Bitter Bones

by Daniel Miranda

Oki held the last bone fragment in her withered palm. A child’s. Although she had washed the delicate rib, its surface was still blotched with darkened signs of blood. She waved a sakaki branch over the bone and laid it gently into the pit before her as the villagers approached with urns of salt. Hundreds of bones. Hundreds of souls wiped out by famine from a neighboring settlement a year earlier. Their pain and anger had fermented for so long it had created a monster.

A gashadokuro. The skeletal giant made up of the remains of the starved had been plaguing the countryside for the past two and a half days. Salt poured into the pit. It did nothing to muffle the unseen energy thrumming against Oki’s mind like the tides of a furious ocean, wishing to continue its grudge against the living. It wished to kill her.

The purification ritual was not yet complete.

Frantic, humidity-sheened men proceeded to cover the pit with dirt at Oki’s instruction, yet many of the woman and children huddled back to watch her work quite a distance away. They were afraid of someone, and it wasn’t the gashadokuro. Oki put them out of her mind for now and went to her knees.

“I bow before you, nameless spirit,” began Oki, lowering her head. “With great respect, I ask that you release yourself from the heavy burden of vengeance. Allow me to sweep aside the impurities you have cursed upon this land so that none shall suffer your affliction. Pass over this town and its people in peace and bear them no hatred.”

As if in response, a sudden burst of wind rushed off the distant sea, the villagers gasping from the force of it. The squall cut through the grass, Oki’s long white hair, then into the trees behind her. She kept her head bowed against the crisp branch in her hands until the pit filled completely.

Seconds later, the malevolent energy vanished.

Oki stood and dusted off her black hakama. She turned to a particularly dopey-looking man and tossed him the sakaki branch. “Get me the sake Muneshige promised me, ya half-witted arse. And the gold.” She shoved past a flock of startled women to recover her gnarled wooden cane resting behind them as the lickspittle fool bolted down the verdant hillock. “It’s over.”

She made her way down as well, shuffled past the gates of Kijimadaira, and headed towards the village leader’s house to collect the payment awaiting her. The townspeople got out of her way well enough. A particular gaggle of children ran screaming when Oki lurched close, and she had to remind herself that she was in her eighth decade with aching joints and a stiff back.

“Snot-nosed little urchins,” she muttered.

Even the vendors avoided her on the narrow street. They bowed and scurried back into their stalls of ripe green sudachi and striped katsuo fish and barreled rice. They looked at her as if she would turn into the gashadokuro and devour them. She was a fucking priestess. But, she supposed she couldn’t blame them since she constantly meddled with demons.

Fortunately for her, the creature had broken down before she’d arrived, its energy spent after rampaging the night through. All she had been hired to do was to purify its bones, which in turn purified this town. Easy gold.

A man in ministerial robes stepped in her way. “My lady—”

Oki rapped her cane against the man’s ankle and he stumbled past her.

“Oi, watch where you’re going!” she barked in passing.

The scuffle of boots and clanking armor sounded behind her, with an uproar of shouts and curses. She didn’t pay them any mind. Sake and gold. She just needed her payment and then she’d leave this backwater fishing village behind. They were lucky enough to have had her for this long in the first place.

“How dare you? Halt this instant, woman!”

Oki grunted and turned around.

The red-faced minister righted himself, but he wasn’t the one that shouted after her. If she could guess, it was the oaf of a man next to him, katana drawn, sweaty face pinched in anger. Oki leaned on her cane. All ten of these men in their lacquered, scaled armor and bright colors weren’t from this village. Too haughty for such a place. They were samurai.

She hated samurai.

“You have just assaulted a court officer,” growled the warrior.

Oki tapped her foot, itching to leave. “So?”

The samurai puffed up. “Impudent woman, do you know who we are?”

“It is quite all right, Junzo,” said the minister.

Another warrior stepped forward. “But Yunosuke-sama—”

The minister raised a hand. “I said it is all right.” He straightened his pointed cap and dusted the dirt from his white, five-layered uniform. “No matter how ill-mannered, we will not kill the sole person we have been searching for.”

“And who the hell are you?” asked Oki, patience thinning.

“My name is Yunosuke Goro. I am one of the emperor’s advisors.”

“The emperor? You mean that arrogant up-start who thinks he’s related to the sun goddess Amaterasu?” asked Oki grinning her toothless smile, brow raised. Not many things could make her laugh, but this came close. “Please, that little ankle-biter and his lackeys just want power. It’s all politics, I tell ya.”

Yunosuke’s eyes widened, body rigid. The eavesdropping townspeople stopped what they were doing and quieted into a shocked silence, allowing only the groans of cattle to swamp the cramped street. Some fell to their knees, heads bowed into the dirt as if to let the imperial men know they had nothing to do with Oki. Oki might have been a woman, but she refused to drop her gaze.

Every samurai ripped their katanas from their sayas.

Then again, perhaps she had gone too far with her comment, Oki thought, wiping her smile. Couldn’t be helped now. She just didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. Even the minister’s pleasant face hardened at the insult. Already so loyal to this new emperor, huh? The man had only been in power for a year.

“I should let my men remove your head,” said Yunosuke.

Heedless of command, Junzo rushed past the minister with surprising speed, katana at his side in a two-hand grip. His face had lost its witless scowl. Instead, a dark, unflinching expression had replaced it, one set on murder. Before Oki could react, Junzo raised his blade, red sun flashing against its silver surface.

“Junzo!” roared Yunosuke.

The samurai stopped, eyes bulging.

“Short of harming the emperor,” said Yunosuke, glaring at his subordinate, “the crone can say whatever she wants. We need her. The emperor needs her.” He looked back at Oki, eyes narrowed. “But if there were any other priestess who could handle our problem, you would be dead right now.”

Oki shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Your reputation precedes you, Oki-san.”

“Does it now? I didn’t know I had a reputation.”

“You do. The people across the land know you well. Of course, in the capital, we have heard rumblings of a warrior able to calm demons and gigantic beasts. I arrived in Kijimadaira expecting to find a man, but the people informed me you were nothing of the sort.” He frowned. “Very insolent, however.”

“Thanks,” said Oki turning her back on Junzo’s half-raised blade and walking down the street to the gasps of nearby fishmongers and farmers. She needed to sit down, and this confrontation was wearing her out.

“His Imperial Majesty requires your help with a problem,” called Yunosuke.

“Too far. Not interested.”

“I’m prepared to offer you a position in the court.”

“Is that supposed to be an attractive offer?”

“I’ll pay your weight in gold.”

Oki stopped and turned around. “Whaddaya want?”

“You’re a priestess who has some authority on demonic activity, more specifically the disturbed spirits of gashadokuro,” said Yunosuke, face blanching merely from mentioning it. The samurai sheathed their weapons as he spoke, along with Junzo’s. “You see, two towns near the capital are suffering from one.”

“Why doesn’t your oh-so-divine emperor handle the fucking problem himself then? You probably have the armies. The resources. If those don’t work, he can call down Amaterasu his gods-damned self. You don’t need me.”

The big samurai’s sword-hand trembled. “Give me the honor of cutting her down, Yunosuke-sama,” he said, glaring, grabbing his hilt. “This decrepit wench needs to learn some manners.”

“And you need to learn how to lose some bloody weight, ya fat hog!” Oki retorted. “I’m straight baffled you were even able to stuff yourself in that shiny, pretentious outfit. How’re ya feeling? Is it a little stuffy in there?”

Junzo’s jowls shook, and his katana was near out of its saya again.

“Enough,” ordered Yunosuke, putting a firm hand on Junzo’s breastplate. He looked back at Oki. “We’ve sent warriors to deal with the monster several times, but they can never locate it. When the imperial troops depart, the gashadokuro returns to wreak havoc upon the region.” The minister shook his head. “The people believe this to be a bad omen to His Imperial Majesty’s recent ascendancy. We cannot allow this to continue.”

Oki stared. “Gashadokuro are twenty times the height of men.”

Yunosuke blinked. “I…didn’t know that.”

“Well now ya do! If the demon’s real, you woulda found it by now, unless yer soldiers are blind, deaf, and stupid. You and your emperor’s been fooled. Must be some other troublesome spirit, if it’s even a spirit at all.”

“Please.” Yunosuke bowed low, and his voice took on a pleading tone. “Please. If this persists so close to the capital, the clans will revolt. They will take these attacks as a sign His Imperial Majesty is unfit for the throne, that his legitimacy granted by the goddess is a sham.”

“Probably is, but it’s not my problem.”

“Investigate, and I will pay for your time nonetheless.”

Oki thought about it. The capital was certainly far…but the idiots were gonna pay her in any case. And she never usually had more than one job a month, what with the rare nature of gashadokuro sightings. The gold would keep her set and comfortable for a year or more. But to be honest, the odd behavior of the alleged gashadokuro made her curious.

This was too good to pass up.

She sighed. “I’ll do it under one condition.”

“Anything.”

“I want a gods-damned bottle of sake right now.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Yunosuke’s warriors escorted Oki to Higashiyama, the town directly affected by the gashadokuro, after a month on the road. Her bones ached. She wasn’t sure if this job proved worth it anymore, but a job was a job, and they had already paid her a small advance. Still, now she knew why the emperor’s soldiers had such a tough time spotting a massive giant of blood and death.

A dark forest surrounded the town, stretching over fifty leagues. It still wasn’t enough to convince her the skeletal demon manifested itself here. For one, it was the constant attacks. It took an enormous amount of rage to suspend the gashadokuro in this world. Because of this, the demon burned through its stored power within a day or so. Rarely longer. Oki hadn’t known them to be very intelligent either. They were made up of hundreds of angry souls, each one vying for control, which forced them to follow their base desire: to feed.

This odious mass did not hide. It massacred.

Despite it all, something was definitely wrong here.

As soon as she had entered the woodland, she passed into a sinister fog of energy. The metallic omamuri—protective charms—hanging along her braided sash buzzed, setting what was left of her teeth on edge. Even the samurai seemed to sense it. They always kept a hand on their hilts, and the slightest noise had their heads darting back and forth.

“Your samurai are making me fucking nervous,” said Oki.

Yunosuke glanced out of the large carriage’s window. “There’s a monster out there,” he said, wringing his hands, his own voice quivering. “My soldiers are getting you more nervous than the gashadokuro? We are very…vulnerable at the moment, if you hadn’t noticed.”

Oki took a swig of sake from her gourd. “I already told ya. It’s a different spirit. Clean out yer ears ‘cuz I’m not gonna say it again.” She stared deep into the dark, silent woods, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever afflicted this place.

Yunosuke paused. “I wasn’t aware priestesses drank.”

Oki gulped down the last drop. “They don’t.”

Eventually, the small convoy made it to Higashiyama’s gates, the town’s wooden walls rising almost as high as the surrounding trees. The security was heavy, but the guards seemed to recognize the imperial sigil. They opened their gates without question. Yunosuke’s carriage continued through the narrow, winding streets, unhampered by the non-existent foot traffic.

“These people are hiding in their own homes,” said Yunosuke.

Oki nodded. And the few townsfolk brave enough to wander out of their dwellings—expensive, well-kept houses with curved, thatched clay roofs—were terrified of their own shadows. One man in particular stepped out of an old latticed teahouse, hunched and wide-eyed, looking upon Yunosuke’s warriors with suspicion, rather than hope. He scurried into an alley and disappeared.

The convoy continued through the labyrinth of cobbled roads designed to confuse outsiders, then turned onto a discrete path lined with lanterns and bright red maple trees. They stopped at the town leader’s multi-storied manor. A band of opposing samurai blocked the entrance. Their white kimonos were pristine, but their faces told a different story: heavy bags under their bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair, slouched postures.

These men hadn’t slept in a while.

“Announce yourselves,” ordered a scraggly-bearded guard.

Oki exited the carriage “Move it, ya—”

“My lady,” cut in Yunosuke. “Allow me to speak with them.”

Oki pursed her lips. “Suit yourself.”

Yunosuke stepped in front of her. “We come in the name of Emperor Jimmu, Kamuyamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto, and heavenly descendant of Amaterasu. I am one of his court ministers, Yunosuke Goro. I seek Seo Moronobu. Your leader will recognize me. I have been here once before with an imperial delegation.”

The samurai looked at each other.

“Yes, yes, I am coming,” a faint voice called out.

A decrepit old man hobbled over the threshold. His leathery dark skin was beset with deep valleys of wrinkles, while his lips pressed tightly together from having lost all of his teeth. Cataracts clouded his sightless grey eyes, his hair hung past his waist, and a black kimono hung off of his unnaturally gaunt frame like a stray wisp of cloth caught on a branch.

Oki raised her brows. She thought she was ancient, but this bag made her look like one of those beauty-obsessed, milk-faced courtesans with perky tits. He must be well over his hundredth decade. The man didn’t even need a cane to walk, unlike Oki. She scowled. Damned, bloody joints.

“Ah, it is you again,” said the man in a coarsened, weary voice.

Yunosuke bowed. “I promised I would return.”

“What is it you think you can do,” said Moronobu, “that I have not already tried? That your soldiers have not already tried? Your men couldn’t even locate the creature last you were here. Unless you have brought an army this time, that is, we might have a chance. Yet I see no army.”

“Yer blind, ya shriveled coot,” said Oki. “Ya can’t see shit!”

Moronobu’s samurai immediately unsheathed their blades. Yunosuke’s men did the same. Oki had to squint as the dawning red sun glinted off the barbs of naked steel surrounding her. She raised a bony hand to shade her brow. Everyone was so sensitive nowadays. She supposed she was lucky the emperor protected her now. These men would have had no qualms gutting her.

Moronobu waved down his samurai. “And you are?”

“None of yer business,” said Oki. “All ya need to know is that I’m being paid to solve yer problem, so I’d appreciate it if ya didn’t lie to me. First of all, has this town been chewing on some of those blasted mushrooms much lately?”

The old leader leaned in, squinting. “I beg your pardon?”

“You know, the ones that make you hallucinate?”

“What are you trying to say?”

This man might not have lost his ability to walk, but he definitely lost most of his wits. “All this talk about the gashadokuro is nonsense,” said Oki, grinding her cane into the dirt. “The demon doesn’t have enough power to survive this long. Yer people are fools. What makes ya believe it attacked this place?”

Moronobu’s back straightened, and his grey eyes hardened. “Because I saw it with my own eyes. It killed my soldiers.” His already soft voice lowered to a point where what he said was just barely audible to Oki. “It killed my son.”

Oki could usually tell when a person lied, and Moronobu’s face said it all.

“Gashadokuro don’t materialize outta nowhere,” she continued, moving on from the topic of the man’s son. Her voice took on a more serious tone. “Has this region experienced any mass deaths? War? Starvation? Natural disasters?”

With a nod, Moronobu said, “A year ago, a massive battle took place in this forest between Lord Nagasawa and a rebelling state. Only twenty leagues away from my town. Thousands died, and in the aftermath, the lord refused to bury his enemies.” His brow furrowed. “Is this where the beast was created?”

“Shit,” muttered Oki, unease creeping along her spine.

“What is it?” asked Yunosuke.

“A gashadokuro created by the violent deaths brought upon by murder is the worst kind ta come across. They’re bigger, hungrier, and a helluva lot more nasty than the regular ones.” Perhaps it wasn’t such a stretch the demon still wandered this region. With enough souls, the demon could last quite a while.

Oki tapped a finger on one of her wooden amulets. “Either you had something to do with the massacre, or the creature’s attracted to the piss-foul scent of your unshowered samurai. Why else would it keep coming back to this place?”

Moronobu simply stared, while his men bristled. Must be partially deaf too, thought Oki. She opened her mouth to repeat herself, but the old man said, in a firmer voice this time, “Leave this place, priestess. At once. I will not be requiring your services, especially not from such a brazen woman.”

There was a stunned silence. Even Moronobu’s samurai glanced at him.

Oki shrugged and turned to leave.

Yunosuke stepped forward and bowed low. “Moronobu-san, the emperor wishes to help in this matter. You cannot possibly destroy the gashadokuro on your own. Even if you do, someone must purify this land. Please reconsider.”

Moronobu bowed and shuffled back into his manor.

◊ ◊ ◊

The rumble of the carriage departing Higashiyama made Oki’s bones hurt all over again. She wouldn’t abide this for another month. Not without anything to show for it. The emperor’s men might have to respect Moronobu’s wishes, but she didn’t. A league into the journey back to the capital, Oki rapped the base of her cane into the wall behind Yunosuke, startling him.

“Stop this damn thing, will ya!” she shouted.

With a lurch and a confused clop of hooves, the carriage stopped. Oki opened the door and walked into the night as Yunosuke called out after her. She kept walking until the minister put a hand on her small shoulder.

Yunosuke didn’t let go. “What do you think you are doing?”

Oki slapped his hand off. “Performing the task I’m being paid for.”

“The gold is yours. You do not have to do this.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Oki, turning around, tired of this uppity imperial stooge. Her finger prodded the minister’s chest with every sentence. “This gashadokuro menace is my responsibility. It’s why I’m a priestess. This is what I do, and I don’t take orders from nobody, ya hear?”

Yunosuke took a step back. “If this is your wish, then—”

“You’re damn well right it’s my wish. Don’t follow me neither.”

“I cannot allow you to go by yourself.”

Oki snorted. “Ya think ‘cuz I’m old I can’t take care of myself? Your samurai would only get in my way, and their armor’s too damn noisy. I work better alone. Just wait for me here until I get back. If I don’t return by dawn, I was probably eaten, so you just go. Ya got it? Or am I gonna have ta repeat myself?”

“I…understand,” said Yunosuke. “At least take a lantern.”

One of the samurai picked off a hanging lantern attached to the carriage. Oki grabbed it out of his hand, inspected it, and turned on her heel. “Alrighty then,” she said satisfied, and resumed her trek into the forest.

“Good luck, Oki-san.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Attached to Oki’s sash, the hovering central talisman—a folded paper manikin inscribed with a magnetism spell—pulled her eastward. While it had taken her a good whole month to make, it’d been worth it. It picked up and reacted to the manifestation of evil energy. A very handy tool.

The talisman led her deeper into the ancient forest, a place of massive gnarled roots, moss, and trees as thick as houses. Yunosuke’s weak lantern only illuminated a short distance ahead. There wasn’t any moonlight to guide her way, and every step over the forest’s misshapen undergrowth burned her joints like ground glass beneath her skin.
She was getting too old for this. Hundreds of exorcisms and purifications in her lifetime, and just now she agreed to take on one of her most dangerous jobs to date? Insanity. She barely had the strength to walk, let alone find and take on an enraged gashadokuro in the dead of night.

Her talisman snapped off and darted into the darkness ahead.

Oki stopped. Her heartbeat spiked, and chilled sweat pearled across her brow. She’d faced plenty of gashadokuro, but this felt different somehow. The air didn’t taste right. And it wasn’t the stench of rotting flesh. Evil had its own scent, one Oki was well acquainted with. The malevolence thickened like a pall of poison fog, rancid on her tongue. She shook her head, then hammered flat her fear.

She refused to die in this hellhole.

Oki relaxed into a firm stance, setting the lantern on the ground as a faint rattling echoed through the trees, the gashadokuro’s death noise, and the only sound they made when one closed in on its prey. Somewhat of a blessing since the demons were naturally invisible, and unnaturally silent. The only way to defeat them would be to escape the area, or keep it moving until it burned through its collection of souls.

But Oki was a priestess, and she had other ways.

First step, of course, was unmasking them.

Keeping her eyes on the darkness ahead, she removed an unveiling talisman—a powerful object crafted by the Five Priests of Kyushu she’d won gambling—from her sash, and gripped the small wooden sphere with the tips of her fingers. She waited, but the gashadokuro didn’t show itself. Something was wrong. The demon should have attacked by now, what with the incessant rattling. Maybe it hadn’t seen her yet.

A whisper of frigid air licked the nape of her neck. Shit!

Oki spun around. An immense footprint sunk into the ground mere feet away, deep enough to be a grave for her and half the town of Higashiyama. The demon shouldn’t have been smart enough to stalk her like this. Overcoming her shock, she rolled the talisman across the ground. What looked like molten gold filled the engraved glyphs across the talisman’s surface. A lance of light shot out of its center, illuminating the sky and forest and the gashadokuro above.

Oki’s breath caught in her throat.

The demon’s eyes—purple orbs of writhing fire—froze her in place. Crouching against a low lichen-crusted, granite shelf, massive hands gripped a pair of trees, timbers creaking from the weight. Hundreds of thousands of bones clung together like some twisted mosaic of death. Even hunched, it was the biggest gashadokuro Oki had ever seen.

Taking a step back, her heel caught a root.

Her hip struck the hard ground and blinding, exquisite pain bloomed over her entire body. The demon lunged, teeth gnashing. With all of her strength, she dug her cane beneath another large root beside her and pushed, rolling out of the way as the red skull crashed into the undergrowth.

Chips of bone and teeth showered her. The gashadokuro removed its face from the ground, half of its jaw hanging loose, held together by decaying ligaments of flesh and cartilage. It roared. Thousands of tortured voices hit Oki, howling, screaming in rage and pain at their curse.

The giant lunged again. No, it wouldn’t end like this! Through muscle memory alone, she ripped off an ofuda from her sash and raised it as the monster slammed against her palm, shoving her backwards. Just when she thought her wrist would snap back, the gashadokuro went rigid.

“Bishamonten!” cried Oki.

The script along the hemp cloth amulet glowed red.

Thick smoke erupted out of the tightly-woven threads, curling behind the skeleton in a crimson mass of tendrils. They coalesced and took the shape of a frowning giant in fearsome armor, a facsimile of the god of war. Although the figure was only a physical manifestation of Oki’s spell, and less than half the size of the gashadokuro, it locked the demon in place with relative ease.

Immobilization. Step two complete.

Oki sighed. She used her cane to rise to her feet despite the throbbing agony and stared at the silent gashadokuro that had been brought to its knees. This creature…wasn’t normal. Well, as normal as these things could be. It had been smart enough to stalk her, hide from the townsfolk, as well as survive this long. No gashadokuro ever displayed such intelligence.

No matter. It was over now and she’d rather not find out more lest this monster discovered a way to slip its bond. Her spell would only last for another five minutes anyways, so she’d better get on with the final step: purification by fire. However, before she removed her last talisman, she stopped.

Something caught her attention. Looking past the decaying flesh and black marrow barnacling the titanic skeleton, there were thick black marks etched upon its forehead, shoulder blades, and kneecaps. She didn’t notice them before, what with how dark it was and all the blood, but she recognized them.

They were summoning glyphs.

Someone had conjured this demon. It was under someone’s control. No wonder it was so smart. She’d never met one who abused their power like this, but this had to be the work of an onmyōji, a trained sorcerer. A skilled one.

She’d always thought she was the last of them.

Oki scrambled back and stood, joints ablaze. She wrenched the cane out from beneath the root. The demon merely moaned now, the twisted mélange of voices bleeding from its hollow throat, fiery eyes dim, sorrowful. Her right hand trembled as she squeezed the head of her cane, tears threatening to fall.

Someone had conjured the gashadokuro before her. Someone had wrenched the restless spirits from the land and forced them into this warped, perverted thing. These poor souls suffered in life, and now they suffered in death. She could end this for them. Right now. Just finish it. But…she needed to find out who was responsible.

She would not let this atrocity go unanswered.

Oki never used her magic directly. But to hell with her gods-damned rules! She mustered the esoteric spiritual energy within her, reversing the glyphs burned into the gashadokuro’s bones, and released Bishamonten’s grasp. Now, it would return to its master. The terrible demon surged to its full height of one-hundred and fifty men, purple gaze turning eastward.

Oki closed her eyes. “Go,” she whispered.

◊ ◊ ◊

It took every ounce of Oki’s willpower to keep the gashadokuro under control, the translucent puppet strings attached to the demon threatening to snap from her fingers. The demon pulled and pulled, and Oki pulled back, jaw clenched, forcing it to slow down enough that it didn’t drag her through the forest at breakneck speed. The demon was leading her back the way she’d come.

Yunosuke and his samurai still waited on the main road, staring agape at the gashadokuro heading straight towards them. The group scrambled out of the way as the monster crushed the carriage underfoot, wood exploding in a shower of splinters. For a moment, Oki had thought the meek minister was the onmyōji, but the way the man trembled on the ground erased any suspicion.

She passed him by when the gashadokuro veered hard. She stifled a yelp as she was half-dragged down the same road. Towards Higashiyama. Distant alarm bells rang through the trees, men screamed orders atop the rumbling walls. Arrows whistled through the branches, but the gashadokuro simply ignored them, most of the projectiles snapping against its body.

The demon tossed aside the iron gates and crashed through town.

“Move, ya damn fool!” yelled Oki, shoving aside a gawking farmer.

Oki’s right arm moved frantically, maneuvering the strings to limit the damage and keep the damn, lumbering beast from trampling over innocents.  Even then she felt the strings of energy connected to the demon straining. It wanted nothing more than to devour these souls, to rip these men and women apart limb from limb and add it to its own body. Oki wouldn’t let that happen.

“Oki-san, what in Izanami’s name is going on?” asked Yunosuke behind her, trailed by his unsettled samurai reeking of warm urine. So he’d finally caught up with her. “You were supposed to defeat this demon, not bring it back here!”

“Stay out of this!” snapped Oki.

“How is this possible? It hasn’t killed anyone.”

Not yet, thought Oki grimly.

With a roar, the gashadokuro lurched into another street in the direction of Moronobu’s manor. Oki allowed the demon to tear the roof off the leader’s residence in a hail of broken tile. She couldn’t say she was surprised the demon had led her back to Higashiyama, but seeing Moronobu on the floor, a protective amulet raised above his head, did. She never sensed the mystical energy within the old man.

Oki pushed her way past a contingent of bow-wielding samurai and planted her feet in the shadow of the gashadokuro, a clear view of Moronobu in the foyer of his manor. “Don’t bother. You’re too weak of an onmyōji to wrest back control of your precious pet.” She grunted. “I’m going to let it tear your skin loose and peel it like hide from your bones.”

Moronobu looked at her. “I thought I told you to leave.”

“I never leave without finishing a job.”

“Oki-san, what—” said Yunosuke.

“I said stay out of this!” shouted Oki, rounding on him and blasting his men with a   concussive force of invisible energy. The minister and his samurai crashed into the wall of the house opposite and she turned back to her business.

“Why summon this demon?” she asked.

It was silent for a time, and just when she thought Moronobu wouldn’t respond, he said in his feeble, quiet voice, “The emperor is making a mockery of the faith. I wanted to embarrass him, make the people believe his rule was a sign from the very gods he touted to be descended from, but I never planned to kill.”

Yunosuke limped over again. Stupid fool. “That is treason!”

“I respect no king,” rasped the old man.

Oki’s pitch dropped to a bare, low whisper. “Politics.”

Moronobu just stared at her, a question in his eyes.

“You did all this because of politics?” she seethed. Oki relaxed the puppet strings in the gashadokuro’s right arm, allowing it to lower its massive hand over Moronobu, but held it up short before it grabbed him. Not yet. It would be too easy. She wanted to watch him suffer.

“Why are you doing this?” asked the man, amulet trembling now. “I never killed the villagers this gashadokuro was made from. Why blame me for protecting my people? This land does not need an emperor. We’ve been fine all this time, we will be fine for centuries to come.”

“You said your son died because of it. That wasn’t a lie.”

Moronobu’s eyes glistened, voice unsteady. “It wasn’t.”

“Then what happened?”

“My son discovered my plans. He did not believe in them.”

“So you murdered him.”

“No!” shouted Moronobu, louder than Oki’s ever heard from him. “No! He took some of my soldiers and went to go put down the gashadokuro in the dead of night, while I was sleeping. I had no control of the demon. It killed him.”

Oki’s anger boiled over. She loosened the strings again. The massive fingers closed around Moronobu, the amulet sparking, then guttering out. “You did something far worse than what those raiders did, than what you did to your own son. You took innocents from their graves and twisted them into this demon!”

An insidious, wicked energy seeped into Oki’s bitter bones, and she could feel the small man within her own hands, struggling like a helpless insect. She squeezed and Moronobu cried out as the gashadokuro’s fists rasped tighter, bone grinding against bone. This man deserved it. This man sinned against so many…but she couldn’t let this evil consume her like it had consumed him.

The frail, quivering old man stared into the gashadokuro’s eyes.

“Do you see him?” asked Oki after a time.

Moronobu nodded shakily, tears streaming down his face.

Oki pulled the strings back and the gashadokuro let go of him, maneuvering its arms out of the manor. She removed the last purification talisman from her sash and uttered the words of power. Holy fire streamed out of the circular, metallic braid, running across the demon like a bright net of chains. With a flash, bones spilled from the sky.

The sea of bones surrounded her, and Yunosuke’s samurai waded through it to get to Moronobu. They picked him off the ground and tied his wrists behind his back. Yunosuke looked at her. “The emperor will deal with him.”

Oki ignored him. She began picking up bones and stacking it in her arms.
“You are onmyōji,” said Yunosuke, after a moment.

Oki sighed and continued collecting the bones delicately in the crutch of her right arm. In her rage, she allowed an imperial servant to witness her magic. Sloppy. But nothing could be done about it now. “Are ya gonna help me bury this here skeleton or just stand around?”

Yunosuke hesitated for a moment, but took Oki’s lead. And so did the wary townsfolk as they wandered out of the safety of their homes. Hundreds of them. They gathered the remains, washed off the blood, and guided the souls out of Higashiyama and into a peaceful grove deep in the forest.

After the ritual, Oki painfully decided she valued freedom over the promised gold. Yunosuke was a good man, however, Junzo would have certainly informed the emperor of her sorcery. She slipped away, instead leaving the town with a full belly, new omamuri charms, and a little bit of sake.

—«»-«»-«»—

Ten minutes for Scarlet Omega

by Joachim Heijndermans

There’s the bell again. Thank God for that. Whoever comes next couldn’t possibly be worse than this last guy. What a creep. Bad hair and bad teeth I can get past, and I’m not one to brag when it comes to my own wardrobe though I overdressed for this nightmare, that’s for sure. But someone so desperate for female contact should not throw the words “ho’s” and “bitches” around like candy from Santa’s float in the thanksgiving parade, or brag about how many “skanks” he’s banged and how and where. Was he a twelve-year-old in disguise? Did he break the chains that kept locked him in the professor’s lair and wandered in here by mistake? And who still wears their cap backward?

Why did I let Janette talk me into this? “Try speed dating,” she said. “That’s where I met my Howie. It’ll be great. I bet you twenty bucks you’ll get a guy who’ll be quite a catch.”

I met Howie. If that guy, a nervous wreck who cowers when she’s having one of the tantrums, was her idea of a catch, then heaven preserve me.

Again, I ask myself, why did I come here? It’s not like they’re handing out free booze. Hell, there’s no booze of any kind. I can’t remember why I thought this would be a good idea, aside from having gone without a date in over seven months. Hell, I don’t even remember the last time I got laid. Ok, that’s a lie. I remember it all too well, and it had been fucking fantastic. But I remember the fallout from it even more.

It was stupid of me to come here. Was I just hoping to get lucky? Because dragging myself through this nonsense is not worth it. I should’ve stayed at home and worked on fixing the suit. The sleeve on the right arm needs stitching and the kevlar needs to be replaced.

“Hello,” says a soft but deep voice. “Are you available for the next round?” He’s a tall guy, dressed in a black suit. The first guy tonight whose outfit actually suits his face. Kind of, as it’s slightly too big for him. Older guy, in his mid-forties I’d say, with slightly graying hair at his temples. His oddly bright eyes catch my attention, but nothing too out of the ordinary. They remind me of a wolf’s eyes. Calm, but alert.

Broad shoulders too. Works out, but doesn’t want to draw attention to it by wearing the suit. Not a bad looking dude, all things considering. So naturally, this is where my famous friendly demeanor kicks in.

“So what’s your damage,” I snap.

He didn’t flinch at that. He even chuckles, rubbing his temples like he’s got a headache. “Bad night?”

“Ugh,” I grunt. “I’m sorry. I’m normally not like this at all. Well, maybe a little. But not trying to be a bitch. It’s just—”

“The timer is about to start,” he says. “But if you’re done for tonight—”

“Siddown,” I growl. He’s the last one. If this guy turns out to be another creep, I’m torching this whole building to the ground. No jury would convict me.

“You’ve got the next ten minutes to give me hope for the male gender. I’m having a shit night, so make this good.”

He takes a seat and scoots closer. When he clenches his hands, his knuckles crack loudly. He’s got some mild scarring on them. Light burn scars, maybe?

“I think I know exactly what you’re going through. And forgive me if this sounds sexist, but you might have it worse than I. The ladies I’ve talked with were…something else, but nothing I can’t escape from. As a woman, you might attract a more extreme personality type.”

I chuckle, but it ain’t a happy one. “You don’t say.”

“Am I wrong?” he asks, giving me the smug I know I’m right but I’m gonna needle you until you say so look. He’s smart and likes to show it off. But I’ve dealt with ‘smart guys’ plenty of times. I’m not worried.

“Don’t get me started,” I grumble. “I’ve talked to over ten guys tonight. It’s been a regular who’s who of creeps, losers, momma’s boys, and creepy loser momma’s boys. And they don’t serve liquor here either, otherwise, it would make this whole charade much easier to bear. But nothing I can’t handle. It’s just exhausting, you know?”

“I can sympathize. The women I’ve met tonight seem to fluctuate between the very needy to the outright frightening.”

“Yeah? How so?”

“Well, my first session I met a lovely woman, as well as her cat Tinkers, whom she smuggled along in her purse. Asked me if I wanted to meet his seven brothers.”

“I got you beat on that one,” I tell him. “There was a guy, who, after we said our hello’s, told me my hair was like his mother’s. But mine didn’t smell as good.”

“I’ll see your hair smeller, and raise it with a charming young lady who asked me if I could co-sign for her new car. When I told her that perhaps she was going a bit fast, she asked me when I was going to meet her parents.”

I fight the urge to laugh, so I give him an awkward smile instead. “You know, I’m almost tempted to ditch this joint and go into the conference door next room. Getting roped into a pyramid scheme doesn’t sound so bad now.”

“There’s a plan. You might get a white Mercedes out of it,” he says with a chuckle. He’s got a pleasant laugh, I’ll give him that. He extends his hand to me. “I’m Ellis.”

I take his hand and shake it. “June. And yes, like the month. I’ve heard that one enough times as it is.”

His eyes go over me. I know that look. It’s the look I give on an almost daily basis. Not the ‘I wonder what she looks like naked’ look, but the ‘what is her damage or secret’ look. Instinctively, I hide my hands in the sleeves of my jacket. He notices.

“Are your hands all right?” he asks? “You don’t need to hide them from me. I’m used to blemishes,” he says, tapping the mild burn scars on his own hands.

“Sorry. I have an active lifestyle, which leaves me with some scrapes now and then. It doesn’t bother me most of the time, but I get self-conscious about the scars on my hands.”

“Please, don’t be. I know all too well what that’s like myself. What sports do you do?”

And there it is. The inevitable subject that either causes guys to get scared or makes them act like even bigger meatheads. Here goes nothing. “Eskrima. It’s a stick-fighting martial art from—”

“—the Philippines. I’m familiar with it. I’m an Aikido man myself.”

Not bad. But I’m staying on my toes. Wouldn’t be the first time some douche challenged me to spar with him, only to wail like a stuck pig when I rough ’em up. “So what do you do?” I ask.

“I’m an engineer with R&D at Oberon. Jet propulsion and the sort. It’s how I burned myself. A little explosion that got out of hand a little while back.”

“You see a lot of explosions?”

He shrugs. “No more than most labs. They say fires are unpredictable. They’re not, just difficult to manage if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you know how fire works, you can avoid losing your eyebrows.”

“You enjoy your work?”

“It’s fine. But it’s to pay the bills mostly. I try to be home more these days.”

“Really? How come?” I ask.

Ellis clears his throat. Another look I recognize. The ‘I hate talking about this super painful shit that happened to me and yet I’m constantly put in the position where I need to talk about it’ look. He takes his time, before hitting me with the sledgehammer that is the story of his life at home.

“My wife passed. About two years ago. So it’s just me and Phillip, my boy. He’s almost seven now.”

Shit. This is where most people come up with something comforting to say. Sadly, I’m not most people. Okay, June. Think of something that doesn’t make you sound like a total bitch.

“And most ladies aren’t into the single dad thing, are they?”

Goddammit, June!  Diffuse! Backpedal like you’ve never backpedaled before! “Shit!  What I mean, I…uhm,” I stutter. “Fuck, I’m trying to be nice here!”

Oh, thank Jesus. He laughed at that. “It’s all right, June.”

I sigh, relieved I didn’t just emotionally skewer him. My knack for verbal pratfalls has saved another conversation by being funny. It’s weird. Why am I so worried about what he thinks of me? Aside from the fact that he’s the first seemingly nice guy I’ve talked to tonight. But that don’t mean anything just yet. Night Racer was a nice guy. And that experience had been a cold, hard lesson when it comes to ‘nice guys’. ‘I swear baby, my doc says I’m STD free’ my ass.

Ellis reaches into his pocket. I clench up. My instincts kick in, but I can fight it. It’s fine, June. He’s obviously getting a photo of his kid. Not a gun. Not a knife. Settle down. We’re good. He hands me the pic. A black haired boy with a broad smile, missing two front teeth, holding a soccer ball. Cute. He has his dad’s looks as far as I can tell.

“He’s adorable,” I say. Was that the right word? I never know what’s the right way to describe kids? I hand it back. Not really sure what else to do. Shit, I hate being so awkward.

“Do you have any kids?” he asks.

“Nah,” I say, waving my hand in that dismissing way that my friends with kids hate so much. “No time, with my job and all.”

“And what is it you do?” Ellis asks.

Fuck! Don’t get flustered. That’s a rookie mistake. Count to three, like Captain Liberty taught you. One. Two. Three.

“Real estate,” I say, cool as a cucumber. “It’s boring, but it pays the bills. I spar on the side to take the edge off. But you don’t really meet the right people in my line of work.”

“Odd,” Ellis says. “I assumed you would meet a lot of people in your line of work. Everyone needs a house.”

One. Two. Three. “Mostly couples either with kids or expecting. Also, I make it a rule not to date my clients.”

“Ah, smart,” he says. “I’ve had colleagues who dated within their job. Always ends badly.”

“You damn right it does,” I scoff. “I’d been seeing a guy a while back. Works across town. Seemed great. But then the usual bullshit piles up. You miss a few dates when responsibilities get in the way. You bring your work home with you. Stress piles up. And when you try to spare their feelings, that’s when the lying starts. Then you find yourself staying up all night waiting for him to come home, or stalking him on Facebook. It’s what you get when you’re juggling secrets like bowling pins.”

“Secrets?” he asks, raising his eyebrow so high up it might start caressing his hairline.

One. Two. Three. “He was married. Didn’t tell me until it had gone on for a while.”

“Pah,” Ellis snaps. “What an arsehole.”

It’s funny. While I kinda noticed it earlier, when he said “passed” like “pahst” instead of the usual “past”, but it took me until he said “arsehole” to pin down his accent.

“British?” I ask.

“Partly,” he admits. “First three years of my life we lived in Cardiff. Left for the States after that, and never looked back. Can’t quite rid myself of the accent, no matter how hard I try,” he says, slightly embarrassed.

“Don’t,” I say. “It’s cute.”

Cute? When did I start calling anything cute? Oh, fuck me. Backpedal! Backpedal!

“I…uhm…I mean, it makes you sound more distinguished,” I mutter, shrugging my shoulders. Please don’t respond to that. Please don’t respond to that.

“Why thank you,” he says. “You’re quite charming yourself.”

And now my face is turning into a cherry tomato. “Glad to know that even after surviving the Battle of the Bridge, I can still be a twelve-year-old schoolgirl who blushes and swoons when boys compliment me.”

He laughs. Thank God for that. I lean back, stretching my neck. Ugh, no more awkwardness, please. It feels good to laugh for once. Ellis. I run his name through my head some more. Ellis. Ellis. Funny, mature Ellis. For a moment, I actually consider giving him my contact info, which is so not like me. Not a bit. Anyone could tell you that, be it my civilian friends like Janette or my work friends like the Lightning Lady. But he seems all right. Maybe, just maybe?

Then he notices it. “Good lord,” he gasps, “did you get that from fighting as well?”

The scar on my neck!  The one I usually hide with scarves or by not wearing anything revealing that shows of my chest. A little courtesy from Yokohama Sally and her kamas during a diamond heist three years back. Missed my artery by a centimeter. My jacket must have sunk down for him to see it. Fuck me for forgetting all about it for a second.

“Uhm,” I stutter. Dammit, count!  One. Two. Three. “Rock climbing accident. I fell and cut myself on some rocks. It’s nothing.”

I look at him, half expecting him to bail on me right there. But he’s seen the look in my eyes. Something he recognized. The shame, maybe? Or something else that was familiar to him. In either case, he smiled slightly. He then pulled up his sleeve on his right arm. Two scars, directly parallel from each other on each end just below his wrist. Entry and exit wound. But not from a bullet.

“Archery accident at a company retreat. Some dumb bastard let go of his bowstring prematurely. Nearly bled to death. These things happen,” he says.

I chuckle. No, I’m laughing. I have no idea why. I’m just glad he’s laughing too.

“And then there’s this,” he says, as he raises his pant leg. Skin grafts on his shins. I’ve seen those too many times to count. “I fell from a bike. Nasty fall. I’d been lucky, as I could have fractured my skull.”

“That beats my appendix scar any day,” I joke. That should deter any questions about it, should he see my stomach. Dammit, June! Don’t get ahead of yourself!

“Got one of those too. But I would rather keep my shirt on for now.”

We laugh, but it’s one of those weird laughs you share when you both are thinking the same thing. Change the subject! I raise my leg and tap on my knee. “I have a small piece of shrapnel in my knee from the Battle of the Bridge. Still scrapes sometimes.”

His face turns. His smile vanishes like sand in the wind. Fuck. Why did I tell him that?

“You were there?” he asks.

Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck! One. Two. Three. “Bystander. You know how that goes with those people. Never see you until they drop a car on your ass, then write you off as collateral.”

His eyes turn dark. Is that anger? Or sadness? Does he not like the Capes? Fuck, I hope his wife wasn’t killed that day.

“Hey,” I say. For some reason, I take his hand. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I brought it up.”

“No, I’m sorry,” he says. Thank God, his smile is back. I can’t believe I missed it already after less than a minute. “I’m being childish. The ‘Supers’ just rub me the wrong way sometimes. Especially the way their fights end up affecting the general populace.”

“I get that. You’ve got your boy. You’ve got your job. I’ve seen people lose their family business just because Terrorsaur and Momenta are going at it on Seventh street and one of them chucks a police car through their building. It’s a weird town. I’ve thought about leaving.”

“Why haven’t you?” he asks, taking my hand.

One. Two. Fuck it. No lies.

“It’s…it’s like something compels me to stay. Almost like leaving is turning my back on something. Turning my back on who I am. If that makes any sense.”

“No, I understand. My son…my entire life is here.”

“Right,” I say, thankful he’s not digging deeper into that semi-confession. “And you can’t just stop being what you love, even if it is destructive.”

He nods. His eyes dart to the timer. One minute left. He gives me that look. You know the one. That one.

“Would…would it be improper of me to ask you out sometime?” he asks.

My face must be turning even redder than before because now he’s grinning like an idiot. “No, not improper at all. I’d love that.”

“Great,” he says. We don’t break eye contact. We just stare at each other like two dumb teens. Probably why I didn’t notice his hand reaching out to touch my arm.

“Ow, fuck!” I snap, wincing in pain.

“I’m sorry,” he gasps. “What’s wrong?”

Fuck. One. Two. Three. “I’m fine. It’s just something with my arm.”

Before I can protest, he pulls up my sleeve. He sees the bandage wrapped around my arm.

“How did this happen?” he asks. He recognizes the applied treatment within seconds.

“Were you burned?”

“It’s nothing,” I growl, slapping his hand away as gently as I can. “Just a little accident last Monday at the bank…”

I shut up before I blab even further. But when I meet his eyes, I’ve said too much. It’s all over his face. I don’t know this look. Is it horror? Or concern? Disgust? It almost feels like recognition. Wait, what is he—?

“Scarlet Omega?” he whispers.

My blood turns to ice. He knows! How did he know? I try to count, but I forgot the number after one. I want to laugh it off, and say “Scarlet who? I don’t know my wines.” Anything to segue from that name. But like an idiot, I do nothing. I just stare at him, wide-eyed like a deer on the highway. I want to say something, but anything I’d say would just come out as gibberish. How did he find out? Had he been there? No, there were only two guards, a manager, and a janitor. He’s not any of them. But there was one more person there. The one with the mask, shooting flames from his wrists. One of which scorched my arm with 2nd-degree burns. Right before I slammed my hard-anodized baton into his chest. Even with that body-armor, there’d be a mark. I lean close to him, peering at the neckline of his shirt. I catch myself praying I don’t see anything, that he was just a good guesser. A smart guy who reads the paper and memorized all our silly names and masks. Please, don’t let there be—

A bruise. Or at least, the edge of one. I can only imagine the blue mark on his chest. I almost want to rip his shirt off and check his left fibula, his lower back and his right femur for bruising. But there’s no point. His eyes say it. So I mouth his name.

“Blackfyre?”

We don’t need to nod. We don’t need to say a Goddamn thing. We know it’s true. What are the fucking odds?

“Shrapnel in the knee?” he asks, with a deeper and gruffer tone, halfway to his ‘work-voice’. No reason to lie now. Sorry, Cap.

“Mandy Molotov. The bridge part was true,” I reply. I catch myself using my own ‘work-voice’. No point in hiding that either. “Arrow in the arm?” I ask back like I’m parrying a tennis ball.

“The Azure Archer. My second heist. O’Neill bank.”

“Mnn,” I grunt, nodding along. It’s bizarre. I always assumed that the first time I’d confide in anyone about my night job, it would feel like a weight would be lifted from my heart. Instead, I feel a million targets are being painted on my forehead, and the guy with the fire resistant armor and the built-in wrist flamethrowers across the table from me is looking right at them.

My instincts are screaming at me to strike. I have a small retractable baton in my purse. Without armor, he’d be down in a minute. He’s clenching his fist. What does he have up his sleeve? A level-B supervill like him doesn’t go to a public place like this unarmed. Short-range flame burster, maybe, with a mini napalm pack in case he needs a quick escape. My eyes dart around. Eighteen civvies. No cops or backup. Can’t risk it.

“Thirty seconds,” the lady from the speed dating service calls out.

We look at her, then back to each other. We’re both running with itchy trigger fingers. My stomach does that thing it always does before a fight, where it goes queasy for a good minute, then steels itself like I’m about to take a bullet, which does happen from time to time. But there’s also this shitty sad feeling. That the one fucking guy who’s not a complete creepy dingleberry, had been actually very charming and I even briefly considered taking home with me, just happens to be the guy who incinerated The Wire during the Battle of the Bridge feeling.

These thirty seconds are beginning to feel like thirty years. Time crawls at a snail’s pace. We don’t break eye contact. We just sit there, running scenarios on how to cave each other’s skulls in through our heads. At least, that what I think he’s doing.

He breaks the ice by speaking first. “For what it’s worth, June, I had a lovely time with you.”

“Yeah,” I chuckle. “It’s been a good nine minutes.”

“And I hope I’ve restored some of your hope in the male gender.”

“To be honest, I’m so torn between the rules of the job and me actually liking you that I wasn’t even thinking about that.”

His eyebrow springs up. “You like me?”

I don’t hesitate. “I do. Or at least, I like this you. Not so sure about your other persona, seeing as fire hurts like a bitch.”

“And I like you, June,” he says. I can see he’s tempted to take my hand, but we’re both still aching for an opening to strike. “Now that we have a chance to be open, why ‘Scarlet Omega’?”

“Scarlet because I just like the color. Omega because my colleagues felt it needed more punch. Not my choice, but I got lucky compared to LiberGator, Reptile Warrior,” I chuckle.

He chuckles too. “What now?” he asks.

I shrug my shoulders. “I said yes to seeing you again sometime. Why don’t we see how that goes.”

“Yes. That seems reasonable,” he says. I can hear his voice cracking just the teeniest bit. “Have a pleasant evening, June.”

“You too, Ellis.”

The bell rings.

—«»-«»-«»—

The Spirit and The Body

by S. Bewley

I found myself on the other side of the door from the room in which my body was taking a beating that I could hear. This pissed me off more than I can express. I have never had a body that could toss me out like this one could, and had on occasion done. It always concerned pain. If the body experienced extreme pain, out my ass went.

This was completely unacceptable.

Over my existence I have occupied a hell of a lot of bodies. I do not know how or why this happens. I have forgotten many of the bodies I inhabited. But I do know what happens. I find myself a spirit again and in wandering around, I find a body that is empty. How they become empty, I don’t know. Didn’t really seem to be all that important. To me it simply meant that here was a receptacle that I could occupy.

Being a spirit without a receptacle sucks. There’s not shit that you can do. You don’t connect, you don’t communicate, you just are. Being without connection is a shit way to live.

My concept of time sucks balls outside of a receptacle, so I never really know how long I’ve been around between bodies. I just know that I’ve been around.

But this time, this time I knew exactly what was going on and I was pissed off way beyond any level I’d ever felt, corporeal or non-corporeal. DAMN. He had no right to do this. Stupid fucking body. It wasn’t like I couldn’t take a hit. I’d taken a lot of hits in my time.

I’d inhabited some bodies in some really unpleasant circumstances, and not one of them had ever tossed me out so that I couldn’t feel what was going on.

This body, however, was different.

All the bodies had minds. I didn’t control the minds, though I could influence them – somewhat. This one’s mind was a bloody fucking pain in my non-corporeal ass.

For instance, the worst body I had ever inhabited had belonged to a tiny Thai woman. I’d found her prostrate on a stone temple floor. I checked, because I have never, ever taken a body with a spirit in it. It’s simply not done. But she was empty.

I slipped in and we got up and went back to her miserable life. I’m not kidding. It was one for the books. She was married to this huge asshole who barely spoke to her, and when he did it was either to make demands or insult her. She had three kids. Two girls and a boy. Through her mind I knew who everyone was and understood what everyone said. We made dinner, we cleaned up, we helped the children get ready for the pallets that represented a bed. Then we went to lie down next to that bastard.

No sooner had we laid down than he rolled over on top of her, pushed himself inside of her, pumped about eight or ten times, ejaculated and then rolled over and gone to sleep. She was so dry we felt like we were on fire. I immediately decided to kill the bastard.

But I had to wait. I’d learned that you can’t just kill another human because they deserve it. I’d left a body or two in dire straits because of my rash actions. So I knew that I had to plan this, make sure she and the kids would be okay, and then I was going to kill the bastard.

It was a long while. Years. First of all, I had to be sure that the children would not end up in a similar position.

The son had already begun to imitate the father. Why not? It was the only male role model he had. It took some searching, but I found a guy who taught muay thai. He was a good man. We had sex with him and he agreed to take on the son as a student. First he beat the idea out of him that women were to be used.

The daughters were harder. One was pretty smart. Considering the malnutrition and other problems, the fact that she had enough sense to put two and two together pleased me. I encouraged her. I began to seek out someone who could help her further her education. I found a woman who had a spirit like a flame. I could see it in her. She taught at the local school, and she pushed the good students hard. She also was a miracle worker in finding ways for them to move on into further schooling. She had a gift for speaking, and she was not above using religious people for her own ends. I liked her a great deal.

The body and I approached her. We talked about the pretty smart daughter, and agreed that she had the skills to become a good teacher herself. She liked children. With the woman’s help, we found a way to get her to a school for teachers. She did well there, married a fellow teacher and moved far away from the place she’d grown up.  I was happy.

The second daughter was sweet, ignorant, and hadn’t the sense of a goose. I would have despaired, but the sweetness was something that could be used. There was a young man in the community who was very shy and not in the least bit handsome. He had a good job. He worked for a small factory that made bamboo furniture and exported it. His skill was well known.

I found a small puppy that was mostly healthy and I left it on his doorstep. The dog became his only friend, and he doted on it as though it were a small, helpless child. Second daughter loved animals.

Once she saw him with the dog, who was very active and cheerful, she was charmed. She began to talk to him about the dog, and then began to walk the dog with him, and soon they were spending time together taking care of the dog.

Their marriage was happy and they adopted many dogs, but had no children. I didn’t understand this, but it worked for them.

Now was the time to get rid of the big bastard. Night after night he had continued his abuse of the woman I inhabited. He considered it his right for feeding and housing her. When I first decided he should die for this, I had her begin to tuck away a few coins whenever she could. She was quite good at hiding things.

As the coins accumulated, I helped her change them into currency. Once it was in currency, we began a small loan business to other women in the community. The interest built up nicely, and I knew that it was time.

Cycad seeds are a very tricky thing. They are commonly made into flour and used in cooking, and there is some suspicion that they may be related to a neurological disease common in the area. I liked that. I liked the idea of watching him weaken.

So we began to make special treats for him. He’d always had a sweet tooth, and with the children gone, it was easy to prepare something that only he ate.

Time for the spirit is unimportant, but the body of the woman I inhabited was growing old. His body, however, began to collapse around him. First he became very heavy from the excess treats, which caused him to fall to sleep long before she finished the cleaning and came to bed. HA! A nice but unexpected side effect. Then the trembling and the mumbling and the lack of balance set in. I took great pleasure in watching him die slowly.

She did not last long after he did, and I found myself searching for another empty receptacle. But it was one of the most satisfactory resolutions of possession I’d ever had.

This, however, was not satisfactory at all. I could not even bang on the door, because I had no corporeal qualities. I could hear the sound of meat hitting meat. It’s a disgusting sound. Humans are SO brutal.

I loved that body. I wanted it back.

I had found him sitting on a bench facing the ocean. He wore lots of protective garments, Kevlar and such. He was a bounty of hidden knives and guns. A large pistol sat on the bench next him. He leaned forward, his hands clasped between his legs, his head bent down as though in deep thought or prayer. And he was as completely empty as any body I had ever found. The mind was good, but the spirit gone.

I slipped in, and oh my, the power! I could not believe the strength. I made a fist and the muscles of my forearm bunched like thick knots of wood. I pulled up the sleeve and I could see striations in the muscle. It was like inhabiting a god.

I stood and stretched. We were tall. Easily six feet six inches or more. I reached down and picked up the gun and it felt right in our hand. Memory immediately told me the make, model, ammunition, muzzle velocity, and range. Why the hell would any spirit abandon this body?

I holstered the weapon as naturally as though I’d been doing it all my life. Then I began to run. I wanted to know how long, how far, and how fast could we move. It was fucking exhilarating.  I had never experienced anything like it.

The run took us to his home. It was a small apartment in a quiet part of town. You might have expected that someone built like a god, and with so many weapons, either hid away in some hole, or resided in a penthouse. Nope. It was as middle class as they come. He didn’t even have Netflix, which I found amusing. Perhaps he wasn’t home enough to make it worthwhile. He did own a decent flat screen tv.

He seemed to have no real job. I had thought probably cop or something. But I was wrong. The apartment had its own arsenal in a walk-in closet. But otherwise it was non-descript. He had a name, a bank account with a decent balance, but nothing exorbitant. He didn’t seem to have any friends or contacts. There was a cell phone with no numbers on it other than a few take-out places in the neighborhood. One was Thai. I deleted that one.

For the first few weeks, we just existed together. The mind was reliable. It fed the body, cleaned the apartment and clothes. It knew where to find good food and the basics of life. And nothing else happened.

The problem with possession is that there is this notion that the possessor has access to everything in the brain. Nope. Not the way it works. You have access to the voluntary muscle functions. That’s about it.

Movies have pretty much fucked up the human concept of possession.

#1. We cannot really inhabit a body in which a spirit still exists.

#2. We do not have access to any memories the mind retains. They are simply exposed to us by things the body does out of rote.

#3. What do I mean by rote? I mean daily routine. If you wash your underwear in the sink each night, dry it on the curtain rod and then wear it again the next day, THAT I will know. Your deepest darkest feelings about your mother? Nope.

#4. We cannot make your head spin 360 degrees or cause you to levitate. First of all, if we rotated your head 360 degrees, we’d break your neck and then your body would be useless to us. Secondly, levitation is something easy to do as a spirit, so why bother to possess a body to do it?

#5 We live together and experience things together, but we are not one. In fact, there is no one there for the body. It’s me and the physical memory contained in the brain. No emotion remains from the body at all. Spirit is emotion. That’s where I come in. If the body still had emotion, I wouldn’t be there.

Got it?

So back to me being on the other side of the door. I was really pissed, because I liked this body a lot. We’d had some really good moments together.

There was the time in the grocery store when an idiot tried to rob the clerk. Now that was fun. The clerk nearly pissed himself in fear, but taking out a gun and blowing the idiot’s head off his shoulders had been one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Nearly as satisfying as watching that fat, Thai bastard take his last strangled, poisoned breath.

Why? Well, it was simple. The clerk was a small Pakistani guy. He was old. He was always nice to me. The idiot robbing him was calling him a rag head and waving around a 9mm like it was a cannon. Then he was not just demanding cash, he was demanding that the guy say, “Fuck Allah.”

I don’t really give a shit which god you believe in, because they all have validity. I’ve been around, I am a spirit, and this is my field.

So trying to make this very nice old man say something really nasty about his own personal god just didn’t go far in terms of making me have any sympathy for the robber.

Plus he was stupid. He hadn’t looked around the store to see if anyone else was there. I’m pretty sure he thought that having a gun made him some kind of superior being and that no one would be brave enough to take him on.

Wrong. Wrong and very, very stupid.

So I killed him.

The old Pakistani guy looked very shocked, and I felt bad about that. I’d have to shop somewhere else now. I asked him for his security tape and he pointed to a little room off the side of the store. I went and found the thing. It was ancient and still video tape. Hard to believe what people will put their faith in. I took the tape and left.

It was 3 am, so it wasn’t like the street was full of people, and once I was gone, I knew the old guy would come to his senses and call the cops. My only regret was that he had to see that. I hoped that Allah would give him some comfort from that nightmare.

The first time the body had thrown me out was when we’d been shot. Now there was a surprise. We were running through the park at night. I liked running, especially now that I had this spiffy body that was so fucking good at it. The night was clear and cool, but not cold. We’d gone out less armed than usual, because we weren’t really expecting any trouble. Who in their right mind takes on a six foot six guy with a face like eight miles of bad road?

But yes, there was a dumbshit ready to do just that. We came around a corner and there stood an idiot with a gun. He wasn’t a huge guy. There’s something about a gun that makes a small man think his size doesn’t matter. This is a very, very bad assumption.

However, I had also made a bad mistake. I’d been taking this same route for weeks. What kind of dumbass goes out running at night and takes the same damn route every time? This dumbass.

We did not have on Kevlar. Stupid. The idiot with the gun shot us in the chest, and when we dropped to the sidewalk, he began rummaging to see what we had. The pain of the shot surprised me. Apparently I had never been shot before. I cried out, and the next thing I knew, I was standing beside the body and the asshole was rummaging through the body’s pockets. He came up with a grand total of an unidentifiable house key that would open a door to an alarm system he would not know how to deactivate, and three dollars. He did not find the gun in the holster at my ankle, nor the knife sheathed on my wrist.

The shot did wake up the neighbors who promptly called the cops and the ambulance. I rode in the ambulance next to the body. I also went into the surgical suite with the body. I do not recommend it. One, the music selection was awful, and two, watching yourself (okay, so it wasn’t really me, but you know what I mean) cut open to stop bleeding and repair my insides is something no one should ever see.

I woke up in the body under the heavy control of morphine and pissed off.

The cops asked about the gun and the knife, and the body turned out to have permits for both. Surprise! Then they wanted to know if we could identify the shooter. We said no. Why the fuck would we let the cops take care of someone that we knew damn well we could find ourself and take care of in a much more final way?

Anyone who shoots first and then robs does not need to be on the street. If we’d been a lesser man, we’d have been dead. The fact that we had thick pectoral muscles that the cheap-ass gun just barely penetrated was what saved our life.

That was one dead fucker.

After our recovery, we went running again and there was the same dumb fucker. We pulled out a gun and shot him before we even got to his corner. Then we ran on. That was a very good run. We were on an endorphin high that didn’t seem to end.

We even went out and got laid afterwards by a very ugly woman who thought she’d hit the jackpot because despite our face, we were one studly attraction. We both had a good time.

None of this answers the question about why I was on the other side of the damn door. As best as I could figure out, it had to do with information inside the body’s head that I was not privy to. This displeased me greatly. You’d think the body would have enough sense of self-preservation to share information that could potentially result in death.

Apparently not. And likely why the body was without a spirit in the first place. Something in the past was so bad, he’d given up. He’d left. He’d wanted no part of his body or his life and he’d abandoned it.

So now I faced the possibility that this body was going to die on me and I would find myself alone in the world once more.

I looked around at where I was. There were two men on either side of the door. They both had guns, and they were both big guys. In fact, all the men inside the room were big guys. It was a like a big guy convention with all their favorite weapons.

What the hell had my body been up to before I got there?

Well, that didn’t matter now. I liked my body. I liked him and I liked what we could do together, so this was not going to end with me on the outside of this door while some giant beat my beautiful body to death. It just wasn’t going to happen.

I looked at the two guys standing by the door again. Rule number one is that a spirit really cannot inhabit a body that has a spirit in it. That conditional ‘really’ is the key to the rule. Two spirits are not supposed to inhabit one body. It’s a mess if you try, and mostly doesn’t turn out well for the habitee. Yeah, I know that’s not a word, but forgive me for trying to explain something that doesn’t exist for humans in terms a human might understand. Basically having two spirits can make the body go batshit.

I was considering batshit. I was really considering batshit.

Then I heard the body cry out in pain.

I was no longer considering batshit. I turned to the guy on the left and I went into his body. I don’t know why I selected him. Maybe because I like going left when most people go right. It’s a human thing.

It was like entering a fun house. Perspective was weird, and colors and sounds too bright. The guy’s spirit was not exactly what I’d call ready for the visit. He shouted surprise, and I raised the body’s gun and shot the guy across from him. I don’t know who was more freaked out, me or the body/spirit of the man I’d just taken.

We kicked in the door. That was fun. I’d always wanted to kick in a door. And then very precisely and quickly shot the three guys inside with my body. Then I put the gun to this body’s head and blew his brains out.

It was at that moment that I split—so to speak. I’m not much on death moments. They tend to be personal and I’d rather skip them whenever possible.

My body was tied to a chair. This was a problem. I was non-corporeal, and the body I wanted was tied to a chair. Fuck me.

My body looked at me and spoke. “You stupid shit-head,” he said. His voice was a little muddled because his mouth was really swollen and he was spitting out a lot of blood.

I had to agree, though. I was a stupid shit-head.

We looked at each other and he said, “You ever possessed a dead body?”

I thought, EWWWWWWW! Because that was just gross. But then I looked at the bodies around me and wondered. The one closest to my body had a knife. He’d been using it when I shot him.

“Give it a try,” my body said.

Fuck it, I thought. I’d already broken rule number one, what was another first going to do to me?

I entered the body and it was still habitable. It was warm. There wasn’t any blood flow or oxygen, but then I didn’t need those. It felt weird not having them and being inside. I sat up, reached out and began to saw at the rope around the body’s right hand. It made sense. If I could free that, he could free himself, and I could get the fuck out of this dead man.

When the rope frayed enough, my body broke it and grabbed the knife from me. I exited quickly, and did a full spirit shudder when I was out. That was creepy, and I never, ever wanted to do it again.

My body was struggling with the rope on his left hand, so I entered him and between the two of us we made quick work of the rest of his bonds. It’s a lot easier when you have spirit. The emotion of wanting out can make a body do things you wouldn’t think possible.

We got up and staggered out and away from the building. The thing is, we weren’t hurt all that bad. A broken nose, some nasty cuts, and bruising and a couple of broken ribs that were going to hurt like crazy until they healed. But there was nothing that couldn’t be taken care of at home.

So we went home.

We bandaged ourselves up, popped a couple of Vicodin that were in the first aid kit (I didn’t ask, but was damn glad it was there), and then my body sat in front of a full length mirror in a chair and asked, “Okay, what the fuck’s your story?”

Wow. I’d never been asked. Come of think of it, until my body talked to me in that room where he was being beaten, I don’t think anyone had ever been aware of me before.

“Talk.”

Well, I did share his mouth, so I told him my story. Not all of it, because we didn’t have eternity. But I told him about what I was and how I’d come to be inside him.

“How did you know I was here?” I asked when I’d finished.

He smiled. “Because I didn’t give a shit about anything before. I was sitting on that bench waiting for those fuckers to find me and kill me. I was done.”

Well, that was a surprise.

“You saved my life,” he said.

“Well, of course! You’re my body!” I answered. I mean, what kind of stupid shit would I be to let this fantastic body go to waste? It was amazing. Big, strong, able to kick ass like no one’s business. I’d had some strong bodies before, male and female. But I’d never had anything with the size, strength and skill of this one.

“I’m not a good man,” he said.

“Maye you weren’t. But I am a hell of a good spirit, and I like what you can do when I’m in you,” I answered.

“You don’t know, do you?” he asked. “You don’t know about me.”

I shook my head. “Not the way it works. Only know what you want me to.”

He took his time thinking about that.

“So what? You want to be a superhero or something?” he asked.

“Nope. Just like being able to kick in doors and kick bullies in the balls. Always wanted to do that.”

I think the sound he made was supposed to be a laugh.

“Okay. Okay, we’ll try it. But if you get me killed, won’t be anything I didn’t have coming,” he said.

“Well then,” I said, “I will have to work hard to keep you alive, won’t I?”

He got up from the chair and went to bed. We both slept. Me in my spirit dreams and he in his brain dreams. We would see what would come.
—«»-«»-«»—

Issue 34 Stories

Moonflowers

Moonflowers

Ember stared hard for a moment, and we all tensed. If Ember was the barrel of gunpowder in the room, Jinx was the one always trying to apply a match.

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The Graveyard of Ships

The Graveyard of Ships

A thousand civilizations had used the gate system; none of them knew who had built the gates that spanned the stars. In ten thousand languages, the children of the galaxy spoke of the Builders

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Bitter Bones

Bitter Bones

Oki held the last bone fragment in her withered palm. A child's. Although she had washed the delicate rib, its surface was still blotched with darkened signs of blood.

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Ten minutes for Scarlet Omega

Ten minutes for Scarlet Omega

There’s the bell again. Thank God for that. Whoever comes next couldn’t possibly be worse than this last guy. What a creep. Bad hair and bad teeth I can get past, and I’m not one to brag when it comes to my own wardrobe though I overdressed for this nightmare, that’s for sure.

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The Spirit and The Body

The Spirit and The Body

I found myself on the other side of the door from the room in which my body was taking a beating that I could hear.

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Issue 34 Poetry

For Rent

For Rent

Again, the glass cage is vacant. Only the elderly recall it was once a shoe store displaying Hush Puppies.

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The Sidekick

The Sidekick

I knew just where to stand to let the light pool in my eyes to tame the curl at my brow to hint at secrets on my lips

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Warrior

Warrior

In my sleek brown craft, I maneuver these subterranean rivers of incarnadine liquid, slipping over and around

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Pilot

Pilot

They said they cleaned out the ship completely— scrubbed out the last screams and left-over guts of those sacrificed to a faulty radiation filter.

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Because I Never Learned to Read the Tarot

Because I Never Learned to Read the Tarot

It is candlelight and velvet where I smudge away the bitter-mocha mad mojo funk and motion for you to belly-up to my tableau.

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Shade

Shade

His years of duty ended, still the captain stood watch over his king, night after night.

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Nine

Nine

Whispers of a hundred dead warriors are heard when a Samurai draws his katana.

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Salamander : Fire

Salamander : Fire

On the surface of a far distant star lives a race of Elementals who crawl like salamanders through forests of flame

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