By Kara Newcastle
“How much further?”
“Chen, you said that over an hour ago.”
“It’s not that far! Trust me, we’re almost there.”
Liang paused at the base of the hill, uttering a deliberately loud, disbelieving grunt. He smirked as his three friends ahead of him stopped and looked at him, and Chen’s expression was decidedly not pleased. He rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed as Liang gestured to their friend Wing, standing between them. “Wing’s right, you said we’d be there an hour ago. Well, an hour’s gone by and we still haven’t found any inn. Are you sure you know where you’re going?”
Chen glared at Liang as Wing turned away quickly, hiding his chuckle behind his hand. “Yes, I know where I’m going. I grew up around here, I should know!”
Qiao arched an eyebrow at that. “I thought you said that you lived in a ritzy town? What are we doing out here in the wilderness?”
“Would you quit complaining and start walking?” Chen snapped, flinging his long braid over his shoulder so fast it whipped a pair of small leaves off the sapling behind him. “I know where I’m going.”
Wing sighed resignedly. “All right,” he said as he fell in strep behind Chen. “But if I’m late for this wedding my sister is going to kill me.”
“For the—just follow me and be quiet, please?”
Grinning at Chen’s tensed back, Liang and Qiao sprinted after them.
While not quite as close as Chen had promised, once the four scholars had cleared the top of the hill they could make out the sprawling old inn ahead of them in a wide clearing, smoke belching from the chimneys and the faint cluck and caw of chickens echoing through the trees around them. Relieved, Wing couldn’t help but laugh, Qiao threw his head back and praised the Seven Immortals, and Liang’s grin grew wider as he clapped Chen hard on the back.
Chen couldn’t suppress the satisfied smirk on his face. “Told you.”
Liang, Wing and Qiao were so happy just to see the damned inn that they let the remark slide. At this point, they didn’t care anymore. Just seeing the inn after three days of traveling from their university in Peking—raft, foot, ox cart and foot again!—the four young scholars were happy to see anything with a roof on it.
“You know what they’re all going to be asking us when we get to my house tomorrow?” Wing sighed as they trudged on, the inn growing incrementally larger as they approached. “About all those foreigners. They’re all going to talk about them like they’re devils.”
“They are devils,” Qiao fumed, glaring briefly at Wing. “Pale skin, yellow hair and round eyes—coming into China as if they have the right, demanding that we grow opium for them, and give them our treasures!”
“I didn’t think they’d keep coming like this,” Liang admitted, shrugging. “Nobody wants them here … I heard a rumor that Wong Fei Hung was training his students to get ready to fight them.”
Qiao frowned. “I don’t know about that. What kind of kung fu do they do again?”
“Drunken boxing. Impressive stuff.”
Chen nodded eagerly. “Yes, I’ve seen them—aw, dammit!”
Chen stopped short just at the edge of the inn’s courtyard, biting back a a curse as Qiao, Wing and Liang all collided into him, nearly bowling him over.
“Blast it all!” Groaning, Chen pointed to the caravan of mules lined up in the courtyard and the number of horses penned up behind the rambling inn itself. Dozens of people were scattered around the courtyard, and if the noise coming from the inside was anything to judge by, the place was packed.
Disgusted, Liang threw his arms up in the air. “Well, that’s just perfect. With all the caravans here, there probably isn’t a place available for us.”
Wing’s face paled. “My sister and mother are going to kill me for sure now.”
“Now hold on,” Chen said quickly, spinning around to face his friends. “They couldn’t have possibly filled up every space here. I’ll bet they have something we can spend the night in—the gods know that I’m not about to spend another night sleeping in a haystack again!”
“Me neither,” Qiao agreed. “I’ll take anything they have, as long as it has a roof. Walls too, but I’m not that picky.”
“Maybe they have a storage area we could use,” Chen added, already striding across the courtyard. “Just something to get us out of the elements, you know?”
Sighing, Liang shrugged and fell in step behind his friend. “Yeah, let’s ask.”
Despite the herd of people milling about, it was easy to find the innkeeper. He was a small, older man dressed in impressively expensive clothes. He was standing beside the single willow tree standing in the center of the courtyard, smiling and thanking a merchant who had just passed him a handful of coins.
“Greetings, young sirs!” the innkeeper said jovially as they approached. “Ah, I can tell by your clothes that you gentlemen are students.”
Chen grinned. “Good eye,” he said as the innkeeper waved over an older woman carrying a tray of cups and wine. “We were hoping we could spend the night here.”
The twinkle in the older man’s eye faded a bit. “I would love to host you, but, as you can see, we’re quite packed right now. We don’t have any rooms.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” Chen said quickly, nodding politely as the innkeeper’s wife came up to him and handed him a cup of wine. “We don’t mind not having a room. We just want a place that’s not out in the open.”
Qiao patted his shirt, rattling the pouch of coins tucked inside. “We’ll pay you.”
The man’s face brightened at the sound of the coins. “Hm. Well, I do have some space in the storage room, if that’s all right with you?”
At the mention of the room, the man’s wife stiffened, her eyes widening. She spun around, nearly flinging the bottle of wine off her tray. “Husband …!” she gasped.
Smiling mildly, the innkeeper waved a knobby hand. “Oh, it’ll be fine. Just don’t bother with the supplies behind the curtain, boys, and you’re welcomed to the space. Now, about the rate …”
Liang woke up. He wasn’t sure what woke him—judging by the darkness of the storeroom, morning was still hours off, so it hadn’t been the sun …
He felt the breeze whispering past the back of his head and he shivered. That must have been it. The room had a draft. It didn’t surprise him, as the room was basically like an oversized closet, not meant for habitation. It had been stuffed with boxes and baskets and jars, and made smaller by the white sheet hanging across one-third of the space. He, Chen, Wing, and Qiao had pretty much thrown down their sleeping rolls wherever they could fit and made the best of it.
At least they weren’t outside—the draft felt could.
Sighing to himself, Liang pulled his blanket up higher over his shoulder and rolled over on the pallet. He glanced over in the direction of the draft, wondering how—
Everything inside of him froze.
Liang’s eyes widened. He blinked hard and looked again; the light in the store room was faint, the moonbeams streaming in through one narrow window, so he wasn’t sure he really saw what he was looking at. The curtain that had divided the room had been pulled aside … and there was something silhouetted in front of it.
The thing was hunched over Chen, its long, dark hair curtaining its face, clawed hands planted on either side of the sleeping man. It made a hissing noise. Liang felt the air move … no, wait … it was the thing. The thing, the creature, was breathing in, inhaling deeply, so deeply it was pulling the air around them.
Liang saw something faint, glittering softly, trickle out of Chen’s slackening mouth. It wafted up like a cloud of dust, pulled away from Chen, disappearing into the creature as it inhaled. As the sparkling motes vanished behind the thing’s long hair, the faint green glow around its crouched body grew incrementally brighter.
Chen never stirred. He never made a sound. His body seemed to sag down, growing looser, as the creature inhaled. The last speck of light left Chen’s lips and disappeared into the monster.
The creature stopped. The air in the room stilled.
Liang’s heart slammed itself against his chest as he watched the creature ease back off of the unmoving Chen. It sat back on its heels, its long hair sliding back, unveiling the softly gleaming face of …
Aiya! It was a woman?!
The woman’s eyes were turned down to Chen below her, but when she lifted her head, Liang could see that both her eyes glowed as bright and red as coals. Choking back a scream, Liang slammed his own eyes shut, fighting to stay as still as possible though he was sure his heart was hammering so badly he must be shaking with each beat. He held his breath, his wild mind first praying that the thing would leave, then rapidly changing, telling him that he had to have been dreaming, then saying to himself that it must have been a girl from the inn, she must have gotten drunk and lost and was looking for her bed and thought Chen was her husband.
But the red eyes, the green glow—her hands were clawed, weren’t they? And the way she breathed in—the glowing substance that came out of Chen … no, Liang had to have been dreaming.
Swallowing hard, Liang opened his eyes slowly, cracking them open just enough to see. His fingers involuntarily clamped down more tightly on his blanket as he found the faintly glowing woman still there, poised over Chen. Not seeming to notice Liang, the woman pivoted, casting her blazing red eyes to the shape between the still Chen and Liang. It was Wing, flopped down on his stomach, a barely audible snore winding out of him.
Turning silently on the balls of her clawed feet, the woman placed her hands on the floor before her and propelled forward, hopping towards Wing. Coming up beside him, she lowered her face closer to his.
His eyes wide open now, Liang looked back at Chen. His friend laid motionless on the pallet, no rise or fall of his chest. Tilting his head as much as he dared, Liang looked over to Qiao. Cold fear burned through Liang as he saw the bigger student laying on his back, his eyes half-open, staring at nothing.
They were dead.
The air began to stir, and Liang, unable to stop himself, snapped back around in time to see the terrifying woman open her mouth wide over the sleeping Wing’s face and inhale. Again, Liang saw the glittering motes flittering out of Wing’s mouth, floating up into the woman’s parted lips.
It was then Liang realized what he was seeing; the glittering motes, it was chi, life energy. The woman—the red-eyed, glowing, clawed, hopping woman—was sucking the life out of Wing. She had done it to Chen, she had done it to Qiao.
She would do it to Liang.
And that’s when Liang finally recalled the name of the demon before him.
Chiang-shih. The life stealer.
The realization roared through Liang like a lightning bolt and, screaming, Liang ripped his blanket off and shot to his feet. Racing almost blindly, Liang tripped over the dead Qiao’s feet as he ran, slamming nearly face-first into the storeroom door. He heard the monstrous, enraged shriek of the chiang-shih behind him as his hands scrabbled for the handle, wrenching the door open. Liang threw himself outside, barely managing to keep his hold on the door to slam it shut.
No sooner did the door thunder closed than something rammed into it, buckling the wood with screeching cracks. Liang screamed and ducked, tearing forward into the inn’s courtyard as the chiang-shih battered the storeroom door down, her claws shredding through the wood.
“Somebody help me!” Liang shrieked as the chiang-shih plowed through the last of the wood. Unable to stop himself, Liang looked back as he ran, seeing the flaming red eyes staring hatefully back at him.
The chiang-shih snarled, and a long, pointed tongue darted out past her pointed teeth. She crouched down like a hunting cat and sprang forward, clearing a dozen feet in one bound. She hit the ground and lunged forward again, roaring.
Crazed with terror, Liang wrenched back around to run—and cried out in agony as his ankle twisted beneath him, flinging him to the flagstones at the base of the tree. His feet skidded out in the leaves as he pushed himself upright and he staggered wildly forward, colliding hard with the base of the tree.
Hearing the chiang-shih’s feet hit the ground behind him, Liang whipped himself over just in time to see the demon woman leap into the air again, her mouth gaping wide, her clawed hands flung high over her head. Liang screamed in helpless fear, squeezing his eyes shut and throwing his arms over his face.
Something hit the tree above him, and Liang heard a “whuff” of surprise, followed by the thudding of two feet on either side of him. Terrified, he curled himself into a ball, bracing himself to feel the chiang-shih dig her claws into him …
An eternity seemed to pass. Heaving for breath, Liang slowly opened his eyes, but kept his arms over his face. For an eon longer, he didn’t dare to move—he was sure he felt the chiang-shih standing over him.
Why wasn’t she attacking him?
Praying that he had been spared, Liang slowly lowered his arms and looked up.
The chiang-shih stood above him, her head bowed, her eyes closed. Her arms were extended straight out before her, above Liang’s head. Her claws were buried in the tree’s trunk, right up to the tips.
She was stuck!
Amazed, Liang stared at the spectacle. He propped himself up on an elbow—
Her flaming eyes shooting open, the chiang-shih screamed and lashed her head forward, her jaws snapping shut just inches from Liang’s face. The demon screamed again in rage and thrashed insanely, jerking back on her claws so hard that the entire tree shook. The wood refused to release its hold on the beast’s claws and she stood there, howling with fury.
It was too much for Liang to take. Darkness slipped over his eyes and he slumped to the flagstones, fainting away.
“How did this happen? How could this have happened?!”
The voice roused Liang. His eyelids felt heavy and resistant as he worked them open, his vision struggling to adjust in the early morning light. He saw dozens of feet rushing back and forth before him, heard gasps and cries of a dozen unfamiliar voices. Grimacing, Liang rolled over onto his back—
And came nose to nose with a corpse.
Recognizing the woman, Liang shrieked and scrambled back, away from the chiang-shih, still hanging by her claws in the tree. Her knees had buckled and she had been hovering over Liang as he laid there, unconscious.
“Aiya, he’s alive!”
Hands grabbed Liang under the arms and he screamed again, lashing insanely out at whatever had caught him. The things dragged him away from the dead creature, out into the sunlight, and it took several minutes of them holding his fists steady and yelling at him before Liang broke out of his shock enough to recognize the innkeeper, grasping his left hand. A young man with a distraught expression clutched his right, and the innkeeper’s wife stood before Liang, weeping into a handkerchief. Nearby, guests from the inn clustered around the dead woman, whispering in shock and fear.
“It’s all right, my boy, you’re safe now,” the innkeeper said, thumping Liang hard on the back. “She’s not going to hurt you.”
It took Liang a moment to work any sound through his dry throat. “What … what happened?”
“The sun came up.” The innkeeper glanced back at the dead woman. “They don’t come out during the day.”
“Where did it come from?”
Guilt seeped into the innkeeper’s face. He looked apologetically at the younger man at Liang’s right. “She is … she was my daughter-in-law. She died yesterday morning, and we were keeping her body in the storage room until an auspicious time to bury her—”
“You mean until you weren’t so busy!” the younger man cried bitterly. “You were so overcome with your greed with all these travelers, you couldn’t spend a moment to bury my wife while I was away!”
Ashamed, the old innkeeper hung his head. “It is true. I am sorry.”
“Wait—you said the storage room.” Realizing what the old mean meant, Liang pointed a shaking finger back to the storeroom where he and his friends had bedded. “You told us not to go behind the curtain—she was back there? You put me and my friends in a room with a dead body?!”
“I didn’t think anything would happen!”
“My friends are all dead!” Liang shouted. Tears welled in his eyes, blurring the stricken man’s face. “My friends are dead because of you! I could have been killed by that thing!”
“I’m—I’m so sorry …” The innkeeper’s voice cracked.
Wiping her own tears away, the old man’s wife swatted at him with her sodden handkerchief. “You thick-headed idiot! Quickly, get this poor man inside and get him fed. The priest will be here soon.”
Liang had no appetite, but he allowed the innkeeper and his grief-stricken son to help him get to his feet and stagger into the inn. The maids wrapped him in blankets and heaped tea and wine and hot food before him as the family went back out to greet the Taoist priest, called in from town. They took down the dead woman’s body from the tree, and the priest said binding prayers over the corpse as it was swiftly taken away. Liang couldn’t bear to watch as each of his friends were carried out of the storage room and brought to the cemetery to be cremated along with the thing that had killed them. It was the best way to keep them from returning as chiang-shih as well.
The innkeeper paid for Liang to return to the academy in a fine carriage, but Liang returned a changed man. He gave up his law studies and feverishly devoted himself to the study of the chiang-shih and how to defeat them. He remained fearful, and could only sleep at night with posted guards and his bed surrounded by talismans and weapons. Many people approached him for advice for fighting the chiang-shih, but Liang never encountered another one again.