The end of March, Huo Zhou.
The over 700,000 people had all been evacuated and in came armies of research and military personnel, whose main tasks were to observe data and undertake escort duty, respectively. They would bring little influence to change the abnormality.
It was the most intriguing event, as a matter of fact. A city was perishing, with its original residents scattering all over the country and never coming back. Instead, a group of outsiders were witnessing the process and keeping the city company for its last ride.
It was midday. Inside the Flaming Mountain scenic area, the humble square was looking all the more bleak. The giant golden-cudgel-shaped thermometer stood stiff in the Bagua furnace and pointed straight up at the sky.
Behind it, the tracks were deserted on the rustic hill, without the sign of a single tourist… well, not really. There was one left.
Xiaozhai sat grandly on a mountain rock. Fiery clouds leapt up in rolls all around her, as if crimson snakes were sprinting around on the mountain top. The fire spiritual essence was the most powerful where she sat and ordinary people would find it unbearable. To her, it was a wonderful spot to practice her thunder technique.
There was an expression: thunder of the sky and fire of the earth.
It usually referred to the frightening power of nature and could also be used to describe budding lust between couples—the two elements were habitually connected. The thunder of the sky was of Qian (or "force" of Bagua) and the fire of earth was of Kun (or "field" of Bagua). The two clicked and they started doing some naughty stuff… wait a second, that did not come out right.
All in all, Xiaozhai suddenly discovered that when she cultivated up on the mountain, the moment she activated her Metal Thunder energy, the fire spiritual energy tens of meters around her would go into a frenzy and jump at her head over heels.
She had to fend it off with every last bit of her strength and the Metal Thunder energy was soon exhausted. She would then sit in meditation and readjust her breath. After that, she would provoke the fire spiritual essence again and once more drain her energy, then repeat the process again. After much repetition, she found herself much "durable" already.
Hence began her daily visits. She would spend most of her day sitting there.
She had no other choice. The cultivation of thunder technique was very slow—if Gu Yu could reach the Human Immortal state in five years, she would need at least eight. Take the Metal Thunder energy as an example. She had been at it for over a year and was barely reaching the "passionless state".
The sun was slanting towards the horizon when Xiaozhai exhaled slowly and finally finished her training for the day.
She did not walk the stairs, but dashed off the mountain in a few strides. She glanced at the temperature when she passed the thermometer—it read 27.3 degrees Celsius.
WTF! It was 23℃ only yesterday and was now going up again. The abnormality in Huo Zhou was deteriorating everyday since the beginning of spring, which had gone far beyond their expectations.
Xiaozhai shook her head, then climbed into a shabby car and drove towards the Grape Valley. They happened to stumble across this crappy thing left behind by someone and decided to take it.
She saw nothing but the deserted land on her way back. On entering the farmhouse, she found no one in the yard, but a familiar fluctuation was coming from upstairs—it was her boyfriend refining magical instruments.
She did not disturb him, but went into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
The food was provided by the authorities. It was no delicacy, but was more than enough to meet their nutritional needs. Potatoes were paired with celeries and cucumbers with tomatoes, which were served along with an egg drop soup. After a few vegetarian dishes were ready, she called out, "Old Gu, dinner's ready!"
The answer came from upstairs. Before long, Gu Yu came down.
Xiaozhai was actually an excellent cook, only that she did not get much chance to use the kitchen after they were together. She had been playing the cook the most frequently during their stay in the Grape Valley for the past few months.
"I drove around on my way back. Things are not looking good." Xiaozhai sipped her soup and said, "It won't hold off to as late as the Beginning of Summer. It's happening in a couple of days."
"Yeah, my Flaming Cloud Needles are almost ready, exactly fifteen of them." Gu Yu gave it a thought and said, "Let's stay for a bit longer and see how things go. We'll leave when it quiets down a little."
"Of course! It's an once-in-lifetime event and we're not missing that!"
Night, all sounds were still.
A small lizard with a triangular head suddenly snuck out of its burrow. It was around 15 cm in its length and had black-lined skin. The lizard was of a species typical to Huo Zhou and was known as the "sand tiger". The species was extremely drought tolerant and fed on small insects and plant tubers.
The animal was nocturnal and now was the time to hunt.
It crawled slowly, swaying its head from one side to another. Soon, an ant nest was discovered.
Ants were delicious. The sand tiger was observably excited, lowering its body to block the opening first, then starting to dig with two paws.
Its whole belly was flat on the ground and a feast was within reach when it paused abruptly.
The strange triangular head was lifted up in a whoosh and the eyes stared into somewhere not far away. In the dark yellow pupils was the greatest terror that shouldn't have been there.
The sand tiger suddenly turned around and sprang off frantically, running for its life. Its four legs took turns rapidly with the running, as if the thing behind was a million times more frightening then a natural enemy.
There was a scuttling sound inside the ant nest and countless ants flooded out, fleeing in a frenzy. Immediately after that, more small animals joined in, among which were gerbils, sand snakes, and all sorts of insects one could not name.
They soon formed a torrent. Behind them, in the endless dark night, a gigantic sky-swallowing crimson snake seemed to be lurking, its enormous torso covering up the entire night sky, as if ready to destroy everything.
An unfortunate gerbil ran at the last. Its hair was all bristled up and its face completely contorted—the animal looked strange and terrifyingly hideous. It was running with all its strength, trying to escape. However, it froze there all of a sudden.
As if a giant snake had swallowed it whole, the little thing was drained of its vital essence at a visible speed. Its life was withering away. In the blink of an eye, it became a stiff mummy.
The consumption of the blood exhilarated the giant snake. The red fog that was originally invisible to ordinary men was materialized by now, filling every corner between heaven and earth and was rampantly charging in every direction.
Inside No. 2 observation station, Zhang Hao opened his eyes, startled.
He was awoken by the alarm. The station was equipped with an automatic observation system, which would ring out loudly when the temperature increased sharply and exceeded the safety margin.
Zhang Hao's head was still muddled from the sleep, but it only lasted for a few seconds. He scrambled towards the equipment in a haste, for rows of bright-red data on the big screen were making his hair stand up!
"Attention! Attention! This is station No. 2 speaking, station No. 2!" He snatched the phone in one hand, dialed the number, and shouted into the speaker, "Observation data has surpassed the emergency value… not a single one. It's happening all over the board! All of them!"
Tossing the phone aside, Zhang Hao wrapped some random clothes around his shoulders and stumbled out of his bedroom.
"WTF, what's going on?"
His colleagues had also heard the alarm and assembled in the hall. The head of the station looked more solemn than ever, and only gave them a wave without uttering a single word.
They went out and stood in the clearing outside, looking to the north in unison. The expressions froze on their faces. In the flickering red glow and the dark night, they looked like cast iron sculptures.
To the north stood Flaming Mountain!
The sky in that direction had turned crimson. Heated wind rolled in waves and red clouds shot up into the sky, beneath which was a massive, desolate, and wild mountain that was emanating ferocity and scorching heat.
It was no longer the quiet mountain as before but an awakened monster, who was shaking the earth from afar; roars coming out of its fire-spitting throat, ready to burn this world into ashes.
What was more frightening was that the rolling heat wave that formed from the contorted air by pure high temperature, as well as that terrifying red cloud, were both moving slowly towards them.
Standing there gaping for a while, Zhang Hao finally swallowed and tried to ask for suggestions.
The head of the station was an experienced researcher and had led many exploration teams before. He had calmed down from the initial confusion. "We're still some distance from it. Don't worry. Let's go have a look first!"
Zhang Hao went shakily to fetch the car and the four people headed north right away, carrying the monitor. The small car drove in the night like a lamb ready to be slaughtered, delivering itself right into the monster's mouth.
The journey was around 20 km, and after a short while, the only thing they could think of was: hot! The kind of heat one experienced under the blazing sun of dog days and without a single sip of water!
They were soaked in sweat and felt short of breath, but they forced themselves to keep driving. It was then one of the fellows shouted, "Look at the ground!"
The others turned to look. The ground was densely covered with layers of dead small animals, all looking like specimens drained of their vital essence. They fell into silent piles all around them. It was an open-air graveyard.
The fellow suddenly covered his mouth. One couldn't tell whether it was out of disgust or he was feeling unwell. He was about to throw up. Zhang Hao helped him to lie down, fed him some water, and treated him with wet towels.
The station leader was behind the wheel. Seeing that the man was a bit better, he asked, "What's the temperature now?"
"38 degrees!" another answered.
"It's not that high, why the violent reaction?" Frowning, he encouraged the others, "Hang on there. We'll just move a little bit further in."
With that, he stepped on the gas and moved a few hundred meters forward. The fellow was growing paler with quivering lips and he was losing conscious. Zhang Hao busied himself with taking care of the man while rehydrating himself repeatedly.
Finally, when they were about 10 km from Flaming Mountain, all four were feeling extremely unwell.
Finishing recording the data with much difficulty, the station leader turned around decisively and drove back as if running for life.
However, they only made it to about two thirds of they journey when the engine stated shaking violently, making all kinds of irregular noises. Then, with a bang, white smoke rose out of the engine compartment and the car came to a halt. It was completely wasted.
"F**k!" The station leader smacked the steering wheel. "I'll support him. Let's walk back! Quickly!"
The four of them got off the car and stumbled the last part of their journey. Their clothes were all soaking wet and even their breath felt like burning air.
When the observation station finally came into sight, all pressure seemed to leave their bodies and they felt like they had escaped a devil's land. They felt much cooler right away. Their legs giving up on them, the four crumbled to the ground one after another.
Zhang Hao downed another bottle of water and panted heavily. When he turned around, what he saw was the most ghastly sight.
The wild land was ripped off the little livelihood there was left and had turned into a dead land overnight. The grass, bushes, and tall trees were erased of all their green right in front of his eyes and transformed into a lifeless murky gray.
The shock of the violation of the natural law and the utter terror brought by it broke Zhang Hao down right there and right then.
As if in a trance, his eyes was glassy as he mumbled repeatedly, "What are we going to do? What are we going to do?"