One month ago
A pencil went tap-tap-tap as it rapped on a bony chin. The Harbinger of Death was deep in thought. It was time to lay down some definite plans for killing off the students at Debaucherette University. It had been simply a necessity of his calling at first; then a nuisance, as they began to anticipate his visits and thwart his efforts. Now there seemed to be a decent balance, a mutual respect of sorts, wherein he was able to do his duty, yet able to give them some tether once the after-party was underway, although there was always an errant kid or two thumbing his nose and needing sorely to be taught a lesson. The guest house was built largely to contain that very gathering, as he quickly grew tired of his personal mansion suffering damage from their rambunctious revelry. And once he began submitting his hefty clean-up and repair receipts to the Incarnations Office with his expense reports, they agreed that it was wise to fund a guest house rather than continue as things were. His expense reports from those days were still the stuff of legends around the office.
This year, though, his idea notepad was mostly covered in abstract doodles of severed heads and bloody weapons. Just something pleasant to pass the time while he waited for inspiration to strike. It was tough to get his muse to visit these days, ever since he’d pissed her off the previous summer by making some remark about her fellow muses selfishly inspiring writers to crank out chick flicks they wanted to see created, as there was no redeeming artistic quality to them. She had huffed about his “boneheaded” remark, at which point he’d pointed to his skull and said “Duh.” It was probably not the wisest thing to do. She didn’t come by too often any more.
“What to do,” he sighed. “How shall I kill them this time? It’s a new year, time for a new approach.” Then HoD sat up. He looked around, and saw a flash of blonde hair and blue dress disappear around the corner. She’d nudged him just enough of an idea. “Thanks, hon,” he called out to the exiting muse, and dashed to his computer. He pulled up his e-mail and looked up his list for the other holiday icons. He’d be calling in the troops this year to pick their brains. Metaphorically speaking, of course. The literal brain picking he’d save for the Debs.
Sairah shrank from the dead chicken hanging upside-down near her side. “Can we leave now?” she pleaded.
“Not yet,” Shamba replied. “I still have some more things on my list.”
“I like Chinatown,” Amyrlin said. “They have such good food here.”
“Still…” Sairah eyed the fowl with distaste.
“Just one more stop, right, Shamba?” Castalia asked.
“The bakery, and then we’re done.” Shamba led them to a little shop that smelled wonderfully like fresh bread, with thin red vertical banners hanging on the wall behind the case. They waited behind a few other customers, and finally it was their turn.
“I need some lotus buns, please,” said Shamba.
“No. No lotus.” The shopkeeper waved his hands and shook his head.
“What?” Shamba was puzzled. “Why?”
“Fagao on special today. Everyone get fagao.”
“But I don’t want fagao, I want lotus buns!”
“No lotus! Only fagao!”
“What’s fagao?” Amyrlin asked.
“It’s made at Chinese New Year,” said Sairah. “It means ‘prosperity cake.’ We had it once at school when we were teaching the kids about holidays ‘round the world.”
“Just get that one, please,” Castalia advised. “We’ll be here all day!”
“Fine,” Shamba sighed. “Four fagao, please.”
“You bet. Four fagao, coming up.” They swore they caught a weird flash in his eyes as he rang a little counter bell and handed over a packet with four little cakes. His eyes looked pitch black for a split second. But nobody said anything, so each thought it was a trick of her own imagination.
On the street, the girls bit into their fagao. The tops of the buns were split and cracked, and they tasted lightly sweet. As they chewed, they felt a little odd. As if their skin were a little tight.
“I think I’m having an allergic reaction to this bread!” Amyrlin said, alarmed.
“We all are. Look…” Castalia pointed at herself and the others. They were all swelling up.
“Oh no. The shopkeeper.” Shamba’s eyes widened, or would have if not for the puffy skin around them.
“I knew it!” Sairah cried. “There was something strange about him! He poisoned us!”
“Nope. Not shopkeeper.” Shamba was struggling to speak through her swollen throat.
“Harb.” Castalia managed to get out, before her airways were cut off entirely. She rose like a ball of dough, and then…pop. She cracked at the top like a fagao. It wasn’t pretty. They all became cracked buns right there in the street.
Insert joke here.