Chapter 28 – Pillar of Nature (8)
First Published on Wattpad, Reposted on Ainushi
Shen and the group are all puzzled as Zhao pulls them along with Brother Lang, who treats them to a lavish meal and has them stay at the only five-star hotel in that city.
The next morning, the sky is still gloomy, and three jeeps arrive at the entrance of the hotel. In the back of the jeeps are winter clothes, outdoor gears, high energy foods and first aid kits. They have everything a professional research team would need.
Zhao doesn’t look embarrassed or thankful at all, he gladly accepts the tremendous help, and tells Lin to give the chauffeurs each a cigarette. He chatters with Brother Lang some more.
Lang pats Zhao vigorously on the shoulder with his bear paw, “my good younger brother, off you go. I haven’t treated you well enough, please understand.”
Zhao stares, “you see, you’re getting formal with me again? Brother Lang, if you visit Dragon City in the future, I will welcome you with all I can offer; we can call Brother Xie too and the three of us will have a great time.”
They bid each other farewell, and Zhao turns around to Shen, “the mountains are not easy to drive through, and the kids have poor skills; I’m worried. How about this: Lin, Zhu and I will each drive a car, we’ll separate the students into groups, what do you think?”
Even a paid tour guide wouldn’t be so diligent and considerate, if Shen rejects him, that would seem very impolite.
But Shen isn’t as shameless as Zhao, he is rather embarrassed that Zhao went through all this trouble, “I didn’t plan ahead for the trip, and I really troubled you. Besides, I don’t even know Mr Lang, and this must have cost him a great deal; do you think we should send him something after this…”
Zhao generously waves his hand, “no, don’t worry about it, I’m going to pay for all of this, and you don’t have to thank me.”
They stop at a red light, and Zhao turns aside and smiles at Shen, two dimples deepening. Shen’s face reddens, and he peeks at the students behind; they’re all looking out the window excitedly. Shen relaxes a little.
Zhao’s heart quivers, and he decides to make another move. He extends his hand and adjusts Shen’s shirt collar a little, then carelessly touches Shen’s ear as well. Shen has yet to react, and he withdraws his hand.
“Your collar was flipped.” He fixes the rear-view mirror, and looks forward as if nothing happened.
This time Shen’s ears are bright red.
The lights turn green, Zhao steps on the gas, and concentrates on driving; his mouth suspiciously curves up.
Shen looks out the window, as if bashful, but he faces away so Zhao cannot see it. The redness gradually wears away, and his face turns pale.
Shen seems to be always frowning. His gentle face is marked with coldness; solitary and distant.
Driving up the mountains is exhausting: the roads are bumpy and it makes you dizzy, after six to seven hours, the students are all asleep. Shen doesn’t dare to close his eyes; he needs to keep an eye on the driver, lest he falls asleep… especially a driver who drank a lot last night.
As they move forward the roads are getting narrower and bumpier. Around a metre from the wheels is the edge of the cliff, and there is not even a fence.
Luckily, Brother Lang’s cars are great, and although Zhao looks like an unreliable guy, he drives steadily.
The temperature is dropping as they go up the mountains.
Thick layers of snow cover the roads. Fewer and fewer people can be seen along the way.
Zhao begins to slow down, and the other two cars follow suit.
“The roads ahead are getting tougher, I think we should put on snow chains.” Zhao opens the door, and says to Shen, “it’s cold outside, stay in the car.”
Shen ignores him, and jumps down to help. Not only is it cold, but the wind is howling; not even a thick down jacket could protect you from this chilling gale, not to mention Zhao’s pretentious cloak.
The students are awake, and come out to help as well. Zhao urges them to get back inside, “I don’t need your help, get back inside, you’ll catch a cold out here.”
The two men quickly chain up the tires, and their fingers freeze very quickly as well. Zhao looks afar, and sees the magnificent mountain ranges; the snowy mountains look as though they merge with the sky into one.
They get back inside, and Zhao calls the other two cars, “we’re entering a glacial area, stay quiet and don’t honk without reason; beware of avalanches.”
The distant glaciers are getting closer, and from the top of the mountain a piercing glimmer shines out of nowhere, and quickly disappears.
Zhao turns on the headlight, and Shen sits quietly next to him; he dares not interrupt Zhao. The car moves slowly, and the chained tires dangerously tread through layers of snowfall. The endless cliff is not far away, and in the sheer whiteness nothing much can be seen other than the occasional rocks.
The ridges wear a snowy cloak, and light up the sky like a beacon.
The sky darkens finally.
The two students sitting behind them include the red-clothed female class captain, and a spectacled boy. The spectacles quietly asks Shen, “Professor, will we make it out of the mountains tonight? Can we find a place to stay?”
Shen has yet to answer, and Zhao speaks first, “don’t worry, River Village is nearby, we’re almost there, but…”
He is interrupted by a shining light before he can continue; he frowns, and carefully stops the car.
The class captain asks nervously, “what’s wrong? Is it the car?”
Shen waves, “the car is fine; there is a light ahead, you guys stay here, I’ll take a look.”
Zhao asks, “you see it too?”
Shen looks at him, and their expressions turn sombre.
The girl senses the weird atmosphere, “is… is it a street light?”
“There are no street lights around here; you stay seated.” Zhao turns around, “there is chocolate and beef jerky, take some if you’re hungry.”
He opens the door and gets off, and Shen follows suit.
The wind has stopped, but the temperature continues dropping. The air is uncomfortably frigid and humid, and the area is unbelievably quiet: not even the sound of a breeze or of snowfall. They move forward with light footsteps.
The shining light flickers, like a white paper lantern. It seems to be moving closer.
Zhao’s eyes widen, and he quickly opens the door and shoves Shen inside the car. He turns around and gestures a “stay in the car and don’t come out” to the other two cars, and swiftly gets inside and locks the doors.
The light is getting even closer now, and a few figures emerge.
Zhao turns around and says to the two students, “no matter what you see, don’t say a word, and don’t stick your face against the window; don’t make any sound.”
The glass windows are covered with mist, only the windshield that is cleaned by the wipers gives a clear view. From a distance, there is a crowd, which is led by someone holding a lantern at the front, walking towards the cars. These people are of all ages and sexes, but they all look ragged and miserable, as though they are escaping from a disaster.
So many people… why would they be walking here?
The class captain trembles and asks softly, “who are those people?”
“They’re not people,” Zhao lowers his voice, “they are war spirits.”
The girl covers her mouth, and she can see the faces of the people: they are all emotionless, and strangely injured. The figure leading the way with a paper lantern, he… or she, doesn’t have a face. He wears a really tall hat, which covers his head all the way down to his chin. The figure is snow white, like it’s made of paper.
The legs and shoulders look as though they are not moving, and his entire body floats in the wind like a dying kite.
They pass by Zhao’s car, and the figure with the lantern bows twice towards the car; Zhao nods in response, and that “person” keeps floating. The group follows and moves along the mountain path.
When they are all gone, Zhao gets off the car, and takes out a torch from the back; he says to Shen, “something might have happened over there, I’ll go take a look, you keep an eye on the children.”
Shen inadvertently frowns.
Zhao holds his hand, and his warmth is frantically absorbed by Shen; Zhao feels tender and protective.
“Don’t frown,” Zhao says, “everything will be fine.”