Friday Five: 5 Favourite Alternate Universes in Fanfiction
Amal El-Mohtar on Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark

Fiction: 'The Blood Drinker' by Pu Songling

11007813164_58a45f2889_oNight slowly fell in the narrow valley. Twenty mules were followed each other, slowly trudging up the winding path cut in the side of the hill. They bent under their heavy load, but the muleteers, tired, hurried them forward, abusing them with coarse voices.

Three of the mules had comfortable seats, large pack-saddles, upon which were perched three men - the masters of the caravan. Their thick clothes, fur boots, and red woollen hoods protected them from the cold wind of the mountain.

The lights of a village were spotted through the darkness, and soon the mules, hurrying all together, jostling their loads, were crowded before the only inn of the place.

The three travellers got down from their saddles, eager to find rest. But much to their surprise, the innkeeper came out on the step of his door and apologised furiously, saying that all of his rooms were taken.

"I have, however, a large hall on the other side of the street - but it is only a barn, and badly shut. I will show it to you."

The merchants, disappointed, briefly considered other options, but it was too late to continue on their way. Reluctantly, they followed their landlord.

The hall that was shown to them was certainly big enough, and closed at the end by a curtain. Their luggage was brought to them by the landlord and his servants. They spread the pack-saddles on the ground, over the planks and trestles, and put the bed-clothes on top for comfort.

The merchants ate in the general sitting-room of the inn, in the midst of noise, laughing, and movement. The fare was simple, but landlord, as if to make up for their gloomy accommodation, gave them the best of it: smoking rice, vegetables preserved in vinegar, and wine served in small cups. Finally, everyone went to bed and the merchants returned to their gloomy hall. The lights were put out and silence filled the village.

Towards the hour of the Rat, one of the travellers awoke, cold and uneasy. His name was Wang Fou, Happiness-of-the-kings. He turned in his bed, but the sensation would not go away. Besides, the snoring of his two companions annoyed him, and he could not get to sleep. Giving up on rest, he got up, relit the lamp, took a book from his baggage, and stretched himself out again.

But if he could not sleep, it was just as impossible to read. In spite of himself, his eyes quitted the letters on the page and searched into the darkness. A faint fog had settled in as well, making the night even more impenetable.

Despite himself, Wang Fou, a grown man and a successful merchant, grew terrified. He would have liked to awaken his companions, but the fear of being made fun of prevented him.

From the corner of his eye, he glimped a slight movement - something shaking the big curtain which closed the room. Then, there came from behind it the crackling of wood being broken. Then, worse yet: a long, painful and threatening silence.

The merchant's flesh crawled. He was sure it was nothing, and all his reason told him such. But despite that, he was filled with horror.

He put aside his book, and, the coverlet drawn up to his nose, Wang Fou fixed his eyes on the shadowy corners at the end of the room.

The side of the curtain was lifted and a pale hand held the folds. A form, hardly distinct, slipped through the gap created by the raised cloth. It seemed more shadow than being.

Wang Fou would have screamed but his contracted throat allowed no sound to escape. Motionless and speechless, his eyes followed the slow movement of the apparition which approached.

Little by little, he recognised the silhouette of a woman, made clear by her short quilted dress and her long narrow jacket. Yet, through her body he could still see the curtain.

In the meantime, the spectre bent over the bed of one of the sleeping travellers and appeared to give him a long kiss.

Rising, it then drifted  towards the couch of the second merchant. Wang Fou distinctly saw the pale figure, her eyes - from which a red flame was shining - and, worst of all, her sharp teeth. They half-exposed in a ferocious smile, as her jaws opened and shut by turns on the throat of the sleeper. The body of the merchant jerked, then lay still: the spectre was drinking in long draughts.

Wang Fou, seeing that his turn was coming, had just strength enough to pull the coverlet over his head. He heard the spectre grumble as she approached, then, a freezing breath penetrated through the wadded material.

With a shriek, the merchant regained his strength and, in a single movement, he flung his coverlet over the apparition. Yelling like a wild beast, he leapt out of bed and he ran out of the hall and into the night.

Still running, Wang Fou could feel the freezing breath on his back and hear the furious growlings of the spectre.

The prolonged howling of the unhappy man filled the narrow street and awoke all the villagers, but none of them moved. They hid themselves farther and farther under their bed-clothes. The traveller's cries meant nothing good for those who should have been bold enough to go outside. 

Wang Fou sprinted through the entire village. Arriving at the last houses, he felt himself fainting. The road at the edge of the village was bordered with narrow fields and shaded with big trees. The instinct of a hunted animal drove on the distracted merchant; he made a brisk turn to the right, then to the left, and threw himself behind the knotted trunk of a huge chestnut-tree.

A freezing hand touched his shoulder and he fell senseless.

In the morning, made braver by broad daylight, the two men who came to plough in this same field were surprised to find a white form against the tree, and, on the ground, a man stretched out. They did not stay to investigate, but after the howling of last night, they ran back to the village and found the Chief of the Elders. When they returned, most of the village came with them.

With the Elder's encouragement, the two farmers approached the shrouded figure and, to their horror, they found that the form against the tree was the corpse of a young woman. Her long nails were buried in the bark, pinning her upright, and from her mouth a stream of black blood had flowed and stained her white silk jacket. A shudder of shook the lookers-on - and a single, melanchony wail pierced the air: the Chief of the Elders recognised his daughter, dead for the last six months. Her coffin had been placed in the barn as they awaited word from the astrologers as to a favourable day for burial.

The innkeeper recognised the second body as one of the merchants who had slept in the barn last night. 

The villagers returned to the barn to see what condition the coffin was. They found door of the barn was still open. Peering in, they saw that a coverlet was thrown on the ground near the entrance. As the sun lit up the inside of the room, the villages saw two more corpses - the bodies of the two other merchants, already turning green and hollow from being emptied of blood. 

At the far end of the barn, behind the curtain, the villages found the coffin open and empty. Despite her death, the body of the young woman had not lost its inferior soul, its vital breath. Like all beings deprived of conscience and reason, she became ferociously eager for blood, and the temptation of the three merchants - sleeping so close to her own repose - had proven too much to resist.

"The Blood Drinker" first published in Strange Stories from the House of Leisures by Pu Songling (1640 - 1715). This translation by George SouliĆ© and published 1913 by Hougton Mifflin. It has been further edited by Jared Shurin. 

For more stories, the complete text is available here.

Image from the British Library's Photostream.