Monday, September 10, 2018

Life is But a Stage

The stage lights flickered on, the red curtains pulled back as blade clashed against needles as long as one’s arm. One had to squint for a moment as sickeningly bright greens and yellows assaulted their eyes, all the world before them like a watercolor painting of forest in spring. It would almost seem serene, if it wasn’t for the invisible orchestra bringing the music to a crescendo and the offputting cactus monster the knightly hero was fighting.

“With blade in hand,” boomed a voice all around, like a god who descended from the heavens, “Sierra swallowed all her fear and rose to the challenge, fending off the needles with an elegance fitting of a ballerina, the same that brings the men and woman to their knees with awe!”

As if to accentuate his point, the knight, with her long brown hair flowing behind her, parried another batch of needles with ease, moving through the the needles with hardly a scratch. She danced around them- no, flowed through them like water, each movement natural as she approached the monster and struck with a flurry of blows. It groaned with pain, flailing about, more needles appearing where the knight struck, as if to keep her away.

“Such grace! Such determination! No hesitation! All to free the one who shoved her away, the girl trapped in the cactus of her own creation!”

Upon a closer look, the cactus looked vaguely human shaped, with spindly, rounded  fingers on arms that were far too big for them, no eyes, no mouth, nothing but a curtain of needles where Sierra struck. Sierra was hardly detered, leaping up and climbing those needles, stabbing and carving out what flesh she could. Her moves became less fluid and more frantic, her heartbeat amplified that all could hear.

“Gina!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, swinging off a needle to avoid the others that threatened to pierce her. “Gina, please, stop pushing me away! I want to help you! You can’t keep isolating yourself like this, it’s not healthy!”

A loud sigh escaped the Narrator’s lips as he said, “But alas, her words were left unheard! Gina’s heart had closed itself so long ago, as life became too much to bear. How else could she protect all she cared for from the bitter person she had become? What could keep such overbearing love at bay but a bed of needles?”

“Gina, listen to me!” Sierra cried out once more, moving more and more erratically as the calm gave way to panic. Her blade carved through cactus flesh, the pieces flying and splatting across the stage. “Listen to me! I know that everything looks dark, but we can make it out of the darkness! You just have to let me in! Please, just let me help you!”

“But what is a cactus?” asked the Narrator as the music reached a crescendo, as Sierra continued to dig through to the monster’s core with nothing but overbearing love to push her through. “A spiny menace that leaves needles where one touches… but what is beyond the curtain of needles? Nothing but vulnerable plant. Much like Gina: a vulnerable woman in the midst of dark times, protecting herself from further disappointment and shame in the only way she knows how. But if one reaches deep… if one could take her hand and yank her from the darkness she imposed upon herself,then perhaps-”

The Narrator is cut short as a needle pierces through Sierra’s armor, from her gut to the other side of her back. Her eyes widen as she coughs up blood, her grip loosening just enough so that she tumbled onto the ground in a heap. Weakly, she brought herself to her knees, trying to get back on her feet when the needles rain down again in a circle, trapping her in a makeshift cage.

When The Narrator speaks again, there is a hint of panic. “Caught off guard… caught in a trap. All hope seems lost, with words the only thing she could spare. But Sierra no doubt cared for Gina… They were fast friends, were they not? Friends from the very beginning, a friendship - or perhaps, love? - that could not be easily broken! Words were all Sierra could spare, but words would be-”

He was interrupted again as Sierra crumpled into a heap, sobbing loud enough for it to echo through the stage.

“I-I can’t do this! I… I’m not strong enough!”

She braced herself for the inevitible, for the rain of needles that would pierce her and end this tragedy once and for all. There was a snap, however, as the music came to an end, the lights all shutting off save the one casting a spotlight on her. There was a flash of green as the cactus monster known only as Gina faded away, a needle-shaped emerald left in her place.

From the rafters, like a Deus Ex Machina, a man decended, landing by Sierra’s side and looking down at her through his half moon glasses. His black cape flowed behind him, ignoring the fact that there was not even a breeze in the room. In his hands, he held a book wide open, carefully balancing it in one hand as he adjusted his glasses with the other.

“I’m not strong enough,” Sierra sobbed again, her hands and face wet with tears. “I… How could I help her when I can’t even help myself?!”

“You’re her friend,” said the man, his voice reminiscent of the narrator, but without his bombastic nature. “You’ve been with her so long-”

She turned towards him, her eyes red and still watery as she retorted, “But it didn’t mean a thing this time! I tried so hard to be there for her after all those rejection letters from schools, but she just wouldn’t let me help! She always retreated, always sat alone for days, crying, struggling to get anything done! I wanted… I wanted…” The words struggled to come out now as her throat throbbed with pain. “I wanted to do so much, but unless I can get her accepted somewhere, I’m just… I’m… I’m…”

A sickly aura rose around her, her voice distorting as she spoke. The man’s eyes widened for just a moment before he placed a hand on her shoulder.

“That’s enough for today, then. Go home and rest: you need it now, more than ever.”

“But-” Sierra started, only to stop when that pain in her gut made itself apparent once more. The man looked down at it and sighed, using his free hand to pull out a pearl from his pocket and hold it close to the wound Gina inflicted on her. It pulsed once, white sparks stitching things together until only a circular scar was left behind, all that pain going numb.

“There will always be another act, another time to bring a happy ending,” he said quietly. “But you must be well enough to handle it. Rest long and easy, even if that means merely watching the acts from afar.”

Sierra sniffled and nodded, taking her leave of the stage, leaving the narrator under the spotlight. He pocketed the pearl and glared at the script before him, as if that alone would bend the words to his will. He saw it, clear as day, what fate awaited her if he allowed the play to continue: the seed of despair would bloom in the star-struck maiden’s heart, unable to save her friend in any meaningful way. A seed that would bloom into a wicked flower, transforming her into a monster of her own design.

More puppets for his master to manipulate in the grand play she had in mind.

Yet again, his heart was filled with disgust. Yet again, he failed to twist the script. He was so certain it would work this time. Love and friendship triumphed over all! It was almost textbook! And yet, all he could do was barely, just barely keep one girl from turning into a monster the script willed her to be.

If he could, he would have thrown the book into a dumpster fire and watched his master’s ambitious burn out with it, cackling all the while. But he tried once, and the next morning, the script appeared at his side, pristine as could be. And those monsters… all he could do was contain them, keep them from turning the real world into a stage for tragedy. For he was just a narrator, an outsider damned only to tell the story from afar, rather than be in the fray himself.

He slammed the book shut, grumbling as he picked up the emerald and pocketed it with the pearl. “Damn script… Why can’t people just have a happy ending, for once?” he said to no one in particular. “I’m missing something… Was it my narration? Did I choose the right music piece? Or maybe I chose the wrong protagonist?” 

His heart stung as he said the last one, recalling Sierra’s breakdown all too soon. “Damn it, all this work and I’ve come no closer to ending this. Back to the drawing board for me… Maybe start from the beginning, find a fresh new face ready to conquer the stage.” 

He snapped his fingers, his eyes lighting up with glee. “Of course! A fresh new face to conquer the trials ahead, a journey of love vs hate! Hope vs despair! And maybe later down the line, when she’s feeling better, Sierra will finally free her friend from her own little prison!” He smirked, the light glinting off of his half moon spectacles as he added, “My, my, Erin, you’ve outdone yourself this time! What an absolute genius you are!"

He let the glee and joy build up in his heart before he boomed, "Let’s begin the search anew! Let us rise the curtain on yet another chapter of life, so that one day, they may close out to laughs and smiles than sobs and tears!”

He raised his hands up, basking in the light and smiling as the curtains closed, waiting patiently foor the day they would rise again.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Roomies Hangin Out

“Ah, I’m running late!”

Cherry blossoms swirl in the background as a girl no older than 15 runs through them, her long hair swaying in the breeze. Small Town High was looming before her like a giant as she hurried, trying desperately to keep the roast beef sandwich in her mouth. High school was the time of change, where she could change her life for good! Now she could stand out and-

She tripped on her own left foot, tumbling to the ground as her books flew out of her messenger bag. Embarassed, she hastily got up, watching other students pass her by without even lending a hand. Her sandwich was safe, but now she was struggling to get everything together.

“Oh no, oh no, I’m gonna be so late!” she says as she grabs a “Math 5 Dummies” book as thick as a dictionary and shoves it into her bag. “Man, what a way to start the day-”

From the corner of her eye, just as she grabbed her “Dragon Business” book, she saw a hand. She took it with out thinking and smiled as whoever it was helped her up.

“Thanks, I really needed that-” she started, before she realized she was holding a hand that was a little scalier than most. Either that or that was some bad eczema. And was it normal for people to have slits for eyes? And a dragon tail? And horns?

Her heart clearly went doki-doki as her eyes met with possibly the weirdest, yet handsomest mix of man and dragon alive-

There is a distinct crunch of a chip bag as a girl clutched it close like it was a long lost lover, watching the scene on her TV with anticipation. Ah, the signs of a possible love interest! Something abnormal, something cool, something-

“Hey, Sabrina, I’m home!”

Sabrina turned around with shock as she saw her roommate, a woman dressed like some Victorian Era widow who poisoned her ex-husband’s wine to inherit his massive fortune, in the doorway with two bags full of groceries.

“Huh?! You’re back so soon, Nikki?” Sabrina asked as she quickly paused her anime and turned her full attention to her friend. “I thought the store was having a sale? And weren’t you at a con, too?”

Nikki sighed and put the bags down before stepping into the room and taking a seat beside Sabrina. “They had a sale on everything we didn’t need, so I just got the bare essentials,” she replied, taking off her veil and shaking her head of long, brown hair. “The con’s going on for a couple more days, so I’m not worried about leaving early. Lot of cosplay going on, but there’s a distinct lack of B.C. that kinda gets at me.”

“Hasn’t he been gone for the last con, too? I mean, I know he’s still active and all, but he hasn’t been at any conventions recently!”

As Sabrina got up to toss her chip bag in the garbage, Nikki groaned and flopped onto the floor like a lazy, goth seal. “He’s been gone for two years and I hate it. I wanted to buy the next issue of Aqua Princess Rita and have it signed! I wanted to ask for like, five million comissions! AND I wanted to buy those handmade plushes of Kobbers!” Groaning turned to outright sobbing, her gloved hands covering her hands as she wept, “God damn it, why does everybody I like go somewhere else?! First it was the Kobbers and Zoofights, then WCW, and now B.C.! It’s like god says Manhattan can’t have nice things!”

Sabrina detected a sad friend, and when sad friends are involved, she could not leave them be! Quickly, she went to her dresser and opened up the top drawer, revealing the “Feel Good” stash, filled with small, soft blankets, plushes, scented candles, a collection of cassettes and video tapes of cute things, and fun sized candies. Most of it was pushed aside, though, as Sabrina grabbed the best weapon against Nikki’s eternal sorrows and dumped it at her feet along with a big box of crayons.

Nikki stopped her sobbing as she looked down at the thing in front of her and took it into her hands. Her sorrow quickly turned to confusion, her eyebrow quirked.

“ ‘Big, Bad, Zoofights Coloring Book’?”

“Yep! Now you can color in your favorite moments from every Zoofights imaginable!” Sabrina replied cheerfully, brushing back her long, pink hair and taking a seat beside her friend. “That includes even the Croctopus moments, y’know!”

The goth quickly looked through the pages before settling on one particular page that made her want to cry.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO” she wailed like a dying whale. “NOW I HAVE TO RELIVE THE LOSS OF MY FAVORITE EEEEL, NOOOO WHYYYYY DID YOU DO THIS TO MEEEE”

Sabrina tilted her head for a moment. “I dunno, I thought the horse was better! If it makes you feel any better, you can color the horse red and stuff? Use your imagination!”

Nikki raised her head, giving Sabrina a thousand yard stare. “Sab?”

A shiver went down Sabrina’s spine, but she pretended that it didn’t mean anything. “Yeah, Nikki?”

“I’m kicking you out of the house of this blasphamy.”

The gaspening begun, Sabrina flailing about as she shot back, “But wait, I’m your best friend! You know, your big, lovable best friend from grade school? You can’t just abandon your friend to the streets, right?”

“BUT THIS IS AN ACHILLES EEL HOUSEHOLD YOU MONSTER! IT’S LIKE I DON’T EVEN KNOW YOU ANYMORE!”

Oh no. She upset the friend. Now what to do? Concentrating, she held out her hands, feeling the warmth of the sun shining through her windows, feeling the warmth inside her and channelling that to her fingertips, where that same warmth, that energy, shaped itself into small motes of colored lights. And with a bit of struggle, she shaped them into not-so-perfect recreations of a dumb horse and an eel with a shoe, where the eel clearly kicked the horses ass.

“Does that make you feel any better?” she asked, a bead of sweat rolling down her face. “C’mon, cheer up! Instead of being mad we supported the wrong teams, why not focus on what we both agree on? You know, like how that lobster should have never won!”

Nikki stared at her for a long time before she said quietly, “Yeah, we should. We’re living in the worst timeline, the one where Final Mantisy XV isn’t a thing.” She smiled, sitting up before glancing over at the anime Sabrina was in the middle of watching. “Anyway, guess you’re binging again? Thought you’d be at a job interview, least with CarverCorp saying that they’re giving your resume a look over. Or maybe working on your resume.”

Sabrina snapped her fingers, the motes of light dispursing as she sighed and flopped onto the floor next to Nikki. “I’ve done all I could with it, so now it’s just a waiting game to see who hires me first,” she admitted, taking off her glasses to wipe off a bit of dirt that got on them with her shirt. “So while I wait, I’m just watching ‘My Heart-Pounding Dates with Dragons’. I heard it was great and full of fluff, soooo~!”

Squinting, Nikki took a good look over at what could potentially be the dragon date and said, “Huh, I think I’ve seen this. Or at least heard about it. Lot of fans are pissed at the ending, and if I remember right, it was some real shit.”

“S-spoilers, geez!”

“Listen, I’m trying to prevent your heart from breaking in two ahead of time. Don’t get your hopes up.”

“Well, in that case, then you’ll have to suffer with me!”

“Wait, no, I’m not ready for that kind of commitment! And I have to change out of this stuffy outfit-” Nikki said, but Sabrina grabbed her and held her in place with a firm hug.

Sabrina pressed play and continued watching the horribly awkward scene with glee as Nikki struggled in her grip before, eventually, her roommate simply gave up and just watched along with her. The coloring book is swiftly forgotten as the two girls watch anime together, one delivering a snarky commentary along the way.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Suddenly, A Boyfriend

Beep beep beep! Beep beep beep! Beep beep-

SLAP.

“Piece of shit alarm...”

Cindy groggily pulled her hand away from her alarm clock and rolled over in bed with a groan. The sun’s light trickled in through the window, past the heavy curtains she set up. Damn sun, always being up so goddamn early. Sleep more important. Sleep’s always more important.

BEEP BEEP BEEP

She slapped it again, rolling over and shoving another pillow on her face. It was too early to do anything. It was her day off. Every day was a day off, now that she was taking a break from the actress gig. And that meant she could sleep in as long as she-

BEEP BEEP-

“For fuck’s sake!”

Cindy grabbed the alarm and chucked it like she was a Chuckster all her life, the poor thing flying across the room-

Bonk.

“Ow!’

Cindy sat up in an instant, eyes wide as she turned towards the source. The alarm fell at a man’s feet, the poor guy rubbing the unfortunate bump that formed when she accidently hit him with it.

“Oh god, are you okay?! I’m so sorry!” Cindy said, rushing out of bed to brush away his red hair and kiss the boo boo like her life depended on it.

He shrugged it off, even though he flinched when she kissed it. “Don’t worry about it, I’m alright,” he said. “You probably shouldn’t be chucking those things around. Besides, you can just… disconnect them.”

Cindy stared at him and gasped. “Wow, you’re a goddamn genius! Maybe I should do that!” She then shrugged and crawled back into bed, yawning all the while. “But you know… that just… isn’t my style.

“So, your style is ‘aggressively throw things you don’t like across the room.’ Remind me never to bring Prinnies into your apartment.”

“And your style is yelling ‘FIGHT ME!’ in the middle of a wrestling promo that didn’t even involve you.”

“Touche. Anyway, now that you’re up, you want something from Dunkin? I can go grab a bite for us to eat. Maybe you can catch a few more minutes of shut eye while I’m out.”

“Long as you don’t catch that stupid tie in a door and strangle yourself, sure. And why go to Dunkin when you can just… go order some Black Magic Bakery stuff online.”

He raised an eyebrow, then took out his phone, bumbling his way onto the BMB website. “They deliver locally, and last I checked, they’re in Kuwahawi and Manhattan. We’re in neither of those places.”

Never had Cindy been so incensed at living in California. Nice beaches, nicer homes, nicer food, but no goddamn Black Magic Bakery. It was an utter sin, and she was about to correct this right now.

“Hold on, bae, I’ve got this,” she said as she pulled out her phone and dialed. “Hello, Parsee? Heeeey, girl, it’s been forever and a half! I’ve been secluding myself after my shameful display at Drown Yer Mates-”

“You were actually busy doing weird actress things that involved getting drunk,” ‘da bae’ corrected, though Cindy waved him off.

“-and crying bucketloads because the paparazzi got a hold of it and tore me a new asshole. I mean, come on, half of you chumps wouldn’t have even tried. Anyway, could you get me one of those cinna-waffles Celestia has? And a big stack of pancakes? VROP ‘em over, I’m starving. Unless you wanna do an in-person delivery!

Uh huh, I’ll pay you back ASAP. Thanks, you’re the best! Love ya~!” Cindy hung up, turning towards her man with a smirk. “Breakfast is on the way. Now get over here and cuddle me, goddamn it.”

“W-wait, hold on, you got that set up that fa-”

Cindy rolled her eyes, got out of bed, grabbed him by the stupid tie, and dragged him into bed with her, snuggling him tight.

She wasn’t exactly sure how this started. It was sometime where she was filming something stupid: the director wanted her to be at least tipsy and try to act like a snobby princess all the while. Gods, the plot was weird: tipsy princess with a gun, fending off challenges from Overlords everywhere as they all tried to kill her for some god forsaken reason. Oh, and some weird, forced romance between her and some guy. Lots of stunts were involved, and the main actor wasn’t nearly as talented as her. They went through a bunch of stunt doubles trying to perform the tricks he had to do, most of them cowering out when they realized they were up against a very scary, real Overlord who was just acting like a dick for the pay.

Poor actor was left to do his own stunts, bless his soul. But one day, just as he was about to pretend to kick an Overlord’s ass, Mr. Big Tie just rolled up and actually laid the beatdown on the Overlord. Just… outright kicked his ass, no hesitation.

She wasn’t sure if she wolf-whistled at him for no reason other than wow, nice muscles. Maybe she also said something lewd. All she knew was that maybe she had too many shots that night and she might have said something vaguely romantic or tsundere or something and he took her to a hotel so she could puke and get over her hangover.

Then he got hired as the stunt double because ~magic~ and they went on casual dates and… now they were here. Snuggling. In bed. At 7 AM.

Cindy didn’t know how the hell it actually started, or when it became a real thing, but all she knew was that she at least enjoyed his company. It was hard to find anyone worth dating when you were an actor or actress, because people tended to date them as trophies, as a golden egg, the sugar momma or sugar daddy or whatever the fuck they called them these days. Personality? Who gives two shits about that, when they’re famous?

“Hey, Cindy?”

Cindy groggily turned towards him. “Yeah, Adell?”

“You think we could maybe go out of the country sometime?”

“Did you kill an Overlord and have to run away from your crimes and your horrible past or something?”

He stared at her, sitting right up as he said, “Wait, what? No, no! I meant to watch some Brawl something or other! It’s in Kuwahawi, and two friends of mine are in it!”

Cindy sighed dramatically, sinking further into her bed. “Damn it, I was ready to forge some documents and everything.”

“You were seriously thinking of covering tracks, weren’t you?”

“Maybe.” Cindy sat up and streched before she leaned on Adell’s shoulder. “Anyway, sure, we got time to spare. I don’t have shit to do aside from post cat pictures and latte art on my Instagram.” She rested for a bit before her brain switched on. Brawl. Kuwahawi. A Brawl on Kuwahawi. Suddenly, she jerked up, giving Adell a shocked as hell look as she shouted, “Wait, your friends are in the BIG BAR BRAWL?!?”

“Could you not shout in my ear?” Adell shouted back, flinching before he pulled up photos of both Gonzy and Priere. “Anyway, yeah, I know these two! They were both involved in some Demon Hunting stuff, and they both helped me beat up Zenon! Was wondering what they were up to all these years, so I figured now might be a good time to catch up!”

Cindy looked at him, then back at her phone. Adell, phone. Phone, Adell. Phone.

“One sec, bae,” she said softly before she dialed Parsee again. “Hey, Paru-paru? Why didn’t you fucking tell me your stupid, adopted Penguin Son is IN THE BIG BAR BRAWL?!?

“Wait, Gonzy’s Parsee’s adopted what now?!?”

“No, I didn’t know! Please, get me front row seats so I can watch your penguin son die horribly and I can get drunk and tell my boyfriend, ‘ha, I could do better than that’. “ Cindy watched Adell’s cheeks turn pink, turning away from her the moment she made eye contact. God damn it, why was he so cute when flustered? “I’ll do Brawl votes just for you if you get ‘em! Pinkie promise! Also need some hotel rooms because I’m inviting Kevvy, too! We’re hardcore brawl fanatics, you know!”

As she chatted away, breakfast arrived in bed, the VROP startling Adell for a second before he dug into his pancakes like a starved hyena. Watching him eat breakfast in bed alone was no fun, so she quickly wrapped up her call and joined him, smiling right at him as she said, “Well, I guess you know where we’re going soon!”

“Yep! Heard about these Kobbers: they seem to be just my type. Kind of like big damn heroes, huh?”

“MMMMMMM, 90%, yes.”

“What about the other 10%?”

“5%’s too cuddly to be heroes and the other 4% are… out there. Courier’s was a weird one before he died, and then there’s a few others who kinda straddle the line of gray morality.”

Adell wiped some syrup off of his face with his tie. Didn’t he ever hear of napkins? Did she have to ask Parsee to VROP some napkins in, too? “Do I even want to hear about the 1%?”

Cindy leaned in close, so close her lips were right next to Adell’s ear. “Sinefam.”

“Nevermind, don’t think I wanna hear it.”

She grinned as she took a bite of her waffle. “Yeah, thought so. Long story. Either way, yeah, they fit your style like a glove, except they scream ‘FITE ME’ at one another and lo and behold, they do it! The Big Bar Brawl is basically them shouting ‘FITE ME’ at each other all at once and then 99% of them die. And that’s just for kicks, too! Can you imagine that Zenon guy you keep talking about showing up and turning people into demons for his power and then being all wordy in front of them? He’d be dead before the year was out. Trust me, I know.”

“Zenon was kind of a chump anyway, so that sounds a lot like overkill.”

As the two talked the day away and Cindy explained all Adell needed to know about Kobbers, excitement built up in her chest. She’s going to see the Brawl with her best friends and her battle maniac of a boyfriend. She’s going to watch people kick ass and take names. Maybe she’ll get dragged into a Kobber thing or two.

Most importantly… she would have someone to share it with.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Door of Possibilities

Janitors always have it rough.

For all the work they do, they are hardly appreciated. Who would respect anyone who cleans up garbage every day? Not the everyday person. Unless, of course, you worked in a big fancy house for a big, rich family who pays big money for you to clean up after them and happened to maybe, just maybe, wear a cute outfit to go with. But if you worked anywhere else, you’d get no praise, no recognition, just a bunch of shifts with hardly any days off inbetween and a lousy paycheck, to boot. The Planeswardens paid better than the average company and had a more appreciative boss to boot (even if he was a bit of a stickler), it still wasn’t fantastic compared to basically everything else.

Which is exactly why Hiroki, upon given a full three days off in a row after two full weeks of mess cleaning, was sleeping in as much as possible. If he slept in, that four-course meal his boss promised him would come that much sooner! Unfortunately for him, 8 hours of sleep was the limit that his body would allow, in spite of all of his efforts.


After staring at the ceiling for another hour, hoping for sleep to claim him yet again, he rolled out of bed and went into the bathroom to get a good start to his day. Shower? Check. Brushed teeth? Check! Tamed the wild beast that is his hair? Seeing how it was down to his hips, maybe it was time for a haircut. Or maybe it was just time to shove it into a ponytail, as per usual.

As he headed towards the kitchen, his phone buzzed with the intensity of a thousand bees in a jar. His heart raced as he rushed to pick it up off its charging stand on the table and answered it.


“Helloooo-”

“Sup, chucklefuck?” said the voice on the other side, casual as could be. “Put your phone back down, I’m trying to Facetime you!”

He placed it right back on its stand and saw video of a woman waving at him, surrounded by anime merch as far as the eye could see. Gunpla, anime figures and plushies… She had ‘em, though there was one in particular that caught Hiroki’s eye.


“Haruko, why do you have a body pillow of Shu Shirakawa?” Hiroki asked, trying his hardest not to pay too much attention to the details and effort put into that pillow. “And how did you get that past Mom and Dad?”

Haruko snorted, leaning back in her chair with a smirk as she replied, “Told ‘em it was a reference for a nude drawing for art class. ‘We can’t afford real male models!’ I told them. ‘This is the next best thing!’ “

Hiroki turned towards his espresso pot, thinking that maybe he didn’t have enough coffee for this. “And did they actually believe you, or did they just give in because you were gonna buy it anyway?”

“Beats me,” Haruko said with a shrug. “I mean, it’s not TOTALLY lewd or anything! I mean, his junk’s covered by a big blue bird so-”

Never was Hiroki so thankful that he wasn’t drinking coffee. Otherwise, he would have been paying some big money to fix his phone. He slammed his hands on the table, eyes wide with shock as he shouted, “His dick’s covered by WHAT now?!?”

Haruko rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen weirder, Hiro. I mean, really.” After a moment, she sighed, sliding down her seat and swooning, Hiroki taking that moment to get up and prepare some coffee. “Aaah, at long last, my husband and I are united! All I need now is some Gunpla of the Granzon and everything will be perfect!”

“Good luck with that,” Hiroki replied, grabbing some eggs out of his fridge with one hand and grabbing a clean bowl out of the sink with the other. “I think they’re about $500 for a perfect grade one, give or take.”


“Not to worry! I saved up my Christmas money just for an occasion like this!” He could certainly hear how smug she was, even if he couldn’t see her as he cracked some eggs for his soon-to-be omelette. “Soon, it’ll be mine and mine alone, and nobody can stop me! Ohohoho!”

“Well, I guess nobody can stop you from having bad tastes, but you do you, sis!”


“Says the Masaki fanboy.”

Hiroki turned towards his phone and saw Haruko blowing raspberries at him, but he shrugged it off. “You got me, but I’m not the one buying lewd body pillows of him with his junk covered by his familiars.”

Haruko sat straight up and shot him a glare as she snapped, “You would, if you had the money!”

“If I had the money, I’d buy myself some socks, some food, a Nintendo Switch…” Hiroki grinned as his sister rolled her eyes and groaned, but it was replaced with a more serious look as he said, “Really, though? I don’t think you should be spending that much money on merch. I know most of it is just saved up birthday and Christmas money, but you’ve blown through a ton of it on mobages alone.”

He was less enthused when she rolled her eyes again and huffed, “Come on, can’t a girl just treat herself every now and then? Another figure isn’t going to kill me, you know.”

“It won’t, but it wouldn’t hurt to save up for more important things, would it?”

“Bro, I’m not like you.” Hiroki flinched, shuddering as Haruko stared at him coldly. “I’m not the one saddled with student debt because you slacked off too much in high school for a scholarship. I’m not the one who had to beg mom and dad for money just to eat at a garbage pizza place every night. And I’m certainly not the one who took a stupid janitor job that doesn’t even pay that well! So don’t give me that bullshit! I’ll spend my money on whatever I damn please, thank you very much, because at least I’ve got a lucrative career in front of me!”

The duo fell quiet, the silence only broken by the sizzling of eggs and the coffee boiling over. His heart stung with the pain of the truth inherent in those words. Haruko might have been spoiled, but she managed to get scholarships for her high grades. Last he heard, she was doing just about everything he couldn’t in school, what with her juggling several club positions, sports, classes, internships, and free time like a pro. And of course, she was in the Biochemistry field, already looking for PhD programs to jump into once she graduated. She was the golden child, the one everyone looked up to. Beloved.

And what was he? A janitor.

He was hardly paying attention to Haruko when she continued yapping about her collection and what to get next, simply smiling and nodding as he poured himself some coffee and finished his omelette with handfuls of cheese. Only by the grace of God did his phone buzz again. This time, with a note about his boss calling.

“Uh oh, boss is calling, gotta go!” he said with faux worry.

“Whaaat?” Haruko stared at him with shock before she crossed her arms. “I barely get to talk to you and NOW he decides to call? Tell him to shove off, family’s more important! Besides, who else is gonna tell me if I should get an Altiesen Gunpla after I get Granzon?”

“I can talk later, Haru! It’s not like I’m gonna die or anything! Love you, byyyye!” He hung up on her as fast as he could and answered his boss’s call with a, “Hiiii, Bossy-boss! What can I do for ya?”

“Start by not calling me that ever again,” said Boss, cold as ice. Hiroki was glad he couldn’t see his devilish grin. With a cough, Boss continued, “And would you mind a video call? I’d like to show you something.”

“As long as you’re not calling me in, sure!”

With a press of a button, Hiroki could see his boss, clear as day, with his legendary permanent scowl. He could also see the clear blue skies and the hustle and bustle of some city, several stores lined up behind the man. Maybe it was an island? Whereever it was, it certainly didn’t warrant that unhappy look on his boss’s face.

Contrary to his facial expressions, Boss sounded rather pleased as he said, “Ah, there we are. Good morning! I trust you slept well?”

“Never better!” Hiroki quirked an eyebrow, quickly plating his breakfast, taking a seat, and digging in as he looked at the locale. “Though, where are you? You’re not in another dimension, are you?”

“Ha, as if I’d need to go to another dimension to enjoy something like this,” Boss replied, forcing that scowl into an awkward grin. “No, I happen to be on Earth, enjoying a stroll in Kuwahawi proper.”

Kuwahawi. That was certainly a name he could remember clearly. A lot of Planeswardens were chattering about this ‘newfound’ island chain in the Pacific, advertised loudly by tour guides as the most beautiful place on Earth. Hiroki’s eyes widened with shock as he replied, “Wait, Boss! You’re in Kuwahawi and you didn’t invite me?! How could you?!”

“You were sleeping,” came the blunt reply. “I thought it better to leave you undisturbed. And by the way, you’re not on duty. There’s no need to call me ‘Boss’, and I’m sure you’re well aware of my name by now, hm?”

 “Okay, Eirian,” Hiroki said with a shrug. “Though I kinda think it’s awkward. I mean, you’re my boss, even if you do take me to nice restaurants and reccomend books and recipies every now and then.”

Maybe Eirian pondered it for a moment. Maybe. After a moment, though, he shot back, “You say that after you called me ‘Bossy-boss’ unironically? I’d like to believe that this is more than just a simple employer-employee relationship, much like the friendship Duer fosters with Magus. That is something I would like to foster in my employees, though most aren’t, ah… living up to my expectations.”

“Huh, I wonder why,” Hiroki said, as he thought back to all the times he was called in because someone overslept or called out or simply half-assed the job. He could sort of understand why they’d do that: he got his fair share of being yelled at by Eirian when he first started. What was different was that he worked diligently and continued to improve, while as far as he could see, most of the others just slacked off and didn’t bother giving their all.

“That is neither here nor there, however. You do recall the four course meal I’ve spoken with you about, yes?”

Hiroki took a giant bite of his omelette just in time. God knows what kind of impression he’d give Eirian if he drooled all over the table. “Yeeeess? Did you find a good place? Maybe? Possibly?”

Eirian sighed as he adjusted his spectacles and replied, “While I was able to find a restaurant, I found that they were booked until mid-June. Walking in is hardly an option: the wait times are up to an hour or more. And I hardly think you would want to wait until June for a meal.” Hiroki slumped in his seat, heart heavy from the news until his boss pointed his phone’s camera towards a small bakery behind him. “So my question is this: Would you accept my humble offerings of baked goods instead? You will still get your four course meal, late as it may be, but this may be good in the interim.”

Baked goods now, four course meal later? If he wanted baked goods, he could just go to the cafeteria and grab a whole bunch of glazed donuts. Or he could order Krispy Kreme and have it delivered… somehow.

That… and did he really deserve this? Hell, did he even deserve his four course meal? All he did was clean up a giant mess in the ballroom. All he did was his job. It was just a stupid janitor job. He didn’t build a robot or find the cure to a type of cancer or anything. He was just-

“I’ve changed my mind.” Yeah, that’s what he thought. He was hardly worth the effort. That scowl on Eirian’s face said it all. “You don’t get a choice in the matter: You need these AND a tissue box.” Hiroki stared at him, flabbergasted as his boss placed a finger on his chin and closed his eyes. “I’ve placed an undue amount of stress on you these past two weeks, and I need to reward you with more than just a bonus for your hard work. Much as I strive for immaculate floors, it should not come at the cost of tears, should it?”

Tears? Hiroki hardly noticed them streaming down his cheeks. Maybe he needed that tissue box after all. “I mean, you are a stickler, a little bit,” he replied, hastily wiping away his tears before his boss asked any more questions. “But you mean well! Don’t want the Planeswarden HQ to be a pigsty and all. B-but yeah, pastries! I’ll take a dozen or so, if you don’t mind!”

“Why would I mind? I’m offering!” Eirian snapped. “Any particular flavor? Black Mage Bakery offers some more exotic flavors. Their cucumber cookies have caught my attention… Or maybe you’d enjoy a simple glazed donut?”

“Why not one of everything so we can sample the entire store?”

Was that a grin he saw? “Only if you agree to make an honest review of the store.”

“DEAL.”

Hiroki wasn’t sure if that was a chuckle he just heard, but Eirian looked happy. Or, well, as happy as he could be. Not that it lasted too long, given that it was soon replaced with a more serious look. “Now, one other question: I have heard from Duer that you are a canidate to pilot the fabled Fenrir. Is this correct?”

He shuddered, even as he took a big gulp of coffee. “I thought that was top secret?”

“Not if it involves my employees.”

Hiroki paused, taking another bite of omelette and washing it down with coffee before he replied, “Yeah. Duer talked about it with me, and I’m honestly willing to go with it.”

“I see.” That sure was ominious, especially when followed with a long silence. Then, after thinking on it, Eirian said, “I will see to it that you are well prepared for the position, then.” When Hiroki stared at him in shock again, Eirian continued, “You are up against some of the most talented pilots in this known universe, Hiroki. And even if some of the canidates are not spectacular at such, they have uncanny abilities and magicks that will give them an edge. You are but an ordinary person in a sea of extraordinaries, a janitor amongst the crowds of soldiers, mages, priests, and whatever else the Planeswardens have hired.”

Hiroki sagged like a sack of potatos, recalling his sister’s words before his boss continued, “But in spite of such, there is something you have that most lack. Something you hardly see amongst your fellow janitors… Will. Who was it who fixed the ice cream machine after several days of research and effort? Who was it that fixed the plumbing, even as one of the bathrooms flooded with sewage spewing from one of the toilets? Who was it that cleaned that ballroom to an absolute shine, after the wild sports party the Planeswardens saw fit to host?!”

“Not I. Not your coworkers. Not the rank and file Planeswardens. You, who have toiled through Janitorial Hell, have the will! And such will will propel you to greatness!” Hiroki certainly wasn’t expecting his boss to wave his arms around and yell like a priest preaching to the church. A lot of people were starting to turn and stare at the impassioned man who was yelling at his phone, for better or worse. “There will be those who denounce such, who will look down upon you like the filth of the world! There will be many who say that you lack the skill and the knowledge, that you are hardly special, unworthy of such position! But nay, I say that as long you have the willingness to learn, to strive, to struggle, you are more than worthy! And for that reason, I will see to it that you are sufficiently prepared for the upcoming trials, so they will all be proud to call you Planeswarden!”

When Eirian finally noticed that everyone was staring at him, he cleared his throat, taking a moment to regain his composure as he said, flustered, “I, well, I simply wish to make sure you meet qualifications before you are promoted, of course. Not everyone gets the honor of such when they are merely the help. Anyway, I’ll get those pastries you requested. I will see you, ah… soon, I suppose?”

Click.

Hiroki stared at his phone a little more before he took a deep breath and got out of his seat. “Will, huh?” he said quietly, closing his eyes as he thought. “Boss said I had will… And I can’t really let him down, can I?”

With a grin, he hurried to get his green bandana and tie it around his head, then rush back to his room to turn on his desktop and get to researching. If he was going to be a robot pilot, it wouldn’t do to just sit around and wait for training. And maybe he should look into some martial arts. A Planeswarden’s job wouldn’t always take place within the cockpit of a robot, and, well.. who’d take a robot to take down a civilian threat?

His sister was right: he did screw himself out of some opportunities and ended up in a shittier position than he thought. But when some doors close, others open… sometimes in the places you’d least expect it. Like when you were a janitor.

And he was going to run through it with all he’s got with his chin up and a smile on his face.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Big Clash in the Small Town

Jiang could hear the war cries of the villiage militia as he approached the outskirts, the clash of steel against steel ringing in the air. Through the cover of trees, he could see bandits, fighting with a ferocity of a dragon. No doubt they were as greedy as one too. Why else would they bother the tiny little village of Chin’an otherwise?

As Ning and Yin caught up to him, Jiang signaled Ning to come closer and asked, “Scout ahead for me, will ya? We need to know how many there are and if any of them got torches.”

“So that we can stop ‘em from setting the whole place on fire, right?” Ning asked, though she hardly waited for an answer as her head detached. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered!”

Jiang watched her head zoom up into the skies, then turned his attention to Yin. “And you? I’m gonna need you to throw me in.”

“Oooh, we’re givin’ them the BOOT now, are we?” Yin said with a smirk. “Of course, of course!” His smirk faded a bit, tinged with a bit of worry as he asked, “Although, your townsfolk won’t shoot us down once the battle’s over, will they? We are still monsters, after all.”

“I’ll call ‘em off before they try anything. They’ll understand, long as you guys don’t’ try to eat ‘em.”


Yin huffed, grabbing Jiang by the collar of his shirt as he said, “What do you take me for, some two-bit starved lion? I have preferences, you know!”


Ning’s head flew back over and spun in place, a spark of excitement in her eyes. “No torches anywhere, Boss!” she said, her body drawing her bow and nocking an arrow as she spoke. “We’re outnumbered, but that’s not gonna stop us! I’m ready to go!”


Jiang smirked. “Course it won’t! Ning, you’ll go ahead and disable any bandit you shoot. And Ying… You know exactly what to do.”

“The usual, of course! Now, where should I throw you?”

He looked over to a gaggle of bandits harassing one particular mage girl, one who was more than eager to fry them up like a chicken. Maybe she was holding her own well, but more were starting to gang up on her as they noticed she was the real threat. With a devilish grin, Jiang pointed at them.

That was all Yin needed to know before he lifted his paw up for the pitch and threw Jiang into the fray, his boot connecting squarely with a bandit’s face. The bandit let out a tiny yelp, his friends stopping their assault to oggle at whoever the hell came to ruin their fun. Not that they got an answer from Jiang, unless punches to the face count.

The mage girl looked up and saw Jiang beside her, then huffed as she said, “Took you long enough, Muscles! Where the hell have you been?”

As he elbowed a bandit in the gut, Jiang snapped back, “What, I save your ass and this is how you greet me, Yijun?”

Another bandit thought to bring an axe down on his head, but Yijun snapped her fingers and zapped him with a bolt of lighting, though she saved her glare for Jiang. “Excuse me?! I’d be more thankful if you came here earlier! I actually chipped a nail from knocking one of these goons off of me!”

“You’re more concerned about your damn nail than you are about everyone else?”

“They need to be immaculate in time for Lady Zheng’s ball! How else will I get a handsome prince to pay attention to me?”

“Yijun, they’d lose interest the moment you send them to fight a damn dragon for some bracelet you wanna wear!”

As the two bickered, one bandit loomed over them, axe raised high. “Ha, just like lovebirds to let your guard down during-” he started, only to get a knee to the gut, a fireball to the face, and a mighty blow to his ego as he collapsed like a bag of bricks.

“Who the hell are you calling a lovebird?” growled Jiang.

“And who said our guard was down, you dumbass?” snapped Yijun, waggling her finger at the unconscious bandit. She huffed, flicking her long strands of hair back as she said, “Seriously, who do you think you are?” She glanced over at Jiang, her face turning several shades of white as she asked, “And where the hell is your axe? I thought you brought it with you everywhere!”

Jiang would have answered if he wasn’t busy prying an axe from the bandit’s cold, unconscious hands. “I forgot it,” he replied bluntly, feeling the heft of his new weapon and testing it on a poor bandit who was a living pincushion after Ning was done with him. Yijun opened her mouth, pointing angrily at him, then closed it as she realized there wasn’t any use arguing, least of all during a raid.

Even if the numbers weren’t bolstered by Jiang and crew’s arrival, things quickly turned sour for the bandits. Between Jiang chopping them down, Ning pelting them with arrows, Yijun blasting them with sharp windblades and fire, and Yin leaping in and clawing them down, their morale dropped like a rock. Some tried to retreat, though most found themselves stuck in pitfalls prepared by the village children. Others tried their best to keep them away and beat them down, but for every blow they inflicted upon them, Jiang was sure to deal just as much damage back, if not more. The village militia followed suit with spears and swords, bringing down whatever bandits that Jiang and friends didn’t finish off.

With their numbers thinning out, the rowdy bandits were running out of options. How could they win when they had youkai, a witch, and a demon of a man fighting against them? Jiang grinned, confident that this would be over before they knew it-

“EEP!”

He turned his head towards the noise after clonking a bandit with the blunt side of his axe. Of course it was another bandit, but this one had all the markings of the leader: much taller, much more composed, a smug look on his face to rival Yijun’s... and the goonies around him all had wicked grins, defenseless townspeople struggling in their grip.

The big bandit chuckled, casually raising a hand as he said, “You sure got ahead of yourselves, thinking you had everything all tidied up. How cute! Didn’t think we’d pull a trick like this, now did you?” Yin spotted him and prepared to pounce, but quickly, the bandits drew blades, pressing them against their captives’ necks. The leader waggled a finger, his smugness intensifying to the point where Jiang really wanted to smash his axe right in his face. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he warned. “Unless you really want those poor kiddos to be without a ma and da, eh?”

Yijun’s eyes blazed with pure hatred, her hands glowing with a fiery power as she snapped, “How dare you! I swear, if you hurt them, I’ll turn all of you to ashes, you hear me?!?”

The captives shrieked as the blades were pressed ever harder on their neck, the boss bandit shaking his head. “You don’t get it, do ya? Fine, let me spell it out to ya.” He pointed angrily down at the hesitant group and said, “Drop your weapons, and give us all the treasure you got. That’s the only way out of this little situation you got yourself in.”

Jiang glared hatefully back at the bandit. Like they’d actually hold up their end of the bargain, he thought. They killed anyone and everyone who could fight back in that other town. They’ll just kill us once our guard’s down. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ning look over at him with a glare of her own: When the hell could she shoot him down? He didn’t have an answer, not one that would end well.

With heavy hearts, the militia dropped their weapons and backed away, hoping that it would be enough to spare their kinsmen. Yin huffed, taking a few steps back, but never taking his eyes off of the leader. Ning threw her bow down and groaned, crossing her arms like a toddler throwing a fit. The only ones that didn’t back down were Jiang and Yijun, both as fixated on the leader as Yang was.

The leader noticed and yelled, “Didn’t you hear me? Or maybe you’re just deaf? Drop your weapons and get the goods, or these poor folk’ll get it!”

Yijun ignored him and turned towards Jiang and snapped, “We can’t just do what they say! We have to do something!”

But what the hell can we do that won’t get us all killed? Jiang dug through his mind for an answer, but all he could do was glance over at the river. With grit teeth, he loosened his grip on his axe, his weapon falling on the ground with a THUD as he held his hands up. Yijun’s eyes widened with shock, but what could she do but extinguish the flames around her hands and watch as her own kinsmen brought out the treasures they held most dear?


Soon, a mound of gold and gems sat in front of the bandits, glimmering in the morning sun. As they ran their filthy hands over it, Jiang’s blood boiled. Those were the town’s earnings, the town’s hard earned gold, the town’s treasure, and they were drooling over it and fondling it as if it were their own. The big bandit smirked, grabbing a piece of gold in the pile and inspecting it with glee. “Oho, we shoulda did this earlier!” he said with a laugh. “Woulda been less effort than fighting our way through that town! And now…” A snap of his fingers, and all the bandits with free hands drew their weapons and held them high. “We don’t need you anymore.”

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the militia hurried to get their weapons before it was too late. The captives surely felt the call of death as the bandits prepared to cut their heads. In this very moment, Jiang prayed, prayed that something, someone would help them. And if God wasn’t willing to give him that, then he prayed that he could drag the rest of these bandits straight to hell with him.

And in that moment, God responded to his prayer… with something huge coming out of the river, a shower of icicles raining down upon the bandits, those with captives too busy scrambling out of the way to worry about holding onto those villagers. As for the big bandit himself, he probably wasn’t expecting to get some fish ass in his face.

With an opening before them, the militia focused more on getting their weapons and routing the enemy than the fact that a mermaid just casually appeared and kicked ass. Jiang, on the other hand, was absolutely estatic that his best friend pulled through in a pinch.

Kailani waved at him and flopped over, saluting him as best she could as she said, “Hiya, Jiang! Sorry I’m late! Guess I missed the signal, huh?”

He waved her off, rushing in to hug her as he replied, “Don’t worry about it! That was AMAZING! You’re just… Holy shit!”

“Boss, that’s a rude thing to say to a lady!” Ning said as she detached her head and headbutted a bandit, leaving her body to shoot down any of them coming too close to her. “Don’t call her shit! Call her something like ‘Holy Empress of Awesome’!”

Kailani giggled and smiled back at Ning, replying with, “Nah, that’s a mouthful! Kailani’s just fine! Maybe Kai will work, though!”

Jiang wasn’t sure if Yin’s roar was of approval or just because he wanted to scare the piss out of some bandits. Maybe both? Either way, he said, “Kai it is! Now then, how about we put some bandits to rest, huh?”

Before Kai could speak, Yijun jumped in, eyes wide with wonder as she said, “How about instead, you explain to me how the hell you met a mermaid?”

“How about we talk about that later and kick some butt first?” Kailani said before Jiang could snap right back at Yijun. “Then we can all gather around the river for story time!”

Yijun still stared at Jiang, more with genuine surprise than with jealousy, but after he moved on to punch a bandit and grab the nearest axe, she decided it was worth it to just fry up some more enemies. With a mermaid dishing up water attacks alongside the group, there were hardly any bandits to worry about. Most were put to rout, while some did manage to escape. It wasn’t too long before the whole village could hear cries of victory ring in the air.

Satisfied with a job well done, Kailani smiled upon everyone and said, “We finally did it! Your home’s safe at last! Sorry I couldn’t help sooner, but really, all of you guys put in the effort to make it happen!”

Ning stood up, grabbing her head and screwing it back on before she replied with a grin, “Hey, you’re the one who came in at the last minute to save us! Give yourself some credit, Kai-kai!”

“But who was shooting those bandits in the knees to keep them from going anywhere, huh?” Kailani replied with a grin of her own. “Huh? Because it wasn’t me, last I checked!”

“Well, I wasn’t shooting icicles and doing cool magic things so HA!” Ning pointed trimphantly at the mermaid, her cape and hair flapping in the wind. “You’re the best, not me!”

Yijun stepped in, flicking her hair back as she added, “Oh, but what about me? I was the one who was doing all the hard work before you guys got here! I’m truly the best there is, no?”

Ning stared at her with her one good eye, then shrugged. “Eeeh, you were okay, I guess.”
“Argh, why you…!” Yijun glared at her, hands glowing with fiery energy as Ning whistled innocently and Kailani simply laughed it off. Yin watched carefully, wary of the villagers that were looking at him, though Jiang held up his hand to let them know the Chimera wasn’t there to hurt them. When it was safe, Yang shifted into his more humanoid form, smiling as bright as the sun.

“Well, all’s well that ends well, doesn’t it, Boss?” he asked as Jiang stretched out and let out a yawn.

“Sure does. Man, this calls for some good food… Maybe I should whip some up?”

“Make sure to make a big batch, then. I’m sure the whole village is starving after that one!”

Jiang almost considered doing so, but he saw something move from the corner of his eye.

“Everything was going SO well…”

No, someone. Jiang gripped his axe tightly, a serious look creeping on his face.

“It was all perfect, perfect I tell you… and then you… You RUINED it!”

Big Bad Boss Bandit raised his axe up high as he loomed over Kailani, eyes filled with rage.

“DI-”

His rage turned to shock as Jiang leaped and jammed his axe into the back of the bandit’s head. Ning shoved Kailani out of the way, drawing daggers just in case… but it was hardly necessary now as the bandit collapsed at her feet.

 Ning sighed, slumping in place as she said, “Steal my thunder, will ya, Boss? I was gonna be cool and save Kai-kai, you know!” Maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea to look at her with that grim look on his face, because the next thing she said was, “Also, you kinda look like a demon and that’s preeeetty scarry, Boss man.”

“I, uh, um… sorry?” Jiang replied, unsure of how to take any of that. “Just that, uh, she’s kind of… Well…”

Kailani smiled at him, sending his heart and thoughts all aflutter. “Looks like one good deed gets another! Though…” Her cheer quickly turned to worry as she asked, “You took a lot of blows back there, too.” She certainly wasn’t wrong. Jiang was bruised, with quite a few minor wounds all over him. He was going to shrug it off and sleep it off, but Kailani approached him, webbed hand outstretched and glowing with a gentle energy. She laid her hands on his and he felt a tingle in his fingers, running through his arm and spreading through his whole body. The fatigue and pain he felt from the wounds he sustained faded away, leaving him as if he had never fought at all.

Jiang was at an absolute loss for words, staring at Kailani as she replied, “And that’s your thank you gift! Now, could you help bring the wounded over to me? I need to heal them up too. They must be exhausted.”

He wasn’t about to argue with her after a miracle like that. Together, Jiang and his friends lined up the wounded, Kailani taking the time to heal each and every one of them with every ounce of magic she had. Even Yijun seemed eager to help, shoving a soldier into line who was reluctant to admit he was even hurt. Now, more than ever, Jiang was sure thing were going to be fine.

When he had a chance, he walked into the cover of the forest, signalling Yang and Ning to follow suit. “Guys,” he said, “you did good work today and… Well…” He smiled a bit, placing a hand on the back of his head as he continued, “Thanks. You did a lot for me and my village, and I really appreciate it.”

“Anything for our favorite boss!” Yin said with a laugh, patting Jiang on the back with his massive paw. His smile faded a bit, however, as he said, “Although… Maybe we should see if we can find the hideout. I could sniff them out with my wife and see if we can pinpoint where they are.”

Ning nodded and added, “Yeah, and if their big, big boss hears about their loss here, they might come back with a bigger force! We gotta take the fight to them take ‘em out while they’re still weak!”

“I… I’d rather you guys relax first,” Jiang admitted, looking away from them for just a moment. “And we still don’t have much of a lead…”

“Well, those guys might have the same sorta scent. Ya know, the dirty boss bandit scent?” Jiang stared blankly at Ning, who waved franticly and said, “I wasn’t talking about you, Boss! At least you bathe! They probably don’t know what bathing is!”

“And if all else fails,” Yin pointed out, “we can simply follow the trail of the Royal Guard. Where they gather, there must be a threat. And one of those threats might be bandits!”

“Probably, though I wouldn’t risk it.” Jiang looked back at the village, watching Kailani work her magic for a bit before he turned back to his friends and said, “Either way, we can talk about it more later. I’m gonna see what’s up with Kailani.” An idea came to mind, eyes shining bright as he asked them, “Do you wanna meet her proper? I was thinking we could actually sit down around Lake Chin’an and have a picnic together. I mean, fighting bandits is no way to meet a mermaid, is it?”

“Well, I think it’s a perfect way to meet a mermaid! I won’t say no to free food though!”

“And I wouldn’t mind getting out of my cave to meet her. It’s getting a little stuffy in there!” Yin chuckled a bit, then turned to head home with Ning. “It’s a deal! Tell us when, and we’ll be there! Until next time, our dear boss!”

Jiang grinned at them and waved back before he returned to his own town, content with how things played out. Though now, he would have to explain just how he met Kailani to Yijun. That was going to be a doozy and a half.

But… in the back of his mind, he thought of Tao. Something about this incident struck him as being something Tao would do…

…But it wasn’t, was it?