Valley of terror, p.28

Valley of Terror, page 28

 

Valley of Terror
 



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  “Two weeks ago? After we came to Kunming?”

  Xu Xiaowen nodded. “That’s right. Three days after you left, the high priest came to see me. He seemed very sad, and he told me something had happened and that I had to come immediately.”

  “Did he give you any details?”

  “He said that the sacred object had been stolen, that the demon had broken free and was wreaking havoc in the village, and that Ya Kuma had been killed.” Xu Xiaowen paused. “But that’s not even the worst part. The foundations of their society have been shaken, and the villagers are so afraid that they’re fleeing.”

  Luo sighed. “So Suo Tulan said you had to return and take your sister’s place so that the people would have the courage to fight the demon?”

  Xu Xiaowen was quiet. “Does any of this make sense to you? I’m an educated person. How am I supposed to believe that this is the work of a demon?”

  Luo didn’t know how to answer. He looked at her curiously as she continued.

  “Of course I don’t believe it. But I came back because the tribe needed me. I’ve already lost my sister. Why else am I helping the tribe? Though I don’t know what the demon really is, I know that the Hamo warriors are brave and their spirits won’t be broken, and that they’ll triumph over the enemy.”

  Xu Xiaowen was filled with conviction as she spoke, and there was admiration in her eyes. At first Luo was moved, but then he thought of a question: “You were very young when you left the village. What do you know about the demon?”

  “Before this, almost nothing. When I was a child, the priestess never told us about the holy war or the demon. I only know about these things now because the high priest told me!”

  It was just as Luo had expected.

  She continued, “In fact, when the mental patient in Kunming started talking about the Valley of Terror and the demon, I had no idea what he was talking about.”

  “But he cried out Ya Kuma’s name,” Luo said. “Didn’t you think that was strange?”

  Xu Xiaowen shook her head. “I only knew my sister’s nickname. We were so young when we were separated that we never even heard each other’s full name!”

  “And how long have you been back in the village?”

  Xu Xiaowen reflected for a second, then replied, “I think today is the eighth day. These past few days, the high priest has been teaching me the rites that the priestess conducts so that when I meet with the tribespeople in the evening, they don’t realize I’m not her.”

  “You really don’t seem like the same person as the student I met in Kunming,” Luo told her, smiling. “Wait, did you put on the veil because you weren’t confident you could pull it off?”

  Xu Xiaowen laughed. Luo had guessed right.

  But the light mood didn’t last long, as Luo asked a question that disrupted it: “Why did you want to kill Shui Yidie?”

  Xu Xiaowen smiled. “That wasn’t my decision to make. I’d never even seen this person before in my life. Lord An Mi and His Holiness Suo Tulan told me what to do. They said that Shui Yidie and a man from the Han tribe conspired to steal the sacred object, which allowed the demon to reincarnate. My sister went to the Valley of Terror to recover the sacred object, and that’s when the demon killed her.”

  “The Han man who stole the vial was that same patient in Kunming,” Luo explained.

  “Really?” Xu Xiaowen’s eyes widened. “No wonder he kept saying things about the demon. What was he trying to do?”

  “That’s the biggest question we have right now.” Luo tapped lightly on the table, then said quietly, “That man has succumbed to the disease, and Ya Kuma is dead, which means that the only person who can explain what happened is Shui Yidie. It’s a good thing you didn’t kill him.”

  Xu Xiaowen looked ashamed. “I know. It was a rash decision. I blamed him for my sister’s death, so I wanted revenge. But now I feel differently.”

  “Why is that?” Luo’s gaze softened.

  “When I was on the altar platform looking at him, I couldn’t get past the look in his eyes. He seemed so concerned and so loyal. I’m positive that it wasn’t an act.”

  “But then he lifted his sword to your throat.”

  Xu Xiaowen’s answer was unwavering. “That’s because he knew that I wasn’t really Ya Kuma.”

  Luo thought about it for a second, then nodded. “Right. When he said that you were entrusted with the burden of tradition, your response was all wrong. I’d be willing to bet that you’re right, and if that’s the case, it’s unlikely that Shui Yidie is guilty of betraying Ya Kuma and causing her death.”

  Xu Xiaowen looked expectantly at Luo. “Please help us get to the bottom of this mystery. I know you can do it. I know I can count on you.”

  Luo was startled and moved by the look in her eyes. Though this was only the second time that they had met, she seemed to understand him.

  “Why?” Luo couldn’t help asking. “To your tribe, I’m an outsider. We’ve barely spoken. Why would you trust me?”

  There was a smug expression on Xu Xiaowen’s face. For a brief instant, she seemed like a young university student again. “Growing up with the priestess and then as an outsider in Kunming, I learned a lot about reading people. From the moment I met you, I could tell that, though you’re reserved, you’re a good person inside, and you’re skilled at helping people uncover the secrets behind long-hidden mysteries.”

  Luo blushed, then changed the subject. “The key now is to find Shui Yidie.”

  “We’ll need the help of Lord An Mi in order to track him down.” Xu Xiaowen’s face was now solemn. “Are you aware that the chief and the others are intent on putting Shui Yidie to death? They’re convinced that he betrayed the tribe, and if he is allowed to live, my identity will be exposed.”

  Luo stroked his chin. He pondered for a minute. When he finally lifted his head, there was a calm confidence in his eyes. “It might not be that difficult to find him, but”—Luo looked at Xu Xiaowen—“can you write in the Hamo language?”

  “Yes.”

  “Great!” Luo clapped. “I need you to write a note pardoning Shui Yidie.”

  “A note pardoning Shui Yidie.” Xu Xiaowen sounded hesitant. “Do I have the authority to do that?”

  “Of course you do!” Luo was brimming with confidence. “Don’t forget: You’re not Xu Xiaowen, you’re the honored and respected priestess, Ya Kuma.”

  Chapter 30

  ENTERING PRISON

  It was already late, and the forest was pitch black. The far-off howls of night creatures made the atmosphere sinister.

  Luo walked alone down the winding path through the valley. He’d brought a flashlight, but the unfamiliar, dense forest made for a difficult journey. Luo remained on high alert, knowing that the deadly figure in black could be anywhere. Though he felt cold, perspiration was beginning to seep through his jacket.

  The goal of his journey was to find the man who’d fled, Shui Yidie. Given that this man was a fugitive, Luo tried to move as stealthily as possible, not wanting to frighten him off.

  After making his way over a particularly treacherous pass, Luo finally arrived at his destination: General Li’s tomb. He paused at the entrance to catch his breath, then cautiously entered the cave.

  Inside, it was dark and silent. The air was filled with the aura of death. More than three hundred years earlier, Li Dingguo, the man whom the Hamo people called a demon, had been buried here. But a curse had apparently left his soul unable to rest.

  Luo pointed his flashlight at the ground and found a new set of footprints in the dirt near the grave. These footprints were slightly smaller than those made by the Nikes. The pattern along the soles was visible, and it matched the shoes typically worn by Hamo warriors.

  Luo felt a stab of hope: Shui Yidie must have been here. His guess had been correct.

  But he was still befuddled about the cave itself. Why did the pile of dirt appear to have been freshly dug? The first time he’d come out to the Valley of
Terror, there hadn’t been a moment when the group had separated except when they entered the cave and Suo Tulan told the chief’s attendants to wait outside. Could it be that there were secrets regarding the cave itself? Suo Tulan and Di Erjia had entered. But perhaps the secrets had been concealed from Lord An Mi’s attendants.

  What were they?

  For one, there was the secret of Xu Xiaowen pretending to be Ya Kuma. What did it mean, then, that Di Erjia had suddenly been chosen as her new bodyguard?

  Standing there in the dank cave, Luo reviewed what he knew: Six months earlier, the blood vial was stolen and General Li’s tomb was dug up. Ya Kuma went to the valley to find the blood vial, but she met a tragic fate at the hands of the reincarnated demon. Lord An Mi and Suo Tulan covered up her death, so her corpse hadn’t been returned to the village and laid to rest. In all likelihood, it had been buried in a safe place where no one would discover it and realize what had happened.

  So there was one probable conclusion: Six months earlier, the corpse buried inside the cave wasn’t General Li, but Ya Kuma. This secret was known only by Lord An Mi, Suo Tulan, and Di Erjia. That was why Suo Tulan and Di Erjia had been so alarmed when they discovered that the tomb was empty.

  Furthermore, Luo had to consider the possibility that, if Ya Kuma had been buried in the cave, she may have died there as well. If that was so, something highly out of the ordinary had happened.

  Next, Luo considered Shui Yidie’s perspective. After discovering that the priestess was an impostor, his first instinct must have been to search for the real Ya Kuma. And these new footprints served as evidence that Shui Yidie had indeed come here. Luo knelt down and touched the dirt forming one footprint with his finger. It was cool and moist, suggesting that whoever entered the cave had left wet footprints not long before.

  Luo felt his heart pounding: That meant he couldn’t be far off. He was hiding in the wilderness, somewhere in the dark night, and it would be impossible to find him. There was only one solution: to make Shui Yidie come to the cave.

  Luo stood up and walked outside, where a ledge protruded from the cliff. Centuries ago, General Li had stood in this same spot and commanded his troops in countless battles. No one would have imagined that, hundreds of years later, it would serve as the scene of yet another tragedy.

  Facing the vast mountain range, Luo took a deep breath, then shouted at the top of his lungs: “Ya Kuma!”

  The cry shattered the silence, echoing through the valley for a long time. If anyone was hiding nearby, the sound surely would reach them. Luo took a few steps forward to the very edge and turned on his flashlight, setting it on the ground pointing up to illuminate himself. In that world of darkness, it was the most effective way to attract attention.

  Luo spread his arms wide. He wanted the entire valley to look up at him, this lone human being standing defenseless on the cliff’s edge. He wanted anyone who came forward to know that he wasn’t going to hurt them.

  Then he heard the sound of light footsteps. Luo kicked the flashlight so it pointed in that direction, and the beam revealed none other than Shui Yidie, who gripped his machete in a defensive posture as he walked toward Luo. There was a look of surprise and confusion on his face.

  He walked closer and closer to Luo, until finally, the two men could see each other’s faces. “Luo.” Shui Yidie sounded stunned.

  Luo smiled and nodded. He placed his hands on his head to show that he had no intention of harm.

  Shui Yidie stopped about three paces away. He held the machete in front of his chest. “What are you doing here?”

  Luo didn’t understand the Hamo language, but he could guess what the other man was saying. He repeated the priestess’s name gently: “Ya Kuma.”

  Shui Yidie stared at Luo. His eyes were full of curiosity.

  Luo slowly lifted his hand. In it was the pardon note that Xu Xiaowen had written in the Hamo language back at the wooden house.

  Shui Yidie took the letter in his hands. He noticed Luo moving and, in a split second, the machete was at Luo’s throat. Luo pointed at the flashlight and waited for the other man’s suspicion to ease, then leaned over and picked up the flashlight, which he aimed at the note.

  Shui Yidie held the letter with his left hand and the machete with his right, keeping it near Luo’s neck. Using the light that Luo had offered, he began reading the letter.

  “Shui Yidie: The priestess Ya Kuma has died. I am her twin sister, the new priestess. There are many things I want to ask you about the truth behind Ya Kuma’s death and the demon’s rampage. Earlier, I harbored suspicions toward you, but after tonight’s ceremony, I see that you are loyal and courageous. I want to ask you to return and help me and to resume your rightful position as the priestess’s bodyguard. I promise that you will be safe. Luo is my friend. He will bring you to me.”

  Shui Yidie began to tremble. Tears streamed from his eyes. “Her Holiness—Ya Kuma—she’s really dead?”

  Luo extended a hand and rested it on Shui Yidie’s shoulder. Shui Yidie lifted his chin and looked at Luo. Though Luo did not speak, the look in his eyes expressed several complex emotions: condolences, trust, and a courage that hinted at a common enemy.

  This man was strange, thought Shui Yidie. His eyes had a mysterious quality, as if he could communicate with the hearts and souls of others. Shui Yidie slowly lowered his machete.

  The two men stared at one another. Then, Luo spoke in the Hamo language: “We need your help.”

  Luo had just learned this phrase from Xu Xiaowen. He said it slowly, and his pronunciation wasn’t accurate, but his voice conveyed a disarming sincerity. Shui Yidie was moved by the gesture. He nodded at Luo.

  Returning the greeting, Luo nodded back at him. Then he began walking north, back toward the village. Shui Yidie followed closely behind him. The Hamo warrior who had just escaped death had put his life in the hands of an outsider whom he hardly knew. This decision would play a key role in the reversal of fortune that had just been set in motion.

  By the time the two men descended the mountain and returned to the village, it was the middle of the night. They did not anticipate the scene that awaited them at the village entrance.

  Dozens of torches burned. Lord An Mi, Suo Tulan, Professor Zhou, Yue Dongbei, Chief Bai, and Xu Xiaowen all stood along the path to the village as if waiting for something. Behind them was a large group of Hamo warriors.

  Seeing this from a distance, Shui Yidie began to have misgivings. He slowed his pace and grabbed Luo.

  Luo was likewise confused. Xu Xiaowen had agreed not to tell anyone that he had gone to find Shui Yidie. So what was this all about?

  After thinking for a minute, Luo signaled for Shui Yidie to wait. Then he walked alone toward the village entrance.

  With the eyes of the entire crowd upon him, Luo emerged from the forest. Lord An Mi’s expression changed, and he lifted his hand. The Hamo warriors charged forward, encircling Luo.

  Luo remained perfectly composed as Lord An Mi and the others surrounded him. His tone was dour as he told them, “The priestess has already pardoned Shui Yidie. You have no right to harm him.”

  “Shui Yidie?” Lord An Mi raised his eyebrows. “Did you find him?”

  Luo turned and pointed toward the dark forest. “He’s watching us. But I don’t think there’s any way that you’ll capture him.”

  Lord An Mi immediately turned toward the forest and shouted, “Shui Yidie, the priestess has pardoned you. Your role as the priestess’s bodyguard has been restored. We have no control over you. Come out from the forest. There’s no need to hide!”

  When Shui Yidie heard those words, his heart pounded with joy. He knew that Lord An Mi harbored many incorrect notions about him, but the young chief was an honest man, and he would not go back on his word. Without further hesitation, Shui Yidie returned his machete to his belt, straightened his jacket, and strode out of the forest. The group of warriors, who were wielding their machetes, didn’t move an inch.

&nbs
p; Shui Yidie greeted Lord An Mi, saying, “Lord An Mi, there are no enemies here. Please ask them to put their swords down.”

  Lord An Mi stared coldly at Shui Yidie. “That’s not a matter for you to worry about. Why don’t you take care of your own business as the priestess’s bodyguard?”

  Shui Yidie stepped back and bowed. Then he went over to Xu Xiaowen’s side and knelt on the ground.

  Xu Xiaowen immediately helped him back up. “Please. It’s not necessary.” Then she clutched Shui Yidie’s left hand and covered his cut-off finger with a mud-like paste. The wound had not yet healed, and blood still flowed from it.

  Xu Xiaowen wiped the wound clean using her own white robes, then tore off a strip and tied it around his finger as a bandage, telling him, “This will do for now. When we return home, we’ll apply ointment to it and it will heal. We all trust that you are loyal and will never do such a thing again.”

  Shui Yidie was overcome with emotion. He choked back sobs. “Your Holiness—I have always been your loyal servant.”

  Xu Xiaowen smiled faintly but said nothing more. She turned and gazed over at Luo. There was a look of worry on her face.

  It was then that Luo knew for sure something was wrong. He surveyed the others. Not only Xu Xiaowen but Suo Tulan, Professor Zhou, Yue Dongbei, and Chief Bai were all staring at him. Their expressions differed; each looked alarmed, astonished, or skeptical.

  Luo’s heart froze with fear. He understood: These Hamo warriors had come for him.

  Lord An Mi stepped in front of Luo. His countenance was grim. He held up something to Luo. “Luo, can you tell me what this is?”

  Luo squinted. It was a faded white scroll, just like the one that they had seen in Mihong. “A lambskin map?”

  “To be exact, it’s a lambskin map of the Valley of Terror.” Lord An Mi unrolled it so that Luo could have a closer look. The map showed the topography of the mountain range in the Valley of Terror, with major features marked. Where there was blank space on the map, there were densely packed lines of letters and symbols whose meaning Luo was unable to discern even after studying them for some time.

 

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