The World Below Surface 31 ☆ Let's hope it's not a coincidence

He Lou stood in shock, taking in the scene before him.

In an instant, Zhao Chuan's steps abruptly halted as if he had hit a pause button.
His face twisted in agony, his mouth gaping open, emitting puffs of hot air, and his body drenched in sweat as if being scorched over a fire.

It was an unbearable sight…
yet familiar.

Suddenly, He Lou recalled Zhao Chuan's words when talking to the village chief.
They perfectly corresponded to the situation at hand.

Zhao Chuan screamed and writhed in pain, but his voice eventually trailed off as his flesh began to blister and fester.
He slowly cooked alive before He Lou's very eyes as if in boiling water.

He Lou was not only afraid but also enraged at Lu Yan's deceitful lies.
However, he knew that he had requested Lu Yan to disclose this information and that he couldn't entirely blame him.

As he tried to escape from the horrific scene, He Lou noticed numerous white paper figures drawing nearer to him.
He scurried into the station, frantically searching for another way out.

Meanwhile, Lu Yan and An Xing Yu were out collecting materials.
The lanterns in Wu Bo's home were limited, and two paper figures had already used most of the available materials.
Even after collecting more materials, there still weren't enough lanterns to save He Lou and Zhao Chuan.
Therefore, An Xing Yu and Lu Yan set out to search for more supplies.

As they walked, An Xing Yu carried a bundle of thin bamboo sticks, while Lu Yan held folded paper and human skin.

“I wonder where Brother Lou and Brother Zhao have gone.
I hope they're safe,” said An Xing Yu, scanning the area with sharp eyes.
Spotting a lantern that had been blown down by the wind and landed in the grass, he rushed over to pick it up.
Unfortunately, it was soaked and unusable, so he placed it back where he had found it.

The ordinary paper they had on hand was not suitable for the task at hand, and they didn't know what materials Wu Bo had used to create the lanterns.
However, they speculated that it was the same material used to make the paper figures.

“Let's hope for the best,” said Lu Yan.
“But rather than worrying about them, we should focus on gaining the village head's recognition.”

An Xing Yu furrowed his brows, deep in thought.
Despite thinking for some time, he still had no solid plan.

“Perhaps we can offer a ghost marriage in exchange for the village chief's cooperation,” he suggested.

While the village chief knew they were outsiders, he was unaware of their short stay and the potential leverage it presented.

However, in the past, they were able to automatically return after each mission upon completion.
Would it be feasible this time with the village head's endorsement?

If not, it would be prudent for them to select a site at the village periphery for a swift exit.

After a perilous sprint through the dense forest and down the path, the duo finally spotted a dwelling.

A house meant lanterns!

An Xing Yu darted over and scoured the house, conducting a thorough search.
Afterwards, he ultimately discovered three intact lanterns.

However, it was woefully inadequate.
They had two individuals to rescue, and the paper and human skin they possessed were only sufficient to save one person.

“I've got an idea.
You go find them, and I'll take care of this.” Their double paper man was still intact and would not expire any time soon.
An Xing Yu consented and cautiously proceeded on the main road by himself.

Once he had accumulated all the necessary materials, or after Lu Yan finished crafting the paper man, they could rendezvous on the main road.

Lu Yan remained still for a while, counting the paper figures hovering in the air before commencing his work.

In contrast, An Xing Yu sprinted at a rapid pace.
Most of the dwellings in Red River Village were densely dispersed.
Except for Uncle Wu, who resided in the woods, everyone else's abode was not far from the main road.
Nevertheless, by the time An Xing Yu returned, Lu Yan had only just completed the initial paper figure, and he began sketching the five senses on the paper figure's face with a brush.

The brushstrokes were simplistic, yet they possessed a faint resemblance to Zhao Chuan.

Unexpectedly, the paper figure quivered and swiftly withered as if scalded by boiling water and emitting heated air.

“It's futile,” sighed Lu Yan, “Zhao Chuan is no more.”

An Xing Yu frowned, “I have obtained the necessary materials.
Can we proceed with He Lou's now?”

He had a vague sense that Lu Yan and He Lou had some sort of a connection.
Otherwise, why would the village chief stare at him and question him during his son's wedding banquet? Now, it seemed that the two were not on good terms, or else Lu Yan would have chosen to make He Lou's paper figure first, regardless of the situation.

Lu Yan threw his pen away, “My hands are sore.
You can do it yourself.” He massaged his weary wrist.

An Xing Yu had nothing to say.
The other party had saved his life, and he felt no obligation to save He Lou.
Hence, he sat opposite Lu Yan and began to craft the paper figure in earnest.

Lu Yan's paper figure was crude, comprising two lantern bases joined together.
The bottom part was removed, with white paper glued on and the face painting.
An Xing Yu recalled the steps and swiftly assembled the frame.

However, it was the last step of painting that presented a challenge.
An Xing Yu pleaded with Lu Yan, “Could you paint it, please?”

Because An Xing Yu had secrets to explore, Lu Yan closed his eyes, took up the brush, and traced it on the white paper.
When people burned paper for the deceased, lighting up their eyes was the most taboo.
It was believed that the eyes contained spirits.
If lit up, they could attract unknown malevolent spirits that brought misfortune.

Lu Yan drew the mouth and nose first.
As he reached the last step of dotting the eyes of the paper figure, he paused, gazing out of the window.
The glance caused him to put down his brush abruptly, saying, “It's pointless; he's gone.”

“What? How?” An Xing Yu asked, following Lu Yan's gaze out the window.

Outside, countless smiling paper figures floated, one of which bore a striking resemblance to He Lou's face.

he can't…” An Xing Yu muttered dejectedly, his grip tightening around the pen as he dotted the paper man's eyes.

The dark orbs swivelled, and before An Xing Yu could rejoice, he heard a soft, tearful sound emanating from the paper man's abdomen.
The paper ruptured in the next instant, and a deluge of crimson blood pulp spurted out, quickly saturating the entire table.

Although Lu Yan feigned disappointment, inside, he chuckled.
On the other hand, An Xing Yu felt a tinge of melancholy in his heart, knowing that he had done all he could.

“Come, let's find the village head,” Lu Yan suggested as he got up and strode towards the door, feigning a mournful expression.

With only two living individuals remaining in the village, it was uncertain how long the two paper figures would suffice.
If the village headman were to change the rules again, An Xing Yu and Lu Yan would again be in jeopardy.

When they exited the room, they collided with a perplexed villager, who asked, “What's going on? Why are you in my house? Are you attempting to pilfer something?”

Neither admitted it, so the duo ran off instantly.

In bewilderment, the villager entered his abode, only to discover a blood-sodden paper figure on his table, a white face beaming at him.
He recoiled in horror, dashing out of the house, screeching, “It's haunted…a ghost!”

“Where to now?” An Xing Yu inquired, spotting villagers scattered along the road as they ran.

“To the station, where we can depart,” Lu Yan replied, aware that the villager's outcry had lured many individuals.

Without looking back, he added, “Let's lure the village chief and others there.” If they could get the village chief to acknowledge that they had resided in the village for more than a month, their mission would be accomplished.
An increasing number of villagers poured out, drawn by the reports of the haunting.
The initial villager, who had spotted An Xing Yu and Lu Yan leaving his home, lodged a complaint.
“I returned home briefly to collect my belongings when I saw them sneaking out of my house.
They must have been up to no good…”

Upon hearing these words, He Lou felt a tinge of anxiety.
As outsiders, they had to abide by the village's rules to gain acceptance from the locals.
However, someone had just broken the rules, jeopardising their standing.

He Lou hastily interjected, “No, it's not them.
They had nothing to do with it.”

Zhao Chuan, Liu Xia, and the others chimed in, “We agree.
Let's find them and clear this up face to face.”

“By the way, where did they run off to?” someone inquired.

“I saw them head towards the station,” another person responded.

Soon, a group of villagers, led by none other than He Lou, caught up with the fleeing duo.
“Hurry up! We can't let them get away!” he shouted.

As they raced down the main road, they passed by several houses, and some residents tried to impede their progress.
However, they were focused on their goal and ran on, grateful that they didn't have a marriage contract with anyone, as that would have made running as breaking the rules.

“Stop running! Come back here!” the villagers cried, but the two refused to slow down.

Faster and faster, they ran until the station came into view.
However, there was no sign of the village chief.
With no other choice, they stopped near the border, awaiting the arrival of the villagers.

He Lou, their leader, confronted them sternly, demanding an explanation for their behaviour.
“What's wrong with you two? Why are you running?”

Silently, the pair just focused on catching their breath.

“You broke the rules by going into someone's house and stealing something,” He Lou continued, his voice firm and unwavering.

At the sound of rule-breaking, the others' faces drained of colour, and their lips twisted upward, but their eyes glinted with malice.

“You have violated the rules,” the villagers closed in one after another, forming a ring around the two culprits.
None dared to approach from behind as if some forbidden ground lay there.

As the crowd swelled, their pallid and grimy faces contorted with hatred and the promise of retribution.

Where was the village chief? Though the villagers lacked the authority to act, their encirclement tightened, the stench of decay thickening with each breath.

“The village chief didn't accuse us of breaking the rules, so who are you to do so?” An Xing Yu's chest heaved as he spoke, still catching his breath from the exertion of his escape.

It was a risky gambit, but if they could reestablish communication, perhaps they could solve this situation.

At his words, the villagers froze, their twisted expressions locked in place like a paused video.

But then, an old man emerged from the crowd, his face etched with a thousand lines and sharp eyes hidden within the wrinkles.

The figure before them was none other than the village chief himself.

“Respected Village Chief,” An Xing Yu began, his words measured and cautious.
“We have been living in this village for three years and are well-versed in its customs.
We swear by our innocence and insist that we have not stolen anything.”

An Xing Yu tried to keep his composure, despite his heart pounding furiously in his chest.
He knew this was a critical moment and that any misstep could result in disastrous consequences.

Stay calm, An Xing Yu thought; just get it to admit it.

On the other hand, the chief appeared to be deep in thought, his face inscrutable.

Minutes ticked by, and An Xing Yu felt like time had come to a standstill.
Just as he was about to lose hope, the chief nodded slightly.

“You have been here for three years,” the chief said slowly, “and you should know that stealing is strictly forbidden in our village.”

An Xing Yu could hardly contain his relief.
He didn't wait for the chief to finish his sentence before grabbing Lu Yan's hand and hurrying out of the village.

In the next moment, An Xing Yu was plunged into darkness.
Before he lost consciousness, the last thing An Xing Yu managed to wonder was about Lu Yan's fate, hoping he was safe.

As Lu Yan stepped over the boundary line, the world shattered before his eyes.
When he looked back again, no village or station was found.
He stood on a hill overlooking a vast expanse of lonely graves, towering ominously at the foot of the mountain.
Ghastly trees loomed over each grave, their branches swaying gently in the cold mountain wind, each adorned with two lanterns.

According to legend, the path to the Yellow Spring was long, dark, and bereft of guiding lights to lead the lost souls back to the realm of the afterlife.

An eerie silence hung over the valley as if the very air held its breath, anticipating the arrival of something ominous.

Suddenly, a torrent of blood erupted from the graves, staining the earth red and drowning everything in its wake.
The sight was both ghastly and surreal, which would haunt the beholder for a long time to come.

Amid this chaos, the mournful strains of shawms echoed across the mountains, mingling with the screams of the damned and the wails of the dying.
It was a symphony of sorrow and despair, a requiem for the living and the dead alike.

Yet amidst this cacophony of misery, a joyous melody arose, clear and pure.
It was the music of a wedding procession, a celebration of love and hope in the face of death and destruction.

Lu Yan stood atop a hill, gazing down at the carnage below.
He held a small white packet in his hand, which he opened and scattered over the scene below.
Then he turned and left, never to look back.


At the dinner table, An Xing Yu's mother placed chopsticks and food in front of him and spoke concernedly, “Xiao Yu, you haven't been looking too well lately.
Ensure you eat enough and care for your body while studying.”

An Xing Yu responded with a curt nod.
His mother's gaze lingered on his cold expression, her heart heavy with sadness.
If only that tragedy hadn't happened, her son wouldn't be like this – once lively and cheerful, now distant and aloof.

As the television broadcasted the latest news, An Xing Yu's mother gasped in horror, “…A major murder case at the XX station! Twelve people dead…” She turned to her son, “Don't you usually pass by there? Please be careful and avoid that area from now on.”

An Xing Yu nodded again, his mind preoccupied with the recent events.

An Xing Yu finished his meal and returned to his room, locking the door behind him.
He opened his computer and accessed a secretive website known to only a select few.

Over six hundred individuals were online, with the number of registered users increasing.

A trace of concern crossed An Xing Yu's face as he carefully crafted a post detailing the events of his recent mission, intentionally omitting any mention of Lu Yan's involvement.
The post sparked a flurry of activity on the website, with users expressing shock and horror at yet another mission resulting in only one survivor.

An Xing Yu's fingers continued to dance across the keyboard, detailing the death of [The tall building will fall] in the mission.

Ignoring the piles of replies, he navigated to another forum, its homepage adorned with a striking logo – a bright red inverted cross plunging into a reverse heptagram, identical to the tattoo on An Xing Yu's leg that revealed itself when wet.

An air of reverence overtook An Xing Yu as he spent time browsing the forum and eventually found the “confession room”.
He closed his eyes, made a particular hand gesture, and prayed silently in this virtual sanctuary.


Lu Yan drove home silently, his mind consumed with the design he had seen on An Xing Yu's leg.
As he navigated through the crowded streets, he couldn't help but feel a sense of anxiety creeping up on him.
He knew what he had seen but couldn't shake off the feeling of doubt that gnawed at his mind.

Finally, he arrived home and wasted no time.
With a sense of urgency, he drew the same design, comparing it carefully to the one he had seen earlier.
His heart pounding with anticipation, he examined it closely, scrutinising every detail, every line and curve.
There could be no mistake.
He'd been disappointed too many times before.


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