Category Archives: Neo-land

Silent Strings

The cigarette hung from my mouth, its end lit and glowing faded orange in the darkness of my room.  It tasted like grime-covered candy that had been wrapped in spikes. Still, I held the smoke in my mouth as long as I could—even let it touch the top a couple of times—and then blew it out. The fan’s breeze pushed the grey clouds away from me.

A curved purple device was lying next to my thigh, vibrating. ‘Zzz,’ it went. ‘Zzz, zzz, zzz.’  The sounds told me it was on cycle three. That I’d just finished my favourite activity. Yet my body cried out for more. ‘Zzz, zzz, zzz,’ the device continued.

I blew out another cloud of smoke; the fan made it dissipate as before.

“Fuck,” I said to no one because even though I was naked and my mid-size breasts rose and fell with each breath, I was the only resident in the apartment. “Fuck,” I repeated as I sat up and felt my red hair fall into place: tickling my shoulders and starting to move freely with each shake of my head.

My thigh wobbled as I hit it, its muscle making my smack sound flat and less imagination and movie, more real life. The carpet on the floor was thick enough to stop the chill of autumn’s air, but cheap enough that I’d felt every one of its stitches while I’d laid on it.

I wasn’t that poor, the room had a bed. But it was a made of metal and when you have my…condition, you stop lying on things that can carry enough energy to kill you. It also had an imagination player, a water one, bubbling away on a wooden chest of drawers. There were three unwatched dodecs, sitting next to it. Their green lights pulsated and reflected over their metal cases. None of them interested me; they never did on those kinds of nights. Instead, I pulled out a cardboard box from the under the bed and yanked the lid off. Inside sat…clothes. That was what they called them—someone, at some point had—but they were little more then cut fabric.

I tossed aside a green top that was triangles folded in on itself and a matching skirt that had a slit so high it would’ve showed my entire right leg. I tossed away and ignored garments with cuts in the chest region and fishing stockings. What I was looking for I found at the bottom: black silk knickers and faux-leather pants that hugged me. Also, a light blue top that left a space in the middle of the material that almost went to my belly button.

No one told me how tight my ass looked in the bottoms, no voice called out from the dingy, chemical-stained bathroom to encourage anything. Not a soul gasped when I touched the metal windowsill and sent a magical charge into a hidden motor. It whirred and opened a compartment with a poisoned knife. It was where I’d left it, and still sharp.

It was important because I was about to bring back someone to my four walls. To the only place in that world that I could say was truly mine. Not a man’s, not another woman’s, mine. It was freedom in its most condensed form. And the only price I had to pay was the occasional restless evening where I had to go out and pretend I wasn’t as strong, smart or capable as I actually was.

Fair payment, in a way. God’s joke, in another.

It took an hour to get to the populated zone by wind mage and tramcar. The breeze apprentice apologised, several times, for doubling our trip time. If he’d been as tired as he’d said he was, then I didn’t know he’d wasted his breath on us. He should’ve saved his energy and got us there faster.

Fifteen additional minutes of walking and I arrived at The Dance Space. That’s what the local government had called it. ‘Dance till you need an elixir,’ their sound promotions had said. Some people might’ve gone there for that, maybe two. The others went into the experience palaces to yell at their friends across loud sound boxes, or to shake their bodies in the hope someone more attractive would notice them. At least that’s what they told themselves when they eventually sat on the broken curb swallowing purple and green pills. The stars and bad magic would kill some, and chain the rest to an addiction that kept them coming back.

This night was no different. The people in the queues outside the palaces were pretty and shiny while the walls behind them were stained with sweat, vomit and liquid. People who’d already tired of their friends lay on the ground and mumbled to themselves about demons who didn’t exist in this world. Yet.

I ignored the first palace: too many women with psychedelic highlights and magically altered hair. It said there were rich men there, men who’d risen to the top because they micromanaged every aspect of their lives. If they’d had to have been tossed out of my apartment after I’d used them for sex…it would’ve led to complications.

The second one was down an alley, looked tempting and almost lured me in: until I saw an old boyfriend, Andrew Marshelli. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been captured by a competing gang of pirates. He was supposed to have been dead; yet, there he was shoving a drawing of me in everyone’s face. “She promised me nightly foot massages,” he said.

It’s possible I had said that, I said lots of things when I was out and in need, but feet massaging seemed overly generous. Hell, I’d of even seduced him once more if he hadn’t locked me in a cage on three separate occasions.

The third palace had bright neon light bricks that lit up to a rhythm only they could hear. Several heads turned when I stood at the front and inspected the frosted glass doors—most of the heads were men, three were women. In another world, with another me, the females might’ve had something. Their hungry eyes and subtle body movements couldn’t change my predisposition though, I only had one gender that made the urge go. A disappointment for both of us.

As I approached the two bouncers who appeared to be popping out of their tight cotton tops, I put on a fake stagger and twirled my hair. When I pretended to trip, one of them caught me. A giggle escaped my throat.

“Hey there,” I said to him, reaching towards his square face. “Good things happening inside?”

“In The Den of Chance, all things happen.”

“Ooh.” He helped me stand so I bit at the smallest fingernail on my left hand. “Think I could go in? For a little?”

As my body rubbed against the bouncer’s pants, something hardened. He was either new or terrible at his job. Possibly both.

“There’s a queue,” he said.

“Are you it?” I wiggled my hips and ran a finger down his shirt, it felt like a Clarice 9. Expensive, but not unreasonable. “Want to go in together?” I paused, twirled my hair again and then said, “Want to go somewhere together?”

The other bouncer coughed, ruining the moment and breaking our connection.

“No,” my target said as he stepped back. Then he pointed me to the door and sneakily grabbed my ass as I walked past. If sneakily meant obviously, and raging hormones implied satisfying sex.

Inside the doors was a poorly lit staircase followed by a large room full of crammed people trying to synch their body movements to a pulsating beat. Bright greens, yellows and blues swept across the crowd and revealed party-goers who thought their skin was more alluring than custom made clothes. Flesh, sweaty flesh, slid across other patron’s 67% uncovered bodies and neon-coloured liquids in transparent containers disappeared in single gulps.

I stopped twirling my hair and tripping over non-existent wires; instead, I straightened my posture and used my hips to propel myself along the floor. The heels I’d chosen clicked against the wooden boards as I sauntered to the bar. Even though there were women with less on, who had larger breasts and more clearly defined figures—I felt eyes on me. Some of them were desperate, others predatory and the occasional one jealous.

Once I’d found a stool, I tried faking boredom as my opening gambit. The ‘girl who wants to be shown a good time’ pedestal that so many men wanted to climb. Sexually insecure, uncertain about her figure and wearing club clothes for the first time. All she needs is a man to guide her past her doubts, make her believe in herself.

I didn’t even get through a quarter of my drink before I’d had a taker.

“Hey,” he said as his first move. Which was his, mine was to note the pointy shoes that showed aggression and insecurity, the wear on his shirt’s buttonholes that indicated him either being poor or believing in the power of habit, and the blue the base of his fingernails. He made Linther for a living, low-grade trips you could afford on a budget. Or make if you’d been removed from a magic academy during the first year.

I crushed him before he would deter a better catch. “You wouldn’t want to be picked up again, would you?” I said as I pretended to reach inside my blouse for ID.

He swallowed, his eyes jumping about the room trying to calculate where the raid was coming from. It took him five seconds longer than most dealers to realise I was ‘off duty’, and not interested in runners. He spun on his left heel and walked away, the music drowning out the noise of his shoes clicking against the ground. If he was lucky, he’d be murdered within a year. Six months if he wasn’t.

The second wasn’t much better: a fiancée wishing to have one last fling because his in-house lover couldn’t satisfy him, but he appreciated her money too much to let bad sex get in the way. The third had a good opening line, “I can see your soul, and it’s crying out for sexual empowerment.” But his name was Abner and he believed his goodness had to be balanced with occasional moments of darkness. Split knuckles told me he hit woman, faint scars on his arms whispered he’d killed at least one. The nominations of the notes he used and the wallet they came in screamed parents who’d forgotten there were laws even their children had to follow. On the third drink, he tried to put something in mine. I let him feel my breasts, and then returned his rape pill. I was already moving seats when he fell onto the floor and cracked his skull.

Mr. Four wore a stained white shirt and thought his half-smile attractive. “I want to say something, but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way,” he started, his perfume mixing well with his natural odour to create a pleasant smell. “I’ve been watching you.”

I shrugged and took in his tight stomach line, square shoulders and the scar just under his right eye. It was barely noticeable: childhood accident or friendship gone wrong. He worked with his hands, and could defend himself if in a tight spot, but didn’t like fights.

“You’re a cop,” he said, sitting next to me. “Looking for a good time.”

“I don’t know, do you like cops?” I rotated around and leaned forward, letting gravity pull my top down so he could see the treasure to be had. His eyes flicked down twice, then stayed on my face.

“I don’t hate them.”

“Know what’s the worst part about upholding the law?” He ordered me a drink instead of answering the rhetorical question, the same one I’d requested from the previous target. “This is my workplace. Tomorrow I’ll be down here busting heads for the greater good.”

“But you’re here with friends this time. Doesn’t that make it better?”

I tilted my head to indicate I didn’t understand what he was saying. “Your aura’s saying you’re not here alone,” he continued.

He was a reader. One of those humans who’d deluded themselves about rays, cosmic energy and colour. I smiled, weakly, and adjusted my narrative to the desperate cop. “Friends. They mean well. But sometimes they think…they think I need something I don’t. So they take me here, forgetting what I do.”

As he paid for our drinks, I could see his wallet wasn’t full, but it wasn’t empty either. The notes were all average denomination and when we were served, he tipped the bartender. “Cheers,” I said as I clinked my bottle with his.

“What is this?” he asked after a sip, the first one not to lie about how awful the alcohol was.

“It’s an acquired taste. The kind you order when everything’s…shit.”

“That’s a bit grandiose.”

Maybe. I’m not big on understatement.” We drunk the rest of our drinks in silence; the man, to his credit, not asking for specifics. Only the mumble of the crowd and the earsplitting trance music crashed into our world.

He took the initiative after ordering a second round. “I can go, if you want.”

“I guess you could, it’s not like I’m ever getting lucky again. Not with my job.”

His eyes drifted down my body once more, making sure he hadn’t imagined my breasts being as good as they were. “I find that difficult to believe.”

“Why? We don’t get to wear fun clothes and be ignorant. Look at this,” I pull at my top. “I had to buy it yesterday just to fit in. Guys get scared, run away. They think I’m tough and empowered, but I’m not. Not in some areas.” I touched his hand resting on the counter and softened my gaze.

“Why’d you come out then?” he queried.

“Some things you can’t skip. They’re special, even if they’re stupid.”

“Your friend getting married?” he said, coming to the conclusion I hoped he would.

“Yeah. Some jackass with a smile and pretty blue eyes. Promises her lots of things, cheats on her twice as often.”

“I like to think not all men are assholes. That we grow out of it.”

I leaned against the counter, my skin touched cold wood and a sticky substance, both of which I ignored. Slowly, I ran a thumb down the open part of the top, playing with the material hiding one of my breasts. “Plenty say that. Then, just when you expect them to deliver, they leave you alone and on a bed with recently purchased lingerie.”

“I don’t…” He stopped, trying to hide the number of women he’d had relations with.

“What’s your name?” I asked to maintain the momentum.

“My friends call me Ken.”

“I’m Maria. You were saying you don’t leave women hanging?”

He picked up the drink, uncertain how to play it. I knew then he was my mark because all the signs indicated he’d gone by morning. The outcome: a poorly written note about how he’d had to dash off to work on a Sunday.

“I try not to,” Ken said.

“I’m not searching for a pretty virgin boy who blushes when I take my pants off,” I reassured him. “I’m a cop, I want someone who knows the biology. Someone who knows how a woman’s body works and screams.”

“That’s not everything right?” He leaned in, his right arm only centimetres from mine. His face was close and he tried to smoulder even though the music was making him speak too loud for it to work. “You want it on demand. You want to come home and know it’s there.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“And you’re looking for certainty?”

“I’m looking for someone to prove they’re worth a damn. No waiting six dates and then bailing because they want to make love to some idealised fetish. Today, now. Teach me, show me the world’s better than I think it is.”

He took my hand and kissed me. It was solid, with a questioning tongue that took its cues from my reactions. I told him it would take an hour to get to my apartment; he was already standing before I could finish the sentence.

Ken wasn’t selling me an untruth. His hands were confident; they glided over my body and tested each area. The slightest murmur and they’d be back, plying their trade to see the level of ecstasy they brought. A couple of times they faltered: massaging when they should have prodded or pushing when they could have caressed.

“Put your hands here,” he said as I heard his last remaining clothes come off. I did, against the wall. The heat of his crotch raised mine, his dick finding the right place and sliding in. Like everything, it was measured. He penetrated only with his nip and and waited for a response, then continued. Each movement was accompanied with a micro-second evaluation.

He told me how perfect the arch in my back was before groaning. His hands showed me how much they loved my curving nipples and mid-size breasts. When I came, he paused…waiting for the right moment before continuing. Then he pushed on, building until even his precise movements eroded into grabbing.

If his body looked nice in a shirt, it looked better naked and on my bed. His chest was hard, his abs defined even while he sucked in air, and his leg muscles twitched rhythmically to his motions.

After several seconds, his gaze shifted and hovered over me—glancing up and down my frame with its tattoos and scars that had been difficult to make out in the dimly lit experience palace.

“You see a lot of action?” he asked, a perfectly manicured eyebrow raised.

“More than I want.”

“I didn’t think they took officers with affiliations,” a hand ran gently up and down a tattooed spiralling circle. It was on the inside of my thigh, near my vagina.

I should’ve tossed him; I’d had my fill. Very few people outside of pirate clans know what that mark means, even less make it home to tell someone else. He wasn’t who he’d said he was, but, I argued, neither was I. And even though I didn’t need anything extra that night, and could’ve gone weeks without another man, he’d been good. I wanted him in my mouth; I wanted my legs around his waist as we crashed around the room. So I replied, “They do.”

“Even pirates?”

I rolled over and let my fingers tickle his hairless balls. He tried to say something, but then I licked all the way up his leg, stomach and chest. Just before our lips melted into each other, he gurgled sounds resembling English. When I slid down and made his shaft rise through the flicking of my tongue, he stopped trying to communicate entirely.

Rather, his body arched back and his hands started to grab at the same place on the wall where mine had.

I woke the next morning to running water and the sun streaming through the frosted windows of my apartment. Ken’s clothes were neatly folded on top of my desk. Several scrunched up pictures lay assembled in piles next to them. I guessed they’d been the farewell notes he’d tried to write before leaving.

His failed attempts didn’t concern me, the fact he was still in the apartment did. As if on cue, the shower stopped, and he stepped out—wrapped in my white towel with three orange stains.

“You’re a pirate,” he said.

“So are you,” I replied, dropping the game. I needed nothing else from him; if we were to be enemies I intended it to be on honest ground.

“Not getting married then.”

“What’s it to you?”

“My name’s Aiken Irawa. I’m—”

“I know who you are,” I replied, getting up. “Raider of the South. Terror of the Southern Skies. You’re an ‘A’.”

He tilted his head to the right and squinted his eyes trying to understand what I meant by the last part. “I’m looking for a journey partner,” he continued.

“A wife.”

“A plundering partner. Someone who gets what I do and isn’t a liability to the team.”

“Someone who can handle themselves,” I replied as I inched towards the windowsill.

“That’s not exactly what I mean, but don’t you want to try? Surely you know my reputation?”

“Humane?” I dropped the sheet—sent a volt through the metal—and grabbed the knife. The sound of his feet pushing off the floor reached my ears, but he was too late: the blade was already pointed at him.

“I found the other weapons,” he told me. “Bet that’s poisoned too.”

“I’m not going to kill you. I try not to murder the people I’ve just fucked. But I want you to get the fuck out and stay away from me.”

He kept adjusting his body, trying to find a position that would obtain an advantage. The tip of the knife followed him. “You want me to walk away from one of our most dangerous enemies?” he said. “That’s what you are if you don’t join me.”

“I’m not part of the Vertigos anymore. I’m out.”

He laughed, and continued searching for a leverage point. “No one leaves. That’s their motto. We’ve found their members strung up on a buoy with shark bites out of them.”

“Maybe they don’t have a choice. My name’s Joelle. If I want to walk the fuck out, I can.”

It took a while for him to process who I was, his pupils dilating and then expanding as he absorbed the information. After all the pieces seemed to click together in his head, Aiken stopped trying to find my weakness and stood still, his shoulders slumped.

“Will you join my crew?” he asked, quietly. “It’d be an honour to have a strategist like you on it.”

“No I fucking won’t. Get out. Stay out. Never see me again if you know what’s good for you.”

He did, taking his taut body and erect penis with him. He did for a whole day.

Like every man whose name starts with an ‘A’ and has dated me, Aiken reappeared like something out of a nightmare. This time it was in the shopping centre, just me spending money on clothes and poorly scripted imaginations.

“Joelle,” he said, his pitch higher than our pervious encounter. “I dreamed about you last night.”

I turned around and took him in—he was wearing the same clothes as he’d had when he’d left. His hair was disheveled, his eyes sunken and jittery. The only difference was that he came with weapons: swords and bows.

“The gods want us to be together,” he continued. “The spirits. They told me so.”

“You can’t really believe that shit,” I said as I tried to refocus on some silks.

“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s how we win raids.”

“And they’re telling you we’re going to get together?”

“That’s what they said.”

“What if I say ‘No’?” He’d worked his way over and stood next to me. I felt the heat of his body and the warmth of his breath.

“Then I have to take you. They told me to take you. You’re our salvation.”

I punched him in the jaw and ran. My fist hurt, the skin red and cracked from a lack of practice. It didn’t deter him though, his footsteps could be heard behind mine—crunching against the stone floor of the markets.

People were pushed out of the way, a man with a scimitar yelled at me and threatened my children in nine languages—I ignored him and kept going. Over baskets, through frames and down alleys—nothing shook Aiken. He kept coming, like a devil from a story told to children who needed to be aware they weren’t the toughest kids in the city.

As I had no tools for murder, I ran towards the stream. Maybe you know it as Death’s Beam? Some people say it’s where our magic comes from, I don’t know. Perhaps I don’t care. It’s not something you want to cross if you can help it. Don’t have a high enough magical ability? The stream takes you in a second. Aren’t quick enough to dodge the bursts of energy flowing through it? You’ll lose a limb, torso or leg. No one goes through it if they can avoid it.

I stopped once I’d reached it, looking at the glowing lights whizzing past and feeling their energy flow coarse me. People were yelling, saying I needed to come back and get away from where I was. I would’ve, if I hadn’t heard Aiken unsheathing his sword and the sound of his boots getting closer and closer, I would’ve. Except I had heard them, and so I jumped.

One light flashed passed, then another and another and another. They shot past me, my easily damaged frame missing them by millimeters. Roll, jump, dodge and so on went the actions until I was surrounded by people on the other side.

My heart was beating furiously, my forehead dripping with sweat and my breath laboured. Then people gasped, and I turned to watch as Aiken stepped into the steam.

He made three feet before the silhouette of his left arm disappeared. His legs followed, as did his head and finally, the remaining parts of his torso. In five breaths the Terror of the Southern Skies had disappeared forever.

A man with a white beard looked at me and jingled his coin-collection cup. “What did he do to you?” he asked when I put a couple in.

“He fucked me,” I told him.

“Guess he deserved it then,” the man replied as he checked the coins.

“Guess he did,” I said as I merged into the crowd. “Guess they all do.”

No Swords Required (Story 2)

“Yeah, pretty dead.” Tath kicked the body lying on the patchy grass. A knife and arrow protruded out of his head. “It’s not like I’m good at missing.”

Agra balanced a couple of shurikens on the tips of index fingers. He slowly started to move his arms around in a circular motion. As he increased the speed of the activity, his glasses slid down to the tip of his nose.

“You hear me?” Tath called out. “He’s dead, and he’s mine. The arrow goes in deeper.” To prove her point, she yanked it out of the corpse’s head and indicated at the blood on the shaft. “Definitely one for my column.”

Two shurikens whistled past her ears and thudded into a tree.

“That’s ridiculous,” Agra said as he walked towards her. He kept his gaze steady and—despite the setting sun—managed not to squint because of his cap. It was black with a blue whip embroidered on the front of it. “Mine definitely hit first.”

Tath flexed her muscular, dark-skinned arms and let out a low whistle. “Is that what all you boys say? ‘At least I got there first?’”

She didn’t say anything until Agra’s tall, wiry frame was next to hers. Then she added—while looking into his blue eyes, “Not a kill shot.”

“Thirty-five metres, that’s how far he was,” he said. “I didn’t chance it. That’s a poisoned knife.” He gestured towards the body. “Go on, pick it up or the kill goes in my column.”

She sighed. “Thirty-five? Really? More like twenty, and a bit. Look the shadows. The angle of the sun. I’ll give you it was around a tree, but mine went through them.” Tath pointed to the straight line of holes her arrow had made in the trees behind them. “Right into the cranium. I don’t need to pick up your cheap-ass knife. If he was dead, my arrow would’ve missed.”

A woman with mousy blonde hair stepped into the clearing. Her slight arms pulled two corpses behind her while the setting sun made her green eyes sparkle.

“Hey Mea,” Agra called out. “You saw it. I hit first. He staggered from the poison and, ‘bam’, went down.”

Tath rubbed her neck. “Staggered? Drunken kung-fu style into my arrow?” She shook her head. “I admit it was a good throw, but he’s for my fucking column. Put it down Mea, Tath, one. Ag, zero.”

She mouthed, “Yeah, mother fucker,” to Agra.

He replied by giving her the finger.

“How about one for both?” Mea asked. Her voice was deep, but soft.

“No,” Tath said. “He shoots blanks. Come on, we know this. Height don’t mean nothing.“ She tried to shove Agra out of the way but he stepped neatly away and she stumbled. “Fuck.”

“Just give them both a kill.” A man appeared from thin air. No one would’ve called him tall, but he was a centimeter taller than Tath, and five more than Mea. It was his full beard and torn jeans that gave him presence. Made him appear more in command of himself than his wavy brown hair suggested. “They won’t help set up camp otherwise.”

Tath had already stormed across the clearing. She poked the newcomer in the chest. “Look, Steh, you give one to him,” she jerked her thumb at Agra, “I ain’t helping. I’m going to sit on my ass and play with my fingers. Twiddle, twiddle, up a tree.”

Steh shrugged. He took a deep breath and conjured five metal cards. They started spinning in the air until a black portal opened and two bags dropped out. Both were large, green and made from canvas. He stroked his beard, grabbed the portal and shook it. A third one appeared, this time it was burlap and tied tight with a glowing cord.

The sound of the bag hinting the ground complimented Agra’s grunts as he pulled his shurikens out of the trees they were lodged in.

“Don’t help, don’t eat,” Steh said. “It’s not like we’re running a charity,”

“I got the target,” Tath said.

Steh blew on his hands and the cards disappeared. “I’m sure none of us could have managed that without you Tath. You’re our hero.”

“Yeah, well…fuck.” She kicked the ground. Her black leather boot gained another scuffmark. “I’ll cook. No one here can tell the difference between—”

“—Rosemary and apples,” Mea finished.

Tath glared.

“We’re all sorted then.” Steh tried to smile at both of them, but his beard made it look like a living organism was invading his mouth. Both women shuddered.

“Ag can get the meat,” he added quickly. “It’s what he does.”

#

The light brick was the size of a large hardcover book, but weighed fifteen kilograms. It made enough heat to sizzle meat, keep them warm, and boil water. It also provided the group with sufficient light to work in the grass clearing as if the sun hadn’t gone down.

If Steh hadn’t had tinkered with it though, they’d all have been dead by now. Blown up by one of the many faulty products Ai Corp produced. The director of the company would’ve quit, again, and then been rehired for her outstanding service. A large press conference would’ve been held and they would’ve talked about those ‘small town people’ as if they had a mental disorder.

Except he had tinkered, like he did with everything they picked up along the way. Including their most recent acquisition: the dead man’s pocket watch.

“Can’t believe they still have these,” Steh mumbled to himself. “Thought they were extinct.”

“…there I was with this ass, man,” Tath said to the other two. “Just staring at me. It was a really good ass. Hard, like you punch it and it doesn’t go red.”

Agra glanced over at her, and wiped the meat stains from the corner of his mouth. “That good?”

“You don’t get to have one of those every day. Just lying there. And he turns over, and…it’s like…that tiny screwdriver Steh carries. Fully up.”

Mea was sitting on a log they’d moved over. A tattered book was in her hands, mostly read. “Was it worth it?” she asked.

“I tried everything,” Tath continued. “We did it up, down, hanging from the ceiling. I did my rope trick—”

“—The one where you both hang from ropes and make love in the air?” Agra interjected.

“Yeah, that one. Every time. Every time I’ve fucked a guy with that…mind blown.” She raised her eyebrows.

“Nothing?”

“He comes away all smiles and I’m left with popsicles.” Tath paused and picked up her plate. After stuffing a fried potato in her mouth, she continued. “How can you have such an amazing ass and not…be good? Right? Right?

Mea caught Tath’s gaze and turned a page. “Quick sex isn’t for me. Men are too easily breakable.”

Agra stood up, walked over to the light brick and pushed the rest of his plate’s contents towards it. All the scraps blackened and turned to ash. “At least you weren’t trapped in that wheel for ten days. She kept preaching on and on about how the aliens were only coming for the unprobed.”

“How many times do we have to save you from your dates?” Tath asked as she slid up behind him. Reaching around his body, she emptied her plate onto the brick. “Sometimes everything you need’s right here.”

He turned, his deep blue eyes staring into her browns. Their skin colours interweaved: black, white, black, white, black.

“But you snore like a fat man with a breathing problem,” he said. “I’d turn into an insomniac who killed people for fun.”

“Don’t you do that now?” Mea commented, her eyes fixed on the page in front of her.

“Yeah, but for real.” His gaze drifted down Tath’s body. Past her large breasts, over her tight abs and down towards her thick baggy pants she always wore. “You know my condition,” he concluded.

“Fuck,” Tath fluffed her hair and walked away. “I’m not looking for a boyfriend, y’know? I just want sex. And I’m out in these woods with you forever.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky this time,” he commented as he sat down. “Never know what’s in Ristie’s crazy bag.”

“Hey Steh,” Tath called out. “Distract us. Ag’s talking about the bag.”

As if on cue, he held up his latest invention. “It was a pocket watch, now it’s a pocket watch and a kinetic exploder.”

“Oh?” Mea asked, her eyes finally drifting up from the novel. “You figured that out?”

Steh’s face went red. “It’s not all there. It’s…it absorbs energy until the hands spin off. I’m still working on the explosion part.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out. She always sends us to far away towns, we’ll have plenty of travel hours to kill.”

“So it is bag time?” Steh asked as he put the pocket watch on the ground. “Well…shit.”

“Mea,” Tath said in a sing-song voice. “Meeeaaaa. Guess whose turn it is?”

“I know.” She snapped her book shut, stood up and walked over to the burlap sack. When she touched the cord, it turned green then red and finally yellow. It floated to the ground without aid.

The bag spoke, like it always did, in a deep and pompous voice. “Good, good. You took even longer to complete this task than your normal glacial pace. Impressive. Still, as I often say to my little sacks, a dead man is a good man.” It laughed at its own joke. “Well, Meagh, what will you seek today? Fortune, fame? Bronze statues with helmets?”

“Death,” she whispered. “I only seek death.”

“As one must! Now thrust you hand in, don’t tickle me too much, and I guarantee you will find some such!”

Her olive-skinned hand slid down into the bag and rummaged around. She picked up and discarded four different scrolls before settling on one that seemed almost friendly to her. Almost.

“Ho ho,” the bag said as she withdrew it. “That’s a good one. Keep you plenty busy.”

The bag’s cord flew up and tied itself around the sack’s neck.

Plenty busy,” Tath remarked. “Where? Hokkaido? New Zealand? Goddamn Australia?”

“You should have a ‘neo’ in front of those,” Agra advised. “Remember?”

“Sendai,” Mea said before anyone else could comment. “It’s one of mine. We’re going to Neo-Sendai.”

#

Sendai used to be a good town. It was the right kind for growing families: large enough to have everyone’s favourite stores and all the brand shops, yet small enough to have a community. It had a baseball team once, a bullet train that could take you north or south through Japan and friendly people who spoke reasonable English. Then came the Chinese-American war, then came the earthquake Piroarago.

Now it was crumbling high-rises, broken tracks and miles and miles of one-to-two floor apartments. Concrete rubble lay on the ground and even though there was still a government, shops had been assigned locations to stop militant raids. The idea had come from a simple theory: thieves are lazy. If they had to travel a reasonable distance from one location to another, they simply wouldn’t. Local economy saved.

Correct or not, it had worked—most of the time.

“Would you like a kimono?” an over-weight store clerk asked Tath. His glasses and blue eyes made him appear quick-witted, aware; his crinkled face took all that away. Rather, the only interesting thing about was his white-skin. A sign the times were changing.

No,” she snapped. “Wandering adventurer here. What would I do with a kimono in the woods? Use it to jack off rake man over there?” She jerked a thumb at Agra.

“It is very smooth.” The store clerk pressed some of the material into her hands. “The finest silk from the Chinese mainland. Maybe this will finally let you satisfy him?”

What did you say to me?” She grabbed the clerk by his collar and shoved him against the wall. Several bowls and chopsticks crashed to the floor. “You saying I ain’t good with men? I’m Tath. I’m a legend down south. Men queue up to get me.”

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Come on,” Agra said. “He’s got a lot of good stuff. And the kimono would look good on you.”

The comment seemed to catch her off guard and made her blush, just a little. She relaxed her grip.

“If we weren’t heroes,” Agra continued, “maybe you’d have time for it.”

“Fucking patriarchy,” she said as she yanked the store clerk’s shirt back into position. “You read up on that for me. You get self-aware, alright?”

“Yes,” the clerk commented as he bustled back to the counter. “Patriarchy. Definitely.”

When they got to the meeting point, at the edge of the city, Steh was already there. Like always. He tossed both of them an apple.

“Guess who I met?” he asked.

“Hunnam, the writer with abs?” Tath asked.

“I remember him more for his treatise on the income inequality of abnormal species. But close, someone interested in the forbidden arts.”

“Someone interested in reading?” Agra said before taking off his glasses and cleaning them on his black t-shirt. “No one’s that—” He paused. “Linda.

“Yes, Linda,” Steh confirmed. “She looked good. Still has different coloured eyes though.”

“Linda is here, and you’re worried about her eyes?” Tath asked, her voice rising an octave. “We’re on a mission looking for a book. That’s all she does.

“Absolutely,” Steh took a bite of his apple. “Pretty convenient, isn’t it? She could be anywhere in the world, and she’s here. In the same city. Asking about the same book.” He swallowed. “And there’s a band of roving thugs the city would pay a million yen for each.”

“There’s always a roving band of thugs,” she replied. “There’s always a reward. You keep going on about them, like we fucking care.”

Steh sighed. “Well, I care. We kill enough people. I think we should get rich doing it. My hobby’s expensive.”

“So Mea’s. Hey,” Tath paused and looked around. “Where is she?”

#

Mea was only interested in one thing: books. Or more specifically, a series of books: Arry Motter and The Legendary Tales of His Wang. She’d already purchased, cajoled, murdered and lied to get five out of the seven, and—according to the mission orders—they were about to find another in a cave outside of Sendai. Which made it especially important for her to finish re-reading the last one she had of the series.

That was why she was sitting on one of the benches surrounding the only working fountain in the city. It was not because of the heat, although her top was sleeveless and low-cut, or that she wanted to be with people. It was the only place with benches, and she believed—firmly—that books should be read while sitting on something. Not on the ground.

Unfortunately, for her, it was also a place with people. Lots of people. And where there were lots of people, there was always that man. The guy who thought he should just say hello and sit next to her for a conversation. This time his name was Dey. He had black hair, a chiselled jaw and smelled of flowers. His shirt was also unbuttoned and showed a hairless and rock-hard chest.

“…favourite from that series is Nor. He reminds me of everyone I know. Tries hard, but never gets anywhere.”

Mea attempted to be polite. “You’ve read it?”

“Of course. First girleo I showed ‘the magic to made me.” He adjusted his position on the bench by edging closer to Mea. “I know they say reading’s forbidden, but they didn’t talk about writing.” He let out a puff of air. “Y’know, I’m quite famous in these parts. I’ve penned a few tomes. Mostly works of art. Pretty much defined a genre.”

Mea cleared her throat, gently closed her book and placed it on her lap. She scratched her forehead and sighed.

Dey didn’t seem to notice and continued, “Arry Motter isn’t that good. It probably shouldn’t have even been printed. Lapses in character. Set in London. What’s all that? Why localize? It’s not like it’s important. True fans know what I’m saying. It’s the fangirls that keep it popular. Not the real readers.”

She turned. “Are you criticizing my favourite series?”

“Constructively.” He held up his hands as if defending against invisible punches. “Hoooliiiie, you’re sensitive. Fake nerd girl alert! Gawd, didn’t take you for the type.” He paused and then pointed at her. “You know what you need? A little bit of love. Love from a mind that is truly…enlightened.”

“So you just thought you’d come over and let me know I was enjoying a terrible novel?”

“To enlighten you. All the mothers of Cthulhu combined. You wouldn’t read that shit if you knew what good stories were.”

Her eyes flashed yellow. “I am getting angry, Dey. I would appreciate it if you walked away and annoyed some other woman.”

He slid his arm around her. “Ain’t going nowhere. I’ve got some fiction you need to read.”

Mea punched him right in the jaw. It shattered. He flew sixty metres and crashed into a wall. His skull cracked open and he died twenty seconds later. She didn’t wait that long to start running. She just ran and hoped nobody had noticed. Everyone had.

#

When the three of them saw Mea sprinting towards them they guessed what had happened and did likewise. They ran until they were out of breath then jogged towards the cave’s location until the only sounds they could hear were from the forest. They didn’t stop even when they knew they were safe, they just slowed to a walk and kept trudging on in silence. It was well past midday by the time they reached their destination. And, if they were lucky, the next book in the series.

Unfortunately, they could make out a pillar of smoke coming from the direction of the cave. A tall, wide pillar of Old Testament proportions.

“Just a group of bandits,” Tath remarked. “Nothing we haven’t handled before.”

Steh didn’t appear so convinced. “That’s a huge amount of smoke for seven bandits. Plus, they have the caves.”

“OK, worry-balls, send your little things out.” She waved dismissively in the air and then mumbled, “Takes us longer. Stupid books.”

He pulled out two of his metal cards: They were green and had tiny lenses in them. Whatever the lenses looked at showed up on the card’s surface.

“Turn invisible,” Steh commanded. They did. “Scout the caves ahead,” he told them. They flew off.

“I guess it’s good to get a layout,” Tath huffed. “Still think we can take them. Stupid Sendai. Can’t go back there now.”

“He insulted Arry,” Mea offered as an excuse. “And men—”

“—Break too easily,” Agra finished. “We know. We just wish you wouldn’t break so many.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t if there weren’t so many bad ones,” she mumbled.

The scouts came back thirty minutes later, and the video they’d recorded contained nothing the group wanted to see. Not a single frame.

“Twenty-five?” Agra asked. “Count them again.”

“We have,” Tath snapped. “There’s twenty-five.” She punched the tree nearest her. “Fuck!” Her knuckles bled. Yanking the bow off her back, she slashed the air frantically. “FUCK!”

“If Linda touches the book before we do, we’re done for,” Mea added. “And she’s coming. She’ll just get more resources than us and flush them out.”

“We knew it had to happen one day,” Steh said as he pulled at his beard. “Let’s just make a plan so we can go out in style.”

#

Tath sat away from the light brick polishing her bow. She liked its curves, the way the runes had been inserted and how Steh’s magic made it glow or not glow on her command. Books had taught her how to make the weapon. How to make the fire arrows in her quiver, the rope ones using portal magic and how to accurately do a triple shot. She’d learned everything from them. Everything except how to break the curse.

She felt Agra slide down beside her. His eyes were staring into the darkness and had gone deep like an ocean. The same way they always did when he was worried.

“We’re not going to make it tomorrow,” he started.

“I know,” she replied.

“They’ve got juggers. I never thought…I know magic’s powerful, but to inject it into someone like that? I thought they were a myth.”

“I’ve killed one before. Had to cut his dick off.” She tried to smile at him, but they ended up chuckling instead. “Really,” Tath persisted. “That’s the best way. Cut it off. Then finish him.”

“It’s a good plan we made,” Agra said before going quiet and staring into the distance once more. Animals rustled in the darkness.

“You get this, don’t you?” he asked her.

Tath tilted her head questioningly.

“Combat,” he explained. “We would never have made it this far without you. And, I know I give you shit, but you’re my friend.”

“We can be sex friends.”

“I don’t know how that works. I get so…serious.”

They paused, and listened to the sounds of Steh tinkering and Mea turning pages.

“Do you regret that day?” she asked. “The one we snuck in there?”

“Into Ristie’s castle?” He laughed and ruffled her hair. “Never. She’s got to get bored with us soon. We can’t be that interesting.”

“Or we’ll die tomorrow and some other sap will get cursed.”

“Yeah.” He stood up. “That’s more likely.”

Tath started polishing her bow again, but then Agra’s footsteps stopped.

“That was your kill,” he said. “There wasn’t any poison. I guess I’m the lowest in the group rankings now.”

She smiled and whispered, “Bastard,” as he soon as he was out of earshot.

#

Mea looked around the clearing. The bandits had done a good job of securing the place: they’d cut all the trees down within a fifty-metre radius of the cave entrance, had a large fire burning so people couldn’t sneak up during the night and kept archers posted behind metal barricades just inside of the entrance. It was hard dirt too, difficult for tunnel machines to get through and the men kept their distance from each other. Most seemed alert, well-trained.

They were ready for everything.

Except me, she thought to herself as her concentration flowed down towards her legs. Then she jumped, flew sixty metres into the air and hit the ground to the right of the fire. The dirt cracked and the three soldiers she’d landed in the middle of inhaled sharply. Mea could smell the leather of their scabbards and hear them fumbling with their swords.

Too slow, she thought. You’re all too slow. 

#

Steh teleported directly above the two guards to the left of the fire. They had their weapons ready to battle a monster, but not a magician. He threw a card at each of them. They screamed as the metal rectangles sunk into their throats and the devices exploded. A shower of blood rained down on him along with some brain and possibly nervous system.

He dashed behind the fire as he heard the enemy archer located behind him hit the ground, he assumed dead.

If you’ve missed Tath, I’ll kill you, he thought.

A non-friendly arrow flew over his head. He waited and hoped. There were no more sounds to the rear of him, but there were some screams to the right. He heard bones shatter as a soldier smacked into the mountain’s side.

“How are we?” Tath asked as she slid next to him. Another arrow whistled through the flames above.

“Waiting,” Steh replied.

“For Mea?”

“Aren’t we always?”

#

Mea picked up the last swordsman by his hair, and then slammed his face into the dirt. It transformed into a pool of blood beneath her hand.

Taking a deep breath, she checked the area. Agra was in position to the left of the cave’s entrance; Tath and Steh were hiding behind the fire. She was clearly late, again.

Breathing in, she focused her energy into her legs and jumped once more.

#

Agra waited until Mea landed in the centre of the cave’s entrance and he heard her roar. Then he sneaked a quick look around the corner—an enemy archer was standing up behind a metal barricade and ready to fire. He flicked a knife down from one of his holders, peeked again and threw. The guard screamed in a good way: the I’m-going-die-soon way.

He took three quick breaths and whistled. It didn’t take long before he heard it. No one couldn’t have: Tath’s boommaker. It travelled at the speed of sound and the noise it made punched into your eardrums like fireworks.

He thanked Steh for their ear protector’s that cut out certain frequencies, and he thanked—whatever deity there was in the sky—that they’d given Steh his inventive mind. A second later, he popped his head around the corner and threw a knife at an archer who was rocking back and forwards holding her ears.

And then he saw the jugger. He was big. Probably three metres wide and three tall. He was also running straight towards the entrance. Agra let out an owl call.

#

Steh summoned four of his cards, teleported in front of the cave’s entrance and shot them straight at the monster. They didn’t work. They hit an invisible wall and deflected in a million directions.

Fucking shield tech, he thought as the thing came crashing towards him.

He dodged, dodged a second time and rolled to safety. Mea rushed passed him, Tath too.

“Cut its penis off,” Steh heard Agra yell before his companion slid into the cave.

A giant fist flew above him. Then he felt something connect, and six ribs break. The six he hadn’t been able to afford a metal bonding for.

He said nothing as he went down. He couldn’t. Instead, Steh tried to think of a summoning spell, anything, but his mind was scrambled.

Instead, he did what he could and rolled. He kept on rolling as fast as he could even though the monster was laughing. Then he hit a wall and felt something crush his leg. Blackness swam before his eyes and his body convulsed in pain.

His right hand had found something in his pockets, but he didn’t know what it was. It was metal, and round. He hoped it was grenade because he could just make out the jugger standing over him preparing for its final blow. He threw the device upwards and towards the monster’s crotch.

The looming shadow stopped moving completely. Steh didn’t need any more encouragement and started crawling away. The sound of something being cut, a gigantic roar of pain and then an explosion followed. Steh felt the earth shake as the jugger thudded to earth. He hoped it was dead.

He hoped, but didn’t care because the stars were beautiful and they were coming for him.

#

Tath heard Mea wrecking havoc on the barracks, she also heard Agra’s scream as he fought bandits in the mess hall but she couldn’t help. No matter how much her heart burned, because the enemy commander was just ahead.

She kicked open the rotten wooden doors to the kitchen and stared at the marble walls. The room couldn’t have been built recently, it was too posh—too impractical. It had to have been an executive bunker from when the war broke out.

The sink fittings sparkled chrome and the bench was old wood: dark brown and had been placed squarely in the middle. Fridges hummed away on a magical power source designed by one of the more competent Ai Corp departments.

Two arrows flew towards her, she dropped to the ground and scrambled over to the preparation bench.

“There’s two more juggers,” a deep voice called out. She risked a peek. His skin was half-olive, half-yellow. He had a shaved head and bushy eyebrows. And his hands were glowing green.

Fucking magic, Tath thought.

“My name’s Rish,” the man said. “I’m a relatively flexible guy. Run a decent operation.”

She heard the sound of a bow’s string being pulled back.

“You’re ruining that operation,” he continued. “Which is bad. But good, if you’d like to join me.”

“Where’s the book?” she yelled.

A boomerang arrow flew over the bench and curled back towards her. She dodged, but only just. It was glowing with the same green as Rish’s hands.

“There’s no book,” he replied, the confidence in his voice growing. “There’s only a locked door at the end of the next hall.”

Locked door, end of the hall. Right. Tath looked at her hands, they weren’t steady. Another glowing arrow circled around behind her and lunged for her heart. She threw herself to the side, but it clipped her arm all the same.

“Fuck,” she mumbled and slid three arrows into her bow. “I just need a second. One second.”

The problem was, Tath was pretty certain Rish’s archer was better positioned. But she was out of options, one more magic arrow and it was over.

“Dying is just like going home,” she told herself. “That’s what Aura said. Dying is just like going home.” She chuckled. “I wonder if there’s kimono’s there.”

Taking one last breath, she pushed out from the table and leapt…but it was too late, the archer’s arrow was already in the air. And then she saw the flying corpse.

#

Mea was angry. More angry than she’d ever been and no matter what she tried, she couldn’t make her rage dissipate. She was even hauling a man’s corpse with her for no reason except that he had nicked part of her leg during combat. It hurt and that made her mad—that and the fact she couldn’t find Tath. She needed Tath. More than anything right now she needed her friend and the rooms were confusing.

Everyone in the mess hall was dead, except for a pale Agra who had a penis in his right hand, a massive gash in his chest and was laughing. Mea didn’t care if he bled out.

There was a locked door she couldn’t get past no matter how many times she slammed the corpse she was carrying against it. The armoury was clear, so was the barracks. She started to hyperventilate. Where was Tath?

Then Mea saw her through the open kitchen door. Tath had her bow drawn back, but she was trembling, and Mea could tell just how scared she was. There was a man in the room too, a man with bushy eyebrows and his eyes said he wanted Tath dead.

Mea threw the corpse and something green and glowing thwaked into it.

Tath released the bowstring. Three people screamed. Four bodies thudded to the floor. Tath was still standing though. Her slow smile still alive on her face; her brown eyes still sparkling because of the furnace in the kitchen.

Mea ran to her.

#

“Fuck,” Tath said as she felt her breath being crushed out of her. “Put me down. Dammit, Mea! Put me down.” When she was on the ground, Tath took a deep breath and looked at her friend. Neither of them were really hurt.

“How’s the boys?” Tath asked.

“Almost dead.”

“Men. Just. Fuck.” Tath grabbed Mea’s shoulder and laughed. “We’ll be fucking legends after this. Bigger than Kvothe.”

“No one’s bigger than Kvothe,” Mea said, her tone becoming serious.

“Fuck, he’s fictional. We’re real as shit.” Tath leaned on her friend for support. “Haul my ass to that door. I’ve got the mother fucking key right here.”

#

To both Tath and Mea’s surprise, their scroll not only unlocked the door but also the chest. They’d never known Ristie to be so kind.

“What the fuck?” Tath said. “Is that a book? I’m not delusional, right? That’s the book right there.”

Mea grabbed the novel out of the chest and unwrapped it. Her face went from excited, to depressed and then to angry in seconds. After a deep breath, she slowly wrapped the tome back up.

It wasn’t book six. It was book five. She’d copied the wrong instructions.

#

Agra dropped the penis he was holding to the floor and commented, with a slur, “I guess magic does make you smaller.”

“We have your friend,” a voice boomed into the caves. It was a woman’s—strong and commanding. He knew who it was. There was only one person in the world insane enough to hunt for books for fun—Linda.

“Tath,” he called out. “Mea. I don’t think I can fight another army.”

He could feel the blood congealing on his chest in thick, ropy clots and he wondered how long he had. Wondered if he’d die alone.

“You stupid fucker,” Tath said, suddenly at the mess hall’s doorway. “We’ve got a fucking mutant on our team. You could’ve called for help.”

“Wasn’t in the plan,” Agra replied as he felt their hands under his arms, hauling him to his feet. He opened his eyes, they both looked more beautiful then Jennifer ever had.

“Come out with the book,” Linda’s disembodied voice commanded.

“Well? Solutions?” he asked.

“She gives us Steh, she can have it,” Mea grumbled. “Stupid scrolls.”

He chuckled, and attempted walking with his own feet. “How many did you get Tath?”

“Four.”

“Bagged myself five and a jugger. Guess you can have the bottom of the ladder all to your lonesome.”

#

Linda, as they expected, had brought an army. Sixty soldiers—all in glittering armour and all looking like they belonged in a different world. At the front was the book huntress herself with her blue and violet eyes, long black hair and pointy nose. When the moonlight glanced off her pale skin, it made Linda appear graceful, at peace with the woods surrounding her.

“The book,” she said. “Give me the book for your friend.”

Tath chuckled. “He’s not our friend. He’s a fucking legend.”

“Well, the book for your…fucking legend,” she corrected.

“Promise Linda?” Mea asked. “On the book collectors code of honour?”

“Yes, fine,” she replied. “I, on the book collectors code of honour, promise to give you your…legend…back. And let you leave in peace.”

“Here,” Tath tossed it. “Come on Steh, let’s go.”

Steh didn’t move, so Mea picked him and slung him over her shoulder. He made a small grunting sound and mumbled, “Pocket watches. They’re the next thing.”

About sixty metres from the opening, they heard Linda scream. Tath and Mea looked at one another and grinned.

White Thoughts

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.

“Tea?”

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.

“Holiday?”

“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.”

“They’re valuable.”

“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.

“I ate.”

“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?”

“Of life?”

“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.”

“Deal.”

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.”

“Were you?”

“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?”

“One drama—”

“—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.