My father would say, “the jungle – it is always watching, waiting. You must respect it – what it can do, without fear.” I could remember looking over the hills, they would break and crumble from the soft, grassy sage fields into the jagged rocks and twisted branches of the trees below. And it was quiet – the hum of insects chirping in the fading golden sunlight, draining behind the Valley of the Four Winds, but nothing else but an occasional whisper. A whispering breath of a breeze.
Soon it would be dark and we would set in for the night over a huge bowl of noodles, or stew, or dumplings that mother would make. He always said, stay away from the jungle – it hungers. Curiousity was the lure of the Krasarang, he warned sternly, it will gnaw at you like late afternoon hunger until you convince yourself to take a step into its shadowy paths. Never go alone and never at night. I never understood why his teachings came so clearly AFTER I had ignored them – my mind was racing as a looked along the wrinkled roots and uneven ground for a hint of a well worn path.
It was this way, I assured myself trying to calm my racing heart. Focus, I thought taking in a slow cool breath through my mouth, pausing, and mindfully releasing it. Chi, be mindful of your chi – don’t give into fear; the sha can see you when you are fearful I remembered. That never seemed to help.
The sun had set already and what little light was beginning to fade as slowly as my hope for getting back before dinner, and worse, before anyone noticed I had gone. If I could find the shoreline, at least I could follow the coast back to the hillside near home. I wondered if Yunqi had made it back, her constant pleading not to go further was tempered by her curiousity for adventure. The wincing pang in my stomach was either hunger or guilt, at this point I couldn’t–
Something screamed in the jungle or was it a bird, a hozen? Focus…breathe. Another slow, shuddering inhale – hold it – mindfully release. That horrible sound still echoed in my head like something mocking or in horrible pain, shrill at first and quickly lowering to a moaning growl. Then I realized – I could hear the ringing in my ears and the faint pulse of my heart throbbing. The jungle was silent as if with that noise it held its breath in apprehension of what was taking place within it. A convulsion of noiselessness in what should have been a chorus of life. And whatever made it – whatever caused it is in here with me.
I made my way down the uneven slope, the soft warm soil caking beneath my feet, when a chilling memory interrupted my progress. It was a nursery rhyme we used to sing:
“Beware the Wangliang, Feeding on fear, Demon of Krasarang, Pities not a tear, Slaying the straying, Their cries draw him near.”
Looking up I could start to see the first stars appeared twinkling coldly as spectators to my fate almost cheerfully applauding my situation. Ahead I could see a glimmer behind the strange shadows the trees would cast in the dying embers of sunlight. It was late in the season for glowflies – they usually come out later this time of year.
A breeze softly blew, I could hear it, yet I felt no wind on my fur. I stopped, heart beginning to pound again with the drumming of my pulse thumping in my ears. The sound of the breeze continued, the sound of air moving softly but no leaves rasping, no blades of grass rustling, it was not the wind. I strained and squinted to see what that light was – a campfire? It flickered and fluttered like a torch in the wind and that whispering sound grew softer still until I saw it – the golden eyes flickering like embers in the darkness. The dim outline of a fanged mouth agape, almost in a death grin and as I looked adjusting the the shadows, my eyes screamed in horror as my knees became numb. My heart pounding I could no longer feel it beating – frozen in fear.
A body crumpled and shriveled lay in the dirt below, it moved – or was it the shifting light? Did it? Yes, it moved almost imperceptibly slow, a hand, a claw weakly moving as if swatting an insect away in futility as a shimmering cascade of glowing golden smoke drifted up into the mouth of the Wangliang.
I closed my eyes – I think I did, but I could still see everything happening. I leaned in closer to the form of whatever — I gasped breathlessly. Did I make a sound or was that in my head? The smoking heap, almost amorphous in its spasms and convulsions shifted to reveal a face. Eyes, nose, cheeks – a face, a face I could recognize, the face of Yunqi – gaunt, pale, flesh draped over a skull like a caricature drawn over a skeleton. Its – her – eyes fixed on me somehow with maddening focus as if standing in full daylight and her jaw dropped open with a horrible, hoarse, dry gurgling rattle and uttered, “Run”.