Another one of my early stories. I had an overarching conflict in the background of my setting— don’t they all?— but that’s sort of toned down lately. Still, I’ve always loved the concept of it— don’t we all love our little ideas?— and I feel like it’s an idea I just need to fiddle with a little.
Stephen idly wondered if the Greeks were right, and that there was some kind of world-wide conspiracy to destroy all mankind, an association of anthropomorphized concepts that were usually considered evil, like Anger and Greed or whatever. He wondered if this could possibly explain the rising price of donuts. Certainly it gave him a more concrete amorphous something to be mad at than the economy.
Of slightly below average height, with the kind of long hair that looks good on rocks stars and actors but makes you look like a girl in real life, the chemistry student wore a long-suffering expression that seemed to consider the rain a personal insult against him. He kept the hood of his rain cloak up and pulled low, hiding his face as he turned into his street as he finished off the over-sugared treat, wondering if it was too early in the day to wash it down with alcohol. It wasn’t that he liked booze, usually only taking it purely for the energy boost processing the flammable chemicals in it gave his magic, but he needed to wash out the sugary taste in his throat, and given how it much it had been raining all day, he really didn’t feel like taking any water into his system and making himself more vulnerable.
It was one of the strange quirks a mage has in his biology. Mages, though known by different names like wizard and sorcerers, all shared the power to do magic, to use the Flame of life to do more than just live. One of the many strange effects this had was that their reactions to the ingestions of certain chemicals was not to be poisoned, but rather magically strengthened, their magical strength temporarily growing. Water, inversely, tended to negatively affect these abilities of theirs, hence most mages’ complete dislike of rain, swimming and similar.
Granted, the rain would also make it nearly impossible for Ashes, the bestial monsters made from the magic of the world accreting naturally together, but there were more things in the world than Ashes. He liked keeping the option of burning things to a crisp. In the highly complicated world of magic, with all its esoteric and semi-scientifically plausible rules, basic violent applications of the craft were always cathartic.
Deciding that the unappealing chemical taste and aftertaste of cheap beer was worse than the taste of sugar, Stephen resigned himself to waiting out the tang as he caught a jeepney heading towards home, handling the golf-umbrella he preferred to use to keep himself completely dry with some awkwardness and trying to ignore the annoyed looks of the other passengers as it flopped around the tight confines of the vehicle.
He checked his watch, pulling his hood higher up in an effort to stay dryer against the rain flicking in through the windows. Damned rain. Thank goodness he’d finally gotten around to buying army boots, or else getting his feet dry would have made it impossible. He still needed to buy some groceries on the way home, but it looked like the rain was calming down. Hopefully by the time he was done it would have stopped already.
He dashed out into the rain as it reached his stop, jabbing some of the people near the jeepney’s exit as he unfurled his umbrella. Trying to avoid puddles and making sure his bag didn’t get wet despite its supposed waterproofing– he didn’t really put much trust into that. In his experience, if water touched it, it’ll get wet– he jogged towards the supermarket where he bought his groceries.
The rain had finally abated when he came out, juggling two more plastic bags containing what he would need, which made things considerably easier now that he didn’t have to handle his umbrella. Still, as he made his way back to his apartment building, eventually his hands began to burn from the plastic cutting into his skin, and every attempt he made just seemed to make it worse.
Looking around, he asked a young man passing by, “Excuse me, but could you help me adjust these bags for a second? I’m about to drop them, they’re so heavy.”
The young man, who looked a lot younger than Stephen did and probably should still be in high school, though looking a bit annoyed, helpfully took the bags for a moment was Stephen wiggled his fingers, massaging some life back into them. “Thanks,” Stephen said, taking his bags back. “Are you from the province, kid? What’s you name?”
“Antonio,” he said, shuffling in that uncomfortable way that said he wanted to leave already. For some reason, Stephen thought he looked slightly familiar.
Stephen nodded. “Thank you for the help, Antonio,” he said. He reached into his backpack awkwardly, randomly grabbing the first thing he touched, and pulling it out. “Here, you can have this. It’s not much, but maybe you’ll find it useful.”
The boy frowned, taking the small, foil-wrapped package with the neon bright labeling reluctantly, but without the outright aversion most people would have to seem charity.
“It’s a glow-stick,” Stephen explained handily. “If you bend it until something snaps inside, it’ll light up. It should be handy for all sorts of things.”
Looking bemused, but trying to be appreciative, the boy awkwardly thanked him, putting it into his own backpack. Without even trying, Stephen was able to make out several abnormally large pieces of calamansi he recognized as coming from a tree spirit who owned a small store a few streets over; a small work knife with a tag saying it had been sharpened my Mang Ambo, who had a shop outside the market and was the go-to guy for cheap, dependable weapons; a plastic bag of clothes that might be the boy’s only spares that to Stephen smelled like summer heat; and a bag of small spheres that to the untrained eye might be mistaken for marbles but to Stephen were obviously stingray eyes, processed and ready to explode.
The two parted ways awkwardly, the boy shuffling off and occasionally looking over his shoulder at Stephen nervously until he was out of sight. Stephen walked back home contemplatively, his shopping bags banging on his legs awkwardly. Thunder rolled in the distance, knocking him out of his reverie, and he cursed as hurried back home, hoping to avoid the next slew of rain.
Cars were parked along the road, but it was bare except for a wet dog trotting along, its tongue lolling out. Stephen eyed it warily as he walked, but it was busy sniffing a car tire.
Sticking the key into the deadbolt, he unlocked his gate, making sure it clicked shut behind him. The small, empty space where he was optimistically supposed to park a car was slick and lined with various potted plants, the white-painted metal table and chairs he had out when it was sunny tucked off to one side. Directly in front of the gate was a heavy wooden door you could have used to hold off a battering ram.
Built some time around the sixties as government housing, the house used to belong to Stephen’s aunt, who in turn had received it from his Grandfather, may he rest in peace. Originally a cement box with a main room, two smaller rooms and a bathroom, it had been added to by the family over the years, until it had become the rambling construction Frankenstein it was now. The backyard had been completely built over to the edge of the small plot, which had added the kitchen. The little run on the side had become the laundry area. A second floor had been added at some point, and Stephen had been very nervous of having a bedroom up there when he’d first moved in until he came to the conclusion that he was more likely to survive the fall of the second floor collapsing than he was likely to survive it collapsing on top of him.
He awkwardly angled his keys into the heavy lock, trying not to drop his bags, since everything was still wet from the rain.
“Hey, Stephen,” his neighbor, Anna called, leaning her elbows on top of the fence they shared. “Need help?”
“Please,” Stephen said, and the manananggal vaulted over the fence as easily as if it were a stepping stone, cheerfully taking the shopping bags while Stephen used his key to unlock the door. “You wanna come in? I could use some company.”
“Sure!” Anna said perkily, which was just the thing he needed to eat away at his introspection. “Did you get caught in the rain? I know how you don’t like that.”
Stephen shook his head, flicking on the cramp houses lights and immediately turning on all three air conditioners at full blast. “No, I managed to stay dry. Have you heard of any trouble around lately? Anyone come in from the provinces who might have trouble behind them?”
Anna pouted in mock annoyance as he took the grocery bags back, heading for the kitchen to put them in their proper places. “You know, sometimes I feel you only hang out with me to pump me for information,” she said, making herself at home on his sofa.
“And to finish off all the balut my cousin keeps sending me,” he said from the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards.
She turned on the TV, flicking through channels. “Why do you ask?”
“I ran into some kid fresh from the province today,” Stephen called, turning on his water-heater. “He sort of looked like these two guys I ran into a few moths ago. One ran into me on the way to church and didn’t stick around, and the other beat me to the last seat on a jeep I was taking to an appointment. I think they might have been his brothers.”
Anna looked up at that. “You sure?”
Stephen shrugged, then for her benefit said out loud, “Maybe. Faces tend to blur together after a while.”
“Eck. A third brother. Poor guy,” Anna said.
“Especially considering what I saw he had already,” Stephen said. “Hey, you want some noodle soup?”
“Sure!” she said. “What did he have?”
“Knife sharpened by Mang Ambo, one of those he gives around if the owner doesn’t claim it, one of Manang Soriano’s calamansi, some clothes that might have been magicked somehow, and stingray eyes,” Stephen recounted, getting some bowls as Anna shuddered at the last. “Plus one of my glow sticks.”
“Ouch,” Anna said. “Sounds like he’s headed for trouble. Shouldn’t you go help him or something?”
“That’s not my role,” Stephen said. “I run into him by accident and give him what he needs in exchange for kindness. Unless I’m his godfather or some other kind of relative, that’s as far as my participation goes.”
“That’s unfair,” Anna said. “You could do so much more.”
“That’s tradition,” Stephen said. “It’s how it’s always been done, everywhere. Dara claimed one of her ancestors helped the third brother get what he needed to capture the Adarna. Of course, everyone claims that one. It’s not like we like it but it’s one of the things about being able to do magic. When some idiot passes by on some quest to get some special medicine or trinket because their mother was cursed by the local duende for stepping on his pet ants, or has to recover a golden ray from the Virgin on EDSA, or has come here to kill the Aswang that ate their little brother, and we happen to run into them by complete accident, we help them out in exchange for kindness. That’s it.”
Anna exhaled in disgust. “You salamangkero are weird.”
“Mage,” Stephen corrected her out of habit as he took a pair of bowls. He began to ready the noodle packets. “I’m being modern.”
“You’re succumbing to colonial mentality,” she accused back good-naturedly. She switched to a sitcom rerun she liked. “I thought you thought traditions should be examined and disregarded if they were stupid?”
“I’ve examined this one, and come to the conclusion that if I tried to help every potential quest case that helped me look for my keys, I’d never have time to study,” Stephen retorted. “It doesn’t all turn out badly. Once this guy I met ran into me on the street and gave back the can of lighter fluid I gave him. He said he hadn’t needed it to find a Sarimanok Egg.”
“Aren’t those usually found in Mindanao?” Anna asked.
“There are some wild ones living in Luneta and Nayong Pilipino,” Stephen said, pouring their noodles into bowls. He carefully carried both to the living room, trying not to spill them. Heat radiated from both, and was ignored. “So, back to the original question. Has anyone come in from the province hiding from trouble?”
Anna frowned as he set her bowl in front of her. Hers had egg in it. “Well… I heard talk about a rabid tikbalang who moved into the basement parking of one of the old buildings along EDSA… ”
Stephen winced. “Yes, that might need stingray eyes and a glowstick. Poor kid.”
They watched TV and ate.