The mountain was cold and so was the moon.
A campfire had been set up by the woods at the edge of a cliff in a valley.
Gu Yu was turning five fat rainbow trouts over the fire, making sure they did not burn but were just crusty enough. Xiaozhai produced some red berries she found somewhere and squeezed them. The thick juice burst out, and she carefully smeared it all over the fish.
Long Qiu and Xiaojin leaned against one another with their heads touching and waited eagerly for the parents to finish cooking.
Gu Yu gave the fish another few turns, checked the color of the skin, and removed the wooden skew. He passed one to two girls each and took one himself. Xiaozhai was more of a vegetarian and stuck to the gourd of liquor.
Xiaojin couldn't wait to taste it. Opening her mouth and revealing her fine white teeth, she ripped a chunk of meat off the fish. Rainbow trout was a cold-water fish that could live in low-temperature environments. Its flesh was fresh and tender with a special smooth texture. The minimal cooking would make it an excellent dish.
"Hm! Yes! This is so delicious!"
She opened her eyes widely and nodded repeatedly like a little pug. Long Qiu chimed in with her praise, "This pulp is both sour and sweet. It goes so well with the fish."
"Qiu Qiu, here, the head."
Xiaojin devoured one in a couple of bites and passed the fish head to Long Qiu, which was the latter's favorite. Long Qiu was going to say thank you when she saw Xiaojin hurried off to grab herself a second one.
Xiao Qiu instantly felt herself turning into a human garbage disposal machine. But she wasn't going to waste the food and nibbled at the fish head without objections.
The eyes of the other two met and they walked a few steps away until they were at the edge of the cliff.
The bright moon hung high above. The moonlight spilled out to the deep valley down below, where a beautiful river was flowing. The cabin at the bottom was dimly lit and half-covered by the expanse of white snow. For a moment, it felt like they had reached the edge of the world.
Both fell silent. The only noise came from behind, where the two girls were giggling and bantering.
"They're having a good time." Gu Yu darted a look backwards.
"We're out travelling. They should be. I've been upset these days and I know it affected you all as well. I'll be back to normal soon," Xiaozhai said apologetically.
"Don't worry about it. We're family and being considerate is the most important thing." He casually offered her a chicken soup for the soul, quoting some old school TV dramas.
"Family?" She blinked.
"Of course. With what we're going through at the moment, we're all in this together, regardless of how deep our bonds are." Then, Gu Yu suddenly let his imagination run amuck. "Hey, won't that day be hilarious when we really get married? We'll have to register in the civil service first, then take the wedding photos, send invitations, and book a feast to feed a whole bunch of people. Little Soap will hang an apple on a string to have us both gnawing into it. Later, we'll be lying in bed counting all the gift money wrapped in red envelopes…"
"Teehee!" Xiaozhai finally smiled. "If you come to take my hand offering cave paradises, jade palaces, and golden halls with immortal soldiers clearing your way and nine dragons pulling your carriage, together with miles of treasure paved road, acres of immortal flowers, and an ocean of spiritual pellets… Well, I'll consider giving you my hand then."
"That's a hell of a betrothal gift you've asked for. I've never mentioned a dowry." Gu Yu grimaced.
"A dowry? That's easy!" Xiaozhai leaned towards him, linking her pinky with his. "What do you want? I'll go get it for you."
There, she said it!
He was completely taken by his girlfriend's words and the conversation stopped abruptly as it always was by his alpha female (Daily task completed: 1/1).
To ease his awkwardness, he could only hold her closer, trying to wrap it up with a french kiss and announcing his dominating status at the same time. He was two seconds too slow, though. Holding him around his neck and pressing down, she slipped her soft tongue in and "swept" his mouth.
"Nyah nyah nyah…"
Behind them, Xiaojin expressed her disdain by sticking out her tongue and making a mocking noise. Long Qiu was the shy one. She lowered her head like an ostrich, but could not help but steal a look.
A while passed before the two finally let go of one another.
Xiaozhai licked her lips, savoring the after-taste. She then gave her comment, though not sure if it was on the fish or on her man.
"Mhm, that was delicious!"
It was a little known fact that ginseng was actually a blossoming and fruit-bearing plant.
Ginseng flowers were as tiny as millet and grew in spikes along thin stems. The flowers were purple, speckled with white or green. Each flower would give seven or eight seeds in autumn, which, similar to soybeans, were green when they were new and reddened when matured. The seeds would fall off automatically once they matured. They had a red outer layer and a shape resembling a chicken's kidney. A thin stem grew in the middle and joined together, the two sides looked like tiny hammer. Each hammer had two seeds inside.
That red seed was what the mallet bird would eat.
Once consumed, the ginseng seeds would be scattered across the mountain with the feces and take root when the environment was fit. It was the most important way of propagation for ginsengs.
While Gu Yu and his family slept up on the cliff, Shui Yao and the others slept below.
The cabin was as spacious as it was crude. Since there was only one plank bed, the ten men decided to sleep on the floor around the stove. They settled down on a thick layer of hay ragged batting and covered themselves with their winter coats. It turned out to be very warm.
Fatigued as they were, with their duty, none of them dared sleep too soundly. Despite his young age, Shui Yao was experienced enough to drift into a light sleep with one ear pricked up.
They had lost count of time and the kerosene lamp on the table grew dimmer. There was still enough coal in the stove, which was giving off a red glow.
"Whak gack koo!"
"Whak gack koo!"
All of a sudden, two strange tweets rang out in the empty, silent valley. Shui Yao's eyes shot open and he shoved the team awake in a haste. "It's here! It's here!"
The research team rose to their feet in a hurry, got dressed, and went out with the equipment.
It was pitch black outside and the temperature had plunged. They waited patiently for a while and indeed heard another two chirpings.
"Whak gack koo!"
"Whak gack koo!"
A mallet bird fluttered out of the darkness and circled in the air around the cabin. Moments later, another tweedle joined in.
Another mallet bird appeared, slightly bigger and with brighter feathers.
The so-called Brother Wang Gang and Maiden Li 1 were both made-up names imitating the sound of the bird. Nowadays, almost everything was given a legendary "background story", mostly about a pair of lovers suppressed by the cruel feudal society and eventually turned into birds, trees, stones, blah blah blah...
The mallet bird could not escape from that cliche. It was allotted with a campy love story of Wang Gang and Maiden Li.
The two birds joined forces and flew away together deeper into the valley.
"You got the shot?"
"I did! I did!"
"Quickly, let's follow them. Maybe we'll find some ginseng!"
Shui Yao was secretly elated. He saw with his own eyes that the research team had taken pictures as evidence. Since the bird did exist, he had passed the verification, which meant that 30 points were in his pocket.
In that app, earning 10 points was a threshold. Only with 10 points could one send three invitation codes to their friends. The 30-point level was another threshold, which gave one a little bit more access to the database: one was able to read some of the confidential information and could communicate with other information providers through pm.
Let's put that aside and first turn our attention back to the two birds.
They were moving at a speed neither too fast nor too slow, and would hover and linger about every now and then, as if deliberately waiting for them to catch up. The team trotted along, barely catching up with the birds.
They seemed to have been running forever with none of them noticing the change in the surroundings, as though a part of their brain had been shut out. They had completely forgotten to check.
They were still running when the two bird chirped and accelerated abruptly. Flapping their wings, they disappeared into the vast night sky.
"Did they just disappear?"
"Where did they go?"
They stood gazing at one another, at a loss what to do. It was a while before the question struck them: where the hell were they? Brows furrowing, the team leader was about to send someone out to check when one of the team members called out, "Look, there's light ahead!"
The team turned towards the direction in unison; there was indeed a streak of light looming not far ahead of them.
Shui Yao was the bold one. He approached the light with a shotgun in hand; what he saw made his hair standing on end. In front of him was a crudely built cabin with a door left ajar. Through the window, he could even make out the lampshade of the kerosene burner on the table.
It was their cabin!
His stomach lurched. Immediately after that, the curtain over that part of his brain seemed to be drawn open again as he suddenly scanned his surrounding area. The valley was cold and silent; the river flowed in the distance; nothing seemed to have changed.
"Why are we back here?"
"Have they led us running in circles?"
"It can't be. I think we have been running a straight line. There's no way we can circle back to where we started."
The rest of the team caught up with him and everyone was talking all at once. There was panic in those voices.
"Whak gack koo!"
"Whak gack koo!"
Just then, there came two chirpings and a hush fell over the team. A bird flew down from the night sky and hovered around in the trees. Before long, another arrived, and tweedled repeatedly.
The team shuddered, as if an invincible coldness had seeped through their thick layer of clothes and stuck to their spines like stubborn maggots, sucking away the warmth of their bodies.
In a matter of seconds, they were chilled to the bone.
It almost felt as if they had just ran out of the cabin, just saw the two mallet birds, and were just reliving everything they had gone through.
"C-Captain…" one of the team members asked in a quivering voice, "what shall we do now?"
The team leader was also crept out a little, but was level-headed enough to give out instructions. He called out loud, "Don't panic! Xiao Yang, contact the bureau immediately. Tell them to monitor our coordinates. You lot, stay here, start a fire, and have the weapons ready. You lot, come with me. I'd like to see what it's playing at!"
Leadership was key to a team. With that, the members' tension were observably eased right away.
The team leader led three other men and ran after the two birds again. Shui Yao, who was included, took the time to carve down a mark with his dagger on a tree by the cabin.
The two birds resumed their unhurried flying, as if taunting the chasers.
The four men stared straight ahead, their nerves rattled. Shui Yao held his shotgun close the entire time. However, after a while, without any of them realizing it, their heads were sliding into a muddle.
They looked ahead in a blank gaze and their heads were empty of everything but those birds they were staring at.
"Whak gack koo!"
In the end, the two birds let out a series of chirpings and flapped their wings, disappearing into the night sky.
"Did you see the route we took?"
"No, I saw nothing. I was just running the entire time."
The four immediately discussed what they had seen, which was almost identical to the previous round. They saw light ahead again and the only difference was that their colleagues were shouting, "How was it? Are you all right?"
Shui Yao ran up to them and asked, "What did you see?"
"You chased after them that way, disappeared, then showed up over here. There was a lag of a few seconds," replied one of the team members.
A few seconds?
The team leader asked in a grave tone, "Xiao Yang, how are you doing over there?"
The messenger was ashen-faced. "The readings of all parameters are normal, but the signal... the signal never got through."
Silence. An eerie silence, from which an utter fear was brooding, spreading, and taking over everybody rapidly.
The team leader's mouth became a thin line. He hesitated for a moment or two and gave the order. "Gather the equipment. We're heading out tonight!"
"Don't bother. I'm afraid we won't be getting out." Shui Yao suddenly heaved a sigh.
"What do you mean?"
One of the agitated team member grabbed Shui Yao by his collar despite being significantly shorter than the latter. "Why, why did you say that?"
Shui Yao was not offended, but only pointed at the tree. "I made a mark just then, which is still there. It means what we experienced was no an illusion. We're only trapped. I heard about such things from my grandpa when I was little—we've run into the Mada Mountain."TL/N: Making the bird sound "Wang Gang Ge" (Brother Wang Gang) and "Li Gu" (Maiden Li) seemed a little ridiculous to me, so I made them "whak gack koo" and "lee woo" instead (which still sounds weird, but you get the drill).