The theater club’s last rehearsal was in a few days. The performance would be two days later.
Zhao Jiang never made a move, making the three of us exceptionally nervous. Pending disaster wasn’t the scary thing. Instead, it was the waiting period before it happened.
Before the rehearsal, Bao Da Tong and I roamed the campus. To the other students, it looked like Bao Da Tong was going around and taking souvenir pictures since he was about to return home. In reality, we were investigating whether Zhao Jiang had set up any traps, especially around the lake.
“The resentful aura is growing heavier and heavier.” Bao Da Tong struck a pose and then pretended to tie his laces, sticking a symbol-inscribed stone into the soft mud.
He had gathered many small stones early this morning, drawing unobtrusive symbols on each one. He had been lamenting over not having brought more of his old dad’s talismans. His own powers were limited, which extended to the talismans he made.
“Is he about to make a move?” I asked quietly.
“I don’t know, but he’s definitely preparing something.” He leaned against a tree by the lake and took another picture. “Can you develop these pictures quickly? I can’t tell clearly with the flowing air, but it would be different with pictures for reference.”
I looked at the camera in his hands.
It was an ordinary camera, but Bao Da Tong had drawn dense symbols on the lens using blood. People only saw me taking his pictures, but didn’t realize I could only see bars of ink, as if everything within view was trapped in a cage.
The blood was a mixture of his and mine since I was the one taking pictures while he cast his spells. He claimed neither could be lacking, though I really doubted if his “supernatural camera” was actually useful. He claimed it was based on his old dad’s “spirit capturing talisman”. Since it could “capture spirits”, it could naturally also capture their “likeness”.
“Are you able to develop the photos or not?” He asked again when I didn’t respond.
I indicated that it was not a problem. The head of the photography club was my bro. Such a small matter was easily handled.
“You have to do it personally. If something was really photographed, it would terrify others.” He instructed. “Come take a picture of the water!”
I was getting annoyed at being ordered around, but still complied. After taking a bunch of pictures of the lake, I was sent off to go develop the photos. He remained by the lake and continued “appreciating the view”.
Strangely, despite the many symbols on the lens, the photos came out very clear. The ones of him in front of the track field, the dormitory, the library and the cafeteria were all super ordinary. Only the ones by the lake were exceptions!
He had taken a total of three photos by the lake. He was crouched by the railings around the lake for one, leaning against the tree for another and one was of the open space, with the top of the small auditorium and the small stone bridge in the background.
The three photos were stained to varying degrees. Initially, it looked like glare from the light. Upon closer examination, there was always something next to Bao Da Tong.
In the first picture, a blurry dark strand stretched from the water, wrapping around his leg. It looked ready to drag him into the water. In the second, a snowy hand reached out from within the tree towards his heart. In the third, there wasn’t anything next to him, but dark clouds shrouded the auditorium.
I stared blankly at these photos, knowing why Bao Da Tong was unharmed despite so many attacks. It could be seen from the photos: a layer of light covered his body. It seemed to be glare from the sunlight. However, the sun wasn’t bright enough today and it was also a little cloudy. Therefore, it definitely wasn’t the sun’s reflection. It was a protective shield he had formed. Although it was weak enough to be unnoticeable, it still protected him from harm. It was also visible via this “supernatural camera”!
I had also been by the lake at the time. If Bao Da Tong had taken my picture, would there also be strange things around me? I didn’t feel unwell anywhere, which meant I also had something invisible protecting me. Did Nana have any safeguards?
If not, I would be the one to protect her!
With these determined thoughts, I glanced at my watch. My arranged time with Bao Da Tong was coming up and I hurriedly placed the last few photos into the solution, carefully stirring them with tweezers. Slowly, the images captured by the camera appeared.
Four photos, four human faces!
A child, Xiao Ling, the migrant worker and Zhao Jiang!
Their eyes were all closed, their faces pale and bloated from the water. Their features had become twisted, facing my direction through a layer of light green water! I didn’t know if it was due to the development solution, but I suddenly felt as if I were by the lake. They seemed to be floating just underneath the surface, swaying in the current. Their faces seemed to change as they inched closer to the surface, about to rush out!
With a clang, the tweezers in my hands somehow slipped and dropped into the bottom of the container. Yet the four photos floated to the surface.
At that moment, I was shocked to see the photos had changed. The flesh had started peeling of the first three faces and they soon turned disgustingly rotten. It wasn’t possible to identify their age or gender anymore. Only the fourth face hadn’t changed. It was still Zhao Jiang.
I blinked forcefully, worried I was seeing things. However, the following scene confirmed I hadn’t been mistaken. The three faces had rotted while Zhao Jiang’s hadn’t changed.
I gritted my teeth and picked up the photos, saying to Zhao Jiang’s face with a glare, “Piss of as far as you can. It’s no use trying to scare me. I won’t let you harm a hair on Nana’s head!”
“We shall see!” He said.
He? He spoke? Was Zhao Jiang here?
Startled, I almost knocked over the equipment as I leapt to turn on the lights, a bottle at the ready in my hand. However, there was nothing in the room. Was it an illusion? No, it had been too clear. His voice had been extremely close. Right by my ear, right…in my hand!
I raised the photo and looked. The three faces were still rotted and Zhao Jiang’s face was still the same. Yet as I stared at him, he suddenly opened his eyes and started laughing!
Rage and fear almost made me lose my mind. Right before I lost it, I suddenly understood he was trying to shake my conviction. Therefore, I desperately forced myself to remain calm. Gripping the photo in both hands, I stared at him without a hint of weakness as I tore his face in half!
His face vanished at once. Only one eye remained on each half of the torn photo.
I didn’t dare delay any further. After hurriedly cleaning up, I rushed to the small auditorium. The moment I reached the small path through the grove, I saw Bao Da Tong on the stone bridge.
“You’re late.” He said.
“Don’t talk here, he will hear.” I had no time to bicker with him, looking around as I spoke.
“It seems we photographed some ghosts.” Bao Da Tong glanced downwards. “Come closer, he won’t be able to hear us.”
I looked down and saw he had laid out a ring of stones. Surrounding them were also some drawn plants and flowers. I understood this was some sort of barrier and hurriedly stepped inside. I shoved the photos into Bao Da Tong’s hands and recounted the events in the darkroom.
“Don’t worry, he didn’t follow you to the darkroom. He merely used some small tricks to allow him to see you. It’s like…a video chat or whatever it’s called.”
“I was more like a projector. The photos could actually move. He probably knows we are watching him, so he’s giving a show of force. Are all the magic rocks you buried around the lake actually effective?”
“How can they not be?” Bao Da Tong shrugged. “Well, they can’t keep him trapped. Their purpose is to prevent him from absorbing the yin energy in the water and increase his strength. We’d be able to barely fend him off in his current state if we worked together. If he could draw on that energy, we’d be screwed!”
“I will protect Nana, no matter what!” I said through gritted teeth. “I actually felt a lot of sympathy when he died. However, his tragedy is no excuse for him to harm others.”
“Well said!” Bao Da Tong said. “We only learned about his plans yesterday. Yet on the other hand, he only found out we today that we are onto him. Thus both sides pretty much started making preparations around the same time. But I’m guessing he won’t make a move tomorrow. Then, he can only tremble in fear when Ah Zhan returns the day after.”
“Why won’t he make a move tomorrow?” I asked.
“Tomorrow is the performance. Since the female lead is the campus belle, the auditorium will be filled with people. They are all young so it’ll be brimming with yang energy. Even the Duan Jin from back then wouldn’t dare come out, let alone Zhao Jiang.” Bao Da Tong said confidently. “Nothing will happen on campus, and he won’t succeed off-campus either!”
“This means tonight’s rehearsal is his only chance?”
“My thoughts exactly, or I wouldn’t need to be so nervous.” Bao Da Tong scratched his head. “Tonight will be very dangerous. We must be careful. Go pick up Nana first. I’ll go stroll around the backstage area. Tonight, you guard the front of the stage while I guard the back.” He bent over as he spoke, handing me a small sack on the ground.
“I’ve drawn symbols on all the stones in here. Sorry, the effects are far from ideal, but they are good enough against normal spirits. Oh, that rod is made of peach blossom wood. It can ward off evil spirits! Man, it was really hard to find a peach tree in the city, and I’m also not good at carving. You should improvise as best you can.”
“Normal spirits? Are you saying he has helpers?” I frowned.
“Not helpers. It’s someone forced into his service. Since he ate the souls of the child and the worker, I’m guessing it’s Xiao Ling. You should show mercy, she’s a pitiful person!”
I nodded, grabbing the sack of jumbled things and went to fetch Nana. Since it was the last rehearsal, things were a little different. Normally, people wore their normal clothes while they rehearsed. If any mistakes happened, they would immediately stop and make adjustments. Since they were doing the final rehearsal today, the students were all in their costumes as they performed the play in its entirety. It was like the actual show, and they wouldn’t take any breaks either.
I saw in the left-most seat in the front row. There were stairs leading up to the stage there, allowing me to rush up if anything really happened. Bao Da Tong had already wormed his way backstage. Using his charm, he had already gotten in good graces with the two young girls responsible for the costumes and props, and was now posing as a stagehand waiting in the back.
The club’s rehearsal was not open to the public. Therefore, apart from us, only the director, extras and significant others of the members were beneath the stage. There were around a dozen people. Everyone else sat in the middle. I was the only one in the corner, my hand gripping the sack tightly.
I was unaffected by the beautiful costumes, moving plot and romantic lines. My attention was fully focused on the surroundings for any signs of abnormality. Time passed slowly and nothing had happened yet. Bao Da Tong also didn’t give any signals from behind the stage. Everything seemed calm but I grew more and more nervous.
With Zhao Jiang’s deep obsession towards Nana, how could he let things go if tonight was his final chance? Why hadn’t he made his move? Could he be plotting something? But the play was nearing it’s end. Was he planning on making his move in the chaos after the performance ended?
Thinking of this, I observed the stage even more nervously. It was almost the final scene. The male and female leads changed their costumes and entered the stage. The spotlight fell upon them.
Under the light, Nana appeared especially resplendent. My mind wandered for a moment, thinking that she should apply for work as an actress. Her graceful figure, brimming passion and exquisite features were all very suitable for the stage, even though she currently wore a mask.
But…a mask?! Did the plot call for that?
I bolted upright, a sense of wrongness filling my heart!
The male lead wore a mask in this play because his character had burns across his face. But why did the female lead need one? Nana hadn’t been wearing one previously, so the play hadn’t been altered!
I looked around at the others and saw they were also very confused. Only the two on stage were still caught up in their performance.
“What kind of prank is this?” I heard the directing student grumble.
Was it a prank? Or…
I looked at Nana again and suddenly figured out what was wrong!
Nana was passionate about acting and had joined the club in her first year. However, she had a very unprofessional issue: she loved to look at the audience while she was on stage. The more important the moment, the more it would happen. In the past she would look at Ah Zhan, and nowadays she looked at me.
But today, during the most critical scene, she never glanced below the stage. She only stared at the male lead, apparently engrossed in the performance. This was completely impossible!
Her efforts for the play weren’t for show, but she knew we were in danger. Her emotions should be extremely unstable and I had spent a long time comforting her earlier before she was willing to get on stage. She had also been extremely nervous while acting earlier. How could she suddenly have calmed down, and become immersed in her performance without even looking at me?
“Nana!” I cried out, grabbing one of the stones at the same time.