Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Of course he knew…
It was nothing but his foolish delusions projected onto reality: a heart demon1, that was all.
Wen Shi moved back, pulling his wrist out of the other person’s grasp.
This wasn’t the same as those uncontrollable dreams he used to have when he was nineteen or twenty years old. Those dreams took on an increasing degree of muddled absurdity the more he tried to repress his emotions, but he was actually clear-headed at the current moment. He knew very well what was real and what wasn’t.
As long as his puppet string was completely on the offensive, he would be able to rip the illusion before him to shreds. Despite knowing that, he still ended up hesitating for a second.
It was precisely this hesitation that allowed Xie Wen to stand utterly unharmed amidst the wind whipped up by the puppet string, a mere breath away from Wen Shi.
See? It didn’t matter if this was real or fake; in front of this person, the pretense he put up first was always one of false bravado.
Wen Shi closed his eyes and drew his fingers back slightly.
The breaths falling on the puppet string and the side of his neck were no longer quite so defined, and the sensation of Xie Wen’s presence was no longer quite so intense. It finally started to grow weaker, as if it was all slowly fading into the distance.
He tightened the thread around his fingers once more. Then, he wrenched the strands taut.
The sound of the wind sharpened abruptly into a piercing whistle as countless cold, sharp invisible blades scythed through the gale.
His eyes were still shut, but he could tell that the things around him were disappearing. Upon walking forward, he found that his path was now unobstructed. A few lingering traces of the illusion swept past his sides, like the damp mist at dawn…
Sure enough, none of it was real.
The noise that Xia Qiao was making next door—all his crying and sobbing—finally filtered back in.
Wen Shi opened his eyes while tidying his puppet string. Once he was finished, he reached for the door, only to come in contact with an expanse of warmth. That was someone’s waist, which tightened the instant he accidentally touched it; the heat of that person’s body seeped through the fabric of their shirt.
Wen Shi looked up and saw the person who was just in his illusion.
He froze on the spot. For a few short seconds, he almost couldn’t tell if he had truly cast off the heart demon or not.
Xie Wen was standing next to the door, gaze focused on the fingers pressed against his waist, eyes swept slightly downward. He also seemed to be in a momentary trance.
They only snapped out of it when the sound of another collision traveled over from the neighboring room.
This time, it was real.
Wen Shi jerked his hand back swiftly. The snow-white thread wrapped around his fingers dangled down in varying lengths.
“When did you get here?” He actually wanted to ask “why are you here,” but the question changed course as it came out of his mouth.
A faint wrinkle appeared between his brows, and he subconsciously glanced behind himself to confirm that the illusion had already vanished entirely. Then he looked at Xie Wen.
Xie Wen was also retracting his gaze from the same exact spot in the room.
His eyes swept across Wen Shi’s neck and halted there briefly before flitting away. “Just now.
“I heard a noise come from this side.” He pointed at Wen Shi’s end of the hallway, which included Xia Qiao’s room. Because his actions were too natural, it was hard to tell if the shift in his line of sight earlier was a subconscious avoidance, or if he was simply looking in a different direction.
“I’ll check it out.” Wen Shi slanted his body to the side and exited the room, striding towards Xia Qiao immediately after.
Xie Wen had turned on the old-fashioned light in the corridor at some point, and it cast a reflection in the windows. Wen Shi’s figure was clearly mirrored within them.
He appeared to be calm and pale, just like usual, and his lips were level and straight, making him seem somewhat cold. But because of what happened with his puppet string in the illusion, a residual flush still colored his neck—a stretch of light red that contrasted noticeably with the fairness of his skin.
When Xia Qiao first saw his ge, his reaction was even stronger than it would’ve been if he’d seen a ghost. He scrambled backwards until his back was pressed against the wall in the corridor. With nowhere left to retreat to, he said tearfully, “Ge, I’m begging you, don’t scare me again. I have to pee, really.”
Wen Shi crouched down and stared speechlessly at the shaking curled shrimp that was Xia Qiao. He began debating if it was faster to smack him awake or if it was more effective to splash water onto him.
“How did your ge scare you? Let me hear it.” Xie Wen also walked over, and he leaned forward to ask his question.
Once Xia Qiao saw Xie Wen and heard him speak, he finally lowered his arms hesitantly.
That idiot cautiously extended his hand and poked Wen Shi. He wanted to poke Xie Wen too, but he chickened out in the middle and pulled his hand back so he could pinch himself firmly on the arm.
He sucked in a breath through his teeth before he asked, “Are you guys real?”
“Of course?” Wen Shi said.
“Oh my goodness.” A wail immediately left Xia Qiao’s mouth. “You’re finally real. That scared me to death, ge, you scared me to death!”
“What did you see?” Wen Shi asked with a frown.
“I saw your head fall off, and I even caught it. There was blood everywhere,” Xia Qiao said in between sobs. “I also saw a swamp, which you instantly jumped into, and then you started crawling towards me, covered in blood again. And I saw my bed turn into a coffin! Someone was banging against the inside of it, and when the bed frame was lifted up, you sat up inside the coffin.”
Wen Shi: “…”
A whole bunch of stuff came out of Xia Qiao’s mouth, but in short, it was basically a retelling of the countless times his ge had died and revived. His ge went completely expressionless upon hearing it, and a chilly aura radiated off of him.
“What exactly do you think about on a daily basis?” Wen Shi questioned him.
Feeling wronged, Xia Qiao said, “Nothing like that, I just have nightmares sometimes.
“So what was that? Why did I see that sort of thing?” Xia Qiao asked.
Wen Shi: “A heart demon.”
Xia Qiao grew even more terrified. He hastily waved his hands and said, “But I’ve never wished for anything bad to happen to you.”
Wen Shi paused for a moment. “That’s not what it means.”
In a measured voice, Xie Wen explained to Xia Qiao, “Heart demons come in many forms, from a place deep in your heart. It could be the one thing that you can’t let go of, the one thing you’re most afraid of, or it could be something that you want but can’t have.”
He fell briefly quiet before he added, “Desires born from attachment, aversion, and ignorance—all are possible.”
Xia Qiao mulled over it. “Isn’t that pretty similar to a cage?”
Xie Wen said, “A bit, perhaps. The origin is about the same.”
Xia Qiao was covered in cold sweat, and he was still a little traumatized. As he picked up his shirt and flapped it a few times, he said, “Oh, then I was probably afraid that my ge would be in danger going in and out of cages… But why did I see a heart demon when I was supposed to be sleeping? Is it that easy to encounter a heart demon?”
“Not particularly,” Xie Wen said.
Especially since Xia Qiao was a puppet, which meant that it was even more difficult for him to see one.
“Could it be because of the dumplings and the soup?” Xia Qiao said.
“It’s possible.” Although Xie Wen didn’t rule it out, he did note, “It’s also possible that something’s a little wrong with the cage itself.”
After this short conversation, Xia Qiao had already improved greatly. He nodded before he asked with concern, “What about you two? Did you also run into any heart demons earlier?”
Another silence descended over the hallway.
Wen Shi straightened upright. At his sides, his fingers kneaded his knuckles and produced cracking noises. Right in front of a certain heart demon, he flatly denied, “No.”
Xia Qiao let out an “oh” and mumbled to himself, “I’m just too much of a noob.”
Fortunately, Lao Mao was able to provide him some comfort, despite arriving late.
Xia Qiao asked, “Uncle Lao Mao, did you see a heart demon just now?”
Lao Mao glanced at Xie Wen before he nodded and said, “Uh-huh, I did.”
“Was it scary?” Xia Qiao asked.
Lao Mao said, “It was quite complicated.”
Even though his response was a bit perfunctory, Xia Qiao felt a lot better after hearing it.
Now that they were all awake, they decided to give up on going back to sleep. They went downstairs and made a few laps around the house, but they never once saw Lu Wenjuan.
There were four bedrooms upstairs. The room with the television was on the right side of the first floor; the gathering hall and the dining table were in the middle; a storage room was on the left; and there was a kitchen connected at the back. There wasn’t any place for Lu Wenjuan to sleep.
Since there was a metaphor hidden in the show earlier, Wen Shi instructed Xia Qiao to turn on the TV again.
On the first channel, characters draped in loose robes and wide sleeves were still crooning away, in the middle of performing some unknown opera. Xia Qiao quickly switched to the second channel; as expected, it was showing a “TV drama” again.
This time, a group of people were standing in a circle around a pile of wood at the foot of a mountain. After chanting something strange and rambling, they lit the wood on fire.
A person wearing a big red robe and a mask stood at the head of the group. As that person lifted their hand, several other people were pushed into the flames.
“What are they doing?” Xia Qiao asked in alarm.
Wen Shi was staring, lost in thought, at the masked leader in red. He kept getting the impression that this figure sort of resembled a certain someone—of course, their respective auras were vastly different.
Naturally, no one could answer Xia Qiao’s question, since nobody knew what was going on, but they didn’t rush to turn off the TV this time. Instead, they patiently continued watching the show.
However, the TV screen unexpectedly flickered on its own and dissolved into static. After quite a while, it flashed back to the same group of people as before. They were still standing in a circle at the bottom of a mountain, and they performed the same exact scene again.
“This thing has cliffhangers?” Lao Mao said unhappily.
Wen Shi didn’t want to watch the same thing over and over, so he stood up from the sofa and said, “I’m going out for a bit.”
Xie Wen looked at him. “Where to?”
“The village chief’s house,” Wen Shi answered.
He was very interested in Lao Wu, the person who sent over the dumplings, and he wanted to scout around while it was dark outside. But when he pulled open Lu Wenjuan’s front door, he was greeted with the sight of a gathering hall, identical to the one inside the house. Even the wrinkles in the cleaning rag hanging from the edge of the dining table were precisely the same.
Stranger than that—there was another version of himself on the other side as well, pulling open the front door.
A draft slipped in through some crevice and swept a withered leaf in the corner of the room out the door. On the opposite side, a dead leaf also tumbled towards Wen Shi.
The two withered leaves collided and vanished.
Xia Qiao poked his head out just in time to witness that scene, and he was so shocked that he forgot how to speak. After a long moment, he rubbed his goosebumps and asked, “What’s going on here?”
“It’s exactly what you’re seeing,” Wen Shi said.
“What happens if I walk out the door?” Xia Qiao asked.
“You’ll disappear along with the other version of yourself, just like that leaf.” Xie Wen’s voice traveled over from behind him. Immediately after, he told the person next to the entrance, “Close the door and come back.”
Right as he said that, Wen Shi shut the door and locked it.
Xia Qiao: “So… what was outside?”
Wen Shi turned around and replied, “A dead zone.”
They remembered what Lu Wenjuan had said earlier: “It’s raining, you can’t leave.”
That dead zone appeared out of nowhere, but it did indeed make them stay in the house for the night.
Wen Shi went downstairs early the next morning and saw Lu Wenjuan, who was missing the entire night, walk out of the kitchen. She pointed outside the house and said, “The rain stopped, so the village is going to conduct the Great Cleanse now. You all should get ready and come with me.”
She combed through her hair with her fingers. Then she seemed to recall something and asked, “Oh right, did you sleep well last night?”
Wen Shi: “…Very well.”
Lu Wenjuan nodded and went back to meticulously combing her hair.
There was an open clearing near the village that was surrounded by trees, with numerous small trails leading to it. The forest was thick with mist, and you couldn’t see very far into the distance.
At that moment, there were already a lot of people gathered in the clearing, forming many dense circles.
Eight villagers—four men and four women—were spread out between the corners, and a pile of dried wood was stacked in the middle of their encirclement. A person wearing a big red robe and a mask stood in front of everyone else like a leader.
Several seconds later, the leader lifted his mask on his own. As he wiped away the sweat on his face, he asked the other people, “Who are we waiting for?”
Standing next to him was a middle-aged man with a round face and an old-fashioned bun. It was precisely the village chief, Lao Wu. He held a booklet in one hand and a pen in the other hand, and he scribbled something onto the pages while answering, “The people who require the Great Cleanse.”
The leader said, “And who are those people?”
Lao Wu pointed at a list of names in the booklet.
The leader looked closely at the names and read them out loud. “Gou Sheng? Er Dan? Shitou2? Um…
“What are these names?” the leader asked.
Lao Wu explained, “Those with unrefined names are easier to raise.”
“Ah.” The leader nodded before he said in frustration, “Do I have to wear this red bed sheet? It’s way too hot.”
Lao Wu’s expression was stern. “That is a divine robe.”
The leader: “…Sure, whatever you say. This village is so strange.”
Lao Wu circled and scrawled away in the booklet. Then he asked the leader, “Oh right, what’s your name?”
The leader replied subconsciously, “Zhou Xu.”
As soon as he said that, he remembered that names couldn’t be given out haphazardly, so he forcibly dragged out the last syllable and tacked an “en” onto the end.
Lao Wu checked, “Zhou Xu’en?”
The person draped in a red bed sheet was none other than Zhou Xu. Once he had finished chasing a truck of pigs with Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin—and once they had vented their anger—they finally made their way to Tianjin.
Zhang Lan threw out a whole bunch of tracing talismans and ended up concluding that the Shen disciples had entered a cage with Xie Wen. As a result, the Zhang siblings began forcefully searching for the entrance to the cage.
Maybe this cage was just a weird one, or maybe their hands shook when they were entering the cage. Regardless, the three of them were accidentally separated.
Zhou Xu fumbled blindly into the village and knocked on the door of the closest house he could find, which just so happened to be the village chief Lao Wu’s.
Something was probably a little wrong with Lao Wu’s head, because his words didn’t make much sense. The moment he saw Zhou Xu, he told him that he had a divine appearance. He also said that the village was about to hold a Great Cleanse, and they needed someone who could channel the divine to preside over it all.
Zhou Xu translated it for himself: the village was probably going to perform a shamanic ritual of some kind, but they were missing a symbol of good luck, so they latched onto him.
As a result, Lao Wu covered him with a red bed sheet and made him don a mask bright and early the next morning, after which he was brought here.
Zhou Xu wiped away more sweat and asked Lao Wu another question. “What happens after the people who need the Great Cleanse arrive? What do I have to do?”
Lao Wu said, “Pick up this banner and say: ‘May the ceremony commence.’”
“That’s it?” Zhou Xu asked.
Lao Wu nodded and pointed at the pile of wood. “That’s it. Then those people will go in there.”
He gestured at the four men and four women.
The eight of them turned and each lit a torch, which they then tossed into the wood pile, causing a fire to roar instantly into existence.
Zhou Xu: “…”
His head whipped around as he asked Lao Wu, “Tell me one more time—what’s this ceremony called again?”
Lao Wu: “The Great Cleanse.”
Zhou Xu: “Are you sure it’s ‘Great Cleanse’ and not ‘Great Burial’???”
Lao Wu was about to answer him when a clamor of noise came from the outside circles, followed soon after by the parting of the crowd. One after another, six people walked in along the path that was made for them.
As soon as Lao Wu saw them, he drew a swift circle around the list of unrefined names on the booklet and said to Zhou Xu, “They’re here, prepare to start the ceremony.”
Zhou Xu raised the banner in his hand before he looked over at the new arrivals…
And saw Wen Shi, Xie Wen, Zhang Lan, Zhang Yalin, Lao Mao, and Xia Qiao.
With a crack, Zhou Xu twisted his neck.
Lao Wu urged, “Announce that the ceremony can now commence.”
Commence, my ass.
Zhou Xu’s voice was low and muffled underneath the mask. “You can’t afford to burn three of those six people, and I can’t afford to either. Maybe you should just burn me instead.”
Lao Wu: “…”
- 心魔: literally, heart demon. It usually refers to one’s inner demons/struggles, but I found its literal translation more fitting for this novel, considering the context in which it’s used. ^
- As a reminder, Gou Sheng = leftover dog food, Er Dan = silly fool, Shitou = rock. ^