Ghost stories from hell, p.44

Ghost Stories from Hell, page 44

 

Ghost Stories from Hell
 



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  A middle-aged woman came into view and she glanced in, paused, and then turned to face him.

  She gave him a shy smile and said, “Good evening.”

  “It is indeed,” Feng agreed, nodding. “Will you come in and sit with me?”

  The woman hesitated, then entered the shrine. She sat down across from him and Feng examined her with an appraising eye.

  He was certain she was a merchant’s wife. Her clothing was rough, her hands the same. There were no gentle lines about her face, merely the stamp of hard work and hard living.

  “Have you traveled far?” Feng asked her, passing a rice ball to her.

  She nodded, saying, “I have.”

  There was a slight accent to her voice, vaguely familiar, and Feng tried to place it. After several moments, he gave up. He had traveled to far too many villages in the province to know the subtle lingual hints of all of them.

  Feng suppressed a smile. She would be easy to convince to kill herself, and it would be a pleasant way to relax before he had to sleep. He would be surprised if it took more than an hour or two to lay the groundwork, then perhaps another hour to get her ready to end her life in front of him.

  The only interesting part of the challenge was to find a way for her to kill herself. He didn’t carry any weapons, and he doubted if she had any either.

  She took off the small pack she carried and placed it on the dirt floor between them. Her fingers, which were crooked and twisted, worked at the knot on the pack until it was undone. She drew a bottle out, removed the cap, and took a small sip. Bowing her head, she offered the bottle to Feng.

  He accepted it with a nod of thanks, and took a sniff to reassure himself that it was not alcohol.

  It wasn’t, but there was a bitter scent that made his nose wrinkle.

  “My apologies,” she said, seeing his reaction, “but the water was brackish. I had no choice but to take it from that well. I had found no other source.”

  Feng bowed his head and drank a small portion. He was too thirsty not to drink, and he knew that a refusal would alienate her.

  And he needed her to be comfortable for his words to have any effect.

  He took a second drink and passed the bottle back to her. She smiled, had another sip, and then set the bottle between them on the floor, with the cap off.

  “Have you far to go?” Feng asked.

  The woman nodded. “I must travel to Old Peng village, on the other side of the monastery. I am gathering money for my husband.”

  “A dangerous occupation,” Feng sympathized. “I trust you have not met with any bandits.”

  She shook her head. “No. They leave me alone.”

  “They do?” Feng asked with a smile, picking up the bottle and taking a longer drink of the brackish water. The taste of it wasn’t too bad, he realized. He took another longer drink before he set it down again.

  “They do,” she said, smiling and revealing a mouth full of broken and black teeth. “Do they leave you alone?”

  “Of course they do,” Feng chuckled. He reached out for the bottle again, smacking his lips before taking another gulp. He finished the water and handed the container to her.

  “Did you like it?” she asked.

  Feng nodded, went to speak and found he couldn’t.

  He tried to move, but his body refused to listen.

  Surprised, he looked at the woman, who had gotten to her feet.

  “I’m glad,” she said, “because now I can do this.”

  Feng wanted to ask what, but his lips wouldn’t cooperate, and by the time he got control of them, it was too late.

  The woman was bringing the bottle crashing down onto his head.

  Bonus Scene Chapter 2: Behind the Shrine, Yunnan Province, 1846

  When Feng awoke, he was stiff, uncomfortable, and unable to see a single star in the sky.

  Then he slowly remembered what happened to him in the shrine, and regardless of the darkness, he should have been able to see the stars.

  “You’re awake,” the woman said, her voice muffled. He realized something was wrapped around his head.

  “I am,” Feng replied, trying to keep his voice calm. The anger within him threatened to break free, but he knew it would be to his advantage. He needed to convince her to free him, and then he could take his revenge upon her.

  And he would drag it out. He wouldn’t convince her to kill herself, in fact he would do it for her. With a small, dull rock, Feng would beat her to death.

  The thought of it caused him to smile.

  He grunted with a mixture of surprise and pain as she tore away the cloth that had covered his face. Feng blinked several times and saw that the moon was near its zenith. He was upright and he found his head was the only part of his body which he had command over. Fighting back his growing rage, Feng locked his eyes onto the woman.

  She sat down across from him, her hands tucked into the wide cuffs of her sleeves.

  “Why have you done this?” Feng asked, letting his anger subside.

  “It is less than what you deserve,” she answered.

  Feng gave her a small, gentle smile. “You did not answer my question.”

  “No,” the woman said, “I did not.”

  Frustration welled up, but Feng kept it out of his words. “I am only a monk. I have nothing to be stolen. Come with me to the nearest monastery and I will feed you.”

  She stared at him. After a long silence, she responded.

  “I am not hungry,” she said, “nor are you.”

  Feng realized she was correct. He had neither hunger nor thirst.

  “I am an old man,” he continued, “what have I done to you?”

  Her face was cold and expressionless as she answered.

  “You have destroyed my life,” she said, “and I shall do the same to you.”

  Feng suppressed a chuckle. “And how did I destroy your life? I have never seen you before.”

  “You spoke with my husband,” she answered.

  “I have spoken with many husbands,” Feng said gently. “How did that ruin your life?”

  “He was not a smart man,” she said, glaring at Feng, “and so when you spoke with him, he listened. He listened, and he listened, and then he did as you suggested. My husband went home and murdered our family. He drowned the children. His father, he gutted. His mother, he strangled. And had I been home, Feng Huiliang, I too would have been killed.”

  Feng listened impassively, considering her tone of voice, searching for the weaknesses within her heart that he could exploit.

  “My husband then killed himself,” she continued. “He drank a poison, one that left him immobile. But only after he gutted himself, as he had his father.”

  Feng smiled and said, “You must have me confused with someone else, dear lady.”

  “No,” she whispered. “I passed by you on the road outside of Yunnan-Fu. Little did I know the damage you had caused.”

  “Enough,” Feng said, putting all of the power of command he could muster into his voice. “Release me!”

  She smirked. “From what?”

  “These ropes,” Feng snapped. “You have held me prisoner long enough.”

  “But you’re not bound,” she said, her smirk fading away. Pure hatred filled her eyes. “Did you not notice the curious taste to the water, Monk? Or did you believe me when I lied to you?”

  Feng’s eyes widened as he realized what had happened.

  “You poisoned me,” he gasped.

  She shook her head. “No. I poisoned both of us. You may have had more, but it only means you will die quicker.”

  “No!” Feng yelled. “It is not my time. Not yet! I have more to gather. More to speak with! Do you think your husband was the first, woman?”

  “No,” she said, smiling, “but I know he was the last.”

  Bonus Scene Chapter 3: At the Roadside Shrine, 1846

  Brother Bohai hurried along the road, tired and anxious to be back at the monastery. He had been gone fo
r ten days, and the allure of his bed was strong. Yet as he neared the shrine, his nose wrinkled at a foul odor.

  One he recognized instantly.

  His shoulders sagged and he stopped at the shrine, peering in. He was surprised when he found it empty. Bohai gagged on the scent of putrid flesh and walked around to the back of the shrine.

  There he found a pair of bodies. One wore the orange robes of a monk. The other was a woman. Both of the dead had been picked over by animals, and their features were gone, the meat having been stripped from the skulls.

  Bohai bent his head and offered a silent prayer. When he straightened up, he turned away. He needed to gather some of the other monks and return for the corpses.

  Which meant sleep was that much further away.

  Bohai sighed and hurried back to the road. A small, selfish part of him wished he hadn’t discovered the bodies.

  They had ruined any sort of rest he had looked forward to.

  Bonus Scene Chapter 4: Yunnan Province, 1847

  Monk Lau Fei stepped back and looked at the small courtyard in front of the temple. The stones were free of weeds, and the dust had been swept away. His face remained impassive, and hid the joy and pride he felt at the cleanliness before him.

  Lau’s pride was a constant source of bitterness to him. When he sat in meditation, he found his thoughts often drifted back to some small task he had done well. And it always seemed as though Brother Zhu knew when those thoughts entered Lau’s mind.

  Invariably, he would look up and find Brother Zhu’s eyes upon him, leaving him with a sense of frustration.

  The sound of raised voices caught his attention, and Lau hurried towards the disturbance. It was unusual for someone to argue inside the narrow confines of the temple’s walls.

  When he reached the scene, he found Brother Zhu and Brother Bohai with one of the local farmers, a man whose name escaped Lau.

  Both of the older Brothers had concerned expressions on their normally impassive faces.

  “Brother Lau,” Zhu said, beckoning him closer, “come and hear what Jiang has to say.”

  Lau quickened his steps and joined the trio of men. The farmer was an older man, not one given to flights of fancy or spastic episodes. His brown eyes danced with terror, and he wrung his hands together as he repeated his story to Lau.

  It was simple and unbelievable.

  Jiang had seen a silver fox. A graceful animal that had slain four of his chickens and would have killed more had Jiang’s dog not chased away the beast.

  “Where did it go?” Lau asked.

  Jiang glanced at Zhu, and the Brother nodded.

  Licking his lips nervously, Jiang answered, “It disappeared.”

  “So I assumed,” Lau said, frowning, “but where did it disappear to? Was its den nearby?”

  Jiang shook his head and said, “No, you don’t understand, Brother. The fox vanished into thin air. One moment I was looking at it run, the next, it was gone.”

  “Do you see the dilemma?” Bohai asked.

  Lau nodded, rubbed his chin and said, “Did the fox eat the chickens it killed?”

  “No,” Jiang said, “it seemed only to delight in the slaughter, and nothing more.”

  Lau glanced at Zhu who asked, “How does an animal delight in slaughter?”

  “The way it moved,” Jiang answered, “as if it were a cat and not a fox. It toyed with the birds before it killed them.”

  “I would suggest,” Lau said, “you take ample precautions against the fox. You are still alone in your home?”

  Jiang nodded.

  “Keep your dog with you at all times,” Lau advised, “we will look into this matter more. The Ghost Festival is almost upon us, and we may succeed in learning who this ghost is and what they need to be able to move on to the next life.”

  Jiang thanked them all and left, his steps carrying him quickly away from the monks.

  “Brother Lau,” Zhu said, “do you think it will be as simple as that?”

  “We can only hope,” Bohai said, answering for Lau. “We may have to intervene if the fox does not leave of its own accord.”

  Lau nodded and glanced at the farmer, the man’s broad shoulders hunched as if against a cold wind.

  A tremor of fear rippled through Lau, and he wondered if the ghost would torment something larger than chickens.

  Bonus Scene Chapter 5: A Costly Meal

  Chow watched a young monk place food and drink before the small roadside Buddha. When the monk had finished and left the statue, Chow’s stomach grumbled loud enough to disturb a small bird that had settled down next to him.

  As the animal flew away, complaining with harsh chirps, Chow smiled. Life on the road was difficult, and there were many nights when he went to sleep hungry.

  During the Ghost Festival, he was sure to find food wherever he went, the superstitious country folk always put out food for the ghosts.

  Chow snorted. The idea of a ghost eating was ludicrous, but he couldn’t scoff too much at the practice.

  It had kept him fed during the festival, and similar fears and offerings left at roadside temples had done the same. The thought brought his attention back to the stone Buddha. The smell of freshly cooked rice drifted to him and his mouth salivated.

  Standing, Chow glanced up and down the road. It curved at either end, and a grin settled onto his face. There was no one on the road, so it was safe for him to approach the food. While the young man would have invited him to dine at the monastery, Chow disliked the sense of obligation he felt when he ate with monks.

  And others, fellow travelers or local people pausing at a shrine, invariably disagreed with Chow eating the offerings.

  Chow rolled his eyes at the thought of their disapproval and walked to the shrine. He gathered up the rice as well as some vegetables someone else had left there. Tucked beside the Buddha was a small drinking gourd. Chow removed the cork, sniffed it, and laughed.

  Someone had hidden rice liquor.

  The Buddha does not drink, Chow thought, chiding the unknown individual who had left the wine. But I do.

  Chuckling, Chow took his feast and retreated to his hiding place. He sat down and started his meal with a drink of the liquor, which caused him to cough and his eyes to water. Next, he ate the vegetables, frowning at how chewy they were. While he wasn’t fond of the way they tasted, he was too hungry to leave them.

  Soon Chow finished both the vegetables and the rice and was able to concentrate on the liquor. He settled back against a tree and watched the sun set at a lazy pace, the sight of it reassuring.

  Chow picked at some food in his teeth and wondered where he might head to in the morning. There had been rumor of work further to the east.

  A soft bark drove the thought of employment out of his mind, and he sat up.

  He held the gourd tight in one hand and looked around, listening.

  The sound was not repeated.

  Chow waited a little while longer, shrugged, and drank again.

  He had only a small portion more of the liquor when several delicate yips sounded off to his right. The noise was unfamiliar to him. Chow had been born in a large town, and so he was ignorant of most sounds that various animals and birds made. In spite of his lack of knowledge, Chow wasn’t intimidated by the yips. They seemed almost playful, as if they were made by some cheerful beast.

  He smiled at the thought of such an animal, and he raised the gourd to the unknown creature in a silent salute.

  A shimmer of silver caught his attention and Chow jerked his head to the left, almost spilling his drink. He glimpsed the tip of a tail as it vanished behind the tree.

  Chow stared after it, attempting to see what it was. In all of his years of travel, he had never seen a silver animal before, and the idea of one piqued his curiosity. While part of him knew he should remain with his drink and wait for the creature to leave, Chow was far more eager to seek out the beast. The liquor had emboldened him, and he wanted to know what it was he had glimp
sed.

  Still holding onto the gourd, Chow got to his feet, wavering. The drink had been stronger than he thought, and he felt a lopsided grin spread out as he realized how drunk he was.

  Fortified with the liquor, and knowing he had survived far worse surprises than a silver creature beside a Buddhist shrine, Chow staggered after the animal.

  He had gone only twenty or so paces when the beast’s silver tail flicked off to the right. Chow hurried after it. He saw it again a little farther in the woods, but straight ahead rather than off to one side.

  Chow kept after the creature and soon he had come to a small pagoda outside of a monastery of equal size. From where he stood, he saw the silver animal, standing beside a large marker.

  The beast was a fox, and it looked at him with eyes of the same color. It stared at him, tail flicking left and right.

  Chow took a drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and took a step forward. When the fox didn’t run, Chow took another drink and then several steps toward the animal.

  The fox continued to sit still, tilting its head to one side and watching Chow approach.

  “What are you doing?” Chow asked, grinning at the animal. “Hmm?”

  “Me?” the fox asked in return. “I’m trying to decide on how best to kill you.”

  Chow’s surprise died almost as quickly as he did.

  Bonus Scene Chapter 6: A Traveler Found

  Sleep had eluded Lau, and he had been up and about his chores well before the sun had risen. There had been some muttered complaints from his brethren, but they knew him too well to believe he had begun early on a whim.

  With all of his work completed, Lau decided he would take a walk to farmer Jiang’s house, and see how the man had done overnight. If the fox was a ghost, then the man’s dog should have protected him. Should the fox only be a fox, then again, the dog would have served its purpose.

  The road that led from the monastery to Jiang’s farm was long and solitary. In most places, it was narrow, only large enough for an ox-cart to make its way through. Other sections would allow for the passage of ten men to walk abreast of one another. Like all of the roads, it curved in, which was an effort by the villagers to confuse ghosts and keep them far away. The local farmers weren’t pleased with them, believing that some ghosts became lost and trapped within the loops and curves.

 
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