“Fancy joining us?”
I glanced up from my book, meeting the eyes of the backpacker who’d asked the question.
“Where’re you headed?”
“The Hungry Ghost Cave,” his friend chimed in.
I considered it a mere moment, then bobbed my head eagerly. “When do we go?”
“8 o’clock tomorrow morning,” the first guy said, extending a tanned hand. “I’m Miv…”
“Ronnie,” his mate offered, lifting his hand in turn.
“…and this here’s Ching, he’ll be our guide.” Ching nodded at me from across the table, and I did my best to commit their names to memory.
I headed back up to my room, but as I climbed to the fourth floor I felt an icy tendril of dread coil in my gut. Hungry ghost… I shook my head. Buddhism is filled with stories of the restless dead and even has a festival every year for which participants make offerings and pray to appease the pain of roving spirits. The name was just that: a moniker, a legend.
Jangsa…. a little voice whispered in the back of my head, drawing out the word with sadistic glee.
I shivered, clenching my fists as I lay back on my bed. That had just been an accident. A terrible, terrible accident. My mind had… broken. Seen things.
I dug my knuckles into my eyes until I could see supernovas, then curled into a ball and did my best to sleep.
* * *
Drip, drip, drip…
I blinked groggily. It was dark out save for a dim glow from the moon. I lifted my head and checked the window —
A hunched figure stood silhouetted against the pale white of the wall, head bowed and long hair hanging like a veil over her face. She was soaking wet.
Drip, drip, drip…
“Get out,” I muttered, voice rising as panic wormed through me. “Get out of my room!”
“Left… me…” the girl lifted her head slowly, languorously. Her neck was horribly thin, so thin it was a wonder it supported her head, and the skin of it was translucent enough to see her veins through. Her black veins…
“No…” I pushed myself into the corner, shaking my head vehemently. “NO! You’re dead!”
“Yesssss,” the shade of my sister hissed, then opened her mouth and vomited a cascade of bloody water onto the floor of my room. I screamed and screamed as the water level rose, higher and higher…
I sat up with a shout, panting and sweating in terror.
Just a nightmare. Just a nightmare.
I got up and walked downstairs, filling a glass with water before hearing a soft murmuring from an open doorway. Candlelight flickered and I peered in to see Ching placing what looked like food on some sort of altar, then lighting it with a stick of incense. The food must’ve been made of paper — intricately folded — because it blazed brightly as the flames consumed it, and the smoke of the burning dissipated into the darkness. I tiptoed back upstairs, hoping to get some more sleep.
* * *
We set out at 8 — Miv, Ronnie, Ching, and I. Two others, Isabela and Danmei, joined at the last minute, and the six of us set out on bikes for the cave.
The road wound along the River Li before we turned up a dusty village road. It was hot, even that early, and before long our clothes were soaked in sweat.
“Here,” Ching gestured to a path leading into an orchard. “We hide the bikes here.”
“The villagers don’t like people to visit, so we hide the bikes.”
We did as we were told, leaning the bikes against the upturned roots of an old fruit tree, and Ching lashed them all together with lock and chain.
The trail was steep and switch-backed up a rocky incline. Above us, a hole gaped in the mountainside. As we drew near, we made out a stone wall — complete with metal gate and bamboo spars jutting outwards from its top.
“Are you sure we’re allowed in there?” Isabel asked skeptically as Ching cleared brush from in front of the gate.
“It’s fine, just be careful,” he said, throwing open the latch and heaving the door open.
“Woah…” Miv exclaimed, and the rest of us joined him to gape at the cavern yawning before us.
Danmei elected to wait outside, presumably to keep an eye on where we’d stashed the bikes below. Ching led the way downwards, and the rest of us gawked at the massive stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The chamber was silent save for our footfalls and the occasional whisper of leathery wings as bats fluttered further into the recesses of the cave.
Ching and the others carried on, but I spotted a curious mound of stones covered with green algae and marked with dark splashes of color. Atop the mound were carefully placed paper versions of food. The origami was excellent, and I lifted one up to look at it more closely.
Something swatted my hand away, and I spun to see Ching standing there, eyes frantic. “Don’t touch,” he grated, whispering as if he were terrified. “This is not for you.”
Chastened, I left the alter behind and followed Ching to where the others stood waiting, torch beams strafing the darkness as they took in the vastness around them.
“So what’s the story behind the name of this place?” Ronnie asked.
“It’s just a story,” Ching replied. “It’s not even the real name.”
“I don’t know.”
Our guide seemed content to leave it at that, but continued after a moment. “In the 1940s, many people hid in this cave from the Japanese. Some died. I think that is the reason for the name.”
Miv, Ronnie, and I looked at each other in the harsh glare of the torchlight. “Huh. That’s creepy.”
“Hey guys, check this out!” Isabel called from just ahead, indicating the wall in front of her. “Feel this.” She put her hand to the wall.
I followed suit, jerking my hand away at the surprising warmth. It was wet, too, beaded with droplets of water — almost like… sweat.
“Hey Ching, is this normal, mate?” Ronnie asked, regarding his dripping fingers with fascinated disgust.
Ching opened his mouth to reply, but Miv stole the moment by screaming and recoiling from the wall as if the heat of it had seared him. “Something grabbed me, something grabbed my bloody hand!”
Ronnie, Isabel and I chuckled nervously, while Ching looked severely unimpressed at Miv’s theatrics. “Come.”
I turned to follow, but Miv grabbed my arm. “I swear it, man, something grabbed my hand. I’m out. This is creepy as hell.”
“C’mon, man…” Ronnie reached to stop him, but Miv was gone — a cone of light marking his progress across the jumbled stones.
“Sucks to be him, yeah?”
Ronnie spared a last glance for his friend, then shook his head. “Yeah, sucks to be him.”
We followed Ching through a narrow passageway, contorting ourselves to squeeze past towering stalagmites.
“Ouch!” Isabel flinched and grabbed at her leg, fingers coming away red. “Careful, watch where you step.”
“You alright?” I asked, shining a light at the wound. It wasn’t bad, but it was still bleeding a fair bit.
“Yeah, just a scratch.”
Something clattered behind us, and I shone the light back down the passage. “Miv?”
“Man, a cave-in would suck right now.” Ronnie muttered.
“Thanks for that, Sherlock,” I shot back.
Around the corner we found Ching standing in a cavern of sorts, his torch playing over the walls. Mineral deposits caused the surface of them to twinkle, and it looked as if he stood in a room of crystal. “Woah…”
We stood back to back, gaping in awe at the spectacle. Except Isabel. She wandered over to a corner, peering into a crack. “Hey guys, look over here.”
“What the heck?” I muttered as I saw what she was pointing at. It was an old pair of sandals, tattered and disintegrating. “How old do you think those are?”
“Those aren’t from the 40s, mate.” Ronnie said, peering closer.
“Hey, let’s try something,” Ronnie said. “Everyone turn your lights off. Hey Ching! Turn off your light, mate.”
One by one our torches flicked off. The darkness was absolute. I closed my eyes and found that it made no difference. Eyes stricken blind, my other senses felt heightened — I even thought I could hear my own heartbeat. I had an evil thought, and I reached out and skittered my fingers spider-like across Ronnie’s shoulders. He shouted in surprise, and I laughed maliciously.
“You’re a bastard.”
There was a rustling sound as something moved across the loose pebbles of the cave floor. Isabel yelped nearby.
“Alright, that’s just perverted. Not funny at all. Nathan, is that you?”
“Aw c’mon, really? Why don’t you think it’s Ronnie?”
Her light clicked on, and in the sudden flare of illumination we saw her leg and… something.
It was about half a meter long, with glistening, pale skin. It was hugging Isabel’s leg with front appendages resembling shriveled wings. Bony ridges protruded from its head, and its pincer-like jaws opened sideways as it licked the open wound on her calf.
Isabel shrieked in earnest, kicking desperately as the thing clung to her. Ronnie sprang forward and ripped the creature off; it flailed its shriveled limbs and hissed in fury as its jaws clacked open and shut. He flung it into the darkness with disgust, turning to Isabel.
He extended his arm in reassurance, but jerked suddenly and gasped. One of the creatures was affixed to his neck and a pulsing stream of blood squirted from the wound. Ronnie dropped, and more of the things swarmed him. There was a horrible ripping sound, and I knew he was gone.
“We’ve gotta go!” I screamed, grabbing Isabel and pushing her towards the passage we’d come from. Ching stood there staring, incomprehension painted on his face. “Ching!”
He roused himself and ran, but clattered to a stop at the entrance. I nearly smashed into the back of him as he stopped us with arms flung to either side.
“Ching, what the — ”
“Preta!” he snarled, and I could feel his arm shaking from where it pressed against my chest.
“Preta? What’s that?” Isabel cut in, trying to push forward. “We have to get out of here!”
Her light passed over the entrance, then froze as she saw what had stopped Ching in his tracks. Something pushed its way from the glistening wall of the cave. Skeletal arms corded with sinewy muscles came first, then a bulbous head on an impossibly thin neck.
It swung its gaze towards the light and hissed. Lambent eyes blinked as the pupils narrowed to slits, and its mouth gaped as it screamed at us. Screamed.
We stared in horror, frozen in place at the sight.
“Is… is it human?” Isabel asked in a small voice.
“It is preta,” Ching whispered in a low voice. “Hungry ghost.”
I swore vehemently. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Then a hand — white as a corpse’s — reached from the blackness and seized Ching by the hair. His eyes widened, then he was gone. A scream rang out, and the receding sound of violent struggle as he was dragged away.
“Ching!!” I yelled, diving for his foot and pulling on it for all I was worth. Whatever had him was strong, horribly so, but I was desperate. Ching writhed and kicked as he was pulled from both ends, then his shoe came off in my hands. His screams became more frantic before cutting off. Dull thuds rang out, the sound of flesh beating flesh, and I felt something warm and wet splash my face.
Something — the preta, perhaps — let out a gurgling chuckle. The sound sent a chill down my spine. This can’t be happening. The horrible laugh drew closer and I flailed about for my torch — I’d dropped it when I dove for Ching.
Not again, my mind whispered in desperation as I scrabbled in the dirt. Ghosts aren’t real, ghosts aren’t real.
An image flashed before my eyes: my sister, reaching out as a tangle of pale arms dragged her into the Deep.
No such thing, no such thing…
I found the torch and flicked it on, the beam blasting away the darkness in front of me and revealing a preta crouched inches from me, its face all but pressed against my own as it sniffed me.
That blood-curdling laugh bubbled out from its slack mouth, and I whimpered in terror as it stroked my face.
“Miiiine…” it hissed, getting so close it was practically whispering in my ear.
Not real… my mind tried one last time to assert itself, but the thing licked sweat from my cheek with an icy cold tongue and something broke inside me. Terror I’d only known once before filled me, and I screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
Something snapped the preta’s head back, and a strong yank on the back of my shirt brought me stumbling to my feet. “Let’s get out of here,” Isabel snarled, shoving me forward.
We ran as fast as we could, heedless of the dangerous footing. It cost me, and I tripped and fell in a tangle of limbs. “GO!” I screamed at Isabel, waving her onward as I lurched to my feet.
We were almost out, and the light of the dying day guided us as we drew closer to the mouth of the cave. Isabel had stopped for some reason, and I yelled for her to continue as I drew close.
She turned, tears twinkling on her cheeks and eyes twin wells of horror.
“They’ve been eating him,” she whispered, and I saw what had stopped her in her tracks. Miv lay stretched over the altar I’d noticed when we first arrived. His limbs dangled limply, and blood dripped from his fingertips. His belly had been ripped open, and pale ropes of entrails were strewn about like decorations for a macabre party.
I collapsed to hands and knees as I was suddenly, violently sick, so I didn’t see the arms reach from the bulging wall. I didn’t see the dead fingers twine in Isabel’s hair, or curl around her throat. All I heard was her scream as they pulled her into the maw.
My gaze snapped to where she’d stood, but it was too late. She’d been pulled halfway through, what had appeared to be a solid wall had split open and two preta strove to heave her inside as she clawed and fought for purchase. Our eyes met, and I saw it then.
The death of hope. She knew.
She gave one last, horrible scream and disappeared, the wall closing over her with a wet slap.
I staggered to my feet and lurched towards the entrance. Towards escape. Behind me, I could hear the thudding sounds of pursuit. I glanced back and immediately wished I hadn’t. A swarm of the pale creatures snapped at my heels, their mandibles clacking as they tried to latch onto my legs. Behind them, several preta made swift progress over the boulder-strewn cave floor. They ran like apes, using their hands and legs for balance as they leaped from boulder to boulder with wiry strength.
My breath came in gasps as I raced up the slope towards the gate. It was closed.
“DANMEI!” I screamed as I hurled myself against the bars. “Open the gate! Danmei! Danmei!!”
Her face appeared, brow wrinkled in concern. Her eyes widened as she saw my face, “You’re bleeding! Are you hurt?”
“Just open the gate, please!” I pleaded. She fumbled with the latch, trying to get it open.
Something tore into the back of my leg; it buckled and I collapsed. Danmei fell back, eyes wide as saucers as she saw the creature savaging me. “Danmei!” I screamed, batting it away as more attacked. “Help me!”
She shook her head, inching backwards.
“Danmei…” I reached through the bars, my voice a whimper.
More of the creatures piled on me, and I felt their jaws sawing through the flesh of my legs. I struggled, but there were so many. Danmei made it to her feet and fled, sparing me one last guilty glance before she was lost to sight.
“No…” I felt the strength leaching out of me, but I turned once more to fight. To survive.
A preta knelt over me and grabbed my wrists, pinning them to the earth. “Left me…” it whispered. There was an earnest glow in its cat-like eyes. “Left… me…”
A moment, one horror-filled moment, that seemed to stretch an infinity. Recognition flared, and I gasped a name in disbelief.
The thing that had been my sister peered at me from beneath a tangle of wet hair. She pointed towards the outside, towards where Danmei had disappeared. “Left you.”
“How — ” I gasped.
She laughed that awful laugh — such a horrible, gurgling sound — and a fierce hunger filled her eyes.
“Miiiiiine…” Her mouth opened, shattered teeth bared as she leaned close.
I could hear someone screaming, the sound echoing in the refines of the cave. I heard screaming as teeth tore open my throat and only then realized the screams were my own.