Friday, October 31, 2014

Nano Wrimo 2014

Chapter 1 finished. Over 2,700 words. Going to start working on chapter 2 now.

Please enjoy chapter 1.

Chapter 1 (A quick break in)

            Despite the late hour, the cicadas screamed into the night, and Rio swallowed. Does this mean we’ll have bad luck tonight? And why are those noisy monsters even out in June?
            A heavy summer wind rustled the bush she hid in on the edge of the park, several branches picking at her dark-green tank top and exposed skin. They prodded more and more until they tangled in her shoulder-length hair. The constant poking tickled and sent icy chills down the back of her thighs.
            She should have tied her hair back. Focus! As she glared at the top floor of the fifty-eighth prime minister’s six-story house, her heart pounded in her chest. Was robbing the most-powerful, Untalented person in Japan really a good idea?
            Across the street, the large stone wall surrounding the prime minister’s house stretched to the sidewalk. According to the reports from their pack and how off-center the six-story house was, each side other than the main entrance held a garden between the wall and the house. Guards, too. There would have to be guards outside the walls, as well. Where were they? Could they see her or her brother?
            Her breath caught.
            Run. Run! Hide!
            She dug her foot into the dirt and glanced over her shoulder, muscles tense.
            Did the guards patrol the park? A flash of light stung the corner of her eye, drawing her attention.
            Her head jerked to the left.
            The convenience store on the other side of the park glowed in the night, neon lights reflecting off the wind chime that hung above the doors. The lamp-posts spastically positioned throughout the park cast shadows in every direction. Guards could be anywhere. But nothing moved.
            A sigh deflated her chest, and she inhaled, filling her lungs with the thick, humid air. Maybe her gut was right. Maybe she should run. But their debt … . Sweat beaded across her skin, and a lump caught in her throat.
            In front of her, Leo — her twin brother — peeked around a park bench and tapped his foot. His short, black hair bristled with perspiration, and his navy t-shirt clung to his muscled back. Unlike hers, his shorts reached his knees. He lifted his left hand, plated-gauntlet catching the light, and he waved for her to come forward.
            On trembling legs, she edged from the bush and made her way to the park bench. “Are you sure he’s not home?”
            Leo nodded, dark brown eyes — a shade lighter than hers — never leaving the target. “The other members of our pack said he took most of his guards — the Talented ones — to meet with this New Emperor.”
            Her lips quivered. 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. Icky. But, if a touch felt like this, what would kissing a boy be like? Leo? No. Double no. He shouldn’t have touched her. Not like that. Though, he was cute. In another’s eyes, at least. No. The one she wanted to kiss was Zack, her teacher from a few years back. Strong. Handsome. Kind. He —
            Leo coughed before replacing his gauntlet. “Focus, Rio.”
            “Soon, the guards patrolling should pass by. Outside and inside the wall.”
            Her hands brushed past a small Hello Kitty bag tied to the back of her stolen leather belt then caressed the power-forged daggers strapped in sheaths at her sides. “Will we —”
            “No. When the ones on the outside are out of sight, swallow a cat into socket five.” He brushed his armored fingers across the orbed necklace around his neck. A deep breath later, he touched his pelvis where the fifth slot rested inside his body. “It should give us enough speed and lift to clear that wall with ease.”
            “But wouldn’t it be better to use a crow?”
            “No. The crow’s flight wouldn’t get us over the wall fast enough, and we should save it for our escape.”
            Leo-Nii is so smart. With him around, the fear stabbing into her gut vanished.
            A group of Untalented guards wearing suits in spite of the heat marched along the sidewalk outside of the wall. One of the guards outside the wall kicked a small stone like a soccer ball. Clang! The rock hit one of the lamp posts. The second guard elbowed the first and shook his head as they turned the corner with the kindergarten across the street.
            Rio glanced to her right towards the corner with another convenience store — probably a seven-eleven, but she couldn’t be sure since she wasn’t wearing her glasses or socketing an animal in her first slot.
            Shuffling footsteps behind the wall grew louder before diminishing. A fancy-looking red car drove past the road then all fell quiet save for the noisy cicadas trying to find a mate.
            Leo held his hand up and made a fist. Time to dance. He sucked the spirit of a cat from his orbed necklace and swallowed it into his fifth socket. His hair gave off a faint blue light — his power residue. A translucent alley cat, the size of a large hamster, appeared around his waist, walking on the air as if it were solid ground. It phased through the park bench without concern and continued its stroll around his body.
            She reached out with her mind and embraced the orb holding the spirit of a cat. As long as the orb touched her skin, she could suck the spirit from it. She inhaled, swallowing the cat spirit. The aftertaste of stringy, unsalted meat stuck to her tongue and carried a hint of rotting garbage. Why did they always have to take the spirits of alley cats? They tasted so disgusting.
            “Meow,” the cat’s spirit said as it fell into her fifth socket.
            Euphoric power surged through her entire body, and the muscles in both her legs bulged, expanding slightly as they facilitated the cat’s borrowed strength. A heartbeat later, her muscles relaxed and returned to their normal size.
            Her usually black hair glowed a bright purple and illuminated the darkness around her. A light only the Talented could see or use to see. She ran her fingers through the shining strands.
            Her translucent alley cat, as large as a fat toy poodle, pranced around her body and made mental noises at her brother’s cat.
            “I’m ready.” Rio breathed through her nose, trying to ignore the lingering taste of cat.
            Leo pointed at the wall. “Go.”
            Ahead of him, she sprinted across the street and leaped over the three-meter wall with a meter to spare. Wind whipped at her hair as she descended, turning in mid-air to land on her tip toes like a ballerina. Or at least how they looked on posters. She had never had the money to see them in person or attend a ballet lesson. A shame, really.
            Her brother’s body crested the wall, and he placed his gauntleted hands atop it, flipping over to land beside her. He panted. “Why is your power output so much greater than mine?”
            She shrugged. “Not sure.”
            After taking the lead, Leo led her through the prime minister’s flower garden and to the backdoor. Silver, English letters along the top of the door and a golden door knocker made her sick.
            How could rich people be so wasteful?
            Clatter! Something metal hit the floor on the other side of the door, and Leo’s hand froze a few centimeters away from the door handle.
            Rio’s heart rate autotuned, and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end.
            This wasn’t good. If the guards stationed at this door weren’t just patrolling, getting inside without making a large racket would be impossible.
            Her feet began shuffling across the stone patio behind Leo while she chewed on her lower-lip.
            Damn cicadas. This was their fault. They brought the bad luck with their early awakening and screaming into the night when they should only be making noise during daylight hours. What was wrong with them?
            Rio opened her mouth.
            “What do you mean you saw something?” a husky, female voice asked from the other side of a flower bush.
            I swear I saw something above the wall just a few minutes ago,” a squeaky male voice said. “I think someone was climbing —”
            “Don’t be stupid,” the female said.
            “Hey! Who are you calling stupid, you little bitch?”
            “You, you lack-witted fool!”
            Smack! The sound echoed through the garden and drew bile into the back of Rio’s throat. They were going to get caught. Guards approaching on the outside. Guards on the inside. This wasn’t good. This was terrible. This was —
            Leo grabbed Rio by the wrist and pushed the door open.
            A large metal vase lay sprawled across the fancy-looking blue and green carpet. It looked like it was some kind of picture, but the design didn’t make any sense. Pictures and wall-hangings lined both walls, most of old men and old men doing boring things. One had a man writing. Another had a man sitting on what had to be a toilet.
            Rio covered her mouth as she began chuckling. Okay. That one was funny.
            The others near the entryway resembled the first though, so nothing else interesting.
            Click. The door shut behind them, and Leo motioned down the hallway. “We need to hurry.”
            Nodding, Rio fell into step behind him, dancing between steps on the balls of her feet and using the cat’s grace to avoid making any sound.
            Left around a corner. Right at the next intersection. Cut through a massive kitchen area. Mumbling voices on the other side of the door leading out of the kitchen. The door handle turned and began to swing open.
            Rio twirled.
            Leo skidded to a stop.
            The voices grew louder, six men. Further and further the door opened.
            Her hands trembled, and she pranced across the room and slid under a counter. She contorted her body into a ball and edged into the small space behind a pair of hanging pots. I hope Leo-Nii made it out of sight. She swallowed and bent her wrist backwards, reaching for the hilt of one of her daggers.
            “What do you mean?” one of the six men asked. His icy voice turned the skin on her arms into the rough side of a sponge.
            “I mean what if this Foreign Emperor gets tired of getting put off by Prime Minister Bea and decides to come here directly?” A slightly boyish voice said.
The prime minister was putting the Foreign Emperor off? He could come there? How soon would he be there?
            “Then we shoot him,” the first voice said.
            A heavy pressure closed in on her chest, and she began panting. This couldn’t be happening. If the Foreign Emperor were coming here, they would all die. He was a monster. He killed everything in his wake and left nothing behind. Each inhalation wheezed through her contracting throat, and the pots in front of her spun.
            Was she still breathing? Nothing seemed to reach her lungs. She was suffocating. But. But maybe it was for the best. To suffocate to death rather than fall prey to the horrors of the Foreign emperor.
            Whimpering cries climbed from her quivering lips, and one of the pots in front of her made a clicking sound.
            “Stop,” the first voice said. “Did you hear that?”
            “No?” all five other men asked.
            The first voice screamed before a thwaping sound slammed against the counter above her. “This whole business is driving me insane! Come. Let’s finish our rounds so we can grab a drink.”
            “Yes, sir,” the five other men said.
            The muscles in Rio’s legs twitched. She needed to run. To escape. With her cat-enhanced muscles, she should be able to outrun everyone here and get to freedom before that monster the Foreign Emperor arrives. She had to go. She couldn’t sit like this anymore. She. She. She. She couldn’t force her legs to move. No. She needed to hurry. This was no time —
            Feet appeared in front of her.
            Too late! He was already here. Doomed. Her life was over. Torture and death for a future. Pain for the present. Never even kissed a boy. Why hadn’t she kissed Zack when she had the chance? Because he was her teacher? Because he was too cute? Or his abusive girlfriend? It didn’t matter now.
            She screamed.
            Leo bent down and placed his hand over her mouth, muffling her voice. “Quiet. The Foreign Emperor isn’t here. They were just talking about what ifs.”
            She lunged from her hiding spot and wrapped her hands around his neck as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Leo-Nii. Leo-Nii, I —”
            “Shhhhh. It’s alright now.” 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.”
            After wiping her tears away, she pulled away from the comforting hug. “You’re right.”
            He offered her his hand.
            Shaking her head, she pointed to the door. I’m too old to hold hands like that with you, Leo-Nii. “We need to be agile.”
            “Okay?” He shrugged then walked from the kitchen. He scratched his chin.
            Was he lost already?
            “There are two staircases to the sixth-floor, and neither are the main staircase in the house.” He turned right and hurried through a series of small rooms.
            Footsteps down the hallway.
            Taking the right split the corner and opening the first door on his left, Leo gestured inside the closet as the footsteps grew louder. “Stop wasting time,” he said in hushed tones.
            Rio blinked the rushed into the closet beside him. “Sorry.”
            The door slid shut.
            “I know they must,” a familiar female voice — the one from the garden — said from the hallway, “I mean what are you eating, Funa?”
            “I’m not —” Funa grunted. The man who was also outside in the garden. “What did you do that for, Juri?”
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
            “Oh, you mean this.” He made a smacking sound. “It’s just gum.”
            “How many times! Have I told you! Not to chew gum at work?” She sounded angry, but something was a bit off about it.
            Why would anyone care if someone were chewing gum?
            Several other footsteps followed Funa and Juri then divided, moving off in different directions.
            After counting to one-hundred, Leo opened the door and peeked outside. “Clear.”
            “Let’s get this research data and get out of here.” Rio shivered. “This place is starting to tap-dance across my skin.”
            “Me, too.” He hesitated when he stepped into the hallway, sucking on his upper-lip.
            Something was wrong.
            “Leo-Nii?” she asked.
            “Got it.” He turned to the left and fell into a run down the hallway, passing the corridor they had just come through. Four turns later, he led her into a dark stairwell and up six flights of stairs. He made the right choice.
            Though, didn’t he say there were two staircases that led to the sixth floor? No matter. He knew the directions. This had to be the right one.
            Just outside the staircase was an expansive room with two massive couches in and several drink shelves along the side walls. The three doors on the other side of the room called her name, but which one would lead to the research data? Or at least the flash-drive that held the research data. The plush carpet underfoot made her feel guilty for wearing her sneakers inside.
            “Which door should we take?” Rio moved around Leo and approached the door in the center.
            Leo cursed.
            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 language?”
            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 plans I was told about, there should only be one door leaving from this room. Plus it looks a bit too big.”
            “So, we took the wrong staircase?”
            “It seems so.”
            “I guess we have to retrace our steps.”
            “It might not be so easy. Especially if —”
            Clack-clack-clack. Footsteps echoed up the staircase. Crack-crack-crack. All three doors on the other side of the room slammed open. By the taste of their auras, Untalented guards poured into the room, surrounding Rio and Leo. Luckily, every guard held clubs and knifes. No guns. But still … .


Chapter 2

Monday, October 20, 2014

Looking for Beta Readers

So, this is my second book in my urban fantasy world, but it's a standalone. It's 28 chapters and 102k words.

I'd like to have some readers go through the whole manuscript and give me reader comments while letting me know if something didn't make sense. Below is the first chapter of BURNING POTATOES FOR THE GLORY OF PEACE aka Burning for short. If it interests you, please leave a comment, email me travis(dot)sullivan(at)gmail(dot)com or tag me in a twitter message @pranabowjake

If you have any comments or suggestions, please leave comment below.

I look forward to meeting new readers and hearing everyone's response.

In a few days, I'll write a blurb for it and ask for more readers, but for now, if you like this opening, please get in touch.

Chapter 1 (Jerked into trouble)

            Crack! John’s white cellphone snapped in half as he flipped it open.
            The screen-half bounced off the steps leading into Higashi-Washinomiya station and landed beside the red postbox.
            “Fuck!” he said to himself, wincing when he heard his voice carry through the empty streets of this backcountry area — well, backcountry as far as Japan was concerned. In truth, it reminded him of the main stretch on Moffet Road back in Alabama.
            Clean air. Brisk wind despite the summer heat. No towering buildings. The worst place ever. Being here set his teeth to grinding, and when the clouds dashed forward, the sun reflected from his cellphone screen into his eyes.
            Squinting, John spiked the panel half of his cellphone then stomped on the screen. Now how am I going to ask — No! I’ll do it in person. Can’t back out now. Though, it would have been nice to grab some food before going to the gym tonight.
            The handful of people moving towards the train station avoided looking at him so hard it felt like they were staring.
            What was there problem? Just because he was a foreigner … .
            Sighing, he climbed the steps into the station, and forgetting to slouch, he busted his head on the doorframe. A jolt of pain drew his shoulder blades together. He yelled and stomped several times.
            After being in Japan for so long, you’d think ducking through doors would be automatic.
            He rubbed his head and wondered why the doorframes weren’t at least a few inches higher. Japanese people weren’t that short. And this door would have been troublesome for anyone just over six-feet, much less him. Starting forward again, he pulled out his wallet and touched it to the ticket gate.
            The ticket gate read the Suica — a train pass — inside his wallet then dinged.
            As he moved towards the men’s bathroom, a middle-aged cleaning lady stepped out with a bucket in one hand and a mop in the other. She wore her brown hair — a bit darker than his own — in a bun. Just like his mother. His mother … .
            John’s heart slammed into his chest, and he gasped. His hands trembled.
            His mother appeared in his mind. Suddenly, a sneer contorted her lips.
            A choking sensation washed over him.
            His mother growled.
            John’s muscles slacked. He reached towards the nightstand beside his bed and patted its smooth surface. Why had he come home to visit her? Love? Because he missed her? She had always been such a kind and caring mother, but —
            Something cold rested under his hand. Something hard. Something sharp.
            He killed the memory and turned away from the bathroom. Why? Violent shakes contorted his joints. No! Focus on today! After wiping the tears from his cheeks, he stumbled over to the escalator then rode it to the second platform.
            Dozens of people crowded the Utsunomiya-line platform where the trains bound for Tokyo stopped. Buzzing conversations riddled the air. The musty stink of Japanese salary-men and their inability to use deodorant made John gag.
            By moving closer to the tracks and away from the smell, John tried to hold down the rice-ball he had eaten earlier. He closed his eyes. More than anything right now, he needed to relax. Have a peaceful day. Something ticked in his head. His stomach felt like it was on fire, and it turned. Breathe! In through the nose. Out from the mouth. Don’t puke. Calm! Once his stomach settled, he opened his eyes.
            Gray stones littered the train tracks, standing out among the brown ones.
            What were those for? And why had he never seen them before now?
            Something pulled at him. A hunger. The gray stones pulsed — thumped like a beating heart. They called out to him.
            In order to inspect them further, he leaned forward. Maybe I could grab —
            “You can see them? Fucking wonderful,” a youthful voice from behind John said in Japanese. The voice carried the vowels a bit too long.
            Was I thinking aloud again? John spun.
            A Japanese man more than half a foot shorter than John stood there. The man’s odd white shirt with countless pockets covering it stood out against the black suit he wore, jacket unbuttoned. On closer inspection, the pants also had the same, strange pockets, and blood ran down the left half of his jacket. Following the trail up, red matted his gray hair which contrasted his smooth, child-like face. The man sighed then moved closer John.
            The stench of burning potatoes filled the air.
            John’s upper-lip curled, and he scrubbed his tongue across his teeth. Who’s cooking potatoes up here? And why?
            The man’s eyes shifted from brown to a shade of red that matched John’s then began to glow despite the daylight.
            “W-why?” John stumbled backwards, nearly slipping off the platform. “Why are y-your eyes g-g-glowing?”
            “So, seeing the stones wasn’t a fluke.” The man grunted. “At least you speak Japanese.”
            At a loss for words, John nodded.
            “But for someone to awaken here? Right in front of me?” The man spat before caressing the welt on the side of his head. “And a foreigner at that.”
            “No time to explain now. I have to teach those double-crossing bastards a lesson. Two part.” The man grabbed him by the arm. “Don’t puke on me like the last foreigner I met in a station. That dirty Picasso … .” A highlighter-thick, blue cable extended from his stomach and passed through the steel beam holding up the roof over the platform. The transparent cable touched one of the gray stones.
            The world lurched. John’s stomach twisted, and his rice-ball came up. While colors and shapes passed by in a blur, the splatter of vomit echoed in the distance like a soft whisper. Wind ripped at his ears. Station after station disappeared behind him. Then, everything became still.
            The man released John’s arm somewhere outside Omiya station, the largest train station in the area.
            John fell to his knees. “What —” He coughed. “— just happened.”
            “Come.” The man gestured towards McDonalds. “We must prepare for the job.”
            “Who — better yet, what are you?”
            The man shrugged. “The same as you … just older.” He grinned. “Call me Hyuga.”
            John’s mouth went dry. “I … .” His voice cracked. Should probably run away from him, but how? He pushed himself to his feet, knees shaking. If I don’t get away and rest, I’ll be stiff at kickboxing, and Ami will kick my ass. I might even lose to Keisuke, but I doubt it. “I —”
            “Come on.”
            “McDonalds? Really?”
            “We need — What is the easiest way to explain it to foreigners? Ah. — fuel.
            Hyuga laughed. “I’ll explain once we sit down to eat.” He patted John on the back.
            John stumbled forward, and his knees buckled.
            Hyuga reached out and grasped onto John’s shoulder, keeping John from falling face first into the street. “Besides, you need to get your bearings before we do anything.”
            “Ha!” That’s putting it lightly.
            Dragging John behind him with a firm grip, Hyuga marched into McDonalds. With a straight face, he ordered ten large french fries and nothing else. The clerk arched an eyebrow while still managing to avoid looking at the blood covering him.
            John rubbed at his throat. “Water, too … please.”
            Hyuga sighed as if the free water cost him a trip to Tokyo Disney Sea. “I guess I’ll take a water as well.” Once the ten large french fries had been piled atop two trays, he gestured for John to come with him upstairs.
            John followed with a hesitant step. Strength slowly returned to his knees, and by the time he reached the second floor, he felt like he could make a run for it. Though, it would be best to hear the old — young — man out. Mountain climbing class didn’t start until seven, and anything to keep his mind off asking Haru out was welcome.
            While his head jerked back and forth, Hyuga edged forward into the dining room. “Over there.” He pointed to the far corner in the smoking section.
            “Do you smoke?”
            “Then why not —” John gestured towards a table on his left. “— here?”
            “Too many people to hear what I have to say.”
            “Oh … .” Maybe I shouldn’t wait to hear him out.
            Hurry up. Time is not our ally.” Hyuga strolled into the smoking section and took the outer seat facing the wall.
            John sat and wondered how bad Hyuga wanted to keep John around — there was no doubt in John’s mind about Hyuga’s ability to keep John if desired. A quick run down the stairs and into the station could get John lost in a crowd. But for some reason, excitement raced through his veins, and he wanted to know more. More about these powers. More about himself. Though, he may have to sacrifice his shot at Haru if it takes too long. Excuses. Stupid excuses. Chicken. He —
            “John?” Hyuga’s voice carried a hint of concern. “Are you alright? Not talking to any new voices that appeared after awakening, are you?”
            “Of course not.” John glared at the pile of french fries in front of him. “I’m not crazy.” Like you.
            Hyuga sighed. “Wonderful news.”
            John arched an eyebrow.
            Stuffing his mouth with french fries, Hyuga chewed once then swallowed. “Not important. Though, eating those potatoes is.”
            “Because we Chefs need them to power our abilities.”
            “What part of awakened do you not understand?”
            “All of it?”
            Hyuga chuckled. “I see. Well, a Chef Is the type of power-user we are. It means our five points of interest are potatoes, our Stomach-Fridges, our Stomach-Ovens, our Links and infused items.”
            “That makes perfect sense.”
            “Really? I guess I’m getting better at —”
            “No, not really.” John slapped himself in the forehead. Japanese people just didn’t understand sarcasm. “By perfect sense, I mean it made absolutely no sense.”
            “Ah. A foreigner joke?”
            “Racist much?”
            “A bit. Your people — Never mind.”
            “While I talk, you eat.”
            “Okay … .”
            “As a Chef, you’ll have to consume potatoes and store them in your Stomach-Fridge in order to use your abilities. Your body will do this automatically, so you don’t have to worry about it. However, eating potatoes will never fill your belly. If it’s all you eat, you’ll starve.”
            One of the greasy french fries caught in John’s throat, and a fit of coughing pressed his face against the table. Gunk clung to his face, and he had to peel his cheek from the disgusting table.
            Something hard smacked against his back, and the french fry dislodged from his throat.
            Rubbing his eyes, he sat up and swallowed. “Thanks.”
            “Don’t mention it.” Hyuga grabbed another handful of french fries.
            “So, if these won’t fill us up, why didn’t we order anything else?”
            “Because it’s easier for a newly awakened Chef to look into his Stomach-Fridge if the rest of his stomach is empty.
            “I see.” That I’ve been abducted by a madman. A grin tugged at John’s lips, but he suppressed it.
            “Do exactly as I say.”
            John nodded, and following Hyuga’s instructions, John closed his eyes. He reached out with his mind, peering inward at his stomach. It didn’t make sense, but it was better to indulge —
            A large mound of gold appeared in his mental vision.
            “Describe what you see,” Hyuga said.
            “The sun. Shaped like a mountain. Glowing.” John opened his eyes, sure he could still see the mound of gold if he focused. Therefore, closing his eyes was probably not necessary.
            “That is your Stomach-Fridge. The golden mound is your supply of potatoes.”
            “So, I’m really a Chef?”
            “I said so earlier, didn’t I?”
            “Yes … .”
            “I’ll explain the other three things after we visit the securities firm.”
            “I —”
            In silence, they stuffed their face then hurried out of McDonalds and down the road to an expansive, four-story building.
            Why had they come to a securities firm? Did Hyuga need to buy gold? And how much longer would this take? The afternoon was already wasting away.
            John’s stomach growled, but he wasn’t hungry. Not really. Just nervous. He needed to hurry. Time … .
            Just how long would this take?
            If he didn’t make it to the gym tonight, he might never again work up the nerve to ask Haru out. And after what she did to him, it was only right.
            Haru’s beautiful image formed in his mind, and everything else vanished. Long, silky black hair cascading over her incredible breasts. A cute smile and lusty almond eyes. Her face just on the edge of recognition.
            Had he met her before joining the rock-climbing class? Before that night? Fire burned in his lungs, and agony stabbed at his brain. Why did she save him from such a wretched situation in the worst way possible? No matter. He would still ask her out after rock-climbing class. But what was she trying to tell him last week? Did she —
            Hyuga nudged John in the ribs, and reality solidified, killing the memory. While staring at John, Hyuga arched an eyebrow. “You there?”
            John grunted.
            “This is twice now.” Hyuga tugged at one of his breast pockets. “Are you one-hundred percent sure there is no voice?”
            “Anyway.” Hyuga pointed towards a pair of guards on the corner of the red-brick building, the largest securities firm in Saitama. “Them and —” He gestured at a small group of guards who John only now noticed on the far side. “— that group are the only guards they have posted around this entire building.”
            “So?” John narrowed his eyes. He acts like —
            “It means that their security is lax because they have ties to a local branch of the yakuza.”
            A long moment later, John blinked. “You’re planning to ro—”
            Hyuga clamped his hand over John’s mouth. “Not so loud.”
            John nodded.
            Slowly, Hyuga removed his hand.
            Once their conversation settled in, John’s eyes bulged. “Wait, wait, wait.”
            “Yes?” Hyuga smirked.
            “What do you mean yakuza?”
            “Exactly as it sounds.”
            “So, we’re going to r— I mean buy from the yakuza?” I hear they’re worse than the Italian mafia.
            Hyuga’s smile touched his eyes. “You catch on quickly.”
            “But —”
            “It’s only a local branch. Besides, I owe them.” Hyuga moved towards the entrance. “Let’s see what they’re working with.”
            Aghast, John stumbled forward and followed Hyuga into the yakuza-owned securities firm. Why am I still here?
            The answer was simple. Magic. Power. A way to escape his worthless life. Maybe.
            Before they could even step on the plush, pink carpet, a loud chime rang throughout the expansive room. A lavender-like scent clotted the air. Three men in white suits stepped through a door behind the long, glass counter, and they glared at John.
            Did they know? Were they already on to him?
            His heart raced. I should have made a run for after we left McDonalds. I should have, but … .
            Hyuga sauntered up to the counter. “Good afternoon, gentlemen.”
            The one with a golden pompadour like Zack’s friend Keisuke stepped forward. “How may I help you, Mr … ?”
            The man pursed his lips.
            Is his family name really the generic Nakamura? John counted eleven security cameras around the room. I know I’m poor, but am I really going to help him rob this place?
            Hyuga placed his hands onto the counter. “I’m interested in making an investment … one that won’t be damaged by our fluctuating economy. One that won’t be … traced.
            “Then you have come to the right place.” The man glanced at John again. “But why did you bring a foreigner here?”
            Hyuga chuckled. “Don’t you see how big he is? Those defined muscles and that ridged jawline?”
            “Ah. A bodyguard.”
            Hyuga nodded.
            “That makes sense since no one I know likes to push his type around.” The man leaned in close to Hyuga. “So, let us get down to business.”
            “Good.” Hyuga fidgeted with a button on his suit jacket.
            A bodyguard, huh? John puffed out his chest and tried to look as menacing as possible while he strolled around the room. He was checking for danger and found eleven guards posted in the shadowed indentions along the walls. Every time one of them made eye contact with John, his neck or lower-back itched.
            Click-click-click. Hyuga tapped his fingers on the glass counter. “And what is the maximum amount I can buy without having to register it with the government?”
            “One-million yen’s worth.” The man gave Hyuga a toothy grin. “Well, if you give me a day, I’m sure I could get you five times the normal allowance and just keep it between us.”
            After taking a step backwards, Hyuga bowed. “That sounds … perfect.”
            Once the man bowed in return, he waved his hand in the air, and his companions rushed into the back. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow?”
            “Bright and early.”
            “Sounds good.”
            Hyuga clapped his hands and walked out of the building.
            John spun on his heels and followed like — what he suspected — a good bodyguard should do.
            While they walked away, Hyuga patted John on the back. “Tell me about the cameras and guards.”
            Beyond losing my nerve with Haru, if I miss kickboxing tonight, Ami is going to pound my face in. Glancing at Hyuga, John made up his mind. For once in his life, it felt like he had a purpose. He would stay. Despite the loss of opportunity.
            As they walked towards Omiya park, John detailed the layout, guards, cameras and even the strange tingle he had felt across his skin. Hyuga nodded after each detailed explanation.
            Once they made it into a secluded section of the park, Hyuga handed John a feather and pointed to a bench. “Sit. This may take a while.”
            “Alright … .”
            “That’s a feather.”
            “No shit, Sherlock.”
            “Who’s Sherlock?”
            John squeezed the bridge of his nose. “You’re really out of touch.”
            “Because I don’t care about the Ungifted.”
            “Non power-users.”
            “Ah. So, why did you give me a feather?”
            “It’s an infused item.”
            “But what about Stomach-Ovens and Links?”
            “All three go together.” Hyuga scratched his chin.” “I’ve been meaning to ask, but I don’t know a nice way to phrase it. Anyway, who have you killed?”
            My mother … . John’s heart stopped for a long moment, and his eyes bulged. When the next beat came, it felt like a sledgehammer had crashed into his chest. His breaths came in ragged bursts. “N-no one. I-I’ve never killed anyone. W-why w-would you even think something so horrible of me?”
            “I see. It’s just that your eyes are red, and Chefs only gain red eyes if they have killed another Chef.”
            Think. Think. “No. I’m a foreigner.” Yes. Use his racism as an excuse. “Unlike Japanese people, we don’t all have brown eyes.”
            “If you say so. But —”
            “I do! Why is that even important?”
            “Because all Chefs are only born with one Stomach-Oven which creates one Link.” Hyuga clicked his tongue. “The only way to get another Link is to kill another Chef close to you like a friend or a relative.”
            Does that mean — No! Shut up, brain. Focus on the present. On Hyuga. “Does that mean you have more than one Link since your eyes glowed red earlier?”
            John swallowed and took a step back, tripping over the side of the park bench.
            Twigs snapped and leaves crunched under his butt. Something sprinted through the woods behind him, and birds took flight. The pine scented air did nothing for the growing unease in his stomach.
            Scrambling backwards on his hands and feet like a crab, he buried himself halfway into a bush. “You’re going to —”
            Laughing, Hyuga doubled over. He clutched at his ribs. “No. You. Don’t understand. I. Had several. Friends in. The war.” His laughter subsided, and his chest rose and fell as he panted. “Lots of wounds that ensured death, but didn’t bring it instantly. On their behest, I killed them.”
            “So … you’re not going to kill me?”
            “Emperor no! I’m trying to teach you, not harvest you.”
            John climbed to his feet and stumbled over to the park bench, plopping down.
            “Just like when you found your Stomach-Fridge,” Hyuga said, “search for a pulsing heat source. That will be your Stomach-Oven.”
            “Try it with your eyes open.”
            Eyes halfway shut, John grimaced before forcing them to remain open.
            Inside his stomach and near the golden mound rested two black pits. Heat radiated from them and seemed to call out to his Stomach-Fridge. They wanted to be fed. For some reason, he wanted them to be fed.
            Somehow creating a mental shovel, John moved some of the potatoes from his Stomach-Fridge into one of the black pits.
            An inferno raced through his veins. Life! Ecstasy! Goose bumps raced along his arms as the heat from that Stomach-Oven intensified. The soft fabric of his button-up shirt caressed his skin and made him want to cum in his suit pants.
            He wanted to see Haru this very minute. To kiss her. To love her. To return the favor for what she did to him. Suddenly, his teeth ground together, and he found himself growling.
            How dare she do that to him? Making him betray Sara like that. Making —
            Tears filled his eyes as the strong scent of burning potatoes filled the air around him. Everything in front of him blurred and tinged red. Holding his hand out, a deep crimson light bathed his arm.
            A blue cable-like thing extended from his stomach, passing through his arm and the park bench alike. As thick as a five-hundred yet coin, the transparent cable stopped after reaching more than three feet from his middle.
            John moved his hands through it, excitement washing away his tears. “Is this my Link?”
            “Yes.” Hyuga applauded. “It’s amazing you came so far on your own, but you should have embraced the cold before burning.”
            “The cold?”
            “Think of it as a balance to the heat of burning. It’ll allow you to control your emotions better, but you have to embrace it before you burn.”
            “Okay.” John pulled the potatoes from his Stomach-Oven, and nausea punched him in the gut.
            The world lurched.
            He found himself staring into the treetops, clouds spinning like a waterspout.
            Hyuga grabbed John by the forearm and pulled him to his feet. “Careful. If you burn without the cold, the withdrawals will feel worse than any hangover you’ve ever had.”
            John clutched at the side of his head as he sat back on the bench. “I don’t drink.”
            “Beer doesn’t count.”
            “It does, but that’s beside the point.” Hyuga stepped away from John. “Anyway, like you moved the potatoes from your Stomach-Fridge to your Stomach-Oven, imagine your emotions being gathered into a box then seal that box. The more often you do it, the easier it becomes.”
            John closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Like the potatoes in his Stomach-Fridge, he grabbed ahold of his emotions and shoveled them into a mental cage.
            Darkness surrounded him. It whispered of betrayal. His mother. His friends. Coworkers. Students. His heart screamed. Cold. No. Cold did not do this state justice. It was worse than streaking in the South Pole. Like ice fishing with his rod.
            Shivering, John wrapped his arms around his chest. “What is this?”
            Hyuga clapped. “The first half of balance. Color me impressed. Normally, learning to create a balance takes months.”
            In a monotone voice, John said, “What next?”
            Burn while thinking of the Link as a third arm.”
            John found his Stomach-Fridge and burned, tossing several shovelfuls of potatoes into his Stomach-Oven. The inferno buffeted his emotions, searing the mental cage and warming his bones. Peace soothed his muscles, and he rested his hands on his lap. On its own, the Link extended from his middle.
            “Imagine that your arms and legs no longer work,” Hyuga said, The only thing that exists is the Link.”
            “Okay.” John focused on the Link, removing his body from his thoughts. All that existed was the Link. Only the Link. Move.
            Move! The Link jerked back then shot forward. Thinking of it like a new limb, he whipped it through his thighs to see if it would snag under his control.
            It didn’t.
            He reached out with his Link and touched the feather with it, but until he thought, grab the feather, it remained unattached. Once linked, his muscles grew taut. His mind sharpened. He lifted his arm, and it zipped into the air, far quicker than he had expected. Moving quicker than lightning, he jabbed twice. Keisuke and Taisei would be so jealous right now.
            “This is a wonderful development.” Hyuga scratched his palms. “You learn so fast. Now, let’s —”
            “Hey, hey, hey!” a plethora of voices said as one.
            John’s heart thumped, and the Link slipped from his grasp, springing back into his gut. The urge to vomit burned the back of his throat as he pulled the potatoes from his Stomach-Oven. What? Opening the mental cage, the darkness around his emotions — the cold — vanished, and he turned towards the voices. Almost five seconds later, his strength and reactions returned to normal.
            A large group of yankees — Japanese delinquents — approached from the woods. Two held pipes, but the other six didn’t appear to be armed.
            High school? Older? Hard to tell. However old they were, they were clearly looking for a fight.
            Weapons first. John stood and adopted a southpaw, kickboxing stance.
            Hyuga glanced between John and the yankees. “Reestablish your Link with the feather.”
            John ground his rear foot into the dirt. “No time.”
            “You should —”
            “Well, what do we have here?” the biggest yankee with a pipe asked. He lifted a cheap-looking iron pipe and rested it on his shoulder. “Two fools coming into our territory —”
            John burst forward and jabbed the biggest yankee in the throat.
            The pole fell from the yankee’s grasp, and he dropped to the ground, clutching his throat. He writhed in the dirt, gasping.
            While every other yankee gaped, John spun and elbowed the other weapon holder in the jaw.
            The yankee’s grip loosened.
            John snatched the pole from the yankee’s hand and clobbered him atop the head, sending him crashing to the ground. “Two down.” I hope that sounded confident enough to make them hesitate.
            Luck was with John. Each of the yankees took a step backwards.
            Hyuga strolled forward and grabbed the other pole when he passed it. “You should burn —”
            John leaped towards the group of yankees, and the pole bent over the head of the second-biggest as John brought it down with all his might. Five left. “Shut up and help.”
            “No point in arguing now.” A fresh, familiar yet distinct wave of burning potatoes entered the air. With a flick of his wrist, Hyuga felled two in an instant.
            Releasing the bent pole, John slid past the falling man and landed a one-one-two combo on the short, bald-headed yankee.
            The bald yankee stumbled backwards, dazed. His two remaining friends — a green-haired man and a blue-haired one — stepped forward. Their snarling expressions and cocked fists gave away their lack of skill.
            John parried the green-haired one to the left and brought a knee into his gut. After grabbing him by the neck, John twisted and threw the green-haired yankee to the ground.
            The blue-haired yankee charged forward.
            Shoulder first, John leaped towards the blue-haired yankee and crashed into his middle.
            The tackle slammed the blue-haired yankee onto his back. He gasped, and his body went limp.
            Thunk! The abrasive sound of metal on bone reverberated from behind.
            John rolled off of the unconscious man as the bald yankee fell on top of his blue-haired friend, a pole wrapped around his head like an elementary school kid’s hat.
            “That was … beyond impressive.” Hyuga dusted his hands off then helped John stand.
            “Thank you?”
            Hyuga’s brow furrowed.
            “Not going to chide me about leaving my back open?” Like Ami would have?
            Before shaking his head, Hyuga scratched his chin. “Why would I do that? All in all, you took down five of them without burning. As I said, impressive.”
            “But all it takes is one to end me.”
            “That may be so, but I doubt many would have done half as well as you did without a feather.”
            “Is that what you used?” I didn’t see him holding anything in his hand other than that pipe.
            Hyuga opened his jacket and pulled a feather from one of his countless pockets. “Of course. The physical enhancement it grants is beyond useful.”
            John nodded.
            “Shall we get back to preparing for tonight?”
            “Sure, why not?”
            Following Hyuga’s instructions, John linked to the feather in his pants’ pocket, and they sparred. Trading blows. Tightening his Link’s grip on the feather. Moving his Link between two feathers. Each of Hyuga’s orders only took John a few moments to pick it up, but Hyuga insisted he repeat the process over and over until the daylight failed them.
            The moon rose into the sky, and Hyuga massaged his neck. “It’s time.”
            “Are we really going to do this?” John bit into his lower-lip, still not relishing the idea of crossing the yakuza.
            “We have no other choice if I’m to find out who their real boss is.”
            “Then … let’s get this over with.”
            Hyuga led John to the securities firm and around to an alley on the back side. The back half of the building had no windows, doors or anything resembling a ladder that would allow them access to the roof. It was just solid, red brick. With a Love Hotel less than five feet behind him, the stink of sex hung thick in the air. Dried squid. Rotten grapefruit. Roses.
            John ran his fingers across the rough bricks. Even with the enhanced strength of a feather, I doubt we can bust through half a foot of concrete. He licked his lips.
            The stench of spoiled seafood stuck to his tongue.
            He gagged, mind falling back to that night with Haru. Was what she did to him so wrong? Yes? No. She was looking after him, right? He wanted to speak to her. To learn what Keisuke’s girlfriend stopped her from saying. To ask her to do it again. Guilt for dodging her tonight kneed him in the gut. Coward! But if she called him — He killed that line of thought. No cellphone anyways. No! Focus! If anything, he should be thinking about how worried his friends must be, but … .
            Hyuga crept up behind John and placed a hand on his back. “Are you ready to make an undocumented withdrawal?” With the dark sky and lack of street-lights, it was hard to tell what expression marred the elderly youth’s features, but his voice said he was smiling.
            John leaned in close and made sure to whisper. “Unless you have some type of super-laser or stone melting item, I think we should make our way to the other side.”
            “Well … .”
            Really? “You can’t be serious.”
            “I’m always serious. Especially after … .”
            “After what?”
            Hyuga’s coat rustled. “Not important.”
            The clouds freed the moon from their grasp. Its light reflected off something dark-yellow.
            John rubbed at his eyes. Huh?
            Hyuga held a gold coin between two fingers, turning it back and forth. “This is all we need to get in.”
            “Oh … please enlighten me, Master Chef.”
            “More sarcasm?”
            You learn fast.”
            Hyuga‘s eyes blazed alight — shifting from brown to crimson — and the smell of burned potatoes filled the air around them. A sweet, coffee like scent seemed to radiate from his Link.
            Was that part of Hyuga’s distinct scent?
            He grabbed John’s wrist. “Don’t break away from my grip.”
            John swallowed. Why? The question never reached his mouth.
            Hyuga’s Link touched the gold coin. Both of their forms shimmered.
            John’s body became light as if he had transformed into a ghost. “What is —”
            Hyuga stepped through the stone wall and dragged John behind him. A tingling sensation crawled across John’s skin.
            John’s chest heaved, and he gasped for air. He couldn’t believe this was happening. That he was a thief. Or becoming one. Something felt wrong in his bones. He knew no other way of describing the odd sensation.
            They phased through several more walls until they slipped into the vault itself. According to Hyuga, at least. Save for the tiny radius of light created by his glowing eyes, darkness covered the room.
            John found himself looking at his feet. Why didn’t we fall through the floor?
            Their forms shimmered again then returned to normal.
            Hyuga released John’s wrist. “We have to be quick about this.”
            Ka-shh! Something shattered. Then, a click echoed through the darkness, and pale yellow light bathed the room. A deep-yellow dust littered the floor in front of John.
            He looked up at Hyuga.
            Hyuga dusted his hands off. “Gold is the most versatile of the infused items, but it breaks down into dust as soon as your Link breaks contact with it.”
            “Noted. I think —”
            Gold lined the walls in stacks of thin bars higher than John was tall.
            John’s mouth fell open.
            The square stacks were arranged in neat rows that filled the circular room like half-constructed pillars. Along the back wall of the vault, dull-green safety deposit boxes rested on shelves.
            The air fled from his lungs. If my friends knew what I was doing … . If we get caught in here … . If … . Jail. Dead. The yakuza. His mind blanked.
            So. Much. Gold.
            Hyuga pulled out a pair of large, brown bags. “Link to your feather and fill this bag to the brim.”
            In a trance, John nodded then burned, instinctively finding the cold beforehand. “Are. Doing this?”
            “Stop being such a baby.” Hyuga threw bar after bar into his bag. “It’s not like we’re stealing from someone reputable.”
            “I. I. I guess. You’re right.”
            Hyuga groaned. “Grow up, John. You have work to do.”
            John chewed on his lower-lip. “Okay.” He didn’t move for a long moment. When his fingers wrapped around an icy bar of gold, his entire body trembled. “Hyuga —”
            Chee-chee-chee-chee-chee-chee! The alarm roared.
            Choking on his tongue, John nearly jumped out of his skin.
            “Fuck! Too soon.” Hyuga turned and stared at John’s empty bag. “I had high hopes for you. We could have brought true peace to this world, but if you can’t handle a situation like this —” A second Link extended from Hyuga’s stomach and reached into a pouch at his waist. “— you will be more hindrance than help.”
            “What are you saying?” John’s teeth chattered.
            “I’m going to give you some time to think about your future. About the future of the world. Our kind. Some time to harden for what’s to come.
            “Time to —”
            Hyuga dashed through the wall. The alarm blared louder.
            John’s heart thumped, and a sharp pain exploded in his chest. He dropped the brown bag and ran to the section of the wall Hyuga had run through. “Why?” While pounding against the wall, tears rolled down John’s cheeks. “Why?” He placed his back to the wall then slid to the ground and cried into his hands.