Valley of terror, p.20

Valley of Terror, page 20

 

Valley of Terror
 



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  “We fought alongside your troops for years without ever complaining,” A Liya angrily retorted. “It’s because of the general’s own use of sorcery that we left. How can he blame us?”

  “No, that can’t be the whole reason. General Bai, it’s imperative that you tell us everything!” He Layi looked gravely at Lieutenant General Bai.

  Lieutenant General Bai sighed. “The lady is not only lovely, but intelligent. You are correct. There is an even more important reason that General Li is doing this.”

  “What is it?” The warriors waited anxiously to hear what he would say next.

  “His troops have exhausted their provisions. In the Valley of Terror, the terrain is rugged and dangerous, and there’s no way to replenish much-needed supplies. Your village, on the other hand, is rich with resources . . .” Lieutenant General Bai trailed off.

  So General Li had set his sights on this fertile, blessed plot of land. The Hamo felt their hearts sinking. If that was the case, there was no hope of reconciliation or compromise.

  There was a silence, and then A Liya declared, “Our people have lived here for generations. If General Li wants to take our land from us, he’s going to have to answer to the swords of the Hamo warriors!”

  “I know the Hamo warriors are capable of great heroics, but it’s no use,” Lieutenant General Bai said. “General Li has already rigged the lake along the cliff with gunpowder, to be detonated at his command, so that this village will be flooded!”

  There was a visible change in A Liya and the others as they heard this. As all of them had been born and raised there, they knew what havoc the mountain torrents could wreak. If the water collecting in the lake were to come rushing down all at once, it would instantly wipe out their entire village.

  A moment later, He Layi recovered from her shock. “What a sinister tactic,” she remarked with a sad smile. “But if this is the case, why did he send you here, Lieutenant General Bai?”

  “That—” Lieutenant General Bai seemed unwilling to answer the question.

  “Lieutenant General Bai, you are a good, kindhearted person.” He Layi’s dark eyes glimmered. “You must tell us.”

  Lieutenant General Bai hesitated. His tone was hushed. “Rumors have spread among the troops that the lady, He Layi, is not only the most beautiful among the Hamo people, but anywhere. General Li, being loath to drown her, sent me here to trick her into coming to the Valley of Terror—and leaving her—to the troops.”

  A Liya was beside himself with rage. He jumped up and drew his sword. “General Li! You shameless devil! I’ll show you!”

  The other warriors leapt to their feet to follow.

  He Layi called out to them, her cry loud and clear: “Stop! You mustn’t go!”

  All of the warriors stopped in their tracks, and He Layi sighed with relief. “General Li isn’t merely vicious, he’s a brutal, relentless fighter, and one with an entire army under his command. Do you wish to storm straight to your death?”

  “So what should we do, then?” A Liya scowled so fiercely, the veins stood out on his forehead. “Should we just sit here and wait for the floodwaters to drown our entire village?”

  He Layi didn’t answer. She turned and laid her hands on Lieutenant General Bai’s shoulders. There was sincerity in her voice. “Lieutenant General Bai, please stand up.”

  Lieutenant General Bai stood up dumbly. He Layi led him over to the chair that had been reserved for the guest of honor, then told him, “Please have a seat.”

  Looking as if he hadn’t a clue what was happening, Lieutenant General Bai sat down as he was told.

  He Layi took two steps back, then faced him. “Lieutenant General Bai, the lives of the Hamo people, old and young alike, are in your hands. You have a generous heart, and I know that you will help us avert a tragedy.”

  A Liya was quiet for a second. His heart was pounding. “That’s right. No one is closer to the general than Lieutenant General Bai is. If he stands with the Hamo people, it may be possible to reverse the course of those raging floodwaters.”

  There was an awkward expression on Lieutenant General Bai’s face. He remained silent for a long time, then mumbled, “I had a lot to drink, and I leaked a military plan. I’m a traitor to Commander in Chief Li and to the entire Ming Dynasty. If I were to do as the lady asks, I would be committing an act that is beyond all redemption.”

  “Li Dingguo isn’t the commander he once was!” A Liya stepped forward impatiently. “He sold his soul when he exploited the power of gu. Now his heart is filled with pure evil, and his troops are under the control of a demonic spirit. Lieutenant General Bai, if you join him in committing genocide, you will truly find yourself beyond all redemption.”

  Lieutenant General Bai was trembling. There was a crestfallen look on his face, as if he’d just revealed a secret anguish he’d been holding inside.

  He Layi seemed similarly despondent. “We the Hamo people live in this mountain village, far removed from the rest of the world. If Li Dingguo wishes to destroy our clan, there is no difference between him and any demonic spirit. He must be punished by the heavens. For his own general to do so would, in the eyes of heaven, only be righting a wrong. So how could it be an act of betrayal? I speak for Hamo people of all generations when I say, Lieutenant General, I beseech you!”

  With those words, He Layi got down on her knees and bowed deeply.

  A Liya went to He Layi’s side and echoed her sentiments: “Lieutenant General, please carry out the will of heaven!”

  The other twelve warriors shouted in chorus: “Lieutenant General, please carry out the will of heaven!” There was a clatter as they all tumbled to their knees.

  Lieutenant General Bai closed his eyes, turning his face to the sky. Some time passed, then finally, he gave a painful nod. Two teardrops escaped from his eyes, and a messy stream of tears followed.

  Soon afterward, He Layi summoned the high priest of the Hamo clan, and they spent the afternoon in discussions. It was nearly nightfall when Lieutenant General Bai left the village and returned to the camp in the Valley of Terror, where he reported that his mission had gone as planned and He Layi would come the following day. Meanwhile, two particularly nimble Hamo warriors had been dispatched as messengers to contact the Qing and Burmese forces.

  Chapter 23

  THE DEMON’S DEATH

  Early the next morning, He Layi summoned all the young men in the clan and told them about General Li’s plot, infusing them with the will to fight to the death.

  He Layi and the thirteen warriors set out first. They had prepared four rattan trunks to bring to the Valley of Terror. A Liya and three of the fiercest fighters were to hide inside the trunks, which would be carried by the other nine warriors into Li Dingguo’s camp.

  Waiting at the camp, Lieutenant General Bai saw the procession approaching. The general’s aides had blocked off the entrance to the general’s tent and demanded to see what was inside of the trunks.

  “The trunks contain a gift for the general from the Hamo people. I’ve already inspected them.” The second Lieutenant General Bai stepped forward, the rank-and-file soldiers cleared the way for their superior and allowed He Layi and the others to enter.

  Inside the tent, the general sat at the altar, studying a lambskin map. Two of his bodyguards stood behind him, swords drawn. According to legend, the ruthless, unconquerable demon was clad in armor, and he had a chiseled face and thick brows.

  Lieutenant General Bai announced the procession with the utmost graciousness: “Commander in Chief, the lady He Layi of the Hamo people has arrived.”

  General Li lifted his head. There was sincerity in his eyes as he stood up and looked at He Layi, pressing his right hand against his chest and bowing deeply. “He Layi, I am Li Dingguo, commander of the Southern Ming forces.” Behind her, the warriors had set down the rattan trunks, greeting the general with a punctilious bow.

  “Commander, it is an honor.”

  The general peered at He La
yi with a satisfied look on his face. “Excellent!” was the only word he uttered. He was tall and well built, and his imposing manner was readily apparent the instant he stood up.

  When General Li finished studying He Layi, he turned his gaze to the nine warriors kneeling before him. Boldly, he told them, “All of you departed without saying goodbye. This violates the code of military discipline.”

  It was as if a current of electricity shot from his eyes. The Hamo warriors had long cast aside their fears of death, but none of them could suppress the ominous feeling that arose from deep within. All of them lowered their heads in fearful silence.

  After a brief pause, the general suddenly hollered, “Messenger!”

  Instantly, one of his aides appeared inside the tent. “Yes, Commander.”

  “Bring the lady He Layi to the West Tent and let her see her injured father.”

  “Yes, sir!” the aide replied. He gestured politely to He Layi. “Please come with me.”

  He Layi nodded and calmly followed the aide. The warriors all tensed. If, as Lieutenant General Bai had reported, General Li had been plotting to snatch He Layi, they had to act quickly. Their own lives and the lives of everyone in the entire village were at stake. Now was the decisive moment. All of them held their breath, observing the general’s every move. There was no room to falter.

  Hands clasped behind his back, the general paced to and fro. The air inside the tent was tense. Lieutenant General Bai stood to the side, appearing thoroughly composed, though he was sweating heavily.

  Finally, General Li stopped. He pointed at the trunks. “What are those?”

  “These are gifts for the commander from the Hamo people,” a warrior quickly replied. “They are to repay the commander for saving the village chief’s life.”

  “Hmph.” General Li turned and looked at Lieutenant General Bai. “Why don’t you open it so I can have a look?”

  Lieutenant General Bai removed the lid, then darted out of the way. “Commander, here you are!”

  The general glanced over and saw that the trunk was filled with rare medicinal herbs. He nodded. “Fine, then. Put it away.”

  But Lieutenant General Bai didn’t move. “Commander, packed underneath these herbs is what the Hamo people consider their most valuable treasure. It would not be my place, as your humble subordinate, to uncover it. Commander, please come see for yourself!”

  “Oh?” General Li stepped forward and leaned over the trunk. He had just reached his right hand inside when he sensed that something was wrong. He furrowed his brow apprehensively. At that very instant, a man burst forth from underneath the herbs. With his left hand, he gripped General Li’s right arm. With his right hand, he swung his machete directly at the general’s neck. General Li’s reflexes were quick, and he dodged. But the blade’s trajectory was precise enough to cut into his shoulder. His skin was shredded instantly, and blood spewed everywhere. He howled in pain. With one powerful flick of his right arm, he sent the attacker’s blade flying through the air.

  The attacker hiding inside the trunk had been none other than A Liya. He saw that the blow he’d landed had not been a fatal one, so he sprang to his feet and charged at General Li with a sword. The two aides inside the tent had already drawn their swords and stepped in front of their commander, shouting, “An assassin!”

  As a dozen or so guards stormed into the tent, the other Hamo warriors leapt out of the trunks and raised their weapons. There was chaos as the two sides confronted one another, swarming in a circle.

  The general’s wound looked rather serious. His armor was already stained with blood. His aides, in an effort to defend him, had surrounded him. He huffed a little, then pulled his sword from his belt and pushed his way out.

  One of the Hamo warriors saw what was about to happen and immediately brandished his sword in the general’s direction, then charged. He performed a sword dance, luring his opponent toward his blade. Their swords met. The Hamo warrior felt his wrists twisting and his sword swerving out of control. With the quick thrust of a blade, there was a horrific wound near his waist.

  General Li had the upper hand, yet he did not follow that blow with another. Instead, he stalked toward Lieutenant General Bai, who stood at the entrance. He retained his composure even as he snarled, “Have you betrayed me?!”

  Lieutenant General Bai turned pale. He started backing out of the tent, with General Li closing in.

  As they stepped outside, a soldier ran up, then stopped short. “Commander—are you all right?”

  Realizing that his own armor was no longer fully intact, the general looked bewildered, then roared, “You leaked my plan!”

  The soldier got down on one knee. “Commander, the Manchu forces, the Burmese army, and the Hamo clan have surrounded our camp on three fronts!”

  The gravity of the situation now dawned on General Li. He looked up to the sky and let loose a deranged laugh. “Spread the word: My orders are for all units to stay and defend the camp. Anyone who flees answers to my blade.”

  “Yes, sir!” the soldier responded. But instead of leaving, he stared at General Li and Lieutenant General Bai with a worried and confused look on his face.

  “Scram! This matter doesn’t concern you!” General Li barked. The soldier bowed deeply, then sprinted to the soldiers’ quarters to dispatch orders.

  “What is the meaning of this?” The general’s eyes bulged as he glared at Lieutenant General Bai.

  Now it was Lieutenant General Bai’s turn to draw his sword. His emotions were complicated. After a pause, he whispered, “Commander, I’m so sorry.”

  “Sorry? Fine! Fine, then!” General Li lifted his sword, his eyes flashing with rage.

  Back inside the tent, A Liya and the other Hamo warriors fought a grueling battle with the guards. In the end, A Liya was the only man left standing, and he was exhausted and covered in wounds. But there was no time to catch his breath; he gathered the strength to make his way outside the tent to find the wounded but still living General Li.

  A battle cry resounded through the Valley of Terror as General Li’s troops hurled themselves into battle on all three fronts. In contrast, here at the heart of the camp, there was only silence, even as death filled the air all around.

  A trail of bloody footprints began at the tent’s entrance and continued thirty paces west. At the end of those footprints stood a towering figure whose face could not be seen, but A Liya knew it was General Li.

  Gripping his knife, A Liya tiptoed toward him. But after taking about ten steps, he realized there was someone in front of the general. It was Lieutenant General Bai.

  Bloody footprints surrounded the men, testament to a skirmish. Lieutenant General Bai had already lost his longsword, which had been flung far away from him, the blade visibly bent. He was prostrate in front of General Li, with his head pressed against the ground.

  General Li held his sword over Lieutenant General Bai’s neck, such that he could instantly take the other man’s life. But he didn’t. Neither of them moved; they were like statues. Blood, which continued to gush from the general’s shoulder, dripped onto the grass.

  A Liya could hear his own heart pounding. Finally, he crept up on General Li from behind. A Liya held his breath and grasped his sword with both hands. Then he mercilessly drove the blade straight into the other man’s torso. There was a faint puffing sound as the blade punctured his flesh, taking the handle along with it.

  A Liya’s elation soon turned to bewilderment: The blade seemed to have no effect on General Li. It was not until A Liya struggled to pull the sword back out that the general at last toppled over, his eyes turned toward the sky. Blood trickled from his eyes in two streams. As it turned out, he had been dead for some time.

  Lieutenant General Bai, still kneeling on the ground, was trembling. Though he hadn’t been injured, he was covered in blood.

  A Liya ran to his side. “General Bai!”

  Lieutenant General Bai lifted his head. His face was completely d
rained of color. After a long pause, he stammered, “A—A Liya!”

  “You can stand up now, General Bai. The demon is dead.” A Liya extended a hand to support Lieutenant General Bai, who slowly rose to his feet.

  Why had General Li not lowered his sword? Had his strength already been depleted? Or had there been other reasons, unbeknownst to anyone but the two men?

  A Liya didn’t have time to reflect on these questions, as he saw He Layi running toward him. He hurried to meet her, calling out in the Hamo dialect, “How is the chief?”

  He Layi was sobbing. “Father—he was already killed by General Li’s forces.”

  A Liya let loose a cry of pain. He turned and went back over to the general’s corpse, then sliced off the head, cursing, “Li Dingguo, you demon! May you burn in hell!”

  He Layi, startled by the grisly act, took a step back. “Was it you—who killed him?”

  “Yes.” The warrior proudly lifted his chin. “My dear and respected He Layi, please stay here. It looks like the safest place for now. I’m going to go end this war.” With those words, A Liya raced off toward the front lines.

  Though General Li’s troops were under attack on three fronts, they had courage and the power to terrify on their side, and they were still making a strong stand when A Liya arrived on the scene. Covered in blood, the Hamo warrior was exhausted and weak, and it seemed as if he might tip over at the touch of a finger. But in his hand was a powerful weapon.

  “Your demon commander is dead!” A Liya shouted with all of the strength in his body. Then he tossed Li Dingguo’s head onto the battlefield.

  As if a spell had been broken, General Li’s troops instantly lost their will to fight. Some of them were killed right then as they stared, stupefied. Others retreated to the forest. Thus concluded the chapter of Chinese history known as the Southern Ming resistance.

  The Qing and Burmese forces celebrated their victory. But the Hamo warriors were the happiest of all. They had waged a holy war and won, saving the lives of the entire clan. A Liya was lifted high into the air and became known as the greatest hero in the history of the Hamo people.

 
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