Author: 梦溪石 / Meng Xi Shi
Translator: Kinky || https://kinkytranslations.com/
Dong Zhi suddenly turned his head.
Nothing. There was no one there.
In this instance, he had to mobilize all his willpower to resist the urge to scream. Taking a deep breath, he looked at the ground again. His shadow was still a shadow. At most, it only trembled slightly as the train moved forward. The scene he’d just witnessed was like a blur.
Dong Zhi calmed down. His palms were sweaty, leaving behind slippery wet traces on areas that he touched. He hurriedly quickened his steps and dared not look at the ground again.
The dining car was brightly lit, and there were small groups of people sitting inside. He subconsciously felt relieved to see this.
He ordered a bowl of braised beef noodles and bought instant noodles and some snacks for He Yu. As he was about to walk to an empty seat, a child suddenly fell out of the seat next to him, startling him. He quickly put down his things and rushed to help the child.
“Little girl, are you okay?”
The little girl looked no more than six or seven. Her hair was in a pair of braids, and she had an apple face underneath her neat looking bangs. Hearing Dong Zhi’s words, she slowly shook her head. Dong Zhi looked down at her knee. There didn’t seem to be any scrapes.
A young woman hastily ran over. “Tongtong!”
The little girl turned around and opened her arms, letting the young woman pick her up. From this action, it was obvious what kind of relationship they had. Dong Zhi was afraid that the other party would misunderstand, so he promptly explained, “The little girl fell down just now, so I rushed over to help her.”
The young woman wasn’t angry but instead thanked him repeatedly. She chided the child for being naughty in her absence. She had wanted to order food, but shortly after leaving this happened.
Dong Shi: “It just so happens that I’m here waiting for my order. I can help you watch her for a while.”
The young woman gave him a grateful look and repeatedly thanked him. She put her daughter on the seat opposite of him and instructed her to listen to the big brother while she went to order food.
The little girl was very quiet, not “naughty” at all, like what her mother said. She and Dong Zhi stared wide-eyed at each other without a single word being said. Dong Zhi felt the atmosphere was getting awkward. Thankfully, at this moment, a train attendant brought over his braised beef noodles, and the young woman had also returned.
“Thank you so much. I came with Tongtong alone. Sometimes I get negligent and can’t take care of her. Thankfully, there are always kind-hearted people like you along the way!”
The young woman gave him a bottle of mineral water without saying a word.
Dong Zhi smiled and said, “It’s okay. Tongtong was very good.”
“Aren’t you being too obedient?” The young woman smiled bitterly. “The truth is, Tongtong has autism. Her father divorced me because of it. I’m usually busy with work and finally had time for a vacation. I wanted to take Tongtong out so we could have fun, hoping she could see the landscape and perhaps her condition would improve.”
The little girl was very well-behaved. She took the noodle soup from her mother and ate it spoonful by spoonful. Her movements were a bit slow, but she wasn’t spoiled like other children who were picky and would refuse to eat this or that.
Dong Zhi couldn’t help but sympathize.
“Where are you heading?” Dong Zhi asked.
“Changchun,” The young woman said. “It has a nice name. I always wanted to go, but I never had the time since I got married. Then I had Tongtong… If I have more opportunities, I want to take her to many more places.”
“I’m going to Changchun too. If Xu Jie* needs anything, feel free to contact me.”
*Older sister. Term could be used to address women who are older than you, usually signify closeness.
After finishing his bowl of noodles, he exchanged contact information with the young woman. Her name was Xu Wan*, and she certainly lived up to it. She was gentle and beautiful. Unfortunately, her fate was unlucky.
*Xu (宛) means gentle. I’m not sure if Wan (宛) has any significance. By itself, it means winding/similar.
Xu Wan repeatedly thanked him, her face full of gratitude. When he got up to leave, she asked her daughter to say goodbye to the big brother. Tongtong seemed to understand as she obediently slowly raised her hand and waved to him.
Seeing this made Dong Zhi recall the shadow that he’d witnessed earlier. His heart was inexplicably covered by a weird haze.
He bid farewell to the mother-daughter duo and walked back with the items He Yu requested. After passing through a carriage, he suddenly felt something was amiss. The surroundings were dimmer than the previous carriage, and there was not even a single night light on. He saw a few people around.
Casting his gaze, he saw that there were people sitting sparsely on both sides of the aisle. Oddly, though, no one was sleeping, or playing games on their phones, or even talking and laughing. They all sat upright; their poses stiff, indescribably eerie.
Using the light from his phone, Dong Zhi shone it to take a closer look. The people had blank expressions and their eyes were wide open, just like… wax figures or the living dead.
His imagination made him shudder and quickly turn around, wanting to return to the dining car. Before he had a chance to move, he found that the original dining carriage behind him had completely disappeared, replaced by an equally deep and dark train passage.
What the hell?!
Dong Zhi’s heartbeat intensified as he accelerated his steps. He kept moving forward, but the carriage seemed to be unending. The light from the passengers’ phones illuminated their expressionless and lifeless features, and their faces started to glow a weird cyan color.
He dared not make a single sound and stopped breathing entirely for fear that a hand would suddenly reach out and grab him. After walking for what seemed like hours, he finally saw a faint light in front of him. Dong Zhi was overcome with joy as he quickly scampered towards it.
Sure enough, there was someone standing there. The figure looked familiar. Dong Zhi recognized it instantly and was jubilant.
He Yu was squatting on the ground with his back to him. He was holding a lantern, looking forward. When he saw Dong Zhi running over, he turned his head and raised his finger to shush, motioning him to keep quiet. Encountering an acquaintance slightly eased Dong Zhi’s fear.
“Why are you here? Are you also trapped here? This place is so strange. We need to find a way out!” Dong Zhi said, while pulling on him.
“Wait, look at this lantern!” He Yu said.
“What about it?” Dong Zhi looked at the small, grayish-yellow lantern in his hand. The candlelight inside was faintly quivering, as if it was about to be extinguished.
“This human skin lantern is about to break.” He Yu said, with a mysterious expression.
“A what lantern?” Dong Zhi thought there was something wrong with his ears.
He Yu said, “After a person dies, if you chisel a small hole in his skull and pour mercury in, guess what happens?”
Dong Zhi felt a chill rise from the soles of his feet. He couldn’t help but back away slowly, muttering, “What happens?”
He Yu got up and looked at him, showing a contented smile. “Bury a person in the ground, and in seven, seven, forty-nine days*, you can peel off their skin completely.”
*Originated from Buddhism. It’s the traditional Chinese funeral ritual, which is held every seven days after a person’s death. Seven days is one period, with a maximum of seven periods totaling up to forty-nine days. The belief is that the person goes through the 7 halls of the undead world to be judged by the 7 kings of the underworld and, based on their karma, would either be reincarnated or be immediately cast to hell after the 49th day.
Dong Zhi smiled dryly. “Nonsense, how is this possible?”
“Why is it impossible? I have done it before!” He Yu seemed unhappy with his retort. His face sank and his eyes widened. The faint light from the lantern reflected on his face, which looked peculiarly treacherous.
“But a pair of human skins can only make one lantern at most. My lantern is about to break, so I’ll just use you for my next one!” After he finished speaking, he let out a hehe.
The hairs all over Dong Zhi’s body stood straight up. He couldn’t bear it any longer. He threw the mineral water bottle that he had taken just a few sips of at his opponent fiercely, then turned around and ran!
He Yu reached out and grabbed the top of his head, seemingly unhappy. Dong Zhi couldn’t dodge his grasp and was caught by him. He became wide-eyed, his mouth slightly ajar, and fear clenched in his heart tightly. He suddenly discovered that once a person’s fear reached the extreme, they couldn’t even scream for help. In the next moment, his head was pulled by He Yu.
‘It’s over. I’m going to be made into a human skin lantern!’ Dong Zhi thought as he felt a sudden chill on his forehead. It was like ice water was dripping on his glabella, penetrating the skin and going straight to the center of his heart, causing him to shiver violently.
His eyes lit up as the surrounding scenery changed. There was no dark and gloomy carriage, or wax-like figures of the living dead, or encounters with He Yu carrying a human-skin lantern. There stood only one mysterious man.
Dong Zhi was panting and sweating profusely. His face was pale. His mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. He felt like a dehydrated frog.
The mysterious man had a pair of beautiful peach blossom eyes. They looked calm and unwavering, as if the wind and rain wouldn’t be able to make any waves*.
*Refers to the inability to withstand pressure or setbacks. In this context, not being able to make any waves refers to being calm or of smooth procession.
Looking at him, Dong Zhi felt the portrait he had painted previously, which was lauded as the golden ratio of facial features*, was instantly overshadowed.
*The gold standard to determine whether something is beautiful or not based on their face.
The solitary light illuminates itself, and the liver and gallbladder are full of ice and snow*. He had completely forgotten the dangerous situation he was in as this passage popped into his mind unconsciously.
*A passage from Zhang Xioxiang’s “Nian Nujio: Crossing of Donting”. Solitary light refers to the moonlight. Liver and gallbladder are full of ice and snow, which is a metaphor for a heart as pure as ice and snow. The whole work expresses the author’s noble, loyal, and heroic spirit, which Dong Zhi uses to describe this person.
Is this a living person?
Dong Zhi stared at the man in a daze but felt no fear.
Seeing the other party dumbfounded, the man frowned slightly. He stretched out with his slender finger and pinched Dong Zhi’s chin steadily as he tilted it up. His warm breath wafted over, giving a fragrant smell of ice and snow, pulling back Dong Zhi’s sanity.
His face was hot, and he subconsciously wanted to retreat, but he couldn’t break away from the man’s hold. The man had squeezed his chin tightly, causing it to ache. At this time, the man took the initiative to let go and bent over to pick up the mineral water bottle that Dong Zhi had just thrown away.
Looking around, Dong Zhi noticed that there were passengers scattered around, looking at them strangely. They didn’t have stiff expressions like the wax figures that looked like zombies. He breathed a sigh of relief but didn’t dare completely relax.
“Is this water bottle yours?” The man asked. His voice was neither high nor deep, unlike the mellow tone that was commonly used to describe a nice voice.
Being so close, Dong Zhi recalled the cologne he had smelled. The scent was like a mixture of fresh moss after the rain and the magnificence of a pond full of lotuses. It was unforgettable. Everything about this man, from his smell to his sudden appearance, was full of mysterious charm.
Dong Zhi nodded. “I just bought it in the dining car… Oh, wait. I helped a passenger watch her child, and she bought me it as thanks.”
What happened just now was too bizarre. He vaguely realized that if it weren’t for this man just now, he probably wouldn’t have woken up from that awful nightmare. He hurriedly thanked the other party and asked, “What happened just now? Is there any issue with the water bottle?”
The man snorted but didn’t answer.
Dong Zhi couldn’t help but feel a bit annoyed. He noticed that the man was heavily focused on the water bottle in his hand, as if he was watching a ticking time bomb. He couldn’t refrain and asked again, “Who are you? Just now, on my forehead…” Before he had the chance to finish, He Yu came running over.
“Boss!” A smiling face accompanied He Yu as he called out in a flattering voice.
The man glanced at him. “I told you to stay on No. 6. Where did you go?”
He Yu scratched his head. “Just to the bathroom. When I heard movement here, I came as soon as possible.”
The man sneered. “By the time you arrive, the day lily will be cold*! Do you know what to do when we go back?”
*(黄花菜都凉) Original saying is cucumbers will be cold, but now has become day lily will be cold. It’s a ridiculed criticism of people who are late or get things done late.
He Yu looked dejected. “Got it, I’ll write it in my review.”
He looked at the Dong Zhi again. “Why are you here? Are you okay?”
Dong Zhi had flashbacks from what he had just experienced, so he remained alert. He forced a smile and said nothing.
The man said to He Yu, “You stay and solve this matter.”
Solve what? Are they going to kill people?
Dong Zhi was startled. Seeing the man leave, he was about to turn around and slip away when He Yu grabbed him by the collar.
He Yu stepped forward and wrapped an arm around his shoulder, giving him a silly grin. “Big brother, let’s talk!”
“There’s nothing to talk about.” Dong Zhi tried to keep calm.
He Yu asked suspiciously, “What did you see just now? Why are you suddenly afraid of me?”
The current He Yu was bright and cheerful, with a righteous face, which was a stark contrast to the treacherous and dark demeanor of his counterpart in the illusion. Dong Zhi asked cautiously, “Do you use human skin lanterns?”
“What human skin lanterns?” He Yu was inexplicable. It didn’t seem like he was a fake.
Dong Zhi breathed a sigh of relief and briefly described what he encountered after leaving the dining carriage.
He Yu touched his chin. “There should be something wrong with that water bottle.”
Dong Zhi was taken aback. “What?”
He Yu nodded. “Do you want to hear the truth or lie?”
Dong Zhi asked, “What’s the lie?”
He Yu said, “The lie is that you were drugged and what you saw were just delusions and hallucinations.”
Dong Zhi: “What about the truth?”
He Yu: “The truth is that the bottle of water was filled with demonic energy, and you drank it. Drinking it will put you in a state of confusion and cause hallucinations.”
Dong Zhi: “…The lie seems to be more credible.”
He Yu shrugged. “People always like to deceive themselves. You can believe whatever you like!”
He pointed to himself and said aggrievedly, “Look at me carefully. Do I really look like a bad person?”
‘100% yes.’ Dong Zhi thought silently.
He watched Xu Jie buy that water bottle with his very own eyes. It took only a few minutes tops to go back and forth. When it arrived in his hand, it was still brand new and unopened. Besides, what would be the point of drugging him? Robbery? Theft? No matter how you look at him, he wasn’t a good target.
He was at a loss thinking about all the strange occurrences he had encountered since stepping onto this train. The passenger who disappeared out of thin air in the restroom, the dream he had in the middle of the night, and just now, the hallucinations. He was positive he was mentally stable and had no inherited psychological illness, so there was only one possible explanation.
What He Yu said was true.
Blinking his eyes, as if coming to this realization, Dong Zhi asked cautiously, “I drank that water filled with demonic energy… Will I be okay?”
He Yu: “Of course not. It will take root in your stomach and slowly grow inside it until it bursts out! You’ll be dead by then.”
Dong Zhi suddenly recalled the scene in the movie <Alien>*. His body suddenly became cold.
*This is the infamous scene he’s referring to. Warning: bloody and gory. Viewer discretion is advised.
He asked as he trembled, “Really?”
He Yu laughed. “Of course not! How funny that you can believe this kind of lies only children would fall for!”
Dong Zhi: …
“Alright, alright!” He Yu reached out and rubbed his hair, as if consoling a silly child. “But I didn’t lie to you. Even if you drink that whole bottle of water, you’ll be fine. There’s not much evil in there. The boss has already helped you resolve it just now, so there won’t be any sequela!”
Dong Zhi didn’t intend to pay any more attention to He Yu. Having his head rubbed had dissipated his anger. He gave in to his curiosity and asked, “What the hell is going on this train? Who are you guys?”