The moon rose to the top of the trees. The night air felt cool as water on the skin.
The birds had long since retired to their nests, leaving behind a quiet mountain where everything seemed to have fallen asleep. The only sounds remaining were the night breeze and flowing brooks. The water clattered down the mountain rocks, reminding one of broken crystals.
Behind a low mound, two campfires had been started. Above one of them were two lunchboxes, bubbling inside which were some wild vegetables and beans. Some branches were set up upon the other one, holding a skewered fat hare over the fire.
The hare was almost ready to eat. Grease dripped down from it occasionally, issuing sizzling sounds as it fell into flames. Gu Yu picked up some salt and chilli powder between his fingers, sprinkling it evenly onto the hare. When the meat turned golden, he tore down a piece and tasted it.
"The hare's ready."
"I'm almost done here, too."
Xiaozhai passed him a lunchbox. They both tried the food of the other's and nodded in unison.
They had brought some compressed biscuits, but the taste of those was just terrible. They tossed them aside after the first meal. Xiaozhai was familiar with various plants and was in charge of gathering, while Gu Yu hunted. He could not bring himself to kill the rarer animals, so they fed themselves on hares and pheasants.
With enough drinking water and condiments, these two could stay in the mountains for a lifetime.
Tearing down a hind leg, Gu Yu casually brought up the homicide case Zhao Jiu mentioned earlier. "What do you think? Man-made?"
"Hard to say. There are simply too many secret Taoist skills. Lower Mao Mountain had skills such as breeding undead insects, raising children's spirits, and refining corpses, all of which were capable of killing people in that way. It doesn't matter, though. We're going to Shu Zhou anyway. We can poke around while we're at it."
Xiaozhai picked up her lunchbox, wanting to take a sip of the wild vegetable soup, but put it down before reaching her mouth. "I've finished mine."
"Want some more?" He chuckled.
Gu Yu took up his lunchbox and poured half of it into hers. She preferred mild food and ate more vegetables, while he had no such preference and would eat just about everything.
Before long, they finished their dinner.
Gu Yu went to clean the utensils by the stream while Xiaozhai moved the firewood away and laid an even layer of twigs on the ground where the campfires had been, then covered them with a thin blanket. The ground had been heated by the fire and the blanket was soon as warm as a toast. It was like sleeping on a brick bed of northeast China.
She lay down with her clothes on, leaving some room for Gu Yu.
However, when he got back, he did not come up to the blanket, but sat a few meters away and started cultivating.
Gu Yu sat upright and concentrated, releasing his mental power, having this little camp entirely under his control. The flame licked at the dry wood, which cracked with crisp sounds. Xiaozhai's eyes were closed and she seemed to be sleeping soundly.
Soon, it was midnight.
He spat and swallowed, consuming the essence of midnight mist. The green snake stayed close to him, hissing with its two-pronged tongue, apparently stealing a ride.
The midnight mist transformed into streaks of white thread, wrapped inside which was the energy of Utmost Yin from the moon. Together, they were absorbed into Gu Yu's body, circulating inside him and nourishing his orifices. In the end, Yin and Yang merged at Dantian.
All of a sudden, Gu Yu stopped his spitting and swallowing, for he seemed to detect a faint sound, as if some padded feet were pacing somewhere.
He opened his eyes and patted Xiao Qing, reminding it to watch over its master, then went to check out the noise on his own. He heard it right. A pair of luminous green eyes peculiar to felines was glimmering a short distance away.
The eyes belonged to a big cat, a beast of prey somewhere up the food chain in Tianzhu Mountain. It was a clouded leopard.
Staring at the human, it considered pouncing on him, but its animal instinct was telling it that this man was not a creature to be trifled with. While it was hesitating, Gu Yu picked up a twig and dragged it across the ground.
The twig made a ridge in the soil with a high-pitched metallic sound. There was something fierce about it.
"Go play somewhere else. Don't come any nearer," he waved at the leopard.
The clouded leopard looked at him, then moved its eyes to the line on the ground. It meowed, turned around, and ran away. Yes, you heard it right, that was exactly what leopards sounded like.
Getting rid of the big cat, Gu Yu returned to the campfire and sat down by it.
Xiaozhai mumbled, half asleep, "What is it?"
"Nothing… go to sleep."
She turned over lazily.
Before realizing it, they had spent four lousy days on the mountain.
As the unexplored area on their map got smaller, they were becoming more agitated by the day. For four whole days, they had been searching and burrowing at every step, seeing nothing but the endless chain of mountains. It was a test on their patience.
This day, when their lengthy search was fruitless again and it was already past noontime, they decided to take a break and prepare lunch.
They camped near a small river, where the clearing was wide with an open view. Gu Yu caught a pheasant and Xiaozhai had picked some wild fruit. She was washing them by the river at the moment.
After washing them clean, Xiaozhai bit into one and fed another to Gu Yu. She sighed suddenly. "We should have downloaded an app awarding the users on how many steps they walk before coming here."
"Exactly. A few more days in this place and we'd earn enough for a down payment," Gu Yu joined her, sighing.
"The good news is, there are fewer and fewer places left for us to search."
"Yeah, which means we're getting closer and closer to our destination."
The two exchanged a look. There wasn't much they could say but these comforting lines.
Gu Yu crouched down by the river, cut the pheasant open, and splashed water on it to clean away the entrails that had stuck together. As they were carried away by the flowing water, the air was tinted with a faint smell of blood.
Xiaozhai turned her head from one side to another in boredom. Suddenly, her pupils contracted as she warned Gu Yu, "Watch out!"
The words had barely left her mouth when a strange-looking fish leaped out of the water, biting at Gu Yu's fingers with a wide mouth lined with sharp teeth. Frowning slightly, Gu Yu pressed down his left hand and gripped its fin with a snap.
Lifting his arm, the fish was twitching on the riverbank after a quick swing.
"It's a…" Gu Yu held it up and after a long observation, he said with an amazed tone, "It's a snakehead, isn't it? How come its head is so big?"
It should be. The body features fit the description of a snakehead, but its head was enormous. Paired with the sharp and protruding teeth, it looked like something out of a nightmare.
"These teeth look like they belong to the piranhas. Is there a mutation or something… wait a minute?"
He paused, then turned his eyes to Xiaozhai. They saw what the other was thinking right away with brightened faces.
They had ran into a nest of abnormal poisonous mosquitoes on their way to the old tree. This large-headed snakehead could well be their clue this time.
Therefore, they finished their lunch in a rush and started searching upstream.
About thirty minutes later, they finally found a natural cave at the foot of a steep cliff. The water was flowing out from it.
"The spiritual essence is insanely dense here. This must be it!"
Gu Yu sensed it and was reassured.
After some preparation, they entered the cave. The wide opening seemed to indicate a shallow cave. Despite the dim light inside, it was not too dark. Rubble piled on the riverbank, forming a barely walkable ground.
They were extremely cautious and watched their breathing closely. Any sign of discomfort, and they would back out at once.
Water was dripping down from above. Various peculiar fish threw themselves out of the water, all appearing ferocious and frightening with their mouths wide open in a threatening manner, before falling back with a plop.
The cave was indeed not deep at all. Dozens of meters away stood the end. The two of them steadied themselves against the stone wall, amazed by the surroundings.
They had reach a cul-de-sac, where the cave had become more spacious. The most unusual scene was a small lake, at the center of which was an area of gurgling water, as if an underground spring was about to surge up.
Seeing this, they both sighed with relief.
"How is it?" Xiaozhai asked.
Gu Yu took a deep breath, then emptied his lungs in excitement and anticipation. He did not answer. Instead, he gestured a "six" with his hand.