This week’s Blog Battle entry is for the word “bribe” in whatever genre I choose. This is the second half of last week’s story from the underworld featuring Dom the detective and his dearly loved Innova the spirit of creativity.
I’m a little bit late and a lot bit over the word count but here it is:
I crouch and hustle toward the banks of the River Styx, my drab, lifeless fingers wrapped around Innova’s wrist, almost charcoal against her gleaming skin. The waters ahead churn black and gray underneath a rolling mist. We’re almost to the ferry, hiding behind ramshackle houses, slipping through crowds of bodies wandering aimless near the docks like the wreckage of the afterlife.
Innova digs her heels into the dirt and pulls me back. “Dom, this is insane.” She gestures at the small black box strapped around her radiant ankle. “You should just take me back to the bar before the Oni gets suspicious. Calm, rational responses aren’t his style.”
I ain’t rational either, not when it comes to her. She doesn’t understand the lengths I’ll go to, the madness and hope her presence inspires within me. I’ve been Soulless for years, ever since I pulled the trigger on all my pain and suffering. I’d hoped to end it, and got an eternity’s worth instead. And after years on the outskirts of the underworld, this spirit of creativity clinging to my arm is the only thing that matters to me.
“I still have more time with you,” I protest. “He gave me his word. And if you can’t believe the giant ogre-demon Overlord who runs half of Death’s Landing, then who in Hell can you trust? Other than me, of course,” I add with a laugh.
Innova scoffs, but follows toward the ferry. Fact is, I need her to trust me on this one, maybe more than ever. I’ve been working this plan for a while and can’t have it fall apart at the last step.
The Ferryman stands at the stern of his vessel, watching each tank of bootleg spirits his dockhands unload to their storage facility. “Move faster,” he growls. “I got another shipment to fetch from the other side.”
I can hear a crowd of voices on the other side of the building, the eager buyers who ditched the Oni and his expensive bar to come get a cheaper fix. The Ferryman is building some powerful demand from his customers, judging by the ruckus on the streets nearby. Makes me wonder what he’s getting out of the bargain. The Oni deals in secrets… what does the Ferryman collect?
Questions for another day. We’re a short dash from the mooring, and the dockhands are hauling off the last of the tanks. The Ferryman is already pushing away from the dock. It’s now or never.
I feel Innova pulling away, resisting, quivering with fear now that we’re in sight of the ferry. “Trust me, babe,” I whisper. Then I dash for the boat, and thankfully she comes along, her fingers digging into my unfeeling skin.
The dockhands watch in surprise, and the tanks of spirit they’re carrying fall forgotten in the dirt. The Ferryman’s face twists in confusion at the sight of this blazing bright woman and the bedraggled scrub of a Soulless running toward him.
We hit the edge of the dock and leap, hanging over the black waters of the Styx for a second before crashing onto the planks of the ferry in a tumble.
A voice roars loud enough to shake my heart inside chest. “What is the meaning of this?!” I look up at the Ferryman, but he’s glaring at someone on the docks. Behind me, Innova groans.
At the edge of the dock, surrounded by a team of hovering demon-spawn, the Oni stands armored and armed for battle, his fists on the massive plates of obsidian at his hips. His mask is a glowing crimson like lava. His horns are tipped in blood. The long sword he holds in one hand looks like a massive sheet of razor-sharp metal with a handle tossed onto one end for convenience.
His mask moves slightly, his gaze taking in the whole scene. When he speaks, the dock rumbles beneath his weight. “A fool hoping to steal one of my precious guests? And perhaps worse—a greater fool cutting into my market with cheap imitations of my product?”
The Oni points, and four winged demons swoop toward the ferry to pull it back to the dock. The Ferryman whistles and a dozen of his burly assistants pour out of the storage facility in seconds, fists clenched, ready for a scrap.
“Dom,” Innova breathes, “what have you done?”
The Oni stomps a hoof onto the ferry and for a moment I fear the whole thing will capsize. His entourage of demons engage the dockhands trying to reach their master, and the shoreline turns into a madcap fight scene from some eighties action movie.
“I’m not trying to escape with Innova,” I say.
“Of course you are not,” the Oni replies, the empty eyes of his mask fixed on the Ferryman. “You are a thoughtful man, Dominick. A calculating man who knows the cost would be more than he could pay.”
“Just figured you’d be interested in what’s going on here.”
The Oni takes a step toward his rival. His fingers tighten around the haft of his ridiculous sword—a wall of metal bigger than my entire body. “You are correct,” he says, fearless, like a master looming over his cowering dog.
The Ferryman’s eyes dart along the docks and the shore. His men put up a good fight, but the demons are driving them back, separating the dockhands from their leader. He throws up his hands in desperation before the Oni. “You can’t kill me! I keep the Underworld full of fresh souls, customers you need. If I stop bearing the departed from the world above, the whole circle of death and life breaks down.”
“You speak truth,” the Oni admits. “I cannot kill you. However…”
There’s a rush of wind as the Oni unleashes an overhead chop. The Ferryman screams and his left arm hits the deck with a thud.
“You can still pilot your vessel with one hand.” The Oni leans in close. “I’m quite certain you could do it without legs if need be.” His expressionless mask examines the ship. “The soul-traps on this vessel… you will disassemble them, yes?”
The Ferryman whimpers and gives a vigorous nod.
Then the Oni turns to Innova and me, standing at the stern, near the rudder and the wheel. “You had a hand in arranging this meeting, Dominick. Did you seek reward? Are you currying favor, perhaps asking for another day with my lovely spirit by your side?”
Now we come to it, the moment I’m expecting and dreading and hoping for all at once. I lick my lips, eyeing that insane, bloody thing in the Oni’s massive hand. “How about—how ‘bout you set her free?”
The Oni stares in silence.
“Otherwise,” I continue, forcing some resolve into my voice until it booms over the waters, “Otherwise, I flip this on and you all get sucked into the soul traps like a Hoover.” I tip my chin toward my hand, resting on the switch that powers the vessel’s mechanisms.
I swear, even the dockhands and demons on the shore go silent. Rule number one of the outskirts: you don’t threaten the Oni.
Innova whips her head around at me, her jaw hanging like a fish plucked from the water. Even now she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.
I take my eyes off her and find the Oni inches from my face, his blood-mask staring down at me, a fire smoldering in the black pits of his eye holes. “You dare not risk your beloved.”
He’s smart, calling my bluff. I don’t have an answer for that.
“I’d rather die,” Innova declares, “than be trapped on your shelf, brought out to prance before the refuse that frequents your bar, hoping to someday earn the right of basic freedom.”
I take her hand and give it a squeeze. I wasn’t sure how to get around the obvious fact that I would never put her into harm’s way.
The Oni grunts in frustration. His fingers flex and splay around the haft of his wall-sword. “You would be trapped too.”
“I’m Soulless,” I reply. “I’ve got nothing to trap, nothing to lose.”
Our standoff lasts several minutes, and then the Oni laughs. “Well played. Bribing me with my own soul. Truly a calculating man.” He turns to Innova and etches two glyphs of flame in the air. “Your contract is revoked. You are free to go.”
Innova gasps, stumbling like a drunk. Her natural radiance gleams even more, like the sun finally peeking through a cloudy sky. “You—what?”
“You are freed, spirit. No longer bound.” His voice hardens into a primal growl. “Nor do you belong here any longer.”
She flashes me a smile of thanks before he banishes her from the Underworld. There’s a flash of light, then—nothing. An empty spot where she stood, a hole in my heart that only she filled.
I look up at the gloomy skies and the thick stalactites high above, imagining that somewhere, beyond the miles of rock and lava, she’s feeling the sun on her face once again. It’s the only thing keeping me standing under the crushing weight of grief and loss.
“I respect what you have done here, Dominick,” the Oni says. “But you are wrong.”
“About what?” I stand at the stern, staring into the darkness above.
“Having nothing to lose,” the Oni says. He marches off the ferry, each step rocking the shuddering vessel.