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It took Limen a few moments to process the profoundly absurd nickname he had just been given. Perhaps, he considered, it would be wiser to withdraw from this bout sooner rather than later, for clearly he had been thrashed in the field of folly by his foe.

“Try not to touch the cart, Hanako. It might fall apart, and take Da-Xia with it.” Just ‘Hanako’ — a concession of defeat. Limen kept quiet for a while, leaving only the ghost’s ramblings and the distant sounds of battle to be heard.

Somehow, despite knowing the meaning of the vast majority of the words Hanako had just used, Limen had comprehended absolutely nothing. “Vitiem…?” He hadn’t the faintest of an inkling as to what Hanako was talking about. It was certainly apt for a vampire to vitiate. But for whatever reason, he had a feeling that she hadn’t been referring to the Latin verb. And antediluvian vampires sounded like abject heresy to any denomination, unless that was how the Nephilim were referred to nowadays. And what manner of ectoplasmic dust allergy did Hanako have that was making her blink so much — no, wink? At him?

She was winking as fast as a hummingbird beats its wings. Two decades on the moon had no doubt been too long of a sojourn, for now Limen could very confidently declare himself out of touch.

He sighed. “I think I need a refresher on the latest pop culture. But assuming I caught the gist of that right — well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Perhaps we will fight side by side against Envoy if and when that day comes.”

Today, though, they were unfortunately more opponents than allies. Rufus was about to eat a tough bareknuckled punch. Well, that wouldn’t do at all — with a glance, Limen placed a few layers of barrier between Hunter and Devil. Unfortunately, the man was probably a Feeder using supernatural (perhaps even demonic!) energies to boost his physical ability. Odds were that he would barely notice the barriers, even with how shiny and unnaturally reflective they’d been made. It was an attempt at a cheap trick at best.

“Two-on-two, or three all if we count ourselves. Quite evenly matched by my reckoning as well. I’d scarcely call this a ‘kerb-stomp’ of a fight.”

The other devil, who was doing far better a job at backing Rufus up, was not a face Limen had seen before. All he concerned himself with was that she had today’s mission objectives in hand.

“Pass the rocks, please! We’ll be on our merry way at once! Unless…” Limen turned to Hanako. “…would you rather make war?”
“Cienie, à votre service.” Senja was a bit younger than he’d expected of a nurse. She had to be only a year or two his senior. Yet her presence seemed to bring great comfort to her patients, as with any of her colleagues. It was an almost supernatural aura of reassurance. He would have to ask her for her secrets later. How would she do with presence like that if she had a stage and an audience?

Cienie gave the ward a cursory survey. Expecting good acoustics out of this place would be out of the question, no doubt. Up close to the beds would be better. A few steps later, he seemed to have found himself a suitable spot. “OK, I think here can. Thank you very very much, Miss!” The urge to tack on ‘green hair’ or some other moniker was strong. But Cienie had learnt long ago that Europan nicknaming customs were a little different, and besides, he had music to make.

Cienie pocketed the paqpe, silently slipping it into his pants without another clack. In its place, he took up his mouth organ. The sên had belonged to his mother Van and must have already been some fifteen-odd years old when she had bequeathed it to him. It was rather unwieldy compared to the paqpe, but leagues more elegant and refined. Too highfalutin for a boisterous sideshow; perfect for a peaceful performance. The question of what to play had long been answered before Cienie had so much as gotten up in the morning. The sên’s traditional repertoire was a bit intimidating to the unfamiliar ear — ‘eerie’ and ‘ethereal’ were some of the terms he’d heard from a previous audience. So something from closer to home — Europa — it would be. Mastery of blues or ragtime was still beyond his grasp, but Baroque and Romantic were game. Thus began Cienie: —


Cienie knew it only as ‘the Air’, as that was what the fiddlers on that street corner in Ostend had called it. Apparently it was quite a famous work within the Western classical canon. The Air was probably his best Europan piece, its rich polyphonic harmonies supporting an impassioned melody that was almost voice-like in its tenderness and warmth. As if there was more to the instrument than wind going past a series of carefully-made wood pipes. Maybe it could breathe some life into the medical post’s stagnant, heavy-laden air.

Not sorrowful — there was no need to further dampen this sombre mood with sad music. But serene. Something to ease the weary wounded into rest, eternal or otherwise. Nothing more and nothing less. That was all Cienie kept in mind as he let loose the sound of the sên.
“Wah, you damn tall .”

Cienie the performer had put on his best impression of the Captain’s posh accent and a more neutral narrator’s voice. Now that he was ‘backstage’, even if only for a few moments, he let loose his natural speech — a somewhat idiosyncratic dialect with distinctively non-Europan intonation and grammar, and at times the odd loanword or calqued expression thrown in. Now he couldn’t say that he really knew Victoria, but she was not a wholly unfamiliar sight. Especially around the pub.

“Mm, very nice show! Thank you!” He gave her a grateful clap of the paqpe. “Cienie, pour vous servir. I think I got see you before. Let’s see ah… Oh! The barkeep got talk about you. You are Vii-kii from the Ocean? Regular customer! Good business.”

Victoria had probably never been in one of his audiences before — he remembered the crowds remarkably well, at least when it was bright enough to see their faces. Now the odd night-time performances were another matter entirely, but those shows also tended to have more drunkards watching than average. The lack of memory would be mutual.

“From B-Coy also? The Butter one? Hm hm, they just transferred me over. Nice, nice. My Mee-ddleton voice how ah? Like the real one or not?”

Speaking of which, ‘Vii-kii’ absolutely reeked of both vices. She hadn’t just been drinking before noon: that cigarette was probably not her first. Or second, now that she’d tossed one aside. Cienie was somewhat of a teetotaller himself, and the Stygian smoke of tobacco reminded him too strongly of that odious opium which was sadly still popular among many Honngìn. Still, labourers and soldiers alike generally didn’t appreciate being critiqued on their choice of outlet.

“I think faster finish the smoke. You going to the medical post also ah? Later catch by the nurses, then you know.” Certain injured men could have their spirits restored at once by a mere whiff of spirits of the less-wholesome kind, and more than once had a patient tried to get buzzed on even the bitter and decidedly non-beverage surgical spirits. Or, so the stories went. Now that they had arrived at the entrance of the casualty clearance station, perhaps they could find out the truth first-hand.

Knock-knock.

“‘ello—“ he poked his head through. There were ‘angels’ aplenty, flitting and fluttering about, tending to their agonised and anguished patients. Cienie waved at one of them. “Mind some music for these troubled times?”

He looked back at the Oceanian woman.

“And also Vii-kii is here, for moral support. Can come in or not?”
Cienie had set up a little while after breakfast outside the best pub in Trebín, right across from the village church. He was due to head off and join up with B-Company over in Plymouth Lane later today. But that appointment would be for the afternoon, or perhaps the evening — after he’d finished his second ‘tour of duty’ as an entertainer.

In his hands were two set of clappers — simple percussion instruments, not much more than boards of wood tied together by string. A pair of larger clappers was in his right, while his left held five smaller ones with his index finger resting between the first and second. After a doomed attempt at using castanets to substitute for these paqpe, the barkeep’s daughter had carved them out for him in exchange for lessons. His past few evenings had thus been part practice and part teaching the girl how to play. Fortunately, her mind and her hands were equally quick, and Cienie already felt comfortable entrusting the paqpe to his disciple when he would inevitably have to return to the trenches.

In hindsight — should he have requested another set of paqpe? One that he could finally call his own? Perhaps.

When Cienie himself had started learning the art properly back in Ostend, also on borrowed instruments, his northerner teacher had referred to it as k’uaipanr. But Kaan-mu’s name for it was khuape, and though little Hi En hadn’t much interest in the art back then, he still held her performances dear to his heart. So it was by the latter name that he introduced the next item of his road-show.

“Ladies and gentlemen! I think today is the first time I ever show khuape to you all.”

There was no need to explain what that foreign word was, or what it meant. A decent number of the audience were regulars at the pub who’d probably already overheard him practising these past few days, anyhow. Either way, nothing could be clearer an explanation than cutting straight to the chase.

“Last time I practised was many many months ago already. And I am southern Honngìn. This is northerner art. But I try my best anyway. Come!”

A flick of his wrist sent one of the two large paqpe flying into the other, colliding with a resounding ‘clack!’ that hushed the crowd into silence. The rosewood looked and sounded a little different from the bamboo he’d seen and heard at home. But it worked better than castanets, at least. And besides, though their beat was the backbone of the performance, it wasn’t as if paqpe were the sole essential element of khuape.

Sunday morn, I went to town
And came across a cricket and an earthworm
Boasting ‘bout bollocks and bragging ‘bout bull.
And the earthworm said:
“Hmph! For aft’noon tea, I ate a donkey with my crescent rolls!”
And the cricket said: “Hah! In Punjati, I swallowed a pair of feral tigers whole!”
And the earthworm said: “I coiled ‘round a great big fir and yanked it out the ground!”
And the cricket said: “Hmm? With one small kick, I flattened a mountain into a mound!”
And the earthworm said: “The birds and beasts — they bow to me!”
And the cricket said: “Bah! Who cares ‘bout that? All that flies and all that runs and all that swims and all that jumps: they all obey my every decree!”
Just as this pair of dunces talked their cock and bull
Came a sound, from the east:

“Coo-coo-coo, cluck-cluck bawk-bawk, cock-a-doodle-doodle-doo!”
And what flew in was a hungry cockerel!
It laughed at their bunkum, bosh, and babble
Opened wide — and down went the earthworm head to toe!
Infuriated was the cricket
And went to scold the baffled bird:

“Oh, you foolish fowl!
Who am I? East to the fields does my kingdom stretch
West to the islands and the open sea
I am the Lord High Lord of the Insects —
You will rue the day you met me!
En garde, you wretched, rotten bird!
I’ll show your place in this here hierarchy!”

The quarrelsome cricket, cross and crotchety
Stomped its feet! Bared its teeth! Spread its wings!
Charged right forth——!

…more chicken feed!


Rhythm, actions, tone of voice, facial expressions… Cienie reckoned he had it all down pat. The audience seemed to agree, what with their hooting and hollering punctuating rambunctious clapping and laughter. A whole bunch of pub-goers had been drawn outside too. Pity this would be the last chance he’d get to perform khuape for a long while.

He hadn’t been too sure at first if imitating his now-commanding officer was a good idea — Captain Middleton seemed like the type to take offence at being voice-cast as a cricket. But a little birdie had told him that the man was still in his bunker, and as one of the more unpopular officers, no one would really object to the unflattering portrayal. Certainly none in the crowd seemed to. The same was true of the earthworm. The paintbrush sergeant had been spotted heading towards the trenches earlier — so Cienie was (probably) safe.

Was it almost lunchtime? He had no watch. The sun seemed to be almost overhead, but he was sadly not a sundial. He could not tell the time with complete certainty. So perhaps it was noon already, and the messes were filling up. Perhaps it was still morning, and he was simply rushing to wait. Either way, Cienie still had plans to play for the injured and ill in the casualty clearance station, along with the nurses and medics tending to them. He’d have to wrap this routine up.

“The sun is tall and my shadow is short! It is noon time already.”

He stopped suddenly, his eyes darting around as if about to share some sort of secret.

“But most important: my belly is grrr~rowling! It is lunch time already! OK, done for today, I go eat.” He knelt down and tucked his mouth organ — he’d left lying it on the ground after his musical numbers earlier — under his arm. “Bye-bye now!”

And so Cienie made his exit, at a vigorous jog, the crowd’s applause mixing with the clapping of his paqpe as he went. Next stop: Trebín Village Casualty Clearance Station.
“Oh no, I think she broke a vertebra or two.”

Da-Xia’s rather unfortunate fate was predictable. It still stung a bit to see, or would have, had Limen been stuck with a human’s uncontrolled empathy. He wondered briefly if Hanako still retained enough of her humanity to feel the pain, then thought back to how obvious the answer had been in her behaviour for the short day or two he’d known her. Was that supposed to be a nickname? Hm. Two could dance that tango.

“Hey-o, Hanakko. The other two Hunter fellows appear to be taking off. Without either of us, rather sadly —“ he glanced over to the half-dead motorcyclist. “— nor even their fallen comrade.”

A sigh and a shake of his head later, Limen hefted Da-Xia’s ragdolling body onto a rapidly-assembled contraption, proudly designed by yours truly. Axles, wheels, and a handle materialised and came together one by one, forming what was unmistakably some sort of elongated pushcart. He did recall hearing that immobilisation was key to the treatment of fractures, and that moving a car crash casualty willy-nilly could easily render them paraplegic for life or something along those lines…

Well, he’d already tossed Da-Xia less-than-gracefully onto his sled-stretcher. The most he could do at this point was strap her down tight for the ride.

“Join the dark side one day, Hana-nee. We’ve got apples and amaryllis, all libre and gratis. Simply put, Hanacchi: we’ve got all we need, all for free.” This was immensely silly. Rufus would probably have his head for letting the more dangerous of the hunters through. Did Limen care much at the moment? Enough to start jogging toward the rocks (with Da-Xia acting as the vanguard), but no faster. “Come, hostage; come, outhouse-haunting friend. Let’s catch up to the party, Han-Han of the Privy!”
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