Xiaozhai could not get over that cave. Shamanism seemed to have left her with such an inferior impression that she had been holding much animosity and defiance for it, which Gu Yu had detected. Since she did not bring it up, he had refrained himself from asking.
As the range of the abnormality widened, entering the cave was getting more difficult each time. Therefore, they tried their best to readjust their breathing and get prepared so that they could finish the task in one go.
Instead of setting out from Grape Valley, they chose the shortest direct route, hopping and leaping over all the mountain rocks and cliffs. The rising red fog resembling crimson snakes danced frantically; it was an inferno.
After a long run, they finally saw the protruding edge of the precipice and a giant rock stuck between two cliffs, which was none other than that suspended rock.
The resolute pair simply jumped down the precipice and landed right by the cave. Nothing changed much here. The entrance that had been made by Flaming Could Needles was still gaping at them, its edges all rough and coarse.
They took a peek in and were immediately surprised, for inside, the cave remained pitch black and felt as bottomless as always. Gu Yu stooped down to check. There was no mistake in that. The air inside still felt cool, completely undisturbed by what was going on outside.
The two exchanged a look; that was simply miraculous!
Xiaozhai frowned. "Something must have been arranged inside, or the whole thing is a Feng Shui setting to begin with—otherwise, it would not stay shady and cool under such power as it is now."
"Does Shamanism practice Feng Shui?" Gu Yu asked.
"Feng Shui itself originated from the ancient Shamanism, but I'm not sure if those people have inherited anything... or maybe Taoist practice is involved as well?"
Xiaozhai made an even bolder suggestion. "My initial speculation might be wrong. They were not merely raising insects here, but only used it as means to achieve another more important goal."
"You're right. They have indeed mentioned that they were looking for a thing when they talked with me. Too bad we don't know how Feng Shui works and can find no clue in this."
"Sigh. I'd love to go in and check," Xiaozhai chimed in with a sigh.
With the unusual circumstances at the moment, they would not enter the cave recklessly, for the insects were sure to be disturbed if they went in, which would lead to a fight and a fight meant activating their spiritual energy, which would attract a torrent of incoming fire spiritual essence that would bury them.
The two discussed it over and marked down the mountain shape here so that they could find someone to examine it later.
"Of all the people we know, I think that fatso Wang is the only Feng Shui master," said Xiaozhai.
"He's working for the government now, no? Together with that little zombie…" Shaking his head, Gu Yu said in a vexed tone, "Man, I'd rather not to have dealings with them."
With the shouting and the sound of rumbling engines, the fleet of vehicles drove in the other direction as fast as they could, carrying personnel and materials alike.
They were merely a few minutes away when that small observation station was devoured. The houses made a crunching sound as the rampant fire spiritual essence pushed in, as if they were going to collapse the next second.
On average, the red fog advanced one kilometer every 24 minutes. They had been waiting for over an hour, but Lu Yuanqing still had not returned. They were falling back all the way from the warning line to the observation station, and now, even the station was gone.
The vehicles drove a short distance away and a research staff hopped off, drawing another warning line and flagging it. The distance between two flags was roughly the distance the fog would travel in an hour.
The six soldiers in charge of security details were ridden with anxiety. They had tried to enter the fog themselves before, but could not make it past five minutes. It took all their strength to come back alive.
The fact that Lu Yuanqing had walked in all by himself and that they had not heard from him ever since was eating away at their confidence. But like they had promised: we would be falling back, but we would never leave without you!
And wait they did. Every now and then, they would report to their superior.
A soldier was gulping a bottle of water down his throat, then asked, "How long has it been?"
"Over two hours."
"It's a bad one."
"Shut it!" the leader scolded.
"Why? Priest Lu might be a capable man, but I don't think he can make it after that much time."
The guy was not taking pleasure from this misfortune. Despite his criticism, he looked rather dispirited. He was taking a few more gulps from the bottle when the soldier next to him started patting him violently.
His arm jolted and he choked on the water. He shouted angrily, "What the hell?"
"Look, is that a person over there?"
Among all the hubbub, the group turned in unison and looked ahead of them. In the dense red fog, a blurry figure was moving, which looked as tiny as it was slow.
"He's back!" the leader shouted immediately. He then said, "Something's wrong. We need to go fetch him!"
The soldiers responded right away, jumped into the vehicle in a haste, stepped the gas all the way down, and dashed into the red fog headlong. They could only withstand the fog for so much time and were driving frantically forward. It took them no time to recognize Lu Yuanqing.
The only word to describe the man was: miserable!
The previous peacefulness and calm all gone, the man looked withered and pale. The stooping figure staggered forward and the man was losing conscious as he walked.
The soldier behind the wheel heard the engine making weird noise and urged them. The other two hopped out and lifted Lu Yuanqing in straight away. They did not have the time to adjust their positions and the three squeezed into the back row in a weird arrangement.
The SUV spun around, leaving a deep scratch on the ground. The next moment, the vehicle was out of the fog.
They were just out of its range when a white smoke broke out of the hood. The vehicle was completely wasted. They were in no mood to feel pity, though, for all three soldiers were panting heavily and soaking wet as if they were just out of the water.
Right away, they arranged to have Lu Yuanqing escorted back by several group members, while the rest stayed behind to guard the post.
The priest was only half-conscious now and tried all he could to stay awake. Thanks to his solid basic training, he gradually recovered after a short rest and drinking a lot of water.
Arriving at the municipal government building, they found a group of people waiting eagerly for his return; they were utterly frightened by his miserable condition. The old man went up to him and asked in a sympathetic tone, "How are you feeling?"
"I'm ok… I'm sorry I've failed you." Lips quivering, Lu Yuanqing said apologetically, "I only made more than half of the distance and glanced at that Flaming Mountain from afar. That was my limit."
"Don't worry about it. You made it back, that's the most important thing. What exactly is going on inside?" the old man asked.
He was silent for a while before answering. "Chaos. A dead land void of any life. It looked like an exploding volcano with a whirling air mass on the mountaintop. The red fog rolled out ceaselessly. I don't think it'll be exhausted any time soon."
The old man fell silent as well, apparently also disturbed by the answer. "Take a good rest. You've done well!"
"I only did what I could."
Lu Yuanqing lay in bed and watched the man leave. A strange smile suddenly rippled over his face. What he needed the most at the moment was an impression of being obedient. Successful or not, the authorities' attitude was the most important thing.
As for the other party, the professor was disgruntled ever since they left the lounge, mumbling the whole time. "It was all for nothing. There is too little information and I thought at least he could go up the mountain…"
Unfortunately, nobody paid him any attention, for everyone was at a loss.
If Flaming Mountain rampaged on, the government would make sure that it did not go beyond Huo Zhou, let alone spread to the rest of the country. Should that happen, the state would sacrifice an entire region and blow the hundred-kilometer mountain by issuing some sort of weapon.
Yet there was no way to make sure it would be effective, nor could they predict that nothing worse would be induced by such measure. However, it was a solution—a desperate solution.
That was why they had to have someone go deep into the fog and get to know the situation. What if the abnormality wore away and the outbreak stopped?
"Well, Sir…" the assistant spoke suddenly and reminded him in a low voice, "Don't we have the other two?"
The old man adjusted his glasses and expressed his doubts. "Would they make it when even Priest Lu has failed?"
The question might sound foolish, but it reflected the government's mindset. Ever since the monastery had produced an innate-state cultivator, the attitude of the government had been rather hard to pin down. They cared little of the capability of an innate-state achiever, but only saw the latter as an auxiliary force.
As tough as an innate-state cultivator was depicted, could he stop a bullet? How about a bomb or a missile?
Before the individual ability of a cultivator reached a transcendent level, the government couldn't care less about what state they were at, what technique they practiced with, or how tough they were—to the authorities, innate state was nothing compared to modern weapons.
The assistant knew his stuff very well. "Sir, the area within a 20 km radius of Flaming Mountain is now covered by the fog. Our intelligence said they did not show up in any monitored area. In that case, they must be inside."
The old man pondered for a while and suddenly raised his voice. "Go contact them now! No, invite them politely!"