Episode Thirty Five - Wanderers
“You have terrible taste. Here, try this Sinder scotch.”
A woman’s voice. Sounds familiar.
I walk through the hall into the lounge. It’s a little different from ours, but the layout is the same. Kitchen on one side, bar on the other, and couch at the center.
“Fine, but if it tastes anything like that ‘Ogre’ drink…” Kitsune takes a sip from the glass. “That’s not bad.”
They’re standing by the bar counter, but I don’t think they notice me. That woman with white hair, the one talking to Kitsune. I’ve seen her before. I know her.
“Kitsune. After this next contract, I’ll be finished.”
“I know. Don’t remind me.”
“But…” Her hand gently slides over to his, softly clasping his fingers.
“Maybe there’s another way. Maybe you don’t have to go.”
“You know the rules, and besides. I’ve had enough of this life.”
I walk closer, but everything turns to white.
Their sleep feels eternal. Random images of the street flash across their eyes, a common occurrence when reality seeps into their slumber. On separate occasions, the couple tries to wake but inevitably falls back to the alluring comfort of sleep.
Even in their dreams, they find themselves sleeping and waking. Almost like a nightmare, they prematurely awake in a fright, only to realize they are still asleep in another dream.
The sun is already up high with its light edging around the building corner and into the alley. Juniper’s head fidgets atop Zylo’s, eyes remaining shut as she lightly licks her dry lips. His arm is wrapped around her waist and he tightly cuddles her body close as he falls back to sleep.
An hour goes by and the sun strays across his eyes. He repositions himself away from the warm light, until another hour goes by, and the sun is relentless.
Gently moving one hand to cover his face, he finds his other hand lodged between Juniper’s back and the wall. He scans his surroundings, remembering the desolate alley they stumbled into last night. As his eyes focus into the street, the shuffling crowds and noisy honking cars grow louder and louder.
“Junie…hey, Junie,” Zylo lifts Juniper off his arm and she falls over unexpectedly. “Oh damn.”
“Ow… What’s going on…?” She sits up, rubbing her head and squinting toward the street. The sunlight over her face reveals the dirt and grime in her hair.
Zylo realizes his white hair must look black, or some kind of brown by now. He rolls up the ripped sleeves of his blazer, and realizes his jeans are torn around the calves and left thigh. Great, now they’re vintage.
He stretches his arms and legs, and wonders how he managed to sleep so well despite such terrible positioning on such hard ground. Maybe he was just that tired.
The muscle sprains of his body have recovered dramatically, but insufficient. The gash on his arm is still bleeding blue.
A strange odor composed of fish, sewage, and grilled meat wafts over from the street filling the alley. The smell takes them by surprise but of course, the delicious scent of anything grilled supersedes the stench of everything else.
The urge to satisfy their hunger livens their spirits and overpowers their post-sleep grogginess. Immediately, they spring to their feet, motivated to find this source of food.
South Market is a neighborhood diverse with grocery stands and food vendors. Endless amounts of fresh meat, fish, and vegetables are displayed on every block, and the people swarm to find the best prices.
The couple drags their dirtied bodies down the sidewalk, failing to keep pace with the rhythm of the pedestrians.
“What’s good around here?” Zylo asks, desperately trying to follow his nose.
“I don’t know, but I’m dying,” Juniper groans.
Further ahead, a small crowd stares up at the enormous LED screen covering the side of the department store. The headline reads, ‘Breaking News’, and the newscaster reports,
‘—have been attacked and killed since early this morning, says Fortune City police. So far, more than ten counts of murder have been reported across the central districts alone.’
“Something’s going on.” Juniper creeps through to the front of the curious mass of people.
“Jeez, it’s 4pm already?” Zylo’s eyes stretch open to read the flashing bulletins. “We slept for like, seventeen hours.”
’Witnesses claim the assailants stormed through the crowd in broad daylight, and attacked the victims without warning. An eyewitness, Nandini Nagao, describes the frightening encounter.
“First, I saw him chasing this man, this really scared man across the street. I’m not sure if they knew each other but it was so sudden. The attacker jumped on him…and beat him with a tennis racket. Just like that, the man died. I would’ve taken out my mace but a police officer chased the attacker into an alley. That’s all I saw.”
Other eyewitness reports have been similar. Police are linking these crimes to the most recent cases of violent murders within the city. So far, no suspects have been arrested.’
Zylo’s phone starts to ring and he promptly answers, “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Kitsune greets. “So get this. King Kuro put out contracts on a bunch of people. He’s just letting loose now. No more notices, nothing. A few of the crews are actually doing them, I’m not sure which ones though.”
Juniper steps out of the clutter, and Zylo covers the mouth of the phone to inform her, “King Kuro contracted a lot of people yesterday, more innocents probably.”
“Oh,” she says. “Well, I think Lightning Royalty just got on the news.”
Zylo nods and turns back to the phone, “Kitsune, Juniper thinks Lightning Boys are one of them.”
“That’s not a surprise, they’ve always been assholes.”
“Well apparently, last night, King Kuro killed a few hunters who refused to hunt. Not sure who. So earlier today, Ramen Blues and some other crews fled the Citadel. We just need to find everyone on our side, and beat up the rest. Good plan?”
“Um, I guess?”
“Good plan. I’ll see you guys later. I’m gonna meet with the Monkeys.” Before hanging up, Kitsune adds, “And be careful out there, guys.”
Zylo places his phone back into his pocket and feels the sudden sting of the gash on his arm. King Kuro’s knife cut deep. He scratches the side of his head and small traces of dirt slide in between his fingernails. “Well, this is going to be a fine day.”
“What are we doing?” asks Juniper, eyes still searching for anything related to a grill.
“The plan so far is…roam the city and find any crew willing to fight King Kuro. I suppose we can try to stop some of the contracts, if there’s time?” Zylo’s stomach starts to grumble.
“That’s not a very good plan.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Well, first thing’s first.” Juniper begins walking again.
“Food,” they say simultaneously.
Not much farther down the street, the couple orders a bundle of grilled chicken skewers. The soft chicken meat combined with the delicate crunch of the grilled chicken skins is drenched in sweet teriyaki sauce. Each savory bite-sized piece is worth killing for right now.
Needless to say, Zylo and Juniper carry their own respective platters of skewers with no intention of sharing.
The streets curve like a wild stream and the couple flows with the current. Their fingertips grip the skewers tightly as they wander through the strange comfort of the rushing crowds. It feels like ages since they’ve been in the city, but they quickly reacquaint themselves.
“Were you scared, too?” Zylo spontaneously asks.
“You mean…yesterday? Yeah, of course. You kidding?”
’During that fight, I was…afraid. I watched Bull die, literally saw him die and there was nothing I could do. The last time I was so scared for anything was when I was fleeing from Kitsune, fleeing for my life. Being in the fight against King Kuro was nostalgic, evoking long forgotten feelings of fear for…death. But what am I thinking? That’s what all normal humans fear.’
“I was, too. I’m kind of glad you didn’t die,” Zylo says.
“That’s sweet of you.” She clings affectionately to his arm, and they resemble a couple of raggedy lovers on a date. “If he stabbed you, I would’ve been so upset.”
“That’s wonderful to hear.”
‘Rest in peace, Bull, Cecile, and Rolly, even though I didn’t know you that well. It’s strange. We’ve killed so many people, but when one of us dies, we’re suddenly miserable philosophers trying to make sense of it.’
They continue strolling through the neighborhood, violently devouring the rest of their food so they can move on to the next cuisine. The alluring scent of honey roasted walnuts snatches their attention, but sadly, their hands are still occupied.
“I hate Lightning Royalty so much more now. I didn’t like them before, but the fact they’re so willing to help King Kuro slaughter so many people…Ugh! Makes me mad,” Juniper rants.
‘Baya is crumbling, all by the will of one man fueled with his desire for power. Even hunters, enlightened after experiencing death and rebirth, can become such pawns. Maybe we are still human.’
Zylo replies, “Well, luckily we have a few crews already on our side. Things are going to get really interesting.”
“I just hope my shoulders feel better soon.” Juniper twirls her arms and groans at the aching sores of her muscles.
As they walk, an unexpected presence hovers over Zylo’s shoulder. He’s not sure what it is, but his senses gradually track the footsteps pacing behind him. He tilts his head slightly to the side, and in the farthest reach of his peripherals, Zylo sees a figure trailing no more than twenty feet away.
They’re being followed.
“Hey,” Zylo whispers to Juniper.
“I know. Let’s keep walking.”
They casually trek past a diner front and turn into the alleyway, tossing their empty skewers onto a pile of garbage bags as they go.
The path grows narrower, heading into the dank backstreet of the nearby apartment buildings. The trailing footsteps echo louder and louder through the quiet alley, but Zylo and Juniper never turn back to look.
Walking the same steady pace, they turn a corner into a wide yard to find a man in a brown trench coat standing before them. He rhythmically taps a large red monkey wrench against his palm and smiles.
The man is Mace, easily recognizable from the scruffy five o’clock shadow and his stylishly combed swoop of hair hanging at the top of his head. Lightly clinging to the corner of his lips is a burning cigarette glowing in the dark alley.
Oh, how Zylo wishes the hanging cigarette would just fall, but it doesn’t.
“Hello there, Mace,” Juniper acknowledges.
The man plucks the cigarette from his mouth and tosses it to the ground, then lunges toward the Pirates.
Zylo quickly moves back, stepping just out of reach from his wrench while Juniper glides forward with a front kick to his stomach. The rods rotate and connect in Zylo’s hand before beating against Mace’s hip.
Approaching from behind is the hunter previously stalking the couple, but Juniper swings around with her guitar. The rim hits straight into his chest and he falls flat to the ground. What a shame.
“That was fast, Bomba. Faster than usual,” Juniper grins.
“What do you guys want?” shouts Zylo, deflecting Mace’s wrench.
“King Kuro’s gonna give us a nice reward for you two!” Mace grunts and swings again.
Zylo ducks under the attack and slides forward, wailing the rod against Mace’s upper body. “Nope. Looks like Shark Princes are staying at the bottom of the ranks where they belong!”
Suddenly, Juniper shrieks and her body slams the wall. Zylo turns, but catches the edge of a tennis racket across his face. He stumbles and loses balance, and a kick to his chest finally drops him onto his back.
“Well, well…” Flash Dee of Lightning Royalty walks closer, then kicks Zylo again but in the ribs this time.
Grunting and coughing, Zylo persists to taunt, “Oh, Flash, here to join the rest of the trash?”
“Oh, shut up!” Mace angrily steps close, swinging his wrench in a downward chopping motion.
Already anticipated, Zylo hastily raises his rod over his body. The wrench hammers against the sudden might of his projected shield, and Mace screams into the air while Flash Dee crashes against the wall.
“Nice.” Juniper rises to her feet and rushes toward Flash. She jabs her guitar but he leans away, and her weapon smashes a crater into the brick wall instead.
Flash snickers, hastily countering with two successive swings of his double tennis rackets. A single tumble and she escapes both.
Zylo, unfortunately, finds himself outnumbered with both Mace and Bomba tracing his steps. Though he is confident taking them on separately, fighting them both at the same time is a different story.
Zylo takes a swing at Mace but Bomba’s long wooden oar quickly intercepts. His steel rod recoils in failure, and Zylo finds himself tumbling away from Mace’s eager attack.
Perhaps a different strategy. Zylo anxiously retreats back to Juniper and mutters, “Maybe we should …”
“Run!” She immediately breaks into a sprint back toward the street, and Zylo follows.
Racing past block after crowded block, the Pirates break through endless swarms of pedestrians trying to get away. An orchestra of panicking cries echo noisily within the street, harmonized by the screeching of cars stopping for the stampede of hunters.
The path is shrouded in chaos, and the destination is nowhere to be found.