Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
This desolate village was never tranquil at night.
According to Lu Wenjuan, the visitors who mistakenly entered this place would grow increasingly odd after being here for a few days. They became impulsive, easily angered, irritable, resentful—as if this piece of land was capable of drawing out everything concealed deep within their hearts.
That didn’t particularly surprise Wen Shi and the others. After all, enough huigu could spawn here to cover the entire village, so it was much more troublesome than a cage vortex.
Lu Wenjuan also told them that visitors usually encountered misfortune at night. She once witnessed a woman rush out of the house like she was possessed during a night with a torrential downpour; the woman was utterly unstoppable.
“What was the result?”
“You’ve seen what it looks like outside, right?” Lu Wenjuan said. “Every time it rains, not only do those things crawl out of the ground, everything outside also becomes like a mirror. The result was that she rushed outside and never came back again.”
It was like a mirror because it was a dead zone. As for why the woman ran outside as if bewitched—it was likely related to the heart demons.
So from that point on, Lu Wenjuan started giving dumpling water to every person who accidentally made their way here. She would add medication to the liquid to help them sleep a bit more deeply.
“No matter what, it’s better than dying without an intact body or disappearing obscurely from this world,” Lu Wenjuan said.
Unfortunately, even though her original intentions were good, her meticulously prepared dumpling water had no effect on Wen Shi and the others. They still woke up, and they were still ensnared by the heart demons, just as they were meant to all along.
So as nightfall approached, the group began to fret—
Dividing up the rooms was a problem.
There were four rooms upstairs in Lu Wenjuan’s house. Great Lady Zhang was inevitably going to monopolize one of them, and nobody dared to share a room with her. It was very likely that the village chief was going to take Zhou Xu away and turn him into an offering, so as his senior, Zhang Yalin needed to keep an eye on him, which meant that they would be in the same room.
It should’ve been easy to split up the remaining four people as well. As “brothers,” Wen Shi and Xia Qiao would’ve shared a room, and Xie Wen and Lao Mao would’ve taken the last one. It made complete sense.
Yet Xia Qiao just had to turn into a traitor at the most critical moment: he insisted on sleeping with Lao Mao.
Wen Shi stared at him and bit out, “Reason.”
Xia Qiao was justifiably terrified. “Ge, you know that I’m easily trapped by the heart demons, and based on my experience from yesterday night, my heart demons also have something to do with you. If I open my eyes and see many different versions of you lying next to me…”
After conjuring up that frightening scene in his mind, he said seriously, “I’ll probably expire on the spot.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Xia Qiao: “Even if I don’t expire, I’m capable of doing anything when I’m scared out of my mind. And I also tend to black out, so I don’t know if I’d end up doing something physical or not with my fists. Things could go really badly if I can’t tell who’s who.”
That was indeed really bad.
Because the best way to deal with something like a heart demon was to disperse it immediately, as soon as it appeared. If you were the slightest bit hesitant or softhearted, you would likely never be able to escape again. The longer the heart demon lasted, the harder it became to distinguish between illusion and reality.
It had nothing to do with being weak or strong. Even Wen Shi was a bit afraid of this sort of thing.
After all, the heart was the most difficult thing to control, and nobody wanted to lose their mind.
So Wen Shi had no way of refuting Xia Qiao’s reasoning, but that didn’t mean Wen Shi didn’t want to hit him.
Then that idiot spoke again. “Thankfully you don’t have any heart demons, ge, which means you don’t need to avoid anything. It looks like Boss Xie is also unaffected, so it’s perfect if the two of you share a room.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Time in the cage continued to pass in intermittent spurts of speed. In the blink of an eye, it was the middle of the night.
Rain cascaded down outside. The people in the other rooms had already unwittingly fallen asleep; even Zhou Xu, who was connected to the mountain god, had started snoring away evenly. Perhaps it was because of Lu Wenjuan’s dumpling water, or perhaps it was just a nightly side effect specific to this village.
Everyone was caught up in their dreams…
Except for Wen Shi and Xie Wen.
They were in the room furthest in the corner of the second floor. One person stood next to the old-fashioned carved window, while the other person leaned against the bed frame, arms crossed… practicing meditation.
An unbreakable silence blanketed the room, like a soundless standoff.
The rain drummed at an angle against the blurry glass of the window, and the damp smell of mud seeped in through the cracks of the wooden frame. Wen Shi glanced outside, but the only thing he saw was a mirrored reflection of the room.
Xie Wen’s eyes were half-lowered. He seemed to be looking at Wen Shi, but at the same time, he simply seemed to be looking at some point in the distance.
Condensation coated the glass, so it was hard for Wen Shi to tell.
Wen Shi narrowed his eyes. Then he heard Xie Wen say, “If you’re tired, why don’t you go to sleep?”
He was indeed tired. His eyelids were growing heavy, and he was lethargically forcing himself to stay awake, which was why he barely even thought about his reply before he said it out loud. “Don’t you know why.”
Xie Wen looked briefly startled.
Only then did Wen Shi realize what he had just said.
Earlier that afternoon, Xia Qiao said that there was no need to avoid anything if you didn’t have heart demons. But thanks to his retort just now, Wen Shi had essentially exposed himself. If Xie Wen pressed him a little more, all those hidden things would be revealed and left utterly defenseless.
That truly wasn’t something he would’ve normally said.
He could only blame this cage for being too unusual, to the point of making people behave oddly. Or maybe it was the impulsiveness of exhaustion at play, causing a bit of his true feelings to leak out.
As soon as he said it, he regretted it.
Because some things were just like this in the world. An unspoken mutual understanding might still exist if the façade wasn’t destroyed, but once the guise came crumbling down, perhaps even that “unspoken mutual understanding” would end up merely being a mirage.
Wen Shi averted his gaze and furrowed his brows. Right as he was about to change the subject, he noticed through the window that Xie Wen’s reaction was somewhat strange.
When he heard Wen Shi’s response, a glimmer of hesitation flashed through his eyes, and they seemed to flicker to the side quickly. It wasn’t clear what he was looking at.
Wen Shi glanced at the same place; nothing was there.
By the time he redirected his gaze again, Xie Wen was already right next to him.
He had arrived in complete silence. Wen Shi’s breath caught in his throat, and the lines of his neck drew taut.
For a moment, Wen Shi thought that he had been ensnared by a heart demon again, and he subconsciously shot a look at the area next to the bed frame.
Nobody was there.
This should be the real Xie Wen.
But this Xie Wen was indeed a little abnormal. To put it more accurately, ever since night fell and no one else was around them anymore, he had started acting rather differently compared to the way he was during the day. He grew particularly quiet, and he would frequently appear to be lost in thought for long periods of time; who knew what was occupying his mind.
When Wen Shi occasionally spoke, it would always take Xie Wen a few seconds to answer. Maybe he was tired, or maybe it was something else…
Even Wen Shi wasn’t too certain anymore.
Staring at the person in front of him, he said lowly, “Xie Wen?”
Xie Wen didn’t respond immediately. Instead, he raised his hand and touched Wen Shi’s shoulder, the side closer to the window crevices. The fabric of his shirt was a bit damp since it had soaked in some of the condensation from the glass.
Wen Shi opened his mouth slightly, but he didn’t speak, because Xie Wen was standing much too close—close to the point where Wen Shi’s gaze would sweep across the other person’s lips and the bridge of his nose if he so much as looked up.
Xie Wen rubbed his damp fingertips together before he glanced at the heavy rain falling outside. Then he suddenly said, “Call my name again.”
This scene nearly overlapped with that chaotic dream from so many years ago. The only thing missing was the puppet string tangled around Wen Shi’s fingers.
After quite a while, Wen Shi finally spoke. “Xie Wen.”
His voice melded into the sound of the rain, low and quiet.
Xie Wen’s deep black eyes blinked once, and the faint hesitation from earlier vanished at last. He nodded, as if he had finally confirmed something.
Something seemed to occur to Wen Shi upon seeing Xie Wen’s reaction, and he cast an abrupt glance at a certain empty spot in the room. That was where Xie Wen kept looking earlier when his mind was wandering.
A conjecture suddenly formed in his mind. Even though he felt like the probability of it being true was very low, he still couldn’t resist testing it out. “Is there a person over there?”
But Xie Wen merely laughed softly and said, “You’re trying to trick me.”
He took a step to the side, his expression and tone of voice already back to normal. Everything that just transpired was like an inadvertent figment of the imagination, fleeting and short-lived.
Wen Shi stared at him. “Then what were you doing just now?”
Xie Wen went silent for a moment before he said, “You were acting a little different from usual, so I was checking something.”
Were you checking if I had entered an illusion, or were you checking if you had?
This cage really did cause people to become reckless: Wen Shi almost ended up directly asking that question out loud. Luckily, a noise suddenly came from elsewhere on the second floor before he could do so.
It seemed like some kind of rack had toppled over. The sound of copper basins clattering against each other rang through the air, shockingly abrupt in the middle of the night.
“That should be from next door.” Xie Wen flicked his gaze up in the direction of the noise.
Wen Shi’s heavy drowsiness disintegrated completely due to the crash. His expression went cold, and he reached out to open the door.
A blast of clammy humidity assailed him.
The corridor was drenched in rain, and it reflected their shadows. Wen Shi strode over to the neighboring room and knocked firmly on the door.
Zhou Xu and Zhang Yalin were in this room, so the sound just now truly didn’t bode well.
Zhang Lan also emerged with a jacket draped around her shoulders. She didn’t have any makeup on at the moment, and there was an aura of unexpected tranquility about her because of her bare face and long unbound hair.
Unfortunately, that aura evaporated the instant she opened her mouth. “Forget about those petty manners! What’s the point of knocking, just kick it open!”
It was her own brother’s room; of course she didn’t need to be reasonable.
But Wen Shi was only knocking for the sake of knocking, an act of instinctive courtesy. As she spoke, his puppet string had already latched onto the door and was forcefully dragging it open.
When the door opened, Zhang Yalin was standing behind it with an ugly expression on his face. Judging from his stance, it seemed as if he was also about to open it.
“Xiao Xu is gone!” He spoke before anyone could ask him anything.
“Say that one more time?” Zhang Lan pointed at him. She wasn’t any less imposing without her heavy makeup. “He was sleeping in the same room as you, yet you actually lost him?”
Zhang Yalin massaged his temples; it wasn’t clear if he was more dismayed or angry. He extended his left hand, displaying the white cotton thread wrapped neatly and beautifully around his fingers. One of the strands was longer than the rest and dangled down, nearly trailing onto the floor.
“I tied puppet string to him,” Zhang Yalin said as he pointed into the room. “Six puppets were sitting side by side on the edge of the bed, including Xiao Hei.”
By this point, Wen Shi’s brows were already tightly knitted together.
If Zhou Xu’s previous bragging wasn’t too much of an exaggeration, Zhang Yalin should—by all means—be an extremely skilled puppet master. At the very least, he should be among the best of the current generation of panguan.
On top of that, puppet string was also extremely sensitive. If Zhang Yalin really did tie his string to Zhou Xu, he would’ve inevitably noticed if someone came to kidnap the other person. There was no way he would’ve allowed Zhou Xu to vanish like that.
“What did your puppets say?” Zhang Lan asked.
An awkward look flashed across Zhang Yalin’s face. He rubbed his face and said lowly, “They fell asleep.”
“They what?” Zhang Lan’s voice went up an entire octave.
Xiao Hei took the lead and apologized in a serious tone. “I’m sorry, we somehow ended up falling asleep.”
Zhang Lan’s expression darkened. On the other hand, Wen Shi and Xie Wen weren’t surprised in the slightest.
After all, Xia Qiao and Lao Mao had both fallen asleep as well. This was an issue with the cage, not the puppets.
“So your puppets fell asleep and didn’t keep an eye on him. Your puppet string was tied to him, but you still didn’t notice anything happening,” Xie Wen summarized, causing Zhang Yalin to flush red. “In that case, how did he disappear?”