Chapter VIII: The Corpse Retriever

Phượng Ngân cleared her throat:

“How about I come back when you two are done bickering then?”

The white dog smiled sheepishly and said in a pacifying tone:

“My apology. Though it is his fault for talking in such a provoking manner.”

Ngân shrugged, neither agreed nor disagreed with his statement.

He then continued:

“A Corpse Retriever is simply one who fishes bodies of the drowned to give back to their family for a proper burial.”

Phượng Ngân asked:

“In this modern age, there are all kinds of ships and equipment, and dead bodies float, so why would such a thing need manual labor?”

“Have you ever heard of the saying ‘on lands, there are local gods, down in rivers, there are water deities[1]Đất có thổ công, sông có hà bá: Vietnamese Proverb, meaning there are rules and someone in charge no matter where you go.?’ There are ghosts and demons everywhere. Sometimes, corpses are held captive by underwater demons to practice black magic. Whenever that’s the case, a Corpse Retriever is necessary to reclaim the corpse.”

 The dog paused for a moment and sighed:

“With all the floods in recent years, the number of drowned people that were never found isn’t exactly low, is it? I mean, just look at the river banks; all those arms you see belong to Ma Da[2]type of spirits born from corpses lost to bodies of water, as mentioned in an earlier post, the drowned souls whose corpses were never found.”

Phượng Ngân forced herself not to look out at the riversides full of outstretched arms.

Meanwhile, Điền Quý asked:

“When he came to apply for the position, did he say who recommended him?”

While the existence of a Corpse Retriever wasn’t an earth-shattering secret or anything, there was still a due process to it all. Here, for example, the White Dog would send out the Lynx (linh miêu) to recruit a new candidate; otherwise, an old Corpse Retriever, when seeking retirement, could recommend a replacement. But, from the dog’s tone, it didn’t seem like the tào phớ seller was recruited nor recommended but instead was seeking refuge in the position itself.

The dog grinned:

“For future reference, you can stop beating around the bushes. We’ve been bros for what, over ten years now? If you want to know, just ask, and I’ll tell you.”

He said and handed over the bottle of wine as if to say Điền Quý must drink as punishment.

Only after he took a swig of rice wine did the dog laugh and continue:

“It’s true, though, at the time, I had no idea how he even found this place. But he did, and he was kneeling and begging me to take him in as a Corpse Retriever. He said if I didn’t, he’d end up dead within two days. F***, man, I didn’t believe him at first, either, ya know? I told him to hide here and let me see what kind of demons would be so daring.”

He paused, perhaps angered by the memory, yanked the bottle from Quý, and took a swig. After exhaling in satisfaction, he continued:

“Goddammit, Goddammit all, I tell ya! As it turned out, the kid was being hunted by a thần trùng[3]Thần Trùng (also known as Quỷ Trùng Tang, lit: demon of repetitive/chain funerals): Type of demon believed to be responsible for multiple deaths in a family in a short time span. More … Continue reading. Like damn, man, I’d thought that breed was extinct; that’s why I didn’t take precautions. By the time I realized the severity of the situation, a hun and a po of the kid were already taken, so I immediately made him a Corpse Retriever. Only because of that was he safe from that demon. But the cursed creature hasn’t given up, either. I can still smell him lurking nearby. And it’s because of the missing soul and spirit that the kid can’t utter a sound anymore.”

Upon hearing it was a “thần trùng,” Điền Quý winced like he was biting down on a soapnut. He muttered:

“Of f***ing course it’s a thần trùng. This is not good, not good at all!”

***

After the meal, both Điền Quý and the white dog combined couldn’t hold their liquor against Phượng Ngân and ended up drunk. After saying goodbyes to the dog and promised to come back some other time, she half-dragged Điền Quý out from under the bridge.

Following the linh miêu’s lead, they walked along the riverbank. When the stench dissipated, Hương Rừng Inn entrance was ahead of them. As she turned around to look back, neither the riverbanks full of arms nor the Lynx was anywhere in sight. Seeing that it was late at night and Điền Quý was too drunk to answer any of her questions, they parted ways, each returned to their own rooms.

“The mute opens up? Does that just mean I need to find the missing hun and po of the tào phớ seller to know what to do next? Or is there anything else to it?”

Ngân’s gaze seemed to be burning holes into the ceiling. Seeing some fireflies caught in a spiderweb at a corner of the wall, she crunched up a ball of paper and threw it at the web to free them.

Perhaps, Phượng Ngân felt as if–on this journey to the Ghost King’s Tomb–she herself was a firefly caught in a spiderweb that she sympathized with them.

Morning eventually came.

Điền Quý came to her room:

“Sorry about being drunk last night. Hope I wasn’t too much of a bother.”

Phượng Ngân continued combing her hair while saying:

“Let’s see if you’d still dare to underestimate us women’s alcohol tolerance?”

He sighed:

“Anyway, I’m looking for you because there’s an update.”

“Regarding the fight with Ma Rừng the other night?”

“Yup. While we’re still able to reason with their King, my superior requested someone to be sent to ‘assist’ me.”

At that, Điền Quý paused and shrugged:

“So, if you don’t want to be supervised, running away now is still an option.”

Phượng Ngân fell silent.

The way she saw it, she could protect herself with no problem, but the spiritual realm was as slippery as a catfish. Without specific methods, she could spend her whole life and still wouldn’t be able to sniff out any clue.

It made sense, though. If raw power was all it took to unveil all the secrets, then–with all its advanced technology–why hadn’t the scientific world discovered the metaphysical realm?

Which meant, if she wanted to find the Ghost King’s Tomb, her best bet was to stick with Điền Quý.

Making up her mind, she told him:

“Alright. Then before your supervisor arrives, shall we plan out our strategy moving forward?”

“You mean?”

“I mean, let’s take advantage of the time we have left–before some outsider arrives–to put everything on the table. Firstly, it makes it easier to trust each other. Secondly, if something was to happen, it’d be easier to improvise.

And don’t you dare ‘there are things you’d better not know’ me. I absolutely hate that kind of detail in novels, only explaining things clearly when trouble arises. If we do that in real life, there’d be no time to improvise, and we’d be dead.”

Điền Quý chuckled at that:

“To be fair, authors have to make a living, too! If they explain everything from the get-go, how are they to keep the readers’ attention? But yeah, honestly speaking, I hate those, too.”

And so, the two of them sat down to talk about everything they know regarding the Ghost King’s Tomb.

Phượng Ngân started:

“I’m a teacher–wasn’t lying about that. But I’m not seeking this tomb for the treasures in it. The truth is, for whatever reasons, my parents suddenly had me betrothed to a dead man and hid everything from me.

It was only recently–when I was teaching at school–that a distant cousin, once removed, who had been away all this time, came to tell me that I have to go to the town with the bastard’s grave. So, that’s what I’m trying to do, unearth the damn bastard and make him call off the wedding.”

Điền Quý suddenly asked:

“The sixteen-word instruction was also from him?”

“Yeah, is there a problem with that?”

“I suspect–just suspecting here–whatever you met that day wasn’t human.”

Phượng Ngân replied:

“After meeting the two hungry ghosts at the station and the trip to the Six-feet-under Stall, I suspected as much. There must be some sort of reason why Trịnhs aren’t allowed in the Ghost King’s Tomb, yet whatever I met at school that day seemed determined to break that code.”

“Knowing all that, and you still want to move forward?”

“I can’t just give up midway.”

Phượng Ngân shrugged. Then, as if realizing she’d picked up Điền Quý’s habit, she felt unnatural for a moment.

Clearing her throat, she continued:

“Think about it, though. Aside from this mysterious Ghost King, is there anyone else who would need to be all secretive about marrying someone like that?”

Điền Quý seemed to have grasped the general situation. He sighed and said:

“I’ll admit you’re stronger than most people I’ve met, but what about compared to your own father? If he was indeed threatened by someone to marry you off to him, is there really a point barging to find him on your own like this?”

“You think I don’t understand that?” Phượng Ngân lowered her head and said depressly.

But then, she raised her head and stared straight at Điền Quý with determination and resolute in her eyes:

“But what do you expect me to do? Obediently wait for the day I get carried down into a tomb? Or go on the offense now while there’s still time? If something terrible was to happen, I could just say I didn’t think this through, and my parents would be safe.”

Not to mention, dying on one’s feet is a much better death than taking it lying down. But that was such an obvious thing that Phượng Ngân knew Điền Quý would understand without her having to waste time explaining so.

He sat up, his eyes sizing her with a different attitude.

Initially, he’d thought she was simply acting out of spite against her parents. But behind what seemed to be rash actions had been careful contemplations.

It seemed he had underestimated Phượng Ngân.

Điền Quý shrugged:

“Well, my turn now, I suppose? Let’s see now; guess I should start with why I’ve been so enthusiastic about helping you.”

Notes:

Notes:
1 Đất có thổ công, sông có hà bá: Vietnamese Proverb, meaning there are rules and someone in charge no matter where you go.
2 type of spirits born from corpses lost to bodies of water, as mentioned in an earlier post
3 Thần Trùng (also known as Quỷ Trùng Tang, lit: demon of repetitive/chain funerals): Type of demon believed to be responsible for multiple deaths in a family in a short time span. More information can be read HERE.

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