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Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Eighteen)
Chapter Eighteen In Which Scholars Get Some Exercise, There Is A Sticky Situation, And A Big Bug
"I give up!" Sparrow wheezed. "No more! Can't take any more!"
He collapsed, his knees and hands landing on the dirt ground. Sweat dribbled from his face, darkening the ground beneath him. Despite all the heavy breathing, he could barely satisfy his lungs' hunger for air. The younger scholars walked past him, looking almost as exhausted as he was, though they weren't doing themselves any favors lugging around such large knapsacks.
"Come on!" shouted Evan Taught. He was ahead of everyone with Master Da. Despite toting an even larger knapsack, he looked almost invigorated. "You sorry lot aren't going to be much use on an archaeological dig if this is the best you can do."
Master Da had decided to bring the students of the temple on an excursion around the surrounding forest, both to get them in tune with nature, and to teach them about the plants that grow there. As part of their research, Taught decided to join the class observe, dragging with him, the scholar apprentices. Obviously, they weren't all that thrilled about being in the great outdoors, where it was hot and stifling, instead of sitting around inside where it was cool, with books and papers to their noses.
Xiao Mei, on the other hand, couldn't be more happy. Only an hour into their excursion, and the basket she had brought with her was halfway-filled with herbs, berries, leaves, roots and grass that she knew, on the spot, could be used in medicine. She couldn't really help it, being the apprentice of a doctor dealing with traditional medicine.
Taking a deep breath through her nose, she could smell the refreshing scent of the forest and incoming rain. The sounds of the forest, birds tweeting and leaves rustling against the wind, was soothing to her ears. And she felt cool beneath the shadows of the tree, despite the warmth of the air which was almost too hot to bear for the scholars.
Sparrow let out a groan and rolled onto his back. His cane slipped through his fingers and hit dirt.
"Are you okay, Sparrow?" Xiao Mei asked, stopping beside him and looking down. Her shadow shielded Sparrow's face from the sunlight trickling through the cluster of tree leaves above. Looking up, Sparrow could make out the shadow of a large bird hovering above the girl. It was probably Phoenix stretching his wings.
"Spare me your pity," Sparrow implored. "My pride as a man is hurt enough as it is that a lady as young as you had to dillydally twice so I could catch up."
"You probably shouldn't have dressed so warmly," Ai Hui remarked. "Why are you wearing a coat out in this weather?"
"A gentleman cannot be without his coat," Sparrow said. "That is the rule."
"Sounds like a dumb rule to me," Ai Hui said. "Even Master Taught and the others aren't wearing their gowns."
Behind Ai Hui, Harold said while gasping for air: "Who knew . . . scholar work . . . involved a lot of muscle work?" Like Sparrow, he was exhausted, though not as much as the older teen scholar. Duncan and Diana were not faring much better.
"Hmph!" went Taught as he stopped, turned around to face the apprentices, and scowled with his arms crossed over his chest. "Us scholars travel a lot for our work, so we need to stay in pique health. Otherwise, we can't get the job done. How can you expect to be the future of scholarship, when you don't even exercise regularly? Honestly! Kids today. Am I right?"
Master Da seemed to nod in agreement, but the way he replied suggested he probably wasn't listening.
It didn't escape anyone's notice that the large gorilla man was stewing in a sour mood. Not a surprise, really, since Xiao Mei had practically taken over the lesson. She kept pointing out which plants could be used for what medicine and what was dangerous poisonous before Master Da could so much as begin to dish out an explanation. Just a few seconds ago, she had actually been taking the lead, and even pointed out some plants that Master Da had not known could be used in medicine. It made people wonder just who was the teacher, and who was the student.
So, right now, he was looking all around the forest, desperate to find something that he could teach the students before Xiao Mei could. He found just the plant. It didn't have much to do with medicine, but he was just that desperate now.
Master Da turned around and opened his mouth to speak, but . . .
"Oh!" went Xiao Mei. "Isn't that Kan Zhou Sticky Tree? I thought they only grew in the western forests of Kan Zhou Province. The sap from that tree is infamously sticky, which was how Kan Zhou Province became the glue capitol of the world!"
The tree she was talking about was thin for a tall tree, even slighter than a coconut tree. Its dark bark surface glistened against the sun, as if it were made of polished stone, and was riddled with white spots, like stars twinkling in the dark sky.
"Curses!" Master Da screamed, ready to tear the fur off his head. He stamped his foot down like an infuriated child. "How could you know all that? As far as I know, the Kan Zhou Sticky Tree has no medical use whatsoever!"
"Believe me, if you had the stuff in your hair because of a prank by a neighborhood boy, you end up knowing all about it," Xiao Mei said grimly.
Never had Master Da sensed such darkness come from such a young child. It was enough to leave him speechless. He could practically see the negative aura rising from her shoulders. The gorilla couldn't help but shiver.
"Ahem! W-well, moving on," he stuttered.
Needless to say, what happened with that tree sap made Xiao Mei very, very miserable and she didn't want to go through something like that ever again. This would explain why she was clinging to the back of Sparrow's blazer, making sure that he was between her and that tree with its horrible, horrible sap.
"I must say, this sap has an unusual scent," said Taught as he leaned forward to take a closer look. "If I didn't know any better, it's almost as if shampoo was leaking from this tree instead of sa - whoa!"
As he moved to get a closer look, Taught stepped onto a patch of mud. His footstep came too heavy and he slipped. With his balance lost, he could only careen forward onto the tree with its extremely super sticky sap, giving it an accidental hug. His left cheek was stuck on the trunk of the tree so he could only look over his right shoulder.
Everyone stared for a moment, standing frozen as if time came to a halt. Taught's eyes were wide with disbelief. Not a single word was uttered. And then the others decided to turn the other way to spare the master scholar some dignity.
"Grr!" went the scholar stuck to a tree. "Don't just stand there! Get me off of this blasted tree!"
If his arms weren't stuck to the bark of the tree, he would probably flail them around like a toddler having a tantrum.
"Ah!" Sparrow suddenly shouted, his face contorted with horror. "Master Taught, you have to calm down!"
"Don't you tell me to calm down, you ruddy brat!" Taught screamed. "I'm stuck to a tree!"
What Sparrow had seen that made him urge the senior scholar to calm down was an arachnid of incredible girth, crawling just above Taught's head. The eight-legged creature bared its hideous fangs, while multiple eyes were trained on the giant who disturbed its slumber.
Others saw the spider and all who were not paralyzed with fear like Harold, Qiang Shi and Xiao Mei, whispered to the man to calm down.
"Oh man," laughed the voice in Xiao Mei's head. Xiao Mei rolled her eyes up while keeping her hands over her mouth, having gasped in horror after sighting the spider. "Who would have thought that there was a Green Demon Spider here of all places too? Today is not that guy's lucky day."
The Green Demon Spider, dear reader, is a huge species that, like the sticky tree with its sticky sap, were local to Kan Zhou. Now, these spiders are not poisonous. However, they can, and have, become very vicious when disturbed. Their bites can really hurt, and they have enough muscle to stay latched onto their victims for several days. In other words, it was definitely not Master Taught's lucky day.
All that urging to calm down only had the opposite effect with the old scholar. He just got angrier. And the angrier he got, the louder he shouted and struggled, shaking the tree along with him. It wasn't that big or thick of a tree to begin with, but it was sturdy enough that Taught could not break free.
With all that shaking and yelling going on around it, the anger of Evan Taught was not the only one to grow. Finally, the spider couldn't handle it anymore. It decided to abandon all instincts of a professional hunter and forget about waiting for the opportune moment to strike. All it cared about now was that the giant buffoon paid for disturbing it.
The creature leaped and soared down until it landed on Taught's back. It bared its fangs and then . . .
Several miles away, villagers ceased work in the nearby forests. They called on the police, and armed men and women were sent to scour the area in search of a monstrous beast with a terrible, high howl. That day saw the birth of a new urban legend of a terrifying spirit of a woman who howls from the misfortunes of her life.
"By the way, how is it that a tree from Kan Zhou ended up growing here in central Zhang lands?" Sparrow said as they watched Taught get carried away on a stretcher by two men in white. A rancid blue paste, brought by a member of the temple was used to dissolve the sap, freeing Taught from the tree's sticky grip. Beyond the road was a clearing where a mini-airship waited to carry Taught to the nearest hospital. The spider was still clinging to Taught's bottom.
"Part of the temple's duties is to preserve everything of Zhang," said Master Da. "That doesn't just mean history and traditions, but also plants and animals as well. It was a task given to the temple around two hundred years ago when the Imperial Court of the time became alarmed by the drastic disappearances of whole species. You can consider the lands under temple control as an ark of sorts."
"Ah, then I guess this place is more of a nature preserve than a temple," Sparrow quipped. "By the way, are there any others like the Kan Zhou Sticky Tree in this forest?"
"Not that I recall," the gorilla replied. "But it's likely. This is a big forest, after all. Why do you ask?"
"No particular reason," Sparrow answered, maybe a little too quickly.
The gorilla eyed him suspiciously, but he didn't say anything more.
Xiao Mei couldn't help but overhear the whole thing, standing so close to them. They didn't seem to even notice she was there. On her shoulder, Phoenix was quietly grooming his right wing. She wondered what that talk was all about, but not wanting to get in trouble for eavesdropping, she also stayed silent. She would find out the reasons later, anyway.
- Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Seventeen)
An intruder evaded capture. Now the race is on to uncover the secrets of the temple.
- Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Nineteen)
Sparrow finds inspiration that could be a step forward in this mystery solving.