A sunny, cloudless day.
A flashy yellow SUV was driving along a perfectly straight road that seemed to stretch on forever. Setting off against the wildness on either side, the yellow felt like the only bright color of this world.
Pressing the accelerator hard, Yang Di pushed all the way to 140 km/h. The vehicle performed beautifully. It ran steadily on without the slightest wobble. The driver himself was not as remarkable, though. Even at this speed, his mind had gone somewhere else. Every now and then, he would glance sideways, or dart a look at the adorable girl in the rearview mirror.
Gu Yu could not be bothered with it, but Long Qiu found it irksome. When he stole a look for the eighth time, she could not hold back any more. "Why are you always looking at me?"
"Because you're good-looking… ah, my big mouth. I'm such a big mouth! I'm gonna slap it!"
Old habits die hard. He was hitting on the girl again, but instantly realized where he was at the girl's frown and slapped himself loudly. The fellow was so brazen-faced that he did not know what shame was. He then turned to Gu Yu as if nothing had happened. "Well, Bro, who on earth are you people?"
"An exploration team, sort of," replied Gu Yu.
"You're making fun of me again. What exploration team can fight men ten times their number?" Yang Di paused a little, then lowered his voice and said secretively, "I have guessed it even if you don't want to tell me. You're the gifted, aren't you?"
Gu Yu blinked. "Where did you get that conclusion from?"
"Tsk, everyone's talking about it, just not openly! I have a friend who has some military connections. He told me that the Huo Zhou migration was never because of some construction of a base. There was some radiation substance and energy generation stuff—nothing I can understand. Anyway, the state has sent in a bunch of gifted people to solve it. Hoho, from the look of it, you people are definitely two of those. But I don't think you belong to any authorities. You're probably some masters among the common folk."
Gu Yu did not expect to hear that. He asked in surprise, "If there really are gifted people around, why aren't you surprised at all?"
"Why should I? I've always believed superpowers exist, only that no one has made it public." Yang Di was much relaxed now and chuckled. "Just think about it. There are hundreds of billions of people on this planet and if not even one of them is special, how boring would this world be? Probably because of the changing environment, new problems have come up and our country has decided to keep it hidden for the time being, but they would eventually be out in the open. So, I have to grab this chance and not fall behind. It's the same with that club, aren't we all trying to search for a way out?"
That had indeed left a better impression on Gu Yu. The man was a little dumb, but had a better understanding in that aspect than most men.
Despite being a little rascally and unruly, the fellow was not a bad man, so Gu Yu offered a little warning. "That organization you are joining is no good. Get yourself out of it as soon as possible if you can. It's involved in things beyond your capability."
"Yes, yes, I completely agree with you."
Agreeing to Gu Yu he might, Yang Di was secretly not thinking much of the warning.
As he drove on, he looked up in passing and could not help but strain his neck to look into the distance. "Hey, what's that?"
Gu Yu and Long Qiu looked into that direction and saw a shadow diving down at a tremendous speed from the air, aiming directly at this flashy car.
With their incredible eyesight, the two immediately recognized what it was—a strange-looking big bird.
Within a few breaths' time, the big bird had reached their car. Flapping its wings ferociously and sticking out its sharp beak, it pecked hard at the windshield.
"WTF! What's that!"
Yang Di was as experienced a driver as one could get. Despite the fluster, he did not panic as he wrenched the steering wheel to the left. The tires made a jarring sound from scraping hard against the ground and the car barely missed the beak.
The big bird made a strange sound and turned, its movements unbelievably nimble, and tried to fly past the vehicle at a close range.
Right then, the window of the passenger seat was rolled down and a big hand stuck out, which clenched around its neck.
The big bird struggled violently, flapping its wings fiercely, but could not get rid of the hand. Immediately after that, it felt the grip tighten around its neck, followed by a wave of choking sensation. It kept still right away.
Tilting his head, Gu Yu looked closely at the bird.
It was over a meter tall and had very big wings, the span of which was as much as three meters once they were spread out. The bird was covered from head to toe in fiery red feathers that were dazzlingly bright. The only exception was its chest, which was a purplish black. Each foot had five sharp claws and the hooked talons looked like machetes. The long beak curved slightly at it tip.
He had not seen a big bird like this in Longxi or Bayan, but here they were…
"Are there any wetland or eco zones nearby?" he asked.
"Well, I think there was a natural reserve of birds," replied Yang Di after he recalled.
"That should be it." Gu Yu turned to the backseat and asked, "What do you think?"
"Golden Silkworm smelled blood. The bird eats meat." Long Qiu looked disgusted.
What else could Golden Silkworm refer to by "meat" apart from human flesh!
Gu Yu also found that gross. Clenching harder, the long, thin neck snapped with a crunching sound.
Immediately after that, he stretched out his left hand and a medium-sized gourd materialized in his palm. Activating his spiritual essence, the big bird's blood gushed out from where the neck had been broken off and poured into the opening of the gourd.
Seconds later, the bird was visibly drained and he tossed it backward causally. The dead bird somehow froze in midair, then disappeared without a trace—Golden Silkworm had consumed it.
Yang Di's teeth had been quivering for a while. Overwhelmed by fear and excitement mixed together, his high-pitched voice cracked. "You, you are indeed the gifted!"
'Gifted my ass!'
Gu Yu gave the back of his head another smack and scolded, "Just drive!"
One of the board towns in Xihai was called Huagou 1 which sat right next to Huo Zhou.
The spreading out of Huo Zhou calamity had devoured quite a lot of land, forcing the neighbouring areas to reset their territories. Bayan, whose area had shrunk by as many as 2000 km^2, was the most unfortunate one.
Huagou Town was one of the luckier ones. All it lost were some wildland and pastures; no residential area was affected.
The small town had a population of 30,000. Some were frightened and had long moved away, while the others did not think much of it and remained living comfortably as before. Because of the troops stationed nearby, the government simply decided to make the job easier for themselves and changed the small town into a half-military, half-civilian zone.
After hours of driving, Yang Di finally brought them into Huagou Town territory. A large warning sign stood by the side of the road, which read: "Sentry post ahead. Drive slowly. Prepare for inspection."
A quarter of an hour later, they saw the silhouette of the post, which did not turn out to be what they had expected.
A few bullets scraped past a big bird and only 'relieved' it of a few feathers. The big bird quacked, as if taunting its opponent, flapped its wings, and flew high up out of the firing range.
"Sarge, we're running low on ammo!"
Seeing that firing was to no avail, the machine gunner shouted at the top of his voice, worried and irritated at the same time.
"I know! I know! Do not respond to the taunting!" the sargeant yelled back.
"Where the hell did these bastards come from?"
Another soldier smacked his helmet onto the ground, but picked it back up in a hurry almost instantly. His left arm was bandaged—a piece of flesh was torn off during their earlier engaging the birds.
They were inside a sentry post. The two-storey post had a certain level of defensive ability and had just enough space for a squad to take shelter.
They were fighting against fifty to sixty strange birds that were extremely fast and remarkably clever—the birds knew how to cooperate with one another.
The soldiers killed a few in the beginning with heavy firepower, but the birds soon adopted their own tactics by constantly plunging and rising, depleting their ammunition with their agility.
The reinforcements had yet to come. Once the bullets ran out, the squad was doomed—they had seen with their own eyes of the hardness and strength of their talons.
The deadlock stretched out for a while longer and the flock of birds shrieked in excitement once their realized the firepower was weakening. A small group consisting of seven or eight strange birds could not wait any longer and plunged down.
"Zap! Zap! Zap!"
The gunshots became thick and fast abruptly, bullets shooting out of the loopholes in flashes, showering at the birds. A few were too late to dodge. Blood splashed in the air and the bodies dropped to the ground.
"Hahaha! They are nothing but feathered bastards. Who's your daddy now!"
"Steady, steady! Try to lure some more!"
The soldiers were going to repeat that strategy, but the heavy casualties had provoked the flock.
Under the instruction of the largest strange bird, the rest of the forty or so birds flapped their wings and charged together. Instantly, the fiery red feathers all joined together, as if they had formed a flaming cloud that would burn their enemies into ashes.
The flock scratched and scraped frantically at the roof of the post and the loopholes. Their sharp claws bit into the stone bricks, sending bits and pieces into the air. The entire post seemed to be shaking and ready to collapse.
Stranded inside, the soldiers felt the birds had taken up the entire sky. Strange croaks and squeaks filled their ears; it was like the end of the world.
"Sarge, what do we do?"
"We fight till the end!"
The sergeant let out a sudden roar and dashed to the window, ignoring the possibility of getting hurt in the process. He shot three successive shots. Being the best shooter in his company, the action took out three birds instantly. The flock was discouraged by this turn of events.
Unfortunately, before this brief encouragement could take effect, the sergeant felt despair welling up inside him, for in the distant sky, another stretch of fiery red was flying near.
"They have backup!"
"Sh*t, I'm going to die here today!"
"Don't give up just yet. Hang on a little longer and our troops are… no, it's not theirs. Look!"
The sergeant opened his eyes widely and pointed at the sky with a quivering hand. The squad looked up in unison. Bright red filled their sights as if the cloud was lifted, revealing a rising sun casting a thousand beams.
That was no backup. A flaming dragon flew near and crashed into the leading big bird with an unparalleled ferocity.
Its previous arrogance all gone, the big bird was petrified and tried to flee. The next second, it was nailed in midair and as if a match had been flipped into something soaked with concentrated gasoline, the bird turned into a flame with a whoosh beforing smashing hard onto the ground.
Right after that, the flaming dragon swirled and spiraled in the air, killing at will.
Screams filled the flock of birds. The red feathers fluttered as the defeated birds tried to flee, but were soon outran. They fell to the ground one after another like falling apples...
It was better than a dream.
A minute before, the soldiers thought they were going to die; a minute later, they were miraculously snatched from the jaws of death.
When everything quieted down, the sergeant gathered up his courage and stuck his head out of the window. Despite all the bloodshed he had seen before, what he saw made his stomach lurch. The ground within a radius of hundreds of meters around the sentry post was covered by burnt bird bodies.
The bodies had been barbecued into charcoal. Some had even been incinerated, leaving behind a pile of ash only.
"Hey, someone's coming!"
The machine gunner had sharp eyes. In the distance, a person got off a vehicle and was slowly moving towards them. Behind the person was a man and a woman.
He thought the latter two looked familiar. After a closer look, he shouted, "Mr. Gu, that's Mr. Gu!"
"It really is him! What's he doing here?"
"Are you an idiot? He's obviously going to Huo Zhou!"
"Right, Huo Zhou! An old army friend of mine was boasting to me, saying Mr. Gu was in Longxi a while ago and walked past his post. Damn it! Hahaha!"
They were instantly cheered up and the atmosphere was filled with rejoice.
Most of these soldiers had taken classes and learned enough to know what was going on. Especially those important figures, they were more than familiar with the names by now.
It was actually remarkable. The attitude of the government towards Phoenix Mountain was a mixture of cooperation and precautions. The senior officials were divided into two sides. One side was led by that old man, who believed Phoenix Mountain to be benevolent and worth forming relationship with, and suggested to maintain the current stability. The other side was led by some other officials, who saw Phoenix Mountain as an ambitious wolf cub that would stir something up sooner or later.
However, among the middle and lower levels, especially the military men that had had direct interaction with Gu Yu, well, they liked him A LOT!
He was strong, mysterious, and lent a hand at several critical moments.
In the incidents of Tianzhu Mountain and Huo Zhou… had it not been for his exploration and deduction, which influenced the government's decision, how many good soldiers would they lose directly or indirectly?
The military men attached great importance to such things. They were no politicians. Despite their nature to obey orders, they had formed their own judgement.
Mr. Gu: thumbs up!TL/N: meaning "flower valley",