The next morning, they cautiously approached the burial mound.
Duan Qingze and Liu Qingge circled the low structure, in a slowly tightening spiral. Shen Qingqiu, waiting with the others, pushed his subtle senses out as well, but detected nothing. No living beings, no demonic qi, no tell-tale blank space where something was keeping itself hidden.
"Well, there is a track here," Duan Qingze said when they returned. "Not as well trodden as the cart path; looks like just occasional foot traffic. It's nearly hidden by the spring growth. It definitely hasn't been used recently."
"There's no hole for ventilation at the top," Liu Qingge said. "For air, or smoke."
"So, probably no one is living there," Yue Qingyuan said thoughtfully. "Hmm. Alright, let's make a plan for entry."
Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge took point. Qi Qingqi, with her spirit bow, and Shen Qingqiu, with his fan-thrown energy darts, were their backup. Shang Qinghua, Duan Qingze, Ruan Qingruan and Mu Qingfang paired off, and were arranged around the tumulus in case of a hidden second entrance.
Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge cautiously approached the front of the structure. Like the doors of the village houses, it was really just a big platform of wood, held in place by gravity and a door bar rather than hinges.
"The wood of this door is old, but it looks like it's been broken and repaired," Yue Qingyuan said thoughtfully. "I can see where less weathered areas are exposed."
"Not a lot of wood around here," Liu Qingge observed. "They may have broken in, then fixed the door to secure the mound. It was probably buried, too, at one point. These little mounds around the entrance are grown over, but they might be left over from digging it out."
Yue Qingyuan nodded, and the two of them lifted the door away. Nothing came leaping out at them, which was a good sign.
They waited a moment more, then Yue Qingyuan gestured to Shen Qingqiu, eyes still fixed on the doorway. "Qingqiu-shidi, a flare charm, please?" One of Shen Qingqiu's charms floated past, into the dark entry way. It stopped not far inside.
"Either very small, or there's a wall there to keep archers from getting a clear shot."
"I hate when they do that," Qi Qingqi said flatly.
Yue Qingyuan nodded and thought. "It looks like there's a narrower passage, leading directly to the right. I don't want to knock down the wall before knowing what we're dealing with. It could be supporting the ceiling." He nodded to Liu Qingge and they both uncovered the nightpearl lanterns hung from their belts. "Alright; watch for traps."
Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. "I could put a strong featherlight charm on both of you, so you won't have to use your own energy."
"Oh, pressure plates. Sure."
Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge disappeared into the darkness, short swords ready. Shen Qingqiu waited, pushing his cultivation-enhanced hearing to its limits. He couldn't hear the creak of old booby traps, or the more organic noises which would mean fierce corpses were moving. He could barely hear their footsteps, actually. He may have made those featherlight charms a little strong. Qi Qingqi moved over a few steps to give him a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder.
It wasn't long before the two cultivators emerged, looking both relieved and perplexed. Their steps were heavier coming out; they must have cancelled the featherlight charms.
"It isn't a large structure," Yue Qingyuan said. "Keyhole shaped, with only one room."
"And there's nothing there," Liu Qingge grumbled. "All that build-up, for nothing."
"Maybe one of us will turn up something," Yue Qingyuan placated him. "We all have different skill sets, after all."
"Me first," Qi Qingqi declared. Since she was a stronger fighter than Shen Qingqiu, that was a given anyway. She disappeared into the structure, followed by Liu Qingge for backup. Yue Qingyuan waved the others in--they, too, had been using their cultivator's hearing to listen in, so there was no need to repeat their findings.
Qi Qingqi reemerged, and Shen Qingqiu entered, led by Yue Qingyuan.
Shen Qingqiu didn't rely on his nightpearl lantern; instead he flicked a strong flare charm into the center of the main chamber. It illuminated the small room, as bright as daylight. No Resident Evil jump scares for him, thank you. It was, as Yue Qingyuan had said, shaped like a keyhole; the entrance was a dozen paces long, with a brief detour around the blockading wall. The floor was earth, not stone.
Shen Qingqiu looked around, understanding why the three who'd already been inside looked so baffled. There was nothing. No coffin, or even a space where one had rotted. No bones, no ashes, no ceramic or metal vessels, no platform where they might once have been displayed. No animal droppings. The walls were stacked stone, spotted with flat and patchy fungus, and the 'roof' was old timber, covered with turf. Not a home, not a grave...
"Maybe... it would have been a grave, but they just... didn't use it?" he said, baffled.
"It's very strange," Yue Qingyuan concurred.
Shen Qingqiu looked around a little more, even poking Xiu Ya into the floor--he could see where either Yue Qingyuan or Liu Qingge had done the same, looking for a hidden chamber--but there was just nothing to examine. The two of them left, Shen Qingqiu in front and Yue Qingyuan in the rear, to make room for the next pair. There really wasn't enough room for more than two or three people.
Shen Qingqiu kept an eye on Shang Qinghua, but the Proud Immortal Demon Way author looked just as baffled as the rest of them.
After everyone had been equally confused by the strange structure, they gathered outside to discuss their next moves.
"Well, that's one more place where the villagers aren't."
"It would be nice to find them alive, but it would also be nice to find them at all, at this point," Shen Qingqiu grumbled. His voice had a familiar thread of querlous irritation, which in past years would have led to him snapping at anyone around him.
Now, Yue Qingyuan touched his shoulder, and said, "We're just methodically eliminating the possibilities. It will take time, but we'll solve it eventually." That was apparently enough to soothe Shen Qingqiu's vexation; he simply settled back with a discontented expression instead of making sharp remarks.
Yue Qingyuan looked up at the sky for a moment, then around at the horizon, stretching for li in every direction. "Well. Liu-shidi, Duan-shidi, could you see if this track leads anywhere but the village? From what's left of it."
Liu Qingge nodded. "I can do that. If--" He looked at Duan Qingze. "Your birds--"
"I'll call them in, sure. They can see if there's a track visible from the air."
"We should also see if there are more of these mounds."
Duan Qingze nodded. "They can really only focus on one task at once. I'll get them started, though, if you'll begin with any trails nearby."
"I'll look at the door," Qi Qingqi volunteered. "We may be able to tell from the breakage if someone broke in, or something broke out."
Shang Qinghua shivered. "Qi-shimei has a way with words. If I ever write a mystery novel, I'll quote you."
While Liu Qingge and Duan Qingze worked, the others waited, settling down a short distance away from the mound. Liu Qingge returned first, by sword. The track back to the village, though already faded, was still just barely visible. But if there had been any other paths leading away from the mound, they hadn't left a lasting imprint.
Shen Qingqiu had made a sketch of the structure and its simple layout, more as something to do than with any hope it would be helpful. "There was no damage to the walls of that little corridor," he said, pointing to the straight part of the 'keyhole.' "No sign that something large was carried out, anyway."
"No soot from torch smoke," Liu Qingge noted. "Villagers wouldn't have night pearls."
Shen Qingqiu nodded approval. "Well observed." He began to make a list of what they knew--mostly, what wasn't there.
Liu Qingge blinked at him. "No footprints, either," he said experimentally. "If they came in when it was snowy, the snow on their shoes would melt, and it would show on the dirt floor."
Shen Qingqiu made a pleased noise and marked that down as well. They sat together silently for a bit, Shen Qingqiu working and Liu Qingge thinking.
"We were almost floating, with that featherlight charm," Liu Qingge said. "Do you think you really could float people? Without a sword?"
Shen Qingqiu nodded. "I'll need to build up my qi reserves a little more. It's theoretically possible to make someone lighter than air. You can certainly make them light enough to run on water." Shen Qingqiu tapped his drawing. "What if--that blank wall is concealing the entrance to another chamber?"
Liu Qingge looked at Shen Qingqiu's sketch. He'd also made a cut-away diagram of how they thought the structure was built; stacked stone, piled with turf, then allowed to grow over. "It would have to be pretty small. There's no support structure in there, no way to keep a larger chamber from collapsing."
Duan Qingze brought his birds in long before nightfall; he said they needed a rest. The group returned to their camp and he settled the eagles in the largest tree near their encampment, with a wide basin of water. Shen Qingqiu watched, from a distance, as he fed them pieces of meat from a long metal skewer.
"Have you ever wanted a spirit beast yourself?" Yue Qingyuan asked, seeing the direction of Shen Qingqiu's attention.
Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "Not really. Too much upkeep, and you can't skip a day if you're busy." He waved a hand. "I'm more interested in them from a theoretical standpoint. But they are helpful, with an expert handler."
Neither Mu Qingfang nor Ruan Qingruan had specialties which would apply to solving this particular mystery. While the others speculated about what the empty chamber could mean, they sat to the side and watched the discussion like it was a spectator sport.
"Alright," Yue Qingyuan began. "Ideas?"
"From the way the turf covering has grown together, it seems clear that the structure predates the village. Certainly by decades, and perhaps by hundreds of years."
"Ancient people used to try to build walls around the rifts," Liu Qingge suggested. "Could it be left over from that? Maybe they had a long-lasting fissure, and put up that little mound to contain it. If they were worried about flying creatures, that would explain the closed ceiling."
"That's possible. But why leave a door, then?"
"Harvesting hides and teeth," Duan Qingze said promptly. "Or, no... then they wouldn't have built the baffling wall. Easier to open the door and loose arrows, or throw a smoke bomb."
Qi Qingqi leaned back and stared at the sky. "I know larger burial chambers have simple mazes in the entrance; could the wall be a smaller version of that? Meant to confuse unquiet ghosts, I mean."
"It's possible," Shen Qingqiu acknowledged. "Not necessarily because it would work, but because smaller tombs were often built to mimic grander ones. If so, it's been very thoroughly looted."
"Mm. What if... it was an object interred?" Duan Qingze suggested. "They often did that with cursed objects, didn't they?"
"Oh, and they'd leave offerings, as well, to propitiate any wicked spirit," Qi Qingqi said with interest. "We did speculate that it was opened for looting. If everything was small enough to carry out, it wouldn't leave marks on the walls."
"But how did they find everything, then?" Liu Qingge argued. "There wasn't so much as a loose bead in there. Without torches--"
"Mm," Yue Qingyuan nodded. "The ceiling and walls were so rough that a little smoke wouldn't be visible. But if they spent enough time there to get every fragment, we'd definitely see signs."
"Maybe they could... see in the dark?" Duan Qingze suggested delicately. There was a beat of silence. "There are stories of whole villages of demons, living quietly as humans."
Shen Qingqiu nodded thoughtfully. "True. But they'd have no reason to hide their demonic qi, amongst themselves. And I didn't pick up even a hint of it. Would it have dissipated, since the spring thaw?"
Duan Qingze frowned in calculation. "Call it half a year... It's tough to say. It would probably depend on their bloodline, and how and how often they used qi. And then, there's the missing animals."
"No birds, no mice... we should check for insects, too."
"I didn't see any. No old nests, either. That's honestly the strangest thing to me, even aside from the missing villagers," Duan Qingze agreed.
Qi Qingqi had been following her own train of thought. "Maybe whatever was in the central room was glowing," she suggested. "No need for torches if it provided its own light." The others turned to her.
"An artifact? That might explain it. Something difficult to manage, but kept in case it was needed."
"An artifact wouldn't leave traces of qi, either."
Shang Qinghua cleared his throat. "Maybe something was imprisoned there?" he suggested. Shen Qingqiu gave him a thoughtful look.
"Good thought." Yue Qingyuan turned to Duan Qingze. "Is that possible, Duan-shidi?"
"Not a spirit beast--demonic creatures don't age past adulthood, but they can starve. Maybe a purely spiritual creature? That's not my area. Shen-shixiong?"
"Purely spirit-based beings don't starve," Shen Qingqiu answered, voice thoughtful. "They just go into hibernation. That has led to problems before, when humans encounter their sleeping places. Usually it's a natural hiding spot, not something deliberately constructed like this."
"Maybe that's why the villagers picked this spot to settle," Qi Qingqi suggested. "There's nothing else to recommend it. But if they heard a story of, oh, a spirit that would grant wishes--"
"They might try to look for it. That would fit with the wall, too. The people who originally interred it blocked the line of sight into the main chamber because... it can cast illusions?"
"And if they did find it, and were convinced it could bring them riches--wait, no. I was going to say, they wouldn't care about the state of the furniture. But they wouldn't care about packing everything with them, either."
"We'll have to be cautious," Yue Qingyuan said seriously. "Each of us has strong enough cultivation to break such illusions. But we should stay in pairs or trios, just in case."
"Well, that was productive," Ruan Qingruan murmured to Mu Qingfang, as they sat around the cooking fire later.
"Surprisingly so, yes," Mu Qingfang concurred. "Can you imagine having that discussion, before? I counted at least three places Shen Qingqiu would have taken offense."
"It's nice to have Shang-shixiong speaking up more, too. And I swear Liu Qingge made a joke, earlier."
Mu Qingfang smiled briefly. "He's quite funny, actually. I hadn't realized it until this trip. It was almost as much of a surprise as Shen Qingqiu explaining himself."
"This really has been successful, then," Ruan Qingruan said happily. "It's a pity the others couldn't come."
"Last time, Lin-shidi would not shut up about getting grass seeds stuck in his hair," Mu Qingfang reminded him.
Ruan Qingruan shuddered theatrically. "And on his clothes. Okay, you're right, this is much more pleasant."
Qi Qingqi descended upon them. "Are we talking about the babies? Aren't they cute?" she asked.
Mu Qingfang hadn't even felt the muffling charm go up, but from the lack of reaction from the others, it was present. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," he said despite that, because Qi Qingqi had a tricky habit of dropping muffling charms when you least expected it.
She sighed and sat down in a huff. "You have the heart of an old man, I swear."
"You can't prove anything," he said promptly, surprising himself. Ruan Qingruan smiled brightly at him while Qi Qingqi laughed. Mercifully, she soon moved on to her next victim.
Later that night, Shen Qingqiu was staring out at the moonlit prairie and frowning. He suddenly turned to Qi Qingqi, who raised her eyebrows at him. "Glowing. You suggested a glowing artifact." He looked around at the others, who were watching with varying degrees of curiosity. "All of us used night pearls or flare charms, correct?"
Ruan Qingruan spoke for all of them, when he said, "Yes? How else would we--oh! You think there was something in the walls themselves?"
Shen Qingqiu nodded, suddenly twitchy with the need to investigate. "Especially if it was something that glowed only in the dark. That would explain the baffle wall. They were keeping light from entering the structure." He rose, as if to return to the tumulus at that very moment.
Yue Qingyuan hastily caught at his sleeve. "There will be plenty of time to check in the morning, Qingqiu-shidi." When Shen Qingqiu didn't immediately sit, he continued. "It would be more representative of whatever the villagers found, anyway. They wouldn't enter what they thought was a tomb, at night and in the dark."
Shen Qingqiu sat down with ill-grace, scholarly instincts stifled. "Fine."
Yue Qingyuan handed him a pencil and turned to a fresh page in his notebook. "Why don't you make a list of all the things it could be."
"I know what you're doing," Shen Qingqiu said stiffly. "And I'm complying only because it’s better investigatory procedure."