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 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.  

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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.