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    Chapter 56 - Lady Dongniang III

    Upon returning to the Jia residence, the noon bell tolled three times. Wen Yan was about to speak when a shrill scream echoed from outside, "A ghost! —A female ghost is killing people!"

    Hearing this, An Zhi and Chi Zi'e rushed into the house without hesitation.

    Amidst the chaos, everyone was cowering with their heads down. Seizing an attendant in the confusion, An Zhi held his arm tightly and asked, "Where's the female ghost?"

    The attendant stammered, "In... In the main hall..."

    Upon finishing his sentence, An Zhi released him and hurried to the Jia family's main hall together with Chi Zi'e.

    The blazing sun overhead made them dizzy. An Zhi narrowed her apricot-shaped eyes, glanced up at the sky, and wondered, "With the world so bright and clear, how could a female ghost dare to show herself now?"

    Chi Zi'e replied, "The noon bell just rang thrice. It's currently the intersection of yin and yang. It's not unusual for a female ghost to appear at this time."

    As they spoke, the two of them arrived outside the main hall.

    "Little Feng?!" An Zhi looked on, astonishment etched on his face.

    In the living room, besides Jian Jiaojiao's parents who were receiving guests, there was Jian Fengzi, with a female ghost slung over his back.

    This was the very same female ghost that An Zhi and Jian Fengzi had first encountered in the woods outside Ciye Town. It had escaped from Jian Songxiang's box and latched onto Jian Fengzi. In Jian Fengzi's dream following his tenth birthday, it had supposedly been resolved, but now it was back!

    What was going on?

    "An Zhi!" Hearing An Zhi's voice, Jian Fengzi approached with a bright smile, as if he was completely unaware of the terrifying presence on his back. He put an arm around An Zhi's shoulder, leading him into the living room, and said curiously, "I thought the lunch was served when I heard the noon bell, but to my surprise, everyone had left."

    Their bodies were inches apart, and the female ghost, with her ghastly visage, was staring at An Zhi from Jian Fengzi's back. Goosebumps rose on An Zhi's skin, and he kept his gaze fixed ahead, unable to look at Jian Fengzi. He stammered, "After Jian Jiaojiao's parents broke ties with the Jian family, you... you shouldn't have found it convenient to come here anymore. So why did you... suddenly come here today?..."

    "What's wrong with you? You're all tensed up and can't even speak properly," Jian Fengzi said, still holding An Zhi's shoulder with a smile. "Sis Jiaojiao has always been nice to me since we were kids. Now that she's become Dong Niang, I can't just turn a blind eye. I originally planned to ask Sister Mu He to come in my place, but coincidentally, she had a sudden headache today, so I had no choice but to come myself."

    "heehee—" The female ghost let out a sharp, mocking giggle. "We can't let you disrupt our benefactor's plans, so I put a spell on her—"

    Upon hearing this, An Zhi slightly rolled his eyes to sneak a glance at the female ghost. Since he still faced forward, he dared not turn his head, and thus his peripheral vision only caught Jian Fengzi's well-proportioned profile, leaving him with nothing else to see.

    "Little Feng," he prompted, "Don't you feel any ache in your back or neck, as if carrying something heavy?"

    Jian Fengzi rubbed his waist and puffed out his chest, laughing in response, "Not at all."

    He was oblivious to the burden of carrying a female ghost, but for An Zhi, who was being stared at by her, it was a different story. He felt a chill run down his spine, with cold currents coursing through his body.

    Secretly, he reached a hand behind his back and discreetly beckoned at Chi Zi'e, who had been watching the spectacle from a distance without any reaction for quite some time, signaling him to come and dispel the evil spirit.

    However, Chi Zi'e nonchalantly replied, "Let's wait a bit longer. What's the rush—"

    "Damn it!" An Zhi was speechless.

    "Hey!" Jian Fengzi mistakenly thought that An Zhi was cursing at him and became displeased. "You dare to curse at me! Let me tell you, you can curse at my stepfather, but not my biological mother! She has been gone for a long time!" With that, he withdrew his arm that was around An Zhi's shoulder, his face showing a hint of anger.

    Seizing the opportunity, An Zhi swiftly stepped aside, distancing himself from Jian Fengzi.

    His legs trembled with fear due to the ghost, causing him to stagger over to a chair. He leaned on the armrests to sit down.

    "Indeed!" Jian Fengzi pulled out several neatly folded papers from his pocket.

    An Zhi extended both hands to receive the notes.

    Unfolding them, he found each sheet densely covered with writing. All of them were the same.

    An Zhi swiftly glanced over them but didn't delve into the content yet.

    One sheet bore tidy and delicate script, clearly the handwriting of a woman. The other displayed vigorous and flowing characters that seemed to pierce through the paper, undoubtedly the work of a man's hand.

    A sheet written by a woman lay atop one penned by a man, their exchange uninterrupted for over a dozen turns.

    An Zhi inquired, "What do they say?"

    Still irked by the previous incident, Jian Fengzi retorted sharply, "Eyes aren't just for decoration; read it yourself."

    "I want to see too," Chi Zi'e scampered over to An Zhi's side and bent down, joining him in perusing the papers.

    The words on these sheets were filled with affectionate murmurs and the entanglements of love between a man and a woman.

    For some unknown reason, their intimate relationship took an unexpected turn. The woman's letter, stained with tears, read: "There's no need to wait for me anymore."

    The next one was from the man: "Endless worries, vast calamities. The short song ends, the bright moon wanes. A soul's fragrance lingers, unbroken. Was it real, or just a dream? Transformed into butterflies!"

    An Zhi detected a faint scent of blood and shifted his gaze downward.

    Suddenly, a pool of red caught his eye, horrifying him.

    "He's dead?!" An Zhi exclaimed in shock.

    "No," Jian Fengzi replied.

    An Zhi breathed a sigh of relief.

    Then, Jian Fengzi continued, "But not quite alive either. Half-dead, you could say."

    Unable to tolerate Jian Fengzi's cryptic speech, Chizi E urged, "Finish your sentence in one go."

    Jian Fengzi let out an "oh" and continued, "That man was from a humble background, dedicated solely to studying the classics. When he finally achieved scholarly fame, he became a dragon among men. But at the Double Flower Temple, he chanced upon a woman and fell deeply in love at first sight. Later, they met at the academy and began exchanging letters. Aware of their unequal status, and fearing exploitation, they both refrained from signing their names."

    "However, nothing remains hidden forever. Eventually, the letters fell into the hands of the woman's father. The letters were unsigned, and despite her desperate denials, she handed them all over to her most trusted younger brother. But her father was no fool; a few incentives at the academy were enough for someone to reveal the truth.

    "The man was then beaten by the woman's father and left crippled. Yet, he remained determined and approached the woman's father, vowing to work hard to become worthy of her. It wasn't a matter of worthiness, though; the woman's father had already promised her hand to another wealthy and influential family in the area. This infuriated the man even more. The woman's father stripped him of his position, leaving him with no hope."

    An Zhi had long guessed who Jian Fengzi was referring to. "The woman is Jian Jiaojiao, the man is Liang Zhen, and you, Little Feng, are the trusted younger brother in the Jian family. As for the other wealthy and influential family, it's the Qi residence in the west of the city."

    An Zhi's anger simmered. "I knew Lady Jian was lying to me!"

    He then wondered, "But Liang Zhen works here, keeping accounts. How could the Jian family allow them to be in the same place if they know about their relationship?"

    Jian Fengzi replied, "Uncle Jian is already wealthy, but he'll become even richer after marrying into the Qi family of the western city. He won't give up on the two marriages until the very last moment, hoping that with Liang Zhen by Jiaojiao's side, she might come to her senses and not go through with the marriage to Dong Niang's cave."

    Recalling the wedding dress and trousseau they had seen in Jian Jiaojiao's room a few days ago, An Zhi realized,

    "That dress wasn't prepared for Jiaojiao to marry her beloved; it was for a marriage to a stranger. To become butterflies... like in 'Butterfly Lovers'..."

    These words kept echoing in An Zhi's mind, hinting at a connection between Jian Jiaojiao and Liang Zhen within the story.

    He strained his thoughts.

    After a moment, he exclaimed in alarm, "Oh no! Neither Jian Jiaojiao nor Liang Zhen will escape this!"

    No sooner had he spoken when more screams echoed outside the living room, "Liang Zhen is dead!! ——"

    Suddenly, a figure began to materialize outside the living room door.

    It was an unfamiliar face. An Zhi didn't recognize him, but the stranger recognized Shen Yuan and said, "As expected of the only pride of Nine Li, Shen Yuan. You're truly clever."

    "Who are you?!" Jian Fengzi, unafraid as a young calf, bellowed at him.

    Completely ignoring Jian Fengzi, the man didn't even spare him a glance. Instead, he fixated on An Zhi and continued, "What a pity. You love your family deeply, yet none of them love you back. Betrayed by the little wolf pup you raised by your side, ending up with that fate."

    Unlike Jian Fengzi, An Zhi felt a sense of fear towards the man. He replied gently, "I understand the first part of what you said, but I don't comprehend the second."

    "Ju Lang isn't who you think he is," the man said. "If you wish to know everything, come find me, Hao Chang, in the Orchid Pavilion within the Demonic Realm. I'll tell you all there is to know."

    "Hao Chang?" An Zhi recalled that this man had lost an arm to Shen Yuan, making him a defeated foe, seemingly just a disposable villain. It would be foolish for An Zhi to believe his words. Thus, he dismissed the man, saying, "I'll come."

    Before leaving, Hao Chang exhorted, "Make sure you come to the Orchid Retreat to find me, and be on guard against Ju Lang."

    As An Zhi turned around, he unexpectedly collided with the ghostly woman's face. His body trembled, and cold sweat drenched his inner clothes. Addressing Chi Zi'e, he said, "Scarlet Water, please put it away quickly, it's terrifying."

    "What are you talking about?" Jian Fengzi remained clueless.

    "Nothing, hehe," Chi Zi'e chuckled sinisterly.

    He walked behind Jian Fengzi and, with lightning speed, grabbed the ghost by the back of her neck, forcefully pulling her away from him. He shouted, "Reveal!"

    Seeing this, Jian Fengzi's eyes widened as he instinctively clung tightly to An Zhi, yelling, "Ghost! —A ghost!!!—A female ghost!!!"

    "Tsk tsk," Chi Zi'e clicked his tongue. "The Jian family boasts of their prestige, yet they didn't even notice a female ghost lurking behind them for so long."

    An Zhi approached the ghost and asked, "You were already defeated in the dream. Why do you still show yourself and torment Little Feng? Are you really not afraid of being scattered into nothingness?"

    The ghost's eyes instantly turned bloodshot, filled with resentment. She declared, "What dream?! I just want Jian Fengzi to share the same fate as me!"

    An Zhi inquired, "Are you saying that the female ghost wearing the fox mask in the dream was not you?"

    The female ghost replied, "Of course, it wasn't me."

    Then who was it?

    An Zhi was perplexed.

    Since the female ghost hadn't caused any chaos, it wasn't the right time to dwell on her identity.

    He asked the ghost, "What grudge do you have against Little Feng that you must seek his death?"

    "I am the real Jian Fengzi!" the female ghost shrieked. "And he should have been the one to enter the cycle of reincarnation as me! A filthy slave in Shangchicheng, dying in agony and humiliation!"

    Jian Fengzi's anger flared. "What do you mean?! Explain yourself!"

    The female ghost gritted her teeth as she recalled something. "We were souls together in the Realm of Ghosts, awaiting reincarnation. Originally, I was ahead of you, but you...you, with some unknown method, managed to make the Ghost Lord himself intervene and switch our places. Ang Liu, Jian Feng from the Jian family in Shangchicheng – that was supposed to be my reincarnation! You were the one meant to be a slave in Shangchicheng! But with that exchange, our destinies were completely reversed. I am the true Jian Fengzi! All your glory was rightfully mine!"

    An Zhi was astonished. "After crossing the River of Forgetfulness and drinking from the River of Oblivion, you should have forgotten everything that happened in the Realm of Ghosts."

    The female ghost chuckled, her sharp lips stretching to her earlobes. "Why did I cast a spell on Mu He, making Jian Fengzi come here personally? Because someone here was meant to become Dong Niang today. How would I know about today's wedding?"

    An Zhi's scalp tingled. "You're the Cave Deity?!"

    "Fool!" the female ghost snapped. "The Cave Deity is the one who told me about my tragic past! It instructed me to come here today and stall for time so that the Cave Deity can marry Liang Zhen!"

    Childhood Misfortune chuckled. "Your Cave Deity doesn't discriminate between genders?"

    The female ghost replied, "I assume you already know. Every woman who becomes a Cave Lady has experienced heartbreak. Why should only women suffer from love? Only those who have been hurt in love would make wishes to deities. The Cave Deity is the god who accepts their wishes and helps them escape their suffering!"

    Jian Fengzi scoffed. "Escaping suffering means dying with limbs severed?"

    The female ghost didn't think there was anything wrong with her actions. "They wished for the people they wanted back to never have loved them. Only death can lead them into a long and beautiful illusion."

    An Zhi ventured a guess. "Jian Jiaojiao doesn't love Liang Zhen, but Liang Zhen loves Jian Jiaojiao. After realizing he couldn't break free from his bonds, Liang Zhen made a wish to the Cave Deity, which is why the deity only wants Liang Zhen now?"

    "That's not right," the female ghost shook her head. "Jian Jiaojiao and Liang Zhen are the exception. They truly love each other with all their hearts. For them, being together after death is far more possible than staying alive in this mundane world."

    An Zhi instantly understood Jian Jiaojiao and Liang Zhen's fate.

    Liang Zhen had already died to protect Jian Jiaojiao once, but she would inevitably meet the same end one day.

    She loved Liang Zhen so much that she wished for a fate like Butterfly Lovers, to transform into butterflies together after death if they couldn't be together in life, unable to bear living alone.

    At this thought, An Zhi's expression turned forlorn.

    Chi Zuo'e asked the female ghost, "Who is the Cave Spirit?" As he spoke, he tightened his grip around her neck as a threat.

    The female ghost was arrogant despite the peril, "My benefactor has already married the last Dong Niang. Even if you were to annihilate me, I would have no regrets! When my benefactor recovers, they will surely help me kill Jian Fengzi!"

    "Fool!" Chi Zuo'e dispelled the female ghost, rendering her powerless to harm anyone else.

    An Zhi commented, "Its benefactor is indeed Hao Chang. How foolish."

    --------------------

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