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Genesis 💫: Episode 2 – Secrets
Gene makes a hard decision
This is Episode 2 of Genesis: Until The Stars Burn Cold, a fantasy story written in a psychedelic magepunk setting. It explores mental health through allegory along with an array of deeper themes: war and peace; love and loss; anger and forgiveness.
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Episode 2: Secrets
Gene awoke just before the sun. The ground was wet with dew, and a layer of droplets had settled on his pack and blanket. He stretched and stood up to shake his camp blanket dry, then built a small fire with the last of the branches he’d collected.
The flames warmed the air of the alcove, and Gene began taking down his bow in the low orange light. From a pocket on his bag, he fetched a bow stringer and a brass tube.
He stood up with the bow in hand, carefully removing the bowstring and stowing it in the tube before unscrewing the bolts by hand and removing the limbs from the riser. Together, he stored the parts of the recurve bow in his pack, then stepped out from the shelter into the cool morning.
Dim sunlight filtered through the foliage above, revealing the pile of black salt that marked the remains of the first satchi along with two sets of five-toed tracks showing the beasts’ approach from the night before. The air above the dark salt shimmered in many colors and had the distinct, alien smell of magic, like a mix of hot metal and decaying flowers.
Gene spent several minutes tracing a circle around his camp, checking for evidence of further disturbance, but he found no other signs of hostile yokai in the area. Instead, he saw an abundance of moths and butterflies, and even a small family of horned rabbits.
He returned to his temporary camp beneath the boulders, put out the fire, donned his pack, and set off down the path leading back to Yamafumura Village – and to his bounty.
During his descent, Gene stopped near a bridge that had served as a local river crossing for decades. The bridge had been cut from a single, massive log, and was big enough to lead livestock across. He carefully climbed down the rocky river bank next to the crossing so he could refill his filter bottle from the flowing water below.
The air below the bridge made him shiver, but the sound of the running water was soothing. Salamanders and frogs took shelter in the shadow of the bridge, and a collection of wisps glowing in bright yellow hues hovered peacefully above the running water.
After a brief break, Gene moved on from the stream at an easy pace, fast enough to break a sweat, but not enough to leave him out of breath.
Soon, the tree cover began to thin where the forest had been harvested for lumber over many centuries. A breeze stirred the remains of the morning fog as the sun warmed the land, and bird calls broke the silence as crows, jays, and songbirds darted back and forth across the clearing.
Gene rolled up his sleeves and pulled down his hood to feel the warming air. The scent of moist earth and plant life blew up from the rolling hills.
Tire tracks and hoofprints in the dirt path signaled that he was drawing close to the outskirts of Yamafumura. He encountered some hunters, then a small caravan of traders guiding large reindeer laden with textiles, metal tools, spices, and curiosities.
As more people appeared on the path, he changed his route, avoiding the road – and the other travelers. He made his way to Spirit Lake Lodge, where he’d been staying for nearly a year.
The lodge itself was the largest building in the town, featuring a dining hall, a temple, and several luxury rooms for wealthy travelers, along with a large number of plainer accommodations for local laborers and transient folks. It shared a dirt parking lot with a large bath house and a hospital. The off-road vehicles parked outside looked old and weathered, but sturdy.
On the north side of the Lodge, visitors had a view of the Great Spirit Lake and the surrounding Kazeiro Grasslands, which were dotted with yurts, wagons, and other temporary structures, along with a few abandoned cargo vans and transport trucks that had been converted into shelters.
On the south side, visitors could look over the forested Sokoku Foothills that Gene had just come from, backed by the mist-veiled peaks of the tall Kōrisu mountains.
Gene was headed to the temple. After several more minutes of walking, he finally reached the large garden that surrounded the main building. The smell of meat and spices wafted out from the large kitchen, along with the sounds of work and conversation.
He pulled up his hood and slowed his pace, taking a winding route through the garden path. His stomach growled, but he didn’t head to the dining hall. All he could think about was the two heartstones in his pouch.
He weaved his way through the narrow paths of the crowded garden, ducking beneath low-hanging vines and branches, and brushing up against bushes that crowded the walkway as he tried not to bump into any passerby.
He exited on the north side to wander among the yurts, making his way to one with a three-eyed oni painted on its door.
As he drew near, he saw an old man with tan, wrinkled skin having a conversation with a dark-skinned boy in front of the door. When they noticed Gene, the man signaled a farewell gesture to the boy, then nodded toward Gene and entered the hut, leaving the door open behind him as the boy wandered off among the other yurts.
Gene entered into a round space with a clear floor and few comforts. He saw a stack of cushions near the entrance, and the fabric walls were lined with heavy, locked chests and sturdy shelves that displayed a treasure trove of weapons and tools, some for hunting, some for fighting, and some for show. Pipe smoke and incense hung heavy in the air.
The room was lit by sunlight which entered through the round ventilation hole at the top. Against the far wall, a wood stove radiated enough warmth to fill the whole space.
The old man sat on a rug behind a circular low table at the center of the structure while smoking a pipe and humming softly to himself. His loose clothes were plain, but clean, and Gene had no doubt they concealed weapons both magical and mundane.
Gene stopped at the edge of the table and bowed his head. The old man made a gesture at the floor. “Demon hunter, it is good to see you. Have a seat and tell me why you have come.”
Gene nodded and took off his pack. The air felt cool against his back where he’d been sweating under the bag for several hours. As he sat down, the old man filled a cup from a pitcher that sat on a tray at the center of the table.
Gene leaned forward to pick up the earthenware cup. “Investigated those disappearances in the Foothills. Found a pair of satchi. They were still small, so I took them with the bow.”
He opened the pouch on his hip and pulled out the two heartstones, then placed them on the tray. “What can I get for these?” He stopped to sip the steaming beverage. It was sake. Cheap, but refreshing.
As the old man reached forward, his braided white beard touched the tabletop. Gene handed over the orbs, and the merchant held one up to reflect the sunlight. A halo of many colors came to life around it, giving it the appearance of a tiny star.
The merchant tucked the stones into his pocket, then drew from his pipe and blew another cloud of smoke. “What would you like?” He gestured to the shelves lining the walls.
Gene leaned back on his hands and rolled his head to stretch his neck. “I need more chems – some noctis, maybe some boost.” He looked around the room for a few moments, then paused abruptly and pointed at a shelf. “And that helmet.”
He stood up and walked across the room to where a collapsible samurai helmet sat on a stand. It had a simple design, and a rune of protection was inscribed on the forehead. It also featured a removable oni mask.
He turned and faced the old man, “With how often I end up wrestling yokai, it’s only a matter of time before I smack my head on a root or a rock.” He picked up the helmet. It was lighter than he expected. “What can you tell me about this?”
The old man smiled. “That helmet is warded. When the rune is charged, the helmet will protect the wearer from dangerous impacts. It has its limits, but it can hold up against teeth and claws for several minutes at a time.”
Gene stared into the face depicted on the mask. “Arrows?” He looked back at the old man.
The old man smiled and nodded.
Gene held the mask up to view it in better light. “Bullets?”
The old man shrugged. “Some.”
Gene carried the helmet and mask back to the table and sat down. “I’ll take it.”
The old man raised a hand to twist his beard. “For the helmet, these heartstones will do.” He gestured towards the cup Gene had drank out of. “The sake is free.” He refilled Gene’s cup from the pitcher on the tray.
Gene frowned. “I need the chems, too. I brought black aether salt. Several grams. That plus the heartstones should be enough.”
The old man blew more smoke. “I can work with that. I will need a few days. What do you want?”
Gene sipped the steaming sake again. “Noctis. Perceptus. Boost.”
The merchant nodded. “I can give you one of each.”
Gene sighed. “Guess that works. Doesn’t leave much for food or rent, though.”
The old man set his pipe down on the tray and leaned toward Gene. “There may be a way that I can help you with that.” He paused and looked intently at Gene’s eyes. Neither of the men blinked.
The old man leaned back. “I need someone who can make sensitive deliveries for me, hunter. Someone who knows the mountains and has no fear of yokai. If I were to find such a person, I would make sure they always had a comfortable residence here at the Lodge.”
Gene finished the sake in his cup and took a deep breath. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and lifted a hand to stroke his dark beard. “What are you smuggling? Weapons? Drugs? Both?” He looked back up at the old man.
The merchant reached into his pocket, then pulled out one of the heartstones Gene had brought and laid it on the tray.
Gene looked at the heartstone, then back at the old man. “How many?”
The old man filled Gene’s cup with more hot sake. “Thousands.”
Gene’s breath caught for a moment, but he tried not to show his surprise. “That’s enough for a small army.”
The old man nodded. “It is.”
Gene clenched a fist. “What game are you playing?”
The old man picked up his pipe and took a long pull, then slowly blew several smoke rings. “The Coalition is hungry for land, because they’ve ruined most of theirs. It’s only a matter of time until they break the Armistice and renew their assault on the Freehold. We can either prepare to fight, or die.”
Gene scoffed. “Or both.”
The old man nodded. “Or both.”
Gene shook his head and sighed. “Where are the stones going?”
The old man reached out and picked up the heartstone, then stowed it in his pocket again. “To the monks of the Hidden Spring.”
Gene shook his head. “You’re insane. If the Coalition Seekers don’t find me, that much power will draw dozens of yokai. Besides, the moment I arrive, the monks might kill me on the spot.”
The old man smiled. “So, you understand why I am willing to pay such a price. I would not offer this job to a coward or a fool. But a former Seeker living undercover in the Freehold? If anyone can handle this task, it is you.”
Gene leaned forward and picked up the pitcher of sake, then poured some into an empty cup and pushed it toward the old man. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The old man tilted his head toward Gene in gratitude, then picked up the cup and sipped the steaming sake. “I know you have powerful enemies, Genesis. Lucky for you, I am a man who knows when to keep a secret.”
Gene’s eyes narrowed. He’d never told the old man his name. “Are you threatening me?” He took a deep breath and held his gaze steady.
The old man shook his head. “No. You simply are not listening.”
He put out his hands in a gesture of peace, but his voice betrayed an annoyed tone. “I am offering you steady work that will allow you to maintain your privacy here in Yamafumura without living in poverty.”
He took another sip of sake. “Yokai hunters rarely go unnoticed here for long, and you have been working these forests for months. It is only a matter of time before the Seekers track you to that hovel at the edge of the settlement and start asking questions. When they do, how certain are you that none of them will recognize you?”
Gene’s heart began racing.
He picked up the pitcher of sake.
He’d been thinking lately that maybe a year in Yamafumura was too long to stay in one place. That by now, someone would have likely noticed his presence.
He slowly tilted the pitcher to fill his cup.
He’d gotten comfortable with his lifestyle here. The intersection of the lake, the plains, the forest, and the mountain had led to an abundance of yokai in the area, which meant constant work for him.
He set the pitcher down.
If he left Yamafumura, he’d need to find another place to settle down before the winter snowstorms came. If he stayed, he’d risk becoming a familiar face to the wrong person.
He picked up his cup.
If he timed it right, he knew he could probably make a deal with one of the reindeer caravans to make it to another settlement. But then he’d be guaranteed to encounter Seekers on the road.
He drank the sake.
Now that the old man had told him about the smuggling operation, Gene had become a loose end. For all he knew, the merchant might not take kindly to being turned down after sharing such a dangerous secret. And Gene had a feeling the old man was deadlier than a full squad of Seekers.
He set down the empty cup.
He was tired of being a pawn in these games. The last thing he’d expected after five years of hiding was to get pulled back into the Civil War.
He looked up at the old man. He’d made his decision.
Gene cracked his knuckles. “I’m done working for warmongers.”
He got up from the floor, brushed off his pants, and leaned over to pick up his pack. He could feel a slight buzz from the sake. Not enough to make him clumsy, but enough to make him stubborn.
The old man took a long draw on his pipe and eyed Gene in silence.
Gene pulled the bag onto his back and tightened the straps, then turned and started walking towards the door.
Behind him, he could hear the old man moving things around on the table. “You left the helmet, Genesis.”
Gene paused at the door. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then exhaled for several seconds before pushing the door open and walking out into the sunlight.
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