Shower. Don't shower. Wait, no. Shower this time.
Comb your hair, you piece of shit.
Get dressed, pull on shoes.
Breakfast, breakfast, break... Leftover spaghetti? No, it's started to rot in the fridge, it's been so long.
Didn't you have a slice or two of spinach and bacon... Pizza! Yes!
… You're probably going to regret this later, but for now, your stomach is full and you can go on with your morning routine.
Zach Bruys bent down and did a quick retying of his boot laces before walking to the main room of his home.
1685 Blightblossom Lane. The address belonged to the condo Zach stood in. It was such a large space that the city decided to give the singular condo it's own moniker separate from the building it resided in.
Zach sighed, pulling his fingers through deep brown hair as he performed a mental checklist of what needed to be done before he left to do errands.
“Let's see,” The 22-year-old said, his voice a warm neutral that lifted up on certain syllables, “Rooms 3 and 7 need their carpets deep-cleaned. Room 4's bathroom needs a new toilet paper holder. Shit, and the window in Room 1 was busted a few days ago...”
He folded his arms and marched to the supply closet in the main hallway. He snatched up his favorite toolbelt, grabbed a canister of cleaning wipes and sponges, as well as a bottle of all-purpose cleaner.
He was going to have to make more than one trip, probably ten and over before he was done. But this would be a good place to start.
“Dear Mom and Dad,” He spoke out to Room 1 as he hefted up the new glass to the window pane, “I'm still taking care of the condo. Not like I can do much else with the two of you still gone. But, hey.”
He fastened the glass into place and plucked a cleaning wipe from the canister next to his feet. “It gives me something to do in the mornings.”
The smears remained; egged on by the residue on the glass that the warehouse employees had done fuck all in the means of cleaning up.
“Damn it...” Zach groaned, taking a new wipe and going at it harder.
“Mrs. Kusnetstov from the second floor keeps insisting that I should sell the place,” Zach shouted out over the choking whir of the carpet-cleaner. He shoved and yanked it over the pink shag carpeting in Room 7. “I guess she means well, but where the hell would I even go?” Which, really, was the thick and sad of it. A young man who was unequally Yokut and Japanese (he hated how his hair would never choose between stereotypically smooth or stereotypically thick and wild). He was gawked at whenever he went to the local Little Tokyo and he was pitied when he visited the Yokut settlement. So, really, what was the point of leaving?
“I mean,” He turned off the carpet-cleaner, “What if I did leave and you guys came back to an empty house, huh? What then?”
The words rolled through the room and crashed into a silent death in the hallway.
“The city's even been hounding me for the space.” Zach marked the part of the off-white bathroom wall where he needed to drill. He abhorred the thought of fucking this up again. He already had to patch up the remains of the last time he tried to fix one of the other towel racks.
Zach hefted up the power drill and rummaged through the bits that he had. “'You're holding up progress', they say. 'Think of what you could do with the money', they say. 'Why are you being such a stubborn little shit', they say.”
Zach fed the drill into the wall just enough so that, when he hefted up the first handle of the toilet paper holder, he would have a notch to put the corresponding nail.
“They say that I'm selfish keeping all this space to myself.”
Zach pulled a rag damp with polish over the doorknob of Room 5. He moved it back and forth until, when he removed the rag, the knob was sparkling like the sun's reflection in the harbor.
Zach looked around the condo. He removed the bandana from his hair with a low breath. “It's not like I'm forcing people away from renting some of these rooms out.”
''Cause she's a Maneater
Make you work hard!
Zach ripped his phone out from his pocket and hit 'Accept'; not even glancing down at the caller-ID. “Talk to me.”
“Where are you?” A woman's voice snapped out on the other line, “You know that the LlamaYama Cronutwich food truck calls it a day at 1:37! PM! To. The. Second!”
Zach shied away from the screeching voice and looked at the clock on his phone. Indeed, it was already 1:15. “Shit!”
He tore off the tool-belt, the gloves, and almost ripped off his boots before he realized how futile that would be.
He grabbed his wallet and keys off the counter and bolted towards the door.
His boots screeched against the hallway's hardwood floors when he forced himself to stop his momentum.
Zach walked over to the mirror he had hanging there and brushed back his hair, just to have it fall back into place. “Whatever.” He walked to the front door and took a step out.
Not before turning back, examining the state of the condo, and snapping a quick picture of the space with his phone.
Nestled by a fresh-smelling bay and surrounded by gigantic steel bridges, Dama Fristad was known all over the country as 'the harbinger of new beginnings'. The population was primarily younger (recent college graduates, idealists, and entrepreneurs), majority employed, and wholly of the favor of looking towards the morrow and never the past.
Were there unsavory elements to this bay-side burg? Of course; we're talking about a city of living, breathing creatures here. Someone's bound to get stabbed, mugged, raped, or –
But the point is that it didn't happen as much as it did in other cities. Everyone was far too busy trying to build up lives they could look upon with pride and pass on to their loved ones.
“One Honey-Whip on Vanilla Wafer!” A burly, hair-covered man popped his upper-half out of the side window of a brown and white food truck decorated in llamas wearing chef hats.
“That's me.” Zach walked up and waved his receipt before anyone else could try and steal his order like that one asshole from two weeks ago who--
The truck owner handed him the warm delicate, flaky layers of a croissant and donut love-child split in two with a large scoop of fresh ice-cream in the middle.
With his food in hand, Zach walked back to the stone bench where the young woman who damn-near screamed his head off on the phone sat.
“So,” Faaria took a bite of her own order as Zach sat down, “Any takers on your condo?”
“No...” Zach was about to take a bite but he went on, “I've been updating the listing on every rental site every other day for the past eight months.”
Faaria adjusted her bright blue hijab to try and avoid staining it in her haste to finish eating. “I still can not believe you've gone this long without any tenants.”
“Like it's my fault?” Zach brought out his phone and opened up the latest site that had any rental inquiries. “Look at this. I put it as clear as night and day: '1 bedroom, 1 bath, kitchen-access, prime central location. $878/month as well as a share of utilities'. Do you know what I was sent last night?”
“No, but I am sure you are going to tell me.”
Zach swiped his phone screen and read out, “'Do you really need 878 tho??? I can't see paying that much for one room...'” Zach shoved his phone into his pocket. “If it wasn't what I was asking for, why the hell would I have posted the ad?”
Faaria shrugged. “Maybe they wanted to haggle you down.”
“I'm renting rooms.” Zach quipped back, “Not selling fruit in the back alley of Calcutta.”
The truck owner slammed his fist against the side of the vehicle. “Alright, last call!” He looked around, scanning through the crowds. “Come on, I know one of ya wants--”
In the corner of his eye, he could see a small hand bandaged hand waving a five dollar bill near the window. He looked down, a smile growing on his face. “Well, hello little lady.” He leaned out of the truck as much as he could to address the little bundle of ancient bandages. “What can I get for ya today?”
“Vanilla on cinnamon!” The little mummy beamed, her mouth missing several teeth but her eyes just as bright as most human children her age.
“Vanilla on cinnamon, huh?” The truck-owner chuckled as he went to prepare the order. A fresh cinnamon donut, a scoop of creamy sweet vanilla... “Here you go.” He waited until the mummy had a good hold on her order. He nodded, “Tell your moms I said hello.”
The mummy nodded and rushed off. She was going to get this right back to her parents and they were going to go to the park to share it!
The little mummy ran past Zach and Faaria just as Zach said, “Maybe I should claim that the condo is haunted so I can get some tourist revenue.”
The little mummy kicked up her feet when she saw an older mummy and the off-colored flesh of a zombie near the water fountain.
“I – WAH!” Her tiny feet tripped over the brick of the path and as she was sent to the floor, her icy sweet treat meeting the floor with a splat. She caught herself upon her hands but the moment she looked and saw the dismal fate of her ice cream, her wrapped-up face squeezed tight into a grimace. Her tears and whines rang out through the park, finally prompting the zombie and mummy couple to shuffle over.
“Oh no...” The older mummy cooed, gingerly lifting her child into her wrapped arms, “You have to be more careful, dear.”
The zombie turned towards the departing food truck. “Damn... it...” She rasped out. Despite the limited vocabulary her and her kind had control over, the words held all of her frustrations at the fact that the LlamaYama was G-O-N-E for the day.
Zach was listening to his friend talk about how there had to be something he wasn't trying. However, his ears were far more taken by the crying of a child robbed of a simple joy.
“Hello~?” Faaria waved her hand in Zach's face. His gaze had been wandering and his attentions were blatantly elsewhere. Zach silently got up, cronut sandwich in tow, and walked over to where the zombie and mummy were failing to calm their daughter down.
Faaria pouted at the retreating back of her friend. She wasn't just talking for her own benefit. However, as she watched Zach hand over his own cronut-sandwich to the little mummy and depart with a wave and a ruffle of the child's ribbon, a quiet little 'aw...' left her lips. And with her heart feeling fuzzy from the display, her brain was blooming with a new idea to help Zach out. She wanted to be able to go home without worrying about him being alone in that giant empty condo.
“Guess my track-record of going without LlamaYama's is still safe.” Zach tried to joke it off but, despite doing a good deed, he was still slightly disappointed that he had run all this way just to end up missing out again. Zach looked and saw Faaria grinning up at him. “What?” He looked down to his feet. Up to his knees, to his shirt. There was nothing amiss. “What's got you grinning like that?”
Faara finished her food and clapped her hands together. “We're going to get your rooms filled by the end of the week!” Faaria hopped up to her feet and grabbed Zach by the wrist.
“Wait, your hands are sticky.”
“Shut up and let's go!”
Zach often wondered if someone like him should have been so familiar with the inner workings and sinew of City Hall. But Faaria had a thing for dragging him to work with her to see what a real job was like. So he knew to wave to the guardian lion statues in the main hall of the older building. Both statues nodded their greetings to him before resuming their stone-faced duties. The sound of great wings flapping caused Zach and Faaria to duck just as the graceful form of the mayoral caladrius whisked by: her great wings reflecting the light of the room as brilliant spectrums.
She departed and they were soon off again. They reached an elevator and Faaria produced a key-card from her pocket and swiped it through the reader on the wall.
“I should have said something before,” Zach spoke as they stepped into the elevator that soon lowered down, “But what are we doing here again?”
Faaria waggled a finger in his face. “Good things to those who wait.”
“Last time you said that,” Zach shoved his hands into his pockets, his foot tapping as he waited for their stop, “I didn't have water in my condo for a month.”
Faaria folded her arms and sent a pout and a cut of the eyes Zach's way. “You still aren't letting that go, are you?”
“I had to go to the Chinese restaurant around the corner just to take a bath, Faaria.”
A chime floated down and the elevator doors opened. “Hey, wait.” Zach looked up, left, and around. The intimate warmth of red velveteen wallpaper and embroidered flooring seeped into his perception: it condensed his senses, letting him smell the crackling fireplace two rooms away.
“This is the floor of the city Housing Committee.” Faaria kept walking and Zach even found himself, “Come on, keep up! We're here for you, not me.”
Zach grumbled something under his breath along the lines of 'around the corner for a bath, Faaria...' but allowed the tug of his friend to pull him.
She skidded to a stop in front of a simple, unassuming room with a glass door. “Faaria, for the love of God,” Zach glared down at her, “If you try to tell me that there's wine in here.”
“Quiet down, Fortunato,” Faaria opened the door and led the way in. It was a tight fit for Zach so he didn't even know how the hell Faaria was walking through with her, ahem, larger presence.
Shelves upon shelves, crafted from steel but blanketed with verdant moss, reached to the ceiling. Zach stopped to take a look at one of the many, many treasures this storage room held.
They were perfectly round, perfectly smooth, while they held the fluidity of water and the color of the world around them.
Zach's words fell lifeless to the ground as he approached one of the orbs. He hefted it up into his hands, a soft warmth spreading out from his fingertips and resting into his bones.
He smelled... vanilla. And sugar.
“It's an Enviea.” Faaria explained, “They're what allow non-humans and humans to live in the same space.”
Zach had to pull himself away from the welcoming aura that the Enviea seemed to flood over his entire being. “What do you mean?”
Faaria leaned against a shelf. “Well, think about it: a dragon, a mermaid, and two humans couldn't live together in the same house without gutting it or something, right?” She looked up at the collection of Envieas in the chamber. “They... affect space and matter. I don't completely know how they work, but all the businesses and rentals and things in town all have one.”
That was it. Zach understood now.
“How much?” He asked, his eyes looking back at the Enviea in his hands. He knew that something like this couldn't possibly come for cheap. But, just maybe...
If, you know...
It would help him rent out those rooms...
Faaria stood up straight. “Right to business, hm? Let's see...” She hummed and swayed, “The typical price is around, oh, 150,000--”
“What?” Zach dropped the Enviea back onto its cushion like it was made of fire. “Faaria, what the hell? I can't afford this; why the hell did you bring me down here?”
Faaria stepped back. “Come on, I had a feeling... But maybe we can find a used one around here for you to buy at, I don't know, half off?”
Zach scoffed and Faaria pouted at him once more. “At least I'm trying to help, you big grumpy baby!”
“Faaria.” Zach sighed for a second. “Most of your 'help' results in me begging for a quick and merciless death.”
“Now, now, you two...”
“There's no need to argue in a place like this.”
Zach whipped his head to the left. “Mayor Hebeus!” Then to the right. “Mayor Heart!”
Mayor Heart was an older woman, dressed in a baby-blue skirt-suit and matching heels. Her black hair had some streaks of gray in the up-do she had, but her brown skin showed no sign of her age.
Mayor Hebeus stood upon four powerful legs, the hoof of each leg swaddled in billowy feather hairs. He had started to bald a bit, but his gray goatee was as thick as any rugged lumberjack's. His torso was draped in a suit jacket, the tails falling over his lower half and splitting in two just as his swishing tail came into the picture.
Faaria smirked and folded her arms. “Told you.”
But Mayor Heart allowed her painted lips to curl up in a skeptic's grin.
“And I thought that I told you that I need you to file the rest of the petition templates for the leprechaun banking school?”
Faaria flinched back like she had been burned. “Well, you know...” She tugged at her sleeves, “I just wanted to... Help my best friend out with his rental situation?” Faaria ended her piece with a chuckle.
Mayor Hebeus looked to Zach. “Still no decent applications, huh?”
Zach sighed and started to leave the Enviea chamber. He should have known better than to let Faaria drag him into any more bullshit but he was getting desperate.
He walked through the halls of City Hall, dipping out of the way of an embittered Cwn Annwn trying to make their way to the law department. Zach followed the hall, took a left, and let the quivering carpet underneath his feet carry him back to the reception area.
Now then: if he could just find that one bench that he always seemed to be in a three-way power-struggle with two non-humans for any time he was stranded here. Zach squinted his eyes to get a good look. His vision was obscured by the lumbering mass of opaque sludge that was being escorted through the building. When they were finally gone, Zach carefully stepped over the slime trail left behind and found, to his relief, that the simple wooden bench was empty. “Now to wait.” He whispered, leaning his back against the wall once seated.
He felt submerged: cloaked in the sounds of growls and hisses, of ancient languages mingling with human tongues. Zach took a deep breath, soaking it in. He finally opened his eyes and let them fall onto the one major ornament of Dama Fristad City Hall. Oh, the building was well-furnished and decorated, but the shining jewel of the city was the velveteen dress of deep plum encased in a glass tomb. It stood in the center of City Hall for all to see... And for some to strive for.
Zach heard Mayor Hebeus approaching before the centaur spoke. Hoofbeats traveled further than footsteps.
“Still haven't found a princess for this dress, huh?”
Mayor Hebeus shook his head. “Unfortunately the search for someone pure enough of heart and kind enough of mind is looking to be too much of a reach. But,”
Zach found his attention taken away from the dress beneath the glass when the centaur next to him began rummaging through his pockets. Zach managed to keep his mouth shut for all of three minutes before he asked, “So, I've been wondering--”
“No, I'm not going to start wearing pants just to have better pocket options.” Mayor Hebeus switched to his other coat pocket: mumbling something about 'nosy young people' and 'how would that even work, anyhow?' It took him another minute. “Ah.” Mayor Hebeus pulled out what he had been looking for: the familiar warm scent of vanilla and sugar whispering to Zach's senses. Zach turned as Mayor Hebeus eased an Enviea into his hands. “Sir, wait—”
“You know just as much, if not more, than I,” Mayor Hebeus insisted, “That those rooms have been empty for far too long. Go on, boy,” Mayor Hebeus nickered, one of his hind-legs tapping at the linoleum floor, “Take it.”
Zach looked down at the clear orb and then back up at Mayor Hebeus. He couldn't accept this, really... Though he was certain that if he didn't, he would get a pun about looking a gift horse in the mouth by Faaria later on.
Yeah, he would honestly rather die than hear that. “Thank you, sir.” When Mayor Hebeus handed him a handkerchief to wrap the Enviea in, Zach took it without question.
This could actually work.
Now Zach just needed a way home that wasn't Faaria or public transport. “Mayor Hebeus,” He looked up, “Do you think that maybe I could hitch a ride home?”
“Don't push your luck, boy.” Mayor Hebeus gave Zach a simple punch to the shoulder; tail swishing angrily behind him.2: The Great Convergence - Part the First
Zach slowly sat up in bed. He pressed his hair back with his fingers and hopped out of his mattress's alluring hold.
“You have to get up sometime, you miserable fuck.” He whispered to himself before pulling himself out and walking to the shower.
Zach walked around his condo for the fifth time that morning. He was getting a bit... not anxious, but he was confused. His condo looked the same. Did Mayor Hebeus give him a busted Enviea? Even with Faaria texting him in the middle of the night, reassuring him that the changes would be more apparent when he finally got some tenants, Zach was uneasy.
“Just throwing it all to the wind here...” Zach stopped his pacing to push the candy dish on the coffee table. It was just.
Off-center. An impassive face often hid deeper passions and agitations. When he felt as though the main room looked okay, Zach grabbed several pieces of chocolate from the dish and walked to the door.
“Shit!” Zach grabbed his knee, gritting his teeth at the pain from the sudden impact against his leg. “What the hell was that?” He looked around before finally taking note of the large chest that stood in the hallway. It was your typical grade-A treasure chest: black lacquered wood gilded with gold. It nearly pulled Zach closer to it; something inside of it... calling to him.
He shook his head. He didn't have time for this, he had to talk to his doorfairies.
If you lived in a nice enough place and could hang a basket of living flowers upon your door, you could end up with doorfairies. And it wasn't a bad thing, either: if a family of doorfairies moves in, making their home in the breathing blooms upon your door, you could expect fortune, tranquility, and safety.
Zach stepped close to the basket of blightblossoms upon his door, the violet blooms and thorns shuddering with his approach.
“Hello?” He spoke, and waited.
“Hello?” Zach spoke, and looked at the time on his phone.
“... I have chocolate.” Zach stated.
“Good morning, Zachary~!” Three teeny-tiny heads topped with fuzzy antennae popped out of the blightblossoms: a chubby father, a slim mother, and a little daughter.
“Is that for us?” The doorfairy mother asked, already snatching away the chocolate that Zach had brought. The doorfairy father leaned his fuzzy body against Zach's finger and schmoozed, “Boy, let me tell you Zach: you are a dream! Sleeping and screwing all day and amazing food! All without having to lift a wing!”
“Maybe some of us should look into lifting their wings more often.”
A flutter of wings found Zach's ear as a fourth doorfairy flew over to Zach's hand. “Hey, Zach.” He called up to the human.
Zach nodded at the doorfairy with the rich, blue fuzz: a stark comparison to the others' rose. “Hey, Periwinkle.”
Periwinkle fluttered up and landed on Zach's shoulder. He put his chin in his hands and pouted, black eyes pleading, “Please tell me you've found a reason for this door to open more often. I'm dying here!”
“Damn it, Periwinkle!” The doorfairy father growled out at his son, “Haven't you ever heard of 'not looking a gift Pegasus in the mouth', you little ingrate?!”
“It's not being ungrateful when you just want to do what you're born to do, you fat fuck!” Periwinkle yelled at his father.
Zach didn't even try to get in the middle of this fantasy family feud. He waited for the motions to rise: Periwinkle's father trying to fly up to get at his son but failing due to his weight, Periwinkle cutting the air with more of his complaints (complaints that were, really, justified), and then Periwinkle's mother and little sister coming into the fluttering fray to dog-pile on the indignant doorfairy.
The thing was, though, that Zach didn't have the time for this. “Guys. Guys?” He snapped his fingers, the sound-wave rolling over the doorfairies and quelling the squabble. For the moment. “Great, good; you can listen up now.” Zach cleared his throat, “I'm actually expecting some potential tenants today. So, can you guys maybe... Go back to working?”
“WHAT?!” Periwinkle's family squeaked in horror. But Periwinkle shot up into the air and did a complete loop.
“Praise be to Trillium the Fair!” Periwinkle zipped over to Zach and gave him a high-five to the finger. “I've been waiting for this day!”
Zach opted to take his leave and wait for the first of the applicants. Though, that left the matter of the chest. “No one else lives on this floor.” He stepped closer and tapped the chest with his foot.
Zach rubbed the back of his head. “God damn it.”
Zach panted and wheezed, sweat beginning to bead upon his brow. He had just managed to carry the chest into the main room and, damn it, the thing must have weighed as much as a morgue's worth of dead bodies.
Zach took several steps. He was desperate to find a place where the chest wouldn't be an eyesore.
“Visitor!” The doorfairy father announced, his tiny voice vibrating through the door via the blightblossoms.
“Oh, fuck this.” He let the chest drop to the ground. “I'll just call the postal company about it later.” Zach jogged over to the door. He brushed down his shirt and wiped the sweat away from his forehead. “Okay. Okay, here we go.” Zach reached out for the doorknob –
He was shoved into the wall when a hoof kicked the door inward with a resounding crack.
“What the shit?” Zach yelped, trying to ignore the bruise forming on his stomach from the doorknob. Zach squeezed his way out from behind the door. “Can I help you?”
He didn't get an answer aside from two literal jackasses walking in.
The two donkeys, one brown and one white, walked in on their hind-legs. Dressed in black suits with shimmering blooms in their breast pockets.
“Vicinity clear?” The brown donkey gruffed out, adjusting the earpiece he had in his right ear.
“Vicinity clear.” The white donkey nodded. He knocked his hoof on the door and the both of them rushed to stand, at attention, on either side.
Soon Zach heard hoof-beats from the hall. They were gentler than the ones that had knocked his door in: falling to the floor like the winter's first snow.
When he first saw them, there were the crystal hooves that cleared away dust and debris and dust as they kissed the ground. His coat was pristine and white, a few silver speckles on his hindquarters.
The hair of his luxurious mane and tail floated and shifted around him. The silken strands twisted between bright silver and deep blue as sparkles, like stars in the Milky Way, swam through. Deep eyes; stormy, blue eyes framed by thick, white lashes. The equine beast looked around the apartment, careful to not pierce anything with the spiraling horn jutting from his forehead. Zach stood up straight and asked, once more, “Can I help you?”
The unicorn nodded, main and tail shifting, “Allow me to make an introduction. I,” He readjusted himself to bear his weight on three legs, lifting a hoof to his chest, “Am the first son of the reigning King Alabastras and Queen Fuschiabolt Winterdust: Prince Silveste Winterdust.”
The two donkeys closed the door, allowing Silveste to step closer to Zach. “I am here to inquire about the open status of your dormitory selections.”
Zach looked at the unicorn for a long while. “I beg pardon?”
Silveste chuckled. His eyes sparkled when he spoke, “I would like to rent one of your rooms.”
“Oh, right.” Zach got up and led the way further in. “The kitchen is large enough for several beings to cook and entertain without bumping into each other.”
It was odd to fall back into 'open-house' mode after his condo had been empty for so long. But it was the fact that someone was actually there, not pulling or hiding behind passive-aggressive fake inquiries...
Silveste looked around. He gave a quick nod. “Might I see the chamber in which I could retire and gather clarity for the next morn?”
Zach looked Silveste up and down. “Listen, I'm going to need you to ease up on that before you drive me crazy.”
“Right, of course.” Silveste cleared his throat. “I'd like to see the rooms now.”
Zach opened up the door to room three, the first two being denied due to not 'having the right aura', whatever that meant. “Step on in, have a look around.” Zach let the equine entourage inside. Speaking of which... “So, I got your name,” Zach hung tight near the door, “But your friends here elude me.”
“Oh, Blancher and Bruner?” Silveste gave a nod towards the two donkeys. “They're my bodyguards. They've been with me since before I was born; I don't know what I'd do without them.”
Blancher and Bruner didn't say anything.
'Tough crowd.' Zach thought.
“...y, this room will do.”
Zach nearly missed the way that Blancher bowed to one knee, Bruner walking close to Silveste with a briefcase weaved of ivy and sweet-grass. It opened with a click and Silveste grabbed a wand out of it with his mouth.
A wand. A purple-polished handle topped with a snowflake crystal embedded in the center of a silver ring.
Before Zach could say anything, the wand was already shining brilliantly in Silveste's grip. The flash that started off as a mist exploded into a flood that engulfed the entire space.
Zach shielded his eyes and didn't lower his arms until he heard the sound of bubbling waters. He gasped, looking around to see that what had been Room 3 not even a few minutes ago was now a piece of pristine forest. A soft breeze blew through the boughs of grand oak and maple trees that nearly obscured the view of a shimmering violet sky. The grasses and plants beneath their feet held an ethereal glow.
Zach turned to see Silveste, Blancher, and Bruner examining the mystic space. “Do you two think I should send home for my bedroom set or should I order a new one?”
Blancher and Bruner gave each other a quiet look. “You two are right.” Silveste nodded, walking to a soft flat of flowers and sweet-smelling leaves. “I'll put in the order tomorrow. Bruner, can you give our kind landlord the deposit so he can be on his way. I'm sure that we've taken up far too much of his time.”
“What did you do?” Zach muttered in awe. Magic was a common occurrence in Dama Fristad, but you usually had to travel to the Shimmer Gale District to have it specifically done for you.
Zach watched Bruner walk over with a checkbook in hoof. But he had questions. “Unicorn magic?”
“Diluted, of course,” Silveste replied around the wand until Blancher came to put it back in its briefcase. “The idea of using pure unicorn magic is absurd.”
Zach took the check from Bruner and shrugged. “Guess I'll leave you guys to get settled. Welcome home.”
Zach stepped out of the condo for a second to check if anyone had gotten lost (though, he was the only residence on his floor). He could hear simple bickering from the blightblossom and the doorfairies within. Zach knew that Periwinkle was beyond hyped with the development, but the rest of the family –
“Such tortures never existed back on Azathoth...”
Zach turned to the western end of the hall that was punctuated with a staircase. Periwinkle peeked his head out of the blightblossoms before flying over and hovering by Zach's ear. “Is it another tenant? Zach, is it? This is so great!”
The humming of the doorfairy's wings was deftly ignored. There was something about the voice from the hall's end: the way that it wriggled and rolled through the air.
A writhing mass of slime and tentacles pulled its shuddering form up the stairs. It looked around with three black eyes, magenta forked pupils contracting and expanding.
“Shit.” Zach backed up at the sight of the tentacles. “Are you still a target for hentai-trope bullshit if you're only half Japanese?”
The writhing mass turned at the sound of Zach's voice. “Oh!” It pulled itself to Zach, its height reaching up to Zach's groin. “We are sorry about our appearance! We weren't expecting your, erm, your...” The gelatinous creature let out a crackling trill, three eyes squinting up, “What is human word for--” The tentacle-blob made noises that blended vowels with clicks for several seconds.
Zach turned to Periwinkle. “Don't suppose you speak Eldritch-ese?”
“Sorry,” Periwinkle shrugged and floated back to the blightblossoms, “I only took a semester of Harpisian back in Secondary.”
“Great...” Zach turned back to the bleb at his feet, wide eyes looking up at him. He followed the trail of translucent slime that the tentacle-blob had dragged from – “The stairs?”
The tentacle-blob gasped, the sounds not coming from a mouth but wisping about in Zach's mind. “'Stairs'!”
Zach watched as the creature reached into its slick, slimy body and pulled out a clean notebook and pen. In handwriting that was perfect portions scratch and script, it wrote out a series of symbols and then the word 'stairs' next to them.
The tentacle-blob examined its notes with a nod. It tossed the notepad up above itself and its body tore open into a ravenous maw. Wriggling tendrils and spiny teeth swallowed down the notepad, with spine-shattering squalls filling the hallway. It pulled itself back together and smiled with its eyes.
“Can we rent one of your rooms, please?”
Zach, still shell-shocked, eased the front door open.
The tentacle-bleb handed Zach a thick manila folder full of photos, dusty pages, and paperclips.
Zach opened the folder up to an ink-drawing of the very tentacled horror in front of him. And the words... It was written in a humaneness script, but pronouncing it was a feat. “'Ne'...” Zach twisted his lips and tongue around the combinations of the letters on the page, “'Phobos'?”
Nephubos nodded. “Yes! You said it correctly! Usually, we have to spend so much time going over it!”
Zach flipped through a few more stained pages and weathered pamphlets. He clapped the folder shut and set it down on the coffee table. “So, what's an Eldritch Abomination like you doing in a place like this?”
Nephubos's dark slimy body swamped over to a pale pink swath of hair. The dark slimy state returned, as did that voice. “We have been given great opportunity! A full scholarship to Dama Fristad Academia to study Human Culture and Relationship Dynamics!”
“DFA, huh?” Zach folded his arms and watched the bleb crawl around the main room and touch everything with its tentacles at least twice.
“Yes, yes! We are so very overjoyed to have been chosen to study a subject of such vast interest and variances! But...”
Those three wide eyes swam through Nephubos's gelatinous body to look up at Zach. “We are in need of shelter while we learn. And we happened upon your listing while using the primitive human technology called a...” Zach cringed when Nephubos reached into themselves and pulled out that same notepad from before. They sped through several pages, eyes squinting at the right one. “Laa-p-tooop!”
Zach turned away just as the ungodly shrieks and baying began, signaling that Nephubos had put the notebook back inside. The noises finally subsided and Zach found it in himself to look down again. Nephubos's minute movements managed to make their body jiggle and their tentacles wiggle. It warmed Zach's heart a bit.
“Let me show you to a room that you might like.” Zach led the way down the nearest hall. Room 6 would be a good fit.
Zach slammed the door to Room 6 open, a series of claws, tentacles, and bubbling slime speckled with agitated eyes reaching out forto him. He shut the door, shoving himself up against it in an attempt to keep the hellish din inside.
'Decorating', is what Nephubos had called it.
“Visitor!” The doorfairies chimed out before there was a scratching at the door. Zach could have sworn that he heard some growing agitation in the voices from some of the small beings.
Maybe he was imagining things.
He walked to the door and sidled up close to look through the keyhole.
The sight that welcomed him was... relatively normal. A pretty face and a pointed chin. Topaz eyes with plenty of surrounding eyeliner with a smorgasbord of thick dark tresses around their smiling visage. “Hello?” Zach could hear the stranger call out. “Are you home in there?”
Zach pulled back and shrugged. After being crushed by his own door and still wiping his hands free of some otherworldly slime, Zach could use some normalcy.
Zach opened the door.
Zach was forced up against the wall by a warm behemoth of sandy brown.
“Hi!” Said the creature, whose body was that of a lion: heavy paws, lustrous mane, and large ears. His face, despite holding the same shade as his fur, was more human-esque. Well, as human-esque as you can imagine when a creature fills the entire walkway and front area of a condo. “Is this the place?” The sphinx asked, making a circle and smothering Zach beneath more of his fur and bulk. “It's so pretty! And in such a good location!”
'I'm gonna die! I'm gonna die! I'm gonna die!' Zach screamed in his head. He certainly couldn't have done so with his mouth. Not unless he wanted to make an impromptu hairball.
The sphinx stopped circling and sniffed around. He sat on his haunches and reached to his side, pulling Zach free from his fur. Zach swallowed down air as soon as his mouth and nose were free. “If I wasn't gay already,” He wheezed, “That would have put me off of pussy entirely.”
The sphinx didn't seem to hear him. “You have such a nice home!” He beamed down at Zach and Zach could get a better look at the topaz eyes that bore slits pupils. He followed the whorls of liner around the sphinx's eyes that formed an Eye of Ra.
“My name's Gahiji.” The sphinx introduced himself after he let Zach go. “And I'd like to rent one of your rooms!”
Zach looked the sphinx from the golden headband around his head down to the manicured claws on his paws. He couldn't even get away with saying something like 'oh, sorry but I don't think any of our rooms will fit ya, buddy'. Fucking Enviea...
“Okay..?” Zach tried to smile back but he was snatched up and rushed over to the nearest window.
“This is great! This is so great!” Gahiji clapped his paws together and opened the window. “Almighty Morning Star~?” He called out, “I've finally found a place! Come see!” That was it. Zach was officially of the mindset that this sphinx was crazy; shouting into the air like he was.
Then the air got hotter.
Not like fire. More like the change one feels when driving from a beach to a desert. Zach looked up and the sun was lowering down. Closer, closer, closer still. To rest near the building. If Zach wasn't still so close to what had to be 13,000 pounds of clingy lion mixed with God only knew what, he would have panicked.
He was still uneasy but when the sun began to shift and form into something new, he simply stood still.
The Sun god Ra's avian face appeared in the flaring orb or plasma and fire. Ra looked around for a second before gaining focus. “Gahiji.” He addressed, his words sending zephyrs of heat over the building. “Are you sure that this is where you would want to live? We could try that nice bungalow off the 91 again.”
Zach opened his mouth. Gahiji covered his face with a heavy paw. “Oh no, almighty Illuminator. I want to live here. This place is perfect!” He grabbed Zach and jumped to the left, the apartment shaking. “It's nice!” To the right, sending a glass toppling from the counter. “And roomy.” To the left again. “And it's right in the center of everything!”
Zach was going to puke.
Gahiji hopped backwards: one paw before the next, chattering away until Ra chuckled,
“My dear knowledge-keeper, I have heard your concerns. And your praises. You, boy.”
Gahiji carefully set Zach back on the floor. Zach waited for the salty bile in the back of his throat to settle back down before looking up.
“Boy,” Ra addressed the human in the room, “The child next to you is very precious to me and mine. I understand how the presence of creatures like him and beings such as myself may be overwhelming, but I order you --”
“Make sure that he doesn't get into the medicine cabinet by himself, got it.” Zach interrupted. He wasn't trying to be rude, but he really needed to finish this and get some fucking ginger into his stomach pronto. Ra blinked down at them. He cleared his throat and shook his head, “Right. Okay. How much of a deposit are you asking for?”
“And this,” Zach said, leading Gahiji into one of the available rooms, “Is one of my larger layout rooms. Well, besides the basement. Hey, do you want to live in the basement?”
Gahiji tilted his head. “How does a condo have a basement?”
Zach shrugged, “I don't know, after today I'm just giving everything the King Crimson approach.”
Gahiji took that as a window to look around. “I probably wouldn't want it, though. Being surrounded by gloom and doom? I can't possibly imagine subjecting myself to that when it's such a wonderful day!” Gahiji looked around and made a circle around the room before nodding. “Yes, this will do it!”
“Great.” Zach folded his arms, “You can call whoever you need to help you move in and – you're going to pull some mystic bullshit and completely ignore me, aren't y--”
A flurry of brightly colored feathers flew into the room. They spun and spun, faster and faster until they took the form of a woman dressed in a gown of ibis feathers. A crown of gold and ebony feathers rested upon her head.
“Ma'at!” Gahiji bounced over and crushed one of Zach's feet on his way to the goddess of justice and harmony. She merely laughed as he got close enough for her to scratch behind his ears. “Such an excitable creature, as always.” When Gahiji pulled away, Ma'at looked around. “A reasonable amount of space... Yes, yes I think I'll be able to do something worthwhile with it.”
“Good,” Zach grunted and dragged his screaming foot out of the room. “I'll leave you two to whatever plans you have.”
Gahiji waved a paw at Zach's retreating form. “Thanks again!” He chimed out.
The door slammed shut.3: The Great Convergence - Part the Second
The fridge door squeaked as it was pulled back, Zach poking his head in. Oh, the beers standing guard by the leftover Chow Mein seemed tempting... But, it just wasn't a good time to, well, have a good time.
“Still,” He shut the fridge and leaned against the door, “Three out of nine rooms rented already. I guess the Enviea is doing its job.”
Though he really could do without another mouthful of hair or nightmare fuel anytime soon.
“Much too lively.”
“Nowhere near enough black and blue.”
“Too close to the sky but not nearly close enough to the ground.”
Zach kept silent. The group that was looking through his apartment then was composed of the resident Lich of the Necriona District in town, the (emphasize the 'THE') Grim Reaper, and a young combination of the two. He had to be their son, Zach realized, looking at the figure in the cloak leaning against the wall.
The ghastly face of the Lich glanced over at Zach. Zach had to avert his eyes when he felt his body grow heavy at the sight of the icy blue lights the lich called eyes.
“Are you sure that this is the place?” The lich asked the younger figure.
He nodded in silence. The Grim Reaper, however, wasn't too enthused.
“This is nonsense,” Her voice reverberated through the condo, “We will go back to Necronia and put this nonsense of you 'moving out' out of your head and beyond our troubles.”
Well, it wasn't like Zach had the wherewithal to force these three to fall in love with what he had to offer. He just wished that they would get this over with so that he could prepare for another walkthrough.
The younger hidden figure lifted his head. He tilted it to the side: listening.
“What's that?” The lich asked, taking a listen. “Hm...” It was a raucous sound: crashing, roaring. It would take one's breath away if it could be heard by more than those who could no longer speak.
“It's louder here.”
The first sound of the younger figure's voice made Zach's bones jumped out of his skin. He had been quiet this whole damn time and now he decided to open his mouth? Fucking kids these days...
The Grim Reaper lifted a bony finger to her teeth, dark eye-sockets thoughtful. “I see. Fine.” She nodded to the Lich in the room.
He held up his hands in time for a grisly pen and a checkbook made of aged skin to appear in front of him. Sritching, scratching. “Here you are.”
“Wait,” Said Zach as the check was forced into his hands, “What did you guys hear? Actually, wait!! This is more than first and deposit!”
“Let us be on our way.” The Grim Reaper announced, ignoring the human in the room and leading the shadowy trail of her cloak behind her. She stopped, not to let her husband join her but to address the younger figure. “Fane.”
Zach watched the figure, Fane, lift their head: a lone seafoam light shining out from the darkness of the cloak. “I will be in touch.” Said the Grim Reaper, “Your father and I will be expecting progress.”
And that was that. She disappeared in a haze of mist and, in a blink of blue, the Lich was gone as well.
Zach looked down at the check, grimacing as it began to wriggle before going limp. “Hey,” He looked over at Fane. “Your mother's not going to get mad and cut my life down by thirty years if I deposit this as is. Is she?”
And then it was like night and day. Gone was the quiet stander-by, now Zach was greeted with Fane presumably rolling his eyes and scoffing. “She gave you extra to feed me. God, you're embarrassing.”
“Wait, what?” Zach walked to Fane, the phantom interloper standing shorter than him. “What's your damage all of a sudden?”
Fane turned away. “There's a basement here, right?”
Zach scrunched up his face. Fuck this little shit if he thought he was going to get an answ – “Hey!”
“You're too busy being stupid over there.” Fane said, his cloak dragging on the floor as he found the stairs that descended into the abyss. “I already found it.”
Zach opened his mouth.
Then decided 'Fuck it'.
And merely waved Fane off to do whatever.
The last bit of the phantom's cloak disappeared into the darkness before Zach scratched the back of his head. “What a shitty attitude. Probably gets it from his mother...”
Scaley claws surged forth to grab at another scaley body, bringing it close to a silk-covered chest. Zach sat on the couch across from a family of three nagas. And they weren't the fantasy-porn variants of 'human torso fuzed with snake bottom' either.
No, no; these were scaley from tip to tail. The mother of the micro-nuclear family was built more like an elegant cobra compared to her death adder-esque husband and her python-esque offspring. “My baby...” The mother kissed her son's cheeks, her forked tongue flicking out over the same spots. “I still remember back when I laid your egg. It feels like yesterday and now you're leaving the nest!”
“He'sss a twenty-four year-old, Charlotte!!” The father hissed, “Quit smothering him, for God's sake!”
“Raleigh!” Charlotte hissed at her husband. She immediately regained her sweet composure, turning to Zach, “You have to understand: my little Silas has been at home in the nest all his life. And when he up and started talking about 'culinary school'-this, and 'moving out on his own'-that! It darn-near gave me a heart-attack!”
“He'sss a grown ssserpent, Charlotte...” Silas's father hissed under his breath, Charlotte holding Silas tight and baring her fangs at her husband.
“Raleigh..!” She caught herself again, resting a clawed hand upon her cheek, “You'll excuse us for just a moment.” Zach said nothing as the cobra naga dragged her death-adder naga mate off to the balcony. The door slid open, two bodies slithered out, and then the door slid to a close.
But, even with the barrier of glass, one could just make out the furious hissing-match going on outside.
Zach looked to the naga still on the couch. His shy posture didn't necessarily match his large size (at least half a head taller than Zach). His scales shifted whenever he moved: melting from sandy brown to a ripe green. They also changed shape: round, to square, to diamond.
His eyes gave Zach a questioning look and, for a minute, Zach wondered if he had missed something.
Silas's hands. The motions that the naga performed were nonsense to Zach's brain until, out of the blue:
'...she's always been like this, I guess. My dad doesn't make things any better.'
Silas was mute. And, thank God for the Enviea because Zach new for damn certain that he didn't recognize the gestures on his own.
“Crap,” Zach said, “I've been ignoring you this whole time, haven't I?”
'It's alright.' Silas signed, 'At least you weren't doing it on purpose.' The naga shrugged his shoulders. 'Like my dad.'
“Maybe if you didn't coddle him ssso much, he would be talking like a normal naga, Charlotte!!”
“HE CAN COMMUNICATE JUST FINE, RALEIGH! MAYBE IF YOU WEREN'T SUCH A STUBBORN ASS--!”
Zach and Silas shared a glance. “Normal for you?”
'Every. Single. Day.' Silas looked down at the coffee table, his claws still moving, 'It's why I finally decided to move out. I actually got into Keebalah Culinary Tech. The crème de la crème of confectionary and culinary education for nonhuman kind. I love my parents, but I can't breathe with them around.'
Zach noticed that Silas's parents were still arguing on the balcony. He stood to his feet and pointed down the opposite hall. “Let's get you a room.”
Silas smiled, his forked tongue flicking past his lips. 'I'd like that.' Silas slithered after Zach and took another sniff of the air. 'It's already becoming a bit of a full-house, isn't it?'
Zach thought about that. “I guess so. But, so far, everyone's been pretty cool about it: mostly going straight to getting their rooms the way that they want them.”
Silas nodded. 'I'll probably have to go back to my parents' nest to get my textbooks and baking supplies.'
Zach felt a bit relieved. No more sudden magic bullshit or flipping through Lovecraft's wet-dreams. “Well--”
The door was forced open faster than Periwinkle could announce it: a pile of loaded suitcases was hurled through the air, smacking into Zach and sending him into the nearest wall.
Silas immediately slithered over and began digging through the luggage. He hissed as it felt like there were lead weights crammed in every corner of every case.
He didn't have long to work. Heavy hooves clopped against the floor, a low voice barking out, “What it do, pencil-dicks?!”
Silas flinched and turned around to see a minotaur looking down at him. The minotaur tossed his remaining backpack onto the floor and scratched at his stomach through his tight-fitting shirt. “Hey, scalie, you seen a human around here anywhere?”
'Yeah! Under your mountain of crap!' Silas signed furiously, eyes narrowed and tongue lashing out.
The minotaur snorted out and stepped over Silas's tail so he could grab his largest suitcase. Zach popped out when the weight was removed and gave the minotaur the grimmest frown he could manage. “Can. I. Help. You?”
The minotaur jabbed a thumb against his thick chest, “The name's Odysseus and I'm taking one of your rooms!”
With Silas's help, Zach climbed out of his weighted tomb and stood up in front of the monumental minotaur: from filthy hooves, to his recently trimmed mohawk. “And, why, should I rent to you and not wait for someone to come along who hasn't crushed me under an airport's worth of luggage?”
Odysseus threw his head back and bellowed out a huge laugh. “Ha, you're funny! Look, my credit-score is fucking flawless and,” He dug into his pockets, “Here, take it.”
Zach frowned even further as he was hit in the face with a check bound to a couple of monetary notes. It had Zach wondering if a good portion of non-humans just had excess money laying around in spades for shit like this.
“Fan-fucking-tastic.” Odysseus snorted out, “Going to go pick out a room. Try to have something to eat for me by the time I come out, alright? Alright...”
Zach and Silas watched Odysseus take his one backpack, the rest of his heavy hoard simply left where he had dropped it. “He's the exact sort of guy,” Zach began, his expression still neutral, “That you just know has a dick so small that he has to compensate in every. Other. Aspect of his life.”
Silas frowned when he heard a door open and then shut. 'He took the room that I wanted.'
The brevity of breathing room was something that Zach took complete advantage of: scrolling through inquiries on his phone. With Odyss-Ass and Silas getting settled, he simply had to survive whoever came in next and – O-oh.
There were several dragons looking to move in, a banshee, and a dullahan. Zach grimaced at the notion of adding scorch marks and icicles to his daily maintenance rotation. And he actually liked being able to sleep, so he didn't need a banshee living under his roof. Their cries could pierce through any wall or barrier. Maybe the dullahan. Zach lifted his finger to open up the inquiry but his phone flashed as Faaria's picture popped up on the screen.
“I'm still mad at you.” Said Zach after he pressed the phone to his ear.
“Oh, shut up.” Faaria huffed out, “Anyway, do you have any rooms left?”
Zach grimaced. “Yes... but I feel like telling you that is opening the grounds for more 'make Zach miserable' time.”
He could hear Faaria roll her eyes over the phone. “Look, I am sending over a nice young thing who has just made it into town but needs a place to stay.”
“Never say 'nice young thing' again, please.”
“Shush!” Faaria hissed, “Anyway, he's going to be there soon. Don't scare him off with your usual mopey self.”
Zach's face was impassive but his words were flat and cold. “Well that was dickish.”
Faaria sighed. “Sorry, I'm sorry. Look, this kid is really nice but he's, well, trying to get away from some awful things.”
Zach took a seat. “Is he a refugee?”
“No, nothing to that extent. Look, just give him a chance, alright? I'll talk to you later.”
“Later then.” Zach hung up. The sound of slick tentacles sliding across the floor made Zach look to his left to see Nephubos crawling around.
“Sorry, sorry!” The writhing mass said, “We are just exploring. There are so many things in here that we've never seen before. Like this!” Nephubos pressed themselves up against the couch and ran their tentacles along it. “It's so soft and plush! And you... recline upon it?”
“Y-yeah.” Zach cleared his throat, “It's called --”
Nephubos pulled themselves over the back of the couch and landed next to Zach with a loud 'splat'. Zach moved a bit away from the ooze that started to seep into the upholstery. “A couch.”
“I see, I see!” Nephubos reached into themselves and pulled out their unfazed notebook. “'Couuuuuch'.” They scribbled the word down and put several symbols next to it that Zach couldn't recognize. Nephubos's eyes swept across their gelatinous form to look at Zach. “This is nice.”
“Mm-hm.” Zach hummed back. It was... He just didn't want to get too comfortable before –
“Visitor!” The doorfairies shouted. Zach got up and walked over to the door. He braced himself to be smothered or slimed or tackled... But there wasn't any of that.
He blinked and looked at the creature on the other side of the door. “Did Faaria tell you about this place?”
His hair was curlier than a freaking R&B convention. Simple but elegant horns twisted up from his head and the mask that was his face crinkled as he chuckled. “Yes, how did you know?”
“Come on in.” Zach stepped aside to let the rakshasa in. He carefully lifted his feet one at a time to avoid the rakshasa's long, striped tail as it followed along the floor. “I thought you guys usually stick to India.”
“Ha ha, yes.” The rakshasa chuckled again, bat wings shivering, “And, trust me, the weather here is already colder than I am used to.”
“It's 85 degrees.” Zach deadpanned.
The rakshasa turned to Zach and held out his hand. “Forgive my rudeness. My name is Suraj.”
Zach returned the gesture and continued into a bow. Zach knew a little about nonhuman culture, after all; he hadn't been raised on an Amish barn.
Zach had to ask, though, even if it was none of his business in the long run, “What's a predator like you doing in this neck of the woods? If I'm correct,” Zach sat back down, he was getting tired of the standing, “Rakshasa are social predators, right? Family piles and close-knit circles?”
Suraj's joyful disposition seemed to die for a quick second. But it soon came back. “I just wanted a change of scenery. It's never good to stay in the same place for too long, right?”
“I'd disagree on that,” Zach turned around, “Well, I can either show you to a remaining room or you can go searching on your own. Your choice.”
With a savage crack, a dozen dripping tentacles seeping out of Nephubos's room. “Oh no!” Nephubos pulled themselves across the floor. They ducked away from the fanged beak-like appendage that surged out and snapped at random.
With Nephubos fighting their bedroom furniture, Zach and Suraj had a moment to think. “Maybe...” Suraj hummed, “I should find a room to set my things in before it gets too late.” He yawned, both sets of fangs revealing themselves for a quick second. “Jet-lag is setting in something fierce.”
“Come on.” Zach waved Suraj over to follow him. “You might really like Room 7.”
They passed Nephubos's room on the way, the tentacle-bleb tying the monstrous beak of their bedroom-set so it would stop snapping.
“Should we help him?” Suraj asked Zach, but Nephubos slammed the door and waved one of their tentacles.
“Nothing to worry about! Just settling into a new home!”
“Home...” Suraj echoed. That word held just that much warmth coming from the rakshasa's lips.
It was going on 3:35.
Zach had relocated to the kitchen table. There were deposit checks and cash to the left of him and a layout of the condo in front of him. “Room 3 has a unicorn...” Zach scribbled onto a napkin, “Room 6 has a living porno prop, I have a douchebag in the basement and a turd-sandwich in Room 1...” His lower lip was caught between his teeth as he wrote Silas's and Suraj's names next to Room 2 and Room 7 respectively. And, with Gahiji bouncing in the picture, Zach had successfully managed to rent out all of his available rooms save for two.
“Never! Ever! Met her at all!
Ya wish you never ever met her at all!”
Zach snatched up his phone and walked into the main room. “Zach Bruys.”
“A good strong voice for such a strong-sounding name.”
Ooh, baby boy... Zach had to take a second to brace himself up against the nearest wall. Deep, like dark caverns hidden beneath the Earth, baritone voices. The one thing in the world that seemed to make him go weak in the knees.
“Can,” Zach swallowed the lump that had appeared in his throat, “Can I help you?”
The voice on the other end of the line chuckled and Zach felt himself falling ever faster. “I was in the market to rent a room. Well, two of them. To be precise.”
“Two rooms?” Zach echoed, feeling just how hot his face had become.
He could hear the flipping of pages before the voice asked, “Is this a good time to talk? I can call back at another ti--”
“No!” Zach insisted, embarrassingly loud at that. He caught himself too late and shook his head, “N-no. This -- I mean – now is fine.”
“Christ on a bike!” Zach fell on his ass with a shriek. He bit his lip again when he heard a bicycle chime in the hallway.
There was no time for that, though. Zach ran his eyes up the tall, broad physique that had appeared inside of the condo in the span of half a breath.
A wendigo. But not the Native American variety that Zach was used to. A dark blue suit with a raven tie, large leather shoes shined to perfection, and thick white hair that made up a beard in the front and fell in long tresses to his back.
Oh, there was also the matter of the large skull that rested upon his neck. A cross between lupine and crocdylinian features with deep dark eye-sockets only broken by the bright eyes within: flashing like blue and green fire as they regarded Zach. Zach followed the tight curl of his horns until the conversation began.
“Forgive my intrusion.” The wendigo closed the book that he had in his hands. “You've probably had a busy day and, here I am: popping in unannounced.”
Zach wished that he could have cared more but this creature's voice was turning his insides into jelly with every syllable.
“...weather we've been having. Oh, my manners.” The wendigo chuckled: the gentle shaking of his chest the only physical sign of the sound coming from him. “My name is Abelard von Baumgarten.” The wendigo offered a dark hand to Zach.
Zach took it and gave an earnest shake. The flesh was lukewarm at best but the way it engulfed his hand (and Zach was a pretty large guy) gave that deep, warm caress of a voice that much more weight.
They let go of one another. Zach covered his nearly flushing features with a quick hand; moving it away as soon as the warmth left his cheeks. “So, asking rent is $878, along with a deposit of first's and last's month.”
“But of course.” Abelard nodded, his facial features unmoving. As expected. And, as expected, Zach nearly groaned out like no man's business. He bit it back, though: continuing on.
“However, with you needing two rooms --”
Abelard reached into his breast pocket and, one extravagant flip between the fingers later, held a check out to Zach. “I am prepared and then some. In order to get these two rooms.”
Zach took the check and let his eyes follow the elegant curls and twists of Abelard's handwriting. Sure enough, there was the necessary amount for the two rooms. “Why...” Zach shook his head to clear away the fog known by anyone who had ever been near a sweet piece of ass, “Why did you need two rooms again?”
Abelard looked around until he noticed the couch. “Zach, take a seat with me.”
They both moved to the couch. Zach all but collapsed onto his side while Abelard slowly let himself sink into the plush cushions.
“I've just moved into town,” Abelard's words were so deep they rumbled through the couch and into Zach's very bones. Zach watched the Wendigo flip the pages of the heavy book he carried until he came to a sketch of the Dama Fristad skyline. “I was just offered a job as the resident Non-Human Researcher for the Dama Fristad Police Force.”
Zach quirked an eyebrow. “Really? And they didn't station you over in Necronia?”
That deep rumble rippled through Zach once more with Abelard's chuckle. “No. Apparently,” He leaned over and said, “Apparently I'm... 'too lively'.”
“Heh.” Zach thought to the phantom in the basement. “Oh, I have my own experiences with that.”
Abelard's eyes looked over to the dark discarded chest in the room. But he didn't speak on how it caught his attention. He allowed the discussion to merge over to his need for two rooms. “Evidence and records.” Abelard explained, “Seems to me that, despite what my work will entail, that I haven't earned enough priority to keep my library inside of the police department building.”
The door to Odysseus's room cracked open: the minotaur jogging over to the couch and tipping it over: Zach and Abelard faling to the floor.
“Where's the food, fat-ass?”
“You were serious about that?” Grumbled Zach. He hadn't gotten to his feet before he heard a painful-sounding bellow. He looked back up to see Abelard holding tight onto one of Odysseus's ears, the minotaur looking about ready to cry: one of his hooves stamping against the ground.
Odysseus bellowed out again, unable to twist out of Abelard's hold. “I know for a fact that you weren't raised in a barn, young one. Don't you figure that interrupting a conversation shows for a strong lack of manners?”
Abelard shook his head. “Apologize, young one.” When Odysseus choked and bellowed out once more, Zach could tell that Abelard was pinching harder.
“Fuck, okay, FINE!! Sorry!”
Abelard nodded and let Odysseus go. The minotaur immediately grabbed his ear to feel for any bleeding. He retreated to the kitchen and began rummaging about in the fridge on his own.
Zach got another good look at Abelard while the wendigo's back was turned. He really did fill those slacks out nicely.
A flutter by his ear. Periwinkle. Zach turned to see the doorfairy humming by his head. “Looks like you're at full capacity.”
“Yeah, it's like night and day.” Zach took a second to get the couch right-side-up again. “It's amazing what a ball of water and some resilient bones can do. But, here we are: eight very interesting tenants later.”
Odysseus peeked his head out of fridge, a celery stalk sticking out between his lips and a jug of milk in his hand. “Eight?”
Abelard picked up his book from where it had been tossed to the floor from Odysseus's pestering. “You may want to do a small recount.”
“What?” Zach blinked and held up his fingers. “Silveste, Nephubos, Gahiji, Fane – the little prick, Silas, Suraj, Odysseus, and, you, Abelard. That's eight tenants.” What were these guys getting at? He had single-handedly endured each and every one of their brazen introductions. He would have known first hand if a ninth non-human had tried sneaking in. The only way that he could have forgotten something like that is if they had come in before all the chaos had begun: Zach forgetting about them after the first blow to his self-esteem in the form of a door to the face.
Abelard said nothing. His eyes, though, were looking at that black chest that was sitting in the center of the main room.
Zach followed the wendigo's gaze and immediately remembered how this day had started. This friggin' chest and how he had nearly busted his shin open against it. How he had nearly broken his back carrying it in. And now it was trying to make more trouble for him?
“Hey.” Zach nudged his foot against the chest. “Hey. Get up.”
The chest rumbled and trembled. It yawned and grumbled. It snorted up a bit of air and let out a muffled sneeze.
The latch in front unclipped itself, allowing the lid of the chest to open with a significant 'pop'. Inside were rows upon rows of knife-like teeth and thick, opaque drool drenching over fleshy burgundy walls.
A long, thick tongue lolled out of the chest and, on the inside of the lid, a great eye that shined like a ruby blinked up at those in the room. But it wasn't garnering the most attention at the moment.
Nay, that went to the form of the young boy whose torso hung out of the vicious chest: anything from his waist down dissolving into that slick, dark flesh. The boy 'sat up' and gave an exaggerated yawn that was copied by the rest of the chest. He opened his eyes and looked at his surroundings with ruby-colored eyes.
“Hey...” He looked and pouted, his thick bobs of copper hair following his motions, “This place is pretty nice on the inside...”
“And who are you?” Zach asked, already feeling like he wouldn't like the answer.
The boy... the treasure-chest... The mimic gave a small two-finger salute. “The name's Mira. And I want to live here!"
Zach folded his arms. "Tough tiddy, kid. First off, I'm not even sure you should be living on your own. Secondly, do you even have the money to pay rent and a deposit. Third, I'm out of rooms."
Zach almost felt bad, too; he wouldn't want to send a little thing like this Mira out on the street.
But Mira merely.
"Listen, kid." He shrugged, "I've been around since the Aztecs were wiped out due to a bunch of guys who didn't know the meaning of 'pull out'. I'm not going to be rejected by some squirt barely out of diapers. Or access to PornHouse.com. Fucking douchebags." Mira sank into the chest, the lid falling shut. It opened up again so Mira's tongue could hold out two handfuls of gold coins, jewelry, and gemstones to Zach.
Don't tell Zach how he knew they were real or how he figured that the mimic would lash out and rip off his arms, it was a mystery to him.
"This is all fine and good," Zach had to insist, "But I still don't have a room for you."
Mira closed himself and reopened with his boyish appearance back in place. "I'll just stay in the main room here. A room of my own would probably be too much space anyway. Everything I need is inside me."
"Huh." Zach nodded, "That was surprisingly deep."
"Of course it was!" Mira closed himself and reopened with a laptop in his hands. He turned it on and asked, "So, what's the passcode for the wifi in this place?"
Zach had to decide what was more worth it at that moment: stopping Odysseus from eating him out of house and home, kicking the mimic out, or finding some way to keep Abelard talking so he could hear more of that lovely, lovely voice.
He sat back down on the couch. "You." He pointed to Mira, the mimic waiting with wide eyes, "'Melancholia'."
"Finally~!" Mira typed in the passcode, whooping when his laptop connected.
Zach turned to Nephubos, the tentacle-bled crawling out of his room. "You. Has your furniture calmed down yet?"
"We... think so?" Nephubos offered. Zach watched Nephubos crawl to the kitchen and finally turned to Abelard. The wendigo looked down at him. Zach could swear he was smiling.
"You have quite a bit of work ahead of you." Abelard hummed. But Zach merely reached for the remote and turned on the TV. The afternoon news was on: a clown reporter honking away her report about a local cafe that had just opened.
"As long as my condo isn't burned down to the ground, we're good."4: Hooves and Claws
The morning sun broke through the thick canopy of pine and ash trees.
Crisp, clean waters cascaded down upon Silveste: cleansing his coat and relaxing his mane and tail so that they seemed to melt into the crystal pool surrounding him. Silveste nickered and moved away from the waterfall. “Blancher?” He called, his vision obscured by his soaked mane, “Bruner? I – Oh,” He stopped when he felt hooves upon him, “There you are.”
Blancher, the white donkey, brought over a woven basket filled with glass bottles and spheres full of powders and liquids.
Bruner, the brown donkey, came carrying towels knitted from the wool of Fae Ewes and golden brushes.
The two donkeys waded through the crystal pool until they were close enough. Blancher poured the contents of several bottles onto Silveste's back. A combination of sweet-smelling liquid and shimmering powder was massaged into the unicorn's drenched mane: Blancher's hooves belying just as much, if not more, dexterity as human fingers.
“I should get a new phone...” Silveste hummed, keeping his eyes shut to prevent any soap from getting into his eyes. “My parents are probably wondering about how the search is going. Though I have just moved in, so I guess I have a bit of a grace period. Also...”
Blancher and Bruner had learned, after twenty-two years of service to their prince, that the best means of action was to tune him out whenever he began to ramble. It wasn't a feat of disrespect, just an attempt to retain one's sanity.
Blancher guided Silveste underneath the waterfall: the clear waters whisking away the bubbles and oils.
Most of the bubbles and oils.
You see, with more than two-thirds of the suds left, the waterfall had trickled out.
“Blancher... Bruner...” Silveste huffed out. But the two donkeys could only shake their heads.
“Water disruption?” Blancher asked.
“Water disruption.” Bruner confirmed.
Silveste walked to the shore of the lake and struggled to pull himself out with his form being weighed down by water. “This is a truly unacceptable course of occurrences! My follicles need to be lathered, rinsed, and repeated to a completionary scale before I can commence with my daily compendium of actions!”
Blancher and Bruner had tuned out around 'unacceptable', so they were waiting for their prince to calm down long enough so that they could get to the bottom of this.
Silveste grimaced with how he was still dripping with suds and oil. This had to be the work of whoever was in the room next to him.
“Blancher! Bruner!” Silveste nodded towards the small vale of trees that led to the door. “Let us go and clear up these chaotic principles of aquatics!”
Silveste knocked a hoof against the door of the room next to him. “Hello? Hello in there!”
Blancher and Bruner stood at either side of their prince; the unicorn huffing as he didn't get an answer soon enough for his liking.
“Hello?!” Silveste knocked harder until his efforts resulted in the door easing inward: a warm air billowing over them.
Without hesitant thought, Silveste traveled down the golden brick-hewn path that led deep into the earth. Blancher and Bruner followed him in. They passed intricate carvings of hieroglyphics and paintings curled and swirled onto the wall in striking golds, reds, and blues.
A gentle tug on his tail stopped Silveste at the base of the descending staircase. The unicorn looked around and saw that, with a few more steps, he would have fallen head first into a pool of warm, jasmine-scented water.
Water that was surely the cause of his own shower being cut short.
Blancher and Bruner followed the sides of the pool until they happened upon two large paws dangling out of the water.
Silveste grit his teeth, nostrils flaring and hooves kicking at the ground. “A lion? Here?”
Blancher and Bruner narrowed their eyes, ready to defend their prince. “Dying to a lion in the line of duty.” Blancher hummed.
“Seems like a nice way to die.” Bruner whistled back.
The waters broke apart and the three equines in the room braced themselves for the worst...
“Wow!” Gahiji whistled as the waters settled, thick drops rolling down his mane and fur. “I didn't realize how deep this pool went! Ma'at really went above and beyond for me~!”
Blancher and Bruner immediately deflated away from their offensive stances. “Sphinx?” Blancher asked.
“Sphinx.” Bruner confirmed.
Silveste wasted no time when the assumed threat was dissolved. “Hark there! Keeper of wisdom!”
Gahiji tilted his head.
Silveste huffed out, “Okay... Could I inquire upon the fate of the aquatics belonging to me that would be facilitated for cleansing?”
Gahiji bit his lip. “I wouldn't know. I just filled up my pool for a bath a few minutes ago.”
Silveste stepped back. Someone who understood him upon first words. “Oh.” He shook some soap from his mane, “Well, then your bath has resulted upon the abrupt cessation of my own and I demand compensation!”
“But I didn't do anything...” Gahiji gave a little pout. As little as someone his size could muster. “You're really high-strung. Ooh, how about a massage! I'm really good at massages!”
Silveste groaned, his mane falling limp over his face. “Look,” He nickered, “I just want to finish my bath so I can move on with my day. Could I please use yours.”
Gahiji clapped his paws together. “Of course! That way we can talk, get to know each other, discuss our favorite foods...” Gahiji went on and on, not noticing how the water in his pool was starting to descend. By the time Blancher and Bruner noticed, Gahiji had felt his rump touch the bottom of the still-warm-but-ultimately-empty pool.
“Oh.” Gahiji frowned, tail flicking listlessly. “Well, that happened. I guess. But!” He beamed, “We can still talk! Oh, I know! Truth or dare! Twenty-Questions? 'Never Have I Ever'!”
Silveste could feel the hair in his mane cry out for washing and fluffing. It had been far too long: the oils were surely stripping away his hair's nutrients. Tears in his eyes, the unicorn tossed his head back and neighed, “ZACHARY!!”
The water-closet door swung open: Zachary setting down a toolbox and looking around. "I've lived here all my life." He deadpanned, "And I've never had the water-heater give up the ghost like this."
"I can't go out like this!!" Silveste bayed out. His eyes frantically flitted left, then right. "There has to be some less-taken course of directory actions that has yet to be expl--"
Zach used the bucket in the water-closet and poured some of the cooling water into it. He quickly upended the bucket over Silveste. "What did I say about doing that?" Zach sighed.
Gahiji smothered a laugh behind his palm at the sight of Silveste's pitiful state. The poor unicorn's eyes began to water, and it wasn't from soap. "I'm a prince... Why is this happening to me?"
Zach got out a wrench and went to work. With every twist of a nut and tap against hollow steel, his muscles bunched up underneath the shirt he wore. "Shit-times don't care about titles. When they decide that your life needs to suck for a bit, prepare to get on your knees, because shit-times are not gentle."
Zach examined the exhausted water-heater. He finally whispered, "Shit." He got up and started to leave.
"Where are you going?" Gahiji asked, bouncing after Zach and shaking the apartment. "Can we come?"
Zach shook his head. "I need to go pick up some stuff to fix the water heater. Can you guys just... stay here so you can tell the others not to try and take baths until I fix this?"
Silveste, once Blancher had come over with the briefcase that held his wand, took it and waved out a spell. The water was wicked away from his mane and tail: the curls returning and the colors shining as bright as ever. "I'm not so sure if we--"
"Can do!" Gahiji plopped a paw on top of Silveste's head. "Come back soon, Zach!"
Zach shook his head. He patted his side to make sure he had his wallet and phone. Zach nodded to himself and walked out of the condo.
Bruner came along and offered Silveste a sparkling muffin. "Going out today?"
Silveste took a bite and shook his head. "No... My mood has been shattered, torn, and all but dismantled into a million pieces before being tossed amongst the chaotic waves of life."
The hallway was quiet save for occasional puffs of equine breathing.
"..." Gahiji blinked. He leaned to the left. Then to the right. "So..." He asked Silveste, "What's your favorite color?"
"The color of disappointment and panic." Silveste frowned.
Gahiji blinked. "Oh..! You must mean black! One of my former classmates really liked that color. Then again, he was a death-god, so I guess it was a given..."5: Shopping in ShimmerGale
“I think this might be it.”
The fluttering of pages.
Nestled between two department stores not too far from Zach's building, Pecan Pavillion was a simple bookstore that managed to keep a steady clientele despite being in the era of digital publications reaming the living hell out of the printed word.
Rory Fontaine was similar in age and build to Zach, but his warm demeanor and small presence mixed with his softer voice made him seem that much younger. That much smaller in being.
“Here you go.” Rory set a book down on the counter in front of Zach, “'Plumbing and Piping on the Nonhuman Scale for Dinguses'.”
“Really wish it wasn't called that.” Zach frowned. He picked up the book and skimmed through a few pages. He also stepped aside when an old cyclops hobbled over. “You are a lifesaver, though.”
“Think nothing of it, Zach.” Rory rung up the old cyclops (throwing a free cookie into the bag; his favorite recipe). When the cyclops hobbled off, Rory adjusted his wide glasses.
“Aside from your plumbing issues... How's everything going so far?”
Zach reached into his pocket and slid over a fiver. Rory sighed, “That bad already, huh?”
“Not really.” Zach watched Rory take the bill and replace it with a package of three cookies wrapped in purple cellophane...
Which was soon joined by a twin.
And then a triplet.
Zach quirked an eyebrow at Rory, who simply offered, “Share them with your tenants, Zach. I'm sure they'd like them: every nonhuman that has ever tasted my cookies has raved about them.”
Zach knew better than to say anything about how those words could have had a second meaning. Didn't hurt to think about it, though.
“Well,” Zach shoved everything into his bag, taking special care of the cookies, “I'd better get home before the place gets pulled into a magical sinkhole.”
“Are you going to the gym tomorrow?” Rory asked, “They're finally fixing the racks.”
Zach cricked his neck, rubbing the initial smarting on his shoulder it caused. “Maybe. I won't be able to get a good set in if I'm constantly worrying about someone setting my condo on fire with a stray bolt of magic or some goth-wannabe pissant turning the place into a graveyard.”
Rory nodded, his bangs following the motion. “Well, text me to let me know. And, if anything else research-related pops up--”
“I'll come running back.” Zach waved as he left, ducking out of the way of the lamassu that was lumbering in.
Sand baths four times a week.
Soap and water baths three times a week.
Luckily for Silas, the morning of his new residence's water issues landed upon a sand-bath day.
The naga slithered out of his room and noted with a wash of relief that the main room and kitchen were empty.
Save for the mimic hammering away at a game controller connected to his laptop.
Silas really didn't feel like a conversation was needed; the mimic's eyes were focused on his screen.
He slithered into the kitchen and took a quick stock of what was on hand. Just enough flour... Just enough butter... Some vanilla extract. Wow, he really needed to do some grocery shopping before his classes started. As for then and there, however, Silas grabbed what few ingredients seemed good and set them on the counter.
His claws were washed with care, Silas making sure to get soap into the crevasses of his nails. A quick dry was followed by an apron being tied around the naga's waist. Silas searched for a bowl large enough for dry ingredients. The only one he found was, urgh... Plastic. Silas felt the bile rising up, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
Something simple, was his thought. And, hey, if it was good, he could share some with Zach. The human seemed like he could do with some cheering up.
Sift the flour, like you're twisting a rope.
The baking soda, to perk up one's hopes.
Salt, to remind you to appreciate the sweet.
Shake those together, keep it neat.
Butter and sugar, the bane of bad tidings.
Whisk in eggs, vanilla, and milk to be sure. And the result will be a treasure to share and adore.
Silas poured the sweet-smelling mixture into a baking pan. The fact that Zach only seemed to have the most basic of basic cooking utensils made him yearn for his own kitchen essentials to be brought over from the nest as soon as possible.
Frosting would probably be nice. And Silas absolutely refused to mix up buttercream in a plastic bowl. When the oven timer went off, Silas slithered to his room to get one of the few glass bowls he had managed to fit into his suitcase.
No porous surfaces for any stray flavours to linger. Anything mixed inside of it would slide right out with a mere swi--
If Silas had a voice, it would have filled the air of the condo with his screams.
The cake he had left cooling on the counter had vanished with nary a crumb left after.
Silas rushed over to the counter. He looked underneath it, in the fridge, in the pantry... Silas then slithered over to the main room to ask anyone if they had seen his cake.
Sure enough, there it was.
More than half devoured by a Mimic and a Minotaur.
'What are you two doing?!' Silas signed in a panic.
Mira's eyes never left his laptop screen. But the giant red eye in the treasure-chest portion of his body regarded Silas with an air of indifference. “Were you saving this for someone or somethin?”
Odysseus scarfed down the rest of his cake and walked over. He slapped Silas on the back, nearly knocking him over, “You really need to work on your baking, scaliebutt. That cake tasted like shit.”
'THEN WHY DID YOU EAT IT?!'
Zach hopped off of the 32 Air Tram when it pulled into the station. He could have gone straight home. But his phone had just flashed with a notification that the open-market over in ShimmerGale was having a surprise sale and he had been meaning to stock up on produce.
“Really wish I had brought one of the guys with me to carry stuff back.” Outside of the Air Tram station a moss-covered path led to the main shopping avenue of ShimmerGale.
The air was heavy with the aroma of newborn lilies and ripe berries: the chimes of flying fairies and pixies punctuated the area. Zach stepped aside, the forest district quaking when the paw of the ancestral Dire Wolf hit the ground: followed by the rest of its gait. He passed by a small florist's shop. In front of it, two old treemen were gruffing and joking over a game of Chess.
“Come on!” That came from the leader of a group of dwarves. Several of them got into a truck, the leader shouting out, “If we're late to the mines again, I'll have the hides of all of ye!”
Zach walked past a pair of nymphs selling feathers and leaves, had to persuade a swarm of pixies to leave his hair alone, and opted to give directions to a will-o'-the-wisp couple who were trying to visit their daughter in Necronia.
“Remember,” Zach called after the glowing balls of green and pink fire, “If you reach the hall of Judgements and Repence, you've gone a bit too far.”
Zach watched them float away before quickening his pace.
There. The open-market at last.
As far as the eye can see, and a bit further on, there were booths and tables full to bursting with the fruits and baked goods of nonhuman labor.
Zach deftly avoided any table being handled by goblins and grabbed a basket.
“Turkish Delights~!” A young witch with white hair called out as Zach passed by, “I promise they taste better than the shitty ones my sister-in-law makes when she's busy trying to kill Jesus-allegory lions~!”
A jackalope reared up when Zach picked up some of their carrots and spinach. He turned around and picked up some turnips before handing the jackalope some money for his purchases.
“I wonder if anyone in the house is vegan...” Zach hummed, walking over to where an orc butcher was selling fresh cuts of meat. He paid for some short loin and some hanger steak, the orc grabbing a large butcher's knife and cutting out the choices. When they were wrapped up, Zach placed them into his basket and walked away.
It was only then that he remembered. “Wait. Isn't Suraj Hindu?” He looked down at the beef he had just purchased.
'Wow!' All three of Nephubos's eyes went wide as the tentacle-bleb crawled around Abelard's library. 'There are so many books in here!' The wendigo had taken a quick cold shower (because surely a brief coldwater wash wouldn't cause too much damage with what Gahiji and Silveste had told him) before setting up his much-needed space.
“Yes, young one. I know that your education is going to have you reading quite a bit. So feel free to come in and use whichever tome you need.”
With his bookshelves spanning from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with pamphlets, scrolls, and thick books filling up every nook and cranny, Abelard was still thinking about what supplies and collections he would need once he started working.
Nephubos crawled to one shelf in particular and pulled out a book entitled: ''Dissection on the Past Relations of Humans and Nonhumans' – Oh! We shall start with this one!'
Abelard chuckled and rubbed at his beard. “Keep in mind, young one, you can come in here anytime. And, unless I need it for a case, you can take as long as you'd like with any of my books as well.”
Nephubos nodded before they held the book close in its tentacles and crawled out of the room. They soon came back, 'Thank you again! Your kindness is most appreciated!'
Abelard walked over and pet the top of the slimy tentacle-bleb. “It is my pleasure, young one.”
After getting some fruits, more vegetables, and some chicken and fish (because fuck everything if he was going to make a bad impression on a rakshasa), Zach came to the full realization that there was no way he was going to be able to carry these things home.
“Where the hell is the Delivery Post again?”
The wooden counter of the ShimmerGale Open-Market Delivery post had been grown into the mossy-ground. Red and mauve toadstools peeked out here and there, ivy wrapping around the stool that grew up from the ground to accompany the counter. Zach walked over daisies, vines, and bluebells until he got to the admittedly small line to the Delivery Post.
If anything, it only seemed big because the two creatures ahead of him were ornate dragons. The Chinese sort, to give further detail. Talking away and flicking their long, scaled tails every so often: creating minute hazards that had to be avoided.
“I mean, it isn't even good sauce!” The golden dragon told his cobalt dragon friend, “Oy, I remember when I first came to this country! You could get a real, with actual Szechuan Sauce, for three dollars! And that included tip! Oy vey, the passing of the years! It's a mess!”
“Ah, you are stuck in the past. Come, we need to get these groceries to your wife. She's a real berryer, that one!”
The two dragons spiraled off into the skies beyond the trees. Zach hefted his purchases up onto the counter. The employee on duty was a young gryphon, her fur a dusty tan and her beak painted pink (for painting one's beaks or talons was a bit of a new fashion with the gryphon set). “Alright...” She typed pretty fast for someone with heavy paws tipped with fearsome talons. “Address, please?”
“1685 Blightblossom Lane,” Zach answered, already getting his debit card out.
The gryphon typed everything up and, after calculating the weight of Zach's purchases, said, “That'll be 8.50 for delivery!”
Zach paid the fee and grabbed an apple from his purchases as they were carried off. “I really should start heading back.”6: Home Again, Home Again; Jiggety-Jig
The door to the basement slammed open. Gahiji and Silveste could hear furious footsteps stomping up the stairs until the owner of the steps charged into the main room.
Fane glared at the two large living creatures sitting in front of him. Gone was his heavy black cloak in favor of a black hoodie and skinny jeans. The hood was pulled over his face but one could still see how his face was savagely torn between a skull and the limp, hanging skin of a corpse. A glowing green eye shined out from the eye-socket of the corpse half, slightly obscured by bangs haphazardly dyed pale blonde and pink. Despite his other eye being a deep, empty hole, the phantom kept a mighty scowl. “Has the friggin' water been fixed yet?”
Gahiji tilted his head before bouncing up, Silveste too late to warn him. “Ooh! You must be Fane! You look a lot different than I thought from your voice!”
Fane rolled his eye. “Can you answer my fucking question? Has the water been fixed yet? Actually, where's that fucking human anyway?”
“He went to go get the things to fix it, if you must know.” Silveste huffed. “All we can do is be patient.”
Fane groaned, storming over to the kitchen. On his way, he noticed Mira: still playing his game. Fane, quick as a whip, changed course and snapped the laptop shut.
“What the fuck?!” Mira screamed. He whipped around and yelled at Fane, his lower body's teeth and eye rearing up. “Who put a bunch of sand in your vagina, asshole?!”
“Well, maybe you should listen when people are asking questions. Instead of playing your shitty, normie video game bullshit.”
“Oh, fuck off, you pretentious piece of hipster jailbait!!” Mira shouted back.
It was at that point that Suraj decided to pop out of his room. He had a pair of earbuds on, the soundtrack to his favorite Bollywood movie of the week blasting in his ears. He danced into the kitchen and started to make himself a cup of tea; oblivious to the fight boiling up around him.
“Um,” Fane puffed a bit of air against his lock of hair, “Do you have any idea who you're talking to?”
“Yeah!” Mira huffed, “Some spoiled pussy bitch-baby who has never had to deal with anyone calling him a pussy! Well, guess what?!” Mira took a deep breath, his small cheeks puffing up, “YOU'RE A GIANT, SPOILED PUSSY!”
“THAT'S IT!” Fane yelled, charging at the Mimic.
At this point, Blancher and Bruner were shielding Silveste from whatever the conflict would bring. Gahiji frowned, turning to Silas, “Shouldn't we stop them?”
'Maybe the angry corpse will be able to cut my cake out of Mira's stomach.'
All the yelling had warranted Abelard to come out of his own room. “What is the meaning of all of this? All of you need to calm down and start acting like the young adults you are!”
Fane gave the advice as much note as one would give a 'Don't Pirate this Software' notice. He managed to seize Mira by the throat and was getting a good throttle going on before Mira shut himself. He bit deep into Fane's arms before hurling him down the hall.
Mira opened himself up and gave a smug shrug, “Talk shit, get hit.”
Suraj picked up his mug and took a deep sniff of the jasmine tea he had brewed. Looking up, he noticed the chaotic scene and took out one of his earbuds. “Did I... miss something here?”
Silveste sighed, resting his head against one of his hooves, “Hopefully this will be the end of it. I hope Zachary gets back soon...”
Gahiji was about to say something when his eyes flashed gold. He frowned and reached behind himself for an umbrella.
Silas quirked an eyebrow. 'What's that for?'
“Wait for it.” Gahiji sighed.
Abelard was about to berate all of the younger nonhumans again when he heard the creaking and the groaning. It got louder, sounding more and more painful.
Odysseus walked out of his bedroom, a porn magazine in his hand ('Succubus Salaciously', a classic publication). “What the hell are you faggots doing out here?!” The Minotaur bellowed out, “I'm just trying to beat my meat, like a normal person, and you all are out here: KILLING MY BONER!”
A boot-clad foot stomped into the carpet. Everyone looked down to hall to see Fane.
Hefting the water-heater above his head.
He clenched his teeth together and hurled it into Mira: the Mimic screaming until the heater made impact and sent him flying into the nearest wall.
Fane stood up straight and gave a toss of his shock of hair. “Eat that, asshole.” He felt a tapping at his shoulder. He turned and saw Abelard standing behind him. “What the fuck to you want?”
“Young man,” Abelard asked with a sigh, “Was that the water-heater you threw just now?”
Fane opened his mouth but the bubbling of water cut him off. Both of them turned around just in time to see a flood of water surge up and wash over them. Gahiji managed to black most of the water with his umbrella and Silveste was kept mostly safe via Blancher and Bruner. But Silas, Suraj, Odysseus, Fane, Mira, and Abelard were caught in the flood. The water filled the condo up to the ceiling and stayed there.
The opening of the front door was muted by the onslaught of water. But the majority of the water sluice out of the condo when the door was opened all the same. When the water let out, everyone took a moment to regain their bearings. Abelard stood up and removed his coat. “Oh, the dry-cleaning for this is going to be a nightmare.”
“MY RI-I-IG~!” Mira sobbed, holding his waterlogged laptop to his chest.
However, one had to think back to the notion of the open door. Sure enough, it was Zach. He looked around the soaked remains of his condo: silent as the dead.
“Oh boy...” Gahiji frowned, Blancher asking,
“Think he's pissed?”
“He's definitely pissed.” Bruner answered.
But Zach stayed silent. He wiped the excess water off of the hallway table and set the cookies and book down. He then dialed a number on his phone.
Everyone was too uneasy to be the first person to speak.
Zach kept on waiting until a voice on the other line spoke up. “Yes, is this Ascendant Home Repair? Yeah, I need someone out here ASAP.”
'We do not wish to be alarming anyone!' Nephubos popped out of their room and cried, their words heavy with worry, 'But we do not think that human living spaces are supposed to be wet like this!'7: Coming Clean
The thing with beasts of fur and claw is that sharing a bed, while providing a primal, raw experience, has the result of sweating buckets in one's own bed due to the close contact.
Not to mention the 'fur-burn' (like beard-burn but all over your entire body). But, even with these factors, beasts and daemons bear some of the most complex of hearts. Hearts that bleed evermore, hearts that entomb themselves with iron thorns...
And there are the hearts that yearn for love like a parched man yearns for the drink.
Bedsprings creaked and complained from the two intertwined bodies above them. One was a man, handsome in face, strong in body.
But the second was a body covered in fur so creamy white that it held fast to itself like a pearl-finish. His mouth dropped open in a syrupy mewl at a particularly deep shift of hips: two sharp fangs hanging from the top, several sharp teeth jutting up from the bottom. His ears, rounded points, and strawberry-red insides, twitched and soft, round paws with paw pads of the same hue fell upon the man's back.
“Love...” The feline being tossed his head back, his breath in rough pants, “L-love you...”
“Mm-hm.” The man responded. But the feline didn't mind.
Being high on love and endorphins will do that to a creature.
Late that evening found the feline waking up and rolling onto his belly. He stretched out, his spine popping back into place from the series of contortions he had performed that night.
It was all more than worth it, though. A full night in the arms of the man you loved: the man who made your heart beat heavy, the man whose smile brought forth the morning sun!
The feline creature laid back down and pulled the sheets, a stray thread having caught his attention before he noticed the absence of his love.
He meowed, ears twitching and smooth tail gently flicking about. He got up from bed and prowled over to the bedroom door, peeking through the slightly opened door. He didn't have to go far. He didn't even have to listen too harshly.
“Come on...” He heard the voice of his love whispering, pleading, praying. “Come on, come on, come on!”
The ding of an email being opened floated in the hall.
“Dear Mr... Bla-blah-blah... We are... proud to offer you the position of lead danc-- YES!” He quickly shut himself up and skimmed through the rest of the email. He pumped his fists into the air. He did a little jog-in-place for victory. “Fucking that creepy cat up the ass finally delivered!” He cleared his throat and attempted to compose himself: ruffling his hair, coughing a bit to roughen his voice.
He walked back into the bedroom. Butterscotch eyes glowed in the darkness, pulling a gulp from the man's stomach. “Couldn't sleep?”
“Oh, um.” The man shifted on his feet. “I was just... thirsty. You know: a night of lovemaking can do that to ya! Heh...”
“Love... making.” The feline hummed. “Yeah. Yeah, that's...” He rolled over so that his back faced his lover. Out of sight, claws extended out from his squishy paws and cut into the sheets. “Hey. Hey, um, listen: maybe you should go for the night.”
Was he really pulling an 'oblivious' act right now? “I have an early morning.” Those glowing eyes went narrow, the black slits inside of them contracting.
“Oh.” The man bit his lip. “I... Okay. I'll grab my stuff and see you tomorrow then?”
“Yeah.” The feline huffed back. This was getting so beyond old. He listened to the human gently walk around the room. He picked his clothes, got his briefcase and, finally, tip-toed over to the feline. He gave him a small peck on the back of his head. “See you later, babe.”
The bedroom door was pulled to a gentle close.
Then the door to the apartment.
When the footsteps started making the staircase outside his building ring and groan, the feline got up from bed. “Where did that collar get to?” He asked as he rummaged through his bedside drawer. “Ah.” He pulled out the familiar red silk collar that held a round golden bell. It stayed silent, even as the feline fastened the collar around his neck. When the collar was in its rightful place, the feline rang the bell with a bat of his paw.
The bell rang out with a hollow chime. It was a dying breath, a pathetic ran during a drought. The shadow of the feline warped and shifted: the smooth form growing jagged and twitching.
Before it could start, however, it was finished: the completion heralded by the sound of a semi truck's horn desperately crowing out.
The chaotic bout of noise was cut off by the sick, splattering crunch of flesh meeting steel and glass.
… He just wanted to be loved.
“Alfalfa-Vanilla-Blueberry Smoothie for Silveste!” A young cashier called out the drink that they were setting upon the counter.
Blancher walked up, hooves grabbing the smoothie and walking back to the large booth where Silveste and Gahiji were waiting: Bruner arriving soon after with an order of sweet-cakes from the next-door cafe.
“Thank you.” Silveste nodded as Blancher set the cup in front of him. “This is an outing that provides a suitable amount of positive air, right?”
Gahiji nodded, smile ever-present. “It is! You know, I was actually thinking about trying this place with the Almighty Illuminator. But he's always so busy! You know: minding the sun and all.”
Silveste nodded and took a sip of his smoothie, allowing the smooth textures of the yogurt and tart blueberries paint his tongue. “If I may stray upon the territory of those outside of my wisdom and inquire upon your reasons for picking this city as a residence? Surely a creature of your rarity and prestige has available lodgings the world over.”
Gahiji didn't answer right away. His attention was taken by the harpy desperately trying to carry the large smoothie cup in her talons. Her wings desperately flapped and sweat poured down her face in buckets. She eventually was able to set the massive cup in front of Gahiji. The harpy wheezed and panted, “One... dragon-sized... Peach-Mango-Pomegranate Twister Smoothie... With a Ghee shot...” She gave one last wheeze, “And Hibiscus syrup..!” She keeled over, her talons twitching in the air next to the table.
Silveste and Gahiji looked at the poor creature for a while before Silveste cleared his throat and when Blancher and Bruner walked over, he nodded his head in the harpy's direction.
The donkeys hefted the unconscious harpy into their arms and carried her away. Finally, Gahiji felt comfortable enough to wrap his lips around the straw and give a slow swallow. The sphinx licked his lips and sighed, “I just... want to enjoy as many of the world's surprises as I can. And Fane flooding the condo was definitely one of them!”
Silveste couldn't help but find that woefully vague as a response. Gahiji took another sip, but the sudden flashing of his eyes choked him a little. Gahiji looked at the unicorn across from him. “A bride? Do you think you can find one in this city?”
Silveste gasped, once more taken aback by how far-reaching a sphinx's knowledge ran. “Or a groom.” Silveste hummed. He leaned against the table, “I'm not picky with who my heart decides to court. But I do need a spouse sooner rather than later.”
They continued to chat. The company and their drinks providing enough of a blanket that they didn't notice the pitiful body slumped up against the main counter of the smoothie bar.
A Maneki-Neko. His fur was sleek and pearl-like and his eyes shined like aged candies floating deep in scented coat pockets.
The Maneki-Neko's tail curled and twisted around the stool he was sitting on as he licked at the sticky remains of the cup closest to him.
“Not to be a bother,” Said the woman who owned the smoothie bar, “But I think you may have had enough.”
The Maneki-Neko lifted his heavy head. He blinked up at her, miserable all the while, and batted a paw at the bell on his neck. It chimed like the welcoming bells of Heaven's highest-reviewed salon.
Immediately, a young man walked over and stuck two hundred-dollar bills into the tip jar.
Just as abruptly as he came, he was out the door. The owner of the smoothie bar blinked at the more-than-generous tip before bowing out. “Did I say 'enough'? I meant 'take your sweet time, you incredible creature'!”
The Maneki-Neko frowned. He pushed away his empty cup and tapped the counter. They couldn't take too long to make another one of his smoothies: they were literally just yogurt, condensed milk, vanilla bean, and a splash of fish oil!
Gahiji finished off the rest of his own smoothie. He opted to do a bit of people and nonhuman watching while Silveste was having Bruner text a message to his parents.
Humans... Elves... Oh, a water elemental. They were pretty far outside of Aquacia...
Then he noticed the Maneki-Neko at the counter. “Ooh!”
The Maneki-Neko yowled when Gahiji stretched his cheeks out. “Come on~!” Gahiji beamed, “No more sadness! Only joy now!”
When Gahiji removed his paws, the Maneki-Neko had to readjust his jaw. He glared up at the sphinx until Silveste walked over. “Is he deranged?” The Maneki-Neko rubbed at his face.
“He's a joy,” Silveste replied. He cleared his throat and stood proud. “I am Prince Silveste Winterdust.”
“And my name's Gahiji!” Gahiji said, “What's your name?”
“Oh, does it even matter?” The Maneki-Neko groaned. He seized his latest smoothie when it was brought over. “What does anything matter when you're going to end up cold and alone in this miserable world~!” He took a quick sip and continued, “I open my heart up and I get shat on every. Single. Time!”
The Maneki-Neko slumped over the counter, sobbing in those ugly tears that made everyone in a room feel horrendously awkward.
“Bad Breakup?” Blancher asked, hastily drinking the leftovers at the table.
“Bad Breakup.” Bruner confirmed, eating the remaining crumbs.
“Aw...” Gahiji bounced to the Maneki-Neko's side, “Everyone has their bad choices! You just have to stand up, keep the good times in mind, and think about what you want for your next relationship!”
There was chuckling.
Cold, mirthless... “My name's Eito.” The Maneki-Neko said, “And that whole song and dance you just talked about? Yeah, try keeping up that optimism when you're 57 and 0!”
Silveste's grimace was almost comical. “Fifty-seven lovers?” He whispered, “I can't even locate and make acquisitions for a part-time paramour!”
Eito sat up and drank more of his smoothie. The small TV propped up in the corner of the smoothie-bar flashed on, a clown news reporter was honking away about the recent tragic death of a young up-and-coming dancer.
“So sad,” Gahiji frowned a bit, “Taken away so soon. And by such a big truck.”
Gahiji and Silveste looked to see Eito finishing off his last smoothie. “Asshole deserved it.”
“Wait,” Silveste tapped his hoof to his chin, “You did this? But, how? You are a creature of beneficial luck and circumstances!”
Eito shook his head, lips curling into a smirk, “You think I could run the lottery if everyone had good luck?” He batted at the bell on his collar, “Just being in my vicinity can give people good luck. Or, if they piss me off, bad luck. The bell here is a bit of a conduit.”
“But why would you,” Gahiji rolled a paw in the air, “Do a thing like that?”
Eito turned around on his stool. “I'm a simple creature, guys. I just want to be able to go home to someone who has as much love in their heart for me as I have for them. And how do you think it makes me feel when every. Last. One of them only wanted to fuck me for my Good Luck?!”
Gahiji finally sat down on one side of Eito, Silveste on the other. “Well...” Silveste hummed, “Perhaps you could try... not sleeping with every guy you fall in love with?”
Eito's face twisted into a grimace. “Those words that you're saying,” He wondered, “Can you combine them into a sentence like you're doing?”
“Yes!” Silveste neighed in exasperation, “Yes! You can! Maybe you should make an honest attempt at it!”
Eito licked at his paw and gently cleaned his face. “But how do you even show love in a relationship outside of sex?”
“Well!” Gahiji bounced to the left, “You get each other flowers!” He hopped up and jumped in place for a minute. “Oh, or you make the other's favorite meal after a long day at work!”
Eito pouted. “That seems harder than saying 'I Love You' and having sex.”
“But, I mean,” Silveste cleared his throat, “Love isn't easy. Love, divided into the four mighty houses: Phileo, Agape, Storge, and Eros.” He reared back and placed his front hooves on an empty stool, “All bearing their own trials and tribulations! All influential in the lives of creatures of nonhuman and human affiliations! The truest of loves are finding one whose life accepts you with an intricate but yielding mesh of compromise, understanding, romance, and--”
“Oh!” Eito shoved his way between Gahiji and Silveste to get a better look at the dashing young man who had come into the smoothie-bar. “Who's that good-looking side of Peking Duck over there?”
“Now, Eito,” Silveste tried to calm the Maneki-Neko down, “Remember what we talked about: think more about what you want in a lover--”
By this point, however, the Maneki-Neko already had hearts in his eyes and was hanging on every word that the human said.
“So... You're that Lucky Cat, right?”
“Mm-hm?” Eito snuggled into his chest.
“Yeah, you run the lottery and stuff, right?”
“But of course...” Eito purred. He wrapped his tail around the human's waist, “How about... we go back to my place and, you know? Knock paws and boots?”
Before they could stop him, Eito had already gone off with his latest hope at 'true love'.
When the Lucky Cat and the poor sod were gone, Gahiji hummed, "The Ancients had a phrase for what ails him. 'Love-Scratched'."
"I don't imagine that there's an active cure for it." Silveste asked.
Sure enough, Gahiji shook his head, "Nothing outside of growing up will fix that. Anyway~" He started pushing the unicorn prince out of the smoothie bar, "Come on, come on! Let's go do something! Like ride a train, or visit ShimmerGale, or even..!"9: The Story of Delta-759
Even when the computer that hosted him was shut down or hibernating, he still had a small bit of consciousness.
Words said around him could be taken in in clips and gasps.
A crisp exhale of breath formed slight bytes that formed in the sterile space around his jaws.
“... maybe I could... make a copy... strip the code down...”
His human... He was talking to someone that he couldn't see from his blacked-out domain. His eyes did open, though: fading in from darkness to a low hum of pale blue binary code.
The beast in the darkness lifted his titanic form and waited. Not too much longer.
A series of clicks. Four keys in particular. The light washed over him: a warm wave growing up from the sterile darkness and illuminating a forest of winding code and pulsing circuits.
The lights grew brighter, causing the creature's iridescent scales to react. They shifted color, blue against black, turquoise against black, with every step he took.
The draconian beast's glowing eyes blinked. He turned and lumbered after the echoing voice. “Delta-759, you in there?”
Delta-759 followed onward, He passed several shifts in RGB lighting, revealing an engraving of the Delta symbol on the bones folded against his back.
Delta-759 recoiled when a window of light appeared in front of him. There was a young man on the other side. You could tell from the bags poorly hidden behind his glasses and the cup of coffee quivering in his grip that he hadn't seen a bed in several days.
“Mateo.” Delta-759 rumbled, “I could hear you talking from all the way in here.”
“Can you blame me?” Mateo took another sip of coffee. He made a leisurely pace back and forth in front of a wall-to-wall flat-screen monitor, the digital dragon looking in from the other side. “All the coding, the debugging, the Q and A...”
“The worst-case scenarios,” Delta-759 puffed out, “The bruises, the sleepless nights – Look at you, Mateo!”
Mateo did a slight roll of the eyes before Delta-759 added, “You're exhausted! You need to take a knee and get some rest.”
“After!” Mateo downed the rest of his coffee, “Today's test! Delta-759, we're so close. After today, we can get the government off of our backs, get our money, and go off the map. You and me...”
Mateo stepped close. He pressed his hand to the screen, eyes imploring.
Delta-759 breathed out, long and hard: the crisp air flaring his nostrils. Delta-759 lifted one of his own paws and set it against the window in front of him.
“Finally together.” Mateo offered.
“Finally together.” Delta-759 sighed.
Mateo typed at his keyboard in rapid sweeps and swings. “Initializing Final Test for Project '759 – Here There Be'.”
Inside of his cybernetic forest, Delta-759 stepped towards the bough of a cliff of glass.
He dipped his head out of the way of two package-laden lights zipping past. Delta-759 didn't want to do this. But he needed to.
This was it. Mateo glanced at the three locked files on his desktop background. Three efforts. Three heartbreaks. Three failures.
They wouldn't let those sacrifices be in vain.
They would learn from those who had passed. Delta-759 felt the whip-like winds from the abyss beneath him. Crisp like an ocean; bubbling, churning.
“Alright,” Mateo started the screen and event recorders, “Delta-759, you ready?”
Delta-759 rolled his shoulders. The bones on his back lifted and spread, a gossamer webbing of light growing between them. “Initializing Phase 1.” Delta-759 let the sounds of the ceaseless current of information take him in. Chiming glass and spiraling chirps.
Delta-759 stepped back.
“Godspeed.” Mateo's voice rippled into his ear. Delta-759 bolted forward, leaping off the cliff and letting himself plummet. Plummet into the information stream.
He dove in with a crash but his body went on auto-pilot: swimming with the current.
Delta-759 extended his left wing, his trajectory shifting.
“How are you feeling, Delta?” Mateo asked. He jotted down the time and looked at the recorder to see how long they had been at this.
“To tell the truth,” Delta-759 chuckled, “It's great! The wings are handling excellently and my scales are substantial enough. The data stream isn't slicing through me at all.”
Mateo jotted down some notes. “Okay, try to increase your speed. Let's try by several knots.”
“Oh,” Delta-759, “I think I saw something about knots speed by--”
“Wrong knots!” Mateo sputtered out, “Wrong knots!!”
Delta-759 chuckled but got back to business. He whipped his tail, the increasing spires gleaming until, with a click and a whip, Delta-759's speed increased thrice-fold. The dragon dipped over exchanging emails, threaded the needle through uploading videos, and skated past salacious sites of ill-repute.
“Alright Delta,” Mateo typed up the command for the next part of the test. “How confident are you feeling right now?”
“I don't know.” Said Delta-759 with a grin, “What do you have in mind?”
Delta-759 got his answer just as he was going to make a turn into the rivulet of stocks. He saw a floating package that shined like Sunday mornings and flew right over. Delta-759 didn't grab it immediately, though. He flew a lazy circle around the package of data. His eyes performed a preliminary scan on it for any security measures.
He finally grabbed the package and announced to Mateo, “Initializing Phase 2.” Delta-759 flapped his wings and dived back into the main current.
This would be the heft of the test: the part that had Mateo gnawing his pencil to an early grave.
Going in was easy.
Coming back with something was the hard part.
“Keep an eye out, Delta...” He told the dragon.
Delta-759 nodded, following the information current into a forest of angry red spires.
This digital parody of a coral forest meant that he was in a more secure area: a place where people actually cared about their information.
Delta-759 stayed quiet and moved on.
He passed a particularly large spire: lights streaking up into the unknown and down into the deep but didn't stay long.
So he missed the ghostly pale face: the sunken in pools of darkness that were its eyes, the grimace on its face that promised only an unyielding hunger.
This miserable creature struggled down a wheezing breath and slithered through the digital current. It's slinking form kept to the shadows of the the spires.
Delta-759 hung a rapid right, dodging out of the way of rotten teeth that snarled and snapped.
“Delta-759?” Mateo leaned forward, furrowing his brow. “Delta, what's going on?” The video feed was always muddled in the deeper parts, so all he could rely on was audio.
A croupy snarl pierced through his headset, forcing him to pull it away. “Delta?!”
Delta-759 ducked out of the way of the infected creature's attack. This wasn't part of the plan. He wasn't ready for something like this. The dragon panted, already exhausted.
The infected creature lunged forward and knocked Delta-759 off balance. “MATE--!”
The sickly creature, like a bullet, like the slimiest little worm, shot through the digital flow.
Delta-759 shook himself back to his senses. Like a sailor fighting the seas, he reached down within and pulled with little strength he could find. His claws drawn, he drew back--
He faced an abyss known only to the most depraved of creatures: spindling spires of teeth laced the edges of a foul, cavernous maw that encompassed Delta-759 and the space all around him.
All the dragon could do was watch as the miserable mouth crawled forward and swallowed him whole; it's jaws closing in a cruel 'crack'.
Mateo felt his heart plummet: beating and screaming all the way down. “Delta-759!! Delta!!” He frantically typed in every variation of 'End Project' and 'Escape' he could think of. He even tried 'Ctrl-Alt-Dlt'-ing several times but he still wasn't getting a response. “No... No, no!!”
This wasn't happening. How could this be happening?! They had been so careful; he had predicted every. Single. Scenario!
“Delta-759, come on!” Mateo pulled at his hair. He was trying to pull out some kind of solution that he hadn't thought of.
Not an eggshell, not a pearl. But a grim, ghastly white.
Mateo adjusted his glasses, “What?” He tried to run his antivirus but his whole set-up had been locked. From his main computer to his television... Mateo spared a glance to the massive platform a few feet away. No, he hadn't allowed the computer any access to that yet, it couldn't--
The unholy din of glitches and beeps was corrupting what sounded very similar to Delta-759's voice-bank. But Mateo knew better. Damn his sinking, shattering heart; he knew better!
Mateo lowered the volume on his headphones and spoke into the mic. “Where. Is. My dragon?”
He winced but didn't back down when his eventual response was:
“Where the hell is Delta-759?!” Mateo shouted. “Answer me you glitchy piece of shit!!”
The platform in the room whirred to life. The laptop next to it turned on, the sole script on it pouring down the screen as it initiated a new program. A program that, after so many hours pored over it, now had Mateo's blood running frigid.
“That...” He shook his head, standing and sending his chair spinning back, “That can't be happening. Only I have the passwords to access that program, you can't...”
The infected remains of Delta-759's voice-bank screamed,
Mateo jumped into action. Even as he reached the laptop that was causing the platform to shine brighter and brighter, the lights were winding and twisting: swallowing down matter and taking on physical shape.
“No, no, no!” Mateo hissed as every firewall he put up was shattered or extinguished by a warping of one of the passwords that the infection had data-mined for.
Two more firewalls went down.
The antivirus was soon overwhelmed.
“FUCK!” A surge of electricity from the laptop seized Mateo and flung him across the room. He couldn't move; the impact, the electricity, they had left him numb. All he could do was watch as the virus, a stealthy behemoth of one, overwhelmed all of his computers one by one; the laptop beginning to overheat with how much data was being run through.
Mateo was helpless. He seethed through the pain, not only in his body but also in his mind and heart. Delta-759... He had betrayed someone he cared about again.
The platform kept building upon the physical weight of the lights it gathered. Soon the gnarled and twisted form couldn't even fit upon it, but still it grew.
Larger and larger.
Mateo saw those eyes, formerly beautiful blue pools of code, now writhing orbs of malignant errors. “Delta...” Mateo rasped out, his words punctuated by wet coughs, “759...”
The beast threw its warped head back and let the skies and air above suffer its corrupted roar.
It will be mine.
Zach stood next to Mira inside of a small electronics shop located two streets over. “What about this one?” He pointed to an impressive-looking computer set-up.
The disgust upon Mira's face dripped down like bacon-fat. “You're shitting me, right? This hunk of crap isn't anywhere near my old rig's stats! Besides,” He pouted and folded his arms, “I need a laptop, not a PC. Where would I even keep this glorified doorstop anyway?!”
“Can you not be a prick about this?” Zach asked, face as impassive as was the norm. “I am trying to help you. Actually, can I ask: why are you out here if you're just going to complain?”
“Pegasus Parcel doesn't have Same-Day Shipping for all of the parts I need. I thought I'd buy local, buuut...” He turned around in his chest and addressed the shop-owner, “Your selection is shit~! You hear me? SHIT~!”
“And we go now.” Zach hefted Mira inside of the modified stroller that Mira had offered upon hearing that Zach was going out to replace his rig.
Mira only smirked and shrugged when he heard the angry shop-owner shouting about how they were banned. “Like I'd want to come back any way.”
Zach sighed, looking up as he pushed Mira along. It was a nice afternoon: not too late as the sky had gained an orange hue, but not too early as to bring about cries of 'High Noon'.
Mira was looking around, far too used to being chauffeured around like this, and saw that they were about to pass a bistro. “Hey! Stop here, I'm hungry!”
“Do you have money?” Zach asked.
Mira pouted, looking all the part of a stubborn brat. “I paid rent, didn't I?”
Zach shook his head and pushed Mira inside. They were quickly offered seats at the counter and Zach took the soonest opportunity to sit down.
After making sure that Mira was close enough to the counter to see what he wanted.
God, it felt like he was baby-sitting a toddler. Outside of the drooling tongue filling the treasure chest and the vicious teeth, Mira filled the role exactly.
Which could have meant that Mira didn't fill the role at all.
Mira skimmed over the menu before calling out to the server, “Oy~! Cabron~! Give me the spiciest empanadas you can make~!”
The server clenched his fist and carved the order into the notepad he had before giving Zach his best smile. “And for you?”
“Can I just have a glass of water?” Zach asked, “Oh, actually...” He skimmed through the menu for a bit. May as well get his energy up before pushing Mira back home.
Mira piped out, “Hey, get us a bottle of tequila t-- Whoa, hey!” He shrieked when his chest was shoved aside.
Zach watched a strange newcomer move like a man possessed. He fumbled with plugging in his laptop-charger, he slammed said laptop on the counter and nearly tore off the screen in his haste.
“Come on, come on, come on..!” He seethed, eyes scanning through the screen in shaky motions.
It was just getting too weird. And Zach currently shared a home with a sphinx, a unicorn, a wendigo, and God could only count what else at this point, so he would know full well what constituted as 'weird'.
He reached out to nudge the guy on the shoulder, noting the name-tag on his lanyard that read 'Mateo'. Mateo recoiled back, eyes wide and frantic. “What? What is it?!”
“Easy.” Zach took his hand back, “Just trying to see what's going on.”
“Well, I don't have the time to talk!” Mateo snapped. But Mira was not one to let things slide.
“Hey! Dickhead!!” Mira shouted, “Are we going to have a problem or what?!”
“Can you guys just fuck off for a sec?” Mateo grit his teeth and clicked on one stream. Nothing. Then another. Nothing again.
“No!” Mira was seething now, the eye in his chest glaring and shining particularly bright. “No, buddy, you're shit out of luck if you think I'm just going to 'fuck o--'”
Everything in the bistro lurched three feet to the left: a massive roar echoing up from the ground and piercing through every digital screen.
“Wha...” Mira's second tongue extended from his chest and righted him back up, “What the hell was that?”
Zach got up. After checking that nothing was broken, he saw Mateo pulling at his hair. “Where are you?” He choked when Zach turned him around.
“Listen.” Zach said, holding Mateo with a bit more strength than necessary, “I just want to know if whatever you're messing with is going to make me have to find a detour home.”
“Look, buddy!” Mateo stood up, forcing Zach's hand, “I have a life-or-death situation going here! So if you could just fuck off for a sec--”
That glitching din of a roar filled the air once more.
Mira looked around, his voice wavering the smallest amount, “What is that?”
“Delta-759!!” Mateo called out. He grabbed his laptop and ran out of the bistro before any of the bistro staff could stop him.
Zach knew he should have just left well enough alone.
But he did have to get Mira home.
He jogged outside just to stop dead in his tracks: looking up in the same direction that Mateo was.
“Don't just leave me here!” Mira pulled himself up into his stroller and used his tongue to move towards the door. “Listen, I'll just wait for Pegasus Parcel. Let's get the hell out of here and...” Mira's words trailed off when he finally looked up. “Holy Quetzalcoatl...”
Delta-759 loomed over them: the virus's influence causing his once-proud body to bloat and stretch. A miasma of infection wafted between the wriggling snakes that were his teeth. His wings constantly shattered and rebuilt themselves, the broken pieces falling to the ground and piercing cars and buildings when they made impact.
And those writhing eyes. They rolled around in the dragon's skull, the virus looking for the next succulent piece of 'data' to devour.
The writing eyes swiveled down and saw Mateo, Zach, and Mira.
Delta-759 roared and surged down.10: The Demise of Delta-759
Zach pulled Mateo and pushed Mira out of the way, his own feet scuffing the tip of one of Delta-759's scales as the dragon crashed into the bistro.
Delta-759 thrashed and coiled. His feverish brain couldn't make heads or tails of what had just happened, so Zach took the window of opportunity to get as far away from the creature as possible.
Zach turned to see Mateo. He was regarding the dragon with such pity in his eyes, such forlorn crushing his face.
“I take it,” Zach began, “That you know that dragon?”
The abrupt, bubbling chirp of a siren interrupted whatever dialogue that was trying to bubble up.
Like the actual police siren, not the type of guys and gals who got a jolly out of wrecking ships.
Out of a nearby waterway popped two of Dama Fristad's finest. Navy blue uniforms lay clean and pressed over their breasts. Though one's hair was long and the other's tightly-curled, both of their heads were topped in decorated berets of their uniforms' hue.
Fringed ears flicked away excess water and the tails that ended their lower bodies shined as brilliant gems in the water.
“Megaphone.” One of the mermaids held her hand out to the other, a conch shell megaphone being set down. “Attention!” The first mermaid called out, “Attention! You are, like, currently in violation of Dama Fristad Ordinance D-3869!”
The mermaid police were talking but Delta-759 wasn't listening. His jaws snapped shut around the main register of the restaurant, swallowing it and the surrounding debris: the weight of it a visible bulge as it slid down his throat. “Please cease your actions and turn yourself in or else, like, totally risk physical retaliation!”
Delta-759 jerked and twitched. His body contorted until he was facing the police officers.
The air had no time to grow tense. Delta-759 lashed his tail at the mermaid police, throwing them into the wall of a nearby building.
“Delta-759, stop!” Mateo jumped up and ran to the dragon. He grabbed his laptop and rapped his fingers on the keys. “Come on, where's an antivirus strong enough to--”
Delta-759 snarled and beat his wings. Once, twice, and into the air he went: slicing through the air like a vicious storm front.
“Crap...” Mateo removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. A slick length wrapped around his stomach and pulled him where Zach was standing next to Mira.
Mira let go of Mateo and shut himself. He opened back up, cherubic face glaring up at the human. “You must have the world's shittiest Firewall/Antivirus software.”
Mateo pulled his arm back and curled his fingers into a fist. “Shut the hell up!”
Mira flinched and shut his eyes, body tensing up for the hit.
The hit that never came.
Mira slowly opened his eyes. He had to blink at what he was seeing, but he was, in fact, seeing it.
Zach was holding Mateo's arm in place: right in the middle of its path towards his face. “Let go of me!!” Mateo screamed.
“No.” Zach deadpanned out, “Not until you calm down and tell me what all of that was about.”
“Ha!” Mateo barked out. “You really think I'm going to just spill out my business for some rando on the street?” When Zach didn't let go – Jesus and Mary this guy was stronger than his boring expression let on – Mateo began slinging everything he could think of. “For all I know you could be some kind of Russian spy, or you could working for some terrorist cell--”
Zach jerked a thumb towards the street. “I'm just trying to find out if I'm going to be able to catch the A9 home.” He poked Mira's pouty face right in the cheek, “Carrying this guy around is building up to some serious back-problems.”
Mateo's face burned. His skin was throbbing, he was so upset.
But he took a deep breath. A little of the fire flickered out. Another deep breath and Zach finally let him go.
Mateo rubbed the sore part of his arm. Who the hell did this asshole think he was? Him and his stupid little Mimic fuckbuddy.
“Delta.” He cleared his throat, “Delta-759 is my... My friend.”
“Just a friend?” Mira folded his arms, the eye in the back of his chest lifting an eyebrow.
Mateo clicked his tongue. “More than just a friend, fine! Delta's been with me since the day he was born.”
“He's a dragon.” Zach said, “And not too small either, how is that possible?”
“God..!” Mateo groaned, “I made him, okay?! I'm a software programmer. I built and cultivated Delta-759 from the ground up. Piece by piece, byte by byte.”
“A virtual dragon?” Mira looked over to where the staff of the bistro was trying to make heads or tails of the restaurant rubble.
Mateo shook his head, “Don't insult me. Delta-759 is way more than just a 'virtual dragon'.” He was doing his best to ignore how he could hear how Delta-759's roars carried on the wind. “Project 759. My first commission. Can you imagine it?” He looked down at his laptop: the wifi signal far fainter than what it usually was in this part of town. “Perfect internet surveillance. No chances of hacking, illegal sales, torrenting... All gone when there's a living, breathing entity eyeing every single action made online.”
“Wow.” Zach wondered if he should go help the bistro staff, “That sounds--”
“Fucking awful.” Mira interrupted. “What kind of naive bull – Wait,” He interrupted himself, “Who commissioned you?”
“A government job?” Mira scoffed, “Really? You expect a bunch of human gringos to be trustworthy when it comes to controlling the internet? They can't even decide whether or not its a universal right.”
Mira took a moment to glance at the person reading this right now.
Then he went back to the conversation at hand. “If anything, this just tells you that you were doing something stupid, stupid!”
“Look, I've already sunk years of development time into this!” Mateo turned away, “I've failed too many times to let this end like this...”
“Alpha-759!” Mateo screamed, horrified at the convulsing dragon on his screen. He had uploaded too much information too fast; her scales popping up from her overheated body. Mateo was forced to pull his headphones away. He couldn't bear the sounds of Alpha-759 screaming... roaring in agony.
Beta-759 swam through the Internet. It was a normal routine expedition to see if the wings Mateo had coded were enough to support a dragon while still allowing mobility.
“Veer left, Beta-759,” Mateo ordered into his headset.
Beta-759 nodded and extended one of his gossamer wings out. He wanted to gradually change his direction, to ease into it.
A zip file zipped by, crashing into his wing and shattering it on impact.
“Mateo!” Beta-759 flapped his remaining wing, his body plunging into the dark abyss. “Mateo, help me! Stop the simulation and help me..!”
“I...” Mateo swallowed. “I can't...”
“MATEO..!!” Beta-759 screams echoed, even as his code was torn apart by the darkest parts of the internet.
It had to be Gamma-759.
… It just had to be Gamma-759.
Mateo watched the slim dragon on the screen sift through a constant stream of information.
Message boards were what they had been looking through. His clients had expressed an interest in being able to screen every message put onto any message board at any time.
Gamma-759 had the propensity, now it was just a matter of seeing him action.
48 hours of action.
Well, to be frank, Gamma-759 only made it 36 hours. The dragon pulled away from the window to the message feed. He thrashed and rolled on the ground, heaving and baying out.
“Gamma-759, what the hell is wrong with you?” Mateo called out, “Gamma-759!”
Gamma-759 was already gone. His mind burned down to the numb from the constant flow of inane, spiteful, circling information.
Mateo watched the dragon hurl himself up against the nearest tree: cracking his skull against it over.
“Damn it!” Mateo held his head, his other curses under his breath.
How had he managed to create a dragon with such a fragile mind?
How had he failed so many times over?
Mateo opened his eyes. “I have to fix this. Delta-759 is my latest chance at making this work.”
“What I'm not getting,” Zach began, “Is how your friend is out here if he's just a program.”
The brief softening of Mateo's eyes would have been missed by most. But not Mira.
“He wanted to be real.” Mira said, “Didn't he? He wanted to be with you.”
Mateo chuckled. It was sad but it still was a chuckle. “I only got this commission because of my first project. A machine to bring virtual objects to the real world. Delta-759, he... He means a lot to me. I promised,” He took a breath, looking away. “I promised him that after this project, after the last of the tests, we could be toge--”
“Piece of shit.”
Mateo stopped right then and there. “Excuse me?”
Mira grit his teeth, the eye in the back of his chest burning in his anger, “You're the worst kind of human. Did you – did you even care about what happened to him?!”
“Don't talk about me like you know me!” Was Mateo's retort, “I care about him more than I've cared about anything in my life!”
Mira wasn't convinced. “Okay.” Mira said, tilting his head; hair falling into his eyes, “Okay. If you care so much about him, tell me: what were you planning to do after you got your money?”
Mateo choked on his breath. “What... what are you,” He huffed, left eye twitching, “I was going to bring Delta-759 t-to the physical world and we were going to live together.”
Zach hated where this was going. This kid was a terrible liar.
“Cut the crap, kid!” Mira said and this whole while he was beginning to sound like his true age: a far cry from his cherubic cheeks and filthy mouth. “You didn't care! You just fucked with someone's life for money! Just like every other fucking human from the beginning of time!”
There was something else behind these words. Zach took another look at Mira. The Mimic was trembling, his breathing harsh and heated. “You fucked up! And the worst thing is that you don't care! Humans never care!!”
“Yes, my prince? I'm here, alright? I'm here.”
“It's so hot... Where's Papa?”
“Shh, little one. You need your rest.”
“Mira.” Zach tried to stop him.
“All you guys do is use and take and you never think about who you're hurting!” Mira trailed off in a ragged shout, “Zach, take me home! I can't look at this piece of shit anymore!”
Zach waited a moment. He wasn't going to let Mira think he was in control here. He eventually walked past a stupefied Mateo. Zach grabbed the handles of Mira's stroller and before he started pushing, he had to say one thing.
“I hope your friend... Delta... Still has whatever image of you he had in his mind. It can only be better than what I'm seeing right now.”
By that point, the two mermaid officers who were flung aside had been roused into wakefulness by their Oct-0 Units. “Ugh, what the hell happened?” One of the officers groaned.
“Like, I haven't felt this bad since the massive hangover I got from Uncle Siklon's last birthday.”
The first mermaid pushed her cephalopod away and snatched up 2-way radio she had clipped to her hip.
“Time to get some backup on this.” She said, wincing as another building was attacked.
“Attention all available units!”
Up in the skies above Dama Fristad, out of sight of the tallest buildings and just below where El Doradus would be floating through normally.
“Attention all available units!” A small dispatch radio squawked out from its perch upon a pink, scaley hip.
“We have a hostile assailant! Code D-3869! I repeat: a hostile D-3869!” A body of melting and building flame flapped his wings.
“Can anyone who is available come and, like, help out or something?!”
The fiery wings flapped again, a voice singing out, “Hm... D-3869? Which one was that again?”
“Oy vey,” Pink wings flapped and rose claws pedaled through the skies, “How did you even get through the Academy?”
“I had my ways.” A golden beak smirked, ruby eyes rolling.
The two bickering voices ceased in the presence of one more. Calmer, more reserved.
“'Unauthorized Draconic Rampage'.” A pair of massive raven's wings, feather a glossy black, picked up speed. “Let's go!”
Delta-759's writhing teeth ripped through the signal towers near the center of town. By this point, humans and nonhuman alike had heard and seen the destruction coming their way.
Two mermaid officers who were actually covering security duty near the Lady of Acceptance statue took aim and fired at the approaching dragon.
The paralysis darts either bounced off of Delta-759's hide or sank into his rotting flesh. “Like, what the hell kind of dragon is this anyway?!” One of the mermaid officers shouted, the two of them diving into the waterway to avoid the lashing of Delta-759's tail.
An old dragon who was down from El Doradus shopping for her niece's upcoming Bat Mitzvah took a step forward. “Ay, bubbala... Stop this nonsense, you're making your ancestors weep...”
Delta-759 whipped his head around. He spread his wings and began charging at the old dragon, anguished cries flooding out from the bystanders.
A sonic boom cracked the air, two smaller ones following soon after. Delta-759 turned away from his first target. He snarled at the sight of flaming wings, pink scales, and black feathers: all dressed in the same uniforms as the mermaids, just with more medals pinned upon the fabric. Of course, modifications for each body were needed. Say, for a dragon's physique the best mode of dress would be a zip-up vest with a matching belt for her equipment. A Phoenix, on the other hand, would have a modified cap and cuffs around his ankles. And for the shining star of the Dama Fristad police force?
A young Karasu-tengu barely breaking 23 years but already a captain of his own squadron? His uniform was the most complete: a full-set with his medals pinned upon the scarf that trailed behind him. His large wings of ink-black feathers kept him floating in the air: a safe distance from Delta-759 but still in the dragon's sight.
“Attention.” The Karasu-tengu announced, “My name is Captain Oshiro.” A shift in the wind made the scarf flutter to the left. The name 'Oshiro' was embroidered upon it. “I'm here in front of you with my fellow members of the Dama Fristad Police Force. Lieutenant Officer Gasko.” The pink dragon nodded. “And Inspector Officer Ruan.” The Phoenix gave a quick salute. Captain Oshiro continued. “Your actions today have resulted in thousands of dollars in damages as well as the cessation of commerce and the endangerment of citizens. You are currently in violation of Ordinance D-3869, as well as the refusal of arrest.”
Captain Oshiro lowered his voice a fraction. “Will you stand down? Or risk physical retaliation?”
Delta-759 roared in their direction. His wriggling teeth shook and a bubble of fetid breath rose up from his throat.
Captain Oshiro slowly inhaled.
“You have the right to remain silent.” He said, “Anything you say or do will be held against you in the eyes of our Lady of Acceptance: Dama Fristad.”
Delta-759 belched out a wave of his toxic breath. Oshiro, Gasko, and Ruan shot out of the way. As fast as the mermaid officers were in the water, the three of them shattered those speeds when it came to the air.
Ruan let out a shriek, his body enveloping in boiling flames. He made a beeline into the toxic fumes. They lit up in a rainbow of fire and, with a flap of Inspector Ruan's wings, the remnants of the fumes vanished.
Lieutenant Gasko roared as she pedaled her claws through the air, her wings pushing her forward. Delta-759 lashed out with his tail, but Gasko ducked right; she weaved left. “Fercockt little baby...” She growled, seizing the middle portion of Delta-759's tail.
“ERROR!” Delta-759's voice crackled out, “MALF-F-F-55522220101010-FUNCTION!!”
Gasko landed on the ground. Her claws extended and dug into the ground with an audible crunch. It was time to put her upper-body strength to work.
Lieutenant Gasko pulled her head back, muscles tensing under her scales. She lifted Delta-759 up by the hindquarters and flung him into a nearby building.
“I hope the chief can write that off as an expense!” Inspector Ruan whistled out.
Gasko rolled her eyes, “Focus on your job, goyim!”
Captain Oshiro landed on the debris that was once the street. They weren't done yet. Not by a mile.
Delta-759 surged out from the ruined building. He was gnashing his teeth; his mind gone in rage. Captain Oshiro stepped aside, allowing Delta-759 to trip over his own feet. Captain Oshiro was about to get into the fray when his earpiece buzzed. “Yes, Chief? … Of course. ... Yes, I understand. … Right.” He looked upon the diseased dragon, grimacing at how his flesh was beginning to slough off of his bones.
“Gasko!” He crowed out, “Ruan! The Chief just called! He said we need to stop playing around and finish this!”
“'Playing', he calls it!” Ruan shook his head. He and Gasko flew down to meet Oshiro on the ground.
Gasko stood behind Ruan as the Phoenix made a circle with his wings. Gasko took a deep breath, a warm light shining in her throat underneath her scales.
Oshiro stood behind her. He needed the best shot possible to end this without any excess casualties or damages. “Left. Two inches.”
Gasko and Ruan, in perfect unison, moved to the left to the specifications of Oshiro's measurements.
Delta-759 got back into a standing position and made to extend his decaying wings. “Anticipate a potential ascension. Adjust for optimal seven-inch upward adjustment.”
Delta-759's right wing crumpled and ripped free from his back. It landed on the ground with a squelch.
“Strike that last direction.” He remeasured and said, “Down. Half an inch. Hold.”
Gasko was starting to feel the heat in her throat rise from the confining pressure but still, she held on. Ruan kept his arms up above him, frowning at the exertion of the pose.
Gasko choked on her flames and Ruan almost fell flat on his face. Captain Oshiro looked around until he saw a human rushing in between them and the rotting dragon.
“Delta-759, enough!” Mateo yelled at the dragon whose eyes were being split open and eaten through by the worms inside. “Just stop it, okay? Don't you remember? What you wanted?”
Delta-759 jerked and twitched. “Ma-Ma-Ma-3333336666668888—Teo-0-0-0-!!&*%^*-o?!”
“Yeah.” Mateo nodded, “Yeah, it's me. Come on...” He reached into his pocket and slowly brought out a flash drive. “I need you to calm down so I can help you. Okay?”
Delta-759 coughed out, Mateo not even flinching as some of the foul-smelling ooze held fast to his clothes. “Easy... Easy...”
Mateo blinked at the small voice. It came from Delta-759's disintegrating chest as well as the screens in an electronics store.
“Are you the virus that took Delta-759 away from me?” He asked.
“No.” The voice replied. “I am the ailment that saved him from an even worse fate.”
“What are you--”
The screens in the store lit up, showing video. Video of Mateo in his apartment, before any of this, had happened.
“Wait.” Mateo's eyes went wide. He turned away from Delta-759, “Don't play that! You can't play that!!”
In the video, Mateo was on a phone call with an unknown party. “Of course I'm not going to allow the government to be the only ones with this asset. Anyone who wants to bid high enough can get in on it. … Maybe I could, you know, make a copy and strip the code down. Alter it whenever anyone drops the cash.” The past Mateo chuckled, “Of course I'm fine with it. He's just a program. I made three failures before him, I can make a dozen successes after.”
The screens flickered off. Mateo... Well, he was torn, but guilt wasn't one of the forces pulling at him.
He hated how his meal-ticket had turned out like this, but he just couldn't find it in himself to feel awful about lying to Delta-759.
He was just a bunch of code.
The roar that rent the skies was more violent than all the ones before. Mateo couldn't move.
Even as the ground began to quake and tremble, Delta-759 dragging his crumpling body towards the human.
Mateo couldn't move.
“Ma-Ma-Mat-Te-Te-Te-OOOO!” Delta-759 called out. His claws tore away from his feet but he moved on.
Delta-759 roared, opening his mouth wide enough that the jaw disconnected from his head.
“Fire.” Captain Oshiro ordered. Lieutenant Gasko finally breathed out the plumes of flame in her throat. Inspector Ruan let the flames gather behind his wings until they were in one place. He tightened the circle, the flames concentrated into a single bolt. It shot forward and through Delta-759's chest. The remains of Delta-759 shattered like thin glass: the sound echoing longer than Delta-759's final words.
Watching the shattering remains of Delta-759 rain against the ground, something inside of him broke.
“All my work. Everything.” He slammed his fist against the ground. “ALL OF IT'S GONE!!”
To make matters worse, he felt the cold bite of cuffs against one of his wrists. Mateo turned around just as his other hand was forced into the same cuffs.
“You're under arrest.” A mermaid officer told him.
“What?!” Mateo shouted, “You can't – Let go of me! Let go, I need to get started on another dragon! Let go!!”
“What a miserable meshuganah...” Gasko rubbed at her sore throat, “Geez, I'm going to have to nurse this when I get home.”
Gasko and Ruan looked away from the mermaid officers escorting Mateo away and back to Oshiro. “What was that?” Gasko asked.
“The other dragon, Delta-759,” Oshiro explained, “He knew. He probably just didn't want to come to terms with it.”
Ruan shook his head. “This whole thing has just left me feeling dirty.” Oshiro could concur.
“You two head on back to the station for the debriefing. I'll join you guys after I make sure everything is okay here.” The dragon and the phoenix flew off. Captain Oshiro waited until they had passed the horizon. He reached into his back pocket and brought out his cellphone.
He pressed the first contact on it and pressed it to his ear.
“H-hi. Are you busy? … No, no. Everything's clear here. I just.” He inhaled.
“I just wanted to hear your voice.”11: Silas's First Day of School
'Flash-roasted Arabica beans. Goat milk infused with Ciguapa-harvested vanilla. Dragonfire cinnamon. Steep everything together in a stainless steel saucepan for thirty-minutes to the dot. Not a moment less; not a moment more.'
Silas grabbed the saucepan's handle and set it upon the waiting towel on the counter.
A bowl of scalding water was waiting for Silas, so he grabbed a smaller bowl and set it on top. Into it he added gradual amounts of sugar, sweet cream, and dark cacao.
The earthy tones melted into one another, Silas combining them until they became a smooth cream. Silas folded the sweet mixture into the bitter one spoonful at a time. Finally, he poured a steaming cup of the decadent and set it in front of Abelard; the wendigo sitting at the table.
Abelard took the cup, allowed the melody of scents to flood his senses. He took a sip. “Hm.” He took another. Silas's claws nearly shredded his apron into a dozen pieces.
Abelard got halfway through the cup and set it down with a sigh. “Young one, that was exquisite.”
'You really think so?' Silas signed after handing over the pre-class checklist his school had given him.
Abelard gave a quick nod as he scribbled his name next to the checkbox. “The perfect combination of earthy aromatics and gentle airy flows makes for an excellent,” He had to stop and take a sip, “Cup of coffee.”
After taking the now-complete form, Silas nodded and started getting his stuff together. He grabbed his messenger bag and slipped his favorite baking sheet, measuring cup, and recipe book.
Abelard finished off his coffee, asking, “Are you sure that you won't be needing a ride to school? I'm dropping off Nephubos already, so it shouldn't be a problem.” He glanced at the couch where Nephubos was laying on their side. They had come across a sparkling pink notebook the other day when Zach had helped them with school shopping.
'Glorious pink notebook...' Nephubos reverently ran a tentacle over the notebook's surface. His eyes were wide, looking into the great beyond, 'Tell us your secrets...'
Silas shook his head. 'No, no. Thank you but I should be fine.' Silas slithered into the kitchen to grab one last thing from one of the cabinets. It was a bottle of aged vanilla extract, cultivated from the angel gardens and nourished with their tears.
Is it a bit pretentious in sound? A little, maybe. But the bottle was one of Silas's greatest treasures, so he didn't care.
'Abelard?' Silas signed, grabbing his phone and placing the bottle in his bag, 'Can you tell Zach and the others that I'll be back around 4?'
Abelard gently waved Silas off with a chuckle. “Go on, before you're late.”
Silas smiled and closed the front door behind himself.
Keebalah Culinary Technical Institute was an elegant mouthful located near the edge of the ShimmerGale District. So Silas decided that today would be a wonderful day to take an air-tram on his own for the first time. His mother never let him go anywhere without her, let alone anything so far off the ground like an air-tram would be.
Silas moved closer to Central Station. So much hustle and bustle. An Erymanthian Boar nearly trampled his tail in their rush to get to an arriving shuttle.
That would have been something to tell his mother. 'Oh yeah, I got my tail run over on the first day of school!' She would rush over and take him back to the nest forever.
Silas frowned at the grassy gate blocking him from the rest of the terminal. Hm... He hadn't remembered hearing anything about something like this. But... No, no; this wouldn't do. Silas had to get to school. Maybe he could...
He knelt down. Or, rather, that's what the gesture would be called if Silas had knees.
Silas moved flat on his belly and started to slither underneath the grassy bars--
“For crying out loud, kid,” The security guard on duty groaned, “Just buy a pass and come on in like a normal person!”
Silas stood up and looked around until he saw a kiosk. Oh, so that's how it worked.
He slithered to the machine and slipped in a few dollars. The small card that was to be his pass printed out at a snail's pace. By the time it was in Silas's hands, the station intercoms were announcing, “Now Approaching: Route B6 – To Keebalah Culinary Tech.”
Oh no, no, no! Silas slithered across the station floors. He whipped his head left and right, desperate to find his tram before it left. He couldn't be late for the first day of class, he just couldn't! What kind of impression would that have made?!
A large wooden form, painted with a dozen different hues bumped into him. It was even shaped like an odd, oblong egg.
'Ow...' He signed out before thinking. When he looked up, the wooden figure was glaring down at him.
“Hey!” The large form said before opening up in its middle to let a slightly smaller form jump out.
“Watch!” The slightly smaller form opened up to let out another slightly smaller form.
The last shout was a tiny sound from a tiny wooden figure who stood in front of the rest of its timber troupe.
'B-but,' Silas began, 'You all bumped into m--'
“Eh, fuck this.” The tiniest one huffed and jumped inside of the slightly bigger one. The reversal continued until they were all inside of the biggest figure. “I'm already running the clock wasting time on you anyway.”
The Matryochik rolled away towards the nearby air-tram, leaving Silas to sigh before continuing to look for his own.
He veritably stumbled upon it as a slew of humans and nonhumans alike shoved their way inside; leaving Silas out. He slithered close to the door of the tram that was still open. 'Um...' He signed, though no one was paying any attention, 'Excuse me? Can I just... squeeze in here real qui – Eep!' His hands stopped when he felt a large hand swallow his entire left side. He turned and saw an orc-woman looking none-too sympathetic to his plight. Silas looked from the black and gold cap to her hair that was pulled back into a tight bun and down to her dress-suit and shoes.
“You're holding up the train.” She growled out, bearing her tusks.
This orc was... Oh! The tram conductor!
She picked him up like he weighed nothing and hurled him into the doors. Silas found himself shoved right up against a dozen overly-perfumed and sweaty humans and nonhumans.
Despite being forced halfway into the air-tram, Silas's tail was still hanging out of the doors.
The tram conductor frowned. “We're running late.” She growled and drew her foot back, swinging it forth and landing square on Silas's backside and pushing him in that final necessary inch.
The doors slammed shut and the conductor knocked against the side of the air tram. The air-tram chugged to life and began tugging along the wire frame that led into the airways of Dama Fristad.
Inside, Silas twisted and writhed until he and his smarting bottom could press up against the air-tram door.
As awful as getting on had been, Silas's breath was pulled away from him by the vision given to him through the window. The pulling skyline of Dama Fristad, being able to see the tops of the fiery district of Ignis Fanis, the refreshing district of Aquacia... He could see the poisonous mists of Miasmus, the crows flying in search of Necronia's daily carrion... And, of course, the verdant trees of ShimmerGale.
Silas couldn't help the quiet chuckle that left him as he saw a group of gryphons flying through the air around the air-tram A group of school-aged wind-spirits giggled and landed upon the tram. They were soon shooed away by the engineer, though their breezes still shook the tram a bit.
It was amazing how, despite being born in this city, Silas had never really seen... any of it.
When the air-tram stopped, Silas popped out and let the fresh scent of the ShimmerGale forests and flora embrace his tongue. He didn't even have to slither too far: the ancient, moss-covered behemoth of a tree, the third largest in this mythical wood, that was his destination couldn't be missed.
It was wider than most buildings; denser, covered in thick gnarls and knots. Its branches heaved and swayed in the breeze, weighed down with blooms and nuts innumerable.
The Institute was right in front of him. Keebalah: through these doors the world's best pastry chefs had earned their wings. Silas's heart was pounding. This was it. This was finally it.
He slithered to the trunk of the massive tree and looked up. Silas took a short breath and rested his hand on the aged wood. The great tree began to hum and shiver as it opened up a small door to welcome Silas in.
Silas wasted no time, flinching when the tree shut behind him. He held his messenger bag close and tried to find where he needed to go. The scent of fresh-baked cookies was almost cloying inside of the tree. Everything had been shaved and polished to a smooth golden state. It was almost like a warm stainless... gold.
In the corner of his eye. Silas had almost missed it, but he slithered back and saw a poster on the wall that said 'New Students! Get To Room 372! NOW!'
372... 372... Silas skimmed over the numbers he passed, looking for that number. He only happened upon the right door thanks to someone stepping out of it to make a quick phone call. Thank goodness, he had made it. Looking around the large classroom, Silas immediately felt at home. A wall full of ovens, stainless steel counters, the latest models of stoves, and pantries that were sure to have all sorts of raw, unique ingredients for them to work with.
Silas slithered inside and looked for a table of his own. It gave him the opportunity to look at his classmates: like the large, sticky form of gelatinous, multicolored ooze that was a Gummy Fiend. Or the very same Matryochik from the air-tram station: looking just as jerkish and stuck-up as before. There were humans here and there, a few more nonhumans, but it seemed like the instructor had yet to show.
Silas sat down at an empty table and waited: his tail flicking behind him and his claws interlocking. Nothing much happened for a while. Another human walked in, her heels clicking against the polished floors.
Silas, who had started looking up recipes in his book that would make a good impression, didn't look up.
“This seat taken, honey?” A voice, raspy like burnt sugar and warm like chocolate, pressed up against Silas's ear.
Where his ear would be if he had them.
Silas jerked, his tongue slipping out to taste the air before he could catch himself. He gulped as he smelt the sweetest mixture of strawberry pie and sangria. He didn't just smell it. Despite his intentions, he drank it down. He turned to his side to see a breath-taking specimen of a woman take a seat next to him. Form-tight jeans that showed every nuance of her hips. A leather belt with a shiny buckle that read 'Perfect Piece', a long-sleeved red blouse covered in polka-dots. She had her black hair cut to a medium length and it curled at the ends that weren't obscured by her flora bandana.
Silas couldn't help how much he was staring. She was the most breath-taking woman he had ever seen.
She would have had to be blind to ignore the awestruck naga in front of her. “Hey.” She smirked, bright red lips holding the gesture as her cheeks made her beauty mark dance a bit. “You got a name? I mean, I reckon you should at least give it to me in exchange for the free show you're gettin'.”
Silas stopped himself from getting too distracted by the breasts that filled out that polka-dotted blouse. He frantically signed out, 'M-my name! Silas! Yep! That's my name!'
She giggled behind her hand (ruby nails too, God!). “The name's Susannah. Now,” She nodded towards the opening door, “Put your tongue away. Looks like our teacher's comin' in.”
The door slammed open. Everyone rushed to their tables just as a large elf walked in. His rounded chest and belly preceded him with swaths of dark auburn hair popping out of his shirt from the front and under his sweaty arms.
Silas watched as the unkempt elf dressed in a culinary uniform, overgrown beard taking over the lower half of his face, walked to the front of the class. Surely this wasn't their professor... He couldn't be.
The elf looked around. His eyes narrowed and his lips twisted into a sneer. He hawked and spat out onto the floor. “Listen up, ya slack-jawed piles of sugar-puke!” The rotund elf said, lumbering in front of the class, “This. Is Keebalah Culinary Tech. The highest breed of bakers, chocolatiers, and candy-makers have all been sired from these hallowed halls,” He stopped to cup at his crotch, making sure that everyone was watching, “And me own virile loins! SO! I'll be damned if any of ye think that you'll be able to coast by my courses with namby-pamby petite-fours! Or the family recipe cookies you stole from underneath your grandma's skirt!”
Nobody said a word. Save for the poor guy who raised his hand to ask, “Are... Are you Professor Ernest?”
“OUT!” The elf boomed. He stormed over, grabbed the guy, and hurled him out of the window before you could say 'Creme Brulee'.
Promptly afterward, the elf turned and walked through the aisles. “You all will call me 'Chef' and not stray from it, ya hear?!”
“Good.” Chef frowned as he looked over his class for the upcoming year. Not a worthy one amongst them. “You all aren't worth shite! I shouldn't even be wastin' mah breath here but you all have the delusion of wantin' to learn, so I'm not gonna deny ye your funerals. Now!” He stomped onto the floor, triggering a wooden podium to jut out. “I'm takin' role! If you don't answer, you get an 'F' for the day!” Chef called out the names of the remaining students until he got to:
The Gummy Fiend gargled out. “Present and accounted for~!”
“Here!” All the parts of the Matryochik called back.
Susannah folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. “Present!”
'Here!' Silas signed out. Chef frowned when he didn't hear anything.
“What did I say about payin' attention, ya pieces of rotten cream cheese?!” He wrote in an 'F' next to Silas's name.
'What?!' Silas stood up, signing up a storm, 'I responded! I'm right here!'
Chef slammed his attendance binder shut after several more names. “Alright, enough of that!” He slammed the podium back into the floor. “Get yer asses into gear and try to impress me! Not that any of ye will succeed...” He turned around and scratched his hairy stomach. “GET A MOVE ON!”
Everyone sprung into action: rushing to wash their hands, trying to get the best ingredients from the pantry, preheating ovens.
But Silas was struck still. He had already gotten an 'F'? But how? He didn't even get to do anything? His shoulders slumped; his tail went limp. Maybe... Maybe his mother was right...
“Culinary school?” Charlotte had a confused look on her face as she looked down at the pamphlet her son was holding out.
Silas nodded before signing, 'I really like baking and working with sweets, Mother. I was thinking that --'
Charlotte snatched the pamphlet from Silas's hands and tossed it in the trash. 'Mother, wh--'
He was stopped as Charlotte pulled him close against her chest, shaking her head. “None of that, dear... Shh...” Silas was forced to accept the petting of his head. “No silly thoughts of leaving home... You're fine with me and your father here. Shh... Quiet now...”
Silas's claws made brief motions, 'But...'
Charlotte's tail seized her sons hands and she shook her head again. “Just stay in the nest and you'll be fine. Oh, at a culinary school they would just yell at you and belittle you! Here you're safe! My little egg...'
Silas shook his head out of the memory when Susannah punched him in the shoulder. 'Ow...'
“You need to make yourself stand out!” Susannah nodded towards the chaotic pantries and the crowded ovens. “C'mon!”
Silas watched Susannah jump into the fray. Once he stopped looking at her ass, he realized that she was right. He had to stand out; he had to make a good impression, just like he had initially hoped.
Silas slithered over to a sink and washed his claws before rushing over to join the culinary cacophony.12: It Was Great
“THIRTY MORE MINUTES!” Chef shouted over the blistering cacophony of the baking brigade.
Silas frowned as someone bumped into him on their way to the sink to blanche their fruits. Had it really been an hour already?
Silas moved back to allow Susannah some room to grab the sweet bread she had toasting in the oven. “Eyes on the prize, honey.” She winked back at him and gently turned his head back to his work. Silas gulped, looking down at the boiling cream in the saucepan in front of him. He poured in a generous amount of castor sugar and waited until it mixed into the thickening cream mixture. Silas reached into his pocket and brought out his ace in the hole: his heavenly vanilla extract.
It would be just the perfect edge to make him stand out amongst his peers. The dark, fragrant fluid landed with a heavy splash. Silas whisked the mixture together and tossed the pot into the cooling dock. Just for a second, though, because he had to pour in a small mixture of gelatin he had made earlier on. He had to get this mixture into the ramekins to cool as soon as possible. He didn't think that their professor would be one for giving them extra time.
The crash of pots against plates yanked everyone away from their plates. Chef was roaring down at an elf: a singed towel hanging limp in her hands.
“Are ye tryin' to burn this whole tree down, ya milk-toothed brat?!”
“Chef, I-I'm sorr--”
“I should kick ya out of here right now!” Chef interrupted, “But I'm actually curious about how else you can fuck up in so little time! Get back to your bakin'!” He shoved the elf against the oven and moved on. “That goes for all of ya!”
Silas didn't have to be told twice. The ramekins were chilling in an impressive blast-freezer, so Silas took the opportunity to make a simple raspberry sauce. Just something for that extra kick. He tossed a cup of raspberries, strawberries, fox berries, and cloudberries into a food-processor and set it to puree.
He really needed to focus.
Silas turned to... check up on Susannah. Yeah, that was it.
A wooden spoon was pressed in between those beautiful red lips, Susannah glaring down at her dish. “What am I missing?” She whispered to herself, licking the back of the spoon and making Silas wish that there were two of them so he could get a better fantasy goi--
Silas shook his head, his tail winding around to smack him in the cheek. He needed to get this done! Attractive southern girls be damned!
Time was melting down all around them. The berries weren't pureed all the way but he needed to get the sauce started so he turned off the processor and set them to a boil with some sugar and lemon juice. 'Come on...' He begged, turning the heat up to the highest setting and stirring like a madman.
“FIVE MINUTES, YE WASTES OF SPACE!”
Silas rushed to the blast-freezer. The ramekins were cool enough and he rushed over to the presentation table to start building. He flipped the ramekins over onto the available platters and waited for gravity to be a team-player. 'The sauce!' He hissed and slithered over too the stove. 'No-o-o!' The subtle scent of burning sugar was already hitting his tongue. The sauce was a mess: too clumpy and burnt-smelling. But he was out of time. He didn't even need Chef shout of 'LAST MINUTE' to tell him that much.
Silas grabbed the saucepan and took it to the presentation table. His tail gently tugged the ramekins off of the creamy jiggly domes so he could stir a bit more.
Chef folded his arms over his large belly and counted, “ELEVEN!”
Silas just wanted to get the last of the lumps in the sauce out... With this army of breath-stealing work, he just wanted to make his small contribution stand out in the upper echelon. That was it...
Susannah was grinding fresh cinnamon and dusting it over her plates as she went...
Saccharin gave his dish a little practice pat with a silicone spatula. It wiggled and jiggled, Saccharin happily gurgling at the sight.
Matvey shoved one of the human students out of the way. The spot that they were attempting to place their shitty little shortcake would be the perfect stage for his gift to the pastry world.
The entire kitchen quaked from Chef stomping a foot down. “Away from your tables! NOW!”
And it wasn't like everyone had a choice. Not tossed around the kitchen like they were from the quake. 'This isn't like the orientation video at all.' Silas signed to no one in particular.
Chef walked to the round display table standing in the center of the room. Even with some of them covered by silver or plastic, the spread of succulent sweets and decadent desserts was a little more than a mouthwatering survey.
Chef stopped in front of a platter of petite-fours. The sneer pushed through once more. “Whose is this? Step up!”
One of the other students stepped forward. Silas flicked out the tip of his tongue. As far away as he was, he could taste the sweat beading down the side of their face.
Chef glared down at the human. “This yer idea of a joke?”
The student gulped, their eyes looking everywhere but the elf's face, “I... I... I just...”
Chef rolled his eyes. He pulled a silver fork from his pocket and let everyone take a look. “Taste your dishes with silver utensils. Clean them between tastes so ye don't get any cross-contaminants.” He looked around. “Write this down!!”
Ballpoints and graphite feverishly tore against paper while fingers and claws pounded against glass screens. Chef dug his fork into the pastel pink petite-fours. He cut away two pieces, one of which was promptly crushed underneath his fork with a little bit of effort. “Your fondant is as hard as day-old cum on a sidewalk.”
The student's eyes ballooned. “I--”
Chef quickly wiped his fork and lifted the other piece to his mouth. He chewed once. Twice. Let the flavor rest upon his tongue. “You can't mix worth shit and your jam was sour.”
You could have heard a gnat steal some flour; the room was so stunned. Particularly the poor student who could only stand there in shock as Chef moved on.
Tears. Aborted shouts. And more stunned silences.
Silas didn't understand. All of the desserts and sweets on the table looked fine to him. Amazing feats of pastry and sugar; mastery of edible art.
All seen as amateur garbage in the eyes of their professor.
Silas's heart was digging a chasm into his chest. He wanted to run. To slither away like the pitiful python he was. His poor pitiful confectioneries couldn't stand up to this level of pressure.
Susannah didn't even wait to be called when she noticed Chef lumbering towards her dish. “That,” She said, with a hand on her hip, “Is my Grandmama's Lafayette Layover Bread Pudding.” She folded her arms. “Go on, take a bite.”
“Don't need yer permission.” Chef frowned and wiped down his fork. He pressed it into the sweet, warm, gooey combination of gooey bread and syrupy custard. Chef took a bite. Susannah waited. “This tastes like shit.”
Susannah slammed her hands onto the table: several desserts jostling and clanking together. “I think you have shit taste! No one bad-talks my Grandmama's cooking while I'm around!”
Chef pushed Susannah aside and moved onto the next dish, leaving the woman fuming so hard that her cheeks were matching her blouse.
“Matvey!” Chef called out, “What am I about to choke down here?”
The Matryochik puffed himself up. “Only the finest bit of Russian cuisine imaginable. I present...” Matvey lifted the cover from his dish. It was a perfectly rounded cake that was enrobed in a chocolate marble finish. The crowning pieces were the birds carved from chocolate dancing the Cossack on top. They had an accordion and little hats and everything.
“Ptichye Moloko!” All of Matvey's parts crowed out for one and all to hear. “'Bird's Milk Cake', for all of you westerners.”
Chef pressed his fork into the cake and pulled free a hefty piece of feathery cake topped with a mountain of thick cream and, of course, that flawless chocolate coating.
Over the lips it went.
Silas looked down at the cream in Matvey's dessert. It looked delectable. Nowhere near as mouthwatering was Susannah's dish but, still.
“Terrible.” Chef gruffed out.
Matvey clenched his jaw but nodded. “Of course, uchitel. Thank you.”
Chef lifted up the cover of another plate and revealed... well, a concise little clusterfuck. We're talking an in-scale, though miniature, replica of the Arc de Triomphe, with a fountain spouting stars and sprinklers behind it...
All made of blue, cream, and red gelatin.
Saccharin bounced and wiggled behind Chef. He gurgled, “So... What do you think~?”
“Think I'm getting too old for this shit.” Chef replaced his silver fork with a silver spoon. It sank into the corner of Saccharin's dessert and he slowly slurped it up.
He swallowed. “You all are such huge disappointments to me. This tastes like a piece of shit did a daisy-chain with another piece of shit who was also fingerblastin' away at a donkey's anus!”
Saccharin wilted a little. But he perked right back up.
“I got the longest response!” He gurgled joyously.
Chef scoffed and walked to the last dessert that he had to taste that day.
“Panna Cotta.” Chef ran the tip of his spoon around the plate. “Something simple for a simple mind?”
Silas quickly signed, 'That's not what I--'
“Stop flailing about, ya twice-dicked nimrod.” Chef sliced through the creamy hill cloaked in a berry-flavored flood. Past the gums it went, melting over Chef's palate.
Silas leaned forward. 'W-well? What do you think?'
Chef dropped his spoon back into his pocket. He scratched at his belly. He combed his unkempt fingernails through his beard.
Chef seized the plate and flung it at Silas, whose tail just barely wound around him to take the brunt of the hit.
“YOU'RE ALL WORTHLESS!” Chef roared. “IDIOTS! Every single one of you! Why the Culinary Board decided to let you all in here is beyond me because there ain't a talented mite amongst the lot of ya!!”
Chef stomped down hard, the kitchen lurching to the left and sending everyone and their desserts flying. “Why?! WHY AM I FORCED TO SUFFER ALL OF YOUR SHIT COOKING?!”
The weight of the room plummeted with every shout. Eyes looked for any available exit as last wills were mentally scribbled.
Silas shut his eyes and rehearsed the discussion we would have with his mother later about his coming home –
His tongue flicked out and tasted the air. Toasty... Syrupy-sweet... Creamy...
'Caramel?' He looked around. The other nonhuman students in the room joined him in searching for the sultry, teasing scent of luxurious caramel.
Chef moved like a whip. “Get out!” The doors to the kitchen opened up, “Out! All of ye! Go to lunch, go fuck, whatever! Just get your miserable asses out of here and don't come back for an hour!”
No one moved. Confusion and the fear of being the next one to draw Chef's ire.
Susannah took one of her painted nails between her teeth. She looked at the ruined table, then to the floor.
She got herself off of the floor and dusted herself free of flour and whipped cream.
“So...” She stepped up to Chef, “Are you gonna admit that my Grandmama's bread-pudding was amazing yet?”
Chef drew his head back, snapping forward with a roar. “GET OUT!!”
The words were said with so much force that Susannah's hair was blown back and it stayed that way even as everyone made their way out of the room like a landslide down a mountainside.
Chef waited, waited until his pointed ears could hear his... students far down the halls. “You cut that way too close.” He said as he stood in the center of the empty kitchen.
The floor grew sticky and tacky. A golden brown ooze seeped in between the seams between the tiles and the walls. A sweet smell soon overcame the air in the room: sugar and vanilla thickening the air.
Chef was still as the warm touch of slender fingers seeped into his shoulder.
A chuckle from behind. “You, my big strong elf, are going to burst a vessel like this.”
Chef rolled his eyes. “If only it would kill me.” He listened to a pair sticky footsteps walk through his kitchen classroom.
“There's a lot of talent this time around.” The other voice said. A plate met a shattering end against the floor. “Raw talent.”
Chef sighed, “It'll take every second of the next two and a half years to teach these shitheads how to temper chocolate, let alone make actual desserts.”
“And yet...” Chef closed his eyes and allowed the warmth of the other to press up against his front; to melt into his clothing, “You take it upon yourself to dig into the filth of this world to find the best ingredients to keep our art going. You care, my big strong elf. Even with how much you pout your face up.”
Chef scowled. “Eat my dick.”
“The next time I sleep over, I'll be on my knees with bells on.” A cavity-inducing was pecked against Chef's lips. “Now, I have to get out of here before I start melting into the foundation. I brought the things you wanted. You should divide them up before calling the students back.” Another sticky kiss. “You have my number. Though,” A chuckle, “The rumbling of your stomach is the far better signal for my company.”
Like a flash of light the caramel, the second premise, and all evidence leading to the two had vanished.
Chef opened his eyes and tugged his beard back into place. He didn't need to... But Chef looked down at his stomach.
“I should cut down on the sweets.”
Silas's eyes looked over his tail. He hoped that there wouldn't be any bruising left from that plate. That was the last thing that he needed his mother to see.
He thought back to what had happened in the classroom. Did he really know how to bake? Maybe Zach and the others were humoring him. Mira and Odysseus constantly told him his baking tasted like shit.
His chest contracted.
'I wonder how much a ticket back home to the nest would be.' He sighed and resigned himself to look into it.
Silas looked up from his moping when Susannah strolled over. “C'mere, honey.” She hopped up onto the nearest table and sat down. She patted her lap and, upon seeing the naga tilt his head, she had to fold her arms and pout, “Boy, if you don't come on!”
If Silas had hair it would have stood on end. He slithered over.
'I-it's alright, you don't have to... do...'
Soft hands. They danced over Silas's tail and Susannah let out a low whistle at how Silas's scales danced between diamonds, rounded shapes, and squares underneath her fingertips. “Doesn't look like anything's too out of place. No bleedin', no scratches...”
No, nothing was out of place from the assault in the kitchen. Just Silas's dignity. It was one thing to be close to a figment of beauty like Susannah, but for her to be touching his tail like it was nothing? Silas feverishly adjusted his apron in case they had a pair of unexpected appearances today.
“You're gonna be fine, honey.” Susannah told him, “Trust me: I've had more than my fair share of plates thrown at me. The healing goes along pretty fast.”
Silas could only nod. He didn't trust his claws to properly sign anything resembling words right there and then.
When class resumed and everyone filed back into the kitchen-classroom, they were confused to see white culinary boxes in front of their seats. Chef hawked a huge loogie into the trashcan near him. “Sit down, all of ye. Don't want to waste more time than I already am with you. Unless yer blind, you can see the boxes in front of you. You'll spend the rest of your time under my learnin' as teams of two. Each of ya won't just bee responsible for honing your own skills,” Chef turned on the oven closest to him, “You'll be keeping an eye out and makin' sure your partners don't fall behind.”
Chef stopped. “Open your boxes. NOW!”
Everyone tore the lids from their boxes. Silas took a short breath. He lifted out a saffron culinary uniform from his box. The embroidered Keebalah Tech logo on the right lapel, the matching hat...
It was wonderful.
Silas tore out of his admiration for his clothes and looked around.
All of Matvey's parts were groaning: the purple uniform in his rounded hands matching the purple uniform Saccharin was waving about in his sticky feelers.
A noise from next to him got Silas's attention. Susannah was busy frowning at her... saffron... uniform. Silas shrunk into himself. He didn't want to be a burden onto her, he just –
“I look terrible in yellow!” Susannah looked to Silas with a wink, “Guess something's telling us that we need to stick together through this, honey.”
“Come off it.” Chef lumbered by and jerked a thumb in Silas's direction, “He won't open his mouth,” He pointed to Susannah, “And you won't shut yours. That's all there was to it.”
Silas and the others watched Chef walk back to the front of the kitchen-classroom. Chef slammed his fist against the counter. The oven popped open and spat out a large caramel cookie replica of the school. “We will meet for class three times a week. Your uniforms are to be cleaned and pressed accordin' to the enclosed instructions.”
“Chef!” Someone raised their hand. “What if our box didn't come with instructions?”
“Then yer shit outta luck!” Chef barked back. “Now, all of ye get the hell on home! Do whatever ye need to prepare for our next class. But you'd better be ready to learn. Now, get!”
Silas's whole body ached by the time he made it home to 1685. “Hey Silas.” Periwinkle greeted him, the doorfairy contorting his body into some impossible yoga pose.
'Hey.' Silas let himself in. Nephubos was on the floor of the main room, his eyes scanning through a large textbook. Abelard's door was shut but he could hear noise from Abelard's library. Finally, Zach was in the kitchen. The human was cutting at a slab of pork. His phone was playing a recipe in slow-mo next to him.
Zach felt a new presence in the room. He turned down his phone volume and saw Silas. “Oh. Hey.” He set the knife down and wiped his hands on his pants. “How was school?”
Silas... Didn't know. Between the air-tram ride, his angry professor, and his shattered self-esteem, he just felt so drained.
'It...' He began.
'I-it...' His mouth couldn't keep a straight line as he lowered his head.
'It was great.' He lied.13: The Blood Bears Fruit
“Do you need lunch money or anything?” Abelard couldn't help it: once a parent, always a parent.
Nephubos shook their head.
'We will be fine! Zach and Silas packed an assortment of edible things called a...' The bleb pulled out their notebook and read out, 'Lauunch... box'!'
Abelard nodded, “Well, I'm sure your lunchbox will be very delicious. Now, young one, if you need anything be sure to call either Zach or myself. Alright?”
Nephubos nodded. 'Yes Mr. Abelard. Bye~!'
Abelard kept his car idle. He watched Nephubos roll along the university courtyard in their little wagon until they were out of sight.
Abelard nodded to himself. “Right. Off to work.”
The wendigo kept to the speed limit all the way down the 190 freeway. Even when he saw that a wanyudo was attempting to merge into traffic and once the fiery wheel did, the flow of traffic was going to come to a complete stop. But there was no use in getting a ticket on his first day of work. What kind of example would he be setting? No, he would just suffer through this.
A creature his age had to show maturity, patience, and level-headedness.
Abelard lasted all of ten minutes before he slammed his hand against the horn.
A police car swept through the busy road. It took a swift left into the gated parking lot that surrounded the towering structure of blue brick and lapis lazuli trim.
“Dama Fristad Police Station.” Abelard slowed his car down, taking in the sight of police cars coming and going, of mermaid officers swimming up through the waterways that led to the guarded building. Abelard glanced down at his watch, nodding, “With twenty-five minutes to spare.”
Abelard turned into the same road that other police cars had turned into. He floored the brakes when the barricade was brought down in front of him. He blinked and, with some effort, popped his head out of his window. “Excuse me? Young one?”
“Mm?” Was the response of the mermaid officer that was stuck on security guard duty that morning. Though with how she was texting away at her phone, Abelard wasn't sure how much security she was actually providing.
“I'm actually due to clock in. First day.”
Without even looking up from her phone, the mermaid officer asked, “Do you, like, have your badge?”
Abelard's eyes didn't flare up with short-lived blue flames. No, of course not. The wendigo knew better than that.
“... No.” He began, “As I said before, today is my first day. I need to get inside so I can get said badge.”
“No badge,” The mermaid officer swiped across her phone screen, “No entry. Sorry. You can go around the corner to get to the civilian entrance though.”
Abelard only had so much patience when it came to young creatures who never learned their manners.
Abelard parked near the middle portion of the parking lot. Better not to be too callous and park too close to the station, but he didn't want to park too far and have to spend too much time walking.
The wendigo stepped out of his car, briefcase in hand, and took a second to examine himself in the reflection of the shiny green paint.
His suit was still pressed and free of lint. He tugged his gloves a bit so that they met the cuffs of his sleeves.
He pulled a hairbrush out of his briefcase and made quick work of his hair and beard. Once his glasses were adjusted, he nodded to his reflection and was on his way: ignoring the smoke coming from the charred security booth.
Abelard slipped into a group of officers and employees filing into the police station. It was only the slightest bit humiliating, sneaking around like this. But it was just until he got his badge.
The inside of the DFPS filled out every nook and cranny of the space one expected from the scale of the building's exterior. Four floors, not counting the basement which held the jail cells or the roof which hosted the tarmac and the launchpad.
Several waterways criss-crossed throughout the station for the mermaid officers. There was even a waterfall for them to swim up in order to get to the higher floors.
Abelard ducked as a Minokawa swept through the air: several boxes held in his mighty talons. “Donut and dango delivery!” He called out as he tossed the boxes down to the officers waiting in the cafeteria.
Abelard shook his head with a chuckle. “I guess that stereotype rings true for humans and nonhuman officers alike.”
He walked over to the receptionist's desk and got in line behind a vampire officer who was looking a little uncomfortable under the collar.
“Come on,” He groaned, “I need to approve my hours before my SPF 9000 wears off!”
“Why didn't you approve them on your last shift?” The receptionist asked, the vampire groaning again,
“I spent the whole night shift writing tickets that I needed to process before leaving! I would think that you would understand how someone could get distracted! Now, please..! Can you approve my hours so I can go back to Necronia before I turn to ashes and die?!”
The receptionist drummed their fingernails against the counter for a second. They whipped their chair around to the second computer on the counter and typed something in. “And...” They hummed, “Done. I'm thinking pastrami on whole wheat this time around. Don't forget~!”
“Oh, I'll see you in hell.” The vampire groused out right as he dissolved into a swarm of bats and flew out of the station.
When Abelard walked up to the counter, the receptionist looked up at him.
“You're a new face. Dressed pretty nicely, too.” They hummed.
Abelard nodded. “I'm actually going to be working here as of today.”
“Oh, the new researcher!” The receptionist typed something in on the first computer. “Okay...” They spun their chair around, “Chief's up on the fourth floor. Careful, though, I think he might be feeling a bit colicky.”
Abelard didn't want to go any deeper into the rabbit hole that the receptionist was digging. He thanked them and walked over to the stairs.
He wasn't so old that he needed the escalator or the elevator, thank you.
Though, by the time he reached the top of the second flight of stairs, Abelard was beginning to regret his life choices.
“I...” He grumbled to himself, “Refuse... to do... extra cardio...”
A passing officer stopped and asked, “Sir, do you need some help with the stairs? Actually, there's a perfectly good elevator just over ther--”
“No, no!” Abelard panted, “It's fine! I'm fine! Thank you for your concern!”
The bubbling pond of freshwater and swaying reeds signaled Abelard's arrival on the fourth floor. The melding of technology, modern interior design, and the ebb and flow of nature was seamless.
Abelard's briefcase swayed as he walked along the stainless steel bridge suspended in the sublime waters.
Several fronds of cattails, dotted in spots and beginning to fluff out, caught the corner of his eye.
He knelt down to inspect one of them, holding out his hand as he did. A crackle of electricity and a heavy tome appeared in it.
The wendigo let the book flip through its pages, fluttering and flapping. It landed on a charcoal sketch of the very same spotted cattails. “Cheetah Paw Cattails,” Abelard read out, “'Edible counterparts to their smaller, plain cousins. Good source of fiber and Vitamin B'. Interesting...” He looked around before plucking several of them: dropping them into his briefcase.
A soft chime echoed from the elevator as it descended down from the roof.
When it opened, three forms squeezed out. The dragon Lieutenant Gasko, the phoenix Inspector Ruan, and the Karasu-Tengu Captain Oshiro all sighed in relief when they pulled out. “I'm going to incinerate the meshugenah who decided that the elevator is big enough...” Lieutenant Gasko growled, steam spiraling out of her nostrils.
“Commissioner Cruickshank.” Captain Oshiro addressed the pond. He walked along the steel bridge-work to keep his feathers dry, Gasko and Ruan following him in single file; the bridge-work wasn't that wide.
The surface of the pond rippled. It bubbled, it splashed. The waters broke with a matted black head forcing their way through. The dark equine form pulled himself the rest of the way through. His woefully matted mane hung low to the surface of the pond. His coat was dark as ink spreading through clean water. Over his chest, the equine creature was wearing a DFPF vest: medals displayed proudly despite how they were dripping.
The kelpie opened their blacker-than-black plate-wide eyes and snorted. “You're late.”
“Apologies, sir.” Inspector Ruan, “We got caught up helping with that pile up over and Ladyfinger Avenue.”
Commissioner Cruickshank shook his head with a nicker. “Don't give me excuses. When I tell you all to get your asses down here you damn well better listen! Especially with everything that's going on right now, I need my elites on hand!!”
“Sir.” Oshiro, Gasko, and Ruan nodded. Commissioner Cruickshank clip-clopped over the water. “Can't believe I had to wake up to something like this. As if managing this police force isn't enough of a tax on my heart, now I --”
Commissioner Cruickshank tore into a gallop when he noticed a new face on the fourth floor. The kelpie looked Abelard up and down, finally neighing, “Who the hell are you?!”
“Abelard Von Baumgarten. Your new Non-Human Research Analyst?” Abelard offered his hand for a shake. Just to have it ignored by the Commissioner.
“I don't have time for this!” Snarled the chief, “I've got an elf rotting in the morgue, a station full of idiots, and I know that Trillium the Fair's gonna tear into my ass once he hears that someone gutted one of his wards!”
The kelpie whipped around, mane and tail sending droplets of water everywhere. “None of you better say anything to the Press until we have a suspect! Do I make myself clear?!”
“Sir! Yes, sir!” Oshiro, Gasko, and Ruan stood up at attention and saluted.
“Commissioner?” Another officer jogged into the area. “Forensics are ready to discuss the body.”
Commissioner Cruickshank nodded. “Okay. Okay, the three of you.” He noticed Abelard once more. “Actually, all of you: get out of my office. Solve this case. Make yourselves fucking useful. Dismissed!”
Commissioner Cruickshank leapt back into the pond. Once the Commissioner was gone, the weight on the three elite officers visible left their shoulders.
“He needs to calm down before he gets Colic or something.” Ruan wiped a wing over his brow.
Gasko walked over to Abelard. “Perhaps we should introduce ourselves better. I am Rebekah Gasko.” The pink dragon spoke.
“Guang Ruan's the name.” The phoenix chirped. Finally, Captain Oshiro said,
“My first name is Izumi.”
Abelard took in the new information. “An upstanding group of young people. I wish that we were introduced under better circumstances. That and I wish that I had a badge...”
The Dama Fristad Police Station morgue was kept well into freezing. It was more a security measure for the bodies of the deceased, especially since there could be so many different kinds.
Izumi wrapped more of his scarf around his neck as they walked into the quiet, stainless steel space. Even the display screens on the walls were prone to icing over: some poor sap always having to come in to shave the ice away.
Rebekah, of course, had her internal flame to keep her warm and Guang was a phoenix. Abelard opened one of his books. The pages flipped and turned until they landed on a picture of a warm summer day in a strawberry field.
The subtle warmth wrapped around him just as a voice spoke up, “Ah, I have been expecting you! Come, come!”
They watched a snow-white mountain doe with large curved horns of gold tip-toe around a table. “Zere is much to discuss.”
“Have you discovered anything about the body?” Izumi asked, the deer humming and walking to the center table that was covered in a sheet. She took the sheet in her teeth and gave a tug. The sheet fluttered away. Rebekah and Abelard flinched at the sight. The body of the elf had faded: worn like aged paper. Grey veins webbed over her skin and her lips had weathered to a sickly blue. Her eyes were sunken in behind their lids. Undressed as she was, the causes of her demise were visible: the deep slices into her abdomen and the two gashes across her neck.
“Whoever did zis,” The zlatorog doe said, “Wasn't just doing it out of sudden rage or spite. I am just flummoxed: I can not figure out what matter of human or beast could have done it.”
Guang hopped closer to the examination table. “A ghoul?”
“Nein, nein...” The deer shook her head, “They only attack humans. Besides, they would have eaten most of her if they did it.”
Rebekah glanced at the body. She tried measuring the distance between slashes. “A Mantida?”
The zlatorog clicked a hoof against the floor. “Zat's what I was thinking! I need to measure and examine a bit more, but you see...” She walked close to the body and moved away some of the elf's pale pink hair. You had to take a second and third glance but you would eventually see them: the vibrant branches slowly seeping up any sparkling, congealed blue elfblood and extending forth. “She is already becoming one with the earth.”
“It wasn't a Mantida.”
Everyone looked to the source of the words to see Abelard holding that heavy tome. The pages were rapidly flapping and switching, the wendigo's eyes following every word and picture as they rushed by.
The zlatorog huffed. “And who do you zink you are to say such zings?”
Abelard didn't respond, so Guang stepped in, “He's our new Research Analyst. Interesting guy.”
The book came to an abrupt stop and Abelard rushed to the side of the corpse on the table. “The typical Mantida has a slicing span of two feet, because their arms are so long and their blades so long. Now, if a Mantida decided to attack this poor creature, it very well could have...”
“But there would only be one slash.” Izumi concluded. “But then that brings up the question of what direction we should be looking into.”
Abelard slammed the book shut. “Do you three have any ideas on your initial interrogations?”
“But of course.” Rebekah nodded, Guang adding,
“When a wife or girlfriend goes missing, you have to interview the husband or boyfriend.”
36 Gelfing Boulevard
ShimmerGale District, 3:45 PM
After waiting for Abelard to find a place to park, the three elite officers and the wendigo walked up to a tree that had been grown into the shape of a mansion. Five stories, at least thirty rooms: a symbol of opulence from the golden fence in front to the attached spring in the back.
“Geez...” Guang sighed, “Feel like I would have to take out a loan just to take a crap here.”
“Shush!” Rebekah warned him as Izumi and Abelard walked up the porch steps. Abelard did the knocking and, though it took a minute, a human doorman eventually opened up.
“May I help you?” They asked, nose turned up oddly high for a glorified gofer.
Izumi bowed and replied, “I'm Captain Oshiro of the Dama Fristad Police Force. This is Inspector Ruan, Lieutenant Gasko, and Baumgarten-sensei.” Truth be told, with that last address Izumi panicked a bit on an internal scale. He had no idea how to refer to Abelard and reverted back to elementary matters of address.
Abelard wanted to question it but they had other matters. Especially that of the doorman clearing his throat in that obnoxious way where it seems like someone is trying to gather all the mucus and phlegm that their body has ever produced in the history of existing up into one slow-moving sluice.
“Do you have business with Sire Maple or Dam Ivy?” Said the doorman, “Because Young Pine Needle isn't seeing guests today.”
Rebekah stepped forward. “We're investigating the circumstances of the elf Berry's death. We just want to ask a few questions.”
The doorman still wasn't in the mindset to humor the collection of Non-humans at the door. His nose had gotten comfortable being stuck up in the air where it was.
Ruan rolled his eyes and asked his coworkers, “So, Izumi, do you and Siklon have any plans tonight? Or what about you, Rebekah? How's Rabbi Abraham doing today?”
Abelard turned to see Rebekah rubbing her temples and Izumi blushing so furiously it was burning through his feathers.
The doorman opened his mouth but the only words that rang out came from behind him.
“Quit causing trouble for our... distinguished guests and their plus-ones.”
“Let them in.”
The doorman sniffed at the order but followed it dutifully.
Abelard and the elite officers walked into the main parlor of the home and found themselves at the bottom of two staircases that swayed in the breeze. Lightning bugs rested in great numbers along the rails, illuminating the space.
“Our home is always welcomed to the most distinguished of guests.”
On the top of the left staircase stood an older male elf with amber hair.
“Please forgive our doorman. He's only human.”
On the right staircase, an older female elf with green hair.
They both slowly descended the stairs: dressed in finery and gems. When they reached the bottom, the doorman announced, “Sire Maple and Dam Ivy.”
“Thank you for letting us into your home.” Rebekah bowed her head, “We're here to ask a few questions. About Ms. Berry?”
Sire Maple shook his head. “A terrible happening for this household.”
But Dam Ivy scoffed and looked away, “Damn that aggravating child. Look at all the trouble she's gotten us into now.”
Dam Ivy turned back to the group and saw Abelard looking directly at her; trying to figure her out.
“Anyway,” Sire Maple said, “The last time we heard from her was when she left to go to her... Pilates class. We unfortunately don't have any more information.”
Guang brought out a notepad from his pocket and jotted everything down. “What's the name of the Pilates studio?”
“Oh, we don't know.” Dam Ivy scoffed, Sire Maple adding,
“She had the annoying habit of talking a mile a minute. We could never keep track of anything she said.”
Izumi looked around the parlor. He just needed to find something he could expand into a conversation. Some source of evidence.
Out from the western wing came a new face. Another elf, younger than Maple and Ivy, with short, deep green hair; hair that hadn't seen a comb in days. Even his face was overcome with grassy stubble. He was dressed in nothing more than a stained bathrobe, his hands clutching onto a small potted berry tree.
“Pine Needle!” Dam Ivy hissed, “Get back into your Mourning Room this instant! You're unwell!”
But Pine Needle didn't listen to his mother. He saw the strangers in the main room, eyes ballooning when he noticed their badges. “You!!” He stormed over, “Have you found them yet?! The bastards that took my Berry from me!!”
“Well...” Guang whistled around the pen in his beak, “You see, we – No. We were just assigned to the case and we wanted to ask some questions. When was the last time you talked to your girlfriend?”
Pine Needle threw his head back, an agonized roar tearing from his lips and a wash of Pine tree branches surging up from the polished floors.
“FIANCEE!!” He screamed, “FIANCEE! SHE WAS MY FIANCEE!!” A deep breath had all of the Pine branches melting back into the floor. “How are you going to arrest the bastard who did this if you can't even call Berry by what she was to me?!”
“Pine Needle!” Sire Maple seethed out, “Calm yourself! You're looking woefully unrefined already!”
“If I might.” Abelard stepped forward, “Young one, I know your grief: having the person that fills your heart from brim to brim torn away from you. You probably feel as though the fairer half of your soul has withered away and the only thing keeping you sane is that tree in your arms.”
Something warm grabbed Abelard's arm. It was Guang, the phoenix whispering into where an ear would be, “No offense, but Ix-nay on the oul-crushing-say espair-day!”
Abelard tugged himself away, “But the best course of action, the best means of respecting your love's passing--”
“RESPECT?!” Pine Needle shouted, the floor beginning to bristle, “You think that you can come to me, in my own parents' house, and talk to me about respect during a time like this?!” Pine Needle huffed, shaking his head, marching over to glare up at Abelard, “The gall in your words. The... sheer level of pompous ignorance. Respect?! I pleaded with Akeldama, begged, to let the Grim Reaper give Berry back to me, even as a spirit. THAT would have been the greatest respect she could have been given.” Pine Needle glared at the shadows that the small berry tree laid upon the floor. “Do you know what they told me?!”
Cold, grey waters poured into a ceramic cup enveloped in a ring of ice and a ring of smoke. When the cup was full, it keeled over and dropped its contents into the icy abyss below.
“You would deny your sweetheart the glory of Elfenheim? That's a little cruel, don't you think?”
The cup filled up.
“She wasn't meant to go be taken from me so soon!! Please... She has so much more to do here. With me!!”
The cup tipped over, water spilling into the abyss.
“Mah... You're really bold. Listen: she has no unfinished business and she's already moved on. If you really want to see her again, wait until Remembrance Day. Now, if I were you I'd get out of here before your living breath starts to attract the wrong sort of company. My condolences for your loss, kid. But death really is just part two.”
Pine Needle growled. He seized the nearest chair in one hand and hurled it at the window.
“Pine Needle!” Sire Maple and Dam Ivy shouted. Izumi steeled himself; ready in case this turned into a domestic disturbance.
But Pine Needle merely reached into the branches of the berry tree. He tugged out a phone: glittery pink, a cracked screen, but still functional.
“If you understand anything about respect,” Pine Needle tossed the phone over, Abelard grabbing it, “Then you'll use that to get me something resembling justice for Berry. Now,” He clapped his hands once, the doorman opening the front door, “Get the hell out of my house.”
“You are pushing your limits, Pine Needle...” Sire Maple walked over to his disheveled son, “Go back. To. Your. Mourning Room.”
Pine Needle tightened his hold on the berry tree and returned his father's sour look. “You'll excuse me, father. But I never expected to have to turn my wedding into a wake.”
The door slammed in their faces. “That could have gone better...” Izumi sighed, “Baumgarten-sensei, if you could please abstain from aggravating our witnesses from this point forward.”
“My apologies.” Abelard tried getting the phone to turn on, the screen not wanting to respond to his larger fingers, “But at least we have a lead. I – damn it,” The wendigo sighed, “I've never been good with newer technology.”
“Hand it over.” Guang held out a wing, quickly opening up the phone's menu and searching through Berry's files. “Let's see... Wedding, wedding, wedding – whoa, she played a lot of dress-up games.”
“Focus...” Rebekah growled.
Guang kept on until he found a video file labeled '#Bitchin'WeddingPlans. He clicked on it, the video buffering for a second.
“By Trillium the Fair's sun-kissed hair~!” Berry shrieked, “Like, OMG, Pine Needle proposed to me at dinner last night. Can you even believe it?! Look at this rock, though~!” She flashed her hand, a golden band with Elvish runes and an obnoxiously large padparascha in the center.
“That ring was not on the body.”
Guang nodded, “I'll have to put out an APB for all the pawn-shops in town.”
“So, like,” The video of Berry continued on. The elf gave a flip of her hair, “This wedding is going to be, like, totes off the chain! I'm going to kick it up a notch at Pilates so I look extra hot on my wedding day~ Also, Piney-baby already set me up appointments with Harun, the Harun, for my dress and Cara Mellice, like UBER-EXCLUSIVE CARA MELLICE, for the cake! AH!”
The group covered their ears from the piercing screech from the phone.
“OMG,” Berry said, “I have to call Bubble and give her the deets~ KYA~! I'M GOING TO BE A BRIDE, CAN YOU EVEN?!”
The video came to an abrupt halt, Berry's excited face forever frozen in data and time. “Who is Cara Mellice?” Abelard asked, “I've at least heard of Harun's boutique.”
“He's the most exclusive baker in all of Dama Fristad, if not, the world.” Izumi explained, “Pine Needle really was ready to spare no expense for his wedding.”
“And that face is not the face of a creature who would murder their beloved.” Rebekah added.
“Well,” Guang turned off the phone, “Let's get this phone back to Evidence. We need to submit a request for a multi-location Search-Warrant too.”
1685 Blightblossom Lane
Dama Fristad Center Court, 6:32 PM
“Hey Abe – whoa.” Periwinkle stopped combing his feelers when Abelard walked to the door. The exhaustion in the wendigo's frame was blatant. “You okay?”
“Yes, yes.” Abelard nodded. He dug into his briefcase for his keys and shoved them into the lock.
As soon as the door was opened, he all-but collapsed in. He closed the door behind himself and braced himself up against it, harsh breath raking through his skeletal face.
What was this weight that was pressing down on his chest? Was this condo always this hot?
Abelard's breathing was terribly labored. A desperate attempt to ease the strain, he fumbled his fingers with the buttons of his jacket, finally tearing the garment away from himself.
Whereas his head couldn't sweat, the hard muscles of his arms bore the brunt of the dampness over the darkened skin.
Abelard gasped, straightening himself up and adjusting his tie. Zach stepped out from the kitchen, stirring something in a bowl. Though his face was almost as impassive as Abelard's own, the wendigo could sense the concern before the human spoke once more.
“How was work?” Zach set the bowl upon the counter, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“Oh, just your typical first day of introductions and orientations.” Why was he lying to this boy? Obviously he couldn't tell him about the murder, but there was no reason for him to completely fabricate nonsense.
Zach looked him over. “Okay.” Zach turned back around and grabbed the bowl. “I'm making dinner.”
The small swallow just barely knicked Abelard's hearing.
“That... sounds nice.” Abelard picked up his coat and walked to his library. “I just need to research a few things. Excuse me a moment.”
Abelard shut the door to his library. He needed to know. He had actually gone back to the morgue to examine Berry's body once more but he had come to the same vague conclusion.
Abelard walked down the winding stairs, books lining his path deep into the Earth. The deep breaths that left his skull mixing into the dust and mists surrounding his descent.
His feet finally came to the floor of his library that he needed. Abelard looked around the trove of tomes bound in dark leather and locked in iron or bone. Abelard held up his right hand and examined the silken fabric covering it.
It was quickly removed, Abelard flexing and relaxing a large, gnarled hand; each finger tipped in extending claws.
“You can see my memories.” He told the library, “You're lapping up everything I bore witness to today. Now, tell me!”
The uncovered, monstrous hand burst into flames the same brilliant hues of Abelard's eyes. It did burn, but after so many years Abelard had come to realize that true knowledge only came with pain.
“Show me the weapon that slaughtered that child!!”
The great library heaved and groaned, books sluicing off of the shelves and cracking against the floor. The flame tried to shift, a sharp hiss from Abelard making it go back to his hand.
He saw movement in the corner of his eye and held out his left hand. A metal-bound book, locked with chains, flew from a shelf and crashed into his hand.
Abelard crushed the flames out of existence. He tried to ignore the scent of burning flesh as he examined the tome with a verbal frown.
“But of course...” He sighed, wondering how long it would take to open it and get the answers he sought.14: The Blood Bears Fruit V. 2
The next morning Abelard was up and ready with the sun. Of course, the workspace in his library was now littered with the remains of explosions, the claw-marks that gouged into the walls, and the stench of a conflict.
Abelard walked to the kitchen. Silas was waiting on the edges, waiting for Odysseus to finish blending his protein shake.
Silas flinched upon seeing the Minotaur grab the carton of eggs from the fridge. 'You're really not going to use all of those eggs--' Into the blender they went. 'And you are. Of course.'
Odysseus turned the blender back on, noticing Silas's rapidly moving hands. “You say something, lizard-dick?”
Silas didn't even want to dignify that with a response.
“Good morning, all of you.” Abelard stepped into the kitchen and pushed Odysseus to the side: blender and all.
“Silas, a cup of coffee please.”
Silas slithered in and started on the coffee, same recipe from yesterday morning. Abelard had seemed to like it well enough.
“I didn't get the chance to ask.” Abelard took the time to sift through his paperwork; to make sure that the book he was trying to open was safely nestled inside. “How was your first day of class?”
'Fine!' Silas quickly replied, 'Lots of new recipes and...'
“This seat taken?” Susannah batted those lovely, thick eyelashes up at him. “Honey?”
'A-and nice people.' Silas slid the coffee over. 'Actually, I should get some practice in and--'
“Is double-dicks in the kitchen?” Mira called out as he bounced his chest into the main room. He ducked inside of his chest before pulling out his laptop and headphones. “Make me some cookies! I have an FPS tourney coming up and I need the carbs!”
Silas sighed. 'Guess I'm making cookies...'
Abelard chuckled and finished off his coffee. “Alright, I'm heading out. Does anyone need a ride anywhere? School? Gym? Slaughterhouse V?”
Everyone shook their heads, Silas signing, 'Nephubos is sleeping off his first day of school. I have no idea what everyone else is up to.'
Abelard gave a nod and made his departure. Not even a minute after, Zach walked in from the balcony. “Is Abelard still here?” He asked.
“He went to work.” Mira answered, eyes focused on his laptop screen.
Zach sighed, walking further into the room and picking up the remote off the table. He turned the TV on, the news displaying a breaking news story about a murder in ShimmerGale.
Zach sat down on the couch, shaking his head. “Damn it, Abelard.”
Abelard pulled up to the security booth, the mermaid on duty immediately letting him in. But Abelard didn't even get far into the station parking lot before Rebekah landed in front of his car. “Rebekah?” He asked, the dragon stepping around to the driver's side door.
“We need to get going. Now!”
“Of course,” Abelard agreed, “Just let me park and --”
The dragon quickly shook her head. “No, we don't have the time!”
Abelard was confused but he grabbed his briefcase and stepped out of his car. He noticed that Rebekah had a saddle on her back: leather, sturdy.
“I'll explain when we meet up with Izumi and Guang. Hop on.”
She wanted him to ride her. The action seems almost disrespectful, but if the young dragoness insisted...
Abelard latched his briefcase onto Rebekah's side. He climbed onto the saddle and buckled himself into it. He was wondering if he should tighten his legs down until he saw the stirrups. “It's a full travel-harness.” Rebekah explained, “Make yourself as comfortable as possible.”
Abelard did just that. Rebekah broke into a run and jumped: flapping her wings and climbing into the air.
Guang and Izumi were already up above the station, wings keeping them in the air.
“Is everything alright?!” Abelard had to yell, the rushing air at their altitude making normal speech impossible.
Izumi gave a solemn shake of his head.
“Someone leaked the details of Berry's murder to the news!”
“What?!” Abelard said, the horror in his voice accentuated by the volume. How... How had that happened? They were keeping everything on such a level of hush-hush that he wasn't even sure if he should have gone home last night.
“The Chief is folded over in rage about this.” Rebekah said, “We need to solve this case as soon as possible.”
“Baumgarten-sensei.” Izumi looked to Abelard. The wendigo saw the weight, the shadow in Izumi's eyes. “Where should go first? You did some more research after you left the station, correct?”
Abelard's mindset pulled itself together to focus upon the case. “Did you all find anything on Ms. Bubble?”
Yes, the friend mentioned in Berry's final video.
“About that...” Guang gave a nervous chuckle. “So, it seems as though Bubble and Berry were a bit of a cross-species Bestie duo. She's a Blue Fairy.”
“Scheisse...” Abelard hissed under his breath. There wasn't going to be a Full Moon for another two weeks, let alone a Blue one. Abelard shook his head. “No use in focusing on our losses. How about the Pilates studio that Berry was going to?”
Izumi nodded, “Guang has the name. Is that our first destination?”
Abelard confirmed it and, with Rebekah making sure that he was situated well enough, they sped off towards ShimmerGale once more.
ShimmerGale District, 8:47 AM
“Keep it up, ladies!” A fairy covered in thick, sweating muscles called out to his students as he passed them. He was followed by Izumi, Rebekah, Guang, and Abelard.
Abelard, who was trying to look at everything except for the younger, agile bodies surrounding them.
“Yeah, she was one of my students.” The fairy said, gossamer wings fluttering at his back before they folded against his back. “Though I really don't know why. She never participated in any of my activities. It was like she only wanted to be here so she could post online about it.”
You know, those assholes. Who make gyms unbearably crowded to the point that they're unusable? Hey, yeah, you lot who call yourselves 'fulfilling New Year's resolutions' and just use the gym for photo-ops for your social media – DON'T DO THAT! GOING TO THE GYM IS HARD ENOUGH WITHOUT Y--
Everyone looked around for a moment. “I feel as though what we were doing was put on hold for a tangent just now.” Izumi stated.
“But, anyway,” The fairy gave a flip of his hair, “Saw her a few days ago when she came to class and did one set before plopping down next to me and talking for the rest of it.” He stopped to pick up a stray towel. “Is it true?” He turned around. “Someone really killed her? Seriously? Who kills an elf? Who kills any fae, Trillium the Fair's probably hunting their asses down as we speak!”
Silence, only broken by music in the background, gave the answer.
“Fuck...” The fairy whistled, “Not that I blame whoever did it though. Shit...” He clutched the sides of his head, “Just thinking about that annoying voice is giving me a headache.”
“Oh!” Rebekah snatched Berry's phone and turned on her final video, “You mean this voice?!”
It was immediate: the fairy collapsing to the floor and convulsing.
“Which way did she go when she left?!” Rebekah snarled down at the fairy, “Tell me!!”
“Should...” Abelard cleared his throat. It seemed like the three of them had been pushed to the bleachers while Rebekah went on her rampage. “Should we step in?”
Izumi and Guang shook their heads. “This is where she shines.” Guang said.
It took three minutes. Rebekah walked back to the group. “She left the studio and walked due right.”
Abelard felt that the young creatures escorting him around the city (Let's be frank, that's what they were doing), were all powerful individuals. They were the elite police: the highest echelon of law enforcement in this city of beast and fancy.
Guang nudged the twitching fairy on the ground. “I think you traumatized him, 'Bekah.”
“Good.” She turned with a pout.
Children. Even with skill and cunning.
Izumi pointed his arm in the direction they had been given. He closed one eye, trying to focus. “Necessitated degree of motion located.” He announced, “Optimal speed should be a swift jog.” He lowered his arm down, “Let's go.”
Indeed, their feet did take them on a swift trip down what was assumed to be Berry's final walk.
“Wait!” Rebekah called out. She lowered her head to the moss and grass, sniffing and snuffling the surface.
Abelard wasn't inactive either. He knelt down and simply watched. Watched the breeze push and pull the blades of green.
He plucked a single blade and placed it in his mouth between sharp teeth and upon his tongue.
His expression would have soured if it had the muscles to do so.
“This grass is sweet.” Were his solemn words.
This was where Berry had been murdered.
“Not only that.” Rebekah lifted her head. “I'm getting hints of something else.” The dragoness had to think. “It's familiar. Nostalgic.” Her eyes shot open. “Indigo.”
The Boutique of the Crystal Globe
Dama Fristad, 11:48 AM
Harun's Crystal Globe boutique was located where the borders of the center of Dama Fristad, ShimmerGale, and Miasmus met.
It was an older building that had been retrofitted with ivory towers, silver fountains, and strong threads hanging there and weaving about; to make it an appropriate bit of inspiration for the much-sought after tailor.
Harun himself was an Achroite Weaver. Looking much like a gem-encrusted tarantula standing as high as a bull elephant with just as much girth in his eight legs and abdomen. The group watched Harun sob and flit around his boutique in a panic.
“Why?!” He screeched, all eight eyes clenched tight as negative thoughts careened through the arachnid's mind. “Why do these things happen to me?! Allah, who's going to wear this dress now?!”
Harun jumped over to his wine cabinet and grabbed several bottles. Another pair of arms seized an armful of pillows. And the third set picked up a bowl of giant beetle bonbons. He fell into his chaise-long, the piece crafted from silver spider's silk, and began sobbing more. “I saw the news this morning; I thought it was a hoax! Al'ama..!” Harun grabbed three bonbons, devouring them with a crunch that bounced and echoed.
“So it's fair to say that you knew Berry?” Guang asked, the phoenix jotting things down once more.
Harun lamented. “Yes, I knew her. She and her fiance came to me for a one of a kind wedding dress. A dress to be the envy of every elf, fairy, and pixie in ShimmerGale. It would be made once and only once.” The giant spider pointed two hands towards the silken gown of pink layers and pastel green petticoats. There was even an accompanying flower crown to the ensemble, an anklet of the same design too. “And now look where I am! No one to wear it!!”
Izumi walked over to the glass case. “It's beautiful.” The Karasu-tengu muttered, running a clawed hand over the front. “Surely someone out there would buy it.”
“No!” Harun downed a bottle of wine, “I never resell anything I create. Everything is one of a kind. Luckily I was paid in advance.” He groaned, “I'll tell you, this may have been one of my most annoying commissions.”
“Annoying?” Abelard asked, Harun continuing on,
“She was so indecisive! In fact,” Harun pulled his massive frame away from his seat and walked over to a pile of silk fabric rolls: each either a different shade of pink or green. “To color my silks, I have to eat something of the desired color in different measures. Do you know how many strawberries and spinach I had to eat because Berry couldn't decide what she wanted?!”
They could only imagine, with how much they knew about Berry by now.
Guang jotted down everything worth noting from the conversation, but he did have one more thing to ask. “Can you confirm that Berry also had an appointment with Cara Mellice?”
Harun sat back down. “Yes, she wouldn't stay quiet about that either.” The spider swooned into the chaise-longe. “If you all will excuse me, I need to mourn the loss of my exposure.”
ShimmerGale District, 2:23 PM
Even from the outside of the cathedral they approached, the scent of slightly burnt sugar was prominent. The cathedral, when one got closer, was made of not glass or ceramic but molten sugar sculpted into the sweeping shapes and curves of a monument of worship.
Abelard stepped to the door and saw the hanging velvet rope swaying by. He gave it a gentle tug and stepped back. Just in case the doors swept outward.
Nothing really happened, though. He listened, tilting his head.
Bubbling. Something was rising up from the delectable depths.
The speaker next to the door crackled to life. “Do you have an appointment?” Said the syrupy, velveteen voice.
“Well, no.” Abelard replied.
The speaker crackled up again. “Well, the unfortunate bit of it is that I can't let you all in.”
Guang rolled his eyes.
Abelard folded his arms, thinking over this current circumstance. “I see... Your home here is breathtaking.”
There was a gap of time before the speaker crackled. “Isn't it though? Every inch, every corner made out of pure sugar. Even my lovely fountain,” Izumi walked over to the boiling fountain pool that bubbled away at a distance, “Is a rotating mixture of every sweet thing this world has to offer.”
Abelard agreed, more confident now that he had a grasp of the figure behind the door's age. “I'm certain that even young Berry could appreciate the aesthetics of your abo--”
“That girl,” The speaker interrupted him, “Wouldn't know Callebaut from Nestle. Sweet Lady Oleanda,” The speaker gave a low exhale, “What an annoying child. Do you know how many times I told her 'I don't allow photography of my work in my home', just for her to whimper and whine ad nauseum?”
Abelard felt as though that was all they were going to get from this. “Thank you for your time.” Abelard turned away, signaling to the others to get ready to leave.
The wendigo froze, one of his feet an inch off the ground. How had he... When had he..?
“You enjoy coffee-flavored things, though the typical caffeine level is just barely enough to keep that body of yours going. Your appreciation for the sweet is... notable but not prominent. I see.”
Abelard stayed in place.
“Did you know,” The speaker turned back on, “That a false Full Moon is just as effective at drawing a Blue Fairy as a real one?”
Abelard's pupils contracted for a brief second.
He tilted his head. “Thank you, Master Mellice.”
“Oh please,” The speaker crackled to life one more time, “A creature like you, appreciative of sweet architecture... You can call me Cara.”
One cup of the essence of snow
The claw of a lycanthrope
Pumpkin seeds from a Princess's escape
The sole of a Witch's dancing shoe
A Capricorn's scale
And a mournful maiden's song
It was one thing to ask the Chief for permission to carry the investigation into after-hours territory, but finding all of the ingredients to create a False Full Moon was a Herculian task in of itself.
But after a trip to the Midas Mills Mall downtown, they had just about everything.
Near ShimmerGale's edge, the edge that just barely kissed the beginning of Aquacia's regime, Abelard sat on the edge of the coursing river. There was a pot next to him: cast-iron, the size of a baby. And he was watching the evening skies: the sea of stars being rearranged every time some celestial beast would frolic through.
Izumi made his landing first. “We're all clear on my end, Baumgarten-sensei.”
“All quiet on the western-front.” Rebekah said as she landed.
Guang was the last back on the scene. “Came across some unruly Pegasi.” The phoenix coughed out some sparkly blue feathers. “But they kicked off as soon as I told them to beat it.”
Abelard went straight to work. He tapped a finger to the kindling he had bunched up underneath the pot, the wood sparking to life with that same foul fire.
He would have to destroy these gloves.
In went the claw, doused over by the essence of snow. Abelard worked quick to grind the pumpkin seeds, which were aged and tough, and the Capricorn scale into a powder that was quickly poured into the pot, The last thing added into the bubbling gruel was the Witch's sole and the maiden's song. Abelard turned his head away as he opened the jar: not wanting the melody to burrow into his hearing for a home.
When the miserable song drowned in the crisp, white muck, Abelard stepped back. “Now,” He retrieved a handkerchief from his pants pocket and cleaned off his covered hands, “We wait.”
By the time the concoction gave any sort of reaction, Guang had nestled into a fiery bundle for a nap and Rebekah was struggling to keep her eyes open. Izumi and Abelard were actively standing guard; actively watching, actively waiting.
The boiling broth belched out a shimmering pillar of dust. It climbed high up into the air, into the air above the trees and hills. Once it was high enough into the chilled evening sky, the dust started to hold itself tighter and tighter together. All of the chaotic elements that gave birth to it came together to form a tight ball. It was still shifting, still trying to come together. But the important part for those on the ground was the False Moon's light and how it reflected upon the water below.
The light of a Full Moon upon waters blessed by Trillium the Fair: one of the few things that could summon a Blue Fairy aside from the desperate cry of a child.
Though Abelard was beginning to have his reservations. The voice behind that speaker belied a subtle wisdom: one only attainable from centuries upon the earth. But was their advice what a situation like this needed? He only hoped he wasn't wasting time in this venture.
He didn't want to add to the tears. Tears that were becoming louder and louder with the light of the False Full Moon.
By now, Rebekah was fully awake: smacking her tail to the back of Guang's head to rouse him from slumber.
With the growing intensity of the False Moon, a figure could be seen floating over the river. Not necessarily floating, wings of glass were keeping her airborne. Her dress was a short cocktail number, though it was still the same shade of rich, ethereal blue that all of her kind were bound, by threat of death, to wear.
Her straight black hair was decorated by a simple ringlet of bubbles. An appropriate signal for her name.
It seemed the impromptu summon had caught Bubble at an off time: if the empty martini glass in her hand and her running make-up were any indication. The Blue Fairy was so distraught that she didn't even notice her surroundings
“Berry...” Bubble choked, burying her face in her palm, “Why? Why did this have to happen?!”
Well. This was awkward.
Guang looked to Rebekah who looked to Izumi who finally looked to Abelard. The wendigo looked upon the visage of the mourning fairy and decided.
He was the one who summoned her. He was the one who needed to talk to her.
“Young one?” He stepped forward, “Young one, please. If I could have your ear through your tears.”
Bubble fell to the mercy of the gasp that left her. She whipped her head around, very much a deer in the headlights. “Wh-what's going on? Wh-wh-where am I? Who are you?!”
Abelard gingerly made the introductions and gave Bubble a moment to breathe before asking, “Young one... We are trying to find out who is responsible for your friend's untimely demise.”
Bubble shook her head. “I don't understand. I just don't get it! Berry was, like, annoying at times but who the fuck wasn't?! Is that enough to kill someone over?!”
There was that word again, Abelard thought.
“But I just...”
He looked up again to see Bubble looking at her phone. It had taken the place of her martini glass and she was looking at one of the last pictures she had with Berry: the Blue Fairy and the elf taking a selfie at a concert. “I just want to forget about all this. I keep hoping that this is some kind of fucked up dream and I'll wake up soon. That my phone will ring and it'll be Berry: talking about her Pilates instructor or the newest drink at her fav cafe...”
“I talked to her. The night she was murdered, I-I...” Bubble had to stop and steady herself: her wings threatening to lock up. “I heard everything..!”
“What?!” Guang squawked and Rebekah was about to charge at the Blue Fairy but Abelard held up his hand to stop them.
“Young one,” Abelard offered, “Why did you not inform the authorities? You know it is their job to protect --”
“Protect and Serve, I get it.” Bubble hissed out. Most unbecoming of a Blue Fairy's demeanor. “Maybe in most cases. But not with this. I...” She turned away, covering the her mouth as the tears began again.
Tears... of fear.
“I still remember his voice.” She shivered. “Berry's phone didn't turn off until the battery died, I heard everything... But you know what?” She laughed. A hollow, miserable laugh. “The thing that stayed with me the most? More than the sound of-of a blade cutting my friend apart, more than hearing her choke on her own blood? More than hearing her die and being too afraid to do something so fucking simple as calling for help? It was his voice!!” Bubble cradled her arms about herself, choking back a sob. “'Nothing personal in this. Just a matter of business; the daily grind'!”
Guang flapped his wings in a huff when something snapped in Abelard's briefcase. “What the hell?”
Abelard strolled over, unlatching his belongings from Rebekah's saddle. He had a feeling, but he didn't want to follow it.
Several sheets of paper had been torn by the heavy tome inside opening itself. Abelard gingerly took it out, mindful of the harsher edges.
“What is that?” Guang poked his head under Abelard's arm so he could look at the book.
“The answer to my earlier question.” Abelard said with a voice as heavy as the night long. “Izumi.”
The Karasu-tengu looked over.
“What is the fastest way to get to Necronia?”
The skies were always dark in Necronia, Dama Fristad's district of the dead. Of course, there were a few places one could find warm light and greenery.
And by 'a few', it is meant that there's 'one' and barely anyone has seen it.
The entire district is a mass graveyard: buildings falling apart save for the grace of the gods, ancient places of residency and familial bonds leaking the spiritual blood.
The air was dead. No plant-life grew anywhere on the main streets. Again, you could find them if you were willing to journey far enough into the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
“You know what's odd?” Guang whispered, “My mom would always tell me about Necronia. 'Don't be foolish enough to ever fly there!' Heh.” The phoenix chuckled. It didn't last long. “This is what it's like? Being cold, I mean.”
There was no pretense. No one wanted to go inside of the district. They all stood on the border between life and death.
A border that Abelard was too familiar with.
Abelard tugged on one of his sleeves. “If any of you would rather stay out here, I more than understand. I --”
Rebekah shook her head. “We've already come this far.”
“And we can't fly out of here.” Guang hopped over.
Izumi was the last to speak. “We wouldn't be the best of Dama Fristad has to offer if we chickened out now, sensei.”
They were so confident. Strong in word and stature. Even though he could feel their unease in waves.
“Alright.” Abelard looked straight ahead, ignoring the ring of warmth that one of his books surrounded all four of them with. “Don't look backwards. Don't leave the circle. And do not answer the whims of anyone we pass.”
Necronia had a level of civility amongst its morbid populace.
But not on the road that they were taking. They all kept their eyes on Abelard's back, finding it the easiest point of focus.
Izumi's father always taught him to master his fears: to crush them under his talons, to teach them their place. But, still...
“Don't wander too far into Necronia. I won't be able to keep all six of my eyes on you if you do...”
Rebekah's tail reached around to touch upon the Star of David sewn into her vest.
“Are you trying to give me heart-attack?! Flying so close to the Death District! God, give me patience with this child!”
Abelard walked on, not wanting to stay longer than they had to.
Abelard clenched his jaw. He walked on.
'Just a second, can't you...'
'So cruel... so awful...'
They just needed to round the next corner.
'Just a penny for a loaf of bread...'
Down the road. Just down the road.
'You can't fight it--'
'Just give in--'
'It's warmer than you think--'
Even the warmth of Abelard's magic was beginning to fail in the face of the shadows beyond mortal reach. A collection of spindly fingers teased at the edges of the circle.
Then they pulled at it.
'Let us cut your threads--'-- we'll slit your throats so nicely--' 'It will be like falling asleep--' 'don't fight it...'
Abelard kept his eyes on their destination. Just up ahead, the gates surrounding a compound of twisted remains of Georgian-era architecture.
Even with the shadowy depths still tugging at them, the broken last words tumbling after each other, Abelard managed to push the gates open. “Get in, all of you!!” He hissed to the three elite officers. When the three younger Nonhumans made it inside, Abelard yanked the door closed.
The swarm of dark spindling fingers crashed into the gate with the sound of a thousand cracking bones. It shouted, the din of a thousand final words twisted into a lone, miserable noise, but it did eventually move on.
“Why,” Rebekah panted, “Do I feel like our tsuris and troubles are just beginning?”
Abelard helped the dragoness to her feet as Izumi took a survey of the area.
“Where is everyone?” He whispered, mostly to himself, “Not a single creature around?”
Steel springs creaked and groaned as one body jumped from behind a chimney and landed on Rebekah's back. “Get on it, luv!” The figure cackled, long and high. He dug his steel heels, fastened the exposed muscle of his legs.
Rebekah bucked up against the assailant. She flapped her wings and even tried rolling over in order to get the tormenting figure off.
Two more shrieks. Izumi heard the chains before he could make evasive maneuvers: heavy chains that rapidly wrapped around his arms and legs.
Two more figures, just as warped, just as manic as the first, jumped down from the roofs with their own twisting braces upon their legs.
“Wot 'ave we 'ere?” One of the figures, rusty makeup slathered around her wide eyes and her hair tangled and wild, looked Izumi over. “An artful dodger?”
“Give 'im 'ere, china plate!” Said the other female figure. She grinned in Izumi's face, showing teeth that had been ground into sharp points. “Come on, cutie~! Give us a snog, ah?”
Abelard thought he was doing a good job keeping Guang behind him, but a ruined squawk told him very much otherwise.
He whipped around, seeing two more of the figures. They grabbed the phoenix and leapt across the courtyard.
“Could make a nice pillow out of these!” One of them laughed.
The other added, “And 'ave a nice dinnah after!”
“No, no!” Guang shook his head, “Trust me: I taste awful! Have you ever had Connecticut Grilled Chicken? I taste just like that!!”
Even in all of this chaos, no one approached Abelard. Was he not worth their time?
Did they not want to risk their lives?
“WOT'S ALL THIS THEN?!”
The voice, shrill but deepened by layers of fat, pierced the air. Abelard stepped back as a large figure towered over him. She was fat. So, so very fat. And it was distributed through her body in uneven lumps and rolls.
The makeup slathered around her eyes was a thick bluish-green paste. She looked around to all of her smaller counterparts and pulled her bloated lips into a tight frown. “Yer father's sleepin', you bunch of twits! Think about how hard 'e's been workin' lately and...” She trailed off when she saw Abelard standing in front of her.
“Oh~!” The large female strolled over to Abelard. She readjusted her stained and torn bodice so that her breasts were spilling over. “You one o' them Fancy Wendigoes, ain'tcha? Comin' 'ere in your,” She tugged at his clothes, “Whistle and flute. Ain'tcha cheeky?”
“Ma'am, please.” Abelard moved away from her searching hands. “Please tell your children to let my co-workers go. We're investigating the very serious matter of a murder.”
“Investigatin' a murder!!” The largest female in this group tossed her head back. She was cackling so hard that her rolls jiggled and the braces on her bloated thighs jingled. The others joined her, their own braces clinking and jingling.
“Go on and investigate, then!” A voice from the crowds jeered.
“Gonna find a bit more than you can chew, ah?”
The largest female frowned. She did give a slight huff. Izumi fell to the ground with a grunt once he was freed from the bindings of the two young females.
The young male jumped from Rebekah's back and the two others let Guang go.
“Now, listen 'ere.” The largest female sprung into the air, landing with a small quake: her bloomers showing as her skirts lifted up. “You ain't got any business 'ere. I'd get going if I was you.”
One of the humanoid creatures glanced over to the right of the compound. “Dad's back.”
Something shot into the air with the speed of the fastest jet. It hung in the misty airs above until it plummeted to the ground. He was built like a brick wall: thick arms, thick legs, rounded chest and stomach. His facial hair was rough, unkempt, despite the top hat on his head and the tie around his neck. The only other clothing he wore was a pair of suspenders. But that was a minor detail compared to the monsters that were his leg-braces.
They were bronze and creaked with each minute motion. They covered his feet completely and were screwed right into the bone and muscle: rancid puss squeezing out every time he took a step.
“There's my Jack-y~!” The large female strolled over to the male whose front was covered in stale blood and smelled off rot and death.
Abelard, mostly to keep them occupied with something mental, asked, “You know each other?”
“She's my Cows and Kisses.” Said the large, misshapen creature. He smacked a sloppy kiss on her lips.
At one point the two may have been something resembling humans. All of those who lived here would have.
The large male tossed a spiteful laugh to the investigating group. “Wot's your business 'ere in the Spring-Heeled compound?”
Abelard looked at the two. He pulled out the book his library had given up and opened it to the page that showed the double-bladed chain that killed Berry.
Abelard didn't even have to ask if Spring-Heeled Jack recognized the weapon. The chain was swaying at his hip. “Did you, three nights ago, come across a young elf in ShimmerGale?”
Spring-Heeled Jack leaned back in his chair with a chuckle. “I did.”
Abelard exhaled. “Did. You murder. Berry?”
Spring-Heeled Jack scratched at his stomach with the hand that wasn't in his wife's cleavage.
“Berry, was it?” He gave a wistful sigh: nostalgic already. “Yeah, I think I remember... Coming back to me... Yeah!” He snapped his fingers, “I slaughtered that annoyin' brat like a Sunday Pig. Should've heard her choke!”
Izumi's claws twitched.
“Why?” Abelard closed the book. “Tell me why?”
Spring-Heeled Jack wagged a filthy finger in front of Abelard. “Now, you know be'er than to go around askin' a Spring-Heeled that.”
“Slaughterin' pretty young things is our culture,” Spring-Heeled Josephine, Spring-Heeled Jack's wife, laughed, “If someone's willin' to fork ova good money to see someone's innards on the sidewalk, why not?”
“She was going to get married!” Abelard hissed up at the grotesque creature. “Is shame a concept beyond you? What about pity? Anything?”
Pink claws stepped forward. “Her ring.” Rebekah said, “Where is her ring?”
The Spring-Heeleds all started to cackle and laugh around them. But Rebekah stood her ground. “You've already taken away so much from Pine Needle. From Bubble.”
The laughter turned from obnoxious to raucous.
“You can at least give us back her ring!”
“Oh, come off it!” Spring-Heeled Josephine reached into her bosom and pulled out Berry's wedding ring. “'ere!” She tossed it over, “If it'll get you lot out of 'ere.”
Even as Rebekah caught the ring, Abelard wasn't done.
“Who hired you, then?” The wendigo stepped forward.
Spring-Heeled Jack removed his hand from his wife and walked over. “Don't gotta tell ya!”
“This is beyond you now.” Abelard didn't stop.
“Too damn bad.” Spring-Heeled Jack didn't either.
Both of them didn't stop until they were face to skull. “Tell me who hired you.”
Spring-Heeled Jack shoved Abelard to the misty ground. “Get over yourself!” The large creature sneered, pulling his double-bladed chain from his hip. “You know you ain't got nothing on me!!”
Izumi shot forward like a bullet. He flipped at the last second, racking his talons across Spring-Heeled Jack's face. The force he put behind the action toppled the creature to the ground.
“Bottle and GLASS!!” Spring-Heeled Josephine shrieked at the sight, the sound rolling through all of the buildings. More Spring-Heeleds fell jumped down to the courtyard. Chains were spun, giant scissors brought out; a few of them even pulled on surgical masks and pulled large blood-caked medical scalpels.
“Let's go!” Guang gave a mighty sweep of his wings, a plume of fire erupting between them and the Spring-Heeleds. Rebekah retrieved Abelard's belongings and Izumi grabbed Abelard himself before they all tore out of the compound like bats out of hell, a swarm of homicidal maniacs chasing them down.
“There's the gate!” Abelard shouted, the group pounced out the gate and panicked to lock it shut from the outside.
Just like the shadows from before, the Spring-Heeleds crashed against the gate with a cacophony of shouts and struggle.
Guang made sure that the gate would hold. “Long enough for us to get the hell out of here, at least. Izumi, what the hell was that about?”
Izumi walked away for a beat. “He was going to kill Abelard. At that point, everything we did was self-defense.”
Guang didn't agree. “We have to keep Cultural Immunity in min--”
Izumi bolted over, Guang crouching down away from his captain's fury. “SELF-DEFENSE, GUANG!”
The phoenix trembled. He nodded up at Izumi. The Karasu-tengu turned around. “Chief wanted this case solved by the end of tonight. I don't think we'll be able to manage tha – AH!” He bumped into something warm and solid enough to send him to the ground.
Abelard jogged over, already preparing another circle. “Wait.” He slowed to a walk, “Gahiji?”
“Abelard!” The sphinx bounced over, “What are you doing here? If I knew you'd be on this side of the town,” He looked at the elite officers, “And with friends! I'd have asked Silas to help me make a picnic!” Gahiji tapped a paw to his mouth. “We can still go eat! What's everyone in the mood for?” He bounced around the group, lips curved into a smile, “I was thinking donuts! But I can go for Chinese, we could go to a deli, we could get sushi--”
“Young one, please.” Abelard had to sigh. “We're trying to work. Maybe we can go to dinner next time.”
Guang brought out his notes. “Guess we're back at stage one.”
With everyone turned away, Gahiji pouted and began rolling around on the misty ground. His eyes washed over in a bright flash. It quickly faded and Gahiji asked Abelard, getting back to his feet. “Why are you doing this?”
The question was so absurd that Abelard had to turn around. “Because... we're working.”
Gahiji shook his head. “No, what I meant was... why are you doing this? When you already know who is truly responsible for this murder?”
“What?!” Guang and Rebekah shouted, “What do you mean he already knows?!”
Abelard was bewildered. What was Gahiji talking about? How did he already know, they were investigating? Investigating a case that was starting to, quite frankly, annoy the very threads of his sanity.
“She had the annoying habit of talking a mile a minute...”
“Just thinking about that annoying voice is giving me a headache...”
“I'll tell you, this may have been one of my most annoying commissions...”
“Sweet Lady Oleanda, what an annoying child...”
“Berry was, like, annoying at times but who the fuck wasn't?! Is that enough to kill someone over?!”
“I slaughtered that annoyin' brat like a Sunday Pig. Should've heard her choke!”
“Damn that aggravating child. Look at all the trouble she's gotten us into now.”
36 Gelfing Boulevard
ShimmerGale District, 11:32 PM
The front door of the mansion cracked inwards. The doorman, dressed for bed at this time, rushed out from his on-site bedroom. “What is the meaning of this? I should call the police this instant!”
Abelard stepped past the man without a second thought. When Rebekah made it in, she passed the doorman with a, “Luckily we're already here.”
Their destination was the main dining hall of the mansion. It just took a moment to find due to the urgency of the situation.
Abelard forced open a pair of doors. The space inside was large. It was dark. And, at the head of long dining table, a cup of Darjeeling tea in her fingers...
“When I sent the doorman to the Press,” Dam Ivy looked down her nose at the uninvited guests, “I was of the impression that you all would have at least been suspended from your ranks.”
Abelard stayed where he was. There was a malice in this room.
“She was your daughter-to-be.” He asked Dam Ivy. “Why? For what reason could you have--”
Dam Ivy slammed her cup to the table. “That money-grubbing little slut is no daughter of mine!!” A dozen thick vines knocked Abelard back. They blocked off the entry to the dining hall, obstructing any attempts at apprehending her.
“Feh! Now what?” Rebekah asked, “I could burn these vines down but, even with Guang, it will take me at least 40 minutes!”
Dam Ivy poured more tea for herself. “Long enough for you all to hear.”
Izumi signaled for everyone to hold off on any action. Once all went still, Dam Ivy spoke.
“Pine Needle. The only child I was deemed to be blessed with. I went above and beyond making sure that he had the best; that he would grow and live with finery always. So!” She stood to her feet, “You tell me how it came to be that my outstanding child would saddle himself with some slutty, aggravating little gold-digger?!”
Berry looked at her phone in bed. “Ugh, this is so #Unfair.”
Pine Needle, who was in the middle of removing his shirt, asked, “What is it?”
Berry pouted and looked down at the tent in Pine Needle's boxers. “The new De La Cruz Ivory Beetle Racers just came out and I'm, like, the only elf in ShimmerGale with a De La Cruz Sapphire~!” She tossed herself to the side with an enunciated sob. “You don't love me~!”
“Berry...” Pine Needle sighed, laying on her so that his face was in her breasts. “You know I love you. More than anything this side of Dama Fristad.”
Berry only pouted.
But it was so cute that Pine Needle chuckled. “That's why...” He reached underneath her pillow and pulled out a brand new set of car keys. “I got you two of them.”
Berry's eyes were as wide as baseballs. “Oh, Piney-baby~!”
Outside of her son's bedroom door, Dam Ivy seethed at the obnoxious display.
“Constant obnoxious manipulations like that!!” Dam Ivy was starting to sway: far too much emotion. She braced herself upon the table, panting and heaving. “And my poor, stupid child was too enamored to see how awful she was for him! She wasn't smart, she wasn't talented, and she's just a bastard orphan! What good was she to him?!”
“But he loved her.” Abelard's voice pried through the vines. “How could you even entertain the notion?”
Dam Ivy huffed and turned away. “17 million for a corpse is pocket change.” She shook her head, “No. No, the actual issue at hand is finding a nice elf for my son to marry. One that isn't trying to drain his pocketbook dry.”
She sat down in a chair that faced away from the blockade. “You wouldn't know.” She told Abelard, “The sacrifices that parents make for their children.”
She could smell the flames. Feel them burning the vines down.
“Do you think he'll hate me?” Dam Ivy asked. When she didn't get a response, she continued, “She was just so... awful.”
The vines were giving way. Dam Ivy took a deep breath. Th fresh scent of Pine was already reaching her senses.
The heavy footsteps upon her lovely dining room floor. She was sure none of them had wiped their shoes before coming in.
“Dam Ivy.” One of the officers said, “You are under arrest for First-Degree Homicide: Conspiracy to Murder and Murder. Anything you say can and will be held against you in the court of Justice set by our Dama Fristad. May the fates have mercy on your soul.”
Dam Ivy allowed herself to be taken. “You know what?” She took a glance and saw her husband already calling up lawyers and tricksters and son...
Looking upon her with such hatred. Even when Rebekah handed him Berry's ring.
“I'm beginning to wonder if I even have one anymore.” The officers continued leading her out of her home. Chief Cruikshank was shouting orders and the doorman was struggling to keep out any nosy parties.
“By the way.” Abelard addressed Dam Ivy as she was being escorted away. He had been standing near the front door, waiting for the lady of the house to make her final exit. “I'm a father of three. All on my own in a country not my own. So, perhaps it is you, with more money than is mortally conceivable, with a spouse to lean on, who wouldn't know about the sacrifices parents make for their children.”
Dam Ivy was quiet after that, even as she was placed inside of a police car and carried away in a sea of judging gazes.
“Good work.” Chief Cruikshank walked in front of Izumi, Rebekah, and Guang. “Hopefully you all continue to live up to your status.”
“Sir! Yes, sir!” The three saluted. The kelpie then turned to the wendigo.
“As for you.”
Here we go, Abelard thought.
“After barging into my office,” The Chief shook his mane, “Taking my elites on a scavenger hunt through the city, and almost causing a cultural hate crime. Do you know what I do to punks like you?!”
Abelard honestly didn't care at this point. He was so tired he almost missed the glint of gold that shot at him.
He caught it, though he winced as he felt a crack. Abelard shifted his holding hand and examined the object. A small gasp left him.
The star divided into six pieces, the ancient words engraved on the edges of the piece, and the engraving of a wing crossed with a sword in the center.
“Welcome to the force.” Chief Cruikshank turned his back to the wendigo. “Don't make me regret this.”
When Abelard made it home, he tried to do so as quietly as possible. Even though Gahiji was still wandering around town somewhere, he didn't want to wake anyone up and start any arguments that he just didn't have the energy to humor.
Abelard placed his belongings in his room and then went back to the kitchen for something stiff and dry.
“I was beginning to think I needed to call the police,” Zach said, Abelard ignoring him as he passed. He quickly turned around.
The wendigo held up a finger.
He quickly lowered it. No arguments. Not now. “Have you seen my...”
Zach walked to the counter and slid two items over to Abelard. One was a glass, the other was a bottle of German brandy.
“Asbach Uralt.” Abelard reached for the bottle. But he reconsidered and used his less dominant hand. He poured himself a glass and unhinged his jaw so he could down the warming liquid.
Zach brought over his own glass and Abelard poured him a glass too: though the hand he was using was shaking a little.
Zach took a slow sip; not needing to drink right now but not wanting Abelard to drink alone with the visible weariness in his shoulders. “Do you want to talk?” Zach offered.
But Abelard shook his head.
“I'm just tired.” He looked down at his hand, the one that had caught his badge.