artist: sakki (sakkiarte)
"You're enjoying this," said Hyun-woo suspiciously.
"Enjoying?" said Lee Sung-min, trying and failing to look like he was taking any of the situation seriously. There was a smile lurking at the corner of his mouth. Hyun-woo scowled at it and leaped to the top of a fallen tree trunk. He balanced himself and looked. His master had always been very firm about that. Everything was clear, for the moment, and he jumped down again, landing at a walk beside Lee Sung-min.
Even compared to the remote area where Hyun-woo had been raised, this was a backwards place. The local yangban, out of apathy or despair, had not kept the roads well. Some of the pot holes looked more like tiger pits. Perhaps they were. Hyun-woo curled his lip. In his home area, there was an unspoken agreement that the tigers kept free of the roads, and the humans did not actually venture into the forest unless absolutely necessary.
He jumped across another pothole (were those spikes inside?) and looked around again. "Enjoying going to a remote area and terrorizing everybody in sight, I mean," said Hyun-woo.
"Nonsense," said Lee Sung-min. "I merely do His Majesty's bidding."
"Is that so," said Hyun-woo.
"A trusting heart is the mark of a noble soul," said Lee Sung-min reproachfully.
"Suckers get sold cats," retorted Hyun-woo. He jumped over a branch in the road and was silently thankful Lee Sung-min had chosen not to take horses. At the rate the road was going, the horses would have been lamed or worse within an hour. "How much further do we --" The air around them grew heavy and very cold. There was a still, deathly feeling all around. Hyun-woo shuddered.
"Not very far, it seems," said Lee Sung-min.
Hyun-woo unsheathed Queenslayer, and fell back against Lee Sung-min. "You're still enjoying this," he accused.
Lee Sung-min chuckled, low and pleased, and began to chant as a wind screamed up around them. The low, steady drone of Chinese words made the presence fall back, waiting for Lee Sung-min to tire. The heavy pressure flowed and ebbed around them. Hyun-woo closed his eyes to concentrate on the energy of the area around him. There was Lee Sung-min, shining and dark and very dense; there was the living green and harsh brown forest around them, and there was a cold, hard mass of anger whipping around them, dashing itself against the barrier that Lee Sung-min was holding against it. Hyun-woo focused on it, studying for a long second. He took a long steadying breath and slid into motion. He swung Queenslayer in a singing arc toward the angry presence. It noticed him as he moved, and Queenslayer's blade just grazed the edge of the angry thing out there. There was a shriek of pain and hatred ringing through his skull and chest and then the presence was gone, as if it had never been.
"Huh," said Lee Sung-min.
Hyun-woo moved his shoulders restlessly. "Was that the ghost?"
"Very possibly," said Lee Sung-min. He looked very cheerful, as if he was looking forward to something pleasant and interesting.
"I don't know why you're enjoying yourself so much," said Hyun-woo. His head ached dully from the change of air pressure. He was still cold, and his hands were trembling so much that Queenslayer's tassel shivered in sympathy.
"It's interesting." A pause. "Well? What did you think?"
"Ghost hunting is for the birds," replied Hyun-woo. Lee Sung-min gave him a look. "I mean it," he said, trying not to sound irritated. "I don't like them."
"Hmm," said Lee Sung-min. "Did you get any impression of the ghost?"
"Angry," said Hyun-woo. "But then again, do cheerful ghosts haunt people?"
"Hmm," said Lee Sung-min. "I wonder what my lord has been up to in his spare time."
Hyun-woo made an irritated noise under his breath. "The yangban shouldn't be your first thought," he said. He kicked a rock and watched it bounce against a tree. "They aren't all bad, you know. They need better things to do. Other than abusing their power, anyway."
"You're very cute," replied Lee Sung-min. "Well. I just wonder what sort of local lord this area has." He looked around. "An area like this isn't likely to be someone's first choice."
"That shouldn't matter," said Hyun-woo stubbornly. "You should do your best, no matter where you go."
"Yes," said Lee Sung-min. "You should."
They stood in silence for a minute, and began to pick their way across the bad road.
The village, when they arrived, was set against a rock cliff, clinging desperately to a little cleared land against the encroaching forest. There were very few children, and most of them looked thin and listless. They followed Hyun-woo and Lee Sung-min at a distance, staring as if they had nothing better to do. There was no curiosity in their faces. There were more men than women, Hyun-woo noticed. The houses were of old stone, once neat but falling into eroded decay. On several houses, Hyun-woo saw, the sign against the Evil Eye was scribbled in red paint.
Lee Sung-min was wearing his public face, bored and rather haughty. Hyun-woo was annoyed to realize he could read Lee Sung-min well enough to know he was probably actually enjoying himself. He, on the other hand, felt itchy, as if something was watching him.
The yangban was a thin and rather nervous man, whose hands were stained with ink. His eyes were surrounded by deep lines of worry. His name was Park Jun-bae. "Thank you for coming," he said, bowing.
"We are always happy to help the worthy," said Lee Sung-min. "I haven't seen you since your examination."
"Yes," said Park Jun-bae. "I was posted here immediately." A shadow of wry humor crossed his face. "My results were good, but my family is poor. Indeed, this was more than I hoped for."
Lee Sung-min nodded, unsurprised. "And then?"
Park Jun-bae got up and moved restlessly around. "I don't know," he said finally. "Perhaps I'm not trying enough."
Hyun-woo blinked and looked around the small, spare room; there were no luxuries, nothing to suggest an educated man lived there. The only sign of culture was a pile of schoolbooks.
"When I arrived," said Park Jun-bae. "I sincerely wished to improve this village. As you see, we are very isolated, and the education is poor. There was also a habit of preferring male children, and of marrying within the village."
Lee Sung-min nodded. "Did you attempt education?"
"I thought I was making progress," said Park Jun-bae. "But --"
"Hmm," said Lee Sung-min. "Truly, superstition is the end of progress." He was silent for a moment. "Let us be shown the place where the ghost most frequently appears."
Park Jun-bae looked surprised. "Don't you wish to hear more about the ghost?"
"Presently," said Lee Sung-min. "But I prefer to look before I hear anything."
As they walked through the village, Hyun-woo said under his breath, "You saw him at his examination?"
"Do you doubt me?" said Lee Sung-min reproachfully.
"I read the file," hissed Hyun-woo. "That was ten years ago."
"Truly, a youth with the ability to read has more wealth than gold," Lee Sung-min said in polite terms.
"Just how old are you, anyway?" said Hyun-woo.
"Younger than that cedar tree and older than a mayfly."
The place where the ghost most frequently appeared was a small, half-ruined house at the outskirts of the village. The heavy aura that Hyun-woo had noticed in the forest hung over the house and yard. It was not as intense as it had been while the ghost had attacked, but it was still very present. The air smelled foul and tasted stagnant. Hyun-woo tried not to gag.
"Leave us," said Lee Sung-min. Park Jun-bae bowed and returned. His back was held carefully straight, but Hyun-woo thought he still looked very tired.
Lee Sung-min began a careful examination of the area, looking even at the weeds that ran all over the area that had once been the garden. Hyun-woo wondered what he was looking for. He couldn't see anything that set this house apart as a ghost lair except for the general ruin.
"Have you ever been possessed by a spirit?" said Lee Sung-min, suddenly.
"Not on purpose," said Hyun-woo.
Lee Sung-min looked at him, his mismatched eyes gleaming with amusement. "But accidentally?"
"If I was," hedged Hyun-woo, "it was only once and all I remember was Master Jin yelling at me afterward."
"Yelling?" said Lee Sung-min. He kicked the ground and then knelt and pulled out a clump of scrubgrass. He shifted through the roots carefully, looking at the dirt. "Why?"
"I don't know," said Hyun-woo. "He just said if I ever did that again he'd tan my hide, and I believed him."
"My respect for your departed foster father grows more each day."
"You don't have to be an asshole," said Hyun-woo.
"Truly," said Lee Sung-min. When Hyun-woo looked at him, his eyes were serious. "He was a good man."
Hyun-woo looked away.
After a while Hyun-woo said, "What exactly are we trying to find?"
"Gold and silver," said Lee Sung-min. "Also the Taoist secret of eternal youth, which is not peaches. In case you were wondering."
"I see." Hyun-woo sometimes thought Lee Sung-min did it on purpose, but then again sometimes he thought it might just be natural.
"I'd be happy with something that isn't supposed to be here," said Lee Sung-min, looking around the area.
"That's specific," said Hyun-woo. He kicked a rock idly. It bounced across the ruins of the gardens and disappeared with a soft splash. "Um," he said.
Hyun-woo kicked another rock over in the same direction. It too disappeared. "I thought the well was on the other side of the house," he said.
Lee Sung-min was already moving, examining the ground carefully. "It was," he said. When he pulled the clinging vines away from the ground, a rough well was revealed, with the rotting remains of planks above it. "This is older." He looked around with a frown. "This is the best spot for a well. There's no reason to relocate it like they did. They must have suffered from the relocation." He lifted one of the planks off the well. Hyun-woo gagged. The heavy stagnant feeling in the air increased sharply. His head felt like it was about to split open.
Red filled his vision. He wanted to kill the intruder. He wanted to wrap his hands and choke the life out of him. He lunged forward, and the intruder fell back with a surprised curse.
"Jin Hyun-woo!" said the intruder, his voice commanding. Outsider, he thought. Outsider. "What are you doing?"
"You should just die," he hissed. "You should just die!" He leaped at the intruder, his hands like claws. He had to get him away from the well. The baby was there. He had to protect the baby. The baby. He had to get to the baby. The other intruder, it was his fault, he remembered it clearly. They'd put the baby in the well and he -- she -- had to go after it. She had to protect the baby.
"I'm afraid I can't oblige you," said the intruder. As she lunged at him again, he slid easily out of reach. "I wish you would give Jin Hyun-woo his body back."
"Shut up," she hissed. "Give my baby back!"
"Your child is not here," said the intruder.
"I saw them do it!" she screamed. "I saw them put the baby in the well! Give her back! Give her back!"
"Hyun-woo," said the intruder, "Wake up."
Hyun-woo sucked in a breath, surprised, and realized he did not have control of his own body. The ghost froze for a second and stumbled as Hyun-woo tried to regain control and failed. It was just long enough for Lee Sung-min, though. He moved fast, landing behind Hyun-woo and wrenching his arms behind him with one hand. Lee Sung-min's face was very close to Hyun-woo's. He smiled, hard and dangerous. His hand lifted up and stroked Hyun-woo's cheek. The ghost possessing Hyun-woo tried to bite, to claw, anything to get him away.
"You don't belong here any more," said Lee Sung-min, his voice very gentle. "Your child is not here."
The ghost screamed as Lee Sung-min said three sharp words in Chinese and lifted his hand, a piece of paper held between his forefinger and middle finger. The words painted on the bujeok flared.
When Hyun-woo woke up, he was lying on the ground, with a makeshift pillow that smelled vaguely of sandalwood and some sort of musk -- maybe amber. The fabric against his head was soft-- which was good, because his head hurt like hell. Lee Sung-min was talking to someone-- not Park Jun-bae, but an older man Hyun-woo didn't recognize. Hyun-woo wished he would shut up. His voice was even but very sharp. "-- if the shaman couldn't deal with her, why didn't you tell the yangban right away?"
"It was our problem," said the older man. "We wanted to try to --"
Lee Sung-min made an angry sound in the back of his throat. "By avoiding her? By allowing her to kill more and more? She would have destroyed this village! I tell you, she almost managed it!"
"I am shamed," said the older man, crouching submissively. "We are all shamed."
"Don't tell me of your shame," said Lee Sung-min. "Tell Park Jun-bae." There was a heavy silence. Lee Sung-min sighed. "Let a shrine be built to the woman and her child, and let there be offerings made there every season. Fish and fresh food and sweets."
The older man made a noise of protest. An offering like that would place a burden on all of the village.
"If you don't, she will return!" rebuked Lee Sung-min. "But if you do, she will forgive you. Perhaps she will protect you. But you must do as I say."
The older man was silent, and said, very low, "We hear and will obey."
He left, and there was quiet. At last Lee Sung-min said lightly, "I find myself agreeing with Jin Tae-Joon again."
"Hmm?" said Hyun-woo. It occurred to him that his pillow was rather warm and firm. He blinked once, twice, and realized he was lying with his head on Lee Sung-min's leg. He was too miserable to care.
"If you do that again," said Lee Sung-min, "I will make you sorry for it." He put his hand on Hyun-woo's forehead. It was a liberty that Hyun-woo would have not usually have allowed, but Lee Sung-min's hand was very cool against the feverish ache.
Hyun-woo closed his eyes again.