A slender figure threaded through the vast, withered snowy woods. Climbing the frozen ridges, she moved as effortlessly as a goddess, even nimbler than the winter sparrows.
Xiaozhai turned her mental force on full blast, covering the maximal area it could reach while searching the mountain with speed and precision. She did not use the Void-arranging Technique, but trode on the hard ground and broken branches, finishing half the mountain in no time.
This direction was her task, while Long Qiu and the Golden Silkworm covered the rest separately. She trusted Xiaojin's wits: the girl must have left something behind. With that in mind, she "raided" the mountain slope inside out like a ploughing machine.
Brushing past the quivering dead branches, Xiaozhai swished out of the snowy woods. She was welcomed by an open field—she had reached the foot of the hill.
She couldn't help but frown. She had almost checked under every leaf and found nothing. Could those people be that good, making Xiaojin unconscious the entire time?
Of course she would not give up just like that. Following an unmarked track, she walked into a farmland. A couple of steps in and her lips curled up into a smile: to her front on the right, she detected some barely detectable energy hanging onto a clump of withered grass.
Xiaozhai moved closer and sensed it carefully. It was indeed the Small Confining Technique unique to Phoenix Mountain.
"The girl's got a little brain after all!"
She fiddle about the stem of the grass, then took out her bone flute.
The shrilling and jarring sound was sent steadily away into the woods, guided by her mental force. A moment later, Long Qiu sprinted towards her with the Golden Silkworm.
"Sister, have you found it?" Xiao Qiu asked hastily.
"It should be that way."
She pointed into the distance. At the end of the winding track, they could barely make out a village. Some adobe houses were scattered here and there in the farmlands on either side, used as resting places during busy seasons.
"Let's go! Jin Jin could be in danger!"
Long Qiu was elated. The girl was drowning in her guilty conscience this entire time. Dragging Xiaozhai by her hands, she dashed towards that direction.
They reached the village about a quarter of an hour later. It was a dilapidated place with no public facilities in sight. A few kids were running around, but froze on their feet at the sudden appearance of the two pretty elder sisters.
They looked around and finally found a second trace of the Small Confining Technique.
From there, they began to track down those people by the traces left behind. The route they took was the weirdest one. They stayed in no fixed spot and seemed to be walking in circles all the time.
As long as two hours had passed, during which time they walked right through the village, and arrived at the foot of another hill, where they finally stopped.
A signpost stood by the side of the road, which read: Yanbei Tree Farm. Tall wire fence ran from west to east and an iron gate stood at the front, inside which was a gate house.
"Cough, cough… cough…"
They were still looking around when a weak and sickly old man walked out. Wrapped in a sheepskin jacket, the old man had a face going scarlet from the violent coughing. The old man inched towards them, asking, "This is a private tree farm. Who are you people?"
"Uncle, we need to ask you something. Have you seen a tall girl?" Xiaozhai moved closer.
"No!" The old man was grumpy and answered impatiently, "I barely see anything for half a year on end. Go search somewhere else."
"Uncle, please just give it a moment. Are you sure you haven't seen one?"
Xiaozhai moved closer again, her hands now grabbing at the iron gate and her face eager.
"I told you no. I'm not that old to—"
The old man's voice stopped abruptly. A fair hand reached in through the gap of the iron gate, grabbed him by the neck, and twisted. "Crunch!"
His head was turned 90 degrees. The next moment, he thumped to the ground into a pile of dead meat.
A strange weapon resembling a machete fell out of his jacket.
Long Qiu jumped at this. All of a sudden, she found this elder sister of hers, whom she had spent almost every minute with, was emanating an aura that was frightening even to her.
Xiaozhai was not in the mood for talking. Snapping the lock into pieces, she strode in.
The tree farm was essentially a hill covered by bare, tall trees. Not a soul was around and an eerie hush fell over the place.
Xiaozhai walked in the front and Long Qiu covered the rear. The girls walked straight in, not giving a damn to anything else.
Leaning slightly forward, Xiaozhai scanned the area ahead, the look in her eyes cold and murderous.
Suddenly, a giant shadow leapt out of the woods with a gust of rancid wind. It landed on all fours, raised its upper body, and started growling. It was a brown bear.
The animal was officially known as Pi in the ancient times. It had human-like facial features and postures, and was ferocious and strong enough to snatch cows and horses for snack.
Brown bears usually grew to 179-280 cm in height, but this one was over 3 meters tall once standing up, threatening to block the sun and the sky and crush down like the Mount Tai.
Its eyes were blood-red. Waving its meaty paw which was larger then a normal human head, it threatened to smash its opponents into a pulp.
Xiaozhai flipped her right hand around and Green Leaf appeared in her palm. Pointing the tip of the double-bladed weapon at the ground, she slashed it upward.
With a shrilling explosive sound, the tip of the blade slashed the beast from the right rib to the left shoulder, arcs of lightning flickering on the edge. One strike and the animal was in halves!
Xiaozhai did not stop for a single second. She jumped right of the body as huge as a mountain of meat.
The collapsing down of the brown bear seemed to have sent out some signal. Immediately after that, the ground shook violently and growls came from everywhere. Another few giant beasts appeared, followed by several odd-looking men.
The structure of Shamanism outside Shanhai Pass was completely different from that of the Northwest.
Born and raised surrounded by the landscape of the Northeast since the ancient time, they were accompanied by all kinds of beasts, which gave birth to their beast totem. Xiaozhai could not make out the original form of these giant animals. They possessed the characteristics of several other animals, with eyes glowing red, savage, wild, but submitting to the men's commands.
"That was very bold of you, breaking in with merely two people!"
The leader looked very strange with all the ragged cloth wrapping around him. Even his face was covered by them, leaving only a gap for the eyes.
"Where is my sister?" Xiaozhai asked.
"Hehe, she has long become a sacrifice. Don't worry, you'll soon be like her."
The man pointed at a giant beast.
The thing was long-limbed and covered by thick fur. At the first glance, one might take it as a giant ape of some sort. Looking up, however, they would find a delicate female face of a human!
The woman had her eyes tightly shut and her face was ridden with terror and pain. It seemed as if a human face was forced into the skull of the beast.
Long Qiu cried out despite herself, for the face indeed reminded her of Jin Jin a little.
Shamanism had long become a cult after all these centuries. Both the ghostly creatures of the Northwest and the beastly creatures of the Northeast were made by using living human beings as sacrifices (experimental subjects) and refining new foul creatures out of them.
All the old and recent grudges rushed into Xiaozhai's head at such sight. Her face was colder than the winter night. "You've just signed your death wish!"
Waving her hand, a big gourd materialized. She gave it a pat.
A black torrent consisting of fine granules gushed out of the opening and the torrent kept coming. It floated in mid-air, soon forming a stretch of dark clouds, surrounding the men and the beasts.
"What is that?"
The leader did not recognize the skill, but instinct told him it was not looking good. He shouted, "Scatter!"
Xiaozhai sneered. With a flip of her fingers, a streak of energy dived into the black cloud.
The overspread black grit was activated. The granules began to clash violently against one another and from the collisions came the crackling sound of flickering lightnings.
In half a heartbeat, purple divine thunder struck down in finger-sized rays of lightning. The sunlight dimmed instantly in that area, as if the Thunder God was lashing out its rage and striking down with a punishment from heaven.
They were ants trapped in a jar, completely defenseless in the face of the heavenly power. The giant beasts wailed and howled with them.
In a matter of seconds, the area was centimeters lower as if hundreds of horny bulls had just run wildly over it. The men and beasts were either turned into ashes or a pile of charred meat.
The leader was the most capable one and the only one to react in time. Badly wounded, he was still struggling, trying to run for his life.
The next second, he was beneath a foot with a shiny blade on his neck.
"Where is my sister?"
Xiaojin lay on a hard plank bed with her eyes covered and her hands and feet tightly bound up.
She was barely ever lucid for the past day. Those men were afraid of her escaping, so they had been jabbing her with a poisonous prick every other hour.
The toxin was highly paralyzing. Although her Mental Thunder energy could eliminate it, she was not capable enough for that, as it would take her longer. Before she could fully wash the toxin out, the next one was injected.
She simply stopped trying to fight the poison. Instead, she left traces of the Small Confining Technique along the way, taking the opportunity of her brief conscious moments. The skill could be carried out quietly and was untraceable. Since only those beyond the innate state could work it, those men obviously did not detect it.
In her half-consciousness, they seemed to have been circling around forever before they dumped her here.
Xiaojin squirmed, moving a little bit at a time. Her feet only inched away for a few centimeters before she felt going over the edge of the bed. She drew them back right away. Then, with much difficulty, she raised her hands and tried to rip off the black cloth covering her eyes. She had just touched it when voices approached from outside.
Aaaaah! Play dead!
She put on her professional performance playing the unconscious girl while pricking up her ears and listened.
"Words just got in. Men from Qiyun were taken to Changqing Village as soon as they arrived. Gunshots were fired. Hahaha! Our plan worked!"
"Worked? I only see trouble coming. Our original plan was to stall them, but you took it into your own hands and snatched on back! That one has arrived at Huang Village! What are we gonna do now?"
"We have the hostage. I bet they're overwhelmed out there as well. The trouble is Phoenix Mountain's. Plus, she's not going to just find this place that easily. Just to take precautions, though, let's move her now."
It was a clearing deep into the woods, where quite a few buildings had been built. In front of a wooden cabin, two men were arguing, one as lanky as a bamboo stick and the other tiny as a dwarf.
The structure of Shamanism was: archmages—mages—errand-men—ordinary followers.
Archmages were the heads of sect branches, mages took charge of the resources on a city-level, whereas the responsibilities of errand-men were slightly more complicated. Some were in charge of a certain region, while others ran specific tasks.
These two were errand-men of specialties. They were here to train soldiers for the sect.
Because of Guan Pan, the Shamanists came to know the whereabouts of the four of Phoenix Mountain in Songjiang River and the dwarf was sent out to follow them. He and Guan Pan were blood brothers, their family followed Shamanism since their father's generation. The elder brother was born with the talent and had been taken away and trained when he was little. He later learned the Underground Escape Technique and the skill to control small animals.
The younger brother followed a different path. He successfully worked himself up the ladders of the bureaucratic career and was now the deputy director of Xidu sub-bureau.
It was not their original plan to get involved this deep into the matter. However, it just so happened that Gu Yu discovered the spiritual ginseng, which got Guan Pan thinking. The man suggested they grab the opportunity and muddle up the water a bit, to which their superior agreed.
Hence, he provoked both sides into a confrontation in Songjiang River while stalling Long Qiu and Xiaojin on the other end. Xiaojin got herself into trouble by venturing out of the train alone, when the decisive dwarf kidnapped her.
However, after Mu Kun and the others arrived, the HQ took over the command of everything, making the information Guan Pan provided not as timely.
The wooden door was kicked open and the cold air gushed in. Xiaojin shuddered. She sensed a person with a foul smell approaching, holding her up, and carrying her out of the cabin.
They only made a few steps when the sound arrived.
The muffled sound of winter thunder was shaking dead leaves off the branches in showers. It came from the front mountain, accompanied by numerous wails and cries.
Xiaojin's heart leapt at this. She fought back the impulse to struggle, fearing that she might startle the enemy. Immediately after that, she heard the stumbling footsteps as someone scrambled near.
"We, we're under attack! Someone has breached our defense!"
"There are two of them, women! The captain and the rest were all killed!"
The bamboo stick and the dwarf exchanged a look, seeing fear on each other's face. "You lot stay here! Let's go!"
The two bolted, running towards the back mountain. The bamboo stick even took the time to jab Xiaojin again and the girl passed out right away. They had never expected their opponent to be this fast, let alone participating the sect elite to be annihilated in minutes.
They fled in utter confusion in the mountains like a pair of disowned dogs, the others screaming somewhere behind them. A formidable and unparalleled energy was pressing near, cutting the skin of their backs open like a sharp blade.
The cold! The fear! It was in their bones!
All emotions seemed to have materialized, gushing frantically into their bodies through the wounds, shredding any sense or hope they might have to put up a fight.
As another thundering sound closed in, they both felt a chilliness coming from behind. With every effort they still had, they twisted and dodged to either side.
A golden purple beam in the shape of a three-meter saber smashed down in between them, hacking out a long, deep pit on the dark hard ground.
They were scared out of their wits. Turning around with tottering feet, they saw a woman standing there, a saber in her hand. "Let go of her!"
The two men felt suffocated as a smell of death took over them—something they had never experienced before. The dwarf darted his eyes this way and that, suddenly shouting, "I'll leave them to you!"
With that, he crouched down abruptly, then disappeared into the ground.
"Where do you thing you're going?"
Xiaozhai unleashed her mental force, which locked onto the target right away. She waved her hand casually.
The radiating blade struck down again. Mud and snow exploded and flew high into the air, together with the dwarf.
The blade struck a third time. Before the man could cry out, he was in several pieces. Broken body parts fell all over the place.
The bamboo stick fought to maintain his composure. He stuck out a finger, which resembled the tail of a scorpion and had a hooked red prick on the fingertip. He held it to Xiaojin's neck. "Don't move! Come any closer and she's dead!"
The woman stopped as commanded. The bamboo stick's face brightened up a little and he ordered again, "Put down your weapon!"
Xiaozhai did not move.
"I said, put down your… Aaaaah! My hand! My hand!"
The bamboo stick was shouting angrily a second ago, but the next second, the voice coming out of him turned into a wailing howl. He watched as his finger disappeared into thin air in the same way that a pencil drawing was erased from paper.
"We need him alive!" Xiaozhai reminded someone.
Long Qiu, who had just arrived from behind, called the Golden Silkworm back to her. Ignoring the enemy who had passed out on the ground, she ran to Xiaojin and held the girl between her arms. "Jin Jin… sob… I'm so glad you're all right…"