[If you’re not reading this on chichilations, then you’re reading a stolen copy. Reposts are not allowed anywhere or for any reason!
Links for mobile viewers: Ko-fi Donation — Chichi’s Twitter — Project Index — Digital Version Library
I see all your likes and comments~ Thanks in advance~]
Sui Zhou, who was walking in front, cut off their bickering to ask, “The manpower I brought tonight is limited, and they’re all here with me now. Dare I ask if the Western Depot is watching the outside of Relaxation?”
Inside this tunnel where one needed to bend to walk, Wang Zhi’s voice was still very calm. “You still need to ask? Others shut the brothel down when I descended. They won’t be making any big waves.”
The other relaxed a little and said nothing else, focusing on scouting out the path ahead. Aside from breathing and footsteps in the stifling passageway, there was momentarily no other sounds.
Their group went in a rush, walking for about the greater half of a shichen. The air here was thin, and completely separated from the surface, linked to it by only its ends. As the route stretched on, it inevitably got stuffier to breathe in, and even the flames of the candles flickered in and out, so feeble that they could barely be regarded as anything.
Tang Fan was inferior to everyone else in terms of martial skill, so this sensation was more prominent to him than them. For the sake of not falling behind or becoming a burden, he simply grit his teeth and made not a sound. All of a sudden, his foot kicked a rock and he stumbled forward, only for him to be snatched by the clothes on his back just in time. His shoulder was held by a hand as his figure was dragged back, averting his fate of falling face first onto the ground and eating crap.
He didn’t need to turn back to know that it was Wang Zhi that had helped him out. Though overwhelmingly reluctant, he didn’t want to go against his own upbringing. “Thanks a bunch,” he was obliged to mutter out.
A mocking laugh came from behind him, followed by Eunuch Wang’s cold words. “If you don’t want to thank me, there’s no need to force yourself. You civil officials suffer in life for the sake of saving face in death. If I had known, I would’ve kicked you on the ass so that you’d fall onto the guy in front of you, too. What magnificent sight that would have been!”
Look at that; what a poor mouth Eunuch Wang had. Others couldn’t thank him, but they couldn’t not thank him, either. Tang Fan, angered half to death, mentally told himself that he wasn’t going to bicker with him, so he didn’t answer, simply rushing on ahead with a swelling head.
As he couldn’t pursue his victory, Wang Zhi felt this to be rather dull. He curled his lip, ordering for a retreat.
Relaxation was located in the capital’s northeast, not far from the city’s gates, but the path was really long. While they went, they were all inwardly alarmed, thinking of how meticulous the one that had this tunnel excavated was. If they continued on like this, they would likely be in the outskirts by the time they got out. The traffickers had left over half a shichen before them, and if someone had received them already, it would likely now be very hard to overtake them.
Everyone’s legs and backs hurt, Tang Fan’s especially, but the chilly air blowing against their faces roused their spirits. Knowing that the exit wasn’t too far ahead, they quickened their steps. Sure enough, after another quarter hour, Xue Ling was heard to whisper, “We’re here!”
He passed off his candle to Sui Zhou, then effortlessly leapt out of the mouth of the tunnel. The others followed suit in climbing out, one after the other.
Although the outside wind cut like a knife, everyone had been stuffed up for so long, they felt it refreshing.
The moon remained bright tonight. Tang Fan surveyed their surroundings, then saw that they were currently situated within a forest. The hole they had just come out of was beneath a slope, with stones obstructing it and trees ahead of it. Had they not just walked it, it would have been hard to believe that the tunnel led straight to the storage room of a capital brothel.
It was not just him, but likely everyone that instantly got a sense of freakish absurdity.
After a long while, Sui Zhou spoke up. “Heading back would just be the capital again. They must have exited the forest and headed onward. Since they believed that they had built a hidden path, then exited the city into the open world with a bunch of children brought along with them, they had to have rested their feet afterwards. Our pace is a bit quicker, so we might be able to catch up to them.”
Nobody had any objections, of course, and they went out the forest to go along the governmental roads.
The problem here was that they didn’t have horses, meaning they could only rely on their legs to move them forward. Even with a quick pace, they wouldn’t be getting anywhere fast. The fortune here, at least, was that they had only walked for fifteen minutes before making a discovery.
Appearing before them was a three-way fork in the road; two were official, one was an off-road, and all three went off in different directions.
Wang Zhi knew the capital like his own property, but outside of the city, he was kind of blind. Upon seeing this, he frowned. “Three paths… which one did they take?”
“One of the two official roads leads to the Shunyi–Huairou region, and the other goes from Changping to Xuanhua Prefecture,” Xue Ling said. “The off-road is a big detour that ends at Tianjin Fort. Because of said detour, a ghost village has to be passed through not too far ahead. A plague had swept through there many years ago; almost its entire population died, and most of those that survived moved away. Now, it’s deserted. Few would take that road.”
Wang Zhi was sullen. “Shit. Three roads. How to choose…?”
Xue Ling felt like he was in a bind, too. Even if they divided up into three groups to give chase, they had no horses, and couldn’t walk speedily. The result would be like a cup of water to a cart on fire. “Brother, should we go back, find a few horses, then split up for the chase?” he asked Sui Zhou. “Our Guards are all over the place. We can tell them to be tight on alert.”
This was a solution for a lack of solution, yet the man didn’t answer. He was looking at Tang Fan, who was crouched not too far away and studying the tracks.
Amidst their group, the most anxious one was he, because Ah-Dong was one of the lost children. Sui Zhou’s emotions were normally somewhat restrained, but he similarly didn’t want to see her abducted by traffickers, stranded in parts unknown henceforth.
Wang Zhi was also very anxious. In fact, he was many times more anxious than either of them.
As was known, he had hurried back from the frontlines on a secret order the Emperor had handed him: investigate suspicious persons on Longevity Hill, and get Zhu Yong’s daughter back.
Longevity Hill had been heaped during the imperial palace’s repair in Yongle’s reign. Placed to its north, it was also known as Viewing Hill, because, in Beijing, only when standing upon it could one look down and view the entire scenery of the Imperial City. For that reason, succeeding generations of Emperors thought it taboo, and the Hill was pretty much fully guarded.
Even so, not everyone was incapable of ascending it, like the sorcerer Li Zilong. He had once bewitched a group of internal officials into bringing him on top. Following that, the Emperor would frequently get suspicious and insecure, always thinking that someone was standing up there, watching him.
A few days ago, he had dreamed that someone was on top of the Hill, which made him uneasy. He had the Eastern Depot and Brocade Guard go investigate it, but they couldn’t figure out the cause. He didn’t trust their conclusion, thusly having Wang Zhi return from the frontlines to check things out.
The latter had scrambled back post-haste, had people keep watch on the Hill for several days, and then inspected it once over. Nothing dubious had been found at all; it was nothing more than the Emperor’s own paranoia. Still, he had to randomly seek out a justification to handle this, which happened to coincide with this second case of the missing children.
To avoid the Emperor being unhappy — and thus thinking that the Western Depot was incompetent and powerless — Wang Zhi needed to do all he could to crack this case and retrieve Zhu Yong’s daughter. On one hand, this would display his skill, as well as make the Emperor feel that his Depot still had use. On the other, he needed to comfort Zhu Yong, who was on the front lines.
He had returned incognito. Not many knew of this, so wantonly publicizing it wouldn’t be suitable. His return trip from Datong needed to be within a few days, because if the Eastern Depot came to know of it, Shang Ming would do something dirty, like send a memorial to take Wang Zhi’s place as Army Supervisor Envoy so that he could ‘focus on the search’. That would be great fun.
Therefore, Eunuch Wang’s time was quite precious. The case needed to be solved in two days, at most, and the longer it dragged on, the worse it would be for him. This was why his heart could now practically be described as ‘burning with anxiety’.
“Go to the nearest posthouse and find a couple horses!” he ordered his subordinates, tone poor.
“Wait!” Tang Fan called out, straightened up, then walked back to ask Xue Ling, “You just said that the off-road leads to an abandoned village?”
“How far is it from here? What’s the minimum time to get there?”
“It isn’t far, about a quarter-hour of walking.”
“Are there any other villages to rest at past it?”
Xue Ling shook his head. “No. Because of the plague that rustled the place up, some passersby later claimed that they had encountered ghosts there. After exiting the village, it’s basically all wildlands, and then a big detour to Tianjin Fort. Lots of people would rather go to Tongzhou instead of suffering for no reason there.”
Tang Fan nodded. “That’s fine. We’ll just go to the village, there’s no need to find horses.”
The other was taken aback. “You’re saying that they went there? Not even dogs would take that road!”
His implication being… that he kind of didn’t believe him.
Tang Fan pointed at the ground. “There’s freshly-pressed wagon ruts here. Since people seldom frequent here, yet the ruts are new, that means the other party left only recently. Aside from those traffickers, who else would take this road in the middle of the night?”
“Those two tracks of ruts are too shallow, and there’s fresh ones on the government roads, too. They’re even a little deeper. How can it be determined for certain that they went towards the village? Maybe they’re deliberately drawing us down another road to hold us up.”
“No. Since they’re doing something illegal, they’re definitely scared that someone will find them, especially with so many children in their carriage. When that carriage moves, its sound is very loud, too. I just saw that the ruts on the official roads have wood shavings, while only the ones going to the village road don’t. Furthermore, the rut marks are slightly uneven, which illustrates that the wheels might be wrapped in cloth. Only the carriage that was actually loaded with the children would require such pains. The tracks on the other roads ought to just be diversions.”
Once everyone thought about it, that seemed to be the truth.
For caution’s sake, Wang Zhi didn’t dare to arrest his hopes entirely upon Tang Fan’s judgement. “You all can go for it. I’ll take people to get horses, search down the other roads separately, then come reconvene with you.”
Time was tight, so Tang Fan’s group didn’t say anything extra, going their separate ways with a verbal agreement.
Just as Xue Ling had said, they walked for about fifteen minutes until they saw what seemed to be a village site not too far ahead. Moonlight shone down upon it, reflecting off of the withered thatch roofs.
Reason dictated that an inhabited village would feel a certain way to spectators, even if every single household had gone to bed. A dog would bark on occasion, for example, or pigs in a pen might squeal, or someone’s kid might cry.
Whether from the windows that hadn’t been fixed in years, or the few houses that were in such disrepair that their roofs were half-gone, a message was sent to Tang Fan’s group: the village before them was indeed abandoned.
However, what caused everyone to feel inexplicably unsettled was not that the place had been deserted for long, no one populating it, but rather that the buildings still faintly emitted light.
Weak candlelight shone through the ruined windows, bobbing and swaying, as if people inside were sewing or reading by light.
Deep in the night, at a ghost village, many houses were lit up inside. What kind of scene was this?
Xue Ling had been in the Northern Bastion Office for many years, consciously training himself to have a tract of iron guts, but with one look at this abnormal picture, his scalp instantly exploded, densely-packed goosebumps arose on his back, and his hairs stood on end.
“This village had no name,” he whispered. “Everyone called it Xu Village, because most of the folks that had lived here were surnamed Xu. Once a lot of people died of plague and the few remaining alive moved out overnight, the authorities purportedly send people over to cremate the corpses. It took two days and nights to burn them all away. They didn’t care to make a burial mound, and had wanted to burn the whole village down, but it started raining as soon as they lit it up. This happened three times in a row. Rumors said that since the plague victims had died unjustly, their souls hadn’t left, and they refused to let the village burn down. The authorities were then too afraid to try it again, so the place was completely abandoned afterwards. Generally, no one picks this path because it’s too tragic.”
“Are there actually ghosts?” A Guard following Sui Zhou asked anxiously.
“No one’s lived here for a long time, which happens to give certain people the opportunity to act spooky,” the man answered darkly. “If they really have gone this way, this might be a trap they laid out for the sake of making us paranoid over ghosts. Take caution, everyone. Don’t get caught in an ambush.”
“Look,” Tang Fan said. “Not all of the buildings have candles lit in them.”
Sui Zhou nodded. “We’ll check out the unlit rooms first. Don’t wander off, all of you. Follow me.”
At a time like this, he was able to embody the characteristics of a leader. Had someone else been in his position, with subordinates at his side to support him, he would definitely say something like: “You all go investigate it for activity.”
What Sui Zhou had said, though, was: “You all have to follow me.”
A senior official willing to take the lead would naturally be admired and respected by their subordinates. Sui Zhou being popular in the Northern Bastion Office was not without reason.
There were only about five unlit houses. Everyone brandished their weapons, checking them out one by one.
Because of all the weird views in front of them, they were all extraordinarily vigilant, gripping their spring-gilt sabres tightly, bodies tensed to the extreme. Each time a house was kicked open, they kept their eyes staring at it unerringly, for fear that something dangerous would charge out of it.
Tang Fan didn’t need to put in any effort, of course. He followed at the end, a bit superfluous.
Their eyes had now already adapted to the dusky environs of the outskirts, and that bit of adaptation made it so that there was nothing they couldn’t see. The candleless homes were pitch-black, and after getting kicked open by Sui Zhou, they were discovered to have nothing but simple furnishings inside them. Some homes’ beds were piled with a disarray of blankets; after just one prod with the tip of a sabre, the bedding that had long gone brittle from sitting there would shortly break apart. Some homes’ chairs had also since gone decrepit, collapsing with one bump.
By the time they came to sequentially inspect the fifth house, no one was as nervous anymore. They were mentally still on-guard, but had finally relaxed a little.
“Brother! There’s a carriage parked in back!” A Guard, who had been responsible for checking the surroundings of the house, quickly came from behind it to report.
Hearing this, Sui Zhou’s group successively wound around the back, then caught sight of a carriage stopped between the home’s backyard and the side of the mountain wall. Upon taking a closer look, its four wheels were covered in a thick layer of cloth, just as Tang Fan had stated earlier. It was exceedingly likely that the others had fled here.
The carriage was present, but the people were unseen. It would’ve been easy for those couple of adults from the Southside Gang to flee if they had martial arts, but the problem with that was that they also had a group of kids with them, who weren’t easy to maneuver. Where could they really hide at?
At this time, they heard Tang Fan give a fleeting, hushed exclamation: “Someone’s there!”
He hadn’t come to see the carriage with them, still standing at the entrance of the house to finely inspect things. This made him the one most likely to detect movement outside.
Sui Zhou reacted speedily. Following Tang Fan’s words, he turned, clearly saw the spot he was pointing out, then locked on to the other party’s position — this was all in the brief span of only a few breaths.
Beneath the moonlight, a black shadow scrambled out of an unlit house not too far away, moving at flying speed, nearly risking his life to flee. Were Tang Fan to give chase, he definitely wouldn’t be able to catch up.
He couldn’t, but someone else certainly could — this person was quick, but Sui Zhou was even quicker.
The event went faster than could be narrated; Sui Zhou zipped out, figure hopping like a rabbit and diving like a hawk. The sabre he held did not stay idle, getting thrown directly at the man. Only a shriek was heard reverberating in the wilderness as he got nailed on the shoulder, falling heavily onto the ground.
Right then, Xue Ling and the rest had also caught up, roughly pressing the escapee down, then drawing the spring-gilt sabre out of his shoulder. The man squealed like a butchered swine again, after which he stopped completely.
Xue Ling snatched him by his lapels. “Speak! Where are your pals, and those kids?!”
The man groaned. “I-I don’t know…”
Seeing that he was still being stiff-lipped, Xue Ling exerted some strength to break the guy’s right pinky.
“Aaaa!!!” The other’s face contorted with pain, eyes showing enormous fear.
“Are you talking?” Xue Ling didn’t have the patience to deal with him, so he broke one of his ring fingers.
“I’ll talk! I’ll talk!” the man sobbed out. “They brought the kids up the mountain!”
“Liar! Why would they abandon the carriage and choose to go up there instead?!”
“I’m not! I’m not lying!” A blade had hit his shoulder, making him seep blood, and two of his fingers were broken. He wailed with pain, not far off from how the bawd with plucked nails had been earlier. No matter how tough-boned he was, he could only surrender before the Brocade Guard. “The carriage broke because it was carrying too many people! The front wheels split and would have fallen apart if they kept going, so they had to stop here and flee to the mountain! They took the children with! They aren’t far, so you can catch up if you go now!”
“Why are you here alone, then?!”
The man panted. “Th-they made me stay and light candles in those houses, to scare and delay you all a bit…”
There was basically nothing else to ask after this. Sui Zhou gave Xue Ling a look, and the latter understood implicitly. The hilt of his sabre struck the back of the man’s head hard, and he collapsed limply to the ground.
“He can’t die yet,” Sui Zhou said to Tang Fan. “You can stay here and help bandage him while we go upmountain in pursuit.”
Tang Fan nodded, speaking no nonsense. “Okay, leave it to me. Go, quick!”
He didn’t know martial arts, nor was his pace quick. He would only be a lagging burden going up, and were a conflict between the two sides to happen, he would be absolutely no help. It would be better to keep watch here, so that if Wang Zhi brought his people over, he could receive them.
Sui Zhou’s group left in a rush. Meanwhile, Tang Fan peeled off the man’s outer robe, tore a strip off of it, then wound it around his armpit a couple times, binding it tightly to stop the bleeding.
The abandoned village was lonesome under the mooned night. Cold wind passed through the dilapidated doors and windows, its sound like a wailing ghost. It really lived up to the rumors of it being haunted. The heavily injured and unconscious man laid beside him notwithstanding, standing alone in the chilly breeze inevitably gave him the illusion of being the only one left in the world.
Coupled with the dancing shadows and flickering flames inside the homes, the ambience was extremely so. If it were to be claimed that this place wasn’t haunted, no one would believe it.
As he thought of this, he felt that something was a bit off. It would be justifiable to say that with the hard wind outside and busted windows, those candles should have long been blown out, but at least over half were still shining right now, not extinguished in the gale. This Southside Gang member was evidently pretty diligent at setting things up to scare people.
They had arrived in a hurry, afraid that the longer they took, the farther the traffickers would get, as once they were out of the capital’s bounds, it would be a lot harder to locate them again. Regardless of whether it was Tang Fan or Sui Zhou, they had to make decisions in a very limited amount of time.
Since he had nothing to do at the moment, Tang Fan leisurely brought these particulars to mind. He picked the nearest house, then pushed at its door.
Following a creak, it opened in response. He found that the candleholder placed beside the window happened to be blocked in front by a wall so that it wasn’t directly facing the draft. There was also a white glass cover over the flame with a small plank of wood pressing down on it so that the wind couldn’t get in, which made it hard for the flame to go out.
He approached it, then lifted the plank. The inside was filled with lamp oil, and the wick was thicker than normal ones. No wonder it hadn’t gone out.
His heart thumped, as he suddenly realized that something was wrong — this village had been abandoned for years, so how could there be such new, translucent lamp oil, and such a thick wick?
These people held the desire to escape, which was why they had picked this road, but even if they had planned this in advance, how could they have also brought oil and wicks with them?
Right then, a burst of rustling sounds came from outside. Acting on impulse, he turned and strode out, only to see that the outside was bare — the Gang member that had just been knocked out was gone!
They’d been set up!
His heart sank. Before he had time to think more about it, the back of his head was struck hard, and he pitched forward, losing consciousness.
Feng shui really did revolve around. That one guy had just gotten knocked out by Xue Ling, and now it was his turn.
That was his last thought before everything went dark.