Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Nagaki's Burden chapter four- Riddles In The Dark

The Nick of Time

(and other abrasions)

Nagaki's Burden

chapter four

Riddles In The Dark


Al Bruno III

The following story was originally published by Eden Studios

He began to dig before the dust had settled over the mounds of rubble. He dug even though he did not know which way was up. He dug despite his fractured skull and crushed spine, despite pain the likes of which he hadn’t felt in generations. He dug because he was a Dread Lord and if he failed all his sacrifices and atrocities were for nothing.

But what if he had already failed? What if the Tian-wang had already abandoned him and cast Bao into an eternity of torment?

That thought made him dig all the harder, his crushed fingers scrabbling at the chunks of shattered stone. Bone protruded from his skin in dozens of places and as he squirmed and crawled they scraped against the debris. He had been lucky, lucky to escape from the Spire before that bastard Jack Diamond had set off his explosives, Lucky to only have been buried from the fallout of the blast and not beneath the ruins of the Spire itself.

That thought tasted like bile in his mouth- a Dread Lord should not have to rely on luck.

Slowly, painfully, he found his way back to the surface and lay on his back like an overturned bug. The sky was heavy with smoke, he couldn’t see the starts and for a strange moment he worried that he still had miles to dig ahead of him. Then his dead eyes adjusted to the murk and he scanned his surroundings. The Spire, as well as several buildings for blocks around it, had been destroyed. The vibrant bohemia of Shartok’s Circle had been transformed into a desolate, almost alien landscape. Stranger still, there were no Constables, no Sentries, no crowds of Citizens come to gawk at the destruction. He was alone.

Except for the baboon.

It surveyed him from atop a heap of wreckage, its flame-red pupils glinting. Mr. Nagaki tried to speak but his lungs had collapsed along with most of his ribcage. The baboon approached him, its spindly form loping down the mound of debris; it sniffed at him. Mr. Nagaki could see the baboon’s teeth were crooked and misshapen, protruding from the sweaty confines of his snout. He tried to speak again but all he managed was a guttural whisper. That alone was enough to send the sickly-looking creature skittering for cover.

Mr. Nagaki closed his eyes and concentrated, calling upon the power the Celestial Kings had invested in him. He felt the warm itch of bones re-aligning; the subtle tickle of damaged sinew stretching over opened wounds.

With a defiant roar the baboon shambled back into Nagaki’s field of vision hefting a chunk of rubble over its head.

“Wait!” he said in a panicked whisper. The baboon paused, still holding the chunk of debris over its head. It regarded him quizzically. Mr. Nagaki continued, “I am an agent of the Tian-wang, the world protectors… you dare not…”

The baboon’s laughter was harsh and barking; it sprayed spittle when it spoke. “I am Sun Wu-Kung the Monkey of the Mind! I care little for the ways of the Celestial Kings and even less for the ways of their little ghosts.” It laughed again, spraying spittle. “I have been summoned. Gifts have been promised. All I must do is tear you to pieces until I can no longer tell the part that speaks from the part that pisses. An easy night’s work!”

“But don’t you… don’t you remember me?”

“Of course! And that will make the smashing all the more fun!” it laughed again, hopping from foot to foot.

First the Overlord’s Serpent, now the Monkey King. What have you gotten me into Magwier? Even under the best of conditions there was no way he could physically defeat the twisted old spirit and this was certainly not the best of conditions.

The sickly-looking baboon raised the chunk of stone over its head once more, “Farewell Dread Lord Nagaki, of all the Tian-gou you were the least annoying.”

“Farewell Handsome Monkey King. It is better that I die then see you debased so.”

“What?” the stone tumbled from its scabby, pink fingers, “What?”

Mr. Nagaki struggled to keep his voice steady, “If I have existed long enough to see the Monkey King reduced to a common assassin then I have lived long enough.”

“No! I am Sun Wu-Kung! I am the Monkey of the Mind! I am no mere assassin.” the baboon’s nostrils flared.

“You were sent to kill me weren’t you?”

“How can I kill you when you’re not really alive?”

“I could say the same thing about you- assassin.”

“No! I was summoned, gifts were promised.”

“I was summoned as well, it makes no difference.”

“It does!”

“Once, long ago, you declared yourself the Great Sage before the Jade Emperor himself. Now you obey the orders of a petty mandarin? I’m disappointed.”

“No! I am the Monkey King!” its grubby hands shook with frustration, “I am born a stone egg! I stole the sacred peaches from Lao Tsu! I am wiser then the gods and more beautiful than the sky!”

“Then prove it.” Mr. Nagaki forced himself to sit up, “I propose a contest of riddles.”

“Riddles?” the baboon fell to the ground, convulsing with laughter.

“We will ask each other riddles, each riddle must be in a different language of man. The first one to answer incorrectly or fail to answer loses. If you win you destroy me, if I win you go away and leave me to my business.”

“Oh Nagaki, you fool!”

“Do you agree?”

“Agree? I insist!” the baboon laughed. “You will envy my wisdom before I destroy you.”

“You honor me.” Mr. Nagaki held himself steady with his relatively undamaged right arm. “I’ll go first.”

“Riddles!” the baboon shouted and capered through the ruins, “He dares test me with riddles!”

The Dread Lord spoke in Cantonese, “It never was and always will be. No one ever sees it and no one ever will, yet it is the confidence of all who live and breathe. What is it?”

“Tomorrow.” the baboon flipped head over heels, “The answer is tomorrow! What fun! Yours will not be so easy Nagaki.”

“I expect nothing less.”

The baboon’s shape began to blur, shifting in the shadows. This was another its little tricks, the mastery of form. Where there was once a sickly primate now stood Jason Magwier. The effigy spoke in Japanese, “What eats rocks, levels mountains, rusts metal, pushes clouds across the sky and can make a strong man weak as a kitten?”


“Clever.” The ersatz Magwier hissed, its shape shifting to that of a tall figure wearing golden armor decorated with runes of the Dragon Kings. “Clever for a dead man.”

Mr. Nagaki spoke again, this time in Latin, “At night they come without being fetched and by day they are lost without being stolen.”

“Obvious.” An angry chittering erupted from inside the golden armor, a few moments later the reply came, “The stars. It’s obvious.”


The golden armor melted away to reveal Wu-Han’s haughty features and drab robes. It spoke in Laotian, “What has two backbones but a thousand ribs?”

For a moment all Nagaki could do was stare dumbfounded, he had battled so many strange beasts in his lifetime. Had he ever known a creature with two backbones and a thousand ribs? Was this a reference to the Overlord’s Serpent? No, that was too obvious. It was a trick question- they were all trick questions when you got right down to it.

Gleeful chuckling interrupted his train of thought. “You look worried Dread Lord.”

Mr. Nagaki answered slowly “A railroad?”

“The luckiest of guesses!” it tore off Wu-Han’s robes and flesh to reveal a slender, humanoid shape with a simian face and a curling tail. It wore silk robes and a sash made from the pelt of a tiger.

“Perhaps.” The dead man said, his cadence shifting to the familiar patterns of the Chinese Hakka dialect “Both mother and father, seldom still but never wandering, never to birth, never to nurse.”

“A tree!” it snapped, its hairy face shifting to the smug features of Jack Diamond. The resemblance was uncanny, even down to the capped teeth and the alligator boots. Korean flowed freely from its lips, “Now, it is my turn. It has no top or bottom but it can hold flesh bones and blood all at the same time.”

“A ring” Mr. Nagaki felt his ribs snap back into place, when he spoke again it was in French, “Squeeze it and it cries tears as red as flesh, but its heart is made of stone.”

“These are children’s riddles Dread Lord. Children’s! The answer is a cherry.”

“The night is young Handsome Monkey King.”

“No, the night is not young and I grow tired.” its shape shifted as easily as his language, its features becoming soft, feminine. Jack Diamond’s hair turned dark and flowed down to waist length. The face became painfully familiar, the dark eyes, the gentle expression. The very sight of robbed Mr. Nagaki of his strength. When the effigy spoke again it was in Tibetan but with Bao’s voice, “There is a crime, that if attempted is punishable, but if it committed it is not punishable.”

Voices lost generations ago swam though his mind.

“Please, You must listen.”

I know all I need to know.

“You don’t understand.”

Get out of my sight whore.

“You don’t mean that... you can’t mean that.”

From this moment on you are dead to me.

Cold tears traced paths down Nagaki’s gritty face. He sobbed the answer, “Suicide. The answer is suicide.”

“Correct Dread Lord.” the feminine countenance melted away revealing a white-furred baboon wearing an iron crown. It gibbered and danced his crimson eyes full of malice. “Painfully correct I would guess.”

“Damn you, how did you know?”

“About your sweet lost Bao? I could have found out on my own for I am the Monkey of the Mind but my faithful disciple jack Diamond told me.”

“He did did he?”

“Oh yes! He told me all about the sacrifice you made for your lost love.”

“Really?” Mr. Nagaki pushed himself to his feet, forced himself to stand still, "He told you everything?"

“Of course!” it clapped his scabby fingers together, “I found the whole thing quite... romantic.”

“Romantic.” Mr. Nagaki repeated the phrase in English, rolling it around on his dead tongue, “Tell me, oh Pi Ma-Wen-”

“What? What did you call me? I am no stable boy!”

“Tell me Pi Ma-Wen what can you find at the beginning of eternity and the end of time and space? At the beginning of every end and the end of every place?”

The white-furred baboon hissed; its snout foaming, its teeth bared “You dare call me stable boy? I stole the sacred peaches from Lao Tsu!”

“Thief, assassin, and stable boy. Your mother must be very proud. Now answer me or leave me to my business.” he stepped towards it. “Don’t forget to reply to me in English now.”

“English! The language of liars and fools.”

“If the riddle has confounded you just say so.”

“Riddle? You dare call that offal you spoke a riddle? The answer is as obvious as my superiority!” the baboon skittered backwards, kicking up clouds of dust, “What can be found at the beginning of eternity and the end of time and space? At the beginning of every end and the end of every place? There is only one thing it can be! Chaos pure and simple.”

Mr. Nagaki let the baboon get halfway through a victory jig before he said, “Wrong answer.”

“What?’ it froze, “What?”

“I said, ‘Wrong answer’.” the Dread Lord’s spine reshuffled itself with a whispery crackling, he shuddered and stood straighter, “Now if you’ll excuse me...”

“You lie! You lie!” the baboon stomped and snarled. There was a desperate sheen to its red, red eyes. It grew smaller, deflating like a balloon. In moments it would be gone, “That could only be the answer!”

Mr. Nagaki turned and started walking in the direction of Kissos Lane. The drone of the wind drowned out the Monkey King’s squeal of rage.

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