There was another knock on the door to Kurai’s room. Kurai looked at his clothes, still drying off. “Just a second,” he said as he got up. Another knock. “Be right there,” he said, louder, grabbing his long coat. The ashen eye design on the shoulder facing him blinked as he touched the dark garment and draped it over his shoulder before heading to the door. He opened it up a crack.
“Ah, it’s...ah...sorry, I’m really bad with names,” he shot Vale, the guards-woman a smile. Her cheeks were already a little rosy, but the redness deepened from the flash of teeth. “What can I do ya for?”
“What indeed,” Vale leaned towards the door, trying to get more of a peek into the room, but Kurai closed it a little more, so that only his eye could be seen. “My shift just ended, and while I sat down to throw back a few drinks with the boys I thought, I wonder what kind of stories that new bard passing through has for us. And well. Here I am.” She threw her arms out matter-of-factly.
“You know, I wasn’t joking when I said I’m not a yarn weaver.”
“That’s alright, no one’s asking you to knit anything,” Vale let out a little chuckle, “come on, I’m sure you’ve got some good stories up your sleeve.”
“How about we let her in and show the hot n’ tipsy lady a little something instead, eh?” The daemon cackled as Kurai looked Vale over, as if he could see through her armor, before shaking the thought out of his head.
“I’m not much for talking to a crowd,” Kurai said, “besides, my clothes are all soaked. I’d just like to get some shut-eye while it dries off. I’ll leave in the morning.”
“Clothes drying? Hmmm?” Vale leaned to the side, tilting her head slightly, as if she could get a better look at Kurai through the small opening.
“H-hey, weren’t you the one who wanted me out as soon as possible?” Kurai looked down the hall. Vale straightened up.
“Can’t a lady enjoy the company of a stranger before then? If you’re really not a bard, at least tell me about one of your hunts. Someone who runs around with a huge old Wesson strapped to his hip, and says he hunts fiends, has to have some kind of story to tell.” She put her hands on her hips, giving Kurai a stern look, “unless that big thing is just your idea of a way to overcompensate while running from town to town, trying to pick up girls. Is that what’s going on? Is there some poor little Kirkwood girl in there with you right now? Is that why you won’t open the door or come out?”
“Haha damn, she sounds like quite the handful when she’s got a few drinks in her,” the daemon thought, “even bringing your little member into it!” The daemon went on laughing in Kurai’s head. Kurai sighed and rolled his eyes.
“You’ve got me all wrong,” he said.
“Prove it,” Vale glared. “How do I know my guesses aren’t right in the money, huh? Fiend hunters don’t run around with just the clothes on their back and a handgun. I checked your steed’s storage slots, there was nothing in there either. No rifle, or whatever, no bags, wearing some jacket with stuff down the arms like you’re into the occult or something. You’re either a bard, or some creepy fiend worshipper.”
The daemon’s laughter in the back of Kurai’s mind grew louder with each sentence from Vale’s lips, until the internal uproar was almost deafening. “Occult! She thinks you tell stories, or fuck fiends!”
Kurai cocked his head to the side. “Well, I’d say hiring me to hunt a fiend for ya would be proof enough, but if there aren’t any monsters lurking about… how about we set that mind of yours straight with a challenge, eh?”
Vale scrunched up her nose, then raised an eyebrow. “A challenge? Arm wrestling isn’t gonna show me that you can hunt beasts.”
“Arm wrestling, good one,” Kurai rolled his eyes while the daemon in his head laughed. “I mean in that vein, you could put me up against your best brawler or whatever.”
Vale went wide-eyed, then bent over in laughter. “I’m sorry, but, picturing you, thin as you are, facing off against Barrett, even if he didn’t have that gatling-gun replacement for an arm,” she shook her head, laughing some more, holding her belly.
“It’s a deal,” Kurai’s eyes were like daggers, piercing through Vale. It sent a shiver down her spine.
“Oh my, you really are serious. Well, I’d say come on down when you’re ready, but you said your clothes need to dry…”
“I’ll be down in five minutes.” Kurai slammed the door shut.
“Woah there, settle down, beanpole,” the daemon chuckled. “It’s just like before you went mad, way back then. They all thought you were a wimpy little skeleton too! Frail, hollow, brittle! Ah, but you shouldn’t be brawling some little human, right? Doesn’t that go against your whole thing, about just fighting fiends and bad guys?”
Kurai shrugged. “It’s been a while since the last fight. My scrawny limbs could use a little workout.”
“Scrawny, he says. Scrawny! Is your ma’ whispering in your ear now? Teasing you like she did way back then? Before they dragged her off and sold her to the wolves?”
Kurai clenched his fists and focused his rage inward. He wanted to punch something. Tear someone apart. Rage against the bullshit world that never took him seriously until he’d gone mad, the world that had beaten down the strong woman that was his mother, before tossing her away as a sacrifice to a pack of fiends. The daemon’s laughter quieted.
“Hey, calm down mister darkness. Don’t look at me. I’m not the one who filled the world with crap faces and dick brains. We didn’t start the fire. It was always burnin’, since the world’s been turnin’.”
Kurai shook his head then laughed into the darkness of the empty room.
“This is the guy I’m supposed to tussle with?” The baritone came from the dark-skinned man sitting at the bar with a large mug of beer that looked small in his large hand. On his thigh he rested his replacement for a right hand, a six barreled minigun. His riotous laughter filled the bar as everyone turned to watch the commotion.
“Yep, that’s him,” Vale smiled from where she stood beside the burly man. “That’s him. Cloud, I’d like you to meet my friend Barret.” She patted the heavily muscled shoulder and smiled. “And look at that, your clothes don’t look wet at all, bard.”
“Where are we gonna do this?” Kurai asked from the bottom of the stairs, hands in his pockets, unperturbed.
Vale took a step back and raised an eyebrow. “Really? You still wanna duke it out with this beast,” she patted Barret’s shoulder a few times, “after looking into the eyes of the monster himself? The womanizing bard got some guts?”
“I told you, I’m a friend hunter. If this guy’s the closest you’ve got to a fiend, as wimpy as he looks, I’ll take him on.”
Barrett set his mug down and tugged his shades down his nose, looking wide-eyed at Kurai over their rims. He threw his head back and laughed louder than before, bringing to mind an ogre who was cheerful over the coming slaughter. He clapped his thigh and leaned over on the barstool, somehow not tipping it over with the sheer weight of his heavily muscled body, “you’re a cheeky little bastard, aren’t chya? Either you really do hunt monsters, or you’ve got some trick up those long sleeves of yours. I like it! Hell, most would at least be shaking in their boots just from the sight of me! As they should! As you should!” Barrett filled the bar with more laughter.
“Well, we just have to clear away some tables and you two can have at it,” Vale said, waving an arm towards the rest of Midgar. “Of course, my money’s on Barret.”
“That’s right, baby! Barret’s got this!” Barret got up out of the stool as he shouted and threw his big arms into the air, waving them around like he was up on a stage. “Come one, come all, to watch Barret lay the smackdown on another one! Oh yeah!”
“Alright, come on, clear the middle,” Ryu said, waving his arms around, “you know how it is. It’s time for a rumble! I’ll be taking your bets, of course!” Ryu beamed, flipping his pompadour around, like this was all he’d been waiting for all night. Like clockwork, everyone got up, pulled their chairs and tables away from the middle of the room, moving away from the center like ripples in a pond.
“That’s right, make way!” Barret walked towards the opening space, his hulking form shook tables with every step.
Kurai looked over at the smiling Vale before making his way to the makeshift arena as well. He could feel the eyes of Midgar’s patrons as they looked at the beast of a man, Barret, then at his own thin form before running to Ryu to place a bet. Barret looked to be a few inches taller than him, and must have been twice Kurai’s weight. It was obvious even while he wore his long coat and his loose black jeans. If Barret had tried to slip Kurai’s clothes on, every bit would tear at the seams, which is what he imagined might have happened to the big man’s sleeves, turning his shirt into a tank top. Kurai stopped a few feet from the hulk of a man, where he stood in the center of the ring.
“Well look at you, standing so close to me and not even batting an eyelash!” Barret pointed his gun arm at Kurai, “you’ve got a stupidly huge ego, or you’re a grade A idiot! I’ll fix you up real good though! Barret never loses!” He flexed his biceps, and Midgar went wild with laughter and cheers. There were a few shouts of, “get him,” and “he’ll be out in ten seconds, flat,” from the small crowd.
“Ten second? Look at him, he’s like a twig compared to Barret. Two seconds!”
“Fifteen seconds, like when he faced off against that cyborg. Remember that? Practically ripped him in half! Took a bit for the metal joints to give though. Poor guy was just a crying torso afterwards,” someone laughed.
“Well we can all agree it’ll take less than a minute. This Cloudy guy doesn’t look a quarter as tough as that one mutey Barret went up against last year. What was he, part crab, part crocodile, part bird, or something?”
“You hear that,” the daemon snorted, “think the bets are all on how fast he’s gonna take you out! And when did these people get so hostile? Is that just what happens when a chocolate beefcake shouts in a room? What are ya gonna do, boss? You wanna use some of my demon juice to wipe the floor with this guy? I don’t think you’re gonna be getting far without a little fiend blood, a bit of monster strength and gusto, some vavavoom from the dark side!”
Kurai ignored the crowd along with the internal monologue of the daemon, and turned to Vale where she stood at the edge of the ring, hands on her hips, smiling with such a look of content in her eyes. “Rules?” he asked.
“Well, don’t go killing each-other,” she smiled. “No crotch shots, and try not to bust each other’s pretty faces too much, alright?” She winked. Barret laughed.
“Cheeky when she’s off duty, eh?” the daemon said. “So, come on bucko. Tap into the darkness! I’m right here, just open a window and let me stick my head out for some air! Don’t just use me to dry off your clothes then toss me aside like an old rag!”
Kurai took on a fighting stance, right leg back slightly, left hand in a loose fist pointed down towards the floor, right hand by his chin. Barret watched him, just standing there like an imposing statue. Vale pulled a timer out of the satchel at the hip of her armored suit and held it, her thumb out.
“Alright, you boys ready?” Vale raised a brow.
“You know it, baby,” Barret laughed and pounded on his chest.
Kurai gave a thumbs up.
“Alright then, on the count of three, two, one, fight!” Vale shouted and started the timer. The patrons of Midgar shook the bar with their roars of excitement.
“Come on, little man,” Barret stepped forward, gun-arm behind him like a heavy club, his other hand out in front, giving Kurai a thumbs down.
Kurai skipped forward like a fox pouncing on its prey and punched Barret right on the knuckles. Barret winced and stepped back, shaking out his fist.
“What the-,” before Barret could say another word, Kurai punched him in the chest, making the giant of a man groan in pain and stumble. He swung his gun-arm at Kurai’s head, but the curly-headed hunter was too quick. While the wide swing ran through empty air, Kurai wove around Barret’s arm and punched him in the stomach and side before jumping away as Barret coughed and grabbed at his stomach.
The patrons of Midgar stared in awe, mouths agape, at the spectacle.
“Did you see that?” a woman whispered as Barret tried to regain his bearings.
“That was so fast,” a man by the bar muttered while some patrons blinked wildly as if trying to reset their eyes.
“He got Barret good,” another rasped as the monster of a man stomped forward, gritting his teeth. Barrett looked around the room, his eyes like daggers, full of shock and rage, before charging at Kurai.
Kurai sidestepped and caught Barret just below the ribs with a swift kick.
Barret lost his breath as shin met side. His eyes bulged. He swung his gun-arm at Kurai, but the fiend hunter ducked under the sluggish attack easily and planted a few quick blows into Barret’s gut. Barret dropped to his knees with a thump.
“Timber,” Kurai whispered, turning to Vale. “Satisfied?”
“W-well, uh,” Vale stammered and took a step back, forgetting the stopwatch ticking away at the seconds in her hand.
Kurai walked over to the bar. The only sound in Midgar was that of Kurai’s footfalls, and Barret’s heavy breathing as he watched the man in black walk away with half the bag of bets placed against him.
“Use some of that to get everyone a round,” Kurai nodded at Ryu then headed for the stairs.
Justin finally moved from where he stood frozen at the bar’s entrance and followed.
“Hey, you,” Justin called after Kurai. “Hey, Cloud, was it?” he said, louder, when the curly haired man didn’t turn around. Cloud stopped with a hand on the door to his room, as if he’d just recognized his name, and turned to acknowledge his pursuer.
“What is it? Want my autograph or something?”
“You’re a fiend hunter, aren’t you? I saw what you did back there. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it happen with my own eyes, but you took down the beast like it was nothing. Like you could have done it with your eyes closed and a hand behind your back.”
“Maybe I could have…”
Justin took a step back, his breath catching in his throat. Maybe it was just the darkness of the hallway, lit by a few oil lamps, or the shock of the skill the man had shown against the strongest man in town, but he could have sworn for a second that Cloud had grinned with the teeth of some wild animal, or a fiend. Either way, Justin knew that the unearthly feeling that hit him would linger like a stain on his psyche. He struggled to take a step forward as his body locked up, like getting anywhere closer to Cloud could lead to an early grave. He hesitated to open his mouth and ask for the hunter’s help in rescuing his beloved, but then the thought of what could await him in the castle, and the woods before it, helped him shake off some of the fear.
“I’d like to hire you, Cloud.”