- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 1
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 2
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 3
- Malady Place – E102 “The Roomie Rules” Act 1
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 4
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 5
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 6
She’d blacked out.
Winter wasn’t sure if that really was the next thought she had or not. What was running through her head at the moment wasn’t exactly coherent. There were evil, skinless weasels and a leering thing with a beak somewhere in the blur, along with purple fire. Lots of purple fire backed by a woman’s voice letting loose with a litany in an angry sounding language she couldn’t identify.
What she knew for sure was that she’d blacked out.
Blacking out wasn’t good ever, but especially not on her first day of her new job.
Somewhere in the fuzzy nothingness that surrounded her, she caught Renee’s voice, muffled and distance.
“–know you don’t owe me anything, Flynn. In this case I’ll owe you.” She paused and for a moment, Winter thought she’d gone, but then her voice reappeared. “No, no strings. This is an open ticket because I don’t have time to haggle. I’m about to text you an address. I need the place reset by thirty minutes.”
Another pause, but shorter this time. “Yeah, I had a little dust-up I didn’t expect to get into.” Pause. “Zaimiel.”
Pause. Pause. “No, he won’t be back there.” Her voice grew cold. “He already accomplished what he was after.”
Winter slowly realized that she was in a car seat. There was the sensation of motion, but she couldn’t judge the speed, just that Renee, who she assumed was driving, was weaving like a madwoman. More distant than the demoness’s voice were the sounds of angry car horns.
Alongside the sensations of the seat beneath her and the motion came the pain. She’d already suspected she would have a dull headache, but this was nothing like. Her head… at least her forehead… burned. It felt like someone heated a silver dollar over a blowtorch, then dropped it dead-center on her brow. Tendrils of lesser pain branched out from that point, but they paled in comparison to the main event.
“I know.” Renee was saying. “I get it, Flynn. Just… okay, sure. I’ll look into it for you, no charge. It’s just got to wait, alright?” Pause. “Because I need to stop by Yu’s place.” Pause. “Yeah, it is that bad.”
What was that bad? Winter couldn’t feel anything broken, so she had to assume it wasn’t her. Renee seemed fine too. Maybe the Crosby’s house? She had heard something about ‘resetting’ it. Whatever that was.
“Alright Flynn, thanks. Yeah and I owe you a date too. Fine. Bye.” A soft beep indicated she’d hung up on whoever Flynn was. Silence settled in aside from the rush of the wind outside and the occasional horn.
Minutes later, Renee broke that silence with a long sigh and Winter felt cool fingers gently brushing the bangs away from her forehead. It did little to ease the pain searing into her brow, but it didn’t make it worse either.
“Thrones, Snowy, I’m sorry.” Renee said quietly. Her fingers carefully combed Winter’s hair further away from her face. “Lightbringer shouldn’t have sent that son of a bitch of all people to deliver his little job offer. He had to know what would happen.”
Mustering her will, Winter tried to open her eyes. That turned out to be a mistake as the merest twitch of her eyelids sent pain lancing through what she was now sure was a serious wound in her forehead.
She winced and Renee noticed, withdrawing her hand swiftly. “Sorry.”
With renewed effort, Winter went with something less agonizing and tried speaking. “Miss Faust?” Embarrassment took hold of her as surely as the pain when her voice came out sounding more like a kitten’s mewl. Still, she pressed on. “What happened?”
The car juked and this time the attendant hoking was followed by what she could distinctly tell was a man’s voice screaming very rude things. Renee cleared her throat a couple of times before saying, “One of my ex-coworkers. He goes by Zaimiel now though I don’t know if that was always his name or not.”
“That’s bad.” Delirium seemed to be setting in because Winter wished she had said something a tad less stupid.
Renee didn’t pick up on it, or at least didn’t give any indication that she did. “Yeah. Real bad. The Lightbringer sent him up to ask for my help with something. Basically a job offer.”
Every agent knew who and what Lightbringer was. Distinct from the order of ha’shaitan who served The Throne and who inadvertently lent their name to the mythical figure of Satan, Lightbringer was Lucifer, King of Hell and all Demons and Devils. While not in reality, the Big Bad of all Creation, he was certainly one of them.
“That’s bad.” Winter failed to stop herself from saying. To cover, she rushedly added, “You’re not gonna take it, are you?”
“Well.” Suddenly, the car jerked to the side. The tires screech and everything was thrown into violent and completely wrong motion.
Out of Reflex, Winter tried to look out the window. Opening her eyes hurt like she couldn’t believe, not only because of whatever was hurting her head, but because the light seemed to stab into her eyes like an icepick. The view wasn’t much better, was there appeared to be sidewalk full of people and the side of a building featuring a window with Japanese characters stenciled on it in gold and red rapidly approaching the passenger side.
In the weird, stretched out chronology granted her by adrenaline, she managed to read the characters: ‘The Earthly Palace of the Heavenly Dragon’. In English beneath them were the words ‘Happy Panda Chinese Buffet and Sushi’.
While she was pondering that epic translation fail and how many levels on which it failed, the car skidded to a stop, just two inches from the curb, perfectly parallel parked between two other cars on the street. Winter was thankful she didn’t have all he faculties back just yet, or the screaming might not have ended for a week or two.
“Can you walk?” Renee asked, unbuckling her seat belt
“We’re going for Chinese food?” Winter winced and wondered if the stupid things would ever stop coming out of her mouth.
Renee opened her door and quickly came around to open Winter’s for her. “Maybe later if you’re hungry. First we need to go see if I have to take this job or not?” She unbuckled Winter’s seat belt, which the other woman hadn’t even noticed until just that minute, then helped her out of the car.
“Just a little further, Snowy.” Renee said, pulling Winter’s arm across her shoulders. It didn’t get past Winter’s slowly returning senses that Renee was now significantly shorter so as to better facilitate that. After the day she was having, that barely registered as strange.
Once she had Winter standing, Renee helped her stagger toward the restaurant’s entrance, not even pausing to close the car door. People on the sidewalk stopped and gaped. First they’d witnessed Renee’s stunt parking and now this. Winter felt she would be mortified if she were in her right mind.
An older Chinese woman dressed in black slacks, a matching vest, and a crisp, white blouse opened the door for them. Her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her brown eyes were flecked with green and gold.
“Miss Faust.” She said without even the hint of an accent. “Your usual table in back? I see your friend has already started the party early.”
And there was the mortification. Winter felt her face heating in an entirely familiar way. Good to know she was getting better.
“Not here to eat, Lynn.” said Renee with urgency. “I need to see Yu Lung. As soon as possible.” Winter felt the arm not wrapped around her come up and lift her hair out of the way, baring her forehead tot he woman called Lynn, who flinched.
“Oh my… Yes, yes of course. I’m certain Yu will see you immediately.” She turned and shouted in Japanese to someone Winter couldn’t see thanks to being slouched over. Winter could read Japanese as well as she could read it and picked up the gist of it even in her dazed state: there was an emergency that couldn’t wait. Not comforting when the emergency was her.
Almost peripheral to it all was why the Chinese women in the Chinese restaurant were speaking Japanese. Or why the characters outside were in Japanese too.
Minutes later, they were moving again with Lynn taking the lead. A younger woman, possibly in her twenties fell into step beside her and took her other arm, helping her and Renee move faster, especially once they rounded a corner and started up a set of red carpeted stairs.
At the top of said stairs, the emerged into a hallway that was more fancy than anything downstairs. There was cherry wood paneling and what Winter was fairly sure were authentic period Japanese paintings.
Despite there being doors on either side of the hall, they move inexorably to the end of where a set of double doors waited. Lynn pushed those open and ushered them into a large room with curved walls adorned with mirrors that stretched from the ceiling to shoulder height.
There was very little furniture there: a low table, some cushions for anyone who wished to sit at the table, and two floor lamps: one at either end of the table. A middle-aged Chinese man sat at the table facing them and looking as if he was about to nod off.
Behind him rose the final item in the room: a gigantic cherry wood carving of a dragon measuring some fifteen feet long and ten feet high, filling the entire rear of the chamber. Winter was no expert in east Asian art, but she would have put money on it being a Japanese dragon instead of a Chinese one.
Lynn and the woman who had been helping Winter walk backed off the moment they got inside, allowing Renee to half-drag Winter toward the table. The demoness didn’t wait until she was seated to speak her piece.
“Yu Lung! I know I said that free buffet privileges anytime I wanted was enough for getting you set up around here, but I need your help right now.”
In reply, the middle-aged guy seemed to fall asleep entirely. Nonetheless, a deep, resonant voice filled the room. “What would I be if I turned away such friends as Faust? Provided this isn’t another fool’s errand, of course.”
Winter detected a slight Japanese accent—Kansai region if she wasn’t mistaken. What she couldn’t figure out was where the voice was coming from.
“No being silly today, Yu. Promise.” Renee lowered Winter into a reasonable sitting position at the table before dropping down beside her. “I had a bad meeting with one of my old faction: Zaimiel.”
“And here I hoped he no longer lived.” replied the voice, which had to belong to Yu. “What does this have to do with me or you? The lat I heard, you stayed out of Lightbringer’s business unless humans started dying.”
Renee swallowed audibly. “Yeah, well…” She reached over and moved Winter’s hair aside.
There was a rush of air in the room, as if the room itself gasped, followed by Yu saying, “Oh. Oh my. That’s a bit worst than death isn’t it?”
Winter stiffened, but Renee moved faster, clapping her hands over Winter’s ears. This proved ineffective as Winter could still hear every word even if they were muffled.
“Damn it, Yu, why did you tell her that? I’m trying to keep her from panicking—she’s all shiny and new and she does not need this on her first day as my new best friend. Daemon Marks are something you get eased into… you know after a few forcible possessions, a couple dozen near-death experiences—things like that.”
It just made it worse for Winter to realize Renee thought those were inevitable.
“I don’t believe in hiding the truth.” Yu replied indignantly. “Besides if this is Zaimiel’s, and nothing is done before she turns…”
“Turns?” Winter asked in the kitten voice again. She didn’t care anymore because this sounded bad. “Turns as in… into something?” Neither Yu nor Renee seemed to be listening.
Renee grunted. “You think I don’t know that? That’s why I want to get this fixed—and retirement from the games between Realms or not, you’re the strongest thing I can drive to on short notice.”
“I am so happy you added that qualifier.” Yu replied drolly. “You can assure me that this won’t count as me moving against Lightbringer?”
“Does that mean there’s a way to fix her?” Renee’s voice was laced with suspicion.
The room vibrated with an odd rumbling. “Not one that you’ll like. But important matters first: Lightbringer won’t see this as a move? Me and mine will remain neutral?”
“What am I going to turn into?”
Renee reached down and patted the now-shivering Winter on the hand. “Nothing now. And don’t worry, Yu, if anyone is riding the edge on neutrality, it’s Lightbringer sending Zaimiel on this stupid errand. Really, it makes no sense for him to try and pull me in on something like this anyway.”
“Like what?” asked Yu.
“No, seriously, what’s happening to me?” Winter begged. She wasn’t finding any comfort in Renee petting and squeezing her fingers because it was rapidly becoming obvious to her that she was only doing it because she’d seen people on TV do it to clam each other down in times of stress. He pets were measured and mechanical and her squeezes bordered on crushing.
Renee shook her head. “Some petty revolt in the ranks. Some Captain or other went AWOL with his legion, Lightbringer thinks they’re on Earth and wants me to find them. Honestly, he could almost hire a real PI for this. There’s no reason to go so far as to blackmail and piss me off over it.”
“Maybe there’s something more to it.” Yu suggested.
Winter could only whimper as her imagination replayed every painful, graphic transformation sequence she’d ever seen in a movie or TV. Bones cracking and reforming, skin ripping, clothes shredding…
To her shock, Renee seemed to take notice of the whimpering and let go of Winter’s hands to throw and arm around her protectively. “I can figure that out later. You said there’s a fix for this right? And I won’t like it? Fine by me. What, do I just give her my own Daemon Mark? That way she’ll be my daemon and that solves the problem, right?”
“I don’t even know what a Daemon is.” Winter protested.
“Actually, that won’t work.” said Yu, and Winter felt Renee jerk in surprise. “My apologies, but a Daemon Mark won’t erase another Daemon Mark. You need something different to do that—something that will overwrite and supersede it.”
Renee grunted out her frustration. “Stop beating around the bush, Yu. Can you fix her or not? Just tell me how and we’ll do it.”
A creaking, splintery sound filled the room and Winter really, really didn’t want to know what it was. “I warned you that you wouldn’t like it, Faust.” said Yu. “But what I can do is invest in your new friend some of my power, changing her and in the process revoking Zaimiel’s mark.”
“Why does everything have to change me?” Winter protested weakly.
More creaking sounded and when Winter looked up, she found that the ‘wooden’ dragon had partially climbed down from the wooden frame he’d been resting on. Yu hadn’t change exactly, though now that he had settled with his serpentine body resting on his legs, it was easy to see that he was no two-dimensional carving, but a fully realized creature, just one with coloration that looked exactly like wood.
His head swung around so that he was face to face with Winter, his mustache-like whiskers undulating as if they were caught in an underwater current.
“What I am offering, you friend of Faust, is something far preferable to becoming Zaimiel’s thrall. It might even help you survive being a friend to Faust.” With that—and without asking her permission or even if she understood what was happening, he raised up and presented his scaly chest.
A three-taloned paw reached up and plucked a scale from it—then applied it directly to Winter’s burning forehead.
End Act 5