Chapter 3: Underground City
The coat covering Li Zhan subdued the glaring red, leaving only a soft camel color, serene and gentle.
Yu Fei stared at it blankly, as if he had lost his soul.
Tang Lin returned to Zhang Quan, asking him, “Still not willing to tell the truth?”
Zhang Quan, held by Fan Peiyang, seemed to have realized the power imbalance but maintained a defiant smirk, “Even if the murderer used their finger, why does it have to be me? Everyone has hands, and Yu Fei’s hands are still covered in blood!”
“They were pressing on wounds,” Zheng Luozhu retorted from a distance, “Don’t confuse the facts.”
Having fought with Yu Fei, he was growing more favorable towards him, and the more he looked at Zhang Quan, the less he seemed like a good person.
“Heh,” Zhang Quan said in a strange tone, “Maybe he was so eager to press on the wound to conceal the blood on his finger.”
Yu Fei turned his head slowly, his gaze sharp enough to cut, almost as if he could flay Zhang Quan alive. “Say that again.”
Zhang Quan swallowed hard.
Tang Lin shook his head. “Zhang Quan, I don’t need to look at Yu Fei. There are five of us in total, and the three of us couldn’t have committed the murder. So, it’s either you or Yu Fei. All we need to do is look at one of your hands.”
Zhang Quan sneered disdainfully. “There’s no blood on my hands.”
“You did clean your hands quite well…”
Tang Lin reached forward and grabbed Zhang Quan’s right wrist. Fan Peiyang loosened his grip at the right moment, allowing Tang Lin to lift that hand and display it to everyone.
“But you forgot to clean under your fingernails.”
Zhang Quan’s right hand remained unstained by blood, but there were faint traces of tissue and flesh embedded in the nail crevices of his index finger. These were remnants that inevitably clung to the hand of a murderer during the act.
“If you had hands covered in blood like Yu Fei, it would have been much more difficult to prove. Fortunately, you tried to be extra careful. Having blood on your hands wouldn’t be suspicious, but wiping it clean when there’s blood would make you look guilty.”
Zhang Quan fell silent, the expressions of resentment and indignation on his face disappeared, replaced by an odd sense of calm.
Zheng Luozhu was amazed at Tang Lin’s composure and acumen, but what puzzled him more was Zhang Quan. Why would he commit murder? He was just like the rest of them, a participant in the challenge.
“Okay, the screening is complete.”
Zhang Quan said in a relaxed tone, interrupting Zheng Luozhu’s thoughts.
Zheng Luozhu suddenly looked up and asked, “What screening?”
Zhang Quan ignored him and instead taunted Tang Lin with ease, “I didn’t expect you guys to be so efficient. I thought at least three or four people would have to die.”
Although he was still pressed against the elevator wall, Zhang Quan’s presence had changed dramatically, even his voice had undergone subtle variations.
Tang Lin frowned and was about to respond when someone else spoke up faster.
“Why did you kill people…?” Yu Fei clenched his military knife, the sound of his joints cracking as he tightened his grip. “Why did you kill Li Zhan——”
In the latter part of his sentence, his voice suddenly raised, his anger breaking through his composure, and he rushed forward.
He didn’t really want an answer; he just wanted Zhang Quan to pay with his life!
Yu Fei was too fast, giving no one a chance to react. He reached Zhang Quan in an instant.
His military blade dropped to the ground without warning, and Yu Fei was tightly entwined by a green vine that sprouted from the bottom of the elevator, rendering him immobile.
“Zhang Quan——” he shouted hoarsely.
The initiator, however, suddenly flashed away and managed to escape from the restraints of Fan Peiyang, jumping nimbly to safety.
Fan Peiyang was momentarily taken aback, the intense pain in his palm confirming Zhang Quan’s absolute strength when he broke free. Coupled with the vines currently restraining Yu Fei…
He turned to look at Zhang Quan, and it all became clear to him. “You have stationery.”
“He couldn’t possibly have stationery,” Zheng Luozhu exclaimed. “Before we entered the elevator, all of our stationery was removed.”
“I already mentioned earlier that I came here to screen all of you.”
Zhang Quan’s voice became serious, and with it, his face underwent a transformation.
In just a few seconds, he became a completely different stranger. Approximately thirty-five years old, with a lean face and a bit of stubble on his chin.
The situation was so eerie that it made one’s hair stand on end.
Zheng Luozhu blurted out, “What about Zhang Quan? Did you kill him?”
“No, it’s got nothing to do with me,” the stranger clarified. “I’m only responsible for you few. Zhang Quan was in the previous elevator; he died earlier.”
Zheng Luozhu remained silent for a moment. “Is this the test for this stage?”
The man shook his head. “You’re quite naive.”
Zheng Luozhu asked, “What do you mean?”
The man replied, “The real challenge hasn’t come yet. I’ve said it three times already; this is just a preliminary screening.”
Zheng Luozhu fell into complete silence.
The expressions of Fan Peiyang and Tang Lin also grew solemn.
Yu Fei had lost his sanity long ago and couldn’t hear what the man was saying. He was desperately trying to break free from the vines.
With things having reached this point, everything became clear. Without Zhang Quan, the only person who had been in the elevator with them from the beginning was this man. There was no issue of passing or failing a stage; they hadn’t even found the entrance to the stage.
Tang Lin stared at the man with the stubble for a while before raising his index finger. “Is this also stationery?”
“The vines and transformation are, and as for the finger,” the stubble man shrugged, “it’s an ability enhancement.”
Tang Lin asked, “An ability enhancement?”
The stubble man raised an eyebrow. “Wishes in the Wishing House, you know? Don’t tell me you wished for money there; if you did, you’ll be in trouble.”
He answered every question, almost too willingly. Fan Peiyang couldn’t help but be suspicious. “Why are you telling us all this?”
The stubble man sneered. “Because you pose no threat to me.”
The screen, which had already lost its images, dutifully emitted one final owl hoot.
The elevator came to a steady halt, and the dust settled.
“It’s time to say goodbye. Don’t hate me; I’m just completing my mission,” the stubble man retreated to the back of the elevator. “But if you really want revenge, you can come find me upstairs, as long as you’re still alive.”
The elevator doors slowly opened, and a damp, hot, and musty odor wafted in, accompanied by a faint scent of decay.
“Welcome to the underground city.”
The stubble man spread his arms wide and forcefully pushed the four of them.
The vines restraining Yu Fei were simultaneously released, catching the four off guard as they stumbled out of the elevator.
After Yu Fei was thrown out, he was the first to get up and frantically tried to run back. However, the elevator doors closed too quickly. He pounded on the doors, trying to retrieve his friend’s body, but the elevator was already slowly ascending.
Following him, Fan Peiyang, Tang Lin, and Zheng Luozhu stood up, gazing in astonishment at the scene before them.
An underground city, devoid of sunlight, illuminated only by dim lights. Haphazardly constructed buildings were shabby and dilapidated, some already reduced to ruins. The streets were crooked and narrow, dirty and chaotic, with an unclear path into the depths. Many people sat along the roadside, dressed in tattered clothes, emaciated and frail. Some hurriedly traversed the streets.
It was oppressive, crowded, and run-down.
A deafening noise from a massive machine emanated from the distance, accompanied by suffocating hot air.
However, even more suffocating was the fact that those people sitting by the roadside, those who appeared to have given up on life, whenever they bared their arms, one could see the owl pattern on them.
The patterns on the arms of Fan Peiyang, Tang Lin, and Zheng Luozhu were exactly the same.
“I’m sorry,” Fan Peiyang turned to look at Tang Lin. In the dim light, his emotions were hidden in the shadows, making it hard to discern.
Tang Lin was taken aback. “What’s wrong?”
“I shouldn’t have pulled you into this.”
One month ago, in a private hospital in Beijing.
Tang Lin sat on the hospital bed, seriously peeling an apple, the skin continuously coming off.
He had lost weight again recently, and his hospital gown hung loosely on him.
Dan Yunsong sat by the bedside, quietly watching as Tang Lin finished peeling the apple. When Tang Lin was done, he handed over the knife and the fruit platter.
“What has President Fan been busy with recently?” Tang Lin took a casual bite of the apple and asked.
Dan Yunsong shook his head. “I’m not quite sure.”
Tang Lin reminded him, somewhat exasperated, “Mr. Dan, you’re his assistant.”
Dan Yunsong corrected himself respectfully, “Mr. Tang, I am your assistant now.”
That made him even more suspicious. Dan Yunsong had been with him and Fan Peiyang since the founding of the company and had been Fan Peiyang’s most trusted assistant over the years. Unless President Fan was on an extended vacation, there was no reason for Dan Yunsong to spend so much time in the hospital with him. Fan Peiyang wasn’t someone who blurred the lines between personal and professional matters.
“Assistant Dan,” Tang Lin set down the apple and smiled gently, “The doctor says I have at most three years left.”
Dan Yunsong was taken aback, unsure of how to respond.
Tang Lin just looked at him in silence.
From those bright eyes, Dan Yunsong read an accusation of “deceiving a patient is shameful.”
“President Tang…” Caught between two bosses, Dan Yunsong was truly perplexed.
Sunlight streamed into the hospital room but couldn’t dispel the sense of desolation, mingling with the scent of disinfectant.
The location of the brain tumor was unfavorable, making surgery impossible. From the moment the verdict of fate was handed down, Tang Lin had already come to terms with it.
Accepting reality wasn’t as difficult as it seemed, or perhaps, understanding that some things were beyond one’s control could lead to a more laid-back approach.
But he’s given up, while Fan Peiyang hasn’t. Every time he visits, he can feel that the other party’s condition deteriorating. Those once cold eyes, which used to occasionally smile, now seem like a barren wasteland.
Tang Lin had accepted his fate, but Fan Peiyang should live well.
“In the past few months, President Fan has indeed been absent from the company frequently,” Dan Yunsong surrendered, ultimately siding with President Tang, “but I really don’t know what he’s been busy with.”
“You can ask him,” Tang Lin smiled encouragingly.
Dan Yunsong pleaded, “President Tang, President Fan can freeze me in place with just one glance.”
Tang Lin raised an eyebrow with a serious tone, “You’re afraid of him, but not me?”
His appearance was not at all fierce, but Dan Yunsong immediately forced a bitter smile.
Tang Lin blinked and looked at Dan Yunsong for a moment, with a hint of doubt in his eyebrows. “Recently… you seem to really be afraid of me.”
Tang Lin considered himself to have good interpersonal relationships at the company, always wearing a friendly smile. Especially when compared to Fan Peiyang, he appeared warm and approachable. Most ordinary employees were not afraid of him, let alone someone like Dan Yunsong.
After a brief moment of eye contact, Dan Yunsong realized that trying to deceive Tang Lin was futile; he was too perceptive.
With a deep sigh, Dan Yunsong decided to be honest. After all, he was already on Tang Lin’s side, and there was no harm in sharing this final piece of information.
“I used to think that you loved to smile and had a good temper. You and President Fan were like yin and yang, perfectly complementing each other…”
“I even wondered why President Fan, whose name sounds warm and cozy, was actually quite cold, while President Tang, whose name sounds cold, was actually very warm…”
“But?” Tang Lin became even more curious about what would come next.
Dan Yunsong smiled gently.
“But it’s only recently, after spending more time around you, that I’ve realized you can be quite reserved…”
The smile on his face faded, replaced by seriousness and admiration in his eyes. “A company’s CEO can’t always be unwelcoming. While President Fan acts according to his will, you just have to warm up a bit, balance the cold and warmth, the tension and relaxation, in order to win over the hearts of the people below.”
The hospital room fell silent.
For a long time afterward, Tang Lin didn’t speak.
Until a cloud drifted across the window, blocking out the sunlight.
Dan Yunsong listened to Tang Lin said: “Let’s sneak out and watch a midnight show.”
Midnight, 2:40 AM
Dan Yunsong looked around like a thief, making sure there were no nurses on duty. Then he quickly pushed Tang Lin’s wheelchair back to the ward.
A movie lasted for two hours, but going back and forth like this, Dan Yunsong felt more exhausted than if he had been in a battle. Being a secret agent was really not something anyone could do.
Tang Lin was already incredibly tired, he yawned repeatedly.
Dan Yunsong carried him back to the bed, unable to scold him about how watching a midnight show would affect his rest. They had already finished watching it, and he was an accomplice in this. Besides, even President Fan couldn’t persuade him, so he had long turned a blind eye to it.
Tang Lin was exhausted, barely able to keep his eyes open. He knew that Dan Yunsong had covered him with a blanket as he heard the sound of the other person leaving. Perhaps he was worried and wanted to find a nurse to check on him, or maybe he had other things to do. Tang Lin couldn’t think any further; his consciousness was hazy, like a piece of driftwood, drifting with the current in the sea.
Strange cries echoed from an unknown distant place, eerie and tinged with desolation.
Tang Lin suddenly felt a tremendous force pulling him into a vortex. The painful sensation of weightlessness violently assaulted his body. He struggled with all his might, trying to escape this nightmare, but he was drawn even faster and deeper into the vortex.
Finally, the sensation of weightlessness slowly subsided.
Tang Lin tried hard to open his eyes, but everything remained blurry.
In the haze, he seemed to see… Fan Peiyang?
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