House of Pork Bones [Olympus in the Dark #2]

Johnny Libenzon
57 min readMar 1, 2024
The second story in this collection. [Ramen by Ivan 伊凡]

There was nothing more beautiful to the discerning gourmet than the Old Market District in the early hours of the night.

Sheolam was a marvel of a city, the veritable jewel of the Shadow. It extended dozens of miles in each direction, creeping out towards the dark places beyond the deserts and barrens of the Outer Regions, and its skyscrapers extended as high as the nebulous clouds above. There were many that called the city their home, and they too felt that the Old Market District was the most special and important of places, even if nowadays it was difficult for the average resident of the city to go there very often. Inflation had caused prices to rise, and wages did not follow, as was often the case during years marked with poor crop yields and political tensions between the various Pacts that ruled the city’s production lines. Economic downturn meant the district wasn’t as popular as it had been only a year prior.

Which suited Felix just fine. He could get around without having to shove through a ghoul or gaunt on his way to whatever seedy locale his line of work sent him to.

Still, traffic had been killer. It took half an hour for him to find a decent parking spot, a brief walk from his destination: A pleasant little noodle shop called ‘Slurps for the Soul,’ so-called because they apparently served a curious wheat-based soup that could even sate the most undead of creatures. Though admittedly, the locals apparently didn’t rate it very highly for much except their signature dishes, and the overall vibe that place gave off was that of a restaurant barely getting by on a narrow profit margin. Such were the times, after all.

Felix stopped the car, listening to the vehicle gently grind to a halt. Rain continued to stream down his windshield. With the lights turned off, he was free to observe the nightlife of Sheolam. The streets hung with a gentle darkness, marred only by neon lights that flared from the drizzle engulfing the skies. The artificial clouds, which had hung with a casual ease earlier in the day, had turned rough and sour, churning in electric spirals that threatened a far more destructive storm on the horizon.

Signs for various corporations, big and small, lit up the night, advertising what they could to wayward Nightfolk and other denizens of the Shadow. They were distractingly bright. There was a new strawberry-milkshake flavored blood substitute for the Vampires, created through cutting-edge research from the scientists over at AlphaSanguine Labs, which reportedly contained twenty-percent less fat per serving and worked as an excellent pairing for breakfast. Another sign, flickering over a barber shop, offered a hair growth product for ghouls, which were famously known to suffer from baldness at a young age. Envirility Corp, the makers of the ad, prided themselves on their ‘cool, cost-efficient corticosteroid for the classy consumer’, which they emblazoned in bold font that made the fine print about the dozen-or-so potential side effects seem miniscule by comparison.

People passed through the streets wearing clothing that seemed to have developed from, in Felix’s eyes, a cursory understanding of human culture. He saw a male vampire in business attire, his amber eyes glowing in irritation as he stared at his pocket watch while waiting for a taxi to come by. Even as he fumed in place, a spider-like woman with twitching movements walked on by. She sported a yellow robe-and-sash, several sets of differently colored sunglasses, and an oversized headset that played something suspiciously similar to Elvis.

Sheolam was a curious place, in that the elites that ruled the city and provinces beyond — this being the governing council of the Grand Authority, as well as the Pacts that were each ruled by one of the major Vampire Clans — had nearly unfettered access to information regarding the mortal plane, as well as the ability to import whatever information they pleased. The average citizen of the Shadow did not. Those that were born and raised without any interaction with Mortalis, the human plane that Felix had himself grown up in, did not know much of how quickly technology had advanced outside of the shadow in only a few short decades.

This was a status quo that the Pacts and Authority worked hard to maintain.

Even those human souls that were pardoned at the gates of death and permitted to enter the Shadow were sworn to their own sort of secrecy. From what Felix understood, it was like one of those non-disclosure agreements companies often made people sign under threat of lawsuit. Only in this case, the consequence of speaking of the outside world’s wonders often meant either getting sent into the Darkness or, in more damaging cases, something far more painful.

Fortunately, Felix was immune to such potential punishments. His arrangement as a ‘Boatman,’ a sort of protected chauffeur and general body-for-hire, was one that had its benefits. His position was respected by most shopkeepers and hotels, netting him various discounts and privileges, and he was harassed by the Police-Errants at a rate acceptably lower than the norm.

Only issue was that Boatmen weren’t exactly paid. They were in debt, and depending on the magnitude of that debt, they worked until the debt was paid.

The radio crackled.

“You’ve arrived safely at your destination, Boatman Shaye?” A smooth, assertive voice rang out, like the kind of woman one might expect to run a late-night radio show.

“Affirmative.”

“Wonderful. Do enjoy the soup. I’ll be expecting a review in the morning.”

Felix left the car, letting the rain cascade around the metal rivets of his umbrella. It smelled of meat roasting, wet gravel, and flavored pipe smoke from a powdered haunt nearby.

He’d put on something nice tonight, a tailored shirt and all. It’d be a shame to get it soaked already, when the night was young and his stomach was still empty.

“Well, better late than never, I say. Took a while to find the place, boatman?”

Felix hung the umbrella on a hanger near the door, taking care to move aside when a fat goblin with pork fat still on his chin grumbled his way outside, followed by a tall ghoulish wife that apologized profusely for her husband’s temperament. The jacket slipped from the man’s shoulders, and placed over one of the stacked railing that had been haphazardly nailed to the wall to act as an inexpensive solution to jacket crowding.

“Oh, you know how it is. Market’s busiest on a Saturday night,” Felix said, walking towards the main counter.

“It’s Thursday,” said the man he was there to see. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, obscuring his face.

“I know, it’s just a… I’ll tell you about it later. It’s a story.”

“Oh, there’ll be plenty of stories in the air tonight.”

The noodle shop had been around for some time, and there were markers all around the place that betrayed its age. The location itself was fairly small, accommodating only a few round tables and a long bar that could seat six patrons at a time. The walls were generally quite plain, slight cracks visible in the painted stone’s foundation, but the ceiling contained various drawings of miscellaneous Yōkai and the natural phenomena they spawned. Though many of the intricate drawings had since been erased over the years, Felix could still pick out a strange one-eyed pig creature that had been colored in bright autumn shades that seemed to be munching on a burning vine. He wasn’t sure what that was all about, but it seemed like the creative endeavors of someone that had ingested too much of the local Toxic Root hallucinogen. And he decided that he liked it.

The patrons were mostly made up of Nightfolk, the kind of ghostly, almost revenant-like denizens that came in all shapes and sizes. They were the most populous of the different races within the Shadow, were vaguely humanoid in stature; those human ghosts that died and were granted leave to live within the Shadow became Nightfolk, yes, but so too were there other Nightfolk that had lived their entire lives here. It was difficult, but possible, for the trained eye to tell the two types apart, but the major distinction was simple: Those Nightfolk that had once been human could not reproduce and continue on. Once they became Nightfolk, they were permitted to stay within the Shadow until such time as they desired to enter the Darkness on their own accord — or could not pay for their living.

“What’re you staring at, Felix?”

The boatman realized he’d been dawdling, standing to the right of a bar stool with his hands in his jacket pockets. He grimaced and nodded, as if reprimanding himself, before sitting down next to the other, older man with the hat.

A young chef, wearing a traditional robe and white hat to keep the hair out of her face, walked over to the two men.

“What are we having tonight, Song? You ordering for your friend here, too, or should I bring a menu?”

“He wouldn’t know what to get anyway. He’s been around, but when it comes to our cuisine… What’s your favorite kind of sushi, Felix?”

The boatman suddenly felt embarrassed, scratching at his stubble and avoiding the woman’s eyes.

“Song, you said you wouldn’t…”

“Ah, relax, just answer the question.”

“California roll?”

The man simply smiled.

“Just order for me,” Felix muttered.

Song said something in a dialect that Felix did not understand. Many of the languages on Earth did exist to some extent within Sheolam, but it had grown its own two tongues that were far more common among natives: High Sheolic and Lingelosha. The first was more common within Sheolam itself, as evidenced by the name, and considered more proper to those inhabiting the city. The latter was commoner’s tongue, mostly utilized by those living in the Outer Regions surrounding the city center.

Felix’s knowledge of High Sheolic had improved greatly in the past year that he’d already spent serving Adomira as one of her boatmen, so it surprised him greatly when Song spoke Lingelosha with the young chef. In fact, it was only one of few occasions in which he’d seen someone speak it so deep within Sheolam’s core, considering the ostracization most folk living outside the city would receive if they had done so with more discerning company present. Like the vampires that ruled so much.

“I ordered some ramen for you, by the way. It’s tonkatsu — ah, made with pork bone, you know. Very creamy, very rich. The texture is… how do you say, ‘silky?’ You’ll enjoy it.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Passerby often did not think much of Song, an unassuming man of Korean descent that looked like he was just on the cusp of fifty. His dark matted hair lay smoothed out against his skull due to the weight of the hat, and he was clean-shaven. The most prominent hair was the thick brows that betrayed his emotions, huddling over brown eyes that held the wrinkles of time around their periphery. His face was one lined with markings of the past, and held evidence of all he had seen and done throughout his life.

For Song did not live a normal life, and he certainly did not regret that it had ended early from something so pedestrian as a heart attack. His was a tale that, in his own words, was filled with as much longing and heartbreak that it may have made for a riveting film some day. But that was only when he’d eaten well, and felt a little more boisterous than usual. In his usual humility, Song spoke little of his past, and of his life back on Mortalis. It was — as they often say — a long story.

So when Felix received word from Adomira that Song, a customer he’d ferried several times prior to different parts of Sheolam and towards the Outer Regions on a few occasions, would pay for ‘one last job,’ he was intrigued. Even if it meant he’d have to sit through yet another bowl of ramen.

“Aha! Here it comes, here it comes. Felix, move your phone out of the way, that one’s yours.”

The boatman was surprised at that, considering the chef had only just walked out of the kitchen on the very opposite end of the bar.

“You can tell from that far away?”

“How is it that my sense of smell is better than yours, and I’m dead?”

Song hadn’t lied, the ramen looked good. The darker texture was punctuated by a warm, hearty aroma of meat and garnish mixed into a bubbly concoction. Felix picked up his wooden chopsticks and stirred one of the slices of thinly-cut pork, watching the way it parted the surface tension of the soup and revealed noodles, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and other delicacies hidden below.

“Guess there’s no getting around it though. You’re wondering why I bring — brought you here. Why you’re here, right now.”

“Well, that. And why you’ve offered a whole Short Mark for just a single night out, eating ramen. Just surprised, really. Doesn’t add up, considering your claims of being broke.”

“I’ll explain that part later. Before I begin — how was your last job?”

Felix stared into the soup. He could see his dark complexion reflected in the surface, but his features were too blurry to make out. Could Song see how much it had affected him? Likely not. He would have said something or otherwise commented on his appearance.

After telling Song all about it, save for what decision the woman made in the end, the Korean man sighed, idly stirring his spoon through his own bowl of ramen, letting the egg gather around and dance between garlic cloves.

“Poor woman. To die, and not even realize that you are dead… that is real torture. I hope I see her here someday, if that is the choice she made. And if not, I will see her on the other side tomorrow.”

Felix froze halfway into a mouthful of ramen, gulping down the soup-slick noodles before placing the chopsticks into the bowl with their backs sticking out. Song frowned at this, but said nothing in turn.

“You’re going into the Darkness tomorrow? Why?”

“The Darkness… such a sad, frightening name,” Song smiled sadly, “And one that I think causes more strife than necessary. Makes it seem like you are being tossed into some black void. The Koreans within this city, do you know what some of us call it instead? Dongbu haean. It means… ‘east coast,’ or I suppose ‘eastern shore,’ as many have taken to calling it. Death is not falling into the pitch, but rather a short boat ride that all must take some day. So I will not enter the Darkness tomorrow, but rather I will take a trip to the eastern shore. And there I will stay.”

Felix had little to say to that, and a hush overtook both men. The silence was punctuated only by the occasional slurp of ramen and clatter of chopsticks from themselves and the other patrons at the bar.

A large vampire, resembling a rat-like creature, entered the bar. He picked up a delivery order, and paid the chef slowly, carefully counting out each bill as if it were his last. Then he left.

A chitinous beetle hopped onto the counter, dropping several coins out of his mouth. Copper and iron clattered onto the inner side of the bars, dropping between mixed green spices and freshly washed vegetables. The insect was given a large slab of meat, digging into it hungrily.

“Are you doing it on your own volition?” Felix finally said, wiping his lips with the back of his hand and reaching for a glass of water. The pepper he’d sprinkled in once most of the noodles had gone was beginning to sting the back of his throat.

“Hm, dying? Why do you ask?”

“You know why. I never took you for much of a criminal, but it’s either that or you’ve finally grown bored of this place. Which I somehow doubt, considering the fact that you’ve hired me for what, seven trips in just the past three months? Clearly you’re enjoying yourself.”

“You’re a sharp one,” Song grinned, exposing stained teeth that had worn out over his years on earth. “Very sharp. Yes, Felix, you’re right — I’m not entering that boat on my own accord. To tell you the truth, it’s likely only…” Song glanced down at his watch, squinting at the miniscule digits carved under the glass face, “…only about another three, maybe four hours, before I will be arrested and sent down to the Hush under armed guard.”

It was interesting, the way most nightfolk became the version of themselves they preferred when they entered the Shadow. Most donned the physical form of their late twenties and reveled at being young again, save for the dark shimmer that betrayed their inhumanity. But Song had died in his late forties, and chose to live with that same dignity within the shadow, not minding that he could be faster and stronger than he’d been in decades.

And after Felix heard what his friend had just said, the boatman too felt ten years older. There was a weight on his chest that he did not understand. He’d only ever ferried Song from one place to another, he shouldn’t have cared so much about the man’s fate.

Yet he did. Because Song reminded him of someone very close to his heart.

“And I’m guessing you called me to explain why,” said Felix, his voice hollow.

“Yes. But not only that. I’ve never properly told you my story, have I? Who I was, why I was lucky enough to end up here in the first place, all that jazz?”

“You… so you brought me here, and paid me a whole Mark — which you’ll have to explain how you got, by the way — to sit and listen to your life story?”

“Not quite; we’ll be hitting up a few more shops tonight. Hope you brought your car and an empty stomach.”

“Shops.”

“Yes, ramen shops. I have four scheduled, five if traffic is good.”

“You’re lucky I skipped lunch. Gonna explain that part too, right?”

“Naturally.”

“My story begins some time ago, and it is quite lengthy. I will tell it to the best of my ability, Felix, but please stop me when you feel you need clarification. I would say that we have all night, but that is unlikely. I doubt it will take long for the Police-Errants or the City Guard to figure out what I’ve done.”

“You don’t need to tell me everything.”

Most of the patrons in the bar had left. The only people Felix could see were the chef and a young girl on the other end of the bar.

“Oh, but Felix, I do. Someone has to know the whole story. If not, then it dies with me — again. This way I’ll rest easy knowing that I’ve done the right thing. But yes, with that: Are you prepared?”

“I’m sorry, Song.”

“Nevermind that! You’re young, so you think that dying is terrible under any circumstance, despite the fact that you happen to be a Deathhand and should know better. I will say this only once: I have chosen to die on my terms.”

“But you said — ”

“I know what I said. Just listen.”

Song tapped his cigarette, letting the white powder pool in a silvery, claw-shaped ashtray.

“Many years ago,” Song began, “Something like a month after the end of the Vietnam War, I had the privilege of being born into luxury. My parents were not rich, mind you, but they were kind, hardworking, and understood the value of silence. They listened more than they spoke, and when they did speak, they made sure never to break things down into, how do you say, caricatures? They were honest about what they knew and what they lacked. I appreciated that about them.

“Both my parents ran a single distribution company, and their merchandise was circuitry. They drafted trade contracts with companies that produced them en masse and acted as middlemen for fledgling companies within China and Hong Kong, and often sent them large sums at a discount to secure their cooperation in the future. Their profit margins were not ludicrous but, as you can imagine, they were fairly far ahead of the technology boom of the 90’s. My father admitted once that they could have likely made a small fortune had they stayed, but they feared that the North would become strong and dangerous one day. That, and the fact that some of their best friends had chosen to move to America for what they saw as a better future for their children, brought my parents out from the lap of luxury and sent them across the sea. And me with them.

“I was an only child. I had a half-sister from my father’s first marriage, but we barely spoke, and I don’t know where she is to this day. That is to say, I was lonely when we first arrived. California was a hub of technological growth, and we were lucky enough to settle down in the Santa Clara Valley — it’s where you’ll find the ‘Silicon Valley’ of today. My father did not always make the most prudent financial decisions, but he followed his heart, and he had enough business sense and ability to read the proverbial room. We never went hungry, but we weren’t so rich as to want for nothing.”

“That’s a convoluted way to say that you were middle-class, Song,” Felix grumbled.

“Right. Well, can’t blame an old man for being poetic about the past,” Song said. “In any case, we were doing well, and my family’s interest in semiconductors and how they could be further utilized in the new boom of computers and digital home appliances meant I, too, began to take an interest in such things. It began with the usual fiddling around in the garage, and developed into joining clubs at school, field trips to various hardware labs, and eventually entrance into Berkeley for a degree in Electrical Engineering.

“Berkeley was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Many of those in my year were capable of finding external assistance to prop up their grades, and I only had my father. But he was a businessman first and an engineer second, so his assistance fell off almost as soon as it had begun. It didn’t take long for me to realize the plain truth of the matter: I was going to succeed, or fail, on my own terms, without exterior support. So I studied, and I worked. Things didn’t go well at first, and my grades seemed to slip as easily as I did the first time I tried skating at the Ice Arena. But I persevered. Many hundreds of sleepless nights later, I prospered. Found myself my first internship at an IP firm, then a second one in the home of their competitor. Speaking honestly, it was enjoyable, flitting between the two just before graduation and wondering which would pay more to take me in on a full-time basis.”

“Who won?” Felix asked, his eyes now trailing after the chef, who had taken her hat off and begun to change out of her work clothing without seemingly caring that there were patrons still in the bar. But just as soon as she’d begun to take her apron off, the boatman blinked, and the chef was suddenly no longer there.

“She is Ceresi, if you believe her,” said Song, “A kind of sprite, representing agriculture, crops, and other such things. I hope you didn’t offend her with the chopsticks.”

“What?”

“Nothing. In any case, it doesn’t matter which company ‘won’ me in the end — and that is exactly the point. I was not a prize, I told myself, and I would not give them any more of my life than I was willing to part with. The plan was to work, and work hard, but work to free myself from the need to work too hard. Land some cushy position, sitting on my small hoard of gold, and pursue other interests instead.

“Yet once again, things did not come easy to me. I ended up instead working for a company known as Jackson & Pestle. It’s doubtful you know much about them anymore however, considering they’ve gone bankrupt and the owner was flung out the gates back in ’08 — too many retail investments, of course. But back then they were a powerhouse, and I initially enjoyed the work I did there, even if it stretched into late nights and early mornings. Despite my personal beliefs, work became life, and my time there consumed me, spending hours pining over electrical diagrams, supply chain documents, everything… everything. I was officially working as an engineer but as you can imagine, a good dog is put to use whenever possible.

“Sometimes I wonder how it happened. How I came to America with such thoughts of freeing myself to be my own man, and hanging on my father’s words about how he’d sacrificed so much so that I could live a life of my own. All those speeches to my friends at dinners, both Korean and otherwise, about how much our parents dreamed that we could be both successful and have the ability to self-actualize. That is, to come into our own, and pursue the things we love. Work would become secondary to pleasure, we’d say! And you know what? In my final year of college, with the degree hanging over me and what seemed like the world at my disposal, I felt like a god.

“Instead I became a work horse for a manager who didn’t even so much as glance me by when he passed me in the queue. It didn’t matter how productive a single engineer was, and he certainly never bothered to find out what I wanted. I tried so, so hard to push myself into the spotlight, and pretended my colleagues were deserving of the promotions I had been passed up on. I told myself they must have been doing something better. The truth is, the deciding factor was my inability to stand my ground and push for progress. I did not confront my superiors, and my personal life suffered for it. The usual problem, you understand.

“But life has a way of fitting into place when you least expect it. Late work nights meant when my friends were asleep or had moved away to seek their fortunes, I was there, in my mid-20’s, drowning my sorrows in every flavor of soju known to man. That was something my father had passed on to me — love for rice and rice wines, both in abundance. And it was one night, at an unassuming hole-in-the-wall known as The Three Goddesses, I met a man drinking sake instead. That was the most important moment of my life.”

Song sighed, taking a break to wet his throat with the last of the ramen. Felix had gone off to grab his jacket, but with the shop closing up for the night, there was no one else to buzz around in the background. His voice was heard clear across the establishment, and he’d even gained another curious audience member along the way.

It took a moment for the girl to realize the storyteller was staring at her. She seemed young, with pale skin, hair that fell in a waterfall of auburn ringlets, and a bright, expressive face marred with a cut across the bow of the nose.

“Oh, hi! I’m Samhnumìosa, or um, Sam. Was just sitting here, eating my fish, you know, as one does. Amur sturgeon, really wonderful fish.” She licked her lips nervously. Her smile was oddly manic. “Sorry, ate it all, can’t really offer it to you two. Well, not that you want any, you know. Saw you had your ramen. Great ramen here, although I — anyway, your story is super cool and I’m like, bored. Like super bored. Mind if I tag along with you guys?”

“Don’t see why not. Welcome aboard, Sam,” said Song, tossing his cigarette into a nearby waste compartment. He didn’t seem to care much either way, but his eyes were trained on Felix, who was coming back to the bar.

“Aww, thanks grandpa!” Song did wince at that particular comment, however. “So what’s up with the Japanese guy? You end up… you know?”

“Doubt it, he ended up marrying a woman named Mary. Yeah, married a Mary. And didn’t you have a kid too?” Felix said, now dressed for the street again.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Felix. Our young guest here is coming into this without prior knowledge.”

“Uh huh, and who is our guest, again?” Felix said. He had placed his hand down flat on the bar table. The black ring tapped lightly against the oaken surface, small shocks of black energy pulsing from its surface.

Sam seemed about to reply, but Song simply stood and adjusted his hat, smiling at the pair.

“Friends are friends. I have nothing to fear, considering I’m not long for this world anyway.”

Despite his even countenance, Felix’s expression cracked slightly at that. The ramen bowl next to his hand was empty and forgotten. The chef would lock the place up after them, and deal with any remaining cutlery in the morning.

But Song, a regular at this place, would never taste her food again.

“Are you finished with your meals?”

All three glanced up towards the chef, who was standing outdoors with her keys jingling.

“Wonderful. Then get the fuck out,” she smiled. “Please.”

“Aren’t you cold?” Felix said, spinning his own car keys on a small metal chain that included, among other keys, several accessories, such as a silver cross, an ankh, a rod of Ascelpius, and a wolf’s claw. It made a ringing noise whenever he tapped any of the dangling bits against one another.

The redhead blinked up at Felix in confusion. She was wearing a loose fleece sweater and plaid-patterned leggings and some lace-up boots. The only thing warming her head were two earmuffs that reminded Felix of a fox’s coat. The rain had stopped, at least, so an umbrella or hood were not necessary.

At his remark, the girl raised one gloved hand and grabbed her nose with two fingers, rubbing the bridge for warmth.

“Me? Nah. Selkies aren’t cold — or well we can be, but not much. This is good, I’m fine. It’s fine.” Sam grinned widely, exposing teeth that were just a little too sharp for Felix’s tastes. But from what he knew of selkies, they primarily feasted on fish and other seafood, not human beings. That didn’t explain why she seemed so frantic even when asked the simplest questions, but he figured it may have been because selkies were an endangered species. Always cautious and watchful for the net and the spear.

“If you say so. I don’t have a spare change, you know, so if you’re gonna join us for the night, you’re figuring your own shit out.”

“Don’t worry, worrier! Ha, like ‘warrior,’ but I don’t see any sword. Ooh, is this your car? Cool car.”

“Hear that, Felix?” said Song, “She thinks your car is cool.”

“She’s a fish. Doubt her standards are very high.”

“Hey! Hey, Felix!”

“Yeah, Sam?”

“Um… f-fuck you,” she said the words shyly, as if asking him permission to insult him.

“Adorable. Anyway, get in the car, we don’t have all night.”

Naturally, Song took the shotgun seat, while their new selkie friend chose to lay down in the back. Felix didn’t bother asking her to put on a seatbelt. Boatmen weren’t responsible for the basic safety of their passengers, just threats from external sources.

It was only when they were back on the street that Song resumed his story.

“It took me a while before I could approach him, but we always gave one another a polite nod whenever we found ourselves together at the bar. He’d always drink some variation of sake, and I’d have my soju. Different strokes for different folks, as they say. Anyway, his name was Hiroshi Kawamoto, but most of his friends, and myself, knew him by his nickname of ‘Rocher.’”

“Oh, like — ”

“Yes, Felix, like Ferrero Rocher. Their chocolate had become popular in those years, and I imagine the similarity came from his family name being pronounced similarly. He was a good man, and he took nicknames and nomickers in stride, which I would later come to find out was because of his job: government work. He wouldn’t tell me much more than that of course, but then I never asked either. Our friendship was a simple one: We met at The Three Goddesses at least once a week, sometimes more, to drink in solidarity. He told me much of his own life in those late nights. He quickly went from Hiroshi, to Rocher, to Hiro. Hiro is how I knew him for most of our time as friends.

“Hiro had been born to a poor family of Japanese immigrants. His grandparents on both sides suffered from internment camps up in Canada, but both his mother and father still chose to go down to America for work. Arguably no better to some, but they saw a future in California, same as mine. What his parents did is not relevant, but what I will say is that they made a small fortune there using skills that were valuable at the time. Hiro learned from his parents, but he never went the way they had intended; where his family had expected him to follow the example of their friend’s children, heading off to study engineering or finance or medicine in top schools, Hiro chose a different path.

“He learned all that he could about all sorts of different things, and I wonder what sent him in that direction in the first place. Ah, that didn’t make much sense — I’ll explain: He learned Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Taekwondo, various forms of wrestling, and more. He learned cryptography, men’s fashion, early computer science advancements, acting, weapon handling… in short, he trained to become a federal agent. He denied it, but something told me he was inspired by James Bond films as a child. Wild guess though, of course.

“In addition to all this, he self-studied as much as he could. We’d had conversations ranging anywhere from the west, such as Alexander’s conquests and birth of Islam, to our thoughts on the east, such as the Kamakura Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. He seemed to show particular interest in various events within the last half-century in Europe, but this did not surprise me at the time, since all things considered the story of both World Wars was one parroted by many during the time. It was more fresh then than it is now. I thought nothing of it and indulged him. It’s funny, we didn’t have smartphones back then, so fact-checking one another in the moment was difficult — instead, we’d come back the next time with hand-written notes to counter the other’s arguments and assertions.

“And as we spoke and played on one another’s understanding of history, we grew closer. Years went by, and we stayed close throughout various events — though he would leave, often for months on end, for various assignments. At the time, he told me he was going around to various states, but I later learned that much of his work was done overseas. And in those years, I changed. Dated a few times, until I met Mary, who I married and happily remained at my side till death took me from her. Got promoted a few times until I ran a small division, essentially working up the ladder until I barely did any real engineering anymore, instead tossing orders to a dozen others. Funny, how the more skilled at your work you become, the less of it you end up doing. Managing projects and juggling assignments takes precedence.

“I had no contact with him while he was on assignment, and I was no fool. It became clear soon enough that his work was highly confidential, and most likely because it was dangerous and potentially damaging politically. He had his secrets, and I had little on my end to match. It made me feel woefully naked before him, I suppose, to know that I was honest with him as much as I could, but that he kept the truth from me in spite of our friendship. All I could do was pretend like it didn’t hurt. It did, and terribly so.”

“Hi Song — I’m Sam, and that makes me Sam-d. Like sad but, with my name. Get it? Sam, sad…” trailed Sam, “What kinda ramen are we ordering here, anyway?”

They’d stopped at a ramen cart. There were only a few left in the Old Market, but those that remained served some of the best meals one could hope to get in the late hours of the night, when the sky was gray and imps flew messages across the city that were too sensitive for the airwaves. The one they’d happened upon was owned by a strange creature with a humanoid upper-half, while everything below ended in a messy jumble of equine legs twisting in every direction and none. Still, the horse-man-thing happened to have a fairly pleasant face, even if its eyes were strangely unfocused.

“Tonkotsu,” said Song.

“Again?” The response came from Felix, on Song’s other side. The cart itself, which Felix would later come to learn was called a yatai, was a ramshackle hunk of wood with kitchen appliances within. There was also some folded seating on the side, but the trio had elected to stand instead, considering they’d be driving around for the rest of the night anyway.

Beyond ramen, there were plenty of appetizers available, though only Sam bothered to partake. The selkie’s hunger was ravenous, and she tore through shrimp tempura and gyoza dumplings alike without skipping a beat. But for Song, Felix quickly realized, the ramen was the point. He seemed to be hunting for some particular meal, though to what end he couldn’t quite figure out just yet. When they had first left the car nearby and approached the cart, the Korean-American man nearly knocked Felix over to get a glimpse of the cart owner’s face.

“Again,” Song replied simply. He rolled up his sleeves, placed his hat on a rusty hook protruding from the cart roof, and took to staring at the simmering pots on the other side of the separation between himself and the chef.

“Same shit, different hour. Gotcha, gotcha. Can I ask a question?”

“Go ahead, Sam.”

Mòran taing,” she said in Scots Gaelic, grinning widely. “So I’m like, impatient, right? Right. What’s with the ramen?”

“I’m getting to that. But it has to do with Kawamoto, of course.”

“Ah, okay. Small second question? Pretty please?”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” muttered Felix.

“Well that makes no sense! Unless it’s two separate people? I thought it was one dude. Felix you’re confusing. I have been confused by you.”

“No, he’s just being difficult. What’s the question, Sam?”

“Oh, okay. So um… you said you married, right? Had a kid? Did your buddy do the same?”

“You’re pretty sharp, Sam.”

“I’ve been told that I’m more of a spoon of a person.”

“Sure you are,” sighed Felix. “Keep going, Song, I’m actually interested.”

“Hey, screw you Mr. Boatman, I’m interested too! Sorry, I can’t help it, I got issues with keeping my focus on one… ooh, trout candy.”

“Ramen came soon after that,” Song resumed, “Eventually, he began to trust me more and more, and the walls began to break down. I could tell that he noticed how I felt about the whole thing, and though I made an effort to conceal the fact that his lack of trust hurt me, I made just enough casual insinuations that he quickly caught on and eventually realized that there was no way for the friendship to continue the way it had been going until then.

“One day, he invited me, finally, to entertain both myself and Mary, then-pregnant in his own home, a pleasant little brick house in the Valley suburbs. I didn’t know it wasn’t his until way later; it was just one of many places people like him would claim for months at a time, the leave for the next person. I remember seeing him for the first time like he’d cleaned up properly for something: Nice three-piece suit, red tie, clean-shaven face, and a big, stainless steel pot. I told him it would be fine to order takeout, but of course Hiro decided to go for something more extravagant. So we entered his kitchen and found a massive pot simmering for us. Ramen. He told me later, much later, that when he retired, he wanted to become a chef with a quaint little ramen shop. Just a pleasant little ramen-ya somewhere in America, or perhaps even Canada, where he could make ramen for the rest of his days.

“I think he’d have been successful at that. It wasn’t the first time I’d had ramen, but both Mary and I never had anything as beautiful, as rich, ever in our lives and since. It was like a religious experience, you know. Being there, eating that food, I felt closer to him than I’d ever been. I didn’t know what I felt for him at that moment, but there was a paralyzing feeling of serenity. It felt like a closeness that I’d lacked for my life had suddenly made itself known to me at that moment. I remember trying to explain it on the drive home, and that only worried Mary. Especially since she liked him, too.

“He told us stories. And you know the funny thing? Some were almost true, and others were entirely fabricated. For the true ones, he’d just change some of the details to avoid flying too close to the sun. The false ones he’d base on other things. There’s one where he and some other agents were trying to find a Russian spy in a restaurant — you know, Cold War just recently finished up — and how they’d have to look for the person squinting when drinking coffee, or… I forget, but it was something like that. Anyway, it was funny. He made people laugh. He was good with people.”

“You’re starting to sound like Sam over here. Are you feeling alright?” Felix said, slurping ramen into his mouth and pretending not to notice the selkie making a face at him from her side of the booth.

“I am fine. I am just remembering things that have long since passed. But yes, the ramen was good, and he said he was doing fine, and then he got up and left for a full year. Almost the next day. Didn’t call and tell us, didn’t bother leaving a note. Gone.”

Sam’s eyes widened in surprise, turning to face Song with noodles hanging out of her mouth and dripping ramen liquid on the counter. She looked odd, like she was doing the part of a squid in a stage play.

“Don’t get that on the wood, please. Yes, he had gone off to some assignment, but when he returned, I did not find him at my doorstep or at the bar, but rather on my way home one night. Hiro was waiting outside the office near some ragged Toyota, and there were stitches on his jaw and around the cheekbone. He wouldn’t explain what had happened to him until we were somewhere more secure. Those were his words.

“We stopped at a cliff overlooking the city, away from prying ears in a car he’d rented out discreetly, and he told me the truth: He was a government agent, but he was part of an organization that dealt with things beyond normal, beyond what us petty human minds could ever imagine. The supernatural. Yes, Sam, that means you — finish your soup.

“I didn’t believe him at first, but he quickly shut me up by setting lightning arcing between his fingers. He’d learned some basic magic from a witch, apparently, during his time as a confidante, informant and occasional ally of the Amberwatch.”

“What the fuck?”

Felix and Song were both startled by the sound of Sam’s fish clattering down onto the cart’s surface, her chopsticks flying off to the side, with one landing in Song’s half-finished bowl and sinking into the thick broth. She was staring with wonder, as if seeing the storyteller anew. Felix himself did not entirely understand what the significance of that final word may have been, but judging by her reaction, and that the cart owner had raised an eyebrow at its mention, he was about to hear it a whole lot more.

“Your buddy worked with the Amberwatch? The Amberwatch? Why the hell didn’t you lead with that, Grandpa, that’s where the good stuff is at!”

“I am going to regret this,” said Felix, poking at a piece of pork fat that he was too skittish to eat without first psyching himself up about it, “But who are the — ”

“ — I’m going to respond before our young friend lunges at you,” said Song, quickly raising a finger into the air just as Sam seemed about to explode, her red hair floating about her head luminously like weeds underwater. “She’s clearly quite passionate about the topic. Felix, the Amberwatch are a famous band of heroes for those living in Sheolam. They are all but Arthurian to the people here, and their history is the history of the Shadow.”

Felix nodded for a moment, then sighed when he saw that Song was content to wait until the clarifying question was asked.

“Alright, yeah, I have no clue. Could you be a little more specific?”

“The Amberwatch was an organization that began to gain traction during the turn of the 20th century, and consisted of dozens of members across the world — yes, both Earth, ah, ‘Mortalis’ and the Shadow — that endeavored to minimize the catastrophic consequences of rapid change, industrialization, and of course, war. They were active during both World Wars, the Eastern Front, Vietnam, you name it, and they were led by a few names that you should do well to remember: Ellian de Loccenfort, the young Vampire Prince of the Malachai Coven and himself only a recent convert into the clan when the Amberwatch was formed. Lord Levin Kisiette, a Slavic vampire of noble birth from the same coven. Robert Tallow, an undead gunslinger with several curses all fighting to take him back to the grave. Jahiatara, or Jahi, a succubus with millennia of skill and wisdom. You don’t need to know all the names too closely, but I’m sure they’ll come up again sometime.

“They were the leaders of this little endeavor, but they had help from all sorts, whether they were Nightfolk or Vampire or Ghoul or Ghost or Demon or Goblin or even regular old human beings like Hiro. They only took on the best of the best, and Hiro was lucky enough to work with them through a government agency known as the FBX, or Federal Bureau of Extremities.”

“That’s… not a real thing,” scoffed Felix.

“It is,” said Song, “And it works in the darkness alongside various elements within the Shadow. The Amberwatch was not the first attempt at a lasting relationship, but it was perhaps the most successful. Your own Adomira is one of them, in fact, as I’ve heard Hiro mention her name before.”

“Hiro did incredible things with the Amberwatch. Their mission was to hunt down potential agents of chaos, prevent the smuggling of newer technology into Sheolam or of any nightmarish creatures out into Mortalis by closing down hidden routes, and otherwise attempt to maintain stable relations between what Sam calls ‘Mortalis’ and what we call ‘The Shadow.’ It was difficult work, and Hiro told me that he buried many good people and denizens over the years. He’d brushed close to death himself, in fact, and had apparently killed a feral vampire suffering from an early-stage blood disease by the skin of his teeth. He was an incredible man, with incredible stories.

“And there I was. Sitting in the office day in, day out. Sifting through paperwork to ensure production of our semiconductors was proceeding as expected. Snapping at people to stop texting on the job or my boss would have my head. Going to the optometrist and praying my eyesight didn’t call for a pair of glasses. Buying groceries and fuming when they’d raise the price of milk by another ten cents.

“I’m not sure when it was that I finally snapped, but when I did, God it felt good. I think I was hunched over a desk looking at schematics when my posture suddenly straightened and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I remember thinking — why? Why am I sitting all day, doing the same stupid shit, when I could be helping with something else? Something far more interesting?

“It took some convincing, but I finally pushed Hiro into making me his confidante in not just stories, but in the planning and preparation as well. We detailed routes together, checked shipping manifests, created complicated webs to connect various illegal operations he kept track of to try and find where the smugglers were able to enter the Shadow, and so much more. The latter was the big one, by the way. By the time I joined on, the crazier events had passed, but all the instability in the world caused plenty of ‘tears’ in the fabric of the Shadow, leading to many seemingly random entry points on every continent. Some resulted in tragic accidents, like people driving in and never being able to get out — ”

“Ha. Sounds like someone I know,” Felix said, his eyebrows raising alongside a thoroughly unimpressed expression. “Seems like you didn’t get them all, did you?”

“There were hundreds of them, Felix, maybe even thousands. You’re lucky we found as many as we did, and many more opened up daily. Still, we would use what we could of illegal activity, freak occurrences and sudden disappearances to track them down and, using either Ellian’s sword or Jahi’s magic, close them permanently.

“We got pretty good at it. Before long, we estimated only several dozen left on the entire globe, though of course that meant these were the most elusive. We’d gotten close again by then, after his year away, and felt like we could finally trust each other completely again. When Mary’s mom passed away and we had to go to the other side of the country for the funeral, he watched our daughter for several days. Did a good job of it too, even if she mocked our cooking a good month afterwards.

“He never married, never had anyone special to him. To him, the work was all that mattered, and his friends were split into two simple halves: The ones in the ‘interesting’ part of his life, such as Ellian or Jahi or the agents in the FBX, or the ‘normal’ part of his life, this being me. I never even heard him speak about his own family in the latter years, and I still do not know what became of them. The past, to him, was just a hindrance. He lived in the present in a way few people do.

“One day, nearly half a decade after he had returned and four years after we had begun working together, I woke up to a knock on the door. When I made my way downstairs, slippers and bathrobe and all, I expected a package delivery or something. But when I opened the door, there was just a letter.

“I opened the letter, and within it was a succinct message written by fountain pen: ‘I am gone. You will not find me. I am sorry.’ And that was it.”

A dull silence descended upon the cart, the wind swaying the cutlery hanging from the various hooks around its roof perimeter. All three of the bowls were empty, chopsticks placed gently near each one. The cart owner had his back turned to the trio, busy serving another customer.

Felix had both elbows on the table, his chin resting on intertwined hands. He could feel his beard growing in, the short hair itching against his knuckles. His expression was unreadable, but he avoided Song’s eyes.

On the other side, Sam had pulled a collapsible stool out from under the cart, and now sat on it with her legs pulled up to her chest. Her eyes were sad, lip quivering slightly. In addition to this, she was cold, and her entire form shivered.

When the boatman noticed this, he sighed and pushed away from the table. A moment later, he had taken his jacket off and placed it over the selkie’s shoulders. She tugged at both sides of the jacket and pulled it tighter around herself, smiling a wordless gesture of gratitude up at him.

“You never saw him again?” Asked Felix.

“No, never. Never again. I passed away six years ago, over two full decades since the letter, and I never even heard a whisper. What agency I had back then, what contacts I knew he spoke with within the FBX — gone. Phone numbers reaching nowhere, emails bouncing. There were no addresses, no real names, as we operated on pseudonyms alone. Even the names I knew, such as Ellian or Jahi or Robert, I could not reach, since they’d seemingly disappeared on the wind.

“Mary did what she could to console me through the years, but I could never shake the fear that I had inadvertently brought harm down on him. There were many that may have seeked revenge for his hampering of their activities, and going into hiding may well have been a last resort for him in those circumstances. The enemies of the Amberwatch were still quite dangerous in those years. Maybe he died then, maybe he only died years later, in silence… I suppose that part doesn’t matter.

“At the same time, the Amberwatch ceased their activities, or at least it seemed like they did. I received no news about them either. Hiro, the FBX, the Amberwatch, they all left me in the dark. In the end, nothing I did for them seemingly mattered too much when the net was tightened.

“I only told Mary of my involvement in these things years later. She believed me, bless her. I remember… I can remember her being there when I wept, thinking he was dead and some folly of mine had killed him. Our daughter, sitting on the carpet, playing with her dolls and wondering why her father was so utterly devastated. I don’t think I ever cried that hard until then or since.

“Mary was no longer my wife by that point, I should add. She suspected, and later confirmed, how I felt about him. She couldn’t stay after that. It was selfish to hope that she might.”

Song smiled, breathing out and casting his eyes upwards. Felix could see the glint of tears forming around the edges.

Up above, dark shadows fleeted among black clouds. Towards the center of the city, massive skyscrapers ignited the night with the lights that flooded all the way up their lengths. And in the middle of the city, a massive obsidian spire known as the Monument towered over everything else. Many said that the dark gods of the Shadow, the Lord Shadows, lived there. No one had ever confirmed it.

Song stepped away from the cart, tossing six Denocti onto the counter to cover the meal. He then turned and began walking back towards the car, boots splashing in shallow pools of water that had accumulated from the earlier rains. His hat whipped back slightly in the chill of the night.

“Hey…” Sam had come up from behind him and walked her way around. She was moving almost sideways, her clothing now resembling a thin fabric dress and billowing around her. She did not seem cold, but her hair was covering most of her face.

“Um… is that why… the ramen?” She asked.

“Yes, that’s exactly it,” Song laughed, wiping a tear away with his finger. “That’s why. Stupid, right? I feel imbecilic just considering it, but I suppose I’d hoped…” He took a deep breath, waiting for Felix to catch up. The boatman had been deep in thought about something and hadn’t noticed them leaving. “I hoped that, maybe, for all that he did for this place and for people like Ellian, who is respected here, that they’d have let him in after death. That perhaps he… opened that ramen shop after all. Though, I suppose, that’d hurt even more. That he never tried to find me.”

“Song, stop. Wait a second.”

Felix had placed his hand on Song’s shoulder, but the older man quickly shifted forward and let it slip away, shaking almost violently in response to the action. Felix quickly withdrew his hand, and stood back uneasily to watch for Song’s next move.

“You’re getting ahead of yourself. You’ve been to every ramen shop in this entire city, let alone the Old Market. I drove you to like five of them myself. If he’s here, you would have found him already.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps you’re right.” Song said curtly. Then he curled his lip, his chin trembling. “Damn you. You’re cold, you know that? Sam’s gone silent, but you’re just the same. Nothing really moves you, does it?”

“Did you want it to? Would it make you feel better?”

“I don’t know. I’m just angry.”

“I can tell — ”

“ — And I have no idea why. I mean, why? I thought I’d tell my story and it would lift some load off my chest, but I’m angrier than I’ve ever been before. I’m angry at myself, at… damn him. Damn myself too, for not being able to get rid of memories. All these years and I’m still searching, but he was content to leave me all alone.”

“You’re not alone. You lived a good life, with a good family. You had friends. You helped the world heal, in your own way, enough to be offered a place here. Most people aren’t given that much. You fucked up along the way, sure, but you’re here.”

“I’m nothing special, Felix.”

“Sure, keep saying that, but I don’t believe it. We’ve only known each other for less than a half a year, and yet I can gauge who you are right down to the roots. You did your best with what you were given, and you took action to care for the people you loved. Don’t whip yourself into a frenzy to justify some self-righteous need to feel special. You were to the people that mattered.”

“No, I wasn’t. The only person that… I…” Song seemed lost.

“Do you really believe that? Is his opinion more important than all the rest?”

“I don’t know. I’m tired. I’ve had a lot of ramen and it’s starting to hit my bladder. We’ve still got one last place left to go, and I have one more story to tell.”

By the time the car pulled up to the final ramen shop, it was nearly dawn. Light, or what passed for light, was beginning to peak over the horizon from the far reaches of the Circle, a vast array of mountains that seemed to change directions and yet stay the same.

The Shadow was an odd place for human beings, precisely because many of the rules they’d grown accustomed to no longer applied. For example, all residents oriented themselves based on where ‘the light,’ known as the Veil of Jaliba, was at any time in the sky. Daylight itself was supposedly an arcane projection designed to mimic the passage of the sun and moon within Mortalis, with the Veil appearing as a shimmering, unfocused glow in the sky. It was like having the sun trailing above, but half-hidden behind a translucent fog.

Felix was surprised that the authorities hadn’t caught up to Song by now if he was truly wanted by them. But this was just as well; the last thing Song had left to tell them was the reason behind his fugitive status, as well as why he wasn’t bothering to put any effort into running off and evading them either.

“Last stop, you said?” Felix sighed, stretching his arms over his head.

“Yes,” said Song, “For me, at least, this is it. I’m sure they’ll be here before the sun is up… that is, before the veil is fully active.”

“So you know who it’ll be.”

“No. But I have my suspicions.”

They had parked some distance away, in an alleyway nestled between a blood bank and an alchemy emporium. Such seedy spots within the ecosystem of the city would have been fairly dangerous to the layman, considering the kinds of mischievous creatures that often lurked within, but a Boatman’s preferred mode of transportation was protected by Adomira and her services. No one that wished to live freely within Sheolam dared to move against the Station by stealing or otherwise defacing something owned by the Boatmen.

A rundown establishment presented itself to the onlookers. The House of Pork Bones did not appear to be anything special on the onset; in fact, it could hardly be called a house, considering the roof seemed patchy at best with rust lining the pipes that curled down the side of the building. Where once there had likely been a fancy sign showing the splendor of the Old Market’s offerings, there was now a half-broken piece of barely functioning advertisement. Those unfamiliar with the place may well have thought it was called the ‘Ho se of Ork One.’ Who was this legendary first Ork, and what was so special about his hose that needed to be immortalized in silicon and fluorescence? The answer would be the obvious: Who the hell knows? Who cares?

Felix couldn’t help but smile. There was something to be said about smiling through the pain for some, and something different for others. He wasn’t hurting. The pain was not his, after all. But there was something about Song’s tale that he felt was incomplete. The things he’d said about Hiro, and the kind of man he was, told him there was more to this.

Perhaps that was the point? Or was there something else? Sam was here because she wanted to stick around. Selkies were notorious scamps, running from place to place, forbidden from coupling with humans anymore through selective breeding regulations. Selkie parents were punished for breaking the policy, but the children, like Sam, were not. They were simply restricted in various ways if they intended to continue as legal citizens of the city. Fortunately, Selkies were seen as good luck charms by many denizens of the city, treated often by tourists from the Outer Provinces as pleasant cultural relics of a bygone era. It was common to treat them to a meal, offer them a place to stay for the night, donate clothing, and more. Of course, how Selkies like Sam felt about this was often hidden under the surface. If Felix were in her place, he would have been livid.

“We sing too, you know,” said Sam, absently playing with the sleeve of Felix’s jacket, which still rested around her shoulders.

“I’m sorry?”

“For work, like, to get paid. We mostly do entertainment, so mainly singing, or dancing, or… um, you know.”

“I understand. I didn’t mean to stare.”

“No, no, it’s alright. Your intentions are… pure, I guess? You look at me with kind eyes. Not sleazy, like lots of folks. Or violent. Makes me shake when they do it, but you’re okay. You don’t make me shake, at least.”

She smiled up at him through thick red hair, beaming under a jacket several sizes beyond her frame.

“Kind of the opposite, really! Warm is nice. Are you sure you’re not cold?”

“Only a little. But a little cold is fine — it lets me know I’m still alive.”

“Edgy. Doesn’t fit you. I prefer you when you’re not pretending.”

“Thank… you?”

“No, thank you! Ain’t every day that people buy me seafood ramen, and ain’t many fish anymore near the city, no sir, not at all. They swam off into the ocean.”

“I don’t think I understand you, Sam.”

“I’d be disappointed if you did, Felix.”

Song stood some distance away from the two, causing Felix to realize that Song wasn’t going inside yet. To tell the truth, however, Felix felt a little odd about the whole ordeal. There were no customers inside, at least none that he could see through the muddled, ash-caked window that acted as the storefront, and he wasn’t sure if there were any lights on within or whether it was just the streetlamps reflecting against polished glass from other, more veritable buildings nearby.

“Closed,” said Song, his voice hoarse.

Indeed it was. As Felix walked up to the door, he noted something written in several languages. A hastily scribbled note.

House of Pork Bones is closed

No plans to reopen. Not moving to a new place.

Sorry and thank you for your patronage

See you

The inside of the restaurant was somehow even less appealing than its exterior.

It was hard to tell what had caused the devastation found within, mainly because it was so widespread and complete in its intensity. Light spilled in sparingly from the street as Felix stepped over wooden splinters, which looked like they’d been shocked out of a nearby wardrobe. Dust caked every surface, and in that moment the boatman was grateful that he was not allergic. Sam, meanwhile, seemed to be faring less successfully within the House of Pork Bones, sneezing violently for the third time already.

“Christ, what a dump,” muttered Felix, crouching to pick up the shattered remains of a porcelain bowl. “I can’t imagine anything’s been served here for weeks.”

He stood, looking towards the ceiling and groaned quietly upon seeing that it was covered in spiderwebs of various sizes and densities. Some of the lights had even been shattered, leaving flickering signs of electricity flowing through the circuitry above.

“So that’s it, then.”

Sam and Felix both turned towards Song, who had picked something up from behind the counter. In his hand was a small wooden frame, within which lay a dirty old photograph. And in that photograph, Song clearly did not see what he had been hoping to see.

“It’s done. This isn’t it either.”

He placed the photograph on the counter surface, turning it towards the other two. Depicted was black-and-white imagery of a couple, both aged with graying hair, who were standing in front of the newly-opened House of Pork Bones seemingly several decades ago. The husband’s thin, pronounced ears and fine features meant he was clearly one of the Fair Folk, while his wife had tinged green skin and root-and-vine hair to denote her own status as a swamp spirit of some kind. Neither looked Japanese, and neither looked very humanoid.

The search was over. The result? Nothing of use, to any of them. It was clear by now that if Hiro was in Sheolam, then he had either passed onto the Darkness by now or otherwise made no effort to find Song.

“All for nothing. But I suppose I expected as much,” said Song. His voice held a bitter undertone, and Felix recognized the tremble in the older man’s lip as a titanic effort to keep his emotions under control despite the bitter disappointment raging through his being.

“Didn’t matter. All just stories. Everything he said, everything I believed. Just words after all. Just… words.”

Sam moved towards Song, her hand out, seeking to grip his own to provide what comfort she could give, but Song stepped away and instead pressed his back against a stone wall that had been stripped of its paintings and lively decor long ago.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” she said quietly, but the man did not hear her. His palm was against his forehead, beaded with sweat. His legs were shaking.

“Song, I’m sorry too, but you need to get ahold of yourself. Let me help you.” Felix said quietly, his tone surprising even himself. The strange venom in it made the Korean man glance up, confused, his eyes unfocused.

“I need to know what you’ve done. Why the Police-Errants and whoever else are looking for you right now. Please, finish your story for us.”

Song stared at him, gulping quietly. He began to speak, but all that came out was a croak. He coughed, wetting his dry throat, then exhaled and finally gave Felix the closure he needed.

“Well, you know about those Tears I mentioned, right? Secret passages into and out of the Shadow, that only Hiro and I and scarce others knew? Well, we couldn’t quite close them all quickly. Some we kept open because the work to close them would have been tremendous, and left them for another time. So, naturally…”

He used it to his advantage. The man that had once helped stop weapons and other modern technology smuggling into the Shadow decided that, as his last work, he would allow a business to take in a large shipment and divert the blame to himself. According to Song, the goods that were transported weren’t dangerous, even if they were illegal. The Grand Authority within Sheolam, specifically the Illegal Contraband division, did not permit any new inventions of the mortal world to be transported into the Shadow, nor vice versa for advancements within the Shadow itself for fear that it might destroy the delicate balance of power within the city. Each new technological advancement was vetted, judged, and decided upon before becoming commonplace.

So he helped move a large shipment of things that simply improve one’s quality of life, and were easy to move, such as various medical tools, health trackers, expensive digital watches, and other such tidbits that were unlikely to harm anyone with their usage and distribution within Sheolam.

Of course, Song would need to be punished for it regardless. And punishment for such offenses for the Reborn was swift and certain: Song was to be sent to the Darkness if, and when, he was found out.

“Why? Why do it?” Asked Felix.

“I died. And then I was brought here, and for years I’ve been here just… doing what I could. But my daughter was still in college when I left, and Mary’s new husband had recently been laid off. I didn’t do it for myself. I did it because the last time we went to Mortalis, I saw how they were doing. And it wasn’t up to my standards.”

Felix’s eyes widened. He recalled the last trip they’d made out of the Shadow, however brief, using a Short Mark that Song had taken years to accumulate. He remembered them being in a cafe, because Song missed his home. Remembered buying the Korean man a hat and makeup to keep the others from realizing he wasn’t quite human anymore.

He didn’t realize that they were there for a secondary reason. Felix had learned not to ask questions in the past. Smuggling goods for some unknown employer in return for that same client placing large sums in their bank accounts…

“How much did they get? Was it worth dying?”

“Felix… I did die. Heart attacks are abrupt, but I was lucid in those brief, final moments. Long enough to accept that it was the end. Then I passed on and at the gates to the Eastern Shore, I was instead given a choice, and came here. For six years, I was able to live on and discover a world I had never known. But my family, my real family, is out there. And my sacrifice here is nothing if it means I can rest knowing full well that they can live comfortably without me.”

“Is it really so bad? Do you hate Sheolam so much?” Sam whispered.

“I don’t hate anything, much less the city. But that’s the problem with new things, no matter how spectacular they are: It’s all just a feast for the eyes. None of it feels very real, at least not to me, and the wonder and awe fades away in time, as it does for all things. I remember when I got my first laptop — ha, I was fascinated! And then a year later, I took it for granted.”

Noises outside startled Felix, who turned around and flexed his fingers. A khopesh materialized in his hand, the bronze-colored metal reflecting both the rays of the Veil in the sky and the green-and-gold lights of the Police-Errant motorcycles.

“Guncaps. Just two of them,” Felix sighed, turning the sickle-sword in his hand slowly to reacquaint himself with its weight. “I can delay them. Give you some time to get out.”

“Felix, I’m not running.”

“There’s no way you’ve been to every ramen shop, Song. Just let me do this.”

“And risk getting your own debt doubled? Or stuck here forever? Stop it, I’m a rational man and I made my choice.”

“I don’t believe that. And I can’t believe they found us just as you finished the Wikipedia summary of your story, that’s some bullshit. Where’s the extended edition? Like your daughter, where is she — ”

“Felix, they found me because I wanted them to. More specifically, we let their informant tag along. No, no, it’s okay, Sam — I’m not angry at you. Don’t cry.”

Felix turned to see the selkie holding Song’s hand, her eyes spotty with tears. Even Song was beginning to tear up as well at the pain in her eyes, which were purposely stuck on the picture of the old couple on the wood counter.

“I’m s-sorry, I just n-needed the money, I d-didn’t mean t-t…” Sam’s red hair shook with every heave of her chest. She was as scared as she was remorseful, Felix figured. He couldn’t even bring himself to feel angry with her.

The three all winced when the sound of feedback reverberated throughout the room from a loudspeaker just outside the doors.

“Come out unarmed and we promise not to hurt any of you! We are only here for the smuggler, dead or ali — yes, I am aware that he is dead, it’s just a ph… come out now, all of you!”

Felix stared at Song, as if to say these are the kind of people you’re willingly surrendering to? But he complied with the older man’s wishes and let the khopesh fade away into nothingness again, raising his arms and heading out the door.

Outside the House of Pork Bones were only two Police-Errants, called ‘Guncaps’ affectionately by the city elite presumably because they had guns and wore steel ‘skull caps’ on their heads with a flat structure built into the top and a mask over the face, though Felix thought it looked more like someone had modeled a knight’s helmet around a first World War-era gas mask and added the cap later. Some of the higher ranking guncaps he’d met looked like they were dressed for a medieval battlefield, not for policing, but that wasn’t any of his business.

Of course, there were also less affectionate names for the police-errants of Sheolam and those Outer Regions that were not too dangerous for their presence. Among these were ‘Roaches,’ ‘Hired Thugs’ and ‘Fuckheads.’ Felix had heard one of each by now at the very least when faced with the more unsavory kinds of police-errants, which were doing the work more for glory and perverse pleasure than any real desire to keep the peace. Still, he knew the ones before him, since they frequented the Old Market and worked by proxy with Adomira.

These guncaps’ official working names were Slapstick and Liar’s Dice, though they mainly went by ‘Stick’ and ‘Dice.’ As one could infer from the names, the former thought himself a comedian while the latter sowed falsehoods as easily as breathing — not that she had a choice. He liked the pair, most of the time. He was not fond of them at that particular moment.

“Felix? What’re you doing here? If you wanted some dinner, you could’ve just called,” said Stick, his voice metallic but characteristically jovial under the steel mask, “Although if you asked me to come out here… honestly, I would’ve thought you were crazier than Dice for once.”

“Not in the mood, Stick. And I see you’re in full regalia. Expecting a fight?”

“Guess that depends on you and your friends.”

Slapstick seemingly held a relaxed stance, but Felix noticed the way his hand leaned on the handlebars of his motorbike. Only a few inches away from his holster.

“I’m unarmed! And he is too. We’re not going to give you any trouble, officers,” said Sam, who had stepped out after him with Song in tow. Felix turned slightly, his arms still raised over his head, and noted that the Korean man looked strangely at peace. As if he had resigned himself to his fate.

Sitting on the other motorbike, Liar’s Dice sat as if motionless. It was impossible to read her expression under the mask, as usual, but she was clearly contemplating something. The only indicator of her mood that Felix could spot was her left hand, which was absently rolling two magnetic dice, each 12-sided, around with the balls of her fingers. Sometimes one die would roll around her index or middle finger only to snap back against the other one. She did not look down to see the permutations, instead seemingly fidgeting with them during a tense situation.

“Do you know what this is, Dice? You’re arresting a man just trying to help his family. You feel good about that?”

“Yes, I am perfectly alright with this,” She lied, “But I can afford to lose this job and make an exception for you.”

Sam looked towards Felix for an explanation, but he wasn’t about to explain Dice’s peculiar style of speech to someone that had just betrayed them.

“Anyway… here’s your cut, kid. You can be on your way. No fishermen around with the cold coming in, so I’d be careful about where you spend it until tourism goes back up.”

The bag that was tossed from the street to the edge of the staircase was small, but heavy. It contained a sizable sum, as evidenced by the fact that Sam grunted slightly when she lifted the bag from the ground.

The selkie girl placed one hand over her opposite arm, her gaze averted from both Felix and Song, and walked down the road. The streets had become more crowded, it had become time for most shopkeepers and business owners to open up for the day. The Veil beamed warmly in the sky, casting a pleasant autumn glow that shuddered dark trees alight and made heat-sensitive lanterns turn off to herald its coming. The streets had begun to fill again not only with automobiles, but stagecoaches led by skeletal horses, hairy mastiffs pulling large wagons, and other beautiful creations. Above the street, windows opened, and all manner of winged creatures ranging from ravens and crows to pixies and skyworms began making their way across the warm winds.

Nightfolk holding suitcases walked and talked loudly, the din of conversation filling the previously rather timid air. They made their way around the area the guncaps had quartered off in front of the House of Pork Bones, though they gossiped all the same. A ghoul stopped for a moment to take a picture, but gave a sheepish grin and hurriedly ran off when Dice turned to look his way.

Children had begun to gather nearby. It seemed to be a small group of Inyanari vampires, as evidenced by their eastern appearance and older attire that didn’t match the current fashion. The small incision-like slits on the edges of their mouths marked them as well; the sides lifted when they fed with the angular, bladed fangs within their leech-like mouths. They tilted their heads curiously towards the commotion. One of them was picking his nose.

Felix heard Song sigh behind him, disrupting the silence that had gone on for too long.

“Well, this is more anticlimactic than I’d hoped. Was expecting a royal procession or something. Or maybe someone yelling for me to get down on the ground.”

“I mean… we could do that. Go all John Wayne on your ass. Dice, you wanna go ahead?” Slapstick turned towards his partner. Under the mask, Felix imagined he was grinning.

“That sounds very pleasant,” she said dryly.

Song walked down the stairs and towards the guncaps, stopping an even distance between them and Felix, who continued to stand at the top of the stairs. The boatman had put his hands down, however. Song likely noticed the distant threat of violence in his eyes, and shook his head lightly to say no, this was how things were going to go, and there was nothing he could do about it. The guncaps said nothing. They simply acknowledged his acceptance of the situation by starting their engines.

They were about to leave, but then Song turned and snapped his fingers, as if he’d just remembered something he needed to do. He turned towards Stick and Dice and asked something in High Sheolic, to which Stick nodded his approval and Dice agreed hesitantly afterwards.

Song reached into his pocket, fumbled around for a moment, and pulled out a blood-red coin that seemed to vibrate minutely with barely understood energy.

He threw the coin towards Felix, who caught it in mid-air and examined it. It was a Short Mark, the premium currency of the Shadow. His payment for his services, then.

“Thanks, Felix — for everything.”

If there was something to be said about the Old Market, it was this: The same people that thought they knew where they were, of the history under their feet and of its value to the world, were the same that took all that history and culture and vitality for granted when it was no longer in fashion.

The old market had been a place of life and economic prosperity in the past. But if the state of the House of Pork Bones and other such locales was any indication, even without the near-absence of folks at night in these days, the market had lost that flair for the vaguely magical that it had held for a long, long time.

Felix had only been a boatman for a good year now, but the education had been quick and thorough. He imagined that by now, with the places he’s been and people he’d met, that he was more educated about the Shadow, or Sheolam at least, than much of its native population. But though he knew the history through necessity, that of course did not mean that he knew the intricacies held within.

When Felix made his way back to the alleyway where his car was parked, the Short Mark leaking a faint crimson glow even with his hand fully enveloping it, he found that there was someone else there.

Sam had clearly used some of the money granted to her to buy herself an egg sandwich with firetrout, as evidenced by the miniscule puffs of smoke belching from the sandwich as she gorged herself on it. The selkie looked small, leaning against Felix’s car and munching quietly, hair pulled back behind her head to keep it out of her face. She was quiet, for once.

“Sam.”

The girl perked up at the sound of his voice, wiping her face but missing most of the sauce staining her chin. She looked up at Felix as he came closer, towering over the smaller girl.

“Um… hi. I just, you know, still got your coat. Like got your nose, but it’s your coat. Get it? Sorry, nervous. Jittery. Oh!”

Felix glanced down to his hand, which had caught Sam’s attention even while she had begun slipping the coat off.

“So you got paid for this too! Ha, ha. Guess we’re both just mercenaries, guns for hire, yaddi yaddi ya da…”

Sam wasn’t able to finish her sentence. Instead, she found herself staring. The selkie searched his eyes, and for the briefest moment found nothing but sorrow clouding his mind. Yet as quickly as it had begun, it had stopped. She almost thought she’d imagined it.

“Sorry, I didn’t… mean to.” Her voice was a whisper. “I thought…”

Again, nothing. Sam lowered her eyes to the wet ground, taking a pathetically small bite of her sandwich. How could she know what to say? She had betrayed them both, after all, and nothing she could do or say would —

“I’m not angry at you, Sam.”

The selkie glanced up mid-bite, her sharp teeth sinking into the toast, their tips barely touching the fish within.

“I think I’m just afraid. I don’t think anything I’ve ever done is worth anything. I don’t think I have agency, in this world or the other one,” Felix rubbed his brows with his index and thumb, groaning like a migraine had begun to rip through his skull. “Threatening to fight guncaps knowing full well that Song won’t let me do it… for what, machismo pride?”

“Mhm, probably. But better that instead of what I did,” She murmured.

“All you did was look out for yourself. These days, that’s standard. Not like you should starve if Song is on a self-destructive path,” said Felix.

“Ugh, you’re making me pity you so much I’m forgetting to pity myself.”

A small piece of what seemed like onion fell from the sandwich as the selkie took another bite. A massive spider, carrying several ghouls on its back in leather seats, massed overhead. It crawled on black legs through rails slotted between the buildings above them, a scraping sound emitting each time it pushed through.

“Felix?”

“Yeah?”

“I gotta say, only one thing still confused me about Song’s whole story… why’d he think Hiro would be here in the first place?”

“Because…” Felix frowned. “His work with the Amberwatch, closing the tears, the — ”

“No, like, why’d he just assume that Hiro’s dead?”

Felix raised his brows, catching himself by surprise. A good point from an unlikely source indeed; there was no evidence that Hiro had died in the first place, or at least nothing concrete. Song may not have failed, he may simply have been early.

“Food for thought, eh? Does my information get me some more Denocti?” Sam grinned, clearly proud of herself. Felix noticed that her sandwich had all but disappeared. The selkie slipped the Boatman’s coat off and tossed it over to its original owner, smiling towards him with a lop-sided grin, and threw him a peace sign.

“Don’t push your luck, selkie. But… stay safe. And try not to make more deals with the guncaps, you never know when it might backfire on you.”

“No promises! Catch ya later, Boatman!”

She left the alley, and once again, Felix was alone with himself. He slipped the jacket back on slowly and stared down at the dropped onions submerged in the muck under his shoes.

“Fuck.” He placed his hands on the car’s hood, pressing his forehead against the sheet metal.

He raised his head for a moment before dropping it back down, slamming his forehead into the sheet metal of the car.

“Ow.”

Eyes closed, Felix turned and slid down to the ground, his legs outstretched. Then he bent forward after a moment and fished the phone out of his jacket pocket, checking if he’d missed any calls. Zero.

Honestly? He needed to get out and clear his head. He’d had enough of the inner city for now. Maybe he needed to pay the Outer Provinces a visit. To see what kind of life there was in the places where he didn’t usually get work. After all, he’d been working consistently for so many months now — did he not deserve a small vacation of sorts?

When he closed his eyes again, he saw Song’s face staring back.

Felix groaned, wiping his eyes. Yeah, a vacation was long overdue. The only thing left was to start driving.

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Johnny Libenzon

Toronto-based aspiring author writing a mix of sci-fi and 'rural fantasy' short stories