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Chapter 11 – The Task

I walked quickly toward the front of the inn and into the path after saying that. The path that led toward that one temple – not the one we just came from earlier.
I finally stopped near the edge of the bridge that led toward the temple. Great place for a chat, huh? I stood facing the water, waiting for him to catch up to me. If it was CJ, he would be side-by-side with me already, not tagging behind by a mile. It was funny how I noticed these things right now. Or maybe CJ and I had been on the same side for so long these past months that I couldn’t help but compare everyone around me to him.
“Shao Han,” He said, announcing his arrival. “I’ve been thinking these past few days.”
Good for him, I thought.
“Maybe after this little ‘cool off’ time, it made me realized something,” He continued.
What “cool off” time? We broke up. I continued to look toward the water ahead, not giving him even a glance over although I was curious about what he meant by “cool off.”
“Can we not break up?” He asked.
I swore he almost sounded like he was begging. I finally turned to look at him.
“So you think this is a game?” I asked sternly.
“No, that’s not what I mean,” Ting Wei clarified. “I know things have been hectic before with how you just started at your new job and…”
“It’s not just that,” I cut him off. “We had misunderstandings in the past. Maybe we’ve been too blind to ignore the fact that it’s never going to work out between us. Maybe this is for the better.”
I turned to leave after that.
“Shao Han,” He said, pulling at my left arm.
I yanked it away from him and continued walking. What part of “broke up” didn’t he get? The “broke up” part?
“If you want to break up just because you’re mad over the little matter that I’m siding with Jing Jing, then I think it’s childish.”
Okay, so he wanted to play the “jealous, insecure girlfriend” game? I turned around to face him again.
“We’ve known each other this long and you’re accusing me of…”
“Shao Han, let’s forget it, okay?”
“No. You’re the one that’s not clear.”
I stopped to make sure he was looking at me before continuing. “Because I want us to remain as friends, that’s why I want to stop this before our situation get any worse, okay? If you’re unwilling, then…”
“Shao Han…”
“I thought you’re the one who said we should all rest for tomorrow.”
Yes, lame excuse, but he didn’t want to get it. What else could I say to get rid of him?
I walked back into town, not wanting to argue with him any longer.

*****

The next morning, I woke up early as usual. I left the room after getting ready, closing the door carefully so I wouldn’t disturb Jing Jing. This routine seemed so repetitive that I hoped after we were done with whatever task Xiao Bai gave us, we could finally go home. Because I was getting quite bored even if this place looked like paradise. Hopefully, the task could be finished in one day.
Instead of ordering breakfast, I walked upstairs and sat near the banister to enjoy the morning breeze. I saw a shadow at the spot behind me a few minutes later. I turned around to see CJ coming up to me. Yes, as I said before – this was becoming quite a habit. He sat down next to me and looked out toward the lake ahead also.
“Last day, huh?” He commented.
“Hopefully so,” I said.
“Don’t sound so gloomy,” CJ said. “I don’t think Xiao Bai would make us go battle a lion or something.”
“He might,” I said.
CJ chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, finally turning to him.
“You weren’t paying attention when we negotiated yesterday, did you?” He asked, still smiling.
“Of course…not,” I finished finally, knowing I couldn’t lie to him.
“He said he wants us to help him find this one herb near the mountains,” CJ explained. “More like at the edge of the cliff. It requires more than one person to do it, so he said since we’re here…”
“That’s it?” I asked, not believing it was that simple.
“The challenge? We might fall off that cliff and kill ourselves,” CJ said.
“That extreme?” I asked, finally taking in some interest.
“You sound like a non-believer,” He teased.
“How high is that mountain then?”
“I’m not sure either. He said he’ll show us today.”
“Why couldn’t we have done it yesterday? Why wait until today?”
“He said he needs to go borrow some equipment from his friends for us first.”
“A likely story.”
“Come on now, Angela. Have some faith in this, will you? We found the medallion so isn’t that a sign that we’re going to succeed soon? Just one more step.”
“None of us know whether that medallion is the key. We could be gripping onto some object that has nothing to do with securing our journey home.”
“If it was something else, wouldn’t we have found it already?”
He got me there.
“Stop being so negative, will you?” He asked.”I want to see a Zhang Shao Han at a ready to battle whatever it is that’s in her way, not a pessimist who looks like she’s already defeated even before she start.”
I turned to look at him again. Why had he been surprising me so much these past months? Or was it because…
Before I could ask him, a voice spoke up, interrupting us.
“A very familiar scene,” Roger said in his mocking voice again. “I wonder if you two will continue to be this way when we’re home.”
I turned around to give him a murderous look before getting up.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Might as well get this thing over with.”
“Xiao Bai said he’ll come and fetch us, remember?” CJ reminded me.
“Okay then,” I said dejectedly. “Whatever.”
I sat back down at the banister and faced the lake ahead again.
“We should eat to get some energy in,” CJ suggested. “After all, this is mountain climbing and not some…”
“I already ordered on the way up,” Ting Wei said, walking over to us at that time.
“That’s good then,” CJ said before sitting down next to me again.
We managed to survive breakfast without any arguments for the first time in the past few months. Maybe because we were just one step away from home, so we didn’t want to argue anymore. That dark and heavy curtain had lifted among us. Or were we just too optimistic that it would work with the medallion?
After we were finished with breakfast, we went downstairs to exit the inn. As we walked by the front counter, one of the waiters ran to us. We stopped to see what he had to say.
“A letter for you all,” He said, holding up an ancient envelope.
“Thank you,” Ting Wei said, receiving the envelope from the waiter.
“You’re welcome, sir,” He said before returning to work again.
We stepped out of the entrance’s way before Ting Wei opened the envelope. He stopped short as we turned left to go to Xiao Bai’s house.
“What?” CJ asked, almost walking into Ting Wei.
“Granny Yang is sick,” Ting Wei replied. “Ah Xiang asked us if we could come back to visit since she misses the girls.”
“Tough luck,” Roger scoffed.
When did he become so selfish? So inconsiderate?
“If we survive Xiao Bai’s task, we’ll come visit for sure,” CJ joked.
Just as he said that, we could see Xiao Bai luring in the distance.
“Speaking of the devil,” CJ said.
Ting Wei put Ah Xiang’s letter back into the envelope and tucked it into his pocket as Xiao Bai was coming closer to us.
“Great day, huh?” Xiao Bai smiled.
“You ready?” CJ asked, getting straight to the point.
“Yes,” Xiao Bai said. “I should be asking you all the question though.”
“We’re always ready,” CJ answered.
“All right. Follow me.”
He led us back to his house, which we could have gone to ages ago. We waited for him outside as he carried out some equipment. After about fifteen minutes more, we were ready to go. Each of us was carrying some sort of equipment as we walked toward the woods behind Xiao Bai’s house.
During the walk, we stayed silent for the most part. The guys took turns asking Xiao Bai of the scenery and the surrounding area, especially its danger level. From time to time, we looked at each other as we were listening to Xiao Bai talk, wondering more and more if it was a bad idea after all. But we couldn’t back out now. A promise was a promise.
About twenty minutes later, we reached a clearing and could see the hilltop from a mile away. This was it, I thought.
“We’re almost there,” Xiao Bai said, stating the obvious.
Ting Wei nodded out of politeness.
We walked for a few more minutes before reaching the edge of the cliff. We all leaned out to look down at the cliff, seeing how deep it was. And yes, it was a bad idea to do that since it didn’t help our nerves at all.
“All right,” Xiao Bai spoke up, breaking through our uneasiness.
We turned to him.
“Which one of you guys are going to go down with me?” Xiao Bai asked, looking at the three guys with his radar eyes. “We need two to help with the ropes while the other two go down. You girls stay here to keep watch in case anyone comes.”
Why did he make it sound like we were committing in some illegal business? Were we?
“What do you mean keep watch?” CJ asked with suspicious eyes. “Is this illegal in some sense?”
Yes, CJ beat me to it.
“No,” Xiao Bai replied, not blinking at all.
Either he was telling the truth or he was that good at lying. He must have taken “The Art of Deceit 101” since young.
“Then why do you need the girls to keep watch?” CJ pressed.
“Because this plant that we’re getting is very popular among the villagers,” Xiao Bai explained. “I don’t want them to steal it from me before I can get my hands on it.”
“What is this plant exactly?” CJ continued with his series of questions. “And what effect does it have on mankind?”
Leave it to CJ to come up with such fancy words – even in ancient terms.
“Look,” Xiao Bai said, somewhat irritated by now. “I already gave you the medallion so the best you can do is help me with this. I’m badly outnumbered by you all, so you probably don’t have to put up with my request. But I thought you could at least keep your word in all this after I handed it over without a thought. I don’t have to believe in your story, you know.”
Even if Xiao Bai was lying about his intention, but what he said was true. After all, we did promise.
“I’m not saying that we won’t help you,” CJ said. “I’m just wondering if we’re doing something illegal.”
“No,” Xiao Bai said. “Of course not! What are you talking about?”
I swore the look he gave us said it all. It was like saying, “What planet are you guys from?” Were these kind of activities automatically legalized without us realizing it? How come nothing in those history books covered it? Or maybe it was something lost in time?
“What planet are you guys from?” Xiao Bai asked after staring at us.
Okay, maybe he didn’t actually say that. That was the modern version of how I perceived it. His question was more like, “Where are guys from anyway?”
“What do you mean?” Roger asked, dumb-founded.
Yes, leave it to CJ to stay silent at this point. He wouldn’t be caught dead asking something that dumb, especially when he finally realized that it was dumb.
“Don’t you know what ling zhi is? It’s rare to come by one nowadays. I found it a few months back but didn’t dare to go down alone because of how deep this place is.”
I looked to CJ for an explanation. I must have tuned out that part too when they were talking yesterday. No one told me there was “ling zhi” involved. I would have told them what it was by now. CJ must have failed to pay attention in class again. But wasn’t that common nowadays? I meant it was still rare but people knew about it – joke about its existence even.
“All right,” I spoke up finally. “We’ll help you. But…”
“Shao Han,” CJ said, advancing forward and pulling me to the side before I could continue.
“What?” I asked impatiently as soon as we were out of the others’ earshot.
“We don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “We already promised him, remember?”
“Still,” CJ insisted. “I need to know more.”
“There’s no knowing at all until we can go down there and see what’s there.”
“Are you kidding me? Look at that sight. We couldn’t even see the bottom.”
“It’s because there are no sunlight reaching the bottom. Stop exaggerating. Come on.” I pulled him back to the others.
He yanked me back and looked at me like I was crazy.
“If it helps,” I said, still in my calm voice. “I’ll go in your place if you want.”
“No way,” He objected. “There’s no way that you’re going. Even if I have to push Jing Jing down first, I wouldn’t let you go down there.”
I feel almost touched – except for how twisted his words seemed to imply.
“What?! You hate Jing Jing that much?”
“That’s not what I mean. I’m just saying you can’t go down there.”
“Then stop wasting time.”
“I…”
I didn’t want to wait for him at all. I just walked back to the others.
“Well?” Xiao Bai asked when I was back in the little circle again.
“We’ll do it like promised,” I said before anyone else could object. “But you have to provide us with every single detail so we can map out a plan before doing anything. After all, we can see how dangerous it is.”
“Of course we’re going to plan it out first,” Xiao Bai said. “Like I’m going to get you guys killed. What will I get if I do that?”
“The golden medallion, of course,” Roger jumped in. “What else?”
“Zhu Tian Qi!” CJ and I yelled out at the same time.
CJ had managed to make his way back to our group again.
“What?” Roger asked innocently.
“If he want to do something to us, he already did, okay?” CJ said with an as a matter-of-fact tone.
“That’s what he’s doing right now,” Roger retorted. “He’s planning to toss us over this cliff so he can get what he wants.”
“Not everyone is as despicable as you,” CJ said, his face somewhat red by now.
How did it turn into personal attacks?
“All right!” I shouted above the guys’ voices. “Let’s get this thing going. If you guys have so much energy, why don’t you put it to good use?”
We were so close to going home. It was just one more step. Couldn’t the guys just shut up and cooperate for once? Yes, both CJ and Roger had very good points and a very good reason to suspect Xiao Bai of some evil doing, but there was no time to waste right now.  Whatever Xiao Bai might be planning, we could only find out by watching him in the next few minutes. Arguing about it didn’t help anyone. Even if he didn’t have any evil plans in his mind, Roger already helped him thought of something by now. Thanks so much for it, Roger. When did he turn out to be so annoying?
“Okay,” Xiao Bai said, somewhat taken aback from my outburst. “Let’s get started then. I’ll tell you all what to expect down there. Or at least what I heard from other people.”
We could see that Roger was about to say something, so we – particularly CJ and I – stared him down with a look so he wouldn’t dare to speak of a similar subject he had uttered out before.
We spent about half an hour going over a plan and covering all bases before starting. Why did it take that long when Xiao Bai already volunteered to go down and only needed one more person to go with him? Simple. Roger kept nagging and rattling off smart aleck comments – even through our glares, so we had to improvise the plan. CJ and Ting Wei ended up being the ones going down while Roger and I held the ropes instead since Roger only trusted Ting Wei and CJ with me. Although Jing Jing was probably a better candidate than me – considering her physique and strength, but CJ somehow insisted on me being the one holding onto his end of the rope. I didn’t want to delay our progress any longer so I agreed on the spot. What was Jing Jing’s job then? Watch Xiao Bai of course – to ensure he wouldn’t pull any smart moves.
After securing the ropes around the two guys’ waists and testing it several times, they were getting ready to swing down below. Roger and I got into a crouching position as the guys began to descend. I made sure to keep an eye on Xiao Bai also as I increased my grip on the rope. Although Jing Jing was watching Xiao Bai, but what if? None of us could predict what happen so might as well be safe.
“Are you guys good?” Xiao Bai asked one last time before the guys began to descend.
“Of course,” CJ replied, not taking his eyes off the cliff.
Ting Wei nodded.
And so we were finally getting this thing going – at long last.
© Monday, August 4th, 2008
Posted: Saturday, March 13th, 2010

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