Valley of Terror, page 7
“Oh, don’t you worry. I’m not done for yet,” Yue Dongbei answered.
Luo didn’t involve himself in their squabble. He was busy checking over every last inch of the small room. It was about fifty square feet and furnished with nothing but the bed.
About twenty minutes later, the guide came back and announced that dinner was ready. After a long day of travel, their stomachs were rumbling. They followed the guide into the adjacent room and were met with an enticing aroma. Several large bowls had been set out on the dinner table at the center of the room. The main course consisted of diamond-shaped slices of something white that had been sautéed with meat, egg, and vegetables.
“What is this?” Luo had never seen anything like it before.
When Mr. Wang did not respond, the guide took over. “It’s a Yunnan specialty, stir-fried rice cakes. They’re exquisite. People here call them the Emperor’s Lifeline.”
“The Emperor’s Lifeline?” Professor Zhou couldn’t help asking. “Where did that name come from?”
The guide grinned. “From a folktale! It dates back to when the Yongli Emperor fled to Yunnan. The Southern Ming general Li Dingguo had the local villagers cook up a bowl of stir-fried rice cakes for him. The Yongli Emperor was full of praise for the dish, and he said, ‘Stir-fried rice cakes have served as a lifeline for the emperor.’”
At the name Li Dingguo, the three travelers were aghast. Appetites momentarily forgotten, they stared hollowly at the dishes, the guide, and each other.
Something occurred to Luo. He pulled out a photograph and showed it to Mr. Wang. “Have you ever seen this person before?”
Mr. Wang studied the photo closely. “He stayed here. It was almost a year ago.”
The man in the photograph was, of course, now a deranged patient at the Kunming Behavioral Health Center.
Yue Dongbei looked up smugly. “Looks like I was right! This village was the first place he stopped. He followed the directions I gave him.”
Luo ignored the interruption. “How long did he stay?”
“Two days. He asked how to get to the Valley of Terror, and then he left.”
“Did he hire a guide?”
Mr. Wang shook his head. “He was alone.”
“Oh,” Luo said. If the young man had hired a guide, they could have questioned him. Still, this confirmed they were on the right track.
The guide noticed Luo’s disappointment. “Why? Do you want to go to the Valley of Terror?”
Rather than answering, Luo responded with his own question: “Do you know about the Valley of Terror?”
“I know about it, all right. But I’ve never been. It’s deep in the wilderness, so people don’t usually go. But there should be Hamos and a village nearby.”
“Now’s not a good time to go there,” Mr. Wang pronounced.
Luo immediately asked, “Why?”
“The forest people have been fleeing in droves. They say that the demons have returned.” The taciturn man stared intently at Luo, evidently moved by concern to speak up.
“Demons? What kind of demons?” Like a bloodhound catching its scent, Yue Dongbei darted over.
Mr. Wang shook his head. “That’s a secret only the Hamos know.”
“A secret?” Yue Dongbei laughed. “A secret just waiting to be revealed!”
Luo turned and shot Professor Zhou a helpless look. Absurd as it seemed, Mr. Wang’s words supported Yue Dongbei’s crazy theory. If they wanted to get to the bottom of this and prevent a massive crisis in Longzhou, they would have no choice but to carry out their journey to the very end.
By the time they finished dinner, it was already seven o’clock. The guide, who had to depart for the county seat the next day, retired early. Though Luo and the others were weary from the journey, they weren’t accustomed to going to bed so early, so they sat in the courtyard enjoying the breeze. Soon, boredom set in. Then Mr. Wang came out carrying a large bamboo basket.
Luo asked him a few questions and learned that the basket was filled with offerings for the Rain God. Mr. Wang was heading to the Temple of the Dragon King so that his offerings might have a chance of being placed in a good position, close to the Rain God, to earn him extra care in the coming year.
“Is the temple far? Can we come with you?” Luo asked.
“Half a mile. If there’s anything here worth seeing, it’s the temple. All the travelers used to go. But it won’t bring you good luck. It only brings rain,” Mr. Wang said solemnly.
The houses grew fewer and the last evening light faded as they followed Mr. Wang, making Luo slightly uneasy. Then, suddenly, there was a sharp bend in the trail and a large clearing appeared. The ground had been leveled to create a public square. At the east end, with its façade facing south and its back facing north, stood a temple. Though the temple wasn’t big, it had a distinctive air. The style and materials revealed that it was very old, but it had been well preserved.
“This is the Temple of the Dragon King,” Mr. Wang intoned, leading the way inside.
Perhaps affected by Mr. Wang’s pious demeanor, Luo felt a sense of solemnity overtake him. The only light came from two tall lanterns on either side of the altar. In the middle of nowhere, in the flickering candlelight, the temple felt a little gloomy, to say the least.
Then Luo’s eyes fell on the towering icon behind the altar, and he couldn’t help but let out a gasp.
Professor Zhou and Yue Dongbei were also agape.
Inscribed on the tablet next to the icon were five words: LI DINGGUO, THE RAIN GOD.
Mr. Wang didn’t seem to notice the strange reaction of his three guests. As he placed his basket of offerings atop the altar, he explained, “We villagers depend on the heavens to eat. The Rain God has always blessed us with peace and abundance, and watched over us.”
Luo’s mind was reeling. Since this village comprised the descendants of General Li’s soldiers, it wasn’t strange for them to worship him. But there was one thing he didn’t understand.
“I thought this was the Temple of the Dragon King, your Rain God. Why is Li Dingguo enshrined here?”
“There was once a different Rain God, but he took our offerings and brought nothing in return,” Mr. Wang said. His former stiffness vanished as he told them a story passed down from generation to generation.
According to Mr. Wang, the year before General Li retreated to the forest, troops had been stationed in Mengla. It had been an arid year. Faced with the prospect of no harvest, the villagers flocked to the Temple of the Dragon King to pray for rain—but to no avail. When Li arrived in the village to inspect his troops, he was informed of the situation. He then went to the Temple of the Dragon King and let loose his rage. “You’re the Rain God,” he declared. “It’s your responsibility to make it rain. It hasn’t rained for ages, and the people are suffering. You’ve failed to fulfill your responsibilities. I’m the general. My duty is to protect the country so that the people may live in peace. I’m going to take your place as a deity in order to punish you!”
Then, Li Dingguo and his followers pulled down the Dragon King icon and installed his own in its place. He appointed a high-ranking official to oversee the villagers’ daily kowtowing to their new Rain God. Before he left, he told the villagers that if they were so devout they could move the Rain God to tears, the heavens would reward them with a downpour.
The villagers secretly had their misgivings, but given General Li’s military might, they had no choice but to comply. To their surprise, after three days of continuous kowtowing, the Rain God’s statue really did cry. That evening, there was a torrential rain. The village’s drought had come to an end, and General Li was consecrated as its patron saint.
Upon hearing the little-known legend, Yue Dongbei was bursting with excitement. “He brought down the Dragon King and anointed himself the Rain God—what unimaginable evil he must have been capable of! This is incredible! You could write an entire book about it! Unbelievable!”
But Professor Zhou had
“Of course we do.” Mr. Wang’s tone was resolute and uncompromising. “For generation after generation in this village, every single one of us has seen the Rain God cry with our very own eyes.”
“Have you seen it?”
Mr. Wang nodded soberly.
Professor Zhou shook his head in disbelief, then looked to Luo for support.
But Luo just asked, “Are we going to be able to see the Rain God cry tomorrow?”
“We truly hope so. Once Chief Bai makes his offering, the Rain God will make his presence known.”
“Well, then,” Yue Dongbei laughed. “I guess we’ll find out tomorrow whether it’s real or not!”
Luo said nothing more. He couldn’t accept the notion that a statue was going to cry, but there was no point in arguing. Then he heard footsteps—someone had entered the temple. One by one, Luo and the others turned to see a young man in his twenties. Though not especially tall, he was powerfully built.
The young man looked taken aback to see so many people inside the temple. He asked vehemently, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“These men are my boarders. They arrived today,” Mr. Wang hastily replied. “I just came here to leave my offerings, and they asked to come along.”
“There’s nothing to see here.” Eyes brimming with hostility, the young man scanned Luo, Professor Zhou, and Yue Dongbei, then looked back to Mr. Wang. “The ceremonies are tomorrow morning. Didn’t Chief Bai say that no one is to disturb the Rain God before dawn?”
“I know, I know,” Mr. Wang said meekly. “But it’s still the day before, isn’t it? Sorry, we’ll be on our way.”
The young man gave a grunt. He stepped forward and pushed open the door, waiting in stony silence for them to leave.
Mr. Wang flashed a conciliatory smile as they filed out. Yue Dongbei glared at the young man, who ignored him.
“Who was that? He was arrogant and not hospitable in the least!” Yue Dongbei grumbled loudly as soon as they were outside.
Mr. Wang looked embarrassed. He waved his hand dismissively at Yue Dongbei. He walked a few steps farther, then said in a low voice, “His name is Xue Mingfei. He’s one of Chief Bai’s people. We mustn’t offend him.”
Luo saw Mr. Wang wincing and was slightly amused, but then thought better of it. In such an isolated area, the head of a village was something akin to a local emperor—his authority knew no bounds.
By now, the sky was pitch black, and a sudden breeze passed through the clearing, shaking the trees and chilling the air. To the east was a patch of rainforest. Who knew what lurked within it?
Luo stopped short.
“What’s the matter?” asked Professor Zhou uneasily.
Luo shook his head, unable to explain. A moment later, he turned his head and peered back through the temple door.
Xue Mingfei stood alone before the Rain God. In the faint candlelight, the statue’s face seemed to glow with an ominous savagery.
THE RECURRENCE OF A BLOODBATH
In order to verify the Rain God’s miraculous tears, Luo and the others woke up early the next day and accompanied Mr. Wang to the temple.
The square was already packed with droves of villagers, and more kept arriving. Standing at the entrance to the Temple of the Dragon King were two strong and able-looking young men. They scanned the crowd, each with a stern look on his face.
The villagers had found suitable spots and stood in place obediently, silently. Luo was in awe. Who was this Bai character who commanded such startling deference from his people? He whispered to Mr. Wang: “Is one of those two men the chief?”
Mr. Wang shook his head. “Chief Bai isn’t here yet.”
“So those men—they work for him?”
But Mr. Wang only nodded in response.
There must have been two thousand people in the square by now, their offerings too plentiful to fit inside the temple. There was a minor commotion, and the crowd turned to face the west side of the square, which led to the village. Luo’s heart leapt; Chief Bai must be coming. Sure enough, he saw a lone man taking long strides toward the temple. He looked to be in his thirties. He was slight but quite tall, with a courageous quality about him.
Luo had guessed correctly: This was Mihong’s village chief, Bai Jiane. The two young sentries were his associates, Wu Qun and Zhao Liwen.
Wu Qun spoke in an anxious, hushed tone: “Chief, Xue Mingfei still hasn’t arrived yet.”
Chief Bai raised his eyebrows. Xue Mingfei was his most capable assistant. How could he have failed him on a day like this? With his hands clasped behind his back, Chief Bai thought for a moment. His piercing gaze swept over the crowd.
He immediately spotted three unfamiliar faces and zeroed in on the man standing in the middle. There was a sober expression on the chief’s face and a penetrating incisiveness in his eyes.
Without hesitation, Chief Bai advanced on the three interlopers. The crowd parted, forming a path for him.
Chief Bai stopped directly in front of the trio and looked them up and down. Finally, his gaze rested on the one in the middle. “Where have you come from?”
Ordinarily, people shrank under Chief Bai’s hawklike gaze. But Luo just smiled politely. “There’s a matter I’d like to discuss with you, Chief Bai. But for now, please don’t allow me to interrupt the ceremony.”
Chief Bai smiled courteously. “Why don’t you step to the side so that we can conduct our ceremony? You’ll be in our way standing in the middle of the crowd.”
Luo, Professor Zhou, and Yue Dongbei said nothing and retreated to the western edge of the clearing.
Chief Bai then turned back to the crowd and loudly asked, “Who here has seen Xue Mingfei?”
“I’ve seen him,” Mr. Wang, who was standing close by, promptly answered. “Last night I came with my offerings, and he was here.”
“Ah.” Chief Bai lowered his head, contemplating for a moment. Then he lifted his hand dramatically. “We won’t wait for him. Let’s begin, shall we?”
With those words, Chief Bai marched over to the Temple of the Dragon King, where he donned his costume and led the procession into the temple. Wu Qun and Zhao Liwen followed close behind. Upon reaching the statue of the Rain God, Chief Bai delivered a deeply respectful salute. Wu Qun, Zhao Liwen, and the villagers watching from outside all followed suit. Then, all the residents of Mihong fell to their knees, leaving Luo, Professor Zhou, and Yue Dongbei standing stiffly on the sideline.
Chief Bai knelt on a rush mat before the icon and proclaimed, “Almighty protector of the dharma, most precious patriot and founding father, immortal General Li, the village of Mihong has not seen rain in many months. If it does not rain soon, we will have no harvest! Chief Bai, who rules over 543 households, asks that you shed your godly tears of mercy!”
When he finished speaking, he threw his head with all his strength upon the mat in front of him, and the dull thud could be heard through the square.
The villagers cried out in a sorrowful chorus, “Please shed your godly tears of mercy so that we might eat!” Then they, too, kowtowed in succession.
After this sequence of chanting and kowtowing had been performed three times, the villagers knelt upright, their eyes fixed expectantly on the statue.
Naturally, Luo assumed everyone was waiting for the Rain God to start crying. But the visitors were too far back to see for themselves, which was terribly frustrating.
Suddenly, from inside the temple, Chief Bai could be heard exclaiming, “What?”
Seconds later, there was a commotion in the front row of villagers. As the disturbance spread, the entire crowd stared into the temple, disbelief on their faces.
Someone shouted, “Oh my God! The deity! The deity—is bleeding!”
Luo and the others exchanged looks and started running toward the temple. They were about thirty feet away when Chief Bai stepped into the doorway. Wu Qun and Zhao Liwen trailed closely behind him on either side.
“Everyone on their knees!” Chief Bai thundered.
The crowd immediately quieted.
“You three—stay where you are!” Chief Bai pointed a menacing finger at Luo and the others. “This is a matter for our village!”
Luo and the others had no choice. They were guests here, and brazenly violating their host’s wishes would have been imprudent in the extreme.
With all eyes on Chief Bai, no one noticed Xue Mingfei emerging from the rainforest to the east. He took a few steps into the square and stumbled into a villager, who spun around and screamed his name. The crowd turned, their eyes following that scream to its source.
Xue Mingfei’s bare skin was frighteningly pale—and they could see every inch of it, as he wasn’t wearing a shred of clothing. Hunched, he shuffled toward the temple, seeming not to notice the villagers’ shocked whispers.
As the man passed, Luo shuddered. He reeked of fear and despair. His lifeless eyes were fixed on the temple, and with every painful step he took, the look of ghastly anticipation on his stiff face grew. It was almost as if he had been to hell, and now the Temple of the Dragon King was his final rescue and redemption.
Chief Bai looked on, astounded, as his assistant trudged slowly toward him, then passed right by, heading into the temple. The chief whirled around. “Xue Mingfei! What’s this all about?”
But Xue Mingfei made no reply. A soulless shell, he remained intent on reaching his destination.
“Help him!” Chief Bai ordered.
Wu Qun and Zhao Liwen were terrified, but they couldn’t refuse the chief’s orders. Flanking Xue Mingfei on either side, they supported his horrifyingly pale body.