A young girl discovers a magical secret entombed within an ancient grotto in the Chinese desert. What wonders will reveal themselves to her as she sets out to discover a mysterious secret of the long-lost Tangut Empire?
Xiaomao could live with poverty. She could even endure living alone. She had survived by herself in backbreaking destitution all her young life, scavenging what she could from abandoned dwellings and stealing anything of value to peddle to the unsuspecting. Pieces of art, trinkets and jewelry, pottery and household items, anything that could feed her, or when she was lucky, afford her a few nights to stay somewhere with a roof over her head and a warm bed.
Perhaps it was karmic payback that it cost her so much more to be poor, for she spent everything she earned on scraping by, without any hope of something better or any prospect of leaving behind her dishonest life. Then again, if her parents hadn’t left her so early on, perhaps she would not have been forced to live so dishonestly.
So while she felt desperately lonely most nights, terrified that she would have to continue stealing until she was caught one day and beaten to death, she could tolerate her solitude as long as Rong Rong was around. He was the best listener and had served her well, rescuing her from many an angry pursuer. But even Rong Rong would leave her someday. And she didn’t want to die alone.
Tonight was probably the night she would. The young girl was thrown on her backside, landing painfully on the cold stone floor, her terrified eyes staring up at the four horse spirits whose passionate whinnies echoed through the chilly cave. Their bodies were majestic silver with shining particles of pure white light, brilliance trailing from their handsome manes. Every time their hooves scraped the ground there was the sound of thunder. And those eyes, those beautiful milky eyes. Lightning danced in those eight pairs of glimmering lights.
They could trample her into a bag of broken bones and pulverized flesh any moment. Rong Rong was cowering behind her, his dark body quaking before the incredible presence of these spirits. Was this divine vengeance for setting foot in Yulin? Xiaomao shut her eyes tightly, hoping that if she were to die here, a single strike from one of the spirit horses’ hooves would make quick work of her.
The wraithlike men in armor, however, had other plans. “Have you come to free us from these catacombs?” boomed one of them, his voice as loud and penetrating as a volley of cannonballs. “Have you come to save us?”
Xiaomao lowered her arms slightly and squinted at them. She didn’t know that they could speak, and in Chinese too! It took her several moments to remember that perhaps she could try talking to them first. After all, they had just irrupted from the murals and cave art—how did they end up banished within the rocky walls in the first place? “First you weren’t there—then you were!” she cried. Even though the ghosts did not mean her any harm, she still blinked away tears of terror. She’d been crying without realizing it; such was the physical weight of their presence. “And why do you think I’ve come to save you?”
“I am Qutu Buqa, and these are my comrades—Laosuo, Xiaoli Qianbu, and Su Tianjue,” came the echoing reply. The one called Qutu Buqa had sculpted, handsome features; perhaps he had only seen forty or so summers before meeting his end. How did he die? His comrades had moustaches and beards, and their pupil-less eyes, like those of their mounts, reflected celestial turbulence and crackling power. “We once served the great esoteric emperors of Xixia, and the desert and dry sky were our home.”
“You’re Tanguts,” breathed Xiaomao, staring up at the shimmering warriors in wonder. She’d heard legends about this empire of fierce, theocratic Buddhists. They built a great, lofty civilization from the blasted sands of the Chinese desert, took on the Song, and thrashed their Liao enemies to the west. But she had heard of their legendary slaughter at the hands of Genghis Khan, whose wrath had fallen upon their capital of Khara-Khoto after a perceived betrayal. The streets had run with rivers of gore, and the city was left lifeless for many generations. Even today, the very name of Khara-Khoto evoked feelings of haunting, loneliness, and menace. “These murals were carved by our great king of the Xixia. This is our sacred ground, Tangut territory. These are our gods, our Buddhas and bodhisattvas.”
Rong Rong was still shaking, but he had recovered slightly, his eyes darting to look at them and then away again, as if not wanting to catch the ghosts’ gazes. They still had milky-white pupils and irises, so they looked almost blind to Xiaomao. They clearly weren’t, as Qutu Baga was gesturing around. The interior of the cave rumbled. “The tale of our internment is not a happy one. We fell defending these grottoes against the onslaught of the Mongols. That was a long time ago. We resisted the great Khan as ferociously as we could, but were all cut down.”
Another of the ghosts stepped forward, putting an ethereal hand on his chest, and wisps of light issued from his mouth, as if he were exhaling fragments of stardust. “I’m Su Tianjue, little girl,” he said. “We don’t belong here. We should have left for the Other World when we took our last agonizing breaths.” His shining countenance soured, and his booming voice darkened. “But alas, we didn’t know that hiding among the Mongol forces was a shaman, a warlock of the blackest magic, who could bind our very spirits to the landscape. He sealed our fleeing spirits into the frescoes of this cave.”
“An accursed, shambling creaker of a man, rickety as an old abandoned hut… yet more frightening than any great general or khan,” spat the one called Xiaoli Qianbu, his face twisting into a scowl. “The dark arts begin with a simple rejection; the refusal of entry into the Other World is a humiliation, a repudiation of karma and destiny itself. That evil, cackling creature doomed us to an eternal prison of guarding these murals we fell defending.”
Laosuo brushed his shimmering hand along the walls, leaving a soft trail of gently glimmering lights in his wake. “We wish to leave the Grove of Elms for the Other World, but it’s a right that has been denied by the Mongol curse.”
“How are you supposed to leave this world?” asked Xiaomao. “Where can you go?”
“The Imperial Tombs of Tangut,” said Laosuo. “Where our forebears were buried. We can travel to the stars using those spire tombs. And you—” He suddenly pointed at Xiaomao, his eyes running over the necklace that she wore. “Your amulet must have drawn you to this grotto and awakened us. Now we might be able to find freedom at last.”
“Ride with us,” said Qutu Buqa. “Under the moon of illusions and to the resting place of our ancestors.”
Xiaomao stared at Rong Rong, and at the Sand Riders, then back again. She put her fingers on her very simple string necklace and tiny jade amulet, which was shaped like a sparrow. It was a keepsake from her mother, who had promised that it would preserve her life. She never thought it might have any kind of supernatural potency.
For a moment, she was at a loss. How could she follow these ghosts to a place she had never even heard of before and wasn’t sure existed at all?
Perhaps she was just dreaming this extraordinary meeting. She wouldn’t be surprised. But if that was the case, she didn’t want to wake up.
This was going to be the raiding party of a lifetime.
She nodded her head, licking her lips excitedly. “Alright, fine. Rong Rong and I will take a chance. Take us to your imperial tombs!” she cried.
TO BE CONCLUDED…