by Todd Sullivan
Mok Ha’neul didn’t know how long the night breeze carried the plaintive mewling before she eventually became aware of it. At the foot of the alley winding through Dongmun neighborhood, she sat in a semicircle of old women on a hard wooden board balanced on a wide flat rock. She hadn’t uttered a word all night. Instead, she listened as the other women gossiped about their kids who had grown into adults and now raised children of their own. Trading anecdotes of failures committed by progeny adrift from the traditional ways, the old women shared green bottles of white makgoli that they drank from flimsy paper cups.
The pitch of the mewling increased, slipping through the quiet moments of conversation. Ha’neul inclined her head in the direction of her son and daughter-in-law’s home where their only child slept, alone, her parents at a nearby hof-jip drinking beer and soju with old friends from high school.
She sighed in frustration. They shouldn’t have left the girl by herself this time of night. Not with the way that child wrestled with gwi’shin.
Taking a deep breath, Ha’neul placed her bony hands on the wooden board and slowly pushed herself up. Taking care not to topple over, she accidentally bumped a bottle of makgoli and sent it rolling into the semicircle of old women. The conversation dropped down to abrupt silence until one of the women bent over and set the bottle back upright. None of the others made note of Ha’neul leaving as she gingerly stepped off of the board into the mouth of Dongmun alley.
An ancient neighborhood, Dongmun was surrounded by Seoul, a megacity boasting towering steel buildings that easily dwarfed the ramshackle houses built low and made of rough blocks of uneven gray stone. Time had stopped in the concrete alleys snaking through these decrepit homes, and Ha’neul navigated the narrow, lightless lanes with a sure shuffle of her feet. She removed her slippers at the heavy brass door of her son’s home, grasped the round handle, and pulled it slightly ajar to slip inside.
Moonlight barely illuminated the small house. Ha’neul stepped lightly across the hard floor to where her granddaughter slept in Pororo pajamas on a thin pallet against the plaster wall in the central room. She reached the girl and placed her hand on her forehead, but the silhouetted form did not stir. Her granddaughter didn’t acknowledge Ha’neul’s presence, or the rough touch of her calloused fingers. Several seconds passed before realization sank in.
The child was still in a deep sleep, but the mewling persisted, emanating from a source slightly above the girl’s prone body. Ha’neul noticed the bright glint of moonlight on a silver blade hovering near the child’s neck. Her breathing died to a whistled wheeze as her eyes travelled up the handle to the pale hand gripping the sharp knife. Up the pale hand to the steady arm, the slender shoulder, the graceful neck, the beautiful female face cowled by long black hair. And finally to gaze into the figure’s cool eyes staring directly at her. Only then did the mewling stop, the slight part of the figure’s red lips closing.
The stranger wore all black. Ha’neul could barely make out the outlines of a short skirt and shirt. She looked young, in her late teens or early 20s. She gazed without blinking at Ha’neul, no emotion crossing her lovely, cold face. She leaned in slightly and said, “I don’t want to kill this child.” Yet at the same time, she pressed the tip of the blade lightly into the girl’s neck, drawing a sliver of blood that slid down into the cuff of the Pororo pajamas. Ha’neul’s granddaughter stirred, her eyes flickering behind her closed lids, a spasm of pain twisting her petite features, but she did not wake.
Ha’neul took several deep breaths to calm herself before speaking. She’d made a promise to protect this child from all the dangers hunting the night, but this was the first time she’d faced a being this evil and this close to snuffing out her granddaughter’s life.
Licking her dry lips, the old woman worked her jaw for several moments before finally opening her mouth and asking, “So what do you want?”
The surprising answer came quickly. “Help.”
The child beneath the blade stirred again, and the stranger reached out with her free hand and brushed back strands of damp hair from the girl’s sweaty cheek.
“She’s adorable,” the stranger said, genuine hints of remorse audible in the tone of her voice. “I’d hate to hurt her further, but I will.” Warmth fell from her gaze when she looked at the grandmother again. “Take my threat seriously.”
Ha’neul nodded solemnly. She knew what hovered over the child was an apparition of death. She’d heard whispers in her ancestral town of Jeju, the island at the southern most tip of Korea. Her mother’s mother also wrestled with gwi’shin, and she’d learned secrets from the ghosts of the different types of damned doomed to torment humans after death. This stranger before her, a drinker of blood, imprisoned by the night, represented one of the most powerful, and secretive, undead beings. She would torture the child to get what she wanted, and mourn her loss of humanity even as she exhibited her lack of morality. The old woman had no doubt about this, and knew she must do everything in her power to best this monster wearing the guise of a human.
“I’ve been chasing secret words,” the stranger said. “In Jeju, I learned an old incantation of power, but it only works there. Off the island, I need a way to activate ancient artifacts here. In Seoul, in Busan, in Daegu. Wherever my travels take me in Korea, I need a way to protect myself.”
Ha’neul swallowed in a dry throat, and pointed out the irony. “So even monsters are afraid of the dark?”
The figure scowled. “There’s always something bigger, meaner, and more deadly in this world.” She pressed the blade against the child’s face, and with a deft flick of her wrist, flayed a centimeter of flesh from the girl’s cheek. The child’s eyes shot open, and she whimpered, tears flooding her eyes. The stranger laid a pale hand on the girl’s shoulder and whispered, “Stay still, little sister, and remain silent.”
The child froze, her small body trembling as she stared out into the dark room. Ha’neul wanted to rush to her granddaughter, wanted to shield her with her own body, let the blade work her wrinkled flesh instead. But the stranger’s steady gaze told her that any sudden moves on her part would end badly for the girl, and so she restrained herself with many deep inhales.
“Even if I found an answer to give you,” she said between labored breaths, “what makes you think you’d be able to understand it?”
“Because I’ve used an incantation before.” The stranger closed her eyes briefly as if trying to remember something existing right outside of her consciousness. “And because I have to try. Just as you have no choice in telling me, I have no choice but to find the answer to my question.”
Ha’neul pictured the stranger’s head in a guillotine, a cloaked figure standing by the lever ready to snatch her undead life away.
“Jeju Island people are more in touch with the mystical elements than us city people,” Ha’neul admitted. “Korea’s greatest shamans once lived there, though even on the island it’s a dying practice kept up only by the very old.” She tried to keep despair out of her rasping voice. “I wasn’t born there, I’m too far removed from the ancient ways of my people.”
The stranger tensed, the girl beneath her squirmed, but before the knife could do more damage, Ha’neul hastily added, “But a gwi’shin. Find a gwi’shin, and it may have learned what you seek while in communication with others of its lost kind. The dead often talk to each other. Who else are they going to converse with?”
“How do I find a gwi’shin?” the stranger asked. She adjusted her stance, the blade now only loosely held against the child’s cheek. Her hand on the girl’s shoulder, however, did not relax, and the old woman watched helplessly as her granddaughter, lips quivering, eyes wide, seemed on the verge of breaking down.
“They can exist anywhere, but are usually visible nowhere.” Ha’neul’s voice rasped up from her dry throat to fall from her mouth into the dark room. “Gwi’shin are products of unfilled want, willing to do anything to justify an existence they no longer have.” She stared pointedly at the stranger. “You must search out reflective surfaces, for you and the gwi’shin have much in common.”
The stranger nodded. “We do,” she admitted. “But grandmother, you must help me. My patience is short, and I don’t have the time to wander the crevices of Seoul seeking out the other dead. You have to help me accelerate the process.”
The knife disappeared into the darkness, but Ha’neul did not heave a sigh of relief. She’d known all alone that the blade had only been for theatrics, like the mewling that’d led her into the home. If legends spoke truth, the stranger possessed the strength of dozens, and could easily rip apart her granddaughter with her hands alone.
“I will return tomorrow,” the stranger added. “By then, have thought of the place to view my reflection so that I can find a gwi’shin. Don’t disappoint me.”
She caressed the child’s cheek one last time, gently, and when she removed her other hand from the girl’s shoulder, the old woman’s granddaughter opened her mouth wide and let out a long, piercing shriek.
Darkness consumed the stranger as voices picked up in the surrounding houses. The child’s piercing wail went on and on, ripping the neighborhood’s late evening silence asunder. The stranger slithered across the floor to the window, slipped through, and hauled herself up the short brick wall to the blue aluminum roof. She quickly leapt over the narrow alleys of Dongmun until she reached a wide boulevard separating the old neighborhood from the modern city towering around it. At the edge of Dongmun stood a red brick church on a steep hill. A western style cemetery sloped down from the hill and ended at Gwanghuimun gate.
She leapt to the tall church spire, then over to the top of Gwanghuimun. The arched gate’s heavy door stood open to a cobbled stone courtyard, and along the stone battlements stood dozens of protective bow-legged, monkey men statues. They stared ahead with hungry eyes, their tiny feet splayed on the bright red, tiled roof. The stranger nestled in the shadows amongst the statues frozen in midstride, withdrew the knife, and licked the blood from the blade. Tingles of pleasure helped numb the distaste she experienced in having to hurt the child. This wasn’t who she wanted to be, but she had no choice if she wanted to protect her best friend from the monsters of the world.
Tucking the blade back into the sheath strapped to her inner thigh, she dropped down from the Bright Light Gate, and crossed the street out of the ancient Dongmun neighborhood into modern Seoul towering around it. Yellow and silver taxis, mopeds and motorcycles raced down the wide avenues. Dongdaemun Design Plaza billowed up ahead of her, and the stranger quickly maneuvered through a stream of people crowding the busy sidewalks. She went down a steep escalator into the nearest subway and took the green line headed to Hongik University. Male eyes attempting to catch her gaze was a sharp reminder that she hadn’t properly fed that night. The youthful child’s blood had stirred her hunger so that it threatened to engulf her, but she employed all of her training to suppress her desire. After meeting her best friend, she’d hunt down someone some where in a secluded area to drink.
The stranger got off at Hongik, and went up the stairs alongside university students streaming out of the subway. Though only Wednesday, Hongik’s sidewalks bustled with young Koreans enjoying the late spring weather. Short shirts and shorter skirts had come out of closets, and deep beats from speakers at storefronts vibrated the air. Cars honked at pedestrians sprinting across narrow streets, and taxis lined up along curbs, top lights blinking for passengers. Cherry blossom buds had awoken in trees to paint their branches bright pink, and thin petals swirled between sneakers and high heels marching from restaurant to bar to club in Hongik’s bustling neighborhoods.
The stranger headed to Bar Na located in a strip of bars, and stepped inside a dim staircase. She went up two flights of stairs where her friend should be waiting for her. She pushed open the wooden second story door and entered a long, narrow bar cluttered with tables and chairs set opposite each other against the gray walls. At the end of the bar on a raised platform by a window overlooking the busy streets below, the stranger saw her best friend, Kang Sori, as Sori saw her.
“Kim Jung Hyun!” Sori smiled brightly, and waved from where she sat on the bench. “Come meet my new friends!”
Two guys sitting at the table turned, and stood as Jung Hyun approached the group. Both wore slim fitted, stylish clothes: blue jeans and a buttoned down short-sleeved shirt for the taller one, black jeans and a red t-shirt for the shorter one. The taller guy’s lightened hair swept down over his left eye, while the shorter guy had perfectly mussed black hair.
“I was sitting here by myself waiting for you,” Sori explained, “and these guys decided to come over and keep me company.” Her eyes brightened as her gaze lingered on one, then the other. “But if you want, I can tell them to get lost,” she teased, and both guys, playing their parts expertly, gave pained sighs of heartbroken disappointment.
“Don’t be cruel,” the taller one begged, shoulders slumping in mock grief. “Please, let us join you. We’ll be good boys. Promise!”
The shorter one gave Jung Hyun his best puppy dog look, and she playfully giggled, covering her mouth with her hand as she imagined skinning him alive and hanging him up from the ceiling by a hook through his ankles as a warning to all those of her kind who threatened the friend who she loved.
“Let me buy the first round of drinks,” the taller one said, and motioned to a willowy Japanese waitress in a long blue dress. To the girls, he asked, “What are you having?”
“Just beer,” Jung Hyun replied with a shrug.
“Don’t be boring.” Sori slapped her shoulder. “Order a cocktail.”
“Yeah, it’s on us,” the tall guy reminded us. “Sky’s the limit.”
The Japanese waitress suggested whiskey, which they all ordered on the rocks. When she brought their drinks over several minutes later, they clinked glasses, and took sips of the strong alcohol.
“Delicious,” the tall guy announced, and his shorter friend nodded in agreement.
“So,” Sori said, “are you students?”
The two guys shook their heads. “Detectives for Seoul Metropolitan Police,” the tall guy replied, and Sori’s mouth dropped open in amazement.
“Are you serious?” She looked from one to the other. “You two are detectives? Isn’t that dangerous?”
The short guy laughed, and the tall guy replied, “Very. But we can take care of ourselves.” He sipped his whiskey. “We’re actually working a big case now. Chasing a fugitive.” The tall guy lowered his voice and leaned in close to Sori. “Serial killer,” he said in a sinister whisper.
Sori clutched Jung Hyun’s hand. “Really? You’re not joking?” She waited for confirmation, but when both guys gave solemn nods of their heads, Sori faced Jung Hyun.
“Can you believe it?” she asked. “Here in Korea, a murderer.” She glanced around Bar Na as if the perpetrator would materialize out of the shadows to attack them now. “He could be anywhere.”
“That’s the surprising part about this case,” the tall one continued. “It’s not a guy.”
Jung Hyun’s hand tightened on her friend’s, slightly, so as not to hurt the girl. She conjured her most surprised look at this gender revelation, playing along with the two male Gwanlyo agents sitting in front of her.
“What will you do with her when you catch her?” Sori asked.
The tall guy tapped his whiskey cup with the tip of his nail. “She’ll get a fair trial, of course. But the evidence against her is overwhelming. Abduction. Murder. She’s one of the worst of the worst.”
Jung Hyun kept her face placid even as fury built within her. How dare they insinuate this in front of Sori, when the undead organization posed the true threat in their desire to hire her best friend as one of their employees? The bloody face of the young girl from earlier in the night flashed in Jung Hyun’s mind, the ease with which she’d cut the girl in order to get what she wanted. The Gwanlyo turned humans into monsters, powerful and twisted. Jung Hyun would do anything to save Sori’s humanity and prevent her from joining the organization.
When they’d both lived on Jeju, Jung Hyun had used shamanic rituals of protection that she’d coerced out of elders in rural fishing villages dotting the island’s coastline. But the undead organization’s ways were many, and they’d offered Sori a job in Gangnam as floor manager at Lotte, Korea’s biggest luxury hotel chain.
Sori had leapt at the chance.
Jung Hyun drained her whiskey and placed it with a thud on the table. “So what options does the murderer have now?” she asked. “Just turn herself in?”
“If she’s smart,” the taller guy said, with the shorter one nodding his head in agreement. “But after all she’s done, we’re not exactly sure how sane she is. Right now, Seoul Metropolitan police simply considers her actions to be unpredictable.”
Sori shivered, and finished off her whiskey with a noisy slurp. “Let’s change the subject,” she announced with a nervous laugh. “You two are scaring me!”
Jung Hyun put an arm around Sori’s shoulder. The two guys agreed, and after another round, Sori excused herself to go to the bathroom. Behind them, the bar had quieted, though more voices drifted up from the second floor. The Japanese waitress sat on a stool, head bowed over her smartphone.
The three undead Gwanlyo employees stared at each other.
“So you left the island,” the shorter guy said, speaking for the first time. “We were sure you wouldn’t. But Kang Sori. She’s a different story.” He leaned in towards Jung Hyun, his slim frame tense, menacing.” You haven’t told her the truth, have you?” He gazed into her eyes without blinking for several false breaths. “So you aren’t that insane. Yet.”
“She’d never believe me if I simply told her,” Jung Hyun replied with a shrug of her slender shoulders. “And showing her what I am…” She paused, her words trailing off. Showing Sori the monster would lose her friend. Or worse, entice her to become a night’s shadow also. Neither of these risks was Jung Hyun willing to take, so she’d kept the secrets to herself, and had diligently worked to discover ancient secrets to protect her friend from the Gwanlyo.
“So what now?” Jung Hyun leaned back against the window behind her. “Do you think I’ll just turn myself in?”
The tall guy laughed, and the shorter guy said, “You’re dangerous on Jeju, that’s for sure. Everyone we sent after you to that damned island never came back, and we still don’t know why.” He tried to suppress hints of respect when he added, “You’re a formidable rogue employee. You found some old power locked away in the locals there, right? Some ritual you used against your own kind.”
Jung Hyun shrugged, though elation soared through her. She always feared that the Gwanlyo would torture the right person on the island and learn the secret of the shamanic statues on the island. It seemed that they still hadn’t managed it, though, which left her with her powerful advantage.
The shorter guy’s hands closed into loose fists. “Just what we’d expect from a rogue employee. Your madness consumes you.”
“I’m not crazy,” Jung Hyun said, and conjuring Sori’s face, she thought, I’m in love.
“With a human?” The short guy said in disgust. Jung Hyun bit back a flinch. She’d been carefully monitoring her thoughts so that the two agents wouldn’t read her mind. The last thought had been too strong, it seemed, and had slipped out to be scooped up by the employee.
“Your reasoning is irrational,” the short guy said in frustration. “When she’s hired, when she’s one of the Gwanlyo, then she’ll be fit to love. As a human, she’s just subsistence. Something to be fed upon.”
Defiant rage tore aside her caution, and Sori ballooned in her thoughts. All of the small moments that filled their friendship. The human moments that captivated Jung Hyun. The way Sori grew quiet when the waiter at a seafood restaurant set a gutted fish on the table, its black eyes staring blindly out at the world it’d never experience again. She loved the taste but still wanted to honor the dead animal in some small away.
Or the way she paused at musicians playing in Hongik, and would self-consciously rush forward to drop a 1000 won into a guitar case or brown cardboard box. Sori was notorious for helping tourists she met, whether in Jeju or now here in Seoul. She spoke several languages, being a natural linguist, and she always looked for ways to lend a hand to those in need.
Jung Hyun let these acts of kindness and compassion that her friend selflessly gave to the world fill her thoughts, and she hurled them at the two Gwanlyo agents sitting across from her. I’ll never let her become like us, she hissed in her mind. Never let her become callous, indifferent to the suffering of humans. Never force her to drink blood for the rest of an eternal undead life.
The two guys blinked rapidly as if the passion behind Jung Hyun’s visions created a blinding light that hurt their eyes.
“The Gwanlyo will take the girl,” the short guy insisted, though the confidence he displayed earlier seemed shaken, if not broken. “The question of how depends on you. Fight us, and she may be killed in the crossfire.”
She still had a chance, if the old woman came through with a protective power to defeat Gwanlyo employees. Jung Hyun suddenly deflated as if defeated, her shoulders slumped, her head dropping in exhaustion. “Ok,” she said. “Tomorrow night, I’ll give her to you.”
“Don’t mistake this last chance we give you for stupidity,” the short guy sneered. “Tonight we’ll hire her. No more tricks. No more deceptions.”
“And me?” Jung Hyun kept up the act, imagining herself a rat in a trap’s steel jaws.
“You methodically obstructed official Gwanlyo business and have wantonly killed Gwanlyo employees. “ The short guy burgeoned on the verge of ecstasy as he listed the litany of her sins. “You spurned every chance to come back into the fold, and forced the organization to push back ancient schedules to compensate for your violations. I am not your judge or jury, but I speak with conviction when I say,” he gave her a pitiless smile, “death becomes you.”
Jung Hyun sighed, and with supernatural speed unsheathed the blade at her thigh and lashed out at the shorter guy, slicing cleanly through his throat and splaying blood across the table and wall. The tall guy’s eyes opened wide in disbelief. All three of them knew that a wound like this, while potentially fatal to a human, would only slow down the short guy. But for her to attack them like this, in a public bar, breaking the Gwanlyo’s most sacred rule of secrecy, seemed too much for the tall guy to digest.
“You are insane,” he whispered as the short guy bent over to hide the wound from the Japanese waitress still sitting on the stool looking down at her smartphone. They heard footsteps on the stairs, and Jung Hyun quickly slid from behind the table and rushed to meet Sori coming back into the bar, waving brightly, and slightly inebriated, at her.
“I think the drinks should be on us now,” Sori said, but Jung Hyun took her hand and spun her back to the exit.
For Sori’s benefit, Jung Hyun said over her shoulder to the guys still seated at the table, “We’ll be right back.” She didn’t pause going downstairs into the crowded Hongik streets.
“What are we doing?” Sori twisted her head towards Bar Na growing distant behind them as Jung Hyun went to a line of taxis.
“I just got a call,” Jung Hyun lied. “There’s someone I’d really like you to meet.”
“Tonight?” Sori got into a yellow cab, and Jung Hyun slid in beside her and said to the taxi driver, “Dongdaemun.”
“Jung Hyun?” Sori tapped her shoulder incessantly. “What happened? What’s wrong? Who do we have to meet this time of night?” Confusion swept across the petite features of her face, and for a moment Jung Hyun thought Sori might demand the taxi to pull over until she got an explanation of the night’s strange detour. But beneath that confusion, Jung Hyun sensed a deep trust her best friend held for her, and she had to focus to keep the blood tears from filling her eyes.
Smiling reassuringly instead, she said, “It’s nothing. I have an errand I need to run in Dongdaemun, that’s all.”
“Dongdaemun? Are we going shopping this late?”
Jung Hyun laughed. “It’s nothing like that. I just want you to meet an old friend.” She glanced at the taxi driver, who’d eyed them several times as the conversation had proceeded. Soft music floated from the radio, a female singer whose voice rose and fell as if the lyrics she sung rode the perpetual waves slapping against the beaches in Jeju.
They said nothing else until Jung Hyun told the driver to stop in front of Gwanghuimun gates. She paid the driver, and led a confused Sori out into the quiet street running by the historic site. The western style graveyard with its gray headstones poking up out of the green grass sloped up to the towering church at the top of the hill. Opposite the hill stood squat Dongmun houses, their doors and walls splashed with bright colors and abstract images of birds and fish. A young man sat on a stoop in front of one of the homes, a beer at his feet, his head bowed over a smartphone as a baseball game emitted clearly from tiny speakers.
Sori looked up and down the empty street, then up at Gwanghuimun gates, the graveyard, and the church with its tall spire. “I’m getting scared.” She sounded like a child, her words trembling. “I just…” She touched Jung Hyun’s hand.
“I’m sorry.” Jung Hyun intertwined her cold fingers with her friend’s warmer ones. “I didn’t think I’d have to involve you in this. Tomorrow night, I was going to meet a grandmother to find a way to protect you.” But now that wasn’t going to work, and Jung Hyun had no choice but to coerce the old woman to help her tonight. And since she couldn’t let Sori out of her sight, she had to do what she had to do in front of her best friend. She had to release the darkness alive inside of her and let her friend see the monster lurking right beneath the human façade.
She’d tucked the bloody knife back in its sheath strapped to her thigh when they’d rushed out of Bar Na. Even as her hand now grasped her friend’s gently, she knew she could—knew she would wield the knife to skin off the little girl’s face if the old woman resisted.
As if the intensity of the violent image sent a warning sign to illuminate the night sky, Ha’neul exited one of the narrow alleys leading out of the Dongmun neighborhood. She approached them at a fast hobble. Jung Hyun also noticed the guy listening to the baseball game now standing, and with a nod to the old woman, he disappeared into the colorful house with his beer.
Very clever of her, Jung Hyun thought, and wondered how many people in the neighborhood she had enlisted the help of.
“Come on,” she said with a slight squeeze of Sori’s hand. “It’s almost over.”
She led her friend past the graveyard to the cobblestones beneath the historic city gates. Two stone haetae guarded Gwanghuimun’s entrance and offered the late night guests frozen, malevolent, sharp tooth grins.
“Tomorrow,” the old woman gasped when she was still feet away from them. Sori, just now seeing her, started towards her with concern, but Jung Hyun kept her friend firmly beside her, not letting go of her for an instant.
“Tomorrow,” the old woman repeated, “I told you to come back.”
Jung Hyun nodded to her left. “But they didn’t want to listen.”
Sori and the old woman both turned to the two guys swiftly walking towards them. The shorter one had changed his clothes, and except for an angry red scar marring his pale neck, his throat had otherwise healed. The two of them turned apologetic smiles to Ha’neul. If they were surprised to see her out there this time of night, it didn’t show as they bowed low to her politely.
“Grandmother,” the taller one said respectfully, “please, go back to bed. It’s late, and you must be tired.”
Ha’neul did indeed breathe heavily after her quick ascent to the gates. Her wrinkles pulled the flesh of her face towards her ancient eyes. Though she looked exhausted, the spirit of determination burned within the gaze that she swept over them all. They would not hurt her granddaughter. Her very being solely existed to protect the child from the terrors of the night.
The old woman took a deep breath, and licking dried lips, said in a breathless voice, “You monsters, full of violence.
“You come here for my help,” she directed this comment to Jung Hyun. “I have spoken to gwi’shin of a past long gone, and they revealed to me…”
The words slipped from Ha’neul’s lips as a low, musical chant. Jung Hyun tried to move, but the rhythm slithered around her like chains to hold her fast to the ground where she stood. Above her, on the Gwanghuimun gate’s bright red tiled roof, the sound emanated of dozens of tiny pattering feet rushing forward towards them. Jung Hyun strained her neck to look up, and heard tendons in her neck stretching beyond their breaking points. She had to see, though, what was coming towards her and the other Gwanlyo employees rooted helplessly to the cobblestone square.
Ha’neul’s chants grew stronger, and Jung Hyun watched with horror as the bowlegged monkey-men leapt upon her, their shrieks piercing her mind creating a crescendo of pain that would have had her writhing on the ground in pain if her body had been capable of falling. Through the torture, she sensed the two Gwanlyo employees suffering the same fate. The power she had sought, now used against her.
The monkey-men swarmed over her, and tore at her pale skin with their stone claws. Jung Hyun screamed, and heard her cries as thin whimpers uttered through slightly parted lips.
She tried to look at Sori, but could not incline her head in her friend’s direction. Their hands still clasped each other, and it was only her frozen stance that had spared her friend from crushed bones and pulverized flesh.
“What’s going on? Why are you crying?” Sori tugged at her, but Jung Hyun remained paralyzed. The phantom statues, invisible to all except those whom they tore and ripped and clawed at, howled in triumph and started to pull her across the cobblestone square. The two guys had already fallen and were being dragged, faces frozen in silent masks of anguish, across the ground and up the wall to the temple’s tiled roof.
In-between the chants, the old woman begged Sori, “Let her go, let her go!” She stumbled to Sori, but could not say more without breaking the spell and ending the attack.
Sori looked from Jung Hyun to the grandmother, and back to Jung Hyun again. Tears fell from her eyes now, her fear overwhelming her. The two guys, reaching their destination above them on the gate’s battlements, finally managed slightly louder whimpers as the stone bowlegged statues, with gleeful shrieks, ripped them apart and to be drunk down by the blood red tiled roofs.
“Let her go,” Ha’neul managed with one last breath, but Sori only shook her head.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “She’s my friend.”
The old woman gazed into the young girl’s face and saw trust and devotion for this monster disguised as a human. Looking back at Jung Hyun, she realized that somewhere within that dead body, good must exist. Pure evil could never create the expression of love shining through the confusion and fear twisting the girl’s haggard features. The chants slowly died from Ha’neul’s lips. Strength and power drained from her, and there was nothing more she could do.
Jung Hyun fell into her friend’s sobbing embrace, and for several moments she just inhaled Sori’s scent with deep, false breaths. She didn’t realize until she pulled away that she hadn’t noticed the smell of her best friend’s blood the entire time.
“Old woman,” Jung Hyun hissed, her eyes glowing in rage. “You’ll teach me that power, or I swear…” She let the threat hang in the air, not wanting to speak the actions she’d take in front of Sori.
Ha’neul licked her dry lips. “I can’t,” she said, her throat so dry it hurt to speak. “I had to seek out gwi’shin older than my mother’s mother’s mother, but they could not teach me the words. I’m not strong enough.” She took a deep inhale. “They can speak through me, but I cannot speak for them. I am only their vessel.”
“You lie!” Jung Hyun leapt at her to wrap her fingers around the old woman’s neck, to lift her up, to hurl her away from her in disgust. Her hands went through Ha’neul’s body, touching nothing. Jung Hyun froze, and beside her, Sori asked, “Where did she go?”
But Jung Hyun still saw the gwi’shin, who, with a fatigued sigh, turned from her and hobbled back to the mouth of an alley winding out of Dongmun neighborhood. “We share the same burden.” The old woman’s voice drifted on the late spring night breeze to chill Jung Hyun to her core.
“Protecting the life of a loved one with all the powers of the dead.”