The next morning we set off from Xiayan under the guide of E’li, headed west along the path Zhang had taken into the heart of those nighted and desolate mountains. We made our way ahead through the low points of the mountain valleys, so as to carry our heavy equipment along what little path there was between the stunted trees and bushes. Occasional patches of bare earth and formations of rock revealed, in rare glimpses, that this place had once been hunting grounds to the ancient Yi.
The path inexorably steepened. On all sides the terrain began to rise, or drop, with lethal inclination, resembling even more than yesterday an impenetrable fortress. Deep granite cliffs flung themselves from cloud-piercing peaks in all directions; our mood was desolate. As the earth rose, the trees thinned and eventually succumbed to short mountain shrubs, for all the good it did our line of sight—those soaring peaks obscured our vision wherever we looked. The hermetic blockade permitted only a palm-sized patch of sky through its barrier. The mountains to the west grew larger, and white clouds hovered halfway up the snow-covered range—from a distance it was difficult to perceive where one ended and the other began. Faced with such mountains, any human could readily hallucinate a mysterious world, unknown to mankind, hidden within them. The strength of man, and even our modern civilization, were dwarfed in comparison to that savage majesty. We began to understand why the ancient Yi, living among that presence, had worshipped and made sacrifice to it as a god.
Near noon we reached what E’li had called Erzi Cave. It sat at the foot of a precipitous cliff, on the bottom of a valley formed by prehistoric glaciers. The titanic mouth of the cave consisted of bare glacially-carved rock covered in a thin layer of mud. Small mountain bushes grew overhead. Yang Hua, our geologist, inspected the cave entrance and the surrounding mountain topography, developing a preliminary theory—as he understood it, we were linked to the depths of the earth by an enormous fissure system whose cracks had been shaped by geological formations. At the end of the Ice Age, the glaciers had melted into the valley and poured into the cracks in the terrain. With the patience of eternity, the underground river had steadily eroded the rock around and within the cracks, until it formed the cavern system whose entrance we beheld. Some eons later, the glaciers had vanished, the underground river was dry, and the entire cave system lay completely exposed.
Although we had gotten along quite well with E’li up to this point, he swiftly and firmly refused our invitation to explore the cave together—though frankly, we were not surprised. Myths and taboos passed down through the generations had left a deep impression in his mind. He said he disbelieved the rumours about Erzi Cave—and was convinced that there was nothing below—and yet, each time he mentioned the place we clearly sensed, as before, the off-kilter manner of his speech. We therefore agreed that no matter what we found within, we would return within four hours. Further plans would be made from there. So resolved, our five-man team prepared our bags and spelunking essentials, and entered the deep, dark cave.
To this day, even despite our photographic evidence, I am uncertain whether that journey below was anything but a bizarre, grotesque night-terror. Though I still recall the innumerable, miraculous atrocities revealed to us; the abnormal, appalling process of our exploration; even the maddening misfortunes that befell me—all of this, in my memory, seems singularly un-real. Worse, the memories have been muddled with a certain set of disgusting legends I once read, and I am unable to distinguish what is speculation based on real events, and what wild imaginings spawned from those repulsive tales. The gloomy, mysterious atmosphere of the cave obviously exerted a subtle and peculiar influence on our minds, and we could not help but explain our horrifying discoveries—and the ancient, irreconcilably alien things who once lived here—with our most sinful and terrifying thoughts.
With carbide lamps held aloft in the cave’s darkness, we followed the trail for a long time. The cave plunged far downwards, far beyond our reckoning. As the path sloped ever deeper, its torturous lineament underwent vast changes, yet no matter how it contoured it remained remarkably wide throughout, never narrowing in the slightest. The cave swiveled in every kind of twist and bending slalom, but it always descended at roughly thirty to forty-five degrees, seemingly stretching to bowels of the earth that humans had scarcely touched. There were few stalactites and stalagmites growing within, possibly due to our height above sea level and a temperature unsuitable for sedimentary formations. More often we encountered large pieces of gravel or flat rock surfaces smoothed over by passing water. In the acetylene blaze, these features spawned erratic shadows, elongating out from the flickering light that cast a foreboding pall over a cave already otherworldly. We did not encounter any byways worth mentioning on our journey, save a few cracks that had expanded across the surface of the cave wall. Most of them were only wide enough to reach a hand within, but a small number could accommodate one's body, squeezed in sideways. We stopped by those larger fractures to conduct some simple studies. We estimated their age to be much younger than the cave itself, likely torn open by geological effects after its formation. These traces of nature's horrifying power gripped us with an indescribable fear, as though gods lurking beneath the thick soil had torn scars into these walls in a display of tyrannical power. On the other hand, we found signs likely left by Zhang Cunmeng: arrows smeared with paint on the walls, glowsticks stuck in the crevices of what had been his last journey. The sight filled us with emotion. We knew by the markings that we were on the right track, but we could not resist poignant reminiscence over Zhang, who had disappeared without a trace.
Our first surprise was abrupt. An hour had passed since entering the cave when we suddenly beheld a flat horizontal tunnel. It bore straight and level with an extremely regular circular outline, making it difficult to believably attribute to natural forces. Even by the ample light of our carbide lamps, we could only vaguely glimpse the tunnel's roof—and again we could find sedimentary formations on neither the floor nor the cavern ceiling. Even the gravel and pebbles scattered across other areas had vanished completely.
This was not even the extent of our surprise. As we advanced slowly through this strange tunnel, we suddenly noticed colourful pictures painted on the cave walls. After a moment of shock we realized these were the remains of the “Ancient Country of Nanyu” mentioned by Zhang, and immediately we focused our attention on them. The two miraculous wall murals were about ten feet high by fifty or sixty feet wide, undoubtedly the work of several artists together. Subtle differences between scenes confirmed this theory, although it was challenging to conceive of how an ancient people had created such a magnificent work so far underground thousands of years ago.
The artwork contained a variety of scenes and told many stories, fluidly shifting from one scene to the next to form a seamless whole. The scenes progressed chronologically from the outside in, evidently for narrative purposes. Walking in the direction of the deeper caves, it was intuitive that the story illustrated the passage of time. The murals shared a descriptive style with other famous prehistoric frescoes: simple composition, realistic structure. Despite their simplicity, the beings on the wall moved vividly and the scenes were gravid with a tension evident in each highly technical brushstroke, the work of observatory artists. We were able to decrypt their content after a holistic review and some cursory discussion. They told the story of a tribe who had discovered this cave, accepted to worship some kind of deity, then settled down and multiplied. Naturally the story incorporated some mythology, but something about this occulted, antediluvian civilisation confounded and unsettled us.
According to the content of the paintings, the Ancient Country of Nanyu had once suffered a battery of cruel wars. Two tribes dressed separately in white and brown were locked in an overwhelming conflict; the white tribe were desperately outnumbered. Armed with crude spears and sticks, the brown tribe encircled and destroyed many of the white tribe’s men. The remaining whites fled one after another towards the even more dangerous mountain range. Still the brown tribe pursued them, determined to eradicate what remained of the whites. The white tribe were driven to some low-lying ground between the mountain peaks—judging by the landmarks, the very valley that was home to Erzi Cave. In those days, it seemed, there had still been a meandering river flowing into it. The hunters from the brown tribe climbed ‘round the peaks surrounding the valley, embattling their enemies on all sides; ready to wipe them out. Then, a figure painted in sheer white stood by the mouth of the cave and pointed a finger within. He appeared to call upon the nearly-defeated white tribe to follow him inside. In contrast to the rest of the figures, which were depicted coarsely and lacking distinguishing features, the man by the cave was drawn extremely finely. He wore a peculiar headdress and bore decorative designs on his body. On his hands and feet he wore furs from many animals, suggesting great import.
The story moved underground, and the man in the headdress led the survivors of the white tribe within. At all times, a shadowy bulk of scales lurked at the edge of their vision, some kind of immense reptilian creature imperceptibly advancing along with them. Suddenly, the leader lost his footing and fell into the river. The tribe watched helplessly by the shore as the current swept him further away, and he disappeared behind its gently winding corners. He was carried to a rapidly flowing narrow gully, plunged down a waterfall into a deep pool, and surfaced upon a flat river bank.
A grotesque group of reptiles—with long, slender humanoid torsos and flat serpentine heads, depicted in green and grey paint—happened upon him. Where human arms should have been, they instead possessed thin forelimbs covered in unmistakably ophidian scales. They lacked hindlegs as well, and stood upright on elongated, coarse trunks, like a snake. They gathered around the body of the man with the headdress, gesturing as though in discussion. Nearby lay an enormous snake—gigantic beyond imagination—resting inside a pile of stones. The painters had left the silhouette of this beast unfinished, coloring only the inconceivable flat head, much larger than a person, and a portion of the body. Meanwhile it looked as if the unnatural creatures had reached a consensus; they lifted the man into the mouth of the giant snake, which swallowed him. The creatures circled around the snake's head and prostrated themselves before it, seemingly carrying out an arcane ritual.
The subsequent scenes were the mural’s most impenetrable. Once again the giant snake opened its enormous maw; and within stood a new serpentiform creature, but this one was different from the others. It was painted in white; it wore the tribe leader’s headdress and furs, and it bore the same ornamental designs on its slender body. The white creature began to lead the other green-grey things away from the giant snake, to seek the remaining members of the white tribe. The humans also prostrated themselves before the snake-things, expressing their respect and fear, receiving the monsters as honoured guests. Finally, the dull-green snake-things led the white tribe out of the cave, beseeching the incomprehensible, many-scaled monster to swallow the brown tribe whole, exterminating the white tribe's enemy.