The World Below Surface 30 ☆ Substitute Paper Man

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As they pushed forward, the frigid wind whipped around them, playing tricks on their senses.
One moment they were surrounded by dense trees, and the next they found themselves on a desolate plain, with small pools of water appearing suddenly beneath their feet.
Despite their urgent need to find the village chief, they had to tread carefully in these treacherous conditions.

The village was in complete chaos, and they wondered if they could find the village chief.
Even if they did, would he readily admit how long they had been there? With the sky getting darker by the minute, their range of vision reduced, and with no lighting, they could only keep their eyes open to avoid falling over.

Another puddle appeared in front of them, and without noticing, An Xing Yu stepped into it, sinking up to his waist.
As he tried to pull his leg out, he felt hands under the water grabbing his ankles and pulling them downwards.

“Lu, please help me,” he called out to Lu Yan, who had followed him to a stop.

Without much hesitation, Lu Yan grabbed An Xing Yu's outstretched hand with all his might, and allowed him to break free from the puddle.
The water in the puddle appeared normal, but after An Xing Yu climbed out, the lower half of his body was completely soaked in a sticky, red liquid resembling blood plasma.

“Thanks,” An Xing Yu said before standing up.
But when he looked up, his eyes widened in shock as he saw something incomprehensible.
Lu Yan watched him for a moment before looking up himself, and his pupils instantly shrank.

In the sky, which had turned completely black, floated white paper folded figure with childlike, crooked smile, dressed in gaudy clothes, and with two red circles painted on their faces.
They seemed to be showing a big smile.

No, there was more than one.

From all directions, more and more paper people floated, wobbling and hovering high in the air.
The smiling faces painted on their human-like heads were obviously simplistic, yet they appeared as rotting human heads.
One ghastly white head was remarkably lifelike, and the strong stench of decay lingered in the air.

It was as though someone was flying a kite.
As if sensing their gaze, the eyes of the paper figures looked down.

“Don't look up! Move forward!” Lu Yan instructed.
He quickly lowered his head after just one glance, his memory conjuring up the scene in its entirety.
He recalled that the faces on the lanterns were strikingly similar to the villagers he had seen earlier that day.

Perhaps, they were the villagers.

An Xing Yu looked up, and the paper people descended in a violent straight line, as though they were about to land on top of them.
Not wanting to take any chances, An Xing Yu quickly put his head down, and they both concentrated on running forward without uttering another word.

As the puddles on the ground became increasingly abundant, they identified their location by using the reflections in the water to observe the orientation of the paper figures.

The paper people let out crisp laughter that intertwined high and low.

“Hee hee hee……”

“Hee hee hee hee……”

Don't look! Don't listen!

The night grew deeper, and the darkness was so intense that they could barely see anything.
Their pace slowed down considerably.

The laughter of the paper people overhead grew closer, gradually transforming into hoarse and grim laughter.
It was a sound that didn't seem human.
They couldn't stand still; otherwise, the paper people would get closer and closer.
The mud under their feet would swallow them up quickly.
Thus, even though it was difficult to walk, they continued to move forward into the unknown.

“Brother Lu, which way should we go now?” An Xing Yu asked, keeping his voice low.
He could sense that the other person was right beside him and moving forward slowly.
However, the breath coming from the other person's body was chillingly cold.

“Keep moving forward,” a voice replied.

“Hmm,” An Xing Yu responded, trying his best to remain composed.
However, his heart was pounding with shock.
This wasn't Lu Yan! The person following him, who could it be?

An Xing Yu's forehead broke out in cold sweat, but he remained silent, determined to stay expressionless.
He was just an ordinary high school student, and he couldn't believe he was involved in a paranormal incident for no apparent reason.
Nonetheless, he followed the mission instructions and waited for the mission to open at an abandoned school.

During his first mission, An Xing Yu witnessed an extremely harrowing psychic phenomenon.
The scene shook him so deeply that, to this day, he still vividly recalls the look of horror etched on the man's face as he succumbed to death.
If the mission had failed, An Xing Yu would have been transformed into a cold, decaying corpse, devoid of all vitality.

Upon logging onto the website, he encountered numerous individuals who had undergone missions similar to his own.
The website also housed an extensive collection of memory records saved by survivors.
An Xing Yu dedicated several nights to scrutinizing these records like he was preparing for an exam, scouring for any discernible patterns.

Regardless of the mission's nature, the only survivors were those who possessed the acuity to remain composed and think rationally.
Individuals who gave in to panic and disarray in the beginning were swiftly eliminated.
Serenity was the ultimate key to survival.

All of An Xing Yu's mission collaborators assumed that he was naturally devoid of emotion.
Nevertheless, he knew that this was far from the truth.
While he certainly felt fear and trepidation, a fierce desire to survive and an inkling of teenage pride precluded him from betraying his vulnerability.
He refused to expose it, even in the presence of a specter.

“Let's split up.
You go left, and I'll go right,” An Xing Yu stated in an unwavering voice.
He clenched his fists in a deathly grip, his eyes still maintaining an almost robotic calmness.
Despite urging himself to calm down, he completely disregarded the fact that the other person had yet to agree.
He turned to his right, but to his horror, the entity followed him.

Although the darkness was impenetrable, An Xing Yu could perceive that the figure was staring directly at him from a short distance away.
His pace quickened as he attempted to flee from the being, yet it continued to close in from his side.
The road was nearly unnavigable, littered with thorns and jagged rocks.
Every step An Xing Yu took, sharp branches inflicted fresh wounds on his legs.
Although the crimson stains had long since dried, a steady stream of minor cuts persisted.
Despite the discomfort, he persisted, pushing himself to move as quickly as possible.

As he halted, the entity chasing him would inevitably catch up, and the paper man suspended in the sky would instantaneously become visible.
Suddenly, the earth ahead of the road caved in, and without paying attention, An Xing Yu stepped on it and tumbled down the slope.

As he rolled down, he locked gazes with the paper man in the sky, and in that moment, he observed the paper man's grinning face magnify.
He pondered why the paper man hastened its pace and drifted towards him upon spotting them.
The creature tailing him would also race towards him if he relied on his physical senses to sense it.

Then, a supposition arose in An Xing Yu's mind.
Merely an instant before numerous ghostly white faces plummeted straight down, their decaying arms outstretched, and one of their sharp, razor-like claws aimed at his eyes, he shut his eyes.

One second.

Two seconds.

Three seconds.

No motion.

With closed eyes, An Xing Yu clambered to his feet.
His conjecture was correct.
Once you perceive something, it perceives you.
From the texture on his palms and underneath him, he was now standing on an even terrain.
The thistles, rocks, and puddles had vanished, and he felt the sun's warmth on his exposed skin.

He tentatively reached out to explore, but suddenly, he sensed a slight warmth.
Instinctively, he was about to brush it away, but he immediately realized that the warmth indicated the presence of another living individual.
They might be the only survivors in the village now.

“Who are you?” he inquired warily.

“Quiet, wait a moment.” It was Lu Yan's voice.

His eyes were also shut, and he was working on something in his hands.
Every so often, he would open his eyes to glance before swiftly closing them again.
In his possession was a paper figure that was half-human in height, and the most terrifying aspect was that the facial features of the paper figure, although merely outlined, bore a resemblance to his own.

Lu Yan closed his eyes and relied on the momentary glimpse he received when he opened his eyes from time to time to complete a paper figure that resembled himself.

An Xing Yu had used up almost all his chances to open his eyes, and he realized that one of the paper figures was dangerously close to him.
The possibility of being killed by the paper figure with just one more opening left him uneasy.
However, the presence of another living person provided him with some comfort, so he remained still with his eyes closed.

Unseen by An Xing Yu, Lu Yan finished the paper figure resembling him and released it into the air.
The figure floated up and joined the other paper figures, merging with them seamlessly.

Lu Yan cautiously touched the empty space where the paper figure had been before slowly opening his eyes.
He had been on high alert and ready to leave if anything strange happened, leaving An Xing Yu to bear the brunt of it.
Fortunately, Lu Yan's bet paid off, and the paper figure made in his likeness remained unchanged in mid-air.
He then took a moment to survey the surroundings and noticed a small courtyard in the middle of the forest, with wooden houses and scattered lanterns.

All the paper figures under the eaves were gone.
It was Uncle Wu's courtyard.
Lu Yan had some unused materials at hand, including paper, thin bamboo strips, and light-skinned sheets that had a faint flesh color.
Those were, in fact, human skins removed by him from the lanterns, and there was still some material left over.

Meanwhile, An Xing Yu sat quietly with his eyes closed, aware that opening them would cause the paper people to attack him.
He felt a little stiff and noticed that his lower half was covered in dried bloodstains, and a large part of his trouser leg had been ripped, exposing a scar caused by a tree branch.

Lu Yan quickly averted his gaze, but soon redirected it to An Xing Yu's leg where he noticed a bright red mark, almost undetectable by ordinary people.
Upon seeing the shape of the mark, Lu Yan trembled with excitement, but suppressed the urge to reveal the secret and said in a flat voice, “Wait a little while and then you can open your eyes.”

An Xing Yu was unaware that his secret had been discovered, but he sensed that Lu Yan was making an effort and expressed his gratitude.

Lu Yan observed the mark until it faded away, and then quickly created a paper figure of An Xing Yu's image.
With his eyes open this time, Lu Yan was more efficient in creating the paper figure.
He compared the paper figure with An Xing Yu to make sure it passed the test, and then let it fly high into the air.
“Alright, you can open your eyes now and try,” said Lu Yan.

An Xing Yu slowly opened his eyes and this time, there were no paper figures or black shadows in sight.
Everything around him was normal, and he knew it was all thanks to Lu Yan.
He expressed his gratitude again, but Lu Yan told him that it wasn't necessary.

Lu Yan then locked eyes with An Xing Yu and said, “Relax, you're safe now….After you hear a snap of the fingers, you will fall asleep…you will hear a few questions….” An Xing Yu's eyes grew dazed as he nodded in confusion, and soon fell asleep after Lu Yan snapped his fingers.

Meanwhile, Zhao Chuan and He Lou had been running for hours and finally reached the edge of the village, panting heavily.
They had been dodging paper figures of villagers that had been chasing them, and were relieved to have made it this far.

“Quick, we can leave now!” He Lou exclaimed loudly, “The village is in chaos!”

At his words, Zhao Chuan quickened his pace.
They were running along a railway track, having arrived at Red River Village by train at the beginning of their mission.
The station was now within reach.
He Lou had studied the map, and knew that as long as they passed the station, they would be out of the range of the village.

“Hurry up, faster!” He Lou urged as they fled from a group of paper figures floating behind them.
He had found a solution even in times of emergency.
Every mission had restrictions placed on the ghosts, otherwise, it would be impossible for them to survive.
But why were there so many paper people in the village this time? Because these ghosts lacked the ability to sense their targets, they had to increase their numbers to find them.

He Lou took advantage of this loophole and managed to save Zhao Chuan.
As they approached the station, Zhao Chuan, exhausted but determined, let out a loud shout and rushed to the other side of the station.

He Lou followed close behind but suddenly stopped in his tracks, his eyes widening.

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