The War of Wind and Moon Chapter 9

Hello dear readers!Here at last is Chapter 9 of The War of Wind and Moon – I’m quite excited about this one because it is the end of Act One of both Season One and Mia’s life! 

Before you read it, though, I have some exciting news! You can now pre-order The War of Wind and Moon, Season One over at Inkshares publishing. It’s a crowdfunded publishing site so every pre-order adds to the possibility that it will be published so, if you’re enjoying the story, I would be so very grateful if you could pop over and pre-order (and/or tell your friends who like Young Adult Fantasy, too!) 

As you can see below, it’s getting some incredibly generous support from Inkshares readers, staff and authors, too, so you’ll be in great company! 

And now, the story continues… I hope you enjoy it!

The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter 9
Mia squeezed her eyes closed but pain and swelling forced them open. Instead, she focused on the bloody towel she was holding to her nose, counted to three, then raised her gaze to the ceiling again. The glimmering creature was still there, staring down at her with its lidless eyes atop its beach ball belly, occasionally switching its gaze to her mother on the bed below, but quickly returning it to Mia still lying on the floor. It looked so real. It wasn’t solid, she could see the roof meeting the top of the wall through its body, but still… She closed her eyes again, gently this time, and willed away the sense of its presence. Sane people did not see imaginary monsters.

“Mia?” Her mother’s voice. Too close. She opened her eyes to find Patricia kneeling in front of her, reaching for the towel. Mia recoiled. “Don’t be childish, Mia. I need to see if your nose is broken.”

But Mia was more concerned about her eyes. She blinked. Twice. Still, her view of her mother’s face was distorted by thousands of tiny yellow flashes of light, dancing in the air between them. Patricia reached toward Mia’s face again. Again, Mia flinched. “Don’t!” Mia’s voice was muffled by the towel over her face but her mother had heard her.

Patricia’s eyes widened. The lights dancing in Mia’s vision became orange, then red. Fear swelled in Mia’s chest. Time seemed to slow. Each heart beat an explosion juddering her ribcage. The flickering of the red lights, too, slowed. Behind them Patricia’s lips parted, her chest expanded, drawing a breath to speak. Her fingers curled into the palms of her hands, tightening into fists.

“Leave me alone!” Half whimper, half shriek, the words bypassed Mia’s brain, her lips and vocal chords driven by fear. “Please! Just leave me alone!”

Whatever Patricia had planned to say, she swallowed it. Her fists dropped to her sides and her fingers softened, as did her expression. Where there had been rage, now there was confusion. Frowning, she looked into Mia’s eyes for a long moment then nodded, got to her feet and left the room.

And then the flat.

At least, it had sounded like she’d left the flat. Her footsteps had padded away from Mia’s bedroom, then the front door had opened and closed and now there was silence.

A knock at the window made her jump. Time snapped back, accelerating her heart into a violent frenzy.

“Mia?” Tak’s voice through the glass. “Mia? Are you okay?”

She began to raise her head but remembered the state of her face and kept it down.

“I’m fine, Tak!”

“I don’t think you are. Let me in.”

“I said I’m fine!”

“I can see the blood, Mia. Your mum just wandered out of the driveway in her pyjamas. If you don’t let me in I’m calling the police.”

That was the last thing she needed. Not until she’d worked out what she wanted to do. She nodded and his shadow disappeared from the window.

It was only then that she realized the red lights had cleared from her eyes. And the creature was gone! Relief surged through her chest. She caught her breath and her heart beat began to slow. The familiar exhaustion that set in after a panic attack began. Was that all it was? The lights, the creature? Hallucinations brought on by a panic attack?

Tak was already banging on the front door. She had to handle him and then work out what to do when her mother returned. Still breathing hard, she leaned against the wall to push herself to her feet. As she made her way to the front door, she risked pulling the towel from her nose and was relieved to find the bleeding had stopped. The pain wasn’t so bad anymore, either. If Tak hadn’t seen her mother hit her, perhaps he’d believe she’d just had a nose bleed.

“Mia?!” Tak called again, thumping the door.

She opened it.

Tak gaped at her. “Oh my god, Mia. Did your mum do that?”

Mia could only gape back but she wasn’t looking at Tak. Hovering in the air behind him, jostling for position, were hundreds of pairs of glittering, lidless eyes atop shrivelled, dangling bodies with tiny hands reaching for her. They swarmed through the door, surrounding Mia, hissing and sighing as their bodies began to inflate. Mia blacked out.

***

Tak lunged over the doorstep and caught Mia against his chest as her knees buckled.

“Mia?”

No response. He adjusted his arms and tightened them to stop her determined slide toward the floor.

“Mia!” He tried again, louder this time but still there was no response.

Her breathing was ragged through her bloodied nose so he didn’t have to check for that or perform CPR. Just handle the unconsciousness. What did the St. John’s ambos say about unconsciousness? Come on, Tak – think! Every year he did the first aid class that was the only reason his mother allowed him to take ninjitsu at the community centre and the one time he needed it- Recovery position! That was next. After breathing, recovery position.

With one foot either side of her legs, he bent over and walked into her flat, lowering her beneath him, careful not to let her head drop at the last moment.

“Mia?” he called again as he stepped over her and rolled her onto her side, tucking one hand under her head and bending her upper leg to balance her in place.

She was still out. He was pretty sure unconsciousness wasn’t supposed to last more than a few seconds unless some superhero needed you not to notice him changing personas.

Getting on to his knees beside her, he patted her cheeks and shook her shoulders. “Come on, Mia, please wake up!”

At last, her eyes fluttered open.

“Hey,” he said gently. “Can you hear me? Do you know where you are?”

She frowned and nodded at his knees.

“You were unconscious for a while, I think I should call an ambulance.”

She shook her head, and tried to get up, rolling on to her back.

Then she screamed.

And she kept screaming. Flailing at the air, her eyes focused on something he couldn’t see about a foot from her face.

He grabbed at her wrists but she twisted them out of his grip, still screaming. He managed to catch her wrists again, and held them tighter this time and leaned over her, hoping to get between her and whatever was frightening her.

She stopped fighting. Her eyes focused on him and she gulped for air. He smiled in a way he hoped was soothing.

“It’s okay. Just look at me. You’re safe.”

She shook her head. “They’re everywhere.”

“There’s nothing there, Mia. It’s just me. Your mum’s gone. You’re safe.”

She grabbed two handfuls of his school jumper and pulled him closer, hissing, “They’re all over you.”

Tak resisted changing his expression and nodded. “I know,” he said – that’s what you did with delusional people, right? Pretend you believe them and make sure they don’t hurt themselves? “I’m going to stay right here so they stay on me and can’t get to you. Okay?”

She nodded but she was still clearly terrified. Tak wasn’t exactly in his comfort zone, either. He had no idea how to help her. She was either suffering a severe head injury, or some kind of mental breakdown. She needed a doctor. For the first time since primary school, he actually wished for the sound of his mother’s car pulling into the driveway. Her shift had ended twenty minutes ago, so she could drive in at any moment, but she rarely got away from the hospital on time.

Mia yelped, startling him, then went limp beneath him, passing out again. Almost relieved, Tak pulled out his phone and called triple 0.

***

Exhausted and heart-sore, Ryosuke made his way to the changing room near the entrance to the Hall of Shadows – thirteen hours witnessing a mother physically and emotionally torture her daughter, year after year, would do that to you. Inside the wood-panelled locker room, he removed his traditional ceremonial clothing, carefully hanging his montsuki with its five family crests in its place of honour, then sat heavily on the wooden bench. He pushed his hands through his hair, gripped a handful in each fist and pulled at the roots. After so many hours with his consciousness outside of his body, sometimes a little pain was the only thing that reassured him he was whole again.

A gentle knock on the door panel and Akiko’s voice prompted him to pull on his suit pants and slide the door open for her.

“That bad?” his sister asked.

Ryosuke nodded and stepped to one side, inviting her in with a wave of his hand. She left her jikatabi boots at the door and padded into the room in her split-toe socks, taking a seat on the bench while Ryosuke put on his shirt.

“Are you okay?” It was an invitation to talk rather than a genuine question. As super-vigilants, Ryosuke and Akiko could read the state of each other’s emotions from the colour and strength of the energy field that danced around every living being. Reading that field was a large part of the training Ryosuke’s recruits went through. Not that you’d need to be super-vigilant, or even particularly empathetic to spot Ryosuke’s disturbed mood. Akiko said nothing, allowing him to speak when he was ready.

“Have you heard,” he began as he looped his tie around his neck and began to work it into a full Windsor, “of the diet method of throwing up every night before you go to bed because food left in your stomach while you sleep turns to fat?”

“I’ve heard of bulimia,” Akiko said.

“Oh no, no. It’s not bulimia, you see, because with bulimia you throw up everything so you end up completely malnourished. This is just throwing up at night. Strategically. It’s science apparently.”

“Is that what Mia does?”

“It’s what Mia is made to do. Every night. After her mother weighs her and records it in a notebook.”

Akiko sighed. “And if she refuses to throw up, she’s beaten?”

“Oh no. Nothing so… honest. If Mia refuses to ‘empty her stomach’ as the mother puts it, she’s marched to a mirror and poked and pinched and berated for being fat until she agrees.”

“She’s not fat!”

Ryosuke frowned at his sister. “That would make it alright, would it?”

“Of course not! You know that’s not what I meant.”

He did know that. “Sorry.” He took a moment to calm down. “If Mia still refuses, the woman forces her own two fingers down her daughter’s throat, instead.”

Akiko sucked in a breath and held it, shaking her head. “For real, soul-destroying, emotional torture you’ve got to hand it to mothers.”

Ryosuke sighed and nodded at the wall. “Yup. And that’s not the half of it. She doesn’t seem to actually hit her that often but the rages and the humiliation and tearing down…”

“Why all those NFAs in her file, then?” Akiko asked.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense,” Ryosuke said. “Every moment of that girl’s life has been spent attuned to that woman’s temper. She’s been text book hyper-vigilant since the Gossip was bound her. She was three. Three years old and hyper-vigilant and we’ve left her there for fourteen years.”

“Ryo-kun,” Akiko began in her most soothing tone, “I know you hate to be told this but your staff aren’t actually looking for kids who need help – they’re looking for kids who meet certain criteria-”

“She met them!” Ryosuke leaped to his feet, clutching at his hair again.

“So recruit her now,” Akiko said.

“It’s too late! She’s too old to train.”

“To attain super-vigilance, yes, but hyper-vigilance alone is an advantage in all sorts of areas. The Supernatural Division isn’t the only division that prizes deep empathy or quick-reflexes.”

Another knock on the changing room door interrupted them.

“Come!” Akiko called.

The panel slid open, revealing Grace Tripodi, a girl Ryosuke had recruited – from Melbourne, too, come to think of it – almost a decade ago. Twenty-five, now and super-vigilant, she’d been too damaged for the violence Ryosuke’s field-work so often required, so she’d become one of Akiko’s most valued Gossip wranglers.

Grace bowed low to Ryosuke, then to Akiko. “Kazemoto-sama, the Delaney girl’s Gossip has just reported in again.”

Ryosuke’s heart fell. “Already?”

“What’s wrong, Grace-chan?” Akiko asked. She’d spotted what Ryosuke had been too self-absorbed to notice. Grace’s training kept her expression and body language still but emotional field shuddered with anxiety.

“I witnessed the memory as the Gossip reported to the Vault, just now.” She stopped, gulped and continued. “I didn’t know it was possible but her mother was attacking her and…” Again, she stopped.

“What?” Akiko pressed.

“I think – no, I’m sure. Mia Delaney’s attained super-vigilance.”

 

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The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter 8

Hello everyone, Chapter 8 is ready for your ears and eyes and, gosh it was a tough one to write and record! I won’t go into detail for fear of spoilers but I feel the need to warn you to brace yourselves – and do feel free to vent in the comments if you are so moved (if I done my job right, you will be!)

Chapter 8 finds Mia hoping she can keep the school counselor from prying into what happened at her last school but, as always, the real danger is at home.

Chapter Eight

Alternative Platform Links: Narrative DisorderWattpadiTunes, Tapewrite, Audioboom and Soundcloud.

Mia was awake long before her 6:45 alarm was due to ring and not just because she kept rolling onto her back and being woken by Sunday night’s, now flourishing bruises. It was Thursday and she wasn’t going to be able to talk her way out of the counselling session Vice Principal Kostopoulos had rescheduled.  If she was lucky, she’d be able to keep Mrs. Paige focused on catching up on the extra work changing schools had created, rather than discussing why she’d moved. Mia had a plan. She’d been up till 1 a.m. filling in and colour-coding a study timetable. She was quite proud of it. Every fifteen minutes from 8a.m. to 11p.m. of the next month was jammed full of enough work to make any counselor worth their salt want to spend a full session discussing taking breaks and the benefits of extra-curricular activities and exercise.

She worried a little that she might have overdone it. If Mrs. Paige was too kind hearted she might want to reach out to Mia’s mother. The last thing Mia needed was for Patricia to find out she was seeing the counselor but she was pretty sure that as long as she could convince Mrs. Paige that she accepted her advice, it should be fine.

Movement in the hall. A muffled voice… A raised voice. “I don’t care what your records say! I had a long conversation with a perfectly lovely but evidently incompetent young lady only a week ago.”

Oh no. Not again. 

“Well, yes,” her mother shouted. “I’ll thank you to check again!”

Knowing what she’d find but hoping she was wrong, Mia reached a hand out of the warmth under her doona and reached for the lamp switch hanging over the edge of her desk, beside the bed. Squeezing her eyes closed in case it did turn on, she pressed the switch. Raising one eyelid ever so slightly confirmed her fears. The room remained in pre-dawn grey.

Anger fizzed from her chest to her gritted teeth. Every single time they moved house, her mother would wait to transfer the electricity to their name until it was cut off by the last tenant and then call the electricity company and shout and cajole and lie until they agreed to put it on without penalising her for not transferring it in time. Sometimes Patricia managed to get them to give her a credit for her trouble.

Mia understood that her mother was trying to save money because they had so little, but she also understood that her mother could have been working full time, not just during the Uni holidays, if she wanted to. Patricia had been offered a permanent position at the temp job she’d taken just these last holidays, as she had the holidays before and before that, but being “just an employee” was beneath her. What Patricia Delaney wanted was what she’d had before Mia had been born: to be a rich man’s wife. And nothing – not even being twenty years older than her classmates – could sway her from the belief that the place to meet a rich husband was the same place she’d met Mia’s father. University. Not that she was entirely wrong. She’d fallen in love with several rich husbands over the last eight years – just not her own.

Mia pulled her arm back into the warm and listened to her mother’s familiar fight with some poor customer service officer at the electricity company.

“Do I need to speak with a supervisor? Electricity is an essential service and I’m a single mother with a young child freezing in her bedroom in the middle of winter!… Yes, I’ll hold.”

Ah, the seventeen-year-old young child thought, the killer blow. If it didn’t work it meant at least twenty-four hours, sometimes seventy-two, without heating and light. At least in this flat they had gas cooking and hot water. It would also mean an angry morning. Come on, Mia prayed to the anonymous customer service officer, just give in.

“Yes…Six hours?” Patricia’s tone softened. “Well, I suppose that’s the best I can expect. Thank you.”

A clatter of hard plastic on a surface. The flick-and-suck of a cigarette being lit. A low, satisfied chuckle. Mia let out her own breath. It fogged before it dispersed. That would make the morning easier. As would pretending she hadn’t heard the phone call. She closed her eyes at the sound of her mother’s footsteps approaching her bedroom door.

“Mia? Sweetie? Time to wake up.”

Mia opened her eyes and blinked at a spot of light that quickly resolved into a dull candle flame.

“The electricity company’s been stupid again but isn’t this fun?” Her mother grinned at the candle she was carrying in a glass that was too short and wide. The candle rocked against the rim of the glass throwing shadows that turned Patricia’s grin into something from a horror film. It helped Mia manage the smile her mother expected.

“Come on,” Patricia went on. “Get dressed and we’ll have breakfast by candlelight. We can pretend to be the Bennet girls till the sun comes up.”

Mia was fairly certain the Bennet girls’ servants would have set a fire the night before and tended it so that it was still warm when they woke but she wasn’t going to ruin her mother’s good mood. If Mia went along with it, it could actually be almost fun. If Mia pierced the illusion and hinted, even slightly, that she was aware that her mother had, in fact, caused the situation they were now in- well, it wasn’t worth it. Especially four days after the last time.

For the same reason, after Mia had showered and dressed in the dark and made her way to the flickering kitchen, she resisted getting the emergency lantern out from under the sink. Her mother was sitting on the living room side of the kitchen island, lighting another cigarette from the candle she’d placed in the middle. Mia went to the cupboard and began to pull out cereal bowls.

“Hang on,” her mother said. “You’re not getting into the spirit of this. The Bennet girls wouldn’t have had cereal. What would they have had?”

“Um,” Mia hoped her expression was hidden by the shadows. She pushed as much enthusiasm as she could muster at this hour into her voice. “Smoked kippers?”

Her mother took a long, angry drag on her cigarette. “We don’t have kippers do we?” she said, smoke billowing through her clenched teeth as she spoke.

“Um.” Mia forced a chuckle. “I’m trying to think what’s English.”

“Pancakes!” Patricia blurted, her voice suddenly bright. “Let’s have pancakes! We can get the birthday candles out and put them on like a birthday cake!”

“Okay!” Mia said, trying to match her mother’s sudden excitement. She put the cereal bowls back into the cupboard and reached for a mixing bowl. She wasn’t sure how she was going to know when the pancakes were cooked in this light but her mother’s mood swings wouldn’t tolerate the slightest question or doubt. “Lemon and sugar or jam?”

“Lemon and sugar sounds much more English to me.”

Mia nodded and pulled out the white sugar with the flour. She startled, almost dropping the packages as a jangling noise went off in her bedroom. She’d forgotten to stop her alarm clock.

Again the moment of anticipation, preparation for her mother’s response.

“Up before the alarm,” Patricia said. “Aren’t we good?”

Breathing free again, Mia nodded then pointed toward the bedroom as she ran around the bench and headed in to stop the racket. She lifted the old-fashioned, faux-chrome, electricity-cut-proof alarm clock from the side of her desk and pushed the lever on the top to stop the clanging. The sun was rising now, so she went to the windows and tilted the metal blinds to let some light in.

“A counselling session?”

Mia froze.

“Do you want to tell me what this text is about?”

Her heart already racing, Mia turned to see her mother standing in the doorway, bathed in orange light, holding up her mobile phone.

“Um. It’s…” Mia’s eye fell on the timetable still on her desk. She pointed. “It’s about that.”

Patricia stalked to the desk and snatched up the stack of meticulously drawn pages. “A study timetable?”

“They want to help me catch up.”

“Who’s ‘they’? How many counselors do they have at that school?”

“Just one. Mr. Kostopoulos thought it would help.”

“Did he? When did he say this?” She slapped the precious pages back on to the desk and folded her arms.

“On Monday. When I started.”

“You had a meeting with him on Monday?”

Mia nodded.

“I see. Why didn’t you tell him to call me when he brought up the counselor? You know I wouldn’t have given permission for that.”

“Well, yes, but-” Mia stopped before the sentence could take them exactly where she didn’t want to go.

“‘But’ what, Mia?” Patricia bit out each word. “Come on. You took it upon yourself to make a parent’s decision, you should be able to tell me your adult reasoning.”

“I just-”

“What?” Patricia said. “You just what?”

“I thought-”

“Oh you thought! There you go again. Come on. What did you think?”

“I thought if you refused permission it would make too big deal out of it-”

“Oh you think it’s not a big deal?”

“No – I -”

“You think other people prying into our lives isn’t a big deal? Invading my privacy isn’t a big deal? Forcing my child to do something without my permission?”

“No. It is a big deal but he said it was just about catching up on work.”

“And you believed him?”

“Well. Yes. I- I thought it might help.”

“I see.” Patricia paused. Considering. Wide-eyed anger softened into a frown Mia had long ago learned to fear. “Then why didn’t you tell me? Did you think I wouldn’t listen if you explained that?”

“I- I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Patricia’s eyes sparkled in the now yellow sunrise. Her lower lip quivered. Her voice caught. “You think I would I have denied permission for something that might have helped you?”

Mia could only stare, her chest heaving, her own lower lip beginning to quiver. She willed them to stop before her mother noticed.

“Well?” Patricia said, almost sobbing. “Is that what you think? That I don’t want what’s best for you?”

Mia was trembling now. Her mind blank. “Sorry,” was all she could manage.

“‘Sorry’? That’s not an answer-” Patricia stopped, giving Mia a long look up and down. “Look at you. You’re terrified. Why are you terrified? I don’t understand why you’re like this! You act as though I’m violent when all I ever want is the best for you!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Stop saying that!” Patricia screamed through gritted teeth. “Do you want me to hit you? Is that why you’re like this? You want me to hit you so you can go to your counselor and lie about me?”

Mia’s rebellious brain whispered that saying her mother hit her after her mother had hit her wouldn’t be lying. She pushed the dangerous thought away but somehow her mother had seen it cross her face.

“What are you thinking?” she demanded.

“Nothing.”

“Yes you are. You’re thinking it wouldn’t be a lie aren’t you? You’re thinking that if I had hit you it wouldn’t be a lie!”

Mia blocked the first blow with her left forearm.

“There!” Patricia screamed, bringing her other hand down on Mia’s shoulder. “Are you happy?! Is this how you see me?!”

Her hands balled into fists, Patricia flailed at Mia. Instinctively, Mia crouched and turned her back to the onslaught. As the first blow landed on her already bruised flesh she screamed and twisted away, swinging her face into the path of her mother’s hand and it’s bulbous, silver ring.

Pain. Searing from her nose, through her skull and down her spine. Mia’s legs gave out. Her hands flew to her nose as she landed on her right arm, her head bouncing off the carpet.

“Oh god! Oh god!” Her mother’s voice was barely audible over the wet slurping noises Mia made as she tried to breathe through the blood pouring through her fingers. “What have I done? What did you make me do?!”

Mia spat and wiped at her lips, trying to clear her mouth so she could breathe.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Her mother’s hands on her shoulders. Mia recoiled. “Okay. Okay. I won’t touch you. Oh god. There’s so much blood.”

Mia watched her mother’s bare feet leave the room and took the chance to push herself up but gravity pulled at her nose so she stayed down. Her mother’s feet returned and a towel dropped to the floor. Mia grabbed it and held it above her mouth so that she could breathe blood-free.

Sobbing, her mother retreated to Mia’s bed at the other side of the room. “It’s just- You make me so angry. You- You just won’t accept how much I love you!”

The words shocked Mia almost enough to numb her throbbing nose. She stared at her mother over the blood-soaked towel.

“I wanted you for so long, Mia. For ten years I tried to have you and then you finally came. Finally!” Patricia looked directly into Mia’s fast-bruising eyes and went on. “You were the first thing I ever had that was completely and utterly mine. I called you ‘Mia’ because it means ‘mine’ – that’s how much I love you! But you just never give me credit for it.”

Mia watched tears stream down her mother’s cheeks, wondering exactly what her mother was seeing as she looked at her. How could she possibly be seeing her daughter curled on the floor, blood pouring from her face and call that love?

“You act as though I’m demanding the world, Mia but all I want is for you to behave. To just be normal. But maybe that is too much. Maybe I just need to face it. You’re not normal. You were three years old the first time you lied to me – standing there with chocolate all over your mouth denying you ate it.

I just didn’t know how to handle the lying, Mia. Normal children don’t lie! That’s why I don’t want you to go to a counselor – not because I don’t want you to get help because I know that anyone with any psychology training will just look at you and know that there’s something wrong with you.”

Acute pain blossomed in Mia’s jaw and traced its way up her cheeks into her eyes, stabbing as tears welled. She wanted to be angry. She wanted to shout that every child lied about not eating chocolate and far worse besides. She wanted to scream that she wasn’t the crazy one, her mother was. But she couldn’t. Because her mother was right. Mia was insane. How else could she explain the shimmering, pot-bellied creature staring at her with lidless yellow eyes as it floated near the ceiling above her mother’s head?

 

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The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter 7

Hello everyone! At last (at last!) Chapter 7 is complete! Thank you for joining me here again and thank you to those who gently let me know that you were waiting for the next chapter – it helped while I was struggling to balance writing and other aspects of my life and feeling a little guilty about wanting to prioritize writing. I have now done that – proudly – because this is my career as well as my dream (and compulsion!)

In chapter 7 of The War of Wind and Moon, we return to Nagoya, Japan where Ryosuke and Akiko Kazemoto, of Kazemoto Security Corp’s Supernatural Division, turn their attention to the strange Gossip at St. Kilda High and the seventeen-year-old girl who might just be a candidate for recruitment – if she’s not too old to train.

I hope it was worth the wait! Enjoy!

Chapter Seven

Alternative Platform Links: WattpadiTunes, Tapewrite, Audioboom and Soundcloud.

A knock at his office door drew Ryosuke’s attention from his reading. Akiko was standing in the doorway, brandishing an email open on her tablet, “You’ve requested we unbind the Gossip from Tak-kun’s friend?’ Ryosuke nodded as he waved his sister inside. “Mhmm. Probably should have been done years ago but she seems to have missed assessment somehow.”

“Shouldn’t you do a proper assessment, then, before we unbind them?”

Ryosuke was taken aback. He couldn’t remember when Akiko had questioned a decision that was entirely his to make. “I don’t think that’s necessary, no,” he said. “My staff have marked every one of her Gossip’s Memories as ‘No Further Action’ for fourteen years. I’m fairly confident it’ll be fine.”

“Sorry,” Akiko said, waving a hand and taking a seat in one of the chairs in front of Ryosuke’s desk. “I didn’t mean to overstep. It’s just I’d like to leave the Gossip in place for a while longer.”

“Why? Oh.” Ryosuke chuckled. “Aki-chan I’m pretty sure spying on Tak-kun via his friends breaches at least the spirit of the promise Dad made Hiroko-san.”

Akiko shot him a withering look. “Of course it would. That’s not why I want to leave it.”

“Why then?”

She sat back in her chair and laced her fingers together, wringing them as she answered. “When we were Witnessing the Gossip’s Memory last night, did you notice anything… odd about the other Gossips in Tak-kun’s classroom?”

Ryosuke tried to replay the scene in his mind’s eye but he’d only been interested in Tak-kun and his friends, he hadn’t paid much attention to the Gossips. “I remember there were a lot of them – it took me a moment to adjust my eyes to see through all their bodies. Why?”

Akiko’s mouth twisted to one side and she looked down at her now-red fingers.

“Aki-chan?” he asked gently. “What is it?”

At last she looked him in the eye. “I need you to have an open mind.” “I hope I always do.”

“No. I mean more than usual.”

Teetering somewhere between fascination and concern, now, Ryosuke sat a little straighter in his chair, pushed his computer screen to the right side of his desk, and took the paperweight off the scroll he’d been reading so that it rolled itself closed. He clasped his hands on the space he’d just created between them and said, “You have my full, unbiased attention.”

Reassured, Akiko took a deep breath and began. “The incident Tak-kun’s school was buzzing about? Mia hitting the big kid – Julian?” She paused to be sure Ryosuke was following. He nodded and she continued. “We skipped past it last night because Tak-kun wasn’t involved but after you left I went back to watch it, and…” Another deep breath. “I think one of the Gossips was manipulating Julian.”

Ryosuke felt his jaw slacken and it took him a moment to work out how to close his mouth again. Her words barely made sense. Gossips were observers, they didn’t act upon the world. “You’re going to have to define ‘manipulating’ for me,” he said. “In what way?”

“It whispered to Julian and-”

“No. No. No,” Ryosuke stood, holding up his hands and pacing around his desk – fully aware that shouting ‘No. No. No.’ was precisely the opposite of having an open mind. He forced himself to sit in the other chair in front of his desk. “Aki-chan, Gossips don’t communicate with humans.”

“I’m not saying it was a full, two-way communication – I don’t think the boy was aware of it at all – but at least twice the Gossip whispered in his ear just before he acted. And he acted in ways I don’t think he intended to before the Gossip whispered to him.”

“If you’re right-” Ryosuke stopped, no idea how to finish the sentence.

“I know. It goes against everything we think we know about Gossips but-”

“Everything we think we know?”

“It’s not exactly hard science is it? I mean, sure, we do our best to observe and record and experiment but even adding up every one of us over the past five hundred years, there are still only a very small number of us who can even see them – we can’t pretend to have witnessed every type of behaviour.”

Ryosuke winced. He couldn’t argue with her logic.

“Besides,” she went on, “they’re living creatures – why shouldn’t they evolve like we do?”

“Because they don’t have physical bodies like we do. Evolution requires DNA and mutation…”

“Alright, maybe not ‘evolve’, then but what about ‘learn’? They live for centuries, right on top of us, feeding from us… most creatures learn to manipulate their food source in some fashion.”

“Have you spoken to Dad about this?”

Akiko shook her head. “Not yet. I haven’t told anyone. I want to watch it for a bit, make sure I’m not jumping to conclusions before I suggest any of this to anyone. This kind of thing makes people nervous, so keeping the binding on your books instead of mine – just for while – would help me keep it under control.”

Ryosuke sighed and leaned back in the chair. “Alright. Consider my request rescinded. Are we going full cloak and dagger? Do you want me to purge my sent box of the email?”

“No need for dramatics but thank you.”

“Of course. You’ll have to keep me in the loop now, though. You can’t present a mystery like that and leave me hanging.”

“I will.” She rose from the chair and was almost out the door when she turned back. “About the girl, though, I wasn’t just trying to manipulate you – isn’t it odd for every single report for fourteen years to warrant No Further Action?”

“Not really. You know how many children are bound and we recruit maybe ten a year. Most of their records look like that.”

“I suppose, but a Gossip that’s reporting in daily isn’t bound to a kid living a happy life, that says feast of misery to me.”

“Daily?” Ryosuke tapped his keyboard to wake his monitor and double clicked on the report he’d run on Mia the day before. Scanning the date rather than the action column this time, he shook his head, ashamed. “It is almost daily. I didn’t pick that up.”

“I know it’s not my department,” Akiko said, “and I know she’s seventeen so she might be too old to train but the incident with the bully was pure hyper-vigilance. His hand had barely touched her shoulder when she spun around and swiped it off.”

“Okay,” Ryosuke said, nodding, “you make a good argument. I’ll do a proper assessment. Can you organise a random selection of Memories for me to Witness?”

“Of course. I could have the first Vaults brought in by midday tomorrow if that’s not too soon – and the Vault the Gossip reported to yesterday is still in my office, if you’d like to take a look sometime today.”

Ryosuke looked at his watch but there was no need. He didn’t have any more meetings today and he felt bad that he hadn’t noticed how often Mia’s Gossip was reporting. What if his staff had been missing things, too?

Akiko’s office wasn’t in the Aviary at the top of the building but in the basement in what was officially called The Hall of Shadows but was known by the staff as simply B2. Like most modern high-rises in Japan, level B1 of Kazemoto Tower housed a vast food emporium which attracted not just the employees of the tower but thousands of people each day who walked through the underground pedestrian streets that connected Nagoya’s subway stations. Whenever Ryosuke stepped into the double-car elevator and smelled the sweet vanilla cake of the baumkuchen stall, he couldn’t help but wonder what all those hungry people would think if they discovered what was going on beneath their feet.

If one of those unsuspecting people somehow managed to get into the lower elevator car and be delivered to B2 instead of B1, they would likely think they had stepped into the entrance hall of an exclusive, traditional Japanese restaurant. The attendant that greeted Akiko and Ryosuke was dressed in traditional workers’ clothes – white cotton kosode robes with black silk hakama trousers tied high at her waist, and black cotton, leather-soled, split-toe jikatabi boots on her feet. She bowed low and stepped to one side as the siblings slipped off their shoes, then stepped up to the miniature chozubachi water basin, fed from a spring deep beneath the building, to purify their hands and mouth. B2 was a sacred place.

Beyond the entrance chamber, dark-stained, sakura-wood floors extended down corridors to the north, south and west, lined with exquisitely painted, over-sized fusuma panels which acted as both walls and doors to the many rooms. The length of each room was indicated by a single scene painted across multiple panels, each of which could slide aside on wooden rails to accommodate even the largest creature which might need to enter. Every element of this level was hand-crafted from materials grown in the earth and the floors, the panels, even the paper-screen light-covers shimmered with the residue of life. Down here, where Akiko and her staff spent their days straddling the physical and spiritual planes, these building materials weren’t a luxury or status symbol, they were the difference between health and insanity.

As Ryosuke and Akiko stepped from the entrance hall, a wrangler came down the north corridor, holding one end of a silver silken cord lassoed around an enormous, swollen Gossip – a Vault – which almost filled the corridor. Draped over the top of the creature was a white silk cloth, covering its eyes and half of its belly. All three bowed their heads in greeting but made no sound. The silk shrouding the Vault was imbued with herbs and embroidered with symbols which put the creature to sleep but not so deeply that speaking wouldn’t wake it.

Akiko followed the Vault as it turned down the west corridor, toward her office, leaving Ryosuke to head into the changing room which was both the first room on the left and the first stop for anyone entering the Hall of Shadows in modern clothing. Inside, he found a white and black uniform identical to the attendant’s laid out on the long wooden bench and on the t-shaped clothes horse at the side of the room was a garment that would turn this basic, workman’s outfit into formal ceremonial dress worthy of a Shadow Ritual: his black montsuki. A knee-length, black silk jacket with square, kimono-like, hanging sleeves the montsuki was decorated with five small embroidered circles bearing the Kazemoto family emblem, the mythical creature Yatagarasu, the three legged crow. Awarded to them by the first Tokugawa Shogun, in thanks for their supernatural assistance during the battle of Sekigahara, the emblem was always embroidered in black thread on black silk so that it was visible only to those allowed up close. The early Kazemotos had no need to announce their approach or to be flashy about their status, those who wield their power from the shadows never do.

“You do wear that well,” Akiko said, when Ryosuke arrived at her office, keeping her voice gentle so as not to wake the Vault in the next room. “You might be married by now if you wore it more often.”

Ryosuke rolled his eyes. Akiko knew he preferred not to speak in the last minutes before a Shadow Ritual. She smiled then nodded toward the panels that made up her north wall, painted with an historical scene of a theatre full of brightly clothed patrons enjoying a shadow puppet play. Ryosuke made his way across the tatami flooring, meeting her at the middle panel.

“Ready?” she asked.

He nodded.

“I’ve removed the shroud,” she said. “It’ll wake easily.”

With that final warning, in deference to the formality of all Shadow rituals, Akiko knelt on the floor, tucking her hakama neatly under her knees, and then slid the fusuma panel open, bowing as Ryosuke stepped inside.

With the sliding-door shut behind him, the room was dark but for the faint shimmer of the wood and grass from which the room was constructed, and the brighter, blueish glow of the Vault floating in the centre of the room, a circle of salt on floor keeping it in place.

Padding across the tatami matting to a large, flat cushion placed at the edge of the room, directly behind the Vault, Ryosuke sat cross-legged, laced his fingers loosely together then rested his forearms on his thighs. In this relaxed position, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, filling his lungs, letting his stomach expand and his shoulders rise then exhaled – long and slow, pressing every last morsel of air from his physical form. He repeated this breath three more times, each time feeling his body closer to the tatami matting, heavier, more solid.

Fully grounded, now, with his eyes still closed, he turned his thoughts to his own spirit, the life force that danced between the cells, animating what would be only flesh without it. A familiar tingling spread across his skin, not unlike the first hint of sunburn. He focused on the sensation, willing it into the palms of his hands until the tingling became burning. Ignoring the pain, he opened his eyes to watch the ball of spirit energy gathering between his palms. Spinning, slowly at first, then faster as he released more of his own spirit-force, the sphere grew with every turn until he had released as much as was safe.

With his eyes still open and focused on the basket-ball-sized sphere, in his mind’s eye Ryosuke conjured an image of the wild Gossip the Vault would once have been. Balancing his concentration between the real and imagined images, he willed the spinning ball of energy into the shape of the Gossip. The lidless eyes came first, the ball splitting into two spheres. Feet sprouted next, one from under each eye, dropping toward the floor, pulling after them a shimmering, skinny leg each, followed by a deflated, dangling torso. Finally, a mound sprouted under the eyes and a split opened in it, forming the false Gossip’s tiny mouth.

His mini act of creation complete, Ryosuke blinked away the image from his mind’s eye and focused on the shimmering Shadow Gossip floating before him. He waved his right hand. The Shadow waved back. Sure of his connection, once again Ryosuke closed his eyes and moved his awareness from his physical body into the part of his own soul that was now the Shadow Gossip. This time when he opened his eyes, he found himself looking at his own face. Eyes closed. Serene.

In his temporary body, Ryosuke took a couple of experimental swoops around the room – who could resist the chance to fly? In this form, he was several times smaller than the Vault and his first attempt to poke it awake with his flappy little hands failed. Only when he launched himself at it from afar, barreling into its belly and bouncing back did the giant, yellow irises contract, forming a pupil which took several moments, and seemingly a full body shimmy, to adjust to the dim light. In full light, the Vault would instantly recognize the Gossip as being too insubstantial to be real but in the dark, its vision was limited enough to be fooled.

Spotting Ryosuke’s Shadow Puppet, it attempted to move toward it but was stopped by the boundary created by the salt on the floor below. “SSSSShhh!” it hissed, frustrated. “SSSSSShhhhaaaaree!”

This was Ryosuke’s cue. Careful to mimic the subordinate body language of a real Gossip, sidling up to the Vault, never looking it in the eye, Ryosuke approached the edge of the circle and, not being a real Gossip, crossed the invisible barrier.

“Sssssshhhhaaare!” The Vault hissed again, its stubby hands waggling in an attempt to touch the Shadow creature.

Crossing the final distance to the Vault itself, Ryosuke extended his little Gossip’s hands, spread his fingers and placed them on the enormous belly.

A rush of experience assaulted Ryosuke’s sight, sound and smell as the Vault opened itself to the Shadow Gossip – scene after scene racing through his consciousness like a playlist of disconnected videos on high speed rewind. With an effort like walking against a hurricane he called the girl’s name to mind. Mia Delaney, he chanted it to himself. Mia Delaney. The images slowed… Mia Delaney… then stopped… Mia Delaney…then began again, in fast forward this time. He was beginning to feel a little sick. Mia Delaney…

Stop. There. That was her. Curled at the foot of a bed in a darkened room, a woman stood over her, fists raised in mid-attack. In full control of the Vault’s memories, now, Ryosuke rewound to the beginning of the Gossip’s report and set it to ‘play’.

 

Also By Promo

The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter 6

Alternative Platform Links: WattpadiTunes (or any podcast app), YouTube and Soundcloud

Mia wasn’t allowed fried food. She’d had the odd fish and chips at friends’ houses but being allowed to go to friends’ houses was rare, too. She bit into the crunchy yet juicy, sweet yet salty morsel of ebi-katsu. It tasted like freedom.

“Good?” Tak asked from the stool beside her.

“Mmm,” she moaned, nodding as she swallowed. “So deliciously wrong.”

Tak grinned, the grease making his smile shine and put another forkful into his mouth.

They were perched at the island bench that separated the kitchen from the living room in, it seemed, each of the flats in the block. Tak’s flat couldn’t have been more different from Mia’s, though. Not just because Mia and her mother hadn’t yet unpacked – there was a lived-in, loved feeling here.  The fridge was covered with photos of Hiroko and Tak or Tak with his friends, going back years. Instead of the standard metal venetian blinds and white net curtains that gave no privacy at night, there were wooden slatted blinds in the kitchen and red drapes with a tiny floral print in the living room. Mia and her mother never stayed anywhere so long that changing the curtains was worthwhile. They didn’t bother with house plants, either – too difficult to transport – but Tak’s place was filled with them. And they weren’t just pot plants – they were immaculately manicured bonsais in colourful ceramic pots. There seemed to be one on every surface, including the windowsills.

“Who does the bonsais?” Mia asked.

“Mum,” Tak said. “Obsessively. She keeps trying to drag me in but I refuse to do anything but water them and only if she can’t.”

“Why? Is it that hard to do?”

“Not really. Just boring. There’s this whole ritual about it. You have focus and say certain phrases – like meditation.” He laughed. “Mindfulness is not my thing.”

Mia nodded and took another bite.

“What about your mum?” Tak asked. “Does she try to force you to do stuff, too?”

Mia choked. She put her hand over her mouth as a coughing fit set in.

“Are you okay?” Tak asked, patting her firmly on the back, right where the bruises were worst. She choked again. “I’ll get you some water,” he said.

As Tak went to the fridge, she managed to swallow and clear her throat but she still couldn’t speak. When he turned back she tried to smile and waved a hand to indicate she was okay but she must have been beet red from choking and embarrassment. She took the glass of water and sipped. “Thanks,” she managed, but even that set her coughing again.

Tak laughed gently and said, “Don’t talk.”

But coughing into the silence was mortifying. She cleared her throat as best she could and rasped, “Tell me about Julian.”

“What?”

“Julian? That filthy look he gave you in Japanese.”

“Oh that? Well done for picking that up, by the way. Sorry I marked you as someone I know.”

She shook her head to fob off his apology. “What’s the story?”

“The whole story’s a long one.”

Mia raised her eyebrows and pointed to her throat as, again, she tried to cleared it.

“Good point,” Tak said. “Medium version, then. Believe it or not, we were actually friends in primary school-” He paused and Mia gave him the wide-eyed surprise he wanted. “When we got to high school, he was teased pretty mercilessly from day one for being the principal’s son so he started hitting people. Me and Connor were his favourite…”

For the second time that day, Tak took Mia’s breath away. His words became white-noise to Mia’s own thoughts. Principal Clarke knew everything. If Julian had access to his father’s office – if Principal Clarke took a computer home… If Julian decided to go look for something to use against her, he’d probably find it.

Mia found her voice, interrupting Tak mid-sentence. “How angry is he?”

“What do you mean?”

“This thing with me – how deeply will he be taking that? I mean – is there a chance he’ll just let it go if I avoid him?”

Tak winced. “I doubt it. Especially not while everyone’s talking about it.”

“But he just hits people?” she said, almost hopefully. “He doesn’t go in for humiliation? Character assassination?”

Tak hesitated, his expression darkened and his brow furrowed in thought. But he said nothing.

“What?” Mia prompted.

“He didn’t used to. He’d just thump people – or, frankly threaten to – that seemed to be enough.”

“Not any more?”

“No.” Tak was looking at her but he was seeing something else in his mind’s eye. Something specific. Something awful.

“What did he do, Tak?”

Still Tak hesitated but now, instead of his own thoughts, it was Mia he was considering.

“Come on,” she said. “You have to tell me now. I need to know who I’ve made an enemy of.”

At last Tak nodded. “There’s been other incidents with other kids since but the first time I noticed it was when everyone did, at a party last year. Julian used to have a girlfriend – Madison. They’d been together since year 8, she liked being with a bad boy and…” He paused, preoccupied again.

“Go on,” Mia said.

“At one point, Julian saw her talking to this other guy – he’s not at the school anymore – and he got jealous. Like, volcanic reaction. He started shouting at Madi, ranting at her. He accused her of having sex with this guy and started asking him in detail – in front of all of us – if she’d done all these specific things with him that she’d done with Julian.” Tak stopped, shaking his head at the memory. Fear gripped Mia’s stomach.

Tak continued. “He utterly humiliated Madi and the thing was he kept going. We kept thinking it would stop but even when she was running from the house he chased after her, still shouting ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ and…” Tak stopped to take a calming breath. “He only stopped when a few of us dragged him to the floor and sat on him – which we took way too long to do. And the thing is, while I was holding him down he smiled at me, like he was proud of himself. Like he enjoyed it.”

Mia shivered and felt guilty for it. She should have been feeling for Madison but all she could do was picture Julian sitting at his father’s desk, reading Mia’s file from her last school and smiling in the same way.

“What happened to Madison?” she asked.

“Her parents moved her to a private school. They were always threatening to do it but she wanted to stay with Julian.”

“Not after that,” Mia said. Tak raised his dark brows and nodded. “And Julian? Any consequences?”

“How? No adults saw it and it was just words so there was no physical damage. What evidence did we have?”

“No-one recorded it on their phones?”

Tak shook his head. “That’s how awful it was. There were about forty kids there and not one of us pulled out our phone. I mean, we were used to Julian being a thug but we were all just stood there, gobsmacked by this. We just watched.”

Mia pulled herself out of her own fear enough to see how bad Tak was feeling. “I’m sure you did everything you could.”

He shook his head. “I could have moved faster.”

Mia didn’t know what to say – she hadn’t been there so she couldn’t tell him he was wrong and, frankly, it sounded like they had let it go longer than they should have. And that was for a girl they’d all known for years.

Mia tried to lighten the mood. “Oh well. I was planning to spend the next four months in the library at lunch anyway.”

“You could sit with us,” Tak said. “Julian  won’t like you any better for it but I think he is actually a bit scared of me.”

Mia flushed with embarrassment again. “I wasn’t fishing for an offer of protection. I do need to study. And I can take care of myself.”

“I’m not doubting you can but you also need to take a break and eat – you can’t do that in the library.” His expression was so stern that Mia was touched.  She looked at the remains of the dinner he’d provided her and smiled.

“Why do you care so much about whether a girl you’ve known for a day eats?”

Tak shrugged. “Why don’t you care?”

He had a point. And she had to admit, at least to herself, that she would feel safer sitting with Tak, especially if being seen as part of Tak’s group might make Julian think twice about targeting her.

“Okay,” she said. “I shall accept your kind offer of protection, thank you, but if things go bad, I don’t want you getting hurt or into trouble on my account. Agreed?”

Tak met her eye with a half-smirk and threw up his hands. “Why would I put myself out for a girl I’ve known for a day?”

“I’m serious, Tak. I won’t sit with you if it’s going to cause you problems. I can look after myself.”

He chuckled. “You say that a lot, you know.”

“I have to do it a lot,” she snapped back.

Tak dropped the stupid smirk and nodded. “Okay. If you come and sit with us, I won’t get myself hurt or into trouble because of you.”

“Thank you. Now speaking of not getting into trouble. I should get home.”

“Already?”

“Yeah. The washing’ll be done and I need to-” She stopped, he didn’t need the boring details. “Thank you for dinner, though. It was really yummy – I’d ask you to thank your mum but I’d rather you didn’t tell her I was here. Just in case she talks to my mum. Is that okay?”

He laughed at her again but he crossed his heart, then offered her his pinkie finger. Mia rolled her eyes but she hooked her finger in his and they shook on it.

***

Outside Tak’s flat, Mia’s Gossip was hungry and enraged. Forced to watch Mia and Tak through the kitchen window, it had read her expressions and known it was missing out on a feast of emotion. When at last Mia emerged, the Gossip latched onto her again and let out a silent wail of frustration. Gone. Wasted. It glared at the tiny, manicured pine tree on the kitchen windowsill and the other it could see on top of the fridge and cursed the concentrated, purified energy they emitted. Someone in that flat knew how to keep Gossips at bay.

 

Author’s Note: Thank you for reading The War of Wind and Moon, I hope you’re enjoying it. If you have questions of comments, please don’t hesitate to leave them or email me with them, I do my best to answer them all at least by the next week! 

Remember, to receive an email whenever a new chapter is available and learn more about the world and the writing of The War of Wind & Moon – and to be first to know when each Season will be available as a complete eBook and audio book, go to tinyletter.com/darcyconroy to subscribe.

 

Also By Promo

 

The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter 5

Alternative Platform Links: Narrative DisorderWattpadiTunes, Tapewrite, Audioboom and Soundcloud

“I’m closing up in ten minutes, Mia,” Mrs Taylor, St. Kilda High’s librarian warned.

The end-of-day bell had rung fifteen minutes ago but Mia was waiting for the crowds to clear. She’d made it to the end of her first day without running into Julian again by spending lunch time and then her double free period in the library. Still, she couldn’t be home too late – her mother had no classes this afternoon but a late class tonight, so she’d be home now and want an early dinner. Mia packed up.

The fifteen minutes had been enough, the lockers and the tram stop were bully-free and she even got a seat on the ride home. Perhaps she should do that more often.  As she reached the front door of her new flat, she saw her mother through the kitchen window, lifting a newspaper-wrapped plate from a box she’d perched over the sink. Mia sighed. Patricia was doing what she usually did – unpacking everything at once but not putting anything in the cupboards, just stacking it all onto what little bench space their always tiny kitchens had. Patricia’s reasoning was that everything needed to be washed of newsprint before it was put away but it was so much easier to unpack, wash and put away everything from one box at a time. Her mother’s way turned the whole kitchen into one of those puzzles with one piece missing; you had to shuffle everything around to get enough space to even reach the sink – let alone make a meal.

“Where have you been?” Patricia asked the moment Mia stepped through the door. “You should have been home fifteen minutes ago.”

“Sorry. I was in the library.” She headed past the kitchen, down the short hall to her bedroom and dropped her bag on the bed.

Her mother appeared in the doorway. “The library?”

“I was finishing one of the new English books. I’ve only got three left to read now.”

“You went to the library after school to read for fifteen minutes, instead of coming straight home?”

“No. I was in there already – I had a double free and I was almost finished the book so I-”

“Hang on,” her mother held up one hand. Mia stiffened but managed not to commit the sin of flinching. “You had a double free period and you spent it reading in the library instead of coming home to help unpack?”

Mia swallowed. She hadn’t thought of doing that. “I was reading the English books I have to catch up on.”

”Oh! Oh well that’s alright then! It’s not like I was here with an entire household to unpack!”

“But, it’s schoolwork-” Mia was genuinely confused. Now even her school hours weren’t her own?

“And it’s a library. You can bring the book home.”

“Actually, I can’t. You can’t take the assigned texts home. They’re reference only.”

Her mother’s left eye twitched. She folded her arms. “Why must you always lie?”

Fear swallowed the surge of anger the insult brought to Mia’s chest. “I’m not.”

“Novels are not reference books. Reference books are dictionaries and encyclopedias. Do you think I’m stupid?”

“No. They just put the assigned texts in the reference section. They don’t have many and they don’t want people to leave them at home when everyone needs them.”

“Stop lying! You wanted to stay at school instead of helping me. At least admit that.”

Mia took a deep breath through her nose. I didn’t want to stay at school,” she said, fighting the desire to grit her teeth. “I just wanted to do my school work.”

“And I suppose I don’t have any schoolwork I could be doing instead of unpacking? I had a presentation this morning, which you haven’t even asked about yet – so I haven’t had a moment to work on my thesis for weeks! Do you think your high school reading list is more important than my Masters Degree? Honestly Mia. What goes through your head?”

There was a lot going through Mia’s head. Like: No I haven’t asked about your presentation – I started a new school today and you haven’t asked about that! and; Yes, I do think my final year of high school is more important than the Masters Degree you’ve been working on for 8 years, in 5 different disciplines because you keep sleeping with a classmate or a lecturer and when you break up suddenly your life time goal has always been to study Philosophy, not History like it was last year, or Literature the year before that…

What she said was, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”

“No. You never do.” Patricia shook her head and left the doorway, still talking at Mia as she went up the hall. “You know, if you thought even a little about someone other than yourself once in a while, you might make friends more easily.”

Mia bit down on a response that would only get her in trouble.

“Not that you’re interested,” Patricia continued from her bedroom next door, her voice accompanied by the swish and zip of clothes being changed, “but my presentation went very well. So well that my young tutor has asked me to dinner after my lecture tonight.”

Mia closed her eyes and rolled them behind the safety of her lids.

“He can’t be much older than you. So don’t wait up.”

Mia shuddered.

“While I’m out, I want you to finish the kitchen – wash everything before you put it away. We can’t even make dinner without some bench space.”

Her eyes still closed, Mia opened her mouth so wide her lips felt they’d split and pushed out a silent, skull-vibrating scream.

***

Tak plugged his phone into the TV speakers and set his music playing loud. He had a routine when his Mum started her night-shift rotations: music too loud, food too sweet, computer games too late. Just for the one night – it was too close to exams to screw around all 10 shifts but he was a strong believer in the philosophy of everything in moderation, including moderation.

He danced into the kitchen and swung the fridge door open. “Yes!” He fist-pumped the air. His Mum had left him ebi-katsu to fry up. They were his favourite Japanese food – patties of prawn and egg coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Hiroko had told him that in Japan ebi-katsu was strictly a New Year tradition but, like most traditions from her homeland, she seemed to take pleasure in flouting it.

He went to the cupboard under the sink and pulled out the deep fryer, lifting it to the bench and glancing out the window as he plugged it in. It was getting dark and the lights in the flats on the other side of the U made the sheer white curtains that came pre-installed disappear. Almost directly across from his window, Mia was at her kitchen sink, washing dishes and occasionally sighing heavily, making her white t-shirt tighten-

Tak slid the fryer around the corner of the bench so that he wouldn’t be tempted to spy. It didn’t work. He glanced across several times as he waited for the oil to heat, then again as he cooked each of the six burger-sized ovals until the panko was golden. Even after he’d shredded some cabbage and poured creamy sesame dressing on it to make what his mother called “lazy salad”, Mia was still washing dishes, drying them, putting them away and washing some more.

When was she going to eat? He was pretty sure she hadn’t had lunch – he and his mates’ spot was outside the library and he’d seen her duck inside at the beginning of lunch and hadn’t seen her leave and she wouldn’t have been able to eat inside.

He took his plate around the island that separated the kitchen from the living room and perched on one of the two stools. He cut into a crunchy golden croquette with the side of his fork and the scent of salty prawns made his mouth water before the forkful reached it. He wondered if Mia liked ebi-katsu.

“Jeez, Tak!” he said out loud. “Leave it alone!”

She was putting a kettle on now. Reaching into the cupboard above it and pulling out… a cup noodle. Sighing, deeply at the cup noodle.

Tak looked at his pile of golden treats, crisp, salty and juicy. Where was her mum?

He stood, flicked off the lights and stalked up to the kitchen window, peering down at the car space on the ground floor that belonged to Mia’s apartment. Empty. If she was eating alone, she wasn’t expecting her mother back soon…

Moments later, he was knocking at her door. She opened it slowly, suspiciously but when she saw him, her eyes sparkled and he felt himself blush.

“Hi, Tak.”

“Hey. Do you like ebi-katsu?”

She frowned. “I have no idea what it is.”

“It’s my favourite Japanese food, prawns, deep fried, salt – not on the soccer coach’s list of approved foods. You want to come have some?”

“At your place?”

“I saw your mum’s car’s gone and my mum’s starting her night shift rotation at the hospital – she’s left me way too much.”

Her eyes flicked toward her kitchen – was she picturing the cup noodle? – then she glanced past him toward his door – she was considering it. But she shook her head.

“No. It’s really nice of you and the ebby…?”

“Ebi-katsu,” he said.

Her face lit up. “Oh! Ebi as in prawn and ‘katsu’ as in fried?”

“Hai!” he said, far too brightly for someone trying to impress a girl.

“It sounds really yummy,” she said, “but I’ve got so much to do here. I’ve been washing and putting things away all night and I still can’t see the bench.”

“Isn’t that exactly why you should take a break?” he asked.

She took a deep breath and met his eye properly for the first time. She smiled, biting her lower lip and then looked at her watch. Tak could see she wanted to come.

“Is your mum going to be home soon?” he asked.

“No,” she snapped, frowning. But then she softened and let out a sigh. “I mean, probably not but maybe. I just… She’s kind of strict, if I wasn’t here when- I just don’t want to risk it. Sorry.”

“No. No worries. It’s fine.”

“Thank you, though,” she said.

Tak should have left it at that but he was seized with a sense of injustice. Why shouldn’t she stop slaving away for a while and having something decent to eat?

Before she could shut the door completely he said, “Do you have any laundry to do?”

“What?”

“In all that unpacking, there must be some clothes or towels to wash.”

“Ah. Yeah. There is. Why?”

“Well, you have to go past my door to get to and from the laundry room…” He caught her eye with a smirk and felt a rush as she held his gaze and allowed herself to smile as he outlined the idea. “Put the load on, bring the basket to my place and if we see her come back-”

She nodded, “then I’m just coming back from checking on the washing.”

“See you in ten minutes?” he asked.

She grinned. “I’ll try for five.”

He shoved his hands in his pockets and headed home to wait for her.

 

 

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The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter 4

 

It was 1:55 pm in Nagoya, Japan but the local clock on the wall of the communications room of Kazemoto Security’s International Headquarters wasn’t the one that Ryosuke Kazemoto and his staff were watching. In a darkened room usually loud with the clacking of dozens of mechanical keyboards, the Hunt-data co-ordinators sat silent but ready. In Texas it was five minutes to midnight – five minutes until the State executed Rodney Ellison Bates. There would be no stopping it. The usual not-for-profits had made their submissions for the sentence to be commuted to life but all had failed.  Ryosuke pushed his hands through is hair and silently cursed those who thought killing murderers like Bates ended their evil.

Two minutes to midnight, Texas time. Bates had refused all spiritual or psychological guidance and the Gossips the five families had bound to him had not witnessed any sign of repentance. Not that repentance would have made much of a difference to his karma. To be capable of inflicting such pain on fellow beings and to enjoy it pointed to disconnection that was almost complete – which was also the reason he’d been so difficult to track down, even with all the supernatural resources at Kazemoto’s disposal.

One minute to midnight. Under the row of world clocks across the far wall, the giant screen flickered and switched to a countdown from the proprietary, secure app developed for just this purpose. In the jail in Texas, Sister Agnes was there to witness the execution and would use the app on her smart watch to surreptitiously report to Ryosuke’s team as it progressed.

“Everyone ready?” Ryosuke asked, more as something to do, rather than from any doubt. Most of the staff spoke Japanese but less than half were native to Japan so at critical moments instructions were given in English.

Midnight.  The screen turned red and the message from Sister Agnes flashed across it in large white letters:

Administered.

The red message also popped up on all 45 computer monitors, giving the darkened room a red glow as they waited for the next alert. From first injection to death took on average eight and a half minutes but it could take less or many more. The first injection was supposed to make the prisoner unconscious and pain-free as the other drugs ended their lives, but it didn’t always work. Often their last minutes were excruciating and filled with anger that had a profound effect on the prisoner’s karma and, in turn, their next life.

The room cooled from red, to yellow as, in Texas, Sister Agnes tapped the amber button on her end of the app. The message flashed on screen:

Physical Death.

“Wait for it.” Ryosuke warned as desk chairs rolled forward and hands hovered over keyboards.

Green light flooded the room. On screen the single word:

Ascension.

Bates soul had left its body and disappeared into the astral plane.

Keys were already clacking as Ryosuke called out, “Okay boys and girls, you know the drill. Let’s see if we can identify him while he’s young – maybe before he starts on puppies this time.”

“So we’ve got six years then?” Joerg, the Senior Hunt Co-ordinator quipped from his station, but there was no lightness in his voice, it wasn’t a joke.

“Five years is our record. Let’s see if we can break it. I’ll be upstairs. Ganbatte!”

A ripple of head-bows and a sharp “Hai, Kazemoto-sama!” in unison responded to the Japanese word that had no real English equivalent. Ganbatte meant ‘do your best’ and was used as most English speakers might use “good luck” but luck was far too contrary a force to rely upon at a time like this.

Two floors up, the elevator doors opened on to the Aviary. Flooded with sunlight through its glass walls and roof, it was the opposite of the dim communications room, below. Ryosuke slipped on his sunglasses as he crossed the vast, white marble floor to the central platform from which the Senior Wranglers supervised. For today’s operation, his sister Akiko was at the helm herself.  He took the spiral stairs two at a time and emerged in the middle of the platform which itself echoed the octagonal shape of the room. From here, the 360 degree view 50 floors above Nagoya still took his breath away. Mind you, Ryosuke’s view was particularly spectacular, adorned as it was by the shimmering, glistening bodies of thousands of Gossips. Like all Kazemotos raised at the family compound just outside of the city, Ryosuke was super-vigilant.

Technically, super-vigilance was actually quite common – most humans were born with the talent but almost all of them lost it quickly as they learned to focus on the beings from which comfort and sustenance came. Just as a babies’ hearing adapts to prioritise the frequency of its parents’ voices, their vision adapts to ignore the astral beings that inhabit the physical plane, looking past and through them like raindrops on a windshield, seeing only those beings and objects that their parents acknowledge. The Kazemotos, and members of other families in possession of the ancient knowledge, raised their children to maintain the extended awareness they are born with, allowing them to communicate and work with forces and beings most humans would dismiss as ‘supernatural’.

Standing on the supervisors’ platform in The Aviary, most humans would see a vast, empty room, two stories high with enormous glass enclosures at each corner of the octagon, each with sliding doors leading onto balconies outside. Within each enclosure, on a white ergonomic stool seemingly unnecessarily pressed against the right-hand wall, sat a person in a white, knee-length, traditional Japanese quilted coat to protect them from the cold when the doors to the balcony opened, every three to five minutes and things really got weird. Each time the door opened, the quilt-coated man or woman stood, faced the empty enclosure and performed a kind of solo dance with oddly specific hand gestures. After that, they sat again, eyes closed for a minute or two before they rose again to perform exactly the same odd dance, only backwards, sitting again for a few moments before the doors opened and then closed, again.

Super-vigilance – and a certain amount of arcane training – made sense of the strange picture. Queuing at each of the balcony doors, in lines stretching out over the city, were thousands of domesticated Gossips, the creatures’ bright, hot brands pulsing across their distended bellies as they waited to make their reports. The dance the quilt-coated Gossip Wranglers performed, forward and backward, removed and replaced the brands, allowing each creature to share what they had witnessed with the other non-corporeal creatures inside the glass enclosures: The Vaults. Once normal, wild Gossips themselves, Vaults had been trained to incorporate the memories shared by Gossips into their very being, storing them so that they could be accessed, by another ritual, when needed. Like their smaller brethren, a Vault’s eyes were lidless, yellow spheres and their unnecessary limbs tiny, shrivelled appendages but with each memory they absorbed, their bellies grew, so that an elder Vault’s limbs stuck out of its belly at odd angles and the effect was that of a of a latex glove the size of a small truck inflated to amuse the child of giant.

But the domesticated Gossips weren’t Ryosuke’s focus today. Today was about the several hundred newly captured, wild Gossips corralled in the domed ceiling directly above him.

“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” Akiko said, leaving her work station to join him gazing up.

“Is that enough?” he asked.

“Eight hundred and eighty-eight. The old rules have their reasons.”

Ryosuke sighed, he wasn’t going to get into that with Akiko today. The Gossip from the jail would arrive any moment and there was work to do.

“There.” Akiko said, pointing into the sky beyond the dome, at a streak of fire accelerating toward them. She returned to her workstation and tapped at the keyboard. A whirring noise reverberated around the Aviary as the dome split down the centre and slowly slid open. The wild Gossips made a break for it but were held back by the same spell that was keeping them corralled in the dome in the first place.

As the Gossip from the jail neared enough to be more than just light, Akiko sucked air through her teeth and hugged herself. Ryosuke shuddered. The being accelerating toward the open dome of the Aviary, flashing and pulsing between shades of deep red anger, so dark it sometimes absorbed light altogether, was monstrous.

Witnessing a death wasn’t like any other event a Gossip witnessed.  At the moment of ascension, the departing soul, unleashed from its physical body, expanded momentarily, surging through every being in the vicinity before snapping back, remembering its human form and passing into the astral plane. A human barely noticed the spiritual assault but without a physical body to maintain its integrity, a Gossip simply dysmorphed, taking on the form of the departed. The monster now streaking toward them was a spiritual facsimile not of Bates’ physical form before death but of his soul.

The Gossips in the dome sensed it coming. But where Ryosuke’s instinct was to flee, theirs was to flock to it. They jostled and fought, throwing themselves toward the sky, beating themselves against the invisible barrier. Behind him, Ryosuke heard his sister muttering under her breath and he turned to see her finishing the spell that would release the Gossips. This was why they had been mustered.

The eight hundred and eighty-eight Gossips shot out of the dome and swarmed Bates’ spiritual doppelganger, creating a writhing, pulsing ball of energy, like a miniature sun. Akiko handed him a pair of binoculars and he zoomed in on the frenzy of feeding. Like a contagion the dysmorphia spread through the group, each of them taking on the monstrous form until, in a flash accompanied by a sonic boom, they were gone.

Ryosuke lowered the binoculars and took some deep breaths to dispel the juddering in his gut. Beside him, Akiko was doing the same. No amount of experience made anyone immune to witnessing raw evil. They stood silently for a moment – no words were necessary. No words would help.

No-one knew what happened to them on the other side but when – if – Bates was reborn, they would accompany him through and stick with him until one of the guardian families picked up the intense Gossip activity and found him. Now, it was up to Ryosuke’s team. He set the binoculars on Akiko’s desk and took a step toward the staircase and stopped as one of her staff came up.

“Sumimasen Kazemoto-sama,” she said, bowing to them both and offering Akiko a folded piece of paper.

Akiko took the piece of paper, nodding to the woman in thanks and dismissal, then reading it.  Akiko’s face lit in a smile full of warmth.

“Nan desu ka?” Ryosuke asked quietly. What is it?

Akiko handed him the note. “A Gossip’s just reported in. One of the hyper-vigilant kids we’re watching in Melbourne has crossed paths with Tak-kun.”

Ryosuke’s heart lifted as he read the immaculately drawn characters of Takeshi’s name.

“Shall we take five minutes and go see what we’ve got?” Akiko said.

“Hai,” Ryosuke said, matching her smile. News of their nephew was just what they needed right now.

 

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The War of Wind and Moon Chapter 3

The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter Three

Tak had missed home-room to meet with the soccer coach and as he made his way to Japanese class, the corridors were buzzing. Something had happened with Julian at the year 12 lockers. Tak rolled his eyes. Something was always happening at the lockers with Julian-usually to some poor kid. Until Year 9, when he’d returned from Summer holidays the tallest kid in the class instead of the smallest, Tak had often been that poor kid. He wasn’t interested in giving Julian any more attention but as he entered the classroom and made his way to his regular seat in the back row, Connor’s wide eyed grin told him he was going to be informed anyway.

“Hey, Con. I’m not interested in whatever Julian’s done now.”

But Connor couldn’t keep it in. “The new girl hit him!”

Tak did a double-take. The new girl? Couldn’t be. Not polite little Mia. “What new girl?”

“Mary or Mia or something. She was at her locker and Julian comes up behind her, puts his hand on her shoulder and she just whizzes around and smacks him! No warning. Nothing!”

“Smacked him? Like – in the face?”

“Yes!” The word was so high pitched, it was barely audible. Tak understood Connor’s joy, their friendship had been born under Julian’s fists but he found what he was hearing hard to reconcile with the demure girl he’d left at Kostopoulos’ office forty minutes ago. “You saw this?”

“Well. No. But Chris did – Chris!” He threw a pen at Chris Lockwood who looked up from the huddle at the row in front of them. “You saw her hit him, right?”

“Yeah!” Chris beamed and straddled his chair backwards, rocking it forward to give the pen back and confide what he witnessed. “Well. I saw him stumble and I looked over and she was standing there with her fists up and this fierce look on –” Chris’ neighbour slapped his back. A hush fell over the room. Julian had entered.

Tak didn’t see any physical sign of Julian having been hit in the face but he was definitely not a happy camper. He stopped in the doorway, took a breath and opened his mouth but said nothing and closed it again. Shaking his head, Julian grunted and made his way to his seat at the other side of the last row.

The hush remained but the glee was palpable. Tak felt a touch of it himself but it was overwhelmed by curiosity. Surely she hadn’t just hit him out of the blue? Julian must have done or said something other than just tap her on the shoulder. He hoped she was alright. He also felt a spark of pride but that was irrational, he hardly knew Mia at all. Still, he knew something about her that the rest of the kids didn’t know – at least until their teacher walked through the door leading Mia behind him.

“Sorry I’m late everyone. I was getting to know our new student. This is Mia.”

Mia nodded at the front couple of rows and pressed her lips together in a n0n-committal smile.

Furuta-sensei set his satchel on the teachers’ desk and began pulling books out. “Take a seat, Mia.”

Mia scanned the room and, to Tak’s shame, his classmates feigned reading or otherwise avoided her gaze. They may have been thrilled to see their bully taken down a peg but they weren’t willing to side with the girl who had done it. Tak raised his hand and ignored Connor’s elbow in the ribs. “Mia. Over here.”

He regretted it almost instantly as a movement to his right caught his attention. Julian had snapped his head round and was sneering as Mia smiled and took a step toward them. Tak had been trying to help but he’d only succeeded in giving Mia another mark against her in Julian’s book – being Tak’s friend.

But before she reached the second row, Mia spotted Julian and the death-stare he was aiming at Tak and again she proved better able to take care of herself than Tak had given her credit for. She stopped, searched the middle rows and took the nearest, isolated seat instead. Unfortunately, it was directly in front of Julian but at least it wasn’t next to Tak. Not that snubbing him appeared to have helped. Julian’s tight-jawed expression didn’t change. His eyes bored hate into the back of Mia’s skull. Tak had been on the receiving end of that look too many times. Mia was going to pay.

~~~

Mia’s Gossip was already paying. Being bound to one human, domesticated Gossips did not follow the swarms that wild Gossips did and they became accustomed to a certain amount of personal space. But for a small safety buffer around the Gossip’s branded stomach, it had no space now. Every Gossip in the school was either in the Japanese class or pressing up against windows and doors jostling for a chance to squeeze inside. But it didn’t have to bear the crowded room for long. Its belly filled fast as Mia silently berated herself for being so stupid as to antagonize the school bully on her first day. The pain of a full belly was almost a relief, allowing it to flee the scene.

Returning to its masters from a new location was always tricky. In ancient times, and not even that long ago, there was a church or religious building with a cemetery in every village. Now, large cities like Melbourne tended to centralize their burials in cemeteries on the edge of the suburbs, an edge that moved as the cities expanded. The cemeteries of inner Melbourne were mostly closed and had not seen a burial for some time, so no-one visited to keep the gateways open. Memorial statues or buildings would also suffice but so few people paid attention to them outside of ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day that their gateways were only open for a couple of weeks in April and November.

But the Gossip’s brand was pulsing, responding to a soft-spot somewhere not too far away. The Gossip located the familiar mix of loss and hope that marked a gateway and set out east. Following the emotion, it left behind the shopping strip the High School backed on to, passed over the brick landscape of St. Kilda’s apartment blocks, and on into the leaf and lawn of Caulfield North. There. A gaggle of wild Gossips were zeroing in on the emotion, too, descending toward a cream-coloured house with an enormous Lilli Pilli tree in the backyard. In the living room of the house, a four-year-old boy sat crying in his mother’s lap. But Mia’s Gossip wasn’t looking for the source of the grief, it was looking for the piece of soul the boy was missing. It found it shimmering under the soil beneath the tree, under a tiny memorial made of icy-pole sticks. The boy’s love for his guinea pig was holding the gateway wide.

Already white-hot, the Gossip’s brand flared, sending a burning, crackling finger of magic toward the little grave, linking with its masters’ gateway on the other side. The Gossip had no choice but to allow the magic to take over, tugging at it, distorting its form as it yanked it through belly-first. Then, just as the pain was almost unbearable…it ceased. The hunger for emotion, too… gone. The fog that descended upon the Gossip’s thoughts in the physical plane lifted and it could think clearly again.

This was the astral plane, the plane between realms where souls waited to be reborn in some new body into the physical realm, or move on to the next part of their journey, in the Afterworld. Except, neither of those had happened to the Gossip when it had first visited this plane – they might have, if it had lived a less selfish human life. Instead, when it had arrived here, freed of its physical body, it had been spat out again, a disembodied spirit in the physical realm, cursed to seek the emotions of others in a vain attempt to feel as close to whole again as it would ever be.

When the Gossip had been wild it had never entered this plane, never faced that understanding. As its masters’ magic pulled it through the astral plane and back into the physical plane through their own gateway, it embraced the return of the pain; the return of the hunger that remained no matter how full of Mia’s emotions its belly became and the fog that allowed it to forget.  

 

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The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter 2

The War of Wind and Moon, Season 1, Chapter 2

“Sorry about that.” Vice Principal Kostopoulos put his phone down and turned a bright smile on Mia. She’d been waiting in his office for ten minutes. “I saw Tak showed you to the office. How do you know him?”

“I don’t really,” she said. “He lives in the flats we just moved into. His Mum offered me a lift.”

“That sounds like Hiroko. You could do worse than make a friend of Tak. He takes his school work almost as seriously as his sport. In fact, why don’t I put you in the same home room?”

“I don’t know if he’d want that…” Mia said but Kostopoulos was already tapping at his keyboard.

“There. Done. While we’re setting you up, here’s a locker key – I’ll show you where you are in a minute… I’ll just print your timetable…” More keyboard tapping and the printer on the corner of his desk whirred and spat out an A4 page. Grabbing it, he leaped up. “Okay! We’re ready. I wanted to have a longer chat but we can do that later. Mrs. Paige is waiting for you.”

Mia hustled to stand and pick up her bag. “Mrs Paige? What class is that?”

“She’s the school counselor.” He turned another enthusiastic smile on Mia but it faded when he saw her reaction. “I thought it’d be a good idea. Don’t you?”

She did not. She may not intend to be a social butterfly for the next four months but it was another thing entirely to be a pariah. She dropped her bag and sat down again.

Kostopoulos left the door closed and returned to his chair. “Mia, you’ve got a lot of work to catch up on. Mrs. Paige can help you plan how to do that and make sure you stay on track – talk to teachers if you need extra help.” He paused and placed his elbows on the desk, steepling his hands in front of him. “If you also want to talk to her about what happened at your last school, then she could help you deal with that, too.”

That answered the question she hadn’t wanted to ask. Of course he knew. Her mother had lied when they’d come for an interview last week but he’d have spoken to someone at her old school. “Who else knows? You and Mrs. Paige and…?”

“I won’t treat you like a child, Mia. I’ve only spoken with it to Mrs. Paige and Principal Clarke – the three of us won’t discuss it with anyone else. But I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t been a subject of conversation among the teachers. These things get around.”

Mia wasn’t a child. She’d assumed the teachers would be talking but that wasn’t what worried her. “What about the students? Do any of them know?”

“Not that we’ve heard, and we’ve been keeping an ear out. If any talk does start, you let me or Mrs. Paige know immediately. We won’t stand for it.”

Mia nodded but had no intention of doing so. What could they do but confirm there was something worth talking about by giving out detentions which Mia would be blamed for anyway?

“So,” he said. “Are you ready to meet Mrs. Paige?”

Mia could see no way out of it. She could invoke her mother but last time Mia had been asked to see a school counselor her mother’s objections themselves had become an issue on both sides. The school apparently believed good mothers were all for strangers poking their noses into out-of-school life and her mother had not appreciated having her motherhood questioned. Mia had paid the price with a new school and new set of bruises.

“Does it have to be today?” she asked. “It’s hard enough being the new girl without also being the girl who had to see the counselor before she was unleashed into the school.”

Kostopoulos laughed. “Fair enough. I’ll talk to Mrs. Paige and get back to you with a time later this week. But I don’t want you trying to wriggle out of then. Deal?”

Mia nodded. “Deal.”

Kostopoulos led Mia from his office into a long corridor lined with lockers and loud with the chatter of students as they stored and retrieved books. This was Mia’s twelfth school in as many years, she should be used to it by now but her heart raced a little faster with each student who registered her as a new face. Not that she didn’t know how to handle the first walk through. She kept her gaze to herself but not downcast, met any eyes that searched her out or studied her, greeted nods with nods, raised brow with raised brow and smiled only when smiled at – nothing marked you for bullying like appearing eager, anxious, or friendly. Mystery was always the best strategy on day one. The longer you could delay others working out what box they thought you fitted in, the better your chance of choosing the box for yourself.

***

Mia wasn’t the only one suffering through their twelfth first day in as many years, her Gossip was the new kid, too, and it wasn’t like the other children. The heightened emotions of human teenagers made high schools a favourite haunt of wild Gossips and there were an extraordinary number of them at St. Kilda High. Hundreds swarmed the ceiling of the main corridor, wizened legs dangling over the students’ heads like macabre streamers. The creatures’ stomachs expanded as they fed on the kids’ morning exchanges, and contracted as they sidled up to each other, stroking each other’s bellies to share the emotions they’d absorbed.

Wild Gossips were communal creatures. They gathered wherever emotions were abundant, feeding on any human and sharing their experiences freely. The spell used to domesticate Gossips like Mia’s bound them to feeding on only one human and placed a brand on their bellies that never healed and never cooled and prevented communing with their brethren. Wild Gossips never knew the pain of starvation nor the agony of a white-hot brand stretched across a distended belly.

A wild Gossip by the door was first to notice the newcomers. Word spread down the corridor in a ripple of yellow as hundreds of Gossips turned their giant eyes to look at them. Bellies puckering in anticipation of a fresh source, the creatures abandoned their current meals and flooded down the corridor, filling the air with ritual susurration.

“Newsssss!! Newssssss!! Tell usssss. Ssssshare!”

As Kostopoulos showed Mia a locker and left her to settle in, the wild ones encircled Mia’s Gossip and the first of them made its move, reaching for its belly with tiny, limp hands.

“HSSSSSSSSS!” Shrieking, the Gossip recoiled as the brand’s magic seared its fingers, snaked its way up its arms and spread pain throughout its ghostly form. Startled but attracted by the pain, its brethren surrounded the burned Gossip and soon the scalding magic was passing from creature to keening creature. As one group they fled from Mia’s Gossip, pressing themselves to the furthest end of the corridor.

Except one.

One Gossip hadn’t abandoned the students it was feeding on when Mia entered nor joined the frenzy of pain. The first was easily explained – a bully and with his victim’s collar in his fist was juicier than a new student, but a single wild Gossip experiencing its very own pain was a rare delicacy, several hundred doing so at once was something it shouldn’t have been able to resist. But it had resisted. And now it dropped its gaze to Mia arranging her books in her locker, studied her for a long moment, then did something else no Gossip should be able to. It gave a human an instruction.

At least, it appeared to do so. It dropped to the bully’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. The boy didn’t acknowledge the Gossip in any way but he turned to look directly at Mia. Another whisper and the bully squinted at Mia, let go of the student in hand and headed down the hall toward her. A frisson of excitement rippled through the Gossips. Curiosity dampened their fear and they inched back down the corridor toward the developing scene.

Still fussing in her locker, Mia didn’t feel the bully’s eyes on her. Her Gossip felt only her anxiety somewhat soothed by the calming effect new books and stationery always had upon Mia.

Until the bully tapped her shoulder.

A flash of fear, as rich and deep as it was sudden. Mia swivelled, bringing up her forearm to smack away the offending hand, her fists balled, steel in her eyes. Some of the braver wild Gossips drew closer. Mia’s Gossip swept through the air above her head, syphoning the emotion for itself and scaring off the creatures lusting after it.

The bully’s Gossip made no move, neither to claim Mia’s fear nor the bully’s shock. It simply watched as the bully stumbled back, catching himself before he fell but not before the movement caught the breath of the other students.

Seeing himself the focus of attention, the bully laughed and held his hands up in mock supplication, “Whoa New Girl! Calm down. Just saying hello.”

Three boys stepped from the now silent crowd and took up positions behind the bully, folding their arms over their chests. The small, red headed one raised his chin and said, “Yeah, New Girl. What’s your problem?”

Mia’s Gossip felt Mia realize what she’d done. Regret then determination flavoured her anxiety. Her breathing slowed, her heart rate calmed and a familiar, mollifying smile came to her lips. She forced a chuckle. “Sorry. You startled me. Bit of an over-reaction.”

Before the bully could respond, Kostopoulos appeared. “Everything okay here, Julian?” he asked the bully. “Bell’s about to go.”

Julian’s anger flared, as did his nostrils. “Fine, Mr Kos.”

Mia’s anxiety spiked. She was about to take a risk. “Julian was just saying hello.” She held her hand out to Julian. “I’m Mia by the way.”

A pause as he decided whether to accept her conversational gambit, but he didn’t have much choice but to return her civility. He took her hand, squeezing it just a little too hard. “Welcome to St. Kilda High. I’ll see you around.”

He left with his head high and his boys in tow but it was too late. Too public. The chattering began. The new girl had hit the bully.

Now the strange Gossip shimmied into action, swooping in figure eights over the students’ heads, gorging itself. Schadenfreude was a Gossip’s favourite meal and nothing was as rich a bully’s humiliation.

 

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The War of Wind and Moon, Chapter 1

 

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The War of Wind and Moon, Season 1, Chapter 1

Floating to the ceiling of Mia’s bedroom, its dangling belly swollen after a feast of rage and fear, the Gossip enjoyed a dessert of contempt and defiance. Through bulging, yellow eyes the creature watched Mia uncurl from the ball she habitually formed whenever her mother’s fists began flying. The girl turned her ear to the door she was forbidden to shut and stilled her ragged breathing, listening for her mother’s movements in the tiny flat.

The Gossip had been bound to Mia since the girl was three years old and, after fourteen years, it knew as well as she did that the danger wasn’t over. Mia would have to return to the kitchen to clean up the food she had overcooked and her mother had cast to the floor. The timing had to be just right: too soon and the very sight of the girl would have her mother spitting insults as Mia cleaned; too late and the rage would flare all over again.

Ordinarily, the Gossip would hunger for the latter because it would provide the larger meal, but its belly was almost full and the need to report what it had witnessed was already painful. An insult or two would be enough.

***

Green. Mia had worn a lot of school uniforms but she’d never had to wear green before. It didn’t suit her, it brought out all the red in her complexion. It wasn’t even a nice green. There were so many they could have chosen – an elegant bottle or a happy leaf green – but no, someone had chosen the mud green of bruised avocado flesh. Which, now she thought about it, was appropriate, considering the state of her back this morning.

“Mia!” Her mother’s voice from down the hall. “Where are my glasses?”

Mia rolled her eyes but made sure to put a smile in her voice. “Are they beside your bed?”

“Don’t you think I’ve already-” Silence as she no doubt looked beside her bed. “Found them. Are you going to come and wish me good luck before I go?”

Mia corrected her expression in the mirror then met her mother at the front door.

“Good luck with your presentation.”

Her mother beamed. “You did remember!” She pulled Mia into a hug, stretching the bruised skin across her shoulder blades. “Mia. Mia. Mia. Light of my life. See you tonight!”

Mia smiled until the door closed, then let herself shudder. She’d resisted hugging her mother once. Just once. Now she put up with it, like the ranting and the hitting and then the pretense that none of it happened.

“Six more months,” she muttered, making her way into the kitchen to clean up the breakfast dishes and make herself a salad sandwich for lunch. Four months to exams. Then two months waiting for Uni offers. Everything depended on getting that offer in January. The moment it arrived she could apply for Youth Allowance, find some student housing and be free to start her own life. Six more months and it would all be worth it.

Starting a new school four months before final exams wasn’t ideal, but it was done now and she’d be damned if she was going to let her mother’s chaos ruin her plan. The only real difference she had to get her head around were the novels St. Kilda High was studying for English. Biology, Japanese and French didn’t change from school to school. Still, she wasn’t going to even try to make new friends this time. For four months they could think what they wanted to, call her whatever names they liked. She had no time for anything but study.

At the front door she slipped her lunch into the new green backpack on top of the stack of books destined for her new locker and hoisted it on to her right shoulder. “Ow!”

She let the bag thud to the floor and closed her eyes until the pain dissipated. She’d have to lug it in her hand. Probably dislocate her shoulder before she got to school. With a sigh, she reached for the door and startled as the bell shrieked beside her ear.

Raising herself on the balls of her feet she looked through the peephole. A bruised-avocado-green shirt collar and a protruding Adam’s apple filled her view until the stranger stepped back. Mia’s breath caught. Except for the tragic uniform he could have been right out of one of the TV dramas the Japanese teacher at her second-to-last school had got her addicted to. His thick, black hair was short but casually shaggy and framed a face that was all angles, dark arched brows and eyelashes so thick Mia probably couldn’t emulate them with layers of mascara, even if she had been allowed to wear it. Mia took a deep breath and opened the door. He smiled and a pair of dimples set Mia’s pulse pounding.

“Hi. I’m Takeshi – Tak. I live across the driveway in 212.” The words came out in a gentle baritone and a Melbourne accent that she blushed to realise she’d expected to be Japanese.

“Hi. Mia. I’m Mia.”

He nodded and gave her an awkward smile. “I told Mum this would be stalker-ish but she saw you hanging your uniforms on the line yesterday and she’s wondering if you want a lift to school.”

He stepped to one side, looked over the balcony railing and nodded toward the ground floor of the U-shaped building. Mia followed his gaze to a small Japanese woman waiting by the door of one of the garages. Tak’s mother smiled and waved. Mia waved back.

“I should probably also say that I’ll be driving,” Tak said. “For practice. I’ve got my test in a few weeks.”

Mia’s mother would not approve of her being driven by a Learner Driver, especially a male one … but her mother wasn’t there to ask and the bruises making it so hard to carry her bag were her mother’s fault. “Thank you. That’d be great.”

***

Tak waited while Mia disappeared behind the door. A moment later he heard the clunk of a deadlock and she appeared again, lugging a bulging, official school backpack in one hand.

“That looks heavy,” he said. “I’ll take it.”

He reached down to grasp the straps and found himself looking into eyes exactly the colour of his mother’s expensive cognac. How had he never noticed her at school? She wasn’t wearing any make-up so maybe she was younger than she looked.

“Thanks,” she said, letting go.

The full weight of the bag fell into his hand. “Whoa! What is in this?”

“Sorry. It’s all my books.”

He nodded toward the staircase and followed as she headed along the balcony. “Why did you take all your books home the weekend you were moving house?”

“I didn’t,” she said, turning into the stairwell. “I’m just starting at St. Kilda High today.”

“That would explain why I haven’t seen you before. What grade?”

“Twelve,” she said.

Shocked, Tak stopped on the last step, watching Mia continue toward his mother. “We’ve got final exams in four months.”

She turned back briefly, shrugging. “I’m well aware of that.”

Moving house and changing schools so late in the school year was bad enough, but in year twelve? Tak caught up with her as she reached his mother. “Mum, this is Mia.”

“Hello Mia.”

“This is very kind of you, Mrs … Sorry, Tak didn’t say your last name.”

“No need to be so formal. Just call me Hiroko.”

Mia seemed taken aback, but she gave his mother a nervous smile and a nod. “Thank you, Hiroko.”

She was so polite. Was she sucking up or was it real?

Tak opened the door behind the driver’s and slid her bag across the back seat, next to his own. When he climbed out, Mia was waiting to get in, so he held the door for her. Again she smiled politely and uttered another “Thank you”. As she slipped into the passenger seat he noticed her school skirt was much longer than most of the girls wore them. He pulled his gaze away and closed her door. Long skirt, no make-up… Strict mother? As he settled into the driver’s seat he recalled hearing her mother snapping at her several times as they unloaded the removal van on Saturday. Maybe the manners were real. If they were, she was going to get eaten alive at St. Kilda High.

Author’s Note:  Thank you for reading! I’m so excited to be writing this story and to share it with you. You’ve probably guessed from the “Season One” in the title that it’s a long, juicy story and I hope I can keep you wanting more each week! 

Please do feel free to comment. I love to hear from my readers, I cherish each of you and will do my best to respond to every comment and answer any questions you might ask – though I may need to plead “spoilers” sometimes! 

Again, thank you. Wishing you courage and creativity in all you do! 

Darcy.  

Also By Promo

 

Coming Soon! The War of Wind and Moon, by Darcy Conroy.

The War of Wind and Moon is a contemporary fantasy serial by Darcy Conroy. Season One will begin Thursday, March 31st 2016 with new chapters, in text and podcast, posted on this blog, Wattpad and Soundcloud weekly. To be notified of new chapters you can follow the story via this blog or the links to your favourite platform above, and/or sign up here to join Darcy’s readers list and receive updates and extra insights in emails direct to you.

The War of Wind and Moon
Seventeen-year-old Mia trusts no-one. She wants to – she’d give almost anything to be able to – but when your survival depends on the acute awareness of every whim and mood swing of your narcissistic, rage-filled mother, anxiety becomes a default state. Mia has become expert at reading body language, facial expressions, vocal fluctuations – permanently prepared to fight, flee or freeze at the slightest hint of anger, aggression or even just disapproval from anyone. She’s learned it’s easier to be alone.

But Mia’s not alone. When the people children are supposed to be safest with abuse them, it’s common to develop this hyper-aware state. Doctors have a word for it: hyper-vigilance.
The recruitment scouts at Kazemoto Security (Supernatural Division) have a word for it, too: potential.