Huang Baokun was rather taken aback by Qin Ye's question, but he still replied, "That would be Huang Jiansen, the current village head."
Qin Ye nodded in response before rising to his feet. "I'm going to take a walk, but I might need your help for other matters later on down the track."
Lee Jung-sook raised her cup of coffee with a smile. "I'm happy to be of service. Don't you want to take a rest here instead? Surely sleeping in that place at night is a nerve-wracking experience."
Qin Ye shrugged in response, and as soon as he stepped out of the room, he vanished as a gust of Yin wind. Close to 20 minutes later, he had already reappeared inside the Huang Clan's earthen building.
The giant locust tree was still as oppressive as ever, the corridor was still deathly silent, and the countless cold suits were still flapping about in the wind. At night, there was a particularly oppressive aura in the earthen building, making Qin Ye feel as if even making the slightest sound would lead to him being hunted down by Anitya Hellguards, waiting to pounce out of the darkness.
Kwon Kyung-ho was inspecting his surroundings in an extremely cautious manner, fearing the return of Chu Renmei, and Ryu Changmin was also doing the same. Qin Ye gently stroked a finger over the wall beside him as he said, "There's no need to be so anxious. She'll only appear once per night. On the first night, she had six hours to attack us again, but she didn't reappear... Do you guys smell that?"
Kwon Kyung-ho relaxed slightly upon hearing this, and he sniffed at the air in a hesitant manner. "There's... a fragrant smell in the air."
It was indeed a fragrant smell, one that was very strong.
It was a natural floral aroma without any additives, and everyone immediately turned their attention toward the locust tree at the center of the courtyard.
This was the first time they had taken a good look at the Huang Clan's earthen building in the night, and under the illumination of the moonlight, the scarlet locust blossoms on the tree were all in full bloom. Originally, the fragrance of these flowers was very light and gentle, and also a little bit sweet. However, the aroma currently being produced by the giant locust tree was almost sickeningly sweet, and the locust blooms were like red roses in full bloom at night.
This definitely wasn't the aroma of the locust blossoms.
Qin Ye made his way into the courtyard and opened his phone to use it as a light source. He carefully examined the ground below before shaking his head and gently stroking the trunk of the locust tree. "There are no flower petals, but a lot of fallen leaves. That doesn't make sense. According to the laws of nature, there should be no way for there to be no fallen flower petals given the number of fallen leaves... Get back!"
His voice abruptly spiked up a few octaves as he uttered those final two words, and the trio retreated in unison. In the instant that they did so, the surface of the old locust tree's trunk began to ripple like water!
Immediately thereafter, a heart-wrenching howl of anguish rang out, and a bulge in the shape of a human face emerged on the trunk!
This was a thin male face with his mouth wide open, wearing an expression of excruciating agony. On top of that, this wasn't the only face to appear!
The entire tree was like an inflating balloon, and one agonized human face after another appeared under the illumination of the surrounding lanterns' scarlet light. After no more than 20 seconds, the entire courtyard was filled with the sound of gut-wrenching howls and wails. The faces on the tree trunk were struggling and twisting about with all their might, as if they were trying to escape, but they were completely tethered to the tree trunk.
Under the moonlit night, the howls and sobs of countless ghosts rang out in the darkness. The entire scene was made even more harrowing by the scarlet light of the lanterns, and it was enough to strike fear into anyone's heart.
However, Qin Ye had been through a lot during his stint as King Yanluo, and Chu Renmei had managed to scare him as she was the embodiment of his childhood trauma, but these other ghosts didn't evoke anywhere near the same level of fear within him. Thus, he inspected the faces one by one with a grim expression, and all of a sudden, he stopped. "These faces... Do they seem familiar to you?"
The face that he was standing in front of belonged to none other than Huang Xiaoqing!
The bark of the tree was writhing and squirming like human skin, while her face was like the flesh and blood beneath the skin. She was howling in agony and struggling with all her might, resembling a living burl and presenting an extremely harrowing sight to behold.
"That's the woman you spoke to earlier in the day," Kwon Kyung-ho concluded following a thorough examination. "My Lord, what is happening here?"
Looking up along the trunk of the tree, Qin Ye discovered that all of the faces of the entire village's residents were currently on the tree! Some of them were currently living in the Huang Clan's earthen building, while the rest were ones that Qin Ye had never met before.
Qin Ye remained silent, but more and more questions were popping up in his mind. Who was it that had trapped these souls here? Was that person the irredeemably heinous soul that he was looking for? Why would they do something like this? Was Chu Renmei trying to possess him in order to kill this person?
He felt like the answer was very close, but also very far away, and the road ahead was quite indistinct. After a long while, he finally decided, "We have to track down Huang Jiansen first."
He then looked up at the pitch-black sky before continuing, "He signed the contract for construction work to go ahead on the Huang Clan's earthen building in the 90s, and this place is now frozen in the 90s... The contract was signed in 1995, which meant that during the year of 1995, people could still freely access the Huang Clan's village. In that case, something massive must've happened between 1995 and 2000 to have transformed the Huang Clan's village into this living hell."
"Why does it have to be within that span of time?" Kwon Kyung-ho asked. "What if the event took place in some other year like 2003, 20004, or 2005? How can you be so sure that it was between 1995 and 2000?"
Qin Ye flicked his wrist and gently rubbed the string of beads in his grasp as he made his way toward the corridor with his hands clasped behind his back. "There's no way that a residence like this would be devoid of young people. Those shirts that we saw on the first day bearing those quirky slogans, those were fashion statement pieces worn by the younger generation during the latter stages of the 90s. Through our observations made in the past couple of days, we've concluded that there's no lack of young people living here."
He took a glance at Kwon Kyung-ho before continuing, "These young people will actively chase trends. However, 1999 marked the beginning of the Daeian craze. Popular Daeian bands like H.O.T. swept Cathay by storm, and their posters were put up all over the streets and alleyways. As a result, further diversification appeared in the clothing industry, and even the rural areas of Cathay were affected by this trend. If the aforementioned event had taken place after 2000, then there's no way that there wouldn't be any Daeian inspired clothing here. However, such items of clothing are indeed absent."
The Daeian fashion trend was an important icon in the history of Cathayan pop culture. In fact, the trend could even be said to have defined an era.
This was the good thing about having all of this general knowledge, you never know when a random tidbit of information you had stored in your mind would prove useful.
He gently stroked his hand over the corridor's railing and continued, "In fact, I think we can go even further and narrow down the potential timeline to between 1995 and 1998."
Right at this moment, he suddenly drew to a halt.
They had arrived at the stairwell on the first floor again, and that terrifying staircase was situated on their right-hand side. Currently, a faint sound could be heard coming from the top of the staircase.
Thud thud... Thud thud...
It was the sound of a ball being bounced repeatedly on the ground.
Qin Ye's expression stiffened slightly as he pulled out his phone and took a look.
It was currently 4 AM.
There was still an hour until 5 AM, which was the final period of darkness before dawn and it was known as the demonic hour.
The monotonous sound of the bouncing ball coming from the pitch-black stairwell became the only sound in the night, and Qin Ye’s brows furrowed slightly as he made his way toward the staircase.
"My Lord!" Kwon Kyung-ho and Ryu Changmin hurriedly led the way. "Ar, Are you really going up there?"
"I'm just taking a look." Qin Ye was gently rubbing the string of beads in his hand while the Yin energy in his body had swelled to its peak. The last time he had come here, a string of supernatural phenomena had taken place, warning him that it still wasn't the right time for him to go upstairs.
However, that didn't happen on this occasion.
Right as he set foot on the first step, a bone-chilling sensation suddenly rose up all around him, and a surge of azure Yin energy swept down from the second floor like the falling tide. At the same time, indistinct ghostly howls rang out, and he felt as if he had stepped onto the path that connected the two realms.
He remained completely still, waiting for five seconds, but nothing happened.
Does that mean I can go up now?
He looked around at his surroundings, and a series of questions surfaced in his mind.
Why? Is it because I lived past the second night? Or is it because I saw Chu Renmei's remains in that waterhole? Perhaps it's because I learned about the existence of Huang Jiansen? Or is it because I just saw the true appearance of that giant locust tree?
There was no way to tell what event had triggered this change. In any case, he took a deep breath and began to scale the staircase in a cautious manner.
The higher up he went, the lower the temperature became. After scaling up only less than 20 steps, the temperature was already close to freezing. He rounded the corner and was just about to continue upward when he suddenly faltered in his footsteps.
Past this corner, he could already see part of the second floor. It was very tall with a ceiling roughly five meters in height, but what had caught Qin Ye's attention was the sound coming from above.
It was the clear, oppressive, and monotonous sound of a bouncing ball, and the sound was getting closer and closer to them. The fear of the unknown was like a vice that was gripping Qin Ye's heart, causing his breathing to accelerate a little. The light of the scarlet lanterns on the first floor was flickering incessantly as the ancient locust tree swayed in the wind, causing light and darkness to alternate sporadically.
Drip... Right at this moment, Qin Ye felt a cool sensation on his hand. Something had dripped down onto the back of his hand.
He lifted his hand to inspect it, and goosebumps were immediately raised all over his body.
It was blood so red that it was on the verge of black.
Something was standing right above them, watching with an unblinking gaze as they scaled the staircase from the first floor to the second floor.
Qin Ye's Adam's apple was trembling slightly, and his Abyssal Prefect's token had already appeared in his right hand as he abruptly looked up.
There on the stairwell leading from the second floor to the third floor, a row of completely nude and deathly pale children who appeared to be five to six years of age were poking their heads through the gaps in the railing, smiling as they stared intently at him!
The children were completely identical in appearance, and it was as if their bodies had been entirely doused in chalk powder. In stark contrast with their skin were their eyes, which were completely black in color. Their heads were tilted uniformly to sixty degrees, and they wore the exact same smile on their faces. Reddish-black blood was seeping out of the gaps between their teeth, slowly dripping down from above. Meanwhile, their deathly pale left hands were gripping onto the railing, while their right hands were almost in contact with the top of his head!
"Let's... play... together..."
A raspy childlike voice rang out, and Qin Ye's throat immediately constricted as he was struck by the overwhelming urge to leave. However, right at this moment, the sound of the bouncing ball suddenly appeared right around the corner.
A hand gently grabbed onto the corner, and immediately thereafter, a tall and imposing figure finally appeared before their eyes in this suffocatingly oppressive night.
He was very tall, standing at a height of over two meters. He was wearing a hood that was entirely covered in yellow talismans, and there was a tattered oil paper umbrella being held open above his head. He was wearing extremely vibrant and colorful clothing consisting of different pieces of fabric stitched together haphazardly to form a messy garment.
As for the "ball" that he was bouncing... It was a human head!
It was the head of a boy that wasn't stained by any traces of blood. The boy's hair was of a yellow color, the kind that resulted from malnutrition, and even though this was a giant over two meters tall, its voice belonged to a child. "The first rabbit fell ill, the second rabbit took a look, the third rabbit bought medicine, the fourth rabbit prepared it... The fifth rabbit died, the sixth rabbit carried it, the seventh rabbit dug a hole, and the eighth rabbit buried it..."
Rustle rustle rustle... The countless branches and leaves of the old locust tree were like countless evil ghosts lurking in the night, waiting to pounce. In conjunction with this monstrous creature bouncing a human head as a ball, they formed a combined scene that was so terrifying that even Ryu Changmin was trembling slightly.
This place was far more terrifying than the third tunnel of Pusan that he had once stayed in.
This wasn't just a sense of pure horror, there was also an element of oppression and mystery, making them feel as if they were constantly being watched from behind as well... It was truly terrifying.
The monstrous creature's feet remained completely still, but its body was driving directly forward, and it suddenly stopped right as it was passing the stairwell.
The ball was still being bounced in a monotonous manner, and the monstrous creature's head turned around in a mechanical manner as it stared directly at Qin Ye. "A living human... Big brother... Can you... play with me?"
Qin Ye smiled in response. "Sure. Are you coming down or do you want me to go up?"Previous Chapter Next Chapter