Valley of Terror, page 30
Her concern and trust moved Luo. He felt warm waves of courage rising and spreading through him.
Luo opened his mouth and accepted the bite of meat, brushing against her smooth, delicate hand. Xu Xiaowen blushed and pulled back her hand, then continued.
“About Chief Bai—his body was discovered on a mountain trail not far from the village. He was stabbed once in the chest, but he didn’t die immediately. He kept going deeper into the forest for a few dozen yards. There was a trail of blood.”
Xu Xiaowen’s words had deliberately shifted the focus away from who was to blame, but Luo’s mind was already at work.
“Also, lots of people have been saying that, last night after the ceremony, Chief Bai went to their houses to ask for kerosene.”
“Kerosene?” Luo cried through an unchewed mouthful of food.
“That’s right. It would have amounted to a lot of kerosene.” Xu Xiaowen tilted her head. “I wonder what he was planning to do with it.”
Luo hurriedly swallowed his food. “Did you go back to the house and search for clues there?”
Xu Xiaowen took a teacup from Shui Yidie’s hands and lifted it into the water dungeon so that Luo could drink. “Lord An Mi and the others searched it, but they didn’t find the kerosene. Early this morning, some of the tribespeople saw Chief Bai carrying two clay vessels as he left the village. Then later he was found dead on the path. Could it be that the kerosene was in those vessels?”
“Did they find the vessels in the forest?”
“No. They weren’t anywhere near his body, at least. Lord An Mi sent more people to search, but I don’t know if they found anything.” Xu Xiaowen offered Luo more tea and food, waiting on him attentively.
“Could it be that he took them?” Luo mumbled to himself after a silence.
Xu Xiaowen had no idea whom Luo was referring to. She squinted at him, then suggested her own theory: “Perhaps whoever took the kerosene and whoever killed Chief Bai are the same person?”
“If the only wound was in his chest, his guard was down, so the attacker must have been someone he knew. And the wound didn’t immediately kill him, so the attacker’s maneuver wasn’t well rehearsed. Chief Bai, while he was critically injured, headed farther into the forest. That means the attacker must have gone toward the village.” Luo sorted out the facts one by one. “In light of what we know, it must have been that man, who was actually—”
Luo shook his head, reluctant to state his conclusions so hastily.
Seeing his reluctance, Xu Xiaowen didn’t ask any more questions. Instead, she waited for Luo to finish eating, then wiped her hands and removed a slip of paper from her robes, handing it through the fence to Luo and telling him: “When I was cleaning my room on the first day that I arrived in the village, I found this in a drawer. At first I didn’t think anything of it, but this morning Shui Yidie told me the story behind this piece of paper, which I thought was strange.”
Luo scanned the paper, an eyebrow lifted in suspicion. It was old and faded, and there was a message written on it in clear letters: “It comes before Zhou in The Hundred Family Names.”
Those were the exact words the young man at the Kunming hospital had used to introduce himself.
“Tell me what’s so strange about the story behind this.” Luo was impatient.
“According to Shui Yidie, the man who stole the blood vial spent almost six months in the village. He had gotten to know quite a few people, but he hadn’t met Ya Kuma. That was because my sister lived in seclusion, and most villagers didn’t see her often, much less some man from a different tribe. Six months ago, this man suddenly asked to see the priestess, but my sister declined. So then he wrote the message on this slip of paper and had Shui Yidie relay it. The funny thing is that, after my sister saw this slip of paper, she changed her mind and immediately told Shui Yidie to let him into the house. It was because of this that everything went wrong.”
Luo felt his heart pounding. He had never stopped wondering about the words of the man in Kunming, but he had never found another clue that might explain it. Apparently, there was a hidden meaning in the words that had gotten through to Ya Kuma.
Luo stared at the slip of paper for a long time, reading the words to himself over and over. His mind was racing. Suddenly, it was as if a ray of sunlight pierced through the fog.
He could hardly refrain from yelling in excitement.
This was the link. He had finally uncovered a real, concrete link.
Xu Xiaowen watched Luo’s expression change, her eyes widening. “What is it? What did you figure out?”
“It was him. It was him, after all.” Luo tested his theory against all the existing evidence. He nodded firmly. “Yes, it has to be him.”
“Who are you talking about?” Xu Xiaowen pleaded.
“Who would be so interested in General Li’s legend that he took a long journey deep into the forest? Who would resort to any means not only to steal the blood vial, but the general’s remains? Who would know the secret of the Rain God statue and use it to control Chief Bai? Who would maintain General Li’s relics, including his personal journal? Who would be inextricably entangled in this business, such that he became a scourge to both Mihong and the Hamo people?” Luo pursed his lips. “The answer is on this slip of paper.”
“You mean it was that young man?” Xu Xiaowen examined the slip of paper again. “Is his family name Zhou? Wait—is he related to Professor Zhou?”
“No.” Luo shook his head. “His last name isn’t Zhou. This fellow is clever. It’s a little puzzle that he used to hide his identity, and at the same time, communicate it to your sister.”
“‘It comes before Zhou in The Hundred Family Names.’” Xu Xiaowen mulled it over, mumbling to herself. She looked up at Luo expectantly.
“If his family name were Zhou, why would he have said it comes before Zhou? That’s the key: ‘comes before.’ Just think of what name comes right before Zhou.”
“In The Hundred Family Names?” Xu Xiaowen frowned a little, then recited the names: “Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li, Zhou, Wu, Zheng, Wang. Zhou comes after Li. It’s the fifth name.”
Luo’s eyes flashed.
Xu Xiaowen stopped. “Oh my God. He’s a descendant of Li Dingguo?”
Shui Yidie and the two attendants looked over, concerned. Xu Xiaowen quickly composed herself. Fortunately, none of them understood Mandarin.
“That’s right.” Luo nodded.
“Could he be the one behind it all? Was he avenging his ancestors? And if so, why was he the first to contract the illness? After he fell ill, he was brought to the Kunming hospital, so how could he have been responsible for everything that’s happened since?”
These were questions that Luo did not yet have the answers to. He hesitated before speaking. “The motives behind what happened afterward are likely known to him alone. When we saw him in Kunming, he was ill and he was locked up, but he may not be either of those things anymore. And we do know that this illness isn’t incurable.”
“That’s right. Professor Zhou has a drug for fear,” Xu Xiaowen said, recalling the conversation at the Kunming hospital. “But at the hospital, he was against using it because it was untested and wouldn’t be ethical.”
It was precisely because of this that Luo had suggested trying to get consent from the patient’s family. He had never imagined the search for them would bring Yue Dongbei to him and take Luo on a journey to the far edge of Yunnan.
“Professor Zhou may not have been willing to test it on that patient then, but he and I have always been on good terms—anyway, he lost the medicine. I wonder if he lost it in Kunming.” Luo contemplated this for a second. “Okay, let’s not worry about that right now. Can you tell me what happened after this descendant of Li Dingguo’s and Ya Kuma met?”
“Again, I only heard about it from Shui Yidie, but I trust that he’s telling the truth.” Xu Xiaowen glanced over her shoulder at her bodyguard. Though he wasn’t especi
Luo likewise looked at Shui Yidie before nodding in agreement with Xu Xiaowen’s assessment.
“After the young man went inside the priestess’s house, Ya Kuma came out and asked Shui Yidie to stand guard outside. She and this man spoke for a long time. He was there from the evening until the sun came up. Shui Yidie didn’t know what they talked about, but judging by some minor details, it didn’t seem to be an ordinary meeting.”
“Tell me about those details.” As far as Luo was concerned, details were the thing that never failed to reveal the essence of a matter.
“When the young man finally emerged, his expression was grave. He seemed to be deep in thought. Before he left, he bowed deeply toward the house. There was a look of respect and gratitude on his face, and even tears in the corners of his eyes. Shui Yidie said that he and this man were friendly, and he’d never seen anything like it before.”
“Hmm.” Luo was quiet. “And then what?”
“After the young man left, Ya Kuma called Shui Yidie inside the house and asked him to make preparations for a trip to the Valley of Terror the next day.”
“Did they go to General Li’s cave?” Luo asked, narrowing his eyes.
“That’s exactly what they did.” Xu Xiaowen looked at Luo with admiration. “As you probably guessed, the young man was with them. They went late at night, as if they didn’t want anyone to know. When they arrived, Ya Kuma told Shui Yidie to wait outside. He waited all night. It was nearly dawn when Ya Kuma came out. The young man stayed inside the cave. Then Ya Kuma and Shui Yidie returned to the village just as everyone else was waking up. That entire day, Ya Kuma was uneasy. She kept looking out the window as if she were waiting for something.”
“She was waiting for that man?” Luo guessed.
“That’s what Shui Yidie and I both think,” Xu Xiaowen replied with a nod. “But he never showed up. Then in the afternoon, some of the tribespeople went hunting in the valley, and they returned with bad news. They said that General Li’s tomb had been dug up and that the remains were missing.”
“It was raining that day, right?”
“Huh? How do you know?” Xu Xiaowen looked at him with concern. “Shui Yidie didn’t say anything about that.”
Luo chuckled. “It’s not because I was the one who dug up the tomb, don’t worry. I just heard that hunters take shelter in the cave when it rains, which is how it was discovered that the tomb was excavated. But please go on.”
There was a look of relief on Xu Xiaowen’s face. “When she heard the news, Ya Kuma became anxious and didn’t know what to do. After a while, she said to Shui Yidie, ‘I heard that you were friendly with that young man. What were your impressions of him?’ Shui Yidie replied, ‘He seems like an honest and courageous member of the Han tribe. If he made a promise, he would keep it.’”
“That’s quite a high appraisal.” Luo glanced at Shui Yidie suspiciously.
Xu Xiaowen lowered her voice. “But it’s also possible that he misjudged this man—because he never showed up. That evening, Lord An Mi and Di Erjia came to the priestess’s house and asked where the sacred object was.”
“Who is Di Erjia, anyway? It seems like Lord An Mi holds him in high regard.”
“He competed against Shui Yidie for the role of bodyguard but lost. He’s been unhappy about it since. Shui Yidie thinks that he betrayed Ya Kuma to gain the trust of Lord An Mi.”
“What do you mean, he betrayed her?”
“Think about it. Ya Kuma met with this young man and secretly went to the valley with him. A problem was discovered with General Li’s tomb, but it didn’t make sense to suspect the priestess. But Lord An Mi came in and demanded to see the sacred object, so someone had to have informed him. Shui Yidie thinks it was Di Erjia.”
Luo nodded in silence. No wonder Shui Yidie’s eyes had been brimming with rage the night before when he’d fought with Di Erjia. “Did Ya Kuma give the sacred object to the man?”
“Most likely.” There was sorrow on Xu Xiaowen’s face. “My sister couldn’t produce the sacred object. She had no choice but to bring Lord An Mi and Di Erjia to the cave. But this time, she had Shui Yidie stay in the village, and she left something in his care.”
“What was it?”
“The priestess’s so-called burden of tradition.”
“Burden of tradition?” Luo had heard Shui Yidie use this term at the ceremony. He raised an eyebrow. “What is that, actually?”
Xu Xiaowen shook her head. “I don’t know. Even Shui Yidie doesn’t know. Ya Kuma was able to avoid Lord An Mi and Di Erjia for a short time, and that’s when she handed Shui Yidie an ancient letter. Ya Kuma told him that he had to guard this letter until she returned safely, but if she did not return, he was to give it to the next priestess. Not even the village chief and the high priest know the contents of the letter. It concerns the fate of the entire village.”
“It’s that serious?”
“Yes, it’s extremely serious.” Xu Xiaowen smiled sadly and looked over at Shui Yidie. “Now you know why he could tell yesterday that I was only pretending to be Ya Kuma.”
“Do you have the letter now?” Luo asked.
She nodded. “Shui Yidie gave it to me this morning.”
“Have you read it?”
“Not yet.” Xu Xiaowen was silent a moment, then added in a low voice, “My sister’s last words to Shui Yidie were: ‘Once a priestess reads the letter, she carries the burden of the entire tribe on her shoulders.’ I don’t know if I can take on that responsibility.”
Luo’s heart pounded. Until very recently, Xu Xiaowen had been a college student living in modern society, enjoying life and looking forward to a bright future. It would take a great deal of strength for her to take on this mysterious, terrible burden.
Luo changed the subject. “After Ya Kuma went with them to the valley, what happened?”
“After they left, Shui Yidie found a hiding place for the letter, then he anxiously waited for the priestess to come back. In the morning, Lord An Mi, Suo Tulan, and Di Erjia came. Lord An Mi’s face was filled with grief. Without any explanation whatsoever, he had his attendants tie up Shui Yidie and lock him in the water dungeon. You know the rest of the story. A mysterious phantom appeared in the valley. Lots of tribespeople were affected by the fear illness, and others fled. But the people didn’t know about any of this. They were simply told that the priestess was very ill. Only Lord An Mi and Suo Tulan can explain why my sister died.”
“Do you suspect them?” Luo asked.
Xu Xiaowen looked intently into his eyes. “What do you think?”
After a brief silence, Luo spoke again. “In any case, you shouldn’t do anything rash. The situation is far more complicated than I had imagined. Though you have Shui Yidie to protect you . . .”
His words trailed off, but the look in his eyes, which were filled with tenderness and concern, said it all.
Xu Xiaowen bit her lip. “I understand. I’ll wait for you to get out of here. I need your help.” With those words, her eyes glimmered and her tone grew mysterious. “I know you’ll get out. Shui Yidie wanted me to tell you that the fish on the trees here are delicious.”
“Fish?” Luo was confused. He lifted his head and looked all around, then laughed. “Oh right, fish. I heard.”
Xu Xiaowen nodded and said nothing more before leaving with Shui Yidie.
The two attendants had been watching Xu Xiaowen’s every move, though they seemed less tense than before. As far as they knew, the priestess had delivered food, and that was that.
Late in the afternoon, one of the attendants guarding the water dungeon went to the village to pick up food, leaving the only other—whose leg had been injured in the sword fight—to watch Luo. Over the course of the day, apart from the visit by the priestess and Shui Yidie, nothing had happened, and the attendant was fairly relaxed.
Luo stared back intently, as if he urgently needed something. But his voice was soft and barely audible, producing only a faint whisper. “Ya Kuma—Ya Kuma—”
Alarmed, the attendant leaned forward and put his ear next to the fence so that he could hear better.
After all, what could the prisoner do with his hands tied behind his back?
Then, Luo’s right fist suddenly shot through a crack in the fence and slammed into the other man’s temple. He didn’t so much as utter a sound before collapsing to the ground.
Back in his police-academy days, Luo had undergone special combat training. He knew that this blow would knock out the other man for at least ten minutes. He quickly patted down the attendant and found the key, then unlocked the door. He dragged the attendant into the water dungeon, then exchanged jackets with him. He tied up the other man’s hands and feet with rope and stuffed a cloth into his mouth, then rolled him over so that he lay facedown. When Luo was finished, he took the attendant’s machete and left, locking the door on his way out.
Ever since being thrown in the water dungeon, Luo had been wondering how Shui Yidie, whose hands were tied, had managed to suddenly break free at the ceremony.
Then, thanks to Xu Xiaowen’s subtle hint, Luo figured out the answer: The fish known as datouyu.
It had been raining hard for days on end, causing the pond’s water level to rise. And, as he’d learned, these strange fish used the suckers on their bodies to crawl up trees and hang from the branches.
Several long branches extended over the water dungeon. Luo had lain on the floor motionless, quietly waiting for several hours for a fish to appear on a branch overhead.
These fish were timid and easily frightened. All Luo had to do was cough loudly a few times, and a scared fish had flung itself off the branch. Though it had been aiming for the water, it had fallen short, and it landed on the floor of his cage.