"That was the fifth one!"
Inside the police station of Xihai Zhou, a police officer banged his fist hard against the desk, his voice filled with sadness and anger. "Five missing in two months, all clueless and without a trace! We never had enough men to begin with and those above are stalling instead of sending us reinforcements. What are they thinking?"
"Don't worry. Hasn't our director sent out the report? You know, there're a lot of procedures to go through and it takes time," consoled a colleague sitting opposite him.
"Time, it's all about the time! We can wait all we want, what about the victims?"
The police officer only got angrier at those words and began yelling while smacking the desk. Just then, the door of their office was pushed open and a junior officer walked in. "Captain Zhao, we found something."
"Bring it in!" He bolted to his feet.
"So, we began by making inquiries among Wu Yang's family and friends first and obtained the model and color of her bike, then pulled all surveillance camera footages of the lakeside road. We found this."
The junior officer handed him a few colored photos. Captain Zhao gave it a glance and realized he was looking at the rear of a jeep.
The trunk seemed to have something large in it and had not been properly locked. There was a gap, through which, one could barely make out something that resembled a yellow wheel.
Frowning, Captain Zhao pondered. "Are you sure that's her bike?"
"It's a limited edition, only a handful were sold. The yellow wheels were its signature. I've also ran the license plate of that jeep. It belongs to a trading company in the city. I think we should look into it," replied the junior officer.
"Good. We're moving out!" He made the decision on the spot and told his colleague, "Old Tong, see you around."
"Sure. Be careful."
The colleague waved back. As soon as the others had left, however, Old Tong's expression changed abruptly. He grabbed his phone and dialed a number. "Hello? Director, someone is heading there."
The electronic gate clanked open and a police car entered the factory courtyard. The factory was located in the remote development zone with few inhabitants around.
Three men got off the car. They were none other than Captain Zhao and his two officers.
A female staff ran out to greet them, seemingly a little rattled. "Dear officers, you are…"
"We're just here to make some inquiries. There's no need to be afraid."
Captain Zhao looked around and asked, "Who's in charge here?"
"Our, our manager is inside. Please come this way."
With that, she led the three in. Instead of climbing up stairs, she took a turn and started descending.
"Your office is underground?" One of the officers found it strange.
"Oh, we're revamping the rooms upstairs at the moment and all offices are moved to the first floor underground," explained the woman.
Captain Zhao strained his ears and listened. A rumbling sound was indeed coming from above. He did not think much of it and followed her down.
Beneath, they found a spacious lobby decorated in a vintage style. There were pillars in four corners of the room and a domed ceiling in the middle, all carved with peculiar patterns. They went through a corridor and the ceiling got lower and lower. With the "tack, tack, tack" of the woman's high-heels, even the light seemed dimmer here.
Soon, they reached a gate. The woman said, "The offices are inside and the manager's room is the second on your left."
"You're welcome… teehee!"
The woman held the door open and watched them go in. The fluster from earlier was suddenly wiped off her face and, for some unknown reason, replaced by a strange smile.
Captain Zhao sensed something was not right the moment that door was shut. He immediately drew out his pistol and pushed at the closed door.
He gave it a few shoves and realized it had been locked from outside.
Frightened and enraged, the three thumped on the door with all their strength, but the door would not budge. They had no choice but to fumble their way forward, gun in hand.
The corridor went on inside, flanked by stone walls on either side. After the corridor, the view changed abruptly and they found themselves in front of a massive cave.
It was half-natural and half-artificial. Pit holes joined with one another, forming numerous passages. Lamps embedded in the walls were giving off a pale color, making the scene all the more gloomy.
Pursing his lips, Captain Zhao led the way and the two junior officers guarded on either side. Their nerves were on edge.
The cave seemed to be deserted. They walked for a while and found nothing. When they were about to reach the other end, they suddenly noticed a deep, dark hole, from where a rustling noise was coming out.
The noise was rather unusual, which reminded one of an animal's breathing, one that was puffing and blowing heavily.
"Who's there? Come out!" Captain Zhao raised his gun in a swish and shouted, "We're the police. You have three seconds before we start shooting! One, two—"
Before he could finish counting, there came a growl that he could not tell if it was from a human or a beast.
Immediately after that, he saw the flash of a shadow. He did not even feel the pain when he suddenly realized he was flying very high. Looking down, he saw a headless body.
His head dropped to the ground and rolled far into the distance. The wide opened eyes still had utter horror and disbelief in them.
The two junior officers were quick to react. They had no time to mourn for their dead captain and pulled the triggers right away.
Momentarily, bullets were flying in all directions, blasting off crumbled stone everywhere. A few bullets hit their target; green blood oozed out of its wounds.
It squealed and howled in pain and plunged down frantically. With a few strikes, the two men were torn into pieces.
The team of three was annihilated in a mere five seconds!
The two fresh bodies had barely hit the ground when a knocking sound came from deep inside the cave, which sounded like a bell or chime stone. The monster froze and the ferocious look on its face eased. It stood motionless.
It was only then that one get to see what the thing looked like. It was slender, with well-toned muscles and greenish gray skin. The facial features were intact, still looking the pretty face a young woman she once was, only that the face was covered with black spell patterns.
The eyes were the most remarkable, for a hint of consciousness could still be detected from them, as if it was struggling to fight back some evil power. The effort was making the face painfully terrifying.
"All that divine fluid was worth it. This is a good one."
Just then, a few more people walked out of the cave; the man leading them was none other than that baldy from earlier. He was holding a small chime stone made from an entire bone plate and gave it another knock.
Baring its teeth, the monster walked to his side despite its reluctance and stood there obediently. The baldy was more satisfied than ever. He lifted its chin and looked at it for long, as if he was savoring a perfect piece of art.
"This ghostly woman plus those fostered in other branches will give us exactly a dozen of them. All we need to do now is go into the mountain, find the altar, and get control over that thing. We are going to restore the glory of my ancestors!"
Stroking the ghostly woman's face, the blood-red pupils of the baldy had an undisguised madness in them.
"Master, the abnormality in Huo Zhou is still active. We shouldn't venture recklessly into the mountain when we've yet to reach the innate state!" One of the men tried to persuade him.
The baldy gave him a sideway look and did not sound pleased. "The Archmage has completed the occult skill of the ancestors. Using it on ourselves, the erosion of the abnormality will be fended off. Or are you a coward that wants to deserts the ranks on the eve of a battle?"
The man jolted and said hastily, "I could never bring myself to do such a thing. I was only worried that we can't find the altar and it would be a waste of our energy."
"Humph! The government is quite active lately and we're running out of time. We must find that place, even if it means we have to turn Flaming Mountain upside down!"
" Steamed Niangpi 1 ! Steamed Niangpi!"
"Pot-steamed buns! Just out of the stove!"
"Sweet fermented wine, five yuan a portion!"
The street of local food was filled with rows upon rows of food stalls. People were coming and going in crowds, most of them foreign to the city, for the locals never ate here. Such was one of those legendary streets that "one could find in almost every city, which specializes in swindling the non-locals".
With a steamed bun in one hand and a bowl of the sweet fermented wine in another, Long Qiu was strolling this way and that, looking at everything with great interest.
Poor kid. Even a train ride exhilarated her. She couldn't help it—what life could a dudou 2 -wearing girl have before she left the mountains?
Gu Yu walked behind her, holding a portion of Niangpi as a satisfied smile filled his eyes.
Their original plan was to transfer to another flight towards Xihai immediately after they arrived at Xiping, Xihai being an autonomous prefecture of Qingning Province abutting Huo Zhou.
However, Long Qiu's excitement and curiosity made him feel it cruel to take her away, so he changed the plan on the spur of the moment and decided to stay for two days in Xiping.
"Brother, let's have dinner there, shall we?"
While they were still walking around, Xiao Qiu made a sudden suggestion while pointing at a restaurant. Naturally, he had no problem with that and sauntered in after her.
Gu Yu sat there and let the girl do all the ordering. With the profit of 20 million yuan a year from Phoenix Mountain, she had more than enough pocket money. She was not going to splurge, either. Holding the menu, she said, "I'll have this, this, and this. That'll be all."
"How about some lamb or beef? We also have this traditional hot pot. It's a local special and not expensive at all."
"No, thanks. We don't really eat meat."
"Then please wait a moment. The food will be ready soon."
Our adorable Long Qiu soon won the heart of the waiter, who couldn't be kind enough towards her. Before long, the dishes were served: a dish of gengpi 3 , zanba 4 , bean jelly, and pancakes respectively.
Gu Yu gave each dish a few bites and decided to stick to the pancakes. He praised, "The dough of this pancake was well kneaded and the oil was applied properly. I think they've used vegetable oil. Smear the oil all over the pancake for every separate layer of the pancake baked, or it won't taste this good. Hey, what's this dish called?"
"Dog's pee. It says so on the menu," answered Long Qiu, still chewing her gengpi.
Gu Yu put down his chopsticks in silence. He then tried a little bean jelly, but his appetite was gone. He heaved a sudden sigh. "Xiao Qiu, steer clear of Xiaojin from now on. She's a bad influence on you."
"How so?" She blinked at him.
"That dish you ordered?"
"What about it? The name's not pretty, but it tastes good."
"Then why aren't you eating?"
"I don't like pancakes."
Gu Yu could not be bothered to banter with her and was brooding over his bleeding heart on his own—she used to be such a good kid. Six months with that little soap and what had become of her? If he let it happen, eventually she would become one of those black-hearted little devils!
Long Qiu eyed him. She suddenly put down her chopsticks and covered her mouth with a tissue paper. Her shoulders were quivering slightly.
"Why are you laughing?"
"Ok. Stop now."
"Hey, what are you so happy for?"
Gu Yu was utterly baffled. The girl would not answer no matter what and kept on giggling.
It was quite a while before she finally looked up, her fair little face all flushed as if she had put on some blusher. "I'm happy, that's all. Yes, I'm very happy."TL/N: a local snack in the northwest made from flour that looked like thick, short-ish flat noodles. ED/N: As expected of the author. Bringing up lingerie out of nowhere... dudou is a sort of sexy lingerie for women, just google it (mild NSFW warning)!. TL/N: a dish made from the stems of sweet potato TL/N: roasted highland barley flour dough