To say that the scenic spot of Flaming Mountain was a farce would not be an exaggeration.
Because of the limited space, not much was included. The only features were an underground exhibition center and a big Thermometer Square. Displayed in the exhibition center were mainly frescoes and sculptures reflecting the living condition and artistic attainments of various ethnic groups.
The tall thermometer reminded one of the golden cudgel 1 and was placed in a circle resembling the shape of an alchemy furnace, recording the real-time local temperature. Apart from those, there was also a white camel that the tourists could ride and take pictures of. Also, a few vendors were selling eggs boiled by hot sand.
At the foot of the mountain, a trail made of stone stairs had been built, which led all the way to the top.
Gu Yu ignored all the hustle and bustle and proceeded to climb the mountain right away. Ascending together with him was a twenty-people-or-so tour group, whose tour guide was bombarding the members through a loudspeaker.
"Flaming Mountain stretches long and unbroken for over 100 km with an altitude as low as just over 500 m. Scorching hot as it may be, the massif itself is a natural dam of an underground reservoir. It blocks the underground water infiltrated from the gobi gravel belt, raising the phreatic level, which creates a spilling-over area at the northern edge of the mountain, sustaining a few oases. The renowned Grape Valley, for example, is right in a valley on the west side of Flaming Mountain…"
500 m was not at all that tall for a mountain. Gu Yu listened to the guide in passing and briskly reached the mountaintop.
From above, the mountain looked even more weathered and timeworn. Long stretches of folds reminded one of the wrinkles on an aged face—wizened and exhausted of all vitality.
In stark contrast to the barren mountain were the valleys and ravines passing through. Gurgling clear springs flowed at the bottom with shady green trees, forming a long and narrow oasis.
To the others, it was a scene pleasant to the eye. To Gu Yu, however, it was a ghastly sight.
A fiery cloud of smoke was wheeling in the air above the oasis. It looked like a red snake flickering in and out of sight, which was waiting for its body to solidify, by which time it would swallow the arcadia below whole.
By now, he was relatively certain of two things.
For one, a mass amount of fire-attributed spiritual essence had been formed here and was expanding fast. For another, this type of spiritual essence was not peaceful and invisible like the normal one—to a cultivator, it not only had a form and color, but was also highly aggressive and with a burning property.
The result of its passing through was not a mere barren land, but wizened earth where the soil itself was sucked dry of all nutrients.
It could be predicted that in the foreseeable future, all that would be left of the area surrounding Flaming Mountain was a scene of utter desolation without a single living soul.
He suddenly realized that he was indeed a trouble marker—and not for small troubles for that matter; they were all disasters!
Ok, fine, he knew it wasn't his fault. It was just a moment of pessimism.
After quite some time, Gu Yu finally looked away and inspected the small area on the top. The mountain was mainly formed by crimson sandstone, conglomerate, and mudstone and was covered by soil. He walked a few rounds and did not find any stone like the one Bai Bo showed him.
"Yak! Yak! Yak!"
Just then, that tour group also reached the mountaintop; a hubbub spread out.
Gu Yu was suddenly alerted, for he distinctively sensed a person removing himself from the group and walking towards him for no obvious reason. The person stopped at about two meters behind him without moving any closer. He then heard a whisper.
"If you wish to go into the mountain, we'll assist you in any way we can. I will be waiting downstairs for you every night, from six to eight o'clock."
With that, the man promptly turned to leave.
Gu Yu looked back and saw an average, ordinary middle-aged man returning to the group, all smiling as if nothing had happened.
How did it feel to go everywhere secretly followed by a bunch of people?
It was the most irritating and inexplicable restlessness, so much so that one felt the urge to punch the "fans" in their faces. Things had indeed changed for Gu Yu. He only made his "debut" last year when his name just began to get around. This year, however, he was a celebrity with people stealing shots of him in the airport.
Gu Yu spend most of his day looking around, visiting Thousand Buddha Cave and the ancient cemetery after leaving Flaming Mountain. Thousand Buddha Cave looked even more like a hoax than the mountain. Most of the caves had been robbed and only a handful still had frescoes in them. There was nothing much in the cemetery either. Some of the tombs were even modern revamps. The mummies and artifacts inside were long gone.
What was most annoying of all was the random conversation thrown at him this whole time. They would drift away after a sentence or two the same way as the fellow from earlier, all offering him some sort of help.
Damn! He hated the manner more than anything!
'What's wrong with putting things plainly? Why do people have to act so mysteriously?'
After dinner, Gu Yu strolled around the city with Flaming Mountain on his mind. The mutated spiritual essence was so unusual that it was more potent than the peach blossom miasma. That was not it, for he had an inexplicable feeling that there was some other secrets buried in the mountain.
He walked on, deep in thought. Before he knew it, he had turned into a small alley.
The alley was cool, secluded, residence-free, and looked to have quite a few years behind it. Gu Yu was still walking when he blinked suddenly, for another's footsteps had joined his—the crisp sound of heels hitting the ground was behind him.
"Tack! Tack! Tack!"
He had no choice but to halt and turn around. The moment his head was turned back, a vivid fiery color filled his sight.
The woman was stunning. Her prominent nose and deep-set eyes were characteristic to people of a certain ethnic group. The most remarkable feature, however, where her full, moist lips.
Women with full lips always reminded one of some other wet spots. That, plus her red dress and her twenty-or-so young age, making her as tantalizing as a peach, tempting you to take a bite.
"Tee-hee, Mr. Gu, I see I've startled you. I'm so sorry!"
Her voice was as soft as her look suggested, which had a wet sweetness to it, but not to the point of being cloying.
"Who are you?"
"We sent our sincere invitation last night. It was such a pity that you did not join us. Now that I'm inviting you in person, would you be so kind to accept?" The woman giggled.
"I see. You were the one sliding in the note." It dawned on Gu Yu right away. He then said, "From now on, just speak your mind. I don't like loose notes sticking around. Who are you?"
He asked the question again. Either she ignored it on purpose or she failed to notice it, but she only replied, "The thing we need to discuss with you is of vital importance. Of course, we mean no harm. With your esteemed presence here in Huo Zhou, we…"
"Sigh, I hate asking the same question for a third time."
The woman paused as Gu Yu suddenly heaved a sigh. She had no idea what was going to happen and only blinked despite herself. When her eyes flicked open, the man was in front of her face, grabbing at her with his slender hand.
Her pupils constricted instinctively. She tried to dodge, but her body seemed to have been wrapped by an overbearing aura and was on the edge of trembling. She couldn't even lift a finger.
She turned out to be a decisive woman. Biting hard at the tip of her tongue, her body regained its mobility at the sharp pain and the taste of blood. Immediately after that, she wriggled and slid out of Gu Yu's grip at an impossible angle, as if she was boneless.
Gu Yu was surprised, but he did not stop his hands. He grabbed at her again.
The hand seemed to be moving slowly and the woman tried to dodge again. However, no matter where she ran, she was always under its shadow.
Restrained, her body was pinned to the wall. Her delicate shoulder blades smashed onto the stone wall and almost shattered.
"I'll ask again. WHO ARE YOU?"
"Please don't take this the wrong way, I… ah!"
With a "clack", her left pinky was snapped at the joint. She was about to scream when she realized she was being choked; she could not make a sound.
Momentarily, the woman twitched frantically like a helpless fish out of the water. Cold sweat was trickling down her body.
"Ready to tell me now?" He relaxed the energy around her.
"I, I… ah!"
Another finger snapped.
"I will! I will!" The woman dared not dally. Panting, she said, "My name is Gülsuruh. You can call me by another name, Wang Qian."
"What do you need me for?"
"His Grace wants to see you."
Gu Yu found it rather a nonsense. "It's the year 2018 already and someone's still using that stupid title? Who is he?"
The woman started shaking all of a sudden, her eyes filled with a bottomless fear as if it had been branded into her bone marrow. She looked more willing to have all their fingers broken rather than utter that name.TL/N: the golden cudgel, or 金箍棒, is a magical staff wielded by the immortal monkey Sun Wukong in the 16th-century classic Chinese novel Pilgrimage to the West (西游记). The inscription on the staff indicates that the staff follows the commands of its owner, shrinking or growing at their whim, make copies of itself, and that it is immensely heavy, weighing 17,550 lbs (7,960 kg). When not in use, Monkey shrinks it down to the size of a needle and keeps it tucked behind his ear.