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Generally speaking, those on the chubbier side tended to have amiable personalities and would not be offended even if their love handles got pinched. Being a fatty itself, the butterball squirrel had always had a mild temper and seldom showed any temper.

However, right now, the squirrel was squatting on the ground in front of them, its fur all puffed up and eyes widened with a hint of rage.

"Hiss!"

The green snake, on the contrary, was happy to see the squirrel. It slithered near all bubbly and bright, its two-pronged tongue thrusting in and out in a mischievous manner. Brother Fatty threw a sideway glance at it. Realizing this fellow had been "incorporated" by the two humans, it struck at the snake with its paw.

"Ssss!"

Seeing this coming, the green snake dodged by sliding sideways and continued acting smug and cocky. The squirrel paid no further attention to it, but stared at Gu Yu alone instead.

"It's your turn."

Xiaozhai stood aside and instructed Gu Yu to solve the situation. Having no other choice, Gu Yu bent down and probed, "Brother Fatty, could you let us pass?"

"..."

"I'll bring you something yummy tomorrow."

"..."

"I really need to go there. Could you stop messing around?"

"..."

No matter what he said, the squirrel remained where it was, refusing to budge.

Seeing that it was turning into an awkward stalemate, Gu Yu resolved to bow all the way down and beseeched wholeheartedly, "Brother Fatty, it was thanks to you that I am who I am today. I know I should not put you into difficult situation like this, but this thing is so important that it might affect so many people and I must get it done. Please let us pass."

With that, he kept that bowing position and stayed as motionless as the squirrel.

Neither of the two would give in and it seemed to take forever before the expression of the squirrel softened as a hint of resignation flickered through its eyes. Making a few squeaking sounds, it turned around and dashed up a tree.

"Brother Fatty!"

He hurriedly called after it, but got no reply. Apparently, the squirrel was really upset. Gazing after the disappearing squirrel, Gu Yu turned back after some time later and sighed, "Let's go!"

"You are an interesting man," commented Xiaozhai who had been observing the two on the side, the backpack now returning to her shoulders.

"Brother Fatty is my friend. It was a naughty little thing, but sensible at the same time. It must have its reasons to stop me and I could not just force my way through," Gu Yu only found its behavior understandable.

"Well…"

Xiaozhai curled her lip, not clear if it was out of approval or amusement.

With the squirrel out of their way, the two quickened their pace and headed directly towards the valley. Gu Yu had never been to this part of the mountain before and found the vegetation here rather primitive-looking with no trace of man-made development.

The perilous terrain could have put the patrolmen off when the mountain was closed down and those slackers might have skipped this area entirely.

"Rustle!"

"Rustle!"

As always, Gu Yu led the way. He noticed that the branches were becoming denser as they advanced and he could barely make out the ground halfway into the valley. However, a machete was not necessary for him who snapped and hacked with his hands, clearing out a path by sheer force.

Walking for about half an hour, they both found the slope getting gentler and the altitude of the terrain much lower by now.

Looking around, they noticed that, without knowing it, the tall trees surrounding them had been replaced by shorter bushes, along with clusters of thorny undergrowth, which densely cluttered and covered the ground. The blackish color had given them a gloomy and eerie look.

"What is this place?"

"There aren't many tall trees here. Why is it still so dark?"

"Buzz!"

They had stopped to take in the surroundings when they heard a faint noise, which turned out to be from a few weird-looking black insects, flying straight at Xiaozhai.

"Smack!"

Seeing this, the green snake bending over her shoulders swung its tail and took out most of the insects with one swipe.

Xiaozhai, on the other hand, struck out and drew back her right hand with lightning speed, pinching an insect between her fingertips. Apparently not finding the dead insect revolting at all, she looked closely at it and said in a surprised tone, "Isn't this mosquito a bit too big?"

"It looks like some sort of mutation. I wonder how many of these are around here. Judging by the environment, they might even have changed their behavior…" Gu Yu moved closer and commented. However, before he could go into details, his face turned pale. Grabbing her hand, he started running. "Run! Quickly!"

'What?'

She was completely at a loss, but knew him well enough to not take his action as a prank. As it turned out, her eyes widened the next second at what was coming.

"Buzz!"

"Hum!"

Swarms of black fog gushed out of the dark shadows, each consisting of hundreds of black mosquitoes, all flapping their wings and sticking out their mouthparts, sending out a putrid smell that made their stomachs turn.

"That was a very accurate prophecy. Aren't you going to count them?"

"I can't believe you still have time to tease me right now!"

The two of them bickered as they scampered wildly at full speed. They were certain that whoever got caught up in that black fog would be sucked dry in a matter of minutes.

"Buzz!"

Seeing them running away, the flapping of the mosquitoes quickened. It might have been a long time since these insects set their eyes on fresh meat and blood. Those thickly dotted compound eyes were now filled with extreme hunger and thirst, as well as a desire to devour.

"Woosh!"

"Titter!"

The noise swooshed past their ears, half like a blowing wind, half like an eerie chuckle. They dared not turn around to look but ran as fast as they could while watching their footing at the same time, for the ground was covered with rotten leaves and vines which had turned into a mud-like substance. Their feet could sink into it if they were not careful enough.

"Over here! Over here!" Gu Yu did not panic in all this confusion, but was making out the direction in relative calmness.

However, as soon as he called out, Xiaozhai cautioned him suddenly, "Watch your front!"

He looked up involuntarily and cursed out at once. A small cloud of black mosquitoes just happened to block their way.

"Go away!"

Irritated, Gu Yu swiped his hand wildly, sending out a streak of spiritual essence which fluctuated and covered the entire space in front of them, leaving no gap. The black mosquitoes all went rigid as though their brains had been frozen, then dropped to the ground in a shower of crackling sounds.

He dared not take them lightly and used his chief ability straight away, which had exhausted his spiritual essence, causing him to stumble forward.

"Watch out!"

Xiaozhai steadied him at once and, with a swift movement of her hand, she became the one leading the way. The two of them leveraged against each other like this for the rest of their journey and when they had lost count of the time, they finally broke out of the thorny woods after multiple narrow escapes.

They dared not relax just yet but turned back to watch the path they had come out of, which had been covered by the thick woods. The mosquitoes had gathered together by now into a vast cloud of black fog suspending in midair, which was moving restlessly in place, not advancing but unwilling to let go of the fresh blood ten steps away.

"Phew…"

Gu Yu let out a breath of relief and said, "Luckily, their living habits have changed and they can't come out of there easily."

"Don't jinx it. What if you trigger a flag? They might just fly out!" [1]

Despite her teasing words, Xiaozhai examined Gu Yu carefully. Apart from streaks of bloody scratches on his arms, he appeared to be fine. She then asked, "How are you feeling now? Can you walk?"

"I'm fine. We can't rest here even if we need to."

With that, they resumed walking, neither mentioning the hand-holding incident just then. Such was how the free-spirited youngsters should behave—they always acted according to circumstances.

The entire journey seemed to have been split into three parts, the middle one being the perilous thorny woods, while the starting and ending parts gentler terrains. After another half an hour, they finally brushed aside the last curtain of branches and were welcomed by a dazzling light, as if the sun had come out in the end.

"What…"

Both were baffled, for they had expected atrocious-looking swamps swarming with poisonous insects yet were instead presented with pleasant sceneries with pretty valleys and shallows.

In front of them was an exquisite small valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Two streams crossed each other, forming a fish-shaped pattern and a small alluvial area was created between them, on which grew an exceptionally verdant tree.

"Let's check it out."

Xiaozhai was about to move near, but seeing Gu Yu remained frozen on the spot, she could not help asking, "What's wrong?"

"The density of the spiritual essence here…"

He took another deep breath and confirmed, "Yes, it's the densest I've ever encountered."

"Be more specific."

"If the density in Shengtian is a zero, Wudao River would have been a one and Phoenix Mountain a two…"

Gu Yu's face brightened up as he went on, somewhat feverishly, "...Then this place has a five, more than double that on the mountain!"

[1] ED/N: Flag was in English in the raws. Yep, it's a Japanese concept (or at least it often appears in stuff like anime and manga). For those unfamiliar with it, flag is something like a new possibility, and you saying or doing something may trigger it. There was even one anime about a guy who could see them, Kanojo no flag o oraretara (iirc) or something like that, though I barely remember anything about it. The most common examples would be a love flag (like, one person says or does something and another falls for them) and a death flag (like someone is going into a dangerous situation and says what they will do after they come back alive, and those words jinx it and they die).

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