The Nine Pale Men
A Grey Hawthorne Adventure
By Heath Lowrance
Part One: A Reckoning
A long and bloody trail had led him, by the autumn of 1890, from his home in Mississippi to the strange cities of the Far East. Over oceans and continents Grey Hawthorne came, all in pursuit of the man who had destroyed him. The man ran before Hawthorne like a beast before the hounds.
“A week has passed since the man you seek left Shanghai,” said Hawthorne’s companion, Lin Sing. He sucked noisily on an English cigarette as he walked.
“A week,” the Mississippian said.
“Yes. You are gaining, eh?”
Hawthorne smiled, but it was empty and both of them knew it.
They walked the Huahai Road, and the night air was pungent with sweat and animals and unwashed rice. On every corner, in every opening of every alleyway, street sharps called out for easy marks. Peasants from outside the city sold potatoes and onions from rickety carts. Pigs and chickens ran free, chased by small boys with sticks, and coolies ran at breakneck speed through the throngs, dragging rickshaws behind them. Colorful paper lanterns hung at regular intervals, casting flickering light, and over it all the constant noise of yelling, screaming, and the discordant music of plucked lute strings.
But the dark kaleidoscope of Shanghai barely existed for Hawthorne at that moment. He was consumed by a black anticipation.
A week. Only a week.
It was early autumn. The Western world was encroaching on China bit by bit, sparking the Opium Wars and forcing free enterprise and missionary religion down the collective throat of the country. Rebellion was in the air, the outer provinces in total disarray, and new types of businessmen were already buying and selling in markets that didn’t exist twenty years earlier. Lin Sing was one of those businessmen.
Despite his somber profession, Lin Sing looked downright festive. He wore a light blue suit—tailor-made, but not for him. It hung loose at the shoulders and cuffs, giving him a somewhat vaudevillian appearance. But, in the short time Hawthorne had known him, he’d learned that Sing was anything but comical.
“He is a worker of magic,” Sing said. “A dark, sinister sort of magic that I had never seen before.”
“And you?” He glanced sidelong at Hawthorne. “Are you also possessed by that blackness?”
“I am possessed,” Hawthorne said, “only by my desire to see him dead.”
Sing nodded. “Hate. An even darker magic.”
The Mississippian stopped mid-stride and glared at his companion. Sing stopped with him. He bowed very slightly and said, “Forgive me, Mr. Hawthorne. The only Whites I have known have been missionaries. Wild-eyed zealots. The man you seek was the first Westerner I had met whose agenda did not involve civilizing the heathen Chinese.”
“And what was his agenda, then?”
“Ah.” Sing chuckled. “That is a very good question, Mr. Hawthorne.”
“Never mind. I want only to know where he went.”
“And I shall tell you, very shortly,” Sing said. “Provided you are still alive.”
Lin Sing tossed his cigarette to the dirt, gazed with bemused interest at the throngs of people cascading through the open court of the Chenghuangmiao, the Town Temple God, where buying and selling reached a fever pitch.
Hawthorne stepped around an old woman sitting in the middle of the road, banging a wooden bowl with a wooden spoon. He said, “You have a task for me to perform, in exchange for the information I need. Yes?”
Sing kept his eyes in front of him, but made no effort to get out of the way when a mob of peasants pushing a pig before them surged into their path. The pig shot between them, and the peasants streamed around either side. “You must accompany me to a village, a day’s journey by train.”
“And when we arrive at the village?”
“A little matter of clearing out a… how do you Westerners say it? A bad element.”
He stopped in front of a drab two-story building of wood and brick. The door hung open and he entered, pausing only long enough to say, “This way,” over his shoulder. Uneasily, Hawthorne followed.
A corrupt stench, like rotting flesh, assailed his nostrils immediately. The room was dark and bare, the only light coming in through the open doorway. Immediately in front of them a rickety staircase led to the second floor.
Lin Sing started up with a spry bounce, and Hawthorne followed him cautiously. He’d only met Sing two hours earlier, and painful experience had taught him always to expect the worst of men in his business.
The top of the steps opened onto a low, broad room, brick-walled and plank-floored. A single kerosene lamp on the floor flicked dim orange tongues around the room, and radiated a heat that made Hawthorne sweat in his dark greatcoat. The stench of corruption was worse here, nearly overwhelming.
At the far end of the room, partially obscured by shadows, a still figure in ragged robes sat in a plain wooden chair. The figure’s head was lowered, covered entirely by a broad-brimmed straw hat. Behind the unmoving form, another person stood, unmistakable even in the dim light as a woman.
She said, “So, Lin Sing. You have brought the Westerner.”
Lin Sing nodded shortly, and the woman stepped out of the shadows.
She was small, about five foot three, with lustrous jet-black hair and dark eyes. Slim and lithe as a panther, clad in a clinging emerald qipao, bare-armed and collared. Hawthorne guessed her age at somewhere in her early twenties, though she carried herself with the confidence of an older woman. She gazed at him, something like disdain showing on her fine narrow face, and said in an English even more refined than Sing’s, “Then we may begin.”
Hawthorne took off his hat and bowed slightly, his Southern genteel upbringing asserting itself unbidden. “Ma’am,” he said. “My name is Grey Haw—“
“I know your name, Mr. Hawthorne,” she said imperiously. “I knew your name before you ever tread the streets of Shanghai. Spare me your false manners, sir. We have little time. The Nine already know we are on the move and are plotting against us even as we speak.”
The Mississippian glanced at Sing, and back at the woman. “The Nine?” he said.
The woman looked at Sing sharply. “You have not told him?”
“I thought it best that he first see for himself what they are capable of, Mei.”
She scowled. It did nothing to detract from her loveliness, any more than did her stern demeanor. She said, “He has come here, then, not knowing anything about the road that stretches before him.”
Hawthorne said, “My road, Miss Mei, ends at one destination only. What hazards arise between here and there are of little consequence. Pray tell me what you and Lin Sing would have of me.”
She flashed Sing a withering look, and Sing dropped his eyes and backed up a step. The woman sighed, shook her head, and said, “There is magic and sorcery in the east that you could not begin to comprehend, Mr. Hawthorne. Evil that dates back centuries. The Nine preyed on the flesh of civilization long before the west even knew what civilization meant.”
The still figure in the chair had not moved an inch or spoken since they’d entered the room. Mei touched the figure’s shoulder, said, “See, Mr. Hawthorne, what foulness the Nine spread.” She removed the straw hat and a cascade of silver hair spilled down over the figure’s ragged garb.
Hawthorne hissed between his teeth and involuntarily stepped back.
The rotting stench rolled across the room and the face turned up to meet the light like a blind, decayed flower, and the flickering orange light played across a blank, pale mask of flesh, as smooth and featureless as an egg shell.
Where there should have been eyes, where there should have been a nose and mouth and some semblance of human features, there was only a smooth nothingness, like a painting with the features rubbed out.
“Good God,” Hawthorne said.
As he watched in horror, a fine fracture appeared where the woman’s forehead should have been—a crack as thin as a pencil line. The crack expanded, running down the blank face like a blood vessel or a drop of black rain down smooth glass.
And something inside it pushed, expanded, with a weak mewling cry.
Lin Sing said nothing, but his face mirrored the same horror Hawthorne felt. “It seems we have arrived just in time to witness this poor woman’s end,” he said.
The old peasant woman remained motionless, as if already dead, and another crack appeared, along what should have been the jaw line. A pulpy, blood-smeared yolk leaked out, dripped thickly onto the tattered clothes. The crack broke open then, and something alive moved inside it.
Lin Sing stepped up to the woman, pulling a small revolver out of his jacket pocket. He put the barrel against the shell of a head and pulled the trigger.
In the shockwave of sound that echoed through the small room, the woman slumped out of her chair and fell to the floor. Her head cracked open entirely and Hawthorne cursed at the sight of the creature that had almost been born.
A serpent, sinuous and green, with scaled wings like a bat, and a blood-red plume along its body. It flopped convulsively on the floor, writhing lethargically in its own fluids, and lay still.
“Yes, Mr. Hawthorne,” Mei said, her face frozen with anguish barely held in check. “What you suspect is true. It is a dragon.”
The next evening, a train rumbled out of Shanghai and into the Chinese countryside, leaving in its wake black smoke and the stink of hot iron. Grey Hawthorne had paid for a private compartment and did not object when Mei and Lin Sing joined him. He gazed out the window at the rushing night, but saw only his own reflection in the glass, hard and angular.
He looked away from it.
“They have been following us,” Mei said. “Knowing that we seek to find the balance that will destroy them.” She sat across from Hawthorne and her lithe body swayed rhythmically with the movement of the train. The flickering jet of gaslight in the wall above her cast sinuous shadows over her face. She had brought an oddly-shaped case with her, about four feet long, and it rested on the seat between her and Sing. “They can sense any threat against them, no matter where it is. And these four days we have been away from the village, they have been following our scent, like bloodhounds.”
“This is some sort of brotherhood, I take it?” Hawthorne said. “A sort of… secret society, with access to dark magic?”
Mei and Sing glanced at each other, and Mei said, “That would not be quite accurate. They are demons, in the most literal sense you can imagine.”
She looked as if she expected him to balk at the idea, but he only nodded and turned back to his reflection in the glass. With a quick gesture, he snapped the curtain shut, blocking out the night, and leaned forward on his cushioned bench. “Tell me about the Nine,” he said.
Sitting next to Mei, Lin Sing lit a cigarette and shifted uncomfortably. The whistle bellowed, metal screeched and steel wheels chugged as the engine picked up more speed, plowing further and further into the unknown night, leaving behind everything real and becoming a part of something else.
Mei said, “Six months ago, the Nine returned to the village of Qui-po, after having been gone—banished, some hoped—for more than three hundred years. Their bodies had lain in the dirt under what we called the Tree of the Moon, buried those three centuries ago by the warrior who slew them.”
“It would be helpful to me, Miss Mei, if you started at the beginning.”
“There is no beginning, and no end. The Nine have always been.”
Lin Sing said, “Oh, stop being so obtuse, cousin.” He turned to Hawthorne. “Are you familiar with the Chinese legend of the Ten Suns? It is a simple story. See… thousands of years ago, ten brilliant orbs of light revolved around the earth. And yes, before you say anything, I am perfectly aware that the earth revolves around the sun, Mr. Hawthorne, I am not an idiot. Regardless, for our purposes, the earth was stationary and the ten suns embraced it in orbit. The suns would take turns traveling across the sky each day, one at a time, so we humans did not even realize that there was more than one sun. Until one day, when the ten suns decided it would be amusing to travel across the sky together, all of them. So they did, and their passing devastated the earth, scorching it to blackness, igniting horrible fires, killing thousands. The emperor sent for the greatest archer in the world, a man named Yi.”
“This is legend,” Mei said. “Irrelevant to our current situation.”
“It is the beginning that you so strongly deny.”
Hawthorne said, “Continue.”
Sing nodded. “Right. So the emperor sent for Yi, the greatest archer in the world. Yi prepared his bow, and as the ten suns passed overhead, he took careful aim and fired. One by one, his aim was true—his arrows pierced the heart of each sun, sending them plummeting earthward, burnt out forever. The world became darker and darker as each sun died, until there was only the one left and Yi unstrung his bow and the people of earth embraced him as the greatest hero ever.”
Mei said, “What my cousin is implying, Mr. Hawthorne, is that the Nine are those burnt-out and grounded suns. They no longer burn brightly in the heavens, but prowl the earth, bent on revenge against the people of earth.”
Hawthorne said, “And you, Miss Mei? Do you not believe this story?”
“I do not believe or disbelieve. I do not care. My only concern is killing them, once and for all.”
Hawthorne nodded. “That seems quite reasonable. Feel free to skip ahead.”
She took a deep breath. “Six months ago, the ground beneath the Tree of the Moon was disturbed. A particularly heavy rainfall the season before had eroded the soil, and the twisted roots were exposed. Nobody gave it much thought—the truth is, most of us had long forgotten the stories of the Nine, and the foulness of their touch. It had become a simple ghost story, told to the children to make them behave. But some of us remembered, and were afraid. We knew how the Nine had come to our village, three hundred years ago, stalking human beings by night, touching them with their long corrupt fingers and… seeding them.”
“With the taint of their fallen grace. Dragons, Mr. Hawthorne, they… they symbolize many things to the Chinese. To the Nine, they are a physical manifestation of their hate. They touch, and hate flows out of them. When they attacked Qui-po, those long centuries ago, it was a simple village peasant that defeated them, armed only with a sword and a bow.”
Lin Sing said, “Tell him the truth, cousin. Sword and bow were not the only weapons he had.”
She glared at him, then smiled at Hawthorne with something like menace. “True. Cold steel wasn’t the only thing he girded himself with. The sword and bow were only extensions of an even greater weapon. You see, this simple man had once been wealthy and well-respected, with the most beautiful wife in the village, healthy happy children… an honorable man. But, some two years before the Nine came, this man’s wife was raped and murdered. The assailant was a stranger, passing through Qui-po, and was never apprehended. This act was the first step for our simple man.”
Hawthorne felt the muscles in his jaw tighten.
Mei said, “When life is golden, one easily forgets how rapidly things can fall apart. This poor simpleton reached the bottom before he even knew he was falling. He took to drink, losing his business and his money and the respect of his peers. His children were forced out into the world to seek a living.” She smiled bitterly. “They died, each of them, from disease or violence or accident, and their father never saw them again.
“He was a broken man by the time the Nine arrived. A shell, with absolutely nothing to lose. He was consumed entirely by a force greater than any other, and this force was the weapon by which he was able to defeat the Nine.”
Hawthorne said, “Hate.”
Mei nodded, still smiling her dark smile. “Hate. That was what destroyed the Nine. A hate equal to, if not greater than, their own.”
Hawthorne struggled for words, but the jumble of emotions that churned inside him was too great to be defined. His jaw ached and he realized he was grinding his teeth.
Mei said, “Rare, Mr. Hawthorne, is the man who can hold that much rage inside himself. Rare is the man whose inner monster eclipses him entirely without ever being unleashed.”
He stood up very suddenly, fists clenched. In clipped and measured tones, he said, “You aim to use me, then. To use what you perceive as my hatred as a weapon against the Nine. But I confess you have misunderstood me. If there is hatred in my heart, it is not directed in an indiscriminate fashion. I am not a vicious animal to be sicced upon your enemy.”
Mei said, “Aren’t you? Then what good are you, Mr. Hawthorne? What other purpose do you serve on this earth?”
Black spots danced before his eyes and he thought briefly of throttling the woman with his bare hands. But his upbringing asserted itself again, so deeply bred into him that the years of torment could not entirely dismantle it. One does not do harm upon a lady, he thought, under any circumstances whatsoever.
And, with bitter irony, My father taught me that.
A sharp sound at the outside window jerked him back, the sound of something thumping gently at the glass.
They all tensed, eyes snapping to the curtain that covered the window. None of them moved for a long moment. And then another sound broke the silence of the compartment—a rasping noise, nails across glass, tapping. The weight of… something, shifting outside the train.
Lin Sing reached for his revolver. He said, “What—“
Mei didn’t take her eyes off the covered window. “They’ve found us,” she said. “I had hoped we would make it back first, but… they’ve found us.”
“Stay back,” Hawthorne said. Mei and Lin did not argue. He took a step toward the curtain. The thing outside tapped again, very clearly, three times in slow succession.
Hawthorne grasped the curtain in his hand and, steeling himself, snapped it back.
A grinning, deathly white face pressed against the glass. Scraggly black hair whipped in the wind and eyes as black as tar stared soullessly.
Hawthorne swore, jumping back to the far end of the compartment, and Sing and Mei scrambled noisily off the bench away from the window. Mei’s case fell with a muted thump to the floor.
The thing clung to the side of the speeding train and pulled itself up higher. It was naked, rib bones protruding against its unnaturally white skin. Long, thin arms, a good foot longer than they should have been, made the creature look gangly and awkward, like a huge white spider. It pressed the fingers of one long hand against the window, and moved its mouth, yammering and howling, but the sounds it made were lost to the wind whipping past the train.
With more calm than he felt, Hawthorne said, “Sing. Shoot it, if you would be so kind.”
Trembling, Sing tried to pull out his revolver, caught the hammer on the loose fabric of his coat.
The thing’s fingertips pressed hard against the window, and the glass began to shimmer with emerald green light. Under each finger, it seemed to be melting, turning to thick liquid, and the light began forming distinct shapes—long, narrow, serpentine shapes, coming out of the creature’s fingers.
Mei said, “Cousin! Shoot it!”
Sing jerked the revolver free, ripping his lapel, and aimed at the window. He pulled the trigger and the glass exploded outward and the concussion of sound rang in Hawthorne’s ears so that he couldn’t hear anything for long seconds. The creature seemed unaffected, and he thought perhaps Sing had missed until he saw the bullet hole in the thing’s chest. The creature only grinned its horrible grin and clung there to the window frame.
Sudden icy wind roared through the compartment, and the sinuous green light began taking a more solid shape, until Hawthorne fully realized what he was seeing—dragons, three of them, swimming ephemerally through the air, twisting like green smoke, crimson plumes wavering along their spines.
Sing fired point-blank at one of them, but the bullet passed through the shimmering body as harmlessly as fingers through a pool of water. His face contorted by terror, Sing fired again and again as the dragon swam at him.
Hawthorne started to come to Sing’s aid, when another of the ectoplasmic things, about the length of his forearm, shot at his head. He batted at it, ducking, and his hand passed right through the body. From far away, he heard Mei crying out, saw from the corner of his eye his two companions under attack.
The closest dragon circled Hawthorne’s head like a shark, and he swung at it again and again, to no effect. And then the thing loomed before him, hissing, and shot directly at his face.
Before the Mississippian knew what was happening, the shimmering serpent became solid and real and its diamond-shaped head was in his mouth and pushing hard into his throat.
Gagging, Hawthorne gripped the dragon’s suddenly material body and struggled to pull it out. He stumbled back against the cushioned bench, fell to the floor, wrestling desperately. As he fell, he caught a glimpse of Mei darting with almost superhuman speed out of another dragon’s path, and then ducking as it came at her again.
But then Mei and Lin Sing didn’t exist anymore, the pale man at the train window didn’t matter. There was only this vile serpent invading his body, pushing its way into his throat, suffocating him.
For all its previous insubstantiality, the dragon was now as solid and muscular as a python. It was all Hawthorne could do to keep the thing from pushing farther into his throat, let alone pull it out. He rolled around on the floor, the pulse at his temples throbbing, lungs aching from lack of oxygen.
He felt the dragon’s snout shift at the very back of his throat, felt his fingers, slick with sweat, slipping. And he felt the dragon move another half inch—not down his throat, but up, up, trying to push through his sinus cavity.
It was trying to get to his brain.
That horrible realization gave him renewed strength. He bit down hard on the scaly hide, tasted coppery blood. The dragon thrashed angrily and he clamped his fingers hard around it and pulled with every ounce of muscle he had.
The dragon slipped out, less than an inch, but writhed angrily and pushed back in. Hawthorne pulled back, managing to dislodge it by another three inches, feeling the serpent’s head at his tonsils now. And then a form appeared before him, looming, and another pair of hands gripped the dragon by its plume.
Mei. Her eyes wide with horror, blood from a wound on her forehead smearing her face, she braced her feet on either side of him and strained to pull the monster out.
Blackness began creeping in around the edges of his vision, and he felt his own grip weakening.
And then the dragon was out and air rushed into his lungs and he choked back vomit and struggled to breathe normally. Mei slung the hissing dragon out the window and fell back, exhausted, onto the bench.
For a long moment, Hawthorne lay on the floor, bellowing air in and out of his lungs and fighting the nausea and dizziness that threatened to overcome him. There was only the sound of the rushing wind, filling the train compartment so completely that no other sound could exist.
When he finally pulled himself up to his knees, steadying himself on the bench, he saw that Mei hadn’t moved, only sat there staring dumbly at the wall. The dragons were gone. The hideous pale man was no longer at the window.
And Lin Sing lay motionless on the floor near the compartment door.
Hawthorne scrambled over to him, quickly checked his pulse. It was steady and sure, but one look at Sing’s face told him that regardless of his beating heart Sing was as good as dead.
His facial features were already mostly gone. The eyes and mouth had completely disappeared, and the nose was nothing but two thin slits in the center of an egg-like façade. Even as Hawthorne watched, the slits began shrinking away to nothing.
Over the roaring wind, Mei said, “It entered his brain, just as the other two tried to do to us. I saw it. It entered his brain and… and seeded him. And then it turned again to smoke and drifted away. I saw it.”
Tears streamed down her face, but no emotion other than blank shock showed in her eyes. She stared emptily at the wall and began rocking back and forth. “I saw it,” she said again.
Hawthorne stood up and the familiar rage coursed through his blood, rage at the injustice of what had happened to Lin Sing, the injustice of all the evils that had been perpetrated against him and all the evils that plagued the innocent all over the world, every minute of every day, since the dawn of time.
And the words came to his mind unbidden, with all the bitterness in his heart:
There will be a reckoning. I swear it.
He picked up Sing’s revolver from where it had fallen on the floor, checked the chamber, found that one bullet remained. He said, “Look away, Miss Mei.”
She did, turning her face to the wall. Hawthorne stood over Lin Sing, aimed the revolver carefully, and shot Lin Sing in the face.
Part Two: The Tree of the Moon
They trudged silently across the dark, wet countryside, and cold rain fell around them like fat insects splattering on the ground. Hawthorne had lost his hat when they jumped from the moving train, and sustained a gash on his left forearm and some cuts on his knees, but was otherwise in one piece. Mei, even in her tight-fitting emerald dress, fared better—only the knuckles on one small hand were scraped.
She led the way now, wordlessly, and he couldn’t tell if she’d fully recovered from the ordeal on the train. After he’d killed Sing she seemed to pull herself together, standing up and setting her aristocratic features into a hard mask. “We will never be able to explain this to the authorities,” she’d said, glancing at the mess that used to be her cousin. “We must jump off and resume our journey on foot.”
And, though startled by such cold efficiency in a female, Hawthorne saw the logic of it. Ten minutes later, as the train slowed down to round a bend past some low-lying meadow lands, the two of them were poised at the rear of the car. They jumped into the darkness, Mei still holding tight to her oddly-shaped case.
The rain started as soon as they began walking.
Hawthorne draped his now tattered coat around her shoulders and she accepted the kindness with barely a nod. He walked beside her in only shirtsleeves and vest, feeling rather naked. She would not let him carry her case. The sky above was wide and black as a demon’s mouth, and jagged streaks of lightning flashed in the far distance. Thunder rumbled the wet ground, and the air smelled of moist and decayed vegetation.
They slogged through flooded rice paddies, water up to their ankles, occasional trees like ancient madmen standing sentry in the dark and rain. During the intermittent flashes of lightning, he could see the black outline of a forest, far in the distance, but the thunder that trembled the earth after each flash was like a switch, throwing the whole world once again into utter blackness.
After an hour of walking in silence, he finally said, “How far is it, then?”
Mei started, the sound of his voice pulling her out of some dark reverie. “What?” she said.
“The village,” he said. “How far is it?”
She glanced at him but didn’t stop walking. “Through the forest that lies ahead of us. Another… three miles, perhaps.”
“Another three miles,” he said. “A lovely walk in the rain, yes?”
She looked at him again, and something like a smile touched her lips. “However,” she said, “we are not going to the village. We are going to the Tree of the Moon. That is where we shall face the Pale Men.”
“Ah,” he said. “Of course. And how far, may I ask, would that be?”
“Why, Mr. Hawthorne? Are you getting tired?”
“No, Miss Mei, not at all. My concern is solely for you. I’ve endured journeys far worse than this. In fact, I’d venture to say that it’s quite pleasant, this cold icy rain and relentless darkness. At least my traveling companion is one of exceeding charm and beauty. That’s much more than I can say for previous—“
“The Tree of the Moon is within the forest before us. We will be there within the hour. I suggest you leave out your so-called American charms and concentrate, lest you come to the same fate as my cousin.”
He studied her profile as she walked, rain plastering her jet black hair to her head and rolling down her temples and narrow jaw. Something hitched in his stomach, some sort of recognition, and he realized he was looking at someone just like him. Someone burning from the inside.
They walked in silence, and before long the forest was before them. They entered it without pause and the thick trees canopied the rain off their heads and soon they were plunged into almost total blackness.
“I have already told you of how, six months ago, the rains came and the gnarled roots of the Tree were exposed. Most of the villagers did not understand the significance of this, or of the nine cavities that surrounded the Tree. My great-grandmother understood, and I understood, but only a handful of others were willing to see it for the disaster that it was.
“We searched the surrounding forests for signs of them, but found none. What would we do, anyway, if we found them? My great-grandmother poured over the legends, seeking a way to destroy the Nine—for we knew they would begin preying on us before long. And she was right. Three nights after the rains, the first victim was discovered, a young girl not more than twelve, sprawled out in the road in front of her home, her face already gone. Yet she still lived. How? She had no mouth or nose to breath, and yet her heart beat on, her chest rose and fell as if with breath. The village physician pronounced it the work of demons, and that was the first intelligent thing anyone had said about it.
“You can imagine the reaction when, that very evening, the dragon in her head was birthed. It tore the throats out of three of her family members before they managed to kill it.
“Finally, the rest of the village understood the peril it faced, and all eyes turned to my great-grandmother.
“’Hate’, she said. ‘Hate is what will destroy them.’ And so Pau-Tan, who was the smithy’s apprentice, stepped up. ‘It is me,’ he said. ‘I am the one who knows hate. Did my father not disown me? Am I not afflicted with a disease of the heart which keeps me weak and frail? Did my wife not leave this village upon hearing of my illness? My soul is consumed with bitter hatred, even for you, my fellows. I will face the Nine and my rage will burn them out a second time.’
“Of course his hate for his fellow villagers could not have been that overwhelming, or he would not have volunteered to face the Nine in our names. We overlooked that, and saw him off that evening as he trudged into the woods to seek them out, carrying a sword and a bow.
“We found him three days later, at the Tree of the Moon. His head mangled, the dragon that had sprung from it long gone.
“For the last six months, this nightmare has beset us. We lock ourselves in at night, shutter the windows and doors tightly, and yet not a month goes by without the Nine Pale Men claiming yet another victim.”
Mei told the story matter-of-factly, not looking at Hawthorne, not slowing her pace through the woods. The rain had slacked off and the moon rose fat in the black sky, filtering gold light through the canopy of leaves and twisted branches.
Hawthorne said, “And your great-grandmother? Has she uncovered anything else about the Nine? Anything else that may aid us?”
“No, Mr. Hawthorne. She cannot help us anymore. The woman we left, back in Shanghai, was my great-grandmother.”
He said nothing. They walked.
After a long interval, Mei said, “Ten days ago, my cousin Lin Sing came to the village and told me a story of a dark, desperate man and another dark, desperate man who hunted him. The first man had spoken of a tremendous hate that drove his pursuer. My cousin had no love for this first man; he only helped him find temporary lodgings and gave him the location of a certain item, for that was my cousin’s job in Shanghai. ‘We can use the pursuer’s hate,’ he said. ‘Hatred strong enough to take a man halfway around the world for the sake of vengeance is hate strong enough, perhaps, to defeat the Nine.’”
“I know the rest,” Hawthorne said shortly. Then, “Miss Mei… did Sing speak of… I mean to say, did he tell you where the man I seek was headed?”
Mei shook her head. “No. And I will tell you this: you would be wise to forget entirely about catching him. The closer we get to the Tree of the Moon, the more certain I am… the more certain I am that we will not succeed.” She swallowed hard, still not looking at me, and I saw a flicker of self-doubt flash across her face. “I fear that, before this night is over, we will both be dead.”
He nodded grimly. “Well, Miss Mei, that is a distinct possibility. But I certainly did not come this far to die. We have something in Mississippi, a certain brand of action, which I intend to educate these Nine Pale Men about.”
“Oh? And what brand of action is that?”
“It would be impolite to say in mixed company, but it involves removing the cranial area to more netherly regions.”
Mei actually laughed out loud, but caught herself very quickly as the short, sharp sound echoed through the damp woods. Hawthorne smiled and said, “My only concern, really, is a rather inconvenient lack of proper weaponry. A gun would be immensely useful.”
“No, a gun would not serve you well against the Nine. The only weapon that will destroy them is the one that brought them down to Earth to begin with.”
“Yes, Mr. Hawthorne.” Mei patted her case. “How are you with a bow?”
The Tree of the Moon was a gnarled old willow with leaves so dark they were almost black, and the branches drooped so dramatically that, in places, they brushed lethargically against the damp ground. The thick roots twisted up out of the dirt, as if the whole tree was in the midst of pushing itself up and away, to shamble off into the darkness.
Nine mounds of dirt surrounded it, laid out in a symmetrical pattern.
Silence reigned in the forest here, the air thick and cloying with a sort of corrupt dampness. It was a stage. A hidden theater, where the participants were the spectators and the grand finale ended with blood and suffering.
Mei stopped at the edge of the clearing, set her case on the ground and opened it, revealing the fine, hand-made bow within. With something like reverence, she lifted it out and ran her delicate fingers over the polished wood.
Noting the pride she seemed to take in the weapon, Hawthorne said, “You made it?”
She nodded, and began stringing the bow.
“Allow me to string it, Miss Mei. If I’m going to shoot it, I should be the one to string it.”
She considered for a moment before handing the weapon over. He examined it appreciatively, marveling at its perfect weight and dead-on balance. He’d spent a great deal of his boyhood bow-hunting in the woods surrounding the family estate, but he couldn’t recall ever seeing this bow’s equal.
He strung the bow, tested the tension, and Mei handed him an arrow from the case. He nocked it, pulled the string back and sighted along the shaft before gently letting the string relax and removing the arrow. “A fine weapon,” he said. “So what now? Do we wait in hiding for the Nine to arrive?”
“The Nine are already here.” She swept a hand toward the mounds.
He swore under his breath and his grip on the bow tightened. “Miss Mei… why have we come at night? Would it not have been wiser to wait until the day, when, I assume, they are less powerful?”
“No. If we’d come during the day, they would not have been here.”
“They remove themselves to another location during daylight?”
“No. I mean only that they would not be here.”
He grimaced. The woman had a gift for obscurity that could be quite trying. He said, “Very well. We’re here. Let us face our enemy.”
With a trembling hand, Mei pointed at the mound of dirt closest to them. “You see how the soil there is drier? That is the one who attacked us on the train. It must have arrived back at its sanctuary only recently.”
“Then it will be the first one to die.”
He stepped into the clearing, nocking the arrow into the bow as he approached the grave-mound. His eyes moved constantly, watching the other mounds, the forest around them, alert for any movement or sign of impending attack.
Fear was an emotion Grey Hawthorne knew and understood intimately, but his trials had immunized him against inaction and hesitation. This, however, was different. Not knowing the enemy, not certain of when or where inevitable attack would come from, was… unnerving.
He stepped up to the fresh mound, gazed down at it. In his mind, je could see the horrible white creature beneath the dirt, burrowed like some vile grub worm, staring up at him through the soil with dead black eyes and lunatic grin.
He pulled back the bowstring, took careful aim along the arrow’s shaft at the heart of the mound. He thought of Lin Sing, and Mei’s great-grandmother, and all the other victims of the Pale Men.
He took a deep breath, and, releasing it, let fly the arrow.
The arrow thunked deep into the soil.
A horrid screech cut through the forest and two long white arms shot out of the dirt, fingers twisted in agony. Hawthorne leapt back just as the wet earth exploded upward and the Pale Man came out of his grave, face contorted in pain. The arrow lodged in its throat, and the thing clawed at it desperately, screeching and wailing.
A low, plaintive moan which seemed to come from the trees themselves vibrated through the forest. Hawthorne took another step back from the mounds. The moan grew in volume and intensity, sweeping across the clearing, swaying the black leaves of the Tree of the Moon. It was like the sound of the earth itself, dying in slow agony.
The dirt of the other mounds trembled.
“Mei!” he shouted. “Another arrow, quickly!”
Before the words were out of his mouth, all eight mounds disintegrated, and eight white forms sat up slowly from their uneasy slumber, like pale sickly mushrooms. Dirt cascaded off narrow shoulders.
As one unholy organism, the eight remaining Pale Men turned their black and hungry eyes to him.
They were long of body, these creatures, white as rice paper, with narrow soulless faces and wild jet black hair. Their arms seemed almost twice as long as their legs, and where there should have been genitalia there was only wrinkled white flesh. They moved like gangly insects.
Hawthorne felt Mei’s slim fingers trembling as she pressed an arrow into his hand. The Pale Men scrambled spider-like out of their graves, white skin streaked and glistening with mud. The one he had shot ceased his wailing and slumped dead in the dirt, but the others seemed unconcerned. They pushed themselves up on their long thin limbs, grinning their madman grins.
Hawthorne nocked the second arrow, took aim at the nearest one, and fired.
The arrow found its mark in the creature’s chest. The Pale Man’s scream echoed through the forest, and the moaning that reverberated through Hawthorne’s head hit a high pitch. The Pale Man fell back into his grave and was still.
The others hesitated, but only for a moment. They did not look at their fallen comrade, but only started across the clearing on all fours, moving slowly toward Hawthorne, like the stealthy, patient predators they were.
The moaning, he realized, came from them, from somewhere deep in their throats. It was a lustful, expectant sound.
He backed up another step as they neared, and Mei handed him another arrow. “Quickly!” she hissed.
His own hands were shaking now, belying the fear he’d so far managed to keep in check. One more shot, he realized. Only time for one more shot before they come howling down on us.
He nocked the arrow, pulled back the string and fired, all in one fluid motion. The arrow thunked into the forehead of one of the Pale Men, who screeched in agony and flopped over backwards, and then the remaining creatures were wailing and jabbering and rushing at him.
“Run!” he said.
He caught a glimpse of the diaphanous green dragons swimming toward them, flowing from the fingertips of the Pale Men, before he bolted. The Pale Men themselves were right behind.
Mei ran before him, moving faster than he would have thought possible for her—but then again, the beasts that pursued them were enough to spark the speed of Hermes in anyone. She’d left the case behind, but still tightly clutched a handful of arrows. Gaining on her, he shouted, “Another arrow!”
Without slowing, she held out her hand and he snatched an arrow from her fingers. Still running, he nocked it, said, “Keep moving, Mei! I’ll catch up!”
“No! Run, Mr. Hawthorne!”
“Keep moving, damnit!”
He steered himself toward a giant oak tree, pulling the bowstring taut, and steeling his nerves he spun to face the enemy, slamming his back against the tree as a brace.
The closest Pale Man was close indeed, less than ten paces behind, three or four floating dragons squirming in the air before it. It yammered in bloodthirsty expectation, launched itself at him like an enormous white bird of prey.
Hawthorne aimed and released the bowstring. The arrow caught the creature high in the chest, dropping it like a stone at his feet. The dragons instantly evaporated.
The other creatures, coming fast, howled and raged. They loped toward him on all fours like bony white apes, their dragons streaming before them. Hawthorne took to his heels.
Five left, he thought grimly. We don’t stand a chance.
Mei was not far ahead—despite his command she had slowed down to wait for him. Thank God for that at least, he thought.
They ran, and the howls of the Pale Men faded behind them. “Ahead!” Mei shouted. “There is a large outcropping of stone! We can gain high ground!”
She pressed another arrow into his hand and he risked a backward glance. He could still hear them, moaning and wailing in the darkness, but, scanning quickly, he saw no sign of them.
He wasn’t foolish enough to suppose they’d lost the Pale Men. They were somewhere, out there in the dark, and he was not comforted by the fact that he couldn’t spot them.
From the corner of his eye he saw a flash of white, and then a tremendous force crashed into him from the left. He went down, wind knocked from his lungs, and the bow went skittering out of his hands.
The Pale Man was on him, ripping at his throat with talon-like fingers, drooling black bile and screeching.
A dragon shimmered, taking solid form, and dove at his face. Hawthorne clenched his teeth tightly, struggled to pull the Pale Man’s fingers from his throat. The dragon slammed hissing against his face, biting his lips and jaw with wicked fangs, smashing at his teeth, trying to break through. At the same time, the Pale Man clawed at him furiously, howling like a banshee.
Hawthorne smashed his left fist into the Pale Man’s narrow nose, heard bone crunch, but the creature only grunted with irritation and focused its attack on getting Hawthorne’s jaw open. Hawthorne pried at the fingers jamming into his mouth, not daring to bite them for fear that, even with that small an opening, the dragon might work its way down his throat. He thrashed his head from side to side, was rewarded only with bites to his ear and above his eye.
It was then he spotted the arrow where it had fallen in the dirt, barely an arm’s length away, and a wild hope rose in his brain. He slammed his fist again and again into the Pale Man’s face, ignoring the dragon that mauled at his jaw, and at last the vile white fingers slackened and the Pale Man roared in anger and frustration.
Hawthorne reached blindly and felt the smooth polish of the arrow in his fingers. He gripped it like a knife and slammed the point home, right into the thing’s ear.
The roaring ceased abruptly and the creature fell away, killed instantly. The dragon vanished.
Hawthorne clamored shakily to his feet, wiping blood away from his eyes, wondering almost idly if the goddamned dragon was venomous. But before the thought could take concrete form, he realized that dying slowly from venom, more than likely, was the least of his concerns at present.
The four remaining Pale Men stared at him, less than thirty feet away. They hunkered motionless under the canopy of trees, no longer howling, no longer grinning, only staring with their dead black eyes. Several shimmering dragons hovered in the air above them, floating like garish confetti.
Was it… fear? Hawthorne didn’t know, but a profound change had taken place.
He backed up one, two steps. He spotted the bow from the corner of his eye and picked it up. One of the creatures moved forward on hands and feet, and the others followed. Then another move forward, and another.
Hawthorne turned and ran to catch up with Mei, and heard them shift behind him, giving chase again, but this time silently.
A small clearing in the woods revealed a rocky ridge about twenty feet high, silhouetted against the night sky, and he saw Mei’s slender form atop it. “Hurry!” she said. He tossed her the bow, and she reached down a hand to help him up. Scurrying up the steep rocks without aid would have taken valuable minutes and he wondered how she’d been able to scale it herself without help. There was much more to this woman, he thought, than what met the eye.
He reached the top just as the Pale Men emerged into the clearing behind him. Mei said, “I glanced back and you were gone! What happened?”
“An unavoidable delay, my apologies.”
The ridge they stood upon was about ten feet around, and the far side of it dropped down even steeper than the front. A decent defensive position. The Pale Men crept forward, and Hawthorne slid an arrow into the bow, drew back the string and shot at them before they were three steps into the clearing.
The arrow sliced into the dirt inches from the closest creature’s foot.
Frantically, Mei said, “You missed!”
He scowled, cursing himself for shooting too soon. “I know,” he said.
“Only four arrows left, Mr. Hawthorne, you cannot afford to miss again!”
He glanced at her with disbelief. “Four arrows! Might it not have been a good idea to bring more, Miss Mei?”
“I did,” she spat. “But, well… I dropped several in my haste.”
The Pale Men approached with caution, glaring up at their prey. Hawthorne nocked another arrow, aimed carefully, and let it fly.
This time his aim was truer—the arrow hit home solidly in the face of its target, and one more Pale Man dropped.
The last three did not react, only crept forward with chilling single-mindedness, relentlessly, inevitably. Hawthorne nocked another arrow just as they gained the bottom of the ridge and started to climb up. The green and red glimmer of their dragons shot to and fro with maniacal energy.
Gritting his teeth, Hawthorne aimed at the top of the nearest shaggy head and released the bowstring. He was close enough to hear the thing’s creaking moan as it fell back, dead, to the dirt below.
He took another arrow from Mei. Only one more remained in her hand.
One of the two remaining Pale Men cleared the top of the ridge, pulling its lanky white body over the edge, staring blankly. It reached out one cadaverous hand and gripped the leg of Hawthorne’s trousers.
Hawthorne jerked away, kicked the creature in the face, and swung the bow around to aim. He released the arrow nearly point-blank, and it thudded so solidly into the thing’s face that the tip peeked out from the back of its skull. The Pale Man slumped backwards and tumbled down the rocky incline, its dragons dissipating like fog.
Mei quickly shoved the last arrow into his hand and he nocked it, pulled back the bowstring to slay the final creature. He took a step toward the edge, peered down, all his senses keen for the kill now.
The last Pale Man was nowhere to be seen.
Hawthorne’s heart raced, and his eyes skipped over the bottom of the ridge. Nothing, only the still forms of the dead, sprawled out in the dirt. He stepped quickly to the other end, looked down the steep incline, saw nothing.
“Where—“ he said, and Mei screamed.
The last Pale Man dropped down from an overhanging tree, immediately in front of him, knocking the bow from hands. Hissing triumphantly, it wrapped its fingers around Hawthorne’s throat in a vise-like grip.
No dragons this time, no shimmering monsters taking solid form to seed him, only the iron grip of the Pale Man’s hands, choking out his life. It lifted him off the ground by the neck, squeezing, and Hawthorne flailed and kicked his legs. He pried at the strong fingers, punched and kicked, but the creature’s grip only tightened.
Black eyes burned with glee. White hands throttled him mercilessly, and Hawthorne knew he was going to die. His long journey would end here, in the middle of a dark forest in China, and his bloody purpose in life would be forfeit.
He felt no fear at that moment. Only deep, dark disappointment.
The Pale Man pulled his face closer, and spoke, spoke in a voice that crackled and growled from centuries of disuse. It said, “You think… you know rage?” it croaked. “You know… nothing...”
Hawthorne heard a sound, faintly through the pounding of blood in his head, a soft thwip—and the Pale Man’s face went blank.
The grip around his throat slackened and he fell to his knees. The Pale Man, an arrow jutting obscenely from its neck, tottered on its feet. The black eyes focused briefly on him, and then it toppled over the side of the ridge.
Mei still held the bow in shooting position, and her face was white with fear. Hawthorne stood up, rubbing his throat. As he watched, Mei slowly lowered the bow, took a deep breath. Tremors began to rack her body and she dropped the weapon and looked at him.
They stood in silence for a long time. Drops of fresh rain spattered down on their heads from out of the dark sky, sporadically at first, and then with force, and they only stood there on the ridge until they were soaked to the bone.
Finally, Hawthorne said, “You made a misjudgment. Hate itself is not a weapon. Only the hatred of evil.”
She shook her head. “I do not know. But… if it existed in me, it is gone now. It died. It died with the last of those demons.”
He glanced down at the bodies of the Pale Men, littering the base of the ridge like broken discarded dolls, and gazing again at Mei he nodded, nodded as if he understood her, as if he too had let fly the last of his rage on the tip of an arrowhead.
But he hadn’t.
The rain turned silver in the moonlight and Hawthorne turned his face away from it.