The World Below Surface 22 ☆ Wedding Banquet


Shen Na was deep in thought when a sudden realization made her shiver uncontrollably, her teeth chattering.
She struggled to recall the faces of the thirteen people in the group photo, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't seem to remember them.

After quickly wiping herself down, she retrieved her phone to check the photo.
The picture showed all thirteen people, and she carefully matched each face to her companions from the previous day, only to discover that one person was missing.

“What was the order in which they took the group photo?” she wondered, trying to piece together the events from the day before.
She remembered being first, followed by An Xing Yu, but then the memory became hazy.

Suddenly, the sound of the clock striking eleven startled Shen Na, and she immediately went to bed.
As she drifted off to sleep, she noticed that Ding Cong Lu, who was sleeping in the next bed, was already sound asleep.

She knew that she must follow the village rules, and the next morning, all of the party members woke up early and obediently sat downstairs in a line, softly requesting breakfast from the hotel waiter.
They had all read the rules the day before and didn't want to risk breaking them by taking pictures.
They knew that waking up past eight o'clock was not allowed.

The owner's wife was pleased with their compliance and had a big smile on her face.
However, as time passed, it became apparent that four people were missing from breakfast.
When one of the guests asked the owner's wife, she replied with a smile, “Of course, those who don't follow the rules should be punished.”

Although she didn't say what happened to the missing people, it was clear that the consequences were not good.

After finishing breakfast, a few guests looked at each other and decided to investigate upstairs together.
It wasn't against the rules, so they walked along the wooden corridor on the first floor.
The floorboards creaked under their feet, and white lanterns swayed gently outside.
An Xing Yu walked beside He Lou and whispered, “What do you see?”

“These lanterns are very similar to the ones at the village chief's house,” replied He Lou.
“Also, do you remember? The owner's wife said on the first day that the specialty of this place was their paper lanterns.
Could it be these paper lanterns?”

“Wait and ask later,” suggested An Xing Yu.

They soon arrived at the two empty rooms on the first floor.
Four people who had gotten up late yesterday had been put together, as nobody wanted to stay with them.
The room was still as they had left it, with their bags, phones, and pyjamas neatly arranged, but the people themselves were missing.

“Look carefully, are there any clues?” said Shen Na, reminding the group not to rummage through things.

They split into two groups and each went into a room.
He Lou and his admirer (“hug his thigh”), Qi Yan, searched the same room.
Suddenly, He Lou's gaze flickered, and he bent down to pick up a long, thin, yellow straw by the tip.
Why was there straw in the room?

“Brother Lou, is there anything wrong with this straw?” asked Qi Yan.

“I'm not sure yet,” replied He Lou, putting the straw back in its place.
“Let's go next door and take a look.”

He Lou searched the other room just as thoroughly, but it too yielded nothing of interest.
Then he went to the bed and examined it closely.
To his surprise, he found a straw in a crack along the bed.

Shen Na approached and asked, “What's the matter?”

“I found a straw by the bed in both rooms.
Could this be a clue to something?” He Lou replied.

“Maybe it just got stuck on their shoes while they were walking.
There are a lot of straw men in the fields around here,” Shen Na suggested.

An Xing Yu's eyes remained emotionless, but his tone conveyed a hint of intrigue.
“If it were in just one room, it could be a coincidence.
But if it's in both rooms, it's more likely to be significant.”

After taking note of this strange coincidence, they left the room.
As soon as they stepped outside, they saw the owner's wife staring at them with an odd and uncomfortable expression.
But she quickly regained her composure and greeted them with a smile, asking if they wanted to go out and explore the area.

An Xing Yu took the lead and inquired about the paper lanterns.
“You mentioned lanterns.
Are they a specialty here?”

The proprietress beamed with pride.
“Yes, every household in this village makes them.
We hang them for weddings, funerals, and other special occasions.
It's our tradition.”

Her smile seemed forced, and upon closer inspection, it became apparent that she was not genuinely happy.
Although the corners of her mouth were turned upward, her eyes remained devoid of any joy or warmth.

Again the rules ……

An Xing Yu inquired about purchasing lanterns.

“If you guys want to buy lanterns, you can go to Uncle Wu in our village, he has the best craftsmanship.
He lives in -“

An Xing Yu had several questions before leaving and saying thanks.
Walking with He Lou, the two of them stepped outside and spotted Shen Na standing under a nearby tree.
She raised her phone and gestured for them to come over.

“Do you guys still remember? We took some group photos yesterday,” Shen Na asked, and the two men nodded.
“Do you guys remember the order of the photos?” Shen Na took a deep breath to calm herself down, and He Lou asked, “What happened?”

Shen Na pulled up the photo album and handed it over, “Just look at it yourself.”

He Lou lowered his head to look at the photo album together with An Xing Yu, and his pupils shrank as he examined it.
“This, this is…”

“You guys noticed it too, right? The number of people is not right,” Shen Na said, swallowing hard and moistening her dry throat.
“There are thirteen of us here, but there are thirteen on the…photo as well.”

An Xing Yu remained calm as he took the phone and placed it in front of Shen Na.
“But obviously, the problem now is not just the number.”

On the photo, the faces of the four people who were missing this morning had been completely blurred, like a paper diagram stained with water, their faces completely haloed, making it impossible to see what they originally looked like.

Thirteen people stood in regular order, wearing identical smiles, with four of them having blurred faces.
Moreover, Shen Na always felt that the haloed faces of those people were twisted into a very strange pattern, like a smiley face or two curved down lines for the eyes and one curved up line for the mouth, the kind of sketchy smiley face similar to a child's drawing.

Shen Na had been holding onto hope, but now she was finally sure that those four people were most likely not coming back.

“Will there be a problem with this photo? Should I delete it?” Shen Na asked.

He Lou shook his head and replied, “For now, there is no danger, you can keep it for now.”

Shen Na did not deny it.
The photos were on her phone, so he was putting it mildly.
She superficially agreed, and the three of them went ahead together to the home of Wu Bo, whom the boss lady had just introduced.

On the way, Shen Na pondered, “If there were no such bizarre events, it would be quite nice to come to Red River Village for a holiday.
It's just a pity…”

She was right; the village was beautiful.
The main road was clean and tidy, and as they walked along, there were paddy fields on one side and small woods on the other.
The weather was a bit gloomy, but there was a different flavor to a cloudy day.

An Xing Yu walked at the very back, his pure black, almost inorganic eyes carefully surveying the fields on his right.
It was too…
Although he had experienced farming life firsthand in order to write his essay, the rice fields in the countryside could never be as neat as here.
The scarecrows in the fields looked like they had measured the distance, and the gap between them would not be more than half a meter when you looked at them visually.

Suddenly, something caught An Xing Yu's eye.
He examined a scarecrow with a peculiar hat and realized that it looked familiar.
As a small flock of sparrows landed on the scarecrow, a few of them chattered and hopped.
Several birds suddenly fell headfirst into the paddy field, startling An Xing Yu.

“What's wrong?” He Lou noticed that An Xing Yu had stopped and walked over to him in a few quick steps.
In He Lou's opinion, An Xing Yu was smart, calm, and a good person to work with.
They could work together on future missions.

An Xing Yu pointed at the scarecrow and said, “That hat looks a bit familiar.”

Shen Na froze and immediately took out her phone to check the photo album.
One of the missing men was wearing the same hat! In the photo, his face became more blurred, while the smiling face gradually became clearer.
Shen Na suddenly understood what had felt familiar.
The blurry smiley face on the photo was exactly the same as the sketchy smiley face painted on the scarecrow's face.
She quickly closed the album and didn't say anything more.

The three of them looked at each other and realized that the scarecrow and missing person might be linked.
They felt a chill in their hearts.
After a while, He Lou said, “Let's go to Uncle Wu's house.”

Uncle Wu lived a little far away and made his living by selling lanterns.
According to the owner's wife, he lived alone deep in the grove.
It was already noon when the three arrived, and the sun was hidden behind dark clouds.
The grove was rattling in the wind.

From a distance, they could see a corner of the roof peeking out from a small hillside.
As they walked quickly past, they were all stunned.
It wasn't surprising to see lanterns hanging in front and behind the house, but they were all bizarre, no matter what shape they were, rabbits or cats, all with uncomfortably bright colors.
The expressions on the lanterns were strange, with the corners of their mouths turned upwards in bright red paint, but no smiles in their eyes.
Although the lanterns were made with great skill, they always gave people an uncomfortable feeling.

Shen Na wanted to tell He Lou about what she found, but when she saw him staring in another direction, she nudged him and asked, “What have you found?”

“Nothing,” He Lou replied, shaking his head.
He had seen an extraordinarily familiar back, but he knew that the person he saw couldn't have survived his mission.
He figured it was just an illusion and stopped paying attention.
Meanwhile, An Xing Yu was raising his hand to let them in quickly.

Uncle Wu was working in the courtyard, with a large table set up in front of him.
The three of them watched as he worked on the skeleton of a new lantern.
It was made of thin bamboo strips with a rounded top and a circle stuck in a third of the way.
The bottom was even rounder and bigger, resembling a gourd at first glance.
Uncle Wu oiled a layer of skin of some kind, brushed it with paste, and carefully glued it onto the bamboo strips.
He was skilled and was able to wrap the soft layer of skin without any gaps or folds.
Once one lantern was finished, Uncle Wu sketched it out in detail with a brush.

It was then that the three of them realized that Uncle Wu was now making a female doll lantern.
He painted two dark buns of hair, a rounded face like that of a New Year's painting doll, and a bib that revealed the lotus root-like arms and legs.
Only when the shape was finished did Wu switch to a brush and carefully color the bib.
The deep red, sticky paint reminded He Lou of the village's Red River and …

Wu Bo was fast and soon reached the final step – painting the face.
Little by little, the fine brush drew a smiling face that was not too different from the scarecrow's face.
It had no smile in its eyes, but its bright red lips curved high at the corners.

“Finally the painting is done,” Wu Bo said, looking at the lantern in his hand with satisfaction and placing it carefully on the ground.

“Very good, you are very well behaved, you didn't disturb my work,” said Uncle Wu, hemming in a laugh.
His voice was a little hoarse, and his cloudy eyes made him look uncomfortable as he stared straight at the group.

“Uncle Wu, may I ask if this lantern you made is…?” Shen Na began to ask.

Uncle Wu interrupted her and took out another lantern from under the table.
It was a male doll posed with a female doll as a pair of golden girls.
He explored the two lanterns with incomparably fascinated eyes and finally put them away reluctantly.

“These two lanterns are what I want to give to the village chief.
It's hard for his son to get a daughter-in-law, so I have to bring out my family skills,” Wu Bo explained with a hint of embarrassment.
His gaze lingered on Shen Na for a moment longer.

He Lou complimented the lanterns against their will, and seeing this, the other two also complimented them and offered to buy a few when they left.
Uncle Wu agreed to sell them and invited them to stay for lunch.
They agreed, and when Wu Bo pushed himself towards the house, they realized he was disabled and relied on a wheelchair to get around.

As a group of rule-abiding tourists, they naturally had to help with the cooking.
He Lou and Shen Na went into the kitchen, leaving An Xing Yu outside to chat with Uncle Wu.
They had a peaceful lunch, and before saying goodbye, Uncle Wu gave them each a small white lantern.

When they returned to the hotel, several other people saw the lanterns and also planned to try to get one from Uncle Wu.
They went separately to explore the village's many specialties.
He Lou picked up a mushroom the others had brought back and noticed something strange about the bright red color.
“It was the law of nature that the brighter they were, the more poisonous they were.
This bright red mushroom…” He Lou gently scraped the mushroom with his fingernail, scraping off a layer of skin and causing the fishy red juice to drip down.

He Lou frowned, “Is this really edible?”

An Xing Yu replied, “Just to be safe, don't eat it for now.”

It didn't take long for the others to return one by one, each carrying a small lantern.
There was nothing else to do for the day, so they all waited for the evening feast.

Night fell quickly, and the cool autumn air brought rustling sounds from the leaves.
At the end of the streets and lanes, lanterns from every house suddenly lit up, swaying lightly in the wind.

The group of tourists gathered at the hotel entrance, dumbfounded by what they saw.
The lanterns they had made revealed a sketch of a smiling face painted on the white paper, with bright red lips and arched eyebrows that looked uncomfortable.

“The auspicious time has come – welcome the bride -” a long, drawn-out shout came from nowhere, perhaps from all directions.
Then, the high-pitched sound of an oboe slammed into the air.

A suona, blowing for new life, marriage, and death, came from the village head.
The bride was coming.

Firecrackers crackled and homes opened their doors, with people coming out one by one with smiling faces.
The boss's wife led a group of people out the door, all carrying lanterns, and joined the crowd heading for the village head's house.

Although there were many people, the road seemed unable to illuminate the heavy night, with faces blurred in the dead of night.
Only their chilling smiles could be seen.

Fortunately, there was a platform in front of the village head's house that had been neatly set up during the day with tables and chairs.
At the top was an altar with three white incense candles burning, the white smoke blurring the young man's face in the black and white photo.
Beneath the table were piles of wreaths, paper houses, and paper-tied gold and silver jewelry.
In the front row were half-high paper figures with small red mouths, white faces, and smiling eyes.

The whole village had gathered for the wedding banquet, but there was no lively atmosphere as everyone followed the strict rules of not talking out of turn.
They waited for the host family to speak first.

“Today, it's my son's big day…” said the village headman, who was beaming with happiness as he stood in front of the altar to speak.
He praised how good his future daughter-in-law was, and it was clear that his son was also pleased as evidenced by the photo, which showed the corners of his mouth slightly raised.

The task enforcers noticed that something was off and felt a chill run down their backs, like a cold wind passing through.
However, they didn't dare say anything due to the strict rules.

He Lou also felt the same, and he couldn't help but tremble.
He was shocked not by the smiling picture, but by the young man standing next to the village chief who was listening intently to the speech.

“That man…is Lu Yan, who else could he be?”


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