Pain—it drowns out the universe, the clearest thing that Hell allows Shiro to remember.
Pain—anguish and misery, torment and suffering, all burning and writhing through him, through everything he ever was or will be, turning everything white hot, threatening to immolate Shiro from the inside out, rending him apart and gouging into the pulp of his memories, his feelings, himself and his soul and everything he thinks he is.
Pain—a symphony of pain, both his own and that of others, billions upon billions of voices, all screaming themselves raw, screaming until they bleed or until a demon rips their neck open, then they go silent until that missing throat grows back—and through it all, Shiro’s own voice, his own wails and screams, feeling all of them deep inside his being but never hearing them because they get swept away, lost in the chorus of agony.
Pain—even after Sendak unbinds his wrists, even after he lets Shiro off the rack, even after he picks up his first blade, even after Sendak curls his enormous, taloned, iceberg hands around Shiro’s shoulders, whispering how proud he is in that drawling, oil spill voice—sighing with that frozen breath and murmuring how delighted he is to have received this unspeakable honor—this exquisite privilege—this most sacred duty to instruct someone with Shiro’s glimmering potential, unhewn but obviously unparalleled—and Shiro’s soul shuddering like a death rattle as Sendak promises that he will learn to love this, someday, because they’re kindred spirits and Shiro’s the only soul in so many untold centuries who’s managed to inflame Sendak like he has.
Pain—clawing Shiro up, splitting him open like a pomegranate, hollowing him out—Sendak’s razors singing through him, his own blades slicing through other souls—the souls of people who Shiro probably wouldn’t have minded, topside, and sometimes, the souls of people who he helped save—and each of them spills out more secrets and crimes than he can count. Is this who he fought for? Are these the people he spent his life defending, who he risked himself to protect? Did he hunt the monsters after all, or did the real ones escape from retribution?
Pain—and eventually, its absence. Shiro’s seen too much, done too much. Heavily, his soul drags through motions he knows well, empty and throbbing, with a black hole pulsing where he once kept his heart.
As he waits for Sendak to bring him the next victim—to start their next lesson together—Shiro stares long into the Abyss around him, into the living shades and endless black, the fires that burn with neither heat nor light but only a darkness to which you become accustomed.
So many souls, crying out for relief they don’t deserve. So many souls, teeming with sins upon innumerable sins upon all the ways that human beings happily destroy themselves. So many rancid souls, huddled together or tearing themselves apart, carrying out the eternal torture or stretched out on a rack and weeping as they beg, “Set me free—please, let me go—please, I wasn’t that bad—let me down, I’ll do anything you ask…”
Tremors wrack Shiro, even though he has no body, only an illusion that Hell projects so that he’ll feel everything. Digging at his shoulder, he can’t tell if he’s growing talons. Memories rush up to meet him as he kneads the soul-sinews still holding him together: the time when he and Adam were seven, and Shiro didn’t listen to Uncle Mitch and fell out of a tree… The time when he and Adam were twelve, hunting their first werewolf with their fathers, and Shiro shoved Adam back so the beast couldn’t get at him… The time when he and Adam were fifteen and Adam’s father made them practice escaping from coffins… The time when he and Adam were nineteen, and three days after Adam left for Stanford—when they knew he’d really gone to Stanford and he wasn’t coming back—Jacob West dislocated Shiro’s shoulder in a drunken rage and snarled, “If you love my son so much, why didn’t you do more to stop him leaving?”
Now, more than ever, Shiro knows: he’s never getting out of here because Sendak’s right. Shiro belongs in Hell; he always has.
He coughs, trying to stop the tears. Before Sendak returns, he needs to stop. Sendak won’t let Shiro get away with crying. But the grief pours out him, hotter than anything he’s ever known, spilling like it he’ll never stop it and steaming as it hits his frozen cheeks. Sobs howl out of him like he’s a dying animal, not a forsaken human. No, no—he can’t fall apart. Can’t let himself start dissipating. Next stop after that, you turn into demonic smoke and hope for a quick death, unless you’re strong enough to withstand that kind of life, like Lotor.
Shiro’s razor clatters, dropping from his hands. He buries his face in his palms—not a moment too soon.
Light blazes into Hell. Not darkness visible, but honest light, brilliant and scorching through the demons, and the souls, and the eternal torment. Commotion erupts, blades clattering while voices cry out threats in languages that Shiro doesn’t understand. Whatever they’re speaking, it doesn’t sound human. Crumpling in on himself, Shiro shuts his eyes. No one would come for him—but something flutters around him, like wings. Sendak shrieks, gnashing his teeth and screaming, “Hold fast, beloved, I’ll save you”—but there’s a clash of metal, then a rush and a pow! like a sonic boom, and Sendak’s screaming grows faint, further and further away.
Fire grabs onto Shiro’s shoulder. It burns, but doesn’t hurt, warmth emanating through his body. Yanking him up toward the light, it feels like a cleansing, like a long shower after a longer hunt, and above every other noise, a voice rings out, clear as a bell, “Takashi Shirogane is saved.”
Shiro coughs. He gasps. Breath shudders into him, which shouldn’t be happening because he’s dead.
His eyes crack open, but he can’t see anything. Only darkness. Hell is darkness, too—but he could see, in Hell.
“Help,” he rasps, his throat dry and cracking.
Palming around his hips, Shiro finds his pockets. He didn’t have pockets in Hell. Or clothes, for that matter. Disembodied souls don’t really need them.
In his pocket, amidst what feels like a couple of hex-bags, sits a lighter. Flicking it on, Shiro can make out the whorled patterns of wood. The groan that bursts out of him makes his entire body shake as if he’s freezing his ass off in a room full of ghosts.
“Fuck you, Jacob West,” Shiro mutters, shoving his lighter away.
A few deep breaths helps Shiro recall those old lessons perfectly. Don’t panic. Keep breathing slowly. Anxiety leads to hyperventilating, which wastes whatever oxygen he has. Shimmying carefully, Shiro works out of the leather jacket and over-shirt he’s wearing. He gets his t-shirt over his face and ties it up so he won’t inhale (as much) dirt while he gets himself out of this.
“Seriously, though…” Grumbling, Shiro palms at the roof of his coffin. He nudges his toes up into another section. A few places bow out, so Shiro kicks one of them until the wood stops fighting him and breaks. As earth siphons in around his ankles, Shiro hisses, “Fuck you, Jacob West.”
In all likelihood, Shiro’s doing himself no favors by saying things like this. He shouldn’t call any unnecessary misfortune down on himself by cursing a dead man, not even the one who happily shoved his own teenage son and Shiro into makeshift coffins, then buried them and made them dig their own ways back to freedom. As Shiro claws up through the loosened earth, he wonders if Adam’s father can even hear him, down in Hell. Probably not, though Shiro would say this to Jacob’s face, if he had the opportunity right now. Propriety be damned, Shiro would cuss Jacob out for putting him in the position to feel grateful toward the bastard who abused him and Adam.
Gasping, Shiro drags his head above-ground. Once he hauls himself all the way out, he topples over onto his side and yanks his t-shirt off. Sunlight warms the patches of his skin that aren’t too caked with dirt. For the first time in what feels like forever, Shiro’s deep breaths get him some fresh air, not the smothering, claustrophobic smell of blood and bile and brimstone. Around him, something smells like smoke, as if someone left a fire burning nearby, and Shiro needs to get to his feet. He needs to get moving, figure out where he is and how to get home.
For the moment, though, Shiro allows himself to sigh. “Fuck. You. Jacob. West.”
Whatever isolated backroad Shiro’s walking, it soon enough brings him to a fill-up station with an attached convenience store. Simply spotting it on the horizon, he gasps and struggles to stay on his feet, much less stay moving. As he staggers toward his new goal, Shiro tries not to entertain the increasingly wild fancies his brain wants to have. He tries not to get his hopes up about anything before he even knows what he’s dealing with.
Good thing, too, because this mini-mart-shaped oasis doesn’t offer much. Only one car lurks outside, and at that, she looks like someone abandoned her. It’s a similar story inside: nobody by the register, nobody milling around the stacks of grab-and-go snacks, nobody staring at the rack of magazines where someone didn’t bother hiding the softcore porn. No one hears the disgusted noise that Shiro makes when he spots a back-issue of Busty Asian Beauties, and no one runs over to yell at him for ripping it to shreds.
“Fucking garbage,” he hisses to no one in particular.
Unlike what would happen at Holt’s Roadhouse, Shiro does not get ambushed by a drove of blubbering white men who seem to come out of nowhere, all shrieking at him for having the audacity to call their favorite skin mag exactly what it is: racist, misogynistic, exploitative trash. Instead, he moseys into the men’s room as if nothing’s wrong.
Nice as it is that Colleen and Matt don’t need to get between him and their alleged “comrades” in the hunting life, the lack of visible people makes Shiro’s heart stutter like it could stop beating. Thoughts rush and whirl through his head—What if it’s abandoned. What if nothing works. What if I’m alone. What if, after everything, I can’t get home. What if this is all a trick. What if I’m still in Hell and Sendak’s coming for me and he’ll be back soon and—but when he flips a light-switch, the restroom’s overhead fluorescents flicker on. Shiro heaves another sigh of relief, and soon finds that the sink works, too.
As far as quickie “showers” go, Shiro’s had worse. About six weeks after Adam left for Stanford, things came to blows with Jacob again. When Shiro fought back, he only overpowered Jacob because the old bastard was drunk as a skunk that took a swim in some backwoods moonshine distillery. Regardless, Jacob did a number on Shiro before passing out, left him walking nearly two miles in the middle of the night, clinging to one of Bennett’s protective hex-bags because Shiro ran out of the motel without his pistol and only had his concealed knives to defend himself. At least he had those backup protections from Uncle Mitch’s husband, though.
Somehow, Shiro made it to the nearest gas station. Head held high, refusing to flinch for the late shift cashiers who gawked at him, he forked over a few bucks for some coffee, some ziploc bags, a soda fountain cup that he could fill with ice, bandages, and a pack of Oreos he didn’t plan on eating. Toll paid fairly, he cleaned the blood off his face and hands in their men’s room, assessed the damage Jacob had done this time.
Fortunately, Shiro didn’t need to defraud an emergency room for care. He didn’t even need to fess up the cash for some antiseptic or break out the needle and nylon thread that Uncle Mitch insists his godson keep around for stitching people up as necessary. No, the worst part came as Shiro flopped into the grass, holding an improvised ice-pack to his cheek. As he stared up at the sky and the flimsy-looking crescent moon, Shiro longed so badly to burn with anger—but all he felt was pain and an empty, a yawning void in his chest where he should’ve had a heart.
Adam was gone and intended to stay gone forever. For all he missed his Sunshine, Shiro couldn’t blame Adam for leaving, for getting away from his father in the name of his own survival. If Shiro hadn’t forgotten his phone at the motel, he probably wouldn’t have had enough reception to call anybody. Worse yet, the person he most wanted didn’t want to hear from him again. In all likelihood, Adam was better off without him.
Shiro was completely on his own, that night. Had some vampire or demon or malevolent okami come at him, he wouldn’t have done much, if anything, to fight them off. Even now—scrubbing earth off his face and hands and chest with paper towel, in a gas station otherwise devoid of life—Shiro feels less alone than he did back then, whispering into the darkness that he had to get back to the motel and make sure he hadn’t murdered Adam’s father.
Objectively, this disparity makes no sam hecking sense. Objectively, Shiro is more alone right now, no matter how many perfectly respectable people walked right by the sobbing, lanky nineteen-year-old, pretending they couldn’t see his bruises under the bright lights of the parking lot. For the love of all things beautiful, Shiro sings George Michael under his breath while cleaning up—“Oh, baby, I reconsider my foolish notion. Well, I need someone to hold me but I wait for something more. Yes, I’ve gotta have faith…”—and nobody groans at him to shut up because he. is. alone. period.
Shiro doesn’t even have his silver chain with his grandparents’ wedding rings. If he did, then he’d understand the feeling of someone else’s presence. Obaasan’s and Ojiisan’s kami remain attached to their wedding rings, constantly looking out for their wayward grandson and staying with Shiro through all manner of hardship. He’d bet money that Adam took the rings for safe-keeping—Shiro needs to ask about that, whenever he gets to Adam. Assuming that Adam’s okay—but how could he not be, with Shiro’s grandparents looking out for him?
Yet, as he musses his fingers through his dirt-riddled, sweaty hair, Shiro would swear he feels something warm surrounding him. Not the natural heat or the stifling humidity, but something pure, something good. As he brushes his fingers over the scar across his nose and cheeks—a gift from a broken bottle in bar-fight that Jacob got them into once and the DIY cauterization that followed—Shiro can’t shake the feeling that someone’s with him. The air pulses like a heartbeat and Shiro can’t tune it out. It only gets more insistent, thrumming in his ears as he works the paper towel up his left arm.
Shiro stops dead as his fingers find something… weird. Bumps—thick and warm. Raised like welts and Shiro can’t figure out how many of them there are by rubbing at his shoulder. Holding his breath, he yanks up his sleeve.
A bright red handprint stares at him, covering his shoulder and upper bicep. Shiro’s breath catches in his throat. The mark looks like his facial scar did, after Jacob first gave it to him. Like a burn, but bigger. Angrier, somehow, or maybe more intense. Whatever left him with this brand, it’s probably a miracle that Shiro survived, on top of the obvious miracle that he’s back in his body, walking around topside as if he never left.
The heartbeat feeling throbs through the air, harder than ever. Shiro can’t stay here.
A local newspaper identifies “here” as the vicinity of West Salem, Illinois, probably in the middle of September. Shiro remembers dying in May, back in New Harmony, Indiana—but smart choice, if Uncle Mitch and Adam moved Shiro’s body before burying him. A shallow grave would’ve drawn too much attention, after the mess they made with Lotor, hunting down Lilith and no doubt traumatizing the little girl she was possessing (—Emily Fremont, Shiro tells himself, recalling how the girl sobbed on her mother after he stopped Adam from sticking her with Lotor’s knife, how Mrs. Andrea Fremont tried to comfort her daughter after what they’d been through. Lilith’s last victim is a person. She has a name. Emily Fremont).
Strictly speaking, an isolated site also would’ve worked for salting and burning Shiro’s remains, but apparently, Adam didn’t do that. Shambling back into the mini-mart, Shiro files that away on a list of things to ask his Sunshine about when he finds where that idiot-genius is hiding.
Thankfully, Shiro makes quick work of rustling up some supplies. Illinois isn’t terribly far from Sioux Falls and the salvage yard that Dad and Uncle Mitch co-own. Far, yes, but nothing crazy. Still, once he hotwires that car outside, Shiro’s probably gonna be on the road for a solid twelve or thirteen hours, give or take. At least nothing’s expired and the refrigerators are running, so he has cold water, protein bars, some Diet Coke, and pretzels, which he’s in the mood to count as a considerable stroke of luck.
Checking behind the desk for a phone, he instead finds a roadmap of Illinois and paperback that makes him squeal in delight. Splashed across the cover, along with the deliberately vintage-looking illustration, sits the words, “The Vampire Nymphomaniacs from Planet Zandarr Meddle With The Dragon Queen”—Shiro had no idea there was a new installment of his favorite series out, but this copy belongs to him, now. Another stroke of luck, probably unearned but definitely not unwelcome.
With a sigh, Shiro hauls himself to his feet. He glances at the register, briefly considers taking whatever’s in it. But no, bad idea—he can’t do that to whoever runs this place. Maybe the fraudulent credit cards in his wallet will still work. If not, he’ll turn a couple tricks or hustle pool for gas and dinner money, nothing he hasn’t done since he and Adam were thirteen.
Shiro’s looking over the map when the TV behind him switches on. Static crackles, and Shiro groans. Without a thought, he switches the stupid thing off and lets himself breathe easily—until music lilts out of radio on the counter. The tune distorts, dipping low, then snaps back into what it should be, all soft melodies and Dolly Parton singing, “Tears were scattered everywhere. He was trying to save his pride—”
Another dip in the music makes it sound like Shiro’s hearing it underwater. Another burst of static gnarrs, demanding attention. Shiro holds his breath until his fumbling finds the right button. Once the radio clicks off, he snatches up his map, book, and plastic bags of supplies.
Two paces from the door, he stops dead. The TV’s back in action, blaring still more static. Over top of the din, Dolly croons, “Oh, this boy has been hurt, but I’ll save him. I’ll take his heart and mend it, if I can. Oh, this boy has been hurt—”
Around him, the walls tremble like an earthquake’s coming on. A sound swells like a symphony made of ringing ears. Between that and the electronics—Shiro dashes to a side-aisle.
Cursing under his breath in a mix of English, Japanese, and Hebrew, he starts dumping lines of salt on the windows, on the floor before the door. Dammit, just his luck. He gets put back in his body rather than left in Hell. He’s intact instead of ripped to shreds. He doesn’t look like something straight out of George A. Romero’s stress-nightmares or a monster Clive Barker would see if he dropped acid. Barely an hour or so back to life, and Shiro’s already handling a demon on his own, unarmed because (probably) Adam took all of his concealed knives.
But how can it be a demon?—Shiro’s breath snags at that thought. He stares at a new container of salt, knowing he should rip it open, but—The hex-bags. In my pockets. They’re probably from Bennett, so how could a demon—
Outside, something rushes down the dirt road. The air pulses as if it’s come to life. A pow! follows, like a sonic boom, and then a clamor starts ringing, vibrating through everything.
Shiro hits the floor, ducks and covers his head. Just in time to miss the windows blowing out. Struggling to breathe, Shiro grips on to his hair for dear life. His thoughts whirl, racing—what if this thing comes for me, what if I give myself away, what if Sendak—and aches shoot through his ears. Memories of shooting lessons all come back to Shiro—memories of Jacob taking him and Adam out, of him teaching them how to handle pistols, and of their ears ringing because he didn’t give them plugs or warn them how loud the shots would be—and fuck, that cannot be the last thing he remembers before he dies again.
Through it all, though—through the panic and the sound, the song that’s ringing, that reverberates through Shiro’s nerves and muscles—he feels something warm, something pure, something that desperately wants to reach him and be heard, even though it only makes Shiro’s ears scream out, pain searing every nerve, every remotely sensitive spot in him—
After a few moments, everything calms down. Very much not-dead, Shiro blinks at the sea of splintered wood and broken glass around him. He knows what these materials are, but they seem like things he’s never seen. Carefully, relying on the shelves for help, Shiro drags himself up. As he gathers his bags of supplies, Shiro adds this incident to his growing list of likely miracles. So much good luck, all at once? That can’t mean anything good.
Worse than that, an old, familiar, empty feeling settles on Shiro. Cold without chilling him, heavy without having any substance, aching because it feels like nothing, not in spite of that—loneliness. Whatever presence he felt before, it’s gone away, leaving Shiro on his own, in dead, humid air that feels like it wants to choke him.
God, he cannot stay here, not a second longer. Time to hotwire himself a car.