Xiaozhai suddenly swished her flashlight in a direction.
Gu Yu followed the movement with his eyes. Under the faint light, he saw an irregular circle on the ice wall, within which there were some indistinct carving marks.
The marks were barely detectable and mostly eroded by the ice. They were probably there forever and were becoming part of the ice wall. They had to be deep and wide to begin with to be able to maintain any form at all.
He walked closer and followed the lines with his hand. After tracing it repeatedly, he said with amazement, "I think it's a character, and kind of familiar… oh, right, it's that forbidden word on that amulet."
"Thunder? Haha, it seems we've stumbled into the right place."
Xiaozhai was delighted. It was clearly an artificial carving and had something to do with Tianshan Sect.
They took their time to reexamine their reasoning.
"Based on our deduction so far, Tianshan Sect should be in a basin somewhere in the glacier zone. This tunnel may not be the front entrance, but likely a backdoor, or even a secret passageway to be used as a last resort," said Gu Yu.
"Not necessarily. It could well be a secret shortcut just for the sake of convenience. Anyhow, it's been a while since anybody walked through here. And about that forbidden character, what do you think it's there for?" Xiaozhai asked.
"Maybe it was left there by previous sect members, for protection and defense," chuckled Gu Yu.
"Yeah, it could be. They had magical power back then."
With that, they turned their flashlights towards the tunnel, trying to see beyond the entrance. The tunnel was as dark as an abyss. The light was devoured a few meters into the opening and darkness resumed beyond that.
They did manage to make out something, though. The wall-less side was indeed a natural passageway leading to some unknown place. Both of them were audacious beyond extreme and slipped into the tunnel without any hesitation.
However, a few steps into the tunnel, they were seized by a sudden panic. All lights, be it the sunlight, the reflected light from snow and ice, or their flashlights, were snapped shut in an instant.
The sense of space seemed non-existent here. On all sides, they were wrapped in a darkness void of anything else. The ceiling was infinitely high above, the bottom infinitely deep beneath, the walls on either side infinitely distant...
Gu Yu shuddered despite himself. Stretching out his left hand, he found a smooth and slender hand and held it. The fingers of that hand tightened up around his in return.
Holding hands, the two calmed down slightly. They shook their flashlights hastily and the beams returned. It was after quite some time before they could barely get used to their surroundings.
The icy surface was extremely slippery under their feet. They dared not miss their footing, for the terrain was sloping downwards. If they missed their step and fell down, they had no idea what corner they would be rolling into.
They found another several forbidden characters along the way. Some said "Thunder" and others they could not recognize. They had lost count of time by now. The only thing they knew was that they were going lower and lower beneath the ground level. They couldn't help wondering, 'Are we going into the center of the earth?'
At that moment, however, the circle of light from the flashlight suddenly moved closer, enlarged, and stood still.
'What?' The two paused. They had hit a dead end. An ice wall stood abruptly at their face.
"The end of the tunnel already?"
Xiaozhai would not accept that. Fetching her ice ax, she jabbed at the wall and frowned. "I don't think it's very thick."
Gu Yu touched the ice wall, then felt the snow layer above head. He poked a circle of holes on the wall with the ice ax, clenched his fist, and there came a bang.
The tunnel around them shook slightly and chunks of snow showered down. A circular hole appeared on the ice wall, big enough for the slim duo to squeeze through.
The passageway continued behind the wall. A short walk away, the ice and snow subsided, replaced by taupe bare rocks. By the time they reached the exit, they were walking in a rock cave instead.
A flash of light dazzled Gu Yu once they were out of the ice tunnel. Grabbing Xiaozhai, he ran towards the exit.
Aygul was right about a green valley in a snow mountain.
The passageway opened up to a small valley on about the same altitude as the mid-mountain zone, or even lower. The surrounding mountains had stopped the cold air, secluding the valley from outside, as well as keeping it warm.
The tunnel should be the back way, for they noticed a small piece of farmland and a few vegetable plots with a small river meandering through. On the river bank were trees and weeds. They could make out several cabins in the distance.
"This is a strange place…"
Gu Yu spoke suddenly after looking around.
"Picked up some spiritual essence?" Xiaozhai asked.
"I'm not sure. There is definitely some spiritual essence here, but it's blocked up by something and cannot be released. It feels chaotic. Come, let's go over there and have a look."
They carefully walked around the vegetable plots and came to the cabins along the dirt road.
There were three of them and looked out-dated, but not ancient, probably the product of the 70s or 80s of the last century. Wooden fences were built around the houses, encircling a courtyard.
The yard was kept neat and clean. Apparently, someone was living here.
They were about to go in when a voice came from inside the house, "Guests! How rare!"
A door was opened and out came a man in his thirties. His clothes were worn-out and there was nothing special about his features, yet there was a radiance about his eyes, which were bright and lofty at the same time.
He glanced towards them and his eyes met Gu Yu's. They both let out a soft cry. The man had started off with some haughtiness, but his countenance changed a little at this. A smile appeared on his face as he said, "I see I have two friends from our Taoist community here. Please come in!"
"Sorry for intruding like this!"
Unexpectedly, Gu Yu beat Xiaozhai in entering the house and gestured at her inconspicuously with his hand.
Xiaozhai blinked, alerted by the hint.
The interior of the house was kept simple and unadorned. A room of quietness was in the east wing and a bedroom with a kang in the west. After each taking a seat, they exchanged names. The man said, "I'm Sima Che. I have taken the layman surname of my master and given myself an alternative name 'Priest Lingxiao' [TL/N: meaning "reaching the clouds"]. I'm afraid it sounds rather pompous."
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai immediately expressed their disapproval of that last bit of statement and they exchanged some more courtesies.
After that, Sima Che asked, "May I inquire how did you get here?"
"We came from the northwest."
"Oh, Shuimogou. I was there seven years ago. How's the child?"
"He's fine. We got our lead after seeing that amulet."
"Hoho, I personally delivered him into this world back then, which was some predominated fate. For that, I gave him that spiritual talisman."
Sima Che appeared to be rather at ease, talking about things all over the board without asking any serious questions. After another while, Xiaozhai finally said, "Senior Sima, there's something I do not understand."
"Please, feel free to speak."
"Ninety years ago, the government held a major ceremony in Baiyun Temple, certifying sixty-two qualified sects, and Tianshan Sect was among them. However, after a single sighting of your honorable master thirty years ago, no news has been heard about your sect ever since. I mean no disrespect, but if I may ask, why did you hide away from the world?"
"Hoho, our sect has always been in the border area with few disciples. By the time my master was the leader, I was his only pupil. The temple of our sect was in the northwest, but unfortunately it disappeared in an avalanche. My master would not dispute over such trifles with the government and took me here to live a secluded life. As a matter of fact, this place is also an enclosed cultivation site of Tianshan Sect, only that no one else knew about it. After my master passed away and I became the only disciple of our sect, I found it even more unnecessary to go through the trouble…"
Sima Che was quite frank about it. He then turned to Gu Yu and smiled, "Besides, with all the confusion of the mortal world, one is better off living a cultivation life. Don't you agree, Fellow Daoist Gu?"