Cast of Wonders 272: Banned Books Week – The Forbidden Books of Da Lin Monastery

Show Notes

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Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


The Forbidden Books of Da Lin Monastery

by Andrew K. Hoe

 

Hoong-Lung watched, horror-struck, as the book slid along the flagstone floor of the monastery library. The spine shivered, the cover’s fabric shredded itself, and something like spittle foamed along its edges. The title’s brush-stroked ideographs broke from their calligraphy, ink squirming like black worms.

The untamed writing made Hoong-Lung want to vomit.

In his sixteen years training as a warrior-monk at Da Lin Monastery, he’d never seen anything like it. Judging from Wong-Gum’s bloodless face, neither had he. The book snapped at Wong-Gum’s foot, and he jumped back.

As rivals, they’d battled plenty through the years, and Hoong-Lung wasn’t displeased at Wong-Gum’s panic. But besides Da Lin’s ferocious martial reputation, the forbidden texts were the monastery’s greatest treasure.

Even a rabid attack-book was precious.

“Jump on it,” Hoong-Lung whispered.

Wong-Gum stepped into a fighting-cat-stance, weaving chi energies around himself, fingers curved into claws–White Tiger Awaiting Prey. “You jump on it, orphan-boy!”

Hoong-Lung heard rustling. On looming shelves, books yawned open-and-closed like thousands of flickering moth wings.

They were surrounded. By hostile books.

For years, Hoong-Lung had tested his Kung Fu against giant spiders, demonic cats, winged snakes–whatever the raw chi-energies of Da Lin’s testing labyrinths summoned. So had Wong-Gum and the others. They’d been raised from novices to acolytes and apprenticed to elder monks for further training.

The library apprenticeship was the most dangerous. The acolytes had gasped when Hoong-Lung’s assignment was announced, though Hoong-Lung had relished the chance to escape them. He embraced the challenge.

But Wong-Gum, most spiteful of them all, also got the library.

They’d glared at each other after hearing they would train under Venerable Elder Bak-Fei, the mysterious warrior-monk who was librarian. The chi-weavings holding the library’s doors had parted for them. They’d entered, found their master missing, and the book creeping towards them.

This apprenticeship was getting worse by the minute.

“The forbidden books can’t leave,” Hoong-Lung said, eyeing the snarling manuscript. Was the library like the testing labyrinths, booby-trapped, able to summon monstrous creatures? Was this all some activated defense? “Maybe this is how the… ones before us… failed.”

No elder spoke of it, but rumor was the library’s last apprentices had been expelled. Hoong-Lung and Wong-Gum were the first replacements in decades.

“You think it’s another test?” Wong-Gum asked.

Hoong-Lung called chi into himself, his strength and speed trebling with the energies he summoned. “Everything’s a test,” he muttered, recalling years of sparring circles and brutal labyrinth runs under the cold observation of instructor-monks.

But severe as monastery life was, Hoong-Lung couldn’t be expelled. Outsider that he was, Da Lin was still his only home. The refugees fleeing through their mountains always brought tales about the warlords’ bloody feuds, of the chaotic outside world. Hoong-Lung remembered his own slain parents.

Wong-Gum swallowed. “Here goes nothing.” He stepped into the book’s path.

It launched itself at him.

Wong-Gum made raking tiger strikes; his chi-hardened fingers tore the binding. The shelves rioted with enraged manuscripts.

“Don’t gawk!” Wong-Gum yelped under the book’s continued assault. “Help me, orphan!”

Hoong-Lung remembered mornings crawling out the dormitory when he was nine, all the novices pawing along the freezing stone walkways to breakfast, Wong-Gum ramming into his left shoulder, one of Wong-Gum’s cronies crashing into his right. After breakfast, everyone bashing limbs against wooden dummies, and a rock hitting Hoong-Lung’s shaven skull. Wong-Gum’s smirk as he turned away. The indifferent gazes of the instructor-monks, who saw everything.

Outsider. Unenlightened One.

Yes, Hoong-Lung wasn’t ordained like the others, but a sniveling war orphan left on Da Lin’s doorstep. He could never master the monks’ cold logic, their strictly ordered emotions.

But Hoong-Lung’s feelings made him a furious fighter.

He leapt, fists and feet twirling–North Star Vaults the Heavens. His kick slammed the book down.

He landed in a ready stance. “Is it over?”

Wong-Gum glared at him, but shrugged.

The fallen book riffled back to life, flying straight for Hoong-Lung this time. He parried, ducked, retreated, realizing why Wong-Gum had panicked.

This book was ferocious.

The writing on its pages was as rebelliously unreadable as its cover. The swirling ink, supposedly a chi-weaving designed to safeguard the library’s forbidden ideas, dazed Hoong-Lung. The attacking book maneuvered him against a shelf, and the texts imprisoned there hissed in his ears. He heard Wong-Gum’s running footsteps fading away. Coward.

Hoong-Lung wouldn’t run. He’d prove that he belonged.

The book bit him.

Hoong-Lung shrieked and ripped the manuscript off him. Blood. Tiny puncture marks on his shoulder. How was that possible?

Seriously, he thought, as spots flooded his vision. Had he just been defeated… by a book? His dimming gaze caught on the texts lining the shelves, on the restless ideographs solidifying into just-recognizable words. Blackness claimed him, and he tipped forward…


 

Someone caught Hoong-Lung before he fell; a wave of healing chi dispelled his faintness. “That’ll do,” a gruff voice said.

Hoong-Lung looked into a tired, white-eyebrowed face and bottomless black eyes. The book charged again, but the Venerable Elder waved his hand: another flash of chi. The book hit the floor. And stayed down.

“Master Bak-Fei,” Hoong-Lung breathed, rushing to bow.

Wonderful. He’d almost fainted before his master.

Wong-Gung stood behind Bak-Fei with a hung-dog look. Hoong-Lung rubbed his shoulder–the skin was unbroken. He felt it again. Had he imagined the bite?

Maybe he had. The library had gone deathly silent. Bak-Fei picked up the fallen book. The rips were gone. An unblemished, untarnished text. Its only uniqueness was its swirling calligraphy.

Bak-Fei peered at the text and frowned.

“Master,” Wong-Gum began, “we–”

Bak-Fei said, “I don’t remember this book…”

Wong-Gum shut his mouth. After all, they were standing before a living legend, one who never ventured into the monastery proper. Until now, he’d existed only in stories to them. Bak-Fei was easily a century old, the warrior-sage who’d thrashed the warlord-bands so badly they left Da Lin alone. The only elder without apprentices.

Bak-Fei had the white eyebrows of his namesake. He wore saffron-yellow robes, not the grey tunics of the acolytes and novices. He towered over them. The meditation beads around his neck looked like rounded boulders.

Bak-Fei grunted. “Must be forgetting these titles.”

He turned to Hoong-Lung. “You were beaten,” he rumbled. Hoong-Lung’s face grew hot. Wong-Gum smirked, then froze under Bak-Fei’s glower. “And you ran.” The elder sighed. “I guess you two will have to do.”

Bak-Fei pressed the book into Wong-Gum’s chest. “Your first test, acolytes. Re-shelve this.” Bak-Fei started walking down the library’s main hall. Hoong-Lung and Wong-Gum glanced at each other before rushing to follow.

“The library is always sealed,” the elder explained, “but the chi-weavings need resting-time. You must defend the library when the barrier-seals go down. You must also sweep, dust, clean.”

The library was vast. Bak-Fei strode about as if walking through a meadow. Long tables, on which lanterns glowed with living chi, stretched between shelves a full story tall. Circular windows revealed faraway peaks, misty clouds, scraggly mountain willows.

“The books are banned to all but the elders,” Bak-Fei continued. He spoke like a sad giant, not in the severe, imperious way of the other elders. It struck Hoong-Lung that Bak-Fei was the first person who showed any emotion at Da Lin. “The ideas contained here are wild, difficult to contain.” He rounded on them. “As you’ve seen, these books are alive. They’ll stop at nothing to escape. Only Da Lin’s separation from the outside world makes us worthy of safeguarding them.”

“Amitabha. The Enlightened live above the mundane,” Wong-Gum recited. Hoong-Lung grimaced. Kiss-up.

Bak-Fei seemed unimpressed. “Just safeguard the texts, acolyte.” He pointed at the book Wong-Gum clutched. “That one freed itself. It won’t be the last.”

Hoong-Lung made the mistake of glancing at the dizzying ink and had to look away. “Master,” he asked. “How can we re-shelve that book if we can’t read it?”

Bak-Fei sighed deeply, as if Hoong-Lung had said something especially tragic. “Learning to read the swirling ink is part of your training.”

Despite themselves, Hoong-Lung and Wong-Gum shot each other a look.

“We’ll read the forbidden texts?” Hoong-Lung asked. He’d thought his apprenticeship was about guarding the books. But to read texts that didn’t preach Enlightenment? Surely, it was blasphemy. Yet excitement flared in Hoong-Lung. Many forgotten animal styles were stashed here. Secret and powerful chi-weavings. If Hoong-Lung could master such knowledge, he’d be a true warrior-monk. He’d finally belong.

Bak-Fei nodded grudgingly. “Eventually. Slowly.”

Wong-Gum looked sick.

Hoong-Lung gazed at the alien writing, resisting his nausea. It was whispered many elder monks couldn’t master the swirling ink. Could he really do this?

But the training dummies had seemed impossible to Hoong-Lung–at first. So had the sparring circles, the complicated chi-diagrams in his training sutras. And what was scarier than a testing labyrinth? Hoong-Lung would succeed. It was a matter of persistence.

Bak-Fei turned away. “Get to know this place.”

It was a dismissal, but a question flew from Hoong-Lung before he could stop it. “Did the last apprentices fail because they couldn’t read?”

Hoong-Lung regretted himself instantly. Such impudence! Why would the master discuss past failures?

But Bak-Fei halted mid-stride, his back to them. “No, acolyte. They failed because they could read. It was what they read that hurt them.”


 

As if apprenticeship wasn’t enough, a crowd of refugees arrived at the monastery. The warlords’ latest victims. Whenever people fled to Da Lin, the elders sacrificed their meditations in Enlightenment to give aid, lowering themselves to the world’s mundane suffering.

Monks-in-training, including Hoong-Lung and Wong-Gum, also had to assist — on top of their new library duties.

“All that knowledge,” Hoong-Lung said, ladling rice gruel into bowls Wong-Gum passed him. “Ours.” The monastery’s courtyard, normally filled with novices drilling chi-weavings, now held dozens of bedraggled men and women. “If we succeed–”

“We’ll become librarians,” Wong-Gum grated. “Keepers of the world’s deadliest books. Face it, orphan. The master’s crazy. You saw the swirling ink. Only a select few have ever mastered it.”

Hoong-Lung wanted to say they’d become students of the greatest warrior-monk in Da Lin’s history, but he heard a baby’s cries. Stony-faced elders and acolytes moved efficiently among the injured, applying salves and bandages. The warlords had used poisoned darts — the wounds were terrible.

Hoong-Lung’s ladling slowed. He’d been a refugee himself once. “Amitabha,” he whispered.

Wong-Gum thumped the pot. “Abbot wants us to fail. He’s punishing us for our fights. Fights you started.”

“You threw rocks at me,” Hoong-Lung retorted.

“And you smashed a row of dummies. You lack control, orphan.”

Hoong-Lung stirred the porridge for stewed prunes. Those refugees looked half-starved. “And throwing rocks shows control?” Hoong-Lung narrowed his eyes. “Or running away? From a library?

I. Was. Going,” Wong-Gum grated, drawing out each word, “for a weapon.”

Hoong-Lung snorted.

The evening sun dipped below the mountain peaks, setting the sky afire. Wong-Gum squinted at the sunset. “That was a good fight. With the dummies. What were we, fourteen?”

Hoong-Lung filled more bowls, picturing himself and Wong-Gum charging each other as enraged novices, other boys scrambling away as thick wooden chunks flew through the air. “We wrecked three dummies using dragon-style weavings. Abbot made us clean latrines for a month.”

“Couldn’t tell if he was upset over the damage, or that we’d already mastered dragon-weavings,” Wong-Gum said with a quiet smile. “We are the two strongest acolytes.”

“So maybe we were given to Bak-Fei because we’re the only two who can succeed,” Hoong-Lung said.

They needed to master the ink. The last apprentices had gotten that far, at least.

Even so, Hoong-Lung shivered. He imagined another scene, where swirling ideographs chased each other across their pages, dashing themselves against the paper in their fury. Hoong-Lung remembered what he’d seen when he almost fainted: the squiggly lines slowing. Coalescing.

His shoulder ached, and he rubbed it.


 

Bak-Fei taught them the library’s chi-woven barrier-seals. He told of its founding, stories Hoong-Lung and Wong-Gum already knew: throughout history, Da Lin’s great warrior-monks scoured the world, weaving chi-strands to extract the troubling thoughts that drove people mad. Under the monks’ castings, the entrapped ideas became words, swirling ink spilling into paragraphs, wrestled onto pages — manacled into manuscripts. The resulting forbidden books were housed within what became the monastery’s library. Besides the testing labyrinths, it became Da Lin’s most dangerous location.

Deadlier than any warlord, these books could infect entire nations. People would kill for these ideas if they were ever allowed to take hold.

Though Bak-Fei said they would read the texts, he gave no training on mastering the swirling ink. He treated it as something that would eventually happen–like aging. Or dying. “When you’re ready, the ink will stop. You must inform me when this happens.” Bak-Fei paused here, his eyes glazing over, perhaps seeing past regrets. Maybe his last apprentices. “Never read the books on your own, for in reading, you’ll face great danger. The books here are seductive. You must prove your ability to resist their temptations.”

Wong-Gum looked disgusted. “Impure thoughts,” he muttered to the floor. Yet Hoong-Lung felt the old drive to prove himself. Yes, the books physically attacked, but how could reading hurt anybody? He didn’t want to wait for them to become legible. He wanted to start training now.

“Master,” he said, “Surely, we can resist–”

Bak-Fei shook his head. “When you’re ready. Go slowly, acolyte.”

He finished by explaining the glyphs on the books, which denoted any errant book’s proper location.

And the books were errant.

The shelves seethed, book covers rustling as wild inks stormed across them in mind-dizzying patterns. Bak-Fei disappeared often into the library’s corridors or left altogether. Hoong-Lung and Wong-Gum patrolled the library, wrestling back texts that broke from their bindings.

Strangely, the only text that behaved was the attacking book from their first day. Its restless glyph was a mystery, a sigil that didn’t match any section markings.

Hoong-Lung didn’t want to ask for help, it being their first test, but gave in to Wong-Gum’s wheedling. How long before the book woke and attacked again?

Bak-Fei frowned over the strange glyph. “This wasn’t here before,” he muttered. He took the book. “On second thought, I’ll re-shelve this one.”

Hoong-Lung sighed after Bak-Fei departed. “If he’d just teach us some ideographs…”

Wong-Gum punched his arm. “It’s forbidden, idiot. We’re not ready.” He shuddered. “Why would you want to read that evil thing, anyway?”


 

Another day, as they patrolled together, Wong-Gum’s head jerked up. “What’s that?”

“What’s what?” Hoong-Lung grunted. He was staring at the swirling ink titles. If he squinted, he could just make out ideograph-radicals, words solidifying. His shoulder hurt again.

“Brother, you don’t hear that?”

Brother?

Wong-Gum never addressed him as a fellow monk.

Surprise pulled Hoong-Lung from the chaotic writing, and he heard the rumbling growl. He’d heard it before–whenever his eyes settled onto the books. Why hadn’t he ever recognized it as a growl?

They followed the noise, turning a corridor–when the shelves melted away–

They were in a rocky pit; a dark forest loomed over them, trunks ashen-grey and leaves blood-red, letting through a lurid light. From a dark cavern, luminous eyes glowered at them. The growling came from there. Hot animal musk stung their nostrils.

“Slowly, acolytes.”

They whirled to find Bak-Fei staring grimly at the cavern.

“The library was created from a testing labyrinth,” he said. “The original labyrinth. It’s shifting because a book is close to breaking free. A very powerful one.”

Hoong-Lung watched the beast stalk out its cave, sinewy, muscled legs and padding footfalls, fury clothed in feline grace, bared fangs, jet-black fur. “Black Tiger,” he whispered.

He and Wong-Gum and moved together, elbows and knees bent for Snow Leopard Guards the Pass.

“A forbidden animal-style!” Wong-Gum hissed.

When Da Lin’s monks first fled the violence of the mundane world, they created Black Tiger to defend themselves. But the style was so savage, it was banished from monastery teachings.

Of course it would end up here.

Bak-Fei pointed; the rocks blurred, revealing a portal back to the library’s familiar shelves. “I’ll handle this. Return and guard the library.”

Wong-Gum jumped through the portal. Hoong-Lung hesitated. His master looked so tired.

“I said go.”

Bak-Fei’s command dispelled Hoong-Lung’s hesitation. So this was why his master disappeared so often: to hunt out feral books. This was how dangerous these ideas were. Before stepping through the portal, Hoong-Lung felt an enormous surge of chi from Bak-Fei as he prepared for battle.


 

Wong-Gum ran for the Abbot, while Hoong-Lung waited in the library.

But Bak-Fei soon emerged from another portal. He was pale. “It’s contained,” he gasped. “I need to rest.”

In that moment, Hoong-Lung saw through the Bak-Fei of legend to the weathered man beneath. He helped Bak-Fei to a chair. He wanted to confess about the book biting him. Perhaps Bak-Fei could explain why his shoulder ached. But what would Bak-Fei do? Expel him, like the last apprentices? Hoong-Lung asked a different question. “Master, what about the book with the strange glyph?”

Bak-Fei stopped rubbing his forehead. “Oh, yes. That one came from deep within the library. An ancient text. From before my time, even.”

“I think we would’ve figured it out,” Hoong-Lung said. “The ink solidifies if I concentrate–”

“–Stop being so eager!” Bak-Fei snapped. “You need to prepare yourself for what’s inside these books. The last apprentices who mastered the ink became dissatisfied with monastery life. They rejected our teachings. Some joined the warlords.”

Hoong-Lung gasped. “Some warlords are former warrior-monks?” He’d heard stories about warlord-generals with superhuman abilities. It made sense if they were former chi-weavers. “If the texts are so corrupting, why expose us?” he asked.

But he realized the answer as soon as he finished speaking.

He saw again the tired lines on his master’s face. “You don’t just need apprentices. You need new librarians.”

Bak-Fei closed his eyes, like he’d die right there. “It’s no easy thing, acolyte, holding back ideas.”


 

Hoong-Lung figured his master was right. He should control his eagerness. These ideas were dangerous. There were things like Black Tiger lurking here. Maybe the last apprentices had failed because they’d been tempted by such powerful arts.

And anyway, the swirling ink still eluded him. Every time he looked, the calligraphy shivered, and he had to turn away or vomit. His shoulder twitched, an itch within the bone no amount of meditation or chi-healing would settle.

Eventually, the itch won. Dreams of swirling blackness pulled Hoong-Lung past the sleeping acolytes in his dormitory, down the dark, stone corridors. Before the library’s double-doors, he unwove the barrier-seal.

The lanterns cast islands of light in the library’s nighttime darkness. The texts were blissfully still, a prison of slumbering books. Even the ever-swirling calligraphy moved lethargically. Hoong-Lung’s breath caught. Lethargically? It was nearly legible. His shoulder throbbed.

That was when Hoong-Lung snapped out of his trance. What was he doing? These books were forbidden for a reason. They transformed reality. Attacked. But he followed the ghostly pull through the maze-like shelves, stopping finally at the book with the strange glyph. He laid it on a table, the cover warm to the touch.

A final twinge in his shoulder. Black smoke spooling down his arm, onto the book that had bitten him, the smoky vein just heavy enough to halt the swirling calligraphy.

A Thousand Adventure Tales, he read.

Such a dull title. How could this be a forbidden text? Yet the readable pages thrilled Hoong-Lung. It was like poring over his training sutras as a novice, puzzling out chi-weavings that baffled his peers. He should report this to Bak-Fei, or even tell Wong-Gum, shouldn’t he?

A whispery breeze wafted through the corridors, like the ones channeling through the library in daytime, only quieter. Hoong-Lung had the chilling impression of being watched from the darkened shelves.

But there was nothing there.

He turned back to the book. Hoong-Lung hadn’t progressed faster than his peers by doing nothing. He’d studied long after they slept. How was this different? And hadn’t Bak-Fei said that to resist the forbidden ideas, he needed to first read them?

So Hoong-Lung sat and turned the page.


 

“What’s wrong?” Wong Gum asked as they carried blankets into the courtyard.

Hoong-Lung shook off his sleepiness. That book was thicker than it looked. What he’d thought would take an hour to read stretched until nearly dawn, and he’d only made it halfway through. “I’m fine. Um. Brother.” The word was still clumsy on his tongue.

“You look sick,” Wong-Gum persisted.

Hoong-Lung shrugged and set off with his blankets.

He dared not tell Wong-Gum what he’d done. He’d read a tale of nine suns, another of a child born with fire and wind wheels beneath his feet, one about a monkey hatching from a celestial egg. Silly stories, but fascinating. How had the ancient hunter-monks deemed them dangerous?

The refugee children recovered faster than the adults, groups running in hide-and-seek games. Hoong-Lung found a boy sitting by himself, staring blankly into the distance. Dried tear-streaks ran down his dirty cheeks. Hoong-Lung was much the same when he’d first arrived here. The air turned cold as the sun dipped low, so Hoong-Lung wrapped a blanket around the boy’s shoulders.

“Take care,” he said.

The boy said nothing, a rock of sadness in the lonely, high mountains. The work of guarding the forbidden texts–it was to prevent this sadness, wasn’t it?

Hoong-Lung sighed and moved on.


 

Hoong-Lung’s shoulder no longer hurt, but now the books whispered incessantly to him. He could see why Bak-Fei always looked strained. The forbidden ideals fought not just for escape, but against each other.

Light is a wave–no, a particle–no, both wave and particle!

There is one God–there are many–no, we become gods if we shed our mortal desires.

Dynastic rule is celestially ordained–dynasties must be overthrown by the proletariat, no matter how bloody the process.

Earth circles the sunnay, the sun and planets revolve around us!

The world rests on a turtle’s back, balanced on an elephant, which stands upon another turtle, and another–turtles all the way down.

Bak-Fei approached Hoong-Lung and Wong-Gum with another challenge. “Abbot requests the Foggy Swamp Sutra. He wants to create an antidote for the warlords’ toxic darts.” He waited expectantly.

Wong-Gum set off; Hoong-Lung followed. Foggy Swamp was a book of poisons–as dark in reputation as Black Tiger.

Problem was, they weren’t supposed to know how to find it. Or were they? Should Hoong-Lung reveal his mastery over the swirling ink? He heard Bak-Fei following him. His heart raced. Wong-Gum stopped before a wall of books where he hovered, at a loss.

The glyphs had guided Wong-Gum, so Hoong-Lung could claim the same. But how to explain that the crackly manuscript on the third shelf was the requested volume? Its calligraphy, cold and straight as black spider legs, beckoned to Hoong-Lung. Alongside the whispering texts, it crooned about boons granted by dark potions…

Bak-Fei looked relieved at their hesitance. “Slowly, acolytes.” He took the volume and left.

Wong-Gum rounded on Hoong-Lung. “Why ask for a book we can’t find?”

“The ink still wiggles for you?” Hoong-Lung asked.

“Makes me want to puke every time I’m here. You?”

“I can make out more than before,” Hoong-Lung said, not an exact lie, but Wong-Gum narrowed his eyes.

“More than before? Brother, you’ve been very tired lately. How much time have you been spending here?”

“Too much,” Hoong-Lung said, which was the full truth.


 

The refugees planned to depart for the warmer southern lands soon. The elders were relieved. Together, they planned the safest route through the warlords’ territories.

The lone boy stayed in the same place, staring listlessly at the mist-shrouded peaks, the one constant in Hoong-Lung’s exhausting days.

“Leave him,” another acolyte said when Hoong-Lung tried giving the boy some bread. “He eats when he’s hungry; he sleeps when he wants. It’s all we can do.”

“Where’s your family?” Hoong-Lung asked the boy.

“Killed, of course,” the acolyte said, rearranging vials of Abbot’s poison-antidotes on a tray. “If that boy doesn’t snap out of it, we’ll have another novice on our hands.”

Another novice, Hoong-Lung thought. Yes, he’d be taken as an orphan initiate, to a life of hard training. The replacement of worldly sorrow with the pain of learning Da Lin’s fighting arts, sparring matches, and the summoned nightmares of the testing labyrinths. Mundane sorrows scrubbed away with the purity of Enlightenment.

The orphan was around nine, as Hoong-Lung had been. They’d start with cold-conditioning first, forcing him to harness chi against the mountain cold. They’d take the blankets away. Make him crawl for breakfast. Throw rocks at his back.


 

A flurried shadow attacked Hoong-Lung in the corridors that night. Moonlight shafts revealed White Tiger Clawing Sheep–it was Wong-Gum. Hoong-Lung wrapped his limbs about his rival with Coiling Serpent. They wrestled silently before breaking apart, panting.

“I knew it!” Wong-Gum hissed. “You can read the ink.”

“Bak-Fei said we would when we were ready,” Hoong-Lung hissed back. “Well, I’m ready.”

The darkness blanked out Wong-Gum’s face, but his body was tense. “Brother, don’t you see? The books are infecting you. It’s what happened to the failed apprentices.”

“If the elders read them, why aren’t they infected?” Hoong-Lung countered. “Why did Master Bak-Fei expect us to find Foggy Swamp? How do you know that wasn’t a test?”

Wong-Gum stepped back into the shadows. “I’m not failing, hear me, orphan? I’m. Not. Failing.

And he was gone.

After that night, Wong-Gum kept a wary distance.

Hoong-Lung should’ve quit then; Wong-Gum would strike eventually. But he couldn’t stop reading. There was learning on those shelves.

Just what had those last apprentices found that got them expelled?

The nighttime library contained volumes on philosophy, science, literature, and the silence to digest them. And there was something strange about the Adventure Tales. The further he read, the more he struggled with the calligraphy, until it was just as swirly and nauseating as before.

Unlike the other texts, this book never whispered to him, but he heard Bak-Fei’s warning. Slowly, acolyte.

Hoong-Lung kept at the squiggly text until he realized the shelves around him were shifting. The stone floor melted into a craggy pit. Dry winds shook the blood-red leaves of the trees above, and the all-too-familiar musk alerted Hoong-Lung to Black Tiger padding toward him.

Hoong-Lung trembled before those baleful eyes.

Then a book flew in Tiger’s face, riffling its pages against Tiger’s nose. The Adventure Tales. Tiger sneezed.

The chaotic ink of the book’s latter pages streamed off, the part Hoong-Lung couldn’t read, forming–

“A monkey?” Hoong-Lung gasped. Another animal style?

Like Black Tiger’s fur, the monkey that emerged was composed of thousands of lines of arcane ideographs. Before, Hoong-Lung had only perceived Tiger as a beast, but it seemed his mastery of the ink allowed him to see these library-creatures for what they really were: beings of pure writing.

The monkey hopped onto Tiger’s massive head, grabbing its ears and kicking its eyes; Black Tiger roared, but the book-that-was-a-monkey climbed along the great cat’s underside. Monkey howled, revealing gleaming white teeth, and its attacks rocked Tiger off-balance.

Hoong-Lung touched his shoulder–was that what bit him?

With a final whoop, Monkey leapt away; Black Tiger disintegrated into ink, pages, a spine, a cover–

–a book clattering onto the floor. Its chaotic writing stilled.

Hoong-Lung felt a tug on his sleeve. Monkey clambered up his arm, onto his shoulder. It patted Hoong-Lung’s face with tiny paws, as if feeling for something. It blinked and yawned, as if waking from a long nap.


 

Hoong-Lung read his nights away until the morning of the refugees’ departure. He found the orphan at his usual spot. “Little boy,” he said. “I’d like to read you something.” From beneath some blankets, Hoong-Lung revealed what he’d smuggled out the library: A Thousand Adventure Tales.

The boy’s eyes shifted ever so slightly.

“You’re interested,” Hoong-Lung said. “I can tell.”

Hoong-Lung read the story of the Monkey-King who ruled over Flower Fruit Mountain and became a heavenly sage who, for his audacity, was buried under a mountain for five hundred years.

“One day, Monkey was…”

Hoong-Lung paused, because Monkey had pulled himself from the pages, sniffing the outside air. Hoong-Lung wanted to shut the book, but Monkey climbed onto the orphan’s lap. The boy’s eyes widened, but he didn’t cry out.

“One day, Monkey was freed from his prison,” Hoong-Lung continued, and Monkey let himself be petted.


 

Hoong-Lung smiled as he walked towards the library. He’d read about the Monkey-King zooming about on his flying cloud mount, magical staff in hand. The boy listened with a brighter look in his eyes–bright enough to leave with the other refugees. If the boy kept imagining, maybe he could free himself to start a new life.

When Hoong-Lung entered the library, though, his smile faded.

He thought the library had shifted again, like whenever Black Tiger attacked, but the figures of Bak-Fei and Wong-Gum were very real.

“See, Master?” Wong-Gum crowed. “He sneaks here every night. He smuggled something out.”

Disappointment lined Bak-Fei’s face. “What’ve you done?”

“Master–,” Hoong-Lung stammered.

“Show me!”

Hoong-Lung brought out the forbidden book. But the text crackled in his fingers. He thought Monkey would fly out, but the spine crumbled. The pages blackened, breaking into ashen flecks that vanished before hitting the cold, stone floor.


 

“I didn’t know books escaped that way,” Hoong-Lung said. Surely, the last failed apprentices hadn’t released a forbidden text. They hadn’t done what he’d done.

“The book was the container,” Abbot replied. “It’s the ideas behind the words that are dangerous. Once the text is read, the idea has escaped.”

Hoong-Lung stood in the main hall, before Abbot. The monastery’s elders ranged on either side. Bak-Fei stood to Abbot’s left.

“The monkey you freed wasn’t harmless,” Abbot continued. Like all the elders, Abbot’s mediation beads were enormous. “Sun Wukong. You freed Sun Wukong.”

The elders murmured, and Abbot thumped his staff against the floor for quiet.

Hoong-Lung gaped, awestruck. “The one imprisoned under the mountain? I… suppose that makes sense…”

“Sun Wukong is a shapeshifter. A trickster. Rebellion incarnate. The most forbidden ideal of all.”

“It posed as a storybook,” Bak-Fei murmured in wonder. “Disguised its glyph. No wonder I couldn’t recognize it.”

The monks argued again, glaring at Hoong-Lung. It was strange how Hoong-Lung only now realized how cold they were, how devoid of sympathy when dealing with refugees, or even caring for war-ravaged orphans. Their voices were like the whispers inside the library, ideals pushing against each other. Ideals that terrified their tightly ordered thoughts.

Hoong-Lung turned icy with realization. “You’re going after that boy, aren’t you?”

Abbot gripped his staff with both hands. “It’s a dangerous idea to let free, especially in these times. The boy will join our order.”

Hoong-Lung heard Bak-Fei sigh at the flagstones. It must’ve been so trying, shepherding ideas nobody could ever read. All Hoong-Lung had ever wanted was to prove himself to these monks, but he realized he had never belonged, and never would. He didn’t want to become another Bak-Fei.

It seemed reading the forbidden books had changed him.

For the better, he hoped.

Hoong-Lung shook his head against what Abbot had said. “No, Abbot, it’s the perfect time for free ideas.”

Abbot exclaimed, “You’d have warring ideologies stalking the world alongside the warlords? Did you forget our last batch of refugees?”

“Abbot, the warlords have been fighting even before I came. I read–,” dark muttering when Hoong-Lung said that word, but he continued, “–I read that Monkey passed the Enlightenment test given to him by the Buddha.”

“You mean failed,” Bak-Fei said. “Sun Wukong thought the Buddha’s five fingers were five pillars supporting the heavens. Then, he was buried under a mountain for five hundred years…”

Bak-Fei trailed off, looking surprised he’d spoken.

Hoong-Lung supposed it made sense how Bak-Fei reacted. He was a librarian, having access to powerful ideas, yet never able to share them. “No, Master, I mean how Monkey survived his imprisonment, then journeyed to recover the great sutras. Don’t you see? Sun Wukong’s story doesn’t have to be dangerous. He can be interpreted many different ways. He’s rebellion and trickery, but he’s also courage and determination. The world needs that now. Maybe Monkey being out there can help. He helped that boy.”

Bak-Fei rubbed his chin. “It’s dangerous when you think things like Black Tiger or the trickster-monkey belong out there.”

“Master, the world was dangerous before Monkey escaped.”

“The warlords use poison darts now!” Abbot shouted. “See how cruel people’s minds can be?”

“But Abbot,” Hoong-Lung countered, “weren’t you using Foggy Swamp to create antidotes? Who gets to decide which ideas are dangerous, and which go free?”

It the end, it was no use.

Bak-Fei’s eyes followed Hoong-Lung as he left the hall.

He saw Wong-Gum leaning against the outside wall, arms folded. He’d heard everything. He spat as Hoong-Lung passed.


 

Hoong-Lung walked down the mountain path from Da Lin, his few possessions in a carry-sack. At the guardian lion statues, he was surprised to see Bak-Fei. His former master had exchanged his heavy beads and robes for grey tunic and boots. His eyes looked clearer in the misty morning air.

“Master. You’re… leaving the monastery?”

“You’re trying to catch up with the boy,” Bak-Fei said by way of reply.

“Yes,” Hoong-Lung said. “I don’t think he should be forced into monkhood.”

As they walked, Bak-Fei said, “When you read to him, you released Monkey, and the book containing that idea disintegrated. But if the pursuing monks can perform the appropriate chi-weavings before the boy, they can recover the book. Maybe he doesn’t have to join.”

Hoong-Lung clenched his fists as he imagined the monks, those elders who always thought they knew better, tearing Monkey’s ingenuity, his mischievousness and sense of fun, out the boy’s mind. “That’s terrible. That can’t happen.”

“They’ll hunt you, too” Bak-Fei continued. “You’re also one of Monkey’s keepers.”

“Then why let me go? Why’d they let the last failed apprentices leave?”

“Because performing chi-weavings on you at the monastery would’ve… troubled… the monks-in-training.”

Hoong-Lung skidded on the mountain gravel as a terrible thought occurred to him. “Master. Who pursued your last apprentices?”

Bak-Fei sighed. “I did.”

You sapped the minds of former pupils?” Da Lin was more sinister than Hoong-Lung knew. He was right to leave. Hoong-Lung leapt back, chi infusing his limbs as he crouched, hands curling into monkey-paws. A new animal-style: Boxing Monkey Weaves and Darts. “Have you come to reclaim anything from me, Master?”

If Bak-Fei was impressed, he didn’t show it. In fact, he reverted to his former, sad monastery-self. “Da Lin wasn’t always like how it is now, you know. Centuries of banning ideas has changed them.” He shook his head. “You were right. The ideas should be freed, and I won’t hold them back any longer. I want to see what good they can do. What’s our plan?”

Hoong-Lung studied his former master. Bak-Fei’s tired lines had vanished. His back was straighter, his eyes eager. Hoong-Lung released his chi. “We have to read Monkey to others. We have to spread the idea.”

As they set off again, Hoong-Lung wondered what the orphan and Monkey were doing. He imagined Monkey jumping high, flying low, leaping onto shoulders, whispering into open ears, inspiring people to become trickster-warriors. Maybe they’d learn to resist the warlords.

A roar sounded, and Bak-Fei’s eyebrows raised when he saw Black Tiger padding along a hillside above them. It was a volatile ideal, but like Monkey, perhaps had its hopeful interpretations.

“For if the monks become too persistent,” Hoong-Lung explained. “They’ll be hunting you, too, won’t they?”

“You’ve been a busy reader,” Bak-Fei said. “They wouldn’t have released you if they’d realized… Wait. How many books did you read?”

Hoong-Lung smiled. The cold, grey mountains became alive with blaspheming writers and women-warriors; scholar-gods and iridescent dragons; diary-writing girls and poisoned philosophers; talking lions, boys born from giant peaches, foul-mouthed heroes, moonlight-drunk poets; wizards, slave-stealers.

Within the throng, a lone monkey capering along.

All trooping into the world beyond.

 

About the Author

Andrew K. Hoe

Andrew K. Hoe teaches and practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and a college professor. His academic work in children’s literature can be found in The Looking Glass. Follow him online or on Twitter.

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About the Narrator

Andrew K. Hoe

Andrew K. Hoe teaches and practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and a college professor. His academic work in children’s literature can be found in The Looking Glass. Follow him online or on Twitter.

Find more by Andrew K. Hoe

Elsewhere