Flaming Mountain, Grape Valley.
Grape Valley was one of the largest valleys under the mountain; the narrow, long, and gently sloped gap was flanked by cliffs on both sides. Winding streams flowed freely in the valley as trees gave welcome shade. A population of 9000 permanently resided here and the valley was given its name for its rich production in grapes.
It was the off season at the moment, for the grapes had long ripened and been picked. Farm-stay villas lined the road were also deserted and quiet.
Gu Yu had arrived early in the morning. A kilometer to the east of the entrance of the valley was the foot of Flaming Mountain, where the terrain was flat, making it the ideal spot to start the hiking... thanks to the information provided by outdoor activity groups!
Gu Yu had a backpack on him, in which were nothing but the basic equipment and a large quantity of drinking water. As mentioned before, half a dozen individuals from unknown forces were tailing him.
Their unknown identity did not bother Gu Yu at all. Picking out one of them at random, Gu Yu made a list and forty minutes later, all his requests were fulfilled free of charge. The faddish term among the dignitaries in the capital city was: to form a tie of friendship.
Gu Yu examined the valley carefully before he departed for the mountain. Here, the sign of erosion from the fire-attributed spiritual essence was even more evident. Grape trellises all over the valley and the surrounding aspen forests were being drained of their vitality.
The red cloud abovehead was still wheeling in the air. All it needed was to gather enough body and obtain a shape before it readily dived down. By then, no one knew what this paradise under Flaming Mountain would become.
Gu Yu felt it such a pity—apart from psychopaths, most people would show leniency and kindness when witnessing the fading away of beauty.
Leaping up, Gu Yu made a few successive taps with his feet on the mountain walls on both sides, bringing himself several meters forward in the air. He ended the maneuver with a last upward thrust, jumped over a section of broken road covered with sharp stones, and landed steadily on his feet.
He exhaled, balancing the water and energy inside him so that they would not evaporate too fast.
Flaming Mountain was over 100 km long and he almost could not bear it after 10 km in. Outside, he felt fine, but that changed as soon as he was in the mountain. The existence of the sun had never been as prominent, as if all that was left was this red sphere which was relentlessly dumping out its heat.
What was worse, the fire-attributed spiritual essence was growing denser and behaved more acutely aggressively as it did so. He could only slow down the circulation of his spiritual essence to avoid provoking it.
The only reason Zhang Wei and his men went to Gu Yu for help was that the thing they were looking for could only be detected by the spiritual essence; they might even have a map. Gu Yu, on the other hand, was running around like a headless fly. Of course, he didn't put much hope in it at the first place.
Trudging for another half hour, he entered a tunnel.
The tunnel had twists and turns like a war-time trench. It was wide enough for a horse to pass and the walls on either side were mottled and decadent. It ran all the way into the heart of the mountain.
He did not march for much longer when the low mountain walls erupted into sharp cliffs as if they were hacked out by axes and knives, the slope perpendicular to the ground. The tunnel also grew narrower, and in the end only allowed a single man to pass through.
Gu Yu looked up. Apart from the thin line of sky above head, he was surrounded by scarlet mountain rocks on all sides. He felt as if he was in a burning brick kiln. Everywhere he turned, his eyes were met with the fiery color.
As fit as he was, he couldn't help but pant a little by now. He took a short break, downed a big bottle of water, and estimated the distance of the return journey.
'One more hour. I'll turn around if nothing comes up by then!'
He marched on. The road grew rougher and the crevice was so narrow now that he had to walk sideways to pass. At the narrowest point, he had to remove his backpack, turn to walk sideways and tuck in his stomach so that he could squeeze through.
A couple of kilometers later, Gu Yu halted abruptly, for there he had stepped onto a large stretch of shadow which interrupted the monotonous russet of sandstones. Looking up, he saw a giant rock stuck between the two walls. Sunlight had shone down through the gap, projecting the shadow of the rock onto the bottom of the valley. It was a somewhat odd picture.
Gu Yu blinked and was a little surprised—not because of the giant rock, though. Just then, he sensed a faint coolness, which instantly invigorated him. Not a single blade of grass grew on this mountain, nor was there any bird or beast. The place was as dry and hot as a deadland. So where did that coolness come from?
He immediately started searching and finally found a crevice about 50 cm in height lower on the left wall hidden in the shadow.
It was pitch black inside and smelled funny. After a brief hesitation, Gu Yu got down on his knees, carried the backpack in one hand, and crawled in on all fours.
Countless rubbles crunched under his weight, painfully digging into his abdomen. After crawling for some distance, the ceiling seemed to grow higher, so Gu Yu turned into a crouching position, which then turned into walking with his back arched. When he was finally able to stand straight, he found himself in an open cave.
Inside, it was gloomy, cold, and void of all light. Gu Yu took out a flashlight and casually swept it around. The cave was about the size of a basketball court and blocked on all sides by mountain walls.
He brought the light upwards and something seemed to have flickered into sight.
Gu Yu steadied the flashlight and looked closely. 'Geez!' He grimaced. Heavy objects in the shape of puppets were dangling by iron chains from the dark cave ceiling. They were even swaying a little.
The light happened to catch a puppet on its face, revealing a ghostly baby complexion with red pupils, a bloody tongue, and a wide mouth.
Gu Yu activated his mental force, and with a "Pop!", a streak of green light flashed across the ceiling and severed the iron chains with a clunk. He caught the falling puppet and placed it carefully on the ground.
It was rather light-weighted and an anatomically correct imitation of an ordinary baby. He had no idea what material it was made from, but whatever that was, it had managed to remain relatively intact after hundreds if not thousands of years.
The surface of the puppet was covered with strange patterns similar to the mark on the woman's chest. He also found a crack on its side—it seemed the puppet could open up.
Gu Yu struggled inside. It wasn't fear or anything like that, he just found the thing gross. God knows what could be inside!
Just then, faint scuffling noise came out of the darkness, which was in one spot at a moment and all over the place the next.
Gu Yu listened carefully for a brief moment and abruptly raised his head. A steady flow of strange-looking insects was climbing down along the broken chains, each half the size of a fist with a swarthy crust, eight serrated long legs, and a lotus-shaped mouthpart secreting dangling saliva.
As if they had crawled out of the deepest abyss, the insects fell to the ground in a series of "thump" and "crack", and soon grew into a heap. They then dashed towards Gu Yu.
Gu Yu stomped the ground, frantically activating his spiritual essence, then lashed with it.
The insects crawling at the front felt a mighty pressure rushing at them and halted right away. However, the thirst for blood and their instinct took over almost instantaneously. They fought off the suppression within no time and grew all the more frenzied.
Without any hesitation, Gu Yu dumped the puppet, turned around, and ran.
The swarm of insects was growing bigger, and was at Gu Yu's heels. Some insects even crawled onto the puppet and started gnawing. The puppet was in bits and pieces in no time.
An eerie corpse of a baby rolled out, covered by a black liquid as thick as ink.
The infant was about two years old, with all limbs snapped broken. There were obvious burn marks all over its body. It was neither rotten nor mummified and there was no telling how long it had been kept there. Its blood and flesh had been mixed with a strange grease and its dying expression seemed to have frozen on its face. The look was so vivid that it was extremely hideous.
Obviously, Gu Yu was seeing none of this. All he did was sprinting towards the entrance while cursing silently, "These goddamn caves!"
He had no other choice. The arched back turned into half-kneeling, then inching forward on his stomach. He had forsaken any consideration of conserving his force. The two streaks of green light covered his rear, piercing through the insects chasing after him.
Immediately after that, the sound of chomping and scuttling filled the space. They seemed to be feeding on those of their own.
Gu Yu felt a chill creeping up his spine and bolted forward. Finally, there was a beam of light ahead. He immediately quickened his crawling, thrusted his palms against the ground, leapt out, and rolled his way out.
He was just out of the cave when there came a strange sizzling sound.
He rose to his feet and looked back. A few insects following him had turned into pus as soon as they were caught by sunlight; the foul smell was revolting. Those behind them bustled around and stretched out their antennas tentatively, as if knowing they could not advance.
After much moving about, they finally retreated unwillingly. The darkness and silence resumed.
The frightening afterthoughts came to Gu Yu now. What the hell was this place? And what were those insects all about?
He had yet to meet any serious rival ever since he started cultivating. However, within the few days in Huo Zhou, he had been running into one brick wall after another. Both occasions had been one against many, but for a moment, his inner crying baby still woke up and was whining "poor me, it's been so tough and I'm freaked out".
The narrow escape had made certain of one thing: Zhang Wei had to be connected to the mystery of the cave and he could well be the descendant and inheritor of it. What they were looking for were probably the relics of their ancestors.
Gu Yu looked ahead. The vast expanse of red mountains seemed endless. He had a hunch that his place was not his destination, but a halfway station only. The real secret was still somewhere deeper into the mountain.
Only this time, he dared not make any reckless move.