Night, Phoenix Mountain "Zhijin branch".
Zhijin was the name of this county which also happened to have a Phoenix Mountain located in its Zhuzang Township. Zhuzang was 23 km away from the county town and had an economy on the undeveloped side.
"Keep up! Keep up!"
In the darkness of the night, thick growth of tall grass deep in the mountain was brushed aside and several streaks of bright light shot out, then a team of people crept out with their backs hunched. There were about fifty to sixty of them in total, who were holding high-wattage mining lamps, with brooms and nets tucked on their back, and had their cuffs and trousers legs tightly fastened. One look at their appearance and you knew they had done this plenty of times before.
It was You Yu's first time doing this and he was very nervous. Hanging on to his cousin You Le by the corner of the latter's clothes, he stumbled on. He was here with the elder member of the family, and before long, he saw a fence with a sign set up outside, reminding the readers of relevant legal provisions regarding the protection of migratory birds.
Being a high school student only, he asked gingerly, "Brother, isn't what we're doing wrong?"
"We've been catching them for four or five years. What's wrong with that?" You Le sneered.
"But, but it's breaking the law!"
"It only is if we get caught, otherwise, it's perfectly all right. Plus, so what if the police do come. Don't you remember what happened last year?"
You Yu went silent. There was a major confrontation last year, during which dozens of villagers were besieged on the mountaintop by a dozen forest police officers halfway up the mountain. The villagers had thrown stones down to retaliate.
Although several villagers were arrested in the end, others showed no desire to restrain themselves. The activity only grew in size this year. Villagers were bringing in their entire families for help, slapping the face of the law loudly.
This mountain was on the vital route of the migratory birds and they often put up for the night on the mountaintop in flocks. Excessive catching and killing of the birds had become a custom of the villagers, who sold the birds at less than a hundred yuan each and could catch hundreds in a single night. They themselves called it a way to improve the quality of their life.
The local forestry police station had intervened on multiple occasions, but it produced very little effect.
You Yu's inner conflict was gnawing at him. His nature of a good, kind student made him reluctant to come, but he also knew that catching bird would give him money for better food on the table and some nice clothes.
He was young and had yet to form his view of life. He was struggling with the contradiction.
It was with this internal struggle that he reached the top of the mountain with the rest of the group. There was the breeze, the bright moon, and the twinkling stars. The dark sky looked like a dome above that one almost felt they could raise their arm and touch it.
October was the peak time of the migration of birds. Not only were they travelling in daytime, many would keep on flying at night.
You Yu stood on a big rock and looked up at the sky. He could faintly make out flocks of birds passing overhead in lines and rows, chirping loudly from time to time. This was supposed to be an occasion where one admired the boundless wonders of the nature and the beauty of the night, yet here they were, doing everything they could to destroy everything that was pleasant.
"Where's the tire? The tire? Bring it here now!"
"The fire's ready. Just put it there. It's the most obvious spot!"
"All set. Everyone back away and get ready!"
"Set the fire! Turn on the light!"
Bang, bang, bang! Whoosh...
At the command of the leader, all lamps were switched to the brightest, lighting up the top of the mountain like the bright daylight. Some old tires were also set on fire. The raging flames hopped in the night wind, giving off a disgusting smell of burnt rubber.
The villagers were all experienced at this. They waited with broomsticks and nets in hands and kept their gaze at the sky.
Before long, a flock of migratory birds was attracted by the light and slowly descended. Right at the moment when they were about to "hug" the light, the villagers pounced at the birds and swept down their broomsticks. Two or three birds were struck down in one single strike.
Another few rushed near and grabbed the birds at their necks to stuff them into the nets, not caring if they were alive or dead. All they cared about was the money. You Yu was petrified watching on the side.
That was a f**king egret! That looked like a pond heron! And that, that… he did not know the name, but it was definitely a protected species.
The kid was shaking. He stood there dazed, his motionlessness a stark contrast to everything happening around him.
You Le had caught a bagful and was shouting excitedly, "Xiao Yu, what are you doing standing there? Get over here! Check this out. Holy crap, that's at least a thousand yuan here!"
"Oh my, this is a good one. This one alone is worth 300!"
"300? Why did I only get 200?"
"Did you sell it to Old Qin? That guy is not decent. You have to go to the county town. The place is called Xinxing. They sell game as food there. This one is 588 for half a kilo!"
"Clear the ground and let's have another round!"
They began the night with a big harvest and everyone was in high spirits. They set everything up after much maneuvering and waited for the second batch of birds. About an hour later, they heard birds' calling from above. The leader shouted, "Get ready!"
The villagers were on the alert and ready to catch. A flock of birds approached across the night sky in an arrow-shaped formation. You Le threw the net to his cousin and held the broomstick himself. His face was lit up by excitement.
He stared at the birds and said silently in his head, 'Come down. Come down here!'
The birds saw the light, but did not descend like the previous flock. Instead, they began to circle in the sky, as if they were led by some sort of fluctuation. They seemed agitated.
The villagers waited for a while and asked, "Boss, what's going on?"
"Just wait. They're probably too scared to come down!" The leader tried to appease the rest.
After a moment, the birds were still circling, but their calling grew louder. When the villagers were getting impatient, the flock scattered suddenly and seemed to be ready to dive.
"Coming! They're coming!"
You Le cheered up and had his eyes on a big bird. He raised his broomstick. "I've got this— aaaah!"
He cried out in surprise. His broomstick struck the big bird, which flapped its wings violently and steadied itself with a strange agitation and ferocity. The next second, it was dashing at You Le.
It was too late for You Le to dodge and he buried his head into his arms. There was then a chilly sensation at the back of his head—a bloody piece of scalp was torn off.
The other villagers were panic-stricken. The hunter had become the hunted. Hundreds of birds charged down and the villagers scattered in all directions.
You Yu turned out to be the calm one in this critical moment. Dragging his cousin with one hand, he picked up the broomstick in the other. "Don't shout. Be quiet. Hold on, I'll take you out of here!"
"Out of my way! Out of my way!"
He cleared a way out with all his strength and tumbled into the dense woods. He dared not turn back to look for even once.
Saji Town, morning.
Gu Yu stayed the night in the town and wanted to go to Black God Temple the following morning.
Black God Temple was on Fish Mountain in the eastern suburb of the county. The mountain got the name for its resemblance to a wooden fish. It was actually no taller than 300 m and had an area of less than 20 mu. Looking down from above, it looked more like a giant rock.
He hailed a taxi. "Fish Mountain, please."
"You're new here, right? You can't go in that direction." The driver turned him down and explained, "A flock of birds came from Phoenix Mountain and now the whole county town is taken. No one dares to leave their home. All roads are closed!"
Gu Yu did not see that coming. A flock of birds from Phoenix Mountain… those were some persistent birds to fly this far! He then realized it was not his own mountain, but one of the "branches" with the same name.
He then asked, "In that case, I'll go as far as you can drive me in that direction. How about that?"
"Um, hop on."
The driver hesitated a little, but still gestured for him to get in.
They drove for over half an hour along the road and saw a crowd ahead. There was a hubbub of noises and they could go no further.
Gu Yu got off the taxi. Wow, that was quite a scene! Not only were there roadblocks, sandbags and chunks of stones were also piled up as if they were in wartime. Six or seven police cars guarded the entrance tightly with a loudspeaker blaring a safety alert repeatedly.
"Please do not approach! I repeat, do not approach! The police are doing everything they can to rescue the civilians. This is an unusual situation and no one is allowed to go in. Please follow the instructions!"
Hundreds of people stood around, some being mere onlookers, some howling their lungs out—presumably having relatives trapped inside.
He looked up and realized the clouds and the sun were all blocked by a dark sea of tens of thousands migratory birds that were either circling around in mid-air over the streets or perching on various buildings. It reminded him so much of a scene from an old movie.
"Make way! Make way!"
An anti-riot vehicle suddenly drove out from the other side of the barrier. The door slid open and several special force police officers jumped out. Their colleague went up to them in a hurry and asked, "How are things looking inside?"
"The birds have taken up all space available! But they are not making active attacks, so long as the people stay inside, they're fine. No one can walk the streets… all hospitals are running at full capacity. There are over a thousand injured and over four hundred are wounded badly. There is a significant shortage of medical assistance."
"Backup is coming from the city, but they don't really have any good idea up there, either. The birds are very difficult to drive out, unless they use chemical gases, but that will harm the civilians."
"F**k! What is wrong with this world!"
A police officer smashed his walkie-talkie on the ground, cursing loudly.
The surrounding people grew more worried at those words. After a while, someone said, "Didn't they say the birds flew here from Phoenix Mountain? Does anyone know anything about that?"
"I've heard a little. A bunch of people went to catch birds last night. Only five out of the sixty-two made it back."
"That's right. My sister lives over there. It seemed the birds just suddenly began to attack people."
"Then why aren't they staying on Phoenix Mountain, but flew here to the country town?"
There was silence again—like anyone would know the answer!
Gu Yu hid among the crowd and listened in silence. Moments later, the crowd scattered at two approaching priests—they were none other than the two handling the civets.
The man in charged hurried near and his voice was anxiety-ridden. "Priests, you're finally here. There really is nothing we can do."
"Don't panic. Let us have a look first."
The two priests looked into the distance and were both secretly astonished. The sudden abnormal behavior of a bird flock of this scale was obviously beyond their capability. One of them said, "I have notified our temple. Our senior brother just happened to be here, he's coming. You can proceed however you see fit."
The other one added, "This is an important matter. I think we'd better evacuate the civilians as best as we can."
The man in charge grasped the meaning of those words right away. By "important matter", they meant it was a cultivation thing not to be meddled in by just anyone.
Both priests were disciples of the Immortal Cave of Forest City. The Immortal Cave was the largest Taoist temple of Guizhou Province and a member of Zhengyi. Guizhou had been a remote location historically, but had a long history of Taoist beliefs. The religion was very popular among the common folk.
The Immortal Cave was a renowned and authoritative figure in the province. With its help, although the man in charge was not fully convinced, his anxiety was greatly eased nonetheless.
Over on the other side, Gu Yu had collected enough information he needed and secretly entered the town from a spot several kilometers away.
Zhijin at this moment looked like an apocalyptic drawing: the ruined streets were littered with vehicles that still had their doors wide open. Turning everywhere, he could see no one. The birds had blocked out the sky, transforming the town into a wild paradise.
Residents of the town were standing at the windows inside the buildings and looking out helplessly, wishing for the disaster to go away.
Taking in the scene, Gu Yu suddenly frowned, for he had sensed an intriguing fluctuation. He smelt trouble!