Chapter 17:

Logan's Story

The Life of Death

I never wanted to be back here. Every time I heard the chimes of the bells clanging against the glass of the door I got a sinking sensation in my stomach. It’d been so long since I walked out that door for good. Five years as of next month. I always celebrated my freedom with a small vacation. It was going to be a peaceful expedition up the mountainside this year, but in light of recent events it was looking like I’d have to postpone the trip. Bookmark here

Fragrance was potent within the store, shelves stocked with various candles and soaps enriching the air with their scent. A lone woman, her skin wrinkled to the point it looked like creased leather, stood behind the counter. Bookmark here

“I wondered how long it would be before you came stumbling back in here. What do you want, Logan? Y’know the boss won’t be very happy to see you.” Her dry lips barely moved as she spoke, the thin layer of skin coating them likely to tear if put under too much strain. Bookmark here

“Sorry Ma, but I don’t have time for small talk. I’m tracking someone and could use some help.” Bookmark here

“Only members of the clan can call me ‘Ma’. Unless you’re thinking of rejoining, it's ‘Kali Ma’ to you.” She squinted at me, waving a finger at me in disapproval. I shrugged it off without regard. Bookmark here

“There’s a judge in the city, as I’m sure you know by now. Big news always did have a way of making it to you after all.” I tested the water, attempting to ease past her reserved tongue. Ma was always clever at withholding information. She was the ears of the Litchi Clan, but also its vault. Bookmark here

“So, what if I know? My knowledge is only shared with members, not deserters.” She averted her eyes, continuing to work on the packaging of one of her candles.Bookmark here

Her shop was on the outskirts of Arcaya Square, a front for a darker system. I glanced at the door behind the counter, an entrance to the underground world that was run by the clan.Bookmark here

“You can stop looking at the door. You lost the right to enter when you walked out for good. What was it you were always spouting off?”Bookmark here

“That your ways were too shortsighted.” I said, stepping closer to the counter. Bookmark here

“Ah yes, the death whose thoughts were always in the clouds. You used to spend so much time thinking about what comes next. Your head was never in the moment, your mind only focused on the future. Almost got you killed a few too many times, eh?”Bookmark here

“I found a way to anger Pa quite often that way, didn’t I?” I flashed her a smirk, hoping to recreate some of the old banter we used to have.Bookmark here

Ma ceased her wrapping, her eyes staring down her pointed nose to glare at me. It seemed bringing up the boss was still a sore topic. She tapped her long, painted nails against the counter to fill the silence. The sound made the hair on my arms stand up, bumps slowly forming along them. She was a chilling woman, someone I forgot was to be feared. Bookmark here

“You shouldn’t be here Logan.” She hissed, her tongue visibly seething under her upper teeth. Bookmark here

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important. I’m looking for the judge, Aoki. She has something I’m looking for.” Bookmark here

“Something or someone?” There was a tiny glint of excitement in her eye as she drew closer, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Can you never stay out of trouble? I’m not sure what you're getting yourself into this time, but it must be big if a judge is kidnapping a human.”Bookmark here

“So, you do have information?” I followed her lead, lowering my volume.Bookmark here

“The clan sees and hears all. You of all people should know, yet we still didn’t possess the answers you were searching for back then. Any luck with that?”Bookmark here

“Stop changing the subject Ma. Tell me where Aoki took the girl.” My frustration was building. Bookmark here

Every second I stood in that store increased the chances of another member coming in. If I was seen here now after how I left things, it would start an altercation that would likely destroy half the block.Bookmark here

“I told you before not to call me ‘Ma’ anymore! Do it again and I’ll cut out your tongue. The only reason I haven’t killed you already is because of our old dealings. Don’t push your luck.” Ma radiated with hatred. It was amusing to hear her say she could kill me, no one in the clan was capable of that. Bookmark here

“Just tell me where Aoki is hiding. Give me that piece of information and I’ll leave you be.”Bookmark here

“The information will cost you. Ten souls, calm ones too. The new recruits aren’t ready for the red ones yet. Malifecs would give them too much trouble.” The master of bartering never offered up anything without gaining something in return. It was her cunning that had kept the Litchi Clan afloat for so many decades. Pa may be the boss, but Ma was the puppeteer. Bookmark here

“I’ve got seven on me, but they are fresh. They’ll be good for a few more days at least. I didn’t think you’d be charging so much. Tough times?” I revealed the vials inside my coat, pulling them out one at a time to prove they were filled with fresh souls. The blue wisps lazily brushed up against the glass as they floated within their container.Bookmark here

“More people are living longer, and more souls are choosing the life of a death. An imbalance is starting. Won’t be much longer until the clan will have to turn away new potential members to avoid starvation. Things would be easier if you didn’t selfishly claim such a large territory of the city after you left.” Ma carefully handled the vials, gently tapping the glass to watch each soul recoil in surprise. Bookmark here

“You know why I need so many souls. Don’t make me responsible for the faltering system put in place by Death. He’ll send the world into chaos before he adjusts his rein.”Bookmark here

“You’re right on the money with that one.” Ma brought out a box from below the counter, setting each soul in neatly. There was a piece of foam with twenty cutouts inside, each a perfect match for a vial.Bookmark here

“Bring me another seven souls next month and I’ll tell you what I know. Do we have a deal?” She placed a lid over the black box, resting her hands over top of it like a cat protecting its meal. Bookmark here

“If you’re okay with me showing my face here again then fine, we have a deal.” I extended my hand to shake on it, but she swatted it away. She never did like physical contact. Bookmark here

“I heard Aoki took the human to the Roku District. That’s everything I know. As I’m sure you remember we don’t have many eyes over there with all the crypts present, so I don’t know where she’s hiding out.”Bookmark here

“That’s enough to go on.” I brandished a wide grin to thank her, but she shook her head in annoyance. Bookmark here

“Get out of my shop already Logan, you have what you came for. I don’t know what you’re a part of this time, careful. You have a debt to pay after all.” Ma did well to veil her concern. She’d never outright say it, but every member of the clan is like her child. I suppose I would be considered her delinquent son.Bookmark here

I turned to leave, taking in a parting whiff of nostalgia as the candles’ scents filled my nostrils. The ringing of the bells against the door didn’t cause the same sinking sensation in my gut as it did when I arrived. Bookmark here

“Hey Ma, thank you.” I saw her face flush red in anger, but I shut the door behind me before I got another earful for not using her formal name. Bookmark here

Roku District wasn’t far, only a short walk from the shop. It was lucky for me too since trains never stopped in the slums. I made it a few blocks, the city’s beauty slowly deteriorating, before the scent of a death on my trail caught my nose. It was entertaining for someone to think they could follow me without my knowledge. No one ever got the better of me.Bookmark here

“Are you going to hide in the shadows all day?” Without any hesitation, I homed in on my pursuer’s location, swiftly arriving behind him. He had no time to react as I saw his shoulders stiffen under his frayed clothing. I would recognize his disheveled appearance and fiery red hair anywhere.Bookmark here

“Mind telling me why you’re following me Dex?” I whispered in his ear, getting a rise out of watching him jump away in terror. Bookmark here

“Y-You made a mistake showing your face back here.” Dex said, trying to hide the shaking in his voice. He was close in age to Milo, but acted much younger. If I was remembering correctly, he’d been a death eight, maybe nine years now. Bookmark here

“Did I? Is there something you plan to do about it, or do I need to show you another lesson like I did when I found you stealing souls for the clan in my territory?” I smiled, my expression ripe with malice. Feigning dark intentions had a way of bringing me delight.Bookmark here

It was so enjoyable to watch others cower before me that I couldn’t resist the urge to frighten my old pupil. Dex took a moment to gulp down his fear, resembling a snake struggling to swallow a bird’s egg whole.Bookmark here

“Why’d you come back? You haven’t stepped foot in this part of the city in years. Something big is happening, isn’t it? The elders have been talking behind closed doors for the past few days now.” Dex’s curiosity was always his undoing.Bookmark here

He ran into trouble more times than I could count on one hand. I liked that about him, his sense of wonder the main reason I used to let him cling to my hip every time I did a job for Pa. Those days were long gone however and Dex’s eyes were the proof. The admiration that once shone in them had dissipated, replaced by disdain and anger. Bookmark here

“It’s for your own good you stay out of it. This is bigger than the clan, understand?” I used the most intimidating voice I could muster. It was the only way anything ever got through to Dex. He was stubborn, only thinking of the consequences of his actions after he received them. A flaw of my own that I unintentionally bestowed upon him. Bookmark here

“It happened again, didn’t it? I know I’m right Logan, I heard whisperings of a human getting involved with a death from their meetings. Is that why you’re getting involved? I remember all the stories you used to tell. I forget nothing.” He was flustered, his words flooding out of him like a busted dam. His face twitched in discomfort as he awaited my response. I placed a hand in his hair, softly gripping his locks between my fingers. Bookmark here

“Go home Dex. Don’t get involved in something like this. It’ll only bring you pain.”Bookmark here

“But-”Bookmark here

“I said go home.” This time my response was icy, the words leaving my mouth like tundra air. It was enough to bring an end to Dex’s protests, his eyes falling to the rugged sneakers on his feet.Bookmark here

I stepped by, leaving him behind. I glanced over my shoulder and saw him make no effort to follow me, obeying my wish for him to stay away. Dex was tenacious as ever, but it brought me some peace to know that I was still capable of quelling his sense of adventure. He always did have too much of it for his own good. Bookmark here

The district line was just ahead, the smell of rotting trash and urine seeping into the surrounding area. Back when the city first started expanding, it was a common saying to hear ‘follow your nose to Roku District’. It would appear some things never changed. Bookmark here

“Now why would you bring a captive here of all places, Aoki?” I crossed into the new district, scanning the area for any hint that would lead me to her. Bookmark here

She was crafty, known throughout the Underworld as the master of strings. She wasn’t the strongest of the judges, but she was certainly the scariest with her cursed power. She had a way of bending others to her will, specifically crypts. Her actions were erratic and impossible to predict. Now I was in her domain, and she had the advantage.Bookmark here

My sense of smell wasn’t any good with so many other scents in the area. Aoki’s on the other hand was much more refined, perfected from the many years of being a death.Bookmark here

I continued along, searching every alley for a sign. I peeked into windows, or at least the ones not boarded up. I even broke into a few abandoned buildings, or so I thought until I found people huddled inside for warmth. Lady luck was not doing me any favors today.Bookmark here

BAM!Bookmark here

There was a loud commotion deep within the district. More rumblings followed, accompanied by screeches of agony. I followed the sound, increasing my pace with every scream and crash that resonated off the buildings. It sounded like a demolition team tearing down a skyscraper still filled with people.Bookmark here

The closer I came, the more unsettling the noises were. Gurgling sounds echoed, the volume amplified by the silence that hung over the rest of the district. Bystanders ignored the screams, too frightened to investigate the source. Most stayed hidden under their blankets, their eyes glazed over with dread. Bookmark here

The noise was something the residents of Roku District must’ve grown accustomed to. Crypts were notorious for patrolling these streets. Even though they’d appear as human still in their eyes, their shrieks would still be heard as an unnatural wail. These screams, however, were filled with more bloodlust than a crypt could ever produce. Bookmark here

I arrived at an apartment building, the source of the uproar. Another loud bang came from the roof. A multitude of scents plagued my nose, but there was one I was able to recognize. Milo was definitely up there. I ran inside, pushing through the barely opened door. I was left with an uneasy feeling as I passed a large blood stain near the entrance. The staircase at the end of the hall was barely functionable, the concrete cracked and crumbling with the railing bent out of shape. Something big had come through here. Bookmark here

It was difficult to ascend, every step having to be calculated to avoid the whole staircase breaking down. I burst through the door at the top and witnessed Milo sinking his teeth deep into the arm of a monster. His eyes were pitch black, his hunger for the monster’s flesh ravenous. He was flung away, crashing into the ground. His body was stained in blood, but the smile never left his face as enjoyment twinkled in his eyes. Bookmark here

It was who was encased within the monster’s chest that left me numb. Ava’s eyes were closed, as the darkness raging around her attacked. Its burly arm slammed into the ground narrowly missing Milo as he leaped out of the way. He ran around it, jumping onto its back and ripping through the darkness like it was paper.Bookmark here

“Milo! Stop this!” My yelling fell on deaf ears. Neither of them acknowledged me, each too engrossed in their battle to be bothered by intrusions.Bookmark here

It had begun, the darkness within Ava finally breaking loose. It was the one thing I’d hoped to avoid. This was the reason I tried to help them in the first place, and I failed. I failed to tame the darkness in Ava before it ran rampant, and now, she would end up just as I did. Bookmark here

She'd be cursed to live among the dead.             Bookmark here

Abraham B. A.
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