In the scorching summer of Chongqing, the road was so hot that it could fry an egg. When Jiang Hong got out of the car, he felt like he was about to melt in the sun. His father dropped him off outside the prep course institution, honked the horn and waved goodbye, and then drove away.
Jiang Hong went to register by himself and entered the classroom on the same day, sitting in the last row. Public high schools no longer allowed prep courses, so those who participated were mostly like Jiang Hong, unsuccessful candidates. Of course, there were also differences in academic ability among the unsuccessful candidates. Life in the fourth year of high school was boring and filled with exhaustion. Everyone’s goal was the same: come here and study, with no energy left to make friends or chat.
During this class, the teacher was talking about the college entrance exam. Jiang Hong had wasted half of his summer vacation and now he was back to preparing for the exam with despair in his heart.
Xi’an was a fun place with delicious food, but it was a bit hot… Jiang Hong couldn’t help but reminisce about his summer trip. If he could attend a university in Xi’an, he could have fun everywhere.
Wait, what did I do in Xi’an? Jiang Hong felt a bit strange. He went on a trip, but he didn’t have many memories. Did he go to an escape room? Who did he go with? He vaguely remembered that he almost broke down when he didn’t get into his preferred university, but his parents gave him some money to go out and relax, so he chose Xi’an.
But what did I do there? Jiang Hong’s mind was empty, and he didn’t have any photos on his phone. Why did he go on a trip alone? To relax… oh yes, did he make any friends in Xi’an? He seems to have, but why didn’t he exchange contact information?
The teacher was talking about the exam, but Jiang Hong had already started to drift away.
I went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda… but what does it look like? Why don’t I remember anything?
I made friends, but who were they? The more Jiang Hong thought, the more confused he got. How did he meet them? Did he meet them on the street? Were they male or female? Tall or short?
Jiang Hong’s mind was in chaos, with tangled black threads on top of his head. Did he buy any souvenirs? No, he didn’t. He also went to Qinling, but why did he go there? What did he do there?
Who am I? Where am I? What am I supposed to do? Jiang Hong was completely confused.
It was so hot. The air conditioning wasn’t working well, and there were more than seventy people in the classroom. Life was unbearable… If only he had worked harder last year, he sighed. But as the former homeroom teacher said, some people were suited for studying, while others were not. Jiang Hong’s thoughts start to wander.
He felt like he had failed in life. He tried long-distance running, but didn’t become an athlete. His mother stopped him from running in junior high because she was afraid it would stunt his growth. He did well in his sophomore and junior years, growing to almost six feet tall, but running wasn’t a factor in college admissions anymore. He studied hard, but his grades were always mediocre, making it difficult to enter a top-tier school. He learned piano as a child, passed level six, but then stopped. He learned to play Go, even studying under a professional, but he gave up after only two years.
He knew a little about everything, but he was not an expert in anything. This was Jiang Hong’s life in just eighteen years. His former homeroom teacher said that his parents spoiled him too much and didn’t push him enough, but Jiang Hong felt that it was his own fault. He couldn’t blame his parents; they already loved him enough.
Sigh… Should he repeat the year? Would he be able to attend a good university? When would this kind of life end?
Jiang Hong was lying on the table, looking like a withered dog that had been left out in the sun too long.
“Maybe I’ll just sleep for a little while,” he thought to himself. He wasn’t sure why, but this trip made him feel very tired, as if he had spent five days lifting steel bars on a construction site instead of relaxing.
“Just fifteen minutes of sleep…” he told himself.
And so Jiang Hong fell asleep.
In the prep course, neither the teacher nor his classmates paid him any attention. Who cared if you were in your final year of high school and whether or not you read?
Jiang Hong was average in most things, but he excelled in eating, drinking, playing, and sleeping. He could quickly get into the zone.
Not only did Jiang Hong sleep for more than fifteen minutes, but he also had a dream.
In his dream, he was wearing a robe and standing by a gem-like, indigo lake. He was only fourteen years old that year, with clear eyes that were as pure as the lake.
Suddenly, a strong wind came up and dark clouds filled the sky. The lake water exploded with a roar.
A large dragon flew out of the lake and hovered in the air. Thunderclouds gathered in the sky, and thunder that shook the world was brewing. In an instant, it poured down on the dragon!
The first wave of thirty-six thunderbolts lit up the sky.
“Kulu… Kulu…” Jiang Hong, in his robe, was shocked and shouted excitedly at the sky.
But the thunder drowned out his voice. In the earthquake and landslide of that day, the power of man was so small. By the side of Yamdrok Lake, Jiang Hong became an inconspicuous little black spot.
Sixty-four, eighty-one thunderbolts fell one after another, and the dragon extended its body in the sky. The thunder peeled off its scales one by one, and lightning gave them a black and golden hue. The horn on its forehead was shattered by the power of the calamity, as if it had become a lightning rod that attracted the anger of heaven.
“Kulu!!!” Jiang Hong’s eyes reflected the thunder and lightning, and the black dragon hovering in the dark sky.
Finally, a thunderbolt shot toward him from the sky.
The dragon immediately flew toward Jiang Hong and blocked the thunderbolt for him. Countless black scales fell in the wind like ashes after a fire, drifting apart.
The bell for the end of class rang, and Jiang Hong woke up suddenly.
“Oh, class is over already?” Jiang Hong rubbed his eyes and looked at the blackboard.
The blackboard was densely covered with notes.
“It’s so tiring.” When Jiang Hong got into his father’s car, it was already 9:15 pm.
“If you’re tired, that’s good.” Jiang Hong’s father drove attentively. “People need to live, work hard, and strive. Look at your old man. I’m getting old, but still have to accompany others to eat and drink, and attend social events. It’s all tiring.”
“Dad, I don’t think I’m really suited for studying,” Jiang Hong said, his eyes looking out at the dreamlike streetlights.
“Don’t say that.” Jiang Hong’s father loved his son very much. He intended to comfort him, but changed his mind. “Perhaps you don’t have a talent for studying science and engineering, but you still need to get into a good university. It hasn’t reached the point where you need to work yet. Throughout your life, you need to keep trying in order to find what suits you best. If you give up now, you won’t even have the opportunity to try.”
“Well, I’ll study hard.” Jiang Hong thought to himself that he couldn’t afford to daydream and fall asleep tomorrow.
Jiang Hong had never been scolded or beaten since he was a child. Everything in his family was explained carefully to him, and he understood the reasoning. However, he still couldn’t help but complain occasionally.
When he returned home, his mother had prepared supper. After eating, Jiang Hong went to bed early.
These days, he always felt very tired, and it was difficult to focus. Perhaps it was because he had played around too much during the holiday and was still suffering from the after-effects. He could only slowly adjust.
Before going to bed, Jiang Hong organized his backpack and wallet and suddenly found something tucked inside his wallet.
It was a thin, shell-like piece, slightly larger in area than a one-yuan coin, but less than one millimeter thick. When he opened his wallet, it fell onto the desk with a “clang,” bouncing a few times. Its texture was very hard.
Jiang Hong: “???”
Jiang Hong picked it up. It looked like a shellfish strip. It was full of delicate rings, like the age lines of a tree, with a texture like polarizing grating, refracting brilliant colors.
Laid flat in his hand, the black piece shimmered with a faint golden light. Its originally sharp edges seemed to have been polished by hand, making it smooth and gentle.
What is this? Jiang Hong thought for a moment. It seemed to be a protective charm? But where did he get this from? There was nothing written on it.
Jiang Hong’s first intuition was that someone gave him this charm. He didn’t know where this thought came from, but he believed it was true.
So Jiang Hong found a red string in his drawer, wrapped it around the charm a few times, tightened it, and made a simple necklace that he could wear. He put it in his wallet and used the manual work to empty his mind for a moment after a tense day, then turned off the lights and went to bed.
The next morning, after breakfast, Jiang Hong said to his father, “You don’t need to come pick me up after school today. I’ll go home by myself.”
Both parents replied with an “Mm-hmm,” and Jiang Hong decided to take the subway to and from school by himself from that day on, no longer bothering his father for transportation, since his father was also very tired.
On August 16th, the end of summer was approaching, and the earth’s energy was at its peak.
In a deep pit somewhere on the earth:
It was a vast space, with tens of thousands of grottoes embedded in the walls from the ground to the dome, each with a naked body inside. The bodies looked like sculptures, but also like living beings, except their eyes were tightly closed, as if they were in a long sleep.
Some of the bodies had human torsos, while others had demonic features on their faces.
Luminous runes were painted in front of each grotto, and the runes extended into chains that locked the naked bodies inside each sealed grotto.
Deep in this Cave of Ten Thousand Gods, the radiant light of the earth’s energy shone on the vast space, and the flowing energy of the earth’s veins supplied the nutrients needed to sustain these bodies, constantly and endlessly.
Where the veins of the earth converged, there was a huge pool, and the poolside was filled with blue glowing flowers.
A man appeared and walked towards the pool. The water in the veins of the earth turned into the shape of a human face, as if a huge black shadow was hidden in the pool, and the man spoke to the demon across the water.
“How’s the Exorcist Committee doing?” said the voice in the pool.
The man was in his thirties, wearing a white shirt, black trousers, and smart glasses.
“Everything is going smoothly,” the man said. “The committee has been bloated for many years, but after this election, it is no longer a problem. As long as we have enough patience, we can surely take it down with one blow.”
He held a black ball of light in his hand, like a tiny black hole. When the ball appeared, the bright light of the earth’s veins dimmed slightly, as if all light in this space had been sucked away by the black hole.
“Now our goal is to take down Cao Bin,” the man said. “Originally, Sky University’s defense was very tight, but this time, they recruited the wrong person, which gave us a breakthrough. Now, I need usable material.”
“Act cautiously. Our advantage now is in the shadows.” The mysterious voice in the pool made an eerie sound. “Be mindful of the heart lamp and don’t let them catch on.”
“I will be very careful,” the man said. “I request the use of some material.”
“Go ahead,” the voice said slowly. “As long as we take down Sky University, we will have more materials.”
The man looked up and gazed in the direction of the Cave of Ten Thousand Gods.
That day, there was a heavy rainstorm in Chongqing. When Jiang Hong left home in the morning, the rain was not heavy yet, so he took an umbrella and squeezed onto the subway. As he arrived at the school, the rain became heavier and the temperature slowly dropped.
After lunch, the playground began to flood. The training institution was located in a lower area, and the heavy rain poured from the sky to the ground. The students were already used to it, as every summer there were heavy rains in Chongqing, Wuhan, and other places.
By 4:00 p.m., the rain was getting heavier and accompanied by thunder. The sound of rain and thunder drowned out the teacher’s voice. Everyone could not hear what the teacher was saying and had to study on their own. The water outside the school gate was already knee-deep. Judging from the situation, it seemed that the rain would continue to pour down.
Jiang Hong’s father sent him a message: “I’ll come to pick you up tonight.”
Jiang Hong was a bit worried, but at 5:30 p.m., the company’s underground garage was flooded, and his father’s car was stuck in the water, so he had to go home by himself.
The school announced that students could skip evening self-study today, but the rain was so heavy that many students decided to study in the classroom until the rain subsided.
Jiang Hong no longer had the easy-going mentality he had when he was in school. He didn’t expect to have a day off tomorrow due to a rainstorm warning. After all, studying was his own responsibility, and if he couldn’t get into the school he wanted, a year would be wasted. Therefore, he didn’t want to take a break and was even more proactive in staying for evening self-study.
He re-did this year’s college entrance exam papers sent by the training institution, and began to check the answers, roughly knowing where he went wrong. It wasn’t until 9:00 p.m. that the rain finally stopped.
His family sent him a message asking about his situation, and Jiang Hong told them not to worry. His parents always trusted their son’s ability to handle problems and they had a good relationship based on mutual trust.
At 9:20 p.m., almost all the students had left. Jiang Hong finished checking the answers to the last question before packing up his bag and closing the classroom door to go home.
“Maybe I should ask my dad to come pick me up…”
When Jiang Hong walked out of school, he suddenly changed his mind.
The water outside the school was knee-deep, and it was pitch black all around. The streetlights flickered, and it was raining lightly. The dark water surface rippled, as if there were terrifying demons lurking underneath…
If he called his dad to pick him up, he would have to wait at least half an hour at school.
Jiang Hong looked back and found that all the lights in the school were out, and there was no one around.
“Ahhh– so scary!!”
Jiang Hong’s heart was in turmoil, but in the end, he gritted his teeth, took off his shoes, and started walking, thinking that he would be fine once he reached a place with more people.
He walked nervously on the road, feeling that there were ghosts in the water, ready to rush out of the dark surface and jump onto his shoulders at any moment.
After a day of continuous rain, the temperature dropped to around twenty degrees, and the wind blew in gusts, making Jiang Hong shiver all over.
“Is anyone there?” Jiang Hong waded forward and suddenly turned around. “Who? Who’s there?!”
Jiang Hong’s scalp tingled, and he took out the protective charm from his wallet and put it in his pocket, regardless of whether it would work or not.
After walking two blocks, Jiang Hong saw that the commercial street was near. With the lights ahead, he felt a little relieved. He bought a skewer of fried squid, asked the shop owner to cut it open, and put it in a paper bag to eat with bamboo sticks.
At ten o’clock, he finally arrived at the bus stop, his pants soaked.
Had the last bus already left? Jiang Hong looked at the sign for a while. The station was lit up, and he was the only one waiting for the bus.
Jiang Hong: “…”
Looking left and right, he felt a little nervous, so he put on his headphones, turned the music up to the maximum, and began to eat squid to relieve his tension.
Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C major started playing.
In the quiet late night, countless tentacles stretched out from the darkness behind the bus station’s ceiling and billboard, slowly reaching towards Jiang Hong.
Jiang Hong: “?”
With a squid tentacle in his mouth, Jiang Hong turned his head, and just as he spotted the tentacles, they all retracted.
Jiang Hong: “…”
Jiang Hong opened his eyes wide, scrutinizing everything in the dark night. After stopping his chewing for twenty seconds, he continued to eat.
The bus arrived, and Jiang Hong was grateful that he managed to catch the last one!
Jiang Hong quickly got on the bus, tapped his card, and found himself alone on the empty bus. The driver glanced at him without saying a word. Jiang Hong said, “Thank you so much for running this late. I really appreciate it.”
The driver remained silent and closed the door. Jiang Hong sat down in the bus, putting on his sneakers and taking a deep breath. He continued to eat his squid, relieved that he could finally go home.
The bus rolled over the water on the roadside, and raindrops covered the window. Several dark shadows stuck to the window, and Jiang Hong suddenly looked up, gazing outside the misty window.
It had been a long time since the last stop was announced.
“Excuse me,” Jiang Hong said, “is this bus number 368?”
“Yes,” the driver replied shortly.
“I’m heading to the Zhengda Garden,” Jiang Hong said.
The driver didn’t answer, and the bus plunged into darkness. The light outside gradually disappeared.
Only the white light from Jiang Hong’s phone illuminated his face. He played with his phone for a while and saw that the signal had dropped to two bars. He became increasingly uneasy.
Jiang Hong opened the window slightly and saw the bus driving along a dark riverbank, with the Yangtze River outside.
Jiang Hong: “…”
Bus number 368 wasn’t supposed to go this way. Where were they going?!
Jiang Hong exploded in anger and asked, “Driver, where are you going?”
“To Jialing River Bridge,” the driver calmly replied, turning the steering wheel.
“But I don’t need to cross the river! I need to go home! Isn’t this bus number 368?” Jiang Hong protested.
“Don’t worry…” The driver said slowly, “I’ll take you somewhere first…”
Jiang Hong quickly stood up and walked a few steps forward, holding onto the handrail. The bus lights shone into the darkness, and the road along the river was pitch black. Jiang Hong asked, “What, what, what…what are you doing? Driver?”
The driver turned his head, and Jiang Hong saw the most eerie and terrifying thing he had ever seen in his life. There was a pale, wet, monkey-like animal head attached to the driver’s collar!
Jiang Hong screamed in horror.