Chapter 10 - The Underground Lake
Every foot soldier was equipped with a standard German hand grenade. They were comprised of three parts: the upper part was made of a sheet of iron shaped of a cylinder and the lower part was a handle made of wood. Once triggered, the gunpowder inside would ignite the iron fragments that would slaughter enemies. However, it wasn't very powerful.
Giant left behind a single hand grenade while I grabbed another. Seeing that there were quite a few fireballs already rushing towards us, I pulled the pin. The wooden handle started to tick and white smoke filled the air as I threw the grenade.
Having detonated in billows of white smoke, thousands of blue fireballs that flew towards us exploded against the iron fragments. The fireballs fell to the ground, extinguished. However, even more waves of fireballs followed soon after.
With Luo Ning ahead, and us three at the back, we retreated whilst shooting off our semi-automatic rifles. The twenty or so bullets we each had were completely gone in less than two minutes.
Only gunshots worked against these strange blue fireball-looking ladybugs. With just a touch, the ladybugs had the potential to ignite entire bodies, so it was futile to use empty rifles. We might as well set ourselves aflame and attack them with our flaming bodies.
Giant threw his rifle away, pulled out his last hand grenade, and screamed to me: “Old Hu, it's about time. Go for it?”
Luo Ning and I carried Ga Wa. The four of us huddled around Giant's hand grenade. I eyed the hand grenade in front of me. If Giant pulled the pin, it would destroy everything in a matter of seconds. The end was in sight.
At a time like this, I didn't spare time to think about much else, as those fireballs were already closing in. There was just no time to overthink things. Not only that, but worrying too much about life and death would only have made me weak. I'd always wanted to be like the special forces hero, Yang Gen Si. But now, rather than having died on the battlefield, I would meet my end at the bottom of Mount Kun Lun for unknown reasons. I didn't want to go like that. I crossed my heart as Giant was about to trigger the hand grenade.
Luo Ning, who had already tightly closed her eyes, suddenly realized something. In the next instant, she pulled us aside. “You guys hear the stream? Below us, there's a river nearby. We have to quickly jump into the river.”
I was too busy just now shooting off my rifle and was about to commit suicide with the hand grenade, so the whole underground river thing was at the back of my mind. Amidst the chaos, I didn't hear the sound of the stream. It was not until Luo Ning mentioned it that I realized there was still a way out. If we jumped into the river in time, it didn’t matter how strong those fireballs were, they wouldn't be able to touch us.
Before we knew it, thousands of blue fireballs had already approached us. The four desperate survivors hastily ran towards the roaring stream.
Listening closely, it sounded like the water was tens of meters away. After taking just a few steps forward, past the dead end in the underground tunnel, a large waterfall appeared around the corner. There was a large natural underground lake beneath the waterfall.
Before I could take a closer look, a heat surged from behind – a heart wrenching, stomach wrenching type of pain spread. A fireball had probably struck my back. With just a single touch by these firebugs, it would engulf my body in flames. In a life or death situation like this, who had the time to think? I threw myself into the lake.
In the chaos of it all, Giant and two others were also on fire, screaming frantically as they leapt into the lake. I dove hurriedly into the water, instantly extinguishing the blue flames on my body.
Water and fire never mixed. It seemed as though the remaining ladybugs understood just how dangerous the water was, so they hovered two to three meters from the lake. They didn't dare charge forward.
I lifted my head up for air to find Giant had also resurfaced, but there was no sight of Luo Ning and Ga Wa. I was worried that they’d drowned in the lake. Taking a deep breath, I prepared to enter the water again to save them. Just then, Luo Ning emerged from the lake carrying Ga Wa.
As it turns out, Ga Wa had never swam a day in his life. After he had jumped into the lake, he choked and fainted. Luo Ning saw everything just in time and dove in to save him. Thankfully, Ga Wa had only spent a short time under. He coughed up some water and woke up.
It was Tibetan custom to not take baths in the lake. Ga Wa recited prayers and begged for the Buddha's forgiveness.
Blazing glows from the endless fireballs shone brightly above the surface of the lake. The four of them huddled together. Even though it was early spring, the water underground wasn't cold at all. It was rather warm as the geothermal energy had heated up the lake.
“F*ck! The rifle's gone! It sunk to the bottom of the lake!” shouted Giant.
“We don't have any bullets, so there's no point in having rifles. Right now, we have to quickly think of an escape plan. Keep your head down and keep an eye out for charging bugs.” I reminded him.
Giant didn’t believe that the bugs covered in fire could plunge into the lake. The wide, silly grin on his face quickly froze at the sight of thousands of flashing blue fireballs which gradually formed a colossal ball of flames. With a loud cry, it surged down and bore into the heart of the lake.
I took a deep breath, thinking about heading down myself. Seeing that Ga Wa beside me was scared stiff and naturally afraid of the water, I could only push his head down. Forcefully dragging his arm, I swam deep into the lake.
Once it touched the lake, the large fireball that spanned over tens of meters vaporized. Though the fireball was powerful, the lake was vast. The ladybugs risked their entire army with the last attempt, but it resulted in a suicidal attack as the lake effectively drowned them one by one.
The bottom of the lake was originally dark, but with the rays of light from the fire above, it revealed tens of meters of clear water around us. Countless fish were slowly swimming deep in the water. These fish were completely different from any other fish I had seen before in my life. They bore a striking resemblance to chum salmon, but had long whiskers like a catfish. Their eyes only consisted of two white dots, as their eyesight had deteriorated after having spent their lives in complete darkness.
Frightened by the strange fish, I swallowed some water. I took another look at Ga Wa whose hands and feet were waving around in panic. He couldn't hold his breath any longer and desperately needed air. Just then, the bottom of the lake suddenly became dark. I suspected that the bugs had mostly died out, so I dragged Ga Wa and swam up to the lake's surface.
There was a pitch black layer of dead ladybugs floating on the surface. Their lights were out. I shouted at Giant, “Hey Giant! Do you still have a flashlight?”
“They're all gone. Nothing's left. Let's go back into the dark,” answered Giant.
Suddenly, something caught my eye. Luo Ning had also emerged from the lake. She wiped her face with her hand and in her other, she clutched a military wind-up flashlight. “I'm carrying the last two. Luckily, I kept them in my pocket all this time. They didn't fall to the bottom.”
We helped each other climb up onto land. After over ten hours without food, we were hungry and tired, with no energy to move. Let's also not talk about the blood and flesh. Even if you were made of steel, you wouldn't be able to hold up either.
Then, Giant jumped back into the lake, and stabbed a fish with a bayonet. He recklessly scraped off the scales and cut a few slices. I took the first bite. The taste of raw fish was alright as it was not too overbearingly fishy. Though it was slightly bitter, when you chewed it a while longer, it tasted quite nice.
Only Ga Wa refused to eat it; some soldiers in the army still followed local religious laws that forbade them from eating fish from these Tibetan lands. Mount Kun Lun was located at the border between Qinghai and Tibet. Technically, we were still in Qinghai, and there were more Hui people than Tibetans in Qinghai, so eating fish here wouldn't count as breaking the law. Well, even if they really broke the law, now wasn't the time to worry about such things. We were so hungry that our eyes had turned blue. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
The three of them wolfed down the large raw fish. Still feeling hungry, Giant dove back into the lake to catch some more. Luo Ning examined Ga Wa's leg wound, and I circled the lake looking for a way out. Since the stream from the waterfall was so large, it had to be diverted somewhere.
Luo Ning predicted that it was a ten foot fall down the large waterfall. The river before us should lead to the Yarlung Tsangbo's underground tributary. Furthermore, there could be a volcano deep underground, which would explain why the lake water was so warm.
I carried Luo Ning's wind-up flashlight and found a crack in the underground lake, where the water flowed. This waterway lead to a seven to eight meter tall cavern. Everything beneath it was complete flooded, there was no way out. If we wanted to continue ahead, we'd have to swim.
I returned to Luo Ning's side and explained our situation. Luo Ning lost her map and compass, so she had to go with the intuition she'd earned from years of experience as a navigator. She estimated that we were not too far from the icy springs now. The icy springs were infamous for its waters that never froze even in the harshest of winters. This proved that there was lava underground. The problem was that this was the way back to the surface. Continuing to walk around underground was not viable. The only plan we had now was to follow the path down the river, because as long as there was a river path, we wouldn’t reach a dead end.
Giant came back with a glum look. This time, he didn't catch any fish. We didn't want to stop anymore. Three of us who could swim carried Ga Wa between us and followed along the stream and swam towards the far end of the underground cave.
Though the underground river wasn't very wide, the eddy was very strong. It wasn’t draining to swim if you used the stream’s current to your advantage. However, this path was far too long, and the water temperature was hotter than before. Taking a whiff, the air smelled like sulphur, and for some reason, even with our bodies submerged, our mouths were parched.
Giant was a little anxious, as he swam and complained, “This time, we've gone and made a grave mistake. We’ve swam for so long now. How come we haven't reached the end yet? The stream here is so rough. There isn't a single place where we can rest our feet. How about we retrace our steps and head back?”
I criticized Giant, “What were you doing earlier? We've swam so far ahead now and you're asking how long we have until the end? Are you still doubting whether our revolution will be victorious? Are you wavering just after the first step on the Great Wall? You better grit your teeth and pull yourself together.” “How could you say that? Aren’t I out here trying to support the revolution? Look at yourself! Who’s the one fooling around, causing the revolution to lose out?” complained Giant.
Mid-sentence, Luo Ning gave a frightening screech: “Is that some kind of animal behind us? It looks like a... water beast.”
I also heard something strange lurking in the water behind us. As I turned around whilst shining the flashlight in my hand, water sprayed us from behind. A giant shadow darted nearby. The flashlight failed to shine very far, so I couldn't see what it was exactly. However, it couldn't have possibly been anything good. We pulled out our bayonets, ready to fight.