Zio Being Romantic
It was a nice restaurant.
(Notice the past tense.)
It was in a town called Tehir, just north and just west of Kadary. It was a pleasant, archaic building and got by on its quaintly cosy premises by servicing the high end of the market. Outside, it looked like some fairy tale cottage; all carved wood and lush flowering greenery. The path to the door was lined with perfectly shaped trees, each the same height, each carpeting the ground and cobbles in feathery mauve leaves that drifted like cobweb. If Parma had existed still, it would be autumn right now. The trees knew this, even if no one else did.
Black leather boots creaked as their owner walked quietly down the path, scattering the leaves into a whirling snow.
The air was warm, comfortably so, like a room with a fireplace. The sunset was behind the cottage shape of the restaurant, but the sky was stained red all around, and the clouds were lined with gold neon. It was a beauty. A shame, then, that most of it could not be seen.
Burning villages are generally considered good for sunsets.
Behind the boots came slight, stumbling, petit shoes, a pastel green. The occasional terrified whimper came from above them. The skirts of a matching dress swished through the floating leaves.
The door of the restaurant was solid wood, now a rarity on the slowly dying planet of Motavia, and carved with whirling designs much like those found on another planet long ago and far away, among a people called the Celts.
The restaurant was very exclusive.
The boots and the shoes came to the door, and the wooden edifice opened with a bare swish to reveal a patrician faced elderly man with a friendly and welcoming smile.
Perhaps it was a little strained, though.
"Table for two?" Zio asked him pleasantly.
The elderly man's smile faltered slightly, but not for any particular reason. It was just an effort to keep it up.
"Certainly sir," he said in a refined and dignified voice with hardly any quavering at all. "If you'll just come this way." The man gestured inwards.
Zio turned and beamed at his lady friend and, his eyes asking politely for permission, he lifted her hand into his and swept regally inside. The lady followed him in the manner of one jerked off her feet even though she had not been.
Their table was, of course, the best in the house. In accordance to certain forgotten cultural imperatives, the candles were not to be lit until the guests were ready to be seated. The man from the door licked his lips and tried to snap his fingers. The tiny Technique-generated flame that would normally appear on his finger completely failed to do so.
With a nervous glance at Zio, who stood by with an air of polite patience, the doorman tried again. The snap was a faint dry sound, and still no flame appeared.
A black-clad hand gripped the doorman's wrist and he jumped.
"You seem to be having some trouble," Zio said with a slight smile. The doorman felt all sorts of unconnected terror responses start up, from shaking knees to a sudden sweat on his brow. Something somewhere between a throat clearing and a whimper emerged from his mouth and he tried to follow it with some speech.
"I am most terribly sorry, sir. If you'll just..."
"No," he said, "please." For some reason it was more terrifying for the doorman that he was so pleasant, so courteous. "Allow me."
And Zio waved his hand at the candles.
Fifteen seconds later he said: "Perhaps another table would be best."
The doorman swallowed.
"Yes, sir, this way please."
He seated them in a secluded corner, and lit the candles with a shaking taper. Not that they needed them for light. Behind them the staff and patrons were still beating at the flames with table linen.
Zio picked up a menu as the doorman scuttled away in weak-kneed relief.
"I hear the terasi is very good," he commented lightly. He gestured at her own menu, untouched on the table in front of her. "Please, pick anything you like. Money will not be an issue."
He didn't say who the money would not be an issue for. He certainly wasn't carrying any. He never seemed to need it.
The lady picked her menu up as if it were fragile with age, and opened it slowly. She stared at the page blankly.
There was a loud bang from the vicinity of the door, and Zio turned around in his chair, a faintly quizzical expression creasing his pale face. The lady, on the other hand, had dropped her menu and was clutching at the back of her chair with her eyes squeezed closed and her legs drawn up.
"ZIO!" the newcomer roared.
He was a big man, possibly a Hunter by the looks of him, his cloak and armour dusty from travel. He had kicked the door almost off its hinges and now stood just inside the door looking red and angry.
Zio pushed his chair out and stood slowly.
"Yes?" he said in a low and dangerous tone.
The Hunter bellowed and charged, a massive sword sweeping out from its back-slung scabbard and coming around over his shoulder in preparation for a mighty swing. In response, Zio merely sighed and pointed his hand. A pulse of effort seemed to spasm its way down his muscles and tendons, all the way from his chest to his finger.
"You killed my-" the man screamed, and stopped.
Not just stopped yelling, but stopped, as it were, dead. Black light crawled sullenly over his frame as he toppled forward, eyes frozen and glassy. Behind Zio, the lady jumped with a squeak as the Hunter hit the floor.
Zio considered the still body for a few moments, waving the billowing dust away from his face. Then he looked up. The staff were crouched around the room behind various bits of furniture. The table still smouldered too.
"I'm ready to order," he told them.
"This is insane," hissed the cook.
"This means that we survive," countered one of the waiters.
"You think? I mean, really?"
"And how far will we get if we run?" the waiter snapped.
The kitchen was far less decorative and far more functional than the restaurant proper. At the moment, its function seemed to be a morgue as the dead revenge seeker had been dragged in. The entire staff for the evening was present. The two waiters, the doorman, cook, and the cook's young assistant. It was a minimal staff, mostly because the reservation had been made without any type of pretence. At least two of the other staff had moved to Termi after seeing the booking.
"At least the meat is already dressed," said the cook's assistant. Everybody looked at him.
"That was not entirely in good taste," said the doorman.
"How do you know what he tastes..." the assistant began.
"I am not cooking that," the cook snapped, pointing to the corpse with his carving knife, "and that means it won't be cooked."
"He doesn't want the whole thing," the waiter said weakly. "Just a steak."
"No," said the cook, folding his arms.
"And I don't think anyone here wants to ire him," the waiter said, looking around for support. "And it's not like it's murder. Well, not for us."
"Don't care," said the cook. "I am not cooking for that cannibal!"
"Assuming," said his assistant, "that Zio is, in fact, hu-"
"Shut up," snapped the waiter, sizing up the cook's belligerent stance. Then he sagged and sighed.
"Okay then," he said. "We'd better all leave then... quietly."
There was a crush as they all tried to get through the back door.
Some time passed.
"So..." tried Zio with the air of someone not used to making conversation. "How's the family?"
"Yu... yu... yu..."
Zio waited politely.
"You killed them!" screamed his date and then burst out crying.
Zio shifted uncomfortably. He was damned if he was going to apologise for it. They had deserved it. Possibly. He might be thinking of the wrong people.
"What do you... I mean what did you do my dear?" he asked instead.
"Fuh... Farmer's daughter."
"Of course, of course. Did you enjoy it?"
"Yu... Used to," sniffed the girl.
"Never wanted anything else? Ever had a dream?"
"I... I wanted to go to Aiedo. See the city."
"Ah," said Zio and paused thoughtfully. "Well, I'll see what I can arrange. Not much time left for that one. Termi would be better. Been there?"
The girl shook her head.
"Lovely city. Lots of greenery," said Zio, eyes lost to its memory. He blinked. "I should quite enjoy going back there once it's dried out a bit," he said happily. "Should burn well."
The girl whimpered.
"A farmer, huh?" Zio tried. "Was it hard? Weather's been bad recently I understand." And he did understand. He understood perfectly.
"Terrible," said the girl in a hoarse whisper.
"That was me," Zio said. "Pretty effective wasn't it? The whole planet's spiralling downwards."
The girl glowered at him.
"It's not nice," she muttered. "You're killing everyone."
"I should definitely hope so," said Zio, and turned around in his chair. "Where is that meal?" He seemed to consider for a moment, and then got up, throwing his napkin on to the table.
"It's too quiet back there," he said. "I'm going to find out what's happening."
He stalked across the floor and thumped the door to the kitchen open.
And stopped. His fingers drummed angrily on his thigh as he glowered at the back door. He really should have had some Darkling guarding it. Now his special evening was ruined. Ruined!
Zio spread his arms and the far wall exploded outwards into ash. It didn't help. He whirled, his eyes red and furious.
Not even a gesture this time. The power just came to him as he needed.
A crack and a dull woomph sounded behind him, and the kitchen area vanished upwards on a boiling column of red fire. Zio raised his arms from his sides.
The ceiling shattered skywards, reduced to flying splinters at a thought. Flame whirred across the floor from where he stood, cracking the stone tiles with its heat. Outside, the town well shattered as water erupted from its depths, carrying rocks from below the ground that rained down on the town of Tehir. A house exploded outward, the walls, buckled but intact, spinning along each compass line at a flat trajectory. Stones in the villages began shattering, scything the air with lethal shards.
And Zio began to spin, slowly, sedately, his feet unmoving, only the toes of his boots touching the ground. Arms spread to the sky, he rose gently above the ground, eyes closed to the chaos, a cold smile on his face. A ball of fire rose behind him, glistening orange reflections across his armour. His cape swirled and billowed in the thermals, sparks and embers scattered themselves across the ground beneath him, and smoke filled the air with a blinding, choking thickness.
He felt it all, flowing through his fingers as he turned in the sky. He heard the screams, and cut them off one by one, shifting his attention from person to person, making sure that each was either dead or dying. He didn't need to see to do so. He felt it all behind his closed eyes. The living shifting amongst the energies he used, their minds sharp and clear in their terror, and he pulled their town apart around them, casting the pieces aside with fires and forces.
And above him, shaped by the smoke and the orange light of the flames, a shape could be seen, vaguely, dimly, and randomly, too, as the chaos below shifted the patterns of light and smoke around the ephemeral shape.
Some might say it was a face. Some would think it was a skull.
Zio kept spinning, arms spread, as dirt fountained and pattered around him. Flame spun in the hot winds of his desire.
And Tehir died.
After a time, Zio opened his eyes and descended through the smoke and flames, feeling a little better. He stalked through the burning chaos completely unaffected, muttering mental notes to find out if the restaurant employees had fled elsewhere and hunt them down. His foot brushed against something, which crumbled.
Zio looked down at the twisted, vaguely humanoid husk of the girl.
Oh yes. He had forgotten.
There was a black charred pit in Zio's chest where his heart should have been, part of the deal that was made, part of his immortality. He had heard of amputees with ghost limbs, the feeling that was left when the flesh was removed.
But Zio didn't even have that.
"Damn," he said without concern. "Did it again."