"Five were arrested during the operation, they were working for seven countries—two of them are double-agents.
Hugh Gloria, a citizen of Uncle Sam 1 , has been running a trading company in Urumqi and was a hidden agent for many years. Had he not given himself away this time, we wouldn't have been able to track him down and obtain evidence on his true identity.
Margaret, research staff of an international institute of environmental studies, has been here with her team to work on an environment protection project. On the face of it, she works for an intelligence agency of Gaul, but her real identity is a secret agent of the United Kingdom of Britannia.
Nicholas, citizen of Italos, has been in Urumqi for five years acting as a foreign teacher in Urumqi University…"
In a spacious conference room in Urumqi, a staff member of the state security was briefing the team.
Being the city of strategic importance in the Northwest, the city had always been swarming with spies. Had it not been for the overwhelming tumult of the Huo Zhou incident, they would not have took the risk.
As the first man sat down, another rose to his feet. "So far, three countries had made their protests, demanding us to provide them with full report on the cases and allow personnel from their embassies to make comprehensive and undisturbed contact with their citizens."
"Humph!" The old man snorted, apparently disdaining the request a great deal. "All I want to know is, what intelligence have they stolen?"
"Based on our interrogation, they do not yet know the truth of Huo Zhou. The suspicion was only raised by the information we released beforehand and the large-scale migration. The area was under extremely strict close-down during the outbreak, excluding any possibility of any outsider sneaking in."
"How do you exclude that?" a man blurted out, but immediately realized how idiotic the question was and shut up in embarrassment. No living thing survived inside Huo Zhou and anyone went in would never come out again. How else did he think the exclusion work?
Darting a look at the man, the old man was feeling exhaustion from inside out.
He was the general director of the abnormality incident and had no say over the spies. He was only here to attend the meeting because he was the highest-ranking official in the northwest region.
The moment the state learned about the recovery of the spiritual essence, hidden agents in all other countries were informed, and ordered to turn their main focus on related aspects.
On a global scale, this country was attached the most importance in the Orient—be it the population of nearly 2 billion or the land area of over 10 million km^2, this country dwarfed the others in the region on all aspects.
Especially on the cultural front, where over a dozen abutting countries had all more or less inherited some proportion of the Central Plains culture which then evolved locally, acquiring unique new characteristics.
For the past year or so, their own agents had had some occasional failures, but based on the information they sent back, things seemed to be going smoothly in the rest of the world; life was uneventful. Catastrophes resembling the Peach Blossom Miasma or Flaming Mountain were never heard of.
Of course, there were unusual activities. Several oldest western countries suddenly announced their strange decision of construction projects, which would circle out lands and seal them off—quite similar to what this country had done.
The neighboring small countries such as East Island, Siam, and Lao were also acting secretively.
No matter what, the government dared not take it lightly.
It was common sense that the recovery of the spiritual essence should be a global event. No one could know for sure if western mysteries such as mages, sorcerers, alchemists, or even legendary werewolves and vampires existed or not.
All forces were probing the others and all infiltration had failed. To avoid leaving things to luck and to be able to match the others in strength in the future, everyone was trying to advance faster than the rest.
State-level issues were far beyond the reach of those attending the conference. They could only report faithfully to their superior and wait for those above to make the decision.
After the meeting.
The head of Xichui Province left behind again, chatting casually with the old man.
"It was all thanks to you, or no one knew what Huo Zhou would turn into."
"Why, save that sweet talk. We've known each other well enough."
The old man shook his head and sighed. "The past ten days or so were like over a decade for me. Half of my hair has gone white. Fortunately, I have done all I could and can report myself to those in the capital without a guilty conscience… oh, there's something."
Something came to his mind and he decided to let out a little in advance. "I have written a report and it had been sent out. There is likely to be some change in the near future. Xichui has the two major regions of Tianshan and Huo Zhou, making it the priority among priorities. It will be a long-term project. You have to make sure the foundation is solidly set before you retire."
"Well, on what aspect, roughly?" The head of the province sounded unsure.
"Education, ideology, literature and art, habits and customs, you name it. It will be an overall change…" The old man paused suddenly as his daze turned empty and distant. He leaned back and said in a low, hoarse voice, "That'll be all. Let's talk another time. I need some time alone now."
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were flustered.
Only a handful of things might shake them in this world and what they were looking at was definitely one of them.
They arrived at Bai Town, had a brief rest in the manor, then walked up the mountain along the newly built stone stairs. Halfway up the mountain, they saw a row of pavilions.
Well, to be more precisely, they were a row of pavilion-like houses.
The thing was build over a creek with a stone base and a slab bridge as the wooden frame. The bridge was fan-shaped and was just wide enough to straddle above the creek. On either end sat a pavilion house with a four-ridged tented roof. The inside was spacious enough to entertain guests as well as hold accommodations.
The two pavilion houses were connected by a bamboo-roofed winding corridor in between. The house closer to the mountain path had a plate hanging over it, which said "Mid-mountain Pavilion".
The couple felt their mouths twitching. It instantly reminded them of a "royal project" built by some arriviste loaded with nothing but money. What the HELL was this? That Yuan fellow obviously took the liberty while the masters were away, coming up with such an eyesore of a showcase project.
Shaking their heads, they climbed on. The verdant plantation flanking the path was the most pleasant. The medicinal materials they sowed a few months ago were prospering. A few peach trees could be seen here and there in full bloom while emanating a particularly cloying scent.
Maybe because there were so few of them, the Peach Blossom Miasma was not generated, but with their thriving vitality and noticeable fluctuation of spiritual essence, they could tell at the first glance that these were no ordinary species.
That was not all. They had found many new stems to be raised with cuttage, which were all carefully fostered. There were as many as over a hundred of them. Needless to say, our girl Long Qiu made it happen.
The more they saw, the more flustered they became. When they hurriedly reached the black thorny woods, Xiaozhai halted and said suddenly, "You're going to soothe her!"
"Why me? You're just gonna do nothing?" Gu Yu was firmly against the proposition.
"I'll be your wingman!"
"I know how to be a wingman. Your service is not required here."
"You're the dad, so act like one, OK?"
"Dad my a*s. We're going down together."
The two anxiously shirking the incoming duty while walking slowly through the black thorny woods, all the while pondering over how to cajole (more like sweet-talk) Xiao Qiu in a moment.
They had it coming. They had pushed it too far!
Imagine daddy and mummy were out having fun for months on end, spending each day like rock stars, while leaving you behind to run your own course all by yourself. You would be mad as well.
Before long, they were out of the woods. The valley unfolded before them.
They looked nowhere else but towards the old tree, for below it were two girls playing, apparently very happy with all the giggles.
Xiaozhai was moved by the scene. She had never felt luckier than now with having a younger sister. That was none other than newly graduated Jiang Xiaojin, who couldn't have returned fast enough to make some noise.
Gu Yu was also happy. With her here, Long Qiu would not go all "good-kid-gone-wicked" on them.
Xiaojin spotted them right away. She immediately let go of Long Qiu, rose to her feet on the lawn, and waved at them while hopping and shouting.
Long Qiu wiped the smile off her face right away. She thought about ignoring them, but with a brief pause, she ran forwards with a pout.
"Oh my, Xiao Qiu has been working so hard these days. Everything at home is in such a great order."
"Exactly. I see that the fields over there are all sowed. You're awesome."
"The fields are sowed perfectly! You can tell the rice from the grass at the first look…"
The two swindlers had overly exaggerated caring and enthusiasm written all over their faces. Praises rolled off their tongues like free giveaways.
Long Qiu rolled her eyes and could not be bothered to respond. She said straightaway, "The stuff arrived yesterday. There are so many. You said you would be back today, so I didn't open them. Xiaojin got here this morning. She's not going back to school. She'll be living here for now. I've kept your meal on the stove. I'll heat it up for you."
With that, the girl promptly left them. Xiaojin only clumsily rushed just then, yelling, "Sister, I heard you two went to see some major action again. Tell me, tell me now. What was it… ouch, why are you hitting me again?"
"Answer me first. How is your Mind-calming Method doing?" Xiaozhai put down her hand.
"Tsk, would I be back if I'm still going nowhere? Come, I'll show you!"
Xiaojin's chest—which was no less pleasant to the eye than her sister's—rose and fell slightly as a breathing sound with a special rhythm came out of her nose.
Deep, long, even, slow, and soft—such were the key to meditative breathing. It shouldn't be short, but had to be continuous and unbroken. Gradually, the inhaling and exhaling were prolonged. One would then feel the breathing extending deep into the body and the distracting thoughts were cleared away.
In the meditation room, Xiaojin was sitting in a half cross-legged position, placing her left leg on top of her right. Behind her was an open space and in front of her the light. Such a setting was called "tiger crouches, dragon coils, the vermilion bird flies, and the black turtle hangs down".
Meanwhile, her head did not lean on either side and her neck remained straight. Her chin was slightly drawn in and her lower back was ramrod straight—the position of this part of the body was very important, for if it was even slightly bent, the circulation of Qi would be obstructed. The beginners often found their backs unbearably sore and could not hold the position for long. Xiaojin, however, was doing an excellent job.
She kept this standard posture and about five minutes later, her whole temperament changed all of a sudden; there was now a quietness and nonchalance about her.
On others, it meant little. But when such expression appeared on her, it was a supernatural encounter.
The three exchanged a look, all somewhat surprised. They had never expected to see this. The girl indeed had some talent!
Despite her miserable life in the Miao village, Long Qiu successfully readjusted herself and was able to consume essence within a few months. Xiaojin had been a carefree, wilful, and flamboyant girl; it took her almost a year to achieve a meditative state of mind.
We wouldn't call the former a fast learner, nor would we call the latter slow. Each one simply had their own disposition.
She sat there for quite some time before coming out of her mind-breathing coordinating state. Slowly, she opened her eyes and the next second, she was back to the old self again, her nose in the air. "See? How was that? Awesome, right?"
"Well, it was ok…"
Gu Yu was rather curious. "How did you do it? That was completely out of our expectations."
"I couldn't in the beginning. There was no way to calm my mind. In the end, I forced myself to set a target and hypnotized myself every day: I must do it or I'll kill myself. Meditation is the first step and I must nail it! Slowly I just made it. I can't really explain it."
"What was your target?" Long Qiu asked.
"Tee-hee, that's my secret!"
Xiaojin squeezed Long Qiu's cheek and turned to her sister, looking like a puppy expecting a pat on the head.
"You passed. From now on, you're with me. The cultivation officially starts now!"
Xiaozhai was rather stingy with her words and did not offer any compliment.
In fact, Xiaojin's ideal choice would be to study essence-consuming method, yet somehow, maybe out of the hope to catch up with her sister, she chose the Thunder Technique, which was a slower cultivation method. Her natural endowment was similar to Long Qiu, so the way ahead would be very tough for her.
Therefore, Xiaozhai had no choice but to be strict. She was ready to steer Xiaojin to the right course at any moment and supervise her around the clock.
After her graduation this year, the girl fled from both home and school, leaving a word saying she was hanging out with her sister. The job of persuading her family was left to Father Jiang and she would have no part of it. All she wanted was her freedom.
After examining the little sister, the couple had no better thing to do and finally told the other two about their story in Huo Zhou, then went to fetch those big chests.
Xiaojin and Long Qiu promptly went up to the chests, ready to split the profit. The first one was opened. In it was a big stone that was green in color and looked glittering and translucent. It was the green jade stone of Tianshan.
"This is enough for two people. Have you decided what to refine?" Gu Yu asked.
"I want a sword. Something suitable for close combat." Long Qiu had thought it through already. She turned to Xiaozhai, "How about you, Sister?"
"I don't like the shape of any of those weapons. I need some more time," replied Xiaozhai.
"Hey, hey, hey…" Xiaojin tugged at her arm and shook it around in vexation. "What about my share? Where is mine?"
"It'll be at least a year or two before you can refine an instrument. By then, there's bound to be better materials around. I'll bring you back some. I promise."
Xiaojin did not nag on. Her sister had promised and a promise she would keep.
Then came the second chest.
It had two bags of black grit, the granules of which were larger than the ordinary ones and round like little marbles. Long Qiu curiously picked up a handful and squeezed her fist tightly. The grit did not budge.
She then unleashed most of her strength and squeezed again. It was only then that the crunching sound of broken granules came.
"It's very solid. What are we going to do with it?" she asked.
"Don't know yet. We'll have to look into it first."
They then opened the third chest.
In this one were all sorts of bits and pieces. Stones, dust, remains of some plant, the dead body of some aquatic creature...
"Gosh, were you guys scavenging?" Xiaojin eyed the contents rather distastefully.
"Be grateful. We had to dig all of them up out of the ground," said Gu Yu.
There was barely anything left in the post-catastrophe Huo Zhou. It would be years before there would be life again, let alone an ecosystem.
Anyhow, they picked up the stuff around and put the things into the warehouse after arranging them by categories. When all that was done, it was very late. The four washed and cleaned, ready to go to bed.
Gu Yu headed towards his girlfriend's room like he used to, but when he walked in, he saw Xiaozhai bending over her desk writing something.
She looked up and said cooly, "You're sleeping alone from now on. I need to teach her."
"In the middle of the night?" He grimaced.
"Diligence makes up for dullness." Xiaozhai's explanation was succinct as always. She only chuckled. "Why, missing it already?"
"You're the one missing it!" Gu Yu retorted and gave her a tough-man look, leaving the room promptly. The moment he was back at his own, that look melted away from his face and switched instantly to delight.
"Damn! Finally a break!"TL/N: as with the cities and provinces, the names of all countries mentioned here are also altered, but the corresponding real country names are quite apparent.