Valley of Terror, page 17
Chief Bai shook his head in dismay. “I couldn’t see. He wore a long black coat with a black hat. There was a black cloth over his face. All I could see was his eyes.”
“They were bloodred, weren’t they? It was him, all right!” Yue Dongbei glanced over at Luo.
But Professor Zhou didn’t share Yue Dongbei’s excitement. Eyeing Chief Bai, he asked, “If you saw him up close, why did you let him get away?”
Chief Bai tightened his lips as if he were about to laugh. But no sound came out. “He ran. I had no way of holding him back.”
“Why not?” Luo wrinkled his eyebrows.
“Three of my men are dead, including Zhao Liwen, the fiercest warrior in Mihong.” Chief Bai pointed at the corpse. His voice grew hoarse. “I didn’t stand a chance. What did all of you expect me to do? Was I supposed to die in this forest, too? I only agreed to be your guide. I didn’t agree to die for you.”
“But you did nothing!” Professor Zhou seemed irritated. He lifted the machete that was in his right hand. “This is yours, right? I found it on the hillside! When he appeared, you dropped it in fear, didn’t you? I never imagined that you were such a coward.”
Two nights earlier, when the “demonic spirit” had first threatened them, Chief Bai had wielded that knife proudly and shouted into the forest, laughing. But now, he didn’t seem the least bit concerned about Professor Zhou’s accusation. There was a strange look in his eyes. “You don’t understand. I didn’t have the power to resist him.”
“Oh, is that right?” Professor Zhou laughed. “If he’s so powerful, why did he spare the three of us? What kind of fishy business is this? Why don’t you make him come over, if you can, and offer us up as a sacrifice?”
Professor Zhou hadn’t finished what he was saying when, suddenly, they heard footsteps ascending the hillside. Someone was coming.
Luo gripped his gun, and Professor Zhou brandished the machete, both of them inadvertently assuming defensive poses.
A young man leapt up onto the terrace. He was in his early twenties, with a muscular physique and dark skin. When he saw them, he seemed startled. With his right hand, he pulled out a shiny, curved blade, and he addressed them in a strange language, his tone forbidding.
“Hamo!” Chief Bai explained. Then he stepped forward, speaking to the young man as he walked over.
Luo nodded to himself: It sounded like the language he’d heard at the Kunming psychiatric hospital.
The young man listened to Chief Bai’s words but kept a watchful eye on Luo and the others. His hostility seemed to have dissipated. Finally, he nodded, returned to the edge of the terrace, and shouted something downhill. Someone answered from below. A few moments later, four more men stepped onto the terrace. Like the first, they were dressed from head to toe in rudimentary clothing made of black hemp. All of them had black cloth headbands tied around their heads, except for the one who stood in front, whose headband and waistband were a striking white. His clothing was an elegant silver.
Chief Bai walked forward with his right arm pressed against his chest. “Lord An Mi!”
There was a look of surprise on the man’s face. After returning a formal greeting, he asked, “Village Chief Bai, what are you doing here?” Though he spoke with an accent, his Mandarin Chinese sounded fluent.
Chief Bai gestured toward Luo and the others. “We’re here because of the demonic spirit in the Valley of Terror.”
The man’s expression turned to one of shock. Then he switched to the Hamo language.
Chief Bai replied in Hamo. At first, the two of them seemed to be asking and answering one another’s questions. Then, gradually, just Chief Bai was talking. The other clan leader stood by him, listening attentively and occasionally interjecting with a word or two.
Their conversation continued for a long time. Presumably, Chief Bai was telling him in detail about what had happened since they’d set out for the Valley of Terror. The Hamo man furrowed his brow, looking increasingly worried. He occasionally glanced over at Luo and the others, as if he were assessing them.
The other four Hamo men seemed to be his subordinates. They stood in two separate groups and, like Luo and the others, waited patiently.
Finally, the two men finished their conversation, and Chief Bai led the Hamo group over to where Luo and the others stood. As they approached, Chief Bai pointed to the man in silver.
“This is Lord An Mi, the leader of the Hamo people.”
Luo had already deduced as much. Greeting him with a polite smile, Luo looked the man up and down.
The Hamo leader was in his thirties. He was slightly taller than Luo. He looked healthy but was by no means brawny. He had a dark complexion, thick brows, and striking eyes. He exuded a natural boldness.
Lord An Mi’s mouth twitched a little, as if to convey a general friendliness. However, he did not return Luo’s greeting, and instead went over to Zhao Liwen’s body, kneeling in front of it, then bowing deeply.
His four attendants did the same. Chief Bai turned to Luo and the others.
“The Hamo people have the highest respect for the dead, especially for those who died courageously in battle.”
Luo nodded to show that he understood. Professor Zhou glared icily at Chief Bai, as if to remind him of his earlier display of cowardice.
The Hamo group appeared to be discussing something among themselves. Then, one by one, each of them extended his right index finger, dipped it into the blood, then licked his finger.
“They believe that a person’s soul lingers in their blood, and that drinking a warrior’s blood will give them strength and courage,” Chief Bai explained.
Luo couldn’t help thinking of the blood vial. It seemed that the Hamo people had a rather unusual amount of respect for human blood. Having consoled the spirit of the deceased, Lord An Mi stood back up. He looked at Luo, Professor Zhou, and Yue Dongbei successively. Then, in stilted Mandarin, he told them, “The demonic spirit is the enemy of the Hamo people. We are your friends. Now, let us go to the Valley of Terror together.”
THE DINNER BANQUET
The river ran southeast from Mihong, crossing the border and becoming a tributary of the Lancang River, which flowed into Laos, where it was known as the Mekong River. Throughout this zigzagging journey through ravines and gullies, its waters replenished the riverbanks, sustaining the lives of countless people.
Beyond Qingfeng Pass, the mountains opened into a narrow valley. On the southwestern side was a peaceful pond beside which the Hamo people had lived for generations upon generations.
Compared to the adjacent river basin, however, the pond was a tiny water source. And because there was no access to water in most of the valley’s southern region, no one but the Hamo people had lived there for centuries.
The Hamo village curved over a hill next to the pond. From this hill, a depression could be seen in the distance, covered in dense forest. Though it wasn’t far away, the Hamo people rarely ventured in that direction.
Three centuries earlier, General Li and his troops had spent three years entrenched in this depression, fighting off the Qing a hundred or more times. Among these endless verdant hills, the generals from both sides were buried.
That part of the mountain basin had thus acquired its name: the Valley of Terror.
By the time Luo and the others arrived at the Hamo village with Lord An Mi, it was nightfall. The sky was clear and bright, and there was a light breeze. The pond’s clear water gently shimmered, and log cabins and bamboo pavilions were arrayed along its shore. The scenery was exquisite, and it was as if the Land of Peach Blossoms really did exist.
But Luo still felt uneasy. He looked around suspiciously, fearing something strange hidden within that peaceful village.
The entire journey, Chief Bai had been teaching Luo about the Hamo people. Despite the remoteness of the village, its population had increased over generations, reaching the thousands and far exceeding that of Mihong. The men hunte
In this traditional village, the priesthood not only oversaw a body of established wisdom and presided over worship activities at festivals and on holidays but also disseminated culture and cured illnesses. The most prestigious and respected among them was the high priest. That title was not hereditary. Rather, a candidate was elected by the other priests, then approved by the village chief.
Priestesses, on the other hand, selected their own successors. Their only responsibility was to protect a sacred resource passed down from generation to generation: blood.
Priestesses never married. When a priestess reached middle age, she chose a wise young girl to serve as her successor. This selection process required mutual agreement, meaning the girl who was selected maintained the right to refuse. Before she made her decision, the priestess stressed to her and her family: If she accepts, she will become responsible for containing the centuries’ worth of suffering and hardship endured by our people!
Even so, no one had ever turned down the opportunity. In fact, many Hamo girls saw the title of priestess as the greatest possible honor. Such honor, however, always came at a great cost.
Thinking of the vial of General Li’s blood, sealed up by a Hamo priest, Luo had asked Chief Bai to explain what he meant by great cost. But Chief Bai had refused to go into detail. Now among the Hamo at last, Luo was eager for the right opportunity to ask the people themselves.
Lord An Mi led Luo and the others straight to his own residence. The entire way there, Hamo clansmen who saw them moved to the side of the road in deference, bowing to their young leader. Lord An Mi gave most of them no more than a passing glance. It was only when he met an elder that he stopped and said a few hurried words.
Though Luo didn’t understand the Hamo language, he could tell by the parties’ expressions that they were remarking on the unexpected visitors. After brief introductions, the villagers formally greeted them.
After this occurred a few times, Luo whispered to Chief Bai, “What are they saying?”
“Lord An Mi is saying that you are a Han person who possesses extraordinary courage in combating the dark forces.” Chief Bai pointed at Professor Zhou and Yue Dongbei. “And those two are Han high priests.”
Luo couldn’t help laughing out loud. On reflection, he reasoned that warriors and high priests were the closest thing to police officers, scholars, and doctors in the Hamo social structure.
Lord An Mi’s residence was located at the center of the village. It consisted of three houses. Even though they were made of adobe, rough wood, and felt, the walls were tall and wide. A courtyard had been fashioned out of adobe. This deep in the mountains, it could easily be considered a luxurious home.
After they entered the courtyard, Lord An Mi did not show everyone to their rooms. Instead, he gave instructions to his four attendants, who immediately began running about busily. They pulled tables and chairs out of the rooms and began setting them up outside. They lit dozens of torches, which they inserted into the ground, filling the entire courtyard with warm, flickering light.
“Our friends from afar, we welcome you to our home. Please have a seat!” Lord An Mi pointed to the table as he spoke. Though his speech was stiff, his expression was sincere.
The Mihong villagers and the Hamo clansmen normally saw one another in the daytime. Three years earlier, when Lord An Mi succeeded the previous clan leader, Chief Bai had personally come to take part in the succession ceremony, which was how the two of them met. Now Chief Bai was the first to step forward and take a seat.
He called out to Luo and the others: “Come. Since Lord An Mi is intent on showing us such tremendous hospitality, we must graciously accept.”
Luo flashed a friendly smile at Lord An Mi. He, Professor Zhou, and Yue Dongbei sat down. Then Lord An Mi joined them. There was plenty of room at the table, which was round and about six feet in diameter, and the chairs were comfortably wide.
Luo pointed at the four attendants. “Are they going to sit also?”
Lord An Mi looked at him oddly. “Why would they sit with the guests?” Then he turned and told them something, which they promptly replied to before exiting the courtyard.
Luo shook his head, slightly fazed. He reminded himself that this was a primitive social system, and if the leader didn’t strictly enforce the hierarchy, it would be hard to make everyone follow orders.
He looked over at Yue Dongbei, who seemed gleeful, enthralled by the scene. Meanwhile, Professor Zhou kept a straight face. It was unclear what he was thinking.
Chief Bai was the first to speak. “What a coincidence that we ran into you today, Lord An Mi. Were you at Qingfeng Pass as well?”
“You already know that our people have lost an object that is sacred to us.” Lord An Mi’s face was solemn. “In the past six months, I’ve gone to the pass many times with my attendants to search for it. Today, we heard cries, so we went to investigate, and we found you.”
“You mean the blood vial?” Chief Bai tightened his lips. “I’d heard a rumor that the Hamos had gone to the mountains and lost a sacred object there.”
Anger flashed in Lord An Mi’s eyes, as if a fire inside of him had just been sparked. He took a deep breath, then spoke through clenched teeth. “The sacred object was stolen by a young Han man. A little over six months ago, someone saw him heading through the forest.”
Luo, Professor Zhou, and Yue Dongbei exchanged glances. They were all thinking of the phobia patient at the Kunming psychiatric hospital. Luo took out the photograph of the patient and handed it over to Lord An Mi. “Is this the man?”
The moment Lord An Mi laid eyes on the photo, his expression changed. He slapped it onto the table, then demanded, “Do you know him? Where is he?”
“No, no, we don’t know him!” Luo quickly tried to explain. “As a matter of fact, we’re here to investigate what he was doing. You might say that he’s paid for the theft with his sanity.”
“He’s crippled by extreme phobia,” Professor Zhou solemnly explained.
“Extreme phobia?” Lord An Mi looked conflicted. He picked up the photograph once more and looked at it disgustedly. There was a pause. “Well, it serves him right!”
Yue Dongbei was sweating now, thinking how the young man had set out under his own guidance. Seeing Lord An Mi’s fury, he averted his eyes and shifted awkwardly.
“Since you found him, you must know where the object is!” Lord An Mi declared.
“The vial is in Longzhou, but—” Feeling powerless, Luo paused. “It’s been shattered.”
“What?” Lord An Mi exploded. He sprang to his feet. With a flick of his right hand, he pulled a curved machete seemingly out of thin air and angrily drove its blade straight into the table.
Lord An Mi’s attendants stood horrified at the courtyard entrance, afraid to move. Luo and the others were fearfully silent. It was if time had frozen.
Lord An Mi’s chest was heaving. Several long minutes passed before he finally sat back down. His eyes were fixed on the machete in the table, and he looked forlorn.
Chief Bai saw the attendants were unsure whether to come closer or leave. He carefully nudged Lord An Mi, who seemed startled, as if he hadn’t noticed their presence. Speaking to them in the Hamo language, he waved them over.
Relieved, the attendants crept over to the table, carrying a bottle of liquor, a hot pot, and bowls. As it were, dinner was ready.
The hot pot was filled with a piping-hot stew. A quick glance revealed that the stew contained large chunks of meat, presumably wild game. Someone passed out the bowls and filled them with wine for each guest. The enticing smell of meat and the fragrant aroma of wine flooded the courtyard.
Without waiting for fu
Lord An Mi waited for them to leave, then pointed at the table and snarled, “Did he break it?”
His machete had sliced the photo clean in half. Luo couldn’t help shuddering. Suddenly, he felt someone kick his foot. Looking up, he saw Yue Dongbei staring at him bug-eyed, as if he were trying to communicate something.
Luo knew what Yue Dongbei was thinking, but he decided to be honest. “No, it was me who broke the vial.”
Lord An Mi let out a sharp cry and his attendants rushed back into the courtyard. They’d been downright obsequious while serving the food, but now they bared their teeth. They were poised to attack, waiting for their leader to say the word.
Lord An Mi grabbed Luo by the collar. “Who are you? What did you do that for?”
Professor Zhou and the others nervously watched Luo, knowing full well how imprudent his confession had been and that it would only cause trouble for them.
Yet Luo remained calm and collected. Without the slightest hint of fear, he looked at Lord An Mi, slowly telling him, “It was a mistake. At the time, I didn’t know what the vial was, and I was carrying out my responsibility to prevent a crime.”
“Prevent a crime? You released a demon! Do you know what disasters have befallen our clan due to your actions?” Lord An Mi howled.
“I’m deeply sorry,” Luo told him sincerely. Then he instantly adopted a more decisive tone. “But the demon has hurt my own people as well, which is why I’m here. It doesn’t matter how the problem started. Right now, our common goal is to suppress this demon.”
Lord An Mi stared at Luo without saying a word, but his face seemed to relax. Just then, they heard a scratchy voice coming from somewhere nearby.
“If the demon has escaped, it must be the will of the gods. The Hamo warriors fear nothing. Our friends from other clans are here to help us. Lord An Mi must treat them as his own.”
Everyone turned their heads to see a wiry old man. It wasn’t clear when exactly he’d entered the courtyard. He wore a long black robe with dolman sleeves. There was an air of wisdom and refinement about him.