The main source of inspiration for this story comes from the Kill Bill series.
The main theme for Chasing Oblivion is "Lampshades on Fire" by Modest Mouse.
The secondary theme is "You Never Give Me Your Money" by the Beatles.
Chapter 1: One Sweet DreamEdit
“Came true today,” Junichi muttered, puffing a breath of cigarette smoke across the sand dunes. Scratching at his scraggly, shadow-drenched beard, the man coughed. He wore fine black slacks, military boots, and a white button-up dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
There was a dead sand dragon (a type of miniature green-and-yellow-scaled lizard) on a rock, its split belly rising towards the sky like a shattered volcano. Its flesh had curled and blackened around the wound; fat green flies hovered around the carcass, some gnawing away at its insides and wide-white eyes.
“What did?” asked Lychrel. Her voice was low and bored, like a summer wind creeping across desolate earth. She was clothed in a suit of black and blue, with lapis lazuli imprinted in the light bulletproof armor she wore on her chest and shoulders. Her goggles were tinted, her hair shaved to the scalp. Her nose ring flickered with red gold.
Their leader peeked up from behind the rocks they were leaning up against before slinking back down his place amongst the sand. “My dream. Met a girl who wanted to score big.” He puffed twice. “Took her all the way.”
Lychrel scoffed. “Sure you did.”
“Hey! I’m not lying!” The man threw his cigarette aside and stood up with heated energy. This was a day of dust, of fading sunlight and beckoning night-winds. “Her name was Piper! And, I’ll tell ya, man did I clean her pipes…”
“Was she pretty?” the other boy asked. He was younger than them, tanner than Junichi, but not so dark-skinned as Lychrel. His long black hair and bangs spilled over his head like frozen tar. He wore blue boots, orange pants, and a green, sleeveless shirt with the word ‘Comfort’ splayed proudly across its center. His cheap plastic goggles hung around his neck, as did his orange scarf. He looked like a bandit if there had ever been one.
“Was she pretty? Was she pretty?! What do you think I am – a street urchin like you, Yamcha?!”
The words hurt; the sands rippled around them as juvenile fish snakes swam underneath the simmering golden desert. “No.”
“Good.” He threw the boy a rocket launcher, shouldering one himself. “Now let’s get rich!”
Lychrel stood, drawing a machine gun. The boys were like wolves, stalking off into the dusk. The very sand seemed to be radiating heat upwards as they went; carefully, they each found their cover behind a different half-submerged boulder in the path. Around them, the hulking rocky shapes that Diablo Desert was famous for loomed large, like coiled vipers ready to pounce. Yamcha shivered. He looked up, over the rocks, and beheld a hovervan shooting down the road.
It spun like a lost bee. In the air, dark-feathered hawks circled. Below, the pack was preparing to feast. Junichi’s rocket hit first, slamming into the side of the car, sending it veering sharply right. That was when Yamcha’s rocket exploded in an orange flash on the van’s hood, decimating the white-grey hunk of metal. A plume of black smoke erupted around the van as it crashed into the sands. In three breaths, they were upon it.
Yamcha held his rocket launcher clumsily. He hadn’t even reloaded it. The man in the suit held a pistol. The Nubian Goddess’ machine gun shone with the color of dirty steel in the dying light. The van was burning slightly from under the hood, which was half-sunk in the sand like so many of the other tombstones in this bleak place. It would be a fitting addition to the landscape, Yamcha knew. As they stood there, the van slid a few more inches into the sand.
The man struggled, but not hard. He was an ancient, tiny thing. His hands shook, and a stream of blood rushed down his face from a cut in his scalp. He wore a white kimono, and his hair was braided up like Neanderthal. The words on the collar of his kimono read ‘Masamune/Masamune’. “Please…” he begged, “I am but a lowly servant of Lord Tonji… I bear you no–”
The shot echoed across the desert, sending the hawks in all directions. In the confusion, two of the hungry assassins ran into one another, sending one falling to the earth in a puff of blood and feathers. Not a moment before the bird hit the dust, a giant fish snake sprung from under the nearest dune and snatched it from the sky. In the blink of an eye, the hungry beast was diving underground again.
The sands beneath their feet shook and rumbled, drinking in the passion in the air.
“Yes!” Junichi’s voice was filled with glee. “Saké! Boxes and boxes of saké! High grade Junmai Daiginjo and Tokubetsu Junmai and…” he said, disappearing behind the back of the smashed van before producing a white bottle in his hands, “… Junmai Genshu… hand-wrapped in bamboo! Sick.”
They got piss-drunk, especially Yamcha, who had only had alcohol a few times before… and every one of those times, it had been with chasers and friends at parties. Now here he was, in the middle of the desert, with nothing but straight, dry saké and his rocket launcher, and he didn’t know if he liked this kind of party.
Roars as loud as lions’ broke across the barren dunes and cracked earth. They seemed to compliment the area, in Yamcha’s estimation. A tumbleweed blew by the crimson-soaked dirt. The evening sky swam with pale violets and thick midnight blues, stretched out across sight like spilt syrup. In the distance, pink clouds, as light as puffs of smoke, clung desperately to the last light of day. He threw his baseball up, catching it with drunken euphoria.
“Well well well… what do we have here?” His voice was like gravel in a tumbler, mixed in a deep vat of molasses. His aviator glasses were sharp and clean; his dark hair was combed back; his brown leather jacket was crisp and looked new; his jeans were worn and had a few tears in them; his huge boots had narrow steel spikes on their black leather ends. “Heh. Just a couple of kids. They’re drunk, too. Damn.”
“Hey, who you calling kid?!” Junichi roared, jumping to his feet. The puny gun he pointed at the head biker soon dropped from his hand when all of the biker’s buddies showed him their rifles.
“Careful now,” the boss biker growled. His coarse black beard was like a sailor’s – much more robust than Junichi’s. “We don’t want another accident to happen… do we?” He pulled down his sunglasses a bit to look Junichi in the eye. The way the man said those last two words made Yamcha flinch.
“Move along,” Junichi said with drunken boldness. “Go away, this is our score.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong, kid,” the biker growled. “Out here, we take what we want. Ain’t that right, boys?” His friends grunted in agreement. “Yeah, and we want that saké. So it’s ours.”
“It is not!” Junichi’s voice shook shrilly with anger.
“Jun!” Lychrel yelled, but the leader of their little group didn’t listen.
“Get out of here, or I’ll kill every one of ya!”
The head biker smiled, his dark eyes studying the well-dressed man before him. Junichi was sweating profusely, looking this way and that, perhaps paranoid, perhaps confused. “We have the numbers, kid. I could light you up right now if I wanted. I’ve done it before, to dozens of cocky teenagers who looked just like you. They died real easy. So don’t test my patience. Give up the saké, and we’ll let you live. And not only that…” the biker trailed off, looking to someone behind him whom Yamcha could not see, “… but, we’ll let you join us too.”
“What?!” That was Yamcha, whose cold gasp of air had escaped from him, as if by force. Everyone looked to him. That was just too much. Drunkenly, he snorted and fell over.
“All three of you can join my Wings. I give you my word. Give me the saké, live, and get piss-drunk again back home with me and the gang.”
There was something about that he liked. There was no fear in Yamcha, no doubt. He was too drunk to care. His life meant everything and nothing to him. The world swung back and forth like a pendulum before his eyes. A hawk had perched itself on a tall cactus just ahead, and it was watching the humans with grim curiosity.
“I’ll do it!” Yamcha shouted happily, throwing his unloaded rocket launcher aside. “I give up. You can take my share.”
“Yamcha?! What the fuck, man?!” Junichi whined.
“He’s right,” Lychrel spoke up. “Jun… look around you. What choice do we have? Be smart!”
“That’s enough.” The girl’s voice was commanding. “We’re joining this man’s group.” She gave the head biker a strange look and threw her machine gun to the dirt.
“Fine, whatever. Bunch of traitors, that’s what you guys are…” Junichi murmured, kicking sand over the pistol he had already dropped.
“Good,” the biker sighed, stepping up to get a better look at the loot. “That’s some high grade saké. How did you know that van was transporting it? All that valuable saké… just a stupid, unassuming van…”
“Lord Tonji is my uncle,” came the dauntless leader’s reply. “I know his shipment schedules and routes.”
“Is that so?” The biker laughed, like a feral cat. “That’s messed up.”
“Alright,” the biker said. He turned with a whistle, and the other bikers moved forward like ants to collect the cases and cases of 40,000+ zeni bottles. Yamcha knew he’d never taste those again, not unless this biker was a good man. And judging by what he did next, Yamcha didn’t think that was so.
With the men streaming around them, carrying bottles of precious poison, the biker unshouldered his own rifle and flung it to the ground. Cracking his knuckles, he rushed forward, shouting, “Wolf Fang Fist!”
Suddenly, the older man was on Junichi, unleashing swiping, punching, and clawing attacks. Blood flew from the young man; his screams echoed out across the wasteland. Lychrel rose, pleading for them to stop, her hands out, the ‘196’ tattooed on her left palm appearing more like fetid, pooling blood below her flesh than just another random number. The biker ended his attack with a double-palm strike, which sent his opponent flying into the air fifteen or twenty feet before landing hard in the dust away from the group. Junichi did not get up.
There was a necklace, of topaz and gold, swinging from the biker’s neck like an eternal pendulum. Yamcha could hear his own breaths coming swift and shallow.
A shivering sensation worked its way up the young bandit’s spine. As nightfall came, he knew the sand dragons and painted vipers would be coming out. He saw one of the baby dragons drifting through the dunes, running on two legs, its green-red scales shining marvelously. In the air, the fireflies were burning on their lights, the most vibrant show of existentialism he’d ever seen. The boy scratched his head and swayed as he stood, the bikers hauling off the saké around him. He knew then that he wanted to be like that head biker. He wanted to learn a move as cool as that guy’s. That was all Yamcha really ever wanted. He didn’t want to think right now. He didn’t want to feel. He swayed, giggled, and looked for Lychrel, but didn’t see her anywhere. So he ran off after the bikers, hoping that there was an extra seat for him on their metal warmounts.
Her zen garden was protected from the rain, at least. Standing at her door, Lady Yunwu surveyed the city beyond. South City never slept. Though it was night, all the lights in every building seemed to be on, buzzing like angry little eyes blurring into fractured half-rainbows as it rained. She returned her gaze to the garden, which was perfectly raked, five rocks of varying heights and widths spread around it in a deliberately asymmetrical shape. It gave her balance to see the serenity in something as lifeless as stone.
“The bandit lord, Naigo, has been causing a stir in the southern districts. Apologies, my lady, but I must give you an armed escort to the meeting place.”
“As you will,” she replied without emotion. “Remind me to do something about that one when this is over with.”
“Of course, my lady,” the servant replied.
They were off, an armed escort of more than two dozen flanking her on all sides. Yunwu moved with her handmaidens and other attendants to the other tower, where her clients would be waiting for her. The first, a bright saké-brewer who called himself Tonji Masamune, awaited for her in the second conference room. She hated that room more than most; it was tiny and entirely made of grey-blue stone – even the ceiling and table and chairs. It was a cold place, where cold deals were made. There were three seats for her side of the table, and three for the guests’. Only one of each would be occupied.
After being briefed by a guard, Yunwu came into the room and sat down opposite of Tonji. Her silver robes glittered marvelously in the dim light. The man was short and balding and his dark eyes remained fixated on her own, his twin pools of underwater light shining desperately, but fully aware of who he was speaking with. “Hello, Mr. Masamune,” the woman said enthusiastically. “What may I help you with today?”
Tonji Masamune cleared his throat. “Thank you for seeing me, my lady. I am here because my last shipment was stolen! All of it! Millions of zeni worth of the finest saké lost to bandits and thieves! I need your help, my lady… to get it back.”
“I provide a service,” Lady Yunwu reminded him. “For a fee, you can have all of your saké back – or as much of it as I can find.”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“Twenty,” the man gasped. “Please… be reasonable. I have to make a living!”
He composed himself, bowed his head, and nodded. “As you say, my lady.”
“Return in one week,” she said, rising. “I will have your saké for you by then, Mr. Masamune. On my word.”
“Th-thanks…” he said, getting up. Lost in thought, he just stood there for a few moments, like a rotting tree. “Hey… uh, sorry, my lady. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but my nephew has disappeared. Junichi Masamune? Have you heard of him? He disappeared three days ago.”
She shook her head. “Unfortunately, I must be leaving now, Mr. Masamune,” she said with professional impatience. “Good luck, and I hope you find your nephew.”
She left him like that. In the back room, four guards stood huddled around a few fat crates that were sealed and labeled ‘Fragile’. Yunwu paused at one, running her finger against the rough wooden exterior. The black slate walls around them were empty and clean, cold as exposed bone.
“Shall we take these to him now, my lady?” one guard asked.
“No, leave them. When he returns a week from now, maybe… if we can get a good rate. I’m not satisfied with twenty-five percent.”
“As you command,” the man said with a bow.
She next entered the third conference room, which was a larger room, though as starkly-adorned as the last one. Yunwu was sure not to betray her emotions upon entering. People came to her for services. She provided them – these were simply business transactions. She could not get wrapped up in each of their sob stories. So, she remained detached, a mighty tigress alone in the jungle, enemies on all sides. There was no one for her; that was by design. This was her job.
His name was Koicharu Mazuchiru, a mouthful of razor syllables. He was sitting calmly, wearing a black suit and tie, white gloves, and narrow sunglasses. His face was clean-shaved, but lightly scarred. His hair was gelled. There was just the hint of a tattoo creeping up his neck, a mixture of what looked like climbing flower vines and lines of blood.
“Good evening, Mr. Mazuchiru.” She did not address him as most people would. Around South City, the man was known as ‘The Emperor of Loan Sharks’. She would not be so unprofessional. After all, the commonfolk had come up with a name for Yunwu too, and it was equally as disparaging.
He nodded a single, swift time. Pushing a slip of paper across the table, he did not speak. Every movement was deliberate and quick – he looked like he wanted to get out of there as fast as he could.
“Is this about Naigo?” she asked, sitting down.
“That drunken samurai is no concern of mine,” Mazuchiru spoke. His voice was sharp and high, like a bending gust of wind.
“I see.” Her voice came distantly as she scanned the sheet of paper. “How soon does this need to be done?”
“I’ll see what I can do. I have never arranged anything like this before,” she said, taking the lighter out of her pocket. “I don’t know if I have the men for it.”
“The mayor may find out if you are unsuccessful.”
She felt heat rising under her eyes. “Is that a threat, Mr. Mazuchiru?”
He stood and turned his back to her. “Simply a statement of fact, my lady.”
She swallowed, dousing her fury in a hard breath. “No man threatens me. Should the mayor find out anything about anything, you’ll go down with me, sir. I’m not the only one playing this game.”
He bristled at that, but did not say another word. Stepping out of the room, the boss of the Chàoxing Gon Gang left Yunwu to her thoughts. Shaking her head, she got to her feet. She wanted to scream and kick the table. But it was made of stone. The toes on her right foot twitched.
He had her, like a fly in a web, and there was nothing she could do… except do what he wanted her to perfectly and precisely and get paid. Closing her eyes, she raised her head to the ceiling and pulled at her hair, trying to think. She didn’t know if she had any teams that could mount a successful assassination mission of the man Mazuchiru wanted dead. This was serious. Mazuchiru was the most powerful crime lord in the city, save for her. Was he making a power play? Would he really give the mayor intel on her if she failed to kill the man he wanted dead?
It might be a bluff, she knew, but calling that bluff was a gamble she could not make. Yunwu had spent too long, put too much into this empire. She would not let it crumble before her eyes because of pride. But maybe, she’d take Koichi Mazuchiru out too, just like Naigo…
Those two gnawed at her brain like maggots.
Koi danced in the walls, like living paintings; their ponds on the floor above her could be seen just ever so slightly if one tilted one’s neck enough, though Yunwu would certainly not be doing that today. Her guards escorted her to the next conference chamber, and thus her day went on. After the eighth client, a rapturous, delusional swordsman named Makare, Yunwu’s feet began to ache. By the end of the night, she had lost count of how many clients she had met with, how many deals she had set up, and how many millions of zeni in income she would be getting. Her back ached. Her face was sore from all the fake smiling. She just wanted to sleep for once before the sun came up.
The twenty-second client, her guard told her afterwards, had been a strange, anti-social scientist from the Red Ribbon Army who’d wanted her to secure him a prototype infinite energy device. She hadn’t known if she could trust him, for mad scientists are always the way the world burns in the movies, but after he’d shown her blueprints for an energy-generating wind turbine, Yunwu had agreed to find him that device. She still wondered, a bit, if that had been a wise choice or not.
They came to a closed door. On it hung a picture, as grey and deathly-yellow and black as the walls around them. The shapes were arranged like a bird of prey perched on branch, as if staring down on some hapless prey below it. The blacks and greys fragmented into a sharp beak, and the yellows wiggled around the staunch shape of the bird looking down upon them as they climbed up the steps to meet it.
Her banana tree was inside, in the corner, the only bit of green in her stony, spare apartment. There was a fresh, vibrantly-green leaf sprouting out of its center, a welcome sign to the tired lady. It was the largest one yet.
Two years she had kept that plant. For two years she had watered it, nurtured it, prayed for it to fruit. The meek tree would grow leaves, spotted in quasi-digitized fragments of black-and-green, as noble as any other Grand Naine, but it would not fruit, no matter how much she watered it or what kind of fertilizer she used. Its stalk was light-colored and thick, and it looked to be as robust a fruit tree as she had ever seen, at least in inner South City.
Eight feet tall it was, and soon she’d have to put it outside with her zen garden. As Lady Yunwu sat down at her table, her eyes remained fixed on that tree, as if, by staring, she could make it do what she wanted. Still, a cool feeling spread through her cheeks as she looked on. It was a healthy tree, even if it wasn’t fruiting yet. Its newest leaf stood almost straight up, for it was still sprouting up from inside the central banana stalk. In a few days’ time, it would be pushed out to droop down towards the ground, like all the rest. This was the biggest one though, five feet long, if not more. That was a promising sign.
“Was he dealt with?” she asked, rubbing her eyes and shifting her gaze to those around her.
“No, my lady,” replied the attendant. “Naigo got away. The police are still searching.”
“Did he?” She knew the answer to that. “We’ll deal with him tomorrow.” Yunwu poured herself a glass of fruit smoothie that had already been on the table, and leaned back, savoring the sweet taste in a silent sigh.
“My lady?” the guard at her back asked.
“The remaining clients. There are thirteen more.”
“I am done for this month. Send them back at the start of next month. My operatives are stretched thin enough as it is… I doubt we’ll get all these done that we have already.”
“Very well, my lady. I’ll let them know.”
“They won’t be happy,” she said quickly, “so give them automatic bookings. They’ll have next month’s first thirteen slots, no matter what.”
The guard nodded. “I’ll let them know.”
He was gone in the next instant; her smoothie did not take more than a breath to down. Lady Yunwu stood and bade her assistants and handmaidens to bed. Off they marched, it seemed, to leave the lady with her laborious thoughts. But the next thing that tired mastermind felt was a hand on her own, small and cold and dry. Looking up, she beheld a small girl standing in a pretty dress of orange and black and white. Her hair was short and dyed blue, her eyes blue-grey, her cheeks pale and flushed and freckled.
“Hello my sweetie,” Yunwu cooed, smiling, falling to a knee to get a better look at this one.
“I have a message,” the girl said plainly. She handed the folded piece of paper to Yunwu.
“How did you get in here, darling?”
The girl recited the next line as she were reading it aloud. “Please read the letter, my lady.”
She did. The lighter was at her throat in the next moment, flashing that bit of treachery out of existence. The dust pooled at her feet, on the fine sapphire-and-gold rugs. Lady Yunwu eyed the messenger-girl suspiciously. She was cuter than the last.
“How many were killed?” she whispered, trying to mask her rage.
The girl shrugged.
The girl shrugged again. “It’s in the letter, I think. But you burned that up.”
She was feisty, Yunwu knew that much. The woman’s mouth curled into a smile of disbelief, despite the state-of-mind she had been put in by those fake, imaginary words. She was angry, distraught, worried beyond all hell because of what that message had said. But this girl… this little girl…
“What does he want, exactly?” she whispered.
“Help. Bodies for war.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” She turned her head and swore silently. “Go back to your master. Tell him I’ll help him take out those snakes.” The girl nodded, but lingered awkwardly. Yunwu’s face flushed. “What are you still doing here?” she asked, breathlessly. “Get back to your master.”
“Sorry, my lady, I forgot to tell you,” the girl replied sheepishly. “I’m a gift too. From Wolfe.”
“He already knows that you will help. Trust me,” the girl said quickly.
“I see. That’s clever.”
The girl bit her lip and looked down. Yunwu stepped forward, standing up. She was more than twice as tall as this girl, a giant of silver and shadow approaching the damsel in distress… and this time, there would be no Prince Charming to burst onto the screen. The room was quiet and warm; the doors were closed and still, and everyone had to be sleeping. She knew this already.
The tingling feeling spun up her flesh like an autumnal whirlwind. She shivered and took a deep breath.
The girl fell to her knees. “Where did he find you?”
“In the desert,” the girl replied softly, obediently enough to bring a tear to the lady’s eye. “With everyone else.”
“What were you doing out there?”
The woman chuckled and stepped up to the girl. “I see. On your feet.”
The girl looked up, surprise in her eyes. “M-my lady…?”
“You need to stand for this one, sweetie,” the woman said with the force of a whole sugar cube. “You’re so tiny, after all. So short and frail and…”
No formalities that time. No ‘my lady’, or ‘Lady Yunwu’. Just a gasp of breath, as bleak as ice. Yunwu wasn’t phased. Her cheeks were flushed, her fingers were tingling. She was ready. Yunwu dropped her pants and took the girl by the back of her short hair, pulling her towards the warmest prize. The girl didn’t resist.
She didn’t even know her name. But for Yunwu, the Spider of South City, that was to be preferred.
Several hours earlier…
“You been a bandit all your life, kid?”
Yamcha shook his head instinctively. The buzzards circled above, screeching distantly in their starvation. He lowered his gaze and ran up to the upturned hovercar with the others. The bodies (if they could even be called that any more) were horrendous to look upon, so he did not. Scouring the burning wreck, the heat pressing to his face, Yamcha grabbed the woman’s half-spilt purse and scampered off, like a dog with a bone.
The leader of their little raiding party was a man named Sallow Saul, on account of his complexion. He was a king in his own mind, from what Yamcha had seen. He watched the others scavenging the burning car before returning to his conversation with Yamcha by saying, “When’d it happen?” His voice was deep, but not as deep or scary as Wolfe’s. He was younger than the boss of the Wings too.
“Six months ago.” Yamcha turned the purse upside down, letting loose a mess of contents onto the dusty ground. The sun hovered high in the sky; it couldn’t have been a minute past noon. This was an orange day, a day of sweat and fire and blood. At first glance, her possessions were worthless… a makeup kit, three half-empty tubes of chapstick, a smattering of napkins, too numerous to count, and other assorted garbage he didn’t even recognize.
“What happened? Mommy and Daddy kicked you out onto the street?”
“No.” He found wads of bound zeni, but most of them were too charred to be worth anything. Throwing them down the endless bleak highway to join the tumbleweeds, Yamcha bit his lip. His throw was good, but the power wasn’t there. He wasn’t practicing enough. He’d need to get back on that.
“I ain’t askin’ you, kid. That’s an order.” He raised his rifle and aimed it at the black-haired boy. “I want to know who the fuck you are, exactly. Tell me why you’re here. You gave up pretty easily, not like the others. You didn’t care about them.”
“What?” The boy was taken aback. “I-I did… I do…”
The man did not lower his gun. Nearby, he heard another bandit shouting in joy after finding some rare haul. Fertile sand dragons crawled across the sand, snaking about like spilling blood. The heat that radiated down from the sky and up from the ground was enough to break him.
“I got hooked up with them after I got kicked out.”
“You know where,” Yamcha whispered, not looking up. He searched through the last remnants of the purse, hoping to find a ring or a necklace, or something worthwhile, but there was only dust and sand at the bottom of that now-useless purse.
“‘Scuse me?!” There was the rage. It had been building for a while now. Yamcha grimaced. He didn’t know why he had goaded the man so.
“You look like someone who would know…” the boy said quickly, eyeing the rifle that was locked on his face sourly.
Before Saul could spit his venom, one of the other bandits let out a long whistle, drawing their attention to the skies. That was when they saw it. The plane could seat perhaps 12 people. Its motor screeched and hummed, betraying its advanced age. It was barreling down the highway towards them.
“Now!” Saul roared to the bandits. “To your positions!”
Everyone – even Yamcha – ran to their designated spots. They’d been here since morning practicing this. Yamcha unshouldered his rocket launcher and aimed it up at the fast-approaching plane. It was flying low and fast, and it definitely didn’t see them.
“One potato, two potato,” Saul told them. “Then Akkan goes, then Nia, then Yamcha…”
He took a breath, straining to hold the heavy weapon like he was an adult, like them. But he wasn’t. Yamcha’s eyes drifted to the smoking hovercar. He couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there. A flash of red and orange and pink and white shot through his mind. The boy bit his lip. It was either kill or be killed. That had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Their lives gone… just because Saul wanted to pass the time until the real prize came flying by.
The leader’s rocket was in the air, sailing off towards the racing biplane. Yamcha counted two seconds in his head and then fired as well. The sight of his rocket spinning through the air as quiet as water, coming in on a slightly different angle compared to the rocket it was trailing… well, Yamcha had to blink away the déjà vu.
He barely registered the explosion. Six months ago, this kind of thing would have made him scream out in triumph. Not any longer. There were real people in the plane, real people who were now dead. He unshouldered the launcher as the burning plane careened wildly into the ground like an errant meteorite. He ran with them over to the inflamed prize, but that was because it was kill or be killed. If there was one thing Diablo Desert had taught him over these past few months, it was that men were savage animals, and if he let his soft feelings get hurt, he’d end up just like Junichi.
“Fuck! Shit. Oh, shiiiiiiiieeet!” Sallow Saul sounded scared. “Fuck! Why were they in there?! What the fuck?!”
“Oh fuck,” another bandit was muttering to himself, pacing in front of the wreck. “What’s Wolfe gonna say? Fuck, fuck, fuck…”
Sallow Saul’s face went pale. “We’re fucked.”
“What happened?” Yamcha asked timidly. He had no idea why everyone was suddenly so horrified.
“They’re fuckin’ untouchable!” Saul kicked the side of the plane. To the right, where a door had been ripped off in impact, luggage had fallen from the plane to scatter upon the cracked desert earth. The man leaned down, picked up something from the sand, and threw it at Yamcha.
There was a silver-shining coin in the dust. Yamcha picked it up. On one side, a magnificent crimson serpent was uncoiling itself as it floated in the air, staring menacingly at the long-haired boy with its bloody fangs bared. On the other side, the words ‘Night Snakes’ were printed into the metal. Below that, ‘Ad Abundantiam’ was rendered in flowery cursive, though Yamcha didn’t know what that phrase meant.
“Night Snakes…? Who are they?” he asked innocently.
“Fuckin’ untouchables…” Saul replied. All the hate had gone from him. He looked like a deer in the headlights, like someone had punched him hard in the gut.
“We’re screwed man, we’re screwed! That’s it for us, man! Wolfe’s gonna skin us alive!” another bandit screamed.
“Quiet, you fool! Don’t freak out on me now!” bellowed Saul, but his energy was draining too, Yamcha saw.
A gunshot echoed across the desert. A bandit dropped, the blood draining from his head faster than Yamcha could have fathomed. He shivered and wondered if he’d have to do that too. Two of the other men ran off suddenly, without saying a word.
“Get back here you cowards!” Now Saul seemed to have a bit of his old mojo back. He aimed his rifle calmly, fired a shot apiece, and downed each of the traitors. There were five bandits now.
“Well, if we’re screwed, I may as well get one last fuckin’ over on the world!” an older bandit with a round belly and a brown-grey beard complained.
He walked up to the plane, ripped a door open, and pulled a corpse out from within. The strength he had used to tear that metal took Yamcha’s breath away. He reminded Yamcha of Bacterian, a fighter in the World Martial Arts Tournament whom Yamcha had become a fan of after his fourth place finish in last year’s main event. What the man did next though was wholly unexpected, but not entirely without precedent. As Yamcha watched the man mount the still-warm corpse of a female officer in the Night Snakes (whatever that was), he couldn’t help but hold his gaze. There was blood on her face, and soon, that old bandit got some blood on him too. A hawk screamed from overhead as it circled around the rising pillar of smoke.
Another man killed himself. Saul was sweating; he looked as defeated as this sweltering graveyard. Two other bandits eyed him, as did Yamcha. The boy’s heart was in his throat. He was waiting for the words he knew would come. If Saul made them do it, he’d have Yamcha go first.
“Let’s go,” Saul muttered a few seconds later. “It’s the wrong plane. That’s all there is to it. We’ll let Wolfe know, and hopefully, we’ll get the benefit of the doubt. He can’t be too mad at us… right? We shot down the plane that was supposed to be here at this time. We did our job. Someone else didn’t! That’s all we gotta tell him!” The way he looked betrayed his true feelings on the matter. “Come on, you all, form up!”
The man clapped his hands as he barked his order, marching off to their bikes (they wouldn’t be able to take all of them back this time) as the sun clung to the afternoon sky overhead. The other two men formed up and followed Saul back to certain doom, and Yamcha would have followed them just as eagerly had a glint of gold and orange not stopped him dead in his tracks.
The Night Snake’s blade was a scimitar if Yamcha had ever seen one, with wonderful gold-and-silver inlaid metalwork and a blood ruby buried in the bottom of the hilt. The orange tassel on the end was as soft a silk as Yamcha had ever felt. Its sheath was black and gold, and Yamcha wanted to do nothing more than unsheathe it and take a good swing at a pumpkin or a watermelon with this sharp artifact, but the others were leaving him behind. If there was one thing Yamcha had learned during his time as a bandit, it was to never get left behind.
So, he snatched up the sheathed sword, which was sticking halfway out of the dune the plane had crashed on, and ran after the others. And as he ran, though he saw flashes of red and brown and black behind his eyes, Yamcha kept his mind on the most perplexing question he could think of: if he could beat someone as strong as Bacterian with this new sword of his. It was sharp and valuable, and a very powerful man had owned it before he had unfortunately gotten a rocket to the face. It had to be important; it had to be a weapon fit for a king.
Yamcha was no king. He was a kid with a sword who had not a penny to his name, and certainly no saké either. He had no friends in this world. It was kill or be killed. He knew that already. His life meant nothing to anyone else. The boy only wondered if he could kill that fearsome leader of the gang… Wolfe had been his name, Yamcha remembered. The sword had to be sharp, after all. And it felt light in his hands. But the boy, a studious superfan of the World Martial Arts Tournament, knew that an attack like the one Wolfe had used on Junichi had no peers, at least not in the form of steel or metal or bone. He’d always wanted to be like them, to learn moves like theirs, all showy and powerful and capable of dropping a foe in a matter of seconds.
He wondered what he was doing, running after Saul and the others. Did he really want to be a bandit? Did he like this life? He couldn’t answer, even if he knew the answer. He would never even entertain such an answer. There was no other choice. It was kill or be killed. And unlike the two men who had committed suicide upon realizing they had accidentally killed some high-ranking Night Snakes, Yamcha was not yet so ready to give up. He had dreams, after all. He wanted to win the World Martial Arts Tournament. He would win. That’s what he told himself. He’d win one of those, and then retire to be a world-famous baseball player for the rest of his career. That’d be the way. That’s how he’d make the big bucks and meet the pretty girls. Yamcha shuddered, just thinking about it.
They came to the bikes. He stopped in the dust, glancing at the others. They didn’t see the sword he had tucked under his shirt. They were all too preoccupied with what had just happened. Unlike them, Yamcha didn’t care. It was over; he’d survived. That was all that mattered.
Yet, as the wind howled a lonesome, barren tune through the rocky structures surrounding them like ruined statues of great former bandits, Yamcha knew this was not for him. This was not who he was, who he wanted to be. In that same moment, he knew that there was nothing he could do to change his position. He’d be stuck out here, a sorry bandit living desperately in the shadows of greater men, for the rest of his life. What use was surviving then, if he was just going to be stuck out here, a prisoner again?
Yamcha didn’t know, and, as the bikes began to hum and roar like waking lions, he was broken from his thoughts like a baby torn from his mother’s womb. And there he was again, in reality, bandits on all sides of him, nothing but death and fear awaiting him down the road. Yamcha got on his bike and closed his eyes, breathing hard. Saul sped off. Two bandits followed him close behind, loyal to the end. Yamcha watched them go, the bloody one and the unblemished one. For a moment, he felt the urge to spin his bike around and sprint off towards the nearest city.
He’d done that once before, a few years back. He’d been a lot more naïve back then. Yamcha knew that that way lay only ruin. Experience had taught him that much. This time, he would take the other path, as reckless as it may be. And if he died at the end of it all, so be it.
Yamcha was tired of how his life had gone so far. He slammed down on the gas and sped off after Saul and the others to the soon-to-be-angriest bandit boss in the whole damn desert.
Existence is pain. Beyond all other things, pain is the least desirable. We live for pleasure, but that is not our existence. It is my mission to make our lives as painless as possible. I don’t want any of us to hurt any more.
I walk; I see; I listen. My pain digs at the back of my eyes, filling my veins with burning adrenaline. Soldiers move past me in silence. Most are patrolling; a few guard the ice-covered doors. There is melting snow on the concrete slab floor. They are covered in the crippling freeze – I can see it in their eyes. I shiver. I recoil. They don’t react – their gas masks betray no emotion.
Skirling winds beat against the fortress mercilessly; the wood and metal protecting us sighs long and hard. The loudspeakers blare like underwater sirens. “The next Meeting of Minds will commence at 3 pm,” says a female voice in a semi-pleasant monotone cadence. “Attendance is mandatory.”
Attendance’s mandatory. I’ve heard that a dozen times before. Three little words, so counter-productive to my goals. The door has the imprint of the ‘NUL’ insignia rendered on it in light steel. That’s us: the Negative Utilitarianism League… NUL for short. We specialize in the minimizing of pain, and the maximizing of pleasure. It’s a good philosophy. I’ve known about it for more than three months. It is my life. I will find an end to this pain.
I enter the elevator and come to the fourth floor, where a walkway with glass windows on all sides greets me. The storm outside is raging like this is the heart of winter. The snow looks like little hummingbirds, shooting this way and that through the air, as quick as death. I know it’s just frozen water, screaming soundlessly against the staunch walls of reason and logic. The storm will not break through. We are safe.
I find him waiting behind the next door, standing as straight as a redwood. Tao’s eyes remain on me, unabashed. He is a cold mercenary, just the man for this job. “It’s good to see you,” I say. “Did everything go according to plan?”
“Everything went according to plan, mayor.”
“Good.” A wave of triumphant pleasure spirals down my spine. “Here.” I hand him a folded piece of paper, a promise of zeni and future employment. He pockets it without looking. The man is imposing, posing like a hungry tiger. I don’t feel good. This isn’t right. His traditional pink chang pao looks ridiculous with the storm raging around us. Outside, lightning cracks, briefly illuminating the mountain’s peak. “Where is he?”
“Tranquilized. In a cage. Undamaged.”
Tao leads me down the hall to a side door. Opening it, he bids me inside before closing the door behind him; this room is near the top of the castle, tucked away like a prison cell. How the mercenary had managed to get a box of that size in that tiny room, I never figured out. I peer about, soaking in the room. The floor is pale wood; the walls are painted a dull lavender. There is a bed, shaped like a capsule, in the corner of the room, along with a night table and yoga mat, and a quasi-kitchen with a sink, a stove, and a mini refrigerator in the other corner. Otherwise, the room is bare as new-fallen snow. This would be my nuclear arsenal, this secret little place. I nod to Tao and approach the box. There is a giant of a man, a gargantuan berry-shaped fellow, standing near the box, admiring it. He had been behind the box before, but now that he has shown himself, I step back, uncertainly.
“Bobo, the handler,” Tao says, pursing his lips.
“Heh, and they said they don’t exist!” Bobo grins, patting the side of the box with child-like glee. “Oh, they’re real. They’re out there. I’ve seen ‘em.”
“That’s enough, Bobo.”
Bobo’s scream comes as unexpectedly as anything I have ever heard. “Ahhhhwoooooooooooaaaaaaaaeiiiiieeaaahh!” A tingling pain courses through my body, and I feel sweat pooling on my lower back.
Bobo doesn’t listen. He beats his chest and goes to do another wild scream when Tao lunges forward like a falcon diving from the sky. I just barely notice the edge of the black-blade knife glance across Bobo’s flabby neck. And then the blood comes spraying out, foaming and dark, and Bobo collapses in a puddle on the floor, up against the box. There are goosebumps on my arms; I feel sick. The pain is too much. I look away.
“My apologies, mayor,” Tao says quickly, wiping his knife. “I will have this cleaned up by the time you return.”
“Good,” I say, “I cannot stand to look at him any longer.” Nodding in understanding, Tao leads me around the box to the other side, where the floorboards are not drenched in another man’s life’s blood.
“Was he difficult to catch?” I run my finger against the rough wood of the outer wall of the black-wood box, trying to forget.
“Oh yes. He required extensive tranquilization before collapsing. Had I been able to apply deadly force…” He looks at me with that shrewd, dark gaze of his, “… it would have been over in seconds. But…” He lets that word hang too long in the air. His voice is sharp when he speaks again, “It took me three days to catch him, in the end.”
“Did he look strong?”
“Yes. I saw him tear two men and a lesbian limb from limb.”
“That’s good.” I laugh, without thinking. “That’s very good.”
The box shakes suddenly and violently. I jump back, my heart beating like a baby rabbit’s. Glancing to Tao, I ask, “H-he can’t break out, can he?”
“No, mayor. Please, do not be scared. He can do no harm. Not as he is. But here,” the man says, gesturing to the keypad sprouting out from the center of the box like an errant branch, “you can disable as many of his restraints as you desire from this screen. But be warned, once all of his restraints have been removed, he may become difficult to control, and he will break free.”
“You should not remove them until you’re ready, mayor.”
“I understand. Thank you, Tao.”
I leave him with my box. I am not yet ready to open that box. No… there is still much to be done, much that has to be done. The pain is returning. I shut my eyes, squeeze it away. It flees again, burning down to a single flame deep inside… the unquenchable minimum. My oldest friend.
The air smells of sawdust. More of my soldiers walk past me. A few salute; I don’t react. It would pain me to do so. One man is wiping blood from the walls; two more are huddled in a corner sharing a smoke. A captain strides past me as two of his men follow behind, carrying a stretcher between them. Whatever’s beneath that black sheet doesn’t move.
I traverse the fourth floor until I come to another elevator, taking that one down to the second floor. Then I find my way past rooms of boxes, supplies, weapons, and empty crates, to a storage shed in the far back, where not even the guards patrol. There, I find her waiting for me: her short purple hair appears rather sexy in the low light, as does her thin, boyish frame. She’s wearing a black tank top and sagging cargo pants, and she’s got a feisty look on her face too.
“Mazuchiru sends his regards.” Her voice is tender, but guarded. She doesn’t like playing the lady.
I hand her a soft manila package, sealed and full of brick-shaped contents. “And here are mine.”
A smile. That’s rare from her. Her name’s Violet. That’s good. Her name matches her eyes. “Here.”
She throws me the baggy. “Is this the good stuff?”
“Now we’re talking.”
I sit up against the wall, opening the baggy. All the snow inside is packed tight. This stuff won’t melt. I’m not so careless. I chuckle to myself as I inhale the air inside the mini Ziploc bag, trying to take in the quality of this batch. In my youth, I had styled myself The Storm, for no one had been able to ride as much snow as me. Now, the thought just makes me laugh in disbelief at how much of a stupid kid I’d been.
“You know, NUL’s goal is to minimize pain for the entire population… as much as we can.”
“You’re doing a great job of that,” she replies haughtily. “Look at your city.”
I draw a line up to my nose, balancing it on my finger. I’m impatient. The pain is clawing at my brain, pounding against my skull like waves against the shore. I can’t stand it. I take a deep breath, remember what it’s like to be alive, and sniff.
“Easy now.” My tone is sharper, rougher. “Don’t make me reject the Red Ribbon Army’s charter for South City,” I say. “I may be here… now… with NUL. But I’m still the mayor of that damn city, and you’ll show me a little respect!”
She grins cheekily and squats down, sticking a finger into the baggie. Pulling it out, Violet inhales a breath of the white powder clinging to her flesh. “I thought you prefer chasing the dragon,” I murmur.
“Dragons aren’t real,” the Red Ribbon Army officer replies coolly. “We’re the real dragons, you and me.”
She is already high, I know. She must have taken three lines before I came down here. Still, her recklessness is making me bold. I have to use all my discipline to hold my tongue. A moment later, the military officer sits down next to me, against the cold metal wall. I can feel the vibrations of the wind outside.
“You NUL-freaks weird me out,” Violet is saying. I’m barely paying attention. The room is swimming; my vision is flickering; she’s holding the baggie, not me. Everything feels so heavy. My mouth is dry. I am just waiting for the wave I know is coming. I’m standing on the beach, my arms extended, calling for the impending tsunami like it’s my one true love. “Is this really the quickest path to no pain?”
No, it’s not. Not by a long shot. But I’m getting there. I’m trying. Sometimes, I feel like I’m the only one trying to make Negative Utilitarianism work. The room sways. I hear the familiar rustling of voices against my eyes. She’s holding the baggie in front of my face, as if daring me to choose.
“Life is pain,” I remind her. “There is no escaping that. We can try to minimize–”
Violet’s eyes light up. “Hey… if life is pain, then wouldn’t the opposite of pain be death?”
“That’s right,” I say at once.
“That’s sick, man.”
I nod. My finger is in and out of the baggie faster than I can comprehend. I’m not me; this isn’t happening. I’m watching it all, but I’m not controlling my body. Nothing matters. I feel nothing as I snort the next line. It’s sick, alright. What I’ve got in that box is sick. That’s a real monster right there. And though he may not be a dragon, I know that he – and what he’ll do for me – is going to be the first step towards a world without pain. This is for everyone… for all of mankind. I sacrifice everything for the greater good. We have been shattered into countless broken pieces by the burden of existence. I am the glue that will make us whole again.
I glance down at my watch. Its digital lights read: 2:57 pm. I smile, and laugh, and cry as the wave hits me, wrapping me up so tight in its unending love, like we are the only things in this damn universe.
the wind is rustling
when sand sprays into the sky…
a feast for the flies
Chapter 2: Silver DawnEdit
A plump mirror spider was climbing up the rocky wall, not a foot from his face. Its abdomen was scaled, lavender fading to the colors of cream and dried moss. Yamcha looked to his right. There stood the three other bandits in a neat line. He was on one end. Sallow-faced Saul was on the other.
It felt like someone was pounding on his chest with a hammer. His breaths came quick and shallow. His hands were shaking slightly as they slid down the hilt of that sword he had tucked behind his back, underneath his shirt. He didn’t know if he wanted to give the golden sword to Wolfe, or try to kill the man with it.
The leader of the Wings stared them all down, his hands behind his back, fire in his eyes. Not a word was said. Behind them, their bikes were parked, still warm. His pet bald eagle was perched on his shoulder, eyeing the four hungrily.
“My ears better not be deceiving me,” Wolfe whispered coldly. “Or I’m going to…” He pulled a pistol out from behind his back and cocked it, pointing it at Saul’s forehead. The Wings’ boss had a scowl on his face that chilled Yamcha’s blood. The boy gasped.
“Please, Wolfe!” Saul pleaded suddenly, interrupting the older man. “I-it was an accident… they weren’t supposed to be on that plane. I thought…”
“It’s your job to get good intel. And now because of you… I have a goddamn gang war on my hands. I worked for years to forge peace between all the desert gangs… and in one stupid act – one tiny fuckin’ act – you opened up all the old wounds. Do you know how many will die?”
Saul was shaking too. He didn’t look so tough now. “Hundreds… maybe thousands. Wolfe, I’m sor–”
“No,” Wolfe growled, interrupting Sallow Saul. “Not today. Today, we’ve got just four more.”
The gunshot was louder than Yamcha would have expected. It grew in the rocky chamber, spreading and collapsing again on itself in the enclosed area. Yamcha dared not bring his hands to his ears, for he yet clutched that elegant blade. The boss’s eagle did not move either; it had grown quite used to such noises. Saul’s body slopped against the ground like a bag of dirt.
“P-please… boss… I gotta daughter, and–”
He didn’t hear that one. The boy’s ears were ringing. The third bandit raised his hands, pleading for mercy, and charged at Wolfe as the man raised his pistol. All it required of the seasoned bandit lord was a simple cocking back of his wrist – just a tad – to account for the impending man. The barrel flashed, and the bandit went skidding into the dirt, a lifeless ruin.
And then the man was on him, like a wolf on a doe. Yamcha raised his head. There were tears in his eyes. He didn’t want to die. Not like this.
“P-please sir… I’m new, and uh, I-I didn’t shoot any rockets like them! S-saul didn’t let me.”
“Bullshit he didn’t.”
It was like water shooting down a web, the fear going through his veins. He fell to his knees and pulled the sword from under the back of his shirt. Holding it up as if to a king, splayed across his upraised palms, he stuttered, “S-sir… please… I-I-I… I g-got this for y-you…”
Wolfe eyed him, as did his pet eagle. Yamcha closed his eyes and turned his head away, waiting to feel death. He felt only the sword being taken from him.
“From the Night Snakes?”
The boy opened his eyes and nodded in uncertainty.
Wolfe drew the blade. In the dim, rusty light, it shimmered like molten gold. “Real silver and gold fused into the metal,” he muttered. “Must be Jorack’s. Damn. It’s called the Azure Dragon Sword,” Wolfe told him. “This belonged to one of the heads of the Night Snakes.”
“I-I’m… sorry, sir…”
“Get up. Wipe those tears away kid. I’ve always wanted this blade.” The bearded man sheathed it. “It’s worth more than anything in this place. You did good.”
Yamcha didn’t know what to say, so he nodded in confusion.
Wolfe waved towards the green-metal doors behind him that led deeper into the cave. “Get out of here.”
He did. He walked past the man at first in a daze, then in a hurried walk, and then in a full on sprint when he was out of eyeshot of the man. He had escaped death by the skin of his teeth. Hell, he didn’t even know if he had escaped the others’ fate. Maybe this was just a cruel joke Wolfe was playing on him.
The tunnel snaked sharply left and spread out into a wide room lit by hanging metal-cage-locked light bulbs. He ran right into her, knocking Lychrel onto her bed. In every little nook, a bed, a dresser, some boxes, stone walls made for privacy were. Her nook smelled of blueberries, extra sweet.
“Oh, uh, sorry… eeeeeeeeeeaaaaak!” Yamcha screamed as he stood up, stepping away from Lychrel.
She was standing there in her underwear. Sighing, she picked up the shirt she had dropped, which lay curled and scarlet on the perfectly-made bed, and said, “Jeez, Yamcha. Come on, man! You scared the hell out of me.” She shook her head as he stood there trembling like a melting ice sculpture. “What… are you scared of me?”
“N-no…” he finally said.
“Hey!” Lychrel’s tone became serious. “Yamcha! What are you doing?”
She looked down, sighed, and pulled on her scarlet t-shirt. “Look kid, I’m gonna tell you something you’re not gonna like, but you gotta hear. Okay? Listen to me.”
“Huh?” he squeaked.
“Weak men do not last long out here.” He shook his head, not understanding. “Don’t let them see you like this. Don’t let them know how weak you are. Hide it from them. Bury it deep inside you. No crying, no screaming… none of that, alright? If you feel any of that coming up, swallow it back down and live another day. Be numb to your surroundings, and you’ll make it. Do you understand me? You have to be strong if you want live out here. You have to be smart.”
Yamcha didn’t know what to say. He stammered out something, out of thought and mind, and was hushed by the woman almost immediately. She gave him more advice, telling him to be a man, to be a warrior, to forget his pain…
The boy walked out of there in a daze. Around the rocks, bandits were huddled. Fires burned out of rusted trash cans. Some held shotguns, others rifles – all eyed him anxiously from behind barricades of metal and wood. Their homes looked robust enough to be blown away by a wandering gust of wind. Bold chickens squawked and waddled about. Some would be used for fighting, he knew… others would soon be food.
There was a man singing a peculiar tune about rubber plants in a rocking chair just ahead. His wind-chimes sighed and he held a long rifle tight to his chest. There was a vial of green liquid hanging from a silver chain around his neck. Upon seeing Yamcha, the man spit and looked away. He kept singing. The boy’s own room – if it could be called that – was nestled in the corner next to the older bandit’s abode. Yamcha had few possessions, and his humble shelter portrayed that to the world as freely as a neon sign. He had a blanket, a wood-framed bed, a half-filled shoebox lying unevenly on the cave floor, and the sand-scorched clothes he was currently wearing. To his name, Yamcha had not a single other possession. Once he’d held a golden sword, worth more than anything in this place, but that had been long ago.
He sat down on the edge of his bed, exhaling softly. His mind took him to that room with Wolfe and the others, and all their pleading. He blinked, bit his lip, and grunted, trying to think about something else. Lychrel came to him then, as did Junichi. They were ghosts in his mind, like dust on a light beam. He knew he wanted to avert his attention; it was a primal feeling, akin to hunger. But there was nowhere else to turn. All his other memories were rotten as death, full of pain and heartache and loneliness. He realized then that he had no one in this world whom he could call his friend – not even Lychrel. Everyone was out for themselves.
Well if that was the case, the young bandit thought, maybe it was time he started thinking about himself too.
The Diablo Desert Express blew its horn twice as it screamed past them in the opposite direction. Across the sands, they tore through. The big man – Wheatty as he called himself – drove the old red pickup truck. It wasn’t even a hovercar. That hunk of scrap metal had been around far longer than Yamcha. But still it ran.
Wheatty was a bear, brown-furred and gargantuan; his muscles grew upon other muscles, like mountains upon mountains, and he could have torn any of their heads off if he had wanted to, Yamcha knew. He barely fit in his tattered clothes, barely had been able to squeeze into the cabin. He drove recklessly, with the urgency of a starving, feral dog.
Riding shotgun was Jess, a blonde-haired girl who wore thick red-and-white makeup and a dark pair of shades. She was smoking out the window, holding a can of Orange Crush soda in her other hand. Her perfume was sweet and earthy, a familiar scent without a name.
Next to Yamcha, in the back, was Silver Snead, the sniper of the group. He was lanky and older than the rest, a veteran of many bandit runs. He had known Wolfe longer than any of them. In his hands, he cradled a black-polished rifle loosely as he muttered indistinctly to himself.
Yamcha’s stomach rumbled. He looked out the window. Two other beat-up trucks were following them, great dust trails exploding up behind them. He sighed and brushed his hand against the pistol they’d given him. It was a small gun, holding only eight rounds. He didn’t have a second magazine. He’d never shot a gun at someone else. Sure, he’d fired a few rockets back with Junichi and Lychrel, but there was something different about that. He’d never meant to kill anyone, never tried. Yamcha hadn’t ever managed to, and he was thankful for that. His rockets had only been used to wreck hovercars. This would be different.
He swallowed, wiping his palms on his pants. The sun was just beginning to make its journey back towards the horizon, and the boy’s eyes felt heavy. He’d had a long day. A pack of wild fish snakes swam through the sands around them, as if they were chasing the dying light. His hand found the cold metal again.
They stopped three hovercars on that trip – each one separately – taking wallets, money, and jewelry from the occupants inside. Each time, Wheatty drove the pickup truck right up next to the hovercar while Snead fired his rifle in the air, cracking across the sands so loud it made Yamcha’s ears hurt. No one was shot; no one tried to resist. They handed over their possessions and raced away, some in panic, some in tears.
After the second score, which had yielded a diamond necklace and several thousand zeni, Jess had turned to Yamcha and planted a kiss right on his mouth. The boy had been so taken aback, he had only managed a squeak of surprise. As his face reddened and heat spread from the back of his neck down his spine, he tasted her smoke and trembled suddenly. They had all teased him for that, even the scraggly-bearded Snead. That had only made Yamcha feel worse.
The air was warm, even though it was cooling down. Wheatty mentioned that he wanted to turn back, that he was hungry for dinner. Jess made him go on, just a little bit further, to finish patrolling the entire southern quadrant of the Diablo Desert. She said she knew better than most what Wolfe would do to them if he learned they had cut off early. Sighing, Wheatty caved. He raised his hand out the window, alerting the other two trucks, and they were off again. It didn’t take long to find trouble.
They were digging for something, though what, Yamcha couldn’t tell. Twelve majestic floodlights surrounded a crater, bleeding the sharpest shade of white-blue down towards Earth. Around them, men in black suits stood, rifles in their hand. In the crater itself, shirtless men were toiling away with pickaxes and shovels, digging in the sands for something. The carcass of a mature fish snake was lying bloody on the side of the dig site, its silver-indigo scales shimmering in the artificial light.
One moment, everything was going as planned. And then Wheatty led the trucks straight at the digging men. They opened fire in a heartbeat. The boy ducked. He felt the truck barrel into a man, felt how easily the body was pulverized against rusting steel. They were shouting. Silver Snead was taking pot-shots out of his window. Jess was firing two pistols rapidly as she thrust half of her body out of her window.
Yamcha stayed down. His window shattered, spitting broken glass into his hair. He saw a trail of dark blood dripping down the back of the torn leather seat in front of him. Wheatty was hit. The truck came to a sudden stop, and for a breath, the young bandit thought their driver was dead. Yet, in the next moment, the truck wheeled around, and Wheatty began his second run. Yamcha poked his head up just enough for his eyes to see over the broken glass. The dunes were drenched with blood. Bodies painted the ground, both in and out of the crater. One of their trucks had crashed into a floodlight, and now they both were aflame with blue fire.
The drive back this time was bumpy. Yamcha unhooked his seat belt and fell to the floor, clutching his pistol tightly. It felt heavy in his hands. His heartbeat was slow, but insistent against his rib cage. He tried to swallow away the fear.
A bullet tore through the windshield, and someone gurgled a scream. When Yamcha looked up, Jess was gone from the window. “Wh-wh-what ha-ha-happ-ppened…?” he stammered. “Wh-where di-did sh–”
Snead pushed down on Yamcha’s head hard, refocusing down the sights of his rifle. “Get down, kid. Damn it!” He fired; the muzzle flashed like white gold. “You’re gonna get us all killed!” His beard was streaked with silver, his skin sand-hewn and red. There was a line of blood trailing down the side of his head. Half of his ear was gone. What remained was folded over in a grotesque ruin. The boy looked away.
In the next instant, Wheatty slammed on the brakes. The truck came to a stop. “Now… go!” grunted Snead. He didn’t seem to care about his ear. He reloaded his weapon, punched open the door, and rolled out like a soldier. Turning back, Snead growled, “Get out there or I’ll shoot you myself, kid.” He gave Yamcha a menacing look.
The boy, quivering, stumbled out of the other door, his pistol raised, his breaths coming fast and short. This could be it – at any moment, he could take the hit that would send him into the dark. He knew that. Yet, outside, it was remarkably quiet. A few dying men lay groaning. He didn’t see any standing foes. Across the pit, the other Wings truck stopped, and its bandits piled out, weapons raised.
The man dying to Yamcha’s right was staining the tepid sands. Soon he’d be fodder for the buzzards, the boy knew. He glanced again at the decaying fish snake corpse and raised his pistol. Snead had already come running around the truck, continuing his sweep.
“No one,” came his voice. It was quick, authoritative – the voice of a true bandit.
“Got it,” Wheatty replied. The giant bear of a man was rubbing at his sore shoulder; the fur around his wound had become almost black with drying life’s blood. Yamcha didn’t remember the big man getting out of the truck.
Silver Snead ran up to each dying enemy and put them out of their misery with a single shot apiece. One man screamed for mercy, and he was given it. The one who had been lying closest to Yamcha’s truck had taken a ghastly wound to his belly, which had caused his intestines to spill out. He held them in his hands, veiny blue rope, and said not a word when Snead raised his rifle. Maybe he had wanted death; that had to have been preferable to the hell he was living.
Snead’s split ear flapped in the wind. “Form up!”
There were eight bandits – three from Yamcha’s truck, five from the other. The third truck had been lost to an enemy rocket. Yamcha licked his lips and tasted salt.
“P-please, mercy!” one of the bare-skinned men pleaded. In the crater, half a dozen sunburnt men were kneeling. They had thrown their shovels and pickaxes away. “We’re just slaves, honest! We don’t want no harm!”
“Take ‘em,” Snead commanded the driver of the other truck. “We need the bodies.”
The other bandit was having none of that. “Hey, I want credit for this! I want a share of whatever treasure they’re digging up!”
“You will,” Snead contended. “Slave… what’s down there? What were your masters looking for?”
“I-it’s a money drop. Zeni. I-I don’t know how much…”
Snead nodded. “Take ‘em. Leave one of your own. I’m not asking again.” The coldness in his voice was enough to break a man.
The four bandits trudged off not long after, all six slaves in tow. Their hands bound with zip ties, the slaves didn’t complain. Yamcha wondered if they were going to be better off in Wolfe’s care. Looking down to the dirt, Yamcha’s eyes once again found the dead man who had lost his intestines. He was well-dressed, wearing an expensive-looking suit and pointy shades. The corner of his sleeve had been torn, and Yamcha could see the faint outlines of a full-arm tattoo creeping up the dead man’s wrist. Flowers it looked like to the boy, like the cherry blossoms of his youth.
Their new fourth was a man named Rico. Silver Snead tossed his three compatriots shovels, and they began to dig. It wasn’t long before they found the barrels. They were blue, made of thick plastic – 55 gallon drums, all. There were two dozen of them, each filled to the brim with freshly-printed, bound zeni.
“Fuckin’ hell,” Snead whispered, upon opening the first barrel, spilling its contents out onto the blood-soaked ground. “Shit. Wolfe’s gonna be so happy.”
“We better be gettin’ some of this loot!” Rico’s voice was unhappy. “I ain’t risked my life out here for nothin’!”
“You’ll get your money, same as all of us. Now quit your whining and get to work.” The silver-bearded man studied Yamcha. “Load these onto the truck. I’m going to find a first-aid kit,” he said, gesturing to his ear.
“Who are these guys?” Yamcha asked Wheatty as the two of them worked together with shovels and determination to pull the next three barrels out of the crater and up onto the ground. Then, the three bandits each slung one over their shoulders and walked back to the truck.
Wheatty shrugged. “Hell if I know. They ain’t the Night Snakes, and they ain’t from another desert gang, s’far as I know.” He shook his head. “Who cares? Fair’s fair.”
They took the barrel to the back of the truck. Snead was sitting up against the bumper, gingerly applying a bandage to his wound. As the three walked back to the hole with all the loot, Yamcha pointed at the dead man with the burst belly. “Look, they’re all dressed the same, and he’s covered in tattoos! Isn’t that a little weird?”
He was just trying to pass the time, to keep his mind off other things, but that line caused Rico to perk up. “Uh… okay. These guys must be Yakuza, yo! Shit, that’s bad.”
Rico shook his head and blew air between his lips casually. “Bigtime gangs from the cities. Dunno what they’re doing out here. But this’s some deep shit, yo.”
“Dying, that’s what,” Wheatty said wryly.
The shot caused Yamcha to jump. He dropped his pistol in the dust. Wheatty had been leaning partially over the crater, preparing to jump in and pull a few more barrels out from underneath the sands. He fell forward, soundlessly. A high-pitched squealing sound echoed in the boy’s skull. Yamcha felt an arm wrap around his neck so tight it nearly choked the life out of him. He was picked up off the ground and felt hot, ragged breaths on his cheek. Struggling to look to his left, he caught a blur of black – a man in a nice suit and pointy sunglasses with one of his cheek’s split open. His teeth were scarlet; Yamcha could smell the iron on the man’s breath.
“Drop the gun!” the man shouted wildly at Rico. The last bandit had been startled by the previous gunshot and now had his rifle pointed at the man who held Yamcha.
All the boy could do was pray that Rico wasn’t trigger happy. The bandit eyed the Yakuza, then Yamcha, then his foe again. “Hey, you don’t need to–”
“Drop it… now! Or you both die!”
Rico shifted his eyes from the wounded man to the boy and then sighed. “Fine, fine, look man, just calm down, I’m going…”
He leaned down, reaching to put his gun against the dirt. That was when the second shot echoed through the wasteland. Yamcha felt the buzz of it spread from the Yakuza’s body to his. The man lurched forward, spitting up blood, and fired wildly, taking Rico in the neck. The bandit also fell in a torrent of blood, and he did not move again.
When the Yakuza let go of Yamcha and slumped forward onto the dirt, the boy didn’t know whether to run or not. He didn’t even know if he was still alive. He was shaking bad. From behind, he felt someone pat him on the shoulder. Silver Snead came into view, the end of his rifle smoking.
“You okay kid?”
“Good. Come on, help me get these last few barrels loaded up.”
“B-but… the others…” Yamcha was wide-eyed. He felt the tears coming, though he tried his best to fight them back.
Snead looked down at the dead Yakuza, then to Rico. He shrugged. “More loot for the rest of us.” He slung his rifle over his shoulder and picked up a shovel. “You coming?”
Yamcha had not moved. He felt unbearably cold. His eyes were stinging.
The older man threw a shovel to Yamcha’s feet. “Leave ‘em. We can’t do anything for ‘em, kid. It’s you and me… or, if you don’t help, it’ll be just me. Your choice.”
Yamcha’s blood chilled instantly. He coughed, hiding a sob, leaned forward, and picked up the shovel. From between the dead Yakuza’s teeth, blood seeped into the sand. His sunglasses had shattered and fallen from his face. His gaze was lifeless and longing, his eyes staring off at something Yamcha couldn’t see.
A small black bird suddenly came shooting down from the sky to land on the man’s slumped shoulder. It bent forward and nibbled at the dead man’s wide white eye. Yamcha had to look away. He swallowed hard, gripped the shovel, and stepped up to the edge of the massive hole.
The older man grinned knowingly, stroking his beard. He gave Yamcha another curious look and then jumped into the crater, as Wheatty had done not but a few minutes before. Without even thinking, Yamcha followed him in.
She took the midnight express all the way to Wolfe’s dirty, barbarian hideout. Usually, she was loathe to make such a journey. It wasn’t so much the fact that South City was separated from the mainland by hundreds of miles of bleak grey waters, but more the run of this place. Every time she came here, she seemed to get sand stuck in her hair and her shoes for weeks afterwards. And she had never liked the smell of Diablo Desert. It had always reminded her of rotten meat.
Ren was with her – her little loyal companion. The girl was small and shy, delicate as a morning glory. And she had a clever tongue to match her quick wits. This would be good for Ren. She would learn much from this journey; the girl would grow from this experience, the lady hoped. Yunwu preferred the company of intelligent people… But that was another reason she so despised this place.
There was no one else in their car. Not this late at night. Diablo Desert was a dreary place, with only a few shanty towns. It was crawling with bandits and monsters and murderers and thieves. It was a wild and untamed land, not fit for people like Lady Yunwu. But she had only gotten to where she was now because of Wolfe.
Ren’s hair was turning dark again. The blue dye in her hair was fading. Yunwu liked that look, so she made a mental note to buy some new dye for the girl. It was the least she could do.
They came to their stop in the dead of night, three stations outside of Bonetown. This stop was labeled a bus stop – there was a small train station, a phony metal pole with ‘Bus Stop’ printed on it, and endless dunes and rocky structures expanding outwards in all directions. In truth, this stop only existed to get people to Wolfe, but most didn’t know that. On the off-chance that someone accidentally got off here, they would be perplexed as to why this place was a train stop at all. Yunwu’s eyes were well-trained, though. She immediately spotted the mass of rocks in the distance, shaped like a tumored giant, that she knew was Wolfe’s hideout. He and his Wings were lairing in that cave, as they had for decades. They were the biggest, baddest gang in the land. And yet, they had a major problem – a problem so massive that if Yunwu didn’t step in as she planned to tonight, the Wings would be wiped out within a fortnight. Wolfe’s pride would never allow him to admit as much, but Yunwu had been doing this for a long time. She knew a sinking ship when she saw one.
The Lady of South City never knocked. It was not her way. She and Ren took her hovercar to the cave where they entered through a side-entrance reserved solely for Wolfe. Well, that’s what the man’s minions thought. Wolfe would never deny her such a privilege.
She found him playing cards with a mangy-looking female. The boss’ eagle sat perched in the corner, its head bowed. That was good too. She hated dealing with his pet. Upon seeing Yunwu enter, Wolfe murmured something to the woman that made her giggle. They both stood, and his date exited the room awkwardly. When the door closed behind her, Yunwu strode over to the table. Even though Wolfe sat down again, she remained standing, Ren loyally at her side. The little girl would not say a word. But her ears would be as wide-open as her mouth had been the night before…
Wolfe folded his arms and said bluntly, “It was one of my teams. They shot down the wrong plane.”
“Night Snakes. High-level members. Once news spreads, it’ll be total war. They’ll want vengeance.”
“You should give it to them.”
“I already did,” the man said, scratching his dark beard. “I killed the goddamn traitors who fucked me over.”
“Are you sure this will come to war?”
Wolfe stood and walked over to a cupboard. He took out a yellow-glass bottle of whiskey and two cups. “Want some? Parroda’s finest. 200,000 a bottle back in the city.”
The man sighed and looked down. “Trust me, you’ll want some.”
“Very well.” Her voice was brisk, impatient. She bit her lip, swearing silently for betraying her emotions in front of this man.
Wolfe picked up a sheathed sword lying on a desk next to the cupboard and drew it for her. Its blade shined like new-fallen snow in the dim light, its steel edge and hilt wrought with gold and silver and other precious metals she could not name. Its beauty took her breath away. “Got this off a man who tried to kill me,” Wolfe boasted. “Killed him for it. Now it’s mine. I’m calling it the Azure Dragon Sword.”
“That’s very nice. It’s a beautiful blade. I’m sure you will defeat many enemies with it.”
He returned with two glasses. This time, when the thickly-built man sat down, so too did she. Ren stood by her shoulder, and when Yunwu looked to her, a warm feeling flooded her chest. Wolfe took a long gulp of whiskey and leaned back, sighing again obnoxiously. “Well… it’s gonna be a gang war. A big one. I worked for years to bring peace to all the gangs – all the big ones, at least. Sure, new ones spring up every year, but we can swat those aside like flies. If a real war breaks out – between all the gangs – there’s only one way this can end.”
“I can give you weapons, supplies, mercenaries… It will be expensive…” Wolfe snorted and took another gulp, “but you don’t have a choice. If you want to survive this, find the money. Let me know how many men you need.”
“As many as you can get.” The man’s yellow eyes were two pools of flames above the rim of his glass. “I mean to take this desert as my own. No more Night Snakes. No more Bulldogs, no more One-eyed Jackalopes. Just me and my Wings and the whole goddamn Diablo Desert.”
She briefly toyed with bringing up the fact that all these gang names were ridiculous and childish, but she held her passion. There were more important reasons the lady was here. “I’ll help you as much as I can. I’ll need to know how many gangs there are, how many members each one has…”
“I can only give you estimates.”
She nodded curtly and sipped on the alcohol. It nearly made her gag. It tasted like piss, like how bleach smelled. She coughed and blinked away the tears. Lady Yunwu cleared her throat. “While we’re on the subject, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Wolfe leaned back in his wooden chair. “Oh great.”
“Mazuchiru has tasked me with a high-priority assassination mission.”
“And you want me to do it for you?”
“Yes. You are the most qualified of my clients to help me with this task.”
“Why didn’t you refuse him?” Ren shifted uncomfortably next to her.
“I can’t. Not this time. He’ll give me to the mayor if I don’t.”
“Then kill him.”
“It’s not so simple. If I could kill every man who caused me problems, this world would be nigh-empty.”
Wolfe chuckled and downed the rest of his whiskey. He poured himself a second glass. Yunwu wondered how many years of drinking whiskey had gotten him to that point – no chasers, no coughing, no tears. He was all business, all pleasure. “Who’s the target?”
“The Captain of the King’s Guard.”
“What?!” That was not just surprise. There was rage too, buried deep in the back of the bandit’s throat. He had not expected that.
“He’ll be in South City in three days. He’s going to be attending a charity event in the House of the Blue Lotus.”
Wolfe grunted, scratching at his chin. “Ain’t that a whorehouse?”
“How do you want us to take him out?”
“Any way you can.” She slipped a data pad from under her Tyrian dress over to Wolfe. On it was held all the information she had on King Furry’s Captain of the Guard.
The man picked up the thin screen as if he had never seen anything technologically-sophisticated before. “Shit…” he whispered, fingering through the information. “This is messed up.”
“I thought this would be the perfect job for you.” Wolfe looked up, giving her an ireful leer. “Are you scared?”
“Not hardly.” He poured himself a third glass. Yunwu’s own whiskey sat untouched.
“You help me and I’ll help you,” she promised him. “On my word, Wolfe. You cannot take this desert without me. You cannot survive this gang war. Once they figure out that it was your men who shot down that plane–”
“I know. I fucking know!” He slammed his glass on the table. Miraculously, it didn’t shatter.
Lady Yunwu nodded slowly and apologetically, fumbling for something in her pocket. Pulling out a small pink capsule, she presented it to Wolfe as humbly as she dared. “For you.” He took it, curiosity in his eyes. “You gave me a gift, so I thought I should give you one, Wolfe.”
“What’s in it?”
“You’ll see. But please, don’t open it until after I leave. It’s nothing for a lady’s eyes.”
He eyed her suspiciously and then pocketed the capsule. Yunwu stood, leaving her barely-touched drink. Wolfe would know she had spurned him. She should have drank it. But the taste…
“How long will it take to muster the mercenaries?”
“That depends on how much zeni you have,” she reminded Wolfe. “I can begin assembling some teams now, but without any idea how much I can spend…”
“I’ll send you the money,” he replied. There was a roughness in his voice that she suspected was drunkenness setting in. It was time to leave.
“Ren, stay with Master Wolfe,” Yunwu cooed to the girl. “He’ll send you back to me soon.”
For a moment so fleeting that when Yunwu blinked she nearly forgot it, the Lady of South City noticed fear pass through the girl’s eyes. It was nearly imperceptible. Ren bowed obsequiously and graciously and didn’t protest whatsoever. That was good. Ren was a good girl, a proper girl, too good for this place. She was special, in more ways than one. But Yunwu needed her here now. As much as she wanted to take the girl back to her apartment… No, Yunwu could not let her passions rule her. This was more important. Ren’s place was here… for now, at least.
Yunwu turned from the man and the slave and walked towards the door. As she approached it, Wolfe’s eagle roused itself, raising its head to greet her. Its black eyes were moist and all-seeing. Its gaze pierced her like the first breath of winter. Lady Yunwu stared back at the mindless animal defiantly as she opened the door and walked out.
No bird would scare her. No bandit would, either. She was the most powerful woman in South City – maybe even the world. This was just the calm before the storm. Soon, she’d be on top of it all, and no one – not Wolfe nor Mazuchiru nor even the mayor – would hold her back. This was just the beginning.
She couldn’t wait until Wolfe opened that capsule. He was a man, and that meant he was stupid. It was the perfect storm.
They put Yamcha on cooking duty, which seemed about right to him. It was better than most of the other bandit jobs. If he paused for even a moment, he knew he would hear the distant screams of those Yakuza slaves again, and Yamcha didn’t know how anyone else could stand it.
A couple of marauders were sitting at the great feasting table just outside the kitchen, getting drunk and playing cards. Their radio was stuck on an endless loop of songs decades older than Yamcha. Every now and then, one of them would shout out a colorful swear or throw down his cards and walk off grumbling. That would cause the others to laugh and pour another round of drinks.
This late at night, there was no cooking to be done; all Yamcha was tasked with was cleaning a mountain of dishes, which was one of his least favorite pastimes. Such a chore was the antithesis of his easy living lifestyle philosophy. But it wasn’t like anyone cared what he thought. The word ‘Comfort’ printed on his shirt seemed to be mocking him every time he looked down.
One of the drunkards was singing carelessly about an umbrella and a guv’na, and soon, Yamcha’s scrubbing fell in lockstep with the man’s slurred tempo. The muscles in his forearm were burning. The boy had never felt so tired. The water and soap and bubbles and the music and raucous laughter from behind all blurred into one living dream sequence from which he was too weary to wake.
“Is this yours?”
Spinning around, Yamcha saw a blue-haired girl sitting on the counter, holding his baseball.
“Hey, give it back!” He reached for his prized possession, bubbles falling from his fingertips.
The short-haired girl shrugged and tossed the ball to Yamcha. When the young bandit tried to catch it, he stumbled forward, slipped on the spilt soap, and careened into the side of the counter. That made the girl giggle. She jumped off the counter and went over to where Yamcha’s ball had rolled to a stop against the foot of a chair, and plucked it up like it was a fresh daisy.
Her eyes were azure pools wrapped in smoke. “You really like this ball, huh?”
“Give it back!” Yamcha stood up, feeling his face going red. “That’s mine. Don’t touch it again.”
“Here.” She presented it to him like a live bird between her hands. He snatched it up like it was a burning fondue. “What’s so special about it anyways? It’s just a baseball.”
“It’s mine.” Yamcha’s voice was strained. He pocketed the ball and walked back over to the sink. There were still several pots and pans stacked upon one another, and he knew he’d be here another hour, if not more. Yamcha was not in the mood to entertain a child. “Who are you, anyways? Why are you here?”
Politely, she replied, “My name’s Ren. What’s your name?”
“Yamcha.” He admitted that word too easily. A sudden awkward silence followed, where Yamcha continued to scrub away at the next grime-covered pan, trying to fulfill his life’s goal, and the girl jumped back up on the counter to observe him. She swung her legs and stared, which Yamcha found quite rude. “You’re a little young for a bandit,” the boy observed coolly.
“So are you.”
He grit his teeth and scrubbed the pot he was now working on extra hard. He had more than several curses reserved for whomever had used that pot without oil. It was like a burnt-down house at the bottom, all charred potato skins and blackened filth… not that Yamcha knew what a burnt-down house looked like.
“Do you like baseball?” Her voice was sweet and high, energetic as a line of cocaine.
“So why are you here?”
“Same reason as everyone else.”
“Oh. The first time I ever went to a baseball game, I caught a foul ball with my bare hands!” Ren boasted. “It was really fun. My father bought me cotton candy.”
“My dad hit this ball,” Yamcha remarked with pride, briefly pulling his baseball out of his pocket again to show the girl. “It was a home run.”
“Whoa… your father was a professional baseball player?” Yamcha nodded. “That’s neat. Is he still playing?”
Yamcha thought about that day. He’d been in the stands, high, high up. He’d been too young to be on his own. He had watched his dad step up to the plate, bang his bat against the ground twice, and spit off to the side. His dad had been tall, well-built, confident. They had been cheering for him. He had given the crowd a smile, a flash of his pearly whites. Yamcha remembered screaming to those around him that that was his dad, but no one had believed him. There had been runners on first and third, if he remembered correctly. His dad’s team had been trailing their opponents’ by a run or two at the time.
He hadn’t been afraid, hadn’t worried about messing up. He’d smiled, waved to the crowd, banged his bat against the ground for good luck, and sent that ball sailing out of the stadium. Yamcha got goosebumps just thinking about it. It had taken him hours to track down that ball. A rotund man named Shrewsbry McManus had caught it and had been parading it around to all his friends outside of the stadium, even as the game continued on. Yamcha had distracted the man by throwing something down the road. When Shrewsbry had turned his head, Yamcha had run up to him, snatched the ball from the man’s grip, and sprinted off with no plan in mind. The fat man had yelled with mild disappointment, but he had chosen not to run after Yamcha.
That had been the first thing he’d stolen, Yamcha recollected. That had been the moment he’d become a real bandit. He didn’t regret it. He didn’t regret it at all. That ball was his; Shrewsbry, the middle-aged balding man with four chins and a shirt that made his belly look like a bowling ball protruding up from under a tarp, didn’t deserve that baseball. Yamcha’s father had hit it… his own father had knocked that one out of the park…
“Yamcha…?” Ren’s voice was confused. “Hey, did you space out on me?”
“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “No, he’s not playing any more. Hasn’t for years.”
“When I was little, I wanted to be a baseball player too, but I grew out of it,” Ren stated matter-of-factly.
That made Yamcha’s face burn. He turned around, sponge in hand, to give her a piece of his mind, when the boy spotted Silver Snead walking towards him. There was a look on the man’s face that Yamcha suspected had been carved into his flesh years ago. Snead always seemed mad about something. Yamcha wondered if he truly was so full of rage all the time.
“Yamcha, let’s go. Boss wants to see you.”
“Huh… what did I do? What did I do?!” The fear rose in him like a bubbling geyser. He knew it. Yamcha knew it had been too good to be true. Wolfe was going to finish what he started yesterday – he was going to put a bullet through the boy’s brain.
Snead didn’t seem to care, and for some reason, that eased Yamcha’s anxiety a bit. “No questions, come on. And don’t freak out on me, kid. It’s nothin’ bad.”
The boy sighed and walked off with Snead, not even saying goodbye to Ren. He felt her watching him go, and that made him feel a little guilty.
“He’ll live. That man’s tougher than a circumcised mosquito. It’ll take more than a few bullets in his hide to bring him down.”
Yamcha scowled. If the silver-bearded man had had his way, Wheatty would still be in that crater now, being treated like carrion. It had only been at Yamcha’s urging, and Snead seeing that Wheatty was still bleeding, that they had brought him back to the hideout at all. After that… Yamcha hadn’t seen the bear again. He didn’t know if there was a doctor, medical supplies, or anything like that in this place. No one had told him anything. But Yamcha was getting used to that.
Still, it felt good to know that Wheatty would live.
Wolfe was waiting for them in the garage, in a room that was cleared of all cars except for a run-down, shabby-looking buggy in the corner. Its military-green paint was peeling off around the wheels. There were lockers up against three of the walls. The ground was concrete – cold and grey and stained.
There were two other men in the room, aside from Wolfe, Yamcha, and Silver Snead. And, as Yamcha came into the room, he noticed that Lychrel was there too. She gave him a look that made his ears go red and made him shake slightly. He felt lightheaded and might’ve made a scene had Snead not shoved him into his place. This line of theirs looked awfully similar to the one he’d stood in yesterday when Sallow Saul and the others had made their last stand. Yamcha shivered in spite of himself.
“Good, you’re all here.” Wolfe sounded impatient. “We ain’t got a lotta time, so I’m gonna tell it to you like it is.” He took a pink capsule out of his leather jacket, holding it up in the air like a pulled tooth. It exploded against the ground in a breath of pink smoke, which settled almost at once. In the capsule’s place now lay a pile of what looked like wrapped-up bricks to Yamcha.
“That’s a lot of firepower,” Snead said at last. “Enough to put a pretty big dent in the world.”
“That’s the plan,” Wolfe growled, pacing before the explosives at his feet. There were indeed a lot of them – dozens and dozens of the brick-like objects, and other black boxes and lighted chargers. Yamcha knew little of these kinds of things, but judging by Snead’s reaction, this was a rare haul, worthy of a rare deed. “I got a new job for you guys.” He walked down the line, taking a nice long look at each hand-picked bandit. Yamcha was sure not to quiver when the boss reached him. Satisfied, Wolfe returned to his position behind the explosives. “You’re my team. I’m sure of it.”
“Team for what, boss?” one of the men asked.
“We’re gonna blow up the House of the Blue Lotus,” Wolfe breathed. Yamcha perceived everyone recoiling in shock, though it was almost imperceptible to the naked eye. None of them – not even Silver Snead – had seemingly thought that that was what the explosives were for.
“Because in three days time, King Furry’s Captain of the Guard will be in that building, supposedly attending a charity event. And he needs to die before he leaves. Leave as little evidence as possible.”
“That’s some high-level shit,” Snead replied. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”
Wolfe snapped, “I’m in charge, not you! Do not question my judgement, man, or I’ll find someone else to fill your role.”
Stony-faced Snead nodded curtly. “My apologies, Wolfe.”
Wolfe turned from them and said, “If this goes wrong for any reason – if you are apprehended after the fact, or captured by another gang – none of you better break.” He turned back around, his hands behind his back. He looked smaller, feebler, without his pet eagle on his shoulder. “We all know what happens to snitches. This is never to come back to me, no matter what. Make sure of it. If any one of you lets anything about this mission leak… well, I don’t have to tell you that your lives will be over. I’ll make you all beg for death long before I give it to you.” His eyes were trained on Yamcha’s when he said that. “Do I make myself clear?”
They grunted in understanding.
“But boss…” one of the men piped up courageously, “so many innocent people will die…”
Wolfe closed his eyes, savoring the thought with grave hunger. “That’s the plan.”
Yamcha found his own feet, black-and-white worn-down shoes against the slate grey. He wondered why he had become a bandit at all. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to kill people, especially for no reason. It made him sick to his stomach. He just wanted to run, to wake from this nightmare. He just wanted to go back home.
The boy’s eyes rose, and he beheld the figure of Wolfe, standing like a giant before the harmless-looking bricks. Yamcha knew he had no choice. It was kill or be killed.
first bloom of summer
water streams down curling vines
ready to be cut
Chapter 3: The House of the Blue LotusEdit
The Children of Chaos wear their emblems proudly – three diagonal rows of two blood-red tears over a black shield. Violet’s army is mine. Her Children operate outside of the Red Ribbon Army – I’m sure her superior officers know nothing about them. It’s better that way.
Outside my window, the cold winds are rising. Yunzabit Mountain is painted with snow, with dark rocks, sharp and cold as death. The box in the corner shakes once, almost in resignation. I shiver as the knock at the door comes.
A hunched-over bald man enters. His lab coat is bright enough to hurt my eyes. I have to look away. My room is dim-lit and safe; outside, a snowstorm blocks out the sun. This man is nothing less than an eyesore. Familiar pain builds like heat in my veins.
“How are you today, mayor? Are you feeling better?” His voice is deep, like drenched mahogany. His teeth shine with an unnatural luster.
“I am well.”
“That’s good to hear. So, are you still experiencing visual hallucinations daily?”
“No,” I lie. “But I have been dreaming a lot.”
“Good.” We take our seats at the table. I make sure his back is to the box. He doesn’t mention it. “Tell me about one.”
He takes out a notepad and an orange cylinder of pills. He clicks his pen three times; my jaw clenches, and I take a deep breath, wondering if the tiny spear of ink will explode.
“I was driving along a bridge when the city exploded. The ash carried me into the water, where I drowned with all the rest. I felt the ground shake before we went over… the people screaming… the way the bridge swayed back and forth…” I whisper, my eyes on the floor. There is a spider trekking across the wood – too far away to squish, too fat to ignore. I gulp and pop my knuckles. In my hand is the box’s remote control. All I need to do is enter a password, and the door will open, unleashing him upon Doctor Faustus. That would be my end too. I close my eyes, savoring the thought. I could end it now if I wished. No more pain. No more pretending.
I could hear that man scream like they did in my dream.
“Interesting. How does that make you feel? Were you afraid? Anxious? You seem to have remembered this one vividly, mayor.”
I shrug. “Anxious, as usual.”
“Social anxiety, perhaps? Did you interact with anyone else in the dream?”
“Yes. We talked about dying. We all knew.”
The doctor looked up from behind his glasses. His wide eyes were as plump as a pair of ice cubes. “What did they have to say? Anything enlightening?”
“I don’t remember,” I lie.
He nods, pecking at his notepad with a silver pen. “Well… it appears things may have escalated since last time. Your own doctor sent you here to be treated, mayor, and I fear you are not getting any better.”
“I feel fine. It’s just a dream.”
The man nods sympathetically. “Has NUL been good for you, mayor? Are you making friends?”
“Good.” His smile looks real enough in the artificial light. “They certainly are an interesting group, aren’t they? Do you agree with their views?”
“No,” I reply quickly. “I thought I would… but I don’t.”
“Why is that, do you think?” Milk is his tone, raining down from the heavens. He is so pleased with his empathy.
“They’re too radical for me, doc.”
“I see. You came here with them, and now what? You’ve fallen out?”
I know what he’s getting at. Tendrils of anxiety explode up my spine. I swallow and shake my head like a madman. “No no no no no! I don’t want to leave… not yet… please.”
His eyes are knowing and pale, drilling into me like knives. “You’ve missed two meetings the past three days. It was a condition of your residency here that you would–”
“I’ll go,” I breathe. “P-please, doc… I’ll go. I promise.”
He looks down and writes something. “Mmm. The next meeting is in an hour… but you already know that, don’t you?”
“I do,” I lie.
He tears off a page of his notebook and pockets it. The pill bottle is in his hand, and then it’s in mine. My neck twitches violently. “Don’t miss this one. If you want to remain here, be at that meeting. This facility is not your vacation home. We are only allowed to stay here for a specific reason. Remember that, mayor.”
“Take two Halopol with every meal, same as last week. If your hallucinations get worse… give me a call. I’m nearby. We’ll work something out.”
I nod, disinterested. The remote control is heavy in my hand. I want to press that button, but I want even more not to. He stands, smiles, walks over, pats me on the shoulder, and exits. I don’t look back. The wandering spider is gone. Looking up, I see the box has not moved again.
Sergeant Tyrian is waiting for me outside, in his full military gear. The six tears stitched on his chest glimmer in the low light. There is a rifle slung over his shoulder – but that is to be expected. This is a military facility, after all: the base of the Children of Chaos. They aren’t with Earth’s government, thank god. They aren’t with the Red Ribbon Army, either. They belong to Violet. They’re the ones who get me my snow.
“Where is she?” My voice is raw.
“Sorry, mayor,” the man says, his voice deep and hollow. I detect a Russian accent. “Colonel’s gone. Says she won’t be back for weeks. Red Ribbon Army needs her, y’know?”
“Don’t worry, sir,” the man grunts, handing me a manila envelope. “We got you covered.”
I snatch up what is mine. The pain has left me, and I feel free again.
“Very well. In that case, we’ll move forward without her.”
“Move forward, sir?” The sergeant’s eyes are confused.
“That’s right. We’re going to wipe out NUL and everyone associated with them. That’s priority number one.”
“But mayor… they’ve been coming here for years. They’re paying us a lot of money to rent out rooms!”
I nod. Everything he says is true. His beard is greasy and curly, and I grit my teeth. “They are the first ones who must go. I’m going to show them a monster – not today, but soon. Have your men ready. I want everyone gathered in the great hall when we do this. Your men are to bar the doors and shoot anyone who escapes. Do you understand? When the time comes, I’ll need your full cooperation.”
“I understand, sir.”
“And I’ll need eight men to carry the beast’s cage into the great hall.”
“We’ll be on it, whenever you’re ready, sir.”
It’s warm, this feeling that’s covering my skin. I haven’t even had any snow yet, but I know what to expect. I’m still feeling it a bit from last time. That blissful haze has yet to fully abate.
I leave him, the steward of this base. Yunzabit Heights is a cold, desolate region to the far north of the world. No one lives here. This is the only base on the entire island. We are the only humans here. It’s just us, the snow, and the Hundred Mile bridge back to the mainland – one of the greatest technological feats in the world, I’m sure. One could reach this lonely, miserable island by boat or plane, but the winds and the churning sea make such travel difficult. Most choose to venture across the bridge that I don’t believe is quite one hundred miles long.
I stand at the window, watching the snow fall. The first time I ever saw her, there had been melting snow in her purple hair. My reflection comes in and out of the glass, like a fading ghost. I see my face, unwashed, unshaven, wrinkled, sallow as a corpse. The heat in my spine rises to my cheeks. It’s not just shame that I feel this time.
I make my way to the great hall, where the Negative Utilitarianism League is meeting again. It’s everyday with these fools. I joined them to come here, to break free of the monotony of South City and how crazy running that city was making me feel. Their message is simple: reduce pain for as many people as possible as much as possible. That sounds about right to me. What could be wrong with them, then?
Humans are the root of all problems on this planet. I wouldn’t struggle to maintain order in South City if humans were not flawed. Those in NUL are no different. There’s the olive-skinned man with the oily-black hair and the sparkling earring who maintains a cruel grin upon his mouth as he rambles through his witless words. There’s the blonde-haired girl with the flushed cheeks and breathless platitudes. There’s the pink-haired girl wearing a beanie and a sweater with her eyes trained on the floor like a dog. I know the scars she hides. Every one of them says they want a better world. But the world would be better without them. They are vain, arrogant, single-minded. There is no truth except theirs.
“Welcome, Nathaniel,” comes the soft voice of the blonde-haired leader. I do not know her name. “I thought you had stopped coming.”
“I was sick,” I reply, sitting down on the floor, along with the rest. No one wears shoes; most have only plain white shirts and roughspun pants. Their faces are blank and hopeful, or is it the other way around? I don’t care. I don’t care about these people at all. They showed me things I will not forget. They taught me how pain is never the answer. The world is pain; we must work to stop it.
“The world is full of pain, and we must work to stop it,” the blonde-haired woman says on cue - a pig locked in a cage on antibiotics.
We repeat the words in a collective murmur like a proper cult. They are children playing with daisies, unaware of reality. They said they come here every year on a spiritual retreat to get closer to the harshness of the world. Nice idea. These young-faced hippies don’t know the real world. They haven’t walked the slums of South City, where you can get shot just for looking at someone the wrong way. They have no idea how the world works. Their idea of minimizing pain is not original. It has enlightened me. But these fools have long outlived their use. They have caused me immeasurable pain, and for that, I’ll do to them what NUL professes, but is too scared to enact.
In a blur, the meeting goes by. It’s two hours of forgettable pseudo-philosophical bullshit. The snow keeps me lucid, keeps my memories clean. I see Violet again, running in the snow, giggling like a normal girl, the blood trickling down her nose from where I accidentally kicked her. For the few moments it takes me to walk back to my quarters, the pain disappears, and I’m at the shore again, the waves lapping against my sand-crusted toes.
The door latches softly behind me as I step into my room and notice, with a quick pulse inside my rib cage, that the monster’s box is open and empty.
The air was rife with men swearing and the smell of smoked meat. Yamcha’s mouth was watering. Ahead, a cobalt hovercar had crashed into a lightpost and was smoking. Its owner was pacing in front of the wreck, screaming at someone on his cell phone as people gathered and guffawed around him.
Silver Snead led them down the road. A tiny man perched on an upturned wine barrel was preaching like a little demigod to all who would watch (no one was around). He wore a suit of forest green and pus yellow and a pointed hat that made him look like an elf. He had a scrunched-up, white-bearded face, and black eyes. His breaths came in squeaks, barely audibly under the roar of hovercars moving along the road to their left. He had fliers in his hands and was throwing them at passing pedestrians, desperate as a petulant child. When he hit one man in the face with a flier, and that man (a burly, black-bearded fellow) decided to punch the elf off his wine box, the poor dressed-up little guy let out a scream akin to a monk on helium taking his first shower in years. The ‘wololololos’ came sharp and mournful from that elf’s lips, and then he was lost in the sea of people again.
Yamcha leaned down to peer at one of the fliers that had come sailing over to him. A pigeon came waddling up to inspect the piece of paper before he let Yamcha have it. On it, in flowery text, the red paper read: ‘Join the Shapeshifting Academy today! New students welcome! The most prestigious shapeshifting school in the world is offering its lowest price ever… a mere 100,000 zeni a semester! Wow, what a deal! Our teachers, the esteemed Professors Pondanuki, Pongitsune, Ponnabubi, and Pongabubjus, are world-class shapeshifters of the highest pedigree. Wow, my god man, what are you waiting for?!’. He let the paper fall from his hands, to fly as the pigeons never had.
They stopped in front of a dirty expanse of sidewalk. The buildings were boarded up, locked behind black bars – all save one. The neon sign shined: ‘House of the Blue Lotus’, with a blue-pink animation of a woman peeking out from behind a flower petal and giggling.
“This’s the place,” Snead growled. He made sure only to speak when no bystanders were too close by. “Pacheko, you got the goods?”
“Yes sir!” replied Pacheko, the demolitions expert who had been assigned to this team by Wolfe himself. “Right here in me pockets!” he said, jiggling the obviously-laden pockets of his beige cargo shorts. On his back was slung a black backpack that surely held most of the explosives, though. He was a tall man, a lanky man, an unimpressive man in Yamcha’s eyes. The boy thought little and less of this one.
Behind him was Rheems, a fair-furred fox with a narrow snout, broad shoulders, and shifting yellow eyes. He was the logistical expert. Evidently, Rheems had come to this brothel on more than one occasion. “I’ll show you where to put them,” he sneered at Pacheko. “Cap’n’s down below with his charity dinner. Won’t know a thing. The wood’s thin. The fires’ll get him before he can squeal.”
“Remember, we’re not trying to bring down the place,” Snead reminded them. “We have a target to take out; that’s our only goal.”
“Right, sir!” they shouted in unison.
The five of them entered into the establishment, cool as a gaggle of frisky businessmen. In truth, Yamcha didn’t know why he and Lychrel had been brought along with the more experienced bandits, but he didn’t want to ask any questions.
Inside, cigarette smoke and cheap perfume met them with open arms. The room was dim and rose-tinted, and old. The carpet had been bombarded by stains and burn marks. A young man with a British accent was singing about love on the radio, beating danceable waves of energy through the Blue Lotus.
Rheems moved to the counter as Snead led the rest of them away. Yamcha closed his eye and listened to the beat, even when it messed up for one moment. That was okay. Bands make mistakes all the time. Snead yanked Yamcha by the shoulder, pulling him forward. Lychrel was whispering something to him that he couldn’t hear.
His saw black, then red, the pale flesh. She was dancing against a pole on a raised platform, topless. His ears went red. His face went red. Sweat poured down his back. He let out a half-laugh, then a cough, then a half-scream that sounded like a drunken coyote swearing vengeance against the moon.
And he would’ve fainted if not for Lychrel catching him in her arms. That only made Yamcha freak out, and he jumped away in terror, shrieking like an orgasming Ukrainian.
“Yamcha, yo! Calm down right now!” She was heated.
“Lychrel!” Snead barked, looking up from a small device he was holding in his hand. “Deal with him!”
“He’s just… hang on Snead,” she shouted, trying to tackle Yamcha again. The kid was running around the place shrieking at the top of his lungs. It was an unsightly sight. “He’s just never seen a naked lady before. It’s frightened him!”
That wasn’t true at all. Yamcha had seen many naked ladies before. At least, that’s what his mother told him. She’d worked at a place like this when he had been much younger, back in a time he barely recalled past stretches of blurred out colors and echoes of broken words. He’d lived four years of his life in a place no grander than the Blue Lotus, with mold on the ceiling and rats in the walls, and more half-naked women than a yoga mixtape.
She caught him from behind in the corner of the room as he was trying to kick his way past a couple of chairs and a wooden cigarette-stained table. “Give him a handy yourself, or something! Just shut him up! We got work to do, and we don’t gotta lot of time!”
“H-hey… that’s… no!” Lychrel blushed. “I will not do that!”
“Shut him up!” There was silence. The ladies on the stage weren’t dancing anymore. The music had stopped. “Or I will.”
“Come on, Yamcha!” She shook him. He cried. She shook him harder, and he squeaked again, and she shook him harder. The boy gasped, looking up at the older girl he barely knew. “Get your head in the game! Right now! If you don’t wanna die, that is.”
“Lychrel.” Snead’s voice was more urgent this time.
Yamcha froze, gulped, and got his feet. Trembling, he followed Lychrel back over to the group, his head bowed. He wondered why the tears wouldn’t come. She dragged him along as he walked.
“Help Pacheko arm the bombs. Get the kid to help you, or he’s mine.”
“Roger that, sir. We’ll get right on it.”
And so off they went, and Yamcha couldn’t find his voice to shout an objection. His throat was clenched up. He kept his eyes trained on the magenta-black brick-hard carpet floor.
“You’re gonna help us arm the explosives, and there ain’t nothing else about it, alright Yamcha? You understand?”
Yeah he understood. He understood alright that doing that would kill people. A lot of people. It didn’t sit right in his stomach. He wanted to run out of there. He wanted to quit being a bandit. This wasn’t who he was. He wanted to flee. But he couldn’t. He knew what awaited him now if he broke. And that was worse than any alternative he could imagine.
Looking to his left, he saw one of the dancers sitting on the raised platform, as bare-chested as a dad at the beach. His face flushed, and he wanted to look away. But he was more afraid now than awed, and Lychrel was dragging him along. The perfume in the air stung his nose, and his eyes began to water.
“Run!” he whispered to her in a dry, feeble voice. “There’s a bomb!”
She looked at him, her head tilting slightly. And he was tugged away from her, to the coming apocalypse.
“Ten billion? Are you serious?”
“That’s my price.” The mercenary eyed her like a hawk. His ponytail made her feel uncomfortable.
“I can pay you ten million.”
“Good day then.”
He stood up and left. His pink chang pao was barely around the corner before Lady Yunwu let out an audible sigh of frustration. That man had been her first choice, but his price was too high. She had the money he wanted – but if she paid him the ten billion zeni, she’d soon be poorer than a desert bandit. No assassination was worth that. She would find another way to kill him.
Next she met with a pretty face who called herself Hasky. She spent far longer negotiating the price over some military-grade weapons Hasky had stolen for her than Yunwu would have liked. By the end of it, the woman felt like she had paid more for those guns than they were worth. A headache was already beginning to creep into her skull by the time she met with her third client.
He wore tattered grey robes to go with his ancient leather armor. His long black hair hung unwashed, as did his beard. He was lanky, pale, thin. His companion – Naigo, the Lord of Hunger – sat stoically next to the ronin in a fearsome set of black-and-maroon armor. His kabuto was horned, with an elaborate fanning lacquered headdress rising three feet above his head. Their katanas were sheathed at their sides.
“Thank you for waiting,” she spoke, clasping her hands together. “So… are we ready to begin?”
The tattered lord’s eyes were bloodshot. “Begin what?”
“As you well know, my good sirs, I introduced you to one another. I did this to strengthen your army,” she said, nodding to the dirty-looking samurai, “and to employ you. I have need of an army, and samurai are just the type of warriors I can rely on.”
The ronin chuckled, flashing his yellow teeth. “I’m not fighting any wars for you, lady.”
She nearly flushed with rage. Lady Yunwu was not one to be slighted so. That idiot samurai knew why he was here. He had already agreed to join her… “I thought–”
“We got talking,” Naigo whispered. “I’d rather fight his war than yours.”
The two men exchanged a look. Naigo was tall, broad-shouldered, imposing. The ronin – Makare, she remembered – was a pathetic wretch. He was a boy compared to the man sitting to his right. She had not expected him to turn on her like this.
“I protected you,” she said sharply, staring down Naigo. “I could have turned you in. I brought you here on the condition that you would help me.”
He shrugged. “I don’t work for anyone I don’t want to. If you wanna put me in jail, you can try to take me there yourself.”
She noticed his hand brush against the hilt of his katana. This time, her face went red with anger. “Get out.” Her voice was tiny, though it echoed in that cramped stone room. “If I see either of you two again, I’ll have you killed. Mark my words, samurai. This is my city. You don’t want to mess with me. Out!”
They stood up grinning. Makare slouched out first. Naigo stared Yunwu down for several moments before following Makare out. She wanted to scream. These useless fools were only free because of her. The police had been searching for Naigo for a string of murders he had already confessed to, and Makare had been involved in so many criminal operations around the region that if Yunwu had wanted to, she could have had him locked away for the rest of his life. Did they have no gratitude? It was an appalling thought.
She returned to the hallway where her guards waited. Captain Fortier led this little troupe of trained soldiers, and it was to him she went first. “Don’t let those two out of the building,” she ordered him. “Kill them if you have to, but I’d rather you take them alive.”
“As you wish, my lady.”
“Go now. There isn’t much time.”
The captain bowed and ran off in the opposite direction down the dim blue-lit hallway. The two guards left escorted Yunwu to the next room. She knew who was waiting for her inside, and it made the lady nervous. Her eyes fell to the paintings lining both sides of the hallway – portraits of mayors, deputy mayors, and other political figures in South City’s long and venerable history. One day, her portrait would be raised amongst them, left to decay in the shadows while the living forged on ahead.
Mazuchiru was waiting for her in room 5. This room was medium-sized with a mahogany desk and carpeted walls. It was warmer than most of the conference rooms, and was usually reserved for higher-end clients. Funny, though, that this was the first time she’d met with the Yakuza boss in here.
“Is the Captain of the Guard dead?” He got right to the point; she liked that.
Pressing two fingers to the bridge of her nose, Yunwu whispered, “Not yet. My men are working on it. It’s going down today sometime, but I don’t know exactly when. I’ll let you know when it’s over.”
“Then why are we here?”
“Because I need your men.”
“For what?” He wasn’t phased at all. The man stared at her coolly. He didn’t even seem to breathe. His narrowed eyes betrayed the only hint of emotion on his clean-shaven face.
“You love bandits,” he observed. “Turning on them finally?”
“I was allied with some of them. But they screwed up big time. I’m going to start over, wipe them all out. I’m taking over Diablo Desert and sending my own men down there to make things more efficient.”
“How much you got?”
“Thirty million,” she said quickly. “I can give it to you now. I need five hundred men, and I need them soon.”
“Fine. Show me the money.”
The door behind Yunwu opened, and a guard brought in a tub of bound zeni, fresh from Wolfe’s treasury. Some of the notes were frayed or crinkled on the ends – the costs of acquisition. She grabbed one stack and tossed it to Mazuchiru, who caught the money in reflex. Studying the notes, his eyes narrowed again. He looked over the money for a long time, as if he didn’t believe it was real. Why did everyone underestimate her?
The Yakuza boss looked up and closed his eyes, nodding twice. “Very well. We’ll help you take control of Diablo Desert.” His eyes flashed awake. “I’m surprised you’ve soured on Wolfe. I thought he was a capable liaison.”
“I did too,” she replied. But he wouldn’t be alive much longer. He’d told her he would lead the mission against Furry’s Captain of the Guard himself. He liked to boast that way, and this time she would make him pay. Those explosives she had given Wolfe were not the gift he thought they were.
They stood, shook hands, and went their separate ways. It was funny, she thought. Mazuchiru was her greatest competition – the man whom she wanted dead more than anyone else on this planet. She would find a way to kill him one day, maybe if she ever found another ten billion zeni. For now, it was better if the Yakuza of South City were her ally. For, in this coming storm, she would have no allies save for them.
At that moment, Lady Yunwu realized that she had perhaps made a mistake… but it was too late to change course now. For all she knew, Wolfe was in the House of the Blue Lotus at this very moment, about to blow himself and the captain up. Should the explosives go off too soon, she had tasked Hasky with killing the Captain of the Guard herself. The woman was holed up in a nearby building, a sniper rifle pressed to her nose, somewhere, somehow, ready stop Furry’s captain at any cost. Yunwu would not be denied at this stage.
A ripple of pain spread across her skull, and she sighed, rubbing her eyes.
Her guards escorted her back to her apartment, and Yunwu asked her handmaidens if Ren had returned. They shook their heads and bowed their heads in quiet sorrow. That was strange. The girl should have accomplished her mission by now. She had been left there to acquire a package from an old bandit named Thoras. Thoras owed Yunwu for her getting him involved with Wolfe years ago. Since then, he had lived a long life and prospered. He was good with chemistry, good with poison. He was just the man the Spider of South City needed now. She just hoped that Ren was alright. It wasn’t like the girl to take her time.
Yunwu took a breath, trying to wipe the anxiety from her mind. Ren would return as soon as she was able. In the corner, her banana tree stood robust as if it were in a rainforest. She rubbed her forehead, trying to force the headache to leave, but it wouldn’t, no matter how much she tried. The woman walked up to her sink, filled up a watering can, and made her way over to the banana tree. As she gave life to her plant, Yunwu’s eyes drifted to the sliding glass door leading to a balcony outside. Her zen garden was out there, its gravel freshly-raked. Perhaps she would take the rest of the day off and sit out there. She was tired and her head hurt. She needed to slow down, lest she make a mistake. She’d won the Yakuza. Wolfe would die today. Everything was set in motion. She needed to remember herself.
Yunwu handed her watering can to one of her handmaidens, and stepped out into the cold air of the city outside on the fifty-third floor of the skyscraper she lived in. Her eyes found the larger rocks sprouting from the gravel in the garden, black against grey, and at once, a sense of calm spread from her eyes down to her fingertips and toes. She was going to take over South City and the Diablo Desert. She was going to become the most powerful woman in the world very shortly.
Savoring the thought, Lady Yunwu found a chair, leaned back in it, and her thoughts turned to the mayor. She wondered what he would think of her now, if only he knew.
The hawks were already circling overhead, even as the sun was sprinting away in the distance. There was nothing out here – just rocks and hills and sand and dust. Wolfe was lying on top of one rocky structure, shouldering a rifle. Aiming down his sights, he saw the small figure of Ren approaching a group of men standing with their bikes in the middle of the dunes.
Wind blew sand into the air, dusting the blood orange sky.
The sound recorder tucked in Ren’s clothes was loud in Wolfe’s ear. He could hear every step she took, every slithering fish snake at her feet, every gust of air against her cheeks. And when the girl approached the leaders of One-Eyed Jackalopes, he could hear them too – although at first, their chatter was indistinct as a sandstorm. There were twelve of them.
“Whassat?!” one of them said suddenly, his warbling voice coming through the sound recorder. “You with Wolfe, kid?”
“Yes sir,” Ren replied loyally. “My apologies, but he was unable to make it today, so he sent me instead.”
She was professional, he’d give her that.
“No deal, kid. Go back to your daddy.” Another leader spat. “We agreed to meet with Wolfe and Wolfe alone.”
“Yeah… he gotta answer for what he did to the Night Snakes! If he don’t wanna fight all the other gangs, he better meet us face-to-face like a real man.”
“It was an accident!” Ren spoke up earnestly. “His men did not mean to shoot down that plane! You have to understand!”
“We don’t have to do shit, girl! Now get outta here before we shoot you ourselves.”
They would never follow through with such a threat, Wolfe knew. It was in poor taste to murder your foes during a truce meeting such as this. Ren was holding her own, though. She was feisty, but he already knew that; he should have expected this. Still, it was a wonder to see.
“Master Wolfe has a gift for you. He said it will explain everything.” From such great heights, Wolfe could barely discern when Ren took the box out from under her shirt to present to the men.
“Oh yeah? What’s in the box?”
Ren shrugged. “Look.”
She handed one of the men the box. Wolfe sucked in a breath. The light was fading. Night would soon be here. There wasn’t much time. The clouds were shooting past him like fish in a stream. In the distance, a lonesome wolf began to howl.
“It better be somethin’ valuable,” one of the men grunted. “If he wants us on his side, it’s gonna cost a lot…”
“For you,” Wolfe whispered to himself, unable to contain his emotion. “Keep talking, you goddamn hole.”
“Yeah, he pissed off a lot of people. If he wants us to help him, this better be worth it.”
“I say we just take him out ourselves. No one likes him. It’s been a long time coming. He’s pulled this shit before.”
He had. Wolfe had once crossed the One-Eyed Jackalopes, and in the process, had killed their leader, taken half of their wealth, and taken over much of their former territory. They were now led by a committee of lesser men who still held a grudge against Wolfe and his Wings. They were a lost cause.
This was his desert. The other gangs would die. There were no other options. After the debacle with the Night Snakes, Wolfe had realized there was no one out here, except his own people, whom he could trust. And anyone he couldn’t trust had to die.
“What’s this?! Oy, motherfucker!” The One-Eyed Jackalope dropped the box in the sand. Though Wolfe couldn’t see it, he knew the black scorpion inside had probably stung the man. “Fuckin’ hell, it bit me!”
There it was. This was a callback to Wolfe’s younger days. He had killed his first man by dumping a bucket of poisonous scorpions (that he had collected himself out here in the desert) on a sleeping rival. That rival had been a member of the One-Eyed Jackals as well. Now that he thought about it, Wolfe realized that he had had several negative encounters with this gang. He wondered why he hadn’t wiped them out already. They certainly deserved to be forgotten in this barren wasteland.
“What the fuck?!” another roared. “What’s goin’ on? This was supposed to be a negotiation!”
Ren shrugged again. “Sorry, I’m just a messenger. I don’t know anything.”
“Like hell you don’t! Come here!”
Wolfe took a deep breath, aimed down the sights, and squeezed the trigger. His silencer betrayed no sound louder than the wind. The first man dropped as if he had been struck by lightning. The thunder was yet lying in wait. The second man took a bullet to the side and fell over, spitting up blood. The others drew their weapons, looking for Wolfe, shouting, cursing, firing randomly in all directions. Ren was breathing hard in his ear as she ran away. And then another shot cracked and took the little girl in the back. She fell face-first into the sand with a whimper, and he heard no more from her on that sound recorder.
“Bastards!” Wolfe sneered. He squeezed off five more shots, taking another leader down. But there were at least six more of them. And they were getting on their bikes.
The man rolled over, pulling the flare out of his belt. On his back, he aimed at the sky and fired. He could just barely make out a few of the brighter stars in the cyan-indigo expanse. The burning white-red ball of fire flung itself up and up and up like a rising phoenix, and then it painted the sky.
In an instant, he heard the mingled groanings of one hundred bikes starting up. From behind the rock formation he was lying on top of, motorcycles began pouring out, racing towards the One-Eyed Jackalopes. It didn’t take long for them to converge on their wounded, disoriented prey. Wolfe’s Wings feasted that evening before his very eyes.
This is what they all deserved. Every gang out here – every man who dared oppose Wolfe – would die. If he had to wage a gang war against all of them, or just the Night Snakes, he didn’t care. Either way, when this was all over, he would be the king here. This desert would be Wolfe’s new kingdom – all of it. And no one would be able to stop him.
Taking his walkie-talkie out of his pocket, Wolfe shouted, “Is she alive?! Hey, check the kid!”
The man on the other end – the good-natured Rosey – replied at last, “She’s bleeding pretty bad. We’ll have to get her back to Doc. Dunno if she’ll even survive that long.”
“Damn it! She can’t die! Have Mingo stitch her up, and then go. Whatever you do, don’t let her die! If she does, it’s your life, man.”
“I’m going!” Rosey replied fearfully.
He was a good man, though not as good as Snead. Swearing, Wolfe stood and looked at the setting sun. He wondered if Snead and the others had succeeded in executing King Furry’s Captain of the Guard. He wondered if that kid, Yamcha, was doing good out there. Wolfe saw a lot of promise in Yamcha; he was young and raw and awkward, but he would grow up to be a skilled bandit one day. He had all the tools already. He’d found Wolfe that blade, had helped Snead find all that money that was now going to finance Wolfe’s war against the other desert gangs. That kid had done a lot in his short stay here. There was no telling how much better he’d get with time.
Wolfe shouldered his rifle and slid down the rocks to the ground. He had more work to do this night. The One-Eyed Jackalopes would bleed. His hundred men were still hungry. They needed to feed again. He’d already decided they would go to the One-Eyed Jackalopes’ lair and blow it up.
Yunwu had given him a lot of explosives. Most had gone to aid the assassination mission. But not all. After tonight, there would only be seven gangs in the Diablo Desert – a number that would not hold for long. Running up to his bike, which sat unattended (save for a single raven perched on the handlebars) against the swirling winds behind the rocky outcropping, Wolfe kicked it on and sped off towards his men.
He hoped Ren wouldn’t die from this. He had never expected her to be shot. The One-Eyed Jackalopes were bandits, not cold-blooded murderers. They didn’t shoot children; they rarely ever attacked anyone at all. They just liked to steal – they weren’t one of the more violent gangs in this region. So it surprised Wolfe when they all brandished guns to shoot his messenger. Had they been planning on shooting him had he shown up in her place? That thought just made him angrier. He raced through the dirt and sands, building up his speed. He was going over 110 mph now.
She couldn’t die. He couldn’t let her die. He’d groomed her for ages. It had been hard to teach her how to please Yunwu, but he had done even that. Ren was his trump card; she was the key that would unravel Yunwu’s life, once this was all over. Yunwu would have to die after he became king, he knew. That was the price that had to be paid. She had involved him in too much of her drama, which Snead and the others were paying for right now. Soon, he’d be rid of her, and no one would ever hold sway over Wolfe again.
He sped by a pile of wolf bones, where black scorpions and fish snakes made their home, and swore to himself that if Ren survived, he would never put her in harm’s way again. She meant too much to the old bandit lord.
They had all managed to escape, save for one man who had stood up to Silver Snead. The Blue Lotus felt strangely haunted to the boy now that it was just him and the team. The music had long since stopped; the girls were no longer dancing. A few crumpled zeni bills lay like dead leaves at the base of the poles. Chairs and tables were lying strewn about, and Yamcha knew that behind one of them, a dead man was soaking the carpet in his life’s blood.
They had moved deeper into the building, into a water garden that was more an eyesore than a thing of beauty. The stone tiles went from the ceiling to the floor, grey and green and black, shimmering as water flowed over them. In the center of the room, there was a small, door-less pagoda. Blue lotuses floated on lilies inside the pagoda’s ponds, along with koi of a thousand different colors.
It would be a shame for this place to go. Pacheko was already covering the stone pillars in explosives.
“You know, I wanted to work in one of these places when I was a girl,” Lychrel was saying.
“Why?” Rheems sounded dumbfounded. His voice echoed against trickling water.
“I dunno, I liked the idea of being a dancer,” she offered. “It sounded like a chill way to make a living.”
“Oh yeah? Let’s see some moves.” Rheems grabbed his chin and grinned.
Lychrel shook her head, laughing nervously. “N-no way man! I haven’t practiced in ages!”
Pacheko unshouldered and unzipped his backpack and bade the others come over. “Here’s the goods,” he said, pointing to another batch of explosives. “Tie them to this wall,” he said, pointing to said wall, “and be careful. They’re sensitive. Any questions?” The only question Yamcha could think of was why was Pacheko’s voice so high-pitched and snively?
They shook their heads and got to work. Below them, a charity dinner was taking place in the bowels of a whorehouse. Yamcha wondered if his mother ever attended such an event.
Rheems and Lychrel were flirting, making Yamcha uncomfortable as he worked. After about fifteen minutes of their drivel, Snead barked at them to cut it out or he’d put a boot to Rheems’ neck. That shut them up good. Yamcha’s hands were trembling as he placed the explosives on the wall, tying them to the ones below. He imagined he was a famous baseball player. One explosive was stacked atop another like bricks making a wall, and on it went. He would have a smoking-hot wife who’d be a model. He’d live in a big house with a bunch of servants whom he could tell what to do. He’d never have to do the dishes again. He’d get to relax and play baseball all day. That’d be the good life, alright. There were five rows now, seven long. He didn’t know how many more explosives he could fit on this wall.
He’d break the home run record. He’d be the best player ever – a hall of fame career guaranteed. He’d have so many fans and friends and admirers, he wouldn’t be able to learn all their names. Every night, he’d invite them back to his mansion to party until the sun came up. He imagined giving an interview to some dweeb after winning the World Series for the fifth consecutive year. Every beat of his heart aligned with his pace as he worked out the words in his brain. Yamcha boasted like a fast-burning flame to that man as he put more and more deadly explosives upon the wall.
The boy stood up and walked over to the bag to get another handful of explosive cubes when he saw Pacheko ahead of him banging on something. He was kneeling next to the pillar he was working on, looking at something in his hand (probably the detonator).
“Yo girl, you’re fast!” Rheems’ voice broke through Yamcha’s fantasy, and he shifted his gaze. There was Rheems standing next to the wall he, Yamcha, and Lychrel had covered in latent hellfire. Lychrel turned and giggled, waving away Rheems’ straight jive.
She turned towards Yamcha, and the room exploded. Pacheko was illuminated like a firefly against wax paper, and then he was gone. The pagoda erupted in a blast of light and fire and chunks of rock, spraying outwards with unbridled energy. Yamcha was thrown back, against a wall. Luckily, the wall of explosives he and the others had been putting together had not detonated yet. They hadn’t hooked the wires up to the main group that Pacheko had been working on.
The pagoda crumbled in on itself, water and smoke and blue petals clinging to the air. The floor gave way and collapsed downwards. He could hear shouting coming from below, as well as screaming – the type of screaming that men make when they’re dying.
Lychrel stood there, a look of confusion on her face. Her right eye had burst and was running down her cheek like bloody snot. She stumbled forward, reaching out, and collapsed in Yamcha’s lap. Her blood was cool on his cheek.
The fire was growing; smoke was spreading through the room with desperate speed. The young bandit was finding it hard to breathe.
“Hey! Get up! Yamcha! Yamcha!!”
Snead helped him and Lychrel to their feet. Yamcha held the girl who had fallen unconscious. He looked around for help, and witnessed the fur-singed Rheems sprint through the smoke to take Lychrel from his arms.
“We have to go!” Snead coughed. “The fire… the other explosives… there’s no time!”
He pulled Yamcha towards him, and then they were running again, through ash and stone and ruined lotus flowers. Rheems was shouting; Yamcha couldn’t make out the words he was trying to say. The ringing in his ears had returned, as had the pounding in his skull. He just wanted to go home.
They burst out onto the street, their momentum almost carrying them into the road to be mowed down by merciless oncoming traffic. Snead grabbed Yamcha at the last second, and jerked the boy back onto the sidewalk. They stood there, breathing hard, and turned to Lychrel. She was unconscious in Rheems’ arms, half of her face burnt.
“I-is she going to be alright?” the boy heard himself ask.
“I don’t know! We have to get out of here!” Snead took a capsule out of his pocket and prepared to throw it when a voice broke through all the white noise:
“Stop right there! Freeze!”
Snead’s hand stopped mid-throw, like a pitcher on a paused screen, and he cocked his head like a dog. “Wh-wha…?”
There were a dozen of them at least. The police officers were pointing their pistols at the four. Yamcha’s heart sunk. This was the end of the road, he knew. This was the endgame of any bandit, great or small. Yamcha was very small, too young for jail. He had never wanted to do this. Didn’t they understand? It was kill or be killed. He had no choice.
“Hands behind your back!” a man said gruffly, coming up to Yamcha and pushing him hard into the pavement. Yamcha felt the cold metal lock around his wrists, and the tears came unabated.
Snead was being handcuffed too, as was Rheems. Lychrel lay on the sidewalk, unconscious. Why wasn’t anyone getting her an ambulance? Didn’t they care? He wanted to tell them, but his throat was raw and locked shut. He hadn’t meant to be a part of this. All those people… just trying to enjoy a charity dinner…
His hands were covered in blood, but it was not his own. People walked down the sidewalk, staring at Yamcha and the others. One huge, muscled man with dark skin and a filthy appearance grunted as he passed by and spit at Yamcha’s feet. The smoke-stained bandits, four-strong, were shell-shocked, too stunned and scared to say much of anything in their defense. Even Snead looked to be as tamed as a housecat. Yamcha wanted the silver-bearded man to save him, as he had done so many times before, but Snead wouldn’t even look at the boy.
And then, the ground rumbled, and a burst of smoke was spit out of the open door to the House of the Blue Lotus. The other explosives had caught fire and laid waste to the inside of the building. Now their blood was truly on his hands. The boy shuddered and looked away, his vision shimmering. There in the crowd a woman stared back at him, her long blonde hair blowing in the wind like a lion’s mane. She wore a blue jumpsuit with the left sleeve of her pants cut off above the thigh to show almost her entire leg. It was an odd fashion choice. Why was she staring at him?
He wanted to call out to that random, beautiful woman. He wanted her to save him – he needed her to. But, like Lychrel and Pacheko and Snead, she failed him. In one breath, she was watching him, and in the next, the crowd that was quickly forming around the crime scene swallowed her whole, and Yamcha was all alone again.
slow dripping water
inside empty stone ruins
spilt lotus petals
Chapter 4: Stole My MelodyEdit
The tiny artificial sun swayed slightly above the ancient metal table. Though it burned so hot he could feel its heat from several feet away, the room was yet in near-darkness. One man in a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up was leaning against the table, his hairy arms gleaming below the light bulb. Yamcha bowed his head.
“Look kid, just tell me what you were doing in there, and this’ll go a lot faster.”
Snead had told him not to say anything. He’d promised he had everything under control. With a gulp, Yamcha muttered, “I don’t know anything.”
“Don’t give me that shit,” the officer replied, his agitation rising. “I’ve been doing this a long time, kid. I know a liar when I see one.”
“I’m not lying,” he mumbled.
“What’s that?” The policeman leaned in. “What did you say?” Yamcha shrugged. “Cause I sure as hell remember you running out of that burning building. That happened. I saw it myself. Tell me what you know right now, or this will be a lot worse for you.”
“I-I…” Yamcha didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t go to jail… not like this. He didn’t have a choice. He wanted to tell the man. He hadn’t wanted to kill all those people. It had been Wolfe and Snead and the others. They had made him do it.
“Settle down boy. You’re shaking.”
The young bandit removed his hands from the table and thrust them into his pockets. “S-sorry…”
“Your name’s… Yamcha, right?” the man said, reading off his clipboard.
He nodded sheepishly.
“You ever been arrested before?” Yamcha noticed that the policeman had a very pointy chin, the size of a fat rat. It made him feel uncomfortable.
Shaking his head, the boy spoke, “N-no… I swear, I haven’t done anything!”
“Mhm, wish that were true.”
It was like getting slammed with a bowling ball in the ribs. “Huh?!”
“The others,” the officer smiled, not looking up from the paper he had read the boy’s name off of, “they’re talking. That one… the old man… he already told us everything. Filled us in on the whole story. We know what you did, kid. And you’re going to go away for a long time if you don’t confess right now!”
It was surprise, drifting like blood behind his eyes, and then it was confusion, and then it was understanding. They didn’t have anything on him. No way. Snead would never tell the cops anything. No chance. This officer was lying. Yamcha’s hands were shaking. He wiped them on his pants. Could policemen lie like that? Weren’t they supposed to be the good guys? What exactly was this guy wanting Yamcha to confess to anyways? Surely he didn’t think that the boy, amongst all the others, had been the one to press the detonator.
He swallowed and closed his eyes. Imprinted against his eyelids was the image of Pacheko crouching over the bag, the water flowing down the grey-blue stone walls.
The policeman slammed the clipboard onto the table. “Look, Yamcha, I’m not going to play games with you. Thirty-four people died in that explosion. Do you get it? This isn’t a convenience store robbery or a carjacking, or…” There was a line of sweat running down the man’s long face. “This is serious. This’s the big time, Yamcha. You’re not leaving until you tell me exactly what you know. I can wait all night. How about you?”
He didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything.
“You did it! You know you did, I know you did, so just admit it!” The policeman sounded desperate. His skin had turned a stuffy shade of pink. “Confess, you little twerp!”
For a heartbeat, the boy looked up, wide-eyed and covered in sweat. The far door swung open.
Another officer entered. This one was wearing a black-and-grey striped shirt and black slacks. He whispered something in Huge Chin’s ear before leaving. The remaining officer chewed his lip for a moment before saying, “You’re free to go.”
“You heard me.” He didn’t look at the boy. Sighing, the man picked up his clipboard and shook his head. “Get out of here.”
In a daze, the bandit found his way out. There were people and sounds and rooms and lights and a hundred different things going on in that police station, but his mind was like sloshing water. The next thing he remembered was standing on the pavement next to Rheems in the bright sunlight.
“Where is she?! You have to tell me where she is!” the fox with the light brown fur was pleading. “Is she even alive?!”
“I can’t tell you that,” a woman was saying. “You need to leave. We can contact you by phone–”
“I don’t have a phone!!” Rheems shouted. “Please, I–”
“That’s enough, sir. Settle down. There’s nothing I can do. We ask that you please bear with us.” She sounded disinterested.
Two uniformed officers stepped forward and pushed Rheems away from the entrance to the police station. People were walking by, like free-falling rain, and only occasionally did any stop to look. It took another few minutes of shouting for Rheems to finally turn away from the men.
“Fuckin’ pigs,” he muttered to Yamcha. “Won’t tell me where Lychrel is.”
“I’m sure she’s okay,” Yamcha said, trying to comfort the man. “They probably took her to the hospital.”
“Or let her die. I wouldn’t put anything past these bastards.”
They absorbed into the crowd moving down the street towards downtown South City. “Hey, Rheems, do you know where Mr. Snead is?”
“What?!” Yamcha sounded like a girl when he stopped in his tracks, annoying all the people behind him. “He did what?!”
“He took the fall, kid. For us,” Rheems explained. “Said it was all him, that we were customers, and Lychrel was a dancer.” The fox’s snout contorted into a bitter sneer. “They’re interrogating him now. But he’ll get out of it. He always does.”
“Don’t worry, kid. Snead knows what he’s doing. Now let’s go. We gotta tell Wolfe, and–”
In the midst of the crowds, a limousine pulled up to the curb, just to the right of Yamcha and Rheems. Two men in dark suits and sharp sunglasses exited with the fluidity of water dancers. They grabbed Yamcha and Rheems by the elbows, and when the two dared to yell, their pistols were drawn. A flash of black metal passed through Yamcha’s vision. He felt like screaming again, but knew what that would get him.
With a shove, a well-dressed man pushed Yamcha into the hover limo, Rheems close behind. And then, they were off again, going north. No one had stopped to help or scream or draw attention to the abduction; no one had tried to save Yamcha. He felt sick. The two men kept their pistols out, pointing them at the two bandits, their fingers on the triggers. They said not a word as the car gained speed.
Yamcha held his breath, and then the tears came, like a tidal push.
‘Hog Wild’ was written in sloppy spray paint on the side of the building. The Warthogs were unsubtle like that. A few of the parked cars were still humming, their headlights piercing through the sandy, dusty night. Moths swarmed around them. The crickets were making music as clouds rushed by overhead.
The explosion rocked the complex. A siren began to howl even before the dust cleared. Coughing, Wolfe and his Wings moved in through the hole, their rifles raised.
They had been sleeping. It made the killing easier. A few Warthogs, trying to throw on their clothes or reaching for their weapons, stumbled out into the halls. They were dropped with a few trigger pulls. His men peeled off, moving swiftly into side rooms to put down the rest. Some begged. Most shouted in surprise as bullets tore through their chests and throats.
Wolfe led the main contingent down the halls, which were bathed in red light. The siren was thrumming in his ear, but he didn’t have time to feel pain. More and more of his men split off into side rooms as they ran, and soon the main contingent was only a few dozen strong.
Gunfire broke the siren’s monotony from behind. The walls shook. Dust sprung from the grey concrete. Two men came screaming around a corner, shooting wildly. Wolfe dropped them calmly, like swatting mosquitoes. Their momentum carried them into the wall, where they collapsed like ragdolls and bled out.
“Go!” he urged the men still with him, and off they went.
There was no time. They had to take everyone out before the Warthogs could rally. It had to be over quickly, or else this wouldn’t be worth it. He couldn’t afford to take massive casualties. They soon came to the end of hallway, where a metal door of rusted green paint stood like the entrance to a submarine. Wolfe nodded. A man strode forward, planted a black brick on the door handle, and everyone moved away, around the nearest corner. Plugging their ears, they felt the base rumble as the door was blown off its hinges.
The scrap metal still smoking, the group ran through the door, into the lair of the Warthogs’ boss.
His ears were ringing. His rifle was raised. Wolfe aimed around coolly, looking for any signs of the man he needed dead. The carpets were a deep purple; the bed was draped in the same dark shade of fine silk cloth. Desks of paperwork, boxes of cocaine and ammo, and avant-garde paintings that looked like clown vomit decorated the room. Something stirred in the bed, behind the veil.
Wolfe nodded, and a man moved forward, pulling back the curtains. The woman screamed. Covering her breasts, she scampered back to the far end of the bed, tears streaming down her cheeks. “P-please…” she sobbed. “I’m just a–”
“Quiet!” he barked. “Where is he?”
She looked up at him, her lip trembling, her cheeks flushed. “I-I…”
Bang. Like seaspray, the blood streaked across his face. Recoiling, Wolfe and the others spun around only to find a half-naked man holding a smoking pistol pointed right at them. At Wolfe’s feet lay Remi Alphonso – his cook.
“Fuckin’ coward,” he murmured, kicking the corpse away, lest the dead man stain his boots.
“I’m the coward, am I?” the boss of the Warthogs sneered. He was a middle-aged man, balding, with a large, hairy belly. Wrapped around him was a bathrobe, and he was wearing bright white socks and underwear. Otherwise, he was naked. There was a cigar in his mouth, and his beard had grown wilder since Wolfe had last seen him. “After all we’ve been through? I thought we were friends, Wolfe.”
“I heard you joined forces with the Snakes,” Wolfe replied, not lowering his own weapon.
The other man shrugged. “You shot down their plane. They’re in the right. Blood for blood, man. And besides, I want to live. It was better to–”
“As you said.” Wolfe’s voice rose. “We were friends. You made me do this, Hoggins. But it’s good. Now I know where your true loyalties lie. It’s better I know now, before I take over Diablo Desert. A dead traitor cannot take me down.”
“That’s it, eh?” Hoggins laughed, puffing his cigar. “You want the desert all for yourself, do you? And how exactly do you plan on taking it? The Night Snakes have everyone else on their side. You’re outnumbered.”
“Not by as much anymore,” Wolfe noted. “Your gang would have been a big help to the Snakes.”
“If you do this… the others will find out. You won’t be able to get within a mile of any other base…”
There was fear in Hoggins’ voice. It was time. Wolfe sighed, aimed down his sights, and fired. The pistol flew from the gang leader’s hand as he let out a grunt of surprise. Wolfe handed his rifle to a man standing next to him and stepped forward, cracking his knuckles.
“I wanted you on my side. We were friends. Our gangs worked together in the past. But now…” He shook his head, looking at the dead man crumpled on the ground. That was just great. All because of Hoggins, he’d have to find a new cook. Remi had been the best damn cook Wolfe had ever known. Such a man was not easily replaceable. Raising his eyes to Hoggins again, Wolfe shouted, “Wolf… Fang… Fist!” as he rushed forward, his hatred causing his fists to burn with desire.
The other man’s skull cracked like an egg.
Outside again, Wolfe received a tally of the dead: seven of his own men, including Remi, and all of the Warthogs. Once his men had plundered the place dry and stuffed their cars full of loot, Wolfe pressed the button on the detonator, and the entire base went up in flames.
The fire raging around them, and the dust making them cough, Wolfe squatted down next to their prisoner, who, blindfolded and confused, was kneeling in the dust. Several headlights were trained on him. He dared not raise his head, though he flinched when the base exploded.
“They’re all dead,” Wolfe told him. “All of them. Even Hoggins.” Cocking a pistol in the prisoner’s ear, he continued, “Do you want to join them?” The bound man squealed and shook his head violently. “Good. I’m your new boss now. You deal with no one else. Only me. Only my gang. Do you understand?” The prisoner nodded quickly. “Good. Release him.”
They did, and the scrawny man stood, shivering, looking around in bewilderment. Plumes of dark smoke rose around them, beyond the cars. He saw for himself what had happened.
“There’ll be no more snow in Diablo Desert unless I know about it,” Wolfe said.
“O-of course, sir!” the man squeaked. “I’m your supplier!”
“Get out of here.”
The man ran off. Everyone got in their cars. Wolfe cracked his neck and raised his head. The moon was fat tonight, though the fast-moving clouds were obscuring it. In the distance, he heard a wolf cry out, and he almost felt like giving a response. Instead, Wolfe holstered his pistol and sat on his bike. The crickets were returning to their music – timidly at first, and then all together. There were not many hours left for them to sing. Morning was coming, and with it, the sun.
Thoras and Rosey were there to greet Wolfe when he got back. Rosey, the pale-faced lieutenant, had his head bowed, his sandy hair blowing in the early morning wind. As the other cars pulled up to the base and began to unload their haul, Wolfe ushered the two men into his bedroom. They took the secret entrance.
“Well, how is she?”
“Good, I guess,” Rosey murmured, not looking at Wolfe. “Doc stabilized her, but she hasn’t woken up yet.”
“Will she live?”
“He said she probably would, but he didn’t know for certain.”
Wolfe moved to him in a blur, picking Rosey up by the throat so they could see each other eye to eye. “She has to live. If she doesn’t pull through, it’s your life.”
“I-I… know…!” the man wheezed, his eyes spread like moons. “W-w-wolfe… p-p-please…”
“And Doc too. If he can’t save her, he’s dead. Go tell him.” He dropped Rosey and turned to Thoras. At once, Wolfe slammed his fist into the rocky wall, squashing a spider that had been climbing towards his bed. Thoras recoiled. The door opened and shut behind him before he could speak again. “Remi got hit back at the ‘hogs. We need a new cook. You up for it?”
“Wolfe… I haven’t cooked in more than twenty years!”
“It’ll come back to you.”
The old bandit shrugged. “Perhaps. It would be better if I could train a few new line cooks. That would be easier on me.”
“Alright. I’ll find you some people.”
“Thank you, Wolfe.”
“So why are you here?” Wolfe walked over to his cabinet, reaching for his favorite bottle of whiskey. “What did you want to discuss?”
Thoras looked away, almost as if he were afraid. That startled Wolfe. That old man had seen everything. He never showed fear. If something had frightened him…
“They took it. I don’t know who, but someone did.”
Wolfe poured himself a glass. “Took what?”
“My poison! All of it! Every last vial, even my equipment to make it.”
“How long ago did this happen?” Wolfe’s ears were growing hot.
“Three days ago.”
“And you didn’t think to tell me then?!”
“I-I thought it was someone here… I asked around, but no one knew anything! I’m sure of it! It was the Night Snakes, Wolfe! They broke in and stole my poison! They’re coming for you!”
“Aye, they’ve been coming for me for a while now. I’m not afraid. I’ll kill them before they kill me.” He raised the whiskey to his lips, staring at the brown liquid swirling in the glass. Why had they taken the poison, though? Surely, the Snakes would have known that he would figure it out, that Thoras would come to him. Why not kill Thoras too? That was suspicious. If they wanted to poison him, they would need the element of surprise… and by stealing all of the old bandit’s reserves, they had lost that crucial advantage. For as dumb as the Night Snakes were, he knew they weren’t that stupid.
Wolfe set his glass down without taking a drink. Thoras stole a glance at the whiskey and followed Wolfe out of the room. No one else (aside from Wolfe) had keys to his room… but then again, all of his men were bandits and thieves. They could find a way, he supposed.
“Have you heard anything from Snead and the others?” Wolfe asked Thoras, trying to remain calm.
“No sir. They blew up that building, just like you wanted ‘em to, but we haven’t heard from ‘em since.”
Wolfe sighed, shaking his head. Maybe they were all dead. Snead and that boy Yamcha were two of his most valuable soldiers. If they were gone… No, he wouldn’t think like that. Fear leads to foolishness, he knew. He would wait for them to return. And if they didn’t…
“I need a drink,” he muttered to the old man. “What do you have hidden in your room?”
Thoras frowned, perhaps not understanding. After all, Wolfe’s whiskey was the most expensive, highest-quality alcohol in the base. Of that, he had no doubt. But he couldn’t risk anything right now. Not until he figured out what happened to the old bandit’s poison. And alcohol was alcohol – Wolfe would be damned if he drank it for the taste.
“You ever steal a ride before?” Rheems asked casually.
The hovercar ride was bumpy. Their wrists had been bound with zip ties. Their captors sat still as gargoyles, their black-finished pistols clutched loosely in their laps. Why did they have to wear sunglasses in the limo? It was dark enough in Yamcha’s opinion. When the boy didn’t reply to Rheems, the fox shrugged:
“Me, I got this motorcycle once. Hotwired it while the owner was in a store. He was slick, dressed all in yellow leather. Had that look about him… y’know, that kind that tells you he has a lot of money? That meant his bike had to be fast, right?” The man laughed awkwardly. Everyone else was silent. “So I got on, and…” he leaned back, sighing, “well, they didn’t catch me for twenty miles. Ran out of gas before the cops got me.”
At the mention of cops, one of the well-dressed guards raised his head sharply. Yamcha’s body went numb. He nearly screamed in fright. And when Rheems nudged him and asked him again what his biggest score was, the boy let out a whimper like a sick dog.
“Aw, c’mon man, chill. Lighten up the mood. Tell us a story.”
He glanced at the two stern-faced men like they were the sun. “Fine… I stole a hovercar one time, okay?”
“Yeah? And what did you do with it?” He didn’t understand why Rheems was acting so nonchalant. “Take it anywhere cool?”
“I crashed it into a telephone pole.”
The hovercar came to a stop.
“End of the line,” one of the guards mumbled, reaching for the door. Light beams were on the boy’s hand, and the world beyond was white gold. He felt himself being shoved.
Acquiescent, the boy fell to his knees. A pigeon was perched on a lightpost, eyeing him hungrily. The light burned his eyes. His chest heaved. He never looked up. Rheems was by his side. There were men standing over him.
“Look at me!” one of them was saying, distantly, as if from underwater. The boy shuddered and obeyed.
He wore his black hair like a crown, spiky and shimmering. Sunglasses guarded his eyes, and his pale skin was smooth, beardless, bloodless. He wore a sharp black suit, a crimson tie, and white gloves. His perfume was overwhelming; it burned Yamcha’s nose. Behind him, two similarly-dressed men stood, their arms drawn together in front of them.
A flash of dust permeated Yamcha’s mind, and he felt lightheaded. He tasted sand, heard a ringing gunshot, smelled blood rising from the ground. Those lights, staring down upon the crater… all those dead people… the girl who’d been riding shotgun…
These were the Yakuza.
Wind blew by. They were in an abandoned parking lot. A few derelict cars lay at rest, scattered like fallen leaves. To the left, under a tree sprouting between parking spots, a murder of crows had gathered in a circle, having come together in silent council. In the distance, buildings reached towards the sky, where fast-moving clouds did not stop to appreciate the view.
“L-look man, we’re just innocent bystanders, yeah? Wh-whaddya want with us, h-huh?”
The leader’s face did not change whatsoever. He was stone. “You two work for Wolfe.” It was not a question. Rheems had not been on that mission to the dig site. But Yamcha had. He could only pray that the Yakuza boss didn’t already know that. “Jiro?”
A man to the boss’s right moved forward. He wore a black buttoned-up jacket that looked like chef’s attire. Pulling a pistol out of a holster, he aimed it at Yamcha’s head. The boy was looking up now.
“Don’t make me do it, kid.” The chef’s voice was deep as winter.
“Tell us what you know about your boss’s recent monetary acquisitions.”
“Whoa… what?” Rheems’ confusion was genuine. “What are you talking about… sir?”
“He acquired a significant amount of money in a recent mission. What do you know about that mission?”
The fox shook his head. Their eyes fell on Yamcha, who tried to find his words, but, like he was drowning, he couldn’t. Hyperventilating, his eyes fell to the pavement briefly before the chef jerked his hair back hard.
“Answer, or die.”
His eyes wide, his lip trembling, the boy shook his head.
“Excellent. Let’s go.”
The boss turned, his arms behind his back, and marched off towards his car. His guards and Jiro followed him. The remaining guards grabbed Yamcha and Rheems again and shoved them back in the hover limo. In a few seconds, they were driving again.
“H-hey, where are we going exactly?” Rheems asked, his voice breaking.
“Alright man, jeez. Just wanna–”
The other guard punched Rheems in the jaw, causing the fox man to scream. But he didn’t say another word for the rest of the ride.
When they next stopped, one of the guards gave each of the bandits a suit to put on. He unbound their wrists, though they had to change in front of him. Yamcha kept his eyes down; his cheeks flushed; the new clothes felt stiff and itchy. They led him and Rheems outside, unchained, their weapons concealed, though the boy knew it would be folly to run.
There were many people around, all of them well-dressed and moving towards a building just ahead. Conversations drifted across the evening air like a cool wind, and everyone appeared to be in pleasant spirits. Rheems was massaging his jaw; he looked old.
Once inside, Yamcha and Rheems were taken through several doors, past crowds of people waiting in lines, to sit in the front row of a mostly-empty theater. There was a stage with four unadorned wooden pillars supporting a traditional-style roof, and an extended ramp to the left leading to the stage. The seats were arranged around the stage on one side. The only people in there were the Yakuza boss and his lackeys. Yamcha was seated on the boss’s right, while Rheems was placed on his left.
The boy wiped his palms on his pants. “Take it easy, boy.” The boss said. “Enjoy yourself.”
“B-but what is this place, sir?”
“We are going to watch a play tonight. This one is called Shōjō,” the older man explained without emotion. “It’s an auspicious tale, so pay close attention, both of you.”
It didn’t take long for the rest of the audience to find their seats and for the actors to make their way to the stage. The actors were dressed in traditional kimono, golden and white and black and red and blue and every color Yamcha could imagine. The opulence of what they were wearing made him shudder. The lead actor was wearing a mask, and when he moved, he danced about in an ethereal, fluid way. There were several men wearing black sitting at the back of the stage, up against a painting of majestic pine tree, playing drums and a flute in the most irritating avant-garde style Yamcha had ever heard. When the actors spoke, they sung, sort of like in opera, and Yamcha could barely understand them. Their speech was old, and flowery and sung, and all the boy could do was squeeze his fists and wish for time to fly.
But it didn’t.
The play lasted hours. Yamcha watched a couple men dance about for a while, one wearing a mask, and once it was over, he had no idea what he had just watched.
Getting up, the boss asked, “So, did you like it?”
Yamcha nodded at once. “Yeah, it was great.”
“Why was he wearing a mask, though? That was weird, right?” That was Rheems.
“A Shōjō is a drunken sea-spirit.”
“Oh, I thought he was a demon or something!” Rheems laughed nervously.
The Yakuza stared coldly at Rheems, but said nothing.
They were taken back to the limo before being whisked away again. The guards did not bind them again. Rheems dared not ask where they were going this time. Yamcha couldn’t help but think he had just wasted the last three hours of his life. What was the point of that play? Was the man trying to send a message? If so, he should have been clearer in his intent, in the boy’s opinion.
They came to a skyscraper in the dead of night. Hovercars whizzed by. The air was bitter on the boy’s cheeks. The guards led them inside the bleak-looking building, which was as bare as a tree in the moonlight. An elevator ride to the sixty-second floor brought them to a room with a long dinner table. Well-dressed Yakuza took up most of the seats. The boss sat at the head of the table. Jiro was nowhere to be seen. Yamcha and Rheems were to be seated to the boss’s right, two chairs down from him. There was an empty chair at the end of the row between the Yakuza boss’s and Yamcha’s seats.
The other Yakuza were talking amongst themselves, ignoring the bandits completely. An older man with a shaved head was lamenting that the mayor was not in their pocket and suggested replacing him with a new face in the upcoming election. Another man, younger and oily-faced, offered up a name: Yunwu. Everyone else murmured and frowned, and their distaste was evident. Other names were put forth too, but as Yamcha moved down the table towards where he was going to sit, their voices blurred together, and he could no longer tell what anyone was saying.
“I’m glad you could make it,” the boss said in his high, flittery voice. “Take a seat.” So they did. Digging a cutting knife into the edge of the table, the man said, “Tell me, you two, if you will do something for me.”
His heartbeat quickened. Exchanging a look with Rheems, Yamcha held his breath. “What would you like us to do, sir?” asked the older bandit.
“Kill Wolfe.” He looked up suddenly, staring at the two, as if he were a wolf trying to sense weakness.
“U-uh…” Rheems stammered.
Yamcha couldn’t say anything, for in the next moment, the doors opened wide, and servers strode in proudly, led by Jiro.
“Dinner is served, Mr. Mazuchiru,” he said, bowing to the Yakuza boss.
Mazuchiru said nothing as the first course of sushi was placed before everyone. It was a single piece of karei sushi, and everyone ate their pieces instantly as the second plate was placed before each seated man – this one sumi-ika. Again, everyone ate their pieces instantly, including Yamcha. Mazuchiru ate silently, as did everyone else, but his eyes never left them. “I asked you both a question,” he whispered. “Answer.”
The third course, comprising of shima-aji rolls, was served. “I-I can’t, sir… Wolfe’s my boss… I can’t just kill him…B-besides, he’s strong… I’d have to sneak up on him… and even i-if I did… I’d never get out of th-there alive! It’s way too risky! I-I’m sorry, but it’s just not feasible, sir!”
Mazuchiru looked down. “And what about you, Yamcha?”
The boy couldn’t speak. He was too scared. He fidgeted and drank his water, and ate whatever was put on his plate, but he could not speak. His voice box was locked; he had no control. Jiro patted his shoulder as the sixth course was put before them – oo-toro sushi. When Yamcha didn’t eat with the rest, the man whispered in his ear:
“It is rude to let sushi sit. I spent immense effort preparing this meal. Would you mock me and let my hard work go to waste? Is it not a chef’s right to demand perfection not only from himself, but from his customers as well?”
The boy ate shivering, thinking of those dancing actors. There were giant windows looking out towards the city on the wall behind Mazuchiru and to his left. The moon shone bright. Below, the city lights flickered with robotic precision. Everything looked dead. A streak of yellow clouds had moved in front of the moon, dimming its lucent power. The boy felt a chill befall him. He thought of something Junichi had once told him – “Don’t ever feel bad, Yamcha. Everyone’s out to screw you over. There aren’t any good people in the world. Trust me. If you don’t take your life into your own hands, you’re going to end up just where they want you to be.”
He swallowed the kohada roll – the seventh course – enjoying the fresh, savory taste. He thought of what to say when he felt something warm on his cheek. A plate shattered. The hot liquid was running down his skin. Turning to his right, he saw Rheems leaning over the table, his head on his plate, which had fractured into a dozen pieces. His light brown fur was stained dark around his throat. Something was dripping from the edge of the table. The bandit did not move. No one else said a word, nor seemed to care. A few were talking quietly amongst themselves, but they were not even looking at Rheems, nor did their conversations seem to be about him.
Standing behind him was Mazuchiru, blood falling from his silver blade like fresh tears. The eighth course was presented – mushi-awabi – and Jiro himself gave his standing boss a plate, kneeling before the man. Mazuchiru took his sushi between two fingers and popped it in his mouth. His eyes found Yamcha. Raising his bloody blade, the man spoke:
“Yamcha? What’s your answer?”
Frozen, the young bandit could not respond. Jiro was at his side again. “Remember what I told you,” the man breathed in the boy’s ear. “Do not let your sushi spoil. I worked hard on it.”
With fearful eyes, the trembling kid reached for his sushi and ate it; then, he raised his head to Mazuchiru, the Yakuza boss, and spoke the only two words he could think of in that moment.
“Mayor…” She could scarce believe what she was seeing. “It’s good to see you.”
He was standing on an iceberg, the wind blowing about him; the sky was black; the stars were dark. The mayor wasn’t shivering.
“How is South City?”
“Functioning well in your absence, sir.”
“Good. I have faced several complications up here in Yunzabit Heights, but they are not pressing. I will be home shortly, to resume my position.”
“I await your return, sir.”
“Tell Bobo I’ll not be long,” the tired man said before cutting the feed.
She had no idea who Bobo was.
It took a few moments for Lady Yunwu, the deputy mayor, to regain her composure. Alone in the darkness, slate walls pressing in around her, she took deep breaths and remembered who she was.
“You,” she said, exiting the room, “take me to the prisoner.”
He was one of her most senior guards, yet she did not know his name. She never would. The man, whose hair was short-cut and dark, tread through hallways and rooms mindfully as he took Lady Yunwu to her prisoner. It was not a long walk.
“You may leave us,” she said.
The guard exited.
“Wasn’t supposed to go like this,” the man sitting at the table said. His hands were bound, but that didn’t stop him from speaking casually to her. “Why’d you let it go like this?”
Snead’s hair was black, streaked with grey. He was an older man, yet not elderly. “You have been accused of blowing up The House of the Blue Lotus. Your name is… Snead, correct?” The man nodded effortlessly. “What do you have to say in your defense?”
“Nothing,” he replied simply. “I already confessed.”
“Don’t play games with me.” The man was impatient. “Arrest me or set me free. I know who you are.”
Heat grew in her cheeks, but she held firm. “That’s not–”
“Shut up. I’m not going to play this game with you. You know the only reason I confessed was to make sure the others got off. Let me go, or Wolfe’ll kill you. Let’s not waste our breath.”
“I could have you killed–” Yunwu started.
“Then do it. Don’t be a fucking coward. Kill me or release me, but don’t waste my time with talk.”
It was all she could do not to laugh. Sitting down opposite the prisoner, Yunwu drew her hands together to press her chin against. “I’ve got a feeling you’re bluffing, Snead. I could do whatever I want with you. Do you know that? If you don’t do what I want, I could make you disappear.”
“Get on with it then,” he said despondently.
“I could lock you away forever, and there’s nothing anyone could do about it.”
“Sure.” He was dejected, she could tell, but he was placid too – almost as if he knew what was coming. Was Wolfe coming for her should she lock Snead up? Had he thought this through? His rag-tag band of thieves and outlaws did not concern her, and yet…
“I’ll let you go.” Her voice hung in the stale air. “On one condition.”
“There’s always that, ain’t there?” Snead said in a gravelly tone.
“Return the girl to me.”
“Ren. She was supposed to be back by now. Wolfe has her. I don’t know why he’s keeping her, but I want her. I need her. She’s mine; I deserve to have her back. If you swear to do this for me, I’ll let you go.”
“What’s to stop me from promising to return her and then…?” He shrugged, laughing cruelly. “Seriously, you can’t believe anything I promise you.”
“It’s a risk I am willing to take. You seem to forget that I’m the deputy mayor of this city. I can – and will – go to Diablo Desert with an army of my own to annihilate your master and all your bandit friends. All of you will die in that scenario. If you defeat us on the ground, I’ll bomb the shit out of you. There is no way for Wolfe to win.”
“But the girl?” He smirked, his grey-black hair flashing as he tilted his head. “You’d lose her too.”
“If you think she’s worth your life, then don’t return her.”
Silver Snead shook his head. “I’ll make sure she gets back to you. I didn’t want this to come to war in the first place, but now it looks like that’s all Wolfe wants.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s waging war out there in the desert. He’s fighting all the other bandit groups and gangs. He wiped out most of them before we came here to blow up that stupid building. I’m sure he’s wiped out a few more gangs since then. It’s pretty much just the Night Snakes and the Wings. Everyone else is dead, or fled, or has joined the more powerful gangs. There’s no longer any middle ground.”
“Will he defeat the Night Snakes?” she asked, trying not to betray her curiosity. “How large are his forces compared to theirs?”
Snead shrugged. He was spoiling for a cigarette. She would never give him one. “He’ll destroy all the gangs… all except the Snakes. I know that for a fact. And when the two gangs finally go to war… it’s a tossup, I think. But Wolfe wants it more. He’ll find a way to win, even if it destroys him.”
“I see.” She walked over to him and unshackled the bandit from his handcuffs with a tiny key placed between her fingers. “Go, then.”
“Just like that?” The old dog seemed more amused than suspicious.
“I want my Ren. If she is not returned to me by three night’s time…” Yunwu let the threat hang in the air as she turned from him. He stood, the wooden chair whining against the stone floor. She knew he would understand. The Lady of South City was impatient. He would have picked up on that, hoping to take advantage of it. As it were, Yunwu had moved first, preventing him from trying anything. “Say hello to Wolfe for me. And remember what I told you.”
She left him in the room, unbound and unfettered, giving notice to the policemen waiting outside that they were to allow Snead to leave. They were shocked – the man had confessed, after all – but she promised the policemen that Snead’s confession had been a simple mix-up. Feeling tired, she returned to her apartment, finding the little baggie of white powder the mayor had left her. It was almost completely full. Yunwu’s chief servant was an elderly man, with grey hair and a face painted with crevices and wrinkles. Patient and well-dressed, he attended to her every need, and yet she didn’t even know his name.
Sniffling, the woman watered her banana tree. It was growing large in its pot – soon it would fruit, she suspected. It was inside, away from the chill winds of South City; thus, her banana could mature faster than normal. Optimistically, she could expect fruit within a few weeks.
Lounging in her serene zen garden, Yunwu clicked on her cell phone. Thoras was quick to answer. “Tell me what’s going on,” she said sharply.
“My poison’s gone.” The man’s voice came in a whisper. “Wolfe knows. He’s paranoid. Thinks someone’s out to kill him. He could be right. He’s regrouping with his most trusted men in a different hideout, leaving the rest of us here, including me!”
“And you have no idea who stole the poison?”
“No! I gave some to the girl, like you wanted… but there was more… a lot more. Now it’s all gone. And Wolfe’s gone.”
“How is she?” Yunwu couldn’t bring herself to say Ren’s name.
“Doing better. Still in bed last time I saw her. But she’s gone with Wolfe to his new hideout.”
“She’ll have her chance there.”
“I suppose…” The old bandit sounded unconvinced. “And what happens when he dies? What do we do then?”
“Mazuchiru crushes the Night Snakes. I promote you as my new liaison in Diablo Desert, and we go from there. We will not allow any other groups or gangs to infiltrate into the desert. From now on, I control everything.”
“Sure. Sounds like a good plan. But can them Yakuza be trusted, eh?”
“No.” She hung up on him.
The bastard would pay for getting Ren shot, for putting her beautiful little girl into danger. Ren was innocent. She was good. She deserved better. Yunwu only regretted that Wolfe wouldn’t suffer more. Sighing, she stood, her attendants waiting inside. There were a variety of them – men, women, girls, and the old man. Today it was her and the old man. He also served as her guard, carrying a pistol on him. He wasn’t the captain of her guard, but he was loyal. That made him perfect for what she had planned next.
They came to a dank, dark room that smelled of mildew and sweat. A man hung from chains; moonlight leaked in from a crack in the ceiling. His shoulders were slumped forward, his face was lowered, and spittle was leaking from his open mouth. She had taken his tongue the day before.
He looked up.
The door closed silently behind them. Wrinkling her nose, Yunwu said, “Is Mazuchiru planning on killing me?”
The man gave her a tearful, pleading look. And then he nodded.
The prisoner shrugged; weary though he was, and chained, the indication was clear. He didn’t know.
“Does he know what Wolfe did?”
The man shook his head vehemently.
“Does he want me gone because he fears me?”
The tongueless, hanging man shook his head again.
“Am I an inconvenience to him?”
“Does Mazuchiru want to be the mayor?”
The man nodded again, this time less forcefully, as if he had been keeping this secret for a long time and regretted letting it go now.
“Good. It’s nice to see that you’ve reconsidered your previous position,” she murmured, studying the man’s ruined figure. “I promised to take your eyes if you refused to answer me again. Remember that. If you are dishonest with any answer, or refuse anything I ask of you… my man brought a knife.”
The prisoner squirmed. His tattoos rippled and spread across his back as he shifted his weight and flexed his muscles in the moonlight.
“How many men does your boss have?”
The prisoner groaned.
“More than five hundred?”
“More than seven?”
The man hesitated, then shook his head. It took Lady Yunwu’s full restraint not to have the man’s eyes be taken right at that moment. She knew he was lying. It was only a matter of how far the prisoner was willing to go.
“We have info,” she reminded him, stepping up to the to tattooed prisoner whose skin was covered in dry blood. “I had a woman hack in Mazuchiru’s computer. Oh yes. I know all about his excursions in the southwest, his encounters with the Red Ribbon Army…”
The prisoner’s eyes widened in deathly fear.
“Do not lie to me. I will ask you again. Does your boss have more than one thousand men?”
Reluctantly and wearily, he nodded.
“Good. Are they all stationed in West City?”
The man shook his head.
“Are the others stationed in East City?”
The man shook his head.
“What about North City?”
The man shook his head.
Spittle flew from the broken man’s jaw as he shook his head once again.
“Orange Star City?”
That gave him pause. She noticed; he knew she had found him out. Nodding, the man bowed his head and whimpered.
“Good man.” She stepped away from him and returned to her attendant. “Get an exact number out of him,” she whispered in the man’s ear, “and find precisely where his reserve of men are hiding in Orange Star City. Then, remove this one. I have no more use for him once we know those two things.”
“Understood, my lady,” he said graciously.
Outside, Yunwu pressed two fingers to the bridge of her nose, as if that would impede the incoming headache. Makare was in Orange Star City. She knew that much. It would be easier just to nuke that stupid city. For what the samurai had done to her men… and Captain Fortier… her old butler was nothing compared to that man, as loyal as he was. Surely, he’d get the info she needed out of that prisoner, but he was not as capable a warrior and security officer as Fortier. She didn’t even know his name. Curse the samurai. She prayed for their utter and swift decline.
Coming into the next meeting room, room #7, Yunwu sat in a frozen stone chair and pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket. On it was a waka poem written by Ren. Yunwu had been teaching the girl poetry in their off-time, and though Ren was young and raw and emotional, she had a poet’s inclinations. This one was amongst her best, Yunwu thought:
In the jeweled sky
eighth month’s moon glimmers on high
wrapped in grey blankets.
But the mist is cool to touch
and foxes watch from the dark.
A lump rose in Yunwu’s throat as she read the waka, thinking about her poor little girl. She could not thank enough gods and ancestors that Ren had survived the gunshot wound. Never again would she put the girl in harm’s way. She was too precious, too delicate for this world.
His grey mustache bristled as he entered. Dr. Gero sat awkwardly across from her, staring inappropriately. He wore a white lab coat; he was balding, though he still let his hair grow long. He wanted her badly, she could tell. Yunwu would rather spend a night with thirty-one gerbils.
“Ten billion zeni.”
His eyes flickered, as if he hadn’t expected her to accept the price. In truth, she had wanted to negotiate, but Yunwu needed this man’s product too badly. She couldn’t risk him walking out on her. She had ten billion zeni. She’d not have much left, granted, but this was a risk she knew was worth taking. This was the only way to clear out Diablo Desert for her new management.
Snapping her fingers, the Lady of South City heard the door behind her creak open. Men sidled in, carrying two hefty bags of money. Ten billion was inside. Most of it was in gold bars; there was some zeni too. Gero looked through both bags before, satisfied, he sat back and folded his arms.
“That’s good,” he muttered. “It’s all there.”
“Would you doubt me?”
Smiling flirtatiously, the good doctor spoke, “I didn’t know what to expect from someone as beautiful as you, my lady.”
If she had found him attractive, she would have blushed. Instead, the Lady of South City thought of Ren and sighed. “Do you have it with you?”
“Yes, here,” the man said, pulling something out of his pocket and putting it on the table. The metal tube held a glowing white light inside its glass-like shell that was almost blinding. Lady Yunwu couldn’t look at it directly. It was beautiful. She could feel its heat upon her cheeks. “Remember, the infinite energy device is a prototype. I have only one more of these. I cannot guarantee it will work under all circumstances. And it may produce a rather large explosion should it be hit by an EMP discharge.”
“Yes, I remember. You told me about that on the phone, doctor.”
“So you are aware of the risks. Excellent. I believe this ends our transaction.”
They both stood. He eyed her breasts; Lady Yunwu pretended not to notice.
“I’ll be in town in two weeks for a lecture on nanotechnology,” the man bragged. “Perhaps we could get coffee then? I know a brewer downtown who is quite skilled at his craft.”
“Sure,” she replied at once, without thinking. “As long as I have time. Being deputy mayor… it can be difficult.”
“Oh, where’s the mayor? Is he not running his city?”
“No, but he will back soon, if I’m to believe his latest message.”
“Oh, well in that case…” Gero let his sentence hang seductively in the air. Coupled with his disheveled, unattractive appearance, the effect was altogether clumsy.
To lessen the awkwardness, she giggled lustily and put her hand on his shoulder. “Until next time, doctor.”
“Y-yes… I’ll see you in a few weeks, my lady!” he said, blushing and bowing.
Doctor Gero gathered himself up and rushed out of there, probably to go do the same thing Yunwu wanted to do. Her headache was slowly growing, like an infected, throbbing tumor. The lady knew of only one good cure for such an ailment. She’d have to return to her apartment at once. Her thoughts drifted once again to Ren, and a tingling feeling spiked through her body like a jolt of lightning.
Waiting for her outside the door, with her guards, was the old attendant.
“It’s done,” he said.
“Fill me in on the details later,” came her distracted voice. “I’m tired.”
“As you wish, my lady.”
“I’ll be going to bed now,” the woman said. “I’m quite underslept.”
“B-but, my lady…” the man began, “the reporters… they’ve been waiting for an hour!”
“Oh, them.” Yes, there were reporters wishing to speak with Lady Yunwu about the explosion in the House of the Blue Lotus. She had no desire to entertain those rabid dogs. “You deal with them,” she said carelessly. “Tell them it was an accident and there are no suspects as of this time. There is no evidence of any wrongdoing.”
“I was not asking you, sir.”
With that, she walked off back to her room, trying to think of the best thought she had of Ren, to prepare herself for bed.
Jiro and Yamcha had talked a bit about cooking on the elevator ride down. Yamcha had always been interested in cooking, ever since he had been a little boy. He was good at it, but he wasn’t as passionate about it as he was about baseball or being lazy. But he didn’t tell the Yakuza that. Jiro was giving him all sorts of tips for cooking rice and fish and curry and lemongrass soup. For a few moments, Yamcha lost himself in the information, and forgot his pain.
They came to the ground floor. The lobby was abandoned. No one was even attending the counter opposite of the door leading outside. Jiro, his two guards, and Yamcha exited the skyscraper and found themselves in the frigid night. The moon was overhead, casting a bright shadow upon the world, and dark clouds flanked it on all sides. Those clouds which moved in front of the moon turned a burning, fiery yellow, as if they were being cooked by directly touching the night’s sun. He gulped.
There was a man in a yellow leather suit standing nearby, talking on a cell phone, his golden motorcycle parked against the curb, the keys still in the ignition. The boy thought about what he had to do. “What's the point of being an outlaw if you got responsibilities?” he heard Junichi’s distant, echoey voice complaining in his mind. His fists clenched and unclenched.
“Poison’s the easiest way. Feed him something tasty – he won’t know the difference. You can get out of there long before anything happens. Besides, once it’s gone down, the boss’s men’ll move in to crush Wolfe’s flailing empire. You’ll get out of there easy, kid. I swear.”
Jiro swore. Yamcha was on the bike before any of them could reach him. He was speeding off down the dark road in the next moment, the engine revving. The owner was screaming, cursing, pleading, but Yamcha would never look back. He put the pedal to the metal. The lane lines blurred with the traffic lights, and all he could hear was the whistling wind.
The Yakuza were in their car, speeding after him. One man was leaning out a window shooting a machine gun recklessly. Yamcha weaved between cars at a breathtaking speed. He’d never gone this fast before. His skull was humming. There was no time to think; he was numb to life. It was time to go. He’d waited long enough.
He was in the other lane. Cars screamed towards him like nightmares, blaring their horns. A cloudburst exploded from the sky above. He swerved, avoiding a speeding hovercar on approach. Glancing over his shoulder, the young bandit saw that the Yakuza were pursuing him yet. Their hovercar was a lot fatter than his motorcycle. He could squeeze between oncoming traffic like it was nothing. Them, on the other hand…
The rain felt good in his hair. He screamed triumphantly, pressing harder on the gas pedal. The tank was full. He could go like this all night. Yamcha was free. Freezing water cascaded down his face, peppering him like hail at high speed. Sirens shrieked; lights blurred and blended and fractured out into the blackness. The stars were sprawled in a ragged crown overhead, the moon as their king. He followed the road out, not knowing where he was going.
Well, maybe that wasn’t true. There was only one place Yamcha could go.
He took a sharp left turn, going down a side road he knew led out of the city. The car behind him whined as it tried to keep pace. His bike was faster. He was good at this, Yamcha realized. He could outrun these men and their chef if he wanted to. But he’d rather lose them. A bullet sailed by, taking a driver next to Yamcha in the throat. His car spun about before crashing into a telephone pole to the right. The Yakuza had to go, he knew.
Rain splattered down his face. It felt good to let go.
Slowing down, Yamcha felt the hovercar approaching him. Spent rounds bounced off the soaked asphalt. That was when he turned slightly left, back into oncoming traffic, and then turned left again, down another side road. The hovercar could not hope to follow him through such thick traffic, all the cars’ lights shining white as death, but they had no choice. Yamcha knew they couldn’t let him get away. They were as good as dead if they did. So they took the turn.
The explosion came later than he expected; the screams sooner. The engine and rain drowned out all of it soon enough. He was off again, tearing down the slick streets, the wind and rain in his hair. He was a bandit, he knew. But he was not a killer, and he wasn’t anybody’s fool. He wasn’t going to keep going on like this – that much Yamcha knew. His foot slammed on the gas as he thought of this. Yamcha would not be ordered around by anyone anymore. He wouldn’t be forced to become a monster like them. He’d get his stuff, leave Wolfe, and make his own way in the world.
That was the only way. It was his life – his choice. Yamcha sped away on his stolen motorcycle, worth more than anything he’d ever owned before, knowing that if the gas ran out before he got home, he’d be dead. It was a risk he had to take.
the first rain has come
off into the fog I go
with mud on my heels
Chapter 5: Nobody's FoolEdit
Sand sprayed into the wind. He could barely keep up in the old four-wheel buggy. Mighty Mouse Wolfe had named it. Yamcha didn’t think there was much mighty about it. He wished he still had his motorcycle. Like hungry wolves, the other bandits revved their engines and came to the speeding train. Guns were in their hands. A pistol lay on Yamcha’s lap. The ride was bumpy, and he kept the safety on.
The sun was rising; the wind was howling. Wolfe and the others were far ahead. He blinked the sand from his eyes, dodging rocks and bones as he drove across the dunes, a boy without a semblance of what he was supposed to be doing. He didn’t have a license; he’d never driven a car before. Motorcycles were one thing, but this…
“Woohoo!” one of the bandits shouted carelessly, shooting his rifle at the sky. The bad boy riding shotgun on his bike jumped onto the train as the bike came up against the chugging metal beast, and soon, other bandits were doing similar things. Like ticks in the field, they latched themselves to the train with grappling hooks and curved scimitars, tearing into the metal like burrowing moles. Up they climbed, and soon, it was Yamcha’s turn to join them.
He wished he had that golden sword, as flimsy as it probably was.
He felt Wolfe’s breath on his neck as he pulled up against the train which was sprinting down the tracks at a breathtaking pace. Swallowing hard, the boy lunged from the Mighty Mouse buggy onto the side of the train, holding on for dear life. He could hear the screams, even in the wind.
He’d returned to the base almost out of gas on the stolen bike. At once, he’d been met by a man named Ruthy Badales who had instructed Yamcha where to go. At first, the boy hadn’t understood the directions – why was Wolfe holing himself up in another bandit lair outside of the usual one? But when he got there, the stories of poison and Night Snake treachery reached him, and he understood. Only Wolfe’s most trusted bandits had been allowed to come with him to the new bandit hideout, which was located in the middle of Diablo Desert in a rocky spire that had been hollowed out on the inside as a miner residence in the past. Now it served as Wolfe’s den, and Yamcha was fortunate to be amongst the man’s inner circle.
Even so, he’d gathered up all he owned from the old lair (which wasn’t more than a couple broken capsules and some zeni) and considered leaving then and there. But the desert was bleak, and he knew if he left, he wouldn’t have a friend in the world. Such a thought had scared the boy, so here he was, back in the middle of this mad life.
Opening the roof hatch of the train car he was standing on, the young bandit dropped into the train. Dressed in the standard attire of the Night Snakes, a red handkerchief pulled over his face, he clutched his pistol, the safety still locked on. Passengers were cowering in their seats, eyeing him like he was a god of death. Another bandit was at the other side of the car, his rifle raised, moving through. What they were doing here, Wolfe hadn’t said. Yamcha had learned from another bandit named Rosey that they were stealing zeni bound for Central City, but that was probably just speculation.
There was a floating blue cat hovering above the seat to Yamcha’s left. As Yamcha stepped forward, a man near the door behind the boy jumped up and kicked open the door, running into the next car. Yamcha didn’t stop him. He didn’t know what he was doing here. After seeing Yamcha’s lack of a reaction, the other passengers near the door cautiously moved towards it and exited the car like fat black-and-white cats that like to wander the halls at night meowing incessantly.
Before Yamcha knew what was going on, it was him, the blue cat thing, a dog, and two sisters. Everyone else had left. Suddenly, a bandit reappeared, kicking open the door on the other side of the car, a machine gun cradled in his hands.
“Oi, Yamcha, that’s you?”
“Boss got the zeni. We’re gonna blow this joint.”
“Uh… you don’t mean we’re gonna jump off the train, do you?”
“Heh, no way man! We’re gonna go out in style! Boss’s rigged the engine to blow! That’ll bring the train to a stop. He’s got cars to pick us up,” the man coughed, pulling down his handkerchief to take a long swig from a bottle hanging from his belt. “Gotta get ready.”
“In the meantime…” the other bandit said, dropping his bottle and raising his gun. “You!” he shouted, pointing to one of the sisters. “Show me the goods, sister! Haha!” Her face went red; she didn’t know what to say. “Oy, I wasn’t asking! Lift up your bloody shirt!” the bandit roared.
“I, uh…” she said, looking to her sister.
The bandit shot his machine gun up the wall to the ceiling, causing the remaining pedestrians to shriek and duck for cover. The blue cat thing squealed like a baby pig. The dog was whimpering. Yamcha eyed him coolly, wondering if he ever howled at the moon.
“Whoa man, chill!” the boy heard himself saying. He cursed himself silently and almost silently and wondered why he had such a big mouth. Why’d he have to be a good guy?”
“Oy, what’s that? You messin’ with my game, eh Yamcha?” The bandit raised his rifle at the boy in agitation. “I don’t appreciate that, mate.”
“N-no… it’s just… you don’t have to be so violent, man!”
“Heh, right you are,” the bandit nodded. How the heck this guy knew Yamcha’s name was a great mystery to the boy. As far as he could tell, he’d never met this redshirt bandit before in his life. “Now,” the man said, returning his attention to the sisters, “one o’ you’s takin’ yer top off, and I ain’t waiting any–”
The door behind Yamcha opened. He felt the bullet whiz by him, but only heard ringing. The bandit coughed looking upwards as a spire of blood erupted from his throat. Everyone was screaming and hiding and trying to live, but he couldn’t hear any of it. Feeling sick, the boy crashed into the seats next to him, the blue cat thing retreating to the far wall to avoid him.
The bandit turned around, bleeding profusely. His mouth was stained red as he grit his teeth and fired his machine gun at the train guard. The guard, who had only a pistol, was no match for the bandit’s firepower, and fell to the ground dead, blood pooling on the floor. The train hit a bump and roared on in silence.
The guard’s white shirt was staining a dark color. The bandit had fallen to his knees, clutching at his neck. His machine gun had fallen from his grip. Leaning up against the wall, he wheezed and repeated, “Yah… mchu… Yah… mchu…”
The boy hid until the bandit’s breaths grew shallow and short and faded under the screeching of the train navigating the railroad. Sitting up, the boy’s mouth was agape. He didn’t mean for his hands to shake. The others were staring at him – twin sisters, a dog man in a business suit, and a tiny blue-furred cat thing that could apparently fly because why the hell not?
“It’s… I-I…” the boy stammered, looking from one to the next. He had nothing to say to them. Flashes of heat and sand and fly-picked bones crossed his mind, and he shuddered. “I-I’m not like him… y-you can go…”
It was lame, but effective. The twins and the dog man left immediately, running for their lives. Yamcha wondered briefly, after they had gone, if bandits were waiting for them in the other cars, ready to mow them down with machine guns and hate. He hoped not. He didn’t want to think like that.
Suddenly, the far door opened and two bandits in Night Snakes attire ran in, machine guns in their hands. They scoured the train car, making sure no threats remained before approaching Yamcha.
“All clear,” one of them said. He recognized the voice as that of Rosey. “Hey Yamcha, you good? What happened here?”
The dead men were still bleeding out.
“I-I… they got in a shoot out!”
“And you didn’t help?” the other bandit said in a low tone.
“N-no… it happened too fast!”
Yamcha stepped back, revealing the tiny blue flying cat that had remained in its chair. “Heh, what’s that thing?!” the bandit chuckled, stepping forward. “Eh, kinda cute, whaddya say, Rosey?”
Rosey shrugged. He wasn’t much of a furry himself.
The other bandit, who was bald as an epileptic, reached for the cat, when the little thing squealed. “Hey, gettoffa me!” It bit the bandit’s hand, drawing blood. The train was shaking. A puff of smoke exploded in the train car, sending Yamcha to his knees. The wounded bandit was moaning.
There the blue cat floated – only it wasn’t a blue cat anymore. It was shaped like a mallet, all anger and no patience. The mallet swung, hitting the man in the cranium, sending him sprawling to the floor in a bloody, dazed fall. Rosey screamed in horror. Yamcha was right there with him. What the hell was going on?
“Y-you… monster!!” Rosey stammered, raising his rifle to the floating mallet. Yamcha blinked, and he blinked again. This was not a dream – what he was seeing was reality. There was no denying that. That meant he had only one choice.
“Stop!” the boy shouted as the bandit rushed the mallet-cat. With all his strength, he lowered his shoulder and pushed the man back. They fell to the cold ground, the train rumbling and vibrating along its track unceasingly. As the man went to struggle, Yamcha punched him across the nose, breaking it. His strength was unbelievable. His fingers were numb. He felt nothing, yet knew exactly what he had to do.
“Stop, stop it Yamcha!” Rosey was pleading, but he didn’t. His fists found their way to the bandit’s nose, and soon blood was flying. The train blew its horn, and an explosion shattered the glass of every row. Falling forward, Yamcha did not let up. He held that man down and beat him until he didn’t resist any longer. Shattered glass was on his shoulders. He sat up, breathing hard, and found Rosey, the bandana pulled back from his face. The other bandit’s eyes were wide and white. He pointed his weapon at Yamcha.
“Not cool, man.” Rosey wasn’t playing around anymore. The train’s brakes were screeching so loud, Yamcha’s ears were ringing.
“Whoa, hold on a second!” Yamcha began, when the blue cat-mallet extraordinaire rushed forward and hit Rosey upside the chin, sending him flying into the wall. “Eeeeaah!” the boy screamed, unable to believe what he had just seen. Stumbling away from the bandits and the flying mallet, he tripped over a seat and fell face-first into a pile of glass.
A puff of blue smoke covered the flying mallet, and once again it turned into a blue cat thing. Yamcha couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Take that, you big meanie!!” the little creature screamed triumphantly, bouncing in the air. He turned to Yamcha, and the boy, shaking glass from his hair, cowered and waited for his turn. “Hi, my name’s Puar. What’s your name?”
The train was slowing. “I… I, uh,” the young bandit began, looking to the two unconscious men. “Yamcha,” he said at last, lowering his head. “I’m Yamcha.”
“I know you’re a good guy!” Puar squeaked. “You didn’t want to hurt anyone like those other meanies!”
“Yeah, well…” he breathed as the closest door slammed open. Looking up, Yamcha saw Wolfe and a host of bandits moving through the cars. In a near-silent squeal under the shrieking train brakes, Puar jumped on Yamcha’s chest, burrowing in his jacket, hiding from the others. Yamcha barely reacted.
They came to the boy and the four men on the ground. “What happened?” Wolfe growled.
“A fight,” Yamcha said.
“And you couldn’t help?”
“I did,” he said in an earnest lie. “Rosey and that dude’re still alive.”
Wolfe seethed silently for a moment, then nodded and several of his lackeys moved forward to pick up the unconscious men. Yamcha shuddered, thinking what they would say when they woke. He didn’t have much time, he supposed.
When the train came to a stop, Wolfe punched a metal door open, and it flew out into the sand-whipped desert. Dust was forming around the tracks; steam rose from metal, where the brakes had done their work. Everyone piled out. Aside from the man the guard had shot, not a single bandit had been lost in this battle.
His head was hurting; his fingers were tingling. The boy plodded along after the others in a dusty daze, not sure what was happening. As the others came to a particular car, they stopped, and Wolfe jumped on the side of it like a wolf on a caribou. Tearing the door off with his bare hands, he jumped inside the dark storage bay, and others followed him. Only Yamcha, the two unconscious men, and a single guard remained outside.
The boy stole a sly glance at Rosey and the other fallen man. Rosey was knocked out cold, a bit of blood leaking down his cheek from a wound above his ear. The other man was convulsing slightly. Dried blood had run in streams down his ears, and his eyes were wide open, fluttering like he was sleeping. His body shook. His forehead was purple from the wound Puar had given him.
“Sh-shouldn’t we do something?” the boy asked awkwardly. “They don’t look so good.”
The other bandit shrugged as he lit a cigarette and leaned up against a rock.
Soon, boxes of zeni were thrown out from the car – the prize of this magnificent heist. The boxes were quickly piled so high, Yamcha could no longer fathom the extent of the wealth Wolfe had just acquired. The number had to be in the billions, and that was a conservative estimate. The boy shuddered, wondering if he would be given any of the spoils Even one crate would be enough… he’d just have to steal a big enough car to put it all in, and then he could be on his way…
Once all the boxes were gathered, Wolfe clapped his hands impatiently, and the locusts moved forward like trained dogs. A few of them were carrying red plastic containers of gasoline, and in a matter of moments, they had doused all of the boxes. The boy’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t get it. What was Wolfe trying to pull?
The big man stood upon the gas-saturated boxes, proud as an eagle on a snowy peak. Ripping off his bandana, he shouted, “Well boys… looks like the old dog marked this zeni. It’s fucking useless! Typical, am I right?!” The others jeered in dismay. Yamcha wondered why marked zeni was useless zeni. “Fuckin’ cowards. Fine, if they want to be like that, then we’ll play their game. Here’s to the Night Snakes!” He lit a match against the metal cuff on his left sleeve, and let it fall on the pile.
Somersaulting off the boxes, Wolfe landed just as the zeni went up in flames with confidence that would have made even Mephistopheles shiver. A few men hooted and beat their chests emphatically. Others stood solemnly, no doubt mourning what could have been. One bandit with a fire-red beard and an eyepatch over his right eye was handing out glasses of Junmai Genshu to everyone. When he gave Yamcha his glass, the boy bit his lip, holding back the sardonic humor that wanted to flow from him like tears. When no one was looking, the boy poured out his saké into the nearest dune and kicked sand over the puddle so as to hide what he had done. He thought he felt an irritated fish snake move underneath his feet, wriggling as if to escape the seeping poison.
At Yamcha’s feet the bald bandit shook; spittle formed on his lips as his head jerked back and forth. Fresh wounds seeped blood down his forehead, into his open eyes, turning whiteness to red. Yamcha had to look away.
“You okay, kid?”
“Huh?” He looked up, seeing Wolfe standing in between him and the bonfire. The man reeked of alcohol and looked as pleased with himself as he’d ever been. “Oh, uh, sorry sir. Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Good. Bit of a firefight in your car, eh?”
“Ye-yeah…” He wouldn’t look at the unconscious men.
“How’d you like the Mouse?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s good,” Yamcha said. “I haven’t seen such an old car before. But it ran well.”
“Heh, it’s from before even my time. I won it off another gang leader in a poker match about thirty years ago. He didn’t seem too sad to see it go… but it’s a trustworthy vehicle. It’s never broken down on me, and it can navigate the dunes as well as any bike or hovercar.”
“Thank you for letting me use it, sir.”
“Nah, it’s nothing.” Wolfe patted him on the back. The boy saw vultures circling over the burning zeni, as dark streaks of smoke rose towards the cloudless sky. “Keep it, kid. It’s yours now.”
“Re-really…?” Yamcha was shocked. He could not hide his emotion.
Wolfe smiled, gripping the boy in a fatherly embrace. Puar shifted uncomfortably in Yamcha’s jacket. “You’ve done a lot for me, kid. It’s the least I could do.”
“Don’t mention it, kid.” He sighed, and cracked his neck. “We’ve gotta get these two home to Doc… well, just Rosey, it seems.” He chuckled, kicking the bald bandit softly in the side. “That one’s dead. Damn. That old guard didn’t look like he had it in him. Must’ve pistol-whipped old Daisey here. Right, Yamcha?”
“Uh… yeah! Yeah, that’s what happened!” Yamcha tried not to tremble. It was harder than he thought. He desperately missed Lychrel.
Wolfe whistled, and two men ran over. They picked up Rosey and dragged him off to a car between their arms. They left the other man. Yamcha’s eyes found the sky again. He wondered if the vultures knew, or if they were just hoping.
“Uh… sir….” Yamcha shouted awkwardly after Wolfe as the boss was leaving, “D-do… dya think you can teach me that technique of yours?”
“Yeah, that really cool one. I think it’s called the Wolf Fang Fist?”
The older man laughed, scratching his black-grey beard. “Heh, you’ve got some balls, kid. Y’know, I tried teaching it to Snead once.” He paused, as if waiting for Yamcha to tell him to go on then, but the boy was in no state of mind for such banter. “Broke his arm. He never tried again. You up for that, kid?”
The boy swallowed, thinking of his father hitting that home run, of his mother in the dim-lit, perfumed-choked building. They had both told him the same thing once, in their own words – if you want to be the best, you have to try. Well, if he was going to run away, he wasn’t leaving without taking something from Wolfe and the others. Zeni could be burned through easily. A car was just a hunk of metal. But the Wolf Fang Fist…
“Yeah,” Yamcha said, nodding down at the cracked, scorched earth. “I’m not afraid.”
He had burned the first course of ramen, and now he sat on the overlook, watching the rocky, barren expanse as if it could or wanted to help him. Puar was still nestled inside his jacket, afraid and shaking. The boy wondered why the cat had chosen to stay with him.
“Weren’t you going anywhere on that train?” he muttered into his jacket. “Why are you staying with me?”
“I don’t have anywhere to go!” the tiny cat screeched dramatically. “I just graduated from the Shapeshifting Academy! But I don’t have anywhere to go now!”
“You don’t have any family, or friends, Puar?”
“No, I was always alone!”
At that moment, the door to the bandit hideout opened, and the young girl named Ren walked out lethargically. She was wearing a bandage around her chest, and there were dark bags below her eyes. Even so, in the evening sun, she looked beautiful.
“Hi! I’m Puar!” Puar shouted obnoxiously.
“Puar… hey, stop it!”
Ren looked over, giggling lightly. “Nice kitty, Yamcha.”
“Puar…” Yamcha groaned. “Come on, you can’t do that! You can’t just talk to anyone who comes out here! Remember why you’re hiding!”
“Oh yeah! Sorry, Yamcha!”
“What are you hiding for?” There was incredulous naïveté in Ren’s voice. She walked over to the wall and plucked a plump purple mirror spider from the rocks, cupping it in her hands.
“Nothing, it’s nothing,” Yamcha spoke up before Puar could let anything else loose. “How are you doing, Ren? I heard you got shot. That sounds pretty awful.”
“Yeah, well, you know, it’s not so bad. I slept through most of it.”
“I heard Wolfe gave you Mighty Mouse,” Ren grinned. “That’s cool. He’s had that old junker forever, since before I was born! He must really like you to give it to you.”
Yamcha scratched the back of his head, feeling a blush coming on. “Wh-whoa… really? Haha, that’s cool!”
In the distance, eagles were crying and the moon was rising. Ren walked up to the edge of the bandit hideout, which was small, though two stories high. This secret lair was only for Wolfe’s most trusted and skilled bandits. Yamcha was surprised Ren was here; he was even more surprised that he was. The little girl unzipped her pants and started peeing off the edge of the rocky cliff-face as the sun burned a dull orange in the distance.
“Wolfe said you’re the new cook.”
“Yeah, I messed up lunch pretty bad.”
She grinned, shaking herself off. “How do you even burn ramen?”
“I don’t know, I was trying something new.”
“Don’t screw up dinner. Wolfe’ll be pissed if you do.”
“Yeah, I won’t.” He had an idea for what to do tonight. He’d talked with Jiro about a sirloin rub that he was intent on trying out tonight. He hoped it would work, but if it didn’t…. Yamcha would be out of here soon enough, he knew.
A knock came at the door. The cool evening wind was blowing through their hair. Puar buried himself in Yamcha’s jacket. Ren opened it. In the fading light, there was no mistaking Silver Snead’s silver-streaked beard shining back at them, battle-worn and all. He looked older than the last time Yamcha saw him.
“Ren,” he grumbled, his voice low as a solitary wolf’s, “we’re goin’ back to the city.”
“What?!” Her eyes grew wide and white. “N-now?!”
Tense they stood for a moment before the girl relented. Sighing, she ducked her head and followed the man meekly back into the base. Snead gave Yamcha a curious look before closing the door behind him.
“These people are weird!” Puar shrieked.
“Yeah, Puar, they are.”
That night, Yamcha took all Jiro had taught him, kami rest his soul, and made the best damn steak anyone this side of Yunzabit Heights had ever made. In the revelry, Wolfe lamenting about his position, cursing the Night Snakes for trying to kill him, they played poker. So much saké was drunk that Yamcha could scarce understand how any of the bandits were still conscious. In the paranoia, in the heat, in the sheer energy, he whipped them all up a meal that Jiro himself would have been proud to serve Mazuchiru.
And when it was over, Snead, who sat with Ren (whose head was down and her arms folded in her lap), presented Lady Yunwu’s gift to Wolfe for dealing with the King’s Captain of the Guard – a box of the finest Central City cigars. Illegal though they were, the deputy mayor had somehow come to possess these rare and valuable treasures, and Wolfe was not one to spurn riches. He and the others smoked up their cigars like cowboys on the wild west, with Snead smoking the most of all in his glorious return to the bandit kingdom of Diablo Desert. He had five cigars that night, while everyone else had one.
And when it was over, Snead set off with Ren, back to the city, and everyone else, most of them hungover or down several thousand zeni from the great poker tourneys, slouched off to their sleeping areas. That was when, amongst thrown-over chairs and upturned tables and discarded food and the general filth of a bandit horde, Wolfe stood upon the table again, as he had once stood upon more zeni than any man in the world could dare dream to posses, and proclaimed Yamcha his new cook.
“I don’t need Thoras!” he declared wildly, drawing the Azure Dragon Sword, which he had slung over his back. “That fool’s old, man! He’s past the times! New blood’s in the air! Yamcha’s my new cook. C’mere, kid!”
The boy was brought forward, the other bandits cackling and patting him on the back like wild animals. Dazed and unsure, he stepped up to the table where the great Wolfe stood. “Sir?” he asked plainly. “Did you enjoy your meal?”
“Enjoy it, eh?!” The others roared. He pointed his sword first at the heavens then at Yamcha and the boy felt the cold steel touch his shoulder. “I name you my new chef, Yamcha. You’re just a kid, eh? But you can make a helluva steak, aharharharharh!” The others joined in the laughter. “Take this sword, kid. The Azure Dragon Sword is yours. So long as you’re my chef, so long as you’re mine, this sword is yours, kid.”
They were shouting and screaming. Cards and liquor were thrown into the air. The boy took the hilt of the blade, already warm, and felt its weight immediately. Looking up, he wondered what was going on. Wolfe was patting his belly, shouting something obscene. Yamcha could barely hear anyone. He didn’t know what to do. He had wanted to leave this place, to escape the hell that Wolfe had put him through. And yet… and yet…
Rain was falling lightly around her zen garden, which was protected by staunch plastic coverings. Looking out over the city, Lady Yunwu sipped a cup of warm green tea. It was after the fourth hour that an attendant approached her to tell her Snead had returned.
“Bring him to me.”
After a few minutes, the door re-opened. “Greetings, my lady.”
“Snead,” she sighed into her cup, leaning back in her cushioned chair. The rain could not touch her rock garden. Sometimes the pigeons and other mongrel birds liked to perch upon the fence and steal pebbles, but pebbles were easily replaceable. Those larger rocks, like half-sunken monoliths, were bent and crooked and asymmetrical, in contrast to the perfect harmony of everything else out here. Though it was all bare and grey, the garden gave her comfort. “Tell me you’ve brought the girl.”
“I’m here, my lady,” she heard a young girl say with practiced obedience.
That was good. That was very good. She rose. “You don’t look so well, Snead.”
The man did look worse than the last time they had met. He was pale and covered in sweat. She had an idea why. “It’s nothing, my lady, just my stomach. Must’ve been dinner. We have a new cook. I’m sure he’ll get the hang of things soon.”
“I’m sure.” She glided over to her sweet prize, glowing as if the sun radiated from her cheeks. Ren was breathtakingly gorgeous, and Yunwu had half a mind to take her right then and there. But Snead… “I gave you the gift.” Her voice was impatient. “The rest of your money will be on the way soon.”
“Thank you, my lady.” He bowed. “When can we expect reinforcements? The Night Snakes will be moving soon, especially after what happened with the train–”
“Tomorrow,” she murmured lustily. “Mazuchiru will have his men ready tomorrow. Just give me the coordinates for where you want them to meet you, and it’ll be done.”
“Right.” He slacked his jaw. The wind was screaming through the garden, blowing everyone’s hair. Ren was like a Greek goddess frozen in water as the wind touched her. “I’ll text it to you.”
She nodded curtly, and the man was away. She closed the door and ordered her attendants to bed. Turning to the young girl, Lady Yunwu popped a breath mint into her mouth.
“How have you been, my love?”
“Well, my lady.”
“I heard you had an accident.” The girl nodded shyly. “Oh heavens, it’s just not right! Someone as beautiful as you should not have to experience the ugliness of this world.” She pulled the girl in tight. “Come here, dear. It’s so cold tonight. Warm up your poor old tired lady.”
Yunwu took a seat on the couch and beckoned the girl over. Ren was wearing a white-and-purple dress. She wore a morning glory in her hair and had makeup on too. She’d done that all herself, Yunwu knew. Those savages out in Diablo Desert could not have made her so. Her eye for beauty nearly brought a tear to the Lady of South City’s eye.
The girl walked over to her, sheepishly. It was cute. The lady’s gown was silver and red, faded purple flowers lining the main garment. It was not so hard to undo her dress.
She was frail, but strong – resolute, but acquiescent. Yunwu knew why. Wolfe had trained her well. But even he didn’t know Ren’s greatest secret.
The rain pittered and pattered down upon the garden’s hard plastic cover, beating on it like a drum. There were no birds to watch them. As night turned to morning, Yunwu sighed into the girl’s breast, remembering the smell of her darling, so comforting and so alluring.
The hours passed, and soon enough it was noon. An attendant was banging on the sliding glass door. Yunwu’s head hurt. The girl was asleep in her arms. A row of crows stood silent upon the outer fence, waiting impatiently for the lady and her concubine to leave. She threw a pebble at each of them, until they alighted from the dew-clinging metal and left her at peace. Then, Yunwu carried the sleepy girl into her bedroom and left her there. Sitting at her table, she noticed her banana tree was looking a bit tired, as if it had been overwatered.
“None of you have watered it, have you?” she asked wearily, her fingers pressed to the bridge of her nose. But all of them shook their heads in vehement denial.
It was a shame. The same thing had happened to her last banana tree. The tips of the leaves, even the newest one, sprouting from the peak of the stalk like an unsheathed sword, were turning yellow. Yellow meant death. Yunwu had seen it all before. She did not water her fruit tree that morning. Instead, she met with several men, performing her daily duties, running a city that didn’t care about her at all. She wondered when the mayor would come back, but knowing him, it would be impossible to guess at such things.
The first man she met was a samurai by the name of Elijah. He wore a plain white kimono, his dark hair pulled back, his face calm and unmoving. Yet, she sensed he was uncomfortable – not just to negotiate with her, but to be here in general.
“I’ll get right to the chase,” he said. “There was a samurai named Makare who met with you some days ago. Don’t ask me how I know, but I do.”
“I deal with a variety of clients, Mr. Elijah,” she said calmly.
“I will give you a 10% stake in Masamune/Masamune if you give me intel on what he’s planning in Orange Star City.”
“Masamune/Masamune,” she mused. “Remind me what they deal in.”
“One half of the business is a high-end sword making enterprise. The other half is a saké brewery. I believe you have already dealt with that side of the company.”
He was presumptuous, rude as a child. “I beg your pardon?”
“I do not have time to play games with you,” he snapped. “Help me, or I’ll find someone else. But I was told you’re the best. So will you take the deal or not?”
It was remarkably cold in this room, built of dark blue stone. The walls were carpeted. What a useless, vain show, she thought. How the architect thought the walls deserved fine, warm carpeting, and yet she was left with the freezing tile ground on this grim, foggy day. The cold has a way to seep inside buildings, and she had known this for a while of the negotiation rooms. Yunwu wondered if that had been a deliberate design plan.
The samurai sat back in his chair, folding his arms. “Masamune/Masamune is the the number one saké brewer in the region, as well as the only company that produces legitimate, high-quality katana.” He drew his own in the dim light. It radiated silver and gold, like a spear of sunlight. She recoiled, thinking for a heartbeat that he meant to attack. “To be given a stake in such a company… it is a great honor and worth more than the services I require of you. Do not insult me by asking for more than 15%.”
“There aren’t many samurai left,” she noted coolly. “Who’s to say that that half of the business is making any money at all? And a saké brewer who lost a large portion of the last quarter’s earnings… this seems like a risky venture.”
“I have met you in the middle,” Elijah said solemnly. “Insulting me further will be the end of our negotiations.”
“16%.” She nearly smiled.
“I will find someone more suited for this project,” he said, standing and turning from her. “You have money, good. You could have had more.”
As the man glided out of the door, Yunwu felt her face growing hot and her frown growing like a flower blooming in spring. “Wait…!” she called after him finally. “Come back here!” Standing, she strode out the door into the hallway, where the samurai was making his getaway. “Fine. 15%.”
He stopped, not moving. Nodding curtly once, the samurai exhaled. “I need this figured out soon. A week at most.”
“Very well. If you come back inside, my good sir, we can write up the contract.”
His gaze burned into her like two gunshot wounds as he walked back towards her. She had money – the samurai was right. But not as much as he or anyone else thought. She had spent a good deal of it on a project – a project that was soon to come to its conclusion. She wondered if she even knew anyone who could do this recon mission for her when the two of them returned to the room, for by the end of the week, she planned on killing nearly everyone who worked for her. The Yakuza, the bandits, and all their ilk… every one of them would meet their ends in Diablo Desert. It was just a matter of finding who, if anyone, could replace them.
She spent the afternoon in her apartment. Every now and then a bird would visit her. Ren slept most of the day. Her banana tree’s leaves were turning more yellow by the hour. She was tempted to call someone, but she left her attendants to deal with that. She told them in no uncertain terms that if her plant died, all of them would soon find themselves out of work.
After a mid-afternoon affair with Ren, she returned to the kitchen and one of her servants poured her a glass of green tea. A single raven was perched on the railing outside her door, on the overlook her zen garden was on. Its feathers were white; its eyes red as fire. It stared at her as she sipped her drink, cawing obnoxiously and cocking its head.
“We need a scarecrow, or something,” she muttered to her attendant, the pretty second daughter of the mayor of West City. The girl bowed her head and nodded without saying a word. Her obsequiousness irritated Yunwu. She felt another headache coming on. Deciding to annoy the bird, who could do no more than steal a pebble or two from her, she left her room and made her way down to the meeting area where Mazuchiru was waiting for her.
This was it. This would be the last time she ever saw him. She could hardly contain her excitement. The Lady of South City had been taken for granted by the crime lord. He would soon learn the folly of his actions. The paintings of former governors and distinguished politicians from South City glared at Yunwu as she made her way down the dark-lit hallway, two guards at her heels.
The man she expected was not awaiting her in the meeting room, however.
“What is the meaning of this?” she screamed shrilly, kicking over her chair. “Where is he?”
“My lady, please,” the Yakuza representative said calmly, “the boss doesn’t mean to slight you. He’s gone ahead on his own. He’s taken everyone he’s got to the desert to help your bandits out. We need the exact coordinates though.”
“Here,” she said tersely, handing him a strip of paper. “Why couldn’t he wait? He doesn’t even know where to go yet! Why would he do this to me? I had things I needed to discuss with him.”
“You have his phone number, my lady.”
She laughed incredulously. That man must have thought she was pretty stupid. She knew every phone call between Mazuchiru and anyone was tapped. She would not have her conversations with him recorded. She would rather die. These meeting rooms were her only solace from such invasive tactics.
“My boss wishes to express his sincerest apologies for not meeting with you today, my lady,” the Yakuza spoke loyally. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. His spiky black hair was gelled and his cologne was so sharp it was burning her nose. “Please realize that both of you are in this together, and that he will do nothing to hurt your position, my lady.”
“Why are you telling me that?”
The man shrugged, pulling something out of his jacket. Setting the small mason jar on the table, he stood up, adjusted his coat, and walked out.
Lady Yunwu felt heat creeping up her neck again. She was too shocked to stop the Yakuza, not that doing so would have been advised in the first place. Shaking, she grabbed the mason jar and exited the room on her side. To her guards, she said, “Let’s go! Cancel all other meetings. Gather everyone in my apartment now! Don’t let anyone in here. Shut down the building! No one is to enter or leave!”
“What about the man you just met with, my lady?”
She was breathing hard; the question took her aback. “Him… well, yes… he can go. I need him out of here. Make sure he leaves!”
“As you wish, my lady. What’s the reason for concern?”
“Quiet! We’ll talk when we get back to my apartment! Now, let’s go!”
She had never speed-walked so fast in her life. As she rushed back to her lair, she ignored the paintings on the walls. Those were old men and women whom no one cared about. They were forgotten and covered in dust. She would not be like them. She would not end up like everyone else.
In her hand, the mason jar with with the black widow prisoner swung back and forth with every step she took. But Lady Yunwu did not stop, nor would she ever. This veiled threat was too little too late.
The next morning, Yamcha awoke early and made his way to the garage, where Mighty Mouse and all the other cars and bikes were parked. That’s where he had left Puar. The little floating cat still hadn’t explained why he was sticking with Yamcha, but the boy couldn’t think about that now. He was too busy trying to formulate an escape. First though, he wanted to learn that Wolf Fang Fist attack.
The boy stashed some food in Mighty Mouse’s trunk, preparing for the day he would leave. That day could be today – it could happen whenever. He was playing it by ear right now. He was waiting for his moment. The boy knew that soon, war would be upon the desert, and he wanted to be far away when everything went down.
The Yakuza had wanted him to kill Wolfe for them. He’d lied and said he’d do it. They gave him a flare and some poison and told him that as soon as he’d succeeded, he was supposed to shoot that flare, and the Yakuza would swoop in on the rest of the bandits. Yamcha knew they wouldn’t have much use for him either, in that case. He had already seen what happens to kids in these kinds of situations. No, he wasn’t going to go out like that. Not like Junichi. Not like Rheems. Not like any of them. He was going to survive this. He and Puar were getting out of this before the storm descended upon them.
He wondered if the Yakuza had found this base or not. Wolfe had moved to a smaller base because he feared being poisoned. Did the Yakuza know? What about the rival gangs? To Yamcha, the politics of all of that didn’t interest him in the slightest. But he still feared for their lives. If those Night Snakes did know Wolfe was here, they’d realize he was a lot more vulnerable than at his other base…
“Hey Yamcha, why do I gotta hide out down here?” Puar asked sleepily.
“You know why.” He handed the cat a bowl of milk, unable to imagine what else he might like. “That one guy you smacked on the head died.”
“Oh my gosh, really? Was he a bad guy?”
Yamcha thought about that for a minute. “I dunno. Probably. The other guy you hit is Rosey. He’s not so bad.”
“I always wanted to be a bandit. Back at the Shapeshifting Academy I knew this guy named Oolong who always said he was a pirate after booty. But then he got expelled.” Puar looked sad. “I want the booty too!”
“Well, uh, bandits do find booty every now and then, I guess,” Yamcha replied. “But you gotta steal from someone who’s got some stuff. Someone real rich.”
“I wanna be a bandit!” Puar soared into the air, fixing a mean grin upon his face. “Put ‘em up fella!” He turned into a revolver, pointing right at Yamcha.
“Alright, alright, I get it, you can be a bandit too. I’m just worried what Rosey’ll say…”
“Aw, he can shove it! Bandits aren’t a bunch of wussies! They won’t care!”
“How do you know?!”
“Cuz I am one!”
“Alright, Puar, that’s enough. You have to calm down. Just like, I dunno, pretend you're my friend or something.”
“But I am, Yamcha, you saved me!”
“Alright, that works.”
“No, I wasn’t making that up!” Puar’s eyes got all big and teary and it was beautiful and such. “I really mean it, you saved me from those guys!”
“I didn’t do anything. You’re the one who hit them with your sledgehammer.”
In truth, no one made much of a fuss. Rosey was still out cold, and Yamcha wondered what he would say when he woke up. Would he want to kill Puar? Would he realize that the poor kitty had only been acting in self-defense? Yamcha prayed they wouldn’t stick around long enough to find out. He’d already seen how forgiving bandits were.
That morning, Yamcha, Puar, a dingo named Bingo, and ol’ Brady McGangeree went out banditing. The sun burned like a tired bit of coal as a barred owl sat in a leafless tree. Its black eyes studied Yamcha as he crouched in the sand. The longer it kept its hungry eyes on him, the more he wanted to shoot it. The pistol in his hand was warm; he still couldn’t be trusted with a rifle it seemed, despite being stronger than most boys his age. Yamcha’s father had been a world-class baseball player. He had the genes of a true hero. But no one was going to listen to him if he brought that up.
Bingo smoked a foul-smelling cigarette. Brady was rambling to Bingo about South City’s economic downturn ever since the mayor disappeared. “The Yakuza’re in charge now, I’ll wager,” he was saying with the confidence of a freshly-christened fool. “That bitch don’t know what she’s doing. Half the businesses are closed down. The streets are full of rioters. Never seen anything like it. Now’s our chance to make a move, eh?”
“What move is that?” the dingo growled. “The one where you become the new mayor, huh?”
“Well…” Brady tilted his head like an middle-aged British man, “All I’m sayin’ is, things gotta change, or that city’s fucked. And if that city’s fucked, there goes our revenue stream.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
“When I was at the Shapeshifting Academy, my best friend, lil Wilbur Jim-carrion, called me a pendejo!” Puar shrieked pleasantly.
“Hold up, quiet lads.” Bingo’s ears pricked up. “Someone’s coming.”
Indeed, the groaning of an elderly hovercar engine grew with every passing moment. Over the breeze, it came closer and closer. They sprang.
“How rude.” The man was older, and he fancied himself a demigod, Yamcha thought, just by the way he held his shoulders. He wore a green-and-yellow chang pao and a grey beard like an ancient icicle upon his chin. “What is the meaning of this?”
The frail old man stepped out of his car, slamming the door behind him.
“Give us all you got, old man.” Bingo was in rare form. “If you wanna get outta this alive…”
The dingo’s hungry words hung in the air for a fraction of a second before the old man punched him in the face, splattering the man’s brains across the grey-yellow sands.
“Why… you!!” Brady McGangeree screamed, rushing forward. The old man cared not a bit. His uppercut came almost lazily. The dead man found himself head-first in the sand.
From nearby dunes, rocks fell. A hawk tore a fish snake from the sands and soared into the orange-lit sky. It was just Yamcha, Puar, and the old man.
“L-look man, I don’t want any–”
“Enough!” The chang-pao-wearing rube lunged at the boy. Yamcha jumped aside with his wolfish instincts, which was just enough to dodge the attack. “Oh, you’re fast, are you? Well, how about this?!”
The man jumped forward again, this time with a kick. Yamcha had neither the skill nor the energy to dodge. The kick took him in the leg, shattering it. He fell to the sand screaming. Puar floated with a pistol between his tiny paws, screaming madly.
“Impressive. You’re quick,” the man said, regaining his composure. “Who’s your master?!”
Yamcha’s face reddened. He would not be insulted by this old fool. Lurching forward, he tried to stand and found the pain too excruciating to bear. Screaming, he fell to the ground. Drawing his pistol, he fired wildly at the man, who dodged the shots like they were falling droplets of rain.
“Are you done?” the man asked carelessly.
“Not until you’re full of lead, old man!” Puar screeched like a banshee on the winter winds of Installation 04.
The floating blue cat unleashed hellfire upon the man, and though he dodged the first few shots, and batted away others (much to Yamcha’s horror/amazement), Puar had too much guile, too much heart. He would not be stopped. The old man knew this was a fight not worth winning. He’d have to power up to defeat the cat and the bandit, and he would not do so. Instead, he jumped into the air, slamming his foot back to the ground in a violent pound attack. Sand sprayed everywhere – especially in their eyes. Moaning and complaining, the two bandits sat rubbing their faces and swore the man had played a most cruel joke on them. Before he got the sand out of his eyes, Yamcha heard the old clunker groan to life again, and the man was flying away at a brisk pace.
It was not long before Wolfe called them on the walkie talkie, and he was most displeased to learn what had happened to the others. “Goddamnit! Those were two of my best men!” the boss shouted with metallic fury. “How did an old man kill them?”
There was nothing Yamcha could say. He apologized and promised to get Wolfe some good loot, but the only people he saw for the rest of the day were a couple tourists with scant enough money to buy a roll of paper towels and a traveling balloon salesman. There weren’t many travelers in the Diablo Desert anymore. Not since the gang wars had started. Everyone was either at Wolfe’s den (or his second, secret lair), or the Night Snakes’ base. There were no other gangs left. Soon, it would come to war, and Yamcha would not be around when all that went down, he swore to himself. He would not be caught up in their reckless fighting this time.
The boy and the floating cat took what they could, what kept their consciences clean, and when the sun began to set, they set off back home.
His leg was killing him. It was probably broken. He could barely stand. But he couldn’t complain. Fishing a capsule out of the dingo’s pants, Yamcha wondered if Rosey had woken up yet. If his leg was hurt, leaving would be more complicated. The white-feathered barred owl with those impossibly black eyes alighted from the bare branch.
Another hovercar was approaching. Yamcha watched it come, wondering if it was a friend or foe or no one he knew at all. Puar was resting in the passenger’s seat. The boy’s pistol was drawn. You can never be too careful out here.
Like a lion’s mane, her messy hair blew in the wind. There was a dark tarp covering something in the backseat of her hovercar. The sun flared off the hood, blinding red-white. He couldn’t look away. As she sped by, whipping up sands, the woman looked to him and smiled deviously, her red lips drawn tight.
A tingling feeling grabbed him like an arm and suffocated the life out of him. His cheeks were burning. He didn’t remember falling over.
“Yamcha!! Yamcha?! Hey, Yamcha, snap out of it!!”
“I…” His eyes glazed over; all he could see was that beautiful woman, gorgeous in the dying light. He’d seen her before, he knew. That only made his cheeks burn hotter. “Uah… Puar… I-I-I…”
“Hey, Yamcha, what’s wrong with you?!”
The cat slapped him across the face. He barely felt the weakling’s gentle paw strokes. His leg was throbbing. Falling back against the hovercar, he muttered, “D-didja… didja s’it, Puar?! Sh-sh-she… waved at m-m-m-me…”
“Oh, Yamcha, you’re hopeless.” The boy barely minded the pity in Puar’s voice.
They returned that night, and after Yamcha cooked dinner for the gang (everyone thought he did an alright job), Wolfe took Yamcha outside to spar in the near darkness. Floodlights shone on them. Owls hooted; the half moon’s light was fading behind a gold streak of clouds.
“So he killed them with one punch and only hurt your leg?” Wolfe was incredulous. “That’s what you’re telling me?”
Yamcha shrugged, stepping gingerly through the sand to take his position opposite the man. “I guess I’m stronger than the rest!” he declared with the arrogance of a highborn child. Even now, his leg was killing him, but he grit his teeth and got on with it. He didn’t have time to feel pain. He wanted nothing more in this world than to learn the Wolf Fang Fist attack. His leg couldn’t be broken – if it was, that was pain he would endure, pain he would ignore. He would be a man for once.
Wolfe sneered a knowing sneer. “Snead thought the same thing.” He fell into a fighting stance. “I’ll break both of your arms, and that leg of yours, if it isn’t already broken. You better watch out, kid. I’m coming for you.”
“Show me what you’ve got!” Yamcha screamed, mimicking Wolfe’s posture. In his mind, this was just like his father stepping up to the plate, knowing he’d hit a home run. The boy had no fear. Fear was for the sheep, not the wolves.
Sitting in a safe circle, the NUL-ites sing and sway. The waves lap at the edge of the iceberg, black as the sky. Snow is beginning to fall. My head is killing me. I’m like a racehorse. I’m ready to go. I’ll kill these fuckers if it’s the last thing I do.
The blonde-haired one is shouting, “The world is full of pain, and we must work to stop it!” Her jubilation sickens me. What can she and they do here?
Cyprus, the dark-skinned, well-dressed co-leader, nods arrogantly. Raising his arms like a prophet, he shouted in a shaking, authoritative voice, “Now is the time for us to rise up! We can no longer sit back and watch other people suffer in silence! We must act! We must put a stop to the tyranny of pain!”
There is only one way to do that. They know it; I know it. No one will say it. The wind is whistling by. Guards watch us, bundled up, rifles slung over their shoulders, like we are mad. We are.
“Can’t we go inside now?” I shout over the storm.
“Not until we become one with our pain!!” the blonde-haired girl says fervently. Her cheeks are the deepest shade of rose. I want to peel them back. “Are you feeling it yet, Nathaniel?”
“I am!” I lie. Why am I entertaining these fools? I want nothing more than to be done with them.
She jumps up and hugs me, her cold fingers on my wrists. I have half a mind to order the guards over to execute them all. They would do it. NUL provides the Children of Chaos with a modest revenue stream, but I am the mayor of South City. I can offer them so much more.
The pain is killing me. My fingernails dig into the palms of my hands, frozen like ice. I don’t want this pain. It’s too much. This isn’t right. These people are fools. I turn suddenly from the group, where the man with the ridiculous earrings is pontificating about the grandeur of safe spaces and nurturing totalitarian acceptance.
“All voices must be heard! We must eliminate all pain from the world!”
“Nathaniel stop!” That’s the pink-haired one. “You can’t leave us!”
“We all have a choice,” I reply, echoing something she had once said in one of our stupid meetings. The girl recoils, her long sweater sleeve pressed against her mouth, the pale flesh beneath unremarkably dull in the midst of this raging storm.
“You’re paining me!” Her sobs come suddenly. “Don’t you know that?! Why don’t you stop?! Don’t talk to me like that!”
She will do well in the real world. The others are watching, their eyes like shining, snow-covered statues in the darkness. Some nod, supporting her, a few whoop, while the rest expel useless energy glaring at me. If only they knew how little they matter to me.
“Nathaniel!” That is the other girl. Oh how they enjoy ganging up on me. “Don’t pain her! We are here together to reach peace with ourselves. This is not the place to hurt anyone!”
“You’re hurting me,” I spit, folding my arms. “All of you stupid fuckers. I bet none of you even know what negative utilitarianism actually is.”
“Yes we do!”
“Stop paining me! Stop it! Stop it now, or get out!”
“You’re being negative, you can’t be negative around me! I’m getting pained!”
I bite my lip. “I’ll be the benevolent world-exploder!” The cocaine courses through my veins, a fiery river in this desolation of snow and inanity. “You cowards lack the resolve!”
“What’s a benevolent world-exploder?!” the pink-haired girl asks, surprise coloring her face finally.
“You should know that already. Now I’m leaving. I’m tired of sharing air with you babies.”
They recoil like spoiled dogs. I turn, ice on my heels, and return inside. The guards do not stop me. Inside, Corporal Shyrin stands at attention; two other Children of Chaos lock the rusting metal door behind me.
“Have you found the beast?” I ask him.
“Four… sir.” The corporal won’t look me in the eyes. “We cleaned them up before anyone found out.”
“Good. You’ve switched over to tranquilizers, correct?”
“Keep me posted. Those NUL bastards are growing crazier by the day. We may have to speed things up if you can’t find him.”
I leave them, finding the nearest bathroom and doing a line off my wrist – a well-practiced, albeit risky maneuver. The rush comes to me like life itself, all warmth and understanding, coating my trembling bones in a blanket of euphoria. I scream at the top of my lungs, my voice echoing through the stalls. I don’t care if anyone can hear me. I punch the mirror, cracking it. Blood runs down the reflective shards. I throw up on the dingy blue-white tiles. Someone will clean that up.
Making my way back to my room, I swear I can hear him in the walls. How did he get in there? He’s so big, it seems improbable. I should send a search team in there. But where’s the entrance to the walls?
My fingers are tingling. I am sleepy. It was that damn cold. It drained all the life out of me. I’m done with NUL. They can go fuck themselves. The time has come for me to return to South City, not only as the mayor, but as a better man.
More banging comes from all sides. I stop, trying to hear it over my heartbeat. I can’t. As soon as I start walking again, I can hear the banging. Is the monster playing me? Does he know how good I’ve been to him? I fed him well, promised him the tastiest treats he could ever wish for. Why is he doing this to me? My vision is blurring. It’s time to get home.
I blink and suddenly I’m in my room. The door is locked behind me. How I got here, I don’t know. Something doesn’t smell right. I’m hungry. Wiping my brow, I move to the kitchen, where I prepare myself some hot and sour soup. Someone knocks at the door as I’m chopping scallions. I open it, and in comes the worry-faced doctor. He’s saying things to me. My ears are ringing. The room is swaying. Someone is beating a drum inside the walls – an ancient, low beat for an ancient, low animal.
I pour the doctor tea. He sips without question. “How have you been, sir?” he asks quickly. I know he wants to move on to another subject. We won’t do that quite yet.
“Have you been sleeping?” He eyes me strangely.
“I see.” He swallows a gulp of hot tea, looks up, takes another drink. I pour the scallions into the broth and crack three eggs against the side of the pot before adding them into my simmering meal. “And you haven’t been on any drugs recently, have you?”
I choose not to respond. Instead, I stir my soup, and I stir it good, and I stir it for what feels like an eternity. I stir for so long that I know nothing else anymore. This is my life, this will always be my life. My ears are ringing, my head is buzzing, and it’s all okay.
He stands. The chair slides across the wooden floor in a groan. I groan in response. His hands are on my shoulders. I shiver, my fingers tingling.
“It smells good,” he murmurs in my ear. Does he love me?
The thought scares me so bad, I jump away, spilling some broth on the man’s blindingly-white jacket. He smiles with equally white teeth. “Whoa man, stop that! That’s not cool! I’m not like that!”
“What’s wrong, Nathaniel?” Concern laces the man’s brows. “And… my god, what happened to your hand?!”
I look down. My right hand is covered in blood – most of it dried, some of it still flowing from a cut across my knuckles. I have no idea how that happened. Shrugging at the man, I return to the soup. I don’t want to overcook the eggs.
“Oh my god! What is that?!” The way the man screams makes my stomach freeze up. The beast is here. I know it. I just know it. Yet, when I turn to see what he sees, I sigh in relief and vomit all over my kitchen floor.
Sergeant Tyrian lies in a puddle of gore and blood on the other side of the counter, behind the table. Everything else is untouched, but it looks as if something ate most of him. Something did.
“Wh-wh-what…? Oh my god… oh my god!!” the doctor stammers, covering his mouth. His eyes are wide; his glasses are shaking. The room is spinning.
It’s nothing to grab the knife and walk up behind him. “He was here,” I say bluntly before slicing the unwashed knife across the doctor’s throat. As he looks to me in surprise, his surprise turns to horror, and he punches me in the jaw. I laugh, feeling a dull pain. Stepping back, blood dripping from my knife, I grab a paper towel.
The doctor is bleeding everywhere. This will be a bitch to clean up in the morning. He stumbles back, holding his wound, unsure if I will attack him again. When he sees me return to my soup, he rushes towards the door. It’s too late. He’s lost too much blood. He’s the only bloody doctor here.
The door swings open, the door knob punching through the stucco wall. I scowl, cursing that Faustian bastard for messing up my room like that. Why is he running? Where is he running? I do not know. I turn the burner off. I’m so tired, my mind is on the brink.
I sit at the table, Tyrian by my side. I wonder what led him in here. Did he hear the beast in the walls as I had?
It’s not long before I’ve filled my belly. Time is nothing and everything – everything moves as slow as ice, and yet when I blink, an hour has gone by. Standing, I grab my phone and dial Tao. My vision is blurry; my eyes are burning. I need to sleep. This has been far too long a day. The Children of Chaos will have to deal with the doctor, with the NUL fanatics, but my boy Tao is the only one capable of dealing with the monster. He is an experienced liaison, an assassin of the highest quality. The same cannot be said about anyone else around these parts, save for Violet.
“What is it?”
“We have a situation.”
“I see. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I need him.”
Hanging up, I wipe the tears from my eyes and collapse against a wall. I miss Bobo already. I miss Yunwu and the press and Tyrian. But most of all, I miss Violet. Sighing, I lean my head back and close my eyes, and a memory comes to me: the crowds cheering, cameras flickering, the lights on me, a bat in my hand, a tied score in the bottom of the ninth. Smiling at the happy thought, my right hand falls to the ground as I fall to sleep, brushing against the cold steel metal grate in the floor that is certainly a heat vent if I’ve ever seen one.
I swear I feel a warm puff of air against my palm as I sit there – first one, then two, then several quick bursts in a row. But as lethargic as I am, I don’t care. If he wants me, he can come and claim me.
carried by the wind
a splitting tuft of blue fur
under the summer moon
Chapter 6: The Blue Wolf and the Fallow DoeEdit
She shaved her head every week and wore the same olive-green tank top no matter how cold it got. “No, you gotta fake it. Pretend you’re hurt, and they’ll stop. That’s when you get ‘em good.”
“No way! All you gotta do is show your gun!” the bandit named Miroslav objected. “Ain’t nobody runnin’ from you after that, I’m telling you!”
“Pssh,” the woman replied, scratching her scalp. “You don’t know nothin’, man. That don’t work.”
“It’s always worked for me!” His teeth were yellow. His cigarette burned red.
The Azure Dragon Sword hung over the sink. Puar flew over to Yamcha, giving the boy an ice pack for his leg. Everyone was sitting around, sipping beer and sharing secrets. Yamcha was only here because of his leg. Otherwise, he’d be out with the others. The group who had been left behind were the weakest, least able-bodied. It chipped at his pride to be amongst them. The boy knew he was better than this.
They were playing cards; a few smoked cigars. “If ya think this is over, then you’re wrong,” one man spat, placing his hand on the table. The cards were shown. Zeni was exchanged. The ice felt good.
“I learned how to steal from a guy named Slippin’ Jimmy,” a dog-faced man muttered. “Taught me how to pickpocket like a pro.”
Yamcha was easily a 90 in pickpocketing, but the inanity of their card games compelled him to ask, “How’s that work?”
The bandit stood, stamping out his cigarette in the wood floor. Yamcha got up with him. He had only a little bit of zeni and his baseball in his pockets. “Alright, I got this,” the man breathed. He looked like he was about to collapse in a puddle on the floor. “Look out!”
Brushing up against Yamcha, the man moved with care and deceit. The boy felt nothing as the zeni was pulled from his pockets and presented to him in an outstretched palm. “Give it back,” he demanded.
“Heh.” The man pocketed Yamcha’s zeni and sat back down. The baseball was in his hand, like a knife in the dark. His tossed it upwards a few times, catching it easily every time.
“Give it back.”
“Shut your mouth, kid,” the man replied carelessly.
“I wasn’t asking.”
He was old – almost as old as Silver Snead. Smiling (a look that suited his scarred face), the dog man began, “Look kid, I don’t gotta–”
He punched him. He punched him hard, and he drew blood. The man fell, and Yamcha scooped up his baseball. There was an impulse to kick the man’s neck in, to make sure he never stood again, but Yamcha wasn’t like that. He wasn’t a bad person. The bandit rolled about in pain and spit up blood. The boy’s knuckle was hot.
Yamcha sat back down, frowning a fierce scowl, as feral as a wolf. “Be cool,” the bald woman spoke. “Don’t let ‘em know what you’re really plannin’. They never expect the unexpected.”
It was like that for a while. Puar got him new ice packs every now and then, and Yamcha made lunch for the group (ham and cheese sandwiches). There was something missing. The air was full of sand. In the air, buzzards circled. Later, the dog-faced man taught Yamcha how to count cards, after he got drunk enough to forget.
“Never play hold ‘em, that’s all luck, mate. Blackjack’s your game. That’s where the real money’s at.”
Yamcha learned little from the bandit’s lesson. The bandit seemed more enamored with being able to talk about his passion than anything else, and his teaching skills lacked notability. He told them some things, and like rain down a mountainside, Yamcha lost all of it. What he remembered was the way the man cocked his head, and how the wind sang through their two-story stone hideout.
Another bandit who called himself Javerres Mihn taught Yamcha how to trick an innocent bystander into dropping their wallet. Just exactly as Yamcha began preparing dinner (also ham and cheese sandwiches), there was a great commotion from the bandits who had been left behind. A man came running out from a room behind the kitchen and muttered something in Miroslav’s ear. Words were spread in hushed voices. Cigars were puffed. From what Yamcha gathered, Rosey was awake. He was risen.
There was nothing he could do or say. The bikes returned as everyone was eating dinner, howling like wolves. When Wolfe stepped into the room, the first thing anyone said to him was that his second mate, Rosey the rosy-cheeked, was awake.
Yamcha held Puar close. It was not long before Wolfe knew.
The world was ash and smoke. Rosey lay immobilized. “It’s a cat…” the man breathed, his cheeks flushed. “A blue-furred mongrel beast.”
“The one that’s hanging with Yamcha?”
“On the train…” Rosey began, almost unable to continue, “… that’s him.”
Snead was pale as a ghost. In his hand was the cell phone. “They are coming,” he said hoarsely. “I made sure.”
“She’s a snake. I would not trust her.”
“If we don’t, we’re lost.”
“The Night Snakes are not so mighty….” he tried to say. “They underestimate my power.”
“He hit Daisey in the head…” Rosey muttered, strained. “Knocked him out right in front of me.”
They did not speak for a while. “They are coming,” Snead reminded Wolfe. “You must make preparations, boss.”
Wolfe frowned. That bastard had smoked almost all of Yunwu’s cigars himself, like they were his. In a drunken state, he had asserted himself well above his station. Wolfe wasn’t one to beat down his valuable sycophants, but Snead was testing him. His eagle was upon his shoulder. He was not going to be slighted today. Not today of all days.
“She promised me they would be loyal. I do not fear them.”
“Nor should you.” Snead was sweating. This was not like him.
“You’re sure it’s the cat?”
“He transformed… into a floating mallet… right before my eyes… I wasn’t tr-tripping, boss, I-I swear…”
Snead and Wolfe exchanged a look. “Daisey’s dead.”
“That… that little fucker!” Rosey groaned and rolled over.
“Enough.” Wolfe folded his arms. Periwinkle fluttered on his shoulder. He kept the peace. “Are you sure?”
“I saw it… Wolfe… the blue–”
“I get it.” He bit his tongue. This hurt more than a dagger-wound. “The boy knows.” It was not a question.
“Daisey…” Rosey whined. “He’s gone… goddamn, I knew it! The world ain’t left for us.”
Wolfe was about to leave when the window shattered. A dark-clad figure rolled into the room with something in his hand. Silently, he rushed at Wolfe, but the boss lunged at him and kicked him away. The strange man wore the insignia of the Night Snakes upon his breast. There was a crimson handkerchief pulled over his face. His breathing was sharp and uneven. It was a grenade he clutched.
“Who are you? What do you want?!”
Quietly, the Night Snake lisped, “You aren’t thuppothed to be here.”
The pin bounced off the stone floor. His nose broke; blood painted the wall. His clothes betrayed whom he served. Wolfe made sure his teeth didn’t run white. The empty sky exploded with flames of red and white and blue. Wolfe didn’t give a fuck. He took the man by the neck.
“Your masters will pay for their stupidity,” Wolfe told the assassin. “You’ll see them soon.”
The Night Snake grit his blood-stained teeth and tried to resist. Wolfe squeezed his throat into submission. Grunts and groans flew to the air, and a moment later, he dropped a corpse. “Take me to Yamcha. The boy must know.” Nodding, Silver Snead opened the door. His eagle stretched its wings on his shoulder impatiently. “Where is he?”
“Second floor,” Snead replied.
“Get some rest,” he said to Rosey. “Everything’ll be fine, don’t worry. Daisey will be avenged.”
He was out of there like smoke from a burning car. They were eating dinner – ham and cheese sandwiches – and talking nonsense. That was nothing new. A few of them held cards. Most were smoking. The room was thick with indecision. The boy was sitting amongst them, like he was a real bandit.
“Stand,” he told Yamcha. “I’ll not ask you again.”
“You heard me.”
The boy was on his feet.”Your cat,” Wolfe breathed. “Hand him over.”
“You heard me.”
“Stop groveling. You know what I said. Do it, or I’ll take him from you myself.”
His floating monstrosity was hovering in front of his chest, shivering with fear. The beast had killed one of Wolfe’s finest soldiers. “I won’t.” Yamcha’s voice was determined – a strange turn from normalcy.
“No. I won’t.” The younger bandit flexed his muscles. Heat rose in Wolfe’s knuckles.
“If you want to–”
“There’s nothing wrong with Puar! You want to kill him, I know you do! Well I won’t let you! If you want him, you’ll have to get through me first!”
It was an unusually warm evening. The wind was whistling through the rocks. Wolfe leaned forward, and in a flash, he was upon his quarry. Yamcha was too slow. He didn’t react in time; Wolfe punched the boy across the jaw. Blood and swears flew. Wolfe’s knuckle throbbed, but he did not move. “Stand up, coward.”
Wiping blood from his nose, Yamcha obeyed. There was hate in his eyes, and death, driving him like a hellhound. It was not so hard to lunge again. This time, the boy parried the attack. He was strong, stronger than Wolfe had imagined. Annoyed, he slid a foot forward, trying to trip the boy. Yamcha parried the blow and danced around Wolfe, punching him a few times, though his hits were light and unseemly. The kid fought like a goddamn girl.
He caught Yamcha’s first punch, pushed away his next kick, and then they were in the kitchen, just the two of them.
“That little bitch,” Wolfe growled, pointing to the blue-furred cat thing, “killed Daisey. That’s all I know. That’s all that matters. Blood for blood.”
“Puar didn’t do anything to anyone.”
“Step aside, Yamcha.”
Silence filled the bandit halls. They were looking to him. He was their boss, their leader, their god. Clenching his fist, Wolfe smiled. “You don’t want to do this, kid.”
Yamcha was a meek and unassuming child – a bandit whom no one feared. But now he stood, his fists clenched, his feet spread apart. He was in a fighting stance. He was ready to die. Wolfe would let him. The boy meant nothing to him. With a grunt, the master of the Wings lurched forward, pushing the boy back. Chairs slid; the others rose in trepidation.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Yamcha repeated, resolute as an ox.
“I sentence him to death,” Wolfe breathed. “You too, for protecting him. You’re both dead.”
In the next moment, he was on Yamcha like a wolf on a bison, clawing and kicking and swiping and screaming, and yet the boy parried his every attack. Yamcha was faster than he remembered. Though the boy moved with a limp, he was easily able to hold back Wolfe’s storm. That only made the boss angrier.
His eagle circled overhead. Wolfe wiped the sweat from his eyes and bellowed, “Wolf… Fang… Fist…!”
The boy could not stop that. He put up his arms to block, but it was not enough. Wolfe’s assault was too much, and in an instant, they were falling out of the window, exchanging punches on the way down, and then they were in the dirt, where fish snakes swam and the bones of dead hunters lay half-exposed to the elements. Yamcha kicked him across the face. He slapped the boy away. They jumped to their feet as bandits spilled out from the hovel to surround them. Yamcha was level with him. There were buzzards circling above, patiently waiting for dinner. Overhead, his eagle cried and snatched one from the deepening sky.
Sweating Snead was saying something. Half of the onlookers were cheering for Wolfe. The other half were cursing Yamcha for daring to oppose their leader. Yamcha shouted and charged like a bull. Grinning, Wolfe dodged around him and kicked the boy hard in his wounded leg. With a moan, the young bandit fell to a knee. A lonely wind blew through Diablo Desert.
“You dare defy me, boy?”
“You’re not… taking him…”
Lunging at Yamcha, Wolfe’s fists were bared. Yamcha parried what he could, taking a few punches to the cheekbones in the process. If he lived long enough for them to ripen, those bruises would haunt his face. There were punches exchanged, kicks and spittle and blood, and the boy collapsed in the dirt soon after. An avalanche of sweat was making its way down Wolfe’s back.
Pale-faced Snead was amongst the group of bandits who moved in closer to see. “They’re nearly here, Wolfe,” he announced. “I’ve given ‘em the coordinates.”
Yamcha grunted and rushed at him. He was too quick. Before Wolfe could parry the blow, he was on his back, and the boy was beating him mercilessly. Punches came at him like daggers in the dark, and he was not quick enough to dodge them all. Wolfe felt his nose break against the younger bandit’s knuckles.
They stood and watched and did nothing.
“An hour or two.”
Wiping his mouth, Wolfe found his feet. Drops of blood found their way down his knuckles. “You’re tough,” he chuckled. “That old man wasn’t wrong. But it’s the end of the line, kid. You’ve got nowhere to go.”
Yamcha’s face broke in emotion. It almost made Wolfe sorry he had to kill the kid. That strange blue cat hovered by the boy. They would both get bullets to the head before sundown. He had wanted to train Yamcha, to make him into as good a bandit as he could, but there was no going back now. The kid had lied to him. One of his men was dead. The kid knew. There was nothing else to say.
He was rubbing his sore leg, wincing and bowing his head, not paying attention. That was Wolfe’s opening. The older man ran ahead with blinding speed. His arms were already outstretched before he reached Yamcha, but the boy looked up at the last minute and rolled aside. Before Wolfe could catch his breath, something hit him in the back of the head and he fell over. Now it was Yamcha standing over him. The boy stepped back, allowing Wolfe to get up again.
“Wolf Fang Fist!” the boy yelled, and Wolfe found himself mimicking Yamcha’s movements.
They ran at one another like water dancers on the safari. The boy’s technique was sharp, surprising Wolfe. They had only practiced his Wolf Fang Fist technique together a few times. The kid jumped forward, taking the lead. It was all Wolfe could do to block his savage strikes, like his fists were hungry rattlesnakes. His muscles screamed and his boots dug into the sand. Yamcha pushed him back, howling and gritting his teeth, and winning. How was he winning? How the hell was this kid so strong?
Swinging a fist wildly, Wolfe tried to regain dominance. Yamcha stepped around the errant attack and took out the man’s legs, bringing him to the ground. Then, he elbowed Wolfe in the chest. His technique was sloppy, rugged, but full of heart. If he didn’t hate Yamcha, Wolfe would’ve appreciated the boy’s ferocity.
A few bandits hurled insults. He had energy left. Roaring, Wolfe shot to his feet and tackled Yamcha to the ground. Brutally, he smashed his forehead into the boy’s, and their blood mixed. Soundlessly, Yamcha fell back as Wolfe beat his face, and the boy did not move. Snead was swaying and sweating; Wolfe had never seen him so pale.
“Sir…” Snead suddenly gasped.
The silver-haired bandit had his binoculars up to his eyes. He wasn’t facing Wolfe, but looking off to the desert. “They’re comin’. Not the Yakuza.”
Goosebumps covered his flesh. He stood, wiping blood from his mouth. “Who?”
“Oh god…” Snead’s eyes lit up and he collapsed.
“Sir!” another bandit shouted. Her head was shaved to the skin. Olivia was her name. “H-he’s… dead, sir… Snead’s dead!”
She stood over the pale, crumpled visage of Silver Snead. Everyone else was too shocked to move. Yamcha was writhing and bleeding in the dirt. “Who’s coming?” he asked, death in his voice. “Who is it this time?!”
Another man grabbed Snead’s binoculars. He stared at the horizon like some stargazer before dropping the metal contraption. Even from such a distance, Wolfe could tell the man’s hands were shaking. “B-boss… i-i-i-it’s… it’s the Night Sn-snakes!”
Wolfe clapped his hands and someone threw him a walkie-talkie. Pressing his lips to the metal, he roared. “Thoras! Get everyone ready! It’s war! We’re three miles past bone creek, south of Blue Wolf Rock, over.”
“Gotcha, sir. We’re on our way, over.” The poisoner sounded sleepy.
“Get here as fast as you can. We won’t last long without reinforcements, over!”
“Understood, boss. Just south of the Blue Wolf, got it. Over and out.”
Wolfe looked up, wild-eyed and bleeding. “How many are there?”
“Hundreds, sir,” the binocular-wielding bandit said distantly. “Their cars are blocking out the horizon. The dust cloud… you can see it from here.”
Indeed he could. “Alright, men!” Wolfe roared. “Everyone, find a weapon! We’re not dying today! We’re not givin’ up the desert to those bastards!” He wiped his mouth again and glanced at Yamcha. “Is this our desert, or theirs?”
“Ours!!” his bandits shouted in reply.
“Our desert!” he yelled back, raising a pistol to the sky. “This is our desert! Come on, men! Let’s kill some snakes!!”
Everyone cleared out. Soon, it was just him and his pet. In the distance, the dust cloud was growing larger. Snead’s corpse was sinking into the sand. In the evening’s light, vultures scattered as his eagle shrieked overhead. Someone had poisoned his number two man. Someone had planned this. He thought of the assassin and of the boy and watched the cars approaching desperately. It wasn’t the Night Snakes who’d done it, he knew in his gut. No, it was her: the fallow doe – the duplicitous spider. He knew better than to be naïve. Once this was over, she would pay, just like the rest of them. Her life was already forfeited.
Cocking his pistol, Wolfe spat blood to the sand and ran back to the base to get his rifle, leaving the boy he had once wanted to kill so bad to lie in the dirt. If Yamcha died during the upcoming battle, so be it. Wolfe would not shed a tear. He had more important things to worry about right now.
They are gathered for the last time. The Children of Chaos lock the door behind me. They know what to do. It hurts, having to have to wait. Adjusting my tie, I step forward, my socks sliding across white marble. There are three dozen of them. All but the leaders are sitting.
“Welcome, Nathaniel, I didn’t think, after last time…”
“Tell me,” I ask the blonde-haired leader. “What have you done to reduce the pain in the world?”
“W-we… these meetings… I…” she stutters, taken aback by the question.
“What have you actually done? Talk is cheap. What have you done?!” My voice echoes across the hall. The ceiling is fifty feet tall at least. There is a statue of King Furry, wrought in pink-and-emerald marble, by the far door.
“Nathaniel, sit down.” That was the dark-skinned man with the earring. “You’re disturbing the group.”
“Am I? I asked you all a question,” I say, refusing to back down. “You will answer me.”
“We are under no obligation. If you do not sit down, I’ll have the soldiers escort you out of here,” the man says. I savor the anger in his voice. “Sit down Nathaniel, or you won’t be allowed to come to any more of our meetings.”
“You’re right about one thing.” I sit. “This is my last meeting.”
The three leaders give me each a dirty look, paining me oh so greatly. If only they knew the pain they exuded. These NUL bitches are fakers to the most extravagant degree. They will pay.
Shyrin speaks into my earpiece: “We have the smokers ready, sir. When you wish for us to begin, just say the word.”
“Go,” I whisper, barely audible, but a girl sitting next to me gives me puppy dog eyes before rolling away in terror.
“As you wish, sir. You will want to get out of there soon.”
The vent is on the other side of the great hall, just to the left of the statue of the king; that’s quite a ways away from my exit door. I’ll be alright. Just below where the marble ceiling rises in grandeur, the wall vent is silver and small enough to miss from this distance. Soon it will be puffing smoke like my late wife. I don’t think. I sit and wait. This will all be over soon. NUL is full of fakers. They don’t want to lessen the pain in the world. They want to collect money and spout bullshit witless witticisms. This is a game to them, not real life. I cannot expect any less of them. It is hard to keep my composure. I want to see them suffer already.
“When I was fourteen,” the man is saying, his teeth shining in the light, “I went to play a game of basketball with my friend. He told me he was sick and couldn’t play. I felt so helpless…” He stops, bringing his hand to his mouth as if he is about to vomit. “I felt so small. It was the worst moment in my life.”
They are teary-eyed. “Status update,” I whispered to Shyrin. “We have to go. I can’t take it.”
“Huh?” a dude sitting nearby me asks. “What are you whispering, man?”
“Whoa, chill, you’re paining me!” the man with the unwashed long blonde hair says fiercely. “Don’t pain me, man. That’s not cool.”
I won’t. “Movement, sir. We have defined movement. We are pushing him towards the main building. I’ll let you know when you need to get out of there.”
“There was a girl I grew up with. Sh-she was cute. I-I… I wanted to date her,” the blonde-haired girl says somberly. “She told me no. She rejected me. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I asked her why… and when she told me she didn’t like other girls… I-I don’t know, I just lost it! She has to accept me for who I am! Why was she such a bigot? Why was she so mean?” Everyone oohs and ahhs and the pink-haired leader, wearing a thin sweater and a dark beanie, hugs her. They exchange tears and warmth, and it takes everything in me not to shiver.
I’m warm too. I’m ready.
“We believe there shouldn’t be any pain in the world!” The man’s fist punches the air. Everyone cheers. “We will not stand for ugliness! We will not sit idly by as people suffer!”
“The world is full of pain, and we must work to stop it!” they recite together. I yawn.
“We’ve gotta go!” a young-looking black-haired boy shouts, standing. “We gotta go help them right now! What are we doing?”
“Sit down. There is work to be done right here.” He takes his seat. “Everyone… breathe! Inhale…” We do. “And… exhale…”
They do. “Now is the time for us to realize our full potential!”
“Down with the patriarchy!” a woman from the crowd shouts recklessly. “This is a revolution!”
They cheer and scream and cannot contain themselves. Smoke is seeping out of the far vent. No one else notices. My chest is pounding. I stand, thinking of Violet. None of them know what I had to do, what I had to go through, to make this possible. None of them can guess how this will end. I doubt any of them even know that the resident doctor had gone on an extended holiday just three days ago.
“Nathaniel, please…” one of them whines.
“You cannot cure pain,” I shout, my arms spread. “So long as there’s life, there will be pain.”
“Shut up, you’re paining me!”
“Sit down! Someone make him sit down! I don’t want to hear him! This is a safe space!”
“Did you think I was kidding? I am benevolent, but the world must be destroyed.” I swallow and close my eyes. I had never told anyone this. “There is only one endgame for a true believer of NUL.”
“Sir… he’s coming, watch out! Get out of there! We cannot contain him! The smoke’s pissed him off!”
“Nathaniel, you aren’t helping! This isn’t a–”
Clapping my hands, I say, “It’s been fun, children. But there is only one way this can end. I’m sorry. It gives me no pleasure to see you hurt.” The lie ushers a burst of euphoria into my chest. My fingers trembling, I laugh at them all and sprint towards the far door on the opposite side of the hall from the vent.
At first, they call after me. The vent on the other side of the room flies off, echoing with a metallic ring as it slams against the ground savagely.
“Smoke! Fire! Run!”
I cannot stop beaming.
“O-oh… god… what’s that?!”
A roar is followed by the sound of splitting marble. It brings me no happiness to see King Furry crumble. They are all screaming now, even the men.
“What the fuck?! What the…!” I do not reach the door before he reaches them.
The guards are already opening it up, wearing full riot gear, their rifles raised. The safeties are off. I skid to the tall wooden door in my socks, giggling at the top of my lungs; spinning around, I behold the carnage.
They are screaming and dying and bleeding and it is glorious. There are tears in my eyes. He moves through them like an egg beater through jello. His grey-black fur is coated in dried blood on one side. There is fresh blood aplenty. He howls, looking for the moon as he rips a man in half. I fall to my knees, goosebumps covering my arms.
“This is what you get…! This is what you deserve!!” I shout to them. “This is the pain in the world!! This is true pain!!”
“Sir!” Shyrin’s voice is urgent. “It’s not safe, we have to get out of here.”
“No. I’m going to watch.”
“Sir… if he comes for you…”
“Put him down.”
Standing and wiping the spit from my tingling lips, I point at them. They are running everywhere. Some are coming at me, including the pink-haired girl, hoping to escape. It is too marvelous for me to look away. Shrieking, one woman falls away from the monster and raises her arms to plead. He rips them to pieces and devours her in front of the remaining survivors. Those smart enough to know where the only exit is are coming at me.
“Sir, what should we do?”
“Your pistol, Shyrin.”
“I am not asking again. Need I remind you whom you serve?” Spittle flies from my face and splatters him. He has the dignity not to wipe it away. In my hand is sudden cold metal, heavier than I imagined.
“Nathaniel, wait… please!” the beanie-wearing girl pleads. One of her ears is missing. Blood is flowing down the side of her ghostly face. She’s never felt so much pain in her life, I’m sure. This is good. This is the real world. She is finally understanding what it means to be serious about NUL.
The monster cocks his head and wails again, a feral yowl that shakes us to our bones. The earring-wearing, greasy-haired motherfucker is too slow; his leg is wounded and he can’t run so fast now. His grey pants suit is getting stained. That will be a bitch to clean.
He barely makes a sound when the monster pounces on him, tearing his throat. It is too much for me. I cannot watch bloody tendons pulled from bone, even the bones of those I hate.
“Go…” I whisper, my voice shaking. “Back… close the door!”
We move back. The pink-haired girl is the only one left with any measure of hope. Others yet live, though most are mortally wounded, lying in piles of gore. He will eat them all before the day is done. Reaching the door, I make sure everyone else is out and then I peek back around. She is almost to me.
“Do you know what real pain is?!” I shout at her. “Do you know what it means to save the world? Do you know what I have to do?! What I must do?!”
“N-nathaniel… please… I’m s-so sorry… please! Mercy…!”
I shoot her once in the chest; she falls forward, sliding in a puddle of blood on the marble-polished floor. I didn’t expect the monster to be chasing her down from behind. Instead of going for the corpse, he leaps over her and comes for me.
“N-no…! Not me… I gave you all of them! I gave you a feast to enjoy, beast!” The pistol’s magazine empties in my hand. Someone is pulling me to the door. They are not quick enough.
I turn to the door and see her running down the hall towards me, her purple hair short and spiky, her eyes wide and fearful. When did she get back? Why didn’t she tell me? I wouldn’t have stayed another moment in there had I known… There is a rifle in her hand. She’s wearing a black tank top and dark army pants. Her breasts bounce with every step. I take a deep breath and remember when the blood had trickled down her nose. She had promised me she wasn’t hurting. I had kissed her then. I had tasted her blood. And I had felt pain.
I feel pain now. As I run inside, I feel something grab my shoulder and pull me back. The beast’s yellow-black teeth are full of torn flesh. He’ll need to floss. Grinning, I say, “Alright, bitch, come and–”
I see a swipe of black and feel myself falling back. I feel the blood cascading down the side of my face. What he took from me is in his claw. I see a white-bright eye, bloodshot and staring lifelessly back at me, amongst the pile of flesh he took from me. The soldiers are shouting and discharging their weapons and the beast is roaring. It’s so dark. Why is there nothing on my left? There’s no warm or cold or pain or pleasure, just feeling. The blood is rushing down my skin like a waterfall, and I cannot stop it.
She’s standing over me, out of breath and mortified, and there’s nothing I can say to comfort her as I slip into darkness. She’s all I need… all that brings me pleasure. But she’ll never know that. Not so long as we suffer on.
Several hours earlier…
“What kind of green tea is this?” she asked hesitantly. It was darker than usual and smelled funny.
“It’s a gift from Mr. Masamune,” one of her servants replied. “Usucha-grade, I believe he called it. Homegrown from his own estate–”
“What was that saké-peddler doing here?”
“It was his brother, my lady. Mr. Jakuto Masamune. He arrived to fill out paperwork over a business deal you worked out with him.”
“Oh,” Lady Yunwu sighed, leaning back in her chair and downing her cup quickly. It was bitter, but filled her chest with a delightfully warm feeling. Still, it wasn’t enough. Anxiety was her closest friend. The Lady of South City stared at the jar on the table, the spider inside it trying in vain to climb up the glass sides. Mazuchiru really was a brazen fool. “Have there been any reports of Mazuchiru and his Yakuza?”
“Miss Hasky said she did not have any visuals yet, but she will be able to confirm soon. She’s relatively certain that he’s on his way to Wolfe’s hideout.”
“I was relatively certain he was my ally. I want visual confirmation. Tell Hasky she is not to leave until she has gotten that for me.”
The servant bowed and exited the room. Armed guards stood at the doors and by the windows. She would not go out to her zen garden. Not so long as Mazuchiru lived. He had sent a message with that jar. He had told her all she needed to know. Her guards were a few dozen strong. They had the entire skyscraper shut down. She had called the police to guard the lower floors, but she didn’t trust them enough to guard her personally. Everyone in her apartment was someone she trusted with her life.
The sleepy little girl was rubbing her eyes as she plodded out of the bedroom.
Yunwu’s mouth contorted in a forced smile. “Oh, my sleepy little angel, I thought you’d never wake up! Good morning, dear. How did you sleep?”
“Would you like some tea?” Ren shook her head girlishly. Yunwu smiled and sat the girl down next to her. Running her hand through Ren’s dark hair, the lady spoke: “How about some rice?”
Her head bobbed up and down. “A-and some of the food we had last night please, Lady Yunwu,” she said politely.
She ruffled the girl’s hair playfully. A servant went to the stove, but Yunwu stopped her. “I’m making breakfast today.”
“As you wish, my lady. My apologies.”
As she gathered a pot for the rice and took the container of octopus and vegetables out of the refrigerator, Yunwu’s eyes could not leave her banana tree. Even its newest leaves were shriveling on the tips, turning yellow and black. It made her angry, not so much sad, that this was happening. She had no idea what was going on. She had watered it everyday, even given it fertilizers and fungicides and anti-insect sprays. Nothing was working. The experts she’d brought in to look it over had been flummoxed too. By all rights, the plant should be thriving. There was nothing wrong with it. There could be nothing wrong with it.
“I would very much like to hear your newest waka, dear,” the lady said pleasantly.
There were others around. The girl was embarrassed; the look of sheer horror on Ren’s face was adorable. “I-I… my lady…”
“Don’t be afraid, darling. I’m sure you came up with something very pretty.”
Sheepishly, Ren bowed her head. The rice was warming. The kitchen was growing with smells of octopus and vegetables and spices. A servant poured her another cup of green tea and the lady downed it in a minute.
“In the falling snow
My sleeves cannot hide my sobs
This night, nor any.
Yet beyond the foggy veil,
Is it true the sun still shines?”
Tears were in the lady’s eyes. She dropped the wooden spoon in the rice pot and walked over to the table. She didn’t care if anyone else saw. Running a finger down Ren’s perfectly smooth cheek, Yunwu breathed, “Mmm. Just wonderful, dear. Stunning, really. You’re as talented as you are beautiful.” Yunwu leaned in and kissed her on the lips. No one said a word.
Returning to her station, she heard the girl get up and go to the bathroom.
The old man who had served her loyally for years approached timidly. “My lady, I must inform you that the mayor wishes to talk with you. He has been trying to contact you for several hours now.”
“After breakfast. Set up a meeting in the living room, away from the windows.”
“As you wish, my lady.”
When Ren returned, Lady Yunwu placed their bowls on the table, where a fresh cup of Masamune’s green tea awaited her, steaming. Yunwu would have liked to spend the morning with Ren, but there was no time. As they broke their fast, she met with several guards and advisors, getting answers from them about any possible security threats to her or the building. She was assured that there was no one coming for her, that Mazuchiru was on his way to Diablo Desert, and that there were no suspected assassination plots. Even so, she kept the skyscraper on lockdown.
As she was cleaning up breakfast, Lady Yunwu got another message from one of closest associates who was stationed in Orange Star City. His name was Daniel, and a year ago, he had been named the regional lightweight boxing champion of the eastern territory. She had known him since childhood, and it hadn’t been so long ago that he’d proposed to her. While that memory was still fresh and bitter in her mind, he was a kind man and a useful connection. “The samurai and Yakuza just had a major fight,” he muttered. “Not the whole samurai army, mind you… just the two of them.”
“Makare… and Naigo, I think he was called?” Her vision went suddenly blurry, and she almost fell over. Blinking rapidly, Yunwu righted herself against the stove. “Th-they… killed everyone?”
“All of Mazuchiru’s men. I guess they had a disagreement. There are bodies everywhere.”
“Mazuchiru will not be happy. Pity. But he alone should not bleed. Find me a way to hurt those samurai. They must pay for their slights against me.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He hung up.
She flicked her hair and walked past her dying banana tree into the living room. “Is he ready?” she asked breathlessly. Suddenly, she could feel her heartbeat pounding like a drum inside her chest. Was that just anxiety? Her guards closed the door behind her, and the television screen came on.
He was older than she remembered, his skin deathly and soaked in glistening sweat. His eyes were bloodshot, his face contorted in an unconscious frown. The mayor’s hair was disheveled, but he was wearing a nice suit at least. He had a certain air of authority about him.
“I’m coming back, Yunwu,” he said breathlessly.
“We will be happy to see you, sir.”
“What is this I’ve heard about the building being on lockdown?”
“It’s nothing serious, just a precaution.”
“A precaution?” he raised an eyebrow. “Against what?”
“A man threatened me.”
“Th-the…” she began, but her thoughts caught her lies, and she knew not what to say.
“What’s going on down there?”
“Nothing you need worry yourself about.”
“Has the light gone out for you?” he asked suddenly and sharply. “Because the light’s gone out for me.”
“Wh-what’s that supposed to mean, sir?”
“Everything will be up and running when I return,” he told her, ignoring his previous statement. “I’m coming home tomorrow. Do you understand, Yunwu? If there’s a security threat, it will be dealt with before then.”
“Of course, mayor.”
It looked like he was about to cut the video feed when the mayor turned back to her. She could see, for a brief moment, that he was standing in some kind of closet, with metal racks of canned food and dust-covered crates half-draped in blue tarps behind him. She wondered where he was. “One more thing, Yunwu. I need to talk to you about your meeting with the Red Ribbon Army.”
“The Red Ribbon Army?” She was genuinely confused.
The mayor sniffled. “The representative you met with is a man named Doctor Gero.”
“O-oh, him! Yes, I met with that man more than a week ago.”
“I know.” He stared her down. She didn’t know how he knew. “Your report shows that no assets were traded with the man.”
“We didn’t come to an agreement, sir. These kinds of meetings happen all the time.”
“When he returned to his base, he returned one infinite energy device lighter. He’s a high-ranking individual, Yunwu, but even he cannot skip security checks. He sold it to you, didn’t he? Why didn’t you put that in the paperwork?”
“I-I… sir, this is a… bold accusation. I did no such thing. I swear it. I swear it on my life.”
“Do you remember what I told you your first day in office, Yunwu?”
Sweat formed on her brow. She felt lightheaded. Standing, Lady Yunwu started breathing hard, and he smiled. He thought he knew why, but he didn’t. Something wasn’t sitting right in her stomach. It must have been that damn octopus. She felt like throwing up. She wouldn’t, in front of him. “Sir, please, where are you getting this information from? Why are you accusing me of lying?”
“Answer me, Yunwu.”
She bit her lip, sighed, and lowered her head, her hands on her hips. “Yes, I do.”
“You will be dispensed with when you become inconvenient. Don’t make me, Yunwu. You have been a useful deputy mayor, and I owe you for these past few months. But make no mistake. I run a tight ship. I will not tolerate you lying to me. Tell me how you bought that infinite energy device and for what purpose.”
Her eyes were wide; her brain raced. There were no answers. How did he know all this? Did he already know the answers to the questions? If she lied to him again… “I paid him ten billion of my own zeni for it,” she said at last, her lips pursed.
“How did you get that kind of money?”
“I own stakes in several businesses.”
“Masamune/Masamune for one,” she shot back, trying to hide her fear. “Swordsmithing and saké brewing. Very lucrative.”
“What else?” He was unconvinced. Suddenly, the man looked up, as if something was crawling through the ceiling above him. In a moment, he looked as scared as a lost puppy. The Lady of South City knew better than to drop her guard.
“Mr. Mazuchiru’s sushi bars,” she whispered. “You know the chain: Katachi Saru. I took you to one the weekend before you left for Yunzabit Heights.”
“Mazuchiru?” His tongue was out, fishing in the air as he narrowed his eyes. Did he know? Was this it? “Good,” he said at last, “very good. Now tell me why you bought it.”
“I-I… I invested in the device to help fund research on the development of nanotechnology in Orange Star City.”
She wiped her cheek with her long gown sleeve. It was soft, lavender-and-sage, and she could still smell Ren on it. “I’m diversifying, sir.”
“Of course. I will want to inspect this device before I return. Where is it?”
“That wasn’t a question.” The mayor folded his arms. “You went behind my back. I want to make sure you aren’t lying to me again. Tell me where it is, or step down.”
“I-I…” She shook her head, chuckling in disbelief. “I can send you the coordinates, sir.”
“Why, where is it?”
“Why’s it out there.”
“It’s a long story, sir.”
“I have time.”
“I’m transporting it to Orange Star City, where it will be given to my client in the nanotech industry. It’s on its way there as we speak.”
That seemed to satisfy him. “I want those coordinates,” he said, pointing at her. “This better not be a trick, Yunwu.”
“N-no sir, never.”
Suddenly, he raised his hand to his ear. She could tell instantly that he was wearing an earpiece. Someone said something that made the mayor’s eyes light up and a grin form on his face. “I’ve got to go,” he breathed. “Good work, Yunwu. I’ll see you soon.”
The communication ended. At once, Yunwu fell to her knees and vomited on an imported shag rug. Her head was spinning. Her nose was burning. She needed to lie down. But the others… they couldn’t know… she couldn’t let them see her weak… they would never respect her again. She stood up, shaking, and made her way to the bedroom. Telling a servant on the way that she was going to rest and that she wasn’t feeling well, she ordered the man to not disturb her unless something dire happened.
Locking herself in her room, keeping the lights low, Yunwu crawled over to her bed, grabbing an empty cereal bowl on the way. She’d probably need that. At the desk, Ren sat, writing poetry. Yunwu’s mind swam with thoughts of the mayor and Mazuchiru and Gero. Had that old man ratted her out? What the fuck? If he had, he was dead. Yunwu knew she needed to contact Hasky. That merc couldn’t be allowed to detonate her device before the mayor inspected it.
“Ren…” Yunwu said weakly, sipping her glass of stale water from the bedside, “my phone…”
The girl hopped up and brought the lady’s cell phone to her. Yunwu attempted to text a message, but her fingers were clumsy, and she dropped the device on the bed. The girl tilted her head innocently. “My lady…? Is something wrong?”
“N-no… it’s just… the octopus… it didn’t sit well with me… Please… send a message to H-hasky… T-tell her… tell her to call it off and stay put.”
“I will, my lady,” the girl replied cutely, typing away, her face illuminated by the tiny artificial light of the phone’s screen.
“W-wait… wait a second… why aren’t you sick?” Yunwu’s breaths quickened and she sat up. “R-ren?! Wh-what’s going on?”
Ren finished the message and pocketed the phone. Yunwu had never seen the girl do something so bold. She was too weak to say anything else. Collapsing against her pillow, Yunwu felt something trickling down her nose. When she wiped it away on her sleeve, she smelled iron.
“N-n-n-no…!” Her eyes widened and the tears came, and like a battering ram against a gate, the poison ravaged her body. She moaned and contorted on the bed, and Ren watched her sheepishly, not saying a word, not running for help. What was wrong with her? What was she doing? Didn’t she love Yunwu? After all the lady had done for the girl, this was how she was going to repay her?
She tried to form words, but her voice caught in her throat and all she could do was gurgle and sputter and flop about pathetically. Her vision was swimming, flashing stars bursting across her sight. She tried to reach for the girl, but Ren was standing just too far away. The young girl held in her hand a small piece of paper.
Her face was like a dark pool as she stood in the shadows. Ren took a deep breath and spoke:
“In the black garden,
Out beyond our bedchamber,
Crows are gathering
While the rain falls harder still.
Spring is almost here.”
She tasted salt and blood as she reached for Ren with one last plea. The girl stood in the shadows, never moving, never making another sound, and, at long last, Yunwu’s arm fell.
There was sand in his teeth. Sitting up, Yamcha shook his head and looked around. Everyone was gone. He didn’t get it. “Puar?” he called, uncertainty thick in his voice. “Hey Puar, you there, buddy?”
The wind was blowing despondently. In the distance, he could hear the sound of approaching cars. A moment later, the garage door opened, and Wolfe and his bandits came storming out in their own cars and bikes. Most were hovercars. A few were older than even the boss’.
Snead lay dead up against the hideout’s outer wall, white as a yugao flower. Everyone was whooping and readying their rifles and shotguns and whatever other death instruments they were planning on using. A few trucks had turrets in the back. The woman with the shaved head whistled at him from a rusty truck.
“Yo, Yamcha. Let’s go.”
“I-I’m not…” He looked around, bewildered. Wolfe had just tried to kill him and Puar. What was going on?
“Night Snakes’re comin’,” she assured him, nodding to the approaching dust cloud. “Get in, or don’t. Your call.” She raised her shotgun and pointed it at him. He understood well enough what that meant.
They threw him a submachine gun that was barely larger than a pistol. It was light; that was good. Still feeling groggy, the boy hunkered down in the back seat, rubbing the blood from his face. His cheeks stung bad. This was all pretty crazy. He’d only ever seen a Night Snake once, and that had been when the other bandits had blown up that plane. He didn’t know who they were, how strong or skilled they were, or any of that. But when the truck rumbled awake, he felt an old familiar feeling, and his lips grew tight as he thought of that girl who’d once rode shotgun as this other girl was now. He hoped they wouldn’t meet the same fate.
Everyone was chanting war cries. A few were firing rounds into the air. Wolfe jumped on the hood of a car near the front of the brigade. He looked as bad as Yamcha felt. “They found us!” he shouted. “Well, let’s remind those bastards that this is our desert!” Everyone cheered. Yamcha’s headache was getting worse. “Those snakes want to kill us. Well, they can bloody well try!” He took a swig from a flask at his side. “The rest of the crew will be here any minute. Then they’ll be in for a real surprise, haha!”
“Where’s Yunwu’s men?!” someone with a raspy voice called out.
“Fuck ‘em,” Wolfe retorted. “We don’t need ‘em. This is our fight, not theirs. C’mon men, who wants to go kill some annoying snake fuckers?”
Everyone cheered. Wolfe jumped off the car, and they were off. Yamcha had to give the boss some credit – he was riding wildly ahead of the rest of the pack on his motorcycle. He was fearless. No one could call him a coward. But Yamcha would rather be a coward and live than die for these bandits. None of them cared about him. As soon as the battle was over, if their side won, they’d kill him. He knew that well enough. The first chance he got, he’d run away. He promised himself that much.
This wasn’t his battle. He didn’t know the Night Snakes. He didn’t want to kill them. But it was kill or be killed. He already knew that. Poking his head out the window, Yamcha screamed as he held down the trigger, spraying madly. Miroslav was driving, and Yamcha was thankful that their car wasn’t in the vanguard. Next to him, in another hovercar, a red-bearded man stuck his head out the window and fired a panzerfaust at the oncoming horde. A bullet took him in the shoulder, and grunting, he fell back into his car. Yamcha dove back inside too, wiping the man’s blood from his face.
A moment later, the dust cloud overtook them, and the world went mad.
Cars exploded as they crashed into one another. People were screaming. Explosions were bursting in the storm, briefly illuminating the battlefield with every detonation. The girl with the shaved head was throwing grenades out the window wildly. There was no way she could know if she was hitting her own people or not. Their car dodged and weaved, and Yamcha just had to sit back there hoping they didn’t crash.
“Heh, this is what I really call a party now!” sang Miroslav, a smoking, dark-skinned, white-bearded fellow. He shot out his own windshield and began firing a submachine gun with his free hand. “Hey kid, I don’t hear you shootin’. You better start shootin’. I ain’t your chauffeur.”
So Yamcha did. He crawled over to the window, poking his head up just enough to see outside and held down the trigger. The faster he used up all the bullets, the faster he could go back to hiding.
It was hell out there. A sandstorm was whisking its way through the desert, past overturned and burning cars and scattered corpses. Half the bandits were on their feet now, exchanging gunfire in the haze. Out of nowhere, someone appeared in front of Yamcha’s car – one of Wolfe’s men – and there was no time to move out of the way. Yamcha reloaded. He had four magazines left.
A lot more people were wearing blood-red handkerchiefs than not, it seemed. Coughing, Yamcha ducked as a burst of bullets came flying at them, tearing up the side of the car. One nicked him in the finger, though when he complained, the woman swore she’d blow off his head if he whined one more time. A lot of other people were screaming. Why didn’t she care about them?
It wasn’t a moment later that a grenade came sailing at them. “Oh, shit!” Miroslav yelled, the cigarette dropping from his mouth. The grenade bounced off the hood of the car, angling left towards the driver’s side, before it exploded suddenly and violently. The top of the car was ripped off. The driver splattered into bits, and the car careened into a half-sunk rock formation. Yamcha’s ears were ringing and pulsing, and his chest felt weak. The force of the grenade had pushed him to the floor of the backseat, knocking the wind out of him. A fire was growing in the engine; a dark cloud of smoke descended on the damaged car. He never heard the car door open, nor the woman shouting at him. He felt her tug him to the dirt and barely held onto his gun.
“You there? Hey, Yamcha? Kid?!” Her voice came to him slowly and at first silently. There was a gash on her forehead. Her tank top was going to get stained. She held her shotgun like a real man. When he nodded finally, she patted him on the shoulder, “Let’s go. It’s not safe here. There’s more of them than there are of us.”
It always seemed to be like that. They were running. Yamcha was wheezing, clutching at his throat. A man died in front of him. Another two were bleeding out in the dirt, though still they fought with knives and fists. The woman blew away one guy who charged them. Going around a corner, they caught their breath and reloaded.
“You good, Yamcha?”
He shook his head timidly. “N-no…”
“You’re such a baby,” she teased him. “Look, stay cool, keep my six clean, and I’ll give you a present when we get back to base?”
“A-a present?” He was confused.
She leaned in and kissed him on the lips. He tasted blood and sweat. The heat in his face was too much. Falling back against the rock they were hiding behind, Yamcha began to shake and stutter. Something was tingling in his pants. “Hey!” She slapped him across the face hard. “Don’t lock up on me now, kid. We’ve got a long way to go.”
She pulled him to his feet, and though Yamcha’s ears were still burning, he followed her out. He’d follow her anywhere.
The Night Snakes were circling in their cars. Most of Wolfe’s gang was dead. But the boss wasn’t going down without a fight. He stood in the eye of the storm, a rifle in each hand, mowing down anything and everything that approached him. A truck came screaming at him, trying to run him over. He casually lit those fuckers up, and the truck came to a dead stop only a few feet before it reached him.
Most of the cars were destroyed now. Almost everyone who remained was on foot. That was why, when a rocket came sailing through the air, soundless and alight like a cigarette, Yamcha was confused. It exploded against two cars that had crashed into one another, where several Night Snakes were taking cover.
“Alright, yeah! Fuck yeah! Come on, get over here! Come on, let’s go!”
There were hundreds of Night Snakes. Now there were hundreds of Wolfe’s Wings. In the distance, at the edge of the storm, a new swarm of cars and bikes came rushing in – the rest of Wolfe’s gang. The Night Snakes may have outnumbered them before, but Wolfe’s elite had whittled them down, and now the two sides were about even. But Wolfe’s side had all the cars.
It didn’t take long to mop up the Night Snakes. Some ran; some pled for their lives; a few went out in a blaze of glory. Many Wings died that day. More snakes did. In the sand, beneath his feet, Yamcha felt fish snakes slithering. They would be feasting this night, he knew.
He and the girl were pinned down by one of the last groups of Night Snakes, and they were unable to gain ground. Though the two sides exchanged gunfire, they couldn’t make any progress. Yamcha guessed there were at least half a dozen of those handkerchief-wearing bastards. The woman rose above cover and fired two shots. Immediately after she fired the second one, a round took her in the belly, and she collapsed in Yamcha’s arms.
Cars were spinning around, taking out the last of the Night Snakes. “G-go…” she muttered, spitting blood. “Don’t let ‘em get you.”
“Gyaaraaaaaah!!” A Night Snake came screaming around the corner, a pistol in one hand, a knife in the other. Yamcha looked up at the last second and rolled aside. The man emptied his magazine prematurely, missing every shot. Yamcha pointed his submachine gun at the charging lunatic, pressed the trigger, and nothing happened. The magazine was empty. He was out of ammo. Dropping the gun, Yamcha ran right at the man. He had no other choice. His leg was on fire. His hand hurt. He was sure he had suffered a hundred different wounds he didn’t even know about yet. But there was no time for whining – the woman had been right.
Yamcha lunged into the man, knocking him back. The Night Snake swiped his blade back and forth, up and down, keeping Yamcha at a distance. The boy was faster and stronger. Even in his current state, he knew that. He looked down and rolled forward, grabbing a handful of sand. This was a technique he’d seen a bandit use once. It was kill or be killed.
The Night Snake grunted as his vision was obscured. Yamcha was on him in a moment. It took very little to pull the man’s wrist back and snap it. When he screamed, the knife was dropped. Panting Yamcha looked down, hoping to find where the knife went when the Night Snake headbutted him. Falling back, dazed, Yamcha skidded to the sand. He tasted fresh blood. Old wounds re-opened, and the boy’s vision was swimming. The bandit approached him slowly, the knife in his other hand.
Yamcha flinched when the blast took the Night Snake in the chest. The man stumbled forward a few feet before collapsing in a pool of his own blood. Up against a smoking car behind him, the woman with the shaved head sat, her shotgun smoking too. The young bandit got to his feet, shaking his head, trying to make it stop spinning. She threw him the shotgun and he caught it.
“Don’t get killed out there, kid,” she ordered him. “Take as many of those bastards out as you can. For me.”
He nodded and ran on past her. Now would be a great time to make his escape. And yet that woman… she had promised him… He felt his cheeks going red again and had to clear his mind. If he gave into desire now, he was dead.
The fighting was yet fierce, but it was almost over. It was a done deal. The Night Snakes had been shattered. How they had found Wolfe’s secret hideout, Yamcha neither knew nor cared. It didn’t concern him at all. Ahead, Wolfe approached a Night Snake pinned under a flipped truck and shot him in the face with a pistol. Yamcha was limping now, but he could run back to base. The Mighty Mouse was stocked with food. No one would know he was gone. This was his chance. He just had to find Puar, and…
“Where do you think you’re going, kid?” Wolfe’s face had so much blood on it, it looked like warpaint. “Running away?”
“We’re not done, you and me. Don’t think I forgot about Daisey!”
“Daisey’s an asshole!” Yamcha heard himself shouting back. “Puar only hit him in self-defense! He got what he deserved!”
Wolfe fired. Yamcha dove behind a rock. He didn’t want to fight. As he started running back to the hideout in the distance, he heard Wolfe behind him. The man was shooting almost as wildly as that Night Snake. Yamcha spun around and dodged out of the way of the oncoming freight train. Wolfe went running past him and slipped on the blood-soaked sand.
He raised the shotgun and faltered. He had a clear shot, but he didn’t take it. He couldn’t do it. Wolfe spun around and fired. It grazed Yamcha’s cheek. The boy dropped his shotgun and rushed the Wings’ boss. Before Wolfe could fire another shot, they were in the dirt. Yamcha pinned the bigger man to the ground and beat him, punching him in the face over and over again.
Gunfire cackled across the air. A man screamed and something exploded.
They were just two warriors, huffing and puffing and bleeding. Wolfe lurched to one side and Yamcha fell off of him. The man sat up, searching for his gun, but Yamcha was quicker. He wanted to live so bad. He wanted to get out of here. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t ask for any of this. He kicked Wolfe upside the face, and the man fell over. Wolfe’s broken nose cracked against the young bandit’s boot, and for a moment, he liked this. A feral bloodlust fell over Yamcha, and he rushed Wolfe again.
The bigger man swept the boy’s feet out from under him and punched him hard in the stomach. Yamcha fell back. He heard Wolfe curse, then looked up. The man was reloading his magazine. That was as good an opportunity as any. Yamcha barreled right into him, and the two exchanged blows until Wolfe went down again. This time, the boy did not try to pin him.
He picked up Wolfe’s fallen pistol and aimed it at the man. “Do it! Kill me, you coward!” Wolfe sneered, his teeth bloody. “Make up your damn mind already.”
“I won’t,” Yamcha said softly, gulping. A car flew by him, spraying sand on the two. “I’m not like you.”
Wolfe grit his teeth. “If I ever see you again, kid… I’ll kill you. I’ll fuckin’ kill you.”
“You won’t.” He threw the pistol as far away as he could.
Yamcha limped away, holding his side where Wolfe had got him good. That was when it all fell to dead silence. In the silence, a fresh army of approaching cars could be heard. Wolfe didn’t move. He knelt and bled, his head bowed. Yamcha stopped, because those cars were coming from the direction of the hideout.
They stopped just on the edge of the carnage. The sandstorm had long since died down. There were more dead men than living. Out from the cars came the sharp-eyed, sunglass-wearing Yakuza, Mazuchiru at their head. In his hand was a machine gun. His face had a fresh scar on it, like someone had cut him across the nose with a blade, but he looked as cool and ruthless as a leopard.
“Hello,” Mazuchiru said coolly. Scattered gunfire continued until the Yakuza boss raised his machine gun and shot it in the air. “Quiet!”
The surviving bandits fell behind cover and then peeked out again, trying to see if this new force was on their side or not.
“That’s better, bandits.” Mazuchiru’s voice was as smooth as milk.
“Who the fuck are you?” a nearby bandit asked. He was on Wolfe’s side.
“I was sent by the Deputy Mayor,” Mazuchiru hissed. “I don’t believe we’ve met before. My name is Mazuchiru.”
“We already killed them Night Snakes!” the bandit replied earnestly. “We don’t need you guys here!”
“Oh, but you do. You see, a few weeks ago, I sent some of my men out here to recover a dead drop after a big deal. It was a lot of zeni – billions, in fact. Funny, but it all disappeared after my men were ambushed and murdered without cause.”
Wolfe looked up suddenly. Yamcha saw the surprise in his eyes, like two wide full moons. He knew. Yamcha knew. No one else did. Wolfe reached to a nearby corpse and pulled a silver magnum from it.
“That fuckin’ sucks, man.”
“Yes, it does.” Mazuchiru unleashed his machine gun on the bandit.
Bleeding and covered in dirt, Wolfe popped up from behind some wreckage and fired three shots at the Yakuza boss. Each shot hit him in the chest. No other Yakuza moved. Mazuchiru keeled over and coughed. Yamcha expected to see the man spit up blood. He didn’t. Wolfe squeezed the trigger again, and the meek click that followed made the man groan audibly.
Grinning broadly, Mazuchiru looked up again and aimed his gun at Wolfe. “We came prepared, Wolfe. Too bad. You were so close to taking over Diablo Desert.”
All of his men fired at Wolfe. The man sprinted and ran, trying to hide behind cover. His Wings came to his aid, blasting back at the Yakuza who stood behind their cars with military-grade rifles and discipline. A few were hit, but most stood their ground as they mowed down the approaching bandits.
And then Wolfe’s remaining cars came screaming down from the other side of the battlefield, and chaos returned to the world. Mazuchiru hopped in a hovertruck, and all of the Yakuza’s cars started up. Like the Night Snakes and the Wings had done before, now too would the Yakuza do a reckless charge. Some of the Yakuza remained on foot. War was again upon the desert.
Yamcha was tired. His head was pounding. His body was throbbing. He just wanted to go home. Explosions rocked the ground, spraying sand into the air. That was his cover. Two Yakuza ran by him, but he crouched low to the ground, behind a twisted and broken motorcycle, and they didn’t see him. A bandit threw a grenade at a Yakuza who kicked it back. The bandit threw it back again. The Yakuza kicked it again. The bandit threw it once more. When the Yakuza went to kick it back a third time, it flashed and consumed him in a swarm of shrapnel and fire.
Yamcha saw his opening. It was roughly half a mile back to base. The cars were all occupied in their bloodlust. It was now or never. He took a deep breath and ran. That was when he felt someone grabbing his shoulder. Spinning around, Yamcha saw the bloody mug of Wolfe, all up in his grill and such.
“Not so fast, kid.” Wolfe grunted. There was an open bullet wound in his shoulder and another in his leg. Blood was streaming down his clothes. The man was not long for the world. “I told you–”
Reaching in his pocket, Yamcha felt something he hadn’t thought about for a while. How ironic that he would use it now. The Yakuza had expected much of him. They had wanted him to betray Wolfe. He should have done it. Well, this was almost as good.
Yamcha aimed the flare at Wolfe and fired it. As the burning, hissing projectile hit him in the beard, Wolfe screamed a high pitch scream, and from the skies above, an eagle answered.
The sky was so blue. His throat was raw. Nearly collapsing, Yamcha reached the hideout and leaned forward to catch his breath. Behind him, the sounds of gunfire and explosions were fading on the wind. The sun was not long for this day.
“Hey Puar? Puar, you around?!”
There was no one there, he thought. Stepping into the hideout, Yamcha made his way up to the second floor. He was going to miss this place, despite everything that had happened. He grabbed his pack, which lay on the counter next to the stove. They were going to have to find a new cook, if they survived the Yakuza. Yamcha wasn’t particularly good at cooking, he thought. They wouldn’t miss him for long.
Moving to the sink, he beheld the Azure Dragon Sword, a shining jewel in the decrepit hovel. After pouring himself some water, he reached up and plucked it down.
“Hey, what’re you doing?”
Rosey was behind him, a bandage wrapped around his head and chest, wearing an elegant magenta bathrobe that looked like it came straight out of the Playboy mansion.
“It’s mine. I’m taking it.”
“Where’s everyone else?” Yamcha shrugged. “Hey!” The bandit stopped the boy. “Answer me.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t end up like Daisey. Don’t push it.”
Outside, as the sun was setting, Yamcha sported his sword and a cup of water as he walked to the garage. Two buzzards were riding the high winds lazily, approaching from the distance. Dark wings meant dark words. He wasn’t going to stay.
His mind drifting to the woman with the shaved head, Yamcha found Mighty Mouse, and sleeping in the passenger’s seat, he found Puar.
Grinning, the boy said, “H-hey… Puar… wake up!”
“Eeeaaaaak!!” the thing squeaked. He was prepared to die until he saw Yamcha. Then, he settled back down. “Oh, hi Yamcha.”
“I’m leaving,” the boy said flatly. “Things have gotten pretty crazy around here.”
“I was so worried for you! That big old guy looked like he wanted to kill you!”
“So where are you going?” the cat asked hopefully.
The young bandit shrugged again. “Probably South City. Wanna tag along?”
“Sure!! Yipee, I’m going to South City, yay!” the blue cat shrieked like a shrieker in a shrieker’s den.
Yamcha was too tired to be as enthusiastic. He rubbed his cheek melancholically. He didn’t know where he was going, or what he was planning on doing. All he knew was that he had to get out of there. At least he was leaving with a friend. Hopping in the car and sticking the key in the ignition, he spoke, “So hey, Puar, why are you stickin’ with me? Don’t you have anywhere else to go?”
“Nope,” Puar said. “Once I graduated from the Shapeshifting Academy, I was just going to go back to where I was staying before.”
The garage door opened and they pulled out. “Oh yeah? Where’s that?”
“The South City Orphanage.”
“Y’know, I think I lived there for a few years,” Yamcha said nonchalantly. Mighty Mouse gained speed. The wind was cool through his long hair. Leaning back, he was so tired, he wanted nothing more than to collapse in a bed and sleep for a year.
“Yeah, it was alright, but, you know…”
“Yeah, I do.”
He’d never seen such a blue sky. It was like he was staring at the most remote part of the ocean. On the horizon, the clouds were bleeding cream and rose where the sun was making its way. He thought back to the last day he’d seen his father. “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong,” his father had declared with a grin, stepping up to the plate. The score had been tied – bottom of the ninth. Yamcha’s left hand found the baseball in his pocket, old and worn, still hard as a rock. There was still time for him to change. There was still hope.
As he and Puar fled the bandits, Yamcha was overcome by a deep sense of longing, more primal than hunger. He wondered where his parents were now, where Lychrel was, where that blonde-haired woman was. It was all so lonely on that road, even with Puar. Things were turning a deeper shade of blue, but maybe that was for the better. His past was in the past, and the future was not yet set in stone.
sunlight slants through
the endless, cloudless blue
a howling wolf
Chapter 7: Everything Goes AwayEdit
Everywhere she looked, she found only sand. There was sand to her left, sand to her right, sand ahead of the ship, sand behind. Soon it would be in her eyes and her teeth and under her nails. She wasn’t envying that. Pulling her gloves over her slender fingers, Violet made her way over to the cockpit. The door was open, and the man sitting inside was almost too fat to get up. He was singing about not needing no education and licking barbecue sauce from his sticky fingers.
“How much farther?””
“We’re nearly there, ma’am!” The pilot giggled and downed another spicy wing. “Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!”
She checked her pistol once, twice, and again. The Black Talon was the most expensive armor-piercing hollow-point round on the market. She held one between gloved fingers, the orange-brown sands blurring by her peripheral vision.
An ominous silence pervaded the hangar bay. She had brought only a dozen soldiers, none of them Red Ribbon Army men. The Children of Chaos were more trustworthy. They were hers.
Shyrin was dressed for war. His boots drug on the metal floor. “Quick op, in and out. No need for bloodshed.”
“I won’t kill her,” Violet promised. “Not unless she tries to kill me.”
“That’s the spirit, ma’am.”
“Just you and Cassian,” she called after him. “I don’t want to make a scene.”
“As you wish.” He knelt, pulling off his helmet. Grey, sweaty flesh greeted her. His jaw was long, his cheeks pockmarked like the desert. His scraggly beard was a child’s, not a man’s. His eyes were bloodshot and sunken, his teeth yellowish brown, his nose crooked and engorged.
Cassian was a young corporal, with wild green eyes and smooth cheeks. He was less experienced, but more pleasant on the eyes. They slipped on their helmets and clutched their rifles. Just by how they stood, she could tell who was who. Cassian stood taller and prouder. Shyrin liked to skulk and hunch. She didn’t understand why the mayor had taken such a liking to him.
The sands went ever on and on. She could hardly stand it. Rocks sometimes poked up from the countless dunes, like stone hands pleading for freedom from beneath the golden waves. Every now and then, the rocks rose higher, creating spires and small mountains. But there were no buildings, no towns, no signs of life. Bandits lived out here – or they had. From what she’d gathered, the mayor’s longtime companion Yunwu had orchestrated a war out here that had reduced the bandit populations to almost nil.
“We’re here, my lady,” the pilot called from the cockpit.
“Good. Let’s not keep her waiting.”
The dropship lurched to a stop, hovering not half a foot above the sand-baked desert. Soundlessly, Violet moved to the door, her men flanking her either side. She pulled one silver-wrapped strip of gum from her pocket, sliding it from its casing to her tongue. Outside, the sands rode the wind. Sweet watermelon flavor cooled her throat.
She pulled a dark green handkerchief over her face. Her goggles reflected the sun.
Like rays of sunlight spilling out of an ice cream cone, the bandit’s golden locks draped over her bright red hovercar. She was leaning back in the driver’s seat, wearing sunglasses as she perused a magazine. The device was in the backseat covered in a blue tarp. There was only one bandit.
“Hello,” Violet called out to the blonde woman. “I’m Colonel Violet… of the Red Ribbon Army. I am here to inspect the deputy mayor’s infinite energy device.”
The other woman looked up and gave Violet a dirty look. “What’s the point? Don’t you know what this thing is gonna be used for?”
“I have no idea. The mayor hasn’t told me anything yet.” Her tone was lazy as she threw off the tarp to inspect the device underneath. It was in a glass case, or perhaps something harder. Silver-finished and round, Gero’s creation emanated pale blue light from ports and slits and vents. Even now, in its dormant state, she could feel its heat and energy. It hummed, quietly and steadily, just able to be faintly heard when the winds died down every now and then.
“There, you’ve seen it. Now leave. I await my lady’s orders.”
“Do you? Whom does your lady serve?”
“Lady Yunwu bought this device with her own money. It does not belong to the mayor–”
“Do you know who sold her that device?”
“A doctor from your army.”
“A doctor whom I outrank.”
“That device is Red Ribbon army property and I’d like it back.”
Her phone rang. “Yeah? What? What?! Just now?!” She stared at Violet sharply, worry dressing those pretty blue lenses swimming in her eyes. “Yeah, I heard ya the first time. I have something I gotta do. See ya.”
“Who was that?”
“Yunwu’s dead. The deputy mayor.”
“Is she?” Violet wasn’t bothered by the news.
“She wanted me to detonate it. That thing in the case. I got the coordinates.” The yellow-haired thief fumbled for something in her jacket pocket.
“Detonate the device? Out here? No, no, no. We’re not detonating anything out here, silly girl.”
“We are. And I’m not a girl.”
Violet chuckled. “Aren’t you, Hasky?”
“How do you know my name?”
She folded her arms. “You’ve operated for the Red Ribbon Army before.”
Hasky offered a smirk. “Then you know how dangerous I can be.”
“Walk away. It’ll be easier for you that way.”
Her guards, Shyrin and Cassian, bristled at that, their fingers poised on their triggers. She was one whisper from unleashing them.
“You’re not taking it.”
“I am. Mayor’s orders.”
“It belongs to the deputy mayor.”
“Don’t make me take it, Hasky.”
“You can try, but–”
Sighing, Violet whispered to herself, “Silly girl.”
The watermelon flavor was beginning to fade. It was time to go. Spitting, she tracked the pink blob as it flew towards Hasky. The pistol was out of its holster before Hasky could react. One shot. That’s all it took.
The explosion vaporized the air over Hasky’s head, sending her to the floor of her car shrieking, her hair singed and smoking.
The sniper fire went almost unheard under the shrill rattling in her ears. She rolled away just in time to see camouflaged lackeys peeking over the surrounding dunes, weapons in their hands. Cassian was on one knee, holding half of Shyrin’s brains in a gloved hand. She took a breath, remembered her training, and remained calm. Without emotion, she saw clearly. The pistol aimed at each of them, and one after another, a flash burst from her weapon and a bandit fell. Then, it was quiet again. She reloaded.
“We’re taking this,” Violet told Hasky. “Cassian! Get over here!”
“B-b-but… he’s dead!” the boy wailed.
“There’s nothing more we can do for him. Get over here and help me move this thing!”
That was when Hasky lunged up at her with a kick. Violet’s pistol fell to the sand. She grabbed Hasky’s leg and pulled the bandit from her car, throwing her to the rocks. Before Hasky could stand, Violet ran over to her, kicked her hard in the ribs and pressed her boot to Hasky’s throat.
“I’m not going to kill you because Commander Red considers you to be a useful ally. But get in my way again and I won’t hesitate to waste you, bandit.”
“Hmph, yeah, whatever.”
The boy was young. These dunes were barren. A white owl alighted from a nearby branch and hooted loudly as it flew overhead. Whoever controlled the desert controlled trade between South City, East City, and Central City. The deputy mayor’s bandits were wiped out. It wouldn’t be much trouble to bring her Children of Chaos down here to do a thorough sweep and take care of any stragglers.
The desert could use some snow. It was so dreadfully hot.
Fresh blood shone bright red on his shoulderpad. “My lady, we’ve recovered the device. We’re ready to go whenever you are.”
Cassian had fallen to a knee. There were others with him. “Get up,” she spoke. “And don’t kneel so much. It makes you look weak.”
“Before we leave, Cassian, tell me: have you done your recon? Are there any settlements in this desert?”
“N-no my lady… no towns or cities or anything like that, ‘specially not after the recent bandit wars. There’s Bonetown, but that’s more like a couple of bars and an outhouse than a town.”
“Sounds like a charming place. We’ll set up our base of operations there.”
“Base of operations, my lady? What exactly is going on?”
“We’re taking over the desert, Cassian. We’re going to control all routes into the cities. We’ll be rich. I’ll have to start recruiting more soldiers… promoting soldiers…” She walked over to him, brushing her fingers underneath his chin. “Would you like a promotion, Corporal?”
He nodded sheepishly.
“Get back to work.” Her tone was cold. “Have three teams sweep the desert. They are to root out and kill any bandits or thieves they find living out here. The desert is ours now, and no one enters or leaves it without us knowing. Got it?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied, his voice bolder than before.
“Very good, soldier. Now, let us return to the mayor.”
As Violet clambered back into the dropship, she wondered what he wanted with the infinite energy device. Was he planning on making his own android? Yunwu had merely wanted to use it as a cheap explosive. If it detonated, the effect would be similar to a nuclear warhead. She wondered if the mayor knew that. Surely he did. He wasn’t a fool, she had learned over the years. He was desperate and petulant and fearful, but he wasn’t a fool. That made him dangerous. She would keep a close eye on him and this device. This was no trifling matter. If he got high and decided to blow the thing up in the heart of South City…
Her heart caught in her throat and Violet had to clear her thoughts. It wouldn’t come to that. He wasn’t going to use the device for evil. He wasn’t like that. And if he tried to, she’d put a bullet in the back of his head faster than he could say her name. She liked him – she liked him a lot, actually – but that didn’t mean she was his slave. She wasn’t subservient to him like Yunwu had been. Especially after his latest injury, he’d need her more than ever. Violet wasn’t about to forget that, nor was she about to let it slide.
The big city was full of trash and pigeons and people looking to bring down the government. Talk was going around that the deputy mayor had been assassinated. Where the regular mayor was, no one could guess. The city was collectively waiting with bated breath. This was perfect for his game.
After baseball practice, Yamcha returned to the alleyway where Might Mouse lay at rest. It had taken him and Puar three days to steal enough money to buy more gas. It would run again, but he had nowhere to take it. Yamcha had only a pistol and a knife, and usually Puar got to hold the gun. Their traps were pathetic and simple. He would lure a victim down the alleyway, just a little bit, talking them up and keeping them occupied. That’s when Puar’d descend upon the victim from behind with the gun out, and they wouldn’t put up much of a fight after that. Yamcha had the knife, but he’d never had to use it. No one had ever tried to fight back.
His form was off, and it embarrassed him. Yamcha’s cheeks were puffed up, but it wasn’t so bad as it had been the day before, when he had barely been able to see. The dark bruises made people stare at baseball practice, but his sloppy form was the real story there. There was no way he was good enough to get signed by a team.
“What do we do now?” Puar asked him on the fifth night, after the two blew what little money they had on a midnight fast food run.
“Keep doing what we’re doing. Why, you don’t like it?” The boy’s mouth was full of fries.
“We aren’t making much money, Yamcha. Not enough to survive, and we’re gonna get caught soon. It’s only a matter of time.”
Yamcha slammed his fist on the table. “Y’know, Puar… I don’t need to be hearing that right now. We need solutions, not whining.”
“How’s baseball practice going, Yamcha?”
He made a face. “We can’t rely on that.”
Outside, there were too many faces for him to see anyone. He had been taught by the wiliest bandits in Diablo Desert how to pick a pocket and not make a scene. Puar was generally useless for that sort of thing, but he was good for baiting women. They were big scores usually.
At night, the two regrouped in their alleyway, ate a little dinner, and caught some shut eye before resuming their work in the morning. It was quick, tiresome work, and not the kind that made Yamcha feel good about himself, but the days wore on, and the air grew colder, and the flowers withered away.
He still wore bruises upon his cheeks when he saw the fliers. The photos of Junichi were unmistakable; the Masamune/Masamune logo in the upper right-hand corner was as familiar as Junichi’s cigarette smoke, even all these weeks later. The building was small, squeezed between a restaurant and a clothing store. Tonji Masamune’s simply-named ‘Itteki’ was open for business.
Yamcha was inside before he knew what he was doing. “Is Mr. Masamune here?” he asked the well-dressed secretary sitting behind a glass window. “I need to talk to him about something.”
“Mr. Masamune is currently monitoring a branch in Central City. Would you like to leave a message?”
“Yeah,” he sighed.
“What is your name?”
All the lights reflecting in through the window were bleeding together. It looked like it was going to rain. The orange trees planted in perfectly-round holes in front of the mayor’s skyscraper wafted their sweet fragrance his way as he exited the building. There were crisp, fresh blooms along the branches, like night-fallen snow.
Alley cats were the worst. They loved to sing and marvel at the moon. Hovercars only came shooting down the road every now and then. Their infrequency gave his dozing mind comfort. He sometimes felt guilty, but it got easier every day. The hungrier Yamcha got, the more frequently he found his hands shooting into people’s pockets and jackets, pulling valuables and wallets and all sorts of prizes out.
One day, Yamcha was prowling the streets when he noticed a girl working a mango stand. She had a familiar face, more familiar than he knew.
“Hey Ren. Didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
“Yamcha? Is that really you?”
“Heeey.” He walked over to her all smooth and such. Tossing a sweet-smelling mango up and down in one hand, he leaned in on the stand and said, “So what’s the deal? How’d you end up here?”
“Lady Yunwu suffered an accident.” Her voice was stoic, a little light, even. “This is where I am now. I won’t be going back. Please don’t tell anybody.”
“Hey, you know me.” He mimed zipping up his lips.
She wore an inky, sooty flower in her hair on that cold morning. How there were still mango trees in bloom, he did not know.
“Is everything alright at the base?” She did not look him in the eyes.
“No. The Yakuza attacked right after the Night Snakes did. A lot of people died.”
“But you got away?”
“Barely. Me ‘n Puar made it out. Dunno about anyone else.”
“Do you wanna buy that mango or not?” Ren’s dark eyes narrowed.
“Ye-yeah, sure…” Yamcha winced, pulling out a few pickpocketed zeni. His stomach roared in protest. He had been hoping to buy something more substantive than a single semi-ripe mango.
“Good luck,” she called after him as he walked away with his mango, “with… wherever you’re going.”
“Yeah, you too.”
That night, the local South City baseball coach gave Yamcha the bad news – he hadn’t been chosen to join the team. He didn’t tell Puar. They dined on fast food in a dirty little plastic hovel around midnight. There wasn’t much of anyone around. It was better that way.
In the morning, Yamcha found the skate park by Junichi’s house. A few of his old friends still hung out down there. Murdotraine had started growing a goatee. Whipple had a pack of smokes.
“Yo, Yamcha. Didn’t think I’d be seein’ you ‘round these parts no more. Where’s Jun and Lychrel?” That was Billy-dog Thorton, Sr. He wrapped his teeth in foil.
“Yo’s, that Gramma Yumboy?” called Theodosius XII.
“Gramma Yumboy in da house, shakin’ my damn head, son!”
Theodosius taught Yamcha some new pickpocketing techniques while Whipple promised to get him connected with his uncle for work. Yamcha tried not to appear too desperate in his plea to D-Whip.
He told them about Junichi and Lychrel; they fleeced him for what little zeni he had. Just like old times. He spent a grey afternoon plucking purses and wallets away from unsuspecting pedestrians and knew he couldn’t continue on like this. That night, he met with Whipple’s lead in the parking lot of a fast food joint.
“You are Yamcha,” the man spoke gravely. His breath was white smoke. He wore luxurious moon-soaked robes and his pet monkey, red-faced with white, puffy fur, sat on his shoulder. The little creature looked like it belonged in a hot spring.
“You want work, eh?”
“I can give you work. But it is not easy work.”
“Yeah man, it’s no problem. I’m–”
“I am not finished, boy. This work is not easy. It is not safe. People live and die depending on the choices my team makes. You must be professional. You must take this very seriously. I am only meeting with you because of my nephew. I am suspicious, but willing to see what you have to offer. If you’re in, show me. If not, get out of here.”
“I’m in. I need the money.”
The stern-faced man nodded curtly. There was an envelope shoved in Yamcha’s chest. The wind blew through the dead trees. A swing creaked in the fog. The skirling winds bled into a far-off police siren, wailing and screaming in frigid air.
“You’ll live.” His voice was hoarse. “You’ll bleed, and this’ll hurt like shit, but it ain’t nothin’ you can’t come back from.”
“What about me?” Olivia was perspiring. Her cheeks were deathly blue-white.
“N-no… me first,” Wolfe protested from the table. “I pay you, you better save me.”
“Wolfe, you’re fine. I can move onto some of the other patients now.”
“B-but doc… please… don’t I need blood? What about IV fluids?”
“You’re fine, Wolfe. I have you just where I want you.”
“Good,” he said, sighing and leaning back.
“I went to Bonetown today,” Doc began. “Place is half-deserted now that the war’s done. There’s new blood in town. Guys callin’ themselves the Children of Chaos.”
“Never heard of ‘em,” Wolfe whispered angrily.
“They were boastin’ about rootin’ out all the gangs in the desert! They say everyone’s dead, or fled!”
“I met Rosey there. He was lookin’ to come back with me. But he got in an argument with this purple-haired bitch in the Fire and Blood, and she shot him dead.”
“Was she with them Children?”
“Aye, she’s one of their leaders, as far as I could tell.”
“We’ve gotta avenge Rosey,” Olivia muttered.
Wolfe bit his lip and looked around. He had a dozen warriors, maybe more, and none of them were without wounds. Some were so seriously injured, they were not likely to survive the night. This was all he had left. Twenty good men. He had commanded hundreds, pioneered a drug trafficking highway through the desert unseen in modern times. Wolfe had had it all. In a few months, the money would have started rolling in, and he would’ve been a millionaire before the year’s end.
But the Night Snakes had fucked everything up, and the Yakuza had tried to outdo the Snakes’ stupidity, and now here they were: a ragged, wounded band, unable to hold the desert any longer. They were pathetic and deserved to be put down. This new army was organized, had proper equipment, vehicles, and rationing. There was no point fighting them. If he wanted to die, he’d be dead already.
He shook his head, but the ringing wouldn’t stop. That sunglass-wearing bastard, Mazuchiru, had cornered him and the last of his bandits. He’d raised the pistol himself, aiming at Wolfe’s heart. That was when the eagle had descended and ripped out one of Mazuchiru’s eyes. They had subdued it, but not before Wolfe and the others had been able to flee. He wondered where those damn Yakuza were now. He wanted to kill every last one of them with his bare hands.
“Wolfe.” That was Javerres Mihn. The concern in his voice was naked as a frosty dawn.
“I know, damn it. I know.”
“We’ll go to Bonetown then,” Olivia declared. “Soon as all of us can walk. We’ll kill those fuckers good.”
Everyone was just beginning to murmur in agreement, energetically, when Wolfe sat up, grunting and grimacing in pain. “N-no… no. No, we can’t.”
“But Wolfe, why?”
“We’ll just get ourselves killed, that’s why. It’s over.”
“Over? They killed Rosey!”
“Aye, and they’ll kill us too if we don’t move on. I suggest we take that advice and go.”
“No way. We’re avenging Rosey! We’re going to Bonetone!”
“I’ll not lead you there!” Wolfe’s voice rose, and utter silence answered him in return. “I’ll not lead you to certain death! We’re lucky to be alive. Every other bandit who called this desert home is dead. Everyone else is dead. Do you want to join them in the dirt? We don’t have the numbers or equipment to challenge an army. And even if we beat them, we don’t have the numbers to hold the desert. Not anymore. It’s over. We’ll move on, find new lands, and survive. Now how can anyone object to that?”
“I’m goin’. I’m goin’, get outta my way!” Javerres stood and pulled the IV lines from his veins.
“Get back here,” Doc ordered.
“Nah. I’m goin’. Goin’ right now. Anyone who’s not a coward can join me. We’ve got business in Bonetown.”
“That’s a bad idea,” Wolfe told them. “You’ll all die.”
“Maybe. But at least we aren’t cowards like you lot. Rosey was one of us, same as Daisey. We deal with those who think they can hurt us. That’s how it’s always been.”
“Then you have a greater priority with settling the score between you and the South City Yakuza,” Wolfe observed. “Try attacking them. See where that gets you. I promise you this: the Yakuza will send you to the vultures faster than any army can, believe me.”
“Maybe. We’ll have to find out, I s’pose.”
“Don’t do this,” Wolfe growled, eyeing those who were standing with Javerres. “We’ve fought long enough. We’ve bled long enough. Get out of this cycle while you still can, brothers. There ain’t nothin’ waitin’ for you in Bonetown ‘cept death.”
Half of them left, maybe a little more. Doc’s radio was squealing fuzzy in the corner. “What are they dealing in?”
“Dope,” Doc said dully. “Lookin’ to take over the whole market, it seems like. They ratted out everyone and were proud of it!”
“I wonder where they came from,” Wolfe mused.
“Doesn’t matter much. We’ve gotta be gettin’ out of here soon, boss.”
“Yeah, I know. We’ve got time to swing by the compound, though.”
“It’ll be pushing it.”
“I’m not leaving without my damn whiskey, Doc. Thoras, you still here?!”
“Aye, sir, I’m here,” replied the old man. “Still here, serving you faithfully, Wolfe.”
“You have done right by me,” Wolfe said. “Truly. Helping me become the new boss of the Wings… that was noble, beautiful. I respect your courage, sir. I’m just a little concerned about something, Thoras.”
“What happened to your missing poison?”
“Lost it, dunno.”
“You lost it?” Wolfe’s tone was entirely unconvinced.
“Alright, someone stole it. I don’t know who.”
“Very good, Thoras.”
“What, are you gonna kill me? Over that? I made sure everyone got to the battle as quickly as we could! I saved you from the Night Snakes!”
“I’m not going to kill you, Thoras.” The Wings’ boss was annoyed. “Maybe if more of my men had survived, I could afford to, but not now. Not anymore. We’re going to survive, and we’re going to keep on bein’ bandits. And if we’re gonna be successful, we’re gonna need a cook.” Wolfe’s eyes turned to Thoras sharply. “I thought I had a new cook, but I guess not. You’re back on duty, old man. Think seafood. Light stuff. Tropical fruit. You can work with that, can’t you? Anyone can work with that.”
“Are ya sayin’ we’re gonna be pirates now, Wolfe?”
“For now,” Wolfe agreed. This desert is too hot at the moment. And I’m tired of all the goddamn sand.” He sat up, looking around. Their eyes were on him. He felt naked and weak. “If we wanna live, we go south. For a while. Not forever. We’ll be back. We’ll spread to new places, swell the ranks, and the Wings’ll be five hundred strong again before long. Then we’ll be back. We’ll show those goddamn Children of Chaos what we truly think of them. Never forget that this desert is ours, my friends.”
“Here here!” Olivia grunted.
The boat swayed slightly, and Wolfe had to grab one of the handles. There was ivy growing on it, dipping below the water’s edge on the outside of the boat. A few pink-white flowers were blooming on some of the stalks.
He had few bandits left. Counting them, he came to eight. Two would die before nightfall, he knew. Six soldiers. That wasn’t much. Maybe they’d start with a boat, steal some high-valued cargo, expand a bit, absorb lesser gangs, do it the old fashioned way. This wasn’t the end. The air was cloudless. The sun’s rays were golden and biting. Off they drifted, down the river to the ocean, where fresh territory and spoils awaited them. To their left, a dark-clad castle loomed amongst the simmering, distant heat.
Wolfe wondered how many of them would survive to see the desert again. Not many. Probably none of them at all. These were the Wings. These were his Wings. Soon they would be soaring again. “I’ll be back…” Wolfe muttered to himself, watching lizards chase tumbleweeds across the barren dunes, beyond the river’s banks. Two mangy wolves were picking at the dusty bones of a fallen ox. Dragonflies buzzed blue and pink along the water’s edge.
“I’ll be back…” he told himself. “One day, I’ll be back. This desert is mine. I’ll not die before I’m given what is rightfully mine.”
The wind blew as the sun sunk towards the mountains. Their boat chugged along the river at a modest pace. It would be cold this night, and the next. He wondered how long it would take him to learn all six of their names.
Puar got to hold the gun that time. Master Ji Sul Nim kept the car warm. He was Whipple’s uncle. There was one other man with them – an older fellow who shaved his head and had more scars than age spots. He looked like some creature risen from a radioactive swamp, not the sexiest of all primates. He had a pistol too. Yamcha should’ve asked Ji Sul to bring an extra. As it was, the boy had his old sand-crusted knife and his teeth, and that was about it. There was only one circumstance he would use the knife, anyways.
Jerky was their prize. Beef, preferably. Turkey wasn’t so bad, either. None of that vegan crap. They’d hit three little gas station stores so far. This was the fourth.
“I’ve got this one, guys!” the little blue squeaker had promised.
Somehow, the cashier had managed to press the safe button. Puar had been duped. How did it happen? Well, there wasn’t time enough to ask. Yamcha lamented not being able to review the security tapes.
The cashier lay dead on yellow-tiled floor. The old man scratched his scalp.
They were running to the car, packets of airtight jerky in their hands. Like a proper princess, the old merc ran with a bright red hand-basket full of jerky. He’d scored big. The car was gunning to go. In the distance, police sirens wailed.
Puar could only fly so fast. Yamcha regretted not carrying him back to the car. The sirens grew louder. Snow began to fall from the greyness above. “Hurry up! We are leaving!” Ji Sul’s petulance wore thin on Yamcha. It was too cold for that kind of jive.
“Do you have any other weapons I could use?” the boy asked Whipple’s uncle.
“Your baby fists will do.”
“Whatever.” He had offered to help. He knew how this would end.
Puar flew in through the back window. Doors were slammed. An engine revved. Wheels slid on ice. They were off. The policemen were in the mirror not three seconds later.
Someone was shouting from a microphone. The old man’s name was Mike. He leaned out of the back window and fired at the oncoming police car. A moment later, the air was full of popping sounds. The cops were firing back. Ji Sul was weaving through traffic, muttering to himself about how poor everyone else was at driving (especially cabbies). He slammed into the bumper of a black hovercar before careening left into a semi-truck that dove politely off the road. The hovercar remained upright by some miracle, and now there were two police cars behind them. The officers unloaded their weapons on Yamcha and the others without mercy.
Yamcha had no idea how he’d gotten in a situation like this. It always seemed like when he hung out at the skate park, he ended up in some life or death situation. But he needed the money. He needed it bad. Was that worth his life?
“We’re nearly there, nearly there.”
“How big’s the boat?!” Mike asked angrily. He ducked back into the car, giving Yamcha flashbacks of a day in the desert. The boy shuddered and sunk low in his chair.
“My boat is of adequate size.”
“Boy, start packin’ that jerky!” Mike gave Yamcha a horrible, dreadful look. “Put it all in the basket, boy. We won’t have much time.”
Yamcha gathered the plastic packets of jerky and wondered what the point was. He was promised 10,000 zeni. He didn’t get how this would lead to that. But now wasn’t exactly the time to bring that up. Mike was shooting at police. If they got caught, they’d all go to jail, and rightly so. Yamcha would do everything in his power to make sure he never ended up back there.
The basket was bundled up nicely, and Puar had taken up residence on Yamcha’s shoulder. That was exactly the spot where Ji Sul Nim’s monkey liked to sleep and pick bugs from his master’s long, luscious hair. They came skidding to a parking lot near the northern docks. Mist rose over the half-frozen waters. Dark bamboo grew unfettered from the shore to the buildings.
They fled down the frost-chilled docks in silence. Yamcha held the pistol tight. Puar clung to his earlobe. “Damn it, kid, slow down!” Mike complained, waddling over to Yamcha. “Yer spillin’ ‘em everywhere! God damn it, damn it to hell!” He reached down and pulled the fallen packs from the snow. “This is high quality jerky! We can’t just leave it!”
“Come on you two, they are not far behind!” Ji Sul’s voice was solemn and serious. A seagull was pontificating from a broken window nearby. There were more half-collapsed buildings across the docks than Yamcha was comfortable with.
Indeed, all of the buildings down there were abandoned or collapsed in on themselves. Snow covered everything. From behind a frozen mound of dirt, a white-furred coyote crept out, its yellow eyes studying them carefully. White smoke puffed before its muzzle. Yamcha realized he was breathing hard. It wasn’t just the running, he knew.
Each of them fell behind a building, watching the oncoming road. The police were not far behind. Mike unshouldered a rifle, and Ji Sul pulled a submachine gun from his belt. He took a swig of some dark liquid from a near empty gallon milk carton, wiped his mouth, and rushed at the police. There were five of them – three men, two women. Ji Sul Nim nicked a balding overweight man in the thigh and rode his gun up the frontside of one of the women. That was when an officer tore off half of Mr. Nim’s shoulder with a shotgun. Ji Sul didn’t so much as scream. He threw his smoking gun away and lunged at the officer. The punch made the man grunt and drop his shotgun. A woman was firing upon Ji Sul with her pistol. She was dressed up in heavy clothes for the snow. She looked a little cute.
Ji Sul fell to his knees, screaming and spitting up blood. He lunged wildly at the woman, knocking her to the ground, twisting her knee bad, and winning her gun. As he aimed it at her, the fifth officer blew the back of Ji Sul’s skull off with his shotgun.
“That’s just great,” Mike growled. “Well there goes getting paid.”
“I think we have bigger issues than that right now!”
“Yeah, we gotta get out of here. Don’t worry, kid, I’ve got a plan.”
“What’s the plan?” Puar asked.
“Quiet,” Mike breathed, peering around one of the wooden dock buildings.
“There’s a boat, right? That’s what that man said. Aren’t we going to the boat?!”
“We’re sittin’ ducks on a boat, kid. We gotta take out our pursuit before we hop in the getaway car.”
None of them were dead, not even the two Ji Sul had shot. A few of them were writhing, and almost all of them were at least injured. But they would all have to be put down. Yamcha raised his pistol and fell behind cover. This wasn’t as easy as he thought.
“Go right,” Mike ordered him. “Around that wall there. You shoot at them and get their attention. That’s when I’ll hit them from the left. Got it?”
He held Puar tight. One of the cops was screaming. The standing man was talking into a walkie-talkie. Yamcha took a deep breath, poked his head out, stayed light on his feet, and pulled the trigger. He managed five shots before the magazine ran dry. Pulling away, he dropped to a knee to reload. Mike let out a bellow like a yeti and dove back around behind his building. Even from the distance, Yamcha could see how badly he was bleeding. He’d been hit multiple times.
“How’s it goin’, kid? Down any?”
“Nope! I’ve got one magazine left!”
Mike spit in the snow. “They’re not all dead! We have to kill them! Follow my lead!”
With that, he stumbled to his feet and ran to the other side of the building to spring his dastardly offensive attack. Yamcha wasn’t going to die with him. He pocketed the pistol and ran the other way, down the plank bridge extending out over the water. It was unbearably cold over the water. The fog had descended so low and thick that Yamcha had to stop running for fear of losing his footing and falling into the water. He couldn’t see three feet in front of him as he moved down the plank bridge.
In the distance, several gunshots echoed. The sounds died out suddenly and completely.
A splash of water sprayed the dock.
Footsteps grew urgent on sodden wood.
Gulls above the fog, in a grey-painted sky, sang gracefully.
“Drop it, kid.”
“No way. You wanna get out of this alive, don’t you? Think about what’s just happened. You don’t have to end up like your partners, kid. You don’t have to die.”
“I don’t want to die.”
Yamcha raised the pistol to his eyes. He blinked away the burning feeling. Puar was squealing something fierce. The officer had a familiar face, though he held only a pistol. He was bundled up today. No white shirt with the sleeves rolled up for him, no sir. This was the man who had interrogated Yamcha after the incident at the Blue Lotus.
“It’s… Yummercha, right? I-I don’t exactly remember–”
“Yamcha, okay. Easy now, alright? You have nothing to fear.”
“I’m leaving!” Yamcha told him. “I left all the jerky back behind those buildings. Take it, I don’t care.”
“Yamcha, you can’t leave. You need to tell me what’s happened, and why you’ve done what you’ve done.”
“I haven’t done anything,” the boy lied, backing up towards the edge of the dock. He spied a motorboat barely tied to the edge of the pier. The keys were in the ignition. “I’m going, and you’re going to let me.”
“I’m not going to do that, Yamcha! Put down the gun!”
“Put yours down, or I’ll shoot!”
“You don’t want to do that!”
“I didn’t do anything! I’m not going to jail! You can’t make me!”
“Whoa now, easy.” The officer moved several steps closer. “I-I can’t let you go. You have to understand. Either you come with me willingly, or you’re going back in a body bag like your partners.”
It was a threat, and a poor one at that. Yamcha despised this man, but that emotion was not sharp enough in his veins so as to make him act irrationally. He wasn’t going to kill him. He wasn’t that kind of person. He’d been promised 10,000 zeni. He wasn’t going to get that. He wasn’t going to jail, either. If fate was going to fuck him over, he’d take anything and everything he could along the way.
The shot silenced the gulls. The officer grunted once as he fell over, his pistol falling from his grip and rolling into the frigid waters. Yamcha spun around and made a mad dash for the boat. He didn’t know how many other officers were still out there.
“I’ll get you… boy… if I ever see your face again… I’ll… I’ll kill ya… You’re done in South City, kid. You’re done. There ain’t nowhere… ain’t nowhere you can hide that we won’t find you.”
He untied the rope from the pier and clicked the key all the way in. The boat rumbled to life, and in the near-stillness, Yamcha edged it out of port in one of the most surreal moments of his life. A seagull flapped angrily down upon the silver-metal railing on the port side of the getaway boat. From behind, the officer was swallowed in wet fog.
Yamcha sat back in the captain’s chair, sighing. Out from his jacket, he pulled a packet of beef jerky. Tearing it open with his teeth, he allowed Puar the first piece. His friend took it happily. Yamcha was thrilled it wasn’t past midnight this time, as the last time he’d fed Puar, it had been that late, and that night had spawned innumerable demonic creatures that seem barely relevant to mention here.
Once again, Yamcha was alone. He was his own captain now, his own boss. His bandit buddies were dead. His friends weren’t his real friends. He had to get out of this wretched city, and fast. He knew that meant he had only one choice.
The boy’s hand found the ball in his pocket, and it took a lot more than he had expected to hold back the tears. He wanted to make his parents proud. He wanted to be a good baseball player like his father. Well, he wasn’t. He wasn’t cut out for it. He just wasn’t good enough.
That left Yamcha and Puar with only one option. In the game of life, survival is all that matters. No humiliation is too much. It’s kill or be killed. The strong prey on the weak. And Yamcha was certain he was not so weak as to give up entirely. Not yet, at least.
Coal trains from Fire Mountain whistle their lonesome horns as they pass through the station, but the freighters from East City never make so much as a peep. Arrogant bastards. It’s a dry heat, a dusty heat, and I don’t find it better than the lonesome cold of Yunzabit Heights. At least I could freeze in seclusion there, wrapped up in a blanket, drinking hot cocoa. That’s the life. Not sweating out in the middle of a desert in December with sand on the back of my neck.
“Here.” She sets the little device down on the table. Enclosed in glass, it looks like a toy. But there are faint lines of electric blue energy running along the metal hull, reminding me of this thing’s power.
“Everything went well?”
“She didn’t want to give it up. I had to take it from her.”
“I’m lucky to have someone as strong and lovely as you, Violet.”
“That’s not it.” She paces about, a packet of fake sugar clutched between her fingers like an acorn. The coffee’s getting cold. “Yunwu’s dead.”
“Dead?” I don’t know what to feel. Guilt comes first, as it always does. Even though I didn’t do this thing, there had been times I had wanted to kill her myself. I don’t care at all that she’s dead, and that disturbs me. “How unfortunate.”
“Y-you… you didn’t…?”
“I didn’t what, Violet?”
She looks so cute when she’s annoyed. “You know, sir.”
“I take offense to the question.”
“Whatever. We need to focus on the desert while we can.”
“Snow,” she sneered. “Did you forget? You need a hit?”
I nod. She pulls a baggie from her short shorts and throws it down on the table. I do the rest.
“Trade routes,” I sniffled.
“Central City, East City, South City. That’s a huge market. It’s going to make us rich.”
“Yes, that’s all very good now.”
“I’ll need a little dough, baby,” Violet whispers seductively in my ear. She collapses in my lap, her arms wrapped around my neck. “Just until revenue starts flowing in. I need more men to hold the desert. I can pay you back.”
I kiss her passionately. She has been most generous already. It is nothing to reciprocate my love for her. She’s nervous. I don’t want her to be in pain. A cold sweat descends on my shoulders. It is too much to bear.
A train from Orange Star City slides by on the rails, blasting its horn resolutely. Dark plumes of smoke rise over the elongated train. This one is slowing to a stop. “Thanks,” she says quietly. “We’ll have the desert locked down in a month, max. Then, the zeni’ll start flowing faster than a waterfall!”
“That will be very good.” My mask itches. “I’m tired, Violet. I think I’ll get some rest,” I tell her. “What do you say we meet in the Fire and Blood around eight thirty?”
“Sure. I’ve got some hold ‘em to catch up on anyways.”
Chickens walk the dirt-paved streets freely. My face hurts less than it did the day before. Bonetown is about as sparsely-populated a town as there is. I’d be surprised if there are five hundred people here. Most are drifters anyways. There are very few residents. And most of the residents are just store owners.
It’s bleak in this desert. People in rags carrying rifles file in and out of the various winesinks and taverns. They relax for a few hours before returning to what they were doing in the desert in the first place. Violet wants to kill them, or at least regulate them. It’s such a fine line sometimes.
There are Children of Chaos everywhere. A few men hang from the gallows – old bandits or Yakuza who came to Bonetown seeking fame and whiskey. The bandits are done – finished. All of them have been destroyed or driven out by Mr. Mazuchiru, who has been working for Yunwu. Even though she’s dead, I do feel sad that Yunwu didn’t get to see the desert cleared of the thieves and robbers that had been plaguing South City’s trade routes for years. She succeeded too late.
A man who had been named Rosey and had worked for one of the larger gangs had been decapitated by some of the soldiers after he’d made a drunken remark to Violet. His head rides a pike in the center of town. A raven had made Rosey’s balding head his new nest.
I have only one place I want to be right now: the tavern. Beer in my hand is the only good feeling now. Yeah, the dope’s nice, I’m not going to lie. The dope makes the days blur into one, makes life feel a little happy. But it’s not everything. And the beers aren’t either.
“Heh, what happened to you?” an old-timer asks me. He looks like a miner. He has soot coating his cheeks and chin; he looks like a child attempting to grow a beard with a permanent marker.
“I got in an accident.”
“I can see that. Blimey, how’d it happen?”
“None of your business.” I order the coldest, cheapest beer they have: ‘Russ’s Delight’. Back during my touring days, a few bottles of Delight was the only way I could afford to drink. These days, the only thing that gives me pleasure is nostalgia. The drugs are good, the alcohol is too, but none of it scratches my brain like a good dose of nostalgia does.
The bartender sets the opened beer in front of me. I savor its smell and down it in one breath. Memories flare up in my brain: drinking games, music, topless girls, hitting balls out of the park. A long time ago, I had been pretty good. How time flies.
“Aw c’mon, it’s gotta be a neat story. Tell me, aw please! I’m beggin’ ya, mister! Really man, you’re gonna hold back on a story like that?”
I’m glad I can’t see my own face. The beast was the last one ever to see me as I was. “I was savaged by an animal.”
“Aw, gee golly! What was it, a snow leopard? A crocodile? A bear? What about an emu?”
“Was it one of them lone wolves? Lot of those in the desert, heh.”
I pick up my drink and move to the other side of the bar. It doesn’t take that long to get drunk. If you concentrate and don’t fuck around, you can get drunk in minutes. Drinking pisswater beer isn’t the most efficient way to do that, granted. So as the nostalgia trip starts to dry up after the second or so beer, I switch to gin.
She’s taking forever, so I decide to visit her room. It’s hard to stay on two feet. The journey is forever in the blink of an eye. I’m pounding on her door, out of breath, and she opens suddenly. There are bullet holes on the outside wall of this hotel. I want to carry her to the bed, but I’m not feeling so well. I collapse on the bed, myself, leaning back like a limp biscuit.
“What did Gero tell you were its capabilities?” I ask her at last.
“Look, can we do this later? I have a meeting in a few minutes.”
“A meeting? It’s nearly dinner time.” I sit on the bed pleasantly, not feeling so well, but too high and drunk to care.
“Nearly.” She presses two fingers to the bridge of her nose. “I wanted to bang this out before we eat, but now…”
“It can sustain a creature of certain sentience restrictions for an eternity, heh, like we could ever test if that’s true.”
“It could power your skyscraper forever and still not be utilizing even half of its capabilities,” she replies, somewhat unwillingly.
“That’s good, that’s very good. Now what’s this about explosions?”
Her eyes narrow. “We already talked about this.”
“I’m a little fuzzy on the details.”
She gives me the look. “If you overload the charge, it will self-destruct, and the explosion is basically equivalent in size and power to a nuclear explosion.”
“Fuck, that’s powerful.”
“Yes.” She gives me a strange, suspicious look, but after doing a line, her worry disappears. “Which is why we will be extra careful. I’m going to make sure you don’t do anything stupid with that thing.”
“What are you talking about?” I’d never–”
“If you’re high… and drunk… you might. I’m going to make sure you don’t.”
“You have no right, Violet. You have no right.” I stand. The wooziness swirls and shakes inside me. “I run a city. I think my judgment is spotless.”
“We’re just human, dear,” she murmurs, sinking to the bed. She has a pillow between her elbows.
I lean over and kiss her. It’s awkward with my mask. I see the look in her eyes. My head is spinning. The room is spinning. This feels good, but not right. I reach for her tank top when a knock comes at the door. “Nng, that’s him,” she whispers into my shoulder.
“I’m meeting with him… just, I don’t know… hide in the closet or something. Whatever you do, just be quiet.”
She looks like she hasn’t slept in a week. But she stands and adjusts her hair. She pretties herself up as much as she can in the two seconds she has. It is an admirable effort. I crawl to the closet, full of fancy shoes and boots and a mountain of dirty clothes. I jump into it all and pull the door shut, leaving just a sliver of light against the wall so I can watch like a secret spy of sorts.
“Mr. Mazuchiru. It’s so good to see you!”
High as all fuck, I dig a pair of dirty panties from the pile and pull them over my head. I almost shriek with laughter, but catch myself at the last moment. I’m getting hard. This is no good. I want to fuck the shit out of Violet right now. Her pussy is mine. I’m not a patient man. I’m crossfaded and weak. But I love her. She wants me to hide, so I will. That doesn’t mean I won’t get hard, though.
She invites him in. He’s wearing an expensive black suit. He doesn’t take his sunglasses off. There’s a bandage over one of his eyes – a wound like mine, but not so serious, surely.
“I’m going to get right to the chase. We each have places to be.”
“Of course, sir. What can I help you with?”
He looks at her strangely. Perhaps he knows. “Yunwu is dead.”
She yawns obnoxiously. “I heard about that. Shame.”
“Who will the mayor replace her with?”
“That’s a question to ask him yourself, Mr. Mazuchiru.”
“I have tried. He never picks up the phone. All of the lines ring forever.”
“That sounds like an unfortunate mistake. I’ll be sure to let his team know about it, sir.”
“That’s not the only reason I’m here,” Mazuchiru continues in a quick tone. “I had a deal set up with her and this desert. And now that things have changed, I don’t know–”
“We thank you for your service to the people of South City. Destroying those bandits was a noble effort, and the mayor will reward you soon, sir. I’m told he will be giving you an extravagant reward for your help.”
“What is it?” His arm finds her shoulder, rubbing it flirtatiously. My fists clench. Pain courses through my chest. My cock is in my hand. I want to slap him across the eyes with it. At least Violet looks uncomfortable as she steps away from him. I can only hope that he gets the message.
“I can’t tell you that, unfortunately.” She laughs drunkenly and for too long.
“I see. Very well, then. I think we are done. So long as I know I’m being taken care of, there will be no problems. But please let him know that I want Diablo Desert. I fought hard for it, and I lost many men. It’s only fair.”
“I’ll let him know, sir. Thank you once again for your help. Anyways, I’m a little tired, so I’m going to turn in for the night. Good evening.”
“Good evening, Colonel Violet.”
He steps away. She closes the door softly. I stand, in great pain. Nearly shaking, I come out of the closet. This man has pained me. He has, and he will pay for it.
“Are you okay, Violet?”
“What? Huh? Oh, I’m fine. He didn’t do anything, or…”
She falls to the bed, asleep before she hits the bed cover. Her tolerance is low. Pity. My cock throbs in my hand. The bandits are dead. Yunwu is dead. The Yakuza and Mazuchiru want the desert. He wants my girl. He’ll get neither. I pull the device from my jacket, holding it in one palm. I can feel its heat, even through the case. Gero told Violet that a surge of energy could make the device overload and explode like a nuclear warhead.
I think of the cold, and I think of NUL. I think of Yunzabit Heights and all the blood, of hot and sour soup and screaming teenagers. There is much I learned there, much that I will take with me for the rest of my life. Euphoria isn’t everything. Its grip on my consciousness is not so heavy anymore. I’m the bloody mayor. I’m in charge. I’ll not let a Yakuza scrub take Violet from me. He will die. He and his men will die. There is no other way for history to unfold.
He has pained me. He has forced my reaction.
I close my eyes. This will not be easy, but it’s the only way. Foolish Yunwu. She had no idea what kind of a device she had on her hands. If only she had known about the utter possibilities of it… but that’s why she was the deputy mayor. There is only one way this can end. I know it now – I can see it with my waking eyes. Violet won’t approve. She won’t like it. But it’s the only way. I can’t keep going on like this. We can’t.
We’re the human race, and we’re in pain. What good is life? What does anything mean? I see one exit, and one exit only. It’s the only way. My heartbeat pounds with truth. It knows. I know. She will know soon. Life is full of pain, and we must work to stop it. Well, I can. I’ll be the legend and the martyr. I’ll drive this ship home.
Its warmth is comforting, like the happy embrace of an old friend. I shudder and collapse against her, pumping with my fist.
It looked exactly as they’d left it. A barred owl sat in a leafless tree, watching them brazenly. A pack of coyotes was moving across the open dunes. Silver Snead’s corpse was still fallen against the stone overlook. His key still opened the garage. Easing Mighty Mouse into the cave-like base, Yamcha sighed and looked around. There were enough supplies here for him and Puar to survive for months, if not years. With a little bandit-running on the side, they could make a proper living for themselves. So long as none of the Wings ever returned to the base…
The promise of a home, of a real bed to sleep in, was enough.
“Hey, who’s there?!”
“We saw you run in there! No use pretending like you don’t exist!”
The Azure Dragon Sword was in his hand, half slung over his shoulder, when he walked out of the garage to see what all the noise was. There were three of them, dressed in dark military garb, their group’s insignia, three pairs of crimson teardrops descending diagonally away from the chest, betraying their conformity.
Yamcha had not seen these ones before.
“This is my home,” he told them. “Go away.”
“Who’s home is this? A bandit’s? Is that what you are, boy? All this is yours?” The soldier nodded into the garage, where the huge crates, other cars, and hanging racks of weapons said all that needed to be said. Clearly those items didn’t belong to Yamcha.
“So what if we’re bandits?”
“Bandits ain’t no good,” another soldier spoke up, moving forward. He was as impatient as a lizard.
“Bandits are an infestation. Y’know what we do with infestations, boy?” Yamcha shook his head. “We root ‘em out. Burn ‘em down. Make ‘em dust in the wind. Diablo Desert ain’t got room for no bandits, catch my drift?”
“Can you guys just leave me alone? I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care, but if you don’t leave, I’m going to have to make you.”
“That’s it. We’re done. We’ve been cordial with you, bandit, but not any longer. Now you’re dead.”
He raised his rifle. The others raised their guns too. “H-hey… what’s the matter, guys?!”
He found himself moving faster than a sidewinder. He punched the first man so hard his sunglasses shattered. The second man backpedaled and fell over a rock, knocking himself unconscious. The third fellow, a lizardly, clean-shaven eel, raised his tommy gun for a clear shot at Yamcha. Yamcha wasn’t waiting. He wasn’t counting his breaths. Everything was slowed in his ears, save for his breathing. The Azure Dragon Sword flashed from its scabbard, slicing clean through the machine gun. The lizard-looking soldier gasped, and he never saw Yamcha close in with a devastating left hook.
He sent them on their way before returning to the overlook. Once, this had been Wolfe’s secret lair, his getaway club for elite bandits. Only the sands remained. There were dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Yamcha thought of his father and his future. It was easier to ignore the heat in his chest now. He grabbed a sponge and flicked on the hot water. Puar was watching TV, the same channel they’d been watching all those days ago. Then the battle had happened.
Wolfe was probably dead. They were all probably dead. He was alone again. Not entirely alone… Puar was here too. Yamcha was okay with that. He was okay with being a bandit in the desert. He had nowhere else to go. The skate park was suburban hell. Out here, he was free. Out here, he was his own boss.
There was work to be done. The dining room was a mess, and there were a ton of dirty dishes. Those guys with the crimson blood drop insignias… they’d probably be back tomorrow, more pissed off than ever. He’d have to deal with that. But not today. Today he could relax with Puar, just like the old days. No more begging on the streets. This was their home now. This was their life now.
Wolfe was gone. Winter was here. But spring would be just around the corner. The trees would grow leaves again, and the songbirds would return. They’d be a little older, a little wiser, a little happier – just him and his buddy riding the dunes, taking what they wanted, living how they wanted. They were outlaws, but that word didn’t have such a bad ring to it anymore.
The dream was still alive. So what if in the end he didn’t become a baseball star? There was more to life than games. He was nearly a man. He was the only one left. Lychrel would be so proud. He missed her so much, it hurt. The winds blew through the rocks. The water wasn’t warm on his hands anymore.
Yamcha tried not to be so down on himself. The world didn’t give a damn if he was lost, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. He turned the water off and drug his feet over to the dinner table, sitting down. There was a half-empty flask of red-eye whiskey on the table; a blurry, almost-clear bottle of Masamune saké lay next to it. His vision moved from the bottles to the television and to the bottles again.
Peeling away the dead skin on his lower lip with his teeth, Yamcha grabbed the bottle of whiskey and didn’t look back.
the grey against white
wet are my cheeks, pale and cold
the white against grey
Chapter 8: They Got Nothing on MeEdit
Most days they didn’t need the work. But it got lonesome in that desert.
There was this real old lady, see. She was trying to get to the Diablo Desert Express station. The only train station in this miserable, arid wasteland was in Bonetown. And Yamcha wasn’t going that far today. Puar and Yamcha had her stopped, no one around. They could’ve wasted her and no one would’ve known. Her hovercar was old (it barely hovered), but she didn’t have anything inside it that looked worth the trouble. There were some stuffed cats lining the back window and the dashboard. Puar swiped a pink girly one to be his girlfriend later that night.
A hawk was surfing the sky, crying in a piercing, moisture-less skirl. “Okay Yamcha, this one’s done. Where are we going now?” Puar asked. “I’m hungry!”
Mighty Mouse was good at traversing the dunes. It could move through the terrain better than any hovercar. Some animal had died where they stopped next. Its massive rib cage was poking up above the sands. Something had picked it clean.
The highway stretched on and on. They were outlaws; they spent most of their days waiting. A tumbleweed dragged by, but it was going so slowly that Yamcha had to jump up and stomp it to the pavement to ease his mind. They waited in the shade of a giant billboard advertising bingo night in some South City casino.
The two spent their time playing cards and describing their dream women to each other. Puar would go on for long tirades about his dream pussy cat (hint: she had a pussy), the proper length of fur for his mate, as well as fur color, eye color, tail manners, dental hygiene, as well as the color of her collar. All of this information Yamcha needed to know, but as Puar was describing the protocol of his future mate’s claws, they could see a car coming down the highway right for them. Not many cars came down this highway, not since news of the bandit wars had broken out. Suddenly, Puar’s story wasn’t so interesting to Yamcha.
They were out of Mighty Mouse without a word. Yamcha got to hold the pistol this time.
The man’s hovercar was a boom box, blasting out music at an inhuman level. The bass alone rattled Yamcha’s teeth. The young bandit walked down the road towards the oncoming car casually. Despite the speed at which the car was moving, it slowed so it wouldn’t hit him. But the dude driving it didn’t turn down the music. Strolling over to the driver’s side of the car, Yamcha knocked on the window, and the guy decided to humor him.
Half of his bald head was covered in tattoos of dragons and other fantastical creatures. His teeth were gold. His beard was almost a man’s. His white t-shirt was three sizes too big. “What can I do for you, man?”
Yamcha raised the gun, pointing it right at the man’s forehead. “Get out of the car. I won’t ask you again.”
“You better do it, you don’t want to get on Yamcha’s bad side!”
The man looked annoyed. A thin sheen of sweat coated his brow. Yamcha had his finger on the trigger.
“Alright, homie. I get it, I get it. Be cool, alright? Just be cool. I’m gonna open the door, and…”
But when he reached for the door, his arm went too low. Everything happened so quickly, Yamcha hardly had time to react. One moment, the man was diving towards his door, the next, he had popped up again and was pulling the trigger on his own pistol. The first missed wide, the second grazed the boy’s chin, and the third went straight into a cactus behind them.
The man didn’t fire another round. He groaned, leaned forward, and put the pedal to the metal, racing off as fast as he possibly could. The end of Yamcha’s pistol was smoking. The dude’s car veered sharply right and crashed into the base of the billboard.
A drop of blood fell from his chin to the asphalt, soaking into the cracked ground like it was being slurped up.
“Oh my gosh, Yamcha, you’re bleeding.”
The boy’s eyes were on the crashed car. No one got out. From above, the wings of a hawk overtook the sun and briefly cast shade down upon them. He snapped the safety back on. “C’mon, Puar. Let’s go home.”
“B-but… Yamcha, don’t you need to go to the hospital?”
“Heh, I’ll be alright, Puar. It’ll take a lot more than that to take me down.” He grinned like a douche. But the closer they got to the car, the farther that grin was from his memory. He didn’t look inside to see if the man was alive. They didn’t pick that car clean. There were other vultures who would.
“Yamcha, what’s the matter?”
“I don’t know, Puar.” He got in Mighty Mouse. “Let’s go home, okay?”
Not thinking was the best medicine. “But it’s not even lunch time!”
“Look, are you getting in or what?”
Suddenly the passenger door of the crashed car opened, and a young man stumbled out. “Yo man, what you did, what you did?” He had dreadlocks and bronze skin; his goatee was white. “You shot J’charmalagne, what the shit?! That niġġa dead!”
He was sipping a Diet Mountain Dew; his clothes were sagging so much he hardly looked like he could move without everything falling off.
“Leave me alone,” Yamcha told him. “I don’t want anything to do with you.”
“Man, you shot J’charmalagne. Did I stutter?!”
“You’re gonna pay for that, bitch.” He threw his half-full cup of soda onto the asphalt, spraying liquid everywhere.
The man charged Yamcha like a lumpy bull sliding across a frozen lake. He was easy to dodge, easier to kick and punch and submit. After a few moments, the dude just laid there and cried a little bit. He couldn’t get up. He was bleeding from his ear and nose and mouth. He had his cell phone out and was dialing a number like a terrified girl.
“We’re done here,” Yamcha told him.
“Yo, who you is, brah?” the defeated pep-boy gasped. “How you so strong?”
“I’m Yamcha,” he said savagely, scowling down upon the ruined man, “and I’m the king of this desert. Tell all your friends. Tell them if they enter my kingdom, they’re gonna meet me – and they’re gonna end up just like you. If you’re calling for some backup, have them bring their own body bags.”
“Man, yo, that’s some cold lotion. Damn, brah. Damn.”
They raced the winds back to Yamcha’s lookout. It was disappointing, but not unsurprising, that there were five uniformed men standing outside the place, their squad jeep parked in front of the garage. They had seen him approaching – how could they not? The desert was mostly flat, and there was nothing for miles. Any time there’s another person out there, it’s not hard to know.
“I’ll handle this, Puar, don’t worry. Hide under the chair or something.”
“I will not!” Puar retorted, hugging his stuffed bae ferociously.
“You could get hurt, Puar.”
“Fine, Yamcha, I’ll do it because you asked me!”
He pulled up behind the jeep casually, whistling a tune he’d learnt from a businessman who had frequented his mother’s business a very long time ago. “Identification please,” the only soldier wearing a cap and not a helmet asked him.
“You don’t need to see that,” Yamcha said carelessly, one arm hanging loosely out Mighty Mouse’s window.
“What? Please identify yourself, pedestrian. We are looking for the bandit who lives here and if you are not him, please leave.”
“I am not the bandit you’re looking for,” Yamcha said all cool, waving his hand and playing the zen master like a seasoned pro.
“If you aren’t, then please leave, sir.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Yamcha pulled the keys from the ignition. Still whistling, he grabbed Puar from under the seat and stuffed him in his shirt. The tiny furball squeaked and protested and made things a lot harder than they needed to be. The dead tree growing from the rocky base just to the left of the front door was home to a mated pair of barred owls. They watched in silence, their feathers ruffled, their black eyes pupiless and alien. He walked up to the door, put the key in, unlocked it, and quickly stepped inside as the soldiers watched him.
“Yamcha, what are you doing?!”
“Trust me, Puar, I’ve got this.”
A knock came at the door. He picked a browning apple from the table and took a bite out of it. Opening the door, Yamcha smiled and pretended not to know who the soldiers were. “Hey, what can I do for you guys?”
The officer’s nose was aqualine, his chin nonexistent. “Hello again. It appears you are in fact the bandit we were looking for.”
Two soldiers flanked the officer. Another soldier was pulling some boxes of tools from the rear of their jeep. The other soldier was ranging far out in the dunes, his back to them, making sure no bandits could flank them. Three – that’s all he had to deal with. The other two could be taken out before they knew what happened. This was doable. He’d just have to move fast. Yamcha had already learned that sometimes, one is better than three.
The punch was like the lunge of a snake, taking the officer in the nose. He fell, groaning. The heat of the man’s blood on his knuckles made him want to howl in bloodlust. Yamcha grit his teeth and flung his apple at the two men sideways. The apple hit the second man, stunning him briefly. The first man was grazed, but that wasn’t good enough. Yamcha silenced him with a single knee to the groin. The third man was reaching for his gun when Yamcha tripped him and elbowed him in the chest. As the man struggled to find his feet, Yamcha punched his jaw so hard it snapped, and the man fell to the dust, unconscious.
The tool and the ranger remained. The ranger was further away. It was pretty easy to close the distance and elbow the guy near the car in the back of the head. As Yamcha came around the side of the jeep, trying to get a look at the last remaining soldier, he saw with horror that the man was running towards him, his rifle raised. As soon as the man spotted Yamcha, he fired. Looking under the jeep, Yamcha could see how close he was getting. The pistol was in his hand. He popped up like a prairie dog and drained a mag. The soldier wasn’t any more accurate than he was.
Coming around the front of the car, the sprinting soldier got to Yamcha before he could reload. They tackled each other hard and fell to the dirt, rolling over several times, tasting sweat and sand and trading curses like drunken sailors. Yamcha was pinned briefly before he headbutted the man in the face – the only place the man’s helmet didn’t protect on that misshapen, frog-like head of his. Then it was over.
He kicked the man in the head, found his feet, and found the rifle. He looked to the door of his hideout to make sure that the three men were still knocked out. That’s when he saw the fallen barred owl, its feathers no longer white. It lay in the sand, unmoving. Its mate was circling overhead, hooting empathetically in the bluest of skies.
“You bastard,” Yamcha sneered. “Why did you do that?”
“It was an accident,” the soldier said quickly, wiping his mouth. “I was tryna hit you.”
“I killed someone today,” Yamcha told him, re-adjusting his grip on the rifle. “The first one I know about.”
“I-I… I don’t know if it was a good thing or not. H-he tried to kill me, but–”
“‘Course it was. You smoked someone who couldn’t save himself. Who cares now? He’s dead.”
“Don’t you say that!” He drew the rifle up to his face and aimed at the man. There was silence and sniffling for a few moments. “But if he had killed me instead…” He glanced over his shoulder and swallowed. His lips were weak.
“Look kid, you need to get out of the desert. It’s gonna eat you a–”
Wind blew sand against stone. Melancholic birdsong wafted down from a desolate sky. When the shot echoed, it was naked and deafening and unmistakable.
“A-a-and, I’m absolutely certain, Lon, that he has no idea what Cowboy Jack has!”
The board reads: the five of spades, the king of diamonds, the jack of clubs. “I can hear you two,” I tell them, and they look at each other like frightened shrews before munching down their table peanuts hastily.
The air is rife with cigar smoke. I’m up big. I’ve got three times the stack of the second chip leader. I’m crushing it. But I don’t care. Money, fame, skill… these are meaningless words. I can’t stand it.
“Alright boys, which one do you think’s got the nuts?” an Esfandiari-looking man says with chipper spirit, appearing out of nowhere to sit between the other two commentators. They are the only three paying attention to the poker game in the Fire and Blood, so I will let it slide for now.
Cowboy Jack raises huge. “And it looks like Cowboy Jack has put in a huge bet on the flop,” the guy sitting in the middle says. He sounds like he’s orgasming as he speaks, and it disgusts me. “He’s repping an absolute monster here.”
The old man is Lon. He’s wearing a grey blazer and a farm-boy grin. “So Antonio, what would you do here? Fold?”
Antonio is the guy in the middle apparently. “Yeah, of course. If I have nothing, I’m already gone. The fact that the mayor hasn’t folded yet tells me he’s got something.”
“But not the nuts,” the pudgy, balding man on the other side concludes. He stuffs his face with a handful of complimentary peanuts. “I always go all-in on the flop, it’s my go-to move. It’s how I ended up married to my third wife!”
“Call,” I tell the dealer.
“And… a deuce of diamonds on the turn,” Lon says pleasantly in a voice that is well-suited for commentary.
The portly balding fellow is having none of that jive. “A deuce never changes anything! Never ever no-how no-when, nowhere, never! Never, never, never!”
“So this is interesting,” Antonio continues. There is a woman massaging his back as he leans up against his chair (which is spun about the other way). “So the mayor just called a quarter of his stack to see this turn. And in most cases, the deuce of diamonds is a dud.”
“Every time!” the balding man quips breathlessly.
“Anyways, I can’t see this continuing past this point. We’re either going to see an all-in here, or a fold, boys.”
“I haven’t been a boy since before my hair starting falling out,” the portly fellow muses.
“All in,” I say.
“And an all-in,” Lon says in shock. “Wow, did you expect that?!”
“I’ll tell ya, Lon. Kids these days are fearless.” Antonio is shaking his head. “This is just insane. Instant all-in and call. I love it. This is a lesson for all new poker players out there – you can play well without playing slow. Wow. Gutsy, gutsy moves by both players.”
“And of course, there is one card still to come,” the other man says. “Who knows how that could change things, but I know that deuce didn’t!”
The cards are flipped over. My opponent has the jack of spades and the jack of diamonds.
“This is inconceivable, Lon!” the fat man protests. “A man named Cowboy Jack with a ridiculous cowboy hat gets a set of jacks in potentially the deciding hand of this tournament! Incredible! You couldn’t write a better script than this!”
“Especially not you, Norman Chad,” Antonio grins.
Norman Chad puts on a brave face, straightens his tie, and smiles weakly. “Good for you.”
I have the ten of diamonds and the queen of diamonds. Cowboy Jack is indeed wearing a large cowboy hat, and he’s sweatin’ big time now.
“Hold on, Norm,” Lon interjects, “the two of diamonds on the turn gave the mayor a flush draw in addition to his straight draw, so it wasn’t entirely useless, was it?”
“Good for you.”
“I think Norm’s a little steamed,” Antonio laughs. “Come on, buddy, you know I was only kidding!”
My life is their commentary. I’m too high to be an individual. I cannot concentrate. I cannot think. I cannot observe. I am weak and in pain – the pain of living. It is a dull pounding on the inside of my skull, and I’m ready for it to be over.
I stand, sliding my chair against old wood.
“Whoa, don’t’cha wanna see the river?” Cowboy Jack asks me.
I have been keeping the pistol between my belt and spine. It is out in a second, and before anyone can scream, I shoot one patron dead. I do not know his name. He’s pale and has wild curly hair in a semi-collapsed afro. It horrifies me. The man looks like a beast, like one of those Erectus faggots, not a real human being. He is bleeding out with his eyes open, staring up at me, but there’s no person behind those pupils.
Everyone is scattering; a few even scream. The bartender is aiming a shotgun at me. “What the hell are you doing, man?!”
“I’m the mayor of South City,” I tell him. “And I own this desert.” Everything is light and the blood is rushing to my head, and I am only scared of him missing. “Drop that gun and apologize, or I’ll have you taken out back and put down like an animal. Trust me, it won’t be hard to replace you.”
The doors open. Children of Chaos enter, dressed in heavy military fatigues. They are all sweating pretty bad, but none of them complain. Their weapons are already in their hands.
“A-alright, I’m sorry. Sorry! Please… just don’t damage my bar! I can’t afford to start over again!”
I can, and I will, and I might. “Now that you know, I expect no further incidents with you.”
“Y-yes mayor sir…”
I leave. Bonetown is a bare mining town. It lacks almost all necessities, the bar being the one exception. We took a hotel over, Violet and me, and that’s where we have been staying. The Children of Chaos get the first few floors. We get the honeymoon suite. I return to the hotel, washing my face and pulling out my baggie of snow.
I dangle it before me. My face drips. I can see how old I am in the mirror. It’s appalling. It’s disgusting. It’s time to go. I open the baggie and pour its contents into the toilet. Flushing, I have no remorse.
I remember little of the rest of the day. There are blurs of color and people talking and eyes and mouths and fingers. No names, no faces, no meaning. I’m hitting baseballs into the desert, out behind the hotel, when she finds me.
“There you are.”
“What do you need, darling?” I don’t turn to greet her. I’m in position. The pitching machine is old and rusty, probably as old as this hotel (I found it in a backroom, so there’s that), but it pitches true and hard, and I did manage to zing a few good ones before Violet decided to ruin my alone time.
“Mazuchiru is on his way. He’s coming to discuss becoming the new deputy mayor.”
“What?!” Venom is so thick in my throat, I think I might choke. “Him of all people?! I don’t want to ever see that bastard again. He will never be my deputy mayor!”
“Oh please. You’re being dramatic again.”
“I’m being real, Violet. I’m being as real as it gets.”
“Are you high?”
“Nope. I’m done with that stuff. It’s springtime baby. All the snow’s melting.”
She suppresses a scoff. I notice, but she doesn’t know that I do. “What do you think we’re doing out here, love? Selling cookies? This is our big-ticket item. This is what we’re smuggling into all the cities to make ourselves a fortune!”
“Not South City.” Another ball whooshes by and it’s strike one hundred and nineteen for me. “My city’s good and clean and thriving!”
“Look. This is our product. We’re dealing, okay? You don’t have to take it, but that doesn’t mean our trade’s gonna stop.”
Violet pauses and walks up to me. It’s getting a lot harder to concentrate. “Why… did you stop?”
“I don’t feel anything anymore,” I admit. My next swing is hard and hopeful, and it dings the baseball straight up in the air. The ball lands a foot in front of me, in the dirt. “It’s not helping. I’m in too much pain.”
“Real pain?” she asks timidly, care in her voice.
“What other kind of pain is there?”
“Well, I didn’t know if it was mental or physical. Where are you in pain?” She plays it coy. She leaves out the obvious. I am still in the mask. One of my eyes is forever gone, as is half of my face. We both know it, and she’s dancing around it. It’s starting to get me angry. Anger is pain. I do not like being angry. I do not want to be angry. I want to feel good and be good and live well. But it doesn’t feel good to look like you’re feeling good.
“When’s he getting here?”
“An hour or two.”
“Is he bringing backup?”
“What does that mean?” The concern in her voice is new. Interesting.
“The question is pretty straightforward, I think. Woo yeah, oh baby! I’ve still got it!” I throw the bat into the desert in triumph as I hit one good. And as it sails towards the setting sun, I can just tell that it would’ve been a homer.
“Yes, I presume he’s bringing several of his associates. He’s expecting to get the job and set up base here.”
“It is the only town in the desert.”
“What would you think if we all died?” I ask her out of nowhere. A cold sweat falls down my back, and I squirm in discomfort. “If the whole world went up in a giant explosion?”
“I’d be sad, I suppose,” Violet replies. We are finding our way back to one another. She is only a few feet away. “But I’d be dead, so who cares, right?”
“I’d want my last thought to be of you,” I breathe, almost in mania. “I will not go out in pain or sorrow. I will die as I have wished to live.”
Violet’s brow ripples. “What are you talking about? Do you want to die? Do you really want to?”
“Eventually. Don’t we all?”
The sun is falling faster now. A hawk is perched atop a cactus, beyond the reach of the furthest home run balls. There’s a pack of wild horses stampeding down plains further off. And there she is: the jewel of them all. I don’t want to tell her this, but it just cannot wait any longer. I tried to put it off and I failed. I’m a weak man.
“I just don’t see how that’s relevant. What’s your plan for Mazuchiru?”
“Gather your men to meet his host in the open. We will speak to the Yakuza face-to-face and settle all matters with the town as witness.”
I pull the infinite energy device out of my leather jacket pocket. It is out of its case, humming pleasantly. “This,” I say, “is our ticket to happiness, our ticket out of pain. I want to feel good, Violet,” I mutter, my head falling against hers, “I want to stop suffering and stop hurting and start living.”
Pulling away, I notice my love wiping her eyes. There are yet tears in her eyes when she looks up to me. Why is she crying? “Do you love me?” she asks at last, her voice a near whisper.
“Of course I do.”
She steps forward. I sense her heat. I want to bask in her energy, in her love, in her pleasure. I feel no pain in this moment. “Then love me Ba–”
I kiss her, before she can speak my true name. It’s just the hawks listening, but… you can never be too careful.
Just before sundown, they arrived. Bonetown was lethargic and drunk around this time of evening usually. As it was, Violet and her men were waiting for Mazuchiru’s Yakuza. She had promised him that much. He’d promised her that he’d make Mazuchiru the deputy mayor if she’d sleep with him, and she’d done it. She just hadn’t had time to shower since.
Where he was now, she did not know, but she could not stall the ganglord much longer.
There were six armored hover vehicles, and out from each of the first five spilled Yakuza. None were armed, but all looked menacing, like chrome-painted porcupines. Their leader was scarred and slick and well-suited for this desert. He was as cold as they come. She kept her eyes on him. Walking over to the group, Violet waved hopefully.
“What’s the meaning of this?!” Mazuchiru seethed. “Why are we being stopped on the edge of town?”
“We just need to check your cars for weapons.” With a whistle, she had several of her men running over to help her with the inspection.
“We aren’t allowed to bring our weapons into Bonetown?” Mazuchiru seemed unconvinced.
She pretended not to hear him. She had to stall. A man asked her if they could unload their vehicles, and she allowed that. That would buy some time too. That was when she saw them – the men and boys in rags and chains. They had all been kept in the last hovercar. They were released like a herd of animals, tasked with carrying the Yakuza’s supplies to the deputy mayor’s office, which didn’t even exist.
She knew they would be the ones making her new cocaine trade possible.
Their chains were long enough for them to carry boxes. They were dirt-faced and starved. All of them smelled revolting. Most were men, in their twenties to forties, but there were younger men and boys too.
“What are we doing, ma’am?” Cassian whispered in her ear.
“Waiting for the mayor. Just… I don’t know, pretend to be doing something.”
The slight Mazuchiru would take if he didn’t show up would lead to a new war. She would not have that. This desert was in prime condition to be managed by her army, and she didn’t need a Yakuza group trying to wipe her out. Violet would not let this deal fall through.
It wasn’t more than three minutes before he appeared on the horizon, in sandals and a beach shirt. He was wearing a slick pair of sunglasses, which was very much unlike him. There was a cocky grin on his face. She swore under her breath. “All good,” she told the Yakuza. “Oh, and there’s the mayor! We should take this inside–”
“No, we’re talking right here. In the open,” her lover declared, waltzing up to them like ballroom dancer. He was most certainly high, though he’d never admit it. “I’ve got some things to say to you, Mr. Mazuchiru.” His tone was flamboyant and grandiose – delusional, almost. She knew she might have to put a stop to this.
“Thank you, sir.” The Yakuza bowed.
“That’s right.” He rubbed Violet’s shoulder seductively until the gang boss realized what was going on. “My apologies for not meeting with you sooner, Mr. Mazuchiru. Regrettably, I find these days, I have no time for little cuck bitches.”
It could move so fast sometimes, this life. She wanted to say something, but he had the device in his hand already. Mazuchiru’s long, silenced pistol was drawn and flashing, the barrel recoiling stiffly. Her lover fell to the dust, Gero’s creation rolling from a bloody hand. Her cheek was warm. She was running and rolling, dodging, and her men were firing. The Yakuza were firing. Her ears were ringing.
Skidding behind one of her men’s cars, Violet wiped her cheek and stared at the blood for too long. A soldier collapsed on her left, gurgling and bleeding from a gunshot wound to the throat. Her pistol was in her hands; she was ready to go. She could do this. She was a colonel in the Red Ribbon Army. She was a fearless warrior.
The mayor writhed on the ground. Yakuza and empty casings fell around him, like collapsing buildings. Few screamed; one or two betrayed a grunt. For the most part, they went to their graves silent as they had lived. Her own men were not so kind on the ears. Moving back behind the car, Colonel Violet got a better view of the situation. There were a few dozen of the Yakuza, and a few hundred of her own men. Cassian was shouting into a walkie-talkie, no doubt calling the others to battle. Pedestrians and prisoners alike were running about, flailing their arms and screaming. If they just got down, maybe they wouldn’t get shot.
She took a breath and peeped up, searching for the man with the scar. He had done a terrible thing, and he would die a terrible death for it. A bullet bounced off the side of the car and nearly took her eye out. She was down again, reloading a magazine that wasn’t even spent.
She’d find that bastard, and she’d kill him. When next she looked up from cover, the host of Yakuza was smaller, and it was easier to find Mazuchiru. He was running to the back of procession of parked cars, no doubt to make his escape.
The wind was rustling her hair. She closed one eye, held her breath, and thought of the beach. Her heartbeat slowed just enough. The first shot blew off the driver’s side rear-view mirror. Mazuchiru jumped as the second took him in the arm. The third did too, though the fourth missed. And as he began to fall back, she hit him a third time in the side, below his kidney.
The man collapsed as other Yakuza swarmed around him. They loaded him into the car in the back and prepared to drive away, even as her men mowed them down. All the way, the remaining Yakuza gave their boss suppressing fire, giving up their lives for his. Violet would take that any day of the week. She jumped up again, aiming her pistol at the few remaining Yakuza out in the open. She hit one shaggy-haired man above the forehead; it took her three body shots to down a second. A third man shouted wildly, sailing a grenade to Violet’s far right side, and ran ahead, spraying and praying with his machine gun. She calmly dropped him.
The car five cars to her right exploded and several men screamed and wailed and shouted in horror about what appendages they’d lost this time. She wanted to rush out there and stop them before they could get away. There were only two men in the car, including Mazuchiru. But it was too late. They were getting away. And she’d just get herself killed if she tried.
The hovercar hummed to life, turned around swiftly, and was off, a dust cloud around it as it flew down the desert road. She’d have to deal with him again someday. But for now…
“Push them back! We have to get to the mayor! He’s going to bleed out!” She looked around, trying to get a count of how many men she had left. Seven. Seven. Colonel Violet swore under her breath, cursing this awful day.
Cassian nodded. He was wearing heavy desert camouflage armor and a shining black-and-crimson helmet. He motioned to the other survivors and charged ahead. Those Yakuza who remained were doomed to die. There were only three or four of them. They made this a game longer than it needed to be. More people died than needed to die. But it always seemed to go like that.
As Cassian’s force moved forward, they pushed the Yakuza back. One of her soldiers fell over, dead. Six. Some Yakuza stood their ground and died; others made a mad dash for the desert and were gunned down. Two men broke from behind Cassian to grab the mayor. And then they were running, and Violet could hardly spare a thought for the world, she was so anxious.
The Yakuza’s slaves were running this way and that like chickens with their testicles cut off. A few residents were watching the fight unfold from the safety of their blind-clothed windows.
“Did you get the device too?”
One of the soldiers reassured her, “I picked it up, ma’am, don’t you worry.”
They didn’t have a hospital. Not yet. They didn’t even have a doctor. No, her lover’s doctor had apparently been involved in an accident back at the Yunzabit base when she had been on-duty with the Red Ribbon Army. That was a problem to address another time. There were medics in her army, and so one of the soldiers called for them on his walkie-talkie, and by the time they arrived in the hotel, the medics were already there, their kits open, ready to get to work.
The mayor groaned and called her name. They lifted him onto a table and got to work. “How bad does it look?” she asked them in a tiny voice – the slender, short-haired girl amongst all the grim-faced and muscular men. She wanted to crawl up in a corner and die. He was her love. She was his. They were meant to be together. This operation wouldn’t work if either of them…
“It’s bad. Real bad.” The medic was pale-faced and young. “He’s got internal bleeding and organ damage. We’re going to have to operate, but we don’t have–”
“There are plenty of bodies out there,” she told them. “If he needs new organs, go find him some. You will not let him die, do you understand me? He cannot die! He cannot!”
She didn’t remember starting to cry. One of the soldiers was holding her wrists, trying to calm her down. All she could see was that emotionless bastard’s face. She would kill him for this.
A soldier walked her out of the room as her lover’s cries grew louder and more urgent. “You can’t do anythin’ for him in there, my lady,” the man apologized. “We won’t know anythin’ for hours anyways. You better get back out there, see if they’re comin’ back.”
“They aren’t,” she sighed, her head bowed. He would not see her tears.
She felt something warm and artificial press against her hand. It was Gero’s infinite energy device. Taking it, Violet said weakly, “If anything changes… let me know.”
“I will, ma’am. We’ll do everything we can on this end, you got my word.”
Its warmth was comforting. She couldn’t deny that. It was almost like a part of him, with how much he’d been obsessing over the last few days about this little thing. It reminded her of the year they’d vacationed in Yahhoy and he’d suddenly and unexpectedly become enamored with men’s walking canes. He’d spent half the vacation scouring the city for the priciest and most elegant of men’s canes, and in the end, the only one he’d found had been a modest seven thousand zeni purple-painted wooden thing that would have served better as firewood than the strolling companion of any self-respecting well-bred gentleman.
She found Cassian outside the bar, assessing the carnage. He was clean-shaven, with a strong jaw and high cheekbones. Dark hair matted with sweat against his forehead. There was youth and vigor in his movements. The device shuddered against her leg inside her pocket.
Her phone buzzed. It was a message from Commander Red: ‘Return to base, Colonel Violet. We are about to commence upon a grand new era in the Red Ribbon Army’s history! You and the other officers will lead teams scouring the world for the seven legendary Dragon Balls! This mission is mandatory and roll call will be called tomorrow at 5 a.m. sharp. Commander Red out.’.
It was a smile, or something like it, on her face as she shook her head at the sky. Some of the brighter stars were visible. The moon was high in the sky. The sun’s last rays were painting a shrinking region of the skyscape. How had she managed to have such poor luck? How could this day get any worse?
In the distance, a lone wolf howled.
There were bodies everywhere. Bullet-ridden hovercars lay at rest in two groups, though the bodies were everywhere. A few were still bleeding out. There were soldiers about, not bandits or local residents. Yamcha had never seen so many people here, even if most of them were dead.
“Who are they?” His grip tightened on the officer’s leash.
“I-I… they could be Mazuchiru’s gang, I don’t know…”
The Yakuza. So Wolfe was dead. Mazuchiru had win. The reality of it was not something he had doubted, but now it made him feel very small and very alone. The other soldiers were in the back of their jeep, tied up, duct tape wrapped around their jaws. Only this man with the broken nose got to sit up front. His name was Lieutenant Rui Yang. Yamcha had tied a sort of dog-leash rope around the man’s neck and had put handcuffs on his ankles and wrists. He was forced to do the boy’s bidding or get a good suffocating squeeze.
“How many soldiers are in your group, man?”
“I–” The leash tightened quickly. He gasped and wheezed and nodded in submission. Yamcha loosened the rope just a tad. “I-I… there’s uh… one hundred and twenty seven, counting Violet and the mayor.”
“The mayor of South City. He’s Violet’s uh… dunno the word… uh maybe uh… boyfriend is the most appropriate word for him, I think.”
“And who’s Violet?”
“She’s our boss. She runs things here.”
Maybe thirty of the Children of Chaos were dead. That left too many for Yamcha’s liking. Most were probably out on patrol or doing whatever they were doing out here (Yamcha suspected they were looking for buried treasure out there; one time Yamcha and Puar went looking for buried treasure, but all they found was a fish-snake skeleton, and when Yamcha picked it up, it cried tears of sand); the town wasn’t big enough to hold them all. But he could see a few soldiers checking the dead Yakuza, some patrolling the streets, some walking in and out of buildings (especially the bar).
A crow resting on a light post screeched obnoxiously. A young child ran down an alleyway ahead of them. They were parked on the edge of Bonetown, and Yamcha wasn’t sure if he wanted to go any further with this. “Hang on, who are those guys?” he asked suddenly, as he began noticing other people amongst the soldiers – men and boys in roughspun tunics with their hands and feet bound.
“Dunno, they don’t look like residents.”
“I’m chained too.”
“You keep prisoners, or slaves, or whatever the heck?!” Yamcha’s tone was rising.
“No…” Lieutenant Yang spoke carefully, “those aren’t ours, unless Lady Violet changed things since I’ve been gone.”
“You’re going to tell them to leave me alone, alright?” Yamcha asked innocently enough.
“And if any more bandits show up at my house, what’ll happen?”
He shrugged; the noose tightened. “O-okay… I-I’d expect for s-some form of… retaliation to occur.”
“Wh-what kind?” The Lieutenant’s eyes were hazel; his eyelashes were like a girl’s.
“I can’t tell you that. Then you’d think up a way to stop it. But just know that I have a lot of explosives in my hideout, and I know how to use ‘em.”
The man’s eyes were wide and white; Yamcha pulled him out of the car and marched him into town. He was pretty sure none of them knew who he was just by his face, except for the last group. But if there were like a hundred soldiers here, the odds of one of them recognizing Yamcha were remote. Still, he didn’t want to stay long.
“Where’s Violet live?”
Lt. Yang pointed his bound hands at hotel down past the taverns and shops. “Just over there. Room 102.”
“Are you serious?”
“It’s true. This, uh, town doesn’t really have too many places to stay. We’re all in the hotel… well, as many of us as can fit.”
“Go to your master.” He cut the rope and unlocked the cuffs. Lieutenant Yang ran a few steps away, turned around, and stared at Yamcha. The officer was young – perhaps twenty-four or twenty-five - with a clean-shaven face and a wide, blood-crusted nose. He looked thoroughly out of his element out here on the wild fringe of civilization.
Disbelief colored his face. “I could tell them all that you’re here. One shout and…”
He left the man there, in the middle of town. He was done with adults’ stupid mind games. Walking back to the road, Yamcha stumbled across several of those men who were barely-clothed yet tied and bound. Two of them saw him, looks of panic on their faces, and bolted. Another, a younger man with long black hair lying in tangles around his face, approached Yamcha.
“Please…” he begged weakly, his voice dry as the desert, “mercy…”
He sunk to his knees, raising his chains. Across the road, a soldier slapped a bound man who was asking the same thing. It didn’t surprise him that the handcuff keys he’d stolen from Lieutenant Yang fit in the boy’s lock. The handcuffs fell to the dirt, and he stood, rubbing his sore wrists.
“It’s your lucky day, dude.”
“Th-thank you…! I’m Samuel, by the way. Or, I guess I usually go by Sammy.”
Yamcha shook his hand. “I’m Yamcha, the greatest home-run-hittin’ bandit in the whole world, ha ha! How’d you end up here with those cuffs on ya?” Yamcha asked him.
“Those men… in the suits and sunglasses…”
The teenager nodded emphatically, tears in his eyes. “They took me. They’re running a cocaine trade. They were working with the guys out here until today, I think. They made us work for them,” he said, his voice falling to a shudder. “They made us work eighteen hours a day. This man named Higataro beat me so bad with a whip once I passed out. I-I can’t go back.”
“That sounds terrible man. But you don’t have anything to fear, alright? From what I can tell, all the Yakuza are dead.”
Sammy looked away. “No, Mr. M got away.”
“Mhm. I-I… I can’t s-s-say…”
The young man nodded meekly. “My brother’s in the army,” he muttered, bowing his head and clearing his eyes. “M-my parents live in North City… I need someone to take me there…” He looked up hopefully at Yamcha, who probably wasn’t any older than Samuel.
It was just then that a man came running down the road, screaming at the top of his lungs. He was wearing shorts and a bloody shirt, flapping open. There were wounds all over his chest, and it looked like someone had cut him open… like someone had been operating on him. Parts of the man fell out of him that should never have, raw and glistening red. He was old, but not so old. His face was contorted in a look of rabid terror.
The man came stumbling through the streets, gaining the attention of all of the Children of Chaos around. He tripped over a dead man, stumbled forward, shrieked, and leapt at Yamcha. His eyes were bloodshot, his face unshaven. When he saw Yamcha, the man groaned and as he screamed, rushed the boy.
It was pure instinct to pull the baseball from his pocket and throw it at the man.
There was silence. The man collapsed on the ground, a bleeding ruin. The Children of Chaos raised their rifles and fired. There were four of them in the immediate vicinity. Samuel was squealing in fright as he hit the ground. Yamcha was running. Bullets whizzed around him. The parked hovercars gave him good cover.
He didn’t want to kill these guys if he didn’t have to. This dead Yakuza lying in a puddle of blood and vomit wouldn’t be needing his gun. The pistol had a fresh magazine, no shots fired. That was perfect. Yamcha slid around the hovercar, scanning for any soldiers. When he saw one man dressed in dark clothes, he fired. The man grunted, clutching his knee, and fell over. Another man came running over to the scene. Yamcha took him once in the belly and twice in the arm. The third and fourth fell much the same, running over to the sounds of gunfire like lost, eager puppies. Then there were four of them rolling about in the dirt, cursing their pain and him.
Yamcha wondered how grown men could be so stupid.
He stood up and threw the Yakuza’s pistol aside. Down the road from the hotel he could see a purple-haired woman running towards him. His ball was rolling down the road back to him. He caught it with his boot and kicked it into the air, catching it effortlessly. The young bandit found Samuel and helped the weaker boy to his feet.
“Here, take this.” Yamcha handed him a capsule.
“What’s in it?”
“Money and some other stuff. Use the money to buy a ticket to North City,” he said, pointing to the train station on the other side of town. “There should be enough in there to get you where you need to go.”
“Thank you, Yamcha.” There were tears in his eyes.
“Hey, you!” That was the purple-haired woman. Samuel ran off; Yamcha turned to face her.
“I saw what you did. You hit him right in the head with your ball!” She was aiming her pistol at him now.
The barrel flashed, and he felt his baseball explode in his hand. The remnants fell to the ground like grated swiss cheese. His ears were ringing and his hand throbbed from the shock, but none of that mattered. Yamcha sunk forward, his own eyes becoming misty. That had been his father’s ball, the one he’d hit out of the park to win the championship game.
Rage and hate and sadness filled him to the brim. The bleeding man was lying on his back, convulsing and screaming again. Her attention was diverted. Yamcha was looking for a weapon; his cheeks were fire-struck.
It was at that moment that a disheveled man spun around a corner with a pistol in his hands and fired recklessly at the woman, charging her, yelling a droning war cry, his finger squeezing that trigger with the utmost avidity. He wore a suit, but his sunglasses were nowhere to be found. She was struck once in the shoulder, just below the neck, and fell.
The crazy man who’d lost more than one vital organ on his run down the road was sitting up. There were other members of the Children of Chaos there – medics, it looked like. They were approaching the bleeding man at a swift pace; two of them were carrying a stretcher between them. A few more shots echoed. He wondered if the woman or the bleeding gangbanger had died.
He realized then that he didn’t care.
This wasn’t his fight; this wasn’t his concern. He was free as a bird. He didn’t have to be here.
The prisoner whom one of the wounded soldiers had shot was in the alleyway that led back to the open desert. When he saw Yamcha, he stepped away, his eyes shifting, his grey-yellow beard swaying back and forth. Sighing, the boy took out his key again.
Once the man’s wrists were free, Yamcha handed him the key and another capsule he’d stolen from a steady muchacho earlier that day. “It’s all up to you,” Yamcha told him. “Don’t lose that key, okay? It’s the only way you can unlock all of your friends.”
The man’s eyes were wide and perhaps not entirely understanding. Maybe he was deranged, maybe he couldn’t speak Yamcha’s language. Maybe he was just so awe-struck with life that he couldn’t grasp the moment with total coherency. Sometimes things are like that. Yamcha’d experienced a few of those.
He missed Puar. He missed his friend and lounging around and being happy and safe and lazy. Running out of Bonetown, Yamcha threw a capsule into the air. When a low-rider materialized, black-finished and shining, he hopped on and rode that road hog all the way down the highway and back home.
In the distance, a cough of lightning flashed behind the mountains. He gunned it down the bleak highway as legions of silver-reflecting eyes watched him coldly from the shadows.
Every day was the same. Life’s just a dream that’s never ending. She played in the snow harder than ever, and it still hurt. The pain in her shoulder was the worst. She hadn’t even known about the other two gunshot wounds until later, when the medics had taken a look at her.
The past was a fading memory. They had moved him to the South City Hospital, keeping his identity a secret in the process. She was hurt too, but she’d be fine, eventually. That’s what the doctors had told her.
It really wasn’t so bad now. Her shoulder was going to be a problem for the foreseeable future, but that just meant she’d have to take things a little slow. She’d told Red that she’d gotten into a gunfight and was recuperating in a hospital, but in truth, she could have returned to him by now if she had wanted to. There was only one thing holding her up.
Calling up Cassian on her phone, Violet whispered, “Hey, Captain.”
“Lady Violet! What’s up?”
“What’s his condition like?”
“The nurse checked on him two hours ago and told me that he’s stable, but critical. They do not know if he will survive.”
“I see. I will be down there shortly.”
She pocketed the device and got to her feet. With the snow, the pain wasn’t so bad. It was manageable. It wasn’t the end of the world.
The helicopter ride was short – she used a Red Ribbon Army one that she had stored in a capsule so she could get medical clearance to land on the South City Hospital’s landing pad on the roof of its multi-story building. Doctors don’t like to mess with military men – she’d found that out years ago. They’re passive and weak and easy to bend.
It was a short walk down to the fifth floor. A few words exchanged with receptionists and nurses brought her to the door of her lover. Cassian stood guard. Soldiers were posted around all of the fifth floor, guarding every door and hallway. As well, snipers were positioned around the hospital in other buildings in case anyone tried to attack the mayor.
They wouldn’t. No one knew he was here save for Violet and her crew. These precautions were entirely unnecessary.
He saluted her and tried to speak. “Save it, Captain,” she said with pointed care. “Not right now.”
The world was blurred and slow, and everything was moving as if it was all underwater. Inside the room, there was a glass wall beyond a small waiting area and a sign that read: ‘Sterile suits required past this point. All visitors must wear hospital-provided full-body, sterile suits to proceed.’. On a rack in the corner of the room, a set of rubber yellow head-to-toe suits were positioned strategically.
“Nope,” she muttered to herself as she walked in as she was.
He was hooked up to machines she neither knew the names of, nor what purposes they served. He was awake and he could see her, but when he called, his voice was so weak, all she could hear was what sounded like an eighty-year-old turtle trying to cough.
“Hello, love.” She found the seat next to the bed and did not look at him. “How are you?”
“In pain,” he rasped. “It’s… too much.”
“I know, darling.”
“Make it stop,” he begged, “Tell the doctors I need morphine… or better yet… a little snow.”
“No, we’re not going to be having any of that. You quit.”
“I’m done with quitting,” the one-eyed man swore in a hoarse whisper. “I need something… I can’t stand this… Violet, please…”
There was a mark on his forehead where that idiot boy had pegged him with a baseball. What had been the point of that? She should have shot him. If she had, that cowardly Yakuza shit wouldn’t have found his perfect opportunity to ambush her and get her in the neck.
She rubbed as near the wound as she could, and it felt a little better. The room’s walls were pasty white; she felt sick, smelled death everywhere, sterilized and sanitized and made good for just this one place; Violet had to leave. She had to get this over with. It was over. She had to stop being a coward like her goddamn love.
“Do you think there’s life after death?” she asked him suddenly. A Black Talon round was snaking its way between her fingers. She’d painted her thumb violet and her index finger indigo and then continued that pattern for the rest of her fingers. Colonel Violet didn’t remember applying the polish, though. It was sloppy and careless and ugly. She had to look away, but there was nowhere else for her to look.
“We’re all dead,” he murmured into his pillow, turning his head to her. “This is the afterlife. I want to live again, Violet. I want to feel good again.”
“And how will that happen?”
“The psychoscape is our reality… the dreamscape is idealism. I want to be the god…” His hand was opening and closing. “Every road leads to an end,” he cried suddenly.
Goosebumps were on her arms. “What are you talking about?”
“Be my rest, baby,” he whimpered. “I’m scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“We’re all meant to be nobody, aren’t we? Consciousness is the same for everyone. We’re all the same, flakes of nothing made something. Death produced life which produced death. It’s the endless cycle, the same damn fucked up cycle that proves if there was a god at all, he’d be a goddamn psychopath. We’re just wasting time in misery until we return to our lives… when we were pure energy, boundless in space. Oh, the pleasure… the unbridled euphoria of every conceivable moment! I know I remember the feeling, I do, I can, I know it! It’s there, when I close my eyes!” He leaned back, closing his eye. “I can taste it… in the rain… ahhh…”
“Darling…” She was standing, her hand gently running down his one good cheek. “You’re not making any sense. In fact, you sound like a raving lunatic. Please… stop embarrassing yourself in front of me. It’s… it’s not a good look.”
“The whole world is a cesspool… what’s it matter if we burn one more gutter?” Her back was to him. Half as small as a finger, it slid into the chamber with a little pop. “There’s nothing left but misery. We must do it, Violet, we must!! The device… where is it?! We must do it! Now, Violet! Do it now!”
His heart rate monitor was beeping madly. She spun to face him with a half-choked cough. “I love you,” she managed before pulling the trigger.
Cassian practically kicked down the door as he stormed in, his rifle raised. Smoke was rising. A woman was screaming. She kissed him.
“Take me home, baby,” she exhaled, falling into his arms. “Help me forget today. Baby, I’m ready. Take me, baby. Take me.” Her hand was against his cheek, feeling his almost-beard. The room was swimming, and soon she was dreaming of snorkels and bright-colored fish and the taste of iron.
Puar manned the lemonade stand fearlessly. ‘Free Lemonade’ his sign read, and it was a big one made of wood and with painted black letters all in caps because then it looks like the message is screaming at the customer, and everybody wants that.
This was one of their better ideas. A few hovercars stopped by before lunch, and Yamcha worked his magic. He’d sneak up behind them, point his gun at them, and they’d give him and Puar anything they wanted. Most days he just stole zeni and dynocaps, and he only ever took as much as he wanted – never more, never less.
Just after noon, there appeared a particularly sleek hovercar on the highway – a Ferrari Pininfarina Sergio, Yamcha knew. He’d read about those in a magazine Wolfe and the others had left behind in the hideout. This was a pretty fancy car. He knew he could make a fortune off it.
When it didn’t look like the Ferrari was going to stop, Yamcha abandoned his hiding spot on the other side of the road from Puar and ran onto the highway to block the speeding hovercar’s path. Inevitably, it slowed. His pistol was hidden in his pocket.
“What’s the meaning of this?” a balding man in a blue suit and a red tie demanded. He jumped out of his car like a pouty child. His face looked like mashed potatoes. His car door folded up vertically when he opened it.
“Hey, kid, why’re you standing in the road, huh? I’ve got places to be.”
“I’m selling free lemonade.”
“Free lemonade, huh?”
Mashed Potatoes Face shook his face and scowled and his several chins quivered with indignation. That was when the other door shot up like a shark fin. “Ooh, lemonade, oh how precious, how precious, I want some!! Precious pookie wants some wemonade!!” she mock-pouted to her husbandly douche. “Pweaaaaaaase?!”
“Fine.” He mustered up a chilling smile. “For my precious pookie!”
They each had a glass. The man spit his out, getting some on Puar’s honorable winter coat. When Yamcha stepped forward to protest, the woman swooned, dancing over to the boy (she didn’t much care for the floating cat, or perhaps didn’t realize that Puar was a sentient being) and singing, “Lovely, lovely, loooooooooooooooooooovely. You, my sweet, precious, wonderful little boy, have a talent for brewing lemonade.” She kissed him on the cheek and handed him her empty glass. “Thank ya so much for lettin’ old Mayflower have an itsy bitsy lil taste of ya, sugar.”
Her finger trailed down his nose and lingered on his lips for a fraction of a second. She smiled seductively and returned to the slick sports car. Yamcha collapsed in the middle of the road, his face swimming in fire. His pelvis was vibrating like an xbox one controller throwing a tantrum, and he felt lightheaded.
The man was not as pleased. “This is pisswater. Absolute shit! You should be ashamed of yourselves! I could barely keep it down – that’s what she said.” He adjusted his tie and looked rather pleased with himself. “Oh yeah baby, quote it. Hey, my chick’s hot, isn’t she? Hey, May!” he shouted at the car, “show these kids your tits. C’mon honey, for me! A-alright… scratch that. Anyways, they’re huge,” he said very seriously to Puar and Yamcha (who remained in a partial state of rigor mortis on the ground nearby), “I love ‘em. Love to squeeze ‘em. Oh, I’m suckin’ on those bad boys all night long, heheheheheheh! You guys got girlfriends, or what?!”
“No!” screeched Puar.
“Heh, I’m not surprised.” He gave them a knowing douchebag smile and attempted to punt his glass cup off into the desert. When it shattered against his well-shined dress shoe, the man swore, pointed his middle finger to the sky (while keep the other four closed in a fist for some reason), and ran his fingers through his hair, stepping around like a professional tip-toer on the stage in downtown South City. “You guys are losers, that’s what! Hah! I’ve got a smokin’ chick, while you… nerds are sitting out here selling free piss like a bunch of fags.” He spit to the side. “Fuckin’ disgusting. You two should be ashamed of yourselves. You’re trash. Garbage. Heaping piles of shit. You don’t matter at all.”
His wife honked the horn like five times in a row. “Come on, we’re gonna be late!” she screamed after the seventh or eightieth honk. “Lord Didier Reginald Flossbosom, get in your car, your Duchess requires your presence anon!!”
He pointed at his eyes then pointed his fingers at them. This guy liked to use his fingers a lot. Yamcha thought he was weird. But the man let it go finally and hopped back in the car just to speed away. As his car raced down the boiling highway, Yamcha wondered if the poor Didier would need a gin and tonic tonight, or if he’d finally put that barrel in his mouth and pull the trigger.
“What the heck Yamcha, why didn’t you rob ‘em?!”
“Sh-she… kissed me, Puar…” the boy moaned from the side of the road where still he lay. A painted lizard came crawling over to him, its forked tongue tasting the air hesitantly. When he tried to catch it, it bolted off down the road like all the rest. “Sh-she likes me!”
“Oh, Yamcha, that’s pathetic.” Puar went quiet for a while, and suddenly, Yamcha felt the rage come. How dare the cat scorn him. He was Yamcha, The Last Bandit, the King of the Bandits, and all that other fancy mumbo-jumbo. But to be more precise, Yamcha was an especially personable individual, and he hated when people didn’t like him or said bad things about him.
“Hey, you’re the one who gave them glasses from our house… and that blowhard broke one. How’re we ever gonna replace it now?”
“I don’t know, maybe steal another one from someone who comes down the road?”
Yamcha held the woman’s empty cup, savoring the gentleness of her touch. Her perfume was still on him, fruity and robust, like his mother’s had been. He touched his cheek and blushed again. “Huh. I hadn’t thought about that.”
Tumbleweeds blew by, and the clouds moved ever on. A hawk circled overhead – there always seemed to be at least one. How did that man get such a hot wife? And such a cool car? He was awful and ugly and stupid, at least in the boy’s estimation. Maybe therein lay the fault.
The next car they stopped was not in fact a hovercar, but a semi-truck transporting boxes of product from the countryside to South City. “Free lemonade, why, that sounds lovely!” the truck-driver, a middle-aged, quiet-spoken man with dark, deep-set eyes, a half-balding scalp, a thick mustache, a pale face, and a dainty, light-blue polo shirt to go with his khakis and sandals with socks, said. “Thanks, boys!”
“Oh, gee golly!” the man said in a quivering, yet strangely monotone voice. “Wh-what’s goin’ on here, boys?”
“This is a holdup. Gimme everything you got.”
“Why… all I got’s my wallet and them boxes of Mr. Masamune’s saké for the city!”
“Yes sir, and kindly sir, good gracious me. Mr. Masamune runs a number of saké breweries across the world. He’s a real sweet man, too, gave me an extra week off last year when I–”
“Alright, that’s enough,” Yamcha interrupted. “Get back in your truck and get out of here before I change my mind.”
“Whoa boys, I’m just a–”
The boy turned away from him. “Leave. Or we’re taking the saké.”
The semi-truck wasn’t even beyond the horizon when Puar asked, “What was that for, Yamcha? That could’ve been a big score!”
“Trust me, it wasn’t worth it.”
He grit his teeth. He couldn’t shake his thoughts. They were like waves lapping against the shore that was his mind, and every time, they eroded just a little bit more of him. “Puar, go home.”
“I’m going to the city.”
“But why, Yamcha?”
“I’ve got some unfinished business.”
“I wanna come too!”
“No, Puar… it’s too dangerous.”
“But Yamcha, please? I can help, I promise!”
The man had insulted Puar’s lemonade. Yamcha didn’t even know if Puar actually made lemonade or just put some liquid in a jug and assumed it was just as tangy and sweet as lemonade. That’s probably what he did. But Yamcha wasn’t about to take a sip out of that jug, since Puar was a filthy, wild animal.
“Alright, Puar… fine. I give in. I can’t say no to you!”
“Woohoo Yamcha, yeah!” Puar jumped into Yamcha’s hair. Yamcha’s capsule exploded before him, and Mighty Mouse lay in the middle of the road, ready to go.
“Hold on tight, Puar. We’re gonna burn some rubber.”
“Woo, yeah! This is what I really call a party now!” the tiny animal chirped.
And off they were, in hedonism, perhaps, or anxious desire. And as they flew down the desolate road, the coyote carcasses lying just off the shoulder were festering and gathering flies.
She did the line off her table, groaning in her self-indulgence. A lavender-bellied spider was climbing up the doorframe. Violet coughed and sobbed for only one moment. In front of her, on the table, was the device. In its case, it glowed and sparkled and shined and seemed to be more than alive.
“Up on your feet,” Hasky ordered the purple-haired addict. The woman spun around, terrified. Hasky’s pistol said all that needed to be said. “Now hand it over. The device.”
“Wh-wha…?” Violet looked terrible. The dark circles beneath her eyes were only getting darker.
“The infinite energy device you stole from me.”
“I’m… I’m not giving that to you.”
“Then I’ll shoot you and take it anyways.” Colonel Violet was standing and swinging back and forth in place, drooling slightly as she stared at the dirty plastic-tiled floor. “Violet, I need the device,” Hasky said more urgently. She had to get out of here soon if she wanted to get paid. Her buyer was leaving the country in three hours. If she moved now, she could make the deadline. “It’s over, I won. Just give it to me. Don’t make me shoot you.”
“You know you want to.” Violet wasn’t all there. “Do it, bitch. Come on, show some heart for once!”
She collapsed on the ground, crumpling into a heap. Moaning softly, she drooled more. There was something freshly bleeding beneath a bandage over her left shoulder. Hasky stepped over the older woman and plucked up the ten-billion-zeni device.
“And by the way,” she whispered into Violet’s ear after stepping back over her, “don’t think you can just take over this desert. We’ll be back. We always come back. You and your army’ll be buried in the sand, and there ain’t no one who’ll remember you. Just wait, silly girl, you’ll see.”
“I… I… I… I… I… I… my… my…” Violet was breathing heavily, not looking at Hasky.
The thief left Violet to wallow in her own fatuity, all the while wondering if her new client wanted to detonate this device over a bunch of people like the last one.
It was colder in the city, not as bright or clean as what Yamcha was used to. He wondered how many single girls were in all those buildings, and how he could meet them. Cars whizzed by. People flooded the sidewalks, a million different things on their minds. There were more faces than names.
“Alright, you got it?”
“Yeah, Yamcha, I’m ready!”
They had spent most of the day tracking down the red-tie-wearing scrub with the Ferrari Pininfarina Sergio and found him and his chick at a gas station downtown in the red-light district. He was inside, probably getting some jerky for the road. Yamcha jumped down from the concrete overlook and sprinted across the busy street to the gas station, getting many a honk from many an enraged driver along the way. Skidding up to the Ferrari, Yamcha cleared his throat and prepared to say something fancy and romantic to the woman who was somewhat old but whom he very much desired.
There was no one in the passenger’s seat.
“Huh?! Mayflower? Miss Mayflower?! Where are you, Maaaaaaaaaaayflower?!” He looked everywhere, but a gas station is a pretty stark place.
Four Slim Jims lined the edge of Lord Flossbosom treat bag. There was more bulging out at the bottom as it swung from one fat arm to the other. He was going to treat himself today, going to give himself a real tasty snack. Yamcha spit onto the asphalt and folded his arms.
“Oh hey… it’s you! The kid who sold me that piss lemonade.”
“Oh…! Her?” He giggled like a frat boy and threw his bag into his car. “You actually thought that ancient broad was my wife?”
Yamcha’s eyes widened and he felt a cool temper overwhelming him. He let it, sprinting with it in his mind. “Oh yeah? Okay, I get it. Watch this, you stupid-looking moron.” The boy stepped back and cleared his throat. “Wolf… Fang… Fist…!” he bellowed, charging the front of the car, punching and kicking its hood and bumper.
“Hey, what the shit?! Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop that! Hey, dude, not cool! You savage little shit monkey fucker! Get off my car! You’re chipping the paint! Fuckin’ asshole!” Didier Flossbosom slapped his horn a few times. “I’m a red cunt’s hair away from running you over, kid! You’re fucking batshit insane… fucking like a coke monkey getting fisted on acid, and I have the tape!”
It didn’t much matter. After the first couple of punches, Yamcha dinged his wrist on the hood and fell over screaming. It was just at that time that Puar showed up from his own hijinks. He had a five-scoop ice cream cone in either paw. The tiny floating cat had been tasked with stealing a pair while Yamcha dealt with Mayflower. At least one of their plans had worked out.
The douchebag drove off, flipping Yamcha off again. He sighed, licking the top scoop of his ice cream cone. East down the road, the red-light district congested into rows of houses seven stories high. Every window was awash in lights - blues and yellows and reds and greens. He wondered which was May’s, and if anything about her could possibly be real.
“Yamcha! Yamcha! Didja find her?” Puar asked.
“Nope. She was never there to begin with. C’mon, Puar. It’s getting late. Let’s get home.”
“But I’m not done eating my ice cream!”
“You can eat it in the car.”
“You’re not done either.”
He sighed and dropped his in the nearest trash can. His kitty gasped. Strawberry was on his tongue. Trash blew in the wind, up towards an ashy sky. A pigeon landed on the trash can’s rim and hopped in. Yamcha smiled. He was glad an astute animal such as that one could receive such a fine reward for his skills.
“Yamcha… is something wrong?”
“I just thought, y’know…” he said, looking around at the city, “that, well, I-I… I just don’t know if this is it. I wish there were more cool people who lived in the desert,” he admitted. “Not like Wolfe or his people, but like you and me and…” A winter’s wind touched his cheek and his eyes burned, and Yamcha had to swallow hard to compose himself. “Let’s go, Puar. I don’t want to be gone for too long. I’m still worried about those soldiers.”
The days passed on, and were one, and none of those Children of Chaos ever showed their faces again. That was either because of what Lieutenant Yang had told his superior officers, or it could’ve been because Mazuchiru had wiped Bonetown off the map. Yamcha didn’t care either way. He was just glad to be at peace.
As winter turned to spring, rumors about Yamcha began to spread. He was the King of the Badlands, the fearless bandit who would rob anyone and fight anyone and feared nothing, not even himself. More people drove down the roads those days, it seemed, perhaps hoping to be robbed so they could get a chance to fight him. Puar would look with Wolfe’s old spyglass and spot ‘em, and Yamcha’d stop ‘em. A few wanted to fight. Some had no idea who he was.
He didn’t know where his strength came from. He was naturally strong like his father, able to hit a ball out of the park without putting much effort in. He knew some basic fighting moves, and he frequently watched old karate tapes back in the hideout that must’ve belonged to Silver Snead. And he’d met that martial arts master that one time. His form developed, and soon he was able to hold his own against anyone, even larger men with bigger muscles and more fighting experience.
Spring turned to summer and summer crept upon autumn. The number of travelers through the desert waned in summer, perhaps because of the heat, and perhaps because getting beat up wasn’t what many dudes liked to do on their weekends. Yamcha became a sudoku wizard, while Puar mastered Rosey’s old Dance Dance Revolution game. They stole and survived and remained relatively happy.
There were nights though, especially on full moons, where Yamcha felt an especially cold kind of loneliness. It was then that he missed the city. He wondered if there was a girl out there for him.
In late August, they hijacked a caravan transporting silver ore to North City. “Khajiit has wares, if you have coin,” the head driver, a black-and-grey furred cat man, said in a pleasant, but foreign accent.
Yamcha punched them all in the face and steered the caravan to Bonetown. It was only when he arrived that he realized it was a ghost town. The hotel had been burnt down. Other buildings were half-destroyed or crumbled. There were bodies all over town, draped like fallen banners across broken and torched roads and through windows and door frames and inside cars and trucks - the Children of Chaos’ gear he recognized, but the other force, its soldiers dressed in white-and-black fatigues, was unfamiliar to him. Even the Diablo Desert Express seemed to be derelict as a Subway in East City.
These gang wars, factional politics, and the like did not concern him. A wolf does not worry about the squabbling of the sheep. Yet, as the wind rustled through untended orange trees, causing a few overripe fruit pods to fall and splatter on the ground, Yamcha shivered. They were alone out here, him and Puar. Everyone was gone or dead, he knew. This truly was his desert now.
It felt good to be king.
He smiled, in spite of himself. Things had gone well, considering everything. He and Puar left the caravan in the ghost town and returned home, and he slept the night away with the last bit of alcohol left in the base - one more cup from a near-empty bottle of Junmai Daiginjo, Mr. Masamune’s finest.
He woke up late the next morning, feeling refreshed and invigorated and alive, as if he had been cleansed of all his misgivings of the night before with that cup of saké. Eating breakfast around lunchtime, Yamcha was going over pickup moves in his head when Puar came flying down from the second floor of the lookout, his spyglass in hand.
“Yamchaaaa?! Yamchaaaaaaaaaa?!” The transforming kitty bounced all the way over to the kitchen table and sat in the chair opposite of Yamcha. “Victims, woohoo!!”
“Well, it’s about time,” he said confidently, wiping his mouth.
Kings don’t get any days off. He had to get out there and protect his territory. It was rare that Puar spotted people traveling this close to his lair, but still… it would be fun. He stood, placing his bowl in the sink. Cracking his neck and knuckles, Yamcha took the Azure Dragon Sword down from over the sink and slung it over his shoulder.
“We’ve had quite a dry spell since we hijacked that caravan, haven’t we Puar?” he said, looking down from the balcony of his hideout to bleak expanse of Diablo Desert.
“They’re right down there, Yamcha. Can you see them? Can you see them?!”
“Only two? No problem."
With a smirk, he turned, resting his hand on the grip of his sword. The wind blew through his hair; he blinked sand from his eyes. Puar followed him down to ground level.
This would be quite the shock for those helpless fools. He relished the thought. The desert heat on his face, a capsule clenched in his fist, his sword swinging as he ran, eager and cockier than ever, Yamcha knew not what awaited him, nor could he. It was just a girl and her two friends, he thought. No biggie.
the moon's reflection
in the dew-clung maple leaves
a barred owl in flight
Endnotes and How I Wrote ThisEdit
- Chapter Name Origins:
- One Sweet Dream - A reference to a line from "You Never Give Me Your Money" by the Beatles. Astute readers will also note that the opening words Junichi says are the next lyric after the chapter title.
- Silver Dawn - This is an original title, just like chapter 2 of Spindlerun: The Tale of Yajirobe is an original title. The name speaks mostly to the predicaments Yamcha finds himself in in the opening and closing scenes of this chapter.
- The House of the Blue Lotus - Referencing the place Yamcha and several bandits go to on a mission in this chapter. This title was influenced by the song "House of the Rising Sun" by The Animals.
- Stole My Melody - A lyric from "Morning Mr Magpie" by Radiohead. This one's a bit subtle, but it tracks with Yamcha's journey from being in the clutches of the police, to being captured by the Yakuza, and then breaking free at the end.
- Nobody's Fool - A lyric from "Welcome to the Machine" by Pink Floyd. That song is used to open this chapter. I think it works well with Yamcha's growing agency in the story and ties in nicely with the name of chapter 8, tonally-speaking.
- The Blue Wolf and the Fallow Doe - A reference to the Mongolian creation myth. The Blue Wolf would be Wolfe, and the Fallow Doe would be Yunwu. This chapter is where the last stands of both characters occur, though funnily enough, they do not confront one another, but other, more unexpected foes instead.
- Everything Goes Away - A lyric from "Always Gold" by Radical Face. This is referencing the waning of the bandits in the desert and the fall of the mayor, as well as Violet's tenuous hold over Diablo Desert.
- They Got Nothing on Me - A lyric from "That Moon Song" by Gregory Alan Isakov. This references Yamcha's arc overall in the story and his growing confidence in this chapter.
- The Diablo Desert Express is a real railway in Dragon Ball Z: Buu's Fury.
- Hasky's client is not a character who appears in this story, but a character who will appear in a future story of mine.
- The monster Tao captures for the mayor is probably a yeti or something similar. Perchance it could be an artificially-engineered animal horror too.
How I Wrote This:
This story was a lot more casual than Spindlerun because I didn't really need to research stuff about a culture (bandits are not as homogeneous as samurai, for example). The first thing I did was watch both Kill Bill movies and took some notes on stuff I wanted to expand upon. Then, I came up with a list that is as follows:
-Masamune Brothers: swordsmith/sake brewer duo, finest in all the land. Tonji is the sake brewer. Jakuto is the swordsmith - one of the greatest katana makers in history. -pirates -bandit gang -rival bandit factions -assassins -treasure -political members of high standing -fancy sushi dinner -fucking a dead body -motorcycle chase in a city at night with everyone wearing distinctive colors -girls playing electric guitars -clockmaker -yakuza group/rival gang - members have elaborate, exotic tattoos across their bodies -mushroom forest in diablo desert -many animals around, including fish snakes that are snakes in the sand -yamcha cooks for the bandits, wondering if he wants to be a chef -yamcha's baseball hobby is mentioned *Yunwu *Wolfe *Yamcha *Yamcha's female companion: Lychrel (has a tattoo of 196 on her palm); she is black *Yamcha's male companion: Junichi (Asian, has a scraggly beard, likes to smoke)
This is all I ever wrote for Chasing Oblivion in preparation. I did minor research into Yakuza gang structures and some other stuff, such as the sushi meals that Jiro prepares, but there wasn't nearly as much preparation compared to Spindlerun. I wrote most chapters in several chunks - 3-4 sections at a time. Each chapter, especially the last three, took roughly anywhere from 6-12 hours to write and put on here, I'd guess. I usually spent 3-5 days working on each chapter, though several of them, such as chapters 6 and 7, took a bit longer.
As with Spindlerun, I also created outlines for every chapter that will be posted below. These chapter outlines are not always followed very closely in my story. This is particularly true of the outline for chapter 8:
Chapter 1 Outline: *cue Mary Jane's Last Dance* Yamcha is with two other bandits who capture a car full of expensive sake from the masamune brothers. They kill the driver, but one of them is injured. After they see what they have, they get piss drunk and soon a group of bikers arrives. The leader is Wolfe, who insists that the sake be given to his bandit gang. He offers all three to join his gang. They don't want to, but they have no choice. Just before the leader shakes Wolfe's hand, he is shot in the face and dies. Wolfe then takes Yamcha and the other (a girl) as the newest members of his pack. Cuts to Yunwu in the deep city. She and her guards look out over a rainy night from a super high skyscraper in a zen garden. She meets with a man named Tonji and it is revealed that she is selling him back the sake that Yamcha stole. She gets a good price from the Masamune brother. There's a meeting with an allied Yakuza group, discussing political assassinations and bribery. They also watch sumo for fun. At the end, Yunwu returns to her room, where a girl waits for her with a message. The girl gives her the message and reveals that she's Yunwu's whore as well. Cuts to Yamcha, who is with several of Wolfe's bandits. They stage an ambush of a low-flying airplane. They down it in explosive fashion, only to find that the members inside were high-ranking members of a rival bandit gang. This severely distresses the leaders of the group. One runs off, while another fucks a dead woman before blowing his brains out, for fear of what Wolfe would do to him. Yamcha notices that the insignia on the inside of the plane, on all the crates and whatnot, has a crimson serpent on it. He pockets one of the coins, while the rest of the bandits flee back to base chased by a nameless terror. Cuts to the top of a snowy mountain. There are soldiers everywhere guarding doors. Cuts to first-person. They rise in a political room, revealing some aspects of who they are. They see they have a meeting with a pirate and a yakuza boss, implying corruption. Before then, though, they focus on a book about negative utilitarianism and decides to go to a philosophical group about that before work starts.
Chapter 2 Outline: Saul, the corpse-fucker, the other bandit, and Yamcha return to Wolfe's hideout. They tell him the bad news. All are killed by Wolfe except for Yamcha when he presents the Azure Dragon Sword to Wolfe, who takes the weapon as his newest prize. Yamcha then has a short conversation with Lychrel and explores Wolfe's bandit hideout a bit. Cuts to scene 2. Yamcha goes searching for treasure with some others, getting to know a few of Wolfe's assassins. They ride through the mushroom forest preying on unsuspecting victims until they come upon a yakuza group doing drugs and excavating some kind of treasure. A firefight occurs, where all the yakuza are killed, and Yamcha and the others take the treasure back to Wolfe. Cuts to Yunwu, who meets with Wolfe about an assassination mission he must embark upon. He is not happy and brings up the potential gang war that will soon befall Diablo Desert. She offers him support monetarily, weapon-wise, and with what mercenaries she can find, but he doesn't seem to be that pleased either way. Cuts to Yamcha, who was tasked by Wolfe, along with others, to clear out a small encroaching gang. He also tells Yamcha and the others that they will carry out the assassination attempt. Yamcha doesn't like how violent everything is and considers leaving the gang, but knows he has nowhere else to go. He thinks back to a baseball game he went to as a kid and wonders where the time has gone.
Chapter 3 Outline: The mayor uses Colonel Violet's own police force to take over the place he's at, silently killing several members. He thinks about ending the world to reduce pain and goes to see his box which shakes this time he goes to see it. He considers releasing the beast then and there on himself to end his own pain, but refrains, noting that that would be too selfish. Colonel Violet calls him and tells him that she has secured the weapons he needs. Cuts to Yamcha. Yamcha and his team travel to South City where they party in the House of the Blue Lotus in preparation for what they are supposed to do. Yamcha learns about the shapeshifting school, gets drunk with everyone else, and has a few awkward encounters with females. Cuts to Wolfe. Wolfe knows that several of the Diablo Desert gangs have learned of the felling of the Night Snakes' plane. They suspect him. As a peace offering, he sends Ren to one such gang, but when she arrives, Wolfe himself snipes the leader who comes to receive Ren, pissing off another gang. He then takes out a rocket launcher, hops on his bike, and goes with the rest of his team down towards the gang members still out there. Ren is shot in the process. Cuts to Yunwu. Yunwu meets with a mercenary group, promising them money if they help Wolfe. They agree. She then meets with Naigo and Makare, hoping to get samurai to help her, but during the meeting, the two come up with another idea and set off somewhere else on another mission, angering her greatly. Yunwu then meets with Mazuchiru again and asks for his help. She gives him money from the Yakuza barrels, and Mazuchiru instantly recognizes it as his own stolen money. She doesn't realize this, but he understands now what has happened, even though he says he will help Wolfe. Cuts to Yamcha. Yamcha and the others set up the explosives. Yamcha doesn't actually set any; he considers running away. One of them detonates the blast prematurely and accidentally while the group is still in the House, killing several of them. As Yamcha, Snead, and Lyschrel flee the burning building, they are immediately arrested by South City police.
Chapter 4 Outline: Yamcha and the others are questioned. Snead takes sole responsibility after being interrogated, and the police let Yamcha and Rheems go, and Lychrel is in the hospital. They both claimed to be customers of the whorehouse. Then, Yunwu enters to talk to Snead. Yamcha and Rheems leave the station and are immediately abducted by Yakuza. Cuts to Wolfe. He infiltrates another bandit outpost and massacres them, despite them being friendly to the Wings in the past. His cook is killed in the firefight. Afterwards, he sets up a lucrative cocaine trade through Diablo Desert. He also learns from the guy who lives next to Yamcha that Ren is doing better and that some of his poison is missing. Cuts to Yamcha and Rheems. They are with Mazuchiru and his gang. Mazuchiru doesn't explain what he wants with them, instead taking them to a Noh play and then a fancy sushi dinner with many businessmen in suits and stuff. At the start, Mazuchiru asks Rheems and Yamcha to kill Wolfe for him, and he'll let them go if they do. Rheems refuses to; he's very loyal. Yamcha is too scared to say anything. Sushi is served, and dinner begins. Mazuchiro stands up, walks over to Rheems as the fox is eating, and casually slits his throat. Then, he points the bloody knife at Yamcha and asks the boy again if he will kill Wolfe. Cuts to Yunwu. She receives a video message from the mayor in Yunzabit Heights telling her he's returning soon. She sharply questions Snead about Wolfe and learns much of what is going on in Diablo Desert. She realizes that Wolfe is making a power grab and decides to enact her plan immediately. But she can't do that until Ren is back, and she doesn't know where the girl is. She offers Snead his life if he returns the girl to her in one day. He agrees and leaves. At that point, she meets with several reporters about the whorehouse explosion and tells them that whoever blew the place up is already dead. Cuts to Yamcha. He is taken outside to be transported back to Diablo Desert. Instead, Yamcha steals a motorcycle and runs off, being pursued by the Yakuza. All of them end up dying as a result of the high-speed chase, though Yamcha does not actually kill any of them.
Chapter 5 Outline: Scene opens with Yamcha. He is riding with Wolfe's elites on motorcycles, relaying some history back. They perform the train heist. The train is carrying zeni for King Furry, and they steal it. On the other cars, there are civilians, and Yamcha meets one named Puar, whom he saves from being killed by another bandit. Afterwards, Puar decides to stay with Yamcha instead of going on with the rest. Scene cuts to Yunwu. Ren has been delivered to her, and they have had several rainy days of passion together. Her banana tree is wilting. She remarks on the pigeons now taking up residence in her zen garden. With her meeting scheduled with Mazuchiru, he sends only a lackey who has an ominous message. Cuts to Yamcha. Yamcha is in Wolfe's new abode, with Wolfe' paranoia, cooking for him under the tutelage of Thoras. He learns to cook, and after creating an impressive dinner, Wolfe drunkenly gifts the boy the Azure Dragon Sword. Another Yamcha scene. This time, he wakes up with Puar and the other and has qualms about his position. He does not like being a bandit servant. He goes out with several of them, including Puar (who has been recently made a bandit) to steal from some people. The stealing is okay in Yamcha's mind, but not the killing. He decides to shoot the flair the Yakuza gave him as a sign of attack when his fellow bandits kill several people. Then, in the night, he and Puar escape in the Mighty Mouse car with the Azure Dragon Sword, and he travels afar to watch with trepidation what will happen next. Cuts to the mayor. Mayor is thinking about baseball as he stands on a glacier watching the absurd reverse utilitarians acting out while performing weird ritual-like maneuvers. He wonders whether anything will come of his monster. He desperately misses Bobo and Violet and has trouble remembering anything about himself. High on cocaine, he returns to his room, where he hears banging in the walls. Convinced that the monster is close by and is coming for him, he calls for Tao to arrange the last meeting post haste. He finds the remains of one man he knew, as well as several soldiers. The monster is hungry and feeding - the mayor realizes he will need to draw it into the room to make sure it is well-fed.
Chapter 6 Outline: No outline saved.
Chapter 7 Outline: No outline saved.
Chapter 8 Outline: Opens with Yamcha. Yamcha preys on travelers in the desert and has another confrontation with the Children of Chaos that goes well for him and not for them. After a second group is sent out to deal with him, he captures one man, and with Puar, drives off to the man's base (the man is forced to tell them where it is). Cuts to the mayor. He is in Bonetown. After getting into an argument with a man over a poker game, the mayor kills him, and this causes issues in the bar that the Children of Chaos have to deal with. The mayor stops doing cocaine, claiming it doesn't feel good anymore. He's smoking and hitting baseballs into the desert when Violet finds him, and they have a talk. He tells her frankly what he plans on doing, and Violet quickly asks him if he loves her. Cuts to Violet. The meeting with Mazuchiru is out in the open and there are guards on both sides around. She sees his slaves as Mazuchiru's gang is unloading supplies, doesn't do anything about it. When Mazuchiru asks what is going on, the mayor appears and mocks him mercilessly. This leads Mazuchiru to shoot the mayor in the belly. A firefight erupts, wherein almost everyone on both sides is killed. Mazuchiru, shot several times and bleeding, escapes with the single Yakuza who survived. Violet is minorly-wounded, but not much. Afterwards, the mayor is taken to the doctor. He looks to be mortally wounded. He is clutching the infinite energy device and going mad - begging to become an Android or be saved for any price. They are in a makeshift army tent on the outskirts of Bonetown. The mayor goes into what appears to be a coma and Violet sits by his side, thinking of their past and of Cassian and wondering about things to do with the RRA. She is in a rare state of emotion. Cuts to Yamcha. He and the soldier arrive at Bonetown, which is full of bodies - Yakuza and Children of Chaos. There is no one alive around, save for the Yakuza's slaves, which are tied with chains inside a nearby building. Yamcha meets them, including Samuel and Samuel tells Yamcha about the cocaine trade going on in the Diablo Desert, and the use of slaves by the Yakuza and now the Children of Chaos. Yamcha sets all of the slaves free. That's when the mayor comes running out of the tent nearby. He is shrieking and clutching the infinite energy device. Yamcha pegs him in the head with his baseball to knock the raving lunatic out. He meets with an assassin who has been sent to Bonetown for unspecified reasons as they watch Violet come out and stand over the bleeding man. The assassin raises his gun and shoots at Violet, grazing her shoulder. She dodges out of the way just as the infinite energy device explodes. It's a large explosion, but not nearly anywhere close to nuclear. Yamcha and Puar flee as the assassin and Violet continue their fight. Cuts to Yamcha. He spends several days banditing around, even going to South City once on an assignment. He does some parkour. In the desert, he meets a man who gives him a philosophical lecture. The scene ends with Yamcha and Puar assaulting a car and finding its driver to be Lychrel. Yamcha and Lychrel catch up a bit, but there is no romantic spark between them. Cuts to Violet. She has a brief scene where she stands over the nearly-dead mayor. He becomes lucid and talks philosophy and pain with her. She does not agree with what he tried to do. She loads one of the Black Talon bullets into her gun and fires at him suddenly, mid-conversation, to end his pain. She almost cries, but not quite. As she exits the room, Cassian is guarding. He asks about the shot. She kisses him. Cuts to Yamcha. Yamcha bandits around for a while before having a confrontation with the Children of Chaos. This ends with a confrontation with Cassian in which Cassian is maimed. The Children of Chaos retreat. Cuts to Yamcha. He and Puar are lounging, doing some banditing. They have some scores and some nice bonding before meeting Bulma, Oolong, and Goku.
I will be speaking about this story more in depth on its anthology page, which can be found here.
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