Kichirō keeled over laughing, tears streaming down his face.
“I said we needed them, you fucking grifter!” Marq screamed as he grabbed my shoulders and shook me, more panicked and angry than I’d ever seen him before. “Don’t you play the fucking twit with me, Al. Do you have any idea- any idea?- what you’ve done? You just shoved enough gum in the works to keep Chicklets in business for fucking years!”
“I mean, what the fuck were you thinking? This guy’s more possessed than Anna fucking Ecklund, and what the fuck do you do? Fucking kill the Vitalis of course! The only guys here who know jack of all shit about exorcism besides Giggly Gus over there.”
I opened my mouth to say something but-
“I mean on any other day I’d give you a fucking promotion for that but today? Today of all fucking days? Do I have to fucking ventilate you so the oxygen can make it to your fucking brain?” He gesticulated with his bigass gat to my forehead. More than a little unnerved, I carefully lowered it.
“Marq, I’m sorry, I-“
“No!” He yelled. “No, don’t you dare interrupt me right now! I am not fucking through with you yet!” He yelled, stomping the ground. “You stupid fucking smooth fucking grifter fucking dingy fucking no-good low-to-the-ground Abercrombie head-in-the-sand curveball asshole! I… I…”
Marq stopped, panting.
“… You… you done?” I asked hesitantly.
“Yeah… yeah I think I’m good,” he said, totally worn out.
“Okay…” I said slowly. “Marq, I need you to relax. Now tell me. Why did we need them, and what can I do to fix it?”
Marq giggled raspily. “You think you can fix it?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. Why did we need them?”
Marq glanced at the brawl to make sure he was a safe distance away.
“That, Al,” he said and pointed over at the fight. “That’s why we needed them. To make him stop.”
Now that Theo had joined in, everyone else had backed off. She was handling Yoshirō pretty much singlehandedly, parrying all of his strikes and working her knives into the joints between his armor, targeting the soft spots. Yoshirō roared with rage that you could taste on the tip of your tongue but all he ever managed to do once he hit her was damage himself. The fight in Central Park played itself back in my head. If that encounter had taught us anything it was that Theo was the kiss off to any melee berserker types. If it wasn’t for the ghosts holding his body together with spit and a prayer Yoshirō would’ve been dead already. Guess that’s the kind of power you get in exchange for having godmetal for blood.
But that was the problem. As much as Theo damaged him it hardly slowed him down. He wasn’t a person or even a living thing anymore, he was an engine of rage, hewn together with bone and sinew and animated by pure hate. This “hate engine” wouldn’t stop as long as whatever was powering it clung to this Earth. Theo could keep it busy but that’s all she could do, and Yoshirō was taking every opportunity he could to find another living target. Something that could bleed. Fighting him while blocking every time he tried to lash out at something else, well… that was like trying to patch the holes in a boat made out of swiss cheese. A futile stalling tactic if nothing else.
“He’s not gonna stop because we tell him to, Al,” Marq said. “We needed them to make him stop.”
“Yeah, I’m seeing that,” I said. I snapped my fingers, trying to focus. “Okay. First we need to know why this happened.”
I turned to Kichirō.
“Do you know what could be causing this? Does he ever do this just randomly like when he’s asleep or unconscious or is there a trigger?”
“Don’t bother, Al,” Marq said, sighing. “He’s nuttier than a fruitcake. Lost it after you left. He keeps going on about how ‘everything is his fault’ and all sorts of crap.”
“That true?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes still moist from laughing. “I am the reason for all of this. I am the reason why my brother’s body is falling apart. For why neither of us can sleep at night. All I can do is watch his empty eyes staring out at me from inside that armor.”
“You mean he doesn’t sleep?”
Kichirō seemed confused by that. “No, he doesn’t. But what does that matter?”
“Shut up, shut up! I’m trying to think of a way out of this,” I said. “I-I… I think I know why he went crazy at least.”
“Why?” Kichirō asked hurriedly. “Is there a way we can fix this?!”
“Oh, now you’re interested,” Marq said, annoyed. “And why? What do you think happened? You know something about this?”
I sighed. “Yeah, I think so. Unfortunately…”
“Well then what? Fucking spill the beans, Al!”
I resisted the urge to smile. It was just so rare to see Marq out of character like this. Normally he was so composed and above it all. I had to remind myself I was the reason Marq had steam coming out of his ears. If it wasn’t for me this situation would still be under control, which is why I had to fix it before I could make any smartass remarks.
“He doesn’t sleep anymore, right? When’s the last time you remember seeing him unconscious, Kichirō?”
“I… I don’t know. It’s been so long…” he said. “I mean he sleeps, for maybe an hour at a time. But it’s shallow, and you can see his eyes moving underneath. It’s not deep sleep, and he hasn’t done even that for over a month.”
“Would you say the last time you saw this happen was close to the last time he slept? Real, deep sleep? Maybe he fainted?”
“Y-Yes, now that you mention it…”
“If what I’m thinking is correct, Yoshirō can’t sleep anymore, otherwise he’ll be possessed. He’s keeping them out. The spirits will overtake his body the second he fully loses consciousness. That lapse in concentration gives them a way in.”
“And… I think I gave them one. When I dosed him with ayahuasca dipped on my knife. It’s a powerful hallucinogen. I was trying to mess him up, but I think it must’ve taken enough control away from his conscious mind to let them in.”
“Oh no Al, you didn’t. You fucking didn’t,” Marq said to me, exasperated. “Did you really fucking do this?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know it’d have this kind of effect on him… Talk about a bad fucking trip…”
Suddenly the train made a horrific grinding noise and we all tumbled down a ninety degree plane, our tables and luggage careening across the car as it lurched onto its side.
“What the fuck?!” I yelled, rubbing my head.
At first I didn’t understand what had happened. I could still see the blackened sky out the window clear as day. If the train had tipped, which was theoretically impossible for a leyrail, then I should have been seeing brown; a faceful of dirt. Then I understood perfectly.
We had tipped. There was just no more dirt for the train to fall on.
“Shit!” I yelled, terrified. “Shitshitshit holy shit!”
“Mother of god…” Kichirō muttered.
“The collapse,” Marq huffed, holding his chest. “It’s caught up with us. The leylines have changed, so the leyrail’s changing with it.”
I looked outside, peering down intently over the side of the train. The positions of leylines were determined by geographic positioning and the local topography. Major geological events like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the shifting of tectonic plates could alter their positioning. Normally that kind of process occurred over time, but when two demigods go at it, or rather a demigod and a suped-up oni, that process can be accelerated. Dramatically.
That’s when I realized. Our train was riding down the sides of a sinkhole the size of Tonto National Forest.
“Holy fuck…” I whispered. “This is bad. This is seriously bad.”
“You think I don’t know that, dipshit?” Marq said, still angry. “I’m going to be buried up to my neck in legal bullshit for years after this. This kind of shit just doesn’t get ignored no matter how many palms you grease. This is why I told her to keep it subtle and under control. Dammit…”
He sighed, trying to keep it under control.
“Okay. Okay. Okayokayokay. We’re not going to get the opportunity to worry about any of that if we buy the farm here, so let’s focus,” he said, I think to himself more than me. “Al, you’re the only one who seems to know what to do right now so I need you to think of something. You get us out of this and I’ll ignore the fact that you got us into it. And Kichirō. What would you say if I said I have one more proposition for you?”
“Oh yeah?” Kichirō said as he wiped the blood from his nose. “What’s that?”
“If we figure a way out of this and get out of here alive… come work for us.”
“Huh?!” Kichirō and I both said.
Marq got up and dusted off his suit, putting his cool cat image back in order after his brief spazz.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for free. I’m not about to just overlook what you’ve done to me and mine. But I’m always on the lookout for fresh new talent to work for the family as uh… associates. So here’s the deal. You promise to hand over the Cintamani stone, and all the assets you bought with the Yamada’s stolen money, and I promise not to torture you for hours at a time. Plus, I’ll even try to find a way to fix what’s wrong with your brother’s body because I’m nice like that .”
“You must be joking.”
“Do you see me laughing?” he said, a tinge of that unhinged anger still creeping into his voice.
“Why in God’s name would I rely on you? A man like you is manipulative, and only uses others for his own gains.”
“Guilty as charged.”
“The answer is no. I will be the one to clean up my own messes. This was my mistake, and I have to-“
“Atone for it. Right?” Marq finished for him. Kichirō fell silent. “What? You think I don’t know what’s going on inside that head of yours? I wouldn’t be as ‘manipulative’ as I am if I didn’t know how to read people. Lemme try and psychoanalyze you right now, Kichirō. Let me try and guess what you’re thinking. You feel guilty, don’t you? You feel ashamed. You think it’s all your fault. I should know, you said so. You think you’re some horrible person who’s doomed his brother through inaction. You keep thinking about what you did wrong and what you could’ve done to stop it. You dwell on it. Obsess about it. It defines you. That guilt you feel… am I right?”
“What did you say?”
“You heard me right. That’s bullshit. That’s bullshit with a side of corn. You think this is your fault? What could you have done? Nothing. Your brother made that choice for himself. He walked up to that stone of his own free will, his own volition. You didn’t know. Neither of you did. How could you have known? You think you somehow drove him to do it? Well that’s his problem, not yours. He’s his own person, Kichirō. He’s responsible for the outcome his own mistakes. Saying it’s your fault isn’t just dead wrong, it’s selfish. You’re making him less of a person by claiming responsibility for his actions, and it builds you up. It makes you feel like some tragic hero or alone atoner, doesn’t it? Makes you feel righteous and strong, instead of just some powerless victim of fate. You don’t get to do that, Kichirō. You don’t get to take the responsibility for his own decisions away from him for your own benefit. You’re not the hero, Kichirō, because heroes don’t exist. I know, I’ve met them. They don’t live up to the hype.”
“And you just expect me to leave him there to rot? How can he take responsibility for anything he’s done if he can barely move outside that armor?!”
“You think Rome was built in a day? By one man with a pair of chopsticks and a pile of sand? Get real, Kichirō. That’s why we got family, and friends of the family. But that’s all they can do for you is help. So let us help you help your brother. This doesn’t have to be your mission anymore.”
“What makes you think you can even fix him? Huh?! We tried using phoenix yolk to cure him. It could not heal his wounds faster than the spirits could take him apart. And what do you want with all this anyway? The Cintamani stone is useless without years of research trying to understand its structure, and the orichalcum armor we acquired is all but shredded. You saw to that,” he spat.
“True, but orichalcum can be re-smelted, and I have more immediate plans for that stone anyway. And besides, I know where to get things much more potent than phoenix yolk,” he said. “For the right price of course. Come on, Kichirō. What do you say? There’s someone I know who could really use a lesson on how to hold on to a sword.”
Kichirō didn’t say anything at first. You could see him visibly age with the weight of the decision. Finally, he said, “Fine. You win, Marquis. I accept. Now fix my brother.“
Marq nodded. “Al? Got anything yet? Come on, work with me here.”
“Well,” I said. “We can’t exorcise him or subdue him with holy methods anymore.”
“Yeah, thanks to you.”
“I’m not finished! If my theory is correct though and Yoshirō’s too distracted by his nightmare trip to control the spirits, bringing him down might give him enough control back to stop rampaging.”
“Okay, sounds simple so far. Is there an antidote to this aya… whatever you gave him? I’m not that good with plants.”
“Technically it’s a mixture of plants and vines,” I said. “And no… no there isn’t.”
“Well that’s great. That’s really helpful, Al.”
“But!” I said before Marq could interrupt me again. “There might be another way. Remember that time we took shrooms when we were fifteen and you had to talk me down because I was freaking out?”
Marq eyes sparkled as he started to get it. “Yeah, yeah! The madam at the whorehouse told me to give you some sedatives and try to talk you down out of it.”
“We can do the same thing here,” I said. “We ain’t got no barbies like we did back then, but any sedative should do as long as it’s strong enough.”
“And I think I know where we can get some.” I turned to look at everyone else taking a break from the fight. Figaro, Leo, the heavily wounded Sostene and the two lycans. “Alright everybody, I’m gonna need to borrow Theo for a few seconds! You need to cover us until then! Except you, Leo! You stay there and make sure Sostene doesn’t move!”
“Huh?!” Leo whined, but Sostene immediately started growling and thrashing under his grip, forcing him to keep his mouth shut if he didn’t want to get fed on.
I nodded. “Okay, Theo! Break free next chance you get!”
She grunted as she blocked another strike from Yoshirō. “I shall try!”
Marq looked at me. “What are you planning?”
“You’ll see in a second,” I said. Then I stopped, and turned around. “… That reminds me, Marq. Did you call in any extra help for this job?”
“What you talking about the Vitalis? Does it look like I arranged that?”
“No no, I mean anyone who works for the family.”
“Hmmm…” he said, considering it. “No, not that I can remember. Not unless you count Siggy’s rack of ribs as a payroll.”
“Right…” I said. Something about this wasn’t adding up. If Marq didn’t send for Figaro and Leo, then that left Frankie and the siblings. But… No, I had bigger problems right now.
A knife got deflected and spun out of the holder’s hand, stabbing into the wall next to me like it was trying to get my attention. I turned towards the fight, trying to stop my knocking knees and look like I had a pair. I licked my lips nervously. I couldn’t just have Theo do all the work here. But… this might just be even dumber than the stunt that landed me in the hospital. At least I was mostly just fighting humans there. Here, I’d have to get up close and personal with that inhuman meat grinder, and I was distinctly aware of my odds. If Sostene and Figaro together with two lycans could barely manage to scratch him, what chance did I have?
Relax. Focus on the things you can do. Do not focus on the giant ragin’ asian death machine that is most likely coming to kill you. Do not focus on that.
I took a deep breath. Then Kichirō grabbed my leg, and I half-jumped out of my skin.
“What are you going to do him?”
“What?” I asked testily.
“I said what are you going to do to him? He’s my brother. My little baby brother. I am fully prepared to die at his hand rather than kill him a second time. If you want to hurt him, I swear to everything that is holy to you and to me that I will make you regret it. Even if it costs me my life.”
“Yeah. Jesus guy, I get it. We’re not going to hurt him anymore. Calm the fuck down. Get copacetic, feel the zen. You’re good at that, right? The whole zen thing?”
He glared at me. I gulped. I think we both knew I was talking myself up just as much as I was him.
Meanwhile Theo took a bad hit and was slammed against the hole in the roof, holding onto both sides until her palms bleed. The wounds closed quickly but the bigger danger was in where she stood. Riding on our sides, being forced out of the hole in the roof would mean falling for miles to the bottom of the sinkhole, a huge ring-out. I felt my stomach sink as I watched her choke in Yoshirō’s grip, her fingers loosening up as he tried to shove her out of the car.
She took a deep breath in. Tucking her legs close to her body, Theo suddenly lashed out like a spring with a violent jackrabbit kick, nailing Yoshirō with both legs. His grip broken, she found her opening and broke out of the fight, Figaro and the lycans swarming in to replace her.
She ran up to me, panting. “What is it, Master Alfonso?”
“I-I told you to knock it off with the ‘master’ shit,” I said, glaring at Marq. I sighed, slightly embarrassed. “Do you still have that tin of smokes I gave you?”
“… Yes, right here,” she said, confused. She handed me the tiny metal box.
“Awesome. You’re a doll, Theo.”
I took the lid off the tin and inspected the contents. There were still three joints left. They were a bit dry, but they’d still work. Hopefully. Reaching for the sprig of mistletoe, I started rubbing my hands together, getting them nice and slick with blood.
“Al,” Marq said. “What is that?”
“Nepenthe,” I said bluntly.
“Uh huhhh…” Marq muttered. “And… why do you have that? Wait, no. Don’t tell me. I don’t wanna know.”
“So this is your brilliant plan?” Kichirō said, dumbfounded. “You’re going to have a smoke?!”
“No,” I said. “Your brother is.”
With a word I made the joints grow into full plants, sweetly budding leaves opening like flower petals. I plucked them, and showed them to Marq and Kichirō.
“The way I see it, we sent him on a trip, and now it’s time we bring him back.”