Sweat trickled down her brow as she concentrated on the knife wound.
Sixteen-year-old Lotus channeled a flow of life-energy down her arm, through her hand and into the wound pressed beneath it. The super-cells unique to vempars seeped from her palm and began Healing the damaged flesh.
After several minutes, she withdrew her hand, and the burly, gruff man sat upright, twisting to eye the now-gone stab wound in his side.
“Mirakuru, it’s really gone. Just like magic!”
She hated doing this.
“That’s right, chinpira. Now get back to your job,” said Shiro, her bodyguard—or more accurately, her jailor. He pulled the thug by the elbow and shoved him out the door, before letting the next man who stood in line enter the room.
Not as long of a line today—thank goodness. Healing these undeserving wretches of the underground world never got any easier on her conscious. But she was the property of the Kuro Mafia, here, in Fukuoka City. Brought and bought for only one reason: to make a profit off her vempar gift of Healing.
The mafia’s thugs and followers were Healed of injuries acquired from their dangerous work and odious deeds, while others, not related to the mafia, who heard the rumors of Healing came pouring in for the service—and paying a hefty sum to get it.
Even after years of doing this, she still couldn’t get used to seeing nasty gashes and bullet wounds, and having to knit together almost-severed appendages.
“Get your head out of your thoughts, Lotus.”
Shiro’s impatient growl made her rise and bow politely to the next customer, before seating them down on the bench. This man had a blade wound across the chest that had become infected.
She sucked in a breath, then started in again on the only work she knew how to do.
Lotus yawned into her elbow and finished washing her hands in the medic’s room. It was late morning and time for her shift to end. Shiro tapped his shiny heel against the wall behind him, waiting.
The mafia’s crew—or whatever you wanted to call them—did their dirty work from dusk into the early dawn hours, which meant that her day consisted of night hours as jobs went wrong and people needed Healing.
“Spending an hour cleaning those nails isn’t gonna make you pretty,” Shiro said.
“No, but it lets me forget what I’m forced to do for a living every day,” she muttered.
“A living?” He laughed at that, coughing on a cigar. She was no better than a slave—she didn’t make a living. “Before you go making me choke and die of laughter, you ought to know I’ll be away on another job, starting tomorrow, for a few weeks.” She dried her hands. “Another fella’s gonna be escorting you around.”
“A substitute jailor? Who knew they did that?”
“Heh. Careful, he may be too much for even your sense of humor to handle.” Shiro tossed the cigar and stamped on it. “Ready?” He went out the door before she could answer, and she trotted after him.
The underground district was quiet at this hour. Lotus tipped her head back at the ceiling’s swirling metal patterns and dimmed lights. The series of tunnels and stores had once been an underground shopping mall, but now it was the place of dark business dealings, ruled by the mafia. She rarely got to go outside the tunnels—the customers came to her, here, where she could be secured.
What shade of blue was the sky, again? Memories of the rice paddy farm were faded, what grass felt like beneath her feet a distant life belonging to someone else.
She and Shiro passed walls of glass windows filled with illegal merchandise and halted at the exotic butcher’s shop. “Oi, Karlo!” Shiro kicked the metal base of the register booth, making it clang.
A rotund head peeked out from the back. The man grumbled something in Japanese, and after several minutes emerged with his live catch for the day: a tied up wild boar and three caged hares. Lotus glanced down with pity at what would be her victims.
Rotund Karlo kept a noticeable distance between himself and her as she bent down, reaching her hand to touch the boar. It wheezed and growled but couldn’t do much tied up. In a way, the animal was like her, except she wore a tracking collar.
The boar’s body pulsed with energy, and she drew that life-energy into her palm, soaking it up and replenishing her own body with it. Vempars needed life-energy to survive; but when she took it from animals, it made her nauseous and weary.
When she lifted her hand, the boar was dead, and Karlo hauled it back into his butcher shop where it would become tomorrow’s specialty. She turned to the hares, doing the same, and hating herself all the while. Caught animals had no chance to run, no chance to survive.
Shiro was tapping his foot impatiently.
Done, she sank to her knees as her stomach fought off nausea and her head spun. After a while, the feeling faded, and they continued the tunnel trek, up to one particular store lined with bars like a jail.
Shiro unlocked the door before navigating through a series of rooms inside, stopping once they reached hers. She yawned as he locked the door behind her, then she flopped onto the platform bed and stiff pillow.
Lotus fished for the miPod under the blanket and plugged the earphones in her ears. A button made the thin, folded frame open and turn on. Scrolling through the air inside the frame, she found the latest soothing dubstep album and let the light techno drift her away into sleep.
“The members of the Society were the last to leave, and they left behind clues for those Altered who had chosen to stay behind, should things grow worse one day and they, too, needed to flee. This is said to be one of those clues.”
The pendant with its dangling crystal rotated, light reflecting off its numerous facets, the green metal leaves cupping it like a flower.
“A map lies somewhere inside it: showing the way to the portal for any who seek to escape this world.”
Escape this world…
Lotus sat up, awake, shoving the blanket aside and blinking in the darkness.
She reached for the nightlight, then slumped back against the wall, touching the pendant that dangled beneath her shirt, always kept close to her heart.
“A map to the portal…is it real? Could there be such a thing?” she spoke aloud to the dark. “If there really is, will you show me, God?”
She watched her faint shadow on the wall, the crystal rotating on its chain.
Who was she kidding? She couldn’t escape the Kuro Mafia. They made big money off of her Healing and had put a tracking collar on her neck to keep it that way. Even if she did somehow manage to get away and lose the collar, she’d need to find sources of life-energy every day to stay alive; and she’d have to escape the notice of other humans who might kidnap her, as the mafia had.
It wasn’t just one group or one city that was the enemy—the whole world was full of enemies eager to kill her or use her. She understood that now, what her parents had been protecting her from.
Was it that day in the village, watching the circus perform, that had sealed their fate and allowed the wrong people to find her and her family?
“Dad…Mom…” She let the tears wet her cheeks.
Dad would have told her it wasn’t her fault, that all things happened for a reason. But she would always carry some guilt in her heart.
The crystal was smooth between her fingertips as she rolled it back and forth, except for one facet that rubbed bumpy along her thumb—centuries of encrusted grime, probably.
“Is this all my life will ever be?” Trapped. Used. Shouldering guilt.
She tried to recall the serene night sky and myriads of stars back at the farm, the moments of stargazing with her dad and chasing fireflies with her mom.