“A Quest For the Vulture Gods” by Melissa Yuan-Innes
The princesses had barely gone a day when the elder one detected a man on horseback following them. Aying had ears as sensitive as a hare’s, a useful thing in a princess.
So when Aying’s shoulders stiffened, Yuexiu drew her horse alongside. They exchanged a long look. Yuexiu raised her left eyebrow: danger? Aying tucked her right thumb between her fourth and fifth fingers: yes, to the south and 20 degrees west. She then shook her fist twice: medium danger. But the first they’d encountered nonetheless.
Aying drew a half circle on her palm and tapped it with her left thumb. Yuexiu nodded and reached for her crossbow as Aying galloped east.
Guanlong jounced along in the saddle, fingering his prayer beads, when one of the princesses wheeled around and galloped off. He stilled his horse and jerked his head to track her progress, but the remaining princess caught his eye. She’d turned her horse to face him, her smooth young face perfectly expressionless as she loaded her crossbow and launched an arrow at his heart.
He knocked it out of the air with the flat of his hand.
She blinked, loaded another arrow, and propelled it at his right eye.
He knocked it, too, out of the air, but then to his left, the first princess arose with a sword point at his neck. She kept her body at a distance, impressed with his qi gong, but her hand was absolutely steady.
He stayed calm. As the fourth dragon prayer said, calm at all times, even in the face of the vulture gods, is a tribute to the master. “Princesses, I was sent by your mother and majesty, the Queen.”
“Liar.” Her black eyes burned as she pressed the sword against his neck.
He felt a trickle of blood, but didn’t move. “She told me you were on a quest. For the Tree of Life.”
The sword princess’s eyes flicked over to her sister’s. He kept his eyes on the sword princess. He knew she was Princess Aying, the elder twin. He took her gaze and held it as he finished the sentence. “For your brother.”
She lowered the sword. Princess Yuexiu lowered the crossbow. And Guanlong took a deep breath and mentally recited the first dragon prayer of thanks and forgiveness.
Princess Yuexiu galloped up to join them. He kept his palms up and weaponless and switched to praying aloud, but they watched him warily and made some rapid hand motions at each other. They waited until he finished the final line. Then the elder pointed at the tattoo on his right hand. “Why would the Queen send a dragon monk after us? The royal guard would do just as well.”
“She didn’t want people to know you had gone. She arranged for shadow princesses to take your place. And sending guards raises questions, particularly among the other royal guards.”
The princesses exchanged glances. The younger spoke. “How can you strike arrows out of the air?”
“With the concentration and strength of the dragon, many things are possible.”
More rapid hand gestures, including tapping. He noted that they used their eyes and faces, too. Then the elder said, “Even more fantastic. The Queen would never send a young man, even a dragon monk, to follow us.”
He bowed his shorn head. “When ascending to the fourth level, dragon monks embrace a procedure that remove them from earthly temptation.”
Princess Yuexiu flushed slightly. Her sister did not, but gave the edge of a smile. “You may be believable after all.”
He bowed his head. “My name is Guanlong. I am at your service.”
“Are there more of you at our service?”
“I am the only one I know of.”
They nodded to each other. “Then come along,” said Princess Yuexiu. “We want to reach the domden before nightfall.”
“The domden!” An unworthy feeling of disgust rose in him. He would have to do the first and third prayers again, in penance. “What have they got to do with the Tree of Life?”
“The head crone is supposed to know where it is.” Princess Yuexiu gestured for him to precede them. Highly irregular, unless he was a herald, but then he realized that they preferred to keep an eye on him. He bowed again, and rode up before them.
The near-constant rain soaked Aying’s braid and drenched her clothing. The drops rolled down her face and stung her eyes, the grey sky clouded her soul, and the horses’ hooves wobbled in the mud. She signaled her frustration to Yuexiu, who agreed. It helped a little. Aying kept thinking about their beloved father. Less than a month before, they had celebrated the prophet’s news that their mother was finally carrying a son. Only two weeks later, the vulture gods carried their father to the clouds during his sleep. They suspected treachery, especially when Mother’s belly cramped and bright blood ran down her legs soon afterward.
She and Yuexiu had spent seven sleepless nights. Did someone plot against them? Had Father Dragon and Mother Phoenix simply turned their backs? Were the vulture gods descending? Their only hope was to confront the gods, win their mother and unborn brother’s blood back from the Tree of Life, and execute the traitor at their leisure.
Aying rode on, glaring at the back of a monk in the afternoon rain. How could Mother have told him about the Tree? It was a royal secret, guarded by death and silence. They could not afford commoners scavenging its precious leaves. Even royalty used the Tree so infrequently that it seemed more of a legend than a fact, but Mother said their great-grandfather had been brought back to life with a single leaf. Only the domden knew the Tree’s location, and they kept silent for their own reasons.
The monk rolled his shoulders, as if feeling the sting of Aying’s thoughts.
The sun came out at last. A dawn upon the spirit. Even Aying’s horse seemed to clop along more gladly. Her clothing stiffened in the sun and wind, except where it was clamped between her legs and the horse. It was a good omen, the smile of the phoenix, especially as they neared the mountain caves and a stench struck her nostrils. It was a burnt, greasy smell that made her choke and her stomach quiver.
A ragged little boy ran out and met their eyes insolently. A chiding rose on Aying’s lips, but she stifled it at Guanlong’s look. He said, “Tell your leader that a dragon monk is here with two warriors.”
Second in rank to a monk! Yuexiu signaled patience. Aying was getting tired of this. Of course she was being patient. Otherwise, her sword would already drip with blood.
An old crone appeared. Another onlooker. Aying exhaled, but Guanlong dismounted and bowed gravely. “Old Mother,” he said.
The crone cackled, showing the remaining two teeth in her head. “Such formalities! Well, with all your praying, you should be good at it. Why honour us with your presence?”
“The honour is ours,” he replied, “to meet a people so favoured by the vulture gods.”
She cackled again “You come at a time when we present them with a poet.”
“Ah. Would we know his work?”
“Not likely! He was a young one, liked to walk in the rain and moonlight. Not a wise thing here, with the bone shards and hungry ghosts surrounding us. As you can see.” She ran off, surprisingly spry for one so ancient.
Aying touched her index fingers together in the crone’s direction: Trust her?
Guanlong led his horse beside Aying’s. “Perhaps there is another way to learn what we need to know.”
Aying shook her head. “We want to gain her trust.”
Yuexiu added, “We have discussed this. We are not afraid.” The twins met each others’ eyes. It wasn’t quite the truth. They reached between our horses and locked their thumbs together for an instant, a gesture of comfort and solidarity, before quickening their pace after the crone’s. The smell grew stronger. Aying’s eyes watered, but she refused to lift a handkerchief to her face. She and Yuexiu drew strength from each other’s eyes.
The crone’s voice broke in. “Ah. They are not as far along as I had thought.”
They stopped and stared. The corpse’s skull had been smashed. Its body had been cut into pieces. A middle-aged man systematically stripped the corpse’s face of its flesh, paring away one side, then the other. Its glassy eyes, still intact, stared at them while its naked mandible appeared to grin. Some distance away, a young woman cracked open the corpse’s rib cage. Soon she began tossing offal toward some youngsters. They placed the organs in depressions on top of an enormous slab of rock. They took rocks and began to grind the offal, making a crude stone mortar work against a stone pestle. The children did not seem disturbed by their work, nor by the arms and legs scattered for other workmen. No one seemed frightened. In fact, the energy in their actions, the quick looks they threw one another, gave them an air of controlled celebration.
The crone smiled. “You see why they call us the body-breakers. We cut the flesh into strips the size of a child’s plait of hair. We grind the offal.” She pointed upward. The cloudy sky was dark with vulture gliding through the air. “The gods come down to feast. But it is only the first course. We grind the bones, mix them with flour, and summon the gods again. Then we burn anything that remains, usually hair and stray bone.”
The twins had mastered their stomachs and their noses had become deadened. They had passed the test. Aying managed a small smile. “Your work for the vulture gods will surely be rewarded.”
She nodded. “We hope this is so. You see now that it is an honour for the royal family to be cremated.”
Guanlong spoke first. “Indeed, and your rituals are an honour for the ordinary people.”
The monk had a habit of speaking before Aying, but he did possess tact. This could be useful. She watched him as he went on. “Sharing your ritual knowledge with us is more than we had hoped for.” He bowed.
The crone laughed again. “You did not ride all the way here to observe our ritual. No one comes here unless he wants something, whether a sky burial or some other favour.” Aying stared, and so did the monk, as the crone continued, “Why don’t you tell me over some tea.”
It was good tea, clear and hot, like prayer on a dawn morning. Guanlong drank deep told the crone so.
The crone replied, “There is hardship here, but we have rewards as well.”
Guanlong nodded gravely. Her words also spoke true of the Brotherhood of the Dragon.
The princesses were busy with their sign language. Their faces mirrored each other, with deep black eyes and pointed chins. Even their scarlet robes and long black braids were identical. Yet somehow he could tell them apart. Were Yuexiu’s eyes brighter, her lips gentler? He banished the thought.
Just then, Yuexiu tried the tea, smiled, and nudged her sister. At one sip, Aying’s eyes widened. “We add our compliments to the monk’s.”
The crone smiled. For once, her mockery paused.
Guanlong examined the cave. It was damp and dark, not well suited to old bones, but it was reasonably clean and the grey mountains held a formal beauty that called to him. He had been raised in the mountains as a boy, before he joined the monkhood. He was about to say so when Aying continued, “We heard that the vulture gods have blessed you with the knowledge of how to renew life.”
The hag cackled. “Any good midwife could tell you about that.”
Aying forced a smile. “Not that kind yet, elder-woman. We have heard of a magic tree.”
The hag shook her head.
The princess’s hands clenched into fists. “We have ample means to share with you.”
“I am sure. But what would we buy with your coins, except corruption?” She turned to Guanlong. “Or with your stone-paced religion? Our gods and our land serve us perfectly.” She laughed again. “So put down your bribery and your threats. You want the Tree of Life? Only a ghost can lead you to it. There will be a price.”
Aying’s eyes were slits. “Name it.”
“He will,” said the crone, while a smile played at her lips.
Yuexiu walked back out to the ritual site, lagging a little behind Aying to flash a smile at the monk. He had handled the crone tactfully.
The monk smiled back. His eyes were warm.
Inexplicably, Yuexiu’s cheeks reddened, and she turned her gaze to the ritual site. The vultures had mercifully finished eating and flown away. The domden were grinding the bones now. The sun shone freely, and with the flesh gone, Yuexiu felt better. Bones seemed less human. The domden called to the old woman in their peculiar dialect. She nodded and turned back to the trio.
“It is as I thought. The spirit of our newly-dead poet, Lin Shuan, is not at rest. He will lead you to your tree.”
A searing cold invaded Yuexiu. Her skin erupted in goose flesh and her hair jumped up to touch the sky. Her teeth chattered. Aying’s hand clutched hers as they stared at the ghost, or tried to. He looked like a heavy, hazy grease in the air. It made her eyes hurt. Then a hand coalesced out of the smear, and she just barely bit back a scream.
“The Tree of Life?” A single, bulbous eye flashed out of the fog. “Of course I will.”
She didn’t like the inflection in his voice. But Aying sent her a look of savage triumph. They had discovered the key to the Tree of Life.
Yuexiu felt triumphant as she began to ascend the mountain, close on Aying’s heels. It could not be so great a challenge. A mountain. What was that, after all, to a princess, a crossbow warrior, schooled in three languages? Even if the moutain stabbed the clouds. Even if they trod non-existent paths with the rocks turning under their feet. Even if the air was meager and Yuexiu found herself gasping for breath, her head whirling, and scattered green-pink spheres danced in her vision.
At last, she could stand it no longer. Yuexiu ground out, “Is the tree on the very top of the mountain?”
The ghost stirred. “No, princess.”
She allowed herself a breath of relief.
“It’s just over on the other side,” he cackled. She saw a flash of his teeth.
There was no hiding from the ghost. He knew they were the princesses. He knew Guanlong was a dragon monk. Presumably he also knew where the Tree of Life was, but the longer they trod, the more it seemed as if he led them in an exhaustive dance up and over the crevices for his malicious pleasure.
Their horses could not keep the pace on meager vegetation and thinning mountain air. The trio tethered them, with a brief prayer against thieves and cold, and continued by foot. Now Yuexiu was the one who struggled to keep the pace.
Sometimes, Yuexiu wanted to take refuge in her fourteen years. Why were they doing this? What if they died here? Their baby brother would still bleed out of their mother’s womb, and perhaps take the Queen to the clouds with him. All five of royal family would be dead. If they had stayed home and safe, at least Aying could have been crowned after Mother’s death. But Aying marched on as if this were her life’s mission. Yuexiu’s head ached, but she matched her sister’s stride.
Guanlong said, not looking at Yuexiu, “There must be an easier way, poet.” He always called him poet, careful flattery, but it worked.
The ghost’s ear flashed. “Oh, yes. A much easier way. It takes ten days instead of five. Is that what you want?”
“If the end points are the same.”
“No,” Yuexiu said flatly. “My family will not die for my pampering.”
Aying searched her face, but Yuexiu turned her gaze to the stone mountain. The sun pressed on her head like a fist.
“Let’s have some lunch,” Aying said finally. Her eyes coaxed Yuexiu’s to meet hers.
“I’m not hungry.” This, at least, was true. “Let’s go on.”
And so they did, up the endless mountain.
Father Dragon, he prayed, in my selfishness and unworthiness, I beg you to spare her from the vulture gods.
My body remembers the mountain air and how to breathe it. Please give this gift to Princess Yuexiu. I will not miss it. I am not afraid of the vulture gods, death, or the domden rituals. I understand now that the vulture gods are your brothers, to carry us into death so that we may be reborn.
Father Dragon, if I have ever served you well, release me. Save her.
Aying couldn’t sleep on the mountain. Her dreams were swirling, half-waking affairs with their mother dressed in mourning white at their father’s funeral pyre, and the ghost dancing with the domden crone.
She knew Yuexiu’s dreams were worse, but she wouldn’t share them. For the first time in their lives, they were separating. It scared Aying more than anything else in her life.
Aying couldn’t live without her.
And so she found herself following the dragon monk’s road: prayer. She prayed to Mother Phoenix. Health. Sisterhood. And Father Dragon, for courage. She couldn’t bring herself to pray to the vulture gods, though she whispered, Please don’t take my sister to the clouds. I need her.
It wasn’t until the weakest human started to cough that the others became truly frightened.
The girl’s breath rasped, blue shadowed her lips, but the gurgling cough marked her spirit’s gravitation toward the crossing. She was so close that when Lin Shuan came up to her side, for the first time, she smiled and whispered, “Brother.”
He was pleased and whirled a bit to show it, flashing his eyes. “We are all brothers and sisters. You feel it now? Death in life, and life in death?”
He whispered one of his own favourite compositions,
“High in the mountain air
I cry, an orgasm of destruction.
The vultures know my name.”
Yuexiu smiled faintly.
“We are only an hour away from your precious tree,” Lin Shuan announced to the rest of them.
That was when Yuexiu fainted. The other princess and the monk fluttered around her body. Lin Shuan reached for her spirit, which was arching out of her body.
The monk threw hatred at Lin Shuan. It was the first time in years the monk had permitted himself this emotion, and the intensity blew Lin Shuan away from the princess. In that moment, the monk picked up her body and said, “I am bringing her down to the valley.”
“But your tree! Your precious tree!” Lin Shuan flashed his hands at him.
“I never came for the tree. I came to guard the princesses.” He started back down the trail.
“You’ll slip and fall. You’ll get lost. You’ll kill both of you!”
The monk walked away, damnably sure-footed.
Lin Shuan tried again. “What about the elder princess? You can’t abandon her because your heart belongs to the younger one!”
That arrow hit its mark. The monk hesitated, then walked on. Lin Shuan lunged for Yuexiu’s spirit and yanked it into a distorted thread. The spirit still clung to her limp body. He twisted, attempting to wrench it free.
The monk ran at Lin Shuan. Even with her weight in his arms, the monk was fast and hungry for battle. His lips made a silent snarl.
Lin Shuan whirled out of the way, but lost his grip on the spirit for the merest second, whereupon it snapped back into her body.
Lin Shuan re-coalesced and set to lunge for their retreating figures, but the elder princess blocked his way. Her face was red and she panted, full of ugly health. “Take me to the tree.”
The poet flashed his genitals at her.
She didn’t flinch.
He blew arctic air. He howled and spat. But she stood there and waited for his energy to dissipate.
“What if I refuse?” he yelled.
“I’ll find another ghost.”
She stood very still for a moment. “If need be.”
She alone was his match after all. He made her leap across some more fissures and climb some more rock than necessary, but she met everything with a silent determination that was tiresome. He led her to the tree and disappeared from human eyes. He wanted to see how she would deal with them.
The Tree of Life was small and gnarled. It looked much like the trees around it, except as they approached, vultures rained down on it. They sat in the branches, pecked at its roots, and hovered in the air.
Aying had never seen a vulture before at close range. The domden had kept them away during the bone-breaking. This was her first time face to face with these soot-black birds. Their eight foot wings were more than long enough to sweep her sister into the clouds. Only their heads were bereft of feathers, making their beady eyes more apparent. She shuddered.
“Their heads are featherless so that they can dip them into a carcass without getting soiled,” the ghost whispered in her ear.
She jumped. He had taken the form of a vulture. A giant one. He was still transparent, but she could see all of him at once. He was drawing strength from his gods. She bit back a scream.
“The vulture gods always win.” At the ghost’s pronouncement, the gods began to stir and hiss. They shook out their wings and approached her. She took a step back.
“Death always wins.”
She struggled to find her voice. “Not always.”
Images flooded her mind. Her father’s rictus of death. Her mother’s agonized face as scarlet blood streamed down her thighs. The ghost of her brother floating to the clouds. Yuexiu in a coughing spasm, held tightly in the dragon monk’s arms as she exhaled her last breath.
“NO!” Aying screamed. “No. This is why I came to you. To save my family, not to lose them all!”
“Are you sure this was not your secret desire, to become Queen and Queen alone?”
Tears streamed down her face. “I would never kill my family. I cannot live without my sister.”
Yuexiu’s death image left as abruptly as it came. A searing blackness filled Aying’s head and pain cramped her belly. So this was the end. She wiped her tears and squared her shoulders, despite the pain. A princess should die with honour.
A hiss drew her attention. A vulture in the tree grasped a leaf in its beak, tugged it free, and let it drift down to her feet.
Aying turned astonished eyes to the poet. He was still a vulture, but seemed to smile. “One life. Let it dry, boil it into a tea, and choose the life you will save.” He vanished in a gust of arctic air.
It took her a second to react. “Oh, please! Two more! I need two more!”
There was no answer. She could feel, in the warmth surrounding her, that the ghost was truly gone.
She wiped her hands and reverently picked up the leaf, wrapped it in silk, and put it in her pouch. The vultures were still watching her. She bowed to them. “Thank you.”
They blinked their cold eyes. Aying had nothing more to say. She bowed again and retreated, trying to retrace the path down the mountain. Whenever she paused, heavy with despair at her disorientation, a black bird in the distance seemed to lead her back.
Aying remembered what the crone had said: he will tell you the price.
How foolish they had been, to think that this mythical tree, that the vulture gods, would simply give them back a life. No. It was a choice for them, the most agonizing she could imagine: her mother, her twin, or her unborn brother, the heir to them all.
If she thought he dreams were restless before, they were agony now.
But in the morning, she woke and prayed, shivering in the morning dew. Her knees dented the earth. Her head was bowed, so that all she saw was darkness. She prayed wordlessly to Mother Phoenix and Father Dragon. And she made her decision.
Soon after, she found Yuexiu in the monk’s arms. It looked much like Aying’s prior vision. Yuexiu was pale. Her lustreless hair slipped from its braid. Her face was like pasty chalk. And her breath sounded like an old woman on her death bed. Guanlong held her as tightly, as tenderly as if he held his own heart. Aying met his eye briefly, then concentrated all her energy on her sister.
“I love you. Don’t ever leave me.”
Yuexiu didn’t wake up. Aying touched her cheek. Yuexiu jerked and coughed, then settled back into unconsciousness.
Aying struck some rocks together to make a spark. She gathered everything she could to make a fire, mainly stray grasses and half her robe. The monk ripped off most of his robe to add to the pile. It made a small fire. Then Aying cut off her hair and threw that in, too. With all that, she managed to boil a cup of tea in her drinking flask.
She held it under her sister’s nose. Yuexiu’s eyes slowly opened.
Yuexiu dreamily made as if to obey, touched her mouth to it, then jerked to a stop. “It’s the life tea.”
“Yes. Drink it.”
“No. It’s for our brother.” She pressed her lips together.
“No. It’s for you.”
Yuexiu pushed her sister’s arm away, weakly.
Aying clung to the flask and tried to force it to her twin’s lips.
Yuexiu turned her head, nearly spilling the cup. She whispered, “Let our quest have honour, at least! Save him.” Then she fainted again.
In the ensuing silence, the monk shook his head. “She has the willpower of a monk.”
“Or Queen,” Aying replied grimly. She ripped another strip off her robe, wet it in the tea, and pried open her sister’s mouth. Little by little, she fed her the tea. Yuexiu’s breathing eased slightly. Aying kept her mouth open and wet her tongue, drops at a time. Guanlong stood by silently. Aying knew he was praying, and added her prayers to his as she fed her the last drop.
Yuexiu’s eyes flew open. They were clear for the first time in days. She opened her mouth to flay her sister, but then pulled her into a fierce embrace. Aying closed her eyes against her own tears, and saw a vision of her brother’s spirit carried away on a vulture’s wings. The price was paid.
The monk continued to stand and pray. The love emanating from him was so strong it was like a kiln’s heat, even though he kept his head bowed, his eyes carefully avoiding Yuexiu’s.
Yuexiu drew back from Aying to look at him, his haggard face, the stubble on his scalp.
As if he felt her gaze, the monk met her eyes.
They said nothing. Their eyes filled with tears.
Aying wanted to scold her. A princess could never marry a monk. And he was a eunuch! But the two of them already knew this. It was in their faces.
Yuexiu turned back to her twin. “So, sister.”
They locked thumbs together. “We go back in dishonour now?”
“Never,” Aying answered.
Yuexiu’s lips quivered.
“Well, maybe a little,” Aying allowed.
“We have to tell Mother.”
Aying nodded. “And pray for our brother’s spirit.”
Yuexiu understood, and said nothing. Guilt made Aying angry. She clenched their thumbs together.
Yuexiu returned the pressure, but smiled faintly. “Soon you will be Queen.”
It struck too close to the vulture gods’ words. “No!” Aying swallowed hard. The monk’s eyes were on her. “We’ll be Queen together.”
Yuexiu shook her head.
Aying put her finger on her lips. “In spirit, if not in deed. But I hope that Mother will stay Queen herself for many years, while we learn how to rule our kingdom. Maybe we can stay children a little longer.”
Yuexiu said nothing. They hadn’t been children for a long time. She turned a bittersweet smile on the dragon monk, and then on her sister. Aying touched her twin’s cheek and whispered a prayer of thanks to Father Dragon, Mother Phoenix, and, yes, the vulture gods. Then they stood and joined hands, Guanlong at their side, as they turned home.
About the Author
Melissa Yuan-Innes hasn’t made it to Asia in real life yet (it’s on her bucket list), but in the meantime, she writes about everything from Asian princesses to pantoum poetry. She practices emergency medicine and chases after two busy children in the wilds outside of Montreal, Canada. More adventures at www.melissayuaninnes.com.
“A Quest For the Vulture Gods” is dedicated to Frank Wu