Vicious Spirits – Kat Cho

AS WITH ANY tragedy, it came about because he loved. When he was on the cusp of manhood, a young man met a girl. She was beautiful, desired by everyone in town, and— unbeknownst to him—desired by a powerful sansin. However, despite the many scholars and noblemen offering their love, she chose the young man who was only the forgotten last son of a lower noble family. She professed her love for him, and they planned to marry. In preparation for their marriage, he commissioned a ceramic vase that he would present to her. He didn’t know that, as he prepared his gift, she was preparing one of her own. For the girl he loved was not a girl at all. She was a fox, a gumiho, and she wished to become human for him. But she was tricked by the sansin who coveted her. He persuaded her to kill to gain mortality. One hundred livers devoured in one hundred days. It would allow her to take the gi of her victims—energy that fuels all living things. She did not know that the world demanded balance. That if she took the souls of others, she was sacrificing her own.

The night before their wedding, she came to her young man. He awoke to see her washed in the light of the moon. He cringed in fear of her. For she wasn’t human, but half woman–half demon. Her nine tails wove around her as symbols of her true form, and her soul was shrouded in shadows. He denied her love. The gi she’d devoured fueled her despair, and the gumiho lashed out, killing him in a blind rage. But that wasn’t to be his end, because he awoke again. This time not as a man but as a beast. A dokkaebi.

He was cursed by a shaman that served the sansin to roam the earth as an unnatural goblin. In despair, he planned to kill the shaman who turned him. But before he could, she told him that because of his rejection, the gumiho had hired the shaman to curse the man to this dokkaebi form. And the shaman gave him a chance for his own revenge. She helped him capture the gumiho for the rest of her immortal life. So the vase that was to be his wedding gift became the gumiho’s prison. And Junu lived the rest of his life as a dokkaebi. 1 MIYOUNG LOVED HER mother. Miyoung mourned her mother. Miyoung was haunted by her mother.

She didn’t use to dream much, and when she did, they were often of her victims. But now, it seemed, she dreamed of her mother as well. At night, Gu Yena came to Miyoung. Her skin so pale it seemed translucent. Perhaps that’s what happened to gumiho when they died. They became spectral things that could haunt you. “Eomma,” Miyoung said. The innocent title a child gave their mother. The title she hadn’t called Yena since she was a toddler. Except for once.

Except when Yena lay dying in her arms. “I’m sorry.” “Sorry?” In death Yena’s voice sounded hollow, distant. A shiver raced down Miyoung’s back. “I should have tried harder to save you.” “How could you when you can’t even save yourself?” Yena asked, sorrow tingeing her words. They hung thick in the air. More accusation than question. “What do you mean?” Miyoung asked, fear joining the chill that spread over her. “You can’t save yourself because you don’t even know what trouble you’re in.

My sweet girl. My ignorant saekkiya.” The words stung, but Miyoung couldn’t dwell on that. “What kind of trouble? Is it because I don’t have my yeowu guseul?” Miyoung had always worried losing her fox bead would have dire consequences. She just didn’t know it would involve her mother. Yena’s eyes shifted at the mention of Miyoung’s bead. A light pulsed, then faded into nothing. “I didn’t prepare you enough.” “No, you did everything you could for me.” “And now you must do for yourself.

” “How?” The chill seeped into her, so deep it took root in her bones. “I wish we had more time.” Yena sighed, and it seemed as if she started to sift away, fading into the dark around her. “Eomma!” Miyoung cried out as the cold spread from her spine to take over her limbs. She could barely move them, as if her very blood were freezing. “How will you go on without me?” Yena asked. “How will you survive?” “Maybe I won’t,” Miyoung said moments before her body petrified. Before she became stone, so cold she couldn’t even release the tears that pooled. “Maybe you won’t,” Yena repeated before the world faded to an icy void. Darker than dark, like a vacuum engulfing everything it touched.

And when Miyoung awoke, her eyes burned. Not from tears. Her cheeks were dry as bone. When she’d first started having dreams about her mother after her death, she thought they were just that, dreams. A kind of coping mechanism. A way for Miyoung to mourn. But now she was worried they were more. Now she was worried something was wrong. Ever since she lost her fox bead, she’d felt like she was living in a weird kind of limbo. Not quite human, but not really a gumiho either.

And it seemed that these visits from Yena were becoming more frequent. And her riddles becoming more threatening. They must be connected. 2 JUNU LOVED A good deal. Sometimes he hated doing business. But a dollar was a dollar, no matter the hand that gave it to you. This was what Junu repeated to himself over and over as the . customer explained what he needed. “I think I understand,” Junu said. The creature in front of him huffed, his rancid breath blowing at Junu.

His face was broad with a large nose and deep-set eyes. He wore baggy pants and an ill-fitting shirt. A threadbare coat covered him even though the early August heat was sweltering outside. His skin was ruddy, like a man who’d lived his life in the bottle. Or the hue of a creature that many humans refused to believe existed, unless they were under seven years old. A dokkaebi. The kind of goblin that graced the pages of folktales and myths. And the kind of thing that Junu was. Though, Junu was the first to point out that there were different kinds of dokkaebi and if anyone was to do their research, they’d know that. Junu was a chonggak dokkaebi, the only ones made to be charming.

The ones made so beautiful they could woo anyone they pleased. So, even though the thick-muscled, slow-witted creature in front of him shared the name dokkaebi, Junu would never call it kin. “I think I might have something to help you with your . problem,” Junu said delicately. He didn’t want to give the dokkaebi an opening to start explaining the gruesome plan he wanted to enact. “Good,” the dokkaebi mumbled. “I didn’t know if you would. I’ve never heard of one of our kind having to be a merchant.” “Ah, I see,” Junu said calmly, though inside he burned from embarrassment and annoyance. Embarrassment because most dokkaebi, despite their horrendous hygiene and taste, looked down on him.

And annoyance because he knew it shouldn’t matter to him, but it did. “Tell me, how did you come to learn of my services?” “I ain’t been quiet about my plans, and one day this guy appeared, definitely no human. But I’d never seen someone like him before. He seemed almost godlike.” “A god told you about my business?” Junu asked. “Nah, he wasn’t no god, but he just had something about him like he was above us all.” Something sparked in Junu’s mind at that. “Anyway, he told me about you, but I wasn’t sure, because buying stuff from a dokkaebi seemed like a scam.” The goblin eyed Junu. He would have been insulted, but it was true: Dokkaebi didn’t usually need to do anything menial to earn cash, even though they were known for their healthy greed.

They could summon riches with their bangmangi, a goblin staff that some of the more indelicate dokkaebi also liked to use as a club. The only thing dokkaebi liked more than money was mischief. So, to see one running a business —even a black-market one that traded in talismans—would definitely seem suspicious. Like a scam waiting to rob them of every dollar. “Oh, he actually did want me to give you a message.” The dokkaebi snapped his fingers. “He said to tell you ‘Hyuk had sent me.’ He said it would ensure good service.” “Ah, he did, did he?” Junu asked, turning to a large wooden chest to search through his wares. It also gave him a chance to hide his face and his obvious surprise.

Hyuk. A jeoseung saja. And a figure from Junu’s past he’d rather forget. What did that old reaper want from him? Junu wondered as he searched through dozens of small drawers that held different knickknacks and magical potions alike. He riffled through a few before he found what he was looking for. The goblin let out a rumbling noise, and Junu worried it was signaling an attack. Then he realized it was a laugh, and he knew what was coming next. “Can’t you just summon it?” “My bangmangi is in the shop.” “You don’t have it? No dokkaebi would ever give up their staff,” the dokkaebi said with a grunt. “I guess I’m not like other dokkaebi,” Junu muttered.

“So you have no magic?” The dokkaebi laughed. Junu clenched his jaw so he couldn’t bite out a reply. Better this way. Wouldn’t do to lose his cool in front of a customer, even one as dense as this one. His palms burned, and he realized his nails were digging in so hard they almost broke skin. Slowly he loosened his grip and turned, placing a congenial smile on his face. “Well, you’re lucky that I won’t need magic to fill your order.” And Junu switched the envelope he’d first selected, plucking out the one next to it. “I think this will help you get far.” “What a strange dokkaebi you are.

Having to work like a human.” The goblin chuckled. Junu gritted his teeth, then forced a smile. He pulled the golden talisman from its envelope. “I said, I think this will help.” The dokkaebi glowered, but he leaned forward to study the talisman. His coat swung a bit open, and Junu spotted a wooden handle. The dokkaebi’s bangmangi. Junu wondered if he could snatch it. Would it even work for him? He hadn’t held one in so long.

His hands itched to reach out, but the dokkaebi’s fist came up to grab the envelope. Thick and meaty. And something that could snap Junu in half. If he was good at anything, he was good at selfpreservation. Junu stepped back, pulling the envelope out of reach. “That’s one million won.” Twice the usual cost, but this goblin had annoyed him. The dokkaebi sneered but took the staff out from beneath his coat. Unfortunately, he shook the dusty thing out, and from the smell that wafted forward, Junu was certain this dokkaebi didn’t wash his clothes very often. With a thud against the floor, the dokkaebi summoned a small stack of bills to his hand.

It was the magic of the goblin staff. The ability to summon what the dokkaebi desired was a convenient trick, and one that meant all dokkaebi had a stash somewhere. In that Junu was just like his brethren, except he had to use his mind to earn the money instead of magic. Speaking of money, Junu plucked the cash from the other dokkaebi’s hand, holding out the envelope with a genteel grin. The small revenge he’d already enacted would have to be enough. And he watched the hulking goblin exit his house, giving a silent prayer to whatever god that was listening that the talisman would carry this dokkaebi far, far away from Junu’s doorstep. As the door closed, Junu thought of the dokkaebi’s words. Hyuk had sent him. Which meant Hyuk was in the mortal realm. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to talk to a dokkaebi.

Junu almost took out his phone, but he didn’t. Whatever the reaper was doing in the mortal realm, Junu wanted nothing to do with it.

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