Arc Two: Wooden Boy
Of course, other people were completely unaware of the enormous soul-shaking shock that a “doll” was currently experiencing—
The old man was still coaxing that strange grandson of his.
He slowly shuffled over to the shelf and leaned in with his featureless face. Anyone else would feel their blood run a little cold looking at such a thing at such close range, but Wen Shi was already used to it.
Many cage masters all had this kind of neither-human-nor-ghost appearance. It was similar to how in most people’s memories, they themselves didn’t look like anything. What’s more, this was what the old man couldn’t relinquish, his attachment. Once someone was entangled in these things, they would often forget who exactly they were and what they originally looked like.
“Grandpa helped to check for you.” The old man walked back over to the bed and patted the little boy’s head. His voice was aged and whispery, and he also spoke extremely slowly. “Nobody is there, don’t be afraid, ah.”
It was unclear whether the little boy was afraid or not. In any case, Xia Qiao’s dress shivered again from where he was on the bed.
“Let’s go, come downstairs and play with Grandpa,” the old man said.
The little boy’s black eyes were still staring unerringly at Wen Shi. A long time later, he finally nodded reluctantly.
“What do you want to play with? Tell Grandpa.”
“Wooden puppets.” The little boy said, “Grandpa teach me how to make wooden puppets, please.”
The way he spoke was very odd; his voice had no tones or inflections in it. No matter if he was asking a question or shouting, there weren’t any ups or downs in his voice. It was like a flat, rigid line.
If one had to describe it: it was “empty.”
The old man taught him, “That’s not right, your voice should rise higher at the end. Please?”
The little boy gazed at him silently before he repeated in almost the exact same manner, “Please?”
The old man: “Yes, that’s how it should be.”
The little boy then began to repeat over and over: “Make wooden puppets, please?
It was like an odd way of acting spoiled.
If he was talking to a coward, they would probably even end up shedding tears because of him.
The old man seemed to be quite unwilling to teach him that, but he eventually still gave in under the child’s relentless repetition. He sighed and said, “Alright, come on, let’s go make wooden puppets.”
The little boy was very happy, but his change in expression was a beat too slow. A few seconds passed before he slowly drew back the corners of his mouth.
He obediently held the old man’s hand and took two steps forward before he suddenly looked back again. Maintaining his grin, he dragged Xia Qiao off the bed and away with them.
Wen Shi: “…”
The instant the door closed, Wen Shi moved.
He wanted to try walking a bit, but he didn’t control it well and ended up plummeting straight off the edge of the shelf when he missed a step, nearly doing the splits.
Slumped on the ground, Wen Shi swallowed down all his swears.
The doll’s body was filled with cotton stuffing, so falling like this wasn’t painful. Only the doll’s ornaments, like the buttons, made a tapping noise when they knocked against the wooden floorboards.
Fortunately, it wasn’t very loud, and that creepy grandpa-grandson pair didn’t hear it.
Wen Shi was a big tall man who had never had to suffer the hardship of having short legs. On top of that, the doll’s body was too soft, so it was especially difficult to muster up any strength. He attempted for quite a while before he was finally able to flip over and sit up.
As an adult whose hobbies were extremely limited, of course he had never researched about these dolls before, nor did he have any interest in them. But he had the impression that when these things were sitting upright, their short legs would always stick straight out, like a V.
Right now, he was sitting in precisely such a foolishly cute posture.
His only comfort was… he wasn’t wearing a dress.
Thank the heavens, thank the earth.
However, his pink overalls were still just as stupid.
Wen Shi looked himself up and down once before he was filled with disdain and didn’t want to look again.
He rested with his back against the leg of the bed for a while before he lifted his head and looked up at the shelf that he was just on top of. Immediately, he felt somewhat astonished, because there were truly way too many dolls.
The shelves occupied the greater part of the wall, and there were a total of four rows stacked atop of one another. Each row was filled entirely with dolls.
There were some Western-style dolls, like him and Xia Qiao, as well as some Chinese-style ones. Except none of the Chinese-style dolls had eyes.
After taking it all in, Wen Shi forgave Xie Wen a tiny bit in his heart.
In the end, Xie Wen had been very reasonable.
In terms of puppetry, the most well-crafted dolls were only a soul away from becoming human, so in essence, they were the easiest objects to attach to. With Xie Wen’s unskilled abilities, guiding them into the dolls was somewhat understandable.
Actually, photographs were also very easy to attach to, but there weren’t any in this room. The old man most likely wasn’t in the habit of putting any photos on display, so he had stored them all away.
In that aspect, he was actually quite similar to Wen Shi, whose pictures spanned across too many years. His appearance also didn’t change a single bit in them, so unless he wanted to scare people, there was no point in displaying the photos.
Wen Shi sat there and rested for some time before he shook out his arms and legs again, slowly getting used to this feeling of his entire body being filled with cotton stuffing… then he started to search.
He called towards the shelves full of dolls, “Xie Wen?”
To tell the truth, talking to the dolls like this really did feel quite moronic.
He restrained himself a little before he quietly called again, “Xie Wen?”
It was dead silent in the room, and there was still no reply whatsoever.
“Don’t play dead.
Wen Shi’s patience ran out. He was about to raise his voice and call out again when pattering footsteps made their way to the entrance of the room once more, accompanied by the old man’s instructions from downstairs.
The old man said, “Go get another roll of cotton thread.”
The little boy’s voice came from right outside the door. “Oh.”
Wen Shi glanced around him. There weren’t any other spots to hide, so he hastily slid under the bed.
Under typical circumstances, no matter how terrifying a seven or eight year old child was, they still wouldn’t be able to do all that much. However, that wasn’t necessarily true inside a cage.
To put it bluntly, a cage was someone’s deepest regret, resentment, envy, desire, fear, and so on… any intrusion was a kind of affront to the cage master, even if it was done by a panguan.
So it was dangerous for intruders in cages. Anything that was disturbed would go on the offensive.
For example, the fake “Xia Qiao” that Wen Shi had encountered earlier. That was a warning to the intruders, representing the rejection within the cage master’s subconsciousness.
Before fully understanding the situation, Wen Shi didn’t want to seek out any trouble for himself.
The bed was crafted in an old-fashioned style, raised up quite high on four legs. The dark flannel coverlet hung down around the sides, tightly concealing the bottom of the bed like curtains.
Wen Shi sat inside, wanting to wait for that boy to retrieve the cotton thread before leaving.
However, the entire room was completely quiet, and from beginning to end, there was no sound of pattering slippers.
Wen Shi waited for a while, before he suddenly felt like something wasn’t right.
He braced himself against the floor, turned his head, and saw that little boy’s huge, empty eyes. At some unknown point in time, the boy had crawled underneath the bed and was crouched right behind Wen Shi, staring at him without blinking. “I see you.”
After twenty-five years of not doing any work, Wen Shi sighed internally before he turned around and tried to flip out from underneath the bed.
He was very agile and nimble, but unfortunately his fucking arms were short and his legs were even shorter. After doing a somersault, he was still underneath the bed! As the boy reached out with his hand, Wen Shi quickly grabbed onto the leg of the bed. Borrowing that force, he slid himself underneath the cabinet.
It was short enough under here that the little boy couldn’t make his way inside.
Wen Shi saw the boy lie down on the floor and reach into the narrow space with pale fingers, groping around again and again, growing more and more frantic with each grab.
The little boy’s fingernails weren’t that long, but there was a scraping noise as they scratched against the floorboards. Wood shavings flew everywhere, with some embedding themselves into his flesh. As if he couldn’t feel any pain, the boy continued to gouge against the floor, trying to catch Wen Shi’s doll.
That continued until a series of chaotic crashing sounds came abruptly from downstairs. It was unclear what had happened.
The old man let out a shout, and the little boy finally came to a sudden stop.
It was like everything just now hadn’t happened at all. The boy stood up next to the cabinet, went to the doorway to put on his slippers, and then clattered back into the room. He started rummaging through the drawers to find the cotton thread, and then hurried downstairs while calling “grandpa.”
Wen Shi was forgotten underneath the cabinet.
He waited for some time before he slid out from beneath the cabinet again.
The little boy left in too much of a rush and forgot to close the door. Wen Shi seized the opportunity to leave the room, extending his head out between the stair railings and peering downwards.
The house was decorated in a very traditional manner; there was an old-fashioned square table directly in the middle of the downstairs hall. Scattered across its surface were spare arms and legs for wooden puppets, an awl used for drilling holes, and loose cotton thread.
Xia Qiao’s doll was lying next to the table. Presumably, the grandpa and grandson were just here making wooden puppets, but now they were nowhere to be found.
Wen Shi walked down a few steps and discovered that they were currently in the corner sweeping up pieces of glass. Something seemed to have fallen and shattered.
It took the grandpa-grandson pair quite a while to clean it up. Afterwards, they sat back down at the square table.
The old man picked up the wooden puppet’s body and pointed at the middle of its back. He said to the little boy, “The first string must pass through here and nowhere else.”
“Why?” the little boy asked.
The old man rubbed the string between his fingers and said, “Didn’t I tell you before? Long ago, there existed some extremely powerful people. The puppets that they made were especially clever and behaved exactly like humans.”
At this moment, the little boy seemed like a normal child again. He asked, “Did they really behave exactly the same? Do the ones in my room count?”
For a split second, the old man seemed to want to say something, but in the end, he didn’t give voice to it. He merely sat there, either lost in thought or contemplation.
Some time later, the old man said, “Just scaring you. They’d have to be extraordinarily strong to seem human.”
In fact, nobody knew this better than Wen Shi.
Those who first started learning puppetry could only create things like little cats, birds, and rabbits, meant to amuse and entertain. They could be maintained for one to two minutes at the most before collapsing.
Whereas masters of the art, such as Shen Qiao and the others, could produce many more things: people of all ages and creatures of all species could be crafted and controlled.
The more powerful someone was, the longer their puppet would remain in existence.
However, the vast majority of puppet masters could only maintain their puppets for up to ten days or half a month. A select few were able to persist even longer than that.
Wen Shi could be considered one of those “select few,” but since he was missing his soul, he was severely restricted.
The little boy continued to pipe up with questions. “Why can’t you pass the string through other places first, you still haven’t answered.”
The old man said to frighten him, “Because this is the most important place. If you don’t thread the string through here, it’s very easy for the puppets to come alive.”
The little boy let out an “oh.”
Wen Shi didn’t know where the old man had heard such a thing from, but there was indeed some truth to it. There were marks above the hearts of all puppets, most of the time belonging to the puppet masters themselves. It was similar to artists signing their paintings.
If one wished to defeat someone else’s puppet, it could be achieved by passing a single string through the heart.
In fact, the same principle that applied to humans could be applied to puppets.
However, as these facts circulated among the people, they ended up becoming all sorts of strange taboos, such as the one that the old man mentioned.
Wen Shi eavesdropped for a bit. When he didn’t overhear anything worthwhile, he stealthily explored the upper level of the house instead.
His original intention was to find Xie Wen, but even after scouring the entire second floor, he couldn’t uncover any trace of him. Since he couldn’t exactly call Xie Wen’s name out loud either, he had no choice but to let it go for the time being and hide in the corner of a storage room, waiting for nightfall.
Time passed extremely quickly in a cage. Not long after, the sky had already turned completely dark.
This house had appeared suddenly on the mountainside and was cut off from the rest of the world. At night, it became even more quiet, like an unoccupied residence that had been abandoned for many years.
The door to the little boy’s room was slightly ajar. No noises came from within the room, not even the sound of breathing.
Wen Shi silently slipped past and followed the staircase down to the first floor. The old man’s bedroom was located on this level.
During the day, if he wasn’t searching for Xie Wen, he was observing the grandpa and grandson. This was the old man’s cage, and though Wen Shi was roughly aware that the old man’s attachment had something to do with the grandson, he still hadn’t figured out what it specifically entailed.
He wanted to go to the old man’s room and take a look, taking advantage of the nighttime.
As Wen Shi was passing through the living room, he heard a trembling voice, so quiet that it sounded like a ghost. “Ge… ge…
“Ge, it’s me, look back at me…”
Wen Shi: “…”
He followed the voice around to that traditional square table and saw that Xia Qiao was still lying paralyzed, high up, on the chair.
“Ge, what are you doing?” Xia Qiao asked softly.
“Going to check out the old man’s room.” Wen Shi answered, before he asked him, “Have you seen Xie Wen?”
“I haven’t, was he not in that pile of dolls?”
Wen Shi said, “No.”
Xia Qiao: “Then where is he?”
Wen Shi: “Who the hell knows.”
He couldn’t have sent the two of them in, but didn’t successfully bring himself in, right?
Wen Shi pondered: with Xie Wen’s rookie-level skills, maybe he really could achieve something like that.
Actually, you could tell how talented a panguan was by how they entered the cage core. A simple method was the way Wen Shi and Xia Qiao had entered, by attaching to dolls or pictures; it was a little more complicated to attach to a mirror, followed by a painting. As for the rest… the less human an object was, the more difficult it became, and the more objects that a panguan could control, the more powerful they were.
In the past, when Wen Shi had been at his peak, he could even control the entire cage core.
However, that was already the past.
With Wen Shi present, Xia Qiao finally had the guts to move again.
He struggled and fell off the chair before he staggered upright, all the while still muttering, “Careful, careful… can’t touch something and make a noise.”
Wen Shi was rendered a little speechless listening to him. “You don’t need to be that excessive.”
“I do.” Xia Qiao lifted up his skirt and said seriously, “Everything in this house is super sensitive. What if you touch something and it explodes? That glass teapot just exploded all of a sudden this afternoon.”
“Teapot?” Wen Shi was briefly startled before it came back to him. Earlier that afternoon, when the little boy was trying to catch him, the grandpa had accidentally dropped and shattered something downstairs.
“You said that the teapot suddenly exploded?”
Wen Shi was a little puzzled. Right as he was about to question Xia Qiao further, a deathly pale human figure suddenly flashed across his peripheral vision.
He instantly cut off the conversation and looked over to see a full-length mirror, placed at a slanted angle next to the old man’s bedroom door. That human figure from a moment ago had been standing noiselessly in that exact mirror.
Xia Qiao didn’t dare to move.
But Wen Shi headed over. He walked over to the mirror, leaned in closer, and touched the surface, wanting to examine if there really was anything odd inside.
All of a sudden, he heard Xie Wen’s voice sound right in front of him, a smile concealed within it. “You shouldn’t get so close, those big eyes of yours are moist and bright, quite frightening.”
Wen Shi: “…”
He took a step back and was about to let out a curse when he saw himself reflected in the mirror.
Western-style dolls’ eyes were no joke. Their eyelashes were long and curly, and the eyes truly were moist and bright. That, in addition to the overalls…
Even he was scared.
But he was only afraid for two seconds before he realized—
Xie Wen, this bastard, sent himself into a mirror but stuffed them into dolls. Was this something that a fucking human would do???