Chu Shuzhi got into the car and only gave an address. He leaned back on the rear seat, closed his eyes, and remained silent.

Guo Changcheng, unaware of the truth, secretly glanced back at him throughout the journey. He felt that Chu Ge’s face seemed to be covered in a layer of gray, and his closed eyes resembled stones carved on a mountain wall over the years, devoid of warmth.

After paying the fare, Guo Changcheng remembered Daqing’s instructions and quickly picked up the bag that Chu Shuzhi had forgotten, hurrying to catch up with him.

Chu Shuzhi lived in a very deep alley. They stood at the windy corner, with the northwest wind blowing into the collar of Chu Shuzhi’s windbreaker, causing it to billow like he was about to embark on a journey.

Unable to resist, Guo Changcheng called out, “Chu Ge…”

Chu Shuzhi suddenly stopped in his tracks, turned around, and glared fiercely at Guo Changcheng, who was following behind him. In a soft yet menacing voice, he said, “What are you still following me for? Don’t you know I’m not human?”

Guo Changcheng, standing three steps behind him, stared blankly and asked, “Then… what are you?”

In an instant, Chu Shuzhi flashed in front of him. His movements were invisible to the naked eye. He snatched his belongings from Guo Changcheng’s hand. His fingers were icy cold, and there seemed to be a chilling dampness about him. His pitch-black pupils sparkled with an indescribable radiance. “Have you seen a zombie? Zombies eat people. Let me tell you what human flesh tastes like. It’s slippery and greasy when you bite into it, with bones crunching, and the organs are fishy and stinky. When you pull them out from the belly, they’re scorching hot, just like freshly scooped out of a pot…”

He maliciously looked at Guo Changcheng and lightly licked his lips. “I am a zombie.”

Guo Changcheng shuddered violently, but it was due to the coldness of the other party’s hand. He felt that it was only natural to be afraid, but he strangely didn’t have that inherent sense of fear. Perhaps it was because he had been by Chu Ge’s side for too long, and he felt like he could accept anything about him.

He even had a weird thought flash through his mind—no wonder Chu Ge doesn’t eat peas.

Thinking that Guo Changcheng was frightened, Chu Shuzhi derived some indescribable satisfaction from his fear. He left him behind and turned to leave. However, after taking a few steps, he heard hesitant footsteps behind him. He turned around and found that Guo Changcheng had caught up with him again.

Chu Shuzhi raised an eyebrow. “What? Are you planning to follow the zombie into the coffin?”

Guo Changcheng stood still. “I… I…”

Chu Shuzhi snorted and continued walking. Then, Guo Changcheng, with his typical small steps, followed again.

Chu Shuzhi’s patience finally ran out. He yelled in a low voice, “Leave before I get angry!”

Guo Changcheng said, “Daqing… Daqing asked me to send you home. You haven’t…”

He didn’t finish his sentence, as he was suddenly pinned forcefully against the wall by Chu Shuzhi. Chu Shuzhi’s bony hand was like a steel rod, effortlessly lifting him up and gripping his throat. Guo Changcheng’s feet dangled in the air, pressed against the wall. The only point of contact was Chu Shuzhi’s hand around his neck. He soon found it difficult to breathe, and his face turned red.

Chu Shuzhi raised his head coldly and looked at him. Only up close could one see that Chu Shuzhi’s pupils were slightly gray, imperceptible under normal circumstances but subtly lifeless when exposed to sunlight.

Kicking his legs futilely in mid-air, Guo Changcheng instinctively grabbed Chu Shuzhi’s hand but couldn’t break free.

“I consider myself accountable to heaven and earth. I’ve carried the guilt for three hundred years. The things I’ve done should have been redeemed long ago. What are they? What right do they have to comment on my life or death?” Chu Shuzhi squeezed out these words from between his teeth. His expression was ominously gloomy. “Then I might as well prove their accusations right!”

Water began to well up in Guo Changcheng’s eyes. He was indeed a crybaby, easily moved to tears. He was spineless and had a soft character. He didn’t know how he had grown up like this, seemingly lacking any vitality. Looking at Chu Shuzhi, his expression contained disbelief, pleading, and sadness, but no trace of anger.

Guo Changcheng struggled to open his mouth but couldn’t produce any sound. He could faintly discern his own lip movements, as if he was calling Chu Ge.

Chu Shuzhi released his grip, and Guo Changcheng fell to the ground. Chu Shuzhi slowly retracted his hand and stood coldly to the side, watching Guo Changcheng sit on the ground, coughing intensely.

Chu Shuzhi looked at the child who always carried that small notebook, following him and taking notes. The notebook was ridiculous, with childlike handwriting and crooked lines. The content had no focus, simply transcribing whatever others said, even including their catchphrases. Chu Shuzhi had seen countless times where the child diligently wrote down Daqing’s phrase, “Stupid humans”—as if he was not studying his profession, but meticulously collecting “predecessors’ daily records.”

In Chu Shuzhi’s eyes, the radiant light of accumulated merits still emanated from Guo Changcheng, who had nearly coughed up his lungs. Suddenly, he felt that the brightness was somewhat blinding.

The hand that had been gripping Guo Changcheng’s neck was gently placed on top of his head, causing Guo Changcheng to instinctively shrink.

Chu Shuzhi touched his head and then lightly grabbed a handful of his hair, like caressing a child or a small animal. He spoke softly, “You didn’t study well when you were young, did you? Have you learned an excerpt from ‘The Injustice to Dou E’? It clearly states, ‘The good suffer poverty and a shorter life, while the wicked enjoy wealth and extended years.’ Have you heard of it?”

Perhaps Guo Changcheng had heard of it, but unfortunately, he really wasn’t cut out for studying. Anything he memorized from books would automatically be formatted in his mind. He hadn’t yet recovered from his flushed face and thickened neck when he squatted on the ground, raised his head, and looked at Chu Shuzhi with a bewildered expression.

Chu Shuzhi slightly bent down, lifted his chin, and examined him. Then he shook his head and said, “Your forehead is narrow, indicating limited intelligence. The thin and weak earlobes suggest a troubled youth. A slightly protruding lifespan indicates that you’ll lose the protection of elders in middle age, likely leading to lifelong misfortune. With such an inauspicious appearance, what’s the use of accumulating so much merit? Don’t be so foolish in the future. Be a good second-generation official and enjoy life. Maybe you’ll have a few good days.”

Guo Changcheng looked at him in confusion.

Chu Shuzhi and he stared at each other for a moment before Chu Shuzhi sighed and smiled bitterly. “You’re a bit clueless, I must say.”

After speaking, he grabbed Guo Changcheng like a little chick and waved at him. “Go back and tell that cat demon, what can I do? I’m just a nobody, lacking both the courage and ability. I’m a character that can be molded by others. I don’t have the capability to start trouble or seek life or death. But if there’s nothing else, I’ll take a few days off during the Spring Festival to clear my mind. I’ll be back after the fifteenth.”

Having said that, he disappeared from Guo Changcheng’s sight as if evaporating into thin air, vanishing in the blink of an eye.

In the narrow and deserted alley, the scent of firecrackers lingered in the air. The streets on the first day of the Lunar New Year seemed somewhat desolate. The cold wind lazily swirled around, lifting a strand of Guo Changcheng’s dumb hair on top of his head. With traces of tears, he sniffed and stood still for quite some time before finally turning around and walking heavily toward his home.

He didn’t understand why Chu Shuzhi had said those things, whether it was for his own good or just venting frustration. But Guo Changcheng felt that his words didn’t make much sense.

A shallow fortune and meager blessings—this was innate and unavoidable. What did it matter what he did? What was the connection?

Guo Changcheng had always felt that he was a hopeless waste, occupying many resources that he, as a person like him, shouldn’t have. As for everything else, whether it was called “charity” or “kindness” by others, it just made him feel somewhat useful.

Guo Changcheng never expected to gain anything from it.

However… hearing others speak rationally about his “bad luck,” he couldn’t help but feel a bit stifled.

When Shen Wei left Zhao Yunlan’s house, he felt completely drained. He cautiously tried not to show any “flaws” in front of Zhao’s mother, not wanting to cause trouble for Zhao Yunlan. However, Zhao’s mother’s eyes seemed to scan him like X-rays, almost drilling a hole through him.

Shen Wei pinched his brow on the way. “Why did your mother keep looking at me like that? Did I unintentionally reveal something?”

Before Zhao Yunlan could say anything, Daqing, who was sitting in the backseat, chimed in with a box of dried fish in his paws. “Lao Zhao had a bad reputation in the past, not well-regarded. I think his mother is just being overly cautious.”

Although Shen Wei didn’t want to appear unreasonable, upon hearing these words, he involuntarily frowned.

“Fatty, if you keep talking nonsense, I’ll throw you out of the car. Do you believe me?” Zhao Yunlan said expressionlessly.

Daqing sat up straight, wagging his tail as if a pendulum, innocently saying, “Meow—”

Zhao Yunlan glared fiercely at the rearview mirror, then said to Shen Wei, “Well, don’t think too much. Although I… cough… have never brought anyone to meet my mother before, now I’ve turned over a new leaf. Even convicts deserve a chance to start afresh… Well, I don’t think I’ve done anything particularly outrageous, except for constantly being dumped by others. Damn fatty, you’ve dragged me into trouble. Actually, she was just being suspicious earlier, not because of you. It was mainly because when we were making dumplings, I accidentally came out of the closet with her…”

Shen Wei’s expression froze once again, luckily he wasn’t the one driving.

“Oh,” Daqing paused for two seconds and dryly said, “Zhao Yunlan, the fighter of the new era, I have faith in you.”

“You… You tell your mother…” Shen Wei started to speak.

“I’ll tell my mother that I love you to the point of the heavens collapsing, the earth shattering, and sands and stones flying. If she agrees, we’ll have an extra son. One becomes two, doubling the profit. If she doesn’t agree, she’ll have to compensate one. By then, there won’t be a single one left.” Zhao Yunlan said boastfully, “My mother isn’t foolish. She knows how to calculate. Don’t worry.”

Daqing mercilessly dismantled his argument, “Cut the crap. You wouldn’t dare to speak to the Empress Dowager like that. Shen Laoshi, you should know that he’s covered in dough. He definitely knelt down to his mother right in the kitchen. I even specially inquired a few days ago. I knew your father wasn’t home, so I came back. Look at your lack of ambition.”

“…” Zhao Yunlan cursed inwardly.

Shen Wei was momentarily speechless. After a while, he whispered, “You really are…”

What was he going to say? He didn’t finish, and his voice faded into a soft sigh.

It was Daqing who broke the awkward silence. Daqing impatiently watched them get all lovey-dovey and interrupted, “Oh, by the way, Lao Zhao, let me tell you something. Do you know that Chu Shuzhi’s merit restraint expires today?”

“What?” Zhao Yunlan was momentarily stunned before realizing, “Has it been three hundred years already? What did he say? Does he plan to leave the SID? But it’s still a good thing…”

Before the word “thing” came out, Daqing continued, “Good my ass, the underworld won’t let him off.”

Zhao Yunlan furrowed his brow, “Why?”

Daqing replied, “How should I know? It’s probably something like ‘merit not fully accumulated’ or some bullshit like that. There’s no specific standard. Who knows how big of a requirement ‘merit not fully accumulated’ is? Anyway, they have the final say.”

Shen Wei asked, “So, Chu Shuzhi is wearing a merit restraint?”

“Yes,” Daqing said, “Sometimes, when the Town Soul Order is short-handed, the order’s master goes to the underworld to receive prisoners wearing the restraint. It’s a form of labor reform.”

Shen Wei nodded and then explained with a slightly displeased expression, “There’s nothing we can do. Most of the prisoners the underworld catches are small fry ghosts, not of much use. Unless they have some skills and volunteer, it won’t be easy to catch them. Delaying the expiration of the merit restraint seems to be their usual practice. In such cases, it’s normal for it to last for one or two hundred years.”

Zhao Yunlan remained silent, his brow furrowing tighter.

A series of recent events had caused Zhao Yunlan to bear a grudge against the underworld, and it had been more than just a few days. However, it hadn’t reached the point of tearing their faces apart.

It was normal for different sides to have their own plans and calculations. Zhao Yunlan was no longer an ignorant young man who didn’t know the price of rice. He understood all these messy twists and turns, but as long as everyone had a general goal and privately engaged in their own games, maintaining harmony was the best course of action.

But recently, there had been signs that the underworld was meddling in the affairs. Although Zhao Yunlan didn’t say it out loud, he was annoyed deep down.

At this moment, Shen Wei asked, “Why is Chu Shuzhi wearing the merit restraint? Can you tell me?”

“I only have a vague idea, not particularly clear,” Zhao Yunlan said, “You can ask Daqing.”

Daqing, sitting in the back seat, looked at Shen Wei with its serene cat eyes. It knew Shen Wei was a formidable expert, but now it couldn’t quite grasp his importance. The hidden rules of the underworld were even unclear to Zhao Yunlan, let alone spelled out. Why did Shen Wei seem to know them by heart?

This caused Daqing to hesitate for a moment. After a while, it slowly said, “Chu Shuzhi practices the Necromancy path. Professor Shen, you probably noticed that, right?”