Central China, 1635
The Governor’s palace echoed with screams. The servants who worked during the day tried to sleep, but the sound of the Governor’s daughter carried across the court yard. The governor Sung sat outside his daughter's bedroom, rubbing his prayer beads. He looked up at the full moon. The courtyard barely needed torches.
“Where is he?” His wife Wei screamed at him between sobs. Sung had no answer for her. The temple had promised that the monk would arrive before sunset. Behind them they could hear the kang their sweet Jiang slept on banging against the wood floor. Jiang fought the ropes that bound her to the bed.
“Yes, tell us father,” a voice called from inside the room. It wasn’t that of an eleven year old girl. It boomed, drawing its breath from the burning core of the earth, deep and twisted, like it was chewing on gravel. “Where father? Where is this savior?” the unnatural voice called out from the young girl’s body.
Wei sobbed a fresh wave of tears, Governor Sung wiped tears from his eyes, and that is when he saw the monk.
He walked slowly into the courtyard. His yellow and orange robes stood out against the black forest behind him. Wei ran towards him, but the monk's pace never quickened. The governor and his servants stood and saluted the monk. Behind them, the floor shook as the demon laughed inside Jiang’s body.
The monk walked carefully to the Governor’s side using a seven foot spear like a walking stick. He returned the salute. The governor was a man of honor. After last year’s flood, he had given tribute to the temple and helped feed the sick and dying. It was unheard of, but here, up 1,000 steps from the river, he devoted the space of the court yard for relief. Helping this man was the least the monk could do.
“Thank you for coming, abbot.”
“I am Xu; I am but a humble monk.” He lowered his head in respect. Wei tried to grab the monk’s robes but he moved quickly out of the way. She fell toward the ground, the monk held out the spear, catching and keeping her from falling. The Governor pulled his wife up straight and looked at the monk.
“Please, you must save our daughter.”
Laughter boomed from behind the bedroom door. It shook the earth. Xu ground the end of his spear into the dirt to stabilize himself.
“We were told you are known for solving such problems.”
Xu raised an eyebrow at this but ignored the governor. He leaned down and ran his fingers along the ground towards the base of a large tree just outside the window to Jiang’s bedroom.
“They’ll die tonight, monk!” The demon behind the walls screamed. When it did, Xu felt the roots to the tree tighten under him. The tree creaked as if moving under a strong wind. The night air was still. Xu stood and looked at the governor.
“The tree demon controls your daughter like a puppet.”
The assembled crowd of servants and family members gasped.
“Destroy the tree, you’ll cut the strings.”
Wei looked desperately at her husband. "It will tear her apart.”
Xu jumped up on to the deck of the house and stabbed his spear into the door. “I won’t let it happen.”
Something tried to hold the door shut from the inside. Xu pushed the spear hard into the door, and thick tree sap bled from it. The monk struggled to pull the spear back but the door only allowed it to withdraw by three small inches. Behind him two servants ran away. Wei recited Taoist chants in an unsteady voice, and the Governor begged Xu to save them.
A burning red light spilled out of the crack as Xu struggled with the door.
“You want in so bad?” The tree demon growled.
Xu looked behind him as the tree twisted in the ground, churned mud, and spit earth along a path under the house. Two roots grabbed the edge of the door like a large hand. Before Xu could react, the door slammed open and shattered into a thousand pieces. The spear fell out of the Monk’s hand, but he knew it would do him no good.
Light poured into the room from under the bed the young girl laid upon. Tree roots spread out from underneath the kang's framework. As Xu stepped into the room, the roots moved out of his way and cleared a path. Young Jiang’s face was puffy and red from days of tears and suffering. She turned and looked at the monk.
Xu’s heart instantly broke seeing the young girl’s terror and fear. “Let her go.”
Her mouth opened and formed a smile while her eyes expressed nothing but renewed terror.
Xu didn’t move. Jiang convulsed. Her body shuddered under waves of pain. Xu stepped closer. Her pain eased with each step he took.
“That’s right, you learn quick.”
Xu could feel heat like a fire coming from under her bed as he stood over the young girl.
“Closer, I have a secret to discuss.”
Xu looked under the bed as he kneeled down. The demon’s tongue, almost a foot wide and probably a mile long, had slithered out of a hole in the floor. Xu winced when he realized it tore through the bed. It was burrowed into her back, and wrapped around her spine. The worst possible situation.
“Xu of the Shaolin Temple, a student of the great demon slayer Zhong Kui’s teachings,” the deep voice spoke from the little girl’s body. “I know you, monk.”
Xu saluted mockingly and looked back into the courtyard. The servants were nowhere to be seen. He hoped to glimpse them with axes for the tree. “Well I don’t think you have introduced yourself?”
The roots slithered slowly around Xu’s feet, closing the path outside. “There are foolish demons who fear you,” Jiang’s right arm shook in the bondage; it wouldn’t be long before she snapped the rope or tore open her wrist. “But not I; no, monk. I see inside you.”
Xu laughed and felt relief as he heard running feet in the courtyard. They were finally coming to cut down the tree.
“You are not so pure. You desire women. The taste of flesh tearing in your teeth. There is no truth you trust.”
“Well it was nice talking but…” Xu stood and relaxed his body as he heard the axe take its first swing at the mighty tree. The axe slammed into the tree and Jiang’s midsection lifted in the air. The girl's body twisted like an upside-down letter U.
The demon growled, and for the first time it controlled her completely. Xu could see the hate burning through her. Slowly she rose off the bed, the giant tongue spearing her through the back. Blood poured out of her stomach where the tree demon tore through her.
“Faster!” Xu called out to the axe-men. The axes fell twice as quickly and Jiang twisted in the bed. She growled like a cornered dog.
“I would stop them monk… you didn’t really think it could be that easy, did you?”
Another servant joined the chopping at the tree's base. Jiang broke her right arm free just as a new wave of pain shot through her. She was a foot off the bed. Xu grabbed at the tongue inside her back. It slid past his gripping fingers deeper inside her. He could hear her spine begin to crack and pop. She opened her mouth and a child’s scream rang in his ear just before she puked blood on his face.
Xu tried to close his mouth but he swallowed a bit of vomit. He tasted it, burning hot like curry, he wanted to beg the axe-men to stop but the blood clogged his throat. He felt the roots twisting around his ankle.
The tongue pushed further out of the hole it had made in the bed, lifting Jiang’s dying body higher into the air. The rough skin of the tongue slid through Xu’s hands. Blood drained out of Jiang’s mouth and the demon’s voice spoke through a bloody gurgle.
“They will all die. All but you, monk.”
Xu reached into his pocket and pulled out the yellow pieces of paper he had labeled and blessed with magic. “Demon, free this girl of your curse.”
Xu threw the yellow paper magic into the air. The tree demon screamed and the earth shook. Xu looked up in time to see the tongue swing Jiang across the room. Still impaled by the giant tongue the young girl’s body slammed into a wooden support beam. Xu closed his eyes but heard the impact. The neck snapped, a dozen or more bones broke at once.
He didn’t have time to mourn. He pulled two more pieces of paper magic from his pocket and blessed them. The Tongue coiled around to face him. The end split open into a mouth. A smaller, forked tongue shook inside of it. The teeth in this mouth were made of decayed human arms. The hands flexed desperately for food. The moldy smell of hot tree demon-breath filled the room.
Xu felt his lunch stir in his stomach again as the giant mouth at the end of the tongue coiled toward him. He reached over into the pit and dropped the paper magic. Xu flipped out of the way as the mouth struck at him with grasping teeth.
He landed in the court yard and he couldn’t believe the mayhem. The governor’s palace was in flames. The tree was gone. Nearby he could see dead servants lying on the ground. The governor screamed in the distance. The Tree Demon had torn through the palace. Xu walked and slowly followed the screams of the governor.
A hole remained where the tree had been rooted. Xu looked down into a blinding orange light. The governor and his wife were down there screaming and begging for mercy. As he stood there helpless the screams seemed to get louder.
“Xu save us please!”
He hated this part most of all. Soon he would hear her voice, Little Jiang.
“Please stop it, it hurts so…”
The monk put his hands over his eyes but he knew the voices were nowhere they could be blocked. He prayed for them to stop. A prayer to be free of the nightmare, but it had been years since he had faith. As soon as he closed his eyes he would hear the screams, see the face of the little girl. But no, he had to relive that night again…
Something hit his face. Xu was startled out of the nightmare. It never ended this easily. Every time he had slept over the last nine years, he had re-lived the night with the Tree Demon. He curled under the covers, reaching for the woman he'had brought back to his room. He felt nothing beside him. Then he felt the smack against his face again.
There she is. When his eyes opened, it was not the jade eyed beauty he remembered at the tavern. He shook his head, his long tangled hair needed a brushing. When his eyes cleared, he instantly came awake. Master Zhen, who had been one of his martial arts instructors at the temple, stared at him holding Xu's opium pipe.
Master Zhen smacked Xu even harder this time with the pipe. Xu grabbed his sore face and saw the jade beauty. She was putting on her clothes. Across from her four shaolin monks averting their eyes and chanted. Xu looked to the right of the bed and saw a young man dressing himself. It was at that moment when the fallen monk felt shame.
The boy was just as beautiful as the woman, so after a moment he let the shame melt away. It was all shameful to the monks. Xu leaned up in the bed and smiled at his former master.
“If you had informed me that you were visiting I would have dressed for the occasion.”
No one laughed. Xu’s young lovers headed out the door.
“Wait--they were just leaving!” Xu knew it was pointless. He fell back on the bed.
“Shameful,” Zhen said and the other monks chanted.
“Yes,it certainly is shameful to ruin a man’s morning.”
Zhen raised the pipe ready to swing again, this time Xu put up a hand and signaled he was ready to fight. The master lowered the pipe. Xu Looked at the younger monks and then the master.
“Nine years since I left the temple,” Xu stood and the monks turned from his naked form. He laughed, taking his time to put on his robe. The master relaxed when he was dressed.
“Xu we failed you,” the master said solemnly. “We are here to help you and appeal to your sense of loyalty, to the temple, to your nation.”
Xu smiled and then laughed wildly. “You're joking, right?”
“I am sure you have heard the rumors of a Manchu invasion.”
Now Xu’s interest was perked. What could he possibly have to do with that? He knew nothing of armies amassing in the north, besides the general whispers in taverns. He nodded, urging the monk to continue.
“The emperor fears the invasion will happen soon, they've been warned that the temple is in danger. Spies have informed them that if the Manchus ascend, they intend to burn the temple to the ground and outlaw the martial world.”
“I still fail to see how this concerns me?”
“We have entered an agreement to send an elite group of monks to help defend the emperor. In exchange, their spies will keep us informed of troop movements. The emperor made one puzzling request. He wanted you to serve him.”
Xu put his hand on his chest and laughed. “Does the emperor know that…”
“That you’re a fallen, disgraced monk? No, he doesn’t. We told him that your skills were… unpracticed. That you no longer fought demons; yet he insisted.”
Xu slipped his shoes onto his feet and walked to the water basin over by his bed. He couldn’t wait any longer: he peed in the bucket.
“You're just going to have to tell him what happened,” he said as he drained himself. “Besides, he needs an army, not a demon slayer.”
“I told you he would never come,” one of the young monks shook his bald head. Xu turned to look at the young man and almost peed on his feet.
“Kui–-mind your place,” the master reminded him.
Xu finished his business and scrubbed his hands before walking over to the young Kui. There he saw his own, lost innocence. Xu thought of being a young monk and almost laughed in the face of the naive creature.
“Don’t be so sure I won’t come,” Xu walked over to the master and grabbed his opium pipe. He shook it but it was empty. “Is there any payment involved?”