The World Below Surface 21 ☆ Who took the picture?


Lu Yan gazed at the backs of the sisters, turned and entered the elevator.
The air inside the elevator gradually became gloomy, and the liquid was dripping.

Lu Yan felt a slight itch on his neck, like a soft touch of hair.
He lowered his head slightly and noticed a few strands of black hair hanging from his neck.
The mirror in front of him was gradually becoming blurred, but he could still make out his figure, with his face obscured by a head covered in long, black hair.

A corpse hung down from the top, staring directly at Lu Yan.
However, from Lu Yan's point of view, he could only see his pale face under the icy lights in the mirror, and the sensation on his neck seemed like an illusion.
He didn't pay much attention to it, said nothing, and the elevator's stalling and flashing lights didn't change his expression.
Eventually, he returned safely to his floor, unlocked the door, and made dinner as usual.

At night, he sat on the couch and watched TV.
Recently, there have been more and more strange news, and the female host on the screen was reciting the news.
Suddenly, she opened her mouth and swallowed her partner's head.
Then she realized she was live on air and covered her mouth with a shy smile, “I'm so sorry, but he always makes fun of my big mouth.
I'm not happy.
I hope everyone can understand me.”

Lu Yan nodded in agreement, and the hostess on the screen smiled with satisfaction as she continued with the news.
A figure plummeted to the ground outside the window, emitting a mournful scream.
Lu Yan ignored it and continued to focus on the TV.
Moments later, another identical figure fell, making the same scream.
Throughout the night, the same scream echoed repeatedly, and Lu Yan couldn't determine how many times it had happened.

When Lu Yan stepped out of his flat the following day, the ground was clean and unoccupied, as if the hundred jumps from the previous night had been nothing more than an illusion.

Lu Yan walked towards the nearby underground station and passed a park where people were seated, forming a red and white yin-yang symbol.
The group leader finished reciting a prayer, “Today, for the sake of our all-knowing and all-powerful Lord, I will praise Him forever and dwell with Him in the Holy Kingdom of Heaven forever…” Just as he finished, the park exploded with a deafening boom.

Lu Yan, who had already entered the next block, did not turn back at the sound of the explosion as he continued towards the underground station.
As a journalist for a news agency, he was due at work and arrived at the office on time.
He entered his superior editor's office, ready to start the day.

“Well, did you bring the news?” His supervisor munched on a snack, his teeth crunching tiny human knuckles.
His eyes were fixed on Lu Yan.

Lu Yan nodded, “I brought it,” he said, placing a USB stick and a thick envelope on the table.

The supervisor set down the snack bag picked up the photos, and examined them one by one, nodding in approval.
“Not bad, not bad,” he said, “you actually captured the process of a human turning into a zombie…huh? Lan Zhiyu has been dead for decades, yet you captured her story.
Looks like we'll definitely take first place this year.” He praised Lu Yan and offered him a snack, but Lu Yan declined.
The supervisor finished the bag of bones on his own and then continued with his assignments.

“Some of our newspaper staff are just too weak, they die after two or three interviews.
But you, you're more durable.
Next week, you'll go and cover this village.” He smiled at Lu Yan, “This village is famous for its underworld wedding customs and has set a historical record for the ghost brides.
You'll go and learn about it.”

Lu Yan agreed without a word.

This world…this world went mad a long time ago.

He wasn't sure when it all began – maybe it was when humans first heard the crazed, incoherent ravings from another world; perhaps it started when the heads of condemned prisoners appeared on the necks of innocent people; or maybe it was from a small, unconscious act of human exploration into the unknown.

Regardless, the world had gone mad.
Ghosts and monsters, once only found in horror stories, had taken over, and humanity was filled with bloodshed, terror, and cold corpses.

But the revival was only frightening; there were no gods, and humans were helpless.
People caught in the chaos didn't resist and embraced the new world joyfully.

There were no wars, for there was no point in fighting.
Death was no longer feared, as the line between life and death was blurred.
The death penalty was abolished, and no one dared to commit a crime for fear of retaliation.

They lived in a world of true peace and happiness.

Lu Yan entered the elevator and searched for information about the small village.
The village was called Red River Village, and it was said that anyone who broke the strict rules was bled and thrown into the river, turning it into a river of red blood.

As he was reading, the elevator suddenly plunged, the numbers on display dropping until it finally stopped at -18.
The elevator doors opened to reveal a blazing fire, a pool of boiling, inverted blood, and a head wailing in the pool.

Lu Yan didn't step out but moved to the corner to avoid crowding the other passengers.
After a while, the elevator appeared to fill with people, and the doors closed, rising slowly.

The black hair appeared again, wrapping around his neck in a circle, pulling out a woman who fell to the floor before him.
A woman with a large belly pulled at Lu Yan's pant leg and smiled up at him, “Let's…
Let's have a baby, okay?”

Lu Yan found himself in a difficult situation as the person gripping his pant leg was holding on too tight for him to move freely.
Although he couldn't provide a straightforward answer, he had to do something to extricate himself from the situation.
He gazed into his captor's black, tear-filled eyes and decided to take action.
With a deep breath, he squatted down, withdrew the knife he carried, handed it over to the person, and then gestured towards their stomach.

The woman was stunned but quickly realized the situation.
She then took matters into her own hands by reaching down and slicing open her stomach, revealing one tiny, bruised baby after another.

In no time, the infants were crawling all over the floor with their eyes closed, and the hall was littered with long, twisted umbilical cords, with Lu Yan having long since left the scene.

Since he was headed to Red River Village, he did not waste any time.
After a quick stop at home, he packed his belongings.
He had spent nearly a week rest before setting out on his journey.

The twin sisters who lived upstairs were the newest residents in the building.
The older sister was named Li Fang Ivana.
In contrast, the younger was named Li Fang Zhi, and they were incredibly close and seldom apart.
As Lu Yan said goodbye to them, they bounced out the door and asked, “What a coincidence, another business trip?”

Lu Yan nodded and then took a taxi to the train station, where he boarded the train to Red River Village.


“This mission is quite strange,” said Chen Zheng Hao.
“Living in Red River Village for a full month? And the name Red River Village sounds ominoss” “It probably conjures up images of a red river of blood,” commented Ding Cong Lu as she tightly gripped Chen Zheng Hao's hand.
“But we can definitely make it, let's not give up!” she added, looking at her boyfriend with determination.

“I won't,” replied Chen Zheng Hao, embracing his girlfriend in a firm hug.
“We must survive, Little Lu,” he whispered in her ear.

Just as the two were lost in their embrace, a voice interrupted them.
“You two are also headed to Red River Village, correct?”

Ding Cong Lu pulled away from the hug, embarrassed, and introduced herself and her boyfriend.
“Yes, we're going to Red River Village.
I'm Ding Cong Lu and this is my boyfriend, Chen Zheng Hao.”

The visitor was a tall, athletic woman with a wheat-coloured complexion who stood taller than Chen Zheng Hao.
She introduced herself, “I'm Shen Na.”

As more people arrived, twelve individuals gathered, ranging in age from high school students to someone in their forties.

“Now, let's go over the mission,” announced Shen Na.
“We are to arrive at Station XX in the city of XX precisely at 11:00 AM on October 11.
We will board Train 444 to Red River Village and remain there for the entirety of the month.
Our mission begins at zero hour on October 12 and ends at zero hour on November 12.
During this time, we must not leave the boundaries of Red River Village or the mission will be deemed a failure.”

She exuded a commanding presence, inspiring confidence and earning her the right to speak.
However, one man was sceptical and muttered, “Why should I listen to you?”

Shen Na replied calmly, “Our ultimate goal is to survive, and it's best if we don't engage in internal conflicts.
We must discuss everything together.
Let's start by sharing how many missions each of us has completed.
We can use the experience of the person with the most missions as the basis for our decision-making.”

The man's face stiffened.
“Three missions,” he said.

Ding Cong Lu and Chen Zheng Hao, both newcomers, whispered sheepishly, “Two missions.” They had previously discussed fabricating their experiences to avoid discrimination.

“Three missions,” another person chimed in.

“Two missions,” added another.

“Six missions,” came a surprise from the group's youngest member, a high school student named An Xing Yu.

Everyone turned their attention to An Xing Yu, taken aback by his unexpected revelation.

These “missions” were a mystery to everyone.
They all suddenly received a consciousness, instructing them to travel to another world at a designated time to perform specific survival tasks.
Failure meant death, and their nightmares about various gruesome deaths provided evidence of the reality of their situation.
One person who had initially disregarded the warnings met a violent and tragic end after failing to arrive on time at the designated gathering place.

After several attempts, they were forced to heed the guidance of the consciousness and embark on the missions.
The group of individuals participating in each mission was usually not small.
Upon realizing that many others worldwide had experienced the same thing, they created a secret website to share their experiences with one another.

Upon consolidating the accounts from other “questers” on the website, they discovered that most of the missions involved psychic horror events of all types and that the ghosts were indestructible.
There was no solution to the ghosts or curses; they could only find ways to save themselves from death.

The world where the missions took place appeared similar to their own, but once the mission began, it became fraught with danger, where every move could result in death.

The missions did not offer any rewards or benefits like in some infinite level-based novels.
The only compensation was recovering any trauma from the task after returning to reality.
No matter how long the mission lasted, it would only take a fraction of a second in reality.
Those who returned from the mission alive could continue with their everyday lives, while those who failed died instantly.

An Xing Yu's experience completing six missions at a young age was awe-inspiring.
Ding Cong Lu couldn't resist asking, “When did you start doing missions?”

An Xing Yu replied with a voice devoid of emotion, “I started my first mission on January 14 of this year.”

At a rate of nearly one mission every two months, they all wondered when this would ever end.

There was a moment of silence before Shen Na spoke up, “Eight missions.”

The individuals who had just posed the question fell silent, their hearts filled with a sense of comfort.
One of them spoke up, “Wait, are you the person behind the website post send in by [Tall buildings will fall]? I recall reading that they had completed eight times and there was an experience-sharing post after the eighth mission.
It warned us to be cautious of NPCs.”

They only needed to be wary of those who claimed to be native to the world.
There was always a chance they could be ghostly entities posing as humans.
On the other hand, people paid little attention to off-world natives as long as they were sure they were human.

In fact, many individuals took advantage of the natives, using them as tools for exploration within the game.
Despite their ability to converse, laugh, and have their own thoughts, these individuals were often referred to as NPCs, reflecting that they were nothing more than tools to be used.

It was as if they paralyzed themselves into thinking that it was all just a game.
The NPCs were considered safe to use in their quest for survival.

Shen Na spoke up, “It's not me.”

“Not you? Then who could it be?” asked another.

“There are so many people on the website.
I can't be the only one who's completed it eight times,” replied Shen Na.

Just as the group was curious, a voice from the corner called out, “It's me.”

A cold and stoic man emerged from the shadows, walking towards the group.
He introduced himself, “I'm the one who posted it.
My name is He Lou.”

With this, the number of individuals who had completed the task rose to thirteen.

“Excuse me,” said An Xing Yu, sensing there was still time before their arrival in Red River Village.
“What do you mean by 'beware of NPCs'?”

He Lou, who still looked pale, replied simply, “Literally.” The psychological shadow of his previous experience still haunted him, and he couldn't shake the fear of losing his limbs again.
“Have you ever considered that those NPCs are living, breathing individuals with minds of their own, just like us?” he asked, highlighting the injustice of exploiting them.
Although He Lou's attitude made the others uneasy, he didn't elaborate further.

The train arrived at precisely 11 o'clock, and the passengers boarded an empty carriage.
They found seats and began chatting in small groups.
He Lou gazed out the window at the passing darkness, his mind drifting to the man from his previous mission.
Mission frequencies had decreased, but the time intervals between tasks for the same person had shortened.
Just a week after his last assignment, He Lou had received a new one, and he couldn't help but wonder what would happen this time.

The passengers eventually drifted off to sleep, and when they woke up, the train was approaching Red River Village.
“The train is about to arrive.
Red River Village, please take your belongings with you,” a voice announced.

He Lou opened his eyes to find himself seated in a crowded train carriage, with stewards making final announcements about the approaching station.
Taking a quick glance around, he surveyed the other passengers before doing a head count and confirming that everyone was present and accounted for.
He reached the door, waiting to disembark as the train pulled into Red River Village.

As he prepared to leave the train, an elderly man nearby struck up a conversation.
“Are you heading to the village as well?” he asked.

He Lou smiled in response.
“Yes, we're here to have some fun.”

The man's enthusiasm was infectious.
“That's great! I'm from Red River Village myself.
Are you familiar with the area? Do you have a place to stay?”

He Lou shook his head.
“No, we don't.”

“It's quite late, and with so many of you, I'd recommend staying at the village's hotel by the train station.
It's owned by a relative of my family, and I can even offer you a discount if you mention my name, Li Youcai.”

As the train came to a stop, He Lou and his group disembarked, thirteen people in total.
He proposed they spend the night at the hotel and explore the village the following day.
The group had no objections, and soon they settled into their new accommodations.

What struck He Lou most about the village was how seamlessly it blended the two worlds.
The currency could be exchanged without issue, and there were no problems with documentation.
If not for their inability to access information from their own reality, they might have believed they were in the same world.

They had all slept peacefully through the night in the village's inn.
The following day, Shen Na descended the stairs and found An Xing Yu chatting with the innkeeper's wife.
An Xing Yu, who was delicate and pale, had a polite manner and quickly won over the proprietress, who was now excitedly sharing information about Red River Village.

The proprietress, eager to share her knowledge, asked, “Do you know how the village got its name? The experts say it's because of the microorganisms in the soil that dye the river water red and make it a beautiful sight.”

“Auntie, don't you usually have trouble with water?”

“No, the water we drink is clean.”

Curious to see the red river, Shen Na interjected, “Where can I see it? I want to take a look.”

The proprietress put down her cleaning rag, wiped her hands on her apron, and pointed toward the river.
“Take the main road west from here, don't turn around, and you'll eventually come upon it,” she instructed.

“Okay, thank you auntie.” An Xing Yu, inquired, “Apart from the red river, are there any other interesting and delicious places to visit?”

This sparked a lively discussion, with others gathering around to listen.
The innkeeper's wife eagerly listed local delicacies like mushrooms, black tea, and unique paper lanterns.

“By the way,” she added, “tomorrow the village headman's grandson is getting married, and there will be a reception in the evening.
Everyone from the village is expected to attend, so you're welcome to join us.”

Ding Cong Lu, hesitant about attending the reception, asked, “We're just here to sightsee.
Would it be inappropriate to attend the reception?”

The proprietress reassured them, “It's just how things are done in our village.
Everyone is expected to attend, and it would be against the rules not to.
You don't need to bring anything fancy, just a white packet as a small token of appreciation.”

The group was confused when they heard the proprietress mention a “white packet,” as they were accustomed to giving “red packets” as gifts.

“A white packet?”

“The village headman's son has been gone for three years, but he has finally found a wife, so he is very happy today,” the boss's wife said with excitement as she returned to the counter, pulling out a pile of white packets from the drawer.
“I watched that boy grow up and sent him away with my own hands.
He was very picky and didn't want an ordinary girl.
But now it's good.
I heard that this one is a university student and has a beautiful photo.
He must be happy.
By the way, you just came from outside, so you might not have prepared a white packet.
That's okay, I can give it to you here,” she added.

The crowd looked at each other, but Shen Na was the first to take it.
“Thanks, then.
We'll go and ask for a cup of wedding wine tomorrow,” she said.

Seeing Shen Na take it, the boss lady smiled more happily.
She looked at the others and asked suspiciously, “Don't you guys want it? Or is it that you guys don't want to go?”

It was almost as if it was an illusion, but when she asked the latter half of the question, even the temperature in the air dropped a few points.

“Of course, we want to go!” the few people who didn't take it shivered and quickly took the white bag.

Only when they held it in their hands did they realise that the white packet was a little rough, no different in texture from the paper money customarily used for burning.

“That's good,” the boss lady said meaningfully.
“Accept the white packet and make sure you go for a drink.
Don't lose it.
Also, when you enter our Red River Village, you must abide by the rules of our village.
Yesterday, you arrived too late, so I did not talk to you.
Tomorrow, when you go drinking, let the village chief tell you.”

With a smile, the boss lady seemed to turn the other cheek, and no one could say that she had a bad attitude.

Although not all the players were on the ground floor, one young player had just woken up and come downstairs to find everyone gathered.
Whispering what had happened, they told him to ask the boss's wife for a white bag.

“I can't believe you slept in so late,” the boss's wife sneered at Yao Wendong, the latecomer, with an extraordinarily hateful look.
“People like you won't be welcome in our Red River Village.” Adding insult to injury, she refused to give him the white bag.

Yao Wendong, who was already on edge, couldn't resist complaining in a low voice, “If you don't give it, you don't give it.” Despite his unhappiness, he stood aside.

The boss's wife's face became even grimmer as she squeezed out a few stern words through her teeth, “You won't be able to stay in Red River Village if you don't respect the old and love the young, and if you don't know the rules.”

Even Yao Wendong, who was not typically bold, was intimidated by the stern expression on the boss's face.
Soon after, a few more people who had also overslept came downstairs.
The boss's wife's expression became even more severe as she glared at them as if they had committed a heinous crime.
Not only did they not receive a white bag, but they also didn't get to eat breakfast.
The few who had slept late regretted it, but they could do nothing.

Eventually, the group headed towards the Red River, located west of the village.
Although Red River village was not large, it looked new, with antique buildings everywhere resembling a tourist attraction.
No matter who they met on the way, they were warmly greeted and expected to respond in kind lest they provoke a sour expression from the other party.

He Lou, who was part of the group, remembered the words “Speaking the rules,” and the boss's wife's reaction, and he sensed something was amiss.
They walked together as a group of a dozen people, quite conspicuous, along the avenue that stretched from the entrance to the end of the village.
He Lou kept his head down and searched the internet for news about Red River Village as the group walked.
It was a bit cold lately, and the wind had picked up considerably, chilling the group.
One of the men had his hat on, but the wind was so strong that it blew his hat out and landed in a nearby paddy field.
The others didn't pay much attention; they just glanced at it before withdrawing their eyes.
The man didn't seem to mind the situation.
He stooped down by the side of the road and tried to grab an object, but it was just out of reach.
So, he broke a nearby branch to retrieve it.
As he surveyed the area to ensure there were no villagers nearby, he stepped cautiously into the rice field and reached out again.
With the object back in hand, he wiped away the dirt and placed it on his head.
When he tried to stand up, he realised he couldn't move his legs and felt slightly stiff as he floated towards the centre of the field.
Suddenly, a thought crossed his mind.
“Oh no, this must be a ghost!” he yelled for help, but the group had already left, and no one responded.
His eyes were wide open, and he felt his insides emptied out as he floated there.
Shen Na turned around unintentionally and felt a sense of unease.
“Wait a minute! Someone's missing,” she exclaimed.
The group quickly panicked and took a headcount, realising that one person was missing.

The more prominent men were flustered, as they knew that the missing person, like them, had not taken the white bag belonging to the boss's wife.
They feared the disappeared person was likely already gone.
Just then, a man came running towards them, panting and waving his arms.
“Wait for me! You guys are moving too fast!” It was the missing man.
The group, who had only just been scared by their imagination, let out a sigh of relief and started complaining.
“What happened? Why did you take so long?” they asked.
The man looked embarrassed and explained, “I just had a stomach ache and had to go to the toilet.
I thought I would catch up quickly, so I didn't tell anyone.” They had recently passed a public toilet.
When reminded of this, the others brushed it off, reminding each other to inform the group when they needed to go anywhere.
Shen Na cast a suspicious gaze but remained silent, slowly distancing herself.
As they spoke, the Red River appeared before them.
Its fishy scent could be detected from a distance.
Despite the lush greenery surrounding the village, the banks of the river were barren with no sign of life.
The water was thick and slow-moving, a strange shade of sticky red.
One of the group muttered in awe, “How is this red river a bit like…,” but trailed off, too afraid to finish the thought everyone else had to.
Shen Na broke the silence, “Okay, let's take pictures now.
The boss lady just said we could take pictures here.” The boss lady had also mentioned the possibility of attending the village chief's son's wedding banquet, but whether it was a requirement or not was unclear.
The group embraced their role as tourists, taking individual and group photos before returning to the hotel for lunch.

“Excellent, everyone arrived on time for dinner today without any tardiness.
Being punctual is highly valued in our Red River Village,” the proprietress praised them, giving a round of applause and guiding several of them to sit in a booth.
One of the few waiters working in the shop brought out dishes from the kitchen, and An Xing Yu and He Lou expressed their gratitude.
Shen Na followed their example, and the rest of the group did the same.
As the meal progressed, the waiter continued bringing out more kitchen dishes.

During a lull in the conversation, He Lou spoke up in a severe tone, “I would like to remind everyone that it is essential to follow the village rules while staying here.
Please keep them in mind and do not break them, or there will be consequences.” He quickly glanced at the woman at the counter who was busily pressing a calculator and smirked.

Evidently, the repeated emphasis on the rules by the owner's wife and the villagers' reactions on the road had given them an idea that something was amiss in the village.
The first dish served was a soup made from some animal's innards, and the scent was overpowering.
He Lou took one look at it and declined to drink it.
Then, all sorts of dishes were brought to the table.
The boss's wife reappeared, “Everyone is free to walk in the afternoon and go to bed early at night.
Anyone who stays up past 11 PM is not welcome in Red River Village.” Everyone listened attentively to the boss's wife, and after they finished eating, they formed small groups of two or three to discuss what they had heard.
He Lou and An Xing Yu went together and decided to visit the village head's house first.

As they walked, An Xing Yu said, “Don't you think this village's rules are a bit too strict? They can't be broken at all.” He Lou nodded in agreement, “I did some research online before coming here.
This village is somewhat famous and is now developing tourism.
They want to establish a reputation as a ceremonial village, so they're particularly strict about the rules.” 'But they're being harsh,' An Xing Yu frowned, 'And if they care so much about etiquette, then what do they call…' He looked left and right to ensure no one was around before whispering, '…their ghost marriage practices?' He Lou's gaze deepened for a moment, and he slowly shook his head, “Such words should be spoken as little as possible.” He was well aware of the anomaly, but the tragedy of his last mission still weighed heavily on his mind, and he couldn't forget it.

“Let's visit the village headman first,” suggested He Lou.
The headman's house was in the village and was a small three-story wooden antique building.
At the corners of the front and back of the house, white paper lanterns with black “Xi” symbols on a white background were hanging, swaying in the late autumn breeze.
Two rows of half-height paper figures in the courtyard were neatly arranged with white faces, red mouths, smiling eyes, and brightly dressed.
They appeared somewhat eerie from a distance.
As the innkeeper had mentioned, the village headman was at home and in an excellent mood.
The tradition of “ghost marriage” has existed since ancient times and has faded into obscurity.
However, it still exists in some rural areas.
It is believed that if a young man or woman dies and is not given a spouse, the deceased's spirit will be restless and disturb the family home.
The village headman firmly believed in this tradition.
He was beaming with satisfaction as he spoke of his daughter-in-law.
“I actually wanted to get one when I first left, but I couldn't find a woman with good qualifications.
But she's young and filial, and my Tianbao will love her,” he said with a smile before trailing off.
“It also saves him from haunting me every day…” However, the headman seemed to realize he had said something inappropriate and quickly changed the subject.
He Lou and his companion were aware that the rules in this Red River village were strict and didn't want to cause any trouble.

“Of course, I'll be there tomorrow,” said He Lou, eager to be polite and show good manners.

The headman welcomed their presence, “I welcome young disciplined people like you who know how to be polite and behave.” The word “disciplined” sent a chill down their spines, however, He Lou was curious about the consequences of breaking the rules in the village, so he asked,

“Village Chief, what happens to those who accidentally break the rules?”

The headman's face immediately became stern, “That is not for you to ask.” Seeing the tense situation, He Lou calmly addressed the village chief, “Excuse me, we are visitors to this village and are not familiar with the rules.
Could you kindly show us where we can learn more about them to avoid any future misunderstandings?” The village chief's expression softened, and he rose from his seat to retrieve a small booklet.
He handed it to He Lou and An Xing Yu and said, “Our village rules are not harsh, but the youth these days can be quite impulsive.
I must say, it's refreshing to see people who are calm and polite like you two.”

He Lou smiled and, after a brief visit, made an excuse to leave with An Xing Yu.
Upon leaving, they examined the booklet.
The first few pages contained basic guidelines, such as the requirement to be in bed by eleven o'clock and to rise by eight in the morning, to not speak while eating or sleeping, and so on.
However, as they flipped through the pages, the rules became increasingly strict, prohibiting complaining, celebrating other people's joys, and attending other people's funerals.
There were even specific dress codes mentioned.

“What do you think after reading this?” He Lou asked An Xing Yu.

“It's like undergoing military training,” An Xing Yu replied.
“Being subjected to such strict rules for an extended period of time can either break a person or turn them into a mere puppet.”

At Red River Village, He Lou and An Xing Yu received preferential treatment on their first day.

However, as the evening approached, they noticed a shift in their treatment.
The owner's wife kept a watchful eye on their every move – from eating and talking to walking and sitting.
If anything was out of place, she would scowl and threaten to ban them from the village.

By the end of the day, the constant surveillance had taken a toll on the group.

To save money and ensure their safety, they shared a room with two.
One of them couldn't contain his frustration in one room and muttered a complaint about the village, “What a terrible place.
So many rules just for the sake of tourism.
Who would come here?”

The other man, who had been quiet until then, looked up at his companion as he expressed his disdain towards the concept of ghost marriages.

“What's wrong with you? Not a word and acting so strange after picking up a hat and coming back.” The man patted his companion's shoulder but suddenly noticed something amiss.

The touch under his hand was soft and rustling, and even through the clothing, he could feel a roughness.
It was like tapping on a pile of leather-wrapped straw.

“You…,” the man watched in horror as his companion's features gradually flattened out, his mouth seemingly cut open and closing, and his blood flowing backwards, freezing him in place.

“You don't keep to the rules,” the scarecrow's slashed mouth opened and closed, his voice hoarse.
Straws burrowed through all the holes in his head, filling his eyes, ears, mouth, and nose, rustling and burrowing into his body.

“Unruly and deserving of punishment,” the scarecrow spoke again.

“Help me…,” the man tried to scream for help, but his voice wouldn't come out.

In the next moment, he felt his own stomach being cut open.
The other man's movements were no different from the killing of a chicken at a vegetable market.
There was no blood, the organs were pulled out with a single gulp, and the empty abdominal cavity was filled with a large pile of straw.

The room fell into an eerie silence as the two scarecrows lay motionless on the bed, wrapped in their blankets.
They had to stick to their strict bedtime and early wake-up schedule to be welcomed in Red River Village.

Shen Na checked her phone and scrolled through the news of Red River Village.
However, she was disappointed that it was mostly about ghost marriages and the rise of a ghost marriage culture.
As she went through the photos taken during the day, she frowned at the sight of the Red River, which looked like a pool of blood plasma, a fishy red and sticky liquid.
Despite being at the river's edge, there was no hint of the blood's odour, making the scene all the more haunting.
It was like looking into the legendary pool of blood in hell.

She took a closer look at the photos, first of the river, then of individual and group photos.
As she gazed at the group photo, she unconsciously started counting the people in the picture.

There were thirteen people, all of whom appeared stiff and tense as if they were in the midst of a horror mission.
Shen Na wondered how many of them would still be alive by the end of it.
But no matter what, she was determined to survive.
Her resolve was evident in her steely gaze.
Shen Na put down her phone and went to wash up, but even the warm water splashing on her body couldn't ease the nagging feeling that something was wrong.
And then, it hit her.
The group photo had thirteen people, but who had taken the picture for them?

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