The Get-Together Part 2: Coffee For Four

''Bring our guest to living room,'' missus Qalzai told Hafez. She would take care of the coffee and her husband would feed Horace, who had been standing outside on the terrace for the entire time.

''I will,'' Hafez told his mother. He grabbed Leafos by the arm. ''May I accompany you to our lounge, you beautiful lady?''

''Of course you can,'' the girl sniggered as her boyfriend opened the kitchen door for her. It looked rather aged, the paint was wearing off at some places and the hinges made grating sounds when the door they held was being moved.
''Gotta love your chivalry,'' she smiled as she walked through the doorway.

''Why thank you,'' Hafez beamed, giving his soon-to-be-missus an affectionate squeeze in the shoulder.

As Leafos entered the living room, she was overwhelmed by the smell of orchids. She smiled when she spotted a small vase of them on a small glass table in the middle of the room.

''Have I ever told you those are my favorite flowers?'' she asked Hafez as she sat down in one of the two leather couches the Qalzais owned. Both of the sofas were covered in colorful pillows with figures stitched on them. On the floor, the Qalzais had Persian carpets in a similar style.

''Yes,'' Hafez answered, plumping down next to her. ''A long time ago, when we just got together.''

''You still remember...'' Leafos whispered, staring deep into her boyfriend's jade eyes. That boy deserved a big, warm hug so bad...

''Of course... They're my mother's favorites too, though.'' Hafez smiled Goobaishly. ''Sorry sweetie.''

''Naw, I don't mind,'' Leafos smiled, sinking deeper into the pillows. ''Glad your mum's got a good taste like that...''

''Duh, she married my dad,'' Hafez mumbled planting a kiss on his girlfriends slightly chapped lips. ''You so need lip balm...''

''You're such a romantic,'' Leafos sniggered, rolling her eyes. ''You're nervous, aren't you?''

''Oh, yes, that's something I'd admit right away.'' The young man heaved a sigh. ''But we'll be fine. My parents seem to like you -''

''Sooo,'' missus Qalzai's voice sing-songed as her husband opened the living door for her. She was carrying a plate full of all different kinds of cookies in one hand and she had a coffee pot of Islandian ceramics on another tray, too. ''We go have interesting talk.''

''Shit just got serious,'' Hafez whispered in his girlfriends ear, which would give her the greatest difficulties not to burst out laughing.

''You cracking jokes, my boy?'' mister Qalzai winked, before seating himself on the couch facing the one the youngsters were sitting on. ''Ohh, you remind me so much of myself when I first took my lovely, lovely Fareiba home to meet my parents.''

He gave his wife - who was pouring the coffee now - the sweetest look he could pull off.

''Yes, yes, you very charming, Abdul-Halim,'' she cynically said, shaking her head a little. ''Leafos, you have sugar in your coffee?''

''Yes, please,'' Leafos replied.

''And milk too?''

''Milk too.''

After that, a short but awkward moment of silence followed. The room - lit by oil lamps - suddenly seemed both omnious and cosy to Leafos, it probably were the tall, greyish shades on the walls that added the presageful touch.
She hadn't noticed that before.

''First of all,'' mister Qalzai fortunately broke the silence, ''your wedding...''

''That's not necessarily the first thing I'd like to discuss,'' Hafez grimaced. ''We're young, and we're not even engaged yet...''

''My father wouldn't let us, anyway,'' Leafos added, her mask clouding with the thought.

''We will take the time to negotiate with him about your marriage, poppet,'' mister Qalzai reassured the girl he'd love to have as his daughter-in-law.

''Many fathers in our country are bit like him, actually. We manage,'' his wife mused out loud.

''True,'' mister Qalzai nodded, taking a sip of his piping hot coffee. ''Also,'' he added, ''I've heard your family has been through a lot of hardship, Leafos... Excuse my nosiness, but what happened exactly? Your father is a famous man, I heard he was a great gardener before he ended up in that wheelchair...''

''Oh, yes he was,'' Leafos muttered. He was less great of a parent, though...

''Cookie?'' misus Qalzai cheerfully asked the girl, scowling at her husband for bringing up a subject that probably was painful to their son's first serious girlfriend. ''They're good, if I might say myself!'' she grinned proudly.

''Yes please.'' Leafos politely took acookie off the plate. She had picked up missus Qalzai's hint; she didn't have to talk about her family misfortune if she didn't want to, certainly not tonight.

She appreciated the woman's protectiveness, but, she actually felt like discussing the topic mister Qalzai had brought up. Hafez's parents deserved to know about her past, they would become her children's grandparents, after all.

''You asked what happened to our family, sir?'' She smiled at the bearded man in front of her.

''Yes.'' Mister Qalzai slightly blushed. He now realized how painful this topic could be for the girl, too. ''As I said, the Flores family is quite famous around here, so...''

''Oh, I know all about that.'' Leafos grinned widely. ''My dad's a celebrity in our home village. In this one too, probably.''

''It's not like I'd... It's just... I've heard your father's garden used to be the most beautiful one on the Island,'' Hafez's dad told her. ''I've also been told that its beauty faded just after the... ehm... disappearance of your mother. My condolences.''

The man put his coffee cup down to stick out his hand. Leafos shook it, to notice how dry they were. Which she found strange, as mister Qalzai's son had hands that felt as if they were made of velvet.

''Thank you,'' Leafos said softly. ''It's been a few years though; I don't even remember how many. Let's see... Mum went on her voyage when I was eleven, so... Yeah, it's been eight years.''

''B-but still...'' For some reason, mister Qalzai felt his eyes get a little wet.

''You wanna hear all about my family, or not?'' Leafos asked teasingly. She would hate to ruin this night's atmosphere, as it hadn't been bad at all thus far.

''Of course.''

''Then let's start at the beginning. Contrary to what my lovely boyfriend thinks, I'm not the oldest child of Jardineiro Flores and his late wife, my mother Neela.''

''You're not?'' Hafez gasped.

''No. I used to have a brother,'' Leafos shrugged. ''He was the most talented gardener. Ever. I think that if he'd been given more time, he would have even outshone my father.''

''Wow...'' Mister Qalzai's mouth fell open. ''I've seen pictures of your dad's garden at the town hall, and his work was formidable...''

''Yeah, and he knows that a bit too well.'' Leafos clucked her tongue. ''He's too arrogant to be true, believe me... While my brother had inherited my father's talent, he didn't possess the trait of presumption at all... Sure, he could act cold and reserved sometimes, but...'' Leafos paused her narrative to savor the coffee Hafez's parents had given her. ''Hmm,'' she sighed. ''This tastes different from Islandian coffee...''

''It's Afghan,'' missus Qalzai said enthusiastically. ''Sometimes, family members send us stuff. We send them candy back, and pictures. They love it.''

''Nice.'' The corners of Leafos' mouth curled up when something else came to mind. ''My brother used to love coffee as well, you know. I remember him secretly taking sips out of my father's cup when he was still too young to drink it... Anyhow, my big bro was a special one. I remember him being very bright, and even more studious. He picked up the skills of gardening unbelievably fast, he spent entire days assisting my dad, after all.
They used to have an amazing relationship... That ended around my brother's seventh birthday, though. My dad, Jardineiro, genuinely cared for his oldest son, but he loved the fact he could endlessly brag about the little guy's impressive achievements more than anything else... As soon as my brother realized it was more about his talent and less about him as a person, the first quarrels and arguments arose. There was this... tension between them now. My father started to make unfortunate decisions, too. He started to sell piñatas my brother had trained, piñatas he had put time and effort in, piñatas he had bonded with...''

Leafos involuntary shook her head, a woeful shine in her eyes. ''The real problems were yet to come at that point, though. A good nine years of domestic unrest later, my father received a letter. The sender was unknown to us, or so we thought...
However, in that letter the one thing my father wanted to hear was written. On one of the small islands near Piñata Island's southern coast, a very special piñata had been signaled, the only living piñata Jardineiro hadn't managed to catch during his lifetime yet... A Dragonache it's called, it's an almost certainly mythical creature and I think it perfectly symbolizes my dad's foolish ambitions that eventually led to his downfall...
Not that I blame my father for this one incident, though. It was all due to Lester... or - hmph! - 'Professor' Pester as he likes to call himself nowadays!''

Hafez's heart skipped a beat. He had heard about Pester. He had even spoken to one of his Ruffians...

He'd always known the Flores family had gone through a lot of misery, but that Pester was the one that had ruined them was new to him.

The young man clenched his fists. ''If I ever see that dickhead,'' he quietly grumbled, ''I'll knock that motherfucker's lights out...''

''Did you say anything, son?'' mister Qalzai asked as he was sure he had heard Hafez mumble something.

''Oh, eh, no.'' Hafez grinned. ''Just eh, just...''

But mister Qalzai had already focused his attention on Leafos again. ''I know this subject might be a sore one, for you,'' he said respectfully, ''but what exactly happened after that? I assume your parents went to the Southern Islands together?''

''Yes,'' Leafos affirmed. ''They didn't return together though, that's the whole point...
There was a mishap with the boat they were on. I'm not sure which part of the ship was sabotaged, but I do know for a fact who did it... My parents were shipwrecked. My father washed ashore at one of the Islands, but my mother got lost forever... She's drowned; she's either been sucked down by the unrelenting sea or resting her remains at one of the deserted isle's, but it's concrete that she'll never come back... The Gods have her soul now.''

About half a minute of silence followed, again. This was not an awkward one though - rather a deferential little moment.

''I'm so sorry for your loss,'' missus Qalzai sighed after a while.

''Yes,'' her husband agreed. ''That must've been so traumatizing for you... I do not even want to imagine how my children would feel if their sweet mother went on a journey to never return...'' He mournfully shook his head.

''It felt awful,'' Leafos affirmed. ''Stomach-turning. Gruesome. I trembled all over my body when I first heard the news, and I wouldn't stop shaking for a few days. None of those first nights did I manage to sleep, and when I finally nodded off a week later the worst nightmares would haunt me... I'd rather not go into details about those.''

The poor girl shuddered, re-living a particularly scary dream in which her mother had turned into a floating, disfigured corpse, chasing her through the jungle.

''And you don't have to.'' Hafez gave his girl a watery smile. ''Doc Bandego says that we dream to digest information and give our thoughts a place...''

''Yes,'' Leafos said, her face relaxing a bit. She had, subconciously, been frowning through the entire conversation about her mother's decease. ''And my thoughts and emotions were... indeed quite black, at that point of my life... I think you wouldn't like hearing about what I dreamed.''

The girl groaned, bringing the coffee cup to her lips again.

''It wasn't just the loss of my mother, you know? My siblings and I have been through more things, things that have molded all of us more than we'd like to admit...''

The girl glanced at her parents in law, about to tell a story that would leave her feeling maskless in front of these foreign people she had never met before.

They remained quiet. For a moment, Leafos wished there had been vodka in her cup, instead of cream coffee. Some alcohol in her system would make pouring her heart out a whole lot less difficult.

''When my parents went away on that lethal trip... I've mentioned Lester, right?'' she asked, not certain how to start.

''Yes,'' mister Qalzai nodded.

''Well. He used to be a Helper in our garden... He quickly got replaced by Stardos, though. That's the name of my older brother.''

For some strange reason, Hafez's brows knitted together when he heard 'Stardos'. There was something unbelievable familiar about that name, he just wasn't sure where he had heard it before... Which was weird, that was something he'd remember, it wasn't like half of the Island's population had a name as unusual as that...

''Lester was furious. Replaced by a toddler! For a long, long time I thought this was the main reason for the man's rage, but now I'm sure there must be more to this... I guess the guy is just wicked. Even back when he worked for my father, he performed the most freaky experiments with sour piñatas... Which he now claims he's created.'' Leafos let out a small huff. ''Can't stand the tales he tells his stupid, futile little minions... The Ruffians.''

The girl contemptuously rolled her eyes, causing Hafez to become a little ashamed of the fact he had befriended one a few months ago.

''Not all of them are that bad,'' he murmured in Ricardo's defense.

''Oh yes they are,'' Leafos snorted. ''They're Pester's companions... They are the ones that have destroyed my dad's garden, the garden where I used to play in when I was a kid and cried over when I was just a little older... Ugh. You can't imagine how much I hate them...''

''Destroyed your dad's garden?'' That shocked Hafez. He had always thought Jardineiro's disability to tend the little paradise was the reason his plot had turned into a rubbish tip...

''Didn't you know that?'' mister Qalzai whispered incredulously. ''The inhabitants of Molino talk about it all the time...''

Hafez shrugged. ''I don't see many other people than Doc Bandego, you know,'' he said. ''But still... Though I know Ruffians are far from good boys, I never expected them to do things that terrible...''

''Oh yeah, those unscrupulous a-holes are perfectly capable of even worse things'' his girlfriend growled. ''I remember them destroying our garden so well, even though I'd rather forget all about it... Well, I guess you can't deny something when it's become a part of your past. Your past is a part of who you are, after all...''

The corners of mister Qalzai's mouth curled down. He knew that all too well...

''It happened on the same evening that I saw my big brother for the very last time,'' Leafos sighed. ''It was a warm, beautiful summer night. A summer night far too warm and beautiful for such a cold and ugly man as Lester to show up at the garden's border...
Stardos, Storkos and I were chilling outside. We had put our younger brother Sidos, which is Seedos' birth name name, to bed. It was running late already, and our parents had told us to take good care of the little one...
However, the sun was setting and Storkos and I were combing the manes of our favorite Ponocky. We were giggling, too, at something a crazy girl from our Village had done a few days ago... Really, there was no care in the world for us at that point in our lives. Our parents had rested quite some responsibility on our shoulders, but not for a moment did we even presume there was trouble in the air. We had never experienced terror before; that's probably why we couldn't imagine what fear and angst would feel like. Well, we'd find out soon enough.
Stardos was near us, lighting the torches. He claimed that fire would attract valuable nocturnal piñatas... ugh. The last thing I ever called him was 'wiseacre', sadly.
His greed for succes - similar to my father's - attracted something completely else. Lester, a man we hadn't seen since he'd been fired by our dad, suddenly stepped out of the rainforest and into our garden. He wore the widest grin on his face - I instantly could tell it was not a sincere one...''

Leafos looked down at the Persian carpet. The flowery patterns made her head spin, but so did mister Qalzai's compassionate glance.

''Maybe that's when I first sensed something was wrong,'' she said, suppressing a sob. ''I didn't respond to that feeling, though.
That filthy man slowly approached my brother, ignoring us girls. I gasped involuntarily - something was off about the way he scanned Stardos' mask... Storkos was worried too, I felt her leaning in to me closer...
Stardos signed to us that everything was alright, though. He had a shovel and was 'not afraid to use it'...
'Lester,' I remembing him saying, his eyes more narrow than usual. 'My father isn't home. Come back later.'
The ex-Helper's grin widened even more. 'I'm not here for your father, son,' he said. For some strange reason he put emphasis on the last word. 'I'm here for you, for I have an offer you simply cannot refuse.'
'I think I'll decide that for myself,' my brother replied, spry as ever.
'Of course, of course,' Lester said sycophantically. 'But this is an amazing opportunity for you, young man.'
'I'm listening,' Stardos snarled.
Then Lester held a ten-minute monologue about a new invention of his, a kind of candy that would attract any and every piñata to any and every garden. Stardos was skeptical at first, and so were Storkos and I. But Lester had Stardos' thirst for succes figured out perfectly and he flawlessly managed to talk my bro into coming with him to his secret 'workplace' in the rainforest...''

The girl smiled as she felt her boyfriend's hand on her shoulder. Sometimes his concern might be annoying, but it was comforting her now.

''Storkos and I were convinced Lester had good intentions too, at this point. He had instilled us that he wanted to atone with our dad and us for the things he had done back in the day. He stated that he'd just done all those experiments out of curiosity - never had he tried to thwart my father in any malicious way... He had allayed my distrust perfectly... How naive was I. Lester said showing Stardos his new sweets wouldn't take longer than an hour and a half... Yet in fact, Stardos still hasn't returned to this day!
That night, we didn't even have much time to worry about Stardos, though. Barely half an hour after he left with Lester, a gang of Ruffians jumped out of the bushes. My sister and I had heard about them before - there had been a small article about them in The Islander's Daily after they'd sprayed the community home of a neighbouring village with graffiti and Arfur, the owner of the local inn and a close friend to my father wouldn't shut up about them either.
The stories about them we heard had been rather impendent, but Storkos and I always thought they were heavily exagerrated... Let me tell you; they were not - they'd been toned down tremendously.
The bastards destroyed everything the entire Flores family had put an unthinkable amount of effort in. They smashed piñata houses. Polluted our lovely, crisp ponds with mud. They didn't even flinch to trample our lushest flowers and bushes, they scared our piñatas so badly that those not filled with maximal candiosity got so desperate they ran off to seek for better places in the untamable wilderness surrounding what was left of our garden at that point...''

Tears started to glisten in Leafos' eyes.

''Don't cry, sweetie,'' mister Qalzai tried to soothe her.

''No, let go if you want,'' his missus contradicted him. ''We are here for you. Family.''

She just like her son both put a hand on Leafos' shoulder, the latter gave her a lingering kiss on the cheek of her mask. It wasn't long until his lips were soaked with the salty fluid of his girlfriend's tears.

''I'm sorry...'' Leafos murmured after a while. ''I'm such a drama queen...''

She hiccoughed, she always did after crying.

''Let's continue,'' she then said, puffing her chest a little as both her dad and Storkos did whenever they tried to pull theirselves together.
''The havoc the Ruffians left us in, devastated us internally. The wouldn't stop hammering on our property until the sun had completely disappeared behind the night clouds. There was no moon that night, and the darkness surrounding us was completely in accordance with the despair, distress and even emptiness Storkos and I felt.
We had withdrawn into the house. Storkos, for some reason, decided to make us some tea. I think that that kept her from collapsing completely.
I, as I was sitting at the kitchen table, was fretting about both our little and our older brother. That Stardos wasn't going to come back anymore, was a solid fact to me. I was too shocked to fully realize what that meant, though. The heartbreak wouldn't come until a few days after my father's return, aggravated by the loss of my mother.
What Stardos was going through was an enigma that abhored me as much as it fascinated me. Lester is a twisted man, after all...
But doomsdays about Stardos didn't consume my thoughts as much as the concern about my youngest sibling. Sidos was, as crude as it sounds, a more current problem for me to deal with. He undoubtedly had heard the Ruffians destroy the garden - I wouldn't be surprised if the closest neighbouring farm had, too... The boy likely was hiding under his bed or a corner of his room. Sidos, was not a kid to be easily frightened, but the noises he must've heard were downright shocking... To me, the sounds of smashing and insane laughter were just sickening...
When Storkos had finished making tea, I went upstairs to bring Sidos a cup. I found him, as expected, in his room. He was lying on the floor, in fetal position.
'You heard what happened, eh?' I quietly asked him.
'Yes,' he hoarsely replied, not moving at all. 'The crazy laughs woke me up.'
'Oh, Sidos...' I sighed, fighting my tears. 'Everything's gone. The flowers are gone, the beehive is gone, most of the piñatas are gone... And... Stardos is gone.'
After having said that, I couldn't keep my tears in anymore. I crawled to Sidos and held him as tightly as I could.
'I am so happy that you and Storkos are still here,' I whispered, or something along those lines at least.
Not much later, the latter stomped up the stairs carrying a tray with two more cups of tea. She put it down to join us in our hug, and everything was fine for just a little while...''

Leafos took a deep breath. This was the first time she told the entire, sad story of her past to anyone outside her family, and it felt as if a heavy burden was lifted off her shoulders.

''The next day, our young, traumatized hearts got crippled even more, though.
It was eleven in the morning. My siblings and I were just done with breakfast. I was doing the dishes, Storkos was sweeping the kitchen and Sidos was watering the few house plants we had.
We tried to stay strong. Our parents would return soon - they said that they'd be away for about a week and it had been seven days since they left.
'Fortunately the trees are still standing,' Sidos noted as he pointed at an oak through the window. There were a few palms, monkeynut, apple and hazel trees left as well.
'Yes,' I sighed gratefully. 'At least we'll still be able to make a little money... What happened yesterday was horrible, but we'll get back up, I promise. If we need to, we can even hire guards to keep those bastards out in the future...'
'You're right!' Seedos had screamed in enthusiasm and renewed hope. 'I'm going to harvest the fruits right now, I see so many ripe ones... I'll bring them to the Village to sell them at Costolot's and I'll bring help back, too.
'Okay. That's a good idea, Sidos.' I smiled watery. 'Be careful, though. You never know what's lurking at you in those bushes.'
I, unfortunately, was right about Sidos having to be on guard. He had just finished picking the apples when the Ruffians returned. I couldn't even believe it, it felt as if I was still dreaming...
The gang was even bigger than it had been the night before. I think there were thirteen of them, it must be, thirteen is the worst number ever.
They were carrying weapons more destructive than wacking sticks and rusty shovels this time. I'm talking chainsaws, pickaxes and red and black bags of a strange, toxic-like fluid... We were scared to death.
'Great Gods,' Storkos wheezed. 'Sidos is out there... We... we must s-save him...'
Neither of us was brave enough to do so. We knew that that'd be suicide.
The Ruffians noticed Sidos. They started screaming at him, picking up rocks and bombarding him. The boy let out a scream, and... Well, he ran off, into the swamp.
I was terrified. The swamp's full of quicksand and dangerous weeds - I furiously hoped our little Sidos wouldn't get harmed by those... He stood more chance in the wilderness than against those violent hooligans, though.
Storkos and I were still in danger.
'Let's hide under the table, quick! If they don't know we're here, they won't be... um... taking care of us.'
I shuddered, as I perfectly knew what that meant.
The two of us quickly ducked under the table, but it was too late. One of the Ruffians had seen us.
He and two others started to assault the house. They threw paint bombs, smoke balls and burning torches through the window, and they shouted the most horrible things at us... I think... I couldn't quite understand it, those idiots talk complete gibberish to me.
In the meantime, the other ten were ruining what was left of the garden... I'm not sure what they did, but when their companions finally quit harassing us after what seemed like two hours and we finally dared to leave our haven under the table... We...''

Leafos felt herself heaving a lump in her throat. Missus Qalzai poured the girl another cup of coffee.

''Thanks,'' she whispered after she had finished it for half. ''What we saw when we looked out the cracked, with paint besmirched window was no pretty sight. The trees that had given me and Sidos so much hope, had been chopped down by Pester's hanger-ons... The somewhat battered - but still lavish - grass and healthy soil had made place for dry, crusty terra. The few piñatas that had endured the evening before to spend the night in the remains of their houses, had fled now too.
Our world had been shattered to pieces.''

A shadow fell over mister Qalzai's mask. He knew what it was like when everything you loved got destroyed by brutes... Poor, poor girl. Her family actually had so much in common with his... The difference was that the Qalzais were still complete, though, and he thanked God every day for that.

''Father returned the day after,'' Leafos continued, relieved that she had almost finished her story. ''Alone. Crippled. Desperate. And it got worse when he saw the garden, of course...
Our family was in mourning. I had hit a point of sadness where I didn't even hurt anymore - my pain had made place for a deep, cold sort of numbness.
None of my siblings seemed to be doing any better. Every once in a while, one of us would experience true grief for a few days - many handkerchiefs would be used in periods like those.
We missed Stardos, Sidos and Mother to death. The fact that we had no idea what happened to them made it all worse...
We quickly received a sign of life of Sidos, though. I think that it was two weeks after the assault... I swear, my remaining family and I were so happy...
Sidos, who just wanted to be called Seedos now, came back to check on the garden. He somberly shook his head as he noticed even the weeds had disappeared... There was no vegetation left but long, tough, brownish-yellow blades of grass.
We thought that Seedos wanted to come back home. He agreed to share a meal with us, but said he'd return back to the swamp right after. He had a family there, he claimed, and a house as well.
That utterly surprised us, but later we found that his 'family' consisted of Shellybeans and that their 'house' was a hollow, dead swamp tree. That left us so sad and uneasy, you don't even know...
Storkos and I would occasionally visit Seedos in the bog. Our father wouldn't join us. It wasn't just because his wheelchair made him unable to maneuver around in the peaty soil - his relationship with Seedos had been... damaged, in a way. They just seemed so mad at each other... Seedos would call Dad a narcissist, Dad would say Seedos was a little weirdo that stained the family name... Ugh. I agree with both to a certain extend, to be honest.
'Professor' Pester - as the uneducated Lester had titled himself - and his Ruffians gained more and more power. Since the Villagers had seen what they had done to the most beautiful garden and the most influential family of the area, they were terrified of those red, sour-looking guys. Some would even look up to them, they would join the Ruffians, hoping for a life of excitement and mightiness... I despise those people, I really do. They just don't see that while they're chasing their selfish 'dreams', they're ruining other people's life work.
The Ruffians and Pester weren't the only thread to gardeners' wellbeing. After a month or so, a new, creepy guy started to float around our ga... deserted piece of land. He looked just as deadly as our parcel did. Storkos, my father and even I tried to shoo him away, running up to him with spades and watering cans, but nothing seemed to really affect him... He secretly terrified us - we weren't even sure if it was an entity or a human - but we'd never speak about our fear of the new guy... We got sick of him stalking us, though.
My father hired a Watchling, who was the most undaunted guy I ever met... Storkos used to have a little crush on him, hehe! The age different was too big at that point, but sometimes I wonder if they still see each other...
However, the Watchling had the guts to speak to the creature... I was there, and my mind was blown. The entity told our Helper that his name was Dastardos and that he's the reaper of piñata souls... I was not sure whether to believe him at first, but then I realized that he did wear the mask of Cueraça, the Old God of Death... That's a big deal here on the Island - few really believe in the Old Gods anymore, but many still fear them - we're a rather superstitious people... This Dastardos guy clearly doesn't care for the wrath of a powerful deity, therefore he must possess some serious magical talents himself. We can only guess what or who he truly is...''


Three hours later, Hafez finally crawled under the covers, into his wooden, single bed. Leafos had stayed at the Qalzai farm until one AM. It was ten to two now, and the girl had probably just arrived home.

Mister Qalzai had insisted that he'd escort her, letting a young woman travel alone in the pitch-black night was just madness. Even a relatively safe place like Piñata Island could hold dark secrets, after all...

After that long and earnest conversation about the Flores' family's past, they'd taken things on a lighter note. Hafez's mother had wanted to discuss the wedding costumes, which totally wasn't relevant yet to her son. They had chatted a bit about intimacy as well, which had made especially Leafos a bit uncomfortable... Hafez found it incredible how the girl was a fierce Tigermisu when the two of them were alone, but would turn into a shy little Mousemallow when she were to talk about the acts they'd perform together in private.

Her being so two-faced on that field really turned Hafez on, in a way. He liked girls that had both a wild and a decent side... Yes, Leafos truly was the girl of his dreams, there was no doubt in that.

Something about her life storywas still bothering him though, but he couldn't put his finger on it... It had nothing to do with Jardineiro, that was certain. He had actually gathered a bit more understanding for the old man, even though the old man's callousness still baffled him.

But no, Jardineiro was not the problem. There was no problem at all, it seemed, something was just off about the whole Mother and Stardos-disappearance thing...

Hm. Mother couldn't be alive, the Pacific Ocean could be ruthless and Hafez knew from Doctor Bandego that most Islanders couldn't swim. It was tragic, sure, but Mother definately was a closed chapter...

''May you rest the woman's soul, Allah,'' Hafez whispered to the ceiling. He didn't believe in those Islandian deities.

Stardos, though... Why hadn't he returned? Leafos said Pester had likely done horrible things to him, he'd probably even murdered the boy. That seemed reasonable. Yet...

Hafez gasped. He suddenly realized something he'd subconciously known the whole time... Leafos' tirade could be linked to that story he had heard of Ricardo Marin, the Ruffian he had met a few months ago.

Ricardo had tried to convince Hafez to become a Ruffian himself - he hadn't accepted the offer though, and now he knew what Pester's gang had done to his girlfriend's family he never would. Ricardo was a pretty decent guy, though. He had explained Hafez some things about the Ruffians, Pester, the Island itself and... Dastardos.

'He hasn't always been the thing he is nowadays. The Professor turned him into an undead, restless skeleton. A phantom, a shadow of his former-self. Without the Professor's interference, he'd be a young, succesful gardener today...'

''A young, succesful gardener,'' Hafez shivered. ''Dastardos would be... Stardos?''