The speed the red fog was spreading at had dropped by more than 50%, but there was still nothing they could do but fall back further and further away.
Huo Zhou was 300 km across from east to west and 240 km from south to north. To its west was Kumtag Desert, which was 400 km straight across, making it a rather sizeable buffer zone. To the south were Yangji and Yiwu and to the north Bayan. On the east abutted the province of Xining at a place called Huahou 1 Town.
They were mostly evacuating towards the south, going through Yiwu then to Longxi Province. They didn't have a choice. Longxi was the corridor linking the Northwest to the Central Plains and they could not allow anything happen to it.
The fog was advancing in all directions at irregular paces. It was not spreading out like a perfect circle.
It was expanding slowly at one kilometer per hour and made another 20 km or so by the end of the second day, and got to exactly 50 km by the third. Adding to what it made in the first day, the fog had taken up most of Huo Zhou.
Wherever it swept across, not a blade of grass was left and all birds and beasts died with it. None of the buildings or streets were recognizable; some were completely eroded, leaving an ashen shell only, while others managed to hang on, but it was only a matter of time before they were gone for good.
If the abnormality had brought a suffocating pressure in the beginning, it was now a slow death that dragged on by killing a little at a time.
Morale of the government was at rock bottom. The observation continued as a mere formality, while the people there were guarding something they could not defend.
The fourth day, sunny.
In a dilapidated small town, the old man was sitting in the command center eating breakfast, looking preoccupied. The food was nothing fancy: rice congee, steam buns, fermented bean curd, and a plate of salted vegetables.
Their everyday food and clothing were all sent in from outside. Each day, heavy trucks were driving to and fro between Huo Zhou and the neighboring cities.
This small town sat on the border of Huo Zhou. A few more villages and a river away was Yiwu territory. To some extent, this town had become an emblem of their endeavour. Losing it would mean the ultimate failure of the government.
The old man heaved a sigh and came to himself. He only realized then that the steam bun was going cold in his hand, being held there for too long. He was about to return to his feet when there came a clank.
The door was shoved open and the assistant trotted in, his pitch so high that it was almost shrilly. "Slowed down! It has slowed down again!"
"What?" He was having a hard time registering it.
"It's, it's slowed down…" Panting, the assistant said, "The observation data from 8.00 to 8.30 this morning came back. The fog is moving at 0.2 m/s!"
The old man leapt to his feet, the table and chairs tumbling around with his sudden movement. He stood there motionless for a few seconds, then strode out and actually walked a few circles around the table. In the end, he smacked the back of a chair.
"Great! Heaven has indeed left a door open for us! For our country! Come, let's go have a look!"
With that, the two went out in a hurry and arrived directly at the observation post. Looking through the binoculars, he indeed saw that the distant red sky was no longer as ferocious as before, but felt sluggish. The color was also much fainter.
The old man was finally reassured. They made it!
Meanwhile, the news also got around and the crowd cheered in jubilation.
"We're saved! We're saved!"
"Gods did not forsake us!"
"Our work did not go to waste… sob… sob…"
One of the professors was even crying on his knees, forgetting all about himself and tossing his glasses into the dirt.
After rampaging for four successive days and waging a war of attrition against the flood, Flaming Mountain was finally wearing out. Everyone was now confident enough that the glimmers of hope were only a few days away.
A cluster of flame spurted high into the air with a faint explosive sound, which soon joined the surrounding fire, burning unscrupulously like dying kicks.
The place was a sizeable mine that had been dug into a valley and in it were numerous shallow coalfields. Piles upon piles of fragmented coal were not shipped out in time and left down there, together with scattering buildings and vehicles—which were now all devoured by the raging fire.
Shallow coalfields were extremely dangerous, which would easily combust when the temperature rose too high. Multiple such incidents had been recorded in the history of Xichui Province and the most severe one happened in Bayan—the fire did not die out for decades.
At the moment, the field combusted spontaneously because of the high temperature while being eroded from the inside by the fire spiritual essence. A most strange phenomenon was created.
Despite the sky-high flame and its ferocity, in a brief moment, the coal turned into grayish white dead rocks that contained no mineral composition at all.
The process was so quick that it seemed it was not coal, but paper burning.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were standing on high ground, their faces lit red by the glow of the fire. It was burning when they arrived, and after half a day, it was finally dying out.
Seeing that the fire was shrinking with only a small area putting up a last-ditch effort, they felt they could wait no longer. With a leap, they jumped down together.
Their feet made a crisp snapping sound the moment they hit ground and a heavy leftover heat wrapped around them. The mine was unrecognizable. Apart from the white, bone-like stones all over the ground, nothing was left.
The stones might seem hard, but they were in fact all hollow, and turned into powder with a crunching sound under their feet.
"I can't think of any use out of it other than looking nice."
Pinching some power between his fingers, Gu Yu felt it and shook his head.
"Looking nice is enough! The valley is an endless white. It'll be a good tourist spot." Xiaozhai looked around and chuckled. "Hey, how does the name 'Snow Valley' sound?"
The corner of his mouth twitching, Gu Yu could give no comment on his girlfriend's naming sense.
They bid the authorities farewell the same day when the flood evaporated and resumed they random "sightseeing". Now that the fire spiritual essence was much less powerful, it was putting less and less pressure on them.
For the past couple of days, they walked all their way, examining the post-disaster land while taking the trouble to name each place they passed.
Ayding Lake, for instant, was 154 m below the sea level before and the lowest terrestrial point of the country. The water of the lake was also 161 m deep, making it an enormous and extremely deep hole in the ground that one could not see the bottom of it. It was an abyss.
Xiaozhai thus gave it a new name: Giant Pit 2 .
Another example would be Yuekexun County that was nicknamed "wind reservoir" where wind stronger than force 6 was blowing for as many as 100 days annually and from March to May was the period when the wind was the strongest. Facilitated by the abnormality, the wind was frantic. The scorching air billowed like blades on fire, denying all human access. It was the restricted area within the restrict area.
Sand Mountain Park was yet one more example, which was a park built on the contact belt of the oasis in the north section of Kumtag Desert. The oasis was obviously gone now and the sand had moved further in.
The remarkable thing was that the desert did not turn grayish white at the touch of the fire spiritual essence like everywhere else, but had become a black grit sort of substance, which was hard and in large granules. The swell and sweep rolled into the distance and made a crunching sound as the granules rubbed against one another at the wind.
The black grit was much more useful. They each took a large bagful for refining after they went back home.
The couple dug around like so as they went on. Anything that was mildly valuable would immediately go into their pockets. They were like scavengers, but it couldn't be helped. Cultivation Era 1.0—everything was so primary!
Apart from collecting resources, the other important purpose of their journey this time was something of their original line of work—map-drawing.
Anyone else might be ignorant of this, but never these two. Huo Zhou was bound to become the treasured land for cultivators. The dense fire spiritual essence was an excellent material for instrument-refining, not to mention the mountainful of fire minerals and the big monster inside...
It would be a heaven on earth!
Before long, it was the twelfth day.
The fog had almost stopped expanding and the speed was down to less than 0.1 m/s. It was barely moving forward and was wriggling about with the last of its strength.
The density in the perimeter was low enough to allow exceptionally fit soldiers to venture in. Their safe distance was set at 30 km. Anywhere deeper in would be life-threatening.
The army had set up a buffer zone around the edge of the fog and was busy putting up installations. The next stage would be a long-term garrison.
Economic loss—which was an astronomical figure—aside, the most regrettable thing was that Huo Zhou was lost after all and the fog had even encroached a little of the neighboring area.
Of course, all of the above was within the acceptable range.
Longxi Province, the city of Sha Zhou.
The old man was sitting in an office drafting a report, graveness clouding his face. It had been years since he last wrote a report himself, but what had happened was no trivial matter. He was more reassured to write it on his own.
First of all, Huo Zhou area would need re-defining, where boundaries would be reset according to the size of the abnormality. Huo Zhou was 72,000 km^2 before and now 73,000 km^2. The cities of Yiwu, Yangji, Bayan, and the province of Qining were all affected, their territories would be reduced accordingly.
For another, governmental expenditure had shot through the roof and the second key subject was to find a way to fill the huge gap.
Last but not least, they had concealed the peach blossom miasma and Huo Zhou incident, yet abnormality was bound to happen again sooner or later. There would come a day when they could not hold it back any more. After much consideration, he put down a most prudent suggestion.
It was time to consider how to face the people of this country...
It took the old man a long time to finish the report. After making sure there was no error, he sealed the report and stamped it with "Top Secret", then put it securely away.
He had just finished with the task when there came a knock at the door.
The door opened and his assistant strode in. "Sir, there are a few things I need to brief you on."
He rubbed his temples and leaned back into his chair.
"Priests Lu and Wang have returned to Tianzhu Mountain."
"Mr. Gu and Miss Jiang have also left this morning. They have trusted us to send their luggage back to Bai Town. That is, the stone from Tianshan and a lot of other odd things." The assistent looked the most innocent.
"Oh, they have done us a great favor. That's the least we could do. Anything else?"
"Urh, those two have left a message, saying it is for you."
"What message?" The old man winced.
"We have gone up the mountaintop. The fire spiritual essence is going stable and will not break off easily in the future. Don't worry," the assistant reiterated it word for word.
The old man blinked, finding it somewhat hard to describe his whole feeling.
Hoho, it had been a while since anyone talked to him like that after rising to this position.
"And…" The assistant suddenly lowered his voice and moved closer. "The security service informed us that they had just arrested several foreign intelligence agents. Their identities have been confirmed."TL/N: meaning "flower ditch" TL/N: metaphorically, the expression means "giant rip-off"