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The sound was like a woman crying, at first, but upon a careful listen, it wasn’t just like one woman’s crying, but countless women’s, all accompanied by the gurgling of the flowing water from not far away.
They might have come across something extremely painful, or perhaps had undergone something so tragic, they mourned, hated, and cursed out of powerlessness — such emotions were revealed from the wails, making them even more prominently somber in the night.
However, at so late a time, all the villagers had long since fallen asleep. Apart from the crops outside were the two imperial tombs; how could there be women crying out there?
This sound was clearly not human.
Prior to hearing the wailing himself, Tang Fan had believed that the descriptors of the old chief and the others were rather alarmist, but in this moment, he had come to experience the feeling himself.
Embodying deeply-felt bitterness and anguish, the crying was sometimes sharp and high-pitched, but sometimes cold and low-pitched, like a knife gouging deep into flesh and bone. It was not a noise a normal human could have ever made; unavoidable, and causing one’s hairs to stand on end.
The wind seemed to be particularly strong tonight, as it made the doors and windows rattle, the wails continuing to blow alongside the non-stop sound of the wind.
Tang Fan had since calmed down. This was not merely due to Sui Zhou being next to him, but because that cool-headed disposition normally inherent to him had returned to him. It was precisely from relying on this personality of his that he had once traveled all by himself, studied as he toured all over the place, and undergone countless dangers until he at last turned it around into peace.
He kept listening for a little bit, then turned his head to the side to whisper in close to Sui Zhou’s ear. “Want to go out and investigate?”
Grave-looking, the other nodded, and they began to get up and get dressed.
Because it was windy at night here and they were not at their own home, they had only taken off their outer robes to sleep. This made it easy to put them back on and get tidied up in the blink of an eye. Sui Zhou’s actions were a little quicker, so he was the one to push open the door.
The wind outside was strong, even raising the water level. When paired with the sound of the rushing river, the crying noise was not as crystal-clear as it had been before, but Tang Fan knew that this was just an illusion — the crying was always there. He looked up to survey the scene from up on high, attempting to identify the source of the sound.
It was outside of his expectations. He had thought that the sound would come from the riverside, because, going off of either the information obtained from the old chief or the recountings of Magistrate He and the others, there seemed to be something extremely horrifying hidden beneath the Luo that caused people to be pulled into it over and over again. Now, though, it sounded like it was coming from the direction of Eternal Deep.
Were there people actually trying to pretend to be ghosts?
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou exchanged a look. They noticed that in the neighboring few homes, some other figures were also coming out from within and approaching them; it was Pang Qi and the Guards.
The villagers certainly wouldn’t dare to come out and look out of curiosity, to say nothing of Yin Yuanhua, Deputy Zhao, and the rest of them. Even if they did hear it, they would act like they hadn’t.
What a real coincidence this was. Yesterday, Magistrate He had said that he hadn’t heard the noise in a good while, yet it had reappeared the very night they were resting here.
Pang Qi waited for all the Guards to come in close, then quietly asked Sui Zhou, “Do you want to go check it out, Brother?”
Despite the sound being a good deal away from them, everyone still subconsciously quieted their steps and voices.
Sui Zhou nodded, then took the lead in heading to the imperial tombs. The others naturally followed after him.
As stated earlier, Luo River Village had been built bordering the Eternal Deep tomb. This had been to make it easier for the villagers to defend the tombs, and they used to have no displeasure with this; after all, this didn’t hinder farming work, and Emperors being buried here showed that it was an area of good feng shui. Everyone had been honored.
Yet, all those thoughts had completely changed one year ago. Everyone that lived near these tombs had to hear ghostly wailing every night and have river gods snatching people up, which scared them all to death. Thus, when Tang Fan’s group had come here in the night, they had felt that the looks of fear on all of the villagers’ faces were just them being ignorant, and it was only after hearing the sound with their own ears that they realized that those reactions were actually totally normal.
It was unclear if it was the suspicions of a haunting inside their heads or what, but everyone believed that the closer they got to the tombs, the more horribly windy it was.
Even Pang Qi, a highly-skilled and brave Brocade Guard that normally knew no laws nor gods, shivered a little.
That grieving, resentful sound was drawn out without end, going on and on like it had no need to breathe. They neared they came, the more sure they were that this wasn’t something any human could make.
Was it not terrible to be human? They most feared beings that transcended their own knowledge. Few people in the world genuinely believed that nothing supernatural existed at all — even scholars that had studied the sacred sages feared saying such. Incense burning, sacrifices, and the worship of gods had long been set in deep inside the hearts of the Great Ming’s people, and no matter how fearless one was, they would at least give distant respect to the supernatural, rather than not believe in it at all.
Tang Fan would never admit to the existence of such things of his own volition, but he would also never deny that they did exist. As he saw it, humans walked the path of humans, ghosts walked the path of ghosts, and the Heavens walked the path of the Heavens. Whether they existed or not, none could deviate from their own paths by committing murder, arson, or any sort of harm unto others.
Like this time, for example. Plundering imperial tombs and taking lives were both crimes, so, regardless of if they had been committed by humans or ghosts, they needed to be repaid and penalized. That was what he persevered towards.
For that reason, even as a civil official with no martial arts or weapons to defend himself with, he was not any more visibly panicky than the Brocade Guards he traveled with when that weird and inexplicable voice came closer with every step. On the contrary, he was as calm and self-strong as always.
The leader of a team didn’t need unrivaled martial arts, but did, at the bare minimum, have to be capable of calming peoples’ hearts. Such was what Tang Fan did. Pang Qi and the other Guards were a bit uneasy at the start, tightly gripping the hilts of their spring-gilt sabres, yet upon seeing that their leaders were so collected, they seemed to by influenced by that, also slowly settling down.
As their environment was all short hills and level plains extending far off, there were no mountain dangers, and their field of view was quite wide. The moon quietly dug half of its surface out from the cloud cover, spilling moonlight between the ruins and broken tiles of the vacuous plains, adding the further cheerlessness of desolation.
Not far away, the mausoleum of Eternal Deep stood silently before them, weeds overgrowing it. It no longer had the majesty it once did.
Yingzong of Song, buried within, had not only had a short life, but was also quite unlucky after his death. His crypt had caught fire in the early period of Southern Song, roasting the upper and lower layers of the tomb into a mess.
What was even worse was that because one official that had participated in his funereal arrangements had also written down the layout of Yingzong’s crypt — in detail — in his own book, that reference material had turned into a figurative scripture for later generations of cultured grave robbers. Many had run off to excavate Eternal Deep in accordance with what had been written, digging holes every which way in it; who knew how many treasures it even had left?
Since his teacher was well knowledgeable, Tang Fan had also read that book, thus having some reasonable understanding of Eternal Deep. Seeing this imperial tomb from a former Dynasty that was paired with the mournful wailing in his ears, ruefulness automatically welled up within him. He thought, what had been the point of fixing this tomb back up so beautifully? After a hundred years, all Emperors, Princes, Generals, and Ministers would be nothing more than handfuls of yellow soil. Finding a random place where they could have buried would have been better than what was going on right now, where they couldn’t rest even in death.
But, that sort of thinking was a bit ignominious, so he merely thought this, never to say it.
The issue at hand was that the closer they got, the more distinct that ghostly wailing became. There was a taut string in everyone’s hearts as they feared that something would suddenly happen, the psychological pressure on them so great, it was disastrous. Mister Tang alone was thinking about such an off-the-rails issue, and it was really hard to say whether it was because he was carefree at heart, or lacking in brain.
All around the mausoleum was wide open areas, with nowhere for anyone to hide — the crying came from behind it. They slowly came forward, detouring the already-run-down tomb.
All of a sudden, Sui Zhou, who was in the very front, stopped.
Everyone was caught off guard. Those behind him tensed, nearly drawing their sabres.
They all quickly understood why he had done so, though.
Right before them, there was still nobody to be seen, just the wildly overgrown vegetation that chaotically danced like ghosts in the wind.
The sound came from a dark hole at the foot of the mausoleum.
It was an inconspicuous robber’s cave. Only the noise’s existence had caused them to even notice it. The sound was as mournful as always, like those women that were confined deep within the palace all their lives, unwilling to fade with age, unwilling to exhaust their youth there — and also like those people that had suffered the apex of injustice and torture unto their deaths, unwilling to have their souls vanish, remaining thereafter with regrets, full of endless hatred as they stubbornly refused to pass on.
If what had been heard back in the houses had merely been a hidden grudge carried over with the wind, then upon arriving here, one could feel a bone-deep animosity that had been amplified ten, or even a hundred times. As if it could be morphed into real substance, it pounced at them, engulfing all of their bodies and souls.
Though premonitions had long been had, once everyone saw this three-square-chi hole that could only accommodate one stooping person passing through it at a time, they felt that penetrating chill.
This was not a face-off against some evil thief or traitor. Their present situation could not be explained using any sort of common sense. Whenever one confronted circumstances like this, their first reaction would inevitably be to feel helpless.
Right before coming around the mausoleum, Pang Qi and the other Guards had been walking a step ahead of Sui Zhou and Tang Fan, ready to deal with unfathomable dangers at any time. Even with the sabres grasped in their hands, they still felt unsteadied, hearts drumming, and had to turn to look back.
They quickly noticed Tang Fan and Sui Zhou standing in place. The former came a few steps forward and took a measure of the scene, while the latter followed him with the same collected expression as ever.
The Guards couldn’t help but feel ashamed, hurriedly forcing themselves to calm down. Once logic reheated, courage would return, as well.
Pang Qi took a few steps forward, preventing Tang Fan from going any further ahead. “Sir, the situation is unclear, so you mustn’t take rash risks. It would be better to wait until after daybreak…“
Before he got to finish speaking, something happened — as he registered the look of surprise on Tang Fan’s face, he couldn’t help but put his words on hold to follow the other’s line of sight, whereupon he saw that a hand was reaching out of the hole!
“Get back!” he shouted loudly.
Everyone that was escorting the two leaders recoiled a few steps, but their eyes were fixed on the cave entrance.
First came a hand, followed by a head. What was visible right now was definitely not as clear as it would have been at daytime, but from the outline of the man’s outfit, they could tell that he was wearing rough, completely disheveled clothing.
“Halt! Who are you?!”
The Brocade Guard’s shout did not deter him, and soon, his upper body crawled out of the cave. He used both arms and legs, but was completely panicked, like something was chasing after him. Hearing what the Guard said, he instead raised his head.
They all had since adapted to being in the dark; by the faint moonlight, they saw that something had gouged out one of his eyeballs, yet had not severed it completely, leaving it hanging on his face. His nose had also been bitten half off, face bloodied and horrifying to look at.
When he caught sight of them, his facial expression contorted for a while, as if he wanted to say something. Heaving sounds came out of his mouth, but as soon as he opened it, blood raced out, bits of viscera-like meat coming with it.
Despite this, his limbs kept him desperately crawling out of there.
This was a horribly terrifying scene. Tang Fan would even dare to promise that if Yin Yuanhua had been here and seen this, he wouldn’t want to eat any meat for three years.
No need to bring him up, though, as even these mentally-strong Brocade Guards accustomed to seeing the Bastille’s tortures had feelings of being easy to knock over right this very moment.
This was not torture in the Bastille, but a lone person suddenly crawling out of a robber’s cave in the wilderness, his facial features almost half-gone — where would their minds all head?
There had to be an even more horrid creature in there, to make someone become like this.
The man finally climbed out on all fours. He appeared to want to ask them for help, but with an unknown foe and a lack of clear understanding as to what their counterpart had encountered, why would the Guards ever come forward so easily? They rather commanded him to stop, disallowing him from moving further.
However, he had long since lost his reason; the second he saw people, it was like he had been granted great amnesty. Regardless of whether they were soldiers or friends, he staggered right towards them, disregarding their shouts.
Many Guards had drawn their sabres, ready to strike him when he threw himself at them.
Yet, the man had spit up too much blood, and could no longer hold his body up. After no more than a few steps, he stumbled and fell to the ground, unable to get back up.
Right then, a Guard shouted, “Someone else is coming out!”
Everyone looked over at the sound; sure enough, another figure was crawling out from within, shouting as he did so. “Help! Help!”
“Who is it?!” a Guard shouted.
The other cared about not a thing else, as once he heard someone answer, he shouted even louder. “Help! Help me! He—“
His voice abruptly cut off. Beneath the moonlight, Tang Fan saw his eyes widen until they were circles, and then his hand that hung in the air suddenly land heavily in the mud.
Sui Zhou took a few steps forwards. While everyone else reacted too late, he reached out, grabbed the other’s shoulder, and lifted him up.
They all gasped, because what he had hauled up was only someone’s mutilated upper half!
As for his lower half, it was empty, dripping with blood; who knew where it had gone to. Judging from his recent ability to call for help that had turned into him encountering sudden and instant calamity, there was obviously something inside the cave that had just bitten his lower half off.
“He’s not dead yet!” Pang Qi had crouched down to check on the man that had first run out, his hand over that nose whose original shape could no longer be distinguished. “There’s still some breathing!”
Tang Fan also crouched down. “What did you all come across down there?” he asked the man.
The other’s intact remaining eye slightly shifted, his mouth opening into a small curve like he wanted to speak, yet couldn’t do so clearly. Tang Fan had to bow his head to get his ear in close.
Then, he heard him saying, “Monster… help… help me…”
Right after the ‘me’ fell out, there was no more. Tang Fan looked at Pang Qi, who shook his head. “We can’t help him.”
“The sound is gone,” Sui Zhou suddenly said.
Everyone startled, then realized; that constant, bizarre sound that could make one’s hairs stand on end was, indeed, gone.
Where it had come from was unknown, and when it had ended was similarly unknown. It had come and gone without a trace, completely unpredictable. The only two people who had known the truth were dead, and so miserably.
Based on how they had been acting prior to death, they had to have experienced an abnormal event. There might actually be something equally abnormal lurking in the cave.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou exchanged a look; they both felt this to unprecedentedly nettlesome.
They had been thinking that this would only be a typical tomb raiding case accompanied by the ignorance of local commoners, who had made up a false narrative about river gods and whatnot, and as long they came over here and arrested the thieves, thus laying their deception bare, everything would be solved like a knife through bamboo.
Now, however, it seemed that the complexity of this far exceeded their original expectations.
“Sir, what should be done now?” Pang Qi asked.
Tang Fan glanced at the two bodies. “We’ll take this intact corpse back to the village first, and talk more on it tomorrow.”
Their group quickly returned. The village was still silent; their footsteps would occasionally alarm dogs outside of homes, caused them to bark a few times.
Following the strange wailing’s disappearance, the village looked to be more peaceful, no longer as eerie-feeling as it had seemed before. As was evident, one’s mood affected how they perceived their environs, everything being inner demons acting up.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou returned to their house. They hadn’t felt it right then, but now that their minds were relaxing, they noticed that they were awfully parched. Tang Fan sneezed, then discovered that he had broken out into a sweat when outside, a result of getting blown on by the wind and going from cold to hot. As he felt his back now, it was still a bit soaked.
Sui Zhou touched the teapot. The tea inside it had long gone cold — which was natural, because them falling asleep, getting startled awake, going for a trip to Eternal Deep, and then returning had taken over two shichen. Dawn was going to break soon.
Having been so busy this night, no one could sleep well. Even the thought of going to bed immediately was an impossibility, as the second Tang Fan shut his eyes, he could see the face of the man missing an eyeball swaying before him.
Sui Zhou took the teapot and went to the back kitchen to heat the water. Not long after, he brought steaming-hot tea over. The snacks on the table didn’t need to be heated and could be eaten plain; Tang Fan padded his stomach at last with two pieces of cloud cake.
Seeing that Sui Zhou had sat down, but wasn’t moving, he pushed the plate towards him. “You should eat, too.”
Sui Zhou picked up a piece of osmanthus cake, yet didn’t put it in his mouth. “How do you intend to handle this incident?” he instead asked.
Tang Fan shook his head. “There’s no good way to, with just us. There’s absolutely something in there, and the old chief is bound to know what it is. He’ll need to be questioned again tomorrow. If there’s still no results then, that cave will need to be filled in, after which I’ll present a memorial of failure that says that this case is much too tricky. The Court will need to send more people in order to figure out what it is that’s down there and slowly plan things out.”
This was the safest route forward, to stop the Guards from being in danger. Were the superior here to be switched out for Yin Yuanhua, he would have probably just insisted on making them go into the cave, giving no room for argument.
Sui Zhou knew that when it came to how Tang Fan conducted himself, he would absolutely never endanger the lives of others in order to make progress in his own official’s career.
But, if things kept developing like this, they wouldn’t get to decide what happens here. Many villagers had died, alarming everyone — if the monster couldn’t be captured so that this place could return to its quiet peacefulness, there would come a time where the villagers would make live human sacrifices to the river gods, resulting in the continued loss of life.
If Tang Fan reported this explanation to the Court, it might not condemn him on its end, but it would certainly take this as him being incompetent and using this as an excuse to avoid his duties. Then, it would send an imperial ambassador of an even higher rank, making their own group more passive.
Sui Zhou understood this point very well. “When the time comes, I’ll have Pang Qi go to the Northern Bastion Office’s Henan guard post to borrow hand cannons. After another group gets transferred over here, they should be able to go down and check things out.”
Tang Fan looked contemplative, mind fully immersed in reflection, but that didn’t at all prevent him from picking up cloud cakes and delivering them to his mouth, one after the other. How he looked while handling serious business, yet still not neglecting to eat, was quite ridiculous to see.
Sui Zhou watched this with a smile, but the man in question didn’t notice at all, earnestly considering the feasibility of the hand cannon proposal. “That’s possible, but we still need to take time making a decision…”
Before he finished speaking, he noticed that the corners of Sui Zhou’s mouth were slightly raised up. “…What?” he asked, confused.
“Nothing.” Sui Zhou curled a fist, brought it up to his lips, and lightly coughed, resuming his typically-cold face. “Don’t eat too much, someone is definitely going to be bringing breakfast at daybreak. Let’s rest for a bit, or we’ll lack in energy during the day.”
They hastily tidied up. This time, they didn’t even take off their outer robes, laying down right in their clothes.
Tang Fan had thought that he wouldn’t be able to sleep, but because he was truly too tired, he dozed off after not too long, unaware of how long the night was.
By the time Sui Zhou called him awake, he didn’t dream again.
When he opened his eyes once more, it was already bright out, and steaming congee plus side dishes were placed on the table. He had chugged down a full belly of tea last night that hadn’t filled him, so now that he was seeing these simple-but-appetizing pickled veggies, his appetite was provoked. After he finished getting up and freshening up, he sat with Sui Zhou at the table and began to eat.
“County Deputy Zhao is waiting outside. I told him to go with Pang Qi to the old chief’s house and bring him over,” Sui Zhou said.
Tang Fan hummed. “Questioning him in the village wouldn’t be convenient; bring him back to the county capital. You all can do as you see fit. Leave half of your personnel with me, because I want to take a walk around the village. The origins of those two from last night—“
He didn’t get to finish, as the door was banged open from outside.
“Sir! Sir!” Deputy Zhao appeared in the doorway, pale-faced and panting. “It’s terrible!”
Upon seeing him in that state, Tang Fan’s heart sank. “What is it? Don’t pant so heavily, finish your words in one breath!”
“The old chief is dead!”
The translator says: Wailing on a windy night = that shit’s whistling through the cave. Bam, mystery solved, I’m the sleuth now.