Valley of terror, p.11

Valley of Terror, page 11

 

Valley of Terror
 



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  Wu Qun returned with a heavy-looking rectangular case about six inches long. It was crafted entirely from silver, with a quaint design featuring horses and soldiers in gold inlay.

  “Inside this box is a military topographic map of Yunnan that General Li once used,” Chief Bai explained with a smile.

  “Oh?” Yue Dongbei snapped to attention. “What an extremely valuable cultural artifact! What are you waiting for? Show us!”

  Wu Qun placed the case on the table, then gently lifted the lid. He took out a thick scroll made with animal hide and placed it in Chief Bai’s hands.

  “That’s it—” Yue Dongbei stared. Then it suddenly hit him. “Lambskin! That’s right, that’s right! Back in those days, they used it for military maps, since it was water-resistant and durable. It was all drawn on lambskin!”

  Chief Bai unrolled the scroll, revealing the contents. Indeed, it was made of white lambskin. Because it was so old, the material had started to yellow. However, the brush marks formed a map that was still clearly legible.

  Luo and the others closed in around the map. Wu Qun and Zhao Liwen, no doubt already familiar with its contents, didn’t move.

  “This here is Mihong. And this, here, is our destination: the Valley of Terror.” Chief Bai pointed to the respective symbols, clearly marked in red.

  “Hmm.” Luo studied the directional arrows on the map, concluding, “From the looks of it, the Valley of Terror should be a little over ten degrees southeast of Mihong.”

  “Eleven point five, to be exact.” Chief Bai shot an approving glance at Luo. “This is the route we’ll be taking, which will take us past Mopan Mountain, Yijian Gorge, and Qingfeng Pass.”

  The names of the three locations were clearly written in ceremonial seal script. “Mihong” and “the Valley of Terror” did not appear. But that made sense. The former was based on the legend of General Li, and the latter came from his remaining supporters. These two names wouldn’t be found on a map the general himself used for military purposes.

  “What does this mean?” Luo pointed to a thick line that went from Mopan Mountain to Yijian Gorge, intersecting with the Valley of Terror along the way, ultimately connecting Qingfeng Pass to the Valley of Terror and continuing eastward.

  “Those are the lower reaches of the river in Mihong,” Chief Bai explained. “It eventually flows into the Lancang River.”

  Luo nodded thoughtfully. “So in terms of elevation, the Valley of Terror is lower than Mihong?”

  “Right. And actually, the easiest way is to follow the course of the river. But then you’d have to wind around too far, because Mopan Mountain is right smack in the middle. That’s why we’re going east around Mopan Mountain first, then following the river.”

  “It looks like Mopan Mountain provides an extended natural barrier for the Valley of Terror.” Luo gazed at the map, awestruck.

  “Excellent! Excellent!” Yue Dongbei suddenly started clapping. He flashed a thumbs-up at Luo. “There was a time when General Li was at a pass on Mopan Mountain, being pursued by Wu Sangui’s troops in what would lead to one huge final confrontation. If some scoundrel hadn’t leaked military secrets, Wu Sangui would have been dead and buried on Mopan Mountain.”

  “Really?” Luo said. “Mr. Yue, please tell us more.”

  Yue Dongbei wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to show off. He cleared his throat and began narrating in a singsong voice: “It was February of 1659. Li Dingguo’s Ming troops fled toward the southwestern border, Wu Sangui hot on their heels. The general was betting that winning had made the Qing troops complacent, and so he decided to lie low in the woods on Mopan Mountain and ambush his enemy. Indeed, the Qing troops were gloating so much that they sauntered right toward the ambush. Just when Li was about to give the order to attack, one of his commanders betrayed his plan to Wu Sangui. Wu Sangui ordered his men to charge the thicket alongside the road, and both sides engaged in a bout of unimaginably fierce fighting. After calling for reinforcements, Li’s troops were able to beat back the Qing forces, but it was not the triumph it should have been.”

  He threw a smug glance at Chief Bai. “Well, Chief Bai? Is anything I said incorrect?”

  “It’s correct, Mr. Yue. You are a man of true erudition.” Chief Bai looked a little surprised.

  As he tried to imagine the monstrous clash that must have taken place, Luo couldn’t help feeling a shiver of excitement.

  “All right already. Let’s not go off on a tangent.” Professor Zhou, who wasn’t terribly interested in the subject, waved at the others. “Let’s get back to discussing our departure.”

  Luo laughed and looked over at Chief Bai.

  “Okay. That’s our route and the terrain. I think you understand what’s involved.” Chief Bai turned to Wu Qun. “Put away the map.”

  Wu Qun stepped forward. Just as he was placing the lambskin scroll back into its case, a piece of paper floated out. It hung gently in the air before landing on the table directly in front of Yue Dongbei, who snatched it up. It was a sheet of ancient rice paper, yellowed with ragged edges. There was writing on one side.

  Yue Dongbei stared in wonder, then cried, “My oh my! Chief Bai, I never imagined you would have so many treasures in your possession.”

  Chief Bai frowned, a confused look in his eyes.

  Luo leaned closer. “What is it?”

  “If my analysis is correct, this is a note handwritten by Li Dingguo himself! It is invaluable to my research!” Yue Dongbei’s eyes shone. “Chief Bai, do you have any more of this sort of thing? Let me have a look—now!”

  But Chief Bai simply turned to Wu Qun. “What’s this about? Where did this come from?”

  There was a bewildered look on Wu Qun’s face. “I—I don’t know.”

  “What do you mean?” asked Luo. “This document isn’t yours?”

  Chief Bai shook his head. “We looked at these maps only yesterday. How did this piece of paper get in the box?”

  Zhao Liwen, the assistant who hardly spoke, interjected, “Could it have been there all along without us noticing it?”

  Chief Bai was quiet for a moment. He shook his head and asked Yue Dongbei, “What does it say?”

  “This note actually appears to be from his journals. We were just talking about the battle at Mopan Mountain, and as luck would have it, this was written on the evening of the battle! I’ll read it out loud for you.”

  Battle at Mopan Mountain. My long-awaited plan’s end was to be found in bitter struggle. A golden opportunity hath befallen us on this day. The third regiment was in position, entrenched in the valley. If the enemy came, the first was to strike. Then, the earth’s eruption, during which the second and third cometh. Assaulted from front and rear, the enemy was to be vanquished! Counter to expectation, secrets hath been disclosed, the plan impeded. All three met in a bloodbath. How it grieves me. My only consolation is that I entered the enemy fray, sliced ten, with seven lashes reaped. The end saw the traitor seized in the field, to go under discipline tomorrow at daybreak. Remove the traitor’s tongue, and let him meet his maker.

  Because it was written in Classical Chinese, Luo and the others didn’t understand a word. Wu Qun and Zhao Liwen were likewise gaping.

  “Now,” Chief Bai objected, “Mr. Yue, we’re all on the same team. Tell us in plain language what that meant.”

  There was a smug look on Yue Dongbei’s face. “Fine. I’ll translate it for you. The first half is General Li’s account of the battle at Mopan Mountain, which confirms my research. The second half is quite interesting. It seems that he infiltrated Wu Sangui’s ranks, killing ten soldiers and sustaining seven wounds. Eventually, the commander who leaked the ambush plan was captured alive. Li was planning to punish this fellow early the next morning by pulling out his tongue!”

  “‘Sliced ten, with seven lashes reaped’—this Li Dingguo was one fierce fellow.” There was admiration in Luo’s voice. “I’ve never heard of pulling out someone’s tongue before.”

&nb
sp; “Heh heh. Classic Li Dingguo! He would take a man and pull out his tongue until it killed him. It was a favorite execution method.”

  A silence fell over the room, everyone trying to envision the wretched sight of someone undergoing such torture. It was truly bloodcurdling.

  With a sigh, Professor Zhou was the first to speak up. “Divulging military secrets is a serious offense, but even so, that kind of punishment is profoundly cruel.”

  Yue Dongbei was tittering. “Just the beginning of General Li’s cruelty, I assure you. If he hadn’t been so cruel, why would the Hamo people have considered him a demonic spirit? Even after he died, they put their most vicious curse on him. Heh heh, now that the blood vial has been shattered, they must be trembling in fear at the thought of his reincarnation!”

  The others leaned away, disgust on their faces.

  Luo was both frank and blunt. “Mr. Yue, it’s not appropriate for you to be labeling Li Dingguo a demonic spirit. Even though there was a cruel and barbaric side to his character, his courage and resourcefulness shouldn’t be underestimated. He should be considered a hero to the Han people.”

  But Yue Dongbei wasn’t one to back down. He shook his rotund head. “A hero? Chief Inspector Luo, you seem to have forgotten that we’re trying to uncover the mystery of the demonic spirits terrorizing Longzhou! I am here helping you! At least you’re finally taking an interest in General Li, which will come in handy when we reach the forest.”

  “Please give me that piece of paper,” Chief Bai coldly interrupted. “And don’t forget that our people descend from General Li. I think you’ve spoken enough for today.”

  Wu Qun and Zhao Liwen were giving Yue Dongbei the evil eye, and he suddenly remembered how the two of them had brandished their knives outside the temple. He shut his mouth and indignantly handed the paper over to Chief Bai.

  “Put this away.” Chief Bai told Wu Qun. “And go conduct a thorough search to see if there’s anything else tucked inside the scroll.”

  Then he turned and faced Luo and the others. “That’s all for today. If the rain stops, we’ll meet tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. at the Temple of the Dragon King and depart as scheduled!”

  Chapter 14

  DEEP IN THE FOREST

  The next morning, there was no sign of rain, so the travelers prepared to depart. Mr. Wang specially prepared extra eggs to give them a nutrient-rich breakfast. And when it came time to settle the bill, he couldn’t help repeatedly warning them to be careful. It was clear that this kindhearted man was deeply worried.

  Naturally, Luo and the others were even more uneasy. They were finally heading to the eye of the storm: the Valley of Terror. What awful events had transpired in the past in this forest cut off from the rest of civilization—and what was yet to come?

  On the way to the Temple of the Dragon King, the three men were subdued, each lost in his own thoughts.

  Luo was frustrated by the mysterious man who had followed him. Who was he, anyway? Where was he from? If he had wanted to make contact, why did he fail to keep the appointment? Was he also going to the Valley of Terror? Could it be possible that he was hurrying to stay ahead of them? And he hadn’t hired a guide, so did that mean he already knew his way? There were far too many questions and no easy answers.

  Even garrulous Yue Dongbei wasn’t himself. The fanatical scholar was finally nearing his goal, and yet he seemed reticent, moody, too distracted to chatter.

  And what of Professor Zhou? The renowned professor now found himself on the brink of the wilderness. Luo wondered, not for the first time, why the man had agreed to make this journey. Was he really doing it to track down the cause of the phobia? Or was it just because he wanted to refute Yue Dongbei’s theory and defend the principles of scientific knowledge? Could he solve the mystery?

  With his two assistants in tow, Chief Bai was already waiting at the Temple of the Dragon King. He stepped forward and greeted them, pointing toward the sky. “It’s not going to rain over the next two days. God willing, if this keeps up, this trip of ours will go without a hitch.”

  Evidently, Chief Bai had put yesterday’s disagreement over the departure date behind him.

  Professor Zhou smiled lightly, as if to accept this truce, and politely responded, “Luckily for us, Chief Bai knows what he’s doing!”

  “I’ll certainly do my best. Once we set foot in the forest, we’re all going to be in this together,” Chief Bai said. Then he turned to Wu Qun, who stood beside him. “Parcel out the rations. We need to get going.”

  “Each package contains enough jerky and crackers to last four days. There should be ample water in the mountains, so we don’t need to bring our own. When you’ve finished what’s in your water bottles, I can help you find someplace safe to refill them,” Wu Qun explained.

  “The rainforest is crawling with mosquitoes, leeches, poisonous ants, and whatnot. So fasten your collars and button your sleeves,” Chief Bai advised. He looked at them and saw that the collars of their hiking jackets were secured with elastic loops and their pants were already tucked into their socks and boots. He flashed a smile, then told Zhao Liwen, “Help them put on the garlic juice.”

  Zhao Liwen took out a small, pungent satchel and began rubbing it against their ankles.

  “This way, the insects won’t crawl into your boots.” Chief Bai took out three pairs of tinted sunglasses. “Here, there’s a pair for each of you.”

  Though they found it a little odd, Luo and the others took them.

  Yue Dongbei asked, “What are these for? Is the sun in the forest going to damage our eyes?”

  Chief Bai chuckled. “The path is filled with all kinds of brambles. You’ll need these to protect your eyes from scratches.”

  Suddenly, Luo felt a rush of excitement. This trek was going to be educational, indeed! If it weren’t for their guide and his wealth of experience, they surely would have encountered countless difficulties.

  Under Chief Bai’s orders, Wu Qun and Zhao Liwen took the travelers’ sleeping bags, which significantly lightened their loads.

  They were all set. With his hands clasped behind his back, Chief Bai turned his gaze eastward.

  Everyone followed the direction of his gaze and stood a long time in reverent silence. Not far in the distance, a towering mountain peak and a dense forest spread before them.

  “Mopan Mountain . . .” Chief Bai pronounced the mountain’s name in one long, dramatic breath. Then he stood up straight. “Let’s go!”

  With that, the chief bounded into the wooded hills behind the Temple of the Dragon King.

  Luo and the others trailed closely behind him. Twenty minutes later, they had fully disappeared into the dense mountain undergrowth.

  As they approached the mountain, Luo increasingly felt as if he were in another world altogether. The tree canopy overhead almost completely blocked out the sky. Even though it was light outside, the interior of the forest was quite dark. The trees grew in thick copses with hardly a gap in between.

  The explorers who’d come before them had left a trail—though to call it that was a stretch, as it was nothing more than faded footprints. Wu Qun hurried to the front of the group, brandishing his machete and continually chopping down the branches and vines that obstructed their path, which also frightened off deadly insects and wild animals hiding in the dark recesses.

  Whenever it was unclear which direction the footprints were leading, Chief Bai stepped up and made the decision. The rest of the time, he devoted his energies to looking after Yue Dongbei.

  Desperately out of shape, Yue Dongbei looked even clumsier than usual in this setting. They had barely set out, and he was already huffing and puffing, struggling to keep up. But he didn’t so much as grumble. He simply buckled down and made a few self-deprecating jokes. The man had formidable grit.

  Behind Yue Dongbei came Luo, who was relatively light-footed due to his strenuous police training. He was no stranger to mountaineering—he’d worked on Nanming Mountain before coming to Lon
gzhou—though this was his first time in such a dense rainforest. He occasionally reassured Yue Dongbei and helped pull up Professor Zhou, who walked behind him.

  Professor Zhou’s pace was not quick, nor were his strides large. However, his steps were strong and steady, and his physical fitness was evident. Whenever strange, new flora appeared along the path, he would stop and collect a few specimens for research.

  Zhao Liwen came last. He wasn’t big, but his eyes revealed a sharpness. His arms were muscular, the veins bulging as he gripped his machete. Everyone felt safe with him bringing up the rear.

  As they ascended, the temperature began to plummet. Because the trek was so physically grueling, everyone worked up a sweat and drank water frequently. Chief Bai watched the three travelers carefully to see how they were holding up. Whenever necessary, he instructed Wu Qun to slow his pace so they could catch their breath. The first time Luo noticed Yue Dongbei struggling, he suggested they stop and take a break.

  But Chief Bai refused, telling them, “We should either take a long rest or just keep moving. Taking short breaks will make your body even more tired.”

  “That’s because starting and stopping repeatedly will disrupt the rhythms of your body’s metabolism,” Professor Zhou added.

  Fortunately, though the uphill path was damp and slippery, no one took a spill. With a guide out in front, those behind were able to gauge the steps ahead and minimize the risk of a fall.

  This continued straight into the afternoon, when Chief Bai told Wu Qun to stop. Then he turned to the rest of the group. “All right. Let’s drink some water and have something to eat.”

  Yue Dongbei had long been looking forward to those words. Without waiting for Chief Bai to finish, he took out his food rations and plopped down. “Goodness gracious, I am dying. Finally, a break!”

  Luo stifled a smile. “We’re just getting started. You’re going to have to hunker down.”

  But Yue Dongbei was too busy guzzling the contents of his water bottle to reply.

  Luo tore off a piece of the jerky they’d been given, chewing carefully. Made from pickled pork, it was mildly spicy and actually rather palatable. In comparison, the crackers were hard, dry, and bland. They were effective in staving off hunger, and not much else.

 

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