Evening, a drizzle.
Winter here did not come with snowfalls, but cold rains only. Such rain was now falling on the people's skin, the wooden buildings, and even moistened the black flagstones. The sticky dampness had enwrapped everything.
A shabby car drove out from deep inside the mountains and moved gingerly along the winding mountain road. Its dipped headlights were on, the blurry beams penetrating the misty rain.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai had spent an entire day at Pinghu Mountain and come back empty-handed. The spiritual essence there was very unstable. He detected 1 in some spots and 2 in others, but never a 3.
They did not make it into a thorough exploration. After a brief search, they were reassured that there was no node on the mountain and started to make their way back. It took them more than half a day to return to Baiqing Village again.
They decided to spend the night in the village and check up on that poor girl.
"Hey, about that Undead Insect of Golden Silkworm of hers, can you help her on that?" Xiaozhai suddenly asked while driving the car.
"That's an Undead Insect of Life. I suspect it is a matter of life and death for her in some way and we probably cannot remove the thing by force. We'll see about that. We can stay for a few more days if necessary."
"Yeah, she's had a pretty rough life…"
Before long, they reached Baiqing Village territory, where the car drove down a slope straight away and stopped outside the woods. They found the wooden cottage, but strangely, the door was unlocked, with no one inside.
After searching in the woods and having found no one there either, they drove into the village.
It was pitch dark. Only a few wooden buildings had their lights on and they checked every house in turn. It just so happened that the tummy-ache boy was writing at a table, whom they spotted and called, "Xiao Shan!"
The boy had a bandage wrapping around his head and looked somewhat sluggish. He ran out towards them. "Brother, Sister, why are you back?"
"We've finished our work and want to stay a few days here. Where is everyone?"
"They all went to the temple. There is some meeting."
"The Temple of King Pan, of course. It's just on the south side; it'll take you just a few minutes. Sister Long Tang is there as well, but they wouldn't allow me to go."
"I see. We'll take a look ourselves. Hey, what happened to your head?"
The question apparently scared Xiao Shan, who stuttered, "I bumped it by accident."
"Ok, then we're off to the temple. We'll come back and play with you later."
They found what was going on a bit strange. Hopping into the car again, they drove towards the south of the village.
The Temple of King Pan.
The lights were blazing. The square outside the temple was packed with people from the old to the young, but no children were present. A circle of torches had been ignited around the periphery with waterproof covers above the the flames.
Six people stood in the middle, with Long Tang's uncle taking the lead. The others were heads of villages nearby. With her privileged status, Long Tang got herself a place in the front row, although she looked somewhat dispirited.
Twenty meters ahead of her stood the scarlet temple gate, which was tightly shut. It was pitch black inside and painful cries were coming out from the temple, each sound louder than the previous one.
They crowd felt the hair standing up on their backs at the screams.
Long Tang's uncle remained composed. Sweeping the crowd with his eyes, he nodded to the other five people and said loudly, "Descendants of the Miao people! Today we are holding a He Kuan meeting in front of King Pan. The reason for the meeting is none other than Long Qiu herself.
I presume everyone knows by now that Long Qiu is the woman of grass ghost in the village, who has taken in an Undead Insect of Golden Silkworm that she could not control… she almost killed someone the year before last. The same thing happened last year and this year, it happened again. It was just yesterday that she almost got Xiao Shan, the boy from Ah Xiang's family, killed!
As the Kuan Chief, I must give you all a satisfying explanation! After a discussion with the other five heads, we've decided the punishment Long Qiu would get…"
He paused, then went on. "In accordance with the clan rules, Long Qiu will be whipped twenty times and banished from the Miao villages, forbidden from approaching within a 50-km radius. She is not allowed to return for the rest of her life! Any objections?"
Instantly, the crowd that had been silent erupted with exclamations at his words.
"She's just a girl. Can she take twenty whips? How would she live if we banish her? Won't she die out there?"
"A girl? Have you ever seen a girl killing other people? She's nothing but a woman of grass ghost!"
"That's right. The Kuan Chief is merciful enough. We'll all be killed if she remains here!"
Everyone was talking at the same time. Only a handful of people expressed commiserations, while the majority thought she was not punished enough.
Long Tang bit her lips. She really wanted to reason with her uncle, but knew too well that this was not the place for her to speak up. She had mixed feelings towards her sister; she feared and detested her, but could not abandon the care she held towards Long Qiu at the same time. She was at a loss what to do.
In spite of the laws of this modern society, the idea of patriarchal clans remained deep-rooted in many places. When there was a dispute, the reverence for clan heads and clan rules was much more prominent than the law.
The hubbub went on for some time before her uncle gestured everyone to quiet down. "Good. Since the majority approves the decision, we'll carry out the punishment right now."
With a wave of his hand, a few strong young men strode out and made to the temple gate, ready to enter. While they were unlocking the gate, there came a "vroom" of a car and before anyone realized what was going on, a shabby car rushed at them.
The frightened crowd scattered dodging the car, which then came to a halt and out came a man and a woman. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai had arrived.
Long Tang ran to them first. "Brother Yu, have you finished your work?"
"Yes, we've just finished it. What's going on here?" He asked.
"We... we're dealing with Long Qiu." She dared not call her sister in front of the clansmen.
"Dealing with her?"
The two frowned slightly with the expression. Xiaozhai asked, "May I know exactly how are you going to do that?"
"Who are you? It's none of your business!"
"Exactly. What are these two outsiders doing here? Kuan Chief, throw them out!"
Long Tang's uncle knocked on the ground with his walking stick and said in a somber tone, "They are right. It's a clan affair. Please leave."
"Don't say that. It's not like we get to see such stuff everyday. Count us in. While we're at it, why don't you let us hear about your clan rules. We'll let you know if they sound just and fair," grinned Xiaozhai.
"How dare you!"
"What do you think this place is? Your behavior is outrageous!"
Her words agitated the crowd, who started their scolding with everyone talking at once again. Long Tang was anxious. She feared that a conflict might break out and said in a low voice, "They're going to whip sister and drive her away from the mountains… it's not something you can control. Please, leave now!"
There was silence, a cold silence.
Ever since the two knew each other, they had never seen the other one getting mad. But at that moment, the look in their eyes had turned from astonishment to incredibility and rage, then got taken over by a bottomless darkness.
"You guys, throw them out! Ah Man, open the gate!"
Seeing that the two would not move, Long Tang's uncle called out with impatience. Seven or eight strong men leapt out, eager to get some action.
Fear had drained Long Tang's face of all colors. Among those present, some were frightened, while others were excited. Together with the screams coming from the temple, the scene was an exquisite depiction of living hell.
"Boy, it's too late for you to leave now…"
A burly fellow came up to them and staring at the tall, slender Gu Yu. He figured he could throw this young man out with a single sweep of his muscular arm.
The next second, however, the burly fellow felt his vision go blurry and a shadow flitted past him, threaded through the crowd, and arrived right outside the temple gate.
The shadow made another swift movement and those two ready to open the gate cried out in pain, then were thrown away and landed right at the feet of the Kuan Chief with two thuds.
Gu Yu kicked open the wooden gate and dashed in.
It was extremely dark inside. The figure of King Pan stood aloft, nonchalantly overlooking what took place among his people. Long Qiu was rolling and howling on the ground. She faintly sensed someone entering the temple and mumbled, "Don't come near me, don't come near…"
At those words, Gu Yu paused briefly and grabbed at the empty air the same way as he did the other night. Something invisible bumped into his hand.
The spiritual Golden Silkworm recalled this tough guy and retreated immediately after its failed attack.
Only then did Gu Yu crouch down. He had no idea what to do and could only inject a streak of spiritual essence into Long Qiu, which chased after the Golden Silkworm along the protruding skin.
The excruciating pain had made Long Qiu wish she were dead. Suddenly, a warm flow rushed through her body, which soothed her blood, flesh, and meridians. She felt much better right away.
Meanwhile, all hell broke loose outside the temple.
The clan chief was hitting the ground with his walking stick and roared in anger. "This is outrageous! Outrageous! These outsiders are breaking into our sacred temple!"
"What are you doing standing around? Get him out of there!" A village head shouted.
"Move! All of you!" The other head chimed in.
A dozen men marched out of the crowd, ready to go get the intruder. Right at that moment, another shadow flashed by and stood right in front of the gate. Despite being alone, she reminded them of a blade-wielding cavalry, imposing unimaginable pressure on them.
An odd look appeared on Xiaozhai's face; one could not tell if she was amused or enraged. "You think you're such a responsible Kuan Chief! You're capable of bullying a girl but not treating your people's wounds and diseases, so you forced her to learn the undead insect practice. You used her without any concern when you needed her and threw her away when she was no longer needed. Is this the moral and rule of your clan?"
"That's for our people to decide. You're in no position to meddle with it," replied Long Tang's uncle coldly.
"Your people? You've been stuck in these mountains for so long that you understand nothing else."
"How dare you! We are the descendants of King Pan, protected by the king himself, the spirit of the mountains, and the gods of snakes and undead insects. Our bloodline will live forever!"
Xiaozhai could not be bothered to continue this pointless argument. Flipping her fingers, the bone flute hanging at her waist was in her hand. She lifted it to her mouth, "Whiz…"
A string of sharp and short sounds floated out of the flute, carrying a peculiar tune, which instantly filled the vast square.
"What's she doing?"
"Never mind, go get her!"
A dozen people exchanged looks and continued closing in on her. The Kuan Chief kept his gaze on Xiaozhai, overwhelmed by humiliation. The sacred temple of the Miao people had never been intruder by outsiders, nor had a He Kuan meeting been spoiled like this!
"Take this woman and that man and…"
He growled at the top of his lungs. Suddenly, he paused, for he could hear some distinctive sounds right behind him. The bushes shook and bent with rustles, as if something was slithering across the ground.
He turned around abruptly, his lined eyes opening up widely as he cried out in terror, "Snakes!"
"Snakes! So many snakes!"
Right away, screams rose one after another on the square. The crowd was petrified. Countless wild snakes had woken up from their sleep and slithered out of the bushes, the underground caverns, and even falling down from the branches.
There were snakes of all sizes and lengths among them—the green ones, the red ones, the yellow ones, the spotted ones... you name it. All were hissing with their two-pronged tongues, turning the square into a pit of ten thousand snakes.
Long Tang's uncle was so frightened that his voice broke, "You're a woman of grass ghost, too!"
"Let's see how your god of snakes will protect you now…"
Xiaozhai put down her bone flute. She was genuinely enraged tonight and used her mightiest move right away. Ten thousand snakes came to her call and the only ones being left alone were Long Tang and her family. Long Tang herself was in a daze by now, staring at the scene as if in a trance. Had brother Yu and sister Xiaozhai revealed their true self only just now?
They had lost count of time when Gu Yu walked out of the sacred temple with Long Qiu in his arms. He glanced around and said only, "She's alright for now, but we need to find a place to have her treated ASAP."
Ignoring all those howling all over the ground, they returned to the car straight away. Xiaozhai blew the flute again and the snakes stopped their movements, then shook their heads and slithered back, having no idea what had just happened.
The shabby car's engine was started, and headlights shot into the endless night rain as it drove away.
Long Tang could not hold back anymore. She broke into a short sprint after the car, shouting, "Sister, take care of yourself!"