Oh Maou, the sun was unrelenting.
It beat down on the darkened fox as she loped through the desert terrain, something akin to a bindle clenched in her fangs.
Over the next horizon, she kept telling herself. That’s where I’ll find her.
The creature’s meanderings were far from aimless, however, as a mantra ran through her head.
The feral vixen could feel the princess’ presence somewhere around her, but it was still vague and elusive.
She didn’t like this world. It was scorching, unpleasant and intimidating. The persistent smoke hanging in the air wasn’t helping matters any, either. The only signs of intelligent life she had seen besides her pursuers were the men in brown who somehow eked a living in these dry, scorched, Maou-Forsaken badlands.
Nor did she like being in this form, even though she was loathe to admit that it was alarmingly close to her true nature. Although it made it easier for her to evade pursuers, the vixen needed to moderate the amount of time she spent in her more feral form. The more time she spent in this form, the longer it took for her to readjust when she went back to ‘normal’.
The sooner she could find the princess, the sooner she could take her leave from this scorched and dusty land, never to look back.
There was nothing else to keep her here.
“OK….so we need to work on a cover story for you.” I tell Mari as the Ram shoots down the arrow-straight highway on the way into town.
“Yeah…..nobody’s gonna believe me if I told them what you told me….”
“Yeah- I’m pretty sure a gal with horns and bat wings the size of a small hang glider calling herself a daughter of the Demon Lord isn’t gonna fly in Texas.” I hesitate. “Well, OK- maybe it would be cool with those freaks and degenerates in Austin.”
“Actually,many have said my wings more resemble those of a dragon’s.” Mari harrumphed before turning to me. “Jacob- you’re not telling me that you’re ashamed of me, are you?” she asked forlornly. I had to admit that taking on a much more human guise before we went out seemed like a pretty big concession on her part.
“No, I……that’s not it, Mari. You gotta understand that this is still a lot for me to wrap my head around….”
Mari gazed straight ahead through the windshield at the highway and reddening clouds on the horizon.
“Call it caution or paranoia, I guess. Humans tend to be distrustful of each other, let alone another species- especially one that looks almost exactly like a demon from old legends and scripture.” I pause for a moment. “Just saying that I’m NOT ashamed of you…..if I was, I don’t think I’d be taking you out for a night on the town.” I said a little more confidently.
“You mean a date?” she asked. I looked over and saw that she had slowly hitched up her skirt. Damn it…..once again she was playing dirty pool as I reluctantly tore my eyes away from the princess’ milky white smooth thighs and resumed paying attention to the road.
“A date? Sort of….” I replied calmly, although Mari could probably tell I was getting flustered. “But at the very least, going out in your true form is going to raise more questions than answers and bring unwanted attention.”
“I don’t mind a little attention…” the succubus princess said coyly.
“Oh….you’d get more than a little going out like that.”
Mari said nothing but kept looking straight ahead. Despite being an only child, I realized that I was sounding like an overprotective big brother with that admonishment.
“I mean I kinda figured the whole point of going out was so that you could see whether or not that critter caught on Steve’s trail-cam is your friend.” I continued.
“And here I was thinking you wanted to show me a good time.” she pouted.
“Well- consider that a side benefit.”
“What can I expect from this tavern once we show up?” Mari asked, her tone going from coy and playful to inquisitive and scholarly in the blink of an eye.
“Well- it’s where guys like me go to have a few drinks and unwind with friends. They got….let’s see…” I pause, trying to mentally inventory all the amenities the Whet Whistle offered their patrons.
“They’ve got a pool table, jukebox and karaoke machine. They used to have live music sometimes, too…nothing fancy, but I don’t think they need much more than that.”
“Carry Oaky?” Mari asks.
“It’s a machine that plays music while drunk-ass people get up on stage and just fucking slaughter the lyrics to your favorite songs.” I say, uncomfortably aware that I sound like I’m projecting.
Mari looks bewildered.
“Thanks alot, Japan.” I mutter sarcastically as an afterthought.
“There’s still so much I want to learn.” Mari said. “I still know very little about music from this realm other than you seem to be inordinately fond of the man called ‘Cash’.”
“That’s ‘coz Johnny Cash is an American legend!” I state proudly, as though I had something to do with his status and accomplishments. “Besides- you’ve only been here a little while…”
“But surely there must be other musicians besides Cash.”
A wry smile was on Mari’s lips- she was quick to see I was playing with her.
“You’re a terrible liar, Jacob.” she says as she reaches out for the truck’s radio.
My mouth is agape as Mari begins dialing through the radio stations.
Whoa there- she just committed the cardinal sin of a passenger touching the radio without the driver’s’ permission.
“How does this device work?”
“Well….music or people talking can be transmitted in unseen waves-“
“Like your black tile?”
“The phone? Yeah- sort of. But…..” I pause. How can I put this in layman’s terms when I’m barely familiar with the basics myself?
I’m about to continue with my half-assed explanation when she seems preoccupied with finding different stations.
I tap the brakes as I approach the curve by 85 Rock on the way into town- part of me wants to point out that this was where I first saw Mari, but she seems too engrossed with the radio and climate control to acknowledge me.
In her exploration of the radio and dial, she had managed to find the satellite radio and was now going through the dial, listening to each station for a moment before continuing.
However, she came to a stop once she reached the 80’s Alt Rock channel- a guilty pleasure of mine. Your prototypical West Texas boys are supposed to crank up Willie, Waylon, Merle, Hank and the Man in Black.
Seriously, I think that’s an unwritten bylaw somewhere.
On the other hand, groups like Tears for Fears, Simple Minds or Talking Heads are supposed to be way down the list….if they made the list at all.
Just when it seemed like Mari wasn’t going to stop scrolling through all the channels, something seemed to have caught her attention.
It’s a slowly building ominous chiming that sounds familiar. One look at the display and I could see that it was Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration. I also noticed that my passenger seemed to take an immediate liking to this particular tune. Mari seemed determined to memorize the name and artist from the radio’s display.
We ended up listening to the channel the rest of the way into town- there was a couple of tunes I hadn’t heard for a while but was feeling a bit nostalgic once they started playing.
I was willing to let the rest of the trip into town pass by in relative silence with just the two of us and the radio my guest had taken a liking to, but my heart suddenly jumped up into my throat when she excitedly shouted out.
“Quickly! Stop the vehicle!”
It was involuntary, but the Manticore found herself pacing back and forth. Technically she was second in command, but she was at a loss over what to do. Mari was such a presence and force unto herself that her unexpected absence was unthinkable.
Zebana the Hellhound blacksmith sat dejectedly on the couch. Besides the uncertainty of the moment, she was inconsolable that when it truly mattered, she was unable to do anything to help the woman who gave her this marvelous new body.
The Hellhound’s ears twitched as two figures quietly slipped into the chambers.
“Opaali, Nefrit- did you learn anything new?” Seru asked as she spotted the Dark Elf twins. Both of them seemed to have faint traces satisfied grins despite the increasingly dire situation they found themselves in.
Prideful like many Dark Elves, the twins boasted that their clan was among founding members of the Three Lashes Guild- dark elf slavers and interrogators who were said to be so adept at their craft that they could bend a captive- man or mamono- to their will with just three lashes from their enchanted whip. Of course, Mari knew the truth about their reputation being exaggerated, but only slightly.
“Well….” the slightly smaller one- Opaali- began to speak up. “We learned from one of our pets that the exiled knights and mages of Vamore had a set up some contingency plans to retake the kingdom.”
By ‘pets’, Opaali and her sister meant a high-ranking paladin and a mage who had been captured when Mari annexed Vamore- “High value detainees” in US Military and Intelligence parlance. The two captives were kept in the main castle’s dungeon and eventually broke under the dusky-hued twins’ lash. At first, Nefrit and Opaali used the techniques of sensual coercion at their disposal to obtain information that would aid Mari in consolidating the territory she seized in Vamore. Once they had gotten what they needed from the two ousted warriors of Vamore, the dark elf twins decided to hold onto them as playthings, keeping them in a luxuriously furnished cell while lavishing all sorts of wanton and animalistic attention on their now-willing captives for hours at a time nearly every day- sometimes with Mari and the others participating in the fun as an ongoing reward for their cooperation.
“However.” The taller one continued “None of those plans involved using other mamono to launch an assault and re-take Vamore.”
To hardly anybody’s surprise, the thesis that the humans Mari ousted from power were somehow behind the skirmish in Mari’s garden or her sudden disappearance proved to be a dead end. However, it did give Nefrit and Opaali a chance to spend some time with their ‘pets’ once again under the guise of interrogating them.
“They’re not lying, are they?”
Nefrit chuckled confidently. “Our pets know better than to lie to their mistresses.’
Opaali nodded quietly.
“Lady Seru!” a voice barked from behind her. It was the lizardman captain of Mari’s palace guard. “We’ve gone over every last ald of the palace grounds and still no signs of Princess Mari or Lady Ahmeyou.”
“Have you searched everywhere around the perimeter?”
“Yes ma’am. I have patrols still combing the area in case anything had turned up after the initial search.”
“I want you to double them and keep checking in case she reappears. Outside of the palace guard, nobody enters or leaves the grounds until I say so. Continue checking the area immediately outside the castle’s perimeter for any signs of suspicious activity.”
“Understood!” the lizardwoman barked as she snapped a crisp salute.
Almost as soon as the lizardwoman captain of the guard had turned to leave, a large, imposing figure in violet quietly swooped in through the open window on the opposite end of the chambers. It was the Jabberwock, reporting in with no good news of her own.
“I’ve searched everywhere I could think of- even some of the outlying skylands.” Iha pouted as she shook her head forlornly. “No sign of either one of them.”
“Oh Eros….” the one-eyed Hellhound blacksmith lamented with a slight whimper. “I’ve checked every hiding spot I could think of and not a trace of either one of them.”
That wasn’t a good sign- if Zebana couldn’t pick up a fresh scent for either one of them, that most likely meant the princess and the vixen were long gone. But then again, there was no telling how long the effects from that strange powder the kunoichi threw in the Hellhound’s face would last.
Passing the lizardman officer, Kyukei quietly shuffled into the room without saying a word, adjusting her elekiter backpack once she arrived. Judging from her facial expression, she had no good news of her own.
“Even if she simply left on her own accord, she left with the only other one of us who’s capable of gating to or from other worlds.” Seru lamented. “Mari and Ahmi could literally be anywhere.”
“What’s the likelihood Mari and Ahmi were able to evade our rather irksome insurrectionists?” Opaali asked.
The question was met with an awkward silence before the raiu spoke up.
“That’s just it.” Kyukei drawled after taking a long drag from her kiseru. “The very fact that Mari could even be put on the defensive is pretty worrisome in and of itself, wouldn’t you say?”
The Hellhound’s ears drooped. “The Demon Lord is gonna put us in Demon realm silver chastity belts for sure, I just know it.”
“Don’t talk like that, Zebana….” Seru quietly admonished the Hellhound, although the manticore had no idea exactly how Mari’s family would express their displeasure with these most recent developments.
“Who else do we know who’s capable of manipulating portals to other dimensions that isn’t from Pandemonium?” Iha asked.
“I suppose we could enquire with any friendly, neighborhood baphomet….” Opaali said quietly, but doing little to conceal her disdain.
“And owe the Sabbath any favors? I’d rather take my chances with the Demon realm silver chastity belt fused into place.” her Dark Elf twin commented.
The others nodded in grim concurrence.
No sooner had she finished her sentence than there was a tremendous commotion and flurry of activity further down the corridor.
“PLATOON! PRESENT ARMS!!! MAKE WAY FOR THE PRINCESS!!” the lizardman commanded.
“Princess”? Oh thank maou, that didn’t take long for Mari to return….
A sigh of relief washed over Seru for a moment as she saw the lizardman palace guard snap to attention outside the doorway. Clearly Mari would come back when she was good and ready, and sure enough here she was. She had so many questions for both the lilim and her vixen contemporary, but not before properly welcoming them back.
“Ah! Princess, so glad to see-“
The manticore alchemist’s sentence abruptly stopped at the sight that greeted her. While still curvaceous and enticing, the powerful arch-succubus before her was a little shorter than Mari and lacked the black sclera in her eyes. Curving over her head was a pair of dark horns far more reminiscent of goat’s horns rather than the more angular protrusions above Mari’s temples. Instead of heels, she wore a pair of sturdy-looking hiking boots and a top that featured what looked like a blue-trimmed low-cut and sleeveless bodice.
It was Mari’s younger sister- the family’s studious diplomat and emissary.
“I-Ilassa-hime….” the raiju stammered nervously.
“Oh my- such excitement on the palace grounds.” the lilim said as she simply walked past the lizardmen standing at attention and focused on the Seru, Kyukei, Iha, Zebana and the Dark Elf twins.
“Did I come at a bad time?” she asked innocently.
It seems as though these days, no town is too small for their own thrift shop or secondhand store- not even Bachelorsville.
And it was this- not Mari’s pursuers nor her missing vixen compatriot- that had gotten her so excited.
After screeching to a halt in the middle of the Ranch to Market road on the west end of town, I almost sheepishly pulled the Ram into the Not My First Rodeo thrift shop’s parking lot, thankful nobody else seemed to notice that subpar bit of driving on my part.
Me, Teddy and Steve sometimes liked to joke that it was where trendy western gear went to die.
“All right- when you said stop the truck, I thought you had something else in mind.” I groused as Mari alighted from the truck and headed to the front door of Not My First Rodeo.
Mari silently took in her surroundings with a quiet wonder almost as soon as we entered.
“Something a little more urgent” I add as I follow her in.
She doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to me, though.
“What is this place, exactly? Please- tell me more about it” Mari asks as she begins to flit up and down the aisles, occasionally pausing to hold up and inspect a garment.
“It’s like purgatory for clothes and DVDs.” Truth be told, the building itself used to be a shabby little gas station on the outskirts of town that stood abandoned for awhile before somebody with some entrepreneurial spirit decided to try and repurpose it as a thrift shop not too long ago.
“So many marvelous garments- you mean to tell me that they are merely discarded?”
“Sort of…I mean people move, they gain or lose weight, they try out different styles that they like better….someone in their family dies, they die. There’s all sorts of reasons for them to get rid of their clothes that they don’t need anymore.”
“I feel as though I should use this opportunity to obtain something that’s more indicative of the tastes and styles of this realm….”
“There is also the fact that I didn’t bring a change of clothes with me.”
OK- fair point.
“Also, Jacob….this is quite awkward, but I didn’t have the chance to bring a coin purse with me as well.”
“So I’ve known you not even 24 hours and I’m already your sugar daddy?” I chuckle.
Mari looked bewildered for a moment before realizing what the phrase meant.
“Hardly- it’s quite difficult for you to be my ‘daddy’ when I’m in fact older than you.”
“You sure don’t look it….” I interject.
“Thank you- also, you’re aware of my status, so you know it’s especially rare for me to ask someone to cover my financial shortfall. Plus there seems to be the small matter of whether or not any coin I would have with me would even be accepted in this realm-“
“I get it.” I say as I subconsciously reach for my wallet
Well- no point in complaining now. I knew I’d be forking over some cash the moment I invited her to join me for drinks and Karaoke at the Whistle. A stop at the secondhand store isn’t necessarily going to break the bank.
“I think this will suffice.” Mari said as she examined a pair of denim shorts and a sleeveless blouse. From the looks of it, some alterations are going to have to be made on account of her wings and tail, which remained hidden for the time being.
I was pleasantly surprised that she found something to her liking so soon, and it didn’t seem too pricey. Shopping with Kayla never seemed this straightforward.
Seemingly satisfied with what she picked out, the two of us made our way to the register. However, I don’t seem to be paying as much attention to the transaction as something on one of the shelves behind the cashier has caught my eye.
No way…..somebody gave a perfectly good Stetson away to the thrift shop?
An actual honest-to-God, not-a-knockoff Stetson, and it doesn’t look that old either.
Only now am I beginning to see the appeal of rummaging through secondhand shops for lost treasure like this.
Even with her wings and tail concealed, the bemused cashier could tell that Mari wasn’t exactly from around here, but said nothing as she rang up our purchases after I calmly urged that she include the Stetson. There wasn’t much else for her to do, it wasn’t really eavesdropping if we were the only ones in the shop and Mari wasn’t doing anything really out of the ordinary.
“OK, Mari…..it’s not just anyone I’d do this for.” I sigh as I open up the door for her
“What do you mean?” she asks as the two of us step outside.
“Your hat- it’s a good look for you. I like it, the roses are a nice touch, but…..if you ever feel the need to change it up…..” I dash out a few steps ahead of Mari and hold open the truck’s passenger side door.
Damn it- am I trying too hard to impress her? Shit- maybe I’m just overthinking things.
I look away bashfully as I hold out the Stetson for her.
“You want me to have this?” Mari asks. “But Jacob- I saw how excited you were to find it.”
“I know…..but you’ve still got a kingdom to run, right? And I can pretty much rummage through thrift stores any ol’ time.”
“Th-thank you, Jacob.” she said as she put it jauntily on her head. “I may have to customize this a little so it can better accommodate my horns, but I certainly appreciate this.”
It was strange- I couldn’t see her horns, but I could see the hat sitting at an angle that would only be possible if there was something on her head slightly obstructing it- like her horns.
“It’s yours to do with as you please.” I reassure her, shutting the door behind her.
“Even give back to you?” she asks as I climb into the driver’s side.
“Lady Liselia! The princess is on the move again…” Priestess Vonnelyn called out urgently as she looked at a parchment spread out on the ground before her, each end weighted down by rocks.
“Excellent- this time she won’t get away.” the dark valkyrie said triumphantly as she got ready to take flight.
“Stay your hand, Syndiga.” the echidna spoke up.
“But….Lady Liselia?” the dark valkyrie looked crestfallen, but did as she was told.
“Progress report, Kurohime.”
The centipede woman and second Dark Priestess appeared to be huddled next to one another examining something in the shade.
“Milady- the additional sigils should be ready by nightfall.” Priestess Suutrana spoke up. The oomukade nodded in agreement.
“Then it’s settled- we aren’t going anywhere until then.”
“Shouldn’t we be using this time to close in and capture the princess?” the dark valkyrie asked impatiently as she was polishing her sword.
“Not until Lady Kaarmery returns and the additional sigils are ready.” the echidna replied.
“But she could be using this opportunity to flee or remove the original seal.” one of the amazonesses protested.
“Perhaps if Ofaye and I had accompanied you to her palace in Vamore we wouldn’t find ourselves in this-” the other Amazoness began to say before getting cut off.
“I had considered it, Lady Ticuna. However if any more had accompanied us, our numbers alone certainly would’ve raised suspicion before even getting within striking distance of the princess. That little fox whelp didn’t help matters much, either.”
“She wasn’t that strong.” the Dark Valkyrie scoffed as she resumed polishing her blade.
“Yet she bought Mari enough time to evade our grasp, thus we certainly have to factor her into subsequent encounters.”
Syndiga, Lieselia and the others turned their heads to see that Shizuka the stoic Kunoichi had joined their conversation.
Syndiga simply replied with a dismissive monosyllabic grunt.
“But Lady Liselia- Mari seems to be moving with considerable speed. You don’t think she’s been able to remove our seal already?” Priestess Vonnelyn spoke up.
“If she were able to do that, we almost certainly wouldn’t be able to track her.” Liselia reasoned before a thought occurred to her. “Priestess Suutrana?” she called out to the other Dark Priest.
“Those strange carriages the men in brown and the orange men were in- did they not bear the hallmarks of being produced in large quantities?” she asked the priestess.
“I believe so, m’lady.”
“Would it not stand to reason that Mari could also find a way aboard a similar means of conveyance?”
“Th-that could certainly account for her moving with such speed while still bound by our seal.” the other Dark Priestess spoke up.
“Then it’s decided- we’re not going anywhere until the sigils are ready and Lady Kaarmerys has returned.” the echidna said confidently.
One of the Amazonesses began to object.
“How many worlds have we pursued Mari across, Lady Ticuna?” Liselia asked the amazoness. “At least three in the last few days, correct?”
The others nodded quietly in agreement before she continued.
“At this rate- where can the Princess go in this one that’s completely beyond our grasp?”
“Well….what do you think?” I ask, trying not to show some apprehension as we made our way into the Whet Whistle.
“Oh my- this seems to be the sort of place my sisters wouldn’t be caught dead in.” she observed before she turned to me, beaming. “I love it! All that’s missing are a few Red Oni…”
I noticed that it was moderately crowded for a weeknight. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for what greeted us once we made our way further inside. I heard a guitar strumming and a somewhat familiar voice singing loud enough for me to mistake it for a hidden track on the jukebox turned all the way up.
And there was a reason the voice sounded familiar.
It was Dottie on the stage where the karaoke machine was- only it wasn’t set up yet. She was sitting on a stool with a Yamaha acoustic guitar, frequently glancing between the audience and its strings.
She looked a little nervous, but neither her fingers or her voice faltered as she continued singing.
♪ ♫ ♬ She- is benediction ♪ ♫ ♬
♪ ♫ ♬ She- is addicted to thee ♪ ♫ ♬
♪ ♫ ♬She- is the root connection ♪ ♫ ♬
♪ ♫ ♬ She- is connecting with me ♪ ♫ ♬
I was snapped out of my reverie when I felt a gentle tugging on my arm.
It was Mari.
♪ ♫ ♬ Here I go and I don’t know why….♪ ♫ ♬
♪ ♫ ♬ I float so ceaselessly ♪ ♫ ♬
♪ ♫ ♬ Could it be he’s taking over me?♪ ♫ ♬
“Jacob? Are you well?” she asks.
The surprise on my face must’ve been apparent. I didn’t know that the Whet Whistle was doing live music again, nor did I suspect that Dottie had such a remarkable singing voice.
“Oh- I’m fine….I just wasn’t expecting….” I’m so keen on hearing Dottie’s version of Dancing Barefoot that I trail off.
“Is this what you meant when you told me about Carry Oaky?” Mari asks
I shake my head and continue quietly, as though I was in a library.
“Not exactly- with karaoke, the music and lyrics are generated by a machine up on stage.”
“The lyrics- are they her own?” Mari asks after a few seconds.
My she’s full of questions. ‘m trying to think of where exactly I had heard this tune and lyrics before. I think they’re either from the chick who fronted Concrete Blonde or Patti Smith.
I realize a simple “No” will suffice as I shake my head.
Mari seems almost in awe as I am of Dottie’s vocals.
“She’s quite good, but….I sense…..sorrow….” Mari spoke in almost a whisper.
Holy shit- she’s right. THAT seems to be the aspect of Dottie’s singing that didn’t pick up right away. The more she sings, the more apparent it’s becoming to me.
♪ ♫ ♬ I’m dancing barefoot, heading for a spin ♪ ♫ ♬
♪ ♫ ♬ Some Strange music drags me in ♪ ♫ ♬
♪ ♫ ♬ Makes me come on like some heroine ♪ ♫ ♬
Momentarily forgetting that I was accompanied by a self-described living embodiment of lust, I was a little disappointed when the finally music died down. I saw Dottie get up from the stool and do a little curtsey before she unslung her guitar. The crowd was still small, but the applause was pretty enthusiastic..
Now that I think about it, If Steve, Teddy or Ossie had told me about Dottie singing unplugged, I might’ve given her a ration of shit about it. However, now that I heard it for myself, I was undeniably amazed. I clapped with the same gusto that I usually reserve for when I’m watching some of my favorite sports as Dottie walked off the stage, guitar in hand.
With Mari following close behind, I made my way to the little stairway leading to the stage as Dottie descended.
“Holy shit! I had no idea you could sing like that, Dottie!” I said over the quickly fading applause of the other patrons.
Dottie was beaming. “I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now- Aunt Dorie thought it would be a good idea to try something different to get the crowd warmed up before we set up for Kareoke night, but you never got here early enough to see it until tonight.” she then leaned around me to get a better look at Mari. “Who’s this?”
“Oh….this is Mari. She’s….” I falter for a moment wondering whether or not I should blurt out the whole cover story I concocted on the way over here or just try and answer the relevant questions as they come up.
“I’m a guest of Jacob’s” Mari says disarmingly as she extends her hand, already familiar with the human concept of shaking hands. Dottie takes it, but it’s not lost on me that she tenses up the moment Mari touched her.
“N-nice to meet you.” Dottie said, although the slight grimace on her face indicated otherwise.
“Likewise.” Mari said, her demeanor still unfailingly pleasant.
“Well- looks like I should get back to work.” Dottie said brusquely, looking over both myself and Mari as she excused herself.
“Hey….let me know if you need any representation. I’m only asking 20%!” I joke as Dottie walks away.
That was awkward.
Oh wait- she’s turning around.
“Twenty percent of nothing is still nothing, Jacob.” she calls out as she walks away. Maybe I’m reading too much into her quip, but there seemed to be something up with the way she enunciated the word ‘nothing’ the second time around.
“Do you two have…..?” Mari begins to ask.
“No.” I cut her off, not even waiting for her to finish her question.
Even though Mari seems like she’s on her best behavior so far, I’m starting to second guess my decision to come out to the Whistle tonight.
“Are you certain you’re not the source of her sorrow, Jacob?” Mari teases.
But I’m not having any of it.
“Dottie’s a good kid- I’m sure the last thing she wants is another drunken horndog a decade older than her thinking he’s hot shit and trying to put the moves on her.”
“Yet it seems that you didn’t even know she had such an enchanting singing voice until just now. Perhaps you don’t know her as well as you think…”
I’m eager to change the subject as I lead Mari by the hand over to our usual table. Already seated is Teddy, Ossie and Steve. Even the simple act of clasping her hand is sending my heart racing.
Proper introductions are in order, but I feel the need to ask something before I forget.
“Guys- I didn’t know Dottie could sing like that. Why didn’t you say anything about it earlier?”
Teddy, Ossie and Steve all looked at one another uncomfortably before Ossie spoke up.
“Well….you know how you sometimes go on about the record companies in Nashville-?”
“You mean how they do nothing but churn out bland, repetitive crap and how they routinely fucked over some of the biggest names in the industry? Yeah.” I was going to add that I stand by those remarks, but Steve chimed in.
“A couple of weeks ago, Dottie told us she sent off some demos to a few different record companies and actually heard back from one of them.”
“What? That’s great…..Isn’t it?”
“It was for some country music label in Nashville.” Teddy clarified
Oh shit. Talk about stepping all over your own….
“She’s been keeping her fingers crossed ever since.” Steve said.
“I…..” I was at a loss for words. I wasn’t shy about expressing my disdain for the repetitive, homogenous, focus-group tested crap that the Nashville record companies called country music these days- especially within earshot of Dottie. But it turned out each time I was doing that, I was taking a brick of Semtex to her dreams and doing my best to demolish them.
That could certainly explain the terse exchange I had with her.
“Jacob- are you well?” Mari asks.
“Hey now- don’t keep us in suspense! Who’s your new friend here?” Steve asks.
“Yeah, man- you gonna introduce us?” Ossie seconded.
“Guys, this is Mari.” I said as she stepped forward and did a polite little curtsey. “Mari, these here fellas- Teddy, Oswaldo and Steve…..are all friends of mine.”
“So Mari- where are you from?” Teddy asks.
“I come from a realm called-“
“Oh hey…yeah!” I interrupt. “She’s an exchange student from uh….. Um…..Estonia who’s spending a semester studying art history at UTEP. Isn’t that right?”
Mari looked uncertain for a moment. “Oh…yes! I have travelled a long ways from the realm of Estonia to study Art History at the You Tap.”
“Are all the girls in Estonia as pretty as you are?” Ossie asks dreamily.
“Down boy…” I chide the smitten mechanic.
“I’m just a plain middle child, I’m afraid.” Mari said in a syrupy sweet faux-bashful voice as Dottie rejoined us.
Clearly, Ossie was still smitten.
“If you’re what passes for ‘plain’ there, then I really need to book the next flight to Estonia.”
“I do have some sisters who are quite attractive and remain single.” Mari told Ossie with a coy wink. “Although I do wonder if they’re indeed ready to settle down.”
“That settles it, then. I don’t care if I gotta empty out my bank account- I’ll charter a private jet to Estonia!” the mechanic said.
“How did you two meet?” Dottie asked her skeptically.
“Ah! I’m so glad you asked….I was out in the desert one afternoon looking for landscapes to portray when along comes this kind man in a vehicle asking me if I needed any assistance.” Mari gushes enthusiastically. “He thought I was a stranded traveller at first. I told him I was fine and explained what I was doing and before I knew it, I was showing him my artwork and we spent the whole afternoon talking about travel, art and day to day life in this realm.”
“So…..she’s using the quarry as a base to explore and look for different landscapes to draw.” I add bashfully after listening to Mari add a dash of truth to a cocktail of white lies.
“Hey Mari…..I got one thing to ask you.” Teddy said in an uncharacteristically stern tone.
Damn it- out of the four of us, Teddy had the most reliable bullshit detector and my hastily formulated alibi was probably already starting to unravel.
“Have you ever been to the Rack and Pit? The one right down the street from campus off of Cincinnati?”
“I can’t say that I have.” she said apologetically.
Teddy shook his head in disapproval. “Promise me one thing- you stop by and get yourself some real Texas BBQ before you head home.”
“Man….weren’t you born in Pittsburgh? What the hell would you know about ‘real Texas Barbecue‘?” Ossie taunted. “Besides- everyone knows that Anthony’s down by the old Southern Pacific yard is the best BBQ place in old El Paso.”
“Ossie- you would send this poor girl into that shady neighborhood at great personal risk for some ribs or brisket of comparable quality that she could just as easily get a few blocks from campus?” I interject.
“They got tri-tip, too.” Ossie adds.
“Look- I’m not arguing for or against Anthony’s product- it’s in a sketchy neighborhood and it keeps weird hours. What the hell kind of joint calls it a day at 5:00 in the afternoon? I mean shit- we’re in the middle of nowhere and most places here don’t close up shop until 8 or 9.”
“Well….Tony’s is by the kind of neighborhood you don’t really want to stay in after dark.”
“OK- thank you for proving my point.” I say.
“I do have….some rather unique dietary requirements.” Mari spoke up with some trepidation.
“You don’t eat meat?” Ossie sounds a little disappointed. “Please don’t tell me you and your sisters are vegan.”
“I can consume meat, but there are times that I require…….certain nutrients….”
“Hey, I got it!” Ossie says. “If you’re not a vegetarian, you can always try the Big Steer challenge!”
“Jesus, Ossie, No…..” I speak up.
“The Big Steer challenge?” Mari asks, a little perplexed. “What is that?”
“Oh- it’s where they serve you this big hunk of steak and you got 45 minutes to eat the whole thing…..and if you do, it’s free!” Ossie explains way too enthusiastically.
“Damn it, no….” If she loses this thing, I’m on the hook for about $80 worth of beef.
“C’mon Jakey boy! She’s be perfect….it’s never the big guys who end up winning these contests- it’s always some petite 5 foot 5 120-something pound girl. I’ve seen the videos…” Teddy chimes in.
That’s it. Time to put my foot down.
“No way, we’re not-”
Mari cut me off. “That sounds glorious! I’m certainly up for a challenge.”
What? No! God damn it! Nobody’s listening to me.
“Did I hear that right? We have a taker for the Big Steer challenge?” Dottie asked with what looks like a little smirk on her face and ready to take down the order on her handy notepad.
“Yes we do….and it’s about damn time, since none of these pussies here were ever gonna step up to the plate.” Teddy said derisively as he swept his arm to indicate me, Ossie and Steve.
“Ahem….I think you are part of ‘these pussies’, seeing as how you never tried it yourself.” Steve shot back defensively.
“That’s coz I need to maintain this figure for Yu Bi.” he boasted. “Gotta stay in shape, y’know?”
“Yeah- I guess technically, potato is a shape. Got us there, Teddy.” I taunt.
Teddy scowled before he turned to Dottie. “Also…Five shots of Bushmills.”
“Shorty of Lone Star.” I add quickly
“Sure thing!” Dottie said. I quickly did a headcount- shots for me, Mari, Ossie, Steve and Teddy. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, Dottie returned with our beverages.
“Before we get started- a toast!” Teddy offers. “To our little town……it may not be much, but at 108 in the shade, it keeps the riff-raff out.”
“Don’t be so sure about that.” Mari said with a knowing grin before lifting her shotglass and making the contents disappear.
Ilassa looked bewildered as her sister’s retinue fell to their knees before her.
“Princess Ilassa!” Seru the Manticore alchemist started to say.
“Please, there’s no need to prostrate yourselves before me.” Ilassa calmly said as she approached the six of them.
“We regret to inform you that your sister has been attacked on the palace grounds and we cannot find a single trace of her.” Seru began to say as she started getting up from her knees.
Ilassa’s expression changed in an instant.
“On second thought, don’t get up just yet.” she said in a quiet tone that made the ones kneeling before her shudder. Seru was pretty sure she heard a soft, agitated grunt from the lilim. “Wait a moment…..where’s the vixen?” Ilassa asked after a moment’s pause.
“Unaccounted for as well, Ilassa-hime.” Kyukei said.
“I see….” Ilassa looked even more displeased as the raiju finished speaking, but none of them were in demon silver chastity belts just yet.
A small victory.
Seru would take what she could get at this point.
“Our apologies, Ilassa-hime.” Kyukei continued as she bowed even deeper- which wasn’t an easy task given she was still wearing the elekiter on her back. “There is no way myself or any of us could’ve foreseen these recent events.”
“But who would be brazen enough to attack a daughter of the Demon Lord in her own palace?” Ilassa pondered.
“Milady- we’re not even sure if it was an attempt on Mari’s life or if the assailants sought to abduct her for whatever reason.” Zebana said, unable to look at the lilim.
“I maintain that Mari-hime and Lady Ahmi were able to evade our intruders’ first attempt, at least.” Kyukei offered.
“What do you base this on?” Ilassa queried. She didn’t seem too impatient, but was curious where the raiju might be going with this.
“Iha-san asked them what they did….”
The Jabberwock nodded.
“And they told you?”
“No- in fact, one of them was quite evasive when she asked directly. However, there was a pale dragoness-“
“What of it?” Ilassa asked.
“This is only conjecture on my part, but if they had successfully carried out whatever they came here to do, I’m almost certain the dragon intruder would’ve been taunting us and boasting about successfully completing her task. You know how their pride defines them- no offense, Iha-san..”
“None taken, Kyukei.”
“Certainly not an unreasonable conclusion.” the lilim replied.
“Also….” the hellhound spoke up hesitantly. “Not to get too morbid, but If this was an assassination attempt- and they had succeeded- in all likelihood we would’ve found Princess Mari or Lady Ahmi’s remains by now.”
“Nor can we completely rule out the attack on our Mistress was a diversion to draw attention away from preparations for a larger attack.” Opaali pondered.
“Hence the palace guard on high alert.” Ilassa said.
“To make matters worse, the Princess and Lady Ahmi were the only ones capable of gating. For all we know, they could be safe and sound at the Library or elsewhere and we’d have no way of knowing.” Seru spoke up.
Ilassa looked perplexed for a moment before she realized ‘Gating’ was Mari’s phrase for opening and manipulating the gateways between this world and the various pocket dimensions lilims were capable of creating- a terminology her coterie had picked up on.
“If you need someone to open a path to my sister’s pocket dimension, I believe I could be of some assistance.” Ilassa offered.
Mari’s super-sized steak hadn’t arrived yet, but before her were three empty shotglasses and half a glass of beer.
Naturally, that got me to wondering about the effect of alcohol consumption on her kind. She doesn’t seem to be the lightweight type, although I have no idea what sort of libations are typically available on her home turf.
Oh shit- I almost forgot the whole point of coming here tonight!
I mean besides karaoke.
But since both Steve and Mari are within earshot, might as well be direct.
“Hey Steve- That critter we were talking about the other day- can you bring that up on your phone? I kinda told Mari about it and she wanted to know more….”
“Huh? Oh yeah…”
He looked at me and then the platinum-haired ‘Estonian’ before reaching for his phone.
“I placed a trailcam in this creekbed a couple of weeks ago and….” he explained as he was scrolling through the images. “This is what I found.” he handed the phone off to Mari.
Although she had seen me use my phone earlier, Mari looked a bit bewildered at first since I’m not sure that I made it clear the phones could function as a camera, too. Nor was I completely sure that she’d know what a camera was. However, her face seemed to light up as she apparently recognized the image before her.
“Look familiar?” I ask.
“Oh yes.” she beamed as she handed Steve’s phone back after a few moments. It looked as though she was actually admiring the image.
The game warden looked confused before Mari continued.
“In my homeland, such creatures are looked upon as a good omen. It’s even said that they’ll sometimes take the form of a lovely maiden and reveal herself to those who were lost.”
Teddy’s brow perked up for a moment.
“So you’ve heard about the Kumiho, then?” he asks Mari.
“I’m sorry- Kumi…who?” Mari asks.
“Oh- it’s a bit of folklore from my wife’s homeland.” he explained “Sounds kinda like what you were talking about.”
“I see- that is rather interesting.” she mused.
I couldn’t help but arch my eyebrows at Mari’s slightly wordier and poetic re-telling of the Kumiho lore in her own words. Except in her version, there was almost certainly no eating of human livers.
“Man….they really need to review their hiring practices in Ormsby County.” Steve groused as he put the phone away.
“What makes you say that?” Ossie asked.
“Well, we got these two deputy dipshits who were supposed to be babysitting the inmate fire crew. And I don’t know how the inmates managed to swing it, but they somehow got some costumed hookers to meet them out there.”
“Costumed? That’s a nice touch……so like, cheerleader, biker babe and cowgirl?” Teddy asks.
“Not quite- more like some Renaissance Faire shit- a couple of nuns, an angel, an assassin, some girls with tribal tattoos and…..here’s where it gets weird- a dragon lady, centipede and snake lady. At least that’s according to the only inmate who was willing to talk…”
“You sure it wasn’t some sort of escape attempt?” Teddy asks.
“Those guys were in the clink for some small time stuff- DUI, burglary, possession, solicitation. They weren’t looking at big jail sentences, and volunteering for the fire crew would’ve shaved even more time off. I don’t think they had the smarts or resources to put together a jailbreak involving outside help like that.” Steve explains.
“Still- they had to have brought some good shit to smoke out with them….” Ossie guffaws. “Or maybe some strong pruno. I mean, I’ve heard of a five or six looking like a ten after some shots, but I don’t think there’s enough whiskey distilled in Tennessee to get me to think a nine is a centipede.”
I’m ready to laugh along with Ossie, Ted and the others when I remember the entries from the book Mari showed me earlier. A woman with the lower body of a centipede, a dragoness and multiple types of snake women.
The color starts to leave Mari’s face, and she certainly appears less jovial after hearing what the game warden had to say.
“The thing is, they must’ve tried stiffing the gals, because they went off and put a hurtin’ on ‘em.” Steve continued.
“Who? The inmates?” Teddy asks.
“All of ‘em- the guards, the inmates, the poor bastard from A&M Forestry who probably got more than he bargained for when he was put on that detail. The only reason you’re not hearing about this is because they’re too busy trying to get the wildfire contained.”
“Wh-when did this happen?” the lilim asked nervously.
“They found ‘em unconscious this afternoon.”
Mari looked as though she had something else to ask, but was interrupted when somebody rang an old-fashioned metal triangle over the bar.
“Hey y’all!” Dolores shouts out hoarsely from the bar before clearing her throat. “It’s been awhile, but it looks like we finally got us a taker for the Big Steer challenge!”
This announcement is met with tepid applause, although it increases when Dottie emerges from the kitchen with a huge steak on a plate for all to see.
“Now here are the rules!” Dolores continued, glancing at our table before reading off an index card in her right hand. “First off- The contestant doesn’t have to eat any fat or gristle, but they do have to eat the rest. Also- no bathroom breaks, no gettin’ up from the table, no throwin’ up, nobody else gets to eat it while the clock is runnin’……..otherwise you forfeit. You’ve got 45 minutes, starting…..”
“Here you go.” Dottie said apprehensively, setting down the plate in front of Mari.
“…..NOW!” Dolores said as she looked at her watch.
“Damn it, Dorie! You said you’d use a starter’s pistol the next time someone tried the Big Steer challenge.” Teddy jokingly yelled out to Dolores.
Mari looked at the plate as though she was in deep contemplation.
“Good luck.” Dottie almost whispered before excusing herself.
With so many eyes on us, Mari didn’t do much aside from daintily picking at her steak.
“Oh my- I didn’t anticipate it being so large.” she murmured.
“That’s what she said! Right….?” Ossie guffawed as he none-too-gently elbowed Teddy.
My jaw dropped.
Fuck me- I’m going to be on the hook for almost $100 worth of meat because the others persuaded Mari to take this challenge on a whim and she- pardon the expression- bit off more than she could chew.
Closer and closer.
All her searching wasn’t in vain. She sensed the princess’ demonic energy over the next hill.
It wasn’t particularly strong, but through the smoky haze she could tell it was still fresh.
Was the princess’ demonic aura weakening in this strange, barren world? Or had she simply moved on from this location?
The vixen was still in her most base form, a rudimentary bindle containing most of her goods now clenched in her fangs.
This could very well be the first positive development for her since she arrived in this scorched, maou-forsaken world.
But what was this place?
Her bewilderment grew as she crested the hill. Below her was nothing remarkable- several of those carriages and a few small metal structures. The walls of the valley beneath her flanked the little buildings and bigger self-propelled carriages featured a number of symmetrical gashes.
Many carriages, but she detected nobody present- human or mamono.
The whole setup looked pretty basic. It didn’t seem as though this would be the sort of place the princess would be voluntarily. Was she being held against her will down there?
Still- she had reason to be optimistic. Even if the princess wasn’t down below, she couldn’t have gone very far.
A thought suddenly occurred to her.
What if this was being used as a hideaway by our pursuers?
It certainly was remote and inconspicuous enough and looked as though could be easily defended from a frontal assault.
It was strange- this place didn’t appear to be abandoned, but there weren’t any defenders present either.
This place clearly bears out further exploration.
Suddenly I feel as though the air inside the bar has grown stifling and impossible to breathe.
I need air.
No, wait…..I need someplace to think.
Somewhere besides here, under the gaze of Mari or the others. And since she sure as shit isn’t eating that steak in front of her, she has plenty of time for a staring contest with me.
“Well- that’s why they call it a ‘challenge’.” Teddy quipped as Mari continued looking at the hefty cut of meat.
Fuck- this is no good.
Before I know it, I’m on my feet and making a dash down the dark, narrow, grimy hallway to the men’s room. I’m not sick. I don’t have to use the bathroom or anything, but with all eyes on Mari and Karaoke night kicking off, I can get a little privacy in here.
But then what?
Shit- maybe it’s not Mari who’s bitten off more than she can chew. I wasn’t looking forward to the bar tab before my visitor had a $100 steak put in front of her.
Maybe one of the oilfield service companies will send me this month’s check for storing their equipment early. Maybe I have a dormant bank account that I forgot about when I was stationed in Fort Drum or somewhere that’s earning interest.
“DAMN IT!!” I bellow in the cramped confines of the men’s room, my fist striking the exterior of the stall.
Nobody else is in here with me and it seems as though nobody heard me.
“What am I gonna do? What the hell did I get myself into?”
I’m not even sure if I was asking that out loud.
Deep breaths….deep breaths.
Wait- this is the men’s room. Inhaling is a very bad idea.
Maybe some water, then….
Calm the fuck down, collect myself, get back out there and take my medicine.
“Hey man…” Ossie said, looking up from the table as I returned. “You fall in or something? While you were carving up urinal cakes, Mari was killin’ it!”
The lilim was leaning on the table with her right hand resting beneath her chin and a triumphant smirk on her face as she dangled a fork. On the tines of the fork was the last of the huge steak Dottie lugged out from the kitchen- a thin, domino sized strip of meat.
“Yeah- Mari here was halfway done before Dottie could even offer her some A-1 sauce.” Teddy added.
“72 ounce sirloin……just fuckin’ gone in five minutes.” Steve marvelled.
“What?” the disbelief on my face must’ve been pretty clear as my ‘Estonian’ companion spoke up.
“You been starving this poor girl, Jakey-boy? That’s no way to treat a guest.” Teddy half-seriously admonishes me.
“Gentlemen- I suppose it helps if one shows up hungry.” Mari said, basking in their praise. With a little flourish, the last of the steak disappeared into her mouth. She then looked at me up and down before coyly asking “Oh Jacob- did you have your doubts?”
Welp, no point in lying.
“For a bit, yeah….”.I say as Dottie wordlessly sidles up to take away Mari’s plate.
I figure that’s a good honest answer, but everyone’s staring at me now.
“Damn, Jake- did you starve this poor girl all day just so she could win the challenge?” Ossie asks me.
“Holy shit- yes, Ossie. You figured my dastardly scheme of starving Mari before we go to various steakhouses across Texas where I have her scarf down a cut of beef the size of a loaf of bread for no discernable financial gain on my part.” I deadpan.
Wait…..everyone is still looking at me.
My face is still damp.
I never completely dried off after splashing my face with tap water from the men’s room.
Oh shit- it probably looks like I’m sweating like a motherfucker. Or I fell into one of the toilets.
“Ah- but we’ve only just met, Jacob- you may not fully appreciate what I’m capable of.” Mari smirked.
This was most excellent.
After being dealt a series of setbacks in her frantic search for the princess, things finally appeared to be going the vixen’s way.
Mari can’t be far- she can sense it. There was no way for her to return to the Library or Vamore on her own- and the fact that she could still sense her meant that their pursuers hadn’t dragged her off to Pandemonium for whatever reason.
First order of business is to get a better look at this quarry before her. She could detect signs of other life within, but they seemed to be neither mamono or human, despite Mari’s scent being relatively fresh.
Indigenous wildlife, perhaps?
There were lots of carriages and some heavy equipment that she figured was for moving or crushing stone. Some of the carriages looked as though they could be used for hauling stone, but the rectangular structures below her seemed to be of more interest. It seemed as though those were some sort of dwellings.
The vixen’s newfound optimism was crushed and replaced with a cold dread running down her spine even before she spied a shadow racing across the ground. She didn’t even need to look up to see who it belonged to. Knowing exactly how a rabbit felt when it spied the shadow of a circling hawk overhead, the dread threatened to boil over into a blind panic.
In the dying moments of daylight, the pale dragoness had caught up with her.
“So how does this carry-oaky work?” Mari asked me. “You seemed quite eager when you were telling me about it.”
“That’s ‘coz he wanted to impress you with some tunes by the Plagiarist in Black.” Teddy speaks up.
“Teddy, you know my thoughts on your little pet name for Johnny Cash.” I snap churlishly while briefly showing off my middle finger to him.
Before this line of discussion continues, the lights dim and a portly middle-aged man who could’ve gotten some work as a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator gets onto the stage as some music starts up.
Is that polka?
No- not quite. I’ve heard this song before, and the name escapes me before I can make out the title on one of the little screens showing the lyrics.
I Like Beer by Tom T Hall.
Pretty good choice for a night like tonight, plus I remember it being more spoken word than actual singing.
The reasonable facsimile of our 26th President begins singing in a gravelly voice.
♪ ♫ In some of my songs, I have casually mentioned ♪ ♫
♪ ♫ The fact that I like to drink beer ♪ ♫
♪ ♫ This song is more to the point ♪ ♫
♪ ♫ So roll out the barrel and lend me your ears ♪ ♫
♪ ♫ I like beer- it makes me a jolly good fellow ♪ ♫
♪ ♫ I like beer- it helps me unwind and makes me feel mellow….♪ ♫
“So this fellow on stage professing his love for beer is doing carry-oaky?” Mari asked as some of the Whistle’s regular began singing along.
“How fun!” she squealed with delight.
“Want me to put your name down on the signup sheet?” I lean in as I asked much more quietly so we wouldn’t distract from Teddy Roosevelt’s musical ode to beer.
I also can’t help but notice Mari seems to be radiating this otherworldly heat that I can only feel as I lean in closer to her.
“Yes, please. Could you?” she says much more quietly, following my lead.
I nod- although I don’t get up right away. I gotta admit, this is kind of a fun song to sing along to.
Unfortunately, I suspect every town has their own Edison Dickey. The kind of individual you don’t want anything to do with, let alone a visitor being introduced to them.
In our case, Bachelorsville’s Edison Quinn Dickey was a fellow named Edison Quinn Dickey- a man who was inordinately fond of exposing himself to underage girls and molesting unsuspecting women- including his comatose half-sister.
Or so the court documents said.
However, Edison was briefly incarcerated by the state of Texas for one of the few sexual assaults it turns out he didn’t (allegedly) commit. The case was thrown out on appeal due to lack of evidence and the civil suit that followed his eventual release resulted in a financial windfall for him.
Instead of learning a valuable lesson from this and making some significant life changes for the better, Edison was in the middle of squandering his six-figure settlement and making creepy and unwanted advances at the teenage girls of El Portal county.
And just when I had finished signing Mari’s name onto the list, I can see that Mr. Creeper and Sister-Toucher decides to make his way to our table as Mari is looking forward to her turn on stage for the Whistle’s Karaoke night.
She was up and looked like she was going to get something out her satchel when Dickey made his signature move. Seeing red, I just about flew over there to confront him.
None of the others noticed him until he slid his arm around Mari’s waist, reaching up to cop a squeeze of her left breast.
“Mmm….hey good lookin’- I’m thinking you and me should hit the dance floor. Maybe find somewhere quiet for just the two of us afterwards.” he said as his hand slid lower and lower before settling on the Lilim’s ass.
Unfortunately for Edison, he was surrounded by some white knights whose first instinct was to roughly peel the grabby sex offender off of Mari. Perhaps even more unfortunately for Edison was that even in her diminished state Mari was more than capable of taking care of herself.
“Ah…” Mari gasped as she tried squirming away from the sex offender. “Even in this realm, mischief somehow manages to find me.” I can hear her almost murmur.
For just a fleeting second, Mari looked every bit the damsel in distress as she broke free of the sex offender’s grasp. Then I got a reminder that she was pretty much exactly who she told me she was. In a heartbeat, I thought I saw Mari’s spade-tipped tail shimmer back into view, but it disappeared almost as soon as I glimpsed it. However, I did notice one thing about it before I lost sight of it- It was moving.
Fast and towards Edison’s crotch. An instant later, the sex offender was beginning to double over when Mari’s foot made contact with his inner thigh.
It wasn’t a particularly powerful kick, but I realized what Mari was doing- she was following up her pseudo invisible tail-strike to his crotch with an almost instantaneous kick to make it appear that he’d be brought down by the kick and not an invisible succubus tail cocksmack.
“I don’t recall giving you permission to touch me.” Mari said dismissively to the writhing sex offender on the floor.
“Holy crap, Mari!” Teddy blurted out in amazement. “Where did you learn that!?”.
“My parents are somewhat famous in my home realm- and they weren’t confident about me travelling to foreign lands unless I could take certain measures to defend myself.”
“Like Krav Maga?” Steve asks.
Thankfully it was becoming apparent the others saw her foot bring down Edison, not a tail that wasn’t supposed to be there.
“What happened?” Dottie asked as her gaze darted between us and Edison. Behind her, a burly latino man who was one of the cooks (and the Whistle’s unofficial bouncer) took in the scene as he walked up.
“Mr. Sister Toucher here was getting grabby with our guest and got a boot to his crotch for his troubles.” Steve said.
“Good…” Dottie snarled. Even the kind, touchy-feely waitress who would often tell us that everyone was beautiful ‘in their own way’ had grown weary of this degenerate’s antics. “Show him the door, Luis.”
The burly Latino nodded as Steve got up from his stool.
“I’ll give you a hand, muchacho.” he said as the two of them none-too-gently pulled a groaning Edison off the floor. Besides a Glock .40 caliber, we knew that Steve also carried a sap filled with lead shot when he was off-duty. Knowing that Edison would be seeing one or the other up close once he was outside brought a little smile to my face.
“All right- up next! Mari….Lillias?” Dolores reads aloud, unsure how to pronounce the phony surname I gave Mari on the sign-in sheet.
“Do you still want to go up, Mari?” I asked, even though I was already pretty sure of the answer.
“Oh, absolutely” she said confidently.
She was having the time of her life, being the focal point of attention, getting fed and plied with drinks and fielding questions from everyone. It seemed like nothing- not even an army of sex offenders who had their convictions overturned- was going to keep her from performing.
The catalogue of songs available on the Whet Whistle’s Karaoke machine was indeed impressive- comparable to a phone book for Houston and updated electronically almost weekly. I could see the lilim searching through the book before she seemed to find something that caught her interest.
Hardly looking like this was the first time she had to entertain a number of people, the platinum haired ‘Estonian’ confidently made her way onto the little stage where the mic for the kareoke machine was.
Most of those who had noticed the earlier fracas with Dickey were now noticing the beauty on stage with the mic as an ominous chiming began to slowly build.
It was a little bit of a cheat, but I recognized the tune as Black Celebration by Depeche Mode since we heard it on the way over here. It sounds even better with female vocals.
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ Let’s have a Black Celebration….♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ Black Celebration….♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ To-o-oni-i-i-ight….♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
I’m getting looks from Teddy and Steve now- not quite disapproving, but more bewildered than anything.
“What?” I shrug. “Depeche Mode is huge in Estonia…”
There’s that look- I’ve set off Teddy’s bullshit detector again.
“We’ll see….” he said as he whips out his smartphone.
After a few swipes and taps, Teddy’s brow furrows.
“He’s right…” he says to Steve. “There’s even a Depeche Mode-themed cafe in the capital.”
Holy shit? Really? I was just pulled that out of my ass.
It took me a couple of moments to get my poker face on, plus I was becoming increasingly distracted by Mari’s siren song.
“Told you.” I smirked. “Now pipe down already and let’s listen to the lady sing.”
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ I look to you♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ How you carry on ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ When all hope is gone ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ Can’t you see? ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ Your optimistic eyes ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ Seem like paradise ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ To someone like ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ Me-e-e-e ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
Oh Jesus…..she’s looking right at me now. I’m sure a bunch of people will say that about alot of live performances, but…..I’m the one who brought her here, and I’m the one who was telling her about our music, technology and customs and….
It’s not that the attention isn’t unwanted….it’s that I don’t know what to do with it.
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ I want to take you In my arms ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
♩ ♪ ♫ ♬Forgetting all I couldn’t do today ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
I’m blushing….I’m sure of it.
After a shaky start, there’s so many things going right for me tonight that I’m basically in disbelief. Mari’s doing this to get a rise out of me, and it’s working. There isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.
And I like it.
I like it because even though I’m still wary of this strange and extraordinarily beautiful being, I’m the envy of everyone in this establishment.
And I seem to be the only one who knows that she isn’t even human.
She was dead.
The vixen was certain of this as soon as she heard the dragoness’ scaled claws alight some distance away.
Please- not now! The vixen silently pleaded to whomever might’ve been listening. I’m so close to finding Mari-hime….why now?
Make a stand here or keep running away? Neither choice was appealing and her death at the talons of her white dragoness pursuer was the most likely outcome either way.
Now in her original and more ‘human’ form, the brash vixen’s back was pressed tightly against the earthen walls of the arroyo as she nearly willed herself to become part of the landscape.
It was all she could do to look up at the face of her draconian executioner. This was the end and her heart was heavy with the fact that she couldn’t do more to help her mistress find her way home. She hadn’t even been able to find a suitable consort for hers-
The pale dragoness was still standing almost eighty shaku away with her back to the vixen and slowly walking away. She seemed to be focused on something else and didn’t immediately turn around.
A sudden realization hit the vixen like a ton of bricks- the same seemingly ever present smokescreen on this world that had been giving her so much trouble tracking down Mari was giving the dragoness the same problems as well.
Stealth would be the only way she could effectively evade her reptilian pursuer, and at the moment she was getting aid from a very unexpected source.
Just when the feeling of dread began to lift, Ahmeyou’s blood froze as her ears picked up the dragoness as she almost mumbled.
“I know you’re around here……” the albino dragoness growled in an icy monotone.
The music had died down, but Mari was basking in the applause from the modest-sized crowd. Even here, in this little bar in a tiny town, she seemed to have this regal air to her as she demurely curtsied.
But something seemed a bit off. Or perhaps even more off, since things were pretty ‘off’ to start with.
Before she could even stop off the stage, I was off like a shot. I’m not sure what compelled me- after what happened with Edison, I think I was being overly cautious and protective of her even though she demonstrated she could take care of herself.
Whatever the reason, I was glad I was the first one up there as I looked Mari in the eyes, ready to congratulate her for a tribute to Depeche Mode that no doubt would’ve been huge in her ‘native’ Estonia.
It was then that I saw the black sclera was back in her left eye.
“How did I do?” she asked, already fairly certain of the answer.
“You killed it, but uh……” I trail off as I point to her eye. Fortunately for me, she seems to be facing away from everyone.
“What is it?” She was looking up at me and sounding a bit disappointed, as though I was ready to critique her performance.
“Your eyes are going back to their original color.”
For an instant, Mari looked genuinely alarmed. Shit….this is her magic she’s working with- I still have no idea how it all works and I don’t need her panicking in front of a full house at the Whistle.
However, the apparent panic seemingly dissipates as her expression is much more reflective.
“This is rather unfortunate….” she laments quietly as she brings her hand up as though she’s going to wipe her eye- only her hand doesn’t come back down right away. Instead, she’s teasing her hair so that some of it will come down and block the affected eye. “I had assumed I could get another couple of hours from this rudimentary glamour, but….”
I nod. Whatever she was doing to maintain such a human appearance, the clock was clearly running out.
“Hate to ask you to do this, but can you go into the women’s room for a bit?” I ask her. “I’ll get you or send Dottie in for you when I think of something.”
With a quick nod, Mari is off. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but in the dim light of the Whistle, I’m almost certain I can make out one of her horns shimmering into view.
Also….feels really weird to be ordering around a demonic lust princess- in my hometown watering hole, of all places.
Perhaps Mari can get her glamour back under control long enough for us to slip out of here discreetly. I head back to our table where I’m hoping not to arouse suspicion- but sometimes doing that makes you subconsciously act suspicious. Sure enough, Teddy, Ossie and Steve are all talking.
“I think it’s because that band and synth pop in general was at its peak when her country broke away from the Soviets….” I hear Teddy say.
“Makes sense.” Steve says dispassionately as he takes a sip of beer.
“Man- what is it with women from that part of the world anyway? Seems like even the smallest village has at least one girl with movie star or supermodel good looks…..” Ossie marvels.
My little fib about Mari being an Estonian exchange student seems to be taking root just in time for us to leave.
“Gentlemen…” I say with a smug satisfaction as I take me seat. “THAT is how it’s done.”
“You couldn’t even find Estonia on the globe.” Teddy jabs.
“Don’t have to….one of her most beautiful daughters found little old moi….” I smirked.
“Yeah yeah….just make sure you have the fire extinguisher handy.” he retorts.
Somebody was walking up behind me- I could crane my neck and see that it was Dottie.
“I dunno man…..” Ossie said as though he was genuinely torn. “On the one hand, I’m happy for you….on the other hand, I fuckin’ hate your guts, man….”
“Miss Estonia wants to see you.” Dottie spoke ruefully. “She’s in the ladies room stall and said she can’t come out at the moment.”
Shoot- Mari’s sending Dottie to get me now? This can’t be good.
“Look at that…” Steve chided. “Already at her beck and call.”
Damn- this can’t be too good if Mari sent for me.
I noticed that Dottie was following me.
“Don’t worry, Dottie. I got this.” I tell her.
“What is it?”
“It’s Mari…….” she began. “I have a bad feeling about her.”
“Could you be more specific- I mean…I had a bad feeling about those wings I got at happy hour last week, but I’m still here to tell the tale.”
Dottie brushed aside my attempt to deflect.
“I know you don’t believe in this sort of thing, but there’s a darkness to her. A swirling black aura- It’s just something I can sense, but can’t describe.”
“Dottie- would you say that you cared for me at all?” I asked her suddenly.
“Oh Jake….I’d say care for you more than most of the regulars, but I can’t say that I’-”
“Now this intuition- what did it tell you about Kayla?” I interrupt.
No answer, although Dottie was now looking at the floor.
“What kind of aura did she have? Was it glowing? Maybe even fiery?” I ask, even though I know that she won’t answer.
Only after the words had already come out of my mouth did I realize how incredibly petty that sounded. Yet I continue pressing.
“Why didn’t you warn me about Kayla before she torched my family’s business?”
She had nothing to say right away, but was carefully considering her answer.
“Jacob- I know you don’t believe in the same things that I do, but….” Dottie began after an awkward silence. “Your soul, your essence, your spirit……whatever you want to call it- the longer you’re with her, the more danger it’s in.”
“Thanks for the heads-up, Dottie.” I say almost dismissively.
“Jake….” her tone is much more urgent now. Almost as if she’s pleading. “I’m sorry I couldn’t predict how much pain Kayla ended up bringing you, but the feeling I get from Mari? It’s a thousand….no- ten thousand times worse. I know you have every right to laugh it off or tell me that I’m being overly-emotional, but I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t at least TRY warning you about her. If I didn’t care for you, I would’ve just kept quiet.”
Suddenly I find myself looking Dottie in the eyes. I was not expecting that from her- especially if I was seemingly belittling her musical aspirations earlier.
“Dottie….I…I don’t know what to say…”
“Jake….” she implored. “Promise me you’ll be careful around her.”
Shit- the Careful Express had already left the station and was barreling down the tracks towards a collapsed trestle over a chasm..
“Hey now…Dottie- listen. Nothing’s going to happen to me.” I try and reassure her, only it doesn’t sound very convincing. “I mean- who else is going to collect 20% of the royalties from your debut album when you make it big?”
I can see the faintest trace of a smile on Dottie’s lips before she glances back at the bar.
Damn- I hope that means I’m forgiven.
“Besides….even if what you say is true….” I continue. “I should at least get her a ride back to El Paso- it would be kind of a dick move to leave her stranded all the way out here with no way back.”
Shit- I’m 99% sure she sees through the ruse about a chance encounter with an exchange student studying at UTEP, too.
However, the waitress looks back furtively at the bar. “Aunt Dorie thinks you’re up to something shady, too. I’ll stall for as long as I can, but don’t be surprised if she wants you and Miss Estonia to leave.” the waitress warned me.
That seems to be fairly generous of her considering the dire warning moments ago.
As Dottie heads back to the bar, I throw open the door to the ladies room.
Wow- this so much cleaner than the men’s room. There’s even some little scented candles to-
“I-is that you, Jacob?” a voice calls out from the stall.
“Yeah- it’s me. You decent?” I ask.
“Oh Jacob….” she chuckles lightly. “I’m seldom ‘decent’.”
OK- now I could see why Mari was so insistent on not venturing out as I threw open the door to the stall. The horns, the black sclera, the tail, the massive wings- all of it was back.
“What happened?” I ask.
“I can no longer conceal my actual appearance from your compatriots.” Mari said.
“So it seems.”
To be honest, I’m surprised I’m not a little more freaked out than I am.
“Although I’m not intoxicated on your human spirits, I believe they further undermined my already limited ability to maintain a more human guise.” she explained.
“Shit….I almost wish I could tell Teddy that his Bushmills is strong enough to wreck an all powerful succubus princess’ evening.” I muse.
“What do you suggest?” the princess asked me.
She’s deferring to me? This is a bit unexpected.
“Hmm…..we could always try and walk out the front door….” I contemplate after a few moments..
“But you said your friends would find my appearance most alarming.”
“Maybe if I told them you were playing the devil in a production of The Devil and Daniel Webster on campus….”
There was a lengthy pause as we looked at each other.
“No, wait….that’s just dumb.” I added to my own suggestion.
I ponder our dwindling options for a moment. Waltzing out the front door as though she doesn’t have a wingspan a third the size of the bar, midnight black sclera, horns and a tail about as discreet as an elephant trunk isn’t an option. Especially if Dolores is already suspicious of me.
Back door has a fire alarm, so that option would also attract unwanted attention.
“Well….” I sigh. “May I suggest an unconventional route of egress.”
Mari looked at me bewildered.
“You’re going out the window.” I said, jerking my thumb to indicate the window of the ladies room that hardly looked big enough for Dottie to slip through, let alone a horned humanoid with massive wings.
“I’m not certain I can fit.” Mari pouted as she demurely held out her hand.
Without saying a word, I took it as I pulled her up from the toilet seat.
“We’re going to have to try…..” I said. “Otherwise, remember what I said about attracting unwanted attention?”
The lilim nodded as I pulled a footstool up along the wall beneath the window. It was elevated, and Mari would need a boost, but it looked as though she had a puncher’s chance of fitting through the window.
“Well- Steve’s got his Glock 23 and Dottie once told me that her aunt keeps a sawn-off Ithaca 20 gauge behind the bar-”
“Yeah.” I’m now feeling around by the windowsill. I doubt either one of them would straight up shoot Mari on sight, but the less questions answered at gunpoint before calling the sheriffs or DPS, the better. “And those are just the ones I know about. Maybe you can shrug off bullets and buckshot- but to be honest, I’d rather not find out tonight.”
The window doesn’t appear to be painted shut- so I have that going in my favor as I roughly manage to get the old window to open up with a pronounced creak.
“I was so hoping I could show some of the others my artwork.” Mari sighed before she realized something. “Oh- Jacob! Could you retrieve my items? I would be most appreciative if you were able to-”
“First things first.” I interrupt, pointing to the open window “We need to get you out of here.”.
“What about you?”
“If all goes well, I’ll just pay the tab, gather up your stuff and head on out of here. Try and keep a low profile and meet me out by the truck.” I tell her as I lean against the wall before getting down onto my haunches and clasping both hands together- my hands now an improvised step ladder Mari can use to start climbing through the window.
Things get off to a promising start as almost immediately she’s more than halfway through the window before there’s any resistance.
“This position is most undignified.” I can hear Mari pout.
“How is it? Too tight?” I ask.
Well, damn. Seems like she’s stuck now.
“Yes- are you certain there’s no other way?”
I can see what the holdup is. Although she managed to tuck her wings in close to her side when we started, they’re now starting to become unfurled as she’s working her way through the window.
“Part of the problem is you’re spread too wide”
Mari let out an exasperated sigh as she tried folding her wings back as much as she could.
“Just a little push….” I said as I try coaxing her further through the window with my hand on her seemingly flawless backside.
“Not so rough please!”
“Y’know, Mari….I didn’t get a chance to say this earlier, but….”
“Do you work out? You have an amazing ass. Really- it belongs in the Louvre.”
“Jacob…” she says- the first hint of irritation creeping into her voice. “You can admire it later- until then, keep thrusting.”
“Can do, Princess.” I say. Taking advantage of her current predicament, I give her right ass cheek a little pinch through her dress. The gesture is met with a startled yelp, her pale slender legs now kicking the air and her spade-tipped tail swishing back and forth.
“Feeling bold, are we?” I can hear Mari ask.
“Human custom.” I reply nonchalantly. ”It’s for good luck.”
“Hmmph! I may have to acquaint you with some of our customs.”
I’m not sure if I should be frightened or enticed by that not-so-veiled threat of hers
“Threatening me with a good time?” I tease.
“It’s too tight to fit.” the lilim complains.
The problem is that she’s so far along that it would be more work to pull her back in than to keep working her way through.
“One more push and we’re almost there!” I try and encourage her.
“Jacob, there must be a better way for us to go about this than you just thrusting repeatedly.”
“Too late to pull out now.” I grunt as I’m exerting more effort than I thought trying to get her the rest of the way through.
“Oh my, Jacob.” I can hear her say coquettishly. “You wouldn’t be thinking about taking advantage of me in such a position, would you?”
Actually the little pinch I gave her was about as far as I had been willing to take things for now, but those smooth, pale legs of hers sure looked like they could use some caressing. But before I can reach out to them, they’re gone. At last, Mari has managed to slip out the window.
I heave a sigh of relief. However, it was extremely short lived as the ladies room door flew open with a loud BANG!.
“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!?” Dolores snarled as she brandished what looked like an axe handle. From the looks of it, I’m extraordinarily lucky that she didn’t bring in the 20-gauge Dottie said she keeps beneath the bar.
Looks like Dottie wasn’t kidding about her aunt. I’m this close to crapping myself- within literal spitting distance of a toilet, no less.
“Oh shit!!” I gasp, pulling in a lungful of the women’s room air while my heart’s still thumping from the exertion of pushing Mari through the narrow window. Turns out once you get past the copious amounts of Glade air freshener, the Whistle’s ladies room smells every bit as bad as the men’s room.
“Th-this isn’t what it looks like, Dee- I swear!” I almost plead.
She must’ve overheard all that talk of being spread too wide, tight fits, thrusting and pulling out.
“What would your folks say if they knew what you were doing here tonight?”
Bring up my parents!? That’s just dirty pool on Dee’s part.
Besides- if someone told mom and dad what was really happening here tonight, I imagine the first words out of their mouths would be something along the lines of “Put down the crack pipe”.
I’m at a loss for words- there’s only so many ways I can say “This isn’t what it looks like!”, and I imagine it gets less believable each time.
“You got a lot of nerve-” Dolores starts as she closes in- now brandishing the axe handle like a stern teacher waggles a pointer at an unruly class.
Hang on now…..what honkytonk or watering hole in the Lone Star state hasn’t seen it’s fair share of indescrete bathroom sexual encounters? Even though that’s what Mari and I weren’t doing, it’s not an unreasonable conclusion to think we were going at it given the grunting, yelping and talk of tight fits someone like Dorie might’ve heard on the other side of the door before busting in.
“Dolores- I can explain…” I say in a surprisingly calm tone.
But she’s still having none of it.
“You might get away with this shit at one of those dive bars up in Midland or Odessa, but we got rules here- understand!?”
“No wait just a minute…”
“Dang it Jake- you think I don’t know money’s a little tight for you right now?” she says- still visibly angry, but something in the vicinity of sympathy is creeping into her voice.
“But that doesn’t give you the right to try and skip out on the bill by wigglin’ out the window of the ladies room!”
It’s finally starting to sink in. Dolores thinks I’m a deadbeat, not a perv putting the finishing touches on a quick bathroom hookup.
“I can’t believe you- your little lady friend even wins the Big Steer Challenge and you still wanna skip out on your tab.”
“Th-that’s not it….” I start to say before I realize I should probably let Dolores keep thinking that rather than what’s actually taking place.
It was strange- as a dragoness, Kaarmerys had an inherent mastery over fire.
However, its most tangible byproduct seemed to be stymieing her hunt for the elusive lilim- the acrid smoke that continued to hang in the air.
The dragoness landed with a flourish, sweeping her wings back into a semi-folded position behind her as she strode towards the precipice. Beneath her was the quarry and all the vehicles and equipment inside of it.
Although the smoke was interfering with her keen olfactory senses, she could still sense faint-but-recent traces of demonic energy from the pit beneath her.
It was curious- the strong demonic energy imprint of the lilim was still noticeable, but it seemed to be fading fast. Like a set of footprints in a snowstorm getting covered back up.
She sensed the fox girl as well, although her demonic energy seemed different somehow- persistent, but not quite as faint as the lilim’s and even more difficult to pinpoint thanks to the smoke.
Kaarmerys had embarked upon a rudimentary grid search of the area from the air before the quarry caught her attention. The little box-like structure adjacent to the quarry seemed to be the only structure around from some distance and most likely the only conceivable refuge for the Lilim. It didn’t seem as though the Demon Lord’s daughter was the sort who would take refuge out in the open in harsh conditions such as these.
She was dimly aware of a village off in the distance, but that wasn’t of much interest to her since it was here- at this pit where her trail went cold.
After surveying the pit before her, the dragoness suddenly pivoted to look behind her.
The vixen dared not stir from her hiding spot in an arroyo several yards away.
“You can’t hide forever…” Kaarmerys said in a low, menacing growl.
One of the things I was able to contemplate on my ‘Walk of Shame’ was how heavy Mari’s stuff was. Her satchel, her art book, the encyclopedia she showed me……even cut off from almost all of her magic, she had to be much stronger than she appeared to be hauling these items around so effortlessly.
With a soft grunt, I hefted the lilim’s satchel off the floor, looping my arm through the strap.
Mari was conspicuous in her absence, yet nobody mentioned anything.
Teddy looked as though he wanted to ask me something, but thought better of it upon seeing Dorie glowering at me, knowing that she was still within earshot.
In many ways, this is worse than that night I got to spend the night in the Ector County lockup. Sure the cops were called in to deal with my drunken ass and I got tazed and probably pissed myself, but there was some consolation in that this largely took place in front of total strangers who didn’t recognize me.
It’s a little different when you’re getting booted from a place where the regulars and staff know you by your first name.
One of the things that struck me about my departure from the Whistle was that Dottie and Teddy had been talking to me as though they were never going to see me again. Even when I was getting ready for my second deployment to Iraq, my family and friends had some reasonable expectation that I would be back at some point.
This time, it seemed as though they were saying goodbye without actually saying ‘Goodbye’.
I tried telling myself that I was being overly-dramatic, yet I couldn’t shake this ominous feeling.
Wait- what did Dottie tell them?
Am I getting eighty-sixed?
My head is swimming with so many thoughts that I can’t easily shake off as I heft Mari’s bags and satchel and head for the Whet Whistle’s front door.
“Goodbye, Jacob.” I could hear Dottie almost whisper.
“Take care, Jakey-boy.” Teddy said, a little more boisterous as he quickly fired off a mock salute on my way out.
And just like that- the door closes behind me and I’m by myself in the parking lot.
I didn’t sign up for it, but now it looks as though I’m the demonic princess’ porter on top of everything else.
“Mari” I call out in a harsh whisper.
No reply. Just the crunching of gravel under my feet as I’m searching the parking lot in vain for my otherworldly companion.
On one run, I had Tazzy with me and while stopping at a rest area between Abilene and Midland, he slipped off his leash. For twenty minutes, I was frantically searching the parking and picnic areas half whispering, half shouting his name. Naturally, I was worried sick that something bad would happen with him romping around unsupervised so close to a busy interstate before I found him sniffing around a family getting ready for a picnic at the rest area (good thing they thought he was adorable- not everyone would’ve been cool about it).
This felt similar- only instead of an oblivious Australian cattle dog, it was a shape-shifting otherworldly lust demoness I was trying corral. And Mari didn’t seem like the sort to be corralled.
“Mari- are you out here?” I ask in a loud, harsh whisper.
Shit- maybe I took one too many liberties when I was shoving her out the women’s room window. Of course, as a princess, how happy would she be with getting shoved out the lavatory window of some backwater dive bar to begin with?
Should I put Mari’s gear in the truck and resume looking for her- or take my chances and hope I can find her while I’m lugging her weighty satchels around?
I figure I might as well make my way to my truck and start trudging a few steps before I’m aware of something behind me.
Did somebody follow me out?
I quickly wheel around only to see nothing but parked trucks and cars in the dimly lit parking lot. Looks like I have the place to myself for now.
Not even three steps later, I feel something collide with me from behind before a slender pair of arms lock around my torso from above. I can only gasp as I stumble forward a few steps. A scream that had been building up in my throat quickly dies when I see that it’s Mari. Using momentum to swing around in front of me, the lilim is still clasping on to me as she’s floating in front of me, her arms loosely draped across my shoulders.
“Looking for me?” she asked with a little smirk.
“Where did you go?”
“Oh- I was just minding my own business on the roof when I spotted this unfortunate lost soul wandering down below.”
“Was he the one carrying all your crap?” I grumbled.
“Don’t be like that, Jacob. Don’t forget that I still owed you for those ‘human customs’ from earlier.”
“So once you got out of the ladies room, you went up….” I contemplated.
Mari confirmed this with a nod.
“My- this has certainly turned into a most eventful evening.” Mari tittered. “According to my father, it was quite common for adventurers, mercenaries and heroes to have a rowdy night like this before embarking on some sort of quest….”
“Yeah- but I’m none of those. And I don’t really think I’ll be embarking on any kind of quest anytime soon.”
“You’d be surprised, Jacob. Never say ‘never’. Besides, weren’t you a soldier?”
“Ah- but you never mentioned ‘soldier’, though.”
Our conversation was interrupted when an angry voice challenged the two of us from the darkness.
“YOU! What did you do to me?”
Heavy footfalls grew closer and closer. Draconic talons on earth and stone.
The vixen knew that she was almost out of ofuda- and by extension, out of options. None of the dwindling spells she had at her disposal seemed powerful enough to subdue or even slow down the belligerent, angry dragoness earlier.
As she nervously shifted against the rocky wall of the arroyo, the fox-girl felt something rigid poking into her left hip.
That’s right- the pepper spray!
The vixen had her misgivings about using it, but it was certainly better than quaking in fear while waiting for her pursuer to close in.
In her mind, she was trying to remember what she had gleaned from the deputy’s mind about the little canister in her hands. His biggest concern seemed to be getting sprayed with the formula himself- whether it was his partner overzealously subduing a belligerent suspect or the breeze blowing some of it back in his face during an altercation.
Over the sounds of her quaking vixen’s heart, she could hear the mighty dragoness trudge ever closer.
She was picking up speed from the sound of it.
Is she breaking into a run? The vixen wondered. She was perplexed now- judging from her distance, if she started sprinting, the dragoness would almost certainly overshoot her.
Still, the fox girl clenched the can of pepper spray while readying herself for anything.
Just as the reptilian footfalls seemed as though they were on top of her, they stopped. Before the fox girl could even ponder why, a large white blur flew quickly past- almost low enough for her to touch but on an arrow straight trajectory as though……
As though……despite coming within a few feet of her, the dragoness had somehow failed to notice the vixen laying in wait in the arroyo.
For a brief, glimmering moment, the vixen contemplated striking her dragoness adversary while her back was turned. However, she quickly ruled that out- not for reasons of fairplay or chivalry, but because she was gaining speed and altitude. Whatever attack the vixen could conjure up was almost certain to miss and only attract the dragoness’ attention.
The fox girl did not want that- especially so soon after coming away from such a close scrape with her unscathed.
“Well fuck….look who decided to join us.” I grumble. “Go away, sister toucher.”
“Look at her- she’s not human. I’m telling you!”
“Fucking go home….you’re drunk.” I scowl, pretending not to notice Mari’s wings, tail and horns. I must admit, it’s an increasingly tough sell.
“Listen to me…..”
Mari seems to have shrugged just about everything else off with good humor, but now- for the first time tonight- she appears to be somewhat agitated. I open the passenger door to the truck as he staggers closer.
Son of a bitch- he’s really asking for it.
In a fluid and discrete motion, I unsnap the strap on the holster my .357 is kept in.
“Who are you!? What are you!?” he demands of Mari as he staggers closer.
“That’s close enough.” I tell him. Only he seems to be ignoring me.
“Damn it…what did you do to me, you-?”
I lunge forward, protectively holding my right arm out in front of Mari. There isn’t a lot of light in the parking lot, but Edison doesn’t need a lot of light to see the barrel of a large caliber revolver pointed directly at his face.
“I said ‘that’s close enough’…..” I snarled as I pulled the hammer back.
“You don’t understand….” he began.
“No, YOU don’t understand. You were seen in front of everybody harassing a female guest at this bar, and she defended herself. Now you’re out here like the weirdo stalker that you are. This isn’t the first time you pulled this shit, but if you take one more step, I can promise you it will be your last.”
“Jacob-please….” Mari said in a calming tone.
As she said that, I realized something was amiss. However, it was nothing either Mari or Edison needed to know right away.
After a prolonged silence, I spoke up.
“Tonight’s your lucky night. Guess my friend here doesn’t want to see your brains splattered all over the parking lot….although that’s only because she doesn’t know you.”
More confused than relieved, Edison hastily took his leave.
“Jacob- were you really going to kill that man?”
“I wanted to, Mari. I mean I thought about it, but…….”
I open the cylinder on the .357 as I head back to the truck and fish something else out from the glove box.
A speed loader with five bullets.
I’m not sure how much Mari knows about firearms from going through my head like she did the other night, but I show her the cylinder anyway.
“These things work much better when you put bullets in them.” I say as I use the speed loader to load up the Smith & Wesson.
“I heard from my familiar a short while ago. Something’s shown up at your quarry and it’s safe to assume they’re not human.”
“Who? Your friend? Or the ones who are after you?”
“I can’t say for certain….”
“I lost contact with my familiar.”
“Oh shit- you don’t mean…..Is…..is she dead?”
“She’s probably taking a nap- this is a common problem when she assumes a feline form.”
“Too much like the real thing?”
“To a fault, I suppose.”
“That could explain why you’re so damn calm about the whole thing.”
“It’s likely she could’ve just spotted some of the native wildlife, too.”
The drive home was pretty uneventful- at least compared to our night out at the Whistle and the drive over. It also felt a little more cramped, since Mari’s wings were no longer concealed within the confines of the Ram’s cab.
“So that fox- the one Steve showed you the picture of? You know her, don’t you?” I ask Mari as we pull up to my rather unglamorous trailer.
“Indeed- the image I saw is just one of many forms she can take.” Mari nodded as she opened up the passenger side door.
“Well- what are you going to do now?”
“Now? I suppose I’ll try on some of these indigenous garments we acquired earlier.” Mari said as she held up the bag from Not My First Rodeo before making her way up the steps to the trailer, although she paused before heading in.
“Do you wish to resume stargazing tonight?”
“Yeah- I’d like that.” I say absently as I find myself once again marveling at Mari’s beauty. It seems different now that I can actually enjoy it here instead of worrying about causing a scene out at the thrift shop or Whistle.
“Then I shall re-join you shortly.” the beautiful lilim said before ducking inside.
She seemed pretty relaxed for someone who had some rather formidable pursuers after her, and I suppose that carefree attitude was somewhat infectious.
However, a thought occurs to me as I start walking up and down the rows of parked oilfield vehicles I’m supposed to be watching.
I haven’t seen either Tazzy or Mari’s familiar since we returned. I can’t speak for the familiar, but it’s very unusual for Tazzy to be this low key- even at this hour.
Before I can even think about warning Mari, I hear someone approach from behind- then feel cold steel pressed against my throat.
In the darkness, my eyes register what looks like a throwing knife being clenched in a feminine looking hand before I can feel it pressing harder against my throat.
Call me crazy, but I can swear the knife is glowing in bright blue flames, even though I can’t feel any heat from the blade.
Then again, I’ve seen crazier things lately.
“Who are you and where is the Lilim?” the owner of the knife growled quietly but harshly right next to my ear.