We need more water as well, so we agree to make finding it part of our exploration. We split the last meal, and as that food disappears, I find myself thinking of the village we left behind. A full day has gone by now, and our absence will have long been discovered. What will people think of us? What will Zhang Jing think? Will my note be enough to maintain her faith in me?
A sound I’ve learned to recognize by now soon alerts me to a water source. I steer Li Wei toward it, and we find a small trickling tributary that runs through the plateau. He looks impressed, and I can’t help but feel a little pride as I fill our canteens.
I wouldn’t have found that nearly so quickly , he admits.
I hand him his canteen and tuck my own away. I guess I’m of some use after all.
He smiles at that. General, you’ve long since proved your use.
Don’t call me— My hands drop as my eye catches something in the trees beyond him. Seeing my change of expression, he turns, searching for what I noticed. Soon he sees it too: the large, looming shape of a building on the other side of the trees. Turning back to me, he meets my eyes, and I give a quick nod of agreement. We head in that direction . . .
. . . and find not one but many buildings.
We have stumbled onto a small village—much smaller than our own but clearly meant to have some permanency. The implications of this are staggering, and we both stare around wide-eyed. No one in our village has had any contact with the outside world, short of the line keeper’s notes. Entering this settlement is akin to having fallen into one of the magical lands in the old stories.
No one’s been here for a while , Li Wei says, pointing at some of the disrepair on the buildings. I see instantly what he’s referring to. The wood is worn, even rotted in some places, and the elements have long won out. We split up and walk around, and I feel a mix of both excitement and apprehension. Once again, I find myself thinking in terms of the record, how I would report on this amazing discovery. For the most part, the little houses are built similarly to ours, but I spy minute architectural differences that fascinate me. I wish I’d brought ink and paper for notes. I’ll have to rely on my own memory to share this when I get back home.
I find a house with a door hanging ajar, having rotted out of its holdings. I push it all the way open and again hear that sound doors make that I have no word for.
Inside, the house reminds me of the modest home Zhang Jing and I grew up in. It is built with three bays, and a deteriorating screen blocks the rest of the house from my view. There is a large clay stove that has been cold for some time and looks as though its most recent use was by nesting birds. A small shrine marks where the household gods sat with burned-out clumps of candle wax.
I pick up a statue nestled in the shrine. It’s mostly made of ordinary clay, but the detail in the carving is exceptional. It is a pixiu, its leonine head held proudly up as its mouth opens in a roar. Rubbing off some of the dirt on it, I see that the horns and wings are tipped with gold. Li Wei will want to see this, if only to admire the craftsmanship. Taking it feels a little like stealing, but it is clear no one has been here for a while and the statue has been abandoned.
Holding it in one hand, I walk over to the screen that separates this living space from the sleeping area. The screen is worn and rotting, with no design or ornamentation. When I touch it to move it away, part of the screen crumbles, and the whole thing collapses, kicking up dust. I step back, coughing and covering my face. When the dust finally settles again, I blink a few times and at last get a glimpse beyond the screen—
—and find myself face-to-face with a family of human skeletons grinning at me with sightless faces.
A SCREAM CATCHES IN MY THROAT, and I back up as quickly as I can. The little pixiu statue slips from my fingers and hits the floor with a thud. I barely notice. I want nothing to do with this place. I need to get out.
I run through the living area and out the door—and straight into Li Wei. For a moment, I’m so panicked that I don’t even realize it’s him. I start to struggle against him and finally still when a glimmer of familiarity—the feel of his strong arms around me—is able to penetrate my fear. For a moment, I allow myself to relax in his embrace and then step back, still trembling.
Are you okay? he demands. What’s wrong?
I have no words. I simply shake my head and point at the door. Li Wei gives me a once-over and proceeds toward the house to investigate. By the time he returns, I have calmed down a little. I’m embarrassed to show such weakness, but the memory of those grinning skulls is haunting. Li Wei wears a tight expression, and I see he’s carrying the statue I dropped.
What are you doing? I ask. We shouldn’t take anything. This place is cursed.
Li Wei tucks the little pixiu into his pocket. That house, perhaps, but not this statue. The carving is incredible. I’ve heard about statues like these. People used to keep them in their homes for prosperity and good fortune.
It didn’t help these people , I point out.
Li Wei’s face turns grimmer. I don’t know what happened in there, but I think it has little to do with the supernatural and more to do with man. Let’s check out the rest of these buildings and figure it out.
Maybe he’s right. This village is too similar to our own. We have to find out what happened here to ensure that our village doesn’t share this one’s fate. How do you suggest we search? I ask.
Wait here , he says. He hurries off into the largest building in the settlement, one that looks less like a house and more like some sort of administrative or educational facility. It’s eerie being left alone in this ghostly village, but I refuse to let superstition get the best of me. When Li Wei comes back out, there is excitement on his face.