Wrapping up the mini story collection from Valentine’s Day are stories from Sashi to Lan and Hyx and Vale to Nexus.
Angel Hunt | Streifen
It started with breakfast. Hustle in, hustle out. Gulp down some food and coffee before the chair warms beneath you. No time for newspapers or chatting with the waitress. Don’t leave food on the plate or it might get whisked away before you can protest. Now get out so the next person can be ushered in. Quick and impersonal. Just the way New York City likes it.
Wait for a turn at the register with bill in hand as the line ticks down, gray eyes snapping a sharp look when jostled by those behind or others waiting to be sat. The city is life, the city is personality, the city is culture, or so all the tourist posters proclaim, but the city is also crowded, noisy, and sometimes unwashed and stinking. Hand over the bill to the bored looking girl with colorful flower tattoos running across her exposed shoulders, followed by a credit card. Light brown eyes skim the name, back up and read it again before sliding it through the reader. From the side of the register a crisp white envelope is produced, held out when the credit card is returned, and upon questioning is explained as having been left for me.
Out the door into the February chill that’s rarely and mercifully absent of the usual blustery city wind, scarf wrapped tighter and overcoat collar turned up as the envelope is closely inspected. No stray marks, only my first name typed onto the front, wax seal on the back. Breaking the decorative fleur patterned seal, a plain white card bears a simple typed message, “At the place where the lions rest, you’ll find a man with a cane.” No great feat of deduction needed here, the place is the New York Public Library, where two great marble lions sit at the foot of the stairs.
The blocks pass in a haze of other pedestrians, honking taxis, darting bikes, and seeping cold. The lions appear on their pedestals, serene in the face of the hustle passing below. At the base of one stands a short old man in multiple layers of winter gear, a carved wooden cane held loosely in one hand. From beneath the brim of a winter hat, sharp blue eyes meet thundercloud gray as soon as the space between is closed, and gloved hands produce another white envelope. Like the first my name is typed on the front and inside is a plain card with a second message. “Seek this Far East cousin of the common orange and indulge in relaxation.” A long moment is spent frowning at the card, the words providing no insight until the catalog of all things is consulted. A few short searches on Google uncover the destination: The Mandarin Oriental.
And so the hunt began.
The hotel staff are insistent as they hustle me into the spa, and a luxurious massage and detox wrap later, the next envelope is presented and the clue indicates an upscale salon. After convincing the city’s most sought-after stylist that there is no desire for the white streaks to be removed with dye, the next location is revealed on another plain white card. A chain of stops around the city begins to unfold, including a tailor, where a custom suit is already made in the correct measurements. Some stops provide items that are instructed to travel to the final destination, such as the wine shop, bakery, chocolatier, and florist. Lunch is served at the city’s best and most authentic Mexican restaurant, where the chef himself brought out plates of every amazing spicy thing one could ever dreamed up.
It’s only as the sun is setting that the final card holds a simple address as the clue, the building a towering structure of metal, stone, and glass set up against the edge of the green expanse of Central Park. The private car that appeared between the tailor and the wine shop is met by a uniformed doorman, his great, booming voice announcing that the true destination is on the roof. The items collected on the scavenger hunt are rounded up by several black and white clad humans, left behind as mirrored elevator doors close and the floor indicator begins to ascend.
When those doors reopen, the world has changed. Soft string lights and candles adorn a cozy rooftop terrace, their golden glow illuminating the arrangements of flowers in every shade of red, white, and pink. A flagstone path set in a sea of real grass leads to a small table set for two and the view beyond is a stunning view of the park and the reservoir beyond, the surface glittering with the reflected light of a city full of glittering stars.
Into this view steps a tall, slender figure, his shaggy white hair brushing the shoulders of a fine suit and illusions covering the scars long since committed to my memory. The author of the cards and architect of today’s scavenger hunt, the one who knows measurements and food preferences and favorite expensive French champagne, and the keeper of my heart. It was figured out early that he was behind the luxurious treats of this day. No one else would bother going through what must have been some extreme hassles to get everything set up. No one else would care enough about someone like me to bother.
Lan’s smile is warm and inviting, the kind that reflects deeply through summer yellow eyes and holds nothing back. Soft tendrils of heat automatically begin to unfold deep within, a response as ingrained and natural as drawing breath or blinking. Something so simple, something others take for granted, it means everything. He means everything and always will.
A hand is offered in welcome, grasping it’s caramel-tinted counterpart and leading the way to the rail at the edge of the terrace. There, strong arms enfold my shorter frame, pulling me close and I melt automatically at his touch, the words whispered a heartbeat later bringing a rare smile to my own lips. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Sashi.”
The Love of My Life
The eastern hallways of Death’s realm are made of cream colored marble, quartz, and halite, and filled with a dense, perpetual fog. Static torches light the way every so often, the golden light reflecting in the fog and off the the walls and floors, causing them to appear to glow. When one dies and “goes into the light,” this is what they’re seeing, this piece of Death’s realm that serves as the crossing over point for spirits.
Well, for spirits that come into the realm of their own volition, anyway. They may not want to come, they may yearn for their lives and families homes, but still they accept that their time as a mortal has closed. Those who refuse, however, must be brought across with an escort, and that is the task of the ghost mages. Round up the spirit of the deceased from where ever they died and bring them here for assignment in either Light’s realm or Hel’s realm, whether they wish to come or not.
This case, Vale reflects, blue green eyes sliding over the translucent figure at his side, was a ghost not interested in being dead. It’s true that she’s only middle aged or so, a scattering of white in her long hair, yet far from an ancient crone, but still she’d stubbornly refused to cross over. She wasn’t ready to die and she couldn’t leave her much younger and very handsome lover, and it wasn’t her fault that she’d accidentally overdone it during sex and died of heart failure. It’s unfair and ignoble and she wants a redo. She does point out, however, that at least such a death left a lovely corpse for the funeral.
“So where was I, then Love?” the ghost, Sigri, prattles on as Vale leads her through the swirling mists. “My Sandes, he was the love of my life. When first we started together, he would bring me flowers from the hills south of town every day, bouquets of fire flower, pink slipperbloom, morning blossom, and cat’s delight. It was sweet and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it made the house stink because none of those scents are complimentary in any way. But that’s just how he is, you know, always thinking of me and what I want. ‘Sirgi,’ he’d say, ‘those beautiful hands should never scrub a pot’ and so he’d scrub them all every night. Have you ever! A man who scrubs pots!”
Brown and cream hair shifts around the ghost mage’s shoulders as he listens to her go on and on about the perfection of Sandes and how in love they were. Honestly, though, if it distracts and keeps her from trying to turn around and recross to her own realm, he’ll continue to listen. Other than the constant complaints about her death not being “fair”–like that’s the first time he’s heard that argument. No one thinks their death is fair–and her attempts to fight him when he’d first tracked her down, this has been a relatively easy retrieval. After his last few assignments, he’s owed a relatively painless one.
“So what about you, Love?” the ghost’s question interrupts his thoughts. “How is your love life these days? Is there a special lady out there waiting for you to return?”
This is not a question he’s been expecting to field, but if it keeps moving, then whatever. “I’ve recently become involved,” Vale replies, unable to keep the hint of a smile from his lips. “It’s the first time I’ve been in a relationship where I can see myself committing long term.”
Sigri nods enthusiastically. “That’s wonderful, Love, and reminds me so much of my Iyim. He was my first real lover and oh, we were like fire together! Of course we were young and had more stamina than brains and we were well acquainted with every place in our village that two people our age could be alone together.” She sighs happily. “We fucked like rabbits, and he was the love of my life. But tell me about yours? What’s she like?”
Vale turns a corner, the walls and floors slowly darkening as they pass through the eastern hallways. “It’s two people, actually,” he corrects the ghost, and she hoots in delight. “One I’ve known for a long time. He’s tall, dark hair, and can be moody. It’s hard for him to admit at times that he needs help or that he’s hurt, but I don’t know if that’s because he’s stubborn or because of something in his past.” Honestly, he doesn’t know a whole lot about Hyx’s past before he died and became a youki-mi. The subject has always seemed somewhat closed, and he’s never really pressed it. Hyx knows about his childhood and his twin, but very, very little information of the Herald’s own has ever been reciprocated. “His job’s one that’s stressful and he doesn’t always like it, but he’s very good at it,” Vale continues as they leave the very last of the white marble tiles, the fog rapidly dissipating into thin, gauzy tendrils. “We’ve spent some time together here and there in the past, but nothing more…” permanent? Expected? He’s not particularly sure how exactly to explain it when they haven’t really given any definitions amongst themselves, and so he simply repeats the words. “Nothing more until now.”
Sigri is hanging on every word as they walk down the high ceilinged corridor whose walls are adorned with rich tapestries depicting events on various realms, usually those of cataclysmic destruction. “He sounds mysterious, Love. There was once a woman in my life, you know. Her name was Mezil and she had the most beautiful singing voice. Women with women is not unheard of, of course, but it was in my town and you better believe we shocked a lot of people! And her hands… I still dream about those hands some nights. Her father owned a large herd of cows and she had lots of practice with the milking, which I reaped the benefits of, if you understand my meaning.” She winks at the ghost mage. “Ah Mezil, she was the love–”
“Of your life?” Vale finishes, picking up on the theme. Let it be said that Sigri loved each and every one of her companions deeply. The ghost laughs, the sound filling the otherwise quiet hallway before she regains enough composure to ask about the other person in Vale’s relationship.
It takes a little longer this time to describe Nexus, not because he’s thinking up what to say about him, but rather that he can be difficult to explain. The things he displays on the surface are just that and obvious to anyone who cares to spend a few hours in his company. What’s underneath, however, is where things get tough. Sometimes he thinks he’s making headway in getting the other man to open up, but then the door will slam shut between one moment and the next without anything actually coming through it. “He’s a Nightmare and rather new to Hel’s direct service. There’s something… withdrawn and closed up about him, something that I can’t help but want to open up. But as he’s not one to say much, it can be difficult. I still try, though, and I think he sees that, so I won’t give up.” Because somewhere beneath that standoffishness is the real Nexus, the one Vale sometimes sees in the depths of flame-tinted eyes, and that Nexus needs to be seen and heard.
“I had a young man once named Girsin, rather handsome, but not much in the way of a talker. Easier getting money from a miser than words out of his mouth. Avoided any talk that wasn’t about the weather, which crop was in season, or what kinds of food he preferred. Never did learn anything about where he’d come from or who his family was,” Sigri shrugs. “But once I opened him up just a little, he was smoking hot between the sheets. That was all the talking I wanted or needed! Is that what your Nightmare is like?” The look on her face passes over indecent and goes directly to lascivious, which is sort of disconcerting given one, that she’s dead, and two, that she’s probably around the same age as his mother.
“You certainly had a lot of love in your life.” Vale dodges her question. The corridor comes to an end, a large conservatory opening before them. Death’s amusement with the teeming life of plants is on display here, trees, flowers, and shrubs growing in neatly manicured beds. The obsidian pathway leads to small groupings of benches, many occupied by various agents of Death.
Sigri laughs again, the sound drawing several pairs of eyes in their direction. “A girl has to have some fun, right Love?” Noticing the attention, the ghost revels in it, tossing back a thick lock of her intangible hair. “And we had so much fun, each and every one of them and me,” she reminisces, somehow managing a faraway look in eyes that are transparent. “Well, right up until I peeled the flesh off their bones one inch at a time.”
Blue green eyes blink slowly, sliding over to see if she’s joking, because surely… Nope, just complete seriousness written on her face. Serial killer is not a plot twist he saw coming. So a trip to Hel’s eternal realm for this one, then. “That seems like a rather… intense kind of break up, Sigri.” Sandes, where ever he is, has dodged a damn bullet.
“Break up? Oh no, Love, once you’re with me, you’re with me forever.” There’s a rather heavy tinting of insidiousness to the words, like having a conversation with a black widow spider.
Passing through an intersection of the pathway, he spots Nexus and Hyx standing before a fountain that flows with black water and is crowned with a statue of a huge raven. Both flame and golden eyes are drawn to him immediately, something the ghost doesn’t miss. She cackles loudly, the sound ringing out over the splashing water and soft murmuring of the conservatory’s other occupants. “You have good taste,” she says with a smirk, “and I have several pointers on how to dispose of the bodies once you tire of them.” Sigri holds up a translucent finger. “First, get a large cauldron…”
Sighing heavily, Vale ignores the looks from both the Nightmare and the Herald, steering the ghost down the obsidian path toward one of the nearby doorways…
[Lan and Nexus belong to Nezumi. Everyone else belongs to me.]