A shriek rose like an arrow, splitting the silence of the forest. A putrid stench wafted along the night wind, causing green shoots to turn brown, and branches to sag. A lone deer fled, bounding quickly through the trees. Behind it, came the peddler.
The merchant ran, his rickety cart clattering on the dirt path behind him. A part of him knew it was foolish not to abandon it, but to do so would be to condemn himself to penury. Everything he owned, his livelihood, was in the cart. He could not leave it behind. So instead, he ran and prayed, knowing that neither would be enough.
Another shriek, closer this time. The path shuddered beneath his feet. He heard a tree crack, splinter and fall as his pursuer hurtled after him. The stink of it enveloped him, and he stumbled, gagging. He heard the crunch of a tree being uprooted, and then felt a gust of wind. He skidded to a stop, even as every instinct compelled him to keep going.
The broken husk of a poplar tree slammed down ahead of him, blocking the path. He staggered back, his cart overturning. The contents spilled everywhere, but he was no longer concerned with his livelihood. Again came the shriek, echoing out of the trees. The sound of it sent shivers of ice through his heart and he whirled, eyes wide.
The hungry ghost thundered along the path, hauling its wretched bulk along tree by tree. It was covered in spiny hair, with long, stringy limbs and it stank of nightsoil and refuse pits. Even with the moonlight dripping through the trees he could not make out much more of its shape than that, for which he was thankful. Yellow eyes blazed from within the thicket of reeking, matted hair. Teeth like broken tombstones smashed together greedily as it drew nearer.
He retreated, until his back pressed against the tree that now blocked the path. The smell of the apparition filled his mouth and nose, choking him. He sank down, retching. The thing loomed over him, its wide mouth stretching into an ugly smile as it reached down with one wide paw. He closed his eyes.
Then came the sound of steel clearing leather. “Step away from the mortal,” said a woman’s voice. “I will not ask twice.”
The merchant cracked an eye and saw a young woman, clad in red silk and silver armor, standing behind the ghost, her newly drawn sword extended in the beast’s direction. The creature turned, a look of bestial confusion in its eyes. “Mine,” it croaked in a voice like breaking bones.
“No,” the newcomer said. “Now return to whatever lonely grave vomited you up, or face my sword.” She took a quick, sliding step, and fell into a stance the peddler dimly remembered from his days serving in the army. Indeed, the woman herself seemed familiar, though he could not place her. Had he met her before? It seemed impossible, for surely he would remember the name of such a woman.
The apparition’s jaws fell open, expelling a cloud of fetid, fly-infested breath. The young woman took a step back as the flies swarmed about her, and the monster lunged, shadow-quick. The woman twisted aside with preternatural quickness, avoiding the taloned swipe. Her sword flashed like lightning as it danced across its ribs, bringing forth a spurt of rank ichor. It stumbled, off balance, eyes wide.
“I gave you a chance,” the woman said, as her sword slashed out. One of it’s hands plopped onto the path like a dead spider. It shrilled like a kettle on the boil and swung its remaining fist at her. Again, she easily avoided the blow. The merchant watched in fascination as his savior artfully cut the screeching gaki to pieces.
“She is quite magnificent, is she not?” a voice asked, from above. The merchant looked up in shock. A face almost as inhuman as that of the ghost looked down at him. It broke into a gleeful smile. “Boo!”
The merchant ran.
“That was unnecessary,” Mulan said, as she wrenched her sword free of the ghost’s shattered skull. “He was already frightened enough.”
Sun Wukong snorted derisively. “He should know better than to pass through a forest at night. Especially these days. A bit of a scare will teach him that lesson.” The Monkey King hopped down from his perch on the fallen tree, his cudgel bouncing against one muscular shoulder. “I don’t know why you bother, honestly. These mortals never learn.”
“Some might say the same of you,” Mulan said, as she sheathed her sword. “Now, help me pick up.”
“I’m not touching that thing.”
Mulan sighed. “I don’t mean this creature. I mean the merchant’s supplies.”
Sun Wukong made a rude noise. “Let the mortal do it himself. We saved his life. That’s good deed enough.”
“I saved his life. You watched.”
“I would have intervened, if had you required my help.” He shrugged. “It was just a hungry ghost, after all. Any child could defeat one.”
Mulan heaved the cart upright. “Why did you accompany me again?”
Sun Wukong chuckled. “I find you entertaining.”
Mulan shook her head and continued to refill the cart. Sun Wukong watched her for a moment then sighed and began to help. “This is boring and I hate it. You really do coddle them, don’t you?”
“I show compassion, if that’s what you mean,” she said.
“I hope you don’t expect me to pull the cart. I’m no oxen.”
“I wouldn’t dream of asking,” Mulan said, with a slight smile.
Later, as Sun Wukong hauled the cart down the bumpy forest path, Mulan said, “That was the third hungry ghost I’ve dispatched in as many days. It as if every night-thing in China has woken at once – and all of them in a bad mood.” She sat cross-legged atop the cart, her sword balanced across her knees.
“I’d be in a bad mood too if my guts were eternally aflame and I smelled like that,” Sun Wukong said. The cart clattered behind him as he raced along. At this rate, Mulan thought they might beat the peddler to the next village.
“I’m being serious – their numbers are on the increase. Every day there are more monsters to contend with, ghosts and otherwise. Something is going on.” She’d made the same argument before, to others in the Heavenly Court, but to little effect. Only Sun Wukong had agreed to join her in her search for answers. She still wasn’t entirely certain why.
Sun Wukong slid to a sudden stop, nearly dislodging Mulan from her seat. “You might be on to something.” He gestured with his cudgel. “Look!”
Through the trees, the flicker of dancing flames could be seen. Faint screams echoed on the wind, and the stink of death pervaded the forest’s edge. Mulan dropped to the ground, her eyes wide. She could feel the fear rising from the mortal inhabitants of the village, as well as the tug of their prayers and knew Sun Wukong could as well – were weak things, fearful entreaties, whispered in panic. But potent, nonetheless.
Sun Wukong let the cart fall. “My turn,” he said, and bounded away before she could stop him. Mulan shook her head. The Monkey King’s impulsiveness had gotten them both into trouble more than once since she’d started her quest. Sighing, she righted the cart and pulled it off the path, where she hoped it would be safe. Then, sword in hand, she raced after her companion. She reached the village in moments.
The village was large, and flames leapt from building to building. There were people everywhere, fleeing in all directions. Several loping, inhuman shapes pursued them. Mulan cut the apparition down with a flurry of blows and turned as something enormous and reeking of blood tore through the side of a hovel and lumbered towards her. No mere ghost this, but a true demon – a yaoguai, clad in chains and bloody skins. It swung a banded club towards her head, and she was forced to leap aside. The club slammed down on a nearby wellhead, pulverizing it.
“Heaven crumbles,” the demon roared. “We shall feast on the gods!” It raised its club and charged towards her. She sprang to meet it, but was interrupted by the sudden arrival of the Monkey King, who brought his cudgel down on the back of the demon’s head, flattening the beast. He flicked the ichor from his weapon and winked at her. “Fun, no?”
“No. How many of them are there?” Mulan asked. Instead of replying, he pointed. She whirled as a skeletal ghost sprang for her from a rooftop, and removed its grotesque head with a single blow. “Thank you,” she said, turning back to him. “How many?”
“Plenty for both of us,” Sun Wukong said. He spun his cudgel over his head and sent it whirling into an approaching knot of yaoguai, scattering the creatures in all directions. He leapt after it, but before he could reclaim the weapon, a ghost with bulging eyes and a swollen belly, leapt onto his back. It dug its fleshless claws into his fur, and he howled in surprise and pain.
Mulan raced to his aid, but before she could reach him the ghost released its hold and scuttled away, as if fearful of something. She saw others doing the same, retreating – not because of her, or Sun Wukong, but because of something else. Someone else.
That someone appeared at the far end of the street. He was a tall, burly god, hideous to look at, but somehow noble despite his appearance. He carried a bag in one hand, and a great brush-topped staff in the other. He shook the bag as he walked. “Come, come! Get in my bag, little ghosts! This place is not yours to haunt!”
“Zhong Kui,” Mulan said, in surprise. She had only ever seen the Demon Queller at a distance. Up close, it was easy to tell why he was feared by demons and ghosts alike.
Zhong Kui spotted her, and his ugly face split into a smile. “There you are, child! I am glad to see you. It seems you were right – something is amiss. The spirit realm is in uproar. The dead rise in revolt, and horror sweeps across the land. I – wait one moment, if you will.”
He slammed his great brush-staff down and a flare of sickly light washed over the fleeing ghosts and yaoguai. The howling spirits were swept up, as if caught in a whirling windstorm, and dragged screaming into Zhong Kui’s waiting bag. In moments, the only sound in the village was the crackle of fire, and the weeping of frightened mortals. The Demon Queller shook the bag in satisfaction. “There now. We can talk in peace.”
“About what?” Sun Wukong demanded, pugnaciously. Mulan suspected that he was angry that Zhong Kui had cut the fight short. Zhong Kui gave him an imperious look.
“I am talking to her not you, little monkey.”
Sun Wukong bared his teeth, but Mulan interposed herself before he could retort. “You said I was right. What’s going on, Demon Queller? What is happening?” She thought about what the demon had said, just before Sun Wukong had cudgeled its brains out.
Zhong Kui grimaced. “The balance between the heavens, the earth and the underworld has been thrown off. I do not know why, only that it has caused much trouble in the underworld. The hungry dead and worse now roam the world, freed by this tumult.” He looked around, frowning slightly. “The Heavenly Court is at odds, uncertain as to how best deal with the matter. But the King of Hell saw your efforts and decided that any action was better than inaction. So I will join you. Together, we might find the answer.”
“And if we do not?” Mulan asked, softly.
Zhong Kui shook his bag and laughed. “Then we will fill many bags with all the demons we can capture!”
Mulan hesitated. Any help was appreciated, but accepting the aid of the King of Hell – even freely offered aid – might well bring new difficulties. Sun Wukong nudged her. “That bag might come in handy. And if nothing else, he’s big enough that we can hide behind him.”
Zhong Kui snorted. “For shame. Are you as much a coward as Erlang Shen claims then, Monkey King?”
Sun Wukong’s nostrils flared. “That puffed up –”
“Enough,” Mulan said. She looked at Zhong Kui. “Very well. I am glad of all the help I can get, especially if it is as you say.” She looked around the village. “Unfortunately, I do not have the least idea where to start.”
Zhong Kui rubbed his big hands together. “Good thing for you I came along then. Because I think I know where all these unruly spirits are coming from.”
Sun Wukong slapped him on the shoulder. “Excellent! What are we waiting for?”
Mulan shook her head, exasperated. “Very well.” She sheathed her sword and looked at Zhong Kui. “Lead the way, Demon Queller. And quickly – for, whatever the cause of all of this might be, I fear we do not have much time to fix it.”