The Gourmet Kingdom was home to the world’s finest chefs. Bukimi knew because he was one of them.
It wasn’t necessarily a matter of skill or taste, though many had told him that he had ample amounts of both. For him, it was about passion. In order to be a fine chef, you had to love cooking. Not just cooking, but presenting. All year round, he made his preparations and excursions for the finest ingredients so that on this night, Gourmet Bewitching Night, he could announce his range for the coming season.
He provided enduring treats, hot chocolates that would warm through the winter months, pastries that melted in the mouth and could be served as a perfect Christmas dessert. But it was this day, and all of his most peculiar sweets, that had earned him his loyal customers. He never let a Gourmet Bewitching Night pass without some form of celebration. The fact that he’d been born on this day really did feel like fate.
Last year, he’d celebrated by branching his operations out to another city. It had been a huge success, but this year he was concentrating on home. An invitation only party for his most loyal customers would reward them for all of their patronage over the years. And those who weren’t invited would be all the more eager to sample his new delights when they were released tomorrow.
He’d taken pains to make this a party to remember at his home in the city centre. Demand would be high all year round from those eager to make the guest list for next year.
He’d had a suit tailored, but he’d been so determined to get everything just so for the guests arriving that he hadn’t had the chance to change. He finished in the kitchen and made his way into the dining hall, quite forgetting that he was still covered in flour and chocolate. He stepped out to a smattering of applause and a hum of approval.
“Oh,” he said, glancing down at his clothes, “oh dear.”
“Don’t worry about it, Bukimi,” Sunny said, striding out of the crowd and clapping him firmly on the back, “your perfectionism is a thing of beauty. You keep striving like this and you’ll achieve the harmony you’re looking for, no doubt.”
Sunny had a suit. It looked white at first, but as he moved under the light from the chandelier it shimmered with an opalescent sheen, just like his hair. An outfit at harmony with the wearer. It was most important to him. With a single exception.
“Nice turn out, B,” Shiroitora commented, “I almost don’t know where to start with the buffet. You outdid yourself. Never mind about the outfit.”
“I suppose it can’t be helped now anyway, but maybe when they see my diligence it will be good for sales. Not that my suit could really compare with the two of you. I suppose I should have expected to be shown up by my guest of honour.”
If anyone deserved that accolade it was Shiroitora. She had been a great help in setting up his new shop last year, and had caught more than a few vital ingredients for him that only she, the Deep Water Huntress, could possibly have caught. In truth, he was indebted to her, but by her costume alone she had already done enough to make this a night to remember.
She had shown him her intimidation once, a great, azure sea dragon that shimmered all manner of coral shades. Somehow, she had managed to transform that terrifying and powerful creature into a costume of beauty and grace. She had painted her skin blue, and highlighted her eyes and mouth with white, green and purple. The ruffles of her gown gave the impression of glittering scales and she wore gloves that began above her elbow in deep navy blue and ended in white at the tips of her fingers.
He was sure Sunny would have protested, but she seemed to have kept her usual boots, complete with daggers. He wondered if she had been able to convince him that they were in harmony with the rest of the outfit, or if she’d just put her foot down.
“I’m a little disappointed though. I gave you a plus two invitation. Is Coco not joining you this evening?”
Shiroitora didn’t answer. Her expression beneath the paint was suddenly pained and she looked away. Her fingers tightened into fists.
“It’s a sore subject,” Sunny told him sharply, “Coco has the Devil Poison. He’s searching for a remedy, but... Until that time comes, he thought it was best if Shiroitora kept her distance.”
“Pigheaded idiot,” she added, wiping her eye and trying to spare her paint.
“I admire his resolve, but then, he has the best motivation. I’m not sure I could do the same in his situation.”
She flushed, and he could tell even with her cheeks painted blue. “Sunny, stop it.”
“So it’s just the two of you then?” Bukimi asked, attempting to redirect the conversation.
“For now. But I invited a special friend. She should be here soon. Hope you don’t mind.”
“The more the merrier. Any friend of yours is welcome here.”
They said the Gourmet Kingdom was home to the world’s finest chefs. They said that they could make any ingredient appetising here. Since he did most of their cooking, Burke had figured it would be a good place to stop off. Maybe he could find a new way to prepare rat. Or at least pick up some ingredients with the all the money they’d saved over the years of living in a squat and eating the rodents her mongoose caught.
He’d booked the hotel himself, which was for the best even if Shak had slated their apocalypse readiness after five minutes in the room. He didn’t really fancy scouring the streets for a particularly well-situated alleyway in which to build a fort for the night. No matter how sound Shak was convinced she could make it. He didn’t really trust her to wield a hammer after raiding the minibar.
They made their way towards the restaurant district, which had kind of been the point in the trip in the first place. He hadn’t made much effort - just jeans and a shirt, he wasn’t aiming for high rent. Shak looked like she’d followed him out of a sewer though, as per usual. Stringy red hair all around her shoulders, big scar on her cheek, her trademark coverall and jacket that made her look like she was in garbage collection. Every step she took jingled with the little bottles she’d stolen and secreted all over.
If it wasn’t for the thick tracks of scar tissue on his face, it would probably have looked like she was going to drag him into an alleyway and shake him down for his wallet.
A can rattled past and thunked off the hubcap of a parked car. Burke watched it dance back across the path and then turned to see Shak skulking along behind him.
“Alright, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she muttered, and then went back to her grumbling. When she drew level with the can, she gave it another sharp kick.
He stopped and folded his arms. “Tell me.”
She huffed. “I thought you said you were going to take me to a place made entirely of food. This is pish. I was expecting gingerbread houses to eat and witches to murder. In that order.”
He sighed. There was a migraine coming on. “I said I was taking you to Gourmet Kingdom. I didn’t say everything was made of food.” He paused for a moment, as realisation dawned. “I wondered why you tried to eat that stop sign.”
“Hungry,” she informed him, by way of explanation. She started poking him with the index fingers of both hands. “Huuungreee! Foooood!”
“Alright, okay!” He stepped sharply out of reach, instincts honed by years of ribcage abuse, and she wobbled drunkenly, giggling to herself. “We’re almost at the restaurant district anyway. I’m pretty sure they’ll have food there. That’s kind of what restaurants are for.”
“What the fuck is a rez-tront? Nu uh, that sounds boring. I want to do this one. This one’s closer.”
She indicated a palatial building on one side of the road, with a low, wrought iron fence bordering a well-maintained little garden. Someone had trimmed the topiary into the shape of skulls and staring eyes. Cobwebs, obviously fake, hung from around the doorway and a banner proclaimed: “Happy Gourmet Bewitching Night”.
“This one!” she decided with a nod, bounding up the steps to the open front door, “I smell food. C’mere food! Get in my mouth!”
“Shak, I don’t think that’s a restaurant!” he called out, following her as far as the gate and hesitating, “I think that’s someone’s house. I don’t think we should go in there. You’re not listening to me, are you?” He glanced down and realised that he was now standing on the steps himself. “And now it looks like I’m following you. Okay, and this is officially a home invasion. This is going to be a really great vacation.”
He really hoped Captain Wesker wasn’t so put out by their impromptu and completely undisclosed vacation that he wouldn’t come and post bail for them. Again. Assuming Shak didn’t use their one phone call to get pizza delivered to the jail. Again.
Shak was accosted in the entrance hall by a stout man in a tuxedo. And stout by Shak’s standards was pretty fucking stout. If she’d had a pint, she’d have rested it on his head.
“Invitation please,” he asked cheerfully.
Shak fixed him with a glare. “Excuse me? I’m here on police business. Don’t get in my way or I’ll arrest you for ... obstruction of justice. Right?”
He backed down with acceptable alacrity and she sauntered into the room with the food and drink. She heard Burke sidling in after her with a rueful mutter of, “I’m with her.” Good wifey.
There was a crowd gathered in the dining room. She made a beeline to the buffet table and examined the offerings. She was reaching for one of the bowls when she realised it was filled with eyeballs. Another was brimming with teeth. What looked like a punch bowl was actually bloody and lined with entrails. Shak’s eyes widened by degrees, until she was staring at the massacre in front of her through a pair of dinner plates.
She spun around and saw that she was trapped in a room with a whole pack of people-shaped monsters, with bloodied fangs and claws and pretences of clothing. They were moving like humans. Maybe this was some kind of experiment, fitting themselves into skin and acting like people so that they could go out and feed on the innocent. Her mouth reached a comparable size to her eyes.
“Shak?” Burke asked, nudging her out of her reverie.
“Burke, this place is full of monsters. We need to kill them all and then figure out which of this food isn’t people because I’m still fucking hungry. Incidentally, this holiday just got a million times better.”
“They’re all in costume,” he said, keeping his voice low, probably in the hopes that she would do the same. No such luck. “And this is all candy. Here, want a tooth?”
He crunched one and passed another to her. She ran it over her tongue suspiciously. She’d had enough of her own teeth floating around in her mouth to know that wasn’t how they tasted.
“Yeah, alright. Maybe I trust you. I’ll be keeping a close fucking eye on all these cunts though. Go find me some booze while I investigate the rest of this table. Please.” Because manners cost you nothing.
He went off in search of something inebriating and she started to peruse the rest of the bowls. She scooped some of the entrails out of their bowl and dangled them into her mouth. They tasted like strawberry liquorice. Her eyes became plate-sized for a different reason this time. Sugar.
“Hello there,” someone greeted. She rounded on the speaker, the entrails still dangling from her mouth. She sucked them in hastily.
“The fuck are you?” she enquired politely.
“I’m Bukimi. I’m the host.”
She looked him up and down. He was covered in white powder and spatters of odd-coloured liquid. If she needed a plausible reason for busting in, she could just say she was investigating him for drug use. His eyes were a strange colour, but she tried to remember what Burke had said about costumes.
“Are you ... a friend of Shiroitora’s?”
“Sure, why not? I’m everyone’s friend.”
She scooped up an eyeball and tossed it into her mouth. It squished between her teeth and tasted like blackcurrant.
“These aren’t real eyeballs. They don’t even taste a little bit like eyeballs. What’s the big idea?”
“A real eyeball would be viscous and probably quite bitter, wouldn’t it?” her new friend asked. Why was everyone speaking so quietly tonight? “Don’t you prefer the sweet ones?”
“I do like sugar,” Shak said, popping another eye in her mouth and shoving a handful into her pocket. “Got any booze?”
“You mean alcohol? No. No, we don’t have any of that here. It’s not that kind of party. It’s more of a product launch. Fancy dress. I’m sorry, but what is your costume supposed to be, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Shak shrugged and produced one of the bottles hidden in the recesses of her clothing. “That’s okay. I brought my own.” She cracked it open and drained it in a single gulp. “Me? I’m Comfortable Man. The world’s most casually dressed superhero. Can’t you tell?”
He hesitated, and she was wondering what his diplomatic answer was going to be when someone else showed up. This one was built like a brick shithouse and wearing a suit that shimmered in the light. His hair looked like it was made out of rainbows, like gasoline in a puddle. Speaking of which, she wondered what colour he would burn.
“These are fantastic products, Bukimi. They’re grotesquely designed, but the taste is marvellous. As always, your work has excellent harmony.” His eyes fell on Shak, whose bulk was blocking his view of the majority of the table. “And who’s this?”
“I think this is Shiroitora’s guest, Sunny. Sorry, but I didn’t get your name.”
“I’m not so sure, Bukimi. Shiroitora doesn’t have any friends who are this ... unsightly. Are you sure she isn’t just a hobo?”
“Oi! That’s Officer Hobo to you, young lady.”
“Do you expect me to believe that you’re a police officer?”
“You’ll believe it when I fucking arrest you,” she said, leering as unpleasantly as she could manage.
“Touch him and I’ll hurt you,” a voice snapped.
She rounded on the speaker, and for a moment thought she might be looking at one of those seldom glimpsed lady Tyrants the company sometimes produced for variety. They were mute though. This was something else. It had an almost serpentine appearance, complete with scales and what looked like clawed fingers. It was also wearing big, leather boots, which did seem a little peculiar.
“So who the fuck are you supposed to be?” she asked, since ladies always introduced themselves first, and she sure as fuck wasn’t a lady.
“Your worst nightmare,” the dragon girl said.
“Oh really? You’re the spirit of sobriety, are you? Well, you can take my life but you’ll never take my alcohol.”
“B, I’m just going to go ahead and throw her out.”
The momentary lack of focus was all Shak needed to slip a hand into her pocket and pull out one of the eyeballs she had nicked from the table. She threw it overhand, right at the girl’s head.
Her eyes snapped around, and then her hand appeared in front of her face, catching the jelly sweet in the palm of her hand. She scowled, and then tossed it back. It hit Shak between the eyes and splattered all over her face.
“Oh really?” Shak asked, grabbing the rest of the bowl off the table and lobbing it at her.
She caught the bowl, fancy and glass and prone to breaking as it was, but couldn’t stop the contents from bursting all over her outfit. But the point was that she was distracted for long enough for Shak to close the distance and kick her sharply between the legs. Male or female, that usually made her point for her. She was surprised and not at all disappointed when the girl headbutted her in retaliation, though she did stagger back into the buffet table and tip the whole thing over.
Shak scooped up a handful of candy teeth and flicked them in the girl’s face. She swooped in for a throw, but found herself blocked. She grappled instead, throwing kicks at the sides of her knees, but the dress she was wearing made it difficult to tell where her legs began. She tried to jerk her closer for a takedown, but the girl shoved her off.
Her hands made a motion in the air towards the fountain at the middle of the room, which earned her a raised eyebrow from Shak, right up until she formed a lasso out of the water. Shak only had a split second to be surprised before it caught her around the throat, and then it was trying to breathe that was taking up most of her attention.
With a snap of her wrist, the girl tossed Shak clean into the middle of the dining room, sending guests scattering. Shak grabbed the lasso and gave it a hard jerk, pulling her opponent off her feet and towards her. Before she could grab another handful of water/rope, it turned to just regular water and splashed to the floor. Instead, the girl held her hand out to the fountain again and produced a long-handled trident.
She wielded it like a staff, using its reach to strike at Shak’s elbows and knees, occasionally straying up to strike at her face. She kept her block raised to ward off any blows to her knockout points. Every time she managed to get a hold of the weapon, it just turned to liquid in her hands, until she felt almost like this was some cruel attempt at giving her a bath. Wasn’t one that month enough?
The guests parted around them like a sea. Shak realised she was getting herded towards the door. But she still wasn’t sure there was nothing untoward going on here, and her wife was missing. There wasn’t a chance that she was leaving without Burke.
She slipped one of the knives out of her belt, wondering if she could get the fruitcake who owned the place to see reason with a little sharpness. Before she could so much as think about it, something wrapped around her neck again. It wasn’t the dragon girl’s lasso this time though. It was the tall guy’s hair.
Oh, Jesus Christ. I am actually being strangled with someone’s hair. Just kill me now. Really, it’s for the best. If anyone I know sees me like this, I may as well be dead.
“Don’t hurt her, Sunny,” the dragon girl insisted, “let’s just take her outside where she can’t cause any more trouble.”
Grinning probably wouldn’t help her case, but considering that the girl looked like she’d been dragged through a Shak-shaped hedge backwards, what wasn’t to laugh at?
“Did she hurt you?” Sunny asked. She shook her head. Shak felt the noose loosen a little.
“I’ll take it from here,” a familiar voice insisted.
“Burkey!” Shak trilled, although it came out more like, “grrrkyyy! ”
He was standing on the edge of the crowd, one hand resting at his hip and the other outstretched towards the three of them. His body was positioned to hide what his lowered arm was doing, but she knew him well enough to know that he was at least considering using his piece. She hated the fucking thing, but he had all that “traditional police training” bollocks going on.
Sunny gave her a shake. “Is this yours?”
“Yeah, and I’d like to keep it in one piece if that’s okay with you.”
“So long as you promise to take it away with you, I don’t see why not,” the girl agreed.
“You’re just scared because I was totally winning,” Shak said. The whole sentence came out in an unintelligible gurgle, which was probably for the best.
“That’s fine. Just put her down. Now, please.”
“Sunny, she can’t hold her breath that long.”
The hair unwrapped from around her neck and she flopped forward onto her knees. Burke helped her back to her feet. They were out in the hall, and the dining room had erupted into spontaneous chatter, before she could stand on her own.
“Y’know, sometimes you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“Aye, I know. What is it with you and getting me into trouble? I swear I don’t get into half this much shit when I’m out on my own.” She clapped his cheeks between her hands and gave his face a squish. “But don’t worry. I love you even if you are a total jinx. Now let’s go find some more sugar.”
“Wait,” Bukimi called, chasing them into the hall.
“Why? Does she want to go again?” Shak asked hopefully. She was never one to turn away from a good rematch.
“Actually, I wanted to apologise. We’re usually a lot more friendly here, but Shiroitora... She’s a wonderful person, but she’s going through a very rough patch just now. And, I hope you won’t think me rude, but you did provoke her terribly.”
“Aye,” Shak agreed, “if someone had spoken like that to my wife, I’d have had their guts for garters too. And she does have a very pretty wife.”
“You’re obviously not from around these parts, but I’m glad you liked my confections. I have more in the kitchen, so I can replace what fell on the floor. But the stir you caused has given my guests something to talk about, probably for the rest of the year, and that I can’t replace. So let me show you my gratitude.”
He produced a bag with a goofy ghost face painted on one side. Inside was a pile of the stuff from the table, teeth, eyeballs, entrails and a myriad of other treats both macabre and delicious. Shak felt her sweet tooth aching.
“Mine,” she said, taking possession of it. And then, because she was painfully aware of Burke’s reproachful looks, she added in rather more abashed tones, “thank you.”
“I hope you enjoy the rest of your vacation. Have a safe journey home.”
“Actually, we’re going the other way. Come on, wifey. The night is young and we are beautiful. Well, you are beautiful. I am more ruggedly handsome. And manly. And full of sugar and alcohol. Yay sugar!”
Shak favoured their host with one last grin and then dragged Burke back out into the night.
She wondered if any of the other houses on the street would give up a bag of sweets if she harassed them.
Come to think of it, wasn’t that already a thing?
“Lucia, you made it!”
The Hollow smiled and nodded. She was on day release, so to speak. Katrina and Pandora had made up the body for her on the promise that she’d return within twenty-four hours and cause minimal fuss, or she’d never get to do it again. She was bound into the first rule, since the body wouldn’t last beyond a day. The second rule wasn’t really one she could get around either. Her friend Shi wouldn’t be happy if she got up to any mischief.
Not that she had any plans for tonight. She had been looking forward to the party before she’d even known it was going to happen, back when it had just been a vague promise of “next time” when the two of them would hang out again.
She could tell the moment she walked in the door that Shi was out of sorts. She could see the tension in her, and it wasn’t just from tonight. There was something playing on her mind, and Lucia wanted to find out what. She wanted to help.
So Hollows weren’t known for empathy. Hollows didn’t usually have friends either. Maybe they’d all be different with a friend.
“Not a witch this time?” Shi asked, eyeing her costume.
Lucia looked at the two-piece wetsuit she was wearing and then peered at Shi pointedly. “Can’t you tell? I came as a badass bishokuya babe. I even had Pandora make me a body with blue hair.”
“You came as me?”
“Lots of people dress up like heroes on Halloween,” she said, “and I see you came as a hot mess. What the heck happened to you?”
Shi looked down at her bedraggled and jelly-stained outfit and sighed. “I was fighting some weirdo who gate crashed earlier. She’s gone now, but... There was something strange about that woman.”
“So it’s not just fish you bait. We freaks seem to find you irresistible as well.”
“Quit it,” she insisted, giving Lucia a playful shove.
“Want to show me to the candy and tell me all about it?”
“Not much to tell. But I think Bukimi got his party to remember.”