Raymond Lam

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?

It was nightfall when Xiaomao had reached her remote destination, a distance beyond the abandoned caves of Mogao in the desert. She was exhausted, sweating and sore in her baggy pants and furry coat, with strands of ebony hair flying loosely from loosened gaps in her turban. But when she finally glimpsed the edge of a deep and spacious canyon and the quiet trickle of a stream, she knew she had made it. Her weary pace quickened, suddenly imbued with new energy and hope. She felt close enough to unwind the cloth around her head. “Come on, Rong Rong,” she groaned, tugging gently at the nose peg of the sleepy camel behind her. “We’re almost there.”

Rong Rong, who had been raised by Xiaomao since his days as a calf, snorted tiredly but obeyed. He and his master hurried to the edge of the canyon. What Xiaomao saw took her breath away: a long, flowing river with the color of dark silt, with a long row of elm trees along the embankment. “This is why they call it Yulin,” she said to Rong Rong. “The grove of elms. And there—” She jabbed her calloused finger at the dark, human shaped holes strategically occupying various spots along the cliffs. “—are the Tangut caves. There must be a trove of treasures and art the old men back in Beijing would die for.”

Who knew? Perhaps even Ming emperor would be interested in whatever she could find here. She just needed to take as much as she could put on Rong Rong, get back to the capital safely, and then find somewhere in the marketplace to sell them off—deflecting any uncomfortable questions about procurement, of course.

It was impossible to climb down the steep crevice. Luckily, like Mogao, the Grove of Elms was once a thriving community, with reinforced wooden stairs and walkways built along the sides of the crevices. Xiaomao looked around and quickly found a walkway to use to descend into the valley. She had to be extra careful with Rong Rong, whose weight she feared could collapse the beams and floorboards. They took their time, moving step by step, always looking down but not for too long; their lives depended on it. They spent what felt like hours traversing the wooden planks and staircases, until finally they were at the base of the valley, taking in the tall elms beside the thin river.

She ascended a set of worn and uneven steps, looking around at the eerie, abandoned ruins. This abode was once a bustling place of the Tangut Empire, a theocratic Buddhist empire that would have held religious ceremonies here. There must have been shaven-headed monks and high imperial officials everywhere. There were entrances to the many grottoes dotting the cliff face, and Xiaomao hurried into one of them, pulling Rong Rong along. “Any one will do,” she whispered to herself. It wasn’t hard for her eyes to adjust to the darkness: after all, there was no door, and the entrance of the cave was an open cavity.

The cave offered a brief reprieve from the outside chill, although Xiaomao quickly realized it wasn’t that much different. Rong Rong was carrying a small sack on his humped back, and she had two cloaks in there: a big one for him, a smaller one for her. She wrapped the larger cloth around her mount and the other woollen sheet around her own shivering body. She sat down, leaning against Rong Rong’s thick warm fur. There were no treasures in here, but that was fine. “Tomorrow we can try and find any loot around here worth pilfering,” she murmured sleepily. “There’s no one around here to catch us anyway.”

She hadn’t wanted to live like this. Of course she would prefer to live in a warm home instead of scavenging and stealing. Of course she would prefer to go to school, to enjoy the kind embraces of a loving mother or doting father. It was just as well that this orphan had turned to a life of burglary, for the world had already stolen too many things and people from her.

She gradually fell asleep, dreaming of returning to somewhere that she could call home someday, and snored away for a while until she sensed that someone, or something, was watching them. She opened her eyes, disconcerted and uncertain whether she had fallen asleep at all. Now that she had momentarily awoken, she couldn’t help but notice the tranquil façade of a bodhisattva staring down at her. His countenance was tender and godlike, and even when Xiaomao cocked her head, his gentle eyes seemed to follow her.

“Are you watching us?” she wondered aloud, fixated on the mesmeric, gentle eyes of the prime celestial. “Are you looking out for Rong Rong and me?”

She looked to the bodhisattva’s flanks, and noticed other strange figures and fantastic beasts. One of them was a flying horse, painted in mid-flight, muscles pulsating, eyes throbbing with emotion. A faint warmth descended on Xiaomao as she lost herself in the mural art, until she realized that the cave was alive with ethereal light. Jolted awake, she scrambled up, grabbing on to Rong Rong, who was already on his camel toes and braying in fright. Surrounding them were dancing, glowing orbs, which emitted heat like torches. The freezing cold outside the cave was quickly forgotten.

Before Xiaomao could figure what these disembodied balls of illumination were, the corner of her eye caught something else—the white horse on the mural stirred, the worn paint pulsating like something was trapped underneath it. Then, a great peal of light from the corners of the cave washed over her as an ethereal stallion burst from the wall, riding this crescent of brilliance, mane as real as Rong Rong’s fur. Xiaomao screamed at the top of her lungs as three more beasts emerged from the murals in cascading waves of ethereal tides, and the equine specters were neighing, whinnying as loudly as any living horse. The thunder of their ghostly hooves slammed the stone ground, sending the cave into a tremor and Rong Rong into an even nastier fright.

Xiaomao was about to throw herself in front of the horse spirits (maybe they wanted to hurt or kill her camel) but the creatures suddenly stopped thrashing about and stilled tamely when four figures emerged from behind. They were men, tall and strong men clad in rattan Tangut armor that should have looked an intimidating black, had the soldiers not been pearly white ghosts as well. They had weapons in their hands—a sword, spear, halberd, and mace—and their pupil-less, glowing eyes stared down at the trembling girl.

“Good evening,” boomed one of the warriors in a lively, yet strangely disembodied voice. “Have you come to free us?”

Moonscape Riders will continue with the next installment, Horsemen of the Dream!