Allen King immediately agreed and said, “Your brother looks very reliable, just like in novels or in movies. The same can’t be said of many people. What do you call it? Like someone with the aura of a tyrant lord!”
This time a series of laughter sounded directly, as if the person had heard something extremely amusing. Dong Zheng recognized the voice of Arabidopsis, made a conjecture, and glanced at Allen, who was still conversing with Dong Linhai. He tried to say from the heart:
[Can I communicate with you like this?]
[Mmn, you just need to say it in your heart.]
At this time, Cui Zuojing was in the prisoner card connected to Dong Zheng’s left hand mark. Although this was the first time he’d entered the card, he’d heard other prisoners describe what it was like before.
He was in a 6 X 6 square foot room, or a prisoner’s cage, where a variety of things can magically appear with a single thought. As long as one wasn’t afraid of being squeezed to death, even imagining a herd of elephants was no problem.
Of course, the things inside cannot be taken out, and the things outside cannot come in, so this function could only make prisoners less bored when they’re not needed outside.
Allen King said, “Did you get the gun from the box? It’s so cool!”
Dong Linhai said, “Yes, it’s just good luck. We found it on the road here.”
Dong Zheng asked again: [You can still hear and see what’s going on outside even when you’re inside the card?]
[Yes, I can somewhat see the situation on your side.] Cui Zuojing was lying on top of a giant, ultra-grade level spring mattress. His blood-stained clothes had been changed. After being forced back, he’d fallen asleep immediately. When he woke up, he just happened to hear Dong Linhai blowing Dong Zheng’s trumpet and couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
They didn’t know what Allen had said, but Dong Linhai was nodding and said, “Yeah, yeah, my brother is quite inspiring. Whenever there is any danger, as long as he is there, I’m not so scared.”
Cui Zuojing gave a sneer and said: [It doesn’t seem to be weaned yet. Still such a big child.]
Dong Zheng looked at them more and more, and said helplessly, “Linhai don’t talk nonsense. Don’t believe him, Allen. We just got out of the novice level. We don’t have much experience, and we don’t understand much.”
Allen was very comfortable and familiar. “It’s okay. Now, we’re teammates, and I’ve experienced two more boxes than you. If I have any experience, I definitely won’t hide it.”
As soon as his voice fell, they heard another clutter of footsteps. In the next moment, two people ran out from the fog. It was a middle-aged man and woman. Although they looked somewhat wretched, they didn’t look panicked.
“Everyone’s here.” The man was relieved and finally slowed down to rest.
The people who’d been sitting on the floor stood up one after another, and the bespectacled man asked, “How many golden beads do you have?”
The man said, “Four, two of them were found on the corpses.”
“The corpses?” Everyone’s expressions shifted slightly.
The slightly fat middle-aged woman said, “We passed by a hut on the road, and the zombie knight was outside. It looked as if it was already dead. We continued walking and met two people who were killed. We thought that since the zombie was already solved, we took the two golden beads from them.”
The couple had passed by Henry’s body and naturally went inside the hut to search for props, but all the useful things inside were already taken away by Dong Zheng and Dong Linhai. They found nothing except for the ranger’s miserable body and Dong Linhai’s vomit.
“That zombie’s dead?!” Everyone was shocked at this time. That horrific existence that crawled out of the abyss was dead?!
Who killed it?
Who had the power to kill it?
Was there something more powerful than the zombie knight in this forest?
Everyone silently shuddered.
Allen King whispered in English that it was fortunate that the two men threw him away. Otherwise…otherwise, the middle-aged couple may see his additional corpse with the two dead men!
Only Dong Zheng and Dong Linhai roughly knew what happened. Dong Linhai shot a quick look at Dong Zheng, his eyes full of undisguised surprise. Dong Zheng immediately asked: [Did you kill the zombie?]
Cui Zuojing put a target on the wall in the prisoner’s space and sat on the bed to shoot darts. [Mmn. His name was Henry, and I knew him before I became a prisoner. Now, he’d completely become a monster, so I set him free.]
The young man’s voice was lazy, sounding so utterly relaxed when talking about solving the zombie knight. Dong Zheng was surprised to see how at ease he was.
Arabidopsis was even stronger than he had imagined.
[Can I ask you, what was your journey like before you became a prisoner?]
Cui Zuojing let out a shallow laugh. [Talking about it, I’m afraid I might terrify you.]
This was once a very powerful pilgrim. Seeing that Cui Zuojing didn’t want to say, Dong Zheng stopped asking and focused more on what was happening in front of him.
Although twelve people had entered the box, two participants had died. Indeed, the number of golden beads needed was just right, making people wonder whether someone was secretly manipulating from the side. They must leave here as soon as possible.
The nine golden balls were placed into the groove one after another, finally completing the astrolabe. The bespectacled man stepped back and waited anxiously with the crowds.
The muffled sound of a machine came to life from underground, seeming as if some huge organ had been activated. The whole land trembled. The vibration and muffled rumbling sound lasted for more than two minutes. When the final sound fell, the astrolabe had completely divided into two halves. The trunk of the banyan tree separated, opening up a wide gap.
The rift was dark. Through the faint light, one could vaguely see the steps below, though it was unknown where they led to.
“Are we going in?” somebody asked.
“It looks like it.” Although they said so, no one took the initiative to stand up to be the first one. In this situation, the person who walks in first would definitely face the greatest danger.
No one wanted to take the risk.
For a long time, there was a deadlock. No one spoke anymore, and even the talkative Allen King was quiet.
But someone needed to start.
Dong Zheng silently sighed. He took off the hunting gun, held it in his hand, turned on the flashlight, and took the lead into the dark crack. “Linhai, Allen, follow me.”
Since someone started, the rest consciously followed behind. The muscular men and the middle-aged couple unexpectedly had a dispute about who would enter last, but it was quickly resolved.
Because, the environment inside the banyan tree was simply too suffocating.
Just like in the cellar stairs, it was pitch-black, with some special restrictions. Even if they worked hard to illuminate the front with the flashlights and lamps in their hands, they could only illuminate three meters in front of them.
Although the banyan tree was as wide as the diameter of seven to eight people holding hands in a circle, the passage was barely wide enough for one person. The two walls made of wood seemed softly alive, as if it was breathing.
The disorganized footsteps of the ten people echoed in everyone’s ears. Due to limitations of their dim and restrictive vision, many people couldn’t help but think that if there was an extra person in the team, they wouldn’t know it at all.
Dong Zheng’s pace a was very steady. Only he himself knew how nervous he was. Despite holding the hunting rifle and the flashlight in his hands, he was in a cold sweat. But the presence of the prisoner mark on his left hand gave him some confidence.
[Oh, right. Arabidopsis is just your prisoner’s name. Can I know your original name? It is also more convenient to call you this way.]
The youth threw all the darts in his hand, laid back on the big mattress and stared at the bright and empty ceiling of the prisoner’s cage in boredom. He replied: [Cui Zuojing.]
The Pure White Realm should still circulate his legend, but it didn’t matter. He and his former team members had been using code names from the very beginning, so they didn’t have to worry about their names revealing anything.
The stairs seemed to stretch on endlessly. After they’d walked for more than thirty minutes, the legs of middle-aged woman, who had the weakest physical strength, had gone soft.
Allen King murmured, “How come we haven’t arrived yet? This is almost reaching the center of the Earth.”
The bespectacled man, who’d been silently counting, replied, “We have almost walked down two kilometers.”
The bearded man groaned anxiously. “Two kilometers and we haven’t reached the end yet? I say, we’re probably walking straight down to hell.”
Everyone began to talk in hushed whispers. Dong Zheng continued walking at the original speed, as if he was unaffected by the more strange speculations.
There was a slow airflow, indicating that they should be close to the exit.
After another five to six minutes of walking, Dong Zheng suddenly stopped and turned off the flashlight.
There was light in front.
“Eh? There’s light?!” Dong Linhai looked over Dong Zheng’s shoulder, saw the shimmering light coming from the top, and was immediately excited. The narrow and suffocating stairs along the way reminded him of what happened in the cellar, making him worried. But now, they could leave!
Because the whole staircase was sloping downward, when Dong Zheng saw the light, the exit was only no more than thirty meters away from them. He suddenly sighed with relief, his tense spirit relaxing a little. However, he continued to walk forward cautiously, though at a quicker pace.
In the end, it was still a low-level box. There was no accident as everyone had feared along the way. Everyone walked out of the stairs with relief. The fresh air poured into their lungs, muting their sense of exhaustion and tense anxiety.
“God, what the hell is this place?” The high-ponytailed woman looked around and couldn’t help but frown and sigh softly.
This was still a forest. All the trees were pure black, without any color changes. The branches were bare of leaves and stretched out to the sky as if trying to grab something. The land underfoot was various shades of gray. Even the sky was gray. The ten people were the only spots of color in this whole world, as if…they’d strayed into an old black and white photo.
[Sky, blue sky.] (1)
Cui Zuojing suddenly said such a headless sentence. Dong Zheng subconsciously looked up at the top of his head. Where was the blue?
The moment the middle-aged couple came out, they sat on the ground to rest. Both of them were older and were not manual workers in the real world. The two muscular men were injured and leaned tiredly against the tree. Looking at this group of people, it seemed that only the high-ponytailed woman and Dong Zheng still have energy left.
The woman said, “Let’s take a break before we leave.”
Dong Zheng hummed in agreement as well and said, “Allen and I will take a look around to see what’s going on first. Linhai, do you want to rest here?”
Dong Linhai, who had already sat down, immediately climbed back up and patted the soil off his butt. “I’m with you.”
The three of them temporarily left the team and began to explore the surrounding area, hoping to find some key clues. Soon, Dong Linhai found a path, and they soon came to a small signpost by the side of the road. The wooden signpost had an arrow pointing in the direction in front of them that read: Hamelin.
Dong Linhai said, “That means we need to follow this road and go to this place?”
Allen said, “Obviously, but the name of this place… Does it sound familiar to you?”
Dong Zheng said, “The German city, Hamelin.”
Allen agreed. “Yes, but there is another meaning–”
Just as he said this, the sound of a melodious flute drifted into everyone’s ears. Allen immediately stopped and looked in the direction of the sound.
Dong Linhai, who was squatting in front of the wooden sign, suddenly began to feel very dizzy. He raised his hands to cover his jumbled head and then slowly stood up.
“Linhai?” Dong Zheng immediately felt that something was wrong. He grabbed his arm, but Dong Linhai didn’t feel it at all. His eyes were blank, and he stood upright, as if waiting for someone.
Dong Zheng whispered, “What’s going on?”
Allen stared in surprise. He wanted to speak, but Dong Zheng saw someone coming through the sparse woods and signal for him to remain silent.
The two quickly hide behind the thick trees, leaving only the blank Dong Linhai standing alone.
The sound of the flute continued, drifting closer and closer, and soon the figure appeared clearly in front of them.
It was a dark-haired young man of medium build, wearing a wide hat with colorful peacock feathers, and dressed in a colorful outfit that looked like church stained glasses with wide cuffs and a long hem that almost dragged to the ground. He wore long boots with the toes pointed up.
There were light-colored tear moles at the bottom of his eyes, like two drops of tears that had not yet fallen. At this time, his eyes were slightly closed, and the flute was pressed to his lips, through which blew a gentle tune.
Behind him, the people who were supposed to rest all followed his pace blankly. They slowly walked to the path marked by the wooden sign post.
The flute player walked past Dong Linhai, and the wide clothes brushed against the teenager’s fingers. As if enchanted by a curse, Dong Linhai automatically entered the team and followed after him.
The sound of the flute, a troubadour, crazed animals, people being controlled, Hamelin.
All the clues were clear. Dong Zheng and Allen looked at each other, tacitly pretended to be controlled, and followed at the end of the team to Hamelin.
Within Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the hometown of “The Pied Piper.”
(1) Per the author’s note, [sky, blue sky] stems from the SCP Foundation, classification numbered SCP-8900-EX. I didn’t understand the author’s explanation so I looked it up. SCP-8900-EX, which is extremely contagious to people and objects, alters our perception of the color spectrum in such a way that we see colors the way we do now. As such, old black and white photos are actual colored pictures from back in the days (before we were infected by SCP-8900-EX). SCP-8900-EX can also be spread through visual media (i.e. photos). Basically, what if green is actually just a specific shade of gray? But, because we are infected by SCP-8900-EX, we incorrectly “see” this specific shade of gray as “green.”
SCP, short for Special Containment Procedures or Secure, Contain, Protect, is the beginning classification code for a phenomena or anomaly. It derives from the SCP Foundation, which is a collaborative, online fiction project. The narrative of the SCP Foundation is that it is a top-secret organization that focuses on containing and protecting individuals, entities, locations, and objects that violate natural laws. As such, the organization has a collection of (fictional) documents that details the procedures for containing these phenomenon or anomalies, which span various genres, including horror, science fiction, and urban fantasy.
The author seems pretty into this SCP stuff and uses it quite a lot as a source of inspiration so you’ll see it popping up again and again. To read more, see SCP Foundation (Wikipedia). Or, browse the actual SCP Wiki website.