A World of Bones
By Brian Trent
She awoke in the blackness thinking she was still alive, fumbling for the lipstick she’d never found. Angela Chen jerked to her feet, confused at discovering herself in this place of shadows. She had been dreaming—if dreaming was the word now—of the wet corpses along Quinyun Road. Pawing at their pockets, feeling guilty as she did. Seeking only a little tube of lipstick on that rainy night as Shanghai fell.
And then the impact to the back of her head. The blood and teeth spilling in a syrupy glob from her mouth…
A hand touched her shoulder.
“Liusu?” Angela cried, spinning around to face the dark.
“No,” came the hushed reply.
“Shen,” she whimpered, recoiling. “How did you get in here? The others—”
“I go where I please. What are you doing in here?”
Angela’s confusion melted, replaced now by a dread she had come to know so well. “Sleeping,” she said. “Dreaming.”
His whispered laughter shivered like wind among the reeds; Angela realized that someday, she’d forget what voices had ever sounded like, since no one here—not her, not her friend Liusu, and not the lurking Shen—was capable of speaking above a whisper. Their voices had died with their bodies. They merely pushed air through dead throats now.
“We do not sleep, little sparrow,” Shen said, when he had recovered.
“They’re sleeping in the courtyard outside!” she insisted, pointing to the temple doorway.
Shen seized her arm and dragged her through the doorway to the balcony rails. The courtyard to Hudu Chongyuan Temple was a sprawling vista filled by smaller temple annexes. In life, these divine houses were visited by tourists; Angela herself had come here with her grandfather more than once, holding his leathery hand as they visited each annex. She had liked the annexes, liked the bronze statues within, the smell of burning joss paper, and the colorful tapestries.
“Look,” Shen snarled.
Angela stared into the courtyard. The ghosts were still there— orderly rows of kneeling, praying, naked bodies.
“Minister Fan told them to unload their sins before rebirth.” Shen chuckled. “No one wants to be first to finish!”
Angela spotted the minister himself making a slow pace of the courtyard. He was accompanied by his retinue of administrators, the spirits who held Hudu Chongyuan Temple. Fan walked, a brown, shapeless robe cladding his scarecrow frame, and seemed to be a general inspecting his troops. He rounded the praying crowd and suddenly the sky’s greenish light revealed his face in every hideous detail. Angela cried out, shrinking back into the temple and touching her own face.
“You are no prettier,” Shen reminded her.
Angela let her fingers crawl over her features. Minister Fan was a shambling nightmare. His face was withered, shriveled, worn like a mask whittled from driftwood. His hands were like chewed leather. When he walked he sounded like sandpaper rustling. He was a man, in as much as sloughed-off scales were still a snake; hollow, tattered, and discarded. His retinue was the same. Mummy people. Cracked faces, wrinkled lips, and throats like abandoned flutes that could no longer summon real music.
Angela continued probing her face. She felt no trace of wrinkles or withering, but that was small comfort. Her face felt soft and wet… as the skin of a rotting vegetable was soft and wet and slippery.
“I lied,” Shen teased, seeing her horror. “You are somewhat prettier, but one day you will age and wither, just like the good minister.”
“I will not be here forever!” she snapped. “You may be, you miserable haunt! But soon I am passing through the Gate and will be reborn with the others and—”
She had leaned against a black rafter beam which had fallen during the shelling of Shanghai. To her surprise, she passed through it and collapsed to the floor.
Shen laughed uproariously and slapped his thighs. “Oh! Little sparrow!”
“Stop calling me that!” Angela drew herself to her knees. She hated when people laughed at her.
Still, Angela pawed at the rafter beam. Her hand sailed through it; there was a sensation, not unpleasant, like touching a warm undercurrent running through an icy stream.
“It hasn’t been there long enough,” said Shen, still laughing.
Something Liusu had told her returned: Things from life sink through to this afterworld, like ink through cloth, the longer they stay put. That’s what gives it substance. Angela craned her neck to regard the temple’s shadow-nestled rafters. “This rafter came from up there,” she said, speaking more to herself than to her tormentor. “A bomb must have shaken it loose.”
Shen stopped laughing. “A bomb?”
“There is a war going on.”
“China is at war?” Shen sounded surprised, but it was difficult to tell when he was being genuine. “With who?”
Angela rose to her feet once more. “Japan,” she said, somewhat surprised by his query. But then, how would he receive news in the afterlife, except to talk to the newly arrived dead?
His expression of astonishment was hideous; it stretched across his wet, leaf-brown face, his dark eyes like a brace of wells. “No, I cannot believe it! That little island of monkeys?”
“They defeated Russia not long ago. They are on the ascendant.” She frowned. “When did you live?”
“I served Emperor Zhuanxu.”
She made a dismissive sound. “Do you ever tell the truth? Emperor Zhuanxu? Grandson of the Yellow Emperor at the dawn of time?”
“It was the Year of the Fire Horse,” he said simply.
“It is 1937, now.”
He made no reaction to this. He merely watched her, hands interlaced below his chin like a praying mantis.
“How do pass the centuries here, oh ancient?” she asked sarcastically.
“Time passes on its own.”
“And yet you are not a withered creature like our fair minister or the others who…” she broke off.
Poor Liusu, she thought, suddenly abashed. What sacrifice! To stay in this hellish limbo with the minister, aging and aging but never dying, all to prepare ghosts for the next life! Aging, withering, and forgetting life’s simple pleasures—the ability to sleep, the smell of pork sizzling in a skillet, the taste of noodles steaming on red plates…
“Never to sleep again,” Angela muttered. “Never to eat…”
Shen grinned suddenly in lechery. “In life I would have eaten you the right way. Like a hummingbird teasing a flower. We can have sex, you know. The sensation isn’t terrible.”
“Why do you stay here, Shen? So terrified of living again, is that it?”
Her tormentor’s smile faltered somewhat, but he said nothing.
Angela crept down the temple stairs, past the giant Buddha statue which in life was jade but here was a looming, dark thing like an idol carved from blackest ebony. A ghost was entering the lower temple just then, and Angela nearly wept in relief.
The woman smiled like a gash in sun-baked mud. She was tall and narrow, sunk in heavy rumpled robes. Her bare arms, and the small of her chest, were slashed by calligraphy.
“Hello!” Liusu whispered the words through her mummified lips. “I was seeking you!”
Angela felt her ghost-body twitching, as if remember old heartbeats. “Is it time, yet?”
She tried not to stare at the woman’s scarring. Like cuts in brittle bamboo, old proverbs covered her spiritflesh. Crudely engraved, perhaps, done by pressing herself into a sharp edge that had bled over from the living world.
They walked together along the black corridor. Angela glanced back over her shoulder, afraid that Shen might be there, goblin-like, in the rafters, or running up madly behind them. But there was no sign of him.
“Did you manage to sleep?” Liusu asked.
“Soon you will be reborn. As a baby, you will sleep a great deal!”
Angela nervously kneaded her hands. “I will miss you, Liusu.”
The woman made no expression for a while. They passed a corridor of latticed windows through which the green sky scintillated. At last, Liusu halted. “It would be good to have a new friend. We’ve been here… I’ve been here… a long time.”
“You said since 1720?”
The withered thing that had been a woman nodded solemnly. “We were Han Chinese, living under the Manchu. My husband was a low-level administrator in the Qing courts.”
“Where is your husband now?”
“He went on to be reborn.”
“And you did not?”
Liusu made no reaction. Angela found herself staring at the woman’s scarring. She imagined the woman disrobed, proverbs and engraved memories winding beneath her flaking breasts, belly, thighs, the parched length of her legs. She read the calligraphy along one of Liusu’s arms: Yi jin ye xing. “’Dressed in the finest brocades to parade in the dark of night.’”
Angela remembered one of her grandfather’s stories. When he was young, he lived in a small village on the outskirts of a bamboo forest. A panda lived there, too, but it was a mad thing, a demented monster. Grandfather described the panda sitting atop the mutilated corpse of its own kind, flesh hanging from its claws and snout. And when there was nothing else to kill, he said, the beast would harm itself, furiously rubbing against trees or stones until its black-and-white fur was clotted with gore and stringy bits of flesh. The panda was not a panda any longer. It was a monster. A monster in a world of bones.
Instinctively, Angela glanced over her shoulder for signs of Shen.
The woman tilted her head, like a doll hanging from a tether in a shop window. “Tell me another story about university, Angela!”
Minister Fan’s people liked to hear stories from the newly dead, Angela had noticed. The tall, self-mutilated ancients were like country relatives interested in tales of city life from their urban counterparts.
So she indulged her friend with tales of the Japanese invasion of China, and how Angela and her fellow students had barricaded themselves on the university campus.
“But you died outside the barricade,” Liusu said. “Why did you leave?”
“I wanted some lipstick.”
The woman chuckled. “He must be a handsome boy!”
Angela said nothing. There was no boy, she thought. After weeks of living in the overly familiar, cramped dormitory, showering in collected rain water, eating stale food from cupboards, she had looked at herself in the mirror and seen a monster. A pale, frightened, ugly thing. A splash of lipstick, she thought, would make her feel alive again.
Angela cursed the irony.
Liusu took her by the arm and pulled her outside into the courtyard. “When you are reborn, you will meet many handsome men again, and get all the lipstick you like!”
“Unless I am reborn as a man,” Angela joked.
Liusu stared blankly for a moment. “I suppose,” she said.
“Either way, will I remember nothing of this place?”
“Would you want to?”
“No,” Angela said at once, and then added, “Meaning no offense, Liusu.” Outside, the crowd was still kneeling, still praying. Angela’s eyes flicked to the sky, where the churning tempest rotated like a luminous maelstrom, clouds bubbling around a milky jade center.
“When will we go to the Gate? How soon until we are reborn?”
Liusu’s face settled into its default solemnity like an old theater mask. “Quite soon, Angela.”
Minister Fan formally ended the prayers with a wave of his brittle staff, and the crowd dissolved into small, roving bands wandering like water across the courtyard. Families, friends, coworkers found each other again. There were even Japanese souls here, their whispers a babble of flat, foreign syllables, but they remained strictly together, isolated, gaping at the terrible sky.
Angela spotted some faces she recognized. The henpecked grocer from Nanjing Road, his wife nowhere in sight. The train attendant with the gray hair, now a bald, flabby thing, wet as something freshly born, dark and glistening, wandering among the spectral populace as if lost without his train.
Her own family was inland in Nanking; Angela wondered if the Japanese had reached the capital city yet. If so, were other ministers there, to herd these ghosts towards local Gates? Did each city have these decrepit administrators?
Angela climbed a set of stairs and entered another temple annex. She went straight to the balcony and looked out onto the park and Changshu Road. Several buildings were missing their rooftops, sheared away by artillery, and the debris was starting to appear like hunched, misshapen borderstones on the road.
Deeper in the park, where the dark expanse sunk into roiling green mist, lay the Gate.
“Hello little sparrow. Miss me?”
“Leave me alone, Shen!”
She whirled to face him. “I will be leaving soon, and you cannot stop me! Stay among Minister Fan’s little community if you wish…”
“Community?” Shen sneered. He jabbed a finger towards the eddying crowd, in its own way mirroring the churning of the green sky. “I’ve seen great communities. I’ve seen the markets of Xianyang and the poets of the Hundred Schools…” He trailed off, solemn memories washing across his moist face. “This place is a refugee camp! A woven basket left in a river, and you, little fish, swim right in!”
“I thought I was your little sparrow,” she snapped. When he spoke for long periods of time she could hear his antiquated accent. “And how do you keep appearing and disappearing?”
“There are bodies nearby,” he said cryptically.
“I enter them.”
Angela stared at him. “We can… re-enter the world of life?” Was this another of his lies?
“Yes,” he said simply.
“Does Minister Fan know?”
“Because he’s young, and I am ancient, and I have had time to develop my senses here. I can smell the dead. I can locate their meat and slide into it.”
Angela mounted an acerbic retort to this. But a horrible memory was returning, and with it a dreadful realization hatching slowly, like something pushing from a cocoon in her mind…
“The men who killed me,” she muttered. “You ate them!” She let out a hissing sob like a teapot. “You ate them!”
She wondered if she would always feel the bullet striking the back of her head. The teeth in her mouth. The blood spilling hotly down the front of her blouse. Blood the very shade of lipstick she’d been seeking.
The corpses along Quinyun Road had been wet and ashen in the rain. One of them was a fat woman with black stringy hair, mouth open in a sneer of yellow, frightfully crooked teeth. A checkered rag, sodden and muddied, was fisted in one bloated hand.
Forgive my intrusions, Angela prayed as she patted their purses and pockets. Forgive my hands upon you…
Something like a hammer smacked into the back of her head. She was suddenly on her knees, thinking: I’ve been killed.
She heard footsteps splashing behind her. Someone kicked her and she fell. One gaunt man went straight past her to the corpses, a pistol still smoking in his hands. He searched the pockets of the dead.
Angela felt hands on her thighs, hiking up her skirt in the cold rain.
The gaunt man glanced to his partner. “You’ll fuck a corpse?” he asked in perfect Hong Kong dialect, and Angela realized these were local men, not invading soldiers.
“She’s still warm,” quipped the other, unseen behind her.
“Well hurry up!”
Angela blinked through blood and rain. The man gave quick staccato grunts behind her. Angela didn’t move. Her vision was graying out at the edges. Shrinking down like peering through the wrong end of a spyglass.
Her diminishing gaze fell upon the bloated dead woman and her awful teeth.
Then the dead woman winked at her.
Angela felt a gasp of surprise welling in her throat. The gaunt man with the pistol reached the bloated corpse. He dug into her pockets. A locket caught his attention, and he stooped to investigate it—
—and the dead woman seized his head between her bloated hands and brought his screaming face to her mouth.
“You ate them,” Angela repeated. “You possessed that woman’s corpse and… ate those men!”
“I did more than that, little sparrow.” Shen looked sidelong at her. “Is that pity I hear for your murderers?”
“There is no justification for cannibalism!” she insisted.
“It was not their flesh I was after. It was their souls.”
A memory clicked into place. When she had died, Shen was the first ghost she’d encountered. But the men who killed her, the ones who died beneath the gnawing mouth of that bloated ghoul… they had been nowhere in sight. She hadn’t thought of it until now. They had died, so they should have emerged into the afterlife with her.
That hadn’t happened.
Because Shen had eaten their souls.
“You’re a monster!”
Shen leaned forward. “Those men were fucking your corpse.”
“And you, oh noble beast, killed them to avenge me?”
“I ate them,” he whispered, “Because that is how I retain myself. That is why I shall never decay.” He waved a hand towards Minister Fan. “Look at them! They are drying out. Someday, they will simply fall apart, and the next inhabitants of Hudu Chongyuan Temple will use their tattered spiritflesh.” He pointed to the brown, lumpish robes the Minister and his retinue wore.
Angela shook her head violently. “No! I don’t believe it!”
“Even in hell, survival is possible.”
“This is not hell,” she countered. “This place is merely a byproduct of the universe, and we humans are complex enough to be conscious of it. If tomatoes possessed intelligence, perhaps their discarded skin would retain some of it when tossed into the trash.” She studied her tormentor’s perplexed face. “Never had a tomato, did you? Too poor to afford them? Or… oh! Right! In the time of Emperor Zhuanxu, tomatoes had not reached China from the New World!”
Shen said nothing.
“They’re delicious,” Angela pressed. “Perhaps the next time you possess the dead, you could try finding one in the market…”
He exhaled sharply. “I am your only ally here, you little bitch.”
“Fish, sparrow, bitch? Nothing from the zodiac, Shen?” There was a sudden movement from the courtyard below. The crowd was surging into the park! It was time!
“They are leaving for the Gate!” she cried.
She turned from Shen, but he yanked her back, and his face stretched into a hideous deformation it never could have managed in life. Unconstrained by bones, it became long and lupine, with black slit-like eyes and an unhinging jaw.
“You will stay here with me!” he roared.
Angela’s wrist slipped through his grip and she ran from the balcony, ran for all she was worth down the stairs and into the shambling crowd.
“Liusu!” she cried, seeing her friend dwindle behind her. “Goodbye, my friend!”
Her friend stood beside Minister Fan. The minister stroked his chin as if remembering that a beard might have grown there in life.
The crowd shambled out from Hudu Chongyuan Temple, descending towards the Gate and the fog that gathered there.
Back at university, Angela had seen war refugees moving through the streets in a silent, dazed tide like sleepwalkers. This new immigration felt like that. The ghost crowd walked towards the thick, soupy fog in the park. The Gate rose out of it like a watchtower.
Rebirth! Angela wondered what it would be like. Her spiritflesh would occupy a newborn body, Liusu had told her. Even as that new body grew and lived and experienced, Angela would still be inside. Angela Chen, born in the calendar year of 1919 and who died a college student…
The green sky churned. The crowd had crossed half the distance to the Gate, and the mist was a vaporous, thickening residue, like smoke curling up from freshly-burned joss paper. Ghosts at the head of the column had reached the Gate and had begun to pass beneath it, heading down to the lowest portion of the park, to the all-encompassing fog beyond.
My soul will slip inside a new body like a hand into an oven mitt and life will begin again, she thought. And I will remember nothing of this place except perhaps in haunted dreams.
A hand fell on her shoulder.
“You need to stop,” Shen insisted.
“Leave me be!” Angela cried. “I choose to be reborn!”
And then she was through! She passed beneath the Gate before Shen’s greedy hand could stop her, and abruptly she was in the deepest part of the park. The ghosts around her were like ships on a foggy sea, each going their own way.
What happens now? she wondered. Are we drawn up into the green maelstrom? Do we melt away and then emerge wet and wailing from a new womb…
The mist seemed to grow darker. Something was moving towards them, around them. A shape thundered past, half-glimpsed; Angela had the impression of a glistening, headless trunk moving on three massive legs.
Slowly at first, like the hiss of an approaching tide, the crowd began to scream.
A great claw reached down and scooped up a man in front of her. The ghost shrieked as it was carried into a gaping mouth, and then there was a sickening crunch as his soul collapsed like shells beneath a mallet. Angela whirled about to see another monster—freakishly huge with a mouth that could swallow a bus. Another claw swept over her head, scooped through the mist. Ghosts screamed and were crunched away into oblivion. Jaws slammed shut like thunderclaps.
Angela fell to her knees.
The crowd was hemmed in on all sides. Ghosts were snatched up two, three at a time. Brought hissing to dark mouths.
A blackness materialized beside her. It was Shen.
She grabbed his leg. “What’s happening? What are they?!”
“Other things that lived once, before men were ever conceived.”
The fog whipped in many directions. A woman ran past, followed by a monster in greedy pursuit. Angela could sense the excitement of the feeding. The fog was pungent with terror and hunger.
“Help me, Shen! Take me away from this!”
Shen seized her face. “Will you obey me for all time?” he demanded.
“Yes!” she cried. “I swear on my ancestors, I will be yours to command!”
He didn’t waste another moment. Shen dragged her, weaving among the chaos. A monster lumbered past, so close that Angela could see strange glyphs and patterns carved on its mighty flanks. Three ghosts raced behind it; the beast sensed their movement and spun around, hooked a dark claw sidelong and knocked them to the ground. Angela watched, numb with horror, as the monster bowed its head… to feast on them where they had fallen.
“There, there, little sparrow,” Shen whispered, clutching her to his chest. “Just close your eyes.”
And then the world of monsters and darkness and mist dissolved, and they were in a place of rain.
Stepping into the dead body was like entering a rancid, black cave slick with rot. It seemed to suck at her like mud at a boot.
Angela sat up stiffly, her limbs strangely leaden. She was wearing a male body clad in a brown uniform. The Imperial Japanese flag was sewn onto one arm. A leather belt at her waist held a knife and service pistol.
The park, green and wet and dark, lay all around her. The Gate towered overhead, only it was red and wooden here.
Shen had become a tanned, Japanese soldier. He sat up. His exposed jawbone displayed teeth like bullets in a cartridge.
“Those things…” she began. “Those monstrous ghosts…”
“They cannot reach us here,” he assured her.
Other soldiers lay dead around them. A scrawny dog, startled by their sudden movement, whined and scurried away.
“Then there is no rebirth,” Angela muttered. “Minister Fan was sending us off to be killed! Why?”
Shen took her by the hand and began to stroll along the park, a mockery of two lovers in the rain-dappled night. There were many bodies; the park had been the scene of a terrible battle.
In life and in death, Angela thought.
Something was squirming in her throat; she spat onto the grass.
Maggots. They struggled and squirmed among the blades. Angela felt more of them crawling in her throat, and she retched violently, the worms spilling out of her mouth.
“You see now why we cannot remain here,” Shen said absently, nodding his Japanese face. He was pulling items from his uniform and inspecting them, one-by-one. A photograph of a woman with two little boys. His combat knife. He was especially fascinated by the service pistol, and he openly marveled at its construction. “We will leave these bodies, but must get out of the park first. The monsters are still feeding all around us.”
“Why were we betrayed?”
“Fan and his circle keep to the temple. The monsters get a steady supply of souls.”
“He communicates with them?” Angela cried.
Shen aimed the pistol ahead of them. “There was a dog who used to terrorize me in life,” he said. “To save myself, I started bringing food with me to toss at it. That was our arrangement. It came up, snarling and barking, and I tossed it meat. We never spoke. But we had an understanding.” He squeezed the trigger, discharging a single shot into the night. “If I ever stopped feeding it, it would have killed me.”
“But my friend Liusu…”
“She was not your friend.”
Angela sobbed; the sound was a male’s voice, resonating in her borrowed throat. They had reached the periphery of the park now, and she noticed living men huddled beneath a storefront canopy. The men were noticing them too.
But they don’t realize we’re dead, she thought. They don’t understand that nearby, on the other side of shadows, are monsters in a world of bones.
“I warned you, little sparrow. I told you not to trust any of them.”
She fell against his chest. Shen embraced her again, almost tenderly, and she could nearly believe that she was just a little girl again in her grandfather’s arms. That she might awaken from this nightmare.
But then Shen’s dead arms were pressing her tightly. She felt her borrowed body detach from her, and the rain fell away, and the shadow world engulfed them both once more.
Back to blackness and a green sky.
Angela stared into the rotating vortex, feeling her hope for a life reborn fizzle away like fat crackling in a skillet.
Then she noticed where she was standing.
“Shen!” she cried.
He clamped his hand over her mouth. “Do not speak,” he warned her.
The monsters lay all around them. But they appeared to be sleeping, sated now that the feeding was over. One lay sprawled amid the black ruins, its four arms dangling by its headless, trunk-like body. Angela gasped at its size and strangeness; a grotesquely engorged abomination, surrounded by tatters of spiritflesh that lay strewn around its obscene bulk like streamers after New Year’s Festival.
The creature didn’t move. Angela saw no eyes. What passed for its face was nothing more than a terrible mouth. Scrawls and shapes were engraved into its bulk, either some kind of patterning that the creature had sported in life, or alien language carved post-mortem into its bulk, to remind it of long-lost eons.
“It is digesting,” Shen whispered into her ear. “Come, we must work quickly!”
Before she could ask, the realization flooded her mind.
“This is why you needed me!” she cried.
The beast stirred sleepily. Shen strode anxiously towards the sprawled-out creature. His mouth opened… and kept opening, stretching into a terrible cavern.
He started at its clawed foot and slowly, inexorably, devoured up the leg. The creature seemed barely aware of it, sunk in a post-feeding stupor. But slowly it stirred. It lazily batted at him with one arm.
Shen clamped down on the leg, tore a chunk of the limb away, and glowered at Angela as he chewed. “You must help me! If the others awaken and see their brethren half-eaten, they’ll understand. I need your help!”
Angela stared blankly at him. She figured that she had reached the limits of horror, but this new task—this thing that Shen wanted—seemed to plunge her into new levels of fear that threatened to disentangle her mind.
“Help me!” Shen demanded. “Help me or I’ll eat off your own limbs and leave you here, crawling around like a limbless maggot, for ten thousand years, you little bitch!”
The monster batted at him again. Shen bit down on its belly and the creature began to shriek—a tea-pot whistle.
Sobbing, shaking uncontrollably, Angela settled down beside one leg.
Shen had become a deformed mass. He didn’t look human at all. His face was stretched out, his throat bulged around the alien joints and bulk. But even in this state, he glared at Angela. The monster knocked him aside and flopped over on its stomach, began to crawl.
He scampered after the creature and clamped his mouth down on its trunk. Angela watched from a distance. Watched as the creature’s attempts grew feeble, and it finally collapsed.
She watched Shen eat the creature until only a limbless, mewling thing was left.
She shivered. She wanted to cry. But all she could do was shiver and be afraid.
He didn’t look human afterwards.
The volume of spiritflesh within him had distended him into something like a hideous toad, but even as she watched, he was deflating back to normal dimensions. Slowly, inexorably digesting what he had eaten.
“You little bitch,” Shen whispered thickly. They had shambled away from the fog and into the remains of a building. “If it had gotten away…”
“It didn’t,” Angela said dully.
“You will help me next time, or I’ll make good on my promise.” He seemed to be perspiring, looking like a fat, wet thing. His jaw diminished like elastic to its former shape. “Now you know what your three choices are! Become chum for old monsters, live as a steadily-decaying scavenger… or help me eat those dangerous things.”
“Until you tire of me!”
He pointed a dripping hand. “At my feet. You are not my sparrow any longer. You wanted a zodiac designation, eh? Be my dog!”
She shrank beside his swollen legs.
“I have had other servants,” Shen whispered, voice slurring with post-feeding exhaustion. He placed his hands on his distended belly, and when he spoke it was in a slurring, drunken stupor. “You will last only as long as you obey me! Now swear your fealty!”
Angela looked up, broken.
She bent and kissed his feet. Her lips planted tiny, hesitant touches along his feet, working down to his toes.
Three choices? she wondered, some semblance of sanity returning to her from the abyss. Did he say I have three choices?
No. There is a fourth here.
She kissed him until he was sleeping. Then, Angela Chen stretched out her mouth and engulfed Shen’s foot. Her teeth clamped down on the ankle.
Eventually he noticed what she was doing.
It was far too late, by then.
It seemed that time passed slowly, but this was only an illusion. Whenever she visited the living world, she was shocked at how the years, centuries, millennia, and eons had flickered past. When she finally learned to sniff out dead bodies and enter them, the war between China and Japan was long over, and the streets were crowded with sleek, beetle-like automobiles, and storefronts were electric and neon lairs. She saw a newspaper, marveling when its dateline said the year was 1997. The next time she returned, there were no newspapers, only thrumming holograms at each streetlamp, and it was the year 2065.
Then there came a time when there were no newspapers, no holograms, and no more sleek cars.
The thing calling itself Angela moved about the underworld. She fed when she noticed her bulky spiritflesh growing stiff and dry. Sometimes, she fed when she was bored, or when she remembered old betrayals.
Hudu Chongyuan Temple was lost history, almost myth to her mind. Liusu had paid for her betrayal. Minister Fan had long ago gone shrieking into her Angela’s gullet. She had hunted the monsters of old, too, and the fog was her only friend now, along with the churning emerald sky, and the shadows, and her own thoughts. All else was food.
But lately, odd things were bleeding through to the underworld. The landscape had changed. Strange monuments and hillocks materialized. New ghosts, interrupting a terrible age of drought, were once again crossing over.
The thing calling itself Angela decided to visit, after so many years of disinterest.
It was raining when she returned for a peek into the living world. Rainwater spilled off strange rooftop gardens and into street gutters. Dead bodies filled the roadside in the shadow of ruined, pulverized buildings. The bodies—her own borrowed body—were not Chinese or Japanese or any breed of human at all. The living world belonged to something new now. All around her were hulking nautiloid things with five spongy appendages. Creatures, a new civilization perhaps, who had come to preside over the world.
Angela saw a troop of them, armed with hatchets, passing her by. Their bronze age, she thought in amusement. And like the bronze age of long-extinct humanity, these creatures were at war. She rose up from a heap of bodies. The Wheel of Life and Death, like a waterwheel, never stops turning.
The troop of hatchet-wielding, shelled abominations noticed her standing tall from the pile of dead. They emitted ear-piercing trills and scattered away, gibbering in a language she didn’t understand.
But she could guess.
They’re telling others about the monster, she thought. The monster in a world of bones.
About the Author
Brian Trent’s science-fiction and dark fantasy has appeared in Escape Pod, ANALOG, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nature, COSMOS, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, and much more. He blogs at www.briantrent.com. His new dark fantasy series, “Rahotep,” is available for Kindle.
About the Narrator
Setsu Uzumé is the assistant editor and host of PodCastle, as well as a nonbinary person who writes and occasionally narrates dark fantasy. They are taking a break from swordwork to study horseback archery, baking, and violin. While they have dabbled in many arts, only writing and martial arts seem to have stuck.