December 31, a sunny day.
New Year was tomorrow. Normally, all major businesses would have started their promotions by now with employees of all companies ready for their long weekend. The young ones were especially eager for action—tonight, they would be busy playing their "instruments" deep into the night, until the "simultaneous harmony" was reached.
However, there was not a trace of jubilation in Huo Zhou at the moment. The entire city was trapped in a state of confusion, with a mixture of excitement, fright, expectation, and bewilderment.
The government had been highly efficient. In the past month or so, a third of the population was successfully evacuated. The frequency of the trains had been increased and every day felt like the Spring Festival peak season, shipping people out of town.
Households of all shapes and sizes filled the waiting hall inside and the small square outside the train station. Some who could not part with their family belongings had had every pot and pan stuffed into their bags while holding their wives and children in their hands, reminding one of refugees. Others appeared to be much more relaxed—with the generous resettlement compensation in their bank accounts and a signed agreement of self-resettlement, they looked rather carefree with their minimal luggage, as if they were on a vacation.
Centering around the train station and within a range of three blocks, men from special forces could be found everywhere; they were there to maintain the public order. Their cold and solemn eyes scanned the restless crowd, and together, the picture looked rather peculiar.
"Dear passengers, the next stop is Huo Zhou station, and the final destination… for safety reasons, please cooperate with the attendants for inspection. Thank you for your cooperation…"
At the announcement, an attendant entered the carriage and said, "Please have your ID card ready. Thank you!"
"Didn't we get checked when we boarded the train? How many times do we have to go through this?" a passenger complained.
"It's just an extra precaution for this particular period. We appreciate your understanding."
While explaining, the attendant took an ID card over, scanned it with a reader, and handed it back after a "beep".
She finished the first three rows in no time, and when she reached the fourth row, an incredibly attractive hand stuck out at an angle, an ID card pinched between the fair and delicate fingers.
The attendant felt her heart lurch, for this one had left her with quite an impression. She reluctantly took the card and scanned it—as expected, nothing showed up on the interface of the scanning app on her phone but a line of capital letters: CONFIDENTIAL. ACCESS DENIED.
The girl pursed her lips and handed back the card. She glimpsed at the owner's face, which was stunning even for someone of the same sex, and walked on with pretended composure.
She couldn't have reacted otherwise. The first round of inspection almost frightened the wits out of her, for she thought she had ran into a major wanted felon. It was thanks to the timely reminder from above that a commotion was avoided.
It didn't take her long to finish the carriage before the train was pulling into the station ahead. The long platform flitted past outside, together with the crowd waiting to board the train.
The door slid open and the hubbub outside immediately gushed in. The safety officer was maintaining the order while shouting, "Let the passengers off the train first! Let them off first! Don't push!"
So far, Huo Zhou was still allowed for entry.
It wouldn't be long before only outbound movement was allowed and the last stage would be to clear the region of all residents. The train had brought back quite a few passengers, who were mostly from the local area and had been settling down in other places. They had rushed back to the hometown to take care of their affairs. Personnel of certain institutions had also arrived with the train.
"I can smell something on fire!"
Carrying her backpack in one hand, Xiaozhai followed the moving crowd to the exit. She stood on the stairs, looked up at the sky, took in the city, and eventually couldn't hold back a sarcastic remark.
She then reached the side of the road in a few strides. There were plenty of vehicles, but scarcely any taxis. It took her quite a while to finally hail one.
"To Grape Valley," she spoke through the open car window.
"Hop on. I'm not running on the meter. Pay me whatever you see fit."
The driver was in his fifties, had a swarthy, lean face, and was quick to respond.
Xiaozhai was not concerned with the proposition at all. She happily got into the car and said casually, "There are so few taxis here. You're the first one I saw in twenty minutes."
"Everybody's quitting. More than half of the guys in my company have left. Even the boss is leaving. With millions of compensation money, who would want to drive a taxi?" The driver chuckled.
"Why are you still here, then?"
"I can't bear to leave the city. I've lived here for fifty-two years, and my parents, my wife, and my child are all here. I'll stick around for as long as I can, just to feel the city… f**k! The stupid kids!"
The driver slammed on the brakes, for a couple of teenage boys appeared out of the blue, jaywalking with sticks in their hands while howling all the way. They did not make it far before some police officers caught up with them and pinned them down.
It did not frighten them at all. They were giggling and jeering the entire time.
"Sigh, people are going crazy. My neighbor, such a nice fellow, took off yesterday on his own with the compensation he received just a day before. His wife is crying her eyes out at home. They've been married for twenty years…"
The driver sighed and stepped gently on the gas.
Propped on her elbow, Xiaozhai watched the city and its people flying past outside like a rolling film showing one scene after next.
A young man was crying in the street for no obvious reason; a woman was singing on the roof of a building, a wine bottle in her hand; a bus pulled over before reaching the next stop and the driver got off, disappearing into the crowd.
The scene could not be more bizarre. Like blindfolded donkeys, these people were running a seemingly patternless track which was in fact fixed by fate the entire time.
"Not many people are using taxis these days and I only have a handful of passengers every day. At my age, I can't start off in a new city doing this job; I can't learn my ways around."
The driver babbled on. Xiaozhai turned her eyes away from the street and smiled at him. "I think you should take some photos of these streets. And your passengers, take pictures with them and talk to them. When things settle down, maybe you can write a book about it."
"Hahaha, that's a good idea! I didn't even go to high school and you say I can write a book. Haha!"
The driver was amused, but his laughter soon trailed off.
It was not a pleasant ride, for the roads were in a lousy condition.
When they were finally out of the downtown area, the roads remained crowded—people who lived in the countryside were all heading towards the city. The farmers going to the train station even travelled on their horse or mule wagons loaded with all their family belongings.
Half an hour passed when the road finally cleared up. A russet mountain towered over on one side; the energy within seemed inexhaustible.
They drove around the mountain and turned east. After another while, they finally reached the entrance of Grape Valley. The once ticket-selling destination was completely deserted. The driver was kind enough to drive her all the way into the valley.
Xiaozhai took out a hundred-yuan bill and handed it to the man. "Thank you and good luck!"
The driver was about to turn it down, but looking into Xiaozhai's eyes, he smiled despite himself. "Thank you. Good luck to you, too!"
The landlady fetched a hat and shoved it into an already stuffed luggage.
It had been filled to the brim with beddings, clothes, and other bits and bobs. The hat was immediately crumpled up once it was stuffed in, so she took it out again.
"They say it's quite cool over there. I reckon I won't need a summer hat anymore?" the landlady mumbled to herself. She had always liked this hat and could not make up her mind if she should leave it behind even after much consideration.
Right at that moment, there was a tap at the door and a tall, lean young woman walked into the courtyard. The landlady went to greet her at once. "I'm sorry, but we are closing down. Please check other places if you need a room."
"I'm here to look for someone. His surname is Gu," said the young woman.
"Oh, I see! You're here for Xiao Gu, right? He mentioned you the other day."
The landlady smacked her forehead and there was warmth in her tone when she spoke again with a smile. "You're his girlfriend, aren't you? Gosh, you're pretty! He's out looking for inspiration again. He usually comes back in the afternoon. Let me take you to his room."
With that, they went upstairs to Gu Yu's room.
The landlady spoke again, "He's been with us for almost three months. Very decent man—tidy and modest as well. Oh, by the way, are you a writer too?"
"Well, you could say that."
"I'll leave you here, then. Still have stuff to sort through downstairs."
When the landlady went back downstairs, Xiaozhai showed herself around the room. The bed was big and the interior was simple and plain. Had it not been for a spare pair of shoes by the bed, one almost could not tell someone was living here.
She took a shower first, then changed into clean clothes and lay in bed, playing with her phone. She had lost count of time when she heard footsteps downstairs. The landlady was coming up again.
"With what is going on right now, there's no need for check-in. It makes things easy, actually…"
The husband and son had gone out somewhere. Leaning on the chair, the landlady seemed to want to have a chat. "We're leaving the day after tomorrow. How about you two?"
"We're thinking of staying a bit longer."
"I see. You'd have a hard time finding a place to live, though. There's hardly anyone left in Grape Valley now. Why, I meant to ask you, why do you like this place so much?"
"Before we were together, we made a promise saying if in the future, we, um…"
Xiaozhai brought up her Oscar-standard performance with shyness and nostalgia written all over her face. She was a happy little woman looking forward to something beautiful at that moment.
The landlady took the hint right away. "I completely agree with you! That's so important for us women!"
She then paused a little before saying, "How about this: we're only taking away the necessities and leaving everything else behind. I'll leave the keys with you and you can decide for yourselves. If the government comes here right away, then there's nothing I can do. If not, you can stay here for a couple more days. There's still food in the kitchen."
Xiaozhai was genuinely surprised by the offer. "We couldn't possibly trouble you with that. We'll just look for some other place to stay."
"Why, it's no trouble at all!" The landlady waved her off as she chuckled. "Anyhow, you are the last two customers I have here. Call it fate."
Carrying his green gourd in one hand, Gu Yu went happily down the mountain. The moment he reached the front gate, his eyes landed on his girlfriend, who was reading a book in the courtyard. The tight jeans and white turtle-neck wrapped nicely around her perfect body.
"Hey, come and give your big sister a hug!"
Seeing him coming in, Xiaozhai patted her own thighs, gesturing Gu Yu to sit himself down like a good boy. Gu Yu rolled his eyes, took her hand, and sauntered their way upstairs.
They had spent the past three months apart, tending their own business. Now that they finally got together, they weren't exactly pouring their hearts out.
Once back in the room, Xiaozhai asked eagerly, "Where's your Flaming Cloud Needle? Show me."
Chuckling, Gu Yu made a wave and as if he had picked something out of the empty air, there was a resplendent star of light between his fingertips. She was curious and moved near to take a look. It still looked like a needle, only that the color had turned crimson and was wrapped in a layer of flowing scorching glow,
In common perception, flames were clumsy and measured with quantities such as "lump". Even fireballs and long streaks of fire were also considered in lumps.
The fire about this needle, however, seemed to have a vitality to it, which was flowing freely and actively like a stream.
Xiaozhai was all the more excited. "Here, try me!"
Gu Yu did not refuse, for it was their daily activity. He activated his mental force and the red sparkle flickered, then drifted unhurriedly towards Xiaozhai.
Stretching out her right hand, Xiaozhai opened her palm, in which was flickering lightning. She walked slowly towards the needle.
The red and purple light met, giving off a violent exploding sound. Luckily, they had controlled the force they exerted, or this place would be filled with lightning and fire.
The red and purple bit into each other, unwavering. However, as Gu Yu increased his force gradually, the red light was gaining the upper hand while the purple light grew dimmer.
At his sudden shout, both retrieved their power and all was peaceful and quiet again.
"That was awesome!" Xiaozhai was amazed wholeheartedly. "When your seventy-two Flaming Cloud Needles are completed, they will definitely be the ace up your sleeves. They're worth passing down for generations."
"Easier said than done! It'll take me at least over a year to refine them all and I can't stay here all the time." Shaking his head, Gu Yu said, "Before the abnormality breaks out again, I'm content with completing twelve needles. After that, I'll stay here for a couple of months each year and take things slowly."
"Huo Zhou is in chaos now, but maybe in a few years time, this place will become a treasure land. The government will thank the gods for that… uh…" Xiaozhai stretched out, ripped off her shoes and slumped into the bed. She then asked, "You didn't go into that cave again?"
"No. That place just feels wrong. And those bugs, god knows what the hell they are."
"Let's go have a look tomorrow. We'll figure out a way to catch one and study it… come here."
She reached out, grabbed Gu Yu, and pulled him to her side. Unable to shake her off, Gu Yu had to lie down beside her and asked, "You've been to all those temples, found anything?"
"Not really, but it was an eye-opener!"