Tianzong Mountain.

The invisible minute hand in the empty sky gradually approached the hour mark. The setting sun slowly sank among the trees, and the ethereal blood-red hue spread through closed eyelids.

Shen Xiaoxiao’s hand suddenly twitched, awakening him from unconsciousness.

“…” He wanted to call for Bu Wei, but his cracked lips moved without making a sound. After a while, his consciousness gradually cleared. He suddenly realized that he was lying in an open space on the mountaintop, with a dense covering of fiery red phoenix trees overhead, as if they were about to ignite under the last rays of twilight.

How did he end up on the mountaintop?

Shen Xiaoxiao didn’t think much about it. His attention was completely drawn to something that should never have appeared here—there was a bottle of mineral water placed neatly on the ground!

For several seconds, Shen Xiaoxiao thought he was hallucinating in this desperate situation. However, his survival instinct overwhelmed his rationality. By the time he realized what he was doing, he had struggled with all his might to climb up the steep slope and tightly grasped the bottle of water, trembling so much that a few drops spilled out when he unscrewed the cap.

How could there be water here? Who put it here? Could it be poisoned?

Shen Xiaoxiao couldn’t think of anything else. All his senses and consciousness were focused on the sweetest liquid in his throat. He couldn’t think of anything else and ended up drinking the entire bottle of water, as if in a dream, leaving his hands empty.

Immediately, he remembered something and his mind buzzed—

Bu Wei!

Shen Xiaoxiao turned abruptly and before he could see the girl who had collapsed not far away, everything changed in an instant.

With a bang, dust flew up as he suddenly lost balance. The ground beneath him collapsed, and he fell into a pit along with countless dry grass and floating dust!

“Second search team has no progress!” “The first search team didn’t find the target!” “The sixth search team is expanding the search area!” The walkie-talkies buzzed incessantly as numerous uniformed police officers led search dogs through the complex primitive forests. Suddenly, the dogs barked incessantly.

Qin Chuan raised his walkie-talkie. “This is the fourth search team! We have found something!”

The search dogs ran frantically in the forest, followed closely by criminal investigators and search personnel. In no time, the barking came from a thorny bush on the slope. In an instant, everyone’s joy was evident. Qin Chuan couldn’t care less about almost tripping over the uneven and muddy ground. He rushed to the front with a bent knife provided by the search team and fiercely slashed through the thorny bushes.

“Woof! Woof woof!” The search team members were excited and exclaimed, “We must have found it!”

Qin Chuan threw the knife aside and, in his haste, ignored everything else. He forcefully pushed aside the thorny bushes—

Qin Chuan gasped and raised his hand to check the time. It was already eight o’clock and five minutes—the life-and-death struggle had only four minutes left!

“Fourth search team, report the situation!” “What’s the situation, Qin Chuan?” “Fourth search team, quickly report your situation!”…

The walkie-talkies were filled with shouts, but the scene was solemn and tense. No one answered, not even a sound. The faces of the people were pale and filled with anxiety. A forest search team member couldn’t help but nearly burst into tears as he kept muttering, “What should we do, Vice Captain Qin? There’s clearly nothing here, why did the dog start barking…”

Suddenly, Qin Chuan raised his hand, stopping him. He walked forward and squatted in the grass, carefully searching for a while. His fingertips carefully hooked onto something from a withered branch.

“This is…”

“Clothes.” Qin Chuan stared at the fabric thread barely visible in the gap between his fingernails. “This dyeing could be from Shen Xiaoxiao’s camouflage pants.”

Everyone hurried over, but before they could take a closer look, at that moment, a faint sound came from a distance. It was like an unclear cry. Following that, the birds on the treetops fluttered away, causing everyone to look up.

“Woof! Woof!”

The police dogs rushed towards the source of the sound. Qin Chuan quickly stood up, and his roaring voice echoed in all the walkie-talkie channels throughout Tianzong Mountain: “Follow them!”

Passing through the wilderness and trees, and overcoming the cover of the forest, the scene suddenly cleared, revealing a large area of burning phoenix trees cascading down from the heights. The unexpected sight stunned everyone. Soon, the search dogs dug at the ground and ran frantically towards a shady spot on the hillside.

“The fourth search team has found the target in the phoenix tree forest. The dogs have made a discovery, and we are in pursuit!” Qin Chuan inserted the walkie-talkie into his right shoulder and quickly caught up, taking three steps for every two.

The search team members stumbled through the forest that hadn’t been traversed by humans for many years. The aerial roots hidden beneath the humus layer tangled and obstructed their progress, causing them to fall with every two steps. But at this moment, no one had the time to cry out in pain. Many people crawled back up after falling, and even after falling again, they got back up, covered in dirt and leaves, and followed the rest of the group. Amidst the chaos, various shouts could be heard continuously from the walkie-talkies:

“Eight o’clock and seven minutes!”

“Eight o’clock and seven minutes and forty seconds!”

“Qin Chuan,” Lu Bureau’s calm voice came through the walkie-talkie. He said, “There’s less than a minute left.”

Nerves tightened in everyone’s minds, almost reaching their limits. The invisible fuse gradually burned to the end—

Qin Chuan clenched his teeth and fired two shots into the air, causing countless birds wrapped in fallen leaves to screech and take flight in the twilight!

This was a deterrent against the nearby potential kidnappers, similar to how police cars would sound their sirens. But no one knew if it would work against these insane and perverse kidnappers. The police officers behind Qin Chuan all came to a stop, staring blankly at the darkening sky. Apart from the echoes of gunshots in the valley, despairing silence enveloped the surroundings.

Although the search time was brief and hasty, at this moment, every second felt endless.

Tick-tock—

At precisely eight o’clock and nine minutes, the dust stirred up by their footsteps slowly settled back onto the ground.

Though there was no sound, it was as if an invisible bomb had been detonated in the empty air. Suddenly, a dog’s frantic barking erupted ahead!

“We found it!”

“It’s there! It’s there!!”

The shouts tore at everyone’s eardrums. All the search teams in the valley raised their heads simultaneously. On the command vehicle halfway up the mountain, Lu Bureau stood up abruptly.

“We found it!” Qin Chuan rushed toward a spot several tens of meters away where several police dogs had gathered. He stumbled and fell numerous times without noticing. The end of his sentence had a sharp and eerie change in pitch. “Call the emergency medical team! Bring the ambulance up here! Hurry!!——”

Looking down from above, Bu Wei and Shen Xiaoxiao were lying quietly among the bushes at the bottom of the slope. Their bodies showed no signs of breathing. The narrow strip of sky filtering through the treetops transformed from a pale yellow to a deep blue, as the black night unveiled its magnificent curtain. In the world, the only vibrant color left was the vivid red of the blood trickling beneath the bodies of the young boy and girl.

Jiangyang County Hospital, outside the operating room.

The red light suddenly went out, and at the same time, the door was pushed open. In that instant, Jiang Ting stood up abruptly, only to see the doctor removing his mask as he walked out.

“The bullet has been removed. The surgery was successful, and it can be said that you’re out of danger. However, even though it didn’t damage any internal organs or major blood vessels, why did you lose so much blood? You’ll need to rest properly for some time. Young man, don’t take things lightly…”

The surroundings spun, and the doctor’s voice became increasingly distant, gradually fading into nothingness.

“Hey, what’s wrong with you—Nurse! Nurse!”

Jiang Ting’s vision darkened, and he felt as if he was being supported by someone. It took several seconds for him to regain consciousness and be helped to sit on a bench by medical staff amidst the chaotic voices around him.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Jiang Ting’s hands, as cold as ice, trembled uncontrollably. He accepted the hot honey water hastily brought by a nurse and took a sip.

“Comrade policeman,” the head nurse squeezed through the crowd and handed him a continuously ringing mobile phone. “It’s your call.”

Jiang Ting’s phone had finally reached its limit and malfunctioned. It only rang without lighting up the screen, making it impossible to see the caller ID. He glanced at the screen and answered as he held it to his ear, “Hello?”

“Hello, Consultant Lu, it’s me, Xiao Ma!”

Jiang Ting didn’t have the energy to respond. He looked up at the wall clock, his voice hoarse and plain, devoid of weakness, anger, or excitement. He simply said, “I know.”

“Vice Captain Qin is leading the team to seal off the entrance and exit of Tianzong Mountain. We’re striving to catch the kidnappers overnight. After daring to lay a hand on the Criminal Investigation Detachment of the Municipal Public Security Bureau, they won’t even let a fly off the hook this time. We must uproot those bastards completely!…”

Jiang Ting hung up the call and lightly threw his phone to the side.

“Are you okay, Comrade Policeman?” The head nurse looked at his face, which didn’t look like that of a living person. “You, come here and help this officer to the ward for a check-up. He might have acute hypotension. Bring two glucose solutions!”

Jiang Ting thanked her and was supported by a young nurse as they walked forward. Suddenly, he struggled and stopped.

“Sorry,” his voice was weak, almost frighteningly so, requiring people to come closer to hear him. However, he was still polite, “Could you arrange for me to be next to the police officer who is undergoing surgery, if it’s not too much trouble…”

The head nurse quickly agreed, and Jiang Ting nodded. He turned around and was carefully helped to walk away.

At nine o’clock in the evening, Jiang Ting, who had finished the examination, lay in the hospital room with an IV needle in his hand. Next to him was Yan Yin, who had just been brought in and settled.

The chief expert personally arranged various medical instruments and monitoring devices with his team. They were busy for a while until all the machines and tubes were neatly organized, and the doctors and nurses gradually left the room. As the door closed, the white room suddenly quieted down, with only the steady beeping sound of the heart rate monitor, flashing red and green lights.

Jiang Ting turned his head and looked at the bed next to him.

Yan Yin had a breathing mask on, covering most of his side profile, but his handsome brows and eyes were still clearly visible beneath his neat black hair and sharp forehead.

“…” Jiang Ting exerted effort to sit up and removed the IV needle.

His hand, long and pale on the back, with faint blue veins, trickled with blood as the needle was removed. However, he seemed completely unaware. He supported himself against the bedside table and sat down next to Yan Yin, taking a long sigh.

Yan Yin’s heartbeat and vital signs were stable, rising and falling with his breath. The oxygen mask emitted a faint warm mist. Jiang Ting grabbed his hand tightly, feeling the calloused hand, marked with slight scars and gun calluses, pressing against his palm, even to the point of feeling a bit painful.

That slight pain finally confirmed that this man was still alive, lying well in front of him.

Jiang Ting let out a silent breath and lifted his hand to gently smooth Yan Yin’s furrowed brow, which was still serious even in a coma. Then he carefully examined the handsome face, and a subtle, tender and melancholic emotion emerged in his eyes, one that he himself hadn’t noticed.

“…” Jiang Ting murmured, “You have a smart face, but you’re so foolish.”

Jiang Ting was extremely exhausted. He bent down and lightly rested his forehead on Yan Yin’s strong arm.

The forest had plunged into darkness. The wind rustled through the treetops, and in the distance, the howling of wild animals could faintly be heard from the mountaintop. Several police cars with high beams surrounded the command vehicle. Qin Chuan supported a satellite phone in his shoulder socket while saying “Uh-huh, yes” with both hands stretched out, allowing Gou Li to help bandage his battered fingers.

“Old Yan is out of danger? Great, I’ll go there. Good things happen to good people… Yes, yes, it’s possible that the two victims fell from the top of the slope. It’s hard to say if it was an accident. I’m skeptical. Besides, there’s a teenage boy’s body in the pit on the slope top. According to Li Yuxin’s testimony, it should be He Liang. We’ve already prepared to transport him to the Municipal Bureau along with Da Gou… Hey! It’s been almost a year since the burial, a few more hours won’t make a difference!… Yes, yes, I got it. I’ll contact the Municipal Bureau immediately if there’s any new situation.”

“Vice Captain Qin, Vice Captain Qin!” Gao Panqing climbed onto the car.

Qin Chuan’s hands were caught by Gou Li, preventing him from hanging up the phone. Maintaining a twisted posture with shrugged shoulders, he turned around and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Gao Panqing held up the evidence bag in his hand. Under the bright car lights, it was clear that the bag contained an empty mineral water bottle. He said, “This was found by the forensic team at the bottom of the pit where He Liang’s remains were buried. There’s a small amount of liquid residue at the bottom, and the bottle cap has been separately packaged.”

—A mineral water bottle?

Qin Chuan took the evidence bag and examined it under the light. He suddenly took a sharp breath and said, “He Liang’s remains were buried in July last year.”

Gou Li didn’t understand the significance and asked, “Yes, they have turned into bones.”

“But the production date on this mineral water bottle… is three months ago.”

Silence fell upon the car compartment. Qin Chuan, Gou Li, and Gao Panqing exchanged glances, and a chill slowly crept up their spines.