Valley of Terror, page 31
Luo had pinned down the wriggling fish, then picked it up in his hands. As Yue Dongbei had demonstrated, the fish had a long, sharp fin that ran down its back, which Luo then used to cut through the rope tied around his wrists. After that, he’d just waited for an opportunity to escape.
Since he was now dressed like one of the locals, Luo was able to move through the village quickly, his head lowered and hood up to avoid detection. Even as he hurried along, he never stopped thinking for a moment.
The identity of the young man, which had been an enormous mystery, had been uncovered at last: He was General Li’s descendant. Like his forefather three centuries earlier, this young man was intelligent and capable. But it also seemed that he was similar to General Li in other ways: He was brutal, dangerous, and mysterious.
Luo wasn’t sure what had happened to this man in the past six months, how he had returned to the valley and carried out the string of terrifying attacks. Regardless, he had to be stopped, and the bloodshed had to come to an end.
What Luo particularly wanted to know was what this man planned to do next. To know that, Luo had to figure out his motives. People always had a reason for doing something. Luo wasn’t ready to dismiss these recent events as simply the product of a centuries-old grudge.
What had this young man and Ya Kuma talked about six months before?
Why had the young man become the first victim of the demonic powers? How was this linked to the blood vial’s transport to Longzhou and the terrible outbreak there? What were the circumstances surrounding the death of the priestess Ya Kuma?
Luo was determined to find the answers to these questions. He arrived at Suo Tulan’s house. The high priest was a pensive, wise man, and so his house was located in a quiet, secluded area of the village. This was convenient for Luo.
The front door was unlocked. Luo stormed inside, immediately shutting the door behind him. Suo Tulan stood at the window, lost in meditation. He turned around in surprise. He was a highly respected figure, and not even the village chief or the priestess would barge in on him like this.
Luo walked toward Suo Tulan and, with a flick of the wrist, removed the hood he’d been wearing and reached into his belt for his machete. Suo Tulan, realizing that it was Luo, calmed down after a second. His mouth twitched as if he were about to smile.
“Luo, why don’t you put your sword down? I trust that you won’t use such a thing on an old man.”
Suo Tulan’s reply caused Luo to lower his guard a little, and he did put away the sword, bowing apologetically. “Pardon my manners, Your Holiness. I want to make it clear that I am not here as your enemy. But you must know that I’ve just escaped from the water dungeon, and it’s only a matter of time before the tribe’s warriors find and capture me.”
Suo Tulan’s eyes flashed. “Did the priestess or Shui Yidie help you escape?”
Luo wasn’t about to reveal the fact that he’d spoken to Xu Xiaowen. He shook his head. “No, no one helped me. I used the fin of the datouyu to cut the rope around my wrists, then I took advantage of a slipup on the part of the guard.”
Suo Tulan pondered for a while, then sighed deeply. “So it seems that the water dungeon does little to restrain beasts after all. But Luo, you should not have escaped, even though I know you weren’t the one who killed Di Erjia.”
“Oh?” Luo raised his eyebrows. “You believe that I’m innocent?”
“You’re no fool. You wouldn’t kill a man and leave your own knife in the victim’s body. Besides, Di Erjia knew these mountains far better than you. He followed you the entire time. How could you have stabbed him in the throat from behind?” Suo Tulan spoke in a leisurely tone.
“That makes sense.” Luo nodded. “Why didn’t you speak up when Lord An Mi sent me to the water dungeon?”
“Because I don’t want you in my village,” Suo Tulan said frankly. “Luo, you’re too curious for your own good. There are some matters that are none of your business.”
“Are you referring to my bringing Shui Yidie back to the village?”
“Shui Yidie is a loyal and courageous man. Lord An Mi wanted to put him to death. I did not fully agree. His escape into the forest was really the best outcome, but you found him and brought him back to the priestess.” Suo Tulan shook his head in exasperation. “You must already know that the current priestess is not Ya Kuma. After we came under threat, Lord An Mi and I put a great deal of thought into the question of how to maintain unity within the tribe, and Shui Yidie’s return jeopardizes that unity. You must know that, when he and the priestess protect one another, the tribe has no authority to control them. If certain information is disclosed, there will be grave consequences that you simply cannot imagine.”
“Certain information?” Luo narrowed his eyes. “Like the truth about Ya Kuma’s death?”
Suo Tulan wrinkled his brow, alarmed. “What are you saying?”
“Ya Kuma entered the cave with Lord An Mi and Di Erjia, but she never came out. Her remains were buried in the cave. Perhaps the circumstances surrounding her death were not as simple as the explanation you gave to the new priestess.”
Suo Tulan looked astonished. “Do you suspect that Lord An Mi killed Ya Kuma?”
Luo said nothing.
“That’s an outrageous accusation!” Suo Tulan cried out. “Is this what the priestess and Shui Yidie also believe?”
“I can’t say that they don’t.”
Luo’s words had triggered a cataclysmic reaction in Suo Tulan, who was wide-eyed and shaking his head in disbelief. “These kinds of suspicions could tear apart the entire village!”
“So why don’t you tell me what really happened when Ya Kuma went to the valley with them?” Luo’s eyes were intensely bright, urging on the other man. “Oftentimes, hiding the truth brings about the opposite of the intended effect.”
“No, I can’t tell you that.” Suo Tulan seemed to be struggling to contain his emotions. His face had turned pale. “If this secret were to get out, the entire village—their convictions, their will to fight—would crumble in an instant.”
Luo could see that the only way to get this critical information would be for each side to have absolute trust in the other. After a minute of thought, Luo changed his tack, asking, “Do you know the real identity of that young man who stole the blood vial, the one you call Zhou?”
Suo Tulan shook his head, puzzled.
“He’s a descendant of General Li.”
“What?” Suo Tulan seemed to be reeling. “It’s him—it really is him!”
“And he’s back!” Luo stared at Suo Tulan. His voice was low. “He’s hiding in some dark corner of the forest, watching our every move. Do you remember what happened when we were at the tomb? He was wailing, and then he stared down on us with hatred in his eyes. I had the distinct feeling that he was plotting something, that something terrible was about to take place.”
“Right.” Recalling that episode, Suo Tulan felt his stomach churning. “He was full of hatred. He wanted revenge—”
“Trust me. I’m your friend.” Luo told him sincerely. “I’m not here to harm anyone in your village. I just want to stop him, which is why I need you to tell me what happened. I want to help you.”
Suo Tulan was silent for a long while. It was clear that he was deeply conflicted. Luo waited patiently, communicating only with his eyes, until his hypnotic gaze finally managed to break through the other man’s defenses.
The high priest sighed deeply. He hesitated, then as if he was forcing out the words, told Luo, “Ya Kuma betrayed the mission of the priestess. She betrayed our entire village.”
There were tears in the corners of the old man’s eyes. He closed them in pain.
“Betrayed?” Luo’s suspicion had been correct. “So the sacred object wasn’t stolen, it was given to General Li’s descendant by Ya Kuma?”
“Not only that, but she brought this cursed scoundrel to the tomb and let him excavate the general’s remains. Over the past few centuries,
“So why did she actually do it?”
“No one really knows.” Suo Tulan shook his head. He paused. “Lord An Mi’s theory is that Ya Kuma and this young man were having an affair.”
“An affair?” This possibility had occurred to Luo earlier, but it seemed far-fetched.
“This young man by the name of Li is evil, but during his time in the Hamo village, he acted very proper, brave, and wise. As I’ve said before, many tribespeople befriended him. It’s possible that Ya Kuma, who was a young woman with no experience of men, was tricked by him. According to Di Erjia’s reports, Ya Kuma and this young man were alone together in the priestess’s house all night and then went to General Li’s tomb the next day. If this is indeed the case, it is the biggest scandal the tribe has seen in hundreds of years.”
Luo was dismayed. None of the clues had pointed in this direction. The priestess had colluded with the enemy. If this information were to spread among the tribespeople, their pride in their ancient culture would undoubtedly be shattered. No wonder Lord An Mi and Suo Tulan had come up with this scheme, falsifying appearances and fabricating lies.
Even so, Luo persisted in asking questions. “What did Ya Kuma herself have to say about why she did it?”
Suo Tulan smiled sadly. “She was given an opportunity to explain. After she and Lord An Mi went to the cave, she stood at the entrance without saying a word. No matter how the chief interrogated her, she wouldn’t answer. She seemed to be waiting for that young man all night, but he never showed. When it was morning and the sun rose, she finally gave up and spoke. Those words were her last.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘All of this is my fault. Shui Yidie had nothing to do with it. I regret what I’ve done to the tribe. I must pay for it with my life.’ Then she grabbed Lord An Mi’s machete and slashed her own throat with it,” Suo Tulan said with dismay.
“That’s how the chief says she died?” Luo’s eyes narrowed. “She killed herself?”
“That’s right.” As if he were trying to avoid further pain, Suo Tulan looked out the window to some distant place, then said in a low voice, “I watched Ya Kuma grow up. I taught her Mandarin, along with all kinds of other knowledge. I told her the history of the holy war and its glories. She was a bright child. After she became the priestess, she earned the love and respect of the Hamo people through her conduct. If the evidence weren’t irrefutable, I’d never believe that she would commit such a grave crime against the village. She had to have been tricked. After the descendant of that demon achieved his aim, he shamelessly left. I can only imagine the hurt and despair our poor priestess felt on her deathbed.”
Thinking of everyone’s love for this graceful priestess, Luo couldn’t help sharing in Suo Tulan’s sorrow.
After a brief silence, Suo Tulan turned and looked at Luo. “The person who is angriest of all about this is Lord An Mi. Though he doesn’t know about this young man being a descendant of General Li, he does believe that Ya Kuma began a personal relationship with him, which was a betrayal of the entire tribe. For Lord An Mi, this was already a tremendous disgrace. Your meeting with the priestess last night also broke a rule set by the village chief. And even if you had nothing to do with Di Erjia’s death, you didn’t stay in your cell!”
Luo was startled. There was a pained, embarrassed smile on his face. He was about to explain when suddenly they heard the sound of an explosion in the distance. Though it wasn’t loud, the sound was distinct and striking. Surely everyone in the village had heard it. Luo darted over to the window, leaning out in the direction the sound had come from.
“It’s coming from the valley. Is it guns?” Suo Tulan asked worriedly.
Luo shook his head. The sound was muffled, different from that of a gun being fired. What could it be, then?
“It’s him. He’s here.” Luo turned and looked at Suo Tulan. “There’s no time to waste. I have to go out there and find him.”
“It will be dark soon,” Suo Tulan counseled. “You don’t know the terrain well. Now is a dangerous time to go out.”
But Luo had already made up his mind. “No, I have to go. We can’t wait around like sitting ducks. I need your help. I need you to help me leave the village without being captured.”
As the high priest of the tribe, Suo Tulan did not wish to defy the chief’s orders. But right now, there was a formidable enemy in their midst, and the safety of the entire village was at stake. After a silence, he finally nodded. “Fine. I’ll show you to the mountain trail.”
EXPLOSION AT THE LAKE
A few minutes later, two men wearing the robes of Hamo priests emerged from the house, heading southwest. Everyone they passed made way for the high priest, Suo Tulan, and behind him, a man who seemed unaccustomed to the mountain breeze, for his black hood was pulled down over his face. Only a pair of dark eyes were visible in the dusk light.
It was dinnertime, when most tribespeople were at home, but young and middle-aged men could be seen rushing about the village. From their conversations, it could be gleaned that the prisoner had escaped and that there had been some sort of commotion in the valley. Lord An Mi had already given orders that all Hamo warriors were to report to the sacred grounds for further instructions.
When Suo Tulan and Luo arrived at the mountain trail just outside the village, they parted ways, with Luo setting off to the Valley of Terror and Suo Tulan heading to the sacred grounds to join Lord An Mi and the ranks of tribesmen he was assembling.
By the time Luo entered the forest, the sky was already dark, and it may as well have been night. When Luo had been imprisoned, Lord An Mi had stripped him of his belongings, including his gun. Now he was equipped only with the torch that Suo Tulan had lent him, and he groped his way along the trail using its warm glow. Fortunately, this section of the trail was not particularly tortuous or rough, and Luo had already taken it twice before. It felt as if he had hardly taken a breath before he arrived at his destination: General Li’s cave.
The rumbling noise they had heard earlier seemed to have emanated from that small space. No matter how Luo approached the question, the cave was the first thing that sprang to his mind. When he arrived, he immediately knew he’d been right.
The interior was dark, but there was one area from which gunpowder smoke was steadily streaming. Luo switched his torch to his left hand and held his machete in his right as he cautiously ventured deeper inside.
There was no ventilation in the cave, and the smoke was thick. Luo quickly scanned his surroundings, but no one was there. Luo put his machete back in his belt, then squatted down to look for any new footprints.
The pile of dirt was still there, and it didn’t look like it had changed since the day before. About three feet to the left of it was something unusual.
It was a slip of paper tucked underneath a stone. In the dim cave, the bright-white paper would have easily attracted anyone’s attention. Luo promptly walked over and picked it up. But he couldn’t read the characters.
That’s right, Luo thought. The Hamo language. The culprit had wanted to draw a member of the Hamo tribe here, which was why he’d used their language. But what did he want to say, and to whom?
Luo put the slip of paper in his pocket. He’d have to wait until he returned to the village to find Suo Tulan or Xu Xiaowen to help read it.
Luo lowered the torch and held it near his right hand, noticing black stains on his fingers and the back of his h
A realization came to him. He looked at the ground where the slip of paper had been. Not only was there a black patch of dirt, but there was also a hole that had been created through some force.
Like an explosion. Luo was almost certain of it, as that would also explain the sound he’d just heard. Taking another look, he saw a fine black line that extended from the hole all the way outside the cave. Luo touched the substance that formed the black line. Though scorched, it was still somewhat hard. When he brought the torch closer, he could make out charred fibers that appeared to have been twisted together. The strings appeared to have been woven from bark.
Bark wasn’t a highly flammable material. Luo recalled the kerosene that Chief Bai had collected from the villagers. The culprit must have soaked the bark in kerosene to create a fuse, which he used to set off explosives. What did he want to blow up? There was no obvious target inside the cave, and the explosion that had just taken place was relatively small, with very little impact. So it had likely been a test—a successful one. What, then, was he planning to blow up next? As Luo pondered that question, beads of sweat began to trickle down from his scalp.
When the guard who’d gone out for dinner came back to the water dungeon, he didn’t see his partner. He searched everywhere, calling out his name, but there was no response. The prisoner inside the furthest water dungeon had dragged himself to the side of the cell, where he hurled himself against the wall, producing a racket that attracted the guard’s attention. He edged closer and saw that the prisoner’s hands and feet were tied and that his mouth was stuffed with a rag—and that the prisoner was none other than his own partner.
When he learned that Luo had escaped, Lord An Mi immediately gathered a team to conduct a search. He had underscored the possibility of the priestess’s house as a potential hiding place, but it never occurred to him that Luo had fled to the high priest instead. But before long, there was the strange and sudden sound of an explosion from the valley. These two successive incidents struck Lord An Mi as extremely ominous. He ordered the whole village to promptly gather at the sacred grounds.