It was not the sound of thunder, but a random light snore from the lonely and colossal deity of snow mountains who was stirred by these nonentities in its sound sleep on this land frozen for eternity.
By extracting the ancient seal, Gu Yu released the lump of spiritual essence that had been long under suppression. The deafening sound coming out of the lake was like exploding bombs, shaking the massif of the mountains loose, and an avalanche followed.
Unlike ferocious mud-rock flows, earthquakes, or floods, there was something beautiful about an avalanche.
The three of them looked up and saw the layer of snow at the mountain peak snap suddenly. Tiers upon tiers of snow plates and chunks started moving, as if on command. It was like the deity was shaking off a white robe.
The next second, however, the white robe turned into white sand, and then white waves, which were dumped onto them head on, stirring up rolls of clouds and blotting out the sky.
One of them shouted. Two figures started descending at full speed and another one followed suit in a flurry.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai's minds blanked out. The only thing they felt was the biting wind screaming at their ears. They did not run along the ridge, but jumped down into the mountain creeks, flitting and hopping among protruding bare rocks and dirt bed.
Sima Che held the ancient seal tightly between his arms and was not much slower than the two. The inner Qi he had accumulated during his thirty-year cultivation was concentrated into his feet as he ran frantically for his life, frightened out of his wits.
The wooden box containing the paper scroll fell to the ground with a thud and was instantly devoured by the snow.
Behind them, the roaring sound was growing louder and closer, as if the earth was cracking open. In the dim sunlight, the waves of snow looked like stars falling down from all heavens and silver dragons dancing in the air as they came down in torrents along the mountain slopes.
Driven by the silver dragons were white clouds of snow powder. It was like treading on clouds.
The snow of the avalanche was sliding down from thousands of meters above, gathering tremendous momentum which would cause a violent vibration of the air, forming a blast similar to the shock wave from an explosion. It was powerful enough to destroy everything.
The howling wind had been mixed into the sound of their breathing and they could not tell whether they themselves were breathing in or out. Gu Yu sensed the chasing force behind them raging more than ever as an unprecedented smell of death enwrapped him.
All of a sudden, an idea dawned on him and he shouted, "Run across the slope! Stay away from its path!"
"To the south!"
Xiaozhai realized that as well and replied immediately. It might seem slow a reaction, but in fact, it had only been a few minutes after Gu Yu got back ashore. The incident had happened so suddenly that their minds were all muddled up.
The two turned and fled to the south right away. Sima Che still managed to save some energy and turned with them without giving it much thought.
The avalanche was advancing faster as it descended; the human strength was nothing in comparison. Despite the little time they managed to buy for themselves, they were losing out to the power of the nature. The blast of air was going to throw them off balance.
"Hold onto me!"
Gu Yu's heart leapt. Grabbing Xiaozhai with one hand, he flew past a rock in front with all the strength he could gather. Before even hitting the ground, he concentrated all his spiritual essence to his back, then bent down, holding Xiaozhai between his arms in a protective position.
Immediately, there was a "Bang"!
They had escaped from the central area, but even the blast at the edge of the avalanche was able to strike the big rock into pieces. The crumbs flew up into the air, then fell down in a shower of stones, which all smashed onto Gu Yu's back.
A sweet and puckery taste rose up from his throat as blood threatened to spurt out of his mouth. He fought it down forcibly, then everything went black.
The blast of air was followed by waves of snow, roaring past them along with countless chunks of ice and rocks. The two of them were a lone boat in a storm, threatened to sink at any moment.
One second, two seconds, three seconds… It seemed forever when, after an endless torment, the sound finally moved away.
Held between Gu Yu's arms, Xiaozhai did not feel much of the impact. She opened her eyes and saw darkness surrounding them. Looking closely, she realized that they had been covered up by the surging snow lumps and were now beneath a layer of snow.
"Gu Yu! Gu Yu!"
She called out, but got not reply. She moved closer in a hurry and rubbed her nose against the tip of his. Good, he was still breathing, and she could detect his heartbeat. He had only fainted.
What just happened was too alarmingly dangerous and her head was filled with fog. The only feeling she could process right now was the most straightforward one: she had survived a natural disaster.
After a brief rest, she started wriggling around, getting out of that narrow space and digging at the snow with all her effort.
Human body temperature would drop rapidly once buried under snow. Half an hour was long enough to be life-threatening. Xiaozhai's right arm was pinned down by the narrow space and she had to work with her left hand alone. She thrusted herself upwards as she dug along.
With more room for her to maneuver in, moving around became easier and her right hand was able to join in.
They were not buried too deeply and it did not take her long to reach the surface. Xiaozhai dragged Gu Yu out and moved further away from the spot, fearing a possible second collapse.
Standing on the mountainside and looking down, the view beneath had undergone a tremendous change. The green valley was buried in oblivion—the houses disappeared, and gone together were the trees, farmlands, vegetable plots, and rivers. The only thing in sight were tens of thousands tons of snow, turning the valley into a snowland.
She heaved a soft sigh and started looking around. She still had an ignitor with her; now she needed something to start a fire with.
"Help… help me…"
Several cries came out in a row, as if someone was calling for help. The voice was indistinctive and carried here and there by the wind. She followed it and stopped by a layer of snow. "Senior Sima?"
"Yes! Please help me, Fellow Daoist!"
Xiaozhai started digging again, with Sima Che scratching at the snow from the inside. By the time his upper body was out in the open, he was almost frozen numb.
"Thank you! Thank you, Fellow Daoist Jiang!"
Sima Che scrambled out of the snow pit, filled with rejoice of the narrow escape and the panic afterthought. It was plain dumb luck that had protected him. After being thrown into the air by the blast, he fell directly into a snow pit and came out unscratched.
"Where, where is Fellow Daoist Gu?" he gasped.
"He's over there. We need to start a fire."
"I know where to find some firewood."
With that, they searched for twigs together and started a campfire. Another while passed before Gu Yu regained consciousness. His face was pale.
"How are you feeling? I have examined you. Your bones are all fine," said Xiaozhai hastily.
"Probably... probably some internal organ was injured by the impact…" he was breathing unevenly and seemed rather weak.
"Then stay put. Don't move around."
"How are things looking now?" he asked.
"The tunnel entrance is blocked by the snow, the valley's all gone and so are our food and equipment, which were in our backpacks."
"What's that fellow doing?"
"He says he was going down to have a look. He still has the thing you got out of the lake."
Gu Yu nodded, then added for no reason, "Be careful."
At that moment, Sima Che climbed back to the mountainside and collapsed to the ground in a heap. He whimpered, "It's over. This place was the secluded cultivation site of my sect for hundreds of years and now it's all over… I'm over…"
"Fellow Daoist Sima!"
Gu Yu leaned against a short tree and pointed at a direction opposite the entrance. "Now is not the time to think about those things. Do you know where going in that direction will lead us to?"
Sima Che was stumped for a moment before replying, "Also snow mountains. The nearest village is a long way out, about four days' walk."
Both Gu Yu and Xiaozhai frowned. This meant they were stranded in a hopeless situation. Injury impaired their movement and, more importantly, they had no food!
Darkness had completely set in and they were surrounded by an inky blackness. The only light came from the fire. Without the warmth of the valley, the temperature slumped and the coldness was unbearable.
They were all extraordinary men, who had remained calm in their current situation and exchanged ideas on finding a way out. Finally, they reached an agreement—excavate the shelters first, then find food and equipment. With their basic needs secured, it was only a matter of time before the entrance was dug open.
With that thought in mind, their current status did not seem all that untolerable.
As for the exchange, no one had mentioned it yet. Maybe they had forgotten about it, or maybe they ignored it on purpose.
The flame licked the twigs, which burst with crisp sounds. Sima Che sat by the fire and studied the ancient seal closely.
The ancient records of his sect called it the "Seal of Patriarch Sa". It was said to contain the Taoist Skills and lost knowledge of Sa Shoujian, as well as fragments of his insights. By obtaining the seal, one had laid a foundation for achieving the Great Dao and there was a hope of becoming immortal.
However, no matter how many times he turned it around, the thing looked like nothing but a black stone to him. He was at a loss in regards to its usage, but he was in no hurry. After all, they were stranded here at the moment.
On the other side of the fire sat Gu Yu and Xiaozhai.
Gu Yu was meditating with his eyes closed, but he was not consuming any essence.
The spiritual essence here was sharp and chaotic. It would very likely kill him if he inhaled it. It would probably be forever before it quieted down and turned mild. Therefore, he was only regulating his breathing in the common way, nourishing his internal organs and meridians with his own spiritual essence, trying to recover as soon as possible.
After quite some time, he opened his eyes. Turning around, he caught the bright eyes of Xiaozhai.
"Get some sleep. You've got work to do tomorrow," chuckled him.
"Forget it. I can't sleep."
Xiaozhai shook her head, looking worried. She said in a low voice, "I'm worried about Xiao Qiu."
Gu Yu also became anxious at her words, "Yeah, it's been four days!"
"Xiao Qiu, time for dinner!"
"Let me help!"
Inside a house, Ayhan carried the dishes to the table and called out for Long Qiu, who hurried near to help Ayhan with bowls and chopsticks. Ayhan's mother had gone to the pasture and the two girls were left alone at home. They got along quite well and sat closely together, chatting along as they ate.
There was only so much the girls could talk about and the subject naturally fell onto those two after a while.
Ayhan was a simple and generous girl who always spoke her mind. It was inevitable that she would talk about the time of their return. Long Qiu replied with a smile, but could not conceal the profound anxiety in her eyes.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai had left some money with Shiriahun's family to cover her expenses. They had also given Long Qiu some money, but she found nothing to spend it on in this small village.
Her seal would last for five days at most. If they did not come back by the day after tomorrow, the Golden Silkworm would break out.
She was a stubborn girl and had made up her mind for long. Tomorrow night, she would leave alone and go into the mountains to search for her brother and sister. It would be great if she managed to find them. If not, she would die in the snow mountains. It was better than hurting the villagers by accident.
Meanwhile, inside a station somewhere between Shuimogou and Bogda Shan, several men were deep in discussion.
"Captain, it's been four days. Those two must have died in there."
"Hoho, I won't buy it. They couldn't have died like that. I'm sure they'll come out."
"Tell you what, I don't buy it either. If it were not for this uniform I'm wearing, I would actually envy those two. Such an unrestrained life!"
"Ha, that thought of yours is very dangerous!"
As they bickered on, footsteps approached. "Captain, we've received an oral instruction!"
"Wait two more days. If the target still does not show up, start the operation at once!"