by Daisuke Yaki (大輔焼)
The name swept over town. It was spoken with varying degrees of contempt, praise and curiosity; tossed lightly from one person to another, appearing at the start of a scornful growl only to disappear again at the tail-end of a besotted sigh.
Despite all of these different entangled opinions, however, one might very well be able to find a common thread underlying it all given a close enough look.
“My god, Warren Black would hate you,” Sir Nikado boomed.
His father had never quite known that there existed a decibel for speech below that of ‘deafening’. It sounded even louder than usual in the cloistered confines of their house parlour.
“Look at this. Not a piece of grit or dirt on you. No malodorous splatters or grisly body parts sticking out anywhere. Not a hair out of place! And sporting a suit as well?” His father gestured extravagantly to the paper he had slapped down, which was emblazoned with a picture of him rendered in charcoal.
Illian pointed out that Warren Black wore suits too.
“You look like a bookkeeper,” his father scoffed. “Warren did not. Tell me son, are you going to strike fear into the hearts of men and monstrous beasts alike by looking like a bookkeeper?”
“Ah, but I do believe, he was making a statement with it.”
Where there had been two around the mahogany table in the parlour, there were now three.
A lesser man might have been shocked, spewed out whatever was in his mouth even, if they were eating as Illian was. He was too used to it to even blink an eye. The long curling hair and serene, innocent expression on her face often caused people to scoff when they found out about her nom de plume. Still, her quiet entrances were a telling hint as to why his mother had earned the name “The Silent Slayer” in her youth.
Straightening the paper out with a snap, Madame Nikado read from it in a clear timbre,
“The exquisitely handcrafted three-piece suit Illian of Nikado wears is moving art, a visual commentary that represents the profligate consumption habits of our generation against the everyday grit of hunting—”
“Wait, let me see that.”
His father forcefully wrenched the paper away, his lips moving silently while his eyes scanned the rest of the article.
“Ach. Well. I see,” his father consented grudgingly in the end. “But next time, how ’bout you try to make a more… bloodier visual commentary, alright? Now, I’m off to shoot some flesh-eating coyotes.”
Madame Nikado’s eyes trailed lovingly after her husband’s before settling onto Illian.
“It pleases me to know that my suit was not simply catering to my vanities so much as trying to make an important visual commentary on society,” he said dryly. “You do know I was wearing it only because I thought it looked dashing on me, right?”
“You’re not the only one to notice that,” his mother replied, waving yet another broadsheet in his face. “Zappa Daily has proclaimed you Most Eligible Up-and-Coming Bachelor-Hunter! Such an illustrious title for one so young and new, no?”
“Indeed. Even more promising than last week’s ‘Most Pleasing Derriere’.”
“But of course,” Madame Nikado continued. “You inherited that from me. Now, speaking of pleasing derrieres…”
With a wink, she slipped something into his hands.
“… Mother. What is this.”
“Oh, don’t play coy now. It’s the monthly publication from the Society of Proper Young Ladies. I’ll have you know, it was very hard to get my hands on —”
“I… don’t collect these anymore.”
“— very hard to get my hands on this copy. They’re doing a special on Warren Black for this particular issue. Enjoy yourself now, ta! Your father will be needing me.”
His mother fluttered away with a gun in one hand and a harlequin novel in the other. This was not as strange as it seemed due to the fact that there were ample stocks of both be found inside the parlour. Madame and Sir Nikado, while able to bridge the gap in their dispositions through affection and familiarity, had never been able to perform the same when it came to matters of decoration.
As such, guns of all shapes and sizes engaged in a fearless battle for space with the lurid covers of bodice-rippers.
It was liable to give anyone a headache when looked at for too long, and Illian shifted his eyes back down to the stylized cover of Warren Black staring broodingly up at him.
If he were entirely honest with himself, Illian had to admit that he might have had a little bit of a crush on Warren Black in his younger years.
He had hoarded everything there was of the man. Trading cards, covers, penny dreadfuls… Warren Black had been the bee’s knees and Illian Nikado his admiring acolyte. The man seemed to be able to do just about anything. Clearing the Scourge of Mankind With One Punch, Defeating the Blight of the Lands Before Lunchtime, Eating the Blight of the Lands for Lunchtime… He had already started to achieve legendary status when Illian was still trying to learn the heft and make of a rifle with his hands.
Needless to say, Illian had kept all his collections of Warren Black in mint condition. Well. Almost all. Some of them had, unfortunately, been marred by suspicious stains when he had reached a certain age.
He was over it, though. He was over this past obsession and now possessed the strength and clarity of mind to put aside the publication from the Proper Young Ladies.
He moved towards the door with determination. And halted with one hand on the doorknob. Cast a glance back to where Warren Black seemed to be beckoning to him in a broodingly accusatory fashion from the bin.
In the next moment, he was curled up in bed with the publication, tilting his head wonderingly at it.
“Dear god, are those tentacles?”
My, my, who is this newcomer that we have all been hearing so much talk of?
Illian Nikado’s tall, dark and handsome self certainly has been in all manner of broadsheets and papers these days. It would be no difficult feat to pick one up if a lady should like to find out more about, say, his favourite choice of dish or colour. But what is she to do should she crave instead for something a shade more… impolite?
You would be delighted to find, my dears, that you would no longer have to dig into the dark recesses of your naughty, naughty minds to slake such cravings. Our lovely writers and artists have decided, once again, to take over this burdensome task just for you…
– Miss Marple, Editor’s Note from The Society of Proper Young Ladies, Issue 27
Tentacles had proven to be a popular subject with the Proper Young Ladies. Illian knew this because their next publication had featured him. In a moment of perverse curiosity, masochism and, yes, that vanity of his raising its head again, Illian had obtained one discreetly. He had laughed and winced in turn as he flipped the pages.
He supposed it could be considered flattering in a certain debauched way. But Illian doubted that his body could accommodate that many slithering appendages. His gaze travelled over the different artworks and stories: lingering over the more outlandish ones, skittering past those that had too much bodily fluids for him to stomach, sliding right across a couple of pages and—
There, in the very last section of the periodical, was a spread of him lovingly etched in swathes of charcoal. There was nothing assaulting him nor was he assaulting anyone. Instead, he was simply lying down, one hand flung palm outwards across his face while the other rested on his stomach. His relaxed form and immaculate suit, set against the flame-engulfed surroundings, provided for a strangely pleasing contrast.
Illian squinted at the drawing. E.B. was the signature of the artist.
How had this E.B. known that this was the very same pose that he had assumed after killing that Fire-breathing Cobra a week ago? There was something vaguely familiar about the art style that Illian couldn’t quite put a finger on.
He placed his finger on it a few days later.
“When will you challenge Warren Black to a duel, boy?” his father exclaimed, sweeping in with various grisly bits and malodorous splatters attached to him. “It’s all the papers been talking about.”
Zappa Daily was thrown across the table to where he sat sipping tea.
“Ah! It’s E.B. again,” he jabbed at the ornate initials resting at the corner of his picture.
“Indeed. You’ve only noticed now?” Madame Nikado had appeared silently by his side, eyes glinting with humour, the rich fabric of her black dress flawless except for the bloodstains on it. “He drew all your previous pieces as well. It seems you’ve gained an admirer.”
“Eebee? What in god’s good name is that?”
Madame Nikado ignored her husband in favour of spreading out last week’s Zappa, tapping one sharply pointed nail at the corner. E.B. yet again.
“Hmm. Well, if there’s any admirer to be gained, one can do worse than catching the attentions of someone who occupies a certain amount of artistic integrity.”
“What?” His father looked scandalised. “But this artist is dull as ditch water! Bah to artistic integrity I say. Why wouldn’t anyone want gleaming horns from the top of your head? Or Zombie Weasels manfully ripping into your flesh!?”
“I do find it refreshing to be drawn as a normal human being from time to time. Preferably, with nothing gnawing or hanging off my body.”
“Kids these days,” Sir Nikado grumbled. “You’re all too bloody soft. Y’know what would toughen you up? A duel with Warren Black!”
Illian’s face fell.
“Wouldn’t it be exciting to finally be able to meet him?” Madame Nikado twinkled at him.
That was the problem. It would be a test of wills to keep control if he actually faced Warren Black in all his towering muscled glory. Blurting out “take me now” was never a good start to a duel and was liable to cause more bodily harm than he could withstand.
Still, much like the Zombie Weasel, his father never let go once he had bitten on an idea.
“I’ll be sure to engage him in a duel if I ever happen to bump into him,” Illian said brightly.
Illian set about careful plans to make sure that this would never happen.
Their paths had never intersected before this since they preferred different hunting grounds. Warren Black leaned towards huge, gnashing teeth while Illian Nikado courted prey that was smaller in size but speedier.
Still, it did him no harm to place a more mindful eye on the Zappa Hunter Forecast. It had a helpful chart of sightings for Fearsome Creatures along with predictions as to which Hunter was likely to slay what. Illian simply avoided the areas which had a Bloody with a High Chance of Warren Black.
There was no question as to who would be completely eviscerated into a messy pulp should they ever meet. His style of gunslinging may have earned him second in the rankings but it would fare considerably worse as any sort of effective shield against Warren.
The traditional style that had been laid down by Warren Black was pure, brute force and most Hunters followed religiously in his footsteps. Illian, however, avoided this if he could. For one, he did not have the sort of physique that would allow him to hasten death with one blow. Two, it was more amusing to see the reactions he caused by diverting away from the well-trodden path. Sir Nikado had nearly blown a vein when Zappa ran an article on how he had dealt with the Beguiling Siren off Cape Coil.
“YOU SET HER UP WITH THE MAN-EATING SUCCUBUS?!”
“She was getting lonely,” Illian had shrugged. “And tired of dashing men against the rocks with her voice all the time.”
Truth was, he had never even wanted to be a Hunter in the first place, and had actively channeled all of his resentment towards being forced into that very vocation into finding all the different ways to make his father and the traditionalists grit their teeth.
His initial plans were as un-Hunterly as one could get.
All Illian wanted to do was to move into a quiet corner and open up a bookstore. Not the huge ones like what you would see in neighbouring Mirhein, mind you, but rather a building that one could easily miss in the blink of an eye: a room that the few lucky unsuspecting travellers would stumble upon, allowing themselves to be charmed by the artfully tumbled mess of books inside, the quaint armchairs and leaning shelves, the smell of decaying paper and ink in the air. He, of course, would play the part of the slightly eccentric if handsome gentleman-owner who would step out into a slant of light from a strategically placed window and welcome them in with an enigmatic smile.
The fantasies he had harbored ground to a halt the day his brother eloped with his Archnemesis. Alice the Cook was her name. This was a horribly plain name for a Hunter but it had stuck because there was simply no other title that was more apt. Alice couldn’t be bothered with guns or explosives or fancy fisticuffs. She baited her prey with lovingly prepared food, then stood back and smiled beatifically as they choked to death from the amount of poison it had been laced with.
His brother was the only who had managed to live through one of her meals.
Faster than one could say, “Ha! I knew it was just sexual tension!” Illian was whisked into the role that his brother had been meant to undertake. The elder Nikado had always been better than him in wielding a gun, but Illian could hold fairly well in a match against him and this was enough to place him leagues ahead of anyone else.
Except for Warren Black. Whom everyone said would hate him. In addition to getting eviscerated, Illian had no wish to see the hero of his childhood staring at him with black daggers of hatred before he died.
A selected extract by Sir Basil Waverly III, esteemed author of Love at First Death: Mating Habits of the Venomous Regal Naga, has this to say on the fine creature in question:
Despite its prodigious name, the colouring of the Regal Naga merely ranges from muted evergreens to murky shades of brown; a luminescent greyish green the most exciting peak that it could reach in the spectrum that has been set out for it through its biological make-up.
It has been accorded a more forgiving palette, however, where the first part of its name is concerned. The venomous spit that the Regal Naga carries is able to comfortably traverse through every colour in the rainbow and back again. This particular detail has been regarded, justly, as the most important aspect of its mating ritual. I would also like to direct attention to another equally important and yet often overlooked behaviour: The Chase.
The smaller size of the females belonging to the Regal family does not, in any way, hinder its ability to lead the male on a chase that might encompass miles and miles of land, unceasingly and tirelessly, through desert scrub and shadowed forests, whether rain or shine. In order to reward the male’s dogged pursuit and to offer encouragement should its spirit flag, the female Regal Naga will leave behind various brilliantly coloured victims in its wake. To their sensitive eyes, nothing can elucidate the concept of “I Love You” more conspicuously than different brightly coloured shades of death.
Illian had extensively stocked his library back home with everything from Ackerley’s Musing on Man to Zeinhardt’s Nefarious Kiss of the Temptor. Out of all the readings at his disposal, the above extract was one that he had not ever come across.
If he had, he might not currently have been running away so desperately from the enormous Venomous Regal Naga chasing him.
Nor her amorous male counterpart, which was, in turn, being chased by none other than Warren Black.
There were certain things which gained clarity under the pressing weight of fatigue: the thudding of his heart, the harsh rasp of his breath with every step he took, the slow, dull ache that was starting to bloom in his thighs.
Normally, Illian would find a certain measure of comfort in the desert outback. The endless stretch of sand and sky ignited a fierce joy in him, coaxed out the bright-eyed child in him that had once flipped through picture books depicting the very same scene and breathed out in wonder at it. Now the elongated shadows cast by strewn rubble and rocks seemed to taunt him. Not enough cover, they said. Not enough cover to duck out of sight from the unforgiving sun nor from those after you.
He had been running for so far and so long that the regular detritus soon reared instead into sharp, twisting metal; angry, dark cracks outlined against the sky that broke its tranquility. They were wreckage left from the Great Rail Wars, hastily laid out by several different companies in a bid to be the first to build a transcontinental railroad and reap the gold and glory that would follow. Saboteurs and gunmen hired by the companies to do damage to their rivals gradually dissolved the entire affair into the wreckage that it was today.
Just as the rusting tracks here terminated themselves abruptly, Illian realised that he needed to stop as well. There was no sense in running. The Regal Naga had her attentions wholly focused on him and what little energy he had left it was best to conserve for the battle that was to follow.
Out of the corner of his eyes, through the heat and sweat, Illian caught sight of a wavering image of a man gesturing to him behind the remains of a train carriage. There was no time to wonder whether his mind had cracked. He leapt aside just as a furious rattling sound filled his ears, curling into a roll and springing up again to rush towards the carriage. Behind him, poisonous pink smoke curled up from the sand where his feet had been a moment before.
It was true. His mind had started conjuring up illusions. The man he was now crouched down beside was Warren Black. That was, if Warren Black were shorter, less muscular, and had a smudge of charcoal down one cheek.
“I wanted to save this for the exhibit,” the realistic-looking illusion muttered. “But being on the brink of danger is a good reason as any to use it.”
Illusion Warren’s hand rummaged around in his pack and withdrew what looked like an explosive from it. The pin was removed in between his teeth before it was thrown into the air, the Regal Naga swinging her head away from the carriage ruins to follow its graceful arc. When it finally landed, it did not end in blood and entrails. Instead, it burst into a multi-coloured profusion of paint splatters.
The Regal Naga stopped fanning her hood out threateningly, hissing furiously, or doing anything else that warned of imminent death. She cocked her head to the side in a curious fashion and swayed towards the splatters to stare at it. Illian could only describe the sound that she emitted then as a happy burble before she all but collapsed to wriggle against it. The male in close pursuit joined after a brief hesitation into a passionate writhing pile that the Proper Young Ladies would have applauded.
“He would never have thought of that,” Illian marvelled. He took in the dirty-blond hair and grey eyes of his unexpected saviour that were so strikingly similar to the famous Hunter’s. “And yet, do you know how much of an uncanny resemblance you bear to—”
“Warren Black?” Warren’s almost-twin answered. “Yes. That’s not surprising considering he’s my brother.”
It was the last thing he saw before a sharp blow to his head knocked him out.
“Y’know,” Illian casually remarked aloud, tossing the flesh that he had carved out from the Bile-spitting Scorpion into the pot, “it’s not very becoming to knock out a person without his permission. Or to leave him on his house door step after without even a kiss good-night.”
An embarrassed silence radiated from the jagged rock outcropping on his left.
“I never did manage to thank you properly for getting me away from that Naga the other day. How about some scorpion stew?” Illian took a sip and made sure he mmm-ed as loud as possible. “I got this recipe from a very talented cook.”
Silence continued to reign.
“The B is for Black,” Illian said carefully, “but what does the E stand for?”
The man was stalking him. Had been stalking him all along, ever since the Fire-breathing Cobra, Illian was sure of it. All of the sketches that had appeared of him in the papers after were detailed in a way that could only have come from close proximity.
Out of all the Hunters that the artist could have chosen as his muse, Illian supposed he was the easiest to track. Where there was sand and speedy prey to be found, so too was he, which narrowed his hunting grounds to only two regions: The South Plains or White Slumps; and even within that, one could narrow it even further to a few choice areas.
E.B. had appeared without fail for all his subsequent hunts but this would be the first time he had stepped out of hiding.
“Elliot,” Warren’s brother replied with a sigh. “How did you find out?”
“Truly,” lllian snorted. “You need to credit me with a little more intelligence. I saw the picture Zappa ran the next day. It was the very first time I had ever seen you use artistic license. No Nagas had been ‘Massacred With One Bullet!’ In fact, I can rightly say that more were being made.”
The smile that Elliot flashed was one that could never be imagined on his brother. It was too open and disarming, the sort of smile that invited you to quirk your lips in response as well.
“I couldn’t possibly send them a picture of you knocked out and slung over my shoulder.”
“Hm. Yes. That would be the sort of thing for the Proper Young Ladies.”
Elliot choked on the stew that he had only begun to take a sip of.
“You read that?”
“With a good dash of horror and amusement. I apparently use my rifle in a manner very much not intended for it when it gets too lonesome for me out in the barren desert.”
“Thought you only reserved that for your tentacled prey.”
“Only when my rifle is not able to satisfy.” This was punctuated by a particularly loud slurp of the stew. “Still, I find that the last section of the Young Ladies manages to depict the sinful depravity that I indulge in the best.”
Elliot grinned at his stew.
“Tastes good?” Illian asked.
“Tastes just like true grit.”
They played a game, the two of them. The rules were simple; find a way to bait Elliot Black away from sketching him under cover and to do it in the quickest amount of time possible while Elliot tried not to notice.
Food was a dependable lure that Illian often used, sitting back and allowing its smell along with his contented sounds to hook Elliot into the open. The more disgusting the target that had been slaughtered for the current dish, the faster the other man lost.
At other times, Illian threw out bits and pieces of conversation: everyday occurrences, things off the top of his head, small questions and stupid questions. The replies he received in return, after much verbal poking and prodding, mostly ranged from grunts to monosyllabic comments, but even these were hard-won and Illian couldn’t help but hoard them all.
Illian never asked the one question that mattered though, the one that burned inside of him each time his eyes tracked the fluid sweep of charcoal across paper: Why me?
The drawings were not impersonal commissions completed for want of money. There was something more to it. Illian did not know what he might have done to deserve the attentive gaze, the tiny crease between the brows, the long, elegant fingers lingering carefully over every line.
Elliot Black looked so much like his brother. But steely-eyed Warren could never have shown the same sort of warmth that his brother poured into his work.
That was another topic that they had never mentioned between them. What was it like, growing up with him? Were they reared by desert wolves? Sprung out fully-formed from the loins of a goddess?
They were once questions that had rustled restlessly beneath his skin, but now, Illian found that the same itch existed instead for Elliot to stop sketching. Swing those grey eyes away from paper to flesh and blood once in a while, why don’t you? he wanted to say.
“Warren Black,” Illian began, wiping down his rifle as Elliot sketched unseen. “I used to jerk off to your brother when I was younger. I’d be up in my room–”
He rifle flew out of his hands as a heavy weight crashed into his side, sending him sprawling into the pale sand that White Slumps had been named after.
It was the fastest Elliot had ever lost.
“Shut up,” Elliot hissed, his entire face flushed a rather appealing red, all the attention he lavished on sketching now focused entirely on him. “Oh god, shut up. That was not something I needed to know, what is wrong with you?”
“May I continue?”
“No.” Elliot looked down at Illian’s arched eyebrow. “But that wouldn’t stop you, would it?”
“It would not. I’d be up in my room and in my head he would be right where you are now. But with much fewer clothes on.”
That quickly sent Elliot scrambling off. Illian shifted and tilted his head to the side, blue eyes steady on the hard, taut line of his back a few paces away.
“I’d be up in bed in the dark all guilty and scared. It is Warren Black, after all. I expected him to come bursting it at any moment to punch out this kid that dared wank off to him.”
Elliot’s shoulders tensed even more, as of a hunting bow under strain.
“It’s always been your brother whenever I take care of my personal needs. Imagine my surprise last night when you popped up instead.”
Elliot had whirled around, eyes wide and startled. “Did you just. Did you just admit to–”
“Yes. But you do not have to worry; your virtue was not sullied. I kept trying to bring the fantasy around to a more indecent direction but my mind refused to cooperate. All it had you do was paint me.”
Elliot passed a hand wearily over his face. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I fulfil that for you every day with pencil.”
“Oh no. You were painting on me.”
“How scandalous.” Elliot’s tone could have rivaled the desert itself.
“Utterly. What do you think my tortured psyche was trying to tell me?”
“That you’re not paying enough attention to your surroundings. Winged Python.”
Illian had heard the faint sound of uneven beating wings and was already reaching for his rifle, the fine sand around them lifting up into skirling eddies as the creature came closer. Rising to his feet in one fluid motion, he aimed it so the bullet thudded into flesh when the creature swooped low enough to the ground. Once. Twice.
The complicated loops that the Winged Python curved into as it flew meant that his bullet only found its intended target between the eyes on the third shot.
Has the TRUE SHOT that Illian always held LOST its aim? Mr A. of A Certain Fine Establishment spills all in this EXCLUSIVE interview!
How are you doing on this fine day Sir?
Overcome by crushing disappointment! Oh, the despair that overflows in my heart!
Could you tell us a bit more about your predicament?
Always shoots true, they said, a clean, lethal shot in between the eyes, they said. Well, the Winged Python that Illian Nikado brought in was completely ruined. Tell me, how am I going to stay in business if my wares have been riddled by bullets?
– Issue #419 of Hands Up, Baby!
Illian shot the Flesh-eating Coyote in the middle of its forehead and pretended that it was Mr A.
“Here,” Elliot’s voice came to him, stepping out from behind the jagged pile of leaning rocks that the coyote’s body had slumped beside. Illian had given up on trying to discover the secret to Elliot’s uncanny knowledge of his exact whereabouts. Whatever sandy plain or far-flung outback that Illian found himself in, Elliot was invariably two steps hidden behind him. “I can sense you,” he would say solemnly each time, and Illian never could tell whether he was joking or serious.
“Body paint,” Elliot said, tossing the object in his hands over, which turned out to be a plain white tube succinctly pronouncing itself as Black. “Thought I could oblige your darkest fantasy for you.”
Which was how Illian found himself stripped half naked in the shade of an overhanging ledge in the middle of the South Plains.
He was currently trying very hard not to giggle.
“This– is not– very seductive at all,” he gasped in between bursts of helpless laughter, jerking when the tip of the brush flicked over a particularly sensitive spot between his shoulder blades.
“It’s not my fault you’re so ticklish. Now,” Elliot’s voice dropped to a low warning growl that sent a twinge through him. “Stay still.”
It was easier to do so as time passed and his body familiarised itself to the feel of soft bristles tracing patterns over his back. Soon, the urge to laugh passed entirely and Illian gradually felt himself being lulled into supinity. Despite their shadowy location, the stifling heat of the plains still pressed in, and Illian started to wonder about Elliot’s hands: the weight of them against the nape of his neck; how his long, graceful fingers could work so steadily and tirelessly. Wondered what it would feel like on him without a paintbrush.
Illian shifted a little, limbs languid while the brush slid again across the same spot that had made him laugh before, only this time it wrung a pleased sigh out of him instead.
“Almost done,” the voice behind him gruffly said.
“What did you paint on me?”
“A lucky sigil to aim true.”
“I have no need for that,” Illian grumbled. “It was only that once and anyway, I do not believe in–” His head shot up. “Something’s coming.”
Only Elliot’s hand pressed down firmly against him prevented him from startling, every muscle in his body now rigidly alert.
“Stop moving. Just a bit more.”
Even though he was facing the base of the rough, ochre ledge and was robbed of sight for what lay behind, the sound of those wings, looping and curving in the air, was deadly familiar to him.
“Now,” there was the tiniest waver to his voice. “Elliot, now.”
Elliot Black stepped aside and the rifle Illian whirled around to point in the space he had left revealed the sinuous form of the Winged Python eeling towards them. This time, only one shot rang out.
They both bent over to check its fallen body, the vibrant scales turning dull as its life seeped out, and a perfect red circle stood out in between unseeing eyes.
“See,” Elliot’s lips curved into that grin which made Illian stare for a beat longer. “It works.”
Dear Aunt Agonia,
I have this female sibling named Elli. Not many know about her, but I do, and this means that I am one of the few people that Elli talks to. Which isn’t often. Brooding silences are a family trait. I prefer to let my fists do the talking while Elli does the same, except by drawing. I can never fathom this because the fist is clearly mightier than the pencil. I am getting sidetracked wait [unidentifiable smudge]
The problem is that these days he she cannot stop drawing this other gal named Il Lillian. I have commanded her to get off her arse and do something about it but she is too stubborn to listen to my sage advice. She has this complex y’see. She thinks everyone would rather have me instead.
What do I do to knock some sense into her?
Dearest Blarren Wack,
Darling, there’s never a problem of l’amour that a little Heartsease cannot solve. One small pinch is all it takes to bring true feelings to light.
– The Society of Proper Young Ladies, Issue 28
Compared to other plants of a similar nature, the Viola arvensis, or Heartsease as it is more commonly known by, has the fine distinction of being a natural aphrodisiac that displays its effects only when the bearer of one’s desire is near.
Caution is to be advised with regards to timing should it be inhaled or consumed. If this is not enough to convince, one should only look towards the duel of Constantine Thorne vs. Adamantine Brer vs. Erei Perseus and the salacious turn it had undertaken when…
– Fauna and Flora of Merle Woods, Edgard Varese
Illian expressed his disapproval in the most eloquent way possible,
“Shush. You might attract something unsavoury. And you’ll remember, I never asked you to come along.”
Illian batted away a vine that had unfurled from above to leave a slimy trail on his cheek behind.
“I never leave a debt unpaid. It’s doubled ever since the Winged Python and I intend to settle it in full today.”
If only the Merle Woods weren’t trying so hard to make him feel unwelcome. The gnarled branches of imposingly huge trees blocked out the sight of the sky, casting everything beneath them in a cool darkness only broken occasionally by a cat’s cradle of shifting light over their faces.
He had heard of a condition once called “desert fever”, of an aching heat that seeped into your bones and made you yearn, made you long for firm sand crunching beneath and open, blue skies that stretched out as far as the eye could see. Living all his life where the plains were abundant, Illian had only smiled politely at such a concept’s existing. Now, something close to it rolled over him.
“Is this plant truly worth all this?” Illian asked, disconsolately rolling up his sleeves in order to assuage the humidity that pressed in around them.
“I’ve told you, Kauffman used it for his last masterpiece before he died, and Warren said there was word of it here. Sightings of it are as rare as– as an ordinary weasel would be.”
“Sightings of your brother here are not though. What if he appears?”
“He has other plans today,” Elliot assured, brimming with a confidence that almost made Illian feel embarrassed for bringing up such doubts in the first place. Almost, because in the next second Elliot’s head whipped to the right, eyes narrowing into the distance.
“Oh no.” A faint crashing sound, as of someone or something easily levelling anything that stood in its way drifted over to the both of them. “You said he had plans.”
“He did, he was supposed to be off making matches, I–”
The copse of trees surrounding them disintegrated into a punched-through doorway to welcome one Warren Black, the wooden bark that splintered into the air ringing his head like a crown for an instant. Eyes brimming divine vengeance, Warren Black bellowed the strangest battle cry Illian had ever heard–
“Ye dunderheads, yer going the wrong way!”
— before charging straight at them.
The bullet that he shot winked out of existence from its straight path, swallowed in a huge fist before the fingers that unfurled revealed it as dust. Warren’s own course remained undeterred.
Warren’s punches had no need to make contact with flesh to inflict damage. The sheer force that uncoiled from them when his fist landed on the ground was enough to fell several trees ahead.There was nothing Illian could do then but leap, tumble and dodge away, with Elliot keeping pace beside him while the relentless blows Warren threw their way drove them deeper into the woods. Whereas the desert had embraced them, Merle did so in a manner reminiscent of a Regal Naga squeezing the life out of a Flesh-eating Coyote. The Woods formed a narrow tunnel of outstretched branches snatching and snagging against their clothes in an attempt to halt progress, their feet narrowly dodging the protruding vines that lay in wait for one small misstep.
He found that his fatigue was rising, the trees beginning to blend into one long blur. The iron grip of his focus faltered, just slightly, and that was when Illian found himself falling.
The ground rushed up to meet him. He was already twisting his body to make sure he landed safely on his back, rifle instinctively whipping up and out, the cool metal beneath his hands a comfort even if the bullets it contained were useless against Warren Black.
His heart trying to crash out of his ribs, Illian’s fingers tightened on the trigger as Warren finally loomed into view — only for his grip to ease, his rifle wobbling slightly in confusion, when the man continued running right past him.
There was the thudding sound of body’s impacting upon another body, a short yelp followed by the crunching and crackling sound of detritus underfoot supporting the descent of one of them.
By the time Illian had scrambled up to his feet, there was no sign of Warren Black. Or his brother.
“Elliot?” he called out as he ran towards where the sounds had originated from, only to skid to a stop when the edges of his boots met a small grassy incline.
Elliot was at the bottom, whole and unharmed except for a large quantity of yellow thistles that had settled all over his hair and body from the patch of flowers that had cushioned his fall. He was coughing irritably, hands trying to flick the thistles off.
“You look like the soft toy my cousin Janie won from the spring fair,” Illian announced, carefully sliding down to where Elliot stood. His hands itched to pet away the fluff and he gave in to the urge, fingers tentatively reaching out. This close, Illian could see just how widely blown Elliot’s pupils were, only a thin ring of grey eclipsing them, and how his chest was heaving, the sound of his breathing harsh in the quiet that had blanketed the forest after Warren’s departure.
Elliot physically recoiled at Illian’s touch, leaping up and almost stumbling in his haste to get away.
“You need to–to stay back,” the edges of his voice fraying with near panic. Illian’s brows down into a frown. “Leave me here and– Get to town. You’re bleeding.”
“What?” Illian ran a cursory hand over his face, grazing over a slight bump and held up fingers dark with blood in the dim light. “It’s nothing. Only a scratch. You need to get to town. I’m not the one who has been poisoned, come here.”
Illian tried to inject as much urgency as he could into the tone of his voice, thrusting his hand out when Elliot did nothing but stand there, his gaze fixed and unblinking on the red-tipped fingers held towards him. He could not identify the flowers that had poisoned his rogue illustrator, but they were bound to be lethal if paralysis was setting in at such an early stage. If he was sure of one thing, it was this: He would get Elliot back to town if it was the last thing he did, even if he had to drag the man every step of the way.
Illian could feel the shudder that ran through the entire length of Elliot’s body when he stepped forward to grip him firmly by the arm.
The next thing he knew, the world was whirling past him and there was the familiar feel of loamy ground against his back once again.
There was heat all around him: warmth coming off Elliot’s crouched body in waves, his hot breath washing over his face; stifling heat that pressed in all around even as he felt Elliot holding himself away with a will that sent fine tremors through his body, the hands framing Illian’s face clenched into the dirt.
“Illian,” Elliot gritted out, his voice thick with need. This was not the work of any poison that he knew of.
Because it never had been.
“It’s Heartsease,” he breathed out in reply. “Oh dear.”
Elliot’s forehead thudded to the ground beside him, repeating his name again, drawing it out into a near-sob.
“Elliot, listen, listen to me.”
If he could, he would have brushed a reassuring hand down Elliot’s back. Instead, he attempted to get his voice to convey the motion for him.
“That patch of flowers you fell into? It helps to bring out suppressed desires. The only way you can flush it out of your system is by,” Illian cycled through every word that he knew before deciding to let bluntness win. “Fucking.”
The word tugged a laugh out from Elliot.
“Oh god. This is turning out like something right out of a Zeinhardt epic.”
“Not really. It needs a little bit more… ‘Jab your multicolored bayonet of passion into me!'”
“And an evil twin brother?”
It was meant to be in jest, maybe, but there was a look in his eyes that mirrored what Illian had once seen out in White Slumps, when he had first mentioned Warren Black out loud.
Illian had refrained himself from touching Elliot, wanted to let him make the first move. To make it clear that choice was not robbed away even with Heartsease lapping desire over him. Now, he entangled his hands into blond hair and hissed,
“Look you clueless fool. Haven’t I told you before? It’s not your brother’s name on my lips when I only have my hand and rifle for company. Now, would you kindly please shut up and take me?”
It should have led to clothes being ripped off, tongues sliding sinuously around each other, hands and mouths adeptly roaming over silky skin before peaking into white, blinding pleasure.
What happened instead was a button flying into his face when Elliot tore his shirt apart. The look Illian had given caused Elliot to give a soft huff of laughter. In their haste to kiss after, Elliot as an apology and Illian to brush off his embarrassment, their teeth clacked together with enough force to draw blood.
With a wince and exasperation twinned on each other’s faces, they tried again. Elliot licked off the blood from the lower swell of his lips, a tongue flicking over to soothe the cut there before sliding in. Elliot was too careful, his tongue only making a hesitant swipe before trying to retreat, and Illian had to press back, giving a small, unsatisfied moan to encourage Elliot into thrusting it roughly back in.
Kissing like teenagers on the backseat of a wagon on Spring’s Eve, they were all sloppy and eager, but from the groan welling up from Illian’s throat and the possessive hand cupping his cheek, an objective observer could tell that neither would have traded it for anything more deliberate.
Clothes were slowly discarded as they wound together, no buttons making painful detours this time, and Illian finally found out what Elliot’s hand against his bare skin felt like. Calluses scraped pleasingly against skin, fingers attentively mapped over every dip and contour when they would only have sketched those same lines out before.
Those fingers were avoiding the one area that mattered, though; Elliot teasingly ran them over the sharp jut of his hipbone, tracing down to the crease of his knees and back out to his thighs again but never going anywhere near his cock. Frustrated, Illian rolled his hips up, smirking when Elliot gave a low growl.
“I would very much like to fuck you,” Elliot murmured into his ear. Illian showed his willing acquiescence by letting his legs spread wider.
There was nothing suitable at hand except for gun oil and even after having coated a liberal amount onto his fingers, the first one came too sudden and too much. Illian jerked, flinching, receiving soft apologies mouthed into his skin when Elliot saw his discomfort. “Slower, go slower,” and the digit pressed back in again, following his command with painstaking care; each finger that followed the first taking their own sweet time to stretch and stroke till Illian was cursing Elliot out for being a tease.
“But you told me to go slow,” Elliot said blandly, an arm across Illian’s stomach to prevent him from rising up. “I’m learning that patience is golden.”
“You can stuff all that patience up your ass,” Illian snarled.
“I believe,” Elliot continued, a saint’s patience pouring from out every line of his body, “it should be the other way around.”
Even with all the preparation, Elliot was of a more than considerable size. The Proper Young Ladies would have heartily approved. This meant that there was not much time to adjust before he drove in. Still, there was pleasure to be found in the act from the desperate sounds Elliot was making, the play of skin over muscle each time he surged forward, the look of complete and utter abandon that was exposed on his face. And Illian wanted nothing more than to lose himself in it; he did, but found himself rather distracted by the rock digging into his back and the unidentifiable bug crawling up his shoulder.
At this point, with the wrecked state Elliot was in and all the helpless moans he was making, Illian had no wish to interrupt with a you’re gorgeous like this and I don’t want you to stop but maybe, just maybe, could we move a little bit to the right?.
He was fully prepared to dig his fingers in and bear the twinge lancing up the base of his spine with every thrust when Elliot shifted and struck something inside him that had him keening long and low in return, back arching and fingers raking down to leave red stripes behind.
“Found it,” Elliot panted, the corner of his lips twitching up. “Did you think you were going to make a martyr of yourself for me?”
Elliot proceeded to find that spot again and again, sparking fire through his bones and he was all but sobbing by then, all thoughts as to uncomfortable pointy rocks or creepy crawlies disappearing. Heck, there could be a weasel gnawing off his arm right now and he wouldn’t have noticed. All that mattered for Illian was to lock his ankles and dig it into the small of Elliot’s back, urging him on harder, deeper, in, out, in, in and the other was spilling into him with a cry.
When Illian’s vision cleared, he found that Elliot had already hardened again inside him, a sheepish look on his face.
The flush that travelled all the way down to his chest answered for Illian.
Reader’s Poll: Results for Favourite Artwork
Winner: Heartsease, Which I By Hunting, E.B.
– The Society of Proper Young Ladies, Issue 30
Author’s Note: Thanks lousy_science for the wonderful beta! It couldn’t have come together without all your helpful input.