by William Mitchell






From Issue 14 (Oct 2011)

For though man may consider himself blessed to tread his lands unharried, the four winds still carry scents of the corruption that ruled before. From the North, and the frozen pole where nameless hate still screams at the stars it lost; from the West, and the sunken lands now surrendered to terror-haunted deeps; and from the South, where the heat and madness drove even devils to despair.

However it is the East wind, rarest and darkest, that speaks of the horror that endures most strongly, where foul rites seek once more to summon man’s masters, in mountains and black-stone towers of a land lost even from time.

(The Account of Enlil-Ishtar, The Book of the Counting of the Stars, 1200BC)

I liked to call it my “dirty little secret”. Not that “little” was the word, of course. Understatement had always been a vice of mine; now, however, I had another. For when the captain of an opium clipper is slowly killing himself with his own cargo, it’s something he can be excused for wanting to keep hidden. Could you call it a weakness? Some might. Could I have stopped? Maybe, if I’d wanted to go mad in the process. For if you’d ever experienced the kind of pain that makes you think you’d rather die than carry on living, then perhaps you’d understand why I did it.

However, it was in the month of June 1855 that I was to realise there are things beyond mere physical pain to make a man wish he could escape reality once and for all.

The East China Sea was the colour of pure emerald as we headed north toward the mouth of the Yangtze River on June third of that year. The winds were with us that day, though the sea itself was almost flat, as the China clipper Reliant cut a foamy white line, straight as an arrow, toward the port of Shanghai. I was standing on the foredeck when the land first came into view, letting the sun scorch my back through my shirt as the salt spray scorched my face. We were racing against John Wellan’s boat, the Sea Empress, twelve feet longer than mine and at least two knots faster in the sprint, but still we were winning, my men laughing and hollering the kind of insults that only they could dream up at the Empress’s crew sixty yards to starboard and falling even further behind. Fair skies, eight hundred chests in the hold, and a victory in the bag; right at that moment, it was a good time to be alive. In fact, just for a minute, I almost managed to forget.

“Think we’ll make this pace heading home, Daniel?”

I looked to my left where Tom Adams, the ship’s doctor, had joined me at the rail. Tom was a good twenty years older than me, years he had spent travelling extensively through Asia, and within China itself. He had a quiet, self-assured wisdom I had come to admire greatly.

“I don’t care,” I said. “As long as we’re first.”

“If I know you, we will be.”

It was a reality of our trade that the races between ships were more than just sport. Only the first ship to land its cargo of tea in London would take the highest price; losing the race by as much as one tide would mean having dragged a hold full of leaves halfway round the world just to sell them at a fraction of their value. Ours was a two-way trade; opium into China and tea out of it, and while the race into Shanghai may have been a diversion, the race back home would be deadly serious.

“I hear Wellan is planning on loading light this time, to beat us back even if his hold is half empty.”

I smiled. Despite being the better ship, the Empress’s defeat was not an unusual event. “Captain Wellan would do well to learn some basic seamanship before he starts shedding cargo. Or learn not to put his pride before his livelihood. Who did you hear that from, anyway?”

“I have my sources,” he said, smiling in return. Tom had been my friend for seven years but he had his secrets, just as I had mine. Mine, however, he was more than adequately aware of. “How is your leg?” he asked.

It was as if the sky darkened slightly. “The same,” I said. “It will be wearing off soon. I can already feel it.” In fact I’d tried to push it out of my mind, convince myself that I was imagining it, but those first murmurings from the top of my femur had been making themselves known for a few minutes already.

“And are you going to break your habit this time?”

I could feel my voice faltering even before I spoke. “Yes,” I said.

“Then I will help you,” he said in return, and I knew that he meant it.

For seven years I’d carried my little companion around with me, seven years since we’d been introduced to one another so abruptly: an inseparable match, seemingly made in heaven, with nothing but a barrel of gunpowder lobbed from a Chinese war-junk to consummate the union. If that sly little fragment had entered my body three feet higher I could have rightfully said that nothing was closer to my heart – though I would have been unlikely to survive the acquaintance. As it was, my left leg had taken the damage, just below the hip, leaving me with a permanent limp and an aptitude for turning compass needles as well as heads.

The navy surgeons had patched up most of the harm, though that one piece remained; and I tell you now, those fiends would have had me strapped down in the operating room biting on wood if it hadn’t been so close to the artery that hooking it out might have killed me.

To begin with it hurt maybe one day in three, a dull ache afflicting me with either impatience or insomnia, depending on the time of day. Even when I took command of the Reliant I had no reason to believe that I would one day be rendered close to incapable, that such a little lump of iron was to cause me grievance so far beyond its measure.

Even demons have their hell, and even devils have their torture. The mountain holds caverns beyond the sight of men, where those that were cast from the lowest places now reside, and agonies beyond the torment of the hottest earthly fires are inflicted upon them.

(The Book of the Counting of the Stars)

I lay on the bunk, gripping the sides with sweat-soaked hands. I could hear noises from above me, heavy footfalls as the crew unloaded the opium chests onto the receiver ship, moored just outside Shanghai port. The first mate, Matt Jarrow, would be overseeing the transaction, ensuring the Manila men gave a fair price in silver and camphor. Normally I would have been there too, and for my absence I had no excuse.

“Just keep calm, Daniel, keep your head clear. You can do this.” Tom was with me, sitting beside the bunk, wiping the sweat off my face, though at the time I barely felt it. At that moment, I had far more pressing concerns on my mind.

I can only attempt to describe the sensation. Imagine some kind of clamp, inserted into the very interior of the bone, being slowly twisted to open it up, the bone at first unyielding but then cracking and splintering under the strain, driving vicious, razor-like shards into the surrounding flesh. I looked at my leg, expecting the splinters of bone to already be protruding from the skin, but saw no such thing. The small scar below my hip was the only outward sign that anything was even wrong.

“Give it to me, I need it,” I heard myself say, though my voice seemed a thousand miles away. Only the desire not to be heard stopped me from crying out loud.

“No, Daniel. Your body thinks it does, but that’s only because you’ve taken so much. You will come through.”

I sat upright, my head spinning from the sudden movement. “I can’t!” I said. “It’s too much, give me the mud! I need it!”

“Daniel – you don’t, and you know it!”

Even in that state, I knew that he was right. The pain from the fragment was bad, or I would never have resorted to the drug in the first place, but nowadays, whenever I tried to stop, it was even worse than before I started. “The pain of withdrawal” Tom always called it. “Just get over that hill,” he’d say. “It will still hurt afterwards, and I will do what I can to help you, but you have to get over that hill.”

At that point, though, I could take no more. My leg felt as if it was in shreds, a pulpy mass of blood and tissue whose only purpose was to serve as a conduit for agony. I leapt up from the bed, half delirious, and stumbled over to the trunk where my private store was kept. Tom made no move to stop me, just as he had made no attempt to confiscate my supply. Friend or no friend, I think we both knew what I would have done to him. Once the pouch and clay were in my hands, my fingers worked with an instinct born of long-standing habit.

The relief, when it came, was like a wave breaking over me. I sank onto the bed, taking those glorious fumes into my lungs. It took only a minute before I was capable of turning onto my side to look Tom in the eye. However, it took far longer before I was willing to. When I did, it was to see him looking down on me with an expression I could not even begin to read. It might have been disappointment; it might have been pity.

“I’m sorry Tom,” I said.

“I’m sorry too,” he replied.

I looked past him, where a mirror was fixed to the wall. My features, once those of a reasonably presentable thirty-six year old, were now almost unrecognisable. My skin was grey, my cheeks hollow, my eyes watery and rheumy. Tom seemed to read what I was thinking.

“The men are starting to talk,” he said. “I think some of them have guessed.”

I knew that he was right. I knew that this could not continue. “I need to do something,” I said. “I need to find something else.”

“So, Captain Daniel Getty, Master of the Reliant. How is life on board, eh?”

John Wellan’s fake geniality made my skin crawl. A sweaty little man, pompous and pudgy, his contempt for me was so plain it was hardly worth his attempts to conceal it. As was mine for him.

“Life is good,” I answered. I did not meet his eye, though, looking instead over the surrounds of the harbour. The growth of the city was phenomenal: towering, bamboo-framed structures formed the scaffolds of forthcoming buildings, or in some cases, the buildings themselves, with new floors and walls seemingly appearing day by day. How they stayed up I could not even imagine, but somehow they did.

“All set for the journey back?” he said.

“We will be, soon enough.”

He nodded toward the quayside, where local traders had barrels of fresh water and cured meats stacked up ready for loading. “You should try to stock up this time,” he said. “It’s better than having to, ah, ration yourself, you know.”

Those words seemed loaded with meaning. I looked at him directly for the first time, to see his greasy little face looking back at me with a smug expression, as if he thought he knew something I didn’t.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re looking a little thin, that’s all,” he said. “A little drawn. My men and I were remarking on it earlier. You should try to keep yourself fed. It’s a good, ah, habit to get into.”

He knew. God only could say how, but he knew.

“Your crew’s concern touches me, Captain Wellan,” I said. “Be sure to thank them for me, won’t you? Once they’ve sailed you into last place again it may be the only thing you’ll thank them for.”

Then I turned my back to him and left, walking back to the quayside where the exchange of silver for tea was currently underway.

“This isn’t the full load, Captain,” Matt Jarrow said when I reached him. As First Mate he was an asset to the ship, a Lancashire lad, confident and responsible far beyond his years.

“How much are we short by?”

“Five hundred cases of Sichuan, a hundred of Hunan. The foreman reckons they will be here in two days, maybe three.”

I looked round at the other ships, a dozen in total, all seemingly at the same stage of their preparations. “And the others?”

“The same as us,” Jarrow said. “Rains inland have slowed the deliveries. We’ll all be here for the night.”

“Good. I would hate to have to make up time.” I left him to his work, and made my way back on board. My intention was to eat and then, if I could, sleep.

As usual, it was the pain that woke me, and on this occasion it hadn’t even waited for sunrise before making my continued sleep untenable. I knew, even before I sat up in that early morning gloom and wiped the sleep from my eyes, that this day was going to be a bad one, that my pre-breakfast ritual would be a necessity rather than merely a relief.

I went up on deck after I had finished with the pipe, forcing the lethargy from my body in the hope that fresh air would clear my senses. In that, though, I was to be disappointed. The tar troughs had been lit – deep metal channels fed by fires underneath, used to melt pitch and bitumen for waterproofing hulls – and the thick acrid smell was hanging on the air. I was about to return to my cabin, but then I saw one of the dock foremen, a man named Barrington, walking toward the Reliant. He waved as if he wanted to talk to me, so I stayed where I was until he joined me on board.

“Captain Getty,” he said, looking uncomfortable, his voice barely a whisper. “I hope you’ll forgive me for this, but I need to talk to you.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“I heard what Captain Wellan was saying to you yesterday, and I have to tell you, well, there’s been a lot of talk lately.”

I bridled; I couldn’t help myself.

“Please, Captain, let me finish. What I want to say is, well-” And at that, he seemed to run out of words. Instead he stood back from me, grasped the bottom of his jerkin, then bared his stomach and chest to reveal a mass of burns and scar tissue, obviously the result of some horrendous injury that had never fully healed.

“For weeks I couldn’t even move,” he said. “I took to the poppy, same as, well…”

“Go on,” I said.

“Then I heard about this place, see? There’s a place, here in Shanghai, where they can heal things. I went once, and I would never have believed it, but-” Again he faltered. “Here,” was the only other thing he said, pressing a folded sheet of paper into my hands. Then he mumbled some indistinct apology, turned, and left.

It had an address written on it, I saw when I opened it up, indicating a road near the old walled city some way south of the British settlement. It was not an area I was familiar with. Nor was I familiar with the name at the top of the page, written first in Chinese, with what must have been the English translation underneath. It said simply The House of the Unbending Spirit.

For the greatest torment is reserved for those who proclaim themselves Maker, in defiance of the supremacy of the One. Three there have been, beasts of ruin, three who rendered themselves worthy of the wrath of the Maker’s curse. Two chose oblivion, one remained. And through the millennia, the agony of all creation brought forth a hatred that would engulf worlds.

(The Book of the Counting of the Stars)

This time the pain was the worst I had ever felt. I woke suddenly, with the bed sheets twisted around me, already struggling to free myself. My leg felt as if it was screaming at me, but now every other part had joined in too. It was as if my whole bloodstream was filled with splinters of broken glass, working their way into my joints, shredding flesh and cartilage as they went. I reached for the first relief I could think of.

I could tell as soon as I took my first draw on those fumes that something was wrong. The pain was lessening, slightly, but that wonderful rush of spreading calm to which I had developed such an attachment was almost totally absent. I must have taken twice my normal dose, but still the sensation was there, taunting me. And somehow I couldn’t get the thought out of my head, that somewhere, true relief might be found.

“Daniel, please don’t go.”

Seeking out Tom had been my next course of action, though beyond giving me more of the drug, there was very little he could do. That much was no surprise, nor was the advice he was currently giving me.

“He told me it cured him,” I said. “If the opium has stopped working, what else can I do?”

“I don’t know Daniel, but something about this doesn’t feel right.”

“But if Barrington said it worked?”

“I have heard of some strange medicines in this country,” he said, “and seen some too, as I travelled. Healers who diagnose disorders by the patient’s smell, or who pierce the skin with needles to cure disease. But this? You have no idea what poisons these people will put into you.”

“They can only be better than the one I’m using now,” I said. And for that he had no answer.

It felt strange to leave the British settlement and head out into the truly Chinese part of the city. Not that I seriously feared for my safety; whatever animosity they might have felt for us, none would be so foolish as to attack a British citizen, especially one with the foresight to bring his revolver. However, I could see heads turning my way as I made my slow, painful way down those increasingly narrow streets, like high-sided canyons of brick and bamboo, the roadsides lined with street vendors and food stalls whose unidentifiable aromas seemed to coil around me as I went. Red banners also lined the streets, hanging vertically from the high points of the buildings, inscribed with messages in that tight, blocky script of which I could barely read a word. Red was the colour of good luck, I knew that much, and I could not help but hope that fortune would come to my aid where medicine and the poppy had failed me.

It was one of those rambling edifices of bamboo that I found myself facing when my agonising journey was complete. The door stood open, and led into a narrow, unlit hallway. I paused, looking for any immediate sign of danger, then made my way to the entrance.

Then I stopped, knowing – feeling – that I was being watched.

The eyes of the locals had been on me for every step of my journey, but this feeling spoke of something more than just curiosity: I was being studied.

I looked back suddenly, taking in the dozens of people that filled the street, and that was when I saw her. It was the way she looked away, the way she drew back as if unwilling to be seen by me, that made her stand out from all those other watching faces. She was young, a Chinese girl of maybe eighteen years old with, to my eyes, a look of the country about her; maybe it was her clothing, maybe her face, but something didn’t fit into that city scene. Her face spoke of strength though, of someone surviving in an alien world to which she had come by necessity rather than choice. At that particular moment it was a feeling with which I was only too familiar.

Within a second she was lost from view. As a military man, I have always trusted my instincts when suspicion reared its head, and if it hadn’t been for my leg I might have been tempted to go after her. However, the discomfort was too intense. Whereas before my wound had been merely shouting through the opium fog, now it was screaming. I was barely able to support myself; only the doorway, and what might lie beyond it, had any meaning for me.

The place was a warren, humid and stinking. The long, winding corridor which led from that door seemed to run up and around the building forever. There were no signs, only unmarked doors every few yards, and the occasional junction, one branch of which would always turn out to be a dead end. I followed the route to its furthest point, hoping for some sign I might recognise. That final door, inscribed with Chinese characters identical to those on the note, told me I had found it. I knocked once, and on hearing nothing, cautiously opened the door.

Two people were in that dark little room when I looked inside, both men, both Chinese. The first was short, black haired, and of similar age to myself. He was simply dressed, in a pale yellow robe, and he was standing just inside the door as if he had been expecting me, waiting to welcome me in.

“Please,” was the only thing he said, indicating the table on the far side of the room. The table had seats for two, and sitting in the gloom on the other side of it was the second man. From here only his great age, and his complete lack of motion, were visible.

“Who are you?” I said, trying to maintain an authoritative air despite the pain and disorientation.

The younger man said nothing, bowing slightly instead while continuing to point to the empty chair. I weighed the two of them up, wondering whether my reduced physical state would prevent me from fighting my way out if necessary, then slowly made my way to the table, feeling the reassuring weight of my gun at my side as I did so.

Close up, the second man showed no more sign of acknowledging my presence than he had before. He sat with his head hanging forward, his ragged grey hair and long beard touching the table, his arms loosely outstretched in front of him. Behind him was a row of a dozen or so candles, with some sweet, over-perfumed smell coming from them.

“Please, take his hands,” the first man said once I had sat down. The older man had still not moved.

“Why? What is he going to do?”

“He is going to help you.” And that was all he would say.

And so it was, with some hesitation, that I reached out and placed my hands on those of the old man before me.

He tensed immediately, his empty hands clenching beneath mine, his back arching, and his face for the first time rising into view. And it was a face contorted with agonies the like of which I had never seen on a human being. The fact that he seemed to be bearing them in silence merely added to my perception of their severity, for I had a long familiarity with that variety of pain where the exertion of crying out would only add to its intensity. I let go immediately, and jumped to my feet.

“What the hell is going on?” I said. “Answer me!” Though even as I stood there, I could feel a sense of lightness in my hands, a feeling of calm and relaxation that I had not felt in a long time.

“He will help you,” the dark-haired man said. “He will take your pain.”

“What do you mean, take my pain?”

“He can heal you.”

I looked again at the old man, now hanging his head once more, his face hidden from view. That he was drugged, or had been rendered somehow insensible, seemed clear.

“Please, take his hands again.”

Part of me wanted nothing to do with this vile spectacle, this trick or charlatanism or whatever those behind it had concocted. However, part of me could not ignore the lessened pain, the relief starting to spread into my leg – and the curiosity as to what more relief might yet be in store.  I went over to him once more and tentatively placed one hand on his, as gently as I could. He jolted in his chair, quivering as if barely in control of his motions, and although his face was still hidden I could well imagine the grimace that must have been there. When I removed my touch, the feeling of calm was even more marked.

“Why is it hurting him? I can’t do this to him!”

“Please, he wants you to.”


“He is ill, and close to death. It is his belief that he must atone for his sins before he dies. Our religion demands it. By helping you, by taking your pain, he will achieve grace before our god. Please, you must do this for him.”

And it was at that point, despite my disgust, despite my distaste, that thoughts entered my head in which I now take no pride whatsoever, nor did I then. I could not explain what had happened when I touched that man’s hand, and part of me did not want to. It was enough that it had.

He is old, I thought. He is not long for this world. If he really wants to help me, even if it is his last act, am I really so wrong in complying?

And so it was that I returned to the table, attempted to ask forgiveness from whatever part of me was still sensible to moral considerations, then reached out and grasped the old man’s hands with my own.

His agonies defied any powers of description that I might bring to bear upon them. He almost fell from his chair, so violent were the exertions, his face twisting and contorting as before. That he was as mortally ill as I had been told was obvious as his pale, vein-ridden face and sunken eyes screwed themselves up before me into forms I had not seen since my last days in battle. This time however, he was not silent, as at first a thin, strangled noise, and then a full-blown scream, issued from his mouth. His hands felt somehow hot and cold at the same time as thin, ragged muscles knotted and tensed under my grip.

It was hideous to sit there and watch him taking so much torment, but it was bliss, too, as I felt the pain draining from my body and into his, the relief spreading into me through my hands. I closed first my eyes and then my mind to the reality of what I was doing, and waited for it to end.

When it was over, and I tried to reach for some money or silver as I stood back from the table, totally free of pain, the younger man reached out to stop me, saying simply “You have helped him enough,” before opening the door to let me leave. The old man had returned to his previous position, slumped in his chair with his face in shadow, though I could barely bring myself to look at him.

The walk back to the docks should have been a joyous one; I should have been revelling in a freedom the likes of which I had scarcely felt in years. Instead I walked slowly, reflecting on what had just happened.

It was the wordless stares from the crew by the gangplank that confirmed that the changes were not just in my imagination. I went over to the deck rail where Tom Adams was waiting to greet me.

“Daniel, you seem different,” he said. He was frowning at me, and had an uneasy edge to his voice, as if reticent to even ask the question that had to follow. “What, what has happened to you?”

“Different in a good way?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, his eyes darting over my face as if trying to take in the renewed colour and vigour all at once. “In a very good way.”

I told him, as truthfully as I could, during which time he stared at me in amazement. I could see on his face the battle between the absurdity of my story and the evidence of his own eyes. When I had finished he didn’t reply immediately, but looked away, out over the water.

“This does not seem natural to me,” he said at last. “I am glad for you, but it concerns me greatly.”

“Do you think I was wrong to go?”

“It was your choice, Daniel. You have no idea what is going on here, but it was your choice.”

I can barely put into words what the next morning was like. To say that the pain had returned would hardly cover the extent of the sensations that forced their way into my body. I am sure that I was mid-scream when I awoke, though that, and the minute or so which followed, passed in a delirium of panic of which I can scarcely recall the details. I must have been acting on instinct alone when I grabbed for my supply, though I remember dropping the pouch several times, throwing myself to the floor in my attempts to retrieve it. Only then could I try to dull the pain, though a dulling seemed to be all I could achieve.

I dragged myself back onto the bed, hoping I had not been heard, and waited for whatever recovery might come. Three times I filled that clay pipe over the next hour, lying there as the sun came up, sounds of movement above betraying the crew’s early morning activities. My leg felt as if it was on fire as I alternated between laboured stillness and fretful agitation, each of those two extremes apparently worsening the hurt. I took more, caring little for the harm it might do me, finally reaching a state where I felt I could dress and attempt to leave my cabin.

Every move had to be planned as I climbed to the deck and then off the ship. Every footfall, every step had to be anticipated and strategised so that I could keep a handhold at all times and stop whenever necessary. As a result, it wasn’t until I was halfway down the gangplank that I saw the newly arrived delivery of tea chests lined up on the dockside, ready for loading.

“It’s all here, Captain. If we can get them in within the hour, we can catch the morning tide. The Empress and the Iselda are already getting set. Do you think we can do it?”

Matt’s enthusiasm, normally the prime motivation for my pride in him, only disquieted me more. The prospect of an early departure, and of facing this pain unaided for weeks at sea, horrified me.

“Matt, load up, but don’t make ready yet,” I said. “We may have to stay here longer.”

Even those few words were an effort, to speak and keep my composure at the same time. To then face a demand for explanations, from my own First Mate at that, was the last thing I needed.

“But Captain, the Empress! If we lose this tide we’ll be half a day behind her! We can’t afford to-”

“We will do exactly as I say we will, Mister Jarrow!”

If those first words had been an effort, these last nearly killed me. I knew that no more exchange could take place without my condition becoming obvious. I therefore left things as they were, and turned my back on Matt’s disbelieving face, striding as purposefully as I could from the dock with my fists clenched so hard against the pain that I felt blood on my palms.

However, the tea chests on the dockside were not to be the only thing I failed to see in time that day. As I staggered along the path to the only place I could think of going, and rounded the final corner to see that bamboo warren with those bizarre healers in its upper reaches, my lack of attention very quickly became my undoing.

It was as if my legs had suddenly disappeared from under me. One minute I was walking, step after agonising step, the next minute the ground was rising up to meet me, my reactions too dulled to even break my fall. I hit hard, a whole new world of pain exploding through me, but I was not to be given the time to recover. I felt weight on my back like a knee being pressed into my spine, then suddenly both my arms were twisted up almost in line with my shoulder blades, my face pressed into the dirt so that it gagged and choked me.

Then I was being shouted at, a female voice, speaking Chinese, her words spitting out at me like venom, though I had no idea what they meant. Only then did she speak in English.

“What have you done with him?” she shouted. “What have you done? Answer!”

“Done with who?” I managed to say, the dust caking my lips and tongue, though my head was spinning with this new agony, and I am sure I lost consciousness for a second or two. I was aware only of finding my mouth full of earth, with both the pain and the screaming from behind me still in full flow.

” Why did you take him? Why?”

I had never heard so much fury or scorn from a woman, though I am sure at times in my life I had deserved it. The pain, the confusion, the complete helplessness of my situation, unable to struggle, unable even to understand what was being asked of me; it was as if every jilted female I’d ever left hanging had come together into this one frenzy of hate and retribution.

“I don’t know what you want!” I said, my words slurring with the pain. My heart was racing as if readying me for a fight, and only the blood rush gave me the energy and awareness to talk at all. “Just tell me what you want!”

“What have you done with my father?”

I tried to work out what she might mean. “I don’t know your father! I don’t even know who you are!”

“You have him! You have taken him away, in there!”

Comprehension was dawning, albeit slowly.

“There is a man in that building, an old man,” I said, trying to keep my voice and my mind on the level. “I don’t know if he is your father, but he is there. He is healing people. Please, just let me go.”

And that was when she said something which opened a whole new vista of horror and awareness within me, something which took the events of the last few days to even greater heights of the unnatural.

“What have you done with my father’s body?”

I froze, my arms and legs going cold, as I tried to take in the implications of what she had said.

“His body?” I replied, and something in my voice must have communicated my confusion and revulsion, as the beginnings of a still barely believable realisation dawned on me. “What do you mean, his body?”

She said nothing, clearly waiting for me to continue.

“Please, let me go, it hurts.”

That was as much as I could say, though it was enough for her to loosen her grip. And as I turned over, seeing the legs and feet of over a hundred closely packed onlookers as I did so, I looked up into her face, and suddenly knew where I had seen her before.

“You followed me yesterday,” I said. “I saw you. Who are you?”

She didn’t answer immediately, barking some kind of instruction to the bystanders instead, to make them disperse or fall back. Then she looked down on me again, distrust still flaming in her eyes.

“Are you with them?”

“No, I went there, but I’m not with them.”

“Explain,” she said. So I did, painfully and fitfully, lying in the dust of a Shanghai street, with her still holding me down, ready to resume the beating if necessary.

It was when I described the healing process itself that I saw her resolve crack, and tears appeared in the corners of her eyes. She released me, seemingly having lost the energy to restrain me, and buried her head in her hands.

“My father is dead,” she said. “He has been dead ten days.”

“But this man was alive,” I said. “It cannot be him. I was told he was near death, and he looked it, but he was definitely alive.”

She shook her head as she sobbed, then raised her reddened eyes to face mine. “No,” she said. “Those people deal with devils. They have made him Jiang Shi. They have made him walking corpse.”

Walking corpse, hopping corpse; many were the words for that apparition of Chinese ghost stories. Stiff corpse was the literal translation that I was later to learn, for it appeared that whoever was behind The House of the Unbending Spirit was not without a sense of irony. At the time, however, my reaction to hearing the reality of what I had encountered was far more down to earth. I have never been one for superstitious fantasy, but somehow I did not doubt what she had said. As a result, the knowledge of what I had seen — what I had touched — made me violently ill, there and then.

“Take me to him,” she said, as I lay there shivering in the stench of my own sick. Her composure, and her determination, seemed to have returned.

The building itself, visible down the road, was the last place I wanted to go. However, it appeared that I was to be given no choice.

“Take me, or I will make you hurt. If you try to leave, I will make you hurt. And not even your poppy filth will help you then.”

And I knew that she could do it. The blood rush that had previously masked the pain was gone, evaporating as my stomach heaved its contents into the road. Now the pain was back, and only the thin veil of opium, screening my senses from the agony, was allowing me to even stand upright.  Another beating would end me; this young girl, slight, pretty, and possibly half my age, had a hold on me as firm as if she’d put a gun to my head. “Alright,” I said. “We’ll go.”

I led her into the building, hobbling and wincing with every step. We followed the long corridor, exactly as I had the day before, finally reaching the door with that same Chinese inscription. Then she stopped, waiting for me to open it.

The younger man was waiting to greet me, as if he had never left his spot. And behind him, still in the same position, was the old man. The door swung open further, the younger man initially smiling in welcome, but it was then that my new companion stepped into the doorway, and saw the scene for herself.

She screamed, a sound that could only have been born of recognition, and then she cried out, shouting threats and obscenities – I know not what – at the younger man.

His reaction was immediate. He ran at her, pushing her into me and almost knocking me off my feet, but she was more attuned to the task of staying upright than I, and soon she was on him just as hard.

Three times in quick succession she hit him, fighting with an athletic grace that any man would be hard pressed to match. However, his attempts to block her showed that he too was no stranger to the art of physical combat. He hit back, connecting once to her cheekbone, while all I could do was stand and watch like some gawping child at a prize fight. Then he drew a knife.

I could tell she had no such protection as she backed away in anxious, tiptoe steps, ready to swerve or duck at any time. He lashed out at her face, then at her body, forcing her into a corner from which it was clear she had no escape. Again he swung for her head, and this time he hit, and as she cowered against the onslaught with blood running down her face, I could tell that the next stroke of the knife would finish her.

The man was on the ground before I knew the gun was even in my hand. I stood, frozen, as the smoke cleared, looking down on the second man I had ever killed in my life. The girl curled up on the floor as if she thought she could roll into the corner and disappear. I went to see to her, as gently as I could, and coaxed her into turning over.

Her face was a mass of blood when finally she let me look at it, though the wound itself was not deep, merely a gash over the eyebrow, bleeding profusely as wounds of that nature do. She looked at me with fearful eyes as I tried to clean her up, but I think she could tell I meant her no harm, despite her earlier besting of me. In truth, I admired her. She had taken on two fully-grown men that day, and survived a lethal attack at the hands of the second. She looked up into my eyes, and I hoped at that moment that she understood.

The noise behind us cut off any time we might have had for soul searching. It was a laugh, throaty and gurgling, like water running down a drain, and could have come from no mortal throat. We both turned toward the source of the sound, and the sight that was before us will live with me forever. The old man had risen from his seat and was now walking toward us, his face disfigured by a leering, strychnine grin that made him look as if his cheeks had been slashed to his ears. The laughter bubbled out of him like blood from a punctured lung as his purple, distended tongue hung down onto his chin and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. The girl screamed, and kept on screaming, as her mind appeared to be in danger of divorcing itself from reality. Brave as she was, on this occasion it was my turn to act.

I fired at the walking corpse, once, twice, my direct hits having no effect. Then I threw myself at it, ignoring the revulsion, ignoring the smell that the candles had previously masked, and knocked it to the ground. It fought back though, and in that it was like nothing I had ever fought in my life. The body was frail and decayed, its tissues softened by putrefaction; but within it, deep in the core of its limbs, something lithe and strong was in control. The pain in my body was intense, but somehow the blood rush and frenzy were keeping me going as it bucked and twisted within my grip, its strength measurably greater than mine, all the while laughing that hideous, sickening laugh. Then it grabbed for my leg.

I felt my own voice rather than heard it, as those screams issued from my mouth. It felt as though my mind had stepped out of my body, blind and deaf to everything except the pain and the tortured wailing from my throat. It knew how to hurt me, and by those means it was going to beat me. For a second, the world went black.

Then there were three of us in the fight. The chair came down on the corpse’s back, dislodging it from me and breaking its grip, the chair splintering into pieces as the girl swung it downwards. Again and again she hit, the back of the chair being all that remained until even that fractured and she was forced to kick and stamp on the prostrate corpse of her father. I saw its limbs break, the arms and legs adopting strange angles as the bones snapped. Even the head was forced sideways, out of alignment. The laughter had ceased; from that point onwards, it – or whatever was controlling it – could no longer fight. But what happened next was to stretch my sanity to its limit.

Something left that broken, twisted body, some force or controlling agent, invisible, silent, and took itself back to wherever it had come from. However, it did not go alone. It only lasted for a second or two, but whatever portal it used seemed to be open to me too as I lay there gripping the corpse. And in that second I saw things that I can still only half believe as I remember them now.

It was a landscape of fog and mountains, with pillars of rough black rock covered in tangled vines and creepers. It was high as well, high up in some cold, drizzling mountain range that I am still not convinced forms part of this world. This was where that controlling entity had returned to, and I felt rather than saw that malicious presence as it rushed away from me and disappeared into the mist. And only then could I see the full horror of this place.

There were people here, whole fields of them on the plateaus and ledges between the rocks, people like ragged wind-tattered dolls tied to stakes and crosses while others of their kind whipped and mutilated them with fire, chains and blades. This much I saw clearly – I could see the blood, the cuts and the burns, I could hear the screams, I could even feel the cold and the rain on my back. And then the vision was over.

I found myself back in the room, and turned to the girl to see her looking at me, wide-eyed with fear.

“Is it gone?” she said. “Is the demon gone from him?”

“Yes, it is gone,” I replied, though I could barely speak.

It was as I stood up and moved away from her father’s body that she saw for the first time the condition it was in. Its limbs were so mangled that it barely looked human. She let out a small cry and knelt down next to it, then laid it out on its back, straightening the arms and legs as best she could, all the while weeping over the damage she had inflicted.

“You had to do it,” I said, hoping my words would carry some comfort. “Whatever that thing was, using him, you had to do it.”

She paused from her work and looked up, still kneeling by the corpse, and stared into space.

“They took him from our village,” she said eventually. It wasn’t even clear if she was talking to me.

“Who did?”

“Men who give offerings to demons. They took him the day he died, stole him from his own house. I had to follow them. I had to.”

“Why did they do it?”

“I do not know.”

Then she moved away from him and sat with her arms wrapped around her knees. Still she would not look at me.

“Who are you, Englishman?”

“My name is Daniel,” I said. “Daniel Getty. I’m a captain, with Whitechapel Mercantile.”

“So you sell your filth, and poison our people. Is that right?”

I didn’t know how to answer. It was clear she meant the opium, but at that time providing a drug that had been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years was something I’d never had much trouble justifying, despite my first hand experience of its effects.

“Always you work to destroy us,” she continued. “We had doctors and religious men come to our village, preaching Christian love and peace, but only if we worshiped your God and learned your language would they treat our diseases. Then the opium comes, and turns us all to walking corpses. It was the opium that killed my father. Did you know that?”

“No,” I said. “No, I didn’t.”

She stood up, and approached the body again. “I need to take him back home.”

“Where do you live?”

“Suzhou,” she said. It wasn’t a place I was familiar with. Then she took the corpse under its arms, and made ready to lift it off the floor. “You will help me?” The tone suggested there was only one possible answer.

The body weighed next to nothing, probably the result of a lifetime of malnutrition and opium use, but in my condition even that much effort was painful. It was like carrying a sack of broken bones and rotting flesh. Devoid of the controlling force that had held it together and given movement to its limbs, the corpse felt ready to disintegrate in our hands. The slime of putrefaction was oozing from its wounds, congealed blood and pulped flesh staining my arms and my clothes. We carried it through those dark hallways, still deserted, taking it carefully down the steep stairways.

Who set this up? I asked myself as we went. Who had done this, drawing me in by playing on my greatest weakness? Not Barrington, my instincts said, though I barely knew the man. Someone had drawn him into this, exploiting his pain as they’d exploited mine, then had given him that note and that story to tell. The true culprit seemed clear, and I knew that the next time I saw the pale, flabby face of John Wellan, he would not walk away with his usual smirk. I was soon to discover just how wrong I had been.

We were roughly halfway to the entrance when we were joined by a third person, and although the voice was one I recognised, the tone and the substance of the words might as well have come from a complete stranger.

“Put the body down and come here. Now.”

Facing us in the corridor, holding us at gunpoint, was my own ship’s doctor, Tom Adams.

“Tom? What the hell are you doing?”

“I don’t have time for a discussion, Daniel. Just do as I say. Put him down and come here.”

I did as I was told, unable to believe what I was seeing, and approached him warily.

“You too,” he said to the girl.

“Tom, just tell me what’s going on here,” I said.

“You know Daniel, I actually thought about letting you in on this when I first met you. I thought about opening your mind to the realities of who we are, and our place in this world, but something stopped me. I knew your condition would make you useful to us, but there was something else, too. I didn’t think you’d have the same vision that the rest of us do. I see now I was right.”

“The rest of us? The rest of who?”

“We who understand, we who revere – we who serve. Now get on your knees, both of you.”

I hesitated, but the way he levelled the gun at me and repeated the command showed how serious he was. I have only seen cold-blooded resolve like that on a few occasions, but I recognised it now. I reluctantly complied, waiting for whatever would come next. I did not have to wait long.

In one move he turned to face the girl, took aim, then shot her in the face at less than two feet. The noise almost deafened me in the confined hallway, but I still heard her cry out as she fell beside me. I leant over her at once to see the blood gushing from the wound to her eye. Her face was distorted in agony, and I could see she had only seconds to live, but still she managed to speak.

“Tell my family,” she whispered.

“Who are they?” I replied desperately. “Who are you?”

I cannot say why it was important to me at that time, but the idea of her dying next to someone who didn’t even know who she was seemed deeply wrong. I was glad she was able to reply, for her answer was to be the last thing she ever said.

“Pi Xiaoming,” she said, and then she became still.

I’d known her for all of thirty minutes, and yet somehow the murder of this brave, formidable woman affected me more than any other death I’d witnessed. I turned to Tom, the fury as strong in me as the incomprehension. “What the hell …?”

“Some people are more useful dead than alive. As, my dear friend, you are about to see.” Then he continued speaking, but it was like no language I’d ever heard, then or since. It sounded ritualistic, occult, and demonic. Though whatever incantation he was casting was not simply for show, for it was then, with jerking, spasmodic motions, that Pi Xiaoming’s body sat up in its own pool of blood, its disfigured face looking straight ahead, and got to its feet. Then it turned to face Tom, who responded by stepping back and bowing, all the while keeping his gun trained on me.

“You should be honoured, Daniel,” he said, straightening up again. “You are in the presence of Earth’s true master. I was hoping you would have the opportunity to meet. After all, you have aided his continued existence. Something for which we are all truly grateful.”

Any doubts I may have had as to the reality of all this demon talk were now dispelled. As I looked into the face of Pi Xiaoming beside me, I could tell that the consciousness looking out through her remaining eye was not of this Earth, and not of this age.

“You sent me here,” I said to Tom. “When you tried to talk me out of it, to warn me not to come, and all along you knew I’d come anyway, obediently turning up to, what? Help you in your devil worship? Is that it?”

He smiled for the first time, but it was not the smile of friendship I’d come to know over the years. “Clever boy,” he said. “I knew you’d listen to the pain before you listened to me – as you’re about to do once more.” Then he aimed low, going for my leg, and pulled the trigger once more.

I found myself on the floor with no memory of having fallen there. The demon had Pi Xiaoming’s hands on me in an instant, drawing the pain from my body as my blood mingled with hers on the floor.

“Imagine the worst curse you could live under!” Tom shouted at me as I writhed there, his voice almost ecstatic. “Imagine being cursed to live forever in perpetual agony, or to die! Imagine the strength you would need, to choose life! To choose a life of endless pain when you could finish it at any time! That is why He deserves to rule us again! That is why He will rule again! Do you not see the magnificence? The majesty?”

He was mad, or worse. Worse because it seemed the things he was saying were real, and true, not merely delusions. Just what had he fallen into during those long years travelling the interior of the country? What sect or cult had taken hold of him, then sent him out to do its work? At the time, I had little or no hope of ever finding out. But his purpose, in sending me to pass my pain to this demon while it used the possessed corpse provided by its followers as a conduit for the agony, was clear. It was also clear to me that Pi Xiaoming’s father had not been the first, and unless I acted, it would happen again.

Pi Xiaoming was screaming, or rather the demon inside her was. It was my pain, I realised, that provoked that scream.  Though with what I now knew, I would have taken every bit of that pain back in an instant. And that was when I realised what I must do.

I got to my feet, a new-found strength coursing through my body, and walked towards Tom. Pi Xiaoming’s body stayed with me, the demon clinging on in joyous agony. Then with my one free hand I reached for my gun, and took aim at Tom. He raised his gun again, but the demon screamed at him, words I couldn’t even begin to understand, but with a meaning that was clear: Keep him alive.

Tom shot once, then twice, then again and again into my legs, but I barely felt it. The pain was sucked out of my body before it even had a chance to take hold. He threw his revolver to the side and made as if to flee, but then I took aim again, cocked the hammer, and shot my friend of seven years in the chest. He fell, and did not move again.

I had to run as I took Pi Xiaoming’s body to the docks, carrying its screaming, thrashing form. More than a few people tried to stop me or block my way, seeing the spectacle for the kidnapping and mutilation it must have so clearly resembled. I, however, was beyond human frailties, immune to pain, limitless in strength; and as I forced my way through, I knew the demon would not want to give up such a rich source of torture. I felt my leg muscles tearing and shredding on broken shards of bone and bullet, but somehow they kept me going until we reached the dockside.

I rounded the final corner, and saw – as I had hoped – that the tar troughs were still lit, the thick, bubbling liquid filling them almost to the brim. I could have just thrown her in at that point, rendered her body useless to the demon, but I had seen it abandon one wrecked body already that day, only to return again. This time I had to force it to stay to the end, using the one thing it wanted of me, and that meant only one course of action. I ran to the nearest trough, holding Pi Xiaoming’s body over my shoulder, then in one movement I mounted the side and slid in.

I felt the flesh baking, then peeling, then disintegrating from my legs as I stood there with the tar halfway up my thighs, leaning against the inside of the trough for support. The demon was screaming with even greater agonies now, but was still more than happy to take them on.

“Let’s see how much you really want it!” I said, and pushed the girl’s corpse into the trough. “You can stay in that body and burn with it, or you can go, and give the pain back to me! What’s it to be? Me or you?”

It struggled and thrashed, but held firm. Pi Xiaoming’s body was burnt and tarred beyond recognition, but still the demon could not bring itself to release her. For a moment it looked as if it really would stay with her to the end, destroying itself in an orgy of pain, but then at last the body became still, and I knew that it had gone. And at that moment, the pain became all mine.

I tried pulling myself out of the trough, but I could not even move, so destroyed and wracked with agony was my body. I screamed, trying to support myself on the rim of the trough as my legs collapsed. I was burning alive, and this time there was nothing to take the pain away. I could well believe that those were my final moments, but then I felt hands on my shoulders, and under my arms, hoisting me out and onto the ground. I looked up as I lay there, slipping away from wakefulness and awareness, to see the faces of the tar spreaders and sailors, Matt Jarrow and John Wellan among them, looking down on me in horror.

“My God, his legs,” was the last thing I heard, but I do not know which of them said it. Then the darkness took me.

They who guard, they who worship, they who nourish. They are no longer of this world, those who were taken aeons ago to serve and revere. And when their master’s time has come, they will gladly take the sweet release of death, for their heaven lies not in the green fields and meadows of their ancestors, but in blackness, and oblivion.

(The Book of the Counting of the Stars)

I was unconscious for three weeks, I later discovered, and woke to find my legs amputated, with burns extending halfway up my back and abdomen. Most of the bodily functions that others take for granted, I can no longer perform without assistance. I live in a naval convalescent home in Hong Kong now, and considering that I am here as a prisoner – a triple murderer according to the evidence – there is every chance that I will never leave this place again. Only the presumption of insanity saved me from execution.

I had Tom’s belongings brought to me, when I still had friends with influence. I wanted to search for anything that might be of interest, given his evident dual life. It was a bizarre collection of objects that I received: strange, unidentifiable carvings, metal implements of unknown purpose, and among them a small, hidebound book, about six inches by four, filled end to end with hand-written Chinese. This was the final conundrum in his life, and my knowledge of it. For when I asked one of the staff here to translate it to me the poor chap almost keeled over with fright after the first page. It was Tom’s own demonic bible, a text which, translations aside, had according to Tom’s notes remained unchanged for over two thousand years since its origins in ancient Mesopotamia.

They came up with some strange religions in those days, running round the desert half-starved and mad from dehydration. More than a few got some queer ideas into their heads. I’ve heard of books that no sane man would want to even look at, held in private collections or locked away in university vaults. This one, however, once I’d convinced my translator to finish the job, had a truth to it that I could no longer deny.

It was never named, that entity cursed to choose between agony and death, forced to draw pain from the living after escaping its captivity in the tenuous, bodiless form it presumably still holds to this day. The torture fields of its unearthly mountain home keep it alive, but somehow the pain willingly given by its followers is only enough to ensure its survival. To strengthen, and grow its powers, only the keenest and sweetest of agonies will suffice.

Yet I know that it is not invulnerable. I saw what it saw when it left Pi Xiaoming’s body, just as I had when it left her father, and I felt what it felt as well. And this time, in that instant when it moved between worlds, after I had taken it within seconds of obliteration, I felt its fear, its injury, and its damage. Minor deity it may have been, but I had harmed it, genuinely harmed it, in ways that went beyond merely giving it pain.

Though my minor victory is of little comfort. I have had a good deal of time to think since I came here, on my past as well as on my future. For that nameless entity is not the only demon to have invaded this land, its promise of relief from pain coming at unimaginable cost. The other, I now see, was as much my fault as anyone’s.

I live in pain every day of my life, pain from legs I no longer even possess, pain barely muted by the hospital-rationed opium, and I know that my life will be many years shorter as a result. Though I am glad of it, for the prospect of a life of agony fills me with dread. Yet if anyone were to offer to take the pain away, I would refuse. Relief, I now know, can only ever come at a price. I have never been one for religion, but when men of the church teach that suffering is to be endured, not shirked, I sit here crippled and broken, remember the demon and the Jiang Shi, and somehow I cannot bring myself to disagree.

Copyright © 2011 by William Mitchell

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William Mitchell

William Mitchell lives in London, England, and is married to Emma with one little boy. He works in aerospace research and writes in his (limited) spare time.
He has been published in the SF and Horror short fiction markets.  When not being an aircraft designer / writer / dad, he is either learning karate or travelling.  He is also a member of the London based writers group the T-Party.  His website is

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