Making plans to more easily travel to the Byeol lands the five young man take their leave of The Ghao Monastery and head towards the small fishing village along the banks of Ghao river and the great lake.
Unlike the other tribes in the valley the Ghao traditionally organize themselves in a fashion less tribal and more communal. The people live together communally in tightly knit villages and farm vast fields and fish the river and lake as one individual group.
It is rather disconcerting for Hiro, Makoto, Wei Kim, and B’ard. Thankfully though Sang-woo explains to them in detail as to why it is the most advantageous technique to be used in the valley, since space and arable land is so scare.
As they approach the village they take note of the return of Grandmaster Hwan and his apprentice monks. Hwan politely greets the young men but quickly take his leave of them when he see’s Sang Woo wandering nearby.
Unable to get any information out of Grandmaster Hwan concerning his trip to the Elder’s Village, aside from the commonly held reason of his trip, the group bids him a fair day.
B’ard takes some time to track down a friend of his, Gorobei the Trader. With his full belly and cheerful laugh he readily trades with B’ard and supplies him with some finely smelted copper arrows in exchange for the oddly coloured jade B’ard collected in the Hue lands.
With no other business to conduct the group continue along the stony shore towards the Byeol tribe’s lands.
While travelling along the calm lake shore the five young men’s attention is drawn from the slipperly and round stone shorebed. Off in the distance they can see a strange sight. A woman perhaps ? Sitting on the other side of a fallen log, her long black hair flowing over her shoulders and back and on top of the log, disappearing from sight into the soft moss that covers it’s trunk. She seems to be singing a strange song and the sound of a Biwa can be heard by the men.
Sensing that something is not quite right they slow their pace and quietly approach at first. Things become clearer the closer they come towards the strange person. It’s arms don’t move in pace with the strumming of an instrument, and it’s head lolls at odd angles, as if it’s movement’s were some macabre marionette.
Rushing around the log with their spears and bows drawn they see a startling sight. The being is not alive at all, merely a amalgamation of old cloth, sticks, lakegrass, shells, and bones. Thin strings of spidersilk drag it’s arms and body and track into the tall marsh grasses. Bewildered they exchange looks of concern as the song stops being sung, replaced by a childlike giggling and chortle. To all sides they can her small feet run on the rocks behind and beside them but as they turn nothing can be seen.
Makoto advises they simply leave, and begins to back away from the situation. Wei Kim, Hiro, and B’ard remain more inquisitive, while Sang Woo calmly takes his place beside the larger and more protective Makoto.
The giggling continues, and the sound of a creature running circles around them continues. With his keen eyes B’ard see’s movement in the bushes and trains one of his new copper arrows at the general area of the movement. Makoto warns that it could simply be a child, or even a spirit, but B’ard cares not. He launches his arrow and it finds it mark. With an animal like shriek. The creature begins to run through the tall marsh grasses and heads into the forest.
Spotting a small patch and thin trail of blue blood the more aggressive young men give chase. B’ard can see it’s form running into the trees, it’s small orange knobby body limping into some bushes. Hiro thinks back and identifies it as a Mujina,
and B’ard let’s loose another arrow. Struck in the back, but with less effect than one would expect, the Mujina let’s out a shriek and runs into the dark underbrush.
Hiro tells him to stop, that it is a merely a trickster spirit, usually harmless, but B’ard is undeterred. The creature acted out against him and he will not be targeted or made a fool off by some beast, spirit or not.
B’ard tracks it down to a hollow log, the creature shuffling in to hide, quickly laying down he sits and draws his bow back awkwardly. He can see it move and snarl, he draws his string back the beast within his sights and suddenly his bow string snaps and his arrow flies back into his left eye sheaf first.
Springing backwards and howling in pain B’ard claws at his eye. With all the sound and ruckus the rest of the group come running. Hiro can see that B’ard’s eye is fine, but is extremely swollen and will need to be cut and bled.
Wei Kim looks for the creature but with the distraction of B’ard unlucky draw it seems to have disappeared from all sight.
Hiro and Makoto scold B’ard. The rashness of his actions could put the rest of the group at risk. Mujina can become malicious when harmed or attacked.
B’ard to injured to argue simply waves his companions away and reminds them it will be dark soon and they should find shelter.
As darkness begins to fall, and the discontent still unresolved between the young men, the group find themselves in Byeol lands. The twisted forests thickly line and brush against each other, narrow paths between them, and all manner of slithering and crawling creatures to be seen on the path and along the trees. In the language of the valley people this forest is called “Suaeg Seumyeo Sup”, Sapseep Forest, and has long been held to be closer to the spirit realms than the rest of the Five Hills in the valley.
Even Hiro is slightly unsettled in his tribe’s homelands.
Seeing no suitable place to bed down, and as the rain begins to fall, the five young men can see in the distance an outcropping with a moderately sized wooden house. It’s thatched roof having seen better days, and it’s wooden stilts leaning on a bad angle, leave much to be desired. Yet light can be seen through a window and smoke spews from it’s chimney.
Approaching the house, through thickly growing herb and vegetable patches, Hiro knocks on the door. The door opens by the hand of an older Byeol woman, another can be seen within stirring a copper cauldron over a hearthfire. They beckon the young men in and introduce themselves as the sisters Myung and Myeong. Sisterwive’s who no longer have their husband in the house, they readily seat the strapping group of young men and begin to dry them off with towel’s and offer them warm stew.
Asking them why they travel at such a dark hour through the forest the old women probe the young men for any gossip they bring with them. Eating their stew in a hurried fashion they relate to them that they are on a mission from the Elder’s Village and openly share their story.
The old women react in shock when they hear B’ard’s tale and how he wounded his eye. They berate the young man and the group as a hole and immediately ask them to leave, not wishing to draw any ire from the Mujina for there brief association. They also yell at young Hiro, stating it is his duty as a Byeol to ensure peaceful relations with the spirits and that he should have known and prevented the other members of his group for attacking a spirit creature and wounding it.
Wei Kim stays behind to try and placate the old women, but soon after joins his companions who wait at the forest verge. The slow rain continues to fall and the young men choose to press on, hoping to find another homestead nearby to rest at.
The branches of the trees, the brambles, and the creatures of the night prove to difficult to deal with however and despite being soggy the group slumps down under a tree for awhile and decides to rest and try to find some sleep before dawn breaks, many hours away.
During his watch Makoto’s attention is drawn by a gruesome sound chortling and malicious laugh the carries through the forest and he wakes his companions. groggily they break camp and press on, knowing that B’ard’s actions will come to haunt them.
As he walks through the dark forest, Makoto’s thoughts are drawn into dark places, and before he notices he finds himself lost, his companions nowhere in sight. Calling out he finds no answer. He looks around for their tracks, but finds none. He calls out again, he waits, he listens, the forest grows ever darker. He hears a sound, a whimpering, he searches for the voice, perhaps it’s Sang Woo, the young boy lost like himself. He comes into a small clearing on the path and see’s the owner of the cry. It comes up to his shoulder, with a thick matted coat of fur. It’s four legs quiver and wobble as it tries to turn around. It’s gurgling whimper, it’s pained cry can be easily heard however. Makoto stands speechless, lost in a fearful memory of the past. The beast, the wolf spirit turns to him, it’s neck cleanly snapped and it’s head twisted a full 180 degrees. The beasts bloodied tongue lolling over its top (now bottom) jaw, dangling humorously. It whimpers and cries out again, “Why Makoto……..Why ?” and tries to howl in pain.
Makoto backs away in fear, the poor beasts eyes staring up at him. The black sheen of death is all that reflects at them.
“Do you wish to know pain and death as I do Makoto?”
And the spirit-beast leaps at him.
Sang-woo could not have been awakened at a better time. The weird nightmares brought on by the twisted forest were strange and disorientating. He of course knew that they were nothing more than dreams, though irrational they still seemed to bother him.
Trekking behind his friends in the darkness he fell into deep concentration and thought. Each branch and bush that brushed up against him brough vivid images to his mind, images of his recently experienced nightmares. The branches and brambles continued to catch and tug on his long saffron robes. If only he didn’t have to wear them all the time he thought. His mind switched from nightmare images to a viewpoint of himself walking in the monastery of all places in the clothing of a farmer, a hunter, an elder, or a soldier of old. He smiled at such piques of fancy.
Suddenly a tree branch (or perhaps a thick bodied snake) tripped him. Brushing his robe clean of mud and mulch Sang Woo raised himself from the root filled ground, awaiting a reproach from his more athletically inclined traveling companions, only to find he had lost sight of them.
Scolding himself Sang Woo hurried along the dark path. The brambles and branches grow thicker and pull at him more aggressively. He can hear his friends though and forces his way on. It’s for naught though. The branchs wrap around his arm and back, the roots grasp his sandaled feet and he isn’t strong enough to break free.
He see’s Makoto in the distance and calls out. His companion turns his hulking frame in his direction for a moment, and shakes his head and continues along the path. Sang Woo pleads again.
Wei Kim follows the large man. Sang Woo calls out louder, but Wei Kim seems preoccupied and responds with naught but a dusty cough. Sang Woo begins to doubt his companions friendship.
The young Ghao monk see’s Hiro on the path next. The branches of the trees constrict even more and pull him towards the trunk right up off the ground. He calls out to Hiro loudly. Hiro turns and locks eyes with the tree, and after a moment simply shakes his head and walks on.
Sang Woo loudly laments. The grip of the tree pulling him tighter, he can feel the beasts who live in the tree begin to move and crawl around his limbs.
He see’s B’ard, eagle eyed even in the dark, and calls out to him. B’ard see’s the young monk and only offers a snort and a smirk, and head’s off into the dark path.
Sang Woo lets out a despairing comment and the branches and the bark of the tree envelop him.
Hiro led the companions on the darkly lit path. The torches they made brought very little light to the dense forest.
His torchlight flickered low at regular intervals. Each time it did he would ask Gong-Gi, his friendly Air Kami, to breath life into the flame and bring it to light again.
He would always stop when he needed to bring oxygen to his damp torch, telling his companions to wait a moment as he did.
Each time he stopped to ask Gong Gi to help light the torches dwindling flame Hiro would make short prayers to the Byeol spirits to help him find the swiftest path to shelter. Though he worshipped and tried to understand the spirits he knew they listened to him little, and he did in truth fear what they would have to share with him when his training was complete enough to take the mantle of Shaman of the Byeol.
Hiro would tell the young men behind him words of encouragement. The spirits of the Sapseep Forest would lead them to shelter eventually.
He continued along the dark path. His torch dwindeled again. He called out to Gong Gi. The air kami did not answer though. He could feel his presence though, but he couldn’t get him to respond or speak to him. Makoto asked Hiro to hurry up and get the torches flame to flare again, as his own torch had gone out.
The light of the group dwindled.
Makoto offered a small prayer to the Air spirits and to the Fire spirits they often played with and asked Gong Gi again to help breath air into the fire. He didn’t answer. B’ard came up behind Hiro and spoke to him, waving his own extinguished torch. Hiro couldn’t understand his words, it was as if he were speaking another language. He told B’ard that he couldn’t understand him, his words were confused and unfathomable. B’ard only looked at him in confusion.
The light dwindeled again. Wei Kim and Sang Woo in turn showed him their unlit torches and spoke nonsense to him. He couldn’t understand them. Gong Gi while nearby would no heed his requests.
Hiro prayed to the Spirits of his tribe calling them for guidance, why did his friendly spirit ignore him, why couldn’t his friends understand him?
He ran through his memories. Maybe Elder Byeol had told him something of importance about this before. He recalled Elder Byeol’s aged visage, imagining her to be here. He asked her what to do, and all she did was look at him with her rheumy eyes not understanding him. He asked the Spirits of the Lake for aid, but they did not heed his call, if they even understood. He called to the ancestors, but his tongue was numb and heavy and the voices they spoke to him in were in a language he couldn’t understand.
He fell to the ground in frustration and tears. No one, he can speak to no one, even the spirits won’t heed his call.
The last flicker of light from his torched died out. Even his last whimpered sigh was unintelligible.
Wei Kim lost his way along the path as well. He struggled to find his fellows, but every twisting turn in the dark forest led back to the ramshackle home of the sister wives Myung and Myeong. Of what occurred within none shall truly know, but it could explain the dusty scent that follows Wei Kim even now.
B’ard found the path to be equally frustating as did his companions. Their torches wilted in the damp air and brought little or no light. This forest was truly an accursed place. His foot, rahter unluckily, found it’s caught under a root and B’ard feel forward losing all footing.
He hit the mucky ground with a resounding thump and his compatriots only turned to look at him annoyingly as if he had done something wrong.
As he stood he noticed his well worn belt pouch (given to him by a cherished and long passed family member) came loose from it’s loop and had fallen towards a berry bush. B’ard leapt into the bush after it quickly, for it held the precious copper arrowheads he had just traded for as well as many other unique and rare items he has scrounged throughout his wanderings.
Crawling on his knees into the base of the prickly bush he grasped at the pouch, he could see the faint glimmer of the quartz beads he bedazzled it’s drawstring with. His fingers groped at it futilely and he caused it to push further underneath the bush. In anger he tore out the bush at it’s roots but the disturbance only caused the pouch to upend and tumble back sliding into a nearby rabbit warren.
B’ard could hear the objects inside jumble and clink against eachother as they fell into the hole. He called to his companions to wait a moment, whether they heeded him or not he could not say but he wasn’t about to lose that which he struggled so hard to obtain.
Crawling up to the hole he plunged his hand into it’s recesses. Grasping at the pouches drawstring. His fingers only managed to knock the pouch further into the hole, just beyond his fingers reach. He could feel a few scant insects crawl over his hand, but they would not dissuade him. Grasping his knife he placed his arm into the hole trying to hook the pouch on it’s sharp tip. Blindly and slowly he prodding at it attempting to hook it but the slimy earth made his knife slip from his fingers and slide further into the warren with his knife. His attempts of extirpation opened the warren itself and he was able to slide in up to his chest.
With him this time he took his bow and try to pull the pouch out. Each movement of his arm opened the warren further and further, loose dirt covering his buttocks and legs. But again no luck whatsoever.
He forced his way in further and further. His sight almost entirely gone from lack of light at this point he slowly probed with the end of his bow. He hit something solid, it wasn’t dirt. His pouch ! it must be !
But then he could hear a malicious growl and chackle and the end of his bow became ensnared in some beasts grasp. It’s strength was greater than his, atleast in such tight quarters he told himself. And his bow swiftly was pulled away and became lost.
B’ard hollered a profanity against whatever was down the warren, but the mocking laughter didn’t stop.
Shuffling on his chest forward he reach out again hoping to grab his pouch and throttle whatever creature was here. His efforts only brought the warrens dirt roof down on him, pinning him nearly helplessly.
The laughter came closer and with clear eyes (yet light was still absent) he could see the creature that lay in the warren. A Mujina, the very same creature he shot twice before. It growled at him bearing it’s tiny fangs.
It hissed and hurled a rock at his face. The stinging pain of it hitting his swollen eye made him yell out. the creature laughed and shook something in it’s small hands. A belt pouch, his belt pouch. “What have you got in here human ?” It hissed again, pulling the drawstring “All mine now. All mine.”
It pulled out a shiny copper arrowhead, one of the number he’d yet to fletch and bind yet, and hurled it at his face. Blood trickled.
“How does it feel ? Does it sting human ?” and the mujina hurled another small item at B’ard’s face.
“Do you like being injured and trapped in a hole?” it spat and slung another sharp round item at his face from the belt pouch.
B’ard’s patience was wearing thin, but he had no way of ending the beast, and he thought to himself maybe Makoto and Hiro had been correct. He didn fire first, and he did aggressively pursue the beast, even if it did have it coming and was a threat.
Begrudgingly he called at the Mujina, told it to stop, he told it (with stinging regret) that he was wrong and apologize and offered to make reperations.
The Mujina snorted, but withdrew it’s thrown assaults for a moment. It nodded and drew close enough to his face that he could smell it’s foul odour.
“Learn this well human. Do not meddle with spirits or harm us, for we are everywhere, and our time in the world never ends, though yours can end and will end…. sooner or later.”
More earth collapsed atop B’ard and his sight went black, he tried to shout out but couldn’t.
With a shout B’ard awoke. His companions still strewn around their damp and improperly maintained fire (which must have sputtered out during someones watch). The others awoke as promptly as he had and groggily stared around. Whatever dreams they had did not seem pleasant.
Were they caused by the Mujina? Or the haunted forest itself? Would they happen again ? No answers seemed obvious.
But the sun was now up and their path would become clearer.
As they gathered their belongings trying to understand the nights events B’ard told them all to wait, and there before his friends he kindled a small fire and made offerings to the Mujina and any spirits he has offended. Burning some small precious possessions and food he prayed, and Sang Woo and Hiro added the proper intonements for him as well.
Perhaps, B’ard thought, it was enough of a start to let them have rain free weather and no annoying interactions with accursed Mujina while traveling through Byeol lands. His companions agreed.
In the wee hours of the next morning the small group find the homestead of Tamzin and Ch’ar and stand in the open as Byeol custom dictates before they are welcome to approach the couples homestead.