Chapter 11 – Trees
After encountering a string of supernatural events, the team became more cautious, slowing down considerably in their trek.
As all technological gadgets have malfunctioned, the scouting team was effectively lost. Despite having no signal, Eyeglasses still marked a nearby tree with a tracker every few miles. The trackers only served as markings at the time, but if telecommunications were to be restored, they would allow him to track their precise position.
You Fang stepped up and took charge when the team was lost. For a man that had not been particularly useful, he managed to consistently determine where North was with a bronze bowl and a single wooden chopstick. Chen Quan nodded with approval when he saw the set-up for the first time and stated that it was an ancient and reliable compass of sorts, lending credibility to the directions that You Fang was suggesting. Similarly, Li Yiming had also checked with his exceptional memory and senses. ‘His directions are right… At least for now…’
‘These traditional methods… It seemed that unimaginable power and methods have been buried in history, privy only to those who hail from ancient schools or sects. The skills that these people possess, Qing Feng, Chen Quan, and now You Fang. I would never have imagined before. Can we truly say that technology and knowledge have evolved or did we simply lose the knowledge that is tied to ancient cultures?’ Li Yiming thought.
After two occurrences of seeing something that could not be found, the rest of the party believed that Li Yiming must have seen an illusion or was simply paranoid. However, both Eyeglasses and Liu Meng knew better from their trust in Li Yiming and their experiences with the supernatural.
Eyeglasses believed that Li Yiming’s earlier premonition came true: things were no longer as they seemed. He became much more serious, bringing up the rear and constantly surveying his surroundings.
Li Yiming and Liu Meng were at the front, only behind the one leading the charge, Lin Lu. ‘She truly is a special operations soldier, always being the first one in…’
‘Are you sure what you saw wasn’t a mirage?’ Bai Ze’s voice echoed in Li Yiming’s consciousness. The difference between a mirage and an illusion was subtle. The former was a natural phenomenon and the latter, a spell of some sort. Li Yiming understood the nuance.
‘I’m sure. I definitely saw actual people.’ Li Yiming said as he recalled the three figures.
‘If you’re sure that it wasn’t a mirage and even I didn’t see it… There are only some things in the world that only you can see…’ Bai Ze trusted Li Yiming as much as she trusted herself.
“I think I know what it was.” Li Yiming nodded. ‘It’s people like me… Bugs in the system…’
Suddenly, Li Yiming paused and scanned his surroundings with piercing eyes.
‘Again?’ Bai Ze sensed the surroundings but to no avail.
Upon hearing the pause in the footsteps, Lin Lu, who had been walking ahead, did not even bother turning around but crouched down on one knee and raised her gun, sweeping the area in front of her. The rest of the team all entered combat position as her two subordinates rolled into cover. Eyeglasses disappeared seemingly into thin air and Chen Quan pulled Mr. You down into some nearby bushes for cover.
“Li Yiming?” After another round of checking and finding nothing out of the ordinary, Lin Lu was beginning to get fed up with Li Yiming. ‘I can respect your self-confidence and choice of choosing not to take the antidote.. But to be as paranoid and jumpy as you are now, you’re affecting the entire team.’
But before Lin Lu could voice her displeasure, Li Yiming drew his firearm, took aim, and fired.
Three shots rang out and Li Yiming slowly lowered his gun with a grave countenance.‘It’s appeared again…’
This time, trees had appeared instead of men. Trees that looked similar to the ones that surrounded them. Despite their thick trunks being rooted to the ground, they shifted positions swiftly within the forest, moving without leaving any trace behind.
Li Yiming fired at the trees without a second thought.
The tension that had mostly dissipated returned in full with the jarring gunshots. But, after a long period of time, nothing happened.
“What did you see this time, Li Yiming?” Lin Lu lowered her gun and stood up slowly, glancing at Li Yiming with piercing and judgemental eyes. She could not take it anymore.
Li Yiming did not answer and looked pointedly at Eyeglasses, who had appeared from the bushes. He knew from Eyeglasses’ expression that he was the only person who had seen anything, once again.
“I have no doubt in your abilities, but the fact of the matter is that we’re a team. We are dealing with an unprecedented supernatural event and surrounded by unpredictable danger. Please follow my orders and take the antidote. As you are now, you’ll bring this team down. Furthermore… Suppose there were unknown enemies around us. You have just exposed our position with your gunshots.” Despite her stern countenance, Lin Lu’s tone was amicable. She truly possessed the ability to command effectively in unexpected situations and knew that during tense situations, she should not be too confrontational, especially towards a team member whom she had already acknowledged.
Ignoring Lin Lu’s accusations and suggestions, Li Yiming bent down and picked up the casings of the three bullets that he had fired. “These are the casings.”
Lin Lu was visibly confused.
“The shells are here, but where are the bullets?” Li Yiming placed the three shells in Lin Lu’s hand and walked to the back of the team while holding Liu Meng’s hand. He knew that Lin Lu had to go and find the bullets. ‘I’m sure that I hit the moving tree. I even saw the splinters that flew off the bark, but the tree disappeared…’
As she fiddled with the shells in her hand, Lin Lu looked at her two subordinates. After a brief period of hesitation, she called out before dashing into the forest, “Chen Quan, Zhang Shanjun, come with me. The rest, stay here and remain on guard.”
At the back of the team, Eyeglasses whispered to Li Yiming. “You saw something again?”
“Yeah. But this time it wasn’t a person, but a tree.”
“A tree?’ Confusion was visible in Eyeglasses’ eyes as he wondered to himself. ‘We’re in a forest. What else should we be seeing, if not trees?’
“It was a moving tree, and I hit it just now,”
“What’s going on? This was supposed to be a vacation trip. What happened to that?” Eyeglasses scratched his nose in frustration. But even then, he was more curious than worried.
“Don’t let your guard down. Forests with no animals… Reversals of day and night… Mysterious men who appear and disappear, and now moving trees…” Li Yiming hesitated briefly before continuing, “ I think we might have entered a secret domain.”
“Impossible.” Before Li Yiming could even finish, Eyeglasses refuted him and continued, “ One needs a key to enter a domain. Even if there was one here right now, we still wouldn’t be able to.”
‘That’s right…’ Li Yiming suddenly remembered that with his special circumstances, he had no knowledge of keys to secret domains.
“Are keys essential to entering a secret domain?” Li Yiming asked.
“Of course, that’s the rules…” Eyeglasses was baffled by such a borderline idiotic question coming from someone as experienced as Li Yiming.
“Indeed, we were reminded numerous times on the Stage of Ascension that should we reject to participate in a secret domain, we would not receive the key. That immunite doesn’t depend on the physical location.” Liu Meng elaborated meekly, believing that Li Yiming was simply a little too nervous.
‘Not a secret domain… Then what could it be…’ Li Yiming remained deep in thought.
‘Yiming. There’s a way for normal guardians to be swept into a secret domain, even without the key. But… If this is really the case, the situation has truly gone out of hand…’ Bai Ze’s voice rang out in his consciousness in a grave tone.
“Oh. What is it?” Li Yiming was somewhat happy at the confirmation.
“Li Yiming! What exactly did you see just now?” Lin Lu’s anxious voice rang out from afar as she approached hastily, dashing out of the woods. She almost barreled over Liu Meng, who was standing right by Li Yiming.
After a grid by grid search of the surrounding area, the results were as Li Yiming predicted – no bullets were found. This startled Lin Lu greatly as she had witnessed him firing those bullets. Judging by how he held the gun and the firepower of his firearm, those bullets should not have flown past a hundred meters. With her experience, she should have been able to easily locate them. And yet…
To miss a single bullet in such a thick forest was understandable, but for all three to go missing meant that there was definitely something else at work.
“I saw a moving tree. I hit it just now.” Li Yiming hesitated and decided to reveal the truth. ‘Regardless of the situation and how it may change in the near future, these guys have already caught up in it. They have a right to know. After all, we are a team now.’
“A moving tree?” Lin Lu looked at Chen Quan with incredulous eyes, seeking his opinion.
Chen Quan furrowed his brows and remained silent. He dealt with the dead, fable and legends on a daily basis. After all, the more legendary a tomb was, the higher the selling price of items stolen from there. However, across his years of tomb raiding, he had not come across nearly as many abnormalities as he had on this trek.
“Yes, a moving tree. It was a cedar tree.”Li Yiming nodded and swept his gaze across the team. He had to gauge the response of the team, because if Bai Ze’s tone was of any indication, trouble was lurking ahead.
Just as he was sweeping the team, Li Yiming noticed, to his surprise, that they were down a man. “Wait! Where’s You Fang?”
“You Fang?” Lin Lu turned around and looked in between the three climbing machines. ‘He was sitting right there when I left…’
“He was still here just now.” Shen Jianming shouted in surprise; he had purposely stood near You Fang to protect this seemingly defenseless old man. When Lin Lu had rushed out of the bushes to question Li Yiming, he had been distracted for only a brief moment. ‘Where is he?’
“He couldn’t have gone far. Pair up and search the area. Do not go alone!” Lin Lu barked out her orders before diving back into the bushes.
Li Yiming’s eyes met with Eyeglasses’ before rushing toward another direction with Liu Meng. However, he wanted more to know about what Bai Ze had to say. ‘Did you not see anything?’