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Tang Fan shot up, his normally respectable, widely-smiling appearance suddenly gone completely dark, scaring Deputy Zhao when he saw it.
“How is he dead? Wasn’t he just fine last night?!” In spite of his anger and fear, Tang Fan did not lose his reason and vent his rage upon the other party.
Deputy Zhao settled down. “Suicide,” he quickly answered. “He hung himself. His family is currently mourning. Centarch Pang brought people to stand watch there; would you like to go take a look?”
Of course Tang Fan wanted to go take a look. Neither he nor Sui Zhou could bother with breakfast anymore, immediately setting down their bowls and chopsticks to follow Deputy Zhao to the old chief’s home.
After no more than a minute, the death of the old chief had spread throughout the village. People thronged outside his house, packed tight, but because of the Brocade Guards keeping watch, no one dared risk their lives to see the excitement. They all timidly craned their necks, both fearful, yet irresistibly curious.
Commoners were ignorant, but not stupid. When that weird crying had started up last night, most of the villagers had heard it. None of them had dared to come out and look at the time, but with the news of the old chief’s death going around come dawn, and with him having returned from the tombs raving before, they couldn’t help but link the two things together, all saying that his group must have disturbed the river gods last time, thus inciting their revenge.
By the time Tang Fan and Sui Zhou hurried over, the Liu’s were a sobbing mess of endless grief.
Old Madam Liu had fainted, and was being looked after by womenfolk in a side room. The two sons of the family had instead been called into the receiving hall by Deputy Zhao to await Tang Fan’s questioning; the two middle-aged men also had tears welling up in their eyes.
Tang Fan gave them a few words of consolation, then asked, “When did you two discover that he had died?”
“After you Lords left last night, my father was persistently unhappy,” Chief Liu answered. “He wouldn’t answer no matter what we asked, just ranting where he was, so we had to help him to bed. We didn’t expect that in the morning, he… he would be hanging from the rafters…”
“Your mother wasn’t staying in the same room as him? Why wouldn’t she know he had hung himself?”
Chief Liu shook his head. “She wasn’t. Ever since he became unwell, he would sometimes suddenly start punching and kicking in his sleep. We were forced to have him sleep alone. We didn’t… didn’t know that this…”
He spoke and spoke, then couldn’t keep his sorrow from coming out, shedding tears without words. The second elder Liu also started loudly sobbing upon seeing his older brother like this. Who could have expected that their old dad, perfectly fine last night, would become an ice-cold corpse by today? Such a thing would make anyone crumble.
“After we left yesterday, did your father say anything else?”
“No,” Chief Liu said, choking up. “He was just like that; the same as ever at times, talking to himself at others. All the villagers s-say that since they ran into the mighty river gods that night, the gods would rain punishment…”
Talk like this was utter rubbish. Even after experiencing the events of last night, where his original viewpoint had been greatly capsized, Tang Fan himself would still never believe that any sort of ‘god’ had anything to do with this.
Not about to listen to Chief Liu continue with this, he told Pang Qi, who was keeping watch outside, to take the man to identify the body.
He wasn’t identifying his own father, naturally, but the corpse they had retrieved yesterday.
The village wasn’t big, so Chief Liu would definitely know whether someone was from there or not. If those two had been villagers, then their identities would soon be apparent.
On Tang Fan and Sui Zhou’s end, they went inside to examine Chief Liu’s corpse.
They were well-experienced in criminology. After inspecting the corpse for a good while, they learned that the old chief really had hung himself, not been killed, and there was nothing suspicious about it.
But that was precisely what made them all the more abundantly doubtful.
Others were saying that the old chief had been mad and rambling ever since his return, but he’d only been able to pull the wool over the eyes of ordinary folk with that. Tang Fan and Sui Zhou — people who came into contact with specialists all day long and scrutinized down to the smallest detail — had noticed some evasiveness inside the old chief’s speech, the contents of which might not be true. They had formerly planned come back and question him more today, determined to get the truth out of him no matter the means.
And yet, by happenstance, they hadn’t gotten the time to ask before he died.
Were the cause of death to be suspicious, that would have made sense, but since it was suicide, that only made things ever more difficult to unravel.
At that moment, Pang Qi walked in to speak to them. “Sir, Chief Liu said that the man isn’t from their village, and he’s never seen him before. I also asked a few villagers, who all said the same.”
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou looked at each other. The implicit understanding between them was now on a higher level; sometimes, there was no need for words for them to know what meaning the other was conveying.
As such, right this very moment, they were thinking about the exact same thing — since those two weren’t villagers, yet had crawled out of a thief’s cave in the middle of the night, they had to have been grave robbers.
Matching this with the previous multitudes of thief’s caves discovered by the villagers at the imperial tombs, it wasn’t hard to draw one conclusion: this group that wanted to pilfer the tombs was definitely not limited to the two people they had seen last night. Just as the old chief had said, it was because his group had been chasing down some thieves that they had encountered misfortune by the riverside.
Even so, those people could no longer make any sort of waves, having very likely all died in that cave. Such a thing also indirectly indicated that down there, within Eternal Deep, there might truly be something unimaginable and terrifying hiding.
Moreover, if that wailing sound was connected to the creature that killed yesterday, and there was a passage connecting Eternal Deep and the Luo, then the monster was likely able to come and go from the tomb and riverbed freely. As such, it would sometimes hide beneath the water to drag villagers under and eat them, then sometimes stay in the tombs. That unlucky group of thieves had just happened to come across it, which had naturally been a trip of no return, all death with no life.
But, that hypothesis had issues. If there really were creatures around, why had there not been any village rumors of ‘river gods’ eating people for so many years prior? As was known, these events had not started happening until a year ago, at the earliest.
Time had pushed forwards, yet this little village had always been peaceful, not any sort of unusual. Apart from the Northern Song tombs being located here, Luo River Village was no different from anywhere else.
At this point, they appeared to have run into a dead end.
“Act according to what we discussed last night,” Tang Fan said to Sui Zhou. “Sorry to bother you.”
The other gave a slight nod.
The two Liu brothers were standing outside, as were the villagers that had heard the news and came to see, solidly congesting the Liu’s courtyard outside. Yin Yuanhua, Cheng Wen, and Tian Xuan were waiting at the reception hall’s doorway; upon seeing Tang Fan come out, they hurried forth.
They had all stayed in the same home yesterday night, and there was absolutely no way they could claim that they hadn’t heard that ghostly wailing. To be blunt, the three of them hadn’t had the courage to go out and investigate, simply feigning deep sleep. Yet, when they had gotten up this morning, they had heard that Tang Fan had gone to check it out in person… while they, as subordinates, had just kept sleeping inside. They all felt rather ashamed.
Cheng Wen and Tian Xuan did not need to be elaborated upon. They were nervous, afraid that Tang Fan would look into their blame for this. Even Yin Yuanhua, who didn’t get on with him, felt himself to be in the wrong.
Fortunately, Tang Fan wasn’t in the mood to bother with them, only ordering that they go with Pang Qi and the Guards to search the vicinity of the village and tomb, to see if any of the bandits that had wanted to thieve last night had survived.
With imperial ambassadors resting here, Magistrate He would never have slept easy once back in the city. As soon as day broke, he had scampered over with people, and then as soon as he heard that another incident had happened last night (and seen the two incomplete corpses), he immediately went pale out of fright. Shuddering, he came up to Tang Fan to admit his own faults; it was unknown whether he was scared of losing his black hat, or worried that the monster would show up and eat him.
While he was still shakily apologizing to Tang Fan, Pang Qi had sent someone over to report that they had actually caught someone. He was a member of the thieves who had been on lookout duty outside, hiding in the underbrush near the tomb. Because of last night’s incident, Tang Fan’s group had been entirely focused on the thief cave, which had given him the opportunity to slip away.
However, he had been much too tired and hungry, so he hadn’t been able to resist going to the village after his escape to steal food — and then, because the officers were randomly searching, he had been too afraid to come out, resulting in him getting cornered and caught red-handed.
When Pang Qi brought the guy over to Tang Fan, he was about to shake himself into a sieve, repeatedly begging for mercy and saying that he had nothing to do with anything.
It was said that appearances were born from the heart, a sentence that made a lot of sense in this moment. This man had a ratty look about him where even when he was sobbing for forgiveness, his expression showed so much vulgarity, it was really hard to sympathize with him.
Noticing Tang Fan’s slight frown, Pang Qi smacked the back of the guy’s head. “Who told you to cry? Answer him!”
“Okay, okay, okay!” The man knelt on the ground and kowtowed over and over again. “Whatever you ask, this lowly one will answer!”
There was no need to ask anything at all, really, as the man poured everything out like beans down a bamboo tube.
His name was Qian San’r. As a child, he had been abducted and trafficked, the whole gamut done. Later on, he had followed his Master in joining his current gang — the Yellow River Gang. Even though it sounded impressive, it was actually just a few dozens of vagrants gathered together to do some swindling. Tomb raiding was a zero-cost, high-risk, massive-yield industry, so it naturally fell within the scope of their business.
When it came to scale, the largest tombs in Henan’s territory were the unsurpassed Northern Song ones, and of those, the easiest to grab at was the unsurpassed Eternal Deep of Zhao Shu.
Eternal Deep being easy to get to was, as everyone knew, because of Li Zi of Northern Song recording its position and underground layout in his book down to the last detail. The unlucky Yingzong of Song had not only been a short-lived devil of a reign that was just three years long, but his resting place was constantly getting dug up. He could be called the ‘best’ Emperor of the Song Dynasty, really.
Hence, ever since Southern Song, countless grave robbers had targeted Eternal Deep in waves — particularly during Yuan, where grave robbing had been legal and the Court itself had sent people to excavate them. That practice had not been even minutely constrained until the Great Ming’s founding, which was why the treasures of Eternal Deep had long been taken out.
The one that had led Qian San’r’s group in plundering the imperial tomb had been Li Kui, a minor boss of the Henan gang. Their actual aim on their expedition had been the Empress’s tomb right next to Eternal Deep, as Northern Song Emperors and Empresses had separate burial spots. Eternal Deep had been visited countless times before, but the Empress’s was a bit better, meaning there might have been some treasures left in it.
Li Kui’s idea had been to start with Eternal Deep, get a clear feel for the crypt’s layout, then go for the Empress’s tomb. In that way, they would have higher efficiency by not taking too many wrong turns. If they could find a strip and dig up some missed treasures in Eternal Deep that their predecessors had never discovered before, that would be even better.
Thus, their group had gotten to it, first measuring the terrain near Luo River Village, then using the nighttime to sneak in.
Before that point, there had already been hearsay of Luo’s river gods eating people along with strange crying coming from the shores at night, but the tomb was a little distance away from the river. Qian San’r’s group had been a bit fearful at the get-go, but after skulking around for a few nights and seeing that nothing was happening, they hadn’t put it to mind.
They had not used the thief caves made by previous robbers, but instead dug out another one. Its location had been picked out by Li Kui, as well. The man had been called a prodigy amongst thieves, as he’d surprisingly been literate, which meant he had read Li Zi’s Song Dynasty Records prior. He had done quite a lot of homework on Eternal Deep in advance.
In his words, the spot chosen had been both easy to get to and guaranteed to be at a tricky angle, which no one had ever dug into before.
As the boss had said as much, his followers had to act accordingly. All of them had hidden in the day to come out at night, spending a lot of time digging deeper and deeper, taking turns. Following over a month of digging, a cave leading right into the tomb had finally been made. Owing to Qian San’r being ill-seasoned and having only just joined the group, he hadn’t gotten the opportunity to go in and dig for treasure, forced to wallow in the fresh air outside.
The villagers bore the duty of defense, but they were just peasants, in the end, and had their own lives to pass. It was impossible for them to guard the tombs every single day. On top of that, these weren’t tombs of the current Dynasty’s Emperors, so the Court never sent anyone to guard them. These factors had allowed Qian San’r’s group to avoid the villagers’ attention so long as they had some extra caution, thus carrying out their own shady acts without restraint.
After the hole had been finished, Li Kui’s group had chosen a date to descend into the tomb.
On that night, Qian San’r’s Master had also gone down, while the former remained on lookout outside by Li Kui’s order. In his hand, he had held an oil paper bundle containing fat-crisped chicken that he had previously bought in the county capital during the day.
Although the chicken had been cold, that hadn’t stopped him from thinking it delicious, especially on that night of cold, blowing wind. Crispy chicken in one hand and a small flask in the other, he had hid behind a stone sculpture in the brush, gazing at the moon in the sky, and found this all to not be unbearable.
He still remembered that by the time he had slowly gnawed the chicken down to its bones, likely around two shichen had passed, after which a weird, ethereal wailing sound had come from inside the cave, exactly like the one heard coming from the river before.
The crying had been strange and horrifying. He had automatically started worrying for his compatriots down below, but he also hadn’t dared to disobey Li Kui’s orders, so he had kept on squatting in watch up above.
Bits of time had passed. He had no idea how long he had waited for, but the sound never went away, and had even gotten clearer and clearer, as if something could crawl out of the cave at any time.
He had stared dead at the cave. Right when he had been so nervous, his heart had been about to jump out of his mouth, someone had suddenly popped out of the cave.
Yelping, his entire body had jumped out of fright, and he had turned around to leave, only to hear his Master’s voice coming from behind him. “San’r, come lend me a hand, quick!”
It was then that he had realized that what had emerged was human, not ghost. Quickly collecting himself, he had run up to pull his teacher out.
Behind the man, another person had come crawling out. Qian San’r had focused his eyes on him — it was Fat Lu, who had gone with Li Kui before.
“Master, what’s going on?” Qian San’r had asked.
His teacher had hauled him up and fled without another word. Understanding nothing, Qian San’r had been forced to follow suit, Fat Lu behind him. The three had run in a line, doing all they could to race forth and get far, far away from the cave. They’d nearly reached the boundary of Eternal Shine before they had come to a stop.
Qian San’r had run nearly half of his little life away. The flask he once held had been tossed someplace unknown. The other two had been in an endless panic, fully unkempt, and only then had they told him what they had experienced below.
As it was, after Li Kui’s group had descended, they had quickly reached Eternal Deep’s underground palace. Just as they had expected, the two top and bottom floors of the tomb were not big, and had long been pilfered clean, leaving not even a single valuable hair behind. Had there ever been any secret passages, they had all been busted open and snatched from, too. In short: it was empty as the void.
Everyone had done a tour around inside, entirely disappointed, but right when they had gotten ready to leave, Li Kui had uncovered a further hidden passage near the entrance they had originally dug out. It connected to a lower level of the crypt, leading somewhere unknown.
Out of a thief’s mentality that they couldn’t leave empty-handed, everyone had unanimously decided to follow the passage downwards to see what they could find.
The tunnel had been very winding, but also not that long. Before any of them had even caught sight of their exit, they saw a glow of preciousness vaguely radiating from below, and couldn’t help but get excited, believing that they might have found genuine treasure, picking up their pace.
Once at the entrance, they had been flabbergasted by the scene before them.
What had presented itself was a not-too-big side chamber, its interior piled up with countless valuables as far as the eye could see, resembling a small ravine. There had been at least several hundred night pearls illuminating the entire chamber up to be as bright as daytime, nearly blinding their doggy eyes.
They had all been overjoyed, since they had just been thinking that they were going to return with nothing, only to incidentally come across such a wonder. In that moment, they all had leapt up in succession, jumped into the treasure mountain, and stuffed their pockets to their hearts’ content. There had even been some that had stuffed night pearls into their mouths after they had run out of room on their person, intending to spit them back out after they left.
None of them had thought harder about this at all. With so many treasures there, plus a ready-made passage available, why had no one else discovered it before? Why had it been waiting for them to snatch it up?
Wealth moved minds. Under the influence of these immense treasures, greed had long flushed away their logic.
In the middle of everyone excitedly cheering, then having to finally, and reluctantly, get ready to leave under Li Kui’s insistence, a nightmare had befallen them.
From the incoherent image his Master and Fat Lu had painted, Qian San’r had only gotten a general gist.
It sounded like their noise had drawn some kind of creature, the frightening likes of which they had never seen before. It was unknown where the monster had been lured out of, but as soon as it came in, it had bitten the upper half and head of one of their comrades clean off.
That comrade hadn’t had the time to even struggle or scream, his body instantly turned into two halves; one half had become the monster’s meal in its stomach, and the other lower half had spurted out blood, then collapsed onto the treasure hoard.
Everyone had been scared stupid by this scene, with many too slow to react, immediately getting torn to shreds. Qian San’r’s Master and Fat Lu had been closest to the secret passage, so they had reacted quick enough to turn tail and bolt without another word, disregarding the howling coming from behind them, cramming into the tunnel, and desperately fleeing from that place.
After escaping, they had then noticed that no one else had gotten out aside from them.
Qian San’r had listened to their full story in fear, then requested that they flee from there without delay. However, after the other two had returned to their senses, they had been a bit indignant, because the valuables they had stuffed into their pockets had all fallen out in the process of them running away without a care for anything else. Just one thought about those countless treasures had made them rub their hands together.
Upon their return, the shadow of their ordeal had gradually faded. After calculating things for a long time, Fat Lu and Qian San’r’s Master had eventually decided to go down again.
For one, they had been reluctant to part with that huge amount of treasure. If they could have brought out even a single night pearl, that probably would have been enough for them to eat and drink however much they wanted. So long as their thoughts had gone to all those riches getting possibly seized by someone else in the future, their regret had been enough to overshadow their fear of death.
For two, Li Kui and the rest of the group had all been lost inside, so them alone escaping would have been unexplainable once they came back. The Yellow River Gang might have even thought that they had gotten rotten ideas due to wealth and killed the others in order to take the treasure; a jump into the Yellow River itself wouldn’t have washed them clean, then. Thus was why they had wanted to go back down and bring stuff back up, so that the Gang could have been given an explanation.
Qian San’r had never heard of that much treasure before. Even though he had also gotten avaricious for it, he had still been terrified from the bottom of his heart about how Li Kui and them would never be coming back out again, and tried persuading the other two not to go.
However, he hadn’t gotten the final say, ultimately left behind on the surface as a lookout. Both of the other two had felt that as long as they were a bit more careful and fled as soon as they found danger, they probably wouldn’t lose their lives. In the interest of safety, though, they had brought two extra daggers.
Unable to convince them, Qian San’r had had no choice but to stay topside.
Reality had proven that whenever someone held the hope of luck in their hearts, there would be a ninety-percent chance that they would meet with doom. The very same two that Tang Fan’s group had encountered last night had been Fat Lu and Qian San’r’s Master.
After this entire sequence of events was relayed, it all became much clearer.
Tang Fan’s guess hadn’t been wrong. There had to be a passage linking the underground tomb and the Luo in order for the monster to appear both in the river and down in the thief’s cave, and the crying sound also had to be coming from that monster. As long as it was killed, everything would be good.
Even so, instead of getting lighter, their moods had turned all the heavier.
That was because, according to Qian San’r’s story, that underground danger was likely too difficult to describe with words. Li Kui’s group had had strength in numbers with its over a dozen people, and they had been armed — even though they had been grades inferior to the Brocade Guard, they had definitely not been pushovers, and yet they were all now gone, just like that.
The translator says: Those guys were stupid. Not getting eaten by an alligator >>>>>>> money
 ‘Night pearls’ are semi-legendary objects. There are real ones made of particular strains of luminescent fluorite, but they need to be bathed in sunlight beforehand, like all glow-in-the-dark things, and aren’t particularly powerful. Their functions are typically exaggerated in fiction so that they can remain glowing for centuries on their own, and light up significant areas.
 Calling someone ‘fat(ty)’ in this way was not derogatory in this time period; at worst, it was just a describing nickname of one’s appearance, similar to ‘Big Liu’ or ‘Cripple Luo’.