Valley of terror, p.13

Valley of Terror, page 13

 

Valley of Terror
 



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  Suddenly, Chief Bai looked up at the night sky and burst into a fit of wild laughter. It continued for some time, loud at first, then gradually fading until it descended into something resembling the cry of a savage. He clenched his jaw and turned to face the black forest. Then he bellowed, “Come out if you dare! I don’t care who or what you are! I, Chief Bai, will be waiting for you!”

  The cry seemed to carry to every last dark corner of the wilderness. “I will be waiting for you . . .” The sound lingered for a long time. Was it an echo or a sinister reply from the netherworld?

  Chapter 16

  PULLING OUT TONGUES

  At the campsite, Chief Bai showed no signs of fear.

  “Zhao Liwen will be on duty for the next two hours, then Wu Qun can take over. Replenish the campfire and keep your eyes open! If anything happens, holler. Nobody messes with Chief Bai. The rest of you go to sleep.”

  Chief Bai went back to his bed and closed his eyes. Could he really be so unfazed?

  Luo, Professor Zhou, and Yue Dongbei retreated to their tent and crawled back into their sleeping bags, but even though they didn’t speak a word, all three knew sleep was an impossibility.

  Luo stared into the dark tent, feeling a complicated mix of emotions. He was alert, confused, shocked, and even a bit excited.

  There was the scent of something diabolic in the air, and it was growing stronger. Who was their unseen adversary? What was he trying to do?

  Luo had no answers. He now felt a tinge of regret. It had been a serious mistake not to have conducted a search of the Temple of the Dragon King when they were in Mihong. There must have been clues left behind. Even if it was only a footprint or a hair, it would have been of immense importance. At the very least, it would have helped to determine what this adversary actually was.

  Of course, Chief Bai had forbidden anyone to enter the temple. And all of them had underestimated the importance of the blood on the statue. Prior to this evening, Luo had been partial to the view that the incident at the temple had been a personal attack against Chief Bai’s authority, and so he hadn’t wanted to enter the fray.

  But now the situation had escalated. Could it really be as Yue Dongbei said, that it was all tied to the Valley of Terror’s legendary demonic spirits?

  If so, had this mysterious adversary actually followed him all the way from Longzhou? That would simply be too terrifying! The implications were enough to make his hair stand on end.

  The further he followed that logic, the more bewildered he felt. At the same time, the sheer challenge of it galvanized him. He was a born hunter, and this adversary, so frightening and mysterious, was awakening his most visceral instincts. His prey hadn’t left any means of tracking it, but a good hunter had to know when to lay in wait. And Luo had the courage, the intelligence, and the patience to do it.

  Adhering to this line of thinking greatly simplified the problem. Luo’s next task was to figure out the adversary’s next move so that he could be on the lookout and prepare a counterattack.

  According to Yue Dongbei’s analysis, Chief Bai was almost certainly the next target. But how much credence should Luo give the preposterous man? Furthermore, what if “skinning and stuffing” was just a bluff?

  He peeked outside the tent. Zhao Liwen was faintly visible in the firelight, standing up straight and stock-still. Whenever there was even the slightest sound, he would turn on his flashlight and go investigate.

  Luo watched and saw how whenever Zhao Liwen reacted to a sound, Chief Bai and Wu Qun would toss and turn in their sleep.

  The men of Mihong were on high alert.

  Luo, on the other hand, was finally relaxed. For the moment, there was no need for him to keep an eye on things. He decided to rest up for the unknown dangers to come. When he opened his eyes again, it was already the next morning. Beside him, Professor Zhou and Yue Dongbei were still sound asleep.

  Luo quietly slipped out of his sleeping bag and stepped outside the tent.

  A pure, dewy freshness filled the air. Luo inhaled deeply a few times. It was as if the freshness infiltrated his mind and body, making him feel exceptionally clear-headed.

  Chief Bai looked as if he had just woken up, too. He had just rolled up his bedding. Wu Qun held his machete and stood guard. Zhao Liwen was off to the side, extinguishing what little was left of the campfire.

  “Chief Inspector Luo, you’re up early,” Chief Bai said.

  “I slept like a rock. All of you must be tired from your hard work,” Luo said politely. He crossed to Wu Qun and patted him on the shoulder. “All right, it’s daybreak. You can relax now.”

  Wu Qun looked at Luo nervously out of the corner of his eye, tightening his grip on his machete.

  Chief Bai looked over. “What are you doing? Put that knife away. Everyone’s water bottles are running low. Why don’t you go fill them?”

  “Yes, sir!” Wu Qun answered. He placed his machete back in its sheath, then went to collect the water bottles.

  With a sheepish laugh, Luo watched him walk away. “I guess Chief Bai is still the boss around here.”

  Their conversation woke Professor Zhou and Yue Dongbei, who crawled from the tent and, just like Luo, inhaled the fresh air.

  “My goodness, I haven’t slept outdoors like this in years,” Yue Dongbei said as he stretched. “Chief Bai, if I said anything last night that offended you, please forgive me.”

  “We don’t know who the enemy is. There’s no time for infighting.” There was an impassiveness to Chief Bai’s demeanor.

  Rubbing his belly, Yue Dongbei strolled around the campsite. He kicked the dummy lightly as he passed. “You rotten thing, you’re the reason nobody got a wink of sleep last night!”

  “We were lucky to have these two on watch all night.” Professor Zhou looked up, searching for a moment. “Where’s Wu Qun?”

  “He went to refill the water.” Luo pointed in the direction of the reservoir. Then he realized Wu Qun had been gone too long. “Hey, shouldn’t he be back by now?”

  “It’s broad daylight. The chances of—” Chief Bai didn’t finish what he was saying. The words something happening sank to the pit of his stomach.

  At that moment, Wu Qun had emerged from the thicket, tripping over his own feet as if he were drunk. He seemed to be out of his senses and in extreme pain. His eyes were practically popping out of their sockets. Even more frightening, his hands were in his mouth, tightly gripping his tongue. The man was yanking out his tongue with all his might!

  “What the hell are you doing?” Chief Bai hollered, running toward him. Zhao Liwen was right beside him. The two of them supported Wu Qun as he staggered.

  Luo and the others followed close behind.

  Wu Qun stared at Chief Bai, shock and distress on his face. It seemed as if he wanted to say something, but he could produce only a whimpering sound. There was a hoarseness to it, such that it didn’t seem human.

  All the energy in his entire body seemed to be concentrated in his fingers, which had yanked his tongue a full two inches out of his mouth. His fingernails were deeply implanted in his tongue, and blood was oozing out. It was almost as if he believed this wasn’t his tongue but a snake that had entered his body.

  “Hurry up and stop him! He’s going to kill himself!” Professor Zhou cried out in alarm.

  Luo stepped forward and tried to pry Wu Qun’s fingers free. Chief Bai and Zhao Liwen joined in. But Wu Qun had an iron grip, and it seemed impossible to wrench them loose.

  Wu Qun’s tongue had virtually been pulled out. His face was completely red, as if he were suffocating, and he was taking unusually rapid breaths.

  “Quick, help!” Luo knew it was bad. He shouted out to the others. Professor Zhou and Yue Dongbei became part of the group, and they wrung Wu Qun’s stiff fingers, one by one, away from his tongue.

  Finally, Wu Qun appeared to have spent all of his energy. His fingers loosened their grip, and the others wrested his tongue free.

  However, there wa
s no cause for celebration, for at that very moment, Wu Qun stopped breathing and his eyes froze. His body grew limp. His tongue still hung outside of his mouth. A strange expression spread across his face as death overtook him.

  Shocked and angered, Chief Bai watched as another one of his most trusted aides died tragically. He pulled away from the group and removed his machete from his belt, then stormed off in the direction of the water.

  The reservoir was only ten yards from the campsite, but the trees hid it from view. When Chief Bai arrived, there was not a single hint of anything out of the ordinary.

  Gripping his machete, he scoured his surroundings, eyes flashing with anger. “Damn you! What is it that you want? Show yourself,” he growled.

  He heard a rustling sound, and indeed, someone appeared. Chief Bai stared intently, ready to attack. Then he saw that it was Luo.

  Luo’s face was placid, and his eyes were bright and piercing as he carefully surveyed the scene.

  Wu Qun had neatly arranged the water bottles along the edge of the pool. One bottle lay at a distance from the others, water spilling out of it. Luo went over and picked it up.

  “Is this Wu Qun’s?” Luo asked Chief Bai, who nodded in response.

  Luo squatted down, but the brush was too thick to check for footprints.

  “Let’s go back and take a look at the campsite. It doesn’t look like there are many clues here,” Luo said.

  His face ashen, Chief Bai silently followed Luo.

  At the campsite, Professor Zhou was examining the corpse while Zhao Liwen stood guard beside him. He seemed to grow more furious every time he looked down and saw his partner’s body. Yue Dongbei was off a little way, his hands clasped, looking up at the sky.

  “What did you find?” Professor Zhou lifted his head as Luo and Chief Bai neared.

  Luo didn’t answer right away. Instead, he stooped down to inspect the jacket on the body. One spot was visibly soaked.

  With his left hand, Luo picked up Wu Qun’s water bottle. With his right, he touched the wet spot. Then he racked his brain, recounting how the events had unfolded, step-by-step: “He filled his own bottle first. Then he immediately started drinking it. It was then that something happened—”

  “What happened?” Chief Bai wanted to know.

  Luo shook his head, staring at Wu Qun’s face. “Why?” he asked himself. “Why was he trying to pull out his tongue?”

  He contemplated the question for a while, but there didn’t seem to be any leads. “What do you see? Can you pin down the cause of death?” he asked Professor Zhou.

  “There aren’t any wounds on his body, so no signs that he was attacked. I’m starting to think that pulling out his own tongue caused him to suffocate, which is what killed him, but”—Professor Zhou pointed to Wu Qun’s tongue, which was dangling out of his mouth—“there’s also something fishy about that.”

  “What about it?” Luo narrowed his eyes. Chief Bai crouched over and listened closely.

  “Look, it’s swollen!”

  Sure enough, Wu Qun’s tongue was much too large, and it looked faintly black.

  “What could have caused this? A disease or poison?” Luo asked.

  “Right now, it’s not clear. This is just an external symptom. But the problem most likely stems from the tongue. In order to find out what happened, we have to conduct special procedures on the corpse.” Professor Zhou was looking inquisitively at Chief Bai as he spoke.

  Luo understood. If Professor Zhou wanted to do something to the corpse, he needed Chief Bai’s permission.

  Chief Bai also understood what Professor Zhou was getting at. He resolutely reached into his belt and took out his machete. Then he stepped forward and made an incision in Wu Qun’s throat, near the base of his tongue.

  Blood poured out.

  Luo felt a chill in his heart, and his breath caught in his throat.

  Chief Bai gazed at the scene before him, scowling. He clenched his jaw and cut all the way through the skin and muscle in Wu Qun’s neck. He then plunged his fingers inside Wu Qun’s throat and groped around before pulling the entire tongue out through the opening.

  It was a bizarre and frightening sight. The tongue, which had a dark welt on it, was so incredibly swollen that it almost looked like a loaf of bread. To everyone’s shock, there was a vividly colored spider right in the middle, pressed against it.

  The spider was roughly the size of someone’s thumb. On its body was a distinctive hourglass-shaped marking. Though it had been dead for some time, its fangs were securely embedded in Wu Qun’s tongue.

  Chief Bai’s face showed all kinds of different emotions swirling inside of him: shock, helplessness, sorrow. He gingerly removed the spider and laughed darkly. “A black widow.”

  “Black widow?” Luo couldn’t take his eyes off the spider. “That’s what it’s called?”

  Chief Bai nodded. “It’s an extremely poisonous species. A bite to the leg, without proper treatment, can kill a person, so you can imagine what happens if it bites a vital area like the tongue.”

  Luo furrowed his brow. “Does it live in water?”

  “No.” Chief Bai deliberated for a moment. “Maybe it crawled into the water bottle?”

  Luo thought it through. Chief Bai, Wu Qun, and Zhao Liwen had spread sulfur around their beds, but the water bottles had been outside the ring. This dangerous spider had crawled into Wu Qun’s water bottle. Wu Qun had filled his own bottle first and swallowed the spider along with the water. Its life in danger, the spider had bitten his tongue, injecting all of its venom. Wu Qun, who was not only in unbearable pain but in shock, instinctively tried to pull out his tongue to get rid of the poison in his throat. But the poison still killed him.

  It was all too tragic. Luo shook his head. There was nothing he could say. Professor Zhou and Zhao Liwen were likewise overcome.

  “Ha ha. A bit too much of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?” When Yue Dongbei finally opened his mouth, he didn’t mince words. “This was portended two days ago.”

  “Two days ago.” Chief Bai gaped at Yue Dongbei. “Two days ago, we were still in Mihong.”

  Yue Dongbei didn’t answer and instead looked up at the sky. Then he sighed dejectedly. “My, I should have known. I was distracted by the whole business of skinning and stuff, but there was an earlier warning that appeared right before our eyes—”

  The others exchanged baffled glances.

  “Pulling out tongues as a punishment! Have you all forgotten?” Yue Dongbei yelled. “The paper from General Li’s journal! He made it perfectly clear that—at dawn on Mopan Mountain—the traitor would be punished by pulling out his tongue!”

  Luo quickly went over the events of the past two days in his head. There was one detail he hadn’t given much consideration before.

  “You said that piece of paper wasn’t in the scroll before, right?” His gaze traveled back and forth between Chief Bai and Zhao Liwen.

  Zhao Liwen seemed dumbstruck. He simply looked over at Chief Bai.

  Chief Bai nodded and said in a low voice, “That’s right. I have no idea where it came from.”

  A hush fell over the group.

  “If that paper really was from Li Dingguo’s journal, it would be very interesting.” Professor Zhou paused. “It’s not the sort of thing your average person would have access to.”

  That was exactly what Luo had been thinking, too. He looked up, signaling for Professor Zhou to continue.

  “In fact, I think that only someone who studies history, which is to say, someone who has conducted in-depth research on Li Dingguo, would have this kind of cultural artifact in their possession.”

  Yue Dongbei was no idiot. His face turned red. “You think it was me?”

  “As you’ve taken such pains to show, you have a wealth of historical information on General Li. Indeed, who has researched him more extensively than you? Now, over the past few days, there’s been a series of strange, inexplicable incidents, and isn’t that what you’ve b
een hoping to see?” Professor Zhou’s tone was starting to become aggressive.

  “Absurd! How absurd! How could I have planned all of this? You think I arranged for there to be some kind of omen so that I could go and explain it?” Yue Dongbei had gone from embarrassment to anger. “It’s true that I want to witness these kinds of things because they build evidence for my theory and enrich my scholarship. But if they were all a show on my part, then what good would it do me? That’s not research—that’s fraud! You’ve repeatedly resorted to despicable means to attack me—is this how you scientists treat those whose viewpoints differ from your own?”

  Professor Zhou stared icily at the man. He’d been hoping to provoke him into a confession, but he was disappointed. If Yue Dongbei was faking this response, he was a talented actor.

  Chief Bai and Luo were also suspicious of Yue Dongbei. Though there was no evidence he’d committed a crime, he’d had an awfully thorough explanation for each of the strange incidents. It was difficult not to speculate that the unseen “mysterious forces” were parts of a plan that Yue Dongbei had guided them toward, step-by-step, and executed.

  Yet chatty Yue Dongbei hardly seemed capable of such profound secrets—not to mention double homicide. Luo usually prided himself on being able to accurately assess a person’s character. Could he have misjudged this cartoonish man?

  Luo was silent for a moment, then he shook his head. There was one problem with suspecting Yue Dongbei. If he had planned and carried out these incidents, then why would he explain their hidden meaning at every juncture? Those explanations had caused everyone to mistrust him, which a criminal mastermind would have had to foresee. It didn’t make sense.

  Chief Bai broke the deadlock. “Mr. Yue, according to your theories, why would this punishment be inflicted on Wu Qun?”

  Though he hesitated, his answer was decisive. “Tongue removal was a punishment that General Li designated for traitors, so I think that Wu Qun must have been linked to some kind of secret being divulged.”

 

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