Path of the Dead (Hungry Ghosts)
By Timothy Baker
The dream had always been the same—the silent food market, the bustling faceless crowd, the chime, then her and the swell of unquenched love.
The monk usually awakened at the point of her appearance and the rising, disturbing emotion. He would sit up and fold his legs in, laying one hand atop the other in his lap, and let the disturbance go like a passing thundercloud. But this time the dream did not end there, instead turning from a pleasant reverie into a nightmare of foreboding shadow.
In his slumber, the monk tossed in his small bunk and moaned.
He walked in his bright orange Shaolin robe through a crowded, open food market in Zhengzhou City, a place he had visited only once in his youth, returning many times in his dreams. The bright sun made the colorful signs, streamers, and flags vivid as reality. Despite the milling people, there was only silence. He saw no faces; all were turned away or covered in shadow. He moved among the throng with fluid ease, neither touched nor jostled.
A wind chime sounded a clear ringing mid-tone. A small smile curved his closed lips, and he observed his breath. He turned to the sound as the chime rang again, finding the merchant booth from whence it came and stepped to it. The seafood vendor stood with his back to the monk, still and waiting. The chime hung above a display box filled with various sizes of belly-cut fish. Below its base, one long metal chime dangled alone, its brethren gone. The clapper swung without a breeze and tapped another bright tone.
The monk caressed the chime, making it sound again. He inhaled and caught the scent of a spring blooming mimosa. He turned and the faceless crowd split as if pushed apart by his searching gaze, gradually opening across the courtyard. The last two people parted like a stage curtain and there she was—beautiful, shining, and untouched by time. The monk’s heart leapt in his chest and his breath stopped. She picked up a ripe red apple, grasping it as if it were fragile, and held it to her nose. Her dark eyes closed as she took in the scent of the fruit and smiled, then she looked at him and time froze.
His mind reeled, and he felt himself falling into the dark well of her deep pupil-less eyes. Every earthly desire converged and swelled to the surface in that one look. Her tapered wide eyes, the petite perfect lines of her olive face, the sweet temptation of her red lips, shattered his peace with the body-tingling sensation of love, lust, and ravenous hunger. Ten thousand lives he would gladly live, sacrificing peace and return-ending Nirvana, to have her, to hear her voice, to feel her touch, to know her love, again, again, and ever again.
A shadow crept across the market, darkening the people and stilling them in place. The monk turned to the wind chime and the clapper swung by some invisible hand, hitting the lone chime, hard. Instead of the bright tone, a great Zen bell sounded, deep and foreboding. The merchant turned and tossed something into the box with an audible splat. A live squid, flattened and shining, slipped down the open-bellied fish, its tentacles squirming and grasping. The merchant’s hands were mottled, his fingers turned black and emaciated. The monk looked to the merchant’s hidden face and the hat brim started to lift. A warning lit his consciousness, and he turned away to find the girl.
The great bell sounded once more as she turned fully to face him, her raven hair lifting in a breeze, smile widening. She lifted her arm to offer the fruit, but a hand gripped her wrist, black and bone thin with ravaged, bruise colored talons for fingernails. A cacophony of mewling beasts filled the air.
Dark naked creatures turned to him with ashen faces and bulging crimson eyes, their lipless, tiny mouths opening to howl like hungry calves. Mange-like hair covered their thin necks and their empty, bloated bellies. Over-long arms swung as an ape’s, flailing about, beating and gripping their fellow beasts, pulling black flesh to their small mouths, trying and failing to feed.
The girl held her smile as the beasts descended on her, rending her clothes and skin with their claws. Demon mouths fell to her arms, neck, and naked breasts, ripping at her flesh, pulling it away and leaning their heads back to swallow. With necks too thin to allow food to pass, the beasts spat her flesh away and returned to bite again. She fell to her knees and a tangle of limbs and struggling monsters engulfed her.
The monk’s scream stuck in his throat. He tried to run to her but his legs felt of stone. The creatures turned on him, their heads cocking and shaking as hundreds of grasping arms reached out. He fell beneath their weight. Multiple mouths bit and sucked at his flesh. What light there remained above disappeared. In that instant, he knew what had befallen them. A realm above Hell had come to Earth, the home of the preta, the land of the hungry ghosts.
The giant bell resounded a third time, and the monk awoke to the cawing of crows just outside his mountain hut.
Despite the coolness of the pre-dawn morning, he was slick with sweat. He sat up and stood, walking across the packed earth floor to the nearby table and poured spring water from a pitcher into a large washbowl. He tossed his graying hair over his shoulder and lifted the water in cupped hands to cleanse the sweat away. He took a long drink and let it spill down the length of his beard. The cool water did nothing to wash away the darkness of the dream, nor the vision of her face disappearing beneath the swarming beasts.
Ignoring his usual morning ritual of meditative prayer and study, he set about filling a worn knapsack with bottled water and dried fruit. There was no debating the pros and cons of entering the life of man again. The leaf in fall makes no resolution when a breeze breaks it from its limb to float to the ground. And so it was for the monk.
The monk shed his tattered robe and pulled a dusty chest from beneath his cot. A bright orange and yellow robe lay folded beneath its lid. This he lay on his bed. From the bottom of the chest, he pulled a silk cloth-wrapped object, thick and long as a dagger, and placed it next to the robe. He stood and removed his bracelet from his wrist. Thumbing each bead as the bracelet rolled in his palm, his lips moved in a silent prayer. When he reached the frayed tassel, he slipped the prayer bracelet around his wrist and then unfolded the robe, shaking the top and bottom out lest there be any poisonous spiders within. He donned the baggy pants and top, adjusting it to fit his narrow frame, leaving his right shoulder uncovered.
He picked up the wrapped object and unfolded the cloth to reveal a sheathed blade, its handle and scabbard making a single blunted piece of bamboo. The monk ran a hand through his hair and scratched at his beard. A pull of the scabbard and he held the blade before him. The Jai Dao was not made as a weapon, in fact it was forbidden to use it as such; its blunted tip hinted to its use for chores and shaving. He ran his thumb across its dull edge, then slid it back into its sheath and slipped it securely into his robe belt. There was no time to shave.
The monk stepped from his mountain hut to the fading morning twilight. The crows took off from the nearby trees in a flurry of darting shadows. A hat of mist hid the mountain peak above and the air was still, caught between breaths. With no time to lose, he took up his walking staff that leaned outside the door, shouldered his knapsack, and set off down the fern canopied trail. An eagle passed low above and called to him. He answered in perfect mimicry.
The monk walked steadily, the beautiful girl’s face fading from his mind, while his concern rose for the village in the valley below and the unknown misfortune that he felt was about to befall it.
Dorje Cetan, the hermit monk of Seche La Mountain, took mindful note of his breath, felt each step kiss the earth, and did not look back.
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The stench of rotting flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Summer of Zombie Blog Tour 2014, with 33 of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of June.
Stop by the event page on Facebook so you don’t miss an interview, guest post or teaser… and pick up some great swag as well! Giveaways galore from most of the authors as well as interaction with them! #SummerZombie
AND so you don’t miss any of the posts in June, here’s the complete list, updated daily:
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Timothy Baker is a retired firefighter and an aspiring, perspiring, horror writer. Here to rant on random subjects and the art and pains of writing. He is published in Fading Light: Anthology of the Monstrous, published by Angelic Knight Press and edited by Tim Marquitz. Tim also received a commendation in the Australian Horror Writer’s Association 2009 Short Story Competition.
His latest release is ‘HUNGRY GHOSTS: PATH OF THE DEAD‘ on May 5th, 2014.
You can find out more about Baker at Skeleton Road.
Nestled on the foot of Tibet’s sacred Seche La Mountain is the village of Dagzê. The normally quiet streets are bustling with the steady stream of arrivals and preparations for the coming Festival of the Medicine King; a time of celebration, healing, and renewal. But a shadow is sweeping the world, a plague of apocalyptic proportions—the dead are rising and devouring the living, and no place is safe where humanity thrives.
As Dagzê burns, overtaken by the hungry undead, five people come together: Lama Tenzin, an elder monk; Gu-lang, the silent warrior nun and Tenzin’s protector; Cheung, a private in The People’s Army, driver and escort of the Lama; ten-year-old Chodren Dawa, witness to his sister’s death and rising; and Dorje Cetan, a Shaolin-trained hermit monk of Seche La and a dreamer of a dark portent. Together they must fight their way out of Dagzê to an abandoned Buddhist hermitage clinging to the mist-shrouded cliffs of Seche La. With the undead following and gathering at Eagle’s Nest gate, they barricade themselves inside their dead-end haven, and are soon forced to battle the beasts without, as well as the ones within.
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- Taking Submissions: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly - March 21, 2017
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