Thank you to sand.ii and Kreas for the Ko-fis!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
“I don’t know. It’s true that I didn’t sense any struggling, Xiao Xu didn’t even yell.” The color of Zhang Yalin’s skin might’ve already transformed from fair to pink, but his words were still well-organized.
“Even if someone took him away while he was asleep, they would’ve had to get close to him first. Perhaps Xiao Xu and I wouldn’t have woken up immediately, but the puppet string should’ve nonetheless inflicted harm on a stranger who was approaching for no good reason, especially considering how close they must’ve gotten to the string…”
His eyebrows furrowed deeper and deeper as he spoke. After pausing for a second, he shook his head and said, “But none of that happened. Everything was calm, which is the part I find the strangest of all.”
“What’s the reason behind that crash earlier?” Wen Shi lifted his chin in the direction of the scattered mess inside Zhang Yalin’s room.
Zhang Yalin looked back to see a wooden rack toppled across the ground, along with several basins. He started to speak, but he ended up hesitating as his expression grew even uglier.
“Say something.” Zhang Lan smacked him mercilessly. “Why are you stuttering?”
Zhang Yalin glanced at Wen Shi and then Xie Wen; he clearly didn’t want to say it in front of outsiders. Unfortunately, even the heavens were bullying him. As he was stalling, the last room’s door also slammed open.
Lao Mao dragged a weak-looking Xia Qiao out. “What’s going on? I wanted to come out sooner, but this brat was in the grip of a heart demon. He kept staring at two of the bed pillars with tears streaming down his face.”
Wen Shi: “…What did you see this time?”
Xia Qiao’s heart was still aching a little as he recalled it. “You drove me away.”
Wen Shi: “?”
He didn’t know what kind of mistreatment he was inflicting on this idiot to leave such a huge psychological shadow on him. One night he was scaring him, the next night he was chasing him away.
Usually, puppets rarely had heart demons…
Of course, puppets usually didn’t have such rich emotions either.
So Xia Qiao was truly a “remarkable” product of artistic craftsmanship.
At the same time, however, an even stranger thought flashed through Wen Shi’s mind… He couldn’t have been the one who created this “remarkable” product, right?
While he was lost in thought, Zhang Lan said to Zhang Yalin, “Well look at that, everyone’s here. You can speak now.”
Zhang Yalin went silent and expressionless for a moment before he finally lowered his voice and said, “I woke up abruptly from a dream. By the time I was awake, not only was Xiao Xu gone, my puppet string had also been tied to that wooden rack.”
He reeled in his string reflexively, resulting in that loud clatter.
There was no need to question Zhang Yalin’s abilities, at least among the present-day panguan; he wouldn’t be able to occupy his current position on the name register mural otherwise. Yet someone was capable of soundlessly whisking away a person from right under his nose, all the while simultaneously untying and retying his puppet string to something else. If you thought about it carefully, it was actually a rather terrifying notion.
Under normal circumstances, his admission would be enough to send a chill racing down the spines of everyone present…
But no chills were racing down Wen Shi’s spine. Instead, he looked dubiously at Zhang Yalin as he asked, “You can’t tell if the other end of your puppet string is tied to something organic or inorganic?”
Zhang Yalin didn’t want to do this anymore.
He couldn’t exactly nod in response to that, nor could he shake his head. The only thing left was the sensation of being thoroughly humiliated.
However, the eldest Shen disciple’s abilities couldn’t really be treated with disdain, since his line on the name register mural was nearly level with Zhang Yalin’s. It was understandable if such a person was a bit more arrogant and spoke a little more sharply.
But what the hell was up with Xie Wen and that employee of his?
What grounds did they have for revealing the same expression as Wen Shi?
Pinned under the gazes of those three people, Zhang Yalin felt a wave of absurdity wash over him.
All of a sudden, he recalled the divination that Xiao Hei had told him before departure: they were likely to be humiliated and given a fright during this trip. He thought that chasing the pigs was going to be the end of it…
Looking at it now, though, that was probably just the beginning.
“Anyway, our top priority should be finding Xiao Xu first. Or else what am I supposed to say to Biling-jie once we get out of here?” Zhang Lan turned around, face ashen, and made to rush down the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Zhang Yalin asked.
“To ask Lu Wenjuan where exactly Zhou Xu will be sent to. I’ll go get him,” Zhang Lan said.
Before she could make it to the staircase, she heard that weakling, Xie Wen, speak. “Is this how you tailed our car earlier as well—by asking for answers the entire way here? You really didn’t have it easy.”
Zhang Lan screeched to a halt before she started backtracking, face still ashen.
She was so worried that she had lost her reasoning skills. She actually forgot all about tracing talismans, which simply needed to be tossed out.
But Xie Wen was also a bastard. His tone of voice was polite and courteous, as if he was merely making a comment, but upon closer listen, it was full of damn mockery. This weakling really didn’t have it easy either: he managed to make it until now without getting beat up by anyone, despite constantly speaking in such a manner.
As that thought crossed Zhang Lan’s mind, she tossed out a tracing talisman with a flick of her hand.
The talisman flashed once in the hazy rain before it swiftly submerged into the darkness of the night.
Just as Wen Shi turned to look in its direction, he heard Xie Wen murmur in a low voice next to him, “Grounded.”
It was an extremely bad outcome if a tracing talisman ended up being immediately grounded, because more often than not, it indicated that the target in question didn’t exist. If the target was a living creature, that meant that they were most likely already dead; if the target was spiritual in nature, that signified that it had vanished from this world.
Panguan who specialized in spellcasting were exceedingly sensitive to any mention of that word.
Zhang Lan faintly overheard Xie Wen’s statement, and she instantly exploded. “What’s grounded? Who said it was grounded? I’m clearly still tracking—”
Her phone was in her hand. Rather than an app, her screen displayed a diagram marked with the eight directions and tiny, densely packed symbols.
A little red dot was tucked amidst the concentrated mass of characters.
As she spoke, the red dot flickered and slowly disappeared from the diagram.
Zhang Lan’s expression changed at once.
“What’s wrong?” Zhang Yalin asked.
Staring at the location where the little red dot vanished, Zhang Lan blinked blankly and said, “It really was grounded…”
Almost immediately, Zhang Yalin said, “That’s impossible.”
Zhang Lan didn’t dare to believe it either, and she threw out another tracing talisman right away. With unwavering focus, she honed in on the new red dot that appeared on the diagram.
However, less than two seconds later, that little red dot also faded.
She flicked out four or five more tracing talismans in quick succession. Her gaze was pinned to her phone screen, but she kept receiving the same result. Every time, the red dot would vanish in under three seconds…All of them were grounded.
The Zhang siblings were filled with uneasy turmoil, and they both sported bloodless complexions. But then Xie Wen pointed at Zhang Lan’s phone and said, “Try someone else.”
Zhang Lan was momentarily startled before she remembered that according to Lu Wenjuan, someone had to take Zhou Xu to the mountain god—which meant that the village chief should be with him.
Without further ado, she threw out yet another tracing talisman. This time, she changed the target to the village chief, Lao Wu.
But just like before, the little red dot only lasted for a few seconds on the screen before it also disappeared.
Now everyone was taken aback. “That was also grounded?”
“Were you tracking the person or the spirit?” Wen Shi questioned.
Zhang Lan: “…I was just a bit out of it earlier because I was in a panic, but that doesn’t mean I would make such a stupid mistake. Of course I was tracking the village chief’s spirit. This is a village created from a mountain graveyard—why would I track a living being?”
As she spoke, she began to relentlessly flick out talismans. After tracking the village chief failed three times, she decided to switch targets continuously, and she ended up tracing every single resident in the village, including Lu Wenjuan.
But all of the talismans were grounded.
Wen Shi truly couldn’t help himself. He asked, “There’s really nothing wrong with your talismans?”
Zhang Lan: “Nonsense, of course there isn’t.”
A few seconds later, she tacked on a hesitant “probably.”
At that moment, Great Lady Zhang began to doubt her entire existence.
To prove that there wasn’t anything wrong with her talismans, she released several patrol talismans. The mountain was the known destination, and the desolate village was only so large. If she searched the entire place, she should be able to find at least a clue or two.
After quite a while passed, she withdrew the patrol talismans one after another, but the conclusion she reached was extremely strange—there wasn’t a single trace of Zhou Xu anywhere in the village.
Stranger yet: it wasn’t just him. There wasn’t any trace of the village chief or villagers either.
“What’s going on? Did we enter a fake cage?” Zhang Lan was dumbfounded.
Never mind Zhang Lan, even Wen Shi was a little puzzled.
The rain had lessened significantly compared to before, and the accumulated rainwater streamed down the edges of the house. All they could hear was the sound of it falling, but they didn’t know where it was falling to.
Upon listening to it for a long time, they were struck with a sort of uncertain, empty sensation, as if they were the only ones left in the entire cage.
Wen Shi suddenly heard Xie Wen say in a soft voice, “It’s fortunate.”
He turned his head. “What’s fortunate?”
Xie Wen was leaning against the railing in the hallway, expression pensive, as his gaze swept across numerous fixed points—they seemed to be the locations where Zhang Lan’s tracing talismans had landed earlier. He only glanced back at the others once Wen Shi asked him that question. “It’s fortunate that there are still quite a few people here.”
Wen Shi didn’t understand right away. “So what if there are more people here?”
“Suppose someone rushed into this place all alone”—Xie Wen gestured with his slender index finger—“and encountered this situation. With one lapse in concentration, they might start to suspect that there’s simply nothing else in the cage at all. Everything’s a figment of their imagination, and they’re actually the cage master in question. They just didn’t realize it sooner.”
Wen Shi abruptly understood what Xie Wen meant.
They were always helping other people undo their cages, and they didn’t know what it felt like to become a cage master. But upon deeper contemplation, he realized that awakening to the truth was probably one of the most bone-chilling, agonizing, and sorrowful processes in this world.
Luckily, cage masters were always roused by others. As they came to, at least they had a panguan by their side to send them on their way.
The rest of the group felt shivers race down their backs because of Xie Wen’s words. They didn’t dare to dwell on it, and they quickly changed the topic.
Zhang Lan pulled out another stack of talismans. She planned to force Zhang Yalin to help her turn the entire village upside down; at the bare minimum, she had to figure out where all the people went.
But Wen Shi didn’t leave the hallway.
He had noticed where Xie Wen was looking earlier. As he mused over it, a faint idea occurred to him—
Previously, when Zhang Lan was tossing out talismans, the ones tracking Zhou Xu had all vanished in the same general area. In fact, it seemed to be one specific location.
However, he was under the impression that Zhang Lan had thrown out the talismans randomly. She wasn’t casting them all in the same direction.
So was that grounding location a coincidence? A result of the wind? Or something else altogether?
In order to test his theory, Wen Shi also took out a sheet of yellow joss paper. Since he wasn’t skilled at drawing talismans, he folded a paper bird instead, which was very similar to the one he used in the past to help him track down the traces of his soul. Except this time, he was tracking Zhou Xu.
The bird was released into the corridor, and it arced through the air, flapping its wings. Sure enough, it headed towards the area where the talisman had vanished previously. A few seconds later, it blazed with light.
He folded a second bird and changed the target to the village chief, Lao Wu.
As expected, the paper bird also landed in the same spot upon flying out.
Still leaning against the railing, Xie Wen watched him fold paper from beginning to end, as if this was something extremely riveting to observe. In reality, Wen Shi was simply shifting his fingers slightly.
Wen Shi’s third bird tracked Lu Wenjuan. This time, the bird switched directions and landed at a different location.
Just as his brows began to furrow, he heard Xie Wen say, “Don’t be in such a hurry to frown. The talismans tracking her earlier landed there as well.”
“So it still matches up?” Wen Shi asked.
Xie Wen nodded. “Correct.”
After experimenting with a portion of the villagers, Wen Shi discovered that even though the tracked targets varied greatly, the talismans and paper birds all landed in the same seven or eight spots. However, it was a little hard to determine the exact locations from their point of view, so it was best if they could borrow the diagram on Great Lady Zhang’s phone.
Zhang Lan proffered the diagram with great magnanimity. At the same time, she contributed several more talismans, which allowed them to swiftly mark all the locations.
It was extremely straightforward from a bird’s eye view. Wen Shi traced between the dots with his finger, immediately revealing the odd nature of the locations.
“Looks like an array.” Zhang Lan swiveled her head to the left and right. “But I only have a very shallow understanding of arrays. I can’t tell what type this is.”
Out of their group, Wen Shi and Zhang Yalin specialized in puppetry, whereas Zhang Lan cultivated spellcasting. If they needed a person who was proficient in arrays… that only left a certain someone.
Wen Shi shot a glance at Xie Wen. Right as he was about to speak, another voice interjected solemnly, “This is a type of gate in array-casting.”
He turned his head and saw the bodyguard that often followed Zhang Lan.
“Xiao Hei!” Zhang Lan called him over. “Come here, use the spiritual item from Bu Ning that’s inside of you to make some sense out of this.”
Since Zhang Yalin was utterly captivated by puppetry, he made his puppets study the other arts in his stead. Xiao Hei was created from one of Bu Ning’s spiritual items, and he really did manage to gain a bit of their old ancestor’s spiritual nature. In addition to his usually infuriating divinations, he also understood arrays.
Xiao Hei pointed at the bedroom door and said, “It’s just like that. It creates an opening that connects to a different place or allows something to come and go at will. Such openings are always named some kind of gate in array-casting.”
Wen Shi actually knew that very well; after all, that was the reasoning behind the Gate of Oblivion’s name. As for why it was called Oblivion—that was because he didn’t know where exactly he was coming from every time he emerged from the gate. The only thing inside was an expanse of nothingness, a darkness that never saw light.
Xiao Hei lived up to expectations and circled the array core for them.
Since it was called a gate and could connect to different places, it was highly likely that Zhou Xu disappeared there, especially considering that it was also the result brought about by the tracing talismans.
Consequently, as soon as the rain stopped, before the sun was even fully up, Wen Shi and the others followed the array core and arrived at a deserted paddy field in the village.
The location of the field was a bit coincidental. It was extremely close to the back door and kitchen of Lu Wenjuan’s house, and it was only separated from the structure by a long embankment. After a full night of rain, water had amassed in the paddy, turning it into some semblance of a mottled mirror that reflected the gloomy, overcast sky.
Wen Shi and the others laid in wait next to the embankment.
Less than half an hour later, without the help of any wind, a circular ripple suddenly appeared on the surface of the mirror-like water and started to gradually expand.
Everyone stared straight at that spot. After a few seconds, a clump of long hair began drifting slowly through the water, followed by a second clump, and then a third…
That was followed by numerous waxen arms stretching out from the wet mud.
Those arms twisted themselves into exceedingly distorted positions before bracing against the ground like spiders.
Upon seeing that familiar movement, Xia Qiao immediately cried out in terror, “Huigu!”
They really did look exactly the same as the huigu that appeared when it rained. But when the one at the very front lifted its face from the mud, what they saw was… Lu Wenjuan.
Wen Shi suddenly remembered what Lu Wenjuan had said earlier.
Not long after she arrived at this place, she encountered a thunderstorm. Countless huigu crawled out of the ground in the rain and snatched up people all across the village. As soon as they caught someone, they would drain them.
Later on, rumors began spreading that some of the huigu had the villagers’ faces.
What if everyone in the entire village has long since been drained?
Wen Shi couldn’t help but think.
As if to confirm his guess, numerous faces began emerging from the field in rapid succession. Every face looked somewhat familiar, and they were all villagers that Wen Shi saw at the Great Cleanse earlier.
They crawled a few steps forward with all four of their limbs on the ground. Then they stood up, muscles and bones warping, accompanied by the sound of cartilage cracking as they rearranged themselves back into the shape of ordinary humans. After that, they began walking back towards the village, one after another.
But just a short distance later, they saw the people waiting behind the embankment.
Wen Shi stared at them.
They also stared at Wen Shi.
There was a strange odor about them, probably because they had just crawled out of the ground. Rather than being unpleasant, it actually smelled a little familiar, and it vaguely resembled the malevolent energy that Wen Shi had consumed in the past.
Even though Wen Shi had already somewhat recovered his normal sense of taste, he still felt a twinge of reflexive hunger upon picking up that scent. And so he licked his lips, which was followed by the bobbing of his throat as he swallowed.
The huigu: “…”
They likely could’ve never imagined that someone would actually look at them and feel hungry, so they were momentarily stunned.
Several seconds later, they whipped around and bolted in an attempt to jump back into the field.
Zhang Lan and Zhang Yalin were stupefied by this inexplicable about-face and completely forgot to react. Wen Shi, however, instantly flung out his puppet string with a twist of his hand. The long cotton thread whistled through the air like a whip and looped itself around those creatures, thoroughly binding them together.
With shocking force, the creatures struggled frantically, writhing as they tried to make their way towards one specific spot in the field. Because of the puppet string forcefully slowing them down, a whirlpool formed at that location, as if someone had ripped open a hole underneath the water.
That should be the path leading to the other side; it just wasn’t very stable.
So Wen Shi also made a tugging motion with his other hand.
In an instant, the wind and clouds swirled abruptly together.
A long, enormous shadow hurtled over their heads, stirring up a violent, fierce wind in its wake. Accompanied by the crisp, metallic clanking noise produced by the chains chafing against each other, it plunged straight towards the whirlpool.
Thanks to that thunderous collision, the entrance was finally revealed. But it was immeasurably dark, and they couldn’t see the exit.
Zhang Lan finally recovered. She cast out a row of four talismans that glimmered with golden light, which she then pinned around the entrance to secure it. Puppet string was wrapped fully around both of Zhang Yalin’s hands, and he was the first to walk into the gate with Xiao Hei.
The mist was dark and dense just beyond the entrance. In the blink of an eye, the Zhang siblings vanished entirely, sound and all.
For safety, Wen Shi tied a puppet string to Xia Qiao and told him to go in first with Lao Mao. Wen Shi originally wanted to bring up the rear, but Xie Wen gave him a gentle push and said, “Go ahead of me.”
In those memories that he had already regained, he always seemed to be following behind this person. From childhood to adulthood—from needing to tilt his head back to see him, to merely lifting his gaze—they had traversed countless paths together.
When he was young, it was because he had developed the habit of being a tail. After he grew up, his motives gained a trace of unspeakable selfishness: so long as the other person didn’t look back, he would be able to watch him endlessly. He wouldn’t have to avert his eyes, arrogantly and indifferently.
Wen Shi hesitated briefly, but he still ended up complying as he headed towards the entrance first. Right as he was about to enter, he subconsciously drew out a thread to tie to Xie Wen, just like he had in the previous cage.
It was only after he had already extended his hand that he abruptly realized something: this was actually a bit unnecessary.
“What is it?” Xie Wen was a little startled, and his gaze landed on Wen Shi’s hand.
At that moment, Wen Shi experienced a rare hint of embarrassment. He looked away, and his brows furrowed ever so slightly as he said, “Nothing, I’m going in now.”
Xie Wen’s lips parted, as if he wanted to say something else, but Wen Shi had already turned around and walked into the darkness.
Wen Shi finally lowered his hand once the dark engulfed him completely. He didn’t have time earlier to reel in the puppet string tangled around his fingers, and the thread dangled down now in varying lengths as an invisible wind swept through the stark and empty strands.
He curled and uncurled his stiff fingers. Just when he was about to tighten the string, he felt a hand reach forward from behind to latch onto his own.
That hand was slim and clean, with well-shaped joints and long fingers, and it felt pleasantly cool to the touch.
Even with his eyes closed, he knew what it looked like.
Yan: Several hidden knives in this chapter hhh