This piece of salt flat looked like it was covered in snow, most of it was white.
There were puddles and holes on the ground, those formed after fallen snow melted.
On the white ground, salt crystals were pushed out of the ground like corals. Every crystal had a different shade of colour, either blue or red. At a glance, this looked like an ethereal dream. However, those who knew of this place could not wait to leave.
Although salt was everywhere, this salt was poisonous. Humans and animals who consumed it would die. For a long time, it was a known danger zone. Many people said anyone who entered would die, the Chilu people even said this was where the salt beast died. Anyone who entered would be trespassing its resting place and would be punished. It was a mystical area.
It was when someone passed through this place and discovered the salt mines when the area became busy.
Crackle crackle crackle---
Light crackles came from the shallow puddles on the ground.
Shao Xuan saw a pillar of orange crystal protruding out of the water surface. It had the delicate look of common crystal, very clear. The crystal pillar looked like a shoot sprouting out of soil, growing and branching upwards. Its surface had become more translucent than transparent now, plus had a layer of frost on it. It had stopped growing upon reaching half a human’s height, similar to the other salt flowers in this place. The only difference was the colour.
This was one of the ‘blooming’ salt flowers. In other puddles, there were more salt flowers. There were green, red and some black.
Although it was beautiful, relating this place to the stories only sent chills down their spines.
“Let’s go, you’ll be fine as long as you don’t eat them,” said zheng Luo.
They heard crushing crackles under their feet as they stepped on the layer of salt. It was a lot louder than walking on snow. They left behind crushed salt crystals in pieces, chunks were broken into crumbs, crumbs were ground into powder.
The team went towards higher ground when they could to avoid the troughs in the ground. Their boots were often wet and formed a salt later when dry. It was also poisonous salt.
“Footprints!” Duo Kang pointed in a direction.
Footprints were well preserved in this area. Even in hot weather, salt did not melt like snow.
“About two hundred people, not more than three hundred. Footprints were formed not more than four days ago.” Wacha was very familiar with the salt flats and could make estimations based on prints in the salt.
“Must be a new batch of recruits by the Fox tribe. This doesn’t look like something both the tribes would leave behind,” said Susha after looking at the prints.
The Fox tribe people marched in neat formations while the Shen Forest tribe had troops messier than this. Therefore, these prints were left behind by neither tribe.
“We will not stop tonight, we’ll proceed with the journey!” yelled Zheng Luo.
In the past, they would want to face their enemies at peak health conditions so they would definitely rest even if they travelled. However, after listening to Shao Xuan, Zheng Luo changed his mind.
Without hot soup, without warming porridge, everyone only ate dried meat that had hardened in the cold. They could smell salt everywhere they went. Other than the roaring wind, they only heard the crackle of salt under their feet.
At least the winds were not strong tonight, nor was it snowing. It was a lot quieter than the past few nights.
This calm seemed to encourage everyone to relax but Zheng Luo kept hurrying them on so everyone was alert at all times. They did not complain. All they knew was to listen to the chief. The chief would not harm them.
At the same time, within the salt mines.
Several Fox and Shen Forest tribe people were in a discussion within the salt cave, clad in thick fur.
This was the Fox tribe’s cave.
The salt within this mine was in layers- one layer of rock, one layer of salt, one layer of rock, then one layer of salt. However, they usually dug to the next layer before one layer was done. A while ago, they finally found something. They hadn’t expected it either.
After thinking for a long time, they chose to ally with the Shen Forest tribe. The Mountain Wind people had odd temperament, the Fox tribe never really liked them; while Flaming Horn and Taihe were too close. If one knew, the other would eventually know too. That was why, after eliminating the three, Shen tribe was left. Although the Shen people were sometimes arrogant, in relations to the fire crystal, they were smart enough to retract their arrogance for the moment.
At this moment, six of the highest-ranked people for each tribe were seated together. There were several pieces of fire crystals as big as one’s eye at the centre.
“This is what they dug out today. There is a lot more at the bottom but the deeper it is, the more difficult mining is. We might not be able to mine all of it without enough time. We’re afraid Flaming Horn and Taihe will arrive before we’re done,” said a man with a rough face, clad in brown fur and his hair billowing around him. He was from the Shen tribe.
“According to our sources, Mountain Wind might have allied with Flaming Horn and Taihe and they are likely to come take the mines. Although we have recruited more people with salt, we still have to up our defences. The Flaming Horn people are not easy to fight off,” said the Fox chief.
“The weather’s like that, yet they’re still coming?” asked the Shen tribesman incredulously.
“If they really come in this blizzard, then they must know the secret of the fire crystal!” Agony painted the Fox chief’s face. He was already in heartache over having to distribute half of the crystals to Shen. If it wasn’t for the fact that they needed help fending off three other tribes, they wouldn’t have done this! They absolutely cannot distribute any more of the crystals to anyone else!
The Shen people had the same opinion.
A strange sound echoed from outside the cave, approaching the group.
One of the Shen tribesmen lifted an arm. A grey flash appeared and rested on his arm.
It was a bird, possibly a type of fearsome beast but it was not large.
The bird ruffled its feathers like it was shivering for a second, then cried at the Shen tribesman.
COO COO COO COO---
The Shen tribesman’s face changed. “The Taihe people are approaching the mines and have passed the salt flats. They must know about the fire crystals!”
“If the Taihe people are coming, then Flaming Horn must be close too. Mountain Wind must’ve found out about the fire crystals from last time and banded them together. Based on my estimations, they will arrive at the mines the day after today,” said the Fox chief after some mental calculation.
“The day after?” The Shen tribesman said in a low voice, “I’m afraid there will be a drastic change in weather in three days. We have to change our plans.”
The Fox tribesmen were frustrated too. They had already made several plans and had all their military strategies set up. However, this was all disrupted by sudden weather changes. The Shen tribe had always been sensitive to the changes in their environment. They could predict changes in the weather based on changes in the flora of the forest. If they said the weather would worsen in three days, it would happen.
“We might not be able to hold them off by brute force. Especially the bunch of rough Flaming Horn savages.” The Fox chief was estimating the total power of three tribes working together.
“Then what?” the Shen tribe’s tribesman furrowed his brows.
A lady sitting next to the Fox chief had a twinkle in her thin-shaped eyes. She chuckled demurely, “It’s not a dead end.”
Everyone looked at the lady.
She was wearing fire-red fur, petting a white fox in her arms. “The skies will surely change but not in three days. Within two days, there will be a drastic change!”
As if in agreement, the fox cried as she finished her sentence.
“Two days? Are you sure? How did you know?” The Shen people were sceptical.
“You don’t have to know how I know, but I assure you there will be a change in two days.” Her tone was calm, she was confident in her words.
“So if the weather will change in two days, what is your solution?”
“The solution is simple,” she said slowly. “Humans cannot stop the weather from changing. When that happens, we will have to live through it or find a place to hide. Here at the salt mines, there is only one place to hide--- within the salt caves.”
“You mean…” Everyone understood. The only caves were the ones where the five tribes mined in. So the only place to wait out the weather would be the five tribes’ caves.
“Without the caves, when Mountain Wind, Flaming Horn and Taihe arrive, where will they hide when disaster strikes?”
“So we destroy their caves!” Everyone’s eyes shone with excitement.
“Taihe will arrive at least the day after next, Flaming Horn and Mountain Wind would definitely be the same. We shall destroy their caves tomorrow. When they arrive, we just have to guard our own caves. The caves are easy to defend but difficult to penetrate. They will be blocked outside. Once the weather changes, even if they want to destroy our cave, they won’t have the time,” said the Fox chief.
“Yes.” The lady’s eyes squinted as she smiled, nodding in agreement.
“But, if we destroy the three tribes’ caves, where will our reinforcements stay?” asked the Shen tribesman.
“Let them stay in the Shen’s cave for the moment. Both our tribes can send guards to watch them. The most important thing is we guard this place,” said the lady.
It was fine for them to let the recruits stay in their cave temporarily. For the fire crystals, the Shen tribe was willing to let outsiders into their salt cave. “But if the three tribes take over the other cave?”
“So what if they do? If they really take over the cave, they must have suffered a lot of deaths and injuries already. What’s there to be afraid of?” said the lady. Five caves, three will be destroyed. They have heavy defences here, even if that cave had fallen, most of the deaths over there would be their recruits, not their own Fox tribesman. It was also a method to shave off the three tribe’s forces. It was a good thing!
And so the decision was made.
However, they didn’t know one of the tribes did not operate by regular logic. That tribe was travelling through the night.