The cloud spears dropped like anvils, hurtling towards us like giant bullets. I’m willing to bet the harmless, puffy, looks-like-a-bunny-rabbit-made-of-marshmallows cloud isn’t the first thing you think of when I tell you to think of a weapon of mass destruction, but leaving aside the sparky-sparky bits that live inside the cloud, there are a lot of good reasons why watching one fall out of the sky directly towards you should make you shit your pants harder than a stiff with the post-mortem squirts.
You see, the thing people tend to forget about clouds is that for all their child-pleasing fluffiness, they’re also really really really really really really big. Like, holy shit you don’t even know how big. Your pitiful knowledge of cloud and atmospheric dynamics is in inverse proportion to just how dog-mad big these sons of bitches are. We are talking about water vapor, yes. But we are also talking about cubic kilometers of it, enough to fill multiple Olympic-sized swimming pools, being compressed into a projectile so heavy it’s falling out of the sky at hundreds of meters per second towards the ground.
Now replace all the water with pumice and set it on fire the only way Mother Nature knows how: with lightning. Lots and lots of lightning. The friction from the eruption creates a charge differential between the ash cloud and the ground, and the whole thing lights up like charcoal on a barbecue. In the aftermath of Ren and Nayeli’s apocalyptic fisticuffs, Yoshirō had basically just been given full control over a mega-sized pyroclastic flow. And he was sending it straight at us.
None of this really becomes real to you until you see it in person, and in retrospect I think the only reason I didn’t shit myself was because the ayahuasca had impacted my shits until they were harder than clay in a kiln.
I heard screaming coming from the car. Many different voices. The giant skeleton had begun expanding the hole in the roof, trying to fit inside by prying it open like a can of sardines. I closed my eyes as arms ten meters long fished around inside and grabbed some poor soul before biting his shrieking head off. I tried to ignore the fact that it was drinking his blood like a barfly popping the top off a beer bottle and just prayed it wasn’t anyone I knew. Or that if it was, it was at least Sostene.
“Master Alfonso,” Theo said calmly. “We should go.”
“What, inside there?!” I asked incredulously, pointing at the car. “Are you kidding me? I just saw a giant skeleton drink a guy. There is no way we’re going inside there as long as that thing is still there.”
“Does that mean you would go if it was only the armored one in there with us? Even though he is by far more dangerous?”
I stopped. “Well, uh… yeah I guess.”
She nodded. “Understood. I believe the problem shall be taken care of shortly then.”
A gust of wind broke over my head as the flapping of wings broke through the clouds that were growing ever closer to earth. There was a mighty goddamned roar, and Sigurd, now the size of a city fucking bus, swooped in and latched onto the skeleton’s back, carrying it into the sky.
“… huh,” I said. I was running out of things to say by then, really.
The nodded. “Let us go then.”
“… No! No! Nonononono! What the fuck?!” I heard the normally calm and composed Kichirō scream as I opened the door to the car. “A dragon?! You brought a dragon?! Where did you even get a dragon?!”
Marq laughed, wheezing. “Well, that’s for me to know, and for you… no, you’ll probably never find out, because I’ll never tell you. But trust me, it would be hilarious if you knew.”
Kichirō snarled. “You planned all of this, didn’t you Marquis?”
“‘Plan’ would be a bit of an overstatement considering just how much has already gone wrong, which by the way I compliment you on, that’s very hard to do to me, but yes. There were contingencies in place in case anything went catastrophically wrong. A lot of contingencies. Though I wasn’t quite expecting our current situation with Nayeli, Ren and your brother. It’s going to take a lot of doing to make the right people ignore this, especially now that psychometry can be used as evidence in a court of law…” Marq sighed. “… Did you really think you’d be able to out-prep us, Kichirō? You’ll never be able to plan as far ahead as we can, especially not when you already blew most of your stolen money on those orichalcum tin-cans. That wasn’t a smart business decision, my friend. There’s only so much you can do once the money dries up. It’s money that buys security. Money that buys silence, safety, success, and everything else in this world. Money makes this miserable little planet go ’round. They say time is money too, Kichirō. Now… doesn’t that mean you’re out of it?”
“You called that thing a Gashadokuro, right? Yeah, I’ve heard of it before. Legend has it’s supposed to be both invincible and indestructible ,” Marq said with a grin. “Let’s put that to the test, shall we?”
I smiled. You sly dog.
I looked around. Was everyone else okay? I could see Marq and Sostene, Figaro and Leo were fighting with everyone else, and Nayeli was out there bringing down the fires of World War fucking Two. We’d left Annie back at the compartment (far away from all this insane violence, I noted as as I watched someone’s torso go flying across the room), which left the goons and Felicity.
“Pssst. Hey. You there. Guy. Shortstuff.”
“Alright, who said that?” I said as I looked down at my feet.
“Me, you goddamn sonuvabitch!”
The torso I’d seen flying past me had somehow crawled its way over here. Some British bastard with awful dentistry. Still looked handsome enough though in spite of it, which pissed me off somehow. He was grabbing on to my legs with both hands and wouldn’t let go.
“And… who the fuck are you?” I asked, weighing the pros and cons of just stomping on his face and walking away. I could tell right away this guy was annoying but he also looked pretty dead, and I didn’t need any more poltergeists in my life.
“Etsy? Etsy Jones?”
“Never heard of you,” I said, growing increasingly agitated.
“Oh come on! I’m a lieutenant for-“
“Yeah. Uh huh. Fascinating. You uh, mind just letting go and having the decency to die someplace else, or are you going to keep wasting my precious time with this? I mean, it’s okay if you are. It’s not like I got any friends out there getting killed or nothing.”
“I’m a lycan!”
“So I’m not dead yet!” he said in protest. “Listen, umm… I need you to do me a favor.”
I sighed. “Jesus christ, what?”
“Throw me outside and onto the tracks.”
“And why would you want me to do that?”
“Because I don’t wanna be here! Just throw me to the tracks. Then I can get the hell out of here and Purnima won’t get pissed at me! You can sympathize with that, right?”
I stared at him. We were all fighting with our lives on the line and this bastard, who couldn’t even die, wanted to run away. So I did what I could. I kicked that bastard right back into the fray, yelling and screaming.
“The nerve of some people…” I said offhandedly to Theo. Now, there was still one person here who was unaccounted for…
I squinted. I could see Felicity hiding behind the bar reloading a tommy gun, but there was still this… weird haze around her. Invisible shapes and stuff, like fractals. Was I still high? I rubbed my eyes and the vision went away, so I dismissed it and just figured it was nothing.
Everyone was crowded around Yoshirō, and much to my dismay, coming down had not helped make him look any less scary. He’d lost his lower jaw, his tongue flapping wildly around his mouth. He was bleeding every time he moved, hot hemoglobin spewing out of the cracks in his armor. It was black like ink. Just like the fog that had sort of settled around him in this animalistic shape. Nine tails, claws and fangs. He was a sight to see, but I’m not sure who’d want to. Not up close anyway.
Things weren’t looking good though. It was all of him versus all of them and they were barely holding on, so I decided to give them a little extra backup.
“Theo,” I said. “On my signal.”
“Understood,” she complied.
Now we just needed to attend to the matter of-
“What are you doing?! I said restrain it! There’s no time for distractions!”
Is what a Vitali family man shouted as he held a long spear at arm’s length. The head, shaped like a crucifix, was imbedded in the gaps between Yoshirō’s armor, trying to keep him still. But even with five guys, it wasn’t working. One of them had broken formation, and was pointing a gun at Sostene, then at us, then back to Sostene, trying to decide who to shoot.
“I can’t, captain! The vampire keeps closing in on me! Permission to kill freaks, sir!”
“This isn’t Belleau Wood you little asswipe, and I ain’t James fucking Harbord! Just do it and get back here as soon as you can!”
Sostene looked bad. Worn down, and ragged. Eyes bloodshot, fingernails bloody. He was breathing heavily and lashing out at anything that touched him like a wild animal, even his erstwhile allies. Maybe that was how that lycan had lost his legs?
Not good. Severely not good. I’d never seen him like this before, but I could guess that whatever was happening to him wasn’t a good thing. He seemed ferocious but it was obvious he was getting weaker. Strength from desperation, like a cornered animal. If I let them attack him now, he might even be killed.
I had to do something, at least. So I did what I do best. I remembered things.
I closed my eyes, and the palace doors swung open, a portal to another world, a building of infinite rooms. A flurry of pages like snow whipped past my face, bearing information on the procedure of magic.
Equivalent exchange: The demand made by the world for adequate compensation whenever one casts a spell. A symbolic offering.
Mana: Also known as life-force, chi, qi, ki, prana and telesma amongst many other names, mana is the sum total energy of a system at any given time.
Spell framework: A materialistic offering of things with ritualistic significance such as incantations, totems or burning plants and incense. Combined with the spiritual offering of mana, they form the basis of equivalent exchange.
I randomly snatched papers out of the air, confident my brain would not mislead me by giving me anything less than the exact information I required. This was the one place that would always be mine. It bent to my will.
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes in front of an elevator, open and waiting in the wake of a ding that felt like it rang a thousand years ago. The elevator only went one direction, and that was down. To other people’s forgotten times. Though things aren’t ever truly forgotten and left behind in my brain, some things just can’t constantly be at the forefront of my thoughts. So they get archived, for later. This is where I go to find them.
The doors opened and I walked out into a wax museum full of living displays in glass cases, moments of my life playing on a loop. Twenty four years of memories were housed here. Every second of every day. Looking at it makes it seem like so much it’s a wonder my head doesn’t explode, but navigating it is easy. I just focus on what I want to see, and it appears before me.
Another day spent studying under the spriggan. I remember watching in plain awe and astonishment as she plucked two mistletoe leaves from a pot sitting next to her, and with nothing but a bit of cow’s blood and rubbing made plants grow weeks in advance. This was one of the few times I’d ever seen her use actual magic instead of druidic practices. She never told me how to actually use the spell, but I was a clever kid. I sussed it out.
Two leaves of mistletoe. I looked around. Luckily, the train company had already started preparing for Christmas. A sprig of it was hanging in the doorway just above us. I plucked it down and held it in front of Theo.
“Kiss?” I said jokingly.
Looking at me like I’d just swallowed a live frog, Theo turned her head and said, “Maybe later.”
I took out my knife and flicked the obsidian blade open. I didn’t have any cow’s blood, but I figured some of mine might make do. Blood is blood after all. All I had to do was add a few words of incantations to make absolutely sure my offering was still equivalent. I slashed my palms open and smashed the leaves inbetween, rubbing vigorously and adding my own mana until the leaves felt like paste. The power flowed through me. This was a completely different sensation compared to when I’d enchanted myself three months ago. This was magic. Real, honest to god magic.
I raised my hand, preparing the spell that would end their lives, and probably save Sostene’s. Marq’s eyes widened.
“No, Al! Don’t do it!” Marq shouted. “They’re on our side this time!”
But it was too late. The words had already formed on my lips like dew drops.
No one stopped to acknowledge me. No one payed any attention. And for a while, nothing happened. It looked like Marq was even letting himself hope whatever I’d done hadn’t worked.
“… Master Alfonso?” Theo said tentatively.
“Shhhhhh…” I smiled. “Just give it a sec.”
Dutifully, she turned around to look.
“Ughh…” One of the Vitali goons gurgled as he backed off, holding himself like someone who was about to ralph big time. He burped, a rancid acrid-sounding emission, his stomach rumbling in protest.
“And one, two…~”
He started hacking and dry-heaving, spit and stomach acid spilling onto the floor and his nice white suit. Something was trying to get out of him.
I watched as to everyone’s horror a root started crawling out of the man’s mouth, growing straight up and out of his esophagus from his intestines. It hung loosely from the corner of his mouth like a thread of spit or an ugly second tongue, and as he ambled around doubled-over the angry gurgles of his stomach eventually started turning into screams. It was growing inside him. That made everyone stop and watch.
“Interesting fact,” I said, addressing all the Vitali’s men. “Did you know that the human body at any given moment contains up to a few hundred grams of undigested plant matter and pounds of bacteria? And did you know that all you need to grow that plant matter is a few leaves and the right potting conditions? No seeds required. Now the human intestine isn’t exactly a great place to grow things but in a pinch it can work, especially if you’re using magic. Set things up for the little leaf cuttings just so and you have an instant potted plant, full to the brim with warmth and fertilizer.”
The man’s stomach and pelvis started to bulge like a pregnant woman’s, and I held my hand over Theo’s eyes.
“You might not want to watch this,” I said.
She looked at me like I was an idiot and lowered my hand for me. Maybe I was, I dunno. She’d probably seen a lot more gruesome violence than I have. Still, there was something about letting a woman see this that I just didn’t think was right.
His abdomen swollen to sickening proportions, the man simply keeled over and coughed up blood as he convulsed in pain, lumps and bruises growing in patches all over his stomach. The signs of heavy internal bleeding. He shit himself red as more roots started finding their way out the back door, and finally, mercifully he died, a tiny head of baby cabbage suffocating him as it worked its way out of his mouth like a budding flower. His eyes rolled back into his head.
Voila. An instant garden grown with nothing but the salad from last night’s dinner. Cut him open and you’d probably find him stuffed with corn cobs and a bunch of herbs too.
The men backed off, fear growing on their faces while plants grew in their gullets. Immediately a few of them started to feel the pain, and the same process started repeating itself over and over again, until all of them were writhing on the floor. My little human garden.
“You know in any other circumstance this probably wouldn’t be possible,” I said. “There’s no way I’d ever have enough mana on my own to make something like this happen with such a crude spell. But because you forced our hands and made me make a contract, I’m overflowing with life energy right now, like a goddamn volcano. I mean, I am going to have to jack off for hours to get rid of all this.”
There was a gross popping sound as a bamboo shoot exploded from some guy’s stomach, growing straight up and out through his belly. I winced.
“Ouch, someone must have had the chinese food last night.”
The last one finally became still, and I gave Theo the signal.
“Understood!” she yelled, and leaped into the fray, clashing and slashing alongside the rest of the Allesandri front-runners.
I stepped forward to talk to Marq.
“Well, that was close. Bet you’re glad I showed up when I did, or they might’ve killed-“
“Alfonso you fucking idiot, we needed them!” Marq yelled.