_A tale of a creature that goes by many names. The Coin Emperor, The River King, The Nian and the New Year. But in this tale, the beast goes by another name, one far newer but equally well known. This is a tale about the Tahm Kench, the Demon of the Lunar Revel._
Twilight was falling upon the inn. Most of the village farmers were already drinking downstairs, voices raised in song to the accompaniment of the ancient village drum. Upstairs, Li Bai watched the imperial road from his window perch. In his hands, he fidgeted with a small firework that he had made the day before.
His father called up to him from behind the bar. ‘Li Bai, come down and help your old man. It’s your turn on the drum!’ But Li Bai didn’t move, his eyes firmly fixed on the road and the river beyond. So intent was he that he didn’t hear his father come up behind him, and he nearly fell out of the window as his father’s hand clamped down upon his shoulder.
‘Nervous?’ asked his father, grinning at Li Bai, who gave a timid nod. ‘Don’t worry, my son. As long as we bang the drum and launch the fireworks, the River King can’t bother us. Now,’ and he picked up Li Bai under his arms and took him downstairs, ‘you better bang the drum, or no fireworks and the River King will be the least of your worries!’ And he deposited Li Bai next to the drum with a roaring laugh.
Li Bai picked up the heavy mallet and began to strike the drum rhythmically, the old leather skin dancing under the blows. But as he swung over and over, he could feel the handmade firework in his back pocket. He wanted to let it off, worried that he’ll forget - Surely his father wouldn’t mind if he did it a little early?
As his mind wandered, the drum softened, barely making any sound at all, but the shouting voices in the inn covered his quiet playing. Finally, as one of the men tripped and fell on his backside, the inn erupted in laughter. Under the cover of the noise, he quietly snuck outside, fumbling for his matches.
The air was cool out here, and twilight was turning to real darkness. He felt a faint mist brush across his cheek, and he shivered. It’ll just take a second and then I’ll go back inside, Li Bai thought. The match hissed to life, and as he held it to the firework’s fuse, he smiled in the darkness.
Catching alight, the firework shoot from Li Bai’s hands into the sky, causing him to drop the matchbox in surprise in a faint splash as the matchbox hit the ground. The resounding bang of the firework was accompanied by drunken cheers from inside the inn, but Li Bai looked down instead. The damp matchbox floated past him, as cold Water was flowing down the Imperial road.
Li Bai snapped his head back up. Walking towards him, illuminated by the fading light of the firework, was a trudging figure. Round and large, it swayed from side to side, heaving a massive stomach through the flowing water. With each step, Li Bai could hear the jingling of copper coins.
Li Bai turned and bolted into the inn, his footsteps splashing on the rising tide of river water as he scrambled hand over hand towards the drum.
“Now now, what have we here? It seems I have intruded upon a humble celebration. Good people, have you room for one more at your laden tables?”
The voice seemed to carry over the noise. Men quieted and sat down as the figure pushed its way into the inn, stomach first. Its skin was a dull, dead grey, and massive fat lips glistened in the lantern light. He never stopped talking, his mouth moving constantly, and as Li Bai reached for the mallet, he felt the strength leaving his arms.
“I have travelled along the roadside a while now, and I am feeling rather famished. What joy for me to happen upon such plump and happy looking individuals...serving such fine foods.”
As Li Bai struggled to raise the mallet off the ground, he saw the men all staring towards the newcomer, each of their eyes hollow and their jaws slack.
Water began to pool at the door to the inn, and on its swells were thousands of copper coins. The strange figure reached into the water and dumped a handful of coins in front of Li Bai’s father.
“This should be sufficient to buy whatever I desire, no?” asked the figure, licking his lips and surveying the inn. Li Bai’s father nodded woodenly. ‘Whatever you wish. Please, take a seat, and what may I call you?’
“I’m known by many names, though I am fond of Tahm Kench. Please, fetch me your largest stewpot, and your finest spices. I have a burning hunger that cannot be easily sated.”
Li Bai felt too weak and he struggled to stand. But with all his might, he lifted the mallet and let it fall on the drum, making the softest thud.
“Oh no, no, no. That simply will not do.” The creature twitched in annoyance, before gesturing to the drum offhandedly. “Such noise affects my appetite. Someone, please, remove that malodorous racket from my presence.”
The five men nearest to Li Bai seized his hands and brought him to Kench. Under his dull green eyes, Li Bai found that he could not resist. He wanted to give him the mallet.
“And who does this rude boy belong to?”
His father, carrying the pot, exited the kitchen. Upon seeing the villagers holding Li Bai, he stopped. ‘The boy’s mine. I’m sorry, he’s normally polite and quiet.’ As his father looked towards Li Bai and Kench, Li Bai noticed his father’s trembling as veins strained along his arms. Kench took no notice, still staring at Li Bai.
“Is that so? Well, perhaps I can help quieten him down mo-”
The pot clattered out of Li Bai’s father’s hands, ringing loudly against the wooden floor of the inn. Kench shrunk back, seeming to snarl at the noise, and the men slackened their grip on Li Bai. At that moment, Li Bai felt strength return to his limbs, and he bolted outside. A faint chuckle followed him out of the inn.
“Ah, a shame. Children are my favourite.” And a sticky long tongue slammed the door closed behind him.
Outside, Li Bai waded through water up to his knees. He could see that the river had burst its banks and its rushing water was threatening to sweep the village away. Only the inn was untouched, the current splitting supernaturally around its wooden walls, as though it didn’t wish to be disturbed.
With the drum inside and the mallet taken, Li Bai felt that he had only one more option. Forming his hands into fists, he went towards the black powder store near the edge of the village. Here the water was chest-high, Li Bai struggled to stand against the current. Climbing up the stall, he found only one little satchel of black powder, tucked within a cardboard tube sitting above the water’s reach.
Nimbly tying the satchel into a cardboard tube and making a fuse, he took a deep breath, then turned back and started to wade towards the inn.
The lanterns outside the door were still shining, and he could hear a faint humming coming from inside.
“Well my friend, first I’ll eat you, then I’ll eat him. You shan’t be apart too long. So go ahead, hop in.”
Li Bai lit the fuse with a low-hanging lantern and stepped in, hiding the firework behind his back. He felt his senses dull quickly as Kench turned his attention to him.
“Ah, couldn’t bear to be apart from your dear old father? Well, I was going to find you later, but you are just too delectable to wait. I think we can dispense with the herbs and spices on this occasion.” Kench reared back, his throat expanding, and a massive tongue shot out and wrapped around Li Bai, reeling him into the demon’s mouth. The last thing Li Bai saw as his head passed the teeth was his father staring with impassive eyes.
The fuse burnt down.
“Ah, a little hotter than I expected. Perhaps he came pre-spiced?” asked Kench, and Li Bai felt one hand rub the outside of the stomach. He pushed the firework out from him, and curled up into a ball in the cold, dark cramped wet space.
Li Bai expected to be torn apart by the blast, but the walls around him seemed to dissolve under the force of the explosion. On a tide of pale, milky water, Li Bai was washed out of the monster’s gullet. The entire inn erupted with screams of anger and fear as the villagers regained their senses, and as the water flowed out to re-join the retreating stream, they heard the creature voice furiously yell back at them.
**EVERY RIVER. EVERY YEAR. SEE THAT YOU ALWAYS CARRY A FIREWORK AND A DRUM, OR I’LL FEAST ON YOUR FLESH NEXT LUNAR YEAR. **