The official count is 19296, but I have more I haven't validated yet. You'll get to meet a steampunk cyborg of a former 1700s opera singer in chapter 7. But now, here's a finished Chapter 6...
So far Untitled - Chapter 6: Harona's Tale
At three in the morning, any place in the city begins to seem chilly. Autumn was upon the citizens of Washington, but most were comfortably asleep in their warm beds, dreaming of their uncomplicated lives where everything makes sense because the media tells them so.
A chilled wind whipped across a large patch of grass, passed a large brick castle, and ended at the base of a huge obelisk where a lone figure blended with the shadows. Despite the fact she could not suffer from cold, she wrapped her arms around herself and rocked slowly.
A guard passed by her without even noticing that a small girl, clad in layers of gray aprons, was watching the side of the hill that led up to the obelisk. Even though she was partially lit by a spotlight in front of a flagpole, she had the power of "camouflage by disassociation," so the guard saw her as just a normal shadow mixing with the movement of the flags above.
Harona had a lot of time to think.
Not just for the last few days, but in general. Even though she could articulately communicate by a series of subtle gestures and eye movements, people often ignored her because the only sound she could make from her tongueless mouth was a croaking roar. Add to the fact she was only partially human, many treated her like a trained monkey, or at least she felt that way. Her complaints of the Soot Man seemed appropriate out in the open, but secretly, she envied and was incredibly curious how he kept moving about, and how he killed. Harona had many depths of appreciation for those who were skilled in the art of harvesting souls.
Harona had no regrets. Unlike many of her sisters, she could remember her past life, and it was so horrible, and she felt so powerless, she never once looked at the whole thing as a positive experience, and had no fond memories of her life as a human.
Daughter of a Baltimore fishmonger, she was sold to another family as an indentured servant, who in turn, put her to work at a local clothing mill. When the mill burned down, she was sent to work in the family's fish processing plant where she gutted and skinned thousands of fish daily. When she was 12, she was so quick with the fillet knife, she boasted she could cut and gut faster than three men in one hour. And she was right. The speed in which she used a knife became a local legend. Instead of using a knife and a hand, she expertly cut and gutted a fish with two knives, and added some flair with some twirling and tossing. By age 13, she was making some side money at waterfront bars, hanging out with the seedy labor that Baltimore is still famous for.
But her life took a deadly turn when she was an unwilling witness to a brutal murder of two men, and when the killer found out about it, he caught her, cut out her tongue, and left her for dead. Lady Vapora found her, and offered her the Crossing. Harona's life ruined, she crossed over, and went on to become one of Lady Vapora's most skilled assassins. She fought on the battlefields of when most people call "The US Civil War," but what was really part of an ongoing onslaught between demons and angels which had started what mundanes as The French Revolution, was a major part of the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish War, and stopped only after World War I. World War II was mostly a mundane thing, but the atomic bomb, which was the end result of a 85-year "nudging" (where dimensional travelers from other places "nudge" a civilization in subtle ways to their own end), changed the face of all Gate Keepers on the planet Earth.
Lady Vapora considered her to be an essential tool for keeping the peace, and in the early days, there were so many opportunities that Harona never had time to rest; nor did she want to. Lady Vapora had nothing but praise for her. While the Gate Keepers kept the peace, Harona's anger was never satiated, and her killings became more and more brutal. During the wars she was very useful, but after 1945, her kind was seen more of an embarrassment, as Gate Keepers wanted a neutral stance, and she was definitely not of a diplomatic breed. But as time went by, her quest for the ultimate kill began to starve. The Gate Keepers focused less on killing, but preventing the need to kill in the first place. Harona's place in the future became uncertain. She became reckless, and when Lady Vapora handed over part of her territory to Lady Sarcastia, Harona was traded like a baseball card, and all but dismissed to menial tasks. Harona felt forgotten and left behind when Lady Vapora carved up her territory, leaving Lady Sarcastia most of the DC area down to Virginia Beach. Bored and restless, the hours Harona was not using her knives, she studied martial arts with a Harajuku who had studied under a dragon known as Fu Lin.
She wondered what her former martial arts teacher would think about the Soot Man. Her Shinto Harajuku trained under the master of all dragon fighters during the era of Mutsuhito's Meiji Restoration, when the dragons assumed human form most of the time, and became embroiled in human affairs. The Harajuku introduced Harona to the art of "bending." Bending, which was a dragon-bourne art, was the act of actually twisting the fabric of reality itself, which resists heavily, and why it is almost impossible for a human to do, but essential for the serpentine dragons to fly. But bending was terribly dangerous, and in the wrong hands, could ripple the fabric of reality so hard, it would tear apart anything in its path for up to several yards. Harona wanted to learn this art so badly, her Harajuku sensed a desperation that would lead to a disastrous end, so instead, she tried to teach Harona a deep inner peace, which Harona only followed, hoping it would lead to learning more about bending.
Through her lessons with the Harajuku, Harona all but worshipped her master's master, and got to perform for him many times. The venerable old dragon, now in human form like most dragon folk on Earth, seemed to be appreciative, but distant. Harona tried everything to get closer to Fu Lin, including making friends with Fu Lin's hatchling, whose human form was a small yet precocious Asian girl. Her former life as the daughter of a prolific fishmonger, she had once had many small brothers and sisters, and they got along quite well. Keeping up with Fu Lin's daughter was daunting, as she did not believe in any sort of social etiquette whatsoever. Add to that, she aged like a dragon, and even though she aged almost ten Earth years, she still acted as if she was 4. Harona's Harajuku thought this would be a good training in patience, and for a while, it was working.
But then, Fu Lin was mysteriously murdered, along with his wife, and her Harajuku exiled herself in mourning. Fu Lin's daughter was taken into hiding, and Harona spent the next few years wandering San Francisco as a beatnik. Now feeling like she had no direction, Harona got fed up during a poetry reading, set fire to the entire bar, and fled to other dimensions, looking for obscure teachers to teach her some of the most razor-sharp arts of fighting she could find, and perhaps, bending. But she would never be taught bending, for she was human.
But she was changing.
Over time, her anger and obsession mutated her, and she became what Gate Keepers called, "morphous." Morphus is a well-heard of, but still rather uncommon, state of a Gate Keeper where their form starts to divert from being human into a twisted monstrosity influenced by deep symbolism of their own memories. Thus, Harona's layers of dress and aprons became like the gills of fish mixed with steel blades. Her long, braided hair was a tribute to her Harajuku master. She was so focused on learning bending, she barely noticed the change. It was when she was caught and returned to Lady Sarcastia that her new look was pointed out to her. But she never got to see, because she would be entombed in granite for the next 30 years.
She was labeled "a drifter," a Gate Keeper with no master, and her deadly skills lead to several coverups and diplomatic mishaps in other dimensions. She was captured and imprisoned in stone where Donnabel was her "package master," making sure Harona was wiped down and dusted. Donnabel had recently Crossed, and Harona was her first real assignment. If it wasn't the the fact Donnabel honestly felt sorry for her, talked to her stone figure daily like she was a person, Harona would probably still be entombed in granite, but Donnabel's pleas led to a probationary period where Harona did her best to stay "good," although it was more for Donnabel's sake than Lady Sarcastia's. Donnabel became good friends, and although she seemed to talk AT people more than with them, Harona at least appreciated the company: it helped her forget.
So there she was, by the Washington Monument, a mere shadow of her former glory, and she knew almost none of the Gate Keepers now knew who she used to be, except for Lady Vapora, who ignored her, and Lady Sarcastia, who pretended like nothing had ever gone wrong in the first place. Everyone else assumed she was just "that mute girl," and only Sad Fairy and Donnabel ever listened to her, even if they didn't always agree, at least they reacted like she spoke.
Oh, there was one other Gate Keeper who had spoken to her like an equal. But she defected, didn't she? The Half Breed. The One We Do Not Speak Of. And even thought the Half Breed had befriended them all, her half-demon side finally took control and then one fateful day...
A herd of Shiante galloped past her, and startled her. To the mundanes, they looked like a bunch of tumbling pieces of black plastic trash bags in the wind, but Harona was much more concerned about Shiante movement since the death of Winnidread. She didn't know Winnidread very well, but she did know that a death of a Gate Keeper by the hands of another was very rare, and incredibly unnerving. She tried to think of the last time she saw Winnidread. Yes, it was when the Half Breed went missing. Winnidread had been one of the girls sent to trace where she might have disappeared to. The Half Breed and Winnidread never got along, because Winnidread didn't trust anyone, preferred to work alone, and considered the Half Breed untrustworthy, even though she took the Oath of Crossing, and drank from the Cup of Knowledge. Winnidread had gotten into many fights with the Half Breed, and so when she vanished, and sooty pieces of her were found scattered over an Anacostia neighborhood, many Gate Keepers sucked in their breath through teeth and cringed. Not just because her end was so unlikely, but so violent that it was shocking. It was only the calmness of Lady Sarcastia who figured out what had happened. The Soot Man, tired of being expunged, was back and now trying to kill those who banished him over two dozen times since the late 1800s.
But something didn't feel right. How could a man who had no real form possess a Shiante-controlling amulet?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the singing of a homeless man in the distance. He was singing about how the End of Days would bring the final war between angels and demons, and while such songs weren't uncommon among mundane folk, it seemed odd this man was singing so loudly at 3am with the wind blowing around. Harona huddled closer to her package, and then smirked at her own foolishness.
The package was over 500 feet tall, and was so obviously not part of the landscape, it was one of the most blatant examples of how mundanes can be pretty much convinced of anything. A giant granite Egyptian obelisk right smack in the middle of a city with Greco-roman architecture and modern buildings. It towered, no LOOMED over the city because there was a rule "somebody had made" that no building in Washington DC could be taller than the US Capitol. This was not true of course, since the obelisk was a giant ley-line energy concentrator for collecting the Earth's natural energy fields, known as ley lines, and sending it to the subterranean world where it powered whatever it powered, and that wasn't anyone's business what it powered. Ley lines criss-cross the earth, and usually cross near hills, which often end up being churches, castles, forts, and other buildings. This structure was blatantly artificial, however, and altered the flow of many lines in such a powerful form that they not only crossed over it, they formed nesting rings that were scarcely understood. All the Gate Keepers knew was that it was great form opening gates, keeping them open, and closing unwanted gates without sacrificing souls. It was one of several such objects in the world, but its sheer size powered most of the eastern coast from Nova Scotia to Florida since 1885. It would take almost 50 years until its rival, the Empire State Building, was needed to take up the slack caused by the explosion of travel to Earth to and from other dimensions.
But it still needed guarding. Its central location, combined with its huge draw of power always caused strange rifts and visitors. And it attracted Shiante in great numbers. So a homeless man singing about wars with angels and demons in its glowing presence was cause for a closer investigation. She bolted from her assigned position, and dashed down the hill before the homeless man could see her. Maybe this wasn't what lady Sarcastia would approve of, but Harona was getting so bored, she was thinking she might toy with the man to pass the time. Maybe dart back and forth at the corner of his vision, only to vanish as he turned his head.
But before Harona got to the man, the man stopped singing, and started to gag and choke. His eyes bulged out and he started to cough a dark cloud. The cloud started to take on shape as the homeless man gagged and coughed. Harona was confused at first, and then the numb realization of what she was witnessing stopped her dead in her tracks. Harona was in the middle of a grassy field on the side of a hill; there was nowhere for her to hide, so she just watched in morbid fascination. She knew this attack. She knew there was only one figure who would kill a man in such a way.
The Soot Man.
The air started to smell like smoke as the Soot Man coalesced over his victim. In his natural form, he looked like a charred skeleton, partially wrapped in waves of ash and soot like ribbons of tattered cloth. The thing that made him so hard to capture was he could turn into smoke almost instantly and blow away so thin, you couldn't see him, but he'd collect around you, enter your lungs, and constrict you. The Soot Man choked his victim from the inside out.
Harona still liked watching things die. Men, in particular. A few moments ago, she thought nothing of this man except for entertainment, but now, seeing the Soot Man perform his work, and old part of her awoke with the passion of her former self. The art and the skill of torture. The expression of disbelief on the victim's face. As Harona watched with lurid fascination at the Soot Man drain energy from his victim, old feelings from assassinations she had done earlier bubbled to the surface. She had many memories of gleeful slayings on the battlefields of the US Civil War and World War 1, along with some of the more personal stalkings and eventual elimination of her marks.
Scarcely aware of her exposure, she crouched on the side of the hill, knees to elbows, mouth slightly agape, and watched the Soot Man feed. He was a rogue harvester. A real, honest-to-goodness rogue harvester of souls. Who did he work for? Why does he keep coming back? Whatever was left of her dried heart was racing. She didn't even fear he would see her. Often, on her travels, she considered becoming a rogue harvester, just to fill that insatiable lust for killing, but she had seen too many rogue harvesters go insane, and knew the quest was unending... and she had enough of one empty sucking at her soul's belly -- she didn't need another.
She watched the Soot Man wrap his sinewy form around the dying man's body, and drain the life force that drives all walking chunks of mean in this dimension. She watched an actual soul being consumed, and while it disgusted her, it also intrigued her. But when the process ended, and she sighed like a school girl who had just gotten her first passionate kiss, she realized that she was in great danger. The Soot Man was done feeding, and looking at her with eyes that glowed like dying embers.
And it thrilled her. She felt no love for Winnidread, but the thought of vengeance for one of her sisters was good enough. Lady Sarcastia would never approve, but the challenge was just too tempting. She wasn't doing it for her. In fact, she would prove to her, and Lady Vapora, that years of exile in stone and mundane tasks did not crush her spirit, but left it to smolder and erupt again.
Her eyes furrowed, and the air around her darkened. Her eyes flashed a deep blue, and her thin arms reached into the folds of a familiar set of cloth pockets, and her wiry hands pulled out two jewel-encrusted daggers. Her mind flashed all circuits, alighting memories of former kills, training by weird gods, and gutting fish with the speed like no one else. Her mouth split into a grim smile, and she rose with such little effort, it almost seemed like she was gently pulled up.
The Soot Man, if it was a man, looked at her with no expression. He waited to see what she would do.
For several minutes, the two of them stared at each other. Killer facing killer. The only emotion was a passionate thrill in Harona's soul. A sucking hunger that would be soon filled.
Harona knew that the Soot Man wanted her to make the first move. She would not give him the satisfaction. Usually the first to lose a fight is the one who loses patience. Harona could wait there all night, into the morning, and the next day if she had to; she was allowed here, he wasn't. She knew he'd be forced to make the first move. But she felt a prickle of impatience. She tried to push aside the distracting future predictions of glory. Lady Sarcastia would be pissed. Donnabel would shake her, out of fear of losing another friend. Sad Fairy would stop being so dismissive.
Lady Vapora might take her back.
"Are you going to stand there, or--" Harona started, but the Soot Man vanished into a thin puff of smoke. That's when Harona broke eye contact, and realized that this was not a typical battle. The Soot Man would probably materialize around her, and try and choke her. But she was not some Gate Keeper crossed from a bored college student, or some sad sack Lady Sarcastia fetched from an emergency room. She used to be the greatest assassin in the wars the Gate Keepers should have kept fighting. She had fought invisible opponents before; she had been trained to do so many times in many places. So she immediately sat down, and meditated. A small bulb of tactile psychic energy emanated from her. She knew that wherever the Soot Man started to materialize, she would strike. She breathed quietly, as the sphere grew several feet from her, and then several yards. She waited.
Something tickled her back. It wasn't a touch, but it was a warning. An assassin knows when she's being watched, and knew when something was trying to creep up on her from behind. Perhaps the Soot Man was trying to... and then it hit her. He didn't kill Winnidread.
The shock of this realization came almost too late as she leapt into the air, and as she spun around, she saw them coming down the hill. Not dozens of Shiante. Not hundreds. Thousands. And they were incredibly fast. They swarmed the grassy mound around the obelisk like a dark liquid. She had never seen so many of anything coming to attack. Not at Shiloh. Not in Versace. Not at Normandy. And while each Shiante was not larger than a house cat, thousands of them coated the area like a tidal wave. Obviously, they were waiting for the Soot Man all this time.
She jumped backwards across the street, and jumped into an old tree. But she knew they were coming from the Smithsonian Mall behind her, from the streets of the city, and covered every inch of ground. They had surrounded her. For a moment, she balked in her mind this was not the battle of an assassin, but one of a slaughter, but she calmed her mind and turned the rising fear into a joyous determination. The oily fog of vicious tooth-welding weasels might be descending upon her in a mass that two daggers would scarcely make a dent in, but that only meant she had to think of something else. She had to get higher up. What was the tallest thing nearby?
Of course, that was now several hundred feet away and several thousand Shiante deep. But if she could get to the obelisk, she could scale up the top, and wait there until the sunlight drove most of them away. She didn't have long to think, as she heard the rustling of the trees around her, bending and snapping with the weight of their new dark leaves. The moonlight started to darken, and she tried to think of some way to distract the Shiante. What did she know about them?
Seconds of rapid thinking produced nothing useful. They couldn't fly. They couldn't cross water. They didn't eat peanut butter. They craved salt. They originally came from Africa, and came with the slaves. The ones in Scandinavia were white. There's a serious problem of them clogging sewers in New Orleans. They are inedible. They probably don't floss. Harona gritted her teeth, and realized she was panicking, which was no good. She tried to meditate in rational calmness, but the hissing and growling of the Shiante were almost going to smother her.
She recalled the Shiante on Marideath's head, and wondered what controlled them. How could she make them this docile?
"I once killed an entire legion of men," said a voice from her past. "The idiots were slow in their ranks. I knew I was cornered, and I couldn't go through them on any side. So I went over them. I danced over their heads as I slaughtered them one by one, hopping from head to head like Alice dancing over a field of giant mushrooms. Most were dead before they fell to the ground."
When the felt the hairs of the Shiante close to her face, she erupted from the tree into the seething swarm below her. She knew the only way was over them. A tendril of Shiante shot from the tree behind her, almost swearing like the mood of an octopus that just missed its catch, before dissolving into a disarray of tumbling chunks of glossy fur. Harona landed on the backs of several Shiante, and before the could turn to bite her, she had already leapt into the air, where a hump of Shiante followed her like a wave. She jumped from spot to spot with incredible speed and height, and in four graceful bounds, she stuck to the obelisk like a large fly, and started to climb.
But the Shiante were not giving up that easily. While their needle-sharp claws scraped and scrabbled uselessly on the smooth marble face of the obelisk, they started to pile up, and by sheer volume, the pile of them raised higher and higher after Harona as she scuttled up the obelisk mere feet away from the edge of the dark hungry mass. The Washington Monument became clad with the thick cloud of Shiante as Harona kept climbing higher and higher. She knew that her original plan to stay at the top was useless, and her mind rationally tried to determine what she would when she got to the top.
"Sometimes, the only way to face what you cannot face, is to keep moving," say the memory again, and with that powering her tired arms, she perched herself on the tiny pyramid top, and in one gigantic leap, shot straight into the air. She almost didn't make it, as several Shiante leapt upon her back and legs. But ash she flew into the frosty night air, she crossed one of the concentric rings that made a ley line, and while fairly harmless to things made of solid forms, to thinks like Shiante and even the Soot Man, they were deadly. The few Shiante that clung to her back and leg leapt off, and some fried like sizzling grease as she passed the cloudy band. She felt its power momentarily before finding herself alone and falling in darkness. "Assess all situations, and become grace." She knew that voice from her past, and was shocked it wasn't her Harajuku, but the voice of a former friend; the Half Breed.
Right, she thought, I am probably 700 feet in the air, and since I can't fly, this is a problem.
Her Harajuku once said that Ninja didn't fly, they simply moved in the air with grace in any direction. Harona spent a lot of time watching cats during her training, and instinctively, she looked for signs of the horizon to right herself. But the dotted lights seemed to be everywhere, and she didn't know if she was falling face down or sideways. Then she caught a glint of the water, and less than a second before she broke the surface, she arced into a beautiful swan dive, and vanished beneath the inky river with scarcely a ripple.
The Shiante parted, and the Soot Man never returned. It was quiet for a little while, and then a gangly girl carrying two steaming drinks walked up the hill, and sat on a bench.
"Harona?" she called out in the dark. "Harona?" She looked around anxiously. "Dammit, Harona. Don't be all Ninja on me and try and sneak up and scare me. The coffee place was closed, so I had to go ALL the way downtown to find this little middle eastern place off M street. My feet are killing me!" She paused again. "Harona?"
Without warning, a inky black streak zoomed past her lap, and spilled coffee all over the front of her coat.
"GODDAMN FUCKING SHIANTE!!!" she screamed, and then looked up when she saw movement.
You don't even know the half of it... signed a voice from a tree.
All text copyright 2005 Grig Larson, all rights reserved. No reprinting without permission