The Corpse Flower – A Candle in the Tomb Sample

Chunk and Hu, ex-military and diehard, are accompanying an archaeological expedition near the Kunlun Mountains to discover the lost ancient city of Jingjue. With their aid, Professor Chen, his students, and their overseas sponsor, Shirley Yang, have managed to make her way into the secret city of the Taklamakan. In the final resting chamber of the Queen, they have found her coffin. A magnificently carved Kunlun Wood casket, but growing from the lid, is a large, scarlet, sickly smelling blossom.


The Corpse Flower

From somewhere in the distance came a wafting scent. Was this monster flower dangerous? Poisonous plants and animals tend to be brightly coloured, and looking at the red leaves and green petals of Corpse Flower, so luscious the colour seemed to be dripping off of them, I had everyone to put on their gas masks at once.

“I don’t think this flower is poisonous”, Chunk said, “poisonous things are usually quite small, but this is as big as a bucket. So I think it’s just carnivorous.”

Shirley said: “It can’t be, we haven’t even seen an insect nearby, if this flower consumed flesh to survive, it would have died off ages ago, it must have been feeding off the nutrients in the Kunlun wood coffin all this time”.

Chunk sneered : “Who cares what the hell it is, I’ll put a few bullets in it, destroy it, then we’ll all be safe and we can go look at that pretty little zombie queen”.

Professor Chen cried: “Absolutely not under any circumstances! I would rather we ended our journey here, than damage that extremely precious Corpse Flower”.

I moved the searchlight around all four sides of the coffin to give the professor and others a better look, and to our surprise, found the side of the causeway covered with carved text in Guidong[1] language, almost a hundred characters in total. This was quite a discovery, as the whole of the ancient city, including its pantheon and ossuary, contained very little writing, with most recordings being pictorial, except for the yuyan[2] in the pantheon, which I unfortunately smashed before we could get a good look at it, we never thought that the side of the causeway could be covered in writing.

Writing is one of the most basic ways in which humans pass on information, messages from ancient murals convey a kind of sensory perception, but messages carried by words are far more accurate, decoding these would save us many detours on our way to understanding Jingjue civilization.

Professor Chen immediately set his students to work, recording section by section, all of the Guidong text, thankfully the carvings were large, deeply hewn, and could be easily read, as long as they were illuminated by the beam of the searchlight. There was no need to get too close to the causeway. Shirley was also busy, photographing the scene

Only Chunk and I were left with nothing to do, and since the professor had banned us from smoking, all we could do was to sit and wait for them to finish their work.

It looked like we had come to the end of our archeological expedition, and we couldn’t say the achievements were meager. An intact mural along the path leading to the tomb alone would astonish the archeological world for a couple of years, not to mention the big bottomless pit, a coffin made of Kulun wood, the ancient Corpse Flower…any of these would provide plenty of research for the intellectuals.

It was impossible for us to open the coffin of the Prized Beauty of Xiyu[3], without any means of preserving the contents. A few days ago, when we saw the coffin of the Prince of Gumuo in the holy well, the Professor had also forbidden us to open it. These operations would probably require the approval of top-level authorities before they could happen. An old grave robber like me would never stand a chance of seeing it.

It was a real shame that we lost Hao Aiguo[4] in the valley, he would have been so excited to see this, it was not only chagrin on his account, but also remorse. If only I could have acted a little quicker. Never mind, the world doesn’t run on “if”s…the past was vivid before my eyes. The more I thought, the more troubled I felt.

Chunk noticed I was in a daze, and punched me on the shoulder “Hu, look what those two kids are doing”.

I dragged my mind back from tangled thoughts, and gazed into the distance to find Chu Jian and Sa Dipeng already on the causeway. Didn’t the Professor say we were to stay back from the Queen’s coffin? I rushed to ask him what was going on.

Professor Chen said: “It’s alright, they’re not touching the coffin, a lot of dust has gathered on the causeway and it’s covering the calligraphy, once they’ve swept it off they’ll be back, they’re both wearing masks, there shouldn’t be any problems”.

I wanted to call them back and go in their place, but the Professor waved his hand. “ there’s no need, the text on the causeway is vital, you’re not professionals so you might damage it. Chu Jian and Dipeng know how to clear dust away bit by bit, and they’re quick, it’ll only take a minute or two”.

I was still edgy and couldn’t sit still. My intuition had always been sound, something was going to go wrong. There had once been an English archeological expedition here. Why didn’t they take the precious coffin with them? Except for one half crazed lucky survivor, where were all the rest of them? This cave in the bowels of the mountain seemed so quiet and peaceful, but what would happen when you get close to the Queen’s coffin? I couldn’t wait any longer, I had call them back.

By the time I opened my mouth, it was too late. The students were walking single file along on the causeway, when suddenly Dipeng, picked up a rock, and viciously brought it down on Jian’s head. Without a sound, Jian’s body crumpled sideways and fell into the bottomless pit.

Everything happened so suddenly that no one could have prevented it. We had barely reacted to the situation before Dipeng, looking back at us, tore off his mask, revealing a twisted and evil grin. He spun around, walked briskly to the end of the causeway, and brought the rock violent to his own skull. Blood poured like water from a burst dam, his body swayed, and then slumped over the coffin of the Jingjue Queen. We couldn’t work out if he was dead or alive.

The other students stood petrified by this bloody and eerie scene. What had taken their genteel and slow-witted friend, and turned him so suddenly into this, monster, killing his best friend, and then himself by the side of the coffin?

I shouted: “Shit, Four Eyes must have got himself possessed, Chunk, get the black donkey hoof quickly, he’s still breathing.”

Professor Chen, who had just witnessed one of his students disappear, head stoved in, into the deep chasm, and another split his own head open over an ancient coffin, could not comprehend these realities, which attacked his heart like wildfire. He fainted, melting to the floor. Ye Yixin rushed to his side, but she was as terrified as the rest, and apart from crying, could do nothing else.

Saving them was now utmost in my mind, and even if I had to get on to the causeway and tackle the monster head on, to buy some time for Chunk and Shirley Yang to save the Professor. I picked up my pack, and pulled on my mask. If it was a demon, the donkey hoof and glutinous rice should ward it off, if it was something from the Corpse Flower, my mask should keep me safe.

There was no time to think further, I stepped onto the causeway. Despite being three metres wide, it was suspended over a bottomless pit. When I looked down, all my hair stood on end.

I was half way down the causeway when I heard footsteps behind me, I spun round and saw Chunk and Shirley following me. “Why aren’t you looking after the Professor!?”

Chunk said: “We’ve got no idea what the hell is on this causeway, I’m not going to let you go on alone! Besides it’ll be hard for you to carry Dipeng back on your own, the three of us can carry him back before something else goes wrong”.

We were running out of time, in a few minutes Dipeng could bleed out, so I signaled them to follow, and we rushed towards the coffin.

As we got closer, I felt the demonic charisma of the Corpse Flower, the rich colour of its leaves, calling my heart and soul. I remembered what the Professor had said, that the flower was “hiding the soul of a demon”, but right at that moment I couldn’t care less if it was one of the seven wonders of the world.

I let out a torrent of abuse “It’s all this motherfucking monster flower’s fault!”

Lifting the lobo, I aimed blow after blow at the Corpse Flower, and didn’t stop until it was a pile of mush, oozing black liquid.

Shirley looked at the sodden remains, and sighed resignedly: “Oh well, what’s done is done, saving people’s more important.”

“ Exactly” I said, “Let’s get Dipeng’s head staunched.“ I pulled out a cloth and wrapped his temples, before carrying him back to be treated.

Chunk was holding Dipeng’s wrist, and sighed:” Don’t bother, it’s over, no pulse, we were one step too late.”

“ Motherfucker! How can we face his parents now, they’ll probably die too, from heartache.” I pounded the coffin in frustration.

The moment I smacked the wood, Dipeng’s corpse sat up as if it had received an electric shock, the eyes were fixed as he pointed at the coffin and said: “She……she’s alive……”

All three of us jumped. We’d all felt Dipeng’s lifeless body, but now he was sitting wide-eyed and talking!

I automatically reached into my bag for the donkey hoof, but once he’d delivered his message, his body spasmed, and he fell stiffly to the ground, this time, truly dead.

I couldn’t help but look towards the coffin. Its lid had somehow slid open a crack. My heart jumped to the back of my throat, Chunk and Shirley were at a loss too, all three of us were sweating cold.

Disaster was unavoidable. The Queen’s coffin had opened, clearly because of us, Chunk aimed his gun at the coffin, I held on tightly to the lobo and donkey hoof, ready for whatever was inside.

In that instant, I mind worked rapidly, was the Queen a spirit or a zombie? How can we fight her if she was a ghost? How can we fight her if she was a zombie?  If the causeway was too narrow for combat, how can we retreat? My mind was turning over all these possibilities.

Except for the lid, there’d been no other movement. We couldn’t wait like this, we had two options. One, to retreat no matter what, and then think of a strategy.

Two, to go on the offensive, open the coffin, and no matter what monster comes out of there, welcome her back to the world of the living with a sharpened shovel blade, black donkey hoof and a full clip from the assault rifle.

Almost immediately I came to the conclusion that although the first option seemed to be safer, it just wasn’t viable, there was some force of evil lurking on the causeway, Dipeng and Chu Jian’s fate was the best proof. That mysterious demonic force will seize any opportunity to rid itself of those who disturb the Queen’s rest.

If we retreated and got attacked on the way back, there would be nowhere to hide, the only way was to move onwards, and hope that we would not meet our end in the chasm.

I looked at Chunk and Shirley, all three of us were thinking the same thing. We nodded to each other, all understanding the situation. Although not much had happened so far, we were already in a “Battle of Beishui[5]” situation. We had to find the enemy first, and then plan our attack.

Chunk thrust the assault rifle into Shirley’s hands, and motioned her to cover the coffin. Spitting into his palms, he nodded at me, ready to open the coffin

I swallowed the anxiety rising in me, counted to 3 with Chunk, and pushed the lid hard. The Kunlun wood was heavy and unworked, the bark looked like it was still alive. If it hadn’t already opened a fraction, it would have been hard to tell where the lid began.

The coffin lid wasn’t heavy, and with only a rough shove, it slid almost completely open. We were all wearing masks, and if there were any reek from the grave, it didn’t affect us. The only thing we saw was a female corpse in jade armour, lying flat in the coffin. It was strangely bare, with no burial goods whatsoever.

Was this really the corpse of the Queen of Jingjue? Her face was obscured by a black burial mask, and her body completely enclosed by the armour. so there was no indication of the degree of preservation.

The mask certainly depicted the demonic and recklessly cruel Queen of Jingjue from legend. ‘Bitch!’ I thought, ‘Even though you’re already dead you’re still trying to freak us out with that mask’.

Chunk asked me:” Hu, do you really think Chu Jian and Dipeng’s deaths were due to the Queen? Let’s take that ugly mask off, and see if she is the prized beauty of Xiyu, or actually a monster.

“Alright, I want to see it too, you take the mask off, I’ll get ready to stuff this in her mouth”, I said, waving the black donkey hoof, “even if she’s a real demon, let’s see her take on our “anti-mogui[6]” concoction”.

Chunk rolled up his sleeves, held out one hand, and, ripped off the mask from the Queen’s corpse.

Her face emerged, hair black as storm clouds rolled from her face, eyebrows curving softly into the temples, her features were elegant, her were eyes shut as if in sleep, and her face horribly pale, apart from this, she was no different from a live person.

I had imagined countless times before what this legendary thousands of year old queen would look like, would she be fat or thin, have golden hair and green eyes, or a high nose and deep set sockets, but never would I have dreamed she would look like this, because…….

“AH!!!” Chunk and I simultaneously cried out. The Queen was the spitting image of Shirley Yang! As if one had been cast from the other.

I didn’t know what to do, my brain had turned as mushy as a bowl of porridge, I turned to see Shirley’s reaction, only to find that the girl who had been covering our backs, was gone.

Could the body in the coffin actually be Shirley? My flesh began to crawl, waves of despair numbed my skull, sorrow, fear, anxiety, helplessness, doubt, so many complex emotions, rushed into my head at once, rendering it completely blank. Our opponent was impossible to outthink, we were like meat on her chopping board, to be boiled, stewed or fried, all according to an unseen will, we didn’t even know who, or what our opponent was.

Just when I was feeling totally paralysed with fear, I felt a sudden, eerie gust of wind, like something drawing near at speed in a dark forest. ‘Good timing’, I thought, and bought the sharpened edge of the lobo up in a violent swing. I felt it connect! When I managed to focus my eyes on the figure ahead, I saw Chunk. Half his face missing, blood and gore sliding from the open half.  His body slumped to the ground. Dead.

I stood, shell-shocked, what had I done? How could I have been so stupid, had I been so scared out of my mind by the demonic powers of the ancient Queen that I actually beat my best friend to death?  In an instant my heart froze. This was just fucking great. We started off as a team of nine, and in less than a day, five of us had died, one after the other, even the guy who had been with me through hell and back for the past couple of dozen years, had just had his head sliced open… by me!

There was only me left. What was the point in living on, perhaps it would have been better if I had died before, on the frontlines in the Kunlun Mountains and Yunan, so that I couldn’t have murdered my best friend. Even if I died now, how I could I look him in the eye when we meet in the afterlife?

All my thoughts turned to ashes, my head was splitting with pain. I felt as if I had fallen deep into a cavern of ice. I wanted to die. I took the dagger from my waist, aimed it towards my heart, and steeled myself to pierce it.

Just as the blade touched my flesh, I heard two gunshots. One shot hit the dagger, which fell from my hands.

Mist surrounded me, and I could see nothing. Who was shooting? I was slipping in and out of a trance. The more I tried to focus on things, the less sense they made, my mind was turned upside down, faintly I heard someone cry: “Hu, turn back and run!”

That voice sound was like a strike of lighting in the dark, although I didn’t understand what was going on, my instinct told me I had been falling for that bitch’s witchcraft.

I bit into my tongue, and my whole body shook. I realised I was standing in the middle of the causeway, nowhere near the Queen’s coffin, which remained untouched, as was the Corpse Flower blooming on top of it. The petals had unfurled, exposing the stigma, which was pointing at me like a radar dish..

At the far end, Chunk and Shirley were calling out to me frantically. Hadn’t I just seen them dead?

Chunk was still clutching the rifle, shouting: “Hu, have you gone fucking crazy? Get back here, NOW!”

Without thought, I ran towards them, ripping my mask off, and spitting the blood from my mouth. I found my head returning to its normal state.

I asked Chunk what happened.

” Fuck man! You fucking scarred the life out of me, you went to rescue Dipeng right? But once you got on the causeway, you suddenly turned your head like you were sleepwalking, you kept hacking into thin air with your lobo, and then you were waving your arms like mad…, it didn’t matter how loudly we shouted, you couldn’t hear us, and then you pulled your dagger out and.., I wanted to run and stop you, but couldn’t have made it in time, so I shot the dagger down. Have you lost you mind or have you been possessed?”

I turned to look at the causeway, thought about what happened from beginning to end, and figured it out. Everything I had experienced from the moment I stepped onto the causeway was an illusion created by the Corpse Flower. The bitch was trying to make me kill myself!

The Corpse Flower not only used its fragrance to delude one’s mind and spirit, but also its colour, which, as soon as it was seen at close range, created hallucination.

It was no wonder the Jingjue Queen’s coffin didn’t seem booby trapped. This flower was the most deadly of guardians. If anyone attempted to approach the Queen’s coffin, their senses would be twisted by the Corpse Flower and they would be killed by their own memories.

It seemed that causeway over the chasm was the boundary of the flower’s range. Stepping onto it would be like stepping into the hallucination.

Explorers, tomb raiders, Chu Jian and Dipeng alike had died in confusion and probably had no idea what was going on before they met their ends.

It was sensible of Shirley not to let Chunk go near me, or we’d have both been lying dead on the causeway. The more I thought about it the more furious I got, I cursed the Jingjue Queen’s mother, lifted my gun and took a few shots at the coffin at the far end, but they hardly even made an mark. It was hopeless, I gave up.

At the far end of the causeway, Dipeng’s blood was pooling, black on the ground. It looked like he couldn’t be helped, but we couldn’t just leave his corpse. We had to find a way to get it back.

I discussed plans with Shirley and Chunk, to no end. Although Professor Chen had survived, he was still unconscious, with Yixin a sobbing mess by his side. We were in a jam and we couldn’t even begin to get out of it.

Chunk smiled.:” Hu, I’ve got a trick to defeat the Corpse Flower”.

I asked:” That flower’s a killer, what trick have you got?”

Chunk said:” OK, it’s a killer, but getting to it isn’t impossible. It fucks up your sight and hearing when you get close to it. The fact that you, and the kids, had your masks on and still fell under its influence shows that it doesn’t only use scent. It’s those colours too. When you look at it, you also fall under the spell. So don’t. Let’s cover our eyes, get down on the ground and crawl towards it by touch, and then tear that thing out by the roots.

I said:” You’ve got a point. Cover your eyes, we’ll watch the enemy and direct you from this side.”

“NO,” Shirley said, “we can’t do that. Apart from Professor Chen, none of us know anything about the Corpse flower. How can you be sure that it uses your senses to hypnotize? This flower is too extraordinary. Any slight error of judgment could prove fatal.

Chunk spun round. “So are you saying we should ditch Dipeng, and scoot on out of here as fast as we can?”

“ Even if we just leave”, I added,  “we can’t leave the Corpse Flower there, don’t we still have some TNT left? Let’s blow the causeway and send the thing into the pit.

We argued, till suddenly, we saw Dipeng’s body convulse in the distance, we stopped quarreling and focused on the other end of the causeway.

We’d kept the spotlights at quite a low angle so as not to dazzle the students working on the causeway, but sweeping it up, the pillar of light fell on Dipeng at the far end.

His body started rolling, as if it was being dragged towards the pit, we tried to take a more careful look, when, whether due to a bad connection or the batteries running out, the spotlight blinked a couple of times, and went out, plunging the entire cave in complete darkness.

Shirley lit a flashlight, and the surroundings lit up. A light in the dark, however small, calmed us a little, but we couldn’t see what was happening so far away. What was dragging Dipeng away? Was there another creature in this cave?

From the walls of the chasm, we heard slithering noises. Not very loud, as if many tiny creatures were crawling, we had no idea how many.

I thought about that terrifying monster snake we’d encountered before, and urged Chunk to pick up Professor Chen, no matter what was coming out of that pit, it was not going to be friendly, and retreat looked like the best strategy[7]

The flashlight wasn’t going to last forever, but we now all had torches out, Chunk carried the Professor over his back, Shirley supporting the still sobbing Yixin, we found our bearings and started to retrace our steps.

The slithering sound grew louder and louder, Shirley lifted her camera and clicked it a few times, the blazing light of the flash lit up our surroundings. For an instant, we saw thousands of black snakes. Some big, some small, but all of them nursing black fleshy lumps on their heads, some of which had split, revealing giant eyeballs.

The black eyes of the snakes seemed hypersensitive to light, and they retreated from the flash, but there were tens of thousands, coming up from the ground, knotting together, totally blocking out exit and making it impossible for us to flash our way out.

The light from camera flash and the torch could only hold off the snakes temporarily, but it was like drinking poisonous wine to quench our thirst[8], once the camera ran out of power, we’d still be lunch.

The mass of black snakes grew second by second. The kerosene we’d brought with us had already been used up, there was nothing we could do now except turn back.

Surrounded by black snakes, this really was shit creek. Chunk suddenly pointed to the rock wall at our backs “there’s a hole there, let’s hide first.”

I turned my head to look at the opening, which wasn’t so much a hole, as a crack, about the height of a person, worn out as the mountain wall eroded with time. In the current circumstances, we could only back into it, maybe buy a bit of time to come up with a real strategy.

Dragging the immobile Professor and Yixin, we backed into the crack, and found the space widened behind us. It was actually a very deep split, and whilst there were cracks under our feet too, only a few centimetres deep, so we didn’t have to worry about the floor caving in.

Shirley kept her head and didn’t panic, even then. She looked at the shape of the crack, the depths of retreat behind us and said to me:” can we blow up the entrance, and block out the snakes?”

Several of the black bastards had already followed us in, and were about to bite when Shirley clicked her camera, sending them back with the flash. Chunk moved like lighting, hitting the snakes with the lobo and sweeping them out with the flat of the blade.

I remembered Aiguo’s death. It was better to be blown apart or be buried alive than die by snakebite. I hurried to pull out the TNT. There was no time to work out how much to use, I could only rely on gut feeling.  I pulled the cap, told Chunk and the others to run ahead, shot a few more pursuing snakes, and stepped back, huddling with Shirley and the others round a bend of the rock.

I started to tell the others to open their mouths wide, and block their ears, but before I could finish speaking, the explosion sounded, and echoed through the cave like distant thunder, sending shockwaves and rock fragments flying, although we were sheltered, we couldn’t avoid all the shock. It felt like someone had punched me heavily in the chest, my ears rang, humming filled my head,

Chunk was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t hear it, I shouted at them one word at a time: “I – think – I – set – off – too – much ! Are-you – all – ok?”

I was too close to the point of explosion, and the sound had been amplified by the walls of our escape route. I wasn’t sure if they heard my words. My eardrums were pierced, I couldn’t even hear my own voice.

[1] 鬼洞 – according to Han legend, the Guidong people are the main culture of the ancient Jingjue civilization that existed in the Taklamakan Desert in Central Asia, north-east of the Kunlun Mountains. After the death of their last Queen, the ancient city completely vanished.

[2] 玉眼 – literally “jade eyes”, refers to technique in statue and sculpture making pioneered by the ancient Chinese, of inlaying jade or glass for the eyes

[3] [3]西域 – generally refers to regions of China that are close to central, west Asia and the Indian peninsula such as Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang

[4] 郝爱国 – Hao Aiguo’s full name sounds exactly like 好爱国 or “very patriotic”

[5] 背水 – literally means with one’s back to the water, originates from a historical battle between the Han and Zhao Kingdoms during the Han Dynasty, when the Han general Hanxin made his army fight with their backs to the river, to strengthen their resolve. They won.

[6] 魔鬼 – Chinese for “demon”

[7] A popular quote from the Book of Southern Qi, when facing an insurmountable enemy, run!

[8] 饮鸩止渴 (yin zhen zhi ke), an idiom originating from the northern Song Dynasty, meaning solving a problem by using methods that would only make things worse later

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