One of the two was a big gourd, and so was the other 1 .
They had made two kinds of yeast starters—a medicinal one and an ordinary small one. Gao Mingde had fermented and distilled the two separately, producing two kinds of liquor, which was now in these two gourds.
Gu Yu had savored them both. The liquor from the medicinal starter was hot and flamboyant with an amber color and highly reactive spiritual essence, whereas the clear liquor made from the small starter was soft, limpid, and bright with an elegant and mellow taste.
Of course, to any ordinary person, the only difference was that one was strong and the other stronger.
He was in a newly built house used as a living room. Setting the gourds down, Gu Yu took out a wooden box, which was filled with sun-dried peach flowers and some angelica roots.
His task now was to further process the small starter liquor and turn it into a mellower peach flower liquor.
To achieve that was easy. First of all, he fetched a few medium-sized gourds about 30 cm in height, then activated his spiritual essence and gave the big gourd a smack. The clear liquor inside spurted out in a white thread, which he caught and separated into the medium ones.
After that, the dried peach flower and angelica roots were crumbled up a little and sprinkled into the gourds. Seal up the plugs and cellar them for a month, and the peach flower liquor would be ready to drink.
These liquors were some good stuff!
With them, one could play the role of the pretender, hook up with girls, quench the thirst, as well as replenish the spiritual essence in battles. All in all, it was great product to keep at home and while travelling.
After all that was done, Gu Yu was putting away his share of medicinal liquor when he blinked and chuckled. "Little soap?"
"DO NOT CALL ME LITTLE SOAP!"
An angry roar came from outside the door and a superduper little ruffian revealed herself.
He turned around and asked, "What are you sneaking around for?"
Xiaojin's face changed color abruptly at that and she moved closer with a fawning smile. "Can you bring me along to Huo Zhou this time?"
"Why? Won't you have a terrible conscience when Xiao Qiu is going but not me?" She was bristling at him again.
"She's more capable than you." He concluded with a single sentence of reasoning.
"Like hell! My Thunder Technique is good enough now! Plus, that lousy place is burnt to the ground, how dangerous can it be?"
Gu Yu looked at his sister-in-law, his tone serious. "Your sister is going into seclusion, attempting to achieve the passionless state of Metal Thunder. Someone has to stay behind to attend to the affairs. Who's going to run the show with you away?"
While he was trying to reason with her, the girl would not listen. Tugging her own hair, she yelled, "Aaaaaaaaaaaah! I don't care! I am going! I'm bored to death here!"
Watching her running away, Gu Yu was helpless. After all, that was Xiaozhai's sister and it was not his place to interfere. He would leave the task to the older sister.
His trip to Huo Zhou this time had three agendas: to collect fire spiritual essence and black grit, to see the change in the environment over there, and to show Long Qiu around. Poor Xiao Qiu had always played the role as the left-behind child and he did not have the heart to do that again to her.
Come to think about it, the girl was a bit "masochistic"—not towards anybody, but her older sister only.
It was so obvious. Right now, her daily activities were provoking, digging her own grave, getting punished, provoking again, digging the grave again, and getting punished again… it was like she was asking for it and could not stop herself.
This time was no exception. No one knew what approach Xiaozhai had taken, but the result was that the girl obediently stayed behind to run household affairs (more like causing trouble).
Before they knew it, winter had arrived.
Bai Town had had its first snow. It was not a heavy one and there was only enough to cover the ground, which made a crunchy sound when one stepped on and would not stain the shoes.
In a quietish small road in the downtown area, a white jeep was driving slowly. The wheels crushed the snow underneath, making it harder with the vehicle's weight.
The splashing loose snow was blown away by the wind, revealing an imposing rear hub of the vehicle and a shiny Shengtian plate. The jeep threaded through the city and reached the suburbs in no time. It stopped at the square outside the front gate of Phoenix Mountain.
There were scarcely any tourists at all in the winter and the place was deserted. Even the ticket seller was in low spirits.
The doors of the vehicle opened and down came three young man all in their twenties. They were tightly clad in mountaineering outfits and had large backpacks over their shoulders.
One of them went to get the tickets and the three companions entered the mountain gate, soon disappearing into the mountain trail.
They were none other than Li Dong, Zhang Qianqiu, and Yan Han. Li Dong had quit his job and was now on a long journey that he thought was pure madness.
Starting from Shengtian, they would travel across the province, then to the four northeastern provinces. From there, they would move on to the central plains, south of the Yangtze River, the Northwest, south of the Five Ridges, etc. With the promising map they drew up in their heads, the three young men were going to search for immortals, pursue the Great Dao, and travel every corner of the country full of zeal and absolute sincerity.
Oh my, they were getting excited just by thinking about it!
"There's a Ziyang Temple up on the mountain. The abbot is called Chen Qiulin, a disciple of a branch of Quanzhen," Zhang Qianqiu explained as they ascended. "The man loves his blessing rituals. He would hold seven or eight of those every year. Twenty years on this mountain and he showed no sign of any capability whatsoever. He's an ordinary priest and no more."
"Then, then why are we still going to Ziyang Temple?"
Li Dong was on the chubbier side and had missed much of his gym appointments. By now, he was panting and gasping.
"Well, that's where it gets strange!" Walking with an alpenstock, Yan Han said, "You've been to Taiqing Palace before, right? The previous abbot was an imbecile. I've had him tell my fortune once and he was full of bullsh*t. However, a couple of months ago, the abbot changed suddenly and the new one was so sage-like. I have talked to him briefly. The man was genuinely a virtuous and capable Taoist practitioner."
"There was also the information from our fellow Taoists in the chat group. It was also a couple of months before that they suddenly noticed staff changes in their local temples—there was a wave of housecleaning. Obviously, the order came from above to straighten out the affairs and those not qualified were dismissed."
Giving his backpack a tug, Zhang Qianqiu chimed in, "But there was only one exception—Ziyang Temple, where Chen Qiulin remained safely as the abbot."
"Are you saying he is somehow well-connected?" Li Dong asked.
"I'm not sure. Anyway, it's unusual, and unusual means something's going on. We've got to check it out."
The three chatted on as they walked and were soon halfway up. Not a soul was around; the noiseless empty mountain felt somewhat somber and bleak.
They cared little about that and headed straight for Ziyang Temple, where they met Chen Qiulin.
Small temples like this one were quite loosely regulated. Zhang Qianqiu took out ten hundred-yuan bills and stuffed them down into the donation box. After that, they did not even have to ask. The priest there offered his service in both hands and went to fetch the abbot himself.
After exchanging some pleasantries, the four went into an inner room, where they acted all civil and sate down sipped their tea.
"Priest, how long have you been a Taoist disciple?" Yan Han asked.
"My master took me in when I was 12, so it's been 36 years," said Chen Qiulin, stroking his long beard.
"Oh my, then you must be well versed in Taoist theories. I apologize for not recognizing you in time."
"Hoho, you flatter me. There's still so much to learn for me…"
After some chattering, Zhang Qianqiu looked this way and that and asked suddenly, "Priest, I was told that the inner mountain had all been sealed up. Do you know what's going on?"
"Oh, it was said a research facility was to be built there to preserve the ecological environment. That's a good thing. Protecting the environment is the right thing to do. The right thing."
"Have you been there?"
"I haven't, actually. I seldom venture into the mountain. Well, enough of that. Fate has brought all three of you here, so how about you each detonate a lotus lamp to place by the Elderly Lord? It will bless you with a safe and sound life."
Donate my a*s! What made you think your Elderly Lord would care for a stupid lotus lamp?
The three lost their interest right away. Their fishing for information only proved that the man was a money-chaser. Disappointed, they immediately bid their farewell.
On leaving Ziyang Temple, Zhang Qianqiu was still encouraging his friends. "Don't give up. We've known all along that old fool was a fraud. The truth must be inside!"
"You're right. It must be!"
With that, the three walked on. About forty minutes had passed when they finally stopped.
A long wire fence blocked their way. It was over two meters tall and with barbed tips. The fence came all the way from deep inside the mountain and stretched out into the distance. They could not tell where it ended.
"Wow, that's something!"
Grinning, Yan Han unzipped his backpack and was about to take out his gear when Li Dong gave him a pat hastily and whispered, "Hey, there's a camera… don't look. Pretend you didn't see it. Let's move a bit further!"
That was close!
Acting all innocent, they moved a dozen meters sideway and finally found a blind spot. After making sure they were safe, Yan Han took out a pair of thread-cutting forceps that looked very, very heavy-duty.
Bending down, he took a section of wire with the forceps and squeezed. With a click, the wire was cut in half.
"Keep an eye. Make sure no one sees us."
"We are. You hurry up!"
Yan Han was quite good at what he was doing and there was soon an opening wide enough for a man to squeeze through.
The three dared not dally and sneakily made their way in one at a time. They only crept onwards after covering the opening up with some grass
They thought they had been very furtive about it but little did they know, up on a tall tree not far from them, someone was sitting there snickering whilst two long legs dangled from the branch.
Li Dong panted. It was a very exhausting journey and he could not keep up much longer.
Supported by Yan Han's alpenstock, his march was interrupted by frequent rests, which slowed them down quite a bit. Something was very strange, though. Ever since they were inside the fence, he had been having this incredibly disturbing feeling, as if something terrifying was lurking somewhere.
Zhang Qianqiu and Yan Han, on the other hand, were in high spirits. They had been talking the entire time about the possibility of Phoenix Mountain. This was the first "dungeon" they entered. What would it turn out to be?
The three of them walked for another while when Li Dong looked up at the sky, feeling the dark clouds crushing down and the light dimmer than ever.
"I say…" He stopped abruptly and seemed uncomfortable when he asked, "Do you feel the chills?"
"Not a bit!"
"Are you sweating? That'll give you the chills with the wind blowing."
"But how come my back, my back…"
Li Dong squirmed and reached a hand to his back. The fingertips sweeped inside his clothes, but instead of the cold sweet clothes he expected, they caught a lump of slimy, soft substance.
What the hell?
He jolted and ripped it out before he had time to think and tossed it onto the ground. But when the thing was leaving his hand, it became alive abruptly and slithered around his arm, then dashed upwards.
Li Dong was scared out of his wits. A pair of dark yellow vertical pupils was centimetres away, staring into his own eyes. What was more, a blood-red two-pronged tongue was licking his right cheek.
"Dong Zi, let's go. Why are you…"
Zhang Qianqiu was still hurrying him on when he looked up unexpectedly and froze on the spot.
Yan Han was petrified all the same. Staring at the glossy green snake, he stuttered, "Don't, don't move. I'll go find a twig. Whatever you do, don't move…"
Stiffened, he retreated a few steps and fumbled around for a weapon.
Just then, a sinister wind blew at him, which seemed to penetrate his body. A chilliness rose out of his stomach and soon spread to his entire body.
Instinct told him something was wrong. He tried all he could to stay calm, but failed.
One inch, two inches...
With much difficulty, he raised his head and levelled his eyes, looking right into a bloodless woman's face. The giant pupils had taken up the entire eyepits and there was not a trace of the white of the eyes.
"Aaaaaaah!"TL/N: This is a humorous imitation of a line from a famous prose of Lu Xun. ("There were two trees in my courtyard; one was a jujube tree, and so was the other.") Basically, anyone in China who has had some form of middle school education knows this line.