“Yes, Shinobu, I believe it has. Henghai, you’ve been quiet for much of this visit. Would you grace us then with the first verse?”
“Only if Noboru will grace us with the second and Inaba pays for the tea.” The men smile again. Kaori’s father gestures to the shopkeep and speaks to him softly, yet loud enough to hear. “It seems I have lost this round of exchanges. Would you be so kind as to set us up with a pot of the local tea.”
Hensei aims a question at Huiren, Kaori has seen that look before, and falls prey to the shot before her father can respond.
“The character of a place is in its tea. For art, the best way to capture the essence of place is—” In a flash, Kaori realizes she is lecturing men twice her age on a man’s art. She finishes the thought quickly, “in the drink chosen to accompany the writing.” Changfu tilts his head, but has not stopped smiling at her. Indeed, Changfu, Kaori notices, has not taken his lime green eyes off of her. She is uncertain if her father has noticed his gaze, or the way his eyes clash ever so slightly with the emerald of his clothing, or if Huiren is simply acting as though he has not noticed it. The other men however, strangers to Kaori, shift in their seats. Inappropriate behavior settles awkwardly, an ill-fitting bed sheet for the table. Several fans, variously painted, reveal themselves, their motions blocking sight towards the exchange, but leaving the view open for Hensei to respond. The shopkeep quickly retreats from the table; Hensei turns to the other men. “Her father has taught her so well, she even reminds me of my lectures some time. You are absolutely correct, Miss Inaba. Thank you.” He nods his head to her and she bows slightly. Kaori returns to hiding behind her fan as the conversation swirls around her. Verses fly back and forth between the men, their cadence predictable, their laughter soft, but genuine. Her father and Hensei, knowing her so well, both look at her expectantly every time she has thought up a rejoinder to the current verse, but Kaori does not contribute. She is still too embarrassed.
Instead, Kaori carefully studies the men at the table. Most of their names are long gone, and most of them are subdued, quiet, proper. Their clothing is drab, and like her father’s plain colored in darker shades, simple. Except for Changfu. His clothes are just a couple shades too bright to be proper, and as he shifts, she could swear there was embroidery in it, invisible in this light and likely done with the same color as the rest of the fabric.
“Newly grown grasses cut down.
The oriole cannot blend.”
The verse flies from her like a songbird as soon as the cage is opened. She looks at the one who is writing, Shinobu? But her gaze lingers on Chengfu for a brief moment. He smiles a half-smile, and her father leans in slightly towards the table, interrupting their view of each other. Everyone has turned to Zheng, who has watched and judged the exchanges. “I see, Miss Inaba, that you truly have imbibed the art of this place. The verse is rustic and pointed, but so appropriate I cannot help but say yes.” Kaori bows towards him, and catches a wide smile from her Father while Zheng continues: “Perhaps one day Tsubasa will have a wife make him more appropriate clothing for his travels?”
Changfu smiles, “One day, perhaps when Hideki gets too old to show off his gardens.” The men laugh. The verses continue. Kaori leans back, sipping her tea slowly. She notices the river on one of the screen’s moving, and the elderly woman gets up to leave. Searching her face for any sort of clue as to what transpired, she notices the elder shake her head just slightly, breathing deep as when Kaori is preparing her mind for a new task. Weili and her mother continue sitting at the table, Katai’s fan barely moving. They speak few words to one another, but neither is frowning. In fact the two look enviably calm. Her father apparently sees them as well.
“Well gentlemen, the work is nearly finished, and this old man must go rest his weary bones in his own house. Good health and safe travels unto all of you, it was a pleasure to meet and contribute.” Huiren rises and bows to all of them, as does Kaori. Several of them express their desire to correspond with her Father, to which he agrees with a casual but meaningful “Of course, of course.” Changfu also rises.
“It was also a pleasure to see all of you again. I hope we can meet again soon, perhaps when the roads aren’t slurry and the crossings dangerous? If you will excuse me however, I have other business to attend in town. Thank you all.” Changfu bows to the men in turn, finally bowing to her father and then to Kaori herself. She hides her blush behind the fan; surely she is not worth such recognition? As Changfu exits, Kaori and her father approach the table with her brother and mother. Her father speaks, his voice resonant surrounded by wood and paper.
“Let’s go home.”
Kaori, Katai, and Weili inhale the aroma of the various herbs and teas of the tea shop. No place like any other would smell like this, or so Kaori’s mother has told her. The memory of that conversation rises, her mind speaking in her mother’s voice: “Each tea shop is different, each featuring the local teas with nearby imports. Some Lords and Ladies, your Aunt, for instance, make it a point to travel as much of the realm as they can in order to sample and choose the finest ingredients for their home.” Cherry-wood tables have been set up in a small-ish section of the shop, with movable paper screens between them, painted sparsely with suggestive lines. Here a small oriole, there a budding branch. Most of the tables have been pushed together, occupied by a group of six men. One of them rises and approaches them. In the quiet lighting of the indoor lamps it takes Kaori a moment to recognize her father.
“Beautiful wife and lovely children!” Katai and the family bow to him, smiling.
“Husband. What a surprise.” Despite the cool flippancy with which her mother says it, Kaori can tell she is genuinely surprised.
“I came to meet with Hensei, and discovered him occupied. They have kindly invited me to join them.” Kaori’s father looks at her. “You should join us Kaori. These men would be good for you to meet, and the conversation has just turned to poetry.”
Katai’s fan lazily waves near her shoulder. “Will you not be joining me in my meeting then, dearest husband?”
“Weili can join you. I trust his judgement in the matter.”
Kaori looks to Weili and catches his eye. His shoulders move upwards a fraction of an inch and then back down. A subtle gesture she recognizes from their playacting. He bows to his father. His mother inclines her head.
“All right. Come Weili, let’s grab a table. And don’t forget to pull the screen.” As the two of them move towards one of the tables, someone calls them from the table of gentlemen.
“Huiren! Come on then, we’re ready to start.” Kaori recognizes Hensei’s voice from his sporadic but frequent visits with her father. She knows little about him, other than his close friendship with her father. The two walk back towards the table, and her father introduces her.
“Gentlemen, this is my daughter, Inaba Kaori. Kaori, these are some of my acquaintances from afar. They’ve come to visit with Hensei.” Despite the deep burning desire to know why, Kaori understands that such a question would be improper at best, insulting at worst. She bows to each of the gentlemen in turn.
“Tsubasa Changfu, Zheng Quishui, Henghai Shin, Shinobu Gangan, Noboru Michi, and of course, you know Hideki Hensei.”
“It is my fortune and pleasure to meet all of you esteemed gentlemen, and to see you again in good health Hideki Hensei.” Kaori and her father join the men at the table. Kaori turns when she hears the sound of wood scraping together as the door opens. An older woman walks in, dressed in simple fashions, linen clothing heavily layered against the cold, done in shades of yellow, her hair the gray of the snow outside Kaori’s window. She goes over to the table where her mother and brother are sitting and joins them, a screen is pulled, replacing Kaori’s view of the scene with a river landscape. The turbulence of river against stones reflects in her thoughts, causing her to loose the thread of conversation briefly; when she returns to it, Hensei is speaking.
“…I think I would have preferred the red flowers in that border, but they’re impossible to get a hold of in the Winter.”
“I agree. The red flowers would have made a much more dramatic point, but the subtlety with which the ferns executed it cannot be ignored Hideki, you’ve done well.” Kaori thinks this is Zheng speaking, but already some of their drift away like leaves in the current. Changfu turns to her. Kaori’s fan comes out by reflex and covers her face while fanning ripples through the air.
“What do you think, Miss Inaba Kaori?”
Kaori takes a moment to still her fan and lower it slightly. “I have been told that Hideki Hensei’s landscaping is legendary, mostly from my father. I did not think anything in this village was legendary until I knew it could attract those from other provinces, but I have never seen Hideki’s work.”
Many of the men smile, Changfu the broadest. “You should make time to see that, Miss Inaba. Surely the friendship your father has would dictate such things.” Kaori finds herself wondering if Changfu’s mouth is just large, or there is that much enjoyment in him.
“In truth, Hideki’s house is so far for an old man, I have not thought to bring her with me. But now that she older and stronger, perhaps her old father could lean on her during the journey.” Kaori smiles pleasantly and hides behind her fan, the other men chuckle quietly in good humor.
“You are the perfect picture of health… for your age, Father.”
Several of the man now laugh outright, including her Father. Changfu turns to Huiren, “You have raised her with sharp wit and gracious manners, a rare but appreciable combination. Well done, Inaba.” Kaori’s father bows at the compliment, while Hensei speaks up.
“He has also taught her appreciation of poetry, which I know more than a few of you enjoy better than flowers and grass.”
“Ah yes, has the time come for me to recover my writing box?”
“Did you see that group of strange men at the tea shop?”
“I heard one of them is visiting from a nearby province.”
“Who would visit from that far in this weather?”
“It seems someone with great business to attend to.”
“Junue said they were diplomats, here to arrange for local participation in the war.”
“But, the governor—!”
“Said there would be no war, but how much can the governor guarantee? The war is everywhere now.”
The three speakers are gathered around a cart for roasting chestnuts, two of them munching mindlessly as they talk amongst themselves; simple rough-spun clothes to adorn their frames, although Kaori cannot help but notice that their stitching is very precise.
A voice calls out to their mother. “Ah, Inaba Katai! Always a pleasure.” The shop owner bows deeply to her.
Katai nods back, “Tenshu Ichigo, I hope the winter is treating you well.”
“As well as it can, please please, come in, we just received a shipment from a neighboring province, with some beautiful fabrics you’ll love.”
“I’m sure. Come along Kaori. Weili, will you wait for us here?”
“Of course mother.”
The shopkeep turns to Kaori and bows to her as well. She bows slightly back. “Your daughter grows quickly, Inaba Katai. Are we here for her, or for you today?”
“I’m here accompanying my daughter today, Tenshu Ichigo. She said she absolutely needed new clothes for the Spring festival, so I decided that we could spare the time for a visit. Besides, too long at home is not good for the mind.”
Kaori looks at her mother as Katai pulls out a fan and begins lazily fanning herself, her fan a simple affair with the character for “mountain” painted on it. Well aware that Kaori has said no such thing, the subtle ease of her mother’s movements makes Kaori feel less nervous about participating in this potential lie.
“Uh, yes. I heard rumors that some men had come into town and had hoped they would be merchants bringing shipments in. Gossip can be so fickle though, I heard the visitors were important, so I assumed merchants.” She waits for him to speak as she browses the fabrics near the front inattentively.
“Well, hmm.” Ichigo takes a moment. “I’m not certain how much the fabrics that just came in will appeal to you, young Miss. They are… plain by comparison to what you should be wearing.”
Kaori’s fan comes up to cover most of her face; she looks at him sidelong over the top, her eyes narrow. The shopkeeper’s eyes widen.
“However, I, um… do have something that I think you might like. A glorious emerald brocade that is slightly more local. The brocade is done in a subtle lavender that compliments nicely without being overwhelming. You can almost barely tell it is lavender, it runs almost white.” He laughs nervously. Kaori’s eyes do not leave his face. She watches it grow more red for a few moments before finally he says, “Let me get that for you.”
Kaori nods and the shopkeep bows himself away. She turns to look at her Mother, her fan lightly working.
Katai smiles at her daughter. “I want you to do this yourself today. I think it’s time.” Kaori nods turning back as the shopkeep returns with a large swatch of the fabric. The brocade is well done, arranging in swirls and twists that give hints of flowers and the character for perfume. Kaori runs a hand along the fabric. The brocade is not silk, likely a linen. If it were not so beautiful and different, she would have agreed with the shopkeep. Kaori looks around at the lacquered, wooden walls of the building, just above the rest of the fabrics.
Ichigo’s forehead acquires a sheen, barely visible in the lamplight of indoors. “Of course, if you were interested in the fabric, considering its uh… nature, I would be happy to give it to you at a discount, since you would be doing me a favor. Selling fabric like this is difficult work you see, since it is so different. Everyone tells me the contrast is too great, that it is too bold. But my kinsman’s wife made it and so I had to try my best. It would make a great gift for someone else though, especially with how well your mother and Mikan work with these fabrics. You could even gift it to one of your favored servants afterwords.”
Kaori’s fan snaps shut; Katai’s fan begins fluttering. Kaori slowly turns to look at the shopkeep. She looks into his eyes. “You think it is unworthy because it is different, that its boldness is a flaw, that it is too conflicted? Is that not part of who we are though? Is it not our conflicts that make us? Can the sword be forged without the hammer blows of the smith? Perhaps instead this fabric is meant for someone who believes more in honesty than extravagance. Someone who wishes to maintain sincerity in everything they do and present. Do I strike you then, Tenshu Ichigo,” a pause, “as another petty young girl to be distracted by bright colors and fancy fabric work?” Kaori’s face flushes, hardly visible behind her makeup, but the sudden red tinge just under her eyes is all the more deadly for it. Ichigo steps back. He bows deeply and stares at the ground.
“I meant no offense Miss Inaba Kaori. Your uniqueness is a contribution to your beauty, and this fabric would be as well.”
The sound of carts and conversations seep into the room to try and fill the space left empty by their words.
“We’ll take the fabric.” Kaori finally says.
“Of course, I will coordinate a darker purple for the sash, if that please you, and send that as well. My gift, as an apology.” Katai nods, slowing her fan and returning it to her sash. She turns to Ichigo. “That will do, Tenshu.” The women nod their heads and leave, turning their backs. Ichigo does not rise until they have gone.
Being the final draft, before publication. Feel free to comment with helpful criticism, and keep an eye out for something to buy just in time for Christmas.
Kaori looks up from her writing desk at the winter garden. A single black bough frames the top of the window, with a dusting of light gray slurry raked into whorls and furrows away from the paths. There are no plants growing now, her father does not believe in fostering winter growths. But Kaori can still see the etchings of future designs in that snow, a whorl where he would plant a statement, furrows around it indicating the accent pieces like clever turn-of-phrase in one of their poems. She sighs, and looks back at the blank paper before her, brush dripping ink back into the bowl.
She knows she cannot force the poems to come, but lack of inspiration is no excuse for lack of practice. Besides, her father’s words ring through her concentration, “Art is gardening, if you do not give the words the chance, they will never grow.” She wets the brush again, making sure the ink is even, and sets it to the paper. The words come as bold brush strokes, soft edged but steely-cored. A verbal riposte to the cold of winter and good common sense.
Frozen pond hides carp
sludging through frigid water.
Spring sap through the trees.
Waiting for spring festivals,
Ferns gather strength from each other.
Pouring sand over it, Kaori looks up as her brother crosses the courtyard. She waves at him, and he waves back. Kaori brushes the sand away and quickly folds the poem into a crane, then goes over to her curio cabinet and grabs a small twig with two buds coming off of it. She is tying the twig to the crane when the knock comes. Kaori opens the door, composing her face, she pulls the fan from her sash, the one painted with two colorful fighting fish and flutters it about to hide the slight smile.
“Inaba Weili. So good of you to come visit me.” Her brother smiles at her formality. It fades as quickly as her fan flutters.
“Inaba Kaori. I wish I was here on pleasant matters.”
Kaori’s fan slows and her eyes narrow. “I wrote you a letter.” She presents the letter with a flourish, the crane now delicately balanced on the fan. The thought of how many nights she spent practicing comes without hesitation. The time it took to get the point where the motion is reflex stings with promise of other arts she could have practiced instead.
As Weili takes the crane: “And so we must fly. Mother wishes us to go with her into town.”
Kaori’s hands drop with her playacting. Her shoulders slump and she tucks the fan into the sash along her waist, turning towards the standing mirror. “Did she say why?” She looks at both of them through it.
Weili takes the opportunity to tuck a stray hair back behind his ear, clearing his sharp, but still soft, features and removing a barely visible irritating black line from his vision. “She says she has business.”
The two of them take the time for minor adjustments to their clothing. Kaori pulls her elaborate sash up slightly from where it slid, and secures it even more tightly. Her brother runs his hands along the edges of the deep-V of his own outerwear, pulling them more slightly closed, briefly obscuring their house symbol. His much simpler cream-colored sash and muted olive clothing contrast with Kaori’s bright white snow-flower patterns and elaborate five-piece outfit. She pulls her hair upwards and looks at him, urging him to action. Weili goes and rings the bell for a servant to come and assist her.
“I’m guessing that means business with the weaver, but she was surprisingly vague about it.”
“You know how she is, especially after her time at the provincial court.”
“Yes, dear sister, I’m well aware of our mother’s quirks. This was different though, she wasn’t concealing but she was still… vague?”
“You, brother, will never be a poet if you can’t express these simple thoughts with the appropriate words.” She smiles at him as she says this.
“But that, Kaori,” he unfolds the crane, taking care not to rip the delicate wings, “is why I rely on you. I’ll let her know you’re getting ready.” Weili turns, reading as the servant comes in. He folds the letter in quarters and tucks it, and the twig, into his sash.
Within the hour, Kaori, Weili and their mother walk down the country road towards the village. They keep to the drier areas in the middle of the road, where much of the snow has melted in the sunlight and run off down the sides. Occasionally the three of them must step to the side of the road along a dry patch as peasants driving heavy loads pass them by along the cobbles. They bow profusely and thank them graciously for allowing them to pass, while Kaori’s mother and Weili nod their heads. Kaori keeps her face behind a parasol, fan, or simply staring at the ground. The lighter carts that can, risk going towards the side of the road so as to let this portion of the Inaba family pass them.
As they walk they pass by a large urn that has spilled over the cobbled road. On one side of the road a father berates his son for his clumsiness in dropping the urn, gesturing angrily to the other side of the road and a large, wooden gateway. The archway is painted in fading red, indicating a temple, but the grounds are surrounded by cypress trees and difficult to see from the road. Kaori tilts her head.
A single white line
in a network of black cracks.
She releases the poem from her mind, an offering to the temple in place of the spilled rice; she hopes the spirits will accept. Soon the trio approach the nearby town. Not many merchants filter through the gates today. Several nearby areas are still inaccessible due to the snow and rain, so the traffic through the town is peaceful. Kaori prefers it this way, as it allows her and her family to really engage with the shop owners and the people who live here. In the spring and summer, the town becomes a mad house so dense it is almost impossible to push through the crowds in the street, let alone have a leisurely conversation. In the autumn, women send the men to deal with the town as everyone prepares themselves for the coming winter snows. The simple wooden buildings feature a raised walkway from which shop owners can call out at those walking down the street. Several are doing that now, but most are simply talking among themselves, discussing the latest gossip.
The vampire is waiting for me when I open the door to the basement, off to the left, away from the light.
“I was starting to think you’d never come.”
“I debated it. Got held up.”
“I can see that… Should I be concerned?”
“No. Back to the Depths with it. I’m starting to put a picture together of what this guys is doing, and I don’t like it.”
“Let me guess, just enough to be dangerous type?”
“What was your first clue?”
“He seemed… apologetic, when he kidnapped me. As though he didn’t really mean it but didn’t have a choice. When you know what you’re doing there’s a little bit more resolution to your actions.”
“I think he’s using the dead to get revenge on the living that have wronged him. But those deals tend to escalate quickly.”
“Well… while I certainly could eat a whole wheel of cheese right now, shall we?”
I nod and turn around. “There’s a lot of bright spots and reflected light filtering through the building, but I imagine he’ll be back here later tonight, so I don’t have another option to get you out. If you can run through the hallway half a floor up you can get to the service elevator…” I can feel her breath of my neck. Tense.
“And ride it up to the second floor?” Her voice runs along my flesh like satin, with an edge of diamonds caught in lace spiderwebs. Its a voice that could turn lumberjacks into simpering sycophants. I think about her face, what I saw of it, contorted by hunger.
“Yes.” My voice still cracks. I cough. “I’ll leave now and pull the blinds on the hallway window. 22A is on the right. Give me a count of 60 before you head out.” I start walking up the stairs. When I get to the normal elevator I toss the coffee into a waiting trash can, and run up the stairs the rest of the way. Halfway down the hall, I hear the service elevator door open and sprint the remaining distance, tossing my shirt up over the window to help obscure some it. She runs out the hall and into 22A, breaking the lock as she goes. When I hear the door click, I take the shirt down, putting it on while shivering. When it comes down off my face there’s a young man staring at me.
This time, my brain isn’t hyper alert, I’m not thinking of an excuse as to why my shirt was off, or why I’m putting it back on, I’m just staring back at him and waiting till he breaks the silence.
“What’re you doing?”
Still can’t think of anything. I can hear a whisper from the door of 22A, “There was a perv taking pictures on the street, thought I’d give him something to take pictures of.” He doesn’t respond, so I repeat what the whisper said. He nods, apparently not having heard it the first time.
“Fair enough. Wish I’d seen it though.” The dude shrugs then turns towards the stairs, and continues out the building. I shake my head and prepare myself to go into 22A.
Through the hallways, only slightly different from what I felt earlier traveling through as a ghost. More real, vibrant in the quick. My pulse is speeding up with the impending sense of conflict. I know what to expect, I know not to be ambushed, and my body responds by being hyper-alert. Eyes darting from movement to movement, stomach clenched, skin tingling. I start at the door to 22A. Heading down and mapping the spots of sunlight. Only problem is everything here is too bright, reflected light off of floors and white-washed walls now yellow. Move faster, I think to myself. I want to forget about the vampire, find someplace isolated and face down this thing that’s coming for me. I’m not sure why I want to save that thing, other than wanting to stop whatever this guy is doing. Making friends is a good thing right?
Only if they’re actually friends.
When I get to the first floor hallway, I realize that whatever it is, it’s here, and its not looking for me, its looking for it. I can feel the primal hatred moving through the building underneath me, going towards the basement. Sprint forward. Take stairs two and three at a time, hoping not to break my neck. I get to the landing just before it does. I can see the haze of darkness floating there, a spectral face distorted scrunched together and screaming. A woman and her child come out the first door on the right, look at me in the landing, right through the thing and scurry off, apparently scared by the look on my face. It hovers to a stop. I don’t bother trying to reason or talk to it, I leap forward, fist raised up to slam down on it before landing. My stomach relaxes enough to pull the energy up and out.
Contact. I stop midair, connecting with invisible solids, the grave-cold specter reels back from the blow and screams.
I hear a pop, and then nothing out of my left ear. A trickle down the side of my face, a rip through my shirt that barely misses passing into my abdomen.
Fists up, fighting stance. A man comes into the foyer and stops, looking at me, confused and somewhat alarmed. “Shadow boxing,” I say back to him, taking some jabs at the darkness that he can’t see. I’m distracted though, so I don’t connect. The thing scratches out at me, and I make a show of being light on my feet. Not light enough. It catches me on the same side, and I move so that the dude can’t see it. I can feel the blood. He rushes into his apartment, and I hope doesn’t call the cops.
I throw myself at the thing, grabbing it by the manifested face and somewhere that I want to call a chest but doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t have an abdomen. It screams, more of my skin rips open, especially on my face. I force some inner essence into the wounds so that the wounds seal into bruises rather than obvious cuts. I whisper some ancient Greek that I picked up from a book, entreating Hekate to claim her own. The two of us can hear the barking of dogs throughout the building, and the thing quivers, wretches left, trying to escape my hold, I keep going on the exorcism as it writhes, and I’m holding it, mentally hoping another one of the tenant’s doors don’t open.
There’s a whoosh, an out-gassing of air as I’m left breathless, suffocating. The archway into the stairs turns black, and the darkness in my hands is gone, sucked through. The world pops back into place. I take a deep breath and cough. I need to quit smoking. As I’m walking back into the foyer to grab the coffee I glimpsed when dude-face came in, someone else is walking in. The gasp at the blood.
“Shooting an indie film. I forgot my coffee.” I manage to look apologetic. Its a pretty close look to being in pain, so it works.
The coffee is cold again. I hurry down to the basement.
“He said the things below needed something more than human. I remember being ambushed in an alley, then I woke up here. That was weeks ago. Can I eat you?”
I can feel the need pulse, pass through the bars of the cage like they were nothing. “I can’t touch the cage, but you can. Know how to pick a lock?”
“Not in decades. Show me how?”
I pass a thin sliver of metal through the bars, floating it with ghostly hands. I should’ve had more of the cardboard pastry. Or her hunger is starting to get to me. Its hard to tell. She takes it. “We don’t have a hook?”
“Not that I can tell. Can’t see everything though. Not really physical.”
“This will have to do.”
I guide her, more with feeling than with actual words in what to do. A light brush along her hands here and there to let her know which way to turn, push and pull.
“So it does work like in the movies.”
“I can still leave.”
“You have to admit though—”
“No. No I don’t. I’m not actually dead, and this is not a pottery wheel. End of discussion.” The lock clicks open.
“Why not just talk me through it like I thought then.”
“Takes effort to talk, move things, not to be felt, ‘specially when you can see me.”
She takes the lock and opens the cage, stepping out and stretching. I am not reminded of domesticated animals, I am reminded of fierce, man-eating predators in the jungles. “Do you know a way out, or should I just wander?”
“Apartment 22A is empty. But its daytime.”
“Shit. Wondered why I felt tired.”
“Wait, ambush him.”
“I would need to eat for that to work.”
I can feel something. Something dark at the periphery of my senses, something non-real that could rip me to shreds, a dark reflection of hatred. I pull myself slowly inward.
“You’re fading. What’s happening?”
“Something comes. I’ll meet you up there.”
I pull back, fleeing not the way I came but through the walls and floor of the building. Coming back to myself in the alley. I gasp awake, the first breath of an entombed miner. The coffee is already cold. “Damnit.” I walk back into the coffee shop. “Can I get some hot water in this?”
A different girl than the one that got it for me smiles “Sure.” I’m bouncing a little on the balls of my feet. I can’t feel it anymore, but I know that if it finds the vampire, things will happen. I have to get the passage safe. “Here you go.”
I speed walk out, down the street a little ways to the entrance, double-locked. There’s a call-board in the foyer. I hit a random button.
“Hi.” My brain stops, too many things happening. “Building super sent me to take a look at some of the pipes on your floor, but didn’t give me a key, think you could let me in?”
The door buzzes, and I hurry inside, leaving the coffee cup in the foyer.
I walk out of the cafe and turn into the alleyway next to it. Dead end. Fitting. Everything so far has been a dead end. The summons, the ghosts, no one knows who this guy is dealing with, and no one seems able to find out. Or wants to. I can’t tell which. So, time to bust out the walking shoes and tail him. This looks like the place he usually gets his coffee, but I think I was made since he came in, didn’t get anything and left, I decide this is as good a break as any and I get myself something to eat. After a few cardboard-tasting bites, I throw it away in favor of the burnt coffee. At least its warm. I set it down outside, in the cold of the city, by the wall I’m leaning up against and close my eyes. I breath outward, extending myself, pushing, feeling, arcing over and under the doorways in the building, saturating the alley, the street, the building, feeling everything.
Bellow me, in a basement, I can feel a need so strong it startles me, and I have to refocus. Its a need for life that I haven’t felt before, and wouldn’t mind ever feeling again. I draw myself down, a ghostly specter into the basement, feeling the doorway and hallways, the locks on every one, planning the route out, planning on keeping everyone safe. This need is dangerous, deadly, a hunger so keen it will cut you if you’re not careful.
In the room there is no light, but I see through being everything, all awash in the strength of that need. I can feel the cages, the strength of high-grade steel and old magics deep within them, keeping me out. Chains built to withstand the strength of the elements, but certainly not the strength of this need. I see everything lit up in the reflector glow a red so deep it doesn’t project, a red that isn’t human. The thing in the cage turns to look at me. Long legs in a torn dress, hips and waist curvy and beautiful, strong, but still supple. Breasts to complement the figure without overpowering, one of which is free to the air since the dress stops existing at the waist for half her body, no bra. A slender neck, and then the face kills it. The need has contorted it, made it its own. Pretty eyes though, but the bulging upper jaw and incredible muscles look like they could bite through steel; the extra-long, sharp canines are bulging out, dying for flesh to rend and blood to drink.
“I always thought vampires would be prettier.”
The voice is sweet, incongruous with the distorted jaw in the way that possessed people talk: disembodied. Just like me right now. “We are, on our good days.”
“This then, is not a good day?”
“Are you here to help or mock me?”
“Depends. Who put you here?”
“Some ass-hat in a bowler hat. Ugh, god-awful thing that I thought had died long ago.”
“No, the hat.” She describes my mark.
My stomach rumbles.
I knew I should’ve eaten before the ritual, but too late now. Besides, better for my sensitivity to be hungry, the more aware of my surroundings, if the more likely to mess up as well. Oh well, no one said magic was going to be easy.
I can’t let the thoughts of what to eat afterwords distract me from what I’m doing. I can already feel some of the energy slipping away, leaking back into the unformed void. I refocus, pulling it all back into shape. It’s like gathering putty or clay together, unyielding and… goopy. Then trying to harden it into the shape I needed…
My stomach rubles again.
Deep breath, ignore it. I didn’t waste $75 on chalk from the cliffs of Dover, overnighted, or crystals from the four corners of world. I need this portal…
There’s a sudden, not-audible, whoosh as the pressure in the room drops, and with it the temperature. My breath comes out fogged as the crystals begin glowing and the chalk lights up from the glow. The spirit within rumbles, throws itself against the bindings and then turns to me. The thing is no bigger than your average toddler, except hunched over, a snout with long whiskers coming off the end the only thing to poke out from the depths of a hooded garment. Rat-like hands test the binding once more, and the thing turns to look at me.
“Who are you? What gives you the right to call me from the depths?”
My stomach groans. “Lawkeeper of the Depths. You will answer my questions to the best of your knowledge, without complaint and with complete honesty.”
“You do not command me.”
“I do not bargain, either.” A shaft of brilliant white energy arcs from the crystal towards the spirit. It screeches, mostly in the ultrasonic range, as far as I can tell.
“The day will come, mortal, when you shall be under my care.”
“Yes well. In the meantime I’ll just have to make offerings in apology. Father always said better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
The Lawkeeper looks at me. “Ask your questions.”
“Accept my terms.”
It sighs, throws itself against the bindings for a brief moment. Another arc-flash, another screech. Finally it looks back up at me.
“I accept. I will answer to the best of my knowledge without further complaint and with complete honesty.”
A picture comes out of my jacket, I turn it towards the creature. “This man has had trafficking with the dead. He calls them forth from the Depths in order to accomplish his foul deeds. No mortal can bring him to heel for his crimes. The living demand justice.”
It looks like its about to turn around and walk away, then stops, slumps forward. “I’ve not heard of deals broken or sundered, nor have I seen that man.”
“What tenant of your domain has made such deals, has wandered back to the physical world. Give me their name, that I might question them.”
“They are not lawbreakers, I have no command over their names.”
“One of them is. One of them has broken the balance and killed a guardian. Find that ghost and deliver me their name.”
“This is not our bargain.”
“I do not bargain, Lawkeeper.” Another arc-flash. This time I don’t stop until the thing screeches out an agreement. It is panting on the floor of the circle. The chalk undisturbed.
“I will bring your their name, guardian.”
“Without vengeance or malice. They are Lawbreakers. Do your duty.”
A growl, this time not from my stomach. With a deep breath I pull the energy closed, sealing the portal, the chalk bursts into embers briefly. Another expense I can’t afford.
I get it now. Those scenes in books where you can’t see a couple feet in front of you because of the flurries of snow coming down. It isn’t that bad, honestly. Minus the shadowy figure up ahead that I can’t tell if they’re coming towards me or away from me. But that’s just the way life goes. You wake up at four in the morning in order to take your time getting ready to get to work at seven so that you’re not a wound up ball of stress eating away your own insides with concerns about whether or not your doing your job right. The price for this is walking down a dark street in what feels like the middle of the night when everyone else should be asleep and the world is not really anything more than a flurry of snow. Crunch crunch crunch of your shoes and the brief prayer-thought of “I hope I don’t accidentally find ice and fall on my ass.” There’s the debate of whether or not its too late to call in, considering you’re already on your way to the bus stop. Still that figure up ahead.
And its not that you can’t see because of the snow, because really, it isn’t a blizzard or anything. Just some unexpected freezing cold fluff. It’s because you’ve bundled up so much to keep your face warm that you don’t have any peripheral vision. It makes it creepier, and it also makes the snow even more blinding. Even though it has nothing to do with the snow. But you’re not going to let your face get cold, so the fact that you can’t see has nothing to do with your own actions and everything to do with the snowflakes falling down and around you. You’re thankful for the scarf covering your face, even as the snowflakes find ways around it to land with brief freezing pinpricks on your forehead, under and around your eyes. People tell you it isn’t THAT cold, that you’re too bundled. They don’t understand that its just as much to keep you in and everything else out. Nothing to do with temperature, everything to do with wind, thoughts, voices, words. Precious precious words. You have to keep them close, nurture them, let them percolate through the drawn-out and aging filters of your experiences in order to get them into some sort of shape that eventually becomes something that you can use to help yourself get better. The help you purge the things that are festering inside your head, but you can’t just let them out all at once. Too many uses for them, like the stranger obscured by snow and scarf. You can’t see them anymore and you wonder where they went. Whether the Great Old swallowed them up. There is a peace to the chthonic entities that you read about. Yes it is the graveyard peace of the end, but it is a peace nonetheless. Something to be wished for.