Friday, October 4, 2013


(I feel like I need to preface that the entire idea for this came out of a joke about a bromance between my friend Cameron and I) 

"I'm well aware that you're captain of this airship. But what I asked you was what exactly this ship does, not who you are. Those are two very different questions, you see. I want to know if there's any precious cargo here or if you're a war ship. And I would prefer if you put down your pistol, it's not very polite to point that at someone unless you intend to shoot."
Up high in the sky through the nimbus clouds sailed the Airship IDA, led by the fearless adventurer Captain Cameron who, at that very moment, was having quite a queer yet strangely thrilling start of a conversation with a mysterious man in his Captain's Quarters. Naturally he had pulled out his third favorite pistol (it was the quickest and easiest to handle on the fly) he so sweetly named Persephone in case this were a simple crook, but he could now tell this man was anything but. He oozed mystery and intrigue even though so far Captain Cameron had only seen his backside. Even from behind this man captured Cameron’s curiosity. He uncocked the pistol and placed it in the gun holster on his thigh.
"Alright, you got me. I don't intend to shoot." Cameron's voice was childish, light, happy. He sounded nonchalant, and his face had the brightness of a youth in a store full of sweets. His appearance easily supported his boyish spirit. He was a sinewy gentleman who wore a crisp white collared shirt, a ruby cravat he tucked into his golden paisley vest, and his dark blue trousers with various belts slung around that had his three favorite pistols attached via holsters strung through the belts. His hair, wavy and black, was kept short and he came across not like any other captain with his boyish grin and overall energetic demeanor. His clothing was loud, he looked much too young to be in charge of anything. And yet those who knew of the Airship IDA, as few as those people might be, knew not to cross the crew’s path.
"Do you feel like answering my question?” The mysterious man nagged, keeping his back to the Captain. “Because that would be pretty nice."
"I'll think about really hard. Promise."
"I'll hold you to that."
"Oh I'm sure you will."
"I do hope you don't plan on taking a tea break before you answer, I'm afraid I couldn't stay for that."
"Wouldn't dream of it. Tea time's so dull, always with the old people talking about back in their day."
"Well when you put it that way."
"What way? I'm quite blind to the powers of my persuasion so I'd like to know what works. Maybe if you’d turn around, that would help. Not to say your backside isn't attractive—because it is—but I'd much prefer to meet you face to face."
The mysterious figure slowly turned around but not because he was taking his time. It was more like Cameron was watching a dream where time flowed differently. Like this moment was important. Behind the mysterious man the lion-maned sun blazed brightly through the windows that made up an entire wall of the quarters, illuminating his figure, giving him a rare celestial presence one could only glimpse by staring at a painting of an angel or from an encounter with a supernatural being. He had a strong figure, a bit larger than Captain Cameron’s, and his clothes were very dark, black trousers with a collared double-breasted vest and a collared shirt that had a peculiar white floral print. A downy soft gray scarf was loosely wrapped around his neck and shoulders. He moved forward allowing Captain Cameron to view his face. His hair was messy and black, his eyelashes long, and simply put he was a beautiful man. Captain Cameron recognized the mysterious man from wanted posters. It was the Phantom Thief, Mika.
"Phantom Thief, the Mysterious Mika." Cameron nodded towards the darkly clad thief. "I'm Captain Cameron of the Airship IDA, Conquistadores of the Sky."
            Mika ran a hand through his thick hair, taking a moment to look over Cameron. He let out a soft laugh. "Conquistadores of the Sky. An adventurer's airship?"
"Perfect?" Cameron was curious. Before he could question Mika, his first mate barged through his door.
"Captain!" First Mate Tiffy sternly exclaimed. She always seemed rather stern to the Captain, which made her the perfect First Mate. "There's another airship heading towards us."
Tiffy stood right at six foot one inch, slightly taller than either man, and her boots gave her at least an extra inch of height. It made her a little intimidating when combined with her strawberry hair and no-nonsense expression. She wore a light green dress that fell to the back of her knees in the back and a few inches higher up in the front, a leather bodice over it and black leggings underneath. On either wrist she had leather bracelets and a pastel blue tattoo ran from her left hand all the way up to her neck, where a compass on a chain hung loosely. A staff in a holster was slung around her back.
"Tiffy," the Captain started, "that's fine and good but I have a special guest."
Tiffy looked over at Mika and rolled her eyes, apparently unimpressed. "Captain, I don't care what goes on in your personal life. What matters is the ship."
"Well that’s rude, Tiffy."
"The ship," She repeated.
"I think you should apologize."
"Ship," She said once more with more emphasis.
"Apologize," Cameron chided.
“To you or him?” Tiffy asked.
“To him,” Cameron said.
“No thanks, more important things to do. Like get you to listen about the ship.”
"Sky Pirate Edweird," Mika interjected, his head snapping around to the window wall. The next thing Cameron knew Mika was in the air flying towards him, landing on top of the Captain with an oomph, Captain Cameron's face burying deep in Mika's chest as he held him down.
Cameron’s first thought was "he sure does smell good," and his second was "wait, what's going on?" which was followed up with the question of whether or not Cameron smelt good, as he could not recall a single occasion where he had ever confirmed what his smell was. Then came the crash, and Tiffy's worried shouting thinly veiled as frustration, wondering if the Captain was okay. Cameron could feel the gusts of air in his quarters and feared the worst. He stared at the gaping hole that was once his favorite wall over Mika’s shoulder.
"What in the world?" Cameron's face fell in a cocktail of frustration, disgust, contempt and shock. That would be a pain and a half to fix and he didn't want to have to use the money he had been saving up for a chocolate strawberry bush. The ship wouldn't appreciate the damage much, either. In fact she would be downright pissed.
Mika grabbed the Captain's face with his hands and forced it close to his own. "Get your crew to attack," he hoarsely instructed the Captain over the rushing air. The captain stared into Mika's eyes. They were like two black holes, voids that would lead him to obliteration if he were to fall in. Yet he was okay with it. He welcomed it. It was thrilling, and it made his pulse jump.
The Captain's silly grin spread across his face. "Tiffy!" He shouted. "I’m fine! Fetch me my trench coat. We have Sky Pirates to fight."
Tiffy, as stoic and solid as when she had come in, curtly nodded, shouting “Got it!” as loudly as she could. She swiftly exited the room to instruct the crew members to prepare for the retaliation.
Mika returned the Captain's smile. "Captain Cameron," he teased, "you're adorable when you get excited. I appreciate that quality in person. Things like this must be met head on."
Captain Cameron blushed. "No time for that now, Phantom Thief Mika. First we fight. Then I get an explanation. After that… well, who knows how I'll be feeling by that point."
"I should probably get off of you then." Mika stood up and extended an arm to Cameron. "I hope you enjoy adventure, Captain. This might be a doozy."
Captain Cameron accepted Mika's hand and was hoisted up. A quick glance behind him revealed Tiffy standing in the door frame holding his favorite purpureus colored trench coat.
"I am adventure incarnate," Cameron boldly stated. He held up his arm behind him and caught the trench coat as Tiffy tossed it to him, slipping it on. "Now let's see what we can do about those Sky Pirates."
"I assume your ship has magic if you're adventurers."
"Of course we use magic on this ship. The ship is magic," Cameron scoffed as Mika followed him outside into the battlefield of the ship's deck. On the starboard side, hovering beside them was the ship of the dreaded Sky Pirate Edweird. It was a massive thing, covered in magical sigils and large propellers, crimson sails with gears shaped together like skulls and an angel with horns on the bow of the ship. The cannons lining the side of Edweird’s were aimed right at the Airship IDA threateningly. Cameron knew what was coming. A boom shook the skies, a cannonball ripping through the air right for the Airship IDA.
Mika pointed at the sigils covering Edweird’s ship. "Do you have protection spells like that? I didn’t get a good look at your ship before I boarded." Mika pulled out a pair of gloves, slipping them on.
"About that,” Cameron laughed nervously. “We'd have to talk to the ship first."
"Hold that thought." Mika flagged down Tiffy and shouted “Toss me in the air!”
With a run and a jump he landed in Tiffy's cupped hands. She shot him into the air, right at the cannonball which he met with an open palm. Together they froze midair, again to Cameron like a dream, followed shortly thereafter with the cannonball exploding, but no shockwave hitting the Airship IDA. Mika landed back on the deck with a tiny frog in his palm. Cameron was mesmerized.
"Bravo! That was fantastic! Wasn't that fantastic, Tiffy?" Cameron turned to his First Mate expecting the same excitement and awe. He was met with apathy.
"Simple magic," she responded, pulling out the pole from the case on her back. It shined with the brightness of the sun and when the light died down it was a halberd with a crescent-shaped blade. "Meet with IDA, we can handle this."
"She won't be too happy," the Captain responded. "She hates being bothered and she's already been damaged."
"Which is why you'll deal with her and not me."
Mika ran by Tiffy and tossed her the frog. "A present," he said, and grabbed Cameron by the hand. "Defense spells, lead the way."
"Farewell, Tiffy! Do me proud!"
They headed for the ship leaving behind a bewildered Tiffy with a frog. She stuck it on her shoulder and looked up at Edweird's pirate air ship, another cannonball headed their way, and then another and another. Tiffy took a fighting stance with her blade pointed at Edweird’s ship.
"I am First Mate Tiffalufigous Gardenia de La Fraises of the Conquistadores of the Sky," she shouted up at the pirate ship. "Codename: Impaler of the Moon!"
Her halberd sprouted up into the sky, through a cannonball, forcing it to erupt in a shower of sparks and catching many of the other cannonballs fired in the explosion.

Further and further they went into the heart of the Airship IDA, Captain Cameron leading the way down candle lit hallways. It became harder to breath the further they went. Between that and the running Cameron could tell Mika was having a difficult time, but Cameron was used to surviving with little oxygen up in the sky.
“What were you saying about asking the ship?” Mika inquired through heavy breathing.
“Oh, that. IDA’s sentient and uses an avatar to speak to us.”
“You don’t say.”
“I do say.”
Mika shook his head. “I still don’t understand why you wouldn’t paint magic circles on the ship itself, to at least give it some basic protection.”
Cameron sighed. “IDA’s a little vain. She doesn’t want things painted on her. I suppose she expects us to stay out of trouble.”
“But you’re adventurers.”
“It’s really inconvenient, I know.”
Mika stopped Cameron. "This is taking too long. Where is it exactly we’re headed?"
"It's hard to tell. Sometimes IDA likes to move around the passages," Cameron responded.
Mika leaned against a wooden wall, taking deep breaths. Cameron wasn’t sure if his Phantom Thief could continue on or not. The adrenaline in Cameron’s veins was quickly dying down. He wished he knew how much longer it would take but knowing IDA she had probably sensed Cameron coming and made the route all the longer. He peered down the low-lit hallway, then at Mika.
“It’s curving, that’s all I know. She’s probably at the center. At least it isn’t a maze this time.” Cameron peered back at the path forward. For some reason there was a mountain goat looking back at him. Cameron cocked his head. “Hello.”
“Hello?” Mika responded, confused at first. “Oh, hello!” he then exclaimed. He ran past Cameron to the goat. The goat darted through a wall, leaving no trace.
“What was that?” Cameron asked, scratching his head.
“One of many guides. It’s okay, it’s fine. It’s a thing of mine. Just need to follow it.” Mika pulled out a small white jar of paint from a pouch on his belt, drawing a magic circle on the wall, a matching one on his hand. "Hold on to me," he instructed. Cameron cheerfully obeyed, grabbing Mika's other hand. Together they walked through the wall, found the goat and followed it through another wall, and then another one and another until they found themselves in a circular room covered in carefully raked sand. In the center was an enormous tree, too enormous to possibly fit into and survive on an airship. Yet there it was.
"She doesn't look happy," Cameron groaned.
The Phantom Thief squeezed Cameron's hand. "The tree? How can you tell?"
"The fruit isn't glowing. See, it's all... normal looking."
"Oh, yes, because it's not mystical enough without the glowing fruit." Mika let go of Cameron's hand, examining the room. "Where is it you activate the protection magic?"
"Right over here," came a woman's voice in response, echoing with something otherworldly. Mika's attention was drawn back to the base of the tree. There before the two men was an Amazonian woman in red robes with golden necklaces adorning her neck. Her hair was shoulder-length and auburn, her eyes a piercing emerald color surpassing the beauty of her gold jewelry.
"Greetings, IDA. Hope you're well." Cameron tried to express as much sincerity as he could in his voice, however IDA scared the living daylights out of him and so his voice more shaky and boisterous than he meant it to be. Knowing her his whole life only made his fear of her worse.
Mika inhaled. sharply "Your ship really is sentient. That's beautiful."
IDA shot a dirty look to Mika. "Egad," she spat, "I know what you are, thief. Of course they’re after you." She shot a slightly less dirty but much more frightening look at Cameron. "Where is Erika? I would much prefer to speak with her."
"Well when someone dies twice you tend to feel obliged to give them time off," Captain Cameron explained, making large gestures with his hands due to nerves.
"Who's Erika?" Mika asked in a hoarse whisper.
"Our letter carrier slash doctor," he whispered back. 
"You don’t just let your ship’s doctor leave. That was a bad idea. I hope you realize this."
"Oh hush." He focused on IDA once again. "I do believe she's flying on the paper birds off the coast of the Kingdom of Dandel."
"No, no," interjected Mika, shaking his head. "The Kingdom of Dandel was wiped out months ago by a bad land fertilization spell. The whole sub-continent of Ion was basically destroyed. Tragic, really. There were some jewels there I wanted."
"You don't say?" Cameron had switched his attention back to Mika now, genuinely curious as to the events that led to the downfall of the kingdom. Dandel had been his second favorite continent after all and he was genuinely disappointed at its fall. 
"I do say. Word has it Edweird's behind it."
"Well perhaps Erika's gone to see the Fist of Michelangelo."
Mika lit up. "Let me give you a detailed description, it's the most beautiful piece of weaponry made for war. I stole it for the museum, actually."
With a great groan that reverberated through the sand-filled room, IDA reeled the focus of the conversation back to her. "You two are useless, I'll check on things myself." She furiously shook her head, grabbing at the cloth of her robes, removing them. Beneath her robes was a cage—in fact, the majority of her body was a cage with little butterflies flying around. She reached inside herself and removed one of these butterflies, bringing it up to her face so she could gaze at it whilst it rested gently on her fingertip. She furrowed her brow.
"She's divining, isn't she?" Mika asked. He stared intently at IDA now, so focused, like he was etching the scene into his brain. "Curious. I wonder what she sees."
IDA placed the butterfly back inside the cage and draped her robes back over herself. She gave a frustrated sigh—sighs and groans were her favorite. "You've let my ship get damaged, Cameron. And now pirates have boarded. Fix this."
"Can't you at least assist?" Cameron pleaded. "I beseech you!"
"Do you even know what that words means?" IDA shot back. Cameron didn't respond, and she laughed. "Get rid of the pirates. Give them the thief! If I have to I will steer the ship into the great ocean of rocks and kill you all out of spite, just to rid myself of this infestation. Then I’ll find a new crew."
“If you activate your protection spells the entire thing will be quicker,” Cameron hurriedly explained. IDA simply waved him off.
“Deal with it yourself. Send Erika next time, I much prefer her company over yours.” IDA vanished back into the confines of her tree.
Cameron pouted; that had most definitely not gone the way he was hoping. Feeling a little defeated he turned to talk to Mika, but he wasn't where he had left him. After a frantic search Cameron found him crouching on the ground drawing a magic circle. Alarmed, Cameron dragged him up.
"Don't do that!" He huffed as he pulled the thief up.
"It'll help if we're in a pinch." He held up his hand with the white magic circle on it. "Let's go topside again. Do any of your guns—"
"Yes, they utilize magic."
“How much damage can they cause?”
“Fair amount.” Cameron thought about the sigils on Edweird’s ship. Now, Cameron was no expert on magic—a mysterious tall man named Alan had made Cameron’s guns for him and carved the magic symbols on them—but he figured the sigils on Edweird’s ship most likely protected it from anything petty like basic cannon fire and simple long-range magic. “Hold on now, I don’t think they’re strong enough to take down a ship! I’m confident, but not that confident.”
"Don’t worry about it. Let's go."
"Wait," Cameron said grabbing Mika's shoulder. "Why are they after you?"
Slowly Mika came to look at Cameron, and once again Cameron noticed Mika's eyes. They looked drowsy, large and half-closed and they retained that mysterious void that Cameron knew would suck him in. Well maybe it already had, Cameron thought, judging by the current state of affairs. Mika remained silent, tilting his head, staring into Cameron's very soul. Cameron shivered.
"Alright," Cameron said. "Let's go."

Up on the Deck the battle had gotten more intense. There were men in strange suits that covered their bodies, gears and tubes attached here and there. Every time they moved steam billowed and hissed from their joints. Cameron assumed they must have been the pirates.
Tiffy, with her halberd, had managed to hold most of them at bay, cutting open the suits to reveal their emptiness. A shudder ran through Cameron’s spine. Were ghosts inhabiting the suits? Was it magic? Cameron looked around the deck. There were maybe thirty pirates on board, and Cameron had only a half as many men on the ship. How many were still living he wasn’t entirely sure, though, the bodies of a dozen of his men sprawled on the deck. Cameron could feel his hands tremble out of fear, anger, hatred. His shaking hand reached for his third favorite pistol, Persephone. He would make them all pay.
Mika's hand grabbed Cameron’s. Instantly the shaking stopped as he felt a calm rush through him. Mika let go of his hand. Cameron knew he had at least five manning the ship’s cannons, firing back at Edweird, including Tiffy’s husband. They were safe at least.
"Kill them all. Be swift, don't hesitate," came Mika’s words of advice.
Cameron nodded, pulled out Persephone and took aim. Lines of light crawled up his arm and little wings formed behind him. "Be swift, Persephone." He pulled the trigger and from the barrel shot seven bullets made of light, each one hitting the semi-mechanical, magical pirates. Four of them burned up in the light, the remaining three were only pierced. They changed targets, focusing on the Captain. Steam bellowed from where they had been shot, creating a sort of eerie howling like the wind would make on a particularly terrible night. Tiffy took that time to decapitate them all while they weren't paying attention to her. They fell, unable to get back up. Mika waved at her.
"You see, she has the gist of things without needing an explanation." Mika sounded terribly impressed with her. He moved his fingers like he was trying to solve a problem in his head.
"How many of the men are down?" Cameron asked, losing more and more of his grin. He bent down to examine one of the fallen men. He was dead, his neck snapped. If he had been a different man, a weaker one, he would have vomited.
"More than I'd care to admit, Captain." Tiffy replied. She gave the deck a quick once-over to make sure there weren't any more living pirates. There were, and the frog on Tiffy's shoulder croaked out the exact number of pirates remaining; Fifteen. Fewer than Cameron had thought. They made up for the fewer numbers with speed.
They were surrounded. Cameron wasn't sure how it had happened so quickly, but the fifteen semi-mechanical magic pirates had encircled them and each brandished a pistol he assumed was just as magical as each semi-mechanical pirate. Persephone was only good for those seven shots either fired individually or together and the spare bullets were in his cabin. Ophelia, his second favorite pistol, wasn't meant for this kind of combat and his absolute favorite gun, Desdemona, was for very rare circumstances and had a ten percent chance of killing Cameron. Cameron wasn't feeling especially lucky. He reached for her anyway. A pirate shot at Cameron, grazing his left arm. He hissed in pain, clutching the wound. It was icy to the touch, the cold slowly traveling through his limb.
"No sudden moves. Stupid of me to forget."
"What are we to do, Captain Cameron?" Tiffy asked, holding tightly to her halberd.
"We'll be fine," Mika answered for Cameron. "I can tell."
"How?" Tiffy responded, concern seeping through her voice. "How can you be so sure? Can you even fight?"
"A paper bird told me," Mika said. For a brief moment Cameron was sure he saw a little butterfly like the one IDA had in her cage.
With a whistle and a call of "Geronimo!" tiny paper birds ripped through the backs of several of the Pirates, tearing them in half, leaving the others distracted long enough for Tiffy to mow down four with her halberd.
“Suckers,” Tiffy muttered, her usual strength returning to her voice.
Mika vanished from Cameron's side, reappearing behind another pirate, knife brandished, stabbing it swiftly in the back and ripping it open. The pirate collapsed. Amidst the chaos, shots were fired and another bullet hit Cameron. He wasn't sure where, the adrenaline pumping through his veins once again, the heat of his body masking the icy effects of the magic bullet. He would deal with it later. If he had the time.
From out of the smoke popped Erika wearing her goggles and riding on the back of an enormous paper bird. She was an angelic sight, that one, in her green blouse with poufy sleeves and blue stripes, her brown corset, a gear pinned proudly to it, and her aviation pants. Slung around her shoulder
"Captain, what have you gone and done without me? I adore fighting pirates, you know that! I'm an amazing fighter!" Erika shouted over the winds, landing on deck as Tiffy impaled the final pirate. "And who's the guy in black? He seems mysterious. I already like him."
“He has his moments,” Tiffy grunted in response to Erika, stabbing a pirate on the ground several times.
"Not now Erika," Cameron said. From behind he felt Mika place a hand on his side, right where his latest bullet wound was. Cameron could barely feel the hand there his side was so numb, but as a bonus he could also barely feel the icy cold make its way into his body from the wound.
"Pish posh. There's always time," Mika said airily, removing his hand and looking at the blood. "Tiffy, I noticed you have a few wounds, too. Don't try to hide them from me."
Tiffy scoffed, lightly tracing a graze on her leg.
“Erika, I fear it must be up to us to take down Edweird,” Mika informed the doctor-slash-letter carrier.
"So fearless. Almost as fearless as me." Erika smoothed out her pants due to habit, something Cameron had noticed her do often when she was excited. 
"He's kidding. You're kidding." Cameron inhaled sharply. "You can't take down his ship."
"We just need to agitate him enough to use a bigger cannon on us. So my spell can activate," Mika replied.
Cameron felt himself getting lightheaded and was glad Mika was holding him in place. His last comment was a little confusing, though, and he wasn't sure if he had heard Mika correctly. Surely he had to be jesting; IDA was angry enough with the current damage. They had to escape now to avoid more.
"Pardon?" Cameron stuttered out. "More damage? You want us to take more?"
"I didn’t say that," Mika explained calmly. "Your pistol, Ophelia. I touched it, I know what it does. If Erika takes you up on her paper bird, will you be strong enough to shoot at Edweird's Airship?"
"Yes," Cameron lied. "How did you…?"
"I'm a thief. I can do things." Mika smiled. "Your shot will force him to retaliate with something stronger. It'll activate my spell."
Mika was so smart, so mysterious, Cameron thought. There was always something going on in his mind that Cameron just couldn't perceive. He liked that. He hobbled out of Mika's grasp and to Erika and the paper bird she had been riding. He grabbed on to the bird; it felt so thin, a little brittle. Not at all like it could support his weight.
"Captain," Tiffy started, trailing off. Cameron could see it in her eyes, that she was afraid Cameron was too seriously injured. She was right. The wound was a lot deeper than he had first thought. Her frog croaked, as if trying to help her find the right words. "You ridiculous frog. You're too cute." She let out a soft laugh. Those were rare, coming from her. "Remember, Captain Cameron Greenfield of the Airship IDA, leader of the Conquistadores of the Sky. You are a conqueror. Don’t come back unless you win."
Mika stepped up to Cameron, holding his soft gray scarf from around his neck. He tied it around Cameron's waist, putting pressure on the wound. "And don't die. I like this scarf and want it back. If you die, well, I don't want the scent of death on my nice things. I might cry."
Captain Cameron gave a hearty, youthful laugh, the movement of which shot pain through his side. "Come, Doctor Erika Flywright. Edweird's firing more cannons."
"What my husband and his men don’t get, I’ll take care of," Tiffy vowed, taking her stance.
Cameron grinned wickedly. He and Erika got on the paper bird and took off, the rush, combined with the pain of his wounds, churning Cameron’s insides. They avoided cannonballs left and right, all the while Tiffy's trusty Impaler of the Sky, the men commanding IDA’s cannons and Mika's hand-blocking magic techniques exploded them before they could reach the ship, lighting up the sky with flowers made of smoke and sparks. Erika got the paper bird to stop once they were close enough to the airship.
"Look to me for strength, Captain!" Erika said emphatically, lifting up the goggles from her eyes so she could get a good luck at her Captain. "Do us proud!"
Cameron stood on the back of the paper bird; He clenched his teeth, his side hurt so badly. He pulled out the long-handled pistol Ophelia. Lines etched in the gun shone brightly, crawling onto his arm. Two little angel wings formed on his back.
"Ophelia, punish the Sky Pirate Edweird!" Cameron sang out. He pulled the trigger. All went quiet, calm; and then a barrel of amber-colored light shot out. Several propellers on the right side of Edweird’s airship were encased in solid amber. In moments the amber cracked and shattered, taking the propellers with it. The large double-barreled cannon mounted on the center of Edweird's airship began emitting an eerie light. Cameron collapsed on the back of the paper bird. "Take us home, Erika," he coughed out.
The next thing Cameron remembered he was back on IDA being held up by Mika. He looked at his face, searching for some sort of answer as to what was going to happen now.
"You brilliant man," Mika said excitedly. "Mister Adventure Incarnate, Mister My-Guns-Can’t-Damage-That-Ship. Those sigils couldn’t defend against something like that. I think I may love you."
"He's just happy you rescued him without any questions asked. Highly irresponsible, Captain," Tiffy chimed in.
"She's caught me. I love you for all of the wrong reasons, of course."
"I'll accept that love anyway," Cameron chuckled. "But only if we make it out of this alive."
"You need to have more faith," Erika said. "I believe in Mika."
"Let's watch what happens." Mika pointed to the glowing barrels of the main cannon on Edweird's airship. There was a rumble in the sky, a warning, a reddening of the world, before a large blast shot forth towards IDA. In Cameron's mind time slowed down, an occurrence that had been happening with more and more frequency that day. In a matter of seconds the blast would hit the ship, but those seconds were hours to the Captain. The light from the blast got brighter, hotter, deadlier. If he were to die right there, he would die happy knowing he had had a great adventure.
And then it was gone. All of it. The clouds of smoke and ash, the blast, Edweird's ship, no longer in front of them. Cameron looked around, confused.
"What in the world?" Cameron nearly fell down, but Mika kept him up. The girls shouted and danced around, relieved and excited that Mika's plan had actually worked. "What did you do?"
"Magic spell: Scapegoat." Mika's answer came with a light little laugh. "Edweird just blew up a very large inflatable goat, and now we're too far away for him to be able to catch up with us. It's quite fantastic, really. It'll only work when certain kinds of deadly attacks are coming near, so we had to egg on Edweird. I've never tried the spell before, I'm so glad it worked."
Mika gently put Cameron down on the ground and he sat down with him. Cameron laughed between deep gasps of breath. He was impressed that he hadn't died. Good on himself. He did well, jolly well. But there was still something he needed answered.
"I can be stupid and jump into these things impulsively," Cameron began. "I never had a reason to help—other than your pretty face, of course." He let out a painful laugh. "But this mission cost the lives of several of my men. You owe me a great deal. Why was Edweird after you?"
Mika looked on at the injured crew members who had survived the fight as they moved the bodies of the dead, watched as Doctor Erika patched up Tiffany's injured leg. It looked like several bullets had grazed it, and there were scratches on her back as well.
"I stole one of his powers," Mika finally said. "I can do that, you know. Steal and borrow them. I borrowed IDA's butterfly. Don't worry, it didn't affect her,” Mika assured Cameron. “I’d have had to touch her to steal it. You deserve to know how I do it, after all. Edweird, though. I managed to get close.”
"How did you even get on his ship?"
"He's a pirate. He stole me. I'm quite rare, you know. I'm a descendant of... well, I’m sorry but I don’t owe you that much." Mika looked Cameron in the eyes now and Cameron noticed that Mika's left eye was now a soft white. "The idiot took me on his ship. He's really full of himself, you see. He really thought he could contain me. I took his special eye and escaped on a little floating island attached to his ship, found yours, he followed. You know the rest."
"I hope the eye was worth all the trouble," Cameron said with a raise of his brows.
"How so?"
"I don't care if you're wanted or not. We're short staffed now. You confessed your love. I accepted it. You're obliged to stay here. You’re mine."
“You can’t own someone.”
“You own me now as well. Our fates are intertwined, I’m sure of it.”
Mika ran a hand through his thick hair. He looked like he was thinking deeply. "I'll be the death of you."
"I'm still alive, aren't I?"
"You make a strong case. I'll think about it." Mika's eye returned to their normal blackness and he gave the captain a once over. It sent a tingle through Cameron's spine. "I knew you were the right person to help. The aura of IDA drew me in."
"Yeah, she does that to some people." Cameron tapped the deck of the Airship. "What does that eye do exactly?"
"It's useful."
"Uh-huh." Cameron patted Mika's shoulder. "Had enough time to think?"
"Yes," Mika replied. He stared out at the sunset turning the sky hues of reds and purples. "I think I'll stay for a bit. I don’t like to let my possessions out of my sight."
"Funny, I feel the same."
The two stared at the sunset, for there is nothing quite as beautiful as a sunset while on an airship. Cameron lightly pushed Mika and they laughed, basking in the fading sun, soaking up the moment of peace. Cameron felt something well up inside of him, some sort of completeness. A lot of work needed to be done to the Airship IDA, but he felt fresh. This was the start of something grand. This was the start of a new life. This was the life of a conquistador.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sufjan Essay

I was listening to music in my car the other day. This isn’t some new revelation; most people know I love listening to music in my car. In fact, I almost can’t drive unless I have my music—it’s as important to me as having the keys or turning on the headlights when it’s dark. I have music for the spring, music for a summer day, and even music for the night. And then I have the music that is a religious experience.
            The way I tear up when I listen to Sufjan Stevens isn’t natural. It is, after all, just music. Right? False. Music is one of any number of things that can be sacred to a person, in a similar way scriptures are sacred to the religious (not to sound sacrilegious, as I myself and very religious), because of the message it contains, the way it makes your soul swell up. Not to say that there aren’t any Christian undertones to the work of Sufjan (there’s the mention of ‘The Great I Am” in Decatur, or the blatant religious activities mentioned in Casimir Pulaski Day), but he’s not Christian rock and there’s something about his lyrics that makes me cry when I listen to him. He’s the only friend I need as I speed down the highway and ponder, contemplate, pray, over my life and where I’m going, what I’m doing.
            It’s the intimacy of the moment, the sincerity in which he sings those words, those personal stories. It’s not everyone who can do that and not sound unbearably awkward or whiny. Instead you can relate, it causes you to think. It’s also something you can’t share with others, no matter how badly you want to—part of it is fear that anyone else who listens won’t find it sacred as you do, and, instead, make fun of it. The other part is that no one will ever experience something the same exact way that you do. But you can relate, attempt to empathize in our own perfectly imperfect human ways. And although when we listen oh so carefully, and we believe “this guy knows me, he really knows me. How is he in my head?” the painful truth is that he doesn’t, he isn’t, but the comforting thought is that we are able to relate somehow. The beauty of art is that you can take that special something created out of an emotion, a situation, and apply it to yourself. That’s how beautiful things should be, how they should work on a proper level.

            When Sufjan sings “I made a lot of mistakes, all things know/go/grow,” he’s made mistakes different than mine. In too much he muses “If I was a different man… maybe I talk too much, maybe I talk too fast,” I’m reminded of my own self musings. What if there were nine of me, so I could live nine lives and do all that I wanted to do? Act, bake, write, be an astronaut, a secret lover. When in Futile Devices he heartbreakingly reflects about his deep relationship with his friend who is like a brother, something he can’t put into words without feeling dumb, he’s not singing about my friendship, but I can relate, and learn, and have a catharsis and use his perfectly imperfect futile words to describe my own story, to catch the feeling of my life. It’s because of this that his music is sacred, even if that might sound dumb. But what can I do? Words are, after all, futile devices. Yet I make do, and do just fine. As futile as words might be, at least they still connect.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

See, I can be classy too

The setting was the downstairs living room, a place that he had rarely gone down to since he had been home for the sole reason that he enjoyed far too much sitting in the large comfy armchair that his mother had so thoughtfully placed in his room. But this evening called for a larger space than his room. This evening called for a large television. This evening was to be classy, in a terribly hipster way.
Dressed in a tank top he didn't fill in quite right and a pair of basketball shorts, he cradled a fancy glass filled with sparkling cider in his dominant hand and rested his legs on the couch with the rest of his body. In his other hand he picked up the remote that lay next to
his fancy chocolate, and pressed play on the classic film that would, on this evening, be his getaway, his best friend, his supposed one and only. But just for that night, just for those few hours.

This evening, he was 'classy.'

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monday Night Chinese v5 Part 5: An Afterthought

Part 05: An Afterthought
            It had been quite some time since the incident with Raphael, and every now and again Levi, Alice and Blue would discuss those events, sometimes even being kind enough to invite LeRose. They would talk of how No One escaped from Astoria, where his other minions, if Raphael wasn’t the only one, might be and when, if ever, they would show up once again in the Afterlife. Blue was of the opinion that No One would focus on the two planes of existence that weren’t filled with able bodied spirits who knew what to look for now (the Dreamscape and the living world), but Alice was uneasy all the same. She spent more time after that out in the living world fighting and tracking down demons to better her combat skills and from time to time Levi and other Listeners such as Uriel would accompany her or Laura to track down the missing Afterlife workers. A few had been found, but many, such as Grimshaw, were still missing.
            Levi worked as peacefully as he could now that he had grown slightly more paranoid of his own surroundings. He spent more and more of his time time cooped up in his restaurant, thinking.
            On one particular occasion that Levi found perfectly appropriate to stay in his favorite booth (third from the front on the left side, it had the best feng shui), Blue had decided to pop in for a chat. He slid in opposite Levi, beaming with cheer. Levi said nothing for a while; he only stared at his zodiac calendar placemat. Blue took the initiative and spoke first.
“You still haven’t told me who cooks for the restaurant,” He said playfully, resting his arms on the sturdy table. Levi didn’t respond. Instead, he folded his arms and stroked his chin. Blue didn’t stop smiling, not even once. “You know, I heard Alice say she’d be by later. I think there’s someone else looking for you, too.”
Alice’s previously frequent visits had occurred less and less in the year and a half since the event, due in part to her increasing trips into the living world. Levi wouldn’t admit it, but it affected him not having her around and he never enjoyed the few and far between trips he would take with her into the living world to search for the still missing employees. Somehow they were always a little painful, and never fun. He had tried filling the void of her friendship with his love of the idea of Laura, but after two dates their relationship hadn’t taken off, but they remained friendlier than they had been before. She, along with Blue, would stop by the Chinese restaurant to check up on the ever withdrawing Levi and make sure he got out at least once in a while.
“Are you thinking about Kristjan?” Blue’s voice cracked through Levi’s thoughts, and he finally glanced up at the young man.
“Yes. What happened to him was something that should have been prevented. I didn’t even want to be involved with any of this.” Levi stopped stroking his chin, leaving his hands resting on the table, clenching and unclenching them periodically. “I couldn’t fix him. I wonder if Merrill was really able to stop his pain.”
 “I really dig your British accent, you know that? You should never have hid it,” Blue leaned further in, apparently trying very hard to invade Levi’s bubble.
“I sort of forgot it had even existed to begin with. Once you’ve been dead as long as I have, you start to forget who you were in your past life.” Levi tapped on the table. Blue had a peculiar look of confusion and disturbance that made his face wrinkle, creating aged lines of experience his features were too young to have. He may have been dead, but mentally he was still growing and maturing.
The door to the restaurant opened and LeRose, the model thin female Reaper with the most delightfully disturbing ruby hair stepped in. Everything about her demanded the attention of the boys in the room, from her snarling face to her clothing choice of Daisy Dukes and a dark tank top. Behind her in the hallway was a giant black blob with four spindly legs popping out. It was covered with hundreds of beady green eyes that were looking at everything it could, and every time one of the eyes would blink it secreted a noxious steam. There were chains wrapped around it and Charles, tall and thin with nicely parted sandy hair and clothes equally as nice and appropriate for the workplace, held on to one of those chains that secured the demon, preventing it from running amok. He looked bitterly uncomfortable.
“What is that?” Blue asked curiously. Levi could see the ‘this is so totally awesome’ look on Blue’s face take over.
“Order up! We’ve got another one for you. Friggin’ Charlie didn’t want to go near the thing like usual, but at least he’s still a better partner than Grimshaw. I just wish he’d man the hell up,” LeRose said with her typical scowl, holding on to another chain that wrapped around the demon. Levi was convinced her face was frozen that way. He was at least somewhat thankful that he rarely saw her as she spent much of her time with her new partner, Charlie, who had recently come to the Afterlife. They were just similar enough that they got along and when they did bicker, it was over such petty, trivial things that they often forgot what they had been arguing over five minutes after they had started.
“Just another face in the crowd,” Levi said in response to Blue. He stood up and walked towards the creature that dwarfed him; it strained against the chains to greet the Listener, every single one of its eyes shifting at once to focus on the man.
Levi allowed the L noise to wash over him. “If you felt you were justified, then you were. Ignore what anyone else says. If they deserved to die, then they did, Christopher Dowd.”
The demon exploded in a flurry of steam that engulfed the room in a flash and just as quickly evaporated into nothingness, leaving behind a strong looking young man with a shaved head. He held a wicked grin, and a broken heart was tattooed on his forehead. He made a lunge at Levi, but LeRose kneed the man in the gut.
“LeRose, always the delicate flower.” Levi ran his hand through his wavy hair.
“Shove it,” she said as indelicately as Levi imagined she could.
Levi touched the cracked heart on the man’s forehead.
“The people you killed didn’t deserve it. And you don’t deserve reincarnation.” Levi rapped the knuckle of his index finger on the heart. “Sometimes Listeners have to lie to get the job done.”
“Little boy Blue, follow me up to the river. He’s your business now.”
“I’m feeling like he’s going straight in the river. Later, Levi.” Blue stood up and ran out the door, shoving past Charles. “Race you there, LeRose!”
“You can take all the head start you want, you know you’ll get winded after fifty feet!” LeRose shouted after Blue, taking her sweet time walking out of the restaurant while dragging along both Charles and the bald man.
Levi sighed heavily, peering out into the hallways of the Afterlife, gazing at his coworkers as they passed by. With great effort, he separated himself from his little area, and set out to see something. Maybe, if he were lucky, he’d run into Alice.
That was not the case. Levi had gone quite a ways away from his little nook, wandering ever closer to the shores of Acheron, the place where the halls shifted into caverns, following the others who had left his restaurant. He had rarely gone this way; the last time he had seen the shores was probably fifty years prior, yet he felt drawn to them.
As he arrived he noted how not much had changed. Little boats came and went frequently and Levi waved to the people he recognized, stopping once he found Blue walking into the water, followed by LeRose and Charles, who held the tattooed man on either side. He thrashed violently, kicking up a spray of water.
Blue grabbed the man’s face and began chanting. Levi couldn’t understand the spell, but after a minute it was drowned out by a haunting scream that everyone ignored. And then it stopped. It stopped, and slowly the man sank in to the waters, Charles and LeRose letting go of him so he could be eaten by the river. There was a soft glow, and then nothing; his soul had become one with Acheron, trapped by the sins he committed before becoming a demon. Levi would have continued to ponder the man’s fate had he not heard the word Monday shouted at full force. Levi looked around.
It was Friday. Friday? Friday!
Certainly spotting Friday was the last thing that Levi had expected, but nonetheless he was surprisingly excited to see the Guardian. He walked briskly towards Friday, who waved in broad strokes with his arm.
“Monday, my dear, dear long lost friend!” Friday embraced Levi. “I have news!”
“Good Friday, Black Friday, what brings you to the Afterlife?” Levi felt his speech shifting in tone to match at least part of the ridiculousness of Friday’s.
“Well if you’d let me explain instead of asking silly questions, I told you I have… no, now it’s gone. Like a bubble. It just popped. Maybe if bubbles were made of paper they’d last longer?”
Levi laughed. He wasn’t even irritated, just strangely calm. He felt peaceful. “Well, while you think, I have some news. Do you remember Raphael?”
“Possibly. About this high, terrible at games?”
“That’s the one. I used the L Noise on him, and it turns out Raphael was actually his name. How did you know?”
Friday cocked his head. “You can’t lie in Astoria. I thought I—didn’t I say that? Nobody listens. Frustrating.”
Without being able to help it, Levi laughed an honest to goodness laugh. Perhaps it was because he was trying to fill a void he felt he had created for himself, but not much had made him happy the past few months. Not much at all. But Friday did. His presence was just what Levi needed; something random to make things less boring in a safe way.
“Oh, now I remember. We’ve had a hit on No One!” Friday snapped his finger, pleased with himself that he could remember his message.
Just like that, Levi no longer appreciated Friday’s presence. “What?”
“No One found a body and was invading the Dreamscape, but HR says he was stopped. Funny place to invade, it’s always changing. It would give me a headache.”
Levi chewed on his lip, not wanting to let Friday on to the grotesque feeling that was churning in his gut at the news. He really was wrapped up in all of this, whether he wanted to be or not. And so he chose his next words carefully. “Well then. The game is afoot.”


See you on Tuesday J

Monday Night Chinese v5 Part 4: Anti-Studies

Part 04: Anti-Studies
.           “Come on, LeRose.”
“Come on, nothing.”
“You know you want to.”
            “Grimshaw, I’ll punch your nose in again.”
            “Just this once?”
            “Do you like it when I break your nose?”
            “It heals after a few seconds. It’s worth it if I get to touch you.”
            “You’re disgusting, you know that?”
            In front of the doors of his Chinese restaurant, out in the hallways of the Afterlife, Levi stood and witnessed the droll argument of the Reaper duo Grimshaw and LeRose. LeRose always sounded so much rougher than she looked, and it pained Levi to hear her speak; often she was crude, and she was narcissistic, vain, and shallow. Grimshaw any better. He was obsessive and a little unstable, in Levi’s good opinion, and somewhat of an idiot lacking basic common sense. It gave Levi nothing but pure joy to poke fun at the two of them because they deserved it, one hundred and eighty percent.
            Grimshaw went in to grope LeRose’s chest and she responded in kind by punching him in the nose, resulting in a loud crack. As she turned to leave, LeRose finally took notice of Levi. She rolled her eyes.
            “Friggin’ prick. He has to be a masochist.”
            “Victoria. Robert. How nice to see you both. What do you want?” Levi slipped past the Reapers and into his restaurant, not bothering to hold the door open for them. Frankly, he had no desire to speak to either one, since neither had a demon to give to Levi.
Ever since word had gotten around about his little trip to Astoria, his coworkers had tried cornering him to get details about the city and the Guardians, a class of workers very few people outside of the Ferrymen got to interact with. It was because of this that he avoided staying in any one location for extended periods of time, even his restaurant, so people wouldn’t be able to track him down. To a lesser extent there were those who were also curious about the Black Hearts, their coworkers, that he had been able to heal once he had gotten back. They too were subjugated to frequent questioning. Some were of the opinion that Levi had attained a higher level of being, like reaching Nirvana, which gave him extra special powers that people were jealous of. This of course was not the case, but rumors still persisted.
            “Why can’t you show us some respect and call us by our work names, Levi? We don’t see you calling Blue by his living world name.” Grimshaw pushed himself through the door after LeRose, his nose already healed and showing no signs of the break LeRose made a minute earlier.
            Leaning against one of the restaurant booths, Levi responded, “Blue is a legitimate nickname, it’s part of his actual name. Hand to God. Maxwell Bluefield, all-American boy.” Levi stared the two Reapers down, and added, “It helps that I like him, too. Now what do you want?”
            “You’ve turned into a real douche ever since you decided to go British,” LeRose spat, simultaneously taking that time to put her rouge hair in a ponytail so Grimshaw would stop trying to play with it.
            “LeRose, how many times have I told you not to use such coarse language?” Levi nodded his head at the female Reaper. “Is that what they’re wearing in the living world now? I might have to change my wardrobe.”
            Levi was referencing LeRose’s rolled up skinny jeans and the oversized plaid button-up shirt she wore over a black tank top. Grimshaw’s style was similar, with tight pants, a striped v-neck and black-framed glasses. Because of Levi’s infrequent trips to the living world, he got a lot of his latest clothing ideas from Reapers, many of whom, for some reason or another, still tended to keep up with modern fashion. Alice was one of the few exceptions.
            “HR wants to see you, and while you’re at it could you tell her to give Grimshaw to some newb? I’ve been here thirty years, and nobody shows me any respect. I’m tired of being stuck with him.” LeRose swatted Grimshaw’s hand away from her ponytail Levi winced at this; Grimshaw made him uncomfortable.
            “We’re supposed to be in pairs thanks to Raphael, LeRose. Where’s your partner, Levi?”
          “Uriel got bored, so I dropped him off at his playground with Blue. You try keeping a ten-year-old occupied.”
            “How’d the kid die, anyway?” Grimshaw asked, leaning in closer to catch the details.
            “Old age,” Levi responded, using his index finger to push against Grimshaw’s forehead. Grimshaw looked perplexed. “When you die and work for the Afterlife you can choose whatever age you want for your appearance. You learned this in training. What does Human Resources want with me?”
            Grimshaw brushed Levi’s hand aside. “Probably wants to talk about your attitude. Or Astoria.”
            “I was afraid of that,” Levi said. He sighed. He had spoken to her once since he had gotten back from Astoria six months prior and that was when she had assigned Levi to take over all of the Black Hearts that had been brought in and all the subsequent ones after that, for Afterlife employees were still going missing. Out of the thirty that were gone, seven had been found and turned back thanks to Levi’s efforts. HR had promised that later on they would talk about his time in Astoria and other important matters he was now unfortunately a part of and it looked like that time had come. “No use prolonging my departure, then.”
Levi pushed Grimshaw out of his way and headed for the exit. He did so hate spending so little time at his restaurant, but it couldn’t be helped. He pushed open the door and held it open for Grimshaw and LeRose.
“Come on you scamps, out you go.”
With a disappointed groan the two Reapers went out the door, Levi following suite.

HR was a Listener like Levi, but had been around for at least an extra hundred years. Lately he wondered if she remembered her past at all, since Levi could barely remember his own. She was the official head of the Listener Department and the one who assigned people to special cases, like Levi with the Black Hearts. She dealt with a lot more as well, like when people caused trouble, but none of that really mattered to Levi at the moment. He hardly ever saw her, and preferred it that way.
He entered the coffee shop, HR’s special area in the Afterlife, spotting the short-haired blonde woman. She was the only other person in the restaurant, sitting at the counter and holding a mug of coffee. As Levi drew closer he could make out the writing on the mug; it read World’s Best Boss. He uncomfortably took a seat next to her.
“Levi, I haven’t seen you in a while. I hear things have been a little tough.” HR’s voice was smooth like Levi’s, having had even more practice than him at sounding calm, reassuring and in control. Was this how others felt talking to him? He hated it.
“You undershot. I was looking for was problematic, but you do win a consolation prize of a banana.” A cup of coffee appeared next to Levi. He stared, uninterested at the dark liquid in the mug.
HR smiled warmly. She looked so sincere and so casual in her teal cardigan, thin white dress and sneakers. “Have you seen Laura since you’ve been back? I spoke with her when Blue and Alice brought her in, to make sure she was good to come back to work. You’ve been doing a fantastic job reversing what the Man in Gray has been doing.”
“Raphael,” Levi said, swirling the coffee in his cup.
“The Man in Gray. Friday Panache called him Raphael. I told you that a while ago.”
“Knowing Friday that name could very well be made up.” HR laughed, and Levi couldn’t help but laugh with her though he didn’t know if it was willingly or part of some spell of hers.
“Alright,” He said, “you broke the ice. But just a little. What did you ask me here for?”
“It’s time to talk about Astoria,” HR replied.
Not particularly wanting to talk about his time there, Levi tensed up.
“I already know everything that happened. I received a… unique report from Friday.”
“Then do you know why he calls me Monday?”
“No clue.” HR daintily took a sip of her coffee and when she was finished she smacked her lips a little. Levi found it endearing. “You know the stories of No One. I’m here to fill in some blanks.”
Levi nodded silently.
“Raphael is more than likely an agent of No One, I’m sure you’ve figured that much out. Working as an Anti-Listener, he can turn perfectly normal souls, including Afterlife workers, into demons. He probably does this for No One, so he can feed.”
“We must make a lovely target, a group of souls all gathered together in one place like this.” Levi rapped the countertop with his knuckles.
            “Indeed we do. Having everyone stay in pairs isn’t enough.”
            Levi pushed the coffee aside.
            “I’m sorry, would you prefer tea?” HR asked. Levi gave her a stern look.
“What do you really want to talk to me about, HR?”
She laughed gently. “You’re sharp, you know that? Nobody’s ever given you much credit for doing your job, but you’re good at it. You deserve recognition.”
“I don’t want it.”
“It’s not your choice. The Kings want to speak with you.”
Levi didn’t respond.
“I hope now’s a good time.”
Still no response.
“I’ll open the doorway, then.”
Because of her position, HR could open doorways to other places herself. And true to what she had said, she opened the proper doorway for Levi for, over the counter, an old wooden door with the sigil Levi had seen in Astoria appeared out of the haze. The rest of the room vanished, leaving HR and Levi to stand in blackness.
“Fine, I’ll go. But I insist on disliking vehemently, just so you know.”
HR smiled at the comment and nodded for Levi to move forward. He complied reluctantly, moving forward and grasping the brass doorknob, turning it ever so slightly. The door opened with a flood of light. Levi stepped through.

On the other side of the door was an elaborately decorated chapel. It looked to be older than Levi himself; he had seen churches like often in England, and he strangely felt at home for just a moment in the place until he heard the soft vacuum of chaos invade his ears, a cacophony of spilling sin, blood, peace, rage, tyranny, tranquility, love—all things that could not possibly mesh but did. He looked towards the front of the chapel at the three thrones occupied by the Three Kings and knew they were behind the noise, using it to get the Listener’s attention. Very well, Levi thought. They had it and he would grace them with his presence. He made his way forward towards the altar, and, with each bench passed, he had vague memories of sitting there with other newly recruited workers as they were briefed on the Afterlife, and he wondered when the last time they were filled had been. Finally the subject stood before his kings, but he felt no sense of loyalty to them.
The eerie lads that sat in the thrones bore a striking resemblance to one another, which left Levi feeling unsettled, like they were mere copies of one another. Each one looked like they were torn right out of a drawing from a 1950’s advertisement; they were properly dressed in slacks and buttoned shirts and either a cardigan or a suit coat, and each wore a bow-tie as well. Their cheeks were unbelievably rosy, and their eyes, those eyes so piercing they made Levi’s dull by comparison, were also unnaturally large. Each had a different color hair as well; in the center was the blond, and on either side was a red head and a brunette. They were illuminated by a light source that flooded in from the stained glass mural behind them, furthering their near angelic appearance. He remembered them looking a little different the last time he had seen them.
Every spirit that worked for the Afterlife was chosen by the Three Kings and met with them for training. That was the only time Levi had met with them, and back then they had linen shirts, coats, cravats and breeches; he remembered thinking they were probably dandies. Otherwise, he simply knew them as a pain in the buttocks. They were the ones a tear or two above people like HR and made the rules, and doled out the punishment for those workers who tried going rogue. They were also the ones who decided when a worker had fulfilled their contract and could move on to Astoria, and from there it would be decided if and when they would reincarnate, or if they would move on to Heaven. Sometimes Levi wondered if the Afterlife offices were actually a purgatory where all the workers were being purified before being allowed to peacefully move on, and he wondered what he had done in life to deserve not getting to live his second life in peace.
“All hail the kings,” Levi said snarkily. He hoped to get across the message that he didn’t wish to speak with them.
“Levi,” the blond one spoke, “how are you?”
The way his hair was styled reminded Levi of duck fluff because it was so feathery and yellow and otherworldly, strangely enough, when coupled with his sapphire eyes. He was a little too Aryan Race for Levi’s tastes but then again he wasn’t there to impress Levi.
“I’d be better if Grimshaw wasn’t around. He’s an ice muncher, you know. Munch munch munch. It drives me insane. I don’t suppose you’d like to get rid of him for me?”
The blond one smiled. To be fair, he had been smiling the entire like a creeper the entire time, looking oddly pleased about something, but Levi liked to think the smile grew just a bit larger thanks to him. By contrast, the other two looked a bit downtrodden and said nothing.
As if by some divine providence, which Levi wouldn’t put past the blond one as to possessing, he acknowledged Levi’s unasked question about the melancholy that ailed the other two Kings.
“We ask you don’t mind the other two,” he said using the royal we. “They are resting.”
“So I’ll be speaking solely with you then?”
“I suppose you have a name?”
“Don’t suppose this, suppose that. Stop wasting time, Levi. We know you’re curious as to why we asked you here.”
The blond one’s sharper tone startled Levi noticeably, but the blond one keep smiling away.
“You may call us Malachi.”
“Malachi.” Levi let the name roll around in his mouth, getting accustomed to it. They had never revealed their names during training.
“Be careful with that name, Levi. Names are important. Nod if you understand us.”
Levi nodded.
“Now, as to why you’re here,” Malachi started. Except for his mouth, he did not move a single inch. “Everything within the Afterlife is in balance. We have… had… the perfect number of workers. Every person has a purpose, no one is expendable. We have the final say on what goes on, and the Man in Gray spits on our authority. Do you understand?”
“No, could you try explaining that while talking down to me again? I’m sure that would do the trick.”
Malachi stared Levi down, and Levi could tell the King was winning.
“We will tolerate none of that, Listener,” Malachi warned. Ferocity and fear welled up in Levi. Malachi uncurled the fingers on his right hand, and grasped the arm of his chair. Levi could feel a deep pressure burrowing in to him. He felt like his soul was going to be crushed, right then and there. “We easily could have turned this in to a disciplinary meeting over your unauthorized trip to Astoria, where you, a Listener, not an assigned Guardian, prisoner or normal spirit, do not belong. But we saw fit to overlook that. Do you understand our generosity?”
“Yes,” Levi choked out, trying his hardest to resist the pressure. Once Malachi seemed pleased, he returned his hand to its original position of rest and Levi was freed.
“Fantastic.” Malachi’s cheery demeanor did not shift, remaining as fake as Levi now knew it was. “Now I’ll continue. If you think about it, Listener, you could compare everything in the Afterlife to the harmony of the elements. The Reapers are fire, the Listeners wind, the Ferrymen water and the Guardians earth.”
“Then you three would be the aether,” Levi observed. He couldn’t be quite sure, but he thought that Malachi had looked upon his guess approvingly.
“Very good. If you understand the elements well enough to know about aether, then surely you also understand how easy that balance can be broken. We are trying to correct this. When the Man in Gray arrived—”
“Raphael,” Levi interrupted. “Friday calls him Raphael.”
Levi thought he heard Malachi sigh but it was hard to tell since his mouth was the only thing moving.
“We prefer not to speak of Friday right at this moment.”
Some of the pressure was starting to build up around Levi again, so he nodded to show his understanding. “Sorry. Carry on, Malachi.”
“When Raphael arrived, we saw fit to correct some of the imbalance through you. That is why all the Black Hearts have been sent to you, and why you have been able to deal with them. Through our grace.”
Nodding, Levi felt it appropriate to thank Malachi, though he didn’t particularly mean it. It was simply a formality and he was sure the King understood and wouldn’t hold it against him.
“The imbalance has gone on too long. It needs more than a temporary fix. It needs resolved. Now.”
There was silence. After a minute of it, Levi assumed it was his turn to speak. “Okay,” was all he could think of to say.
“We can tell from here that Raphael has breached the Afterlife once more. We will send you straight to him.”
Levi frowned. “What exactly do you expect me to do?”
“Rally the troops.” Levi could have been hearing things, but he swore Malachi’s response had a layer of sarcasm and a subtext of ‘you’re an idiot.’
“We will send backup if you’re really that desperate. We simply thought it best to warn you first.”
Malachi must have thought he was being all generous or whatnot, but Levi felt like he had just wasted time. This was unacceptable; he was only okay if he was the one wasting his own time, otherwise it was infuriating. The King lifted up his hand and shooed Levi away.
“Off with you, Listener. You know what we desire. Now do it.”
Rather unceremoniously, Levi was flung across the chapel, and through an open door that led back to the Afterlife.

            Levi ended up back in front of the restaurant, where Grimshaw and LeRose still happened to be, bickering. Raphael was behind Grimshaw, whispering into his ear. Levi still hadn’t found his bearing and couldn’t focus long enough to point it out to LeRose. Grimshaw’s eyes grew steadily larger and when LeRose noticed Grimshaw wasn’t right next to her any longer, she turned and saw Raphael.
            “Oh no you don’t!” She shouted, running up and punching Raphael right in the nose. He fell back, and Grimshaw held out his arm, allowing a spear to form in his hand out of a haze. He thrust it at Raphael, but Raphael grabbed the spear and used it to swing Grimshaw, who was still hanging on, into a wall. LeRose, now holding a scythe, slashed downward but Raphael dodged to the side. Grimshaw tried once more to skewer Raphael, aiming for his chest, but the red mouth on Raphael’s shirt bit the spear, snapping it in half.
            “Both of you get out!” Levi shouted, finally shrugging off the effects of his sudden transport. LeRose did not take too kindly to that and started shouting obscenities. “LeRose, shut up and help Grimshaw—then get out! Go to HR before—”
            Grimshaw was convulsing. In a matter of seconds his skin turned crimson, black spikes protruded from his spine, and a white mask formed over his face with a single eye drawn on it. A black heart popped up on his chest. Raphael smiled, rushing up to the demonized Grimshaw. He pulled out one of his eyeballs, smashing it into a dust that reformed into a door behind. He grabbed Grimshaw and pushed open the door, leaping through.
            “Don’t think, just follow.”
            Alice came from behind, grabbing Levi’s arm and rushing for the door. He could briefly see Blue behind them trying to catch up.
            “Hey— take me, not the Ferryman!” LeRose shouted after a moment’s hesitation, but the door closed before she could move.

            The three stood on the side of a poorly lit road in the living world, underneath a flickering streetlight. Levi took a wild stab and assumed they were somewhere in Canada due to the moose he saw crossing the street, but said nothing because assuming did them no good; it didn’t matter where in the world they were. No, what Levi really wanted to do was tell off Blue for following him and Alice. It pained him to admit it, but LeRose’s presence would have been much more appreciated, as she could actually fight.
            “What’s the plan?” Blue asked, sounding a little too eager.
            “We kill him,” Alice replied quickly. “It’s death and kisses time, and I’m all out of kisses.”
            Leaning back against the streetlight, Levi scoffed, “Oh, is that all? We just kill him? Wish we would have thought of that sooner. And what does death and kisses time even mean?”
            “Shut up, something’s coming.” Alice lowered her voice. Raphael stood in the street as a car approached. The driver probably couldn’t see him as it didn’t slow down, but right before it ran into Raphael, he kicked it. He kicked it and the car spiraled out of control, smashing into a tree and making some rather disheartening crunching noises.
            Levi started, “Do you think…?”
            “Every day, don’t you?” Alice shot back.
            “I think he just killed someone!” Blue cried.
            The next thing Levi knew he was up in the air with Alice holding on to him, soaring over the street and then landing on the hood of the car. Through the windshield they saw Raphael whispering to the blond man inside, placing his hand inside the blond man’s chest and pulling out his soul. Alice, using the agility granted to her as a Reaper, kicked through the glass, hitting Raphael right in the head before he went any further. Her foot withdrew and she reached in, pulling Raphael out of the car. Levi had gotten off the hood of the car and opened the driver’s door, saying whatever came to mind to calm the soul that had been partly ripped from its body. This was a very delicate situation they were in and he had no idea how to handle it.
            “You’re not dead, but… you’re not living. I’m really not sure how to properly us the L Noise here…” Something hit the car with a loud thunk, and Levi turned towards the sound out of reflex. It was Alice. This wasn’t exactly what he wanted to see, Alice getting tossed around by Raphael. Levi prayed the demonized Grimshaw wouldn’t pop up to help Raphael. Maybe if she had Friday to help, that ridiculously strong man, things would go quicker. Or Blue. Blue. What had happened to Blue? Levi started stuttering, words escaping him.
            “Levi, focus! Alice is fine, LeRose found us and got involved.” Blue popped his head in through the driver’s side window. This startled Levi, who ended up hitting his head on the ceiling of the vehicle.
            Levi caught a quick glance of Alice holding a scimitar, charging Raphael, slicing him, while LeRose, holding a scythe, did the same from the other side. But no blood came out, only little mists of energy. Blue snapped his fingers to get Levi to focus. Levi thought back to what it meant when he had done that to Friday, scrunching up his face at the thought that Blue saw him as being unfocused, like the Guardian.
            “Blue, if you ever do that to me again I’ll drown you in Acheron.”
            “Top ten reasons why that’ll never happen. Number ten—”
            Levi shoved a finger in Blue’s face, shushing him. “If you shut up now I promise to tell you who cooks the food in the restaurant.” Tiny little vibrations crawled through Levi’s body as he found the right frequency to speak to the blond man’s soul. Words formed in his mind, he could feel the man’s given name pop into his thoughts, and he spoke, saying, “You have the potential. You’re… you’re a Saint, and because of that you’ll survive. You’re a Saint, but you haven’t fully awakened yet. You will, though. You will. This is your entryway, Kristjan Rupert Callier. This is your beginning, not your end.”
            The soul began to stir, showing more signs of self-awareness and sinking back into the body. Levi backed away. He had prevented any trauma, he hoped, from the experience, and the soul was returning to the body that wasn’t yet dead and could still house it.
            Off and away, Levi heard Alice swear loudly. He saw the mouth on Raphael’s shirt snapping off the tip of Alice’s scimitar. He was about to say something when he heard a terrible shriek coming from the seat next to him— the blond man, Kristjan was convulsing, shrieking at the top of his lungs, writhing and twisting and turning, body parts bending places they were not meant to bend. Blue tried holding him down and got smacked in the face; he ignored it and kept on trying.
            “Levi, make him stop!”
            “Do you want to do this?” Levi responded, frustrated.
            “Kind of, yeah, but sadly instead of your metaphorical tuning fork I got stuck with a boat oar!”
            “Then smack him with it!” Levi pushed down on Kristjan, the L Noise not connecting to Kristjan. Panic ran through Levi’s body, his teeth ground against each other. Raphael, even with only one arm, was too much for Alice and LeRose. Each of their cuts would leave a wound that would allow energy to seep out, which worked perfectly fine with demons as it would drain their energy from anger as well, but Raphael wasn’t a demon and the cuts weren’t slowing him down.
            A soft light broke through the dark, illuminating the front of the car. Levi and Blue looked forward, momentarily forgetting Kristjan’s seizure-like state. There, emerging from the darkness, was an old wooden door with the now familiar symbol from Astoria drawn on it in gold.
            The shadowy form of a woman with wild hair as long as her tall, slender frame walked out of the door accompanied by a smoke that crawled around the road, smothering everything it its path. She held Levi in a trance, he could not keep his eyes off of her, and he would have kept staring had he not heard an animalistic cry that differed from the ones Kristjan had been making earlier. Levi shot his head to the side; Alice must have produced another weapon, a sickle, because she pulled the blade of one out of the neck of Raphael.
            Stumbling around, he felt his wound but nothing spilled out except tiny whisps of energy. Would nothing stop him? How was balance meant to be restored if he couldn’t be killed? That thought triggered something in Levi’s brain. That’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? Balance? The Man in Gray and thrown off the balance, and Levi had been granted some sort of addition to his L Noise capabilities to counter the imbalance. So why, then, wouldn’t he be able to do something to finish off Raphael, or at least have some sort of ability that could help?
            Levi snapped his fingers to get Raphael’s attention, and when that didn’t work he stuck his fingers in his mouth and let out a boisterous whistle. That seemed to work, and both men locked eyes; Raphael’s menacing black and white eyes against Levi’s intense, emerald ones. Levi felt something within him tingle. His fingers twitched, but his gaze stayed true. There was a sound, faint at first, but it grew stronger, louder, and it sounded like static. But through that static Levi could pinpoint something else, a voice. A solitary, angry voice shouting against the static. He knew what to say.
            One step, two steps, three steps he took towards the sinister fiend. He could do this. With three simple words, Levi could cast a spell to defeat the wicked Raphael.
            “You don’t exist.”
            Raphael stumbled to his knees, clawing at the wound on his neck where thick black ooze spewed out, saturating his body. LeRose impaled his chest with her Scythe, creating a larger opening for more ooze to spill out. Raphael’s heterochromnic eyes burst, spewing white ooze that covered his face forming a mask with a single eye on it, and when his wounds finally sopped gushing, all that remained was a cloaked, masked mass with two tiny, broken wings.
            “Malachi was right, you did figure out how to beat him without my help.”
            Levi slowly turned his head to peer at the shadowy lady, assuming she was the one who spoke. His body tensed up. If a bullet it him, it would undoubtedly shatter because of how tightly every inch of his body was clenched.
            “You’re the Listener who walked the streets of Astoria. Friday told me about you, Monday.” No mouth on the shadow body moved. Was that normal? That wasn’t normal. “The Kings sent me. I am Merrill Collingwood, Guardian of the In-Between.”
            “I’m Levi. Now that we know each other I think it’s a wonderful time to start asking favors. That’s what friendships are based on, after all. Owing one another and whatnot.” Levi began regaining his cool composure; ‘negotiating’ was what he did day in and day out, and she was obviously there to help anyway.
            The shadowy woman didn’t speak at first. Levi noticed Alice and LeRose now stood on either side of Blue, and he saw strands of the shadowy hair creeping towards the vehicle, climbing up it, through the broken glass, and wrapping around Kristjan’s body. The hair lifted the now unmoving body up, and placed it gracefully in the woman’s arms. A pale, porcelain face broke free from the shadow surrounding Merrill. Her eyelids opened, revealing large and mesmerizing emerald eyes that looked eerily similar to Levi’s. She began speaking in a proper British tone.
“You saved him before he could become a Black Heart. However, damage was done to his soul and it won’t rest inside his body. I’ll have to remove it and his magical properties.”
            “I’m not sure I understand what that means.” Levi gulped. He swore he could hear the faintest ticking noise ringing in his ears. It sounded like an old grandfather clock.
            “He’ll be physical, unlike a spirit. He won’t be able to hide himself in the living world like you or I, either. This one here, this Saint, will grow faster than we could imagine. He’ll be an asset when No One rises.”
            Levi ignored the stares he knew he was getting from the other three; he would have to explain everything about No One and his inevitable uprising to them later. “Where will he stay?”
            Merrill paused thoughtfully, gazing at Kristjan. “We’ll find a place.”
            Levi nodded slowly. “Then do it.”

            Merrill’s face sank back into the shadows, and like a ghost she was gone through the door, shrouded in eerie smoke. Every trace that pointed to her being there was gone. Levi collapsed, still able to hear the incessant ticking noise in his ears that refused to leave him alone.