The ten men retreated into the cabin immediately, slamming the door shut behind them and shutting the windows tightly.
One of the team members opened the stove to feed in some more coal. The flame dimmed a little at first, but soon rose higher. Heat radiated from the red-hot stove, gradually melting away the coldness, and their fear was alleviated slightly.
"Whak gack koo!"
The two mallet birds still hovered and chirped outside. The sound had been interesting to them just a while ago, but was now the most creepy noise. Seeing the looks on everyone's face, the team leader asked, "Xiao Shui, exactly what is a Mada Mountain?"
"It's a slang of the northeast region. I don't know how to explain it." The carefree Shui Yao now had an exceptionally solemn look. His voice sounded dispirited as he went on, "Basically, it's an irregular, special area coming out of nowhere. Once inside, men will become disoriented and their heads will get all confused. There's no way of walking out of this area."
"Oh? That sounds a lot like the phenomenon of ' astray ghost 1 '."
The team leader turned things over in his head and said, "I have analysed the principle of 'astray ghost' before. Basically, one's perception is prone to become obscured in poorly lit environments with a complex terrain because by nature, all living creatures follow a circular moving pattern, which means that without a visible target, we would instinctively keep moving in circles. The reason we can walk in a straight line is that our eyes and brain are constantly making adjustment. The so-called 'astray ghost' happens because this adjustment function has been tuned down. You might think you're walking in a straight line, but in fact, you're making a circle about 3 km in radius."
Seeing that their leader seemed to be making sense, one of the guys could not help but ask, "So, what shall we do?"
"We need some powerful light and an object of reference to tell our bearings," said the team leader.
"Powerful light won't be a problem. We've got nine outdoor flashlights!"
"Yeah, and we can make some torches if those are not enough!"
"The object of reference is also easy. We can find our direction by watching the moon."
Presently, everyone was in high spirits again, ready to plunge into action.
Shui Yao sat where he was and shook his head. "You guys, Mada Mountain is no 'astray ghost' and your flashlights and torches won't work."
The mood that had just been lifted took a dive and was smashed into pieces right away. One of the guys was hot-tempered and raised his voice at Shui Yao. "F**k! No more goddamn riddles! Just tell us what the hell is going on!"
"It's not that I don't want to, but I really can't explain it." Shui Yao's wide face puckered. "Old folks here all know about it, saying Mada Mountain happens because Lord Mountain God is angry and this is his punishment for the intruders. No one that stumbles upon it will make it out alive."
"Xiao Shui…" The team leader found that ridiculous. "That's obviously a superstitious belief. There is surely a scientific explanation, like everything else."
"Scientific? Fine, then please explain to me, by what is the satellite signal blocked? And what the heck are those two birds?" the fellow asked.
No one answered.
Shui Yao went on, "Bro, since I'm the one who came up with the lead, I obviously know a thing or two about your work. You guys have been travelling all over the country to collect samples—are you telling me that's for some scientific purpose?"
At those words, the atmosphere in the cabin suddenly became rather awkward.
Being the members of the research team, the nine men obviously knew about the recovery of the spiritual essence. According to the policies set by those above, now was not the time to make the news public. However, now that it was suddenly out in the open, the team was at a loss of how to carry on this conversation.
While they were feeling awkward, Shui Yao was not troubled at all. Holding the shotgun between his arms, he leaned against the wall and muttered, "Sigh, we haven't even left the novice village and the game is already over for us. My old man would have a more peaceful life with a grandson like me gone. My ma and pa are in the city. They probably won't have enough time to get here to burn some joss money for me… And Sister Jiang, that reunion turns out to be our last. She's such a jinx for me…"
The fellow mumbled on and on, which was irritating the listeners.
One guy bolted up suddenly and bellowed, "The hell with it. I bet they can't beat a solid bullet!"
With that, he picked up the issued rifle, dashed to the window, shoved it open, and raised the barrel at the two birds in the tree.
"Whak gack koo!"
The two mallet birds were not the least bit disturbed, but remained perched steadily on the branch, a strange look flickering in their eyes.
"That's some bold animal!"
The guy's breath rasped and his cheeks flushed. The fear turned into anger, anger to excitement, and excitement to nervousness.
Three, two, one...
He counted silently, his finger slowly squeezing the trigger. The rest of the team did not stop him. Every eye was gazing at the window; then, there came a "Boom!"
"Did you shoot it… Hm?"
Someone was about to call out when they realized something was wrong. Immediately after that, there was another "Rumble!"
"Thunder? Where did the thunder come from?"
"Yes, that's thunder!"
Momentarily, the third almighty bang shook the valley, drowning all their voices. Their eyes stung a little when they saw an arc of golden purple lightning smash violently onto the clearing in front of the cabin. The brightness was overwhelming.
The explosion instantly blasted open a giant pit on the hard, icy frozen ground. Meanwhile, all ten men jolted as if they had just been knocked on the head. The fog in their minds was then lifted and they could think straight again.
"Whak gack koo!"
The two mallet birds were no long their calm selves. Flapping their wings, they flew high into the air and fled deeper into the valley in a flurry.
"Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!"
Behind them were four figures moving briskly and gracefully, chasing after the birds like clouds following wind. Before the ten men realized, the team of four separated all of a sudden and one of them was dumped without hesitation.
"Hey, hey, hey!"
"F**k you three!"
With an furious snarl, that creature turned around in designation and arrived at the cabin in a few hops. She kicked the door open, showing a face resembling a very angry emoji.
"You, you are…" Shui Yao pointed at the newcomer, his voice filled with utter surprise.
"Shut the hell up!"
Xiaojin waved her hand and the bear-like fellow passed out. The floor shook when he crushed down.
The team leader had never reacted so quickly. He found a corresponding picture in his memory and asked politely, "Miss Jiang, I presume?"
"I don't want to talk to you!"
The sulky Xiaojin took a tour of the cabin, ran out, jumped onto the roof, and started bellowing again. She couldn't help it. That was outrageous!
The team jumped at the sound, but immediately went wild with joy. Sh*t! They were saved!
"Brother, wasn't it a bit too much to leave Jin Jin behind?" Long Qiu asked in a worried tone, keeping both her feet a few centimeters off the ground as they dashed forward along the rough valley trail.
"She can't run as fast as us. It'll be safer for her to stay behind," replied Gu Yu.
"You can carry her. You've got enough spiritual essence to take a passenger," said Xiaozhai.
"Um…" Gu Yu grimaced, picturing in his head of him carrying a simple-minded husky while running at full speed. He shook his head. "Forget it, my nerves are not that strong. Hey, that was very bold of you to use Thunder Technique right away. Do you know about that thing?"
"That's Mada Mountain. I've heard about it from my master. It's a naturally formed labyrinth from chaotic mountain dragon and earthly energy 2 . It's too complicated to explain. Just think it as overlapping spaces. To return to the reality, the false space has to be destroyed."
Xiaozhai paused a little and went on, "In most of the cases, it is naturally formed. There were no records of it after the spiritual essence dried out. All that was left was tales from ages ago. This one feels strange, though. It's almost like something was manipulating it from behind the curtains."
"You mean those two dumb birds?"
Gu Yu looked up. The two mallet birds were still flapping away with a witless look on their faces.
"No, these mallet birds feel different from that sable… I don't know what to make of it just yet. Let's just follow them."
The three moved like floating clouds and drifting smoke. Xiaozhai led the way, with Long Qiu in the middle and Gu Yu covering the rear.
On the accumulation of the spiritual essence alone, Xiaozhai and Long Qiu were probably of the same level—the former might even be slightly inferior. But Xiaozhai surpassed Long Qiu in the understanding and control of her skills, which enabled her to run at full speed for a long period of time.
"Whak gack koo!"
The two birds were scared out of their wits and seemed to have lost their connection with someone. Instinct was driving them to fly in one direction.
They had lost track of how long they had run for when they reached the narrowest spot of the valley with a passageway only a few meters wide. There, the two birds flapped their wings and shot up along the cliff wall, which was almost perpendicular to the ground.
Xiaozhai did not stop at this. With a popping sound, a stair protruded from the stone wall, completely out of the blue. She stepped onto it with her left foot and a second stair stuck out simultaneously, which she stepped on with her left foot.
She proceeded like so, as if climbing the Babel. Before long, she was at the top of the cliff.
Long Qiu's eyes sparkled at this. She noticed that there was a large dent on the mountain wall, which meant the stairs had to be a result of Small Moving Technique. On any ordinary day, she would definitely try it herself, but in a critical time like this, she decided to summon the Golden Silkworm, who flew her up directly.
Gu Yu's method was even simpler. With the most abundant spiritual essence of the three, he activated the Void-arranging Technique and "walked" along the vertical wall all the way to the top.
They had kept some distance from the birds the entire time. Thick forest flanked their path and vines and thorny woods would block their way from time to time, making their march all the more difficult. After another long while, they finally saw a giant withered tree up ahead.
"Whak gack koo!"
The mallet birds chirped, then both disappeared into the canopy.
The three stopped to check the tree. It was over ten meters tall and so thick that it would take half a dozen men to join their arms around the trunk. There was not a trace of life in it, but the branches were still intact, twisting into knotty things and covering a large area.
The bark was speckled and flaky; its grayish brown seemed to have recorded all the vicissitudes of life.
Gu Yu found it very strange, for he had detected something strongly green… No, not that kind you would wear on a hat 3 , but the green of vitality and everything coming back to life in springtime.
"Let's have a look up there."
The three leapt up and flew onto the top of the tree. Looking down from there, they were surprised.
The tree was hollow inside, as if a large hole had been dug into it. They could see a faint green glow—that strong vitality was coming out of the bottom of the hollow.
Gu Yu held a girl in each hand and the three landed lightly on the bottom.
Inside was almost empty but much warmer. There was even a thin layer of grass. Around them on all sides was still the withered tree bark that looked like thick gray walls. On one side of the wall was a small hollow, where the two mallet birds had built their nest.
The two dumb birds were no longer afraid. They were even preening one another, as if the intruders were not there.
The three pairs of eyes did not linger on the birds. Almost immediately, they were drawn away by a plant.TL/N: literally meaning "ghost pounding the wall", which is a phenomenon in superstitious beliefs of one getting lost in the dark and finding themselves walking in circles, always coming back to where they started. ED/N: Not certain, but sounds like ley lines to me. They are sometimes referred to as dragons or sth like that. TL/N: Not sure what these are, either, my guess would be an "earthly energy" of some sort, a Feng Shui thing. TL/N: when someone's (usually a male) partner is cheating on them, the cheated one is described as "wearing a green hat" or "feeling/turning a little green on the head" in Chinese.