It was the fifth day.
Shuimogou at night was docile like a newborn, slumbering in the arms of the huge mountains. Of the nearly one hundred households, only a handful still had their lights on. Among those was the Shiriahun's house in the east.
"I'm done! Let's go to bed, it's late."
On the warm kang, Ayhan had won another round of the card game and was yawning uncontrollably. Opposite her, Long Qiu swept the cards together and said with a smile, "Ok. I'll put these away. You go lie down first."
"I'll leave you to it, then."
Having entertained Long Qiu for all this time, Ayhan was so sleepy that she tumbled to her bed right away. Drifting off, she felt the light turned off and a soft body lie down beside her. The next minute, Ayhan was soundly asleep.
It was dark and quiet in the room, yet an indistinctive agitation was pulsing in the air, as if some restlessness was flowing around. Suddenly, Long Qiu's eyes flipped open as she called in a whisper, "Ayhan? Ayhan?"
Met with no response, she crept out of bed, got dressed noiselessly, and put a little note she wrote beforehand on the table.
After all these, she stood in the doorway and looked back. She could see nothing in the darkness, but she knew a figure was on that kang; she would probably remember her kindness and goodness for the rest of her life.
She paused there for a few seconds, then pushed open the door carefully and walked out of the courtyard.
The village was as still as an ink stick, sitting deep, serene and old in the night. With a bag on her back, she kept her pace walking through this little but warm place, and made her way into the wilderness.
Once in the wild, the first thing that hit her was the coldness, before the vastness took over.
She was instantly overwhelmed by the two sensations. Staring into the pitch-blackness surrounding her, she was dazed for a moment, unable to figure out her next move. She had chosen to leave at this late hour instead of daytime so as to avoid disturbing the villagers, for they might start searching for her, or even call the police.
Death was not on top of Long Qiu's list; she was going to find her brother and sister. For that purpose, she had made some preparation in advance. Unzipping her backpack, she was going to take out her flashlight when something cold swept across her wrist. Xiao Qing had wrapped itself around her arm.
"Haha, I almost forgot about you!"
Rubbing the green snake on its head, she chuckled, "I thought I was going to be all by myself. Luckily, I still have you around. You can't stay with me for very long, though. You'll have to leave when day breaks."
Xiao Qing could not understand what she was saying. It only lowered its head and rubbed against her arm.
It was way too cold in the snow mountains and Xiaozhai was afraid that Xiao Qing might be frozen to death out there, so the snake was left behind in the village. After spending the past few days with Long Qiu, it had fallen head over heels for the girl, hanging around her with all the gentleness it was capable of expressing.
With the green snake as her companion, Long Qiu's spirits were much lifted. She had figured out the route she was to take in advance and was now staggering her way towards the mountainous region.
If Li Suchun were here, those two might strike up a conversation. The nocturnal walk under a dark sky and surrounded by vast wildlands with no one around save for a non-human creature that could not return her unilateral conversation was utterly tormenting.
She walked like this for over half an hour and was getting closer to the mountain pass. However, she suddenly stopped dead as a low moan was let out.
Just then, she felt the Golden Silkworm jolted. It was breaking out earlier than she had expected.
Biting her lips, Long Qiu crouched down and let the green snake slip to the ground. "Thank you for keeping me company these days. I need to leave now and you should leave as well. Remember, don't let others catch you. Don't go into the mountains either. It's too cold in there. If I get through this alive and find my brother and sister, we'll come back for you."
Sensing that she was saying goodbye but unable to comprehend her words, Xiao Qing stuck out its two-pronged tongue repeatedly, refusing to leave.
While urging Xiao Qing, she felt the Golden Silkworm jolted again. Promptly, she turned around and darted off. Xiao Qing tailed after her persistently and would not be left behind.
In the end, she was half crying, "Please don't follow me any more. It WILL eat you!"
In the temporary station halfway between Shuimogou and the mountains, members of Team Six of the Second Department were fast asleep.
The row of houses looked like an observation post and were all painted yellow. In the front was a small square with a flag pole. Just by looking at it, no one would expect a bunch of "burgeoning activists" were hiding inside.
"Boss, wake up! Wake up!"
The team captain, Old Qin, was dreaming while slouching in his bed when one of his men shook him awake. Opening his eyes, he saw Xiao Liu, who was on surveillance duty.
"What happened?" his heart lurched at the look on Xiao Liu's face.
"No. Three, No. Three has left the village and is moving towards the mountains!"
"When did that happen?"
"Quickly, get everyone!"
Immediately, all members were dragged out of their beds and lined up in two rows while still half asleep. Old Qin’s words were brief and to the point. "Target No. Three is entering the mountains. The situation is critical. We're setting out now!"
Everyone was fully awakened by the scale of the problem.
Their superior had left the instructions to shift their emphasis to target No. Three only when the survival of targets No. One and Two was hard to predict. However, now that No. Three was also on the run, no one dared to take the blame should she go missing as well.
The decision was made at once. Two men would stay behind in the base and the remaining dozen left promptly together, hurrying off into the vast wilderness.
Long Qiu could neither shoo Xiao Qing away, nor pin it down, unless she used the needle undead insect.
Appearing all simple-minded, Xiao Qing followed her stubbornly, completely unaware of her feelings.
After plodding on for another while, the scenery before her eyes transformed abruptly. The vastness disappeared, replaced by a giant shadow, towering over the wildland like dark colossus.
Letting out a breath in relief, Long Qiu was about to march into the mountains when the sound of engines came from behind. She turned around and was dazzled by the bright headlights.
The roaring of powerful engines reverberated in the darkness. Vehicles had stopped in front of and behind her, closing her in. The engines were then switched off altogether as many people got off, their silhouettes lined white by the light.
"Who are you people?" she shaded her eyes with her hand.
"That's not important. All you need to know is that you need to cooperate with us on an incident. Please come with us," said Old Qin.
"No, I'm not going with you!"
Clenching her small fists, Long Qiu recalled the people her brother and sister had mentioned.
"Haha, don't be nervous. We mean no harm."
Old Qin seemed to have had ready plans and smiled, "You're entering the mountains in the middle of the night to look for those two people, aren't you? I promise you, as long as you work with us, we'll help you search for them. With our ample manpower, it'll be a piece of cake."
One had to admit, their preparation beforehand was very adequate, which hit Long Qiu on her soft spot right away. She was indeed moved by the proposition, but could not decide if she should trust them so easily.
At that moment, someone screamed and collapsed to the ground.
"There's a snake!"
"She can control snakes too!"
The atmosphere tensed up immediately. Six or seven guns were raised, aiming at Long Qiu in unison. Another four or five were sweeping the ground, ready to take out Xiao Qing.
"Don't hurt it!"
She panicked and shouted.
"We don't want to make it difficult for you, so you'd better put that snake away. My team member is wounded and needs immediate treatment. Stop stalling!"
Old Qin's face darkened as he asked sternly, "Let me ask you again: are you coming with us or not?"
"Let it come to me first." She pursed her lips.
Old Qin gave a wave and the guns were lowered. Xiao Qing slithered happily to Long Qiu. To be honest, Long Qiu herself was not prepared for situation like this and was at a loss. She fell silent.
Across her, a dozen pairs of eyes were fixed on the girl, some curious, some probing, some appreciating her looks, while others abhorred by the snake-controlling ability.
Minutes later, Old Qin grew impatient and gestured the tranquilizer gun to be prepared. He was going to take her away by force. When the rifle was set up and before they got a chance to shoot, the skinny girl fell into a violent convulsion and a wavy pattern bulged from under her skin, as if something alive was running around.
Long Qiu collapsed to the ground, her fingers digging deep into the snow and hard dirt. She was biting her lips so hard that blood was oozing out. She wailed.