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According to their original plan, they should be getting off the mountain at three o’clock and, after a four-hour trip back, they would return to the provincial capital at seven o’clock which would not be too late an hour. However, the team had been hanging around in random places all the way, stopping here and there to have some fun. As a result, they were delayed a lot.

Having separated themselves from the rest of the team, the two girls strolled along the way they came from.

Daylight hours in the mountains were short. It was only four o’clock and the dusk was already setting in. They could barely feel the warmth of the sun. The further they went, the more nervous they became. Everything looked suspicious in the dim light. The mere rustle of wind brushing the leaves would make them jumpy.



"We should have gone through with the ridge. There’s still a long way ahead."

"It’s too late for that now. Let’s just keep moving."

"Oh my, I’m scared. Hold my hand, please."

The two girls walked hand in hand and went down the stairs gingerly. It had taken them twenty minutes or so to climb up, but the way down somehow seemed longer. The woods were completely silent and not one animal made a sound. They had lost track of time by the time the last few steps of stairs finally appeared in the front. Along with them came a discernible sound.

It was one which indicated people were ahead, which lifted their spirits instantaneously.

"Oh my god, I’m scared out of my pants!"

"Stop bullshitting. Walk faster!"

The two of them ran down the last few steps in large strides and arrived at the clearing from before. The two benches and the stall were still there. The owner seemed to be closing up and was walking around, putting things away. Seeing them coming, he was a bit surprised. "Why are you back?"

"The Old Bull’s Back looked too dangerous. We were too afraid to go forward."

"Are you going to return by the same way you came?" The owner seemed amazed.

"Yes, we are. How long will it take?"

"At least two hours…"

The owner gave them an honest answer. Seeing the bitter and miserable expression on their faces, he paused for a second and added, "I know a shortcut, though. It’ll save you quite some time."

"En?"

The immediate reaction of the two girls was not excitement, but alert. In such a remote and forested mountain, the only people around were themselves and this man. Should something happen, the girls would have no one to turn to.

The owner realized what they were thinking and stopped talking.

After an awkward moment and some embarrassing silence, the two girls finished exchanging ideas with their eyes. The taller one asked, "Where is that shortcut you mentioned before?"

"Take a right turn at the Immortal’s Pool, walk for a few more minutes and you’ll find it. That path is not paved, but it’s easy to walk. Follow the path and you’ll arrive at a great square at the mountain gate," the owner did not mind their attitude and gave them detailed directions.

"Will, will there be things like snakes around there?" The shorter girl was still very cautious.

"No, just a lot of mosquitoes. By the way, this is for you…" The stall owner took out something small out of his pocket and handed it to them. "It’ll keep off the mosquitoes."

The girls put their heads together and looked at it closely. It was a dark-grey cloth pouch the size of their palms, its opening tied up by a couple of strings. After feeling it with their hands, they found it contained something round inside.

The girls were quite confused. They were about to ask the owner when they saw him bend down and take a shoulder pole before putting it onto his shoulder with a strong push. One end of the pole had the stove and pots hanging from it, while the other end had tables, chairs and boxes; it all looked very heavy. [1]

"Well, I have to go as well. Bye!"

As thin as he was, the owner had remarkable strength. He waved them goodbye with his left hand and walked into the woods with a steady gait. After a couple of turns, he was nowhere to be seen.

"..."

The girls remained frozen where they stood, their eyes open wide as they were visibly dumbfounded. They were both speechless for quite a while.

"Quack! Quack!"

A breeze swept past them. Along came the cries of birds from some unseen corners; the dark woods rustled and whispered, just as if some mountain ghost was approaching through the waving branches.

"Let, let’s go, shall we?"

"Yeah, I agree with you!"

They both shuddered and left the spot half-running.

***

The so-called "Immortal’s Pool" was nothing but a shabby pond. Calling it a pool was an overstatement.

Before the sunlight had totally disappeared from the woods, the girls quickened their pace and took an immediate right turn at the Immortal’s Pool. A mountain trail was indeed where they were told it would be. Although it was not paved, the ground was quite solid. The trail wound deep into the woods.

They hesitated for a few seconds and decided to go in.

The trees were much denser further along the trail and the ground was overgrown with weeds. They did not dare look around and walked fast all the way as if they were running for their lives. The taller girl was a bit bolder and walked in the front. The shorter one was rather timid and held tightly onto the hem of her friend’s clothes.

"Ah!"

All of a sudden, the girl in front let out a cry with clenched teeth and stopped abruptly. The other girl almost bumped into her and was startled. She immediately asked, "What’s wrong?"

"...A snake," the taller one squeezed out an answer.

"A snake?"

Before the shorter girl had time to parse what she had been told, she stretched out her neck and looked to the front. Sure enough, a green snake about half a meter long was coiling itself up by the side of the trail, resting with its eyes closed.

"Ah!"

The shorter girl also screamed, much louder than her friend did.

As the saying went, don’t do something stupid or you’ll regret it. The green snake lifted its head and noticed them. It then jerked back to life and slithered towards them in a sliding movement. Its moist and slick skin scraped against the grass, creating a rustling sound, both bizarre and creepy. [2]

"What, what should we do now?"

"I have no idea!"

The girls were almost sobbing. They wanted to run away, but their legs were shaking uncontrollably and they could do nothing but watch in terror as the snake approached them.

Three meters, two meters, one meter… The snake was about to reach them when it suddenly stopped. It remained rigid at the spot for a while as its vertical pupils seemed to notice something it detested. The snake then turned around and slid away across the grass.

Seriously?!

They were on the verge of breaking down and their minds had been so overloaded due to excitement that they almost blacked out. After quite some time, the taller girl managed to make a sound. "Let’s go. Quickly!"

"Yeah, right!"

As the adrenaline pumped in, their jog turned into running, and then into a wild rush. They paid no attention to their surroundings and the only sound they could hear was the whooshing wind brushing against their ears.

They had no idea how long they ran for and only realized they had arrived at a big square after they rushed out of the woods.

It just so happened that their team had just climbed down as well. The team leader was taken aback at first, then went all excited and said aloud, "Oh my, I’m so glad that you’re all okay. I was getting really worried after you two ran off. The sun was setting and it was such a long way back. I was about to call the police…"

He blabbered on for quite a while before asking them, "By the way, how did you get down so fast?"

"We asked a local for directions and took a shortcut," replied the taller girl.

"Wow, awesome!" The leader gave them a thumbs up.

Now that everyone was here, the team was getting ready to leave. Mountain climbing activities usually finished in the afternoon and people seldom stayed on the mountain this late.

The parking lot was almost empty with only a handful vehicles left. After the group scrambled onto the bus, the high-spirited team leader stood at the front of the bus and announced, "Everybody, I hereby announce that the first group activity of Shengtian Outdoor Social Group is coming to a successful close… Let’s look forward to our next gathering!"

"Wow!"

"Clap clap!"

"What an unforgettable evening!"

The team members were lavish in their praises. Some cheered, some applauded and some even started to sing.

The two girls sat in the back and did not get swept by the joyous atmosphere, especially the more timid one who gulped down a large bottle of water before recovering from her fear and anxiety. She complained in an indignant tone, "Liar! Didn’t he say that there were no snakes?"

The other girl was more reasonable. She pondered and said, "Maybe, maybe he was afraid that we would be too scared to go that way."

"He’s still a liar! What if we were bitten by snakes…"

She stopped talking abruptly and looked at her friend.

The two minds thought alike as they took out the pouch in a hurry. After untying the strings, they emptied the pouch and three brown pellets rolled onto their hands. They were the size of longan fruits and looked like some sort of medicine.

"What are these?"

The timid girl touched the pellets with great curiosity.

"They look like…"

The other once moved closer and sniffed at them. She suggested with an uncertain tone, "Some sort of incense?"

[1] ED/N: To put it simply, he put a stick on his shoulders, and that stick had two large packages hanging from its ends. If you google "shoulder pole" in google images you will be able to see what it looks like if you haven’t seen one yet.

[2] ED/N: 不作死就不会死 is internet slang which usually means "serves you right for doing sth stupid." Slightly modified to fit the context.

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