Monday, May 27, 2013
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
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.”
“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.
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, according to rumor. 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, closer, closer.
Darkness seeped all around Levi, who kept running, running, running, trying to catch up to the man in gray in the passage between worlds. He felt as though he had been at it for ages before the darkness grew thinner, became less intrusive, and faded 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 in a voice he almost felt was not quite his own, taking in the city’s drab gloominess.
It was cold, unwelcoming. A dark sort of sterile. With nothing else to do, Levi began to walk. Halfheartedly he made his way down empty streets that didn’t have so much as a tumble weed to occupy them. No, there was no other life, just the cold, magnificent architecture of the buildings that rose up in droves around him, street lamps that didn’t function, closed street vendors. He could feel the city draining his energy little by little and he began to feel overwhelmed by the entire situation. The city seemed so large; how would he find the Man in Gray? Why had he thought jumping after him was even remotely a good idea? Levi couldn’t fight, that wasn’t his specialty. What would he do to the Man in Gray if he caught him? Talk him in to submission? Levi was so terribly lost.
“I suppose you’re feeling terribly lost,” came a voice from the hollow emptiness of Astoria. It continued, “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? He was busy pitying himself, after all. But what if the voice was a Guardian? That meant help in tracking down the Man in Gray. A little hope returned to Levi and he decided to stop pitying himself.
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, except for the lack of people. 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, despite the voice sounding 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, first noticing 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 it was frankly embarrassing. 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 so much Levi wondered why he even had it on in the first place. 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 to him. 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.”
“The 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? That’s the best classification I can give him. He found some way to get here with his eye.”
Friday looked like he had stopped paying attention and was now examining the architecture. Levi 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.
“Could you at least tell me why my accent is back?” Levi asked, not particularly expected a real answer.
“My accent. The way I speak, pronounce words. My speech. Outside of Astoria I don’t speak this way.”
“Well you should, because you sound lovely.”
Levi gripped his hair, wanting desperately to pull it out to deal with his frustration. “That’s not an answer.”
Friday, mimicking Levi, grasped at his hair and cheerfully said, “There are no lies in Astoria.”
Patience wasn’t something Levi cared to cultivate at that moment. Astoria was obviously Hell and he had no time for pish posh nonsense such as this so he made the executive decision to leave, having amused Friday long enough.
“Good Friday, I bid you adieu.” Levi turned about face and proceeded to power walk away. Friday did not take too kindly to this and started after him, so Levi broke into a light jog. “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 where he was going, 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, as far as he could tell, 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 he still 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 of London, but as he went deeper, he found the second district had more Greek architecture than anything like a non-decrepit Athens, 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 mid-sized buildings.
Rest called to the weary traveler, the aura of Astoria weighing greatly on his spirit body. He located a bench in a town square and sat, staring at a fountain opposite him. On top of the fountain stood an angel statue which Levi found 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? Not even the angel wanted to be there.
Hours dragged by and the pressure Astoria gave off only grew stronger, yet Levi 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 entire time Levi had never once thought about entering the buildings. Strange, he thought, and roused by this newfound curiosity he got to his feet and wandered Astoria once more. Which building would he enter? Did it really matter?
Entering the first district, where he had met Friday, the Listener scanned the different buildings. A lot of them looked like office buildings or pubs, and maybe one or two of them held flats as well. This was as good a place as any to look. He could not shake the feeling, though, that he was being watched.
“Dear, sweet, Monday! My lost lamb! It’s dangerous here at night!”
Friday. Panic struck Levi and he entered the door of the first building he saw, slamming it shut behind him. He inhaled deeply once inside, looking around shiftily. The musty building looked like it could house people. The thought of that comforted Levi, for perhaps he would discover somebody else to assist him.
Once he had climbed the first flight of stairs he opened the landing’s door and called out a hello. There was no answer. Cautiously he made his way through the door, 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 his hand reached for the door handle, grasping it firmly. He prayed danger wouldn’t be in wait, wanting to devour him, and prayed that Alice’s words meant only to deter Levi weren’t true, that a boogeyman didn’t sit patiently, counting down the seconds until Levi turned the knob. He 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. They 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 flat, hitting the hallway wall. Absently he grasped at it. Fear of the unknown, something so human, filled his mind. His first impulse was to run, but he could only seem to stay put, his legs glued to the floor, his eyes mesmerized by what he was seeing. He waited for the images, expecting them to draw closer, but they never did. They only stared, looking just as afraid and mesmerized as he did.
“They’re in a stasis, you know.”
Levi’s trance was broken by the voice. He looked to see who it was and there at the entrance of the stairwell stood Friday, 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, or go to heaven, 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 licking his hand and 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 tour if you can quote it.”
“Maybe some other time, Friday. Let’s move on.”
Time had made little impact on Levi’s life 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. It could 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, unicycles 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. Maybe he was growing on Levi a little, but he was never going to admit it.
“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, but Levi interrupted him before he could finish.
“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 from him was the Man in Gray.
“We’ve been having cartwheel contests on and off for a good while now,” Friday politely explained. He smiled and then proceeded to clean his fingernails.
The Man in Gray—Raphael?—looked rather malevolent hovering above the ground, aided by two tiny demonic wings, a large and wicked sharp toothed grin taking up the lower half of his face. He wasted no time and shot himself towards Levi, who barely managed to dodge 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 paid little attention to the debris that flew out of the damaged building and instead stared, awestruck, at Friday and the torn arm he slung 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, and Blue had started to form a black heart, then chances were the other missing Afterlife employees had been transformed as well and were wandering around the living world or were even still in the Afterlife, waiting for a Listener to change them back. 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 protect the world. I myself could see spirits when they tried to hide themselves. Much like this little boy I met named Quincy.” “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 into the heart of the city, wisps of energy escaping from where his arm once was. The noise stopped.
“That’s the center of the city,” Friday explained, 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.”
“I’m not following. Good Friday, take me there this instant. I won’t 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?”
According to Friday, at the very center of Astoria was a mansion. The further into the heart of Astoria Levi went, the more he would have a believed an ark or a castle existed there instead. At some point during their journey they had passed through a cave, crossed a bridge over a wide river Levi assumed was Acheron, passed a row of huts, and were now in a small, dense forest. Somewhere in the distance Levi could hear a waterfall.
“Why is Astoria like this?” Levi tried taking a rest by leaning against a tree, but Friday grabbed him and forced him to keep moving.
“A sewn together mess of different landscapes.”
“Isn’t every place like this?”
“Oh.” Friday stopped walking. “Let’s go see the waterfall.”
Levi didn’t have much of a choice so he followed Friday on a brief detour that ended at the foot of a shimmering lake. Nearby Levi could see a mist, and further up the mist he could see the waters cascading down.
“Don’t go swimming in it,” Friday instructed. “Giant squid attacks are common.”
Levi sighed. “Wasn’t planning on it.” Instead he took a seat on a nearby group of rock and picked up some pebbles, tossing them in to the water one by one. Friday took a seat next to him.
“Why so glum?” He inquired, patting Levi’s shoulder.
“I’m thinking about Samml.”
“Why on Earth would you do that?”
“I wonder if Samml is a corruption of Samiel, the angel of death. It wouldn’t be completely inappropriate,” Levi tossed his last pebble into the water. “From the stories I’ve heard, He wasn’t a normal spirit to begin with. No One took over his body and corrupted him, used him to travel between worlds. He made minions in the Dreamscape, fed off of souls in the living world.”
“Made minions out of dreamers. I vaguely remember that from training. Years and years ago.” Friday’s eyes narrowed sleepily as he had a lucid moment, lost in his own thoughts, reminiscing about days gone by when he was still preparing to be posted out here. Levi wondered how long ago it was, how long Friday had been stuck in this place, and how it he survived the unique vibes the city let off.
“He worked like a parasite, didn’t have any goals other than feed. It took a while before anyone noticed him. I guess they found a way to separate No One from Samml, and then they locked him up. They never told anyone during training what happened to No One. I haven’t even heard any rumors. Did they say anything during your training?”
Friday had left to find more rocks without Levi noticing. He sighed, wishing the Guardian would have stayed normal for just a bit longer. He shouted that he had found a fossil, and Levi chuckled.
“I don’t get why that’s funny,” Friday pouted, holding up his small fossil.
Levi shrugged. “Something else has been bothering me. Why would they lock up No One’s old body in a place filled with souls? If No One found his way to Astoria and used Samml again, he’d have an eternity’s supply of food.”
Friday shook his head. “Astoria’s a stasis. It’s pure.”
“I think I get it.”
“Do you? Because I don’t.” Friday started picking at the fossil.
“You don’t?” Levi asked, confused. “Then why’d you say it?”
“Of course I understand it, I’m a professional,” Friday countered. “Demon’s aren’t allowed in and souls can’t be modified inside the city. It’s a safe zone. Only people we want to enter can enter.”
“What about Raphael?”
“Obviously modified outside the city.”
“How could he get in?”
Friday started muttering something about Levi accusing him of not being professional, which to Levi was their queue to move on. He made a wide gesture with his harm, like he was trying to herd his companion.
“Come on, let’s get going.”
Friday dropped the fossil. “All right, field trip!”
Once again they were off.
Just like Friday had claimed, an old Victorian mansion, exquisite in its architectural design, stood in front of the two Afterlife workers right at what probably was the center of the city. If Levi knew a thing about architecture, other than when something looked nice, then perhaps he would have been able to fully appreciate the design but the majority of its beauty was lost on him. The iron gates with twirly designs, the ones that surrounded the mansion and prevented the non-existent residents of Astoria from getting in, were sadly in the same category of being unable to be fully appreciated. The one thing Levi could point out was that every few feet he could see the same yellow insignia that was on the door that led him to Astoria to begin with. Levi also thought the gate to be a little gaudy but hey, he wasn’t the one making the designs. 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 came off as genuinely confused. Levi let it slide; he had to, or nothing would get accomplished.
They walked up a lengthy driveway covered in little stones that pushed through the soles of Levi’s shoes so that he could just barely feel each individual stone on the bottom of his feet, and stood in front of a grand door that, like the gates, had the same symbol on it. Levi looked at it carefully; in the very center was a star, and around it was a crescent moon. Surrounding that moon were eight rays of sunlight made from two different designs, one of which looked like a flame and the other the shape of a droplet of water. And, if he wasn’t mistaken, Levi could make out the cardinal directions on the tips of each ray of sun. He brushed his hand against the smooth grain of wood and breathed in its rich scent.
“There’s a story behind that, Monday. Not sure what it is though. Must have missed that day in training.” Next to Levi Friday stood admiring the symbol, too. His hand moved along the wood, and made its way to the doorknob, grabbing on to it tightly. “Ever onward,” he said, and opened the doorway.
Into the house they went, down a hallway, past a portrait of somebody Levi did not recognize, up grand, elegant, endless spiral staircase after spiral staircase. Time passed in a painfully slow manner but Levi refused to spark up conversation with Friday for his own sanity. Finally they arrived in front of grandiose wooden doors. In gold lettering was printed SAMML AKRIOSK, THE SILENT ONE. Silently Levi pressed his forehead 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 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.”
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 wasn’t looking at Friday and thus 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 centuries ago is behind this door. The bodiless entity, the real No One, was forced out of 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. 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 nonetheless opened and they entered the room. At first, there was nothing. Then there was a single light. Then another. And another. The tiny lights, floating candles, multiplied. They gave off a softened 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 limply. 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, framing his eyes which were black wells deep enough to swallow a man whole if he stared into them long enough. Samml scrunched up his nose, bearing pointed teeth like Raphael’s, and went straight for Levi, pulling against the chains which stopped him inches from Levi’s face. He backed off once he could go no further, but only a little.
“You’re a rather disturbed soul. I don’t need the L Noise to be able to tell you that.” Levi whistled. He looked around the room, taking note of all the magic circles, sigils and spells drawn and written on the walls, he imagined, to keep Samml from leaving or No One from entering. 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 let out an animalistic, gruff air. It made the hairs on the back of Levi’s neck stand on end.
“Raphael, if you’re in here, please come out. I’d like to get home.”
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 to 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 many of his colleagues. He thought about what he would have done if Raphael had taken Alice, or succeeded in turning Blue; what the Anti-Listener would have done to them, what Levi would have had to say to get them back to normal, 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’m 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 with enthusiasm. Levi could have been imagining it, but he thought he heard a twinge of melancholy seeping in to those words of Friday’s.
“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, in front of his Chinese restaurant. He rose from his knees, but fell back on them after he received an unexpected 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 asked.
“Yes,” Levi said irritatedly.
“Since when?” Blue argued.
“Since always,” Levi insisted. He stood up and pushed the two aside, seeking out Raphael. He was nowhere to be seen. “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? Paradigm shifted,” 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 escaped into the air. All of that work, and Levi was rewarded simply with a slap on the cheek and no Raphael.