Xiao La and the Demon: Chapter 1

by Ling’Ling

Xiao La crept out from behind the giant round ceramic kilns that looked like art-deco flower vases for giants. During the daytime they were stoked red hot with dirty coal from the mines of distant Liaoning province and were used to stew little brown pots filled with sumptuous pork soup with carrots and long stringy mushrooms that would get stuck in your teeth for days, if only you had a few coins to spare for the indulgence. She never had any of course, like most these days. A distinctly evil looking tiny grey demon creature in earthy rags would climb up a specially built wooden staircase to retrieve the little pots for paying customers, pulling them out of the kilns with long iron tongs clasped between his stubby green fingers.

For an extra few jiao he would stir in a poisonous mixture of desiccated goat testicles and mashed tiger ears which was widely known to foster the magical qi force that had always been known to exist in the land, but which had until recently remained latent and unexploited by the foreign powers that now cast darkness across the cities and plains. Obscured in plain sight of the peoples’ eyes by too many years of peace and normalcy since the Great War.

Like all wars of ancient past, with time it had taken it’s rightful place on bookshelves next to great dissertations on the treachery of humans, goblin diplomacy and the role of faulty dwarvish armour jointing in the surprise overthrow of some long forgotten orcish city state. The history of that terrible clash had long since ceased to register in the minds of modern historians as more than a peculiar footnote in their dusty encyclopedias and biographies. Unfortunately for Xiao La and the people of her sprawling land, not everyone had forgotten the lesson of those violent times…

The kilns were emptied of their precious coal every night when the little demon closed up shop. He was an ancient creature and surely his eyesight was beginning to fail him, because he invariably left a handful of embers at the bottom of the kiln after cleaning it out, which was an inconceivable thoughtlessness in these impossibly tight times. Even more shocking was his unfailing nightly neglect of at least one pot of the rich pork soup which Xiao La was able to retrieve with the cool tongs. For some reason the neglected soup tasted too strongly of the Demon’s goat testicle and tiger ear paste which always raised the bile in Xiao La’s stomach, but never her suspicion.

The thick ceramic of the kilns would radiate the heat of the Demon’s daily enterprise long into the night, and keep Xiao La comfortably warm and sheltered from the elements as she slept. Her frequent dreams were alternately serene and at times remarkably violent. She had never known lack of want, nor the boundless bloodshed and horror that visited her nightly and so the extreme polarity of her dreams made her serenely reflective in the mornings as she rose early to erase any trace of her presence behind the kilns.

The thought of the little demon made Xiao La shudder in the marrow of her bones. His soup was almost as a famous in the county as his petty and unflinching evil nature. The locals needed no reminder to refrain from crossing the little villain, though from time to time they got one anyway when some unsuspecting traveler would imprudently raise the demon’s ire. Xiao La had once seen him tear the heart out right out of a little girl of a similar age to her own, and toss it into the glowing embers right in front of the poor child’s stupefied mother.

Moments before the gruesome spectacle Xiao La had seen the girl taking aim at the back of the demon’s wrinkled grey skull with a soupy green tomato. The other patrons wisely hid their horrified shocked gazes in the bottom of their soup pots, and the only sign that the evil tragedy had registered in their heads was the presence of their uneaten leftovers that night in the bottom of the kiln. Xiao La was in no position to balk at the opportunity to fill her growling belly. She saved some of the choicest leftovers that night and made a midnight trip to the local temple to offer to the local gods in an attempt to place the girl’s soul in their favour.