"Once a woman of grass ghost knows how to inject an undead insect into others, she has to infect someone with one every so often, otherwise the poison from the insect will break out inside her. If she needs to release an undead insect and cannot find an outsider at the time, she'll harm someone from the village."
Inside the room lit by a single dim lamp, the girl continued her narration.
"Is that why you're all afraid of Long Qiu?" Gu Yu seemed to have some idea.
Long Tang went on after a brief pause. "Women of grass ghost all have their Undead Insect of Life, which will stick to them for the rest of their lives. The previous woman of grass ghost here had an Undead Insect of Insanity for one. Once someone made contact with the insect, it would crawl into their brain, making the person go crazy. But she did not do that to harm others. Once she put an undead insect into someone, she would direct the person's family towards someone who could get rid of the insect, then she would secretly tell that person the method of expelling the insect.
But... but it was not the same with sister. She was so talented that she subdued the Undead Insect of Golden Silkworm to be her Undead Insect of Life."
"What would a Golden Silkworm do?" Seeing that she was faltering, Xiaozhai pressed on.
The girl was silent for a few seconds before giving the answer. "It eats people."
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were shocked. They finally understood the villagers' hostility towards Long Qiu.
The Undead Insect of Golden Silkworm we're talking about here was completely different from a Golden Silkworm King. The former was an invisible insect, while the latter was the king of silkworms, which had a golden body and was twice the size of ordinary silkworms. Nuo masters of the Miao people used to consume Golden Silkworm Kings, for allegedly they could promote one's cultivation.
"The Undead Insect of Golden Silkworm is very smart. It can do everything for you. But at the end of each year, it must eat a person. Sister got the Golden Silkworm the year before last and almost killed someone when she could not control it. Last year, another one almost died again. After that, they drove her away from the village. Because this type of undead insect is incurable once infected."
Long Tang's voice grew lower. "Sister said she had found a way to suppress it, but no one would believe her."
"How?" Gu Yu asked.
"I don't know." She shook her head.
The atmosphere grew somber at the cruel reality. They chatted randomly about this and that for a bit longer before Long Tang returned home. The two observed each other in silence for a few moments and Xiaozhai said, "That cauldron is the key."
"Yes. I think she's been using the venomous creatures to promote blood production and fed the Golden Silkworm with blood. Unfortunately, it would only cure the symptom, not the disease."
"Sigh, poor woman…"
Xiaozhai sighed suddenly, sympathizing with Long Qiu for the things she had gone through.
No wonder she looked so sickly and frail when she first spotted her. The Golden Silkworm would devour the essence and blood of its host when it failed to eat a person for the first year. The amount it devoured would double if it failed to eat someone the following year again. This would continue until it ate someone or the host died, which would take the life of the Golden Silkworm with her.
Such thing was easy to say, but one had no idea how much suffering it involved unless they were the ones enduring it.
After the truth was revealed to them, the two admired and pitied Long Qiu for her experience. However, with the great matter at hand, they had to put her aside for the time being.
The following morning, they left Baiqing Village and drove on towards Pinghu Mountain in that shabby car.
Afternoon, in a cottage in the woods.
Long Qiu was sitting on a wooden stool, steadying a stone container with her left hand while holding a medical pestle in her right and pounding down on some herbs, from which the green powder from the previous night was made. The powder would give off an aroma after being heated, attracting venomous insects.
She was wearing her hair loose today, and it hung down from her shoulders like a stretch of black waterfall, covering one side of her face. The side not concealed by her hair was more exquisite than the picturesque view of western Hunan and befitting the characteristic of the region.
Buried under those delicate features, however, was an everlasting feeling of depression.
With the lessons learned from the previous two years, she now knew that the Golden Silkworm tended to break out at year ends—that was, the last ten days of December. Unlike any other undead insect, the Golden Silkworm was a spiritual being.
For example, if one wanted to transplant rice seedlings, all they needed to do was to demonstrate with one rice shoot and it would finish the rest of the field. If one kicked their shoes on the threshold when returning home, the next time they set eyes on that spot, the dirt would be gone, for the Golden Silkworm was extremely keen on keeping everything clean.
The Golden Silkworm was invisible, but also a shape-shifter. It would take the form of a snake, a frog, or a small child running around wearing red panties.
With it as the Undead Insect of Life, those hosts not powerful enough would find themselves bound by an unequal treaty, under which the insect would be the one taking the lead. Such an undead insect was surely hard to handle. Long Qiu had experimented for thousands of times before realizing the blood produced with the promotion from the venomous creatures could relieve its side-effect.
"Thud, thud, thud!"
It took Long Qiu quite some time to finish grinding the herbs. She rose to her feet to put it aside. A couple of steps out, she gritted her teeth suddenly. The nearly unbearable pain returned.
She groaned in pain. Putting away the stone container with her shaky left hand, her right hand gripped the table so hard that her fingernails buried into the wood.
Just then, someone called her from outside.
Long Qiu shuddered and shouted hastily, "Don't come in!"
"Sister Qiu, I'm here to thank you. See, I brought you some nice food."
"Go away, now!"
She stumbled away, trying to run to the back rooms, but she was too late. Xiao Shan, the one with the tummy-ache, had burst in holding a basket. He was too young to understand anything and ignored all the warning from adults. The scene inside made him jump. "Sister, what's wrong with you?"
Long Qiu was whimpering by now.
A great force knocked Xiao Shan down, who passed out at once. The Golden Silkworm floating in mid-air was about to pounce at him; it had been long since it feasted on blood.
Long Qiu stared at Xiao Shan fiercely and shouted with all her effort.
"Get back here!"
With that, a splitting headache ran through her skull and she was unconscious as well.
Someone poured a basin of water onto her face. Maybe the pain was overwhelming, or maybe she simply did not want to wake up, she felt the darkness surrounding her cracked and she could faintly make out someone crying.
"It's her doing! Ah Bao and Ah Ni were not enough for her and she had to hurt my Xiao Shan today. Kuan Chief, I'm counting on you to make the right decision today!"
"That's right. We've given her two chances already. She's just too malicious to change."
"She might be living outside the village, but that's still not far enough. We feel unsettled almost every day."
"Exactly. We have to go into the woods sooner or later."
Everyone was talking at the same time, followed by a cold silence. Shortly afterwards, a voice both familiar and strange said, "Nothing serious has happened to Xiao Shan, but we cannot ignore the accident. The undead insect of Ah Qiu is indeed very hard to control and it can be a great threat.
Here's what we're going to do. Let's lock her up in the temple first. Tomorrow, I'll summon the heads of the other villages and we'll decide what to do then."
"Humph! We're letting her off too lightly!"
"If it were up to me, I'd send her to the county and they would throw her into the jail right away."
"That's enough. Go back to your own business. You two, take her to the temple."
Immediately after those words, Long Qiu felt herself floating up like a feather. She had flown a long way before falling onto the dry, hard ground again. Her mind was in a whirl for a long time, then she opened her eyes with much difficulty.
Everything was dim around her. Scant sunlight filtered in through the framed window, forming little dots on the ground.
The room was not spacious; it was barely big enough to hold a few people. All sorts of odd objects lined the wall on either side. On the shrine in front of her, a figure was worshiped. It was none other than the patriarch of all minority ethnic groups in the Hubei area, Panhu himself.
According to the records, in remote antiquity when Emperor Ku (a.k.a Gaoxin Shi) was at power, his queen had an earache for three years and a worm was eventually removed. It had an appearance similar to a silkworm and the queen raised it in a plate. In time, the worm turned into a dragon dog with a resplendent fur and was wrapped in brocade.
Gaoxin Shi was greatly pleased with the dog and bestowed upon it the name "Longqi" and an alternative name "Panhu".
Later, the Quanrong Clan rose in revolt and Gaoxin Shi promised to grant any who could decapitate the Quanrong general with manor estate, gold, and the princess as his wife. Consequently, Panhu returned after biting off the head of the general. The emperor had no choice but to marry his daughter off to Panhu.
After Panhu passed away, his descendants flourished and were known as the tribes of the South.
This legend was widely known among people of the southwest and south central China. In many areas inhabited by Miao people, a Temple of King Pan would be set up for sacrifice and celebration rituals, or to exercise domestic discipline.
Lying on her stomach, Long Qiu struggled to raise her head and look at the figure in the front. Suddenly, color drained from her face as pain several times more intense rushed through her body like tidal waves.
Her body tensed up and she shriveled and shrunk like a withered flower. She was murmuring to herself.
"The almighty King Pan, I beseech your blessing, I beseech your blessing…"