The first episode of my urban fantasy serial Nine Tails will be hitting Kindle next week, but this week I’m announcing the launch of my mailing list and the release of a free promo story that leads into the series. The opening of said story is below. Hope you enjoy.
Episode 0: The Choi Heist
1901, near what is now Paekam, North Korea
The kumiho could smell his flesh on the cold, still air. The man lived outside the village in isolation. His hut, a small shanty made of bound pieces of wood, sat serenely beneath two red pines. Snow blanketed its roof, and there was no light from within, so the place almost blended into the ground. But the kumiho knew he was there. The villagers feared the man, were suspicious of his supposed magical abilities. They wouldn’t miss him when he was gone. Some might even be thankful.
Is that what you think? Or is that what you tell yourself to feel better?
The translucent figure of a young woman appeared next to her. She was dressed in traditional hanbok, her skirt billowing outward but unmoved by the wind. The kumiho remembered her vaguely from when she was alive, but that was many years ago. Now she was a gwishin, a ghost of one of the kumiho’s past victims.
“Begone,” the kumiho said in an urgent whisper.
The woman glared at her, but slowly she faded until there was nothing where she had stood except falling snow. The kumiho drew in a deep breath and continued stalking forward. She changed as she approached the hut, shifting her shape to hide her vulpine form with its nine tails. She took on the image of a young woman with eyes wide and innocent. She pulled on the clothes she had been carrying between her teeth, cheap garments that were rent and tattered. Men found it hard to resist a woman they thought was in distress.
“Hello?” she called out, as she staggered through the snow. “Is anyone there? I’m lost.”
She pushed through the deer-hide flap that covered the door of the hut. Inside it was dark, but the moonlight shining through the open doorframe revealed a cluttered interior with a sleeping pallet, and many baskets and bottles filled with herbs and ingredients, some of them hanging from the ceiling. The man sat cross-legged in the middle of the room staring at her as she entered. His hair was thinning and had gone gray, and his face was lined with age. But he did not look frail. His body looked fit, and his eyes were alive, shimmering in the moonlight.
“Do you live here?” the kumiho said. “I was traveling from my village, and I lost my way in the night. Could you help me?”
The man struck a match and brought it to the wick of a candle that sat in front of him. He gestured to the space across from him on the other side of the candle. The kumiho took a seat facing him.
“Let us not play games,” the man said. He smiled at her, his round face lighting up. “What is it that you have come here for, fox?”
The kumiho narrowed her eyes. How had he known what she was? Perhaps his magic wasn’t the hoax she had expected it to be.
“If you know what I am, then you know why I’m here,” she said.
“To feast on my liver,” the shaman said, happily bobbing his head. He chortled lightly, as if it was all some sort of joke. “But you know, if you do that, then you won’t get what you really want.”
It was the kumiho’s turn to smile. Her canine teeth glinted in the candlelight. “And what is it that I want, old man?”
“Why, to be human of course,” the man said.
“Very clever,” the kumiho said, snarling. She let her human form begin to slip away. Her nine tails billowed behind her, and she extended her clawed fingers.
“Perhaps too clever. I don’t know how you’ve come to know all of this, but it isn’t enough to convince me to turn away from a meal.”
The man held up his hand, as if the gesture could stop her. “Let me tell you how you might achieve your humanity. Perhaps, if the plan I have is to your liking, then you will let me live.”
“You’re stalling,” the kumiho said.
“For what?” the man said. “We are deep in the woods. The nearest settlement is far away, as you know, and the villagers despise me. Even if they knew what you were, I doubt they would raise a finger to stop you from killing me.”
“Be quick then,” the kumiho said. She settled back on her haunches ready to spring at him should his idling prove to be a trap. “I am beginning to feel peckish.”
The man rested his hands on his knees. He cleared his throat and began to speak.
“Legend speaks of how Dangun, the first king of Korea, was born to a mother who had once been a bear,” he said. “What many don’t speak of is the spell woven by the gods that turned her into a human. But I have it. I found the ancient texts in a rotted temple to the north.”
“Show me,” the kumiho said.
She kept her eyes on him, warily watching his movements as he began digging through papers at the back of his hut. He returned with an old book. Its cover was made of animal hide and worn by the elements; its pages hadn’t fared much better. He turned through them slowly, handling each crinkled, brown piece of parchment with care. Finally he showed her a page with a recipe detailing different magical and mythical ingredients needed for the spell.
She felt a brief flurry of hope in her chest as she scanned the page, looking over the list of items. He was right about her in that respect, about her dreams of becoming human. She was tired of being an outcast from society, of living on its edges and always trying to avoid discovery or capture. She was tired of being the monster in the night, of focusing purely on surviving and eluding, and never building towards anything more. And more than that, she was tired of living with the ghosts of her victims.
She pointed to the top of the page, to an illustration of an amulet of some kind. It looked like a small yin yang, painted in the now traditional red and blue halves of Korea. Surrounding it were what looked like two ornately crafted gold feathers. It was the only thing listed that she didn’t recognize or hadn’t at least heard of.
“What is that?”
“The amulet of Hwanung, the god who was Dangun’s father and lord of Baekdu Mountain,” the shaman said. “With this spell and that amulet he turned Dangun’s mother into a human. If you find this amulet, I’m sure you could use it for a similar purpose.”
The kumiho sat in silence for a moment. Then she tilted her head back and let out a throaty laugh. “And how do you propose I do that?”
“Why with my help of course!” the shaman said, giving her another one of his big smiles. “I have studied magic, the arcane, and the spirit world for most of my life. I’m sure I can help you track it down.”
“But you don’t know where it is,” the kumiho said.
“That I do not,” the shaman said, bowing his head in apology. “But I’m sure that I could locate it, if given enough time.”
“Enough time,” the kumiho repeated. She eyed the shaman again, her hunger growing. “So let me get this right. Your proposal is to lead me on a wild hunt for a long lost artifact in the hopes that I can maybe use it to attain humanity.”
“It is perhaps a faint hope,” the shaman said. His smile was gone now, replaced with a somber expression. “But having some hope is better than none. Let me help you find the artifact.”
“You mean let you live so that you can stab me in the back when the moment is right,” the kumiho said. “After having me chase false hopes, no less.”
“The amulet is real,” the shaman said, raising his voice. “I have scrolls documenting its existence, ancient records from the old kingdoms. Let me show you!”
He jumped to his feet before the kumiho could react. He rifled through more papers, throwing things about the hut in his haste. Bemused, she let him continue, waiting for him to find what he was looking for.
“It exists,” the shaman said, turning back to her with an old, faded scroll that he shook at her. “The records of the old kingdoms confirm it. There is a way that you can become human. And if you let me, I will find it.”
The kumiho gently took the scroll into her own hands. It showed another image of the object, one that looked more of a rough sketch and was less artfully rendered. According to the writings next to the drawing, the object was not very large, maybe the size of a pendant. Something that could easily have been lost or destroyed long ago, she thought. If the thing even really existed. She had been on the Earth for over 900 years, and she hadn’t heard of anything like this before. She wanted this pendant to be real, for the spell to work. But she wasn’t about to let herself be tricked by some conniving human.
“So what do you say?” the shaman said, his hands clearly starting to shake, sweat beading on his balding head, even in the cold. She was the more powerful of them, and he knew it.
“I think you’re a lying old man who is just trying to cling to the last days of a sorry life,” the kumiho said, gently laying the book and the scroll on the floor of the hut. The color drained from the shaman’s face. “And right now you’ve done nothing more than delay my dinner.”
“Then you leave me no choice!” the shaman said, drawing himself up straight.
He was trying to restore some of his bluster, but the kumiho was not impressed. She moved towards him, and he grabbed for a hefty stick from the corner of the hut and swung it at her. The kumiho responded quickly, dodging to the side to avoid the blow. When he swung at her again, she caught the stick and tore it from his grasp. She snapped it cleanly in half with her hands like it was nothing.
The shaman gasped. He backed away, knocking his head against one of the hanging baskets and spilling the herbs everywhere. “No, please!” he said, beginning to yell. As much as she admired humans, and as much as she yearned to be one, the kumiho often found herself disgusted with how pitifully they tried to reject the inevitable. She saw the translucent bodies of the gwishin gathering around the shaman, ready to welcome him to their ranks.
“Don’t worry,” she said, flexing her claws. “This won’t hurt. Much.”
If you want to find out how the rest of the story goes, you can get a free copy of it by signing up for my mailing list (if you haven’t done that with the pop-up already).
This free story comes in a mobi file, so you will need a Kindle or The Kindle App, which is free, to read it. My apologies if that is a hassle, but the rest of the series will be released exclusively on Kindle, so I thought it best to keep the short story in the same format.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed, and I hope you’ll check out Nine Tails when it is released on the 31st!