Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Monday Night Chinese: Part 3

Part 03: Le Beau Rien Sans Merci

There were stories of how Astoria used to be, whispers of how it worked now, rumors of what it looked like. Levi had heard them all. One of the Afterlife jobs possible was in fact guardian of the gates to Astoria, and Levi knew that they were stationed both outside the doors on the banks of Acheron and inside as well, in the actual melancholy town where no one ever smiled. He wasn’t sure what that meant, a town where no one ever smiled, but he knew the time when he would understand was drawing closer, and closer.

Darkness seeped all around Levi, who kept running, running, running, trying to catch up to the man in gray. He felt as though he had been at it for ages before the darkness began to fade away revealing pure white, and another door, one that was wide open. Levi stepped through onto the cement of a darkened, empty city. The door behind him shrank down into the same eye the man in gray had torn from his own socket; it stared at Levi then floated away before he could grab it.

“He created the gate himself. That’s why there wasn’t a Guardian,” Levi said quietly to himself, taking in the city’s drab gloominess.

It was cold, unwelcoming, a dark sort of sterile. Levi walked alongside the empty streets halfheartedly. He could feel the city draining his energy little by little and he began to feel overwhelmed. The city seemed so large; how would he find the man in gray? He tried to focus and see if he could feel any sort of noise coming from the man in gray, but nothing came to him. He was so terribly lost.

“I suppose you’re feeling terribly lost,” Came a voice from the hollow emptiness of Astoria. “I would too. I mean, you’re not used to the empty streets. Why would you be? It’s not like you’re supposed to be here or anything.”

Levi wasn’t quite sure how to react. Maybe if he ignored the voice it would go away? But what if the voice was a guardian? That meant help in tracking down the man in gray. A little hope returned to Levi.

“Stop walking.”

Levi promptly obeyed, burying his hands in his pockets and waiting patiently, looking at the skyline. He hadn’t seen an actual city in a very long while since he rarely traveled to the living world but from what he could tell Astoria was much like any other city. What a peculiar place, he thought, to transport souls to in order to prepare them for reincarnation. Where were they even kept?

“Okay, now… about face?”

Levi obeyed as it was the polite and intelligent thing to do, though the voice sounded unsure of itself. But on the off chance that the voice belonged to someone incompetent, Levi knew it was always a bad idea to anger a potential idiot.

“And… good! Hello good sir. You do not belong here and therefore you must be Monday!”

With that terrible logic in mind, Levi turned around, looking over the gentleman. It was a term he used loosely here, from his scraggly black hair to his un-shined shoes. At one point Levi was sure the young man had looked nicer but the Guardian’s slim-fitting clothes looked so untidy. His white-collared shirt was un-tucked, un-buttoned at the top three buttons and wrinkled, as were his khaki pants and his checkerboard skinny tie was loosened a great deal. He looked like he had slept in those same clothes for a week.

“Levi Brickner.” Levi would have said more but he hesitated at the sound of his voice; his British accent, something Levi completely forgot he had, had returned. The terrible thought came to Levi’s mind that being in the Afterlife so long had caused him to forget who he used to be, when he was living.

“Oh, well, how do you do then, my good Monday.” The Guardian held out his hand and did a little bow. “Good Monday, I am Mr. Friday Panache the Guardian of Astoria, Red Light District.”

“My good Friday, I am Levi, a Listener- red light district?” Levi was taken aback.

“What about the red light district? Oh, oh no, this is the shopping district. I’m the guardian of this section, you know.”

Levi wasn’t able to tell if he was being had. He felt a great deal less confident in any help he might receive from Friday.

“I’m looking for a man-”

“Try the red light district.”

“A man in gray, he passed through here. Well, I suppose he looks more like a teenager once you get a really good look at him. Do you think you’ve seen him? You could call him an anti-Listener.” After the briefest of pauses, Levi felt the need to elaborate a little further for Friday’s sake. He came off as such a bunbury. “He’s not an Afterlife worker, of course. Why would we have an anti-Listener? He found some way to get here with his eye.”

Friday had stopped paying attention and was now examining the architecture, as far as Levi could tell. He snapped his fingers at Friday to get his attention.

“Oh? Sorry, I was thinking about long-handled spoons and how I could really use one right now to eat some grapefruit or a milkshake.”

Levi took deep breaths and successfully counted to three instead of the recommended ten before speaking, articulating his words very precisely so Friday would understand everything he said. “To eat a grapefruit you need a serrated spoon. And why would you eat a milkshake? Everyone knows you drink them with a straw.”

“Not true. People eat them with spoons too, especially the really thick ones.”

“I take it you’re one of those people who dips your chips in them as well?”

“My what? Excuse you kind sir, but that is disgusting. It’s my French fries that I dip in the milkshake.” Friday began cleaning his fingernails. “The fear of ghost cows is referred to as bovinospiraphobia, isn’t that a hoot? Why would anyone think a ghost cow would haunt them? They’d obviously haunt other cows. You don’t hear about people haunting dogs or leopards or crows, do you?”

Levi agreed that Friday did in fact make a wonderful point about ghost cows in relation to haunting individuals, but he was wasting an opportunity to figure out the mystery or what have you of the man in gray. He decided to leave.

“Good Friday, I bid you adieu.” Levi turned about face and proceeded to walk away. Friday did not take too kindly to this and started walking after him, so Levi began to walk faster. “I said adieu, Friday, now leave me be!”

“No! You’re not supposed to be here, so I’m your… um…” Friday started stroking his chin in thought whilst chasing after Levi.

“Escort?” Levi responded, turning his head briefly to respond.

“Red light district.” Friday said, pointing to his left with his right hand.

Taking no time to think about it, Levi turned the next block corner sharply, sprinting along the cross-walk and ducking into an alleyway all in an effort to escape Friday. It worked, for as soon as Levi stopped he could no longer see Friday and did not hear him running in pursuit either. All was right with the world again, except for the glaringly obvious fact that Levi was even more terribly lost now than he had been before and now had no escort.

The next plethora hours were spent dilly-dallying around the vacant city and sight-seeing, for there were a great number of things to see other than the architecture, which was a mix of rustic, gothic, and many other styles; in fact, Astoria had a little bit of everything depending on the district. The first Levi had been in reminded him greatly of London, but as he went deeper, the second district he had more Greek architecture than anything, then the third reminded him of a posh European village. Further on he even found windmills, and was surprised that he had not seen them beforehand as each one appeared to be roughly as large as some of the skyscrapers.

Levi needed to rest, the aura of Astoria weighing greatly on his being. He chose to sit on a bench in a town square, the center of which held a fountain with an angel on top. Levi found the statue quite queer and disturbing, as the angel seemed to be clawing at its own throat. If Astoria looked so nice, why did it have to feel so dismal?

Hours dragged by and the pressure affecting Levi only grew stronger, yet he chose to sit still, staring at the angel. He refused to let the pressure of the city make his choices for him. If he wanted to sit on the bench and take in the sites, then by everything he held dear and precious (his restaurant), he would! That, and he felt utterly alone and hopeless. He had not run in to the man in gray or another Guardian. What were they all doing? Were they inside the buildings?

The buildings. The entire time Levi had been there, he had never once thought about entering the buildings. Strange, he thought, and roused by this newfound curiosity he allowed himself to stand and wander Astoria once more. Which building would he enter? Did it really matter?

“Dear, sweet, Monday! My lost lamb! It’s dangerous here at night!”

Panic struck Levi and he entered the door of the first building he saw, an apartment complex. He inhaled deeply once inside, looking around shiftily.

“Hello?” He called out once he had climbed the first flight of stairs. Cautiously he made his way through the door at that first landing, inching his way down the hallway, step by step, looking over each apartment door once, twice, three times over. What were behind these doors?

Carefully he grasped a door handle, counted to three, and turned sharply, throwing open the door. There, in front of him, were the frozen images of a young Asian man in a suit standing at a table and a middle-aged woman in a gown standing on the couch. Their images flickered briefly and their faces went from blank to shocked, and from shocked to angry without showing any of the in-between facial twinges and movements. Levi backed out of the apartment, hitting the hallway wall, absently grasping at it. Fear was the first emotion to cross his mind, his first impulse to run, but he could only seem to stay put. He waited for the images to draw closer, but they never did. They only stared.

“They’re in a stasis, you know.”

Friday stood at the entrance of the stairwell, picking at some unseen thing on his arm. Levi opened his mouth, but no words came out.

“The spirits stay in these buildings, almost completely frozen. Until it’s their time to be reincarnated, of course, and one of us Guardians leads them to the special gate.”

“Of course,” Levi choked out. He heard a slam and looked back at the apartment, the door now closed.

“You know how soda always seems so appetizing but as soon as you drink one you realize it’s actually kind of gross?” Friday had gone on to trying to slick his hair back by first licking his hand and then running it through the black mass on his head. Levi let out a soft laugh.

“No wonder Astoria feels so sterile. Most life is frozen. Anyone would go crazy here, you poor man.”

Friday shrugged. “Do you know any good poems? The Wasteland’s my favorite. I’ll give you a cookie if you can quote it.”

“Maybe some other time, Friday. Let’s move on.”

Time had made little impact on Levi’s life, for the most part, since his arrival in the Afterlife, in the sense that it could quickly pass him by and he wouldn’t notice or care. As far as he knew he had eternity to enjoy. It was because of this that Levi had no idea how long he had actually been in Astoria, and it could very easily have been days. In Levi’s mind it meant he should also have been nominated for a patience award in having to deal with Friday leading him around the city, showing off all the architecture and giving very lengthy explanations that mainly dealt with things like the odd places hair grows on the body, the effectiveness of q-tips and lint. Levi was expecting Friday to lead him to a gate back to the Afterlife, but he suspected the Guardian was enjoying the company so said little in the way of reminding him that Levi did not belong there.

“I wonder if the man in gray is even still here,” Levi mused.

“Well, if you’re looking for a blandly dressed man,” Friday started before Levi interrupted him.

“I will not check the red light district.”

“No, no, if you’ll look behind you, Monday, you’ll see Raphael. He’s a blandly dressed man.” Friday pointed, and Levi turned.

Not but a few yards in front of him was the man in gray.

“We’ve been having cartwheel contests,” Friday politely explained. He smiled, then proceeded to clean his fingernails.

The man in gray looked rather malevolent, hovering above the ground, aided by two tiny demonic wings. He wasted no time and flew right at Levi, who dodged to the side, leaving the clueless Friday to take the brunt of the impact. Except Friday didn’t take the brunt of the impact. Instead, as soon as Levi moved, Friday nonchalantly grabbed the man in gray, Raphael, by the wrist, and tossed him into a building, ripping off the arm in the process.

“So far I’m winning.”

Was Friday being wry? Levi ignored the debris that flew out of the damaged building and instead stared, awestruck, at Friday and the arm he tossed over his shoulder.

“Raphael does wear a lot of gray, doesn’t he? He’s very bland. I told him if he’d start dressing brighter and leaving Samml alone that I’d consider letting him stay, but instead he keeps on wandering in and out of Astoria without using the official gates. In-Between, bless her heart, has no idea how to keep him out.” Friday seemed decently lucid, which Levi was thankful for, but how long it would last he didn’t know or want to think about.

“Good Friday, please don’t kill Raphael. I need to find out what he did with the others…” Levi trailed off. If Laura had turned in to an ogre, than chances were the other missing Afterlife employees had been transformed as well and were wandering around the living world. It would be ages before all, if any, would be brought back and returned to normal. What a terrible time for Levi to realize that. “Friday, how’re you-”

“So good looking?” Friday beamed. Levi swore he saw sparkles around Friday’s face for the briefest moment.

“How are you so strong?”

Friday paused thoughtfully, watching Raphael rise from the rubble. “You know saints, right?”

Levi nodded, keeping an eye on the struggling Raphael as well. “Those in the living world born with special talents like telekinesis, or having familiar spirits. Anyone can use magic if they find a grimoire, but saints don’t need to use magic to cleanse the world of demons. I myself could see spirits when they tried to hide themselves. Much like this little boy I met named Quincy.” Levi wasn’t quite sure if he should run or not; would Friday protect him?

“All Afterlife employees were saints. Listeners and Ferrymen had the more passive abilities while Reapers and Guardians were more physical. Parts of that carry over. Oh look, he’s going in for another round! Watch after my things, will you?” Friday looked on gleefully at Raphael, who, through much struggling and effort as he only had one arm to work with, had removed his jacket. Underneath he was wearing a black shirt with a jagged red design that started moving up and down; Levi assumed it was a mouth. “I’ve never seen him use that before. Do you think he could really, honestly eat me? I wonder what that would be like.”

“Spoiler: It probably could eat you.” Levi grabbed Friday’s arm but let go just as quickly as to cover his ears, for a high-pitched noise began reverberating through the air. Friday didn’t seem to notice, but Raphael turned his childish face to the left, craning his elegant neck. With help from his wings he lifted off the ground and flew away, wisps of energy escaping from where his arm once was. The noise stopped.

“That’s the center of the city,” Friday mused, stroking his chin, following with his eyes the path Raphael took. “He must be going after Samml again.”

“Who? Samiel?” Levi tried snapping his fingers by his ears to see if he could get the ringing to stop.

“Oh, you know the stories. Samml Akriosk, the fellow who used to host No One in this realm.”

“Good Friday, take me there this instant. I will not lose the Anti-Listener again.”

Friday stared at Levi blankly. He reached out his hand, the same one he had used to tear off Raphael’s arm. “Howdy! I’m Mr. Friday Panache. And you are?”

An old Victorian mansion lay in the very center of Astoria, iron gates with twirly designs preventing the non-existent residents of Astoria from getting in. Levi thought the gate a little much, but the Guardians felt it had been necessary to include so he went with it. Friday pushed the gate open without a key. Levi decided it was apparently just for looks.

“Tour guide, lead away,” Levi said following Friday in.

“Tour guide? I thought I was Good Friday.” Friday appeared to be genuinely confused. Levi let it slide; he had to, or nothing would get accomplished.

Into the house they went, down a hallway, up some stairs, up, up, up- the spiral stairs were grand, elegant, endless. Time passed in a painfully slow manner. Levi refused to spark up conversation with Friday for his own sanity. They arrived in front of grandiose wooden doors. In gold lettering was printed SAMML AKRIOSK, THE SILENT ONE. Levi pressed his head to the doors, closing his eyes. He tried to use the L noise to feel for anything at all, but he could sense nothing behind the door.

“No One is the boogeyman, Friday. He creates chaos, and he feeds on souls.” Levi spoke softly, clearing his mind. He had no idea what he was going to do once he opened the doors he was currently using for support.

“Well that’s just ridiculous. You can’t destroy a soul.”

“You can weaken it by feeding off of its energy. No One, according to stories, manipulates this; he transforms normal souls into demons, and feeds off of the hate they produce. I see it all the time, the endless, monstrous supply of hate that a single spirit can fabricate from an overblown emotion. Egos are fragile, one wrong word and a torrential flock of emotion can overwhelm you, seep into you and alter you. That’s probably the one thing I like about you, Friday. You’re simple; nothing I say could offend you.”

“You’re welcome.”

A soft smile parted the Listener’s lips. “Good Friday, the idea of Raphael having anything to do with No One’s former body is really quite frightening.”

Levi couldn’t tell, but he imagined Friday was scratching his head curiously. Either that or he wasn’t really paying attention and had started admiring the architecture again.

“The vessel he was using to terrorize worlds like the Afterlife and the Dreamscape hundreds and hundreds of years ago is behind this door. The bodiless entity, the real No One, abandoned Samml and nobody knows where he went.”

“Where is he?”

Levi turned to look at Friday, leaning against the wall coolly, playing with his tie. “What do you mean?”

“Is No One in the Afterlife, the Dreamscape, Astoria, or the living world? If he has no body, can he travel between them?” Friday let his tie drop, using his hands instead to push himself off the wall. He glided to the door, placing his own hand on it.

“I don’t know. Maybe that’s what scares me the most, knowing one day he could come back and feed off of me for eternity.” Levi’s emerald eyes looked directly into Friday’s hazel ones. “Let’s go in, shall we?”

Together, with greater effort than Levi imagined they would have needed, they pushed open the door. It creaked and groaned loudly, but it opened and they entered the room. At first, there was nothing. Then there was a single light. Then another. The tiny lights, floating candles, multiplied. They gave off a glow that made everything in the interior of the pale red room feel smudgy, like dried blood. In the center of the smudgy light, chained to the floor and ceiling, was Samml, dressed in royal purple clothes, his head hanging down. Indeed he was a tiny fellow, and when he looked up Levi examined his boyish face, placing his physical age at roughly seventeen. Burgundy hair fell around Samml’s face. Black took the spot of where the whites of his eyes were meant to be. He scrunched up his nose, bearing pointed teeth, pulling against the chains which stopped him inches from Levi’s face. Samml proceeded to back off.

“You’re a rather disturbed soul. I don’t need the L noise to be able to tell you that.” Levi whistled. He took a moment to look around the room, taking note of all the magic circles and spells drawn and written on the walls, he imagined, to keep Samml in place. He allowed the L noise to wash over his body as he got a better read of the chained man. “He wasn’t a natural soul to begin with, Friday. Once No One left him, he became even more screwed up; parts of him must have been repressed, leaving him like this.”

Samml gave off an animalistic, gruff air. It made the hairs on the back of Levi’s neck stand on end.

“I wonder if Sammly is a corruption of Samiel, the angel of death. It wouldn’t be completely inappropriate. But enough meandering; Raphael, if you’re in here, please come out. I’d like to get home.”

There was silence. Then, from the shadows, Raphael slithered out, grabbing on to Samml with his one good arm. His lips curled up. He began moving them, mouthing words that Levi could barely make out. He looked at Friday for support.

“He got tired of the cartwheel contest. Says I cheated. Now he wants to play duck, duck, goose. You’re the goose.”

Silence fell on the room, the kind that preceded what was inevitably to be an overbearing noise, and a special event. The calm before the storm, the cliché that explained it so well, the only words Levi could think to use despite his hatred for such common phrases. Phrases so overused that half the time they lost their meaning. And Levi was still trying to find meaning in every event that had occurred leading up to this very point, where he came face to face with the figure that had taken so many of his colleagues. He thought about what he would have done if Raphael had taken Alice, or Blue; what the Anti-Listener would have done to them, what Levi would have had to say to them to get them back, if he found them.

Raphael removed his black eye, crushing it. A door appeared, thrusting open and swallowing the man in gray.

“I guess I am it, then.” Levi ran at the door, only for a brief second looking back at Friday, who waved goodbye with his entire arm.

“Good luck, dear Monday! Don’t die, and don’t come home unless you win!” He shouted at Levi.

“Thank you for your help, Good Friday!” The door swallowed Levi, and Friday faded from his sight. The Listener pondered about the Guardian, thinking how unfortunate it would have been had Raphael turned Friday as well.

The door spat Levi out inside of the Afterlife, rather uncomfortably, right in front of his Chinese restaurant. He rose from his knees, but fell back on them after he received a slap to his face.

“Know your place, knave. I am the good knight and you the squire. When I tell you to do something, like, say, don’t go to Astoria, you do it. Now make me a sandwich, throw it away and make me a second one because the first won’t be good enough.” Alice’s voice was cool, serious, haughty, and above all bitter and commanding. Levi lifted his head up; she would have been more intimidating if her hair wasn’t in pigtails. Blue popped his head over Alice’s shoulder.

“Dude, you’ve been gone a while. We were just stopping by to see if you made it back. How was Astoria? Did you bring me back something?”

“Doubt it, Blue.” Alice roughly grabbed Levi’s arm and hoisted him up.

“I was chasing Raphael, did you see him?” Levi stuttered, struggling with his accent and getting over the shock of being slapped.

“You have an accent?” Alice and Blue asked in unison.

Levi stood up and pushed the two aside, seeking out Raphael but not seeing him anywhere. “Raphael- I mean, the man in gray, where is he? He’s missing an arm now and wearing a black shirt, you can’t have missed him.”

“The man in gray wears black? That just blew my mind,” Blue said.

Alice narrowed her eyes and turned Levi around, bringing her face closer to his, which made him rather uncomfortable. “Are you positive you saw him come this way? One hundred percent, cross your heart hope to die?”

Levi sputtered out a yes. Alice looked over Levi’s face a moment and broke her position, frumpily placing her hands on her hips. “We didn’t see anyone come out of that door but you. Sorry.”

A guttural groan leapt out of Levi’s throat and into the air. All of that work, and Levi was rewarded simply with a slap on the cheek and no Raphael.

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