The World Below Surface
The World Below Surface 25 ☆ Bride-swapping
He Lou returned to the hall to pay his respects to his good friend Chen Zheng Hao by lighting a stick of incense.
In the black and white photo, Chen Zheng Hao's lifeless eyes took on a glint as he looked directly at He Lou.
He Lou raised his glass and spoke to the photo, “I know you always liked that girl.
Don't worry; I'll bring her down tomorrow to keep you company.” Despite the eerie response, He Lou was unfazed and walked out of the hall to join Shen Na.
Shen Na, who had just entered, smiled at the photo and addressed Chen Zheng Hao, “Brother Chen Zheng Hao, the village may have punished you before, but now that you have reformed yourself, they will still find you a good wife.
Just remember to follow the rules with her.” With that, they left the hall.
The wedding preparations were in full swing, with white lanterns and wreaths hanging everywhere.
He Lou and Shen Na stood under a beautiful acacia tree in the courtyard, scanning the surroundings to ensure Chen Zheng Hao couldn't hear them.
“What do we do now?” Shen Na sighed.
“Ding Cong Lu is strongly against it and thinks we're crazy.
She's telling us to wake up and remember our mission.
This custom of platonic marriage has been around for generations; how can we break it because of one girl?”
He Lou furrowed his brows, feeling the weight of his responsibility as their small group leader.
Their success in quickly establishing themselves in Red River Village was due to his leadership, and he had to make the right decision for his team.
“Now someone is actually misbehaving.
Isn't this making it impossible for us to get along in Red River Village?” He Lou frowned, deeply concerned.
“I'll go check on her,” he said, determined to take action.
Shen Na nodded in agreement.
“That's the only way.
She won't listen to anyone now.
She's crazy and doesn't follow any rules.”
At that moment, a man named Liu Xia, a team member, entered the courtyard and overheard their conversation about Ding Cong Lu.
He spoke up, “Brother Lou, it would be good if you stepped in.
Usually, Ding listens to you.
I don't know what's wrong with her these days.
She's as mad as hell.
If it weren't for her getting married soon, how could the other villagers tolerate her being so unruly?”
He Lou asked, “Where is she now?”
Liu Xia replied, “She's locked up in the basement.
She's crying and screaming about going on a hunger strike.
After all, she won't be as pretty if she goes on a hunger strike.
So I've asked Lu Xiu Xiu to watch her and feed her some food.”
Lu Xiu Xiu was another member of their team.
She wasn't particularly attractive, nor was she talkative, but she was obedient to Liu Xia.
He Lou said, “Okay, take me there.”
As they were leaving the courtyard, they ran into Lu Yan, standing on the corner.
Lu Yan looked at the indignant trio up and down a few times, and with an indescribable smile, he asked, “You're going to send her on her way now?”
Liu Xia saw He Lou suddenly pause in place after seeing Lu Yan and immediately stepped forward.
“What else? Are we supposed to keep her, and then we can't live?”
Lu Yan, the handsome young man, seemed amused by their predicament.
Liu Xia held He Lou in high esteem; without him, they would never have been able to establish themselves in Red River Village, and the few years they had spent together had created a deep bond between them.
In contrast, everyone treated Lu Yan, who had come to Red River Village with them, rather coldly.
Although Liu Xia knew that the village rules stated that he had to be friendly to his friends, he couldn't get close to Lu Yan.
Lu Yan said indifferently, “It's against the rules to speak badly to your friends.”
Liu Xia was startled and immediately fell silent.
He Lou then asked, “Do you want to come with us to persuade her?”
Lu Yan turned his head to look inside the room and locked eyes with the man in the black and white photo.
Just when He Lou thought he would decline, Lu Yan chuckled and again looked at the others with a gaze that He Lou couldn't quite decipher.
“Sure,” he said.
Now the group was four, with Liu Xia leading the way.
They all lived together in a small building at the village entrance, with each person having their own room.
The basement was a short walk through the courtyard gate to the woodshed opposite and through a small door on the woodshed floor.
The weather was gloomy that day, with a cold wind blowing fiercely.
In the woodshed were piles of paper-tied gold and silver treasures, so to prevent them from being blown away by the wind, Liu Xia closed the door after the four of them entered.
The already dim woodshed became even darker, and only the outlines of each person could be seen.
Liu Xia lit the paraffin lamp in the room and handed it to Shen Na to carry.
When they first entered the room, they could hear a faint sound, and as they lifted the board, the woman's cries became even louder, even though she was gagged.
As the group approached the cave entrance, an insidiously cold breath poured out, causing several of them to shiver and tightly wrap their clothes around.
Although they felt the chill, they didn't pay it much attention.
Liu Xia pointed to the woman inside the cave and said, “Look, she's been screaming like this for a while.”
Shen Na wore an expression of genuine abhorrence, “Such a fuss; it's a lack of discipline!”
Even He Lou, who was usually calm, frowned and looked disgusted.
On the other hand, Lu Yan remained silent and gazed quietly at the dark hole.
He Lou suggested, “Well since they are our friends who have lived together for years, let's be more considerate.” He then took the paraffin lamp from An Xing Yu and shone it down the hole, calling out, “Lu Xiu Xiu, are you there?”
There was no response, only the sound of muffled sobs.
Liu Xia was puzzled, “That's strange; I clearly told her to stay inside.”
He Lou suddenly realized something, “Quick! Let's go down!”
With that, he jumped down into the hole.
The basement was constructed peculiarly, with a downward slope leading to the actual basement room, where the bodies for ghost weddings were stored.
This basement was one of the largest underground mortuary rooms in the village.
It was attached to the small building where they lived.
As they were good friends, they couldn't treat Ding Cong Lu badly.
He Lou's face was gloomy as he thought about the possibility of Ding Cong Lu being ungrateful.
He hoped that she wouldn't end up drinking the penalty wine.
Shen Na and several others leaped down from the ledge after He Lou, their eyes trained on his hunched figure.
The gravity of the situation had not escaped them, and one among them was so incensed that they gritted their teeth and called out Lu Xiu Xiu's name.
As the group approached the source of the woman's anguished cries, Lu Yan trailed behind them, his eyes flitting around the woodshed.
A pile of firewood caught his attention, but he said nothing as he clambered down to join the others.
As soon as he landed, a bone-chilling cold seeped through his body as though emanating from the depths of the earth.
The mud underfoot was a deep red, like it had been soaked in blood, and Lu Yan's shoes were stained crimson as he trudged forward.
The narrow path opened into a large basement, and Liu Xia caught up with He Lou, taking the opportunity to walk beside him.
Shen Na, on the other hand, chose to keep her distance, sticking to the rear of the group as they wound their way through the basement's twists and turns.
The scent of damp earth grew stronger as they approached an empty room, its size spanning between 20 and 30 square meters.
In the center lay a dark, imposing wooden coffin, its lid slightly ajar, from which Lu Xiu Xiu's heart-rending cries could be heard.
“Is that you, Lu Xiu Xiu?” He Lou called out, his voice echoing off the walls.
He handed the lamp to Shen Na and moved to the front, beckoning Liu Xia to help him open the coffin.
The wood was sturdy, and it took both men to pry it open, the lid creaking as it shifted to the side.
As soon as the cries ceased, an eerie chill permeated the basement, seeping through every nook and cranny.
The bone-chilling cold was so extreme that it caused He Lou, closest to the coffin, to tremble uncontrollably.
The paraffin lamp in Shen Na's hand flickered twice and abruptly extinguished, plunging the basement into darkness.
Liu Xia fished a lighter out of his pocket and struck it, but the flame immediately snuffed out, to his dismay, as if someone had played a cruel trick on him.
He tried several more times but to no avail.
He stuffed the lighter back into his pocket, frustrated at the lack of light in the basement.
“Lu, Lu Xiu Xiu?” He Lou called out in uncertainty.
“Lu Xiu Xiu, are you there?” Shen Na added, “Quit playing games and show yourself.”
It took a few moments of shouting before the woman's cries resumed, and the paraffin lamp flickered back on, casting a warm and dim light across the room.
“It's me…I'm here…” The voice came from inside the coffin.
After the earlier darkness, the group shifted their positions.
Liu Xia subconsciously walked towards the head of the slightly ajar coffin and peered down.
“What happened to you?” he asked before a pair of ghostly white arms emerged from the coffin and wrapped themselves tightly around his neck.
With a sudden tug, Liu Xia was yanked into the coffin, leaving the others in shock and disbelief.
“Liu Xia!!!” He Lou and Shen Na cried out in unison, frantically trying to push the lid of the coffin.
Despite their best efforts, the lid remained stubbornly sealed.
After a few moments, the paraffin lamp flickered again, and the lid of the coffin began to move of its own accord, inching slowly towards the end of the coffin.
As the lid moved away, a woman dressed in a striking red wedding gown with a deadly white complexion slowly emerged from the coffin.
He Lou and Shen Na stood still, shaken by the sight of the woman.
Their purpose for coming to the basement was clear – to find both Lu Xiu Xiu and Ding Cong Lu.
The latter had been imprisoned beneath the ground, with Lu Xiu Xiu tasked to watch her.
However, upon reaching the basement, they found Lu Xiu Xiu trapped in the coffin instead, wearing the very wedding dress that Ding Cong Lu was supposed to do.
Was Ding Cong Lu on the run?
He Lou and Shen Na were infuriated and immediately stepped forward to help Lu Xiu Xiu out of the coffin.
As she emerged, she moved the coffin to the side, her body like a cold, slithering serpent.
She took the two people's hands for support and was gradually helped out of the coffin.
Her large, embroidered red shoes trailed on the ground.
Shen Na was indignant.
“This is outrageous! How could Ding Cong Lu do this? Xiu Xiu, do you have any idea where she has gone?”
Lu Xiu Xiu shook her head slowly, and Shen Na found herself at a loss.
“What do we do now? The wedding banquet is tomorrow.”
He Lou's expression darkened.
“We need to inform the village chief and have the whole village search for her,” he said grimly.
“But what if we do find her?” Shen Na wondered aloud.
“Would Chen Zheng Hao still want to marry a woman who has broken the village rules and fled from the marriage?”
He Lou was unequivocal.
“We will dispose of her as per the rules.”
He turned his gaze to Lu Xiu Xiu, already dressed in her wedding attire.
“Regardless, the wedding banquet is tomorrow, and we already have a bride.
I will talk to Chen Zheng Hao later, and it's fine if Lu Xiu Xiu takes Ding Cong Lu's place.”
As they approached the entrance to the tunnel, Shen Na took the lead and nimbly scaled the wall.
Extending her arm, she helped pull Lu Xiu Xiu up from the depths of the earth.
The touch of Lu Xiu Xiu's hand was bone-chilling and sent shivers down Shen Na's spine, but she soldiered on and hauled the woman up with all her strength.
He Lou was next, lifting himself up and out of the darkness.
Last came Lu Yan, his movements slow and deliberate, as if lost in thought.
Curiously, throughout the climb, not one of them mentioned their missing companion, Liu Xia.
He was nowhere to be seen, and the group remained silent, uncertain how to address his absence.
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