Valley of Terror, page 23
Yue Dongbei slowly extended one hand toward the fish, but the fish sensed his approach. Without warning, it curled its body and flung itself off the tree, grazing Yue Dongbei’s hand. The fish disappeared into the water without a trace.
“Almost! Almost got it.” Yue Dongbei shook his head in regret. His regret turned to shock as he gasped, “Oh my God, my hand!”
Yue Dongbei’s index finger looked as if it had been slashed with a blade, and the wound was beginning to fill with blood. The others gathered around.
Chief Bai chuckled. “These fish have razor-sharp dorsal fins. You have to be careful.”
Yue Dongbei glared at him, as the warning had come a little too late.
Fortunately, the cut wasn’t deep, and the bleeding subsided. Yue Dongbei grumbled a bit, but seeing that no one took any notice, quickly put the incident behind him.
After they exited the village, the group headed southwest. They hadn’t gone very far before the terrain grew steeper and the forest denser. In the distance, Luo saw a low hill and realized that, once they’d crossed it, they would finally reach the legendary Valley of Terror.
Though this section of their journey was challenging due to the rugged terrain, compared to crossing Mopan Mountain, it hardly seemed strenuous at all. There was less of an incline, and there was a clearly demarcated path to follow.
“Do people often travel along this path?” Luo asked.
Among their Hamo companions, only Suo Tulan spoke Mandarin. “Because the valley has abundant natural resources, members of our tribe often go hunting there. After the phobia cases six months ago, however, no one has been hunting there.”
“How long did this go on for, in terms of the phobia cases that you saw?”
“Three or four days. Then Lord An Mi made an announcement to the entire village, and almost no one has been over there since.”
“Lord An Mi has never gone to investigate?” Based on what Luo had observed, the Hamo people didn’t seem much for burying their heads in the sand.
Suo Tulan’s reply seemed to confirm his judgment. “Of course he’s been there, and more than once. Di Erjia has also gone a few times. But they haven’t found any clues. Though Lord An Mi is an extraordinary warrior, there’s very little we can do about the situation. Lord An Mi has put Di Erjia in charge of protecting our village. If anyone goes to the valley, he has to accompany them.”
Ah, so that’s why Di Erjia is leading the group, Luo thought as he studied the man from behind. Indeed, if anything went awry, they’d need someone who was fearless.
Suo Tulan seemed to sense what Luo was thinking. “Di Erjia is a rare breed of Hamo warrior. Early on, he volunteered to take on this particular responsibility. And with him escorting us, you’ll see that no one will suffer from phobia afterward. Lord An Mi is grateful for him. He says that the demon himself fears Di Erjia’s strength.”
The day before, Luo had noticed how much Lord An Mi appreciated Di Erjia. What was strange was Suo Tulan’s demeanor. Even as he praised Di Erjia, his glum expression belied his gushing words.
Di Erjia, who appeared to be single-mindedly absorbed in the task of blazing the trail, did not hear the conversation taking place behind him. He seemed not to understand a word of Mandarin.
“Your Holiness, your Mandarin is excellent. Not only is your pronunciation natural, but you choose your words well. I must say, you speak it better than many Han people.”
“In order to become a high priest, one must know Mandarin. This is an unwritten rule that has been handed down since the holy war.”
“Oh really?” Luo’s interest was piqued. “Why is that?”
“Because, according to the codes of our tribe, the priestess must study Mandarin with the high priest. In fact, after the priestess has selected a successor, the very first thing that the successor must do is begin these studies with the high priest. It is only after she has acquired proficiency in reading and writing that the succession ceremony is held.”
“The priestess needs to have proficiency in Mandarin?” marveled Luo. “But I remember you saying yesterday that her bodyguard is prohibited from learning it? That seems very strange.”
“All of these rules are the work of the founding priestess, He Layi. As she was the chief’s daughter, her status was a little higher than that of A Liya. There are many things that we don’t understand, but for many generations, no one has ever disobeyed He Layi’s rules. That applies to everyone, without exception, even the chief.” When he spoke of these two heroes of the holy war, Suo Tulan’s expression grew solemn and his tone was reverent.
“Since your Mandarin is fluent, you must communicate regularly with Han people, isn’t that right?” Professor Zhou joined their conversation.
But Chief Bai was the one who answered his question. “His Holiness Suo Tulan is a frequent guest in our village. Not long ago, he passed through on his way to the outside.”
Suo Tulan nodded. “People from our tribe rarely ever leave. Any contact with the outside world usually involves the priesthood.”
Luo asked, “So why did Your Holiness recently travel to the outside?”
Suo Tulan heaved a sigh. “To find the villagers who had fled.”
“Oh, right!” Luo recalled how their host in Mihong, Mr. Wang, had mentioned this.
“You know about this?” Suo Tulan looked at Luo quizzically. “When news got out that the sacred object had been lost and that there was a connection to the phobia cases, some members of our tribe fled.”
Luo sensed that they were broaching a taboo subject and didn’t press him any further. Changing the subject, they proceeded along the road, chattering, until Di Erjia suddenly stopped. Everyone looked up and realized that they had arrived at the top of the low hill.
The Valley of Terror was only a heartbeat away. Perched atop the hill, everyone gazed southwest, where a narrow strip of land contrasted with the surrounding mountains. It almost felt like the countryside.
“This is where General Li’s troops were once stationed.” Suo Tulan pointed. “Back then, they felled the trees on the slope and turned the entire mountain into a military base. This section of forest has grown back since then.”
Indeed, though the forest on the mountainside was dense, few trees were especially tall. Luo surveyed the scenery along the mountainside. Between the two hills demarcating either side of the ravine, there was a narrow pathway that, from a distance, seemed to serve as the perfect entrance.
Luo couldn’t help thinking that General Li had been a true master at the art of war. The Hamo village would have been located behind the military base, while there was a natural barrier in front. No wonder the Qing and Burmese forces had been locked in battle with him for three years and only succeeded with the aid of the Hamos, who had helped them encircle the camp.
Suo Tulan turned and pointed southeast. “Look. Atop the cliff is a lake. Whenever there are heavy rains, the lake will rise overnight and overflow in a waterfall.”
Luo and the others, who had heard the story of the holy war the night before, already knew that the lake had played a pivotal role in history. They couldn’t see the lake itself from where they stood, but they could see water cascading down from the cliff, and it was an awe-inspiring sight.
Below the top of the cliff was another ledge, and so the water cascaded down in two steps, pouring from the lower ledge in an arc that was about a hundred yards long and sprayed onto the northeast area of the hill below before flowing into the pond at the other side of the mountain basin.
After his experience in Mihong, Luo understood the sheer force of such rapids. He could easily imagine how, if the ledge were demolished as General Li had planned, the entire supply of water in the lake would come down in full force, instantly obliterating the Hamo village. He shook his head a little, mumbling to himself, “Flooding the village—what a barbaric idea.”
“General Li understood the power of water!” Yue Dongbei took advantage of the opportunity to show off. “In the
Luo was startled to realize that the designation had its roots in General Li’s very real expertise.
Chief Bai’s brow was knitted. He was apparently in no mood to discuss anything related to the Rain God. He changed the subject: “Why don’t we descend and have a look at the forest down there?”
Suo Tulan nodded and said something to Di Erjia. Following his instructions, Di Erjia led everyone down to the forest in the valley. The forest here was extremely dense. Leaves spread out overhead like giant umbrellas, forming a protective barrier from rainwater. There was so little sunlight that it almost felt like dusk, and all of them fumbled around for a minute before their eyes adjusted.
In this gloomy atmosphere marking their arrival in the Valley of Terror, where a legendary demon originated, everyone grew tense. Lord An Mi’s two attendants carried their machetes on high alert as the group slowly made their way through the dense undergrowth. All of them had just started to relax when Di Erjia stopped abruptly. A split second later, his machete was drawn.
The rest of the group instantly huddled together, each feeling his heart pounding in his chest. All of them followed the direction of Di Erjia’s gaze, trying to figure out what was wrong.
Di Erjia kept his left hand behind his back, with his fingers pointed upward. He waved everyone back.
Suo Tulan whispered to Luo, “There’s an enemy up ahead.”
Luo’s right hand was already on his gun. He quickly slid back the trigger lock. Then the two attendants, who had been watching Di Erjia’s hand signals, lifted their machetes. Yue Dongbei, Professor Zhou, and Chief Bai all held their breath, anxious and unsure of what was about to unfold.
They could hear the pitter-patter of raindrop on the leaves. Apart from that, there was only silence. It was as if time were standing still.
But that silence did not last long. A second later, there was a rustling sound, followed by a ruckus somewhere in front of them.
Di Erjia calmly pivoted, then charged straight ahead into the grove. Zhao Liwen’s tragic death had already taught them a lesson, and Luo wasn’t about to hesitate this time around. He pulled out his gun and trailed closely behind Di Erjia. He heard rustling behind him, presumably the others following suit.
They could hear someone running, but the brush was too thick for them to see. No matter how fast they sprinted, the fugitive easily kept a safe distance ahead of them. Yet he did not appear to want to throw them off completely. At times, it was clear that he was slowing down, as if he was waiting for Luo and the rest of the group to catch up.
After noticing this two or three times, Luo grew apprehensive: Something wasn’t right. The fugitive was trying to lure them to a certain location. He wanted to tell Di Erjia, but they didn’t speak the same language, and the others were too far behind to translate. Finally, Luo stopped in his tracks, watching as Di Erjia continued to claw his way through a thicket. There was a worried look on his face.
This time, their target didn’t wait for them. The rustling sound gradually grew fainter. Soon Professor Zhou and Suo Tulan caught up to Luo. By then, the forest had returned to its former stillness.
“What—what happened? That—that—” panted Yue Dongbei.
Understanding what he meant, Luo pointed: “He went that way.”
“Why—why didn’t—didn’t you keep chasing him?” Yue Dongbei was scowling.
Luo lowered his voice and told him firmly: “Our enemy is hidden, while we’re out in the open. We shouldn’t advance blindly. We have to stick together. Don’t wander away from the group.”
He had just caught sight of Di Erjia standing a little way ahead and was about to reenter the thicket when Suo Tulan suddenly called out to him: “Luo, hold on a second.”
Luo turned and saw the grave expression on his face. “Your Holiness, what is wrong?”
“Don’t go any farther.” Suo Tulan was squinting. He hesitated, then said slowly and solemnly, “We’re approaching the ancient cemetery.”
“Ancient cemetery?” No one had mentioned this to him before, but as soon as Luo heard those words, something clicked.
Suo Tulan’s explanation confirmed his suspicion. “It’s where General Li’s troops were buried. Tens of thousands of his followers were laid to rest there. We ought to be careful about treading there.”
Though people in the old days customarily returned a body to that person’s hometown, General Li had been entrenched in the valley and naturally couldn’t leave. It made sense that the site had been transformed into a giant cemetery.
No wonder Di Erjia had stopped and suddenly grown vigilant. Luo recalled how deeply the Hamos respected the dead and hesitated, trying to find the right words. “They’re already dead, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. We can only be conscious of the crimes that haven’t yet taken place. Your Holiness, I came from very far away to put an end to a series of crimes, and the deceased have no reason whatsoever to defend the demon’s barbarous actions.”
Suo Tulan seemed moved by Luo’s words. He nodded vigorously. “Luo, you’re right. If the demon really has fled into the cemetery, then we can’t turn back now. Let me lead the way.”
He stepped out in front. Seeing this, Di Erjia extended his arm and uttered a few worried words in the Hamo language. It was clear that he wanted to stop Suo Tulan from going to the cemetery. Suo Tulan looked back at him, his face emotionless. He seemed calm and self-possessed. Di Erjia angrily dropped his arm and lowered his eyes.
“Please pardon Di Erjia’s rudeness and cowardice,” the high priest said. “According to Hamo folk songs, this area was once the site of a battle against the demon, and so it is filled with evil demonic powers.”
“Oh?” Luo’s ears perked up. “What do the folk songs say about it?”
Suo Tulan sang a bit of a song, translating in Mandarin as best he could: “Here the demon fought, left the place a hellish ruin. See the plume of smoke, marking the fiery demon’s river of blood.”
“Interesting. Why don’t we go see for ourselves?”
“Follow me.” Suo Tulan placed his right arm across his chest and slowly headed toward the cemetery. He gestured ceremoniously after every other step he took, mumbling incantations the entire way to pray for the souls of those who never returned to their homelands.
GHOST IN THE CEMETERY
With Suo Tulan leading the way, it didn’t take long for the group to make their way out of the forest and reach a clearing.
Luo squinted in disbelief. It felt as if he’d entered a strange new world.
There wasn’t a single tree in the two-acre clearing. Among the few species of plants, one in particular grew in abundance. No more than three feet tall, it had a straight stalk with only a few stems. At the top of each stem was a flower whose petals were a deep shade of red with black undertones. The plant appeared to be in bloom, and it filled the entire clearing. The raindrops on the petals glistened against the blackish-red background.
Though he didn’t know why, Luo suddenly felt uneasy. With a frown, he asked Suo Tulan, “What kind of flowers are these?”
“Blood of ghosts,” Suo Tulan quietly replied.
Luo’s mouth fell open. “Blood of ghosts?”
“That’s right. I believe that’s the name in Mandarin.” Suo Tulan paused, then added, “This is the only place along this vast mountain range where these flowers grow.”
Luo exhaled slowly. The shade of blackish-red really did evoke the image of rotting flesh, or a mix of dirt and blood. The flowers emitted a slightly pungent odor reminiscent of blood, such that it felt as if they were standing in a giant pool of it.
“Blood of ghosts. Fascinating.” Yue Dongbei fondled the petals of a flower in front of him. “Flowers growing over dead bo
Luo, Professor Zhou, and Chief Bai all froze, recalling their discussion of sorcery and poison from the previous night.
Luo turned to Professor Zhou and cocked an eyebrow.
Professor Zhou shook his head. “I’d have to perform a chemical analysis.”
“Hee hee. If that’s the case, I’m afraid we’ll have to do some deflowering.” Yue Dongbei snickered as he tugged at a stem. Despite several tries, the plant did not budge.
“You’d better just cut it,” said Professor Zhou.
The Hamo warrior beside him drew his machete and stepped forward, then expertly cut off several stalks.
“Great,” said Luo. “I’ll take some back to the forensics lab and have them analyzed there, too.”
Professor Zhou nodded and gave a handful to Luo and Yue Dongbei. He kept one for himself, which he then examined.
The flower had few petals, but each was broad and thick. When Luo touched one, a liquid flowed out, staining his fingers dark red.
Luo lifted his fingers to his nose. There was a faint floral scent, but it was nothing like the rotting smell that filled the air.
Where could the rotting smell be coming from, then?
Luo leaned over and sniffed like a bloodhound, following the direction of the odor. An instant later, his eyebrows shot up. He moved a few paces to the side, then brushed aside some weeds to reveal something white underneath.
The others gathered around, trying to get a look at what he was holding. It was a bone, and it had come from a fully intact human skeleton.
Luo lifted the bone in the rain, letting the water wash away the dirt that had been covering it. “Human bones. The victim is a man in his thirties. The time of death—at least a century ago.”
Straightening his posture, Suo Tulan solemnly looked Luo in the eye. “These weren’t here the last time I visited. They must date back to the time of General Li. The deceased would have been laid to rest and their bones buried. They shouldn’t have been disturbed.” His voice was soothing.