Valley of Terror, page 27
Shui Yidie gnashed his teeth. “Please forgive me. I cannot obey your wishes.”
Lord An Mi cackled. “Very well, very well.”
The crowd dispersed as the swords clashed and the two fiercest Hamo warriors battled one another.
But this was no fair fight. Shui Yidie seemed to be impaired by deference to his superior and remained on the defensive, while Lord An Mi grew more fearless with every blow he delivered. Soon overwhelmed, Shui Yidie was weakening.
Watching the battle from a close distance, Luo silently shook his head. At this rate, Shui Yidie was going to meet a bloody end.
Shui Yidie had the same realization. There was a flash in his eyes, and at the precise second when Lord An Mi’s defenses were down, he suddenly launched a vicious strike. Lord An Mi, who’d been caught off guard, immediately stepped back. He was shaken.
But Shui Yidie did not go for the kill. Instead, he leapt onto the altar platform, where the only person remaining was Ya Kuma. Shui Yidie walked directly up to her and lifted his sword to her throat.
Moments before, this same man had been weeping and expressing his willingness to die for the priestess. Now, contrary to all expectations, Shui Yidie had turned that gesture of respect on its head. Everyone was in utter shock.
Alarmed, Luo unconsciously reached for his gun.
Chief Bai quickly placed his hand on Luo’s wrist. “Careful! You mustn’t risk harming the priestess!”
Luo tightly gripped his gun and watched anxiously.
After a silence, they heard Suo Tulan’s hoarse voice. “Shui Yidie, what is the meaning of this? Have you gone mad?”
“I have no intention of harming the priestess. I simply wanted to escort her as she left the premises,” Shui Yidie replied, pushing the priestess toward the altar.
Ya Kuma’s face was pale. She’d gone from being the object of worship to a frightened, helpless captive.
Lord An Mi gripped his sword. His eyes burned with rage. But there was little he could do besides watch the two of them head toward the crowd gathered at the south end.
“Excuse us.” Shui Yidie spoke quietly, but the people fled as if it were a threat.
Ya Kuma, who had collected herself, looked him in the eye. “Shui Yidie, what you have done today is an act of betrayal to the entire tribe. You will never be forgiven.”
Shui Yidie laughed darkly. Then, with the flick of his blade, he cut off his left index finger. Blood flowed everywhere.
Ya Kuma was stunned. “What—what are you doing?”
Shui Yidie, who withstood the tremendous pain, looked out at his fellow tribespeople and shouted, “I, Shui Yidie, have defied my superiors, a crime for which I must die a thousand deaths. But today is not the day. When my duty is complete, only then will I return and receive my punishment. Until then, I will leave this finger as a token of my vow. Let the high priest put my blood in a vial and place a curse on me!”
With those words, he charged toward the hills to the south. An instant later, he had disappeared into the dark forest.
A FAMILIAR FACE
The priestess’s first appearance since her illness had been expected to be a joyous occasion, but the scene at the sacred grounds had unfolded quite differently. The fiercest and most loyal warrior in the tribe had confronted Lord An Mi and Ya Kuma with sword in hand, then successfully escaped into the forest. This not only dealt a serious blow to the dignity of the chief and the priestess, but also filled every single member of the tribe with terror.
It was unclear whether the rising wind had dimmed the torches or if they had simply run out of fuel. The flames flickered for a while before they disappeared into the darkness.
“Lord An Mi, should we follow him?” The attendants stared in the direction that Shui Yidie had gone.
Lord An Mi was livid. “There’s no chance of catching up to him. And given what just happened, why should I expect anything from you?”
The attendants hung their heads in shame.
Then Ya Kuma returned to the altar with Di Erjia, who was supporting her as she walked.
Lord An Mi came forward to greet her. “Your Holiness, aren’t hurt, are you?”
Ya Kuma shook her head. “I’m fine.”
Though she tried to pretend as if nothing had happened, Luo could tell that she was still shaken.
Lord An Mi seemed relieved. He turned to Di Erjia. “See to it that the priestess gets home safely.”
Di Erjia acknowledged the chief’s orders. Then he heard Luo calling out to them.
Ya Kuma stopped and turned to Luo, gazing at him impassively.
Lord An Mi raised an eyebrow. “Luo, what can we do for you?”
“I just want to have a few words with the priestess. Perhaps ask a few questions.” Luo approached them. His eyes were fixed on Ya Kuma.
“I’m sorry. I’m very tired. I must go,” Ya Kuma replied in fluent Mandarin, returning Luo’s gaze.
“Luo, your behavior this evening was highly inappropriate.” Lord An Mi blocked Luo’s path. His voice was forbidding. “It’s time for you to leave!”
With an apologetic look on his face, Luo watched as Ya Kuma headed back to the village. Then he had an idea.
“It’s been a long day. Why doesn’t everyone go home? All of us will be with the priestess in spirit, and the gods will be with us in spirit,” Lord An Mi told the tribe. Then he looked at Suo Tulan. “Your Holiness, we have some matters to discuss.”
Suo Tulan bowed, then left with Lord An Mi and his attendants. The other tribespeople waited until their chief was far in the distance before they left, talking among themselves in tight bunches.
“Professor Zhou, do you remember Xu Xiaowen?” Luo asked Professor Zhou.
“Vaguely.” Professor Zhou paused. “There is something deeply puzzling about this situation.”
“Xu Xiaowen? What are you talking about?” asked Yue Dongbei, turning his head. “Tell me what’s going on. Tell me everything. There are no secrets between us!”
Luo signaled to Professor Zhou. “Why don’t you explain to him?” Then he darted into the crowd of Hamo villagers, hurrying to catch up to the middle-aged man he’d spoken to earlier.
Meng Sha saw Luo coming toward him and stopped. “Luo, how are you?”
Luo didn’t have time for niceties and promptly asked the question on his mind: “Did you get a good look at the priestess’s face just now, when she lifted her veil?”
“Yes, I did! Her Holiness was the one who saved me when I was on my deathbed!”
“Are you sure she was the priestess? Are you sure she’s the same priestess you saw before?”
“Of course!” Meng Sha replied instantly. “Everyone in our tribe has known her since the day that she became the priestess. We all remember Her Holiness’s face.”
“She hasn’t ever left the village, has she?” Luo continued. “She never left for a long time?”
“How would that be possible?” Meng Sha stared at Luo as if he didn’t understand. “The priestess always stays with the tribe. When she wasn’t ill, we always saw her in the village, sharing in our joys and sorrows.”
“Is that so? All right—all right.” Luo fell silent. Then something else occurred to him. “There’s a cave near the Valley of Terror that’s home to General Li’s tomb. Do most people know about that?”
“Everyone knows,” Meng Sha answered. There was suddenly a strange look on his face. He pulled Luo closer and in a low voice told him: “But about six months ago, the tomb was discovered to be empty.”
“Six months ago?” Luo looked at him, astonished. That morning, it had been clear that the tomb had been excavated recently, not six months earlier.
Seeing that Luo was speechless, Meng Sha added earnestly, “Some people hunt in the valley and take shelter in the cave when it rains. Something strange happened: When the tomb was dug up, there were no remains inside. When Lord An Mi learned of this, he prohibited membe
Luo lifted his eyebrows in wonder. Could it be that the tomb was excavated more than once? But if so, why?
“I’d like to pay a visit to the priestess, but I don’t know where she is.” He looked at Meng Sha.
Meng Sha smiled. “Come with me. I’ll take you to where she lives.”
Luo followed Meng Sha through the village until they reached the pond. Where the village backed up into a steep mountain slope was a path leading to a small wooden house. The lights were still on inside.
“Since it’s late, I’m not sure if the priestess will see you.” Meng Sha pointed at the house.
“What a great location—all this peace and quiet to yourself,” Luo sighed.
“With mountains on one side, water on the other, and a bodyguard in the front room, this is the safest location in the entire village,” Meng Sha told him proudly.
Another question sprang into Luo’s mind. “During the six months that the priestess was ill, did anyone come to see her?”
Meng Sha shook his head. “Ordinary tribespeople weren’t allowed to. Only Lord An Mi and His Holiness Suo Tulan were allowed here to take care of her.”
“Oh, I see.” Luo didn’t say anything more. He and Meng Sha parted ways, and Luo proceeded alone to the small house.
Di Erjia stood at the front door holding a torch. It was his first day in the role of the priestess’s bodyguard. He’d been waiting for this day a long time, and now he’d finally realized his dream.
But it hadn’t gone smoothly. A prisoner whose hands and feet were bound had managed to take his sword, wound one of the attendants, and hold the sword to the priestess’s throat. This was a source of great shame for the priestess’s bodyguard.
Di Erjia silently cursed Shui Yidie. He’d pay for these deeds someday.
There was no denying that Shui Yidie was a fearsome opponent. A year earlier, when all the warriors had been vying for the role of bodyguard, Di Erjia had learned firsthand just how ferocious Shui Yidie was. The trials had left Di Erjia disheartened, and he had nearly abandoned all hopes of ever achieving his dream.
In fact, he’d packed his bags and traveled to Mihong, ashamed to face his village after losing to Shui Yidie. But then something happened that changed his destiny.
“Di Erjia, you’re a warrior, and warriors always keep their chins up!” Those words had come from the village chief of Mihong, Chief Bai.
Di Erjia remembered how dejected he’d been, saying, “No, I don’t think there’s any hope for me. Shui Yidie is the fiercest warrior my people have seen in a century. I can’t best him. Plus, the priestess likes him.”
“Must you defeat him by sheer strength alone? We need a plan, and that will take time. The heavens look fondly on those who persevere and can bestow great fortune beyond your wildest imagination.” There was a sinister flicker in Chief Bai’s eyes. “Right now, your good luck has just begun. We are your friends, and we support you.”
Standing behind Chief Bai were his fierce attendants: Xue Mingfei, Wu Qun, and Zhao Liwen.
That day, Di Erjia had decided to continue down the path to his dream.
The sound of light footsteps interrupted Di Erjia’s recollections. His eyes widened in alarm as he saw Luo walking toward him. Who was this person, anyway? His gaze was penetrating, almost as if he could read minds. Was he an enemy? Hadn’t he come with Chief Bai? Could it be that something had happened?
As Di Erjia’s imagination ran wild, Luo came up to him. Though he wasn’t eager to speak to this man face-to-face, Di Erjia collected himself and stuck out his chest. “Halt. What is your business here?”
Luo frowned, recalling that the priestess’s bodyguard didn’t speak Mandarin. As he floundered, the door of the wooden house creaked open. Ya Kuma slowly made her way outside and spoke to Di Erjia, who immediately retreated.
“Chief Inspector Luo, please come inside so we can speak.” Ya Kuma looked at Luo, her eyes glimmering. In flawless Mandarin, she told him, “I knew you were coming. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Luo felt a surge of relief but didn’t let it show. He followed Ya Kuma into the house.
The small house had few furnishings aside from a wooden table, chairs, and a cupboard. The window facing the pond was open, and on the windowsill was a pot of white flowers. Luo couldn’t recall the name of the flowers, but their breathtaking scent was carried into the room by the breeze, and it made the desolate mountainside seem more hospitable.
An oil lamp burned on the table. The priestess adjusted it so that it was bright, then gestured toward a chair. “Chief Inspector Luo, please have a seat.”
Luo surveyed his surroundings. He noticed that there was a bed close by, and that some sort of powder had been sprinkled around it.
“It doesn’t look like you’ve moved in yet,” he remarked.
“Oh?” The priestess raised an eyebrow, then sat down across from Luo.
Luo pointed at the powder. “Is that sulfur? I thought mountain people like the Hamos don’t use such things, since the insects that crawl into bed aren’t usually harmful.”
“You’re right, but it puts my mind at ease. It’s not terribly pleasant to have insects crawling across my face when I sleep.”
Luo turned his gaze to the woman sitting before him. After a brief silence, he asked, “What should I call you? Xu Xiaowen? Ya Kuma? Your Holiness?”
“I’m Xu Xiaowen,” the priestess replied. “We met in Kunming. Ya Kuma is my twin sister.”
“Your sister?” Luo lowered his head, trying to understand. “So you’re posing as her? Where is she?”
There was grief in Xu Xiaowen’s eyes. “She died six months ago.”
That had been precisely Luo’s guess. “How did she die?”
“I don’t know the particulars.” Xu Xiaowen smiled sadly. “You probably think I know all kinds of secrets, but in reality, I know about as much as you do. My guess is that you came here hoping that I could provide the answers to some mysteries. I didn’t expect you to come all the way to the mountainside. Thank God someone is here to help me.”
Luo was perplexed by Xu Xiaowen’s words. He stared into her eyes. “I need you to tell me everything you know. Can you do that?”
“At the ceremony just now, I pretended I didn’t recognize you so that the tribespeople wouldn’t realize who I am. I’m not hiding anything from you.” Now speaking frankly, Xu Xiaowen looked at Luo. “But that’s really all I can tell you. I’ve been here for less than a week, and before that, I spent more than ten years living outside of this village.”
“What?” If she’d been away for more than ten years, she was practically an outsider. Luo hadn’t expected this. “During the time that you were away, did you keep in touch with the tribe?”
“His Holiness Suo Tulan checked in on me every few years. You might say that I’m an unlucky child. My mother died giving birth to us. When I was three, my father became sick and died, leaving me and my sister orphans.”
Luo didn’t say anything, but the look in his eyes conveyed sympathy and concern.
Xu Xiaowen smiled gratefully before continuing with her story. “The previous priestess took us in. She was a kind and loving woman, and she raised us as if we were her own children. When we were six, she decided that she would choose one of us as her successor.”
“Do you regret that it wasn’t you?” Luo spread his hands.
“Regret it? No, that’s not the case at all. You don’t understand—” Xu Xiaowen’s expression was grave. “My sister suffered enormous hardships.”
“Hardships?” Luo didn’t understand. After all, the priestess was worshipped by the entire tribe.
“That’s right.” Xu Xiaowen gazed out the window, her mind seeming to drift. “Even to this day, I still remember how
Luo listened intently as she reminisced. The tranquility around them made it easy to imagine the events that had taken place ten years earlier.
The priestess had already grown old, and the hair at her temples was white. Standing before her were two innocent and adorable six-year-old girls, their eyes twinkling. It was obvious that they didn’t know the fate ahead of them.
“Girls, now is the time for you to make a choice.” The priestess’s eyes conveyed both warmth and helplessness. “I want to raise one of you to become the next priestess. Who will it be?”
Neither answered. They both stared at her, wide-eyed.
The priestess sighed. “You must think deeply about this. The one who is chosen will experience great hardships for the rest of her life, but it’s up to her to carry on tradition.”
The girls didn’t understand this, either, but the sober look on the priestess’s face made it clear that being chosen was not a good thing.
“I’ll do it. I’m older,” Ya Kuma earnestly said. Though she was born only a few minutes before her sister, she knew that older siblings had to take care of younger ones.
The priestess smiled gratefully. She stroked Ya Kuma’s hair. “Good girl.” Then she looked over at the younger sister. “I’ll do everything to give you the best life I can, to make up for your sister sacrificing herself for the sake of the tribe. You won’t be able to come back to this village, but I hope that you’ll never forget your sister.”
Little Xu Xiaowen gazed at the priestess, then at Ya Kuma. Though she didn’t understand, she nodded.
“So that’s when you left the village?” Luo guessed.
“That’s right. His Holiness took me to Kunming.” Xu Xiaowen finally looked away from the window. “There was a scholar who specialized in the tribal languages of Yunnan, and he was a friend of the Hamo people. The high priest entrusted me to this scholar, and I was raised by his family. My adoptive parents were kind to me. I received a good education and went to college. I had a good life. As I grew older, I started to understand that my sister had suffered in my stead. I thought about the village all the time, and I missed the priestess and my sister. But whenever the high priest came to see me, he always had a message from the priestess: Don’t come back. It was clear that her life was hard. That was until two weeks ago, when everything changed.”