Even in the dead of night the humidity was terrible on Yeonog Island.
South Korean's farthest territory was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at the equator and thus the climate for it was appropriate towards the end of summer. The island that served as the gateway to the afterlife for the spirits of the dead was always covered in a thin mist after the sun set, a veil that didn't lift until first light the following morning. It gave an eerie vibe for outsiders, but to those who lived here it was an everyday thing.
The whole island was asleep, save for the few who had their reasons to be outside this late. Yet for the dead it was their time to roam. Yeonog wasn't just a place for the dead in a metaphorical sense. The island which had for over a thousand years served as a burial site for the deceased humans was also a place where their spirits could dwell until they were sent to paradise for eternal comfort or to the netherworld for eternal punishment.
Most of them were in the rightfully named City of the dead, where the oldest spirits resided. It was an island itself, with a wide river encircling it with a handful of gates which led to bridges that were the only ways to reach it. The city itself was largely the remains of old buildings dating back to the Joseon Period, all nearly destroyed by its past residents or the elements until the 1960s when human politicians wanted to reserve the city as culturally significant.
Seven hundred thousand humans populated the island, but the number of spirits that called the Dead City their home was uncountable. As such a huge amount of spirits were in the city, itching to be outside its boundaries, the force known as the soulgadeu or Soul Guard kept them in as well as prevented them from causing trouble. Spirits themselves, the Guard endlessly patrolled the city to keep the peace.
One such guard was patrolling the area near the southwest bridge that led into the city. No mere human without the proper sixth sense could see him, and so Jeung went about his patrol without a care. Dressed in all black attire more akin to the time of Joseon including the black gat that signaled what he was, the spirit had the look of a young man in his late teens but he had been a spirit for many hundreds of years. He had lost count of how many years he had been dead, yet it didn't bother him. He had lost his left arm as well as his left eye when he died. He could go on without remembering anything else if need be.
A long sword was tied to his back and a smaller one was at his left hip, short ebony hair covered the left side of his face, hiding his missing eye and some burn scars.
Though the night was quiet and the mist thin his attention went to the moon above him. No matter how much he looked at it, the moon remained the most beautiful object in all creation.
"Looking up at it won't make it get any closer, Jeung," said a voice.
The man turned to see another spirit, dressed similar to himself but much older approach him. Jeung nodded his chin once, the only custom he felt necessary. "Lord Yi Wu."
Wu was a much older man with a long gray beard and matching grey eyes to show for it. "I see you have taken to sightseeing the moon once again."
"Three other guardsmen are taking my shift for the night. Thought I could use the time alone to think."
The old man chuckled at the expected answer. "You earn your reprieves, young man, take heart in knowing there are those who understand."
"Thank you," said Jeung before turning back to the bright orb in the night sky. "The goddess has me mesmerized, my lord."
"Myeongwol enjoys your gaze, I am sure," replied the old man. "But I am sure it would be better to view such a sight arm in arm with a lovely woman."
Jeung wanted to keep silent on that remark.
"But I am here on business, and I want to let you know to be on alert. There is a dreadful matter that must be dealt with utmost urgency."
Jeung turned to the other spirit, noticing how somber his appearance had gone in a mere moment. "A dreadful matter? What would that be?"
"There have been sightings of a trio of ghouls in nearby residences in the human territory. Three kidnappings in the last four days by a trio of ghouls. The bodies are found in ditches the day after they are lost. Though they appear physically unharmed their souls are gone."
This wasn't news to the young guard. "I have heard such stories..." said Jeung before turning towards the city in the distance. The capital city of the island known as Danku, home to a large chunk of the human population. "But without any other leads I haven't been able to leave the city to investigate."
"I believe that if this trio isn't stopped they will cause uproar with the Life Bureau. They make our duties hard enough as it is."
"You worry too much. Once I find a lead I will take on this task myself."
"Oh, Jeung, ever the loner. Are you sure you do not need assistance? Over twenty guards on duty and you want to take this on by yourself?"
Jeung shook his head. There was no changing his mind when it was made up. "I will handle it."
The sun rose at exactly 7:02 the following morning. That was around the time that her alarm went off and her morning began.
Nari Park, seventeen year old aspiring dancer, had to be at her school before eight. Luckily she had her morning routine down to a tee. A short hot shower, followed by eating her breakfast, and finally changing into her black and white school uniform took less than thirty minutes. She did up her hair as she left her house in uptown Danku and reached the bus stop just before the bus arrived. Today she went with curled ends that naturally enhanced her short brown hair. A side weave that made her hair go to her right side made her look even better.
Arriving at Jookran High School less than ten minutes later Nari stepped off the bus and took a quick breath. Her day was off to a good start and she wanted to keep it that way.
Yet when she reached the gates of the school she was approached by a girl with a tablet right up in her face. Shorter than her and yet wore a pair of big lens glasses, Chan-mi was the sequential bookworm and was unapologetically so. Even then her outfit was the school uniform of a white blouse and short black and white pleaded skirt she wore small silver chains and spikes more reminiscent of a Goth than a preppy.
Yet she was one of the few people at school that Nari could affectionately call her friend. "Chan-mi, how are you this morning?"
When Nari approached her Chan-mi didn't greet her but instead was murmuring to herself. No doubt she was lost in whatever occult readings she found interesting. Still her lack of a greeting was to be expected of her so Nari went on talking. "Nothing unusual has happened with me today."
The differences between the two teenagers couldn't be more apparent. Chan-mi was a girl with deep interest in the occult and reading while her unofficial best friend Nari was a girl who wanted to be a K-Pop star and was immensely popular. Still they got along better than anyone could have expected.
Not looking up from her tablet yet having the where with all to know avoid tripping on her feet Chan-mi spoke, "Tonight is Chilseok, people have been endlessly talking about it."
Nari gasped slightly, "Really? It's that time of year already?"
Chilseok was essentially to Koreans what Valentine's Day was to the Western countries. A day where people celebrated their love for one another or went to search for their destined ones. A myth was how it started but Nari couldn't remember how that went though she knew for a fact that her friend would know it.
"Usually the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunisolar calendar...though it was changed to the end of August for this year." Chan-mi went on talking until the two girls reached the front doors of the building. "I suppose you're going to go to the festival in the city?"
Nari responded with a gentle shake of her head. "Not this year. My hanbok isn't going to be ready in time and I would rather wear one for the festival."
"You could always go without one like I did last year," said Chan-mi.
"I wouldn't feel right not being in one, I mean its tradition," answered Nari. A hanbok was a style of Korean dress dating back to well before the Joseon Period, and was pretty much custom for people to wear during festivals and holidays. Well, that was an exaggeration. People didn't necessarily have to wear them, but as it had been a traditional form of dress to wear for centuries it was rather questionable to not wear one. Nari could have gone to the festival without one but she would feel out of place, and she would rather not. Yet she wanted to go, and so had to try and find a way to get one on real short notice.
"I know someone who could lend you one."
Chan-mi's words caught Nari by surprise. "Who?"
Looking up from her tablet for the first time in minutes Chan-mi gave her a stare that would make the bravest in their boots. It was that creepy. "You want to go or not?"
Nari nodded once without hesitation.
"Then I will get you one by sundown," she said before turning back to her tablet.
Nari dared not question her further, instead her elation at feeling comfortable enough to go to the festival entered her mind. "Gamsa, Chan-mi."
The smaller girl nodded three times in quick succession. "I'll meet you at the bridge near the Dead City...I have a group meeting at the temple and I will give it to you then."
"You going to the festival too? I wouldn't mind the company..."
"A festival for those seeking love isn't on the top of my priority list...my group has a meeting at the temple that night," said Chan-mi. Her group was a fan club of sorts that studied demons and the occult. She was very into that sort of subject and was like an encyclopedia for all sorts of monsters. Nothing that would be relayed in the real world save for their precious meetings.
Still, Nari didn't mind her choice. "Thought I'd ask."
The two girls made it to their classroom and Chan-mi put her tablet away before they entered the room. "You hope to find your Romeo this year?"
Giggling lightly, Nari went and took her seat which was next to her friend in the back row. "I think he'll find me if I don't actively look for him. Least that's my view on it."
It was a secret shared between the two friends that Nari was in search for a 'Romeo' to call her own. Most of her other friends were in relationships or were searching themselves. The difference in her search however is that she was casual about it. She had heard somewhere that the right guy tends to land into the woman's lap when she least expected it and she was pretty much counting on that to happen to her. And with the Chilseok Festival happening her chances of finding the right man for her were higher than any other time of the year, at least according to how fate seems to favor her.
Maybe she would indeed be lucky enough this time around. Time would only tell.
"What's this about a festival?"
Both girls turned and saw a tall boy about sixteen walk up to their desks. Nari knew who it was and she wasn't happy to see him. "Jae, what do you want?"
Hyoh and his two friends Park and Hyoh, were noted as being nothing but trouble to the student body. Delinquents who caused trouble but more often it was irritable and so remained under the radar. Even they did get caught the teachers did little to curb their activities.
"Why the cold shoulder, Nari?"
"I was planning on going to the Chilseok Festival tomorrow. But I won't have an outfit ready in time for it." That was a lie. Nari knew what kind of person Jae was for a couple months but his attempts at wooing her were less than ideal and she wanted nothing to do with him. Best to lie to him to try and get him off her back. Problem was Nari was a terrible liar and try as she might she couldn't hide it.
Good thing for her that Jae wasn't the brightest guy in a crowd. Her lie went in one ear and out the other. Jae huffed and sat on the edge of her desk, "Too bad, I would have loved to have seen you in a hanbok." Then he whispered to his friends, "Or not at all."
Nari didn't want to deal with him so she nudged him off her desk. "Please go away."
The three boys left but not because of her. They had the bell be their signal to return to their desks.
During the day the Dead City was mostly quiet and though that was the case on most days Jeung's duty never faltered. There was no reprieve when night began to fall either, and the spirits of the dead moved about like they wished as long as it was within the city limits.
The soul reaper stood on one end of a bridge, one of the three that separated the Dead City from the rest of the island, with his back to the city. The sun was beginning its descent and as soon as the temperature began to cool and the fog began to show he knew that the city would begin to stir.
Spirits in ethereal form wisped by him from most directions, swimming like koi through the air and through the gates to the city. Occasionally one would stop and ask Jeung how he was doing and he would respond in a polite manner before ushering them towards the gates.
"Head into the city now," he said, pointing to the gates with his right arm. The spirits continued on their way and the reaper looked out to the city of Danku. He noticed that it appeared livelier than usual. Lots of lights were on already and people were dressed in period clothing or fanciful dress. Then Jeung remembered why that was the case.
"The Chilseok Festival is coming. But they seem to have started early with the festivities."
That was probably why humans were seen coming into the city as well, most likely to get a chance to see the inside of the sacred place.
Though he knew it was inevitable Jeung couldn't help but feel a bit of disdain towards the humans. "They trample upon sacred ground without an ounce of respect."
He saw one girl in particular walking casually with a few other human girls and boys. Teenagers dressed in casual black garb and wearing symbols usually reserved for the dead or mourning. Goth kids, as one would label them, all heading into the city. One had a large bag that contained clothes of some kind.
They all walked by him without a glance, as expected, and he was alone once again. He wasn't surprised that humans couldn't see him. 'Humans are blind to us.'
He began to turn back towards the city of Danku he saw another human fast approaching the bridge on the other side. A beautiful young girl in her late teens and dressed in a black and white school uniform in a rush across the bridge.
"I hope she wasn't waiting for me long. Damn the roads are a mess!"
She passed him by without seeing him. Were he not a spirit no doubt she would have seen a stranger dressed in black, missing an arm and an eye as well as holding two swords and looked upon him with utter confusion or fear. Her complaining as she passed the reaper about her insignificant life brought no humor to his mind. Human lives were so trivial to Jeung, having watched them live for centuries. So feeble, yet so short. They never knew how to use their time being alive to their fullest and always did what they wanted.
Sighing the reaper turned his attention back to the distant sights of the living city. The Chilseok festival would go on without him. That was fine with him.
Nari had only ever been inside the fabled Dead City once or twice in her life, but she remembered each time because of how creepy the city was. She understood that it was where the people of the island buried their dead over the centuries but nowadays it was a tourist spot. Tonight was no exception as people were inside the city for the Chilseok Festival, though visiting the dead had little to do with it generally speaking.
The base of a large shrine was where Chan-mi told her she'd meet her and though there were countless shrines in the city itself she hoped it was one not far in. The place creeped Nari out to no end.
Luckily she didn't have to go far. The third or fourth shrine in was when Nari finally found her friend and her clique. It consisted of three other boys and one girl along with Chan-mi herself, all dressed in black and white with spike bracelets and collars. They were in the midst of some sort of séance from the looks of it when she approached them. There were countless candles burning softly around them, and intricate shamanistic materials were all around them as well. She didn't speak at first.
'I don't know if I should interrupt them. I mean how would they react if they came up on me when I was in the middle of something?'
Chan-mi's eyes moved to her friend though the rest of her body was still as a statue. "Glad you could make it, Nari." In front of the girl was what looked to be a set of tarot cards laid out in a circular pattern.
Finally finding the courage to speak Nari went and sat down on her knees next to the girl. "Hope you weren't waiting long. All the roads leading to here are packed with festival games and people. Hard to find a way around."
"There are moments that I am glad I don't have a car, and today would give me multiple reasons," said Chan-mi, an unnatural gloating over the fact that Nari had to struggle to drive to the City from Danku when all she did was walk four miles. She handed Nari a plastic bag that had the hanbok she promised her inside. "Here you go."
Looking inside Nari was surprised to see a black and white garment that was pristine clean. That made her raise an eyebrow. "This yours?"
"Nope," answered Chan-mi before flipping cards and moving them around. "I borrowed it from my sister. She's away at college and so I don't think she'd mind you wearing it for a couple days." She flipped some cards and peered up at Nari. "You want your future told? Might be able to help you figure out your chances for the festival."
Though it sounded tempting Nari shook her head. "I think I would like to be surprised."
"You sure? I will let you know that my accuracy is immaculate."
"Not today, thank you."
That was the end of that.
Nari proceeded to put the hanbok on, putting it on over her uniform. What she loved about the hanbok was she could put it on quickly and do so with little help, though she had to ask Chan-mi to help with tying the necessary parts together where she couldn't reach. Once she was done she put a couple black ribbons in her hair to complete the ensemble.
Even Chan-mi was impressed, "You look better than my sister did whenever she wore it."
"Thanks. I better get going. Sure you don't want to come along?"
Shaking her head slightly, Chan-mi's attention was on her cards and barely had enough to speak. Though what finally broke her focus was the cards she had in front of her. "Hey uh I got to let you know..."
"I know you didn't like to have your future shown in the cards...but I went ahead and did it anyway."
Nari blinked. Her feelings weren't hurt about that, but her response was the same as before. "Long as you don't tell me what you got I will pretend you didn't do it at all. Deal?"
Chan-mi put her hands up as a sign of concession. "Have fun at your festival."
"And you with your...whatever the heck you got in mind."
The center card in the circle of cards before Chan-mi remained face down as Nari left but even as she had said she wouldn't tell her, she never promised to not see what it revealed for her.
Curiosity got the better of her, and she overturned the card.
The result surprised even her.
The card in the center was that of the Lovers.
Leaving the group behind Nari tended to her hair as she left. She wasn't going to be satisfied with it this much she knew. If only I had a mirror, she thought as she approached the bridge that left the Dead City. I'll have to do better tomorrow, since Chan-mi is allowing me to use the hanbok until the festival is over.
As she approached the bridge she finished tying her hair. She was too busy to take note of her surroundings and she bumped into something. She grunted and spun at the contact.
"I'm sorry! I wasn't paying attention to where I was going-"
She looked up at the person she had run into and what she saw confused her. She saw a man in dark clothes and equally dark hair standing in the center of the bridge. Nari saw a man who looked no older than her looking back at her in genuine surprise through one eye and he was missing an arm on top of it. His eye was covered by a dark cloth.
'He looks kind of cute...' She gasped, the thought surprising her. "I'm sorry I wasn't...um, are you okay?"
The man had a look of genuine shock on his young face. "You...speaking to me?"
Nari gave a nervous smile. What was with this man? "Of course. You're the only here with me."
As if to make sure she was telling the truth he looked around and indeed he was alone with her. There was no mistaking that she had meant him.
Crickets chirped in the brush and the water below the bridge gently went on downstream quietly. A sense of peace fell on the scene between them.
"I'm Nari. What's your name?"
His nervousness was adorable to the high school girl. She wasn't off put by the fact that he had only one eye and arm. Why she stuck around one could never get a definitive answer to but there she was, talking to a handsome young man she had only just met seconds before without any issue.
She took notice of his outfit, looking similar to pieces of period dress she had seen men wear at times. "You going to the festival too? I was on my way into town myself. We can walk together if you want."
He contemplated a response but he turned to face down river instead. His right eye twitched to try and keep on her. "I cannot go. I am sorry."
Nari got closer to the young man named Jeung. "Oh. Well, I suppose that's alright too." She turned to look down the stream as well, and it was here that Nari noticed the moon in the night sky, surrounded by the stars. Shinning like millions of diamonds in the sky, it was breathtaking to her. The idea of going into town now wasn't high on her priority list. Not with a view like this in front of her. "Beautiful..."
"Yes," said Jeung, slowly.
"Never thought I'd say this but, I wish I had a boy I loved to bring here. I'd enjoy the view more in that case." She laughed, letting a secret desire of hers be heard to a stranger seemed alright with her.
She noticed that after she said that Jeung's expression changed into a more solemn one. "you alright?"
"This would be a good view to share. With a loved one I mean." Jeung lowered his chin.
'Is it just me or is he sad?' Nari didn't like the thought of making someone sad just because of what she said. She wouldn't live with herself if that was the case. she cleared her throat. "Well, I better get going. Nice meeting you, Jeung." She bowed slightly.
Jeung turned and bowed his head. "Miss Nari."
"Please just call me Nari. Maybe we can talk again sometime?"
"I don't know-"
Turning back towards Danku she saw a couple of fellow female classmates approaching the bridge. Nari excused herself from Jeung. "I'll be right back." She went over to her other friends. "Hi."
The first girl, a brunette taller than Nari asked aloud. "What you doing?"
"I was on my way into town. Then I met him."
The girls looked at her slightly confused. "Met who?"
"Jeung. I ran into him on accident-"
Nari turned around and pointed back at the bridge, but to her surprise Jeung was nowhere to be seen. "Huh? Where'd he go? He was just there..."
"Who are you talking about, Nari?"
Nari laughed nervously, "I swear he was there."
"Nari, when we came up the hill we saw you all by yourself on the bridge."
The very upset teen looked back at her friends and then back at the bridge.
No one else saw the young man? How was that possible?
"Come on, if we're gonna be playing around let's do it in town huh? Let's go."
The other two girls turned and went back the way they came. Nari took one last look at the bridge, wondering what had just happened before she too did the same.
As the girl named Nari walked with her friends towards Danku, the still shaken Jeung held his breath. 'How did she…how could she see me?'
The answer to that he didn't know, but he had a feeling he would sometime in the future.
Time would tell at its own pace.