Arc Two: Wooden Boy
Apart from the doll with bright and limpid eyes, the mirror also contained Xie Wen’s reflection.
His figure was extremely blurry; it was difficult to discern even the length of his hair, much less make out what his features looked like. It was as if there was someone tall and pale standing at a place that was almost within reach, yet still impossibly far away.
For a split second, Wen Shi felt like he had encountered this sight before.
He seemed to have seen a person like this in the past, who stood barefoot underneath the dim light from the sky, eyes cast downward at the rivulets of blood flowing into a river beneath his feet, as he lifted the hem of his loose, snow-white robe…
But Wen Shi then recalled that he had most likely glimpsed such a scene a very long time ago in some handwritten manuscript, or perhaps on an aged painting. It had occurred much too long ago, so his memory was murky.
Tap tap tap.
Three gentle raps of a hand knocking against glass came from the mirror.
Wen Shi blinked and instantly snapped out of it.
In the mirror, Xie Wen’s indistinct figure stooped over. He looked at the doll, which seemed excessively short and small to him, and asked, “Not going to say anything? Did you really become stupefied from anger?”
Wen Shi: “Stand up straight while you talk.”
Xie Wen: “If I stand up straight, there’s a bit of a height gap. Your necks will get tired, and my eyes will get tired too.”
Wen Shi: “…”
If you didn’t fucking give us differential treatment, there wouldn’t be a gap in our heights like this, and nobody would have to feel tired.
He coldly stared straight ahead at Xie Wen’s legs and felt as if his temper was particularly bad today. A thousand years of cultivation was about to go to ruin at this person’s hands.
Xie Wen continued to speak in that same reasonable tone of voice. “I wasn’t deliberately playing with you two. There isn’t a single photo on display in this house, and there are also only a few mirrors. There’s one in the bathroom, one here, and a small one at the head of the old man’s bed. If we all entered the mirrors, our scope of activity would be pitifully small.”
He paused briefly before he laughed. “If that happened and we couldn’t see anything, wouldn’t you still end up blaming me?”
Xia Qiao gathered himself after the fright. He echoed, “That’s true, it kind of makes sense.”
Wen Shi: “…”
He wanted to turn his head and issue a warning to this traitorous fool, but stuffed dolls couldn’t perform that “turn head” movement. In order to do so, he had to twist around his entire body.
Xia Qiao was dumbfounded by his about-face, and after a long pause, he said carefully, “Wen-ge, your current posture is a little adorable.”
The person in the mirror most likely choked on something and gave a smothered cough.
Wen Shi shut his eyes and thought, If I have to keep putting up with these two dumbasses, I’ll write my name backwards.
He stopped paying attention to them, and the living room returned to silence.
Just a moment ago, Xia Qiao had felt as if the atmosphere was fairly relaxed, not scary at all. But with only a few seconds of quiet, that sort of hushed fear started to climb up his back once again.
Wen Shi’s doll leaned against the old man’s door, completely motionless.
The figure in the mirror didn’t disappear; it continued to stand there noiselessly. Because it was too tall, it didn’t even look like it was standing from Xia Qiao’s perspective. Instead, it seemed more like it was suspended there.
Suddenly, Xia Qiao had this misperception: it was as if Wen Shi and Xie Wen simply weren’t present at all. All along, he was the sole person in this house. He was the one who had brought down the doll next to the door, and it wasn’t alive. There was someone he didn’t know in the mirror, white clothing dragging on the ground, staring expressionlessly at him.
He chanted silently to himself, “This is Xie Wen, this is Xie Wen, this is Xie Wen,” and “He’s looking at Wen-ge, not me, not me, not me.”
A long time later, he cautiously raised his head, and directly met the eyes of the person in the mirror.
Wen Shi broke off two pieces of thread from his overalls and wrapped them around his hands, attempting to open the door using the string.
It was truly hard to control the doll’s movements. He had to spend a bit of time on it, and just as he undid the lock, he heard Xia Qiao whimper extremely softly.
Wen Shi: “…”
His head ached a little, and he tried to restrain himself but still ended up asking in a lowered voice, “Now what’s wrong?”
Xia Qiao was too embarrassed to say that he had been scared by his own imagination, so he responded evasively, “I – I remembered that when I was young, a lot of my nightmares were also about dolls and mirrors.”
Wen Shi: “…”
He had never experienced a nightmare like that before, nor did he have the patience to comfort little brats. He wrapped the thread in another circle around his hand, and once it was stretched taut, he gave it a light tug. The old-fashioned door opened with a creak.
“Shh.” Without bothering to look back, Wen Shi indicated for him to stay quiet.
Although Xia Qiao was cowardly, he was obedient, and he promptly shut his mouth. Even the sound of his sobs vanished.
Wen Shi put his hand behind his back and beckoned before he took the lead and slipped into the room.
The doll’s viewpoint was very low, and he couldn’t see the entirety of the room even after entering. He was only able to make out a large bed crafted in a similarly outdated style. There was a bulge in the blankets; the old man should be fast asleep.
A nightstand was placed next to the side of the bed near the door. Just as Xie Wen had said, there was an oval mirror sitting slanted atop the table, slightly bigger than the palm of a hand, the sort that used to be popular in the early 1990s.
Wen Shi left the door a bit ajar. Out of the corner of his eyes, he glimpsed a face flit across the oval mirror. Xie Wen had probably come in.
He was very sensitive when it came to gazes. Even though he couldn’t clearly see Xie Wen’s expression, he could sense that the Xie Wen in the mirror had shot a glance at the inner half of the room.
What was in the inner half?
Wen Shi peered in that direction, but the bed blocked most of his vision, so he could only make out one corner of the room—there seemed to be an antique desk placed next to the window, the type with drawers lining both sides. There was a lock hanging from one of the drawers.
Wen Shi instantly began to sneak towards it, only for Xia Qiao to grab onto him from behind.
“What is it?” Wen Shi asked in a whisper.
“Do we have to go in?” Xia Qiao didn’t have the guts to speak up either. Even while whispering, he was trembling.
“There’s a lock over there.”
“So what if there’s a lock?”
“In a cage, it’s a given that anything with a lock is very important.” Wen Shi said.
“Because this is the cage master’s subconsciousness. The subconscious never forgets the things it hides, so why don’t you tell me?” Wen Shi crabbily replied with a question.
Oftentimes, once they found a place with a lock, it signified that they would be able to undo the cage soon.
Wen Shi followed the bottom edge of the bed and quietly approached the far side of the room.
At last, he became aware of the benefits of being a stuffed doll. He could walk all over the place without being dropped or shattered, and since his body was soft, he wouldn’t leave behind the sound of footsteps either.
Thinking about it like that, his mood improved quite a bit, and he started to feel that there was indeed a bit of logic to be found in Xie Wen’s words.
Before he reached the desk, Wen Shi activated the thread around his hands.
Under the control of a powerful puppet master, a single string could accomplish many things with the twitch of a finger. Wen Shi’s current effectiveness was a bit limited, but the thread was still a good tool.
Watching as the other end of the thread wrapped around the lock, Wen Shi tugged at it again, and the string squeezed into the keyhole.
Just as he finally made his way over to the desk and was about to remove the lock, he noticed in his peripheral vision that the shadows next to the desk didn’t quite look right.
The window curtains were wide open, allowing the dim, pale moonlight to streak in from outside. There were numerous shadows resting on the ground next to Wen Shi—belonging to the desk, the window frame, his and Xia Qiao’s dolls…
Then who did that extra shadow belong to?
Wen Shi’s head shot up, and he saw the little boy standing expressionlessly next to him, holding an awl high in the air.
Earlier in the afternoon, that awl was lying on the old-fashioned square table in the living room. Its original purpose was to drill holes in wooden puppets; to put it in a puppet master’s terms, it was called a spirit-hook awl. With how sharp it was, it could easily pierce straight through someone.
The little boy’s empty, jet-black eyes stared unwaveringly at Wen Shi. The awl was suspended above him, its sharpest point directed right at Wen Shi’s eyes.
The instant the awl was about to descend, Wen Shi tightly pinched the string twisted around his hand and pulled violently.
Bang— A sound came from not too far away, as if an object had abruptly toppled over.
The little boy was distracted, and his eyes slowly rolled to the side so that he was gazing at the nightstand.
At the same time, the cord in Wen Shi’s hand thrashed out with the copper lock attached to its end, smashing heavily onto the little boy’s back. The little boy gave a muffled grunt, and his eyes suddenly grew unfocused as he collapsed onto the ground. But a second later, he scrambled upright again.
Wen Shi had no time to think about anything else. He pushed Xia Qiao and said lowly, “Run!”
As for himself, he took a dangerous detour and flipped onto the old man’s bed. Clearly, the little boy was more interested in him, and he also clambered on.
Wen Shi ran and rolled around, dodging the little boy’s hand.
Quite a few times, his fingers had already touched Wen Shi, only for Wen Shi to narrowly avoid him again. Together, they charged straight upstairs.
“I’m about to catch you.” The little boy constantly repeated that sentence, tenaciously clinging on, unwilling to give up the pursuit.
This persisted all the way until the hanging lamp on the second floor unexpectedly broke and crashed down loudly, finally obstructing the little boy’s path.
Wen Shi seized the opportunity and swiftly fled to the uppermost shelf in the storage room before also hauling up Xia Qiao, who was wailing and howling. For a period of time, the situation was both chaotic and miserable.
Amidst the clamor, the doors to all the rooms on the second floor, including the storage room, slammed shut with a bang, sealing tightly closed.
That created an extremely loud noise. Never mind Xia Qiao, even Wen Shi was a little stunned.
However, they stayed quiet, nestled mutely in the cupboard. Through the securely closed door, they carefully listened to the movement outside.
The fragments of the hanging lamp tumbled down the stairs, interspersed throughout with the little boy’s pattering footsteps. He bypassed the light, came upstairs, and headed towards them, stopping right in front of the storage room.
Then, he yanked on the door lock twice, making it squeak.
The door was kicked a few times, but it refused to open, and dust sprinkled down from above. Just listening to the sounds could make someone’s heart jump in alarm.
A moment went by before the little boy eventually gave up and turned to go to the other rooms.
Wen Shi heard the sound of cloth ripping, accompanied by the child’s unceasing repetition of “I found you,” “I’m about to find you,” “I’ll definitely find you.”
It was eerie enough to make your blood run cold.
A long while later, the ripping noises stopped at last.
The little boy returned to his bedroom, and the door closed with a creak. The second floor regained its silence, as if everything just now hadn’t happened at all.
Wen Shi relaxed. His hands felt a little sore, and he tried to shake out his soft muscles, only to discover that he was holding something in his arms.
He looked down…
And came face to face with Xie Wen in the mirror.
Wen Shi: “…”
“Don’t move.” Xie Wen’s blurry silhouette disappeared from the mirror, but his voice was still extremely close by. “You’re a bit high up, it’s easy for the mirror to fall.”
Maybe because the storage room was too small, it sounded exactly as if… Xie Wen wasn’t actually huddled in the narrow mirror and was instead located in some void, standing right next to Wen Shi as he lowered his head to speak to him.
Wen Shi went quiet for a second. Perhaps it was the mischief of reverse psychology; either way, he picked up the mirror and wordlessly extended his hand, like a noiseless type of warning and threat—
So long as he let go, the mirror would shatter into a complete mess.
Xie Wen didn’t get irritated either. He gently persuaded, “There are only three mirrors altogether in this house, if they break, there’s no way to fix them.”
Wen Shi stared at the mirror. “Why are you in my – hands.”
He almost blurted out “my lap,” but then he felt like it didn’t quite sound right, so he forcefully changed his wording.
“You grabbed me while you were pitifully running away.” Xie Wen said.
Wen Shi said coldly, “Why would I grab you?”
Xie Wen broke into laughter. “How would I know.”
He contemplated for a moment before he said appraisingly, “It was quite loyal of you.”
With their most recent trip, Xia Qiao received an enormous scare, and he sat at the side, not daring to move or interject. But for some reason, when he heard the way Xie Wen said that line, Xia Qiao kept getting this ‘senior-like’ feeling from his tone, as if he hadn’t completely voiced what he wanted to say.
To put it a bit more completely: at the end, he probably should’ve added a “good boy.”
Xia Qiao compared this abrupt visualization to his Wen-ge and shivered in fear. There was probably something wrong with his brain.
He promptly changed the subject and said, “That scared me to death just now! That huge run for our lives was basically exactly the same as what happened in my crazy childhood nightmares. Wen-ge, thankfully you made that hanging lamp fall, or else—”
Recalling those ripping noises from earlier, who the hell knows how they would’ve ended up.
However, Wen Shi frowned to himself. “Was the light my doing?”
“Yeah.” Xia Qiao said, “While you were running forward, I saw you fling out your hand and coil the string around the light. After that, the hanging lamp came crashing down.”
Wen Shi was a little doubtful.
Xie Wen instantly followed up with, “I saw it too, you’re quite skilled.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Maybe everything was too chaotic just then. If he really had to think back, he also couldn’t remember what objects he had dragged over to block the little boy’s path, and whether or not the hanging light was one of them.
It was most likely because it had been too long since he last worked. Wen Shi thought with a stiff expression: Many aspects about this cage seem very illusory, it’s for the best if we get out of here soon.
The author has something to say:
At its core, it’s a silly, lighthearted, cute novel. It doesn’t get that deep, kiss kiss~
Yan: A bit of background on Panguan before we get too far in – the reason why Musuli keeps saying it’s a fluffy novel is because she did originally intend for it to be one. However, partway through its serialization, Musuli’s grandma became severely sick, and Panguan went on several hiatuses while Musuli took care of her grandma. Fortunately her grandma recovered! But long story short, Musuli experienced a lot of death/sickness in 2020, which affected the way she wrote Panguan and its resulting themes.
Also, another unrelated fun fact – if anyone plays Genshin, the karmic debt/black mist in Panguan is essentially very similar to what haunts Xiao 🙂 they’re both ‘yezhang/业障’!