The World Below Surface 29 ☆ The Secret of Red River Village

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Pandemonium had engulfed the entirety of Red River Village.
Every villager was scouring the area in search of Zhao Chuan.

The sky grew darker, and the chilly, wet atmosphere thickened with each passing moment.
Meanwhile, He Lou, Shen Na, An Xing Yu and Wang Jing were sprinting in the opposite direction.

An Xing Yu, who still had not regained his memory, kept protesting and pleading to go back.
If not for the virtual memories that the village had implanted in him, he would never have believed in He Lou's leadership.
Impatient, He Lou let go of An Xing Yu's hand and ran ahead with Shen Na and the others.

Initially, Red River Village had appeared to be a thriving community with broad roads, sturdy homes and healthy crops.
However, now, it was almost unrecognizable.
The paths had narrowed, becoming littered with sharp rocks and tangled weeds and vines.

As they ran deeper into the desolate landscape, the temperature plummeted, and even their breath felt damp.
The bleak and forbidding environment, coupled with the rapidly darkening sky, filled them with dread.

“Lou, are we really headed outside the village?” Shen Na asked, trailing behind and watching her footing.
Although her memory had just returned, she was still a bit disoriented.
Nevertheless, since He Lou was leading them, she had no reason to question the course of action.

“But it hasn't been a full month yet,” Wang Jing chimed in.
She had only been on two missions and felt completely out of her depth in this strange world.
So far, she had managed to survive purely by chance.

He Lou understood that he needed to provide a clear explanation to dispel any lingering doubts in Shen Na's mind.
He ran ahead, simultaneously relaying the information Lu Yan had shared with him.
Shen Na quickly comprehended the situation, but Wang Jing remained somewhat confused.
Nevertheless, she realized that this was her chance to escape the village.

However, a perplexing question arose in Wang Jing's mind.
“Isn't the time of our mission calculated according to the time of the outside world?” she wondered.
Nevertheless, she kept her thoughts to herself and focused on keeping up with the others.

Although she was aware that the villagers would pursue them, there was no sign of them at present, so Wang Jing felt relatively unconcerned.
She paused to check her wristwatch, but the hands were spinning aimlessly, leaving her clueless about the time, month, or day.
She found the village to be disorienting and confusing.
Nonetheless, the thought of leaving it filled her with hope.

However, Wang Jing's hope was short-lived, as she began to worry about the accuracy of the path they were taking.
The confusing time calculations made her question if they were on the right track.
She slowed down and looked around, searching for any clues that could guide them.
As they moved deeper into the dense forest, the path became increasingly difficult to navigate, and the weather grew dimmer, making it hard to see.

The two people ahead of her were leaving her behind, and Wang Jing could still hear their faint footsteps.
Suddenly, she saw a white shadow out of the corner of her eye, which caused her to panic.
She thought it was a ghost and screamed in terror.
She ran through the dense forest, her body aching from the branches and undergrowth that scraped her.

Wang Jing kept running until she was too exhausted to continue.
Finally, she slowed down, panting heavily.

She was at her limit, her body unable to continue running any further.
However, with the glimmer of light that appeared at the end of the dimly lit path, Wang Jing found new motivation to persevere.
The light's faintness only made it more alluring, and she charged towards it with renewed vigor.
Unfortunately, in her excitement, she failed to notice the wet mud beneath her feet.

When she finally arrived at the source of the light, a lantern, she approached it slowly.
As the wind blew gently, the lantern swayed, seemingly gazing back at her.
It was then that Wang Jing noticed the object that had caught her eye.

“Ahhh!” she exclaimed.

Meanwhile, Shen Na panted heavily beside her companion, whose unusual gait and weightless strides had set her on edge.
“Brother Lou, are we heading the right way?” she asked anxiously, but the man in front of her remained silent, his head bowed and hands clasped together.

It was then that she noticed something peculiar about his movement: his heels never touched the ground, and he drifted forward like a ghost.
A sinking feeling gripped her as she realized that this was not He Lou.

A quick glance ahead confirmed her fears: the road ahead was growing more rugged and unstable by the second.
Without a moment's hesitation, Shen Na spun on her heel and began running back the way they had come.
Wang Jing, who had witnessed the strange scene, followed suit.

As they fled, Shen Na pondered the consequences of breaking the village's rules, knowing that such disobedience could plunge it into chaos.
The sky was alternating between light and dark, the terrain was disorienting, and the climate was erratic.
It was as if the fabric of time and space had been torn asunder.

In this chaotic environment, a “month” could stretch into an eternity.
She stumbled down a short slope, narrowly avoiding a small pond that she had seen only ten minutes earlier.
How were they ever going to get past it?

“No,” Shen Na exclaimed, looking at the twisted road ahead of them.
“Even the road seems confused.
What good will it do to keep running in one direction? Who knows if it will turn into something like a Möbius ring and we'll end up back where we started.”

Wang Jing caught up to her, panting heavily.
“Shen Na, what should we do now?”

Shen Na shrugged.
“This road won't work.
Let's go back the way we came, but be careful to avoid the villagers.”

“Good idea,” Wang Jing muttered under her breath.

As they walked, Wang Jing placed a hand on Shen Na's shoulder, but Shen Na quickly dodged away.
“Stay away from me!” she warned, glancing at her own reflection in the nearby pond.

A chill ran through her as she realized that only her own reflection was visible.
Her heart pounding, Shen Na kicked “Wang Jing” into the water and ran away.

“Wang Jing” floated on the surface of the water, motionless except for the ripples caused by the waves.

Shen Na ran for an unknown amount of time until she felt more at ease.
The path was rough and steep, but she hadn't seen any villagers.
Had they managed to avoid them by paying attention to the terrain? Just when she began to feel a bit more relaxed, she suddenly felt short of breath.
She couldn't catch her breath, and her vision blurred.
Finally, she noticed something cold on her neck.
It was two white hands!

The hands had broken off from Wang Jing's body and had been hanging around Shen Na's neck since she had shaken her off.
She tried to shake them off but couldn't.

She felt the lack of oxygen and her vision began to fade.

The water in the small pond was intantly tinged with red.
Two ghastly white female corpses floated above with their eyes wide open, and strangely enough, their hands were missing.

In the distance, a young man passed by with a cold expression, removing his binoculars from around his neck.

“Brother Lu, where are we headed now?”

The chaos in the village had sent the locals scrambling after Zhao Chuan, and Shen Na, He Lou, and Wang Jing had fled the village for reasons unknown.
An Xing Yu had followed them for a while, but had fallen behind and bumped into Lu Yan.
Now, Lu Yan was leading him on a path to nowhere.

“Let's go and help find Zhao Chuan too,” said Lu Yan.

He wondered if He Lou and Zhao Chuan had managed to escape and hoped they hadn't.
Shen Na was dead, and the only company left was An Xing Yu, whose memory had yet to return.
As they walked, he asked, “An Xing Yu, would you be willing to lend me your diary so I can take a look?”

After regaining his memory, Lu Yan had noticed that something was amiss.
Though clocks were ubiquitous, mobile phones and other modern electronic devices were rare in the village, and most households lacked a calendar.
This realization led him to sneak a look at An Xing Yu's diary, in which he had recorded the time he had deduced from his memory.

However, he had not kept the diary long enough to read it thoroughly and had only managed to flip through a few pages before returning it to He Lou in haste.
As he opened the diary, An Xing Yu nodded subconsciously but suddenly paused.

“I…,” he began, appearing to be in pain as his memories grew fuzzy and then began to clear.

The mission…Red River Village…Underworld Wedding…

An Xing Yu quickly regained his senses.

“Your memory has returned?” asked Lu Yan, surprised.

An Xing Yu nodded and took a few deep breaths.
“Didn't you say we were going to find Zhao Chuan? Let's go now,” he said, ready to move on.

Although Lu Yan was unfamiliar to him, he seemed trustworthy for the time being, based on his recollection of this period.
Even if Lu Yan was a ghost masquerading as a human, it would be unwise to recklessly expose his disguise, as it could have disastrous consequences.
Therefore, An Xing Yu opted to adopt a friendly demeanor towards him.
As they sprinted along the treacherous and convoluted path, Lu Yan perused the diary, gradually coming to a definitive conclusion.

“Why the sudden interest in finding Zhao Chuan?” An Xing Yu inquired as they ran.

Since An Xing Yu had exhibited benevolence towards him, and since Lu Yan was not inclined to eliminate individuals without due cause, the two had established an unspoken agreement to collaborate.
As such, Lu Yan saw no reason to conceal anything from him.
He urgently needed to locate Zhao Chuan, specifically the village chieftain who was pursuing him, as he was the root cause of all the problems.

“I had a query for a long time, and today I have the means to resolve it.
It's a significant gamble, but I can no longer afford to be indifferent.”

“Do you mean to say that the village chieftain is to blame for everything?” An Xing Yu inquired.

Do you recall how the village chieftain always turns pale whenever someone violates the village's regulations, and then the others follow his lead? It's not the village rules they're following, but rather the village chieftain's edicts,” Lu Yan explained.

He had long ago installed cameras in everyone's quarters and had consequently witnessed some strange events.

“So, what's your explanation for the red river in the village?” An Xing Yu queried, his pace showing no signs of slowing down.
“My hypothesis was that the villagers were compelled to reside by the Red River, or some entity within it.
Therefore, their nuptials, funerals, and punishments were all determined by the river.”

An Xing Yu had jotted down in his diary, in an enigmatic cipher, that following the initial disappearance of the four men, although they had speculated that the four had become scarecrows, he had later made another trip to the Red River and had chanced four corpses.

“What was the link between the village chieftain and the Red River? Who administers the punishment when you violate the rules and die? Have you ever witnessed any of the villagers, aside from the village chieftain, dispensing punishment? I'm even beginning to suspect that Wu Bo might be the village chieftain, given that they haven't been seen together in some time,” An Xing Yu interjected, synthesizing Lu Yan's statements with his own.
His eyes widened as he spoke.

Lu Yan posed the question to An Xing Yu, “Have you figured it out too?”

An Xing Yu nodded, but he refrained from voicing his conjecture aloud because the implications were too terrifying.
It was possible that the village chief was not a mere mortal but rather an entity that resided in the river.
The village chief could have been the river itself or a being that governed the river.

According to An Xing Yu's theory, the villagers did not originate from the Red River.
Instead, the village chief was the first to exist, followed by the creation of the Red River and the other villagers.
This would explain why none of the villagers possessed the same level of power as the village chief.
They were merely his eyes, watching and reporting any transgressions they witnessed.

The village chief had the ability to manifest multiple avatars, but the villagers could not act without his permission.
Although they could observe and report wrongdoing, they lacked the authority to discipline like the village chief himself.

“No wonder…” An Xing Yu trailed off as he considered how the four early companions had only faced a warning from the innkeeper's wife.
The innkeeper's wife lacked the means to execute them.

The village chief's power was absolute, as demonstrated by his attempt to devour He Lou.
His mouth was filled with a red liquid that resembled the water of the Red River.
This incident made it abundantly clear that only the village chief possessed the power to punish offenders.

An Xing Yu contemplated the equation: village chief equals rules equals Red River, villagers equals village chief's eyes.
It became apparent that everything in the village, including the duration of their existence, was subject to the village chief's control.

“What does this mean for us?” An Xing Yu wondered aloud.
They were all headed to the village chief, the source of their existence.
An Xing Yu believed that they would not meet their demise, but he could not help but feel apprehensive.

“The village chief created all the rules, and the length of time we have lived here is also determined by him,” Lu Yan added, emphasizing the village chief's omnipotence.

If He Lou failed to consider this and left the village without caution, the consequences could be dire.

Lu Yan was looking forward to it.

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