Chapter 3: Midgar
“Another one, please,” Justin nodded at the bartender. Selinda filled another pint and brought it over.
“What are you doing down here with us little people?” she asked as she set the pint in front of Justin. “That rich boyfriend of yours too busy to play today?”
Justin tilted his head back and downed the ale without taking a breath then, after a sigh of satisfaction, wiped the foam from his lips. “You know what, that’s the same question I’ve got.” He rubbed his thumb against the side of the frosted mug, staring at the droplets left at the bottom. Golden, like the color of his dearly beloved’s eyes. “He’s asked me to stay with him, a bunch of times, and now it’s like he’s ignoring me.”
“Don’t you sleep with him every night you’re in town?” Selinda raised an eyebrow and leaned on the counter.
“I, haha,” Justin averted his eyes. He could feel the glow in his own cheeks, not from the alcohol, it took a lot to get to him, but from the image that popped into his head at the mention of sleeping with Peter. He could see Peter’s face turned up in ecstacy, almost taste Peter’s lips, and hear the sounds he made in bed. Justin shook his head slightly. “That’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean? Move in with him?”
Justin nodded, “yeah. Every time I’ve said no. Working with my family, traveling around the area, and across the continent, it’s what I do. I can’t just stop. I can’t just abandon them. Maybe the last time I said now was...the last time though.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Selinda tapped at the bar, “from what you’ve said before, it sounds like that man really does love you. I mean, it could just be that you’re the only one brave enough to go up into that mansion though,” she gave a little smile, joking only slightly.
“He’s a good guy. I know there’s a dark cloud over that place, but he’s not some dark money hungry fiend.”
“He’s a prince in the high castle,” Selinda said.
“Yeah,” Justin nodded.
“You’re his loverboy and emissary to the rest of the world.”
“Heh, I guess so.”
“So, what’s going on? Why the long face, the drinking, and being down here instead of in the arms of your man?”
Justin traced the shape of a heart on the wooden countertop with his finger, “there’s always a light on in his bedroom for me. Pete’s way of telling me I’ve always got a place to come back to. It’s small, but I can always catch a little sliver of that light when we pull up into Kirkwood. There’s only darkness in that mansion tonight.”
“It’s a bad day,” Selinda shrugged, “couple of weeks, really. This storm has been sitting over us, raining buckets on some days, just blowing things around and lighting up the sky on others. Maybe the wind crept into that old house and snuffed the light out.”
“Peter knew I’d be rolling back into town tonight. He wouldn’t just let the candle die out.”
“Maybe he fell asleep,” Selinda shrugged, sighed. “You’re overthinking it.”
“What if I’m not? Huh? What if I blew it with the one guy that gets me, who loves me as I am?”
“Like I said, from what you’ve told me before, I don’t think he’d just let go of you like that. Didn’t you say he was annoyed with you choosing your family business over him, but that he also understood? Didn’t that come from your mouth while you chugged down a bottle of gin on your own, like it was water?” She chuckled slightly. Justin smiled up at her a little but then brought his eyes back down to his empty mug.
“What if something happened to him,” Justin whispered.
“Are you buying into that whole deal with the devil in the Pale Castle thing now?” Oh come on,” Selinda laughed, hoping it covered the nervousness in her voice. The man sitting a couple of stools away from them looked over wide eyed, then quickly looked the other way and mumbled something under his breath. The rest of Midgar had quieted down, as if they’d all been listening in and had their stomachs churn at the mention of the Pale Castle overlooking Kirkwood.
Justin rubbed at the back of his neck, at the sudden goosebumps. He wanted to say something more, ask more, about the stories of dealings with some phantom up there, and why he always felt a jolt in his chest when someone mentioned the name of that place, but he decided to hold his tongue and shook his head, trying to shake the feeling off. “How old did Peter say the males in his family had to be before something from the top of that haunted hill came down to ferry them away? Peter’s birthday was just a few weeks ago…”
Midgar was filled with a flash of light. The sky boomed soon after. “I’ll...it’s cold gin time,” Justin said.
“Alright,” Selinda went off to grab a hold of Justin’s favorite cheap bottle.
Justin slid his mug away and looked around the bar, searching for Peter, as if he’d ever taken foot into Midgar before. There was no need when his cellar was always stocked, and the company outside of the mansion walls tended to be unwelcome to Pete. They all looked at him as some rich benefactor. Peter’s family helped to build the town up to what it was, and they were grateful for it, but couldn’t shake off the feelings that the rich lords of the manor held up apart from the rest of the town to look down on them like a child watching ants toil away. The people of Krik were thankful for the prosperity, but they felt like there was as much as a difference between themselves and Peter Cheltin, as there was between man and fiend, and between themselves and whatever lived up in the Pale Castle, the only building that stood on higher ground than Peter’s mansion.
“Here you go,” Selinda handed over a bottle of Gordon’s. “You gonna be alright?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Justin grabbed the bottle, “I’m sure he just forgot, or something. I’ll head over there and wake him.”
“Goodluck, Just,” Selinda whispered.
“Thanks,” Justin tilted the bottle to her then took a swig before heading for the door. At the swinging doors he stopped and looked back at everyone enjoying the night while a sense of worry bit him up inside. “Everything’s fine,” he whispered to himself then turned to leave just as someone else was walking in. “Uh, sorry about that,” Justin stepped out of the way of the haggard looking man, dripping wet with curls hanging over his face.
“It’s alright,” the stranger shrugged, “careful out there.”
“It’s not alright,” Kurai’s daemon made a sound in his mind like a criminal rattling something against the bars of their cell, “you’re soaked, you’ve got no clues on where the greater fiends are hiding, and the drunk almost ran you over. You should go out there, grab him by the hair and drag him off into the woods. Shouldn’t be hard to find some rope. Come on, you can tie him to a tree and use him for some target practice for your fists. You gotta have some kind of fun, enjoy life, live a little. Hell, maybe some hot thang in here would feel sorry for you, give you a ride. Wouldn’t that cheer you up? That’d cheer me up!”
Kurai looked around at the tables, half expecting to see the Bandaged Man sitting at one of them, staring back at him, through him, with that one dead-fish eye, but the mysterious character was nowhere to be seen.
“Fuck that guy,” the daemon scoffed. “He leads you around like a steak on a stick hangin’ in front of a dog. Where has that creepy fucker gotten us, huh?”
“Enough,” Kurai whispered, warranting a few confused looks from a couple at the table he passed by. He took a seat at a table by the bar and shivered. It wasn’t too long before a man sporting an obnoxiously large pompadour approached him.
“Well someone looks like a wet dog having a bad day.”
“I prefer wet fox,” Kurai smiled a little.
“Wet fox, hmmm, interesting, interesting. Well, the name’s Ryu. What can I do for ya? Would you maybe like a room, so you can freshen yourself up a bit, hmm? We can send a girl up to help ya relax if you’d like, or a guy if that’s what you’re into. We don’t discriminate around here, hmm.” Ryu looked Kurai up and down.
“Look, he thinks you need a romp too,” the daemon in Kurai’s head shouted and laughed.
“I’ll just have...something strawberry flavored for now,” Kurai said. “Wouldn’t want to get into any more trouble than I already am. I’m meeting someone here.”
“Alright, alright, suit yourself, don’t come crying to me when you sneeze up a lung, curly-cue. How about a Seventh Heaven?”
“If it’s got some strawberry to it, and it’s alcohol, sounds good,” Kurai gave him a thumbs up, then relaxed into the hard wooden chair when Ryu walked away. “Even this feels nice after riding horse-back for so long.”
“Well, maybe we should use some of the money you’ve collected taking down fiends to get an actual nice ride, eh? Crazy idea? Actually using that hard earned cash?”
“We’ve gotta save. Never know when we’ll need a lot of cash.”
“You can make a shit ton just about wherever you go,” the daemon hissed. “There’s always gonna be people looking to toss their life savings at whoever, can save their family, farm, town, or whatever from a bad fiend, and there’s always gonna be fiends around.”
“Were there always so many? I remember hearing stories about them, mostly of the smaller ones, the kind that know better than to get near humans, but I never got to go out and explore the world, to see what was out there. Things are very different from the stories I heard and read about back then. There are fiends everywhere. It’s one of the things that puts more weight to that big guy’s words, about great fiends conspiring against humanity and growing their numbers.”
“Eh, who knows,” the daemon grumbled. “It all sucks either way, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage! Badass monster huntin’ fiendies for dough! You could go after a few really bad ones and save up for a house, or, maybe even a castle! Yeah, yeah, think big! A castle, with a moat of fire around it, high tech laser systems guarding the entrance, and a harem of bosomy babes to drool over!” The daemon could be heard licking its lips in the back of Kurai’s mind. Kurai reached for the strawberry flavored mixed drink as soon as it was set on the table and gulped it down.
“Well, damn,” Ryu looked on wide eyed then laughed, “well then I guess I’ll get chya another, hmmm?”
“That would be perfect. Bring two,” Kurai nodded. “That’s tasty.”
“Alright, coming right up!”
Kurai nodded at the server, then began drumming lightly on the table with his nails. “Can you feel the weight on your shoulder, fair-weather friend, it’s getting colder.”
“Ever wonder where we get all this stuff from, Kurairai? The jingles, the songs, the fake names?”
“There other worlds than these,” Kurai’s thoughts trailed, filling him with a sense of dejavu.
“Even that, right there,” the daemon jumped at him, “that, where did that come from? It could be us, but, it feels like it’s from somewhere, but I’m sure we haven’t read it in a book or whatever.”
“Some people say we go to different places when we die,” Kurai scratched at his scruffy beard then wiped some of the rain water out of it. He ran a hand back through his curls then shook the water off his hand. “What if there really are unseen places. Other worlds out there, and this weirdness I’ve got touches it a little.”
“Weirdness? That’s what you’re calling the dark voice in the back of your mind now? That’s all I am to you now, eh? Weirdness? Heh. I need a drink.”
“Right on time,” Kurai said as Ryu came out from behind the bar and set two glasses of pinkish tastiness on the table. Kurai slid some coin across the table to him and nodded his thanks before taking a sip from one of the glass. “Ah, yeah, that’s some good stuff.” He sniffled. He heard the swinging doors creak and looked up, eyes meeting those of the silver eyed guard as she scanned the room then headed his way. He slid the second glass across the table, “care for a drink?”
Kurai could see her brow crinkle through the visor, “no thanks, I’ll have a beer,” she said as she waved Ryu over then took off her helmet and shook out her her.
“Ooo, this guard’s got quite the face,” the daemon whistled in Kurai’s mind.
“So...Cloud, was it? What the fuck happened to your horse?” She smiled at Ryu and thanked him for the Heineken, then turned back to Kurai, “the name’s Vale, by the way.”
“Some fiend bit its head right off,” Kurai sighed, sipped his Seventh Heaven.
“How did it manage to take down your ride without taking a chunk of you off with it?”
“...what?” Vale leaned forward, armored elbows on the table and shook her head. “Did you see the thing coming at chya and send your horse ahead as a decoy or something?”
“No. Believe it or not, I fell asleep at the reigns. Something about the repetitive sound of hooves on stone, I guess. I...sensed something. Felt it. Whatever I felt made me jump awake, right out of the saddle, just as that crocodile looking fiend jumped out of the woods and tore its head off.”
“Crocodile looking fiend?”
“Yeah, well, the head was like one anyway. Huge nasty teeth. If it wasn’t for this storm hanging over your town I’d still have oil and blood all over my face. That’s about all of it that I got to see though. Instead of scales, it looked like the things was made up of thick thorny vines and branches though.”
“That’s interesting...I’ve never seen nor heard of anything like that around there.” Vale sipped at her Heineken, looking him over. “You’re not really a fiend hunter, right? Walking up to a town with that weird getup, with those eyes on your coat sleeves, just that one revolver. You’re too laid back, too. Hunters are cold and calculating, or wild and rowdy. You’re none of that. You don’t fit the bill. That was quite a yarn though. How much do you make, as a traveling bard? Hmm?”
Kurai laughed then finished off his first glass and grabbed the next. “I’m no story teller. I can hardly talk to people on most days,” he shook his head, “and this isn’t just some revolver. It’s a big ass revolver,” Kurai patted the gun at his hip.
“My railgun and I see things differently…” Vale three back the last of her bottle. “Well, seeing as we’ve got such great security measures in place here to keep the monsters out you’d think we’d be all hippity to a bard passing through, toss a good amount of Dalla their way, but the band of merchants that pass through her pretty regularly take care of us with tales of the outside world. You know how it goes, share your wares, share your stories. That’s how most things are. The time of bards is dead. You don’t seem like the trouble making type though, so I won’t be giving you the boot, but I wouldn’t stay too long if I were you. This storm’s been hanging over us for about two weeks or so now. The drainage isn’t gonna hold forever, and I’m not sure if or when someone would be able to come out and fix that weather controller.”
“So, I’m good to stay, but you’d like me out as soon as possible, is it?”
“Smart bard,” Vale brushed her short hair back then slipped on her helmet, “I’ll still be keeping my eye on you. I’m not so sure about your crocodile story, but we’ll see.”
“Careful out there, don’t catch a cold,” Kurai whispered as Vale walked away.
“Don’t chya wish you could fix a weather controller now, bard-man?” The daemon laughed in his head. “Let’s go string some tales, dancin’ and singin’ in the rain! Oh, if only mom could see you now!”
“There’s always work for a hunter.”
“Not in a town that can afford to have big fancy gates and give all its guards hand-held railguns.”
“Happy now that I haven’t blown off everything I’ve made?”
“Yeah, yeah, okay. Good call there, boss.”
“Hey, Ryu! I’ll take a room!”
“And a girl, please, pretty please! Don’t you wanna wrap your tendrils around some curves!”
“A room, and a burger please.”