I've had some ideas for new blog posts and new writing resources/tools. I'll try to get to them later this week, but I'm not sure I will be able to.
My submission package contains the first three chapters of FEASTING ON ANIMAL SPIRITS, so I've rewritten them many times. This is the current version and the fruit of my stress, lol. Also, we bought Goo a cat tower, and he loves it.
Chapter 1 (A quick break-in)
Rio took her gaze off the Prime Minister’s house and swallowed, wondering for the fifth time if robbing the most powerful Untalented person in Japan was a good idea.
Even if the client paid well.
A summer wind rustled the bushes she hid between, several branches picking at her dark-green tank top and the skin exposed by her shorts. The branches swayed more and more until they tangled in her shoulder-length hair.
She should have tied her hair back. Ugh, she thought. I knew I had forgotten something. With the cicadas screaming into the night, she wished Leo hadn’t moved from their hiding spot on the edge of the park. She needed her twin brother’s support. Wanted to be reassured this was the right thing to do.
It had to be, right? Maybe she should grab Leo and run. Pretend they tried. Lie.
Focus! As she glared at the top floor of the six-story house, her heart pounded in her chest.
Across the street from where she crouched, the large stone wall surrounding the Prime Minister’s house pressed against the sidewalk. Each side other than the main entrance should — according to their client’s intel — have a garden between the wall and the labyrinth-like house. A way in, despite the guards.
Her breath caught. Guards … . She dug her foot into the dirt on the edge of the park as her hands trembled. Come on, Rio, she told herself. Focus. You have to stay focused. She inhaled through her nose, taking a deep calming breath. That’s it. Just like Zack-sensei taught you. Still nervous, she decided to try something else and looked into her spirit, the key to a Handler’s power.
Inside her mind, she could see a cutout of herself with seven sockets positioned throughout her body.
She used her spirit — moving it on instinct like a third arm — to touch the first, located in her head. A tingling heat spiderwebbed out of the circular-shaped image of the empty socket. For a brief moment, her senses sharpened.
The humid air tasted like salt and prickled against her smooth skin.
The pain of plugging her own spirit into the socket helped her focus, so she proceeded to caress the one in her chest then each shoulder. She brushed her spirit across the fifth in her pelvis before touching the sixth and seventh in her right and left legs. Much better. Relaxed, her mind drifted back to her old junior high school teacher, Zack. Has it really been three years? The red string of fate tied her to Zack, but her inability to go back to her old school and confess to him frustrated her to no end. She gritted her teeth and shoved her way through the bushes.
In front of her, Leo — her only living family — peeked around a park bench and tapped his foot. His short hair bristled with perspiration. The navy t-shirt clung to his muscled back, and unlike her shorts, his reached the knees. When she focused on him — like any of the Talented — a mist-like aura appeared around him that tasted like peaches.
Why was his aura-taste peaches? Everyone knew strawberry-flavored auras were the best because strawberries were the best.
Rio shook her head and banished the distracting thought that had killed her frustration.
Leo lifted his left hand, each centimeter-long section of black-steel that wrapped around his forearm from elbow to fingertips catching the light. One of his expensive plated-gauntlets. “Stop making so much noise.”
She edged up to the park bench and knelt beside him. “Prime Minister Bea’s not home, right?”
Leo nodded, dark brown eyes — a shade lighter than hers — never leaving the target.
Rio shrugged. “So, why do I have to be quiet?”
“Even if the Prime Minister took his Talented guards to meet with this New Emperor —”
Her lips quivered as she lost the rest of his words. The Foreign Emperor.
After pulling his left hand out of the plated-gauntlet, he turned and placed a soft finger against her lips. “Calm down.”
A jolt of pleasure raced through her body, and her toes curled. No! She should slap him like the time he had brushed her hair behind her ear. He had to know better. He shouldn’t have touched her. Not like that. Never him. Besides, the only one she wanted to touch her lips was Zack. Strong. Handsome. Kind. He —
Leo coughed before replacing his plated-gauntlet and tightening its straps around his forearm. “Focus, Rio.” Like how she imagined a father would, Leo used a commanding yet kind voice. “Remember why we were chosen.”
“Your memory and my power?”
“Don’t get indignant with me.”
Rio stuck her tongue out at him.
Leo squeezed the bridge of his nose. “As I was saying, just because these guards aren’t Talented doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous.”
“You don’t sound like it.”
“You’re just lucky I don’t punch you for touching my lips.”
Leo grinned. “Anyway, we need to avoid being seen despite the reports these guards aren’t licensed to carry guns.”
They won’t have guns? Her hands swept past a small Hello Kitty bag tied to the back of her stolen leather belt before caressing the power-forged daggers strapped in sheaths at her sides. “Rent-a-guards, huh?”
“But even still, we stick to the plan.” He stroked his armored fingers across the orbed necklace around his neck. The fragments of animal spirits glowed inside the marble-sized white orbs connected by a black-steel chain.
A group of Untalented guards wearing suits, even though it was so hot, marched along the sidewalk outside of the wall. One wore sunglasses — Did he not realize it was night time? — and he kicked a small stone. The rock clanged against one of the lampposts. The second guard elbowed the first as they turned the corner.
Unprofessional, rent-a-guards. No real threat if handled right, no matter what Leo says.
Voices behind the wall grew louder before diminishing. A fancy-looking red car drove past on the road then all fell quiet save for the noisy cicadas.
Leo held his hand up and made a fist. Time to dance. To steal the flash drive and deal with part of their spirit-crushing debt.
The debt that stood between her and confessing to Zack. That had barred her from searching Zack out. The debt was the only reason she hadn’t found him since graduating high school. The only reason … . She wasn’t scared. She —
After swallowing a cat spirit from his orbed necklace, Leo’s hair gave off a faint blue light — his power residue. A translucent alley cat — the size of a large hamster — appeared beside him, walking on the air around his waist as if the cat spirit were on solid ground. It phased through the park bench and continued its stroll around his body, passing through solid objects without concern. Like a Handler’s glowing hair, the Untalented couldn’t see the spirits.
Rio reached out with her mind, using her spirit to pull an alley cat from her seven-orbed necklace. The spirit leaped into her mouth from the orb that had held it and moved down her throat.
The aftertaste of stringy, unsalted meat stuck to her tongue and carried a hint of rotting garbage.
Why did they always have to take spirit-fragments from alley cats? Even if doing so removed the animal’s aches and pains, they still tasted disgusting.
Focus. Ignore the taste. You can do this, Rio. She guided the cat spirit down to the socket in her pelvis. Once the spirit settled into her fifth socket, the steaming hot red diamond of flaring and the icy cold blue square of crafting appeared beside the filled socket. The euphoria of connecting with another spirit was like eating fresh strawberries or winning a dance competition.
“Meow,” the cat’s spirit said in her mind as it materialized around her waist.
The euphoria expanded as the cat’s power surged through her legs. Her usually black hair glowed a bright purple and illuminated the darkness around her.
Her translucent alley cat — as large as a fat toy poodle — pranced around her body and mentally meowed at Leo’s cat. Her manifestation of the spirit fragment dwarfed her brother’s and showed the difference in their power.
Rio breathed through her nose and scraped her tongue across her teeth, still trying to ignore the lingering taste of cat.
Leo pointed at the wall.
Ahead of him, she sprinted across the street and leaped over the three-meter wall with ease. Wind whipped at her hair as she descended, spinning around in mid-air to land on her tip toes like a ballerina. Or at least how they looked on posters.
Her brother’s body crested the wall, and he placed his gauntleted hands atop it, without making a sound. He flipped over the wall to land in the dirt beside her, panting. “The difference in our power is stupid.” His petulant tone reminded her of how other siblings spoke to one another. “So stupid.”
“Oh?” She matched the tone of his voice. “Jealous?”
“Your memory and my —”
Around them, not a single blade of grass to dampen the heavy scents of flowers. The gardener had to be a fool to plant so many roses, dianthuses and phloxes so close together and kill the individual fragrances of each flower. Though, the pink and purple color combinations were awesome. Maybe they formed a picture if seen from above. She would have to — No. She had to focus.
“Are you listening to me?” Leo asked.
“Yes?” She shrugged. “Was it important?”
Sighing, he led her through the Prime Minister’s flower garden and to the backdoor. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Silver English letters scrawled something she didn’t understand along the top of the door, and on top of that, a golden knocker in the center screamed waste of money. It made her sick. How could rich people live with themselves? This was ridiculous. But maybe they could pry them off. They could —
Clatter! Something hit the floor on the other side of the door, and Leo’s hand froze a few centimeters away from the door handle.
The hair on the back of Rio’s neck stood on end.
This wasn’t good. If the rent-a-guards stationed at this door were guarding entrances rather than just patrolling, getting inside without taking center stage would be impossible. Leo’s plan would be ruined.
Her feet began shuffling across the stone patio behind Leo while she chewed on her lower lip. She opened her mouth.
“What do you mean you saw something, Funa?” a husky, female voice asked from the other side of a hedgerow.
Rio shut her mouth as Leo pressed his ear to the door.
“I swear, Juri. I saw something above the wall just a few moments ago,” a man, Funa, said in a squeaky voice. “I think someone was climbing —”
“No one is fast enough or dumb enough to climb that wall,” Juri said. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Hey! Who are you calling stupid?”
A smacking sound echoed through the garden. They were going to get caught, and Leo was probably right earlier. Even rent-a-guards could be troublesome in a large enough group. Especially if they called the —
Leo grabbed Rio by the wrist and pushed the door open.
What was he thinking?
Sour bile worked its way up her throat and into her mouth.
The blinding lights of the hallway bit into her eyes. A bulky shadow on the floor.
She stepped inside, her vision adjusting. Empty … .
A large vase, painted in a beautiful purple, lay on its side in the center of the fancy-looking blue and green carpet.
Lazy rent-a-guards. Shaking her head, Rio stopped herself just before she clicked her tongue. Didn’t even bother to pick up the mess they made.
The carpet looked like it was some work of art, but the swirling design of colors didn’t make any sense. Pictures and enormous scrolls lined both walls, most of them depicting old men doing old-men things. One had a man writing at a massive desk. One a man hunting. Another had a man sitting on what had to be a toilet.
Rio covered her mouth as she snickered.
Click. The door shut behind them, and Leo motioned down the hallway. “We need to hurry.”
I hope you really did memorize that map of this maze-like house, Rio thought. She fell into step behind him, using the cat’s grace to avoid making any sound. If only our pack would have let us bring the map … .
After the entryway, there was a closed door on the right and an intersection just ahead of it. Left at the intersection. Right around the next corner. Voices ahead. A lot of voices. Leo opened the second door on the right and led Rio inside.
She sighed as she shut the stairwell door behind her. The first floor, the most dangerous of the six, was behind them. She would laugh with joy if no one could hear her. Focus.
On the second floor, Leo peeked out the door leading from the stairwell then motioned for her to follow. Left out of the stairwell. Left again. At the end of the hallway, they took a left for the third time then opened a door on the right, next to a massive statue of a naked woman, rather than going straight through the double doors in front of them.
Pulling the door shut behind her, Rio glanced around the massive kitchen area while continuing to follow Leo.
A long, wide counter filled the center of the room with six stoves on the left wall and three massive ovens along the wall to her back. Including the door behind her, there were four doors that led from this impressive, restaurant-sized kitchen.
She hoped Leo wasn’t as lost as she was.
Mumbling voices passed through the door on the left end of the room. The door handle turned, and the door began to swing open.
Leo skidded to a stop.
The voices grew louder. Six distinct voices. All men. Wider and wider the door opened.
Almost bumping into Leo, Rio skidded to a stop. Imaginary insects crawled through her stomach. Not knowing what else to do, she twirled towards the counter slid under it, barely avoiding the pair of hanging pots. She contorted her body into a ball and edged into the center of the cramped space. I hope Leo-nii made it out of sight.
“What do you mean?” one of the six men asked. His icy voice made the skin on her arms feel like the rough side of a sponge.
“I mean what if this Foreign Emperor gets tired of being put off by Prime Minister Bea’s fake meetings and decides to come here directly?” a boyish voice asked.
The Prime Minister was putting the Foreign Emperor off? He could come there? How soon until he arrived?
“Then we kill him,” the first voice said. “Would be nice to have something other than walking around to do.”
A heavy pressure closed in on Rio’s chest, and the pots hanging from the counter’s edges spun. Faster and faster. She was going to pass out. The Foreign Emperor … . This couldn’t be happening. If the Foreign Emperor were coming here, they would all die. Didn’t these fools know how dangerous he was? He was a monster. A horrible monster. He killed everything in his wake and left nothing behind. Each inhalation wheezed through her contracting throat.
Was she still breathing? Nothing seemed to reach her lungs. She was suffocating.
The first voice growled before something thwapped against the counter top just above her. “This whole business is driving me insane! Come. Let’s finish this waste-of-time patrol so we can go upstairs to the bar and grab a drink.”
“Yes, sir,” the five other men said.
Feet appeared in front of her. Sneakers. Bare, near-hairless shins.
The Foreign Emperor is here! She opened her mouth to scream.
Leo bent down and reaching between the hanging pots, placed his hand over her mouth. The power-forged steel of his plated-gauntlet was cold yet soft against her skin. “Quiet,” he said in a hushed voice. “The Foreign Emperor isn’t here. They were just talking about what-ifs.”
She lunged from her hiding spot, lucky not to hit any pots, and wrapped her arms around his neck as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Leo-nii. Leo-nii, I —”
“Shhhhh. It’s alright.” He wrapped his arms around her and patted her on the back. “I’m here for you now. No need to worry.”
She sniffled. “But —”
“No buts. Just calm down and relax. We have a job to do. Be professional or getting out with that flash drive won’t be easy.”
After wiping her tears away, she pulled away from the comforting hug. “You’re right.” I really hope this job is worth a lot of money. She sucked on her upper lip. I should have paid attention to the details.
Leo straightened and offered her his hand.
Shaking her head, she stood on her own and pointed to the door. “I’m fine now.”
“Okay?” He shrugged then walked through the far door on the right. He crept through the lounge attached to the kitchen and the dark bedroom attached to the lounge. Once again in a hallway, he looked left then right before scratching his chin.
Was he lost already?
“Follow me.” He turned right then left at the next intersection. With three doors close together on their left and a towering door on their right, they moved towards the sharp left in the hallway ahead of them.
Footsteps from behind.
Opening the last of the three doors on their left, Leo gestured inside as the footsteps grew louder.
Rio blinked. “Why a closet?”
He stepped inside. “Just get in here.”
Sighing, she joined him in the closet.
Once he clicked the door shut, he caressed her hands.
“If you’re thinking of doing something perverted like touching my lips again … .” Frustration ground her teeth together, and she shook her fist under his nose. “I —”
Leo grinned. “Sorry. Just trying to bring the real you out.”
“I don’t have to be angry or frustrated to be strong.”
“No, I —”
“I know they must do it,” a familiar female voice — Juri, the rent-a-guard from the flower garden — said from the hallway, “Wait. What are you eating?”
“I’m not —” Slap! Funa, Juri’s partner, grunted. “What did you do that for?”
“Because you’re eating while we’re on the clock,” she said.
“It’s just a stupid temp job.” He made a smacking sound. “Besides. I’m not eating anything.”
“Gum? How many times have I told you not to chew gum at work?” She sounded angry.
But why would anyone care if someone were chewing gum?
Several other footsteps followed Funa and Juri then the large group divided into two, moving off in different directions. One of the groups passed the closet.
After counting to fifty, Leo opened the door and peeked outside. “Clear.”
“Let’s get the flash drive and get out of here.” Rio shivered. “This place is starting to tap-dance across my skin with insect legs.”
“Me, too.” He hesitated when he stepped into the hallway, facing the direction they had been heading in.
“Leo-nii?” she asked.
“Got it. I know —” His voice cracked. “— the way.” He followed the curve in the hallway to the left and broke into a run, stopping at a dead end. He opened a door on his right and entered a stairwell.
Another flight of stairs up. Outside the stairwell, a long corridor stretched from dead end to dead end with several intersections between. There was a door right across from them.
Leo turned right then left at the first intersection. After passing through four more intersections, he opened the first door on his right. Another stairwell, and up they went.
I wish I knew why this house’s layout was so needlessly complicated. Though, with Leo and his memory leading us … . A giddy smile tugged at the edges of Rio’s mouth. Only two more floors. They were so close she could taste the strawberries of victory, overwhelming the sour gunk of fear and the stringy garbage of cat.
Stepping out of the next stairwell, Leo glanced around the hallway. “Hmmm.” He strode to the door across the hallway and opened it, proceeding upstairs again.
Last floor. Soon, they’d be able to put a huge dent in their debt. Maybe enough to give her the courage to find Zack and confess her feelings to him. That would … be wonderful.
Tsking, Leo froze in the hallway outside the stairwell. “I — No. This way.” He turned left then left again once he reached the end of the long hallway.
At the end of the next stretch, a wide open space spread out in front of them with a statue of a man strangling a bird in the middle of the area. Or maybe he was releasing the bird. Tapestries, like on the first floor, covered the far wall. To the left, another statue Rio couldn’t make out down the hallway.
Leo strode into the open space and moved to the door on the right.
The final stairwell.
Rio exhaled in relief, tension bleeding from her shoulders. Safe. She followed him up the final flight of stairs.
Just outside the stairwell was a wall painted with men and women in awkward positions. So … perverted.
Rio covered her eyes, peeking through her fingers only one time. Well, two times. Just what are they supposed to be doing?
“Come on.” Leo dragged her into an expansive room with two massive bar-counters on both sides of the room, the shelves behind the bars covered by bottles of liquor.
The plush carpet underfoot made her feel guilty for wearing her sneakers inside. In the corners of the room, there were glass door fridges filled with beer, and several couches strewn throughout the open space in the center. Three doors on the other side of the room faced them. Which one would lead them to the flash drive?
“Of the three?” Rio moved around Leo and approached the door in the center.
She spun on her heels and put her hands on her hips. “What is wrong with you? Didn’t Yuuki-sensei teach us not to use such foul language?” She should punch him in the gut. She clenched her hands into fists. No, she would have to punish him for using that word later.
Face turning red, he rubbed the back of his head as if he were the younger twin rather than the older. “Sorry. It’s just. Just. In the layout of this house, according to our client, there should only be one door from this room.”
Leo opened his mouth.
Rio shook her fist under his nose. “I’m forgetting what you said a moment ago, but if you say another bad word … .”
His mouth snapped shut.
“Good.” She glanced over her shoulder at the staircase behind them and relaxed her hands. “Let’s go back and see if we can find the right —”
Footsteps echoed up the staircase. All three doors on the other side of the room slammed open. Guards poured into the room, surrounding Rio and Leo. By their lack of auras, all were Untalented, but each carried a thin, black club.
Gut clenching, Rio wanted to swear for the first time in her life. No. That was wrong. Instead, she balled her hands back into fists and prepared to fight.