The World Below Surface 23 ☆ The Bride's Wedding

Updated: 16 hours ago


As He Lou's gaze landed on the gentle-looking young man, the latter turned his head and met his eyes, looking a little confused but still offering a polite smile and nod before diverting his attention elsewhere.

An Xing Yu, noticing the change in He Lou's demeanor, followed his gaze and noticed the young man too.
He then gently touched He Lou's elbow, his inorganic eyes silently questioning.

After a moment, He Lou forced himself to calm down and shook his head gently.
He had never expected Lu Yan to survive, especially after facing the all-powerful and insane Daoist priest.
Despite Lu Yan's terrifyingly smart and cold demeanor, He Lou couldn't fathom how he had managed to get away with it.
What puzzled him more, however, was the strange look in Lu Yan's eyes.
Did he not recognize him? Why did it feel like he was looking at a stranger?

He Lou remembered Lu Yan's cowardly, kind, and good-natured appearance when they had first met, so he couldn't help but wonder whether Lu Yan truly didn't recognize him or was just pretending.
Perhaps there was someone else in this world who looked like him?

Lost in his own thoughts, he continued to listen to the impassioned speech of the village chief while stealing glances at Lu Yan from time to time.

Abruptly, the village chief stopped talking, freezing his gaze on He Lou, and his face turned grim and ghastly under the eerie dim light of the lantern.
“There is an unruly guest here….” he declared, his words trailing off ominously.

The entire crowd fell silent, their expressions as eerie as the village chief's.
They turned their heads in unison, fixating on He Lou.

Then, as one, they opened their mouths to speak.
“Guest, why don't you behave yourself?” their voices ringing hollow and cold.

On closer inspection, their faces resembled the paper dolls placed under the hearth, their curved, smiling eyes not smiling but rather full of coldness and cruelty.

Lu Yan stood among the villagers, turning his head to fixate on He Lou with a twisted expression of terror and cruelty that they had never seen before.
His eyes glimmered with an unsettling intensity as their lips quivered in unison as they chanted, “Guest, you don't follow the rules…you don't follow the rules…”

He Lou was drenched in cold sweat.
He had never imagined that his mere glances in Lu Yan's direction could be so easily detected by the village headman.
It was unnerving to think that these “people” in the village may not even be human, and their strict adherence to the rules was far beyond that of any ordinary person.
Perhaps, their sensitivity to any deviation was heightened to an extreme level.

He couldn't help but wonder what to do now.
He was aware of the village's punishment.
The consequences of breaking the rules could be severe, even lethal, especially when dealt with by a group of vengeful ghosts.
He was at a loss, his mind racing with a flurry of questions and concerns.

The other players who had accompanied He Lou were equally petrified, having underestimated the severity of the situation.
While they had read the village rules and knew the importance of adhering to them, they were not aware of the extreme consequences that could result from any transgression.

An Xing Yu, who was standing beside He Lou, grew anxious and looked seriously at the village chief, sweating for his teammate.

He Lou, despite his panic, was a seasoned professional who had dealt with similar situations before.
He quickly apologized before the village headman could mete out punishment.
“Village Chief, the village rules say that everyone must be happy and celebrate together during the wedding banquet,” he emphasized.

The word “happy” hung in the air, causing the villagers' smiles to freeze on their faces.
Even Lu Yan's wry smile paused in shock.

The sound of the suona, firecrackers, and the distant sound of the welcoming bride grew louder, but the wind seemed to freeze.
The only thing still moving was the black and white photograph of the village headman's son, whose smile slowly drooped, and his eyes bore into He Lou.

He Lou repeated his words, trying to sound composed, even though his palms were drenched in sweat.
The villagers had to abide by the village rules, and he knew they could not be unhappy at a happy feast.

One second, two seconds, three seconds…the silence was deafening.

Finally, the stagnant wind stirred, and the village headman's face broke into a smile.
“Today is my son's wedding feast, so let's all celebrate with high spirits,” he announced, lifting the tension in the air.

With a collective exhale, the square thawed and its inhabitants resumed their merry facades, as if the recent disruption was nothing more than a fleeting illusion.
Not a soul spoke of the word “rules” again, nor did any of them give He Lou so much as a sidelong glance.
Even Lu Yan diverted his gaze and blended in with the crowd, dutifully clapping when it was time to do so.

The atmosphere of the square had shifted, and the sense of tension that had previously filled the air had dissipated.
But He Lou knew better than to test the limits of the village rules again.
He couldn't imagine the consequences of a second offense.

The strange customs of Red River village continued to baffle He Lou and his team.

The marriage customs were particularly peculiar.
The timing of the ceremony was determined based on the date of the deceased's death, and the coffin had to be moved on the same day.
The bride had to calculate the “auspicious time” and carry the new coffin into the groom's home within a minute.
And at midnight, the two would meet and decide whether to formally meet and pay their respects to heaven and earth.

The couple's bones would then be united in one coffin, which would be taken to the red river at the end of the village.
There, the coffin would be pushed to the surface until it sank naturally in the middle of the river.
This ceremony marked the end of the marriage ritual.

The village chief's speech ended and he announced that everyone could take their seats.
One of the villagers who shared a seat with He Lou proceeded to explain the rules to the bewildered outsider.

The village headman spoke at length, reciting a litany of words that, upon closer examination, amounted to nothing more than a fatherly admonishment to his son to treat his new wife well, without creating any further disturbances in the house.
As for the bride, she would be accepted by everyone in Red River Village as long as she abided by the village rules.
If not, the village would be compelled to punish her and bid her farewell.

The group of mission performers were once again reminded of how paramount the rules were to the villagers of Red River.

The rules were sacrosanct and not to be broken under any circumstances.

He Lou cast one final glance at Lu Yan's retreating back before redirecting his attention to the wedding banquet at hand.
Lu Yan could wait until the morrow; for now, the focus was on the festivities.


The first course of dishes was served, and the enforcers found themselves clenching their fists involuntarily.
“Why aren't you eating?” queried the villagers, puzzled by the enforcers' hesitation.

“That's right, why aren't you eating?” echoed the villagers seated at the neighboring tables, who had turned to observe the enforcers with a menacing glint in their eyes.

Their mouths contorted into a thin, disapproving line.
“Why aren't you partaking in the feast?”

As the village headman muttered “unruly guest” under his breath, several others in the room felt a cold sweat break out on their backs.

The dishes on the table were strange, to say the least – bright red mushrooms soaked in a thick red syrup, a monkey's head that had been freshly severed with its skull exposed to reveal its white brains, a newborn rat cub squeaking in a cage, and a fishy red sauce on the side that no one could identify.

One villager opened the cage and used his chopsticks to pick up a small, pinkish-white, hairless, and eyeless rat that kept squeaking and squealing.
The villager, ignoring the cries of the poor creature, took a big bite and chewed with a look of enjoyment on his face.
The sound of the chewing mixed with the final squeak of the rat created an eerie atmosphere.

“Why don't you eat?” the villager asked, with a pink tail still visible at the corner of his mouth, showing off his sharp, white teeth.
“You don't follow the rules,” he added, a cruel glint in his eyes.

He Lou quickly replied, “It says in the village rules that you can't talk when you have something in your mouth.”

The villager paused and swallowed, the pink tail disappearing from his mouth.
As he turned to look at He Lou, the cruelty in his eyes grew even more intense.
don't follow the rules,” he snarled.

Thinking quickly, He Lou said, “I'll eat.” He picked up his chopsticks with a determined air and selected a piece of the bright red mushroom.
He put it in his mouth, biting down strongly and suppressing the urge to retch.
The thick, blood-like liquid exploded in his mouth, but he forced it down, smiling through the pain.

“It's delicious,” he said, hoping to escape further scrutiny.

The villager finally looked away and gazed straight up at the others.
Observing this, the group, who had already seated themselves at the table, followed suit when they saw He Lou bravely take the first bite of the mushrooms, quickly picking up their chopsticks to do the same.
In an inexplicable coincidence, the plate was emptied of mushrooms.
The villager's countenance improved, and he was restored to his former look.
However, other players were in dire straits, as they ingested the mushrooms unwittingly and almost retched from the overpowering stench of blood.

He Lou interjected, “Everyone should enjoy the food,” invoking the village's rule that no food should go to waste.
The group barely swallowed.
Except for Chen Zheng Hao.

As soon as He Lou finished eating, Chen Zheng Hao eagerly extended his chopsticks towards the mushrooms, bringing them to his mouth.

Ignoring He Lou's unchanged expression, Chen Zheng Hao promptly swallowed the mushrooms, only to be overwhelmed by the rancid, month-old blood taste that nearly made him vomit.

The other members of the group forced themselves to consume the mushrooms, putting on a show of enjoyment.
As a result, the villagers' eyes shifted towards Chen Zheng Hao.

“Guest, you are not following the rules,” echoed voices from all directions, malicious gazes piercing Chen Zheng Hao's consciousness.
Terrified, he realized he had broken the village's rules.

What could he do?

In a state of panic, Chen Zheng Hao shot up from his seat before He Lou could even remind him, frantically waving his hands in apology.
“I am so sorry, I didn't mean to do that,” he stammered, trembling uncontrollably.
Cold sweat dripped down his forehead, and his voice shook with fear.

To his dismay, the villagers' smiles widened in response to his admission, a miserable white face sporting the same grin.
“Guest, you have misbehaved and will be punished!!!” they declared in unison.

Petrified, Chen Zheng Hao realized his fate was sealed.

He Lou hung his head, while An Xing Yu let out a barely audible sigh.
Shen Na sat beside Ding Cong Lu, forcibly holding her back and glaring her down when she attempted to stand up.

Ding Cong Lu's eyes brimmed with 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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