“Have you known it all along?” asked Gongjia Heng. How would Shao Xuan be able to tell so quickly? He didn’t believe that Shao Xuan was ‘guessing’.
“Yeah, I knew,” said Shao Xuan.
Gongjia Heng relaxed. Did someone tell him? As Heng was thinking, Shao Xuan said, “This was a conclusion I made this morning, I just had to confirm just now.”
“...You meant you figured it out this morning?”
“Just by looking at them, I can tell which is the illusion.” Shao Xuan did not tell him about his extraordinary vision. In his other sense of vision, there was no sun present. That was how he could tell. He was just very surprised there was such a phenomenon here.
Gongjia Heng couldn’t believe Shao Xuan had this ability other than divination!
Heng knew the right answer from secret tools and experience. Yet this was Shao Xuan’s first time here. However, it was a good thing to Heng too. As for how Shao Xuan did it, he did not probe further. Everyone had their own secrets, just like how he had a lot of secrets he would never tell Shao Xuan too. There were a lot of things he would never tell a non-Xia person.
After eating the prey Shao Xuan brought back, Heng rested for half a day before telling Shao Xuan they could leave.
It was already noon by then. One of the suns had disappeared. The illusion was gone.
“Here, the two suns only appear in the morning. At noon, it will return to normal. That is why, if sometimes you encounter a problem you cannot solve, you can just wait. Sometimes, the problem solves itself,” said Gongjia Heng, sounding like an elder giving life advice to him.
Shao Xuan listened. Although Heng was naggy sometimes, he was still a good person. Shao Xuan listened to whatever he had to say. This was an experienced Xia craftsman, it was normal for him to have his quirks.
As they ventured deeper, he understood why Heng was not impressed by two suns. There were many more illusions waiting for them, not just the suns-- sometimes they were mountains, or a simple forest. Taking the wrong path so deep in the forest would result in getting yourself deeper into the problem. While there were not many fierce predators, there were rarely any regular animals too. If you hadn’t prepared dried meat, you’d starve.
However, they were just illusions. They weren’t a serious problem because all Shao Xuan had to do was to use his extraordinary vision. The real problems lay in physical things. There were so many factors that could affect a person’s decision-making skills here.
Just like how Shao Xuan and Gongjia Heng walked for two days in the forest only to realise they had arrived where they started. Neither of them were idiots and were good in pinpointing directions. Yet they still managed to arrive in the same spot two days later. This spelt trouble.
Gongjia Heng’s experience was only useful in the beginning. He could not give definite answers as they ventured deeper. If he could solve these problems easily, he would not have needed twenty years. He knew that the mountain should be somewhere here, yet he still couldn’t see it.
“This is where I got stuck. I haven’t been able to get out of this place,” said Gongjia Heng with frustration, wiping the sweat off his forehead.
The forest looked so normal with no dangerous beasts-- almost tranquil. Yet Gongjia Heng was facing problems here.
“It took me fifteen years to reach here. But that’s it. I have been stuck in this part of the forest for five years.” Gongjia Heng heaved a long sigh, calming his mind. He wasn’t as frustrated and afraid as the first time he was trapped here so his tone was calm.
Shao Xuan stood at the same place he was at two days ago. His eyes swept across the forest as he fished out a piece of straw rope. “I’ll try again.”
Two days ago, when Heng brought Shao Xuan here, he got Shao Xuan to do a reading for them to determine which direction to head next. However, Shao Xuan did three readings and none of them worked. Before the knots were complete, the rope broke.
“It doesn’t matter if it fails.” Gongjia Heng looked at Shao Xuan’s face of determination, knowing that Shao Xuan must be filled with defiance now. But if it were so easy, how would he be stuck here for five years? He had a strong feeling that he’d arrive soon after he left this patch of forest. However, just like a heavy door, this place stood between him and his goal.
However, although that was what he said, he was unwilling too. The more he thought about it, the more frustrated he got. Whatever calmness he had was gone now.
He turned, wondering when Shao Xuan would stop. However, after a few moments, the first knot on the rope was complete. After a while, another knot formed. Then the third…
Gongjia Heng stood as still as a statue, paralysed. His eyes looked like they were about to fall out, glued to the rope in Shao Xuan’s hands. The muscles on his face shook.
The third knot was done. Then the fourth one. The fifth…
One by one, the knots formed on the rope in his hands. The knots were then combined to form a complicated knot.
Just a little more! Just a little more! Do not break, please do not break!
Gongjia Heng was screaming in his heart but he shut his mouth tight to not make a sound, deeply afraid he might startle Shao Xuan.
It had been twenty years, five of it trapped here. Right now, hope grew little by little with every knot on the rope. Gongjia Heng was waiting with bated breath.
He prayed hard. O Mighty Straw Rope, please do not break, please don’t! In the future, I’ll pay more attention when I make rope, I’ll put all my effort into making every knot!
Gongjia Heng regretted not suggesting Shao Xuan use a tougher material to make straw rope. What if the rope breaks at a critical moment?
He wasn’t moving but he was sweating everywhere. Large beads of sweat dripped down his face but he did not wipe them away. He stared at the rope.
That was the sound the rope made when Shao Xuan tightened the last knot at the end of the reading. This meant the reading was completed.
Shao Xuan exhaled deeply. He had spent a lot of energy conducting his reading, as if he had been hunting for many consecutive days without sleep. He was exhausted and his brain wasn’t functioning now. After a few moments, when he snapped back to reality, he realised Gongjia Heng was still in the exact same position. Heng’s face was very red and he was sweating, twitching occasionally.
“Master Gongjia, what happened to you?” he asked in surprise.
His red face contorted. Then, in a peculiar tone, as if he was suppressing a lot of emotion, he asked, “Did you get anything?
“Yeah, I did.” He had to walk through the forest to be able to conduct a successful session. Listening to Gongjia Heng describe the place was no use.
Shao Xuan just finished his sentence when Gongjia Heng leapt in excitement. He had jumped so high his head knocked on a tree branch. The tree branch broke but he did not care. Taking deep breaths, he waved his fists and sounded like he was about to cry.
Shao Xuan thought the guy seemed to have gone… a little mad.
When he finally went back to normal, he ran to Shao Xuan with such emotion in his eyes. “Where do we go?”
Shao Xuan switched his vision and focused, ignoring everything else. It was as if he locked himself in this world. Then, he lifted his feet and walked in the direction hinted by the ropes.
Gongjia Heng did not speak when he saw Shao Xuan like this. No matter how curious he was, he had to wait so that they would arrive as soon as possible. It was not the time to disturb Shao Xuan.
Both men walked in silence with light footsteps. Within the forest, there was only the rustle of tree leaves.
After half a day, they finally left the forest. Here, there were no tall trees blocking their vision. They could see a mountain far away.
Before sunset, they arrived in a valley. They had to stay the night here.
There was no cave nearby so they found a spot to rest.
This was not Gongjia Mountain but Gongjia Heng had a strong feeling.
“We’re near. I can feel the mountain calling to me.” Gongjia Heng looked in a direction, his face solemn.
The closer they got, the more cautious they would have to be. They couldn’t die a few steps from their goal. A simple valley might be more dangerous than the forest they just left.
Shao Xuan rested, leaning against the slope of a mountain. He had used up a lot of energy today, he didn’t rest after the divination reading. When he walked out of the forest, he felt like every neuron in his brain was highly tense, it was only now that he began to relax. In his mind, the totemic flames had threads of energy extending from them. The threads flowed with his blood, around his bones, then circulated around his body. He felt his energy increase with every cycle, quickly recovering to his original state.
Shao Xuan’s ashen complexion slowly gained colour. It was night time so it was not obvious and Gongjia Heng didn’t see it. If he saw this, Heng would have been once again astonished by Shao Xuan’s rejuvenation abilities.
Shao Xuan thought silence would never happen in the forest. However, it was silent here.
It was a quiet night. Other than the occasional sound of rolling pebbles when there was a breeze, there was no other sound. When the wind stopped, he heard nothing. As if the strong, roaring wind earlier that day was just his imagination.
The next day, when Shao Xuan woke, all signs of fatigue were gone. The sun had just risen and it was not bright.
The valley was shaped like a ‘u’. The two faces of the mountain around it were about one to two hundred meters tall. If you were standing on one of them, you would realise that the mountains became increasingly taller further ahead. That was why Shao Xuan had no idea what it would be like behind these mountains, nor could he see where this valley would lead them.