The sky was now completely dark. From deep in the woods came the calls of unidentifiable birds and the loud chirping of crickets, cutting through the silence.
“You stupid old man—” Chen Peng was aggravated by the old man’s storytelling and wanted to berate him. But when he started to turn around, his mother quickly stopped him. Tang Tian also shouted, without turning back herself, “Don’t look back!”
If she had been the same person she was a month ago, she wouldn’t have believed a word that the old man had said, but after experiencing the supernatural multiple times, Tang Tian had learned to accept the existence of mystical beings or otherworldly presences that roamed the human world.
No wonder Chen Xu desperately wanted us to leave, she thought as she stared at the path that somehow had divided into two.
Meanwhile, Chen Peng froze, no longer daring to move a muscle. In a panic, he hollered, “What the hell is all of this?”
Chen Yunzhi lashed out as well. “What is going on, old man?”
“Hehehe…” The old man suddenly cackled, his voice no longer raspy, but shrill and high-pitched. “Go on, choose. If you choose the right path, you may leave with the body. If you’re wrong, all of you shall stay behind.’
A shiver raced down their spines as they realised this was obviously not Wang Laowu’s voice.
If the person at the back wasn’t Wang Laowu, who could it be? Who had been the one talking incessantly? Or, if it was truly Wang Laowu, could he have been… possessed? When had it happened?
Shitou, who was lifting the front end of the stretcher, worriedly asked, “Dad? Dad? What’s the matter with you?” His concern for his father tempted him to look back, but he didn’t dare to. After all these years as a body fisher, he had witnessed enough supernatural occurrences to know he should never disobey the rules passed down by their ancestors.
Wang Laowu ignored his pleas, as if he had suddenly become mute. The entire weight of the stretcher had not fallen solely upon Shitou, so he knew his father was still behind him, supporting the other end of the stretcher.
The others at the front started panicking, grasping their own arms to seek comfort.
“W-we have to call the police!” Chen Peng frantically took out his phone, but was surprised to find no signal at all. He exclaimed, “This is not possible! There were still a few bars back at the hut!”
“What do we do now?” The elder woman cried out in distraught and she tugged on her son’s arm.
Tang Tian shone her flashlight at the path on the left side, then shifted it to the right. Both paths looked exactly the same to her, with wild grass covering most of the soil and overlapping footprints on damp soil that were beyond recognition. She had assumed they wouldn’t get lost as there was only one path leading to the riverbend and they had two locals as their guide, so she hadn’t left any markings or signs earlier.
“Let’s go down the path on the left,” Chen Peng said in a forced, calm tone, attempting to disguise his fear, but his shaky voice betrayed him. “It’s part of our customs, right? Men to the left, and women to the right.”1In Chinese tradition, during formal or otherwise significant occasions, it was considered proper for men to be positioned on the left side, while women were on the right. This was a symbol of patriarchy in olden times, where those on the left were regarded with higher respect.
Without thinking, Lin Luoyan tightened her hands around her son’s arms, digging her long nails into his skin. Chen Peng yelped with pain. “Mom! What are you doing?”
He paused as if he had suddenly realised his insensibility for saying such words without considering his own mother. “This won’t do…” he muttered, then his eyes glinted as an idea came to mind. “Why don’t you go ahead, Secretary Chen? Help us check which path is the safer option.” Chen Peng was aware that Tang Tian wouldn’t listen to him, and he didn’t trust her with his life either, so he picked on Secretary Chen instead. He was the perfect scapegoat if anything were to happen. He had never been fond of Secretary Chen, who had started working by Chen Yunzhi’s side at a relatively young age. Even though his capabilities and his loyalty to the company were greatly valued by Chen Yunzhi, Chen Peng planned to get rid of him the moment he inherited the company from his father.
Before Secretary Chen could respond, a loud, angry voice thundered across the silent forest, “NO!”
Tang Tian raised her eyebrow, while Chen Peng and his mother froze at Chen Yunzhi’s reaction.
“Boss.” Secretary Chen lowered his head.
Chen Yunzhi sighed and said, “We don’t know what danger lies out there. There is no need to let anyone take the risk alone.” As the most authoritative figure in the group had made his stance clear, no one else dared to object otherwise.
Lin Luoyan’s hands that were still grasping Chen Peng’s arm tightened further, while the young man patted her hands comfortingly. A hint of disgust flashed through their eyes.
Wang Laowu remained quiet throughout the commotion, not responding to his worried son’s pleas.
We can’t continue standing here. If this goes on, we’ll be trapped forever, Chen Yunzhi thought anxiously. He raised his voice, loud enough for Tang Tian who was all the way at the front to hear. “Xiao Tang, you’ve been leading the way all this while. I’ll let you make the decision. Whichever path you choose, we’ll follow.”
He paused, his tone lowered and now filled with love and affection. “Xu’er is a good child. He entrusted you with his dying wish and so I trust you too. If we make it out of here, the Chen family will surely treat you well.”
It was clear as day, what he was trying to convey. If Wang Laowu had been the one entrusted with the decision, he would probably have raised the price sky-high. As it was, Tang Tian kept silent. She was on her guard, exceptionally wary as she felt the presence of something unpleasant prowling nearby. She needed to find a way out of this mountain, regardless of whether they asked for her help.
“I need to think.”
Tang Tian’s eyes surveyed the two paths carefully, while she chanted desperately in her mind, Chen Xu, please come out!
She tried to summon him by repeatedly thinking his name, to no avail.
Perhaps he doesn’t want to show himself in front of Chen Peng and Lin Luoyan when they’re standing right behind me. Or perhaps he can’t materialise because the river and mountain deities are preventing it.
Tang Tian waited for another few minutes. No freezing cold finger trying to write a message on her back, either.
“Hurry up!” Chen Peng and his mother both urged.
There’s no other way, Tang Tian thought resignedly and sighed.
Intuition told her to go with the path on the right. Possibly due to her having literally died, if briefly, she was now more sensitive to the Yin aura. As she observed the path on the left, she could see a translucent haze swirling around it, radiating a familiar, eerie cold, as if it was leading them straight to Hell.
“We’ll go right.” She lifted her foot and started walking with quick, decisive steps. Everyone else followed suit in silence, finding their way using the flashlights on their phones, the only source of light in the pitch-black forest.
After a while of treading through the seemingly never-ending forest, they finally saw something—the old, rundown houses on the west side of the village. They had made it out of Graveyard Mountain.
“We got out!”
All of them panted heavily as relief washed over them, their backs drenched in cold sweat.
Wang Laowu and Shitou, who were the last to arrive, stopped beside the Chen family members and placed the stretcher on the ground. Wang Laowu suddenly widened his eyes, as if he had just woken up from a dream. “Weird…How did we get out of the mountain so fast?”
Tang Tian glanced at the time displayed on her phone screen. She recalled that the one-way trip to the riverbend had been at least half an hour, including the trek up, then down, the mountain path. But their way back to the village had taken only 20 minutes and led them through the forest without needing to hike up any slopes, as if they had somehow passed through the centre of the mountain.
Shitou gently shook his father’s shoulders. “Dad, don’t you remember what happened? You were being very creepy in the forest!” He hurriedly summarised Wang Laowu’s weird behaviour and eerie voice, but Wang Laowu merely frowned, equally confused and dazed.
“What are you talking about? I was really exhausted trying to help you carry this dead body. Besides, it was so dark in the forest, I was too busy focusing on the path I’m treading on, I barely have any strength to come up with stories to scare you people.”
Wang Laowu glanced at the forest behind him that was shrouded in pitch darkness. His years of experience dealing with dead bodies naturally meant that he was less easily fazed by unnatural occurrences than most people. But now, he shuddered as a shiver shot down his spine. His raspy voice was laced with fear as he said, “The village elders often say that deities do exist, presiding over rivers and mountains. The deity that watches over Graveyard Mountain is nourished by the countless bodies buried there since ancient times. It has always been our tradition to bury the dead as soon as possible after they pass, and over time the corpses rot away, seeping through the coffins and becoming nourishment for the trees in the forest. It’s said that the taller and healthier the trees were, the more corpses you would find buried beneath them.
“If we don’t leave the mountains by nightfall, we would likely find ourselves trapped in a Ghost Snare. In the past, kids that snuck onto the mountain at night to play have been known to go missing, and no one in the village has been able to find them ever since.” The old man gazed at them with an odd expression. “If what Shitou said was true, how did you people live to get out from there?”
Anxious eyes flitted to Tang Tian. Carefully choosing her words to give off an air of light-hearted nonchalance, she said, “Oh, it’s probably because I’m going to die soon that I’m able to see things ordinary people can’t.”
- 1In Chinese tradition, during formal or otherwise significant occasions, it was considered proper for men to be positioned on the left side, while women were on the right. This was a symbol of patriarchy in olden times, where those on the left were regarded with higher respect.