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Yin Yuanhua covered his forehead as he got up, wanting to swear but not daring to. If that wronged expression was pressed against the ground, he would be inciting the Brocade Guards’ loud jeers.
No one had the mind to care about him right now, though.
“This is the upper floor,” Chief Liu said. “It’s this way. We went down from here last time.”
As he led the way in front, Pang Qi and the Guards lit up flamesticks, their surroundings instantly becoming brighter, allowing them all to see. The place they were now ought to be the left-side chamber of a gate in the complex. Rotten wood was scattered all over the floor, as were many trunks, with porcelain placed at random, all of which had been half-coated in dust for a long time now. Having been subjected to years of invading, Eternal Deep was an imperial tomb that had right about been plundered into a sieve, this one glance around meeting with almost no intact objects.
As the palace where Yingzong of Song slept after death, there had once been countless treasures of gold and silver and porcelain interred here, but now, only the delicate motifs and blue bricks near the archways and stone walls could testify that this place used to be glorious.
What was especially unfortunate was that when that many robbers came over here, they would often only steal the treasures of gold and silver, tossing the porcelain and pottery figurines aside like worn-out shoes. It was to the point that nearly all of the latter had been destroyed in the process of tomb raiding, resulting in the floor being filled with desolation in the present, even more dilapidated than what was on the surface.
At this juncture, though, few were of the mind to be concerned with such details. Tang Fan stooped over to pick up a thin white object off of the ground; upon brushing the dust away, he discovered that there was still some dried blood staining it.
“What is that?” Sui Zhou asked, walking over after he noticed Tang Fan staring at the thing he held in a daze. He had already ordered Chief Liu not to go any farther, as well as for everyone else to take a careful look around.
“A jade silkworm. This isn’t from a Song tomb, and the blood doesn’t look too aged. It ought to be something that Qian San’r’s Master accidentally dropped while he fled in too much of a rush.”
Upon hearing that, everyone circled around to see.
“Right, right!” Qian San’r said. “My Master and Fat Lu both said that when you go below the second floor, you can see a lot of treasures!”
“I have some of my own guesses, but I need to go down further to know,” Tang Fan mumbled. “There might be a secret hidden beneath this Song tomb.”
The crowd looked at each other, completely ignorant as to what ‘secret’ he was speaking of.
Pang Qi let out an ah. “What about the corpses? If they fled from this way, there ought to be corpses left behind!”
He looked at Qian San’r, as if expecting him to explain. The latter stumbled a few steps back from his glare, stammering out, “Th-this lowly one wouldn’t know. My Master only said that they ran the entire way and dropped all the treasures during. Maybe… maybe they dropped that?”
“Let’s proceed,” Tang Fan ordered.
Sui Zhou nodded. “Be careful, everyone.”
When their group left the chamber, there was really only one path forward. The angle Qian San’r’s group had picked out for the cave was indeed at a tricky angle. Just because there had been no traces of other thief’s caves close to this area didn’t mean that it had been any less defiled by thieves, though; it could be said that the whole tomb was now only ruined walls, rotten wood, and porcelain fragments, any treasures once had having been emptied from this place over a century out.
Thus, when they came upon bits and bobs of golden animals and earrings and other such things sprinkled on the road ahead of them, they were all shocked. On top of that, they would occasionally step upon round golden beads, fossil coral ornaments, cloud-carved jade pendants, and so on. Qian San’r not being able to resist leaning over to pick them up was a given, but Tang Fan even saw Yin Yuanhua, as conceited and aloof as he was, not be able to resist quietly sneaking a gold bead into his pocket, either.
In contrast, the Brocade Guard could still restrain themselves. Tang Fan grasped between his fingers an item he had just discovered under his feet — a silver bracelet inlaid with turquoise and mussel shells, pasted with gold leaf — and the supposition in his mind gradually took form.
They left the side chamber and followed the passage to the underground stele pavilion in the main hall, then saw Chief Liu wind around to the back of the pavilion. “It’s here!” he shouted in happy surprise. “We went down from here the last time!”
The pavilion had been built as a beautiful sight to behold, being twice the size of regular stele pavilions from the surface. Three stone steles were stood in its center that inscribed the achievements Yingzong of Song had had in his lifetime — of course, since he had reigned for only three years, no amount of his accomplishments could compare to Renzong and Taizong’s, so the word count had needed to be made up with drivel. They were all over-generously engraved with flowing phrases of flattery and lavish rhetoric. Tang Fan only glanced over a few columns of writing before shifting his gaze away, looking towards the entrance pointed out by Chief Liu.
The lower floor of the crypt was used to house the Emperor’s coffin, and was also the heart of the underground palace. This entrance had been later excavated, not being the original one to the crypt at all; reportedly, because the original had many traps meant to deter thieves, a lot of later generations of tomb raiders had made different routes in. In the course of a hundred years of successive waves of attempts (and judging from their unhindered path on the upper floor), there were likely not many mechanisms left on the bottom floor.
Sui Zhou told everyone to have caution, after which Chief Liu went down in the lead. It wasn’t that Sui Zhou wanted him to be cannon fodder, but that the man was the only one that had been through here before, and was the most familiar with the way compared to everyone else.
The Guards had brought plenty of flamesticks, and were not worried at all about them ever running out. Once everyone had stepped upon the blue bricks of the lower level, the firelight they held was enough to light up the entire empty space around them.
“There’s bloodstains over here,” Yan Li called lowly.
Everyone’s hearts leapt. Looking over to the place he was pointing at, they saw a puddle of dark-red, nearly black, already-dried blood spots, and several sheets of gold leaf that had also been darkened by blood.
One Guard bent over, picked up a sheet, and passed it to Sui Zhou. The other took it and gave it a look. “There must have been a fierce fight here, but all the corpses are gone. They might have been swallowed in chunks by the monster. Everyone needs to have caution and try not to wander off as much as they can. As soon as any weird sounds are heard, congregate together and prepare to use the hand cannons.”
It went without saying that they all felt this place bizarre, Qian San’r particularly. With his own eyes, he had watched Li Kui’s group go down, then only his Master and Fat Lu return, after which even those two had been lost inside the second time they had gone down, never to come back up. That had demonstrated something — the dangers here were certain to be far beyond anyone’s original expectations and imaginations. Even Li Kui and them hadn’t been able to escape. For a dabbler like himself…
He dared not think about it further. He didn’t even have any interest in the valuables spread out before him anymore, wanting to run back out to the surface and bask in the warm sunlight in one breath.
How pitiful it was that he wasn’t the one in charge, here. He could only brace himself and continue downwards.
Tang Fan took the gold leaf sheet out of Sui Zhou’s hand, then observed it for a time. “There’s bronzescript cut into this.”
Everyone’s attention was drawn to him. “What’s bronzescript?” Sui Zhou asked.
“It’s also known as ‘bell and cauldron script’. Prior to the Spring and Autumn period, it was generally popular to make carved inscriptions in bronze ritual vessels, but it sometimes appeared on funerary implements, too. This gold foil should have been stuck to some object, then peeled off.”
The psychic understanding between him and Sui Zhou had already reached a set level, where they could hear one’s song and know their intent. The latter got his implication immediately. “You mean to say that these treasures we’re seeing are not from any Song tomb, but from below Eternal Deep?”
Tang Fan nodded. “Qian San’r’s Master and Chief Liu have both said that there’s another floor below. If I’m not mistaken, this should be a grave vault; by coincidence, Eternal Deep’s location was picked out to be just above another, smaller tomb. Song Emperors pursued the policy of burying Sons of Heaven in July, and site selection only happens after death. It can’t be ruled out that because this vault beneath Eternal Deep had been buried too deep, and because the burial choosing for Yingzong was too rushed, the overlap was not found.”
With as much said, he did not keep the listeners in suspense. “In the Spring and Autumn period, Gong County was once a fiefdom that a Zhou Emperor had conferred as the Nation of Gong. These bronzescript letters are a tiny bit hard to decipher, but looking at the quality of the burial objects, what’s below should be the vault of a noble.”
Qian San’r had a sudden epiphany. “No wonder my Master said that there was a big heap of treasure down there! We were confused at the time. Everyone said that the Song tombs had been robbed clean long ago, so how could there be any treasure? They were even suspicious that they’d been hallucinating! So that’s what it was!”
“It may be, it may not. We still need to go down to confirm,” Tang Fan answered. “In pre-Qin times, nobles would generally have chariot pits buried with them. The standards back then were very different from later tombs.”
While they talked, the group followed Chief Liu through an archway, then stopped inside a depression behind the crypt gate.
“Here. We found the entrance here last time.” Chief Liu indicated the dark cave opening. “Because we were about to run out of flamesticks and the hole goes in deep, we only walked it for a short spell, and were too apprehensive about going further down.”
Tang Fan crouched down and looked in. He found that this cave entrance must have started out as a tiny pit smashed into the ground after the stone wall fell off and landed. Later on, a blaze had occurred here, and then Jin soldiers had overturned the place looting it, the blue brick layers paving the floor having long been lifted away. Who knew what menace to society had noticed that there was something odd beneath it and dug down, leading to this tunnel that went to parts unknown.
It stood to reason that with how much of a hurry Qian San’r’s Master’s group had been in, there was no way they could have discovered and excavated this passage in just two shichen’s time. The tunnel must have been there before them. But since that was the case, if there were treasures inside, why had they been waiting there for that group to find after they descended?
If it was said to have been an illusion, that wouldn’t make sense, as they themselves had picked up invaluable treasures all along the way. They really did exist, and weren’t part of the Song tomb’s original belongings. What could be the explanation behind that?
Tang Fan said his own thought aloud to everyone. “Regardless of the why, the goal of our expedition is to eliminate the monster that is bringing harm to this area,” Sui Zhou said. “Anything else is secondary. We can’t get wayward thoughts because of greed and fail our actual job.”
The Brocade Guard crowd agreed, but Yin Yuanhua felt some objection within himself. In his view, were these valuables found and transported out, that would be called a great credit to the Dynasty — and, when the time came, if one could stash a bit of it away, they would have endless comfort for all their lives. As for that illusory ‘monster’, he still hadn’t seen even a shadow of it. Even if it was described like a real thing, he believed yet that it was very likely some people feigning the supernatural, utilizing the titles of ‘river gods’ and ‘monsters’ to terrify the villagers out of coming near, and thereby concealing the treasure.
Sui Zhou didn’t rush downwards, instead bringing people to carefully examine the lower level in a loop.
Eternal Deep could be labelled as the smallest in scale out of Northern Song’s tombs; added on with its baptism by soldiers, fire, and thieves, it was pretty much now an empty grave. Even the depressing wooden coffin containing Yingzong’s body had been dismantled long ago, leaving only a few scattered scraps. It was likely that after those before passed through, they only left after there were too many things to take away. Even the Emperor’s bones were missing, to say nothing of the dragon robes and jewelry that had adorned him.
This spectacle had been quite sigh-worthy at the onset, but due to Tang Fan’s statement, everyone became increasingly curious about the floor below. They hence circled the area in a rush, and once they discovered nothing suspicious whatsoever, they got ready to go down.
Owing to his Master’s experience, Qian San’r had always had an indescribable dread towards this place. After witnessing that so many were uncomprehending while Tang Fan alone was able to describe the origins of what was below, he couldn’t help but admire him a lot. He subconsciously followed by the man’s side, not straying a hair too far.
Now that he saw Tang Fan still squatting next to the coffin, he couldn’t resist walking over, leaning down, and craning his neck to check things out.
Tang Fan jumped in fright because of him, but didn’t reproach him, simply wiping away accumulated dust with his hands.
Qian San’r’s eyes widened. He saw that after the sawdust and grime was wiped way, a large pool of something dark was revealed beneath it. “Th-that’s…” he started, uncontrollably losing his voice.
“Blood,” Tang Fan quietly supplied for him.
Qian San’r’s teeth couldn’t help but rattle. Tang Fan just laughed, though. “Don’t be scared.”
After laughing, he stood up and walked away.
Qian San’r kept staring blankly at the big bloodstain. There appeared to be meat or bone bits on top of it that had mixed in some with the dust, making one feel terror when they thought deeply about it.
Putting the fact that he had been a homeless wanderer since childhood aside, all he had ever done was petty thievery, never any dark stuff like murder and arson. The time he had followed with to excavate the imperial tomb, he had been barred from coming in based on his lack of experience, thus taking back his fate, but now, he was getting the feeling that that fate might be getting reckoned today.
Holding such an ominous premonition in mind, he got up with a sorrowful expression and followed after the crowd, descending into the hole that had quickly grown more terrifying in his eyes.
Coming into this space, there was no natural light. Breathing felt more stuffy than when on the surface. The crypt wasn’t big, but it also couldn’t be described as small; apart from their group, no human auras were around, their speech and footsteps echoing emptily, steeping in the vacuity of centuries.
Whether caused by some past fire here or what, there seemed to be the faint smell of scorched earth in their nostrils. Adding that onto those bloodstains that might not be found, everyone had some weight on their minds.
The Guards were alright, as scenes like this didn’t frighten them. Despite Yin Yuanhua’s eagerness to establish merits, his face was left pale upon arriving at a place like this. If it were said that he had just been of the mind to bend over and gather gold beads while in the upper floor, he now became nervous, too afraid to lower his head and take a closer look, far and away inferior to Tang Fan, who was ever looking at the details. When seen in the eyes of others, they inevitably mocked him on the sly.
The Guards hadn’t taken too kindly to him to begin with. Upon seeing him so tense, Yan Li got the mind to scare him, deliberately sneaking around behind him and abruptly clapping him on the shoulder.
“Ah!” Yin Yuanhua jumped in fright. Once his eyes settled upon and found Yan Li, he couldn’t help but glare viciously at him. “You have the nerve to dare frighten a higher official?!”
“I simply saw that you were stepping on something you shouldn’t be stepping on, Sir Yin,” Yan Li said innocently. “I thought to warn you.”
Yin Yuanhua lowered his head in a flurry to look, only to see that the place he had just been standing was clear. There wasn’t anything there.
Realizing that he had been tricked, he grew angry. “Just you wait! So impetuous! I’ll definitely denounce you to the Emperor when I get back!”
The speaker of that was not Yan Li, nor Sui Zhou, but Tang Fan. After he said as much, his face displayed a listening look.
Seeing him be so serious, everyone quickly pricked up their ears and listened for a long time… to hear nothing at all.
Yin Yuanhua had every reason to believe that Tang Fan was intentionally making things harder for him so that he lost face in front of others. He loathed the man all the more, but was aware that he did not have the final say in anything right now, as the other was stronger in this situation. He had no choice but to keep his annoyance down.
See how I deal with you when we get back! he thought hatefully.
Tang Fan actually hadn’t intended to mess with Yin Yuanhua. Right when the other had been loudly talking, he had heard a faint, drawn-out sound come from far away, as if something heavy was getting dragged along the ground ahead. However, after calming his heart and listening closely, the sound vanished, like it had been nothing more than his own misconception.
Following this search of the lower floor and confirmation that nothing was here, Chief Liu led the way down the hole.
Exactly how Chief Liu had said, the passage was a little long, nearly the same in length as the one they had just descended to get to the upper floor. This was probably the reason why the pre-Qin noble’s grave, hidden in the depths, had not been discovered during the imperial tomb’s site selection.
“We’re here.” With the accompaniment of Chief Liu’s voice, they all consecutively arrived below.
What was beneath their feet was uneven; stepping on it, one could clearly feel that the ground was not laid with bluestone bricks like the crypt was, but was just a run-of-the-mill ditch bottom.
Beneath the firelight’s illumination, the small space around them immediately became clear. Qian San’r gasped. “My Master said… that they saw a lot of treasure when they came down here!”
But where were there any sort of treasures, as far as they could see? Apart from the earthen walls on each side, there was nothing here.
No… with some extra attention paid to the floor, puddle after puddle of deep red bloodstains could be seen, penetrating deep into the wall after congealing, appearing as unbelievably odd chunks of varying depths.
Yin Yuanhua’s face was overcast. “I just knew that a stupid thief wouldn’t be credible!”
Qian San’r had really suffered a good deal after getting brought to the county capital by the Brocade Guard. Upon hearing this, he quickly refuted, “My Master really did say that! Sir, this lowly one is already here with you! How could I dare to lie to you all?!”
“Is it… is it that the monster ate them?” Chief Liu nervously asked.
A monster that ate people without spitting out their bones was already enough. If it ate treasure as well, what were they going to do? Call it a pixiu?
That remark was ridiculous to them all, but no one was able to laugh.
The cramped and sinister environment, mysteriously vanished treasures, unpredictable dangers up ahead, and monster of unknown whereabouts all forced everyone’s hearts to hang high.
This side-chamber wasn’t sealed shut, at least, since there was a stone gate erected up ahead of them. Pang Qi had just walked over and tested it out; there were apparently rolling balls set in beneath to allow it to be opened with a forceful push.
The door slowly came halfway open, a long and narrow passageway appearing beyond it. Its darkness was without limit, and without the illumination of candlelight, how deep it was could not be seen.
“Brother?” Pang Qi had to softly ask. Everyone looked towards Sui Zhou.
At this moment, he was their pillar of support.
“Pang Qi, take two with you to scout ahead. You don’t need to go too far. Once you confirm that there’s nothing dangerous up ahead for now, you can turn back. Yan Li, stay here and keep watch to provide support. If you come across any sort of unprecedented situation, run for the surface and don’t worry about us,” Sui Zhou ordered, voice heavy.
Pang Qi affirmed, nodded at two subordinates, pushed the stone door open, and walked out.
If not obstructed, the door would close on its own. Sui Zhou ordered it to be blocked so that it couldn’t, also making a mark on its outside.
After not long, Pang Qi and them came back. “Brother, there’s a fork in the path at the end of the passage, going left and right. We didn’t go any further.”
Sui Zhou hummed. “Let’s go on, then.”
Leaving Yan Li here, he brought everyone else ahead. Tang Fan and Yin Yuanhua were walking at the very back, only to hear a Guard suddenly shout in front of them, “Something’s up ahead!”
Soon after, someone else shouted, “It looks like a person!”
Everyone was alarmed. “Don’t give chase!” Sui Zhou commanded.
When in completely unfamiliar scenery, hastily giving chase would only place one’s own side in danger. While they were all subconsciously wanting to catch up and take a look, Sui Zhou’s calmness undoubtedly dumped a basin of cold water on their heads.
Even so, everyone’s pace got a little bit quicker.
Right then, Yin Yuanhua suddenly yelped like he had stepped on something, tripping and pitching bodily forwards. Tang Fan reached out to stop him, then was slightly put off-balance by him, quickly supporting himself on the wall to stand steady.
“Son of a whore!” Yin Yuanhua held his flamestick and lowered his head to look, only to see that what had tripped him was a human skull.
Fearing the foreboding, he quickly kicked the skull to the side, after which he noticed that Tang Fan had never reacted, thus looking up at him. “Where are the others?” he couldn’t help but cry out. “Why did they walk away so quickly?!”
Tang Fan creased his brow. His attention had just been drawn by Yin Yuanhua’s stumble, yet in no more than a minute’s time, the people ahead of them had vanished without a trace. Even the sound of their footsteps was gone.
He went forwards some. Faint firelight illuminated the passage ahead, its end not too far away, but there was no fork in the road as Pang Qi had described, only one hallway to turn left into.
Yin Yuanhua had evidently noticed as much, too. His complexion was a little white, voice trembling. “Where… is everyone?”
Tang Fan didn’t answer, holding his flamestick up and preparing to move on. Not caring about his own dignity, Yin Yuanhua hurriedly grabbed the hem of the other’s clothes. “Don’t leave me!”
Mister Tang was a little speechless, but he couldn’t give thought to mocking him right now. Instead of going left, he stood in place, silent as he felt up the segment of earthen brick wall in front of him.
“What is even going on?” Yin Yuanhua looked just as he was, but couldn’t make out any issues. He was already kind of regretting coming here. “How about… we go meet up with Yan Li, and wait for Envoy Sui’s group to backtrack?”
“We can’t go back, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?”
“Go over there and try.”
Half-skeptically, Yin Yuanhua held his light, backtracked for a bit, then suddenly cried out. “Where is the chamber door? Why is nothing here?!” His free hand haphazardly felt the dirt wall, attempting to find the mark they had made before. “Yan Li! Yan Li!” he shouted, slapping the wall.
“Don’t shout.” Tang Fan sighed. “We must have encountered a phantom wall.”
“Phantom…” Yin Yuanhua’s face paled again.
“It’s not a real phantom, just a mechanical application to the vault for the purpose of preventing thieves from entering at will. I’ve only read about them in ancient texts before, not seen them in person. When you stumbled, we probably unwittingly entered a run-off that lead to our separation from them, else they wouldn’t have gone so fast without waiting for us. The fact that you can’t find the side-chamber behind us is proof of that.”
“What do we do, then?” Yin Yuanhua shakily asked.
“How should I know? I’m not the owner of the vault. Let’s take a good look around, there’s always a way out. Don’t scramble around.”
Even though he was trapped here with him, Sir Tang wanted to laugh at the other’s panic-stricken face. It had to be said that his mental faculties had already reached a certain realm — were Yin Yuanhua to know what he was thinking right now, his heart would probably wring itself to death.
Tang Fan didn’t get to answer before a distant voice came down the left-side corridor. “Sir Tang! Sir Tang! Where are you…”
Yin Yuanhua couldn’t help but be ecstatic. “It’s Chief Liu! We’re here!”
A tiny light came from far to near. Not long after, Chief Liu appeared in front of them, out of breath, looking both shocked and happy. “So here’s where you two went, Sir Tang!”
“What about the others? Where did they go?!” Yin Yuanhua asked urgently.
Chief Liu gasped for breath, his forehead full of sweat. “We were just walking for a bit when we realized that we didn’t see you, so Sir Sui asked me to wind back around to look. They’ve found the area where the treasure is hidden! Follow me now, Sirs!”
Yin Yuanhua didn’t suspect a thing, thinking to go after him, only for Tang Fan to stop him. “Wait!”
In the timespan of that word, Yin Yuanhua turned to look at Tang Fan, while Chief Liu, who had been walking ahead, suddenly raised his axe and swung it at them!
Because of the angle issue, Yin Yuanhua hadn’t noticed, but Tang Fan had. He dragged Yin Yuanhua backwards, and right as the momentum made him fall, the axe missed his head by a slim margin!
Plus, owing to his excessive use of force, Chief Liu viciously bringing the axe down deeply embedded it into the wall, leaving him unable to pull it out for a minute. Taking advantage of that, Tang Fan dragged Yin Yuanhua into a run. Chief Liu’s exasperated voice in the tunnel called out, but not for them to stop. It was: “Catch them!”
Two people came out of nowhere and blocked their escape route, catching them by the shoulders. Not even needing to think about it, Tang Fan attempted to knee the man in front of him in the groin.
That move might have use in handling ordinary folk, but it was entirely useless in handling those with bodies strengthened by martial arts. One of the other’s hands directly slapped him on the knee, and he felt a sharp burst of pain attack him, making his ability to react somewhat sluggish. In that short moment, he was already caught, the other harshly twisting his arms behind him as he cursed. “Fucker! You tried to kick my jewels!”
Yin Yuanhua had long been befuddled by this string of events, struggling wildly until he, too, was caught. “Who are you?! How dare you! Don’t you know that we’re imperial ambassadors?! This is treason! Unhand me! Unhand me— mmph!”
A sweatrag that stunk to the high heavens was stuffed into his mouth, making him gag until his eyes rolled back.
Chief Liu came over like storm. Instead of caring about the noisy Yin Yuanhua, he raised his hand and slapped Tang Fan without another word!
That vicious strength smacked Tang Fan’s head to the side at once. His ears buzzed, a bloody stench slowly bubbling out of his mouth. Barely managing to tamp down his dizziness, he looked at the maliciously-grinning Chief Liu. “Must have been hard for you to act for this long. I was wondering when you were going to be willing to reveal your true colors.”
Chief Liu had been just about to take a dagger out and familiarize Tang Fan with it, but upon hearing that, his interest was piqued. “You knew I was a fake all along?”
The other didn’t answer his question outright. “A peasant born and raised in Luo River Village will have been exposed to all sorts of farming skills since childhood. It would be impossible for one to not even know how to use an axe. The movements you used just now were unfamiliar-looking, where you weren’t even able to control your strength well. You’d be hard-pressed to get anyone to believe that you’re the real Chief Liu!”
Hearing this, Chief Liu actually grinned. That smile of his looked a little warped beneath the flamestick’s light. Yin Yuanhua couldn’t help but shudder, but their counterpart paid him no mind, continuing to keep his attention on Tang Fan. “You knowing is useless. Now that you’re both down here, be prepared to die here.”
He drew a dagger out of his sleeve, ready to stab Tang Fan in the heart.
But, all of a sudden, a spectral crying noise came from far away.
The sound was resentful and harsh, as if it held inexhaustible grief. Everyone’s expression morphed the second they heard it.
“V-Vicar, isn’t that thing locked outside? H-how did it get in?” the man holding Yin Yuanhua trembled out.
“Come on!” Chief Liu grit his teeth, unable to put any more thought into killing Tang Fan. He ordered his subordinates to grab the two of them and run off.
Their group bumped around as they fled. Chief Liu seemed to be familiar with this path, taking twist after wind until they ultimately turned into a stone chamber, then pushed the stone door shut. It wasn’t until the wailing sound was unheard for right now that he sighed in relief.
This chamber was clearly the central pivot of the grave vault. The area was much larger than the side-chamber they had come to before, and dimly lit; only the coffin in the center had a single candle lit upon it, its glow faint. It was unknown whether the body inside was still there.
“I’d advise you not to kill us right now,” Tang Fan said. “If I’m not wrong, the monster moved due to the scent of blood. If we die here, that will draw it over. When you’re no longer able to get out, won’t all of this have been in vain?”
Chief Liu was panting for air. Despite the identity he was assuming, his actual self was still a pampered do-nothing, clearly not used to such intense running. He wouldn’t have missed his head with that axe chop, otherwise. “You’ve always been quite intelligent, Sir Tang,” he sneered. “Since you know I’m an impostor, why don’t you have a guess at who I am?”
Tang Fan watched him, and he watched Tang Fan. That originally-honest face was now inarguably sinister.
“Truthfully, you played the part well, even imitating the local accent. But no matter how lifelike you are, a counterfeit will always betray signs in their mannerisms and speech,” Tang Fan composedly detailed. Before Chief Liu could get angry, he continued. “When we entered, starting from the upper floor of the crypt, we found subsequent waves of jade stones, gold beads, and other such valuables. You remember, right?”
“Of course. Those were all strewn about after that gaggle of idiots died here last time. I specifically told everyone not to clean them up. What about it?”
“That was the problem. After we came in, even Yin Yuanhua hadn’t been able to resist sneaking a gold bead, to say nothing of Qian San’r and the rest. You, though? You were leading the way the whole time, yet were unmoved when seeing the treasures. If you were a rich merchant embracing a vast amount of fortune, or some Don accustomed to seeing wealth, that wouldn’t be surprising to me.” He smiled at Chief Liu. “Instead, you’re just a farmer that shoulders his entire family’s livelihood. Your little brother said that your wife died young, you haven’t yet remarried due to family circumstances, and you have no offspring. Would such a person really not be moved by the baubles filling the ground? Clearly, you were too anxious to drag us into shooting range, which is why you didn’t pay any attention to that detail, yes?
“Also, I remember what the old chief said the night before he died. In the end, he kept saying that there were ghosts everywhere. I had thought at the start that he he had only gone hysterical from fright, but after I thought more on it, that remark might have been referring to something else… because at the time, besides Sui Zhou and I, there was only you nearby.
“Let me come to a speculation. Did he know that you weren’t his son? You worried that our arrival would cause your identity to be exposed too early, so you threatened him with his family’s safety to force him into suicide? But why was he too scared to come clean to us? Did you have hold of some weak point of his?”
Chief Liu grinned creepily at him. “Correct. They still believe that his grandson, ‘my’ brother’s son, is studying in the county, when in truth, I had him captured long ago. Only the old chief knew this secret. I told him that if he dared to unveil my identity, the boy would definitely be meeting with misfortune before I would. For the sake of the life of his only grandson, he obeyed me perfectly.”
“That makes sense, but what I don’t understand is this; the old chief was Liu Daniu’s father, so him seeing through your disguise is not surprising, but why did his mother and little brother not have any doubts?”
Chief Liu snorted. “As you’ve said, my disguise is lifelike. His old mom is elderly, frail, and has bad eyesight. As for his brother, he’s just a moron that can be swindled with a few words. No one in that family knew that I wasn’t the real Liu Daniu aside from the old man, haha! And on top of that, for his grandson’s life, he instead had to help me hide of his own volition!”
Tang Fan nodded. “That’s right. It’s been a long time, Li Man. I presume you’ve been having a grand old time in this timeframe?”
Him bluntly exposing his identity was unexpected. The other party was stunned for a good while, then reached out and grabbed his lapels. “You still remember me?” he asked, ferocious.
From getting choked a little by him, and also having his hands bound behind him again, Tang Fan was in a bit of sorry state, unable to put on a calm air. He couldn’t help but cough a few times. “Why wouldn’t I remember you? You swapped identities with Li Lin in prison, putting your own son to death yourself…”
Li Man sneered. “If not for you, why would he be dead?! If not for you, why would I not still be perfectly able to act as Lord of of the Li family, instead of now being forced to wander the ends of the world from your meddling?!”
It was unknown what method he was using, but not only was his appearance completely unlike what it once had been, but even his voice was completely different.
There was consistently a type of person in the world that was a complete failure. Instead of reflecting on their own faults, they would always shove mistakes onto others, forever believing that all of their own shortcomings were caused by outsiders.
“If you hadn’t so cruelly murdered your own wife, you wouldn’t be in your current plight at all!” Tang Fan bellowed.
“She was wed to me when we came of age. There were some things that could never slip by her. She knew too much, and only the dead are the quietest,” the man answered coldly.
“So you plotted to kill her from the very beginning!” Tang Fan raged. “Everything you said before about her refusing to get a divorce was nothing more than an excuse!”
“So what if it was an excuse? You’re so angry, Sir Tang. If she hadn’t been over fifty years old, I would be thinking that you’d had an affair with her!”
“What about Li Lin, then?! He was your son by blood! Even tigers won’t eat their own cubs, so how could you have the heart to act against him?!”
“If I didn’t use him to switch with me, I wouldn’t be standing here and talking to you now,” Li Man said calmly. “It’s fortunate that his mother taught him how to be overly traditional since his youth, so that he read himself stupid. It made him easy to manipulate. That said, Lady Chen’s already given me a son, so my Li family has someone to light incense. That son was a piece of rotten wood that couldn’t be carved. There’s nothing to be concerned about.”
Tang Fan felt that speaking of morality with a scumbag like this was practically a form of extravagance. If before he had said that the man had felt some remorse towards Lady Zhang’s death in the Li residence, after their current reunion, Tang Fan saw only evil coming from him, an obliteration of any humanity.
That was to say that in this man’s mind, he now only valued Lady Chen and her son. As for Lady Zhang and her son, he had long cast them to the beyond.
Before Tang Fan could speak, Li Man asked, “You still haven’t explained. How did you figure me out?”
“That’s simple. Before we set out, you said something to the Second Liu. Do you remember?”
Seeing the other tilt his head in thought, Tang Fan nicely reminded him. “You told him to add blanched bok choy to a stew for when you came back.”
Li Man frowned. “What’s the problem with that?”
Tang Fan smiled. “There isn’t any problem with it, but the term ‘blanched’ is obviously not a part of the village’s local dialect in that context. As far as I know, though, Jiangnan’s Suzhou region is really fond of the word. You took so many precautions, but didn’t expect that the way you spoke would betray you, did you? The Li family lived in the capital for a long time, but their ancestors were people of Jiangnan. By ill luck, my own hometown is in Jiangnan, so I’ve heard it before, too.”
Li Man had considered that since the other end was trapping Sui Zhou’s group, he would come over and kill Tang Fan and Yin Yuanhua. Because of his ample time plus the coincidental question he had in his head, he had done this back and forth, but now that he heard this, he finally noticed that something was amiss. “Since you all already had doubts, why did you still follow me down here?!”
Tang Fan had a strange expression. “What would be the use of catching you alone? Have you not heard that one phrase before; if you don’t enter the tiger’s lair, how can you catch the tiger?”
As soon as Tang Fan got that weird look, Li Man had gone on alert.
The very next moment, the two underlings that were holding Tang Fan and Yin Yuanhua cried out in surprise. “Vicar!”
Upon hearing the sharp sound of wind, brimmed with murderousness, surging up behind him, Li Man didn’t hesitate to grab Tang Fan’s shoulder, turn them both around, and use him as a shield!
The author’s mini-theatre:
Author: Were any of you to get slapped, how would you react?
Tang Fan: Bear with it at first, then find an opportunity to strike back.
Sui Zhou: Chop that person to bits.
Wang Zhi: Chop the author to bits.
The translator says: lmao you’re on your own bye *flies off*
The ‘blanched’ thing is a bit weird…? The literal translation is ‘snowsnow-white’ (雪雪白), which is a tiny bit strange due to the repeated character. I settled for ‘blanched’, because it’s a cooking method, has the meaning of taking all the color out of something, isn’t properly used to the T, and is a word rural people aren’t likely to know, making it seem at least a little weird in context.