The four left Changqing Village and crossed a narrow frozen river. About another two to three km further, they entered a poplar grove.
The towering poplars stood upright and were sparsely planted. Fluffy white snow covered the branches tall up. Instead of a lonely and deserted feel, they looked rather quaint and elegant.
Gu Yu looked around, assuming this was where Xiaozhai's master's grave was. However, she kept walking, leading them out of the grove and going all the way to the foot of the mountain.
This area was part of the western slope of the Changbai Mountain 1 . The front gate was located in the scenic area with solid twisting mountain road and stone staircases. Everywhere else, there were only unmarked trails.
The one they followed was no exception. Xiaozhai had not said a single word and was striding up the mountain, holding Gu Yu's hand. Long Qiu and Xiaojin both found it rather curious, but dared not ask. They only followed behind the couple obediently.
This area of the mountain was next to the village and many man-made marks had been left behind. The trail was crudely paved with rough wooden boards so that it would not be too slippery even when covered by snow.
The four walked some more and reached a fork in the road. One branch that was extremely steep led up the mountain, while the other one led down and was relatively smooth.
Xiaozhai stood at the fork and finally spoke, "This is it."
"Here?" Gu Yu found it strange.
"Master was ambushed by the Shamanic people back then and never recovered from the injury. She held on with all she could for a year and a half. One day, she realized that day had come and went on the mountain by herself."
Xiaozhai raised her head slightly, tracing with her eyes that lonely, steep trail that seemed to stretch out all the way to the clouds. "That day, I ran after her all the way here, almost crying my eyes out. She forbade me from crying or asking and would not let me follow her or think of her. Then, she went up alone, never coming back."
Gu Yu winced. All of a sudden, he realized he had underestimated Xiaozhai's feelings for her master. Adoration of a child toward a parent, admiration, worship… none of those seemed enough to describe it. There was something beyond those.
"Have you tried to find her after that?" he asked.
"I did, but found nothing, not even a piece of clothes or anything left behind." Xiaozhai lowered her eyes, but soon looked up again with a smile. "There you have it. You can't pay her respect no matter how much you want it. Well, let's wrap it up. That way leads to the Great Canyon. Let's go."
With that, they turned right and walked downhill along the smooth trail.
While the elder couple walked in the front, the younger pair was muttering in the rear. Long Qiu had an odd look on her face as she asked, "Jin Jin, was sister's master a man or a woman?"
"Oh, I thought it was a man. There's nothing to worry about, then…"
She giggled, somehow feeling at ease now. The head of Xiaojin immediately figured out what Long Qiu was thinking and she whispered, "Nothing to worry? Women are bigger trouble than men."
"Because, because… Tsk, you won't understand."
"Why wouldn't I? Her master must have been a very nice, very beautiful, and very powerful person to make Sister miss her after all these years," Long Qiu retorted indignantly.
Nice, beautiful, and powerful...
Xiaojin's lips twitched. She was seriously considering giving Long Qiu a lesson on certain knowledge, but thought better of it and gave up.
"That Shui Yao guy, is he just a hostel owner? He doesn't look like one. He's quite street-smart, I think."
"Both his parents run business in Xidu. Shui Yao couldn't find a job after college, so he returned to his hometown straight away. He has been going into the mountains with Grandpa Shui since he was little and had killed a brown bear once. He is very good with guns and knows a bit of martial arts. He's loyal, open-handed, and likes to make friends. All in all, he's a popular figure here in Songjiang River."
The soundless cold mountain was covered by a silvery white. The two threaded through the snowy woods, heading deeper into the forest. Xiaozhai introduced her childhood playmate and summarized with one precise word. "Basically, he's a gangster."
"Well, that put it plainly." Gu Yu chuckled.
"Growing up, he used to challenge me, but had his a*s kicked every single time. Word had it that Grandpa Shui tried to pair me off with him, but forgot about it later—he cherished his grandson's life."
"Haha, just imagine that fellow tries to provoke me… Hm?"
Gu Yu paused abruptly, for just at that moment, from the corner of his left eye, he seemed to have caught something small flitting past.
"I'll go check."
Thrusting the ground with the tip of his foot, Gu Yu flew into the distance before he even finished the sentence. Both of his feet were kept centimeters above the ground as if he was walking on empty air, leaving behind no trace on the snow.
The thing ran away on all fours, moving at a tremendous speed that was impossible for ordinary eyes to catch.
But Gu Yu was faster.
Void-arranging Technique was indeed a more advanced Taoist skill. He turned into a streak of smoke and caught up with it in no time. He grabbed the small thing by its neck and lifted it off the ground.
It was a sable.
The Northeast had three treasures: ginseng, sable fur, and wula grass (Carex meyeriana).
Wild sables were extremely rare these days and he had never expected he could catch one here. The sable had dark brown fur, a fluffy tail, and was about 50 cm long.
It had dark eyes and black pupils, which were big and bright, giving it a smart look.
Gu Yu frowned. The eyes were making him uncomfortable, as if something was hiding behind them, observing him through the sable's eyes.
"I thought it was a mountain rat. So, it was this little guy. There were very few of them around even when I was little… Hm?"
Just then, Xiaozhai walked to his side and also found something was not right. She put her hand on the sable and scanned it with her spiritual energy. Nothing seemed to be out of the place. "That's weird. Why do I feel like I am being watched?"
"I can't possibly imagine who would secretly spying on us…"
Gu Yu was wrecking his brain when the little light bulb popped on above his head. He chuckled. "Can it be the mountain god Grandpa talked about?"
"Haha, anything is possible these days. I would happily live with it even if a mountain god jumps out and fights us. Whatever, time to go."
Xiaozhai casually tossed the sable up onto a branch.
Gu Yu made a grabbing gesture and wrapped it up with a sphere of transparent confinement. He grinned. "Don't worry. Take a nap and you can be on your way."
"We can conclude that the archetype was Rhodiola of Changbai Mountain. The plant is about 10-20 cm in height, has strong roots, is of a cylinder shape, fleshy, and of a yellowish brown color. Fibrous roots are found at the rootstock and the plant is covered by scale-shaped leaves. The shape of the plant remains unchanged, only shorter. We have collected three plants, which we will take back and study."
On a meadow facing the sun, the group leader finished recording the above-mentioned description into the camera.
The so-called meadow had long been covered by snow. Clusters of Rhodiola grew from the crevices of protruding rocks.
According to "The Classic of Herbal Medicine", Rhodiola was a herb of the highest grade. It could improve dexterity, replenish Qi, rejuvenate the body, and prolong life. The herb was toxin-free and could be consumed in large quantities. There was no long-term side effect, either. In the Qing Dynasty, the herb was presented to the court as a tribute and some emperor had entitled it "the grass of dragon head and phoenix tail."
This plant was Shui Yao's previously reported information. A team consisting of nine members had searched around for the most of the day before they finally saw the actual plant.
"Inform the bureau. It's verified."
The team leader carefully put away the herb and gave an order. One of the members immediately untied the portable transmitter off his back and sent the report back to the bureau.
The portable transmitter could be carried by a single person and would send coordinates to the nearest reception tower of satellite receiver every three hours. It was more reliable than a satellite phone.
Once that was done, the team leader checked the time. "We are about three hours from dark. The Great Canyon is not far. If we move faster, we can join that information provider."
"There are cabins built by tree farmers over there, where we can stay overnight. We have plenty of provisions with us. The suggestion should work," replied the team member working as the guide.
"Great! We're moving out!"
Right away, the team of nine descended the mountain following unmarked trails. The team was of a standard setup with research personnel, security, and guide. The team was also equipped with adequate weapons and equipment.
The so-called Great Canyon was a natural wonder discovered only twenty year ago.
It ran over 60 km from end to end and was a result of ashes from a volcanic explosion and the erosion by the river. The widest part was 300 m across and the narrowest only a few meters. It had a vertical depth of 120-150 m.
They marched at full speed and managed to arrive before dark.
Strange-looking rocks flanked the river, together with various remarkable landscapes, which were now all covered up by the snow. The entire canyon felt empty and bleak. The only lively thing was the beautiful river, whose racing current rushed along the bottom of the canyon.
"Over here! Here!"
Shui Yao looked like a bear with all his thick clothes. He was waving at them in front of the cabin.
The team went up to him in a hurry and the team leader greeted with a smile, "Hello, Xiao Shui, is it? Thank you so much for coming out all the way here."
"You're absolutely welcome. This is my personal hobby. I would come to live on the mountain every now and then even when you guys are not here."
After a brief change of pleasantries, they all went inside.
Thermal insulation of the cabin was pretty good and Shui Yao had started a fire beforehand, making the inside all the warmer. They all sat on the floor, took off their thick winter coats and tore off their boots with much difficulty, shaking off a layer of ice chips with a little knock on the floor.
"It feels so nice to warm up by a fire—brings back the life right away."
The team leader was not refined and stiff like usual research personnel, but appeared to be a straightforward guy. Shui Yao liked the man right away. He then brought out a pot and chuckled. "You haven't eaten, have you? Try this. I've just caught the fish myself!"
He raised the lid. Wow! The top layer was a steamer, in which a pile of corn pancakes was kept warm. Below was a pot of steaming fish soup, which smelt scrumptious. What was more, there was even a bottle of 52% Old Village Chief 2 .
The team of nine was starving by now. They took out their canned and compressed food and there was a feast.
There weren't enough chopsticks for everyone. The team leader picked up a fish by its tail with his fingers and gnawed into it. He complimented, "Bro, one look at you and I know you know your ways around here. That's quite some survival skills you've got there! Oh, by the way, did you say that your grandfather was a member of the Changbai Ginseng Band?"
"My grandpa is Shui Rong. I think you've heard of him before?" The fellow couldn't be more proud.
"Sure! Definitely! My colleagues used to come to Changbai on scientific expeditions and the dear old man was their guide. I see he's got a worthy successor!"
After some small talk, they soon came to the subject.
The team lead asked, "Bro, you said that bird was a mallet bird. How certain are you?"
"A hundred percent. I've seen them with my own eyes when I was little. There was no mistake in that." Shui Yao was very sure of himself. "This bird never shows up in wintertime. That's why I found that very strange."
"I see. I've heard things about it…" The team leader nodded. "It was said that they feed on the seed of ginseng, hence one could find ginseng by following the bird. But I have checked, the bird is generally known as oriental scops owl, which feeds mainly on large insects and small rodents. No records have mentioned that it has a liking for ginseng seeds."
"Haha! My grandfather followed a mallet bird once and found a five-branch. Your records don't mean anything."
Shui Yao used his backpack as a pillow and casually lay down. "You have found the right person coming to me. The bird only comes out in the early morning and at midnight. It can't be rushed. So, what we will do now is sleep."ED/N: By the way, I feel it's been pretty confusing, so allow me to explain: this mountain is a mountain in a mountain range with the same name :P And as if that wasn't enough, mountain and mountain range look the same in Chinese, so... TL/N: a brand of strong Chinese liquor