A lone girl, barely sixteen, was hurrying back to the Herbalist’s Tower. Armed only with her little umbrella, she could barely shield herself from the icy raindrops. The packet of blue lotus roots that she begged from the only medicine hall in town being wrapped under heavy layers of oil canvas, and clutched as firmly as her fingers could. In the numbing coldness, she told herself again and again that she would be back to the warm, cozy fireplace of the Tower in no time, and sipping on some homegrown ginseng tea.
And yet she wasn’t the only one braving the terrible storm. A distance in front of her was a staggering figure. He seemed heading towards the Tower too.
Another one of those patients? Another one of those that came begging for the help of the Herbalist? She thought.
The man collapsed to the ground, and Jiahui, the Herbalist’s last pupil raced to help the man.
The face covered in mud, but Jiahui could still feel his body warmth. And it was scalding hot! Almost everyone they received this week had the symptoms. And all of them were dead and yet at the same time, alive. She couldn’t really explain it, and the Herbalist was never that troubled before.
“Help me,” the man muttered softly. Jiahui checked for any visible wounds and bites, and she found none. Feeling slightly safer and less reluctant, she helped the man up to his feet and slowly inched their way up the hilly path. A huge gush of wind pierced at them, and the little umbrella slipped and tumbled down the cliff.
He moaned, and gripped her shoulders hard.
The eyes flipped open just as sudden as they shut themselves tight.
For a minute they found difficulty adjusting to the dim candlelit room. Slowly they focused, and found the girl’s dagger pointing at him. Immediately, he sat up just as frightened as her.
“Drop the dagger, Jiahui. He is not one of them,”
And with his soothing, calm voice, came an old, wrinkled man in a clean white robe. His silvery white hair tied neatly in a bun; his beard flowing almost to his knees. His eyes gleamed a rare cerulean blue, and seemed wise and to sparkle with life. His left arm governed by a hundred spots and a thousand lines; his right arm black, lifeless, a shrunken deformity so hideous that a clever imperial scholar might find a need to conjure an epic poem for describing it.
“Where am I, wise man? And who are you?”
“This is the Herbalist’s Tower, and I am the Herbalist,” the old man spoke, and yet his mouth moved only the slightest, “And this is my pupil, Jiahui. She took you to me,”
Jiahui smiled teasingly, “No Master, I had to drag him almost all the way here for he was unconscious,” The Herbalist chuckled lightly and patted her shoulders with long slender fingers.
“What happened to me?”
“You are drugged with a deadly formula called White Quince Powder. It is odourless and tasteless, and is probably mixed into your food. How did you get yourself into trouble with the Five Poison League? Strange that they’ve used the old recipe on you. Deadly, but does not requires great skill to extract the poison. Jiahui could have done that without my help,” He turned to his pupil, his glance slightly stern.
“Master,” answered Jiahui with a nervous giggle, “You know I was really afraid. So many of them out there…”
“No excuses, little one. Anyone can become a medical scholar. But only the fearless can be great. Remember that,”
“Apologies Master, and yes, your wise words acknowledged,” Jiahui bowed and yet winked mischievously at the Herbalist. She knew she would still be her Master’s favourite, no matter what wrong she did.
“Yes, they’ve better be very well acknowledged,” the Herbalist chuckled mockingly. Jiahui stuck her tongue out and merrily they laughed.
“Apologies, wise man,” the man interrupted, “But I have no idea how I offended the Five Poison League,”
“My dear young man, you should have known that the neighboring West Hills are controlled by the Five Poison League. They are highly skilled in the arts of poison and pain. You’re lucky to make it this far to us. Even on bad and troublesome days such as this,” The Herbalist peered out to the windows and was soon murmuring in his own soliloquy.
“My name is Zhou,” said the man to Jiahui, “Thank you for saving me,”
Jiahui nodded, and asked, “Why are you here, Zhou? The road between West Hills and the Tower is treacherous. It is not safe for travelers,”
“I am here to find a man named Devil’s Palm,”
The Herbalist turned and glanced at Zhou. “Devil’s Palm…Devil’s Palm…” he muttered, and he gave a hearty, almost sorrowful laugh. He then cried to nobody in the room in particular, “Devil’s Palm! Devil’s Palm! Even after your death, your enemies are still coming, so to stab you again and again with vengeance! Devil’s Palm! How many evil deeds had you done in your ugly, dark past?” And with that, he walked out of the room.
“I don’t understand,” exclaimed Zhou.
“Come, let me show you,” answered Jiahui, and helped him out of bed. In the dimly lit stairway, her slender hands were leading Zhou; and her emerald dress was gliding downwards the spiral effortlessly like a green, effervescent butterfly.
He was almost in a trance, for all he could do was to follow in her flight, and to occasionally catch a glimpse of her petite, elegant features whenever she glanced back to tell him, “Watch your step, silly!”
It was drizzling still, but at least the weather improved slightly. There were many huts surrounding the Tower, and the patients filled them—men, women, and children. Many were crying. Zhou and Jiahui could smell the shuddering of fear and death among them. Every few minutes, servants of the Herbalist would drag a body out of the huts, and to disappear down the muddy, rain-soaked path that winded towards the other side of the Tower.
“What happened to them?” asked Zhou.
“A strange illness,” Jiahui replied, “Very strange, very powerful illness. Master is trying his best to stop it,” As they passed by the nearest hut, they saw a man shrieking at them, his eyes filled with horror, his arms reaching out to grab them. Zhou instinctively pushed Jiahui to his back to shield her from the grasp, but before the man could lay hands on them, he got a knock in the head with a stick and hurriedly dragged away by the servants.
“Thank you,” she said with a smile that could have brightened up the day, if only lasting longer than its fleeting brevity.
They came to the edge of a bamboo forest, and landed upon an untamed, ancient path. Bamboo leaves showered huge droplets of the sky, and Jiahui sprinted into the woods to avoid them unsuccessfully, laughing all the way.
“I am sorry about your umbrella, I’ll buy you one!” shouted Zhou as he ran after her.
“I can always make another one, silly,” she yelled back, slightly breathless, and still laughing, “and besides, the new doesn’t come if the old doesn’t go,”
“We are here,” she announced, as they soon stood in front of a grave.
‘Devil’s Palm, the Betrayer’ it wrote. The smaller scribbling on the tombstone wrote, ‘I, the Herbalist ended him,’
“The Herbalist…killed him,” The laughter in his eyes from the previous moment died instantly, as he gasped and knelt and sobbed silently. “All my life…preparing…to face him…and now…” he spoke between shudders and shivers. As she pulled him to a seat, Jiahui spoke to him of the legend of the war. It used to be of a shorter bedtime story version for her, but when she started practicing, it became a tale of caution from her master.
Eighty years ago, Old Master Chen, the most renowned medical scholar, adopted three children as his own. As they grew up, Old Master Chen taught them the skills of medicine and poison. Each child was highly talented, and their skills soon outperformed even of the master.
Old Master Chen warned them, that the medical skills they mastered are only for the services of the needy and those in pain, to fight diseases and catalogue the various dangers of the world that men should never come close to. Yet thirst for power and dominance can easily corrupt even the best of men.
The Devil’s Palm, and his colleague and wife, formed the Five Poison League, sought for power and threatened the provinces with their specialized art of poison and disease. Lord Chen, in an attempt to stop his own pupils, was murdered by them. The only uncorrupted one, the Herbalist avenged for his master, and in between battles he killed Devil’s Palm, and widowed his wife, Poison Princess. It was a bittersweet revenge, as the Herbalist always sees the two as his brother and best friend.
Zhou blinked and wondered aloud, “How did these medical lords battle? They are not skilled with arts of the fists or the sword,”
“It is a medical war between poison and cure. The Five Poison League discovers new diseases or venomous creatures and invents deadly substances, spreading them to their enemies or poisoning unknowing travelers such as you, and sends them to the Herbalist’s province. The Herbalist wins the battle if he finds a cure or a way to stop the spread,”
“Does he, the Herbalist, win all the time?” asked Zhou.
“Always, hopefully today too,”
The Herbalist stood in front of the wooden desk, calmly frustrated while caressing a box with his blackened hand. So much he remembered, but so few he could catch a clear glimpse at.
He needed something else. Something that would enhance his thoughts, and project his old mind through time and memories.
He stared at the brown box hard with his crystal blue eyes. Part of him wished for what was inside the box, while the other, smaller part of him was telling him to keep his promise, and not to rely on the ‘thing’.
“The hell with that,” he thought. Eventually he unsealed the box and pulled out the ‘thing’.
“The Magic Umbrella,” he muttered to himself, while observing the five-pointed dried fungus on his fingers.
“Just this once, again,” he spoke to no one in particular, as he grinded the fungus with haste. Excitement outweighed disgust once he concocted the ‘umbrella juice’. Disgust then overthrew excitement after he downed the drink. He sat on his armchair, and he began to smile, he could feel his soul floating out of his body, his mind traveling to long forgotten paths.
“Master! Master!” I saw Old Master and raced towards him for a hug. I was eight again, and Old Master Chen was alive.
Old Master Chen gave me his warmest smile. He held me tight in his arms and said to me, “I’m glad that he is no longer disturbing you,”
What was disturbing me again? I missed him so much…focus now.
Have Old Master catalogued this phenomenon before? They came and burned down the Old House but I saved all the important scrolls, as far as I remember. Even to the last few ones he wrote before his untimely death.
What would he do? What would he say? Apparently this disease does not come from the air or the water. Every victim has been bitten at least once. Did he ever saw something like this? This is close to mad dog sickness, but sufferers from mad dog sickness do not die. Nor would they rise up again to bite others and forget who they are or their family and friends.
Does it come from the venom of some specific creature?
Patients that did not last long had bites closer to their head. It attacks the brain. Yes, confirmed.
I have to figure this out. I can’t lose, especially not this time! And the spread. It seems unstoppable. Wave after wave of patients streaming in. How did the Five Poison League find such a powerful weapon without my knowledge?
Old Master Chen was feeding me a bowl of herbal soup. “Drink this,” he said, “It is good for you,”
“What is it, Master?”
Stop. Focus, please. Not now.
One week ago, another stormy night. I could hear the desperate voice commanding his horses for greater speed even from afar. A wagon was in tow, trotting up the slippery path in the midst of torrents.
“Please! Please, Herbalist sir, save my son!” The man knelt and bowed and pleaded and cried, even before I could reach the bottom of the stairs. He was a descendant of the Ming clan, that prospered by the means of silk and wool trade for nearly a century.
I’ve seen this all too many times. Another strange illness, yet another highly complicated medical mystery, or another newfound sting of an unknown creature. The battle against the Five Poison League has been ongoing for several decades. “Let me see the boy,” I replied calmly.
They flung the wagon doors off. The torch shone into the darkness, and found the boy tearing a chunk of flesh out of his mother’s face. The light seemed to agitate him, and he crawled towards the opening with his bloody, outstretched little arms.
We put the boy into a sack, and carried him to my dissection and experimental room. We tied him to a chair. He was wriggling and twitching. I could still remember the sorts of noise he made. They were animalistic and unpredictable. The eyes full of rage and madness.
He had no pulse. I almost believe it was my fear that had scared away my professionalism. I controlled myself. I stilled my hands and breathed away my distress.
Even as the boy’s red, hungry eyes were staring upon me; and the teeth gnawing out at me; and his tongue desperately slithering out to taste me. I slowly shut my eyes, and tried to feel his pulse again under his cold, shivering skin. And I found none.
I poked the boy with acupuncture needles. There was no sign of red blood, as the needles pulled out strings of the same black ooze that was in near solid form. That may probably explain the rigid movements of the patient. After much thought, I decided to look into his head.
The father was already on the next bed, unconscious with a scalding fever, and was rambling unidentifiable words—the exact symptoms of the boy before ‘waking up’ again, according to the father himself. He had several wounds on his thighs that he had concealed from us until the servants stripped his clothes off.
I had to know. I was almost certain that the boy was dead. It was not murder. To know the truth, I have to do the unthinkable. They moved the father out of my room, and I made damn sure they tied him tightly on the bed. I reached for my tools for performing surgeries.
I have seen how the brain functions. Master Chen used to sneak dead soldiers from battlefields and we sliced them open, and learned about the internal structures of the body.
I pierced through the scalp, and with plenty of fear, uncertainty, and yet the triumphing courage to know, and to understand how this disease works, I pried the skull open. The boy shrieked and howled and his cold fingers were clawing at my surgery table vehemently.
I can still see those deep marks clawed deep into my furniture.
What intrigued me the most was how all of his other internal organs were starting to rot and turning a purplish black, and yet the brain still looked like it was alive. I could still feel its warmth. Yes, I was correct, that the disease attacks primarily the brain, but somehow kept it active while the rest of the body decays.
The boy was still struggling madly. I theorized that exposing his brain could be a threat to him. It could be the only way to really put the boy and his insatiable hunger for raw flesh to rest. I pierced the scalping knife into the brain, and with a last, almost thundering howl, he stopped moving.
I’ve spent days, theorizing, and testing all different kinds of treatments and herbs. Now, the blue lotus roots, once taken, cease all functions of the brain, putting the patient into a deep sleep not easily awaken. If I could just shut the brain down like this, the disease would probably be unable to control the brain.
The flaw is that once the disease enters the body, it rots every part. Patients who took the blue lotus roots might not wake up and become one of those demons, but they would be dead anyway once the disease attacks the heart.
This is beyond anything we ever learned or discovered. I am not even sure that this comes from the Poison Princess. It could be something they stumbled upon, but incapable of control.
“Why are you still drinking this?”
I turned to see my best friend and colleague Mei, looking frustrated, furious, and yet caring to me. She is such an angel. Even when she gets frustrated and furious, she still has the most gorgeous face in the world with those pursed lips.
Please let me focus.
And I heard a blood-curdling scream. Wait. Is it in my head?
The Herbalist’s thoughts are disrupted as he caught the glimpse of an old woman in one of his huts. Each hut was given different treatments. She was twitching and screaming so badly that his servants could barely hold her.
One of the servants tugged at her hair, the other holding her shaky arms, while the third beheaded her instantly. They severed her limbs and legs as well, and carried the body away to be burned. A few conscious patients wailed in horror, fearing for the same fate that would inevitably descent upon them.
A man yelled and more servants rushed into the next hut. Not one, but four patients were twitching and shaking at the same moment—the signs of their last struggles against the disease before their bodies fall out of control.
Jiahui rushed into the Herbalist’s room and said, “Master, none of the treatments are working! They are all shaking very badly!”
“Devil’s Palm! Where are you when I really need you?”
The Herbalist shook himself out of his trance and replied calmly, “Jiahui, instruct the servants to round all the patients up, and set them on fire,”
“Master! Some of them are still alive! You can’t do this!”
The Herbalist shook his head and sat down in despair. He exclaimed, “I have lost. I lost the battle. I can’t find the cure on my own. And this is getting out of control. We don’t have enough of us left to defend ourselves, and more patients are coming in every day,”
“Master, I don’t know if we should—”
“YOU DARE DEFY MY ORDERS?” It was the first time Jiahui ever heard the Herbalist raised his voice. The Herbalist himself felt shocked by his own rage. He closed his eyes, sighed deeply and resumed in his usual smooth voice, “Face the truth, Jiahui. There is nothing your Master can do. For now, go on and brief the servants,”
Jiahui glanced at the Herbalist in grief and terror. She had never seen her wise master so defeated and frail.
“And my dear,” he added, “Pack your belongings. There is a place we have to go,” Jiahui nodded and hurried down the stairs.
“Zhou,” the Herbalist turned towards the young man and said calmly, “I noticed a sword was with you when you arrived. You must be highly skilled with the blades,”
“There are many more swordsmen out there that can defeat me, wise man,” replied Zhou, his eyes trailing the languid footsteps of the old man, “But yes, I was trained by my stepfather, Zhou Lu,”
“Thank you, but none for me,”
“Hmm…Master Zhou Lu, a renowned hero in Hubei. Slayer of eighty robbers in one night. How is he doing?” The Herbalist inquired as his fingers casually graced upon the medical scrolls on his desk, then reaching on the teapot, and poured the ginseng tea into the wooden mugs.
“He is murdered, sir. The poison of a Red-headed Spider,”
“Oh…apologies. My head doesn’t remember much these days,” the Herbalist chuckled and glanced up on Zhou briefly, and continued on his tea and words, “Quite a loss, quite a loss for the Jianghu. He is a very brave man. I believe your stepfather and I had been brief acquaintances many moons ago. Yes, quite a loss,”
Zhou sat in front of the Herbalist, but he said nothing. The Herbalist stared at him with his piercing cerulean eyes, and with a commanding, yet subtle voice, he asked, “Why are you here, Zhou? This is the battlefield of the medical lords. This is not the affairs for blades, and fists,”
Zhou glanced into those ancient, yet sharp eyes, and replied, “I’m here to find the man who killed my father,”
“Yes,” the Herbalist sighed, “Red-headed Spider. It causes the victim to vomit emerald drool instead of blood for seven days. It is observed that when the victim dies, his skin is almost green in color. I wish you could have asked for me then, I could have saved him,”
The Herbalist stared deeply at Zhou again, and drank his tea.
“Now, pleasantries aside,” he stood by the window, and saw Jiahui reaching the bottom of the tower, “We shall get to the real deal,”
He faced the young man and smoothly, he said, “You’re here to kill me, aren’t you?”
Zhou’s cheeks flushed a slight red, and before he could reply, he choked and slumped on his chair. He tried to get up, but he could not muster the strength to even ball his fingers into a fist.
The Herbalist chuckled and explained, “Essence of the Dowager butterfly, mixed with a rather strange species of hibiscus that blooms in the islands of the Southern Sea. Don’t worry, my dear. It doesn’t kill you, it only immobilizes you, and…of course, allows me some time to explain,”
“You might wonder why. You haven’t had my tea, you haven’t touched anything, or smelled anything remotely remarkable. Well, besides the stench of those patients, of course. Truth is…the poison emits from my robe. I am immune to it, so are my pupil and my servants…” he stroked his beard, and allowed himself a brief second to praise at his own cleverness that no one else in the world knew about until today.
“…because we have tea, Mister Zhou. We have tea every day. My special blend of ginseng tea,” he smiled and exchanged his wink for an angry glare from Zhou.
“You fooled everyone in this Tower. You saw Jiahui in the marketplace the previous night, getting the blue lotus roots for me. You knew she is my pupil. So you placed yourself on the path waiting for her to return. You poisoned yourself with the White Quince Powder, sure that she would save you. A near miscalculation for you, Mister Zhou, as we were facing a strange, dangerous illness, and she being so frightened, almost reluctant to help you,” The Herbalist sat down and sipped on his tea again, and with Zhou still staring furiously at him, continued, “A bold move, I salute you for that. Well timed indeed. Anything more than thirty minutes and you would be beyond any cure, even by me. The only flaw that came to my thoughts once I finished extracting the poison, well, as you know I realized that the White Quince Powder you consumed was not of the newly improved recipe used often by Poison Princess, which is, mind you, a lot deadlier and difficult to handle, but the older version. The one developed by my deceased brother and friend, Devil’s Palm,”
He leaned forward and examined Zhou closely. He exclaimed, “Yes, yes, you look just like his secret mistress. The one he hides even from Mei. Or you may call her Poison Princess. I suspect somehow your parents left you a copy of his medical script, and that is how you poisoned your stepfather. Yes, died of the Red-headed Spider. A tricky potion that only a high ranked member of the Five Poison League could handle, but your stepfather died in Hubei, a place far beyond the reaches of the League,”
The Herbalist stood up and said sternly, “Your real father, Devil’s Palm, he is a very bad man. He killed thousands of innocent people, and most of them died in a cruel and horrible fashion, either by his devices, diseases, or by his insane experimentations. You must understand, I ended him, for the greater good,” he admired his blackened right hand briefly, and murmured, “Yes, yes…the greater good. It was the only way. Shame that Mei escaped,”
He shook himself out of his thoughts, and peered towards the window. The servants were gathering the patients to the burning pit. They were pleading, and crying, and screaming for help.
“Now that you need some time to digest on how I outsmarted your dirty plan, I shall go and attend to more important concerns. Farewell, Mister Zhou,” The Herbalist patted at the immobilized man, smiled, and stepped towards the stairway.
“Oh no, no, no,” he chuckled to himself, “I’m not going anywhere without you,”
He turned and took the box of ‘Magic Umbrella’ into his traveling sack. “I don’t want you fallen into wrong hands,” he murmured absent-mindedly.
“I am sparing your life, Zhou, but do not follow me,” he added silently before shutting the door, “Good graces are only for amateurs,”
The Herbalist glanced towards the Tower for the last time. Smoke was still rising from where the huts used to stand, the smell of toasted men and women sickening and revolting. Jiahui vomited several times on the journey downhill.
He instructed the servants not to allow any more patients into the Tower, and to bar the gates and exits until his return.
“Where is Zhou?” asked Jiahui.
“Oh, Zhou has decided to stay behind and help us for the clear up,” the Herbalist replied, “He will be fine in no time, and he can help the servants guarding the tower,”
“Wouldn’t it be better if he can come along with us? He is skilled with the sword. He can help us on the way,”
“My dear, we are not going to the West Hills to settle some blood debt. I’ve lost, and I’m simply going there to admit my failure, and also to inquire if the Poison Princess may actually have the cure. I have to go, to save the people. It’s the only way,”
“Much to learn you still have, Jiahui. Even if you are the greatest swordsman of China, you may not come out of the West Hills alive with all that kung fu you brag about. The arts of Poison Princess and the League are subtle, silent, and deadly. Their ambush comes from everywhere, from the very earth you step, the cup you drink from, and the air you breathe,”
“No matter what, promise me to obey all of my instructions. Do not touch anything, or drink, or eat from anything without my permission. And stay close to me,”
Armed with only the shovels they used to dig herbs and plants, and their extensive medical knowledge, the Herbalist and his last pupil headed off to the deadliest place ever known.