PodCastle 453: A Spirited Education

A Spirited Education

by Toni Pi

Incense smoke drifted through the air in the apothecary like ribbons of kelp. The good doctor was brooding over an anatomy manual at his desk, reading by the light of his oil lamp. I summoned my courage, entered uninvited, and bowed deep.

“Teacher, I’ve come to resume my lessons.”

Doctor Zhao closed his book with a sigh. “Against your father’s wishes, Liren?”

“He didn’t forbid me from learning healing lore,” I corrected. As county magistrate, Father lauded the scholarly study of acupuncture and moxibustion. “He only disapproves of me practicing medicine.”

“To say nothing of quelling illnesses with sorcery, I suppose?” Zhao stroked his thin beard. “Where’s your father?”

“He went out with his honour guard an hour ago.” My cheeks burned with guilt. I had lied to Father to create this opportunity to plead with Zhao alone. Before he left the yamen to examine a body, Father had asked me to fetch the doctor, but I told him Zhao was away seeing to a patient.

Zhao flicked a bead on his abacus back and forth, sounding a torturous rhythm of wood on wood. “Your father wants you to be a judge like him.”

“That’s his ambition, not mine.” For Father, there was no greater honour. According to Confucian teachings, the father guided the son, and I ought to obey his wishes. Before Father took this post in Lai’an County and brought us north, I had no other thoughts than to excel at the imperial examinations. But two years ago, when Grandfather had fallen into a deathlike coma, no healers we found could wake him…except Zhao, with his magic. Ever since, I had yearned to become a healer like him.

“I cannot teach you more.”

“But you must, Teacher.” I stepped closer. “I lie awake at night pairing herbs to cures. My dreams are full of ginseng, needles, and peony-bitter brews. When I ought to be reading the Five Classics, I steal time to meditate on the Five Elements instead.”

“Liren, only those who fail the imperial exam resort to the medical profession.”

“Then let me fail. Medicine’s my true calling.”

He considered my words as he fidgeted with the abacus bead.

At last, he stopped. “I hear your passion, Liren, but have you the talent? Complete three tests to my satisfaction and I will intercede with your father to train you. Fail and you will pursue this path no further. Agreed?”

My heart leapt. “A thousand thanks, Teacher.”

He unrolled a handscroll in front of him. “Take a pinch of moxa from the cabinet, and light it against your skin on the yang ravine point. Then sit with your back to me.”

The hundred-eye cabinet stood to my right, four of its compartments open: golden lily buds, snowy-white pith, blood-red dates, and dried tangles of something I couldn’t name. I pushed them shut before tugging the ring-pull of the mugwort drawer.

We had practiced this technique before. Last time it had left a scar on my left wrist, near the base of the thumb. I placed a bead of ground mugwort there, lit a straw with the oil lamp and touched its flame to the moxa. The herb smoldered strong, its heat blistering my skin at the moxibustion point. I bore the pain in silence and sat on the floor cross-legged, facing away from Zhao.

“Test number one: make a seeing eye with the smoke and tell me what I’ve written.”

To bend the smoke to my will, I had to conjure forth a pearl of my soul, as Zhao called it. You made a soul-pearl through meditation on one of the Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. However long you could contemplate the nature of an element to the exclusion of all else, was how long that pearl would last.

I realized what Zhao was truly testing was whether I had continued my regime of meditation after our lessons stopped. I had.

The Wood Element corresponded to the eyes, so I imagined a wood-grain pearl beneath my blistering skin and spun it free through the gateway of the burn. My second consciousness rode the rising smoke, bonding my will to those pale, musky tendrils.

The eye took a simple swirl to make. My vision twinned, with everything I saw through the supernatural sight veiled in mist. I floated the eye over my shoulder. Zhao sat poised behind his desk, rinsing his writing brush gently in a water dish. I studied the grass script characters in black ink on his scroll.

Gourd, sword, ladle, hammer, fan,” I said. “The five divine weapons against plague.”

“Correct.” Zhao’s lips bent into a smile. “Test number two: make an animal from the moxa smoke, one fit to fight a fever demon.”

Grandfather had told me that when he awakened from his coma, he thought he saw a tiger made of smoke grin and fade into nothingness. Zhao had crafted that to save him. I decided on the same beast: the fierce, glorious tiger that I knew from silver-word tales and round-album paintings.

The Metal Element signified the White Tiger of the West and would make a better heart than Wood for the conjuration. I ended the first summoning and sent forth a dream of a golden pearl into the smoke. I tried to curl the vapors around it into the ideal of a tiger: white fanged, shadow-striped, and lithe. But the shape refused to hold.

Frustrated, I turned to Zhao. “Teacher, why isn’t it working?”

“Have you ever seen a true tiger?”

I shook my head.

“Didn’t think so. Your experiences are the wellspring of your power. Draw from them for the soundest shapes and the strength to quell demons. Try again.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much experience with animals. Father had forbidden me to leave the offices and residence of the yamen, lest his enemies sought to harm me. Therefore my clearest memories were of Grandfather’s caged oriole, the sparrows and crows in the courtyard, and the cook’s dog. The mangy mutt must serve as my inspiration.

I had barely given the smoke a canine cast when we heard a commotion outside the studio. Reading-Master Kan, in all his girth, stumbled in huffing and puffing. “Doctor! Hurry!” Then he startled when he saw me. “Young Sir! What are you—”

Swift as a mantis, Zhao dabbed out the burning moxa on my skin with a wet brush-tip, forcing my second consciousness to snake back inside me. He stood and calmed the Reading-Master. “Slowly, friend.”

I reddened and covered the blister with my right hand. I was supposed to be in my room, studying arithmetic in preparation for the imperial examination.

“You must come at once.” Kan’s cheeks puffed as he spoke. “It’s Magistrate Xiong.”

“What’s happened to my father?” I demanded.

“The Respectful Lord had gone out earlier this evening to investigate a suspicious death on the road into town.”

Zhao frowned. “Why wasn’t I told?”

I bit my tongue, not ready yet to confess that his absence was my doing.

“I don’t know,” Kan said. “On their way back, His Lordship became feverish. We’re summoning the staff to the great hall for the warding ceremony.”

“What do you know of the dead body?” Zhao asked Kan.

“Only what I overheard, that it was a one-eared stranger. That when the Respectful Lord turned the man over, centipedes poured from the corpse’s mouth.”

“One-eared?” I heard worry in Zhao’s voice. “Some fever demons force their hosts to mutilate themselves, simply because they can. If the magistrate’s demon-stricken, we may need a greater magic than the warding ritual. Liren, please return to—”

“Allow me to come with you, Teacher.” I clenched my fists. “If my father’s ill, it’s my duty to do what I can to help.”

“You mustn’t, Young Sir!” Kan cried. “What if you take sick as well?”

“Agreed,” Zhao said. “You’re far from ready.”

“I know the twelve meridians and where every acupuncture point lies. I know which incantations and saints to invoke against demons of disease. He’s my father. Even hearing my voice will lend him strength!”

Zhao sighed. “Bring those scissors, Liren, and the finest grade of moxa. A fever demon grows stronger with every breath. We must force it from your father’s flesh and trap its essence in smoke, and soon. If we don’t, it’ll devour him from within and seek a new host.”

I hurried to the hundred-eye cabinet. His instruction to take the most potent kind of mugwort leaves worried me. “Will my father be all right?”

“I will do everything in my power to save him.”

I turned and saw Zhao balancing a strange, lustrous gourd in his right palm. Where did it come from? I’d seen a relic like it before, in a painting depicting the Five Divine Emissaries Against Plague. Could this truly be the Gourd of Fire?

As we cut across the dark courtyard, Kan pulled me back. “Young Sir, the imperial examination does not test the healing arts. Forget these distractions.”

“What if I don’t care?” I said under my breath, softer than the whistling wind.

Ahead of us, yamen runners dashed into the great hall, nearly trampling a poor clerk hanging firecrackers for the warding ritual. By the light of the oil lamps I could see the staff in chaos, not knowing whether to line up on either side of the courtroom as they should or crowd the magistrate’s desk. Zhao shouted for them to back away. They did, trampling Father’s black hat, which had fallen on the floor.

Behind the desk, the Chen twins, who served in the honour guard, had pinned down a bellowing man upon Father’s chair. “He’s getting worse,” Loudmouth Chen said. “Hurry, we can’t hold him much longer!”

The wildman’s eyes wept pus, and his skin shed sweat. The people of the county called my father Magistrate Xiong, the Evenhanded Bear, a homage to his integrity and wisdom. Only a month ago in this very hall, a folk troupe performed the lion dance in celebration of the New Year. Father rewarded them with a clever, extemporaneous poem that the townsfolk still talked about; such was his measure. This rabid beast couldn’t possibly be he.

“Father, it’s Liren. Do you know me?”

The madman sprayed the air with his blood-laced spittle. “A plague-devil comes to dine, but the demon-queller comes to die,” he said, twisting my father’s voice.

Zhao held forth the gourd. “You misstepped when you chose Magistrate Xiong. He’ll fight you from within even as I draw you out. No man’s will is stronger, no body more hale.”

The demon laughed. “And yet I own his flesh. So this is where you’ve been hiding, Gourd-Keeper? The Wild Youths have offered a bounty for your head.”

Wild Youths! They were a gang of demon brothers named in The Album of White Marsh, bringers of the deadliest plagues.

Father’s men did not take lightly the threat of plague in the demon’s words. The cowards among them decided on discretion, stealing towards the main entrance. Others stood uneasily in their places for the warding ritual, looking to Zhao for guidance.

Though I had much respect for Zhao, he erred by paying no heed to the men around us. That was his way: whenever Zhao was treating someone’s illness, that patient and his disease became the doctor’s only world. Though that was a sign of his compassion, it didn’t serve him here. The staff looked up to my father; seeing him possessed shook their faith. If one bolted, the others would follow, even the twins straining to hold Father still.

“Stand your ground!” I cried. “Your magistrate fights for his life. My father poured his heart and soul into this county, upholding the law and bettering the lives of every citizen. Ask yourselves if he’s earned your respect. Your loyalty. Your aid in his darkest hour.”

Not one man among them dared to take another step.

“We must burn this demon out from his chest,” Zhao said. “Use the scissors, Liren.”

The wildman tried to bite me even as the twins held him firm. I flinched only the first time he gnashed his teeth. The men must not see my fear. With four quick snips I parted the red silk and bared the moxibustion points that Zhao required.

“Good. Now the moxa.” Zhao spat on the fingertips of his left hand and dipped them into the bag of powder I held open for him. He began intoning a Daoist incantation, and the gourd in his right hand flared with a halo of blue fire.

Again the staff grew uneasy.

“Stay calm and pray for my father. The doctor must quell the demon his way.”

Still chanting, Zhao lit the moxa on his fingers with the gourd’s ghostly flame. With a precise, five-fingered strike he scorched the herb onto vital points on my father’s chest.

Father screamed.

When the doctor drew his hand away, black wisps spewed from the burn marks. I’d never seen mugwort burn so dark. The foul smoke braided at the surface of the skin, shaping the face of a maddened, long-tongued demon. The moxa fumes, like chains from heaven, were pulling the vengeful spirit out of Father’s flesh.

Zhao spun the smoke rising from his burnt fingertips into five ghostly horses with trailing tails of whiteness. Each had the glimmer of one of the Five Elements: Fire-mane; Iron-coat; Root-hoofed; Stone-throat; Mist-sheen. They charged across the air and through the sooty apparition, hooves trampling. Father howled.

As Zhao’s misty horses circled for a second assault, the plague-devil whipped its tongue of smoke across the faces of the Chen twins. Loudmouth Chen recoiled in surprise, while out of instinct Clamjaw Chen raised a hand to rub his eyes. Father took that opportunity to break free, springing from his seat and barreling into Zhao and me, sending the Gourd of Fire flying as we fell to the ground.

Father wrested the scissors from me. I grabbed his arm but he was demon-strong, and my meager efforts could only force the iron blades away from Zhao’s heart. Nonetheless, I couldn’t stop Father from stabbing those scissors between the doctor’s ribs.

Swift came the blood. Zhao shuddered. His breath failed.

Aghast, I froze.

A look of horror briefly flashed across Father’s face. The demon hadn’t consumed him yet.

The twins rushed forward, but too late. Father had already released the scissors and sprang to the fire gourd, which was no longer alight. He scooped it into his hand. The fumes from his chest changed into a full demon’s head: bald, gaunt and grinning. “By iron or by fever, I care not how you die—only that you all do.”

Father’s men threw open the great door and escaped outside. Even Kan fled deeper into the yamen. Only the stalwart twins remained, now circling Father in the heart of the hall.

“Forgive us, Young Sir!” whispered Clamjaw Chen, his voice trembling. “We should have—”

“Don’t drown in regrets, good brothers. Do all you can to recapture him!” I squeezed Zhao’s hand. The white wisps still curling from his fingertips had lost the shape of horses. My eyes brimmed with tears. “Teacher, stay with me, please. What must I do?”

Zhao choked on his own blood, his wound beyond my skills to staunch. And yet he strove to answer me, not by voice but with smoke. The rising tendrils spiraled into a new shape: a gourd with a nimbus of gossamer flames. It held for the span of a breath, no more.

Did Teacher mean the Gourd of Fire was the key to saving Father?

More of the plague demon’s shape issued from Father’s burns, its grimy right arm now freed. It licked the gourd with its tongue of smoke. “Sweet, divine power. What new plagues shall I concoct with it?”

The twins spiraled in on Father, but he saw an opening and bolted for the door. As he neared the exit, the gusts of wind from outside churned the demon-smoke and made Father howl in pain. He turned aside and sought a different escape, allowing Clamjaw Chen to shoulder the heavy door shut. Loudmouth Chen dogged Father’s heels.

The demon was the smoke, I realized, bound to the fumes by moxa and sacred flame. I had discovered its weakness! Would Father be freed once the entire spirit was forced out? Zhao had ensouled his cloud-horses to do battle with the demon-smoke, to rip it quicker from Father’s flesh. Perhaps Zhao showed me the Gourd of Fire to urge me to finish what he started.

As the demon made for the residence door, he spat into his free hand and rubbed the spittle on two moxibustion burns, stifling some of the plumes drawing it out. Quenching them all would undo the exorcism.

I grabbed a fistful of mugwort with a blood-soaked hand and began reciting the same incantation that Zhao had intoned. The Gourd of Fire, still in Father’s clutch, burst into azure flame. With a yelp of pain and surprise, Father flung the gourd away. The flaming relic landed near the residence door and rolled.

Seizing the distraction, the twins tackled my father as a team. Loudmouth Chen aimed at his torso, while Clamjaw Chen went for his legs. Father fell.

I kept chanting as I raced to grab the gourd. As I hoped, its magic flames didn’t burn me so long as I maintained the mantra. I lit the handful of herb with the fire as Zhao had done and felt my whole hand tingle as the moxibustion points on my palm opened. The immaculate smoke awaited pearls of my soul to possess the rising strands. I searched my memory for a shape the fumes could take.

My experiences would give me the strength to quell demons, Zhao had said. Now, seeing Father in the demon’s clutches and fearing that I might lose him, my mind swarmed with those moments that made me proud to be his son, those days when we were thankful to be a family.

Like watching the lion dance with Father.

I called to mind the pair of lions brought to life by the troupe of acrobats. Those strange beasts with orb-like eyes, gaping mouths, and shaggy coats couldn’t be mistaken for true animals, but that didn’t matter. They were more than costumes for entertaining the masses; the lion dances were meant to scare away evil spirits. It was to that purpose that I ensouled the smoke.

I chose pearls of the Fire and Earth Elements: phantom flame and ghostly jade. I sculpted a lioness with the first, and a lion with the latter.

However, I found I couldn’t chant the spell and concentrate on crafting more than one smoke creature. I had to drop the incantation keeping the gourd ablaze and focus on the shaping. I cried out the first verse of Father’s poem to help me remember the performance:

“Skilful are the lion dancers who grace this hall

To oust the ills for the coming of spring.

Noble troupe, astonish us

With strength and heart this New Year’s Day.

Drum valor, roar mirth;

Let fly the lions!”

The two smoky lions became puppets under my sway, both a-quiver with vigor. I sent them somersaulting through the air towards the spirit in the black fumes. Half the demon’s essence had been pulled from Father already. My lions charged past the twins to chomp on the demon-smoke, but the plague devil cursed and clawed at the creatures. My lioness dodged under its strike, but her mate wasn’t so fortunate. The dark vapors ripped through his shape, and I felt the pain as though real talons scored my true flesh. I cried out.

“Hold strong, Liren!” Father said through gritted teeth.

Hearing my father’s true voice, knowing he saw all I did to save him, fueled my resolve. I commanded the lioness to pounce on the demon’s throat while my other beast tried to gnaw off its left hand.

But the plague spirit was a better fighter. It seized my lioness by the neck and choked her, while it funneled its long tongue into one of the wounds it had dealt to my lion-spirit. I doubled over in agony, unable to draw breath.

The twins called out to me, asking if I was all right, but neither could risk movement that would allow Father an escape.

Then the demon seared a nightmare into my mind.

A one-eared man lay face-down in the mud on the side of the road. Despite protests from the honour guard, I crouched and turned the body.

The dead man bore my face.

I startled and stepped back. Countless black centipedes crawled out of the corpse’s gaping mouth. It couldn’t be me. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t: thousands of tiny legs crowded my throat, my mouth. They were the taste of ash.

The corpse’s lips cleared of centipedes and spoke in a mockery of my voice. “Pitiful. Would you rather die quickly at your father’s hands or slowly with bloat and fever?”

Neither, I thought.

This was my father’s memory, twisted false by the demon. It wasn’t real. The spirit had invaded my mind, but how?

Then I remembered I had made the lions from my memories, and the demon-tongue might be poisoning my mind through its assault on my lion. In desperation I dismissed the Earth Element pearl, and it worked: with the lion dissipated, I wheeled free of the false memory.

But my gambit left me only the lioness, and I was still choking. I thought back to Father’s poem, hoping the words from the next verse would strengthen me.

The masterly duo vanishes under the lion-cloak

When firecrackers thunder, flash, and smoke—

I remembered the string of firecrackers hanging in the nearby doorway and their purpose: lit for the warding ritual to frighten spirits with their flash and noise. The acrobats used them too, on the New Year. There was power in that.

I fought the choking sensation and forced out the words of the incantation, lit the Gourd of Fire, and threw it at the firecrackers.

Blue fire grazed the squibs, exploding them in a spectacle of unearthly light and thunderous cacophony. Startled, the spirit lost its stranglehold on my lioness. At last, I could breathe. Or rather, choke on the firecracker smoke now filling the hall.

Without hesitation, I raced my lioness through the gray fumes and shouted the next lines. To my surprise, the twins added their voices to mine this time, reciting the rest of Father’s poem in solidarity.

“Out of dreams you hoof, clouds underfoot,

Whirlwind of red tassels, blink of golden eyes.

With you, we tumble

Trading earth for sky.

Bring us fortune, bring us peace!”

Even Father’s lips mouthed the words, which gave me hope. Gorging on the smoke from the firecrackers, my conjured creature grew to the size of a true lion. With a voiceless roar, she leapt on Father and tore the demon from his flesh with a single bite. Father shuddered and fell limp.

The plague devil raged and clawed at my lion-shape, but trapped in the smoke, without Father’s lifeblood to sustain it, its power waned. Soon, my lioness had torn it into nothing but a fading haze.

I let the lioness dissipate. “It’s gone,” I told the brothers and ordered the twins to lay my father down, gently. He must rest, but he would live.

I couldn’t say the same for Teacher.

Zhao lay still in a pool of blood. I rushed to his side and collapsed to my knees. His breathing was too shallow, too weak. For a moment, I thought I saw Teacher’s face in the thinning smoke. A wan smile, a hint of a bow.

I cast forth my last soul-pearl: the Element Water in the shape of a tear. I floated it into the haze and thought of Zhao, offering my strength to him.

He shared a memory in answer. The day we first arrived in the county, he and I had paused on a bridge to admire the river. It was there I finally had the courage to ask him to teach me magic. I stood again in that moment with Zhao by my side, watching the swans linger on the water.

“It’s all my fault. I should have fetched you to go with Father,” I confessed. “Please, Teacher, tell me how to make things right.”

Zhao sighed. “Some wounds are too grave to heal. No, do not weep, Liren. You did well today, better than any test I could have given you.”

I wiped away my tears. “You can’t die.”

“Save those who must live.” His voice grew hollow. “I leave the Gourd of Fire in your charge. Keep it safe, and stay strong. Someday you’ll find another teacher who will give you the spirited education I cannot.”

Then, he was gone.

I let the soul-pearl fade and wiped away the sweat on my forehead, quenching the smoke from my burned hand.

What would become of my father? Everyone had seen him stab Zhao. When they discovered Zhao dead, Father would be branded a murderer, though the demon guided his hand. All the good he had done for the county would mean nothing.

Unless I took the blame.

I stood. “Good brothers, it was I who killed Doctor Zhao.”

Loudmouth Chen’s eyes widened. “Young Sir, they all saw—”

“They stood too far to see what really happened in the struggle. But I had the scissors, and you’ll both swear that it was me who dealt the fatal blow. This is the only way to save my father’s honour.” I walked to the gourd and picked it up.

“No one will believe it,” he insisted.

“They will. Why else would I have fled the county?”

For once, Loudmouth Chen was struck dumb.

I knelt beside Father. “I don’t know if you can hear me, Sir. The people need your guidance, so let this disgrace be mine. They’ll sooner forget the tarnish of a prodigal son than forgive a magistrate his crime.”

The Chen brothers argued in whispers with one another. I stood, wrapped fist-in-hand and bowed to the twins and then to Father. “I leave him in your care.”

Clamjaw Chen stepped forward. “I’m coming with you.”

“No, Chen.”

“He’ll follow you regardless, Young Sir,” Loudmouth Chen said. He exchanged a knowing glance with his brother. “They’ll believe the lie better if one of us is chasing you down. Go.”

Clamjaw Chen agreed. “The Evenhanded Bear will demand that I keep you safe.”

I took a long, last look at Father and burned his strength and wisdom into my memory.

So be it.

About the Author

Tony Pi

Picture of Author Tony Pi

Tony Pi is a Toronto-based science fiction and fantasy writer and poet. Originally from Taiwan, he also holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from McGill University. His short stories have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, both in print or online, such as On Spec, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and elsewhere. His stories often feature sly shapeshifters, wuxia heroes and sorcerers, and unlikely detectives. He was a finalist for the Astounding Award For Best New Writer, and he has an Aurora Award for the Best English Poem/Song. His website is at tonypi.com.

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About the Narrator

Curtis C. Chen

Picture of Narrator Curtis C. Chen

Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen (陳致宇) now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo (a 2017 Locus Awards Finalist) is a science fiction spy thriller about a superpowered secret agent facing his toughest mission yet: vacation. Curtis’ short stories have appeared in Playboy Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Oregon Reads Aloud. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers’ workshops. You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint on the second Tuesday of most every month. Visit him online www.curtiscchen.com.

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