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Songjiang River, a snowy day.
The Northeast was not gifted with many renowned mountains, hence fame-wise, the region seemed to be outshined by other parts of the country. Luckily, it still had Changbai Mountains as its signature, which had won back its status a little.
The Changbai Mountains were vast. The mountain range had a total area of 1963 km^2, stretching out from this country to the abutting Goguryeo. Its peak was located in Goguryeo, which had an altitude of 2749 m.
After decades of development, the area was well equipped with tourist facilities. Heaven Lake up on the mountaintop was the most famous scenic spot, accessible via two regular routes—namely the northern slope and the western slope.
The northern slope went all the way to the bank of Heaven Lake, allowing one to savor the view and feel it from up-close. However, the ecological protection efforts of recent years had closed this route up. The western slope led one up the mountain, where they could overlook the entire Heaven Lake. Both routes had their own features.
Songjiang River was a small town at the foot of the western slope and where Xiaozhai used to live when she was little.
"Gosh, it's freezing!"
The family of four had just walked out of the train station when Xiaojin cried out, her breath turning white as she yelled, "Hey, just look at that! My breath has turned into frost!"
"Stop clinging to me all the time… It's really beautiful here."
Long Qiu peeled Xiaojin off her in annoyance. A casual look around made her fall in love with the small town right away. Everything was white—the streets, the rooftops, the pedestrians, the vehicles… even the running stray dogs were coated in a layer of fluffy white fur.
Fine snow sprinkled down, gently covering every corner. There was a beauty in this quiet chilliness.
"No more squabbling. Let's go to our hotel first," Gu Yu called out to the two girls as he hailed a taxi. The four then headed straight to the hotel they had booked. The taxi driver was utterly baffled and kept stealing looks through the rearview mirror—he simply could not figure out the relationship of the four passengers.
The guy was tall, lean, handsome, and all legs. The slightly older girl looked stunning and had equally long legs. The younger pair was as pretty, and wow, their legs were no shorter!
Gosh, this car seemed several inches too short for all of them. Pop the doors open and they could probably use their long legs as the brake.
Songjiang River was an underdeveloped town, but that did not stop the tourism from flourishing. There were several pretty decent reception centers. About five or six minutes' drive later, the taxi turned into a large courtyard with a new building about a dozen stories high.
They checked into two rooms, both suites with a living room.
Long Qiu busied herself with sorting through her clothes as soon as she got into her room. She had enough spiritual energy to withstand the cold climate and only brought some thin clothes.
She hung them into the closet one piece at a time with nimble movements. Her lips curled up into a smile and before she knew it, she was humming a tune.
"Qiu Qiu! You are singing!"
Xiaojin had just emptied her bowels and walked out of the toilet when she made this discovery. She opened her eyes widely, surprise written all over her face.
"Hm? Was I?" Long Qiu looked adorable with her blank face.
"You were! But I couldn't understand a word!"
"Oh, I was probably singing the song of Youfang 1 . Hurry up, will you? We're going out for dinner soon."
She finished hanging her clothes and put her suitcase away in a corner, then started laying out her toilet articles and towels.
Xiaojin hung on to her like a piece of blue tack, following her around in the room, and nagged, "Nope, that's not it! Why are you so happy? It's only Changbai Mountain we're visiting! There must be something you're not telling me!"
"I'm always happy on our trips. Aren't you happy?" Long Qiu found Xiaojin's reaction strange.
"Happy my a*s! This is my hometown as well!"
"Ah… I forgot about that!"
Long Qiu was a little embarrassed. The girl was right. She and Xiaozhai were cousins and their fathers were brothers. Obviously, the two shared a single grandpa.
The realisation got Xiao Qiu interested. She asked, "Jin Jin, have you lived here before when you were little?"
"I've always stayed in Shengtian and only visited here twice a year. Then grandpa passed away and I never came again."
"Were you close to Sister when you were little?"
"Why are you asking?"
Xiaojin squinted at her, giving herself a ferocious but comical look.
"I'm just curious. Didn't you realize sister was different from other people?"
"She was not different from the others… she was different from normal human beings. Sigh, you have no idea what it felt like to live in the shadow of a fiend…"
Looking back on her miserable childhood years, Xiaojin was so overwhelmed with all the emotions that she decided to put on her oscar-winning performance again—tears began to well up in her eyes.
Long Qiu felt the corner of her mouth twitching. She then asked, "Well, have you met her master before?"
"Never! No one knew about this apart from my grandpa!"
Xiaojin whined indignantly, "Fate is so unfair! If I were the weak child to begin with, I would probably be the one getting a master! In that case, I would be the one having fun travelling everywhere now and I would be on the top and she on the bottom, mwahahahaha…"
What the hell was she talking about?
Long Qiu was utterly lost.
Songjiang River was a big town with hundreds of thousands residents and eleven administrative villages under its jurisdiction.
The four stayed one night in the hotel and headed for Changqing 2 Village early the following morning, which was where the ancestral house of the Jiang Family was. The village was nowhere near what its name implied: gleaming white snow covered the low houses and village streets, giving the place a deserted look.
The four strutted down the street like supermodels with snow crunching under their feet. Every now and then, they would meet a villager passing by, who'd give them the look one would give some madmen.
Xiaozhai led the team and kept her silence. She was listless ever since they arrived at the village, reminding one of a depressed hedgehog.
The four turned into an alley and saw an auntie walking towards them. She was wrapped in a thick cotton-padded jacket, had both hands tucked away in her sleeves, and carried a plastic bag over an arm, which contained a few pig's feet.
Xiaozhai halted suddenly and asked, "Aunt Chen, is that you?"
The auntie was taken by surprise. She took a closer look of Xiaozhai and said in an uncertain voice, "You're, Jiang's eldest son's…"
"Oh my, what brought you back here?" The auntie immediately warmed up to her.
"Just to visit my hometown. This is Xiaojin, my uncle's daughter; you've met her before. These two are my friends." She briefly introduced the other three and smiled. "We'll only be here for a couple of days. How are you these days?"
"Haha, I'm doing great. My boy just got married this October and he said he was going to call your dad. I told him not to. Your dad is a big shot now, he wouldn't have time for some wimpy kid. I've got to say, your dad's got manners. Someone must have mentioned it to him and he sent someone here with the cash gift… Oh, by the way, your grandpa's house is in great condition. Old Shui has put his heart into it. You should thank him."
"Haha, you're right… bye bye for now, then."
The four walked on after exchanging the pleasantries. They almost reached the end of the alley when they stopped outside a small courtyard. It was an ordinary farmyard with three tile-roofed houses. Even the white snow could not cover the traces of dilapidation.
Xiaozhai took out the key, opened the door, and walked in. The light was dim inside, but the air was not stale. Apparently someone had been cleaning it frequently. Xiaojin remembered little of this place and everything looked strange to her. She wandered around, checking out everything in every room.
Gu Yu looked around as well. The kitchen was in the middle and the main bedroom on the east, which still had a kang 3 , but the rest of the furniture was long cleared out. In the western room was a small bed without even the wooden planks. The iron frame stood there alone.
"Did you use to sleep here?" he asked.
"Yup, for quite a few years." Xiaozhai stroked the head of the bed and chuckled. "It was all right in the beginning, but I soon grew too tall for it. Grandpa had always wanted to buy me a bigger bed. I was back in Shengtian before he could."
"Haha, I slept on the kang when I was little and it became too short for me as well. I had to put a bench by the kang to make up for my dangling feet."
Gu Yu walked around some more before he paused. A pile of bits and bobs in a corner caught his eyes.
He moved closer to examine it. A wooden shrine was the most eye-catching piece. Red paper was pasted over it, together with a couplet which read: "Cultivate nature deep in the mountains, keep family safe once leaving the ancient cave."
A big "worship" was written in the center, below which were memorial tablets for Third Great-Grandfather Hu and Third Great-Grandmother Hu.
Gu Yu stared at it for a long moment before asking, "Is it worshipped in all villages here?"
"Used to be, not so much these days."
"I don't think they have it in Phoenix Fair. I don't know much about these things. People talk about "five fairies" all the time. What are they, exactly?" He was a little curious.
" Fairy 4 Fox (fox), Fairy Yellow (weasel), Fairy White (hedgehog), Fairy Willow (snake), and Fairy Gray (mouse) are the so-called Fox, Yellow, White, Willow, and Gray. They are named "fairies", but are actually spiritual animals coming out of the mountains to help people in order to evade the thunder trials. Through the bodies of their pupils, they're able to accumulate virtue by doing good deeds. They usually go by the name 'fairies taking the field', and their pupils by 'pupils taking the field'. The families they pick become 'parishes', where a fairy shrine can be set up to help people with their problems."
"Through the bodies of others? Isn't that possession by spirits or devils? That sounds similar to Shamanism." Gu Yu frowned.
"Humph!" Xiaozhai snorted. "That's exactly what they are, a branch of Shamanism. They played the supernatural tricks to swindle money and were a scourge to the villages. There used to be one here. A lot of families became its victims."
"My master crushed it."
Gu Yu almost choked on his own spit. Xiaozhai was indeed her master's pupil. "Was that why Shamanism got to your master?"
"In that case, your master…"
He thought about asking how her master passed away, but gave up the idea after some consideration.
The four did not stay long. They briefly cleaned the rooms and locked the door from outside.
Gu Yu turned back to look at the western room before they left. He would never believe in things like "fairies taking the field" before, but now… no one could say for sure.
"Toco Toco Toco!"
"Toco Toco Toco"
A walking tractor passed them, sloshing muddy snow everywhere. The driver kept a calm face the entire time as the tractor slid this way and that on the snowy street. The shabby vehicle drew a perfect curve on the snow and disappeared into an alley.
"Wow! If I didn't know better, I'd thing he was hurrying towards Mt. Akina 5 !"
Xiaojin shook her sleeves and shouted impatiently, "Sis, what are we doing next?"
"Visiting the Shui Family."
"To look around."
Xiaojin seemed completely unaware of the fact that she had just been scolded. Instead, she slid happily aside and looked more content than ever. Long Qiu rubber her head, giving her a look of "you poor little idiot", and also asked, "Sister, who is the Shui Family?"
"Their old man used to be a close friend of my grandpa and they have been taking care of the house these years. We should go and express our gratitude."
The two families were not too far apart and they were there in no time. The Shui Family lived in an even more remote corner right next to a grove. The courtyard was spacious, though, and the tile-roofed houses looked quite extraordinary.
Xiaozhai stood still outside the gate. Instead of going in, she shouted, "Old chief!"
A few seconds passed before an old yet strong voice called back, "Who's there?"
An old man strolled out after that, scanned the four and grinned. "Oh, the girl of the Jiang's is back."
"Haha, dear old man, it's been a while."
Xiaozhai ran up to him. There was warmth in her voice one would have when talking to a close elderly friend. She introduced, "This is my boyfriend. These two are my sisters. This is Shui Rong, the old chief of the Changbai Ginseng Band."A/N: Miao people's love song TL/N: meaning "evergreen" TL/N: a traditional long (two metres or more) platform for general living, working, entertaining, and sleeping used in northern part of China, where there is cold climate in winter. It works sort of like a central heating system. ED/N: If it's what I think it is, then you can compare it to a sort of big bench/bed with heating built into it. It's an old thing; it's been around for at least 100 years, so think of it rather in terms of construction than furniture or appliance. ED/N: The character for "fairy" here and onwards refers to an immortal TL/N: "Initial D" (manga/anime) reference