Chapter 2: A Warm Welcome
Trees swayed while the wind kicked up. The Weeping Willows seemed to bob their heads to a silent tune. Kurai moved with them, not because of the gusts that had been growing worse with every mile advanced towards the town of Kirkwood, but because of the movement of the cyborg horse he rode on. His head was bowed, eyes closed. It’d only been twenty minutes before sleep had overtaken his tired soul. It was hard to catch a bit of shuteye on some parts of the frontier, what with the worry of bandits and the fiends, lesser and otherwise, who always threatened to take all they could from whomever crossed their path, but as of late the spaces in between towns had been relatively calm as the Dark Shadow passed through. Kurai’s hand twitched on the reins.
“There’s darkness in his heart.” Kurai grasped at his chest. His back was to the front door. “You know I don’t want to kick you out, Ana,” Mayor Hotchkin went on, “but the older he gets, the more unease it puts on everyone. I’ve protected you and that kid of yours for fourteen years, but there’s nothing to stop people from taking up arms and dragging the two of ya out of town.”
“Hotch,” Ana said, desperation dripping from her lips as she stretched out the name, “you know there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s a good boy, he’s never caused anyone any harm.”
“Try telling that to the Kipplers and their boy. He drew blood!”
“He was protecting one of the girls!”
Kurai looked down at his nails. Strong. Pointed. Sharp. Almost like the nails of a humanoid fiend. He bit his lip. He always kept to himself. He liked the solitude of being apart from the other kids, but when he saw one of the class bullies pushing things too far he had to do something. Kurai didn’t do much, really. All he’d done was grab Tripp by the wrist and twisted it away from Hannah’s thigh. Kurai bit his lip harder as his mouth watered from the thought of the redness that wet his nails when Tripp yanked his arm away from the vice-like grip.
“That’s not the way they told it,” Hotchkin scoffed.
“Do you believe everything everyone tells you? Do you think pigs can fly, and that we live on a turtle’s back?”
“And why should I take the word of a fiend fucker and her son,” Hotchkin shouted. Kurai felt the words the way he imagined his mother did, as a smack across the face. He touched his cheeks while tears crept out of his eyes. He wanted to bolt out the door and kick old Hotch in the shins. He wanted to push him into the dirt then beat him to a bloody pulp right there on the road. Kurai clenched his fists and tried to control himself while his knuckles and wrists popped. The windows to their little house flew open suddenly. The wind rushed in like a hurricane, throwing the dining table and a few chairs at Kurai. He jumped out of the way, and as he hit the floor, the room blinked out of existence.
Kurai threw his arms up, protecting his face as he hit the cobblestone. He jumped to his feet and spun to face the commotion in one swift motion. His cyborg horse kicked around and screeched as the jaws of a large beast clamped down on its throat and ripped its head off, sending a spray of blood and oil into the air. Kurai cursed and grabbed the heavy revolver at his hip and trained his sights on the bushes and trees shaking in the creature’s wake.
“You’re welcome!” The ever-present presence in the back of Kurai’s mind, the darkness that existed in his dna, cackled with laughter.
“What’s so funny, ya prick? That thing is still out there,” Kurai wiped at the blood and oil across his face as the body of his cyborg horse ran off ahead for a few meters, spraying fluids into the air, until it fell over with the thunk of metal and flesh hitting the cobblestone road.
“What’s so funny? If I hadn’t nudged you in your sleep that would have been your head! Come on, just picture it! The monster turned monster hunter, taken out in his sleep by some hungry tree thing! Did your funny-bone break from falling out of the saddle?”
Kurai groaned and stepped towards the center of the road, scanning the swaying willows and the large bushes and thick vines that boarded the wide travelway, but his eyes didn’t catch sight of the large crocodile-shaped head that had put an end to his horse. He crouched, gun at the ready, waiting for the thing to strike again, to lunge at him from beyond the ankle high wall of bricks lining the road, but nothing came, nothing but the rustle of the trees and everything in between as the gusts came on stronger.
“Gone as quick as it came,” the daemon in his mind said. Kurai nodded slightly and slipped his revolver back into its leathery home at his hip. “Well, you needed an awakening anyway. The wind’s been getting wilder, and I’m sure it would’ve knocked you off the horse and right onto yer ass closer to Kirkwood. Just look at those swirlin’ clouds over there.”
Kurai looked down the winding road and over the dancing trees at the darkened sky. The clouds really were swirling around, gathering about where the town was sure to be. Lightning lit the darkness periodically, sometimes like machine gun fire. He sighed and slipped his hands into his pockets, starting his walk to Kirkwood.
“Don’t worry, bucko. I’m sure that multi-eyed monstrocity will find us up ahead. You know, the slight calm on this adventure couldn’t last forever. Kos, Kosm, the universe, or whatever the hell don’t work that way. Not for you anyway, ol’ prince of darkness.” The daemon chuckled. Kurai shook his head.
“The universe doesn’t give a damn about us. We’re just specks of dust on a speck of dust swirling around in a vacuum.”
“That’s the spirit, buddy. Doom and gloom! That’s our way to the top! Embrace the darkness!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Kurai yawned. Hunched over the cyborg horse, he pushed on a rectangular shaped indentation on its side. The spot clicked and popped out from the body of the horse. Kurai reached into the circular portal inside the item tray and pulled out the item bag he had stowed there. He opened the fist sized bag and shoved his hand in, halfway up his forearm, feeling around for a snack. “Ah, here we go,” he pulled out a sleeve of crackers, strapped the item bag to his belt, then continued on, popping a few crackers into his mouth, savoring the saltiness.
“So, what do you think is going on up ahead, boss? Think those Greater Fiends are using the town as a testing ground for some new mashed up monster? Or maybe some hurricane making doomsday device?”
“At this point...I doubt it,” Kurai popped another cracker into his mouth then continued in his mind, “I can’t think of the last time we found a clue to where those fuckers are hiding or what they’re doing. If it wasn’t for the fiends that woke me from the shrine, and that damned bandaged man, I wouldn’t be thinking that some group of intelligent, powerful, fiends were somewhere out there plotting the downfall of man. I’ve actually been questioning it a lot these days.”
“Oh yeah? Is that right?”
Kurai nodded, “everything so far has been either the work of a few nasty fiends, or some power hungry asshole human. Gangsters strangling life out of the poor, queens embracing fiends with minds addled in madness, caverns of long slumbering beasts awoken by mining operations. The world has moved on from my time, but not much has changed.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right, there are still so many humans out there that deserve to be stomped underfoot and torn to pieces! Let’s hunt them down, feed on their flesh, run wild! Let’s become the change this world needs! Let’s cull the herd!”
Kurai grumbled and chewed with more force in each bite. He bit the inside of his cheek and cursed under breath while his daemon chuckled.
“What’s so wrong with cutting them down, darky? They walk around with false smiles while cursing you behind your back. They shake your hand and offer warmth, while thinking of the best way to take you for all you’re worth, to use you up until they feel your usefulness has expired. They toss you aside and move on to the next host. Harshness is written in their DNA, hatred towards those who are different runs in the blood. The world would be better off without mankind gnawing away at it.”
“Maybe…” Kurai ran his tongue over the cut on the inside of his cheek, enjoying the taste of blood, then continued eating more carefully, while at the back of his mind he could feel the darkness inside of him writhing with delight. There was no more talking as he walked on the cobblestone road, bracing himself against the wind as it roared louder and louder about him, as the rain began to pour from the obsidian clouds and thunder boomed through the trees.
The sun had begun to set by the time Kurai stepped foot in range of the watchtowers at the entrance of Kirkwood. Lights mounted underneath their cylindrical tops clicked into high beam mode forcing him to raise an arm against the blindening lights. “Well, that’s a warm welcome. Thank goodness we aren’t ants, or we’d be fried!”
“Like my eyes aren’t,” Kurai smiled and shook his head.
“Stop!” Someone shouted from a loudspeaker. “Not another step!” Kurai complied. He raised his hands and squinted against the sun-like beams.
“I come in peace!”
“What’s your name, and what is your business?”
“My name is…”
“Cloud,” the daemon whispered in his mind, “Cloud Strife.”
“Cause that doesn’t sound made up, like you looked at the stormy sky and thought of the struggles that come with a hurricane.”
“No, it’s a name from the ether, trust me, just go with it.”
“I’ve got four rail guns trained on you right now,” the woman shouted through the loudspeaker again, “name and business!”
“My name is Cloud...Strife,” Kurai said, “I’m a-”
“What was that? Louder!”
“My name is,” Kurai started, shouting, then shook his head, “look, I can hardly hear myself over this! I’ll keep my hands up and get closer, slowly, before this wind blows me away! How does that sound!”
After a moment where Kurai and his daemon could have sworn they heard someone laughing in the background, there was the sound of large gears grinding. “I’m opening the gate. Come on in, but keep your hands where I can see them. No sudden movements.”
“Okey dokey!” Kurai slowly made his way to the large gate as the rust colored door sank down below the ground. The daemon laughed at the few times where the wind kicked up to the point where it seemed it would take Kurai away, with how roughly his loose fitting coat caught the gusts, especially with his arms straight up, coat flaps open. He nodded at the four guards who awaited him on the other side.
“Damn,” Kurai could feel the eye designs on the sleeves of his coat go wide, a movement only he could see and feel, as the daemon spoke. “When she said railguns I didn’t expect the hand-held type. And look at those suits. This town must be really well off!”
“Who are you, and why are you here?” The silver eyes watching Kurai from behind a sliver of glass in her helmet were piercing. Her finger was on the trigger of the rail-gun she had trained on his chest.
“Cloud Strife,” Kurai tried on a gentle smile while the wind slapped his face with rain and yanked at his beard and the mountain of curls on his head, “I’m a fiend hunter, just going around, looking for work.”
“Is that right…” the silver eyes looked him over, lingering on the oversized revolver at his hip. “What sort of fiend do you hunt with that thing? Halfbreed strays on the outskirts of small villages?” The other guards laughed.
“I hunt whatever needs hunting, and use whatever I find lying around.” Kurai shifted in his feet. He felt the guards tense underneath their armored suits. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he shouted as the wind picked up, “but is there somewhere else we can do this, if you’re gonna keep picking at me? I lost my horse a ways back. I’ve been walking for miles. I’m about ready to collapse.”
The woman in charge looked down the road, at the darkness beyond their spotlights, then nodded towards the road behind them, “a few miles in, make a right at Elk, then a left into Mildew Square. There’s a caravan of merchants with their wagons parked there right now, can’t miss it. There’s a saloon in the square by the name of Midgar. Big black and red sign on it, and a big smoke pipe on top, can’t miss it. Head straight there. Don’t stop off somewhere else on the way. I’ll be able to find you no matter what,” she touched the side of her helmet, “but I prefer for things to go smoothly in my town. Head to Midgar, and stay put. I’ll be there in a few.”
“Alrighty, officer,” Kurai bowed slightly before slowly sliding his hands into his coat, under his armpits, shivering.
“Maybe try closing that thing.”
“That was a little scary, eh bub?” the daemon said.
“Too cold to be scared right now.”
“Makes ya wish you could fix weather controllers right about now, huh? Probably what’s wrong with this place. Humans, always thinking they know best, building things to manipulate their environments, only thinking about themselves.”
“They’re mostly relics,” Kurai thought back. “Everything deteriorates over time.”
“And yet you were just a heart shaped box sitting underneath a bed in a broken down hut for a century or whatever, and look at you now!”
“Yeah, look at me, cold, soaked, searching the continent for some assholes that might not even exist.”
“Cults have formed around lesser ideas, darky.”
“Lives have been wasted on smaller quests.”
“That’s the spirit, the dark broody spirit of shadowy tentacles reaching out from the void. Hold onto that, buddy. It might make ya a little more cynical, a little more mad, but there’s strength in madness. You know that more than most!” The daemon laughed all the way to Midgar.