“Why? This side is clearly easier to walk.” Xiao Xia asked in surprise.
Mao Fu and Zhao Jia Yuan didn’t respond right away. They merely exchanged a glance. Xiao Xia keenly sensed the two were exchanging some message through their glances very suspiciously.
“That’s right, why not take the wide open road instead of the winding path?” One of the provincial reporters followed up.
She was called Liu Hong, and was the only woman apart from Xiao Xia in the group. Therefore, she didn’t have as much stamina. Xiao Xia was wearing simple jeans, a white blouse and sneakers. Her hair was tied in a ponytail. The reporter wore a beautiful suit and high heels. Therefore, she was already panting from exhaustion, her exquisite makeup already ruined. She really wished someone would give her a piggyback ride.
“Besides, it might start raining soon. I also can’t walk any further!” She continued to say, looking up at the sky.
The sky had become even gloomier. There was the faint sound of muffled thunder rolling over. Everyone understood that they had been extremely lucky the rain hadn’t fallen yet. If it had been raining, they wouldn’t have even made half the progress they did! Yet it appeared they could no longer hope for the heavens to give them face. They had to quickly make a decision.
“You guys aren’t locals so you might not understand. Before people move in, we cannot pass through a new town.” Zhao Jia Yuan explained after Mao Fu signaled with his eyes.
“But why not? Are you saying it’s like a gift that can only be opened on the chosen date?” Before Xiao Xia could retort, Liu Hong already started making a fuss. Her exhaustion made her feel flustered and exasperated. She could no longer maintain the elegant grace of a virtuous woman she had kept up all day.
“That’s not it.” Zhao Jia Yuan hurriedly waved his hands, not daring to anger the mouthpiece of public opinion. “We have a tradition here to perform some rites before moving into a new place. It involves three days of chanting and ceremony. Since we’re relocating the whole town this time, we’ve already looked into everything and will start things off next month. The time isn’t right yet, so if we enter now it’ll ruin the fengshui and offend the townspeople. Although we are all realists here, we should still be considerate of the populace.”
“We’re just passing through, what’s the big deal?” Liu Hong refused to drop it. She turned and glanced at Xiao Xia, seeking allies. However, Xiao Xia felt that since it was tradition, it was best to respect it. Although she felt Mao Fu and Zhao Jia Yuan’s glances were a little evasive, she still didn’t respond.
“Fine, if you guys won’t go, I’ll go by myself. It’s just rural superstition, there aren’t any laws against it!” Seeing the only other woman Xiao Xia and her cameraman not helping her, Liu Hong threw an unreasonable tantrum. Ignoring everyone else, she walked away with large strides, ignoring the crowd calling after her.
“Let her go. We’re just rural, superstitious folk while she’s a modernized woman!” An official said impatiently.
Xiao Xia remembered he was called Wang Wen Ge. He was around forty with a pale and chubby appearance. He looked to be very easy going. Unexpectedly, he was the first to write the beautiful reporter off.
“We folks here believe that an uninhabited place will have some foul things hiding inside. The new town has been completed for almost a year and no one’s ever lived there before. It’s also so big. If Miss Liu isn’t afraid, then best of luck to her! Mayor Mao, let’s go this way!” He spoke very loudly.
The mountain wind successfully brought his words into Liu Hong’s ears, making her stop fast. She didn’t keep going but also didn’t walk back. She didn’t dare go somewhere that might be “foul” by herself, yet was also too embarrassed to turn back.
Xiao Xia saw the situation and hurriedly smoothed things over, calling Liu Hong back to walk with the rest. She knew it was easy to talk a big game, but there weren’t many who could follow up on their words. Over her many years of life, she had only met two people who could.
Xiao Xia called two or three times before Liu Hong returned discontentedly and continued walking with everyone along the mountain path. She grumbled while she walked about how awful her luck was, having to walk such a path while getting rained on, and how she was never coming back here, and so on. It wasn’t clear if it was due to her grumbling. The rain hadn’t started this whole time despite the gloomy skies and thick rainclouds. Yet not ten minutes after she complained, there was a huge roar of thunder and heavy rain started pouring mercilessly.
Now, the group was even more bedraggled. The few raincoats had been given to Xiao Xia and the provincial and regional reporters. The others, including Mao Fu, all lined up and continued walking in the rain.
The rain was heavier than expected, making it even hard to keep their eyes open. The surroundings seemed to be covered in watery curtains, making it hard to see people a little further away. The mountain path’s mud and weeds became incomparably slippery. Xiao Xia was still doing ok, but Liu Hong would slip and fall every few steps. In the end, she even started crying!
“Hold on a little longer. We’ll reach the village in a little bit.” Zhao Jia Yuan’s voice came from the front.
Xiao Xia had also never walked such a path before. She was plenty exhausted, but gritted her teeth and followed the person in front of her closely. Although the raincoat blocked the rain, her sweat still caused her clothes to become wet. Along with her face which was covered with rain, the raincoat didn’t make much of a difference.
She walked with her head covered, but unexpectedly collided with something soft in front. It was Wang Wen Ge’s back, and Liu Hong also ran into her back from behind.
“What’s going on?” Liu Hong asked in irritation.
Yet Xiao Xia couldn’t respond, because she and several others in front of her were completely stunned at the sight in front of them.
Within the rain before them was a silent city. It was strangely clear within the blurriness. It was a square city. Although there were no fortifications, it had a city gate like those cities in ancient times. It was made with beautiful, pale grey stones, giving off a simple yet historical feeling. There were rows of small houses with green roofs and red walls. There was even a tower that was taller than the rest of the buildings, standing in the center!
Didn’t they say they weren’t going to go through the town? Why did they loop back?!
“This is the south gate!” Wang Weng Ge murmured, as if in explanation to Xiao Xia and Liu Hong, but also to himself.
This uninhabited new town was west of the old one. Therefore, the gate facing the old town was the east gate and Liu Hong had intended on entering via the west gate earlier. Had they looped around to the south gate?
“Is something wrong?” The cameraman had fallen behind with one of the local reporters, and were now coming over. “Even though we didn’t go through the town, we’d still pass by the south gate when we walked around it, right?”
“The mountain path goes around a small valley. It shouldn’t be possible to see the new town from here.” Wang Wen Ge answered mechanically.
His words hadn’t been loud but they were especially clear in the heavy rain. Thinking of everything that had happened, the cars breaking down for no reason, the discussion about foulness in empty places, the sudden heavy rain, everyone’s hearts skipped a beat. There was a sense of foreboding.
“It was me! It’s my fault, haha, sorry everyone.” Zhao Jia Yuan’s voice rang out from the front. However, his tone was clearly lacking in confidence and his voice trembled slightly. His laughter was also extremely hollow. “It’s raining too heavily, I took a wrong turn. That how we ended up over by the new town. Let’s…keep going. We can definitely get back.”
We can definitely get back? What was that supposed to mean? Was there a chance they couldn’t go back? Had they fallen into some kind of trap?
Before Xiao Xia could figure things out, the group started walking mechanically again. After walking for some time, right as Xiao Xia was feeling exhausted, the people in front stopped again.
Xiao Xia had a bad feeling about it. As expected, the new town that they kept trying to avoid had appeared before them again. This time, the word “east” was written on the pale grey stone walls.
It was the east gate! If they headed in the opposite direction of this gate, they should be heading towards the old town. Yet behind them were towering cliffs. There was no path at all that could lead to the old town!
“My mistake, it’s my…” Zhao Jia Yuan cried out again, but it sounded like a reflex, and wasn’t convincing at all.
“Enough, let’s keep going.” The cameraman’s ringing voice came from behind Xiao Xia, making the slightly panicked group feel some sense of security, though it was merely on the surface.
His actions made Xiao Xia looked at him in a bit of a new light. Initially she saw this cameraman called Zuo De had been infatuated with Liu Hong, making her look down on him a little. Yet he was unexpectedly manly during this critical moment.
The group started walking again but Xiao Xia paid more attention this time. She noticed their surroundings weren’t changing much and started wondering if they were walking in place. She decided to leave some markings behind. She had nothing on her, and could only pull of the patterned string, planning to tie it around a branch. Unexpectedly, the trees here were very tall and she couldn’t reach. Luckily, Zuo De helped her out.
He was now close behind Xiao Xia probably because he wanted to accompany Liu Hong, who had started crying.
“No matter what happens, don’t come out! We can communicate secretly something comes up!” She spoke quietly to her bracelet.
If Ah Bai came out to save her in case of danger, everyone else would know about her existence. That might potentially be bad for Ah Bai, so it was better to be cautious!
It had started getting dark. There was no moon or starlight within the heavy rain. The group staggered forwards, relying on the flashlights being held by every other person.
Xiao Xia followed blearily behind. She heard a cry of alarm as six flashlights pointed in the same direction. The new town had once again appeared in the rain, but this time it was the north gate!
Xiao Xia immediately looked around. Zuo De’s flashlight followed her gaze understandingly. As expected, she saw a string blowing in the wind tied around a branch on a nearby tree. Surprisingly, it was the beautiful multicolored patterned string!
Sure enough, they had been going around in the same place. They had either gotten turned around in the rainy night, or they had encountered the ghost builds wall phenomenon that hadn’t appeared in a while! But what about that city? If they were in the same spot, why did they see different gates? Was it an illusion or was the city alive, able to spin on its own?!
Xiao Xia was lost in thought when Liu Hong shoved her from behind. It turns out the group had started walking again. This time, no one had said anything. They all just started walking automatically. Everyone was probably panicking, subconsciously trying to escape and therefore thoughtlessly started walking again.
Xiao Xia was in the middle of the group and was being moved along. Although she felt that something was wrong, her mind was frozen, unable to think. Then, she once again saw the string marker she had left, as well as the city’s west gate at the same time!
“Ah….” Liu Hong wailed and sat down on the ground. She hugged Zuo De’s leg as she started bawling for the third time that night. However, this time it was in terror.
“I’m scared! I’m scared!” Her delicate voice sounded mournful and hoarse. Her crying caused everyone’s fear and unease to surface. Although no one screamed or lost control of themselves, the group immediately became restless!
If they became divided, they would be in more danger as their vulnerabilities were exploited. The potential number of casualties would increase. Therefore, it was most vital to remain united and calm!
“Don’t cry! Everyone, group up!” Zuo De shouted again. The mild looking person was now speaking very sternly.
The others had been dazed and distracted. Hearing his shout, they immediately grew quieter.
“Let’s stay where we are. We can’t get out even if we keep running. It’ll only exhaust our stamina.” Zuo De said loudly. “Sit in a circle and shine the flashlights outwards. Even if something happens, don’t panic!”
“I agree!” Xiao Xia immediately called out in agreement to give Zuo De’s words more weight.
“Fine, I also agree.” After a moment of silence, Mao Fu who had been silent this whole time also responded. He then walked over next to Zuo De.
Once he moved, the others also came over in succession to sit on the floor. Those wearing raincoats all took them off and everyone raised them above their heads to provide some shelter from the rain. Then, they turned off three flashlights to conserve batteries and arranged the remaining ones to face outwards.
Although the sky was very dark, their watches indicated it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet. Despite having walked for over four hours, there was still a long night ahead. They had to save some of their sources of light!
Everything had been properly arranged. Xiao Xia looked at Zuo De who was still standing, hoping that he would help her take the patterned string down from the tree. Ruan Zhan had given it to her. Although it wasn’t worth anything, she still didn’t want to lose it.
Zuo De understood her meaning. He stretched his hand out towards the branch. He had just turned aside when Xiao Xia saw a black shadow behind him!
Its features couldn’t be seen clearly and it was murky all over. It stood there within the dark, rainy night, drifting and unobtrusive. It wasn’t clear how long it had stood there. It was hard to distinguish whether it was an actual entity or just a shadow. Xiao Xia also couldn’t tell whether she was the only one who could see it!
Right as she was startled speechless, the black shadow drifted towards them!
Xiao Xia pointed behind Zuo De, trying to warn him. However, she realized at that moment her speechlessness wasn’t due to herself, but more like something had covered her mouth. She wanted to jump up and help, but realized her body couldn’t move! She wasn’t able to do anything, and could only watch Zuo De anxiously.
Zuo De saw that Xiao Xia’s expression was a little off and involuntarily froze. He lowered his hand slowly, and then, as if sensing something, suddenly whirled around!