Chapter 1: Strange Species
As the day began to break, faint light rose from the narrow streets of the city, brightening the dim indoors.
There was a knock on the door, just two taps, then silence.
The person on the bed opened their eyes, got up, put on a blue and white school uniform, and went to open the door.
Upon opening the door, the first thing that rushed in was the strong scent of alcohol.
The person who knocked leaned against the wall, shirt wrinkled, half-tucked into their pants, chin sparsely covered in stubble. Their hair was a disheveled mess; if they lay down in a garbage heap, even a beggar would give them space.
Jiang Yujin, still leaning against the wall, managed a chuckle and set the bottle of alcohol down, waving his hand. “Good morning.”
His voice was significantly hoarse due to years of drinking.
After he finished laughing, he covered his mouth, dry heaving without caring about his appearance.
Chen Jing, who had just changed into a clean school uniform, took a step back, expressionless, and asked, “How much did you drink?”
Jiang Yujin walked in, still leaning against the wall, didn’t answer directly, but instead turned the tables and reproached, “When you first came here, you used to care a lot. Now… hic… you’ve turned into this.”
He groped for the wall and then, with determination, turned on the TV.
Physically weak but quite talkative, he could still operate the TV.
Chen Jing: “…”
Chen Jing scoffed coldly as he closed the door.
[Since the return of survivors of missing persons from various places, the resettlement project for underage survivors has been implemented.
Half of the survivors have returned to their families, while the rest have been placed under the care of individuals or families certified by the government to provide suitable living conditions.
They are also provided with necessary learning conditions according to the law. Currently, efforts for the return and resumption of studies for underage survivors have been substantially implemented.]
The voice of the morning news echoed as Chen Jing, barely a high school student, hurried to eat.
Jiang Yujin lay on the sofa, turned over, and the TV anchor switched to a different script.
The second news piece reported another incident of consecutive disappearances of individuals in the East District of City A. According to preliminary investigations, the missing individuals were all adults, most of them being proprietors of various personal or group agencies handling miscellaneous affairs. The case remained unsolved, prompting a reminder to the public to stay vigilant.
Chen Jing, seated at the dining table, glanced up and then lowered his head again. After taking a couple of bites of food, he picked up his backpack and stood up.
As he opened the door, the hand of the person standing outside, about to knock, froze in mid-air. Slowly, upon realizing, they withdrew it.
Outside stood a well-dressed aunt with permed hair, hesitantly asking, “Is this the Sunset Red Agency?”
It wasn’t visible at night, but in the daylight, one could see the large letters affixed to the side of the door: “Sunset Red Agency.”
The worn-out figure lying on the sofa waved a disinterested hand and said, “No…”
An icy stare immediately pierced his back. Chen Jing reminded, “Electricity and gas bills.”
Jiang Yujin sat up straight, “Yes, that’s right.”
A high school student with a backpack left, and the permed aunt stepped inside.
Jiang Yujin poured a glass of water and pushed it toward the aunt’s table, “Please have some Avistate Special Mountain Water.”
The kettle in the kitchen remained uncovered, reflecting the sunlight distinctly.
The aunt said, “Thank you for the Avistate Special Mountain Water.”
Jiang Yujin smiled and nodded, taking a seat opposite her.
“Well, my surname is Xu. You can call me Sister Xu.”
Sister Xu took a sip of water and took out a photo and a small map. “I’m here to ask for your help in finding my cat.”
The photo wasn’t complete; it was torn, revealing only half, but it showed Sister Xu and a milk-colored cat clearly.
“My cat is territorial. It usually likes to play around nearby and absolutely won’t step out of this area. I even heard its bell recently; it must still be here.”
Jiang Yujin stifled a yawn and nodded along.
Sister Xu glanced at him and said, “I live in the East District. Do you know that recently… all the nearby agencies have closed? I couldn’t think of any other solution, so I had to come here and try my luck.”
As she spoke, she pulled out a box from her bag.
Opening the box revealed a large, lustrous pearl inside.
She tried to put the pearl into Jiang Yujin’s hand, and Jiang Yujin quickly placed two pieces of paper on his hand.
“I don’t have anything else valuable. I hope you can accept this.”
Although she expressed hope, her grip was surprisingly strong, leaving no room for refusal.
“One last question,” Jiang Yujin’s expression turned slightly serious. “Will you reimburse the travel expenses?”
Sister Xu’s hand, in the midst of packing, paused. Her lips twitched, her voice sharpened, “Yes.”
Jiang Yujin stood up, bracing himself against the sofa.
Sister Xu had other matters to attend to; she took a car, and he had to take a taxi to the location marked on the map.
His place was a two-story building. He lived on the upper floor and, as he left, casually greeted the barber from the shop below who was smoking at the store entrance.
The barber politely responded to his greeting, “You’re not dead from drinking yet?”
Jiang Yujin waved down a taxi before leaving, smiling and nodding, “Hurry up and smoke yourself to death.”
Neither of them died from drinking or smoking, but based on the situation after getting into the car, he might pass out inside.
The yellow taxi raced along the road, and after getting out of the car, Jiang Yujin leaned against the wall, slowly squatting on the roadside, reflecting.
Perhaps due to the recent news, there were few people on the roads of the East District, which was second only to the population count of the North District. Occasionally, pedestrians hurried by, their eyes constantly scanning the surroundings with vigilance.
Jiang Yujin, with a pair of hangover-induced dead fish eyes, looked utterly world-weary, squatting innocently by the roadside, attracting several curious glances.
To avoid causing unnecessary psychological burdens to passersby and to prevent appearing in the morning news the next day, he got up and left.
The location Sister Xu provided was nearby.
As the clouds slowly gathered in the sky, darkness enveloped the surroundings.
The wind died down, and the sound of a bell rang out.
The sound disappeared within the courtyard of a villa.
Jiang Yujin politely knocked on the gate.
The gate was not closed, and as soon as he knocked, it moved inward. Through the gap, he could see the already dilapidated courtyard inside. There was no wind, yet the courtyard’s door was opening inward.
The scene looked eerie in every way, and a normal person would have turned and walked away.
But Jiang Yujin didn’t. He felt idle and anxious, yet he hadn’t forgotten to look for the cat.
Pushing the courtyard gate open, he took out his phone and yawned politely, asking, “Hello, is anyone there?”
Clearly, there was no one.
After apologizing for the disturbance, Jiang Yujin crossed the courtyard, lifted his foot, and walked into the dilapidated house.
The moment he entered, the partially open door instantly closed with a dull sound.
He seemed to be in the house, yet it felt like another place altogether.
It was dim inside, and the screen of his phone became the only source of light in the room.
There was a disturbance; a dark shadow flashed before him. Jiang Yujin pocketed his phone and slightly turned to the side. His white shirt fluttered in the air and then settled down.
The lunge missed him, and the person emerging from the darkness first paused, then groped and pulled Jiang Yujin towards a corner.
As soon as he entered the door, he was pulled into a quick crouch and felt his stomach churning. Jiang Yujin slowly closed his eyes.
The person beside him took a couple of breaths and asked, “What are you doing here?”
Jiang Yujin, holding his stomach, replied, “Looking for a cat. What about you?”
“I’m Xu Gao from the Special Investigative Unit for Strange Species, Third Unit. We’re investigating a series of disappearances in the East District residents.”
Xu Gao half-crouched, drew his gun, and said, “It’s dangerous here. Once you’re in, you can’t leave. Please make sure to stay behind me and don’t move around recklessly.”
Strange Species were not widely known a few years ago until those who claimed to be involved in an infinite game returned. The term was then used to refer to the peculiar creatures appearing alongside survivors in the game, gradually becoming widely known.
Jiang Yujin took a couple of steps back and tried pushing the door but it didn’t budge. He nodded and indeed followed slowly behind Xu Gao.
In a brief moment, he learned from Xu Gao that he had entered this courtyard while following someone from a law firm during an investigation. However, upon entering, he lost track of that person. Later, he realized there was no signal here, no way to contact the outside world, and all the doors and windows seemed ornamental, impossible to break.
As they exited the room, a sudden burst of light appeared. Their eyes couldn’t adjust, and Xu Gao, who was leading, instinctively squinted.
Jiang Yujin scanned the area with his eyes.
They had arrived in what seemed like a living room.
It appeared uninhabited for a while, with dust gathering on the furniture. Near the partially drawn curtains lay scattered building blocks and small balls.
Xu Gao, holding the gun cautiously, scanned the surroundings, while Jiang Yujin, hands behind his back, bent to examine the dusty photos displayed on the cabinet.
Xu Gao leaned in to wipe off the dust from the photos and took a look.
It seemed to be a family picture: a curly-haired woman holding a small cat on her lap, while a well-behaved and cute little boy stood beside her.
Jiang Yujin introduced, “This is my employer, and this is the cat I’m looking for.”
The photo shown to him by Miss Xu was missing the little boy from the top.
Xu Gao’s eyes twitched slightly; he tilted his head and then noticed huge claw marks on the sofa nearby, a shocking sight.
Before he could intervene, Jiang Yujin had already looked over.
The contents of the sofa spilled out from a tear, displaying dark red streaks with scattered pieces of various sizes nearby. The smell was pungent, but at least the liquid on top had already solidified; it wasn’t freshly produced.
Jiang Yujin lifted his drooping eyelids gradually.
“This isn’t…,” Xu Gao tried to block him, attempting to calm him down, “you better not…”
Jiang Yujin raised an eyebrow after lifting his eyelids, “Spilling tomato sauce everywhere, such lack of manners.”
Speaking like a person with exceptionally good manners.
He looked at Xu Gao and asked, “Right?”
Xu Gao nodded, “Yes.”
He cautiously led Jiang Yujin to another area.
There was still no sign of the person he was looking for.
The room wasn’t as bright as the living room but had some light, enough to see the furnishings inside.
This was a child’s room, with blue walls and a thick layer of blankets on the floor, covered with various toys, giving a warm appearance.
The only discordant element in the room was probably near the window, around the desk. There was a fallen, damaged chair and dark red marks on the desk. The notebook on the desk was crumpled and open.
Xu Gao held the gun alertly, while the eager citizen, Jiang Yujin, helped by picking up the notebook and flipping it open to check its contents.
It seemed to be a child’s diary, with “Xu Cong” written earnestly on the cover in a rather childish handwriting.
“[6/5/30: After Dad disappeared, Xiao Mi also vanished. Mom looked very sad.]”
“[6/7/30: Mom bought me a new small ball, but it rained today, so I could only play indoors.]”
The diary only had a few entries, followed by large sections of blank pages until some content reappeared where it had been previously opened.
“[4/9/32: Xiao Mi came back. Mom and I are very happy, but it hasn’t been eating. We’re both very worried.]”
“[4/10/32: Mom wasn’t home today, and Xiao Mi still hasn’t eaten. I heard a noise coming downstairs. I’ll be back.]”
The diary abruptly stopped on April 10th, the pages crumpled as if someone struggled with it, and there was no further content upon unfolding.
The room fell into a sudden silence.
After a moment of silence, Xu Gao said, “This is the last room on the ground floor. I’ve checked the entire ground floor. Stay here and don’t move. I’ll check upstairs.”
Jiang Yujin placed the diary back in its original position and nodded slightly by the table.
Xu Gao exited the room and ascended the stairs.
The staircase was covered with a layer of carpet, ensuring silent steps. Around a corner, he heard faint sounds.
Slowly navigating the dark corridor, Xu Gao suddenly stepped on something as he reached the last few steps. He slipped, the tin can hit the wall, creating a sound that echoed in the empty corridor.
Instantly, cold sweat broke out on him.
The chewing sounds stopped.
After the sound of a heavy object hitting the floor, the entire space fell silent.
The corridor was dark, but the second floor was lit, visible from the corridor, and there was movement near the farthest room’s doorway.
A cat emerged from the room, identical to the one in the photo, even making a bell-like sound when it moved.
Xu Gao, recovering from his heightened vigilance, exhaled deeply.
The cat tilted its head, extending its paw—
A massive heap of flesh, unidentifiable, replaced the innocent cat, emanating a strong, pervasive scent of blood throughout the space.
The pile of flesh was covered in eyes, dark and eerie. When all the eyes turned toward him, an indescribable sensation exploded in Xu Gao’s mind.
Trembling, he raised his gun.
From within the fleshy mass, something resembling a naked tail swiftly slapped towards him. He dodged, but another “tail” swiftly swept, impossible for the human eye to track. The gun flew out, clattering as it hit the ground, while Xu Gao was thrown down the stairs, rolling uncontrollably.
The flesh heap drew nearer, its mouth gaping, revealing undropped bits of flesh and emitting a nauseatingly putrid odor.
Xu Gao dared not look back. His pores opened wide, his legs weakened, but he still struggled, dragging his body across the floor, desperately reaching out, attempting to grab the gun flung far away.
The distance, normally covered in a few steps, seemed insurmountable now, a despair-inducing chasm.
Even without turning back, the chilling sensation at the back of his head was palpable.
For the first time, he directly and intensely felt the presence of death. His hand futilely reached towards where the gun had landed. A sickeningly pungent breeze wafted from behind him. Xu Gao, wide-eyed with terror, felt the looming threat.
A gunshot pierced the darkness, exploding almost next to his ear.
The anticipated excruciating pain never arrived. Instead, a sound resembling a child’s cry pierced his eardrums.
Raising his gaze, Xu Gao saw a figure standing at the stairwell, holding a gun, fingers still on the trigger, eyes drooping but meeting his gaze.