Thank you to minriri for the Ko-fi!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Thanks to Zhang Lan, many people knew that Zhang Yalin worshipped one of their ancestors’ finger bones.
But besides Great Lady Zhang herself, nobody ever openly teased Zhang Yalin about it. After all, Zhang Yalin didn’t have a particularly vivacious personality. Once you were done poking fun at him, he’d probably just stare at you with a deadened expression on his face.
It was truly a rare occurrence for someone to bluntly ask him if he was holding a grudge, the way Wen Shi just had.
Zhang Lan was already laughing uproariously nearby. Caught completely unprepared, Zhang Yalin restrained himself for a long moment before he finally said, “My sister is fond of exaggerating things. She might’ve said ‘finger,’ but it’s actually just one segment of the bone.
“Everyone knows that the temperaments of those forebears differed vastly from those of ordinary people; only one of them even left behind a grave. Very few of their old possessions or relics exist, and finding one can already be considered a great fortune. A finger bone may sound a little strange, but think about it carefully—isn’t it the same as an antique collected by your average household?”
Even though Wen Shi thought about it carefully quite a few times, he still didn’t think it was the same thing.
Zhang Yalin was clearly a bit humiliated and vexed. He was starting to talk faster and faster, despite maintaining a controlled and courteous facade, and a faint blush colored his skin. “Moreover it’s not as if I waxed, painted, or added a base to our forebear’s remains and put it out to flaunt as decor. I have it stored in a small box, and I light incense for it every day, which is just like burning incense as an offering. It conveys both my respect and my sincerity. Have you ever worshipped any of our ancestors?”
It would’ve been fine if he hadn’t mentioned it, but since he did, Wen Shi immediately recalled the ferocious, fiendish portrait of Chen Budao sitting in his living room.
The first time Xie Wen visited the Shen home, he stood in front of that portrait and admired it for a good while. He even asked who the artist was.
This was also something that Wen Shi couldn’t think about too carefully, at the risk of his expression growing increasingly lifeless. Yet the person beside him in the armchair just had to turn and look at him—it wasn’t clear if Xie Wen was waiting for Wen Shi’s response or if he was deriving amusement from the situation.
Wen Shi was all the more convinced that he had picked a “good place” to sit.
Zhang Yalin didn’t sense any empathy from Wen Shi, probably because of his exceedingly chilly expression. As a result, Zhang Yalin abandoned his already ruined attempt at defending himself and waved his hand. “Never mind, it’s not anything important. Just some casual conversation, that’s all. Let’s move on.”
If it weren’t for his upbringing, he would’ve pointed right at Wen Shi and told him, “I can’t explain it to you.”
But Wen Shi said something else before they could move on. “Remains are supposedly hard to find, so how are you certain that the finger bone you possess is real.”
For Wen Shi, this was an extremely tactful way of warning someone. After all, it didn’t seem very intelligent to carry around and light incense for a counterfeit item day in and day out. As a pampered young master, Zhang Yalin most likely wouldn’t be able to withstand such an accusation if Wen Shi said it out right.
Unexpectedly, Zhang Yalin was even more incapable of withstanding this “tactful” warning method.
He flashed a courteous smile at Wen Shi before he proceeded to storm away.
After asking Lu Wenjuan something, Zhang Yalin went upstairs. Zhang Lan turned around to throw herself over the back of the sofa as she yelled at her little brother, “Remember to send Xiao Hei down once you’re up there. If anything comes up, he can pass it along to you.”
Zhang Yalin didn’t bother to look at her. If words could be written across backs, “get lost” would probably be written across his.
Zhang Lan turned back around and told Wen Shi and Xie Wen, “He’s mad. Don’t be fooled by his composed appearance and how he seems to be super grounded and mature. In reality, he’s a sensitive little brat.”
She was naturally the type to act very familiar with other people. With a few jokes, she managed to cover up the previous awkwardness from the “tailing” incident, and it was almost as if she had originally arrived in Tianjin with Wen Shi and Xie Wen.
However, it wasn’t the time to be concerned about that anyway.
Lu Wenjuan busied herself in the kitchen for a while and returned with a few bowls of tea. She said, “This has a calming effect. Drink up so you can have a good night’s sleep.”
Wen Shi remembered their conversation from last night: right before she went downstairs, she told them that it was best to sleep uninterrupted till dawn. That, in connection with the heart demons from later in the evening, made him suddenly realize that perhaps Lu Wenjuan didn’t actually want to trick them, even though she was quite eerie and frequently wore uncanny expressions.
As that thought occurred to him, he placed his bowl back down on the side table.
Xie Wen glanced at him. At first, Wen Shi wasn’t planning on explaining anything, but after a brief silence, he still ended up saying lowly, “I’m testing something.”
Sure enough, Lu Wenjuan hurried over and stared at the tea for a moment with her pitch-black eyes before she turned towards Wen Shi and said, “It tastes very good. Are you not going to drink it?”
“I don’t want to,” Wen Shi said.
Lu Wenjuan stared at him without blinking.
Her black irises were excessively large, and the whites of her eyes were nearly invisible whenever she curved her eyes into a smile—only two richly dark crescents remained. Anyone who was slightly more timid would be scared into well-behaved obedience if she looked at them a few times, yet Wen Shi had no reaction whatsoever.
“It really does have a good flavor. I’m excellent at roasting tea, don’t you want to give it a taste?” Lu Wenjuan persisted doggedly. “It’ll be a pity if you don’t drink it.”
She paused and added sinisterly, “Truly such a pity.”
That was extremely similar to the dialogue from the TV show, causing Xia Qiao to shiver and rub at his goosebumps. He was extremely afraid that his ge would end up like the headless girl from the show just because he didn’t drink one of the offered liquids.
But Wen Shi remained completely unmoved. “So be it then.”
After responding to Lu Wenjuan lazily, he began to stand up to leave, except she suddenly moved and held him in place. Brows tightly furrowed, she said in confusion, “Didn’t you watch the show?”
Only then did Wen Shi look up at her.
“All of you watched it,” Lu Wenjuan said with conviction before her voice gentled. “Think about it a little more. Are you really not going to take a sip?”
She seemed to be threatening Wen Shi covertly: The show already demonstrated the consequences. You don’t want to meet such a tragic end, do you?
Another unexpected voice interjected evenly. “Did you want us to watch the TV shows that badly?”
Lu Wenjuan turned her head and saw Xie Wen, whose long fingers were cupped over the rim of his bowl. The tea, which was surging with white vapor, cooled gradually underneath his palm; not a single trace of steam escaped outwards.
“That truly is a bit strange,” Xie Wen said.
Lu Wenjuan finally averted her gaze from the bowl. “Strange in what way?”
“You see.” He seemed to be chatting casually even when he was simply conversing with someone in a cage. “We ate the dumplings, but nothing happened. We also drank the soup, but again, nothing happened. If you were really trying to scare us, this would be much too uninteresting.”
“And what would make it ‘interesting’?” Lu Wenjuan stared at him.
“Suppose you didn’t say a single word and merely watched from the side, indifferent as to whether we ate the dumplings or not. After a night of rest, the people who ate the meal would walk properly out the door, while heads would roll out of the rooms belonging to the people who didn’t eat anything. That would actually leave a deep impression,” Xie Wen said.
Lu Wenjuan: “…”
Never mind Lu Wenjuan—everyone else was also looking at him oddly.
After a beat of silence, Wen Shi shifted his foot and stepped on Xie Wen’s shoe without sparing him a sideways glance.
Xie Wen seemed to huff out a laugh in the ensuing pause, and he didn’t move out of Wen Shi’s way as he continued, “It’s almost as if you don’t want anything bad to happen to us, considering how desperately you want us to watch the TV.”
Lu Wenjuan laced her fingers tightly together and didn’t speak.
A long while later, she let out a deep sigh. “You all really are quite odd.”
“How so?” Xie Wen said.
“When people came in the past, I would always tell them directly that I had added something to the soup that would allow them to sleep uninterrupted until dawn. I do that because it isn’t safe at night here, and accidents occur easily. But then what happened? Nobody believed me.” Lu Wenjuan’s voice tapered off for a moment, either out of frustration or self-mockery.
“The people who accidentally end up here—they’re all afraid of me, wary of me.” Lu Wenjuan pointed at her eyes. “Even if I’m just smiling kindly at them, they think that I’m planning something evil, as if I’m going to eat them up.
“I got a bit annoyed after a while, so I decided to huddle in the kitchen and eat chicken feet specifically when they were sneaking glances at me.” She lowered her voice and said a little vindictively, “I’m talking about the kind that looks like a human hand.”
Wen Shi: “…”
“They were immediately scared to death and became incredibly obedient.” Lu Wenjuan said, “I decided to stop trying to persuade them after that. I would let them watch the TV on their own, and then I would scare them a bit with some rambling nonsense. That way, they would eat whatever they were given without asking any questions, and I would be saved from having to rack my brains while still being treated as a villain.
“I clearly look quite friendly.” She braced a hand on her hip as she stared out the window, somewhat lost in thought. A beat later, she grumbled, “Isn’t it just because I’m already dead…”
Everyone was caught off guard at that.
Wen Shi had entered many cages before, but very few of them had cage masters who knew extremely well that they were already dead and could calmly announce it in such a manner.
“You’re aware of that?” Zhang Lan asked tentatively.
“Of course I’m aware. I’m the one who went into the river. I’m the one who got a cramp and swallowed all that water. How could I not know? I’m very aware.” Lu Wenjuan said, “I even stayed at home for a while afterwards. Look—I watched my parents order this house to be built. I also watched as they asked someone to put together this sofa set, the TV, and the decorations.
“When they burned everything, I was watching nearby, crouched on the ground.” Lu Wenjuan turned her head towards the window and stared outside with wide eyes as she blinked rapidly quite a few times in a row.
They had purchased too many things, as if they were desperately afraid that she wouldn’t have a place to settle temporarily, essentially crafting her a carbon copy of their home.
It must’ve been so exhausting to burn all of those things. The smoke was especially pungent, causing the two elderly people’s eyes to turn thoroughly red. No matter how much they wiped at their eyes, their hands always came away wet.
She wanted to wipe away the wetness for them, yet she was unable to. She wanted to hug them, yet she didn’t dare to touch them. After circling around them for a long time, in the end she could only squat next to the bonfire and weep.
However long they kept the fire burning was however long she stayed there, crouched on the floor.
For a split second, she almost forgot that she was already dead. It was almost as if she had returned to a time when she was very young—when her parents used to sit on wooden stools next to the door and do their work; when she used to squat quietly nearby and watch them, clad in an old-fashioned tank top and shorts, with two pigtail braids pointed straight at the sky.
At the time, she thought to herself: if only someone could help her speak to her parents again, even if it was just so she could wipe away their tears and say “take care of yourselves”…
“How did you get here then?” Wen Shi asked.
It was probably because she felt too much regret at that moment…
Lu Wenjuan pondered a bit and said, “I can’t really remember anymore. I just remember a branch tapping against the edge of the fire basin after my parents finished burning all those things. As they helped each other to their feet, I also stood up, and then my head spun. By the time I opened my eyes again, I was in this village.”
“This isn’t the mountain near your home?” Wen Shi questioned.
Lu Wenjuan was startled for a long moment before she realized that he was actually referring to a mountain graveyard, but had omitted the “graveyard” part. As a result, she suddenly experienced a trace of long-awaited kindness from this living person, a very rare find indeed after the separation of life and death.
“No, our village wasn’t large, and we only had one mountain.” Lu Wenjuan’s shoulders slumped. The sinister aura that she had forcefully wrapped around herself eased significantly, making her seem just like an ordinary person who was good-natured and beautiful. “I knew most of the people buried there—it was usually someone’s parents or grandparents. But I didn’t know the people in this village.”
Didn’t know them?
Wen Shi frowned.
“They also didn’t seem to know each other at first. Some people came from different places, as if they had been swept over here. You can tell they don’t speak the local dialect either,” Lu Wenjuan said.
Xie Wen: “When you said that this place has always had certain customs—”
Lu Wenjuan clarifed, “It’s true, but I was taught that. I don’t know the details. Only the village chief probably knows best.”
“The village chief gave you yesterday’s dumplings, right? What was the point of that?” Xia Qiao couldn’t help but ask. He was still experiencing some lingering trepidation from last night.
Lu Wenjuan hesitated briefly. “To select people.”
Wen Shi: “Select people for what?”
Lu Wenjuan: “To be offerings for the mountain god.”
The group was baffled.
Wen Shi and Xie Wen were alright, since they had heard of many similar incidents before, but Zhou Xu and Xia Qiao were a little thrown off. After all, who still believed in mountain gods these days, especially at their age?
However, they thought about it again and realized that nobody really knew about panguan these days either.
Lu Wenjuan didn’t know much, so she could only give them a simple explanation.
Apparently, the village wasn’t like this at the beginning.
Even though all the villagers were already deceased, most of them didn’t know that they were no longer in the world of the living, excluding Lu Wenjuan. The word “death” was an unspoken taboo here, and it was never mentioned.
A long, long time ago—before she came to this place—the village maintained a very placid lifestyle. Everyone rose at sunrise and worked until sunset. They were entirely self-sufficient, and every day was accompanied by the sound of roosters crowing and dogs barking; the village was like an idyllic paradise, tucked away in a corner of the world. The only requirement was cleanliness.
The people who lived here had to be clean, and the people who accidentally entered also had to be clean. This was because uncleanliness would lead to a calamity.
Later on, at some unknown point in time, the village suddenly underwent a transformation—
Upon opening their eyes, the villagers discovered that the territory they were residing in had increased in size. There were a few new houses on the periphery, and living inside of them were people the villagers had never seen before.
It was almost as if some households had soundlessly moved to the village in the span of a single night.
Eventually, they noticed this sort of thing happening nearly every time they opened their eyes in the morning. After the pattern persisted for a while, a rumor began to spread: this mountain-adjacent village was alive, and it could grow.
That was when Lu Wenjuan came to the village. The third day after her arrival, there was a heavy rainstorm.
The village chief said that such rainstorms never used to occur here. Whenever it did occasionally rain, it was always a downy drizzle that clung to their clothing but didn’t dampen it. It did, however, snow frequently in the winter. Those were huge mountain-like storms that accumulated vast amounts of snow overnight, and the children were fond of playing in it.
During that rare thunderstorm, things crawled out of the ground and took over the entire village—it was the huigu that Wen Shi and the others had mentioned earlier.
Huigu were born from filth and grew in filth. They consumed spiritual items and souls, and they started snatching up villagers the moment they crawled out of the ground. Upon capture, the huigu would crack open the top of the villager’s skull and consume them completely like slurping down soup.
Many houses in the village were empty after that storm.
“But those people didn’t disappear. Sometimes, you can hear them talking in the middle of the night.” Lu Wenjuan pointed at the floor and said, “Underneath the ground, as if they’ve simply been transformed into something else.”
Many people in the village heard the voices, so when the huigu crawled out once more, everyone was convinced that the missing villagers were inside the creatures. Some even said that several of the huigu were wearing those villagers’ faces.
Then, the village chief told them that it was because the land had grown unhappy.
Since the village was alive and capable of growth, it was only natural that it could also get angry or feel famished. And since the village was next to a mountain, such rumors were transferred onto the mountain god.
If the mountain god was hungry, that meant they would have to feed it every so often, to avoid the god releasing those things again to catch people.
Lu Wenjuan: “The village chief thought that it must be because of a disturbance caused by the outsiders. Everyone used to live very tranquil lives here, and the mountain god never made a fuss, but that all changed abruptly when the outsiders arrived. So if we have to feed the mountain god, we can’t choose from the villagers. We have to select someone from the outsiders.”
It was very obvious at this point in her explanation. Since Lao Wu’s dumplings were for the guests, the lucky dumplings were evidently planted to select the person who was going to be fed to the mountain god.
“Thankfully, none of us came across any last night.” Xia Qiao heaved a sigh.
But then Lu Wenjuan said, “You wouldn’t have been able to. I already picked through the dumplings when I got them. If you really had come across one, that would’ve been a problem on my end.”
Right as she said that, Zhou Xu looked up, still holding the basin in his arms.
He had been retching for a good while now. His face was deathly pale, and he barely looked alive at first glance. As he silently raised his hand, he said, “Last night at the village chief’s house, I also ate those dumplings you’ve been talking about. Did the lucky ones have copper coins wrapped in them?”
Everyone looked at him.
Zhou Xu’s hand was starting to shake. “I fucking… came across three of them.”
Lu Wenjuan: “…Each batch only has three.”
Zhou Xu: “What happens if you eat them?”
Lu Wenjuan went silent for a second. Then she said, “That means you’re connected to the mountain god by fate. You might as well clean yourself up and get ready to go up the mountain tonight.”
Like hell we’re connected by fate.
Zhou Xu cursed internally. He didn’t know anything about this dumbass mountain god, but in any case, he was already done for.