The chief wasn’t in a hurry to talk about what happened ten days after the wedding. Instead, he started talking about the past again. The topics jumped back and forth without any regularity. However, from what he spoke about the village’s past, from his lament over the peace the powerful yet kind Witch Doctor Ah Bai maintained for fifteen years, and from the various hints in his words, Ruan Zhan slowly understood Ah Ya’s past.
It turns out that after Ah Ya and Ah Wu were accepted as apprentices by Ah Bai, they weren’t trained for very long. Not three years had passed when Ah Bai disappeared mysteriously. However, Ah Ya’s powers of comprehension were very high. His master seemed to have unleashed his talent. The moment he understood his own powers, he seemed to be teaching himself. His powers grew stronger and stronger. Although he wasn’t as extraordinary as Ah Bai, he was able to handle many matters for the village when he was only eighteen. The older he got the more people revered him. At such a young age, he became the most outstanding sorcerer in these mountains.
However he wasn’t as kindhearted as Ah Bai. He would charge for his services, yet no one’s powers came close to his. Matters others couldn’t resolve were easily handled by him. His prices were also reasonable so the villagers didn’t mind.
As for Ah Wu, although they trained under the same master, and she also remained in the octagonal building after Ah Bai disappeared, studying witchcraft with Ah Ya until they became of age, her powers were much weaker than his. Despite this, she was still the most powerful witch in the area.
This meant that since Ah Wu made a mistake and was severely punished, she must have offended Ah Ya. Apart from him, no one else was powerful enough to make Ah Wu not dare return to the village and live like a savage in the woods.
Furthermore, Huang Bo Heng had personally said Ah Wu won’t have any good outcome after offending him. Since he was just a puppet, his thoughts were those of his puppet master. When he said “me”, it was actually the mastermind speaking. His actions were actually those of the puppet master. This mastermind was most likely Ah Ya.
Yet how did she offend him? What mistake did she make? Was it because they came from the same master, or did she mess up one of his plans?
Based on Huang Shi Tou’s1 past and the feeling Ruan Zhan got when they exchanged blows, Ruan Zhan felt he must have personally created many Gu techniques and spells. Witch Doctor Ah Bai had been so kind, she definitely didn’t know how to make such vileness, let alone have the time to teach him.
Did Ah Bai intentionally mention taking on apprentices in her vision to Xiao Xia? How was Si Ma Nan related to all this?
“If you guys can find my cousin Ah Wu, see if you can help her.” The chief’s sigh interrupted their thoughts. “I know she’s hiding after offending Ah Ya, but I don’t know what she did. Seeing her live in the woods like a savage, unable to return home, my heart….although she has divine power and ages more slowly, she’s still almost seventy.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll definitely help her. “Ruan Zhan promised.
The chief nodded gratefully. “Speaking of which, I’ve recalled something. When Ah Wang’s dad passed away, cousin Ah Wu made a trip back. She stood within the trees and seemed like she wanted to say something. I had her go back at the time. Apart from me, no one else knows she’s still alive. I don’t want anything else to happen to her. Who knows whether Ah Ya is still alive? Ever since those twenty-something villagers disappeared, he disappeared as well. However, since cousin Ah Wu is still very afraid, he must still be alive.”
“How did so many people disappear? It can’t be without a trace, right?” Wan Li asked.
“It was precisely without a trace.” The chief muttered. He rolled up another pipe of tobacco before he started talking about that matter.
“A few days after the wedding, Ah Ya sat outside the bamboo building staring into space. He would glare at anyone walking past, making others feel afraid. However, he would roam around in the wilderness at night. No one knew what he was up to, but everyone felt more and more afraid. It seemed something big was about to happen. On the tenth night, he suddenly remained home and lit all the oil lamps. That night was especially dark, without any moonlight. It was pitch black everywhere. Only his house was brightly lit. It looked like a lantern in the distance.”
“People were already too scared to sleep to begin with. Even the dogs hid in their houses, not daring to come out. I, as the village chief, and a few elders were the only exceptions. We holed up over in the Liang family’s house. Their house was across from Ah Ya’s and was also more elevated. We could spy on the situation clearly from there.”
“All the doors of his house were wide open. Ah Ya sat next to the fire pit. He had surrounded himself with oil lamps in addition to the fire within the pit. He seemed to sense us watching him. He actually turned and smiled towards the Liang family’s house. This smile scared our souls into almost leaving our bodies. We saw clearly that his eyeballs weren’t normal. The pupils had mixed with the whites of his eyes and they gleamed coldly like two silver balls.”
“He just sat there, occasionally throwing some strange objects into the fire pit. Looking closely, they were all unknown plants or the limbs and furs of some animal. Whenever those things were thrown in, the fire would fizzle and shoot up over a foot. However, those flames chilled our hearts. Not only were they weirdly green, the shape was like a hand reaching out, trying to grab something. It made me recall the appearance of his parents’ corpses!”
“Furthermore, when those strange things burned, they gave off an indescribable smell. It was kind of sweet and slightly burnt. It could be called fragrant, but there was also a smell of manure. The smell made us drowsy. I knew Ah Ya was planning on doing something detrimental to the village and tried desperately to stay awake. I burned my own hand with my tobacco pipe, but my eyelids were still heavy. All the others had fallen asleep.”
“At that moment, Ah Ya suddenly stood up. He had grabbed a black cat from somewhere and hung a small bell around its neck. Then, he said something to the cat and it obediently left the house and ran towards the village. This wasn’t a big deal, but the strange thing was that the smoke from the fire pit hadn’t dispersed. It hung over the pit like a lid. The moment the cat left, it became like a ball of thread that was being pulled on one end by the cat and dragged towards the village. Within the darkness, a white thread was being pulled by the cat, seeming to extend endlessly.”
“I knew he was about to begin. Afraid he would harm too many people due to his state of mind, I shook off the drowsiness and mustered my courage. I ran into the courtyard of the Liang family’s house and called towards him: Daoist Lord Huang, be magnanimous. No one wanted this to happen! I beg you on behalf of your fellow villagers, calm your fury!”
“He probably didn’t expect anyone to dare stop him. He turned to look at me. I thought he would definitely do something to me. Unexpectedly, he stood still for a while and said to me: It seems my powers are truly lacking. Someone is still awake. Since that’s the case, I’ll let you see the outcome of those who offend me. They will repay what they owe. I will create a Gu that has never been created before. It needs the help of humans. Since they owe me, they will be the ones to help! Don’t worry, I won’t slaughter the innocent. However, I won’t forgive those who let me down! You must never speak of this matter. Otherwise, I will consign you to eternal damnation.”
“He glared at me with those pupil-less eyes, his face the same green color as the flames in the fire pit. I was terrified. I couldn’t even move let alone speak, though I was no longer drowsy. I hadn’t noticed at the time, but although I had shouted my words from the courtyard, his voice sounded right by my ears despite him merely moving his mouth. Furthermore, I wasn’t frozen in fear. I was truly frozen in place, as if I was a tree he had planted inside the courtyard.”
“After many tobacco pipes’ worth of time had passed, probably around midnight, the strange smoke finally extinguished. At the same time, the tinkling of a bell sounded from the distance. Although my body was frozen, I could still move my head. I turned to see the black cat had already returned. Although it no longer trailed the white smoke, there were several dark figures that were following it. Looking carefully, they were over a dozen people dressed in the attire of Najin villagers. Although I didn’t know that bride’s family personally, our villages still had dealings with each other and I recognized several of the people. They stood in a row, holding the shoulders of the people next to them. Their eyes were shut and they took a step whenever the bell around the cat’s neck rang.
I wanted to shout but wasn’t able to. I saw Ah Ya walking out from the wooden building, a small drum tied around his waist. He beat a strange rhythm on it as he walked. I saw several more people walk out from the village, their condition the same as the people from Najin village. They seemed to be sleepwalking. Altogether, there were over twenty living people in identical states. The grass rustled beneath their feet but no one spoke. The entire village was as silent as a grave, with only the tinkling of the bell. Looking closely, I realized these people were all involved in the matter of Ah Ya’s wedding, with more of them being from Najin village.
Ah Ya beat rhythmically on the drum and the group of people followed him obediently, me included. I felt that my body was frozen but my legs weren’t listening to me at all. The sound of the drum was like a whip that made me involuntarily move forwards. Everyone else in the village was fast asleep and no one came out to help. Actually, even if they were awake, who would be willing to provoke the unreasonable Ah Ya? His powers were so great!
We walked for some period of time and reached the cliff of the southern mountain. Ah Ya moved to the side and turned to look at us with his silvery-white eyes. He spoke: You all go ahead. I’ll be right behind. Then, he ripped off the small drum and flung it off the cliff. The small drum continued to beat in the air as if someone was still beating it. It caused the black cat to pounce over without regard for its life. It fell from the cliff, and the people following the sound of the bell also walked off one by one.
That cliff was a sheer drop that would shatter even a falling feather, let alone a person. I stood at the end of the line and it was going to be my turn soon. I was terrified. Unexpectedly, right as I thought I was done for, I ran into an invisible wall at the edge of the cliff. I couldn’t advance but also couldn’t retreat, and stood there trembling. I couldn’t sense anything around me and even Ah Ya had disappeared. I was both scared and anxious, still unable to make a sound. I stood there until the sun rose before I felt my body loosen and I fell backwards to the floor.
I ran back to the village right away. The villagers had all awoken but they only remembered Ah Ya’s terrifying appearance last night. They recalled nothing else, and merely noticed many people had gone missing. Due to Ah Ya’s warning, I didn’t dare say anything. Around noon, news came from Najin village that even more people had gone missing over there. After the two villages tallied things up, it became clear that those missing were either involved with the wedding or were friends and relatives of the bride. It must be Ah Ya’s revenge, so no one dared say anything and the matter was completely suppressed. They feared things would get even more out of hand if the matter was pursued. Thus, things were left unsettled. Everyone knew what had happened but no one dared to say anything, afraid of inviting trouble. Later, I secretly made a trip to the bottom of the cliff, wanting to at least give those unfortunate souls a proper burial. Who would have thought that before I could get there, I was blocked by a clump of dark purple corpse aura? I fell seriously ill after getting home. Ever since then, Ah Ya vanished. For the sake of the younger generation, the villagers pretended nothing had happened and that he never existed.
Therefore, if you guys didn’t receive that vision from Witch Doctor Ah Bai, no one would have told you anything no matter how you asked. I’m guessing Witch Doctor Ah Bai couldn’t bear to see her apprentice act this way and is trying to help us bring him back to the right path.”
After the village chief finished speaking, he sat wearily and sighed. He seemed to have lived through everything once again during his retelling. Ruan Zhan and Wan Li were both a little apprehensive.
It goes without saying that the tens of people back then had been refined into Ghost Gu by Ah Ya. Huang Bo Heng had told Xiao Xia the refining process of the Ghost Gu. During her game of “hide and seek” in the forest, she had encountered what seemed to be a gathering of ghostly villagers. Although there seemed to be a larger number, it might very well have been due to illusions.
This meant that he had left the mountains after refining the Ghost Gu, or perhaps remained in seclusion. He only reappeared a decade ago, controlling Huang Bo Heng into becoming a prominent figure of the city. Based on their calculations, he should be almost seventy years old. If Huang Bo Heng had been a puppet under his control, all its desires were that of the puppeteer. This meant that Huang Bo Heng’s obsession with Xiao Xia was actually Ah Ya’s.
Yet he was already so old. Was it possible? Even if Xiao Xia looked exactly the same as the tribal bride back then, it had been so long ago. Was his love and hate still so strong? Furthermore, his attitude towards the raincoat ghost clearly showed he no longer liked her. Why was he still so interested in Xiao Xia?
The Ghost Gu had to be cast on someone freshly deceased. Yet he hadn’t refined the Ghost Gu at that time yet. How did he keep the bride’s soul around until he completed it?
With these doubts in mind, Ruan Zhan idly chatted with the village chief for a little longer. It was almost noon when the chief left. Before he did, Ruan Zhan once again promised to protect the village, and gave him a few talismans. Although they weren’t guarantees, they could at least temporarily protect his family from harm.
“What do you intend to do? Do you have a plan?” Wan Li asked.
Xiao Xia was currently fast asleep and wasn’t going to be waking any time soon.
“I have no plan, only a feeling.”
“What do you mean?”
“I feel that within three days, we will definitely have our showdown with Ah Ya. Therefore, we need to make preparations in advance.”