The mountain air burns with cold and stillness. Not a breeze blows, nor a cloud lingers. A single vulture punctuates the blank grey sky. Below you lies equally expansive stretches of white. Not a particularly scenic route. On the approaching horizon peeks the silhouette of the city, pointing upward like a jaw of small ragged teeth. Nothing much, but it is a frequent hideout of yours. Leering above the shops and tourist traps stands your proud citadel. Higher still looms wide black thunderheads.
You grin bitterly. The samurai is certain to have a swell time struggling through the brewing blizzard. You attempt a spiteful snicker only to succumb to sputtering and hacking. Your shape stutters briefly, costing you a bit of altitude. You steady your flight and adjust your form. Boisterous mockery will have to wait.
It is nearly noon when you descend upon the jagged citadel. You jab your talons into the cold stone. With a hiss your wings dissolve into fore limbs, and you coil into an exhaust vent. The warm plumes of smoke are a welcoming respite. Your castle’s furnace is a respectable novelty, buried deep in the building’s oldest layers. Casually you wonder who you have running it these days. You can’t quite recall. Gracelessly you slither out into the grand hallway, and you stretch and shudder off the mountain air. No one will think much of today’s failure. Most of the fault lay on the robots anyway. Seems you’ll have to execute another handful of scientists. No matter, you deserve a day off every decade or so. Perhaps you will watch some movies and enjoy the rest of your day instead of wasting it on anxious plotting. You scratch at your snout and glance around hallway. It is empty. You will have to inform the staff.
Pillars of fire line the grand hallway. Ancient frescoes depicting your victories rest between great columns of bone. Rows various offerings in your liking glimmer back at you with blank eyes. You ignore them all. At the end of the hallway lies three doors: the elevator, the emergency exit, and administrative services. You cough quietly and press yourself into a smaller shape to creep into the humble human sized door. You haul yourself past the dull white walls and the cool grey tiles that stink of lemony cleaning products. You reach the secretary and slump over the side of her dusty desk.
“How can I help you.” She does not look up from her paperwork. You clear your throat. She manages to tilt her head up by a slim ten degrees. Just enough to scrutinize you above her pointy red glasses. She mutters faintly and thinly narrows her three eyes. Her grip remains on her papers.
“Mrs. Jules, I regret to inform you that I will be taking the rest of the day off, as a fear I am unwell. Be that as it may, I assure you I will be returning tomorrow and continuing my quest to smite the samurai. I insist that you hold all my calls and spread this message to your underlings. Calm them, should they become overwhelmed with the fear that their master may never return to health. I insist! I am just a bit tired.”
“Yes sir.” Mrs. Jules returns to her papers.
You wait a beat for her to add anything else. She does not. You stare at her with wide black eyes. She turns over sheet of paper. Better spread your message elsewhere. With a creak you scrunch up your form and slink out of her office.
Internal affairs is on the second floor, a small flight of stairs or a quick elevator ride. You do not come down here often, but when you do you proudly take the stairs. Usually it is easy to curl past the metal handrails, or to phrase straight through the floor, startling anyone unfortunate enough to have been attempting the climb. But today your slump up the stairwell only tires you. You begin to feel the weight of the day’s flight between your jagged shoulder blades.
At the top of the stairs you spot a small group of minions. You recognize them. They are chattering next to the primitive water-dispenser. Two shadowmen and a human, all white-collar workers, desk monkeys. You probably pay them too much. Or do you pay them at all? Recently you’ve had a tendency to simply hex people into working for you. Of course that’s done very little to improve work ethic.
“Zalotlzarth, Hag'ilotha, Ron! I bring a message!” They turn to you suddenly, and you straighten. “On this day, your great master has taken ill, but I beseech you, remain calm! I will assuredly recover! Do not weep for me, for I suffer proudly and with dignity. I will surely recover within a fortnight. Pray with utmost piety, that some great army does not lay siege to the castle beforehand, or dare I say it, the samurai himself!”
You raise your hands for effect. The workers remain still.
“Yes sir.” Ron offers vacantly.
“And you’re sure there aren’t any current uprisings that need to be dealt with? Nothing needs to be signed or subjugated before I take my leave? I may be able to stay a bit longer and ‘power through’ as they say.”
“No sir.” And then each bow and hastily make their leave. You consider annihilating them all. Maybe tomorrow. You stifle a cough and lurch towards the elevator. Once you are in the elevator you are met with the harsh realization that you have no idea where you are going. You scrape at the dark recesses of you mind. Maybe you will try the fourth floor. You really want to lie down.
Now you in are a large bathroom with your talons gripping the cold sides of a sink. Why are you in here? What floor are you on? You stare into the large bleary eyes that leer back at you from the mirror. Your once proud crests of flame seem tapered and thin. You’ve let yourself unfold messily around the bathroom floor, and your blackened hull fills the space like a vast, uncomfortable puddle. Anyone could just walk right in and trip over you. You hear a sharp chirp.
You catch a glimpse of it in the mirror, a small janitorial robot, presumably sent to remove you from the business sections of the citadel and escort you to your quarters. It hovers patiently at the bathroom entrance and utters another nervous chirp.
“I am sorry but I am out of commission. It is probably the samurai’s fault. If he takes the castle by force, don’t let him touch my bronze idols or the good silverware. Pass on this message to the other robots, and Sandy who fixed the printer on Tuesday, and whoever my current favorite bounty hunter is. Surely you can manage that, you – you fool.”
The robot is silent and motionless.
“Yes it is true, I doubt I will ever recover. Do not mourn me too harshly.”
The robot remains still, but you attempt to straighten and gather yourself. “Since I am taking the rest of the day off, I was considering watching some movies, maybe. Are you by any chance a fan of the classics?”
But the robot says nothing because it is a robot. This was clearly a pointless excursion. The cold is pressing into you too tightly, and you feel a deep lingering rage forcing its way out of your chest. You shouldn’t have come here. You scowl deeply and recoil. You strike swiftly and obliterate the robot from anything resembling existence. In a furious whirlwind you spiral up to seventh floor. You bellow and gnash your fangs and your inferiors scurry in fright, rushing back to their offices and their worthless lives. Your talons scrape the golden walls sending down sparks like hot rain. You alight on your colossal throne with a disgusted snort.
The throne room is far vaster than any pitiable human structure. It is built out of cursed flames and the screams of the damned. Probably, you can’t really remember. Its walls are marked with centuries of claw marks, and a dim scent of iron hangs in the stark air. At the floor lie bits of shattered bone. And various wrappers. The cleaning lady comes Friday.
With a great sigh you sink into your throne and bury your talons into the ruts along its side. Your first impulse is to peek at the samurai in the frail hope that he is suffering. However, it is only one o’clock, and the blizzard has not yet hit. You try not to dwell, so you open your all-seeing portal and flip to the cooking shows. Next the sports. Then the oldies. The news. The weather. The talk shows. Reality TV. Bizarre children’s cartoons. You switch channels and brood, and switch and brood, and so forth. You try to get comfortable but you cannot. You scratch at the grooves in the throne and you scrape at your leathery hide. It is very cold in the throne room and nothing is amusing you. The wind outside begins to moan, pressing its way into your quarters. You coil into a tight ball on your throne. The room is empty, and its cold hollowness presses into you from all angles. The sound of an endless infomercial shouts noiselessly into the room. It is too quiet, and you are so cold.
You will yourself to sleep, but sleep does not come. You grind your fangs together. Very rarely you find the need to seep into unconsciousness. Only every decade or so. You know you’ve been overdue for a rest for some time now. But the samurai has returned, and now more than ever must you be on your guard. Even now his face prowls in the back of your mind. Old battles play on repeat like commercials, but you cannot hope to switch them off. Day in and day out have you racked your mind for an answer, but one has never come. And so, the cold creeps into the throne room. It drips from the ceiling and leaches from the pillars. It settles in your chest like dust, sending you into a wretched fit of coughing.
Your shape flutters and wavers. Every ligament creaks in protest. You twist and shiver and desperately beg for sleep. Facing forward is uncomfortable and cold, slumping over the armrest is uncomfortable and cold. You turn towards the back of the throne in the frail hope of a different outcome. Instead you spot something in the corner of the room. Beneath the brilliant metal flames and under the rubbish on the floor lies very small grate. The furnace. Whoever is in charge down there is doing a horrid job. You will descend and promptly devour them and their loved ones.
You wheeze and reshape yourself, and you leak into the pipe like oil. You pass down through the sixth floor. The pipe is notably warmer than the throne room. On the fifth floor you can hear people sweeping the charred remains of a robot. Further still and you reach the second floor, where the desk monkeys whisper about “bothersome outbursts”. On the first floor you can hear Mrs. Jules’s heels click down the lemony hallways. The pipe grows warmer the more you descend. You reach the lower levels, but still you press further. Past the Pit of Hate and the Dungeon of Grief, past the laboratories, deeper and deeper into the darkness, until at last the pipe dumps you straight out into bright red flames of the citadel’s massive furnace. You gather yourself amid the flames, and slowly you survey the small stone room. It is little to look at, old and stout, an entire wall hosts the mouth of the massive furnace. The stone and pipes are black and charred from centuries of ash. It is a remnant of older times, when knights and tsars fell beneath your hand, when this world was still new to you.
There is a single wooden door to the right of the room, and a large metal box sits towards the left. You cannot make out what is inside it. You would leave to inspect it, but the furnace really is quite warm. There is little coal, but the flames billow amazingly high. You linger on the embers, no need to rush. The fire flicks around your sore shoulders. You press your talons into the soft ashes and stretch heavily. What did you come down here for?
A small noise. You spin around and bare your teeth, but you are not greeted by a threat. Shuffling out of the small door comes a dusty old man. He is hunched and grey, and he wreaks of tobacco. He wears the greasy overalls of common worker. He must be the maintenance man. You scrutinize him, but he does not acknowledge you. He does not seem to notice you are there. He closes the door and calmly makes his way towards the metal box. Then he speaks.
“That winter was the coldest winter we’d ever had. See I was just a boy, and working on my father’s cattle farm seemed like the dullest option life could offer. In those days my singular goal was to chase the womenfolk, pretty and wry as they were, still are I suppose, but I didn’t understand ‘em.”
He reaches into the metal box and removes a pair of black gloves. You have no idea what the old fool is blathering about but you choose to not interrupt. You analyze him as you recline among the flames. In the fire your rough black hide creaks and sighs. The smell of sweet incense and brimstone floats into the modest room. You rumble lowly, but still the man does not acknowledge your presence. Disgusted, you snort and cough and roll onto your back. Surely this old man is mad.
“’Course I thought the army was my ticket. Joining the mighty ranks of Aku, I would have it made, maybe get a tattoo, anchors were really in back then. I ended up in the navy with a drinking problem.” He pauses and shakes his head. He dons the gloves and dusts off his overalls. With a small laugh he continues. “It’s all mechanical now. It’s all space travel and high science. Self-checkout at the grocers? Just can’t keep up.”
The maintenance man heaves a great fresh sack of coal from the metal box. He pushes it slowly, painstakingly towards the furnace. You watch him wearily, and you let your talons retract. The warmth of the smoke fills your tightened chest, your ragged breathing softens. He continues.
“Of course I eventually did find a wife. Sweet thing she was, kept me between the ditches. I settled down, I bought a boat, I stood in an empty parking lot, I had a son, but I questioned everything. That’s how life is in your mid-thirties. We moved up here to the mountains. My Sally will insist to this day it was on account ‘a the in-laws, but I know she loves these mountains. I love ‘em too.”
Calmly he pours more coal into the furnace and the fire surges with renewed life. Red tongues of flame dance all around you. Far above, the blizzard begins to bury its claws into the city, but the samurai does not cross your mind. You ponder the old man and his strange words. You do not recognize him, and still his eyes evade your face. You coil into a circle and warm your belly on the fresh coals. You must look very meek, curled up in a hearth like a newly hatched imp, but with the comforting heat seeping into your sinews and spines, you choose not to dwell on the indignity. The old man continues, and you listen faintly.
“Georgie payed for his schooling. Don’t hear from ‘em much anymore, but I know he’s doing well for himself. Smart kid. Then I was retired, just like that. But I wanted more – this was before my boat sank – just a little more. See deep down I didn’t want to retire.”
The old man carefully folds the empty sack and places on the floor. You feel your eyelids begin to droop. He reaches in a pocket and pulls out a hefty cigar. Lighting it in the furnace, he places it on his lips, and the scent of tobacco mixes with the lingering smell of brimstone. You huff and yawn widely, and your white teeth gleam in the hot light. The old man softens his voice as he continues.
“Sal and I grew distant that year. But still I was restless. I sought employment in every corner store and shop. I wanted my job back – I was just a repairman you see – but they weren’t interested. ‘New technology’ they said. I didn’t know how to be satisfied with television and card games. Couldn’t slow down. Maybe I still drank too much, maybe I feared death and all that it means.”
He pauses and stares into the fire. His eyes still evade you. Stooping to the metal box he hauls out a bulky pair of bellows. He shuffles back to the hearth, and calmly he nurses the flames to an insurmountable height. They fill the furnace and blanket you in their soft warmth. The old man rests the bellows on the wall and rubs at his chin. The room is filled with swirling orange light. You close your eyes.
“That year Aku’s citadel took root in our city for the first time. As fate would have it he had a position for me. Albeit against my will.” You open an eye. He buries his hands deep into his pockets and rests his back against the wall. “He cursed me, transforming my very soul into but a wisp of flame, which he in turn cast in the furnace that heated his castle. If I were to let the flame diminish, I would surely perish, and suffer a fate worse than death.
“When asked about my enslavement, he asserted that the newer technology was prone to error in its youth. The furnace needed human hands.” – He laughs abruptly – “The first two years were the hardest. My soul was small and sickly. Always threatening to snuff out. I struggled to feed it. I spent all my time here, in this room, consumed by my fear. That winter was the coldest winter we’d ever had.”
You stare at him, unblinking, and suddenly he meets your gaze. You see his eyes, clear and blue. Finally you remember his face, his name, his desperate pleading. You always remember. But his gaze is not one of bitterness or spite, and the flames still hold you gently. How could you have forgotten about him? How could you have ended up in this furnace? Resting like a pup in a human’s company. He brightens as you gape at him, as though you’ve told him a joke. You shrink away from his amiable smile.
“Well it doesn’t end there, my friend. See my Sally was persistent. She insist I find time off, demanded I take her out on the lake. Oh I was afraid, but I loved her. It was the second time the citadel appeared in our town, and I left the furnace that very day. We climbed aboard that old boat and wobbled out onto the water. It sank of course, and we ended up soaked and more than a little frazzled. We swam to this tiny little island in the middle of the lake, where two young alien folk had parked their motor boat and set out their lawn chairs. We all had a good laugh and they gave us a lift to shore.” He grins, cigar between his teeth, and he looks towards the floor, lost in the memory.
“I fell deeper in love with Sal than I ever had before. We did a lot of stupid things together I’ll admit, but all in good fun. Each time I returned to the furnace, my soul burned brighter and stronger than it ever had before. Nowadays I pop in whenever the citadel returns, just in routine, but I fear death no longer.”
He taps his cigar twice and quiets. You lower your head into the ashes. The silence yawns peacefully across the room. His story is over. He has finished attending his fire and is probably making his leave. Back to his little wife and his sunken boat and his father’s farm. You should leave, but the coldness in your chest has diminished, and your limbs are very drowsy. In the stillness you consider your options. You should return to the throne room. You do not belong here. Then the old man speaks.
“I lived in the belly of your castle for many years, Aku. I have seen the samurai press his mark onto this planet, and witnessed your mechanical hordes fill your own footsteps on the battlefield. I have watched you shrink deeper and deeper into this castle’s spires. Do you not think I know why you linger among my flames?”
You are unsure of what to say. You let your eyes fall to the ground, and you do not answer. But the fire crackles as strong ever, and the old man laughs heartily. He rubs out the cigar on the stone wall, and he lifts the metal box, turning it on its side. He sits down and rest his palms on his knees.
“You didn’t come down here for a story about my leaky old boat! I can see it in your face. You want to hear about my father’s cattle farm. Yes I doubt you’ve ever seen a cow give birth – this is long one so stick with me – there I was, a boy of a mere seventy pounds, readying myself to catch a slippery calf over half my weight…”
You blink at him, and you settle back into the fire. You desperately try to process the bizarre things he says to you for the next twenty minutes, but his winding tales make your eyes heavy and your thoughts calm. Slowly you fade into a deep peaceful sleep, and he stays by your side until the blizzard passes over, and the morning sun peeks between the towering white mountains.