The light rose, a pale reflection of the light of the mortal world. But this was the Shadow Realm, so you had to accept some compromises. In the Level Four Fiend Living Complex, the Whiptail Crows awoke and began their unearthly cries of morning.
In one apartment, a certain orange-skinned humanoid awoke from the evening's slumber, joints locked as usual from the travails of the night. Something deep inside his brain told him he'd taken one too many shots of ogresbane the previous night. All he knew was that there was a weird cut on his stomach.
Rolling out of his bed, the man stood up and looked in the mirror on his nightstand. There was the glowing mark of the Demon's Kiss (known mockingly as the Malevolent Nuzzler) on his cheek. That needed to be washed off. He headed into the shower.
After washing off the grime of the battle from the night before, the man opened his closet. Seventeen identical purple suits with blue undershirts stared back at him. Picking one, he dressed quickly and looked in the mirror again. As good as he was going to get... Shaking his head, he locked up the apartment and stepped out into the hall, his pre-prepared lunch in the box in his hand. Off to work, again.
He was a Witty Phantom, one of many in the Shadow Realm. Call him Fifteen; his number was actually D-15A, the D signifying he worked the day shift and the A meaning he was the second of his line (the first dying under mysterious circumstances) - names were not generally respected. Whereas fiends like the Summoned Skull (or Demon Summon, as some called him) were rare, and thus had status, he was a common monster, and thus was regulated to the grind of the Shadow Realm working class. And therefore, he was stuck in an apartment in the Level Four Fiend Living Complex (while the Summoned Skull got classy digs in the Demon Penthouses). Even worse, he had one of the worst-paying, least satisfying jobs in the realm... But it still beat being Level One, homelessness, and unemployment.
There was a short walk out of the Complex, and then he was on the street. While some of the fiends had enough money to purchase the services of an Oni Tank, or maybe an Overdrive if they wanted to escape the whole "devil" thing, most of them took the train. The Labyrinth Tanks were faster, but they cost more, and somehow one was never available when he needed it.
Hands in his suit pockets, the Witty Phantom headed down the street, one foot dragging at times. The train station was a fair distance ahead, but if he knew his luck.
As expected, one of the dreck stepped out - just your traditional skeleton. "Hey, man, you wanna buy some bootleg Monster Reborns?" the thing weezed out between collapsed ribs.
"The Zombie Subsection is half a mile away, bone-pile. What are you doing here?" Fifteen asked the skeleton.
"Sir, I am merely a respectable businessman! Now, do you want to buy my wares or-" The skeleton's comments were cut short when his skull was aerially dislocated. As it hit the ground, Fifteen was already on his way.
"This neighborhood was better before the Skull Servants moved in," the Witty Phantom mumbled to himself as he neared the train station. Skull Servants, being the weakest monsters of the Shadow Realm, weren't liked even in the Low-Level Zombie Housing Complex. Some of them, like the one whose skull had taken a short aerial jaunt courtesy of Fifteen, had taken to selling bootleg magic and traps. None of it was worth buying, but enough monsters didn't notice for the Skull Servants to make a decent profit.
The Shadow Realm, Fifteen had decided long ago, was falling apart. Every day, new monsters were being jammed into the various living complexes. Even though the Shadow Realm actually expanded to accomodate the increased population, there never seemed to be enough room. And the lowlifes were taking over. The night before, Fifteen had found himself being mugged at clawpoint by one of the Three-Headed Geedos. He'd barely managed to disperse the failure before it could take his head off his shoulders.
The streets were filthy in this part of the realm. They couldn't get anyone to fall for taking the job of sanitation, and so nothing ever got better. In the Spellcaster Living Complexes, he'd heard, the streets were shiny even in the Low-Level area. In the Level Five area, the streets were made of marble. It was because they were fiends, he was sure of it. Nobody ever cleaned up for the demons.
He rounded a corner onto Broad Street, and headed into the train station.
In Fifteen's first case of good luck all day, the train to the Work Quarters was already in the station when he arrived. Showing his year-long pass to the conductor, he hopped on and took his seat.
The train's seats were in the subway fashion, with two long rows and a series of flaps hanging down. Fifteen was seated across from one of the Mystic Clowns, who was busy scanning the paper. DARK WITCH DISCOVERED IN ILLICIT AFFAIR WITH ANSATSU, the headline read. The words, "at least it was a humanoid", popped into the Witty Phanton's head at the sight of the headline.
Seated next to Fifteen was a Magical Ghost, who was merely shooting sparks into the air. This line served both the fiends and the zombies, since it had proven less costly to build only one station. Fifteen liked most of the zombies: as long as they worked on keeping the stench down, he didn't care what their current place in the life cycle was.
The first stop was in the Low-Level Fiend Living Complex. A Tainted Wisdom floated onto the train and settled about three seats down from Fifteen.
The train kept moving, and the Mystic Clown folded his paper up and threw it to his companion, another Mystic Clown, who was four seats down. Fifteen realized he was nodding off, as the train's motion gently jostled him. It was such a temptation to sleep-
And then he heard the voice.
Fifteen looked up and into the eyes of a six-armed woman with an odd hairdo and a wicked smile.
Immediately, he wondered why she was on the train. Warriors had their own line. His next thought was cut off when one of the arms took his chin.
"You don't look like any man I'm used to," the woman said. "I like that. I get bored easily." She grinned, revealing that her fangs were longer and sharper than Fifteen's.
While excited by the attention, the Witty Phantom kept some sense of rationality. This woman was a Succubus Knight, and he knew what the hell a succubus could do. But he couldn't resist the purely physical side of the problem: while not inexperienced, he had learned to admit there were few women, monsters or not, who would go with the orange-skinned fellow in the fangs and the evening suit at the end of the bar.
Thankfully, before things could get to the point where Fifteen's energy was at stake, someone grabbed the Succubus Knight's armor and pulled her away. Sulking, she walked up the aisle of the train as Fifteen's saviour landed in the seat next to him. It was an odd little man in a teacher's outfit and wings.
He'd just had his life saved by a Hysteric Angel.
"I've followed that woman for the last three weeks," the Angel was saying. "She's sucked the life out of six monsters so far. It's not illegal, she's one of our kind and it's how she eats, but I don't see the point in her draining the life from an innocent bystander."
Still shaken by the experience, Fifteen could only nod.
The Angel continued, "I honestly wish the city majors could find some way of regulating monsters like her. You'd think that they would have passed a law by now preventing assaults on the trains, but they haven't done a thing... Back when the Gods were in power, this wouldn't have happened."
Suspicions raised, the fiend looked to the Hysteric Angel's jacket. There it was, the Church of the God's yellow, blue, and red pin. Another God-banger... Fifteen merely nodded again.
Before the Hysteric Angel could keep going, someone down the train screamed, "Oh, Gods, it's the Blue Eyes White Dragon!"
Everyone who heard that ran to the window.
It was. Light reflecting off its scales, massive wings flapping in slow, measured rhythm, those famous eyes never blinking, the grandest of all dragons was flying towards the Center of the Shadow Realm. It was a sight to stop the heart, to slow the mind, and to cause complete silence to rule. The dragon's head briefly turned to examine the train, then set itself back to the course it had followed before. Within minutes, the Blue Eyes White Dragon had left the viewpoint of the window.
Nobody moved from the window until the dragon had vanished from sight. Even though the train had stopped, they all stood there. Only when the conductor's voice shouted, "Work Quarters!", did they all break away and head for the doors.
On his way out, Fifteen looked down. The Hysteric Angel had fainted dead away when the Blues Eyes appeared. It made the Witty Phantom snicker on his way out of the train.
The sight of the Blue Eyes stuck in Fifteen's head even after he had arrived at the Death Examination building. It was soon wiped clear by the grind of his job.
Part of the Shadow Realm was connected to the mortal worlds. For this reason, the souls of the deceased regularly passed through the thin fabric of the Shadow Realm. It was the job of the Witty Phantoms to examine each soul upon its emergence for the black spots that indicated sins, and to thusly judge the soul's fate when it reached the Judge of the Dead. (The notes they made were sent to the Judge at the end of each workday.) In theory, this sounded exciting. In practice, as Fifteen had found out soon enough, it was rather like examining shirts for flaws.
On his way in, Fifteen retrieved his clipboard from its peg at the entrance. Like every other Witty Phantom, he also retrieved a tallying sheet from the table nearby. This sheet was the ultimate focus of his day; on it was the record of the fact that he had, indeed, worked that day. If the sheet was lost, he was denied a day's pay; if the clipboard went with it, he was out one job.
Within minutes, he had taken his place at station #15. After saying hello to the Witty Phantoms Fourteen and Sixteen, he took the position.
Their supervisor came on over the intercom. "Ready..."
Sixty Witty Phantoms reached into their suits' breast pockets.
Sixty Witty Phantoms retrieved their pens and clicked them on.
The whistle blew, and the harches to the Underworld slid away. An influx of souls shot through.
As the first soul shot into station #15, Fifteen grabbed it, pulled it to him, and gave it the once-over. There were some patches of black, so he looked at their size to see how bad they were. Not too bad... He recorded "minor sins" under the first entry on his clipboard, and then let the soul go. The tagging device above the station nailed the soul as it passed, marking it as the first soul of the day from station #15. (The tag matched up with the entry on Fifteen's clipboard. This made it possible for the Judge of the Dead to use the sheets for his judging.)
Another soul rose, and was duly examined. It got to be quite tedious after a while, since nobody really sins that badly. The only real risk was that Fifteen's legs might give out from under him. In the other stations, the other Witty Phantoms did their work, always examining the souls but never judging them.
This was the only job regularly available to a Witty Phantom. It was said that they presided over death, but it wasn't in the way anyone thought. They were merely examiners, designated to see if the souls were really messed up before the Judge of the Dead got his hands on them. It was a useless job, and hung on to its worth simply because without it, sixty Witty Phantoms would be out of work.
It's easy to get a reprieve, Fifteen thought to himself as he examined the next soul to come into the station. Just leap off your ledge into the Underworld. Others have done it. That's how new Witty Phantoms get their space in here, after all.
There was a sudden buzz, and Fifteen looked up. All the attention was on station #34, where one of the Witty Phantoms had fumbled his clipboard. It hung now by the hole in its clip from a small nail, which was there merely through a design flaw. The worker for that station was on his stomach, arm extended, trying desperately to retrieve his clipboard.
The supervisor was leaving his office, they could see that through the shaded windows. If Thirty-Four (the clumsy Phantom's number) couldn't get the clipboard back.
His fingers reached the clip, caught on, held... and pulled it up.
All of the Witty Phantoms let out a sigh of relief as Thirty-Four got up, clipboard in hand, and resumed work. The supervisor returned to his office.
Nothing else of interest really happened until lunch. The whistle blew, and sixty Witty Phantoms sat down at their stations for lunch.
Opening his own lunchbox, Fourteen turned to Fifteen and said, "Have you heard? N-26B is dead."
Setting down the curry bread he had almost bitten into, Fifteen looked back and asked, "Since when?"
"At 3 A.M. this morning, he got wasted and threw himself in front of a Labyrinth Tank. Shards were found three blocks away." Fourteen sipped his canned coffee. "Hell of a way to die."
After staring suspiciously at his curry bread for a moment, Fifteen took a bite, swallowed, and asked, "Didn't N-26A die oddly?"
A snicker escaped the Witty Phantom's mouth. "He got mugged to death by a Baron of the Fiend Sword, so I'd say so. And N-26, the first one, fell off his platform. The line's got a few problems."
Sixteen looked up from his okanomiyaki (a gift from Twenty-One) and asked, "Has his replacement checked in yet?"
"This morning, " said Fourteen as he finished the canned coffee. "Seemed nice enough." He paused, and then intoned, "May he rest in the Graveyard."
The intention was clear, and so Fifteen added, "Let Despair from the Dark never find him."
One of Sixteen's fingers slid over his pin, from the yellow to the blue to the red. "The Gods protect him."
Seventeen put down his chopsticks and contributed, "He shall become one with the Great Leviathan."
It was a game that was played often in the Central Shadow Realm, every time someone died and a group of people knew who they were. The object was to name as many myths of the afterlife as the group could without repeating. All monsters went to the Graveyard after they died, but what happened after that was a matter of discussion.
"Have fun in Pandemonium," Twenty-Two said before returning to his solitare game.
"Sleep in the arms of Saint Joan," contributed Twenty-Three as he sipped his soup.
Twenty-Four, whom the deceased had owed money, shouted, "See you in Hell, pal!"
Nobody said they had to be nice myths.
"Archlord Zerato guide you," Thirty-Four stated as he finished his sandwitch.
Thirty-Five chimed in, "He shall sleep eternally in Necrovalley."
And thirty-nine items later, they had reached Fourteen again. He turned to Seven, the unofficial scorekeeper, and asked, "How did we do?"
Seven had the misfortune of needing glasses, and he pushed them up on his nose before replying. "Which scoring system?"
"Strict and Regular."
Clearing his throat, Seven totaled the numbers in his head. "Strict, we repeated on Twenty-Seven, who mentioned the Archfiends after Twenty-Two had listed Pandemonium. Regular... we did it."
There was a brief cheer before the Witty Phantoms returned to lunch.
The rest of the day passed in tedium.
There was no chance of advancement at this job. The best one could hope for was to be a shift supervisor, and there was only one of those, and the position was filled. Maybe you could get a raise, if you were lucky and your work was flawless, but that was exceedingly rare. Normally, the best one could hope was that they never got fired.
The endless stream of souls passed through one state of being and into another, and the Witty Phantoms kept counting them off. Why, nobody knew. They just kept studying.
And then the whistle sounded, and the infernal drone of ink-covered metal against paper gradually silenced. The whistle blew again, and sixty Witty Phantoms clicked their pens off and returned them to their breast pockets.
The supervisor's door opened, and the Judge Man shouted, "Okay, quitting time! Put your tally sheet into the box marked for it and place your clipboard on its marked post before you leave!"
Sixty Witty Phantoms stepped out of their posts and headed for the exits.
Fifteen dropped his tally sheet into the box marked for them, where it would be sent to the Judge of the Dead after they were gone. Placing his clipboard on its peg, he passed through the door, nodded goodbye to Fourteen and Sixteen, and then headed for the train station.
Again, his limited luck was serving him well, and the next train for the Spellcaster Quarter was pulling into the station just as he arrived.
It was evening. The day's labor was ceased for now, and it was time to recuperate. There was only one place that a fiend could go to that was worth going to.
The Blue Nemuriko.
Over the door hung a neon sign, showing the immature lamia holding a cocktail shaker. It drew the passerbys in, although since it was in the middle of the Spellcaster Quarter, there were few people passing it who didn't intend to come in. This was the gathering place for the lower-leveled; the higher-leveled had their Forbidden Palace in the Council Lower Quarter.
Fifteen's closest friend, the Ogre of the Black Shadow known as Nine, was already at the table. Removing his hat and jacket, the Witty Phantom slumped into his chair and snapped his fingers. A Flying Penguin with a tray on his head appeared next to their table.
"Whiskey on the rocks," Fifteen ordered. "And by that I mean ice." As the penguin left, he turned to Nine and said, "One of these days I'll forget to say that and shatter my jaw."
"Don't let it get you down," Nine replied. "They're smarter than you give them credit. How goes the sorting of souls?"
"I honestly don't see the point. The Judge of the Dead goes over them anyway. How goes the carrying of large objects?"
"The Destroyer Golems are still on strike, so we have to carry the marble blocks. Three of the Battleguards are out with torn muscles. We had to call in the Goblin Attack Squads just to make quota. At this rate, we'll never finish the expansion."
"Why do you bother?" Fifteen took his now-arrived drink and sipped at it. "It'll just break when the Labyrinth Walls take hold. And then the Wall Shadows will show up, and things will go to hell again. Just like when they tried to build Low-Level Dragon Habitats."
The expresson on Nine's face showed that he hadn't forgotten. He'd lost a decent patch of skin when one of the Koumuri Dragons decided that they shouldn't be building homes for wild creatures. There were still parts of the forest that hadn't grown back.
"Yeah, but work is work. You should know that."
"Don't remind me. We'll never get anywhere, Nine. The system pins us down just by our levels. The best we can hope for is that we wind up in the Graveyard and not the Void."
"There's always the Uprise..."
At that, Fifteen looked into his friend's eyes with a look that was only equaled by that of a man about to be hit by that pair of lights hooked to large amounts of metal.
"You actually believe that story? About rebirth into stronger bodies through an act of unequaled heroism? Nine, I thought you had rational sense." They both sipped their drinks. "Besides, they say it's only into a body of the same subtype. Knowing my luck, it would backfire and I'd become an Ancient Brain. I'd rather not risk that."
Nine shrugged. "It was just a suggestion. You could always try Fusion..."
"There AREN'T any Fusions involving Witty Phantoms, Nine. I could Uprise, backfire into the Ancient Brain, and fuse with a Tainted Wisdom - Skull Knights are pretty respected. But that has a one-in-half-a-trillion chance of working, so..." His body shaking with a sigh, Fifteen finished off his drink. "Look at this. I buy a five-dollar whiskey, and it runs out in three sips."
"So that means you're buying, then?" Nine grinned, not a very pleasant sight. He'd won that round.
Fifteen briefly glared at his friend, then nodded and snapped his fingers. The waiter waddled over again. "Another whiskey with ice for me, and a gin and tonic for my uncivilized, backstabbing friend here." Orders taken, the penguin waited. Reaching into his pocket, the Witty Phantom threw a couple of bills onto the tray. Duly paid, the penguin waddled away.
On the stage in the back of the bar, an attractive girl with a large harp took her place and began playing a tune that was both ethereal and painfully solid at the same time. Even the entertainment was low-level at this bar. It wasn't like you could book the Harpy Lady Sisters to appear at a place like the Blue Nemuriko.
Fifteen took his whiskey from the waiter's tray, sipped at it, and then lowered his head and let the music envelope him. He was getting good at this, often drifting into a state of fugue that was only broken when the lights went out. Before he lowered his head, he briefly noted a robed figure at the table five tables over.
The music kept playing, as the Spirit of the Harp did the best job she could for the tiny amount of money they paid her. The other monsters drank themselves into stupors, a brief respite from their pain. As the Shadow Realm continued to slide into a mockery of civilization, and the lesser creatures suffered the slings and arrows of the Council's failed attempts at staunching the wounds, the monsters did what they could to forget it all for a while. All these thoughts entered Fifteen's mind as he kept drinking.
There was a hideous scream, and Fifteen's head shot up to see what was happening.
The door had been chopped open, and a Sword Hunter with glowing red eyes was assaulting the patrons. The armored, vicious swordsman cornered a pair of Celtic Guardians and, with a flash of his swords, tore one into three pieces. The other drew his sword, but could barely lift it before his head was taken off.
Oh, damn, the Witty Phantom thought. A rogue Sword Hunter. Sometimes, one of the monsters in the Shadow Realm just snapped, losing all trace of an orderly nature. These creatures, threats to the rest of the Shadow Realm, were called rogues. Their presence went a long way toward the mistrust of fiends, since many of them were skilled mind controllers. Rogues were horrible things, things that needed to be destroyed to prevent innocent deaths.
The rogue Sword Hunter picked up the severed heads of the Celtic Guardians and hung them from hooks on his armor, causing his muscles to expand and his face to lock in a grin that could drive even the calmest man mad. As the patrons of the Blue Nemuriko fled, he cut down a Battle Ox and hacked off its horn, adding that to his outfit. Now he turned on the tables, hacking them to pieces in his frenzy.
On the stage, the Spirit of the Harp grabbed her harp and ran for the stairs. The Sword Hunter moved into her way and raised his blades.
A blur appeared on Fifteen's peripheral vision as the robed figure whipped aside his robe and jumped up. Rotating to look at it (Nine having already fled), he saw the figure land on top of the table.
And for the second time that day, Fifteen was looking at a legend.
The man atop the table was dressed in purple robes, the collar of which rose up past the top of his head. A green metal staff rested in his hand, and he wore a large purple hat that allowed a small amount of his hair - blue - to spill loose. The man's eyes were blue as well, an unearthly shade, and they briefly settled on the Witty Phantom before turning to the rogue Sword Hunter.
Fifteen couldn't help but stare. First the Blue Eyes White Dragon, and now the Dark Magician...
Reaching into his pocket, the Dark Magician pulled out a small cube - a condensed magic cube. Snapping it open, he let a white gas seep out and surround his body. When the gas cleared, he was holding something that Fifteen knew very well, having fought with it before. Who would have thought the legendary Dark Magician used Swords of Deep-Seated, Fifteen thought.
Locking the sword into the top of his staff, the mage leaped off of his table and landed next to the Sword Hunter. The rogue only had a few seconds to think before the blade swung across.
The rogue Sword Hunter's expression went through anger, fear, and acceptance before the top half of his body slid off the bottom half. Both halves suddenly exploded into shards, before finally vanishing.
The Sword of Deep-Seated vanished from the Dark Magician's staff as he walked to where the Spirit of the Harp was cowering. "Are you okay, miss?" he asked. Even his voice was perfect, Fifteen found himself thinking, a deep tenor, pitched just right for his figure.
The girl nodded, and then got up.
Nodding in return, the Dark Magician headed for the door. On his way out, however, he stopped and looked at Fifteen.
The Witty Phantom could only return the look.
There was a brief glimmer of recognition on the mage's face, and then he shook his head and walked out. Stopping just before the door, he pulled out a canvas sheet and wrapped it around himself before leaving.
Fifteen was out about five seconds later.
On the end of the street, there was a small box on a post, marked "Labyrinth Tank Transit - Press Button to Summon". The fare was usually higher than it needed to be, but tonight Fifteen was willing to pay it.
Slapping the button, he waited for the response. It came as part of the pavement blasted upwards, raining concrete on the street. Immediately afterward, the purple shape of the tank came into view, drill still whirring. Walking around to the rear, Fifteen sat down and buckled up on the passenger's seat.
From within the Labyrinth Tank, a voice asked, "Where to, friend?"
"Level Four Fiend Living Complex, front entrance," Fifteen responded.
"That'll be 75 dollars, compadre."
Counting his money, Fifteen tossed the required amount (in other words, all that he had left) through the now-open rear window. The window slammed shut, and a different voice said, "Look out, 'cause we're heading down."
The drill whirred, the tank spun diagonally down, and they headed into a new-carved tunnel. The tanks were offputting to some, as they moved very fast and usually spat debris in their path, but Fifteen had found that closing his eyes until the sensation of movement ceased made it less frightening.
Almost literally before he knew it, the movement stopped and a voice behind his head announced, "Here we are, Level Four Fiend Living Complex. Hop off and have a nice night, man."
Fifteen unbuckled his seat belt, hopped off the seat, and ran clear of the blast radius. Behind him, the tank tilted downward and slammed back into the pavement, disappearing from view. Their point of exit had healed behind them.
Using his key, the Witty Phantom unlocked the resident's door and headed into the building.
The door to his apartment unlocked before him, and Fifteen stepped into his room, drained from the events of the day. Tossing his hat onto the chair next to the door, he headed into the bathroom.
Teeth brushed and other business dealt with, he removed the suit and hung it on one of the "wash" hangers. Setting his alarm clock, he fell into his bed and let the dreams take him.
Down in the street, the Skull Servants were coming out of hiding. In the Death Examination building, the night shift was getting into the rhythm of the evening. Outside the Blue Nemuriko, the cops were setting up investigation procedures. And in his apartment in the Level Four Fiend Living Complex, Fifteen the Witty Phantom was already asleep.