Tiger Jing1 and Birth of the Queen
The following events occurred in ancient China approximately two thousand years ago. The conversations among the characters were in Mandarin but have been translated into English for the reader.
It was the beginning and the end, the power of life and the nothingness. It was the last of its kind in that region—a ten- year-old male tiger that started and ended it all.
ON A LATE FALL day in 220 CE, during the Three Kingdoms period of China and near the border of Shu Han and Wei, fall leaves were showing their brilliant autumn colors and migratory birds bid their farewell to the land and dotted across the ruby sky as they headed south for the coming winter. A large male Amoy tiger was out on an evening hunt, but it was not a usual hunt––-the hunt was out of spite for humans in his territory. There used to be more prey in his territory––-wild boars, waterbucks, and deer, but in recent years their numbers had dwindled. The dangerous humans had moved into the area. The new intruders were different than the ones he had stalked before––-like the ones that worked in the rice paddies or near the river banks––-the new kind almost never appeared alone, and they hid behind high walls. They killed off three of his mates, and one time he nearly fell into their traps. He had witnessed what those humans could do with their long swords and flying weapons that could hurt him from long distances away. One of the humans he hated, in particular, was the leader of the pack, and that man wore the skin of his mate. It was the last straw. Tonight he would prey on one of their own.
The male tiger weighed nearly three hundred pounds, but it could stay nearly invisible behind a foot of grass. It was the last of its kind in the region. Male tigers don’t go to other territories, and at the mature age of ten, he was unlikely to challenge a younger male in its prime––-if there were any left.
Moving, he followed the outer perimeters of the nearby farm- lands to avoid detection. When he got closer to the main road, he ducked behind an abandoned woodshed and let several farmers pass him by. The farmers had finished their day’s work and were heading back to their homes. There were several young infants strapped to their mothers’ backs, sleeping soundly as the adults exchanged final pleasantries before turning in for the night. He followed closely behind the farmers, thirty yards behind, until the end of dirt road. From there, there was a trail he knew well that would lead him to the town’s fortress where the dangerous humans lived. A strong odor of burning wood mixed in with food permeated the air. The smell was almost too much for him to bear, but he pushed on.
After nearly half an hour of threading through the dense forest, the trail opened up to a vast twenty acres of an open field. The night had arrived, but you could see the outline of a massive fortress on the far side of the field. Using darkness to his advantage, the tiger sneaked past some ground guards out in the field and reached near the fortress.
High up on the wooden wall, rows of torches lit up like candles. He could see humans moving about on the top of the high wall––-too tall for him to reach. Someone on the wall looked in the tiger’s direction, but he would not see the tiger. The tiger crouched behind a dried-up river bank and only moved forward when the man was looking the other way. Finally, he was within ten yards of the wall. He had been here before to scout out the surrounding area, so he knew there was a small entrance hole. It was too small for him to get inside the fortress, but he had seen small children emerged from there. He hoped to catch someone from that hole tonight.
ZI-LING WAS a Miao in her early thirties. Her hair had already turned gray, with ends bearing uneven cuts. It grew fast whenever she practiced witchcrafts, and she practiced a lot, so she had to cut it constantly. Her round face had an unusually pale skin that contrasted with her light hazel eyes. If her skin were not full of dry cracks, she would be considered beautiful. But there was a deep scar running down the left cheek that ruined everything. It was an injury she had gotten when she was only five. Her aunt never told her how she got it, but one of the village kids told her that her own father tried to kill her when the army invaded her village. Her aunt managed to wrestle her away from her dad and escaped. She never asked her aunt the truth about her past, because she believed there was a reason for everything. Life was tough, especially during wars. No one was safe, and human life was cheaper than a pail of water.
Zi-Ling was returning to her Miao clan family in Guangdong after a pilgrimage to visit her ancestor’s gravesites. She had done this for many years. It was how she wanted to keep in touch with her past. But this year was different. The war between the warlords in the North, East, and in the South had flared up after several years of remission. When she arrived at the previous settlement, she learned that her family had evacuated to a southern town to avoid the raging war. The northern and eastern warlords viewed her families as threats and persecuted them to no end. The southern warlords forced her family to be slave workers and army volunteers. Among her Miao clan, Zi-Ling was the most powerful spell-caster, but she refused to be involved in the war. Yet she volunteered to help the locals during their hardships; she even treated the soldiers during a truce period between the warlords. But the onslaught of new wars changed every- thing. Along the journey back, she got periodic updates from her family’s carrier crows: they urged Zi-Ling to avoid soldiers at all costs. The warlords had ordered martial law and asked everyone to pitch in to help the army, no exceptions. Many of her families were forced into labor. Some of them ran and hid, but many were not that lucky.
Her journey was mostly quiet and uneventful, but occasionally, she would see scout soldiers in the distance and their traps on the ground. She freed animals whenever she could from the traps; many were badly injured, and she would heal them on the spot and set them free. She slept during the day in small caves or high up in trees, only emerging at evenfall. The rugged mountain terrain with dense foliage provided the perfect cover for her.
ONE EVENING, the sky was bright red as the sun was setting. She was close to a nearby village, and war drums were reverberating in the distance.
Zi-Ling listened closely at the drum’s rhythm. “War drum––-warning call. The village is under attack? Did the enemy armies come this far?”
She stayed near ravines to cover her tracks, then she cast a spell on herself that made her looked like a fox. As she turned the corner of a river bend near a densely covered forest, she heard a boy's cry.
A boy? Zi-Ling took several steps back and wanted to leave, but a familiar echo came from the boy’s mind, calling out to her. She broke her spell and returned to her human form.
Shielding herself with a long staff, she waded into the tall grass. There it was, a young boy maybe ten years old lying flat on his back. His breaths were quick and shallow, showing signs of severe shock from injury. As she got closer, she saw the deep puncture wounds in his neck and laceration across his chest. The boy had lost too much blood, and the wounds were deep. It was too late for her to save him. The blood had soaked through his lavishly decorated clothes––-only a very wealthy family could afford clothes like them, and around this area, only the warlord’s family amassed the wealth.
She thought about enslaving the boy into a Jiāngshī as a leverage to blackmail the warlord, but dealing with the warlord’s family was the last thing on her mind. All she could do was to ease his pain, so she closed her eyes and visualized a thought. Her right index finger’s nail extended like a needle and into the boy’s temple. With her mind connected to the boy's, she sensed no sensation below the boy’s neck––-a sign of paralysis.
The boy stared at her and was shaking from shock; his breath was shallow and spastic.
Zi-Ling watched the boy laboring to breathe, and then he let out a deep sigh, looking past her.
“It’s your time to go; please grant me permission to shepherd you to heaven or the abyss.” Zi-Ling pressed her hand over the boy’s eyes and whispered a final prayer.
“Wu Don Guei, Zo Nan, Won Xie.” She repeated the phrase thirteen times, drew a blood line in her hand with a knife, and let the blood drop into the boy's mouth.
The boy uttered an abstruse sound.
She leaned over and listened to the boy as he struggled to speak; then he let out a single word:
Zi-Ling repeated, “Maria?” When she looked at the boy again, there was only a blank stare on his face. She sensed his spirit passing her, and it left a sweet, peaceful taste in her mouth.
Run along, kid. Visit your loved ones in your dreams.
A powerful presence entered her mind; she knew there was only one thing in this forest with that much fierce energy—a male tiger. Following the source, Zi-Ling held her staff out in front of her, then cautiously moved past an old cypress tree. There, about fifteen yards in front of her, was a large Amoy tiger. It was panting hard. It growled, shifted its hind leg, and revealed an arrow shaft jotting out from the side.
The tiger roared and charged.
Zi-Ling dug into her heels and reached into a leather pouch, anticipating the tiger’s next move.
Running at full speed, the tiger leaped into the air ten feet away, baring its dagger-like teeth and inch-long claws.
Zi-Ling shielded herself with the staff, but the tiger swiped away the staff; Zi-Ling ducked sideways, just in time to avoid the blow.
The tiger spun around and set his legs for a second attack.
Zi-Ling drew a spell and showed her palm to the tiger.
The tiger doubled back, as if being hit by a powerful blow to the
Zi-Ling moved her palm up into the sky, slowly turned her palm
facing the ground, and gently lowered her arm.
The tiger snarled at her and feigned a charge, but moments later, it lay down on the ground.
Zi-Ling approached slowly and synched her breathing with the tiger. She put her hand over the tiger’s massive head and smoothed her hand over the rough fur, gently whispering into its ear, “I need to get this arrow out. After, you must leave this place, far away from humankind. Head north, deep into the jungle where no putrid human soul can hurt you again.” She snapped the arrow in half, found a flat rock, and aimed carefully at the arrow’s shaft. With a perfect swing, she hammered it through the tiger’s leg. The tiger growled but did not move. In one swift move, she pulled the arrow out from the other side. With one hand pressing against the wound to staunch the bleeding, she took out a medicine ball with her other hand, chewed it down into a paste inside her mouth, and then applied it onto the wound. Gingerly, she cupped her hand over the wound and closed her eyes. Seconds later, she backed away, and the puncture wound sealed into a wicked-looking scar. She slowly raised her palm, and the tiger raised slowly on her command.
She waved at the tiger and said in her mind: Go! The tiger bared its teeth and slicked back its ears.
Hunters! A web of tingling sensations ran down her neck. In the corner of her eyes, she detected slight movements twenty yards away. She shrilled to alert the tiger.
The tiger’s muscles spasmed, and it leaped up just in time. Arrows whizzed past the beast as it escaped into the dense forest.
Several men dressed in animal skins walked out of a row of thick bush cover, their arms holding longbows and arrows aimed at Zi- Ling. One man released his arrow, and a hair later, the other man released his.
Zi-Ling turned her palm at the approaching arrows, and all the arrow’s shafts splintered in midair.
The two men looked at each other, and the taller of the two pointed his arrow at her, shouting orders at Zi-Ling. The other man released another arrow, but the shaft shattered inches in front of his face. He dropped to the ground, screaming in agony.
“This is a mistake. I did not harm the boy!” Zi-Ling tried to reason, but the men showed no interest in communicating with her. They stood half ready in a sickle formation and charged her with their long swords. She leaped back and vanished into the forest.
The two men met in the middle of the road and stared at one another in shock. One man wanted to pursue Zi-Ling, but the taller one held him back.
“This thing can’t be dispatched with swords and arrows. We need to get help.” He took out an antler horn and blew a long call into the air. The horn blared and echoed into the forest. Drawn by the horn, a dozen people came running back from the forest.
“Did the tiger double back?” a tall, husky man with a dark face shouted. His name was Quo Xin Zuan. He was the head master of the hunters clan.
The two men shook their heads in silence, avoiding eye contact.
“Then why did you blow the horn? We will never catch it now!” The husky man shook his fists in the air, and his face started to sweat.
“Master Quo, it was a tiger jing! We ran into a tiger jing!” One man looked up briefly and offered an explanation. “The jing interrupted our pursuit to heal the tiger. I saw it with my own eyes. Who would be able to tame a tiger except one of their own?”
The other man also looked up. “Sir, our arrows were useless against her. She let the tiger go and vanished into the forest.”
“A tiger jing?” The leader went over to one of the men and grabbed him by the throat. “You called the party back because you saw a jing? Who would believe us? What do you think the lord is going to do to us without the tiger’s skin? You idiot!”
The two men knelt and hung their heads. “We are sorry, Master Quo, but it was indeed a jing. We believe the tiger was her child, and she must be a hired assassin from the North. That’s why it came to the town last night. When she couldn’t get to the lord, she took his son instead. Now that we’ve seen that the tiger belonged to her, we must report back to the lord, or the forest is going to summon demons to our fortress.”
“She could also be a spy working for the enemy,” the other man said. “She could be scouting this area before an attack. We need to alert our sentries back at the fort. The enemy army could be nearby, and we should return immediately.” Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Master Quo!” A skinny man came running from the nearby bush. He shouted at everyone as he stumbled past the rest of the men. “I found the lord's boy.” The look on his face said it all.
The group followed the skinny man back into the bush. When they saw the mutilated body, they all knelt. The whole forest was silent as they waited for the leader to check on the boy. As the waiting time grew, many of them wept and channeled their grief by chanting the boy’s name.
“Stop the chanting!” Master Quo yelled. “We will find the witch later to seek our revenge, but we have to bring the boy back to the lord for proper burial.”
LORD YANG WAS a burly man in his early fifties. He wore a long mustache and had a full head of white hair. Dark, narrow eyes were set in his chiseled face. His stare exuded confidence and determination. A long battle scar extended across his entire face, from his fore- head down to his lips. He did not shed a single tear when he learned of his son’s death. He listened intently as the scout leader recounted the events that happened in the forest. He stood stolidly over the boy's body with his eyes fixated on the limp, lifeless form for a long time. His son’s beautiful, pale face reminded him of his late wife. Her last words were, “Please take care of our boy.”
Yang turned around to face his men and saw everyone was kneeling before him. A rush of dizziness washed over him, but he locked his knees and tightened his fists until his nails digging into his palms. The pain drew him out of a sense of numbness. He looked on and slowly took a full breath and let it out. He repeated the breathing until the dizziness subsided. Finally, he looked up at his men and announced, “There will be time to grieve for my son, but now, we must catch the witch.”
Yang decided that night to call upon the powerful Dao monk, Lao Zen, in the state. Hoping to catch the witch before she escaped, he ordered his troops to cut off all access to the area and sent out armies to guard the roads. However, the next morning, they found several dead soldiers and their horses missing. Yang sent out a hunting party to go after the witch, but there was no trace of her.
Lao Zen’s people were part of the Yellow Turban Rebellion4 army who rose up against the Han emperor. But after the defeat twenty years ago, Lao had semi-retired into a temple. The place was very hidden in the mountain, but not very far from the camp.
Yang was aware of the temple when his army settled into this village, but he never thought there was anyone there he would be interested to meet. Reluctantly, Yang paid a visit to the temple. He ordered Lao to track down the witch with his spell-casting ability. He reminded Lao that he had been good to his temple and had left it undisturbed ever since his army moved in. He warned Lao that the witch had a tiger, and the tiger had killed his only son. They suspected that the witch was working as an assassin for the Northern Wei.
Lao said, “The witch’s physical presence is not your concern, but her witchcraft cannot be underestimated. The temple here is a place for peace and we are humbled by your generosity. Life has a way of fulfilling its own destiny, and interfering with its purpose can do more harm than good. Exacting revenge will not bring back your son, and it may cost many more innocent lives. My humble opinion is to leave the witch alone and make peace with the reality.”
Yang clenched his fists and replied, “There will be no peace until I have the witch’s head. You and your pupils won’t have a temple left tonight if you don’t help me!”
Lao looked up gently at Yang and saw the yin chi surrounding the lord. Lao sighed. “Once you do this, there is no turning back. You will disturb your offspring’s lives for generations to come. I am but an angler on the river bank of your life’s journey. I will help you with your pursuit, but please leave the temple and my pupils alone.”
Yang smiled. “I know you are a practical monk. That’s what I like about you. Tell me what you need for this hunt and you shall get it.”
“Just your blessings and six of your best warriors with your fastest horses,” Lao replied and bowed.
Yang nodded back and said, “I will send fifty soldiers and my best guards with you to capture the witch, and none of you shall come back unless the witch is captured or killed. We will not only hunt down the witch; we are going to wipe out her family.” He fought his tears back and gazed beyond the forest tree lines. His voiced quivered with anger, “The witch must be brought back here to face justice. She and her family need to pay for my loss, one by one. I will burn them alive.”
DAYS PASSED, and there were no words from the group. They all believed that Lao and the soldiers died at the witch’s hands. But on a rainy day, Lao and a depleted crew of remaining three soldiers returned to the village; their battered faces and haunting stares told the story of a harrowing battle. Lao led the three surviving soldiers by a rope. Their families came running to greet them but found out they were blind, deaf, and mute––-their eyes and tongues were gouged out, and caked blood covered their ears. Lao had a blood-stained fabric wrapped tightly around his head.
Yang was shocked by what remained of the hunting party. He recognized one of them as one of his best swordsmen. “The witch did all this?”
Lao nodded. “The witch’s name is Zi-Ling. I checked with your soldiers and she was indeed someone from here. She claimed innocence and was just helping the tiger; she claimed she had nothing to do with my lord’s kid’s death.”
“Zi-Ling––-” Yang recalled that name. “Yes, I think I remember her. She was very good with the animals and medicine. Did a great job for us healing our soldiers, but refused to join the army in the frontline.”
Lao continued, “She claimed that she was away to visit her fami- ly’s grave site, but we found artifacts she was carrying that belonged to Wei’s soldiers.” He handed over a small leather satchel to Yang.
Yang opened the satchel and looked through the contents inside; there were herbs and various medicinal items, but there were also left-over items from fallen soldiers: goose feathers used in an arrow’s shaft, scales from a soldier’s armor, dyed fabric, darts; wrapped in another leather string were dried human skins fashioned with different tattoos. The design of the tattoos were unmistakable: many belonged to the northern Wei’s army soldiers, but some belonged to Yang’s.
“Where’s the proof that she killed my son!” Yang asked in rage.
Lao reached into his pocket and took out a sheathed short sword. He offered it up to Yang with both of his hands. “Perhaps this deserves inspection by you.”
Yang took over the short sword and looked over the design. It was highly decorative, and the scabbard’s locket and chape had intricate dragon’s scales made of gold. The pommel was shaped into a dragon’s head. Each eye was made with jade. Yang had only seen this design once before.
Yang drew a short breath. “This looks like a sword that belonged with a bow.
Yang ran his hand over the sheath several times, then pulled the
blade out carefully and inspected the tip and the edge. When he tilted the sword at a certain angle, he could see a film of sticky substance running along the blade and all the way to the tip.
Yang drew a short breath and carefully sheathed the sword.
“This is tipped with poison,” Yang said. “She is a spy and an assas- sin? But why did she take my son?”
Lao bowed and replied, “My humble belief is that she worked for the North as an assassin. The assassination job was somehow botched, so she decided to turn it into a ransom job by capturing your son, but her tiger must have accidentally killed your son, so she and her family ran. When we caught up with her and her family, she stayed and fought to the end. We managed to kill most of her family, but she refused to go down even after we injured her. When she was the only one left, she blared an indecipherable...song. Soon after, many of your men went insane and mutilated each other. Even with my counterspell, that song still made me cut off my left ear. After that, she collapsed to the ground. I was lucky; if the song had lasted a bit longer, I might not be standing here.”
Zi-Ling was bound inside an iron cage; long arrows were still planted in her thighs. Her face was covered in dried blood, her mouth was gagged with an iron chain, and on her forehead was a piece of talisman paper.
Yang wanted to pay Lao for his service, but Lao kindly declined. “I’m but an angler on the river bank. I have what I need in life.” He turned and faced the witch. “Zi-Ling, I had no choice. The talisman you wear on your forehead has a curse on your soul. The more you fight, the more your family will suffer. You shall accept your faith and let chi6 takes its course.”
Zi-Ling lunged at Lao inside the cage with such ferocity that the
to Cao Cao , the Chancellor of Wei. Where did you find this?”
“One of your men found this in her clothes after we captured her. This certainly doesn’t belong to the hunting party.” Lao backed away with a bow.
Yang ran his hand over the sheath several times, then pulled the blade out carefully and inspected the tip and the edge. When he tilted the sword at a certain angle, he could see a film of sticky substance running along the blade and all the way to the tip.
Yang drew a short breath and carefully sheathed the sword.
“This is tipped with poison,” Yang said. “She is a spy and an assassin? But why did she take my son?”
Lao bowed and replied, “My humble belief is that she worked for the North as an assassin. The assassination job was somehow botched, so she decided to turn it into a ransom job by capturing your son, but her tiger must have accidentally killed your son, so she and her family ran. When we caught up with her and her family, she stayed and fought to the end. We managed to kill most of her family, but she refused to go down even after we injured her. When she was the only one left, she blared an indecipherable…song. Soon after, many of your men went insane and mutilated each other. Even with my counterspell, that song still made me cut off my left ear. After that, she collapsed to the ground. I was lucky; if the song had lasted a bit longer, I might not be standing here.”
Zi-Ling was bound inside an iron cage; long arrows were still planted in her thighs. Her face was covered in dried blood, her mouth was gagged with an iron chain, and on her forehead was a piece of talisman paper.
Yang wanted to pay Lao for his service, but Lao kindly declined. “I’m but an angler on the river bank. I have what I need in life.” He turned and faced the witch. “Zi-Ling, I had no choice. The talisman you wear on your forehead has a curse on your soul. The more you fight, the more your family will suffer. You shall accept your faith and let chi takes its course.”
Zi-Ling lunged at Lao inside the cage at Lao inside the cage with such ferocity that the cage tilted forward, almost running into Lao’s knees. Through her gagged mouth, she muttered, “I had nothing to do with your son’s death, nor do I own that sword. Someone in your troop planted that in my belongings. There is a mole in your rank that works for Cao Cao. If you don’t listen to me, you will suffer, and your pig children will suffer because I will hunt them down, slaughter them one by one, and eat their souls.”
Lao stepped back from the cage several paces and stared at Zi- Ling. Something in her eyes chilled his soul. He bowed to Yang and his army and quickly left the compound.
Yang walked over to Zi-Ling and picked up one of the spears from his men. He forced the tip into Zi-Ling’s rib cage and pushed it in with all of his force.
Zi-Ling just laughed at Yang; her high-pitched voice reverberated in the air.
Yang ground his teeth. “So, you think this is funny? Let’s see how long you can keep your smile.”
They first tied her to a chained post and released their hunting dogs, but the dogs refused to get close to her. They burned a bronze post until it was red-hot so that would melt human skin in seconds. Using horses, they pulled her out of the cage and tied her to the bronze post.
After they posted her, Zi-Ling stared down into the crowd and picked out faces that she recognized. “You! Ming Na, my family and I helped yours last year when your two-year-old boy was sick with a fever. The fever didn’t come down for days until I gave him the tonic. Here you are, helping them kill my family and sending me to hell.” She craned her neck and locked her sight on an old man: “Xu Wang, I recognize you even hiding behind that facet of cowardly armors. You got bitten by a cobra three summers ago, and you begged me to help you and prevented you from losing your leg. All of you––-I know all of you. I will track down all of your families, and I will release my revenge!”
That evening, war drums in the courtyard played at full blast to counter any of Zi-Ling’s spells. The guards wore stone ear plugs to block the fatal chants from Jiang-ling. The fire blazed for two full moons, and it licked in purple as she screamed in agony. The bronze post did not harm her body as he fought with her spells. It took Yang a straight shot to her heart with an arrow to subdue her. The raging fire consumed her body as her repellent spell dissipated. The fire licked the sky as she stretched her neck out in pain like a serpent being skinned alive. Her body boiled and charred into a black figure under the intense fire. The fire raged until a red sickle moon hung high the next night.
After they put out the fire, the embers glowed green. No one wanted to get close to the ashes until Yang ordered the lowest rank officers to pick through the remains. Lao extracted Zi-Ling’s spirit from her ashes and locked it inside a metal urn. He wrapped the urn with talisman paper, and then he tied a crow’s feet smeared with his own dried blood so Zi-Ling’s spirit could not escape.
The forest wind carried off a small collection of Zi-Ling’s ashes and landed on a longhorn beetle. The beetle twitched its legs and fell to the ground. Seconds later, it tipped over and took off. It circled the village until it flew over the boy’s grave and dropped onto the dirt. It dug into the grave with its powerful jaw and burrowed into the boy’s body. Moments later, the boy’s body flinched. He broke through the wooden casket, pushed through the dirt, and crawled out of his grave.
He lurked in the shadow to avoid the guards and went straight to his father’s quarter. It was just past midnight and Yang was still up studying the latest battle plan with his generals. The leading guard outside the room was alarmed that the boy was back. But when they saw the boy’s face, they realized that the boy was not actually alive. The guards alerted Yang and he came running out to see his boy.
“Daddy—I’m here.” The boy’s voice was raspy and weak.
One look and he knew that the thing in front of him was no longer his son. “You are not my son! I buried you myself.” Yang fought back tears as he denounced the creature.
“Mommy told you to take care of me, but you didn’t—” the boy’s voice cracked with pain. Dark lines of putrid liquid oozed from the corner of his sunken eye sockets.
“Please hug me one more time.” The boy’s clawed hands angled for Yang, and then he leaped forward like a feral cat.
Yang’s principal guard stepped in and swung his halberd at the boy, but the boy deflected the blow with his left hand and reached for Yang’s throat with his right.
Yang leaned back and fell to the ground.
The boy’s hand swung back, barely missing Yang’s jugular. He landed quietly ten feet away.
Two guards with war swords came running to assist. One of them took off his head armor, knelt and cried at the boy, “Prince, you and I were close before you were taken by the tiger. I am in shame for not guarding you that night and protecting you from the tiger. But you are no longer a human, my Prince. I am afraid you will have to kill me first! Please let your dad go!”
“Stop!” Yang yelled. “I will take care of this.”
He slowly unsheathed his sword. “Son, I’m right here. You have suffered long enough.”
“Sir, please don’t!” The guards tried to dissuade Yang.
Yang waved them off. “He was my boy, so no one but me shall set him free!”
The boy unhinged his jaws, shrieking and leaping as a ghoul with his forked tongue trailing along the ground.
Yang waited until the last second to draw an arch with his sword. The boy fell to the ground and struggled to get up. Yang was already on top with his boot over the boy’s back.
“My son, I have always loved you, and I always will. Forgive me, but it’s time for you to be in God’s care.” He swung his sword, and the boy’s body twitched to a stop. Yang picked up his boy and walked into the courtyard. His men followed him from a distance behind. He then picked up an axe and began to dig, but the field was full of rocks. Several men came to help, and soon a dozen were digging the grave. They spent the whole night making a deep grave about five feet deep and five feet in length. They rested the boy’s body inside and covered it with three layers of heavy rocks.
To thank Lao, Yang offered him gifts and the opportunity to serve him, but Lao graciously turned it down. Instead, he wanted to restore balance around the province and only sought permission to secure the witch’s ashes and lock them up back at the temple. Yang was relieved to get rid of the ashes, so he ordered his men to collect up the ashes from the fire and allow Lao to take them away.
Lao brought with him six boxes: one of the boxes was crafted in gold and with intricate designs. There was an iron cast mold of Bagua on the outside and the exterior was covered with scriptures of inscrutable patterns. He carefully collected ashes from different parts of the witch's remains into each box. He sealed each box with a talisman and sermonized a spell. The ashes from the head went into a golden box, and the other torso's ashes went into separate wooden boxes. The monk gave each one a name with a separate spell, ensnaring the witch’s ability to escape.
The golden box was named the Gu, while the other five wooden boxes were named after five ancestral monks’ noble names: the Elder, the Weep, the Weave, the Sonnet, and the Angel.
The villagers were forbidden to refer to her story or mention her real name; those that did were cursed to die.
ALMOST A MONTH PASSED and the people’s lives around town were healing, but Yang still grieved over his son’s death. Frequent night- mares consumed him and he was losing touch with reality. He dele- gated key decisions to his advisers and ignored his generals. At the battlefront, his men were losing to the northern armies.
Things changed when one day a group of Miao women fighters joined Yang’s army. Their leader was a young, beautiful woman. She had a slim but physical build, and her skin was almost perfect and showed no signs of wear. Underneath an intricately woven hair bun, the contour of her face appeared to have been traced out with a perfectly shaped melon seed. But the most striking feature was her eyes—light hazel with hints of blue. Her small army group infiltrated the enemy’s camp during the night and took the lives of two hundred men. Yang heard about the courageous girl and summoned her to meet him.
As the girl entered the tent, Yang saw an exquisitely shaped young woman being led in by two armed guards. In contrast to the guards next to her, she looked pale and innocent, hardly matching the image of a notably ferocious warrior. Yang was not sure if there had been a mistake, but he kept his patience and waited for the girl to speak.
“My Lord, if I may speak freely. My name is Maylan. I lead the small Miao army squad behind enemy lines to fight for your cause.”
Mesmerized by her striking beauty, Yang almost forgot to reply. He coughed nervously after realizing everyone was waiting for him. “Why did you fight for my army? We did not have a Miao group in our ranks.”
The Miao girl looked up for the first time, her eyes steely. “The northern enemy killed countless of Miaos, many of whom were my relatives. I have dedicated myself since the death of my parents to study the dark power of witchcraft. It was the same power that gave Gu the ability to defeat your fifty solders. I can help capture her essence and use her dark power to you defeat your enemy. But we need her ashes to complete my study.”
Yang shook his head. “I don’t want any of her ashes near us. Besides, Lao has taken her ashes back to his temple. That’s where her spirit resides, so no dark spells shall descend upon my innocent people again.”
“Words lie, but the heart and actions don’t, my Lord,” Maylan replied. “Lao took the ashes so he could benefit as well.”
Yang raised his brows. “Oh? How could Lao benefit from Gu’s ashes?”
“I know, in fact, that the head monk is gravely ill. The head monk is Lao’s relative and he has terminal skin disease. He has tried every available medicine around the area—acupuncture, herbs, Tui Na; he even sent his pupils to my family looking for remedies, but so far, nothing has worked. That was how I knew Lao. Then they learned about Gu and her spell abilities. Someone inside my clan told Lao about Gu’s secrets and they wanted to use her power to cure the head monk. My aunt went to see the head monk and told him that unfortunately his disease was too advanced. But Lao and his pupils refused to believe the inevitable fate, and they still wanted to use Zi-Ling’s spirit to fight the disease.”
“Why didn’t the head monk try to capture Gu himself and waited until we asked for help?” Lord raised his eyebrows.
“It’s against their training to mingle with outside affairs, but I believe he had his own agenda,” Maylan cautiously replied.
“Nonsense! I have known him for three years. He has always been loyal to me.” Yang looked deeply into the girl’s eyes. “If you were not a woman, I would order my guard to execute you on the spot!”
“Lord, my only intent is to help you eradicate your enemies and to bring my family home. My grandmother’s last wish was to return to her birthplace one day.”
“How do I know you are not a spy?” Yang still cast a cautious eye on this beautiful, but mysterious, young girl.
“Lord, I belong to the Miao rebellion army that is fighting for you.”
“You don’t strike me as someone that can lift a sword, let alone be of use in battles.”
“Strength is not always the key to killing. Allow me to demon- strate—” Maylan moved swiftly behind a soldier and took out a sword before he could even lift his hand. She pointed the sword at the guard’s jaguar but didn’t break his skin.
Yang's main guard stepped out and knelt in front of him. “Lord, forgive me for interrupting, but I heard about this girl—she is a hired assassin. I ask for your permission to sever her head before you.”
Yang held his hand up and read her face carefully. “If she wanted me killed, she could have tried already.”
Maylan explained, “If it pleases the Lord, our family’s fate lies with your enemies—our enemies. Please grant my wish to honor you with my blood and soul by fighting alongside you.”
Even though her striking beauty was alluring, Yang was wary. He waved his hands dismissively at his guards. “I have heard enough. We’ll do a proper vetting.”
The Antique 19
Yang put her in a private jail and treated her with guarded respect. She was never touched or tortured, and she had all the privacy and amenities. Yang came to visit her once in a while but never stayed long. But as time went on, he was enchanted by her beauty and spell. And one night after his visit, he stayed.
THE WAR between Yang and his enemies flared in the ensuing months, and Yang received a tip from a reliable informant that the enemy’s oldest son was leading a secret scouting mission near the eastern border. Yang decided to mount a surprise attack to capture the enemy’s son, but it turned out to be a trap and half of his army perished; Yang was injured in the fight and was shot by an arrow in his right arm. The arrow was tipped with an unknown poison, and Yang’s arm suffered necrosis from the wound; much of the skin and muscle rotted away. He then experienced gangrene and fell gravely ill. The army doctor said he could only slow down the infection, but Yang could die in as little as a week.
The Lord’s soldiers went to Lao for help, but Lao said that the poison had already taken root inside his heart. There was nothing they could do to reverse the course of events.
Out of desperation, the men turned to local Miao people. One Miao member they met was Maylan’s aunt. She examined Yang’s wound and said that the poison had already reached Yang’s heart. But she said if they allowed Maylan to help, she could use spells to neutralize the poison. The soldiers relayed the suggestion to Yang’s advisers. After extended deliberation, the council decided to have Maylan try to save Yang.
Heavy guards brought Maylan to Yang’s bed. She closely evalu- ated Yang’s wounds and said the wound’s poison was from a special fungus that had no known cure, but that she knew of a way to call upon the dead to neutralize the poison, but she would need the witch’s ash boxes.
The advisers sent Maylan and his men to the temple for the ash boxes, but Lao refused to hand them over, stating that it would only breed more death and sufferings. They forced their way into the temple, ransacked the place, but did not find anything.
That night, Maylan returned alone. While surveying around the land outside, she uncovered an old sewage tunnel that led to inside the temple. She made it inside the temple and located the Dao monk’s study. She watched as the monk cleaned up his room and opened a hidden drawer behind a Buddha statue. Inside that drawer was the golden box. She stayed until the monk went to sleep and released a worm jing into the room. The worm burrowed into the monk’s mouth and paralyzed him. Maylan searched the room but could not find the other boxes. She went inside the monk’s mind to search for clues, but the monk refused to give up where he hid the other boxes. Out of frustration, Maylan had the jing take over the monk’s body and took him along with her. On her way back, she cast a spell and changed the monk’s body into a six-foot-long giant worm. It dug underground and followed Maylan’s orders. Maylan called it the Lão Chóng (old worm).
When Maylan returned with Gu, they secluded her in a secret room where she could communicate with the queen’s spirit. She first asked for a slave child, then she brought the child close to her lap and inserted an inch-long white centipede into the child’s ear. The child thrashed and struggled in her hand. She released the child and the child whipped around in circles as if possessed by a demonic spirit. The child flapped its arms furiously until the life drained from its body. Maylan approached the dead child gently; she took out a stone knife and cut into the neck to let the blood flow into a bowl. She then sliced her palm to make her blood flow into the same container. She mixed the two bloods with a dark crystal, and the blood congealed into a thick ball. Maylan then began to chant; she repeated the chanting until she was induced into a trance.
Her trance called upon the demons from the underworld; their voices started as a whisper, but slowly, they grew to a high-pitched fervor; loud chatters filled the room by thousands of souls seeking to possess the weak.
Maylan clapped her hands three times, and the chatters suddenly stopped. All of the lurking souls ebbed, except for one. Maylan opened her eyes, her vision blurry, but she could almost make out the Zi-Ling’s shape before her. Her form was half-human and half-insect, like that of a spider.
The spirit cried out to Maylan and told her that the monk had separated her ashes into six different boxes, each trapping a part of the witch’s body: the four different limbs, the head, and the body. The spirit explained that she needed all of the ashes in order to reincar- nate herself.
Under a silvery autumn moonlight, Maylan went back to the temple but found the temple deserted. The entire monastery had left, but someone left a note:
In this temple you shall only find emptiness; it is a new start for us all. How you fill it requires wisdom deep within your own heart.
Maylan wanted to exact revenge by setting the temple ablaze, but the guards stopped her. They told her that doing so would certainly bring bad luck to the village.
Milan used Gu’s dark power to heal Yang’s poison; the story spread and Yang’s informant learned that Maylan was Zi-Ling’s sister. But instead of executing Maylan, Yang became even more enchanted by the girl. Against his closest advisers’ protests, he made a promise to Maylan that he would help her recover the lost boxes if she helped him defeat his enemies and restore his health. But after Yang was killed in an enemy ambush, Maylan and the golden box disappeared. Without a leader, Yang’s army collapsed under infighting and was ultimately defeated by the northern Wei’s troops.
Away in a remote spot, Maylan developed her own spell-casting powers under the tutelage of Gu’s spirit; Maylan developed a way to keep Gu alive by infecting humans with spells they grew from Lão Chóng; they used some of the infected as helpers, others as morsels. Lão Chõng followed them as a defender, a scout, and a soul catcher as they made their way across the vast continent, looking for her remaining ashes. Eventually, Maylan could not escape her mortal fate. Gu’s helpers buried Maylan’s body under a willow tree next to the Yangtze River and set her soul free. Not wanting to leave, her spirit lingered. The water around Maylan’s grave turned blood red the next day, and the stain lasted an entire month. It was said that Maylan’s spirit would wake every year on the same day and turn the river water red.
After Maylan’s death, Gu abandoned her enslaved name and renamed herself as Queen. She continued the search for the remaining boxes throughout Asia. The search, over hundreds of years, drove her insane. She started to enslave humans, including her own family’s descendants, to locate her ashes. As she recovered the boxes, her power grew. She cultivated new abilities to create Ripples
Echoes in the chi. She used it to search for the remaining boxes as well as to track down the descendants. Finally, she arrived in the United States in 1868 for the two remaining boxes: the Weep and the Angel.
The search continued to this day...