Her world was sharp: the cliff face, her chin, the knives tucked in their scabbards. Sometimes they pointed up, the way she was heading; other times they pointed down, the way death lay. And if she knew anything—it was Death, for she’d already met the triplets and had tea with them. Twice.
Kayley, she called herself, and her fingers appeared skinny and short against the glimmering black cliff. They weren’t. They were long and hardened. They wrapped around triangles praising the sky, using them as anchors to keep her tired body close to the surface. Her boots would force holes into the glistening rock, shattering reflection after reflection until the cracks showed her path. For years to come she wanted people to know. To know that Kayley had been there. Kayley had gone to steal from Kitsune.
Not once did she look at the reflection of her face, the way her lips deepened in their crimson tones the higher she climbed, or how her cheeks flushed every time she had to make a difficult jump. Her short red and black hair didn’t keep her attention anymore, nor her green eyes. The only thing Kayley focused on was the ascent and her bag. She constantly adjusted its straps—and checked the blue belt tied around her stomach for its tightness. Then she persisted.
The daylight shimmer disappearing didn’t concern Kayley, the moon glow wasn’t alluring— all she saw was another foothold, another place to crack mirrors and shatter memories. Her sweat-stained white blouse, her Grinner-grade cargo pants and the cuts that would form more scars told her all she needed to know: she was going up. And alive.
On a two-foot ledge, she ate three pieces of bread and then continued. Kayley’s arms ached, her legs were tired but the peak existed. It was there, hovering, calling; telling her she would discover the unknowable. The forgotten.
She knew so many things that had already been lost: laughs around a family dinner, projected images fighting for dominance, a childhood kiss by a nervous boy. Another by a nervous girl.
All had gone. All had been fragile recollections that’d only taken a single jolt before they’d cracked and turned demented. Memories Kayley had felt slip in and out of the universe as if they’d been controlled by a master puppeteer. Useless things, in a way, not like the cliff’s arrows telling her where to go. And she felt she had to go because others had forgotten, so many others. But not her, for Kayley knew. She knew and so even though her fingers bled, she climbed.
The peak was supposed to be an achievement: a crater one could live in. There was a lake, grass and caves that had entrances which sparkled. Some had writing scrawled atop them, others held secrets no one desired. Except, even the calm seemed to have made enemies. Rocky spears pointed at floating clouds, the sloping gradient had long abandoned an angle and stood vertical. If modern science hadn’t existed, Kayley would’ve faltered and failed. She would’ve plummeted to her death, beautiful and broken. Yet it did and so she descended a rope to hold her and black gloves to stop the burns. With science, she desecrated paradise—her brown boots contrasting sharply with the green of the grass and black of the wall.
Less the wind and its whistle, it should’ve only been her destroying something untouched and wild. There were no other cracks in the glass—only Kayley’s. And yet, the sound of a deep drum finding its voice greeted her.
“So,” it said.
Her white and red fingers wrapped around grey. “So,” she replied. The sound coming out was creaky, as if her speaking machine hadn’t been oiled in a while.
A face bobbed in front of Kayley—round, pudgy. Not worn. It contained glasses with scratches of conflicts long passed, and hovered above of a checkered shirt that had purple buttons to fiddle with. The man said nothing more, but sat down on a wooden stool and started to roll his jeans upwards.
“Why … are … you … here?” Kayley asked. Her rhythm better, but still out of sequence.
“Here? In … Kitsune territory?”
He ‘tsked’ her as a metal container whistled and produced steam. It rested neither on an object that could generate heat nor one that transformed other energy into kinetic. It simply boiled because it could.
“I was in the area,” the man explained as he placed a black wooden table in front of them. “Looking for a piece of quiet. A slice of the old world. A friend out in the wilderness.”
“So you knew?” Kayley queried. A porcelain cup was handed to her with a three-tailed fox painted on the side.
“There are people, who talk. About…things. Werewolves, bandits,” he sighed and sat down on his stool once more, “sex toys. She’s always talking about sex toys.”
“Your friend?” Kayley asked, one eyebrow raised. She drunk the liquid, her face facial muscles appearing to relax and almost drift—as if on a cloud.
“I think of her more as a… Oh, I don’t know. A person. I make one joke about her sexual capacity and I’m reminded about it for the rest of my life.”
“You’re avoiding my question again.” Kayley paused, and then whispered, “The tea is nice though.”
“Yes, thank you. I’m glad you’re not a coffee drinker. Awful people. Often demanding extra things. Why drink coffee if you’re going to put milk in it? Why not just drink milk? Or eat sugar?” The man stood up, his form becoming a silhouette against the rising sun. “They call themselves ‘sophisticated’, ‘cultured’ because they put more things in than were originally there. It’s like drinking black soda and then pouring caramel into the bottle. Useless! It’s no longer black soda. It’s the gun-man-machine argument all over again. Am I the same person because I wear glasses?” He took his off, his blue eyes sparkling despite the background light. “Am I different now? Have I changed? Am I corrupt as a human? Flawed, like a gem, broken into the ground?”
“Is it coffee that does that to you? Make you bitter?”
His lips turned upwards, and he pulled his stool closer to him and sat down. “I’m cynical, there’s a difference.”
“A slight one. Possibly. I prefer bitter people though: they’re quieter. They just brood and glare daggers.”
“But you love our chats.”
Kayleigh slurped the rest of the drink down, wiped her mouth with the back of her left hand and slid her pack off. “I love your tea,” she said.
The man tapped out a rhythm on his right thigh. It was tap, head nod, tap, head roll and then double tap. He closed his eyes, letting his body move in time to the rhythm.
Light flooded their prison and made the greens greener, the trees taller and the sparkling water shine. It also turned the man white, his skin becoming less shadowy and mysterious, and paler—as if he had been hiding from his inner darkness since birth.
“I also like your money,” Kayleigh said, admiring the finer parts of the mug.
The man opened his eyes. “So you are here for her memories?”
“There’s only one…person? I thought there would be…more.”
He rubbed his hands together as if in an attempt to whittle them down to nothing. “But you’re not interested in conquering the living, are you? That’s pirate territory. Dangerous game to play if you try and steal their plunder.”
“As I said, I like your money.”
“My friends always told me I was far too generous, that I needed more strings. ‘Money isn’t just money,’ they’d say.” He shrugged. “I’m stuck in my ways now. Why change what works?”
He paused and inserted a rolled tube of paper into his mouth. “Would you kindly?” he asked Kayley as he held up another cylinder in his left hand.
She stood up, a flame appearing at the tip of her index finger. It flickered in the breeze and blew in the direction of the grass. “They say it’ll kill us,” she advised.
The paper turned black, grey and then ash. Transparent clouds drifted towards the lake before dissipating. The store clerk sighed. “So does anything that leaves a scar, but no one lectures about those things.”
Kayley’s eyes closed as she inhaled. When she exhaled smoke, it was in the shape of a treble cleft. The symbol hovered and was shortly joined by four lines, a quarter note and two semis. The breeze didn’t blow hers; the wind failed to move it in any direction. The music chart glowed instead and produced a sound. It was quiet, mournful—matching the emotions stirred by the rising of the sun. Each note turned green as it was played, and then morphed into something different: C, B, C#, D.
“Does it tell you anything?” the man asked.
“It’s like you, it never answers my question.”
“Third cave on the left,” he replied, adjusting his rectangular frames.
“The other one.” A long pause, the music deepened, its pace quickening. “Why are you here?”
The man with blue eyes took his glasses off and cleaned them on the corner of his shirt. A slow smile crept across his face as he replied, “Because you are.”
The cave held secrets, like most did.
It hid them well. Through the blackness and past the droplets of water that dripped, and dripped, and dripped. Down a cavern wall, across lava that flowed around a bend, and through a nook one had to go. Bloody hands on rocks, feet stabbed with sharp blocks. Into a maze, forget the string because it always shifted with a bell’s ring. Round and round the travellers go.
And yet, Kayley gained. She checked the bones of bats and dead cats. She ran her hands along the cracks and felt the earth move. Nothing stopped her, nothing except her destination: the treasure room.
It was old, as they are, with chests and bullion stacked high—too heavy to carry through narrow ways and in packs built for lighter weights. None of it mattered though, for the Kitsune’s skeleton was her aim.
Sitting on a rock, barely a foot high, Kayley ran her hand over its remains. It didn’t squeal, it didn’t squeak—like all dead things it stayed quiet and it stayed still.
“Hmm,” she said, pulling out the pack of rolled paper the man had given her. Her right hand ran over the fox’s remains again, almost flinching this time as if something had burnt her. “Guess you’re still there.”
The bones didn’t answer.
“You think I’m impatient.” She stroked the fox-like skull with a finger. “You think I’ll jump in like the others, but I can wait. And you can listen for once, rather than us talking.”
She took the rolled paper out of her mouth and tapped it, then her right foot thudded against the rocky floor. The sound echoed around the room and circled the stalactites. ‘Thump,’ went her foot. ‘Tssskhi,’ went her mouth. “Thump, thump, tsskhi,’ cigarette. ‘Thump, thump, tssskhi,’ cigarette, ‘twang.’
The ‘twang’ stopped her short. She looked down at the string instrument she’d created out of rope and the fingers on her left hand. Pulling at the closest line, it went ‘twang’ but sounded out of balance. Its note was wrong, jarring. Placing the smoldering cylinder back in her mouth, she made quick, furtive adjustments. ‘Twing,’ it went. Kayley closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
‘Thump, thump, tsski,’ cigarette, ‘twing,’ she went. On and on until her head bobbed to the rhythm and the packet was empty.
“Did you like that?” she asked, untangling her instrument. “I hope so. I wrote it for you.” Kayley kissed the bones, put her pack on the ground beside them and lay down. The ceiling had no stars, the ground had no earth and yet water dripped. Dripped, dripped.
The zips slid open without complaint. First came the food, then the clothes and finally a machine. It was made of metal: titanium, and in the shape of a dodecahedron. The middle had a circle of glass that glowed blue and pulsated on an uneven rhythm, three rectangular holes could be found on the sides for there was no top and bottom.
Kayley placed the device near the bones, rummaged around in her pack and found three boxes. They were pink, a little smaller than the holes in machine and had black tape circling around the spindles. She shook them, twice—eyed them off for a second—and then inserted each one. The circle turned green, and produced a trio of luminous tentacles that floated and flowed with the slightest of puffs.
Pulling at the tip of the lit up lines, she placed them on the skeleton: head, rib and tail. The remains glowed, only a little. Only enough to show the insects and spiders scuttling to darker places.
The machine whirred, the spindles in the rectangles turned and turned in circles that never ended. While exhaling, Kayley placed her hands on the bones and waited.
The world was void. Nothing. Empty. Silence compounded on top of silence.
Then the ‘click’ came. ‘Click … click … click, click, clickclickclick.’
“Hello,” a man’s voice said—soft and warm. It sounded like it was made of cozy blankets rustling against a fireplace. “Nice to see a visitor.”
Kayley took his hand; her body still clothed in tank top and cargo pants. Red on her skin, red in her hair.
“I thought you’d be gone,” she said as she stood. There was only them in a pool of yellow light.
He ran his hand through his white hair; it failed to move. Next, he stroked his stubble that seemed unable to commit to a beard. Finally, grey eyes peered at her through square glasses, “Maybe I like it here.”
“Or maybe you can’t escape,” she sat down in the red chair that had appeared behind her.
“Death is not an escape,” the man adjusted his denim shirt. The top button was undone, his naked olive chest in full view of Kayley.
She pulled at her nose. “The triples aren’t so bad. Annoying, maybe. D tries too hard, Th doesn’t understand his job. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Ea. She’s nice.” Kayley let her gaze drift away from the man’s grey eyes and towards the right-hand section of blackness. “At least she means well.”
“Could we make a deal?” the man asked.
“Does it come with a name?”
“Su, unless you’d prefer a woman?” His body morphed: the chest expanded, his hair grew long all while his face rounded. And even though his clothes stayed the same, they became tighter—accenting his perfect skin. “It’s difficult to know which you want,” a woman’s voice said. It was mellow, soft like trees when they whispered to each other in autumn. “Your mind flickers, it doubts.”
“A good thing to have in my line of work.” Kayley turned and looked behind her, there was still blackness. When her gaze shifted back to Su, he was a man once more.
“Frustrated at not having found anything?” he asked with a beer in his hand, and his feet upon an old oak table. It had foxes carved into it. White foxes that shimmered and moved of their own accord.
“I’m impressed. It’s rare to find anyone who keeps such a tight control on their memories.”
“That seems to be stating the obvious, do you do that often?”
“Have valuable things?”
“State the obvious?”
Su leaned down and picked up a Turkish delight, he ate it in one gulp. “Care for one?” he said, his fingers spread like an artist—inviting.
“It’s like you don’t trust me.”
“You are good at stating the obvious. Maybe you should specialize.” Kayley leaned in, careful not to touch the table. “Still, are you interested in a deal?”
“I’m interested in you,” Su replied, his eyes sparkling. “I’d be willing to barter for some of your time.”
“And I in your memories.”
“This isn’t good enough for the audience?” He leaned back, and extended his hands towards the darkness. “Two of us, chatting about death with mood lighting. Drama.” His teeth appeared pointed, his nose longer.
“What’s the game?” Kayley asked, her voice steady, her pulse fast.
“Lying about our past,” he spread out a pack of cards on the table. They were blue and face down. Each one had the moon painted on its flipside. “Simple rules: we turn the cards over and try to match pairs. If you match two, you continue. Fail, and the other person starts. I always win because I cheat.”
“That seems unfair.”
“Like life, which you have and I don’t.”
Kayley pulled at her top, but it was no longer hers. It was a low-cut dress, showed her shoulders, and all her scars. It was one from a wardrobe long ago. “What happens if I notice you cheating?” she asked.
“Isn’t that really the game?”
“Between us.” He smiled once more, light reflecting off his canines as if they were polished steel.
“I want three memories if I catch you toying,” Kayley said. “Full memories. One drama, one comedy and one epic. If I win…I want five. Action, adventure and the others.”
“You think you can beat a cheat?”
“I think I can beat a fraud.”
Su chuckled, the sound a cross between a bark and a laugh. “Five years,” he said, his voice cold and empty like the room. “That’s what I will take when I win. Or if I call you on your honesty.”
Su took the first round. He turned one over, then another—they were different, but the same. One was of the girl who had called Kayley a slut when she was thirteen, the other of her husband who had gone away one day and never returned.
“Oh,” the man said, “that’s disappointing. I expected more tragedy, especially with those scars.”
“I guess you’ll have to wait,” Kayley replied as she moved a hand over the deck. She could feel different emotions as her fingers hovered over the cards. They told her story, in a way.
“So this is how you win?” she asked.
Su said nothing, his gaze fixed on the floor.
Flicking two over, she found they matched: the boyfriend who wanted a threesome. The next pair was of her father who’d been disappointed about a fight she’d gotten into. Then her mother was mad because she’d been caught having sex with a peasant instead of a noble. They didn’t match the emotions on the cards though, they were wrong—jumbled.
“Something the matter?” Su asked, his grey eyes soft. “You’re on such a winning streak.”
“Do you know what the next cards are?”
“No, I’ve never played this game before.”
“They’re of a man who took me in the night,” Kayley turned them over. A bald male with black eyes stared at both of them. “I made the mistake of telling him I was interested in crime.”
“Yes, but my mistake was telling him. He was undercover city watch. That meant they got to beat me for free.”
Kayley flicked over three sets in a row, they all matched. “They dumped me five towns away from where I lived,” she continued. “I had no friends, so I pickpocketed and then ended up working off debts I couldn’t pay.”
“So tragic,” Su replied with his head resting on his hands. “How did you manage?”
“I didn’t. I died.”
A shudder of fear rippled through the remaining cards. “You’re going to show me I was raped,” Kayley said. “How a woman took tiny pins and shoved them in my fingers because I wouldn’t open my mouth to a man’s cock. There will be images of me being beaten, violated and then…” Her hands were faster now, flicking over each set in succession. “…you’re going to show me how I’ll die screaming as I face my greatest fear, and call me a cheat just before I can flip the last card.”
“Not true,” he whispered as a single pair sat untouched.
“And that’s the trick, isn’t it? You cheat for me.”
“Is that your answer?” Su said, his voice deep but with a hint of anger.
“No, it’s the truth.”
“Well, why don’t you flick over the last two and find out?”
Kayley leant back and pulled at her top, it was her blouse again. White and stained like always. “I’m feeling generous, why don’t you?”
“Not the rules.”
“I called you on your honesty. Do I owe you five years? Or do you owe me three memories?”
Su stood up, changed into a woman and then a man. He, she rubbed her, his forehead. “You could have five. All you need to do is win.”
“But I prefer not being a fraud. Your memories?”
“—a comedy and an epic. Please.”
“As you wish, Kays.”
Kayley’s eyes opened, and the room was dark. Not completely, there were lights and sounds. There were yellow circles moving from the skeleton into her machine. It whirred, it told her things: that the world was good and all was well. Then a man coughed and coins jingled. She was about to get paid.