Bao Da Tong cut me off, as if afraid I would interrupt his train of thought. He pondered for a while before suddenly laughing. “I’ve thought of a tacky yet reasonable possibility!”
“Stop stalling, spit it out!” My mind was a mess and I didn’t even have a portion of my normally quick wits.
“The toad is lusting after the swan! As a well-educated psych major, you must have heard this saying before.” He waggled his eyebrows at me.
I was enlightened.
However, on second thought, the toad was just its physical form, and not necessarily a metaphor. Besides, who would purposefully turn himself into a toad?
“Think about it. He hates you for no reason. He also goes after Nana for no reason. He harmed those girls for no reason. Yet everything had a cause in this world. Therefore, despite how things appear, there has to be an underlying reason.” Bao Da Tong said. “Therefore, let’s imagine he has a crush on Nana. It’s reasonable, since Nana is cute and beautiful. But she’s your girlfriend, so he naturally wants you dead! If he wants to get close to Nana, he might very well be using the girls around her to do so!”
“There is another issue.” I said. “I keep getting the feeling he seems to have come from elsewhere. I’ve been in this school for four years, but the events around the lake have only started recently!”
“Right, I also feel the watery aura around it seems rather new. Then, based on our conjecture, when do you think he fell in love with Nana? Was it love at first sight while he was already in the lake, or did he encounter Nana elsewhere and follow her back?”
I shook my head, really unable to think of anything. Ever since Nana and I got together, we had gone on many trips. How was I supposed to know where that thing had been lurking? But there was one thing I could be certain of: if it had truly moved from elsewhere into the lake, that pitiful child had been its first victim. Xiao Ling was the second, and it had successfully approached Nana via Xiao Ling, close enough to threaten her. Nana had been scared off, but the poor girl who jumped from the building ended up being sacrificed. She even became another chip for the fiend to threaten Nana with! The next day, I rented a place east of campus for a week. Bao Da Tong said that purple clouds rises from the east, so that direction was very beneficial. The reason we stayed close to campus was because he said it could reach us no matter how far we moved. Instead, travelling back and forth would be more dangerous. It was better to hide in a defended place.
Truthfully, we all knew it wasn’t likely for the thing to leave campus. We were in the most danger while at school. It was still alright during the day, but we needed to be on guard whenever it got dark.
A frightening day went by like this. The three of us returned to our rented place after dinner. Bao Da Tong gave me a look. I could only shuffle over to the preoccupied Nana and grab hold of her hand.
Nana trembled, as if she knew I was going to ask her something. She withdrew her hand without even looking at me.
“I’m…I’m gonna go out for a smoke.” Bao Da Tong muttered and ran off to the balcony. He didn’t even smoke so his excuse to leave was extremely comical, but no one noticed since we all had things on our minds.
I once again approached Nana, tentatively pulling her into my arms. All at once, I sensed her entire body collapse as she hung onto me limply, trying to restrain her sobs.
“This isn’t your fault.” I comforted gently, knowing she blamed herself for the girl jumping off the building. After all, because she had run, the innocent girl ended up getting implicated. If she had the courage to face things, that girl wouldn’t have died!
Bao Da Tong had used Xiao Ling to recreate the scene last night. The fiend had made noises outside the window, waking the girl up. When she opened the curtains out of curiosity, a horrifying bloody face had greeted her. She didn’t have time to scream before being dragged out the window by her neck and dropped, dying on the spot!
“You didn’t do anything wrong, you were trying to protect me!” I continued. “Don’t blame yourself. We’ll face whatever happens together!”
“This is unrelated to you, don’t ask anymore!” She suddenly shoved me away, seeming very emotional. This made me feel both irritated and distressed. On one hand, she was selfishly choosing to avoid things, even if it meant others would continue to get hurt. On the other hand, it was for my sake. She had always been kindhearted, and was willing to bear such a heavy burden for my sake.
Gritting my teeth, I told her about my experiences the night before. I clearly explained that the fiend was lying to her. He had no intentions of sparing me. I wanted me dead in order to obtain her.
Nana looked at me incredulously, her face pale. She seemed to have trouble breathing due to the stress. I felt very distressed, sitting beside her and putting an arm around her. “Tell me everything. We’re going to spend the rest of our lives together. If we can’t even face this challenge together, how are we supposed to endure the many years?”
Nana didn’t speak, but I sensed her hesitation. She probably knew I was right, but was temporarily unable to make up her mind out of fear. I didn’t rush her, merely stroking her shoulder lightly, transmitting trust and safety through my touch.
Finally, she shifted, speaking reluctantly. “He said…if I said anything, he would kill you!” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I can’t let you die. I can’t live without you!”
Her words twisted my heart. I held her, not knowing what to say. This seemed to have opened the floodgates and she stammered on, “After Xiao Ling died, he came to me! He enters my dream every night, not letting me off a single time. He said he loves me, and threatened me not to tell anyone. He won’t let me leave the campus, or you would suffer, my family would suffer and my schoolmates would also suffer! I believe he’s able to make good on his threats! I don’t dare! I don’t dare! When it started, he merely said many sappy things to me. Then he started getting physical…touching me, kissing me, making me feel like a bunch of eels were wriggling on my body. But finally, he actually wanted to…I really couldn’t take it anymore so I fled. I didn’t think something would happen to Yan Yan! I regret it! I didn’t want…I didn’t do it on purpose…it really wasn’t on purpose!”
“Shhh….shhhh…it’s fine…it’s fine now!” I comforted her increasingly stimulated emotions. Although I was furious enough to kill the fiend on the spot for doing those things to Nana, I had to calm her down. I had to make her see that I could protect her. “Take it easy, let’s talk it over slowly. Bao Da Tong is here, and Ah Zhan will be back a few days later. Once we join hands, we’ll definitely be able to eradicate it. But hiding’s no use. Would you be able to stand by as it harms even more people? Furthermore, with how deranged it is, do you really think it’ll let us off? We managed to beat such vicious fiends in the mountains on our trip back then. We will definitely send this one packing too! Don’t be scared, fear is the worst feeling.”
Nana nodded tearfully. I called Bao Da Tong inside.
“It truly was a toad lusting after a swan!” I said. “He must be in the water, and must have arrived not long ago, right? But where did he come from? Why doesn’t he find someone from his own realm? Why would he fall in love with a mortal girl?”
“He…” Nana said hoarsely, “He is in the water and arrived not too long ago. However, he…fell in love with me four years ago! Furthermore, you both know him!”
“We know him?” I was stunned. “When did we meet a water ghost? Why don’t I know anything about it?”
“You mentioned the trip to the mountains…” Nana said softly, “Think about it, who ended up drowning back then?”
After several seconds of silence, Bao Da Tong suddenly slapped his leg. I was also suddenly speechless!
It was Zhao Jiang!
The Zhao Jiang who was shy and weak like a girl, and so quiet that he made others overlook him. The one who always had a crush on Nana but never said anything. The one who leaped unhesitatingly into the water when Nana was drowning. The one who was controlled by the fiendish infant after drowning, leading the others astray.
So it was actually him!
When they eliminated Duan Jin’s child, Uncle Bao didn’t do the same for Zhao Jiang since he and the young handmaiden were also victims. Instead, he sent them off to reincarnate. But why hadn’t he left, and instead lingered on campus with a fierce obsession? Why had he become so powerful?
I turned to look at Bao Da Tong. Bao Da Tong hurriedly raised his hands, “I also have no idea how it happened. My old dad definitely sent that kid where he ought to go. Theoretically, he shouldn’t have been able to return. What went wrong?”
“How should I know!?” I said. “But it’s clear that one needs to be thorough when eradicating evil. However, there’s no use in complaining about it now. We have to quickly come up with a solution!”
“How does he come to you?” Bao Da Tong asked Nana. “Only in dreams?”
“At first it was only in nightmares. Then, it became difficult to tell whether they were dreams or visions, or if he was really appearing by my side.” Nana started trembling as she spoke. “He said he was very hungry, but eating that child and the worker’s soul filled him up. Xiao Ling was also seized by him. He wanted to use her to come see me! He’s become very powerful, though not as much as the fiendish infant from back then. However, he’s strong enough to hurt the people I love. This, I could feel, so I am especially scared of him. He also forced me not to tell you and Ah Zhan, or he would kill you first. If I behaved, he would consider letting you and my family off! Remember that day you almost got hit by a car when we went off campus for dinner?”
I nodded, recalling the event. At that time, Nana had seemed to be in a bad mood for several days. Now it appears that had been due to those threatening nightmares. I mistakenly thought she was unhappy because I didn’t spend much time with her, so I made a special effort to take her out and spend a romantic evening together.
While walking along the sidewalk, a car suddenly lost control and swerved towards us. I pushed Nana aside and was about to get struck when it suddenly turned the other way, crashing into the wall of a store. The driver was heavily injured.
I was preoccupied with helping at the time. Only after the ambulance took the driver away did I notice Nana sitting on the ground, staring vacantly. I had thought she was in shock, and spent a lot of time comforting her before forgetting about the matter.
“Was that close call related to Zhao Jiang?” I asked.
Nana nodded with some trepidation, seeming to recall the matter. “I saw him crouched on a tree, smiling at me. He was within the leaves, water continuously trickling down the trunk. He was holding a red rope, with the other end attached to the car! No one else apart from me could see the strange rope! It was real, not an illusion. He was telling me that he could have you die at any time. And since he could reach such a remote place, it meant he wasn’t restricted to the campus. He could appear anywhere! I was afraid he would kill you and didn’t know what to do. I could only drag things out day by day!”
He looked suspiciously at Bao Da Tong, giving him a fright. “Don’t look at me, I didn’t bring him over! Remember, those events happened before I arrived.”
That was indeed the case. Although Ah Zhan had said spiritual bodies couldn’t stray far from where they died unless they possessed something, I heard there were many who would help spirits for their own benefits. Zhao Jiang might have used anything to reach the campus. Based on the timing, it seems he had waited a long time.
“Furthermore, I don’t think he’s powerful enough to manipulate others into harming you.” Bao Da Tong continued. “Think about it. He hates you so much, so why would he spare you? If he really could, he would use a hundred car accidents to kill you!”
“Then how do you explain what Nana said.” I asked.
“You are someone brimming with Yang energy. Normal spirits wouldn’t be able to remain close to you without being harmed, let alone possess you. Of course, spirits with powers are another story.” Bao Da Tong explained. “Another advantage people like you possess is that your fortune is not easily altered. Spirits without strong cultivation won’t be able to take your life. They can at most seriously injure you.”
“Easy for you to say. You aren’t the one getting seriously injured!”
“Let me finish.” Bao Da Tong spread his arms. “To hurt you via external objects, not only does he have to suppress your fate, he would also have to control others. Maybe it would work for inanimate objects, but I don’t think he’s powerful enough to control both you and someone else at the same time. As I said, I he could, you’d have died a hundred times over. Therefore, he was merely using Nana’s concern for you to scare her. Do you think the world of the living is somewhere ghosts can run rampant? They can’t act as they please. His cultivation is only slightly higher than mine. He isn’t strong enough to that extent.”
“I understand. He was trying to tell Nana that her boyfriend’s life was in his hands. In reality, he could only make the car suddenly lose control, but not how the driver chose to respond, let alone suppress my fate. Is that right?”
“Basically…that’s the gist of it.” Bao Da Tong said. “From what Nana said, I can also deduce how he escaped from where he ought to be, and why he suddenly has powers. Do you remember? Duan Jin’s little handmaiden was with him at the time. Having stayed with Duan Jin for so long, she must have some powers. Yet she was innately kind and timid, so there was never any danger. Zhao Jiang had left with her, so I’m guessing he somehow transferred her powers to himself. Maybe he even harmed her to increase his own strength. Zhao Jiang was fiercely obsessed with Nana. It’s not something that innocent handmaiden could guard against. Since he’s able to devour souls, it’s clear he stole powers that don’t belong to him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have had the time to cultivate to such an extent!”
Bao Da Tong’s words gave me the chills. It wasn’t due to fear of ghosts, but rather fear of human nature. He merely had a crush on Nana. Why was he able to commit so much evil because of his feelings? Was love actually something that could cause someone to become so filthy? But love was supposed to be the most beautiful thing in the world!