Wen responded this time. “It’s not too bad, we can hang in there a little longer.”
Lu Wenjuan: “…”
Why do you have to “hang in there” if you’re sleepy???
She crumbled a little.
But luckily, Xie Wen’s head was propped up on his hand, and there was also a sickly air about him. When his eyes were half-lowered, he really did look like he needed to rest soon. Some hope rekindled in Lu Wenjuan, and she thought to herself that it shouldn’t be much longer.
After she rubbed the table in countless circles, Xie Wen shifted at last.
Finally giving in?
Lu Wenjuan lifted her head, filled with hope. Except then Xie Wen tapped the corner of the table with a long index finger and said, “All the paint’s going to be scrubbed off.”
And Lu Wenjuan was going to cry from all the scrubbing.
Right as she was gripping the cleaning rag, wondering if she should go wash it and try again, one of the guests finally yawned.
The person who yawned was Lao Mao. This was because Xia Qiao kept shooting him strange looks, causing Lao Mao to remember his “ordinary employee” persona.
Lu Wenjuan immediately revealed a liberated expression, and she hung the cleaning rag on the side of the table before she picked up the plates and said, “Sleepy, yes? The rooms are upstairs, I’ll show you the way as soon as I put the plates in the back.”
There was a balcony on the second floor. Several wooden racks were set up on it, used for drying clothes and blankets. Beyond that were four side-by-side rooms.
Lu Wenjuan said, “When there are guests, they stay here.”
“Guests?” Wen Shi frowned. “Did you have guests in the past as well?”
“Certainly,” Lu Wenjuan said.
“Where are they now?”
“They were sent off.”
Wen Shi: “In what way?”
Lu Wenjuan laughed before she turned her head and said, “I’m heading back downstairs now, the plates are still sitting there.”
That evasive laugh of hers spoke volumes; it was best not to think about it too deeply.
They couldn’t rashly make too much of a disturbance since they had just arrived here, so Wen Shi didn’t bother getting to the bottom of the matter right away. Instead, he lifted his shirt collar and changed the subject. “Where’s the shower? I want to change my clothes.”
But then Lu Wenjuan waved her hand and said, “No showering.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Lu Wenjuan repeated, “We don’t shower here.”
It was true that the deceased didn’t need to shower, but it was truly rather rare to see a dead person admit it so openly.
Upon seeing everyone’s furrowed brows, she added, “Showering is useless—it’s useless.”
As if her mind had suddenly wandered far away from her, she muttered the same thing over and over for quite a while before snapping out of it. “We have a tradition in the village called the Great Cleanse. It takes place every so often, but we also hold the ceremony whenever there are guests. There just happens to be a Great Cleanse happening tomorrow, you all came at an excellent time.”
Xie Wen: “What’s the purpose of this Great Cleanse?”
Lu Wenjuan said, “To welcome guests and to wash away the dust of their travels.”
That reasoning was still somewhat acceptable, until she said immediately after, “It’s very dirty out there.”
Wen Shi: “Dirty? What do you mean?”
Lu Wenjuan contemplated briefly and said, “It just means—it’s dirty. It’s something we say in the village, similar to how we believe it’s hard to bear the weight of a grand name, and how it’s easier to raise someone with an unrefined name. We’ve always said it that way.”
Judging from her expression, it was likely that she genuinely didn’t know the reason why they said that. As a result, it was also clear that she probably wasn’t the cage master.
“Oh my, look at me, forcing you all to chat with me.” Lu Wenjuan admonished herself before she urged, “Hurry up and head to bed if you’re tired. This village of ours is too remote, and it’s quiet at night. It’s best if you sleep uninterrupted till dawn.”
With that, she began making her way hastily towards the staircase.
“What if you can’t stay asleep until dawn?” Xia Qiao couldn’t help but ask.
Lu Wenjuan came to an abrupt stop. After a few seconds, she slowly turned her head towards him before she tilted it to the side and said in an extremely soft voice, “You’ll be scared.”
Then she vanished downstairs.
Precisely because of that, Xia Qiao wished in vain that he could pour a sleeping potion down his throat. Unfortunately, with his constitution, sleeping potions weren’t effective even if he were to drink them like water.
Consequently, he started pondering what his best course of action was in order to get through the night without feeling scared. “Maybe we should… squeeze together?”
“How do we do that?” Lao Mao asked.
Xia Qiao stretched his head over the line marking the risk of getting thrashed. “Just by… sleeping together?”
Wen Shi was standing right behind him, in the middle of searching through his open backpack for a clean T-shirt. He wanted to change out of his current shirt, the one that Lao Mao had sprayed water all over.
Upon hearing that, he paused and subconsciously looked up, only to coincidentally meet Xie Wen’s eyes.
He instantly flicked his gaze away and pulled a white shirt out of his backpack as Lao Mao said to Xia Qiao kindly, “No, sleep by yourself.”
Xia Qiao entered one of the rooms in tears. His mind was made up: he was going to hide under the blanket and keep his eyes closed until the very end of the night. No matter what he encountered, he wasn’t going to leave the cover of his blanket—but unluckily for him, things didn’t go as planned…
For a while, Xia Qiao really was in a state of half-consciousness, though it wasn’t because of the dumpling water; it was more the result of his own self-hypnotism. Huddled deep under his blankets, he was nearly asleep when he was woken up by something.
In the silence of the night, he heard a thumping noise.
It sounded like a heavy object being slammed down.
A few seconds later, there was another thump.
Xia Qiao’s eyes shot open as he listened carefully, curled in the darkness of his blanket, frozen in place. But after listening for a while, he felt his scalp crawl—
Because that noise was coming from under his bed.
He could even sense the jolt that went through the bed frame with every thump, as if there was something jumping underneath the bed.
This was an old-fashioned type of bed: three sides were fenced off, and wooden steps lined the remaining side. The bottom of the bed was solidly sealed all around like a wooden chest. Unless the entire bed was lifted up, it was impossible to see what was under it.
Thump—when the noise rang out again for the fourth time, Xia Qiao immediately rolled off the bed, still wrapped in his blanket.
He didn’t dare to shoot a single glance at the bed as he rushed straight towards the door. Except as soon as he opened it, he saw someone standing outside his room.
At that moment, he almost stopped breathing entirely.
A second passed before he let out a long, shaky exhale—because the person standing outside was his ge.
“You scared me to death, ge.” Xia Qiao was hanging on by a mere thread. “Why are you just standing here?”
“I came to take a look.” Wen Shi said, “Did you hear a noise?”
Xia Qiao nodded furiously as he scurried behind his ge and gripped onto his shirt tightly. Pointing at the bed inside the room, he said, “I did, it was coming from under my bed!”
“Do you know what that noise is?” Wen Shi questioned Xia Qiao, turning his head.
Perhaps the moonlight was too ashen. It made his already pale face seem completely colorless, even lifeless, and Xia Qiao inexplicably felt a bit scared at the sight of it.
“W-what is it?” Xia Qiao asked in a quivering voice.
Wen Shi’s beautiful ink-black eyes stared at him unwaveringly. “My head…”
Then he leaned his head to the side, causing his neck to separate entirely from his body as his head dropped towards the ground.
Xia Qiao’s first instinct was to catch it. Immediately after, he let out a scream.
Wen Shi opened his eyes amidst ghastly shrieking. As soon as he did so, the sound disappeared altogether, as if it was merely a figment of his dream.
There weren’t any noises coming from underneath his own bed, but there was someone standing right next to him…
The rural village was very quiet, the moonlight a hazy shroud. A bird would occasionally startle in the dead of night, and it would flap its wings a few times before landing back in the shade of the tree.
In the deep darkness of the night, Xie Wen stood next to the bed, hands lowered at his side as he watched Wen Shi with unreadable and unfathomable eyes.
Something jolted in Wen Shi’s chest. For a split second, that scene nearly entranced him, but he simply closed his eyes instead. When he opened them again, puppet string was already tangled around his fingers.
It’s not real, he thought to himself.
He flipped upright so that he was standing directly across from Xie Wen.
There wasn’t a lot of space in the room; they were almost close enough to touch each other.
Long and slender thread was drawn tight between Wen Shi’s fingers. Lips pressed together, he looked at Xie Wen without saying a single word. He seemed to be on the verge of striking out with the string, yet he still didn’t move even after some time had passed.
“Why are you unleashing your puppet string at me?” Xie Wen said.
There was no need for Wen Shi to answer an illusory existence. He tightened his mouth and fell into a brief silence, but he eventually ended up responding anyway. “When faced with an unknown creature—what else can I do, besides unleash my puppet string?”
His voice was extremely cold and taut, and his body was braced in a defensive position.
Xie Wen laughed.
Wen Shi’s brows furrowed together. The puppet string around his fingers exerted an invisible pressure outwards, almost whipping up a gale out of nowhere.
“Don’t you know what I am?” Xie Wen said.
Wen Shi didn’t say anything.
As the wind grew more and more violent, the securely closed door and windows creaked and clattered. Everything in the room was scattered across the ground in utter disarray, but that Xie Wen wasn’t torn apart or dispersed, nor did he reveal an “original form.”
It was as if all of Wen Shi’s sharp, bristling edges were completely ineffective against him.
He simply stood in the middle of the whirlwind and looked at Wen Shi, the barest distance separating them.
After a long moment, he reached out and caressed Wen Shi’s puppet string, strand by strand. With every caress, the line of Wen Shi’s neck grew more and more rigid.
Then he clasped his hand around Wen Shi’s wrist. As he lifted it into the air, he lowered his head slightly, causing the puppet string to brush narrowly against the edge of his lips.
Wen Shi’s eyes trembled, and he clenched his fingers into a fist as he heard the other person say, “I think you know.”