A dim morning sunlight peeped out from behind the horizon, shining again on the endless white snowland.
The campfire from the previous night had extinguished and Xiaozhai was reviving it. Because there was no room for them to stay below, they had cleared out a small area up here as their temporary campsite.
Sima Che walked around and came back sighing. "I've checked everywhere. There's nothing to eat."
"Sigh, if only we had a pan or a pot, at least we could have some hot water to drink."
"Yeah, it seems we'll have to work on an empty stomach."
Sima and Xiaozhai exchanged some small talk, putting up an easy-going atmosphere, while Gu Yu was sitting aside adjusting his breathing with closed eyes. His internal injury could not be taken lightly, but wasn't life-threatening either. All he needed was a nice place and some good rest.
However, a nice place was exactly what they did not have at the moment.
Clearing his head of all unnecessary thoughts, he turned his mental power inward. Five lumps of air of different colors seemed to be floating in a lightless universe. Beside them, a streak of white vapor was moving slowly. With every cycle the vapor completed, the lumps of air recovered by a little bit.
In doing so, a thin layer of illumination glowed all over his face. The changing radiance looked magical, making any onlooker admire it in silence.
Sima Che watched him with admiration and envy. He could not help but ask, "Fellow Daoist Jiang, is this the Essence-consuming Method?"
"Yes. He's treating his internal injury now and can't be disturbed. Let's go down."
The two descended to the valley and located a digging zone, which was three times the size centering the spot where the houses used to be, for they could not have been destroyed standing still, but should be thrown into the air, then scattered around.
They had no digging tools and had to use their bare hands. The valley was extremely cold, the snow colder, and their naked hands the coldest of all. It did not take long for them to turn red and numb in the freezing weather.
Shocked repeatedly yesterday, having little rest over the night and adding to the fact that they were working on an empty stomach, Sima Che was quite out of form at the moment. He straightened up and looked in the direction of Jiang Xiaozhai. She was panting for breath as well, but did not for a moment stop digging. She was absorbed in her work.
As a matter of fact, Sima Che had put all his attention on Gu Yu before and did not think much of the woman. Right now, however, he found it necessary to reevaluate her and drew the most straightforward conclusion: she was not all that ordinary.
While he was lingering on his thoughts, Xiaozhai let out a soft cry and dragged a wooden board out of a snow pit about 15 cm deep. She chuckled, "Lucky me. This could be our shovel. There you go!"
Lifting up her arm, she tossed the board at Sima Che with a swish.
Sima Che was taken by surprise. He might have been cultivating in seclusion, but he did not forget the basic social customs. "You should take it, I…"
He swallowed the other half of the sentence resentfully, for the woman had taken out a larger board.
'What the hell!' The feeling he had now was a peculiar one. Sima Che, who had always thought little of amorous affection, was filled with unspoken criticism towards the duo now. 'Exactly how have you two been getting along with each other?'
Before they realized, it was noontime. The bright sunlight shone down on the entire valley. Everything was radiating resplendently with a golden hue.
The area they singled out was correct and their forage had turned out quite fruitful. Among their harvests were broken pots, rags, glass shards, and what was left of a water tank.
They had kept all of them. After all, they were under exceptional circumstances at the moment. Maybe they would turn out to be useful.
Sima Che paused slightly in his digging, then sped up. A chunk of snow was soon cleared away, revealing a green jade casket the size of a cigarette box.
It was made from the same material as that jade plate, taken off from the mutated rock surrounding the lake.
He darted a look at Xiaozhai, hid the jade casket into his chest pocket stealthily, and resumed digging.
Xiaozhai was completely unaware of his findings, for she had found something herself as well. Clearing away the snow with all her effort, she tugged forcibly, dragging out an object—her backpack.
Unzipping the bag, she saw that some of the contents were damaged, which she paid no attention to. Also in the backpack were several bags of super-concentrated wheat flour, soybean flour, compressed biscuits, and those raw meatballs they made themselves.
"I found food!" she lifted up the bag and shook it.
"What do you have in there?"
Sima Che ran to her at once, also delighted by the discovery. With food, there was hope.
They immediately abandoned their digging task and returned promptly to the campsite.
Gu Yu was staring at the fire in boredom, feeding it with a piece of wood every now and then. He saw the two return from a distance away as they tossed everything on the ground with a clang. He was amazed, "How come you two look like scavengers?"
"We did not scavenge. These are our precious."
"Get out of the way!"
Xiaozhai would not stay idle for even a minute. She placed a wooden board on the ground, dried a ragged blanket over the fire and covered the board with the blanket. They even brought back half of a square pillow. Within no time, she had build a makeshift cot.
"It'll work for the time being. I'll make you a better one when we find some bedding."
She supported Gu Yu with her hand and let him slouch on the bed, half leaning. It was indeed much better than a wooden pole.
After that, she strutted two pots over the fire, one to cook flour paste and the other meatball. The wheat flour was remarkable. One bag of it would give them a full pot of paste. The meatball was beyond description. The heat, the fat... it was mouth-watering.
They were all famished. For a while, no one said a word. All there was were the slurps and swallowing sounds of the three people.
After the meal, seeing that the sun was still yet to set, Sima and Xiaozhai went down the mountain again.
Their first day of digging was fruitful. Not only did they find the other backpack, but more importantly, they finally dug out a shovel, well, the head of a shovel.
Instantly, they found their chances of survival increase greatly. The only problem was that the food was not exactly ample. Had there been another accident, there might not be enough for all three of them.
The flame licked at the dry twig. Everything else was in the darkness. Another night had fallen.
Sima Che was absorbed in the only recreational activity there was at the moment—he was still studying the ancient seal. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were on the opposite side as usual, whispering with their heads close together.
"I wonder what Xiao Qiu is doing right now."
"You know what she's like. She's probably coming into the mountains to search for us."
They couldn't help it. If threatened, Long Qiu might follow the order of her brother and sister, releasing the Golden Silkworm. If not, she would never hurt the villagers, but choose to endure it all by herself.
Having been locked away for so long, they knew how frantic it would become without even having to think about it!
In a way, it was quite interesting. Being stranded in the snow mountains, the two of them worried not about their own circumstances, but cared only about the girl outside these mountains. After a brief silence, Gu Yu seemed to remember something and called out suddenly, "Fellow Daoist Sima!"
"What is it, Fellow Daoist Gu?" Sima Che looked up.
"We were all busy with staying alive before and did not have the chance. Now that we've got time, I need to ask. Since you've got the ancient seal, what about the thing you promised us? You haven't forgot it, have you?"
"Haha, Fellow Daoist, please don't make fun of me. You know I'm not that sort of person who would forget about his own honor for the sake of gold!"
Sima Che replied immediately at Gu Yu's remark. "However, I had dropped the box in the brooks and have no idea of its whereabouts at the moment. And we have no pen here. As much as I want to give it to you, I can't do it."
"Senior, did you write down the Thunder Technique yourself?" Xiaozhai asked.
"In that case, you can recite it to us. We can remember it," grinned her.
"That, I'm afraid, would not be very appropriate."
Sima Che shook his head and said, "I have written it down following the ancient books of my sect. I'm afraid I might make mistakes reciting it. How about we look for it again tomorrow? It would be better if we could find the book recording the secret skill. If not, I'll recite it to you."
"You've got a point. We'll have to work hard tomorrow again."
"Well, it's late. Let's all go to bed."
Our two fellow turned off like a switch at the words. Gu Yu lay on the cot with Xiaozhai next to him, lying on nothing but a piece of ragged cloth.
The campsite fell silent right away. They had put in plenty of firewood beforehand. The dancing flame separated the two sides.
Sima Che gazed at the other two across the fire. He reached into his chest pocket and touched the thing inside.
The following day, noon.
Xiaozhai and Sima Che continued with their digging. However, they seemed to have exhausted all their luck yesterday and found next to nothing so far. Nothing useful came out of their search.
Xiaozhai simply abandoned the area surrounding the wooden houses and moved a few meters closer to the tunnel entrance.
Her face brightened up with her digging, for she pulled a half-bedding out of the snow—there was only half of a usual bedding left. It was cladded thickly with ice and felt as hard and solid as a flagstone.
"This is nice, much better than that lousy blanket."
She turned around and called out, "Senior, I need to go back. The bedding needs drying asap!"
"I'll go, then. You can save some strength."
Sima Che came up to her, showing his apparent concern.
"Ok, thank you for taking the trouble, Senior." Xiaozhai did not turn him down.
"In a situation like the one we're in, nothing can be troublesome. I'll be back soon."
Taking over the bedding, he ran swiftly up the mountain. Arriving at the campsite, he found Gu Yu still meditating with his eyes closed, as if completely unaware of activities of the outside world.
Quietly, Sima Che put down the bedding. A glint of hesitation and struggle flashed across his face, then the cold and gloomy look took over.
He advanced carefully one step at a time. When he reached the campfire, Gu Yu opened his eyes abruptly.
Sima Che's heart leapt and he forced himself to remain poised. Before he could think of an excuse, Gu Yu looked into his eyes and said, "You want to kill me?"
He winced, then squinted and made another step forward. Gu Yu showed no sign of panic and kept on asking, "Why?"
He remained silent.
"Because that Thunder Technique is a fake and you don't have the genuine one?"
"You knew it all along?" Finally, he replied.
"Nope. I was only speculating, but now, I'm sure."
Gu Yu's face was indifferent and one could not tell what he was thinking. "Where is Xiaozhai?"
"Still down there. Don't worry, though. After what we've been through together, I'll bury you two in one grave." Sima Che's voice was growing colder.
Exactly, he never had the Thunder Technique to begin with!
Ever since their encounter, he had been bluffing. Knowing that Gu Yu was in an innate state, he had been trying to take advantage of Gu Yu's cultivation. The paper scroll in the box was nothing but a collage of bits and pieces taken and pieces taken from various manuals of his sect.
He was well aware of the consequences should Gu Yu see through his little scheme. However, with what he was to gain, nothing else mattered.
He was planning to stall for as long as he could. After the two came after him last night, though, he decided to strike first and gain the upper hand. His plan was to take out Gu Yu first, then get rid of Xiaozhai, who he thought to be harmless.
Hearing this, Gu Yu sighed softly and said, "If you went after her first, at least you would die such a miserable death later."
"Humph! Bluff all you want!"
Sima Che had walked past the campfire and was only a few steps away from Gu Yu. He shook his arm, producing an arrow of fast-moving air from his sleeve. It was a demonstration of his power, one that was infinitely close to the innate state.
Almost simultaneously, he opened his mouth, revealing a green flicker. Something was going to be shot out.
This was his true deadly weapon! It was a sinister secret skill that he invented after years of research.
He had been most scrupulous. Gu Yu was suffering from internal injury and had difficulty getting about. It was a perfect opportunity for him. Unfortunately, little did he know that that fellow's specialty was never hand-to-hand combat.
The green light flickered and was distinguished in a flash. Sima Che screamed instead.
His body convulsed, twisting into an unnatural angle from head to toe, instantly shortening him by a half. He tumbled to the ground, scratching at his skin with both hands non-stop like an insane person while wailing and howling.
"Ah… don't bite me… ah!"
His nails had sunk deep into his flesh, cutting out bloody gashes so deep that his tendons and bones were showing. One could hardly bear the sight.
Gu Yu sat cross-legged not far from him. There was pity in his eyes at first, which was then replaced by a bottomless darkness.
"Help me, help!"
Within a few breaths' time, the screams weakened and Sima Che lay flat on the ground, like a dehydrated dead fish. He was covered by blood, almost as good as dead.
He wouldn't last more than two hours if left there untreated.
"He just had to try…"
At that moment, Xiaozhai came back. She gave Sima Che a glance and covered her mouth, retching slightly. "What's with the gory scene?"
Gu Yu looked sullen and did not answer. After all, it was his first time killing someone with his own hands. Xiaozhai of course understood his feelings. She herself was having a hard time taking it in as well. Dragging the man aside, she asked, "What are we gonna do with him later?"
He closed his eyes slightly and replied with a somewhat mournful sigh, "Bury him…"