Arc Two: Wooden Boy
“Is that child going to act crazy again?” Xia Qiao asked with lingering fear.
“It’ll be fine once the night’s over.” Wen Shi said.
“Oh.” Xia Qiao let out a sigh of relief.
Xie Wen added, “When we provoke him tomorrow, it’ll be a different kind of crazy then.”
Xia Qiao: “…”
Wen Shi slapped the frame of the mirror.
There was no strength behind the strike of a cotton-stuffed hand. Instead of getting angry, Xie Wen laughed and said, “Isn’t a certain someone being a bit too fierce?”
A certain someone pretended to be dead and didn’t speak.
There were no windows in the storage room, and the passage of time grew blurry after staying in the room for just a short while.
Xia Qiao was so afraid that he didn’t dare to shut his eyes. Meanwhile, Wen Shi leaned against the cupboard and said, “I’m going to sleep for a bit.”
In order to prevent the annoying Xie Wen from falling and breaking into numerous pieces, he reluctantly found a safe position for the mirror. Before he closed his eyes, he patted its frame and said, “Behave yourself.”
Xie Wen cheerfully assented. A second later, he suddenly said, “Your stomach’s growling, are you hungry?”
The stuffed doll said coldly, “Shut up.”
Xie Wen smiled and said, “All right.”
Then, he really did quiet down.
After an indeterminate amount of time passed, the sky finally brightened.
It was still pitch-black in the storage room, but the footsteps outside told them that the grandpa and grandson were already up.
Wen Shi kept thinking about that locked drawer downstairs, and he wanted to go and check it out. At the same time, he was concerned about encountering new dangers, so he didn’t bring Xia Qiao along and told him to wait in the storage room instead.
Originally, he didn’t even want to take Xie Wen with him, but Xie Wen said, “I don’t take up that much room, and I can keep watch. You really won’t consider it?”
As a result, Wen Shi considered it… and tucked the mirror into the deepest corner of the cupboard.
Xie Wen: “…”
“Who told you to be so fragile? If you were a doll, I would’ve brought you,” Wen Shi said calmly before he opened the door and slipped out.
In the end, he was more used to doing this sort of thing alone, as there was less for him to worry about.
Even though nothing was physically real in a cage, there existed more than a few panguan who had failed before and had to ultimately put their lives on the line.
He didn’t want to take any risks with Xia Qiao and Xie Wen’s lives at stake.
The windows of this house were also old-fashioned, and the lighting was average. As usual, the sky was overcast, so it was quite dim inside.
Wen Shi hid himself in the corner and watched as the old man slowly came upstairs.
The hanging lamp that had fallen last night was nowhere to be found, and there was a vacant, dark opening in the ceiling.
Torn limbs from dolls were scattered all over the second floor hallway, along with their ripped-off heads. Cotton stuffing spilled out from their necks.
Someone had yanked out their glass bead-like eyes and strewn them all across the floor. Several of the eyes were open very wide, staring unblinkingly at the ceiling.
The old man pulled out a black garbage bag from his pocket. He shook it open and wordlessly began to gather up those heads and limbs.
The little boy stood in a shadow with his back to the light as he motionlessly watched the old man.
A long moment later, he said in an extremely small voice, “I’m sorry.”
The old man remained silent.
He repeated, “I’m sorry.
“Grandpa, I’m sorry.”
The old man sighed softly and struggled upright. He asked him, “Aren’t these the dolls that you like? Why did you destroy them again.”
The little boy’s voice was as inflectionless as ever. “Because I was scared.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Say that one more time, you were what?
If Xia Qiao heard that, he could collapse on the spot.
Wen Shi thought.
The little boy was still explaining. “They kept looking at me, I was scared.”
“So that’s why you pulled out their eyes again?” the old man asked.
Wen Shi recalled how those Chinese-style dolls on the shelves had been missing their eyes, and understood why the old man had used the word “again.” Perhaps the little boy had already done something like this many times now.
The old man heaved a sigh. The sound was light and breathy, making the room seem even more eerie.
The little boy suddenly said, “They were alive.”
The old man looked at him.
The little boy: “They’ll all come alive.”
The old man: “They won’t. Do you still remember what I taught you before? As long as you pierce the string through their chest, they won’t come alive.”
The little boy picked up a doll remnant from the ground as terrifying words came out of his mouth with a deadly seriousness. “I remember. That’s why I ripped them all apart. Buttons and flowers are pinned on these chests, but there are still some who don’t have anything.”
The old man didn’t know how to make him understand, so he could only say, “These kinds of dolls are different.”
The little boy asked, “How are they different?”
The old man shook his head. He collected the remaining doll parts and put them in the garbage bag before tying it shut. Then, he asked, “Why do you always think that the dolls will come to life?”
The little boy stopped speaking.
The old man eased up his tone of voice and teasingly coaxed him, “Even if they really did come to life, having a friend you can play with is pretty good too.”
“Not good.” The little boy instantly shook his head.
“Why not?” the old man asked.
“Then you won’t want me anymore.”
“No way, how could that happen.” The old man was stunned for a long time before he finally said slowly, “Grandpa wouldn’t not want you.”
Upon hearing that, Wen Shi frowned slightly.
But he didn’t delay for too long here. Taking advantage of when the old man was sweeping up the cotton stuffing covering the floor, he snuck downstairs, using the garbage bag as cover.
“You came down at last.” Xie Wen’s voice suddenly sounded next to his ear, and Wen Shi jumped in alarm.
Only then did he remember that there was still a dressing mirror next to the old man’s bedroom door, and that Xie Wen could travel freely between the mirrors.
“Is it fun up there?” The indistinct figure in the mirror glanced in the direction of the staircase. “Here I was thinking that you were going to come down hand in hand with that old and young pair.”
“Get lost.” Wen Shi said.
If this was the past, he wouldn’t feel inclined to explain a single thing. But perhaps it was because the joking tone of Xie Wen’s voice was too evident; though he had already raised one leg, he still added, “I was listening to get an understanding of the situation. You’ll have to do this too if you enter a cage by yourself.”
Unexpectedly, Xie Wen let out an “oh” and said, “Indeed, I don’t tend to listen very often.”
He paused briefly before he said quietly, “However, with my skill level, it’s not like I’ve entered many cages before. But allow me to just mention in passing: if you listen too much, it’s hard to avoid feeling softhearted or lenient. It would be better to ignore it.”
Look at that ‘senior instructing a junior’ way of speaking.
Wen Shi watched him expressionlessly and said, “Oh.”
His tone made Xie Wen laugh. “What is it?”
Wen Shi: “If someone didn’t know better, they’d think you were Chen Budao.”
With an emotionless face, the doll stepped into the bedroom and even pushed the door almost completely shut with a flip of its hand.
The tall and slender silhouette in the mirror leaned against the frame for a while before he smiled and said softly, “Such disrespect.”
There was hardly anything different about the old man’s bedroom compared to the night before, apart from the missing mirror on the nightstand. Reasonably speaking, such a change should have put the cage master on alert, but judging from the old man’s appearance earlier, he didn’t seem to have an offensive nature.
Maybe his attention had been diverted by the mess upstairs, so he had temporarily overlooked that mirror.
A lock was still hanging from the desk drawer. The traces left behind from prying it open yesterday evening had already disappeared, indicating that the cage master had a very strong desire to protect this place.
Wen Shi probingly extended a string into the keyhole.
It was like the cotton thread had a life of its own, causing a faint clicking noise to emanate from within the lock.
He held his breath and waited for a second. Abruptly, in his peripheral vision, he sensed that there was something sprawled over the window frame, gazing in his direction.
When he lifted his head to look, the window was completely empty. Nothing was there.
Wen Shi lowered his eyes again.
The doll’s eyelashes were inhumanly long and somewhat obstructed his line of sight, to the extent that if he just blinked, it felt like a shadow was flashing past.
The instant the lock came undone, the feeling of being watched returned once more.
Yet again, Wen Shi raised his head. The window was still empty; only the curtains swayed gently in the humid and stuffy early summer breeze.
It was inevitable that he would encounter interference when opening the lock. This wasn’t his first time trying, after all.
He decided to simply stop paying attention to the window. With one tug, he removed the lock, pulled open the drawer as fast as he could, and fished out a thick manila envelope from inside.
Then, he whirled around and left.
The doll’s body was stuffed with cotton, so holding this thing made him quite top-heavy, and it was extremely difficult to run.
Wen Shi dashed over to the door. Right as he was about to open it, he suddenly looked up.
In the antique metal doorknob, there was a reflection of Wen Shi’s doll face. And behind him, a head draped with long hair stretched straight towards him, its lips drawn back in a strange curve.
Wen Shi: “…”
What must come would always end up coming.
Immediately, he abandoned the thought of opening the door and promptly angled himself sideways, slipping out between the crack in the door while hugging the folder close to his body.
The moment he shifted sideways, he caught sight of those things behind him.
Besides the ghastly pale faces reaching towards him on elongated, serpentine necks, there was also a chaotic jumble of hands and feet, as if a hundred-legged spider was crouched on the floor.
Without any hesitation, Wen Shi lifted his foot and kicked.
The bedroom door was knocked back with the force of his kick and slammed directly onto the faces with a bang, blocking the path of the “people” chasing him.
Who knew what material those faces were made of; the door even ricocheted off of them a few times.
Wen Shi sprinted towards the second floor. As he was climbing the stairs, he heard a tinkling crashing noise come from behind him. From the sound, he knew that Xie Wen had knocked over the dressing mirror, helping to create another obstruction for him.
The house, which was normally deathly quiet, grew lively in an instant. Thumping noises came from all the glass windows, causing them to tremble.
Wen Shi swept a look over from the corner of his vision; the windows were filled with faces pummeling the glass.
Seeing that the window pane next to the staircase was about to crack open, Wen Shi shifted his wrist and flung out his string. The moment the head broke through the window, the string wrapped around its neck like a noose.
“Wen-ge!” Xia Qiao called from up ahead as he opened the storage room door.
With a flick of his hand, Wen Shi slid the envelope over. Then, he swung the head and threw it back out the window.
The face: “…”
The thing let out a muffled plop as it smashed onto the ground. Wen Shi didn’t spare a single glance at it before he slid himself into the storage room and locked the door with a bang.
He tore off two more pieces of string from himself before he grabbed onto the end of a thread on Xia Qiao’s skirt. As he did so, he cursed, “This damn hand doesn’t even have fingers, I might as well just cut it off!”
At the same time, he still ended up bending his wrist and winding the string around the door handle.
To Wen Shi, the doll’s hands were quite clumsy. But in Xia Qiao’s eyes, they were as unexpectedly nimble as ever.
…the only thing was, it looked a little hilarious.
It wasn’t clear what spell formation Wen Shi tied together with the string. Regardless, even though the door was hammered for quite a while, it didn’t open.
His only regret was that he had forgotten to break off the thread connected to Xia Qiao’s skirt. As a result, when the formation was finished and Wen Shi tugged down on the other end of the string, Xia Qiao was hoisted upside down next to the door lock, legs swaying up in the air.
“Ge…” Xia Qiao’s head was facing downwards, and he felt extremely wronged.
“I’m sorry.” With a stiff expression, Wen Shi freed him.
Xie Wen laughed for a long time in the mirror.
“What are those things outside the door?” Xia Qiao landed with a thunk on the ground and patted off the dust on his skirt. Thinking about it still made him very frightened.
Wen Shi thought back on it and said, “The dolls that the boy tore to pieces.”
“Ah? But I saw that there was also blood on their heads, they didn’t seem like dolls? Is it possible that they really did come to life?”
“In the first place, objects in a cage are linked to the cage master’s consciousness.” As Wen Shi spoke, he untied the cord on the manila envelope. “They can’t be explained by common sense.”
The things outside were still diligently ramming away, and the sound of the door shaking was enough to scare someone witless.
Wen Shi fumbled around the wall for a bit before he found the storage room’s light switch.
An old-fashioned light bulb that hadn’t been used in an extremely long time lit up. Its connection was a bit loose, causing the bulb to flicker intermittently.
Borrowing the light of that dim glow, Wen Shi pulled out the contents of the folder.
It was a thick leather notebook with numerous loose pages and photos wedged inside. Most likely, it had been used as a dual-purpose diary and notebook.
However, all the pictures were blurry, and it was impossible to make out any faces. The writing in the notebook was also blurry, as if it had been soaked by water before, dissolving the ink.
“Why’s it like this?” Xia Qiao was startled.
“It’s another form of protection for the cage master.” Xie Wen said from his mirror, which was propped to the side.
“Can we still read this?”
“We can, a little.” This wasn’t Wen Shi’s first time encountering a situation like this.
He pulled out the first piece of paper pressed into the journal and narrowed his eyes, identifying the words written on top—
“200… don’t know how many years, raised a child for three years… I can’t read the section after that, probably died of illness.
“This year, at the end of summer, I… picked up a little something outside of the gingko alley.”
The reason why I call it ‘a little something’ is because it wasn’t actually an ordinary child. Who knew where he had procured his clothes from; they were tattered and ragged, like a little beggar’s, and there was a birthmark-like symbol from a seal on his chest.
Upon seeing it, some old craftsmen will know the meaning of that symbol.
There once existed an old saying that most likely can’t be found anymore—with the finishing press of a seal, a wooden boy thus becomes a puppet.
This little something was precisely that: a puppet.