"Sorry, I'm sorry. I just couldn't hold it any longer!"
Inside the office carriage of the head of the train crew, that teenage boy soon admitted his folly, but it was too late for that. Awaiting him was the railway police, who would take him into custody and charge him for a fine of 500 yuan 1 .
The incident was solved and the order restored. The driver was about to restart the train when a line of reminders in red texts popped up on the electronic screen.
Frowning, he fiddled with some settings before pressing down the button of the intercom. "Attention, attention, possible malfunction detected. Request for additional temporary stopping time."
A couple of minutes later, the head of the crew and the maintenance staff on board arrived at the steering room. "What is the problem?"
"The wheel hubs probably took an impact from the ballast because of the emergency brake. We need to get off to examine it."
The head of the crew felt his stomach dropping. A problem with the wheel hubs could be nothing or everything. He hoped he wouldn't be too unlucky.
A couple of crew members immediately got off to examine the situation and indeed found an impact mark on one set of the wheels—a deep one, for that matter. To make it worse, the scratch just happened to be on a key stress point. Carrying on driving could possibly lead to a major accident.
No one was ready to take that much of a responsibility. They could only inform the railway division ahead and ask them to send a maintenance vehicle here. It was the worst possible situation. One train down and all trains on this route would be stuck where they were.
Whereas in the carriages, complaints erupted from the passengers.
"This is the worst day ever! I've made arrangements already. Now everything is ruined!"
"How long are we going to wait? What? Two to three hours?! Are you f**king kidding me?"
"It's all that sh*tty smoker's fault! Damn it, I want to kick his a*s!"
Sweat covered the attendants' foreheads as they walked around comforting the passengers, which was of little use. The complaining voices died down by themselves after a while as the crowd grew tired from it. What could they do but wait?
Long Qiu and Xiaojin were also waiting anxiously. Taking the train was their only option, for Xidu was too close to Shengtian to qualify for a direct flight. All planes going from Xidu to Shengtian were transiting through other cities before going to the latter, which would take even longer than a train ride.
Hence their choice of taking the high-speed train, which would take them directly to Songjiang River Town.
Before they noticed, the sky outside was growing dimmer.
The emergency lights were on at first, but as the waiting extended, they were switched off later. The carriages was pitch dark and the air felt heated. With their thick winter clothes, the passengers were growing uncomfortably hot.
"Attendant, open the door! My wife is going to faint!" a man yelled suddenly.
The attendant rejected tactfully, "I'm sorry, but regulation says we are not allowed to open…"
"Regulation my a*s! Just open it!"
The man rushed to the door in a few strides and fumbled blindly at something. Somehow he managed to open it and supported his wife out of the train. With the fresh cold air outside, she felt better right away.
Several others followed suit and swiftly got out of the train as well. The attendant stood helplessly at the door and called out, "Passengers, please go back to you seats. You shouldn't be lingering outside…"
Unfortunately, not only was the attendant ignored, people were getting off from the neighboring carriages as well.
Xiaojin was in utter boredom. "It's stifling in here. How about have a walk outside?"
"I feel all right here. Are you hot? Let me make you some wind." Long Qiu put her hands out and fanned. There was indeed a little breeze, accompanied with a faint fragrance.
"Ok, that's it. You're not my bed-warming servant girl. I'll be back in a minute."
Xiaozhai gave Long Qiu's forehead a little tap and jumped happily out of the train. A dozen people were already standing around in small groups. Little dots of glow flickered on and off in the darkness—those were men smoking.
Apart from the small area they were at, she could see faint lights about 500 m ahead of them. That was the station of Huang Village.
Seeing that the train was not going to start anytime soon, she swaggered towards that direction.
Huang Village was probably a township. Despite being close to the railway, most trains would not stop here. Only the slow ones with super-long routes would stop here for a couple of minutes. The station looked decrepit. A dim lamp swayed slightly in the wind and there was no staff around.
Xiaojin leaned on the platform, looked around, found nothing interesting, and turned around happily to head back.
She was halfway back when she halted. From somewhere ahead of her came a faint weeping sound.
"Sob… sob, sob…"
She could see things in the dark and made out a short, child-like figure. It was wrapped in a down jacket, had a beanie on the head, and was wiping away tears.
Xiaojin rolled her eyes. The things going through her head on a daily basis were never "daily". The first idea that came to her was not "oh, poor helpless kid", but "someone's looking for trouble!"
As the saying went, boldness of execution stemmed from superb skill (more like simple-mindedness, in her case). She moved closer in a few strides and shouted, "Hey, from which cave did you crawl out?"
Her loud voice scared the little thing, who was stunned silent for a few seconds before answering between broken sobs. "Sister, I came out to have some fresh air with my dad, but I can't find him now. Can you take me back to the train?"
"Do you take me as an idiot? There's a train of people over there and you just have to stand here waiting for me?" Xiaojin lashed out right away, her words utterly merciless. "Haven't you read Journey to the West? Those wandering around in the deserted lands are either evil spirits or monsters! How come a cunning kid as articulate as you cannot get back to the train? Gosh, the villains nowadays have the dumbest plots…"
Why, that was in a way remarkable.
Her own reasoning had her mind fixed on the conclusion that this was a trap, which she guessed perfectly right by sheer luck.
The kid looked speechless. Written all over his face was "why the hell didn't you play by the book?". Of course, this turn of events did not scare him a little bit. The childish innocent expression was gone, instantly replaced by a timeworn and frightening face.
"Eww. So you're not a cute little boy after all."
Xiaojin found the man disgusting. Stretching out her right hand, her palm opened up like an orchid, sweeping gracefully yet fiercely at her opponent.
The dwarf did not dodge. Instead, he lowered down suddenly—the entire man sank into the earth like a gopher.
Sh*t! A Tu Xingsun 2 !
She opened her eyes widely and was quick enough to react. Thrusting against the ground with tip of her foot, she leapt backwards. However, her enemy was faster. Two sharp claws that reminded one of those of a beast erupted out of the ground and clenched tightly around her ankles.
"Hoho, come down here!"
Taken by surprise, Xiaojin was dragged down, her feet sinking into the ground all the way to her calves and still sinking.
'Don't panic! Don't panic! Stay calm!'
This was her first ever real combat and it was inevitable that she went all hurry-scurry. She kept reminding herself: What do I know? What have I learnt?
Instantly, the energy of Metal Thunder ran frantically inside her, then came all the way down to her feet. She stepped hard and the ground blasted open. With a scream, the dwarf flew out from beneath.
He knelt down on one knee, feeling an overbearing power of destruction rampaging inside him, exactly like what he experienced the other day in the mountain.
He was petrified and activated his own energy to suppress it. However, the thunder energy only dashed on for a little while before it lost it strength and dissipated on its own.
"Haha, is that all you can do?" He knew what he was dealing with right away.
Xiaojin was a smart girl. The man was quite capable and she was lacking real combat experience. All she needed was to get away from him and went back to get Xiao Qiu.
They exchanged a few more blows. The dwarf was attacking with numerous unconventional moves and she was barely keeping up with him. With much difficulty, she was able to force the man to parry her attack with sheer force, which won her a brief moment of opportunity. Little Soap turned around and ran.
One stride and she was several meters away. She opened her mouth and was about to call out when there came a ripping sound from behind. A streak of dim glow flew out of the woods, charging at her at a high speed.
Still midair, she had no way of dodging it. Something jabbed into her left rib like a poisonous prick. Instantly, a numbing pain spread to her entire body.
Fright made Xiaojin break into a cold sweat. She immediately activated her energy to fight against it, but there was a "pop" and a second streak of dim glow arrived.
Something stung her on the neck and she was losing consciousness.
The dim glow seemed to have a powerful paralysing effect. Her cultivation was not enough to fight them both and Xiaojin soon passed away under the impact.
Right then, another figure dashed out of the woods. Together, he and the dwarf carried Xiaojin off the ground and with some unknown method, the three melted into the darkness as if they had disappeared into thin air. They soon fled into the mountains.
Back on the train, Long Qiu felt she had waited too long and went to search for Xiaojin herself, the box still in her hands.
She looked around at the door and asked, "Excuse me, did you see a tall and pretty girl going out?"
"Well, I think so. She should be outside," replied the attendant.
"But she isn't!"
"What? Have you searched carefully?"
The attendant panicked as well. Losing a passenger was a major accident. She immediately reported to the head of the crew and sent people out to look for the girl.
Long Qiu still had the big box on her back. She released the Golden Silkworm right away. "Go find Jin Jin!"
The Golden Silkworm circled around in the air shortly before stopping at a spot, where it paused a little, found nothing, and flew on up a hill.
Long Qiu followed suit. Behind her came the callings. "Hey, you're going to get lost here. We've already called the police!"
"Come back down! The train is starting soon!"
A few attendants tried to run after her, but there was no way they could catch up. Xiao Qiu was on the verge of breaking into tears. She couldn't think of anything else but running head on into the vast dark forest.
"What?" Xiaozhai bolted up. "Don't cry. Tell me what happened."
"The train broke down. It was stifling inside and she got off… then I went to find her. I realized something was wrong. I followed all the way deep into the mountain, but the scent was gone as well… sob… sob…"
Long Qiu's crying voice was heartrending on the other end. She was eaten up by guilt: had she been able to stop Xiaojin from going out or had she followed her out, maybe none of this would have happened.
Xiaozhai remained calm enough. "Any leads?"
"Golden Silkworm, Golden Silkworm hated it. There seems to be a smell of some poisonous bug."
"A poisonous bug?"
The couple frowned simultaneously. Gu Yu asked, "Where are you now?"
"I'm, I'm in Huang Village, a township."
"Stay where you are. I'm on my way!"
Xiaozhai did not blame Long Qiu, but gave her some comforting words instead. Hanging up the phone, she said, "They are trying to make us too busy to care for anything else and forcing us to split. Ha, they've succeeded…"
Her tone was flat, but Gu Yu's stomach lurched at her voice. "I'm only curious about one thing. How could they know our whereabouts so perfectly? Is it a coincidence that their train just happened to break down and there just happened to be someone smoking on board?"
"Are you saying that the authorities are somehow involved?" Xiaozhai asked, then shook her head. "No, they can't be that stupid. To be able to subdue Xiaojin and take her alive would take at least two capable men of the acquired state. Shamanism is behind this."
"I agree, but they must have had help from their man inside the government."
After taking out the archmage of the northwest branch, the couple learned from the scroll that unlike the common cults such as Falun Gong, Shamanism had been focusing on developing elite members. During the past several decades, their members infiltrated all level of the authorities, and were even able to obtain some military power.
They had no name list. The comrade that had worked alongside you for years could be a disciple. The situation was especially dire in the regions where the four branches operated. Liaodong Province was not too bad, but one could not begin to imagine what Wula Province would be like.
That was what concerned the government the most. It was not that they did not want to eradicate this thing, they just could not afford any rash moves.
The couple had gone up the mountain already, so Long Qiu called Shui Yao, who then went to fetch the two. Now all three were back in Changqing Village.
Their original plan was to get the wooden box, put the ginseng in, and off they'd go. Unfortunately, not only were they short of a person now, the wooden box was also not delivered—so much so with moving the spiritual ginseng.
Their plan was completed ruined and the other party had successfully held them back.
Xiaozhai's face was emotionless. After a moment of silence, she suddenly said, "Old Gu, has it occurred to you that we've been playing too nicely so far?"
"Before this, not really. But now, hoho…" Gu Yu gave her a crooked smile. "Are you all right going alone? Do you need me to tag along?"
"That won't be necessary. You take care of things here."
"Ok, then I'm not going back up there." He nodded. "I'll be staying right here in Changqing Village. I'm curious whom they will send."
With the long, jarring siren, a police car drove along a street in Songjiang River, splashing muddy snow as it went. At the flashing turning signals, the car slowed down and turned at a roundabout.
In the small square next to the roundabout was an anti-riot vehicle, which was guarded by two fully armed special force police officers.
Two others were patrolling outside the school gate some distance away.
In merely two days, this freezing cold little town that had stood aloof from the worldly success became the focus of the spotlight. The common folk knew no insider information, but their instinct was as acute as ever. Instantly, they sensed the stillness and restlessness, which reminded them of the quietness before a storm.
The police car came to a stop outside the police station. The doors were opened and several people got off in handcuffs. The passers-by dared not stop to look, but discussed among themselves as they walked on.
"Those stupid men again. Do they have nothing better to do that they just have to stick their heads in this?"
"The mountain is off limits—we have been told so. These people just have to show they're somehow special. Well, they got what they asked for. Ten days in detention at least."
"Don't they need an excuse to take these people in?"
"Take your pick: making up and spreading rumors, disturbance of the public security... There's always one ready."
They scurried on, both excited and frightened, with the belief that they had just peeked into some top-level secret.
Mu Kun was taking it all in from a second-floor window.
He had only just arrived today. Those above took this operation very seriously and sent two deputy directors out here—him and another one named Zhang Juan, who was your traditional type of soldier, valuing the country above anything else.
Zhang Juan had never met those from Phoenix Mountain before and was not that impressed by the latter. The fact that these two were sent together was proof enough of the bosses' intention: keep the opinion balanced.
The special police force of Xidu had been stationed out accordingly, guarding the frontier of Songjiang River-Changqing Village-mountain foot with full strength. The frenzy of going up the mountain soon died down among the common folk. Apart from the idiotic few, all had realized something major was taking place.
Just then, there came a knock at the door. Someone of the sub-bureau entered. "Director Mu, people from Qiyun have arrived."TL/N: a little over 70 USD TL/N: a character from the ancient Chinese novel The Investiture of the Gods. Tu Xingsun was a dwarf with the ability to travel fast underground.