Naman was the name of a very remote village, and was also the place Guan Zheng left behind as he died.
It was located in the depth of the mountains and known to few. To get there required taking a flight to Kunming, then a train followed by a bus to a small town by the border of mid-Burma. Finally, they either had to walk or take an ox-drawn carriage before arriving.
Ruan Zhan’s group didn’t have a smooth journey. First, their flight was delayed for so long their anxiety turned to helplessness. When they finally got on the plane, it ended up being a very turbulent flight. After getting off the plane, the three stayed overnight before taking the train. That part of the trip was pretty smooth, but the rickety bus ride after almost dislocated all of Xiao Xia’s bones. When they finally got to the final method of transportation, the ox-drawn carriage, they discovered no one was going into the mountain in the next couple of days. The group of so-called “eco-tourists” could only use their own legs to walk up the mountain.
Xiao Xia was so exhausted she didn’t even want to speak anymore. Ruan Zhan had always been taciturn so he walked in front carrying his and Xiao Xia’s luggage. Only Wan Li complained spiritedly.
“This is a waste of both time and money. Why don’t you use that space-warping technique of yours?”
Ruan Zhan pretended not to hear him.
“The part where you have to know the destination before you can use it sounds like nonsense to me. You probably haven’t mastered it enough.”
“If you don’t want to come, you can scram off. No one forced you to follow us.” Ruan Zhan stopped and found a shaded spot. “Let’s take a break first!”
He wasn’t tired, but despite not having turned to look, he knew Xiao Xia wasn’t able to hold on any longer. She was forcing herself forward because she didn’t want to be a burden.
He considerately sat in a lower spot, leaving the comfortable large round rock for Xiao Xia. This way he could also observe her surroundings. There were definitely a good amount of poisonous snakes and insects in the depths of the forest. Xiao Xia was a proper city girl and couldn’t handle those things.
He had initially planned on coming here by himself. However, after noticing Huang Bo Heng was suspicious and that he had designs on Xiao Xia, he had no choice but to keep her close. This way he could be more at ease, though it was quite the trial for Xiao Xia.
Wan Li liked to travel. When he heard there was a remote village with a potentially huge hidden secret, he took some time off to come along. Ruan Zhan knew that Wan Li actually just wanted to help.
“I know you feel bad for Xiao Xia, but have you noticed the weather?” Wan Li walked beside Ruan Zhan and said quietly.
“I’m resting for a while precisely because it’s about to rain.”
“Have you been affected by Gu1? What crazy talk!” Wan Li looked up at the sky again.
He often travelled by himself and knew the weather changed quickly in the mountains, especially in the volatile time of the year between spring and summer. When they started up the mountain the weather had been extremely good. Unexpectedly, it started changing around noon. Based on his years of experience travelling, he knew it would rain within a couple of hours. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be a light rain. They were unfamiliar with the terrain and people here, which meant it would get dangerous.
“I’ve asked around. Up ahead the road splits into three, each leading to a different village. They’re either against the mountain or next to a river, but none of them are close to civilization. The paths are all mountainous too. Therefore, there’s a small inn at the fork for travelers to rest at. Based on the current situation, we won’t be able to reach Naman today. Might as well take it slowly.”
“I was wondering why you took so long asking for directions back at the hotel.” Hearing Ruan Zhan’s words, Wan Li finally felt a little better. “How meticulous. You even asked about the situation halfway up.”
“I’m really impressed how you managed to remain intact rampaging wildly around the world by yourself.”
“I pay more attention to the local customs and people along the way. Those are more interesting. Anything else unexpected is just a minor mishap.”
“Then what did you chat about for so long with those beautiful ethnic girls?”
Wan Li laughed and gave Xiao Xia a glance. She was resting silently and drinking water, but all her attention was focused on the two of them. He knew she was very unhappy about them discussing plans without her previously. She felt they were all comrades and they shouldn’t keep things from her. Therefore, he raised his voice so that she could easily listen in.
“Those ethnic girls said that the villages in the mountain are inhabited by a mixture of different tribes. A majority of them know how to cast Gu. Therefore, never offend them or show ill intent. Otherwise, you will get inflicted with Gu. Results range from illness to death. Finding someone to dispel a Gu technique is rather difficult.”
“Did they not tell you what could offend those tribes? We don’t want to inadvertently offend them.” Xiao Xia said.
“No need to be afraid. People are pretty much the same anywhere. Don’t be too curious, don’t barge into their houses and respect them. That should be sufficient.” Wan Li said. “However, there is a sort of Gu that Xiao Xia might like.”
“Nonsense. I don’t like those things at all.”
“See, you don’t know about it. The Yunnan Province’s Yunyun Tribe have a kind of Gu poison called the love drug. It’s extremely interesting. If any sort of bird falls from the sky and dies upon impact with the ground, this “love drug” can be harvested as powder from where it died. If you give it to someone you’re interested in, that person will forever love you. Only by eating a cat’s paw can the drug be dispelled!”
“Did you make that up?” Xiao Xia was skeptical, but couldn’t help but glance at Ruan Zhan. She thought that if such a drug really existed, she would use a little on Ruan Zhan so he would forever love her.
Ruan Zhan had kept his head lowered the whole time. Due to Wan Li mentioning a cat’s paw, he suddenly recalled the black cat and the moving plant Xiao Xia had seen.
If something was really up with Huang Bo Heng, those strange deaths might be caused by Gu poison. He had already suspected this to be the case previously, and had looked over some information. There was a type of Gu called Yinyang Grass that could move. If the culprit was Huang Bo Heng, the Gu was probably much more ferocious and of a stranger type. It contained narcotics and caused the victims to dig out their own eyeball.
Furthermore, what were his motives? What had the victims felt before they died?
“Now I’m getting a little scared.” Xiao Xia’s voice sounded in his ear.
“I’ve already read up on some folklore. Supposedly, you’ll be fine as long as you avoid eating and drinking random things. We’ve got our own water. If we really need to eat something, we just have to secretly keep a handful of rice in our hands. Then, keep the chopsticks you ate with and stop at the first intersection on the road after you leave. Use those chopsticks to dig a hole and bury the rice inside. Then, everything will be fine.”
“I’m still wondering if you’re making all this up.” Xiao Xia saw Wan Li’s earnest appearance and couldn’t help but smile.
On the side, Ruan Zhan remained uninvolved in the conversation. He looked at the skies and felt they shouldn’t be optimistic about the weather. He hurriedly called the other two to continue heading up the mountain.
The rain came sooner than they expected. They had just passed a valley when it started pouring mercilessly. Luckily they could see a building in the distance, standing by itself in a deserted space. It seemed to sway unsteadily in the wind. Despite this, the three ran for it without hesitation. They ran into this sole shelter from the elements.
There was no one inside the inn. For some reason, Xiao Xia felt entering this place was like entering a separate world.
The inn wasn’t any different from other roadside inns. It was just that the furniture was mostly made from bamboo, there was no one else around and the wind made it seem cold and gusty.
“Is anyone here?” Wan Li called out. No one responded. He then used some newly learned greetings in tribal languages but there was still no response.
“Is it abandoned?” He glanced at Ruan Zhan.
Coming to an abandoned place deep in the mountains under pouring rain was not an auspicious situation.
“Stay here and don’t move!” Ruan Zhan ordered curtly. Then, he carefully strolled around the relatively small bamboo building.
This place had two stories. The first floor was the dining room which had five or six tables. There was also the kitchen and the storage room. There were three separate rooms on the second floor. One of them seemed to be a guest room, but it was in the style of those old Beijing Motels. It only had a single mattress on the floor.
The entire building was clean and orderly. There was even a little food left in the kitchen as well as daily necessities in the room. The innkeeper seemed to have left not long ago. Perhaps it hadn’t been locked because the mountain people were more simple and honest, and also because they wanted to leave passersby a place to rest.
Ruan Zhan focused his senses. There was no ghostly aura. The empty place just seemed a little more sinister in the rain.
People at the foot of the mountain didn’t say the inn would be empty. However, there was also nowhere else to stay with the pouring rain. Besides, it’s been three days since someone last came by. Perhaps the innkeeper needed to go back up the mountain for something.
He hesitated and came down the stairs. The simple stairs creaked underfoot, the sounds seeming particularly piercing in the storm.
“No one?” Wan Li asked, his bag still in his hands.
Ruan Zhan shook his head. “Let’s change out of our wet clothes first and get something to eat before discussing further.”
The rain ended up continuing the entire day, keeping them stuck here. Luckily they had brought some food and water along. They wouldn’t be too badly off if they rationed it carefully.
They heard that there was electricity in Naman, but this inn along the way didn’t have any. They also didn’t find any oil lamps. Therefore, they could only sleep once night fell.
Xiao Xia had been exhausted by the journey. Despite being a little unsettled by this unfamiliar place, Ruan Zhan and Wan Li were next door and the rain had stopped. She felt the gentle mountain breeze from the window and fell deeply asleep as though hypnotized.
Yet as she was sleeping soundly, she suddenly felt someone lightly nudging her.
“Is it morning already? Let me sleep another five minutes!” The bright moon outside made her mistakenly assume it was already morning. She grumbled, half-asleep, and turned to face the wall.
The hand shoving at her stopped for a moment before resuming.
“Three more minutes.” Xiao Xia thought Wan Li was trying to wake her up and pleaded with him.
The force shoving her increased a little.
“One minute.” She continued negotiating.
The “person” shoving her seemed to have gotten angry and gave her a hard shove.
Xiao Xia also got a little angry. She went to hit the hand on her shoulder, but felt something was wrong the moment she touched it.
That wasn’t Wan Li’s warm hand, and it wasn’t Ruan Zhan’s steady hand either. It was a pair of small women’s hands. They were piercingly cold, stiff and withered.
She was immediately startled awake and hurriedly sat up. The pair of hands remained on her shoulder. She turned her head and saw they were indeed a pair of delicate, pretty female hands. They were deathly pale under the moonlight.
However, there was only this pair of hands. Their owner was nowhere to be seen. It was just a pair of hands, firmly placed upon her shoulder!
Her hairs immediately stood on end and she screamed, but no sound came out.
Instinctively, she desperately pulled at the hands but they seemed to be stuck to her shoulder, stubbornly refusing to budge. They also prevented her from getting up. She struggled with all her strength but was still unable to cry out. In the end, she could only wriggle free of her clothes and throw them to the corner along with those ghostly hands.
She stared at the corner, not daring to even breathe loudly.
A rustling sound came from the darkness. Something seemed to be moving, forming into a human figure in the corner. Before Xiao Xia could reacted, it swooped over, stopping less than half a foot in front of her.
It was an ethnic girl! She had delicate and pretty features but her skin was pale and she bled from her seven orifices!
“Don’t sleep in my bed!” She yelled fiercely. “Don’t sleep in my bed!”
“Ruan Zhan!” Xiao Xia finally managed to cry out. Her voice was exceptionally loud in the silent night, but there was no sound at all from the room next door.
“Don’t sleep in my bed!” The ethnic girl continued to approach, along with a foul stench that assailed Xiao Xia’s nostrils.
Xiao Xia hurriedly grabbed her amulet and the ethnic girl drifted half a step back in surprise.
At this time, a crisp bell suddenly rang out in the night.
The girl cried out and retreated to the door, but still didn’t leave.
Another crisp ring sounded out. It seemed to have gotten closer to this abandoned inn. Then, it grew a little closer once again. Slowly, it seemed to have reached right beneath Xiao Xia’s window.
Xiao Xia no longer dared to shout, afraid of provoking something. She didn’t understand why the usually alert Ruan Zhan didn’t hear such a clear noise. Why weren’t there any movements?!
The ethnic girl’s spirit blocked the door, preventing her from getting out. She gritted her teeth and slowly got off the bed.
The bamboo bed let out a creak and the ethnic girl ground her teeth angrily. The two noises alarmed Xiao Xia but she persisted in approaching the window and peeked outside.
On the mountain path was a row of figures. The one in the lead wore white cloth clothing and a very large conical bamboo hat which covered the face.
There was bell in the figure’s hand, which was where the ringing originated. Every few steps, the figure shook the bell. The five or six human-shaped figures behind hopped forward with every ring.
There was a white bag over every follower’s face. They were tied together by a rope as they headed towards the inn, following the clear ringing of the bell!