On the day Old Man Zhang was murdered, Orange Blossom was teaching me the ritual she called Butterfly Drinking Nectar.
Her mother had nicknamed her Orange Blossom because she was born the day of her village’s Orange Blossom ritual. The other apprentices at the White Crane Temple called her Shaking Melons for current performances of far more interesting rituals.
Minutes earlier, I had made good use of her namesakes in a ritual called Bear Jumping Two Mountains, which I had found quite engrossing, though not half so much as Butterfly Drinking Nectar. Orange Blossom loved me for my strong and handsome body, my growing mastery of magic and kung fu, and my ability to pay her five coins every other week. I loved her not only for her namesakes, but also for her lovely peasant beauty, her delightful giggle, and her carefully honed talents, many of which had been learned in Shanghai.
Just then she was about to show me her most powerful and sacred ritual, Magic Sword Entering the Lotus, when our lovely interlude was most cruelly interrupted.
“Idiot! Dolt! Moron!” I heard a dreaded voice yell behind me, each word punctuated by a bamboo staff’s painfully familiar blow to my naked back. I leapt off the bed, all the magic draining from my sword as I shielded my head from the wrathful blows of Master Lao.
“Harlot! Strumpet! Whore!” he yelled, wielding his bamboo against Orange Blossoms exposed bottom. (Thanks to ample padding there, his blows inflicted no lasting harm.) “I have told you before not to tempt my apprentices with your wickedness!”
“Their money is as good as anyone else’s!” yelled Orange Blossom defiantly. It saddened me to hear her reduce our transcendent ecstasy to mere commerce, but I had more pressing concerns to worry about, as Master Lao turned his wrath, and staff, back to me.
“You were supposed to be back from the market half an hour ago!” he yelled, inflicting a most painful blow to my raised forearm. “And here I find you shirking your duties and cavorting with harlots!”
“Mercy, Master!” I yelled. “My spirit is willing but my flesh is weak!”
“Not nearly so weak as it will be after I get through with you!” he said, raising the staff again.
“What in the Nine Hells are you doing in here?” asked Dancing Petals from the doorway. Dancing Petals was the establishment’s proprietress, though the other apprentices called her Lumbering Whale.
“He beat me with a bamboo cane!” yelled Orange Blossom.
“That’s five coins extra, and only by appointment!” said Dancing Petals.
“Corrupt panderer! I am only here to retrieve my apprentice! We have no intention of staying in your vile den of iniquity!”
“That’s not what you said the last time you were here!” Dancing Petals replied, causing my master’s face to turn the most amazing shade of pale.
“Come, Chou Lin, we must leave this place immediately,” said Master Lao, drawing himself up and speaking in the calm, dignified voice he used on rich businessmen. “Such houses of wickedness are often a magnet for evil spirits.”
In my experience such houses are more often magnets for middle-aged husbands and government officials, but in this, as in so many things, I acceded to my master’s greater wisdom. With a single, mournful glance at the lovely Orange Blossom, I struggled into my clothes, grabbed my bundle, and followed Master Lao out into the street.
“Chou Lin, what are the Three Great Sins for a temple apprentice?” he asked.
“Idleness, Drunkenness, and Lustfulness,” I recited dutifully.
“And you have indulged in each during the last three days!” he said, striking my back another painful blow.
“Mercy, Master, mercy!” I cried. It seemed unfair for him to bring up Drunkenness, since the bottle had been Kua Qing’s. Likewise, the Idleness had been a direct result of the Drunkenness, since next morning the sunlight had burned my eyes like hot pokers. I knew that when I became a White Crane priest, my chief duties would be battling evil and sin. While I understood evil, I still had an inadequate grasp of sin, and thus sought to study it at every opportunity.
“Stop cringing, you pathetic little insect! Your conduct is unbecoming a temple apprentice. Did you get the rice paper for the prayer offerings?”
“Did you get the joss sticks?”
“Did you get all three kinds of rice?”
“Did you get the steamed buns?”
Master Lao raised his staff again.
“I was unable to! Zu Bing’s shop has closed!” And indeed, the latter was true. Rumor linked Zu Bing and his debts to several notorious gambling house owners with a mound of live ants in a most unpleasant fashion.
“Come then. There is a new place we can get sticky buns.”
Spring Moon’s noodle house had opened in what had once been the carpentry shop of Kao Ling. Kao Ling had been one of the first victims of the plague of snakes, an incident I have already related in great detail elsewhere.
From the many smiling customers assembled there, it seemed that no one missed Zu Bing. With an attractive atrium extending to the new second story, a bamboo-propped skylight letting in a flood of sunshine, bright tile floors and the beautiful screen paintings adorning the walls, Spring Moon’s noodle house presented a most pleasing and cheerful atmosphere, and I resolved to take Orange Blossom there as soon as Master Lao’s wrath (and watchfulness) had faded.
“Are you here for lunch?” asked a melodious voice. I turned and instantly all thoughts of Orange Blossom left my mind.
In our province, it is said that the Emperor of Heaven is attended by the nine most beautiful women in the world, each raised to Godhood that they might serve him on his dragon throne. However, on that day I knew he could have been attended by only eight. One must have slipped away back to earth while he was sleeping, for surely there could not be nine more beautiful women in all of Heaven and Earth than Autumn Wind.
“No, we are here to pick up some steamed buns,” said Master Lao, smiling. This in and of itself was a sure sign of Autumn Wind’s divinity, since I could count the number of times Master Lao had smiled in my presence on the fingers of a single hand. “Are you Spring Moon?”
“No, I am Autumn Wind, her daughter. Mother is helping out in the kitchen. Let me go get her.”
I gazed longingly after her as her divine form glided as softly as her namesake back to the kitchen. Master Lao must have noticed my gaze. He held his staff across my chest and spoke in a grave tone.
“Chou Lin, I know what you’re thinking, and I order you to stop at once!”
“Huh?” I replied cleverly.
“You have already fallen into lustfulness once today. Do not compound your sin with a second offense!”
“What?” was my witty retort.
“Autumn Wind is not one of Dancing Petals’ girls! To pursue the wicked thoughts about her that I know are racing through your head can lead only to dishonor and ruin!”
“Hmm?” I said eloquently.
Master Lao lowered his staff and leaned forward on it. “Ah, youth,” he sighed wistfully.
At that moment, Autumn Wind floated back to us. “Mother says she will be out here shortly.”
Once more I mustered the masterful rhetorical skills I had so recently displayed. “Hello,” I said, smiling.
“Hello,” she said, smiling back so brightly I feared I would melt before her radiance. “Are you two from the village? I haven’t seen you in here before.”
“We are from the White Crane Temple. I am Master Lao, and this is my apprentice, Chou Lin.”
“Hello,” I said again, the sight of Autumn Wind evidently having driven all other words from my brain.
“Why don’t you…” she began, to say, but just then our reverie was broken by a hideous, piercing scream.
Belying his white hair, Master Lao was instantly off and running in the direction of the terrible sound, and soon I, and half the village, followed in his wake.
The scream sounded once again, straight ahead, and Master Lao headed for Old Man Zhang’s house.
In his youth, Zhang had made his fortune as a junk captain upon the Yangtzee, after which he had retired back to the village for a life of gambling and idle drunkenness, sins for which he was both condemned and envied in equal measure.
Spring Flower (who was now, if truth be told, more of an autumn weed) had been his cleaning woman, and it was she who stood just a few feet inside the door to Zhang’s house, screaming again and again. Master Lao was through the door in an instant, then stopped, his face ashen. I was only a few steps behind.
“Chou Lin, escort her outside and bar the door,” he said. I nodded dumbly and guided the still screaming Spring Flower out the door against the pressing throng, the terrible image of Old Man Zhang’s body burned into my mind.
He sat facing the door, dark bloodstains down the front of his blue silk shirt and a bloody crater where his neck had been.
When we arrived back at the temple, Master Lao was in a foul mood. Not only had he administered purification rights to Zhang’s body, but he had to wait nearly an hour for Policeman Ho to show up to examine it. Ho, who owed his job entirely to his uncle’s position as assistant tax collector for the province, had done his usual cursory, bumbling job.
“This man has obviously been the victim of a crime of violence!” he said.
“Your powers of observation are unparalleled, Honorable Ho,” said Master Lao.
All of these delays meant we, and the food, arrived back at the temple two hours later than Master Lao had planned on starting preparation for the feast.
“Master Lao,” said Kua Qing, rushing up as we entered the temple, “we heard about the murder! What has happened?”
“Later!” bellowed Master Lao, thrusting the chicken cage into Kua Qing’s hands. “We must start on the feast. Kill and pluck these chickens immediately!”
“But Master, why me?” asked Kua Qing in the honeyed voice he always used when attempting to evade honest work. “It is Chou Lin who should pluck the chickens in atonement for the sin of lustfulness.” In a small village, news travels fast.
“No, you will pluck the chickens,” said Master Lao sternly. “Chou Lin needs to perform a more important task.”
At this, I puffed up my chest and smiled at Kua Qing. It is always heartening to have my position as Master Lao’s Number One Apprentice confirmed.
“Chou Lin, start cleaning the chamber pots.”
My smile faded.
Master Lao asserts that all work is honorable, and thus there is no shame in cleaning chamber pots. However, some honors smell better than others.
It was three days prior to the midsummer festival, time for The Feast of the Chicken, to be followed by The Feast of the Duck, The Feast of the Goose, and finally, on solstice eve, The Feast of the White Crane. (The last, being our namesake, was the only one not consumed.) It was a time to create charms to ward off pestilence, bad weather, and evil spirits.
After finishing the odious task and performing a purifying ritual with water and salt, Master Lao sent me back to the kitchen to help our cook Jade Willow with the preparations. Due to an unfortunate incident involving a simple fire spell and a pot of cooking oil, Jade Willow held an irrational and entirely unwarranted grudge against me. Upon entering, she gave me a deep frown, then set me tending no less than six pots.
After a good hour of vigorous stirring, Old Zhong, the temple servant, finally came to relieve me, and Master Lao had me change into my ceremonial robes of gold and cinnabar.
For the feast, the oldest apprentices sat closest to Master Lao, so I sat immediately to his right while Kua Qing sat to his left. Further down the table were Ba Le, Lai Wang, Dai Li, and Bang Zhou. At the end of the table were the four “tadpoles,” the novitiates pledged to the temple just a month before. There had originally been six, but two had already hobbled home in splints, unable to stand up to Master Lao’s rigorous training methods.
Once we were seated, Master Lao struck a small silver gong, then began the ritual invocation against evil.
When he reached the third stanza, someone chuckled.
Master Lao paused, then resumed the chant, looking from face to face, trying to determine the culprit. Because of certain unfortunate incidents in the past, I was frequently the subject of his scrutiny in such matters, but this time the voice was clearly too deep and far away to be my own.
The rest of the invocation passed without incident, until Master Lao finished up by burning a prayer offering. Then the same voice coughed.
Master Lao looked around again, craning his head to see if anyone was lurking around the rest of the temple, to no avail. Still perturbed, he rang the dinner gong, and Jade Willow and Old Zhong came out of kitchen bearing the feast.
Any lingering uneasiness over the odd voices dissipated as the steaming platters were laid before us. Though the temple diet usually consisted of meager portions of rice and fish, feast days always offered up a sumptuous and dizzying variety of food, as well as an opportunity to imbibe the rice and plum wine usually forbidden us. Moreover, on such days eating and drinking as much as possible was considered a sacred duty, a way of showing respect to the Celestial Masters, from whom all bounty flows. It was upon these occasions that my own devotion was unsurpassed.
Rice wine and jocularity flowed freely as we quickly slurped down gallons of noodles, devoured heaps of sticky buns, and consumed dozens of rice balls. Only Master Lao seemed lacking in festive spirit, still brooding over the mysterious voice.
Then Jade and Zhong brought out the chickens, laying them out along the table. Using my superior speed, I had just snagged a drumstick before Kua Qing could reach it, when a frightened cry at the other end of the table silenced our revelry.
Xau Qu, the roundest of the tadpoles, was backing away from the table. In front of him, the roast chicken he had been reaching for only moments before was moving.
Not just moving, dancing. It took two steps forward, then two back, then turned in a circle, all the while swinging its cooked wings as juice dripped down its still-moist carcass.
“Chou Lin, bring my pen and inkpot, quickly!” said Master Lao, and I scurried to obey. Thus armed, Master Lao quickly transcribed a prayer against evil on a sheet of rice paper, rolled it up in a ball of sticky rice, then cast it at the possessed bird.
The roast chicken gave a painful squawk, then flopped lifelessly back to the table. The younger apprentices who had been holding their breath let out a sigh of relief, but it was short-lived.
Another chicken, this one in front of Ba La, stood up and kicked over his wine cup. Master Lao dashed off and rolled up another prayer ball and dispatched this one as well, but he had no sooner vanquished that chicken when a third popped up.
After dispatching two more unnatural chickens, Master Lao changed tactics. “Chou Lin, fetch my silver rope.”
In the great prayer cabinet against the north wall were tucked many of the more esoteric tools of a White Crane priest. In one of the bottommost drawers was a thin rope of purest spun silver, knotted and braided for strength, its handle carved from the hardest of ram’s horn, intricately carved with the most worthy verses of Lao Dan. It was this tool that I quickly retrieved and rushed to Master Lao’s hands.
Master Lao whirled the silver rope around his head three times, chanting out an invocation to banish evil spirits, then launched it at the latest dancing chicken, ensnaring it.
There was a cry of pain high up in the rafters. Master Lao, slowly and with a surprisingly great effort for something so small, hauled the chicken towards him. As he pulled, an evil, leering face high in the temple shadows was pulled into the lantern-light.
It was Old Man Zhang’s head. Or rather, slightly more than his head, as a long trail of writhing viscera snaked behind it.
“Filthy priest! Your silver cord will not save you!”
“ Kua Qing! Begin the chant to drive out evil spirits!” said Master Lao, slowly pulling the roped chicken towards him, which also drew Zhang’s head lower. “Quickly!”
Kua Qing began the chant, which was soon picked up, somewhat unsteadily, by the other apprentices.
“Doom will come to your temple! I will eat your livers, and pluck out your eyes!”
“Chou Lin, you know the first refrain of the third Crane Exorcism?”
“Your corpses shall litter the earth, and I shall suck the marrow from your bones!”
As Zhang was pulled closer, it became apparent that his eye teeth seemed unnaturally long and curved.
“Scribe it on the paper, then roll it up in a sticky rice ball as you saw me do!”
“The Queen shall suck down all your souls, and you shall serve as her slaves in Hell!”
I have always considered my calligraphy inferior to my martial arts, but never had I scribed ideograms so quickly in all my life. In ten seconds I had written out the refrain and rolled it into the center of a ball of sticky rice.
“Now, throw it at the head!”
With a stone I am regarded as a pretty fair shot, having once managed to destroy an expensive vase at no less than 50 paces. (My reasons for doing so were entirely salutary and justified, but too complex to relate here.) However, when I tossed the rice ball, Zhang’s head jerked with an amazing fluidity, and my shot sailed just wide of the mark.
“Again!” said Master Lao, still slowly and carefully pulling the chicken, and Zhang, closer.
“The worms shall eat your flesh, and your heads shall hunt the night at the Queens command!”
I completed and threw a second prayer ball, but Zhang again ducked out of the way.
“Again!” said Master Lao. The exertions of the chicken grew ever more frantic, and it was all he could do to keep it captive.
Once again I scribed and enclosed a prayer, took careful aim, and threw. This time the ball hit the upper left side of Zhang’s face, disintegrating in a shower of smoke and rice as the impacted cheek caught fire.
Zhang screamed and jerked violently. At that jerk, the captive chicken went barreling over the edge of the table, slipping out of the silver loop. Still screaming, Zhang’s burning head flew up and out one of the second floor windows. By the time Kua Qing and I had raced up the stair it had already escaped into the night.
“Close all the windows!” ordered Master Lao. During the summer, the screens were left open due to the heat, but none of us argued.
“Master Lao, what was it?” asked Ba Le. “And how could it have gotten into the temple?”
“And who is the queen it mentioned?” asked Bang Zhou.
“It must have flown in through a window,” said Master Lao. “We have not blessed the charms there in over a year. As for what it is, I have an idea, but I shall have to consult the sacred texts. In the meantime, continue the feast. We’ll deal with Zhang and his queen tomorrow.”
We resumed our seats, but the other apprentices only picked at their food, leaving their chickens untouched. Fortunately, my quick thinking in grabbing a drumstick as soon as it arrived meant our chicken was the only one not possessed, and thus still safe for consumption. However, my chain of logic seemed unconvincing to the others, leaving me the entire chicken.
Once again I proved unsurpassed in my devotion to the Celestial Masters.
Most of the next morning was taken up with making new charms and re-blessing the ones around the temple. Master Lao observed the rituals, then, content that Kua Qing was capable of supervising in his stead, pulled me aside to help him in his study.
Along with the standard works of Lao Dan, Zhuang Zhou and Confucius, Master Lao possessed a number of ancient books and scrolls, many of them on esoteric subjects. There was Hai Yan’s important book detailing the many varieties of hopping vampires, Yu Wei’s obscure treatise on magic involving turtles, and a mysterious volume written in an unreadable script by a mad Arab with an unpronounceable name.
After several minutes of study, Master Lao finally found what he was looking for in a particularly large leather-bound tome. “Here, take a look at this,” he said, pointing to a woodcut depicting three flying heads trailing viscera behind them, with terrified villagers running about below.
“What are they?”
“Here they are called the Kongbu Feixing Tou. It says that they are demonic spirits which posses the heads of those who have died without being properly blessed. Those so possessed can infect others by biting their neck or wrist. Unless the wound is purified within an hour, the victim also turns into an evil flying creature enslaved by the one that bit it.”
“How do we fight them?”
“They cannot stand sunlight, and strong light of any kind causes them pain, especially when reflected from a silver mirror. Prayers and charms can harm them, but because they are encased in human flesh, not actually kill them unless placed directly in the mouth. And the queen herself can only be killed by a blessed arrow carved from a branch of a weeping mulberry.
“It also says that once the Kongbu Feixing Tou queen has three servants to do her bidding, she can use them to consecrate an unholy temple, and from there open a gate to summon more of her kind.”
“A temple? Like our own?”
“Perhaps. According to this, it must be equidistant from the sites of the three slain acolytes. Perhaps we can…
I’ll never know what Master Lao was going to say next, because at that very moment Kua Qing burst into the room, his face stricken.
“Master Lau, you and Chou Lin must come quickly! There’s been another murder!”
“Another one?” Master Lao stood up. “Chou Lin, you stay here and supervise the other apprentices.”
“No Master, Chou Lin should come as well,” said Kua Qing, bowing sadly. “The murder was at Dancing Petals’. It was…it was…”
At that Kua Qing bowed and raced out of the room, unable to meet my eyes. It was then I knew.
It took all my training to stay composed as we ran to Dancing Petals’. In the front room, her other girls issued wild lamentations and copious tears. Dancing Petals herself wore a mournful expression, and silently gestured for us to follow her up the stairs to Orange Blossom’s room.
It pained me greatly to realize that the same room I had experienced such ecstasy in the day before had become the site of such a foul crime. The smell of her namesake perfume still lingered in the air, but was now mixed with an undertone of corruption and decay.
When Dancing Petals lifted the sheet away from the covered body I had to turn away, unable to look at the ruin where her head had been. I stood there staring at the wall while Master Lao administered the proper rituals. Then he finished and turned up the sheet.
“Tell undertaker Zu I will send him special charms and ointments to prepare the body with. In the meantime, there is a great evil loose. Tell all the girls to close their windows by sunset.”
When Dancing Petals had left Master Lao turned back to me. “Chou Lin, do you see now why I said these places are magnets for evil spirits?”
“Master Lao, with all respect, I do not believe this is what you had in mind. Nor do you.”
At that he looked nonplussed for a moment, his eyes showing a trace of the stormy look that usually preceded a beating. But this time he merely grunted and nodded, then turned away.
Soon the entire village had been instructed to close their windows by sunset, no matter how they might swelter in the summer heat.
Despite the tragic occurrences, it was the night for the Feast of the Duck, and preparations had to be undertaken. The seasons would not halt at our mortal problems, nor would the Celestial Masters step down from Heaven to dry our tears. In fact, with such evil abroad, it was all the more reason to seek their favour.
And so it was with heavy hearts that Master Lao and I once again found ourselves in Spring Moon’s noodle house. Autumn Wind greeted us and I felt my spirits lift somewhat, though she was still struck by our long faces.
“Both of your faces are too sad for a festival day! You look like someone died!”
This caused a brief and uncomfortable silence as Master Lao and I looked at each other, then he started explaining Orange Blossoms death, though not the precise nature of her murderer, and Autumn Wind looked positively stricken. News travels fast, but evidently the doings at Dancing Petals’ were not considered polite conversation in the company of one so ethereal as Autumn Wind.
“That’s horrible! Oh, I’m so sorry! Did either of you know her?”
“Yes,” I said, then immediately regretted it, fearful of what Autumn Wind might think of such a friendship, but she seemed far too good-natured to draw such scandalous (if admittedly correct) conclusions.
“Oh you poor man!” she said, giving me a hug. At that moment I must admit that thoughts of Orange Blossom moved very far away from my mind indeed. “Here, the two of you sit down. I’ll go fetch mother and get you some tea.”
Autumn Moon glided away from us in a way that confirmed, once again, her heavenly origin. I reflected that, if one of them had to survive, then better Autumn Wind than Orange Blossom. Then I immediately felt a sharp pang of guilt, for Autumn Wind, while beautiful, was someone I barely knew, while I had known Orange Blossom very well indeed. But then I thought that, on the strength of merit and virtue, Autumn Wind was clearly the more deserving. But then I thought…
There are times when I am proud of my learning. My father had been an illiterate ox-herd, while I was more than halfway to being a sage and respected White Crane Priest. However, at that moment I felt dumber than the dumbest ox, not knowing what I felt or thought.
Master Lao often said that the road to wisdom is a very long and painful one. I thought that was merely an easy way to justify our beatings, but the longer I live the more I fear he is right.
Spring Moon insisted on leaving the kitchen to serve us tea and sympathy. Like her daughter she was slim and graceful, and carried her mature beauty well. She asked us gently for details about the murder. Master Lao was circumspect about the cause, but emphasized that a killer was loose in the night, and that all window screens should be closed and doors locked.
After this genial chat, Spring Moon insisted on making this order of buns an offering to the temple. Master Lao refused twice, then graciously acceded the third time, offering to send charms and blessings over the next day.
Back at the temple, Master Lao pulled out the village map he used to advise businessmen on the most auspicious location for a new enterprise. He made a small mark for Zhang’s house, then another for Dancing Petals’ place, then laid a reed between them. Then he took out two more reeds of the same length to form a triangle, with the temple squarely in the middle.
“Just as I feared,” said Master Lao.
“Who lives here?” I asked, pointing to an estate on the edge of town at the triangle’s apex.
“Hmm, that would be Hu Feng’s place,” said Master Lao darkly. Feng ran a distillery which decanted plum wine of unusual potency. His position at the edge of town was necessitated by the unfortunate tendency of his production apparatus towards periodic explosions. Despite these occasional setbacks, Feng was a remarkably successful businessman, as his libations were a favourite throughout the province, and he had steadily improved his father’s original recipe to the point where cases of permanent blindness resulting from its imbibing were now exceptionally rare.
“Obviously, someone will need to protect Honorable Feng’s establishment,” I said, rising, “So I’ll just go over there and start…
At that, Master Lao extended his bamboo staff and pushed me, quite forcefully, back into my seat.
“Neither you nor Kua Qing will defend Feng’s, despite your obvious knowledge of his establishment. I will go myself and take Xau Qu with me. You and Kua Qing will guard the temple. But first, we must prepare the Feast of the Duck.”
There followed more feast preparations, although this time I was not stirring pots but inspecting the temple to make sure charms had been appropriately situated and blessings properly scribed above all doors and windows. For once Kua Qing seems to have done a good job supervising the other apprentices, rather than his usual half-hearted and slip-shod efforts, perhaps because this time his own safety was at stake.
Some may believe that I have unfairly exaggerated Kua Qing’s numerous deficiencies in these pages, but they don’t know him as well as I, nor have they witnessed his underhanded dealings at close range as I have. It is true that I myself am not free of sin, and that I have not always followed the Celestial Masters in all things. However, there is an important difference: The errors I have committed have been but youthful indiscretions and small lapses in my otherwise laudable life, while Kua Qing’s deplorable actions stem from deep and abiding flaws in his character.
Besides, as any number of bruises and scars on his body will attest, my kung fu is demonstrably superior.
The feast itself was more subdued than the night before. Because we would be taking turns guarding the temple, we were allowed only one cup of plum wine each. (There is one traveller of my acquaintance who claims that his kung fu is improved immeasurably by imbibing vast quantities of alcohol before every bout, but this person is known far and wide as a shameless braggart and liar, so I shall refrain from naming him here.) This time no supernatural forces interrupted either the blessing or the meal.
After a necessarily abbreviated feast, Master Lao went to his cabinet and withdrew several implements. For himself he pulled out the silver rope, a small whisk broom with bristles of tiger fur, and a slender bamboo rod covered with strange symbols. For myself and Kua Qing he pulled out a hooded prayer lantern and an octagonal silver mirror inscribed with the eight trigrams of the Bagua. The lantern he poured a measure of purified palm oil into, then lit. Next he wrote out a long prayer on a piece of vellum, chanting over it the entire time. When finished, he skillfully folded it into the shape of a crane, then inserted it into the flame. Suddenly, the lantern light seemed to increase ten fold, making it bright enough that I briefly shielded my eyes.
“If one of the Kongbu FeixingTou attacks, shine the lantern off the mirror to reflect the beam onto them. It may not destroy them, but it should cause them great pain. Chou Lin, head the first watch, and Kua Qing the second.” At that, Master Lao and Xau Qu headed off to Feng’s.
That night was the first time I had ever viewed the wide courtyard of our temple as anything but an inviting refuge. One corner held the stumps we balanced upon for our White Crane training, we practiced our forms outside when the weather was good, and held the harvest festival for the whole village there in the fall. Yet tonight, despite torches burning in the corners, it seemed a strange and ominous place, filled with dancing shadows as the willow trees whispered in the breeze.
Bang Zhou was my companion for the first watch, and it was he who carried the silver mirror. Born the youngest of nine sons in a poor fisherman’s family near Canton, Bang Zhou was thin as a rake and wore a perpetual hang-dog expression. Despite his slight build he was a sturdy fighter and a graceful acrobat.
“We’ll patrol around the entire length of the temple together,” I instructed Bang Zhou. “If we see anything, we’ll use the lantern and mirror and call out for the other apprentices to help.”
“What if it’s not a demon? Or what if the lantern doesn’t work? Shouldn’t we have swords?” asked Bang Zhou.
“Master Lao said the lantern should be effective,” I answered. But then a snake of doubt uncoiled its head as I remembered how unnaturally strong Old Man Zhang’s head had been. “But it wouldn’t hurt to have swords,” I concluded. “Run in and fetch one for each of us.”
“Chou Lin….” whispered a strangely familiar female voice as soon as Bang Zhou had disappeared.
“Who’s there?” I asked shining my lantern into the gloom of the courtyard.
“Why, it’s just me Chou Lin,” answered the voice, and when I turned I saw Orange Blossom’s face staring at me from the edge of the torchlight.
“Orange Blossom!” I said, stepping towards her, flooded with a feeling of relief. But then I stopped, uneasy. “But I thought you were dead!”
“Oh no, that wasn’t me!” she said, laughing her delightful peasant giggle in a way that sounded slightly strange. “That was another girl that looked like me. When that horrible thing came in through the window I escaped out into the woods. I’ve been out there all day. Oh, Chou Lin I’m so cold! I wasn’t able to grab any clothes before I escaped…”
This particular detail interested me greatly, but there was still something that didn’t quite add up. “What was the other girl doing in your room?”
Orange Blossom laughed again. “We were doing something terribly naughty! So naughty I can only whisper it. Come closer and I’ll tell you.”
This too interested me greatly, but it was at this moment that I finally remembered to think with the large head rather than the small one. I held up the lantern and aimed it at Orange Blossom.
Orange Blossom’s head recoiled and hissed at the sudden radiance, which revealed, just as I feared, the absence of her body and a long trail of viscera floating behind her. “You fool!” she screamed. “You had to go and ruin it! I’ll do it the hard way!”
At that she flew straight for me, her unnaturally long teeth now visible. Her rush was so quick I had no time to think, whirling around and bringing the lantern in an arc head-on into her face, sending her recoiling away, a scream of pain on her lips.
“You wretched little worm!” she screamed, her pale face turning red where the lantern had connected. “You’ll pay for that! Your pain will be unimaginable!”
“Orange Blossom, please, don’t do this! Remember all we shared when you were alive!”
“Shared?” She let out a cruel, chilling laugh. “We never shared anything. You bought me like you bought chickens at the market! And I pretended to love you to keep the coins coming. ‘Oh Chou Lin, you’re the best! Of course I love you!’” She laughed again. “Look at the strutting, arrogant ox-herder, so proud of his kung fu, and his position at the temple, and his pitiful lovemaking. You weren’t even the best among the temple apprentices! Kua Qing is a better lover than you’ll ever be!” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “You know, he was so good, I often let him visit for free.”
“Be gone, demon,” I said, thrusting the lantern towards her again. “I will not listen to your lies!”
“What’s the matter, Chou Lin, don’t you have five coins on you to buy my body with? Oh wait, I don’t have a body anymore.” At that she let loose another cruel laugh, then snarled and dove for another attack.
I launched a palm-heel strike to send her spinning back, then grabbed the floating trail of viscera, swung her around a couple of times, sending her spinning out into the courtyard, a move I instantly regretted.
My hands, now covered with the vile, unnatural secretions of her demonic organs, immediately began to tingle unpleasantly, followed quickly by a painful burning sensation. I dropped the lantern and pulled off my robe, trying to dry my hands.
Orange Blossom took that opportunity to attack again. With my hands trapped, all I could do was wrap the rest of the robe around her.
There followed a most ignoble episode of my being dragged across the courtyard as Orange Blossom attempted to escape my robe’s confines. I was shocked at the strength a single flying head could display, though in life certain parts of Orange Blossom’s body had displayed a remarkably strong grip. She finally wriggled free, and I took this opportunity to race back to the lantern, Orange Blossom in hot pursuit.
“Chou Lin?” asked Bang Zhou incredulously, having finally located the swords.
“The mirror!” I screamed. “Quickly!”
For a moment, Bang Zhou looked stunned, then came to his senses and held up the mirror. I quickly directed the lantern’s beam at it, which Bang Zhou moved to reflect squarely at Orange Blossom’s head. She let out a scream as she burst into flames, then quickly fled over the wall, leaving a trail of sparks behind as she escaped into to the night.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“Just my pride.”
Kua Qing and Dai Li relieved us at midnight, and the rest of the night passed without incident. The next morning, Jade Willow shot me a dirty look over the ruins of my robe, as if flying monsters were part of a complex plot to deplete the temple’s meager clothing budget. (I will admit that a certain incident or two in the past requiring her to spend several hours removing plum wine stains from my robes may have contributed to her prejudice.)
Master Lao and Xau Qu returned from Feng’s just as breakfast was being served. (Though Master Lao has the lean, muscled body appropriate to a kung fu master, I have noticed that he never misses a meal, and I have always sought to emulate him in this regard.) His night had passed without any sign from the Kongbu Feixing Tou, and Master Lao listened with great interest to my description of Orange Blossom’s visit (though I did omit certain slanderous lies she told as not being relevant to the matter at hand).
“Maybe the worst is over,” said Master Lao. “Without a third victim, they won’t be able to consecrate their temple. But just in case, I want Kua Qing and Bang Zhou to bring back branches from a weeping mulberry today.”
That said, Master Lao wrote down the needs for that night’s festival and sent me out to procure them, then went to his room to sleep while he could.
Kua Qing returned with the weeping mulberry branches, and Master Lao brought us into his study to observe how arrows were crafted and consecrated. First the ends were cut off with a blessed knife, then the bark was carefully stripped away with a special circular tool. Next the shafts were cleansed in purified water, then again in salt.
Master Lao wrote out several prayers against evil, burned each in a silver tray, sifted the ashes into the ink dish, then pricked his thumb and let a single drop of blood fall into the concoction. He wrote out a very specific prayer against evil in a tiny hand on a slip of parchment, then carefully rolled it around the arrow shaft, repeating the process until he had 20 blessed shafts laying in various states of drying.
Next he took out a bag of eagle feathers, sorting through it for suitable candidates. Finally, he feathered and pointed each shaft. Though I’m sure a true fletcher could have done better and quicker work, each seemed lethal and well-honed.
That accomplished, Master Lao placed the arrows in a quiver, then took down the ceremonial bow which hung on his west wall, both of which he handed over to Kua Qing. (As much as it pains me to admit it, bowmanship is the one area of martial arts where Kua Qing’s prowess exceeds my own. However, I attribute this to an entirely inadvertent incident early in my apprenticeship that resulted in my being banned from using the bow for three months, thus allowing Kua Qing to gain an unfair advantage.)
However, any pleasure Kua Qing had in this assignment was shortlived. Since the events of the last few days had interrupted our usual kung fu training, Master Lao decided to put us through a particularly grueling two-hour workout.
As twilight descended, Widow Zi came waddling up to the temple. She was a pleasant, matronly woman whose husband had been executed for smuggling opium by a most unpleasant method involving blocks of granite, a brazier, and a long, thin metal rod. She arrived out of breath and Master Lao invited her in to sit down. While Jade Willow made tea, she asked if anyone had seen Gau Lou that day.
Gau Lou was a local handyman who lived in a shack at the far end of the village. He never did work at the temple because my fellow apprentices and I were always available to provide manual labour. He was supposed to visit that morning to help clear brush around her house, but had never shown up. The news seemed to disturb Master Lao, who sent me to fetch the village map.
“Can you show me where Gau Lou’s shack is?” he asked.
Widow Zi took a few moments to find her own house on the map, then pointed to a clearing near the forest. “There.”
Master Lao made a charcoal mark, then brought out and laid down his reeds again, forming another triangle. This time the center of the triangle was centered on a large building near the center of the village.
“What’s that?” asked Kua Qing.
“Spring Moon’s noodle house,” said Master Lao. “Quick, gather everyone up! We must go over there immediately!”
Master Lao quickly sorted through his prayer cabinet, procuring items for the coming battle: his herbal medicine kit, the lantern and mirror, rice paper and ink, several swords, two spears made from an ash tree, a bowl of sticky rice, and Kua Qing’s bow and arrows.
We raced over to Spring Moon’s. When we arrived, the door was closed, the screens drawn and the lanterns off. Master Lao banged on the door several times. It was finally unlocked and Spring Moon, her hair down, looked out quizzically. “Oh, Master Lao, it’s you. Is there something wrong?”
Master Lao bowed apologetically. “Very possibly, madam. Please allow us to inspect your premises to ensure you come to no harm.”
We entered quickly and formed a circle around Master Lao and Spring Moon, scanning the area for signs of the Kongbu Feixing Tou in the flickering lantern light. Except for the lovely Autumn Wind walking out of the kitchen, the building seemed empty.
“Check the windows,” said Master Lao, and we moved to comply.
“What’s going on?” asked Autumn Wind.
“There’s a great evil at loose in the night,” said Master Lao. “Are all the windows barred and charmed?”
Each of us went forward to verify that each window was locked, and that charms against evil were situated in each corner, a silk string connecting each to each in the shape of an X. We all nodded in turn indicating that our window was secure.
“Let me check the windows upstairs,” said Autumn Wind, already starting up.
“It might be dangerous…” Master Lao began, but by that time I was already racing up the stairs just behind her. I arrived at her side just as she reached the second floor.
“It is dangerous for you to be up here alone!”
At that she smiled and I felt my heart melt again. “I already feel safer with you here, though I think you’re being silly. There’s nothing up here, but we can check the windows together.”
We did so, and each appeared to be closed and properly charmed. The building appeared to be protected.
“See? Nothing to worry about,” she said, smiling.
I returned her smile, but something nagged the back of my mind. “Is there no other way in? How about a back door? Or the chimney?”
“No, the back door is locked. And the flue is always closed when we’re not cooking.”
I looked around, then up. “What about the skylight? Is it locked?”
She frowned. “No, I didn’t think of that. But who could possibly get in from the roof?”
Faced with the difficulty of explaining the exact nature of the evil loose, I avoid it entirely. “It should be locked just like the windows and doors.”
“There’s no lock on it,” she said, “but I suppose we can tie it down.” At that she had me fetch a small ladder, which she braced against the nearest pillar and started up.
“Do you need any help?” I asked.
“No, I can do it,” she said, reaching for a black rope caught under the edge of the skylight door.
Only it wasn’t a rope.
Autumn Wind screamed as the thing coiled around her hand, then jerked her upward as the skylight door flew open. Instantly I leapt up onto the ladder and grabbed her foot before she could be pulled out by her inhuman assailant.
Whatever writhing thing that gripped her was strong, but not quite strong enough to lift both of us. Still gripping Autumn Wind’s foot, I leapt up and wrapped my legs around the pillar, pulling against the creature with all my might. Inch by inch I gained against it, Autumn Wind screaming all the while. I began to think I might be able to best it, when another half-dozen ropy tentacles descended from the darkness to grip Autumn Wind’s arms and head. Suddenly I was wrenched from the pillar by the unseen foe’s inhuman strength, and feared that both of us were doomed to be pulled into the night when I felt two hands gripping each of my ankles.
I looked back and saw Xau Qu and Bang Zhou hanging on. For once Xau Qu’s bulk served him well, as the fiend we fought was not strong enough to lift all four of us. However, it still lurched and heaved against us, causing us to jerk and ripple like a segmented festival dragon. Painful as this was, my discomfort was increased by the disparity in weight between Xau Qu and Bang Zhou. However, Xau Qu had his own cause of complaint, as every jerk sent his head crashing into the pillar, each eliciting most strong and unpriestly oaths from his lips. And I can only imagine how much more agonizing the entire struggle must have been for poor Autumn Wind.
My own discomfort increased momentarily when the limber Bang Zhou climbed up my body as though it were a rope, then gripped my hair most painfully with one hand while he pulled a sword from his belt. Then, timing the swings, he leapt up to slash through the tangle wrapped around Autumn Wind’s head. For a moment we had the advantage, but Bang Zhou’s blow caused the beast to jerk so violently that a momentarily stunned Xau Qu lost his grip.
Though her head was free, Autumn Wind’s arms were still in the monster’s clutches. Bang Zhou raised his sword for another chop, when the strands holding Autumn Wind’s right hand suddenly let go, only to instantly wrap themselves around Bang Zhou’s swordarm. With a wrenching jerk, the sword fell from his grasp. I caught it as it fell, and it was now my turn to leap up and grab Autumn Wind’s arm with one hand, while severing the strands that bound Bang Zhou.
Suddenly, the beast released its last grip on Autumn Wind and all three of us fell heavily to floor, scattering tables and chairs in our wake.
“Are you all right?” I asked Autumn Wind.
“My ankles hurt, and I think I’m an inch taller,” replied Autumn Wind, “but other than that I’m AGGGGGGHHHHHH!”
Autumn Wind held out her arm, and the source of her distress became apparent. The black, ropey strands entangling her were revealed to be braided hair. Moreover, the strands still wrapped around her wrists seemed alive, and slithered steadily up her arms like snakes up a tree branch.
Dai Li and Ba Le came running up the stairs, spears in hand, as Bang Zhou and I each pulled the animate hair off Autumn Wind. “Quick, get a prayer lantern!” I instructed as the braids writhed in our hands. When Lai Wang brought the lantern, Bang Zhou and I both consigned the unnatural locks to its flame. As they burned, there was a terrible scream above the noodle house.
Then the skylight door flew open, and they descended.
Orange Blossom was there, and Old Man Zhang, and Gau Lou, who I vaguely recognized. But all our eyes were inevitably drawn towards the inescapable presence of the Kongbu Feixing Tou Queen.
She possessed a cold, inhuman beauty, with pale skin, high cheekbones, long, thin fangs, and onyx eyes with cats-eye pupils of fire. All around her, several yards in every direction, floated myriad ropey tresses of lustrous black hair, each of which seemed to writhe of its own accord. However, it was what was in her hair which was most alarming of all.
Dozens of shriveled heads, pale skin stretched like parchment over their skulls, floated entangled in her hair. Their eyes were dead except for tiny flames in each orb, pale reflections of their Queen’s fiery visage. Each of their mouths moved wordlessly, issuing the rattling, hissing sound of a dying old man’s laboured breathing.
“Well, look what we have here!” she said in archaic Mandarin. “A clutch of fresh and juicy worms for the nest! If you think your old man’s pathetic bush magic will thwart my will you are sadly mistaken!”
“Demon, I’ve faced far worse than you before,” said Master Lao, raising his staff. “Be gone from this place, or face your own destruction!”
“Your soul will make a most splendid feast, little priest!” At that her unnatural hair convulsed, sending a screaming horde of her skull minions flying towards us, teeth bared.
Thrusting Autumn Wind towards the stairs behind me, I split the first attacker in half with Bang Zhou’s sword, and then struck another a glancing blow. Ba Le managed to skewer still another, but both he and Dai Li were quickly forced to use their spears as staffs as more and more attacked. Behind us, the other apprentices lobbed sticky rice prayer balls at the horrors, and where their shots connected the skulls blackened and fell to the ground. But every time one was destroyed, two more seemed to take its place. Soon there were too many to stand against, and I and the other apprentices fought a desperate withdrawal down the stairway.
“The lantern!” cried Master Lao. “Quickly!”
Lai Wang unhooded the lantern and directed it towards Master Lao, who reflected the beam off the octagonal silver mirror and into the creatures. The beam caught one of the flying skulls squarely, and it uttered a horrifying shriek, then exploded in a shower of dust. So too, when the beam passed across Gau Lou’s head, his hair burst into flame before he fled its radiance. Soon Gau Lou’s panicked flight resulted in several small fires around the noodle house, Spring Moon and Autumn Wind following frantically in his wake with pitchers of water to douse the flames.
However, when Master Lao directed the beam against the Queen, she laughed as her hair readily blocked it.
“Your little mirror might work on the undead, little priest, but do you really think it would affect one forged in the Lower Hells?”
“Kua Qing, the bow!” cried Master Lao.
Kua Qing hopped up onto a table, pulled out an arrow, aimed, and fired all in one smooth motion. The arrow flew straight at the Queen, but she easily plucked it out of the air with her hair, then gasped in pain and dropped it as her strands caught fire.
“Weeping mulberry arrows!” hissed the Queen, shaking out the flames. “You’re more clever than I thought! But it will avail you nothing. Get the bowman!”
The mob of skulls we had been fighting suddenly rose up and over our heads, making a beeline for Kua Qing. Chanting, Master Lao leapt up onto the table in front of him, assuming the crane stance as his palms took on the unmistakable glow of Lao Dan Hands.
And then the fight was truly on.
We raced back to form a protective perimeter around Kua Qing. Swords, hands and spears struck with all the skill we could muster, sending the skulls hurtling back from our blows. Gau Lou (his head finally extinguished), Orange Blossom and Old Man Zhang all swooped and dove, trying to sink their fangs into our necks, or, failing that, entangle us in their viscera. As Master Lao’s glowing blows hurtled around him like a firework prayer wheel, Kua Qing hunkered low on the table, popping up every now and then to shoot another arrow, but none ever made it beyond the Queen’s hair. Spring Moon and Autumn Wind cowered beneath the table, stabbing out with their kitchen knives anytime one of the horrors came near.
Alas, they had not counted on the speed of a White Crane apprentice, and an instant after I had kicked one of the skulls across the room, I received a painful but shallow wound in my right calf from Autumn Wind’s knife.
“Sorry!” she cried, aghast. But there was no time for recriminations, as Gau Lou suddenly raced for my neck. I jerked back just in time for his lunge to miss, then slashed him with the sword. It connected cleanly, almost cleaving his face in two and getting stuck in his skull. Despite the blow he was far from finished, as his viscera snapped up and around my neck.
“You’ll pay for that!” he said wetly.
There proceeded a most strange and desperate dance, as I simultaneously attempted to pull the sword free and remove Gau Lou’s burning tendrils from around my throat, succeeding at neither task. Soon Bang Zhou and Ba Le came to my assistance.
“Is that my sword?” asked Bang Zhou, as Ba Le attempted to unwrap the tendrils.
I nodded and answered to the extent possible, but due to the circumstances my assent sounded rather like a choking sheep.
“May I have it back?”
I agreed as best I could, sinking to my knees as my sight started to dim.
Bang Zhou gripped his sword with both hands while levering his left foot firmly against Gau Lou’s entrails. With a mighty tug he wrenched the sword free, then swiftly brought it to bear at the exposed length of viscera mere inches away from my throat.
I would have thought the blow sufficient to sever it, but it was unnaturally tough. However, it did cause the creature to let me loose and attempt to ensnare Bang Zhou instead. The three of us quickly wrestled it to the ground, ignoring the pain in our hands as we held it down, Bang Zhou bringing the sword down again and again without apparent effect.
“Quick, hand me a prayer ball!” I cried, and one of the younger apprentices complied. Avoiding Gau Lou’s unnatural teeth, I spread apart his jaws.
“Happy festival day!” I said, then shoved the sticky-rice wrapped offering into his mouth. Gau Lou let out a horrific scream. Then exploded.
Whatever demonic magic had held Gao Los decay at bay ceased, and the three of us found ourselves covered in tiny bits of putrefying remains. As we attempted to wipe them off, the Kongbu Feixing Tou Queen screamed in rage. “You wretched little maggots! You think slaying a single acolyte will stop me? Your pain shall be legendary!”
The battle seemed to be turning, if ever so slightly, in our favour. The blackened remains of a dozen skull servants littered the floor, but more still swooped above our heads. Kua Qing was down to his last six arrows, having dispatched several of the skull minions, but unable to bring down the Queen. Encouraged by our example, he took aim at Orange Blossom’s flying form, launching an arrow that missed by a hairsbreadth.
Master Lao leapt up yet again to dispatch two of the flying skulls trying to swoop in on Kua Qing, but as he landed the much abused table issued a loud crack and collapsed under him, and he and Kua Qing went crashing down upon Spring Moon and Autumn Wind.
Our enemies took that moment to redouble their assault, and it was all we could do to hold them back as Spring Moon and Autumn Wind sprinted for another table. However, Old Man Zhang managed to evade Dai Li’s spear thrust and attached himself to Spring Moon, sinking his fangs into her neck as his tendrils wrapped around her body. In a flash, Kua Qing drew an arrow, aimed, and fired, striking Zhang ‘s head dead center. Zhang let out a bellow of pain as his head and viscera ignited, quickly burning down to ash in a matter of seconds.
Autumn Wind frantically batted out the tiny flames on her mother’s dress caused by Zhang ‘s combustion. “Mother, are you all right? Mother? Mother?”
Spring Moon didn’t answer, her breathing shallow and unnaturally raspy, a fine network of dark lines already starting to spread out from the wound in her neck. Seeing this, Master Lao sprung into action, laid out both his herbal kit and his brush and ink set, then instantly started to scribe runes around the wound. “Chou Lin, this will take several minutes. You must defend Kua Qing!”
I nodded and raced back to the fight. There seemed only a half dozen of the skull things left, in addition to Orange Blossom, but the Queen herself had waded into the fight. She had ensnared both of Xau Qu’s arms, but was unable to bring her fangs to bear upon him due to the chair he held between them.
I quickly grabbed the prayer lantern from Lai Wang and raced to Xau Qu’s side. As they struggled, I wrestled one of the ropey strands from his arms and stuck it into the lantern’s opening. The Queen let out another below of rage as her hair ignited, letting loose of Xau Qu and knocking both of us across the room in her haste to shake out the flames.
“So you like fire, little man? Then have some fire!” At that the Queen opened her mouth and let loose a jet of flame, singeing my robes as I leapt away. I rolled across the floor to extinguish them, then scurried under a table to avoid the next fiery assault, which set it ablaze. Grabbing the table by its legs, I rushed back at her, using it as both a shield and weapon.
Unfortunately, I did not count on the Queen plucking the table from my grasp and tossing it back at me. I leapt just in time, receiving only a glancing blow to my left shoulder as it hurtled past.
Thinking the Queen distracted, Kua Qing let loose another arrow, but once again she snatched it from the air in mid-flight. Worse still, Orange Blossom chose that moment to swoop in on Kua Qing, wrapping her entrails around the bow. Kua Qing resisted with all his might, refusing to let the weapon be stolen from him without a fight. For a moment it was a tug-of-war.
Then the bow snapped in two.
Kua Qing went flying back, half of the broken bow still gripped in his hands, the remaining arrows in his quiver scattering across the floor. The Queen laughed, a sound inhumanly shrill and throaty at the same time. “Time’s up, vermin! Your pathetic attempts have failed! You may have slain two of my acolytes, but it’s easy enough to make more!”
At that the Queen rushed forward and snatched up Kua Qing, Autumn Wind and Master Lao, binding each so tightly with her hair that they were unable to free their arms no matter how hard they struggled.
“You’ve got spirit, little priest! That is why you shall make such a splendid slave when I eat your soul!”
As the Queen raised Master Lao to her lips, I grabbed one of the arrows off the floor, leapt up to grab his robe, and then clambered onto his shoulders just before the Queen bestowed her deadly kiss.
“Eat this!” I said, thrusting the arrow directly into her gaping maw.
The Queen let out a deafening bellow of pain and rage, dropping her captives (and myself) unceremoniously to the floor. Flames licked out of her mouth and the wound at the back of her neck where the arrow had pierced, and then expanded until an inferno raged where her head had been, her hair writhing madly in its death-throes. All around the noodle house, Orange Blossom and the remaining skull minions suffered a similar fiery fate. The Queen let out a last scream and exploded in a shower of vile dust and ash.
We lay on the floor for a long moment, victorious, befouled and exhausted. Bang Zhou took the initiative to grab a pitcher of water and extinguish those portions of the noodle house set alight by the final conflagration. Master Lao climbed unsteadily to his feet, dusting himself off and coughing, then turned to me and bowed, a gesture nearly as shocking and unusual as battle had been.
“Chou Lin, you are a credit to the temple, and it is an honour to have you as a White Crane apprentice.”
For a moment I was struck entirely dumb, as Master Lao’s compliments were nearly as rare as summer snow. Finally, I got unsteadily to my feet and returned the bow. “It is, and has always been, a great honour to serve as your apprentice.”
Master Lao merely grunted, then returned to ministering to Spring Moon. “Will my mother be alright?” asked her daughter.
“Yes. Look, the unnatural infection is already starting to fade.”
Autumn Wind sighed in relief, then wrapped her arms around and kissed me, an event as shocking as it was welcome. I could not tell you how long that kiss lasted, though it seemed as if several dynasties rose and fell during its duration. It was far too short.
“Thank you for saving us, Chou Lin,” she said at last. I’m sure I made some reply to this, as I distinctly remember my mouth moving and sounds coming out of it, but I could not say with any certainty what was said for all the taels in Shanghai.
At that moment, exhausted and exultant, I truly knew what it was to be one with the Celestial Masters, to know the perfect contentment of balance and being, to move with the wind and be as still as the earth, to bask in the fullness of the world like a flower in the sun.
But even as I felt that moment of divine clarity passing, I thought I could see the path before me: a life together with Autumn Wind, a wedding presided over by Master Lao, a clutch of laughing, exasperating children, agile as cats and as mischievous as imps (how could they be otherwise, given their father?), growing old in joy and contentment.
Alas, it was not to be, as Autumn Wind and I would soon be ripped apart by the strange events surrounding an ancient scroll, a most unusual monkey, and three cursed coins.
But that’s a story for another day.