I was totally confused. Seeing those two acting so friendly after all of Marq’s talk was just a mindfuck. Listen, I know Marq. I may not always be able to tell when he’s telling the truth or not and I don’t think I or anyone else will ever be able to, but I’ve at least gotten pretty good at judging his emotions. Marq was never so quiet and reserved unless someone was really fucking wrong. He was one of those people that just wound themselves up tighter and tighter the worse the situation became, keeping everyone at arm’s length until he’d either solved the problem or the problem had solved him. So to see him act so unguarded when just moments ago he’d been so, so afraid was just giving me all sorts of mental whiplash.
What was I supposed to do? I wasn’t as good an actor as Marq. If something’s on my mind, you’d better believe I’ll fucking tell you, and I don’t like people keeping secrets from me either. That was the biggest hurdle I had to come overcome working for the Allesandris. But here, like this? I wasn’t sure what to do.
I looked around nervously, studying Milo’s office and taking it all in to calm my nerves. His office wasn’t clean like Marq’s. It was piled high to the sky with all sorts of odds and ends, and make sure to mentally affix an emphasis to “odd”. Cracked crystal balls, dirty amulets, wrinkled specimens in glass jars, shrunken heads and whale testicles, replicas of famous or even cursed paintings hanging crooked on the walls, antique chairs with carvings in glyphs I’d never seen and questionable-looking bloodstains on the seats, and bones from creatures I’d only ever read about littered the whole space in no particular order, at least not one that made sense to me. It was just weird shit as far as the eye could see. A real emporium of the bizarre and fucked up. Milo himself was no different. He looked right at home amongst the menagerie in his puke-green plaid suit, salmon undershirt, purple feather hat, and tacky jewelry, and he was constantly smiling at us like he knew something we didn’t.
I gulped. I was beginning to feel like one of those schmucks who buys something from the devil in one of those creepy shops that weren’t there yesterday.
“Please, everyone take a seat,” Milo said, gesturing towards the seats set up in front of his desk. “I haven’t had the luxury of having visitors to my office in a long time, so I’ve prepared some seats for you from the finest furniture my little collection has to offer.”
This was a little collection?
Marq took the seat directly in front of Milo. Nayeli opted to refuse his offer and just stand by the door, and Sostene quickly excused himself to use the bathroom. I looked around. Marq said anything in this office could be a potential death trap. I was not gonna be done in by a fucking chair.
Marq turned to look at a glass cabinet filled with artifacts. “These are some pretty nice finds. Are those seven-league shoes?”
“Cloud-walking boots, actually. Much harder to get ahold of. There are only sixteen pairs in the world, if you’ll believe that. If I’m not mistaken, one of the other sixteen pairs is owned by the Monkey King.”
“Yeah, that’s… that’s really great,” I said, nervously looking at the chairs.
There were four chairs, one for each of us, and I didn’t know how he knew all four of us were coming. Did that mean that there was a chair for each of us, each tailored to an ironic death? No, obviously not. The whole plan would fall apart the instant one of us took a seat. He’d claim one life, two at best before we realized what was happening and tied his ass to one of his own chairs. No, if he was going to kill someone with fine furniture, it would need to be a single target who wouldn’t realize what was happening before it was too late. Then again, I couldn’t discount the possibility that these chairs were all part of a set and not cursed separately, meaning they were all made to work only when all four had been sat on. They didn’t look like a set though…
I wracked my brain trying to figure out the trick, but I just wasn’t seeing it. Milo looked at me expectantly, and Marq wasn’t giving me any signals or clues. I was running out of time. Then it came to me. I’d just sit in a different chair. I looked around and found the chair that looked the least cursed, an armless, reclining, red leather sofa lined up against the wall next to a nightstand with a globe on it. I sat in it, smiling smugly because I thought I’d figured out his trick. Nayeli just sighed, probably thinking I was a total dumbass.
“Now that everyone who’s sitting has a seat, let’s get down to business,” Milo said. “Do you know why I’ve called you here today, brother?”
“That’s easy,” Marq said. “It’s because you need my help.”
“What? Was it really that obvious?” Milo said, feigning surprise.
“I doubt you would have called me for any other reason. Isn’t it you who said we Allesandris work best when we work alone?”
“Yes, but you’re not really an Allesandri, are you brother?” Milo said, retaining his calm, pleasant demeanor as Marq frowned. “Regardless, a rare circumstance has occurred where I do indeed need your help. It concerns the family business.”
“Alright, I’m all ears,” Marq said. “Let’s hear it. What’s the job?”
“Nothing too major, I just need you to attend a meeting in my place. I’m supposed to conduct negotiations with some prominent figures in an up and coming criminal organization here in New York. It’s called the yakuza. It’s a Japanese group from what I hear. They want into our world, and father thinks it would be good for business to have them on our side. They’re willing to pay quite a good price if we give them what they want.”
“Japanese, huh?” Marq said. “Didn’t know we had that many here in New York.”
“There are more of them coming into port every day,” Milo said dismissively. “And it should be obvious that they’d bring their own spin on organized crime with them. I mean we certainly did.”
“So you want me to win this guy over while you do what? Spend a day at the gambling parlor?”
“Hardly. Today’s my anniversary, and I just so happen to be scheduled to meet with our new friends tonight. Because I actually love my wife, unlike you and your fiancee, I’d like you to go in my place, seeing as you have no real plans as far as I’m aware. You’ll speak with Kichirou Yamada and his brother Yoshirou. They’re here on a business trip, and they’ll be returning to Japan shortly, first by train and then by sea. You’ll speak with them, and you will convince them to ally themselves with us.”
Marq sighed. “Not that I’m not flattered by your asking for my help, but I’m not seeing what it is that I get out of this. What’s the point? To be entirely honest, I don’t even understand why father wants to align with these men. They’re still a fledgling organization, what could they possibly have to offer us?”
Milo’s smile took a dark turn.
“Nothing. You’re right at least that they’re newcomers, and not of much value to us. But there’s a rumor going around that they have something we desperately need. Something about yay big, shaped like a tear drop, flows like a liquid but is solid like a stone and glows bright red?”
Marq’s eyes widened. “You’re joking. Them?”
“Them. They have the philosopher’s stone. Allegedly.”
No way. No fucking way, I thought. Was he joking? A philosopher’s stone is real serious shit. Anyone who controls the stone controls the very fundamental forces that make life. With a philosopher’s stone, you can transmute one chemical element into another, turning blocks of wood into gold, and change matter into energy, and vice versa. It’s a source of unlimited power, and it’s even said that the stone can produce an elixir of life superior to ambrosia, making it a medical miracle that can prolong life indefinitely and heal any injury or sickness, no matter how severe. With a philosopher’s stone in your hands, you may as well be a god.
That’s why no one’s been able to make one for the last five hundred years.
That’s the funny thing about unlimited power. There’s always a catch. For the philosopher’s stone, that catch is actually making one, which is a task so ludicrously fucking difficult it’s started to become synonymous with impossible. You see, you need three ingredients: astrum, azoth, and alkahest. The three idealized alchemical substances, also known as “prima materia”, “universal medicine”, and “universal solvent”. Each plays a critical role in forming the philosopher’s stone, and each is painfully rare and difficult to obtain. Azoth by itself is said to equal five times its own weight in ambrosia, astrum’s been impossible to find since the big bang, and alkahest has only been successfully produced a handful of times in human history. Bring it all together and you’ve got a pricetag no human alive could possibly pay. Not even a demon would take that deal. So did these guys have one?
“Alright, I see where this is going,” Marq said. “You want me to negotiate to buy their allegiance for as little as possible, and if an opportunity presents itself, steal or purchase the stone from them.”
“Precisely. I hope you realize just what I’m offering you, brother. If you were offer father a cure for his illness along with the homunculus, I’m sure it’ll look good come time to decide who gets the inheritance.”
“Milo, please don’t talk about that around-”
“Speaking of, how is the homunculus doing?” Milo said, continuing with a smile. “Is she ready to serve a new master yet? If I remember father correctly he said that it’s urgent that we put her to work immediately, and he’s very interested in having a new nurse.”
“Oh no…” Marq sighed.
“Waitwaitwaitwait,” I said. “Marq, what is he talking about? What does he mean by ‘ready to serve a new master’?”
“Al, I was going to tell you-”
“Tell me what? I can’t believe you! I thought we agreed Theo was free. That was the deal! You’re just going to go back on that? Now?!”
“Al, it’s not that simple…”
“We rescued her, or more accurately I rescued her just so she wouldn’t have to be a slave to Mickey anymore and have god knows what done to her, and now she’s just going to become another victim of your fucking politics? Are you fucking joking? How is that any better?”
“I’m not gonna fucking listen to this. I told you I’d skip town, yeah? That’s exactly what I’m gonna do. You just try to fucking stop me. Theo and I walk free, or she’ll tie your men into knots.”
“Al!” Marq yelled. “Would you just listen to me?! It’s not that simple!”
I stopped, and Marq took a deep breath. He continued.
“Think for a second, Al. What is Theo? Specifically?”
“That’s right. And homunculi are designed by their creators with a specific purpose in mind. To serve a master.”
“That doesn’t mean you can just-”
“Listen to me, Al. Let me finish. They’re created to serve a master, and the one that created Theo was what? A delusional, codependent wet sock who was so desperate to have a woman in his life that he was willing to make one. What kind of homunculus do you think a person like that would design?”
“I dunno, one that wouldn’t leave him I guess.”
“Correct. And how exactly was she made?”
“By infusing her body with a holy sword in vitro.”
Marq waved his hand for me to continue. There was something I was missing, apparently. I thought about what she’d told me. Then I realized.
“Experiments into vampirism…”
“Correct again. Erik was so dependent on having Theo in his life that he made sure she could never leave him. She had to be dependent on him as well. And how exactly do you think he did that?” He folded his hands. “A vampire’s curse relies on the life energy of its victims, most commonly found in bodily fluids like blood and semen. Without it, the curse fails and undeath reverts back to death. That’s where the bloodlust comes from. Sostene can tell you all about that, I’m sure. So in order to stay alive, what would a vampiric homunculus need?”
“Life energy from its master…” I whispered.
“Correct. Third’s time the charm, Al. Pat yourself on the back,” Marq said bitterly. “She needs a master she can form a contract with, Al. She can’t survive without one. With Erik gone and Mickey dead, she needs to find one soon, or she’ll die.”
“And you’re just going to give her to Frankie?” I said accusingly. I could see it in my head. All the things he’d do to her. How she cried in her sleep cradling the broken dream of a better life and how she whispered my name as things touched her in the dark, asking me in one simple word why I’d betrayed her the way I did. I knew I couldn’t live with that. I wasn’t going to be her Judas. But I couldn’t be her messiah either. I couldn’t save her from what Erik had done to her. So what was I supposed to do?
I stood up.
“I’m not gonna let that happen,” I said. “If she needs a master, fine. Give her to me. I’ll take responsibility for her.”