Some Kind of Hero

Bitumen wandered the city sprawl delighting in the polluted nature of it, the strangely symbiotic relationship between the concrete jungle that came to replace the ancient woods, and the flora and fauna that had adapted under the duress of humanity’s blunders under the flag of progress.

Grimy, raggedy and very much malodorous, Bitumen did his name justice. His appearance at first was that of a beggar, a hobo, a homeless person, wandering the streets scavenging for refuse and scraps. Most people don’t look twice at a beggar or one resembling the stereotype, so no one ever really noticed anything amiss with him, with his anatomy.

He was a manner of shaman, a channeler of what would have once been the ancient forest, but now flourished in the asphalt and iron, the concrete and smog. A druid, some would have called him centuries ago, a naturalist, even. He was all that and more.

Being a creature in tune with the urban foresta, Bitumen had undergone changes becoming of one who was one with the city, the jungle of it. His body had transmuted its flesh from meat – fallible and wanton – to bark and concrete, a strange marriage unlike any seen before. His bones had grown hollow, from which marrow formed strange insects, vermin, preternatural versions of their naturally occurring counterparts. Such totemic creatures would exit through strange orifices which had opened around various parts of Bitumen’s body, openings resembled the hollowed-out fleshy cavern left by the draining of a large pustule. They were as his children, his to command, and they ran rampant throughout the city, watching, listening, keeping him abreast of tidings big and small. He was the first and so far only one of his kind, and he was so thanks to the blessing of The Anchorite.

His patron, his priest, his god; The Anchorite was the man who had shown him the truth of nature, how all adapted and, despite what much of humanity thought of as the destruction of the natural order, the expansion of the species and its bent on changing the geography in its advance was simply that, a transformation of nature into a different state.

Having been a young runaway of no more than 16 years of age, Bitumen shed his name and became something else, something greater than himself as an individual. He became the herald of The Anchorite, thus named because it cannot leave the little realm it calls its home.

A strange cockroach approached the area where Bitumen was sitting, a dirty alley strewn with garbage heaps. It scuttled imperceptibly across the dirty, oily rags that covered its master’s misshapen body, climbed up the large beard that reached down to his belly, crawled over to the bald, tattoo-and-grime laden head and stopped, its antennae moving frantically.

“Thank you, my bone-child,“ he said quietly, almost a whisper, and he stood up. He ambled deeper into the alley, hobbling, walking with a semi-colon gait product of the rigidity of his bark-and-concrete afflictions, the changes in his physiognomy. He appeared to melt into the brick wall at the deep end of the alley and was no longer there.

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Picking an instrument for his art was always something that required meticulous consideration, attention to detail and a knack for seeing a few steps ahead of what manner of reaction – physical and otherwise – a tool might elicit from his raw material. Elliot wasn’t about to just inflict another rage-fueled session on his prize, who sat inside a metal and leather contraption, blindfolded and gaged with what would at other times pass for a sexual toy consisting of a red rubber ball and an elastic band attacked to each opposite end of the ball, used to fasten the ball to the submissive’s head.

Even now, nearly six months removed from the day he chose Matusal Xul as his next target, he could scarcely believe his extraordinary fortune. At first finding nothing particularly special aside from a certain magnetism exuded by Matusal, whose middle-eastern features, while not particularly agreeable, did possess a certain elegance that might do for attractiveness. Indeed, nothing other than that almost psychic beacon was remarkable; just another well-to-do man at a charity fundraiser, newly migrated to the U.S. from Palestinia, where he was some sort of independent entrepreneur, nothing of note.

In the days Elliot spent surveying his quarry he noticed some eccentricities that just added to the magnetism, the allure, but he paid them no mind. Matusal Xul’s apparent interests were heavily focused on archeology, alternative history, and fringe topics especially touching on the topic of immortality and mythical races reputed to have possessed remarkable longevity.

It wasn’t until he actually sequestered him, took him to his hangar-turned-metalworker’s garage, and visited a series of horrors Satan himself would blush at that he found out the man’s secret.

After killing him, having slit Matusal Xul’s throat as the finishing touch to an evening of most intimate suffering, Elliot left the body still restrained for a few hours. As there was no danger of the reclusive man’s disappearance becoming known soon, and having taken utmost care in leaving no evidence of his involvement in the crime, he could busy himself with other more mundane matters such as the commissioned metal works he produced as a front and somewhat tamer hobby. Upon his return to the armature where the corpse was housed, the restraints still fastened, to his immense surprise he found that Matusal Xul was, against all probability, alive once more. More astounding even was the fact that his throat and all the other transgressions visited on his flesh were fully healed.

Being a reasonable thinker despite his penchant for torture, Elliot took a screwdriver from his utility belt and jammed it straight into Matusal’s right eye. Perhaps he hadn’t quite cut the man deeply enough, he thought, his mind grasping at every possible rationalization of the amazing event he had been witness to despite the fact that even such straws of rationale broke every natural law themselves.

After a few seconds of convulsing against the thrust of the screwdriver, blood streaming down Matusal’s face, leaving the tool inserted in the man’s newly inert flesh, Elliot removed his think protective gloves and fished a pack of cigarettes from his belt. Lighting one up with a lighter, he put both away back in the belt and sat down on a metallic chair a few feet away from the armature and its gored guest.

An hour passed and in that time the screwdriver slowly extracted itself from Matusal’s eye-socket, the flesh healing and rejecting the foreign object until it fell to the concrete floor. Watching patiently, chain-smoking through the pack, he saw life progressively return to his quarry who spasmed into wakefulness, eyes blinking, one through caked blood.

Smiling with both elation and satisfaction, he put the cigarette out on the sole of his boot and stood up. Here was a prize unlike any other. Elliot Cummins had hit the jackpot.

 

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For untold eternities he had endured. For vast gulfs of time he had be subjected to such demeaning and base horror and pain that he wondered if the great martyrs of history could ever have compared their plight to his.

Matusal Xul was 107 years old but he didn’t look a day over 30. He was dark-skinned as most of his fellow Palestinians, sharing some of the hard features often associated with his ethnicity. He was born there but his family had migrated to Holland where he got a better chance at life than he might have otherwise, had his family remained in their war-torn homeland. He had returned to it later in his seemingly immortal life out of a combination of curiosity for his roots as well as the bright enigma that was his condition, his inability to just die.

He had wondered often, long and hard, whether his condition was a gift or a curse. As the years had gone on after his accident, one that should have otherwise killed him and effectively had, he had found it increasingly difficult to find mirth and hope in his unusual longevity. Now, a painful eternity removed from the night this psychopath before him had captured him, he was left with no evidence to favor the gift theory.

He was currently blindfolded but had become so accustomed to sightlessness that his hearing had grown acute, heightened. His tormentor had developed a taste for avulsing his eyes, leaving him painfully blind while blood poured from his empty sockets like some perversion of the act of crying. The pain of having such a thing perpetrated on him was so terrifyingly unbearable that even now, after countless days of this treatment, he could still not affirm that he had developed some tolerance to it. On the rare occasions when his captor didn’t pluck out his eyes in some creative way – like this day –, the memory of the pain filled the void left by the absence of ocular severance, unrelenting and clearly etched into his physical memory.

The sound of tools being picked up and then after a pause placed back on a wooden table, likely after being examined and their uses considered, he surmised, were all he could distinguish above his own breathing and the beating of his heart as it thrummed in his head, amplifying the pain.

The months – he was sure it had been many months, perhaps even years, he didn’t have any grasp of time’s passing through the haze of constant pain – had brought nightmares made flesh. He had been beaten in unusual ways with unusual objects. He had been sodomized in that fashion as well. His intestines cut out and pulled before his very eyes, his body parts systematically amputated, his bones broken, he had been poisoned, drugged, mauled by animals, rats eaten through his midriff after having them placed on him in an upturned bucked set afire while the rabid rodents ate their way to freedom. There was scarcely a horror he had not been a subject to. His tormentor must eventually run out of options, of ideas, the well of sadistic creativity bled dry.

He had been bled dry in different ways, he recalled. Dying that way, seeping cold while his life veritably drained from him, had been almost a reprieve in the terrible parade of torture he had endured. If only he could die…

On two occasions – and only two alone! – his psychopathic jailor had not visited any physical horror for a prolonged period of time, what he thought might be a day. That was not to say that he had not been subjected to horrors then. On the contrary, the tension that had engulfed Matusal on those occasions had been so jarringly disturbing that he had suffered through chain panic attacks all the while.

On the first such instance of absence of physical torture, his captor had been present in the general area, going about his tools, likely all a deliberate act to get Matusal’s mind working, thinking and trying to anticipate all the possible terrors forthcoming. On the second, his captor was nowhere near as far as he had been aware. The terror then had been no less.

On one occasion his tongue had been cut, the wound cauterized with a burning iron and a cloth stuffed in his mouth as a gag, his eyes customarily removed with a sharpened spoon, and finally been placed in a vehicle’s trunk. He had then been driven around for hours, with long stops where the vehicle’s driver would step out but then come back many minutes or hours later. He was eventually killed in some way he did not know, coming back to life in the contraption where he was usually kept some time later, back in the hangar.

The only time his captor had shown any range of emotion beyond callous detachment was when he had attempted to starve Matusal to death. Given his peculiar condition, his body simply would not be starved. Any damage that might be incurred from lack of nourishment was quickly repaired. After a few days of showing no signs of emaciation, the torturer became irate and beat him to a literal pulp, eventually dealing a coup de grace with a mallet. Matusal had managed to produce a theory out of his observations during the period of starvation. He deducted, some days afterward, having had brief spells of calm thanks to a kind of mental detachment of his own, that perhaps his body drew sustenance from the atmosphere itself, or perhaps through some atomic or subatomic process where it converted matter into energy seamlessly. Without some manner of focused experimentation, however, he simply couldn’t draw any tangible conclusions.

Matusal had no illusions that he would be looked for, sought out by authorities of any sort. It had been a few decades since he’d decided to sever all filial and business ties and, being independently wealthy and requiring little personal upkeep, had become a non-entity in the world. Now and then he would give to charity, often in cases where it might facilitate a favor in his ongoing search for meaning, for the answers to the riddle of his immortality. But he was, for all practical purposes, an ineffectual being, hardly a presence in the world but for gases and matter he processed biologically, his legacy the biological footprint of simply existing.

There was a change in the sound pattern, his captor had decided upon some instrument and method, perhaps. He braced himself for whatever might come, his mental fortitude perhaps growing in strength, no need for fugues into other realities of his own devising. Just focus on the pain like a mantra.

Suddenly he felt his mouth forcibly pried open, his jaw tugged so hard that he felt it come of the hinges. The pain shot through the sides of his head, burning intensely and causing bursts of light to flash behind his closed eyelids. He couldn’t help but scream in pain. This had been unexpected, this was new.

He felt something rubbery and cold, slimy, being jammed into his unhinged mouth. It squirmed and appeared to have what he could only think of as tiny mouths that sucked at the walls of his mouth. An octopus. It had to be.

His jaw was forced up and his mouth shut, the squirming octopod trapped therein. An adhesive strip, likely duct tape, was placed over his lips and then wrapped under his chin to fasten the loose jawbone. The pain was there but was now playing second fiddle to the dawning realization that the octopus, having no other way to go but down his throat, would eventually suffocate him.

The blindfold came off and his wide eyes were met with the painful light and sight of his tormentor standing before him, a pleased expression on his face.

The pain of suffocation by octopod, that was certainly something new.

 

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Bitumen wandered the outside perimeter of the hangar carefully, silently, blending through concrete, melding into metal, weaving into the very foundations of the structure. He sensed the energy stored there, like a memory device, from all the terrible things this man who inhabited the place had perpetrated.  Bitumen was not often given to extreme emotions, but in this case he was filled with disgust and terrible anger.

His bone-children shared his eagerness for retribution, to mete out due punishment, righteous as only nature can deal. He stalked the terrible man with caution because, despite his great power, Bitumen was still mortal and very much susceptible to the weapons of man. While he might be able to withstand a great deal more than most, he could still feel pain and be debilitated by it, impaired. Thus surprise was a key factor in his methodology.

He first sent the bone-roaches, the most industrious of his children, to gradually swarm on the terrible man. As he was busy cleaning his tools at a table, he was wholly unaware of the first few bugs that crawled up his legs. It wasn’t until he was covered with the bone-pale roaches that he realized that something was amiss; such was his profound concentration.

As the man screamed and futilely tried to stamp and crush the formidable bone-roaches, a formidable army of hyalopterous arthropods resembling wasps with scorpion-like apendages – pincers and stinger tails – exited from two orifices on Bitumen’s omoplatas and flew in a terrifying chitinous cloud toward the terrible man.

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Elliot at first only felt a slight sensation of rustling on his thick, denim work-clothes. After a second’s delay in checking the source of the odd sensation which escalated from its origin around his ankles to the covering his body up to his midriff, he saw himself covered in scuttling roach-like insects that advanced and shortly enswathed him up to his head.

He screamed like a child, unable to help himself from succumbing to primal fears long ignored. Insect s. He detested them.

His horror was soon replaced by sharp stings as a cloud of winged scorpions engulfed him. In seconds he was on the floor, paralyzed, feeling his lungs loosen their hold on air itself, ceasing their functions.

He struggled in disbelief at what was taking place and had little time to fathom what it all meant, as death soon closed his eyes. His last moments were spent drowning in abject terror as he gazed at a strange beggar he’d never seen before. Nobody noticed beggars.

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When Matusal came to, he was longer restrained. He became conscious of the lack of pressure from the armature, the comfort of being simply on the concrete floor, just seconds after the rude wakefulness of revival.

With a startling realization he became aware that he wasn’t alone. A haggard little beggar with a beard half as long as he was tall was looking intently upon him, smiling.

“It is ok,” said the slight-looking ragman. “We have come for you. You will suffer the evils of this man no longer.” He gestured with his hand at the supine shape of his late tormentor, swollen and misshapen beyond recognition but for the clothes now stretched to their capacity by the bloating flesh underneath.

“We must walk, now,” the ragman continued. “I will take you through the folds of the city-flesh, for there is one who wishes to converse with you.”

And just like that the ragman took his hand and all before his eyes became a blur. He knew he was sitting still, yet somehow felt the notion of movement, of passing through something, some kind of texture, something dense. A few moments later he was in some vast chamber made of concrete and steel beams, with no windows visible yet highly illuminated by fluorescent lights.

In the center of the chamber sat a naked man, glabrescent. Through his grey skin glowed what looked like roots rather than veins. The sitting man spoke, voice like rocks falling, like the depths of a cave boring into the core of the earth, booming yet somehow pleasant, coldly reassuring like the distant rumble of thunder.

“Welcome, child. It is good to see you free and in my presence. You have a rather unique gift, I a given to understand.”

After a pause where Matusal understood an answer was expected of him, he said, “I am immortal… or rather, I would appear to be… I am unable to die, or expire conclusively might be a better way of putting it.”

He felt uncharacteristically self-conscious in the man’s presence.

“I see,” said the man, as if considering the information carefully. “That is indeed quite a gift… or a curse given the nature of man.” After another pause where the man stood up from his indian-style sitting position, he went on, “I am called The Anchorite, though only Bitumen calls me that and now, perhaps, you as well. My name is long forgotten and bears no importance in utterance to us now, but I am as you suspect in light of the evidence before your eyes.” After another pause, he finally added, “I suspect you seek answers. You will do well to seek the chamber of the sleepless, therein you may know the first word.”

“Excuse me but, what exactly do you mean?”

The Anchorite did not reply, rather, he – it – sat back down and shut its eyes, falling into what appeared to be a trance.

Matusal looked to the ragman, Bitumen, searching for answers, and he only got a smile.

“What does he mean, the chamber of the sleepless?”

Stifling a chuckle, Bitumen answered, “The Anchorite speaks true, but its words may sound murky to us as we do not possess its clarity of vision. Think on it, dream on it, and in time you will see as well.”

 

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In the hangar, still swollen though no longer quite as tumescent, Elliot Cummins awoke.

He sat up and stared dumbfounded at the floor before him.

He was sure he had died. He had felt life leaving him, his lungs and heart ceasing their toil. He had died.

Realizing this he darted a look toward the armature and found it dismayingly empty. He had thought to ask Matusal Xul about this, about reviving, about being immortal now that he was apparently one such being.

He stood up, still stiff and sore from the myriad stings, and lit up a cigarette that had been lying on the tool desk.

Savoring the pleasure of being alive once more symbolized by the ironically deadly smoke filling his lungs in lieu of air, he decided he would find Matusal. He would, in time, but now, perhaps, he could find something new to do in life. It had started to become such a bore, after all. He would find Matusal, indeed, all in due time. After all, time, now, was in limitless supply.

Taking another drag of the cigarette, Elliot smiled, smug with satisfaction.

 

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Who Was That in the Bush?

“So there I was,” said the grizzled, greying old man to the gathered crowd. “Just minding my own business walking down the bushy path with my wives and my kids, the little farts all piss and vinegar, when out of the bushes jumps out a naked maniac with crazy, bugged out eyes. Hardly having enough time to register the shock of this sudden appearance the crazy bastard jumps at me and starts to wrestle me. Yeah! Wrestle me!”

 

The audience nursed ceramic mugs with alcoholic libations, but none paid their drinks any attention, not while old-man Yakov was talking.

“The sumbitch was strong, too! He had me pinned down pretty badly a few times but all these years of training paid off because I turned him around and had him in a full-nelson. The crazy, spittle flaring bastard had the gall to offer me a chance to concede. Concede my arse! I had him dead-to-rights and wasn’t going to budge.”

 

“Then the sumbitch does this weird thing where he dislocates my damn hip!”

 

“The pain was harsh, I tell you, but I hung on. What was I going to do, give up? Hells no. But while I had him in the lock I managed to figure out who it was. Yeah, who’s the biggest dick you guys know? Here’s this crazy old coot just up and messing with me for no good reason and somehow does some magic trick that screws with my bones, it’s got to be Yaveh!”

 

“So I began pressing down his neck and demanding that he bless me. After a few minutes of this, with my hands and arms beginning to numb from the effort, the stubborn bastard gave in and just like that my hip was fine again and now I’m freaking invincible.”

 

With the story clearly concluded, one younger man said, “So’s that why you can outdrink us all?”

 

“Yeah, that’s why, but the problem is I don’t get drunk,” replied Yakov with a mirthless grin. “There’s always that hint of a buzz, a warm glow, but I never get there. So much for a blessing,” he said, spitting on the ground at his right. “Can’t go on a decent binge, I can’t!”

 

After a somber pause for the grievous condition of being unable to get properly plastered, Yakov stated finally, as he stood up to leave, “In any case, next time that sumbitch shows up, you tell him I have a bone to pick with him.”

Shed the Waters

Note: This is a little indulgence on my part as the main character for this piece – which quality I cannot vouch for – is that of my novel (one I’m shopping around to see if it might be published). This takes place after the events of said novel, but there’s no need to be familiar with the events thereof as it is rather self-contained. Enjoy… or not. 🙂

Sebastian Contreras – otherwise known as Bas to most of his friends and acquaintances – was tired of the dreadful Asian heat. His home country of Costa Rica could be very humid and warm at times but this was just ridiculous. He would always note how the Southeast Asian weather was portrayed on television and in the movies, but it failed to convey quite how oppressive it really was.

His reason for being so far away from his neck of the woods was essentially two-fold; he had to find a very rare item, a piece of Asian alternative medicine that was considered to be a myth mostly due to the means and process through which it was allegedly concocted – a mellified man –, and he had to find the location of a certain tribe of ascetics who once made Japan their home but were now in self-imposed exile, an off-shoot of the Sokushinbutsu Buddhists monks, so that he could consult with with their mummified oracles. Yes, he needed to talk to mummies.

The humor of it all, like with much of his life’s goings-on after his wife had left him and taken his daughter with her, did not escape him. His sense of humor had become a dark, viscous substance that suffused and corroded every fiber of his being. One rather had to cope in some way when one’s child has been sequestered and taken somewhere beyond one’s reach, somewhere outside of this world, and one simply didn’t have the means by which to breach that barrier and reach out to her.

It was a quarter till noon and he was in a small fishing village somewhere in Thailand, cursing the gods that reduced him to errand-boy for the many underworld movers whose strings could eventually afford him the power to find his missing child. His contact was late by about half an hour and he had the nagging suspicion that he wouldn’t make the appointment, but rather that something else was going on as well, someone trying to keep him from finding his marks on this trip.

He was sure he was being followed, somehow, though he had seen none of the usual tells that would indicate this. In the realm of the weirdness – as he had come to refer to all things odd, paranormal or otherwise outside the fringe of what humanity accepted as natural – there could be innumerable ways by which he might be tagged and shadowed without his ever being sure of it. Still, there it was, that sensation between his shoulder blades of eyes firmly planted on him.

He decided it was time to move along and find other leads before whatever may have happened to his contact happened to him as well. A few more days or even weeks of digging around Asia were better than being dead.

Wiping the profusion of sweat from his forehead, though he need not have bothered as it was quickly replaced with a new coat, he got up from the short wall where he had been sitting and took out his mobile device to hail his wheel man, Jin, a former ronin appointed to him by the man for whom he was to procure the mcguffin, the earthbound deity who went under the name of Mr. Mikoto – the Tattoo Collector – under whose employ the ex-ronin now was.

You read about these things, like Bas has, modern day samurai, anachronistic throwbacks to a time when honor carried a magnitude of weight most people in modern times cannot even fathom. Jin was one such example; a neo-samurai, if you will, previously beholden to a prominent oyabun of the Yakuza, who had found himself masterless – thus a ronin – when the oyabun had met an untimely end. Mr. Mikoto had taken a liking to eavesdropping on Jin’s activities and developed a sort of liking for him, much like a football aficionado might start following a specific team. When Jin found himself shamed and cast out like a dog, Mikoto took him in. There were far worse things than to be under the command of one of Japan’s old gods, the grandson of Amaterasu, no less.

Within thirty seconds Jin was walking up to Bas, who knew he was looking like shit under the hot sun. He quickly filled him in on his suspicions and Jin immediately began to scan the surrounding scenery. Bas’ nerves got a little on edge right there, because when someone as efficient at survival as Jin looked like he was on the brink of unleashing the death he dealt so well, you had to wonder just what it was that you might be facing.

“Twenty,” said Jin quickly. “They know we know, don’t run but don’t get in the way.”

A prouder man would have taken offense, Bas would think later of Jin’s words, but he knew his limits and, under the ungodly sweltering heat, he was about as good as an ice cream cone in a knife-fight. Piece of cake, he thought, I just have to make sure not to get in the Jap’s way.

Twenty rough-looking locals – or at least that’s how Bas saw them, he couldn’t really know if they were really natives – were swaggering toward them, all manner of weapons in their hands; boards, bats, machetes, it wasn’t looking like a clean fight, but then again, it wasn’t fair on all twenty of them even if they had been twice as many. You don’t get to be in a god’s employ without getting some powerful perks to get the job done.

It was over faster than Bas could properly follow, but he was sure that, somewhere in his mind, was recorded every movement Jin made to disable all the goons in the space of a few seconds. It was like a terrifying wind, unseen and inexorable, had cut them all down. In the space of three seconds – a couple of blinks of an eye – twenty toughs were nursing one part of their body or another, if they were conscious at all.

“You gotta teach me how to do that,” said Bas appreciatively. Jin chuckled a grunt and then patted him on the back to usher him in the direction of the car, a fancy looking affair you would imagine any high-class gangster would kill t drive. Mikoto had them custom-made – he held the patent and rights over them. Kusanagi’s, he’d called them. Bas wasn’t much of a driver, but he figured that if he got well in cahoots with the diminutive deity, he could score one of those.

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A mellified man, that is what Bas had been tasked with acquiring, or Miren as it was known in Chinese. An elderly person – usually – from a certain region that may or may not be part of this earthly realm would volunteer to engage in a diet of nothing but honey until, the legend goes, they would exude nothing but honey for excreta. At that point, the volunteer would be submerged and encaged in a vat of honey and preserved for an undisclosed amount of time. The end result? A miracle concoction, a panacea, the cure-all, purported to heal broken limbs and otherwise incurable diseases.

Most buyers in the black markets would pay ridiculous sums for a single vial, no more than a few cc’s of the resulting corpse-honey. Actual mellified limbs would garner astounding sums – it was said that a limb, even an appendage, was enough to turn household honey into corpse-honey for a few weeks before losing its properties. Mikoto wanted the whole shebang. An entire vat-coffin of corpse-honey, stiff included. Price was no object, of course, so long as the currency held within the gold standard and no other kind was agreed to.

A new contact had been made three weeks after the incident in the little fishing village, this time they would have to go to Mongolia. Bas thought that whomever might be pulling the universal strings had to have a sense of humor – when did it seem otherwise? –, or a strange love for coincidence, as Mongolia was where the exiled sect of Sokushinbutsu were said to reside, somewhere in the Altai Mountains, with their little necropolis of oracular mummies. In fact, it would appear as though the mummy-monks themselves had the item Mikoto so desired. Ha!

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Shigeki was close to the final stages of the process; he was already beginning to ingest river stones and bark. He would be as like Daijuku one day, a Buddha, soon, and ready to stand in dissicated service among the shugendō.

His body was already so dry, so devoid of moisture that he could feel the essence of enlightenment suffuse his spirit. He drank the urushi tea, fighting the nausea it always brought with it, while also dispelling fears of failure, of not being worthy of preservation.

Those who, after undergoing the ceremonial burial left only with a small hole to breathe through until their time of death – signaled when the small bell they carried into the chamber no longer rang after the chanting of the sutras –, were exhumed after years and found to have decayed were summarily exorcised for their spirit had become foul and unworthy of being a true Sokushinbutsu.

In less than a week’s time Shigeki knew he would enter the chamber. He was assured of his success in achieving the final goal by the short visions he’d begun to have in the past few weeks. Little by little he saw clearer images of a man, one who had been through much trouble with the other realms of the illusory world and would have to go through even more, who would come seeking information on how to cross over into the other planes. Shigeki saw with clarity that this man had the potential to become something quite remarkable, one who would orchestrate the pattern of life in this world, and that he had already met with one such other. If Shigeki was to fail, wherefore would he be afforded these visions?

Shigeki cleared his mind and chanted a sutra, neither enjoying nor finding discomfort in the no-mind state. He sipped more of the urushi.

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The Altai Mountains in Mongolia are a breathtaking sight. Grasslands and steppes as far as the eye can see gladdened the soul and let the mind wander off into curious segues, but Bas had learned some time ago not to allow his mind to wander too far lest it refuse to later come back.

He did note the familiar sensation of ancientness, of history and secrets arcane that seemed to seep from the ground as they made their way on horseback to where the Altai range lowered gradually and eventually became the Gobi Desert, where Genghis Khan had so long ago carved an empire unlike any other before it or since.

Jin was quiet and impassive as always, unassuming was his demeanor to anyone who was not familiar with his trade. How he managed to remain thus while riding a horse, Bas would never understand. He himself hated riding horses; he had only done so a handful of times and always felt like the horses liked having him atop as much as he enjoyed the alien feeling he always experienced.

The Sokushinbutsu sect he sought was rumored to be somewhere near the steppes, right on the fringe that lay between the Altai and the Gobi. Their current guide rode a few feet ahead on his own horse. Bas had managed to buy his expertise with a few odd trinkets and gold – yes, he carried gold, you had to when going into nomad country – and, through makeshift English, he had claimed to know the monks well as his tribe had common dealings with them on their route as they traveled the Altai region.

Bas found the weather, cold and bitter, to be quite agreeable. Must be those old Norse genes somewhere in his blood coming to the surface, basking in their freedom to run his life according to his newfound talents. He had only recently come to understand that he was an Ulfethnar, which stood for Wolf-brother in the old Norse tongue. Not quite a werewolf like some people he knew, but very much a mangy mongrel sort of a guy, he thought. The bottom line was, he was still getting the hang of his newly discovered attributes. Maybe one day he would be able to be as effective in difficult situations as freakin’ Jin.

They finally began to descend through the rocky steppes with the sun nearly melted into the West, the bright glowing ember of the twilit sky to their left. They came upon a series of caves carved out of the side of the sloping rock, seemingly hewn out of the ground by nature’s inclemencies, where their guide signaled them to halt.

They dismounted and followed two steps behind the guide into the largest of the cave mouths and were met by the echoing sound of deep chanting voices. Bas recognized some of the Japanese but most of it seemed to be too archaic for him to make out more than a word or two every few lines. Deeper into the cave they were greeted by a thin Japanese man wearing woolen un-dyed garments that looked like they would itch so bad Bas would likely tear his skin off if he’d had to wear such a robe. He expected to find the monks bald but instead the thin man had a gnarled mat of dreadlocks shaded in grey from rock dust and likely decades of being unacquainted with personal hygiene.

The monk said something in a dialect Bas assumed to be Mongolian, from what little he’d heard in the few minutes they had been in the nomad camp negotiating with their guide. The thin monk looked first at Jin and then at Bas, at whom he smiled as if recognizing him, and waved with his hands for them to follow him deeper into the cave.

A few meters further in, a set of three human-carved rock chambers were placed in the middle of a larger, natural chamber opening. The chanting came from all three of the small chambers, which housed a monk each undergoing the final stage of the process of becoming a true Sokushinbutsu. Each one of them had a bell that they would ring after finishing each sutra, each bell rang a different note. A change in the harmony would indicate the death of one of the monks. None would be removed for years, but as each one died the chamber would be filled with sand from the Gobi and sealed completely, after which they would be reopened and assessment of their Sokushinbutsu-hood would ensue. It was said that if the corpse was not perfectly preserved the monk’s spirit would be trapped and become hateful, therefore an exorcism would be administered. Bas knew enough of the universe and the weirdness to understand that angry spirits were no laughing matter. He passed by the chambers with genuine awe and reverence as they were led into what he assumed was the innermost chamber, where the Buddha mummies were housed.

The necropolis was enormous, the entirety of the natural structure was lined with row upon row of mummified bodies, propped like statues parallel facing the middle of the chamber as soldiers would, their dry-eyed stares meeting one another. Large as a football field, he surmised that at least a couple of centuries-worth of monks was accounted for therein.

Jin and his guide remained behind as he was led to one of the more recent mummies almost at the end of the procession, as they were arranged from oldest at the chamber’s awning to newest deep into the cave. Bas wondered what would happen when they ran out of room as would inevitably happen; new inductees into the order came periodically from Japan and, at times, other places where some schmuck or another would get it into their head that they were a reincarnation of some monk and self-mummification was the final step to take in their journey through the material illusion of this world.

His mummy was just as moldy as any of the others, looking neither fresher nor dryer, having no indication of how old it really was. Just as he was about to ask the thin monk about the mellified man –he couldn’t forget about his other reason for being there – a voice came from the mummy before him.

Raspy and deep as if emerging from an unfathomable abyss, it said in perfect English, “It is good to see you, wolf-cub. I have waited for you and am glad at your arrival.”

Bas only hesitated a moment, he was surprised but he was used to the preternatural.

“The Miren is here,” the mummy went on. “You will be allowed to take it after we have finished.”

“Thank you,” said a composed Bas. The strangeness of the situation did not escape him, no matter how familiar he was with the weird.

“I arranged for it to be brought here as was seen long before, shown to me in my visions before I became as like the Buddha. The spirit of the man that sacrificed himself for this wonder has found its way to the source, finally.”

Not being sure about what to respond to that, Bas simply said, “I… that’s good, I think.”

“Quite,” the mummy said. “I hope this information as well as the item itself serves as suitable consolation for my not being able to provide the answers you believe you seek. Though this realization will inevitably be bitter, I hope the knowledge will increasingly dulcify your life in time”

“I don’t think I follow,” Bas was taken off balance by the mummy-monk’s reply and waited for it to clarify.

“You seek to cross over, to move through the different veils of the illusion of this world, but you cannot do so yet and will not learn how to do so from anything currently available in this world, this dimension. But do not despair, I have seen that it will come to you of its own volition, it will seek you out soon enough. Your child is well and does retain the bond to you despite the intractable distance, though she may not remember, she may not know. Her soul does, however.

Bas fought tears back, feeling a knot build in his throat while a dark hand of despair clenched at his chest, a fist of bleakness. He listened, still, trying to find meaning and solace in the mummy-monk’s words.

“Let the tears flow. You have not done so enough as of late. The sorrow builds and breaks down your light, and it is a disservice to the worlds and your future that you allow it to be so,” said the mummy-monk.

Pushing through tight airways, Bas’ voice piped high and weak, “How am I supposed to do anything if I can’t find a way to my daughter? How can I be anything but what I am now?”

“Child, you hold the knowledge already, the words given to you by the shining immortal,” deep compassion and understanding flowed through the mummy’s voice. “You must find peace in the knowledge that what you need will come to you from your past and across the veil, to seek you out. You must help but be wise and discern where your help is needed and where you must withhold it. Then and only then will you be given the means to move across the waters. It is not truly waiting without action, but acting in potentiality under the knowledge that it will come to pass.”

Bas closed his eyes and tears rolled down his face, no longer held back as he was overcome with sharp sadness and, somehow, a strange warmth as he listened to the mummified monk’s words. It was like an embrace was afforded to him by something incorporeal that reached into his core and, in the midst of the turmoil in his soul, found the means by which to grant him a glimmer of hope. It reminded him of being held by his mother as a child.

“You will go now and remember my words. You will learn the love of the Buddha, the peace of the Buddha may then come to you as well. You who deal with the gods and the horrors of the illusory world, you must be strong because you are frail, you must be steadfast because you can easily be moved. You will see far into the mechanism behind the illusory world and not be overwhelmed by what you are shown. Wolf-cub, you will be given all you need in due time.”

After a few minutes of silence where no more words emerged from the mummy, Bas walked sullenly back to the chamber’s awning. Jin searched his face and gave a small sign that he noticed Bas’ state of mind. So the man was able to express some emotion after all, he thought to himself. Perhaps Jin had developed some form of bond having spent so many weeks with him and was taken slightly aback by the pained expression of defeat on his face.

They retrieved the Miren, the mellified man, and were given a beast of burden as a gift to carry the large, clay jar that housed the honeyed mummy for Mr. Mikoto. On the journey back to the outpost where they would use a radio to call a helicopter that would then take them to a clandestine airport, Bas could not beat the demons in his head nor change his mood to one of optimist despite the monk’s message.

They would manage to deliver the Miren without trouble, surprisingly, as whomever or whatever had tried to occlude their progress in acquiring the odd item apparently relented or simply watched. Bas suspected they would hear or know from it soon enough.

Dark days had seen him since he had lost his child to his former wife and, it would seem, the light would not yet be shining upon him. One more mile, he said to himself, one more mile.

Ringing

“This is when it happens.”

That was the sentiment in general, the vibe flowing through the massed assembly as they witnessed what should be referred to thereafter as the singularity. But it mattered so little.

The feel-good, self-satisfied feeling shared by those present was saccharine and, quite frankly, vomitive to Manny. He’d had enough. He knew this was a milestone but, for all the hope of the future weighing on this particular moment, he could not bring himself to care. He wanted it all, and them all, to burn and wither and die.

The magic, the revelation, the whole farcical spiritual revolution of it all, he simply despised it and all his fellow men, as it were. It would not go beyond this night, however. He was making damn sure of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to your newly appointed leader, Sig Faizal!”

The applause was deafening. How they sniveled and begged for some form of attention from the elite, the ruling class. He had withstood so much debasing and humiliation, but this would not happen again.

The darkness will come and there is no remedy, no salvo, no measure to counter it. Manny knows it is the most terrible thing that could be visited upon the congregation and, by proxy, the entirety of humanity, but it is necessary.

The shots rang out loud and true and Manny knew that he was beyond redemption. It was done, the deed, and with it the final revelation. They would know revolution, in truth, and the strife of earning freedom. Because you cannot have freedom without the fight. And tonight the shackles are shorn and Manny knows that it is he who has set events in motion, wheels within wheels, and he is but a pawn in a broad game, but a pawn of his own volition.

Disobedience to tyrants is obedience to God.