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?
They set off from the caves of Yulin, and like snaking streams of light, four spectral horses exploded in the direction of the Tangut Empire’s Imperial Tombs. The entourage, winding its way through the starry night, was like four lanterns shining in the vast wasteland, a quartet of miniature comets streaking across the dark sandscapes.
Xiaomao’s freezing hands—she chastised herself bitterly for forgetting to put on her mittens— were shaking so much in excitement that she was terrified that she might accidentally release Rong Rong and tumble off. Teeth chattering uncontrollably, she hung on, watching the ghost of Laosuo intently as his steed rocketed across the dark desert plains below the empyrean. The skin of her palms were worn, flakes of it rubbed and scratched off painfully from her grip on her horse’s reins.
On they galloped as the stars circled around and above them, time itself struggling to keep up with their pace. Rong Rong was trailing behind, his hooves slamming into the hard sandy ground in panic as he pursued the spirits desperately. How he even managed to move in their wake, supernaturally quick as they were, neither he nor Xiaomao knew. Perhaps just being in the presence of the ghosts imparted something not quite of this world to them.
Blurry light bled past Xiaomao and Rong Rong’s eyes and they lost sense of the hours and minutes, until their trance-like present abruptly ended with a flash of light shooting from Qutu Baqa’s drawn sword: a wrathlike, smoky weapon with edges that seemed to ripple and curve ever so slightly with each blink of the eye. The spectral horses had stopped, whinnying stardust from their immaterial nostrils. Xiaomao glanced around, awestruck, as Tianjue’s voice echoed through the desert. “Behold. Our emperors’ imperial tombs.”
The mausoleums were indeed eerie, peculiar structures, with masonry hearkening back to a forgotten time. They were octagonal monuments that reached up to the heavens, and the earthen mounds had layers upon layers of niches tirelessly chipped into them. Perhaps those niches used to hold precious sculptures or relics, and they would have been a magnificent sight when fully decked with treasures and loot to send off their dead monarchs. All around them were fragments of forgotten grandeur. Tablets of mythical beasts’ faces were strewn nearby, arranged hastily in a line and then left behind. There were a few standing sculptures of humanoid figures with wings—Buddhist celestials calls asparas. But aside from these hints of Tangut civilization, the grounds were completely abandoned and deathly silent.
Xiaomao glanced down at her necklace, her grimy fingers rubbing the tiny sparrow-shaped charm that the string ran through. “What do I do now?” she wondered aloud. “What do we do now? How can I help you reach the Other World?”
As if to answer her, the earth began to quake, and for a moment Xiaomao wanted to flee in terror, to fling expletives at the undead horsemen for luring her to this inauspicious resting place of Western Xia emperors. “Now we do battle,” cried Laosuo, sensing her fear. “But your amulet will reverse what that wicked creature has done to us.” He also drew his shining, wispy sword, bellowing a cry that echoed far and wide. “The curse awakens, and with it, its master!”
Xiaomao would never forget the eldritch sight of that entombed, forgotten creature, the lichen being that destroyed the Tanguts at Genghis Khan’s pleasure. The entire burial complex was enveloped by a shadow blacker than the night itself. From the darkness peered two glittering, sinister furnaces of hateful light, housed in two yawning sockets. A skeletal grimace forced itself from a lipless mouth, with preserved, wrinkly skin stretched precariously over bone like thin rice paper. Enveloped in the voluminous, silken garments of a court warlock, the apparition emerged from a cloud of dark fog that gave off a pungent, revolting smell of rotting corpses.
“You weren’t satisfied with massacring our people. The scourge of heaven also wanted to deny us our passage into the afterworld, to bind us to a fate of eternal wandering,” said Qutu Baqa. “Your presence here continues to violate the memory and physical grave of our founding emperor, Li Yuanhao.”
“Yes,” came an icy, malevolent voice from the Mongol shaman, only after a few seconds of heavy silence. “I was tasked by the great khan to punish his enemies long after they died. Death releases beings to the realms of the celestials or animals, but rebirth provides a chance for heavenly life or even liberation. I sealed you four away in the Yulin Grottoes. I will not permit you to leave this mortal world and have a chance to be reborn and attain enlightenment.”
“You see,” cried Xiaoli Qianbu, as the Tangut spirits rallied their horses and charged the shaman. “Genghis Khan’s cruelty extends even beyond this world.” The Mongol shaman raised his skeletal hands, fighting off the swords of the Tanguts with noxious clouds of poison that choked the midnight air and blotted out the stars. His abyssal sorcery overwhelmed Su Tianjue and Laosuo, who fell from their horses. Tendrils of nether magic sliced into their ghostly armour, and although they could not die, they felt agony just like living flesh felt for metal blades. Qutu Baqa charged the shaman, his horse trampling over the lich as he swung his sword in a wide arc, tearing into the lich and sending putrid flesh and tissue flying. But the wound closed up just as quickly as it was inflicted.
“What does this sparrow mean to you?” cried Xiaomao at Su Tianjue. She clutched her amulet, desperate and afraid. “I can’t stop that shaman. If you can’t… how can I?”
“We recognized your face, your eyes, when you came to our cave. Why did you think you were drawn here? Why did you think we could escape from our mural prisons?” shouted Su Tianjue. “Your ancestor from many centuries ago knew Qutu Baqa. She knew him well, and with affection.”
“That amulet is my gift,” admitted Qutu Baqa, even as he narrowly ducked a blast of infernal fire from the lich. His spirit horse whinnied. “It’s a charm, nurtured the love and care of your family’s many generations. A talisman that overwhelms any curse conjured from hate or spite.”
“It’s a spell,” cried Xiaoli Qianbu, “to disintegrate what should have been dust long ago. A victory for nature, for what should be.”
Xiaomao couldn’t believe it. Her maternal ancestor must have been Qutu Baqa’s wife or lover. And this amulet had been blessed by woman after woman in her clan, in memory of the restless ghost. “Mummy always seemed so attached to this little thing,” she whispered emotionally, eyes prickling with tears. “She treasured it over her own life. She died with a smile on her face once she had passed it on to me.”
Xiaomao screamed, venting her years of loneliness and unanswered hunger for affection. A white light even brighter than that of the Tangut ghosts ripped through her amulet, shooting with surgical precision at the Mongol shaman. The lich’s hateful, immortal eyes widened ever so slightly before the shooting pillar of light punched through his levitating body, incinerating him in one clean conflagration.
Xiaomao stared ahead, astonished at the magical power of her amulet.
As the echo of the lich’s dying scream died down, the four ghosts suddenly began to float into the air, along with their horses. “We’re leaving,” cried Xiaoli Qianbu in near-disbelief, “we’re really leaving!”
“The defeat of the shaman’s curse has freed us from our durance,” said Su Tianjue joyfully. “All thanks to little Xiaomao.” He and his compatriot spread their arms exultantly and closed their eyes, and they and their horses dissipated, at one with the wind and sky.
“You will be blessed for your generosity, your innocent kindness and bravery,” said Laosuo. His voice was already sounding disembodied; his spirit and that of his horse’s evaporated into the crisp early dawn air. The night was retreating. “Thank you. We won’t see each other again.”
Qutu Baqa and his steed were also floating in the air, and he looked down at the gobsmacked Xiaomao fondly as he faded away. “Your forebear was a Song princess. I was a general at the time. But she conquered me completely.” He smiled gratefully. “Even now, her love reaches me. Now I can be reborn and find her, wherever her next life might be.”
Xiaomao reached up with a shaking hand, but they were gone forever as quickly as they had irrupted into her life. She could still feel the horsemen’s ghostly aura as the morning star could be seen across the empyrean and the sun began to peek at her from beyond the horizon. She hugged Rong Rong, who looked just as dazed.
“I broke a magical curse today,” she whispered.
She would be laughing and crying and rejoicing to herself all the way back to the Ming capital.
Twenty years later
She still tells this story to her daughter. Sometimes it’s in the form of a song, while they are drying their clothes in the courtyard. The courtyard is in the center of a large and comfortable manor that her husband commissioned. True to the prophecy of the horsemen spirits, she was blessed for helping to free them.
She is happy that she finally had the fortune of discovering a treasure trove of precious things that did not belong to her. She sold things she should not have one last time, and upon moving to Peking, took up honest labor and never, ever, stole again.
In time, Rong Rong grew old and sick and died contentedly in her arms. But she found a kind and gentle man to love. The bedtime tales for her daughter are the same every night. It’s always about that fateful time she met four ghostly riders and rode with them across the perilous desert, where they fought off an evil shaman and she discovered who she really was and laid four lost gentlemen to rest…
And each night, she tucks a small sparrow-shaped amulet into her daughter’s closed palm.