After another twenty minutes on that small passageway, skeletal remains began to appear, scattered across the ground. Yao Zhenhua had considerable experience researching fossils; he informed us, from a glance at some of the easier specimens, these were ancient bones. As we descended, the skeletons multiplied, some of them still completely intact. Even now we knew not what we had discovered. The greater part of the bones had survived without any signs of trauma or animal-tooth marks. Some time later, approaching the terminus of the passageway, we witnessed something truly shocking.
It was the perfectly preserved skeleton of an unknown species, some large four-legged beast with a humanoid S-shaped spine. Its skull and other fine bones indicated a highly evolved primate or a human, but its prognathic jaws had the sharp incisors and giant canine teeth of a wild animal. We stopped to carry out a closer investigation—and realized, with growing revulsion, this was the very same hairless, beast-like human-creature we had seen in the murals. The emergence of this skeleton proved it: every hateful monster we had seen in those murals had once walked this majestic cave. I tremble merely to think of it.
This sudden, looming horror was both sudden and short-lived. We picked our way around the skeleton, using our torches to navigate the bottom of the natural shaft—and were greeted by a maddening sight. Before us stretched an incredibly vast open plain, piled with behemoth platforms of stone. Throughout lay debris fallen from on high among a field of ash-grey bones. We had no way to guess how many had died here, nor what fate had befallen them. Some bones had been piled into small mounds, but most were scattered chaotically around. The dry underground environment had preserved much of their original appearance—the lonely scattered bones were perfectly intact, as if someone had nonchalantly left a body on the floor to decay for millennia. Human bones could be seen alongside the remains of the human-like quadrupeds, the half-ape giants, the small gibbon-things, and the skeletons of some unthinkable anthropoids with severe deformities. The majority of the bones had retained a natural posture without any serious damage. Whatever those ancient denizens had encountered, they had not resisted, or could not have resisted in time.
We acclimated to the deliriating scene, stumbling through the scattered bones and attempting to observe the other contents of the cave’s depths, while going to great efforts not to imagine exactly what had happened here. This natural shaft originally had two exits other than the small ledge we had taken on the way down. One was a narrow crevice in the northwestern corner; the other was a large tunnel leading east. However, the latter had apparently suffered a grave landslide, leaving the entire thing impassable. On the floor between shattered rocks and white bones, one could find original tools from the era; stone-cut knives, broken pieces of pottery… We had reason to believe that only the few artifacts that stood the test of time remained, and there had once been even more of them.
Luckily—or unluckily—the ancients, in their passion for artistry, had tesselated the cavern floor in cultural records. The murals here all depicted a common theme—sacrifice. Loathsome sacrifice. Evidently this wide-open cave was once their sacrificial grounds. Although the paintings lacked detail, our imaginations filled in the gaps and tinted the ominous festival in an even more sinister light. The ancients brought forth humans, and only humans, for their sacrificial offerings; however, the offerings were not captives from other tribes, but the fat, bloated aristocrats who never labored. In fact, according to the murals, these obese bodies were not the nobles of Ancient Nanyu, but livestock specially reared for offering to the gods. The scale of the depicted sacrifices was incomprehensible, which implied these ceremonies were none too frequent. What’s worse—we began to suspect that, sooner or later, everyone in Ancient Nanyu was offered to the divine snake. This may have been why the murals contained so few older people—no one ever lived that long.
About a dozen priests—all portrayed as serpentiform creatures—and an ordinary human man, adorned in fabulous ornaments, conducted this great and terrible rite, lighting a massive bonfire at the bottom of the shaft. The younger tribespeople, not yet ripe for sacrifice, surrounded the pit and beat the ground. Those who had been chosen gathered in the center of the shaft dancing an unnatural dance. One by one they climbed atop the high stone dais, where a four-legged hominid beast stood decorated in strange patterns. It knocked the sacrifices down and neatly bit open their flabby throats. Then, two priests—again, painted as the ophidians—took hold of the corpse, disemboweled it with a sickening dagger, and cast it down from the platform. Next, the half-ape giants carried the body to the snake-priests assembled at the perimeter, who took it to the now-collapsed eastern tunnel—and we dared not speculate what became of them after that. At the height of the Ancient Country of Nanyu’s most glorious period, this temple alone had seven stone daises simultaneously conducting ritual sacrifice.
Out of all the murals regarding sacrifice, we were most interested in one on the shaft’s western stonewall. Compared to the others, this one looked as if it had been done in a hurry. Scrawled and disorderly, and without careful composition or use of colour, it portrayed a sacrifice of unprecedented scale and chaos. All of the living creatures in the painting—whether human or terrifying hominid—had a crazed and distorted look on their faces. The ceremony was no longer confined to the surface of the high stone daises, and the sacrifices were no longer just the chosen people. In every corner of the cave men with handheld blades, or the hominid monsters they drove forward, slaughtered not only the fattened people, but the still-unripe youths, and even the half-human beasts. The bodies piled in heaps, yet the slaughter showed no signs of slowing—and, most eerily, there were no ophidians to be seen. What could this mean? Did they lose the tradition of nominating priests over time and forget the process of making sacrifice? Or did they face an even more terrible situation, so much so they resorted to these ghastly measures to entreat the gods for help? We would never have answers to these questions, having endured too much doubt and fear already—we could only stagger among them, bearing inhuman terror and confusion, discovering one astonishing fact after another. After making some simple records of the bottom of the shaft, we left that dreadful place by the crest of rock in the northwest corner. Behind it extended a narrow and sinuous passage, followed by an inconceivably gargantuan cavern.
White bones stretched before us wherever we walked, but the bones in this cavern had changed. We now saw children’s bones... ordinary children’s bones. Most of the skeletons in these piles had belonged to infants, or toddlers of only a couple years. A small number of adult remains, too, lay in the admixture. We examined these and discovered the majority had been women—seemingly suggesting this was a place for raising and protecting future generations. Paintings on the walls supported this hypothesis, illustrating a rare distinction between the sexes, with contents limited to themes of sexual intercourse, childbirth, and childrearing. As we crept deeper into the cave, we lit the surroundings with our strong torches in an attempt to uncover anything that might help us understand these timeless, otherworldly ancestors—it was then that we discovered that mural—that answer the mystery we had long cradled in our hearts, and the final straw that snapped our minds in half.
The mural showed a ceremony, performed by several of priests depicted as serpentine creatures. The participants included all of the images from the previous paintings: the half-human half-ape giants, the quadrupedal hominids, the gibbon-dwarves, and some ordinary people, along with many young infants, perhaps only recently weaned. During the ceremony the priests would inspect each child carefully, then paint one of six symbols on each of them, designating them into groups.
The first group of children drank a liquid from a spherical pot, then the half-human half-ape giants led them away. The second group of children drank a liquid from a long pot, then the four-legged humanoid beasts led them away. The third group of children drank a liquid from a huge jar, then the strange gibbon-like dwarves led them away. The fourth group of children, who were explicitly drawn as separate boys and girls, were returned to the childcare area to be taken care of by the women. The fifth group of children were chosen to be the sacrificial humans, and like the other sacrifices, they were to live a labor-free life. The sixth and smallest group were to be the raised by the ordinary humans, who performed simple menial tasks and drew the murals.
The mural then extended in all four directions, illustrating the different fates of these children in further detail. Each child would increasingly grow to resemble the group that had led them away.
The first group of children would become tall and strong and take care of the heavy work. The second group of children would crawl on the ground on their hands and feet, studying hunting with the four-legged humanoid beasts. The third group of children’s eyes and ears would enlarge, and they would climb trees alongside those uncanny ancient midgets. The fourth group of children would become precocious, begin to fornicate, and bear even more ordinary children once they reached a certain age. The fifth and sixth groups of children would become utterly similar to those images of humans we had seen in the previous murals.
Once he understood the horrors that the murals implied, Zhou Ziyuan fell limply to the ground, his face pale. The others were shaken, too, and could not help but lower themselves to the ground in an attempt to retain their composure. We briefly made eye contact. None opened their mouth to speak, but we all knew what the others were thinking. Could it be that those strange, hateful images we had seen in the murals, and those detestable, deformed bones scattered across the shaft-bottom, were human? The half-apes, the quadrupeds, and the gibbons—were they really the flesh and blood compatriots of those abominable ancestors? Was there actually a bizarre and occulted technique by which these ancestors transformed their descendants into inhuman deformities in order to maintain their grotesque and terrifying generational traditions?
After enduring such an eerie revelation, the others wished to return. They had lost the will to continue. Considering the horrifying iteration of revelations we had encountered, we doubted we would last the slightest shock. Furthermore, we had already burned more than half of our allotted time; we had to quickly depart this frightening place if we were to make it back on time and meet with E’li.
I, however, wished to continue exploring. Since entering the second cave, we had started to detect a faint and peculiar scent. The others attributed it to an air blockage, but I lucidly recalled this scent—from my final meeting with Zhang Cunmeng. Both his clothes and that strange shard of broken pottery he had retrieved from here had been drenched in this weird odor. I carefully traced the source of the smell—it was emanating from the third cavern at the back of the cave. Thus, I suggested that the others stay and rest while I used this time to carry out a simply survey of the back of the cave alone. With their consent, I removed my luggage, brought a carbide lamp and a camera, and followed the faint smell into the cave.