“Oh?” Wan Li smiled. He seemed unafraid, and looked instead a little excited. “He was already so powerful in his twenties. His witchcraft and sorcery were both exquisite. Without even mentioning his current tricks, just listen to what the village chief said! He was able to use a black cat and a thread of smoke to bring back his targets from a distant village. He took less than half a night to make the entire village fall asleep, and used the sound of a bell to make people sleepwalk. He sent them off to hell while they were dreaming! That deep hypnosis technique of yours is far too lacking in comparison.”
“Piss off if you’re afraid.”
“I won’t dignify that with a response.” Wan Li would never pass up the chance to exchange barbs with Ruan Zhan. “But how are we supposed to prepare?”
“Xiao Xia’s phone is still with me. I’ll make a trip to Najin village in a bit. You wait here until Xiao Xia wakes up, and then we’ll stop by the town.”
“You want to confirm if Xiao Xia looks like that tribal bride?” Wan Li understood Ruan Zhan’s intention.
There was no signal in the mountains. Xiao Xia’s phone was only being used as a clock and a camera. Ruan Zhan taking her phone was because it contained photos of Xiao Xia so the Najin villagers could confirm things. Although Najin and Naman village weren’t willing to discuss Ah Ya’s matters, the bride’s matters weren’t taboo. This was another strange aspect.
“That’s right. We have to be absolutely sure before we can come up with a plan.”
“Why are we going back to town? We’re not picking up some anti-septic medicine, are we? You almost cut the sole of my foot off for the sake of dispelling my Gu.”
“I suddenly had a thought.” Ruan Zhan ignored Wan Li’s banter and habitually furrowed his brows. “Assuming Ah Ya is really the mastermind, based on his nature, how could he let off the scholarly lover of that tribal girl?”
“No need to assume, there’s no mistake. Although there isn’t any concrete evidence, it’s definitely him. But why are you mentioning the scholar from back then?” Wan Li asked. “Did you think of something?”
“Don’t you think Huang Bo Heng’s origin is a little strange? Furthermore, based on Ah Ya’s sinister methods, he would definitely use the cruelest means to retaliate against the “blessed male lead”! Is there any crueler revenge than becoming the puppet of one’s enemy, walking around not dead yet not alive!? Did he cast the Ghost Gu on that tribal bride out of love? Is it love that compels him to try and cast the Ghost Gu on Xiao Xia?”
“It is! To possess and to control. He likes have control.” Wan Li’s analytical nature surfaced. “On some level, he’s someone extremely insecure. He only feels at ease when he has the things he likes or hates completely under his control. There’s a line in a movie that said it best: No one can give you a sense of security. Only you can give it to yourself. It’s a shame too many people don’t understand this.”1
“Your occupational habit is popping up again!” Ruan Zhan felt helpless regarding Wan Li’s ability to go off topic and his sloppy personality. “You want to discuss psychology? Fine, I’ll go along with it. First of all, this annoying occupational habit of yours is also a type of OCD.”
Wan Li laughed. “I got it, I got it. I just regret not having the chance to help him. From a certain perspective, he’s a very pitiful and lonely person. If his environment had been better, things wouldn’t have developed to this extent. However, I know he must be killed. He’s harmed too many people. It would go against heaven’s will if he doesn’t die. See, I’m still aware of the bigger picture. This means my OCD is still manageable. It’s just a mental issue, not a mental illness. Normal people all have some sort of mental issue. It’s actually abnormal if you’re completely without any. Even animals….”
“Fine, fine, I’ll shut up.” Wan Li raised his hands in surrender. “You’re currently ill so I won’t provoke you. That Gu of yours…is it fine?”
“It’s been suppressed here.” Ruan Zhan rubbed his smooth abdomen. “I don’t know when it’ll erupt. Therefore, we should hurry and prepare, and also lure Ah Ya out quickly.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t tell Xiao Xia the whole story? I don’t think she’s as weak as you make her out to be. She also has the right to know the truth.”
“We will tell her the truth, but don’t tell her about my condition. Don’t let her know anything at all. She will be much happier that way.” Ruan Zhan was very stubborn. “Enough chitchat, time is tight. I’ll head out first.”
“Using your space-warping technique again?” Wan Li held him back for a moment. “Xiao Xia was right to say it. Using it so frequently will harm your body. Mana isn’t a limitless resource even in video games.”
“No more nonsense. You know we’re out of time. I’ll try to avoid using it where I can in the future. Now is not the time.”
“Can’t you cultivate something else? I remember your dad teaching you many things.”
“I only know the theory behind those and have never put them to the test. It seems I’ll have to cultivate properly after getting home. Even if I’m not able to return this time, I’ll still do some studying.”
“I don’t like to hear such talk.” Wan Li interrupted Ruan Zhan. “We came as three and we will return as three. No need to protect your loved ones after death, like that Duan Jin.”
“You couldn’t have forgotten, right? The woman who cultivated the Yinyang Eye that we encountered during our college summer trip.”
Ruan Zhan paused, immediately recalling the past. However, he didn’t respond. He drew a symbol in the air and stepped out.
“There are so many movement techniques in Chinese Daoist arts. Your awesome dad also taught you so much. Why don’t you sort that out and insist on learning Yang Mu You’s technique instead? Really…what’s that saying…entering a mountain of treasure and returning empty handed.” Wan Li grumbled in the direction where Ruan Zhan vanished. He stood up, intending to go upstairs but forgot about the wound on his foot. He cried out in pain and startled awake Xiao Xia who was sleeping on the third floor.
By the time Wan Li summarized the morning’s events to Xiao Xia, Ruan Zhan had already completed his task in Najin village and returned.
“How was it?” Wan Li asked.
Ruan Zhan nodded.
Xiao Xia turned pale. “Let me first say that I’d rather die than marry that thing. If death is inevitable, you are responsible for scattering my soul!”
“I won’t let him have you, don’t worry.” Ruan Zhan seemed to be pondering something and didn’t raise his head when he spoke.
“That’s right. If you’re going to marry someone, you can only choose from the two of us. Any man that tries to get involved will be beaten to death, no exceptions!” Wan Li said half-jokingly.
Xiao Xia rolled her eyes at him but she was still very happy inside.
It’s great that he was fine now! She liked his healthy, happy existence. Although he was really annoying sometimes, things would always be brighter with him around.
“Then are we going to the town now?” Wan Li asked. “Xiao Xia and I are both injured, a pair of cripples. It’s going to be hard on you.”
“We’ll have to depend on you when we get to town.” Ruan Zhan walked over and helped Xiao Xia up, his arms around her slender waist. She was almost being carried, similar to how she was escorted to the bar by Wan Li that first time. “I’ve already booked a good room in the town’s largest hotel. We’ll be able to make a long-distance call. Follow closely, or you’ll have to walk by yourself.”
He twisted space again as he spoke. Wan Li hurriedly hopped over with his good foot and they instantly appeared in a room.
“Your spell still needs some work. You should have directly teleported me to the bed next to the phone.” He complained before flopping onto the bed to make the call.
He had worked as a consultant for the police before and knew a few people. Ruan Zhan had gotten the location of the “blessed male lead” from back then. Now, Wan Li had to ask his friends in the police to help investigate whether a young scholar returning there from Naman had gone missing or died unexpectedly. This would help confirm whether the puppet Huang Bo Heng was the sweetheart of that tribal girl back then.
Information storage was well-developed now. There were records of people who had gone missing, and it was relatively easier to investigate things. However, it still required some time. The results only came when it was close to sunset. They also received a fax from the local post office.
The document stated that this young scholar surnamed Li had truly been assigned his agricultural shift in Naman. He had also disappeared not long after returning to the city. His family had reported him missing but his outcome was unknown. There was also a photo attached.
Although the picture was a little blurry and the features were slightly bulkier than Huang Bo Heng’s, the appearance was very similar. The slight differences in features could be explained by plastic surgery. The key point was that this person’s entire bearing was extremely similar to Huang Bo Heng.
As expected, Ah Ya hadn’t let anyone off. He punished those who offended him with different methods, every one of them!
“It’s basically confirmed.” Wan Li put the document down. “Someone with Xiao Xia’s occupation would declare this investigation closed and move to start the trial proceedings. All that remains is for Ah Zhan to sentence him to death, effective immediately, and strip him of all his rights.”
“Huang Bo Heng, or rather the one surnamed Li, doesn’t look that different.” Xiao Xia said doubtfully while looking at the picture.
“That’s right. It’s clear he was turned into a puppet a long time ago. Because he wasn’t able to have children and had no normal biological processes, he didn’t age.” Ruan Zhan frowned. It wasn’t clear what he was thinking about.
“I’m really quite impressed with Mr. Ah Ya now.” Wan Li said sincerely. “He controlled such a high-level puppet while making it think itself a real person. It also completely looked like a real person, but it only had a coconut shell filled with eyes on the inside. He also had to fool everyone around it for so many years. There were probably a lot of challenges to overcome.”
Xiao Xia couldn’t help but shiver after hearing this. She was concerned with Ah Ya’s current state. He was supposedly almost seventy, but she had a strong feeling he wasn’t an old man. The village chief said that those with divine gifts aged slower than others, and lived longer too. How old did Ah Ya look now?
Did she know that man? Where had he seen her and realized she looked the same as the tribal girl? Was all this for the sake of obtaining her? Was there a need to go through so much trouble? He was so powerful. Couldn’t he just kill her when Ruan Zhan wasn’t around, and place the Ghost Gu on her?!
Was it really as Wan Li theorized? Did he have the urge to make his actions known, like those serial killers? Did he want others to catch him? Or was there something else he wanted?
“Let’s go back first.” Ruan Zhan said, his expression a little off.
“Right, there isn’t much left to investigate here.” Wan Li responded. He endured the pain in his foot and went to support Xiao Xia, not letting Ruan Zhan do it. He knew Ruan Zhan’s Gu poison must have erupted. Although Ruan Zhan had the power to forcibly suppress it without losing his mind, Wan Li had still experienced that sort of pain before. Furthermore, the Gu had been forcibly displaced, and would attack with increased might.
Wan Li thought Xiao Xia hadn’t noticed. Yet despite her clumsiness, Xiao Xia was very meticulous. She had noticed Ruan Zhan was off. Therefore, when he went to fetch water by the stream next to the octagonal building, she secretly followed. Rounding a large rock, she immediately saw him sitting bent over on the floor, his head lowered. In the light of the setting sun, she saw that his clothes were completely soaked with sweat.
Shocked, she ran over, almost crashing into him. She happened to catch sight of his sweat-covered pale face.
“What’s wrong?” Her small, cold hands stroking his face felt very comfortable. Even the pain seemed to have lessened.
“You must have overused that whatever space-warping technique. I told you not to use it anymore.” Xiao Xia hurriedly wiped his sweat for him, her eyes teary. “But why didn’t you tell me? Why do you treat me as someone irrelevant? Why do you shun all those who try to enter your life? Can’t we even be friends?”
Ruan Zhan didn’t speak because he didn’t know how to respond.
“Do you know how cold you are? Although you have that smile on your face, no matter how hot the fire, it’ll always get immediately extinguished after getting close to you!” Xiao Xia’s heart ached at him suppressing everything inside. “I’m your partner, just like Wan Li! You have to remember this!”
“I will, I will, I definitely will!”
Wan Li, who had disappeared at the same time as Ruan Zhan, reappeared and resolved Ruan Zhan’s dilemma.
He held the water bucket in his hand. It turns out he had been the one to fetch the water.
“Put that down!” Xiao Xia sniffed. “Your foot isn’t healed yet and you’re carrying water!?”
“It’s fine. All three of us are in a sorry state anyway.” Wan Li’s sunny expression had the ability to save any situation, no matter how awkward. “Should’ve listened to Xiao Xia. Stomach’s hurting? Serves you right! Are you dying from the pain now?” He scolded Ruan Zhan but his expression was concerned. Seeing Ruan Zhan’s complexion smoothen out, he knew the flare up had subsided. He also sat down in relief. He had experienced that sort of torment. When it flared up, it felt like a dagger stabbing around in his stomach which vanished immediately once it passed.
“Sorry to disappoint.” Ruan Zhan said and stood up shakily.
“What are you trying to do now?” Xiao Xia grabbed his hand. “I know we don’t have much time, but it should be fine if you rest for another five minutes.”
“I need to grab your phone quick.” Although he was no longer in pain, Ruan Zhan felt weak. He didn’t like this feeling and was afraid he might not last until the battle with Ah Ya. That was a powerful enemy and he needed to win despite being weakened. He also didn’t know if Yang Mu You would come and cause trouble!
“I’ve got my phone one me.” Xiao Xia was puzzled as she handed him her phone.
When she first got her new phone, she had childishly taken pictures of everything due to the novelty. However, all those pictures were taken at home or at her job. How could there be anything important?
Ruan Zhan didn’t speak as he lowered his head and fiddled around on the phone. After a while, he handed it over to Wan Li. “You saw the mastermind, right? But you aren’t able to recall due to the Gu. See if this can jog your memory.”
Wan Li was just as puzzled as Xiao Xia, unsure what Ruan Zhan had come up with.
But the photo on the phone struck him like a bolt of lightning.