The southwest of Tian Shui’s fountainhead had been a dead place since ancient times. No one dared to enter, thousands of animals vanished within, and birds did not breach it.
Hundreds of mounted Northern Yan soldiers held torches and walked among wild underbrush growing at half of a man’s height. From time to time, one could see remote specks of blue light jumping on the underbrush in the distance. The sight terrified, but none of the soldiers could reveal their foolish fear before their comrades. So each person, from the generals to the soldiers, could only bite the bullet and walk forward.
When the soldier leading the way arrived at a place where the underbrush grew to the full height of a man, he did not walk further. He turned his head and said to the general, “We can’t go further.”
The general sat astride his horse and looked around. Not to mention people, there wasn’t even the shadow of a ghost. The surrounding underbrush was dense, but he couldn’t even hear the sound of insects.
One soldier took a few steps forward, stretching out the torch he was holding to illuminate the underbrush. He craned his neck to look inside.
“Look carefully,” the general ordered. “See if there’s anyone hiding inside.”
The soldier didn’t dare to look too much. After a few sweeping glances, he turned to the general and said, “There’s nothing inside.”
“Go back,” the general commanded. In any case, he felt dark, eerie energy in this place.
The soldier wanted to turn around, but in a moment of inattention his foot slipped. The people beside him only heard him shout once before his entire person slipped into the underbrush.
“Pull him out,” the general hurriedly said.
Several soldiers went forward, reaching out to their companion. But once their hands entered, they all screamed miserably and withdrew.
“What’s the matter?” The general dismounted, and walked over to personally take a look.
Underneath the torchlight, these few peoples’ hands became red and swollen at a speed visible to the naked eye. Because of this strange and unbearable itching, they scratched. Upon scratching, they shrieked again and again in succession. People watched as the flesh on these few soldiers’ hands came off in pieces, scratched off with their own hands.
“Tie their hands!” The general ordered loudly.
Some soldiers who had learned from past mistakes used long spears to randomly poke around in the underbrush. They actually hooked up their fallen companion. He was already motionless. His clothes were wet, and he looked like a corpse.
Before the general reached the fallen man, he saw the subordinates surrounding the man retreat. Several of them vomited on the spot. The general walked forward to look. He was a great general who had killed countless people, but he couldn’t suppress his nausea. This soldier was already dead as a doornail. In this short period of time, blushing red, crawling leeches covered his body, their stomachs bulging. Even his eyes had leeches. The general acted before he thought, lifting a foot to kick this body back into the underbrush.
The soldier leading the way walked to the general’s side and said, “General, let’s hurry back.”
The general took a torch from a soldier and personally inspected. The torch light shone on the underbrush. After carefully looking, the general discovered that the bottom of the underbrush was water. The turbid liquid that received the illumination of the torch light was filled with tangling insects, snakes, leeches, toads, and other creatures the general could not name.
“Are those mosquitoes?” A soldier beside him shouted.
The general straightened up. Following the soldier’s line of sight, he also lifted his head to look above him. He saw wisps of diluted black smoke moving left and right, down and up, drifting.
“General let’s go back,” the soldier leading the way begged.
A cloud of that smoke came close to the general. At this, the general saw clearly that there really were small black mosquitoes gathering into what looked like clouds of smoke. One dignified general was so frightened by these small mosquitoes that he retreated several steps.
“These mosquitoes all carry poison,” the soldier behind the general continued to jabber on.
“There’s also huge spiders here!” A soldier who’d discovered some new frightening thing yelled.
“Everyone shut up!” The general was enraged at his own timidity. However, he still mounted his horse quickly and said to his subordinates, “Let’s go back. It’s impossible for Luo Wei to come out of here alive.”
In a swamp not far from the Northern Yan soldiers, Luo Wei and his group were struggling to walk.
“Take a solid step, then take another step!” imperial Physician Wei, who headed the group, looked back from time to time and exhorted Luo Wei and the others.
Their horses had only taken a few steps in the swamp before collapsing, without exception. Bugs of all kinds and sizes crawled on the horses’ bodies, covering them. Before Luo Wei and his group stood up from the knee-deep water, these fine warhorses became skeletons.
Fourteen could not bear it and vomited.
“Don’t vomit!” Imperial Physician Wei dragged Fourteen over and, as he patted his back, he said, “You have medicine in your mouth. If you vomit it out, you’ll die!”
Luo Wei and Wei Lan supported each other to stand. “I’m fine,” Luo Wei told Wei Lan. He’d seen all manner of disgusting things. The absurd scene before Luo Wei could not stimulate him.
Wei Lan first wanted to focus on slapping off the disgusting bugs that had crawled on Luo Wei, but not long after, he gave up. No matter how many bugs he patted off, in the blink of an eye, new bugs would replace them. He couldn’t pat them off or drive them away, so he let them be.
“We can’t stop here,” Imperial Physician Wei let Fourteen calm down, then continued, “move forward.”
Luo Wei supported Wei Lan and asked, “Can you walk with your legs?”
Imperial Physician Wei spoke to Luo Wei again: “Young master, I think Wei Lan can walk better than you. Don’t worry about him.”
“Aren’t his knees still swollen?” Ten asked from the back.
“He’s still stronger than our Third Young Master!” Imperial Physician Wei walked to the very front and led the way.
“Is he looking down on me?” Luo Wei whispered to Wei Lan.
“If the young master can’t walk anymore, Wei Lan can carry him on his back.” Wei Lan now would not speak ill of Imperial Physician Wei, so he only said this much to Luo Wei.
“Let’s go!” Before Luo Wei could reply, at the front, Imperial Physician Wei already used a long branch to explore the road ahead, as he said, “don’t look at each other’s bodies so you don’t get sick.”
When they’d just reached the edge of the swamp, if it weren’t for Luo Wei sinking into the swamp first, Ten and the others would rather fight to the death with the pursuing Northern Yan soldiers than enter. With miasma-repelling medicine in their mouths, these few people’s collars, cuffs, and trousers were all bound tightly with cloth bands. They wore as many clothes as they could, and covered their heads so that only their eyes were exposed.
“What on earth is that ghastly thing?” After walking a while, Ten pointed at the flashing blue specks of light not far from them and asked. “Are they ghosts?”
“No,” Imperial Physician Wei answered, calm in the face of the unexpected. “There might be dead people over there. Those are phosphorescence that comes from the bones of the dead. I’ve been a doctor for so many years, but have never seen a ghost in this world.”
Fourteen asked Luo Wei, who walked behind him, “Young master, are there no ghosts in this world?”
“Don’t scare yourself.” With every step he took, Luo Wei felt something slippery and soft under his feet. The more he walked, the heavier his steps were. However, he still comforted Fourteen, who was the youngest out of the five Dragon Cavalry Guards, “Why should the living be afraid of ghosts? You are a man and your body has heavy Yang energy. Ghosts dare not approach you.”
(T/N: Yang, as opposed to yin, is associated with men, sunlight, and positive energy. So sexist right?)
“Young master isn’t wrong,” Imperial Physician Wei chuckled from his position in front. “Fourteen ah, everyone will be a ghost when he dies. Why be afraid of ghosts?”
“But there’s something pulling my feet!” Fourteen yelled.
Luo Wei, who was walking behind Fourteen, saw Fourteen’s body tilt to the side. He and Wei Lan reached out at the same time to stabilize Fourteen, but instead got dragged down with him.
“Fourteen, don’t move!” Imperial Physician Wei saw Fourteen sink, and swiftly shouted.
Flustered, Fourteen didn’t listen to Imperial Physician Wei and struggled to get up with all his might. His kung fu failed him at this moment.
Luo Wei had already been pulled by Fourteen into the muddy swamp water. He lay prone and shouted at Fourteen, “Don’t move!”
“Young master!” From the side, Wei Lan saw that Luo Wei would be pulled by Fourteen into the eddy as well. He became more anxious, but didn’t dare to let go of Fourteen’s hand. He reached out his free hand to Luo Wei, hoping to pull him, but he couldn’t reach him.
Eleven and Thirteen ran over, pulling Luo Wei and Wei Lan respectively.
Ten saw Fourteen still struggling wildly. He threw a stone at Fourteen’s head, forcing Fourteen to pass out.
“Pull slowly,” Imperial Physician Wei commanded from the side. His heart also thumped hard, but he had to keep his calm in spite of that.
After Luo Wei and the others pulled Fourteen out of the muddy vortex, Luo Wei lay in the swamp for a long time, unable to get up.
Imperial Physician Wei’s cold sweat covered his body, but he still urged the others, “We have to go. We can’t stay here for long!”