Xiaowang Town used to be called Xiaowang Village. It was located on the northwest outskirts of City A.
It used to be an impoverished village that had become famous for producing excellent alcohol and fine brick craftsmanship. However, for the locals there, the only person of significance from the town back then was the huge landowner surnamed Yan. The Yan household had someone become one of the Qinghong Society’s leaders and another eldest young master who spent some time abroad. The others were merely poor farmers and small workshop owners who struggled to survive.
After the liberation, especially in recent years, Xiaowang Town developed along with City A. It relied on its natural scenery to become a famous tourist destination and gradually grew prosperous. Now, it had become a wealthy little town. In the eyes of the three new arrivals, apart from the accent and workers being slightly different, it seemed pretty much the same as City A.
“Are you certain we can find that earthbound spirit here?” Wan Li asked.
They had just checked into a hotel. Despite being built in the mountains as a villa, it wasn’t that luxurious. However, it still had the makings of a three-star hotel, and actually had a suite. This solved their housing problem.
It was off-peak season for travel so the hotel was mostly empty. Since things might get very dangerous, it was best if they remained near each other. However, it also wasn’t too convenient for Xiao Xia to live with two men. Things worked out now they had a suite. Xiao Xia slept in the bedroom and the two men slept outside.
“I’m not sure, but it’s our only lead.” Ruan Zhan unpacked as he spoke.
“That’s true.” Wan Li wasn’t as disciplined as Ruan Zhan. He had chosen to rest comfortably on the sofa first. “All signs point to this place. Our target is the builder, and if the architect and the Qinghong Society’s head who managed the construction process all came from this place, we can more or less narrow down our search. Although there isn’t concrete evidence about the kind of person the craftsman was, the most skilled of them came from here. It would seem that everyone was close, and wouldn’t let their fertile water flow to someone else’s fields.”
“Well said. Many places have their own traditional industries. These all stem from townsfolk helping each other. Back then there was often commercial exchanges of such labor. Although the head’s money wouldn’t reach the hands of the poor workers, it was still sufficient for them to make a living.”
“And maybe even find a wife!” Wan Li laughed. “Actually, I heard it’s best not to start building houses when it’s cold. However, the wealthy merchant Zhang might have been in a rush to offer his bribes back then and started construction before the spring. Probably around this time of year.”
“It is a little cold at the moment.”
Although it was the beginning of spring, it was still winter weather. It was especially cold in the mountains. Since there were only the three of them and another family of three staying here, with a few remaining staff, the hotel’s central heating wasn’t too warm to begin with. Therefore, after Xiao Xia finished unpacking, she dressed warmly and curled up on the sofa listening to the men talk. She was like a little fur ball.
“But…what’s an earthbound spirit?” She raised the question.
“Earthbound spirit is a term from the Japanese Yinyang arts. It refers to someone who died with deep attachment or emotions regarding a specific place. This sort of spirit would remain there without leaving until its wish is fulfilled. This is what the Chinese folk call a haunting. Normally, such a spirit’s powers aren’t too strong, depending on their emotions. Whether it’s love or hate, the stronger the emotion the more powerful the spirit.” Ruan Zhan explained. “I’m guessing that ghost is an earthbound spirit. Although I don’t know why he only appeared after so many years, and also why there’s never been any of his aura on Ronghua Road, I still feel he’s related to that place. That’s why we need to find the person who built it.”
Xiao Xia nodded and shrunk deeper into the sofa. She wasn’t just cold, but also a little unsettled.
Ruan Zhan watched from the side. He knew she didn’t like the cold and his heart ached about it. However, they had no other choice.
There were other hotels in town and they didn’t have to stay in the mountains. However, those places were all very lively with many young people. The yang energy would be abundant and ghosts wouldn’t hide there. The mountain was different. It was vast and expansive, enough to hide all things fair and foul. Furthermore, they were posing as travelers. Although it was a little strange at this time of year, it was at least less eye-catching than if they wandered around without any excuse at all.
He didn’t know who would be spying on them. It was better to be a bit more careful!
“Why do I feel like it’s a scavenger hunt?” Wan Li started chatting with Xiao Xia. “It’s more exciting if you think of it like this.”
“Of course you would. I’ve never seen anyone as super optimistic as you.” Xiao Xia immediately responded. “Even if the sky collapsed, you would still be smiling.”
“He’s turned into an idiot from fear. Did you really think he was brave?!”
Ruan Zhan had just spoken when Wan Li immediately retorted. The two of them exchanged barbs for a time once again.
Xiao Xia truly couldn’t understand this method of expressing their relationship and looked out the window with a smile.
They had arrived in the afternoon. The sun had been very bright and the mountain villa looked extremely beautiful. Despite it being winter, the red-tiled walls surrounded by majestic mountains still made for an extraordinary view.
However, night fell especially early in the mountains. Before long it had gotten dark and the weather had even turned. The wind started blowing heavily as though it were going to snow. Now the mountain seemed vast and overly lonely. Apart from the howling wind, there were the cries of unknown animals. The darkness seemed especially eerie.
After dinner, the three went to chat with the remaining staff. They were trying to discover some things through the conversation. At first, Xiao Xia wasn’t willing to go because of the cold. In the end, she was forcibly dragged along by the two men. She wouldn’t have been warmer by herself in the room, and it also wasn’t suitable for her to remain by herself in such a lonely place.
“Don’t underestimate the power of gossip. The best clues are often obtained through it. Furthermore, the elder in charge of the central heating is famous for knowing things around here. Therefore, gossiping with him will be even more valuable.” Wan Li’s review made them grab a bunch of food and drink before heading over to the boiler room.
The boiler room was much warmer than anywhere else! This was the first thing Xiao Xia noticed. Then, meeting that amiable and entertaining old man, she felt even more that coming along with the men was the right decision.
The old man was surnamed Yan and he was almost seventy. However, he was robust like someone in his fifties.
“You guys are really strange to come to the mountains during this time.” The old man took a few sips of the alcohol they brought over and started getting chatty.
“The three of us have been friends since childhood but have never managed to take a trip together.” Wan Li was very good at making stuff up. “We finally managed to get together so we wanted to travel somewhere. But this damn lass insisted on viewing snow-covered mountains.”
“Ah, you’ve come at the right time. There’s going to be a huge snowstorm these few days. See, the sky is all red.” The old man pointed outside the window.
Xiao Xia looked over and saw the sky was even murkier now. A hint of red could faintly be seen in the darkness. Thinking of the ghost that day which was darker than black, she shivered.
“Friends, is it?” The old man chuckled. He said teasingly, “I thought two among you could be a young married couple!”
“I wish, but she seems to have fallen for that bad fellow who’s like a mute.” Wan Li said half-seriously.
Ruan Zhan kept his eyes lowered as though he hadn’t heard. Xiao Xia almost bit Wan Li out of anger, but also felt awkward at having her thoughts exposed. She didn’t move but her face flushed.
“Haha. Lass, come sit over here. You seem very cold.” The old man saw her embarrassed appearance and changed the subject. “I’m not being stingy with the heating. The management only gave so much coal. I can only do it like this. Come here, lass. Don’t catch a cold.”
Seeing Xiao Xia sitting in the warm, safe corner, Ruan Zhan’s anxious emotions under his calm exterior finally relaxed. “I heard this place produced an extremely famous liquor in the past.” He guided the topic in the desired direction.
“That’s right, but it can no longer be produced.” The old man said regretfully. He took another sip of the alcohol they brought and shook his head. “The liquor was good because the mountain springs were good. Twenty years ago they stopped flowing for some reason. No good alcohol was produced ever since and this place gradually wasn’t able to keep it up.”
“Isn’t it said the various families all had house-building skills passed down from their ancestors?” Wan Li asked. “Houses are being built everywhere now. The young people here have probably all gone to work as contractors, right?”
“What you’re saying is correct. Our townsfolk are all skilled at building houses. This mountain villa was built by this village as well. Contractors? There is a organization, but since this place has become a famous tourist destination, the people here now rely on tourism. No one wants to do manual labor. Why? Are you guys thinking of having a house built?”
“That’s not it.” Wan Li hurriedly waved his hands. “We came over from City A and saw many western-style buildings. We heard the architect was from this town.”
“Oh, that!” The old man smiled proudly. “You’ve come to the right person. That was my ancestor. Although he was only distantly related, five times removed, there’s still some relationship! He’s the only major talent from this place who’s studied abroad. My dad said it caused a huge sensation back then.”
“Then he must have helped his townspeople after getting back, right?” Ruan Zhan hurriedly interjected.
“Ai, he was the eldest young master of the major landowner. What relationship would he have with the poor relatives and impoverished families?”
“But I heard those western buildings were built by craftsmen from his hometown.” Wan Li forcibly continued the line of conversation.
“Yeah, that was indeed the case. You guys know quite a lot.”
“This annoying guy works in a library.” Wan Li struck another blow at Ruan Zhan. This made Xiao Xia almost burst out laughing. She finally understood how immature men could be.
“No wonder you know so many things.” The old man looked quite impressed with Ruan Zhan. “Another member of the Yan household back then was a head of the Qinghong Society. He was responsible for bricklayers. The one who commissioned those houses was incredibly rich, which allowed the society and the contractor to earn a huge sum. It was an opportunity to spread his name in his hometown as well. Therefore, he truly had people from his hometown do the work. Although the rate wasn’t that high, it was a huge project so quite a few people made a tidy sum. Their lives weren’t as hard anymore.”
“Did they also get themselves married?” Wan Li didn’t forget to joke around.
Unexpectedly, the old man answered very seriously.
“That’s right. Over a dozen families had laborers who were gone for a year. When they came back, they truly brought some money back. Their later generations now live in the town at the foot of the mountain. Back then, the other families were incredibly envious!”
“Which families were they?” Ruan Zhan asked. “I really like that house and wish to look into how it was built. Did any of the descendants retain the skill?”
“The skill? There are indeed some elders who still have it. You’ve got good insight. However…it’s best if you don’t go at this time.” The old man muttered to himself.
“Why?” The three immediately perked up. Was there truly something abnormal going on?”
“When my grandson came to bring me clothing the other day, he said things weren’t too peaceful in town!”
“Not too peaceful?” The three asked essentially in unison.
Before the old man could respond, a crisp knocking suddenly sounded from the window.