Month: January 2015

Major Update, Please Read!

Okay, so a lot of you are probably wondering what’s going on. To make a long story short, I’ve been facing a lot of difficulties with this new semester of school and a few personal difficulties as well, and it’s been hard for me to find the time to write. I’ve had to wade through a lot of red tape to get some issues with my class schedule fixed, I’m once again taking Spanish which is going to demand my attention one way or another, and now I’m taking my senior seminar, a writing workshop whose expectations will mean I will be writing more each day than ever before.

So, under the influence of a number of stressors in my life and at the suggestion of a friend, I’ve decided I’ll be taking a week off to get my life and Goodfae in order. There are major problems here, and they don’t just stop at the door to my house. My real life and my personal problems have been getting in the way of me delivering the kind of reading experience you deserve, and now I need to try to fix that. So I’m taking a short break to work things out, and when I return, Goodfae will resume updating once a week until the end of the semester, with occasional bonus content. Since I’ll be writing a lot anyway, I will regularly post material from my writing workshop as a bonus, so look forward to that as well. It’s for a grade, so any criticisms and comments on my workshop work will be appreciated.

I hope you all understand and forgive me.

Stealing Stones and Breaking Bones 3.8

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I stood outside the door to our apartment, wondering what I was going to say to Theo. How was I going to explain this to her?

“Listen, Theo, something’s come up and… no. No that’s not going to work. How about… ‘Theo, I need you to run a few errands for me… across the country…’ Okay, that’s stupid too.”

I thought for a little while longer.

“Oh hey, Theo, guess what! I just won an all expenses paid vacation to the Canadian wild, but I can’t go because of work. Why don’t you take Anastasia and-”

“Master Alfonso – I mean, Alfonso?” Theo said, poking her head out the door. “What’s wrong?”

I jumped, nearly falling over. Theo tilted her head quizzically.

“Oh, Theo,” I said, surprised. I tried to regain my cool. “I didn’t know you were listening.”

“It was not hard to hear you, the walls here are very thin. You’re lucky Mistress Anastasia is sleeping…”

Theo looked back through the open door. Sure enough, Anastasia was sleeping soundly on her bed in the living room. The looked at me.

“What seems to be the matter?”

“It’s nothing,” I said.

“I disagree,” she said bluntly. “If it were nothing, we would not be standing here having this conversation, so clearly it is something. Go on. What is it?”

I laughed. “Awfully demanding for a maid, aren’t we?”

“My apologies,” she said. “I am merely concerned for your wellbeing.”

“Yeah, thanks…” I said. I took a deep breath. “Theo, get packed. We’re skipping town for a few days. Or… you are, at least. There’s some shit going down with the Allesandris and you need to leave New York. I’ll come pick you up once the heat dies down, so get everything you think you might need. A change of clothes, a toothbrush, a pillow maybe-“ 

“No.”

I paused. “… What do you mean ‘no’? Theo, this is hot button shit. Your life is at stake.” 

“I mean ‘no’. I will not go,” she said resolutely. “My life was at stake with Mickey, and I am still here. I will not leave my home.”

“Theo, you don’t-” 

“I don’t what? Do you think I cannot defend myself? Perhaps it is not proper of me but may I humbly remind you of how our last fight went?” she said, stone-faced. “Because if I recall correctly, I am the reason you spent all those days in the hospital, not Mickey.”

“It’s not about that-”

“I’m sorry if it hurts your ego Master, but the simple fact is you don’t need to worry about me. I appreciate your help and hospitality but I am no longer that same damsel in distress you saved a month ago.”

“Theo, for godsakes! Would you just listen to me?! And I told you to stop calling me ‘Master’!”

I bit my thumbnail, teeth grinding. I couldn’t tell her. Not now, not when I didn’t know what to say. How would I explain it to her? “Sorry, you can’t stay here because the Allesandris are threatening to take custody away from me and sell you off as a sex slave again”? Because I’m pretty sure that’s just about the worst thing to tell someone recovering from her situation, right behind “You’re adopted and your parents never loved you”. 

… Okay, bad example. But what could I say? And at the same time, how else would I convince her?

That’s when I noticed her hands were shaking.

“Theo, what’s wrong with your hands?” 

Caught off-guard, she quickly hid her hands behind her back. “There is nothing wrong with my hands. They are completely normal.”

“Bullshit,” I said, and grabbed her hand. She was shaking like an earthquake, and her fist was clenched tighter than a corpse. “Theo…”

She wrenched her hand away, trying to keep the shaking under control. The symptoms of withdrawal were in full bloom. As I’d feared, she’d already been exposed to too much nepenthe, enough to develop an addiction to. Time would only tell whether the shakes were the signs of serious brain damage or if they were just a part of going cold-turkey.

“You’re still taking it, aren’t you?” I asked.

She didn’t look at me, and she wouldn’t say anything.

“Theo,” I said, gently but firmly.

“I… have been having nightmares,” she admitted. “I have been dosing to control them. Sometimes I still hear his voice, and I can see his face every time I close my eyes. Sometimes I cannot focus on work if I do not take it.”

I sighed. “Show me where it is.”

She stared at the floor in shame. Reaching into her chest, she pulled out a small baggie of the sweet-smelling leaves. I held out my hand and she deposited the bag, retreating timidly.

“And the rest?” 

One by one Theo lead me quietly through the apartment, digging up all the little bundles of leaves she’d stashed away while she was cleaning. It took a little coaxing, but finally I was convinced she’d given them all up. I nodded in satisfaction.

“Now you know what we’re going to do with these, right?” 

She looked downcast. She probably expected me to destroy what was left. Instead, I took a lighter and a piece of paper, and rolled a thin line up into a tube. Twisting off at both ends, I lit up and stuck it in my mouth, taking a whiff of that sweet Olympian kush. I passed the joint off to Theo, who was understandably confused. When she didn’t take it, I pushed it inbetween her lips. She inhaled deeply and took a strong hit, the muscles in her arms immediately relaxing as she stopped shaking.

I took the joint back and had another hit for myself. 

“You see,” I said, starting to feel the effects, “this is how you’re supposed to take nepenthe. You don’t chew it, you smoke it. I mean, that’s just fucking stupid. That’s what squirrels do, and we’re not fucking squirrels.”

“Yeah,” Theo said, taking the joint back and blowing some smoke.

I felt posi-lutely abso-tively giddy. I could remember all of my best memories with absolute clarity, like watching a movie. I mean I can do that normally anyway but it’s not the same. It’s like you were there… but you weren’t there. You know? 

… No, I guess you probably don’t. It’s hard to explain. But it felt good though, really good.

We both slumped down to the floor in the middle of the kitchen. I put a hand on Theo’s head and rubbed her hair.

“If you ever have problems, you come to me, okay? I’ll help you out. I mean, that’s what family does, y’know? We help each other out, right?” I said, my speech pretty slurred. “I mean, I don’t care what you used to do up until now. If it helped you get by, I mean shit, who am I to say it’s wrong?”

“Thanks, Al,” Theo said, equally toked out of her mind. “I ‘preciate it.”

“But we gotta get you off this stuff too, y’know? So here’s what I’m thinking.” I took the joint back from Theo. “We’re gonna save some of these leaves and grow ‘em, like, in my room or something. And we’ll wean you off of it, how does that sound?”

“Mmmm,” Theo said, nodding.

“I mean it’s not like I’m gonna make you quit or anything,” I said. “I just wanna get you in a better state of mind, right? A better headspace. Then you won’t need this stuff anymore. You won’t need it.” 

“You’re right, you’re so right.”

“So just… stay the course, ‘kay? We’re gonna make it through this, Theo. We’re gonna make it through this.”

“Mmm.”

“We’re gonna make it through this.”

“Mmmmm.”

“We’re gonna make it through this…”

Eventually we both got too drowsy to talk and just fell asleep in the kitchen, the two of us propped up against each other in a cloud of skunk smoke, sleeping like babies. 

I don’t know if I regret not telling her then what was at stake. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not after everything she’d already been through. If this really was gonna be the end of the short time she’d spent with us, I wanted it to be a happy one. No teary goodbyes. Even if I didn’t know where the future would take her, I wanted to at least give her some good memories to take with. It was the least I could do for her to not to make her worry. 

“There’s something fishy about this,” Annie said, pouting as we helped Theo load what few bags she had onto the train.

“I told you, Annie, she needs to go visit her family in Canada for a few days. Think of it as a vacation.”

“Do not fret, Mistress Anastasia,” Theo said, bowing. “I will return shortly.”

“Hrmmmmm…” Annie growled. 

Theo smiled. Well that was rare. Certainly a turn-around from last night. Somehow, after the whole thing had settled down and the skunk stank had permanently soaked into the furniture, I’d managed to convince Theo without telling her exactly what was going on here. I still think that was for the best.

We managed to squeeze the last bag into the overhead compartment with only minutes left to spare before the train departed. Annie quickly hobbled through the door and off the train on her crutches while I stayed behind to send off Theo. I wish she would’ve gotten a better goodbye but it couldn’t be helped. It wasn’t easy boarding and disembarking from trains when you were walking with crutches.

Making sure Annie wasn’t looking, I pulled Theo aside into her compartment for a quick chat. 

“This is our number,” I said, fishing a small piece of paper out of my shirt pocket and handing it to Theo. “Call it if things get rough, we’ll come to help if we can. I don’t think the goon squad’s wised up to where you’re going yet but if they do, you’ll at least have a headstart. You know where you’re going, right?” 

“Montreal,” she said. “If I recall correctly, you said if I’d just stay put you’d return in five days to come pick me up.”

“Right,” I said, nodding. “Here’s some money for a B&B. Make sure to find one that’s a little out of the way and hunker down there for a few days. They’ll provide you with all the food you’ll need, so you don’t need to leave the house.”

I stuck the money in her cleavage. Hey, it’s where she seemed to keep everything else.

“Rest assured, I will not need it,” Theo said, not minding.

Her stomach rumbled, and I smiled. 

“Sure you won’t. Oh, and here.” I handed her a tin with some of the cigarettes we’d rolled last night. “Make sure not spend it all in one place.”

“I was not aware cigarettes were legal tender anywhere outside of prison.”

“It’s a figure of speech.”

“Ohhhh.”

“Al!” Annie cried from outside. “The train’s about to depart, what are you doing?!”

Shit. I checked my watch just as I felt the train start moving. Last chance to get off now.

“Gotta go. Thanks for trusting me on this.”

She shrugged. “Family helps each other out. Even when they don’t understand why.”

I smiled. “Attagirl.”

I rounded the corner and quickly jumped off the train just as it left the station. Breathing a sigh of relief, I knocked on the metal sheet behind me. If I’d waited any longer to do that I would’ve been pasted against the sides.

I found my way back to Annie and we headed home, only there was one more surprise waiting for us outside.

Marq sat waiting for us in a brand new black Mercedes Benz. He leaned out the side window and waved, smiling. Annie frowned and I smiled, returning the gesture. All of my business was taken care of now. Time for the fun to begin.

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Update

There’s been a minor delay, everyone. I unexpectedly got saddled with a ton of errands and housework on my last day before going back to uni for the new semester, the day I was supposed to have off to write the new chapter, and I’m only now just finishing it all. I’m probably gonna burn the midnight oil tonight working on it, but I can’t guarantee I’ll have it out any time within the next few hours. So I’m moving Monday’s update ahead by 24 hours just in case. Sorry for the delay, folks. I’ll get it to you as soon as it’s ready.

Bonus Interlude (Kichirō)

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Fifty feet. Kichirō stared back as the boat pulled away from New York Harbor. Only fifty feet away and he already felt an intense longing to jump off the side and run back to their apartment on Fifth Avenue. He didn’t understand. Why were they leaving New York? Who decided it was their right to take them away from their home?

He’d asked his mother, Holly, at least fifteen times in the past few days, and the only answer he could get out of her was “Japan is our home, sweetie. Our real home, where your father lives”. But just looking at her he could tell that wasn’t true. In fact, she looked almost as miserable as he did as the boat slowly floated further and further away from their home in New York. Together, they stared at the New York sunrise, their eyes remaining fixated on the light peeking out from behind the city skyline even when the brightness of the morning sun became blinding.

Kichirō held back bitter tears. At first all he did was ask questions about Japan. What it was like, where they would be living, and so many other questions. He told himself it was out of anger and concern rather than curiosity, but all that didn’t seem to matter now. All he could think about were the friends he had in Harlem, the abandoned lot they played baseball in, and the warm, unguarded smile of his mother at the breakfast table every morning as she made her famous eggs and bacon. Somehow he didn’t think this new home would be as nice as the old one.

But Kichirō, being just old enough to begin learning how to prioritize others before himself, didn’t want his mother to see him cry. She had so much else to deal with right, and taking care of him didn’t have to be one of them. That and he didn’t know what he’d do if she started crying too. Would he be able to hold back the tears if he knew his own mother felt so sad?

Then all three of us would be crying, he thought.

He looked over at his little brother Yoshirō, who was not quite old enough to prioritize the feelings of others and was selfishly bawling his eyes out. At only five years old, it was understandable why he’d act this way. But it wasn’t helping. Not his mood or his mother’s.

He looked up at her. He didn’t need to be told how she was feeling. Sucking it up, Kichirō put on a fake smile for his brother.

“Come on, don’t cry you big baby,” he said, ruffling Yoshirō’s hair. “It’s not that bad.”

“Yes it is!” Yoshirō whined, still crying. “We’re going away and we’re never coming back again!”

“Don’t be stupid,” Kichirō said. “We’ll be back. Remember when we took the boat to Coney Island and we had fun all day at the amusement park?”

“Y-Yeah…” Yoshirō said, sniffling.

“And remember how when it was time to go home, Mom and I had to drag you out of the park because you didn’t want to go back home? It’s just like that, Yoshi. We always come back home. And when we do, I bet you you’ll be crying like a baby because you won’t want to leave, just like back then! Alright?”

He sniffed, quieting down. “Aright…”

“That’s my little brother,” Kichirō said, smiling reassuringly. “Come on, let’s go below deck. I hear there’s free food and a bunch of fun stuff to do down there.”

He walked his little brother across the deck of the ship, both of them stealing one last glimpse at the New York City skyline as they retreated below deck.

“Hey, Kichirō?”

“Yeah, Yoshi?”

“Do you think Japan will be as pretty as New York?”

Kichirō paused. “I don’t think so, I know so, Yoshi.”

“Are you sure?”

“Have I ever been wrong before?”

As it turns out, the ship didn’t immediately drop them off at their new home. It took them two hours and a whole other trip by boat to reach the island their family supposedly lived on, passing through endless fields of mist and crowded, dirty cities that seemed stuck between two places in time. It was a wet, cold, miserable experience, and judging by the state of the island itself, it wasn’t going to get much better.

Kichirō and his little brother stepped off the boat hand-in-hand, their mother a few paces behind them. Silently, the two set their sights on the island whose vast and lifeless hills had been saturated by fogbanks, and whose mountains were spaced out endlessly in the background like teeth.

“Wow, I was wrong. This place is a total shithole.”

“I wanna go home,” Yoshirō complained.

“Kichirō!” his mother admonished him.

“Sorry,” he said. “A total poophole.”

“Now,” she said nervously, “do you two remember what I told you before we got on the boat?”

“Be polite, be respectful, speak only in Japanese…” Kichirō recited.

“But I don’t wanna speak in Japanese, I’m bad at it!” Yoshirō protested.

“I’ve been teaching you boys how to speak it since you were old enough to understand it, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” their mother said, silently praying that was the case. She and her husband had lived in Japan for a few years before they had the children, so she’d had a very long time to learn and master the language herself, but she’d never forgotten how unwelcome she was as a foreigner in this country. She could only hope that, as their father’s children, her boys would be met with more acceptance, and a lot of that would hinge on them being able to speak their father’s first language convincingly.

Kichirō wasn’t so sure, though. He’d never met his grandparents, but all things considered, they didn’t exactly sound like nice people going off the way they’d treated his father. He’d called them “ultra-nationalist right-wing nutjobs”, but Kichirō barely had a clue what even one of those words meant. All he knew is that they were supposedly pretty keen on the whole “family tradition” thing, which would explain why they lived in a feudal-era castle on top of a big hill.

“So…” Kichirō asked with a sense of foreboding as he stared at the massive stone staircase embedded into the hill. “How are we supposed to get up there?”

“I think we both know the answer to that, Kichirō,” his mother said. “We walk.”

“…”

“…”

There were few memories Kichirō had of anything quite as miserable and soul-draining as those stairs. As those cold, hard, wet, unforgiving goddamned stairs. After walking them so many times, the banal misery of the exercise became just as dreadful and boring as the inevitability of death and taxes. But on that first trip up the steep 300m staircase, Kichirō actually thought it was hell.

“We’re dead, right?” he said, huffing and gasping for air. “That boat took us across the River Styx and now we’re climbing the staircase to the gates of hell, right?”

“Stop being so dramatic,” his mother said, equally out of breath. “It can’t be that much farther…”

“I wanna go home!” Yoshirō complained.

“I told you honey, this is home now,” his mom huffed. “Just bear with it, okay?”

“But I don’t wanna!” his little brother yelled on the verge of tears. “This place is cold and mean and I don’t have any friends here and I just wanna go home!”

Yoshirō started crying, which made their mother finally snap.

“Look, I don’t like it any more than you do, Yoshi! But sending you two to live here in Japan was your father’s last wish, so there’s nothing I can do!”

His mother tried and failed bite back tears, and Kichirō’s stomach started to sink. What did she mean “last wish”?

“Mommy…” Yoshirō said, sensing the uneasiness in the air.

She sniffed, trying not to cry in front of her child. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”

Their mother just kept repeating that over and over as the gigantic wooden doors at the top of the hill opened and an entourage of men dressed in what Kichirō assumed was traditional Japanese clothing approached them.

“<Thank you for your hard work, Woods-san>,” a sharp looking man in glasses said as he adjusted his frames. “<I’m sure it was not easy for you to come all the way out here given the… circumstances. We’ll take the boys from here.>”

Two large men grabbed them by their arms and hoisted them into the air before Kichirō could think or so anything. They kicked and struggled but their grips were strong like an iron vice. Where were they taking them? Why was their mother just standing there, doing nothing?

“Mom!” Kichirō yelled out. “Mooooom!”

“Mommy-y-y!” Yoshirō cried.

“I’m sorry!” their mother yelled back as she too was restrained, her arms outstretched as she was carried away. “I’m sorry! Kichirō!

It didn’t take long for the fight to leave the boys as their mother’s silhouette quickly disappeared behind the titanic wooden doors surrounding the complex. Built twenty feet high out of whole tree trunks and surrounded by walls of stone six meters thick, those castle gates were made to withstand non-stop cannon-fire for days on end during the Warring States period. What chance did they have of breaching them? Their mother was right outside those walls, and yet for all the distance between them she may as well have gone back to America. They were trapped now. Cut-off. Separated from their mother, the only family they had left.

Kichirō shook his head. You don’t know that. You don’t know what she meant. Maybe he’s just missing, or he’s sick!

“Kichirō,” Yoshirō asked weakly, his voice cracking. “Where are they taking us?”

“I don’t know, Yoshi,” Kichirō responded honestly. “I don’t know.”

Their impromptu tour through the complex lasted for almost a half an hour as they were dragged through living quarters, gardens, kitchens, dojos, archery ranges, and rooms whose importance were lost on Kichirō, but he was sure there must have been some. They were too grandiose to be pointless.

Finally, they were brought into a large, open hall filled with mats for sitting. Many people, presumably all family members, were seated around an ornate throne in which an old man sat, much like a king in his castle would. That means he was most likely a lord, and head of the family. Kichirō didn’t need to know much about Japan to guess that. But… he was disgustingly old. Decrepit even, more of a prune or a sun-dried raisin than a man. Could he even walk anymore, or had that

The old man waited until everyone had taken a seat, the brothers included, before signaling one of his attendants to speak. Kichirō paid close attention. As long as they showed respect, and remembered not to talk out of turn, things would be fine.

“<Welcome, children of the Sadoya clan.>”

“<It’s Woods, actually. Sir…>” Kichirō responded.

The attendant frowned. “<I’ll let that one slide for now since you’re new here. That was your name back in America. Your real name, your father’s name, is Sadoya>,” the attendant said with conviction.

“<He never told us anything about that, sir. Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know we still had family in Japan.>”

“<Yes, it would appear there was a lot your father never told you about your real family. And yet I’m told you were quite fond of him.>”

“<Yes, sir>,” Kichirō responded. “<He’s a good man. He’s strong, kind, a little strict, and he’s always there for us. I couldn’t have asked for a better father.>”

“<So would you say you wish to be like him one day?>”

Kichirō paused. “… <Yes, sir. My father is a hero to me, like Batman or Superman.>”

“<Or Ōgon Bat.>” The attendant nodded. “<Commendable. Sadly misguided, but commendable. It’s a shame we lost you two to that savage country. If only we could have begun your education sooner… Another question, then. In exchange, for every question you answer, I will answer one of yours.>”

Kichirō nodded. “<Alright.>”

“<Do you know why it is your father left home?>”

“<I’m told it was to be with my mother.>”

“<And do you understand why this was a grave offense on his part?>”

“<To be honest sir, not really, no.>”

The attendant sighed. “<Kichirō… do you know exactly what it was your father did for a living before he ran off to America to be with that swine of a woman you call your mother?>”

Kichirō frowned. Dick… come to think of it he does look like that guy we met at the gate…

“<No sir, I don’t. I’m told he was a salaryman.”>

This time it was the elder’s turn to speak. He opened his crusty old lips to speak, and wheezed.

“<Your father was far more than a mere salaryman, child. Your father slew demons.>”

Kichirō’s eyes widened. Was he sure he’d heard that right? His Japanese may not have been on the level of someone who had been born and raised in Japan, but he was sure he’d just heard the word for “ghost” or “phantom”. Yōkai…

“Ummm, excuse me? Mister? Where’s our dad?” Yoshirō asked out of turn. “I thought we were coming here to visit him-“

The attendants eyes flared with rage. “<Silence!>”

The servant’s deafening roar made Yoshirō flinch. Kichirō flinched on the inside instead. What did mom tell you, Yoshi? That’s not respectful at all!

One of the men seated behind them stood up and walked over to a rack filled with weapons. Carefully selecting a wooden bamboo sword like Kichirō had always seen in the movies, he calmly approached Yoshirō and unflinchingly beat him in the back of the head.

“Yoshi!”

His little brother collapsed to the floor, momentarily stunned, and Kichirō felt a thick meaty hand grab the back of his head and force him to prostrate himself, his nose almost touching the polished wood. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt!

He looked up as much as he could to watch the elder and his assistant, who was still incensed at the interruption. The old man was impossible to figure out though. Kichirō didn’t know if he was angry or not. He just sat their, immobile and looking like a withered corpse. The assistant spoke up.

“<How dare you interrupt his lordship when he is talking! Do you know no respect?!>”

Yoshirō was beat again with the wooden bamboo sword, this time audibly screaming as he curled up on the floor.

“<And speaking like one of those filthy foreigners makes my skin crawl! You would address your lord like that?! Know your place, child!>”

He hit Yoshirō again, making hot tears of anger and shame well up inside Kichirō. You’re dead! Don’t touch him or you’re dead! That’s my little brother, you assholes!

But before he could say anything that got them both beat again, he stopped to think. No. I have to be polite. Can’t make the same mistake Yoshi did or they’ll just hit us both even more. Things work differently here than in Harlem. If we want to survive, we have to learn the rules.

“<Please forgive my brother!>” Kichirō spoke out. “<He’s only six, he doesn’t know any better! I’m sure if he was older and more mature, he would show his lordship the respect he deserves! It’s my fault for not teaching him better. Please forgive me!>”

He bowed out of his own free will this time, and not by the hand of the man sitting behind them, hoping it would appease the elder.

There was silence in the room. Nobody spoke, and the only noise was that of Yoshirō’s whimpering as he was beat over and over with the bamboo sword. Finally, the elder slowly and deliberately raised his hand, and the man stopped. Kichirō felt a surging rush of relief.

“<What makes you think one mistake will make up for another?>”

Kichirō felt the stone in his gut plummet to the floor. No…

The elder nodded at his attendant, who gave the signal to the man with the bamboo sword. Before he could speak out in protest, Yoshirō was struck even harder, a bright purple bruise developing on his wrist.

“<Stop it!>” Kichirō yelled.

“<You’re just like your father, you know. He didn’t know his place either>,” the elder continued, rasping in his old man voice. “<The brat thought he could just up and leave us to be with that stupid foreigner, like we wouldn’t even give it a second thought. He deserved what he got.>”

Kichirō’s eyes widened. “What does that mean? Tell me, you old bastard!”

The elder narrowed his eyes until they practically disappeared beneath the folds of his baggy skin, mere lines on his face.

“<It means your father is dead, boy.>”

He was forced to the ground again for speaking out of turn (in English, no less), and the elder turned to his assistant.

“<Saito, I leave them in your care.>”

“<Of course, Shichiro-sama.>”

The attendant, approached Kichirō, paying no mind to his brother who laid crumpled on the floor, the fight long since beaten out of him. He crouched to get down on Kichirō’s level, and lifted up his chin so he could look him in the eye.

“<You said you always wanted to be like your father, yes?>”

Kichirō looked up at the attendant, no, looked up at Saito, with pure hatred in his eyes. Saito smiled.

“<Rejoice, Sadoya Kichirō. Your wish will finally come true. Welcome to hell.>”

In the months that followed, Kichirō learned that their father was the next in a long line of what were known as onmyōdō, or yōkai tamers, and that in fleeing Japan to be with their mother, he’d more or less abdicated the throne. This left a massive power vacuum that threw the Sadoya and its branch families into chaos. Initially, the role of family head was to be filled by one of the sons of the Sadoya branch families. But with their death in combat, and their father’s death, the responsibility of succeeding the current family head fell to Kichirō and Yoshirō.

What this meant for the boys was twofold. One, it meant their father was dead, and they were likely to never see their mother again. Two, it meant they would be beaten within an inch of their lives almost daily during training to become the next family head, and then perhaps beaten again outside the dojo if Saito felt it was necessary. All in the name of teaching them discipline, of course. “A complacent warrior is a dead warrior”, as Saito always said. “They were being taught secrets no one in the outside world could ever dream of, so be grateful!” he said.

So that’s how it was, their new daily routine. Wake up at five in the morning for a cold, unappetizing breakfast, gear up for suicidal training consisting of impossible challenges an adult couldn’t hope to overcome let alone a child, run laps around the complex, spend the rest of the afternoon being drilled by Saito in language and etiquette, geography, history, demonology and so, so many others, eat dinner, and then spend the rest of the night either doing more training or studying various mantras and other magic spells that were supposed to help summon and control spirits.

After a year of this kind of treatment, Kichirō had had innumerable broken bones, bruises, and scars in all sorts of new places, not to mention so many sleepless nights he now had permanent bags under his eyes. He felt perpetually tired and irritated, and it was only getting worse every day, piling on like snowflakes. Yoshirō was faring even worse. Maybe it was because of how he’d acted when they first met, but Saito was extra-strict with Yoshirō, working him even harder than Kichirō. The two of them barely got a chance to talk to each other anymore, and when they did, Yoshirō was never in the mood. The stress of the training and their father’s death still weighed on him heavily. That was one thing Kichirō was thankful for. He’d found that, somehow, he had this ability to detach himself from a situation when things got bad. It made it easier to cope with their father’s death, the hell they were being put through… everything.

And yet despite all this, neither of them felt any closer to accomplishing something or learning anything about why they were here than the day they’d arrived. They didn’t even know if any of this would ever be worth it.

While he’d initially been in awe of the idea that his father was a monster hunter, what remained of the fantasy had quickly been stripped away by that place and its brutal policies and unforgiving people. No one there liked them, or even wanted them to be there it seemed. And yet here they were, practicing a bunch of superstitious mysticism and other mumbo-jumbo, with no idea how it worked or if it worked, all while being treated like dirt and being worked like slaves. And for what? To support this family they hated and had never known until it was convenient for them? How did he know they weren’t just bluffing about this whole “yōkai tamer” thing? What if all this was just pointless torture?

“<Too slow!>”

Kichirō felt a sharp blow connect with his head and because of the arm and the leg he was holding behind his back, he fell over backwards onto the floor of the dojo. Saito loomed over him.

“<You’re too damn slow! Almost as slow as that failure brother of yours. You’ll never be able to follow in your father’s footsteps at this rate!>”

Kichirō panted, and stood up, even though it hurt.

“<Yeah, and do what? Slay yōkai? All we’ve been doing is doing stupid shit like fighting you one-handed and reading history books! I haven’t seen a single yōkai since we got here! Not a single one! I bet this is all just made up, isn’t it, and you’re just beating us up because it makes you feel important. Right?!?>”

“<Oh?>” Saito said, raising his voice. “<So you want to see a yōkai then?>”

“<Yeah, I do!>”

Saito adjusted his glasses. “<Very well then. Meet me out in the forest tomorrow morning then.>”

“<Wha… really?>”

“<Yes, really. Before breakfast tomorrow at five, there should be a path leading into the forest. I’ll be waiting for you at the end. Don’t be late.>”

“<I won’t…>” Kichirō said, surprised it had gone over so smoothly. Maybe this wasn’t such a waste of time after all…

Nope, nevermind. Total waste of time.

“Saito, you son of a bitch…” Kichirō murmured as he walked back to the complex in the near-darkness before sunrise.

As it turns out, there had been nothing at the end of the path. No Saito, and no yōkai. The path just stopped. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, Kichirō had no choice but to head back to the complex to face his punishment.

I bet that was the bastard’s plan all along, Kichirō thought. Send me out here before the crack of dawn so I’d get lost and miss breakfast. Then he’d get to discipline me with the bamboo sword again and give me another lecture on “punctuality” before making me stand on one leg while balancing a cinder block on my head or something. Then I’d drop it and break my toes and I’d have to miss out on one of my two meals a day until I was healthy enough to train again… Damn you, Saito.

Kichirō walked slowly towards the complex, and kept walking for a lot longer than he remembered on the way down the path. Eventually, he stopped and looked around? Was he lost? The path wasn’t paved, so it was pretty ill-defined, and it’s not like he could tell one tree from another out here.

“Great…” he said underneath his breath. “This day just keeps getting better and be… wait. What the hell is that?”

Kichirō sniffed the air. He’d tasted it the moment he’d opened his mouth. There was something wrong with the air. It tasted foul. No… it wasn’t the taste. It was the smell. Something between head cheese and stinky feet, with a little bit of grass and marshland thrown in for extra eugh. What the hell… what was that?

Kichirō looked around, and saw something he wished he’d never seen. A rolling lump of flesh, bigger than a man, with pimples, short little hairs, moles, and folds of fat that made it look like it had a face. It didn’t look like it noticed him, or if it did it just didn’t care. The blubbery bastard just rolled around squishing things and making a flap-flap noise with its gelatinous folds.

“Heheh… heh… what the fuck are you?” he said somewhat nervously. “Are you the fat lady here to sing for me?”

If the creature responded, it did it by nonchalantly rolling over a bush, flattening it as it undulated over it like a flesh carpet. Aside from smelling godawful, the thing really didn’t seem that intimidating. So was this a yōkai?

The thing seemingly attacked a tree next, trying to cover its trunk in its rolls of fat but not quite succeeding. It was just like a snail the way it threw itself on top of things it thought it wanted to eat. Kichirō laughed a little.

“What, are you on a diet? Gotta eat a lot of leafy greens?” he said, smiling. “Wait, I think I know what you are now. You’re a nuppeppo, right? That blobby thing Saito is always telling me about. You don’t look that dangerous.”

Kichirō stared at the thing for a few seconds, watching the deaf-blind creature try to fit its nonexistent mouth around the tree. Then, he thought of trying to feed it.

Picking up a stick, Kichirō threw it at the nuppeppo blob like a dog. It caught in its fat, a tiny little arm or fold shooting out to catch it. Kichirō smiled. It knew how to play fetch.

The thing munched on the stick, pulping it inbetween its folds like it was chewing it. Taking the next big step forward, Kichirō decided he was gonna try and pet it. Sure it looked like a giant lump of disembodied human flesh and smelled even worse, but it acted just like a big cow.

He reached his hand out.

“<Stop!>”

Kichirō snapped his head at whoever was yelling. It couldn’t be Saito. Was it Saito? He thought the bastard had left him out here.

“<Down here, young man.>”

Kichirō looked down at the ground. As luck would have it, he’d met not one, but two yōkai that day. A small furry thing in robes that sat on its own nutsack and dragged itself around with a walking stick was standing (or rather sitting) right next to his leg. A tanuki. This one he didn’t even have to think about, he recognized it right away.

“<Hi…>” Kichirō said. He’d heard tanuki could be helpful towards humans, but that a lot of them were tricksters too. The lore was apparently somewhat inconsistent on that part (then again, you could count the times it was consistent on one hand).

“<Young man, do you have any idea what you were just about to do?>”

“<I was gonna pet it…?>”

“<’Gonna pet it’… hmph! I bet you think it’s just some big old puppy dog, don’t you?>”

“<Actually I thought it was more like a cow…>” Kichirō said for no reason in particular.

“<Listen up, boy. This thing will eat whatever it rolls over. Watch.”>

The tanuki poked the nuppeppo with its walking stick, and it sunk right into the nuppeppo’s flesh, enveloped by its folds of fat.

“<See? Anything it touches, it eats>,” the tanuki said, tugging on the end of its walking stick. “<Get it now?>”

“<Yeah, thanks>,” Kichirō said, minding the blob with a fair bit more suspicion than before. “<So is this like your forest or something?>”

“<No, but this is my cane, so if you could help me retrieve it>,” the tanuki said, grunting. “<I would be most grateful. Its the least you can do. I mean, when you think about it this is kind of your fault.>”

Kichirō frowned. “<No need to be pushy, I was gonna help you get it anyway. I get enough of that back at the temple…>”

“<Oh, so you’re the Sadoya clan heir then>,” the tanuki said as Kichirō grabbed hold of him like they were playing tug-of-war with the nuppeppo. “<Alright, now pull, and make sure to keep a firm grip on me.>”

“<Not like I wanna be, but that’s the gist of it>,” Kichirō said as he started pulling. “<My brother and I got dragged to this island a year ago after our father died.>”

“<A brother, huh? I have a brother too, you know>,” the tanuki said conversationally, still trying to wrench the stick away from the blob of flesh. “<Useless bastard. A real pain in my ass is what he is. What’s yours like?>”

“<He’s been… out of shape since we came here.>”

“<Out of shape? Why?>” the tanuki asked. “<And make sure to keep a tight grip!>”

Kichirō frowned. “<Why? Do you know what they do to us up there?!>”

“<They’re training you to be yōkai tamers, right? The tanuki have been longstanding allies of your family for quite some time. And you’re forgetting your grip, make sure to watch your grip!>”

The nuppeppo pulled on the stick harder, and for a second Kichirō almost tripped after the sudden jerk. He dug into the ground.

“<Training us? More like torturing us! Our attendant Saito is a total sadist! He has us do stuff like punching rocks! Just like, for no reason! Until our fists bleed! Then we have to hold up a hundred pound barbell in each hand until our legs give out!>”

“<Yeah, sounds about right>,” the tanuki grunted. “<I mean, you two are learning how to be yōkai tamers, right? It’s a pretty intense profession. Certainly a lot more difficult than those namby-pamby salarymen.>”

“<Are you kidding me? I’d rather be a salaryman than this! Hell, I’d rather lick toilets clean for a living! But they won’t let us leave!>”

“<Hey, kid!>” the tanuki yelled as Kichirō continued to rant. “<Your grip! Don’t forget to watch your grip! These balls weren’t made for anchoring you know!>”

“<And the worst part is I didn’t even know yōkai were real until today! Saito never showed us any! We just spend our days bending spears with our throats and being disciplined for things we don’t understand because no one ever told us they were wrong! Have you seen the way they treat my brother? It’s awful! Most nights he just falls asleep crying! Saito beats him with a bamboo sword almost every day! I can’t even->”

“<Kid! For the love of god! Your grip!>”

But Kichirō had forgotten to mind his grip like the tanuki warned him, and as he was about to find out, that was a big fucking mistake. The nuppeppo yanked on the stick and the tanuki went sailing out of Kichirō’s hands, its balls smacking against the nuppeppo’s rolls of flesh as it was pulled in. Kichirō tumbled over, landing face-first in the dirt. He only looked up when the tanuki started screaming.

It was one of the most horrible things he’d ever seen. Like the tanuki said, the nuppeppo ate anything it rolled over that was smaller than it. There was no rule that exempted living things like birds and small animals.

The tanuki struggled futilely as rolls of fat lapped over it like waves in an ocean, undulating and trying to bury him underneath layers and layers of blubber. It grasped and clawed desperately, but for every inch it gained it lost another two as one of its limbs was sucked into the tumbling walls of fat, lost forever in the nuppeppo’s unbreakable grip.

“<Kid, help!>” it yelled as it lost its left arm. “<Grab my cane! The cane!>”

The tanuki reached out with its free arm, holding the stick for Kichirō to take. He pulled, but the nuppeppo wouldn’t let go, and the harder he pulled the more it seemed like he was hurting the tanuki. Eventually something had to give, and the tanuki lost hold of his walking stick, falling backwards into the nuppeppo as the last of its flailing limbs was consumed.

“<Kid!>” it yelled desperately. “<Kid! Help me! I don’t wanna die like this! I don’t wanna die!>”

Kichirō looked around desperately for something to distract the nuppeppo with, but his concentration was broken by the tanuki’s panicked screaming. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t just let it die, but what could he do? He didn’t know how to fight this thing!

With nothing left to do, Kichirō did the only thing he could think of and punched the nuppeppo in what he perceived to be its gut as hard as he could, hoping to make it vomit up the tanuki. And while Kichirō’s punches had been honed to hit hard enough to break tree trunks, it did absolutely nothing to the nuppeppo, who didn’t even stop as its flesh rippled outwards, it superior mass completely diluting the impact of Kichirō’s punch.

The tanuki was too smothered to even speak or yell anymore. Kichirō could only watch its flailing limbs as the nuppeppo’s flesh surrounded it, squeezing it until it popped like a pimple, its blood covering Kichirō as the nuppeppo slurped up the remains. The crunching of the tanuki’s bones was grotesque and horrifying, the sounds of nature and swift mortality claiming another victim. Kichirō felt his legs become weak as the nuppeppo finished its meal, turning its attention to him. As the last thing to touch it, he was next on the menu.

“No…” Kichirō said through an eyeful of tears. “Stay away… stay away!”

Something leaped out of the bushes, jumping into the fray like a tiger that was about to pounce on its prey. Kichirō couldn’t see much in the dim light of dawn, but what happened next was unbelievable.

Hoisting an iron club over its head, the new creature, which he could now tell was humanoid in shape, swung at the nuppeppo, bringing its weapon down on its head in full force. Immediately the nuppeppo ballooned outwards, its flesh flattening and expanding like a bloody pillow as it tried to cope with the force of the blow before popping the same way the tanuki had, bursting at the seams in a shower of blood and greasy fat. The stink was unbearable.

Kichirō looked up at his savior standing over the defeated pile of flesh, the rising sun illuminating their features. They weren’t just humanoid, they looked human. About a one and one-third a meter in height, with dark burgundy, almost red skin. Their hair was white like fresh snow and horns were growing out of the side of their head, one on each temple, just above the ear. They were dressed in a tiger-skin loincloth and held their gore-spattered iron club in one-hand, and a lump of the nuppeppo’s flesh in another.

Smiling, they slid off the gigantic flesh mound and kneeled in front of Kichirō, offering him the lump of meat.

“<You want some?>” it asked in a girlish voice. “<It smells like garbage but I hear it’s supposed to grant you eternal youth if you eat it.>”

“<No thanks…>” Kichirō said, waving his hands. “<But thanks. For saving me, I mean.>”

“<Saving you from what?>” she asked. “<This thing? It’s harmless.>”

“<It is now…>” Kichiro murmured. “<Say, what are you? I’ve never seen anyone like you before.>”

The girl-thing pouted. “<Well that’s mean! What are you?>”

“<I’m Kichirō>,” he said, holding out his hand. “<And you are?>”

She looked at him, confused, then smiled, and shook his hand. “<Ren. My name’s Ren.>”

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Update

I hate to say this, but I’ve fallen prey to a smidge of writer’s block. While I don’t expect it to last for very long, Monday’s chapter would be long overdue by the time I managed to put it out there, so instead I’ll just be releasing more content on Friday to make up for missing today.

Sorry folks.

Stealing Stones and Breaking Bones 3.7

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We pulled up in front of The Weekly Throne, the newspaper company that served as a front for Hliðskjálf, New York’s most dependable information brokering agency. They were the Allesandri’s golden boys. Nothing beats having the press on your side, and it’s a genius move for an information broker to hide behind a newspaper when you think about it. The nature of the job means there’s always information to be had at Hliðskjálf if you were willing to pay the right price. No one hears more and sees more in the big city than its newspapers.

Marq and I climbed out of the rental car, trailing what remained of our forces from the warehouse meeting behind us. I’d never been here in person myself, so Marq thought it might be a good time to get me acquainted with the staff in case he need me to run any errands in the future. We’d left Sostene and Nayeli behind (at the latter’s protest) to make arrangements for the trip we were about to take just to catch up with these guys. Marq assured me this was an errand we could handle alone. He was on friendly terms with the chief editor of the newspaper.

We pushed open the front doors, ringing a little bell, and were greeted by a fairly standard, ho-hum newsroom. Nothing too special to be seen. That was the beauty of Hliðskjálf. Simplicity and efficiency. Marq liked that. I had my doubts they were gonna be able to help us here though.

“Uh, Marq? I hate to be that guy right now, but I don’t think a newspaper is gonna have the info we need.”

Marq smirked. “You would think that, wouldn’t you?”

I didn’t have any time to argue with him because as soon as he finished, we were approached by some kid dressed like a butler who handed us two glasses of champagne just outta nowhere.

“Uhhhhhh…”

“Greetings on behalf of my Mistress. My name is Aster,” the kid said with a bow. He was barely out of grade school, but it looked like he’d been doing this whole “butler” thing for a while now. “If you would, please follow me. The Mistress is waiting for you.”

“Yeah, sure thing kid…” I said, utterly confused. And, not gonna lie, more than a little weirded out.

We followed the kid through the newsroom and into the back, where the kid told us to wait while he retrieved a key. Sliding a huge lump of brass into the lock on the farthest door from the entrance, he turned the key with both hands and unlocked the door for us.

“Holy shit…” I muttered as the door swung open.

It was like we’d stepped out of the dingy newsroom office into a whole other building. A gigantic archive, a building made from stacks of paper, glue, and cardboard boxes. And the only thing that seemed to fill it were shelves. Empty shelves, rusty shelves, shelves filled with papers, boxes, books and folders, shelves that were neat and shelves that were… not so neat. Shelves formed the only dividing walls I could see, separating hundreds of little open-sided cubicles, each with a desk and a typewriter. Each of them were pretty much identical, and seeing how much walking we had to do, I got to see a lot of them. Sometimes the ones we passed had people sitting at them. Others didn’t. And yet all of them were typing. Was this someone’s atelier?

The kid started silently walking forward, totally quiet and emotionless. Without much else to do, Marq and I followed him. And followed him. And then kept following him long after we’d lost sight of the door. After a while I lost track of how long and how far we’d walked. I looked around in every direction I could think of, trying to find some point of reference. I couldn’t see the ceiling, or the walls, or even the floor. Just metal catwalks connecting shelf after shelf after shelf, up and down and all around. The endless room of shelves stretched on into what felt like eternity.

“We should be almost there,” Aster said out of nowhere, disrupting the painful silence. “Please prepare yourself to meet my Mistress. She can be… difficult.”

“Take it in, Al,” Marq said, leading me on a zigzagging path through the maze. “What you’re looking at is the core of Hliðskjálf’s information-gathering services. And this is its heart.”

We came into view of a giant throne at least five stories high made of dossiers, books, portfolios, newspapers, and every other kind of recorded medium known to man, a veritable mountain of knowledge. And that was when I came face to face with her. It. That… thing. I’ll leave you to decide what you want to call it. What I can tell you right now though is that it had black eyes, and although its body was female it dressed like a stereotypical pimp, aviator sunglasses, mink fur coat and expensive-looking cane very much included.

It lowered the sunglasses it used to hide itself from others, revealing neon blue irises offset by pitch black sclera. I knew what those eyes were. They were the eyes of the creatures called djinn, spirits, fairies, tricksters. These were the eyes of demons.

Barely looking up from the copy of the Ars Goetia it was currently viewing, the demon lazily addressed with, “Welcome to my endless realm, foolish and unknowing mortals! You stand before Asmodeus of the first hierarchy, prince of thrones and master over the courts of vile revenges! My hours are 8 to 8:30 non-standard time. I charge a flat rate of one soul per customer and have the right to deny service to any cultists or uppity Israelites with fancy jewelry. How may I help you?”

I froze, gripped by an overwhelming desire to run but trapped in a heavy body that wouldn’t let me go. I was stuck like a deer in the headlights. Was this a setup? Was I being set up? By Marq? No no no, Marq wouldn’t do that. He would just sell me out to some demon right?!

I tried to reason with myself, tried to think my way out of this oppressive fear, that I was feeling, but all I could think about was the demon.

There were stories I’d always hear as a child about what happened to people who made deals with demons. The crossroads blues is what they called it. Someone in a bind or deep a ways into trouble would somehow always find their way to a demon, or a demon would find their way to them. They’d get tricked into making a deal, either because they were too stupid or too desperate to consider the consequences. They’d name their price and sell their soul and the demon would give them everything they asked for and more. No strings attached. No jackass genie routine where the wish itself is somehow horribly flawed and turns on the wisher. They always got everything they’d ever asked for, in the exact way they’d asked for it. Then… things started happening to them.

You see, what people refer to as the soul doesn’t actually exist according to what Marq tells me. It’s not some metaphysical entity or a glowing ball of light that for some reason lives inside our bodies. A soul is just life. Not life-force, life itself. Your mind, your body, your memories, your personality, your emotions and everything else you value, that’s what a soul is. It doesn’t have to be an ethereal thing. A bit of your soul is probably in your baseball card collection, because the baseball cards mean something to you. They have intimate, personal value.

So when you sell your soul, you’re handing over everything you value to the demon, and they have the right to take those things away from you whenever they want, piece by piece. Are you seeing the problem now? Family members die or disappear, bank accounts run dry, marriages are either destroyed or never happened to begin with, and all the best things in your life are taken from you one by one. You could go blind, forget the taste of your mom’s gnocchi or how she cooked it, hell, you could forget your mom. Anything is fair game for a demon.

If Marq was planning on trading me to one of these things, I was screwed.

“Yo,” Marq said remarkably casually.

“Yo, Marquis,” the demon responded.

As I sat there with my ass chemically bonded to where I stood, the demon turned its attention to me. It looked at me inquisitively. I never took my eyes off it either, desperately praying that it was just looking at something behind me.

“Mistress, I’ve brought the Marquis, just like you asked,” the boy said, fidgeting. “May I go?”

But the demon didn’t seem to react, which only made him fidget more. “Is there something wrong, Mistress?”

The demon smiled salaciously.

Suddenly it was gone. I hadn’t blinked or looked away. Suddenly it had just ceased to be and I didn’t even notice it, like it had disappeared inbetween frames in a movie. I felt something behind me, something reaching out without touching me, and I whipped around to face it. But there was nothing. I turned around, and it was standing only inches away from my face. Its lips split into a full grin.

“Hello there~”

I backed up without thinking like a cornered rabbit, startled and scared. Every survival instinct I had was screaming at me to run. The demon quite obviously found this amusing.

“You’ve certainly brought me a jumpy one today, Marquis,” it said, squatting down to look at me on my level. “Don’t be afraid little one, I’m here to help. Well, mostly anyway. I suppose that all depends on whether or not you’re on the right side of the deal.”

I smiled shakily. “Is there ever a right side of the deal to be on?”

It laughed. “He’s clever too! I like him. Call me Asmodeus, kid. I’d help you up, but…”

“But I’d have to make a deal for it, right?”

“Correct. It makes me sad, not being able to interact with this world without equivalent exchange, but that’s just how it goes.”

I grimaced. The Conceptual Non-Interference Clause. The demons had no name for it, so we gave it one for them. It’s what prevents a demon from taking any direct action that would interfere with the world of forms unless it’s for the completion of a binding contract, otherwise known as a deal. It greatly restricts their movements in our world, limiting them to movements and gestures that have even less impact than a ghost or a poltergeist. For all intents and purposes, they barely exist. But in exchange demons themselves cannot have any action taken against them which would interfere with their stated intent or goals. Think of it as cosmic diplomatic immunity. They exist in a legal grey area not even gods can touch so long as they play by the rules, and they can do almost anything if you give them permission and an equally enticing compensation. Quirks like this are what make demons the ultimate jokers.

“Asmodeus, huh?” I said, summoning up the courage to look the demon in the face. “Is that your real name?”

“Of course it’s not,” it answered frankly. “If I told you my real name you’d have the right to enslave me, so why would I do that? I’d much rather just use whatever name comes to mind, although I use this name specifically to interact with humans because someone once told me it was… fitting for me.”

I glanced at Marq. “So I take it that it’s true then, that a demon can’t lie?”

“I cannot,” it said gleefully. “And I must answer any question asked of me.”

“Alright then,” I said. “Tell me your real name.”

“You forgot to phrase it as a question.”

“Okay, what is your real name?”

“A statement expressing in its fullness the weight of my expansive past colliding head-on with my neverending future. An assertion of my Impetus in its purest form, although a base and simplistic life form like you wouldn’t be able to understand that,” it said smugly. “You’re going to have to try harder than that, kid. I’ve been answering that question for almost fourteen billion years. You’d hope I would’ve come up with some more creative answers by now.”

“Impetus?”

“The driving force in all creation that imbues objects with power and a purpose,” Marq said. “I’ll explain it to you again later.”

I frowned. “Are you going to give me a straight answer to any of my questions or are you just going to dodge me with this run-around-the-mulberry-bush bullshit every time I ask you something?”

The demon shrugged. “Maybe if you were to ask the right questions?”

“Ahem.”

Marq cleared his throat. Taking his cue, the servant boy asked, “Mistress? Don’t you want to ask the Marquis what business he’s here on?”

Asmodeus frowned.

“Oh fine. Spoil all my fun why don’t you…” It bit its thumb in frustration and sighed before turning right around asking, “What do you want, Marquis? You’d better make it quick. I’m rapidly losing interest in you for your cute new lackey.”

Was I… was I getting hit on by a demon? Ew. Ew ew ew ewwwww.

“I’m looking for some information, and a little bit of help,” Marq said. “Think you can help me out?”

“Of course. Since when have I ever failed you?” Asmodeus insinuated. “I assume you have the usual payment prepared?”

I swallowed audibly, holding my breath. I was ready to run if I had to, but it wouldn’t do me any good.

“No, not this time. Business has been unusually good this month. Leg-breakers found a guy just today though, name of Shep Sanders. I’m sure he’d be willing to put off a smashed kneecap today for a bit of bad luck tomorrow. That is how you demons like to operate, right? The loansharks of the universe.”

“Except he doesn’t benefit from the deal like you do,” it said. “That’s awfully cold, you know. Forcing someone into that. Why, if I wasn’t a demon, I’d almost feel like crying.”

Asmodeus began mock-crying, and very poorly at that. Glancing at Marq, I could tell he was getting fed up with the theatrics. I on the other hand, couldn’t be more relieved. I let out a loud sigh of relief. I knew Marq wouldn’t stab me in the back like that.

“Moving along,” he said, clearing his throat. “I need you to take a look at something for me, and then I need information.”

The demon frowned.

“You know the price isn’t right here, Marquis. ” Asmodeus said. “One soul to one deal, that’s how it goes. Even if they somehow happen survive, we don’t like repeat customers, and they usually don’t like us.”

“And yet somehow you continue put up with me,” Marq said, mocking the demon. “The price is right for one deal, and one deal is all I need. The information I’ll pay for traditionally.”

He fished out his wallet, and Asmodeus frowned. It must have felt gypped.

“You’re lucky you’re not exactly the average customer, Marquis,” Asmodeus said, snatching the wallet. “Otherwise I might not put up with you. So? What’s Shep Sander’s misfortune buying you?”

“Look inside the wallet,” Marq said. “We’re chasing a group rumor has it is in possession of a philosopher’s stone, and I need you to verify something for me. There’s a fragment of the stone wrapped in a piece of paper they left behind when they fled. It’s mostly dust, but it should be enough to tell you what it is and how they’re smuggling it out of New York.”

Asmodeus unwrapped the piece of paper after it found it and then licked it, dust and all. I wonder what it tasted like. Essence of creation with a hint of sweaty Frenchman?

Asmodeus licked its lips, smacking loudly. “Well, I can tell you one thing for sure. Maybe there is a philosopher’s stone out there, but this ain’t it.”

“You sure?” Marq asked seriously.

“Positive. This stone? Not a philosopher’s stone.”

“Then what is it?” I asked, losing patience.

It considered it. “Salty, but with a pinch of iron.”

“Specifically,” Marq said. “What’s its chemical makeup? Its properties? Where is it from?”

“Space,” Asmodeus said. “The stone is from outer space. And it’s not a philosopher’s stone.”

“Yeah, you already told us that,” I said through grit teeth.

“Hold on, let me finish,” it said, scolding me. “It’s not a philosopher’s stone. It’s the cintamani stone.”

“… What?” I said.

Asmodeus smiled. “Marquis, care to explain?”

Marq sighed. “Many years ago, during the reign of the Tibetan king Lha Thothori Nyantsen, four relics descended from Heaven unto Earth, falling from the sky in metal caskets. These relics, which you humans now call ‘terma’, were worshipped as holy objects, two sages having decreed to the king that they were divine treasures, sent by the Buddha to bring dharma to the world. Two of the treasures have been lost to time (that information will cost you extra, by the way), but the two that remain are said to be a singing bowl owned by Buddha, and a mani stone with the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra inscribed on it. This stone was said to be able to grant any wish. Clothing and food could be manifested, and sickness and suffering could be cured. That is the power of the cintamani stone.”

“Of course the part about being sent by Buddha is correct, but the rest of the details are a bit more mundane,” Asmodeus said. “The stone was actually sent here from space on a hunk of meteoric iron, not a casket sent from Heaven. If such a thing existed, don’t you think I would’ve found my way in there by now? And the stone itself wasn’t really that big of a deal either. It’s certainly unique, but its power nowhere near rivals that of the philosopher’s stone. That’s a treasure that’s staying buried for the time being.”

“So what does it do then?” I asked.

Marq’s eyes narrowed, becoming all about business. “The only other thing it could do. It can store multiple enchantments, can’t it?”

Asmodeus smiled. “Correct! Teacher is very proud of you, Marquis. You get a gold star! The stone can hold more than one enchantment at a time, but it’s more accurate to say it’s supposed to be a compendium of enchantments, not just a fancy novelty item. The jewel’s unique atomic structure can catalogue and hold on to enchantments like a library, each one stored somewhere within the jewel, and they can be called upon at whim, giving the illusion of a miracle-filled wish-granting stone. By the time Lha Thothori Nyantsen got his hands on it, the stone held thousands of enchantments.”

“And that number is probably hundreds of thousands now,” Marq said. “Thanks for the info, Asmodeus.”

The demon smiled. “It’s my pleasure, and my business. Speaking of which, the payment…”

“Will be sent to you as soon as Shep Sanders consents to a deal. If we can’t convince him, we’ll find someone else and have them to you in three days.”

“You’re a doll, Marquis,” the demon said cheerfully. “Now, Aster will see to the rest of your payment…”

“The information is at the front desk, sir,” the pale little boy said. “Shall I retrieve it for you?”

“No no, Aster. The Marquis can get it himself,” Asmodeus said. “You’re staying here with me.”

The boy’s hopes were immediately shot down, and you could see it in his face. “If you say so, ma’am.”

He climbed up onto the throne and the demon snatched him up like a fluffy teddy bear or a frilly doll, hugging him tightly and holding him close to its chest.

“Oh my little Aster, you’re so adorable in that little butler outfit! Like mommy’s little porcelain doll! It’s been so long since I’ve gotten to hold you like this! Your cuteness makes the stress of the workday just melt away!~”

Eugh. That’s creepy. Judging by his facial expression, the boy seemed to agree.

“If it makes you happy, ma’am.”

“Hey, Aster!” Asmodeus said cheerfully. “Let’s play! It’s been too long since the last time I got to have some fun with my favorite toy!”

“M-Mistress! We can’t do that right now!” the boy pleaded. “There are people watching right in front of us, they’ll see!”

“Don’t mind us, we were just on our way out,” Marq said, tipping his hat to the demon. “Come on, Al. Before this gets weird…”

I hurried along behind Marq, trying not to look when I saw the demon start unbuttoning the poor kid’s shirt. Did she mean playing like…

I shuddered. Jesus christ that was creepy. Marq didn’t seem to mind. Either that, or he was too busy being focused on something else.

“Sir, do you want us to report this to your brother?” one of the goons asked.

“No, he doesn’t need to know about this…” Marq said, barely paying attention to the grunt.

“But sir-”

“I said he doesn’t need to know. Tell him the job is proceeding as planned and that we’re en route to intercept the stone as it leaves New York. Am I understood?”

“Yessir…” the grunt said, confused.

A lot of things about this concerned me. The stone fakeout and what it meant was bad news for us and so was the demon, let alone the fact that Marq had apparently been wheeling and dealing with this thing for years. But you know what was worrying me even more than that just then?

Marq had his game face on.

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