Zhao tenses up. His brain feels as though it were glued together; his eyelids weigh down heavily.
“Wang Zheng?” Zhao pinches the bridge of his nose, and blinks although his eyelids are sticky. He struggles to sit upright, and says half-consciously, “I only slept for less than an hour… wasn’t she still here earlier?”
Zhu sombrely scrutinises him.
She had known Zhao for many years, even if he were tired he would only sleep lightly. They are now in the wilderness, and underneath them is a heap of skulls, and yet he still fell into deep slumber. That has never happened before. Being careless is different from being heartless. Zhu leans downwards and sniffs.
“Don’t move.” Zhu pulls off the blanket and runs her fingers attentively across the fine fibres. She wipes off some brown powder and smells it. She instantly understands, and says to Zhao, “you were drugged.”
The dizziness fades and is replaced by impaired hearing. Zhao feels like all sounds are being blocked out by a layer of something. When he finally realises what Zhu said, a million words are shrunk down to just two: “fuck me!”
Everything happened so fast, Zhao has yet to figure out which realisation pisses him off more: “Wang drugging him” or “the person who gave him the blanket wasn’t Shen”.
“Get me some mineral water.” Zhao says softly, “I like it cold.”
“It’s not like we have hot water.” Zhu grabs a frozen bottle, shakes it, and pieces of ice fall off.
Zhao drinks a little while frowning, and then pours the rest all over his head.
Zhu and Shen exclaim together. Shen wants to stop him but he is standing too far away: ever since Zhao saw Shen staring at him all night, he has been trying to keep a distance from Zhao.
“Lin Jing, stay behind and take care of Professor Shen and the students.” Zhao ignores them, and wipes the cold water off his face. He puts on a jacket and stomps outside, kicking a skull three metres away, “everyone else follow me!”
Lin hastens to ask, “what to do with the skulls?”
“Dig them up and smash all of them.”
Lin is startled, “that… would that anger some…”
“I wouldn’t touch them if they mean no harm.” Zhao stands at the doorway, turns around, and says coldly, “but if they do, I will dig up all their graves. Last night we came here politely, and look how they welcomed us. Now it’s daytime, so it’s time for payback. Smash all of them, I’ll be responsible for anything that happens.”
Zhao has the temper of a bandit, when he’s mad, nobody dares to provoke him, so Lin shuts up.
Zhu runs to catch up with him, and bravely says. “Wang… probably has her reasons.”
Zhao doesn’t turn around, “bullshit… say something that’s not bullshit, if you can’t then shut up.”
Zhu shuts it for two seconds, but can’t hold it any longer, “why can’t you talk decently? Do you use that tone to pick up girls too, you jerk?”
Zhao finally looks at her, and says something even more aggravating.
He raises his eyebrows, “when did I say I’m picking you up?”
Zhu really wants to slap him right across the face, but she doesn’t dare, so she holds her anger and bites her teeth. She says fiercely, “no wonder all your past relationships have ended terribly, you will stay single for the rest of your life!!”
Zhao quickly leads the group to where they parked the cars. He takes out a few bags of supplies, “the cars can’t go up there, we’ll probably have to walk. There are some food and water inside, just in case we get lost.”
“And these,” Zhao takes out a big pile of supplies and hand them to Zhu, “bring these back to the hut for everyone.”
Zhu is surprised and stares at him, “you’re sending me back?”
“Not that again… just because you look like human doesn’t mean it makes you warm-blooded.” Zhao impatiently slams the back of the car shut, locks it, and signals Chu and Guo to come. He waves to Zhu, “alright woman, before you’re frozen into hibernation, rush back to the hut. Oh right, take this, don’t drink it cold, heat it up a bit.”
He throws a small bottle into Zhu’s arms. It’s a small bottle of rice wine… it’s a warming drink, not found in the Northwest. Zhao must have prepared it beforehand; needless to say who he prepared it for.
Zhu suddenly feels a bit touched… though he has a strange way of showing that he cares.
To conserve energy, the three guys are not talking as they walk. Luckily it’s sunny, despite the potent gale, the sun’s warmth lessens the rigours of the wind.
Guo feels like they must have crossed three to four mountains, and they are way past the original destination “River Village”. In the afternoon, they finally arrive at a small col away from the winds.
Chu opens a few packs of beef jerky, and shares among the three frozen men. Zhao takes out a detailed map, sits on a rock, and studies it carefully.
“Do you know where we are going?” Chu asks.
Zhao puts a marking on the map, and says without looking up, “the place where Wang’s people used to live is not the same as River Village, I checked her files.”
Chu is surprised, he thought that Zhao had been so occupied with pleasing his many “brothers” and obsessing over his crush that he must not have had any
time for important stuff. He can’t help but want to know more, “what’s in her files?”
“Wang herself is Hanga, her name used to be Gelan; when she joined the Guardian Order she changed her name.” Zhao says, “the Hanga people were neither friendly nor welcoming, they wouldn’t have had stayed in the River Village where it’s close to the main road.”
“There is record about them in history?” Chu is startled again.
“Not history,” Zhao marks three spots on the map, “it’s the Ancient Scroll of Dark Magic.”
He straightens out the old map, and stops at a spot with a pen. From Chu’s reaction that’s probably where the watch house is.
Zhao continues. “when I entered the courtyard I thought the skulls must be related to the legendary Luobula restriction magic. In Hanga language, ‘Luobula’ means ghost. And it’s ‘restriction’ not in the sense of ‘forbiddance’, but in the sense of ‘imprisonment’… Guo Changecheng, why are you standing over there, get over here! You’ve passed your trial period so you’re an official member now, try to have a more enthusiastic work attitude will you?”
Guo hurriedly stumbles forward.
“So this magic is used to imprison ghosts.” Chu concludes.
“Yea, the Hanga people had the traditions of beheading and exorcism.” Zhao says, “it’s probably related to their social structure. Their tribe had a system of slavery, and their people believed that their slaves were to serve them even after death. They would behead the slaves and bury their skulls, then they used magic to seal away their spirits to enslave them forever.
Chu asks, “why bury the skulls at the mountaintop, is there a special meaning?”
“Yes, the Hanga people had been influenced by several other civilisations. Some of their beliefs originated from our religion. But of course, their core conceptions were different. Unlike Buddhism, they clearly did not believe that all things contain spirits. However, they did believe in mountain spirits, and that they are powerful enough to suppress the souls of people. They chose to
build a ritual site at the Spirit Portal of a mountain… which is a place at the mountaintop where the sun never shines. The Luobula restriction magic was influenced by the belief of reincarnation in Buddhism, it was thought that a triangle is a complete shape, which can form into a circle and become eternal shackles of souls.”
Chu is very intelligent, he instantly makes the inference, “which means that there must be three identical ritual sites on similar altitudes, forming a symmetrical triangle!”
It’s more efficient talking to someone with brains. Zhao nods; the triangle he draws on the map is almost equilateral. He then draws a small circle inside the triangle, “imprison the spirits here, and they shall be enslaved for eternity… this must be where the Hanga tribe used to live.”
“Let me see.” Chu’s sense of space and direction is superb. He studies the map and says, “look, isn’t this the valley that was on fire last night?”
“Must be,” Zhao puts away the map, and quickly stuffs his mouth full with beef, “eat quickly, then we’ll keep going.”
Chu chews the jerky stately, pauses for a while, and glances at the stupid and puzzled baby Guo. He then says, “Chief Zhao must have studied this dark magic before and not just for this trip?”
Zhao says calmly, “if you can’t tell ecstasy from heroine, how do you join the narcotics bureau?”
Chu pauses for a thought, and smiles; but his face is used to frowning too much, the smile looks out of place, “if that’s the case why doesn’t our team have training sessions?”
Zhao stops chewing and stares at Chu.
Guo looks here and there and cannot figure out what’s happening. They both scare him, he dares not say anything and just retracts his neck.
After an unknown amount of time, Zhao says, “Old Chu, you’re smart, I rarely see someone as smart as you. I won’t waste time explaining, I’m sure you know why.”
Chu stares at the pack of beef jerky, lost in thought. He doesn’t say anything, and nobody knows what he is thinking. He is still wearing his usual face, as if nothing happened.
Fifteen minutes later, they set off again; this time Chu is leading the way.
The sun was ablaze in the morning, but now snow begins falling. The three head West, and spends almost an hour spiralling down the mid-levels. Guo suddenly sees something in the snow that’s… rather familiar.
He scurries forward and starts digging with his thick gloves on. A plastic arm startles him.
Zhao hears Guo scream and shout, “Chief Zhao! Chief Zhao! That’s Wang Zheng’s arm, it’s her arm!”
He really is a mascot, bring him along and you will have some strange luck. Zhao thinks while treading forward. He snatches the arm and smacks Guo on the head, “her arm has turned to soil, this is the fake and cheap one you bought. The arm dropped here, where could she be?”
The light snowfall could not have covered her footsteps so quickly. Zhao realises: maybe the arm fell from above.
Chu looks around and then at the map; he points upwards and pats Zhao on the shoulder, “look there.”
There is a cliff around three metres above them, and on it is a giant stone cave covered in weed and snow. The layer of snow at the entrance seems to have been trodden, which drew Chu’s attention.