Chapter 23

Son

⚞ Z ⚟

It was a late Tuesday afternoon. The Pharaohs sat around the table in Nana Riley’s dining room, drinking coffee and exchanging frustrated looks.

“In the morning Yen said he’d join us. He specifically asked for us to wait for him,” Sam mumbled down at his mug.

“Don’t sweat it Sam, we’ll wait. Nobody is cross with you.” Tamika gave him a reassuring look. “Yen’s the one we’re mad at.”

“Yeah, it’s not like you can control him. I don’t think he can control himself on most days.” Josie chuckled.

Eyes turned to Nakhti, but he just shrugged.

Zack looked from one biker to another, not feeling confident enough to join in on criticizing Yen, but sharing the general sentiment. They were supposed to have ridden out fifteen minutes ago and there was still no sign of Yen.

There was a sound of an engine outside. Or maybe even two engines. And before anyone could get up and check the window, the front door opened and Yen’s voice came from the hall.

“The wait is over, motherfuckers! The reinforcements have arrived!”

The proclamation was followed by Yen himself, who appeared in the doorway to the hall looking extremely full of himself.

“Fucking finally!” Josie groaned. “What took you so long?”

Yen’s wide silent grin drew the attention of the group. Then their attention shifted to the steps coming from behind him. Yen skittered to the side, making a wide presenting gesture with his arms.

“Let me introduce you to our newest promising prospect-to-be, straight out of Ancient Egypt, the realest deal, Sphinx!”

Nakhti shot Yen a fed up look, then got up and walked towards the newcomer with a milder, but still doubtful expression. “Hello, Sphinx.”

“Evening.” Sphinx looked around the room, “Are you actually recruiting, or is Yen just being a little shit?”

Nakhti’s expression turned into one of appreciation. He smirked. “Perhaps it’s both, the latter for sure, the first, I suppose we’ll find out. Come on in.”

“Thanks.” Sphinx hung his jacket on the coat rack, and took his shoes off. Sam’s concerned expression cleared up.

Zack studied the newcomer. He was tall, probably as tall as him, if not taller. Skinny, almost emaciated. Black. Kind of older. Older than any of them for sure. He had to be forty or more, his hair was heavily graying. Zack had a hard time telling exactly how old the man was. He decided it didn’t really matter. What caught his attention was how much the casual working-adult clothes that Sphinx was wearing contrasted both the unusual nickname and the punk-rock image of Yen next to him. It was hard to believe these two people knew each other. He noticed the other bikers studying Sphinx too. It appeared he was news equally to all of them.

“Yeah and don’t mind the red eyes,” Yen said. “He’s allergic to pollen and who knows what else.”

“I’ve got medicine in the kitchen.” Sam got up, ready to dash to the rescue.

“I’ve got mine on me.” Sphinx stopped him. “But thanks.”

Sam sat back down, looking satisfied.

“See? He comes prepared!” Yen advertised. “A very capable, adult person, unlike certain babies. No pointing fingers of course!” Yen grinned at Zack.

“Oh you mean like yourself,” Josie said. “You should have told us you were bringing a new guy. We thought you were being late. As usual.”

“Anyway…” Yen waved a hand. “Let’s do the introductions.” He lead Sphinx into the dining room and did just that. At the end of the introductions, Yen pointed at Sphinx’ nose. “And look, he is so much the real deal that his nose was broken off by a cannon ball of Napoleon’s army and then masterfully glued back on by local artisans.”

“I told you the Napoleon thing was an incorrect folktale, Yen!” Sam scowled.

“Well, maybe for that reproduction of a giant statue, but this is the original.” Yen bragged. “This is the real Sphinx it’s based on.”

“Your supposed timeline makes no sense…” Sam sighed and shook his head.

“Like most things that come out of Yen’s mouth.” Sphinx said, evoking amused looks all around. He patted Yen on the back. “Thanks for the advertising campaign, kid, but I think I can handle it on my own.”

“You sure? I know words don’t come easy to you, and I am ready to speak for you.”

“Yeah, trust me, I’ll cope.”

* * *

The sun had disappeared behind the horizon, and dusk was slowly turning into night. The gas station lights were on, bathing the Pharaohs and their motorcycles in warm electric light. 

Zack sat on his Harley, his feet on the ground, waiting for his turn to tank. The guy filling up Nakhti’s motorcycle did not look familiar, so Zack glanced towards the gas station proper. No sign of Wyatt there either. This was the right gas station, Yen’s car wash was right across the street. Perhaps today Wyatt worked the morning shift.

Zack wondered for a moment what it would be like working at a gas station. Anything to put his mind off of today’s main attraction.

Sphinx had come out of nowhere, but he came recommended by Yen, and aftering being briefly introduced to the rest of the Pharaohs, had instantly been made a prospect. Zack couldn’t help but feel bitter about it. He didn’t care to be in the spotlight, but it still felt bad to watch a guy easily get the position he so coveted simply by the merit of being an adult, working-class and acquaintance to one of the members. No jumping through hoops, no embarrassing antics or public questioning. Sphinx was accepted after a brief casual chat and a vote. The only comforting detail was that Nakhti had not voted in favor of accepting him. He had not voted against it either. 

The teenager smiled dreamily, watching the Egyptian hunk from his spot at the back of the group. Nakhti was smirking at something Yen was saying. Tamika and Josie were laughing. Sphinx and Sam seemed to be working on synchronized non-speaking.

Despite the hint of envy that Zack felt at how Sphinx had been treated by the other bikers, he felt he would soon grow to like the man, if he proved to be like Sam in any other way. Sam was a bookworm and kind of quiet, but he was always nice to Zack. It was good to have someone on his side.

New engines sounded behind his back. The Pharaohs ceased their chatter and turned to look. Their expressions grew grave. Zack turned around too and saw a dozen bikers with one-percenter patches ride in and crowd the gas station.

“Move it, faggots!” a bearded guy at the front yelled. “The Undying are here.”

Zack glanced towards the Pharaohs to see what their plan of action was. They did not look like they were going anywhere, but they were rather tense.

“Get the hell out of here or we’ll make you!” the bearded guy repeated.

“Fuck off, lardass!” Yen yelled back. “Just cause there’s a few more of you tonight doesn’t mean we won’t kick your pasty asses into next Saturday!”

“No shooting near the gas station!” the gas station attendant exclaimed. “I will call the cops if I see a gun, I don’t care what you crazy people do, I’m not exploding tonight!” He finished tanking Nakhti’s bike and gestured for the next person, grumbling, “They don’t pay me enough for this…”

“I said get your loose assholes out of here, you monkeys!” The bearded Undying guy shouted again, his face red with anger.

“No need to strain yourself, chief, if they won’t move, I’ll move them,” someone said from the back row.

Zack felt his stomach sink.

Taylor rose from a bike in the back of the group and slowly walked between the Undying. His evil grin sent Zack’s heart into overdrive and filled his stomach with icy needles. The boy kicked his kickstand down and got off his own bike, standing between Taylor and the Pharaohs.

“What are you doing here?!” Zack hissed. “Leave. I’ll-”

“Go crying to your daddy, Zacky-boy?” Taylor’s grin grew wider. “Tell him I’m being mean to you again? Go ahead and do that. How proud he’ll be. What a lovely whiny little bitch he raised!”

“Leave.” Zack snarled.

“Make me.”

Zack changed his stance, preparing to dodge a blow, but the huge blond just stepped around him and looked down at his bike. Zack arched an eyebrow, confused and momentarily relieved. “The fuck do you-”

“Chief!” Taylor hollered, then gripped Zack’s Harley and effortlessly lifted it above his head. “Where do you want this?”

The bearded leader of the one-percenters gaped at him. So did the rest of the Undying, the Pharaohs and the gas station attendant. Zack kept his cool and hissed, “Put my bike down.”

“Oh, I will,” Taylor promised solemnly. “What goes up must go down.” He walked away from the gas station, carrying the bike easily above his head. “Is over here good?” he yelled back to the Undying club leader. Receiving no reply, he very unconvincingly feigned losing balance and tossed Zack’s bike onto the sidewalk. “Oops, butterfingers.”

Zack heard one of the women gasp behind his back. He could see something spilling under his bike. One of the mirrors was broken. Taylor turned to him, looking jubilant, then he turned his attention to the Pharaohs. “Who’s next?”

Zack glanced towards them. The gas station attendant was shoving Yen away and almost pulling Tamika’s bike towards himself, eager to get the whole ordeal wrapped up as quickly as possible. Taylor began walking towards the Pharaohs. Zack bolted towards him. He couldn’t let that psycho hurt his friends.

“Hey, Taylor, does your own dad know you’re out this late?” Zack tried to get the blond’s attention, but Taylor didn’t even turn to look at him. He was headed straight for Yen. This could end terribly. Zack had to do something — he knew Taylor would not put him in an ambulance, but he’d have no such reservations for the other bikers. Zack did not have a choice.

“Does he know you’re out and about?” Zack said and bet it all on one card. “Did little Fitela ask for permission first?”

It worked. Taylor changed his course one eighty degrees, turning his attention entirely back at Zack.

“Let’s make sure you remember what you can and cannot call me, shitstain!” Fitela dashed towards him.

Zack managed to avoid the first swing by maybe an inch. He concentrated on Taylor’s movements, anticipating the next few blows and moving away right on time. For some five seconds, he managed to step and jump out of the way. Zack felt elated, even though he knew it wouldn’t last. This was a personal record.

The first blow that connected with his torso sent him staggering back, knocking the air out of him. He tried to stay on his feet. Taylor helped him by gripping a handful of his hair and pulling him towards himself. Zack tried to kick him in the crotch, but only hit Taylor’s thigh. Taylor kneed him in the stomach, then shoved him to the ground and began viciously kicking him.

All Zack could do at this point was curl up and try to shield his vitals. It only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like forever. Zack opened his tear-filled eyes to see in horror as Taylor turned around to face someone behind him. A figure too small to be one of the Undying.

Josie stood in front of Taylor with a telescopic steel baton in her hand. “Back off,” she said sternly.

The two groups of bikers stared intently at the two of them.

“No.” Taylor grinned. “What now?”

“Don’t touch him or I will hit you again.”

“Feel free.” Taylor laughed. He turned around to face Zack and swung his leg to kick him again.

Zack heard the baton cut through the air. Taylor turned with the speed of a lurching snake and grabbed the baton before Josie could withdraw it. He easily jerked it out of her hand and folded it shut. Then, making sure everyone was watching, he bent the baton in half like it was made of putty.

Josie stared at him in shock.

Zack struggled to sit up, ready to beg Taylor not to hurt his friends. But would such a plea only make things worse?

“I’m done tanking these bikes!” The gas attendant yelled at the top of his lungs. “Let me tank the other ones, pay the bills and go fight somewhere else! Always a pleasure to have your biking business!”

Zack stared at Taylor’s back intently. Taylor turned to look at the Undying. Their leader looked about as lost as everyone else. Still, he gathered enough wits to nod for Taylor to fall back. “Get your bike, T-man. Good work.”

Taylor snorted and tossed an amused look towards Zack. “Catch.” He threw the bent baton at his head, knocking Zack’s lights out.

* * *

Everything hurt. Pain radiated from his abdomen so intensely he felt like throwing up. The ringing in his ears and the massive headache were only making things worse. And to top it off someone was rocking him. Zack wanted to swear, but he couldn’t form the words. The rocking finally stopped, and he finally managed to crack his eyes open. Slowly Nakhti’s face came into focus. The edge of the biker’s lips lifted ever so slightly.

“How many of me do you see?”

“J-just one…” Zack babbled, momentarily forgetting about the pain as blood rushed to his cheeks. He was in Nakhti’s arms, pressed against the guy’s muscular chest. Nakhti must have carried him here. They were so close, Zack wished he could feel the heat of Nakhti’s body. But they were both wearing leather jackets. Still, Zack couldn’t complain. His brutalized stomach filled with butterflies and seemed to hurt a little less.

“He’s conscious, you guys!” Josie called out to the other bikers.

Zack slowly turned his head and saw Yen, Sam and Sphinx gathered around his damaged bike. It was upright once more. Thankfully the light of the nearby street lamp was not enough to show the extent of the damage. They were all standing on the edge of the gas station lot, between the building and a tall fence, out of sight from the one-percenters. Tamika and Josie stood next to Nakhti and looked at Zack with relieved, but still concerned expressions.

“How are you, Zack?” Tamika asked softly.

“Eh. I’ve been worse,” Zack said honestly. “I don’t think he broke any bones this time.”

“Who is that guy? I’ve never seen anyone pull a stunt like that. He lifted a freaking Harley cruiser! Or what he did to my baton, it’s steel, you know! And he didn’t even break a sweat.” Josie held up her ruined baton. “Did he run away from the circus?”

“Not as far as I know.” Zack sighed. “I’m sorry. Taylor probably joined the Undying specifically to antagonize me. I had no idea he would go this far. He’s been enough of a pain at school.”

“And what did you call him? ‘Fit teller’ or something?”

“Uh, Fitela. But please don’t call him that. He goes nuts if you do. It’s his childhood name. We grew up together.”

Tamika and Josie looked at him in terror. 

“Was he always this bad?” Tamika asked.

“Well, he always hated me, but I think coming out made it worse,” Zack admitted.

“I’m so sorry, kid.” Josie rubbed the back of her neck. “It all happened to fast, I couldn’t reach you before he knocked you down. It’s my job to keep us safe, and I totally failed back there. But you did a great job, I’ve never seen anyone dodge so well! You’re a champ.”

Zack’s blush returned and he mumbled something shyly.

”Does the champ feel like he can stand on his own two feet again?” Nakhti snorted.

Zack’s blush spread over his entire face and ears. “Uh, sure, you can put me down.”

The club leader did, but kept one hand on Zack’s back, should he lose balance after all. Zack briefly considered pretending he was still faint just to get close to Nakhti again. But he couldn’t even if he wanted to, everyone was looking.

“Well, look who’s awake.” Yen’s expression had none of the concern that the women were channeling. The Asian biker sneered. “Cinderella didn’t need a kiss from a prince after all.”

“That’s Sleeping Beauty, Yen,” Sam corrected. He looked predictably worried. “How are you?”

“I’ll be ok,” Zack said, but winced as the pain in his stomach reignited.

“Are you sure? Even if he didn’t break any of your ribs, you could have internal bruising or bleeding. We should take you to a hospital. I imagine you can actually afford that,” Sam added the last part quieter.

“No need, really. Taylor is a brute, but he wouldn’t do lasting damage to me. My dad is friends with his dad. He’d be in a world of trouble if he landed me in a hospital.” Zack cringed. “You might notice how he refrained from punching me in the face. As per usual.” He gestured at his face.

“As per usual? How long has this been going on?” Josie asked quietly, in a shocked tone.

Zack sighed. “It’s not important.”

“Oh yes it is.” Tamika crossed her arms.

“Alright. What do you mean by ‘this’?” Zack relented.

“Him beating you up like that?” Josie waved towards the gas station.

“Oh, that’s just a few weeks. I mean he doesn’t beat me like this every time. But he’s been more of a nuisance recently…”

“Because you joined the Pharaohs,” Sam said quietly.

Zack looked at them in horror. “Hey, guys, don’t take it this way. I-I didn’t mean for this to happen! Nakhti asked me if Taylor would be a problem and I-I cannot control what he does, it’s not fair if you kick me out on his account if all he ever does is beat on me-”

“Nobody’s kicking you out, relax.” Tamika put a hand on his shoulder. “If this is happening because you’re one of us, kicking you out is the last thing for us to do. We’ll keep you safe from now on.”

“I’ll get a gun if I have to,” Josie said.

“I can help with that,” Sphinx offered.

“See how resourceful he is!” Yen gestured towards Sphinx like the man was a product he was marketing. “I told you he’s an asset. And did I fail to mention, Sphinx knows about guns? Because he totally does. He knows more than the rest of us combined! Except maybe you, Sam, you’re a fucking encyclopedia, but you never held one, I bet, and you prefer Medieval weapons anyway, so he’s still ahead of you!”

Instead of being impressed, Sam looked instantly concerned by that.

“Anyway, don’t worry, kid, we’re completely on your side here,” Josie assured Zack.

”One hundred percent,” Nakhti said and patted the teen on the back gently.

Zack had never been healed by touch before, but now he felt he was.

⚞ ¥ ⚟

The rich kid’s bike was too damaged to ride, so Sam got his pick-up truck and the lot of them, minus the hurt brat, had hauled the bike onto the truck. It was too late to go to a mechanic, so it was agreed they would take the bike there first thing in the morning. It was almost new and perhaps the warranty would still cover some of the damage. Though Yen highly doubted anyone would believe their story of a guy lifting and tossing the bike onto the ground. Lying seemed like a more viable option. But thankfully, it was not his problem.

His problem was that Nakhti offered to give the kid a ride home and the snot of course agreed.

Seeing that the riding as a group was done for the night, Sphinx dashed off home. And so did Tamika and Josie, after Sam assured them he would not need their help.

Yen was left alone.

He pondered the situation. Everyone seemed to like Sphinx. And if the thing with the Undying was going to escalate — and it looked like it was — they would like Sphinx even more soon enough. But the whole Taylor deal sucked. It put the rich kid in the center of attention. Now everyone was going to baby him, not just Sam. Even Nakhti was falling for it. Yen snarled. 

The kid was making goo-goo eyes at Nakhti all the time. It was sickening to watch.

But now he was also this poor victim that everyone sided with. And that was grinding Yen’s gears even more. So the kid got beat. So what? They’d all had their share of fights. And most of them couldn’t afford to go to a fucking hospital even if they wanted to. Stupid, fucking kid.

Yen got onto his Honda and sped off.

Some ten minutes later he sat on the porch of Nakhti’s house. The lights were off, so he waited and smoked, alone. Brooding.

Yen puffed a cloud of smoke and watched through it as the Egyptian biker finally appeared, rode through the street, up the driveway, past his bike and into the opening garage. He heard the bike’s engine die down in the garage, and a moment later Nakhti stood before him in all his leather and eyeliner glory.

“Playing mosquito bait? I left the garage open, you can get yours in there too.”

Yen puffed out another cloud of smoke, but did not move from place.

“I see. Well, whatever you decide, close the garage after you’re done.” Nakhti turned away from him, then added, “Also the kid is home safe, in case you’ve been wondering.”

“Oh yeah? Did you kiss him goodnight?”

Nakhti turned back to him slowly. “This again. Are you jealous or something? What is it?”

“Well, you tell me, should I be jealous? The little shit is slobbering all over himself, whenever he sees you. But I thought — correct me if I’m wrong — that you’re not into spoiled little children.” Yen snarled and put out his cigarette on the porch. “Now you’re playing chauffeur for Richie Rich. Are you thinking of making that a full time gig? Looking for a change of employment? Thinking his dad pays well?”

The club leader eyed him coldly. “What was I supposed to do? You were there with us, you saw what happened. Zack stood his ground. This was no joke. He’s just sixteen. He’s with our club now, and we’re supposed to look out for him. Meanwhile so far he mostly got humiliated and beat up. The fact he has a crush on me has nothing to do with any of this.”

“Oh he’s sixteen and he got his ass kicked, so now he’s suddenly our very own precious baby, King Tut of the Pharaohs. We must worship and cherish him. Forgive me if I’m not impressed!” Yen threw his hands into the air, letting the cigarette butt fly where it would. “Isn’t it convenient that that Taylor guy would go out of his way to avoid ruining his pretty little face? Childhood friends, huh? Haven’t you thought that maybe this is all a ruse? He could have bought the entire Undying off with just his pocket money! Do you think his filthy rich parents would let him go get himself hurt? Use your head, the whole deal is a setup!”

That gave Nakhti pause. The man seemed to be thinking, and Yen hoped he would see things his way but no, of course he didn’t. 

“I get it Yen, you’re not jealous, you’re just envious. I’ve known you for long enough to realize you’ve got some issues. And this kid’s making them worse. He’s got what you never did. A home, a happy childhood, a loving fam-”

“Shut up!” Yen yelled and jumped to his feet, his hands balled into fists. “Shut the fuck up, Nakhti! You, you don’t know shit! Go stuff your mouth with your own dick, cause I’m not sucking it tonight!” Yen marched away towards his bike. His hands were shaking, and so was his voice. “Richie Rich is playing you all for fools. You will see! And when you do, I will rub it into your faces until the day I die!”

It still failed to make much of an impression on Nakthi. “So now you’re angry at me instead? How mature. Though, I suppose that’s still better than you taking it out on a kid who just wants to belong.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry he doesn’t get enough belonging in his big fancy home with his loving parents, his money bags and butlers and shit! Throw him a pity party of acceptance and reassurance, why don’t you!” Yen got on his bike. “Just don’t invite me!” 

He gave Nakhti the finger and rode away, letting his engine roar angrily into the night.

⚞♗⚟

Blaise got up with the first ray of sun. He dressed, he gathered documents for the chancery from the study upstairs and packed them into a briefcase. Then he went around the house with a watering can.

When he walked downstairs to water the plants in the living room, he saw a mop of messy hair sticking out from beyond the armrest of the couch. He went around the couch and became a witness to a truly sorry sight.

Yen lay curled up on there, fully dressed, with his bandana shifted to cover his eyes even though he lay his face to the backrest. He was hugging a mostly empty bottle of tequila to his chest. It appeared he had managed not to spill too much on the couch. Surprisingly, he had also been mindful enough to kick off his boots before going to sleep. One of them lay under an end table, another rested on the floor a few feet from the couch.

The priest sighed. Then he touched the biker’s shoulder.

Yen groaned loudly. “Fuck off, Nakhti.”

“It seems like that has been taken care of, with you being all the way here in my living room.”

Yen lifted one side of his bandana. He groaned at the morning light and moved it back down. He tried to roll over to face Blaise, but discovered the bottle and struggled with it for a moment, until the priest helpfully removed it and set it aside, out of harm’s way. Yen slowly sat up and made a noise of prolonged agony. Finally, he pulled the bandana up and squinted up at the priest. “Hi, Daddy.” He said amicably, then grimaced. “You can have the rest of the tequila.”

“I’ll pass. Come on now.” Blaise helped him up to his feet and started walking him somewhere.

“Where are we going?” Yen groaned groggily.

”To the bathroom, of course. You look like you’re going to throw up.”

“Good call,” Yen agreed. The moment they reached the bathroom he bent over the toilet and puked so violently, he soon sunk to his knees.

Blaise stayed with him and held Yen’s messy hair safely away from the toilet bowl.

When he was done, the biker sat shivering on the floor with a look of pain on his face. It cleared up a little when Blaise passed him a glass of water. Yen murmured his thanks and gurgled before spitting the water out into the toilet. He did it again, then tried to get up. Blaise helped him, and he managed.

“Are you sure you’re done here?” The priest asked.

“I think so…” Yen rubbed his eyes. “My head feels like I hammered nails in with it.”

“That is perfectly normal. But I might be able to help. Come.” Blaise led him to the kitchen this time and pulled out a chair for him to sit on. Then he poured half a glass of water, told Yen to wait and disappeared with it. When he came back the water was no longer clear, more like many shades of swampy green and smelled like herbs. “Drink this.”

Yen gave the glass a doubtful look, then remembering how Blaise had removed his cold by making him spit into another glass, decided to cooperate. He downed the glass in one go, like a champ. Then he cringed violently. 

“Ugh, god, this is the most disgusting thing I ever drank!” Yen shuddered. “And I just had puke in my mouth!” Yen made faces and twitched for a little while, then sat still as his mind cleared. He did feel better. He actually almost felt normal. But back then it couldn’t have been Blaise’s bullshit ‘cure’ that had helped him, and it wasn’t it now. Or was it?

Yen looked at the priest questioningly. “What the fuck was that?”

“Herbs. For the most part.”

“And for the least part?”

Blaise snorted. “That thing you don’t believe in that I do for a living.”

“Holy water? Those shitty wafers?”

“No, the other thing I do for a living.”

“Ah, powdered tiger balls then, good, good.”

Blaise looked at him with weary patience. “I will have to go soon, but if you stay, or come again in the afternoon, I can show you around the basement like I mentioned before.”

“I gotta go to work now too,” Yen admitted reluctantly. The unwelcome clarity of mind reminded him that skipping work without a warning could cost him his job. And this whole sham-anism thing was fun, but he liked to ‘diversify his assets’, as Nakhti would have said. Nakhti… Fuck Nakhti, Yen thought, then added out loud, “And yeah, I’ll totally be back in the afternoon. I’d love me a tour of the murder basement.”

“Well then, you’ve got yourself one, my boy. Now, before you go, you should eat something. Come, I’ll make you a breakfast.”

⚞ Z ⚟

It was a lovely Saturday afternoon. Zack undid his bandana and let the wind run through his nappy hair. The last of the summer sunshine was gracing the Pharaohs with its presence, and the breeze was still a welcome respite rather than a bone-chilling menace. The lack of rain throughout the week had left the roads dustier than desired. One look at his bandana convinced Zack wearing it was a good idea. He slapped the piece of fabric against his leg, trying to shake some of the dust and small dead insects off.

His hands were hurting, and his butt was sore. The saddle on this bike was still not broken into. He hoped no one else noticed that the bike he rode now wasn’t the same exact bike as before. It was the same model, and he had made sure to ride it around a little to make it look dusty before he showed himself to the bikers for fear of making his rich brat image worse.

It appeared that so far no one had noticed. Nobody commented on it before they rode out, and now during the break the Pharaohs were all going about their own business.

Josie was stretching. Tamika and Sam shared a flask. Of course, the flask contained nothing but water. In such moments Zack thought of the two as the fun police. The teenager smiled.

Sphinx had walked away, probably to take a leak. Nakhti was smoking, seemingly not sore or at all afflicted by any earthly weakness. Zack tried not to stare at him and decided instead to try his luck befriending Yen again.

The latter was crouching by the back of Sphinx’s motorcycle, fiddling with the brakes. Zack had noticed Yen was often maintaining everyone’s bikes. Zack rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. His dad had once said that asking for a small favor made people like you more, and from what he’d heard elsewhere asking for advice on one’s favorite subject was also a good approach. It couldn’t hurt to try.

Zack walked up to Yen and stopped in a respectable distance, making sure not to block the sunlight. “So, uh, Yen…” He cleared his throat. “I’ve noticed you always check up on everyone’s bikes before we set out on these longer rides. I know you don’t really like me, but I would be very grateful if you could give me some tips?”

“What for?” Yen grumbled.

“Well, so I can do maintenance on my bike?”

“Doesn’t your butler do it for you?”

“I don’t have a butler.” Zack frowned.

“Your private mechanic then.” Yen turned to him with a joyless grin. “Don’t expect me to work on your ride for free either.”

Zack blinked in confusion. He was ready to offer money, but he was afraid that would only insult Yen and make things worse. So instead he just asked “Why?”

“Don’t you know? I can’t touch a Harley,” Yen said very seriously. “As a non-white American it would make me spontaneously combust. And the only thing that’s keeping you safe is that layer of diaper between your ass and the bike.”

“Very funny.”

“Anyway, your bike doesn’t need maintenance. Because it’s a brand new one. Our precious designer baby got himself a replacement Harley, everyone!”

“Wha-what?!” Zack balked.

“Kid, I work at a carwash, I can tell when something is new.” Yen cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered. “Look everyone, a new Harley Davidson. After we told the kid we don’t ride Harley Davidsons — he gets himself a second one. Just like one of the Undying. I bet you he asked his friend to drop his bike just so he could buy another one.” Yen turned to Zack “Are you going to be changing bikes every month?”

Zack forced the beginnings of a pout into a snarl, terrified that any show of vulnerability would cement his image of an oversized baby. “You got me! It’s a new bike. The dealership offered to replace the damaged one. Tell me to my face that you would have said no in my situation!”

“Oh, my, and what a tough situation that is.” Yen brought a hand to his cheek. “People giving you free motorbikes, cause your dad owns half the town. Asian lowlives refusing to teach you the wisdom of the Honda owner’s manual. You have one for your Harley, I’m sure. But you don’t even know where it is. Because you don’t give a fuck about motorcycles. You don’t give a fuck about riding. You’re only here because you want a mouthful of Nakhti’s dick.”

Zack’s face grew red, and treacherously, the pout returned, ruining his attempts to fake anger. The teenager hung his head and looked away, his posture tense and his hands balled into fists.

“Yen! Cut it out!” Josie popped up beside Zack.

“That was completely uncalled for.” Tamika stood on the other side of the teenager and looked down at Yen stormily.

“He… he’s not entirely wrong,” Zack said quietly. “I didn’t know much about motorcycles before I joined you. And I still don’t. But I want to learn.” Zack struggled not to let his voice quiver. “I really want to be one of you. The more time I spend with you, the more I want it. I-… I have only one friend my age! You are my friends! And that includes all of you! I want to be your friend, Yen, why do you keep being such a dick to me?”

“Cause you’re a spoiled little shit?” Yen shrugged with a fake clueless expression.

Zack groaned and turned around, stalking away with his hands in his pockets. The two women followed him and stopped him several feet away, talking to him in soothing voices and tossing Yen dirty looks.

Yen crossed his arms and looked at them coldly.

“You really didn’t have to say that,” Sam said sternly. He stood in front of Yen in all his under five foot glory, like an angry assortment of boxes with hair and goggles on top.

“Pah-lease, we all know that’s the truth!” Yen said very loudly, trying to overpower Tamika’s and Josie’s flow of reassurances.

Nakhti gave Yen a cold look as he passed by him in silence and headed over to Zack and the ladies. He stopped right behind them and cleared his throat.

The three of them turned to him.

“Listen, Zack.” Unlike Yen, Nakhti spoke in a quiet voice. “Yen is the real little shit around here, so don’t mind him. He’s right and wrong, but mostly he’s just bitter as fuck due to some reasons I will not go on not to wind him up even more. The thing is, we all know that your main motivation to join was because you have the hots for me, we knew from the start.”

Zack’s eyes opened wide and his cheeks turned bright red. He opened his mouth and closed it again. His eyes darted to meet Nakhti’s and then looked anywhere else but into his crush’s dark eyes.

“And it’s fine.” Nakhti continued. “You’re a teenager, and that’s how it is. We’ve all been teenagers once. Some of us more recently than others.” He eyed Yen from afar. “Anyway, we accepted you knowing this, and knowing everything else that he is trying to make you feel bad about. So just relax. You’re an asset to our club, we wouldn’t have taken you even for a hang-around otherwise. And Yen really needs to figure his shit out.” He added the last part much louder.

“Ugh!” Yen got up and threw his hands into the air. “Did he pay you off too? Does nobody have any personal integrity left?! I’m going for a piss!” He announced and marched away, passing a somewhat confused Sphinx on the way to the bushes.

Sphinx watched him go, then looked at everyone else. “What did I miss?”

* * *

That same weekend they had two more run-ins with the Undying, and unfortunately with Taylor as well. Thankfully neither was long enough to escalate, and when he returned to school on Monday, Zack was surprised to discover Taylor was skipping classes. It was not unheard of, but it was good news. When he was still not in on Tuesday, Zack decided to use this opportunity as a teaching moment, and over the course of the next few days he sought out his other bullies one by one, or in groups of up to three and beat the shit out of them.

His luck finally ran out on Friday when he found himself at the principal’s office with his father seated next to him.

“We simply cannot have such behavior in our well-respected high school, Mr. Viteri! I hope you understand that no amount of donations can compensate for your son’s inappropriate behavior!” Mr. Evans, the principal, looked sternly at the father and son in turns.

Hector Sr. was frowning. He nodded gravely. “I agree, violent attacks on students cannot be tolerated.” He turned to Zack. “You are in deep trouble, Mister. You’re grounded.”

“Grounded?!” Zack looked at his father in terror.

“Yes. No more loitering and arcades for you,” Hector said sternly.

The principal looked pleased. 

“But I only beat up those guys cause they’ve been beating me!” Zack exclaimed angrily. “Whalesong most of all! They were hiding behind him to get their turn, and now he’s away I just paid them back, and mercifully so I might add!”

“You’re saying you were a target of bullying, Mr. Viteri?” The principal steepled his fingers and looked at Zack with open skepticism. “Why didn’t you come to the administration for help, then?”

“Because I’m not a rat, and also you people saw it happen, and you didn’t do shit.” Zack snarled.

“Language, Junior!”

“You say you were beaten, but I don’t see as much as a scrape,” the headmaster said.

“Well, look now!” Zack pulled up his shirt, revealing the massive bruise on his abdomen. Then he rolled up his sleeves, revealing more and more bruises. “That’s mostly Taylor’s handiwork, but this here is Daniels, and here’s Grant, this is Thompson and here’s…”

Hector looked at his son, then slowly back at the headmaster. “How interesting….” His voice turned icy. “Why am I being contacted by the school only now?” he rumbled.

Zack watched with deep satisfaction as drops of sweat formed on the principal’s pink face. He turned to his dad. “It’s cause I’m not a snitch, Dad.”

“Uh, Mr. Viteri, I was not aware of this. Young Hector here was not hurt in my presence-”

“You don’t know what is going on in your own school then?” Hector asked.

“N-no, I mean, of course, I know, but not about this…” The principal trailed off under the scrutiny of Hector’s small penetrating eyes. “I… I assure you this will not happen again. Any of it. I am sure you can talk sense into your own son, and I will make sure the other parents will do so too, as soon as I contact them.”

“You better get to it then. It appears there are many boys involved.”

“Y-yes. I’ll get right to it then. You have a good day…” The principal reached for the phone with his hands shaking.

“You too.” Hector stood up and walked his son to the door. “And Mr. Evans. I used to remember fondly the day I cut the red ribbon when this school opened. Let’s keep it that way, shall we?” Hector smiled.

The principal just nodded.

The Viteris walked through the school in silence. Zack glanced up at his dad, but his face was mostly unreadable. Deciding he didn’t want to have a conversation on school grounds either, Zack let his dad lead the way out and to his limo. When they were together in the privacy of the back seat, Hector turned to his son.

“Why don’t you fight Taylor back?”

“Huh?” Zack looked up at Hector in surprise.

“Those bruises you got, I didn’t see any on him, and I just saw him recently. He did not have so much as a scratch. Why do you not fight back? Why are you going easy on him?” Hector studied his son attentively. “Do you like-like him?”

“What?! No, Dad! Ugh, gross! I hate his guts, geez!” Zack almost jumped out of his seat in disgust. “Taylor just doesn’t feel pain, I’d only hurt myself punching him!”

Hector looked like he didn’t believe him. Then he shrugged. “Anyway, good job on those other kids, I am proud of you.”

Zack stared at him in confusion, then a ray of hope shone into his eyes. “Are you saying I’m not gonna be grounded?”

“Of course not!” Hector waved a hand. “I was just placating Evans. You beat up half the boys in your school and for a good reason too. We’re going for ice cream.”

Zack grinned. “I love you, Dad!”

“I love you too, kiddo.” Hector ruffled his hair and smirked. “But try not to look too smug at school. And not to rub shoulders with preps when you ride around town with your biker friends. The school needs to believe you are punished. I have an image to maintain.” Hector adjusted his suit jacket and made a very serious expression.

Zack smiled. “Will do, sir!”

“Attaboy. Now think of the ice cream flavors that you like best, because you can have them all.”

⚞ ¥ ⚟

Blaise moved the rug aside and opened the hidden trap door leading to the murder basement, making a welcoming gesture. “After you, my boy.”

Yen quickly descended the steep stairs and pulled on the light switch. At this point the basement felt more like another room of Blaise’s house than a setup from a horror movie. When he had first found the hidden trap door and sneaked inside, early during their acquaintance, he’d found the place pretty damn creepy. And the creepy factor had skyrocketed when Blaise cornered him in there several minutes later. Back then Yen had thought he was done for, that Blaise was a serial killer. Instead he turned out to be just a very sophisticated conman. On that first visit, Yen had baptized the place ‘the murder basement’ and murder basement it had been since. But it no longer felt like one. At least not in a bad way. It was pretty awesome, all in all, now that he had a good look at it two times in under a month.

Into view came the omnipresent shelving. The place looked like a cramped warehouse filled with horror movie props. They’d gone through some of that weird shit on their previous visit, but there was just too much stuff here for one sitting and they ended up managing to cover only a small part of the basement related to all sorts of… how did Blaise call it… scrying? Oh yeah and a whole lot of stones in all shapes and sizes, since they were on the shelf right next to the scrying stuff.

Blaise had followed him downstairs and was now standing close to the place where they had left off, ready to continue the lecture.

“Now, we’ll start with a quick test. I will ask you about some items from the last time, and let’s see how good your memory is.”

“Bring it on, Daddy.”

“Where would you search for a blue pigment?”

“The dyes section here.” Yen pointed.

“Or?”

“Or make it… from…”

Blaise’s eyebrows rose.

“This blue stone here.”

“Good. And do you remember the name of this stone?

“…”

“Lapis Lazuli. It’s actually been important in Egypt as well. The Egyptians knew it as the sapphire, although it is not one. Now, some other ways of acquiring blue include grinding azurites and a plant called the woad, or otherwise Indigofera tinctoria, also common in Asia. There is also the toxic cobalt blue, harder to achieve but commonly used in Chinese porcelain, as well as in the blue stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals.”

Yen raised his hand.

Blaise looked at him with mild surprise.

“Question. Why exactly is all of this important for scamming people?”

“You see, my boy, scamming people is a very intricate art, where anything can happen. Knowing everything renders one best prepared for any kind of situation that may arise.”

“But can’t you just improvise and make stuff up as you go like ‘this powder was made from the horn of narwhal killed on the first full moon of October’…” Yen wiggled his fingers mysteriously.

“I… guess it could work in theory, but I choose not to, how to phrase it… blaze that trail. Now can we continue?”

“O-oh!” Yen grinned. “Daddy, you’re learning something too. Please, go on.”

Blaise smiled. “Where are the tools stored?”

“Here.” Yen poked a wooden box on one of the shelves. 

“Very good. And I am aware we did not cover this, but, would you happen to know which was the most sought for metal in Ancient Egypt?”

“Hm.” Yen frowned, this was probably a trick question. But he had no better ideas. “Gold?”

“By the common populace perhaps. But the pharaohs treasured another sort of metal above that. Namely, meteoric iron, yes, literally iron of extraterrestrial origin. Special seekers were deployed to scour the land in search of it, especially in the aftermath of meteorite showers.”

“Ancient Egyptian UFO hunters. Neat.” Yen nodded. He made a mental note to use this information against Sam somehow, someday.

The priest smirked. “And lastly, show me where one would find a mirror.”

“The big one’s over there, under the cloth, there are some smaller ones there.” Yen indicated the shelf in question with a nod.

“Well done.”

Yen looked at Blaise expectantly, almost disappointed. “No random mirror facts?”

The priest sighed. “Ah, very well. Quicksilver, otherwise known as mercury, was once widely used in mirror making to create the reflective surface. This sometimes led to poisoning and death from breathing mercury vapors. The practice was mostly abandoned by the mid-nineteenth century, when the mercury coating was replaced by the more efficient silver coating.”

“Wow you’re like an encyclopedia, Daddy. My turn. Now I will ask you random trivia.”

Blaise sighed. “If possible please limit the subject matter to the 19th century and earlier, I feel a bit… out of touch with certain modern things.”

“Nineteenth century… Ok, since we’re going that far back in time, what’s up with your antiquated pajamas? Do you keep the rest of them here? It would fit the surroundings.” Yen looked around and nodded in agreement with himself. “Where do you even get such old-fashioned threads? Do you have to fight a Mennonite to earn them or something?”

The questions seemed to have given Blaise pause, and while the priest struggled choosing which of these to answer first if any at all, Yen took pity on him and waved his hand dismissively. “Actually, scratch all these, because the more important question is — where you keep that tattoo kit and when we can put it to good use?”

“Well, of that I am not quite certain, but it is here somewhere, and we are bound to come across it eventually. Consider it a reward for your patience. Meanwhile, we have some other implements on our agenda. I suppose some of them you might even consider ‘fun’. This here section for instance.”

Yen smirked as Blaise indicated the shelves with a hoard of musical instruments. This didn’t really fit the rest of the murder basement quite as much. Or did it? He wasn’t sure. Horror movies often relied quite heavily on music…

“As you might be guessing, music plays a significant role in the ritual performance of a shaman. It is important both in communing with the spirit world and altering the state of mind of the shaman and the minds of the listeners. A typical shaman uses a lot of aids to achieve the state of trance and cross between the worlds, and that of course includes both the music and a variety of consciousness altering substances. I have mostly given up on the latter, but I still find music helpful. While drumming and songs are the most significant, I dabbled in all sorts of related things, exploring what different cultures had to offer.” The priest gestured towards the musical hoard. “These are just some of the instruments I used during the course of my… career.”

“You mean, you left some out, and it’s still such a shitton? Impressive.” Yen looked at the vast collection. He’d gone through these shelves when he was trying to locate Blaise’s drum, and he’d hesitated, trying to decide whether one of the round rattles was actually the beater back then. Some of these things didn’t even look like instruments. Sure, hollowed bones and animal horns he could understand, but there was a sculpture of something like a wolf sitting on a rock and other animals carved in wood. One of them looked like a strange frog, another like a bird. Were those elaborate whistles? Yen scratched his face in puzzlement. Yeah, probably that was it — around the weird sculptures there were flutes and whistles galore, many pretty normal-looking. There were some string instruments, but most of them he had never seen before. They still looked fairly reasonable, maybe except that there dried squash with strings. But next to the spoiled vegetable was a small harp and what looked promisingly like a violin case. 

Yen nodded respectfully, he’d heard violins were a pain in the ass to learn. But then his attention was drawn to a weird colony of barnacles tied together. That beat the squash fair and square. At least the squash had strings.

Blaise noticed him looking at the barnacles, and he picked the instrument up, it made a cascade of clicking sounds. “This is a deer-hoof rattle. It used to be quite popular during funerals and wakes. Native American tribes are still using it. I mostly keep it out of sentiment.”

“Maybe you should also bring that thing to a funeral, that would spice things up.”

“I hoped we had already established that funerals do not need to be spiced up.”

“Are you saying they are spicy already?”

Blaise gave him a familiar tired look. By now Yen knew well that those kind of looks were pretty half-hearted. He smirked and spread his arms to encompass the collection. “Anyway, can you actually play all of these?”

“Oh yes, these, and many more.”

“Really? How about, uh…” Yen surveyed the shelf for the weirdest thing available and pointed at what looked like a weapon rather than a musical instrument. “Hm… Even that bow?”

“Even that bow.” The priest picked it up from the shelf. “What would you like me to play on it?” 

“Play Ozzy’s Mr. Crowley!”

“I’m… afraid I am not familiar with it. But if you sing or hum a part of it, I can try.”

Yen looked perplexed for a moment, then made a best effort at humming the intro.

Blaise put a part of the bow into his mouth and began plucking the string, letting the melody resonate inside his mouth. It sounded very similar to the keyboard intro, in fact, eerily similar, like how could a single string in a guy’s mouth make that noise?! Yen gaped in awe. Blaise matched the melody he had hummed perfectly. Unfortunately, since he did not know the original, it was somewhat lacking.

“Wowzer. I did a shit job myself, and you still made it sound like the song! Mad skill, Daddy!” Yen shook his head, impressed. “I should play you the song on tape sometime, you can rock that weird bow so hard, the next time you’d be as good as the original.”

Blaise smiled and put the bow back neatly on the shelf.

“That bow is awesome. All these flutes and whistles are good and well. But what you’re really missing is a saxophone!” Yen posed like he held one in his hands and made a poor imitation of ‘Careless Whisper’ with just his voice. “See that would be quite the shamanistic journey right there! A journey right to the top of the charts!”

“I appreciate the fresh business ideas, but I think that’s enough music for now. I trust you will find this section when you need to, now, let us proceed.”

Then they covered a more boring set of drawers containing pieces of tree bark, roots and leaves of plants — Blaise started explaining their various uses to him one by one but seeing the light dying out in Yen’s eyes, he mercifully left it for some other time. Another set of drawers contained extensive collections of teeth, claws, shells and small to medium bones or their fragments, some of them sculpted to resemble two-headed beasts with open maws. Yen asked about those, and Blaise explained that these were the soul catchers into which the shamans could exhale a soul retrieved from the spirit world, or temporarily inhale their client’s soul whenever necessary. And yes, when the soul was to be released from the soul catcher, often the shaman would breathe it through the item right into the person’s mouth. 

Yen struggled with keeping his face as straight as Blaise’s when the priest was telling him all this. The man then summarized the use of different bone types, including divining from surfaces cracked by fire, which according to Blaise a shaman would often read as a map. That was most often done with scapulas — shoulder bones — of various animals, which were usually called oracle bones due to this. Blaise went on about different uses of bones for a while longer and finished the lecture off with an explanation of their application in rune casting, which could be done with virtually anything, though he personally preferred knuckle bones. The latter, as the priest made sure to mention, was just one of hundreds of different ways of divination. Yen laughed, and asked how Roon Casting was doing, but this time Blaise did not elaborate.

Then came another interesting section. A variety of spools of ropes, leather straps, threads and strings of all kinds were laid out on one of the lower shelves.

“Somebody’s either saving on gift packaging or heavily into bondage. I’m not judging either way.”

Blaise turned to him with a mild smirk. “Believe it or not, but shamans are in fact heavily into bondage.”

Yen raised his eyebrows. “Oh yeah? Tell me more.”

The smirk on the priest’s lips grew wider. “Many shamans are quite the masterful escape artists. To many people, seeing their shamans free themselves from the bonds in a split second, was proof enough that they were able to draw upon the power of spirits. Of course, a momentary distraction such as a loud sound, or the flames going out, did help bolster the impression that such an escape was of supernatural origin.”

“So you don’t need a safe word then, you’d just break out of your bonds and chastise the poor soul that does not kink you up right, eh, Daddy?” Yen snickered.

“In the unlikely event of that ever being the case, it is exactly what I would do. Now, let’s take a look at these.” Blaise explained to him how to recognize which rope was made of which material, in case it was ever relevant. The priest was clearly not a fan of modern materials like polyester. Instead all the ropes were made of weird stuff like hemp, sisal, manila and some other thing Yen didn’t quite get.

After they were done with the bondage shelf, Blaise looked at his antiquated pocket watch. Three hours have passed and just like on the previous occasion they covered just a fraction of the murder basement. “Well, it looks like we’ve spent long enough down here for one day, and I don’t want to bore you to death. But I just wanted to show you that we’re nearing a section that might be of interest to you. We will go over it next time.”

He beckoned with his hand and led Yen several shelves further, making a wide welcoming gesture towards one of them.

It took Yen a moment to process what he saw. Then he recognized familiarly shaped leaves. “Is this the real life or just a fantasy?! Psychedelics buffet? How did I miss this.” Yen gestured at the arrangement of drugs in great excitement. “Are you kidding me, Daddy, what do you mean next time, can’t we go through it now?”

Blaise looked at him, and where Yen expected a look of irritation, he was surprised to see one of fondness instead. “Well, if you’re so eager to learn… I suppose I cannot say no.”

“Booya!” Yen raised both arms in a gesture of victory.

That was quite a lesson. For once Yen was paying maximum attention. Not that he ignored the previous stuff, all of it was quite amusing. But this clearly topped the rest of the lectures for the night. 

Blaise took him through his vast collection of psychoactive substances. Morning glory, hell’s bells, magic mushrooms, opium, Blaise had it all. Though some of it didn’t look how Yen expected it to, and of course Blaise insisted on calling everything in Latin so Yen had to bug him until the priest finally told him the plain English names. Once he heard those, Yen praised himself on being actually familiar with some of those drugs, Blaise however seemed to be most fond of the ones Yen had never tried, some sort of cactus among other things. It turned out that even some type of salvia was a psychedelic, and Blaise had some of these plants inconspicuously growing in his backyard and even at home.

“Well, we covered a lot of things today. Maybe too many.” Blaise said as he finished instructing Yen about the purposes, effects and correct doses of — how he called them — the consciousness altering substances. “Do you think you’ll remember some at least?” he asked Yen jokingly.

“You betcha, and if you want to give me homework, I wouldn’t mind in the least!” Yen winked.

“Attaboy. Now, I’d rather not assign you homework with these per se, but you’ve been a good student, so next time you visit me, I will let you try one of these. Think on which one you’d like that to be. Eventually, I might even let you try most of them.”

Yen grinned like a hungry child that had snuck into a candy store overnight.

If this encounter was any indication, their every meeting was going to be a first one.