"Roar!" Agul bellowed. His bare arms bulged abruptly, as if a mouse was running around under the skin. The bulging soon expanded to his entire body and with a crackling sound reminding one of firecrackers, the already two-meter-tall guy suddenly grew taller as if someone had stretched him out by sheer force.
Banging his fists together, the man flexed his muscles, which reminded one of knotty tree roots, giving him the most frightening look.
Meanwhile, Gatu also revealed his ultimate form.
He was much quieter in comparison and only twisted his body into the strangest position while his pupils were gradually becoming vertical. He then stuck out his tongue, whose tip split into a two-pronged fork as he make a faint hissing sound.
Comparing those two, Kemer had the most ordinary appearance.
She took out a bone plate and smacked it hard. Immediately, a hideous ghostly head flew out, forming into a small sea of black clouds in the air. The ghostly head was inordinately big, bringing with it gusts of sinister wind. The three heads Gu Yu saw in Zhang Wei's villa the other night was nothing comparing to this one.
The three mages were very cautious. Knowing that they were dealing with a tough opponent, they brought out their strongest moves right away.
Half-squinting, Gu Yu watched them with an expressionless face. He then dashed into movement. The next second, he was right in front of Agul and even had the time to instruct Long Qiu, "I'll take the left and you the right!"
With that, he engaged the five on the left.
"Haha, bring it on! I'd like to know what real masters look like!" Agul guffawed. His whooshing fists smashed at Gu Yu's head like cannonballs, and the gust of wind they brought made a ripping sound.
Gu Yu leapt up and stepped a few times in midair, flitting swiftly past the man.
Even those with the sharpest eyes could barely make out a flickering streak of red light as the two brushed past one another, which disappeared in an instant.
"Come on, craven! Stop running!"
Agul was still wondering why his enemy would flee from the battle and turned around to chase when he felt the pain in his chest as strength flooded away from him.
Looking down involuntarily, he saw a big hole on his chest. The flesh and blood were all gone, together with his heart and part of his left lung, which had all turned into ashes.
Agul lost consciousness and collapsed with a thump. He never knew how Gu Yu got him before he died.
Gu Yu paid no more attention to the big guy and ran towards Kemer without stopping.
Seeing that her companion was eliminated within seconds, Kemer controlled the ghostly face into attack while shouting, "Stop him! Stop him!"
Wrapped in black fog, the ghostly face plunged down with a shriek, while three sect members brandished their piercers and jumped at Gu Yu frantically.
Gu Yu accelerated abruptly, a line of afterimages trailing after him. Flame dragons circled around him, then split into four, one of which flew towards the ghostly face head on while the rest three pierced through the three men with three popping sounds.
The three men turned into fireballs before they even had time to move. They howled and shrieked in the flames, rolling around on the ground. The next moment, they were not making any sound anymore.
Gu Yu then reached Kemer in one stride and clutched her delicate neck as she watched him with terrified eyes. His hand then twisted...
Two mages and three chief fighters were annihilated in a matter of seconds.
Over on the other side, Long Qiu was fighting with four people all at once.
Gatu slithered near, the strange tongue sticking in and out of his mouth. He then crouched down and used his own body as a weapon, trying to entangle himself around his opponent.
Xiao Qiu wielded her sword swiftly and the cold shiny blade covered the area a meter square or so in front of her.
Gatu rolled on the ground and dodged from an impossible angle, then twisted conveniently and wrapped tightly around her.
The two-pronged tongue quavered this way and that as he bragged, "Hiss! You might be good with your sword, but you can't hurt—"
Gatu still had his mouth open, but realized he could no longer utter a word...
...for he discovered that his tongue was missing. The next second, even his head was gone, then his shoulder, arms, upper torso, abdomen, his lower body...
In a few seconds, the person was wiped off the face of earth.
The underlings were petrified. Ferocious as they might be, they had never met anyone this ferocious. Xiao Qiu couldn't care less about them. Wielding her sword, a green flower materialized, wrapping all three men inside.
Within a few moves, the northwest branch had suffered some major damage. Gu Yu did not use his conjuring technique, for that would be saved for the critical moment, and was also too energy-consuming. Xiao Qiu was no longer trying to train herself through combat, but was using her lethal moves.
However, the moment she put away the sword into her mental space, the chrubic kid leapt out of the thin air, its face a blueish purple. Then, it opened its mouth and...
The Golden Silkworm threw up.
Eyeing the puddle of black blood vomit, Xiao Qiu fanned with her hand and said pitilessly, "It says that it stinks and tastes bad."
"We don't need it to tell us that…"
Gu Yu covered his mouth and nose, crouched down, and frisked the dead bodies.
Other than those burnt to ashes and the one eaten, there were five relatively intact bodies. The two searched those and found some strange scrolls and bone wares, which they put away carefully into a wooden box. They then sprinted towards the entrance of the cave.
It was Xiao Qiu's first field trip, which turned out to be a major event. She was nervous and excited at the same time. "Brother, what on earth are they going to do?"
"Get the big monster out, apparently. We'll know when we get there."
"This should be the place!"
The archmage lead the team around the cave entrance and walked about a kilometer to the east, where he stopped at a smooth vertical cliff.
He touched the rustic mountain rock, a streak of dark light shooting out of his palm. He sensed the feedback and was reassured. "That's right. This is it!"
"We finally found it!"
"The ancestors are blessing us! The ancestors are blessing us!"
The group was exhilarated at the news. Two men walked up to him and bowed. "Archmage, if you would move to the side and let us break the gate open."
The old man backed away for a few steps and casually grabbed a ghostly woman near. His calloused fingers caressed her supple skin lightly, which was cool to the touch. He was slightly relaxed.
This bunch of people had been around sinister witchcraft all their life since childhood and were contorted both mentally and aesthetically. Ghostly men and women were incredibly beautiful beings in their eyes. Had the creatures not been made for other purposes, they would have gladly taken them for intimate activities for fun.
The ghostly woman endured the caressing obediently despite the utter horror in her eyes. This one was none other than Wu Yang who was snatched during her cycling trip in Tso Ngonpo.
The difference between a ghostly man and a low-level zombie was that the former had retained part of its consciousness, but was absolutely obedient at the same time.
It was like having your mind locked up in a dark cage where you could only peek out through a single window. You knew where you were and what you were doing, but you were an outsider completely helpless in your own body.
"You're very well endowed. Had it not been for the mission, I'd really like to refine you all over again… pity, such a pity."
The archmage took pleasure from the pain in her eyes. It was a perverted sense of satisfaction.
Just then, the two men stood in front of the mountain wall and growled. Their bodies expanded as Bahu and his brother's did, only these two grew even bigger.
Raising their arms, they started banging on the stone wall like heavy hammers weighing tens of thousands of kilos. Soon, there was a hole about the size of a basin. It was indeed hollow.
They couldn't bring dynamite into Huo Zhou, fearing it would be easily corroded or explode right away. Luckily, these two were brutal enough. Before long, there was an opening about the height of a grown man.
"You two stay here and guard the door."
The two stood by either side of the door like a pair of guardian warriors. The archmage dared not take this lightly and soon led the rest of the group into the cave.
The air inside was not the stale and dusty kind. As the fire spiritual essence washed in, there came a few popping sounds and the inside grew brighter. The ghost-head lamps embedded on the wall on either side had lit up by themselves, giving off a luminescent green light.
The passage inside was not very wide and allowed two men to walk side by side.
The archmage led the way. Looking around, he saw that the passageway was rather crude, with little trace of artificial work. Bare red rocks hang overhead without any visible means of support, yet miraculously, the passageway was stable with no falling spalls.
A while later, the road forked into two and the archmage said after a pause, "There are insect-raising caves on either side. Be aware."
With that, he moved on and the rest of the team followed.
But accidents were bound to happen. One of the followers in the rear was so taken away by his curiosity that he moved slightly to the right without anybody noticing him. He then walked off the stone pavement of the passageway and made a step to the right.
Instantly, red pupils flickered on inside the deep dark cave, followed by the sound of flapping wings. Dark shadows flew out of the cave, wrapping tightly around the entire team.
"What are those?"
Caught off guard, two of the followers were bitten and, within seconds, the expression on their faces turned strange. Their eyes became cloudy with a hint of madness in them.
Two of the mages responded decisively and killed off the two underlings without hesitation. The one causing the trouble was dripping with cold sweat and flinched away from the mages.
The archmage snorted, took out a bone staff from his chest pocket, and commanded, "Go!"
Black smoke rolled out of the bone staff, forming an almost solid ghostly face. It opened its mouth widely and instantly, a gust of sinister suction power came to life. The strong air current carried the entire flock of bats straight towards its mouth.
Thousands of bats were reeled left and right, completely defenseless. They were now a nest of ants being drawn into the stomach of an anteater.
Only when the cave was quiet again did the ghostly face look faintly satiated, making it almost look human. The black cloud shrank with a slithering sound and returned to the bone staff.
"I don't have time for it. You know what to do with yourself!"
The archmage darted the man a look and turned away promptly to leave.
Seeing them walking away from him, the one causing the trouble gritted his teeth, but in the end dared not defy the master. He patted his left hand lightly on the right hand and a nail fell off, transforming into a small insect.
He picked it up, put it in his mouth and chewed. Momentarily, blood was oozing from his eyes, mouth, nose, and ears.
With such a lesson, the team grew even more cautious and dared not touch anything in the cave.
The passageway seemed to have no end. They had been walking forever and the atmosphere grew stranger the deeper they walked in. They felt the temperature dropping, then rising. In the end, they could no longer tell if it was cold or hot, for they were suffering from both. It was the most unbearable sensation.
After another endless walk, which brought them almost into the deepest corner of the mountain, they finally saw a cavern ahead. Twelve stone pillars stood around it, forming a circle of stone corridor. In the middle was a round platform, around which several skeletons lay.
"Go search around!"
Seeing that the road ended here, the archmage gave the command. He also walked up to a skeleton and examined it.
One could not tell how many years it had been there. The flesh was completely gone and ragged clothes dangled from the skeleton. It was in an unusual position, one that resembled the meditation sitting position of Buddhism. Some of the bones were also of a translucent white color.
He struck out a finger and poked the bones lightly. With a sizzling sound, half of his finger disappeared as if dissolved.
That did not enrage the archmage. Instead, he laughed and said in his hoarse voice, "It is indeed a sneaky Buddhist baldy, and one that has achieved enlightenment. Good, very good. However glorified you were in your days, you are in my hands now that you're dead. That half skeleton of relics is enough to refine a few top-grade ghostly head for me."
After much eerie elation, he took off the rotten clothes and started frisking the skeleton. Unfortunately, the monk carried nothing with him and the search came up empty.
He snorted and walked to another body lying on the ground. In contrast, this skeleton was jet-black in color and deformed in many places. It looked more like monster that was half human and half wolf.
However, his expression grew stern and he made a few solemn bows.
He then walked to the third one, whose identity he could not tell. He found a jade plate on the skeleton, though, with the diagram of Yin-Yang fish on one side and cloud patterns on the other. Both carvings were elegant and graceful.
The archmage winced. It seemed that the Taoist community was also involved in that war over the right to preach in the Western Regions. Only, he did not know why the Taoists had withdrawn from the contest and the Buddhists got the free ride.
He searched all skeletons carefully and only found two objects.
"We've checked everywhere. There are no traps or secret passages!"
Just then, the underlings returned, reporting that there was indeed no other way out.
The archmage's eyes flickered. He scanned the cavern following the slope of the ground and finally landed his eyes on that round platform.
He stepped onto it. The platform was carved out of an entire big stone, with the ghostly face totem of his branch. There were five square holes around the edges according to the direction of Five Elements, linked by thin grooves.
He contemplated and ordered, "You and you and you lot, go stand there."
The five appointed men did not understand what was going on, but stepped onto the platform all the same, then stood at their positions as told. The archmage stood steadily in the center, took out a bone cup, and patted it.
Five small ghosts with physical bodies flew out, each aimed at a man, lunged onto their heads, and started gnawing frantically.
The five men struggled violently, but to no avail. Blood ran down from their heads and flowed into the square holes.
"Ah… help! Help!"
They wailed and screamed in pain. It was too ghastly a scene to look at. The rest of the team, however, watched this coldly, their expression pitiless. More blood was flowing down, soon filling up the square holes and pouring into the thin grooves, which were gradually all linked together.
When the grooves were all filled up and connected, the round platform suddenly gave a shudder and slowly began to sink.
"What are you waiting for!" the archmage shouted.
As if they had just woken up from a dream, the rest of the team jumped onto the round platform with their ghostly men. Slowly, the platform descended to the level beneath.
They were all adherents of the long lost Shamanism who had learned the incomplete occult skills only and never had the chance to witness the glory of their ancestors. Yet right here and right now, all men—the archmage included—were infected with a sense of honor and excitement.
Someone was able to build a place like this inside Flaming Mountain hundreds of years ago, if not more. Such achievement would make anyone lost in wonder.
After ten meters or so, the round platform finally stopped descending. Down here was an even bigger cavern. The spiritual essence was incredibly dense and clearly separated into two sides.
One was black and the other red. The distinction was clear.
A pool of mix-colored liquid had gathered in a pit right where the two colors connected. Another altar had been built by the pool, surrounded by bones.