Reverend Alpert had a headache. He wasn’t sure if it was a hangover, or leftover illness, or if something else entirely had happened, but he found himself somewhere unusually warm and filled with more foliage than he was generally used to. Perfection was there, somehow sickeningly cheerful, covered in bright flowers and not much else. She was offering him what looked like a young coconut with a straw. Was it a bar? A restaurant? “Here,” her whisper was like a sledgehammer in the back of his eyes, “drink this and you’ll feel better.”
He tried to respond, but his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He did as he was bid, taking a sip from the hacked-open fruit. Something had been added to the coconut water, giving it a bittersweet aftertaste and burning his gums and tongue. It hurt almost as much as her voice, but it unglued his tongue and helped burn some of the exhaustion from his eyes. “Where are we?”
“I think.” Perfection tapped her cheek thoughtfully. “We’re in Hawaii. But don’t quote me.”
Alpert scrubbed his face with one hand. “Was I drugged?” It seemed logical, to him. That might have been the exhaustion or the pain, but he wasn’t ruling anything out.
“No. We were summoned.” He wanted to be disgusted by the fruit on her breath, but his head was beginning to clear and his stomach was beginning to settle. A piece of smoked meat was on a banana leaf, cooked with some kind of local fruits and vegetables in a strange mass that managed to be both sauce and side. “Someone paid for a couple nights here, food and drinks until you got back on your feet. Whoever summoned us wasn’t expecting a human.”
“I would like to say I’ve never felt worse than this, but that’s a lie.” Alpert sighed when Perfection pulled him into her soft arms, glancing down at his hands. “Which one do I use to eat?”
“The right. Take your time.” Perfection doted on Alpert quietly while he forced himself to eat. The first bite was agony. The second bite was unpleasant. The third was bland. After the fourth, he found himself relaxing enough to enjoy the salty-sweetness on the thick leaf. There was rice beneath it, and a subtle spice in the seasonings.
Perfection plucked a piece from his plate, and kissed his forehead. “I’ll be back, okay? Just eat and try to relax.” Alpert was instantly suspicious, and communicated this with a simple glare. Perfection frowned. “I’m not going to do anything ‘objectionable’. But you’ve been sleepwalking for a few days and I’ve been handling. Things.” She popped the bite of pork into her mouth as she fidgeted and avoided eye contact. “Don’t worry, okay?”
“You’re a terrible liar, Perfection.”
“Alpert.” She bent close to kiss his cheek. “If I wanted to lie, you’d never know.” She stroked his hair gently, pressed her button nose to his temple, and whirled away with a perfumed breeze.
Reverend Alpert stared at the food, too hungry to lose his appetite to the gnawing of worry. With a great sigh, he resumed his meal. Clearly, Perfection wanted him on his guard. He couldn’t imagine why, which was likely entirely her intent. Without a solid object on which to hang his anxieties, he found himself relaxing regardless. The food was good. The drink was good despite itself. The family that ran the tiny inn was pleasant and welcoming.
And then the chill ran up his spine. He turned slowly, as to not draw attention to himself. In the warm weather, he stood out in heavy blacks and white. She stood out more. Her hair was dyed a shocking pink, her clothing heavy, tattered, and black, and her face covered with a long black scarf. She was talking quietly with two young men, one very tall and thin and the other rather short and burly.
They talked to the lady serving drinks for a moment, and sat at a table to talk quietly. When Perfection breezed through the door again, the short man stood immediately. “Ah! There she is! Lady! Lady, over here!”
Perfection shook her head with a smile, pointing to Alpert’s table. “No. Over here.” Alpert’s heart sunk a little. Perfection had signed him up for something, and he had no idea what. “This is who I told you about.”
The short man darted over with more speed than Alpert would generally expect from a man that thick. His voice was hushed, his words hurried. “Okay, mister, listen right and good. You wanna’ comment on her looks, be specific. Don’t tell her she’s pretty or she’s not pretty, stick to clothes and hair.” He made a clicking sound with his tongue and winked as he sat down. The tall man guided the girl with pink hair to a seat across from Alpert, and he sat on her other side.
Alpert stared blandly at Perfection. “Just what is going on here? What have you told them about me?”
Perfection’s expression was serious, jewel-like eyes locking with his. “Just who you are. I think you want to hear their story. There have been a few, but theirs.”
Alpert needed a moment to blink, digesting the statement. “You’ve been listening to stories.” His mind was too cloudy, his head too close to aching.
Perfection sighed, sitting down and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “We need money to get back to land. Food. All that good stuff. I’m just watching out for you, Alpert. They’re willing to pay, and…”
The other girl interrupted with a quiet chuckle. Though he couldn’t see the smile, he could see that something was damaged in it by the way it touched her eyes. “Please. Let me explain. Alpert, yes? My name is Hanako. These are Ricky,” with one hand she indicated the tall man, “and Ken,” with the other she indicated the short man, “and we’ve been looking for help.”
Alpert fidgeted for a moment, glancing at his hands before Perfection gently cleared the corners of his eyes for him. “Thank you, Perfection.” She smiled with too many perfect teeth, and he couldn’t help but smile fondly in response. “You might have to tell me what kind of help you’ve been looking for.”
Instead of speaking, Hanako removed her scarf. Beneath was something terrible. Her cheeks were slashed, deep rough cuts revealing teeth usually hidden, a little folded cloth soaking up the blood that slowly trickled from the wounds. Alpert shivered until his teeth clicked in his mouth. “You were murdered.” It was all he could think to say.
Hanako nodded, indicating her cheeks to the kind-faced bartender as drinks were delivered. Ricky began to speak for her. “He’s a mage. He did something when he killed her, to raise her from the dead. Some kind of thing from his homeland, because he was convinced the baby wasn’t his.” He wrapped an arm around Hanako’s shoulders, holding her tightly as she shifted in place. “Her body was found, and she was given a proper cremation. But there was already magic in her, and when I found her she was confused. It took three months before she remembered who she was, and another three weeks until she remembered how she was killed.”
Ken added his arm to Hanako’s shoulders as her cheeks tightened. He took a sip of his drink as she trembled. “We’ve been with her the whole time. ‘Specially Ricky. But he’s a wizard and if he gets near her he can do whatever creepy thing and the two of us are just fists and feet.” He almost spilled his drink indicating himself and Ricky with it. “So we need another wizard. At least someone to keep the creepy spell-goop and bugs off us. So we ask Kaleo to help, and he’s all ‘hell no’ but he’ll get a demon for us. Spell goes wrong, but he got something, right? Then there’s a demon, and she says she’s no help, but she knows who might be.” This time, the drink sloshed in Alpert’s direction.
The bartender returned, sympathetically offering a pair of woven napkins to Hanako. Quickly, the napkins were tucked into the wounds, the bartender giving a nervous smile to Alpert before escaping. Alpert frowned quietly, drumming his fingers on the table. He tried to decide what was strangest about this situation, what lies they might be telling.
Hanako reached across the table to take Alpert’s hand. Her touch was warm, her fingers soft. “We’ll pay. Food, money, a bit of jewelry, lucky charms. Whatever you need. But he could still take me, or worse do it again. I don’t need to be put to rest. I didn’t want this but I’m happy with it. I can do things to help people now.” There was desperation in her tone, her fingers squeezing. “But we can’t leave him in the wild.”
Alpert rubbed his nose with his free hand, squeezing his eyes shut tightly. “This sounds too simple. There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Ken blinked a few times, withdrawing from Hanako enough to use both hands on his drink. “I didn’t think you needed to know more. Anything else would tell another person how to hurt Hanako and let’s be honest.” He tipped his drink briefly, somehow keeping everything in the coconut before taking his next sip. “Bad idea. We’re here to keep her from flipping out, right? And he got magic. I don’t got magic. Ricky don’t got magic. I got fancy footwork which is no good if the floor’s all slick, and Ricky got fists like steel which is no good if he’s got bugs in his eyes.”
Alpert took a very long breath, giving them all very serious looks. “And it’s only his magic keeping you from finding him now?”
Ricky nodded. “We got an idea where he is. Out in the barrens, waiting for us to move on or forget. You’ve got a demon, demons are good at tracking, right?”
Alpert and Perfection traded stares, fidgeting and communicating silently. Alpert was suspicious of Perfection’s eagerness to help, but he sympathized with them despite what experience indicated his expectations should be. “Perfection, would you be a darling and track down this man? There are a few more questions I need to ask, and a matter of payment.”
Perfection’s face split into a broad smile. Her embrace knocked the air from his lungs, and despite himself he smiled as well. Her nose touched his ear and temple, a light kiss touched his hair. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” A hand strayed long enough to grope his hip, her long tail lashing near his ankles. “Don’t get in trouble without me.” The farewell kiss was soft, sweet, tasted of strawberries and pears, and it was over far too soon.
When Alpert finished recovering from her scent and touch, he became aware that Ken was shooing Ricky and Hanako off. They were blushing and laughing, and Hanako was struggling to get her scarf back on. Ken made a shushing sound.
When they were gone, Ken’s stupid grin vanished and was replaced with a serious scowl. He turned to look Alpert in the face, taking a long breath. “Hanako don’t like to hear about it. She wants to think maybe he wasn’t the same kind of fucked up that killed her ‘cause she had the bad sense to be human. Look, the next time, she won’t be from offshore. She’ll stand up, and he’ll take this big iron spike he’s got for just this occasion, and bam.” Ken tapped the crown of his own head. “Right there. And she’s the same, except she does what he says without thinking about it. Can’t hurt him, can’t disobey him, can’t be killed by fools like me.”
Alpert tried not to feel relaxed by that. In no small part because the thought chilled him to the bone. “This isn’t for Hanako, then.”
Ken shook his head. “Nah, man. Well yeah, but. We, uh. Ricky and me, we do what’s like. Law enforcement here. We keep the peace best we can, most of the time that’s easy.” He paused. “This time, yeah it’s personal? And at the same time, if Hanako was a stranger and not Ricky’s main squeeze, we’d do the same, yeah? Dunno’ if it’s justice, but it’s self-defense.”
Alpert frowned a little, leaning back and deciding to finish his meal. “You’re not defending yourself.”
“Nah.” Ken smiled fondly, clearly having rehearsed this part many times on many other people. “It’s still self-defense if you’re defending the ‘self’ of another. We got books. Lots of ‘em. Interesting as fuck when you get past all the big, fancy words. How the law was supposed to work, when it wasn’t being broke by people with big books and money.”
Alpert sighed, and spoke very quietly. “I can build wards. I can protect you from his magic, keep your senses sharp and bodies strong. I can even seal his magic, with the right preparation.”
“Not permanent enough. After the bugs and the slime, he’s human. You keep us on our feet, we do the rest.” Ken dug around in his vest for a moment, then offered something to Alpert. “Here. A down payment. I figure it’s worth more on land than it is here, right?”
It was a pendant of intricately carved coral set with pearl. Alpert ran a thumb down one edge, observing the twists in the pink not-quite-stone. It wasn’t a particularly strong talisman, but it was unique and exotic. Ken offered quietly, “It’s for keeping secrets.”
Alpert simply nodded in response.
It took two days for Perfection to return, and in that time Alpert took in the air, enjoyed the local cuisine, and learned to weave flowers into delicate, wearable art. It was not so small that Alpert was comfortable calling it a village, but not so large as to be a city. It didn’t matter, all of the residents called it The City, so the City is what it was.
Food came as gifts, fresh fish and sweet fruit given to him because someone thought he looked a little hungry. Even when Perfection returned, Ken insisted she take some time to enjoy the fruits of the land and the calming sound of the ocean.
Alpert reluctantly decided that five days was enough time to relax for him, and it was time to return to the task at hand before a wizard realized there was a stranger on the island. Ken was forced to agree.
The shaman, Kaleo, had helped Alpert to use local ingredients to craft something Kaleo seemed to think was “better chalk”. The feel was off, it was soft and sticky and smelled strange, but it marked skin well and it was difficult to rub off. It stained cloth and wood. If nothing else, it let the young men half-strip instead of wearing heavy fabric easier to write on.
The rain started shortly after Perfection began leading the way, promising a particularly damp day of slogging through the ashy mud of the barrens and the shrill buzzing of insects. Alpert frowned when they failed to develop any itching bites. “This isn’t normal. It shouldn’t stop the insects.”
“That so.” Ricky glanced up to the sky, squinting. “Then this coulda’ been hard. Enough bugs and it takes weeks to get anywhere. Thanks to you, we got this in a day.”
Ken thumped Alpert’s shoulder gently, as though he were afraid to knock the less-muscular man over. “Thanks, you guys.” He followed with a grin and wink to Perfection. For some reason, he seemed afraid of touching her.
Alpert reminded himself to properly reward Perfection later. Through quiet, rainy miles he thought about the best way to manage that. When Hanako indicated exhaustion, they stopped to eat. It was some kind of dried fish, fresh fruit, and a stick of smoked and dried sausage that tasted strongly of orange and spice. Out of all the dried and preserved food he had eaten, it was among the best.
It was beginning to grow dark when they found themselves on rockier terrain, and Perfection gestured over a stony hill. “It’s just over that.”
Alpert nodded, and in silence they ascended the hill. He was the first to spot the wizard. He looked young, barely more than a boy. Ken put something into his hands, the short man’s breath quickening. “Keep this thing safe. I’m going to go hit him.”
Alpert was briefly surprised, but once he had adjusted to the frosted blue bottle in his hands, he began to step back. Hitting things wasn’t really his area of expertise. He was surprised by Ken’s speed, and gave Ricky a curious glance when he stayed behind.
Ricky’s expression was grim. “Might not be him. Illusions.” Alpert brought this into consideration while Ken unleashed a flurry of blows that didn’t entirely seem humanly possible. The brawl looked real enough, but Ricky remained where he was.
Something ached in the back of Alpert’s mind, but he couldn’t think what. The fight continued below, and he watched what must have been the single most one-sided brawl that the island had ever seen.
Then there was a sound behind them. A stone knocked loose, followed by a quietly-muttered profanity in a language Alpert didn’t know.
Alpert barely turned in time to see the thin young man and the spike in his hand. Ricky began to run, and Perfection began to scream. Every sound was interrupted by the sickening crunch of snapping bone. His voice was sweet, even as blood began to splatter on the ground. “I knew you couldn’t stay away. Let’s go home.”
Perfection shrieked with fury, snatching Hanako’s hand as the wizard began to dissolve. for a moment, the air was full of stinging, buzzing insects that couldn’t quite touch them. Down near the hut, Ken yelped in surprise and horror.
When the air was still the wizard was gone, and with him Perfection and Hanako. Alpert stared blankly where they had been, and Ricky pointed to the sky. “They’re going further west.” A cloud of insects streaked across the sky. “Won’t be far from here, let’s run.”
Perfection found herself reeling in a small, dark hut that reeked of stale death and vinegar. The wizard frowned at her. “I wasn’t expecting a stowaway. You’re going to have to leave.”
Perfection did not leave. She opened her mouth too-wide, and lunged with a shriek and trail of fire. The wizard lifted his arms to guard his face, and her teeth sunk into his arm. When she pulled away, a small portion of his arm came with her. As she raised a fist, he wailed. Once, twice her fist impacted his face. The second time, it came away wet.
She was very suddenly surprised that someone could be strong enough to pull her away. Then she remembered that Hanako was no longer human. Perfection landed on the floor, some dried piece of an old body falling from the ceiling and shattering against her face. Perfection had the composure, at least, to keep from sputtering. But for a moment, she was blinded, and couldn’t avoid the dead woman’s kick.
As she tried to blink the corpse-dust from her eyes, she heard boots on the floor and the clattering of bottles. Hanako landed heavily on her back, bleeding down Perfection’s neck. “Help me.”
Perfection gasped, putting a fist through the floor as she tried to push out from beneath Hanako. “I’m trying.”
The wizard’s voice was heavy and pained. “Hanako, we won’t have any of that. And you. Little demon.” Perfection hissed and thrashed as Hanako hit her again. “Calm yourself. I’ll fix you. A girl should be pretty, don’t you think? You’ll be pretty later.”
The world blurred, and her shrieks of indignation were lost to glass. From outside she could hear muffled voices, and a gentle command for Hanako to stitch her cheeks shut.
Perfection tried her hardest to shake the bottle, but it was too small for her to rush at the walls properly. Outside of it, she could see Hanako miserably stitching the long wounds on her cheeks closed. The wizard made a disapproving sound, but the sound of his voice was too muffled for her to make out the words. Hanako rolled her eyes, and begun stitching smaller.
Once she had stitched both sides, Perfection began to sulk in her own frustration. The wizard lifted Perfection’s bottle, staring in carefully. “Willful little thing, aren’t you? Don’t worry. I’ll have you fixed soon enough. You won’t need that old man at all.” When a chirping sounded from the wall, he sighed quietly. “Persistent bastards, all three of them.”
With his free hand, he stroked Hanako’s hair briefly. Then the bottle was placed in a dark corner on the floor. “I can’t have you getting free while there’s a fight going on.” He was still close enough for Perfection to hear the quiet order in Hanako’s ear. “I need you to save me from them, Hanako.”
Hanako blinked, glancing toward him. Perfection smiled as she heard the sick sound of a vacuum against flesh.
The door crashed open as Hanako landed the second blow, using the spike as a club. Blood, bits of gore and bone sprayed through the air as she howled in rage. Ken turned away as soon as he saw. Hanako didn’t seem to notice, delivering a savage beating as her wordless screams filled the air.
Ricky blinked a few times before regaining his senses. A bit of flesh struck Alpert in the cheek. “Quick! Alpert! Put him in the bottle!”
Alpert glanced at the bottle, giving Ricky a baffled look. “How do you put a wizard in a bottle?” It was not a particularly large bottle, either. It was a fetching shade of blue, worn by water until its surface was velvety, and fit very nicely into Alpert’s palm.
“You just do! I don’t know! I’ve never done this before!” Ricky’s voice grew high, a clear note of panic as Hanako landed another blow.
Hanako’s voice was ragged, one hand peeling away from the spike long enough to tear the stitches from her cheeks. “I saved you from them! Now they can’t hurt you because I already did!” The next blow wasn’t as solid, but it still cracked bone audibly.
Alpert uncorked the bottle, wincing as he grabbed the wizard’s foot. Something happened, something he didn’t try to understand as the wizard’s body came up from the ground easily, and fit neatly into the bottle. When he fumbled with it, Ken plucked it from his hands. Ricky was already busy pulling Hanako into his arms.
“Perfection is there.” Hanako pointed to the corner, then went still.
Alpert’s breath was quick. He fumbled with the bottle, uncorking it quickly and shaking it out. Perfection poured into his lap, and Alpert found himself able to relax despite the surroundings. He held her close, kissing her stubby horns and soft hair until he could breathe normally again. Perfection held still in his arms, stroking his cheek and letting him bask in her presence.
Finally, Alpert found it in himself to speak. “Why did you do that? There are… Things he could have done to you.” The thought made him shudder.
Perfection sighed, lifting herself enough to touch her nose to his. “So you wouldn’t.” The kiss was brief, and perhaps blessedly so. There was some sort of dust stuck to her lips, and Alpert didn’t want to guess at its source. “Come on. All of us. Let’s get out of here and burn this place to the ground.”
Alpert was not surprised that the rain had stopped, nor was he surprised at the first of what might be many insect bites. The smoke from the small hut was thick and vile, and inside he thought he could hear the screaming of children.
Perfection had been sure to set aside a day to be with Alpert in the quiet of the island, a day for rest. Alpert had initially been resistant to the idea, but Perfection made a very good argument in the form of watching Ken cast the bottle into the ocean. “Just in case.”
But the bottle flew through the air and crashed into the waves without event. So it was that Perfection dressed Alpert in something light and loose to take him to a quiet beach. She placed her head in his lap, and for some time there was nothing except the gentle stroking of her head.
Alpert broke the silence first. “Why did you decide to help them? I understand, it was easy and we helped someone, but I am sure there were others that would have been simpler without me.”
Perfection blinked, turning a sparkling eye to him. “Hm?” She smiled once she’d digested the question, rubbing her cheek against his thigh. “Because I thought you’d appreciate it. Because I thought you’d sympathize with her.”
Alpert was quiet for a moment, running his thumb against the rounded point of her horn. “I worry, you know.”
Perfection chuckled, lifting herself from the sand and placing herself in his lap. “You shouldn’t.” Slowly, her soft body pressed against him, crushing the flowers she wore and surrounding him with warmth. “Look, did you expect this?”
Alpert chuckled, stroking her neck and wrapping an arm around her solid ribs. “No. I’m not complaining, mind.”
Perfection took a kiss before continuing the conversation, taking her time to force him to take a breath of her scent. She smelled warm, spiced, with a hint of the tropical fruit she had found an appetite for. “Mmm. See that? You want surprises. You want to be displeased and pleased and angry and happy and sad. He didn’t want that.”
Alpert couldn’t help but laugh again, pulling her a little higher onto his body with a rough squeeze of her waist. “What did he want then? By your estimation.”
“Toys. Dolls.” She made a face, sticking out her tongue before pressing it between his lips. One of his hands wandered up her body, finally twisting in her hair. He spent nearly a minute in the taste of her lips and the scent of her breath before deciding it was enough. Another twist of his hand and the pulling of her hair indicated it was time to let go, though Perfection tried to leave her tongue with him for another second. Before long they were on the sand together, his body pressed against hers and her neck exposed.
“Make me a promise.” He bit her throat, taking a deep breath. “I will bind you to it, and that alone.”
The bruise against her skin was the wrong color entirely, and it made him smile. A blossom of fresh color. Perfection moaned softly, fingers burrowing in the sand. “Tell me what you want me to promise, and I’ll tell you if I can keep it.”
Alpert moved a hand, digging nails into her shoulder from behind. A little shifting of weight meant that both her body and his forced them deeper into her tough skin. “If I ever begin to go his way, I want you to stop me.”
Perfection hissed pleasantly, arching into his hand. She couldn’t help but laugh as she answered, “I hear and obey, Master.”
Alpert frowned briefly, pulling himself up. Another shifting of his weight, and he slapped her firmly. In response, she only laughed louder. The sound of skin slapping skin and laughter echoed well into the night.
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