Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year's Demon

The light of the full moon shined in through the window, illuminating the small room more than the blue fire candles could. Each candle sat at the tips of the pentagram, the sigil made not with the blood of man, but with the ashes of those who fell against the great evils of the world, those who would give their whole lives to the cause. Lavender incense filled the room, ready to soothe the inevitably angry demon that would burst forth from this ritual. Everything was set, everything was ready…

Well, except for the fact that the summoner was called away, leaving MAGIC to watch over it in her stead. “Don’t try to summon it without me,” Tamia said before she left, waggling a finger at the donut-munching kitsune. “It is far too dangerous for someone like yourself! Wait until I return, alright?”

That was about, say, an hour ago. One full hour. And there was only one full hour until the New Year, according to MAGIC’s handy-dandy tablet. She prepped for this by buying as many donuts as she could with her meager allowance, ready to share them under the light of fireworks, but… Well, now she’s here, getting crumbs all over the sigil. Not like it’d make a major difference, right?

She tried all sorts of ways to distract herself: transforming into various Kobbers, playing as many mobile games she could on her tablet, watching cute dog videos… By the time she was done, it was 10 minutes to 12, and Tamia still hadn’t returned. And she was the one who emphasized that this ritual HAD to be done at 12 on New Years. Too early, and the demon wouldn’t even come. Too late, someone else might have summoned him.

“Well, someone could have summoned him at midnight in Japan, and we’d still be in a pinch!”

Sadly, Tamia did not listen to MAGIC’s sound logic. Maybe because her brain exploded. Maybe. Either way, MAGIC stared at the sigil, looked back at the time, looked at the sigil, and did some finishing touches. If a demon’s gonna come out of it, it’d be rude not to leave an offering of a donut in the middle, right? Hopefully, they like chocolate!

5 minutes. No Tamia. MAGIC peered out the window, hoping to see any sign of her. What kind of errand was Tamia on, anyway? Must be important if she was gone this long.

4 minutes. She couldn’t wait any longer: the young kitsune placed her toes at the edge of the sigil and began to channel magic into it, a dim red light emitting from the sigil and slowly becoming brighter.

3 minutes. She didn’t really know what, exactly, Tamia was chanting when she did her summons, but MAGIC sure tried her best to copy it. Demons love chants, apparently.

2 minutes. The sigil’s light lit the whole room, the moon’s light now tinged a blood red. The flames on the candles danced feverishly, MAGIC still chanting under her breath. 1 minute, she could feel the mana all around her, all the power swirling, seeking an out. It was this power that would serve as the conduit for a demon’s arrival. 30 seconds, Tamia is all but forgotten as the whole room shook around the little kitsune. It reminded her of the Halloween House, and, for a moment, she wished she was summoning Samhain instead.

10 seconds. MAGIC broke into a sweat. Could she do it? Could she summon the fabled Even-Yeared demon? She opened her mouth, unsure of herself. Tamia was the one who did these things, not her. Tamia wasn’t here, though. She was just a worse Tamia, wasn’t she?

Maybe. But someone had to do it, for the safety of their village, of their home.

“From the depths of Relgion,” MAGIC boomed, steeling her nerve and shoving her fears back as best she could, “I summon thee, Satoshi Nakamura, the Five-Eyed!”

The magical power surged right at midnight, lightning crackling all around MAGIC. It was only for a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity before it finally dissipated, revealing a man in the middle of the circle. His long, brown hair flowed behind him as a cold wind passed them by, putting out the candles around the sigil. Slowly, he opened his eyes, staring at the one who beckoned him to this plane.

“From the depths of Relgion, I have come,” he said slowly, his gaze piercing through her very being. “For what purpose have you summoned me?”

MAGIC didn’t say anything for the longest time. She didn’t even notice his irritated look. Slowly, she raised a clawed finger up at his head, the biggest grin spreading on her face as she spoke at last.

“You have a donut on your head!” was possibly the worst way to greet a demon you summoned, especially accompanied with a fit of laughter. “Oh wow, I put a donut on the sigil cuz I thought you’d be hungry but it’s on your head, oh my gosh ahahaha”

The demon stared at her before plucking the donut off of his head and taking a bite out of it. Then stared some more.

After a pregnant pause, he said, “It’s an unusual way to greet a demon.”

“I thought it was the best way,” MAGIC said, crossing her arms and huffing. “Everybody likes food. What kinda demon doesn’t come over for food?”

“Surprisingly many,” Satoshi admitted after taking another bite of his snack. “They would rather come for power. But I digress.” He looked her in the eyes, his tone serious as he said, “I ask again, for what purpose have you summoned me?”

MAGIC gulped, but she tried her best to hide her fear. Demons can smell your fear… Maybe? Or maybe that was dogs? “Uh, um, I summoned you to… uh, help me sample this bakery’s goods?”

The demon quirked an eyebrow. “Truly? One usually does not summon a demon for such.”

“Hey, they’re devilishly good!” MAGIC retorted… though really, she just blurted the first thing that came to mind. “Bound to trigger all seven of your sins or your money back!”

The way Satoshi stared at her made her feel uncomfortable. Was he judging her? Was he mad? She couldn’t tell, as he had a perfect poker face. He stared for the longest time. She stared back, and realized something: he only had two eyes. Where were the other three?

Finally, he closed his eyes and said, “As much as you’d wish it to be the case, I know that is not why you called for me.” Her eyes widened as he continued, “I see your fear, clear as day. It is the same fear most summoners have upon their first true summon. They call upon a force that’s hardly their own, something they cannot control, something with their own thoughts and feelings. That very force could be capricious, demand more than what the summoner can give, twist the summoner’s desires into something more foul, more in line with their way of thinking. A force stronger than your own is keener to manipulate things to their own ends than to aid you in your quest.

“That fear stops most from summoning, but others, like yourself…” Satoshi raised a hand and pointed at MAGIC as he continued, “there is always something motivating you to move past such fears. A reason far stronger than a date for donuts.” He opened his eyes again, and, quietly, he asked, “So once more, I ask of you… For what purpose did you summon me?”

Was it possible to be afraid of being afraid so openly? MAGIC wasn’t sure. She struggled to think of something, anything…

With a heavy sigh, she replied, “I… I need you to protect my friends, my family… Everyone on Chengde.” Her thoughts flashed back to a time of blood and flame, her own people dying before her very eyes as they fought the hordes of demons the Black Witch conjured, Tamia grabbing her and whisking her away before the demons could claim her. “I lost a lot of friends and family before… not only me, but so many other people, too. I don’t want anyone else to suffer like that, not anymore. But I…” Her eyes began to water, her throat throbbing with pain as she forced herself to say, “I don’t know if I can do it alone! So please…”

It was strange. From how Morgan and Tamia explained it, MAGIC feared that she had summoned a cackling demon that demanded much for his help, like blood and sacrifice. So to see the demon she summoned smile gently at her and hold out his hand… It was a little weird. Morgan did say that not all demons were all blood and gore, so maybe MAGIC should have expected this more.

“I understand,” Satoshi said. “I shall protect all you hold dear, and in turn, I ask for home, food, and drink. If that is enough, then take my hand, and seal our contract.”

She hesitated a little as she held out her hand… then grasped his hand firmly, suddenly filled with resolve.

“I, MAGIC, hereby make a contract with you, Satoshi!” she said, though it sounded a little stiff. She cleared her throat and tried again, “You and I are gonna be best buds and kick some butt! And eat everything on the mainland! And then some!”

Satoshi’s smile faded just a little bit into concern. “Um, surely not in one day… correct?”

“Maybe in one day, if I’m really hungry. Maybe not if I ate a giant Thanksgiving spirit beforehand, though! Man, those are pretty filling!”

If Satoshi wasn’t shocked before, he was now. “You ate a what?”

“Oooh, that’s a good story! Well, it all started when Krampus-“

Before MAGIC could go too deep into her embellishment of the Big Bad Turkie Day, the door behind her creaked open as she heard someone say, “Sorry I’m late, MAGIC! I’m ready to perform the ritual-“

MAGIC turned around and saw Tamia with an armful of groceries. Groceries that she just dropped as her cheer turned into fear. The young kitsune looked over at Satoshi, then realized she was still holding his hand… and let go just to attempt some patty cake. Unfortunately, it was impossible to play patty cake with someone with a donut in one hand, one that he was casually finishing off.

Tamia stared and stared and stared… and then…


Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Christmas Party

“S-so when we got there, we met up with a lot of kindly demons and devils! One of them even gave me a slice of Devil’s Cake!”

Satoshi’s pointed ears pricked up as Renais wriggled with joy in her seat, flapping her arms in the air like she would take off into the skies at any moment. His eyes lit up with curiosity, watching the girl on the other side of the screen as she took out several brochures from Occult Appreciation Day.

“They talked about all sorts of things,” she continued cheerfully, holding up the brochures in a way Satoshi could actually read them. “Curses, the differences between devils and demons, spirits… There was just so much stuff! And I also bought a lot of things, like… Um, hold on…” The demon quirked an eyebrow as Renais pulled out a suitcase from under her bed and dropped it on top, hastily flipping it open. His eyes widened at the sheer amount of things that popped out: several talismans and charms, a few crystals, and what he thought looked like a very blurry picture of a sea dragon peeking out from the surface of the water.

After a minute of gawking and watching Renais dig through the massive pile, Satoshi cleared his throat and said, “Um, it is good to see you so… enthused about the occult, but isn’t this a bit too much?”

The demon turned several shades of pale when Renais replied cheerfully, “Oh, no! This isn’t much at all, compared to what Sumireko bought! She bought TWO UFO pictures, Mr. Nakamura! Two!”

Unable to argue back, Satoshi simply watched Renais show off her new collection of occult items, his shock eventually giving way to a small smile. It was merely a few days since the two started talking again, after he had put up with a surge of people trying to murder him. Listening to the little magical girl get excited about so many things, like her favorite anime and the new cute dog she saw on the Vegas strip, was a pleasant break from watching his back for an ambush and making sure his transformations looked nothing like his usual self. Being so wary of everything was exhausting… so any amount of joy he could enjoy secondhand was like a cool breeze on a sweltering summer day.

Several explanations of each talisman she bought later, Renais relaxed in her seat, yawning loudly before she asked him, “So, what are you doing for Christmas?”

Satoshi stared at her for a couple of moments before it clicked. “Oh, the gift-giving holiday?” he said, though for a moment, he felt a little stupid. “I’m not quite sure. You do recall that we don’t particularly celebrate that here in Relgion, do you?”

“I know, but you know about it, so I thought…” Renais looked away from him, twirling a curl of hair around her finger. “I thought maybe you’d be interested in celebrating or something!”

‘Celebrating gift-giving when I can hardly go out without worrying about my enemies?’ was his first thought, his entire body tensing up. ‘When I hardly have enough money to care for myself, nevermind others?’ A pang of guilt followed those thoughts, the demon slumping in his seat. Why should he let his foes keep him from celebrating anything? And even if he couldn’t get anyone a gift, perhaps the greatest gift of all was merely his presence and friendship?

With that in mind, Satoshi straightened up and replied, “I should be able to. Though, did you have something in mind?”

Renais’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. “Then, why not come over to Cian’s place? We’re gonna have a big feast and everything! We’re inviting a lot of friends, like Scarlet, Tina, some Kobbers, and more!” Slowly, her expression grew dim as a realization dawned on her. “W-wait, if we did that, we’d have to warp to Relgion, wouldn’t we?” she asked, shrinking in her chair. “Just remembered you can’t be summoned in… you know, odd numbered years…”

Satoshi blinked for a moment, reaching out for a cup of coffee on his cluttered desk and taking a long sip. A sly smile grew on his face as he set the cup down, his eyes meeting Renais’. “Oh, that won’t be an issue,” he said. “Summoning me won’t pose a problem, certainly not for the likes of Cian.”
“W-what?” Renais stared at him, dumbfounded. “But they all say you can’t be summoned on these years! You only show up in even-numbered years, so I thought…!”

“True, a majority of my appearances happen during such years,” Satoshi admitted as he took another sip of coffee. “I’ve made sure to bury what little exceptions there were away, and keep such exceptions to a minimum. After all…” He couldn’t resist breaking out into a mischievous grin as he said, “How else would such a small rumor become truth to the Overworld?”

There was a sharp gasp from Renais as her hand flew to her mouth. “You mean, you… you made that up?!”

“In plainer terms, yes.” The grin faded slowly as he continued, “It was the only way I could manage to avoid summoning attempts from people every single year, nevermind from Kuroma of all people.” He slumped back in his seat, staring at the ceiling and groaning. “You wouldn’t know true suffering until the one you despise most summoned you to their side each and every day, just barely finding a way to worm out of their grasp and escape to the world you call home.”

“The closest I’ve got to that was watching a train wreck of an anime,” Renais admitted with a meek smile. “B-but anyway, I understand, I think. I’ll let Cian know, and we can prep! Though, uh, those guys that are chasing you are gonna be really mad, huh?”

Satoshi sat up straight and shrugged. “I’ll find a way to deal with them, one way or another. Perhaps Scarlet would appreciate the bounties on their heads, along with the thrill of the fight.”

The magical girl nodded, smiling at him like an angel. That smile was quickly wiped off her face when there was a loud CRASH, the sound of glass shattering, and the collective sound of Prinnies going, “AWWWW, DOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!”

“Oh dear, I think we might have a problem,” Renais said, all her cheer fading into dread. “Um, before we end the call, do you think maybe we could watch something tomorrow? Maybe play an MMO? Something?”

“Perhaps, but you should probably take care of that issue first.”

With one quick nod from Renais and a wave goodbye, the camera screen went black, and all that was left was a plain ol’ chat client. The demon sighed and pushed himself away from the desk, standing up to stretch as far as he could. Slowly, he walked towards the bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror. The man that stared back was ragged, with wild hair that reached down to his feet, clothes stained with blood and torn where they shouldn’t be, and dark circles under his eyes that couldn’t be cured with the power of caffeine. Was this truly the person Renais wanted to bring to her party? Could he afford to go like this?

He forced his self-doubt and fear away, quickly hurrying to the computer and messaging someone whom he never expected to message. A certain Planeswarden, who was certain to help him with the issues that plagued him…

“Diadem? Sorry to bother you so late at night, but… I may need a fresh new look.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017



The air was filled with the lovely scent of lavender as the black-haired girl lit up another candle and flung herself into her spinning chair, spinning in place until it slowed to a stop. She took a deep breath, savoring the smell before she reached out for her laptop and opened it up. She could hear the faint sound of a TV playing “Relgion’s Kitchen” from outside of her room and the “ping, pong” of Prinnies having fun with the ping-pong table. These sounds were further muffled when she slipped on her headset, loading up a chat program and humming something to herself as she waited.

For once, Cian and the others didn’t need her assistance. There were no bills to keep track of, no scramble to herd the Prinnies, no fretting over the latest injury Gonzales got at gym… She had nothing but free time for now, and Renais certainly wasn’t going to let the moment pass. Not when all of this would be gone, come next year.

Quickly, she scrolled down her contacts list, rushing to read through several conversations some other groups of friends were having. It was a bit much, as she hadn’t read any of them since last week, and boy, did knitting groups get intense! And the DnD group. AND the MMO group. And the…

Suddenly intimidated by all she needed to read, she hastily marked each and every group as read before a message popped up from someone.


She scrambled to reply, “H-hi, yes, that’s me!” before she looked at who, exactly, was messaging her. Strange… She didn’t recall adding a TriDraggie702. Or maybe she did, but she forgot? Or maybe it was one of her friends using a different nickname?!? Unwilling to leave it up to chance, she quickly typed, “Oh, um, who is this? I don’t think I remember you.”

There was that horrifying 10 minute pause before slowly, but surely, TriDraggie replied, “I figured you wouldn’t recall; I haven’t used this in a few years. This is Satoshi. Perhaps better known as ‘Sato-chan’ to Sir Cian.”

“Aalkgfajlajdlgj I didn’t remember what oh god aaaaaaaaaa” Her palms were rather sweaty as she panick-typed away, continuing with, “I-I’m so sorry, Mr. Nakamura!”

“No, no, it’s fine.” The reply took another aeon and a half to get back to her. Another few minutes… then, “Bah, I’m no good at typing yet. I have a headset: do you mind if I call instead?”

Renais shook her head… then realized that no, he couldn’t see her, and just typed, “I don’t mind, go for it!”

It was a little strange… if only because Satoshi invited her to video call, too. She double checked her room, making sure that all the magical girl plushies were in place. Especially her Sumireko plush. She also made sure her hair ribbon was tied in and that she didn’t look like she was running off of 3 hours of sleep and three whole pots of espresso.

She was all ready to look cute, cheerfully greeting Satoshi with a, “Hi, Mr. Nakamura!” All of that cheer slowly evaporated as she realized that he, too, had a webcam… and he certainly saw better days. His long hair was messy and ragged, his eyes were sunken in like he didn’t sleep in an entire decade, and his clothes were in rags… At least the room behind him looked more organized and neat than he did. After a few minutes of horrified gaping, Renais built up the courage to ask, “Ah, um, Mr. Nakamura? Are… are you okay?”

“To be quite frank, no.” Renais could see the small frown hidden behind his robe, the demon avoiding her gaze. “Things were not entirely pleasant this past year, and it’s only now that I get some type of reprieve from it.”

On reflex, Renais blurted out, “I-I’m sorry! I’m so sorry to hear that!” Silence. All eyes- all five of HIS eyes- were on her now. Awkwardly, she retreated into the neck of her pink sweater and said, “I, um… is there anything I can do to help?”

His gaze never left her. He wasn’t smiling, but he certainly didn’t sound sad as he replied, “Your companionship is enough. If you would be willing to lend an ear, all the better, but simply chatting about anything will do, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“O-oh, um, if YOU wouldn’t mind telling me what happened…” Renais fiddled with sleeves, trying to find the right words to add. What could she say? What else could she ask?

Satoshi reached out for something, pulling out what looked like a big mug of coffee. It looked like Renais wasn’t the only one running off three pots of espresso. “Simply put… the hunter became the hunted,” he said with as much exhaustion as an old man who tried so hard to chase away a menace. Renais scooted closer to her desk, grabbing her Sumireko doll and holding it tightly as Satoshi continued, “I was enjoying a few successful bounty hunts- mostly involving bandits and escaped convicts and the like. However…” He paused to sigh, slumping onto the desk as his eyelids drooped. “Much to my disdain, I invoked the ire of a gang upon claiming a bounty on their leader. Ever since, they would simply not stop pursuing me, convincing stronger and stronger demons to aid them in avenging their comrade. It was not until Magus found this relatively secluded hotel for me and told the manager to keep me a secret from others that I found even a moment’s peace.”

“That’s… that’s kind of rough!” Renais replied with a small frown, sagging like a deflated balloon. “And you can’t go out or anything, or else they might find you?”

“It wouldn’t do to stay in all the time,” Satoshi admitted with yet another sigh. “I had to practice a little more transformation magic to disguise myself as someone else, someone more unremarkable, to go into town without being whisked into another battle without end. It wouldn’t do to burden the poor hotel manager to buy my groceries.”

Renais flinched at the thought of a gang waiting outside the hotel, several of them with spiked bats and wooden blades at their sides, ready to beat their prey to a pulp. “Yikes! Um, uh, why not go to Limbo, then?” she asked, her tiny, angelic wings flapping quickly behind her as she fiddled with her sleeves some more.

“That was my first thought, but they seem to be more the type to hold a grudge,” Satoshi said as he sat up straight… then slouched back in his chair, eye twitching. “One year also isn’t quite enough time for anyone to forget something like that. It took several years for the Dark Council to focus on other things after I killed Giradin, after all.”

“Oof… then, why not here?”

Satoshi stared at her, then tilted his head juuust a little as he replied, “Isn’t it quite crowded, between Sir Cian, Miss Parsee, the newly budding Virtues, the Prinnies, and yourself? I wouldn’t want to impose. Nevermind the fact that I have no secure form of employment, so I wouldn’t exactly be the best demon to rent a room to.” Renais did spot a small smile form on his face as he added, “But thank you kindly for the offer. I will be fine, moreso when the next year comes around. No doubt there will be yet another contractor… But enough about my woes. You seem to have a fair share of those, yourself, given how exhausted you look.”

Wait, did she not cover her sunken eyes? Renais quickly tried to hide her face in her sweater, but found that it was not exactly a good idea with a headset on. Reluctantly, she poked her head out, trying her best not to squeeze her Sumireko doll too hard. After a moment’s silence, she said, “Oh, um, just the usual: Wrangling Prinnies, balancing the books for Cian’s new catering company, trying to think of songs that aren’t just covers for stuff to perform with my new band…”

The demon quirked an eyebrow, looking a bit livelier than he did just a moment ago. “A band, you say?”

Renais hesitated for a moment, unsure as to whether or not Satoshi really cared. Why would he care? It was just a tiny lil band she was doing for fun. Still, when all five of his eyes were on her, all of them shining with curiosity, she couldn’t just leave him hanging. “W-well, um, I- I mean, uh, Bonnie, Gavin, Gonzy, and I entered a contest on a whim and, uh, we won part of it. That, and we were offered a record deal. We accepted, and, um… we’re practicing and trying to find out what sounds to do on tour before we release an official album.”

“Ah, I see! Well, congratulations!” Renais couldn’t help but blush when Satoshi started clapping for her. “Already, things are looking good for you! When you figure out those details, please, feel free to invite me to your first concert. I would love to see you perform live.”

Seeing the sheer joy and the smile and Satoshi’s face… Would that be the same one she’d see when Prinnystick performed live? And would it be multiplied by hundreds, a smile shared amongst their possible fans? Or would they all be frowns and boos, instead? “I-I, um, sure?” Renais stammered out as she tried her best not to let the pressure get to her before concerts were even an issue. It’d be okay, right? It’d definitely be okay-

The magical girl screamed as she hugged Sumireko Doll a bit too tightly, resulting in LOUD NERD NOISES, loud enough to startle Satoshi. “What in blazes was THAT?!?” he asked, straightening up his headset after it had nearly slipped off his head.

“Oh, uh, um, uh…” She tried to form a coherent thought, but nothing was coming up. Her cheeks were burning red from embarrassment and shame, though she tried to hide it behind her Sumireko doll. “I-it’s okay, it was just… the doll, yeah! And, uh… I…” A thousand butterflies fluttered in her stomach, nausea slowly overcoming her as everything became a bit too much. She took a deep breath and said, “Sorry, Mr. Nakamura, but I… I don’t really feel all too good now, so I think I’m gonna go to sleep.”

Satoshi stared at her and frowned a little before closed his eyes and nodded. “Yes, you do sound like you need rest. We can talk more tomorrow, if you would like.”

“R-right. We do have a lot to catch up on… and maybe we can do stuff together, along with Gonzy. Maybe watch anime, play an MMO, do… stuff…”

“Perhaps, but for now, do take care, okay?”

Renais could see the concern on his face, clear as day, before he ended the call. She sighed loudly before she shut down her laptop and flopped into bed, desperately chasing away worried about Prinnystick and all it entails. The thoughts came back like a cloud of bees, angrier and more aggressive than before. Sleep was the only cure for this sort of persistent thought, especially when she imagined empty seats and far too many tickets left unsold for their first concert.

Sleep didn’t come easy. It never did. But at least she found some comfort in the thought that maybe she might have one loyal fan amongst the crowd.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Of Bandits and Friends

“Oh, Muuuuscles~!”

Jiang opened up one eye, far too tired to get up from the bench he napped on. Yijun loomed over him like a cat ready to strike, her lip curled up in a mischievous smirk. He thought the entire village would have a little more sense than to just walk up and loom over him while he’s sleeping, but it looked like Yijun took that sense and dumped it in the nearest well before coming here to bug him.

“Bug off, Yijun,” he said sleepy before closing his eye again. “I need sleep.”

Even if he couldn’t see her, he could imagine her eyes fluttering as she said, “Awww, but it’s for another favor, something so important! Come on, can’t you do your bestie a solid?!”

“If we were actually besties, you’d actually let me sleep.”

“If you had a lick of sense, you’d be sleeping in your own room!”

He opened his eyes just to glare daggers at Yijun as he growled, “You think that would have stopped you from bothering me?”

Yijun looked away from him, placing a finger on her chin. “Hmmmm…” After a moment, she turned back to him and said, “Yeah, good point! Though, why ARE you sleeping out here?”

 Jiang yawned before turning onto his side and staring at a nearby tree. “I’ve been sleeping like garbage, so I wanted to see if sleeping outside helped any.”

Yijun’s eyes widened, her hands flying to her mouth. “Oh, so THAT’S why it was so quiet last night!” she said. “Lately, all I’ve been hearing are those usual drunkards acting up late at night, so it was disturbing my beauty sleep! I told dad to take care of it, but drunkards are on the bottom of his priority list.” Yijun flicked back her long strands of brown hair and huffed, crossing her arms as she said, “Should have been at the top, honestly. What kind of chieftain is he, letting those hooligans run about and disturb his daughter’s precious beauty sleep?”

He turned towards Yijun now with an eyebrow quirked. “Did you tell him what they looked like?”

The girl turned white as a sheet, a look of horror spreading across her face. “I… I don’t think I did,” she admitted. “I was far too sleepy! How was I supposed to remember?”

A large sigh escaped his lips as Jiang replied, “Well, there’s your problem.” Finding that there wasn’t any possible way for Yijun to leave him alone, he sat up and stretched, taking a few moments to rub the sleep out of his eyes. “Anyway, they were causing shit a few nights ago, so I taught ‘em a lesson or two. If they were the same guys, then it’s no surprise that they decided to shut up the moment they saw me.”

“Oooh, your brutality actually came in handy, for once!” Yijun said cheerfully as she clasped her hands together. “Could you keep sleeping on a bench? Please? You’d be doing me a huuuuge favor!”

“If I do that, will you call off your stupid rainbow fish favor?”

“Mmmm, lemme think about that…” For a second, her smirk was replace with a pensive look. Just for a second. “Nope!”

Jiang rolled his eyes, slouching and holding his chin in his hand as he replied, “Yeah, figured I wouldn’t get off that easy.”

“Hey, a girl’s gotta look her best, and what better way to stand out at a party than to have rainbow fish scales sewn into your dress! Or make a necklace out of them!” Yijun held her cheeks in her hands, a dreamy expression on her face as she twirled in place. “Oh, I’d be the star of Lady Zheng’s ball for sure! Men would be begging for my hand in marriage! Women would be smoldering with envy! Nobles would demand the secret to my beauty and give me so much gold to attain perfection! Oho! Ohoho! OHOHOHOHO!”

Her laugh was loud enough to echo through the town, attracting some confused stares from the townspeople. Jiang, for his part, simply stared at her with a bored look on his face. When that obviously wasn’t enough to stop her mad cackling, he said, “Well, good to know that you’re still batshit crazy. So, about that other favor you were going to bug me about…”

That certainly got him a nasty glare, but as long as everyone else stopped looking in their direction, it didn’t matter. After a few moments, the glare was replaced with a more serious look. “It’s not so much a favor as it is a call for help,” she said, catching Jiang’s full attention. “I’ve heard lots of things from dad about bandits. It hasn’t bothered us, since none of them seem to target our caravans. Lord Zheng’s certainly pissed that his own caravan got raided a few weeks ago, sending out a lot more patrols on the trade routes.”

Unease washed over Jiang, though he made sure it didn’t show on the outside. So he was right to lay low: the patrols would make things too much of a hassle for small group of bandits. If they managed to get a good look at them, they could report it to their Lord… and their faces would be plastered over bounty boards across the area.

“But,” Yijun continued, “That didn’t deter the bandits for long. Just the other day, we got a report from Dongzhu Village. Bandits struck and struck hard, pillaging everything they had to offer and then some.” Her expression darkened, her hand balling into a fist. “They killed everyone that fought back: men, women, children… didn’t matter. They all died the same. The messenger was lucky to be alive, nevermind come to us with this news. All they have are a handful of survivors, all of them incapable of caring for themselves.”

Jiang quivered, his blood boiling in his veins. Robbing innocent people of their goods was horrible enough, but robbing them of their lives, too? Absolutely barbaric. Clearly, Yijun picked up on his hidden rage, looking him right in the eye as she said, “I know, it’s awful. That poor man lost an arm and an eye, running so much to even get the news out to us. He said that we might be the next target: we’re close and relatively prosperous for a backwater town.”

He stood up, a fire lit in his heart, an angry spark in his eyes. “As if I’d let them,” he growled as he cracked his knuckles. “You’re gonna need to give a signal when they strike, just in case I’m too busy hunting your stupid fish to be at home.”

“Well, yeah, of course,” Yijun replied nervously, pressing her fingers together and looking away from Jiang. “I’ll send up a plume of red smoke: heavens know I need to practice a little magic, especially if I want to be of any help. You won’t be the only one fighting, buuut if we’re being honest, you’d probably be the only fighter we need. You roughed up some drunkards and punched people out for dumber reasons, so imagine how much of a beating you’ll give ‘em when they’re threatening your home!”

“Beating’s an understatement and you know it.”

“My goodness, you’re right!” Yijun’s hand flew to her mouth again, eyes wide with shock for a second before she smirked. “I’m sorry, Jiang, I meant to say ‘outright slaughter’. “

“That’s better,” Jiang replied with a devious smile, before he turned away to yawn. “Might want to start forming some sorta strategy, maybe set up a few traps to bring their numbers down. While ya do that, I’m gonna start another day of finding your stupid rainbow fish.”

“Yes, yes, you do that! Hopefully you reel it in today~! That’d be so, so sweet of you, Musclehead~!”

Jiang rolled his eyes as he headed back home to get his fishing rod and bait. There was still a bit of unease, but if Yijun kept to her word about the flare, everything would be okay… right?


“Hey, Kailani! I’m back!”

It took a moment for the mermaid to poke her head out and see him not just with the usual fishing rod and bait, but also with another basket of goods. She dove back down, the ruffian quirking an eyebrow before she did one large flip onto land, right in front of the goods. She ripped off the blanket covering the basket, revealing the many, many meat buns prepared especially for her.

She stared Jiang right in the eye, bowed, and then said, “You are the best.

Then the devouring began.

Jiang couldn’t help but laugh. Oh, he made sure to bring something nice for her to eat these days, as he took more time out of his day just to see her. It was fun seeing her come up with more tricks to show off before she cleaned house. Maybe it was a little shocking to see her eat so much at first, but by now, Jiang simply appreciated that someone else had a hearty appetite. It meant that nothing was going to waste… and gave him an excuse to cook more often.

After the third meat bun, Kailani flopped like a contented, fat fish and said, “Man, this is your best meal yet! I’m already feelin’ stuffed!” She rolled over to his side as he cast his line and sat down, smiling like a doofus. “Where’d you learn to cook this, anyway?” she asked. “Did you have to climb a mountain and talk to an ancient chef?”

Jiang chuckled, grinning ear to ear as he replied, “Well, if I did, that’d be one helluva story to tell! But nah, I just learned from my aunt.” His eyes met Kailani’s, her expression beckoning him to tell her more. Or maybe he was just amazed by how stunningly blue they were? “I kinda asked her to teach me, since her food’s way better than mine when she actually cooks.” He looked towards the horizon now, his smile mirroring his aunt’s as he continued, “The best memories I have are all those times I cooked beside her for New Year’s Eve, stuffing meat buns, chopping up vegetables, and helping make stock for her beef stew.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet!” Kailani said as she sat up beside him, wriggling the fins on the sides of her head happily. “Maybe you could bring some of her meat buns, too! You know, so I can compare them!”

“That’s a funny way of saying ‘please give me twice as many meat buns.’” Kailani looked away from him and whistled innocently. Good. It meant that it was harder for her to notice his frown. “Though, you’re gonna need to wait. She doesn’t really cook as often anymore. Maybe on New Year’s, but…”

Unfortunately for him, Kailani did notice, frowning along with him. “Did… did something happen?” she asked. “Or did she lose the passion?”

Jiang averted his eyes, thinking back on how Aunt Chun’s hands trembled while holding a spoon, how exhausted she got just from heading to the markets alone, how much time she spent sleeping the day away... He was quiet for a little bit before he forced himself to look Kailani in the eye and say, “I wouldn’t say that… that something happened all of a sudden. And she didn’t lose her passion for it, either.” Swallowing hard, he continued, “It’s… well, she was always… uh, sick.” He paused, expecting Kailani to interrupt him, but she simply nodded her head, folding her hands over her lap and listening intently to him. “I don’t mean violently sick, like she caught the plague or anything. It’s more, uhm… subtle, more… invisible, I guess? No one would notice unless they basically lived with her, basically. And for a while, I didn’t really notice, either, until I moved in with her.”

Kailani nodded again, urging Jiang to continue. Still, he had to take another deep breath, trying not to worry too much about his aunt at this moment. “She’s basically weak. She’s tired all the time, and she struggles with stuff. It really makes it hard for her to do much of anything most days, so she just… sleeps a lot. She tries hiding it and pretending that she’s alright, which works for most people, but… it stops her from cooking anything without help these days. The only thing she can cook without help is stew, and most of that is just watching over it.” Quietly, he added, “To make matters worse, nobody actually knows how to cure it, so it’s just… something she has to suffer through.”

Finally, he clammed up, unsure whether he said too little or said too much. Kailani tilted her head, puzzled, but when it was apparent that he had nothing more to say, she smiled at him and said, “She really is blessed, having a nephew like you with her.”

Jiang snorted. “Most would say she’s cursed to have someone like me with her.”

“I don’t see why,” Kailani said as she crossed her arms. “You keep her company and cook for her and I’m pretty sure you help her out a lot with chores!”

“Well… you’re not wrong.” Jiang looked away from her again, placing a hand on his neck. “But let’s just say that I’ve done a few things that the townspeople aren’t…exactly happy about.”

“Sorry, Jiang. I’m having a hard time thinking of anything you could do that would upset other people.”

Oh dear. Poor Kailani was about to get her hopes and dreams shattered. Jiang didn’t want to break her illusion of him being fantastic, but… he had to be honest, at least with her. “When I actually started staying in town,” he said, making sure not to look at Kailani directly, “I tried to make friends with a few kids in town. Tried my best to fit in, but they kept making me the butt of jokes and made me have to carry all their stuff around. I thought I had to bear with it, but the last straw was when they ditched me in a bamboo forest not too far from here, tricking me into thinking we were playing Hide and Seek.” Jiang took a deep breath and sighed as he added, “Next time I saw the leader, I broke his nose and gave him two black eyes.”

That gasp that escaped Kailani’s lips was all he needed to hear for him to feel like a giant piece of shit. Now even she knew that he wasn’t really a great person… and that’s without saying a thing about his little side job.

After a long period of awkward silence and Jiang pulling up yet another trout, Kailani finally spoke up and said, “I… kinda understand where you were coming from. We both know what you did was wrong, but if… if those were my ‘friends’ and they kept acting like a jerk to me, I’d probably punch them, too. Or feel tempted to, at least.” Jiang brought himself to look at her, though he looked more shocked than anything. “That doesn’t mean you’re not a good person at heart, though. Maybe a little rough and hard to deal with for some people, but you’re still nice at your core. You’re nice to your aunt and nice to me, and I bet you have more friends that you’re nice to, too!”

“Ah, um, well,” Jiang stammered, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. “Well, yeah, I do have two other friends. Weird to most people, since one’s a Rokurokubi and the other’s a Chimera. They’re nicer than they look, once you get to know ‘em.”

Kailani smiled brightly as she clasped her hands together and said, “See? You have other people who must be blessed to call you a friend! It’s just more proof that you’re a nice person: nice people make friends a lot easier than people who aren’t!” Her smile seemed so sad, however, when she looked away from him and added, “I’m kinda jealous. You have a lot more friends than I do, you know. And I’m sure they like you a lot.”

Most of the time, it was better to think before you said anything. Jiang, on the other hand, forgot all about thinking as he stood up and blurted out, “Hey, don’t say things like that! You have a friend who likes you a lot right here, you know!” Thinking came after, and then regret. Quickly, he added, “W-well, that and I could introduce you to my other friends! I’m sure you guys’ll get along fine!”

Kailani stared at him, dumbfounded, before her bright smile returned, complete with twinkling eyes. “Really!? I’d love to meet them, if it isn’t a problem!”

“Might take a bit to set up, but we’ll make it happen,” Jiang replied with a smile, though he was trying his best not to think too hard about what he said. “I promise, you won’t have to wait long, okay?”

“I’ll wait however long it takes, so don’t worry. I have all the time in the world, anyway!”

Time marched on, the basket looking rather empty as Kailani slowly, but surely, cleared it of meat buns. Jiang still didn’t find a single rainbow fish, but again, it didn’t matter. He was more occupied with watching Kailani do tricks underwater and hum again, cheerful as could be. Before he knew it, the sun had set, and his bucket was once again overflowing with fish he was sure he wasn’t able to eat in one sitting.

As he prepared to head back home, Kailani called out, “Hey, Jiang?”

He turned towards her with a small smile. “What’s up, Kailani?”

Kailani twiddled her thumbs for a bit before she asked, “Um, is there a river that flows through your town or anything?”

“Only one, and that’s Shufen River on the eastern side of town.” Jiang couldn’t help but quirk an eyebrow as he asked, “Why? Have any plans?”

“Oh, great!” Kailani face lit up, her fins wriggling happily. “I thought that since you took a lot of effort to see me, I should make an effort to go and visit you! Besides, I’d like to see your home for myself!”

Jiang’s heart leaped with joy in his chest, though it was a little dampened by the current situation. After giving it a bit of thought, he said, “I appreciate it, but it might not be safe. We’ve heard things about a possible bandit attack, and I’d hate for you to get caught up in it. Maybe when all that trouble has passed, though.”

He certainly did not expect that sudden look of determination on Kailani’s face. “Bandit troubles?” she asked. “Then all the more reason I should visit! I want to help protect your home and the people you care for!”

Part of him thought that was too dangerous. She’s too nice to get caught up in a skirmish. On the other hand, being a mystical fish lady, she must have some powers that could help out. Kailani didn’t strike him as the type to suddenly get confident if she couldn’t do anything, anyway. “Doesn’t sound like I could really stop you even if I wanted to,” Jiang said with a small chuckle. “Just… be careful, alright?”

“Of course!” As he turned to leave, Kailani waved at him and said, “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow, wherever we meet! Have a nice night, okay?”

“You too!” Jiang called back, bringing his haul back home and thinking on what was to come. Honestly, he wasn’t sure if he was more excited for Kailani to visit him or worried about those bandits. And would Ning and Yin be able to meet up at the lake to see his new friend? What if they got caught up in those bandit problems, too?

Well… at the very least, he was confident that everything would be okay, no matter what happened. With Kailani, Ning, and Yin at his side, not even the strongest bandit group would be a match for him.

So he thought.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Chat With a Mermaid

The sun was shining brightly today, beckoning another day of fishing at the lake. Jiang wasn’t sure how many places he fished at now, but god, it was a lot. He fished up the river that cut through the town, he fished at the small pond just north of town, he even fished in the cavern Yin and his family called home, in one of the bigger pools. Of course, none of them yielded the ever-elusive Rainbow Fish, just a buncha smaller fish Jiang tossed back.

Yijun was already on his case about it, much to his ire. “What, you haven’t gotten me those scales yet?” she said. “Come on, it should be easy for the likes of you! Just dive in there and grab it, Musclehead!”

Such great advice! Yes, dive in there and try to find a damn sparkly fish amongst all the other fish. A fish that she even admitted was rare!

“I swear,” Jiang grumbled as he set down a bucket of bait and a blanket-covered basket, “Yijun’s like Kaguya-hime. First, some shark’s teeth. Then, some chimera fur. Now, some rainbow scales! Next thing you know, she’ll be asking me to rip the eye out from a dragon.” After a bit more setup, he cast his line into the lake and laid down, staring at the clouds passing overhead. “Though, least that’d be more exciting than fishing.”

It was far too easy for him to doze off: he didn’t even get a single bite in the first hour! He could have sworn he would have slept through the day without a single regret, had it not been for a certain someone calling out, “Helloooo, Jiang!”

He sat up with a yawn, opening his eyes and seeing the blue-haired mermaid peering out from above the water. “Oh, hey,” he said, raising his hand to wave at her sleepily. “Nice to see you here and all.”

“It’s nice to see you, too! Though, you’re a pretty sleepy guy, huh?” Kailani asked, puzzled. “The last time we met, you were sleeping, too!”

Jiang rubbed the back of his neck and frowned as he replied, “I don’t really have the patience for fishing. It’s just too boring for me.”

“Then… why are you fishing?” Kailani tilted her head to the side, placing her webbed hands on the soft ground. “You shouldn’t really do things you don’t like doing. Life’s too short for that sorta thing.”

Ha, if only it were that easy, thought Jiang bitterly as he recalled all his acts of banditry. Out loud, he replied as he slouched, “I don’t really have a choice.”

Kailani looked puzzled for another moment before her eyes went wide. “Is it a job, then?”

More like free labor. “Sort of.” He paused a moment, watching Kailani put her hands on her cheeks, eyes wide with curiosity, her flipper flip-flopping in and out of the water.  With a bit more confidence, Jiang admitted, “I guess the other part is that I wanted to see you again. Least, for this fishing trip.”

The smile that spread on her face could have lit up a room. “Really? You didn’t need to start fishing to see me, you know! You could just relax by the lake!”

“Eh, two birds, one stone and all that.” Jiang yawned again, then pointed over to the basket he brought with him. “By the way, didn’t think you’d like to eat worms and dragonflies all the time, so I brought you some lunch.”

No sooner did he say the word “lunch” did Kailani flopped her way towards the basket, ripping off the blanket and revealing plenty of food, ranging from simple dumplings, meat buns, and neatly packed sandwiches and salads. She tore into the meat buns like a demon, devouring them as fast as she could. It was a bit hard to believe that someone so beautiful could have such an appetite. Then again, the only women he knew were his delicate Aunt Chun, the vain Yijun, and willowy Ning, none of which were big eaters.

“Wow, this stuff’s super good!” Kailani said as she finished her third meat bun and grabbed a dumpling. “Complements to the chef! I can’t stop eating these things, they’re that good!” As if to prove her point, she shoved the fourth meat bun in her mouth whole and wriggled with joy.

Jiang’s eyes went wide with shock as he said, “H-hey, careful! You’re gonna choke if you eat that fast! Slow down a bit, will ya?” Thankfully, with the meat buns almost out, Kailani had no choice but to slow down and savor them with all she has, although her wriggling did not cease.

“Sorry, they’re just so good!” Kailani said as she grabbed a sandwich and nibbled on it. “Who made them? Or did you buy them?”

Jiang blinked a moment, then turned away, feeling his cheeks burn red. “Well, uh, I didn’t buy them, that’s for sure,” he said quietly, though he hated how his voice quivered a bit.

“So you didn’t buy them… sooo…” Jiang looked back and saw a small grin on the mermaid’s face. “That means you made them, right?”

He flinched, then forced himself to look her in the eye as he replied, “Th-the sandwiches and salad? N-no. Everything else? Y-yeah.” Hastily, before she had a chance to speak, he added with a shout, “W-well, what of it?!”

“What of it?” Jiang was too slow to pull his hand back as Kailani grabbed his hand, her eyes twinkling with delight. “Jiang, that’s amazing! Those were some of the best things I’ve eaten ever since I came here!” He wasn’t exactly sure whether to beam with pride or deflect her praise. Not that it mattered: Kailani wasn’t giving him a chance to talk as she added cheerfully, “You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about! I mean, good food’s good food, no matter who makes it!”

“U-uh, yeah, sure, okay?” Jiang sputtered out, trying his best to gently pull his hand away, to no avail.

Kailani picked up on his anxiety fast, as she let go of his hand and gave him a worried look. “Did I say something wrong?” she asked as she inched back towards the water, giving Jiang a little more space.

A pang of guilt struck his heart, Jiang looking away from the mermaid as he rubbed his neck again. “No, no, it’s… not really like that.” He took a deep breath, sighing as he continued, “Just that… most people think it’s weird that I cook. Not all of ‘em, but most.” While he could recall Yin happily devouring his stews and praising him to high heaven for his skill, he had a stronger recollection of his father scolding him for helping Aunt Chun make stew, all those bewildered stares when guests came over and saw him steaming bao, and of course, Yijun’s snort of disbelief as she claimed that he couldn’t have really made anything that good without help.

“Is it because it’s mostly a girl thing?”

That, and who’d expect a dumbass like me picking up cooking? “Sorta.”

“Well, I can’t cook!” Kailani said as she folded her fin underneath her and placed her hands on her lap, chuckling a little nervously. “I know I’m a mermaid, but still, cooking’s a handy skill!” She placed a finger on her chin, then added, “I wonder if worms taste any better cooked?”

“You’re better off cooking a trout over an open flame,” Jiang pointed out, cringing at the thought of throwing worms in a pot and stewing them up. “They taste better with some salt and pepper.”

“Awww, but I like worms!” The mermaid crossed her arms and sulked a little bit, then grabbed a handful of dumplings, eating them one by one as she asked, “So! How’s the fishing going?”

Jiang opened his mouth to answer… then realized that he forgot that he was doing that to begin with. Hastily, he reeled the line and saw that the bait was long gone, taken while he was too busy chatting with Kailani. “Agh, damn it!” he said as he grumpily set some more bait and cast his line. “Wasn’t paying attention, damn it…”

“Do you want any help?” Kailani dived back into the water, giving Jiang a curious look as she swam in place. “I can help you find a big, juicy fish to cook up!”

Jiang resisted the urge to either tell her about the rainbow fish and drool at the thought of catching and cooking up a catfish, instead replying with a, “No, I’m fine.” After a moment, he frowned a bit and admitted, “Though, I’d appreciate the company. Like I said, shit’s boring. I don’t know how anyone can fish for a living.”

Kailani smiled and swam in a circle, smiling gently at him as she said, “Well, some people have the patience for it! And for someone who doesn’t like it all that much, you did a good job at it last time!”

Maybe it was just a coincidence. Maybe it was because he was putting out better bait. Or maybe it was because Kailani was actually a good luck charm. Regardless of the reason, Jiang found himself landing some big catches within the next few hours, even if they weren’t what he was looking for. His bucket was full of plump, juicy trout before he knew it, perfect for a meal and to sell for that extra bit of coin he certainly wasn’t going get from raiding anytime soon. That wasn’t really the best part for him, though: the best part was listening to Kailani humming as she swam around the lake, occasionally flopping onto land and picking flowers to put in her long, blue hair. He didn’t know what exactly she was humming, but soon after she started, he started to hum along with her, albeit a lot worse than her.

Once his bucket was filled to the brim, Jiang reeled back his rod and sighed in a mix of relief and disappointment. Even then, though, he lingered by the lake, just watching Kailani do her own, mermaid-y thing. After a few minutes of watching, though, he couldn’t help but call out, “Hey, Kailani?”

The mermaid flew up from the lake, did a flip, then plopped back down into its waters. She popped right back up and bowed before she looked at an amazed Jiang and asked, “What’s up, Jiang?”

“Well, first of all, holy shit! That was amazing!” Jiang said with the same sort of sparkle in his eyes that Kailani had after eating his home cooked meals. “Second… What even brought you out to a place like this?”

“Huh?” Kailani tilted her head a bit, the flowers falling from her hair and drifting on the lake waters. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, this is kind of a… backwater sorta place.” Jiang tried his hardest not to rub his neck again, in fear of rubbing it raw. “It’s not exactly exciting or anything.”

The mermaid blinked, then tilted her head to the other side. “And?”

Jiang swallowed hard. “I-I mean, you’re a mermaid. A beautiful fish lady who’s supposed to live in the sea, singing on rocks and charming sailors and all that sorta stuff. You look like you belong in some noble’s koi pond, enjoying some fancy meals or whatever." When that didn’t erase her confusion, Jiang took a deep breath and said reluctantly, “So, um, aren’t you a little too… good for this sorta place?”

She blinked again, staring at him. He couldn’t tell what kind of stare it was, and it scared him. Did he say something wrong? No, wait, scratch that. How wrong was he this time?

After a few moments of silence, Kailani replied, “I don’t know much about the world, so I’m just traveling and learning, trying to find a place called home, a place I’m comfortable with. It doesn’t matter if it’s a backwater lake or a koi pond, the sea or a river. Long as I feel at home, that’s what matters most.” She tilted her head again for juuust a moment before she crossed her arms and said, “By the way, koi? They’re jerks. They don’t know how to share a single thing.”

Jiang couldn’t understand why he was so shocked at the answer. It made perfect sense: she was trying to find a home. Home was where the heart was, so they say, and she’s trying to find out just where her heart will go. Honestly, it was a bit commendable that she would travel so far out from the sea to come here.

Regardless, he took a moment to get his composure back and reply, “Well, feel free to make yourself at home while you’re here. And don’t worry: far as I know, there aren’t any koi to bother you ‘round these parts.” He stretched before he grabbed all his things, turning away from the lake as he said, “Well, that’s enough fishing for one day. Gonna head back home, make some stew, and get some rest. Feel free to have whatever’s left in the basket: it’s all yours, anyway.”

Kailani happily flopped back onto land just to grab the basket and shove the last meat bun in her mouth, humming happily as he left. Soon as he was out of her sight, he turned back, watching her cheer fade into sorrow, the mermaid looking down at the ground with a frown.

Traveling here was definitely brave of her, but as far as Jiang could see, she seemed rather lonely as a result. She was so far away from her own family, her own friends- friends and family who probably cared for her rather deeply. Not a whole lot of people would care to move away from such support, not without a friend beside them.

After taking a deep breath, Jiang shouted out, “Kailani!” The mermaid turned towards him, baffled. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

Her expression shifted from sorrow to shock, then from shock to joy as she yelled back, “Okay! I’ll see you tomorrow, Jiang!”

He smiled back at her before heading home, humming the same tune Kailani did as she swam around the lake, off-key as he was.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Chance Meeting

“Jiang? Jiang, get up! It’s time to go shopping!”

Jiang groaned as the sun’s light filtered in through the window and stirred him from sleep, enough to hear his aunt calling him. “Just a few more minutes, auntie,” he mumbled, sinking his face deeper into his pillow, eyes glued shut. “Just a few more…”

“Jiang, come on! You don’t want to miss out on shopping, do you?”

He sank deeper into the covers, blocking the mighty sun’s rays with his blanket and groaning loud enough for his aunt to hear. “Just a few more…”

“Jiang Zhung!” he heard her say, exasperated. That was enough to get him rolling out of bed, yawning as he opened his room door and greeted his aunt with bags under his eyes. She smiled as he saw him for a second, the joy fading out into shock as she said, “Oh, goodness, you look absolutely exhausted! What on earth were you doing last night?”

“Not getting sleep,” came the grumpy reply. “Too many drunkards were out last night and causing a ruckus. Couldn’t sleep worth a damn.”

His aunt rested her head in her hand, concerned. “Oh dear, so that’s what all the noise was!” Her eyes narrowed a little bit as she asked, “And I suppose those yelps were from you dealing with the issue personally, right?”

Jiang looked away from his aunt, saying nothing. He did wake up in the middle of the night in time to hear them, then went down to tell them to shut up… Then he remembered the glass bottle smashing his chest, the anger rising deep within, and throttling all of them before heading back to sleep. It was a very good thing he had a shirt on: the last thing he needed his aunt to see the black-and-blue proof on his chest that he was up to no good.

Not that she needed to see it. “Oh, Jiang,” she said with a small sigh, pulling him into a small hug. “I know you did it because everyone needed some better rest, but there are better ways, you know? And it doesn’t look like it was worth the effort, especially if you’re still so tired.” Jiang felt a pang of guilt as she let go of him and smiled at him gently, like he didn’t just fight last night. “Either way, if you’re still sleepy, then I can go shopping on my own, okay? You just rest.”

The thought of going to sleep again was a relief, but Jiang shook his head as he replied, “No, I can go with you. Someone’s gotta carry the heavy stuff, and, well…” He frowned as he looked over his aunt and saw her legs trembling just a little. “You’re not in the best condition for that. Besides,” he added as he recalled Yin commenting on his “unique” smell, “I need to stop at the bathhouse, anyway.”

“If you’re sure, Jiang,” his aunt replied, her smile growing on her face, “then I’ll be more than happy to have you! You should visit the bathhouse first. Maybe that’ll wake you up a little more?”

A warm bath after a sleepless night with a fight? That was an offer Jiang simply couldn’t refuse. With a pep in his step, he hurried to get some clean clothes and bring them along as they made their stop at the bathhouse, eager to start the day fresh and cleaned of dirt and bad feelings.

The town outskirts were lively today as several townspeople browsed the local farmers market for goods, eager to come home with bright red and green apples in their baskets or enjoy a glass of milk. Everything was noisy, between the people chatting amongst themselves to haggling with the merchants over the prices of freshly caught fish. Jiang found it hard to enjoy the lively atmosphere, however, as a few people gave him odd stares, the looks that all said, “Oh, it’s him.

So he sat on a bench, keeping away from the general hustle and bustle while watching his aunt browse through the bountiful fruits, appraising each and every one of them as if she were a banker examining gold. Several townspeople approached her to speak with her, whether it be about the market itself or the latest rumor about Lady Ling’s love life. Jiang, on the other hand, was content to lay around and keep away from other people, catching a bit of rest where he could.

He was none too happy when someone shouted, “Hey, it’s Musclehead!” He sat up and turned towards the source:  a short, brown haired girl with a mischievous smirk plastered on her face. “Hi, Musclehead!” she said as she waved at him. “Haven’t seen you in a while! We all thought you might’ve gotten eaten by a wolf or something!”

“You mean you prayed I got eaten by a wolf, Yijun,” Jiang snapped back as he put his head in his hand and glared at her.

“Aw, Muscles, I would never do that!” Yijun said as she clasped her hands and put on her best innocent look. “I prayed that you’d come back, every night and day!” She looked towards the other people around the market, then back at Jiang as she added, “I mean, who else can do all my dirty work?”

Jiang rolled his eyes. “Good to know that you appreciate me for all the free labor. So, the heck do you want?”

“Oof, right to the point, huh?” Yijun put her hands on her hips, using one hand to flick back her long, brown tresses. “Come on, can’t you just chat with me like a normal person? I mean, I’m the only other person here that actually cares to talk to you.”

“Only because nobody else wants to put up with your shit.” He saw her look away and whistle innocently, trying to ignore the weight of his words. After a minute, Jiang sighed and asked, “So, what stupid favor do you want from me this time? And if it has anything to do with chimera pelts, forget it.”

“Awww, but the last one you got me made a fuzzy coat! It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

Jiang stared Yijun right in the eye and replied bluntly, “I almost died for your piece of shit coat. What did I get in return? Nothing.”

Yijun huffed, crossing her arms and turning away from him as she said, “Oh, my gratitude isn’t enough for you?” When he didn’t respond, she sighed dramatically and said, “Oh well. And here I was, thinking about actually helping you out. Guess it’s not all ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ in this world, huh…”

Jiang grit his teeth, glaring harder at the young woman sighing dramatically again and drawing the attention of nearby townspeople. He wanted to tell her to go fuck herself, but everyone’s stares made him uncomfortable. Eventually, it became too much, slumping and rolling his eyes as hard as he could without them falling out of his head before he asked reluctantly, “Well, what is it? I don’t have all day, you know.”

In an instant, Yijun turned to him, cheery as could be, clasping her hands together as she smiled. “Oh, so you’ll do it? Great! It’s nothing special, really… I juuust want you to go get a rainbow fish and get its scales for me, that’s all.” Jiang shot her another dirty look as she added hastily, “It might be a rare sighting, but I believe in you! I mean, you were lucky enough to come out alive after fighting a chimera, right, Muscles?”

You’re out of your fucking mind, you crazy bitch, is what Jiang wanted to say so, so badly, but with all eyes on him and the possibility of a reward, he replied, “Fine, but if all you’re giving me is gratitude, I’m taking those scales and giving them to Aunt Chun instead, got it?”

For a moment, Jiang saw Yijun grimace, before she replied sweetly, “Of course, of course! Now, chop chop, I don’t have all day!”

Jiang glanced over at Aunt Chun, whose basket was looking heavier and heavier with each bit of produce she got, then looked back at Yijun and said, “You’re going to have to wait ‘til I help auntie out. Unless you’d rather-“

“Oh, no no no, you can handle it!” Yijun said, holding up her hands and waving him off. “You do you, just make sure to bring me those scales, pronto!”

Both glad that she’d leave him alone for a while and annoyed that he was coerced into doing another stupidly tedious task, Jiang hurried to his aunt’s side to help her carry things while she finished up this shopping trip. He’d need a hearty lunch and a helluva lot of patience for this particular task.

If only Ning or Yin were able to help…


The sun’s rays glistened off the lake’s clear blue waters, shining down as Jiang sat down in the grass and set up. He took a moment soak in the warmth, enjoy the spring breeze that rolled through the fields, listen to the gentle lapping of water on the lake’s shore. The scene was beyond serene, a nice change from the bustling farmer’s market. There wasn’t anyone to glare at him, nobody to bother him. It was just him and the water… and whatever lurked beneath the surface. He made sure to bring a bucket, just in case he caught any fish worth cooking up and eating later, and brought some good bait that a few local fishermen recommended at the market. Couldn’t catch a rainbow fish if he didn’t have what they wanted, right?
Well… maybe they didn’t want it so bad, because for the past few hours, not a single rainbow fish showed up, nevermind took the bait. There were plenty of trout and bass, and some that sort of look rainbow-ish, but none were actually the brilliant, seven-colored fish with shimmering scales. At least he was getting more stuff for fish stew, but Jiang knew he fucked up when he actually accepted the seemingly impossible task.

He set the bait and cast his line again, watching the waters with a bored look. The weather was nice enough that he started to doze off, catching a few more Zzzs that he missed last night. He might as well have fallen asleep right then and there…

Then, something tugged on the line. Startled from his rest, he tugged back, but quickly found that whatever took the bait, it was damn heavy. With a mix of curiosity and excitement, he started to reel it back, putting all his strength into pulling up this catch, hoping that maybe it was a giant rainbow fish of all things.

When Jiang finally pulled it out of the water, he stared as it flew overhead. If that was a fish, it was absolutely huge.

FLOP, it went onto the ground. There, Jiang saw his mistake. It was kind of a fish… and kind of not. They had a back fin like a fish, and scales like fish to an extent, but part of them was a lot more human than fish. Maybe part Kappa, given the webbed fingers. But they definitely had some sort of flowing, green dress on, with flowing blue hair cascading over their shoulder.

As the weird fish chewed eagerly on the big, fat worm on the end of the hook, Jiang stared for a minute before he took a step back, pointed, and shouted, “Holy shit, it’s a fish lady!”

The fish lady turned to him, removing the hook from her mouth slowly and tilting her head to the side. “Huh, fish lady?” she asked, her voice sweet and delicate. “That’s a new nickname, huh?”

Upon realizing that she actually talked and actually had feelings (unlike most fish), Jiang replied, “I mean, that’s what you are! You’re half fish, half lady!” He paused a moment, then asked back, “Wait a second, did you actually just eat that thing?”

“Uh huh!” the fish lady cheerfully replied, flopping her way closer to him. “It was pretty yummy, thank you!” Her cheer faded into confusion as Jiang continued to stare at her. “Oh, I’m guessing mermaids aren’t very common here?”

Jiang shook his head. “No? Not that I know of.” He paused for a moment, then added awkwardly, “So, uh, you’re welcome for the meal, I guess?”

“That was you who gave me that?” Her eyes lit up with joy as Jiang nodded again. “Thanks again! I was pretty hungry. Travelling around the river’s kinda tiring, and I didn’t really see anything good to eat. So when I saw that worm, it was like a blessing!”

“I didn’t really do that for you, though.” Jiang scratched his head, avoiding the mermaid’s gaze and trying to work through the awkwardness. “I was looking for a different fish. You just happened to be hungry enough to snag it.”

The mermaid’s hand flew to her mouth as she gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t really mean to interrupt your fishing thing, I promise! But I’m still thankful that you set that.” He managed to look right into her eyes just as she smiled, some of his tension ebbing away like the ocean waves. “In return, I can give you a hand with something! Almost anything! I don’t really have anything to do or anywhere to go, and this lake’s nice enough!”

A flood of emotions hit Jiang at once: shock that a fish lady would show him gratitude over a coincidence, gratefulness that she was offering him anything at all, confusion at the fact that something like her actually existed here of all places, and guilt when his first thought was about catching that rainbow fish. He couldn’t possibly shove that responsibility onto someone else, especially not someone he just met. It was a stupid task, but it was a stupid task that he accepted, even if the circumstances were a little unfair.

Quietly, he replied, “It’s okay. You don’t owe me anything, really.”

“You sure? I did kinda interrupt your fishing,” said the mermaid apologetically. “I want to at least make up for that.”

The temptation to ask was strong, but the guilt from thinking about that was stronger. “No, it’s… don’t worry about it.” Jiang rubbed his neck, then looked at his bucket of bait and asked the mermaid, “You still hungry? I have more stuff you can eat. You can have some fish too, if you want.”

“Really?!?” To be honest, he couldn’t help but smile a tiny bit as the mermaid beamed with joy. “I am still pretty hungry, so if you don’t mind…”

“Not like I’m gonna be eating worms for dinner, so why not?” Jiang grabbed the mermaid and slipped her back into the water before handing her a whole bucket of worms and a few smaller fish he caught. Gleefully, the mermaid tucked in, slurping most of her meal up at the same rate Jiang would devour a slab of steak. And that was pretty fast. So fast, it was a bit scary.

After a few moments of another awkward silence, Jiang turned away when the mermaid said, “You’re a nice person, you know that?”

He shrugged. “I dunno about that.”

“Well, I think you are.” She paused for a moment, and then asked, “Before you go, could you tell me your name?” Another pause. “You know, when we meet again! So I don’t call you stuff like ‘human’ and ‘musclehead’ and… uh, ‘dork’?”

“Musclehead” elicited a cringe from Jiang, but “Dork”? He snorted and replied, “Guess my name’s Dork from now on. Has a nice ring to it, sorta. But…” He turned back to the mermaid with a tiny smile, the wind rustling his hair as he said, “Jiang Zhung’s the name. And yours?”

The mermaid smiled back warmly, placing her hands together in front of her. “And mine’s Kailani! I hope we meet again. Until then, have a good day!”

As he headed back to town, Jiang turned back towards the lake and saw the smile fade, Kailani’s hand clasping at her chest. She seemed so… lonely, before she dove back under the lake’s clear waters.

That night, he promised himself that he would try to visit her often. It wasn’t so often that anyone, nevermind someone like him, would be able to talk to a mermaid. And it never hurt to make another friend, either.
Maybe he should thank Yijun for the opportunity to meet a mermaid-

…Nah, that was too wild, even for him.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Life of a Bandit

The caravan was approaching the bridge, passing through the plains in the full light of day. So much cargo was loaded onto the wagon two horses dragged from their home city, cargo he suspected was more than just supplies. Certainly more than a noble needed.

He made sure to hide under the cover of the forest, watching the caravan carefully as they stopped at the bridge, taking a few minutes to rest and feed their weary horses and get a quick drink from the river’s clear waters. He motioned for someone, and watched as a head flew up from the trees and quickly scanned through the cargo, staying out of sight of the retainers. In a few more minutes, the head of a black-haired, eye patched girl was at his side, the body carefully feeling its way around until it, too, was beside him.

“I didn’t smell any meat or spices on there,” the dullahan whispered in his ear as she firmly attached her head to her body. “It’s probably not a food caravan. Maybe textiles? Maybe they’ll have silk.” She sighed, holding up her tattered cloak and poking at her leather vest. “I do need to upgrade my wardrobe before I wear it out…”

He snorted as he replied, “And who’s gonna make it for ya, huh? You think someone wouldn’t get suspicious if you suddenly gave ‘em more silk than we’re worth?” The dullahan slumped just a little, looking away from him as she pouted. A twinge of guilt moved his heart, yet he said firmly, “I don’t want anything that might get us into deeper shit than we’re already in. Especially not selling or wearing anything you can’t even get in this area.”

“A girl can dream, can’t she?” she asked, still pouting a little bit as she ran her hands through her long, thick ponytail. “At any rate, I overheard those guys saying something about making a timely delivery to Lord Zheng, so whatever it is they’re taking, it must be pretty valuable.” She saw the glint in his eyes, the spark, and smiled as she asked, “Oh, you know him?”

She probably didn’t expect the dumbfounded look he gave her just now. “And you don’t, Ning?”

“Oh, was I supposed to? I mean, the only thing I know about Lords, Ladies, and any other fancy nobles is that they all don’t have meat on their bones and cover it up with puffy dresses and clothes.”

Honestly, he should have expected that. A groan escaped his lips as he replied, “Lord Zheng’s a big shot around these parts, and absolutely nobody likes him. Taxes the everloving shit out of everyone and uses most of it for all these fancy feasts he gives to neighboring nobles. Doesn’t even care that a few of the towns under his charge had their crops flooded out due to the rain and that food prices got driven up cause of it. No skin off his nose unless the tax money stops flowing.”

“Uh huh, I get it.” A sly smirk formed on Ning’s face as she saw the deliverymen regrouping around the caravan, drawing out a bow and arrow from under her cloak. “So what you’re saying, boss, is that you won’t feel bad when we rob ‘em, right?”

Boss smirked right back at her as he cracked his knuckles and drew his axe. “Damn straight! Now, how ‘bout we get started, eh?”

Before the caravan could move on, Ning shot an arrow at the horses’ feet, both rearing up in a panic. Boss charged in, whistling for someone else as he fended off one of the guards, smashing the blunt end of his axe into his head and knocking him out cold. They all cried out about bandits as he fought them off and Ning shot at their arms and legs to disable them. One of them got dangerously close to slashing at Boss, but he found his blade stuck between a chimera’s jaws. With one bite, the blade was crushed, the chimera swiping a massive paw and smashing the guard into the ground.

By the end of it, there were more panicked men cowering before the trio than men trying to fight back. Ning tied them up and blindfolded them along with the rest of the guard as Boss took the reins of the caravan. It wasn’t long before the bandits left with their ill-gotten gains, leaving those poor men behind alone near the bridge.


“Woaaah ho hooo, that’s one helluva haul we brought in!”

The chimera looked a lot less like a chimera and more like a man who didn’t know the meaning of the word “shave”, his mane of dirty blonde hair trembling along with him as excitement overtook him. He clasped one paw and talon together as Boss and Ning cracked open the cargo in the little cave they called a base, revealing loads of gold and gemstones, as well as several clothes that Boss absolutely knew wouldn’t and shouldn’t be in the hands of peasants, nevermind bandits.

Ning pulled out a bottle of perfume from one of the boxes they stole and said, “Some of these things, I’ve never really seen. Like, what IS this?” It didn’t take too long before she smelled like she ran through a lavender field, her eyes twinkling as she sniffed at herself. “Whatever it is, it smells nice, and it’s mine now!” She turned towards the chimera and shouted, “Hey, Yin, you gotta smell this! Come on, sniff me!”

“No need, I can smell it from over here!” Yin replied as he sniffed the air, a sleepy smile forming on his face. “Oh, that smells heavenly! Bit strong for my poor, innocent nose, but ooh, it’d be the perfect thing for you, boss!” As Boss turned towards him, the chimera pinched his nose and waved him off. “It’d fend off those musty smells about you. Goodness, sometimes I wonder if you even bathe yourself, with how sweaty you smell!”

Boss rolled his eyes, emptying as much gold from the cargo as he possibly can and doing his best to divide it evenly amongst the three of them. “Yeah, yeah, working on it,” he replied. “Forget that for a moment, though: this is a helluva lot of gold for us to be carrying, and more shit that we don’t really need. Lord Zheng’s gonna shit his pants when he finds out we got his shit.”

Yin and Ning turned towards each other, their cheery demeanor vanishing in a puff of smoke as they turned towards Boss. “So, in other words,” Yin said, putting a paw to his forehead, “It’s no longer safe for us here, is that it?”

“Yeah.” Boss sighed as he stuffed his pockets with a part of his share of gold, then handed the others their share as he said, “We’re gonna need to hide some of this deeper in the cave and lay low for a bit. We can’t risk getting killed, not when we have other mouths to feed and people relying on us. Hell, we might need a new hideout altogether.”

“I could protect the goods here if you want,” Yin pointed out. “I mean, who would dare fight someone as fierce as myself? Besides, they won’t know it’s in here if I just, you know, eat them!”

Ning stuffed as much gold as she could in her shirt and her pockets before she said, “But then they’d just kill you because you’re… well, a monster. And weren’t you trying to get along with humans by not eating them, while trying to feed your big family and treat ‘em to nice things? Isn’t that why you’re even with us?”

“Trying is the key word, my dear. Besides, it wouldn’t be my own gold and stuff I’d be protecting. I mean, you two can only carry so much with you! If one of us stays behind and makes sure the rest of the gold is safe, you two can go out there and live your lives without gaining so much suspicion!”

Boss stared at Yin hard for a moment before he sighed, “If you and your family could do that for us, we’d appreciate it. We can’t risk carrying so much on us, especially since they’re gonna be on high alert. We have enough to last us a few months before we need to raid another caravan.”

Yin smiled gently at Boss as he said, “Anything for you, my dear boss! We’ll make sure those goods are safe and sound! Althouuugh, if you would be so kind as to bring that awfully tasty beef stew you make every once in a while, we’d greatly appreciate it!”

Ning frowned a little, putting her arms on her hips as she said, “Hmpf, and you’re not gonna ask me to bring some freshly hunted venison? After I helped you meet the boss?”

“Venison’s nice, dear, and I much appreciate it. But I love a home cooked meal even more!”

Ning pouted a little, Yin chuckling and patting her back as an apology. Boss looked at the two of them, unable to restrain the smile forming on his face. They were good people, people who wanted a better life. People who wanted to forsake their traditions and try something new. It was a shame that both of them had to turn to banditry to feed the many mouths in their families, unable to find jobs because of their monstrous heritage.

As they all went their separate ways, Boss prayed that maybe one day, they would find a better life than this.


“Jiang, dinner’s ready!”

The bandit, startled, hurried to empty his pockets of gold and store it in his lockbox before rushing to the dinner table. The fragrant smell of fish stew wafted through the air, his stomach growling as loudly as an angry chimera as the scent hit his nose. The table was set, a big hearty bowl of stew waiting for him just as a woman ladled it in for him. Her eyes and hair were brown like his, but where he was as rugged as a woodcutter, she was as soft as a tree nymph.

Even her voice sounded more like a nymph, so soft and sweet as she said, “My, you sound halfway starved! I hope you haven’t forgotten to eat again. There should be enough for both of us tonight, especially considering your appetite!”

“Y-yeah, kinda forgot in the heat of work,” Jiang admitted, scratching at his head of shaggy brown hair.

“You really need to work on that. It won’t do to have you working on an empty stomach, not for carpentry and the like.”

Jiang tried his hardest not to look her in the eye as he replied, “Y-yes, Auntie. Stuff’s hard on your body and all.” As he ate his food, he watched his aunt eat in silence, her hand trembling slightly as she brought the spoon to her mouth. It was the same tremble he saw all the time when he was at home: her legs would wobble a bit when she stood up to cook, when she cleaned the house, when she walked throughout town to speak to the neighbors… It was harder to notice when her hands did, especially when she sat down to knit and sew and all sorts of hands-on things. Dinnertime was the only time he could see it clearly, as she ate slowly and carefully, or at least tried her best.

After a long period of silence, his aunt stopped eating, folding her arms and smiling gently at Jiang as she asked, “So, how is work going?”

“It went well,” Jiang answered, trying his hardest to mask his anxiety. “We’ve got a lot of work done, and we got a decent amount of gold. It’s enough to help us eat a little better. I like stew as much as the next guy, but we gotta eat something different every once in a while, right?”

“Of course, of course! That’s good to hear! Maybe we could make some jiaozi for you to take to work… Or maybe some stir fried noodles?”

Jiang was on his second bowl of stew when his aunt stood up to yawn. “My, am I tired! Some more sleep should do me good.” She smiled at him again as she said, “Try not to stay up too late, Jiang. Sleep well, alright?”

He saw it. He saw the slow, pained walk she always did when she went to bed. How exhausted she looked, in spite of her smile. In public, she would always mask it, always try to hide it by gossiping along with the other women her age, by staying out as long as her legs would let her.

But it was here at home that Jiang could clearly see her illness sapping what little energy she had, how it caused her no end of pain. It was something he overheard the local shaman say must have been a curse for a horrible deed she did in her last life, something that might never go away, even if she repents.

Once he finished his third bowl of stew, Jiang returned to his room and opened up his lockbox, staring at the gold he accumulated for so very, very long. So much, maybe too much, for an aunt and her nephew living in a simple house living a relatively simple life. But even this wasn’t enough for the treatment his aunt deserved. It wasn’t even enough for the first treatment, nevermind the subsequent ones and all the taxes he had to pay and all the food he had to get.

Banditry hurt people. It hurt the innocent as much as the wicked. That much, Jiang knew from the beginning. If his aunt ever heard what he was doing, he was certain she would abandon him as quickly as his actual family, with a much better reason. This isn’t the kind of person she raised him to be. Hell, he didn’t want to be a bandit.

But… Good, honest work couldn’t provide enough for both food and her treatments. It wasn’t nearly enough, as he found out the hard way.

Soon enough, just looking at the gold just made him sick to his stomach, so he locked it away and quickly went to bed, staring at the ceiling and praying, praying to whoever actually listened, that maybe… just maybe, they could have a better life than this, too.