"So there we were on Mucenici with no reteta mucenici moldovenisti." Arihan's silver incisors flashed in the firelight as he smiled around at the group.
Asha blinked. "Moo che knee—what?"
Dhevan entered the garden and lowered himself to the ground next to Lexi, his metal foot scraping along the dirt as he straightened his leg. "See? You're confusing them again. If you want to tell a story, it has to make sense. Otherwise there's no point."
Asha looked around at her friends surprised smiles.
Dhevan had finally condescended to join in the conversation.
Normally, he would spend the night silently reading a book by the firelight. And then as soon as the sky began to lighten Dhevan would slam his book closed and leave the garden, complaining that Arihan had 'spent the night making shit up again' and, grumbling about babysitting.
Lexi raised her hand. "Mucenici, the Romanian dessert?"
"Exactly, Hewitt," Arihan said. "See? They're not confused."
"I'm confused," said Nidhan. "You guys trained in Romania? Like, Dracula Romania?"
Arihan crossed his massive arms over his chest. "Will you let me tell the story, or not?"
Asha still wasn't used to seeing the Tvastars in shirts. Ever since they'd arrived at Hong Kong Headquarters, the normally shirtless weapons-creators had been forced to leave the heat of the forgery each Wednesday night and join the Trainees around the bonfire while the rest of the instructors attended meetings in Macau.
Hong Kong Headquarters sat hidden within one of the cities hillside vertical cemeteries, civilians kept out by the illusion of a crumbling ravine, seeing only moss-covered forgotten headstones sinking into the earth.
Asha looked forward to their lazy Wednesdays, telling stories around the crackling flames while they ate snacks, the dazzling view of Hong Kong Island at their feet, Kowloon across the water in the distance, shining like so many scattered jewels.
She watched Aquila shake his head at something Kelakha said as Ursala leaned toward him, and tried not to laugh as the three boys made the same rude hand-gesture.
Are you going to come sit with me or spend the whole night arguing?
Aquila's turned his head, his eyes finding hers in the darkness, and Asha felt her heart leap as a dazzling smile lit his face. Kelakha and Ursala spread their arms in protest as he rose with easy grace and crossed the garden to sit behind her, wrapping her in his arms. Asha leaned against him with a sigh.
'Lakha thinks he can convince Chakori to put us back on active duty and Ursala wants to force Uma to change her mind by doing something stupid to prove they need us.
And what do you think?
I think I'm sick of their whining. He kissed her neck, his lips like soft feathers, and Asha caught her breath. And there's no place I'd rather be.
"Asha," snapped Lexi. "You were the one who asked Arihan to tell this story. At least listen, for fuck's sake."
The others hadn't stopped their card game. Freya and Hua Tseng laughed at Wei Feng's expression as his cards changed from a royal flush to a pair of threes. Ariella and Bao Chen threatened to quit the game. Hua Tseng shrugged, throwing her cards down and turning toward the fire.
"We want to hear this story anyway," the Illusionists declared in unison, and Freya tossed her cards at Ariella with a laugh.
The Illusionist turned to Arihan. "It's how you got your scars and Dhevan lost his foot, right?"
Arihan inclined his head at her. "That it is."
Kelakha and Ursala came to sit on either side of Asha, pointedly ignoring Aquila behind her, and everyone turned their attention to Arihan.
"As I was saying," Arihan began. "It was Mucenici, the ninth of March, and there we were, with no Mucenici, which, anyone who's been to Brasov knows, has to be eaten fresh. The situation was unacceptable."
Ariella turned to Dhevan. "He's making shit up again just to mess with us, right?"
Dhevan shook his head, smiling at the fire.
Arihan motioned everyone forward. "Gather around, my friends, and listen to my cautionary tale of high adventure and gore. I promise you will not be disappointed."
"But you'll most likely be confused," said Dhevan.
"First, the secondary hero of our story will recite for you a list of brief and mind-numbingly boring historical facts."
Dhevan shot him a dark look, then cleared his throat. "Brasov is a fairly small city in Romania where a number of us completed training. Headquarters looks down from Tampa mountain onto the old city, hidden within an Illusion of trees. Mucenici is a traditional holiday of Romania and Moldova. It's a feast, celebrating the forty martyrs of Sebaste. A time for remembrance of Christians who refused to give up their faith. They were tortured and drowned by Emperor Licinius somewhere around 320AD, or so. Reteta Mucenici Moldovenisti is a dessert made in the shape of a figure 8, symbolizing the human figures of the martyrs. Every March ninth, people pay homage to them, celebrate the spring, clean out their homes, burn trash in the streets, thought in olden times to bring heat back to the earth, they eat and—"
"All right, all right, they get the point," Arihan said. "You're putting them to sleep."
Lexi raised a hand. "Is that really what happened to them, the forty martyrs I mean, or was it Underworlders?"
Dhevan shrugged his massive shoulders. "Who knows? There's nothing in the books. And believe me, we checked."
Arihan made a sweeping gesture with one massive arm. "So! Imagine if you will, a group of extraordinarily striking youths, much like yourselves, only much more so." Arihan grinned at them. "And like yourselves, we had endured months of training during which we were forced to eat only the healthiest, most wholesomely distasteful food. But, unlike you, we had once experienced the syrupy, lemon-zesty, walnut-covered deliciousness that is a freshly baked, drizzled with honey—mucenici."
He turned to Nidhan. "Just knowing the dessert was out there, just a short stroll down the hill away, growing colder and staler with each passing minute...it was truly unbearable."
Lexi rolled her eyes, hugging Nidhan's arm and leaned on his shoulder.
Dhevan tapped his false foot with a jagged knife. As Asha watched, the metal flashed in the firelight, and the carving of the screaming demon seems to come alive.
He pointed the knife at Arihan and smiled around at the group. "Uma told him he couldn't get into town and back without any of the Masters noticing."
"Yeah. That too. And you decided to prove her wrong about Tvastars so she'd declare her undying love for you once and for all."
Everyone froze, waiting for Dhevan to react with a violence he seemed more than capable of but he just laughed, studying his carved-foot with apparent pride.
"Love," he said. "Never has there been a force more potent to motivate brainless, idiotic action."
Ursala shifted uncomfortably next to Asha. "This isn't a story about how you and mom hooked up, is it? 'Cause if it is, I can go dig a ditch or something."
Asha elbowed him in the ribs, and Lexi snapped, "The next person to interrupt gets my laundry duty."
"Thank you Hewitt," Arihan poked at the fire with a stick.
"You can't just arbitrarily decide to give people your laundry duty," Nidhan told Lexi and she scowled, then leaned into him, whispering something that made him laugh.
Asha called, "Who's not paying attention now?"
Arihan threw a log the size of a grown man onto the fire and sparks erupted into the dark sky. "It's a twenty minute walk from Headquarters down Tampa to Town Hall Square. From there you take a shortcut through Strada Sforii and then over one street to a little restaurant called Carne Si Dulciuri."
"Meats and Sweets." Dhevan smiled, shaking his head.
Wei Feng raised a hand. "What is a straata sfour-dee?"
"Rope street. The smallest street in the world or something, it's like a super narrow alley. Dim and cobblestoney. A person can reach out and actually touch the buildings on either sides. We barely fit through the damn thing."
Dhevan flipped his knife around in his hand. "The street is about four feet wide. It was originally built for firemen, but has now become a tourist attraction."
"Okay, no more boring facts, yaar. Seriously. You're not contributing to the excitement of the tale."
Dhevan made a gesture with his knife that Asha had never seen, and Nidhan laughed.
Arihan waved him off like a pesky fly and leaned forward, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "After a heated argument with Uma and Chakori where I believe we convinced them Tvastars are superior to Jodha in every way, we left Headquarters. I won't bore you guys with how we got through security. Let's just say Tvastars don't need full-security rings."
The whole group turned simultaneously to Nidhan, and he shrugged, looking confused.
"So. We get through the forest, past the church and the square, no problem, and then, on the other side of Strada Sforii, there's these four assholes beating up a little kid."
"A girl," said Dhevan, and Lexi sat up straighter, frowning.
"Right." Arihan grimaced, his metal teeth flashing. "So, I shout something really pithy like, 'Hey, motherfuckers!' And the guys turn and take one look at us and split, right?"
"But Dhevan, probably figuring Uma would swoon if he beat up some spineless scum, takes off after them, and that's when this woman rushes at him out of nowhere, gushing and crying about how thankful she is that he saved her granddaughter, or something, and she's pulling on his arm and trying to drag him into a house. Meanwhile, I'm helping the kid, you know? She's all shaky and crying, her clothes are torn, there's blood coming out of her nose and shit. She's a mess."
Dhevan pointed his knife at Arihan. "Uma would've totally swooned. Still. We should've noticed that kid wasn't really hurt."
"Way to spoil the big surprise, yaar." Arihan made an irritated noise, and Dhevan grinned.
He did lose a foot, for Christ's sake. No one's surprised it was a trap.
Aquila rested his chin on Asha's head, wiggling the rings on her fingers. Lexi won't give you her laundry duty, Asha. She just wanted to get a reaction out of Nidhan.
Asha looked across the circle at Lexi, who narrowed her eyes at her suspiciously.
I'm not taking any chances.
"So we go in the house, and it's this restaurant-hotel place, right? It's dark and creepy in a worn-out, falling apart kind of way. Very Local Color. There's a few middle-aged guys drinking, one kid in filthy rags cleaning tables. And we notice it right away. The irresistible smell of fresh mucenici."
Dhevan nodded. "I'm trying to get the old hag off me, and she's shouting something toward the kitchen, and next thing we know about five ladies are herding us to a booth, smiling with grateful tears, and shoving mucenici under our noses."
"That's what we were there for in the first place, right?" Arihan spread his arms wide, then kicked at the log, causing a fountain of sparks to spray into the night sky like angry insects. "I mean, what would you have done? And it was better, I mean way better than the stuff at Meats. No comparison."
"Maybe the poison added to the flavor," said Dhevan brightly.
Arihan looked thoughtful. "Huh. Maybe." He grinned. "I never thought of that."
"Jesus..." Aquila muttered behind Asha, and she laughed silently.
"So, yeah!" Arihan said. "I realized the mucenici was rotten in Denmark when Dhevan passed out. He's a faster eater than I am, you see."
Dhevan bowed his head and swept his arm in a sitting bow.
"Turns out, the whole place was crawling with Reavers that night because of something the Masters hadn't bothered to tell us about, and which is a whole different story."
"You're confusing them again." Dhevan tapped out a beat on his metal foot with his knife.
"Reavers, boys and girls, are like Familiars on crack. Or, Pirate Familiars, if you will. Instead of just worshipping Underworlders for their own gain, Reavers enjoy the hunt, the power. They enjoy perpetrating crimes for crime's sake. Underworlders just happen to pay the best, so they're more than happy to work for them."
Arihan grimaced. "Fucking Reavers, man...
"Anyway! They must've thought I ate more than I did, cause I come to and the little girl we thought we'd helped? She's ripping my fucking tooth out of my head. She's got these pliers and she's just twisting and yanking the shit out of my tooth, you know? It takes a lot of self-control to pretend to be unconscious, manipulate restraints, and have your teeth pulled, all at the same time. I want you all to just take a moment to acknowledge that fact."
Everyone looked around at each other wide-eyed.
"Thank you." Arihan nodded. "And I'm not ashamed to admit it. When I got my arms loose, I may or may not have killed the little bitch when I threw her against the wall, and if you have a problem with that, you can bite me."
"No one has ever had a problem with it," said Dhevan, rolling his eyes. "You're the only one that keeps beating yourself up about it."
Arihan shrugged his massive shoulders, and scowled at the fire, his expression filling with guilt for a brief moment before his eyes flashed with rage. "My weapons had been taken, obviously, but I'm working the remains of the restraints as I stagger out of the room. It was a tiny stone room, real moldy. Even creepier than the restaurant. Quiet. I can tell it's pretty far under ground. I knew by how lightheaded I felt that Dhevan would still be out. Anyway. I have a couple pretty good knives by the time I hear the sound of machinery starting up."
Arihan let the silence drag out for a moment, letting everyone wonder about the machinery.
"And then I hear excited laughter, the kind that makes your skin crawl. I turn the corner, following the sound, and just as I get to a doorway, the most horrible scream I've ever heard fills the whole basement. I mean, Dhevan has a magnificent pair of lungs on him, yaar."
"I'd like to hear the sound you'd make if you woke up to your leg being pushed through a fucking meat grinder," Dhevan growled. "And those were pretty shitty knives."
Arihan waved that away. "So there's these five Reavers, laughing it up while they try to force a still drugged-up Dhevan into a giant meat grinder. I won't lie to you guys, I froze for a second. Time seemed to slow down, and my shocked brain managed to register a big sticker on a freezer that said, 'Meats and Eats. The Best Muschi de Porc la Cuptor in The World.' I mean, a couple of our friends ate that shit."
Asha realized she was gaping at him right along with everyone else. Dhevan cleared his throat and grinned. "Muschi de porc la cuptor is a Romanian delicacy of pork, or, in some cases, human, with rice, tomato sauce, eggs, and parsley, which is then wrapped in pickled cabbage leaves, and served with polenta and sour cream."
A stunned silence dragged out.
Asha tried not to smile as she noticed Lexi glare back and forth between the two Masters. She felt Aquila laugh silently against her back as Lexi shouted, "Are you guys fucking kidding me right now? What happened next? Pickled cabbage leaves and polenta, my ass!"
"Well," Arihan drew a slow circle in the ashes of previous fires, letting the seconds draw out with a mischievous smirk. "My shitty knives came to the rescue, what do you think happened? First, I took out the main guy holding Dhevan. Big, ugly dude with rotten teeth. The second knife went into the next guy taking the majority of Dhevan's weight. After that, it was just a simple matter of smashing my fist through the faces of the next three Reavers, tearing my shirt to tie a tourniquet on Dhevan's leg, and we were good to go."
Dhevan nodded. "Except for the Asura."
"Oh, shit," Ursala muttered. "I forgot about his scars."
"How could you forget about his scars?" Asha whispered.
The scars on Arihan's back where almost as dramatic as Nidhan's, six jagged lines of damaged skin reaching from the top of the Tvastar's freakishly large shoulders, and running all the way to his waist. After all these months of training, Asha still tried not to stare every time they had training sessions in the forgery.
Ursala shrugged. "I guess I'm just used to them."
Arihan grinned widely. "You must've realized by now, nothing makes more beautiful scars than Asura."
Lexi smiled at Nidhan. "Almost nothing," she said, and Asha could've sworn Nidhan blushed.
Arihan nodded in agreement, shrugging. "So, we climb this narrow staircase, really disgusting, like the walls were made of mold, right? And almost run into two Asura that were hunched over a table of bones. Apparently they're there to buy stuff for Witch spells, or some shit. I'm assuming my teeth would've fetched a pretty price."
"I'm still wondering what was wrong with my teeth," Dhevan said, running a finger along his perfect teeth and shaking his head. "But there wasn't time to ask. And now we'll never know."
Everyone blinked at him in the firelight, each of their gazes traveling to his false foot. Asha had always assumed he lost his foot to something that looked like the hideous creature that was carved along the top it.
"Anyway," said Arihan. "We knew we had to get to The Black Church—"
"So named for the fires that have blackened its stone walls."
"Are you finished?" Arihan spread his hands and gave the dark sky a tortured glare. "I'm just getting to the exciting part, and you have to ruin the mood with historical facts, yaar."
Dhevan tapped the flat of his knife along his foot, and the demon seemed to wince in the dancing flames. "I'm finished."
Arihan gave him a scowl before leaning forward and looking around the circle. "So. We could see a door leading out into a street. But we were unarmed, right? Cause I'd already used my shitty knives. All we had to do was get past the Asura, out the door, through Strada Sforii, across the square, and into the church, and we'd be home free."
Dhevan opened his mouth to say something, but Arihan raised a hand. "Now, Asura sense fear. As you know. Plus, they're pretty damn fast, and they obviously love the idea of getting their slimy claws on Guards parts and pieces. Okay. That came out wrong."
Everyone burst into laughter.
"Dhevan was beyond pissed off at this point. They weren't going to get any fear out of him. The problem I was having was facing the task of carrying his gargantuan ass all the way to the fucking church. I mean, I'm strong, but at seventeen I still had limitations, you know? So, yeah! I may or may not have had a tiny twinge of anxiety. Sue me. So the Asura turn, and they're looking right in our direction, and I could see they were about to come corner us back down into the mother fucking meat-grinder, right? And so we did the only thing we could at that point, which was to ram them."
Dhevan nodded. "When in doubt, ram 'em."
"We had about three seconds element-of-surprise head-start on them, but then they turn into these really, really horrifying dog-demon things and come after us."
Everyone's eyes snap back to Dhevan's foot, and he raises it proudly into the light.
"I've got Dhevan across my shoulders, and I'm hauling ass through Strada Sforii, and by now I'm kinda grateful to the monsters for helping me forget about what my body can and can't do, and the damn street is so narrow, I'm worried I'll smash Dhevan's head against the wall, and I'm trying not to hold his legs too tight 'cause one of them is all grinded off and shit. Meanwhile, these things are gaining, you know? Growling and gurgling like...well, demon-dogs. Very intense. Let's take a moment to appreciate the heroism."
Arihan bowed his head, folding his hands.
"All right," Dhevan said. "That was longer than a moment."
Grinning, Arihan looked around at the group. "So, obviously, what with my super-human strength, bravery, and speed, we make it across the square and to the church. But the Asura catch up with us just as we get to the door, just like in one of those Steven Seagal movies, and I throw Dhevan inside, very dramatic-like—"
"And extremely painful. I managed to get out a sexy scream as I landed, though, so it was all worth it."
"The fucking Asura reach for me just as I'm lunging stylishly for the door, and I feel its claws cut into my back." Arihan clears his throat. "Okay. A word about pain. You may have experienced what you think is pain. You may have a vague idea of what it means. But I'm telling you right now boys and girls, until you've felt the cold, searing agony that is an Asura claw digging into your skin, seeming to slow time itself as it gouges and slices until you feel every layer of tissue, every cell exploding with sheer excruciation, you haven't really understood what true pain is."
Is excruciation a word?
Aquila rested his cheek on Asha's neck, then kissed her once and she shivered. Yes.
Good to know.
"I barely managed to stay conscious long enough to notice why the church door had been open in the first place. Uma was there, pausing in the act of swooning over Dhevan's sexy scream to kill the Asura, and we were home free."
Dhevan said, "It is a fact that claw marks remain on the church's door to this very day."
Both Tvastars laughed, making an unfamiliar hand-gesture at each other before turning back to the fire.
"That's it?" Ursala said. "That's the whole story?"
"What?" Arihan grinned. "Did you change your mind about wanting to hear how your parents first exchanged the more serious body fluids?"
Ursala flopped back into the grass with a dramatic sigh.
"I blame the whole thing on the mucenici," said Dhevan.
Arihan laughed. "So good, it was almost worth it."
He stood, brushing his hands off on his pants. "And now, my young friends, our time for story-telling has unfortunately come to an end. If you take nothing else from this tale of lost limbs and blemished perfection, I hope you remember this. If you ever travel to the beautiful and picturesque country of Romania, remember the missing tourists, and avoid the meat dishes."