A Bridge of Introspection
A man stood on a bridge, waiting in the iridescent sheen of moonlight. It was all that caressed him.
Hunger gnawed at his innards, yet at the same time, he wasn’t hungry. His mind was immersed in a myriad of schemes, wondering if, in his machinations, he had gotten any detail wrong. Was it the incorrect time? But the thought was dismissed long before it could take root. Was it the incorrect place? Nonsense—had there not been laughter over his use of the words yonder bridge? Had it been something he’d said? Or done?
Was it him?
Ennugi’s Festival beckoned, indifferent to despondent introspection. But no violins or accordions, no tambourines or drunken ballads could sway him to soirée.
As the night deepened his solitude, he came to but one conclusion.
Wouldn’t miss it for the world, she had said.
Something had gone wrong.
hThere was the usual crowd at the northern gate to Eldeton. A cavalcade of farmers and merchants impatiently queued for entrance, eager to sell their wares. Movement was particularly sluggish the day after the festival, as the city still reeled in a stupor from a night of drunken celebration.
When a stern-looking half-ogre black mage marched in from Feohweil, cutting the line, the notion of chivalry died. Shouting salesmen smashed into each other with increasing aggression, until there was naught but a homogenous mob, legion in their desire to break through the gates and to barrel over the few, miserable guards, who had the displeasure of soothing such fervent zeal.
Babia’s entrance to town went barely noticed. In fact, her saunter to the square was pleasantly uneventful, other than one audacious Börenblade who demanded her papers, then scoffed at her invite, as if she had foiled some grand master plan of clapping her in irons and sending her to a dungeon.
At Eldeton Square, the Auroch’s Auction was in full swing. Babis smelled it before she saw it: the wind wafted the fresh scent of cow pies and septic hay down the streets. Soon, such pies graced the ground underfoot, smearing her boot soles with a lavish layer. Entering the plaza, the vista was one of bucolic bedlam. The raucous chants of auctioneers, punctuated by the lowing of cattle, enveloped the agrarian heart of the city. Sturdy wooden pens strained against the livestock, their massive, horned heads bucking against confinement. Stout and weathered traders fiercely haggled over each bovine bounty, their gestures animate and voices carrying over the clamour.
Part of Chapter 3 in the book I'm working on. Fairly happy with the descriptive language of the square. I remember having posted a different market, once before, here. What's the draw with traditional markets, anyway?
Once upon a time...
A world with no hardship lived its life happily, peacefully drifting as a fallen leaf. Floating and bobbing around on the surface of a little pond, ever so brief. No traces of wind or storm, or trouble, the water was calm, yes that was believed. And so, the world lived, its inhabitants too and floated along with the calm, peaceful drift.
There was one day, however, when the little inhabitants of the world saw something new. A bird flew in the sky, but no ordinary bird. Its feathery wings seemed to burn in the light, its body was shining and reflected the brightness of the sun onto the little inhabitants, who were way beneath the flying wonder. Curious, the little inhabitants raised their arms up in the air and called the bird: “Come, oh Angel in fiery flight, come and share with us your beauty!”
But the bird didn’t understand their words and flew away.
The little inhabitants had been so amazed by the bird that they talked about it for days. Had they not called upon their Angel loud enough? Did it even speak their tongue? Or hadn’t they done enough to praise their wonderful Angel? The wisest of the lot thought he’d found the answer and spoke carefully: “An Angel as golden as ours may not deem us worthy, without offerings and prayers!” And he explained to the little inhabitants they had to build a shrine with an offering table in front of it. Three months it took to build the little temple. The last stone had not been set or the baskets of fruit and the jars of wine were placed on the stone offering table. The bird, however, did not come. The little inhabitants fell on their knees and raised their arms to the shining sun. And look! The bird appeared, as if it saw their offerings. How delighted and relieved everyone was, and they cheered and danced, while the bird circled above. Again, they called: “Come, oh Angel in fiery flight, come and share with us your beauty!”
But the bird didn’t come down and flew away.
The feast had stopped, and a great silence followed. Slowly the sun set, and the moon rose. What would the little inhabitants do now? The wisest of the lot saw an answer and spoke loudly: “Perhaps we were mistaken! Perhaps the Angel can’t descent to us, therefore we must ascend to Him!” And he told the lot to build a tall tower, with at the top a nest. Three months it took to complete the tower, three months to cut down wood and make the great nest. And the tower was great, so great they thought they could touch the sun itself. The little inhabitants once again raised their arms to the warm sun and offered their prayers, as the baskets of fruit and bottles of wine were now placed inside the nest. And look! The bird appeared again, as if it was sent by the heavenly sun. Instead of dancing and cheering, the little inhabitants watched their Angel in silent awe as the bird saw the food (that had smelled so delicious on the ground last time). This time the wings flapped their way towards the comfortable looking nest, and hurray! The Angel set to rest. Carefully and slowly, the little inhabitants climbed the stairs of the tower to reach the nest. As they finally reached it, they saw how large their Angel was. It was easily bigger than their tallest little inhabitant, as it was twice as tall as them, even while sitting. Its feathers had a golden glow in the sun, its colours red and yellow burning in their hearts. One of the lot reached out his arm and could almost touch the bird, when it got scared and stood up. “Please, oh Angel, be not frightened of us!”
But the bird didn’t listen and flew away.
Thrice had they only sampled their Angel’s beauty. Thrice had their efforts been in vain. The little inhabitants were sad. The wisest of the lot was certain now and spoke violently: “If not by means of offer and prayer, we shall take our Angel and force him to descend!” And he ordered the lot to make spears and bows, arrows and swords and long ropes. Three days it took to create their tools, assemble the ropes and to sharpen their blades. Now they raised their arms and pointed towards the sun. And look, the bird appeared, graceful and calm. It saw the little inhabitants and now, without fear, it flew lower and lower, with joy in its heart to receive admiration again.
They welcomed their Angel with a rain of arrows, tosses of spears and cries of war. The bird saw too late the foe it had finally trusted and got hit. Unable to balance its wings the bird fell down from the heavens as a roaring fire, crushing the ground, spreading feathers of flame. The ropes were quickly tossed and hung on its neck, but the Angel was not a fool. Recovering swiftly from its nasty drop, it stood up and threw the lot in the air. They had to cling to the rope not to fall. More ropes were thrown, arrows whizzed, spears rang. The bird flapped its wings and tried to fly, but didn’t go very high or far. Some little inhabitants had made their way to its beautiful feathers and started to rip them out of their skin. Others had clung to its claws and tried to steer it back down. Eventually, near the mountainside, the bird fell. Now the little inhabitants cheered, weapons up in the air. “Our Angel has finally come to us!” But then the little inhabitants of the world saw something new.
Their Angel was burning, flames were its wings, smoke was its body, red were its eyes.
Crying in silence, their Angel shrieked and made itself ready, ready to die.
It looked at the lot and shook its head firmly, asking the little inhabitants “Why?”
Then it lay down, took a deep breath, and turned into ashes with one final sigh.
And whilst the leaf sank, so rose the Angel, ascended from ash to return to the sky.
Writer's note: I wrote this piece when I attended college, some 15 years ago. Upon rereading it I found many things I would change for the better, but chose not to. This was the first short story I was proud of, and although it is by no means perfect, I thought it worth sharing to you wonderful people here.
THE CRIMSON BATHS OF TEL NA’DOM
A tale by Chibouk the Stray
My carriage turned off the beaten path onto a road with cobbles that shook looser than my nan’s false teeth – my bottom still feels sore from so rough a ride. The path snaked out of sight around a clump of boulders that must’ve fallen from the mountain a century ago, considering the build-up of grass and weed. Weed and grass soon also replaced the road, as if the bricklayers-of-old had quit mid-job and left the cobbles at the mercy of nature. The carriage ascended a slight incline that was the precursor to the mountain, called Dom’s Foot by the locals. It was a fitting name; our path lay wedged between two plateaus, or rather plat-toesif you will, for the crevice we rode through was like the gap between the digits of a giant foot. I could see it now, sparkling in the light of the midday sun: Tel Na’Dom, bathhouse extraordinaire, with its multi-storeyed hot springs that regaled a clientele with royal discretion – for secrecy was key to the bathhouse’s success.
As it so happened, it was also key to the bathhouse’s doom.
To call it a bathhouse was almost insulting. Even from the fringes I could see the structure loom large: a manor cut directly from the mountain, embellished with marble and glistening with glass, jutting from the rock like an unearthed diamond. Wide, ivory stairs hugged the outer walls which, together with a tower lift on the side of the big toe, allowed access to its upper tiers. I could not deny my excitement at the promise of walking them myself, despite having read the message that prompted the investigation of the premises.
A geyser to my right erupted so suddenly that it startled me from my fantasy. Soon after, the carriage halted. We were a ways away from the entrance to Tel Na’Dom, and when I asked the coachman why he’d stopped he pointed at the pillars that crisscrossed the field in between the toes. The Eye of Horus was plastered on practically every brick. ‘Barriers,’ the man said, ‘can only be passed on foot.’ He promised to wait for me until the inspection had finished. When I exited the vehicle I saw more carriages, and one or two drivers awaiting their masters’ return. They smiled politely when they noticed my uniform, but their faces betrayed their unease. Passing the Pillars of Horus I walked through a magnificent yard, meticulously kempt and sectioned with flower beds, seating areas and an abundance of fountains. The walkway curved to my left a little and went up to the building, but before I could get a proper stride going I was approached by a young gentleman who had previously sat in the shade of a pavilion with three nobles. From his garb I deduced he was a ranger.
‘Constable,’ he began, ‘I’m Daribil Bristleaf, Foot Patrol, if you pardon the pun. Bill for short.’ The man shook my hand vehemently, indicative of the fervour of a novice in his field – which may also have explained the fact that his outfit was three sizes too large; clearly he was instated before his uniform had been fitted.
‘Bill. The people here look mighty spooked. I was sent a letter that spoke of considerable disturbances at Tel Na’Dom. Can you elaborate?’ I asked.
The young man considered this for a moment, looking over his shoulder to the nobles who sat weeping on a stone bench and observed us with great consternation.
‘It would be best if I walked you through it all sir, but please, head in first. I’ll catch up after I’ve spoken to the survivors.’
Survivors. Not witnesses, but survivors. Things were already worse than I thought.
‘Is there still a chance of danger?’
‘No, the ritual appears to be over. Apologies, I’ll be with you shortly.’
If I hadn’t quit smoking two months ago I’d have already grabbed my pipe; I hadn’t set foot inside yet and the situation was already this dire. With trepidation I made my way through the gardens, eyeing the few wealthy visitors I found here and there, all of whom were sobbing or staring into nothingness. Some were wiping at red stains in their robes, others couldn’t even be bothered. I thought the same thing any old shmuck would’ve thought before entering: what in the name of the gracious gods above happened here?
Two doors of embellished glass stood open. The floor of the reception hall was tiled, and the mosaic mermaid underfoot smiled invitingly. There was no one to operate the desk, nor was there any staff to speak of. Come to mention it, I had not seen any employees of Tel Na’Dom so far. The word survivors flashed by again, and my hand instinctually went for my pocket to caress the wooden charm I kept for protection. To my right was a waiting area overlooking the grounds, and as the door reading ‘employees only’ at the back was locked, I turned to my right, passing the restrooms and following the arrow that pointed towards a room for footbaths – the door of which stood open.
The first thing that hit me upon entrance was the scent of salt and bath perfumes – something sweet like jasmine. The room was spacious and bathed in wealth, with tiled walls and floors of blue, white and gold, and a shallow, rectangular pool that span the entire length of the place. Coral-shaped benches stood parallel at either side of the bath, so close to the edge that one would be forced to place their feet into the water. Water trickled in from a spout in the wall, and other than its frothy bubbles there was no sound at all. It was almost serene. If it wasn’t for the pool itself.
Its waters were as red as blood. On the surface floated hundreds of tiny, dead fish. It was such a contrast with the carefully crafted tranquillity that I stared at the scene for well over a minute, unable to register my surroundings. Unsurprisingly, seeing Bill stand next to me all of a sudden made me jump.
‘Garra Rufa,’ he said.
‘The fish – Garra Rufa. They are imported from more arid regions of the world for foot exfoliation. A popular start of the Treatment Plan here at Tel Na’Dom.’
‘Sounds like you’re advertising it to me.’
‘Goodness no. The fish may carry disease, or worse – the sods who place their feet in the pool do.’
‘Hmm. And what happened here to dye the water red?’
Bill looked down and smacked his lips. ‘All the waters of the baths come from the natural well inside the mountain. It is pumped up to the top where its freshest, with pipes and channels leading it back down. In a way, what you see here at the first bath of the house is actually the end result.’
‘End result of what?’
‘That is something you’ll want to see for yourself,’ Bill said, before turning and leaving for the stairs. I didn’t quite like his enigmatic attitude, but he seemed knowledgeable about the place, which I presumed came from speaking with the nobles. I hung about a few more seconds, but it was clear the footbaths did not witness the ritual that Tel Na’Dom had inadvertently hosted.
With a sigh and an even bigger craving for a smoke I followed Bill up the ivory steps, to the rooftop terrace, and whistled at the view of the garden, the valley, and of the great plains beyond. The plateau on which we stood was designed to mimic a beach: soft, pearly sand was strewn over the ground, and potted plants of tropical make lined the edges of the first tier of hot springs. Paths made of smooth, flat rock guided us past straw huts and bamboo dressing rooms. Bowls of fruit and flutes of wine were left on the countertop of a breezy café, and at the back, hugging the mountain, were open-air showers from which water trickled like lazy waterfalls.
As we approached the hot springs I confirmed my suspicion: the water here was also red.
‘As you can see, the bottom tier was mostly left unscathed, barring the condition of the water,’ Bill said, gesturing at the immaculate state of the terrace. ‘Most of the people you saw in the garden were lounging here, before the incident.’
‘Then where did that happen?’
‘Further up. And then down, as you will see.’
Bill went on as if he were a tour guide, proud to show off a uniquely historic site. Perhaps, with whatever had come to pass here, it would be, for nothing drew allure as much as a murder mystery – even I couldn’t deny the curiosity that was beginning to tickle me. I followed the scruffy ranger to a door in the wall, which stood but slightly ajar; from further away it had appeared as part of the mountain’s rock. It led to a cosy hallway with restrooms as well as a massage parlour, which I inspected a little because the table had been flipped over to face the door, as if someone had tried to barricade the room from some unknown intruder. A pair of trousers and a shirt lay on the ground missing an owner, and a shattered bottle of scented oil had been thrown against the wall near the door – a clumsy attempt at hitting our unknown intruder, perhaps. When I asked Bill if he knew of what had happened here he shook his head, stating that nobody mentioned the hallway parlour to him. We continued our ascent shortly after, and emerged from the mountain at the second plateau.
It was immediately clear the middle plateau catered to an even wealthier crowd. A lush tapestry of moss and ivy covered the mountainside, and soft, short grass acted as a natural cooler underfoot. The springs and water wells lined the edge of the plateau, allowing for an unparalleled panorama. Some pools were shaded with a netted canopy made of thick woven rope, swallowed almost entirely by blooming clematis. On the opposite side, water was gliding from the mountain with such elegance it appeared to be still; had it not been for the sun’s glint I’d never noticed the steady stream. A straw hut provided coconut drinks, and flowers everywhere waltzed in the breeze. I could only wonder how much people had to spend to set foot in such paradise.
I also wondered where all the people were.
Once again, the place was devoid of life. Discarded bathrobes and swimwear lay scattered on the grass, or floated inside the springs, the waters of which were, of course, red. It was rather curious how only the pools seemed to carry a clue of the supposed ritual. Bill had mentioned survivors, yes – but shouldn’t there at least have been some victims?
As if my thoughts had tickled his nose the ranger sneezed, wiped his face on his comically oversized sleeve as he got ready to speak.
‘This is the middle tier, access to which is granted only to the rich and influential. It takes a tonne of water to maintain all the grass and flowers – luckily the mountain provides just that.’
‘Not really here for a tour, Bill. I’m much more interested in finding out where all the bodies have gone.’
‘Ah, yes. Well, some of the noblemen downstairs mentioned that the visitors who sat in the hot springs suddenly began to shrivel into their clothes, as if they were made of souffle that collapsed in on itself, until only their garb remained…’
Bill shrugged and wiped his nose again, peering into the water while I stood frozen in my tracks. Shrivel? What abhorrent spell could’ve caused people to literally wither away? I looked at the way in which the clothes lay on the ground. Some were positioned as if their owners had tried to scramble out of the springs. Others were huddled in corners or behind benches or stools, as if the people tried to hide. But from what? The only thing that became increasingly clearer was that the waters of the bathhouse were what had spilled forth the ill effect the ritual had conjured. And if all the waters came from the same place, then it was clear to me where we were headed, too.
I followed the young man up a small staircase that was squeezed between two large basins, both of which served as empty, red, hot springs. It led to a door which promised another hallway, this one seemingly passing from the east plateau all the way to the west plateau, based on how the corridor sharply curved and kept going for some time. Each restroom, dressing room and parlour stood empty, with naught but empty clothes and emptier promises. When we popped out the other side I realised the third and final plateau could only be reached by lift – the same one I’d seen on my way here. It was a simple enough construction, utilising a pulley and weight, and after a minute of rigorous pulling of the rope we stepped onto the upper tier – where my jaw hit the floor.
The amount of wealth on display here bordered on obscene, with floors made of crystal tiles and benches made of rose gold. Part of the plateau was veiled in natural shadow, courtesy of the protruding slab of rock that acted as a ceiling. The swimming pool underneath it was every part as gaudy as the floors, with golden stairs and a golden slide and, you guessed it, a golden dive board. I could see a hint of sapphire-blue tiles above water level, but the pool was too red to make out the bottom. Out in the open were three more springs – one of which was still bubbling – and every three metres or so stood a bust or vase on a pedestal, scattering the light of the sun. Aligning the walls, hewn and cut to precisely follow the mountain’s contours, stood a mammoth of an aquarium, three, four metres tall and spanning the entire width of the plateau. There were many exotic (and undoubtedly exorbitantly priced) fish – but all had perished, for even the water in the aquarium was not spared.
‘Red water,’ I grumbled, ‘and empty clothes everywhere. No sign of a struggle or escape here at the top of the world.’
‘Kind of ironic if you think about it,’ Bill said. ‘They had the best view of all, yet never saw it coming.’
‘It’s coming from the source, isn’t it? The well in the mountain.’
‘Then why are we here, at the highest level?’
‘Because, if the nobles are to believe, the only entrance to the well is…’ Bill’s voice trailed off as he scanned around a bit, before pointing at the aquarium and walking there. I followed him, unsettled by the cloudy eyes of dead fish staring at me. At the centre of the tank Bill halted, fingering a piece of the wall right above the glass wall. He pushed and prodded until his index finger hooked onto a small rock, which he pulled. With a -click- and a low rumble the aquarium split in half – without the water or fish spilling out.
‘A magic barrier,’ I said, spitting on the crystal floor. I barely even registered I was clasping the talisman in my pocket.
’Only one of the visitors knew of the secret chamber, and even he didn’t quite know all the details, other than the aquarium and something with fondling a rock. I’m guessing it was a public secret of sorts, with staff or security on site to stop the more curious bather.
‘On that topic, I haven’t seen any staff or the likes at all.’
Bill shrugged again. There was something about him, something that didn’t sit well with me. But Tel Na’Dom’s secret bath was far more compelling than a rookie acting uppity, and so I allowed myself to be led into the mountain by the ranger in the baggy clothes.
It didn’t surprise me to find the secret passage led to a staircase that spiralled down. Lanterns hung from hooks on the wall, and Bill and I both took one, lit them, and descended the steep stone steps. A solid minute went by, and as we ventured deeper into the mountain’s belly, it grew hotter. A hiss of steam in the distance warned us to keep at bay – a warning we were compelled to ignore.
At the bottom of the stairs was a stone door, open just enough for a single person to slip through. There were scratches in the floor and scuffmarks on the walls – signs of a physical struggle. I closed my fist around the talisman in my pocket, and softly whispered a prayer. Bill was the first to enter. Hesitantly, I followed.
The space we entered was nothing like the superlative display of the plateaus. It was a huge cavern with tall, arched ceilings, held up by metal pipes that both acted as pillars as well as transport for water. It was hot, and the steam that rose from the massive bath that was the mountain’s reservoir blanketed the entire space in an attempt to suffocate us. At the back stood a machine, its rusted pistons churning the pool like the legs of a mad elephant. It pumped the water upward, all the while threatening us with its shrills and fizzes. Fire cages and torches illuminated the cave, and the scorching pipes glowed in ominous oranges and reds.
As I gazed upon this cathedral of metal, brimstone and rock, sweating from heat as well as horror, I noticed the absence of blood and bodies; once again there were only discarded robes and toppled seats. No wait – there was something else, something in the crimson bath.
‘You see it too, don’t you?’ Bill said. Despite the fact that he stood right beside me, his voice appeared distant.
‘What is that?’ I whispered.
‘There lies the culprit, carved into rock, at the bottom of this well of water. A reverse pentagram, enclosed by a circle, and a particularly perverse take upon the Seal of Solomon at that – for this Pentacle failed miserably at controlling the summon, allowing it to do its own bidding.’
Half of what he said was lost on me. The arcane symbols in this literal summoning pool released in me such unease I had to look away, and, wrapped in steam and numbed by heat, I staggered back, pressing my hand against one of the pipes, burning my palm in the process. Upon looking down I saw it now – runic words and logographs, etched into the floor, and under one of the chairs was a scroll, singed and blackened but not destroyed. With trembling hands I picked it up and unrolled it.
‘Vocare Lamia,’ I said, reading the title. When I looked up I was startled to see Bill right beside me again – I had been so absorbed I never heard him approach.
‘To summon a vampiric creature,’ Bill said, tracing the text with his index finger, ‘from a realm unlike our own. This creature could drink its victims without ever laying hands on them – and would gain all their knowledge by consuming their blood. And here it says it could even morph, as well as travel in streams of blood, making it a most efficient escape artist.’
My eyes widened. ‘The empty clothes,’ I said, ‘that’s what must’ve happened. Whatever lunatic performed the ritual succeeded at summoning this… this vampire, but failed to chain it, causing it to murder everyone – traversing the bloody waters through the pipes and into the rest of the bathhouse…’
Bill looked at the water in sorrow. ‘So much was spilt, and lost.’
A sudden thought came to me, so vividly and violently that I grabbed Bill by the shoulders and rattled his bones. ‘The creature! What if it is still here? We wouldn’t stand a chance! We must get out of here, now!’
Bill shook his head and smiled. ‘Not with that protective charm of yours – don’t think I didn’t notice you fumble in your pocket there. Besides, I think it is long gone. But even if it were still here, I don’t think it would be hungry – not after gorging itself on a bathhouse full of fools.’
That made sense. Slowly I released the man, panting and sweating, wondering if my panic was triggered by the smothering steam.
‘I need some air,’ I said.
‘Then let’s leave this chamber,’ Bill replied, patting me on the back before practically dragging me out of the depths of Tel Na’Dom. And when the fresh, cool breeze hit me I fell to my knees, gasping and crying, trying to ignore the knot in my stomach, unable to keep my breakfast in. Bill stood behind me, patiently waiting for me to regain my composure, and when I did he offered me the gentlest of smiles.
‘Let us go,’ he said. ‘There is nothing more we can do here.’
‘The scroll,’ I blurted, ‘I’ll need it to…’
Bill shook his arm and out from his oversized sleeve rolled the scroll, which he deftly snatched and handed to me. ‘I have no need for this anyway,’ he said, before walking to the lift.
Ten minutes later we stood in the front yard once more. My head was still spinning – what a report this would turn out to be. We’d need to send in a specialist team that dealt with occult rituals and the practicing of blood magic, and we should learn more of this vampiric being that had been called into our realm. We’d need experienced linguists to decipher the Latin scroll and the runic symbols. Then there was the entire operation of cleaning up and deciding what to do with the place…
‘May I be released?’
Bill’s question shook me from my contemplation.
‘If we are done here, may I be released? Or do you need me still?’
‘Huh? No, no feel free to go. Sorry, my mind is cluttered so I didn’t…’
‘No worries, I understand – a lot to take in.’
I sighed, offered Bill my hand, and after he shook it he set off on the abandoned path.
‘Say, where have the nobles gone?’ I asked.
‘Home, I assume,’ Bill said without turning around. ‘I mean, would you stay here after everything that happened?’
‘No, I don’t think I would.’
‘There you are then. Good day, constable. And take good care of that charm – it’s a lifesaver.’
I finally cracked a smile at his joke, and for a spell my mood lifted. For a while longer I looked around. This was supposed to be a place of beauty and serenity. How did it come to be the scene of such a bloodbath? It was a good thing Bill had been here, otherwise I would never have known the secrets hidden in the bowels of the mountain. I walked through the flowerbeds a while longer, tutting at the bloody rags the nobles had left behind. Then I made for the road, passing the Pillars of Horus again, until I reached the carriages and wagons. Upon seeing me arrive, my driver promptly stomped out his cigarette – really cementing my desire for a fag – and opened the door, allowing me entrance to the cosy interior. He never said a word, perfectly understanding the prominence of silence, and gently set us into motion, leaving me to stew in a concoction of cursed thoughts while I stared at the slowly shrinking mountain. A ritual with few survivors – who I couldn’t interrogate because they’d gone home.
Something is off.
What am I missing?
Come on, think! You’ve done nothing but gawk at the place, gotten sick at its revelations like a drunken private eye. Come on man, shake it off and think!
--- If the nobles went home, why are their wagons still there? ---
The thought hit me like a lightning bolt, and I couldn’t help but look back at the mountain and the carriages that were parked at the base.
But Bill said they’d gone home. He had spoken with them before, hadn’t he? How else could he have guided me through the blasted place? Bill, the funny lad who didn’t fit in his clothes.
Bill, who knew the exact spot to open a secret door.
Bill, a mountain ranger fluent in Latin.
Bill, who somehow knew about my protective talisman.
That’s when it clicked. My eyes widened and I began to tremble. Soon I found myself gasping for air, and when my legs gave up on me I sagged into my seat.
He wasn’t a rookie ranger whose uniform had not been fitted, because they hadn’t been his clothes. No, he wasn’t a ranger at all. No ranger would know how to read Latin, let alone take a lucky guess at what talisman I had hidden in my pocket. I realised now why he wanted me to go inside first. Why he looked at the water so longingly. Why he knew so much of the pentagram and the ritual. It was because I hadn’t met a ranger.
I had met the creature.
The cobbles that shook the carriage could not shake me as much as did this revelation. I slid off the bench, failing to find the strength to clamber back up. Bill’s final words taunted me: take good care of that charm – it’s a lifesaver. And I realised it hadn’t been a joke at all.
My hand shook so much I could barely find hold of it, but when I finally felt the wooden charm I brought it to my lips and kissed it, knowing I would never take it off. And in a concoction of horror, relief, disbelief and shock, I ended up sobbing on the floor of my carriage, where I made my final realisation:
I was the sole survivor of the Crimson Baths of Tel Na’Dom.
Based on the report by Smey Rigventji, Constable of Atlas Flats Purlieu
Shanty of the Bearded Man
Let me tell you the tale of a man with a beard
Whose whiskers are whetted, and stoutness revered.
Who voyaged the globe, his intentions unknown
With naught but his wit and the bristles he’d grown
Gather thy men and ready thy sail
For the grandeur of his is our white whale
Step aside Ishmael, it is late
Lest you fall to this man barbate
Now this man has been with us a quinquagénaire
Adorning our lives with his facial hair
To his friends he smiles, to his foes he will grin
As they face the might that has grown on his chin
Gather thy men and ready thy sail
For the grandeur of his is our white whale
Step aside Ishmael, it is late
Lest you fall to this man barbate
From the west to the east to the north he has gone
From tropics to tundra, snow and sun
But the cold and the heat stay away out of fear
For the man whose jawline resembles a bear
Gather thy men and ready thy sail
For the grandeur of his is our white whale
Step aside Ishmael, it is late
Lest you fall to this man barbate
Though the whims of the world are ours to endure
He knows no misère with his hair haute couture
Defying all logic and physical law
His beard has men weeping in shame and awe
Gather thy men and ready thy sail
For the grandeur of his is our white whale
Step aside Ishmael, it is late
Lest you fall to this man barbate
If you happen upon this man one day
You will find his visage has allure and sway
As you gaze upon him there’s a change in the air
And reduced to a babe you can nothing but stare
Gather thy men and ready thy sail
For the grandeur of his is our white whale
Step aside Ishmael, it is late
Lest you fall to this man barbate
Even Demons Cry
ONI NO ME NI MO NAMIDA
A tale by Chibouk the Stray
I sit at the edge of a lush streak of green, a grassland growing eastward with nary a hill to halt its advance to the horizon, in a plane colloquially known as the Sward’s Breath. Behind me lies the woodland of Tahan Nafas, a dense forest that crawls over windward hills before plummeting down to the Chasm of the Sunken Holts – a submerged forest veiled between the Great Dombaro Mountains and the Breath, both of which serve as the inspiration of painters and artistes alike to compose their magnum opus. The weather is temperate and the sun hides behind the clouds, much to my liking. The wind plays with my beard and tickles my nose. I am assured by my host the grassland is never still. He pours me strawberry tea from a makeshift clay pot into a makeshift clay mug and presents me with grapes in a makeshift clay bowl. He sits beside me as I drink. He is a most hospitable host, calm and gentle. He is a thinker, he proclaims.
He is also an Oni.
He calls himself Furīdamu. His resemblance to masks I’ve seen used in traditional kabuki performances is uncanny: great black horns grow from just above his ears, which still have holes from where earrings once dangled. His jaw juts out like a sharp rock, and pointed teeth align his mouth, with canines that jut outward and upward. His brow is thick like that of a neanderthal and slopes down in an expression of perpetual melancholy. His hair is black and untamed and waves in the wind. The whole of his leathery skin is dyed a bright red, while the creases and wrinkles are a deep maroon. Faded scars criss-cross his chest, his arms, his legs. He wears naught but a loincloth. In the isolation of the Sward’s Breath, I cannot help but wonder whether he does so out of decency or out of habit.
She will be here soon, he assures me. His lips curve into a smile, showing his pointed teeth. I nod, but not from comprehension. We met by chance in the woods. I was lost, and when I came upon him, I was taken aback by his imposing figure. But Furīdamu was quick to alleviate my worries, and knowing the trees by heart he guided me downhill to the valley where we now rest.
When I ask him how he got here, so far from his native lands, he laughs. His shoulders bounce as he does. He says he came here more than a hundred years ago and has to laugh again when he sees the look on my face. He claims to be twice as old, but a dozen times wiser.
I ask him what he means.
Furīdamu inhales deep and breathes out with such force that steam jettisons from his nostrils. What do you know about Oni? He asks. I shake my head, confessing I am not privy to much knowledge at all about his kind. I refrain from saying I believe the word to mean ‘demon’. His smile is tender, if downcast. He looks out over the meadow that stretches ever on, then begins his soliloquy.
Oni are born of fury, he says. Some believe us to be the reincarnation of those whose deeds were so wicked, so vile, that they shape their reincarnation. Others say we come from Kimon, the Demon Gate, which leads to Jigoku, the nether regions of the afterlife, where Oni forever torment the most despicable of people. Regardless of our origins, Oni are fierce creatures, wrathful and wild. But there is one important distinction to make: Oni are not evil. You must remember this above all else you learn today, for what you learn is not for the faint of heart. Oni bring calamity. Our size, our strength, our spite, spell doom and destruction to the land. Some Oni cause the earth to shake, others bring forth deadly plague. Some instil terror through thunder and lightning. All Oni are destructive, and all relish the taste of human flesh. I was no different. For many decades I was the scourge of the Japanese countryside, ravaging the peaceful villages unfortunate enough to lie on my path. My cries of rage turned hearts to stone, and all would flee when they saw my approach.
To demonstrate his power Furīdamu stands up, stretches his massive arms, and claps his hands together with such force that the sound carries over the field, reverberating so loud it is as if he corresponds with thunder. The ground rumbles underfoot. Tendrils of smoke slither from the corners of his mouth, and for a moment his eyes shine the colour of brimstone and fire. I am reduced to a hapless child in the face of his ferocity. Then his eyes cool and he sits cross-legged next to me, positioning his hands on his mighty thighs. He pours me a second cup of tea before continuing.
I was young, then, and ignorant. I heeded not the suffering of others, only my own desires. And why not? I was powerful, and the people I tortured were weak. Yet I was angry, always angry. Why did such rage fuel my very being so? There is a proverb I have come to favour: shiranu no hotoke. It means, ‘to be ignorant is to be Buddha’, referring to the peace of mind not-knowing can give. But then why are Oni not at peace? I knew nothing of happiness, but I knew of peace, of quiet, of a tranquil state of mind, for in my heart of hearts, in the moments my rage was not a blinding, hot, white noise, I sensed there was more in me – or in actuality less in me – than what little else wrath permitted. And this intrinsic sense I felt grew as the decades passed by, until at last I left what constitutes as adolescence behind. The impulse for violence, that hunger, was there, but so was something else, something new.
They say growth cannot occur without experiencing pain. I still remember the moment when I began to grow. I trudged past the paddies of the southern prefecture of Shikoku, drawn to the tapered steps that adorned the hills and valleys, noticing, for the first time, how the midday sun sparkled in their shallow waters. I stopped, staring at the ripples that broke the illusion that the sky was in fact on land, wholly unaware of the farmers who had seen me and began to scream and run. I just stood in the moment, with the sun overhead and the hills below, and felt… calm. The rage that I had come to define myself by was pushed far back, and I longed with all my heart to hold on to this new feeling, for it was pleasant and allowed me to actually think. Of course, the farmers, whose village was nearby, had summoned a samurai, and his battle cry forced my eyes away from the tapestry of God himself. Bathed in the golden glow of the undern my opponent looked no more menacing than the rice fields themselves, and as I turned to him, I saw his blade quiver. I was thrice his height and ten times his strength, yet though he wavered he was steadfast to defend the people who called such divinity their home. He raised his katana over his head. My anger resurfaced – an instinct after half a century of deciding my every action – and so I roared in return, raising my kanabō to the sky. My voice rattled his armour, and I was ready to strike. But when I saw the fear of death in his eyes it was I who wavered, for a split second, before sending my club down. It did not connect with my adversary. Instead, I raised my leg and forced the club to collide with my knee, breaking the thing in half. The pain I inflicted upon myself made me howl, and I felt the trees shake at my might, heard thunder crash through the canopies, as if nature bowed to my suffering. Then I ran, my strides greater than that of a wartime horse, crashing through the forests like a deranged yōkai. I cried and cried and cried as thunder and lightning collided. But it was not pain that caused me to wail. I cried because I had finally broken free from the anger and hatred that had me in shackles my entire life.
But although my cell had opened I had yet to escape my prison. Anger no longer forced me down the path of destruction, perpetuating itself through the righteous furor of the people I encountered, but it had not gone either, and was quick to resurface at the tiniest inkling of adversity. Just the sound of swords clattering, or arrows whizzing was enough to rekindle the flames of fury, and I struggled to avoid it becoming a wildfire. I needed time – and time I found at the summit of Mount Ishizuchi, itself the ruins of an ancient volcano, called the Stone Hammer of the Gods. Atop the mountain sat a shrine, older than I am by over a thousand years, and the pilgrims who stayed there were startled at my approach. They were even more startled when they saw me kneel and bow, touching the Hammer with my forehead, pleading for them to help me douse the flames that burned me from inside. It was my tears that swayed them, for they had never seen an Oni cry.
Furīdamu pauses, and as I look at him, I see his eyes glisten. It is as if he recalls the scene with great clarity, the way his expression dances from sombre to exuberant. A part of me wishes I could experience it as he has, if only to feel what he feels.
So it began, he says, my tenure as an apprentice to the practice of patience. I could not fit inside the confines of the shrine and its abode but was permitted to stay in front of the entrance, before the mountain slopes perilously steep. This was fine for me, as Oni are used to sleeping under the stars. The first few weeks the monks conversed with me, satiating their curiosity at my apparent benignity. I am certain they wanted to ensure that my claims would hold true, that it wasn’t an elaborate ruse of mine. Or perhaps they thought it a divine test coming from the mountain gods themselves. And upon the peak, so high above the world, above the people, above the paddies, at the mercy of whatever cosmological entity turned the very stars, I began to wonder the same.
Weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. Meditation confounded me at first, and my frustration was quick to surface. My mind was too primitive, too emotional, to grasp the notion of something as simple as sitting still. But the monks, masters of the mind, guided me with keen insight and understanding, and so, slowly, I began to learn. Meditating is not just to sit, but it is to be mindful of your immediate surroundings and yourself. To focus on one thing, or nothing, and to withhold judgement of its value. To be, rather than to bear. I still got angry, yes, for this was my nature, but no more did I resort to violence. Shouting helped, and from the sharp edge of the Hammer’s tip my cry would thunder over the lands. Every episode lasted shorter than the one before, and the spells of time between my eruptions grew longer and longer. The first true revelation came after having lived with the disciples for five years. I had lived off deer and bear or other woodland animals rather than feasting on human flesh, and often these creatures had to endure my wrath – until one day they no longer had to. I no longer rampaged, and instead I hunted; my goal was not to satiate my hatred but rather my hunger. I felt elated that I had succeeded in overcoming my wicked nature – but of course this was merely the beginning. The monks knew that my time atop the Hammer’s head knew nothing but tranquillity, whereas the world below would see me a fiend, and treat me accordingly. The monks devised methods to steel my mind, to cage the tiger, for, as they said, a tiger could never be tamed. They would provoke me on purpose by yelling and slinging insults. As time went by, they would cast stones or prod me with sticks. And whenever they saw the agitation grow, they told me to focus on something else – to straighten, for my hulking stance was not conducive to allow energy to course freely through my body. They taught me breathing techniques for when I’d feel rageful, and to see the world through the lens of pity, not fury – for the people feared me and did not understand I was transformed, but this was not their fault. More years passed, with some failures but with many successes, the biggest being the fact that I had not hurt anyone in close to a decade. It was at this time, towards the end of my tenure, that I realised something: my time to leave was nigh.
The final day of my stay on the peak my rest was interrupted when a sizeable boulder hurled over the shrine and landed against my shoulder, knocking me out of my meditative state. I merely needed to stand up to see that bandits had appeared with a catapult from the path down the slope, readying bows and arrows, and were rushing the shrine. Some monks fled, others were forced to fight with what sticks and stones they had. Blood hung thick in the air – and my rage emerged, banging against the cage in which my mind kept it imprisoned. I bellowed at the intruders, which drew their attention, but they seemed unabashed by my presence and charged me head-on. They were dressed in red armour and wore devilish masks, mocking my very form with their childish display of brutality. It would’ve been so easy, so satisfying, to raise my foot and stomp them, to revel at the sound of bones breaking and flesh squishing – or to snag them in my mighty hands and squeeze the blood from their eyes and mouths, or to tear them in half and suck out their organs. The old Oni longed for this familiarity. But I no longer was this version of myself, and so I calmed like the monks had taught me, even as swords and spears pierced my skin and stones pummelled my head. Instead of harming them I shoved them away with the back of my hands, or plucked them from the shrine and placed them at the precipice – enough to scare them, but not to kill them. I had to repeat these motions multiple times before the bandits grew tired and stopped, and at last remained where I put them. I stood before them, gazing upon them like a mighty ape observing little termites. Stop this fighting, I said, for nothing good can come of it. Those with power should protect the ones without, not cause further harm. This I have learned during my time with these monks. Perhaps, if you desire the shrine so, you should learn the same.
One by one the bandits fell to their knees. They bowed to me, as if I was a deity worthy of worship. Then they cast aside their armour and revealed they were not bandits at all – but fellow Buddhists from the shrine at the foot of the mountain. The disciples of the Hammer had requested their aid in their ultimate test – to see how I fared in unexpected chaos and combat. The blood I had smelled was spilled of goat and ox, not man, and so their ruse had been complete.
I had passed their test. I was a demon no more.
That night there was a feast, with dance and song and boar and wine. I was given an indigo scarf of silk, originally meant to adorn my neck, but as it proved too small, I wore it as a ribbon in my hair. The act moved me to tears, as I had never been gifted anything other than pain and anger to reflect that of my own. And after the festivities were over and the monks had fallen asleep, I left, as quietly as these giant feet would allow. I wished no grand farewell ceremony, nor feel the heartache leaving these wonderful people behind – yet stay I would not.
I can see Furīdamu’s smile is genuine as he pauses and takes in a deep breath. He offers me a third cup of tea, before realising I have yet to start the second. I ask him what happened of the ribbon he was given. He says that will come when shearrives. When I tell him I was meaning to ask about this mystery person he wags his finger and tells me I will see for myself soon enough. He then glides his hand over the grass and plucks a daisy from the field, holds it up to examine it, and smells it.
Truly, beauty can be found in the smallest, simplest of things. My descent from the Hammer confirmed as much. I saw divinity in each tree, each leaf, each scuttling insect. I even began to muse on the divinity in me – which presented quite a paradox, for wasn’t I supposed to have been born of malice and hatred? I still find myself pondering the notion, and I’ve yet to find an explanation that satisfies. Perhaps there is no answer, but oddly I cannot accept that. But I digress. I walked down the mountain in awe of its many wonders and remembered the day before – the audacity and bravery of the monks and their test – and was tempted to climb up again, if only to wave goodbye. But no, though it would please me and perhaps even them, there was more sense in a quiet retreat – and I quite liked the romance in the idea of leaving a mystical impression behind. Soon dawn broke and golden rays of light bathed the forest and mountain in a wealth unmatched by even the richest of emperors. I caught a deer and prepared it, having learned to roast its meat rather than to eat it raw, and drank from a cool stream. I felt one with nature and was content.
It was a couple of days later that I brushed with life outside the shrine for the first time in a decade. A group of hunters saw me at my bonfire one morn and could not help but cry for help. I decided to remain as I was, and only smiled at them. Of course, with tusks like these even a simple smile can turn savage, and so it was not surprising that the hunters returned with more of their kin – and more heavily armed. Imagine their surprise when they were not met with unbridled rage, but with a friendly wave! And as I stayed calm and seated, seemingly disinterested, they approached me, lowering their weapons, and asked me for my name. It was then that I realised I had never given thought of naming myself, and the freedom of this choice gave birth to Furīdamu. I invited the men to join me and offered them venison, and soon I spoke at length of my transformation at the Hammer’s head. Morning turned to noon in the blink of an eye. When my tale ended the men looked at each other, and hesitantly asked if I would help them in their need. They would have me stay with them in their village, but asked I would only arrive at dusk, for if I were to march with them the villagers would surely not believe their claims that I was a friendly Oni, and would likely attack me or flee; no they needed to persuade their fellows and prepare them for the entrance of an ogre whose intentions were pure. I agreed, despite not having been told of the troubles that required my aid. I suppose I was eager to prove to them and to myself that I was not a being of violence anymore. Perhaps they needed me to assist them in the construction of a new house, or to fortify their village by planting a sturdy gate. A builder Oni – the thought was greatly pleasing!
The truth was, alas, nothing so simple.
Following the men’s instructions, I arrived at village under a red sun. Bathed in such twilight I must’ve looked like a devil wreathed in flame. Yet the villagers remained composed – it seemed the hunters had succeeded in preparing their people for my presence. I bowed to the villagers, and asked them not to fear me, for I meant no harm. I bore three deer as gifts, and placed them in the centre of the vill, before sitting cross-legged on the ground. In return the womenfolk presented me with fruits and rice, and though I had little taste for such food I accepted it, not wanting to insult the first people I had met since my time atop the mountain. And as we ate and spoke, I could not help but be moved at the fact that even the children came closer and wished to touch my skin – their curiosity being of the purest, kindest sort. Never in my life would I have been able to imagine finding myself the subject of nervous giggling and laughter of younglings.
Dinner came and went and as the children were put to bed, the men stayed to relate to me the woes they faced. And woes they were, and of the greatest kind at that. I should’ve known, of course, that my fantasy of benign labour was just that, for the village, and the surrounding villages as well, were at the mercy of an Oni. The hunters and men must’ve seen my reluctance as they dropped to their hands and feet and begged me to assist them. Their tormenter would appear once a month at a new moon, to trample their homes and snag unfortunate souls to be devoured whole. Even the strongest of samurai, sent by the local lord, were unmatched against the demon, whose rage tore them asunder as if they were but origami figures in a storm. And though I did not know how I felt having to face another Oni, I could not turn my back on these people, not after having already agreed to help – and certainly not after having been welcomed so hospitably.
It would be three days before the next new moon, so I decided to prepare the villagers for the Oni’s arrival. I helped dig trenches and a tunnel into the mountainside, where the women and children would hide. But that was not all. The men would lure the Oni to a trap we prepared – a pit, deep and wide enough for him to fall into without being able to climb back up. I pulled down trees and strip them of their bark, broke them into pieces and sharpened the edges. I planted the spikes in the pit, and when it was done, we covered the hole with an old net, and used leaves and dirt to have it blend with the ground. We felt prepared, at least somewhat, but in truth nothing could’ve prepared us – prepared me – for the clash that was to come.
The night of the new moon was upon us, and the village was empty save for the hunters and some of the men that had volunteered. The plan was simple: the Oni would target the men, who would flee and lure him into the trap. Once inside, distracted by the spikes in his feet, I would appear, and with rock and dirt would bury him alive – or kill him by ripping off his head. Thus, we waited, the men in the village and me in the trees.
It was dead-quiet, as if the forest itself held its breath, and each minute crept by slower than the last. Until suddenly, there he was, lumbering towards the village, smoke trailing from his mouth and nose as he grunted and snorted. He was red like me, but his bulk dwarfed mine. He spotted the men, and when he roared the heavens roared back – and finally I understood the fear that would freeze the hearts of men. In three great steps he stood in the village, and the men fled as planned into the woods ahead.
The Oni pursued them and stepped onto the net – but he didn’t fall in the way we had anticipated. Instead, he managed to clasp the sides and pull himself up, and his fury at this failed attempt to rid of him turned his pupils bloodshot. His massive, muscular arms swept forward, and without intervention he would’ve swatted the men like they were flies. When instead his hands collided with my ankles the Oni looked up in confusion. He could barely register the fists that slammed against his crown so hard it forced him to the ground. I turned to the men and shouted at them to hide in the trenches – a mistake, because the Oni wrapped his arms around my legs and dragged me down. I could no longer mind the villagers; our fight had begun. The Oni clawed his way on top of me and aimed his fists at my face. His first blow struck me like a boulder and almost broke my nose. The second blow collided with my forehead, and the pain that blossomed almost made me black out. His third blow would connect as well, but I tilted my head just in time so that my horns pierced his hands when he brought them down. He howled, and as he moved his palms upward, I saw I had drawn blood. I felt the Oni was unstable, and with a quick heave I caused him to lose balance and I could push him off me.
Both of us scrambled to our feet and stared at each other, and at last I could take him in proper. He was taller than me, heavier, with fat muscles rippling under his skin. His eyes shone so bright red they left a trail whenever he moved. His hair clung to his shoulders and his beard seemed like spikes. And unlike my expression, which borders on dolour, his face had knotted and twisted into the embodiment of hate. Steam escaped from the corners of his mouth as he panted, waiting. Then he tensed and roared, and as he sprung forward, I felt the very mountain rumble. His charge was forceful, fast, and though I dug my heels in he crashed into my shoulder, attempting to topple me again. His fists were planted under my ribs and his horns scraped against my own while he pushed. Again, he punched my sides, and again, each blow stinging more than the last – and inside of me the tiger clawed at its cage. I dug my nails in the Oni’s back and tried to lift him, but I couldn’t, so I pummelled his shoulders to little avail. I could only escape when he moved his head back, allowing me to smash my head into his nose. I heard it crack, and I grinned knowing I had succeeded where he had failed. The advantage was mine, and as he stood dazed, I threw in haymakers of my own. I was not as strong, but I was lean, and speed was on my side. I got a few good hits in before he regained his senses, and soon his fists clashed with my own.
Over and over, we struck one another like berserk boxers, each harrowing blow harder than the one that came before, until each collision shook the foundations of the land and made the sky tremble. But his ferocity and strength were greater than mine, and what enraged him even more was that another Oni, his own kin, dared stand in his way. When at last came a lull in the storm we stood yet again facing each other, panting like mad dogs. The village we stood in was in ruin, and I could only hope its people had made it out in time. There was little time to catch my breath. The demon screamed, thunder clapped, and as hatred and malice consumed him his hair burst to flames. I realised that if we’d stay here, the village – no, the whole valley – would be no more, so I turned and ran. The Oni’s pursuit was feral; I could hear his snarls and roars, could feel the ground quake with each step – could feel the tiger in me gnaw at its bars. More than once he lunged at me, but his bulk betrayed him and I dodged his leaps, running until I could run no more, for ahead of us lay the precipice of a cliff. The Oni slowed down, knowing there was nowhere for us to go, and when he stood before me, he looked like a fiery beast dragged from the depths of hell. The sky above crackled with electricity, and the wind howled in sorrow. The hellfiend balled his fists and bellowed a war cry that echoed over the ravine. We both charged each other, and under thunderous heavens we warred. I could feel my anger rising – could feel the tiger empower me – but years of freedom had subdued me, whereas the flaming Oni was only rage and death. I would not survive the assault of an Oni whose punches would smash rock and whose breath was the fire of hell. If I were to live, I would have to fight smarter, not harder.
Now understand that Oni are not warriors. We are not trained in the fine arts of combat, for we have no need for them – we smash or grab or stomp anyone with little to no trouble. But at that moment, on the edge of the cliff, I knew I had to learn. I stopped trying to punch or grab the flaming Oni and instead brought my forearms to my chest. I stepped backwards more, sideways more, evading more than attacking. I ducked at blows that swung high and pivoted at thrusts of his knees. I studied the Oni’s movements, and slowly began to realise that he relied on the same motions again and again. He would flex and pull back his left arm before mowing his right or roll his shoulder before a quick punch. He always tried to grab me by the shoulders before attempting a kick or a shove of his knee. And the more I learned the less his attacks would connect, and the greater his frustration, the clumsier he became. I also learned I could force him to reposition, and thus began to turn the tide of battle.
My counterattack commenced. With the rough swing of his right arm, I got in a quick jab from the side, pressing the hollow under his ribcage, forcing him to step away. He always followed with a lunge from his left, which was slow and easily dodged; I forced my elbow in his neck, causing him to stagger. He tried his haymaker swing again, hitting nothing but air. In response I grabbed his wrist, held his arm straight, and brought my elbow down on his joint. It did not break, but his howl told me it had hurt. His shoulder rolled – a quick kick to his shins disrupted his attack. In rage and despair, he thrust his head back and roared at the sky. I silenced him with a punch to the throat – then one to the gut, and another, and another, until I had beaten the air out of him, and he doubled over, clutching his stomach. That’s when I grabbed him by the horns, planted one foot against his crown, and pulled. With a snap they broke off, fizzing and steaming ink-black smoke. The flaming Oni’s screech of pain was disturbing; I hope never to have to hear such a sound again.
By breaking his horns, I had broken his pride – and his seething hatred soon broke the rest. The flames of his hair spread outward until his entire body blazed like an inferno. Still, he got up and continued to punch, to kick, to claw, blind, unable to even find me. In his frenzy the precipice ultimately took him, for too late he realised he had teetered too close to the edge. His shriek called forth one last thunderclap, and its lightning smote him mid-fall, ending his reign of terror. I dropped to the ground, bruised and bleeding, and when I began to cry the sky released its waters to wash away my tears.
Furīdamu looks away and wipes one arm over his eyes. He shivers, and I ask him if he is alright. He nods, but it takes him a moment to face me, at which point his smile does little to hide his sorrow. I bring the cup he made to my lips, only to find it has gone cool. Whatever became of the people? I ask, drinking cold tea. The gentle giant shakes his head.
I never returned to the village. In fact, I never returned to the valley, to Ishizuchi, or to the paddies, for I could foresee my future, and did not like it at all. I would be praised, perhaps even hailed. News would spread of the Oni that killed another Oni, and soon another village would come and beg me to help with their Oni. And if I’d survive, which was not a guarantee, more requests would follow, and not long after I would be known as Oni Killer, or the Good Oni, forced to forever kill my kin. Whether out of rage or out of compassion, my life would exist of bloodshed – and I simply could not agree to that, not after my metamorphosis.
So, I fled, resolved to steer clear from people, passing through the land as a crimson shadow. For years I wandered alone, and apart from the occasional encounter with lone hunters or travellers I met no one. Some wanderers would flee, others approached and would hear my tale. But I would permit none to walk with me, nor would I offer my help to those who asked. And though I was not happy, I was content – for a while; one can only be without company for so long. So it was that after rage I knew peace, and after peace I knew sorrow, and after sorrow I knew loneliness – which was not a companion to keep. Would I seek out humans after all? Or was I to settle down somewhere? I even thought of finding another Oni to try and teach them the ways of meditation – but none of these ideas would stay. Without my anger I had lost my purpose, and without purpose what was I meant to do? Ah – she arrives!
My host laughs and waves at something in the fields – I do not immediately see it, but after a few seconds I detect a little dot flying just above the waltzing grass. I soon realise the dot is a pixie, clutching a sizeable strawberry. She wears a skirt and top made of faded indigo silk. Her hair is short and golden, and with an adorable giggle she brings the strawberry to Furīdamu and deposits it on his outstretched hand. She rubs her tiny nose against his before resting on his shoulder, pointing at me and chittering into his ear. Furīdamu nods and smiles.
You wished to know of whom I spoke, the Oni says, cocking his head to one side to better hear the pixie’s chitter. Wait a moment Fay, allow me to first introduce you. This here is Fay, my companion – my family. This surprises you! Indeed, when I came upon Fay, I was rather surprised too, not in the least because pixies are not from my native lands. It turned out that Fay here had flown through a gate from another realm – this realm – quite unwittingly. She can be rather mischievous, this one. Hey – don’t pull my ear! We happened upon one another by sheer luck. I was tracking a deer for lunch when Fay here zipped by me, followed by a… what do you call it, the one that looks like kitsune? A fox, that’s right. She was chased by a hungry fox, and though I did not quite realise what Fay was, I knew that I wished to save her – and perhaps to make the fox my supper. At the latter I failed, but Fay I could save just by shouting, which caused the fox to flee. Fay meanwhile had managed to get herself snared on the thorns in a thicket, and at first was greatly distressed at my enclosing hand, until she realised I released her from the thorns and provided her with berries to replenish her energy.
I think we were both intrigued by one another – such a small creature meeting such a large one – and we tried to communicate, failing spectacularly at first. Pointing and gesticulating was marginally successful, and Fay brought me to the gate she had flown through. It was embedded in a torii, a traditional Japanese arch, in front of an abandoned forest shrine, and it was a most fascinating apparition: I could see the forest around and behind the gate, but when I stood exactly straight in front of it, I could see an endless field of grass, with no sign of human life. Curiosity took hold of me and, squatting to fit, I went for the gate with the pixie in the palm of my hand. As I passed through, I could feel a strange sensation pressing on me, as if I had suddenly become twice as heavy and was wading through mud. Then I was freed, and I stood in that field – this field, where we now sit and chat. The torii had gone. In its stead stood a stone structure I’ve learned is called a dolmen, functioning much the same as the portal from which we came. Except suddenly the forests of my home disappeared, and the gate never opened it for us again. I was alarmed at first, but the peace of Sward’s Breath stilled me. We still go there, Fay and I, from time to time, although more out of tradition than a desire to go back.
The pixie slides off the Oni’s shoulder and jumps onto mine, twittering words too softly for me to make out. Then she pats my bushy beard and flies back to Furīdamu and wriggles her way into the hole of his earlobe as if it were a miniature swing. Her actions make the both of us laugh.
As I said, a mischievous one! When I learned her language, I also learned of her misère, for she had lost her family to a group of owls that swooped in on them during one fateful night, many moons ago. She was lost and alone for years, not unlike me. Perhaps it was this commonality that drew us together, but we both agreed that our chance encounter was the best thing that ever happened to us, for the both of us live long lives, and wish to live them in peace. And together we found new purpose, for and with each other, and for close to a hundred years we have been in these fields and woods, together.
I cannot help but smile at this vista before me – the culmination of years of struggle and amazing transformation – an Oni finding peace with a pixie. A gust of wind makes Furīdamu shiver, and as he does Fay falls from his ear in theatrical fashion, and all three of us laugh. I am invited to stay for dinner, and to see the dolmen from which they emerged. I happily take them up on their offer. And as the Oni pours me another cup, I find myself musing on the kinship they found in such an unexpected circumstance.
It is enough to even make demons cry.
The Final Clock
Although we race against the final clock
To beat the man who aims to reap
To leave us all behind to weep
Our efforts, fruitless, seem designed to mock
Though we may strike our fists against the dirt
Or cast our anger to the sky
Our discontent a voiceless cry
They shan’t turn back the time, undo the hurt
The question then presented, sung in vain
Asks all and no one, is it fair?
An end so swift, so hard to bear?
But only silence plays in loss’ refrain
Lost in the muddled dark our train of thought
runs over joy and merriment
To crash, derail, or meet an end
So vicious it would make all hope thus naught
Yet in the stillest corner of the soul
We know our pain you never felt
The choices made you never dealt
That on those pearly beaches you may stroll
And with a peaceful heart you look
At all the clock gave you, and took
And you may smile, knowing you gave
Blades of grass tower over me. So tall. Too tall. They wave in unfelt winds, encroaching from all sides.
But it is not what causes the rustling.
I walk through corridors of vegetation. Overhead light flickers from crying street lamps, leaking, dripping, unseen tears. The hair on my neck stands up. Goosebumps make me shiver.
But not because of the lamps.
I see them in a field ahead. Their noses pressed to the cold, hard dirt, they shuffle on all fours, endlessly tracing paths in a field of arid, yellowed hay, faces shrouded by black cowls. They snuffle as they search in circles, foraging like mad boars, for treasures unknown. I want to get away from them, but therein lies the problem.
I am forced to pass them.
They pay me no heed, it seems. Their sniffs and rustling are loud, and I am small, so small.
Suddenly they all stop. An icy shiver runs down my spine in the absence of sound. The are still, only turning their heads, back and forth, back and forth, as if deciding on where the intruder is. I move through the grass, and they continue their perpetual crawls. I realise at that point, the futility of running.
There is no key. No key to escaping.
I stoop low and start searching, hands parting grass, face close to the ground. Perhaps it is here? Or... there?
Based on a recurring childhood dream.
The name Chibouk is from the narrator in my fantasy stories about wizards. Sometimes he actively participates, or is a character himself; other times he has met with the main characters that appear in his tales. As for the name, well... here's a little bio:
Salutations! My name is Alex Alexandros Kidemonas, and I hail from the mountain village of Pomedom (named so as it lies wedged between mounts Pom and Dom on the Atalas Flats. Quite a mouthful, I know, and so it may please you to learn that I also respond to Chibouk.
It is an enduring moniker, one I have come to like quite a bit. It happened upon me shortly after my fiftieth birthday, when my son sent me a most marvellous staff: not only does the thing double as a walking stick, but it also functions as a long, hollow pipe, perfect for imbibing the smoke of Ira Zabira, my favourite leaf, a cross between nightshade and nettle – the latter of which allows for a sharp vapour, which invigorates the mind. Well, this mind, at least. The staff, which my son dubbed Djalanorokok, resembles a Turkish tobacco pipe of old, famous for its long stem – which was called a chibouk. Few people still use such antiquated devices (the shisha would prove more popular in later years), and as such it is rare to see anyone enjoying a puff this way. But I found myself growing fond of the ritual that is preparing the staff as my pipe. It forces me to stop and sit, rest, and introspect. It is also a fitting companion for an Embermage such as myself, and over the course of my many travels with the thing, people have come to define me by it.
As for the Stray? I call myself a wizard afflicted with wanderlust, and so I am a stray, if you will, or a wanderer. Over the years I have been given many more nicknames: the Wandering Wizard, the Magus of Many Tales, That-Man-With-The-Ridiculously-Long-Pipe - and few others I have forgotten. But Chibouk endured, and shall endure still, for as long as there is a tale to tell, I will be there to tell it.
Minka Versus Minx
MINKA VERSUS MINX
A tale by Chibouk the Stray
A shrill voice echoed over the cobbles of Tahawal Street. It came from miss Kibbel, who had popped her head out of her little bakery called Muffin Tops.
‘Seriously, where did you run off to?’ she said, rubbing her temples. Twice more she shouted for Minka, before giving up and changing the CLOSED sign to OPEN and heading inside. She left the door open, allowing the smell of fruity, buttery pastries to waft out the door: a hint of cinnamon here, a dash of lemon there, all designed to trigger a bit of a tummy-rumble. Miss Kibbel shuffled over to her furnace and inhaled the scent of roasted almonds on banana bread. They were not ready yet, and so she plopped down in her rocking chair and pushed herself off with her heels, enjoying the cool breeze that came in through the entrance.
Something soft brushed against her legs. ‘Missy Minx! Why, I didn’t see you come in. Come here then, on my lap you go.’
The calico cat that had snuck in meowed and allowed herself to be picked up, and, after softly clawing miss Kibbel’s apron, nestled into her lap, purring at the strokes of her wrinkled hand.
‘Honestly Minxie girl, I don’t know what to do with that girl,’ miss Kibbel said while staring out the shop window, ‘where does she sneak off to every night?’
Minx flexed, yawned and stretched, then rolled on her back, relishing the belly rub that followed. Miss Kibbel smiled at the feline’s delight. Then she noticed the pink bowtie around her neck.
‘Oh, how pretty, Minx! You didn’t wear that yesterday. Did your owner give you that? Gosh, you are a cutie-pie, aren’t you. Tickle tickle!’
With powdery fingers miss Kibbel prodded Minx’s exposed tummy, and in reflex the cat grabbed her wrist as if catching prey – but the baker knew that whenever she did so, Minx never revealed her nails.
A heavy sigh signalled the end of playtime. ‘Where is that girl?’
Minx paused as if thinking on what to do next, then half rolled, half fell to the ground, landed neatly on her paws, and affectionately rubbed her head against the baker’s legs, before sauntering off to the back of the shop and hopping up the stairs. Miss Kibbel got up as well and took another long, hard look at her breads in the oven, straightening at the sound of footsteps coming downstairs. At first she looked surprised. Then her face sagged in displeasure.
‘Minka! I couldn’t find you anywhere upstairs. Where on earth did you come from? And stop doing that, will you!’
The teenage girl that emerged from the staircase stopped licking the palm of her hand, stumbled over her own feet, then adjusted the salmon-coloured ribbon in her hair. ‘Notice anything, auntie?’ she chirped, cocking her head to the side.
‘I notice you’re late, as usual. Waffles are in the kitchen, though they’ll be cold by now. Oh and finish the orange juice will you? It’s about to expire. Chop chop girl – shop’s open!’
Grunting Minka dragged herself to the kitchen, placing her back against the corner of the table and rubbing it to rid herself of an insistent itch. Stale waffles awaited her. The glass of orange milk smelled more sour than usual. With a grimace Minka emptied the glass in the drain and chucked the waffles in the bin. She’d have some milk later, when the maid delivered it. When she saw her reflection in the window she took off her ribbon, wiped it, then squeezed the thing in her fist before throwing it to the ground. Auntie hadn’t noticed it – not when she wore it.
Sighing Minka licked the back of her hand and flicked it through her auburn hair, before walking back into the shop and grabbing an apron from the rack behind the counter. The first customers were in: the grandmama twins who lived across the street, who came by every day.
‘Here’s your cinnamon rolls, Carol, Carla,’ Minka said, handing them two paper bags prepped by her auntie. ‘Will you be staying for coffee?’
Of course they stayed for coffee. They had stayed for coffee since time immemorial, having been loyal customers even since before the shop’s conception, eating rolls and sipping joes with her auntie in an act of neighbourly support. There, the lady of the house emerged, returning from the mirror at back of the shop with a thick layer of lipstick and a copious streak of rouge. Without even looking at her niece miss Kibbel plopped down with the twins and began her routine of morning gossip, ordering her to bring another cup of coffee with a flick of her hand. Minka rolled her eyes, brought the pot and placed it on the table for the ladies to figure out for themselves. She concluded, hearing their cackles, that they didn’t much care. Some more customers came and went, and ultimately it was Minka who took the banana bread from the oven while her aunt yakked away with the dinosaur twins. That’s how it went every single day; Minka ran the shop while Kibbel ran her mouth. As long as nothing broke and the customers were cared for, Kibbel didn’t speak to her at all.
Except, of course…
‘Minka put that down dear, lest you turn into a sweet roll yourself! That stuff goes straight to the thighs – and you really don’t need that, not with hips like yours.’
Scoffing Minka put away the cake she had almost bit into, took off her apron, and stomped up the stairs.
‘Where are you going?’
Minka slammed the door behind her and faced the mirror, wiping the corners of her eyes. How come that daft woman never paid attention – would willingly let her breads burn – yet somehow always knew when her niece went for a treat? Minka’s eyes glided down her mirror image. She wasn’t exactly skinny, but fat? Minka pressed her hands against her stomach, then let them slide over to her hips. This won’t do, she thought, day in, day out, what’s the point? Maybe I should go and change… But no, she couldn’t, not while the bakery beckoned. Tonight, yes, if only to confound Kibbel about her absence. Slowly Minka retreated to the shop.
The maid came to deliver the milk, allowing Minka to quelch her thirst. At nine-thirty she had a salmon-and-cream bagel, which would have to power her through the rest of the day, because lunch time was busy, and with patrons packing their provisions she would not find the time to have a sit down herself. Kibbel, of course, always found a moment to eat, blaming old age and frailty for her incessant need of nourishment, all the while criticising Minka whenever she asked for a break – what with her girth on the grow and all (as if Kibbel herself had not garnered quite the cushion). It wasn’t until five-thirty that the front door would shut and the sign would read CLOSED that, at last, Minka’s shift was over.
Miss Kibbel poked her head out the door, scanning Tahawal Street. ‘Minx? Oh missy Minx! Here puss puss puss!’ she sang, waiting a little while longer.
‘She’s never around at this time,’ Minka said, scowling at her grumbling stomach.
‘Oh shush, what do you know of cats,’ miss Kibbel said, before closing the door anyway. ‘Now be a dear and cook up some dinner. I’ve got tomorrow’s dough to knead.’
With a sigh Minka shuffled to the kitchen, groaning at the pile of plates she had to wash ere cooking could commence. A simple Pasta Romano would have to do, even if the tomatoes were no longer fresh. At least there was plenty of cheese.
Dinner was its usual quiet affair. Minka slurped at her fettuccini while Kibbel twirled the pasta with her fork – failing at her pursuit of etiquette. She tutted at her niece’s habit of licking the plate clean.
‘Cat’s got your tongue except for when you slobber it all over your plate. How are you to become a proper baker with that attitude of yours? And where are you off to now?’ Miss Kibbel inquired, eyeing Minka as she hobbled to the stairs.
‘Long day, I’m turning in,’ was the reply.
Kibbel scoffed. ‘For someone who sleeps so early you certainly manage to wake up late every day. Fine, go, have your cat nap – and don’t shake your hips so much when you walk, dear, it’s unbecoming.’
Without answering Minka trod upstairs, entered her room and quietly closed the door. She took a moment to lie on her bed, pushing her nose into the blankets and writhing around as if she couldn’t quite find the right position. Then she sat up, turned off the light, and waited, listening to the rhythm of the clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock. She focused solely on that sound, tick, tock. She breathed in. Tick, tock. She breathed out. Tick, tock.
It began with a shiver. An itch, just behind her right ear. Slowly the sounds of the world dimmed, while the sound of the clock grew louder. She felt herself diminish in size, and as she did her features began to change. Her nose began to shrink and her ears elongated. The hair on her head shortened while her skin grew bristly, and all the while she grew smaller. Then it accelerated: from her tailbone an actual tail sprang to life, and her arms and legs repositioned themselves to allow for quadrupedal movement. Her nails became claws that retracted in furry paws, and all the while she shrunk and shrunk. The final touch came with a cute little sneeze, causing whiskers to sprout from her face. The feline on the bed scratched behind her ear and meowed, blinking as her eyes enlarged to take in a world so dark.
Minka loved how each time she changed, her awareness changed too. Even sitting still on the bed she revelled in the sensations that swirled in her mind. The shadows of the room turned to silver, allowing her to see the wardrobe, her desk, and her nightstand with great clarity. Her vision had also expanded, as if her world had become panoramic. More impressive, however, were the other senses: without having to even try it Minka could smell everything with an acuity humans could never understand. She picked up the scent of her own pheromones, which were an intimate kind of sweet. There was an undertone of mustiness from dust and pollen, and tucked beneath all that she detected a hint of fermented yeast and sugar. Like a layer of blankets each smell presented itself, together yet separate, covering her surroundings in warm, familiar odours. But that was not all. There were also many more sounds than before: the ticking of the clock dominated the bedroom, but there was also her auntie’s shuffling coming from downstairs, the whistle of the breeze outside, and the scraping of tiny rodent paws in the beams above. She could also deduce with great precision where each sound came from, and she wiggled her ears when from outside came a feline cry.
Minka pushed her hind legs up and straightened her forelegs, stretching her claws and her spine. Then she hopped off the bed and walked the room, so giant, so alien, yet still home. With a wiggle of her whiskers she calculated her jump, before effortlessly reaching the bureau under the window. Strewn under her were pencils, papers and sticky notes, but her paws always avoided them, even without her looking down – her whiskers were like magic antennae, telling her exactly what was directly under her. She hopped on the windowsill. The opening to the outside world was a slither, just enough for her to squeeze through. From there she clambered up the gutter and strut over it like a literal catwalk. Oh she loved how her shoulders rolled with each step. The pistons of this pussy’s power were still a lazy locomotive, but in the blink of an eye she’d be a bullet train, sprinting with a finesse and speed only felines possessed. The rooftops, getting dark in the fading twilight, appeared as bright as midday to her – but now she would have to descend, for her nose had picked up something of interest.
With a motion more akin to water Minka flowed down a drainpipe and jumped onto the canopy of a small confectionary shop, gleefully bouncing on its elastic surface. Her movements were sinuous – and she felt mischievous. With her whiskers she picked up a change in the air even before she felt the canopy tremble behind her. It was the orange alley cat Otto, who roamed the back alleys and side streets and who lived behind perpetually overflowing rubbish bins. They rubbed heads, purred in recognition of one another, then leapt down, stalking the shadows of Tahawal street. Bags and bins were there to be toppled, rats and rodents there to be thwomped – and nightly rest was to be thwarted by the falsest of falsettos: a balcony duet to make even the moon regret its rise.
A shrill, wet cry interrupted the acappella. The calico cat looked up and with an air of nonchalance pushed Otto off the wooden fence that they had made their stage. Then she dropped to the street and at a brisk pace went for the source of the sound – which was, of course, Muffin Tops.
‘MINKA!’ the shriek went, and the cat could hear high heels tapping against the cobbles. With a meow she let the baker know of her presence, and she heard a sigh of both relief and worry.
‘Minxie dear, have you seen Minka, by chance?’ Kibbel said, studying the feline’s face.
The cat rolled over the woman’s shoes and rubbed her head against her shins.
‘Of course not… you probably don’t even know who Minka is. She’s not in her room, and I never heard her leave the bakery. Darn it, why does that girl have to worry me so?’
Slowly the cat lifted her head, as if comprehension dawned. While miss Kibbel tutted and groaned the cat slipped inside and ran up the stairs. The room she went for was closed, and without opposable thumbs it would’ve been impossible to turn the handle. But the little window up top stood permanently ajar, and with little to no effort the cat made her way up the shelves in the hall, jumped up the window’s ledge, and dropped in like the cat burglar she was. Wait – why was she here again? She scanned the room… Oh why was it so hard to remember?
It was the noise miss Kibbel made downstairs that did the trick, and deftly the feline hopped onto the bed, locking onto the clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock. The cat’s eyes barely moved, focusing on the hands of time. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
Not a minute later a groggy Minka stumbled out of her bedroom, half wondering where she was and why she smelled of discarded mackerel tins. But with a bigger brain to process the world around her, the answers presented themselves even before she reached the stairs.
‘Minka!’ Kibbel turned when she heard footsteps coming down. ‘Where have you been girl? I came to check on you when I noticed your room was empty.’
‘Bathroom,’ Minka mumbled, scratching the dishevelled nest that was her hair. But Kibbel was not so easily deceived.
‘I took a shower dear – you weren’t in the house. Gods knows how you escaped – the window I suppose, but then what? Dropped down from that tiny ledge?’
Minka looked down at her socks. One of them had a hole in it.
‘I guess we’ll get to that later.’ Kibbel rubbed her temple as if trying to clean away smudge. ‘Tell me, what is this?’
Minka eyed what her aunt was holding up to her. It was her pink ribbon – the one she had discarded in the kitchen.
‘My…’ she began.
‘What did you do to Minx? This morning that little darling came into the shop wearing this lovely ribbon, before going upstairs. And then I found it, creased and crumpled, on the kitchen floor! And just now I saw her and she didn’t have it anymore! So I ask again, what did you do to that cat?’
‘Give me that, that’s mine!’ Minka said, reaching for the ribbon that dangled in front of her. But her feline finesse had left her, and Kibbel easily manoeuvred around her grabby hand.
‘Please! I’m not stupid, you know. If it’s yours then how did it end up with Minx? Now what did you do to her?’
Anger bubbled to the surface and Minka began to tremble. ‘You don’t get it, do you? You never do! And you say you aren’t stupid…You care more about that cat than you care about me!’
‘Don’t you wag that finger at me young lady! I care for you plenty! Took you in after your parents died, didn’t I?’
‘Don’t you dare use them as an excuse!’
‘You are horrid, Minka!’ Kibbel continued, deaf to the girl’s pleas, ‘Disappearing night after night – making your poor aunt worry sick! I should bolt that damned window shut! Now I will ask one last time: what did you do to missy Minx?’
Miss Kibbel’s face reddened. She straightened her back and puffed herself up. ‘LIAR!’ she belted, ‘You are nothing but a horrible liar! Always complaining, eating my life savings away, but do you hear me making a fuss? No more! You are grounded, missy, until you decide to be honest with me! And if you DARE to leave the house tonight, better prepare to stay away, because you won’t be allowed back in anymore! NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM!’
Minka clawed at her head and let out a long, loud shriek, before stampeding up the stairs, slamming the door shut behind her, and shoving her face into her pillows to weep. And when she had no more tears to shed she stood up, made her bed and tidied her room, before fully opening the window. She clambered through, almost slipping over the little ledge, and softly shut the window behind her. With a quiver in her voice and a shiver from the cold she straightened, closed her eyes, and jumped.
A calico cat landed on the cobbled street.
A shrill voice echoed over the cobbles of Tahawal Street, which bathed in the light of a watery sun. The sign of Muffin Tops said ‘OPEN’.
Carol and Carla, the next-door dinosaurs, came and went. No coffee was poured this morning. And to the great surprise of the lunch-going crowd, Muffin Tops was closed before noon, with the lights inside turned off, despite the door being open.
The baker sat motionless in her rocking chair, gazing out the window, seeing nothing. A meowing sound eventually made her look down.
‘Minx,’ she said, her voice faltering. The calico cat that had snuck in purred and allowed herself to be picked up. Softly she clawed at miss Kibbel’s apron, nestled into her lap, and shivered at the strokes of the baker’s calloused hand.
‘Oh Minxie girl, I think I’ve done it now,’ miss Kibbel said while staring out the shop window, ‘Minka disappeared… Oh Minx, where could she be?’
Minx’s eyes narrowed, as if she was thinking really hard. Then she flexed, yawned, and rolled on her back. Wrinkly fingers prodded her tummy, and softly the feline grabbed the lady’s wrist, only vaguely aware of the drops that fell into her fur.