Chapter V: The Rooftop at Three AM

From what Phượng Ngân was told, up in the mountainous area, there was a type of malevolent spirits called Ma Rừng (lit. Jungle Ghosts), essentially unfortunate souls died tragically in the jungle. Usually, on rainy and windy nights such as this, these spirits would come to people’s houses, pretending to be travelers or acquaintances asking for a sip of water. Anyone who answered their call would fall into the trap. Their souls would get taken away, led deep into the jungle where they’d get lost, and–eventually–starve to death. Of course, these spirits can only harm those with weak po[1]In Asian culture, specifically Chinese and Vietnamese, each living person has three souls and seven spirits, a.k.a. three hun seven po. Some of them can be lured elsewhere using magic. The person … Continue reading; those with strong po are immune to their powers.

What Phượng Ngân found most annoying, however, was that she had deliberately picked an ordinary inn to relax and forget all about this spiritual and demonic mumbo-jumbo for the night, yet they still came to her doorstep anyway. If she didn’t want to avoid making a big deal out of it and potentially affecting the Inn’s business, she would have run out and beat up the damn thing, not simply letting it go with a warning.

As she was about to call it a night, she heard the cry of a newborn. At the same time, her neighbor’s door creaked open heavily.

“Could it be that since that spirit couldn’t harm me, so it turned its attention to someone else?”

If she had simply been annoyed before, Phượng Ngân was now boiling with rage.

She had given it a warning, yet it didn’t know to get the **** away? Well, that just meant it didn’t care who she was now, didn’t it?

Phượng Ngân uncapped the lipstick and turned the latched; what slipped out was no cosmetic, however, but a long blade. With the sound of an unsheathed sword, the lipstick in her hand a second ago was nowhere to be found. In its place was a long sword, about three-finger wide, made of a black metal that was neither iron nor gold[2]Vietnamese/Chinese idiom signifying a material that was strange and precious..

Weapon in hand, Phượng Ngân kicked open the door and jumped out into the hallway.

She saw Điền Quý already sitting outside his room. In front of him was a bowl filled with water with a pair of chopsticks criss-cross on top. He then poured a single drop of the chicken blood he bought in the afternoon into the bowl. Immediately, all the liquid turned red and started to bubble up as if it was boiling. Điền Quý dropped a toothpick into the bowl then. It stood up straight, one end still touching the boiling liquid, the other whirled around in the air as if trying to escape but was kept in place by the chopsticks. The sounds of rainfall on the rooftop suddenly turned into humans’ running footsteps, along with whispering sounds as if someone were chatting quietly.

Seeing the toothpick beginning to push the chopsticks inching toward the edge of the bowl, he blurted out:

“****!?”

“What’s wrong?”

As Điền Quý was too focus on his own magic to notice her, Phượng Ngân approached and asked to remind him she could lend a hand.

“Someone’s giving birth.” His eyes were still glued to the bowl of liquid, but he was frowning like a monkey tasting chili pepper.

“So?”

“So, there’s a pack of Ma Rừng here for the newborn. What else? Hear that pounding rain on the rooftop? That’d be them.”

Without hearing or saying another word, Phượng Ngân jumped onto the railing and swung herself onto the rooftop in one swift movement. In the pouring rain, a few dozens of dark silhouettes could be seen on the roof. Some with long legs, others extended necks, some with hands as big as fans, others heads as small as kumquats. Their shapes kept blowing up then shrinking down; their limbs kept lengthening and shortening. Occasionally, round lumps that looked eerily liked eyes or holes that seemed like mouths would appear on their heads. The spirits were like a pack of dough monsters changing themselves to pass for humans yet had forgotten what humans actually looked like.

Amid the howling night winds, the cries of the pack of Ma Rừng were especially spine chilling.

Phượng Ngân readied her sword and lunged at the nearest spirit, easily sliced it in half. A bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the sharp edge of the blade, reflecting a beautiful face with an even sharper gaze.

The Jungle Spirits started to move toward their challenger. With each movement of their hands and feet, a part of their bodies seemed to stick to the rooftop, stretching out into long strands like melted cheese.

Phượng Ngân swung her sword, drawing a crescent splitting the rain curtain. The black blade sliced through the ghosts’ bodies and limbs as if they were butter, severing anything it touched. Only then did the spirits realized what a formidable weapon it was and turned around to run away. Phượng Ngân gritted her teeth and shouted:

“Now you want to run?? Today, I’ll kill you all!”

Under the pouring rain, the young maiden gave chase, her sword a blur of slashing movements. On the rooftop, the demons cried out, their sounds that of pain and fear. Over ten deformed dark shadows were writhing painfully on the roof in almost no time at all.

Then, another bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, revealing a gigantic shadow several stories high–with jungle trees sticking out of its head–standing tall and striding toward the Inn. Seeing that monstrosity, Phượng Ngân turned the hilt over in her hand, thinking:

“Looks like the boss finally decides to show up after all its underlings got beaten up.”

The giant shadow stretched its unnaturally long arm toward Phượng Ngân. Within its palm was a huge bulging red eye full of blood veins. The eye stared at the young girl under the pouring rain warily. Only when the giant shadow reached the Inn did Phượng Ngân get a clear look at its appearance.

It looked like a huge man with a potbelly and skinny limbs like someone suffering from abdominal distension. Two feet protruded from its shoulders. Instead of fingers, it had five tongues each on each hand, surrounding an eye in the middle of its palm. Its face was as smooth as a mirror; aside from a belly button on its forehead, nothing else was there. On its stomach, where the belly button was supposed to be, there was a massive jaw of jagged yellow teeth. Its armpit grew out a few dozens of human ears. If a man could be made in a factory of body parts, then the black shadow in front of Hương Rừng Inn right now was like a deformed product made of all the leftover materials.

The monster stared at Phượng Ngân’s face, roared, then swung its hand with all the tongues up, intending to smash down on the rooftop.

She was planning to dodge and slice off its hand–before it could pull back–when a figure crawled up from the corridor below, positioned himself between them, with arms stretched out:

“Halt!!!”

The person who had just jumped in to prevent a spirit and a human from killing each other was no other than Điền Quý.

***

It was not clear what was said between Điền Quý and the giant Ma Rừng, since the language he used was a squeaking and distorted sound like that of animals. But, after a while, the gigantic shadow turned around and walked back into the jungle with its minions in tow.

On the rooftop of Hương Rừng Inn, there were only two people left.

Phượng Ngân turned her sword back into a lipstick before putting it away:

“If you have something to say to me, wait until we’re indoor and not soaking wet.”

As she watched Điền Quý talked with the giant spirit, she noticed him getting annoyed, so she guessed he was upset about something. However, after self-reflection, Phượng Ngân found no fault in her own actions. Straight trees are never afraid of dying standing[3]Vietnamese idiom/proverb, meaning if you have done thing wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of., aren’t they?

Điền Quý didn’t say anything, simply climbed down from the roof in a grumpy manner.

Hương Rừng Inn fell back into silence.

Phượng Ngân returned to her room, fully expected Điền Quý to come over and argue with her, but he never did. After a while, she decided to get some shut eyes.

The next morning…

The two middle-aged men–the two hungry ghosts from the train station–came all the way to Hương Rừng Inn. Điền Quý invited them into his room, then closed the door carefully behind them.

Finding it strange, Phượng Ngân pressed her ear to the wall to eavesdrop on them.

One of the two middle-aged men said:

“You’ve caused a huge problem this time, kid! You know as well as we do Ma Rừng are listed in the Red List and are under the protection of your higher-ups, don’t you? Not to mention, we’re trying to get them to cooperate completely with us. But you ended up being so rude yesterday you might have poured all our hard work down the drain this time!”

“Not just that, yesterday, you also let your underworld soldiers running all over town. That made things even more complicated now. This could blow up big time!”

Điền Quý replied:

“It’s already happened. Talking about it now won’t solve anything, will it?”

The two spirits sighed, one of them said:

“If we’d known this would happen, we would have been harsher at the station. That way, at least you wouldn’t have been implicated by that girl!”

The other one also agreed, patting Điền Quý’s shoulder and nodding:

“They weren’t wrong when saying ‘even heroes could hardly resist the temptation of beauty.’ But you must stay vigilant, Quý! Beauty has a sharp edge like a blade.”

The more she heard, the more flushed Phượng Ngân’s face got. Unable to keep calm any longer, she ran over to Điền Quý’s room, kicked open the door, then said:

“Whatever problem I caused, I’ll bear the consequences. I won’t let Quý take the blame for my actions. But if you dare consider me the type of improper girl who doesn’t dare take responsibility for my own actions, then I simply cannot stand it! Today if you two don’t apologize to me properly, then I won’t waste my breath talking to you.”

Seeing the black sword in her hands, the hungry ghosts panicked. They hastily tried to turn into wisps of smoke to escape through the window, but Phượng Ngân was faster and had already blocked it using the blade. Unable to get out, they turned back into middle-aged men and looked to Điền Quý for help.

He simply yawned and smiled:

“This is your own karma. You two insulted her behind her back and gotten yourselves into this mess; what are you looking at me for?”

The two old men clicked their tongues, apologized to Phượng Ngân profusely before running away without looking back.

After they were gone, Điền Quý finally said:

“While what they said were a bit too much, the disaster you invoked yesterday was no small one.”

Notes:

Notes:
1 In Asian culture, specifically Chinese and Vietnamese, each living person has three souls and seven spirits, a.k.a. three hun seven po. Some of them can be lured elsewhere using magic. The person would still be able to continue living, just sickly as a result. Other theories sometimes say men have seven po while women have nine. Look into: “three hun seven/nine po” for more details.
2 Vietnamese/Chinese idiom signifying a material that was strange and precious.
3 Vietnamese idiom/proverb, meaning if you have done thing wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of.

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