tears, and she struggled against Shen Na's grip, but the latter's strength proved too much.
An Xing Yu's pure black eyes flashed as he handed her a handkerchief, muffling her screams before restraining her convulsing body.

In truth, the moment Chen Zheng Hao had stood up, he felt consumed with regret and contemplated taking his own life to escape horrors that surely would follow..

It was evident that He Lou had just set an example that one could evade punishment as long as they kept cool and pointed out the flaws in the villagers' actions.
So, why should Chen Zheng Hao confess to his mistake?

However, the words had already escaped his lips and it was too late to retract them.
With his back to the table, Chen Zheng Hao was engulfed by the villagers' high-pitched cackles, which only added to his fear and despair.
He knew his end was near and swallowed hard, his trembling body on the verge of collapse.

'I'm going to die…' he thought frantically, berating himself for his foolishness.
'It's only the second time, why did I have to be so stupid?'

His thoughts turned to Xiao Lu, his timid girlfriend, and the looming prospect of leaving her unprotected.
A pang of regret shot through him as he gazed at the tear-filled eyes of Ding Cong Lu.
He shook his head resolutely and mouthed a silent “thank you” to Shen Na and An Xing Yu, who were holding her down.

Meanwhile, Ding Cong Lu's muffled cries grew more intense, her futile attempts to remove the handkerchief adding to her anguish.
Her gaze flitted from one face to another, beseeching help and empathy.

'Please, someone help him!' Ding Cong Lu pleaded, her eyes full of desperation as she looked at He Lou, hoping that he could do something to save Chen Zheng Hao from the villagers' wrath.
But He Lou could only meet her gaze with a slow shake of his head, conveying his helplessness in the situation.
It was too late for regrets now.


“To be punished! To be punished!” The high-pitched voices of the children filled the air, as they clapped and sang in unison.
“To punish, how to punish? Ask the village chief! What does the village chief say, what should be the punishment?”

All eyes turned to the village chief, who was barely visible in the dim lantern light.
With a smirk on his face, he declared, “He has broken the rules and will be punished.” The excitement in the villagers' faces was palpable.

“Make lanterns for Uncle Wu tonight!” The village chief's words were met with a chorus of cheers and the children's song continued.
“Big lanterns, little lanterns, lantern dolls touching their heads, boy dolls to cut off their hands, girl dolls to cut off their tongues….”

 

The children enthusiastically applauded, their small hands slapping together as they belted out familiar nursery rhymes.
Despite their efforts, their joyful noise was muffled by the distinct sound of an approaching oboe.

Those who dared to break the rules were met with swift punishment.
However, such occurrences were rare and the villagers remained content.
Chen Zheng Hao felt a weight lifted off his chest and his body slumped in relief.
His breathing was ragged, rising and falling with intensity.

By some stroke of luck, he was assigned to make lanterns instead of facing a harsher penalty.
Even if he had to spend an entire month crafting these luminous creations, it was a small price to pay compared to losing his life.

Overcome with relief, Chen Zheng Hao and Ding Cong Lu embraced each other, tears of gratitude streaming down their faces.
Unbeknownst to them, several onlookers gave them pitying glances.

Chen Zheng Hao spoke with sincerity, “Xiao Lu, I made a grave mistake breaking the village rules.
You must not do the same.” Ding Cong Lu obediently nestled in his arms and nodded, “I understand.
Take greater care when making the lanterns.”

Shen Na and He Lou exchanged glances, recalling the lantern they had seen at Wu Bo's house.
The lantern, made from some sort of animal skin, now hung in front of the spirit hall, a boy and girl doll affixed to it, both depicted as laughing gleefully.

The animal skin used for the lantern was of unknown origin, causing a sense of unease among tmore experianced players.
However, no one mentioned it, opting to keep the cheerful atmosphere for the little couple a while longer.

The cold wind blew stronger as the night thickened, shrouding the heavy, colored lanterns in darkness.
All light seemed to be devoured by the blackness of the night.

The players remained silent, their nerves on edge, as they waited for the appointed hour.

Strangely enough, the sound of the suona, a traditional Chinese wind instrument, grew louder and more prominent than the others.
People speculated that it was the bride's arrival, yet she failed to show up.
The sound of the suona drew nearer, only to drift away once more, teasingly elusive.

The mayor's son's coffin had already been disinterred and brought to the room where he had once resided.
All that remained was for the two individuals to open the coffin and perform the ritual at the stroke of midnight.

“Quick! Bring my son here!” The village chief, aware that it was almost time, urgently called for the laborers to bring the coffin forward.

Several strong laborers abandoned their meal and headed towards the inner room, ready to complete their task.

Within moments, the stench of the fish carried by the wind filled the air, intermingling with the reek of putrid flesh and long-buried soil.
Four burly men slowly carried the weighty, black coffin towards the center of the hall, its bulk swaying gently with their laborious footsteps.

An Xing Yu observed that the coffin was not securely nailed shut, and the lid remained ajar.
The bottom of the coffin was still coated with moist soil and the remnants of dead foliage, evidence of its recent exhumation.

An Xing Yu scrutinized the coffin, his gaze fixed on the footprints of the bearers which were imprinted deeply into the mud due to their substantial weight.
Lost in thought, he was interrupted by a teammate who whispered, “What are you pondering about?”

An Xing Yu shook his head, remaining silent.
Though he had been trying to ascertain the coffin's weight by the depth of the footprints, he now believed that such an exercise was futile.


“The groom has arrived,” bellowed the village elder, his voice raspy and powerful enough to slice through the sound of the clanging cymbals.
The music instantly crescendoed, filling the air with an electrifying energy.
At the far end of the road, four burly men emerged, shouldering a pristine white palanquin.
Their faces were fixed with identical, unnerving grins, mirroring the shape of the lanterns that dangled from the palanquin's sides, with their downturned eyes and upturned lips devoid of any mirth.

The blaring procession of suonas, trumpets, gongs, and drums reverberated through the village, spurring the men around the fire to smile even wider.
“The bride has arrived–” the elder cried out again.

As the chilly wind picked up, the villagers huddled closer, but all eyes remained fixed on the approaching palanquin.

They strained their necks to catch a glimpse of the bride, eager to see the beautiful woman who would marry the mayor's son.
An Xing Yu glanced at the man in front of him and noticed how his neck stretched impossibly long, almost extra five centimeters.
While swan like necks were often considered graceful and desirable by girls, the sight of such an elongated neck was unsettling, even eerie.

After the ban on speaking was lifted, the people congregated in small groups of two or three, engaging in lively conversations.
Some spoke of the bride and groom being a match made in heaven, while others bestowed blessings upon the newlyweds, wishing them a smooth and successful marriage, as per the tradition of the Red River.

Meanwhile, several members of the mission performers seized the opportunity to huddle together, exchanging hushed whispers.
Amidst the drone of their voices, He Lou scanned his surroundings, only to discover that something was amiss.

A sense of unease crept over him as he noticed the conspicuous absence of young people in the vicinity.
According to the village's customs, everyone was expected to attend the wedding feast, especially since it was the celebration of the village head's family.
However, to his surprise, he saw only middle-aged and elderly folks, the youngest amongst them being in their thirties.

As he pondered over the oddity of the situation, he couldn't help but wonder where the young adults, in their twenties, had vanished to.
Although children ran amok throughout the village, there was a conspicuous absence of those in the prime of their lives.

As He Lou mulled over the strange absence of young people in the Red River Village, he couldn't help but surmise that the man he spotted earlier did not hail from the village.
After all, could he be the only youthful member of the entire community? His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of the very same gentleman's back, and without further ado, He Lou strode over to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

The man turned around, and as their eyes met, He Lou's lips curved into a smile, although his insides churned.
The face before him was one he recognized only too well, stirring up memories of his last harrowing mission.
Despite the nagging voice in his head warning him to stay away, He Lou pressed on, “Excuse me, are you Lu Yan?”

Lu Yan appeared befuddled for a moment but soon broke into a friendly smile, “Yes, that's me.
How can I assist you?”

For a split second, He Lou hesitated, grappling with the internal battle raging within him.
Nonetheless, he pushed past his misgivings and extended a hand, “Hi, I'm He Lou, and I'm here with a friend to explore the countryside.
What brings you to Red River Village?”

Lu Yan's expression brightened as he revealed, “I'm a journalist on a folklore expedition to this charming hamlet.
The villagers here are warm and friendly, and their customs and cuisine are renowned throughout the region, particularly the tradition of ghost marriages.”

He Lou raised an eyebrow, surprised by the mention of such an unusual practice.
Sensing his apprehension, Lu Yan quickly added, “The village chief even treated us to the most delectable local delicacies.
You must have sampled some earlier, weren't they divine?”

He Lou suppressed a shudder as he recalled the stomach-churning dishes on the banquet table, but managed a strained grin, “Yes, they were delightful.”

'Do you truly have no recollection, or are you simply feigning ignorance?' He Lou pondered, but the fear of awakening the other party to their ghostly state prevented him from voicing his query.
Such was the premise of countless horror films, where the dead and the living appeared indistinguishable until the realization of death transformed them into terrifying apparitions.

Even the living Lu Yan was an imposing figure to contend with, and He Lou could only imagine the ferocity and cruelty that would accompany the revelation of his death.
Whether Lu Yan still lived or had passed on, He Lou wished to avoid any further involvement with him.

As a crowd gathered to witness the bride's ceremonial departure from the coffin, He Lou maintained a distance from Lu Yan, observing as a bright red embroidered shoe emerged from the white palanquin and met the ground.
The scene was both eerie and captivating, and He Lou found himself transfixed.

 

 

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