The wind begins howling again, and the snow on the ground is whipped up and flutters in the storm; the gale attacks ones face like sharp knives.
Zhao’s figure disappears in the whirling wind; his torch shines feebly like a firefly.
Twenty minutes later, he doesn’t return; Shen can’t stay still any longer.
“Don’t move, and don’t get off,” he says to the students, “hand me the torch; I’ll go look for him, it won’t take long.”
“Professor,” the girl is worried, “did something happen?”
Shen pauses; under the dim light, everything about him seems to be tightly concealed behind his glasses. He says in his regularly gentle voice, “no, I’m here, how could I let anything happen to him?”
He opens the door and scurries off.
The class captain explains to the spectacled boy, “that’s not what I meant, I was asking whether something happened ahead, and whether our cars can keep moving.”
Little spectacles says, “…I know.”
The two students stare at each other; in this horrifying moment, they seem to have realised something… well, something they really shouldn’t know.
Coarse bird cries echo. Shen wipes his snow-laden lenses; he looks ahead and sees a bird amidst the endless snow.
It seems to be a crow, but it’s much larger than regular ones. A long and thin tail extends from its backside, and its red eyes glare at him curiously; it doesn’t seem frightened at all.
Shen moves forward with difficulty, and the crow screeches with its beak pointing to the sky. It then closes its eyes and bows down, beak almost touching the ground, as if mourning for something.
The violent gusts swirl up a veil of snow; Shen quickly feels like he is about to freeze solid… it’s like blood will stop flowing and solidify.
But Shen miraculously uses his freezing nose to pick out a smell: it stinks, but not too much; it seems something is decaying beneath the snow.
He stops abruptly, and stares at the white layer of snowfall; a small mount emerges from the snow and scurries towards the mountaintop.
Something passed by under the snow!
Shen’s mind goes blank, for an instant, he forgets about who he is. His hand twitches on its own and the veins pump up; Shen’s black eyes exude inexplicable ferocity.
The snowy ground boils like hot water underneath him, and something seems to be wriggling vigorously under the snow and about to emerge…
At this instant, a voice comes from behind him.
“Didn’t I tell you to wait in the car, why did you come out?”
Shen is startled; the blood-thirst in his eyes wears away and is replaced by perplexity. He doesn’t turn around, and his entire body is wrapped in soothing warmth. Zhao doesn’t seem afraid of the cold, he wraps his coat around Shen; Zhao’s body warmth transfers on to Shen.
Zhao’s freezing face wears a rigid and warm smile, “you came for me?”
“Don’t answer him, don’t answer him!” A voice frantically screams in Shen’s mind, but he seems to be intoxicated by something, and inadvertently nods.
Zhao smirks, and wraps his arm around Shen’s shoulders, almost giving him a firm embrace. They’re about the same height, and they clumsily tread through the snow. Zhao puts away the small torch, and holds Shen’s hand.
Shen wriggles, but Zhao grabs hold of him even tighter.
“Don’t move,” Zhao whispers in his ear, “watch your step, it’s slippery.”
The bird suddenly ascends, swivels around twice, and soars up into the sky.
Zhao looks and says, “don’t look, that’s an obituary bird. The elderly will tell you: crows that are particularly big and have long tails are obituary birds. They only appear when there is a big disaster, and they are a sign of bad luck.”
He doesn’t wait for Shen’s reply; he frowns, and his eyes sparkle. But he pretends to be bewildered, and tests him with suspicion, “that’s strange, how’s your horoscope readings? Why do you always bump into these kinds of things?”
“What happened?” Shen doesn’t want to dwell on this, and diverts his attention.
“Oh, I took a look,” Zhao swallows his suspicion, and continues, “we probably have to find a place to stay the night; the road ahead is blocked, probably by an avalanche.”
He says while trying to pull the car door; his hand is already frozen and numb, and he struggles to pull the handle.
Shen opens the door, “go inside first, get yourself warm.”
The heating in the car is making Zhao dizzy; he frowns as he rubs his forehead, and takes a piece of chocolate that the girl hands him, “this road is around seven years old, and it even appeared in a travel magazine once, so tourists come here quite often; but the road ahead is blocked, and I suspect it’s an avalanche…”
The spectacles asks carefully, “the ghosts just now, did they die in the avalanche?”
Zhao shakes his head, and takes out his phone to call someone. He asks about disasters in the area, and his frowning deepens as the person on the phone keeps talking to him.
“Alright, thanks. It’s fine, we can hang on for a night… yes, I know what to do.” Zhao hangs up. “We’re in trouble.”
“It’s really an avalanche?”
“Yea,” Zhao says, “it’s on the news tonight. A widespread disaster, seems like a few villages down there have been buried; the rescue teams are trying, but the chances of survival are slim.”
The students are silenced.
After a while, the class captain asks, “then… where do we stay tonight? In the car? Do we have enough gas?”
“The gas is enough, but an avalanche just struck, so it’s not safe here. We should go up. Don’t be afraid, I will take you there; I saw a small hut at the mountaintop with binoculars. It’s probably uninhabited, but at least it has a roof.” Zhao has warmed up, and he goes out and takes some food and clothes from the back of the truck and hands it to the others, “get dressed, and eat something. I will call the others behind us; pack your sleeping bags and tents. The class captain can just carry the food, I will take your sleeping bag for you.”
The others get a call from Zhao, and quickly gather together. Shen is very observant, and he realises that in the group… there seems to be an extra person.
That person follows behind and doesn’t make a sound; from the physique it’s probably a girl. She is wrapped in very thick clothes and her face is obscured.
This person is very strange; perhaps she is numb from the freezing cold, but her movements are so uncoordinated.
Zhu sometimes talks to her, and she would nod or shake her head. Shen notices that when she moves her head, her legs stop moving; it’s as if she can only move one part of her body at a time.
As he is thinking, an arm wraps around his shoulders and the back of a hand sticks against his face.
Shen’s skin is numb from the weather; he slowly feels something, and freezes in place. He can’t dodge it, but he can’t accept it either. Zhao only touches him shortly, and quickly moves his hand away, “why are you so afraid of the cold?”
“No, I’m not cold.”
“Yes you are, your lips are turning blue.” Zhao interrupts him, and takes off his jacket and wraps it around Shen.
Shen is startled, and grabs his hand, “what are you doing? You’ll catch a cold!”
“I have thermal underwear.” Zhao rolls back his sleeves a little, “I came prepared; now put it on!”
Zhao lowers his voice and says tenderly, “come on, don’t make me worry about you.”
Shen really cannot stand his tone and his gaze; he almost wants to run away.
Zhao wraps the jacket around him even tighter, and walks back, “watch your steps; Little Guo, help Zhu Hong carry her suitcase. Can you actually do something useful?”
Chief Zhao’s fury lingers, and Guo scurries to the back and takes Zhu’s suitcase.
Shen stares at Zhao from behind, and his hand nostalgically cherishes Zhao’s lingering body warmth. He zips up the jacket, and touches the pendant… the sphere is exerting a little warmth too; all the more apparent in the frigid snow.
Very weak, but very comforting.
They walk for about half an hour and the hut that Zhao mentioned finally enters their line of sight. Another half an hour, and they arrive.
The hut is built with stones, with wooden pillars and a leather roof to block out the snow.
A ruined fence surrounds the hut, almost being buried in the snow.
It’s lonely and battered, standing at the mountaintop amidst a great space of nothingness; frighteningly tranquil.
As Zhao pushes the wooden door of the fence, Da Qing suddenly pounces forward from Zhu’s phone, and screeches; its fur stand up.
Zhao picks up the big cat and asks softly, “what’s wrong?”
Da Qing glares at the snow-laden courtyard, and a voice comes from behind.
Wang sighs and says feebly, “Chief Zhao, Da Qing wants to tell you something is buried in the courtyard.”