Chapter IX: On the River of the Dead

Điền Quý cleared his throat:

“Believe it or not, I’m also running away from home to escape an arranged marriage. As for why I’m going to Province A, I’m acting under orders from above. They said the reason why Nam’s–that’s the tào phớ seller’s name–entire clan died unexpectedly could be an object that belongs to the Yin Realm, so I was tasked to investigate the matter.”

Phượng Ngân stared at him with widened eyes:

“I know there’s that saying ‘the hero’s always late,’ but seriously?! Are you all kidding me right now?! You’re twenty years late! That’s unacceptable! Why didn’t you wait until the monster had taken a couple more hundreds lives or bred a few more generations before setting out to intervene, then?”

The young man snapped:

“Unacceptable?! We were just out of wartime! Have you any idea how much work needed to be done?! Were we just supposed to not take care of the spirits of our deceased soldiers?! And how many of them died because of bombs? They didn’t even have bodies left for a proper burial! And what about those who belonged to the other side? They died here, but their souls need to be processed according to their gods and customs. And they could have fallen in the jungle, too, could they not? What if their corpses are not found, and they turned into Ma Rừng? What then?! Or, what if a bomb accidentally unearthed an ancient tomb, and whatever the hell in there had gotten out? Were we supposed to ignore those, too?!”

Only after pouring all these out did Điền Quý finally seem to calm down. Feeling he had been rude just now, he softened his voice:

“Never mind, you’re not an active practitioner, so you not knowing all these is understandable. Let’s focus on the tomb at hand first.

The Ghost King’s Tomb was built during the Fall of the Nguyễn Dynasty, and the Nguyễn Kings were descendants of the Nguyễn Lords, who had a long-standing feud with the Trịnh Lords.

None of the construction workers were Trịnh or even Trịnh’s descendants who had changed their last names. When the tomb was finished, the chief constructor left the instructions that all Trịnhs were banned from entering. Even when the location of the grave was lost, that rule was followed. In past years, lots of people have gone seeking the tomb, but none of them had been a Trịnh.”

Điền Quý was tasked with the investigation, so naturally, his ticket was supposed to have the same destination as Phượng Ngân’s. He had also known the sixteen-word instruction from the beginning.

“You rascal! You took me to the Six-feet-under Stall as a warning! Was the train stopping here also your doing?”

Only now did Phượng Ngân finally understand why as soon as Điền Quý stepped down from the train, he was like a fish released back into the water. As it turned out, he had known everything from the start. Taking her to the underground stall was simply his way of giving her a knock on the head.

Điền Quý said:

“Not entirely. The water stand lady didn’t know everything about the tomb, so we had to stay here to gather more intel. It wasn’t until the night before when she had a spirit reported to me telling me about Nam becoming a Corpse Retriever to save his own life that I knew that last bit.”

“But why did you keep helping after she warned you against it?”

“Two reasons. First, my impression of you is that you’re not someone with bad intentions. Second, in hindsight, what if the reason no one who went seeking the Ghost King’s Tomb had been able to locate it had been because none of them were a Trịnh?”

“Hmm, don’t you find it strange, though? How did she even know my last name was Trịnh in the first place?”

“The ghosts from the train station side told her. When you bought your ticket, you had to give them personal information, no?”

After coming clean with each other, the air of attention between the two of them eased up considerably. Since the moment Phượng Ngân knew Điền Quý also left home to run away from an arranged marriage, she had started to sympathize with him.

Điền Quý then said:

“Our supervisor will come in a couple of days; we should probably take care of the thần trùng in the meantime. Only after we retrieve Nam’s missing hun and po will ‘the mute’ be able to ‘open up.’”

Phượng Ngân replied:

“I’m all for it, but first, what is a thần trùng? Is it the same as a quỷ trùng tang?”

“Yup, that’s the one.”

He nodded and started explaining:

“Thần trùng is a type of demon. It looks like a bird with a human face, with its beak and feathers as red as blood. It captures the souls of the newly deceased and tortures them for their relatives’ eight-lettered birthtime, so it can catch them as well, creating a chain of death in the process. They call households with multiple deaths within a month ‘trùng tang’ (overlapping funerals).”

This type of information is spread by word of mouth; even non-practitioners like Phượng Ngân can find out on her own if she tried looking hard enough. Still, she remained quiet and didn’t interrupt him because she understood he was only explaining them for her benefit.

He paused for a bit, then continued when she didn’t ask anything:

“As for the origin of this monster, our scholars have been arguing their theories for ages. Some believe it came from China, in a sealed box. Some say it’s a descendant of a Hell General called Quận Cú (Owl Duke), or more specifically, his yin tongue that was chopped off. Regardless of the theories, they all agree it’s not easy to deal with.

Firstly, they are invisible to normal Yin Yang eyes[1]The third eye that allows humans to see the spiritual realm., so it’s impossible to tell how many of them are still in existence, or even if any of them still exist or have all been extinct. That’s why the white dog from yesterday was caught by surprise.

Secondly, the more lives a thần trùng has harmed, the stronger its soul-catching prowess gets. The one we’re after has captured Nam’s entire clan of over a hundred total at the same time. From that, we can guess how powerful it is.”

Hearing all this was enough to give Phượng Ngân a headache.

How to deal with an invisible enemy whose specialty is capturing souls?

She took a deep breath, then said:

“Let’s talk about how to beat it later, but first, how can you be sure this thần trùng is still in this town?”

“Thần trùng is a persistent hunter. It’s marked Nam as its prey, so it won’t stop until it has its target. Not to mention, its soul-capturing technique is not exactly perfect. If a thần trùng only has parts of the souls in its body, it’d feel like it’s swallowed coal. Had it been you, could you take it?”

Phượng Ngân said “ah,” then suddenly recalled what happened yesterday. After she was done playing Tam Cúc, the voice from the unplugged radio had threatened her. Yet when she searched the area with her Yin Yang Eye, she had spotted no enemies in sight. That had struck her at odd at the time. After hearing what Điền Quý had just told her, she suspected the voice from the radio was very likely to be the thần trùng.

Which meant the creature probably was aware of her investigation into Nam’s clansmen’s deaths.

She immediately looped Điền Quý in on this.

***

That night, he took her to see the white dog again under the bridge. However, they weren’t there simply to talk like last time, but rather to take a raft down the river. Corpse Retriever was a unique occupation, so naturally, they used a specialized kind of ship. In the Realms of Yin and Yang, there are places only reachable on this type of sampan.

Phượng Ngân asked the dog why it didn’t report the whole thần trùng issue so that Điền Quý’s superior would send someone to deal with it sooner. The white dog was stunned for a while before answering with a laugh:

“Quý must not have explained everything clearly to you. Corpse Retriever is a unique profession, not really under anyone’s management. So, for the matter to be resolved on a priority basis, Nam must stand as a witness. Otherwise, they won’t send anyone until there’s enough evidence.”

“But… Nam can’t talk, can he?”

“That’s the whole issue. Besides, Quý is my bro, so naturally, I’ll help him in whatever way I can, but had it been someone else, well, I ain’t taking orders from anyone. But enough about that, you’d better get ready to go! It’s not every day you can get a trip to that particular place.”

The Corpse Retrievers’ ships were made from coffin wood. After years of being soaked in water, the outside looked rotten. Yet, when they stepped into one, it was strangely stable. Their ferryman today was half-human, the other half water spider[2]To be precise, the animal in this context, gọng vó, is more similar to Water Striders than Water Spiders. But in Vietnamese, the term is used interchangeable with that for water spiders (nhện … Continue reading. He waited patiently for the two of them to sit firmly inside the boat before sticking his lanky legs down in the river and using them as push poles, steering the ship down along the current.

Phượng Ngân had somewhat gotten used to the arms sticking out of the riverbanks, but that hadn’t been the worst to be seen. Occasionally, there would be air bubbles rising to the surface from the depth of the water, with human faces inside them–screaming or crying. At times, their boats went past boulders or tiny islands. On these, there were humans–their lower halves merged to the rock and dirt, their upper halves were flailing about the water or trying to grab hold of the sampan. The Water Spider acted as though he didn’t see these humans and kept pushing the ship forward. Though, as if worried his two passengers weren’t used to the tragic scene, he went on to explain:

“They are not real humans, merely illusions and reflections at the surface of souls who are trapped underwater–unable to move on. The only way to actually save them is to find their corpses and fish them out of the water.”

“Can you do it?”

Phượng Ngân asked. Looking at these poor souls – young and old, male and female – wailing in despair made her heart go out to them.

“I’m still a newbie, miss. I have to ferry passengers until I know my way around these parts before I can become a full-fledge Corpse Retriever.”

The Water Spider replied apologetically.

After some talking, Phượng Ngân could tell the Water Spider was a bit shy and introverted, quite the contrast to his scary appearance.

Finding him easy to talk to, Phượng Ngân took advantage of the situation and struck up a conversation, both for something to chase the boredom away and to learn more about the Realm of the Dead. Điền Quý, on the other hand, crossed his legs and slept soundly.

The Water Spider said:

“I’ve been to the place where you two are going a few times. You must remember to be careful, miss.”

Hearing that, Phượng Ngân recalled something from earlier…

When the white dog had asked about their destination, Điền Quý simply said he wanted to take her to eat some bánh trôi. But, as soon as he said that, the white dog – usually known for being the aggressive and fearless boss of the Corpse Retrievers of Province A – suddenly became apprehensively wary.

What was so special about a bowl of bánh trôi?

Was it just some sort of slang, or was there something else going on?

Notes:

Notes:
1 The third eye that allows humans to see the spiritual realm.
2 To be precise, the animal in this context, gọng vó, is more similar to Water Striders than Water Spiders. But in Vietnamese, the term is used interchangeable with that for water spiders (nhện nước).

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