Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Don't Tax Black Magic

by Gary W. Feather


Time: Early Twelfth Century. Place: Song Dynasty China.

Gao Yanglin sighed again as he walked through the woods with his two men. He wished that he was warm and safe in his house with his wife and family.

But no. He had been chosen to be his village's guard leader. It was his job to enforce the law and gather taxes. Now he was on his way to meet with Old Lady Ko and somehow make her pay her taxes.

"The old hag is going to kill us or turn us into toads," Gao mumbled.

"Uh, what did you say, Mr. Gao?" Wan asked.

"Nothing, Wan." Gao said. Wan was one of his servants and the other man was his tenet farmer. They weren't happy about their new part time job as village guards either.

"There it is," Ma the farmer said.

The house was green. An unnatural bright green. It made Gao's heart beat faster when he saw it. He felt a strange tingling sensation all over his body. His feet and hands were wet and clammy.

Gao led his little group of tax collectors up to the door to the old house. The three men stood in front of the old house for quite a while. Neither of them wanting to knock on it.

Gao swallowed fear and knocked.

They waited for a few minutes.

Wan turned to run off, but Gao grabbed his shirt sleeve.

"Get back here," Gao said.

"Oh..." whined Wan.

The door opened and old lady Ko looked at them with her one eye.

"What do you want?"

"Oh..." Wan and Ma said.

"Uh...we come for the taxes, madam," Gao said in a meek voice.

"Who are you?" she said.

"I'm Gao Yanglin, the local guard leader. It is my responsibility to collect the taxes for the emperor and his government. Uh..."

"What happened to Ta Guan?" Ko asked.

"He's gone," Gao said. "No one knows why. Rumors say that he ran off with a Buddhist nun. She is also missing. Another rumor says-"

"Oh, I don't care," Ko said and turned away from them. "Come in boys."

Gao and his men followed the stooped over old woman into her little house. The room that they saw was full of all sorts of sights and smells. A giant dead turtle hung from the ceiling by rope. Two human skulls sat on top of a bookcase. One of them had a deer antler growing out of its forehead. A blue spider the size of Gao's hand walked on the ceiling above Ma's head.

"Sit down on those chairs," Ko pointed to some wooden chairs set around an old five-cornered table. "And I'll bring you some tea. I already was fixing some tea for myself and a couple of friends. My friends aren't here, yet. Do you like a little honey with your tea?"

"Yes, thank you," Gao said.

Wan and Ma just stood there quietly and hoping not to be noticed.

Old Lady Ko snorted and walked into another room that Gao guessed was the kitchen. He sat down in a chair and gestured for the others to do the same. He looked around the room at the different things. Some things appeared worthless or broken. Others appeared be made of valuables like silver, jade and pearls.

Wan picked up a jade statue of a tiger.

"It's so beautiful," Wan said. "The eyes seem to move."

"Put it back," Gao said.

"No," Wan said. "It's mine."

Wan hide it in his jacket. Ma grabbed a jade statue of an ox and hid it in his jacket too. Gao looked away and glimpsed a knife laid on a short wooden table. He reached for it and his chair creaked. Sweat appeared on his temple. He worried that the old woman had heard. But no sound came from the kitchen. He grabbed the knife. It was cold to the touch. The handle and sheath was made of silver with inlaid pearls. He pulled the blade out and found that it was also made of silver. He gave a gasp as he felt the handle and sheath warm up in his hands. He sheathed it and stuck it in his jacket.

The three men stared at each other. They had fear in their eyes, but the greed in their hearts held onto them.

The old woman returned with the tea. She gave Gao a bunch of silver coins held together by a string that went through the holes of each coin.

Old Lady Ko poured steaming tea into four cups. They all took one and old lady Ko sat down. She looked at Gao with the cold eye of a serpent. Gao took a sip. It was hot, bitter and sweet. Ma and Wan tasted it. Lastly old lady Ko sipped her tea.

"I've never tasted tea like this before," Gao said. "It's great. What is in it?"

"My own tea leaves, honey, and the ground testes of a man that tried to kill me."

"Eeek!" Wan said.

Old Lady Ko laughed. She pointed at the coins and said, "Is that enough? That's what it was last time."

"Yes," Gao said, after counting it. "This is correct, madam."

Old Lady Ko looked at Wan. Wan's hands shook.

"Nice tea," Wan squeaked.

"Yes," Ma said.

They sat quietly for what seemed like years. The three men tried to drink the tea as fast as possible.

Thump! Thump!

Everyone looked at the door where the noise came from. Old Lady Ko opened it. Two men walked in. They were dressed in strange black clothes.

"I'm sorry gentlemen," she said. "But it is time for you to leave. You don't want to be around my new guests for very long."

Gao and his men quickly got up and went outside. As Gao passed by the new guests one of them growled at him. Gao saw the other man's mouthful of doglike fangs.

The three men fast walked through the woods. Gao fell down. Wan and Ma ran. When Gao made it to the clearing the other two were already in the carriage. Wan had the reins in his hands.

"I just fell, you morons," Gao said. "No one grabbed me!"

"Sorry, Mr. Gao," Wan and Ma replied as Gao got into his seat

"Let's go."

####
#

The three men returned to the village in time for dinner. Afterwards Gao told his wife and children that he would have to work late in his study.

Gao sat at his desk writing down numbers and names. He looked through the papers on his desk and a shadow moved across the room.

"Ah!" Gao dropped his pen.

"Ah!" shouted a man behind Gao.

Gao turned to see his servant Wan.

"Don't do that," Gao said. "Announce yourself."

"I'm sorry, sir," Wan said. "I brought you tea."

Wan brought the tray in and sat it on a small table. He handed Gao a cup and the smoke of heat hovered above it.

Gao sipped it. "Thank you, Wan,"

Wan turned to leave.

"Where are you going?"

"But-"

"You're going to help me, Wan,"

"I can't read, Mr. Gao,"

"I know that," Gao said. "But you will keep me company and make sure that I don't fall asleep. Understood."

"Yes, sir,"

"If I don't get this done," Gao said. "Tomorrow the government clerks will beat me and you too."

"Yes, sir,"

Gao turned in his chair and felt the lump on his belt. He pulled it out. It was the knife that he had stolen from the

old lady.

"Oh shit," Gao said. "I forgot about it."

"We should not have taken them," Wan said.

"I wasn't the one who started it," Gao said.

"Yes, Mr. Gao."

Gao pulled the knife out of its scabbard. The blade was silver. The sheath, handle and blade were all made of silver. It was very valuable. He was sure of it. Who could he sell it to? Why was it warm? Most of the silver that he had ever felt was cold not warm.

"Uh, sir," Wan said. He was shaking Gao's shoulder.

"Stop that," Gao said. He sheathed the knife and it was cold.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Gao," Wan said. "But you have been sitting there staring at that knife for a long time. I shouted at you and you didn't respond."

"What?"

"That thing is evil," Wan said. "Black magic. We should get rid of them. The things we took before it is too late."

"You're right," Gao said. "But I need to finish this paper work first. You go and get Ma. We will go out to the forest and bury those things."

####
#

Later after Gao had finished, he found Wan and Ma already in the carriage.

"Did you bring those cursed objects?" Gao said as he got it.

"Yes, Mr. Gao," Wan said.

"And we got some shovels," Ma said.

"Good," Gao said and felt the silver knife tucked in his belt.

The three men journeyed back to the edge of the forest. They stopped. Wan tied the horses to a tree. Wan and Ma picked up the shovels. Gao led the way into the forest with a torch in his hands. Gao stopped and pointed.

"This will do," Gao said. "I'll hold your statues, while you dig."

Gao's men nodded and did so. Eventually there was a big enough hole and Gao tossed the cursed objects down the hole. His men covered it and they returned home. All felt relieved.

####
#

Gao Yanglin sipped his tea and smiled at his pregnant wife, Ling.

"You look very happy, dear husband," Ling said. "Are you ready for when the government clerks arrive?"

"I am, my dear wife," Gao said. "I am."

Gao picked up a slice of peach with his chopsticks to eat.

"They're here, Mr. Gao," Wan shouted, as he rushed into the room. "They're here!"

"Who?" Gao put the slice in his mouth.

"The government clerks, sir," Wan said. His eyes were wide and seemed to be shaking.

"Well," Gao said. A female servant refilled his tea cup. "That is a surprise, but no reason to worry."

"One of the clerks is dead, Mr. Gao," Wan said. "They found a silver knife in his back."

"What?" Gao jumped up from his chair. He nearly knocked his cup over.

"When one of their guards pulled the knife out. It vanished. The knife vanished!" Wan said.

Gao gave his wife a nod. "Excuse me, dear. I need to speak with Wan about this."

"Of course, dear husband," Ling said.

Gao led Wan outside the main part of the house to the back courtyard. Gao sat down on a bench by a tree.

"It's the witch, sir," Wan said. "She did it to get back at us."

"How? No one knows that I had a silver knife, except for you and Ma," Gao said.

"Somehow it will point to us," Wan said.

"Oh. Stop being a fool," Gao said. "Where are they now?"

"They're at the inn," Wan said.

"Good," Gao said. "Go and inform them that I am on my way."

"Yes, Mr. Gao," Wan said.

####
#

"I've heard that there is an old woman in the forest, who has dark powers." Zhao Min, the senior government clerk, said.

Gao looked at the old clerk. "Uh. Yes, sir. I had no problem with her paying her taxes. Why-"

"Yes," another one of the clerks said. Gao couldn't remember his name. He rubbed his nose a lot. "Why would she do that? Do people around here hire her to perform her magic?"

"Sir?" Gao said to Nose-rubber. "Some might. I don't know for sure."

"Well that is interesting, Mr. Zhao," Nose-rubber said.

The senior clerk nodded in agreement. "Has she been known to kill people with her magic?" Mr. Zhao said.

"I don't think so, sir," Gao replied and didn't like where this was going.

"I believe that I wish to pay this woman a visit," Mr. Zhao said.

"Good idea, Mr. Zhao," the other three clerks agreed.

"Well..." Gao mumbled.

"You can show us where she lives, Mr. Gao," senior clerk Zhao said. "I assume you know where that is?"

"Yes, sir," Gao sighed.

####
#

A few hours later Gao's carriage, with Wan driving, was leading the clerk's carriages down the road out of town. Along with the carriages were the clerks bodyguards, who were riding horses.

Once again Wan stopped the mules at the same spot and tied them up. The clerk's drivers and bodyguards did the same with their horses.

Gao and Wan led the way through the forest to the Old Lady Ko's house. As they entered the clearing Gao could see something new in front of the house. It was a wooden stake that was stuck in the ground. When they reached Gao could see that it was seven foot tall. Sitting on the top of it was Ma's head. The farmer's dead eye balls starred down at Gao.

"Ah!" screamed Wan. He turned to run, but one of the clerk's guards grabbed him.

"Where are you going?" Zhao Min. "We can deal with this."

Wan whined and walked up to Gao.

Zhao Min walked up to the door and knocked on it.

The door opened. Old Lady Ko appeared at the doorway. She looked everyone of them over and spit on the ground by Zhao Min's feet.

"What do you want?" Ko said. "I paid my taxes."

"That man's head is up there!" Zhao Min said. "Did you do that?"

"No," Ko said. "I told him to do it."

"Who?" Zhao demanded.

"She means me." The voice inside the house was followed by a figure. It was one of the two men in black that Gao had seen before.

"What is your name?" Zhao said.

"I have no name," he said. "Nor does my friend. He can't speak."

Gao saw that second man in black stood beside the first man in black.

"You two will return with us to the village," Zhao Min said. "We will return to Hejiang and you will be tried by the magistrate for murder. The old woman will come too."

Old Lady Ko laughed at Zhao. The two men in black stood there without any emotion. In fact Gao had not seen any emotion from either of them, ever.

The first man in black opened his mouth. It was full of sharp teeth. The mouth grew bigger and bigger. His neck grew too. His mouth engulfed Zhao head and bit it off. His neck shortened and he spit Zhao's head out. Ko laughed.

One of the guards aimed his crossbow and fired at the man or the 'creature.' It caught the crossbow bolt and snapped with one hand. The guard reloaded and fired again. The same result. The guard drew his sword and so did two other guards. They charged. The two men in black fought the guards barehanded. They were inhumanly fast and they bit the heads off the guards. The heads joined Zhao's on the ground.

The clerk that rubbed his nose screamed and ran. Then everyone else followed. Gao jumped into his carriage with the two surviving clerks. Wan screamed at the mules and drove them down the road. The one surviving guard was racing ahead of Gao's carriage on horseback.

####

Gao sighed and collapsed onto a wooden bench in his house's courtyard. Wan sat on the ground.

"What do we do now, Mr. Gao?" Wan said in his usual whining tone.

"I don't know," Gao said. "Well-"

"What has been going on, husband?" Gao looked up at his wife, Ling. There was another woman behind her. "I've heard rumors about you. That you two and the clerks were racing like mad through the village as if demons from all of the hells were after them."

"No, dear wife," Gao said. "There was just two of them."

"What?"

Gao sighed and sat up. His wife sat down slowly beside him. He told her everything that had happened up till now.

"You idiots are lucky to be alive." It was the other woman beside his wife. He now recognized her as his sister-in-law. She was dressed in the robes of a Daoist nun.

"You remember my younger sister Te," Ling said. "She arrived this morning after you left."

"I've heard of this woman," Te said. "Old Lady Ko. Also known as Shan Ko. She isn't an ordinary spirit-medium. She practices black magic that she gets from two demons that escaped from hell. Some say that they are both her husbands and her children."

"What?"

"She comes from the barbarian lands in the southwest. She served as a demon-shaman for some nomad king. After he was killed she moved to the west coast. I don't know why she has returned to the area. Maybe to stir up the nomads to start another war with the Han Chinese."

"We can't have that," Gao said. "The threat of the barbarian kingdoms of the north are enough of a problem without nomads from the southwest joining in."

"Correct," Te said. "She must be stopped before it is too late."

"How?"

"I have powers that might be enough," Te said. "But I need you to kill the demons that are under her power."

"Now again I'm going have to say, How?" Gao said.

"Do you have a weapon, like a bow or crossbow that you know

how to use?"

"Yes," Gao said. "Wan go get my bow and arrows."

"Yes, sir."

Wan later returned with them. Te pulled three arrows out of the quiver.

"That is all that I'll be able to do," Te said. "I need to save my strength for my fight with her."

"Do?"

"Hush."

Te pulled out a small knife with strange characters written on the blade. She picked up one of the arrows. She chanted over it, while she carved characters into the wood. The arrow disappeared. She acted as if it was still there and put it in the quiver. She did the same to the other two arrows.

"There," Te said. "They're invisible and the demons won't see them. Try to pierce their heart for that is the best way to kill them."

"But...but I can't see them," Gao said. "How can I shoot them?"

"You just have to do this by touch," Te said.

"You practice every day with our son and daughter," Ling said and his hand. "I think that you will be okay. Wan, you go with him to help. Take your old crossbow."

"Oh..."

"Wan."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Wan hooked the mules back up to the carriage," Gao said. "We will be returned to Ko's house to stop this."

"Yes, Mr. Gao," Wan said.

####
#

Wan slowed the mules and stopped. He tied them to the trees. The horses of the dead guards were still there. Still tied to the trees waiting for their riders to come and get them. Which won't happen.

Gao got off the carriage and helped his sister-in-law down. He strung his bow and checked his quiver. He couldn't see the arrows, but he could feel them.

"Now first fire off a regular arrow," Te said. "Just to fool them. You too, Wan. Then you fire an invisible arrow."

"Okay, Te," Gao said. "I hope this works."

Gao led the way to Ko's house, with Te behind him and Wan in the rear. In front of the house were now five large stakes in the ground. As Gao neared it he could see a gory head on each one. Each stake was seven feet tall. He looked at Te and then and Wan. He knocked on the door. It opened at the first knock.

Ko came outside with the two men. Her husbands? Sons? She was laughed and coughed. She spit on the ground.

"So, Mr. Gao," Ko said. "Have you brought more fools to die?"

"We are here to stop you," Te said.

Te pulled out a bell and her knife. She rang her bell and began to chant. She prayed for help from the Queen Mother of the West and Lord Lao. She danced like a mad goddess. The two men in black stalked their way toward her.

Gao notched an arrow to his bow string and pulled back. He released and the arrow flew. One of the men in black caught it. Wan fired a crossbow bolt at the second man in black and it was caught too. Gao and Wan stepped back and the two men in black followed them away from Te and Ko.

Gao reached for one of the invisible arrows and somehow found it. As Ko's men neared he somehow got it notched into his bow string. He fired it.

Blood appeared on the chest of one of Ko's 'men.' Lots of it poured down to the grass at the creature's feet. He screamed like a dying rabbit and melted into a pile what looked like tar. Black and red tar.

The Ko's surviving 'man' snared at Gao. Gao nervously grabbed the second arrow and shot it in the leg. The creature screamed like the other one had. It moved towards them and its mouth got bigger. Its neck grew. Wan screamed. Gao next shot got the creature in the heart.

The creature screamed more and melted into a pile of tar-like stuff.

Gao felt sweat pour down his cheek and arms. His armpits were like waterfalls. He coughed, but didn't spit. He could hear the sounds of Te's chants and dance. Ko was doing the same, but hers felt darker to him.

As the two women grew nearer to each other lightning flashed between them. Each seemed to walk within a shimmering bubble. The lightning flashed between the two bubbles, raising fountains of white sparks each time it struck. This continued on for some time. Soon it was getting louder. Gao turned his eyes away from them when the explosion came, like a big cannon.

Gao to them and found Te leaning on her right elbow. She coughed up blood.

"Are you alright, Te?"

"I left a bottle in your carriage," Te said. "I need to drink it. Please..."

"I'll get it," Gao said.

Gao looked up and saw Ko's charred body. It looked as if she had been burned alive. Her mouth was open in a scream.

Gao rushed back to the carriage and found Wan there.

"She's dead," Gao said. "Ko is dead."

Gao looked through the carriage.

"Te needs her bottle of medicine," Gao said. "Or something. Here it is."

Gao ran back to Te. Te took it and swallowed everything in the bottle. She collapsed.

"Oh," Gao said.

Gao checked and found her breath. He carried her back to the carriage.

"Is she okay, Mr. Gao?" Wan said.

"I think so," Gao said. "I'm not sure. Let's get her home, Wan."

####
#

Ling patted a wet cloth on her sister's forehead. Te opened her eyes.

"Hi, sis."

"What happened to you?" Ling said. "Did you bite off more than you can chew? I thought you were powerful."

"She was pretty tough, big sister," Te said. "She is dead. Right?"

"Yes, little sister," Ling said. "It's over. You need to rest."

"I need to send a letter of thanks to heaven for the help I got from Lord Lao, the Queen Mother of the West and anyone else. With an offering."

"You can do that later," Ling said. "Just rest now."

Gao watched his wife leave the guest bedroom and entered the hallway. Wan stood, quietly, behind him.

"She'll be fine," Ling said. "She is just tired."

"Good. Good," Gao said.

The three of them walked out to the courtyard. Gao shook his head and sighed.

"I suppose I still have those damn government clerks to deal with."

THE END


© 2010 Gary W. Feather

Bio: Gary W. Feather lives on a farm in southern Illinois. He graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 2006 with a BS in Journalism, a BA in English and a minor in East Asian Civilization. His Chinese swords-and-sorcery tale The Gory Pearl of Doom appeared in the April 2009 edition of Aphelion; his tale of a woman warrior in a zombie-infested future America, Gary W. Feather

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